A CLEVER RUSE
While Jim Hubbard and his friend John Margetson are hiding in the store-hut, let us return for a few moments to the coastline.
The reader will remember that a Somali levy had been raised and officered by Englishmen drawn from the various line regiments and that this force had many months before marched into the interior by way of Bohotle, and, dividing into two portions, had left its baggage, its reserve ammunition and its camels, in charge of the smaller half. He will recollect also that the cunning Mullah, aided by information given by his spies, contrived to elude the larger force, and gloating over a victory which he already counted as his, had thrown himself upon Captain McNeill’s zareba. Not once, but on three successive occasions was his frantic onslaught stemmed by the few men gathered in the zareba. So heavy, indeed, were the losses amongst the Mullah’s following, that their enthusiasm and fanatical hate had changed to dismay and secret admiration for these men whose officers were spoken of as “infidel dogs.”
Following upon their defeat at the hands of Captain McNeill and his tiny garrison, the Mullah’s horde was split into pieces and scattered in all directions by the larger half.
But in Somaliland, a holy man has enormous powers of persuasion, and the reader has already learned that the Mullah rapidly gathered his following together again. Then came the action with Colonel Swayne at Erego, where the Somali soldiers, who were enlisted by the “Sirkal,” turned tail and bolted, leaving their comrades to their fate. From that moment adherents had flocked to the Mullah’s banner, and their depredations becoming serious, an expedition was decided upon. Of this General Manning was given the command, while the force itself was to consist of Indian troops and of men from the West Coast of Africa.
Stores, rifles, ammunition, and every article that could be thought of, or that was likely to prove of value in the coming march were collected at Aden and then sent over to Berbera. And here, when Jim and his following passed through the town, gigantic preparations were afoot. Already the troops had begun to collect, and the garrison at Bohotle, which had been in residence for some months, and which was suffering severely from malaria and from lack of supplies, had been relieved and replaced by freshmen, while plenty of stores and ammunition for six months had been brought up.
This advance post having been placed in a condition of readiness, the eyes of those who were responsible for the movements of the troops were turned in other directions, for it is not always wise to concentrate one’s forces. A division of the fighting strength which is about to invade an enemy’s country often disconcerts the adversary, for then he, too, must split his followers, and send some to watch and oppose one-half of the invaders, while the remainder marches to lie in wait for the other. If this precaution were not taken, it would be a simple matter for a well-mounted body of men to make a wide detour, and carefully timing their arrival and attack, to fall upon the enemy in the rear, while their comrades engaged with them in the front.
Thus was Ladysmith relieved; for when Lord Roberts, with a hastily collected force, invaded the Orange River Colony, the Boer forces, which up to then had been concentrated about the heights of Colenso and the beleaguered camp, were compelled to divide, one portion hastening across the Drakensberg Mountains to join with others about Bloemfontein, while the remainder, seeing their hopeless condition, fled before the repeated and gallant attacks of General Buller, leaving the flag of old England still proudly waving upon the Town Hall of Ladysmith.
With this thought of a diversion in view, another base was looked for, and Obbia, in the Italian Protectorate, was selected, the consent of that nation having readily been obtained. Then an arrangement was come to with the Abyssinians that they should also march upon the Mullah, getting in behind him, if possible, so that, should he take alarm and raise his camp with the intention of escaping farther into the interior until the storm had blown over, there might still be good hope of forcing him to fight, and of capturing him and a goodly portion of his men.
Many weeks had been spent in making these arrangements, and so uncertain was the mind of those who had control of the expedition, that at times it seemed likely that it would be abandoned for a space. When Jim and his friend left Berbera, the news of an immediate advance was in the air, but this was contradicted a few days later. Then it was bruited abroad again, and while he and his followers were resisting the attack of the tribesmen at the ravine, the information became public property that within a short space of time the forces would actually advance.
As the daylight increased, Jim and his friend went from side to side of the store-hut, and taking advantage of the piled-up date-bags, quickly arranged a convenient look-out, from which they could gather news of their surroundings. Some few inches of space had been left between the roof and the supporting walls, whether for the sake of ventilation, or because it was the custom of the builders of the country, it would be impossible to state. But there it was, and, by means of a pile of bags, the two Englishmen found a convenient way of reaching it.
“We’ll keep watch from here all day,” said Jim, peering through the opening; “then there will be no fear of a sudden surprise, while we can make up for our long vigil by a good sleep at night.”
“I agree with you, my lad,” was the answer. “We are in a fix here, and unless we keep our wits and our eyes sharply about us, we shall certainly fall into the Mullah’s hands. But here comes the sun, and with it the life of the village will begin.”
As he spoke, the street which passed from end to end of the Mullah’s stronghold was flooded with the rays of the morning sun, the edge of which could be discerned rising in golden splendour over the crests of the distant hills. Scarcely had it struck upon the huts and sent long shadows slanting across the ground, when doors opened in all directions as if by magic, and out into the clear, sparkling air came the villagers. Children rolled from the dwellings, and began their chatter and play, while a few minutes later the wives appeared, some with jars upon their heads, which they carried towards the river, while others proceeded to light fires before their huts, so as to make ready for the morning meal.
“And now we can expect to see the men-folk,” whispered John Margetson. “How well do I know their movements, for was not I the first to be abroad during the past three years? It was the duty of a slave, and I carried it out without failing, for, otherwise, harsh treatment was my reward. If you watch, you will see the warriors do not trouble themselves to work. The few who have failed to take part in last night’s search will presently appear, strolling from their huts, and will then exert themselves so far as to lounge about the street. There is sure to be much talk about my escape, so they will collect together in groups.
Only then, and when they are about to meet with enemies, will you see them roused to any energy. They will shout to one another, and discuss the question till a quarrel seems imminent. But their anger will quickly subside, and soon, when the Mullah has shaken the sleep from his eyes, and climbs aloft beneath the flagstaff, they will all turn and salaam to him, as becomes the followers of such a holy man. Then each will produce his strip of carpet, and, turning to the east, will follow the movements of their leader as he kneels and prays to Allah.
“It is a weird and wonderful sight, and their murmured ‘Allah, Allah,’ will enchant your ears, for the faith and devotion of these Somali warriors is very great. An infidel is an odious sight to their eyes, and were it not that the Mullah might obtain value for my life, I should long ago have ceased to exist. Often has this holy man condescended to approach me, and endeavor to change my religion. When persuasion was of no avail, he used threats, and even went so far as to starve me; but, thank God, though I was only a poor heart-broken slave, with never a white friend to rely upon, I remained resolute, and steadfastly kept to the teaching of my childhood. And through all these weary months, that alone has been my comfort. It has given me hope when all seemed hopeless, and has taught me to look forward to this day. But here they come.”
As he finished speaking, the crowd of native women and children which now filled the village street was added to by the appearance of some hundred Somali warriors, who emerged in ones and twos from their dwellings, all fully armed, for none of these men dreamed of lying down to sleep, or even of walking about in the daylight, without his weapons. Staring at them through his peephole, Jim had a better opportunity of observing them than had ever occurred before, and could not but admire their height, their fine physique, and their sturdy and independent appearance.
Of those who lounged before him, very few possessed firearms, and these were obviously of a poor and obsolete kind. The remainder bore shields and spears, while double-handed swords were thrust in their waist-cloths. A few, even, carried bows and arrows.
“They are of the Midgan tribe, which have joined the Mullah almost to a man,” said Jim’s friend. “Should it ever fall out that you are wounded by one of their missiles, be careful to withdraw the arrow at once, and ask a comrade to apply his lips to the puncture, for it is reported that the tips are poisoned. But your revolver should keep them at a distance, while against a rifle their curious weapons should be absolutely useless.”
It was at once evident that the exciting incident of the previous evening had had its effect upon the warriors, for, as John Margetson had predicted, they gathered together in clumps, and began an animated conversation. Then, at the suggestion of one of their number, they suddenly started off to search the village and its surroundings again.
Fortunately, however, for the fugitives, no rain had fallen for many days, and though the mass of men congregated just outside the store-hut where Jim’s knife had been found, even the sharpest eyes failed to discover a trace of them, and it never occurred to the warriors that those whom they sought so eagerly were even then listening to their words with bated breath.
“Look at the man in the center,” whispered Margetson, touching Jim upon the sleeve. “By the sound of his voice that is the scoundrel who suggested that this place should be searched. But he is evidently afraid to air his opinions again, and let us hope that the snubbing which the Mullah gave him will keep him from further investigations. Now his head is turned this way, and it is evident that he has still some fondness for his own ideas.”
“I confess,” answered Jim, “that I do not like the appearance of the fellow. There is no doubt that he is still suspicious, and I should not be surprised if he came here quietly to see whether or not he was right. If he does, he will have himself to thank for anything that may happen to him, for we are not going to allow one man’s curiosity to ruin our hopes.”
“No; nor shall fifty capture us without a struggle, my lad. Recollect what I said about my liberty. My mind is fully made up to obtain it at any price. But there they go, and all the better, say I, for it is an uncanny and an uncomfortable feeling to watch a crew of desperate men, such as they are, knowing all the while that they are searching for one’s self.”
Satisfied that no good was to be obtained by remaining on the spot where the tell-tale knife had been discovered, the Somali warriors went off to another portion of the village, and, having peered into every likely and unlikely place, returned to discuss the question once more. In the middle of their conversation, however, the figure of the Mullah suddenly appeared beside the flagstaff, and instantly each man, woman, and child in the village turned and salaamed deeply to him. Then they scattered to their various houses, and returning to any suitable position from which their eyes could be fixed upon their leader, while they faced the east, they discarded their sandals and reverently knelt down on their mats.
For long did the Mullah remain upon his knees, and when he had finished his devotions, he rose slowly to his feet, stepped from the carpet, donned his shoes, and then salaamed deeply. A moment later he faced about, and lifting his hand for silence, just as he had done on the previous night, he began to speak to his followers.
“There is no news of these infidel dogs,” he cried, “but they are as surely in our hands as are those others who have formed their zareba in the desert. Soon I hope to see those who left us last night returning, and meanwhile, I command all who have not a duty to do here to leave the village and go to aid them in their search. As for the other prisoner, that one who commanded men belonging to the British Government, and who is spoken of in his own language as a colonel, he must be removed from the hut in which he now lies and be brought closer, so that he may be placed under a stronger guard. Not that there is any fear of his release, for we have taken action so early that the plans of these impudent people who have come to release him have been altogether upset.”
In accordance with the orders which they had received, the Somalis who still remained in the village gulped down a hasty meal, and then mounting their ponies, set off to join their comrades. Some twenty or more remained behind and watched them depart, then, while four of them mounted guard over the Mullah’s residence, the others proceeded down the street, and halted before a hovel which stood at the farther end.
“They are going to fetch their prisoner,” whispered Jim, keeping his eyes fixed upon them. “Perhaps I shall be able to see him, even though to rescue him now is impossible. Ah, they have opened the door, and some have gone in.”
“Your father is certainly there, my lad,” answered his companion. “And you must not be surprised if you find him changed to a certain extent, for he has had a hard life of it. As I told you, he has never lost his spirit, and, careless whether he lives or dies, has never permitted any one of his guards to ill-treat him. Once, even, when I happened to meet him in the street when carrying a message for the Mullah, he stopped to converse with me, at which the warrior who was keeping watch upon him called him an infidel and a dog, and prodded him with his spear to induce him to move on. Your father was upon him in an instant, and tearing the spear from his hand, snapped the shaft across his knee, and belabored the man till he bellowed.
Never have I seen these people so angered. Indeed, had it not been for the Mullah, who seemed always at hand at such times to guard his possessions, they would have torn him limb from limb, to revenge the insult. It was grand to see how the prisoner faced them, spear-shaft in hand, smiling disdainfully at their anger, and almost inviting them to come on to the attack.
By such doings he has created a feeling of terror amongst his guards, and now, whenever he is abroad, not one, but five men follow him, ready to throw themselves upon him and bear him to the ground, should he make an attack upon them. Here they come, and you can see for yourself the truth of what I say.”
As he spoke those who had entered reappeared with their white prisoner. Then the whole group retraced their footsteps and marched up the center of the street. Soon they were so close to the store-hut that the features of every man were visible, and with a thrill of joy Jim caught sight of his father’s face. It was thinner and more bronzed than usual, and perhaps the hair was a trifle whiter, but the prisoner still wore that air of resolution to which his son was accustomed.
Catching sight of the Mullah, who had again ascended to the roof of his house, Colonel Hubbard called to him in commanding tones, and would have addressed him, had it not been for the men who marched by his side. Hustling him forward, and surrounding him with a hedge of spear-points, they forced him towards a circular building, which seemed scarcely large enough to contain a human being, and motioned to him to enter.
Longingly did Jim watch his father pass, limping slightly from the wound which he had received. Had he dared he would have called out to him, or made some sign so that the prisoner should know that help was at hand. But he knew that to do so would be worse than madness.
Having carried out their orders, the group of Somali warriors separated, and all walked away, save one, who squatted down with his spear beside him and his sword on the ground at his feet, evidently having been told off as sentry. A little later one of his comrades approached, bearing a gun in his hand, which he handed over to him, together with a horn of powder, and a goat-skin bag containing slugs.
“That shows that they are afraid of your father,” whispered John Margetson, who, like Jim, had watched the whole scene in silence. “No doubt that man has been given orders to fire a gun on the slightest suspicion of an attempt at escape, so that the others may come to his help. But, remembering the Mullah’s words, no injury will be done to their prisoner if it can possibly be avoided.”
“I’ve been thinking about that, too,” was the thoughtful answer, “and I cannot say that my mind is over comfortable on the subject, for supposing the Mullah were to hear tomorrow that my friend, Tom Dixon, and the followers who accompanied us from the coast, had beaten off the attack of his warriors, causing them heavy loss, in his anger he might instantly give an order to have the prisoner killed. I have had little experience of these native people, but everyone tells me that they are fanatical to a degree and that their hatred of a Christian is extraordinary. In these circumstances, it seems to me that, in spite of the Mullah’s express orders to the contrary, no white man is at the present moment sure of his life while a captive in his stronghold.”
“Hum! Yes, perhaps there is some truth in what you say,” replied Margetson slowly. “But however great the anger of the Mullah might be on hearing of defeat, I know the rascal too well to imagine for a moment that he would allow a rash and hasty impulse to prompt him to seek revenge at once by slaying your father, for to do so would be to ruin his hopes of a hostage in case he himself was captured. He is a cunning, long-headed fellow, otherwise, he would never have attained to his present position of prominence.
Why, at first, when he started his depredations, he was laughed at by the majority of Somalis as a madman who would quickly come to an untimely end. But by giving out that he was a holy man, this Mahomed Abdullah gained many friends, and with these to help him, and aided by an unscrupulous nature, he punished those who had formerly jeered at him so severely as to compel them, too, to join his ranks.
And thus, little by little, and because his journeyings to Mecca have taught him more knowledge of the world and more cunning than are possessed by his ignorant brethren, he has steadily increased his power over them. But not for an instant has he allowed himself to neglect to take precautions for his own individual safety. If his followers are successful, well and good, for his power at once increases.
On the other hand, if the day goes against him, this crafty rogue will not grieve for the fate of his adherents, will not care how many are killed, so long as he is sure of his own safety; for with a white prisoner or more to offer in exchange, he thinks that his liberty will be assured, and then what is to prevent him from again carrying his banner far and wide through the country, and raising another band?”
“I can see your argument clearly,” answered Jim, “but tell me this. However desirous the Mullah may be of keeping his prisoner alive, how can he guarantee that his followers may not, in their rage at being defeated, disobey his orders?”
“It is a danger which must be faced, my lad, and which I admit is to be feared.”
“That being the case, the sooner we are out of this the better for all of us!” exclaimed Jim with decision. “It seems to me that we have now an opportunity which may never occur again, for we know that very few of the Somalis are in the village at the present moment. If the others have not returned by nightfall, I propose to slip out, and by hook or by crook to enter that hut opposite.”
“But you would not attempt to escape?” whispered John Margetson, in alarm. “Listen to me, my lad, and do not misunderstand my caution. As I have said before, I owe you a debt, and as a first instalment towards repaying it I will help you in this matter to the utmost, but think of the circumstances for a moment. We know that the country outside is alive with Somali warriors in search of ourselves. It would be madness, therefore, to seek to leave the village when we have already decided that here we are in comparative safety.”
“I have thought of it in that way,” responded Jim quietly, his decision unchanged by his friend’s argument. “And I quite agree that this is the only haven for us just now. But why should we two make use of it alone, whilst father remains over there in the hands of the Mullah, and in greater danger of his life? It has occurred to me that a method might be found for transferring him to this place, and that is what I propose to do tonight.”
Some minutes passed before his comrade ventured to reply, but it was evident that his thoughts were fully occupied with the question, for though he still remained on his parapet of date-bags, and still looked through his peephole, his eyes stared vacantly at the village street, the sentry who paced up and down in front of the prisoner’s hut, and the broad strip of flashing silver beyond, which showed where the river flowed.
Suddenly, however, his attention was riveted upon the river, and shifting his position so as to obtain a better view, he looked long and earnestly at it, as though he had made an important discovery. Indeed, so apparent was this that Jim, too, followed his gaze, only to be disappointed, for the surface of the water was disturbed by nothing but a gentle ripple here and here as the breeze played upon it and ruffled it, or where the current washed against a sunken boulder and caused an eddy.
“What is it?” he asked in some astonishment. “Something caught your eye, but what it is I cannot imagine.”
“Then I shall tell you. You say that your father must join us here, and while agreeing with that, I placed myself for the space of a few seconds in the sandals of these Somali people. When they awake tomorrow, to find their captive gone, what questions will they ask themselves, what direction will they think he has taken? They know that it cannot be that which leads towards the desert, for their comrades are watching out there, and would certainly have laid hands upon him. Then, where else could he have gone? Unless we bait a clever trap for them, they will at once come to the only conclusion, namely, that he still is here in hiding. Then they will begin to search every house in the village, and our game will be up.”
“That never occurred to me,” said Jim, feeling as though his hopes had received a blow. “But what trap could we prepare? How could we put them off the scent? I cannot see in what way the river can help us.”
“But I can,” was the ready answer, given in a voice of confidence. “There are small dug-out canoes and rafts drawn up upon the banks, and it seems to me that, were we to take one of them and ferry it across to the opposite side and land there, stamping our feet in the mud so as to leave obvious tracks, the enemy would at once take it for certain that their prisoner and those who had helped him to escape had flown in that direction. When the hue and cry is raised in the morning, someone is sure to observe that a boat is missing, and a moment’s search will show it drawn up on the opposite bank. That, I feel sure, will be sufficient evidence for the Mullah and his friends, and orders will be given for instant pursuit.”
“Yes, and in addition, those who have been sent towards the desert will be called in again, and commanded to join their comrades,” whispered Jim in tones of exultation. “It is, undoubtedly, a splendid plan, and we will carry it out, or rather, I will do so, for one will be sufficient for the job. Having crossed the river, I shall swim back again to this side, and then creep towards the hut. If possible, I will cut a hole through the wall at the back, but if the sentry is too alert, as may very well be the case, I shall floor him, and then go in through the door. What do you think of the plan?”
“Capital! It will do excellently, my lad. I was about to say that we should divide the work, but it seems to me that one of us had best remain here to keep watch, and besides, if both of us were abroad, the risk of discovery would be greater. We shall take it as settled, therefore, that you slip out tonight.”
“One minute, before we leave the matter,” said Jim, a thought suddenly occurring to him. “We must not be too sure of success, you know, for there is no doubt that these fellows are thoroughly aroused. Supposing, for instance, that I were discovered, and the alarm given. In that case I should make a bolt for it, and should not dare to return to this hut, for to do so would be to betray your whereabouts. I should run for the ravine in which Ali was to await me, and from there I should make an attempt to reach you both when things had settled down a little.”
“Very well, then, we shall take it as agreed, that if you do not return, I am to wait here until you do. It will be lonely work, but not more so than I have had to put up with for the past three years. And now the best thing that we can do is to take it, in turn, to get some sleep, for we have had very little of late.”
Accordingly, when they had again regaled themselves with dates and wine, Jim lay down, and was soon fast asleep. Three hours later Margetson took his place, and he again was aroused after a similar lapse of time.
“Time to be moving, my lad,” said John Margetson, in a low voice, shaking Jim by the shoulder, shortly after evening had fallen. “It has been dark for an hour, and by the time you are ready the village will have settled, for these folk here keep early hours. Up you get, and make ready.”
In a moment Jim was on his feet once more, and had begun his preparations for what would, in all probability, turn out to be the most daring part of his undertaking.
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