BACK TO THE COAST
“The exit! A means by which we may make good our escape from the mine, leaving the enemy utterly baffled!” shouted the colonel, as the square of brilliant light suddenly came into view, permitting, for the second time since his rescue from the Mullah’s village, his usual composure to give way to the excitement of the moment. “Phew! What a breeze! It is as much as one can do to force a path towards the opening, for the draught comes singing in like a magnified gale, and fairly makes one stagger.”
“Clever beggars, those old fellows who engineered the concern,” gasped John Margetson, turning his face from the stream of air, so as to breathe more freely. “This is undoubtedly their ventilating shaft; and, George! how fond they must have been of a breeze. The hottest day in the tropics would be cool if spent in this tunnel, while in the winter——”
“A case of freezing,” laughed the colonel. “The gale fairly sweeps and rushes in, and the atmosphere must reach to the farthest corner and nook of the mine, and clear it thoroughly. It is marvelous.”
“It is fine, I admit,” said Jim at this moment, joining in the conversation curtly; “but talking will not help us to get away from those fellows—will it, father?”
“Quite right! The lad speaks the truth, and we deserve to be reproved,” was the smiling answer. “There is a time for everything, and at the present moment, we have to think of our lives, and of the comrades whom we hope to join. But I will return here one of these days, when the Mullah has had his licking; and then how I shall enjoy exploring every inch of this place! But forward! What is the next move, Jim?”
“Let us get to the opening and take a lookout, father. Till then I cannot say. We may find that the Somalis are already there, expecting our arrival, and in that case we shall have to retire to the workings again. If not, we must hold a council, and discuss what we must do to get to the zareba. Of course, we might make for the coast alone; but, then, that would be leaving my friend in the lurch, for he is waiting for us patiently.”
“It would be the act of cowards,” cried the colonel. “Our duty is to save ourselves and to join hands with this gallant young fellow who has accompanied you into the country. Let us get ahead, my dear lad, for I must admit that this tunnel, at first so cool and invigorating, is now somewhat too cold for my liking. And then, the breeze comes in with such a rush that it is difficult to breathe, and talking is no easy matter.”
“Then on we go,” said Jim shortly, turning to the opening at once, from which, like his companions, he had been glad to keep his face away.
With torches held aloft, and spouting long streams of brilliant flame from their glowing ends, the little party sped on up the incline which led to the patch of daylight, their thoughts all the while bent upon the possible chances of ultimate escape. All realized that they had perhaps a thousand fanatical foes to deal with and that many, many miles of rolling country intervened between themselves and the zareba away in the desert.
Could they hope to make their way there without discovery? Was it not more than likely that before their weary feet had carried them more than a tenth of the distance, these fierce warriors would be upon them? But there was little use in imagining such things, and as nothing could be known for certain till the opening of the air-shaft was reached, they all hastened forward at as fast a pace as possible, gasping for air, with bodies leaning forward upon the column of wind pouring into the mine, fighting their way through its very center.
“Hurrah!” cried Jim at length, as his hand came in contact with the solid arch of masonry which marked the entrance. “The open sky again. And now for a look round.”
“Be cautious, master,” came Ali’s voice at this moment. “You have told me that these men who cry to Allah have scattered in search of the runaways. It may well be that some are even now close at hand, and will see you the instant your head appears. Be careful, therefore, I beg of you, for we cannot hope for such good fortune a second time.”
“He needs no warning, this leader of ours,” said John Margetson, halting beside our hero. “Has he not already shown his cuteness? Leave him to manage the matter alone, friend Ali.”
“The words are filled with truth, sahib, and I am sorry,” answered the native follower humbly. “I should know of his caution and wisdom even better than you do, seeing that I have marched beside him for many a day. But this danger has made me nervous. Never in my life before have I been in such peril, not even when the tribe attacked us in the pass on our way hither. Let my fears be my excuse, and forgive me. From this moment I shall maintain silence.”
Jim very cautiously looked about him, pushing the blades of grass aside to enable him to see clearly. As there were no trees or bushes to obstruct the view, he was soon able to inform his comrades that not a single one of the enemy was in sight.
“They are all on the other side of the hill, rushing into the workings,” he said with a smile of relief; “and now it becomes a question as to whether we should move in the direction of the desert, or whether we should remain here till matters have calmed down. This is too serious a decision for me to arrive at alone, and therefore I call all of you in to help me.”
“Hum, a very difficult situation,” said the colonel, pushing his way to the front and carefully surveying the surrounding country. “I see hills and valleys for a few miles, and then, as you have told me, a dead level extends to the zareba. This is the most dangerous point in our escape, for if we leave the mine, we throw comparative safety away. On the other hand, we cannot hope to remain here for long.
Our provisions will soon become exhausted, and, moreover, once having overcome their fears, and having dared to enter the workings, these Somali warriors will penetrate to its farthest corners in search of their prisoners. Be sure of this: if the news of an advancing English column has angered the Mullah, this impudent and successful attempt to rescue prisoners from under his very eyes will rouse him to fury, and he will turn aside from the invading force in order to capture us. I confess that I hesitate. Here is a haven for a time. Out there, sunny and sweet as the country looks, it promises disaster.”
“He who hesitates is lost,” whispered John Margetson in his ear. “Listen to me, colonel; and you, too, Jim. To remain here is impossible. That is how I read it, for in an hour we shall be discovered by the searchers. Therefore, there can be no question. That is our way. Forward, my friends.”
He pointed across the rolling expanse of grass, and would have emerged from the shaft, had not Jim detained him.
“Steady,” he said quietly. “To hop out there into the open may be to commit the greatest of errors. A glance at you would convince one of the enemy that you are the escaping sailor; and then what a shout there would be!”
“Well? That would be the end of the matter.”
“Quite so,” responded Jim coolly. “But look at me. Am I not like the average Somali warrior?”
“Jove! The lad has a way to help us,” shouted the colonel. “Silence while we listen to him. A Somali, my boy? Why, your disguise is undoubtedly excellent.”
“Then I shall take advantage of the fact, father. Stay here, all of you, while I slip out. If I am seen, I shall be just one of the Mullah’s followers, and all the while shall be on the lookout so as to see how we can best escape. Ta, ta. Wait till I return.”
Before they could stretch out a friendly arm to detain him, Jim was outside the shaft, and was running up the slope of the hill. Anxiously did his comrades await his return, and more than once they were tempted to throw caution to the winds, and, giving way to their impatience, to rush into the open in search of their leader. But the calmness of the colonel held them back.
“Trust the lad,” he said, his head held proudly in the air. “He has done as well as any man and has shown that he has pluck and plenty of brains. Give him a full half-hour before we make any movement. Ah, what are those sounds?”
“The dogs in search of us,” said Ali, placing his hand to his ear, and facing down the shaft. “These walls carry the sound as does the tube which they have in Aden. Have I not listened at one end to hear the sound of a comrade’s voice? Have little fear, masters, for those men will hardly dare to follow us into this shaft.”
“Hush! Here is someone coming towards us!” exclaimed the colonel, in a warning whisper at this moment. “I think it is Jim; but it may not be. He is evidently hunting for the entrance.”
“It is the lad, sure enough,” cried John Margetson, staring out of the shaft. “Look at the condition of his linen clothing. No self-respecting follower of Allah would dare to go abroad in such a dress. He is travel-soiled, and there can be no mistake as to his identity. I shall call to him.”
Thrusting his arm clear of the opening, he waved it, and called gently to Jim. A second or two later Jim appeared at the entrance of the shaft, his dusky features radiant with smiles.
“Good news!” he cried eagerly. “Not one of the enemy on this side, so far as I have been able to observe, but all are in the ravine beyond, trying to screw up their courage to enter the mine as some of their comrades have done.”
“Then they do not suspect that we are on the farther side,” said the colonel, in tones of relief. “Nevertheless, the question of escape is still one of difficulty.”
“I think not, father,” answered Jim quietly. “We have a clear field before us, and scarcely forty miles to cover.”
“But, good gracious! that will take us a day and a half at least,” cried his parent.
“On foot—yes,” said Jim gaily. “But on horseback, say a day at the most.”
“Horseback! What do you mean?” burst in those who were listening to him, eagerly pressing about their young leader.
“Listen,” was the smiling rejoinder. “I said that the followers of the Mullah were on the farther side of the hill, but I did not tell you that they had taken their animals to the ravine. Obviously, in such a small place, there would some overcrowding, for there is not too much room for the warriors themselves.”
“Then where are they, my boy?” demanded the colonel.
“Come with me,” was Jim’s quiet answer, “but be careful not to show yourselves over the corner of the hill. The horses are grazing quietly in a little nook, a small valley which cuts into this long hill, and they are practically unwatched. That was a point about which I took a deal of trouble, and I ascertained without a doubt that only one man was stationed as a guard over the beasts. He, like his comrades, is all eagerness to help in our capture, and as I watched him, he was forever staring into the ravine, and shouting words of encouragement to his fellows. He is the only man we have to fear at the present moment.”
“Then he is the only one who shall taste one of our bullets,” said John Margetson brusquely. “This fellow must not be allowed to give the alarm, and though I do not like the action, still it is imperative that we should shoot him. Otherwise, he will give the alarm, and we shall have the whole host galloping after us.”
“Running, you mean,” replied Jim, with an easy laugh. “You see, we want more than a few ponies. A dozen are useless to us, for the remainder would carry the enemy in the same direction, and a long chase is a hard one, you know.”
“But you don’t propose——” gasped the colonel, staring at his son in bewilderment.
“Oh, yes, I do, father! If we are to escape, we shall have to take the bulk of the ponies for a few miles with us. A mile would not do, for these natives can run very fast. But after, say five miles, all but a very few would have fallen off, and the remainder we could easily account for. If we ride away, and leave the animals to the enemy, we shall be captives before the afternoon.”
For a minute all stared at their young leader in amazement at the daring of his plan; then smacking his thigh, as if to give expression to his thoughts, John Margetson broke the silence.
“The Mullah will die of rage!” he gasped, while a smile of delight lit up his sun-tanned features. “Never before has he been so treated, and now to see his prisoners ride away, taking every horse he possesses, well——”
Evidently, the thought was too much for the gallant mate, for he lapsed into silence, and writhed, as if his feelings were too much for him. As for the colonel, with the keenness of a trained soldier, he at once grasped the importance of the proposed movement.
“It is a capital plan,” he said, with decision. “Every pony must come with us, and this fellow who watches them must be shot without mercy. Give me your rifle, Jim. I am too old a campaigner to have any qualms, and in such a case as this the act is justified. Now, what next?”
“Forward,” said Jim quietly. “When we reach the top of the hill, Ali will stop where he is, and we others shall turn to the right. Thirty yards from Ali, John Margetson will come to a stop; another interval, and father will do the same. All will wait till I am in position. I shall wave my arm, and then we shall all move to the ponies. Select a couple of the finest, and tie their halters together. Then mount, and set the remainder in motion. They are well-trained beasts, and will give us no difficulty.”
A glance was sufficient to show that his comrades comprehended his words, and at once turning, Jim led the way to the top of the rise.
“Ah!” an exclamation burst from all of the fugitives at the sight of some two hundred horses grazing in a small valley below.
“All the mounted men that the Mullah happens to have within call,” murmured John Margetson. “No doubt the remainder are at the attack of the zareba. Now for the fellow who is looking after the horses.”
“He has gone to take a look at his comrades,” said Jim. “Forward again. Ali, you stay where you are.”
Turning to the right, the three Englishmen at once hurried forward, and obedient to the orders of their young leader, John Margetson and the colonel halted when they had gained the correct distance. Jim kept on till he was at a point slightly beyond the horses. Waiting only to make sure that the animals were now surrounded, he waved his hand to his comrades and at once walked quietly towards two spirited-looking ponies, which promised to be amongst the strongest and swiftest there.
“Likely little beggars,” he said to himself. “If they will allow me, I will become their owner for the time being.”
A few paces brought him beside one of the animals, and with a bound he was in the saddle. Then grasping the halter of the other, he made a turn with it through the bridle of the pony he rode. Then he began to round up that part of the troop between him and his comrades.
“Look out!” came a shout in the colonel’s voice; and turning swiftly, Jim saw a figure bounding across the grass towards him. Snap, bang! went a rifle, and a bullet discharged by the colonel whistled past the head of the pursuing Somali warrior. Bang! A second had no better effect, and ere a third could be attempted the man was upon our hero. Quick as lightning Jim dived his hand into his waistcloth, only to discover that his father had his revolver. He was apparently unarmed, while the Somali bore a flashing spear, and a huge sword at his girdle. “Ah, the sword!” thought Jim, and instantly recollected that he had thrust the weapon into the belt tied about his left forearm.
How it happened Jim never knew, but in the shortest space of time he was riding forward, driving part of the troop before him, while behind, huddled upon his face upon the grass, was the Somali warrior, a murmured “Allah” on his dying lips.
“A great stroke! Bravely and coolly done!” shouted the colonel, who had looked on anxiously, expecting the worst to happen, and blaming himself for his want of skill. “A running man is no easy object when one is mounted upon a fresh pony such as his; but all’s well. It was a stroke! The lad has a head, and can look well to himself. I thought the spear was through him, and almost shouted, but he ducked at the very instant, and then—ah, I saw the blade go well home. But those fellows may have heard the shots, and if so, we shall soon be followed.”
“Forward!” came Jim’s voice at this moment; and instantly all began to urge the troop of animals into a trot. Leaping from their saddles, they picked stones from the earth and then pelted the beasts, shouting at them till their trot broke into a gallop.
“Now keep them to it, and if they try to stop, make a rush at them,” shrieked John Margetson, sitting his pony in an attitude which showed clearly that he was no horseman. “Forward! To the zareba!”
It was a time of wild excitement, and each of the fugitives entered into the spirit of it thoroughly. Exhilarated by the quick movement over the rolling hills and valleys, with the smell of the horses in their nostrils, and the dust of four hundred heels in their eyes, they raced over the grass, driving the frantic animals before them. A thunderous sound filled the air as the animals galloped, but loud as it was it failed to drown that shout which came from behind.
“Allah! Allah! They have escaped us, and are riding away! Back! Leave the mine, and run! Money and a high place will be given to those who come up with the infidel!”
It was the Mullah who had heard the shots aimed at the sentry, and had climbed to the top of the hill to ascertain the cause.
“Our friend, the Mullah, my late master,” shouted the colonel, looking grimly over his shoulder. “Let them run, for to those who happen to come in touch with us we will give more than the Mullah can promise. Death to them, my friends! Forward, for liberty and comrades are there.”
Waving his weapon in the air, he looked at each of his comrades in turn, and smiled at them encouragingly. Then, with a shout at the animals directly in front of him, he sent them ahead at an even greater pace.
An hour later, when the little band of fugitives turned in their saddles, and brought the horses to a standstill, not one of the Mullah’s followers was in sight, all having fallen out from the chase.
“We’ll give the poor beasts a breather now,” said Jim, dropping to the ground and going to his father’s side. “We have put a good ten miles between us and the enemy, and I fancy we can say ‘good-bye’ to them.”
“But there must be no delaying,” burst in John Margetson. “Though we have prevented immediate pursuit, there will be other horses in the village, and by now these are tearing in this direction. I advise that when we have waited for some ten minutes we select the best of these animals, and then press them forward. They are fine and wiry beasts, and will make little of the forty miles if ridden fairly. We will loosen the girths, and throw away all but the saddle and bridle, so as to relieve them of any unnecessary weight. Then, by changing from animal to animal, say every half-hour, we shall be able to reach the zareba without more than an occasional halt.”
Acting upon his words, the little band at once set about discarding those of the ponies which seemed to be in bad condition. Twenty of the finest were kept, and having been relieved of all forage-bags and other impediments, were driven ahead of the others.
“The tracks will be plain to the enemy,” said Jim, looking at the wide trail of trampled grass which the troop had left behind it; “so it will be useless to hide these remaining animals by driving them into a ravine. After all, till someone can escort them back, or the Mullah’s men can run as far as this, the horses will be of no service to them. Are we all ready? Then on we go.”
Leaving the bulk of the horses panting upon the road, they set off again, and did not draw rein save to change from one animal to another, or to give the beasts a few moments’ rest. By evening they were cantering over the sandy stretch of desert, and ere long they were in sight of the oasis where Tom and the remainder of the expedition had been quartered.
“Now what shall we find?” said Jim, coming to a halt, and shading his eyes. “The falling sun makes it difficult to see, but everything seems quiet over there, and I can catch sight of none of the enemy.”
“An ominous sign,” whispered John Margetson. “What if these fanatics have butchered every one of those who accompanied you from the coast?”
“Then we must act alone and for ourselves,” said the colonel.
“There will be no need, my masters,” came a voice at their elbows at this moment. “Your servant, Ali Kumar, is used to these desert sunsets, and can see where others are blinded by the glare. A flag flies from the summit of one of those trees, and men are coming out to greet us. They are friends. Yes, our comrades are safe and well.”
“Then forward to meet them,” cried Jim. “I can place full reliance on what Ali says.”
Riding on again, it was not long before the fugitives met Tom and the native followers. Shouts and cries of welcome greeted them, and they were at once escorted back to the zareba.
“And now tell us the news,” said Jim quickly. “We have little time to rest, and if the enemy are not near at hand, we shall push ahead at once.”
“Then you have nothing to fear,” answered Tom, with assurance. “The Mullah’s followers have left us, and I have just been able to ascertain that they had had news of the approach of the English forces, and had been withdrawn to repel them. Meanwhile, I am glad to say that we have given an excellent account of ourselves. Thanks to the preparations made, when the enemy advanced we beat them back with ease. Time and again they rushed to the attack, but the barbed wire kept them at a distance, and our rifles mowed them down. How many we accounted for I cannot say, but large numbers were killed. In fact, they soon began to lose heart, and I fancy they were glad when the order suddenly reached them that they were to withdraw. And what of you?”
“That you shall hear later,” said Jim. “The order now is to retire. Strike camp at once. Load the beasts, and prepare to march in an hour at most.”
So rapidly were the orders carried out, and so eagerly did the natives fly to obey them, that within the time mentioned the whole of the expedition was marching north, en route to the coast. Camels staggered along with tanks of sweet water upon their backs; others carried fresh-cut grass; while the remainder were laden with ammunition and food for the men. Ten days later all arrived at Berbera, where they attracted a great deal of attention. Having rewarded the followers with gifts of camels, and having taken farewell of Tom and of Ali Kumar, Jim, his father, and John Margetson took ship for England, where they arrived in due time.
“Back, and alive!” gasped Mr. George Hubbard, when the colonel and Jim put in an appearance at his house. “It is astounding! I had expected to hear nothing more of you, and your arrival lifts a weight from my heart. How could it be otherwise when the news just comes to hand that a portion of the British expedition was hemmed in a few days ago by the Mullah, and, falling short of ammunition, suffered very heavy losses?
However, though this reverse has put a stop to the campaign for a moment, it is certain to be renewed again, and then this Mullah will be crushed. Indeed, the cables have told us that, since the disaster to our own troops, the Abyssinians have come in contact with this host of Somali plunderers and have inflicted severe losses upon them. But sit down and let me have the yarn. Dear, dear! I declare that Jim is as brown as a berry, and looks quite a man.”
That the colonel was of the same opinion was evident, for very few days had passed ere he paid a visit to those in authority, and returned with smiling face and a big blue official envelope.
“Open it,” he said, handing it to Jim. “It is your commission in my old regiment, given you for the information which you were able to gather in Somaliland. In two months you and I will be on our way to India, there to join our brother officers.”
To say that our hero was delighted is to express the matter mildly. He was almost more excited than he had been when planning his father’s rescue. From that moment all was bustle, for his uniform and many other things had to be obtained. In due time, however, the two set sail for India, and entered the Suez Canal. At Aden they left the ship for a few hours to find Tom and have a chat with him. As for John Margetson, he soon settled down to the routine of life in charge of a ship. Neither he nor the colonel, however, will ever forget those days when they were in the grip of the Mullah.
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