Charge! A Story of Briton and Boer, by George Manville Fenn.
The earliest European settlers in South Africa were mostly Dutch. They were known as Boers, the Dutch word for farmer. They were doing well, and even though the British had come to rule the country, their comfortable and profitable existence was all that most of them wanted. However, an Irishman of the name of Moriarty thought otherwise, and urged them to rebel against the British, simply because there is a class of Irish people that enjoy fights, and the English are their nearest neighbours, and Ireland was part of Great Britain.
Val Moray is the son of John Moray, who is farming in South Africa, and he has a brother, Bob. There is also a Kaffir worker on the farm, Joe, or by his preference Joeboy. Joeboy is a co-hero of the story. Moriarty arrives with a few of the Boers and demands that Val be handed over to him to go and fight the British. Val has to go, but manages to escape. He gets to a place where his father has whispered to him would be where Joeboy was to wait for him. They meet up with a Light Horse unit of the British army, where Val meets an old friend, Denham, and they take part in various skirmishes against the Boers, in which they are injured and captured, but manage to escape with the help of Bob and John.
There is plenty of action, but one can't help feeling that the author has bitten off more than he can chew, as these skirmishes in real life became more than that, and the whole thing became a real, if pointless, war. NH
CHARGE! A STORY OF BRITON AND BOER, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
HOME, SWEET HOME.
"Hi! Val! Come, quick!"
"What's the matter?" I said excitedly, for my brother Bob came tearing down to the enclosure, sending the long-legged young ostriches scampering away towards the other side; and I knew directly that something unusual must be on the way, or, after the warnings he had received about not startling the wild young coveys, he would not have dashed up like that.
"I dunno. Father sent me to fetch you while he got the guns ready. He said something about mounted men on the other side of the kopje, so it can't be Kaffirs. I say, do back me up, Val, and get father to let me have a gun."
"Ugh! you bloodthirsty young wretch!" I cried as I started with him for our place, now partly hidden by the orchard—apple and pear trees—I had helped to plant seven years before, when father really pitched his tent by the kopje, and he, Bob—a little, round-headed tot of a fellow then— Aunt Jenny, and I lived in the canvas construction till we had built a house of stone.
The orchard was planted long before the tent was given up—all trees that father had ordered to be sent to us from a famous nursery in Hertfordshire. How well I remember it all!—the arrival of the four big bundles wrapped in matting, and tied behind a great Cape wagon drawn by twenty oxen, whose foreloper was a big, shiny black fellow, who wore a tremendous straw hat, and seemed to think that was all he needed in the way of clothes, as it was big enough to keep off the sun (of which there was a great deal) and the rain (of which there was little). In fact, he wore scarcely anything else—only part of a very old pair of canvas trousers, which he made comfortable and according to his taste by cutting down at the top, so as to get rid of the waist, and tearing close in the fork till the legs were about three inches long.
I remember it all so well: seeing the foreloper come striding along by the foremost pair of oxen, holding one of them by its horn, and carrying a long, thin pole like a very big fishing-rod over his shoulder, for use instead of a whip to guide the oxen. Yes, I recollect it as if it were only yesterday. I looked at him, and he looked at me. My eyes were fixed upon those trousers; and I burst out, boy-like, into the heartiest fit of laughter I ever had. As I laughed his eyes opened wider and wider, and the corners of his mouth began to creep back farther and farther till they nearly disappeared. Then, suddenly, his mouth flew open, showing a wonderfully white set of teeth, and he gave vent to "Yer-her! Yawk, yawk, yawk, yawk! Yor-hor!" Then he helped to outspan the oxen, and I showed him and the man with the wagon where to find water. At every order I gave he opened his mouth and laughed at me; but he eagerly did all I bade, and followed me back to the wagon to help in unloading the bundles of trees, taking the greatest interest in everything, and lifting the boxes and packages of stores which had come with the trees, no matter what their weight, as if he enjoyed putting forth his tremendous strength.
"Well, Val," said my father as he took out his big knife to cut the string, and then carefully unlaced it—for string was precious out in the desert—"I thought I'd chance a few; but it's quite a spec, and I'm afraid they'll be all dried up. However, we'll try them; and now they are here we must get them in at once. Mind, I shall look to you to make them grow if they are still alive."
"How am I to make them grow, father?" I said.
"With water, my boy. You must bring down buckets from the spring till we have time to dig a channel; and then they'll shift for themselves. I hope they'll grow, for it will be pleasant for you and Bob to sit under them sometimes and eat apples and pears such as your father used to have in his old orchard at home."
"Yes, father," I said; "and for you too."
"Perhaps, my boy; perhaps," he said, with a sigh. "We shall see.—Here, Jenny!"
My aunt was already at the door, in her print sun-bonnet, and looking very cross, I thought.
"Yes," she said.
"Give these two men a good hearty meal; I dare say they're pretty hungry."
"It's all ready, John," she said.
"That's right, my dear," said my father; and then, as if to himself, "I might have known." Turning to the short, thick-set Dutch Boer in charge of the wagon, father told him to go to the big wagon-sheet supported on poles, which we used for a dining-room, and then clapped the big black on the shoulder, bidding him go too.
"Get two spades, Val," he said as soon as the men were gone; "and you, Bob, come off that bundle of trees. It wasn't sent all these thousands of miles by ship and wagon to make you a horse."
I fetched the spades while my father went on unpacking the little trees, Bob being set to help by unlacing the string from the pleasant-smelling Russian mats. Before the new arrivals were cast loose, the big black, with a tremendous sandwich of bread and bacon, had joined us, and showed at once that he meant to help. After taking a big bite, he put his sandwich down while he carried trees to the places where they were to be planted, and after putting them down, returned for another bite, giving me a grin every time.
Then the spades were taken up; and by that time the Boer had eaten and drunk as much as he could, and gone to sit on the big chest in front of the wagon, where he filled his pipe and began to smoke, never offering to help, but watching us with his eyes half-closed.
"Here, steady, nigger!" said my father, smiling; "we're not going to bury bullocks. Little holes like this just where I put in these pegs.— You keep him in hand, Val. I never saw such a strong fellow before."
The great black fellow grinned and dug away, making the rich and soft dry earth fly as he turned it out; while he laughed with delight every time I checked him, and followed me to another place.
By that time he had finished his sandwich, and a thought occurred to me.
"Here, Bob," I said; "put down those pegs"—for he was marching about with us, looking very serious, with the bundle of pegs under his arm. "Go and ask Aunt Jenny to cut another big bit of bread and a very large slice of bacon, and bring 'em here."
Bob ran off, and the big black looked at me, threw back his head, and laughed, and laughed again, as he drove the spade deeply into the rich loamy soil; and when the bread and bacon came he laughed, and bit with those great white teeth of his, and munched and chewed like the lying-down oxen, and dug and dug, till my father said, "No more to-night," and bade me carry in the spades.
That night, before going to bed, tired, but happy with the thoughts of our orchard to come, I walked with father beneath the great stars, going round the place—father with his rifle over his shoulder—to see if all was safe.
We went straight to the wagon, to find the oxen all lying down chewing their cud, and from under the tilt there came a deep, heavy snore; but there was also a rustling sound, a big black head popped out, and the man said, in a deep, thick voice:
"Boss, hear lion?"
"No," said my father sharply. "Did you, boy?"
"Iss. Oom! Wawk, wawk, wawk. Boss, lissum."
We stood there in the silence, and for a full minute I could hear nothing but the deep snore of the Boer and chewing of the oxen. Then, distinctly heard, but evidently at a great distance, there was the tremendous barking roar of a lion, and my father uttered a deep "Ha!"
"Boss shoot lion," said the black in a quiet, contented way; and from out of the darkness beneath the great wagon came the sound of the foreloper settling himself down once more to sleep. I remember wondering whether he had anything to cover himself, for the night was fresh and cold. I asked my father.
"Yes; I saw him with a sheepskin over his shoulders. He won't hurt."
We were interrupted by no lion that night, and at the first dawn of day we were out with the spades again; our black visitor, under my direction, digging the holes for the trees, while father planted, and Bob held the stems straight upright till their roots were all nicely spread out, and soil carefully placed amongst them, and trampled firmly in.
This went on till breakfast-time, when Aunt Jenny called us, and the Dutchman came and sat with us, while the great Kaffir carried his portion away, and sat under the wagon to munch.
After the meal the Boer lit his pipe, sat down on a piece of rock, and smoked and looked on till midday, by which time the fruit-trees were all planted, and the big Kaffir had trotted to and fro with a couple of buckets, bringing water to fill up the saucer-like depressions placed about each tree. Then Aunt Jenny called us to dinner, and after that the Boer said it was time to inspan and begin the journey back.
Oh, how well I remember it all!—seeing my father opening a wash-leather bag and paying the Boer the sum that had been agreed upon, and that he wasn't satisfied, but asked for another dollar for the work done by his man. Then father laughed and said he ought to charge for the meals that had been eaten; but he gave the Boer the money all the same; and Aunt Jenny uttered a deep grunt, and said afterwards in her old-fashioned way, "Oh John, what a foolish boy you are!" Then he kissed her and said, "Yes, Jen. I always was. You didn't half-teach me when I was young."
This was after we had watched the wagon grow smaller and smaller in the distance on its way back, and after the great black had stood and looked down at me and laughed in his big, noisy way.
Then once more we were alone in the great desert, father looking proudly down at his little orchard, and Bob walking up and down touching every tree, and counting them over again.
"Begins to look homely now, Val," he said; "but we must work, boy— work."
We did work hard to make that place the home it grew to.
"It's for you, boys," he said, "when I'm dead and gone;" and it was about that time I began to think and understand more fully how father was doing it all for the sake of us boys, and to try and ease his heart-ache. Aunt Jenny set me thinking by her words, and at last I fully grasped how it all was.
"I believe he'd have died broken-hearted, Val," she said to me, "if I hadn't come to him. It was after your poor dear mother passed away. I told him he was not acting like a man and a father to give up like that, and it roused him; and one day—you remember, it was when I had come to keep house for him—he turned to me and said, 'I shall never be happy in England again; and I've been thinking it would be a good thing to take those boys out to the Cape and settle there. They'll grow up well and strong in the new land, and I shall try to make a home for them yonder.' 'Yes, John,' I said, 'that's the very thing you ought to do.' 'Ah,' he said, 'but it means leaving you behind, Jenny, dear, and you'll perhaps never set eyes upon them again.' 'Oh, yes, I shall, John,' I said, 'for I've come to stay.' 'What!' he cried; 'would you go with us, sis?' 'Yes,' I said, 'to the very end of the world.' So we came here, Val, where there's plenty of room, and no neighbours to find fault with our ways."
That's how it was; and now I can admire and think of how Aunt Jenny, the prim maiden lady, gave up all her own old ways to set to and work and drudge for us all, living in a wagon and then in a tent, and smiling pleasantly at the trees we planted, and bringing us lunch where we were working away, dragging down stones for the house which progressed so slowly, though father's ideas wore modest.
"For," said he, "we'll build one big stone room, Val, and make it into two with part of the tent. Then by-and-by we'll build another room against it, and then another and another till we get it into a house."
Yes, it was hard work getting the stones, and we were busy enough one day in the hot sunshine, about a month after the wagon had been with the trees and stores, when Bob suddenly stood shading his eyes, and cried:
"Some one's coming!"
We looked up, and there, far in the distance, I saw a black figure striding along under a great, broad matting-hat.
"Why, it looks like that great Kaffir, father," I said.
"Nonsense, boy," he replied; "the Kaffirs all look alike at a distance."
"But it is, father," I cried excitedly. "Look; he's waving his big hat because he sees us." I waved mine in answer; and directly after he began to run, coming up laughing merrily, and ending by throwing down three assagais and the bundle he carried, as he cried:
"Come back, boss."
We gave him something to eat, and the next minute he was lifting and carrying stones, working like a slave; and at night he told me in his way that he was going to stop along with old boss and young boss and little boss and old gal, and never go away no more.
OUR UGLY VISITOR.
The black fellow's arrival at such a time was most welcome; but my father put no faith in his declaration.
"They're all alike, Val," he said. "He's a quick worker, and as willing and good-tempered as a man can be; but he'll only stay with us till he has earned wages enough to buy himself some bright-coloured blankets and handkerchiefs, and then he'll be off back to his tribe."
"Think so, father?" I said. "He seems to like us all here. He says it's better than being with the Boers. He always says he means to stay."
"He does mean it, of course," said my father; "but these black fellows are like big children, and are easily led away by some new attraction. We shall wake up some morning and find him gone."
But seven years glided away, during which apprenticeshiplike time Joeboy, as we called him—for he would not be content with Joe when he had heard the "boy" after it once or twice, "Joeboy" quite taking his fancy—worked for us constantly, and became the most useful of fellows upon our farm, ready to do anything and do it well, as his strength became tempered with education. In fact, it grew to be a favourite saying with my father, "I don't know what we should have done without Joeboy."
One of the first persons I saw that morning, when I trotted towards the house after being called by my brother, was the great black hurrying out to meet us; and as we got closer it was to see his face puckered up and his eyes flashing, as he said to me hoarsely:
"Won't go, Boss Val; won't go. You tell the Boss I've run up into the hills. Won't go."
"Here, what do you mean?" I said.
"Boss Boers come to fetch up go and fight. Won't go."
"Nonsense," I said. "I dare say they've only come to buy bullocks."
"No," said the black, shaking his head fiercely. "Come to fetch Joeboy."
"Here, don't run away."
"On'y go up in kopje," he said. "Hide dar."
He rushed away, and I was sure I knew where he would hide himself. Then I walked on with my brother, to find my father and Aunt Jenny by the door.
"What's it all about, father?" I asked.
"I don't know yet, my boy; but we soon shall. There's about a score of the Boers, well mounted and armed. Yonder they are, coming at a walk. There were only twelve; but another party have caught up to them, and maybe there are more."
"Joeboy has run off in a fright," I said. "He thinks they've come to fetch him."
"Oh no; it isn't that, my boy," said my father. "I fear it's something worse."
"What?" I said wonderingly.
MY FIRST REAL TROUBLE.
Before my father could reply a body of horsemen cantered up, every man well mounted, rifle in hand, and carrying a cross-belt over his left shoulder fitted with cartridges, bandolier fashion. Their leader, a big, heavily-bearded, fierce-looking fellow, dropped from his saddle, threw the rein to one of his companions, and then swaggered up to us, scanning us with his eyes half-closed, and with a haughty, contemptuous expression in his countenance.
"Ye're John Moray, I suppose?" he said, turning to my father, after looking me up and down in a way I, a hot-blooded and independent lad of eighteen, did not at all like.
"Yes," said my father quietly, "I'm John Moray. Do you want some refreshment for your men and horses?"
"Yes, of course," said our visitor; and I wondered why such a big-bearded, broad-shouldered fellow should speak in so high-pitched a tone. That he was Irish he proved directly; but that excited no surprise, for we were accustomed to offer hospitality to men of various nationalities from time to time—Scots, Finns, Germans, Swedes, and Norwegians—trekking up-country in search of a place to settle on.
"Will you dismount and tie up, then?" said my father; "and we'll see what we can do.—Val, my lad, you will see to the horses having a feed?"
"Yes, father," was on my lips, when the Irish leader turned upon me sharply with:
"Oh, ye're Val—are ye?"
"Yes," I said, rather sharply, for the man's aggressive manner nettled me; "my name is Valentine."
"And is it, now?" he said, with a mocking laugh. "Ye're a penny plain and tuppence coloured, I suppose? Coloured, bedad! Look at his face!"
"I don't see the joke," I said sharply.
"Don't ye, now? Then ye soon will, my fine chap. Let's see, now; how old are ye?"
I made no reply, and my father replied gravely:
"My son is eighteen."
"Is he, now? And ye're forty, I suppose?"
"I am sorry to say I am over fifty," replied my father, as I stood chafing at the man's insolent, bullying tone.
"Then ye don't look it, sor. But there, we'll leave ye alone for a bit. I dare say we can do without ye this time, and take the bhoy."
"What for—where?" said my father quickly.
"What for—where?" cried the man. "For the commando, of course."
"The commando?" said my father, while I felt staggered, only half-grasping the import of his words.
"Yes, sor, the commando. D'ye suppose ye are to have the protection of the State, and do nothing again' your counthry's inimies? If ye do ye're greatly mistaken. Every man must take his turn to difind the counthry, and ye may feel preciously contented that ye don't have to join yerself."
"But I have heard of no rising," said my father, looking at me anxiously. "The blacks all about here are peaceable and friendly."
"Not the blackest blacks, sor," said the man, drawing himself up and raising one hand and his voice in an oratorical way; "the blacks I mane are white-skinned, but black in the heart through and through; the blacks who are the dispisers of progress, the foes of freedom, the inimies of the counthry, sor—the despicable, insolent Saxons."
"Do you mean the English?" said my father coolly.
"I do that, sor," said the man defiantly; "and the day has dawned at last when the down-thrampled Boers are goin' to give them a lesson that shall make the British lion snaik out of this counthry with his tail between his legs like a beaten dog."
"You are a British subject, sir," said my father.
"Mahn, I scorrun it," cried our visitor. "I have thrown off all fealty years ago, and am a free Irishman, and captain of the body of brave men who are going to dhrive the tyranny of England out of this colony for ever."
"This is all news to me, sir," said my father coldly.
"Is it, sor?" said our visitor mockingly. "Then I'm proud to be the bearer of the great news."
"Do you mean to tell me, then," said my father, "that there is war declared by England against the Boers?"
"No, sor," cried the fellow insolently; "but I tell you that we have declared war again' the brutal Saxon."
"We, sir?" said my father gravely. "But you are one of the Queen's servants—an Irishman."
"Nothing of the sort, sor. I disown England; I disowned her when I came out here to throw meself into the arrums of the brave, suffering, pathriotic race around me, and placed my sword at their service."
"Then you are a soldier, I presume?" said my father.
"I was tin years in the arrmy, sor," said our visitor, drawing himself up and clapping his hand upon his chest. "Look at thim," he continued, pointing to his followers drawn up in line. "A part of my following, and as fine irrigular cavalry as ever threw leg over saddle.—Look here, young man, ye're in luck, for ye'll have the honour of serving in Captain Eustace Moriarty's troop."
"You are Captain Eustace Moriarty?" said my father.
"I am, sor."
"Then I must tell you, sir," said my father, "that though I have taken up land here and made it my home, I claim my rights as an Englishman not to make myself a traitor by taking up arms against my Queen."
"A thraitor!" cried the captain. "Bah! That for the Queen;" and he snapped his fingers. "But ye're not asked to serve now. That can wait till ye're wanted. It's the bhoy we want, and maybe after a bit it'll be you."
"My son thinks as I do," said my father sternly.
"Does he, now?" said the captain mockingly. "Then I shall have to tache him to think as I do, and it won't take long. D'ye hear me, bhoy?"
"I hear what you say, sir," I replied. "Of course I think as my father does, and I refuse to serve against England."
"I expected it," said the man, with cool insolence. "It's what I expected from a young Saxon. But look here, me bhoy; ye've got to serrve whether ye like it or whether ye don't. What's more, ye've got to come at once. So get yer horse, and clap the saddle on. Fetch him his rifle and his cartridge-bolt, and let there be no more nonsense."
"You heard what my son said, sir," said my father haughtily. "If it were against a black enemy of the country we should both be willing."
"Didn't I tell ye it was again' a black inimy?" said the man mockingly.
"I heard you insult the Queen and her Government, sir," said my father; "and, once more, my son refuses to serve."
"The coward!—the white-livered cub!" cried the captain contemptuously.
"What!" I cried, springing forward; but my father flung his hand across my chest, and Bob rushed in past Aunt Jenny, as if to take refuge from the scene.
"Quite right, old man," said the captain, coolly stroking his beard. "And look here, bhoy whether ye like it or not, ye're a sojer now; I'm yer shuperior officer, and it's time of war. If a man strikes his shuperior officer, he's stood up with a handkerchief tied across his eyes to prevent him from winking and spoiling the men's aim, and then the firing-party does the rest."
As he spoke he made a sign, and half-a-dozen of the mounted Boers rode up.
"Sargint," he said, "the young colt's a bit fractious. Ye'll take him in hand. Fasten his hands behind him ready. Two of ye go round to the pen there and pick out the most likely horse, saddle and bridle him, and bring him here. Ye've got some green-leather thongs. Then put him upon the horse with his face to the tail, and tie his ankles underneath. It'll be a fine lesson for the bhoy in rough-riding."
The men were quick enough. Before I had even thought of trying to make my escape, two of the Boers were off their horses and made me their prisoner, while the rest of the little troop rode closer up and surrounded us.
Then other two of the men rode off behind the house, and I stood breathing hard, biting my lips, and feeling as if something hot was burning my chest as I tried hard to catch my father's averted eyes.
Just then the Irish renegade captain burst into a hearty laugh, and I wrenched myself round to look, and felt better. A minute before, I had seen Bob disappear into the house, and had mentally denounced him as a miserable little coward; but my eyes flashed now as I saw him hurry out with three rifles over his right shoulder, a bandolier belt across his left, and two more, well filled with cartridges, hanging to the barrels of the rifles.
"Bedad!" said the captain, "and he's worth fifty of his big, hulking brother! But ye're too shmall, darlint. Wait a year or two longer, and ye shall fight under me like a man."
Bob made a rush for father; but one of the Boers leaned down and caught him by the shoulder, while another snatched the rifles from his hands, and laid them across the pommel of the saddle in which he sat.
"Give up, Bob; give up," cried father sternly, as my brother began to struggle with all his might. "It is no use to fight against fate."
"Hear him now," said the captain. "He can talk sinse at times."
"Yes," said my father, "at times;" and he gave the captain a look which made him turn away his eyes.—"Val, my boy, I cannot have you exposed to the ignominy of being bound."
"Sure, no," cried the captain. "I forgot to say a wurrud about stirrup-leathers across his back if he didn't behave himself."
"Fate is against us for the present, my boy," continued my father, "and you must ride with this party till I have applied to the proper quarters to get the matter righted."
"Now, man, be aloive," said the captain, and I winced and looked vainly round for a way of escape; but I was seized by the wrist by another dismounted Boer, who slipped a raw-hide noose over my wrist, just as two more came riding back, leading my own horse, Sandho, between them. The poor beast, who followed me like a dog, uttered a shrill neigh as soon as he caught sight of me, springing forward to reach my side.
"Stop!" cried my father loudly; "there is no need for that. My son will ride with you, sir."
"Indade, sir, I'm obleeged to ye for the inforrmation," said the captain mockingly; "but sure it's a work of shupererrogation, me dear friend, for I knew it, and that he was going to ride backward. If, however, he gives up sinsibly, he may ride with his back to the horse's tail, and ye needn't tie his ankles togither. Have ye ever ridden that horse before?"
"He has ridden it hundreds of times, ever since it was a foal," said my father quickly, for I felt choked.—"Stop, man," he added angrily; "your captain said my son was not to be bound."
"Sure I didn't say a wurrud about his wrists, old man," cried the captain contemptuously. "Ye want too much. I've let him off about the ankles, and let him ride face forward, so be contint. Make his wrists fast behind him."
I was compelled to resign myself to my fate, and stood fighting hard to keep down all emotion while my wrists were secured firmly behind my back, the thin raw-hide cutting painfully into the flesh.
By this time Sandho was bridled and saddled, and just then my father turned to Bob.
"Take in those rifles, my boy," he said.
The captain turned sharply and gave my father a searching look; but he contented himself with nodding, and my brother snatched the rifles from where they lay across the Boer's knees, and rushed indoors with them.
I knew well enough why, poor fellow: it was to hide the tears struggling to rise, and of which he was ashamed.
Just then I had harder work than ever to control my own feelings, for Aunt Jenny hurried towards me, but was kept back by my captors; and I saw her go to my father and throw her arms about his neck, while he bent over her and seemed to be trying to whisper comfort.
"There, up with ye, me bhoy," cried the captain. "Ye can't mount, though, with yer hands behind yer like a prishner.—Lift him on, two of ye, like a sack."
"That they shan't," I said between my teeth; and feeling now that what was to como was inevitable, I took a couple of steps to my horse's side.
"Stand!" I said aloud as I raised one foot to the stirrup; and Sandho stood as rigid as if of bronze, while I made a spring, raised myself up, and threw my leg over.
"Well done, bhoy!" cried the captain as I sank into the saddle.—"You, Hooger, take his rein. Unfasten one end from the bit so as to give ye double length, and ye'd better buckle it to your saddle-bow.—Now look here, me fine fellow," he continued, addressing me, "ye'll give me none of your nawnsense; for, look ye, my bhoys are all practised shots with the rifle. They can bring down a spring-bok going at full speed, so they can easily bring ye down and yer nag too. There's twenty of them, and I'm a good shot meself, so ye know what to expect if ye thry to escape."
I said nothing, for I was thinking with agony about poor Aunt Jenny, who was now coming up to me, and the captain laughed as he saw her pain-wrung countenance.
"Good-bye, Val, my boy," said my father slowly; "and bear up like a man."
That was all, and he turned away.
The next moment Bob was clinging to my arm.
"O Val! O Val! O Val!" he cried in a choking voice, and then he dropped back, poor boy, for he could say no more.
"Be sharp there and get it done, me bhoy," said the captain. "Ye can say good-bye to the owld woman; but lave the cat and the dogs till ye come back."
"Are you going to march at once?" said my father as Aunt Jenny came to my side, and I gripped my saddle and bent down for her to put her arms round my neck.
"Sor, ye see that I am," said the captain.
"But you and your men will take something to eat and drink?"
"Something to send them asleep?" said the captain suspiciously. "I'm thinkin' they can last till we get back to Drak Pass, where there's a shtore. I'm obleeged to ye all the same.—There, that'll do, owld lady. I'll make a man of the bhoy, and send him back safe and sound, if some of the raw recruits of the brutal Saxons don't shoot him."
"Good-bye, then. God bless you and protect you, Val!" said Aunt Jenny, with a sob, as she loosened her grip of my neck, and I straightened myself up, feeling my heart swell and the blood bound in my veins, for while my father kept the captain in converse, she, with quivering lips, had breathed words of hope into my ear.
"Listen, Val," she said. "Your father bids me say that you are to watch for your chance, and then make a dash for your liberty. Gallop to Echo Nek, and you will find Joeboy waiting there with a rifle and cartridges. But you must not come back here. Joeboy will bring a letter."
My heart was bounding with hope, and I felt ready for anything just then, as the captain gave the orders "Mount!" and then "Forward!" But the next minute my spirits sank into the darkness of misery. For what had Aunt Jenny said? Joeboy would be waiting at Echo Nek with a rifle and cartridges. Yes; but poor Joeboy had taken flight at the appearance of the Boers, and fled for his liberty, in the belief that they had come for him.
WAITING FOR MY CHANCE.
I rode on painfully as regarded my wrists; for above them my arms throbbed and burned as if the veins were distended almost to bursting-point, while my hands grew gradually cold and numb, and then became insensible as so much lead. The physical pain, however, was nothing to what I felt mentally. Only an hour or two before I was leading that calm, happy home-life, without a trouble beyond some petty disappointment in the garden or farm or during one of the hunting or shooting expeditions with Joeboy to carry my game; and now a lightning-like stroke seemed to have descended to end my idyllic boy-life and make me a man full of suffering, and with a future which I abhorred.
"No," I argued, "I must escape, even if they do send a shower of bullets to bring me down." I did not believe much in the vaunted powers of the Boers with the rifle. I knew that they could shoot well, but no better than my father and his two pupils, meaning Bob and myself; and I felt that we should have been very doubtful about bringing down a man going at full gallop, even in the brightest daylight; and I meant to make my venture in the dusk of the evening or after dark if only my captors would continue their journey then. Once well started, and my rein free of the man who held it buckled to his saddle-bow, I had no fear at all, for I was sure that in a straight race there was not a Boer amongst them who could overtake me, they being heavy, middle-aged men, while I was young and light, quite at home in the saddle, and Sandho as much at home with me, upon his back. Arms? I could do without them. Reins? I needed none, if only free of the one which held me to my left-hand guard; for an extra pressure of either leg would send my beautiful little Australian horse in the direction I wished to turn, while a word of encouragement would send him on like the wind, and an order sharply uttered check him even if at full speed.
I had had Sandho four years, mounting him as soon as he was strong enough to bear me, and ever since we seemed to have been companions more than master and servant. We had played together; I had hunted him, and he had hunted me—finding me, too, when I hid from him; and he answered when out grazing on the veldt with a cheery neigh before galloping to meet me. Why, there had been times when we had both lain down to sleep together on the distant plains, my head resting on his glossy neck; so, now that he was bearing me along, comparatively helpless, and I felt his elastic, springy form beneath me, I was ashamed of my despair, convinced that if I gave the word he would snap that rein at the first bound, and bear me safely away.
I made up my mind that if I could defer my attempt till it was dark I should be safe. If, however, I were obliged to venture in daylight, I would make my dash by some rocky pass or kopje on the way, where Sandho would easily leave the Boers' horses behind, he being almost as sure-footed as a goat.
The captain drew rein a little, so that I came alongside during the first part of our ride, and he cast his eye over my bonds and gave the Boer who had the leading-rein a sharp order or two about keeping a good lookout. To this the dull, heavy fellow responded with a surly growl. After this the Irishman banteringly asked me if I was comfortable.
My answer was an angry glare—at least, I meant it to be—but the only effect was to make him laugh.
"Ye've got a bad seat in the saddle, and it will be a good lesson to ye in riding, bhoy. Make ye sit up. I hate to see a military man with his showlders up and his nose down close to his charrger's mane. Faith, I'm half-disposed to make ye throw the stirrups over the nag's neck, and I would if we'd toime. But we've none to spare for picking ye up when ye came off.—Here," he cried to the two men next behind, for we now rode two and two; "why are your carbines not full-cocked—rifles, I mane? That's right. Fire at wanst if he tries to bowlt; don't wait for ordhers."
I listened to the sharp clicking of the rifle-locks as the men cocked their pieces; but somehow I did not feel scared, for a feeling of desperation was upon me, and I was strung-up to dare anything to get my liberty; and, besides, my father's orders were that I should make a dash.
"They can't hit me," I said to myself; and wherever the track was fair going we went on at a canter, drawing rein wherever the ground grew bad. At these latter times the captain began talking loudly in a highly-pitched and half-contemptuous way to the leading men; and when his words reached my ears I made out that his subject was either about military evolutions and a man's bearing in the saddle, or else, in a harsh and bitter tone, about the brutal Saxon who was at last going to receive his dues for his long years of evil-doing and tyranny towards the oppressed. Hearing such talk, I rode on half-wondering what England had been doing towards the Irish at home and the Boers abroad, for this was all news to me, and I had never noticed among the Dutch settlers on the veldt anything but a stolid kind of contentment with their prosperous lot; there not being a single case of poverty, as far as I knew, within a hundred miles of our pleasant home.
At the thought of home a strange swelling came in my throat, and the wide, open veldt before me looked dim as I pictured all I had left behind; for, happy as had been the life I led, and lovely as everything around had always seemed, home had never seemed so beautiful as now. However, I set my teeth hard, knit my brows, and with an effort seemed to swallow down that swelling lump in my throat, at the same time nipping Sandho's sides so sharply that he gathered himself up to bound off; but he was checked by a savage snatch at the rein, and received a blow with the barrel of my escort's rifle, as the surly and scowling brute beside me growled out a fierce oath in Dutch.
The plunge Sandho gave nearly unseated me, and in another moment he would have been rearing and kicking to get free; but a few gentle words from my lips soothed the poor beast down, and he settled into his canter once more, while I fell to wondering whether my poor horse could think and would understand that the brutal treatment did not come from his master.
On and on we rode over ground familiar to me, for many a long journey from home had I been in every direction—hunting, shooting, or with our wagon and oxen and Joeboy as foreloper, on journeys of many days through the wilderness, to fetch stores for home use or to dispose of game or stock. So beautiful it all seemed; now it was so wretched for me to leave it all, and to be forced to go and fight against my brothers, so to speak, in a cause that I felt I must hate. As I rode on, thinking thus, I could see that there was no such oppression and tyranny as the Irish captain spoke of; nothing but a bitter and contemptible race-hatred, fostered by idle and discontented men.
"But I shan't have to fight," I said to myself. "They talk about freedom, and drag me away as a slave; but I too mean to be free."
From that moment the gloomy lookout ahead seemed to pass away, the veldt seeming glorious in the afternoon sunshine; and, cantering through the invigorating air, I could have enjoyed my ride but for the constrained position in which I sat, and the dull pain in my arms and shoulders. I tried to forget this, and listened to the captain's words, for he grew more and more loquacious. I gathered that he reckoned upon picking up other two young fellows of my own stamp at the farm twenty miles from ours; and I noted that, no matter what he said, his words were listened to in gloomy silence or received with grunting monosyllables, while the Boers talked among themselves only about home and farming work or the sale of stock. More than once, too, I heard one of the men near me wonder how the housewife would be getting on with the beasts and sheep. The words were spoken in Boer Dutch; but in the course of years I had become pretty well acquainted with the expressions of ordinary life. Thus it seemed as if the men were anything but contented followers of their noisy, vapouring leader.
At last the farm was reached, and we halted for refreshment, spending about half-an-hour to water and feed the horses, during which time I was carefully guarded. There was no opposition here. The two recruits to the commando, as they termed it, had been duly served with notice, and within the time named they were ready with their horses, and armed; but when we made our start I could see with what surly unwillingness they took their places in the rank, and noticed too that they were nearly as strictly watched as I was. In fact, I saw them exchange glances after receiving a bullying order from Moriarty, and felt that it would not have taken much to cause a display of temper on the part of the recruits.
That, however, by the way: my thoughts were too much taken up with my own position to pay much heed to the two young Boers; for when we were once more on our route for our next stopping-place, where we were to halt for the night, I felt that the time was rapidly approaching when I must make my escape. I did not say to myself try to make my escape, but to make it; for I had no fear of being unsuccessful. The night was coming on fast, and I knew that there was no moon, which was all in my favour; and, once free, all I had to do was to make straight for home—a ride of perhaps thirty miles through the wild country, keeping away from the track, and with nothing to fear. Yes, there wore the lions, plentiful enough in the wilder parts; but the thought of them did not damp me, for Sandho would soon give me warning if any were near, and carry me well out of danger.
Then there was the next day. I was to make for Echo Nek, and there, meet Joeboy, who would bear my father's instructions; but would Joeboy be there? My heart sank a little at the thought of how doubtful this was; but I soon cheered up again. At the worst it meant waiting a day or two, for I should not venture, home. The Boers would ride back—of that I felt sure; then, thinking I should certainly seek for refuge with my people, they would scour the country in search of me, and they might search Echo Nek, though it was ten miles away.
"Never mind," I said to myself cheerily enough; "that all belongs to what may be: let's think only of will be;" and I rode on, scanning the track and keeping a good lookout from side to side for the likeliest spot for my attempt. I was still keenly watching when the shades of evening darkened into night, and the right place had not yet come; there were even moments when doubts began to creep in, for my arms grew acutely painful, and this thought worried me terribly: "Helpless as I am now, and growing weary, shall I have the strength to carry out my plan?" I still had strength enough to drive out the doubting thought, and forced myself into watching eagerly for my chance, having pretty well determined what I would do first, trusting to the sudden surprise to give me a few moments' start.
In vain I looked for such a sanctuary as a rocky pile of scattered granite would afford, for it had at last grown dark—a clear, semi-transparent darkness, through which I could see twenty or thirty yards in any direction; beyond that distance everything rapidly grew black. If I could at once get fifty yards away, there was apparently clear galloping ground, and distance would at any moment furnish me with a dark hiding-place. All I wanted was the start; but how to get it?
I had my big knife in my pocket; but I might as well have been without it, fastened as I was. So, though I thought and thought, I could see no way of dividing that rein; the idea of raising it to my teeth being dismissed as an impossibility, as also of Sandho cutting it with his own powerful nip, for I knew the idea of communicating my desire to the horse was absurd. "How to manage? How to manage?" I kept on saying to myself. The idea would not come; and as it grew darker our canter gave place to a round trot, and soon after we steadied down to a walk.
Suppose I suddenly made Sandho rear up? That would be easy, for I could make him rise on his hind-legs and fight with his fore. But what good would that do? No more than making him kick violently in all directions, as he turned his fore-feet into a pivot upon which he turned, bringing his heels round to all points of the compass, and delivering smashing blows with them. Splendid practice this when a litter of half-grown lions were trying to pull him down, but now not likely to do more than bring down punishment upon the poor beast.
Again and again I made up my mind to make him give a sudden bound; but the chances were that it would not snap the rein, only cruelly drag the poor fellow's mouth. And the minutes glided by, and the position grew more and more hopeless. Then, suddenly, I seemed to see the only possible way of getting clear. We rode with long reins, my father and I, and I began to wonder why I had not thought of putting my plan in action before.
A DASH FOR LIBERTY.
As I have said, one of my reins was unbuckled, passed over the horse's neck, and buckled to the Boer's saddle-bow; and in consequence of the length of the strap, it hung down in a long curve when we were riding a fair distance apart, so I felt I had only to press my horse close alongside that of my companion to slacken the leather strap still further. My plan was almost a forlorn hope; but I could think of no other, and determined to try it, even if, as would probably be the case, it meant no more than dragging me suddenly from the saddle, to fall and be trampled among the horses' heels. Still, I was determined, and only waited now for the thrilling moment when I would try.
We rode on for what seemed to me another mile, and still one moment seemed as good as another. I was ready to despair. Then the time came. The Boer at my side, having slung his cocked rifle over his shoulder, fumbled in the darkness for something. Guessing what my companion was about to do, with a slight pressure of my right leg I made Sandho edge gradually closer. I was quite right. He took out a big Dutch pipe and a pouch, proceeding to fill the bowl and press down the tobacco; and as he worked so did I. Edging Sandho nearer and nearer, with my heart beginning to beat with big, heavy throbs, I withdrew my left foot from the stirrup, lowered it down in front of the loosely-hanging rein, and, as soon as that was level with my ankle, twisted my foot again and again, till the rein was three times round. Then I felt the drag upon the Boer's saddle-bow, just as the man was getting a light; and at that moment my leg came in contact with his so suddenly that it jerked him, and the match he had struck went out.
"Thunder and lightning!" he growled, kicking out to drive Sandho farther away, but missing him, for I had just thrust my toe back into the stirrup-iron and was pressing my horse away.
The next minute scratch went another match, the bright light shining out for a moment between us so that I could see the man's face plainly as he held the burning splint between his hands on a level with his chin. Then it was out again, for with a loud, shrill cry I was urging Sandho to make his great effort—one which, as I have said, meant either freedom—if the escape of one bound as I was could be so regarded—or the horse galloping away and leaving me to be trampled under foot.
"Ri—ri—ri—ri—ri—ri!" I half-shrieked, and Sandho made a tremendous bound. There was a jerk at my left leg which nearly dragged me from the saddle, and then we were off and away, the horse tearing over the level plain out into the darkness; while close behind, after a momentary pause, I heard the trampling of horses and the high-pitched voice of the Irish leader yelling out orders. Then flash after flash cut the darkness, and crack, crack, crack came the reports of the rifles, as the men fired in what they believed to be my direction; but I heard no whistling bullet, and the firing ceased as quickly as it had begun, for there was the risk of my pursuers inflicting injury upon their fellows who led, and whom I could hear thundering along behind me, while with voice and knee I urged Sandho on at his greatest speed.
A wild feeling of elation sent the blood dancing through my veins as we raced along, and I was ready to burst out into shout after shout of triumph, for I was free! free! And away we went, I almost perfectly helpless, and knowing I must trust to my brave horse to carry me beyond the reach of pursuit.
Throb, throb, throb went his hoofs on the soft earth, and throb, throb, throb went my heart, during what seemed now like some wild, feverish dream in which I was careering onward through the semi-transparent darkness, fully expecting every moment to see some great patch of brush or pile of loose granite loom up before us, to be followed by a tremendous leap, a crash as we came to horrible grief, and then insensibility; but nothing of the kind occurred, for I had chosen the happiest moment for my attempt, and we were galloping over the almost level veldt. But evidently guided by the beat of my horse's hoofs, the Boers were still in full chase, the deep thudding of their troopers sounding loud and clear.
For a few minutes, in the wild excitement, I could think of nothing but whispering words of encouragement to Sandho, as I lay right forward now and pressed and caressed him with my legs; while, as I reached towards his head, I could just make out the delicate ears, and see them laid back to listen to my words every time I spoke.
Then a strange pain brought me more consciousness of my position. It was not the aching above my crippled wrists, but in my left leg, which felt strained and stretched as if on the rack, and for a few moments I fancied my foot had been torn off at the ankle; but the next moment I knew this was absurd, for I could rise in my stirrups. Still, I knew my leg was badly hurt, and that I must now endeavour to do something to free my hands.
All this time we were tearing along at racing pace, while with dogged obstinacy the Boers—ten or a dozen of them, I judged by the beating of the hoofs—had settled themselves to the pursuit, meaning to hunt me down as they would track some wounded eland trying its best for life.
"This won't do," I thought as I began to grow calmer, and listened.
There they were, tearing along, far enough behind, but well on my track; and there was I, almost helpless, struggling to get my bonds undone, but only giving myself more pain.
The darkness was my only friend and refuge, and after a few moments' consideration I made up my mind what to do. At any moment the chase might be at an end. Seven years on the veldt had taught me well the risks of a horseman, and I knew only too well what would happen if Sandho did not rise in time, or failed to clear some one of the thousands of scattered rocks; or he might plunge his foot in a hole made by some burrowing animal, and come down crippled for life, while I was flung over his head. Yes, the chase might come to an end at any moment, and all hope of reaching Echo Nek be gone; so, drawing a deep breath, I steadied myself. Then I strained forward as far as I could reach, and spoke to Sandho, who uttered a whinnying snort and began to check himself. As soon as he had eased down into a canter I brought my left leg to bear upon him, and an agonising pain shot up to my hip, turning me so faint that for a minute I was giddy and nearly lost my seat; but my pressure upon his flank had caused him to amble on at right angles to our former course. As my head grew clearer I brought him down to a walk, and directly after stopped him short. I saw his ears twitching, and his head turned in the direction from whence came the heavy beat of hoofs. This sound came closer and closer, and then swept past, as I sat with beating heart, mental distress being added to my bodily pain, for at any moment I knew Sandho might utter a neighing challenge to the passing horses; but he was silent, and they passed at a swinging gallop, the sound soon growing fainter. I was beginning to breathe more freely when my agony was renewed; for the beating of hoofs was resumed, and I could tell that the little troop of Boers was divided into two, and the risk had again to be encountered.
I dared not whisper to Sandho for fear he should answer me in his own way and reach round his soft, velvety muzzle to touch my expected hand, now so painfully held back. These seemed the worst, the most agonising, moments of my flight; and I felt sick with pain, too. If the horse whinnied, all my desperate struggle would have been in vain; and I was ready in my anguish to ask whether it was worth while to go on with the desperate attempt.
All this time the horsemen came nearer and nearer. In my agitation it seemed they were not following the departing hoof-sounds in a direct line, but riding in a curve which would bring them right over the spot where we stood.
How long the moments are in such an emergency! The time seemed to me stretched out to an agonising length; but this second strain came to an end, and Sandho stood motionless, with his flanks heaving beneath me. I could hear his breath come hard as the Boers galloped on abreast, closer and closer; and then the thud, thud, thud grew less and less plain, till the sounds gradually became faint in the distance. I now felt ready to spring from my saddle and go down in thankfulness upon my knees; but I dared not stir, for if I managed to throw myself down, I knew perfectly well I could never get into the saddle again.
NIGHT ON THE VELDT.
I sat there in the chilly darkness, listening till the last sounds of the beating hoofs died out—began again—grew fainter—finally ceased altogether. Sandho stood perfectly still, with the painful heaving of his flanks gradually easing down. At last he uttered a low whinnying sound, as if asking me why we did not go on; but I made no movement, spoke no word, only sat and listened for the return of the Boers.
There was no sound, for my ruse had succeeded; and I was just beginning to try to rouse myself from a faint, half-swooning state, when my nerves received a fillip; for there in the distance rose the deep, barking roar of a lion, followed by a pause, and then from a different direction came the horrible wailing howl of the unclean prowlers who follow the monarch of the desert to finish the remains of his feasts.
Sandho stirred uneasily and drew a deep breath, which was followed by something strangely resembling a sigh. I knew it was time to move; and, shaking off a sensation of fast-approaching lethargy, I tried to get rid of the feeling of faintness, and only roused the sharp pain afresh. Still, that spurred me into effort; and as I pressed Sandho's sides lightly, he began to amble gently along, while I raised my eyes to the stars, and endeavoured to make out which way we were travelling. There was a soft mistiness in the great arch above me, and it was some minutes before I could pick out a few of the familiar stars; but at last I was certain, and made out that the Boers had galloped on nearly due north, while Sandho's nose was pointed east.
North meant home; and without doubt they would keep on in that direction, feeling sure that I should make for the farm. East meant going in the right direction for Echo Nek and the mountains, though I should have to bear off after a time towards the north-east. Anyhow, matters were so far in my favour, and I tried to sit firm in the saddle as I let the horse amble on at the pace which I had often compared to swinging in an easy-chair; but the movement was agony now, and my great dread was lest I should faint and fall, for the suffering seemed greater than I could bear.
In times of emergency—as I have often learned since—we are very poor judges, whether as boys or men, of how much the human frame can bear. Thus, in spite of all I suffered, I kept in the saddle, while, in what gradually seemed to grow into a horrible, fevered dream, my brave little horse ambled on and on, and later settled into a walk. He seemed always to be aiming for one great dim star, which gave me encouragement; then the dread came over me that, from his steady pursuance of our journey, he must be making for home, and taking me right into the midst of my enemies.
After a time he stopped short, and from the steady crop, crop, crop, I knew he was amongst grass; and he grazed away long enough before moving on again at his old amble. Again he pulled up for another good long feed, while I managed to find words to talk to him—foolishly, no doubt; but it helped me and kept off the feeling of pain and loneliness, seeming to give me strength, too, as I called him "Poor fellow," and told him how sorry I was I could not get down to rest him, and make his meal pleasanter by unfastening the curb and taking out his bit.
It was all folly perhaps; but my words were very earnest and true, and I believe the poor, faithful slave liked to hear my voice, for every now and then when I spoke he would cease cropping the rich grass, whose moist odour rose pleasantly to my nostrils, and utter one of his low whinnying calls.
"He is happy enough," I thought, in my dull misery; "while I, suffering as I do, would give anything for a mouthful of water. Oh!" I sighed aloud at last, "if this long night would only come to an end, and I could reach a spruit. Just to get down and have one long drink, before trying to sleep and rest!"
As I said these words I felt that no sleep could possibly come to one suffering such pain, and in desperation I once more made an effort to free my hands, but only to set my teeth hard and utter a faint groan, for the pain I suffered in the act seemed to increase tenfold.
I felt half-delirious and strange after that, or at least it seems so now; but I have some recollection of Sandho going on, stopping to crop the grass, and then going on again and again, till I found myself gazing straight before me at a faint, dull light in the distance—a light which increased more and more, bringing with it a kind of feeling of hope that the long night of agony was coming to an end, for I knew I was gazing eastward, and that it would soon be day.
Shortly afterwards I could see we were getting to the termination of the plain, for there were scattered blocks of stone, with mountains beyond; and something seemed to flash through me at the sight. "Stones," I said aloud; "of course! Why not some rough edge against which I can saw the raw-hide straps which bind my hands?"
There was a faint speck of orange light high up in the sky just then, and it seemed to be reflected somehow into my brain, making me see my way at last to a better state of things. Hope was coming with the new day, and the blackness of despair slowly dying out.
With the sun rapidly brightening the sky, I urged Sandho forward, but only at a walk, for he was weary and sluggish, and the slightest movement beyond that pace brought back the sickening pain so intensely that I believe if he had broken into a trot I should have fainted and fallen to the ground. By going gently, however, we gradually neared the wild and rocky portion beyond which the huge masses of stone towered up into a mighty heap, forming one of the rough hills with precipitous sides known to the Dutch settlers as "kopjes" or "heads."
I now began to revive more and more in the fresh, invigorating morning air, and carefully examined the open veldt away to the north and east in search of the enemy; but not a living thing was visible. Then I turned my attention towards the rough ground in front and the kopje beyond, as I knew full well these were likely to be the home of other enemies, which on an ordinary occasion would retreat before an armed and mounted man; how they would behave towards one so completely helpless I shuddered to think. Sandho, however, made no sign beyond raising his muzzle again to sniff at the breeze we encountered; and when I called upon him to halt, he lowered his head directly and began to crop the rich grass growing amongst the stones.
My intention now was to dismount; but I sat still, hesitating, and looking away over the open veldt, fearing to alight, being fully aware how helpless I should be and unequal to the task of remounting.
However, it had to be done; so, pulling myself together, I drew my feet from the stirrups, and called upon Sandho to stand fast. Then, lying forward till my face touched my steed's neck, I made a desperate effort—quickly, for I could not trust my strength—drew my injured left leg right up on to the horse's back, and lay there perfectly still for a few moments, suffering horribly from the pain of my overstrained muscles, before making another effort, and then dropped down on my right foot, dismounting on the wrong side of the horse, feeling, as I did so, everything give way. I had completely collapsed, and all was blank. It may have been an hour, or it may have been only a few minutes—possibly only seconds—passed before I opened my eyes and gazed up, wondering what was the meaning of the soft, warm puffs of moist air, and what it was that kept on snuffing at my face.
"Sandho, old boy!" I said, gazing up in his great, soft eyes, and the wondering horse whinnied and then turned away to begin grazing once more; while I waited for the sick feeling from which I suffered to pass off, before trying to get up and find some sharp-edged stone against which I could rub the raw-hide thong which bound my wrists.
It was terrible work, and I had to make a severe call upon my courage before I made the first effort. For it was like this: I was quite exhausted and in a state of semi-stupor, combined with drowsiness. So long as I lay quite still my injuries felt dull and numbed; but at the slightest movement my arms and shoulders gave a burning, fiery pain, while my left leg and ankle shot out pangs almost unbearable.
The effort had to be made, though; and, setting my teeth hard, I called up all my powers of endurance, and after a severe struggle managed to get upon my knees.
The pain now was excruciating; and, realising that my left leg must be badly hurt, I made another effort before I was overcome again, getting upon my feet and reeling towards a big upright mass of granite; but before I had taken half-a-dozen limping steps the whole scene began to glide round me, and I fell heavily, insensible once more.
It is no easy task to rise to one's feet when lying with arms tightly bound behind the back. Think, then, what it must have been to one suffering as I was—arms swollen and cut into by the leather thong, utterly exhausted, and with one leg rendered completely useless.
Again I passed through that sickening phase of recovery from a swoon; and then it was some time before my senses would act, and I could fully grasp the situation and understand I must once more make that same effort to rise.
I was thoroughly desperate now; and as soon as I fully grasped my position I made another attempt, turning over from my back, where I lay in agony upon my swollen hands and wrists, on to my face. It was impossible to keep it back, and I uttered a low cry, which brought Sandho trotting towards me from where he was making a hearty meal. Then I lay quite still, with the deathly sickness passing off once more, my heart beating heavily all the time and a feeling of thankfulness making me glow; for there, as I lay face downwards, I knew that my helpless and swollen arms and hands were lying on either side, perfectly numb, but free. In that last heavy fall, in trying to reach the stone, the thong must have snapped, the dew-soaked raw leather falling loose; and now I had only to wait till the circulation and sense of feeling returned.
The pain I suffered was still bad enough, but it seemed to be softened by the feeling of joy which pervaded me; and soon after, Sandho having wandered off again to graze, I heard a sound which nerved me to renewed efforts—the peculiar plashing made by a horse wading into a pebbly stream. That was enough. A minute later I was struggling to reach the stone I had fought to gain before; and by its help I got upon my feet, when I saw Sandho some twenty yards away, standing in a depression by the side of a perpendicular mass of rock, down whose side a spring of water gushed and ran off below the rock, to sink out of sight some distance off.
It was hard work, and the pain excessive; but I limped and shuffled along till I was close to the stream, and then sank down again, to lie and drink and drink again of the sweet, pure water, every mouthful giving me renewed energy.
I must have fallen asleep after dragging myself from the pool—a swoon-like sleep, from which I awoke in a confused, muddled state—only gradually grasping my position and realising how long I must have been insensible, for the kopje above me was glowing as if on fire, bathed in the glory which suffused the west. My horse was lying down a dozen yards away, with his head just raised; and in front, forming a charming picture, was a little herd of about a dozen graceful antelopes, some drinking, some standing in the water, and another upon the top of a low flat stone, with head erect and long horns gracefully curving over its back as it kept a lookout for danger; a slight movement upon my part a few moments later making the beautiful animal utter a snort, and then the whole party were off like the wind.
Their rush made Sandho spring to his feet with a neigh of alarm, and then, as I made an effort and rose to a sitting position, he bounded up to me, whinnying with pleasure, and thrust his muzzle over my shoulder.
To my delight, I found that, though painful and tender, the swelling of my arms and wrists had gone down; while much of the pain had left my leg, which was, however, stiff and helpless from the terrible wrench.
My first movement was to get to the spring above where the little stream had been trampled and discoloured by the antelopes; and after a good draught I stood up once more, feeling ready to attempt mounting again, and see if I could reach the spot my father had appointed for the meeting with Joeboy. I knew, too, from sundry symptoms, that I must be better—far better than I could have expected, for I was ravenously hungry; and as I realised this I could not keep back a laugh. A capital sign this, though painful, for there was no chance of obtaining food till I could reach some farm; but I could recall no likely place on my way to the Nek, and so the hunger-pains had to be borne.
Leaving Sandho browsing upon the rich grass near the spring in a dainty way, which, in combination with his appearance, suggested that he had been feeding to his heart's content, I climbed over the rocks till I reached the highest point of the kopje. There, lying down, I set myself to carefully scan the open veldt in search of mounted men; till, satisfied there were none to be seen, I descended, mounted my horse, and rode gently away, not suffering more than was to be expected after what I had gone through.
The country where I now was seemed fairly familiar, and I soon made out mountain-tops in the distance, which served as guides. One peak in particular I marked down as lying to the left of Echo Nek, or at all events near the gap in the mountains I was to reach; and towards this Sandho ambled for another hour, when the night began to close in fast. After marking down the direction of the peak as well as I could before the light died out on the misty horizon, I waited till it was quite dark, then I selected a star which I calculated was just over where I had last seen the peak, and once more rode on for what must have been three hours; but then, concluding that to ride farther might possibly mean going astray, I walked my horse till a tolerably suitable spot offered itself for a halting-place till daylight, where I off-saddled Sandho, turned him loose to graze, and settled myself down in a patch of thorny bush to pass the night as I could.
I longed to light a fire to keep off lions; but in avoiding one enemy I felt I might be attracting another; for if there were Boers anywhere in the neighbourhood they would be certain to ride up, and then all my efforts would prove to have been in vain. Hence there was nothing for it but to take the risk.
The night was glorious though cold, for I had been imperceptibly rising into high ground. The stars sparkled as if there was frost; but I had no eyes for the beauty of the scene, hemmed in as I was by enemies. Twice over I shivered as to the fate of poor Sandho, the deep, muttering roar of the lions seeming to make the ground tremble and the air vibrate. If they scented my horse and drew near I was perfectly defenceless, and could do nothing to save the poor beast. So alarmed did I grow at last upon his account that I determined to risk being seen, and hurriedly began to collect scraps of dead wood, twigs, and such pieces of dry grass as were likely to burn. I did not stop to find many; but, startled by a loud barking roar that, in my nervous state, sounded very near, I knelt down and struck a match, holding it well sheltered with my hands till the splint was fully alight, and then started the grass and wood. Fortunately these were thoroughly dry and caught readily; but the quantity was very small, and the blaze a mere trifle compared with what I wished to obtain. So, as actively as I was able, I started collecting everything I could, and carefully piled it up; but with small success, for I had to depend entirely upon my hands to break off scraps, and they burned away almost as fast as I could reach the fire.
I had just thrown on as much as I could hug to my breast when I was startled by a heavy breathing; and, turning sharply, for a moment or two I was certain that one of the fierce beasts had crept up. There, only a few feet away, were a pair of glistening eyes reflecting the fitful flames, and I began to back so as to get the fire between me and my foe.
MY NOCTURNAL VISITOR.
As I moved it moved too; and I dimly saw the outstretched head and body, as I supposed, of a monstrous lion about to spring, when, the fire having flashed up more brightly, I uttered a gasp of relief. It was Sandho, who had come quietly up to the fire for company and protection.
I worked the harder then, and kept on hour after hour, having to take longer and longer journeys as I exhausted the supply close at hand; and all the time I was perfectly conscious that lions were near, prowling round our little apology for a camp so as to spring upon the horse and pull him down. Every time I started for more fuel I expected to hear a roar and feel one of the savage creatures spring upon me; but the night wore on, with the fire giving a steadier glow as the time passed. I suppose the fact of my keeping up a hurried movement, making a desperate rush here and there, with the light from the fire throwing up my figure plainly, was too much for the great cats, and they feared to attack. Whatever it was, they were kept at bay; and daybreak found me thoroughly exhausted, the last growl having died out, the light showing the great soft footprints of our enemies round and round the clump of bushes, crossing and recrossing, and suggesting that there had been a party of four—an old lioness and her nearly full-grown cubs.
It was a narrow escape; and, as if only too glad to get away from so dangerous a spot, Sandho so fidgeted to start that I had hard work to secure the broken end of his rein to the ring of the bit without shortening it so much that I could not hold it in my hand.
I took a good look round, however, before starting, and it was well I did so, for, clearly seen now in the level sunbeams away to the north, there was a party of horsemen riding in my direction, and discovery seemed certain, even if I had not already been seen.
My first idea was to spring into the saddle and gallop off; but I was in no condition for springing into my saddle. Crippled as I was, it meant a slow and painful climb, and then in all probability the utmost I could do would be to walk my horse slowly away.
To mount, lie down, and urge the horse round to the back of the clump of bushes which had formed my shelter during the past night, and then cautiously strike off straight away towards the mountains at a walk, doing my best to keep the shelter of scrub between me and the enemy, seemed the wiser plan, and this I put into execution.
I had several things in my favour by doing this: the distance between me and the horsemen was great; and I felt certain that, if it were a portion of the captain's troop, they had no glass of any kind. If they caught sight of me in making my retreat, they would only fancy they saw the figure of some peculiar, humpbacked-looking animal; and on making for the mountains my position upon Sandho's back would never lead them to suppose it was a horse bearing a rider. This supposition, too, would be helped by the fact that there were still little herds and single wanderers, the relics of the vast hosts of antelopes of various species, from the tiny gazelle-like animals up through the clumsy hartebeeste and wildebeeste to the huge eland; and at a distance I felt it possible that myself and steed might be taken for one of these.
While thinking thus, and going through a painful struggle to get upon my horse properly, it seemed to me that the party were visibly coming nearer; but, hidden as we were by the bushes, I could see, from where I lay on my horse's back, as I turned my eyes in their direction, that so far I was not discovered. The crucial test, however, was yet to come; for, though I could keep Sandho out of sight for half a mile possibly, the land was gradually rising, and in that distance or less, I knew, we should stand out plainly in the clear air. Then, if seen, suffer what I might, I was determined to urge my horse on to his greatest speed, leaving the rest to fate.
I had no trouble with my well-trained steed, which obeyed every word or pressure; and with eyes so turned that I could keep the bush between us, I guided Sandho on till, as I had anticipated, the party of mounted men came gradually into view—first only the men, but soon after their horses. So far, they were going only at a walk, to pass the track diagonally to my course and some distance away.
As they were so visible, I felt they must soon see me, and tried hard to efface myself as much as possible, knowing that my dusky-brownish, homespun breeches, flannel shirt, and tanned high boots must assimilate well with the coat of my chestnut horse, and this cheered me a little.
Then, suddenly, I knew I was seen, for one of the men drew rein, letting the others go on a few horse-lengths before; and, as if in answer to a summons from the man behind, the rest of the party halted and sat gazing in my direction.
The next minute the man who had halted by himself now dismounted, and I saw a gleaming light glance from where he stood and then dropped down. It was too far off for me to see distinctly; but knowledge supplied what my eyes failed to grasp, and I knew the gleam was from his rifle-barrel reflecting the sun's rays, and the man's attitude that of one about to try a long shot at the uncouth animal in view beyond the thorny scrub.
There is an old-fashioned saying about people's feelings in critical moments: that their hearts stood still. Now, I don't believe for a moment that mine ceased to beat; but it certainly felt as if it did, while I lay rising and falling, yielding to Sandho's movements, and gazing straight back at the little hole which I knew must be pointed straight at me—invisible, of course; but the little puff of white smoke which suddenly jetted into the air was plain enough to my eyes, and so was the peculiar buzzing sound to my ears as the bullet passed over me like some strange bee in a violent hurry to reach its hive. Then came the sharp crack as of a sjambok wielded by a strong and well-accustomed arm.
"A miss, and no wonder!" I exclaimed; and I suppose I must have started and given Sandho a familiar pressure, or else it was the instinct of self-preservation at work in the sensible animal, for he suddenly made a bound forward so unexpectedly that I was nearly unseated; but my arms were now free, and, reaching down and getting tight hold of his leathern breastplate, I held on and let him go. The instinct of self-preservation was also strongly to the fore in me, and I lay fully expecting to hear the whizzing of half-a-dozen more bullets and the cracking of the rifles, since naturally I could see nothing then, my face lying against the horse's neck, as he bounded on at an easy gallop.
Were the enemy in pursuit?
I strained my hearing, but I could make out nothing more than the regular beat of my horse's hoofs; while, as no shots came, I felt certain they had made out my figure and were coming on in full chase.
"They'll have a long one," I thought; for, though I was in great pain, I found, to my intense delight, that I could accommodate myself to Sandho's long swinging gallop as he spurned the soft loose earth behind him, the ascent being exceedingly slight; and we were progressing in a series of antelope-like bounds.
At last, after galloping for quite ten minutes, something in front made Sandho swerve round to the left; and, before raising my head to see what it was, I turned my face sidewise so as to get a glance back at my pursuers, and could hardly believe my eyes when I saw that no Boers were there. It was not until I raised my head a little to gaze back in the other direction that I could see them far away in the distance, evidently pursuing the course they had followed before the incidents of the halt and shot occurred.
Now I held on tightly and raised my head, endeavouring to make out why my horse had swerved. There it was plain enough: another of the stony kops which rose up to block our way had forced him to gallop along the unencumbered ground at the foot of a great line of hills, beyond which was the peak I had marked down as being in the neighbourhood of Echo Nek.
Unfortunately the land here was all strange to me, my journeys never having led me so far on this side of the mountains. Still, I felt I must be going in the direction of the Nek, and that sooner or later I should come to some valley into which I could strike off to the right, and get through and round by the peak beyond which I now certainly believed Echo Nek must be.
I made no effort to check Sandho, who was keeping on nearly level ground, but now raised myself upright in the saddle to watch for that which I had forgotten during the time I was in danger, but now that I was comparatively safe seemed to be the very first thing I should seek.
Many hours had now passed since, I had broken my fast; and at eighteen the desire for food is a tyrant against which no growing boy or young man can fight. But no. To my right were the rugged, barren hills undotted by bullock or sheep; to the left a far-spreading stretch of unfertile veldt; and though I cantered on for another full hour not a homestead came into sight.
At last, however, I saw a break in the continuous ridge of hills on my right, and eased Sandho down into his gentle amble, not willing to press him hard, for I knew that at any minute I might be obliged to urge him to his greatest speed.
In another half-hour we were bearing off to the right, for the hills had opened into a broad valley, at the head of which the great peak I had seen now rose up as if to block the way; and in spite of my hunger I felt lighter-hearted, for I was getting sure of my bearings. Yes, there beyond the shoulder of the peak was the crag just below which lay Echo Nek only a few miles away, not more than an hour's canter along the fairly even valley, and then—Oh, if Joeboy should not be there!
"He must; he is sure to be," I said half-aloud. "Even if he were not there, father would know how I should be pressed for food, and be there himself."
This was an encouraging and cheering thought; and, inspired with fresh hope, I rode on, wondering that, though the veldt looked so unpromising, some one had not taken up land, if only in the hope of finding minerals where the soil forbade the fruits of fertile earth; but no. All was barren and strange; even the granite blocks and kops were rare, and I looked still in vain for some sign of human habitation, some track of wheel or print of foot. The last I did begin to see now; but they were not the prints of ironshod hoofs, only those of antelopes, large and small, and not too frequent. Still, here was sign; and as I looked more closely I twice saw the soft round prints of the great sand-coloured cats, and my eyes began now to roam afield in the expectation of perhaps seeing those which had made the marks. No; the open valley that twenty or thirty years earlier might have been alive with game was absolutely desolate; not one of the vast herds which used to roam there, as the old Boers had often told me, was to be seen.
There was nothing whatever to break the long slopes of sand-coloured soil.
Ah! what was that on the ridge to my left, which ran down till it lost itself in the open bottom of the valley along which Sandho gently cantered? Some white-feathered and familiar birds, displaying their soft plumes, which looked ostrich-like in the distance. What could it be? I knew no bird, in spite of my wanderings, that ever looked like that. Still, a bird was a bird, and game, and the thought of game at such a time was glorious; but my spirits sank again, for I had no weapon, and then the grapes seemed to be sour.
"It isn't a bird; only a feather or two dropped by some old cock ostrich," I said aloud.
No. The feathers began to rise from the edge of the ridge, and there was a black face beneath them, then the broad breast, and finally the full figure of a stalwart Kaffir warrior, his thin arms and ankles ornamented with wool, his savage panoply of shield and assagai in his left hand, and his eyes shaded by his right hand, which cut straight across his forehead just below the fillet holding the three white ostrich feathers. He was evidently watching me.
PERILS WHICH GROW.
Upon making out what was before me, the little I had heard about the war rushed across my mind, and I saw at once that, catching the infection, at least one of the native tribes which had been disarmed, and were previously living at peace, had broken out, seizing the opportunity of their Dutch and English masters being at enmity to take one side or the other, possibly with some vague idea that they would thus regain their independence.
What this warrior might be I could not tell at a distance, for he might prove a Zulu still smarting under the defeat inflicted upon his nation by the British, or a Swazi who bitterly hated the Boers for their brutal treatment during the past.
I felt I ought to be able to tell at once by his appearance; but my knowledge was, after all, imperfect, and I certainly could not at a distance make out to what nation the man belonged.
I had not long time for consideration, as Sandho was steadily carrying me nearer; but I decided to go as close as I could without getting within range of an assagai; for it was worth some risk to get in touch with a friendly native in my emergency, since I knew he would try all he could to furnish me with food.
So I rode slowly on, straining my eyes the while to scan the various points in his slight dress, but keeping a sharp lookout right and left to make sure that his companions, if he had any, were not, after their fashion, crawling along under cover to outflank me. However, all seemed safe, for there was no cover on either side; but below the black warrior, and behind the ridge, there was ample space for a couple of hundred of his kin to be lying out of sight, ready at a signal to spring up and make a furious onslaught.
"And turn me into a sort of human pin-cushion, which they would fill with their assagais," I said half-aloud. "That wouldn't do, Sandho, old boy; so be ready to gallop off when I pull your rein."
My horse threw up his head and laid back his ears, beginning to bound off at once; but I checked him.
"Not yet, old boy; not yet. When I give the word you must make a half-turn, and we must try and circumvent them—if it is them, and not only one.—How near dare I go?" I asked myself; and I decided that forty yards would be as far as I ought to venture, being of course well on the qui vive.
The black—Swazi or Zulu—looked a terribly formidable enemy as he stood above me, clearly seen against the sky, and I was beginning to feel that I must not go much farther; but I was still in the dark as to what he might be, friend or enemy, when he mystified me still further by suddenly striking an attitude, standing as if suddenly turned into a bronze figure defying some one on his right. Directly after, he dashed into a kind of war-dance, advancing, retreating, throwing imaginary assagais at invisible foes, and then coming apparently to close quarters, screening his body with his long elliptic shield, and stabbing away at men standing and others falling all around.
I need hardly say I drew rein at once and sat ready to urge Sandho to his greatest speed at a moment's notice, for I felt that these evolutions might either mean defiance and a display of what he would do to me when I came within reach, or a feint to show his friendliness.
I cast the latter idea aside at once, and came to the conclusion that my warlike gentleman was on the watch for an opportunity to dash in after throwing me off my guard, and then I knew only too well what would happen—that which had befallen many an unfortunate settler in the past: a couple of small assagais darted at him like lightning, and the thrower rushing in after them with his stabbing weapon, followed by the fatal termination.
Still the grotesque dance went on, yet I felt pretty safe, for I was fully fifty yards distant, and had often proved Sandho in encounters with wild beasts; so I had no doubt of getting away in time when the savage made his rush which was certainly coming, as I saw the lithe actor was gradually working himself up to a sufficient pitch of excitement. His eyes were rolling, his powerful black limbs shone, and he darted here and there, leaping in the air to deliver some thrust with greater effect, and generally carrying on in a way that would have made me burst into a hearty fit of contemptuous laughter at the childish exhibition, evidently meant to impress me with the fellow's great bravery, had there not been, as I well knew, so terribly bloodthirsty an element beneath it all.
"There, Sandho," I said softly as I leaned forward to stroke my horse's soft arching neck, "I think we've had enough of the idiot's nonsense, and we'll go."
I was in the act of saying these words, keenly watching all round for danger, as well as beyond the bounding black in the full expectation of catching sight at any moment of the plumed heads of a party of his companions rising above the ridge, when, as if in a final effort or an attempt at a climax to the weirdly absurd performance, the black warrior proceeded to finish off with the slaying of about a dozen invisible enemies around him. Bang went his stabbing assagai against his shield, and then stab, stab, stab, when he turned upon his feet as if upon a pivot, darting his weapon as if he were some fierce creature armed with a terrible sting. I seemed to see in imagination an enemy go down at every thrust; a strange thrill of horror ran through me, and an awful kind of fascination held me seated there on my horse, as the black warrior stabbed away till his back was completely turned to me and he delivered a tremendous thrust, uttering a horrible yell. Then I burst out into a hysterical peal of laughter, and nearly fell out of the saddle.
Why? Because never was anything more absurd. The warrior's face was averted, and the long elliptically-shaped shield no longer covered the greater part of his person; and though I had failed in recognition before, I knew him now by the tremendously cut-down trousers he wore.
"Go on, Sandho," I said, and my horse walked gently forward, while the actor gave three or four more thrusts to kill the rest of the dozen invisible enemies, bringing himself face to face with me; and after leaping high in the air, uttering a triumphant yell, he grinned at me from ear to ear, as he breathlessly cried:
"'At's a way kill um all, Boss Val."
For it was Joeboy on the war-path, ready in his own opinion to slay all the Boers in the state.
THE FRIEND IN NEED.
"Why, Joeboy," I cried, wiping my eyes, "you're splendid. But where's Echo Nek?"
"Dah!" he said, pointing behind him with the dangerous-looking assagai he carried.
"Did you see me coming?"
He nodded, it being one of his habits to say as little in English as he could.
"Tell me: have you got anything to eat?" I said. "I'm starving."
He darted back to the other side of the ridge, and came back with the strap of a big canvas satchel over his shoulder, the bag-part looking bulky in the extreme.
"Um Tant Jenny," he said, frowning, as he shook the satchel, and then proceeded to scrape off with the blade of his stabbing-assagai the large ants which had scented the contents and were swarming to the attack. "Is there any water near?" I asked.
"Um," said Joeboy, pointing towards the other side of the ridge.
"Then there will be grass too," I said. "Go on, and show the way. Quick!"
The great black nodded and went off at a trot, taking me over the ridge and down a steep slope into a large gap in the side of the hill; and a quarter of an hour later we were alongside a bubbling stream, where long, rich, juicy grass grew in abundance.
Directly after Sandho was grazing contentedly; and when I had drunk from the pure fresh water, I was devouring rather than eating the magnified salt-beef sandwiches of which the satchel contained ample store, while Joeboy grinned to see the way in which one disappeared.
"Catch hold," I said, pushing a great sandwich towards my black companion; but he shook his head and shrank away.
"Tant Jenny say all young Boss Val," he said, and then he laughed and displayed a large packet carefully fastened to the inside of his shield. This packet he opened, took out a sandwich similar to mine, then squatted down and began to eat.
"Joeboy had plenty yes'day," he said, and he gave his front a circular rub as if to suggest that it was still fairly stored, after which he went on munching slowly as if to keep me company.
"Now," I said after eating a few mouthfuls, "what did my father say?"
"Big Boss say Joeboy go Echo Nek. Stop till son Val come."
"Is that all?" I said wonderingly.
"Yes; all Boss say."
As he spoke, however, Joeboy laid his sandwich upon the shield beside him, and then began to fumble behind him in the band of his cut-down trousers, out of a leopard-skin pocket attached to which he drew a packet of common leather tied up with a slip of the same.
I opened the leather packet with trembling fingers, and found a letter, which I eagerly read:
"Dear Val,—I take it for granted, my boy, that you will escape from those ruffians and be lying in wait for my message. I find, though, that Joeboy is missing, and if he does not return I shall have to come and meet you myself, and then I can tell you what to do. I will, however, write this in the hope that I can send it, as I do not want to leave your aunt and Bob, for there is much to do, burying and hiding a few valuables in case we are ever able to come back."
"Oh!" I exclaimed, and Joeboy half-sprang to his feet, but subsided as I went on:
"War has broken out, the Boers having defied the British Government. It has, of course, all been a surprise to me; but the news is coming in fast. Hodson has been here, and he tells me the English are all receiving orders to go. It is ruin to us, and after making such a home; but, God help us! we must do our best.
"Of course you cannot serve against your own countrymen, and I don't like your having anything to do with the horrible business; but if you feel that you must join in with our people and act as a volunteer against what is a cruel tyranny, I know you will act like a man.
"I can write no more, and Heaven knows when we may meet again. I shall make for Natal, of course, with as much as I can save out of the wreck— that is, as much as the enemy will let me carry off. Perhaps, though, that will be nothing; and I must be content with getting away with our lives, for I hear that the blacks are getting uneasy, as if they smelt blood; and Heaven knows what may happen if they break out, for the white man is their natural enemy in their eyes, and, friends now, they may be our foes to-morrow.
"God bless and protect you, my boy! Aunt Jenny's dear love to you, and she is going to help me to hold Bob in, for the young dog is mad to come after you.
"Your father, in the dear old home he is about to quit, perhaps for ever.
"PS:—Good news, my boy. Joeboy has just come back, in full fighting fig. He will bring this, and some provision for a day or two. I feel sure you may trust him. He has been showing me what he would do to any one who tried to hurt young Boss Val. He is like a big child; but he is true as steel. Good-bye.
"Heaven be with you, my boy!"
That last line was in Aunt Jenny's handwriting, and there were big blotches on the paper where the ink had run, and over them came a few lines in Bob's clumsy hand:
"Val, old chap, the dad says I'm not to come along with Joeboy to join. I told him it was a shame, for I felt in a passion, and he knocked me down.
"That's only my larks. He did knock me down, but not with his fist or the handle of a—I don't know how you spell it; but I mean chambock. He knocked me over with what he said. He told me it was my duty to stop and help him and auntie. He might want me to fight for him and her. If he does, I'll shove in two cartridges—I mean only one bullet; and I don't care if the old rifle kicks till she breaks my collar-bone. I mean to let the Boers have it for coming and upsetting us. I never knew how nice dear old home was before. Old—"
That was the bottom of the paper; but upon turning it over, there at the very top on the other side, and in the left-hand corner above the word "Val," where my father had begun, was the word "Beasts," which I had passed over unnoticed as being part of some memorandum on the paper when my father took it up hurriedly to write.
I always was a weak, emotional sort of fellow—perhaps it was due to the climate, and my having had the fever when we first came there—and the writing looked very dim and blurry before my eyes; and yet I felt inclined to laugh over what Bob had scribbled. I did laugh when my eyes grew clear again, for Bob had, apparently at the last, taken up the pen to write along the edge of the paper, and so badly that it was hard to read: