FIGHTING THE TRIBESMEN
Standing in the shadow cast by the cliff on his right, Jim looked out upon the brightly lit plain, and watched the tribesmen coming to the attack. There was no need for them to remain silent, for they already knew that their design of capturing the zareba was known; and, therefore, they marched forward, shouting loudly to one another, and brandishing their weapons above their heads. A few, carried away by their excitement, even fired their guns, as if already in sight of their opponents, as indeed they were, if only they had known it. Nearing the entrance of the gorge, they gathered together, and then, at a shout from their leader, halted for a minute.
“We must slay the infidels this time,” he called out. “Let each man prepare now for the fight, and when I give the word, rush forward at his fastest pace. In that way only can we hope to escape the shower of rocks from above. Some I have already told off to climb the cliffs and pick off the defenders, and they will carry out their commands at once. Are you ready? Then, in Allah’s name, forward!”
At his words a storm of cries and of fierce shouts burst from the Somalis, and some three hundred of them came rushing towards the ravine, eager to be the first to reach the farther end and come to close quarters with the men who had given such a bitter blow to their pride. Well might the little band of defenders tremble at the sight and at the noise, for on the former occasion the tribesmen had advanced in comparative silence, and their defeat and subsequent retreat had been swift and but the matter of a few minutes. Now, however, it was a different matter. Here were the enemy rushing upon them in numbers sufficient to overpower them, indeed, to sweep over them and trample them underfoot without feeling their presence. For the moment the hopelessness of their case appealed to Jim, and he felt as though all were lost, and that his hopes of saving his father from slavery, or worse, were destined to be shattered at the very beginning. Then a sudden determination to conquer came upon him, and he turned quietly to Ali.
“Call gently to the men, and tell them to hold their fire and keep well under cover until they hear me shout,” he said. “I shall wait till the enemy is within fifty yards, so that our volleys may have good effect. Let them know also that they are to reload at once, and that if the natives do not retire after the first volley, they are to open upon them with the magazine, and continue firing till they fly. How thankful I am that we took the precaution two days ago of showing them how to manage their rifles.”
Ali at once carried out his master’s orders, first telling those who lay behind the barricade of stones, and then going to inform the remainder who had been posted upon the ledges. That done, he returned to Jim’s side, and stood there awaiting the attack, determined to help him as far as in him lay, for the bravery of this young Englishman appealed to him. Indeed, he was lost in wonderment to find this lad, who had had no experience of this sort of life, and who had had no dealings with natives, so calmly placing himself at the head of his followers, and leading them against odds which would have appalled many a grown-up man.
By now the tribesmen were within eighty yards from them, and, led by their sheik, they came rushing pell-mell towards the entrance of the ravine, expecting to find it open, and never dreaming that the enemy whom they were bent on attacking already occupied it. All their thoughts and all their energies were occupied in the race to reach the farther end, each one striving to be there before his fellows, to strike one of the few blows which they told themselves would be necessary to conquer these impudent people.
“Death to the infidels!” shouted the sheik. “Fear not their bullets, but rush upon them and slay them ere they can lift their weapons to do you harm.”
Crowded together in a surging mass, his followers advanced towards the gorge, shouting defiance. A minute more and they were within the distance which Jim had mentioned, looking as though nothing could stop them, so great was their eagerness, and as though they would overrun the wall of stones and scatter it to right and left in their impetuosity.
Clash! Bang! At Jim’s order, a stream of flame spurted from the ambush, and from the ledges to right and left, as the men opened fire, sending a hail of bullets into the center of the mass. At such a short-range, and with these modern rifles which threw bullets of the smallest caliber and of the greatest penetrating force, every missile flew on till it was stopped by the sheer weight of the mass before it. Not one, but many men were struck down by the shower of lead, and falling headlong upon the ground, lay there sprawling in all directions and in every attitude, a trap for the feet of those who followed. But if the surprise of the tribesmen had been great during their first attack, when they discovered that the opening from the ravine had been closed, it was now more than doubled. They were dumfounded at the trick played upon them, and as the rifles flashed out vengefully, they came to an abrupt halt, as if by mutual consent, and stood there, breathless, their weapons still held above their heads, staring into the darkness beyond them, as if they wished to penetrate into the depth of the gorge and learn what was happening. For more than a minute they paused, while the defenders, taking advantage of the breathing-space, opened the breeches of their weapons. Shooting out the empty cartridges, they replaced them with fresh ones and closed the locks with a snap and bang which told, as plainly as if they had mentioned the fact, that they, too, meant business, and that nothing but the absolute defeat of their enemies would satisfy them.
“They give back! They fly! Death to the dags!” shouted Ali Kumar excitedly, at this moment, noticing that a few of the leaders had suddenly turned, and were endeavoring to thrust their comrades aside and find a means of escape. “See, master, you have already taught them the lesson of which you spoke.”
“Wait!” answered Jim sharply. “It is only those who have no stomach for the fight who are returning. The majority will fight it out; of that I am sure. Ah, here they come!”
As he spoke, the sheik, whose astonishment had at first been overpowering, suddenly recovered his wits, and, rendered desperate by the position in which he found himself, and fearful of losing credit with his following, suddenly sprang to the front, and, turning towards his men, shouted loud words of encouragement.
“Are you then afraid?” he cried. “Shall these few infidel dogs turn us from our purpose? On! Let not the flash of their weapons terrify you and rob you of your bravery. Forward! Death to the enemy!”
Swinging round until he faced the gorge once more, he leveled his gun at it, and pulled the trigger. Then he tossed it to one side, knowing that it would be useless in a hand-to-hand conflict, and drawing a long, double-handed sword from his waist with the quickness of a flash, he charged at the defenders.
Taking encouragement from his words and action, the tribesmen at once sprang forward and joined him, following close on his heels, and setting up a fierce shout which awoke the echoes, and almost deafened the defenders. “Kill them!” they shouted. “Slay the infidels!”
Pressing forward at their fastest pace, they were soon within some twenty yards of the barrier. But at that moment the rifles flashed out again, and a storm of bullets was poured into their midst. Throwing out the catch of their magazines, Jim’s followers sent missile after missile into their midst without cessation, and, pausing only to replenish them, opened again, rising in their excitement from behind their shelter, so as to obtain a better aim.
Three times did the tribesmen win their way to within a few paces of the wall of stones, but on each occasion, the rifles of the defenders beat them back. Then they retired sulkily, and, taking up their posts behind boulders and scraps of cover, which existed here and there, open a stinging fusillade upon the ravine.
“Order the men to lie down behind the rocks!” cried Jim; “and tell them that they are to reserve their shots until they are certain that they can see one of the enemy. They are then to take careful aim, and pick him off without wasting a cartridge. Let them show these tribesmen that recklessness will not pay, and that the instant one rises from his shelter he will be slain.”
Obedient to the orders which were repeated to them by Ali Kumar, the native followers lay down upon their ledges, and kept a careful watch upon the tribesmen. But all the while each held his rifle to his shoulder, and closely scrutinizing the moonlit plain beyond, endeavored to discover the whereabouts of lurking tribesmen. Then, taking careful aim, and waiting till the man he covered rose to empty his weapon in the direction of the ravine, he pressed his trigger gently and sent his bullets home. Not once, but many times, did the defenders pick off one of the enemy, and, when an hour had passed, quite twenty had paid the penalty for their boldness.
“Their volleys seem to be getting heavier,” remarked Jim, some twenty minutes later, when a perfect storm of slugs whistled and shrieked through the entrance of the ravine, striking against the rocks on either side to glance off them and ricochet into space with a characteristic note to which an old soldier would have been quite accustomed. Others struck the hastily built wall of stones, and, smashing to pieces there, sent a shower of fragments in all directions. Indeed, so heavy and well-aimed was the tribesmen’s fusillade, that a number of the small garrison were wounded, but only to a slight extent, thanks to the nature of the missiles used.
“Yes, it is certainly becoming heavier, and I should not be surprised if they made another rush before very long. Sing out to the men to be prepared, Ali, and tell them that on this occasion I shall not give the command to open fire until they are considerably closer, for they will have had their warning, and will most likely come on in open order, in which case we could not hope to inflict much loss, for the light is uncertain, and makes accurate aiming difficult. But they are bound to come together within a few yards of this, and that is the moment we must select for blazing into them.”
“The advice is good,” was Ali’s answer. “These men who have so rashly attacked us are burning to avenge their defeat, and they will not rest until they have slain us, or we have chastised them so severely that they recognize the hopelessness of their cause. Therefore, if ten, if twenty, fell to the earth, shot down by our bullets as they rush to the attack, the remainder would not pause, would not hesitate for a moment, but would come on at their fastest pace. It is a clever plan, therefore, to wait until they are within easy range and packed close together, for, seeing that our guns are silent when they had expected them to open heavily upon them, they will, perchance, imagine that we have retired, and have prepared another ambush for them. I should advise, master, that you order the men at once to lie down, for they are now having little success, as the tribesmen have been warned by the death of their comrades, and are careful not to expose themselves.”
“You can do as you suggest, Ali, and I feel sure that our silence will make them wonder. Perhaps they will hold a council of war, and then come on warily, imagining that we have retreated to our old barricade. Call to our followers, and explain the situation to them. Then let them know that they are on no account to make a sound until I give the signal by firing my rifle.”
Ali at once turned to the natives, who had so gallantly supported their young English leader, and hastily communicated Jim’s words to them. Then all knelt, or lay at full length behind the cover each one had selected, and remained there, eyes fixed upon the plain beyond and upon the figures of the tribesmen which flitted hither and thither, now rushing from one thorn-bush to another, and now creeping along some shallow trench cunningly scooped from the sand with their hands, to reach a site which seemed more favorable. It was evident that all had taken the lesson to heart, and had felt the bullets of the defenders, for up to a little while ago they had, in the manner of Eastern people, recklessly and defiantly exposed themselves, standing fully erect to discharge their weapons. But as many of these bold men had fallen, shot through the head or chest, the remainder began to learn that the sight of a shoulder or of a head peering from behind a boulder was the signal for the instant snap of a rifle and the swish of a bullet close at hand. And now their crafty sheik had had time to recover his self-possession, and from his position in the center of his men, sent messengers crawling to right and left with instructions for the next attack.
“I fancy I can see something moving over there,” said Jim, some ten minutes later, as he stood behind the barricade, silently looking out upon the plain. “Is it the moonlight which alters objects or are those thorn-bushes getting slowly nearer to us? Look! There is a large one out there in the very center, and I declare that, five minutes ago, it was twenty paces or more from the rock close beside which it now stands.”
He stared anxiously over the sandy waste, and pointed with his finger to indicate the bush to which he wished to draw Ali’s attention, quite forgetting that he himself, together with all the defenders, were shrouded in the inky darkness with which the entrance of the ravine was clad. But Ali’s eyes were as sharp as a ferret’s, and long residence amongst the natives had given him powers of sight far more acute than those usually possessed by more civilized people. A glance into the open showed him the large bush, and instantly his attention became riveted upon it.
“It moves!” he whispered breathlessly. “See, master, a moment ago it was beside the rock of which you spoke, and now it stands in front of it, so that I can scarcely see its outline. And—look! There are others to right and left which are creeping forward. It is a ruse, a cunning plan to get close to us before making the final rush. Each one of those thorn-bushes conceals one or more of the tribesmen, all with their eyes fixed upon the central bush, and all slowly, steadily, but insensibly, drawing nearer. Soon they will have approached as close as they deem possible, and then casting the cover aside, they will spring to their feet, and come rushing upon us. What shall we do?”
For the first time since the tribesmen had attacked Ali showed some symptoms of fear. His lips trembled involuntarily as he asked Jim the question, and unconsciously he grasped the lad by the arm.
“What shall we do, Ali? Why? What else but watch them carefully, and send our volleys swishing into them when they do rise for their attack? I’ve been thinking the matter out, and I feel sure that the plan we have agreed upon is a wise one. For ten minutes not a shot has been fired from our side, and though they have certainly been listening with all their ears, they have not heard a sound. But still, they creep forward, only half suspecting at present that we have withdrawn. Soon, however, they will begin to think that, if we are still here, we are blind, for we could not fail to have discovered the moving bushes. That will set them wondering, and it will never cross their minds that we have chosen to prepare another surprise for them. They will be quite sure that all their trouble in creeping forward in this way has been useless, and they will rise to their feet and advance towards the ravine, fully expecting to find us gone. But we will teach them to be more sensible. Now is our time to give them a blow from which they will never recover. Cheer up, Ali! Things are not half so desperate as they seem.”
Jim’s words had the desired effect upon his native follower, for the latter at once straightened himself, and, standing erect behind the barricade, looked out upon the enemy with far more determination and courage than he had shown before. As for Jim, though he leant there apparently unmoved and unconcerned, he was far from feeling as sanguine as he had expressed himself, for there was no doubt that he and his little band of followers were in an extremely precarious situation, from which they could not hope to escape without severe and desperate fighting. Indeed, when he considered the odds, and remembered the fierce shouts with which the enemy had previously attacked, he was bound to confess to himself that the position was almost without hope. Could he and these few men, well-armed though they were, expect for the third time to beat back a crew of fanatical tribesmen who were bent upon slaying them, and who, taught to think that they were the only true believers, considered that death earned in slaying an infidel was well earned indeed? Against such men effectual resistance was difficult, and, unless reinforcements were at hand, or great success attained at the beginning, could not possibly be continued for very long.
“But we’ll do it,” said Jim doggedly, to himself. “I’ve come out to this country for a certain purpose, and have done no harm to these people. Indeed, I was prepared to be the best of friends with them. But they have thought fit to attack me in the hope of obtaining loot, and must just take the consequences.”
With that his lips closed firmly together, and, lifting his rifle once more, he felt softly at the lock to see that all was in readiness.
“Nothing but the magazine this time,” he murmured. “We must sweep them away, and mow them down before they can get within reach of us.”
By now the line of moving bushes had drawn sensibly nearer, and as each man of the garrison kept his eyes fixed upon them, he was able to observe figures crawling behind them. To those of Jim’s followers who lay upon the ledges above, the whole plan was now quite evident, for from their elevated position they could easily see over the tops of the bushes, and could even count the number of the enemy. In such circumstances the temptation to select some individual, to raise the rifle ever so quietly to the shoulder, and gently to press the trigger when certain of the aim, was great indeed. Breathlessly, with fast-beating hearts, and hands glued to the stocks of their weapons, they stared out from the darkness into the space lit up by the rays of the moon, and longed for the order to fire, for to lie motionless, without attempting to defend themselves when they knew that men were there hungering for their lives, was a sore trial to all of them. Impetuous and excitable by nature, they would, had they been alone, at once have emptied their magazines, and then either fled down the ravine or died fighting where they were. But they had confidence in their young leader, who had already shown his fitness to command them, and, in spite of their longing to begin the engagement, remained in absolute silence.
“They have stopped!” whispered Jim some few minutes later, noticing that the line of thorn-bushes had come to a halt. “Look! There is a man creeping from the right-hand side towards the center, and another is following him. They are going to have a talk, and decide upon some action.”
“Others are coming from the left, master,” added Ali, catching him by the sleeve; “and now someone has risen from behind the bush which stands in the middle. It is the sheik, for I know him by his great height. He is pointing towards us, and talking to the others.”
Eagerly did Jim and his followers watch the scene going on before them; and as they looked, first one, and then all, of the leafy screens which the tribesmen had carried before them with such craft and trouble were tossed aside with disgust, and those who were hiding behind them rose to their feet, giving vent to exclamations of annoyance and anger.
“Once more these dogs have made fools of us!” cried the sheik, shaking his fist towards the gorge. “First they poured their bullets into us from the farther end, and then, when we advanced for the second time, expecting to find them there, they lay hiding like foxes close in front of us. And now, when after infinite care and caution we have, as we thought, come within such easy reach of them that a few moments would have seen us triumphant, we discover that they are gone, that they have melted into the air. It is hard to fight with such men, and were it not for the losses we have suffered, I should counsel that we retire.”
“And what then?” shouted one of his followers indignantly. “Do you ask us to return to our wives and children and admit defeat? We cannot do it. They would not receive us, but would drive us out with laughter and jeers. Think for a moment. Our trouble may not be thrown away, for seeing that victory was certain to fall to us, it may well be that these insolent people have fled for their lives. Even now they may be returning to the coast as quickly as their beasts will take them, leaving their camels and their baggage to us. Be not down-hearted, for whether they have fled or remain to fight, our numbers are great, and make success certain in the end.”
The man who had spoken strode some paces to the front and turned as he harangued his brethren. Then he went to the sheik and spoke quietly in his ear.
“Abdullah Rishmar is right,” cried the latter, after a few minutes. “Rather than despair we should be filled with exultation, for it is evident that the enemy has taken flight. We have discussed the matter, and are still of opinion that the best plan will be to move forward, and when we reach the farther end of the ravine, rush down upon the zareba. Then if we find, as seems probable, that the infidel has fled, we will return to our homes, and to-morrow, at the first streak of daylight, our fleetest camels shall convey a band of fighting men in pursuit. We know the lowlands well, and by nightfall should come up with those whom we seek. Then punishment shall be meted out for their insolence. As for those who are dead, does not Allah reward the true believer who falls in taking part in such a cause?”
At the old man’s words the tribesmen gave vent to a loud shout, and, gathering together, ran swiftly towards the ravine.
“Another minute and we shall let them have it,” said Jim quietly. “Call gently to all the men to make ready.”
Raising his rifle to his shoulder, he aimed for the center of the mass of struggling humanity, and pressed the trigger. An instant later a line of flame flashed from behind the barricade and from the ledges on either side. So rapidly did the men open and close the breeches of their weapons, that the volley seemed to be an endless one. Here and there it would stop for a few seconds, as the magazine was emptied, but within a very short while it broke out again, spurting into the darkness, till the opening of the ravine was almost as light as the plain outside. At the first discharge the tribesmen had stood aghast, thunderstruck at the audacity of their enemies. Then rage took hold of them, and they came on, this time in silence, their eyes blazing with hate, and their minds made up to kill their opponents, whatever happened. Surging forward, in spite of their losses, they reached the rocky entrance of the gorge, and became almost wedged. Then a few, breaking from their comrades, dashed at the barricade, and at once joined in a fierce hand-to-hand contest with Jim and the six men who stood beside him. To the last moment Jim kept on firing, and then, when there was no cartridge left in his weapon, he grasped it by the barrel, and leaping, in his excitement upon the wall of stones, dashed it down upon the heads of the attackers. Indeed, he seemed to be endowed with extraordinary strength, for he swung his rifle as if it had been a roll of paper, and brought it down with a force which could not be broken. Ali Kumar did his utmost to support his young leader, while the five remaining men, tossing their guns to one side, drew their swords and threw themselves upon the tribesmen with a fury equal to their own.
And all the while the men who were stationed on the ledges above kept up a terrible fire, sending their bullets swishing into the huddled masses of the enemy. But in spite of all the efforts of the garrison, it seemed at first as though the enemy would prove victorious, for nothing seemed able to check them. In another place, indeed, they would have been successful, without a doubt, but here their very numbers hampered them, and prevented more than a few from closing with the defenders at one moment. Had Jim and the natives who were with him given way, the tide of tribesmen would have surged over the barricade, and not a man would have lived to tell the tale. But they clung to their position with desperate bravery, and finally drove their assailants back.
“Now for the magazines!” shouted Jim. “Fill them up, and open again!”
Though they could not understand a word, his men saw his meaning at a glance, for he turned upon them, and flinging the lock of his rifle open, began to slip cartridges into it. Then, waiting until they, too, were ready, he brought his weapon to his shoulder, and once more the line of fire spurted from behind the barricade. A minute later Jim sprang over the breastwork, and rushed forward. But his intention was not to throw himself upon the assailants, but to commit an act of bravery; for suddenly one of the men posted upon the ledge upon his right had risen to aim at the enemy, and overbalancing himself, had come crashing to the ground, where he lay within a few paces of the wall of stones, at the mercy of the enemy. With an agile leap Jim was beside him almost as soon as he touched the ground, and catching him by the arm, dragged him towards his friends. Then, tossing his weapon to Ali, who looked on speechless with astonishment, he caught the native up in his arms, and scrambled back amongst his comrades with him. The whole had been the work of a few moments only, and was completed before the tribesmen could take advantage of the opportunity so suddenly presented to them. It proved, indeed, a turning-point in the conflict, for, filled with exultation at their young leader’s bravery, the defenders set up a shout which set the rocks ringing, and then dashed forward to the attack, Jim joining them. Filled with consternation as these men, who seemed more than mortal, closed with them, the tribesmen turned about with one accord, and bolted into the plain, leaving their opponents proud masters of the scene.
“And now let us see who is hurt,” said Jim breathlessly, sitting upon a boulder to rest for a few moments after the fray. “Line the men up, Ali, and tell me if any are killed.”
“We have had great fortune,” answered the native headman. “I have already been amongst the following, and I find that two only are killed, the one being Rigba Hamah, who fell from the cliff above, and the second Ali Tumbi, who fell at the last assault. As for wounds, we all have one or more to show, but they are nothing, and will be well in a week.”
“Then I’ll ask you to tie up my arm,” said Jim quietly. “I fancy that a slug has ploughed a big hole through it.”
Leading his master into the light, Ali at once examined his wound, and gave a cry of consternation when he saw the condition of the arm, for it was red with blood, while a stream was gushing from a ragged hole close above the elbow.
“How long is it since you received this?” he asked sharply. “It must have been some time ago, for you have lost much blood. Look at the condition of your clothing.”
“A slug struck me as the tribesmen advanced for the last time,” answered Jim faintly. “I scarcely felt it in the excitement of the moment, but it smarts now. Give me something to drink, for I feel dizzy.”
Running across to the cliff, down the steep slope of which a tiny stream trickled, Ali quickly procured a handful of water, and at once poured it down Jim’s throat.
“Ah, that’s better; and now I feel less likely to make a fool of myself and faint,” said the latter gratefully. “Now tie it up for me like a good fellow, and let us see what our next step is to be.”
“We shall return to the zareba, master, and spend what is left of the night in peace,” replied Ali with assurance. “The tribesmen are thoroughly beaten, and will not venture to advance again until we have withdrawn. Then they will collect their dead and wounded, and when the morning comes they will slink away into the plain and hide. This has been an evil time for them, and they will remember it for many a day to come.”
“I think you are right,” Jim agreed, “and I propose that you shout out to them that we will not interfere with them if they like to send in for the bodies. Tell them that we will retire to the pass below the ravine, and that they are on no account to attempt to approach us, or we will hunt them up tomorrow and burn their camp. When you have done that, we shall get back to the zareba, leaving three of our men as sentries until they can be relieved by those who have remained behind.”
Accordingly, when Ali had seen to the comfort of his leader, he strode out into the plain, and shouted to the tribesmen, giving them Jim’s message. Then the gallant band, who had fought so well in the gorge, retired, and within an hour were with their friends again.
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