HEMMED IN BY THE ENEMY
Nothing but misfortune seemed to be in store for Jim Hubbard upon this eventful evening. First, he had experienced the bitter disappointment of learning that the white prisoner at whose rescue he had aimed, and for whose sake he had marched so many miles, was, after all, not the one whom he had hoped to find. But the news that his father was actually alive and within a few yards of him had revived his flagging energy, and with his new-found friend, John Margetson, he had set out for the purpose of reaching him, only to hear suddenly that wild shout, to crouch there in the shadow cast by a large square hut and watch that tall uncouth figure standing on the roof beside the flag in the light of the flames from the watch-fire below.
It was a bitter blow, and in his anger and desperation, Jim even leveled his revolver at the Mullah, and would have fired in the hope of slaying him. But he had beside him a man whom long-suffering had taught to be cautious, and instantly a gentle but firm grasp was laid upon his arm, and his companion whispered in his ear.
“You are mad!” he said fiercely. “Drop your weapon, and lie down close against the foot of this wall. We are not discovered yet, and may even escape if we make use of our wits.”
“But how?” asked Jim. “Already the place is alive with search parties, who will run over every inch of the ground, and are certain to fall upon us. I tell you that our chances are ended, and that we shall never get away from here. But I admit that it would have been a foolish act to fire at the Mullah. I was in a temper, and felt that if I could only kill him I should be satisfied. However, we shall do as you say, and wait to see how things turn out.”
Throwing themselves upon the ground, with their heads close together, they lay so still that they might have been logs of wood. Around them, and stretching away from the wall for the space of some five feet, was a dense shadow cast by the roof. But there it ended abruptly in a sharp clear line, from which point the ground was lit by the rays of the moon. And across this, hurrying hither and thither, and searching every corner, went parties of fully armed Somali warriors, each numbering from six to a dozen. Like hounds in search of a fox, they thrust their bodies into every crevice, prodding walls and ground with their spears, and drawing the covers blank, turned away with a snarl of rage, to proceed with the hunt elsewhere.
“If we can only manage to give them the slip here, there will be still some chance of safety,” whispered Jim, with his eyes fixed upon the search-parties. “Put yourself into their position, and ask yourself what would be the natural act of any prisoner who was attempting to escape.”
“He would be a fool to stay here,” was the emphatic answer. “It would be sheer suicide to remain in the Mullah’s village, and, were I flying for my life alone, I should have turned away to the open country, and endeavored to place miles of plain between myself and my enemies.”
“Just so,” replied Jim coolly, seeming to become more collected as the danger increased, “and, as one of the Mullah’s followers, I should leave the search of the village to the women and children and the stray curs with which it is infested, and, mounting my fastest horse, should gallop so as to get beyond the prisoner and head him. That is what these fellows will do, and we must consider ourselves fortunate in that we are where we are. Let us move along to the corner, and then, if a party approaches, we can slip round to the other side.”
“Why not try the roof?” suggested his companion eagerly. “It’s as flat as a pancake, and has a ridge all round it, which will effectually hide us. I quite agree with you that, desperate though our position seems, we are far safer here than we should have been had we ventured beyond the village. Come, let us get up on the top, for I can see a group of Somalis coming this way.”
In a moment both were on their feet and endeavoring to get a grip of the coping of the roof. But, though they stood upon their toes, and even leapt into the air, they found, to their disappointment, that it was still well beyond their reach.
“Then we must try another way,” whispered Jim. “Are you fairly strong in the arms?”
“I ought to be,” was the answer, “for I have had three years of slavery. What do you propose?”
“Up on to my back! Quick! That’s it. Now lean against the wall, and steady yourself while I straighten to my full height. Can you reach now?”
Without wasting a moment, for time was of the utmost value to them, Jim placed his hand against the side of the dwelling and rounded his shoulders. Grasping his meaning, his companion leapt upon him with one agile spring, having the fortune to alight on the very center of his back. Then, gingerly advancing his sandalled feet, he placed them on either side of Jim’s head, and leant forward till his hands came in contact with the wall. He was a big man, and weighed some twelve stone or more, but though Jim groaned under the burden, and at any other time would have found it a difficult matter to raise himself to the erect position, he now stood upright with scarcely an effort, fear lending strength to his muscles.
“Got it! I’ve a grip of the coping, and can hang on here until you are up,” whispered John Margetson. “But hurry up!”
Stepping back from the wall so as to obtain a little run, and yet carefully keeping within the shadow, Jim leapt forward, and then sprang high in the air, grasping at the dim figure of his companion with both hands. As he dangled there, with fingers clasping his comrade’s limbs, he could almost feel the man’s sinews crack with the strain, and wondered whether the weight would be too much for him, whether his grasp would be torn from the coping above, and with what sort of crash they would tumble to the ground. Then, as nothing happened, he drew his legs up, and obtained a grip of his living rope.
Another hoist, and his hand closed upon his comrade’s hair; but, unheeding the pain it must have given, his fingers gripped it, and he pulled without remorse, and tugged, till, little by little, he won his way upwards. Another moment, and the arm was within his reach, then the wrist, and with one last, almost superhuman effort, he found himself clambering over the low parapet. To turn and help his comrade was his next duty, and then both threw themselves upon the hard-beaten mud, breathless with their struggles, but glowing with excitement and the feeling of success.
“Look out! Here they come!” whispered Margetson at this moment.
Taking a hasty look over the parapet, Jim saw some ten men hurrying towards the building, and at once flattened himself upon the roof, squeezing as close to it as he could. Then his hand stole down to his revolver, and he drew it silently. Scarcely had he done so when footsteps and voices were heard below, and, though he dared not look, he was well aware that the very shadow which had proved their hiding-place but a few seconds before was now undergoing a thorough search, from which they could not have hoped to escape had they not climbed to the roof.
“Ah, what is this?” asked one of the Somali warriors, suddenly stooping and picking something up. “I have found a knife, which I am sure did not belong to our prisoner. Here, let me get into the light and look at it.”
Following their comrade, the others at once left the shadow and went into the open, where they pressed about him, and gave vent to exclamations of anger and astonishment, for the prize which had been found was Jim’s hunting-knife, which must have slipped from his belt during his efforts to reach his position above. Fortunately for him, however, he did not know more than a word of what was being said, and certainly did not grasp the meaning. But his friend did, and trembled as he lay.
“I tell you that someone else has had a hand in his escape,” cried the first speaker again. “I have been to the coast, and I say that this is a knife which has but lately come from the country of the infidel. Have we not heard already that one of them is bound hither for the rescue of one of our slaves?”
“That is the case,” was the excited answer.
“Then this man has arrived, and released the prisoner tonight. They fled here in the darkness, and then, at the alarm, hastened off into the country, where they will be captured to a certainty by our brothers.”
“And what if they have not done as you so wisely guess?” sneered one of the group. “Look at the question for yourself, and remember the short time which elapsed between their leaving the hut and the raising of the alarm. This dagger tells us that another has been here to lend a hand, but it does not state that the men are fled to the hills. More likely they are within hearing at this moment. Perhaps even lying upon the top of the house against the wall of which the find was made. Let us search there.”
He started towards the dwelling, intent on carrying out his purpose, but at that moment the arrival of another dusky warrior arrested him, while a harsh voice took up the question.
“You are too clever for this tribe,” said the newcomer, in tones which Jim at once recognized as belonging to the man who had shouted from the roof of the central building—in fact, no other person than the Mullah. “In your foolishness you would send my followers climbing like cats to the roofs, when, had you any sense, you would know at a glance that desperate men would scoff at such shelter. Hiding up there, forsooth! Why, you will tell us soon that they are in my house!”
At this sally all laughed merrily at the expense of the man who had suggested that the roof should be searched, and he at once slunk away to the back of his comrades, where he stood biting his lips with anger and annoyance.
“But show me this weapon,” continued the Mullah haughtily. “Ah, it is English made, and shows without a doubt that there is a spy in our camp, or, rather, that there was but a few minutes ago. The impudent infidel must be captured, but take care of him, as you value my good will and your lives, for I have need of prisoners. One day they will prove useful, for when these dogs advance against us, we will show them their brothers, and then slay them before their eyes, just to let them see that we have power to do as we will, and have no fear of them. Then, with Allah to aid us, we will scatter the enemy. But we are wasting time. Off, all of you, and search farther afield for your man.”
He stood there in the moonlight watching as they departed, and shouted out to them a second warning to protect the captives from harm.
“Yes,” he murmured to himself, as the last of the warriors departed, “keep them alive, and I shall make use of them. If we conquer the British forces, I can keep or slay them at my will. If otherwise, and we fall into their hands, I can still treat for my own life by using these white slaves as hostages, and giving them up to their fellows in exchange for my own liberty. It is in such ways that I show my power to lead these ignorant men. For I think of more than the needs of the passing hour, and, knowing that the time for action arrives, I prepare a loophole of escape for myself, which I shall use when all my followers are slain. And then——”
Deep in thought, the Mullah walked away to his own hut, and disappeared into the interior. Not till then did John Margetson allow himself to break the silence, for all this while he had been flattened upon the roof, scarcely daring to move, and yet drinking in the words of his pursuers. Now, however, there was little fear of being overheard, and at once shifting his position, he crept close to Jim’s side, and narrated all that had passed.
“Jove! What a narrow squeak!” exclaimed the latter. “Of course, I could not make head or tail of their jabber, but I knew that it referred to us, and I can tell you that my heart went into my mouth, for at any moment I expected to have them up here. But all’s well that ends well,—only this matter hasn’t finished yet. What are we to do now? It seems to me that we have a little breathing-space, and that we had better make the best of it to hunt about and ascertain what our surroundings are like, for this may not prove a very good hiding-place once the day dawns.”
“We shall certainly be seen if we remain,” answered his comrade, with conviction. “I know every inch of the spot, and to-morrow, when the Mullah goes upon the roof of his dwelling to pray before the eyes of all his followers, he will catch sight of us, and capture will be our reward. But I can see no other way out of the difficulty.”
“Who lives below us?” asked Jim suddenly.
“Not a soul. The hut, as you can see, is a very large one, and in it are stored bags of dates and native wine for the use of the Mullah and his special favorites when on the march. There are a few weapons also, of the usual muzzle-loading variety, and occasionally powder and shot, too. This I know, for I have been working here as a slave, and have carried the things to their places.”
“How does one enter?” asked Jim again.
“There is a door, such as the other huts have, and on the farther side a roughly constructed hole in the roof, through which the smoke from the fire below passed. I suppose it was the residence of a native chief before the Mullah came this way, and that he liked a little comfort. Now, of course, no wood is burnt, and the aperture is covered with a strip of hide. But why do you ask these questions? It would be madness to go into the place.”
“Then what are we to do? Suggest some better plan which gives a reasonable hope of escape.”
Jim turned upon his companion curtly, and demanded an answer with no little impatience, for now was the time for action. To hesitate was to become a prisoner.
“Well, what have you to propose? Shall we leave this place, and make a dash for the open?”
“It would be useless,” was the emphatic answer, given with a vigorous shake of the head. “I know the ways of these Somali warriors too well, and I am as certain that we should fall into their hands as I am that we are here. Why, a hare could not hope to get through their lines, for now they are arranged three or four deep, and if we crept past the first and went on our way, the second, or a later one, would spy us out, and come galloping after us. No, the attempt would be hopeless, for the country is alive with their horse and foot.”
“Then is there any other way? Would the river help us?”
“Had we a boat it might, but without that we should soon fall victims to the alligators which abound.”
“How often is this hut visited?” asked Jim quietly.
“Perhaps once a week, and then not for a month. This is a reserve store, and it is only when the Mullah is about to give a feast to his followers that there is need to draw upon the contents.”
“Then let us take our place amongst the stores,” said Jim coolly. “There we shall find food and drink sufficient to keep life in us, and there, it seems to me, we can repose with some amount of safety. After all, the idea is a good one, for it offers some chance of a hiding-place.”
For long John Margetson lay at his side, considering the question ere he ventured a reply. Then he turned slowly to Jim, and stretching out his hand in the darkness, pinched the latter sharply upon the arm.
“George!” he whispered, in tones of mingled delight and amazement. “You are a regular general. You ought to have been a scout, or something of that sort, for you are as cute and as slim as they make ’em. At any rate, you have spied out the only path for us. I’ve looked at the matter from every point of view. I admit that I’ve said to myself that you are evidently a youngster with the usual impetuosity of your age, and that your schemes were not to be listened to with much attention. Then I’ve tried to find a better plan, and have failed miserably.”
“At last, I have come back to this dodge of yours, and, hang me, it’s just the thing. It’s the cheek of it, the impudence, if I may call it so, which will help towards its success, for who amongst these Somalis would dream that we had elected to remain in hiding amongst them? Yes, it’s the very boldness of it all that will make us safe, and—look here, I haven’t a ghost of an idea what your age is, or what you’re like, for I’ve only seen you in this moonlight, but after this you must take the helm. You’ll act as skipper, while I take my old place as mate. Tell me, what are you? A young chap with a budding moustache, and heaps of go; or a lad with scarcely a hair on his face?”
“The second,” answered Jim, blushing at his youthful looks, even though there was no fear of observation. “A few weeks ago I was one of the senior fellows at a public school, but now—well, I feel years older. But what about this hut? If we’re going to retire to the interior, the sooner we do so the better.”
“Then we’ll disappear at once. Come along, but be very careful to keep below the level of the parapet, for here we are in shadow, while if we stood above the edge, our figures would at once be outlined by the moon.”
Bearing this warning in mind, the two slowly crept round the edge of the roof, not daring to take the shorter cut and cross directly to the other side, for to have done so would have been fatal, the center of the enclosing parapet being brightly illuminated. Arrived at the farther corner, Margetson halted for a few seconds, while he removed the skin covering. Then he began to wriggle his way through the hole, and in due time disappeared in the dark depths below.
“Hold on,” whispered Jim, who was on the point of following, and, indeed, had already allowed his legs to dangle through the opening. “What if someone happens to notice that the covering has been removed?”
“Ah, that would be awkward, lad. It’s fixed by pegs, and we cannot very well fasten them from the inside, though we could easily burst them open if we wished to do so.”
“Then how’s the door held?” asked Jim, lying down full length, and thrusting his head through the aperture.
“Just latched, that’s all. No one would dare to meddle with the Mullah’s goods, you see. It would mean certain death.”
“Very well,” responded Jim. “I’ll fix this thing up here, and then slip over the wall. The drop’s nothing, and I shall not be seen if I choose a moment when a cloud is passing over the moon. Hurry up, for there’s one about to cross it now, and it won’t do to be kept waiting.”
Fumbling about in the darkness, it was not long before he had contrived to cover the opening in the roof, and to peg the skin down securely. Then he waited, with his eyes upon the disc above, and when it was clouded by a dense mass of vapour, he looked to see that no one was near at hand, and then clambered over the parapet and dropped noiselessly upon the soil below. The door was standing open, and as he entered Margetson closed it carefully behind him. Then they buried themselves in the darkness of the interior, carefully picking their way amidst the bundles and bales which were stored there.
“We shall be as cosy as possible,” remarked John Margetson, indulging for the first time in a laugh. “Take care where you tread, for otherwise you will be tumbling into one of these bags of dates, or kicking against a skin of wine. Why, man, this is just the place for us, for we have food at hand, and can dine like gentlemen, with wine to wash the stuff down. An alderman could not hope for more. But supposing these ruffians find us out!”
“You said that we were not to be injured,” answered Jim, “and therefore we have very little to fear. Let us make the most of our good fortune, and be content. What we have now to think about is not the possibility of capture, though we should do well to bear that in mind and take all due precautions, but our action in the future. How are we to get away from here when the scent and search are less keen, and how can we manage to take my father with us? There, you have enough to keep you awake all night.”
“It’s likely to prove a puzzling question, my lad, and at present I can see no more daylight through it than I can—well, through these walls. And talking of light, how are we to keep in touch with the outside world, and learn what is happening? To attempt to leave these snug quarters and slip out into the village would be suicidal policy. It would not help us in the slightest, and would lead to certain discovery.”
“Then we must have a peephole,” responded Jim promptly. “Perhaps there is one already in this hut. Let us look round, and watch for a ray of moonlight. It is more than likely that we shall find something to suit our purpose between the roof and the walls.”
Accordingly, both crept round the confines of the building in search of a chink, and very soon came to the conclusion that there would be little difficulty in overhearing any conversation that might take place in the immediate neighborhood. Then they made a tour of the place, and satisfied themselves of the position of the various bales and bags.
“We’ll set to work as soon as there is a ray of light,” said Jim’s companion, “and rig up a kind of cabin amongst all this stuff. If we’re careful to move only those which lie out of sight of the door, we are not likely to be discovered. Then, too, it ought to be possible to leave a hole here and there through which we could fire at the beggars. But I am forgetting. You are the only one in possession of a weapon.”
“I’ve two, and you are welcome to one of them. But what of the muzzle-loaders which you stated were kept here? If they have not been removed, we might press them into our service, and rig up a regular battery.”
“It’s the very thing I meant,” was the answer. “With half a dozen we could make these beggars sit up, and unless they managed to rush us, or bring the hut about our ears, we could keep them at their distance. But what do you say to a bite at something? I own that I am precious hungry, for this excitement has given me an appetite; and then you must recollect that the diet of a slave is never noted for its liberality.”
“I’ll join you willingly,” answered Jim with promptness. “Let us borrow a few of the Mullah’s dates.”
“Yes, and wash them down with some of his best wine,” laughed his comrade.
Nothing loth, and, indeed, in the highest spirits at their unexpected good fortune, both at once went in search of a bag, and quickly secured a handful of dates apiece. Then they retired to a point as far from the door as possible, and sat down in comfort, John Margetson dragging a skin of wine to their feet.
Their meal finished, each indulged in a draught of the fluid, and found that it braced them up in a marvelous manner.
“You need not fear the consequences,” said Jim’s companion. “This wine is made from the fat removed from sheeps’ tails, and is notorious for nothing more than for its taste. To the natives it is a great luxury, though to a stranger, I fancy, it is anything but appetizing.”
“It has a most horrid flavor,” answered Jim, “but beggars must not be choosers. We have much to be thankful for, and particularly for these skins of wine, for they will keep us from thirst. And now tell me more about yourself, and of your life with these followers of the Mullah.”
Making themselves comfortable upon the floor of the hut, the two sat close together and passed the remaining hours of the night in conversation, taking the precaution, however, to lower their tones till they were little above a whisper. Then, as the interior of the dwelling became lighter, and they could see their surroundings, they set to work in earnest to build a hiding-place. Fortunately, there was ample material at hand, and as it lay at their feet, the task was soon completed. A search also quickly brought to light a dozen old guns, which had probably been made by some dishonest European for the special purpose of being sold to the Mullah. But, bad as they were, they were too valuable to be tossed aside with contempt. Therefore, having discovered a small store of powder and shot, the fugitives loaded them at once, cramming the weapons to the muzzle with slugs.
“That will do capitally,” said Jim, surveying the work when it was finished. “These beggars can come right into the hut without suspecting that we are here, for this place shelters us. If they happen to find us, we shall give them a warm reception with the guns, though at any other time I should be sorry to be called upon to fire them, for they look as though they would burst at the slightest provocation.”
“Beggars cannot be choosers,” replied his comrade, with a laugh, repeating the words which Jim had used but a short while before. “If the enemy comes here with the intention of molesting us, I should fire fifty of the muzzle-loaders, and chance a burst with the greatest calmness. But we’re ready for them now; and as we have a moment to look round, permit me to see what my young comrade is like. Up to this, you have been more or less of a mystery, for since the morning dawned I have been too occupied to take stock of you.”
Catching Jim by the arms, John Margetson turned him round till the two stood face to face, and then treated him to a long and curious stare.
“Yes,” he said at last, finding that Jim returned his gaze without a sign of flinching, “a bold, high-mettled lad, filled with a feeling of duty. Shake hands!”
The request came so suddenly that Jim started, but the next second he clasped his companion warmly by the fingers, showing equal eagerness to return his good feeling.
“Straight and true, and sturdy to the backbone,” continued Margetson. “I admire you, and I thank you for what you have done for me. Had it not been for you, I should still have been in my prison, a spiritless slave, doomed to lifelong serfdom. But now I am free—free, I tell you; and now that my liberty is regained, no one shall wrest it from me. I live to escape with you, to reach friends and old England again; or I die fighting for my life, my own master at the end.”
He ended his impassioned words with another squeeze of Jim’s hand, and then, as if to hide the evident excitement under which he labored, turned towards the door, and, applying his eye to a crevice, stared out into the open. As for Jim, he was deeply impressed by his friend’s speech, and followed him thoughtfully with his gaze. Then he, too, took post at an aperture, and sought to discover what was going on outside.
And meanwhile, what of Ali Kumar, and what of the numerous search-parties which had raced into the plain? Then, too, what fortune had befallen the troop of horsemen which had ridden from the village in search of Jim’s camp?
- The UNIQUE Case For The International Recognition Of Somaliland
- The World Can Learn From How Somaliland Overcame Militias
- Somaliland: The Little Country That Could By David Shinn
- Somaliland Is A Beacon Of Democracy In An Unstable Region
- Masuuliyiinta Xidh-Xidhan Iyo Dareemada Dhagarta Xambaarsan Ee Laga Soo Werinayo Dhinaca Madaxtooyada
- KOIGI: Acknowledge Somaliland To Cure Festering Wound On Africa