No one did say he was down but the young lieutenant's imagination, and he sat down on a rock and began watching the men coming and going after bringing in wounded men.
"Who said he saw Mr Lennox last?" cried Captain Edwards.
"I did," said the wounded man in a feeble, whining voice.
"Who's that?" said the major, stepping towards the man, who lay with his face disfigured by a smear of blood.
"I did, sir. Dodging round one of the wagons somewhere. It was where the Boers stood a bit, and I got hurt."
"Could you point out the place?"
"No, sir; it was all dark, and I'm hurt," said the man faintly.
"Give him some water," said the captain. "Your hurts shall be seen to soon, my lad. Cheer up, all of you; the major has sent for the ambulance-wagons, so you'll ride home."
"Hooray, and thanks, sir!" said the worst wounded man, and then he fainted.
Just then, as the first orange-tipped clouds were appearing far on high, four men were seen approaching, carrying a wounded man slung in Sergeant James's sash; and as soon as he caught sight of the injured man's face Major Robson hurried to meet the party.
"Roby! Tut, tut, tut!" he cried. "This is bad work. Not dead, sergeant?"
"No, sir; but he has it badly. Bullet at the top of his forehead; hit him full, and ploughed up through scalp; but as far as I can make out the bone's not broken."
"Lay him down, sergeant. How long will it be," he muttered, "before we get the doctor here? Where did you find him?"
"Lying out yonder all alone, beyond those rocks, sir," replied the sergeant.
"Water—bandage," said the major, and both were brought, and the best that could be done under the circumstances was effected by the major and Sergeant James, while the sufferer resisted strongly, every now and then muttering impatiently. Then irritably telling those who tended him to let him go to sleep, he closed his eyes, but only to open them again and stare vacantly, just as Dickenson, who had been away for another look round on his own account, came up and bent over him.
"Poor fellow!" muttered Dickenson sadly, and he laid his hand sympathetically upon that of the wounded captain.
"I don't think it's very serious," said the major. "Look here, Dickenson; we have no time to spare. Take enough men, and set half to round up all the bullocks and sheep you can see, while the others load up three or four wagons with what provisions you can find. Send off each wagon directly straight for camp, and the cattle too, while we gather and blow up all the ammunition and fire the wagons left. It will not be very long before the enemy will be coming back. Hurry."
Dickenson was turning to go when the major arrested him.
"Any news of Lennox?" he said.
"None, sir," said the lieutenant sadly.
But his words were nearly drowned by an angry cry from Roby: "The coward! The cur! He shall be cashiered for this."
"Go on, Dickenson," said the major; "the poor fellow's off his head. He doesn't mean you."
The lieutenant hurried away, and for the next half-hour the men worked like slaves, laying the wounded Boers well away from the laager, and their own injured men out on the side nearest Groenfontein; while Dickenson, in the most business-like manner, helped by Sergeant James, sent off a large drove of oxen, the big, heavy, lumbering animals herding together and trudging steadily away after a wagon with its regular span laden heavily with mealies, straight for Groenfontein. For a few Kaffirs turned up after the firing was over, evidently with ideas of loot, and ready to be impressed for foreloper, driver, or herdsmen to the big drove of beasts.
A few horses were rounded up as well, and followed the oxen; while, as fast as they could be got ready, three more provision-wagons were despatched, the whole making a long broken convoy on its way to the British camp.
By this time the men, working under the orders of Captain Edwards and the major, had got the Boers' ammunition-wagons together in one place behind a mass of rocks, on the farther side of the kopje, away from the wounded. Then the weapons that could be found were piled amongst the wagons in another place; and the troops were still working hard when the major bade them cease.
"We can do no more," he said; "we have no time. But oughtn't the ambulance-wagons to be here by now? The enemy can't be long; they're bound to attack. Ah, Dickenson, have you got all off?"
"All I could, sir, in the time."
"That's right. I want your men here. You'll be ready to help to get off the wounded as soon as the wagons come?"
Dickenson nodded, with his head averted from the speaker and his eyes wandering over the injured men.
"No news of Lennox?" he asked.
"None. I can't understand where the poor fellow is, unless he was carried off in the rush of the Boers' retreat. A thorough search has been made. Here, get up on the highest part of the kopje with your glass, and see if you can make out anything of the enemy."
The lieutenant was in the act of opening the case of his field-glass, when from where the wounded lay came another angry burst of exclamations from Roby, incoherent for the most part, but Dickenson heard plainly, "Coward—cowardly hound! To leave a man like that."
Dickenson turned a quick, inquiring look at the major.
"Delirium," said the latter sharply. "I don't know what the poor fellow has on his brain. Oh, if the ambulance fellows would only come! There, my dear boy, off with you and use that glass."
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
THE SERGEANT IN HIS ELEMENT.
Dickenson dashed off and climbed the low kopje, zigzagging among rough stone walls, rifle-pits, and other shelter, and noting that, if the Boers came upon them before they could retreat, there was a strong position for the men from which they could keep the enemy at bay; and, soldier-like, he began calculating as to whether it would not have been wiser to decide on holding the place instead of hurrying back to Groenfontein, with the certainty of having to defend themselves and fight desperately on the way, small body as they were, to escape being surrounded and cut off.
To his great satisfaction, though, upon reaching the highest part of the mound and using his glass, there were only a few straggling parties of men dotting the open veldt, where everything stood out bright and clear in the light of the early morning. Some were mounted, others walking, and in two places there was a drove of horses, and all going in the direction of the next laager held by the Boers.
He stood with his glass steadied against a big stone and looked long, searching the veldt to right and left and looking vainly for the main body of the enemy retreating; but they were out of reach of his vision, or hidden amongst the bushes farther on. But even if the foremost had readied their friends, these latter were not riding out as yet to make reprisals, and, as far as he could judge, there was no risk of an attack for some time to come.
For a moment a feeling of satisfaction pervaded him, but the next his heart sank; and he lowered his glass to begin looking round the kopje where here and there lay the men who had fallen during the surprise.
"Where can poor old Drew be?" he almost groaned.
At that instant his eyes lit upon the figure of the major, waving his hand to him angrily as if to draw his attention; and raising his own to his lips, he shouted as loudly as he could, "Nothing in sight."
The major's voice came to him clearly enough, in company with another wave of the hand in the other direction: "Ambulance?"
Dickenson swung round his glass to direct it towards Groenfontein, and his spirits rose again, for right away beyond the long string of oxen and wagons, as if coming to meet them, he could make out three light wagons drawn by horses, and a knot of about twenty mounted men coming at a canter and fast leaving the wagons behind.
"Ha!" sighed Dickenson; "that's good. The colonel must have started them to meet us the moment the firing was heard."
He turned directly to shout his news to the watching major, who signed to him to come down; and he descended, meeting two men coming up, one of them carrying a field-glass.
"To watch for the enemy, sir," said the latter as they met. "Which is the best place?"
"Up yonder by that stone, my lad," replied Dickenson, pointing. "Any news of Mr Lennox?"
"No, sir; I can't understand it. I think I saw him running down the side of the kopje just as we were getting on, but it was so dark then I couldn't be sure."
"I can't understand his not being found," said Dickenson to himself, as he hurried down to where the major was posting the men in the best positions for resisting an attack, if one were made before the party could get away.
Dickenson's attention was soon too much taken up with work waiting, for the wounded had to be seen to. Rightly considering that before long the enemy would advance to try and retake their old position, the major gave orders that the Boer wounded be rearranged so that they were in shelter and safety; and then, as there was still no sign of danger, the few injured of the attacking force were borne to the nearest spot where the ambulance party could meet them. Then the final work of destruction began.
"Seems a thousand pities," said Captain Edwards, "badly as we want everything nearly here."
"Yes," said the major; "but we can take no more, and we can't leave the stores for the enemy.—Here, Dickenson, take Sergeant James and play engineer. I have had the trains laid and fuses placed ready. You two must fire them as soon as we are a few hundred yards away."
Dickenson shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.
"Take care, and make sure the fuses are burning; then hurry away. Don't run any risks, and don't let Sergeant James be foolhardy."
"I'll mind, sir," said Dickenson shortly.
"The wagons will be fired before we start, so that the wind will keep them going."
"What about the powder?" said Dickenson gruffly. "That is all together. There are three wagons wheeled down into the shelter of the rock, so that the blast will not reach the fire."
"It'll blow it right up," growled Dickenson.
"No," said the major; "the rocks will deflect it upwards. I've seen to that."
"Couldn't we make the mules carry off the wagons? All three ambulances will not be wanted."
"My dear boy, you mean well," said the major impatiently; "but pray be content with taking your orders. Edwards and I have thought all that out. The fire will not go near the wounded Boers, and the explosion will not touch the fire. As to carrying off these wagon-loads of cartridges that will not fit our rifles or guns, what is the use? Now, are you satisfied?"
"Quite, sir," said Dickenson. "I was only thinking that—"
"Don't think that, man; obey orders."
"Right, sir," said Dickenson stiffly, and he went off to look up Sergeant James. "Hang him!" growled the young officer. "It doesn't seem to be my work. Making a confounded powder-monkey of a fellow!"
He glanced up, and saw that the men were busy on high with the field-glass, but making no sign. Then he noted that the ambulance, with its escort, was coming on fast; and soon, after a little inquiry, he came upon the sergeant, busy with the men, every one with his rifle slung, linking wagons together with tent-cloth poles and wood boxes and barrels so that the conflagration might be sure to spread when once it was started, to which end the men worked with a will; but they did not hesitate to cram their wallets and pockets with eatables in any form they came across.
"Make a pretty good bonfire when it's started, sir," said the sergeant.
"Humph! Yes," said Dickenson. "But what are those two barrels?"
"Paraffin, sir, for the beggars' lamps."
"Well," said Dickenson grimly, "wouldn't it help the fire if you opened them, knocked in their heads, and bucketed out the spirit to fling it over the wagon-tilts?"
The men who heard his words gave a cheer, and without orders seized the casks, rolled them right to the end where the fire was to be started, drove in the heads with an axe, and for the next quarter of an hour two of the corporals were busy ladling out the spirit and flinging it all over three of the wagons and everything else inflammable that was near.
"Now pack the paraffin-casks full of that dry grass and hay," cried Dickenson, who had been superintending. "It will soak up the rest, and you can start the fire with them."
The men cheered again, and in a very short time the two barrels stood under the tail-boards of two wagons, only awaiting the flashing-off of a box of matches to start a fire that no efforts could check.
"Here is the ambulance party," cried Dickenson. "Come with me now, sergeant. Let your corporals finish what there is to do."
"I don't see that there's any more to do, sir," said the sergeant, wiping his wet face. "Want me, sir?"
"Yes; I've something to say. You will go down and see the wounded off. Oh dear! oh dear! I've been thinking of what we were doing, and not of poor Mr Lennox. You've heard nothing, I suppose?"
"Neither heard nor seen, sir," replied the sergeant. "Seems to me that, in his plucky way, he must have dashed at the enemy, got mixed, and they somehow swept him off."
"If they did," said Dickenson, "he'll be too sharp for them, and get away."
"That he will, sir."
"I was afraid the poor fellow was killed."
"Not he, sir," cried the sergeant. "He'd take a deal of killing. Besides, we should have found him and brought him in. He'll turn up somewhere."
"Ha! You make me feel better, James," said Dickenson. "It took all the spirit out of me. Now then, I've some bad news for you."
"Let's have it, sir. I've had so much that it runs away now like water off a duck's back."
"It has nothing to do with water, sergeant, but with fire."
"That all, sir? I see; I'm to stop till the detachment's well out of the way, and then fire the laager?"
"No," said Dickenson; "that will be done before the men have marched. You are to stop with me and light the fuses."
"To blow up the ammunition, sir? Well, I was wondering who was to do that."
"It's a risky job, sergeant."
"Pooh, sir! Nothing like advancing against a lot of hiding Boers waiting to pot you with their Mausers. Beg pardon, sir; who was Mauser?"
"I don't know, sergeant. I suppose he was the man who invented the Boer rifles."
"And a nice thing to be proud of, sir! I'm not a vicious sort of fellow, but I do feel sometimes as if I should like to see him set up as a mark, and a couple of score o' Boers busy trying how his invention worked."
"Come along," said the lieutenant.—"Then you don't mind the job?"
"Not I, sir. I always loved powder from a boy. Used to make little cannons out of big keys, filing the bottoms to make a touch-hole. I was a don at squibs and crackers; and the games we used to have laying trains and making blue devils! Ha! It was nice to be a boy!"
"Yes, sergeant; and now we've got something big to do. But there, you're used to it. Remember getting away the powder-bags with Mr Lennox?"
"Remember it, sir? Ha! But I was in a fright then."
"Of being blown up?"
"Well, sir, if you'll believe me, I never thought of myself at all. I was all in a stew for fear the powder should catch from the lantern and make an end of Mr Lennox."
"I believe you," said Dickenson; and they stopped at the spot where the ambulance-wagons had trotted up, and the leader of the mounted escort had dropped from his panting horse to speak to the major.
"Then you've done it, sir?"
"Yes, as you see. What message from the colonel?"
"Covering party advancing, sir, to help you in. You are to get all the provisions and cattle you can, and retire. But that I see you have done. Enemy near, sir?"
The major glanced at the top of the kopje before replying, and then said briefly, "Not yet."
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.
The wounded men—a couple of dozen all told, many of the injuries being only slight—were rapidly lifted into the light wagons while the horses and mules were given water, and all went well, the more slightly hurt cheering and joking their bearers, and making light of their injuries in the excitement of the triumph.
"Mind my head, boys," said one; "it's been knocked crooked."
"And my leg's loose, you clumsy beggar; it's there somewhere. Don't leave it behind."
"I say, Joey, I've got a hole right through me; ain't it a lark!"
"Here, you, sir! Take care; that's my best 'elmet. I want it for a piller." And so on, and so on.
Only one man groaned dismally, and that was Corporal May.
"I say, mate; got it as bad as that?" said one of the bearers.
"Oh! worse—worse than that," moaned the corporal. "I'm a dead man."
"Are you, now?" said one of his fellows in the company. "I say, speak the truth, old chap; speak the truth."
"Oh!" groaned the corporal. "Why am I here—why am I here?"
"I dunno," said the bearer he looked at with piteous eyes. "I never was good at riddles, mate. Can't guess. Ask me another.—There you are, lifted as gently as a babby. You're only a slightly; I do know that."
The corporal was borne away, still groaning, and the man who had spoken last handed him some water.
"Cheer up, corporal," he said; "you'll be back in the ranks in a week."
Meanwhile the bearers were busy in the shelter where Captain Roby lay, flushed, fevered, and evidently in great pain, while his brother officers stood round him, eager to do anything to assuage his pangs and see him carefully borne to the wagon in which he was to travel.
"How are you, Roby?" said Dickenson, softly laying a powder-blackened hand upon the injured man's arm, while the bearers stood waiting to raise him.
The question and the touch acted electrically, Roby started; his eyes opened to their full extent, showing a ring of white all round the iris; and he made an effort to rise, but sank back.
"You coward—you miserable cad!" he cried. "You saw me shot down—I implored you to help me to the rear—and you chose that time to show your cowardly hate—you, an officer.—Coward! You ran—you turned and ran to save your beggarly life—coward!—coward! Oh, if I had strength!—I'll denounce you to the colonel. Cur!—coward!—cur!—I'll publish it for all the world to know."
Dickenson started at first, and then listened to the end.
"All right," he said coolly. "Don't forget when you write your book."
"Lift him, my lads, gently; we have no time to spare," said the major sternly; and as Roby was borne away, shouting hoarsely, "Coward!—cur!" Captain Edwards said sharply in a whisper, so that the men should not hear:
"Dickenson! Is this true?"
"Oh! I don't know," was the reply. "I recollect the bugle sounding, and then I was too busy to know what I did till it sounded 'Cease firing!' I know I was out of breath."
"Take no notice," said the major quickly. "The poor fellow's raving. Coward! Tchah! Be ready, Dickenson. You've found the sergeant?"
"All ready, sir."
In a very few minutes the ambulance-wagons were off again, with their attendants ordered to go at a steady walk, and, if an attack was made, to keep the red-cross flag well shown, and avoid the line of fire if possible.
And still there was no alarm given from the top of the kopje of the Boers' approach.
A short time was allowed for the ambulance to get ahead, during which the officers had another look at the Boer wounded, the major ordering water to be given to the men. Next a few sheaves of abandoned rifles were cast into the wagons to be burned, and a final look was given to the preparations already made for the destruction of the camp.
At last, while the long line of captured stores was crawling over the veldt, and a great number of the other oxen which had wandered off to graze were, according to their instinct, beginning to follow their companions as if to make for Groenfontein, the order was given for the men to fall in ready for the march back.
All was soon in order, and the major turned to Dickenson, who stood aside with Sergeant James, waiting to perform their dangerous task.
"I was going to appoint four more men to fire the wagons," said the major, "but with the preparations you have made the flames will spread rapidly, and you two can very well do it; and as soon as the fire has taken hold you can light the fuses yonder."
"Men signalling from the top of the kopje," said Captain Edwards.
"That means the enemy in sight," said the major coolly. "Signal to them to come down."
As the captain turned away to attend to his orders the major held out his hand to Dickenson.
"Do your work thoroughly," he said gravely, "and then follow as fast as you can. I will leave pickets behind to cover you."
Dickenson nodded, but said nothing, only stood fingering a box of matches in his pocket and watching the major hurrying down the encumbered slope of the kopje to join the men awaiting the order to march.
"Sentries on the top coming down, sir," growled the sergeant; and Dickenson nodded again, turning to watch the two men running actively along and leaping from stone to stone, till they were pretty close to the drawn-up force, when the bugle rang out, the voices of the officers were heard, and the retiring party went off at a good swinging march.
Dickenson watched them for a few minutes without a word, while the sergeant stood with his rifle grounded and his hands resting upon the muzzle, perfectly calm and soldierly, patiently waiting for his orders, just as if he and the sergeant were to follow as a sort of rear-guard instead of to fulfil about as dangerous a task as could fall to the lot of a man, knowing too, as he did, that the enemy had been signalled as advancing—a body of men armed with the most deadly and far-reaching rifles of modern times.
"About time now, sergeant," said Dickenson coolly.
"Yes, sir; 'bout right now, I should think."
"I want them to have a fair start first," continued Dickenson; "and I can't help feeling a little uneasy about the enemy's wounded, for there will be an awful explosion."
"Oh, they'll be all right, sir. Make 'em jump, perhaps, and think they're going to be swept away."
"I wish they were farther off," said Dickenson; and then he uttered an ejaculation as he started aside, an example followed by the sergeant, who chuckled a little as he exclaimed:
"Wish 'em farther off, sir? So do I."
For, following directly one after the other, two shots were fired from the shelter where the wounded Boers had been carefully laid in safety, a couple of them having evidently retained their rifles, laying them under cover till they could find an opportunity to use them.
"That's nice and friendly, James," said Dickenson coolly. "Forward!— under cover."
"I feel ashamed to run, sir," said the sergeant fiercely.
"Look sharp!" cried Dickenson, for two more bullets whistled by them. "I don't like bolting, but it seems too bad to be shot down by the men we have been getting into safety."
"And fidgeted about, sir," said the sergeant grimly. "I wish you'd give me orders to chance it and go back and give those blackguards one apiece with their own rifles. It must have been them the captain meant when he was letting go about cowards and curs."
"Very likely, poor fellow!" said Dickenson, marching coolly on till they were covered from the Boers' fire. "There, they may fire away now to their hearts' content," he continued, as he halted at the end of the prepared wagons. "Wind's just right—eh?"
"Beautiful, sir; and as soon as the blaze begins to make it hot you'll find the breeze'll grow stiffer. It's a great pity, though."
"Yes; I wish we had all this at Groenfontein."
"So do I, sir; but wishing's no good. I meant, though, it's a pity it isn't dark. We should have a splendid blaze."
"We shall have a splendid cloud of black smoke, sergeant," said Dickenson, taking out his box of matches. "Ready?"
"Ready, sir," replied the sergeant, and each held his match-box as low down in the paraffin-barrel as the saturated hay would permit, struck a match, and had to drop it at once and start back, for there was a flash of the evaporating gas, followed by a puff of brownish-black, evil-odoured smoke, which floated upward directly.
"Bah! Horrible!" cried Dickenson, coughing. "My word, sergeant! there's not much doubt about the Boers' camp blazing."
"Serve 'em right, sir, for using such nasty, common, dangerous paraffin. Here comes the wind, sir: what did I say?"
For the soft breeze came with a heavier puff, which made the forked tongues of flame plunging up amongst the thick smoke begin to roar, and in a very few seconds the fire was rushing through one of the tilted wagons as if it were a huge horizontal chimney.
"Did you get singed, sergeant?"
"No, sir. It just felt a bit hot. Hullo! what's that?"
For a horrible shrieking and yelling arose from the direction of the wounded Boers.
"The crippled men," said Dickenson. "They're afraid they are going to be burned to death. We ought to go and shout to them that there's nothing to fear."
"Yes, sir, it would be nice and kind," cried the sergeant sarcastically; "only if we tried they wouldn't let us—they'd shoot us down before we were half-way there."
"Yes, I'm afraid so," said Dickenson, who stared almost in wonder at the terrific rate at which the fire was roaring up and sweeping along, threatening, as wagon after wagon caught, to cover the kopje with flame.
"Perhaps, sir," said the sergeant, with a grim smile, "it would be a comfort to the poor fellows' nerves if we sent up the ammunition-wagons now."
"Whether it would or not, sergeant, we must be sharp and do it, or with these flakes of fire floating about we shall not dare to go near our fuse."
"That's what I'm thinking, sir," said the sergeant.
"Forward, then;" and the pair went on at the double to the spot where the train was laid, the fuses being some distance from the ammunition-wagons, and on lower ground sheltered by great stones.
The next minute the pair were down on one knee sheltering their match-boxes from the wind behind a big rock, with the train well in view, for those who laid it had not scrupled to use an abundance of powder.
"I did not reckon about this wind," said Dickenson. "As fast as one of us strikes a light it will be blown out."
"That's right, sir."
"And we shall never get the fuse started."
"We must try, sir."
"Yes," said Dickenson. "Here, it must be one man's job to fire the train; the explosion will send off the next wagon."
"And no mistake, sir. We ought to have had a lantern to light the fuse at. But you get lower down, sir, and I'll set off the whole box of matches I've got here, chuck it into the train, and drop behind this big stone."
"That seems to be the only way to get it done," replied Dickenson.
"Yes, I'm sure of it, sir," said the sergeant.
"All right, then; run down and get behind that piece of rock. I'll do it directly."
"No, no, sir; let me do it," pleaded the sergeant.
"'Tention!" roared Dickenson. "Quick! No time to lose. Off at once."
The sergeant's lips parted as if he were about to say something, but Dickenson gave him a stern look and pointed downward towards the stone, when discipline ruled, and the man doubled away to it, grumbling and growling till he was lying down panting as if he were out of breath.
"I could have done it better myself," he said hoarsely; and then, "Oh, poor lad, poor lad! If—if—"
There was a sharp crack, followed by a pause filled up by the shrieking and yelling of the wounded Boers. Then the sergeant felt that he must raise his head and see how matters were going on; but he refrained, for there was a peculiar hissing noise. Dickenson had taken about twenty matches out of the box he carried, held them ready, and ignoring the fuse, he struck the bundle vigorously, stretched out his hand, which was almost licked by the flash of flame, and applied it to the thickly-laid train.
For a few moments there was no result, the wind nearly blowing out the blazing splints; but just as the young man was hesitating about getting out more matches—phitt! There was a flash as the powder caught and the flame began to run in its zigzag course right along the ground towards the nearest ammunition-wagon.
Turning sharply, Dickenson laid his hands upon a block of loose stone, vaulted over it, and dropped flat upon his face, conscious the while of the piteous cries of the wounded men.
The next instant there was a tremendous concussion, the stone giving him a violent blow, and as the sky above seemed to blaze there was a roar like thunder, then a perceptible pause, another roar, again a pause, and another roar.
Then for a few moments the young officer lay deafened and feeling stunned, till beneath the pall of smoke which hung over him he opened his eyes and saw the sergeant kneeling by his side with his lips moving.
Dickenson stared at him wonderingly, while he saw the horrified look in the man's face and its workings as he kept on moving his lips, and finally half-raised his young officer and laid him down again.
"What's the matter?" said Dickenson—at least he thought he did—he felt as if he had said so; but somehow he could not hear himself speak for the crashing sound of many bells ringing all together.
He did not for the moment realise what had happened, but like a flash the power of thinking came back, and drawing a deep breath, he tried to get up, but could hardly stir. Something seemed to hold him down.
"Give me your hand, sergeant," he said, but still no words seemed to come, and he repeated what he wished to speak; but before he had completed his sentence, he grasped the fact that the sergeant's manner had changed, for he rose up, felt behind him, looked at him again, and seemed to speak, for his lips moved.
"Are you hurt?" Dickenson said, in the same way.
The sergeant's lips moved and he shook his head, looking the while as if he were not hurt in the least.
"Then why don't you speak?" said Dickenson.
The man smiled and pointed to his ears.
"The explosion has deafened you?" said Dickenson dumbly, for still he could not hear a word. "What do you mean? Oh, I see."
For the sergeant clapped him on the chest, and then placing his shoulder against the stone, he seemed to be exerting all his strength to force it uphill a little, succeeding so well that the next moment Dickenson felt himself slip, glided clear of the sergeant's legs, and rose to his own, while the man leaped aside and the great block slipped two or three yards before it stopped.
"Then I was caught by the stone?" said Dickenson wonderingly. "I felt it move."
He felt sure now that he had said those words; but in his confused state, suffering as he was from the shock, he could only wonder why the sergeant should begin feeling him over, and, apparently satisfied that nothing was broken, begin hurrying him along in the direction taken by the retreating force, which, now that the dense cloud of smoke was lifting, he could see steadily marching away in the distance, but with a group of about a dozen lingering behind.
Just then the sergeant stopped, unslung his rifle, placed his helmet on the top, and held it up as high as he could, till Dickenson saw a similar signal made by the party away ahead.
"They know we're all right," said Dickenson, still, as it seemed, dumbly: and the sergeant nodded and smiled.
"It was an awful crash. I mean they were terrible crashes, sergeant."
There was another nod, and after a glance back the sergeant hurried him along a little faster.
"Can you—no, of course you can't—hear whether the Boers are calling out now?"
The sergeant shook his head.
"Poor wretches!" said Dickenson. "But they were too far off to be hurt."
The sergeant nodded.
"Here, I can't understand this," said Dickenson.
"You pointed to your ears and signified to me that the explosions had made you as deaf as a post."
The sergeant turned to him, looking as if he were trying to check a broad grin, as he pointed to his officer's ears. That made all clear.
"Why, it is I who am deaf," cried Dickenson excitedly; and almost at the same moment something seemed to go crack, crack in his head, and his hearing had come back, with everything that followed sounding painfully loud.
"And no wonder, sir," said the sergeant. "It was pretty sharp. My ears are singing now. Does it hurt you where you were nipped by the stone?"
"Feels a bit pinched, that's all."
"And you're all right beside, sir?"
"Yes, I think so, sergeant."
"That's good. Well, sir, you did it."
"What! blew up the wagons? Yes, sergeant, I suppose we've done our work satisfactorily. But do you think the Boers would be hurt?"
"If they were, sir, it was not bad enough to make them stop singing out for help. I heard them quite plainly after the explosions. Can you walk a little faster, sir?"
"Oh yes, I think so. I'm quite right, all but this singing noise in my ears. I say, though, what about the enemy?"
"I don't know anything about them, sir; the kopje hides them for the present, but once they make out how few we are, I expect they'll come on with a rush; and the worst of it is, they're mounted. But it'll be all right, sir. The colonel said he was sending out a covering party to help us in, didn't he?"
"Yes," replied Dickenson.
"Oh, we shall keep them off. They'll begin sniping as soon as they get a chance, but they'll never make a big attack in the open field like we're going over now."
A very little while after they overtook the party hanging back till they came up, Captain Edwards being with the men, ready to congratulate them on the admirable way in which their task had been carried out.
The brisk walking over the veldt in the clear, bright air rapidly dissipated Dickenson's unpleasant sensations, and when the main body was overtaken the young officer would have felt quite himself again if it had not been for the dull, heavy sense of misery which asserted itself: for constantly now came the ever-increasing belief that he must accept the worst about his comrade, something in his depressed state seeming to repeat to him the terrible truth—that poor Drew Lennox must be dead.
He found himself at last side by side with the major, who as they went on began to question him about his friend's disappearance, and he frowned when Dickenson gravely told him his fears.
"No, no," said the major; "we must hope for better things than that. He'll turn up again, Dickenson. We must not have our successful raid discounted by such a misfortune.—Eh, what's that?"
"Boers in sight, sir," said Sergeant James. "Mounted men coming on fast."
"Humph! Too soon," said the major, and he proceeded to make the best of matters. The ambulance party was signalled to hurry forward, and a message sent to the little rear-guard with the store wagons and cattle to press forward with their convoy to the fullest extent. Then, as the mounted Boers came galloping on and divided in two parties, right and left, to head off the convoy, the eager men were halted, faced outward, and, waiting their time till the galloping enemy were nearly level at about three hundred yards' distance, so accurate a fire was brought to bear that saddles were emptied and horses went down rapidly. Five minutes of this was sufficient for the enemy, the men swerving off in a course right away from the firing lines, and, when out of reach of the bullets, beginning to retreat.
"Has that settled them?" said Captain Edwards.
"No," said the major; "only made them savage. They'll begin to try the range of their rifles upon us now. Open out and hurry your men on, for the scoundrels are terribly good shots."
The speaker was quite right, for before long bullets began to sing in the air, strike up the dust, and ricochet over the heads of the men, to find a billet more than once in the trembling body of some unfortunate ox. But fighting in an open plain was not one of the Boers' strong points; the cover was scarce, they had their horses with them, and the little British party was always on the move and getting nearer home. Several bold attempts were made to head them off, but they were thwarted again and again; but in spite of his success, the major began to grow frantic.
"Look at those blundering oxen, Dickenson," he cried. "It's a regular funeral pace over what will be our funerals—the brutes! We shall have to get on and leave them to their fate. I'll try a little longer, though. I say, we must be half-way now."
"Yes; but unfortunately there's a fresh body of the enemy coming up at a gallop," said Dickenson, who had paused to sweep the veldt with his field-glass. "Yes, twice as many as are out here."
"What!" cried the major. "Well, there's no help for it; we shall have to leave the cattle behind. Send a man forward to tell the convoy guard to halt till we come up, and let the cattle take their chance."
"The men with the wagons too, sir?"
"No," cried the major; "not till we're at the last pinch. We must try and save them."
The messenger was sent off at the double; and as the retreating party marched on, the major continued to use his glass, shaking his head in his annoyance from time to time as he saw the Boer reinforcements closing up.
"Oh!" he groaned, "if we only had a lancer regiment somewhere on our flank, just to manoeuvre and keep out of sight till their chance came for a charge. Make them run—eh, Edwards?"
"Yes," said the captain dryly; "but unfortunately we have no lancer regiment on our flank."
"No," replied the major; "and we must make the best of it."
"Beg pardon, sir," said Sergeant James to Dickenson; "but don't it seem a pity?"
"What? To have got so far and not be able to get back unhurt?"
"I was thinking of the cattle, sir," replied the sergeant gloomily. "Hungry and low as the poor lads are with the want of meat, it seems a sin to forsake all that raw roast-beef. It's enough to make the men mutiny."
"Not quite, sergeant," replied his officer as he tramped steadily on. "But look forward; it doesn't seem to make any difference. The baggage-guard has halted, but the oxen are marching on, following the wagons steadily enough."
"Yes, sir; as the old lines used to say that I learnt at school, 'It is their nature too.'"
"I suppose the enemy will divide, take a long reach round, and get ahead of the convoy."
"Yes, sir, that'll be their game. They'll make for that patch of wood and rocks in front, occupy it, and force us to make a what-you-may-call-it."
"Detour?" said Dickenson.
"That's it, sir."
"Yes," said Dickenson thoughtfully; "they'll be able—mounted—to make it before we can."
But the major seemed to think differently, for he sent fresh men on to hurry the convoy, his intention being to occupy the rough patch of a few acres in extent, hoping to keep the enemy at bay from there till the promised help came from Groenfontein.
"Yes, I know," he said impatiently when Dickenson joined him for a few minutes to receive fresh orders. "It's distant, and we shall be without water; but it must be done. They must not even stampede the cattle."
"The major says the cattle must be saved, sergeant," said Dickenson as he doubled and rejoined his little company.
"Does he, sir?" said the sergeant cheerfully. "Very well, sir, then we must do it. Beg pardon, sir; might be as well for you to go on and say a few words to the lads to cheer them up."
"They're doing wonderfully well, sergeant."
"That's true, sir; but we want 'em to do better. They don't see the worst of it. It's all very well to appeal to a soldier's heart and his honour, and that sort of thing; but this is a special time."
"What do you mean? This is no time for making speeches to the brave fellows."
"Of course not, sir. But just you say in your merry, laughing way something about the beggars wanting to get our beef, and you'll see what the lads can do. Taking a bone from a hungry dog'll be nothing to it. The lads'll shoot as they never shot before, for there isn't one of them that isn't thinking of roast and boiled."
Dickenson laughed, and went on at once along the little column, saying his few words somewhat on the plan the sergeant had suggested, and it sent a thrill through the little force. They had just come up with the convoy guard, who heard what he said, and somehow or other—how, it is as well not to inquire—several of the great lumbering beasts began to bellow angrily and broke into a trot, which probably being comprehended by the drove in front, they too broke into a trot, which in turn was taken up by the spans in the wagons, and the whole line was in motion.
The drivers and forelopers who led the way made for the cover, and at the word of order that passed along the line the men doubled, cheering loudly the while, and sending the bullocks blundering along in a cloud of dust.
"Steady, there! Steady!" shouted the major. "Never mind the cattle. The lads will be winded, and unable to shoot."
"Yes," panted Captain Edwards; for while this had been going on, the enemy, now tripled in number, were repeating their former evolution, and two clouds of them taking a wide sweep round were nearly abreast of the little force, evidently on their way to seize the patch of bush as a shelter for their horses while they dismounted, occupied the cover, and dealt destruction to those who came on.
The major saw the uselessness of his manoeuvre now, and was almost ready to give it up; but still he had hopes.
"The cattle will screen our advance," he said, "and the enemy are bound to ride right round on account of cover for their horses. I believe even now that we can get to this side as soon as the Boers get to the other, and we must clear the bush at the point of the bayonet."
The men soon knew what was required of them, and they kept on steadily at the double. But minute by minute it grew more evident that the fast, strong ponies of the enemy, long as the sweep being taken on either side proved to be, must get to the cover first; and, to the despair of the officers, while they were still far distant in the deceiving, clear air, they saw the two big clouds of the enemy, as if moved by one order like a well-trained brigade of cavalry, swing round right and left and dash for the thick patch of dwarf trees dotted with rocks.
"We're done, sergeant," said Dickenson breathlessly.
"Yes, sir," said the man coolly; "they've six legs to our two. I'm sorry about that beef, for I'd set my mind on a good meal at last."
At that moment the bugle rang out, for it was madness to press on, and the men, disappointed of their bayonet-charge to clear the little open wood, began to draw breath ready for their next order to turn off right or left and continue the retreat out of rifle-fire as soon as they could.
"Oh, it's maddening!" cried Dickenson passionately as he unfastened the cover of his revolver holster.
"Oh no, sir," said Sergeant James. "Case for a cool head. You'll see now how neatly the major will get us out of fire and take us round. I wish, though, that our covering party had been within reach."
An order rang out directly for the party to advance left incline, which meant the giving up of their loot, and the men went on with set teeth as they saw the two great clouds of Boers growing darker as they pressed in for the patch of trees; and then there was a cheer bursting from every throat—a cheer that was more like a hoarse yell, for from both ends of the little wood, still some five hundred yards away, there was a puff of smoke, followed by the rattle of a Maxim-gun on the right, a small field-piece, shrapnel charged, on the left, and directly after a couple of volleys given by well-concealed men.
The effect was instantaneous: riders and fallen horses and men were struggling in wild confusion, falling and being trampled down, and those unhurt yelling in wild panic to get clear. And all the while, as fast as they could fire, the hidden covering party in the wood were supplementing the Maxim and gun fire by emptying their magazines into the two horror-stricken mobs. For they were nothing better, as in a selfish kind of madness to escape they dragged their horses' heads round and lashed and beat at them with the butts of their rifles, to begin frantically galloping back by the way they came.
But the worst of their misfortune had not come. Each wing had to gallop for some distance within shot of the major's little force, which poured in volley after volley before "Cease firing!" was sounded, the Boers having continued their flight right away, evidently making for their ruined laager, leaving horse and man dotting the veldt.
The men were too busy congratulating each other upon their victory, and helping to round up the cattle scared by the firing, to pay much heed at first to the wounded enemy; but as soon as a dozen of the best riders were mounted on some of the Bechuana ponies which, minus their riders, had begun to contentedly browse on such green herbage as could be found, the major set a party to work bringing the wounded Boers into the shade.
"Their own people will see to them as soon as we are gone," said the major. "What do you make out, Edwards?" he continued to that officer, who was scanning the retreating enemy through his glass.
"They seem to me to be gathering together for another advance," said Captain Edwards.
"No," said the major, "they will not do that. This has been too severe a lesson for them. They'll wait till we are gone, and then come to see to their killed and wounded. That was a sudden turn in the state of affairs."
"Ha!" replied Captain Edwards. "I was beginning to wonder how many of us would get back to Groenfontein."
"Yes," said the major; "so was I."
In a very short time the ambulance party and the convoy, with its great train of cattle, were once more on their way to the camp, well-guarded by half the party Colonel Lindley had so opportunely sent to the help of the expedition, the rest, with the major's little force, following more deliberately, keeping on the alert for another attack from the Boers, who waited till their foes were quitting the field before coming slowly on. But not for a new encounter; their aim now was only to carry off their wounded comrades and bury their dead.
"Yes," said the major, "they have had one of the sharpest lessons we have given them during the war. We suffered enough in carrying the kopje by surprise; this time we have not lost a man."
These last words haunted Dickenson all the way back to the camp, which was reached in safety, the men being tremendously cheered by the comrades they had left behind. But in spite of his elation with the grand addition to their supplies and the two great triumphs achieved by his men, the colonel looked terribly down-hearted at the long array of wounded men; while with regard to Lennox he shook his head.
"A sad loss," he said. "I looked upon Drew Lennox as one of the smartest young fellows in the corps. It's very hard that misfortune should have befallen him now."
"But you think he'll get back to us, sir?" said Dickenson excitedly.
The colonel gave him a quick look.
"I hope so, Mr Dickenson; I hope so," he said. "There, cheer up," he added. "We shall soon see."
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.
"A COWARD!—A CUR!"
It was about an hour later, when the wounded had been seen to by the surgeon—who reported very favourably on the men, whose injuries were for the most part the result of blows from rifle-butts received in the struggle on the kopje—that two of the scouts who had been left to watch the Boers came in with a sufferer dangerously injured by a rifle-bullet.
Dickenson's heart gave a throb as he saw the men, and being off duty, he hurried to meet them, in the hope and belief that they had found Lennox. But it was one of their companions.
The men's report was that the Boers had come steadily on as the British force retreated, and had then been busily engaged collecting their dead and wounded, paying no heed to the little outpost watching them till their task was done, when, as the last of their wagons moved off, they began firing again, till one of the outposts fell, and the others remained too well covered, staying till the firing had ceased, and then hurrying back.
"Poor old Lennox!" said Dickenson to himself. Then, seeing that Sergeant James was watching him, he shook his head.
"I was hoping that they were bringing in Mr Lennox, sir," said the sergeant gloomily. "Of course, seeing the temper the enemy is in after their defeat, it would be like getting some of our fellows murdered if the colonel gave me leave to go out with a white flag."
"I'm afraid so too," said Dickenson.
"But what about as soon as it's dark, sir? Think the colonel would let us go to make a better search? He must be near the Boers' laager where we missed him."
"I was thinking something of the sort," said Dickenson. "Will you go with me, James?"
"Will I go with you, sir?" cried the sergeant. "Wouldn't I go through anything to try and get him back? You'll ask the colonel to name me, sir?"
"If he gives consent," said Dickenson warmly. "He'll tell me to take two or three men, and of course I shall pick you for one."
"Thankye, sir; and don't you be down-hearted. You're fagged now, sir, with all we've done since we started, and that explosion gave you a horrid shaking up. You go to your quarters, sir, as soon as the colonel has given leave, and lie down—flat on your back, sir—and sleep till it's time for starting. I'll have the others ready, and I'll rouse you up, sir."
"Very well, sergeant," said the young officer. "I must own to being a bit down."
As soon as the sergeant had left him, the young officer went to the colonel's quarters and asked to see him.
"Come in, Dickenson," said the chief, and he held out his hand. "Thank you, my lad," he said. "I've heard all about what you've done. Very good indeed. I sha'n't forget it in my despatch, but when it will get to headquarters is more than I can tell. I'm glad you have come. What can I do for you?"
Dickenson stated his wishes, and the colonel looked grave.
"I don't know what to say, Dickenson," he replied. "It would be a very risky task. I have scouts out, but I doubt whether they'll be able to tell whether the enemy is still holding the kopje. If he is, you will run a terrible risk. I've just lost one of my most promising young officers; I can't spare another."
"I was afraid you would say so, sir. But Drew Lennox and I have always been regular churns together, and it seems horrible to settle down quietly here in safety and do nothing to try and find him."
"It does, my dear sir; but we soldiers have to make sacrifices in the cause of duty."
"Yes, sir; but we've had a splendid bit of luck since last night. Can't you strain a point?"
The colonel smiled.
"Well, it's hardly fair to call it luck, Dickenson," he said. "I think some of it's due to good management. Eh?"
"Yes, sir; you are quite right."
"Well there, then, if you'll promise me to run no risks with the lads, and return if you find the enemy still at the kopje, I'll give you leave to take a sergeant and a couple of men and go."
Dickenson looked pleased and yet disappointed.
"We might find him somewhere near, sir, even if the Boers are there," he said.
"In the darkness of a moonless night, with men on the qui vive ready to fire at the slightest sound?"
"We got well into the laager last night, sir, with a hundred and fifty men," said Dickenson in tones of protest.
"But you wouldn't get in to-night with one, and such an enterprise against either of the other laagers would now be impossible. There, I can make no further concessions, for all your sakes, so be content."
"You are right, sir, and I am wrong," replied Dickenson quietly.
"You will retire, then, directly you find the place occupied?"
"Go, then, as soon as it is dark. You can pick two men who can ride, take three of the captured Bechuana ponies, and one can hold them while the others search."
"Thank you, sir."
"But I have no hope of your finding him, Dickenson. This is solely from a desire that we may feel we have done all we can do in such a case. Now I am busy. You have been up all night, and nearly been killed. Go and lie down for a few hours' sleep."
The young officer left the colonel's presence, and had no trouble in finding the sergeant, for he was watching for his return, and heard with eagerness the result.
"Ride? Capital, sir; make us fresher for our work. We shall find him. I don't believe he's dead. Now you'll take a rest, sir. I'll have the ponies ready, and the men."
Dickenson gave him the names of the two men he would like to take, but had to give up one.
"Can't sit a horse, sir; hangs on its back like a stuffed image. Now Jeffson, sir, was a gentleman's groom. Ride anything. I wonder he isn't in the cavalry."
"Very well, then; warn Jeffson. There, I am done up, sergeant. I trust you to rouse me as soon as it's dark."
"Right, sir. But one word, sir."
"What is it?"
"Captain Roby, sir. Keeps off his head, sir. Going on awfully. Doctor Emden says it's due to the bullet striking his skull."
"Dangerous?" said Dickenson anxiously.
"Oh no, sir; but he keeps on saying things that it's bad for the men to hear; and that Corporal May, he's nearly as bad. He thinks he's worse. He's within hearing, and every time the captain says anything, Master Corporal May begins wagging his head and crying, and tells the chaps about him that it's all right."
"Poor fellow! There, I'll go and see them before I lie down."
"No, sir; please, don't," said the sergeant earnestly. "You've done quite enough for one day."
"Confound it, man! don't dictate to me," cried Dickenson testily.
"Certainly not, sir. Beg your pardon, sir; but we've got a heavy job on to-night, and it's my duty to warn you as an old soldier."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, sir, that I've had twenty years' experience, and you've had two, sir. A man can only do so much; when he has done that and tries to do more, he shuts up all at once. I don't want you to shut up, sir, to-night. I want you to lead us to where we can find Mr Lennox."
"Of course, sergeant. I know you always mean well. Don't take any notice of my snappish way."
"Not a bit, sir," said the man, smiling. "It's only a sign that, though you don't know it, you're just ready to shut up."
"But, hang it all, man!" said the young officer, with a return of his irritable manner, "I only want to just see my brother officer for a few minutes."
"Yes, sir, I know," said the sergeant stubbornly; "but you're better away. He's right off his head, and abusing everybody. If you go he'll say things to you that will upset you more than three hours' sleep will wipe out."
"Oh, I know what you mean now—what he said before—about my being a coward and leaving him in the lurch."
"Something of that sort, sir," replied the sergeant.
"Poor fellow! Well, perhaps it would be as well, for very little seems to put me out. It was the shock of the explosion, I expect. There, sergeant, I'll go and lie down."
"I'll bring you a bit of something to eat, sir, when I come. There's plenty now."
"Ah, to be sure; do," said the young man. "But I could touch nothing yet. Remember: as soon as it is quite dark."
"Yes, sir; as soon as it is quite dark."
Dickenson strode away, and the sergeant uttered a grunt of satisfaction.
"Poor fellow!" he muttered. "It would have made him turn upon the captain. Nobody likes to be called a coward even by a crank. It would have regularly upset him for the work. Now then, I'll just give those two fellows the word, and then pick out the ponies. Next I'll lie down till the roast's ready. We'll all three have a good square meal, and sleep again till it's time to call Mr Dickenson and give him his corn. After that, good-luck to us! We must bring that poor young fellow in, alive or dead, and I'm afraid it's that last."
Meanwhile Dickenson had sought his quarters, slipped off his accoutrements and blackened tunic, and thrown himself upon his rough bed. It was early in the afternoon, with the sun pouring down its burning rays on the iron roofing of his hut, and the flies swarming about the place.
As a matter of course over-tired, his nerves overwrought with the excitement of what he had gone through, and his head throbbing painfully, he could not go to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes his ears began to sing after the same fashion as they did directly following the explosion, and after tossing wearily from side to side for quite an hour, he sat up, feeling feverish and miserable.
"I'm making myself worse," he thought. "I know: I'll go down to the side of the stream, bathe my burning head and face, and try and find a shady place amongst the rocks."
He proceeded to put his plan into execution, resuming his blackened khaki jacket and belts, and started off, to find a pleasant breeze blowing, and, in spite of the afternoon sunshine, the heat much more bearable than inside his hut. His way led him in the direction of the rough hospital, and as he drew near, to his surprise he heard Captain Roby's voice speaking angrily, and Dickenson checked himself and bore off to his right so as to go close by the open door.
"Poor fellow!" he said. "I must see how he is."
He went into the large open hut in which the captain had been placed by the doctor's orders, because it was one in which the sides had been taken off so as to ensure a good current of air. As the young officer entered he caught sight of two others of the injured lying at one end, and noted that the wounded corporal was one.
Both men were lying on their backs, perfectly calm and quiet; but Roby was tossing his hands about impatiently and turning his head from side to side, his eyes wide open, and he fixed them fiercely upon his brother officer as he entered.
"How does he seem, my lad?" said Dickenson to the attendant, who was moistening the captain's bandages from time to time.
"Badly, sir. Quite off his head."
"Ah! Cur!—coward!" cried Roby, glaring at him. "Coward, I say! To leave me like that and run."
"Nonsense, old fellow!" said Dickenson, affected just as the sergeant had said he would be; and his voice sounded irritable in the extreme as he continued, "Drop that. You said so before."
"Who's that?" cried Roby, with his eyes becoming fixed.
"Me, old fellow—Dickenson. Not a coward, though."
"Who said you were?"
"Why, you did, over and over again."
"A lie! No. I said Lennox. Ah! To run for his miserable life—a coward—a cur!"
"What!" cried Dickenson angrily; but Roby lay silent as if exhausted, and, to the young officer's horror and disgust, a womanly sob came from the corporal's rough pallet at the end of the hut, and in a whining voice he moaned:
"Yes, sir; he don't mean you, but Mr Lennox, sir. I saw him run, and it's all true."
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.
"THERE'S NOTHING LIKE THE TRUTH."
Bob Dickenson's jaw dropped as he stood staring for some moments at the corporal—as if he could not quite believe his ears. It seemed to him that this had something to do with the explosion, and that his hearing apparatus was still wrong, twisting and distorting matters, or else that the excitement of the past night and his exertions had combined with the aforesaid explosion to make him stupid and confused.
But all the same he felt that he could think and weigh and compare Roby's words with those of the corporal, and experienced the sensation of a tremendous effervescence of rage bubbling up within his breast and rising higher and higher to his lips till it burst forth in words hot with indignation.
"Why," he roared, "you miserable, snivelling—lying—Oh, tut, tut, tut! what a fool I am, quarrelling with a man off his head!—Here, orderly," he continued, turning to the hospital attendant, "this fellow May doesn't know what he's saying."
"So I keep on telling him, sir," said the man sharply; "but he will keep at it. Here's poor Captain Roby regularly off his chump, and bursting out every now and then calling everybody a coward, and, as if that ain't bad enough, Corporal May goes on encouraging him by saying Amen every time."
"I don't," cried the corporal, in a very vigorous tone for one so badly injured; "and look here, if you make false charges against me I'll report you to the doctor next time he comes round, and to the colonel too."
"What!" cried the orderly fiercely. "Yes, you'd better! Recollect you're down now, and it's my turn. I've had plenty of your nastiness, Mr Jack-in-office Corporal, for a year past, when I was in the ranks. You ain't a corporal now, but in hospital; and if you say much more and don't lie quiet I'll roll up a pad of lint and stuff that in your mouth."
"You daren't," cried the corporal, speaking the simple truth defiantly, and without a trace of his previous whining tone.
"Oh yes, I dare," said the attendant, with a grin. "Doctor's orders were that, as you were put in here when you oughtn't to be, I was to be sure and keep you quiet so as you shouldn't disturb the captain, and I'm blessed if I don't keep you quiet; so there."
"You daren't," cried the corporal tauntingly.
"What! Just you say that again and I will. Look here, my fine fellow. In comes Dr Emden. 'What's this, orderly?' he says. 'How dare you gag this man?'
"'Couldn't keep him quiet, sir,' I says. 'He's been raving awful, and lying, and egging the captain on to keep saying Mr Dickenson and Mr Lennox is cowards.'"
"I wasn't lying," cried the corporal, with a return of his whimpering tone. "What Captain Roby says is all true. I saw Mr Lennox sneak off like a cur with his tail between his legs."
"Cur yourself, you lying scoundrel!" cried Dickenson.—"Here, orderly, I'll hold him. Where's that gag?"
"Oh! Ow!" wailed the corporal. "Here, if you touch me I'll cry for help."
"You won't be able to," said the orderly, making a pretended rush at the doctor's chest of hospital requirements.
"Bah! Quiet, orderly. Let the scoundrel alone. He's off his head and doesn't know what he's saying, poor wretch."
"Begging your pardon, sir," said the attendant, "the captain don't; but this chap does. I haven't seen what I have amongst the sick and wounded without picking up a little, and I say Master Corporal here's doing a bit o' sham Abram to keep himself safe."
"Oh, nonsense," said Dickenson shortly. "You're getting as bad as the poor fellow himself. The doctor would have seen in a minute."
"I don't know, sir," whispered the attendant, glancing at the corporal, who lay with his eyes half-closed and his ears twitching. "He's pretty cunning. Had a crack or two with a rifle-stock, I think, but only just so much as would make another man savage. You'll see; he'll be sent back into the ranks in a couple of days or so."
"No, no, orderly," said Dickenson. "I prefer to believe he's a bit delirious."
"Well, sir, I hope he is," said the man, "for everybody's sake, including his own. I don't know, though," he continued, following the lieutenant outside after the latter had laid his hand upon Roby's burning forehead, and been called a coward and a cur for his pains; "I've got my knife into Master Corporal May for old grudges, and I should rather like Mr Lennox to hear him say what he does about him. Corporal May would get it rather hot."
"That will do," said Dickenson; "the man's in such a state of mental excitement that his captain's ravings impress him and he thinks it is all true. There, you, as a hospital attendant, must learn to be patient with the poor fellows under your charge."
"I am, sir," said the man sturdily. "Ask the doctor, sir. I'm doing my best, for it's sore work sometimes with the poor chaps who are regularly bad and feel that they are going home—I mean the long home, sir. I've got six or seven little things—bits of hair, and a silver ring, and a lucky shilling, and such-like, along with messages to take back with me for the poor fellows' mothers and sisters and gals; and please goodness I ever get back to the old country from this blessed bean-feast we're having, I'm going to take those messages and things to them they're for, even if I have to walk."
"Ha!" said the young officer, laying his hand on the man's shoulder and gripping him firmly, for there was a huskiness in his words now, and he sniffed and passed his hand across his nose.
"Can't help it, sir. I'm hard enough over the jobs, but it touches a man when it comes to sewing 'em up in their blankets ready for you know what. Makes you think of them at home."
"Yes," said Dickenson, in quite an altered tone. "There, you know me. When we get back and you're going to deliver your messages, if you let me know, orderly, I'll see that you don't have to walk." Dickenson turned sharply to walk away, but came back. "Try and keep the captain from making those outrageous charges, my lad."
"I do, sir; but he will keep on."
"Well, go on cooling his bandages, and he'll go off to sleep."
"I hope so, sir," replied the man. "But what about Corporal May?"
"Serve him the same, of course," said Dickenson, and he hurried away, with Roby's words ringing in his ears.
"Chap wants to be a sort of angel for this work," said the orderly as he fumbled about his slight garments. "Hankychy, hankychy, where are yer? Washed you out clean in the little river this morning and dried you on a hot stone."
"What are you looking for, mate?" said the third patient in the hut feebly—a man who, with a shattered arm-bone, was lying very still.
"Hankychy," said the orderly gruffly. "Lost it."
"Here it is. You lent it to me to wipe my face and keep off the flies."
"Did I? So I did. All right, mate; keep it. Mind you don't hurt the flies. Like a drink o' water?"
"Ah-h!" sighed the injured man. That was all, but it meant so much.
There was a pleasant, trickling, tinkling sound in the heated hut as the orderly took a tin and dipped it in an iron bucket. The next minute he was down on one knee with an arm under the sufferer's shoulders, raising him as gently as if the task was being done by a woman. Then the tin was held to the poor fellow's lips, and the orderly smiled as he saw the avidity with which it was emptied.
"Good as a drop of beer—eh?" he said.
"Beer?" replied the patient, returning the smile. "Ha! Not bad in its way; but I never tasted a pint so good as that."
"Oh! Ah!" said the orderly grimly. "Wait till you get all right again, and you'll alter your tune."
"Get right again?" whispered the man, so that the corporal should not hear. "Think I shall?"
"What! with nothing else the matter but a broken bone? Why, of course."
"Ah!" sighed the poor fellow, with a look of relief. "I'm a bit down, mate, with having so little to eat, and it makes me think. Thankye; that's done me a lot o' good."
He settled down upon the sack which formed his couch, and the orderly rose to take back the tin, not seeing that Corporal May's eyes were fixed upon the vessel, which he watched eagerly, as if expecting to see it refilled and brought to him. But the orderly merely set it down, and made a vicious blow at a buzzing fly.
"Well, what have I done?" whined the corporal.
"Done? Heverythink you shouldn't have done," said the orderly. "Look here, corp'ral; next time the barber cuts your hair, you ask him to take a bit off the end of your tongue. It's too long, mate."
"Do you want me to report you to the doctor for refusing to bring me a drink?"
"Not I," said the orderly coolly. "The chief's got quite enough to do without listening to the men's complaints."
"Then bring me a drink of water directly."
"All right," said the man good-humouredly; "but you'd better not."
"Better not? Why?"
"Because it only makes you cry. Runs out of your eyes again in big drops, just as it does out of another fellow's skin in perspiration. Strikes me, corp'ral, that you were meant for a gal."
"You won't be happy till you've been reported, my man," said the patient.
"And I sha'n't be happy then, mate. Want a drink o' water?"
"Yes; but things are managed here so that the patients have to beg and pray for it."
"And then they gets it," said the orderly good-humouredly as he dipped the tin again; "and that's more than you can say about what most chaps begs and prays for. There you are."
"Well, help me up," said the corporal.
"Yah! Sit up. You can."
"Oh!" groaned the man in a peculiar way which sounded as if he were not satisfied with its effectiveness, and so turned it into a whine.
"Won't do with me, corp'ral," said the man. "You gammoned the doctor, but you haven't took me in a bit."
"Only wait!" said the patient in a miserable whining tone this time. "How cowardly! What a shame for such as you to be put in charge of wounded men!"
"Wounded!" said the orderly, laughing. "Why, your skin is as whole as mine is. You've frightened yourself into the belief that you're very bad."
"Ah! you'll alter your tone when I've reported you."
"Look here, corp'ral; it strikes me that, with the row that's coming on about you and the captain charging the officers with being cowards, there's going to be such a shine and court-martial that you'll have your work cut out to take care of yourself. Here, put your arm over my shoulder, and up you come."
"Eh?" said the corporal in a much more natural tone.
"About the court-martial?"
"Oh, I don't know. I only said what I thought," said the orderly, winking to himself. "Now then, up you come. Mind the water."
He supported the corporal gently enough, and helped him to raise the water to his lips, watching him as he drained it, and then lowered him gently down and knelt, still looking at him, till the corporal gazed back at him wonderingly.
"What are you staring at?" he said sharply.
"You, old man."
"I was thinking. Your knocks have made you quite off your head."
"That they haven't. I'm as clear over everything as you are."
"Oh no," said the orderly. "You're quite off your chump, and don't know what you're saying."
"You're a fool," said the corporal angrily.
"Tell me something I don't know, old chap. Fool? Why, of course I was, to 'list and come out for a holiday like this. Oh yes, plenty of us feels what fools we've been; but we're making the best of it—like men. D'yer hear—like men? I say, the captain's regularly raving, ain't he?"
"Oh, he is; and you'd better own up and be cracked too. You don't know what you've been saying about Mr Lennox."
The corporal hesitated, looking up in the orderly's eyes curiously, and seeming as if he was thinking deeply of the man's words and debating in himself about the position he was going to occupy if an inquiry did follow the captain's charges. He was not long in deciding, but he forgot to whine as he said, "Off my head? Delirious? Not a bit. I saw all the captain said, and I'm as clear as you are. I shall stick to it. There's nothing like the truth."
"Oh yes, there is," said the orderly, chuckling; "a thoroughly good thumping lie's wonderfully like it sometimes—so much like it that it puzzles people to tell t'other from which."
"Look here, orderly; do you mean to tell me I'm a liar?" said the corporal angrily.
"Not I. 'Tain't no business of mine; only it strikes me that there's going to be a regular row about this. People as go righting don't like to be called cowards. It hurts anybody, but when it comes to be said of a soldier it's like skinning him. There, I must go and wet the captain's lint."
Saying which, the orderly rose and went to captain Roby's side to moisten the hot bandages, so that their rapid evaporation might produce a feeling of coolness to his fevered head.
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.
Dickenson walked frowning away from the hospital hut, thinking of the manner in which Roby had shifted the charge of cowardice from his shoulders to Lennox's, and a sigh of misery escaped from his breast as he made for the side of the bubbling stream.
"Poor fellow!" he said to himself. "I'm afraid that he's where being called coward or brave man won't affect him."
He reached the beautiful, clear stream, lay down and drank like some wild animal, and then began bathing his temples, the water setting him thinking of Lennox's adventures by its source, and clearing his head so much that when he rose at last and began to walk back to his quarters he felt wonderfully refreshed.
This state of feeling increased to such a degree that when he once more lay down after taking off his hot jacket, the heat from the roof, the buzzing of the flies, and the noises out in the village square mingled together into a whole that seemed slumber-inviting, and in less than ten minutes he was plunged in a deep, heavy, restful sleep, which seemed to him to have lasted about a quarter of a hour, when he was touched upon the shoulder by a firm hand, and sprang up to gaze at the light of a lantern and at nothing else.
"Close upon starting-time, sir," said the sergeant out of the darkness behind the lamp.
For a few moments Dickenson was silent, and the sergeant spoke again.
"Time to rouse up, sir."
"Yes, of course," said the young officer, getting slowly upon his feet, and having hard work to suppress a groan.
"Bit stiff, sir?"
"Yes; arm and back. I can hardly move. But it will soon go off."
"Oh yes, sir. It was that big stone nipping you after the blow-up."
"I expect so," said Dickenson, struggling into his jacket. "Ha! It's getting better already. Where are the ponies?"
"Round by the tethering-line, sir; but you've got to have a bit of supper first."
"Oh, I want no supper. I've no appetite now."
"Armoured train won't work, sir, without filling up the furnace," said the sergeant sternly; "and the ponies are not quite ready."
"You promised to have them ready, sergeant."
"So I did, sir; but we want all we can out of them to-night. We may have to ride for our lives; so I managed to beg a feed of mealies apiece for them. There's a snack of hot meat ready in the mess hut, sir, and the colonel would like to see you before you start."
"Yes," said Dickenson, finishing buckling on his sword, and slipping the lanyard cord of his revolver about his neck.
He hurried then to the mess-room, where a piece of well-broiled steak, freshly cut from one of the oxen, was brought by the cook, emitting an aroma agreeable enough; but it did not tempt the young officer, whose one idea was to mount and ride away for the kopje. Certainly it was not only like fresh meat—very tough—but it possessed the toughness of years piled-up by an ox whose life had been passed helping to drag a tow-rope on trek. So half of it was left, and the young man sought the colonel's quarters.
"Ha!" he said. "Ready to start, then?"
"Well, I must leave all to your discretion, Dickenson," he said. "Recollect you promised me that if there was any sign of the kopje being still occupied you would stop at once and return."
"Yes; I have not forgotten, sir."
"That's enough, then. Keep your eyes well open for danger. I'd give anything to recover Lennox, but I cannot afford to give the lives of more of my men."
"You mean, sir, that you do not believe he is still alive."
"I don't know what to say, Dickenson," said the colonel, beginning to walk up and down the hut. "You have heard this ugly report?"
"Yes, sir; and I don't believe it."
"I cannot believe it," said the colonel; "but Captain Roby keeps on repeating it to the doctor and the major; while that man who was wounded, too, endorses all his captain says. It sounds monstrous."
"Don't believe it, sir," cried Dickenson excitedly.
"I have told you that I cannot believe it," said the colonel; "but Mr Lennox is missing, and it looks horribly corroborative of Roby's tale. There, go and find him—if you can. We can't add that to our other misfortunes; it would be a disgrace to us all."
"You mean, sir," said Dickenson coldly, "if Drew Lennox had—has—well, I suppose I must say it—run away?"
"Well, sir, I don't feel in the least afraid. He is either a prisoner, lying badly wounded somewhere about the kopje, or—dead."
He said the last word in a husky tone, and then started violently.
"What is it, man?" cried the colonel excitedly, for the young officer seemed as if he were suffering from some violent spasm. "Are you hurt?"
"Something seemed to hurt me, sir," said the young man; "but it was only a thought."
"Yes, sir," was the reply. "I was wondering whether it was possible."
"Whether what was possible?" said the colonel impatiently. "Don't speak in riddles, man."
"No, sir. It came like a flash. Suppose the poor fellow was somewhere near the spot where we exploded the ammunition?"
"Fancy," said the colonel coldly. "There must have been plenty of places round about the part you attacked without Lennox being there. There, lose no time; find him, and bring him back."
"He half believes that wretched story put about by Roby," said Dickenson to himself as he walked stiffly away, depressed in mind as well as body, and anything but fit for his journey, as he began to feel more and more. But he made an effort, stepped out boldly in spite of a sharp, catching pain, and answered briskly to the sentries' challenges as he passed into the light shed by the lanterns here and there.
"Ready, sir?" said a voice suddenly.
"Yes; quite. The sooner we're off the better."
"The ponies are waiting, sir; and I've got the password, and know exactly where the outposts are if I can hit them off in the dark, for it's twice as black as it was last night."
"Then it will be a bad time for our search."
"Search, sir?" said the sergeant bluntly. "We're going to do no searching to-night."
"What!" cried Dickenson.
"It's impossible, sir. All we can do is to get as close as we can to the kopje and find out whether the enemy is still there. Then we must wait for daylight. If the place is clear, it will be all easy going; if the Boers are still there we must have a hasty ride round, if we can, before we are discovered."
"Very well," said Dickenson slowly as they walked on to the lines where the ponies were tethered, mounted, and went off at a walk, the sergeant and Dickenson side by side and the two men close behind; while the slight, cob-like Bechuana ponies upon which they were mounted seemed to need no guiding, but kept to the track which brought them again upon outposts, where their riders were challenged, gave the word, and then went steadily on at a walk right away across the open veldt.
"Ponies know their way, sir," said the sergeant after they had ridden about a mile. "I'll be bound to say, if we let them, they'll take us right by that patch of scrub where the enemy had his surprise, and then go straight away for the kopje."
"So much the better, sergeant," said Dickenson, who spoke unwillingly, his body full of pain as his mind was of thought.
"Will you give the order for us to load?"
"Load?" said Dickenson in a tone expressing his surprise. "Oh! of course;" and he gave the necessary command, taking the rifle handed to him by one of the men as they rode on. "I was thinking of our chances of finding the Boers out scouting. I suppose it is quite possible that we may run against a patrol."
"More than likely, sir. They'll be eager enough to find out some way of paying back what we gave them to-day."
"Of course, and—What does this mean?" whispered Dickenson, for his pony stopped short, as did the others, the sergeant's mount uttering a sharp, challenging neigh and beginning to fidget.
"Means danger, sir," whispered the sergeant. "We loaded none too soon."
There was nothing for it but to sit fast, peering into the wall of darkness that surrounded them, trying vainly to make out the approaching danger, every man listening intently. Fully ten minutes elapsed, and not a sound was heard. The ponies, well-trained by the Boers to stand, remained for a time perfectly motionless, till all at once, just as Dickenson was about to whisper to the sergeant that their mounts had probably only been startled by some wild animal of the desert, one of them impatiently stretched out its neck (drawing the hand holding the reins forward), snuffed at the earth, and began to crop at the stunted brush through which they were passing. The others immediately followed suit, and, letting them have their own way, the party sat once more listening in vain.
Then came a surprise. All at once, from what Dickenson judged to be some fifty feet away, there was the peculiar ruff! ruff! ruff! ruff! of some one walking slowly through the low scrub, which there was not unlike walking over a heather-covered track.
"Stand," cried the lieutenant sharply, "or we fire."
"No. Hold hard," cried a familiar voice. "Who goes there? Dickenson, is that you?"
"Lennox! Thank Heaven!"
The steps quickened till he who made them came staggering up to the lieutenant's pony, at which he caught, but reached short, stumbled, and fell.
The sergeant was off his pony in a moment, handing the reins to a companion, and helping the lost man to rise.
"Are you all right?" said Dickenson excitedly as he reached down, felt for, and firmly grasped his friend's wet, cold hand.
"All right?" said Lennox bitterly. "Well, as all right as a man can be who was about to lie down utterly exhausted, when he heard your pony."
"But are you wounded?"
"No; only been nearly strangled and torn to pieces. But don't ask me questions. Water!" A water-bottle was handed to the poor fellow, and they heard him drink with avidity. Then ceasing for a short space, he said, "I was just going to lie down and give it up, for I was completely lost." He began drinking again, and then, with a deep breath of relief: "Whose is this?"
"Mine, sir," said the sergeant, and he took the bottle from the trembling outstretched hand which offered it.
"Thankye, sergeant," sighed the exhausted man. "It does one good to hear your voice again. Are we far from Groenfontein?"
"About three miles," said Dickenson.
"Ah!" said Lennox, with a groan. "Then I can't do it."
"Yes, you can," said Dickenson warmly. "Here, hold on by the nag's mane while I dismount. We'll get you into the saddle, and walk the pony home."
"Excuse me, sir; I'm dismounted," said the sergeant, "and I'd rather walk, please."
"Thank you, James," said Dickenson. "I'll take your offer, for I'm nearly done up myself."
"You keep still, then, sir.—Dismount, my lads, and help to get Mr Lennox into the saddle.—Rest on me, sir; I've got you. Sure you're not wounded, sir?"
There was no reply; but the sergeant, who had passed his arm round his young officer's waist, felt him subside, and if the hold had not been tightened he would have sunk to the ground.
"Got him?" cried Dickenson.
"Yes, sir; all right. Fainted."
"Yes, sir. Regular exhaustion, I suppose. We'll get him into the saddle, and I think the best way will be for me to got up behind and hold him on, for he's regularly given up now that he has fallen among friends."
"But the pony: will it carry you both?"
"Oh yes, sir—at a walk. They're plucky little beasts, sir. But we've got him, sir, and that's what I didn't expect. I suppose we mustn't cheer?"
"Cheer? No," said Dickenson excitedly. "Look here, sergeant; I'm a bit crippled, but I'll have him in front of me."
"But he's on my pony now, sir, with the lads holding him. Had we better drag him down again? He's precious limp, sir; and I'm afraid he's hurt worse than he said."
"Very well; keep as you are," said Dickenson hurriedly; and, almost unseen, the sergeant mounted behind his charge and began to feel about him for the best way of making the poor fellow as comfortable as possible.
"He's got his sword all right, sir, but his revolver's gone. Stop a moment," continued the sergeant, fumbling in the darkness; "there's the lanyard, but his hat's gone too. There, I've got him nicely now. Mount, my lads."
There was a rustling sound as the men sprang into their saddles again.
"Ready?" said Dickenson.
"Stop a moment. How are we to find our way back?"
"We shall have to trust to the ponies, sir," said the sergeant. "Let's see; we have turned their heads round over this job. We must leave it to them; they'll find their way back, thinking they're going to get some more mealies. Trust them for that."
"Forward at a walk!" said Dickenson. "Tut, tut, sergeant! It's as black as pitch. If a breeze would only spring up."
"Dessay it will, sir, before long."
"How does Mr Lennox seem?"
"Head's resting on my clasped hands, sir, and he's sleeping like a baby—regular fagged out."
It was a slow and toilsome march; but the party were in the highest of spirits, and, in the hope of seeing the lights at Groenfontein at the end of an hour or so, they kept on, only pausing now and again to listen for danger and to rearrange Lennox, whose silence began to alarm his friend. But the sergeant assured him that the poor fellow was sleeping heavily, and they went on again with a dark mental cloud coming over Dickenson's exhilaration as he thought of the unpleasant news that awaited his friend.
"But a word from him will set that right," he said to himself. "Poor fellow! He must be done up to sleep like that. Why, he never even asked how we got on after the fight."
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.
On and on at the ponies' slow walk through the short scrub or over the bare plain, with the clever little animals seeming to instinctively avoid every stone that was invisible to the riders in the intense darkness. Every now and then a halt was made, one of which their steeds immediately took advantage by beginning to browse on such tender shoots as took their fancy, and again and again the whispered questions were asked:
"How does he seem, sergeant?"
"Fast asleep, sir."
"Hadn't you better let one of the men take your place?"
"Oh no, sir; I'm all right, and so's he."
"Can either of you hear anything?"
"No, sir; only the ponies cropping the bush." Then a faint, "We ought to be getting near home, sergeant."
"Can we do anything more?"
"No, sir; only wish for a row of gas-lamps along a straight road, and it ain't any good to wish for that."
"I can see nothing, sergeant, and the sky seems blacker than the earth."
"Both about the same, sir, I think."
"It is so unfortunate, sergeant, just at a time like this."
"Oh, I don't know, sir; one ought to make the best of things, and weigh one against another."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, sir, we're bothered a good deal with the darkness, and we're obliged to do what a human man don't like to do—trust to a dumb animal instead of himself. Of course that's bad; but then, on the other side, we're not running up against any of the enemy, and instead of hunting for hours after a long ride and then not finding what we come for, here we are not having a long dangerous ride at all, and him we wanted to find tumbling right atop of us and in a way of speaking, saying, 'Looking for me, my lads? Here I am!'"