"I think," Ronald said to her, "that if you were to bathe your face and hands it would refresh you. There is a rock here just at the edge of the stream, I am sure your feet must be sore and blistered. It will be half an hour before there is a gleam of light, and I should recommend you to take off your shoes and stockings and paddle your feet in the water."
"That would be refreshing," the girl said. "My feet are aching dreadfully. Now please tell me all that has happened, and how you came to be here."
Sitting beside her, Ronald told her what had been done from the time when his party arrived and beat off the natives attacking the waggons.
"How can I thank you enough?" she said, when he had finished. "To think that you have done all this for me."
"Never mind about thanks, Miss Armstrong; we are not out of the wood yet, our dangers are only half over, and if it were not that I trust to the cunning of our good friend Kreta and his Fingoes I should have very little hope of getting out of this mess. I think it is just beginning to get light, for I can make out the outlines of the trunks of the trees, which is more than I could do before. I will go and ask Kreta what he is going to do, and by the time I come back perhaps you had better get your shoes on again, and be ready for a start. I don't suppose we shall go far, but no doubt he will find some sort of hiding-place." Kreta, in fact, was just giving instructions to his men.
"We are going out to find some good place to hide away in to-day," he said. "In the morning they search all about the woods. We must get into shelter before it light enough for the men on hill tops to see down through trees. You stop here quiet. In half an hour we come back again. There is plenty time; they no find out yet that woman gone."
In a few minutes Mary Armstrong joined Ronald.
"How do you feel now?" he asked.
"All the fresher and better for the wash," she said; "but I really don't think I could walk very far, my feet are very much blistered. I don't see why they should be so bad; we have only gone about twenty-four miles each day, and I always considered that I could walk twenty miles without difficulty."
"It makes all the difference how you walk, Miss Armstrong. No doubt, if you had been in good spirits, and with a pleasant party, you could have walked fifty miles in two days, although that is certainly a long distance for a woman; but depressed and almost despairing, as you were, it told upon you generally, and doubtless you rather dragged your feet along than walked."
"I don't want to think about it," the girl said, with a shudder. "It seems to have been an awful dream. Some day I will tell you about it; but I cannot now."
"Here are some mealies and some cold meat. We each brought a week's supply with us when we left the waggons. I am sure that you will be all the better for eating something."
"I do feel very hungry, now I think of it," the girl assented; "I have hardly eaten a mouthful since that morning."
"I am hungry myself," Ronald said "I was too anxious yesterday to do justice to my food."
"I feel very much better now," the girl said when she had finished.
"That is the name I enlisted under, it is not my own name; men very seldom enlist under their own names."
"Why not?" she asked in surprise.
"Partly, I suppose, because a good many of us get into scrapes before we enlist, and don't care for our friends to be able to trace us."
"I am sure you never got into a scrape," the girl said, looking up into Ronald's face.
"I got into a very bad scrape," Ronald answered, "a scrape that has spoilt my whole life; but we will not talk about that. But I would rather, if you don't mind, that you should call me by my own name now we are together. If we get out of this I shall be Sergeant Blunt again, but I should like you to call me Ronald now."
"Ronald," the girl said, "that sounds Scottish."
"I am not Scotch, nor so far as I know is there any Scotch blood in my veins, but the name has been in the family a good many years; how it got there I do not know."
"I almost wish it was dark again," the girl said, with a little laugh; "in the dark you seem to me the Sergeant Blunt who came just in time to save us that day the farm was attacked; but now I can see you I cannot recognise you at all; even your eyes look quite different in that black skin."
"I flatter myself that my get up is very good," Ronald laughed. "I have had some difficulty in keeping up the colour. Each day before starting we have gone to our fires and got fresh charcoal and mixed it with some grease we brought with us and rubbed it in afresh."
"Your hair is your weak point, Ronald; but, of course, no European could make his hair like a native's. Still, as it is cut so close, it would not be noticed a little way off."
Two or three of the Fingoes had by this time returned, and in a few minutes all had gathered at the spot. Kreta listened to the reports of each of his men, and they held a short consultation. Then he came up to Ronald.
"One of my men has found a place that will do well," he said. "It is time we were going."
One of the Fingoes now took the lead; the others followed. A quarter of an hour's walk up the hill, which grew steeper and steeper every step, brought them to a spot where some masses of rock had fallen from above. They were half covered with the thick growth of brushwood. The native pushed one of the bushes aside, and showed a sort of cave formed by a great slab of rock that had fallen over the others. Kreta uttered an expression of approval. Two of the natives crept in with their assegais in their hands. In two or three minutes one of them returned with the bodies of two puff adders they had killed. These were dropped in among some rocks.
"You can go in now," Kreta said. "There are no more of them."
Ronald crawled in first, and helped Mary Armstrong in after him; the natives followed. Kreta came in last, carefully examining the bush before he did so, to see that no twig was broken or disarranged. He managed as he entered to place two or three rocks over the entrance.
"Good place," he said, looking round as he joined the others. It was indeed of ample size to contain the party, and was some four feet in height. Light came in in several places between the rocks on which the upper slab rested.
"It could not be better, Kreta, even if it had been made on purpose. It was lucky indeed your fellow found it."
"We found two or three others," the chief said, "but this best."
"It is lucky those men came in first and found the snakes," Mary Armstrong said, "for we have not got here the stuff we always use in the colony as an antidote, and their bite is almost always fatal unless that can be used in time." Ronald was aware of this, and had, indeed, during the night's march, had snakes constantly in his mind, for he knew that they abounded in the hills.
One of the Fingoes had taken his station at the entrance, having moved one of the stones the chief had placed there, so that he could sit with his head out of the opening. Half an hour after they had entered the cave he turned round and spoke to the chief.
"The Kaffirs are hunting," Kreta said. Listening at the opening they could hear distant shouts. These were answered from many points, some of them comparatively close.
"The news is being passed from kraal to kraal," Ronald said; "they will be up like a swarm of bees now, but search as they will they are not likely to find us here. Do you think they will trace us at all, chief?"
"They will find where we stopped close to kraal," Kreta said; "the dead leaves were stirred by our feet; after that not find, too many people gone along path; ground very hard; may find, sometime, mark of the white woman's shoe; but we leave path many times, and after I carry no find at all. Mountains very big, much bush; never find here."
The chief now told his follower to replace the stone and join the others, and ordered all to be silent. Sitting with his ear at one of the openings he listened to the sounds in the woods; once or twice he whispered that Kaffirs were passing close, searching among the bushes; and one party came so near that their words could be plainly heard in the cave. They were discussing the manner in which the fugitive had escaped, and were unanimous in the belief that she had been carried off by the followers of some other chief, for that an enemy should have penetrated into the heart of the Amatolas did not strike them as possible.
The argument was only as to which of the other chiefs would have ventured to rob Macomo, and the opinion inclined to the fact that it must have been Sandilli himself, who would doubtless have heard, from the messenger sent over on the previous afternoon to inform Macomo, of the return of the band with a pretty young white woman as a captive. Macomo had of course been drunk, and Sandilli might have determined to have the prize carried off for himself.
Mary Armstrong shuddered as she listened to the talk, but when they had gone on Kreta said:
"Good thing the Kaffirs have that thought, not search so much here. Search in Sandilli's country. Perhaps make great quarrel between Macomo and Sandilli. Good thing that."
As the day went on the spirits of the Fingoes rose, and in low tones they expressed their delight at having outwitted the Kaffirs.
No footsteps had been heard in their neighbourhood for some time, and they felt sure that the search had been abandoned in that quarter. Towards sunset all ate a hearty meal, and as soon as it became dark the stones at the entrance were removed and the party crept out. Mary Armstrong had slept the greater part of the day, and Ronald and the Fingoes had also passed a portion of their time in sleep. They started, therefore, refreshed and strong.
It took them many hours of patient work before they arrived at the edge of the forest on the last swell of the Amatolas. They had been obliged to make many detours to avoid kraals, and to surmount the precipices that often barred their way. They had started about eight in the evening, and it was, as they knew from the stars, fully three o'clock in the morning when they emerged from the forest.
Mary Armstrong had kept on well with the rest; her feet were extremely painful, but she was now strong and hopeful, and no word of complaint escaped her. Ronald and the chief kept by her side, helping her up or down difficult places, and assisting her to pass through the thorny bushes, which caught her dress, and would have rendered it almost impossible for her to get through unaided. Once out of the bush, the party hurried down the grassy slope, and then kept on a mile further. The chief now gave a loud call. It was answered faintly from the distance; in five minutes the sound of a horse's hoofs were heard, and in a short time the Fingo who had been left in charge of it, galloped up with Ronald's horse. Mary Armstrong was sitting on the ground, for she was now so utterly exhausted she could no longer keep her feet, and had, since they left the bush, been supported and half carried by Ronald and Kreta. She made an effort to rise as the horse came up.
"Please wait a moment; I will not be above two minutes," Ronald said; "but I really cannot ride into Williamstown like this."
He unstrapped his valise, took the jack-boots that were hanging from the saddle, and moved away in the darkness. In two or three minutes he returned in his uniform.
"I feel a civilised being again," he said, laughing; "a handful of sand at the first stream we come to will get most of this black off my face. I have left my blanket as a legacy to any Kaffir who may light upon it. Now I will shift the saddle a few inches further back. I think you had better ride before me, for you are completely worn out, and I can hold you there better than you could hold yourself if you were to sit behind me." He strapped on his valise, shifted his saddle, lifted Mary up, and sprang up behind her.
"Are you comfortable?" he asked.
"Quite comfortable," she said, a little shyly, and then they started. The light was just beginning to break in the east as they rode out from the clump of trees. They were not out of danger yet, for parties of Kaffirs might be met with at any time until they arrived within musket shot of King Williamstown. The Fingoes ran at a pace that kept the horse at a sharp trot. It was very pleasant to Ronald Mervyn to feel Mary Armstrong in his arms, and to know, as he did, how safe and confident she felt there; but he did not press her more closely than was necessary to enable her to retain her seat, or permit himself to speak in a softer or tenderer tone than usual.
"If we should come across any of these scoundrels, Mary," he said, presently, "do you take the reins. Do you think you can sit steady without my holding you firmly?"
"Yes," the girl said, "if I put one foot on yours I could certainly hold on. I could twist one of my hands in the horse's mane."
"Can you use a pistol?"
"Of course I can," she replied. "I was as good a shot as my father."
"That is all right, then. I will give you one of my pistols; then I can hold you with my right arm, for the horse may plunge if a spear strikes him. I will use my pistol in my left hand. I will see that no one catches the bridle on that side; do you attend to the right. I hope it won't come to that, still there's never any saying, and we shall have one or two nasty places to pass through on our way down. We have the advantage that should there be any Kaffirs there they will not be keeping a watch this way, and we may hope to get pretty well through them before they see us."
"Will you promise me one thing, Ronald?" she asked. "Will you shoot me if you find that we cannot get past?"
"I am not at all afraid of death," she said; "death would be nothing to that. I would rather die a thousand times than fall into the hands of the Kaffirs again."
"I promise you, Mary, my last shot but one shall be for you, my last for myself; but if I am struck off the horse by a bullet or assegai you must trust to your own pistol."
"I will do that, Ronald; I have been perfectly happy since you took me out of the hut, and have not seemed to feel any fear of being recaptured, for I felt that if they overtook us I could always escape so. On the way there, if I could have got hold of an assegai I should have stabbed myself."
"Thank God you didn't," said Ronald, earnestly, "though I could not have blamed you."
They paused at the entrance to each kloof through which they had to pass, and the Fingoes went cautiously ahead searching through the bushes. It was not until he heard their call on the other side that Ronald galloped after them.
"I begin to hope that we shall get through now," Ronald said, after emerging from one of these kloofs; "we have only one more bad place to pass, but, of course, the danger is greatest there, as from that the Kaffirs will probably be watching against any advance of the troops from the town."
The Fingoes were evidently of the same opinion, for as they approached it Kreta stopped to speak to Ronald.
"Kaffir sure to be here," he said, "but me and my men can creep through; but we must not call to you, incos; the Kaffirs would hear us and be on the watch. Safest plan for us to go through first, not go along paths, but through bush; then for you to gallop straight through; even if they close to path, you get past before they time to stop you. I think that best way."
"I think so too, Kreta. If they hear the horse's hoofs coming from behind they will suppose it is a mounted messenger from the hills. Anyhow, I think that a dash for it is our best chance."
"I think so, incos. I think you get through safe if go fast."
"How long will you be getting through, Kreta?"
"Quarter of an hour," the chief said; "must go slow. Your ride four, five minutes."
Kreta stood thoughtfully for a minute or two.
"Me don't like it, incos. Me tell you what we do. We keep over to left, and then when we get just through the bush we fire our guns. Then the Kaffirs very much surprised and all run that way, and you ride straight through."
"But they might overtake you, Kreta."
"They no overtake," the chief said, confidently. "We run fast and get good start. Williamstown only one hour's walk; run less than half hour. They no catch us."
When the Fingoes had been gone about ten minutes, Ronald, assured that the Kaffirs would be gathered at the far side of the kloof, went forward at a walk. Presently he heard six shots fired in rapid succession. This was followed by an outburst of yells and cries in front, and he set spurs to his horse and dashed forward at a gallop. He was nearly through the kloof when a body of Kaffirs, who were running through the wood from the right, burst suddenly from the bushes into the path. So astonished were they at seeing a white man within a few yards of them that for a moment they did not think of using their weapons, and Ronald dashed through them, scattering them to right and left. But others sprang from the bushes. Ronald shot down two men who sprang at the horse's bridle, and he heard Mary Armstrong's pistol on the other side. He had drawn his sword before setting off at a gallop. "Hold tight, Mary," he said, as he relaxed his hold of her and cut down a native who was springing upon him from the bushes. Another fell from a bullet from her pistol, and then he was through them. "Stoop down, Mary," he said, pressing her forward on the horse's neck and bending down over her. He felt his horse give a sudden spring, and knew that it was hit with an assegai; while almost at the same instant he felt a sensation as of a hot iron running from his belt to his shoulder, as a spear ripped up cloth and flesh and then glanced along over him.
A moment later and they were out of the kloof, and riding at full speed across the open. Looking over his shoulder he saw that the Kaffirs gave up pursuit after following for a hundred yards. Over on the left he heard dropping shots, and presently caught a glimpse in that direction of the Fingoes running in a close body, pursued at the distance of a hundred yards or so by a large number of Kaffirs. But others had heard the sound of firing, for in a minute or two he saw a body of horsemen riding at full speed from Williamstown in the direction of the firing. He at once checked the speed of his horse.
"We are safe now, Mary; that is a troop of our corps. Are you hit?"
"No, I am not touched. Are you hurt, Ronald? I thought I felt you start."
"I have got a bit of a scratch on the back, but it's nothing serious. I will get off in a moment, Mary; the horse has an assegai in his quarters, and I must get it out."
"Take me down, too, please; I feel giddy now it is all over."
Ronald lifted her down, and then pulled the assegai from the horse's back.
"I don't think much harm is done," he said; "a fortnight in the stable and he will be all right again."
"You are bleeding dreadfully," the girl exclaimed, as she caught sight of his back. "It's a terrible wound to look at."
"Then it looks worse than it is," he laughed. "The spear only glanced along on the ribs. It's lucky I was stooping so much. After going through what we have we may think ourselves well off indeed that we have escaped with such a scratch as this between us."
"It's not a scratch at all," the girl said, indignantly; "it's a very deep bad cut."
"Perhaps it is a bad cut," Ronald smiled, "but a cut is of no consequence one way or the other. Now let us join the others. Ah, here they come, with Kreta showing them the way."
The troopers had chased the Kaffirs back to the bush, and, led by the Fingo, were now coming up at a gallop to the spot where Ronald and Mary Armstrong were standing by the horse.
"Ah, it is you, sergeant," Lieutenant Daniels exclaimed, for it was a portion of Ronald's own troop that had ridden up. "I never expected to see you again, for we heard the day before yesterday from the officer who came in with the ammunition waggons that you had gone off to try to rescue three ladies who had been carried off by the Kaffirs. It was a mad business, but you have partly succeeded, I am glad to see," and he lifted his cap to Mary Armstrong.
"Partly, sir," Ronald said. "The wretches killed the other two the day they carried them off. This is Miss Armstrong. I think you stopped at her father's house one day when we were out on the Kabousie."
"Yes, of course," the lieutenant said, alighting. "Excuse me for not recognising you, Miss Armstrong; but, in fact – "