[Frontispiece: "CLUTCHED THE LIONESS JUST BELOW THE JAWS, HOLDING HER IN A VICE-LIKE GRIP."]
WILMSHURST OF THE FRONTIER FORCE
PERCY F. WESTERMAN
AUTHOR OF "BILLY BARCROFT, R.N.A.S," "A SUB. OF THE R.N.R," ETC., ETC.
I. ON ACTIVE SERVICE II. CHAOS IN THE CABIN III. THE RAIDER IV. SPOFFORTH, MACGREGOR AND THE LIONESS V. HOW THE KOPJE WAS STORMED VI. THE WARNING SHOT VII. A TRUE MAN OR A TRAITOR VIII. ULRICH VON GOBENDORFF IX. THE FIGHT FOR THE SEAPLANE X. PREPARATIONS XI. THE SNIPER XII. THE STORMING OF M'GANGA XIII. THE FUGITIVE XIV. ON THE TRACK XV. RESCUED XVI. 'GAINST HEAVY ODDS XVII. WATER XVIII. IN THE ENEMY'S POSITIONS XIX. CORNERED AT LAST XX. QUITS
WILMSHURST OF THE FRONTIER FORCE
ON ACTIVE SERVICE
"Four o'clock mornin', sah; bugle him go for revally."
Dudley Wilmshurst, Second Lieutenant of the Nth West African Regiment, threw off the light coverings, pulled aside the mosquito curtains, and sat upon the edge of his cot, hardly able to realise that Tari Barl, his Haussa servant, had announced the momentous news. Doubtful whether his senses were not playing him false Wilmshurst glanced round the room. On a metal table, the legs of which stood in metal jars filled with water and paraffin to counteract the ravages of the white ants, lay his field-equipment—a neatly-rolled green canvas valise with his name and regiment stamped in bold block letters; his Sam Browne belt with automatic pistol holster attached; his sword—a mere token of authority but otherwise little better than a useless encumbrance—and a pair of binoculars in a leather case that bore signs of the excessive dampness of the climate on The Coast, as the littoral of the African shore 'twixt the Niger and the Senegal Rivers is invariably referred to by the case-hardened white men who have fought against the pestilential climate and won.
A short distance from the oil stove on which a kettle was boiling, thanks to the energy and thoughtfulness of Private Tari Barl, stood an assortment of camp equipment: canvas tent d'abri, ground sheets, aluminium mess traps, a folding canvas bath, and last but not least an indispensable Doulton pump filter.
When a man's head is buzzing from the effects of strong doses of quinine, and his limbs feel limp and almost devoid of strength, it is not to be wondered at that he is decidedly "off colour." It was only Wilmshurst's indomitable will that had pulled him through a bout of malaria in time to be passed fit for active service with the "Waffs," as the West African Field Force is commonly known from the initial letters of the official designation.
And here was Tari Barl—"Tarry Barrel," his master invariably dubbed him—smiling all over his ebony features as he stood, clad in active service kit and holding a cup of fragrant tea.
Tari Barl was a typical specimen of the West African native from whom the ranks of the Coast regiments are recruited. In height about five feet ten, he was well built from his thighs upwards. Even his loosely-fitting khaki tunic did not conceal the massive chest with its supple muscles and the long, sinewy arms that knew how to swing to the rhythm of bayonet exercise. His legs, however, were thin and spindly. To any one not accustomed to the native build it would seem strange that the apparently puny lower limbs could support such a heavy frame. He was wearing khaki shorts and puttees; even the latter, tightly fitting, did little to disguise the meagreness of his calves. He was barefooted, for the West African soldier has a rooted dislike to boots, although issued as part of his equipment. On ceremonial parades he will wear them, outwardly uncomplainingly, but at the first opportunity he will discard them, slinging the unnecessary footgear round his neck. Thorns, that in the "bush" will rip the best pair of British-made marching-boots to shreds in a very short time, trouble him hardly at all, for the soles of his feet, which with the palms of his hands are the only white parts of his epidermis, are as hard as iron.
"All my kit ready, Tarry Barrel?" enquired Wilmshurst as he sipped his tea.
"All ready, sah; Sergeant Bela Moshi him lib for tell fatigue party mighty quick. No need worry, sah."
Dismissing his servant the subaltern "tubbed" and dressed. They start the day early on the Coast, getting through most of the routine before nine, since the intense heat of the tropical sun makes strenuous exertion not only unpleasant but highly dangerous.
But to-day was of a different order. The regiment was to embark at eight o'clock on board the transport Zungeru for active service in the vast stretch of country known as "German East," where the Huns with their well-trained Askaris, or native levies, were putting up a stiff resistance against the Imperial and Colonial troops of the British Empire.
On his way to the mess Wilmshurst ran up against Barkley, the P.M.O. of the garrison.
"Hullo there!" exclaimed the doctor. "How goes it? Fit?"
"Absolutely," replied the subaltern.
The doctor smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He knew perfectly well that no officer warned for active service would reply otherwise.
"Buzzing all gone?"
"Practically," replied Wilmshurst.
"All right; stick to five grains of quinine during the whole of the voyage—and don't be afraid to let me know if you aren't up to the mark. Suppose you've heard nothing further of your brother?"
Wilmshurst shook his head.
"Not since the letter written just before the war, and that took nearly twelve months before it reached me. It's just possible that Rupert is in the thick of it with the Rhodesian crush."
Barkley made no comment. He was an old college chum of Rupert Wilmshurst, who was fifteen years older than his brother Dudley. The elder Wilmshurst was a proverbial rolling stone. Almost as soon as he left Oxford he went abroad and, after long wanderings in the interior of China, Siberia, and Manchuria, where his adventures merely stimulated the craving for wandering on the desolate parts of the earth, he went to the Cape, working his way up country until he made a temporary settlement on the northern Rhodesian shores of Lake Tanganyika.
It was thence that he wrote to his brother Dudley, who had just taken up a Crown appointment on the Coast, mentioning that he had penetrated into the territory known as German East.
The subaltern remembered the letter almost by heart.
"There'll be trouble out here before very long," wrote Rupert. "Britishers settling down in this part almost invariably roll a cricket-pitch or lay out a football field. With Hans it is very different. The Germans' idea of colonization is to start building up a military organization. Every 'post' in which there are German settlers has its company of armed blacks—Askaris they call them. And as for ammunition, they are laying in stores sufficient to wage a two-years' war; not merely small arms ammunition, but quick-firer shells as well. Quite by accident I found kegs of cartridges buried close to my camp. For what reason? The natives are quiet enough, so the ammunition is not for use against them. I am sending this letter by a trusty native to be posted at Pambete, as it would be unwise to make use of the German colonial post. Meanwhile I am penetrating further into this stretch of territory under the Black Cross Ensign—possibly in the direction of Tabora. My researches may be taken seriously by the Foreign Office, but I have my doubts. Fortunately I have a jolly good pal with me, a Scotsman named Macgregor, whom I met at Jo-burg. Don't be anxious if you don't hear from me for some time."
The letter was dated July, 1914, and three years, Dudley reflected, is a very exaggerated interpretation of the term "some time." Even taking into consideration the lack of efficient internal and external communication, the state of war embroiling practically the whole civilized world and the perils to which shipping was subjected owing to the piratical exploits of the Huns—all these facts would hardly offer sufficient explanation for a total absence of news from Rupert Wilmshurst unless——
There are parts of Africa which are still described as the Dark Continent—wild, desolate stretches where a man can disappear without leaving the faintest trace of the manner of his presumed death, while in German East there were unscrupulous despots—the disciples of atrocious kultur—only too ready to condemn an Englishman without even the farcical formality of a court-martial.
Already events had proved that Rupert Wilmshurst's statement was well-founded. In her African colonies, in Kiau-Chau, and elsewhere for years past Germany had been assiduously preparing for The Day. Under the firm but erroneous impression that Great Britain would have her hands full in connection with affairs at home, that the Boers in South Africa would revolt and that the Empire would fall to pieces at the declaration of war between England and Germany, the Hun in Africa had prepared huge stores of munitions and trained thousands of native troops with the intention of wresting the adjoining ill-defended territories from their owners.
No wonder that the Huns hugged themselves with delight when by a disastrous stroke of statesmanship Great Britain exchanged the crumbling island of Heligoland for some millions of square miles of undeveloped territory hitherto held by Germany. While Heligoland was being protected by massive concrete walls and armed by huge guns to form a practically impregnable bulwark to the North Sea coast of Germany, England was by peaceful methods developing her new African acquisition. Germany could then afford to wait until the favourable opportunity and by force of arms seize and hold the territory that was once hers and which in the meantime had enormously increased commercially at the expense of Britain.
But the Kaiser had miscalculated the loyalty of the colonies. Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, to say nothing of smaller offshoots of the Empire, had rallied to the flag. Boers who fourteen years previously had fought doggedly and determinedly against England volunteered for service, and their offer was accepted for expeditions against German West Africa and then against German East, while shoulder to shoulder with their late enemies were Imperial troops, including Indian and West African contingents. Amongst the reinforcements from the latter was the Nth West African Regiment.
By six o'clock breakfast was over and the troops were falling in for parade and C.O.'s inspection. As Second Lieutenant Wilmshurst crossed the dusty barrack "square," which was a rectangle enclosed on three sides by the native huts and on the fourth by the Quartermaster's "stores" and orderly room, he found that the men of his platoon were already drawn up in full marching order. At the sight of their young officer—for it was the first time for several weeks that Wilmshurst had appeared on parade—a streak of dazzling ivory started and stretched from end to end of the line as the Haussas' mouths opened wide in welcoming smiles, displaying a lavish array of teeth that contrasted vividly with their ebony features.
That Wilmshurst was popular with his men there could be no doubt. Had it been otherwise not a suspicion of a smile would have appeared upon their faces. The subaltern had the knack of handling African troops, and without that knack an officer might just as well transfer elsewhere. Firmness, strict impartiality, and consideration for the welfare of the men under his orders had been rewarded by a whole-hearted devotion on the part of the blacks to "Massa Wilmst," while every man had the satisfaction that he was known by name to the junior subaltern.
The company officer had not yet put in an appearance, but the platoon commanders and their subordinates were engaged either in discussing impending plans or else minutely examining their men's equipment, lest the eagle eye of the C.O. should detect some deficiency during the forthcoming inspection.
"All correct, sergeant?" enquired Wilmshurst, addressing a tall Haussa, Bela Moshi by name.
The sergeant saluted smartly, replying, with a broad smile, that everything was in order. A child by nature, Bela Moshi had developed into a smart and efficient soldier without losing the simple characteristics of the African native. He was a first-class marksman, although it had required long and patient training to get him to understand the use of sights and verniers and to eradicate the belief, everywhere prevalent amongst savage races, that to raise the backsight to its highest elevation results in harder hitting by the bullet.
Bela Moshi was smart with the machine-gun, too, while for scouting and tracking work there were few who equalled him. The regiment was father and mother to the ebon warrior, while of all the officers Wilmshurst was his special favourite.
The subaltern realised it but could give no reason for Bela Moshi's preferential treatment; not that Wilmshurst had gone out of his way to favour the man. He treated the rank and file of his platoon with impartial fairness, ever ready to hear complaints, but woe betide the black who tried to "get to windward" of the young officer.
Upon the approach of the C.O. the ranks stiffened. The display of ivory vanished, and with thick, pouting lips, firmly closed, and eyes fixed rigidly in front the men awaited the minute inspection.
Colonel Quarrier was a man who had grown grey in the service of the Crown. For over thirty years he had held a commission in the Nth West Africa Regiment, rising from a fresh young Second Lieutenant to the rank of Colonel Commandant and ruler of the destinies of nearly a thousand men. "Case hardened" to the attacks of mosquitos, his system overcharged with malarial germs until the scourge of the Coast failed to harm him, Colonel Quarrier possessed one of the principal qualifications for bush-fighting in the Tropics—a "salted" constitution.
Already he had served in four African campaigns, having but recently taken part in the comparatively brief but strenuous Kamarun expedition. He was a past-master in the art of fighting in miasmic jungles, and now he was about to engage in operations on a larger and slightly different scale—bush-fighting in German East, where ranges of temperature are experienced from the icy cold air of the upper ground of Kilimanjaro to the sweltering heat of the low-lying land but a few degrees south of the Line.
The parade over a hoarse order rang out. A drum and bugle band belonging to another regiment struck up a lively air and the black and khaki lines swung about into "column of route."
The "Waffs" were off to the conquest of the last of Germany's ultra-European colonies.
CHAOS IN THE CABIN
It was a march of about five miles to the beach along a straight road bordered with palm trees. At some distance from the highway the country was thick with scrub, from which the sickly smell of the mangroves rose in the still slanting rays of the sun.
Most of the heavy baggage had already been sent down, but with the troops were hundreds of native carriers, each bearing a load of about sixty pounds, while crowds of native women and children flocked to see the last of the regiment for some time to come.
The embarkation had to be performed by means of boats from the open beach, against which white rollers surged heavily, the thundering of the surf being audible for miles. At a long distance from the shore, so that she appeared little larger than a boat, lay the transport Zungeru, rolling sluggishly at a single anchor, while steaming slowly in the offing was a light cruiser detailed to act as escort to the convoy, for more transports were under orders to rendezvous off Cape Coast Castle.
Amidst the loud and discordant vociferations of the native boatmen the troops boarded the broad, shallow-drafted surf boats, each man having the breech-mechanism of his rifle carefully wrapped in oiled canvas to prevent injury from salt water. In batches of twenty the Waffs left their native soil, but not before three boat loads had been unceremoniously capsized in the surf, to the consternation of the men affected and the light-hearted merriment of their more fortunate comrades.
Without mishap Wilmshurst gained the accommodation-ladder of the Zungeru, where brawny British mercantile seamen, perspiring freely in the torrid heat, were energetically assisting their black passengers on board with encouraging shouts of "Up with you, Sambo!" "Mind your nut, Darkie!" and similar exhortations. The while derricks were swaying in and out, whipping the baggage from the holds of the lighters that lay alongside, grinding heavily in the swell, fenders notwithstanding.
Having seen the men of his platoon safely on board Wilmshurst went below to the two-berthed cabin which he was to share with Laxdale, the subaltern of No. 2 platoon.
Opening the door Wilmshurst promptly ducked his head to avoid a sweeping blow with a knotted towel which his brother officer was wielding desperately and frantically.
"Hullo!" exclaimed Laxdale breathlessly. "Come in and bear a hand. Hope I didn't flick you."
"What's wrong?" enquired Dudley, eyeing with feelings of apprehension the sight of the disordered cabin. "Looks as if a Hun four-point-one had been at work here."
The "traps" of both subalterns were littering the floor in utmost confusion. Sheets, blankets and mosquito nets had been torn from the bunks, while a smashed water-bottle and glass bore testimony to the erratic onslaught of the wildly excited Laxdale.
"Almost wish it had," exclaimed the harassed subaltern. "I was unpacking my kit when a whopping big rat jumped out of this valise. I'll swear that rascal of a servant of mine knows all about it. I had to give him a dressing down yesterday for losing some of my gear. We'll have to find the animal, Wilmshurst. A rat is my pet abomination."
"Why not leave the door open?" suggested Dudley.
"An' let the bounder go scot-free?" added Laxdale, a gleam of grim determination in his eyes. "No jolly fear. We'll lay him out properly. Here you are, take this."
He handed Wilmshurst a towel roller made of teak, forming a heavy and effective weapon.
"This is where I think the brute's hiding," continued Laxdale, indicating a long drawer under the lowermost bunk. "I was stowing some of my gear away when I spotted him. After five minutes' strafing he disappeared, but goodness knows how he managed to get through that little slit. Now stand by."
Entering into the spirit of the chase Dudley knelt down and waited with poised stick while Laxdale charily opened the drawer. Like most drawers on board ship and frequently elsewhere it jammed. By frantic up and down movements the subaltern freed it. Then he waited, both officers listening intently. Not a sound came from within.
"Don't suppose the brute's there after all. He must have effected a strategic movement.... Look out, by Jove!"
Acting upon his impression Laxdale had tugged the drawer half open. Instantly there was a vision of a dark object darting with lightning-like rapidity.
Down came Wilmshurst's towel roller a fraction of a second too late for Mister Rat. At the same time Laxdale moved his hands along the ledge of the drawer and received the full force of the blow across the knuckles.
"Sorry!" exclaimed Wilmshurst.
Laxdale, nursing the injured hand, made no audible comment. Deliberately he relieved Dudley of the towel-roller, throwing his companion the knotted towel in exchange.
"Where's the brute now?" he asked grimly.
A scuffling noise in a tin bath suspended from the cork-cemented roof of the cabin betrayed the rodent's temporary hiding-place. Both men looked first at the bath and then at each other.
"It would be as well if we put our helmets on," suggested Wilmshurst, replacing his "double-pith" headgear. "Now, I'll shake the bath and you let rip when he falls. But please don't try to get your own back on me."
As a precautionary measure Dudley beat the side of the bath with the towel. It might have been efficacious if the subaltern had been engaging in apiarian operations, but as far as present events went it was a "frost."
"Tilt it, old man," suggested Laxdale.
Wilmshurst carried out this suggestion only too well. The bath, slipping from its supporting fixtures, clattered noisily to the floor, its edge descending heavily upon Dudley's foot. Again a momentary vision of the leaping rodent, then, crash! With a mighty sweep of the tower-roller Laxdale demolished the electric-light globe into a thousand fragments.
"Getting on," he remarked cheerfully. "There'll be a big bill for 'barrack damages' eh, what? Where's the brute?"
The rat, terrified by the din, had retired to a recess formed by the bulkhead of the cabin and the fixed wash-basin and was acting strictly on the defensive.
"Aha!" exclaimed Laxdale. "Now you're cornered. No use yelling 'Mercy, kamerad.'"
Levelling the roller like a billiard cue the subaltern prepared to make a thrust and administer the coup de grace, but he had forgotten that he had not yet found his sea-legs. A roll of the ship made him lose his balance, and he pitched head foremost into the rodent's retreat. Like a flash the rat leapt, scampered over Laxdale's helmet, down his back and took refuge in the breast-pocket of Wilmshurst's tunic.
Dudley beat all records in slipping off his Sam Browne and discarding the tunic, for by the time his companion had regained his feet the garment lay on the floor.
"Stamp on it!" yelled the now thoroughly excited and exasperated subaltern.
"It's my tunic, remember," protested Dudley firmly as he pushed his brother-officer aside.
Just then the door opened, and Spofforth, another member of the "Lone Star Crush" appeared, enquiring, "What's all the row about, you fellows? Scrapping?"
"Shut that door!" exclaimed Laxdale hurriedly. "Either in or out, old man."
The hunters suspended operations to wipe the streams of perspiration from their faces and to explain matters.
"Ratting, eh?" queried Spofforth. "You fellows look like a pair of Little Willies looting a French chateau."
"Hullo! More of 'em," murmured Laxdale as the door was unceremoniously pushed open and another of the "One Pip" officers made his appearance. "Look alive, Danvers, and don't stand there looking in the air. Walk in and take a pew, if you can find one."
"I've come to borrow a glass," remarked the latest arrival. "Mine's smashed and my batman hasn't unpacked my aluminium traps. Judging by appearances, by Jove! I've drawn a blank. What's up—a toppin' rag, or have the water pipes burst?"
Wilmshurst and Laxdale sat on the upper bunk, Spofforth on the closed lid of the wash-basin stand, and Danvers found a temporary resting-place on the none too rigid top of a cabin trunk. Each man kept his feet carefully clear of the floor, while four pairs of eyes were fixed upon Dudley's tunic, the folds of which were pulsating under the violent lung-movements of the sheltering rodent.
"Why not shake the brute out?" suggested Danvers.
"You try it," suggested Laxdale, whose enthusiasm was decidedly on the wane. "Wilmshurst here has turned mouldy. He refuses point blank to let me use his raiment of neutral colour as a door-mat. I might add that if you've ever had the experience of a particularly active member of the rodent family scampering down your back you wouldn't be quite so keen."
"How about turning out the machine-gun section?" asked Spofforth. "Look here, if you fellows want to be ready for tiffen you'd better get a move on. Suppose——"
"Still they come!" exclaimed Laxdale, as a knock sounded on the jalousie of the cabin door. "Come in."
It was Tari Barl in search of his master.
"Tarry Barrel, you old sinner," said Wilmshurst, "can you catch a rat?"
"Me lib for find Mutton Chop, sah," replied the Haussa saluting. "Find him one time and come quick."
Dudley looked enquiringly at his cabin-mate, knowing that Mutton Chop was Laxdale's servant.
"Oh, so that rascal's the culprit," declared Laxdale. "Didn't I say I thought so?"
"Bring Mutton Chop here," ordered Wilmshurst, addressing the broadly smiling Tari Barl.
The Haussa vanished, presently to reappear with almost an exact counterpart of himself. It would be a difficult matter for a stranger to tell the difference between the two natives.
"What d'ye mean, you black scoundrel, by putting a rat into my traps?" demanded Laxdale.
"No did put, sah; him lib for come one time," expostulated Laxdale's servant. "Me play, 'Come to cook-house door,' den him catchee."
Producing a small native flute Mutton Chop began to play a soft air. For perhaps thirty seconds every one and everything else was still in the desolated cabin; then slowly but without any signs of furtiveness the rat pushed his head between the folds of Wilmshurst's tunic, sniffed, and finally emerged, sat up on his hind legs, his long whiskers quivering with evident delight.
Then, with a deft movement, Mutton Chop's fingers closed gently round the little animal, and to the astonishment of the four officers the Haussa placed the rodent in his breast pocket.
"Me hab mascot same as officers, sahs!" he explained. "No put him here, sah; me make tidy."
"And there's the officers' call!" exclaimed Dudley as a bugle rang out. "Dash it all, how's a fellow to put on the thing?"
And he indicated the crumpled tunic.
Accompanied by five other transports and escorted by the light cruiser Tompion, the Zungeru ploughed her way at a modest fifteen knots through the tropical waters of the Atlantic. Although there was little to fear from the attacks of U-boats, for up to the present these craft had not appeared south of the Equator, mines had been laid by disguised German ships right in the area where numerous trade routes converge in the neighbourhood of the Cape of Good Hope, while there were rumours, hitherto unconfirmed, that an armed raider was at large in the South Atlantic.
Provided the convoy kept together there was little danger in daytime in that direction, but the possibilities of the raider making a sudden dash during the hours of darkness and using gun and torpedo with disastrous results could not be overlooked.
The issue of lifebelts to the native troops puzzled them greatly. They could not understand the precaution, for they were ignorant of the danger of making voyages in war-time. Their faith in the "big canoes" of King George was so firm that, sea-sickness notwithstanding, they had no doubts or fears concerning their safe arrival in the land where Briton, Boer, Indian and African were doing their level best to stamp out the blight of German kultur.
At four bells (2 a.m.) on the fifth day of the voyage Wilmshurst was roused from his sleep by a commotion on deck. Men were running hither and thither carrying out a series of orders shouted in stentorian tones. The Zungeru was altering course without slackening speed, listing noticeably to starboard as the helm was put hard over.
Almost at the same time Laxdale awoke.
"What's up?" he enquired drowsily.
"I don't know," replied his companion. "I can hear Spofforth and Danvers going on deck. Let's see what's doing."
Acting upon this suggestion the two officers hastily donned their great coats over their pyjamas, slipped their feet into their canvas slices and went on deck.
It was a calm night. The crescent moon was low down in the western sky, but its brilliance was sufficient to enable objects to be seen distinctly. Silhouetted against the slanting beams was the escorting cruiser, which was pelting along at full speed and overhauling the Zungeru hand over fist. Although the cruiser and her convoy were without steaming lights the former's yard-arm lamp was blinking out a message in Morse.
The transports were in "double column line ahead," steaming due west instead of following the course that would bring them within sight of Table Bay. Less than a cable's length on the starboard column's beam was the cruiser. She had already overtaken two of the transports, and was now lapping the Zungeru's quarter.
The object of this nocturnal display of activity was now apparent. Less than a mile away was a large steamer, which had just steadied on her helm and was now on a parallel course to that of the convoy.
"Anything startling?" enquired a major of one of the Zungeru's officers who was passing.
"Oh, no," was the reply. "A tramp was trying to cut across our bows. The Tompion has signalled to know what's her little game. She's just replied that she's the steamship Ponto, and wants to know whether there have been any signs of a supposed raider."
The ship's officer continued on his way. The two subalterns, in no hurry to return to their bunks, for the night air was warm and fragrant, remained on deck, watching the manoeuvres of the cruiser and the Ponto.
The exchange of signals continued for about ten minutes, then the Tompion resumed her station at the head of the convoy, while the Ponto took up her position on the beam of the starboard line. Presently in obedience to a signal the ships altered helm and settled down on their former course, the large steamer following suit, although dropping steadily astern, for her speed was considerably less than that of the transports.
Presently the ship's officer returned. As he passed Wilmshurst stopped him, enquiring whether anything had developed.
"The Ponto has cold feet," explained the Zungeru's officer. "Her Old Man seems to be under the impression that there is a Hun scuttling around, so he's signalled for permission to tail on to us. The cruiser offered no objection, provided the speed of the convoy is unaffected, so by daylight the tramp will be hull-down, I expect."
"Much ado about nothing," remarked Laxdale. "I say, old man, let's turn in again. What's the matter with you?"
He grasped Wilmshurst by the arm. The subaltern, apparently heedless of the touch, was gazing fixedly at the tramp. The mercantile officer and Laxdale both followed the direction of his look, the former giving vent to a low whistle.
From above the gunwale of a boat stowed amidships on the Ponto a feeble light glimmered.
"Help—German raider," it signalled.
"You read it?" enquired the sailor hurriedly, as if to confirm the evidence of his own eyes.
"Yes," replied Wilmshurst, and repeated the signal.
Without another word the Zungeru's officer turned and raced to the bridge. In a few moments the signal was passed on to the Tompion by means of a flashlamp, the rays of which were invisible save from the direction of the receiver.
"Very good," was the cruiser's reply. "Carry on."
A little later the general order was flashed in to the convoy. "Increase speed to seventeen knots."
The instructions were promptly carried out as far as the transports were concerned, but from the Ponto came a signal: "Am doing my maximum speed. Must drop astern if speed of convoy is not reduced."
"The blighter has got hold of the code all right," remarked Laxdale. "We'll wait and see the fun. Wonder why we are whacking up speed?"
"The cruiser wants to get the transports out of harm's way, I should imagine," replied Wilmshurst. "By Jove, it's rummy how news spreads. The whole mess is coming on deck."
The arrival of the colonel and almost all the other officers in various "fancy rig" proved the truth of Dudley's remark. Armed with field glasses, marine-glasses, and telescopes the officers gathered aft, dividing their attention between the labouring Ponto and the greyhound Tompion.
In about an hour the tramp had dropped astern to the distance of a little over five miles, but was still maintaining a course parallel to that of the convoy, while the escorting cruiser was still zig-zagging across the bows of the leading transports.
Presently the Tompion turned sharply to starboard, steering westward for quite two miles before she shaped a course exactly opposite to that of the convoy, signalling the while to the Ponto, asking various, almost commonplace questions regarding her speed and coal-consumption.
It was merely a ruse to lull suspicion. With every gun manned and torpedoes launched home the cruiser flung about until she was bows on to the stern of the tramp. Then came the decided mandate: "Heave-to and send a boat."
Unable to bring more than three guns to bear astern the Hun raider—for such the so-called Ponto was—ported helm, her speed increasing rapidly. Almost at the same time a six-inch gun sent a shell perilously close to the weather side of the cruiser's fore-bridge.
Before the raider could fire a second time three shells struck her close to the stern-post, literally pulverising the whole of the poop. The after six-inch gun, which had been concealed under a dummy deck-house, was blown from its mountings, the heavy weapon crashing through the shattered decks to the accompaniment of a shower of splinters and a dense pall of flame-tinged smoke.
It was more than the Huns bargained for. Knowing that the British cruiser was already aware of the presence of a number of prisoners on board the raider counted on the Tompion withholding her fire. The Ponto would then "crack on speed," for in spite of her alleged maximum of eleven knots she was capable of working up to twenty-eight, or a knot more than the speed of the cruiser under forced draught. These hopes were nipped in the bud by the Tompion blowing away the Ponto's stern and putting both propellers out of action.
Of subsequent events immediately following the brief action Wilmshurst and his brother officers saw little. Their whole attention was directed towards their men, for the Haussas, on hearing the gun-fire, impetuously made a rush on deck—not by reason of panic but out of the deep curiosity that is ever to the fore in the minds of West African natives to a far greater extent than in the case of Europeans.
Next morning the Ponto was nowhere to be seen. She had foundered within two hours of the engagement, while two hundred of her officers and crew were prisoners of war on board the Tompion, and a hundred and twenty British subjects, mostly the crews of vessels taken and sunk by the raider, found themselves once more under the banner of liberty—the White Ensign.
During the course of the day Wilmshurst heard the salient facts in connection with the raider's career. She was the Hamburg-Amerika intermediate liner Porfurst, who, after being armed and camouflaged, had contrived to escape the cordon of patrol-boats in the North Atlantic. For three months she had followed her piratical occupation, re-provisioning and re-coaling from the vessels she captured. Whenever her prisoners grew in number sufficiently to cause inconvenience the Porfurst spared one of her prizes for the purpose of landing the captives in some remote port.
It was by a pure fluke that the raider ran almost blindly under the guns of the Tompion. Under the impression that the convoy consisted of unescorted merchantmen the Porfurst steamed athwart their track, and slowing down to eleven or twelve knots, awaited the arrival of a likely prey.
Finding too late that the convoy was not so impotent as at first appearance the kapitan of the Porfurst attempted a daring ruse. Upon being challenged by the cruiser he gave the vessel's name as Ponto, the real craft having been sunk by the raider only two days previously. The Hun stood a chance of dropping astern and slipping away but for the furtive and timely warning signalled by a young apprentice, who, contriving to creep unobserved into one of the boats, made good use of a small electric torch which he had managed to retain.
Enquiries of the released prisoners resulted in the information that they had been treated by their captors in a far better manner than the Huns generally deal with those unfortunate individuals who fall into their hands. The kapitan of the Porfurst was no exception to the usual run of Germans. It was the possibility of capture—which had developed into a certainty—that had influenced him in his treatment of the crews of the sunk ships. Only the fear of just reprisals kept him within the bounds of civilized warfare, and having behaved in an ostentatiously proper manner towards the prisoners he received in return honourable treatment on board the Tompion.
When the convoy was within two days' sail of Table Bay another convoy was sighted steering north, while wireless orders were received for the Tompion to escort the homeward bound ships and let the transports "carry on" under the protection of two destroyers sent from Simon's Town.
Upon receipt of these orders the captain of the cruiser signalled the Zungeru, asking her to receive on board the released crews of the sunk ships and to land them at Table Bay. Although wondering why the men should be set ashore at the Cape instead of being taken back to England the master of the transport offered no objection, and preparations were made to tranship the ex-prisoners.
Knowing several officers of the mercantile marine, Wilmshurst strolled into the Zungeru's ship's office and asked the purser's clerk to let him have a look at the list of supernumeraries. There was a chance that some of his acquaintances might be amongst the released prisoners now on board the transport.
As far as the officers' names were concerned Dudley "drew blank." He was on the point of handing the type-written list back to the purser's clerk when he noticed a few names written in red ink—three civilians who had been taking passages in ships that had fallen victims to the raider Porfurst.
"MacGregor—Robert; of Umfuli, Rhodesia—that's remarkable," thought Wilmshurst. "That's the name of Rupert's chum. Wonder if it's the same man? There may be dozens of MacGregors in Rhodesia; I'll see if I can get in touch with this MacGregor."
That same afternoon the Rhodesian was pointed out to Dudley by the third mate as he strolled into the smoking-room.
Robert MacGregor was a man of about thirty-eight or forty, tall, raw-boned and with curling hair that had a decided auburn hue. In the absence of any description of Rupert's chum, Dudley had no idea of what he was like, and until he approached this MacGregor his curiosity was not likely to be satisfied.
"Excuse me," began Wilmshurst. "I believe your name is Robert MacGregor?"
The Rhodesian, without showing any surprise at the subaltern's question, merely nodded. A man who has lived practically alone for years in the wilds is not usually ready with his tongue.
"Did you ever run across a man called Wilmshurst—Rupert Wilmshurst?" continued Dudley. "He's my brother, you know," he added by way of explanation.
"Yes," replied MacGregor slowly. "He was a chum of mine."
SPOFFORTH, MACGREGOR, AND THE LIONESS
Robert MacGregor pulled a pipe from his pocket and leisurely filled it with Boer tobacco. His slow, deliberate way contrasted forcibly with Wilmshurst's quick, incisive manner; his slow dialect would have irritated the subaltern beyond measure but for the fact that he guessed the Rhodesian to be of Scots descent.
Dudley noticed particularly that MacGregor had referred to his brother in the past tense. It sounded ominous.
"Was a chum?" he repeated with an accent on the first word.
"In a sense, yes," replied MacGregor. "We went for a couple of trips into German East. The last time was just before the war. You know why we went?"
"It was in connection with a hidden store of ammunition, I believe," replied Wilmshurst.
The Rhodesian nodded slowly, puffing steadily at his pipe.
"Rupert found a mare's nest, I fancy," he continued. "At any rate, before we made any really important discoveries I had to go back to Jo'burg. Had no option, so to speak. Then, in connection with the same business, I penetrated into German South-West Africa. I was in Bersheba for nearly a fortnight before I heard that war had broken out, and the first intimation I had was being put under arrest and sent up country to Windhoek.
"When Botha overrun the colony I was released and offered a sound job at Walfisch Bay—fairly important Government appointment in connection with the distilling plant. That completed I thought I'd trek back to Rhodesia and do a bit in German East. Thinking I would do the trip round quicker by sea I took passage on the Ibex, a tramp of about two thousand tons, and within twelve hours of leaving Walfisch Bay the boat was captured by the Porfurst."
"I hope I'm not tiring you with too many questions," said Wilmshurst after he had made several enquiries respecting his brother. The answers received were far from satisfactory, for MacGregor seemed to make a point of "switching off" the subject of Rupert Wilmshurst and dwelling at length on his own adventures.
"Not at all," replied the Rhodesian. "As regards your brother you may get in touch with him, but German East is a whacking big country. Are you part of a brigade?" he asked.
"We're just the 'Waffs,'" replied Dudley. "The West African Field Force, you know. As regards numbers or our scene of action I haven't the remotest idea at present. I don't believe that even the colonel knows."
"At any rate," continued MacGregor, "I think I'll see your colonel and get him to let me proceed in the Zungeru. It doesn't very much matter whether I join the Rhodesian contingent, although I'd prefer to, or get attached to one of the Boer detachments, or even your crush, if they'd have me. I don't want to brag, Mr. Wilmshurst, but I'd be mighty useful, knowing the country as I do."
MacGregor's application met with favourable consideration, although he did not tell Wilmshurst the result of the interview with the colonel until the transports dropped anchor in Table Bay and the rest of the released men went ashore.
Bad weather off Cape Agulhas made the rounding of the southernmost part of Africa a disagreeable business, but in ideal climatic conditions the convoy, with two destroyers still on escort duties, approached Cape Delgado, beyond which the territory of German East commences.
The short tropical dusk was deepening into night when two tramp steamers were sighted, bearing N.N.E. In obedience to a signal from one of the destroyers they revealed themselves as two Dutch trading ships bound from Batavia to Rotterdam, but driven out of their course by a succession of gales at the commencement of the south-west monsoon.
Commanded to heave-to both vessels were boarded by examination officers from the destroyer, but their papers being quite in order and nothing of a suspicious nature discovered amongst the cargo they were allowed to proceed.
At daybreak the convoy learnt that both vessels had been shelled and destroyed by a British cruiser, but not in time to prevent them landing two batteries of 4.1 inch Krupp field-guns at the mouth of the Mohoro river.
"Rough luck those vessels slipping through the blockade like that," commented Spofforth. "Those guns are as good as a couple of battalions of Askaris to the Huns."
"Never mind," rejoined Danvers. "It'll put a bit of heart into Fritz and make him buck up. That'll give us a chance of smelling powder."
"Perhaps," said Wilmshurst. "I heard the major say that field artillery was more of a drag than a benefit to the Boers in the South African War. It destroyed their mobility to a great extent, and not until we had captured most of the guns did the Boer start proper guerilla tactics—and you know how long that lasted."
"Hanged if I want to go foot-slogging the whole length and breadth of German East," commented Danvers. "I'd rather tackle a dozen batteries than tramp for a twelve-month on end. So this is that delightful spot, Kilwa?"
He pointed to a long, low-lying expanse of land, covered with trees. Away to the northward the ground rose, forming a plateau of coral nearly fifty feet above the sea, and on which many huge baobab trees were growing. The shores surrounding the harbour were low and covered with mangroves, but in and out could be discerned several lofty hills. Here and there could be seen isolated native huts, while at the head of the harbour clustered the thatch and tin-roofed houses of the German settlement, which had for several months been in British occupation.
With their systematic thoroughness the Huns had vastly improved the health of the hitherto miasmic-infested port, following the principles adopted by the Americans during the construction of the Panama Canal. Consequently much of the terrors of the fever-stricken port of Kilwa in by-gone days had disappeared, and with the continuance of ordinary precautions the place offered a suitable base for the columns about to operate between the Mohoro and Rovuma rivers.
Without undue delay the Waffs were disembarked and sent under canvas on fairly high ground at some distance from the harbour. For the next week intense activity prevailed, the men being strenuously subjected to the acclimatising process, while the horses and mules had to be carefully watched lest the deadly sleeping-sickness should make its appearance at the commencement of the operations and thus place the troops under severe disadvantages.
The officers, too, were not spared. Drills and parades over they had to attend lectures, tactical problems having to be worked out by the aid of military maps.
These maps, based upon German surveys, were the most accurate obtainable, but even then they left much to be desired. Subsequent knowledge of the country showed that frequently roads and native paths were indicated that had no actual existence, while on the other hand passable tracks were discovered that were not shown on the maps. More than likely the wily Huns allowed what were presumed to be official maps to fall into the hands of the British, having taken particular care to make them misleading. It was but one of many examples of the way in which Germany prepared for war not only in Europe but in her territorial appendages beyond the sea.
MacGregor landed with the troops and was given a semi-official position as scout and attached to the same battalion to which Wilmshurst belonged. Gradually his taciturnity diminished, until he developed into a fairly communicative individual and was generally popular with the Mess.
During the stay in camp at Kilwa Wilmshurst, Danvers, Spofforth and Laxdale snatched the opportunity of going on a lion-hunting expedition, MacGregor on their invitation accompanying them.
Taking .303 Service rifles, for which a supply of notched bullets was provided (for game shooting purposes only these terribly destructive missiles are allowable), and with Sergt. Bela Moshi and half a dozen Haussas as attendants the five men left Kilwa camp at about two hours before sunset.
An hour and ten minutes' ride brought them to a native village where several lions had been terrorising the inhabitants by their nocturnal depredations. Here the horses were left under the charge of one of the Haussas, and the party set out on foot into the bush.
"Think we'll have any luck, MacGregor?" asked Laxdale. "Hanged if I want to spend all night lugging a rifle about without the chance of a shot."
The Rhodesian smiled dourly. He knew the supreme optimism of amateur huntsmen and the general disinclination of the King of Beasts to be holed by a bullet.
"Unless a lion is ravenously hungry he will not put in an appearance," he replied. "Of course we might strike his spoor and follow him up. We'll see what luck we get when the moon rises."
For some distance the party travelled in silence. With the darkness a halt was called, for until the bush was flooded with the strong moonlight further progress was almost impossible.
Away on the right, at not so very great a distance, came the bleat of a goat, while further away still could be heard the awe-inspiring roar of the lions after their prey.
"Hanged if I like the idea of those huge brutes leaping right upon us," whispered Spofforth. "I, being the tallest of the crush, will be sure to bear the brunt of his leap."
Spofforth was the giant of the battalion, standing six feet four inches in his socks, and proportionately broad of shoulder and massive of limb. At the last regimental sports he carried off the running, long-jump and hurdle events, while as a boxer and a wrestler he was a match for most men, yet he expressed his fears with all sincerity, inwardly wishing for the rising of the moon.
The Haussas, too, were far from comfortable. Had they their wish they would have lighted a roaring fire, one of the most effective though not infallible means of keeping wild animals at bay.
The fifty minutes' halt in the desolate bush terminated when the deep orange-hued orb of night rose above the distant sea. As the shadows shortened the trek was resumed, each man keeping his loaded rifle ready for instant use.
Before they had gone two hundred yards, following a native path on which the spoor of a couple of lions was distinctly visible, Laxdale suddenly disappeared, while Wilmshurst, who was walking hard on his heels, was only just able to save himself from following his example.
Followed a great commotion in which the luckless subaltern's shouts mingled with the terrified bleating of a goat.
"Help us out, you fellows," cried Laxdale in desperation. "I've a whole menagerie for company by the feel of it."
"You'll scare every lion within five miles of us, laddie," expostulated MacGregor, kneeling at the edge of the pitfall and peering into the darkness within.
With the assistance of his electric torch Wilmshurst made the discovery that the trap was a hole of about twelve feet in depth and about the same distance in length. In breadth it overlapped the path, its presence being skilfully concealed by branches of trees overlaid with broad leaves on which earth had been thrown and lightly pressed so as to give it the appearance of part of the beaten track. In the floor of the pit pointed stakes had been driven, but fortunately Laxdale had fallen between them and thus escaped being impaled. His sole companion was a goat that, left without food and water, was to act as a decoy to the lions. Evidently the pitfall had been recently dug, otherwise the spoor of the beasts would not be visible on both sides of it.
"Dash the villagers!" exclaimed Spofforth impetuously. "Why the deuce didn't the headsman give us warning of the beastly trap? Here, Beta Moshi, cut a couple of young trees and knock up a ladder. Cheer-o, Laxdale, dear boy. Just try and imagine you've found the better 'ole."
"Imagination goes a long way," retaliated the imprisoned sub., "but you just jump down and put your suggestion to the practical test. I believe I'm being chawn up by white ants, and I'm certain that the jiggers are already tackling my toes."
Promptly Bela Moshi set the Haussas to work, and a rough-and-ready ladder having been constructed, Laxdale, little the worse for his unexpected tumble, was released from the pitfall.
The journey was resumed. Contrary to MacGregor's assertion the lions had not been frightened away, for their deep, characteristic roar could be heard with greater distinctness than before, although they were a good distance away.
MacGregor looked like proving a true prophet, however, for after following a fresh spoor for miles the hunters drew blank. At the edge of a pool of stagnant water the tracks ended abruptly.
"I don't fancy that water-hole," said Wilmshurst. "It savours of mosquitoes and other pests. How goes the time?"
Danvers consulted his wristlet watch.
"Nearly four o'clock," he announced. "If we are to be in camp by eight we'll have to look slippy."
A rustling sound in the grass within a few yards of the spot where the hunters were standing attracted their attention. With rifles ready to open fire they waited. They could see the coarse tufts waving in the moonlight.
"Stand by!" exclaimed Wilmshurst, handing his rifle to Bela Moshi, and before his companions could grasp the situation the subaltern plunged into the grass, made a sudden dash, and was back with a healthy young lion cub in his arms.
"We've bagged something, at all events," he remarked triumphantly. "The little beggar got adrift, I suppose."
"What are you going to do with it, old man?" asked Spofforth facetiously. "Use it as a decoy or train it to guard your kit in camp?"
"Just as likely as not the cub will act as a decoy," said Laxdale. "Let the little brute yap a bit."
"He's yapping quite enough as it is," rejoined Wilmshurst. "Hanged if we can hear anything with that noise. I hope you fellows are keeping on the alert?"
"MacGregor's doing that," replied Danvers, indicating the silent form of the Rhodesian, as he stood motionless as a statue, with his rifle ready for instant use.
"Hear anything, MacGregor?" enquired Spofforth.
The man shook his head.
"Thought I did," he replied, "but I must have been mistaken."
Giving the cub into the care of Bela Moshi, Wilmshurst followed his companions as they tramped in single file along the narrow bush track, the Haussas tailing on to the end of the procession.
The edge of the bush was almost reached when Laxdale, with a splendid shot at a hundred and twenty yards, brought down a large panther. A halt was made while the blacks skinned the dead beast, for in practically waterless districts panther-skin is a valuable aid to the efficiency of a Maxim gun. Soaked in water, wrapped round the jacket of the weapon, the evaporation keeps the gun cooler for a longer time than if the water within the jacket alone were used.
Upon coming within sight of the camp the white men were able to walk side by side in comparatively open country.
MacGregor, Laxdale, and Danvers were on ahead, Spofforth and Wilmshurst about fifty paces behind, Bela Moshi with the cub was close on Dudley's heels, while the Haussas with the dead panther were some distance in the rear, the blacks carrying the officers' rifles since the hunters were clear of the bush.
"I'll take the cub," said Wilmshurst, noticing that the native sergeant was stumbling frequently as he carefully nursed the somewhat fretful animal.
"Berry good, sah," replied Bela Moshi, handing the cub to the subaltern. "I tink, sah, dat——"
A chorus of yells and warning shouts from the Haussas made the officers turn pretty sharply. What they saw was something that they had badly wanted to see but at the present moment had not the faintest desire to meet.
Leaping with prodigious bounds across the flat ground was an enormous lioness. The devoted beast had followed her cub for miles, her instinct telling her that when the men halted her opportunity would come to recover the little animal. A lioness bereft of her cubs has been known to follow hunters for days in order either to recover or revenge her offspring. The sight of the large camp, however, must have incited the gigantic feline to premature action.
Of the five white men only MacGregor retained his rifle. Laxdale and Danvers took to their heels, making for a large baobab that stood about fifty yards away. Strange to relate, MacGregor followed suit, thrusting a clip of cartridges into the magazine of his rifle as he ran. Wilmshurst, hampered by the cub, stood stock still, fascinated by the awesome sight of the approaching lioness.
Ten yards in front of Wilmshurst stood Spofforth, swaying gently on his toes, his bulky figure thrown slightly forward and his arms outstretched.
"Run for it!" he exclaimed in a high-pitched, unnatural voice, but without turning his head.
Wilmshurst disobeyed—for one thing he was unable to tear himself away; his feet seemed rooted to the ground. For another, a sense of camaraderie urged him to remain an impassive spectator of the impending struggle between an unarmed man, who had voluntarily interposed his big bulk between the hampered subaltern and the infuriated animal.
The lioness, roaring loudly, leapt. Spofforth closed just as her forepaws touched the ground, and the next instant man and beast were engaged in a terrible struggle.
The powerful officer clutched the lioness just below the jaws with both hands, holding her in a vice-like grip. With his feet dug firmly, into the ground he held, swaying to and fro but not giving an inch while the cruel talons of the ferocious beast were lacerating his arms from shoulder to wrist.
Exerting every ounce of strength Spofforth bore down, striving to fracture the terrible jaws. Once the lioness succeeded in dealing him a blow with her paw that, but for the protection afforded by his double pith helmet would have brained the man. For a few seconds Spofforth reeled, his head-gear fell to the ground, leaving his skull unprotected should the lioness repeat the terrifically powerful stroke; yet not for a moment did his grip release.
Through an eddying cloud of dust raised by the struggle Wilmshurst watched the unequal conflict, until his will-power overcoming the initial stages of hypnotic impotence, he threw the cub to the ground and drew his knife.
With a sensation akin to that of a mild-tempered individual who essays with his bare hands to separate two large and ferocious dogs engaged in combat Wilmshurst edged towards the flank of the lioness with the intention of hamstringing the tensioned sinews of her hind legs.
Before he could deliver the stroke Bela Moshi grasped his officer by the shoulders and unceremoniously jerked him aside; then lifting a rifle to his shoulders the Haussa sergeant pressed the trigger.
Down in a convulsive heap fell Spofforth and the lioness, the brute frantically pawing both her antagonist and the dust in her death agonies. Then with a sharp shudder the animal stretched herself and died, while the subaltern, utterly exhausted, lay inertly upon the ground, his rent sleeve stained with still spreading dark patches.
By that time Laxdale and Danvers were upon the scene. Temporary bandages were applied to Spofforth's ugly-looking wounds, while the greatly concerned Haussas improvised a litter made of rifles and coats. Upon this the badly-mauled subaltern was placed and the journey resumed towards the camp, the dead lioness and her very much alive cub being carried in as trophies of the night's work.
"Where's MacGregor?" asked Wilmshurst.
Laxdale and Danvers exchanged enquiring glances.
"Hanged if I know," said the former. "The last I saw of him was when he was making for the baobab. We were a set of blighters scooting off and leaving old Spofforth to act like a modern Horatius."
All three subalterns knew that the Rhodesian was the only man on the spot who had a rifle ready, yet generously they forbore to give expression to their thoughts.
"See if you can find Mr. MacGregor," ordered Wilmshurst, addressing Bela Moshi.
"Me go, sah," replied the sergeant, and promptly he set off towards the baobab, keeping his eyes fixed upon the ground.
Arriving at the tree Bela Moshi rested his rifle against the trunk and with the agility of a cat swarmed up to one of the lowermost branches. Both Laxdale and Danvers could see that it was a different part of the tree from that in which they had taken refuge.
Crouching on the enormous limb Bela Moshi remained motionless for a few moments—a patch of huddled black and khaki hardly distinguishable from the sun-baked bark. Then he dropped lightly to the ground and by a movement of his arms signalled to some of the Haussas to approach.
"By Jove, Bela Moshi's found him!" exclaimed Danvers, and the three subalterns hurried to the spot.
It was MacGregor they saw, lying face downwards on a bed of dried grass. The Rhodesian was unconscious, but on examination no trace of an injury could be found. In his panic he had succeeded in climbing the tree as far as the lowermost branch and had been seized with a sudden faintness.
While the three officers were bending over him MacGregor opened his eyes. Gradually their haunted expression gave place to a look of bewilderment, until he realised that he was surrounded by friends.
"By smoke!" he ejaculated. "I had cold feet with a vengeance—and before a lot of niggers, too."
"So did we—that is, Danvers and I were in a mortal hurry to get out of the way of the lioness," rejoined Laxdale. "Good old Spofforth bore the brunt of it, and he's badly mauled."
"Is that so?" asked MacGregor. "I am sorry. It's a bad beginning, this running away business. I only hope the colonel and the others won't take it badly."
"Don't worry, old chap," said Danvers. "Feeling fit to foot it? Good. We've got to get Spofforth back as quickly as possible."
Walking with difficulty MacGregor managed to keep pace with the three officers, and presently the rough-and-ready stretcher was overtaken. Upon arriving at the camp the medical staff were soon busy, with the result that the wounds of the injured hunter were properly dressed.
"Not so serious as at first sight," declared the senior medical officer. "Unless complications set in he'll be fit in a month, but he'll carry the scars all his life."
HOW THE KOPJE WAS STORMED
A few days later the battalion left Kilwa for the scene of action, a strong force of Germans being located by seaplane reconnaissance twenty miles north of the Rovuma River and nearly four times that distance from the coast.
Acting in conjunction with three battalions of the Waffs were a mounted Boer contingent and a Punjabi regiment that had already done good service in the northern part of the hostile colony, while three seaplanes were "attached" to the expedition for reconnoitring purposes.
In high spirits the Waffs marched out of camp, eager for the chance of a scrap. The only malcontents were half-a-dozen hospital cases who perforce had to be left behind; amongst them, to his great disgust, Second Lieutenant Spofforth, who though convalescent was unable to bluff the doctor that his arm was "quite all right—doesn't inconvenience me in the least, don't you know."
At the end of four days' hard marching through scrubby grounds the troops began to climb the almost trackless hinterland, where water was scarce and vegetation scanty. It was much of the same nature as the veldt in the dry season, kopjes being plentifully in evidence. There were unpleasant traces of Fritz and his native auxiliaries, for several of the springs had been systematically poisoned and cunningly-constructed booby-traps were frequently encountered.
Nevertheless all arms were sanguine of bringing the Huns to bay. Strong Belgian forces operating from the westward were driving the enemy towards the advancing British, while across the Rovuma Portuguese troops, well supplied with light field-artillery, were considered a bar to any attempted "break-through" on the southern frontier.
Towards evening scouts reported the "spoor" of the enemy, for the ground bore the impression of thousands of naked footprints and those of about a hundred booted men. A strong force of German Askaris, supported by a "white" body of troops with machine guns and mule batteries, were retiring in a north-westerly direction, while a small detachment had broken off and was making almost north-east.
It was against the latter party that the Nth Waffs were to operate, since it was recognised that a small, mobile, and determined body of the enemy would give almost if not quite as much trouble as a large and consequently more cumbersome force hampered with guns in a difficult country.
"Hullo!" exclaimed Wilmshurst, as a couple of Haussa scouts hurriedly and stealthily rejoined the advance guard. "Tarry Barrel and Spot Cash have tumbled upon something."
"Hun he lib for stop, sah," reported Tari Barl.
"Stopping to make fight?" asked the subaltern eagerly.
The Haussa shook his head, and moved his jaw after the manner of a person eating.
"Lib for stop for grub," he exclaimed. "After that on him go."
"How far?" demanded Wilmshurst.
Tari Barl indicated that the scouts had followed two distinct spoors for more than a couple of miles without actually sighting any of the retiring enemy.
Acting upon this information the advance guard marched into the ground on which the Huns had recently halted. Examination of the refuse and other traces revealed the fact that the enemy had been there but a few hours previously, for the ashes of the extinguished fires were still hot. That the march had been resumed in a leisurely manner, showing that as yet the hostile detachment was unaware of the close pursuit, was evident by the systematic way in which the fires had been put out and earth thrown lightly over the embers.
"We'll halt just beyond this spot," decided the company major, when the rest of the four platoons joined the advance guard. "Hanged if I fancy bivouacking on the site of a Boche camp. What do you think of the fresh spoors, MacGregor?"
"That's the principal line of retreat, I think," replied the Rhodesian. "They can't go very much farther, for it will be pitch black in twenty minutes."'
"Just so," agreed the major. "Set the men to work, Mr. Wilmshurst. Mr. Laxdale, you will please send a runner to the colonel and tell him that we've proposed bivouacking here till dawn."
Until it was quite dark the Haussas toiled, building sangars and constructing light connecting trenches with abattis of sharp thorns sufficient to deter and hold up a rush of bare-footed Askaris, since there was no knowing that after all the enemy had been informed of the presence of the pursuing column.
In silence the men ate their rations, no fires being allowed, and sentries to outlying piquets having been posted, the troops slept beside their piled arms.
"What do you think of our chance of overtaking the bounders?" enquired Wilmshurst of MacGregor, as the former prepared to visit the sentries.
"We ought to surprise them just after dawn," replied the Rhodesian. "I'm just off to see the major and get his permission to try and discover their position."
"But it's pitch dark," remarked Dudley. "You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. Man, you'd be bushed for a dead cert."
"I don't know so much about that," replied MacGregor confidently. "The fellows up at Umfuli often used to chaff me, saying that I had eyes like a cat. Believe I have. At any rate I'll risk it, and if I'm not back an hour before dawn my name's not MacGregor."
"Let me know if the major agrees," said Wilmshurst. "I don't want my sentries to take pot shots at you when you return—and they are all jolly good marksmen," he added in a tone of pride, for he had good reason to pin his faith upon the Haussas' accuracy with a rifle.
It was not long before MacGregor returned.
"Fixed it up all right," he announced, "and now I'm off. If, just before dawn, you hear the cry of a gnu you'll know it's this johnny returning, so please keep the sentries well in hand."
The subaltern accompanied the Rhodesian past the alert sentries; then, with Wilmshurst's good wishes for the best of luck, MacGregor vanished into the night. In vain the young officer strained his ears to catch the faint noise of the Rhodesian's footsteps or the crackle of a dry twig under the pressure of his boot, but not a sound did the scout give of his progress.
"Hanged if I'd like to take on his job," soliloquised Dudley, as he slowly felt his way to the next pair of sentries. "I'd have a shot at it if I were told off for it, of course, but this darkness seems to have weight—to press upon a fellow's eyes. S'pose it'll end in having to send out parties to bring the fellow in."
Truth to tell, Wilmshurst was not particularly keen on his brother's chum. Why, he could hardly explain. It might have had something to do with MacGregor's conduct when the lioness charged. But since then the Rhodesian had shown considerable pluck and grit, and his voluntary offer to plunge into the bush on a pitch dark night was a great factor in his favour, in Dudley's opinion.
The subaltern's soliloquy was cut short by the dull glint of steel within a few inches of his chest—even in the darkness all bayonets seem to possess self-contained luminosity—and a voice hissed, "Who come?"
Reassuring the sentries—there were two at each post—Wilmshurst received the report that everything was all correct.
"Macgreg, him go," declared one of the Haussas, Macgreg being the name by which the Rhodesian was known to the black troops.
Wilmshurst was astonished. He had heard nothing of the scout's movements, yet the sentry, fifty yards away, had declared quite blandly that MacGregor had passed the outlying post.
"How do you know that, Brass Pot?" asked the subaltern.
The Haussa chuckled audibly, and holding his rifle obliquely with the bayonet thrust into the ground, placed his ear to the butt.
"Macgreg him go and go," he answered, meaning that the Rhodesian was still on the move.
In vain Wilmshurst tested the sound-conducting properties of the rifle. Normally of good hearing he failed to detect what to Private Brass Pot was an accepted and irrefutable fact.
"Very good," said the subaltern, without admitting his failure. "If you hear foot of Macgreg come this way before sergeant come for reliefs then you send and tell me. Savvy?"
"Berry good, sah," replied the Haussa.
Having twice visited the sentries Wilmshurst returned to the bivouac to snatch a few hours' sleep. It seemed as if he had only just dozed off when he was awakened by Sergeant Beta Moshi, who informed him that the men were already standing to and that the brief tropical dawn was stealing across the sky.
"Has Macgreg returned, Bela Moshi?" asked Wilmshurst, stretching his cramped limbs, for he had not removed his boots during the last forty-eight hours, and with the exception of a brief interval had been on his feet practically the whole of that time.
"MacGregor?" exclaimed Laxdale, who happened to overhear his brother-officer's question. "Yes—rather. It seems that he struck our main camp about an hour or so ago. The colonel's sent to say that we are to attempt an enveloping movement. The Boches are in force on a kopje about five miles on our light front—about eight hundred of 'em according to MacGregor's report."
"That's good," declared Wilmshurst. All the same he felt rather sceptical. The spoor of the right-hand column of the retiring Huns hardly bore out the Rhodesian's statement, but evidently the scout knew his business.
"Is MacGregor accompanying us?" he asked, as the three subalterns prepared to rejoin their respective platoons.
"Fancy not," replied Danvers. "He's pretty well done up, I imagine. The scrub's a bit thick out there, and a fellow can't crawl far without picking up a few thorns. Plucky blighter, what?"
"A" Company was to work round to the right of the hostile position, "B" operating to the left, both having two hours' start of the remainder of the battalion, which was to deliver a frontal attack simultaneously with the flanking movement.
With the night-mists still hanging in dense patches over the scrub tactics were resumed. Wilmshurst had good reason to be delighted with his men as the scouts and advance guards slipped off to their detailed positions. At a hundred yards they were lost to sight and sound, threading their way with the utmost caution through the long grass like experienced hunters stalking their prey, while the various units kept well in touch with each other by means of reliable runners. Other methods of communication were out of the question. Flag-waving and heliograph would have "given the show away" with the utmost certainty.
All feelings of physical tiredness vanishing under the magic spell of impending action, Wilmshurst led his extended platoon toward their allotted positions. It was slow work. The ground was difficult; every spot likely to afford concealment to a hostile sniper had to be carefully examined. The absence of bird life was ominous. It meant that either the returning Huns had disturbed the feathered denizens or else the advance of the Haussas had driven them over the enemy position, in which case the wily Hun would "smell a rat."
It was noon before Wilmshurst gained his preliminary objective. The tropical sun was beating down with terrific violence, the scrub offering scant shelter from its scorching rays. Already the previously-dew-sodden ground was baked stone-hard, the radiating heat imparting an appearance of motion to every object within sight.
Literally stewing, the subaltern threw himself flat on the ground under the slight shadow of a dried thorn bush, and waited, at intervals sweeping the bare outlines of the kopje with his prismatic glasses.
Thirty long drawn-out minutes passed. According to plan the enveloping movement ought to have been completed an hour ago, but not a sign was given that "B" Company had arrived at their position—a sun-baked donga at a distance of fifteen hundred yards behind the kopje.
Up crept Bela Moshi, his ebony features distended in a most cheerful looking grin.
"Hun him lib for sit down, sah!" he reported. "Five Bosh-bosh (his rendering of the word Boche) an' heap Askari—say so many."
He opened and closed his fingers of both hands four times, meaning that the hostile post consisted of five Germans and forty native troops.
"They saw you?" asked the subaltern.
"Dem no look," replied the sergeant. "Too much busy make eat."
"How far away?"
"One tousand yards, sah," declared Bela Moshi.
Writing his report on a leaf of his pocketbook Wilmshurst gave the paper to Tari Barl with instructions to deliver it to the company commander.
Quickly the major's reply was received. The hostile post was to be surrounded, but no action taken until the order was given for the concentrated rush upon the Huns holding the kopje.
As rapidly as due caution allowed the enveloping of the outpost was completed. From his new position, less than four hundred yards from the spot where the unsuspecting Huns were bivouacking, Wilmshurst could keep them under close observation.
Three of the Germans were middle-aged men, bearded, swarthy, and dressed in coffee-coloured cotton uniform, sun helmets and gum boots. The other two were quite young men, whose attention, despite the heat, was mainly directed towards the Askaris. Evidently some of the stores had gone adrift, for the young Huns were browbeating a number of natives, punctuating their forcible remarks by liberal applications of their schamboks, while their elders looked on in stolid but unqualified approval.
"Dem make for one-time good shot, sah!" whispered Bela Moshi, calmly setting the backsight of his rifle. "Blow Bosh-bosh him head-bone inside out an' him not know anyting."
"Go steady, Bela Moshi," cautioned the subaltern. "Pass the word for the men to fire one volley over their heads—but not before I give orders—and then rush them with the bayonet. We want them alive, remember."
A whistle rang out faintly away on the left. The call was repeated much nearer, while distinct blasts rose through the heated air. It was the signal for the advance.
Almost as soon as Wilmshurst put his whistle to his lips a crisp volley from the rifles of his platoon rent the welkin, then with fierce shouts the khaki-clad, barefooted Waffs leapt to their feet, their bayonets glittering in the sun.
At first, too utterly astonished to realise that they were hopelessly trapped and outnumbered, the Huns stood stock still, gazing stupidly at the converging ring of steel. The Askaris for the most part attempted to bolt, but finding their retreat cut off, grovelled in the dust.
"Hands up!" shouted Wilmshurst.
The three bearded Huns obeyed promptly and meekly. Of the others one held up his arms with sullen reluctance, his flabby face distorted with rage. The fifth, dropping on one knee, picked up a rifle and levelled it at the on-rushing British officer.
"The fellow's showing pluck, by Jove!" was the thought that flashed through Dudley's mind. Like all brave men he admired courage even in a foe. The fact that running over rough ground and firing a revolver at fifty yards did not give him much chance against a steadily held rifle entered into his calculations.
Before the Hun could press trigger a score of rifles spoke. The Waffs, on seeing their young officer's danger, took no chances, and the German, his head and chest riddled with bullets, toppled over stone dead upon the ground. As he fell his fingers closed convulsively against the trigger of his rifle and the bullet intended for Wilmshurst sung past the subaltern's left ear.
A loud yell from the other young Hun proclaimed the fact that he, too, was hit. A bullet fired at the resisting German had been deflected, passing through the fleshy part of his comrade's left arm. It was hard luck on a surrendered prisoner, but on these occasions luck, both good and bad, crops up at every available opportunity.
"Sorry, Fritz," exclaimed Wilmshurst apologetically. "Accident, you know."
There was no time for explanation. Directing a Haussa to attend to the Hun's injury and ordering others to round up and disarm the prisoners Wilmshurst hurried his men to the storming of the kopje.
On all sides the Waffs were climbing the slopes, yelling and cheering vociferously, but not an answering shout came from the rocky summit. It required enormous restraint on the part of the foe to withhold their fire, while already the Haussas had passed the zone where a volley at comparatively short range would have played havoc with them.
The silence on the part of the enemy seemed incomprehensible unless, not having sufficient numbers to hold the edges of the flat-topped hill they had concentrated at one spot, where with machine-guns they could rake the skyline as the Waffs breasted the top.
Over the position the exultant troops poured, the one fly in the ointment being the fact that their rush had met with no resistance. In extended order they re-formed and dashed across the plateau—a rapidly contracting line of khaki tipped with steel.
Almost in the centre of the top of the kopje was an irregular mound of piled rocks and earth. Towards this the Waffs charged, their officers momentarily expecting the rattle of musketry and the tic-tac of machine-guns.
Without resistance the Waffs bore on, overran the supposed earthworks and found—nothing.
There were not even traces of Hun occupation. The enemy had got clear away with the exception of the small post rushed by Wilmshurst's platoon. By an evident error of judgment on the part of MacGregor—a non-existent position had been the object of the column's attention, and although the operations were not entirely futile officers and men realised that they had experienced a great disappointment.
Descending the kopje the Waffs fell in, having secured their prisoners under a strong escort. The order to march was about to be given when the distant rattle of musketry was distinctly heard.
The colonel looked at the senior major enquiringly.
"A raiding crush, sir," replied the latter to the unspoken question. "While we've been on a wild goose chase Fritz is raiding our camp."
THE WARNING SHOT
Nobly the sorely-tried Waffs rose to the occasion. Notwithstanding their arduous advance and its meagre results they eagerly hastened to meet the new danger, knowing that with the destruction of their baggage and transport and their lines of communication cut they would be in a serious position in the almost waterless scrub.
They required little urging, the officers' words of encouragement being quite perfunctory although well-intentioned. In open order with flankers thrown out the Waffs hurried through the bush, the sound of continuous rifle-fire growing louder and louder.
"Button's holding out all right," declared the company-major to Wilmshurst, referring to the lieutenant left in charge of the camp. "He has MacGregor and young Vipont to back him up and twenty-five Haussas. Hullo, what's that?"
"German machine-guns, sir," replied Wilmshurst promptly.
"Yes, worse luck," resumed the major. "We've been running after the shadow and the substance butts in during our absence."
An orderly came dashing up with a written message. The major's face fell as he read it.
"We're out of it again, Wilmshurst," he remarked, after the runner had been sent back with a confirmatory report.
"How's that, sir?" asked the subaltern.
"Orders from the colonel for 'A' Company to hold the position shown on the attached map, and to cut off the retreat of the enemy. Here we are: see this kloof? Three platoons are to lie in ambush at that spot, another—yours, Mr. Wilmshurst—will take up a position two miles to the north-west, in case any stragglers attempt to break through the smaller defile shown on the map. It looks nothing more than a native path. We'll find that out later on."
At the word of command "A" Company halted until the rest of the battalion was almost out of sight. Then the detachment, moving to the right in column of fours, marched at a rapid pace along a comparatively clear path through the scrub.
When the three platoons had taken up their position at the indicated spot Wilmshurst's platoon had still a distance of two miles to cover—and that two miles was the roughest part of the whole day's march. It was a disused track possibly dating back to the old days when the Arab slave-raiders traversed the greater part of Central Africa in search of "black ivory," and was now greatly overgrown by cacti and other fibrous plants. Here and there palm trees had fallen completely across the path, while in no part was it more than a yard in breadth, being hedged in on both sides by dense tropical vegetation. And yet the track was distinctly marked upon the German-compiled maps with which the British troops were working.
It was hardly a route that any European under ordinary circumstances would tackle under the glaring heat of the afternoon's sun. Mosquitoes—harbingers of malaria—and fire-flies buzzed in swarms, snakes and lizards, their hitherto undisturbed solitude rudely shaken by the stealthy patter of three score pairs of bare feet, wriggled across the swampy ground, while overhead thousands of frightened birds flew in large circles, chattering the while in a way that would alarm every Boche within a radius of three miles.
A mile and a half of this sort of marching—the Haussas were in single file—and the platoon emerged into a wider track running obliquely across the path they had taken. Halting his men Wilmshurst, assisted by Sergeant Bela Moshi, examined the ground. There were evidences that a number of European and native troops had passed, going in the opposite direction to the Waffs' bivouac, while what was somewhat remarkable there were more recent tracks of a horse's hoofs.
"Him am gov'ment horse, sah," declared the sergeant. "Him lib for go plenty fast no time," meaning that the animal was a British Army mount (this from the peculiar shape of the horse-shoe prints) and had passed by quite recently.
"Probably Sutton dispatched a mounted orderly to summon help," thought Wilmshurst. "In that case the fellow's taken the wrong track. He'll be back shortly. Hope it will be before Fritz ambles along here—if it's our luck that the Huns do retire this way."
Two hundred yards further on the scrub became quite scanty in a wide belt that terminated in a low range of hills. The slopes of the rising ground were fairly steep except at a gap in the centre, where a deep ravine had been utilized by the makers of the road. It was an ideal spot for an ambuscade. Sheltering behind the cacti that abundantly covered the hill the Haussas could extend on a fairly broad front, and concentrate a heavy fire upon any enemy retiring along the path. The maxim on its tripod mounting was set up to enable it to sweep the expected column with an oblique fire, its panther-skin encased water-jacket being camouflaged by foliage carefully placed so as not to obstruct the sights.
Hardly were these preparations completed when, with a terrific roar and a tremendous cloud of dust, an explosive missile burst within two hundred yards of the platoon's position.
"Dash it all!" ejaculated Wilmshurst. "That's a thundering big shell. Keep down, men."
The Haussas in natural and childlike curiosity were craning their necks to see the unexpected sight. Just then a loud buzzing sound came from immediately overhead. At the risk of being blinded by the terrific glare the subaltern glanced aloft to see a large seaplane that, having completed a long volplane, had restarted its engine. By the conspicuous marks on the wings and fuselage Wilmshurst made the disconcerting discovery that the aircraft was a British machine, and that it was diligently engaged in attempting to bomb the Waffs out of existence under the mistaken idea that they were an enemy patrol.
"That's done it!" muttered Wilmshurst. "The silly joker has put the kybosh on our chances of surprising the Boches. Lucky if we escape being hit with some of the infernal eggs!"
With difficulty restraining the Haussas from opening fire, for they would not be convinced that the "great buzz-bird" could possibly make a mistake, and that it must be a Boche machine, Dudley awaited developments, watching with decided apprehension the seaplane circling to take up a favourable position for another bomb-dropping effort.
The second missile burst in a donga a hundred yards to the rear of the Haussas' line, while a few seconds later a third exploded at half that distance again on the Waffs' flank.
Wilmshurst was now sarcastically interested.
"If you can't do better than that, old son," he chuckled, "you'd better hook it. My word, if ever I meet you on terra firma, I won't forget to chip you."
The ineffectual strafing continued for nearly a quarter of an hour. At the end of that time the airmen, either discovering their mistake or else having been called up by wireless to attack more numerous forces, desisted from their present operations. Banking steeply the seaplane bore away rapidly in a south-easterly direction, and was soon a mere speck in the azure sky.
Followed a long period of inaction on the part of the Haussas. Scarce daring to move lest a keen-eyed Askari should detect their presence, the Waffs hugged the sun-baked earth until the lengthening shadows warned them of the approach of night.
The distant firing had passed from rapid volleys through desultory exchange of shots to a complete cessation. The rest of "A" Company were not engaged, so it appeared to the still hopeful Haussas that their foes had effected a retreat in a different direction from that expected. With the fall of night a large hostile detachment might easily slip through the scantily-held lines, and that accounted for the uneasy glances that the Waffs gave at the declining orb of day.
"Hist, sah!" exclaimed Beta Moshi. "Dey come."
With every sense keenly on the alert Wilmshurst strove to detect the approach of the foe. Already the men had slipped clips of cartridges into the magazines of their rifles, and, the exact range being known, had set sights to eight hundred yards, at which distance the retiring Huns would be on slightly-sloping ground practically destitute of cover.
A cloud of dust rising sullenly in the still air marked the approach of the column. The Huns were moving rapidly, although there were no sounds to indicate that they were fighting a rear-guard action, while there were no signs of any advance guard.
"We've got them cold," exclaimed Wilmshurst, gleefully, then, "No. 1 Section, volley firing, ready."
Suddenly a shot rang out away on the left front of the concealed Haussas.
"Who the deuce fired that?" thought the subaltern angrily, vowing to make it hot for the luckless black who could not keep control over his itching trigger finger.
The mischief was done. At the warning shot the retiring enemy stopped short almost in the jaws of the trap that awaited them; then at a hot pace they disappeared into the bush to be swallowed up in the rapidly deepening night.
"Find out who fired that shot, sergeant," ordered Wilmshurst.
Bela Moshi's efforts were unavailing. Even when the platoon was paraded and every man's rifle examined the culprit was not discovered.
"Jolly rummy," mused the subaltern. "It's a dead cert that none of my men fired. Some one did. Why and for what reason?"
Fired with anger at the futile ending to their tedious efforts the Haussas sent a deputation to the young officer offering to search the bush in the direction from which the shot came, for the men of the extreme left flank were emphatic in their belief that they heard the sounds of booted feet after the report.
"Off you go, then," replied Wilmshurst. "Hurry back if you hear the 'Fall in.'"
The two men selected—Tari Barl and No Go—lost no time in starting upon their hazardous quest. Armed only with their bayonets the Haussas vanished into the darkness.
Another period of tension ensued. The tropical heat of the day gave place to intense cold as the parched earth rapidly radiated its heat. Presently the stars began to glimmer in the firmament, their brightness increasing to their full splendour of an African night.
Still no message came for the platoon to fall back upon the rest of "A" Company. Vaguely Wilmshurst began to wonder whether the outlying Waffs had been overlooked. Sixty hours of almost continuous and strenuous work were beginning to tell. Most of the Haussas, utterly worn out, were sleeping in easy yet undignified postures upon the ground, the only men keeping awake being Bela Moshi and the other section commander and sentries posted before Wilmshurst gave the word to stand easy.
Even the subaltern found his head drooping. Half a dozen times he pulled himself together, only to realise that the overpowering desire for sleep had him firmly in its grip.
Suddenly the stillness was broken by the cautious challenge of one of the sentries. Tari Barl and his companion were returning.
"Well?" exclaimed Wilmshurst interrogatively, as the stalwart blacks stood stiffly to attention.
"Man him gone," declared Tari Barl, with the important air of a person making a momentous statement.
"Yes, I know that, Tarry Barrel," replied the subaltern impatiently. "Is that all?"
"Me find dis in bush, sah," continued the imperturbable Haussa, holding up a small, glittering object for his officer's inspection.
It was a recently-fired rimmed cartridge-case. Holding his electric torch to the base of the case he gave vent to an exclamation of perplexed surprise.
For on it were cut the British Government broad arrow and the Roman numeral V., which showed that the cartridge was similar to those issued to the Waffs on leaving camp at Kilwa.
"Treachery!" muttered Wilmshurst. "I wonder——"
A TRUE MAN OR A TRAITOR?
It was in the early hours of the morning when "A" Company marched into bivouac. The men dismissed, Wilmshurst wrote out his report, handed it in and promptly fell sound asleep.
The colonel, wisely deciding that little could be done with men worn out with sleeplessness and fatigue, issued orders that the pursuit would be abandoned until the Haussas had recovered their usual form. Meanwhile other columns were on the track of the raiders, who, but for the vigilance and dogged determination of Lieutenant Sutton, would have "wiped out" the Waffs' bivouac during the latter's wild-goose chase.
For five hours the young officer, assisted by Second-lieutenant Vipont and a handful of Haussas, held the Huns at bay. With rifle, bayonet and bomb the plucky sons of the Empire manned the frail defences, until the enemy, unable to achieve their objective, retired before the returning battalion could bring them to action.
"Hullo, Wilmshurst!" exclaimed Laxdale, as the three subalterns of "A" company met just before a belated breakfast. "What happened to you?"
"A wash-out," replied Dudley. "Held on till five this morning, and never a chance of a shot; or rather, when it came we were dished."
"Heard the news?" asked Danvers. "No? We had it this morning. The Huns have rushed a Portuguese position on the Rovuma. The Portuguese skedaddled, leaving the whole battery of quick-firers intact. I suppose it'll mean our chasing Fritz southward right through Portuguese East. With luck we'll corner them on the Zambesi."
"Guess you're wrong, Danvers," interrupted Laxdale. "I know how the business is going to end; street fighting in Cape Town. Fritz won't stand, so it's an everlasting chase until he's got the sea at his back."
"Any one seen MacGregor this morning?" enquired Wilmshurst.
"MacGregor? Didn't you find him?" asked Vipont, who had joined the group of tired-eyed subalterns. "After the column left camp—about an hour and a half, I should say—he asked Sutton to let him try and overtake the battalion. Said he didn't want to swing the lead with a mere scratch on his shin-bone. So he mounted and rode off. That's the last I saw of him."
"How long before the Huns attacked?" asked Danvers.
"Three hours," replied Vipont. "You don't suggest that a skilled scout blundered right on top of them?"
"Not at all," his questioner hastened to assert. "For one thing after he followed us he would be on a diverging route to that taken by Fritz & Co. What do you say, Wilmshurst?"
Dudley shook his head. He had no particular cause either to like or dislike the man, but he hesitated to give definite utterance to his suspicions. It was decidedly un-British to condemn a man before being sure of actual facts and to sow the seeds of distrust against an individual who was not present to defend himself. But somehow the chain of events—the horse's footprints on the kloof road, the warning shot when the hitherto unsuspecting Huns were approaching the ambush, the mark V. cartridge case—all pointed to treachery on the part of some one, while MacGregor's disappearance coincided with the other points that had occurred to the subaltern.
"He may be bushed," he replied. "It's just likely that he'll turn up again soon. Has his absence been reported? I'll mention it, if you like. I have to see the adjutant in a few minutes."
Wilmshurst found the adjutant in his "office," which consisted of three walls of piled ammunition boxes, with a double covering of canvas. The furniture was composed of a desk (an upturned packing-case) and a couple of chairs (smaller dittos) the former being littered with official forms and papers, for even in the wilds of Africa the British Army cannot dispense with red-tape formalities.
"Mornin', Mr. Wilmshurst," was the adjutant's greeting as he returned the subaltern's salute. "Want to see you with reference to that report of yours, don't you know. Take a pew. You'll find that case pretty comfortable, and come in out of the sun. Look here: from your report I understand that a warning shot was fired, but not by any of ours. Is that so?"