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Fix Bay'nets: The Regiment in the Hills, Page 2

George Manville Fenn



  "Well, Colonel," said Dr Morton as the officers sat enjoying theirlunch, breathing in the crisp mountain air and feasting their eyes atthe same time upon the grand mountain scenery, "I must confess to beinga bit lazy. You may be all athirst for glory, but after our ride thismorning pale ale's good enough for me. I'm not a fighting man, and Ihope when we get to the station we shall find that the what you may call'em--Dwats--have dissolved into thin air like the cloud yonder fadingaway on that snow-peak. If, however, it does come to a set-to, here Iam, my dear boys, at your service, and I'll do the best I can."

  "Thank ye, Doctor," came in chorus from the officers; "but the less thebetter."

  "We shall have something to do, for certain," said the Colonel, akeen-looking, deeply bronzed man of fifty, "for these hill-tribes willnever believe in England's strength till they have been well thrashed;but a fight does not mean for certain that we shall want the doctor'shelp afterwards."

  "So much the better," said that gentleman, laughing. "But, as I said,here I am if you want me, and I've got as well-arranged an ambulanceas--"

  "Oh, I say, Doctor, don't talk shop," cried the young officer spoken ofas Captain Roberts, a handsome, carefully dressed young fellow of sevenor eight and twenty. "They're regular curs, are they not, sir--theseDwats?" he added, turning to the Colonel.

  "Certainly not," replied the latter gravely. "They are decidedly abrave, bold, fighting race. Tall, dark, big-bearded, just such fellowsas hill-tribes are; restless, pugnacious fighting-men, always engaged inpetty warfare with the neighbouring chiefs, and making plunderingexpeditions."

  "I see, sir," said the Captain; "like our old Border chieftains used tobe at home."

  "Exactly," said the Colonel; "and each chief thinks he is one of thegreatest monarchs under the sun. England is to them, in theirignorance, only a similar nation to their own, and the Empress alady-chief."

  "We shall have to teach them better," said the Major, a gentleman withan eyeglass and a disposition to become stout. "We shall soon do it. Agood sharp lesson is all that's wanted. The only difficulty is that,though they are as a rule always busy cutting one another's throats, assoon as one of the tribes is attacked they all become friends and helpone another."

  "Save us trouble."

  "What's that, Bracy?" said the Colonel.

  "Save us trouble, sir," said the young man, laughing; "we can thrashhalf-a-dozen of the tribes together."

  "With a regiment of raw boys?" said the Major, frowning so fiercely thathe shot his glass out of his eye and replaced it angrily.

  "Look here, Graham, you and I are going to quarrel."

  "What about, sir?"

  "Your bad habit of depreciating our lads."

  "Yes," said the Doctor, nodding his head sharply. "You do, Major, andit isn't good form to cry bad fish."

  "But it's true," said the Major sharply. "The War Office ought to beashamed of itself for sending such a regiment of boys upon so arduous atask."

  "The boys are right enough," said the Colonel. "What do you say,Bracy?"

  "I say of course they are, sir."

  "Yes, because you're a boy yourself," said the Major in a tone whichmade the young man flush.

  "I wish I had some more boys like you, Bracy, my lad," said the Colonelwarmly. "Graham's a bit touched in the liver with the change from warmweather to cold. He doesn't mean what he says--eh, Morton?"

  "That's right, Colonel," said the Doctor. "I have my eye upon him.He'll be asking for an interview with me to-morrow, _re_, as the lawyerssay, B.P. and B.D."

  "Hang your B.P.s and B.D.s!" said the Major hotly. "I mean what I say,Colonel. These boys ought to have had three or four years in Englandbefore they were sent out here."

  "But they are sent up into the hills here where the climate is glorious,sir," cried the Doctor, "and I'll answer for it that in a year's timethey will have put on muscle in a wonderful way, while in a couple ofyears you'll be proud of them."

  "I'm proud of the lads now," said the Colonel quietly.

  "I'm not," said the Major. "I feel like old Jack Falstaff sometimes,ready to say, `If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I'm a soused gurnet.'They're boys, and nothing else."

  "Nonsense," said the Colonel good-humouredly. "I've seen some service,and I never had men under me who marched better or more cheerfully thanthese lads have to-day."

  "And not one fell out or came to me with sore feet," said the Doctorstoutly. "Boys? Well, hang it all! they're not such boys as there werein the old 34th."

  "What do you mean?" said the Major, shooting his eyeglass again.

  "In the Peninsular War, sir," said the Doctor; "a regiment of boys,whose ages were from fourteen to sixteen, and they behaved splendidly."

  "That's right," said the Colonel, nodding his head.

  "Oh yes," cried the Major superciliously; "but they had only the Frenchto fight against. Any English boy could thrash a Frenchman."

  "Don't despise the French, Graham," said the Colonel quietly. "They area very brave and gallant nation; and as to our lads, I certainly agreethat they are very young; but when, as the Doctor says, they have beenout here a bit, and put on more muscle--"

  "But, hang it all, sir!" cried the Major, "they didn't come out here toput on muscle, but to fight. And as to your 34th, our fellows haven'tgot to fight Frenchmen, but these big hill-tribes. The boys are rightenough in their place, and we shall make soldiers of them in time; butsuppose to-morrow or next day we come plump upon the enemy--what then?"

  "Our boys will make them run, sir," cried Bracy, flushing up.

  "You mean they'll make our lads run," growled the Major.

  "No, I don't, sir. I'll answer for our company. What do you say,Roberts?"

  "Same as you do, old man. Go on; you can put it stronger than I can."

  "No," said Bracy: "perhaps I've said too much, as the youngest officerin the regiment."

  "Not a bit, my lad," cried the Colonel warmly. "I endorse all you say.They are terribly young-looking, but, take them all together, as brightand plucky a set of fellows as any officer could wish to command."

  "Yes," said the Major through his teeth; "but look at them to-day. Hangme if they didn't at times seem like a pack of schoolboys out for aholiday--larking and shouting at one another, so that I got out ofpatience with them."

  "Better like that than limping along, discontented and footsore," saidthe Colonel gravely. "The boys are as smart over their drill as theycan be, and a note on the bugle would have brought every one into hisplace. I don't want to see the life and buoyancy crushed out of lads bydiscipline and the reins held too tightly at the wrong time. By theway, Graham, you dropped the curb-rein on your horse's neck coming upthe rough pass, and thoroughly gave him his head."

  "Yes," said the Major; "but we were talking about men, not horses."

  "Bah! Don't listen to him," cried the Doctor, laughing. "He's a bityellow in the eyes, and he'll be singing quite a different song soon.The boys are right enough, Colonel, and all the better for being young--they'll mould more easily into your ways."

  "Humph!" growled the Major, frowning at the Doctor, who responded byraising his glass, nodding, and drinking to him.

  It did not seem long before the bugle sounded, and the men fell in,every lad drawing himself well up, trying to look his best and as proudas a peacock, when the Colonel rode along the ranks, noting everythingand ready to give boy after boy a look of recognition and a word ofpraise about something which had been improved; for Colonel Graves hadone of those memories which seem never to forget, and it had long beenborne in upon the lads in the ranks that their leader noted andremembered everything, ready for blame or praise.

  In this case he drew rein opposite one very thin-looking fellow, makinghis sallow face turn red.

  "Felt any more of that sprain, Smith?"

  "No, sir; right as can be now. Ain't felt it a bit."

  "That's right. Fall out, m
y lad, if it turns weak in the least, and geta ride."

  "Yes, sir; thanky, sir. I will, sir."

  A little farther on there was another halt.

  "Those boots right, Judkins?"

  "Yes, sir; fit splendid, sir."

  "Good. Take care for the future; you and all of you. A man can't marchwell unless he has a comfortable boot, and a chafe once begun andneglected has sent many a good soldier into hospital."

  "These are fust-rate, sir," said the man quickly. "Easy as a glove."

  And so on as the Colonel rode along the ranks, making every man feelthat his officer had a real interest in his welfare.

  The inspection over, the advance-guard set off, then the order, "Band tothe front," was given, and the regiment filed off past the Colonel'shorse, making for a narrow opening between two hills which seemed tooverlap, and sent back the strains of the musical instruments in awonderful series of echoes which went rolling among the mountains, todie away in the distance.

  Half-an-hour later the only signs left of the occupation of the passwere a few birds hovering about and stooping from time to time aftersome fragment of food. But all at once the birds took flight, as if inalarm, and the cause was not far to seek; for there was a flash in theafternoon sunshine among the rugged masses of half-frozen rocks on oneside of the amphitheatre; then another flash, and a looker-on would haveseen that it came from the long barrel of a gun.

  Directly after appeared a tall, swarthy man in white which looked dingyby comparison with the beds of snow lying on the northern side of themountains.

  The man stole cautiously from stone to stone, and after making sure thatthe last soldier forming the baggage and rear-guard had disappeared, heran quickly back to one of the snow-filled ravines and made a signal byholding his gun on high.

  This he did three times, and then turned and ran steadily across themeadow-like bottom of the halting-ground, till he was near the narrowgap through which the regiment had passed, to recommence his furtivemovements, seeking the shelter of stone after stone till he disappearedbetween the folding rocks, while in his track came in a straggling bodyquite a hundred active-looking men of the same type--strongly built,fierce-looking, bearded fellows, each carrying a long jezail,powder-horn, and bullet-bag, while a particularly ugly curved knife wasthrust through the band which held his cotton robe tightly about hiswaist.

  By this time the last of the rear-guard was well on its way, and thehill-men followed like so many shadows of evil that had been waitingtill the little English force had passed, and were now about to seek anopportunity for mischief, whether to fall upon the rear or cut upstragglers remained to be seen. Possibly they were but one of manysimilar parties which would drop down from the rugged eminences andvalleys which overlooked the track, completely cutting off the retreatof Colonel Graves's regiment of boys, of whose coming the tribes hadevidently been warned, and so were gathering to give them a warmreception when the right time came.