- CHAPTER XIV. THE CRITICAL JOURNEY.
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THE CRITICAL JOURNEY.
WHEN Bobbie started off on her eight-mile journey, the path through the kopjes being two miles shorter than the ordinary track, she was conscious at first chiefly of elation that she had so succeeded in outwitting Blake and in getting safely away from his house. She guessed that he could not find the time to follow her now, even if he went to the huts to look for her. He could only think her conduct very strange, and hope to unravel it later.
After a little, however, the heat and the difficulties of the path began to crowd from her mind all else but the passionate fear lest she should not reach Sir James in time. A path through kopjes in Rhodesia often means scrambling up one side of a granite boulder and down the other, and for long stretches it may wind over sharp stones that threaten dislocated ankles, or through long, dry grass that seems to drag the feet backward. But even had she wished to go the smoother way, she dare not have risked it, for fear she was overtaken by Blake or Van Tyl. In the kopjes she could hide easily, if either came in sight, but out in the open it might not be possible. So she tramped along in a dogged, determined spirit, only opening her lips occasionally | | 133 to hearten the native cook-boy, whose bare feet, though the soles were like thick leather, began to feel the sharpness of the stones. There was very little shade, and the sun poured down upon them mercilessly, while hot air from the heated granite all round rose up into their faces. Bobbie was afraid to put up her sunshade, lest she became a target for observation, so she tied her big hat down at the sides with a long wisp of plaited grass, and tramped on. Her feet began to burn and swell, and the stones seemed to grow sharper and sharper, till she longed to sit down and rest, if only for ten minutes. But ten minutes might mean a man's life, and still she struggled on, thankful when at least she could see the stones, instead of chancing upon them in the long grass and getting many a stumble.
After a time the boy stopped and intimated that he could not go on. He said he was hungry and tired, and the way was too difficult. Fortunately, Bobbie spoke the Mashona language pretty well, and, without more ado, she rated him soundly, and told him of all the things that would happen to him if he dared to disobey a white Inkosikaas.The boy was overawed, and went forward, consoled by a piece of dry biscuit which Bobbie had in her pocket. Then they came to a river that had to be crossed, and once more he attempted to turn deserter. He told her there were crocodiles hidden among the stones, and neither of them could get across alive. Bobbie paid no heed. To let herself listen might be to go unnerved. Nothing should turn her back now. Through the crocodile-infested river, if the boy's tale were true, she must needs press on. The Mashonas are all cowards, and she | | 134 well knew that he had probably exaggerated the danger on purpose. At the same time, crocodiles are in the Rhodesian rivers in numbers, and in any deep pool one might be lurking.
"Come along!" she commanded the boy, arid searched along the river bank for the spot that looked safest, following the guidance of a track where game probably crossed. She was rewarded by finding a spot where great slabs of granite stretched across to the opposite bank, and they both crossed safely with merely wetting their feet.
Then the pitiless urging began again, under a sun only too surely beginning to sink in the horizon. A terror seized her lest she should be too late, and she quickened her pace resolutely, in spite of aching, swollen feet and exhausted limbs. Once the native, with a frightened exclamation, showed her lion spoor on their path; but, with a light indifference she was far from feeling, she told him that it was old, very old spoor, and the lion would be miles away by now. She was not afraid of the king of beasts by daylight, but if the dusk found them still trekking, and an old marauder or a lioness with young crossed their path, then no warning might ever reach the camp that seemed so distant. They heard baboons barking somewhere up above them, but she hastened the boy along, still refusing to be daunted; and when he showed her a snake gliding away through the long grass, she only laughed, and told him they would soon be there.
"Long way to Shagann's," he kept saying-- "long way--long way!"
But she only answered, "No, no, nearly there now," and he had to press forward.| | 135
Sometimes,as she struggled on, she wondered what all the others were doing. Had Betty been able to get more credit for the stores they needed? If not, had she sent the cable they had planned between them to the bachelor uncle, who would perhaps lend them money in an extremity? But, of course, they would get the credit. The bills always had been paid in the end, and store-keepers were more generous to miners than farmers. Anyhow, all the machinery was there, and the boys had this great hope of gold in the disputed claim if they won it.
Then her thoughts would turn to Toby. Where was he? What doing? She bit her teeth together hard, tears blinded her eyes, and she stumbled over a stone giving a little cry of pain as she wrenched her foot. Where had he gone to? When would he come back? Would he ever come back? She seemed to know by instinct he was suffering a wild, unreasonable bitterness; but it was none the less real suffering, and her heart ached in unison. What was he thinking of her now-- what dreadful things imagining about her? as she fought her way along that difficult path to save a man's life? If she failed, what would she do then? How could she bear her life with the burden of such a failure, and Toby lost to her? But she must not fail. Let her die rather than that--drop dying beside his camp, if need be, rather than fail to save him.
They came out upon a ridge, and the native showed her, across a vlei, the kopje upon which Shagann's kraal was built. It did not look very far, but Bobbie knew well how deceptive distances are in Rhodesia, and guessed it might still be some | | 136 miles on; and already the sun was getting the red tinge of sunset, and the moon would not rise for two hours. In the time between, the foul deed would be perpetrated unless she reached Sir James before the dark fell. The path wound down a slight incline, and she started to run, only to find her breath came in difficult gasps, and she was obliged to stop to recover herself. No, hurrying over-duly would only defeat her own end. She must keep on at the steady walk, and trust to the God above to enable her effort to be successful. She glanced at the sky, and an unspoken prayer passed upward to the silent enfolding heaven. How silent, how brazen, it seemed to her harried spirit! This terrible wrong, this acute crisis, down on the suffering, panting earth, and up there, where God is, only calm, majestic indifference. The granite kopjes themselves were not more coldly mute than that still firmament. Ah, that she could wring God's heart with pity, that He gave her wings to fly!
Down they went into the vlei, and found yet another river barring the way. In an agony of indecision she glanced first one way and then another, fearful of losing a moment, in seeking vainly for the best crossing. But the native had revived at sight of the distant kraal, and, instead of hindering her, he passed quickly up the river, signing to her to follow him, until he came to game tracks. These immediately followed, and as before they found a reasonably good crossing.
Then up the other side, panting, struggling, hurrying, as the path wound round a bouldered, impassable kopje. It seemed as if the path had | | 137 grown more difficult with every mile, but the near approach to the end of their journey heartened them. For a moment, alas! it made them reckless. To avoid a long wind, they sought to climb over a boulder, and, in descending the other side, Bobbie slipped and fell. For a dreadful space she feared she had hurt herself badly. But the native helped her to rise, and she found she had only sprained her wrist; but if the pain did not turn her faint, she could still go on. She ripped a long piece of linen from the bottom of her skirt, and sent the boy hurrying to the nearest water to soak it. While he was gone, she prayed silently that the pain might not sicken her, so that she was unable to walk, and once again schooled every power of endurance to its utmost endeavour. When the native came with soaking bandage, they bound the wrist up tightly, and then he pulled a handkerchief from his waist and offered it to her. Glad of the relief of the sling, Bobbie accepted it at once, and the boy cleverly made himself a belt of a piece of thin fibre from the bark of a tree, and they pressed forward once more.
But the pain in her wrist seemed to be draining away the little strength she had left. Her head swam and ached, and she felt hardly able to see where to plant her feet. She wondered if she had better send the boy on alone, for fear presently she fainted and could not give him the necessary directions. Yet how should she know he faithfully carried out what she told him, or was perhaps overcome somewhere by fright, and merely crouched hidden in the rocks?
No, while she could stand, she must go. Surely | | 138 God would not let her faint when she was just at the goal! She stumbled again badly, and found herself clinging to the branch of a small tree to save herself from falling, while all the world seemed to swim round her. Still holding tightly to the branch, she opened her lips to tell the boy he must go on ahead and bring the white man to help her, noting with agonising dread that already the dusk was upon them, and the dark at hand.
But while she stood, recovering as well as she could from the dreadful faintness, the boy hurried forward to a bend alone.
Then he came quickly back, with relief all over his face.
"The camp!" he cried. "The camp is quite near now! I can see the fire!"
Bobbie looked up at the stars overhead and felt a new lease of strength in her veins.
"Let me get there!" she prayed. "O God in heaven, let me get there!"
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