THE LAST DARING ATTEMPT
Standing in the center of the store-hut, surrounded by darkness which was so dense that neither could see the other, Jim and his friend conversed for a little in low whispers. Then Jim divested himself of all but his waistcloth, and tucking into this the folds of linen which usually encircled his head, in case he should be delayed, and should be exposed to the rays of the sun on the morrow, he declared himself ready to set out.
“It’s a good thing to get rid of all those winding sheets,” he said, as he let the cotton garment drop to the ground, “for they make a man visible at night when otherwise he would pass unseen. Then, again, by discarding them, I shall have less to carry when crossing the river, and shall dry all the quicker afterwards. And that reminds me that I must carefully leave my revolvers and ammunition on this side, for, unless I do so, they will be drenched with water, and become useless.”
“It’s a risky thing to go without your weapons, my lad,” said John Margetson, “and if you take my advice, you will tie them to the top of your head, where they will be out of reach of the water.”
“Thank you, that is a better idea,” answered Jim. “I shall take one of them with me, and leave the other with you as I have promised, dividing the ammunition between us. Here it is, and there are the cartridges. Have you got them safely?”
Responding in the affirmative, Margetson took one of the revolvers from him, and then placed the reserve ammunition in a fold of his garments.
“I’m ready now,” said Jim quietly. “We quite understand one another, do we not? If all goes well, I return here with father; if not, I make a bolt for it, so as not to betray your hiding-place. Later on I shall return to the rescue.”
“That is the arrangement,” was the answer.
“Then good-bye,” whispered Jim, extending his hand in the darkness.
“Good-bye, lad, good-bye, and may you have the success you deserve!”
A cordial handshake was exchanged, and then the two went to the door. The latch was gently lifted, and the wicket pushed open just far enough to allow Jim to squeeze through. Another minute and he was outside, standing there in the darkness, listening as the door was closed.
“Good-bye,” he heard his comrade again whisper, and immediately after came the low sound of woodwork meeting and a gentle fall of the latch as it dropped into its old position. But Jim made no movement as yet. Standing there beside the wall, he peered into the darkness which surrounded him and listened attentively for some five minutes, so as to make sure that no one was near at hand. Then he fell upon his hands and knees and made a complete circle of the building, halting at each corner to listen again. But nothing occurred to disturb his peace of mind, for all in the village seemed to have retired to rest. Even the dogs with which all native streets are infested had disappeared for the time, and only the gentle murmur of distant voices told him that the place was inhabited at all. Happening to cast his eyes towards the central hut, a dim solitary figure trudging disconsolately up and down attracted his attention, while still farther to the left, and enveloped in a large blanket, a second sentry squatted in front of the prisoner’s door.
“One on duty at each house,” said Jim to himself. “It would be a difficult matter to get rid of the man who is watching father, and if it can possibly be arranged, I shall make my way in at the back, for the other sentry being so near, he would almost certainly hear the struggle and give the alarm. Hullo! Who’s that?”
As he spoke his eyes suddenly fell upon another figure of gigantic proportions, and a few moments’ closer observation assured him of the fact that it was the Mullah pacing the narrow roof of his house. Up and down he went restlessly, muttering to himself as if he were ill at ease. Then with one long look round he disappeared, and soon there was no one to be seen but the men on watch.
“And now comes my time,” said Jim to himself. “I’ll slink away from here in the opposite direction from those fellows, and carry out the first part of my undertaking. The night is very dark, and suitable for the work. But it is very still, and the fall of a paddle in the water, the mere splash of a hand as one lifts it to swim, will be heard a long-distance away. That being the case, I must float across, propelling myself by kicking out with my legs beneath the surface. Now here goes!”
Leaving the dense band of darkness, which seemed to cling to the walls of the storehouse, he crept stealthily away into the night, and, taking a narrow passage which ran behind the huts, quickly placed some hundred yards between himself and the Mullah’s dwelling. Then, having waited again to listen, he turned at right angles and made his way across the wide-open street towards the riverbank. As he walked, feeling his way carefully before him, for the darkness was great, the ground shelved away, at first by degrees, and then more suddenly, till, happening to pause for a moment, he heard the gentle wash of water just in front of him.
“The river,” he said to himself; “and now for a boat. There are several lying hereabouts, and I ought to have no difficulty in finding one.”
Again he went on his knees in the mud and mire, and groped his way along by the water’s edge. Soon his hand came into contact with some object, and running his fingers along it, he speedily satisfied himself that it was one of the native craft. In fact, it was a dug-out canoe, patched here and there with scraps of goat-skin, and provided with some half-dozen paddles of native workmanship, which lay on the bottom.
“I’ve an idea,” said Jim suddenly, pausing beside the craft as a thought occurred to him. “We arranged that I should take one of these boats over, but from that, it would appear that very few had had a hand in the rescue of the prisoner. Now, why should I not take half a dozen? Tie them by their head-ropes together, and then ferry the whole lot across. When I reach the other side, I’ll detach one of the half-dozen, and run it up against the bank so securely that it will not be carried away by the river; then I’ll land and stamp about in the mud till the whole place is marked by footprints.
When that is done, I’ll go elsewhere till I’ve got rid of all the craft, and then I’ll return and go on with the other portion of my work. Yes, it sounds to me very plausible, for when they discover that their prisoner is gone, the Somalis will catch sight of six-stranded boats far sooner than they will of one, and, what is of far more importance, they will think that quite a force of men has been in the village during the night, and will promptly despatch all their available followers to the far side of the river. That will be good for us, for the smaller the number we have to deal with the better.”
Groping carefully about in the darkness, Jim found that three of the native craft lay side by side, and within a very short period he had loosely knotted the head-ropes together. Then he crawled still farther along the riverbank, and having discovered another, pushed it silently into the water and embarked.
To grasp a paddle and use it to pole the boat along was a simple matter, and in this way, using every care to avoid making a splash, he sped silently along, till a gentle grating told him that the prow had come into contact with the stern of another craft. Five minutes later he was returning with three canoes, allowing the stream to float them noiselessly along beside the bank. When he reached the spot at which he had left the others, he stepped into the river, and, wading towards them, tied the whole six together.
Standing upright in the central one of his half-dozen captures, he thrust the paddle over the stern, and, working it as a ferryman often does when sculling with a single oar, he gradually crossed the stream. Soon the gentle sound of bending rushes fell upon his ear, and he knew that he was at his destination. Detaching one of the head-ropes, he pulled the canoe well onto the bank, and then trudged backwards and forwards in the soft earth, stamping it with the imprint of his sandalled feet in all directions.
Not content with that, he walked through a patch of long grass which fringed the bank, flattening the blades and leaving obvious tracks. There was no need to go still farther, for a long stretch of rocky and hard soil ran away from the river, and upon this nothing but the hoofs of horses would have made any impression.
Six times in succession did he repeat the process, and then, having satisfied himself that the signs upon the bank were ample, he embarked again and pushed off, allowing the stream to carry him where it liked.
“There is a white line farther down,” he said to himself, peering through the darkness; “and I remember that from the storehouse we could see a spot where the water was broken and tumbled. If possible, I shall jam this boat among the rocks, and then it will look as if it had broken loose from the farther bank. Ah, here we are!”
Before starting out he had been careful to wrap his revolver and ammunition in the long strip of calico which usually did service as a head-covering, and this he had tied firmly in position with the weapon at the crown of his head and the knot beneath his chin.
Certain, therefore, that there was no danger of damaging them by immersing them in the water, he slipped over the edge of the boat at once, and, swimming beside it, directed it towards the centre of the white line which he had observed. Soon his hand came into contact with a large boulder, which was covered with slippery moss, and upon the upper edge of which was a jagged indentation.
“Just the thing,” he murmured, holding on firmly, so as not to be swept away, for the stream at this point came down with great force and rapidity. “I’ll pull her on to this until she’s fast, and then swim ashore.”
Easy though the task seemed, it taxed his strength to the utmost, for, caught by the mass of water which swirled about her, the native craft proved a fractious thing to deal with. She wabbled from side to side, and then, just as her nose was in the right position, her stern floated out, and, being broadside on, she was borne down onto the white line of surf, where she remained for a moment jammed against the boulders. But Jim was not the lad to be easily beaten, and, realizing the difficulty before him, he waited for one moment to obtain a firm foothold in the shallow water, and then bending beneath the craft, lifted it clear from the river. Then he gently lowered it into the position which he had selected, and, having satisfied himself that it was securely fastened there, he turned and began to swim with long steady strokes towards the bank.
“And now for the second part of the undertaking,” he said breathlessly, drawing himself gently from the river, and lying down upon the mud to rest. “I’ll keep straight up the street, in the shadow of the huts, and when I get within sight of the one which shelters father, I shall wait a few minutes to see whether the sentry is wakeful or not. If all is quiet, I shall go to the back and endeavor to cut my way through the wall.”
Accordingly, as soon as he had recovered his breath and regained his strength, for the exertion of placing the boats in position had been by no means light, he rose to his feet again, and slowly made his way up the village street. Arrived within some ten yards of the building which stood opposite to the Mullah’s house, he crouched in the shadow of a wall, and remained there, peering into the darkness.
At first, there was not a soul to be seen in that direction, though when he looked a little farther to the right the reflection of the watch-fire, which seemed to burn continuously, caught his eye, and against it, dimly silhouetted, and looking ghostly and unreal, was the figure of the warrior who kept watch over his leader. He was a tall, athletic-looking man, and seemed at the moment to be lost in reverie, for he grasped the shaft of his long spear near its cruel metal point with both hands, and held his head bent forward.
So still did he stand, and so easy and graceful was the poise of his muscular limbs, that Jim might well have been gazing at a finely carved statue of a Hercules. For five minutes his eye rested upon the man as if fascinated, and then of a sudden, as the breeze stirred the folds of the flag which flew from the roof above, causing it to flutter gently, the man awoke from his dream with a start, and began to pace restlessly up and down.
“Number one,” said Jim quietly to himself; “he evidently fears no surprise, and should give no trouble at all. And now for the other fellow.”
Some minutes passed before he was successful in discerning the outline of the Somali posted in front of the prisoner’s door, but by turning his eyes away from the reflection of the fire, he was at length able to make out a huddled figure crouching upon the ground, and apparently slumbering deeply.
“Nothing could be better for me,” murmured Jim, in tones of satisfaction. “If he will remain like that, and the other fellow continue to pace up and down, I ought to get into the hut without much trouble.”
Pausing for a second or two to assure himself that his revolver was in position, he left the shadow of the wall, and slowly, and with the greatest caution, crept across the open space which intervened between himself and his goal. At last he touched the wall of the hut, and at once prepared to carry out his design. And now for the first time he realized the loss of his hunting-knife, which he had dropped when clambering to the top of the storehouse. Without it, and in the absence of something with which to chip a hole in the wall, he was helpless, and at the thought a feeling of despair came over him.
“What an idiot I am!” he murmured, while tears of vexation filled his eyes. “I ought to have thought of this before, as any baby would have done. But it never occurred to me, and this is the result of my carelessness. But father shall not suffer; for if I cannot make my way to him through here, I will do so through the door, and chance discovery.”
With this object in view he slowly crawled round the hut towards the place where the only entry was situated, and soon the sleeping sentry came into view as he crouched some three or four paces in front of the hut.
“What is that?” Jim asked himself the question with a start of surprise, and with a sudden feeling of reviving hope, for now again he was looking in the direction of the watch-fires, which not only aided him in locating the position of the sentry, but also showed something—a glimmer upon the ground where there should have been darkness alone.
“Was it the sword which the sentry placed beside him before he fell asleep, or was it merely some stray piece of metal upon which the firelight fell?”
Lying there full length in the shadow, Jim thought the matter out, and finally, emboldened by the fact that the man-made no movement, and by the recollection that iron was a metal of great value to the Somalis, and was not likely to be flung carelessly about, he left his position, and advanced stealthily like a cat about to pounce upon its prey. It was a moment of excitement, for as he neared the man, keeping his eye fixed all the while upon him, some alteration in the reflection of the watch-fire caused him to turn his head, and there, stalking into the darkness as he walked his solitary beat about the Mullah’s hut, came the warrior who kept watch there.
Again his figure was silhouetted sharply, and, in spite of his dangerous position, Jim found himself vaguely wondering what was the man’s height and age, and what kind of an athlete he was. Indeed, so strangely does one’s mind wander in the most hazardous circumstances, that straightway Jim’s thoughts carried him back to the football field at school, and in a senseless way he began to find a place for this brawny warrior in the team. But a moment later the man had vanished into the reflection of the flames again, and there was the slumbering sentry upon whose sword he had designs. Two paces forward, and Jim’s fingers lit upon the handle, and began slowly, cautiously, to withdraw the weapon.
The sleeper stirred, and ground his teeth, as though his dreams were not of the sweetest, then he awoke with a start, and raised his head. But he was quickly reassured, for again, trudging from the dim light beyond into the darkness, came his comrade, head poised proudly in the air, and spear resting upon his shoulder. With a grunt of satisfaction the man behind whom Jim lay settled his head upon his breast once more, and gave himself up to sleep without restraint.
A minute later our hero was behind the hut, and with the weapon grasped in both hands was attacking the wall fiercely, as though life itself depended upon his exertions. Chip! chip! At every thrust the point of the steel bit into the hard sun-baked clay, and sent splinters of it flying. Another lunge, and a mass of the material detached itself and fell to the ground, with a sound which, though not loud, caused Jim suddenly to stop his efforts and crouch again, fearful that he had been overheard. But a glance round the corner of the building showed him the sentry still asleep, with his comrade continuing upon his round.
Chip! chip! chip! Resuming his labors, Jim kept prodding at the wall till quite a respectable amount had fallen. Then of a sudden, as he gave a still stronger thrust, he felt the mass before him give way, and the point of the weapon went through into the interior with a grating sound.
Had anyone heard the noise? Was that someone stirring? Perhaps it was the prisoner, his dear father, who had guessed that rescue was at hand; or perhaps it was the sentry.
Something fell upon Jim’s listening ear, and instantly he suspended his labors, and, crouching at the foot of the wall, waited to see what would happen.
Yes, it was undoubtedly the man who had been sleeping before the door; for suddenly a stooping figure came shuffling round the building, peering suspiciously into the darkness, as if something had disturbed his rest and caused alarm.
Would he be seen? Was it possible that by lying flat there upon the ground he could have escaped the attention of the Somali warrior? And if not, then how was he to act?
Rapidly did Jim allow the thoughts to flash across his mind, and then, before an answer could come to him, indeed long before he could collect his scattered wits, the man suddenly caught sight of him, and, raising himself erect, prepared to shout an alarm. There was no time for hesitation, for had a sound escaped the lips of the sentry, flight for the prisoner, for Jim, and for John Margetson, would have been out of the question; their fate would have been hopelessly sealed. And therefore, prompted by the danger, and scarcely realizing how, Jim sprang upon the man, and, grasping him by the throat with one hand, plunged his weapon into his chest. Twice in succession did he deliver the blow, and then, still clutching his opponent, he fell with him to the ground, and lay there, overcome by his feelings and by the narrowness of his escape.
“If the second man has heard the struggle, we are done for,” gasped Jim. “But perhaps he was on the farther side of the Mullah’s house, and if so, he may be unaware of the fate which has befallen his comrade. But supposing he notices his absence and comes to find him?”
The thought set him trembling, for he was thoroughly unhinged by the events of the last few moments. As he reflected upon the matter, however, and realized how much depended upon his coolness and decision, resolution came to him at once, and straightway rising to his feet, he tumbled the body of the dead warrior on one side, and took possession of his blanket. Then casting its folds about him, resting the man’s spear jauntily upon his shoulder, and carrying the sword in one hand, he began to saunter round the dwelling. A few paces brought him to the front, where he caught sight of the second man walking slowly upon his beat, and approaching him from the farther side.
And now was the time when Jim’s courage was tested to the utmost. Had he shown any fear, or had he turned about in the foolish endeavor to escape the attention of the sentry, all his plans would have been upset. The impulse was there to make him cast his blanket to the ground and fly for his life; he felt the longing to get away from the place, to free himself from the danger, and then, putting the temptation aside, he boldly stepped onwards, and, arriving opposite the door, paused to look sleepily about him.
“The night is dark, comrade, and it is lonely work tramping hither and thither,” said the tall warrior, coming to a halt some feet away from him. “This watching is a weary trial, and my heart sickens at it. Rather would I be abroad with my brothers in search of the runaways, or, better, galloping upon my horse against the zareba which the insolent invader has erected on the fringe of the desert. It maddens me to know that our warriors are fighting there and that at this moment they are rushing to the attack with victory before them. And then, what loot! The man who came hither from the farther side of the Hoad, and who was once a follower of the infidel, has told us of the camels and horses that accompanied the expedition, and of the rifles and ammunition.
My mouth waters at the thought that one of these guns might fall into my hands, for with it I feel that I alone could beat back these British troops who are to advance against us. But an evil fate has placed me here to keep watch when there is no need for it. In these peaceful times, and when no danger is to be feared, the old women of the village could carry out the duties as well, and better than I. However——Hark! Listen to that! You hear the faint and distant sound of firing which reaches us upon the still night air. Did I not say that our comrades were even now advancing to the attack?”
As he spoke, Jim stood still, looking at him, and puzzling his brains to know how to act. That the man was addressing him he fully realized, but whether asking a question or merely making a few commonplace remarks, he could not guess, as he did not understand the language. To have attempted to respond would have been sheer madness, and yet what was he to do? Happily for him, a gust of wind swept along the village street at this instant, and, falling upon the watchfires, sent a burst of smoke and embers whirling in his direction.
A second later a fit of coughing took hold of him, and leaning upon his spear, he struggled with it till the tears were forced to his eyes. Then, as if that had been sufficient answer, he yawned loudly and began to trudge the beat again, till the hut hid him from the sentry. No sooner was he out of sight than he ran to the other side, and, throwing himself upon the ground, crept to the end of the wall and looked out across the open space which separated him from the Mullah’s residence.
There was the warrior who had just addressed him, still standing in a listening attitude; but whether he was surprised at his comrade’s action or not, it was impossible to state. However, that his suspicions had not been aroused was quickly evident, for, coughing and spluttering, as a second gust swept the smoke in his direction, he, too, moved away, and had soon disappeared from sight.
“Now is my opportunity,” thought Jim, “and I shall never have another like it. Whilst he is behind the Mullah’s house I must make a rush for the prison, and, by George, I’ll do it!”
Darting round the angle of the wall, he undid the fastenings of the door and slipped into the hut. He had just time to pull the door to when the sentry came into sight again. But nothing had disturbed him, that was apparent, for he continued his leisurely walk without a pause and without a glance in the direction of his comrade.
“Father! Father! Where are you? I’m here, your son, Jim, come to help you,” whispered our hero, repeating almost the same words as he had used when making the acquaintance of John Margetson.
There was a movement at the end of the hut, and he could hear someone stir, but for more than a minute there was no other sound. Then a voice broke the stillness, and a question was asked in tones with which Jim was familiar.
“Who is that? Did someone say ‘Jim?’ My boy whom I left away in old England?”
“Hush! Yes, I am here. Don’t make a sound for your life, father! I shall come close up to you.”
Creeping across the hard-beaten floor, Jim groped his way through the darkness, and very soon found himself beside the prisoner. Their hands met in a firm and loving clasp, while each kissed the other affectionately upon the cheek.
“My boy! My dear, dear lad!” was all that Colonel Hubbard could say for some minutes. “Who could have thought it possible? Who would have dreamt that such a thing could have occurred? It seems incredible, and I cannot believe that it is true. But—yes, I am pressing your hand, and I know by your voice that it is really you. Thank God that you have come!”
“I’m here right enough,” whispered Jim, feeling already as though a load had been removed from his mind. “But, now about escaping. I am in disguise, and have come here from the store-hut of the Mullah, which is close at hand. There John Margetson and I have been hiding, and it is to that spot that I intend to take you now.”
“John Margetson! I know him well, for we met on more than one occasion. How comes it that you have made his acquaintance, my lad? Are you, then, a prisoner, too?”
“No, father, but I found my way to his hut, thinking that you were there, and that the Mullah possessed only one white slave. It was a bitter disappointment, but this makes up for it all. Now I hope to carry both of you away with me to our zareba, which lies away on the fringe of the desert.”
“Rescue us both! Zareba! I don’t understand; I am bewildered!” exclaimed Colonel Hubbard, still pressing his son’s hand. “But you must tell me all about it later on; for the present, let me know what I am to do, for I am completely in your hands. What is this storehouse? And why should we retire to it?”
Placing his lips close to his father’s ear, Jim hurriedly whispered an account of his recent doings, and told him how it was that the storehouse had been pressed into their service.
“And now, father,” he continued, “it only remains for us to escape from this without observation, and reach John Margetson. If we are only successful in that, we have arms and ammunition there which will enable us to protect ourselves if necessary, and make a good fight for our lives; and, in addition, I have just arranged a ruse which should send these Somalis off to pursue us in the wrong direction. If they fall into the trap, we shall say good-bye to this village, and make our way to the zareba. Are you ready?”
“Ready, ay, and willing.”
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