Chapter XIII. Prisoners
 

The exclamation that burst from Chris's lips as he saw Sankey on the ground was answered by another from his friend.

"Thank God that you are there, Chris. I have been in an awful state about you. I saw you go down into the water just as I was bowled over. I made sure that you were killed, and I was in a state, as you may imagine, till I heard two more shots. That gave me a little hope; for as you had not been killed in the first, you might have escaped the others."

"But what is the matter with you, Sankey. Where are you hit?"

"I am hit in the arm. I can't tell much about it. I only know that I went slap down; and there is certainly something the matter with my shoulder. Like an idiot I did not take shelter as you told me, but I was watching you so anxiously I never thought about it. If I had not been a fool I should have jumped up and got under cover at once; but I fancy I must have knocked my head as I fell. At any rate, I did not think about moving till I heard those two shots."

"It is just as well that you didn't," Chris said. "They could have put half a dozen bullets in you with their Mausers before you had moved a foot. The question is, what is to be done?"

"Have you got your rifle, Chris?"

"Yes, I stuck to that, and I expect it is all right; these cartridges are quite water-tight. The question is how to get you out of their line of sight." "The best plan will be for me to roll over and over," Sankey said. "I expect it will hurt a bit, but that is no odds."

"No, no; don't do that yet. Let us think if we can't contrive some plan of attracting their attention."

"Don't do anything foolish, Chris," Sankey said earnestly. "I would rather jump up and make a run for it than that anything should happen to you."

"I will be careful, Sankey. The first thing to do is to find out whether there are only two of these fellows or half a dozen. Where I am lying now the ground is a foot lower than it is just at the edge of the bank. I will put my cap on my rifle and raise it so as just to show."

The instant he did so three or four rifles cracked and two bullets passed through the cap. As it dropped a shout of triumph rose from the Boers. He at once crawled forward, and as he did so five of them ran down the bank and as many more stood up, believing that both the scouts had been killed.

Throwing the magazine into play Chris fired three shots in close succession, and then rolled over two or three yards, half a dozen bullets cutting the grass at the spot he had just left. Peering cautiously out again he saw that the Boers had all disappeared except two, one of whom lay apparently dead just at the edge of the water; the other was sitting down, but was waving a white handkerchief.

"I am not going to shoot you," Chris muttered, "though I know the fellows with you would put a bullet at once into Sankey if they thought that he was alive. Hullo, there!" he shouted in Dutch; "I will let you carry off your wounded man and the dead one if you will let me carry off my dead comrade." The answer was three bullets, but he had drawn back a yard or two before he spoke and was in shelter. The thought of firing again at the wounded man did not enter Chris's mind, and he crawled back to the spot where he had before spoken to Sankey. The latter was looking anxiously up.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Well, I wish you would not do it," Sankey said angrily. "If you do I will get up, and they can either pot me or take me prisoner."

"Don't be an ass, Sankey. I am going on all right. I have shot two of them; there are about a dozen of them over there, I should say. Now let us talk reasonably. Of course, if I was sure they would not cross, I would make off to where the horses are, ride out, and meet Brookfield and the others as they come back. The orders were that we were to join them in about an hour and a half, which would give them time to go seven or eight miles farther, and for us to do our work thoroughly. But I am afraid that if I went away the Boers would presently guess I had done so, and would come across and carry you off. But though it would be no joke for you to be taken prisoner to Pretoria, it would be a good deal better than for you to have two or three more rifle bullets in your body, which I am sure you would have were you to move. So we must risk it. Anyhow, I will stop for another hour. There will be plenty of time then for me to make off and meet the others."

Chris crept forward again and watched the opportunity. Half an hour later he saw what he thought was a head appear, and at once fired, rolling over as before the instant he had pulled the trigger. Three or four shots answered his own almost instantly and there was a laugh that told him that they had practised the same trick that he had done, and had only raised a hat to draw his shot. Again there was silence for some time. Then he went back and told Sankey that he was about to start.

"All right, Chris; I shall be very glad when you have gone. You will get hit sooner or later if you go on firing, and I shall be a great deal more comfortable when you are once off. I don't believe they will venture across the drift; they know how straight you shoot."

Chris crawled back for some distance, and then got down into the road. He had scarcely done so when a shot rung out fifty yards away. His right leg gave way and he fell, and with a shout of triumph two Boers ran up to him. Chris did not attempt to move. The rifle had flown from his hand as he fell, and lay some five or six yards away.

"I surrender," he said when they ran up to him.

"Well, rooinek," they exclaimed, "you are a brave young fellow to make a fight alone against a dozen of us. It would have been wiser if you had gone away when you were lucky enough to get up the bank without being hit. What was the use of staying by your dead comrade?"

"He is not dead," Chris said. "He is hit in the arm or shoulder, but he knew if he moved he would be hit again to a certainty."

"But where are you hurt?"

"In the calf of my leg."

"It is lucky for you," the Boer said, "that I stumbled just as I fired. Now, get up and I will carry you across the drift."

They helped him up, and the other assisted him on to his shoulders. The man's clothes were wet.

"Did you swim the river?" Chris asked.

"No, there is a drift a mile lower down. It is a bad one, but we managed to get across. We knew that you were alone, and as you seemed determined to remain here, we made sure of getting you."

As they came near to Sankey, Chris called out, "You can get up, Sankey; they have beaten us."

"I am very glad to hear your voice," Sankey replied as he raised himself into a sitting position. "When I heard that shot behind me I made sure it was all up with you. Where are you hit?"

"Only in my calf. Luckily this gentleman who is carrying me stumbled just as he fired, and I got the ball there instead of through my head. It serves me right for not having thought before that some of them might cross somewhere else and take us in rear. Well, it can't be helped; it might have been a good deal worse."

The other Boer had picked up the two rifles. They now entered the river. The stream in the middle was breast-high, and the Boer with the rifles told Sankey to hold on to him, which he was glad to do, for the force of the stream almost took him off his feet. The other Boers had now left their hiding-places, and received them when they reached the opposite bank. The one who seemed to be their leader said not unkindly, "You have given us a great deal of trouble, young fellows, and killed one of our comrades and badly wounded another."

"If you had left us alone we should have been very glad to have let you alone," Chris said.

The Boers laughed at the light-heartedness of their prisoner, and then examined their wounds. Chris had, as he said, been hit in the calf. The ball had entered behind, and had come out close to the bone. Chris believed that he could walk, but thought it best to affect not to be able to do so. The wound had bled very little, and the two holes were no larger than would be made by an ordinary slate-pencil. Sankey had been hit just below the shoulder. The ball had in his case also gone right through, and from the position of the two holes it was evident that it must have passed through the bone. The Boers bandaged the wounds, and told them to lie down under the shade of a bush, and then took their places near the bank to watch the drift again.

"I suppose we have a journey to Pretoria before us," Sankey said. "I don't care so much about myself, because that is only the fortune of war, but I am awfully sorry that you are taken, Chris, and all through my beastly folly in not taking shelter as you told me."

"Oh, we may just as well be together, Sankey. Besides, I don't mean to go to Pretoria, I can assure you. I believe I could walk now if I tried; but you may be sure I don't mean to try. I should advise you to avoid making any movement with your arm; make them put it in a sling. When they start with us, we had better be sent up with wounded prisoners rather than with the others. They won't look so sharply after the wounded, and it will be very hard if we cannot manage to slip away somehow. I hope the others will find the horses all right, or that if they don't the horses will find their own way back."

"Oh, they are safe to find them," Sankey said confidently. "There will be a hunt for us when it is found that we have not joined the others. Anyhow, they will search to-morrow. I am quite sure that some of our fellows will be out the first thing in the morning, and I dare say they will take a couple of the natives with them. If they start at the point where we turned off they will track the horses down that donga without any difficulty, and even if they have strayed away they will soon have them."

"Yes, I suppose they will be all right," Chris agreed. "Of course we have got the spare horses, but we should miss our own, and I think they are as fond of us as we are of them."

As the sun got low two of the Boers brought up four ponies which were grazing some little distance from the river. They lifted Chris on to one, and helped Sankey to mount another, and then taking their seats on the other horses, rode off at a walk, and arrived an hour and a half later at a camp in a hollow behind Fort Wylie. Here they were put into a large tent, where some thirty wounded prisoners were lying. A German surgeon at once examined and again bandaged their wounds.

"You are neither of you hurt badly," he said in English. "A fortnight and you will have little to complain of. These Mauser bullets make very slight wounds, except when they hit a vital spot. You are a good deal better off than most of your comrades here."

As it was now dark they lay down at once, after taking a basin of excellent soup. The German ambulance was scrupulously clean. The more serious cases were put in beds, those less severely wounded lay on the ground between them; for the number of wounded to be dealt with was very large, and in the tents in which the Boers were treated were many terribly mangled by fragments of shrapnel and lyddite shells. The boys were some time before they went off to sleep, for their wounds smarted a good deal. However, they presently fell off, and it was broad daylight when they woke. Chris lay where he was, while Sankey got up and went round the tent. The men all belonged to either the Devon or the Queen's Own regiment. Most of them were awake, and all asked anxiously for news from Chieveley, and looked disappointed when they heard that it was likely to be some time before a fresh attempt was made to relieve Ladysmith.

"They are all right there. Of course they were disappointed that we did not get in, but they have provisions enough to last for some time yet."

"The Boers don't seem to think so," one of the men said. "As they were carrying us in here I heard one of them say that they had certainly got Ladysmith now, for the provisions there were pretty nearly exhausted, and in a few days they would have to surrender. If they did not, they meant to carry it by assault."

"I don't think they will do that," Sankey said confidently.

"Not they," the soldier replied scornfully. "They will find that it is a very different thing meeting our chaps in the open to what it is squatting in a trench, and blazing away without giving us as much as a sight of them. It is a beastly cowardly way of fighting, I calls it. I was not hit till just the end of the day, and I had been blazing away from six in the morning, and I never caught sight of one of them. I should not have minded being hit if I could have bowled two or three of them over first."

After breakfast the surgeon said to the two lads: "You will be sent off in half an hour; all the slight cases are to go on. There may be another battle any day, and room must be made for a fresh batch of wounded."

"Very well, sir," Chris replied, "as we have to go, it makes no difference to us whether it is to-day or next week."

"You are colonists, I suppose, as you have not the name of any regiment on your shoulder-straps?"

"Yes, sir; we belong to Johannesburg. I know your face. You are Dr. Muller, are you not?"

"Yes; I do not recognize you."

"I am the son of Mr. King, sir; and my comrade is the son of Dr. Sankey."

"I know them both," the doctor said. "I am not one of those who think that the Uitlanders have no grievances, and I am not here by my own choice. But I was commandeered, and had no option in the matter. Well, I am sorry for you lads. For though I believe that in the long run your people will certainly win, I think it will be a good many months before they are in Pretoria. They fight splendidly. I watched the battle until the wounded began to come in, and the way those regiments by the railway advanced under a fire that seemed as if nothing could live for a minute, was marvellous. But brave as they are, they will never force their way through these hills. They will never get to Ladysmith. Well, perhaps we shall meet some day in Johannesburg again."

"Yes, doctor. I suppose we shall be taken up in waggons?"

"You will, for a time, certainly. But I don't know about your friend."

"Oh, do order him to be sent up with me, doctor, that is, if it will not hurt him too much. You see, his wound is really more serious than mine, as the ball has gone through the bone."

"Yes. I have a good many cases of that sort, but all seem to be healing rapidly. However, I will strain a point and give instructions that he is to be among those who must go in the waggons."

"Thank you, sir," both boys said; and Sankey added: "We are great friends, sir. Though I don't care for myself, it would be a great comfort to us to be together, and my wound really hurts me a good deal."

"I have no doubt it does," the surgeon said. "You can't expect a ball to pass through muscle and bone without causing pain."

Half an hour later some natives came into the tent, and under the directions of the surgeon carried out Chris and three others whose wounds were all comparatively slight, and placed them in a waggon which already contained eight other wounded prisoners. Sankey, with his arm in a sling, walked out and was lifted into the waggon, into which he could indeed scarcely have climbed without assistance. Seven more were collected at other tents, and the waggons then moved off and joined a long line that were waiting on the road. Some more presently came up, and when the number was complete, the native drivers cracked their whips with reports like pistols, and the oxen got into motion. Some twenty mounted Boers kept by the side of the waggons. They followed the road until within four or five miles of Ladysmith, then turned off, crossed the Klip river, and came to a spot where a hospital camp had been erected; here they halted for the night.

The wounded were provided with soup and bread, and such as were able to walk were allowed to get out and stroll about. The surgeon who accompanied the train and the doctor in charge of the hospital attended to all the serious cases, and these were carried into the tent for the night thus making room for the others to lie at length in the waggons. Only three of these contained British wounded, the others were all occupied by Boers. Chris and Sankey excited the admiration of the wounded soldiers by conversing with the Boers and the natives in their own languages. Most of the Boers, indeed, could speak English perfectly, but did not now condescend to use it. Some even refused to speak in Dutch to the lads, as their dislike to the colonists who had taken up arms against them was even more bitter than that which they felt for the soldiers.

For six days they travelled on, at the end of that time Chris felt sure that he could walk without difficulty. He had, at very considerable pain to himself, each night undone his bandage, and had with his finger scratched at the two tiny wounds until they were red and inflamed, so that on the two occasions on which they were examined by the doctor, they appeared to be making but little progress towards healing. The inflammation was, however, only on the surface, and after several furtive trials, Chris declared that he was ready for a start. A move was generally made before daylight, in order that a considerable portion of the day's journey should be got over before the heat became very great.

"Are you quite sure, Chris?"

"I am as sure as anybody can be who has not actually tried it. I may be a little stiff at the start, but I believe that once off, I shall be right for eight or ten miles; and after the first day, ought to be able to do double that."

They had been travelling at the rate of about twelve miles a day, and halted that night near Newcastle. Chris heard from the guards that they would only go as far as Volksrust, and there be put in a train. The reason why this had not been done before was that the railway was fully occupied in taking down ammunition and stores, and that no carriages or trucks were available. The watch at night was always of the slightest kind. The Boers had no thought whatever that any of the wounded would try to escape. Two were posted at the leading waggon, which contained stores and medical comforts that might, if unguarded, be looted by the native drivers. The rest either slept wrapped up in their blankets, or in any empty houses that might be near.

At nine o'clock the boys told the others in the waggon that they were going to escape. They had before informed them of their intention to do so, somewhere along the road, and had taken down the names and regiments of all of them, with a note as to their condition, and the addresses of their friends. These they had promised to give to the commanding officers if they got safely back. They had filled their pockets with bread, all those in the waggon having contributed a portion of their ration that evening. After a hearty shake of the hand all round, and many low-muttered good wishes, they stepped out at the rear of the waggon, with their boots in their hands. It was a light night, and the figures of the two men on sentry over the store waggon could just be made out. There was no thought of any regular sentry duty, no marching up and down among the Boers; the two men had simply sat down together to smoke their pipes and chat until their turn came to lie down. The lads therefore struck off on the opposite side of the waggon, and making their way with great caution to avoid running against any of the Boers, they were soon far enough away to be able to put on their boots and walk erect.

"How does your leg feel, Chris?" "It feels stiffer than I expected, certainly, but I have no doubt it will soon wear off. We must take it quietly till it warms up a bit."

Gradually the feeling of stiffness passed off, and going at a steady but quiet pace they made their way along the road, to which they had returned after they had gone far enough to be sure that they were beyond the hearing of the Boers and Kaffirs. From time to time they stopped to listen for the tread of horses, which could have been heard a long way in the still night air, but they were neither met nor overtaken. After walking for five hours they came upon a stream that, as they knew, crossed the line at Ingagone station and ran into the Buffalo. They had gone but ten miles, and decided to leave the road here, follow the stream up half a mile, and then lie up. Chris admitted that he could not go much farther, and as they would not cross another stream for some distance they could not, even putting his wound aside, do better than stop here. Sankey was equally contented to rest, for his arm, which he still carried in a sling, was aching badly.

"It does not feel sore," he said, "or inflamed, or anything of that sort; it just aches as if I had got rheumatism in it. I dare say I shall have that for some time; I have heard my father say that injuries to the bones were often felt that way for years after they were apparently well, the pain coming on with changes of weather. However, it is no great odds."

Neither wanted anything to eat, but had taken long draughts when they first struck the stream, and as soon as they found a snug spot among some bushes a short distance from the water they lay down and were soon asleep. They remained quiet all the day, only going out once after a careful look round to get a drink of water. Starting again as soon as darkness closed in they walked on, with occasional rests, until within a few miles of Glencoe, having followed the line of the railway, where they had no chance whatever of meeting anyone. Here they again halted at a stream. They had agreed that they would on the following night cross the line between Glencoe and Dundee, and take the southern road by which the British force retired after the battle there. By that route they would be altogether out of the line of Boers coming from Utrecht or Vryheid towards the Boer camps round Ladysmith. Their stock of food was, however, now running very short, and they ate their last crust before starting that evening. This they did earlier than usual, as they were determined if possible to get some bread at Dundee. They knew that a few of the residents had remained there, and probably there would not be many Boers about, for as Dundee lay off the direct line from Ladysmith to the north there would be no reason for their stopping there. Sankey had insisted on undertaking this business alone.

"It is of no use your talking, Chris," he said positively; "I can run and you can't. I may not be able to run quite as fast as I could; but I don't suppose this arm will make much difference, and anyhow, I could swing it for a bit, and I would match myself against any Boer on foot. We will cross the line, as we agreed, about a mile from Dundee. When we strike the southern road you can sit down close to it, and I will go in."

"I don't like it," Chris said, "but I see that it would be the best thing. I wish we had our farmer's suits with us, then I should not fear at all."

"I don't think that makes much odds, Chris, lots of the Boers have taken to clothes of very much the same colour; really, the only noticeable thing about us is our caps. If I come upon a loyalist I will see if I can get a couple of hats for us, either of straw or felt would be all right. Well, don't worry yourself; it will be a rum thing if I can't bring you out something for breakfast and dinner to-morrow."

"Don't forget a little bit extra for supper to-night, Sankey," Chris laughed; "that crust went a very short distance, and I feel game for at least a good-sized loaf."

Although he said good-bye to his friend cheerfully, Chris felt more down-hearted than he had done since he had said farewell to his mother more than two months before, as Sankey disappeared in the darkness, leaving him sitting among some bushes close to the road. His last words had been, "It is somewhere about nine o'clock now; if I am not back by twelve don't wait any longer. But don't worry about me; if I am caught, I have no doubt sooner or later I shall give them the slip again, but I don't think there is any real occasion for you to bother. Unless by some unlucky fluke, I am safe to get through all right." Then with a wave of his hand he started confidently along the road.

He met no one until he was close to the town. The first thing he had determined upon was to get hold of a hat somehow. The houses were scattered irregularly about in the outskirts of the town; but very few lights were to be seen in the windows.

"Of course they have all been plundered," he said to himself; "but if I only had a light I have no doubt I should be able to find an old hat somewhere among the rubbish, but in the dark there is no chance whatever." Presently he saw a light in a window in a detached house of some size. He made his way noiselessly up and looked in. A party of five or six Boers were sitting smoking round a table. "The place has not been sacked," he said to himself; "therefore there is no doubt the owner is a traitor. It is a beastly custom these Boers have of wearing their hats indoors as well as out, still there are almost sure to be some spare ones in the hall. A Boer out on the veldt would not be likely to possess more than the hat he wears, but a fellow living in such a house as this would be safe to have a variety for different sorts of weather. At any rate I must try."

He took off his boots, and then stole up to the front door and turned the handle noiselessly. As he expected, no light was burning there, but the door of the room in which the men were sitting was not quite closed, and after he had stood still for a minute, his eyes, accustomed to the greater darkness outside, took in his surroundings. To his great delight he saw that four or five hats of different shapes and materials were hanging there, and a heap of long warm coats were thrown together on a bench. Looking round still more closely he saw five or six rifles in the corner by the door, and to these were hanging as many bandoliers. He first took down two felt hats of different sizes, and picked out two of the coats; then, with great care to avoid any noise, he took two rifles with their bandoliers from the corner and crept out through the door, which he closed behind him carefully; for if they found it open the Boers might look round and discover that some of their goods were missing, whereas any one of them coming casually out, even with a light, would not be likely to notice it. He put on one of the bandoliers, then a coat, and then slung one of the rifles behind him; then, after putting on his boots he went out with the other articles and hid them inside the gate of an evidently deserted house a hundred yards from the other. He felt sure that even when the loss was discovered there would be no great search made for the thief. It would be supposed that some passing Kaffir had come in and stolen the things, and they would consider that, until the following morning, it would be useless to look for him. Feeling now perfectly confident that he could pass unsuspected, he entered the principal street. Here there were a good many Boers about, but none paid the slightest attention to him. Presently he came to a store that was still open. The owner was of course Dutch. He had been a pronounced loyalist when Sankey was last in Dundee, but had evidently thought it prudent to change sides when the British left. Sankey had been in the shop twice with Willesden, and had found the man very civil, and, as he thought, an honest fellow, but with so much at stake he dared not trust him now. Food he must have, that was certain, but if he had to obtain it by threats, he must do it at one of the outlying houses. It would be dangerous anyhow, for, though he could frighten a man into giving him what he required, he could not prevent him from giving the alarm afterwards. While he was looking on a mounted Boer stopped at the shop door. He dismounted at once, and lifted a large bundle from his saddle.

"Look here!" he said to the shopkeeper. "I have just come into the town, having ridden up from near Greytown. I picked up some loot at a house that had been deserted. Here are twenty bottles of wine and a lot of tea--I don't know how much. There was a chest half-full, and I emptied it into a cloth. What will you give me for them? I am riding home to Volksrust. I want three loaves and a couple of bottles of dop [Footnote: The common country spirit.], and the rest in money." The bargaining lasted for some minutes, the storekeeper saying that the wine was of no use to him, for no Boer ever spent money on wine; the tea of course was worth money, but he had now a large stock on hand, and could give but little for it. However, the bargain was at last struck. The Boer brought out the bread and two bottles of spirits and placed them in his saddle- bag, then he went back into the shop to get the money. The moment he entered Sankey moved quietly up to the other side of his horse, transferred the bottles of spirits to his own pocket, and then, thrusting the loaves under his coat, crossed the street, and turned down a lane some twenty yards farther on. He had gone but a few steps when he heard a loud exclamation followed by a torrent of Dutch oaths. He stood up for a moment in a doorway, and heard the sound of heavy feet running along the street he had left, with loud shouts to stop a thief who had robbed him. The instant that he had passed Sankey walked on again, and in five minutes was in the outskirts of the town. He made his way to the place where he had hidden the other things, and taking them up, walked briskly on until he came to the bushes where his friend was anxiously expecting him. As he uttered his name Chris sprang out.

"I had not even begun to expect you back, Sankey. How have you done? I see that you have got on another hat and a coat."

"That is only a part of it. I have got three loaves and two bottles of dop, and a coat and a hat for you, and a rifle and ammunition, as well as clothes for myself and the gun that you see over my shoulder."

"But how on earth did you do it, Sankey?"

"Honestly, my dear Chris, perfectly honestly. The rifles and clothes were fairly spoils of war, the loaves and spirits were stolen from a thief, which I consider to be a good action; but let us go on, I will tell you about it as we walk. Here is your bandolier, slip that on first; there is your coat and hat. Now I will put the sling of the rifle over your shoulder. There you are, complete, a Boer of the first water! I will carry the bottles and the bread. Now, let's be going on."

Then he told Chris how he had obtained his spoil, and they both had a hearty laugh over the thought of the enraged Dutchman rushing down the street shouting for the eatables of which he had been bereaved.

"It was splendidly managed, Sankey. I shall have to appoint you as caterer instead of Willesden. He pays honestly for all he wants for the mess, but I see that if we entrust the charge to you, we shall not have to draw for a farthing upon our treasure chest. And how is your arm feeling?"

"I have almost forgotten that I have an arm," Sankey said. "I suppose the excitement of the thing drove out the rheumatics."

"We might have some supper," Chris suggested.

"No, no, we must wait till we can get water. I can't take dop neat."

"But how are you going to mix it when you do get water?" "I had not thought of that, Chris," Sankey said in a tone of disgust. "Well, I suppose we shall be reduced to taking a mouthful of this poison, and then a long drink of water to dilute it. We shall not have very far to go, because, if you remember, we crossed a little stream three or four miles after we rode out from Dundee. I am as hungry as a hunter, but it would destroy all the pleasure of the banquet if we had to munch dry bread with nothing to wash it down." After walking two miles farther they came upon the stream and going fifty yards up it, so as to run no risk of being disturbed, they sat down and enjoyed a hearty meal.