"I don't want to drink bad or good champagne, old fellow," said Lennox; "but I do wish we had a barrel of good, honest, home-brewed British ale, with—"
"A brace of well-roasted pheasants between us two—eh?"
"No; I was going to say, a good crusty loaf and a cut off a fine old Stilton cheese."
"J-Ja!" sighed the next man.
"Never mind, gentlemen," said the colonel; "what we have will do to work upon. When we've done our work, and get back home, I'll be bound to say that John Bull will ask us to dinner oftener than will do us good. What do you say, doctor?"
"What do I say, Colonel Lindley?" cried the doctor, putting down his flask-cup. "I say this Spartan fare agrees with us all admirably. Look round the table, and see what splendid condition we are all in. A bit spare, but brown, wiry, and active as men can be. Never mind the food. You are all living a real life on the finest air I ever breathed. We are all pictures of health now; and where I have a wound to deal with it heals fast—a sure sign that the patient's flesh is in a perfect state."
"It's all very fine," said Bob Dickenson in a low voice to those about him. "Old Bolus keeps himself up to the mark by taking nips; that's why he's so well and strong."
"Nonsense!" said Lennox sharply. "I don't believe he ever touches spirits except as a medicine."
"Who said he did?" growled Dickenson.
"You, Bob; we all heard you," chorused several near.
"Take my oath I never mentioned spirits. I said nips."
"Well, you meant them," said Lennox.
"I didn't. Don't you jump at conclusions, Drew, old man. I meant nips of tonics. Old M.D. has got a lot of curious chemicals in that medicine-chest of his, and when he's a bit down he takes nips of them."
"I don't believe it," said a brother officer, laughing. "Old Emden, M.D., take his own physic? Too clever for that!"
The darkness had closed in soon after the officers had taken their seats—early, after tropic fashion—and one of the messmen had lit four common-looking paraffin-lamps, which swung from the rafters, smelt vilely of bad spirit, and smoked and cast down a dismal light; but the men were in high spirits, chatting away, and the meal being ended, many of them had started pipes or rolled up cigarettes, when an orderly was seen to enter by the door nearest the colonel's seat and make quickly for his place.
There was a cessation of the conversation on the instant, and one motion made by every officer present—he glanced at the spot where his sword and revolver hung, while their servants turned their eyes to the rifle-stands and bandoliers, listening intently for the colonel's next order: for the coming of the orderly could only mean one thing under their circumstances—an advance of the Boers.
They were right. But the increased action of their pulses began to calm down again; for instead of standing up according to his wont and giving a few short, sharp orders, the colonel, after turning towards the orderly and hearing him out, merely raised his eyes and smiled.
"Wonders will never cease, gentlemen," he said, and he sent a soft, grey cloud of cigarette smoke upward towards the roof of the barn. "You all remember our prisoners, brought in after Lennox and Dickenson's fishing expedition?"
There was an eager chorus of "Yes" from all present save the two young officers mentioned, and they were too eager in listening to speak.
"Well, gentlemen, I told those men that the wisest thing they could do was to go back to their farms, give up fighting, and collect and bring into camp here a good supply of corn and beef."
"Yes, sir, I heard you," said Captain Roby, for the colonel paused to take two or three whiffs from his cigarette.
"Well, gentlemen, you will hardly credit the news I have received when you recall what took place, and be ready to place some faith in a Boer's sound common-sense."
"Why doesn't he speak out at once?" said Dickenson in a whisper. "Who wants all this rigmarole of a preface?"
"What is it, colonel?" said the major.
"That Boer, the leader of the little party of prisoners, evidently took my advice," continued the colonel; "and instead of rejoining his fighting friends, he has gone back to the ways of peace and trade, and they have just arrived at the outposts with a couple of wagon-loads of grain, a score of sheep, and ten oxen."
The news was received with a shout, and as soon as silence was obtained the colonel continued: "It seems incredible; but, after all, it is only the beginning of what must come to pass. For, once the Boer is convinced that it is of no use to fight, he will try his best to make all he can out of his enemies."
"Well, it's splendid news," said the major; "but what about its being some cunning trap?"
"That is what I am disposed to suspect," said the colonel; "so, quietly and without stir, double the outposts, send word to the men on the kopje to be on the alert, and let everything, without any display of force, be ready for what may come. You, Captain Roby, take half a company to meet our visitors, and bring the welcome provender into the market-place here."
"Bob," whispered Lennox, "if we could only go with Roby! There'll be a couple of score of the enemy hiding amongst those sacks."
"Get out!" responded Dickenson. "I never did see such an old cock-and-bull inventor as you are. It's stale, too. You're thinking of the old story of the fellows who took the castle by riding in a wagon loaded with grass and them underneath. Then it was driven in under the portcullis, which was dropped at the first alarm, and came down chop on the wagon and would go no farther, while the fellows hopped out through the grass and took the castle. Pooh! What's the good of being so suspicious? These Boers are tired of fighting, and they've taken the old man's advice about trade."
"I don't believe it," said Lennox firmly. "I wouldn't trust the Boers a bit."
"Well, don't believe it, then; but let's go and see what they've brought, all the same."
"Yes, certainly; but let's put the colonel on his guard."
"What! Go and tell him what you think?"
"Thanks, no, dear boy. I have only one nose, and I want it."
"What do you mean?" said Lennox sharply.
"Don't want it snapped off, as they say. The idea of the cheek—going and teaching our military grandmother—father, I mean, how to suck eggs!"
"You never will believe till the thing's rammed down your throat," said Lennox angrily. "Well, come along as we have no orders."
And without further discussion the two young men buckled on their belts and followed Captain Roby, who, while the colonel's other instructions were being carried out, marched his men down to where some of the Boer party, well-guarded by the outposts, could be dimly seen squatted about or seated on the fronts of two well-loaded wagons, whose teams were tying down contentedly chewing the cud. Four more Boers kept the sheep and oxen in the rear of the wagons from straying away in search of a place to graze, for there was a tempting odour of fresh green herbage saluting their nostrils, along with the pleasant moisture rising from the trickling water hurrying away towards the gully where it found its way into the river.
"What do you say to telling Roby to set a man to probe the sacks with a fixed bayonet?"
"It would be wise," whispered back Lennox.
"Tchah!" sneered Dickenson. "How could a fellow exist under one of those sacks of corn? Why, they must weigh on to a couple of hundredweight."
"I don't care; there's some dodge, Bob, I'm sure."
"Artful dodge, of course. Here, let's see if we know the fellows again."
"Very well; but be on your guard."
"Bother! Roby and his men will mind we are not hurt."
As he spoke Dickenson led the way close up to the roughly-clad Boers about the wagons, where, in spite of the darkness, the face of their leader was easy to make out as he sat pulling away at a big German pipe well-filled with a most atrociously bad tobacco, evidently of home growth and make.
"Hullo, old chap!" said Dickenson heartily; "so you've thought better of it?"
The Boer looked at him sharply, and, recognising the speaker, favoured him with a nod.
"Brought us some provender?" continued Dickenson; and he received another nod.
"What have you got?"
The Boer wagged his head sidewise towards the wagons and herds, and went on smoking.
"Well done; that's better than trying to pot us. But, I say, what about your commando fellows? What will they say when you go back?"
The Boer took his pipe out of his mouth and stuffed a finger into the bowl to thrust down the loose tobacco.
"Nothing," he said shortly. "Not going back."
"What!" cried Lennox, joining in after pretty well satisfying himself that there could be no danger in the unarmed Boers and their wagons.
"What's what?" said the Boer sourly.
"You're not going back?" cried Dickenson, staring.
"Well, we can't go back, of course. If we tried they'd shoot us, wouldn't they?"
The reply seemed to be unanswerable, and Dickenson merely uttered a grunt, just as Captain Roby and his men marched up to form an escort for the little convoy.
"Well, commandant?" he said.
The Boer grunted. "Not commandant," he said; "field-cornet."
"Very well, field-cornet; how did you manage to get here?"
"'Cross the veldt," growled the man.
"Didn't you see any of your friends?"
"No," grumbled the Boer. "If we had we shouldn't be here. Have you got the money for what we've got?"
"Stop, then. We're not going on."
"But you must now. The colonel will give you an order."
"Paper?" said the Boer sharply.
"Then we don't go."
"Yes, you do, my obstinate friend. It will be an order to an official here, and he'll pay you a fair price at once—in gold."
"Oh, that I can't say," replied the captain. "But I promise you will be fairly dealt with."
The Boer put his burning pipe in his pocket, snatched off his battered slouch felt hat, and gave his shaggy head an angry rub, looking round at his companions as if for support, and then staring back at the way they had come, to see lanterns gleaming and the glint of bayonets dimly here and there, plainly showing him that retreat was out of the question. Then, like some bear at bay, he uttered what sounded like a low growl, though in fact it was only a remark to the man nearest to him, a similar growl coming in reply.
"Come, sir, no nonsense," said the captain sternly. "You have come to sell, I suppose?"
"I shouldn't be here if I hadn't," growled the Boer.
"Then come along. You cannot go back now. I have told you that you will be well treated. Please to recollect that if our colonel chose he could commando everything you have brought for the use of our force; but he prefers to treat all of your people who bring supplies as straightforward traders. Now come along."
The Boer grunted, glanced back once more, and at last, as if he had thoroughly grasped his position, said a few words to his nearest companions and passed the word to trek, when, in answer to the crack of the huge whip, the bullocks sprang to their places along the trek-tows, the wagons creaked and groaned, and the little convoy was escorted into the market-place, where, as soon as we saw him, the field-cornet made for the colonel's side and began like one with a grievance.
But the amount of cash to be paid was soon settled, and the Boer's objections died away. The only difficulty then left was about the Boers' stay.
"If we go back they'll shoot us," he said to the colonel. "We've brought you the provisions you asked for, and when you've eaten all you'll want more, and we'll go and fetch everything; but you must have us here now."
"My good sir," said the colonel, to the intense amusement of the officers assembled, who enjoyed seeing their chief, as they termed him, in a corner, "I have enough mouths to feed here; you must go back to the peaceable among your own people."
"Peaceable? There are none peaceable now. Look here: do you want to send us back to fight against you?" cried the Boer cornet indignantly.
"Certainly not," said the colonel; "and I would not advise you to, for your own sake."
"Then what are we to do? We got away with these loads of mealies, but it will be known to-morrow. We can't go back, and it's all your doing."
"Well, I confess that it is hard upon you," said the colonel; "but, as I have told you, I am not going to take the responsibility of feeding more mouths."
"But we've just brought you plenty."
"Which will soon be gone," cried the colonel.
"Oh, that's nothing," said the Boer, with a grin full of cunning; "we know where to get plenty more."
The colonel turned and looked at the major, who returned the look with interest, for these last words opened up plenty of possibilities for disposing of a terrible difficulty in the matter of supplies.
"I don't much like the idea, major," he said in a low tone.
"No; couldn't trust the fellow," was the reply. "May be a ruse."
"At the same time it may be simple fact," continued the colonel. "Of course he would be well aware of the whereabouts of stores, for the enemy always seem to have abundance. But no; it would be too great a risk."
"All the same, though," said the major, who afterwards confessed to visions of steaks and roast mutton floating before his mind, "the fellow would be forced to be honest with us, for he would be holding his life by a very thin thread."
"Exactly," said the colonel eagerly. "We could let him know that at the slightest suggestion of treachery we should shoot him and his companions without mercy."
"Make him understand that," said the major; and while the Boer party stood waiting and watching by the two wagons, which had been drawn into the square, a little council of war was held by the senior officers, in which the pros and cons were discussed.
"It's a dangerous proceeding," said the colonel, in conclusion; "but one thing is certain—we cannot hold this place long without food, and it is all-important that it should be held, so we must risk it. Perhaps the fellows are honest after all. If they are not—"
"Yes," said the major, giving his chief a meaning look; "if they are not—"
And the unfinished sentence was mentally taken up by the other officers, both Lennox and Dickenson looking it at one another, so to speak.
Then the colonel turned to the Boer cornet.
"Look here, sir," he said; "I am a man of few words, but please understand that I mean exactly what I say. You and your companions can stay here upon the condition that you are under military rule. Your duty will be to forage for provisions when required. You will be well treated, and have the same rations as the men; but you will only leave the place when my permission is given, and I warn you that if any of you are guilty of an act that suggests you are playing the spy, it will mean a spy's fate. You know what I mean?"
"Oh, of course I do," growled the Boer. "Just as if it was likely! You don't seem to have a very good opinion of us burghers."
"You have not given us cause to think well of you," said the colonel sternly. "Now we understand each other. But of course you will have to work with the men, and now you had better help to unload the wagons."
The cornet nodded, and turned to his companions, who had been watching anxiously at a little distance; and as soon as they heard the colonel's verdict they seemed at ease.
A few minutes later the regimental butchers had taken charge of one of the oxen and a couple of sheep, whose fate was soon decided in the shambles, and the men gathered round to cheer at the unwonted sight of the carcasses hung up to cool.
Meanwhile an end of one of the warehouses had been set apart for the new supply of grain, and the Boers worked readily enough with a batch of the soldiers at unloading and storing, with lanterns hung from the rafters to gleam on the bayonets of the appointed guard, the sergeant and his men keeping a strict lookout, in which they were imitated by the younger officers, Lennox and Dickenson waiting, as the latter laughingly said, for the smuggled-in Boers, who of course did not appear.
Lennox made it his business to stand close to the tail-board of one of the wagons, in which another lantern was hung, and with the sergeant he gave every sack a heavy punch as it was dragged to the edge ready for the Boers to shoulder and walk off into the magazine.
Seeing this, the Boer chief, now all smiles and good humour, made for the next sack, untied the tarred string which was tied round the mouth, opened it, and called to the sergeant to stand out of the light.
"I want the officers to see what beautiful corn it is," he said.
The sergeant reached up into the wagon-tilt to lift down the lantern from where he had hung it to one of the tilt-bows.
"No, no," cried the Boer; "you needn't do that, boss. They can see. There," he cried, thrusting in both hands and scooping as much as he could grasp, and letting the glistening yellow grains fall trickling back in a rivulet again and again. "See that? Hard as shot. Smell it. Fresh. This year's harvest. I know where there's enough to feed four or five thousand men."
"Yes, it looks good," said Dickenson, helping himself to a handful, and putting a grain into his mouth. "Sweet as a nut, Drew, but as hard as flint. Fine work for the teeth."
"Yes," said the Boer, grinning. "You English can't grind that up with your teeth. Wait till it's boiled, though, or pounded up and made into mealie. Ha! Make yours skins shine like the Kaffirs'."
"You don't want these sacks back, I suppose?" said the sergeant who was superintending. "Because if you do I'd better have them emptied."
"Oh no, oh no," said the Boer. "Keep it as it is; it will be cleaner."
"Why are some of the sacks tied up with white string and some with black?" said Lennox suddenly.
"Came from different farms," said the Boer, who overheard the remark. "Here, I'll open that one; it's smaller corn."
He signed to one of his fellows to set down the sack he was about to shoulder, and opening it, he went through the same performance again, shovelling up the yellow grain with his hands. "Not quite so good as the other sort," he said; "it's smaller, but it yields better in the fields."
"Humph! I don't see much difference in it," said Lennox, taking up a few grains and following his friend's example.
"No?" said the Boer, chuckling as he scooped up a double handful and tossed it up, to shine like gold in the light. "You are not a farmer, and have not grown thousands of sacks of it. I have."
He drew the mouth of the sack together again and tied it with its white string, when it too was borne off through the open doorway to follow its predecessors.
"That roof sound?" said the Boer, pointing up at the corrugated iron sheeting.
"Oh yes, that's all right," said the sergeant.
"Good," said the Boer. "Pity to let rain come through on grain like that. Make it swell and shoot."
The first wagon was emptied and the second begun, the Boers working splendidly till it was nearly emptied; and then the cornet turned to Captain Roby.
"Don't you want some left out," he said, "to use at once?"
"Yes," said the captain; "leave out six, and we'll hand them over to the bakers and cooks."
Three of the white-tied and three of the black-tied sacks were selected by the field-cornet, who told his men to shoulder them, and they were borne off at once to the iron-roofed hut which was used as a store. Then the wagons being emptied, they were drawn on one side, and the captain turned to consult Lennox about what hut was to be apportioned to the Boers for quarters.
"Why not make them take to the wagons?" said Dickenson.
"Not a bad notion," replied Captain Roby; and just at that moment, well buttoned up in their greatcoats—for the night was cold—the colonel and major came round.
"Where are you going to quarter these men, Roby?" said the former.
"Mr Dickenson here, sir, has just suggested that they shall keep to their wagons."
"Of course," said the colonel; "couldn't be better. They'll be well under observation, major—eh?"
"Yes," said that officer shortly; and it was announced to the field-cornet that his party were to make these their quarters.
This was received with a smile of satisfaction, the Boers dividing into two parties, each going to a wagon quite as a matter of course, and taking a bag from where it hung.
Ten minutes later they had dipped as much fresh water as they required from the barrels that swung beneath, and were seated, knife in hand, eating the provisions they had brought with them, while when the colonel and major came round again it was to find the lanterns out, the Dutchmen in their movable quarters, some smoking, others giving loud announcement that they were asleep, and close at hand and with all well under observation a couple of sentries marching up and down.
"I think they're honest," said the colonel as the two officers walked away.
"I'm beginning to think so too," was the reply.
A short time before, Lennox and his companion had also taken a farewell glance at the bearers of so valuable an adjunct to the military larder, and Dickenson had made a similar remark to that of his chief, but in a more easy-going conversational way.
"Those chaps mean to be square, Drew, old man," he said.
"Yes; so do you. What else could they mean?"
"To round upon us."
"How? What could they do?"
"Get back to their people and speak out, after spying out the weakness of the land."
"Pooh! What good would that do, you suspicious old scribe? Their account's right enough; they proved it by the plunder they brought and their eagerness to sack as much tin as they could for it."
"I don't know," said Lennox; "the Boers are very slim."
"Mentally—granted; but certainly not bodily, old man. Bah! Pitch it over; you suspect every thing and everybody. I know you believe I nobbled those last cigarettes of yours."
"So you did."
"Didn't," said Dickenson, throwing himself down upon the board which formed his bed, for they had returned to their quarters. "You haven't a bit of faith in a fellow."
"Well, the cigarettes were on that shelf the night before last, and the next morning they were gone."
"In smoke," said Dickenson, with a yawn.
"There, what did I say?"
"You said I took them, and I didn't; but I've a shrewd suspicion that I know who did smoke them."
"Who was it?" said Lennox shortly.
"I declare I didn't."
"Declare away, old man. I believe you went to sleep hungry."
"Oh yes, you may believe that, and add 'very' to it. Well, what then?"
"You went to sleep, began dreaming, and got up and smoked the lot in your sleep."
"You're five feet ten of foolishness," said Lennox testily as he lay down in his greatcoat.
"And you're an inch in height less of suspicion," said Dickenson, and he added a yawn.
"Well, hang the cigarettes! I am tired. I say, I'm glad we have no posts to visit to-night."
"Hubble, bubble, burr,"—said Dickenson indistinctly.
"Bah! what a fellow you are to sleep!" said Lennox peevishly. "I wanted to talk to you about—about—about—"
Nothing; for in another moment he too was asleep and dreaming that the Boers had bounded out of their wagons, overcome the sentries, seized their rifles, and then gone on from post to post till all were well armed. After that they had crept in single file up the kopje, mastered the men in charge of the captured gun, and then tied the two trek-tows together and carried it off to their friends, though he could not quite settle how it was they got the two spans of oxen up among the rocks ready when required.
Not that this mattered, for when he woke in the morning at the reveille and looked out the oxen were absent certainly, being grazing in the river grass in charge of a guard; but the Boers were present, lighting a fire and getting their morning coffee ready, the pots beginning to send out a fragrant steam.
FRIENDS ON THE FORAGE.
There were too many "alarums and excursions" at Groenfontein for much more thought to be bestowed upon the friendly Boers, as the party of former prisoners were termed, in the days which ensued. "Nobody can say but what they are quiet, well-behaved chaps," Bob Dickenson said, "for they do scarcely anything but sit and smoke that horrible nasty-smelling tobacco of theirs all day long. They like to take it easy. They're safe, and get their rations. They don't have to fight, and I don't believe nine-tenths of the others do; but they are spurred on— sjambokked on to it. Pah! what a language! Sjambok! why can't they call it a whip?"
"But I don't trust them, all the same," said Lennox. "I quite hate that smiling field-cornet, who's always shifting and turning the corn-sacks to give them plenty of air, as he says, to keep the grain from heating."
"Why, he hasn't been at it again, has he?" said Dickenson, laughing.
"At it again?" said Lennox. "What do you mean?"
"Did he shout to you to come and look at it?"
"Yes; only this morning, when the colonel was going by. Asked us to go in and look, and shovelled up the yellow corn in one of the sacks. He made the colonel handle some of it, and pointed out that he was holding back the corn tied up with the white strings because it lasted better."
"What did the old man say?"
"Told him that, as the stock was getting so low, he and his men must make a raid and get some more."
"And what did Blackbeard say?"
"Grumbled and shook his head, and talked about the danger of being shot by his old friends if they were caught."
"Dodge, of course, to raise his price."
"That's what the colonel said; and he told him that there must be no nonsense—he was fed here and protected so that he should keep up the supply, and that he must start the day after to-morrow at the latest to buy up more and bring it in. Then, in a surly, unwilling way, he consented to go."
"Buy up some more?" said Dickenson, with a chuckle. "Yes, he'll buy a lot. Commando it, he'll call it."
That very day, growing weary of trying to starve out the garrison, the enemy made an attack from the south, and after a furious cannonading began to fall back in disorder, drawing out the mounted men and two troops of lancers in pursuit.
As they fell back the disorder seemed to become a rout; but Colonel Lindley had grown, through a sharp lesson or two, pretty watchful and ready to meet manoeuvre with manoeuvre. He saw almost directly that the enemy were overdoing their retreat; and he acted accordingly. Suspecting that it was a feint, he held his mounted troops in hand, and then made them fall back upon the village.
It was none too soon, his men being just in time to fall on the flank of one of the other two commandos, whose leaders had only waited till the first had drawn the British force well out of their entrenchments before one attacked from the east, and the other drove back the defenders of the ford and crossed at once, but only to bring themselves well under the attention of their own captured gun on the kopje, its shells playing havoc amongst them, while the men of the colonel's regiment stood fast in their entrenchments. The result was that in less than an hour the last two commandos retired in disorder and with heavy loss.
"There," said Lennox as the events of the day were being discussed after the mess dinner, "you see, Bob, it doesn't do to trust the Boers."
"Pooh!" replied the young officer. "There are Boers and Boers, and one must trust them when they supply the larder. Good-luck to our lot, I say, and may they bring in another big supply. If they don't, we shall have to begin on those quadrupedal locomotives of horn, gristle, and skin they call spans. Ugh! how I do loathe trek ox!"
"Talking of that," said Lennox, "the cornet and his men ought to have been off to-night."
"Why?" said Dickenson, staring.
"Why? Because the enemy will be in such a state of confusion after the check they had to-day."
"To be sure; let's go and tell them so."
"I was nearly suggesting it to the colonel, but he would only have given me one of his looks. You know."
"Yes; make you feel as if you're nine or ten, even if he hadn't sarcastically hinted that you had not been asked for your advice. But I say, Drew, old fellow, I think you're right, and if Blackbeard thinks it would be best he'll go to the old man like a shot. No bashfulness in him."
Without further debate the two young men made their way across the market-square to the wagon where the Boers' dim lantern was swinging, passing two sentries on the way.
"Not much need for a light," observed Dickenson; "one might smell one's way to their den. Hang it all! if tobacco's poison those fellows ought to have been killed long ago."
The cornet was seated on the wagon-box, with his legs inside, talking in a low tone to his fellows who shared the wagon with him, and so intent that he did not hear the young officers' approach till Lennox spoke, when he sprang forward into the wagon, and his companions began to climb out at the back.
"Why, what's the matter with you?" said Dickenson laughingly as he stepped up and looked in. "Think some of your friends were coming to fetch you?"
"You crept up so quietly," grumbled the Boer, recovering himself, and calling gently to his companions to return.
"Quietly? Of course. You didn't want us to send a trumpeter before us to say we were coming, did you?"
"H'm! No. What were you doing? Listening to find out whether we were going to run away?"
"Psh! No!" cried Dickenson. "Here, Mr Lennox wants to say something to you."
"What about?" said the man huskily.
"I have been thinking that, as you are going on a foraging expedition," said Lennox, "you ought to go at once. It's a very dark night, and the enemy is completely demoralised by to-day's fight."
"Demoralised?" said the Boer.
"Well, scared—beaten—all in disorder."
"Oh," said the Boer, nodding his head like an elephant. "But what difference does that make?"
"They would not be so likely to notice your wagons going through their lines."
"Oh?" said the Boer.
"We think it would be a good chance for you."
"Does your general say so?"
"No; our colonel does not know that we have come."
"So! Yes, I see," said the Boer softly.
"We think you ought to take advantage of their disorder and get through to-night."
"You have only to go and see what the colonel says."
"Why don't you go?" said the Boer suspiciously.
"Because we think it would be better for you to go."
"And fall into the Boers' hands and be shot?"
"Bother!" cried Dickenson. "Why, you are as suspicious as—as—well, as some one I know. Now, my good fellow, don't you know that we've eaten the sheep?"
"Yes, I know that," said the Boer.
"Finished the last side of the last ox?"
"Yes, I know that too," replied the Boer, nodding his head slowly and sagely.
"And come down to the last ten sacks of the Indian corn?"
"Mealies? Yes, I know that too."
"Well, in the name of all that's sensible, why should we want to get you taken by your own people?"
"To be sure; I see now," said the cornet. "Better for us to get the wagons full again, and drive in some more sheep and oxen."
"Well, I don't know," said the man thoughtfully. "They will be all on the lookout, thinking that you will attack them in the night, and twice as watchful. I don't know, though. There is no moon to-night, and it will be black darkness."
"It is already," said Dickenson.
"Ha! Yes," said the Boer quietly, and he puffed at his pipe, which, after dropping in his fright, he had picked up, refilled, and relit at the lantern door. "Yes, that is a very good way. I shall go and tell the colonel that we will go to-night. You will come with me?"
"No," said Lennox; "the colonel does not like his young officers to interfere. It would be better for you to go."
"Your chief is right," said the Boer firmly. "He thinks and acts for himself. I do the same. I do not let my men tell me what I should do." He spoke meaningly, as if he were giving a side-blow at some one or other of his companions. "I think much and long, and when I have thought what is best I tell them what to do, and they do it. Yes, I will go to the colonel now and speak to him. Wait here."
"No," said Dickenson quietly. "Go, and we will come back and hear what the colonel thinks."
The Boer nodded, thrust his pipe in the folds of the tilt, after tapping out the ashes, and went off, the two officers following him at a distance before stopping short, till they heard him challenged by a sentry, after which they struck off to their left to pass by the corn store, and being challenged again and again as they made a short tour round by the officers' quarters, going on the farther side of the corrugated iron huts and the principal ones, four close together, which were shared by the colonel, the doctor, and some of the senior officers. As they passed the back of the colonel's quarters there was the faint murmur of voices, one of which sounded peculiarly gruff, Dickenson said.
"Nonsense! You couldn't distinguish any difference at this distance," said Lennox. "Come along; we don't want to play eavesdroppers."
"Certainly not on a wet night when the rain is rattling down on those roofs and pouring off the eaves in cascades," replied Dickenson; "but I never felt so strong a desire to listen before. Wonder what the old man is saying to our smoky friend."
"Talking to the point, you may be sure, my lad," replied Lennox. "I say, though, he is safe to tell Lindley that I suggested it."
"Well, what of that?"
"Suppose the expedition turns out a failure, and they don't get back with the forage?"
"Ha! Bad for you, old man," said Dickenson, chuckling. "Why, we shall all be ready to eat you. Pity, too, for you're horribly skinny."
"Out upon you for a gluttonous-minded cannibal," said Lennox merrily. "Well, there, I did it for the best. But I say, Bob, we've come all this way round the back of the houses here, and haven't been challenged once."
"What of that? There are sentries all round the market-square."
"Yes; but out here. Surely a man or two ought to be placed somewhere about?"
"Oh, hang it all, old fellow! the boys are harassed to death with keeping post. You can't have all our detachment playing at sentry-go. Come along. There's no fear of the enemy making a night attack: that's the only good thing in fighting Boers."
"I don't see the goodness," said Lennox rather gloomily.
"Ah, would you!" cried Dickenson. "None of that! It's bad enough to work hard, sleep hard, and eat hard."
"I always thought you liked to eat hard," said Lennox.
"Dear me: a joke!" said Dickenson. "Very bad one, but it's better than going into the dumps. As I was about to say, we've got trouble enough without your playing at being in low spirits."
"Go on. What were you going to say?"
"I was going to remark that the best of fighting the Boers is, that they won't stir towards coming at us without they've got the daylight to help them to shoot. We ought to do more in the way of night surprises. I like the mystery and excitement of that sort of thing."
"I don't," said Lennox shortly. "It always seems to me cowardly and un-English to steal upon sleeping people, rifle and bayonet in hand."
"Well, 'pon my word, we've got into a nice line of conversation," said Dickenson. "Here we are, back in the market-square, brilliantly lighted by two of the dimmest lanterns that were ever made, and sentries galore to take care of us. Wonder whether Blackbeard has finished his confab with the chief?"
"Let's go and see," said Lennox, and he walked straight across, answering the sentry's challenge, and finding the Boer back in his former place, seated upon the wagon-box, and conversing in a low tone with the men within.
He did not start when Lennox spoke to him this time, but swung himself deliberately round to face his questioner.
"Well," said the latter, "what did the colonel say?"
"He said it was a good thing, and that we should take our wagons, inspan, and be passed through the lines to-night."
"Oh, come," said Dickenson; "that's good! One to us."
"Yes," grunted the Boer after puffing away; "he said it was very good, and that we were to go."
"Then, why in the name of common-sense don't you get ready and go instead of sitting here smoking and talking?"
"Oh, we know, the colonel and I," said the man quietly. "We talked it over with the major and captains and another, and we all said that the Boers would be looking sharp out in the first part of the night, expecting to be attacked; but as they were not they would settle down, and that it would be best to wait till half the night had passed, and go then. There would be three hours' darkness, and that would be plenty of time to get well past the Boer laagers before the sun rose; so we are resting till then."
"That's right enough," said Dickenson, "so good-night, and luck go with you! Bring twice as many sheep this time."
"Yes, I know, captain," said the Boer. "And wheat and rice and coffee and sugar."
"Here, come along, Drew, old fellow; he's making my mouth water so dreadfully that I can't bear it."
"You will come and see us go?" said the Boer.
"No, thank you," replied Dickenson. "I hope to be sleeping like a sweet, innocent child.—You'll see them off, Drew?"
"No. I expect that they will be well on their way by the time I am roused up to visit posts.—Good-night, cornet. I hope to see you back safe."
"Oh yes, we shall be quite safe," said the man; "but perhaps it will be three or four days before we get back. Good-night, captains."
"Lieutenants!" cried Dickenson, and he took his comrade's arm, and they marched away to their quarters, heartily tired out, and ready to drop asleep on the instant as weary people really can.
"RUN, SIR, FOR YOUR LIFE!"
"Eh? Yes. All right," cried Lennox, starting up, ready dressed as he was, to find himself half-blinded by the light of the lantern held close over him. "Time, sergeant?"
"Well, not quite, sir; but I want you to come and have a look at something."
"Something wrong?" cried the young officer, taking his sword and belt, which were handed to him by the non-com, and rapidly buckling up.
"Well, sir, I don't know about wrong; but it don't look right."
"What is it?"
"Stealing corn, I call it, sir; and it's being done in a horrid messy way, too."
"What! from the stores?"
"Yes, sir," said the man; "but come and look."
"Ready," said Lennox, taking out and examining his revolver, and then thrusting it back into its holster.
The next minute, after a glance at Dickenson, who was sleeping peacefully enough, Lennox was following the sergeant, whose dim lantern shed a curious-looking halo in the black darkness. Then as they passed a sentry another idea flashed across the young officer's confused brain, brought forth by the sight of the guard, for on looking beyond the man there was no sign of the Boers' lantern hanging from the front bow of their wagon-tilts.
"What about the Boers?" he said sharply.
"Been gone about an hour, sir. I suppose it was all right? Captain Roby saw them start."
"Oh yes, it is quite right," said Lennox. "Now then, what about this corn? Some of the Kaffirs been at it?"
"What do you think, sir?" said the man, holding down the lantern to shed its light upon the ground, as they reached the open door of the store and showed a good sprinkling of the bright yellow grains scattered about to glisten in the pale light.
"Think? Well, it's plain enough," said Lennox. "Thieves have been here."
"Yes, sir. The open door took my notice at once. That chap ought to have seen it; but he didn't, or he'd have given the alarm."
"Go on," said Lennox, and he followed the man right into the barn-like building, to stop short in front of the first of the half-dozen or so of sacks at the end, this having been thrown down and cut right open, so that a quantity of the maize had gushed out and was running like fine shingle on to the floor.
"Kaffirs' work," said Lennox sharply.
"Well, sir, if I may give you my opinion I should say it was those Boers," said the sergeant gruffly.
"Man must eat, sir, and it strikes me that they, in their easy-going way, thought it was as much theirs as ours, and helped theirselves to enough to last them till they could get more."
"Well, whoever has done it,"—began Lennox.
Then he stopped short, and took a step forward. "Here, sergeant," he cried, "hold the light higher."
This was done, and then the pair bent down quickly over the sacks, each uttering an angry ejaculation.
"Why, it's sheer mischief, sergeant," cried Lennox. "Done with a sharp knife evidently."
For the light now revealed something which the darkness had hitherto hidden from their notice. Another sack had been ripped up, apparently with a sharp knife, from top nearly to bottom. Another was in the same condition, and a little further investigation showed that every one had been cut, so that, on the farther side where all had been dark, there was a slope of the yellow grain which had flowed out, leaving the sacks one-third empty.
"Well, this is a rum go, sir," said the sergeant, scratching his head with his unoccupied hand. "They must have got a couple of sackfuls away."
"But why slit them up, when they could have shouldered a couple and carried them off?"
"Can't say, sir," said the sergeant.
Lennox turned back to the doorway, and his companion followed with the light.
"Hold it lower," said Lennox, and the man obeyed, showing the grain they had first noticed lying scattered about, while a little examination further showed the direction in which those who had carried it off had gone, leaving sign, as a tracker would call it, in the shape of a few grains which had fallen from the loads they carried.
"Follow 'em up, sir?" said the sergeant. "It would be easy enough if it keeps like this."
"Yes," said Lennox. "We should know then if it was the Boers."
The man stepped forward with the door of the lantern opened and the light held close to the ground, making the bright yellow grains stand out clearly enough as he went on, though at the end of a minute instead of being in little clusters they diminished to one here and another there, all, however, running in one direction for some fifty yards; and then the sergeant stopped.
"Seems rum, sir," he said.
"You mean that the Boers would not have been going in this direction?"
"That's so, sir. I'm beginning to think that it couldn't have been them."
"I'm glad of it," said Lennox, "for I want to feel that we can trust them. Who could it have been, then?"
"Some of the friendly natives, sir, I hope," replied the sergeant.
"But they wouldn't have come this way, sergeant. It looks more as if some of our own people had been at the corn."
"That's just what I was thinking, sir," replied the sergeant, "only I didn't want to say it."
"But that's impossible, sergeant. A man might have slit up the sacks out of spite, or from sheer mischief, but he wouldn't have carried off any."
"No, sir. He wouldn't, would he? Well, all I can say is that it's rather queer."
"Well, go on," said Lennox; and the sergeant went on, tracing the grain right out to the back of the corrugated iron huts that formed one side of the square, and then past the angle and along the next side, now losing the traces, but soon picking them up again, the hard, dry earth completely refusing to give any trace of the bearer's feet.
Then the next angle of the square was reached, turned, and the sergeant still passed on with the light.
"Gets thicker here," he whispered, and directly after he stopped and pointed down at two or three handfuls of the bright grain.
"Seem to have set down a basket here, sir," he said softly. "Shall I go on?"
"Go on? Yes, and trace the robbery home. The scoundrel who has tampered with the stores deserves the severest punishment."
The sergeant proceeded, but more slowly now, for he had only a grain here and a grain there to act as his guide; but these still pointed out the direction taken by the marauders, till the trackers came suddenly upon a good-sized patch.
"Tell you what, sir," whispered the sergeant; "there's only one chap in it, and he's got such a swag he's obliged to keep stopping to rest."
"Yes, that seems to be the case, sergeant," said Lennox, looking carefully about. "Let's see; we must be near the colonel's quarters," he whispered.
"That's right, sir. About twenty yards over yonder; and the fellows on sentry ought to have seen the light and challenged us by now."
"No," said Lennox; "the houses completely shut us off. Go on."
The light was held low down again and swung here and there in the direction that the marauder ought to have taken; but there was not a grain to be seen to indicate the track, and the sergeant had to hark back again and again without being able to find it.
"Rum thing, sir," he whispered. "He must have stopped here and found that his basket was leaking, and patched it up, for I can't see another grain anywhere."
"Neither can I, sergeant; but try again. Take a longer circle."
"Right, sir; but it does seem queer that he should have stopped to make all fast just behind the colonel's quarters."
"It seems to indicate that it was the work of some stranger; otherwise he would not have halted here."
"P'r'aps so, sir; but if he was a stranger how did he know where the corn store was?"
"Can't say, sergeant. Try away."
"Right, sir," said the man, proceeding slowly step by step, with the open lantern very close to the ground, and making a regular circle, in the hope of cutting the way at last by which the supposed thief had gone off after his last rest.
But minute succeeded minute without success, and Lennox was about to urge his companion onward in another direction, when the sergeant uttered a sharp ejaculation as if of alarm, jerking up the lantern as he started back, and in the same movement blew out the light and shut the lantern door with a loud snap.
Lennox, who was a couple of yards behind, sprang forward, unfastening the cover of his pistol-holster and catching his companion by the arm, while all around now was intensely dark.
"Enemy coming?" he whispered.
"Dunno yet, sir," panted the sergeant, whose voice sounded broken and strange. "Something awfully wrong, sir."
"Speak out, man! What do you mean?" whispered Lennox, whose heart now began to beat heavily.
"I've come upon something down here, sir."
"Ah! The thief—asleep?"
"No, sir," said the sergeant, and his fingers were heard fumbling with the fastening of the lantern.
"What are you doing, man? Why don't you speak?"
"Making sure the light's quite out, sir. Can't speak for a moment—feel choking."
"Then you hear the enemy approaching?"
"No, sir.—Ha! It's quite out! Now, sir, just you go down on one knee and feel."
"I don't understand you, sergeant," whispered Lennox; but all the same he bent down on one knee and felt about with his right hand, fully expecting to touch a heap of the stolen grain.
"No corn," he said at the end of a few seconds; "but what's this—sand?"
"Take a pinch up, and taste it, sir. I hope it is."
"Taste it?" said Lennox half-angrily.
"Yes, sir," said the sergeant out of the darkness, and the faint rustle he made and then a peculiar sound from his lips indicated that he was setting the example.
The young officer hesitated no longer, but gathering up a pinch of the dry sand from the ground, he just held it to the tip of his tongue.
"Why, sergeant," he whispered excitedly, "it's powder!"
"That's right, sir," replied the man. "Gunpowder—a train; a heavy train running right and left."
"Truth, sir. I had the lantern close to it, and might have fired it if I'd dropped the lantern, as I nearly did."
"But what does it mean? Here, sergeant, that's what we have to see."
"Yes, sir," replied the sergeant in a hoarse whisper, "and don't you grasp it? One way it goes off towards the veldt—"
"And the other way towards the colonel's quarters," whispered Lennox. "Here, sergeant, there must be some desperate plot—a mine, perhaps, close up to that hut. Quick! Follow me."
The sergeant did not need the order, for he was already moving in the direction of the cluster of huts, but going upon his hands and knees, leaving the lantern behind and feeling his way, guiding himself by his fingers so as to keep in touch with the coarse, sand-like powder, which went on in an easily followed line towards the back of the colonel's hut.
It seemed long, but it was only a matter of a few seconds before they were both close up, feeling in the darkness for some trace of that which imagination had already supplied; and there it was in the darkness.
"Here's a bag, sergeant," whispered Lennox.
"A bag, sir? Here's five or six, and one emptied out, and—Run, sir, for your life! Look at that!"
For there was a flash of light from somewhere behind them, and as, with a bag of powder which he had caught up in his hand, Lennox turned round, he could see what appeared to be a fiery serpent speeding at a rapid rate towards where, half-paralysed, he stood.
The Kopje Garrison—by George Manville Fenn
GUY FAWKES WORK.
The light of the fired train had hardly flashed before the first sentry who saw it, fired, to be followed by one after another, till the bugles rang out, first one and then another, whose notes were still ringing when there was a muffled roar, then another, and another, till six had shaken the earth and a series of peculiar metallic clashes deafened all around.
But before the first sentry had raised his piece to his shoulder and drawn, the sergeant, seen in the brilliant light of the running train, seemed to have gone frantically mad.
"Chuck, sir, chuck!" he yelled, though Lennox needed no telling. The light which suddenly shone on the back of the cluster of sheet-iron huts had shown him what was necessary, and after raising the bag he had picked up with both hands high above his head, and hurling it as far as he could, he dashed at the others he could see packed close up against the colonel's hut, so that between him and the sergeant five had been torn from the ground and hurled in different directions outward from the buildings, leaving only the contents of a sixth and seventh bag which had been emptied in a heap connected with the long train before the others had been laid upon it in a little pile.
They were none too soon, for the last bag had hardly been hurled away with all the strength that the young officer could command, and while the sergeant was yelling to him to run, before the hissing fiery serpent was close upon them.
Fortunately the sergeant's crawling and the following trampling of the excited pair had broken up and crushed in the regularly laid train, scattering the powder in all directions, so that the rush of the hissing fire came momentarily to an end and gave place to a sputtering and sparkling here and there, giving Lennox and the sergeant time to rush a few yards away in headlong flight. There was a terrific scorching blast, and a tremendous push sent them staggering onward in a series of bounds before they fell headlong upon their faces; while at intervals explosion after explosion followed the fiery blast, the burning fragments setting off three of the other bags, fortunately away from where the pair had fallen.
The sergeant was the first to recover himself, and raising his face a little from the ground, he shouted, "Don't move, sir! Don't move! There's two or three more to go off yet."
Lennox said something, he did not know what, for he was half-stunned, the shock having had a peculiar bewildering effect. But at the second warning from his companion he began to grasp what it meant, and lay still without speaking; but he raised his head a little, to see that beneath the great canopy of foul-smelling smoke that overhung them the earth was covered with little sputtering dots of fire, either of which, if it came in contact, was sufficient to explode any powder that might remain.
But two bags had escaped, the explosive blast rising upward; and the danger being apparently at an end, the principal actors in the catastrophe roused to find officers hurrying to meet them, and men coming forward armed with pails of water to dash and scatter here and there till every spark was extinct and the remaining powder had been thoroughly drenched.
"Much hurt, old chap?" cried Dickenson, who was the first to reach his friend, and he supplemented his question by eagerly feeling Lennox all over.
"No! No: I think not," said Lennox, "except my head, and that feels hot and scorched. Can you see anything wrong?"
"Not yet; it's so dark. Here, let's take you to the doctor."
"No, no!" cried Lennox. "Not so bad as that. But tell me—what about the officers sleeping in those huts?"
"All right, I believe; but the backs of the houses are blown in, and the fellows at home were blown right out of their beds."
"No one hurt?"
"Oh yes; some of them are a bit hurt, but only bruised. But you? Oh, hang it all! somebody bring a light. Hi, there, a lantern!"
"No, no!" roared the colonel out of the darkness. "Are you mad? Who's that asking for a light?"
"Mr Dickenson, sir."
"Bah! Keep every light away. There may be another explosion."
The colonel gave a few sharp orders respecting being on the alert for an expected attack to follow this attempt—one that he felt to have been arranged to throw the little camp into confusion; and with all lights out, and a wide berth given to the neighbourhood of the headquarters, the troops stood ready to receive the on-coming Boers with fixed bayonets.
But an hour passed away, and the doubled outposts and those sent out to scout had nothing to report, while all remained dark and silent in the neighbourhood of the damaged huts.
Meanwhile Dickenson had hurried Lennox and the sergeant off to the doctor's quarters, where they were examined by that gentleman and his aids.
"Well, upon my word, you ought to congratulate yourself, Lennox."
"I do, sir," was the reply, made calmly enough.
"And you too, sergeant."
"Yes, sir," said the man stolidly.
"Why, my good fellow, you ought to have been blown all to pieces."
"Ought I, sir?"
"Of course you ought. It's a wonderful escape."
"Oh, I don't know, sir. What about my back hair, sir?"
"Singed off, what there was of it; and yours too, Lennox. Smart much?"
"Oh yes, horribly," said the latter.
"Oh, well, that will soon pass off. Threw yourselves down on your faces—eh?"
"No. We were knocked down."
"Good thing too," said the doctor. "Saved your eyes, and the hair about them. A wonderful escape, upon my word. Yes: you ought to have been blown to atoms.—Eh? What's that, sergeant?"
"I say we should have been, sir, if we hadn't scattered the powder-bags."
"Scattered the powder-bags?" said a voice from the door, and the colonel stepped into the circle of light spread by the doctor's lamp. "Tell me what you know about this explosion, Lennox. How came you to be there instead of visiting your posts?"
Lennox briefly explained, and the colonel stood frowning.
"I don't see all this very clearly," said the colonel. "Somebody stealing the corn, and you were tracing the thieves and came upon a train laid up to my quarters. There was a sentry there; what was he about?"
"No, sir: no sentry there," said Lennox.
"Nonsense! I gave orders for a man to be posted there, and it was done."
"I beg pardon, sir," said Lennox. "No one was there to challenge us."
"Indeed!" said the colonel.—"Who's that? Oh, Mr Dickenson, examine the place as soon as it is light. There was a man there, for I saw him myself. But now then, I cannot understand how the enemy can have stolen through the lines and carried the powder where it was found. What do you say, Lennox?"
"Nothing, sir. My head is so confused that I can hardly recall how it all happened."
"Of course. Well, you, sergeant. You said that you scattered the powder-bags."
"Yes, sir. Threw 'em about as far as we could."
"Yes, sir. Mr Lennox and me."
"After the train was fired?"
"Oh yes, sir; it was coming on at a great rate."
"Humph! Then you did a very brave action."
"Oh no, sir," said the sergeant. "We were obliged to. Why, we should, as Dr Emden says, sir, have been blown all to bits if we hadn't. We were obliged to do something sharp."
"Yes," said the colonel dryly. "It was sharp work, sergeant, and you saved my life and the major's."
"Did we, sir? Very glad of it, sir."
"But about how the powder was conveyed there. I can see nothing for it but treachery within the camp.—Of course!—Those Boers!"
"But they had gone, sir," said Lennox.
"Yes, and left us a memento of their visit."
"Beg pardon, sir," said Dickenson.
"Yes? Go on, Mr Dickenson."
"I think I can see through the mystery."
"Then you have better eyes than I have," said the colonel. "Proceed."
"It was one of their tricks, sir," said Dickenson. "They came into camp with their wagons and waited their chance."
"But the powder, man, the powder?" said the colonel impatiently.
"So many bags of it, sir, each inside one of the sacks of maize; and the night they were to go away they slit their sacks open, took out the powder, and planted it at the back of your quarters, sir."
"That will do, Mr Dickenson," said the colonel dryly.
"Beg pardon, sir. I thought it a very likely explanation of the business."
"Too likely, Mr Dickenson," said the colonel, "for it is undoubtedly the right one. The misfortune is that the treacherous scoundrels have got away. Bah! They're worse than savages! Well, let us all be thankful for our escape. I thought I had taken every precaution I could, but one never knows. Then you will not have to go into hospital, Lennox?"
"Oh no, sir; I shall be all right in a few hours."
"And you, Colour-Sergeant James?"
"Beg pardon, sir?" said the blackened non-com, staring.
"I say, and you, Colour-Sergeant James," said the colonel, laying emphasis on the word colour. "You feel that you need not go into the infirmary?"
"Feel, sir?" cried the sergeant, drawing himself up as stiff as his rifle. "Beg pardon, sir, but that's quite cured me. I never felt so well in my life."
"I am glad of it, my man," said the colonel quietly.—"Yes?" he added as one of the junior officers came to the door.
"Two men come in from the kopje, sir: a message from the sergeant with the gun. There's a strong body of the enemy close up between us and the lines on the slope. The men had to go round a long way before they could get through."
"I'll come," said the colonel, and he hurried out to make some fresh arrangements, the effect of which was that as soon as it was light the action of the Boers was precipitated by a counter-attack, and after an hour's firing they were driven out of their cover, to run streaming across the veldt, their flight hastened by a few well-planted shells from the big gun and the rapid fire of the Maxim which swept the plain.
TRACKING THE WAGONS.
Lennox was well enough, when the sun was up, to accompany Dickenson to the examination of the scene of the explosion, but not in time to witness the discovery of two bags of unexploded powder, from where they had been hurled by Colour-Sergeant James, who was on the ground before it was light, as he explained to the two young officers.
"You were early, sergeant," said Lennox. "Yes, sir; to tell the truth, I was. You see, I couldn't sleep a wink."
"In so much pain?"
"Well, the back of my head did smart pretty tidy, I must say, sir, and I couldn't lay flat on my back as I generally do; but it wasn't that, sir—it was the thought of the step up. Just think of it, sir! Only been full sergeant two years, and a step up all at once like that."
"Well, you deserved it," said Lennox quietly. "Deserved it, sir? Well, what about you?"
"Oh, I dare say I shall get my promotion when I've earned it," said Lennox. "Now then, let's look round. You found two bags of the powder, then?"
"Yes, sir," said the man, pointing; "one down in that pit where they dug the soil for filling the biscuit-tins and baskets, and the other yonder behind that wall. The blast must have blown right over them."
"But how about the sentry the colonel said he saw here?" asked Lennox.
The man's countenance changed, a fierce frown distorting it.
"He was quite right, sir," said the sergeant, nodding his head. "They found him this morning at his post."
"Dead?" said Lennox in a hoarse whisper.
"Yes, sir—dead. Horrid! Some one must have crept up behind him with a blanket and thrown it over him while some one else used an iron bar. He couldn't have spoken a word after the first blow."
"But why do you say that?" said Dickenson. "I understand the sentry was found dead, but—"
"There was the blanket and the iron bar, sir—the one over him and the other at his side. I don't call that fair fighting, sir; do you?"
The answer consisted of a sharp drawing in of the breath; and the officers turned away to examine the mischief done by the explosion, the backs of two houses having been blown right in.
"Well," said Dickenson dryly, "it's awkward, because they've got to be made up again; but one can't say they're spoiled."
"Not spoiled?" said Lennox, looking wonderingly at the speaker.
"No; they were so horribly straight and blank and square before. They do look a little more picturesque now. Oh, he was a wicked wretch who invented corrugated iron!"
"Nonsense!" said Lennox.
"But it does keep the wet out well, sir," put in the sergeant. "I don't know what we should have done sometimes without it."
Further conversation was stopped by the coming towards camp of a couple of Boers bearing a white flag; but they were only allowed to approach within the first line of defence.
"Want to have a look at the mischief they have done," said Dickenson bitterly, "and they will not have a chance. My word, what they don't deserve!"
The permission they had come to ask was given, and they were turned back at once, to signal for their ambulance-wagons to approach, these being busy for quite an hour picking up the dead and wounded; while the murdered sentry was the only loss suffered by the defenders of Groenfontein and the kopje.
As soon as suspicion was firmly fixed upon the party of non-combatant Boers who had departed upon their mission to obtain fresh supplies, one of the first orders issued by the colonel was for a patrol of mounted men to go in pursuit and, if possible, bring them back.
"There is not much chance of overtaking them," he said to the officers present; "but with a couple of teams of slow-going oxen they cannot make their own pace. Then this is the last time I'll trust a Boer."
"The worst of it is," said the major, "that we have let them carry off those two spans of bullocks. Tut, tut, tut! Forty of them; tough as leather, of course, but toothsome when you have nothing else."
"Toothsome!" said Captain Roby, laughing. "A capital term, for the poor teeth of those who tried to eat them would have to work pretty hard— eh,—Dickenson?"
"Better than nothing," said the young lieutenant—a decision with which all agreed.
That day passed off without further attack from the enemy, who seemed to have drawn off to a distance; and as night fell the colonel became very anxious about the patrol, which had not returned. Dickenson, who had the credit of being the longest-sighted man in the regiment, had spent the day on the highest point of the kopje, armed with a powerful telescope, and from his point of vantage, where he could command the country in that wonderfully clear atmosphere for miles round, had swept every bit of plain, and searched bush and pile of granite again and again, till the darkness of evening began to fill up the bush like a flood of something fluid. When he could do no more he left the crew of the gun and began to descend by what he considered the nearest way to headquarters, and soon found it the longest, for he had delayed his return too long.
"Hang it all!" he muttered. "What a pile of shin-breaking rocks it is! I've a jolly good mind to go back and take the regular path; seems so stupid, though, now."
In this spirit he persevered, wandering in and out among the piled-up blocks, all of which seemed in the darkness to be exactly alike, often making him think that he was going over the same ground again and again. But he was still descending, for when he climbed up the next suitable place to try and get a view of the lights of the camp he could see them beneath him and certainly nearer than when he started.
"Shall manage it somehow," he muttered; "but, hang it! how hungry I am! There, I'll have a pipe."
He fumbled in his pocket as he stood in the lee of a block of granite, sheltered from the cold night wind, found the pipe, and raised it to his lips to blow through the stem, but stopped short with every sense on the alert, for from below to his left he heard a light chirp such as might have been given by a bird, but which he argued certainly was not, for he knew of no bird likely to utter such a note at that time of the evening, when the flood of darkness had risen and risen till it had filled up everything high above the highest kopje that dotted the plain.
"Couldn't be a signal, could it?" he said to himself. "Yes," he said directly after, for the chirp was answered from lower down.
Dickenson softly swung the case of his telescope round to his back out of the way, and took out his revolver without making a sound, listening intently the while, and at the end of a long minute he made out a low whispering close at hand; but he could not place it exactly, for the sounds seemed to be reflected back from the face of the rock directly in front of him.
"I wish it wasn't so dark," he said, and screwing up his lips, he tried to imitate the chirp, and so successfully that it was answered.
"Must be one of our sentries," he thought, and he hesitated as to his next proceeding.
"Don't want to challenge and raise a false alarm," he said; "but last night's work makes one so suspicious. I'll let them challenge me."
He turned to descend softly from where he had climbed to, and his foot slipped on the weather-worn stone, so that he made a loud scraping sound in saving himself from a fall; but not so loud that he was unable to hear the scuffling of feet close at hand, followed directly after by dead silence.
His finger was on the trigger of his pistol, and he was within an ace of firing in the direction of the noise, but refrained, and contented himself with walking as sharply as he could towards it with outstretched hands, for overhanging rocks made the place he was in darker than ever, and he was reduced to feeling his way. Then stopping short with a sense of danger being close at hand, he gave the customary challenge, to have it answered from behind him; and the next minute he was face to face with a sentry.
"I thought I heard something, sir," said the man. "Then it was you?"
"No, no," said Dickenson; "I heard it too—a low chirp like a bird."
"No, no, sir; not that—a sound as if some one slipped."
"Yes, that was I," said Dickenson; "but there was a chirp. Did you hear that?"
"Oh yes, I heard that, sir; and another one answered it."
"And then there was talking."
"Oh no, sir, I heard no talking. Sound like a bird; but I think it's a little guinea-piggy sort of thing. I believe they live in holes like rats, and come out and call to one another in the dark."
"Well, perhaps it may be; but keep a sharp lookout."
"I'll keep my ears well open, sir," said the man; "there's no seeing anything in a night like this."
The sentry was able to put his visitor in the right direction, and Dickenson went on, forgetting the incident and wondering how Lennox was getting on; then about what the colonel would say to his ill-success; and lastly, the needs of his being filled up all his thoughts, making him wonder what he should get from the mess in order to satisfy the ravenous hunger that troubled him after his long abstinence.
He reached the square at last, but not without being challenged three times over. Then making his way to the colonel's patched-up quarters, he was just in time to meet the patrol coming into the opening, their leader going straight to the mess-room, where the officers were gathered.
"Any luck?" said Dickenson. "I was on the lookout for you up yonder till I couldn't see."
"Yes, and no," said the officer. "Come on and you'll hear."
Dickenson followed his companion into the long, dreary-looking, ill-lighted barn, where they were both warmly welcomed; and the officer announced that he had gone as near the Boers' laagers as he could, drawing fire each time; but he had not been able to either overtake or trace the plotters till close upon evening, when on the return. They had found a sign, but there was so much crossing and recrossing that the best of scouts could have made nothing of it; and he concluded that the party he sought had got well away, when all at once they came upon the undoubted spoor of the two teams of oxen, followed it into the bush, and just at dusk came upon the two wagons in a bush-like patch among the trees.
"And what had the men to say for themselves?" said the colonel eagerly.
"The men had gone, sir," said the officer.
"Ah! Bolted at the sight of you?"
"Oh no, sir; they were gone."
"What! and left the wagons?"
"Yes, sir; they had left the wagons, but they had carried off the teams."
THE COLONEL'S PLANS.
The effects of the night alarm were dying out, for there was plenty to take the attention of the defenders of Groenfontein every day—days full of expectancy—for a Boer attack might take place at any moment, while every now and then some one at an outpost had a narrow escape; and two men were hit by long-range bullets, fired perhaps a mile away by some prowling Boer who elevated his piece and fired on chance at the buildings in the village.
"Sniping," the men termed it, and all efforts to suppress this cowardly way of carrying on the war were vain, for in most cases there was no chance of making out from what scrap of cover the shots had been despatched; while it became evident that, from sheer malignity, the undisciplined members of the enemy's force would crawl in the darkness to some clump of rocks, or into some ditch-like donga, or behind one of the many ant-hills, and lie there invisible, firing as he saw a chance, and only leaving it when the darkness came on again.
The rations issued grew poorer; but the men only laughed and chaffed, ridiculing one another and finding nicknames for them.
Colour-Sergeant James, the sturdy non-commissioned officer, the back of whose head still showed the blasting effects of the explosion which he had shared with Lennox, was known as the "Fat Boy," on account of the general shrinking that had gone on in his person till he seemed to be all bone and sinew, covered with a very brown skin; another man came to be known as the "Greyhound;" while Captain Roby's favourite corporal, an unpleasant-looking fellow, much disliked by Lennox and Dickenson for his smooth, servile ways, had grown so hollow-cheeked that he was always spoken of as the "Lantern," after being so dubbed by the joker of his company.
In fact, the men generally had been brought down to attenuation by the scarcity of their food; while their khaki uniforms were not uniform in the least, the men for the most part looking, as Bob Dickenson put it, "like scarecrows in their Sunday clothes."
"The lads are getting terribly thin, sergeant," said Lennox one day, after the men had been dismissed from parade.
"Oh, I don't know, sir," said the sergeant; "a bit fine, sir, but in magnificent condition. Look at the colour of them—regular good warm tan."
"But the Boers haven't tanned them, all the same, sergeant," put in Dickenson, who was listening.
"No, sir, and never will," said the sergeant proudly. "As to their being thin, that's nothing; they're as healthy as can be. A soldier don't want to be carrying a lot of unnecessary meat about with him; and as to fat, it only makes 'em short-winded. See how they can go at the double now, and come up smiling. They're all right, sir, and we can feed 'em up again fast enough when the work's done. Beg pardon, sir: any likelihood of a reinforcement soon?"
"You know just as much as I do, sergeant," said Lennox. "Our orders are to hold this place, and we've got to hold it. Some day I suppose the general will send and fetch us out; till then we shall have to do our best."
"Yes, sir, that's right; but I do wish the enemy would give us a real good chance of showing them what our lads are made of."
But the Boers had had too many of what Dickenson called "smacks in the face" during their open attacks, and seemed disposed now to give starvation a chance of doing the work for them. At least, that was the young officer's openly expressed opinion.
"But they're making a great mistake, Drew, my lad," he said one evening as he and his friend sat chatting together. "An Englishman takes a great deal of starving before he'll give in. They're only making the boys savage, and they'll reap the consequences one day. My word, though, what a blessing a good spring of water is!"
As he spoke he picked up the tin can standing upon the end of a flour-barrel that formed their table, had a good hearty drink, set it down again, and replaced his pipe between his lips. "I used to think that bitter beer was the only thing a man could drink with his pipe; but tlat! how good and fresh and cool this water is, and how the Boers must wish they had the run of it!"
"It helps us to set them at defiance," said Lennox. "They might well call the place 'Green Fountain.' It might be made a lovely spot if it wasn't for the Boer."
"Yes, I suppose anything would grow here in the heat and moisture. I suppose the spring comes gurgling up somewhere in the middle of the kopje."
"It must," said Lennox, "and then makes its way amongst the stones to spread out below there and flow on to the river."
"Seems rum, though," said Dickenson. "I never did understand why water should shoot up here at the highest part of a flat country. It ought to be found low down in the holes. What makes it shoot up?"
"The weight and pressure of the country round, I suppose," said Lennox. "Hullo! What does that mean?"
"Business," cried Dickenson, as both the young men sprang to their feet and seized belts and weapons. For the report of a rifle was followed by others, coming apparently from the direction of the kopje near to where the stream came rushing out between two rugged natural walls of piled-up stone. Every one was on the alert directly, fully in the expectation that the enemy we're about to act in non-accordance with their regular custom and make an attack in the dark.
But the firing ceased almost as suddenly as it had begun; and after a time the alarm was traced back to a sentry who had been on duty at the lower part of the west side of the kopje, near by where the water gushed up at the foot of a huge mass of granite, where the most precipitous part stretched upward half-way to the summit.
Captain Roby's company held the kopje that night, and consequently both of the young officers were present at the tracing of the cause of the alarm, when it seemed to have been proved that it was only false.
The sentry who fired was examined by Captain Roby, and was certain that he had not given any alarm without cause, for he said he had heard steps as of more than one person approaching him as if going to the water.
"And you challenged?" asked the captain.
"Yes, sir; and then all was quite quiet for a few moments, but I heard the sounds again as if they were coming closer to me, and I fired, and there was a rush of feet."
"A party of baboons going down to drink," said the captain contemptuously.
"There have been no baboons seen since we occupied the kopje," said Lennox.
"Perhaps not; but when they were driven off they must have gone somewhere, and what more likely than that they should come back to the spot where they could get water?—Come, my man, you felt frightened, didn't you?"
"Yes, sir," said the sentry; "I was a bit scared."
"And you think now that all you heard was a party of those big dog-like monkeys—eh?"
"No, sir; it was men, and only three or four."
"Ha! How do you know?"
"Because the baboons go on all fours, sir; and I could make out one man standing up as he ran off along the rocky bit of path."
"What! You saw one man?"
"But it was dark?"
"I could see the figure of a man for a moment just against the sky, sir."
"But mightn't that have been one of the apes reared up for the time?"
"Oh no, sir," said the sentry. "I shouldn't mistake a monkey for a man; and besides, they don't wear boots."
"Ah! and do you say these people who came near you wore boots?"
"Well, it sounded like it, sir, for when I fired I could hear the leather squeak."
"Humph!" grunted Captain Roby; and Dickenson, who was full now of his adventure in what seemed to have been near the same place, spoke out:
"I think there's something in what he says:" and he related his own experience. "At the time, I was so occupied in getting back for something to eat that I forgot all about the matter after dinner. But now this has occurred I begin to feel that the chirping sounds I heard really were signals, and that I did hear voices talking together afterwards."
"Then it must have been Kaffirs sneaking there for water after it was dark."
"But the footsteps?" said Lennox.
"Well, Kaffirs have feet."
"But not boots," said Lennox quietly.
"I beg your pardon," said the captain warmly; "I could pick out a dozen of the black hangers-on who have boots which they have obtained from the men."
Just then an orderly arrived from the colonel to know what Captain Roby had made out respecting the alarm; and upon a full report being given, the colonel sent orders for Captain Roby to march his company to the foot of the kopje, surround it, and thoroughly search it from top to bottom.
This search was commenced as soon as it was light, the men having been led to the foot and stationed before day broke; and the arduous task seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by the men, who, as they slowly ascended the rough cone, naturally closed in so that the prospect of missing any one hiding among the cracks and chasms grew less and less. To the soldiers it was like a game of hide-and-seek held upon a gigantic scale, and they shouted to one another in the excitement of the hunt. Every now and then a rift would be found which promised to be the entrance to a cavern such as abounded in many of the granite and ironstone piles; but in every instance, after the men had plunged in boldly with bayonets fixed, they found the holes empty and were brought up directly, not even finding a sign of the place having been occupied.
The officers advanced from four different places, but the incurvation of the mount, and its being only practicable for climbing here and there, caused Lennox and Dickenson to approach more rapidly than the others; hence it happened that by the time they were half-way to the top they were within talking distance, as they kept on trying to keep their men in line, and at the end of another hundred feet they were side by side, panting and hot from their efforts, and ready to give one another a hand or a leg up in difficult parts.
"Well, Drew, old man," cried Dickenson as they both paused to wipe their faces and give their men time to breathe, "nice job this! I suppose the old man meant it to give us an appetite for breakfast."
"He ought to have given us a task to take away the sharpness; but it's all right. I shouldn't be at all surprised if we started two or three Kaffirs from some hole higher up."
"Why, what would they be doing there?"
"Keeping their gregarious home tidy for their tribe to come back to when we are gone."
"Well, plenty do live in these kopjes. Remember about that one up in the Matabele country that was full of cracks and passages, and had four or five caves one above another?"
"Oh yes, I remember it."
"This might be the same some day, but I believe it's all a reservoir of water inside."
"Or else solid, for there seems to be no door. We may find a way in yet; I shouldn't wonder."
"I should," said Dickenson; "and I believe after all now that the chirping I heard was made by some rat-like creature."
"The more I think about it," continued Lennox, "the more I feel ready to believe that two or three of the Kaffirs are here, and in communication with the Boers."
"What! acting as spies?"
Lennox nodded; he was still too short of breath to talk much.
"Well, now you come to talk like that, it does appear possible, for the Boers do seem to have known pretty well how and when to attack us."
"Of course! Why, there was the night when they were bringing up the big gun. They must have had guides."
"Oh, if you come to that, they may have people with them who used to live here."
"Yes, they may have," said Dickenson; "but it isn't likely. Depend upon it, there are two or three Kaffirs somewhere about here, and we have them to thank for some of our misfortunes. If we do catch them they'll have it pretty sharp."
"Not they," said Lennox. "We shall treat them as prisoners of war."
"As spies," said Dickenson, "and you know their lot."
"Psh! The colonel would not shoot a set of poor ignorant blacks."
"For a reward they'd fight for us just as they may have been fighting for the Boers."
"But we don't want them to fight for us. If they'd try and feed us they'd be doing some good.—Yes, all right. Ahoy there!" shouted the speaker, for a hail came from higher up. "Forward, my lads; forward!"
This last to the men on either side, who had snapped at the chance of a few minutes' rest, after the fashion displayed by their officers.
The climbing advance went on again till the level patch at the top, which had been turned into a gun-platform, was reached, and the men halted in the bright sunshine, to group about the huge gun after they had been ordered to break off. They rested, enjoying the cool breeze and gazing eagerly about in search of enemies, seeing, however, nothing but the surrounding prospect all looking bright and peaceful in the morning sun.
"'Brayvo! Werry pretty!' as Sam Weller would have said," cried Dickenson as Captain Roby closed the field-glass he had been using and joined his junior officers, frowning and looking impatient.
"Look here, Mr Dickenson," he said sourly, "a little of that commonplace, slangy quotation may be tolerated sometimes after the mess dinner if it's witty—mind, I say if it's witty—but such language as this seems to me quite out of place, especially if spoken in the hearing of the men when on service."
"Yes, of course," replied Dickenson shortly; "but I took care that they were out of hearing."
"They are not out of hearing, sir," retorted Roby; "as Mr Lennox here will bear me witness, Sergeant James and Corporal May must have heard every word."
He turned to Lennox with a questioning look and waited for him to, as he termed it, bear witness.
"Well, really, I don't think they could have heard," said Lennox.
"What!" cried Roby indignantly. "Here, sergeant, you heard—you, Corporal May, you heard what Mr Dickenson said?"
"Yes, sir, everything," replied the corporal smartly.
"And you, sergeant?"
"I heard Mr Dickenson saying something, sir," replied the sergeant bluntly, "but I was looking along the gun here and did not catch a word."
"You mean you would not hear," cried the captain angrily.—"Look here, Mr Dickenson, don't let it occur again."
He jerked at the case of his field-glass and took it out again, then crossed to the other end of the roughly-made gun-platform and directed the telescope upon some object near the horizon.
The two subalterns exchanged glances.
"Mr Lennox—Mr Dickenson," said the latter in a low tone. "Poor old chap, he's regularly upset. Well, no wonder; wants his breakfast. I'm just as grumpy underneath for the same reason, but I keep it down—with my belt. Look here, Drew; go and prescribe for him. Tell him to buckle himself up a couple of holes tighter and he'll feel all the better."
"Hold your tongue! He isn't well, and he's put out about this mare's-nest hunt."
"Well, yes; we haven't done much good."
"Not a bit. How do you feel?"
"As if I should like to kick that time-serving corporal."
"What! the 'Lantern'? Yes: brute! Anything to curry favour with his master."
"Look here, don't forget. Mind I give old James two ounces of the best tobacco first time I have any—which I'm afraid will not be just yet."
"Mare's-nest," said Lennox thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose it is a mare's-nest. Nobody could have been about here without being caught by the sentries."
"I don't know," said Dickenson, looking about him; "these niggers are very clever at hiding and sneaking about. I felt certain after what I had experienced that we should find a way into a passage and some caves. Here, 'tention; the general's coming back."
Captain Roby returned, replacing his glass, and gave a few sharp orders for the men to take their places once more and commence the descent, searching every crevice among the rocks as they went down.
This was carefully done, and the men reached the foot of the granite pile, formed up, and marched back to the market-place, where they were dismissed to their meagre breakfast, while the captain sought the colonel's quarters without a word to his subordinates.
"The doctor says fasting's very good for a man; but one man's meat, or want of it, is another man's poison, Drew, my boy, and starvation does not agree with Roby."
"No," replied Lennox. "I've noticed that he has been a bit queer for a week past."
"Say a fortnight, and I'll agree with you. Why, he has been like a bear with a sore head. Never said a civil word to any one, and I've heard him bully the poor boys shamefully."
"Yes; it is a pity, too, for they've behaved splendidly."
"Right you are. I always liked them, but I'm quite proud of the poor fellows now. I say though, hang it all! talking must be bad on an empty stomach. Lead on, my lord; the banquet waits."
"Banquet!" said Lennox, with a sigh.
"Yes. Oh, how tired I am of that mealie pap! It puts me in mind of Brahma fowls, and that maddens me."
"Because I used to keep some of the great, feather-breeched, lumbering things to send to poultry shows. Some one told me that Indian com was a fine thing for them—made their plumage bright and gave them bone; so I ordered a lot."
"And did it answer the purpose?"
"Answer the purpose?" cried Dickenson indignantly. "Why, the beggars picked it up grain by grain and put it down again. Pampered Sybarites! Then the cock cocked his eye up at me and said, 'Tuck, tuck, tuck! Caro, waro, ware!' which being interpreted from the Chick-chuck language which is alone spoken by the gallinaceous tribe, means, 'None of your larks: yellow pebbles for food? Not to-day, thankye!'"