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- The Young Carthaginian - 52/62 -
a brother who was at present a captive in the hands of Hannibal; and he trusted that Malchus, should he have an opportunity, would use his kind offices on his behalf.
One of the lines of huts near the Roman camp was assigned to the Carthaginians, and that evening they received rations of almost black bread similar to those served out to the others. The following morning they were set to work. Malchus and his two friends found their tasks by no means labourious, as they were appointed to look after a number of Sards employed in breaking up and sorting the lead ore as it was brought up from the mine. The men, however, returned in the evening worn out with toil. All had been at work in the mines. Some had had to crawl long distances through passages little more than three feet high and one foot wide, until they reached the broad lode of lead ore.
Here some of the party had been set to work, others had been employed in pushing on the little galleries, and there had sat for hours working in a cramped position, with pick, hammer, and wedge. Others had been lowered by ropes down shafts so narrow that when they got to the bottom it was only with extreme difficulty that they were able to stoop to work at the rock beneath their feet. Many, indeed, of these old shafts have been found in the mines of Montepone, so extremely narrow that it is supposed that they must have been bored by slaves lowered by ropes, head foremost, it appearing absolutely impossible for a man to stoop to work if lowered in the ordinary way.
The Carthaginians, altogether unaccustomed to work of this nature, returned to their huts at night utterly exhausted, cramped, and aching in every limb. Many had been cruelly beaten for not performing the tasks assigned to them. All were filled with a dull despairing rage. In the evening a ration of boiled beans, with a little native wine, was served out to each, the quantity of the food being ample, it being necessary to feed the slaves well to enable them to support their fatigues.
After three days of this work five or six of the captives were so exhausted that they were unable to take their places with the gang when ordered for work in the morning. They were, however, compelled by blows to rise and take their places with the rest. Two of them died during the course of the day in their stifling working places; another succumbed during the night; several, too, were attacked by the fever of the country. Malchus and his friends were full of grief and rage at the sufferings of their men.
"Anything were better than this," Malchus said. "A thousand times better to fall beneath the swords of the Romans than to die like dogs in the holes beneath that hill!"
"I quite agree with you, Malchus," Halco, the other officer with the party, said, "and am ready to join you in any plan of escape, however desperate."
"The difficulty is about arms," Trebon observed. "We are so closely watched that it is out of the question to hope that we should succeed in getting possession of any. The tools are all left in the mines; and as the men work naked, there is no possibility of their secreting any. The stores here are always guarded by a sentry; and although we might overpower him, the guard would arrive long before we could break through the solid doors. Of course if we could get the other slaves to join us, we might crush the guard even with stones."
"That is out of the question," Malchus said. "In the first place, they speak a strange language, quite different to the Italians. Then, were we seen trying to converse with any of them, suspicions might be roused; and even could we get the majority to join us, there would be many who would be only too glad to purchase their own freedom by betraying the plot to the Romans. No, whatever we do must be done by ourselves alone; and for arms we must rely upon stones, and upon the stoutest stakes we can draw out from our huts. The only time that we have free to ourselves is the hour after work is over, when we are allowed to go down to the stream to wash and to stroll about as we will until the trumpet sounds to order us to retire to our huts for the night.
"It is true that at that time the guards are particularly vigilant, and that we are not allowed to gather into knots; and an Italian slave I spoke to yesterday told me that he dared not speak to me, for the place swarms with spies, and that any conversation between us would be sure to be reported, and those engaged in it put to the hardest and cruelest work. I propose, therefore, that tomorrow -- for if it is to be done, the sooner the better, before the men lose all their strength -- the men shall on their return from work at once eat their rations; then each man, hiding a short stick under his garment and wrapping a few heavy stones in the corner of his robe, shall make his way up towards the top of the hill above the mine.
"No two men must go together -- all must wander as if aimlessly among the huts. When they reach the upper line on that side and see me, let all rapidly close up, and we will make a sudden rush at the sentries above. They cannot get more than five or six together in time to oppose us, and we shall be able to beat them down with our stones. Once through them, the heavy armed men will never be able to overtake us till we reach the forest, which begins, I believe, about half a mile beyond the top."
The other two officers at once agreed to the plan; and when the camp was still Malchus crept cautiously from hut to hut, telling his men of the plan that had been formed and giving orders for the carrying of it out.
All assented cheerfully; for although the stronger were now becoming accustomed to their work, and felt less exhausted than they had done the first two days, there was not one but felt that he would rather suffer death than endure this terrible fate. Malchus impressed upon them strongly that it was of the utmost consequence to possess themselves of the arms of any Roman soldiers they might overthrow, as they would to a great extent be compelled to rely upon these to obtain food among the mountains.
Even the men who were most exhausted, and those stricken with fever, seemed to gain strength at once at the prospect of a struggle for liberty, and when the gang turned out in the morning for work none lagged behind.
CHAPTER XX: THE SARDINIAN FORESTS
The Carthaginians returned in the evening in groups from the various scenes of their labour and without delay consumed the provisions provided for them. Then one by one they sauntered away down towards the stream. Malchus was the last to leave, and having seen that all his followers had preceded him, he, too, crossed the stream, paused a moment at a heap of debris from the mine, and picking up three or four pieces of rock about the size of his fist, rolled them in the corner of his garment, and holding this in one hand moved up the hill.
Here and there he paused a moment as if interested in watching the groups of slaves eating their evening meal, until at last he reached the upper line of little huts. Between these and the hill top upon which the sentries stood was a distance of about fifty yards, which was kept scrupulously clear to enable them to watch the movements of any man going beyond the huts. The sentries were some thirty paces apart, so that, as Malchus calculated, not more than four or five of them could assemble before he reached them, if they did not previously perceive anything suspicious which might put them on the alert.
Looking round him Malchus saw his followers scattered about among the slaves at a short distance. Standing behind the shelter of the hut he raised his hand, and all began to move towards him. As there was nothing in their attire, which consisted of one long cloth wound round them, to distinguish them from the other slaves, the movement attracted no attention from the sentries, who were, from their position, able to overlook the low huts.
When he saw that all were close, Malchus gave a shout and dashed up the hill, followed by his comrades.
The nearest sentry, seeing a body of fifty men suddenly rushing towards him, raised a shout, and his comrades from either side ran towards him; but so quickly was the movement performed that but five had gathered when the Carthaginians reached them, although many others were running towards the spot. The Carthaginians, when they came close to their levelled spears, poured upon them a shower of heavy stones, which knocked two of them down and so bruised and battered the others that they went down at once when the Carthaginians burst upon them.
The nearest Romans halted to await the arrival of their comrades coming up behind them, and the Carthaginians, seizing the swords, spears, and shields of their fallen foes, dashed on at full speed. The Romans soon followed, but with the weight of their weapons, armour, and helmets they were speedily distanced, and the fugitives reached the edge of the forest in safety and dashed into its recesses.
After running for some distance they halted, knowing that the Romans would not think of pursuing except with a large force. The forests which covered the mountains of Sardinia were for the most part composed of evergreen oak, with, in some places, a thick undergrowth of shrubs and young trees. Through this the Carthaginians made their way with some difficulty, until, just as it became dark, they reached the bottom of a valley comparatively free of trees and through which ran a clear stream.
"Here we will halt for the night," Malchus said; "there is no fear of the Romans pursuing at once, if indeed they do so at all, for their chance of finding us in these mountains, covered with hundreds of square miles of forests, is slight indeed; however, we will at once provide ourselves with weapons."
The five Roman swords were put into requisition, and some straight young saplings were felled, and their points being sharpened they were converted into efficient spears, each some fourteen feet long.
"It is well we have supped," Malchus said; "our breakfast will depend on ourselves. Tomorrow we must keep a sharp lookout for smoke rising through the trees; there are sure to be numbers of charcoal burners in the forest, for upon them the Romans depend for their fuel. One of the first things to do is to obtain a couple of lighted brands. A fire is essential for warmth among these hills, even putting aside its uses for cooking."
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