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- In Times of Peril - 10/55 -
Half an hour's trot brought them to such a point of vantage as they desired. Crouched in some bushes at the edge of a clump of trees, not fifty yards from the road, they awaited the passage of the regiment. They had not been in their hiding-place five minutes when the head of the column appeared.
"They march in very good order, Ned; do you think that they would keep up such discipline as that after they had mutinied?"
"I don't know. Dirk; but they'll want all their discipline when they come to meet our men. For anything we know we may be the two last white men left in India; but when the news gets to England there will be such a cry throughout the land that, if it needed a million men to win back the country, I believe they would be found and sent out. There! There are two mounted officers; I can't see their color, but I don't think they are white."
"No, Ned; I am sure they are not white; then they must be mutineers. Look! Look! Don't you see they have got three prisoners? There they are, marching in the middle of that column; they are officers; and oh! Ned! I do think that the middle one's father." And the excited boy, with tears of joy running down his cheeks, would have risen and dashed out had not Ned forcibly detained him.
"Hush! Dick! and keep quiet. Yes! It is father! and Dunlop and Manners. Thank God!" he said, in deep gratitude.
"Well, let's go to them, Ned; we may as well be all together."
"Keep quiet, Dick," the elder said, holding him down again; "you will destroy their chance as well as ours. We must rescue them if we can."
"How, Ned, how?"
"I don't know yet, Dick; but we must wait and see; anyhow, we will try. There goes the bugle for a halt. I expect they have done their day's march. Come on, Dick; we must get out of this. When they have once pitched their tents they will scatter about, and, as likely as not, some will come into this wood. Let us get further back, so as to be able to see them pitch their tents, and watch, if we can, where they put the prisoners."
The regiment piled arms, and waited until the bullock-carts came up with the tents. These were taken out and pitched on the other side of the road, and facing the wood. The ground being marked out, the men were told off to their quarters, and the poles of the tents aligned with as much regularity and exactness as could have been used when the regiment possessed its white officers.
Near the quarter-guard tent--that is, the tent of the men engaged upon actual duty--a small square tent was erected; and into this the three officers, who were handcuffed, were thrust; and two sentries, one in front, the other at the back of the tent, were placed.
"Now, Dick, we know all about it; let us get further away, and talk over how it is to be managed."
The task was one of extreme difficulty, and the boys were a long time arranging the details. Had there been but one sentry, the matter would have been easy enough: but with two sentries, and with the quarter guard close at hand, it seemed at first as if no possible scheme could be hit upon. The sentry at the back of the tent must be the one to be disposed of, and this must be done so noiselessly as not to alarm the man in front. Each marched backward and forward some eight paces to the right, and as much to the left, of the tent, halting occasionally. When both marched right and left at the same time, they were in sight of each other except during the time of passing before and behind the tent; when they walked alternately, the tent hid them altogether from each other.
"I suppose there is no chance of our being able to gag that fellow, Ned? It's horrid to think of killing a man in cold blood."
"There is no help for it, Dick. If he were alone, we might gag him; as it is, he must be killed. These scoundrels are all mutineers and murderers. This regiment has, no doubt, like the others, killed its officers, and all the men, women, and children at the station. I would not kill the man unless it could be helped, but our father's life depends upon it; and to save him I would, if there were no other way, cut the throats of the whole regiment while they were asleep! This is no ordinary war, Dick; it is a struggle for existence; and though I'm sure I hate the thought of it, I shall not hesitate for an instant."
"I shan't hesitate," the midshipman said; "but I wish the fellow could make a fight of it. However, as he would kill me if he had a chance, he mustn't grumble if I do the same for him. Now, Ned, you tell me exactly what I am to do, and you may rely on my doing it."
Every minute detail of the scheme was discussed and arranged; and then, as the sun set, the boys lit a fire in a nullah and boiled some rice, and ate their food with lighter hearts than they had done since they left Sandynugghur, for the knowledge that their father had escaped death had lifted a heavy burden from their hearts. As to the danger of the expedition that they were about to undertake, with the happy recklessness of boys they thought but little of it.
Across the plain they could see the campfires, but as the evening went on these gradually died away, and the sounds which had come faintly across the still night air ceased altogether. As patiently as might be, they waited until they guessed that it must be about ten o'clock. The night was, for the country, cold--a favorable circumstance, as the natives, who are very chilly, would be less likely to leave their tents if they felt restless. The moon was now half full and shining brightly, giving a light with which the boys could well have dispensed.
"Now, Dick, old boy, let's be moving. May God help us in our night's work!"
They made a considerable detour to approach the camp in the rear, where they rightly judged that the Sepoys, having no fear whatever of any hostile body being near, would have placed no sentries.
"Listen!" Dick said, as they were pausing to reconnoiter; "that sounded like a cannon in the far distance."
There was no doubt of it; faintly, but quite distinct, across the air came the sound of heavy cannon fired at regular intervals.
"Those cannon must be fired as a salute to some great chief newly arrived at Delhi--we should not fire so late, but I suppose they are not particular," Ned said; "we calculated it was not more than twenty-five miles off, and we should hear them at that distance easily. We had better wait a few minutes to see if any one comes out to listen to it."
But there was no movement among the white tents. Then they stole quietly into the camp.
The tents of the Indian native regiments are large, oblong tents, with two poles, holding thirty men each. They are manufactured at the government prison at Jubbalpore, and are made of thick cotton canvas, lined with red or blue cotton. In the daytime they open right along one side, the wall of the tent being propped outward, with two slight poles, so as to form a sort of veranda, and shade the inside of the tent while admitting the air. At night-time, in the cool season, this flap is let down and the tent closed. In front of the tents the muskets of the men inside are piled.
Into one of these tents Dick crawled, Ned watching outside. When Dick first entered it was so dark that he could see nothing; but the moonlight penetrated dimly through the double cotton, and he was soon able to discover objects around. The ground was all occupied by sleeping figures, each wrapped up from head to foot in his blanket, looking like so many mummies. Their uniforms were folded, and placed between their heads and the wall of the tent. Six of these, with the same number of caps, and six ammunition pouches and belts, and a uniform cloak, taken carefully off one of the sleepers, Dick collected and passed out through the door of the tent to Ned. Not a sleeper stirred while he did so, and he crept quietly out, with the first part of his task accomplished. Gathering the things together, the boys made all speed back to a clump of trees half a mile in the rear of the camp. Here Ned put on one of the uniforms and the cloak, and they then started back again for the camp.
The sentries upon the prisoners' tent were changed at twelve o'clock, and a few minutes later the sentry at the rear of the tent saw one of his comrades come out of one of the large tents close to the end of his beat. He was wrapped in his blanket, and his face was tied up with a cloth. Coughing violently, he squatted himself in front of his tent, and rocked himself to and fro, with his hands to his face, uttering occasional groans. This was all so natural--for the natives of India suffer much from neuralgia in the cold weather--that the sentry thought nothing of the matter. He continued to pace his beat, turning back each time when within a yard or two of the sufferer. The third time he did so the figure dropped off his blanket, and, with a sudden bound, threw himself on the sentry's back; at the same moment a Sepoy in uniform darted out from the tent. One hand of the assailant--in which was a damp cloth--was pressed tightly over the mouth and nostrils of the sentry; the other grasped the lock of his musket, so that it could not be discharged. Thrown backward off his balance, taken utterly by surprise, the sentry was unable even to struggle, and in an instant the second antagonist plunged a bayonet twice into his body, and he fell a lifeless mass on the ground. It was the work of an instant to drag the body a yard or two into the shadow of the tent, and before the other sentry appeared from the opposite side of the prisoner's tent the native was rocking himself as before; the sentry, wrapped in his cloak, was marching calmly on his beat. The whole affair had lasted but twenty seconds, and had passed as noiselessly as a dream.
The next time the sentry in front was hidden from view the native started from his sitting position and stole up behind the tent. Cautiously and quietly he cut a slit in the canvas and entered. Then he knelt down by the side of one of the sleepers, and kissed him. He moved in his sleep, and his disturber, putting his hand on his mouth to prevent sudden speech, shook him gently. The major opened his eyes.
"Father, it is I--Richard; hush! do not speak."
Then, as the bewildered man gradually understood what was said, his son fell on his neck, kissing him with passionate delight.
After the first rapturous joy of the recognition was over, "Ned and the girls?" Major Warrener asked.
"The girls are at present safe," Dick said; "Ned is outside behind. He is the sentry. Now, father, wake the others, and then let us steal off. Take off your boots; the men's tents are only ten yards behind; once there, you are safe. I will let Ned know when you are ready, and he will occupy the sentry. We can't silence him, because he is within sight of the sentry of the quarter-guard."
Major Warrener aroused his sleeping companions, and in a few whispered words told them what had happened. In silence they wrung Dick's hand, and then taking off their boots, stole one by one out of the tent. As Ned passed he exchanged a silent embrace with his father. The next time the sentry in front was passing before the tent, a heavy stone, hurled by Ned,
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