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   Chapter 28 THE HILL-FORT

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 14331

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


LEWIS got to his feet and blinked at the morning sun across the yard.

"That was a near shave. Phew, I hate being a target for sharpshooting! These devils are your friends the Bada-Mawidi."

"The deuce they are," said Andover lugubriously. "I always knew it. I've told Holm a hundred times, and now here is the beggar away sick and I am left to pay the piper."

"I know. I met him in Bardur, and that's why I'm here. He told me to tell you to mind the north gate."

"More easily said than done. We're too few by half here if things get nasty. How was the chap looking?"

"Pretty miserable. Thwaite and I put him to bed. Then they sent me off here, for I've got news for you. You know a man called Marker?"

Andover nodded.

"I was dining with him the day before yesterday, and yesterday morning I got a note from him. He says that he has heard from some private source that the Bada-Mawidi were arming and proposed an attack on Forza to-day. He thinks they may have got their arms from the other side, you know. At any rate he asked me to try to let you hear, and when I saw Holm last night and heard that such a thing was possible, I came off at once. I suppose Marker is the sort of man who should know."

"What did Thwaite say?"

"He was keen that I should come at once. Do you think that it's a false alarm?"

"Oh, it will be genuine enough on Marker's part, but he may have been misinformed. What beats me is the attack by day. I know the Badas as I know my own name, and they're too few at the best to have any chance of rushing the place. Besides, they are poor fighters in the open. On the other hand they are devils incarnate in a night attack, as we used to find to our cost. You are sure he said to-day?"

"Sure. Some time this morning."

"Wonder what their game is. However, he ought to be right if anybody is, and we are much obliged to you for your trouble. You had a pretty hard time in the open, but how on earth did you get up the hill?"

"Deerstalking style. It was good sport. But for heaven's sake, Andy, give me breakfast, and tell me what you want me to do. I am under your orders now."

"You'd better feed and then sleep for a bit. If you don't mind I'll leave you, for I've got to be very busy. And poor old Holm looked pretty sick, did he? Well, I am glad he has been saved this affair anyhow."

A Sikh orderly brought Lewis breakfast. Beyond the tent door there was stir in the garrison. Men were deployed in the yard, Gurkhas mainly, with a few Kashmir sepoys, and the loud harsh voice of Andover was raised to give orders. It was a hot still morning, with something thunderous in the air. Hot sulphurous clouds were massing on the western horizon, and the cool early breeze had gone. The whole place smelt of powder.

Half-way through the meal Andover returned, his lean face red with exertion. "I've got things more or less in order. They may easily starve us out, for we are wretchedly provisioned, but I don't think they'll get us with a rush. I wonder when the show is to commence." He drank some coffee, and then filled a pipe.

"I left a man at Nazri. If the thing turns out to be a small affair I am to meet him there to-night; but if I don't come he is to know that it is serious and go and warn the Khautmi people. You haven't a connection by any chance?"

"No. Wish we had. The heliograph is no good, and the telegraph is still under the consideration of some engineer man. But how do you propose to get to Nazri? It's only twelve miles, but they are mostly up on end."

"I did it when I was here before. It's easy enough if you have done any rock-climbing, and I can leave with the light. Besides, there's a moon."

Andover laughed. "You've turned over a new leaf, Lewis. Your energy puts us all to shame. I wish I had your physical gifts, my son. The worst of being long and lanky in a place like this is that you're always as stiff as a poker. I shall die of sciatica before I am forty. But upon my word it is queer meeting you here in the loneliest spot in creation. When I saw you in town before I came out, you were going into Parliament or some game of that kind. Then I heard that you had been out here, and gone back; and now for no earthly reason I waken up one fine morning to find you being potted at before my gate. You're as sudden as Marker, and a long chalk more mysterious."

Lewis looked grave. "I wish Marker were only as simple as me, or I as sudden as him. It's a gift not learned in a day. Anyhow I'm here, and we've got a day's sport before us. Hullo, the ball seems about to open." Little puffs of smoke and dust were rising from beyond the wall, and on the heavy air came the faint ping-ping of rifles.

Andover stretched himself elaborately. "Lord alive, but this is absurd. What do these beggars expect to do? They can't shell a fort with stolen expresses."

The two men went up to the edge of the wall and looked over the plateau. A hundred yards off stood a group of tribesmen formed in some semblance of military order, each with a smoking rifle in his hand. It was like a parody of a formation, and Andover after rubbing his eyes burst into a roar of laughter.

"The beggars must be mad. What in heaven's name do they expect to do, standing there like mummies and potting at a stone wall? There's two more companies of them over there. It isn't war, it's comic opera." And he sat down, still laughing, on the edge of a gun-case to put on the boots which his orderly had brought.

It was comic opera, but the tinge of melodrama was not absent. When a sufficient number of rounds had been fired, the tribesmen, as if acting on half-understood instructions from some prehistoric manual, slung their rifles on their shoulders and came on. The fire from the fort did not stop them, though it broke their line. In a minute they were clutching at every hand-grip and foothold on the wall, and Andover with a beaming face directed the disposition of his men.

Forza is built of great, rough stones, with ends projecting in places cyclopean-wise, which to an active man might give a foothold. The little garrison was at its posts, and picked the men off with carbines and revolvers, and in emergencies gave a brown chest the straight bayonet-thrust home. The tribesmen fought like fiends, scrambling up silently with long knives between their teeth, till a shot found them and they rolled back to die on the sand at the foot. Now and again a man would reach the parapet and spring down into the courtyard. Then it was the turn of Andover and Lewis to account for him, and they did not miss. One man with matted hair and beard was at Lewis's back before he saw him. A crooked knife had nearly found that young man's neck, but a lucky twisting aside saved him. He dodged his adversary up and down the yard till he got his pistol from his inner pocket. Then it was his turn to face about. The man never stopped and a ball took him between the eyes. He dropped dead as a stone, and his knife flying from his hand skidded along the sand till it stopped with a clatter on the stones. The sound in the hot sulphurous air grated horribly, and Lewis clapped his h

ands to his ears to find that he too had not come off scathless. The knife had cut the lobe, and, bleeding like a pig, he went in search of water.

The assailants seemed prepared to find paradise speedily, for they were not sparing with their lives. The attacking party was small, and apparently there was no reserve, for in all the wide landscape there was no sign of man. Then for no earthly reason the assault was at an end. One by one the men dropped back and disappeared from the plateau. There was no overt signal, no sound; but in a little the annoyed garrison were looking at vacancy and one another.

"This is the devil's own business," said Andover, rubbing his eyes. The men, too astonished to pick off stragglers, allowed the enemy to melt into space; then they set themselves down with rifles cuddled up to their chins, and stared at Andover.

"It beats me," said that disturbed man. "How many killed?"

"Seven," said a sergeant. "About five more wounded. None of us touched, barring a bullet in my boot, and two Johnnies slashed on the cheek. Seems to me as if the gen'lman, Mr. 'Aystoun, was 'it, though."

At the word Andover ran for his quarters, where he found his servant dressing Lewis's wounded ear. That young man with a face of great despair was inclining his head over a basin.

"What's the matter, Andy? Don't tell me the show has stopped. I thought they were game to go on for hours, and I was just coming to join you."

"They've gone, every mother's son of them. I told you it was comic opera all along. Seven of them have found the part too much for them, but the rest have cleared out like smoke. I give it up."

Lewis stared at the speaker, his brain busy with a problem. For a moment before the fight, and for a little during its progress he had been serenely happy. He had done something hard and perilous; he had risked bullets; he had brought authentic news of a real danger. He was happily at peace with himself; the bland quiet of conscience which he had not felt for months had given him the vision of a new life. But the danger had faded away in smoke; and here was Andover with a mystified face asking its meaning.

"I swear that those fellows never had the least intention of beating us. There were far too few of them for one thing. They looked like criminals fighting under sentence, you know, like the Persian fellows. It was more like some religious ceremony than a fight. The whole thing is beyond me, but I think no harm's done. Hang it, I wish Holm were here. He's a depressing beggar, but he takes responsibility off my shoulders."

The dead men were buried as quickly and decently as the place allowed of. Things were generally cleaned up, and by noon the little fort was as spick as if the sound of a rifle had never been heard within its walls. Lewis and Andover had the midday meal in a sort of gun-room which looked over the edge of the plateau to a valley in the hills. It had been arranged and furnished by a former commandant who found in the view a repetition of the one in a much-loved Highland shooting-box. Accordingly it was comfortable and homelike beyond the average of frontier dwellings. Outside a dripping mist had clouded the hills and chilled the hot air.

The two men smoked silently, knocking out their ashes and refilling with the regularity of clockwork. Lewis was thinking hard, thinking of the bitterness of dashed hopes, of self-confidence clutched at and lost. He saw as if in an inspiration the trend of Marker's plans. He had been given a paltry fictitious errand, like a bone to a dog, to quiet him. Some devilry was afoot and he must be got out of the road. For a second the thought pleased him, the thought that at least one man held him worthy of attention, and went out of his way to circumvent him. But the gleam of satisfaction was gone in a moment. He could not even be sure that there was guile at the back of it. It might be all foolish honesty, and to a man cursed with a sense of weakness the thought of such a pedestrian failure was trebly intolerable.

But honesty was inconceivable. He and he alone in all the frontier country knew Marker and his ways. To Andover, sucking his pipe dismally beside him, the thing appeared clear as the daylight. Marker, the best man alive, had word of some Bada-Mawidi doings and had given a friendly hint. It was not his blame if the thing had fizzled out like damp powder. But to Lewis, Marker was a man of uncanny powers and intelligence beyond others, the iron will of the true adventurer. There must be devilry behind it all, and to the eye of suspicion there was doubt in every detail. And meantime he had fallen an easy victim. Marooned in this frontier fort, the world might be turned topsy-turvy at Bardur, and he not a word the wiser. Things were slipping from his grasp again. He had an intense desire to shut his eyes and let all drift. He had done enough. He had come up here at the risk of his neck; fate had fought against him, and he must succumb. The fatal wisdom of proverbs was all on his side.

But once again conscience assailed him. Why had he believed Marker, knowing what he knew? He had been led by the nose like a crude school-boy. It was nothing to him that he had to believe or remain idle in Bardur. Another proof of his folly! This importunate sense of weakness was the weakest of all qualities. It made him a nervous and awkward follower of strength, only to plunge deeper into the mud of incapacity.

Andover looked at him curiously. His annoyance was of a different stamp-a little disappointment, intense boredom, and the ever-present frontier anxiety. But such were homely complaints to be forgotten over a pipe and in sleep. It struck him that his companion's eyes betrayed something more, and he kicked him on the shins into attention.

"Been seedy lately? Have some quinine. Or if you can't sleep I can tell you a dodge. But you know you are looking a bit cheap, old man."

"I'm pretty fit," said Lewis, and he raised his brown face to a glass. "Why I'm tanned like a nigger and my eye's perfectly clear."

"Then you're in love," said the mysterious Andover. "Trust me for knowing. When a man keeps as quiet as you for so long, he's either in love or seedy. Up here people don't fall in love, so I thought it must be the other thing."

"Rot," said Lewis. "I'm going out of doors. I must be off pretty soon, if I'm to get to Nazri by sundown. I wish you'd come out and show me the sort of lie of the land. There are three landmarks, but I can't remember their order."

An hour later the two men returned, and Lewis sat down to an early dinner. He ate quickly, and made up sandwiches which he stuffed into his pocket. Then he rose and gripped his host's hand.

"Good-bye, Andy. This has been a pleasant meeting. Wish it could have been longer."

"Good-bye, old chap. Glad to have seen you. My love to George, if you get to Nazri. Give you three to one in half-crowns you won't get there to-night."

"Done," said Lewis. "You shall pay when I see you next." And in the most approved style of the hero of melodrama he lit a short pipe and went off into Immensity.

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