A Walk in the Karakorum
Fandom: Fix Bay'nets!
Disclaimer: Fix Bay'nets! OR, The Regiment in the Hills was written by G. Manville Fenn, and was published in 1899. It is out of copyright. The characters' opinions reflect the worldview of the novel.
A Walk in the Karakorum
Bracy awoke to the cries of the birds as the light broke over the mountains. Gedge was dozing by him, curled up under his blanket, his head resting on his hands and his rifle laid close by. He got up, stiff. After a few minutes of careful walking back and forth, his leg felt much recovered, and he thought he could make a good show and not worry Gedge overmuch. He looked fondly down at the sleeping lad, noting how slumber erased the care from his face and made him seem no more than a boy. 'How he worries!' thought Bracy, 'poor dear fellow, when it is my place to worry about him.'
"Gedge,' he said, 'it is morning.'
Gedge sat up, rubbing his eyes and yawning hugely.
'Beg pardon, sir,' he cried sleepily, 'I didn't mean to sleep.'
'Nonsense,' Bracy rebuked him gently. 'Did you think you could go on without rest? You should have woken me to watch.'
'You looked too peaceful, sir, and I thought it would be good for yer leg.'
'Well, let us eat and be on our way. You need have no fears for me today, Gedge, I feel quite recovered.'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge, with no touch of uncertainty in his voice, though he felt it within him. He looked Bracy's leg up and down, when the officer's attention was elsewhere. 'Don't you be giving him trouble,' he mentally admonished the limb, 'not in this country.'
After they had eaten, they made their way onwards. Gedge hoped that they would indeed come to a friendly village, for he was troubled by their dwindling supplies. 'By rights we should have been eating in that village,' he thought. He ignored the grumblings his stomach always made when he considered the matter of food and followed Bracy, glad to see that the captain had the sense to be setting an easy pace and to take little rests before and after particularly tough patches. At mid-morning Bracy sat down upon a rock and gave permission for them to eat, stretching his leg out before him.
'Will I rewrap the bandage, sir?' asked Gedge.
'No – no, thank you,' replied Bracy. 'It will do. Now, I think we are quite close to the village I have been aiming for. We should come upon it from the rear. Let us tidy ourselves so that we do not disgrace ourselves.' He straightened his helmet, and brushed himself free of crumbs.
'Let me do that, sir,' said Gedge, applying himself vigorously to the task. Bracy stood before him, neat and looking every inch the perfect officer. Gedge smiled in proud admiration and made sure that he looked as presentable.
'What will you do about the lingo, sir?' he asked, 'all this Hobson-Jobson that they do speak!'
'Oh, the chief or one of his men will have some English of a rough nature,' Bracy said carelessly. 'We shall manage well enough. So – let us go on.' He gave a last tug on his sword belt and marched on, not allowing the slightest impediment mar his martial gait.
Quickly they came upon the rude habitations of the village. As they drew near they saw men milling about and more than one of the heavily veiled women of the village peep out and as quickly withdraw. Bracy stiffened suddenly, halting Gedge with an upthrown hand.
'Hst!' he hissed, taking out his glass and examining the scene more closely. He passed the glass to Gedge, with a cry of annoyance 'Look, Gedge,' cried Bracy, 'if that isn't the tribesman who cost us the interpreter!'
Gedge looked and handed the glass back, his young face shining with enthusiasm at the idea of avenging their unfortunate native companion. The murdering youth was striding up and down, making a speech, chopping at the air with his wickedly sharp sword, and being cheered by his companions, who waved their rifles over their heads. 'Yes, sir!' he cried, 'I believe I could drop him from here, sir!' He matched his actions to his words, swinging his rifle up, ready for action. Bracy pulled down his barrel with an impatient hand.
'Don't be so hasty, sir,' said he, 'a shot will give us away at once, and we would have the whole village on our heels.'
'We've dealt with that sort of pursuit before, sir,' said Gedge, with great excitement.
'Hah!' ejaculated Bracy, 'you're right, Gedge. But that was a matter of necessity – it would be a mistake to bring it upon ourselves. No,' he continued, 'we must do as we did before, you are quite right, but not in the matter of pursuit. No, we must go up there.' He raised his gaze up at the mountains, a bright and shining gleam in his eyes.
'Up in the snow, sir?' cried Gedge in surprise, 'but we have neither poshtins nor supplies for such a crossing. And, beggin' yer pardon, sir, but with yer leg –' his voice faltered and died at the distant look in Bracy's face.
'Don't you see?' said Bracy, never looking away from the gleaming expanse of white, 'we shall go upcountry and come around into the further valleys. We shall show them that British soldiers do not shy at journeys that these native boys do not undertake.'
'They have more sense,' thought Gedge desperately as he followed Bracy away from the village, climbing higher and higher. 'Where's the sense in us climbin' into the snow, where we'll make fine scarlet targets for any of these fellows as cares to look up?' But he said not a word, knowing that Bracy had let him aright before, and was a trained and experienced officer besides. He kept close behind Bracy, ready to put out a steadying hand in case the officer's leg should play him false.
'We must do as we did before,' Bracy said breathlessly, 'and sleep together. Even without poshtins we shall do well enough if we lie close together, and cover ourselves over well.'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge, 'but we have only two blankets.'
'When his men were crossing the mountains, Xenophon reports the snow covered their blankets and they felt quite warm,' said Bracy cheerfully.
'Lie under the snow, sir?' cried Gedge incredulously. 'We'd freeze, sir!'
'Xenophon got his men home safely, and he was a general, Gedge,' said Bracy with a queer laugh, 'shouldn't we follow a general's advice?'
Gedge did not respond, saving his breath for the assault on the mountain. 'What's got into him?' he thought, seeing how Bracy's face, although drawn with the effort of the climb, was bright and boyish. He kept a sharp eye out for pursuers, feeling the scarlet of their coats must surely draw the eye from below. As night came on he drew Bracy into the rough shelter afforded by a tumble of rocks, beyond which the ground was hard but still at this point snow-free. He watched carefully to see that Bracy ate, for the queer exhilaration was still clear upon the officer's face.
'Now, recall what I said,' said Bracy, 'conditions are such that we must both sleep as much as we can at night. No setting of watches, Gedge. Lie down, now, and cast the blankets over us both and we shall do very well.'
Gedge did as commanded, sure he would not sleep a wink, but as the heat from Bracy's body pressed against his worked through him he found his eyes drifting closed and had barely enough time to wrap the covers more securely about them both before sleep took him.
* * *
He awoke to a bright dawn, and lay, feeling quite warm and comfortable in Bracy's embrace. The ground about them sparkled with frost and a layer of white rimed the young officer's moustache. 'Wish we could just lie here all day,' thought Gedge, 'but that won't do no good to nobody but us. We must be up and at it, I s'pose.' He shook Bracy gently.
'Sir?' he said, 'we must get up, sir.'
Bracy sighed and opened his eyes.
'Gedge,' he said, smiling. 'Did I not tell you we should be warm?'
'Yes, sir, only let's get up now, sir.'
Bracy let himself be helped upright, holding onto Gedge for a minute until he did not feel as stiff. After a quick breakfast they set off once again. By eleven o'clock they had passed up into the snows, and all Gedge's attention was spent on making sure they did not slip and send an avalanche, or as he called it a 'haverlawnch,' down to attract unwelcome attention from below. He wondered at Bracy, so willingly coming here, and shuddered as he thought of Bracy lying insensible beneath the snows so very recently.
By afternoon Bracy was slowing, and he willingly acceded to a rest. 'Oh, that I had my full manly strength again!' he thought, watching Gedge bustle round making them as comfortable as he could. 'I could not manage an innings with Roberts in this state. Oh, I wonder how old Rob is doing! Poor old fellow, he will be so put out that I drew the lucky straw again! But he couldn't be spared before and could not be expected to rise from his sickbed on this occasion. I am glad I had the chance to take his hand before I left.' He reached out and took Gedge's hand as the sergeant helped him up.
When they stopped for the night Bracy was full of high spirits and determined to put his school lessons to good use, insisting that Gedge help him hollow out a little cave in a snow bank, and reminding the lad that he had lain a whole night long beneath the snow and had not frozen.
'We will be quite snug in our little quarters,' cried Bracy, inwardly laughing at the look Gedge directed his way, while trying to stay respectful. He drew the lad into their little cave and wrapped the both of them tight in the blankets. 'A pity you are not taller than I,' said Bracy gaily, 'for then I could use you as a pillow. As it is I must be obliged to act as yours. Goodnight, Gedge.'
'Goodnight, sir,' said Gedge, quietly, his voice full of care.
* * *
'Sir? Sir?' cried Gedge. He shook Bracy harder. 'Oh, sir, only wake up!' He felt Bracy's face, distressed to find it hot and clammy. Bracy finally opened his eyes, revealing them to be overly bright and eager.
'What is it? I am awake,' he said in irritation.
Gedge wiped his face clean and dripped a little water into his mouth. 'He has that fever,' he thought in despair. 'No wonder he was actin' so queer.' He helped Bracy out of the little cave in the snow.
'Yer not well, sir,' he said. 'We have to go down the mountain now, if you're to have a chance.' As he spoke he looked around them, calculating their best route. Bracy looked stubborn, then coughed raggedly, surprising himself it seemed.
'You might be right, Sergeant,' he said. 'Well, let us go down.'
All that day they descended, stopping frequently to let Bracy catch his breath. Evening was not far off when they stepped from the wild snows to a rough, yet serviceable path that wended its way between boulders, skirting a steep slope of scree. Far below, they could see fields and houses, with people rendered the size of dolls.
'We must go down there,' thought Gedge. 'I hope as they have a bit of respect for sojers of the Queen, and they hasn't been listening to that hot tempered fellow.' 'Come, sir,' he said, taking Bracy's arm. They had been walking down towards the village for almost an hour when they heard the familiar sound of a rifle discharging.
'It's that young puppy!' cried Bracy as they saw their adversary leading a party up towards their position, 'curse his energy!'
'We have the better position, sir!' yelled Gedge, firing downslope and noting with great satisfaction that one of the men went rolling over and over back down the hill. 'Raise your rifle, sir, and shoot at them!'
There was no response. Turning, Gedge could see that a sickly weakness had come over Bracy, who now leaned against a rock, white as the snow they had so recently left. 'It's up to you, Bill, old chum,' thought Gedge grimly, and threw himself flat to present less of a target. 'Lie down, sir!' he cried.
Bullets hit the rock face around them, sending chips of rock springing through the air. 'Good job them lads has more enthoosyism than trainin',' thought Gedge, as the youths fired wildly as they slipped up the treacherous scree. 'Less shootin' wildly, more marksmanship, pard'ners,' muttered Gedge, dropping another of their assailants.
Gedge looked round sharply at the retort, but saw Bracy was still leaning weakly by the rocks. From where then had come the rifle shot? There was another loud crack! unmistakably from further up the trail. Gedge felt his heart plummet at the sound, knowing what it portended and that the outlook was bleak in the extreme. They were, or he was, to fight on two fronts now.
An enemy had come up in their rear.