- CHAPTER XVII. JIM'S HEROISM.
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DIRECTLY Sir James saw Bobbie fall, he dropped on his knee beside her, indifferent to the fact that he was now a target for any would-be murderer, and forgetful of all except her.
Was she badly wounded? Was she dead? A dreadful anxiety filled his mind. His breath came gaspingly and unevenly with the horror of it. Evidently some plot against himself had brought her there. It was in trying to save him she had been shot.
He raised her head tenderly, and was conscious of a deep thanksgiving as she moaned and opened her eyes. The shot had not been fatal. Thank God! Thank God!
But even as he held her, there was another report, and a shot whizzed past them, cutting clean through the canvas of the tent. In sudden dread Sir James realised their danger, with the murderer still at large, and, hastily gathering her up in his arms, carried her behind a boulder large enough to give them cover. Then, crawling on his hands and knees, he wrenched the canvas up from the back of the tent so that he could creep under it for his gun and his flask. He called to Jim, but received | | 159 no answer, and crept back to guard Bobbie as well as he could by the rock.
Who the enemy was, and in what number, he had not the slightest idea, and, in spite of himself, he felt a swift horror at their situation. With his back to the rock, he might guard her against one adversary, but if an accomplice crept round behind, they were at their mercy. If only he could see! Gun in hand, he stooped, peering into the darkness from whence the shots had come, and could distinguish nothing but a black wall, whereas the flickering firelight still lit up the white canvas of the tent, and shone upon the rock which sheltered them.
Feeling safe in the friendly shelter for a moment, he again knelt down by Bobbie's prostrate figure and tried to force a little brandy into her mouth. She swallowed some and moaned again. He could just distinguish a blood trickle on her shoulder, and, removing the sling from her arm, tried hastily to bind it. Another shot striking the rock made him snatch up his gun again and fire into the darkness from whence the shots came. Instantly the rock was again struck, and he knew he had made a mistake in letting their enemy know where they were.
As well as he could, he again gathered her up and crept along to a further rock, returning on his hands and knees for his gun. By this time he had divined that Bobbie was not badly wounded, but was suffering from dead exhaustion. Probably she hardly knew herself that she was shot. He made her as comfortable as he could, and, with ready-poised gun, waited for the chance that some assailant might become sufficiently visible for him to take a | | 160 steady aim. If, on the other hand, as was probable, the enemy crept up to them and fired at close quarters, he knew it meant death both for himself and his deliverer. In an agony of doubt, he meditated carrying her boldly across a little open space. into some boulders near the river, where they might more safely lie concealed till morning. But, to do this, he must cross the firelight, and he feared it might only mean certain death more quickly to one or both of them. At least they were the safe side of their rock now, and it seemed unlikely anyone could get round to approach them without his having a chance to fire. It seemed only too sure that death was the intention of the man by the river, doubtless desperate now because some scheme of his had miscarried.
This was indeed the truth. Suddenly the gold meant nothing. Vengeance was the one thought uppermost. Van Tyl swore with dreadful oaths he would kill Sir James and this person who had baulked him, and then he would get away, and get clear of the country into Portuguese territory, and hide there until it was safe to go to the coast. And, seeing his immense advantage, he probably would have achieved this had it not been for the heroism of Jim, the devoted native.
When Sir James called to him and received no reply, and feared he had deserted, he was already planning to save him. Awakened suddenly by the shot, he had been a few seconds before he realised what was happening. Then, in the firelight, he had seen the woman on the ground and Sir James bending over her as the second shot whistled over their heads and passed through the tent. Instantly
Terrified out of their senses by the suddenness of the attack, the other two fled into the bush, while Jim seized the axe of the third one and knocked him senseless. If Van Tyl heard anything, he did not heed. He had almost forgotten that the three murderers were lurking near. Blake still lay in a senseless heap on the ground, and his victims were hiding close beside the tent. A dreadful lust of killing possessed him, and for swift vengeance. He had plenty of cartridges in his belt, and he meant the two souls, so desperately at his mercy, should be dead by morning. Taking steady aim, he waited rigidly for the moment when he believed Sir James would creep from the shelter of the rock to try and engage him in the open. He knew him for a fearless soldier, and did not believe he would be long content to crouch in hiding. By approaching nearer, he now commanded every avenue of escape. Once | | 162 more it seemed that nothing but a miracle could save the man and woman by the rock. If he remembered the one black attendant at all, he supposed him to be still huddled in the blanket in the firelight, half dead with fright. Nothing in Van Tyl's life had ever brought him into contact with the fine qualities of a native. Always he had treated them worse than he treated his dogs; and, like beaten dogs, they had served him under compulsion, until they could safely run away. That one should be willing to risk his life for his master would have been but a silly jest to him, who had always known that his would take their master's life if they dared. So he stood silently waiting, his gun steadied against a tree, until the expected moment when his victim should creep from his cover, only to roll over dead. After that, he reflected, with satisfaction, the woman still in hiding would certainly be unarmed. His mouth twitched with a cruel expression at the thought. He would go and see who this woman was who had baulked his carefully-laid scheme. He would let her beg and pray for her life, grovelling to him on her knees, beseeching his pity. And then-- The evil expression on his face grew diabolical. He reflected that she was a woman--probably a lady. There were worse things than mere killing for one of that type. He had a vengeance to wreak on her as well now. Well, he would wreak it. She should wish the first shot fired had killed her before he put her out of her misery.
But Sir James was reflecting, too. Evidently some desperate person, well-armed, was seeking his life. If he took any step to endanger it unnecessarily, he must inevitably leave Bobbie to | | 163 the full fury of the murderer. All his blood clamoured to meet this dastardly enemy hand to hand and face to face without any more ado; but, if he got the worst of it, what about this woman who had so splendidly saved his life? For himself he bad never known fear. For her, he must needs run no risk he could possibly help. If only he had his revolver and could give it to her, he thought he would have dared more. But it was in the tent, and the risk of getting it was too great.
So the breathless moments passed. Once more silence hung over the scene.Once more the stars blinkled coldly, heartlessly, down. It was as though the powers of light and Darkness were waging some desperate duel, while the earth looked coldly on, and the outcome hung in the balance. Or did the powers of light shield that silent dark form noiselessly wiggling through the bush and grass towards the enemy? One snapped twig, one hint of what the dark object was, and a shot might promptly end its stealthy course. But Jim was too clever for that. Through the breathing bush, broken only by a now feeble, solitary, occasional tom-tom struck by a drunken hand in sleep, no snapped twig warned Van Tyl his enemy might not be only in front. A sound came from the rock, and he trained and steadied his gun more carefully, with one finger waiting on the trigger.
The next moment he was seized from behind by a black object, and black fingers closed upon his throat in a vice-like grip as they rolled over together on the ground. A native axe gleamed a moment in the starlight, and Van Tyl felt its keen edge on his throat. But he was a powerful man, and, even | | 164 as the blood gushed, he wrenched himself away and, in his turn, caught the native's throat and, cursing wildly, jambed the axe down upon him. They wrestled a moment longer, and then the white man's hands relaxed their grip suddenly, and he rolled over motionless.
"Inkaas," called a faint voice through the darkness, "you are safe! I have killed him!"
Sir James had cautiously peered from his shelter at the sounds of the struggle, and been in doubt what course to take. Directly he heard Jim's voice, he divined what had happened, and hastened to the spot from whence it came.
"Jim!" he cried anxiously. "Jim! Jim!"
"Here, Baas." The voice was growing feebler now, as the life-blood drained away. In great distress, Sir James found him and knelt beside him striking a match to see better how he might aid him. Then he tore off his pyjama jacket to try and staunch the blood flowing from the wound in his neck, just noticing, before the match blew out, that a white man, with a pool of blood near his head, lay dead on the grass. The native murmured something, and he bent his head to catch the words.
"A watch," he was saying, "with story that I saved life. Give it to my kraal--tell my brothers."
"Yes, yes, Jim, but perhaps I can save you." The boy opened his eyes wide and looked once affectionately at his master, and then, with a gasping in his throat, died.
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