"Yes, we have been very fortunate," said Dickenson.
"Fortunate, sir? I call it downright lucky."
"Of course—it is. But can we do no more?"
"Not that I see, sir—feel, I mean. We might camp down and let the horses feed till daylight."
"Oh no; let us keep on."
"Very well, sir; then there really is nothing we can do but trust to the ponies. They somehow seem to see in the dark."
At the end of another half-hour they drew rein again, and almost precisely the same conversation took place, with the exception that Dickenson declared at the end that they must have lost their way.
"Well, sir," replied the sergeant dryly, "it's hardly fair to say that, sir."
"What do you mean?" said Dickenson tartly.
"Begging your pardon, sir, one can't lose what we've never had. It's been a regular game of Blindman's buff to me, sir, ever since we left the last post."
Dickenson was silent, for he felt that he had nothing to say but "Forward!" so he said that, and the ponies moved on again.
"We must be going wrong, sergeant," said Dickenson at last. "We have left Groenfontein to the right."
"No, sir; I think not," replied the man. "If we had, we should have broken our shins against the big kopje and been challenged by our men."
"Then we've passed it to the left."
"No, sir. If we had we should have come upon the little river, and the ponies would have been kicking up the stones."
"Then where are we?" said the lieutenant impatiently.
"That's just what I'm trying to find out, sir. I wouldn't care if I knew which was the north, because then one could say which was the south."
"Psh! It all comes of trusting to the ponies."
"Yes, sir; but that's one comfort," said the sergeant. "We know they're honest and would not lead us wrong. Poor brutes! they're doing their best."
"I'm beginning to feel hopelessly lost, sergeant. I believe we keep going on and on in a circle."
"Well, sir, we might be doing worse, because it must be daylight by-and-by."
"Not for hours," said Dickenson impatiently. "We are, as I said, hopelessly lost."
"Hardly," said the sergeant to himself, "for here we are." Then aloud he once more proposed that they should bivouac till daybreak.
"No," said the leader decisively. "We'll keep on. We must have been coming in the right direction, and, after all, I dare say Groenfontein is close at hand."
He was just about to give the order to march again when the long, snappish, disappointed howl of a jackal was heard, and the ponies ceased grazing and threw up their muzzles; while as Dickenson leaned forward to give his mount an encouraging pat he could feel that the timid creature's ears were thrust right forward.
"Always seems to me, sir," said the sergeant gently, "that the wild things out in these plains never get enough to eat. Hark at that brute."
He had hardly spoken when from out in the same direction as the jackal's cry, but much farther away, came the tremendous barking roar of a lion, making the ponies draw a deep breath and shiver.
"Well," said Dickenson, "that can't be our way. It must be open country yonder. It's all chance now, but we needn't run into danger and scare our mounts. We'll face right round and go as far as we can judge in the opposite direction to where that cry came from."
"Yes, sir; and it will make the ponies step out."
The sergeant was quite right, for the timid animals responded to the touch of the rein, immediately stepped out at the word "Forward!" and then broke into a trot, which had to be checked.
The roar was not heard again, but the yelps of the jackals were; and the party went on and on till suddenly the cautious little beasts began to swerve here and there, picking their way amongst stones which lay pretty thickly.
"This is quite fresh, sergeant," said Dickenson.
"Yes, sir. I was wondering whether we had hit upon the river-bank."
"Ah!" cried Dickenson eagerly, just as his pony stopped short, sighed, and began to browse without reaching down, the others seeming to do the same.
"But there's no river here, sir," continued the sergeant.
"How do you know?"
"Ponies say so, sir. If there'd been a river running by here, they'd be making for it to get a drink."
"Yes, of course. Here, sergeant, I can touch high boughs."
"Same here, sir."
"But there's no wood in our way."
"What about the patch where our men surprised the Boers yesterday, sir?"
"To be sure. Why, sergeant, we must have wandered there."
"That's it, sir, for all I'm worth."
"Ha!" said Dickenson, with a sigh of relief. "Then now we have something tangible, and can easily lay our course for Groenfontein." The sergeant coughed a little, short, sharp, dry cough, and said nothing. "Well, don't you think so?"
"Can't say I do, sir. I wish I did."
"Why, hang it, man! it's simple enough. Here's the coppice, and Groenfontein must lie—"
Dickenson stopped short and gave his ear a rub, full of vexation.
"Yes, sir, that's it," said the sergeant dryly; "this is the patch of wood, but which side of it we're looking at, or trying to look at, I don't know for the life of me. It seems to me that we're just as likely to strike off straight for the Boers' laager as for home. I don't know how you see it, sir."
"See, man!" cried Dickenson angrily. "It's of no use; I only wish I could see. We can do nothing. I was thinking that we had only to skirt round this place, and then face to our left and go straight on, and we should soon reach home."
"Yes, sir; I thought something of that sort at first, but I don't now. May I say a word, sir?"
"Yes; go on. I should be glad if you would."
"Well, sir, it's like this; whenever one's in the dark one's pretty well sure to go wrong, for there's only one right way to about fifty that are not."
"Yes, of course."
"Then won't it be best to wait till the day begins to show in the east, and rest and graze the ponies for a bit? Better for Mr Lennox too."
"You're right, sergeant; and it would have been better if I had given the order to do so at first.—Here, dismount, my lads, and hobble your cobs.—Here, I'll help you to get Mr Lennox down, sergeant. Stop a moment; let's try and find a patch of heath or grass or something first.—Hullo! what's here?" he cried a minute later, after dismounting and feeling about.
"What have you found, sir?"
"Ruts—wheel-marks made, of course, by our guns or their limbers. Can't we tell our way by those?"
"No, sir. It makes things a bit simpler; but we had a gun and wagon at each end, and we can't tell in the dark which end this is. If we start again by this we're just as likely to make straight off for the Boer camp as for ours."
"Yes; we'll wait for daylight, sergeant," said Dickenson. "We're all tired out, so let's have two or three hours' rest."
A few minutes later Lennox, still plunged in a stupor-like sleep, was lifted from the sergeant's pony, and at once subsided into the bed of short scrub found for him; the ponies, well hobbled, were cropping the tender parts of the bushes; and the weary party were sitting down.
There was silence for a few minutes, and then the sergeant spoke in a whisper.
"Think it would be safe for the men to light a pipe, sir?"
"Hum! Yes," said Dickenson, "if they light the match to start their pipes under a held-out jacket and in the shelter of one of the big stones."
He repented directly he had given the consent, on account of the risk.
"But, poor follows!" he said, "this will be the second night they have been out on the veldt, and it will help to keep them awake."
Lennox was at the end of a couple of hours sleeping as heavily as ever. Dickenson had seated himself close by him so that he could lay a hand upon his forehead from time to time; and he judged that the poor fellow must be in pain, for each time there was a sharp wincing, accompanied by a deep sigh, which resulted in the touch being laid on more lightly. It was only to satisfy himself in the darkness that his comrade was sleeping and not sinking into some horrible state of lethargy; and finding at last that there was no apparent need for his anxiety, the watcher directed his attention to listening for sounds out upon the veldt, and divided the time by making surmises as to the experiences through which Lennox must have passed.
Captured and escaped! That was the conclusion to which he always came, and he wished that Lennox would wake up and enliven the tedium of the dark watch by relating all that he had gone through.
The lion made itself heard again and again, but at greater distances; and the prowling jackals and hyenas seemed to follow, for their cries grew fainter and fainter and then died out into the solemn silence of the veldt, which somehow appeared to the listener as if it were connected with an intense feeling of cold.
Then all at once, as Dickenson turned himself wearily and in pain from the crushing he had received when the stone slipped, he became conscious of something dark close by, and his hand went involuntarily to his revolver.
The next minute he realised that what he saw was not darker, but the sky behind it lighter, and he sprang to his feet.
"You, sergeant?" he said.
"Yes, sir," was whispered back. "Be careful; one never knows who may be near. The light's coming fast."
Coming so fast that at the end of a quarter of an hour Dickenson could dimly make out the steep kopje by Groenfontein away to his left, and the low, hill-like laager that they had destroyed twenty-four hours before low down on the opposite horizon.
"Why, sergeant," he whispered eagerly, "if we had started again in the dark we should have gone right off to where the Boers might have been."
"Yes, sir, and away from home. That's the worst of being in the dark."
"As soon as it's a little lighter," whispered Dickenson, "we had better carefully examine this place. It is quite possible that there may be a patrol of the enemy occupying it, as we have done."
"Yes, sir, likely as not, for—"
The sergeant clapped his hand over his lips and dropped down upon his knees, snatching at his officer's jacket to make him follow his example.
There was need enough, for all at once there was something loudly uttered in Dutch, replied to by another speaker, the voices coming from the other side of the woodland patch.
In another minute there was quite a burst of talking, and, making signs to his two companions, the sergeant stepped softly to where the ponies were browsing and led them in amongst the trees, which stood up densely, until they were well hidden.
The next idea was to lift Lennox well under cover; but he was not touched, for he was still sleeping, and already so well hidden that it would not have been possible for any one to see him if passing round outside the trees and the thin belt of scrub.
"Get well down there, my lads," said Dickenson then. "We'll try and hold this little clump of stones if they do find us. If they do, we must give them a wild shout and a volley. They need not know how few we are."
The men crouched down among the stones while the pale grey dawn was broadening, and waited in the full expectation of being discovered; for though a mounted patrol might in passing fail to see the men, the chances were that it would be impossible to go by without catching sight of the ponies.
It was evident enough to the listeners that the Boer party had passed the night in this shelter, and that they must have been sleeping without a watch being kept; otherwise, in spite of the quiet movements of Dickenson and his men, their arrival must have been heard; and now, as they crouched there, rifle in hand, all waited in the hope that the party would ride off at once in the direction of the ruined laager.
But Dickenson waited in vain, for the crackling of burning sticks told that the enemy did not intend to start till they had made their breakfast, and the young officer's brain was busily employed debating as to whether it would not be better to try and drive them off with a surprise volley, putting them to flight in a panic. Under the circumstances he took the non-commissioned officer into consultation.
"If you think it's best, sir," said the sergeant, "do it; but you can't get much of a volley out of four rifles, and if you follow it up by emptying your magazines there'll be no panic, for they'll know what that means."
"What do you advise, then?"
"Waiting, sir. We're only four. There's Mr Lennox, but that seems like bringing us down to two instead of making us five. As we are we're in a strong position, and they may ride right away without seeing us; and that's what we want, I take it, for we don't want to fight—we want to get Mr Lennox safely back. If they don't ride straight off, and are coming round here and see us, we can try the panic plan while they're mounted. They're pretty well sure to scatter then. If we fire now they're not mounted, they'll take to cover, and that'll be bad, sir."
"Yes. It means a long, dull time," replied Dickenson. "We'll wait, sergeant; but how long it will be before they know we're here I'm sure I don't know. I've been expecting to hear one of the ponies neigh every moment, and that will be fatal."
"Oh, I don't know, sir. You never can tell. They may take fright even then after the startlings we've given them. They're brave enough chaps so long as they're fighting from behind stones, or in ambush, or when they think they've got the whip-hand of us; but a surprise, or the thought that we're getting round their flank and into their rear, is more than they can stand."
"Silence!" whispered Dickenson. "I think they're on the move."
But they were not, and the sun was well up before sundry sounds pointed to the fact that the enemy were preparing to start.
For sundry familiar cries were heard, such as a man would address to a fidgety horse which declined to have its saddle-girth tightened. The men were laughing and chatting, too, until a stern order rang out, one which was followed by the trampling of horses—so many that the sergeant turned and gave a significant glance at Dickenson.
"Now then, which way?" thought the latter. "If they come round this side they must see us, and they are bound to, for here lies their laager."
He was right, for the trampling came nearer, and it was quite evident that the little party were riding round in shelter of the patch of wood, so as to get it between them and the English camp before striking straight away.
They were only about a dozen yards distant, dimly seen through the intervening trees, and Dickenson was in the act of glancing right and left at his men when a chill ran through him. For Lennox, who had lain perfectly still in the shadow beneath the bush where he had been laid, suddenly began to mutter in a low, excited tone, indicating that he was just about waking up. It was impossible to warn him, even if he had been in a condition to be warned; and to attempt to stir so as to clap a hand over his lips must have resulted in being seen.
There was nothing for it but to crouch there in silence with hearts beating, and a general feeling that in another few seconds the order must come to fire.
The moments seemed to be drawn out to minutes as the Boers rode on, lessening their distance and talking loudly in a sort of formation two or three abreast, till the front pair were level, when one of them raised his hand to shade his eyes, and drew his comrade's attention to something in the distance.
"It's a party of the rooineks," he said in his Dutch patois; "or some of our horses left from that wretched surprise yesterday."
"I shall never do it in the dark," said Lennox half-aloud, and Dickenson's heart seemed to cease beating.
"What do you say, behind there?" cried the first speaker sharply, but without turning his head.
"I say they're rooineks," said one of the three who came next.
"Yes, they're rooineks, sure enough," said the first Boer; "but that's not what you said just now."
"Yes, I did," was the surly answer; "but every one here's talking at once."
"Yes," growled the first speaker. "Silence, there! Halt!"
The men reined up in a group, while the first man, who seemed to be in command, dragged out a much-battered field-glass, focussed it, and tried to fix the distant objects. But his horse was fresh and fidgety, waiting to be off.
"Stand still!" cried the Boer savagely, and he caught up the reins he had dropped on the neck of his mount and gave them a savage jerk which made the unfortunate animal plunge, sending the rest into disorder, so that it was another minute before steadiness was restored.—"Mind what you're about, there," cried the leader. "Keep close to the bushes. Do you want to be seen?"
He raised his glasses to his eyes again for a few seconds, closed them, and thrust them back into their case.
"There's too much haze there," he said. "Can't see, but I feel sure they're some of our ponies grazing."
"Going to round them up and take them back with us?"
"I would if I was sure," was the reply, "but after yesterday's work we can't afford to run risks. Curse them! They've got enough of our stores to keep them alive for another month."
Every man was gazing away into the distance, little suspecting that only a few yards away four magazine-rifles were covering them, and that at a word they would begin to void their charges, with the result that at least half-a-dozen of them, perhaps more, would drop from their saddles, possibly never to rise again. And all this while the little British party crouched there with, to use the untrue familiar expression, their hearts in their mouths, watching their enemies, but stealing a glance from time to time at the shadowy spot beneath the thick bush, wondering one and all what the young lieutenant would say next.
"He must give the order to fire," said the sergeant to himself as he covered the leader. "We shall have Mr Lennox speaking out louder directly and asking where he is."
The sergeant was quite right, for all of a sudden Lennox exclaimed:
"Why, it's light! Here, where am I?"
But it was directly after the Boer leader had shouted the order to advance, and the little body of active Bechuana ponies sprang forward, eager to begin cantering over the plain, not a man the worse for his narrow escape, as they burst out chatting together, Lennox's exclamation passing quite unnoticed, even if heard.
"Ha!" ejaculated Dickenson, exhaling his long-pent-up breath. "I doubt if any of them will be nearer their end again during the war."
And then, after making sure that the Boer party were going off at a sharp canter, and that the risk of speaking or being seen was at an end, he crawled quickly to where Lennox lay upon his back, his eyes once more closed, and sleeping as soundly as if he had never roused up into consciousness since early in the night.
"Lennox—Drew," whispered Dickenson, catching him by the arm, but only eliciting a low, incoherent muttering. "Well, you can sleep!"
"It's not quite natural, sir," said the sergeant. "He must have been hurt somewhere, and the sooner the doctor has a look at him the better."
"Yes," said Dickenson thoughtfully.—"That was a close shave, sergeant."
"Yes, sir—for the enemy. If we had fired they'd have gone off like frightened sheep, I feel sure now."
"Yes, I think so too. But we must not stir yet."
"No, sir; I'd give those fellows time to get out of sight. We don't want them to see us. If they did, they'd come swooping down to try and cut us off. What do you say to trying if we can make out what's wrong with Mr Lennox? I think he must have been hit in the head."
"Yes; let's look," said Dickenson: and after planting a sentry to keep a sharp lookout from a sheltered spot on each side of the little woodland patch, he set to work, with the sergeant's help, to carefully examine his rescued comrade, but without the slightest result, save finding that his head was a good deal swollen in one part, and, lower down, his left shoulder was puffed up, and apparently excessively tender from either a blow or wrench.
"It's beyond us," said Dickenson, with a sigh. "We'll make a start now, and get him into the doctor's hands."
"Yes, sir; we might make a start now," said the sergeant. "Wait a few minutes, sir, while I saddle up the ponies. I'll be quite ready before you call the sentries, sir."
"I'll try and wake Mr Lennox, then," said Dickenson, "and we'll get him on to the pony first."
"I wouldn't, sir, if you'll excuse me," said the sergeant. "If he's half-insensible like that from a hurt to his head, it'll be best to let him wake up of himself."
"Perhaps so," said the young officer; "but I don't like his being so stupefied as this."
The preparations were soon made, and the sergeant led the horses together, just as Dickenson rose from Lennox's side, took out his glass, and joined the sentry on their side.
"Can you make out anything?" he said.
"Only the same little cluster as the Boers did, sir. I think it's ponies grazing."
He had hardly spoken before there was a hail from the other side of the little wood.
"What is it?" shouted the sergeant.
"Boers coming along fast. I think it's the same lot coming back. Yes, it must be," cried the sentry. "I've just come across their pot and kettle and things. This must be their camp."
"Over here," shouted Dickenson. "Now, sergeant, we must mount and be off, for we shall not have such luck again."
"No, sir," said the sergeant gruffly. "Will you help, sir?"
Dickenson's answer was to hurry to his friend's side, and in a very short time he was once more on a pony, with the sergeant keeping him in his place; while the others sprang into their saddles and rode off, manoeuvring so as to keep the enemy well on the other side of the woodland clump, and managing so well that they did not even see them for a time, the Boers riding back toward their old bivouac; and for a while there seemed to be no danger.
But it was terribly slow work keeping to a walk. Twice over the pony on which Lennox was mounted was pressed into an amble, but the shaking seemed to distress the injured man, and the walking pace was resumed, till all at once there was ample evidence that they had been seen, a distant crack and puff of smoke following a whistling sound overhead, and directly after the dust was struck up pretty close to one of the ponies' hoofs.
"The game has begun, sergeant," said Dickenson calmly.
"Yes, sir. Shall we dismount and give them a taste back?"
"We out here on the open veldt, and they under cover quite out of sight? No; press on as fast as we can, straight for Groenfontein. They must have it all their own way now."
"Hadn't we better try a canter again, sir?"
"Yes, sergeant, if we are to save his life. Forward!"
They were nearly half a mile on their way, and slowly increasing the distance; but it was quite time to take energetic action, for, to Dickenson's dismay, the Boers were not going to content themselves with long shots, and all at once ten or a dozen appeared round one end of the little wood, spreading out as they galloped, and coming straight for them in an open line.
Burdened as the little party was with an insensible man, escape by trusting to the speed of their active little mounts was quite out of the question; and, young officer though he was, Dickenson was old enough in experience to know what to do.
About a couple of hundred yards ahead was a scattered patch of the pleasant form of South African growth known locally, from its catching qualities, as the Wait-a-bit-thorn, and as rapidly as they could go Dickenson led his men to that, finding, as he expected, just enough cover in the midst of a perfectly bare plain, if not to shelter lying-down men, at least to blur and confuse the enemy's marksmen. Here he gave the order, "Dismount!" Lennox was laid flat upon his back, to lie without motion, and each man took the best shelter he could; while the ponies, not being trained like the modern trooper to lie down, were left to graze and take care of themselves.
The Boers came galloping on, to find, on a small scale, how much difference there was between attacking in the open and defending a well-sheltered position. But they had it yet to learn; and, evidently anticipating an easy victory, they galloped forward bravely enough, fully intending to hold the party up and expecting surrender at once.
Dickenson waited till they were well within range before giving the order to fire, adding sternly the instruction that not a single cartridge was to be wasted, no shot being fired till the holder of the rifle felt sure.
The order was succeeded by utter silence, broken only by the thudding of hoofs, and then crack! from the sergeant's piece, a puff of greyish-white smoke, and one of the enemy's ponies went down upon its knees, pitching the rider over its head, and rolled over upon one side, kicking wildly, and trying twice before it was able to rise to its feet, when it stood, poor beast! with hanging head; while its rider was seen crawling away, to stop at last and begin firing.
Crack! again, and one of the Boers fell forward on the neck of his mount and dropped his rifle, while his frightened pony galloped on, swerving off to the right.
Crack! crack! two more shots were fired without apparent effect, and then two more at intervals, each with good, or bad, effect. In one case the rider threw up his arms and, as his pony tore on, fell over sidewise, to drop with his foot tight in the stirrup, and was dragged about a hundred yards before he was freed and his mount galloped away.
The other shot took effect upon a pony, which stopped dead, to stand shivering, in spite of the way in which the Boer belaboured it with his rifle, seeming to pound at it with the butt to force it along. But it was all in vain—the poor brute's war was over, and it slowly subsided, its rider springing off sidewise, to drop on one knee, as he tried to shelter himself behind the animal; but he was not quick enough, for Dickenson's rifle was resting upon a tuft of thorn, perfectly steady, as he covered his enemy. Crack! and another tiny puff of smoke. The noise and the greyish vapour were nothings out in that vast veldt, but they meant the exit of a man from the troublous scene.
They meant more; for, as he saw the effect, the leader of the Boers shouted an order, and his men swerved off right and left, presenting their ponies' flanks to the British marksmen, who fired rapidly now, and with so good aim that two more ponies were badly hit, their riders leaping off to begin running after their comrades as hard as they could, while a third man fell over to one side, lay still for a few moments, and then struggled into a sitting position and held up his hands.
"Don't fire at him!" cried Dickenson excitedly, and none too soon, for one of the men was taking aim.
"Ha!" said the sergeant grimly as the Boers galloped back. "That'll take some of the bounce out of the gentlemen. One of them told us that our men didn't know how to shoot. I dare say if we'd had their training we might be able to bring down springboks as well as they can."
"Yes; capital, capital, my lads!—Well, sergeant, I think we may go on again."
"No, sir, no!" cried the man excitedly. "They don't know when they're beaten. Look at that."
For as he spoke the two little parties joined up again into one, sprang off their ponies, and imitated Dickenson's manoeuvre, lying down and beginning to shoot at long-range.
"I don't think they'll hurt us at that distance, sergeant," said Dickenson.
"They'll hurt us if they can hit us, sir," replied the man; "but it's a long way, and with their hands all of a shake from such a bit as they've just gone through."
All the same, though, the bullets began to whistle overhead; then one struck the ground about ten yards in front of the sergeant and ricocheted, passing so near that the whiz was startling.
"That was well meant," he said coolly; "but I don't believe the chap who sent it could do it again."
"Look at that poor fellow," said Dickenson suddenly.
"'Fraid of being hit by us or them, sir," replied the sergeant. "Not a very pleasant place."
For the Boer who had thrown up his hands in token of surrender had begun to crawl slowly and painfully to their right, evidently to get well out of the line of fire. The man was evidently hit badly, for he kept on sinking down flat on his face, and four times over a curious sensation of regret came over Dickenson, mingled with a desire to go to his help with such surgical aid as he could supply. But each time, just as he was going to suggest it to the sergeant, the man rose on all fours again and crawled farther away.
"I don't think he's much hurt, sir. Going pretty strong now."
The sergeant had hardly spoken before Dickenson uttered an ejaculation, for the wounded man suddenly dropped down flat again and rolled over, showing as one hand came into sight that he still grasped his rifle; and then he was completely hidden, as if he had sunk into some slight depression.
"Dead!" sighed Dickenson solemnly.
"Looks like it, sir," said the sergeant quietly.
"Or exhausted by his efforts," said Dickenson. "Look here, sergeant, a man's a man."
"'For a' that, and a' that,' as the song says," muttered the sergeant to himself.
"Whether he's one of our men or an enemy. I can't lie here, able to help, without going to his help."
"No, no, sir; you mustn't stir," cried the sergeant excitedly. "If you begin to move there'll be a shower of bullets cutting up the ground about you. It's a good hundred and fifty yards to crawl."
"I can't help that," said Dickenson quietly. "I must do it."
"But think of yourself, sir," said the sergeant.
"A man in my position can't think of himself, sergeant."
"Well, think of us, sir."
"I shall, sergeant."
"Ha!" cried the sergeant, in a tone full of exultation. "And think of your friend, sir. He wants help as bad as that chap, and you ought to think of him first."
For just then they heard Lennox talking hurriedly, and on Dickenson looking back over his shoulder he could see his comrade's hands moving in the air, as if he were preparing to struggle up.
Dickenson began to turn hurriedly to creep back to where Lennox lay, with one of the ponies grazing calmly enough close by, when the hands fell again, and the young officer lay perfectly still.
"He has dropped to sleep again, and may be quiet for an hour. Sergeant, I'm going to crawl out to that wounded Boer."
"Very well, sir; you're my officer, and my duty is to obey. I'm very sorry, Mr Dickenson. It's a good two hundred yards, sir, and I believe it's a bit of slimmery. He crawled there to be out of shot."
Whiz-z-z! crack! A puff of smoke and then a rush of hoofs, for the pony which had been grazing so calmly close by where Lennox lay went tearing over the veldt for about fifty yards, when, with two of its companions trotting after it as if to see what was the matter, it pitched suddenly upon its head, rolled over with its legs kicking as if it were galloping in the air, and then they fell and all was over, the two others turning and trotting back, to begin grazing once again.
"That's bad," said Dickenson sadly. "We couldn't spare that pony. Why, sergeant, they can shoot! I didn't think they could have done it at this range."
"What! not at two hundred yards, sir?"
"Two hundred, man? It's a thousand."
"Why, you don't see it, sir," cried the sergeant excitedly. "It wasn't the enemy out yonder sent that bullet home."
"Not the enemy out there?" cried Dickenson.
"No, sir. It was your dead man who fired that shot."
"Don't feel so sorry for him, sir, do you, now?"
As the sergeant was asking this question, the soldier who lay off to their left, and who had not discharged his piece for some time, fired simultaneously with a shot which came from the direction where the wounded Boer lay.
"Ah!" cried the sergeant excitedly. "Can you see him from there?"
"No," growled the man; "but I saw something move, and let go on the chance of hitting him, but only cut up the sand."
"Don't take your eye from the spot, my lad," cried Dickenson sharply. "Never mind a fresh cartridge. Trust to your magazine."
"Yes, sir; that's what I'm doing," was the reply.
"Hadn't we all better do the same, sir?" asked the sergeant.
"Yes," said Dickenson angrily.
"I doubt whether we can keep his fire down, though, sir. He's got us now."
"Not yet—the brute!" cried Dickenson through his teeth.
"He'll have the other two safe, sir."
"Other two?" cried Dickenson wonderingly.
"What! don't you see, sir? There's another of the ponies hit."
"Good gracious!" cried Dickenson, in such a homely, grandmotherly style that, in spite of their perilous position, the sergeant could not help smiling.
But his face was as hard as an iron mask directly, as he saw the look of anguish in his young officer's face, Dickenson having just seen the second pony standing with drooping head and all four legs widely separated, rocking to and fro for a few moments, before dropping heavily, perfectly dead.
Crack! came again from the same place, and another of the grazing ponies flung up its head, neighing shrilly, before springing forward to gallop for a couple of hundred yards and then fall.
And crack! again, and its following puff of smoke, making the fourth pony start and begin to limp for a few yards with its off foreleg broken; and crack! once more, and the sound of a sharp rap caused by another bullet striking the suffering beast right in the middle of the shoulder-blade, when it dropped dead instantly, pierced through the heart.
"Best shot yet, sir," said the sergeant grimly; "put the poor beast out of its misery. Now," he muttered to himself, "we know what we've got to expect if we don't stop his little game."
"Every man watch below where the smoke rose," said Dickenson slowly and sternly. "That man can't see without exposing himself in some way. Yes; be on the alert. Look! he's pressing the sand away to right and left with the barrel of his rifle. Mind, don't fire till you've got a thoroughly good chance."
No one spoke, but all lay flat upon their chests, watching the moving right and left of a gun-barrel which was directed towards them, but pointing so that if fired a bullet would have gone over their heads. It was hard to see; but the sun glinted from its polished surface from time to time, and moment by moment they noted that it was becoming more horizontal.
Every man's sight was strained to the utmost; every nerve was on the quiver; so that not one of the four felt that he could trust himself to shoot when the crucial moment came.
It came more quickly than they expected; for, after a few moments of intense strain, the barrel was suddenly depressed, till through the clear air the watchers distinctly saw a tiny hole and nothing more. Then all at once the sun glinted from something else—a something that flashed brightly for one instant, and was then obscured by smoke—the smoke that darted from the little, just perceptible orifice of the small-bore Mauser and that which shot out from four British rifles, to combine into one slowly rising cloud; while as the commingled reports of five rifles, friendly and inimical, died away, to the surprise of Dickenson and his men they saw the figure of a big swarthy Boer staggering towards them with both hands pressed to his face. The next moment he was lying just in front of his hiding-place, stretched out— dead.
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE.
SAFE AT LAST.
"Ha!" ejaculated Dickenson, with a sigh of relief, and he turned away to creep to where Lennox lay, finding him still plunged in the same state of stupor.
"One ought to lay him in the shade," he thought; but there was very little that he could do beyond drawing a few pieces of the thorn bush together to hang over his face. He then took out his handkerchief to lay over the bush, but hastily snatched it away again. "Bah!" he muttered. "It's like making a white bull's-eye for them to fire at."
Then he crept back to his position, with the bullets still whizzing overhead or striking up the dust, and he almost wondered that no one had been hit.
"I hope Mr Lennox is better, sir," said the sergeant respectfully.
"I see no difference, sergeant. But what does that mean?"
"What we used to call 'stalking horse,' sir, down in the Essex marshes. Creeping up under the shelter of their mounts."
"Then they are getting nearer?"
"Yes, sir. Don't you think we might begin to pay them back? We could hit their ponies if we couldn't hit them."
"Yes, sergeant, soon," replied the young officer, carefully scanning the enemy's approach; "but I think I'd let them get a hundred yards, or even two, nearer before we begin. The business is simplified."
"Is it, sir?"
"I mean, there's no question of retreating now that the ponies are gone. It's either fight to the last, or surrender."
"You mean, sir, that there were three things to do?"
"Yes; and now it's one of two."
"Isn't it only one, sir? I think the lads feel as I do, right-down savage, and ready to fight to the last."
"Very well," said Dickenson; "then we'll light to the last."
The sergeant smiled, and then for a time all lay perfectly still, fully expecting that one or other of the many bullets which came whizzing by would find its billet; but though there were several very narrow escapes, no one was hit, and though the enemy in front had greatly lessened the distance, their bullets struck no nearer. But the men grew very impatient under the terrible strain, and all three kept on turning their heads to watch their officer, who lay frowning, his rifle in front and his chin supported by his folded arms.
"Ah!" came at last, in an involuntary sigh of relief from all three, as they saw Dickenson alter his position after the enemy had made a fresh and perceptible decrease in the distance between them by urging their ponies forward, the men's legs being strongly marked, giving the ponies the appearance of being furnished with another pair, as their riders stood taking aim and resting their rifles across the saddles.
But no order to fire came from Dickenson, who still remained quiet. Then all at once:
"Sergeant," he said, "I've practised a great deal with the sporting rifle, but done very little of this sort of thing myself. I'm going to try now if I can't stop this miserable sneaking approach of the enemy."
The men gave a hearty cheer.
"I'm sorry for the poor ponies," he said, "for I think this range will be well within the power of the service arm."
"Yes, sir, quite," said the sergeant promptly.
Dickenson was silent once again, and they saw him taking a long, careful aim at the nearest Boer. The effect of his shot was that the pony he had aimed at sprang forward, leaving a Boer visible, facing them in astonishment before he turned to run.
"Fire!" said Dickenson, and three shots followed almost instantaneously, while the running Boer was seen lying upon the earth.
"Be ready!" said Dickenson, aiming now at another of the ponies, and paying no heed to six or seven replies from the exasperated Boers.
The pony now fired at reared up, and in the clear sunshine the man who was aiming across it was seen to be crushed down by the poor animal's fall, and he did not rise again.
Once more Dickenson's rifle rang out, and he shifted it back now to his right, to fire his fourth shot almost without aiming. As the smoke cleared away by the time the young officer had replaced the exploded cartridges, one pony could be seen struggling on the ground, another was galloping away, while two men were crawling backward on hands and knees.
"It seems like butchery, sergeant," said Dickenson, taking another long aim before firing again. "Missed!"
"No, sir: I saw the pony start," said the sergeant eagerly. "There, look at him!"
For the two men cheered on seeing the pony limp for a few yards and then fall, just beyond where his master was lying stretched out on his face.
"Poor brute!" said Dickenson in a low voice.
"He didn't say it was butchery when that chap was knocking down our mounts at quarter this distance," said the sergeant to himself. "But, my word, he can shoot! I shouldn't like to change places with the Boers when he's behind a rifle."
Just then the men cheered, for three more of the enemy who had been stalking them were seen to spring into the saddle, lie flat down over their willing mounts, and gallop away as hard as they could to join their comrades.
"Well, we've stopped that game for the present, sergeant," said Dickenson. "Perhaps we may be able to keep them off till night.—But that's a long way off," he said to himself, "and we've to fight against this scorching heat and the hunger and thirst."
"Hope so, sir," said the sergeant, in response to what he had heard; "but—"
He ceased speaking, and pointed in the direction of the patch of scrub forest where they had passed the night.
Dickenson shaded his eyes and uttered an ejaculation. Then after another long glance: "Ten—twenty—thirty," he said, as he watched two lines of mounted men cantering out from behind the patch right and left. "Why, there must be quite thirty more."
"I should say forty of 'em, sir."
"Why, sergeant, they're moving out to surround us."
"Yes, sir," said the sergeant coolly; "but you won't surrender?"
"Not while the cartridges last."
"Well, there's enough to account for the lot, sir, if we hand in ours and you do the firing."
The young officer burst into a forced laugh.
"Why, sergeant," he cried, "what do you take me for?"
"Soldier of the Queen, sir, ready to show the enemy that our march at the Jubilee wasn't all meant for show."
Dickenson was silent for a time.
"Ha!" he said at last, with a sigh. "I want to prove that; but there are times when holding out ceases to be justifiable—fighting becomes mere butchery."
"Yes, sir, when forty or fifty men surround four and a wounded one, shoot down their mounts so as they can't retreat, and then try and butcher them. It's all on their side, sir, not ours; and the men think as I do."
Dickenson was silent again, lying there with his teeth set and a peculiar hard look in his eyes, such as a man in the flower of his youth and strength might show when he knows the time is fast approaching for everything to end. Meanwhile the two fresh parties that had come on the scene were galloping hard to join the enclosing wings of the first comers, who stood fast, fully grasping what was to follow, and keeping the attention of their prey by firing a shot now and then, not one of which had the slightest effect.
"Oh for some water!" groaned Dickenson at last. "Poor Mr Lennox! How he must suffer!"
"Not he, sir. He's in that state that when he wakes up he'll know nothing about what has taken place. It's you that ought to have the drink, to steady your hand for what is to come."
Dickenson made no reply aloud, but he thought bitterly, "When he wakes up—when he wakes up! Where will it be: the Boer prison camp, or in the other world?"
The sergeant and the men now relapsed into a moody silence, as they lay, rifle in hand, with the sun beating down in increasing force, and a terrible thirst assailing them. Dickenson looked at their scowling faces, and a sudden impression attacked him that a feeling of resentment had arisen against him for not surrendering now that they were in such a hopeless condition. This increased till he could bear it no longer, and edging himself closer to the sergeant, he spoke to him upon the subject, with the result that the man broke into a harsh laugh.
"Don't you go thinking anything of that sort, sir, because you're wrong. Oh yes, they look savage enough, but it's only because they feel ugly. We're all three what you may call dangerous, sir. The lads want to get at the enemy to make them pay for what we're suffering. Here, you ask them yourself what they think about surrendering."
Dickenson did not hesitate, but left the sergeant, to crawl to the man beyond him, when just as he was close up a well-directed bullet struck up the sand and stones within a few inches of the man's face, half-blinding him for a time and making him forget discipline and the proximity of his officer, as he raged out a torrent of expletives against the Boer who had fired that shot.
"Let me look at your face, my lad," said Dickenson. "Are you much hurt?"
"Hurt, sir? No! It's only just as if some one had chucked a handful of dust into my eyes."
"Let me see."
A few deft applications of a finger removed the trouble from the man's eyes, and he smiled again, and then listened attentively to his officer's questions.
"Oh, it's as you think best, sir," he said at last; "but I wouldn't give up. We don't want to. All we're thinking about is giving the enemy another sickening for what they've done."
Dickenson crawled away to the other man—away to his right—to find him literally glowering when spoken to.
"What do the others say, sir—the sergeant and my comrade?"
"Never mind them," replied Dickenson. "I want to know how you feel."
"Well, sir," was the reply, "about an hour ago I felt regular sick of it, and that it would be about like throwing our lives away to hold out."
"That it would be better to surrender and chance our fate in a Boer prison?"
"Something of that sort, sir."
"And how do you feel now?"
"Just as if they've regularly got my dander up, sir. I only want to shoot as long as we've got a cartridge left. I'd give up then, for they'd never wait for us to get at them with the bayonet."
Dickenson said no more, but returned to his old place, watching the galloping Boers, who had now gone far enough to carry out their plans, and were stopping by twos to dismount and wait, this being continued till the little English party formed the centre of a very wide circle. Then a signal was made from the starting-point, and firing commenced.
Fortunately for the party it was at a tremendously long-range, for, after the way in which the enemy had suffered in regard to their ponies, they elected to keep what they considered to be outside the reach of the British rifles; and no reply was made, Dickenson declining to try and hit the poor beasts which formed the Boer shelter in a way which would only inflict a painful wound without disabling them from their masters' service.
"It would be waste of our cartridges, sergeant," he said.
"Yes, sir," was the reply; "perhaps it's best to wait. They'll be tempted into getting closer after a bit. Getting tired of it if they don't hit us, and make us put up a white flag for the doctor. Look at them. Oh, it's nonsense firing at such a distance. Their rifles carry right enough, but it's all guesswork; they can't take an aim."
The sergeant was right enough; but the bullets were dangerous, and they came now pretty rapidly from all round, striking with a vicious phit! which was terribly straining to the nerves. And all the time the heat of the sun grew more painful. There was not a breath of air; and the pull's of smoke when the enemy fired looked dim and distant, as if seen through a haze.
The sergeant made some allusion to the fact.
"Looks as if there was a change coming. There, sir, you can hardly see that man and horse."
"No," said Dickenson sadly, "but I think it's from the state of our eyes. I feel giddy, and mine are quite dim."
"Perhaps it is that, sir," said the sergeant. "Things look quite muddled up to me. Now turn a little and look yonder, out Groenfontein way."
Dickenson turned wearily, and winced, for three bullets came almost simultaneously, two with their vicious whiz-z! the other to cut up the ground and ricochet.
"Not hit, sir?" said the sergeant anxiously.
"No; but one shot was very near. Yes, I see what you mean: the Boers are mounting out in that direction. They're coming closer. We shall perhaps have a chance now," he cried, with more animation.
It seemed, though, that they were going to retire as they came, the circle being opened on the Groenfontein side and the men retiring in twos, to go on increasing in two groups, firing rapidly the while; but, to the surprise of the beleaguered party, the bullets ceased to whiz in their direction.
A dead silence fell upon the group, no one daring to speak the hope that was in him for fear of exciting his companions by an idea that might after all prove only to be imagination. Then all spoke together, and there was an excited cheer.
"Yes," cried Dickenson; "there's help coming. The Boers are retiring fast."
"Why, of course, sir," said the sergeant confidently. "The colonel would be sure to send out to see why we didn't come back. There's a lot of our fellows out yonder that the enemy is firing at, and we can't see them for the haze. It is haze, and not giddiness and our eyes."
"No, sergeant; we can see clearly enough. I can make out the advance of the relief party. Wait five minutes, and I'll see what a few signal-shots will do."
But before the time mentioned the Boers could be seen steadily retreating, and the puffs of smoke from the firing of an advancing party could be made out. Signals followed, and but a short time elapsed before the Boers were driven off and the rescued party were reviving under the influence of the water proffered from the relief party's bottles.
The return to Groenfontein commenced at once, with Lennox carried by four men by means of scarfs; but he was not the only man who needed this aid, four more being hit during the return, the driven-off Boers hanging at a safe distance on flank and rear, sniping at every chance with the longest of shots, till the outposts were reached, and a cheer welcomed the rescued men as they marched in.
The motion through the air had gradually revived Lennox, so much so that when the party was met by the colonel and officers the young lieutenant was able to reply to a question or two before the doctor intervened.
"Leave him to me for a bit," he said, and had Lennox borne toward the hut where Roby and the corporal were lying, Dickenson following close behind.
"The colonel did not shake hands with him," said the young officer to himself, "and the major never spoke. Surely they don't think—"
He got no farther, for they had reached the hut, when, to the surprise of all, Roby wrenched himself round to glare at Lennox being carried in, and then in a harsh, excited voice he cried:
"Lennox here? Coward! Cur!—coward! How dare you show your face again?"
And at these words Corporal May wagged his head slowly from side to side and uttered a weary groan.
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO.
AN UNPLEASANT BUSINESS.
"Why, Roby!" cried Lennox, after standing for some moments gazing wildly at his brother officer, and then going close up to his rough resting-place. "For goodness' sake, don't talk in that way!"
"Coward! Cur! To run away and leave me like that!" cried Roby.
Lennox stared at him with his eyes dilating, and then he turned sharply and looked from Dickenson to the doctor and back again, ending by clapping his hands to his forehead and holding his breath before gazing wildly at Roby once more as if doubting that the torrent of reproaches he listened to were real.
"Am I off my head a little, doctor?—the sun, and that dreadful thirst. Am I mad?"
"Mad? No, my lad; but you're in a parlous state.—Here, orderly, I must have Mr Lennox in the next hut. He is exciting Captain Roby horribly."
"Yes; horribly," said Lennox. "Poor fellow! Is he so bad as that?"
"Oh yes, he's bad enough," said the doctor gruffly.
"Corporal May, too," said Lennox, with a troubled look at the other patients occupying the hut. "Are you much hurt, May?"
For answer the man glared at him and turned his face away, making Lennox wince again and look at the other patient. But he was lying fast asleep.
"Rather a queer welcome," said the young officer, turning now to Dickenson, and once more his eyes dilated with a wondering look. "Why, Bob, you're not going to call me a coward too?"
"Likely!" said the young man gruffly.
"Don't stand talking to him, Mr Dickenson," said the doctor sharply.—"Here, lean on the orderly, sir; he'll help you into the next hut. I want to try and diagnose your case."
"Yes—please if it's necessary," said Lennox, catching at the orderly as if attacked by vertigo.—"Thank you, old fellow," he whispered huskily as Dickenson started forward and caught him by the other arm. "Not much the matter. Gone through a good deal. Faint. The sun. Touch of stroke, I think."
He hung heavily upon the pair, who assisted him out into the next hut, while Roby's accusation was reiterated, the words ringing in his ears: "Coward!—cur!—runaway!" till he was out of sight, when Roby sank back exhausted.
"Don't question him, and don't let him talk about what he has gone through," said the doctor a short time later, when he had made his fresh patient as comfortable as circumstances would allow, and he was growing drowsy from the sedative administered. "It's not sunstroke, but a mingling of the results of exposure and overdoing it altogether. I don't quite understand it yet, and I want to get at the truth without asking him."
"Oh doctor! don't you join in thinking the poor fellow has been behaving in a cowardly way."
"Tchah! Rubbish! What is it to me, sir, how the man has been behaving? He's all wrong, isn't he?"
"Very well, then, I've got to put him all right. If he has committed any breach of discipline you can court-martial him when I've done."
"But, hang it all, doctor!" cried Dickenson fiercely, "you don't believe he's a coward?"
"Humph! Very evident you don't, my lad," said the doctor grimly.
"Of course not."
"That's right; then stick to it. I like to see a man back up his friend."
"Who wouldn't back him up?" cried Dickenson.
"Oh, I don't know. It's very evident that Roby won't."
"Roby's as mad as a March hare," cried Dickenson.
"Well, not quite; but he's a bit queer in his head, and I'm afraid I shall have to perform rather a crucial operation upon him. I don't want to if I can help it, out here. It requires skilled help, and I should like some one to share the responsibility."
"Internally injured?" asked Dickenson.
"Oh no. The bullet that ploughed up his forehead is pressing a piece of bone down slightly on the brain."
"Slightly!" said Dickenson, with a laugh. "Turned it right over, I think."
"Yes, you fellows who know nothing about your construction do get a good many absurd ideas in your head. Here, talk softly; I want to get at the cause of his trouble. He's not wounded."
"Why, his skull's ploughed up, and the bone pressing on his brain."
"Do you mean that for a joke—a bit of chaff, Mr Dickenson?" said the doctor stiffly.
"A joke, sir? Is this a subject to joke about?" replied Dickenson.
"Certainly not, sir; but you thoughtless young fellows are ready to laugh at anything."
"Well, sir, you're wrong. Roby and I were never very great friends, but I'm not such a brute as to laugh and sneer when the poor fellow's down."
"Who was talking about Captain Roby?"
"You were, sir. You told me that his brain was suffering from pressure, and then you went on to say that you wanted to get at the cause of his hurt."
"Bah! Tchah! Nonsense, man! I was talking then about Lennox."
"I beg your pardon, sir."
"Oh, all right, my lad. Now then; I'm talking about Lennox now. I say I want to get at the cause of his trouble without questioning him and setting his poor feverish brain working. Tell me how you found him."
Dickenson briefly explained.
"Humph! Utterly exhausted; been suffering from the sun, thirst, and evidently after exerting himself tremendously. Been in a complete stupor more than sleep, you say?"
"Well, it's very strange," said the doctor thoughtfully. "He was in the assault, wasn't he?"
"Oh yes, of course."
"Well, human nature's a queer thing, Dickenson, my lad."
"Yes, sir; very," said the young man gruffly, "or Roby wouldn't behave like this and set that sneak May off on the same track."
"And," continued the doctor testily, as if he did not like being interrupted, "the more I examine into man's nature the more curious and contradictory I find it—I mean, in the mental faculties."
"I suppose so, sir.—What's he aiming at?" added the young officer to himself.
"Now, look here, Dickenson, my lad; between ourselves, that was rather a horrible bit of business, eh?—that attack in the half-darkness."
"Well, sir, it wasn't quite like an al fresco ball," said Dickenson gruffly.
"Of course not. Bayoneting and bludgeoning with rifle-butts?"
"And all on the top of the excitement of the march and the long waiting to begin?"
"Just so, sir," said Dickenson.
"Enough to over-excite a young fellow's brain?"
"Well—yes, sir; it's not at all cheerful work. But, really, I don't see what you mean."
"Just this, my dear boy, and, as I said, between ourselves. You don't think, do you, that just in the midst of the fight poor Lennox was seized with what you vulgar young fellows call a fit of blue funk, do you?"
"No, sir, I do not," said Dickenson stiffly. "Certainly not."
"Lost his nerve?"
"I've lost mine before now, my lad, over a very serious operation—when I was young, you know."
"May be, sir; but Drew Lennox is not the sort of fellow for that."
"As a rule, say."
"Yes, as a rule, sir, without a single exception."
"And took fright and ran?"
"Rubbish, sir! He couldn't."
"Just as Roby says?"
"And as Corporal May holds to in corroboration?"
"No, sir, no; and I should like to see Corporal May flogged."
"Rather an unpleasant sight, my lad," said the doctor quietly, "even when a culprit richly deserves it. But about Lennox. He might, though as a rule brave as a lion, have had a seizure like that."
"No, he mightn't sir," said Dickenson stoutly.
"You don't know, my lad."
"Oh yes, I do, sir. I know Drew Lennox by heart."
"But there is such a thing as panic, my lad."
"Not with him, sir."
"I say yes, my lad. Recollect that he had a terrible shock a little while ago." Dickenson's lips parted. "He was plunged into that awful hole in the dark, and whirled through some underground tunnel. Why, sir, I went and looked at the place myself with Sergeant James, and he let down a lantern for me to see. I tell you what it is; I'm as hard as most men, through going about amongst horrors, but that black pit made me feel wet inside my hands. I wonder the poor fellow retained his reason."
"But he got the better of that, sir," said Dickenson hoarsely.
"How do you know, sir? He seemed better; but a man can't go through such things as that without their leaving some weakening of the mental force."
"Doctor, don't talk like that, for goodness' sake!"
"I must, my lad, because I think—mind you, I say I think—"
"Doctor, if you begin to think Drew Lennox is a coward I'll never respect you again," cried Dickenson angrily.
"I don't think he's a coward, my dear boy," said the doctor, laying his hand upon the young officer's arm. "I think he's as brave a lad as ever stepped, and I like him; but no man is perfect, and the result of that horrible plunge into the bowels of the earth shook him so that in that fierce fight he grew for a bit very weak indeed."
"Impossible, doctor!" cried the young man fiercely.
"Quite possible," said the doctor, pressing his companion's arm; "and now let me finish. I tell you, I like Drew Lennox, and if I am right I shall think none the less of him."
"Ur-r-r-r!" growled Dickenson.
"It is between ourselves, mind, and it is only my theory. He lost his nerve in the middle of that fight—had a fit of panic, and, as Roby and the corporal say (very cruelly and bitterly), ran for his life—bolted."
"I'll never believe it, sir."
"Well, remain a heretic if you like; but that's my theory."
"I tell you, sir—"
"Wait a minute, my lad; I haven't done. I suggest that he had this seizure—"
"And I swear he had not!"
"Wait till I've finished, boy," said the doctor sternly.
Dickenson stood with his brow knit and his fists clenched, almost writhing in his anger; and the doctor went on:
"I suggest, my dear boy, that he had this fit of panic and was aware that it must be known, when, after running right away—"
"Yes, sir; go on," said Dickenson savagely—"after running away—"
"He came quite to himself, felt that he would be branded as a coward by all who knew him, and then, in a mad fit of despair—"
"Yes, sir—and then?"
"You told me that he came back without his revolver."
"Yes, sir," said Dickenson mockingly—"and then he didn't blow his brains out."
"No," said the doctor quietly, "for he had lost his pistol, perhaps in the fight; but it seems to me, Dickenson, that in his agony of shame, despair, and madness, he tried to hang himself."
"Tried to do what?" roared Dickenson.
"What I say, my dear boy," said the doctor gravely.
"I say, doctor, have you been too much in the sun?" said Dickenson, with a forced laugh, one which sounded painful in the extreme.
"No, my dear fellow; I am perfectly calm, and everything points to the fact—his state when you found him, sorrowful, repentant, and utterly exhausted by his sufferings in his struggles to get back to face it out like a man."
"Doctor, you are raving. His appearance was all compatible with a struggle, fighting with the Boers—a prisoner bravely fighting for his escape. Everything points to your fact? Nonsense, sir—absurd!"
"You're a brave, true-hearted fellow, Dickenson, my lad, and I like you none the less for being so rude to me in your defence of your poor friend. He must be sleeping now after the dose I gave him. Come with me, and I'll give you a surprise."
"Not such a one as you have already given me, doctor," said the young man bitterly.
"We shall see," said the doctor quietly; and the next minute he was standing by Lennox's side, carefully lifting a moistened bandage laid close to his neck.
Dickenson uttered a faint cry of horror. For deeply marked in his friend's terribly swollen neck there was a deep blue mark such as would have been caused by a tightened cord, and in places the skin was torn away, leaving visible the eroded flesh.
"Oh doctor!" groaned Dickenson, trembling violently.
"Hold up, my dear boy," whispered his companion. "No one knows of it but my orderly, you, and myself. It will soon heal up, and I shall not feel it my duty to mention it to a soul."
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE.
THE TALE HE TOLD.
"Look here, Roby," said Dickenson, three or four days later, when, having a little time on his hands—the Boers, consequent upon their late defeat, having been very quiet—he went in to sit with the captain of his company, finding him calm and composed, and ready to talk about the injury to his head, which seemed to be healing fast.
"Precious lucky for me, Dickenson," he said; "an inch lower and there would have been promotion for somebody. Narrow escape, wasn't it?"
"Such a nuisance, too, lying up in this oven. I tell Emden that I should get better much faster if he'd let me get up and go about; but he will not listen."
"Of course not; you're best where you are. You couldn't wear your helmet."
"My word, no! Head's awfully tender. It makes me frightfully wild sometimes when I think of the cowardly way in which that cur Lennox—"
"Hold hard!" cried Dickenson, frowning. "Look here, Roby; you got that crotchet into your head in the delirium that followed your wound. You're getting better now and talk like a sane man, so just drop that nonsense."
"Yes; horrible nonsense. Have you thought of the mischief you are doing by making such a charge?"
"Thought till my head has seemed on fire. He'll have to leave the regiment, and a good job too."
"Of course, over a craze."
"Craze, sir? It's a simple fact—the honest truth. Ask Corporal May there.—It's true, isn't it, May?"
"Oh yes, sir; it's true enough," said the corporal, "though I'm sorry enough to have to say it of my officer."
"It doesn't seem like it, sir," said Dickenson in a voice full of exasperation.
"No, sir; you think so because you always were Mr Lennox's friend. But it ain't my business, and I don't want to speak about it. I never do unless I'm obliged."
"You—you worm!" cried Dickenson, for he could think of nothing better to say. "Have you ever thought it would have been much better, after your lit of fright in the cavern, if Mr Lennox had left you to take your chance, instead of risking his life to save yours?"
"No, sir; I ain't never thought that," whined the man; "but I was very grateful to him for what he did, and that's what keeps me back and makes me feel so ill speaking about him. I wouldn't say a word, sir, but you see I must speak the truth."
"Speak the truth!" growled Dickenson as he turned angrily away. "Look here, Roby, if I stop here much longer I shall get myself into trouble for kicking a patient. Now, once more, look here. You've done an awful lot of mischief by what you said when your fit of delirium was on you, and you're in such a weak state now that as soon as you begin thinking about Lennox you make yourself worse by bringing the crazy feeling back again."
"Crazy feeling? Bah! I know what I'm saying. A coward! I wish the old days were back. I'd call him out and shoot him."
"No, you wouldn't, for you'd have to wait till the doctor took you off his list, and by that time you'd be quite back in your right senses."
"Robert Dickenson!" cried Roby, flushing scarlet, and his features growing convulsed.
"Yes, that's my name; but I'm not going to submit to a bullying from the doctor for exciting his patient. Good-bye. Make haste and get well. I can't stop here."
"Stay where you are," shouted Roby furiously. "Drew Lennox is—"
"My friend," muttered Dickenson, rushing out. "Poor fellow! I suppose he believes it; but he doesn't know how bad he is. It's queer. That idea regularly maddens him. Hullo! here's the boss."
"Ah, Dickenson, my lad! Been to cheer up Roby?"
"Yes, sir; I've been to cheer him up a bit," said Dickenson.
"That's right. Getting on nicely, isn't he?"
"What do you mean with your spun-out 'yes'?"
"I thought he seemed a little queer in the head yet."
"Oh yes, and that will last for a while, no doubt. But he's mending wonderfully, and I'm beginning to hope that there will be no need for the operation: nature is doing the work herself."
"That's right, sir," said Dickenson dryly. "I'd encourage her to go on."
The doctor smiled.
"Going to see Lennox?"
"If I may."
"Oh yes, you may go now. He's getting on too: picking up strength. Don't let him talk too much, and don't mention a word about that report of Roby's."
"Certainly not," said Dickenson; and the doctor passing on, the young officer entered the next hut, to find his friend looking hollow-eyed and pulled down, the nerves at the corners of his eyes twitching as he slept.
Dickenson sat down upon a box watching him, and it was as if his presence there acted upon the patient, who, at the end of a few minutes, opened his eyes and smiled.
"How strange!" he said, holding out his hand.
"I was dreaming about you. How long have you been there?"
"Five or ten minutes."
"How are things going on?"
"No news of relief?"
"Not the slightest. We seem to be quite forgotten out here in this corner."
"Oh—no," said Lennox; "we're not forgotten. The country is so big, and our men are kept busy in other directions."
He turned as he spoke to got into an easier position, and then winced, uttering an ejaculation indicating the pain he felt.
"Why didn't you speak, and let me help you?" said Dickenson.
"Because I want to be independent. It was nothing. Only my neck; it's awfully sore still."
Dickenson winced now in turn. A chill ran through him, and his forehead contracted with pain; but Lennox did not grasp the feeling of horror and misery which ran through his friend.
"I shall be precious glad when it's better," continued Lennox. "Did I tell you how it got in this state?"
"No. Don't talk about it," said Dickenson shortly.
"Why not? I'm all right now. Have I been raving at all?"
"Not that I have heard."
"I wonder at it, for until this morning I've felt half my time as if I were in a nightmare."
"Look here; the doctor said that you were to be kept perfectly quiet, and that I was not to encourage you to talk."
"Good old man. Well, I'm as quiet as a mouse, and you are not going to encourage me to talk. I haven't felt inclined to, either, since I got back. I don't suppose it has been so, but I've felt as if all the veins in my head were swollen up, and it has made me stupid and strange, and as if I couldn't say what I wanted, and I haven't tried to speak for fear I should wander away. But I say, Bob, did I go in to see Roby lying wounded when I came back?"
"Ah, then that wasn't imagination. It's like something seen through a mist. It has all been like looking through glass cloudy and thick over since we rushed the Boers."
"Look here," said Dickenson, rising; "I must go now."
"Nonsense; you've only just come. Sit down, man; you won't hurt me. Do me good.—That's right. I want to ask you something."
"No, no; you'd better not talk."
"What nonsense! I'm beginning to suffer now from what fine people call ennui. Not much in my way, old fellow. You're doing me good. I say, look here. Something has been bothering me like in my dreams. You say I did go in to see poor Roby?"
"Yes; but look here, Drew, old man," cried Dickenson, "if you get on that topic I must go."
"No, no; stay. I want to separate the fancy from the real. I've got an idea in my head that Roby turned upon me in a tit of raving, and called me a coward and a cur for running away and leaving him. Did I dream that?"
"No," said Dickenson huskily. "He has been a good deal off his head. He did shout something of that sort at you."
"Poor fellow!" said Lennox quietly. "But how horrible! Shot in the forehead, wasn't he?"
"Bullet ploughed open the top of his head."
"I didn't see what was wrong with him in the rush. I can remember now, quite clearly, seeing him go down, with his face streaming with blood."
"You recollect that?" said Dickenson excitedly, in spite of himself.
"Oh yes. The light was coming fast, and we were near where a lot of the Boers were making for their mounts to get them away. One big fellow was leading his pony, and as poor Roby was straggling blindly about, this Boer ran at him, holding his rein in one hand, his rifle in the other, and I saw him shorten it with his right to turn it into a club to bring it down on Roby's head."
"All!" cried Dickenson, with increasing excitement, and he waited by Lennox, who ceased speaking, and lay gazing calmly at the door. Then all the doctor's warnings were forgotten, and the visitor said hoarsely, "Well, go on. Why don't you speak?"
"Oh, I don't want to begin blowing about what I did," said Lennox quietly.
"But I want to hear," said Dickenson. "Go on—the Boer raised his rifle to bash it down on Roby's head. What then?"
"Well, he didn't. I was obliged to cut him down. Then the pony jerked itself free and galloped off."
"And you ran to catch it?" cried Dickenson excitedly.
"Nonsense!" said Lennox, laughing. "Why should I do that? What did I want with the pony, unless it might have been to get poor Roby across its back? But I never thought of it. I only thought of getting him on mine."
"And did you?" cried Dickenson.
"Of course I did. I wanted to carry him to the rear, poor fellow."
"Ha!" ejaculated Dickenson.
"Well, don't shout. What an excitable beggar you are?"
"Go on, then. You keep giving it to me in little bits. What then?"
"Oh, I got him on my back, and it was horrible His wound bled so."
"But you carried him?"
"Yes, ever so far; till that happened."
Lennox touched his neck, and his hearer literally ground his teeth in rage.
"Will—you—speak out?" he cried.
"Will you take things a little more coolly?" said Lennox quietly. "Didn't Emden say I was to be kept quiet?"
"Of course; of course," said Dickenson hurriedly. "But you don't know, old chap, what I'm suffering. I'm in a raging thirst for the truth—I want to take one big draught, and you keep on giving me tiny drops in a doll's teaspoon."
"It's because I hate talking about it. I don't want to brag about carrying a wounded man on my back with a pack of Boers on horseback chivvying me. Besides, I'm a bit misty over what did happen. An upset like that takes it out of a fellow. Since I've been lying here this morning thinking it over the wonder to me is that I'm still alive."
Dickenson pressed his teeth together, making a brave effort to keep back the words which strove to escape, and he was rewarded for his reticence by his comrade continuing quietly:
"It all happened in a twinkling. Roby was balanced on my back, and I was trying to get away from the retreating Boers, sword in one hand, revolver in the other; and I kept two off who passed me by pointing my pistol at them, when another came down with a rush, made a snatch at the lanyard, and, almost before I could realise what was happening, poor Roby was down and I was jerked off my feet and dragged along the rough ground, bumping, choking, and strangling. For the brute had made a snatch at my revolver, caught the lanyard, and held on, with the slip-noose tight between the collar of my jacket and my chin, and his pony cantering hard. I can just remember the idea flashing to my brain that this must be something like the lassoing of an animal by a cowboy or one of those South American half-breeds, and then I was seeing dazzling lights and clouds that seemed to be tinged with blood; and after that all was dark for I can't tell how long, before I began to come to, and found myself right away on the veldt, with the sun beating down upon my head, and a raging thirst nearly driving me mad. I suppose I was mad, or nearly so," continued Lennox after a brief pause, "for my head was all in a whirl, and I kept on seeing Boers dragging me over the veldt by the neck, and hearing horses galloping round me, all of which was fancy, of course; for at times I was sensible, and knew that I was lying somewhere out in the great veldt where all was silent, the horses I heard being in my head. Then I seemed to go to sleep and dream that I was being dragged by the neck again, on and on for ever."
"Horrible," panted Dickenson.
"Yes, old fellow, it was rather nasty; but I suppose a great part of it was fancy, and even now I can't get it into shape, for everything was so dull and dreamy and confused. All I can tell you more is, that I woke up once, feeling a little more sensible, and began to feel about me. Then I knew that my sword was by my side and my hand numb and throbbing, for the sword-knot was tight about my wrist. I managed to get that loosened, and after a good deal of difficulty sheathed my sword, after which I began to feel for my revolver, and got hold of the cord, which passed through my hand till I felt that it was broken—snapped off or cut. That was all I could do then, and I suppose I fainted. But I must have come to again and struggled up, moved by a blind sort of instinct to get back to Groenfontein. I say I suppose that, for all the rest is a muddle of dreams and confusion. The doctor says you and a party came and found me wandering about in the dark, and of course I must have been making some blind kind of effort to get back to camp. I say, old fellow, I ought to have been dead, I suppose?"
"Of course you ought, sir," said the doctor, stepping in to lay a hand upon the poor fellow's brow. "Humph! Not so feverish as you ought to be, chattering like that."
"Then you've heard, doctor?" cried Dickenson excitedly.
"I heard talking, sir, where there ought to be none," replied the doctor sharply.
"But did you hear that your precious theory was all wrong?"
"No, sir; I did not," said the doctor sharply. "I based my theory upon what seemed to be facts, and facts they were. I told you that my patient here was suffering from the tightening of a ligature about his neck."
"And quite correct, too, doctor," said Lennox, holding out his hand. "I suppose if that lanyard had not broken I shouldn't be alive here to talk about it."
"Your theory, my dear boy, is as correct as mine," said the doctor, taking his patient's hand, but not to shake it, for he proceeded to feel Lennox's pulse in the most business-like manner, nodding his head with satisfaction.
"Much better than I expected," he said. "But you must be quiet now. I was horrified when I came by and heard such a jabbering going on. Let's see: where are your duds?"
He went to the corner of the hut, where the orderly had placed the patient's uniform, everything as neatly folded as if it had been new instead of tattered and torn; while above, on a peg, hung belts, sword, pouches, and the strong cord-like lanyard stiffened and strained about the noose and slipping knots, while the other end was broken and frayed where the spring snap had been.
"Humph!" said the doctor. "I wonder this cord didn't snap at once with the drag made upon it. All the same I don't suppose you were dragged very far."
He looked at his patient inquiringly, but Lennox shook his head slowly.
"It may have been for half-an-hour, doctor, or only for a minute. I can't tell."
"Probabilities are in favour of the minute, sir," said the doctor. "Well, it's a strange case. I never had but one injury in my experience approaching it, and that was when an artillery driver was dragged over the plain by his horses. A shell burst close to the team, and this man somehow got the reins twisted about his neck, and he was dragged for about a mile before he was released."
"Much hurt?" said Dickenson.
"Yes," said the doctor, with a short nod of the head. "He was very much hurt indeed."
"And I was not, doctor?" said Lennox, smiling.
"Oh no, not in the least," said the doctor sarcastically. "You only wanted your face washed and you'd have been all right in a few hours, no doubt. I've done nothing for you. The old story. Why, let me tell you, sir, when you were brought in I began to wonder whether I was going to pull you round."
"As you have, doctor, and I am most grateful."
Lennox held out both hands as he spoke, his right being still swollen and painful; and this time the doctor took them non-professionally, to hold them for a few moments.
"Of course you are, my dear boy, and I'm heartily glad to see you getting on so well; but, upon my word, I do sometimes feel ready to abuse some of our rough ones. I save their lives, and they take it all as a matter of course—give one not the slightest credit. But there, from sheer ignorance of course. You're getting right fast, and I'll tell you why: it's because you're in a fine, vigorous state of health. You fellows have no chance of over-indulging yourselves in eating and drinking."
"Not a bit, doctor," said Dickenson, making a wry face.
"Oh yes, I know," said the doctor. "You have to go through a good many privations, but you're none the worse. Primeval man used to have hard work to live; civilised man is pampered and spoiled with luxuries."
"Especially civilised man engaged in the South African campaign against the Boers," said Dickenson, while his comrade's eyes lit up with mirth.
"Sneer away, my fine fellow; but though it's precious unpleasant, fasting does no man any harm. Now, look here, sir; if we were in barracks at home you fellows would be indulging in mess dinners and wines and cigars, and sodas and brandies, and some of you in liqueurs, and you wouldn't be half so well, not in half such good training, as you are now."
"The doctor hates a good cigar, Drew, and loathes wine," said Dickenson sarcastically.
"No, he doesn't, boys; the doctor's as weak as most men are when they have plenty of good things before them. But my theory's right. Now, look at the men. Poor fellows! they've had a hard time of it; but look at them when they are wounded. I tell you, sir, that I open my eyes widely and stare at the cures I make of awful wounds. I might think it was all due to my professional experience, but I'm not such an idiot. It's all due to the healthy state the men are in, and the glorious climate."
"And what about the fever, doctor?" said Lennox.
"Ah, that's another thing, my dear boy. When the poor fellows are shut up in a horribly crowded, unhealthy camp, and are forced to drink water that is nothing less than poisonous, they go down fast. So they would anywhere. But see how we've got on here—the camp kept clean, and an abundant supply of delicious water bubbling out of that kopje. Then— Bless my heart! I forbade talking, and here I am giving you fellows a lecture on hygiene.—Come along with me, Dickenson.—You, Lennox, go to sleep if you can. No more talking to-day."
The doctor literally drove Dickenson before him, and hooked him by the arm as soon as they were outside.
"I'm very glad we settled for that idea of mine to be private, Dickenson, my dear boy. But it did look horribly like it."
"Perhaps," said the young man. "But you give it up now?"
"Certainly," said the doctor.
"And you give up the idea too about his running away?"
"Then the sooner you give Roby something that will bring him to his senses the better."
"I wish I could; but the poor fellow seems to have got it stamped into his brain."
"Yes; and the worst of it is he doesn't talk like a man touched in the head."
"No, he does not; though he is, without doubt."
"Can't you talk quietly to the chief? There's he and the major and Edwards take it all as a matter of course. They don't give poor old Drew the credit for all that he has done since we were here, but believe all the evil. It's abominable."
"Esprit de corps, Dickenson, my lad."
"Yes, that's all right enough; but they turn silent and cold as soon as the poor fellow's name is mentioned; while that isn't the worst of it."
"What is, then?" said the doctor.
"The men sing the tune their officers have pitched, and that miserable sneak, Corporal May, sings chorus. Oh! it's bad, sir; bad. Fancy: there was the poor fellow knocked over when trying to save his captain's life, and the man he helped to save turns upon him like this."
"Yes, it is bad," said the doctor; "but, like many more bad things, it dies out."
"What! the credit of being a coward, doctor? No; it grows. Ur-r-r!" growled the speaker. "I should like to ram all that Corporal May has said down his throat. He'd find it nastier physic than any you ever gave him, doctor. I say, I'm not a vindictive fellow, but when I keep hearing these things about a man I like, it makes me boil. Do you think there's any chance of the corporal getting worse?"