Across the Cameroons: A Story of War and Adventure
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They examined his pannikin and found that the inside was wet. There was also a drop of water upon the floor by the place where he had been sitting. Without a doubt, during the earlier part of the night, the man had pretended to be asleep until the three others were buried in slumber. Then he had stolen all that remained of their water.
Fernando rose slowly to his feet, drew his long knife, and, tottering from weakness, approached the German spy.
"Death," said he, "is too good for you! But, weak as I am, you die!"
Harry held out his hand.
"Let him be," said he. "His cowardice will avail him little. He will only live to see us go before him. He has done no more than prolong the agony of his death!"
The guide returned, growling like a dog, and sat down upon the floor.
During that day hardly a word was spoken. They sat in silence, waiting for the end. Towards afternoon a raging thirst began to consume them; their blood grew hot in a kind of fever; their tongues clave to the roofs of their mouths.
And at nightfall they lay down to die. Fernando was now in a kind of stupor. For an hour he never moved, but lay like one already dead. Both Braid and Klein fell asleep, but Harry found sleep impossible.
Knowing that the end was drawing near, he resolved to commend his soul to the Almighty, and, burying his face in his hands, he began to pray.
For some minutes he prayed silently, making his peace with God. When his prayer was finished he felt happier. He sat for some time with his hands clasped about his knees, looking upward at the round stone which confined them in their prison.
And as he looked the stone moved as if by magic, silently. Through the round hole above, the light of the moon streamed down into the darkened vault.
CHAPTER XVI-The Enemy in Sight
For some moments Harry Urquhart did not move. He sat like a graven image, his eyes staring, his jaw dropped in amazement. Then the full truth burst upon him in a flood. He sprang to his feet, uttering a loud cry which immediately awoke both Braid and Peter Klein.
"What is it?" cried Braid. "What has happened?"
Harry seized his comrade by the shoulders and shook him violently.
"Tell me, Jim, have I gone mad, or has a miracle happened? Look there!"
Braid looked in the direction indicated, and saw, to his amazement, that their prison doors were opened, that the stone had been rolled away from the circular hole in the roof.
By that time Fernando had got to his feet. He came swaying towards them, and clutched hold of Jim's arm for support. Perhaps the climate of the Coast had weakened his constitution. At any rate, he was now far weaker than the others-even than Klein.
"We are saved!" he cried. "But beware of treachery. For all we know the Black Dog may be hiding at the entrance."
Harry cared nothing for that. A sense of freedom, a breath of mountain air, were worth all the risk in the world.He scrambled up, caught hold of the edge of the hole, and with great difficulty managed to pull himself through, so that he stood in the light of the stars, amid the mists that wrapped the mountain.
At his feet lay a still, dark form. It was that of a human being, but so motionless that the boy feared that it was that of a dead man. Going down upon his knees, he turned the body over, so that the face was uplifted to the moon; and at once he recognized the features of Cortes, the younger guide, who had gone out to slay the sheikh.
He spoke to the man, but received no answer. Then he rushed to a spring that was near by and quenched his burning thirst.
There he was joined by Jim Braid and Peter Klein. Both went down upon their knees at the spring-side to drink their fill.
After that they assisted the elder guide to escape from the terrible prison in which they had spent so many days. They sprinkled water upon the lips of the younger man, and at last he opened his eyes.
"We thought you dead," said Harry. "Tell us what happened to you?"
"I went my way, dressed in the clothes of that cur, to trick the Black Dog of the Cameroons. Knowing the man with whom I had to deal, I was cautious and on my guard.
"I approached so silently that not even a lizard could have taken alarm. Then I saw the man waiting for me on the mountain-side. He was dressed in his white Arab robes; he was seated on a boulder, with his rifle on his knees.
"I considered what was best to do. I had intended to show up at a distance, pretending that I was the German. Then I remembered that if the sheikh fired I would assuredly be hit. In the end I decided to creep upon him unawares, to snatch his rifle from his hands. With a man like the Black Dog it is best to strike the first blow, and also to strike hard.
"How he saw me I cannot say. His eyes are like those of a lynx. But he discovered me and fired, and I was wounded. The bullet pierced my chest. For a moment I think I was unconscious, for when I opened my eyes the sheikh himself was kneeling over me, looking into my face. He recognized me, and called me by my name.
"Without doubt he thought I was dying. Indeed, he left me to die. He went his way up the mountain. Presently I heard a shot, and a little after the Black Dog came past me, running as if for life. When he was quite close to me I saw that there was blood upon his robes and that he was running after the manner of one who suffers pain and is wounded. How that happened I do not know. At the time I thought little about it. I did not doubt that I myself stood at the door of death.
"I fainted, and when I recovered consciousness I was consumed by a terrible thirst. Fever raged in my bones. With great difficulty I managed to drag myself to the side of a spring, where I drank great draughts of water. After that I fell asleep; and for the next three days I lay in that place, thinking that I was dying, frequently drinking at the stream. I could not walk, for whenever I tried to rise to my feet there was a pain in my chest like a red-hot sword, and I came near to fainting.
"One night I thought of my brother and my friends, and then it was that I remembered that you were unable to escape from your prison.
"Ever since then I have been struggling up the side of the mountain, endeavouring to get to you to rescue you. Every minute I thought that I was dying; sometimes I was so weak that I felt I could go no farther. Yet every day I made a little progress. I followed the direction of the stream. I drank the water, and ate wild berries, as well as the provisions I carried with me.
"I reached the stone; I remember rolling it away, and after that I remember no more."
The narration of this story was too much for the man's strength. As he said the last words he fell backward in a faint.
For the rest of the night they camped in the open air, sleeping around a fire. They remained upon the mountain-top for four days. The German troops had evidently left the district, and though Harry and Jim hunted in the valley, and succeeded in shooting some guinea-fowl, they saw no signs of von Hardenberg and the sheikh, who had evidently pushed forward on their way towards Maziriland and the Caves of Zoroaster.
It is remarkable how quickly they were completely restored to health. Food and water and the freshness of the mountain air lent their assistance to Nature; and even Cortes, who had been so severely wounded, rapidly regained his strength. Indeed the wound was already healed, and all he required was nourishment and rest.
When they were able to continue their journey, they decided to advance with the greatest caution. A few miles farther on they would come to a long valley, two hundred miles in length, which led directly towards the frontier of Maziriland. Cortes knew of a path that ran along the crest-line of the mountains, whence they would be able to survey the surrounding country except such as was hidden by the density of the bush. If they followed this there would be small chance of their being taken by surprise, either by the Germans or von Hardenberg and the sheikh.
At first they marched by easy stages, in order not to overtax their strength. This part of the mountain was inhabited by a great number of rock-rabbits, many of which they were able to kill with sticks; and these rabbits soon found their way into the cooking-pot.
By degrees they made their daily marches longer. They were anxious to overtake Captain von Hardenberg and the Black Dog, who were evidently several miles in advance. Finally they marched by night, the guides taking a direct route by the stars.
Suddenly, one midnight, as they rounded a great spur of rock, they saw a small light, dim and twinkling in the distance like a star, far below them in the valley.
"Look there!" cried Harry, pointing ahead.
"Is it a camp-fire?" asked Braid, turning to the two guides, who stood together.
Both bowed their heads.
"It is a camp-fire," said Fernando. "It is the camp-fire of the Black Dog of the Cameroons."
CHAPTER XVII-A Shot by Night
Towards morning the fire dwindled and went out. At daylight they could see no sign of von Hardenberg and his companion. The entire valley appeared deserted. In this part of the country there were no villages, the valleys being too barren and infertile for agriculture.
The next night the bivouac-fire was again visible, this time nearer than before. On the third night they were not more than seven or eight miles in rear of those whom they pursued.
On these occasions they were careful that their own fire should not be observed. They always lit it under the cover of large rocks or boulders, screening it from the north. They had every reason to suppose that the sheikh and his companion believed them dead. The Black Dog had doubtless told his employer that their pursuers had been buried alive in the crater of the old volcano.
Every night they were careful to post a sentry, and, on one occasion, when the first signs of dawn were visible in the east, Harry-who was on watch-suddenly heard a sound, faint but very distinct, immediately behind his back.
He turned quickly, but could see nothing. He waited for some moments, holding his breath, with his finger ready on the trigger of his revolver.
Nothing happened. The boy imagined that the sound had been caused by a rock-rabbit or a mountain-rat, and was about to resume his former position, when something descended upon him with a spring like that of a tiger.
In the nick of time he jumped aside. He saw a white figure rushing violently through space. In the moonlight he saw the flash of a knife that missed him by the fraction of an inch, and the next moment he was full length upon the ground, struggling in the arms of a powerful and savage man.
Locked together in a death-grip, they rolled over and over, first one on top and then the other. There was a loud shout, which came from the lips of Braid, and at that the two guides sprang to their feet and hastened to Harry's assistance.
The struggle ended as suddenly as it had begun. One second, strong fingers gripped Harry by the throat, and the next his adversary was gone. He had vanished like a ghost; he had slipped away like an eel.
Harry Urquhart sprang to his feet and listened. He heard a laugh-a wild, fiendish laugh-far away in the night. Stooping, he picked up a bare knife that was lying on the ground.
"I wrenched this from his hand," said he, showing the knife to Fernando.
The half-caste examined it in the firelight. It was a knife of Arab design.
"That," said he, "is the knife of the Black Dog."
"Why did he not fire?" asked Harry.
"Evidently because he did not wish to warn the Germans. That is a bad sign; it means that the German troops are in the neighbourhood."
The following night, when they scanned the valley, they could see no sign of the camp-fire of von Hardenberg and the Arab. The sheikh, having failed in his enterprise on the previous evening, was evidently determined to exercise greater caution. Harry examined the valley with his glasses, not only to the north but also to the west and to the east. However, he could see no sign of their enemies.
"I do not like the look of it," said Fernando. "So long as we knew where the Black Dog was, we had the whip hand of him. We must be prepared for the worst."
"Surely," said Harry, "he will push on towards Maziriland?"
"The shortest way is not always the quickest," answered the other. "As likely as not he has gone back upon his tracks, and even now is encamped somewhere behind us."
That night they deemed it advisable to light no fire. Seated amid the rocks on the crest-line of the hills, where the wind moaned and howled from the west, they held a council of war. It was decided that, during the march on the following day, the two guides should act as scouts, the elder moving some distance in advance of the three Europeans, Cortes following in rear.
By the time the sun rose above the mountain-tops, they were well upon their way. At mid-day they halted for a meal, and it was then that Cortes came running to the bivouac.
"Come here!" he cried. "I have seen them."
They followed the man to the crest-line, crawling on hands and knees. Only Peter Klein remained by the fire. Since they had escaped from the crater of the volcano no one had spoken to the man. The guides showed only too plainly that they despised him, and neither Harry nor Braid were disposed to forgive the scoundrel for having stolen their last drop of water.
They came to a place where the valley-side dropped down in an almost perpendicular cliff. Far below was a little grove of trees, around which a stream meandered, its waters glistening in the sunshine. Beyond the grove, on the other side of the valley, following a kind of bridle-path that led to the north, were five men, one of whom was dressed in robes of flowing white.
"That is the sheikh," said Fernando. "He walks by the side of the German."
"And the other three?" asked Braid.
"They are natives from the bush. The sheikh has doubtless enlisted their services during the last three days. The natives dare not refuse him labour. He was all-powerful when he was a slave-trader; fear of him passed from village to village by word of mouth. On an expedition such as this, he is doubly to be dreaded, because he has friends among the Maziris themselves."
"Then," cried Harry, "supposing he tells the tribe to rise against us?"
"There is little fear of that," said Fernando. "He is hated by the chiefs and head-men, who resent the authority he wields over many of the people."
"Then, what will he do when he draws near to the caves?"
"He will rob by night," said Cortes. "Under cover of darkness he will endeavour to secure the treasure."
"My brother," said the elder man, laying a hand upon the other's shoulder, "tell me, how far away is Black Dog?"
The man judged the distance with his eye.
"Sixteen hundred yards," said he.
"Nearly a mile," said the other. "I will try my luck. I have sworn an oath by the saints."
So saying, he lay down upon his face and loaded his rifle. Lifting the back-sight, he took long and careful aim, and then pressed the trigger. There came a sharp report, and the bullet sped across the valley.
In the space of a few seconds the sheikh and his followers had vanished. To hit a moving figure at that distance was a well-nigh impossible task, but that the bullet had not been far from its mark was apparent from the way in which the party had so suddenly disappeared.
Von Hardenberg was moving up one side of the valley, Harry and his companions on the other. It was therefore a race for the treasure. If Harry reached the caves first, he would be unable to enter the vault, by reason of the fact that the Sunstone was not in his possession. He would have to lie in wait for the Black Dog and the German.
For two days they saw nothing more of their rivals. There was water in plenty in the district, and presently springs and streams became even more numerous, and they entered into a country that was thickly wooded. At the same time the mountains became more wild and rugged, and it was soon impossible to make progress by way of the hills.
They therefore descended into the valley, and entered a region of scattered trees, which gradually became a forest, where they were shut out from the sunlight and the light of the stars. There were no paths in the forest, and they could seldom march more than eight miles a day by reason of the tangled undergrowth through which they had to cut a passage.
When they came out of the forest they were in a land of rolling hills, which, the guides told them, mounted to the summit of Maziriland. Their first camp in this district was under the lee of a hill; and, since they had seen nothing of either von Hardenberg or the German troops for several days, they deemed it safe to light a fire. There was no scarcity of fuel, and very soon a fire was blazing, the green wood crackling and hissing in the flames. Over the fire a kettle was suspended by a chain from three iron rods, and from the spout of this kettle steam was issuing, when suddenly a shot was fired in the distance, and a bullet drilled a hole through the kettle, so that the water from within ran down into the fire, whence issued a little cloud of steam.
CHAPTER XVIII-A Dash for Liberty
As one man they rushed to their arms, and even as they did so a score of shots rang out, and the whistling bullets cut the earth about their feet.
"The German troops!" cried Cortes. "We must gain the hill-top or we're lost!"
Firing into the darkness as they ran, they ascended the hill with all dispatch. At the top they found themselves subjected to a withering fire, which poured down upon them from all directions. The night was alive with the sharp reports of rifles. Sudden flashes of fire showed up on every hand, like so many living tongues of flame. It was evident the enemy was in force.
For four hours the fight continued without a check. The roar of the musketry continued; the hissing of the bullets was like heavy rain. And all this time the German soldiers were working nearer and nearer, until at last they formed a complete circle around the foot of the hill.
They were then close enough for their voices to be audible, and now and again, as a bullet found its mark, a shriek went up in the night.
By then, not one of Harry's party had been struck. This was partly due to the boulders which lay upon the hill-top, and behind which it was possible to obtain cover, and partly to the inferiority of the German marksmanship.
During a lull in the combat, a short respite from the strain of the situation, Harry took counsel with the two guides and Jim.
"It appears to me," he observed, "that if we wait till sunrise we are lost. So far, we have managed to escape death only by reason of the darkness."
"Before the sun rises," said Fernando, "two courses lie open to us: we must either fight our way through the enemy or commend our souls to Heaven."
"I was going to propose," said Harry, "that we gather together in a body and endeavour to charge through the enemy."
"And after that?" asked Braid.
"After that we may either find some place more suitable for defence, or else die in our tracks."
"We can die fighting," said the younger guide.
"Well, then," said Harry, "every minute counts. If we can get through we may be able to cover some miles before dawn is upon us. We must hold together, however. There will be no time to go back to look for one who is lost."
They now prepared themselves to make this last and desperate bid for freedom. They played for the highest stakes, for liberty and life. They could not advance, however, without acquainting Peter Klein of their intention, and when the man was told of what they proposed to do he set to shaking in his limbs.
Harry was in no mood to humour him. He had long since lost all patience with their uninvited guest.
"You have two minutes," said he, "in which to choose. Either you come with us, or stay here, or else you can go over to the enemy. It does not matter very much to us which you decide to do."
The man picked up his rifle. He tried to speak, and stuttered. He was incoherent from fear, though it was his own countrymen who opposed them. German and German-trained native troops were in the valley in about equal numbers.
"What am I to do?" he asked.
"Remain at my side," said Harry. "Do not fire until I tell you to. We are going to creep as near to the enemy as we can, and then charge through together."
Klein said nothing, but they heard the bolt of his rifle shake in his hand.
Then all five began to crawl down the hill, picking their way carefully over the stones, advancing as stealthily as possible.
The enemy's fire had somewhat abated. Perhaps they also-true to the traditions of the Prussian army-contemplated an assault. Instead of the continuous rattle of musketry that had lasted for so long, only an occasional shot resounded in the valley.
Inch by inch, they drew nearer to the enemy's position, and when not twenty yards from the place where a German officer was shouting hoarse, guttural words of command, Harry whispered to his followers to halt. He desired to give them time to gain their breath, that the charge might be as swift as it was sudden and unexpected.
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