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
Daegaer wrote, @ 2004-02-26 22:55:00
The morning dawned with a chill, grey light. Gedge shifted uneasily and yawned, wholly unwilling to waken up. At last he opened his eyes and blinked sleepily, nestling closer under the blankets. He sighed deeply as the sad events of the previous day flooded back into his wakening mind and wished he could have slept on at Bracy's side, unheeding of the world. His sloth shamed him and he admonished himself sternly, thinking, 'You got to do right by Rustem, Bill. No shirking.' He closed his eyes for one last second of comfort, curled close against Bracy's warmth and then sat up. 'Sir,' he said, shaking Bracy's shoulder. 'Sir, it's morning.'
Bracy stirred, as unwilling as Gedge to face the day, but gave in and opened his eyes. 'Gedge,' he said solemnly. Then, after a little silence, 'Is it very late?'
'No, sir,' said Gedge. 'It's jest dawn, not much light yet.'
Bracy threw back the blankets and reached for his clothes, dressing quickly and then crossing the cave to look out over the valley. 'We will go,' he said bleakly, his eyes fixed on the misty view. 'We will go with all speed. Let us leave this accursed place.'
'I -- I need to do somethin', Mr Bracy,' said Gedge. 'I need ter find -- oh, we can't leave him unburied, sir!' he burst out. Bracy looked at him, refusal clear in his face, but then he simply nodded silently and looked back at the valley. Gedge busied himself quickly packing away their stores and the blankets before going to join Bracy's silent vigil. 'I'm ready, sir,' he said. 'You could stop here to watch over our things --'
'No,' said Bracy. 'We do this together.'
Leaving all but their rifles in the cave, they led the horses outside and down the little slope. The creatures seemed recovered from their terror of the night before and willingly bore them back to the fatal spot. Gedge looked at the claw marks in the earth and shuddered. He urged his horse along the track that hunter and hunted had taken, deeply grateful for Bracy's presence at his side. As they drew near to the woods their horses began to snort and shy. 'We will have to go in there on foot,' said Bracy. 'Are you sure you wish to do this, Gedge?'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge. 'It's only right.'
'Well, let us hope that brute keeps to its habit of evening appearances,' said Bracy and dismounted neatly. He pegged his reins into the ground and waited as Gedge copied this action.
Gedge took a deep breath and walked slowly forward till he reached the edge of the woods. He paused, looking around him carefully, sure that the monster would hear the swift hammer-blows of his heart. Looking at Bracy, he saw the same fear writ clear upon the young officer's face. Impulsively he reached out and took Bracy's hand in his, feeling at once that his fright had lessened. He gave his officer a wan smile and received one in return, and hand-in-hand they entered the dark wood.
The morning light could not easily penetrate the thick fronds of the huge ferny trees, and it seemed unnaturally quiet in the dim gloom. Gedge felt he should hold his breath, in case the monster should hear them, and clung tightly to Bracy's hand. Within a few yards of entering the woods he saw a huge and horrid scar on one of the trees as if the monster, not satisfied with its pursuit of prey, had paused to vent spite on the plants also. Smaller plants were trampled and broken, and once his eyes had accustomed themselves to the light he could make out the way that they needed to follow. Carefully they picked their way through the wood, peering around in anxiety at the slightest sound. Gedge felt Bracy's hand tighten on his as they suddenly heard squeaking noises from before them, and saw a suggestion of movement. As they neared they saw a horrid sight - mangled flesh and bones flung about on the leaf-strewn floor, with small rat-like creatures squabbling over the scraps.
'Hey! Get away, yer little beggars!' cried Gedge unwarily, dropping Bracy's hand and rushing forward. 'Yer filthy little --' The small beasts looked up at him in astonishment, fluffing up their grey and black striped tails, and then scattered in all directions, their high-pitched squeaking fading into the distance. Gedge looked at what was before him and felt his head swim and his knees buckle. Before his legs could fold under him he felt a strong arm slip around his waist and hold him up. He allowed himself only a moment's weakness, leaning against Bracy and letting the officer support them both. Then he straightened and, pale of face, walked the last few steps.
'Terrible, terrible,' muttered Bracy, in a voice that sounded as sick as Gedge felt. 'Gedge -- are you sure you are able for this?'
'No,' murmured Gedge in astonishment, 'no -- I don't see -- I don't --' He turned to Bracy, registering at last that he had been asked a question. 'Sir,' he said, 'beg pardon, sir, I wasn't listenin' -- only look! This is his horse, sir!'
'Yes,' said Bracy gently, fearing the sight had been too much for the young sergeant. 'I see that, Gedge.'
'Yer don't see, beg pardon, sir,' said Gedge in excited tones, 'It's jest his horse. I don't see him nowhere, d'yer?' He looked down at the horribly crushed and torn remains. 'Horse bones,' he muttered, 'nothin' that could 'ave been him.'
Bracy stepped up behind him and looked down, feeling sick. He laid a hand on the back of Gedge's neck and spoke gently. 'It has carried him away, Gedge. That is all.'
'No. No, sir!' said Gedge, swinging round, his thin face full of animation and hope where before it had held only sickness and pain. 'That cry, sir, that wasn't a boy's cry! It was the horse! The poor thing, screamin' in fear and pain!' He cast about him wildly. 'Oh, sir! He's out here somewhere!'
'Gedge,' said Bracy and caught the lad firmly by the arm. 'I know that you wish to believe this, but --'
'I know it, I know it, sir,' said Gedge passionately. 'Help me, sir.' He rushed from side to side, looking between the trunks of the fern-like trees. 'Oh, where should I look?' he cried, as if to himself. He ran off through the woods, Bracy following him swiftly and crying out his name. Behind them the little rat-creatures crept back out of hiding and began squabbling once more for their share of the grisly remains.
Gedge stood still at last, thinking as hard as he could. He barely heard Bracy come up to him, and looked up at the officer only when he felt a questioning touch on his arm. 'Why didn't he run back out of the woods?' he asked. 'When that monster was busy with his poor horse? He mustn't have been able to, sir. He must've needed to find somewhere to hide hisself, mebbe he was hurt, mebbe his leg was broke. So he can't have gone too far from his horse, we've got to start back there.' He began to march back and was caught in a firm grasp.
'Gedge,' said Bracy, 'you are only setting yourself up for more sorrow. You must see --' he paused, seeing the stubborn expression on the lad's face. 'Well then,' he continued. 'Let us start from there, as you say. Here, take my hand, do not run off so far in advance when there could be peril in wait.'
Returning to the broken and scattered bones of the unfortunate horse, the two young men began to search, each taking a path that spiralled out from the spot, and remaining in sight of each other at all times. Gedge paused in his searching, thinking that he had heard something, but after a careful look about him, saw nothing and prepared to go on. As he moved he heard it again, the slightest susurration as of the wind, although the air within the wood was close and still. He looked about him once more, frowning, then looked up and his heart leaped within his breast. Up in the tree by which he stood he saw a patch of blue of the very colour Rustem had worn.
'Mr Bracy!' he cried. 'Over here!'
Within a few moments Bracy stood by him, an angry frown upon his face at the noise that Gedge had made. 'Look, sir,' said Gedge. 'Here, take my rifle.' He thrust his weapon into Bracy's hand, not waiting for assent, and jumped upwards, catching at the broken-off piece of frond that he had spied as being the lowest on the ferny tree. The rough, fibrous bark afforded him more handholds than he had at first thought, and he soon reached the spot he had had his eyes fixed upon. There was a depression, in fact a crack in the tree, whether caused by a blight or one of its frond-like branches having for some reason been ripped away he neither knew nor cared, for he had eyes only for what was within. Rustem was wedged within the crack, his face pale and senseless, and his skin clammy to Gedge's touch. 'Wake up, pard'ner,' said Gedge hopelessly. 'Oh, Rustem, I'm goin' to get yer down safe, don't yer worry.' He drew the boy out, hearing from him the faint groan that had alerted him to the lad's presence and fastened his belt about him, passing it under his arms and so tying the lad's limp form to his back. Then, with utmost care, he began to make the climb down once more. It was with great difficulty that he made his descent, feeling that at any moment he would be torn from his hold on the tree trunk and would drop his precious burden. At the end he did slip, but he had only a few feet to fall, and found himself steadied and caught by Bracy. Undoing the belt, he laid Rustem down on the leafy ground and knelt over him, rubbing the boy's cold hands between his own. 'Rustem! I s'y, Rustem! Wake up!' he said urgently. 'Oh, he's freezing, sir! He's wet all through!'
'The air is damp with mist,' said Bracy, 'it must have quite soaked him. Quickly, Gedge, let us take him away from here. Who knows when that brute might return?' Bending, he lifted the lad in his arms and strode towards the edge of the woods, Gedge following with the rifles. No beast challenged them, and they soon were back with their horses. Bracy laid Rustem across the shoulders of his horse, freed the reins and mounted. As soon as Gedge had done likewise they raced off, back to their cave. The moment they were within, Gedge took Rustem with great gentleness and laid him down on the floor. He seized up the blankets and shook them out.
'Can yer make up the fire a little, sir?' he asked. 'We've got to get him warm, oh, he's like ice!' As he spoke he began to take Rustem's wet clothing off the lad, who lay still insensible beneath his touch. Bracy hurried to do as he was bid, and soon the little fire was blazing merrily. He turned back to Gedge and saw that he had divested Rustem of the wet clothes and was preparing to move him to the blankets.
'Here, let me help you,' said Bracy.
'Best let me handle him, sir,' said Gedge, putting an arm beneath the boy's shoulders.
Bracy drew back, shamed and horrified. He looked away, blinking back the hot prickling feeling in his eyes, and did not speak until he felt he had mastered his emotion. 'Gedge,' he said. 'Gedge, I -- I know that I have forfeited all right to your trust, but I swear to you, I had no thought of bringing harm to this poor boy.'
Gedge looked up at him, puzzled, and then his eyes widened. 'Sir! I didn't think -- all as I meant, sir, is that I know how to move a person that can't move hisself. It's not so easy if yer don't know how, but I learned when I was lookin' after you, sir.' He carefully laid Rustem back down, and sprang up, putting a hand on Bracy's arm. 'Oh, sir,' he said quietly. 'How could you ever mean harm? You come on, now. You give me a hand.' He knelt by Rustem once more, and together they put the boy in the blankets by the fire. At once Gedge began pulling off his own tunic. 'You remember what them Ghurka lads said, sir?' he said, 'best way to heat a frozen body is with warm ones. Come on, sir, you get on that side of him, I'll get on this.'
Bracy hesitantly removed his clothing and did as Gedge said. Rustem lay, as cold as if he had been carved from ice, between them. Gedge drew the blankets close around all of them and clasped Rustem tight to him, urging Bracy to do likewise. Flinching from the cold and from shame, Bracy did so, squeezing his eyes shut. After a little he felt a gentle touch on his arm and Gedge murmured, 'It's all right, sir. Don't you worry, it's all right. We jest have to help poor Rustem get warm, that's what's important right now.' Finding himself calmed by Gedge's voice and touch, Bracy relaxed and slowly drifted into sleep.
* * *
When Gedge awoke for the second time that day he was for several moments confused as to where he might be. It was so dreadfully hot that he at first thought he had but recently arrived in India, and was still trying to accustom himself to the different clime. His head cleared all at once, and he knew the source of the heat was the restless form pressed against him. 'Oh, he's gone from ice to fire!' he thought, and felt Rustem's forehead gingerly. 'He's burning up!' Gedge sprang from the blankets and damped a rag with some of their water to wipe the lad's face. 'Rustem,' he whispered. 'Don't you go diein' on me, d'you hear?' He leaned over and gently patted Bracy's cheek until he began to wake. 'Sir,' said Gedge, 'Rustem's gone feverish. Get up, sir, please.' Bracy looked at him hazily, and crept out from beneath the blankets.
'We cannot move him like this,' said Bracy. 'And we cannot stay here. This is a bad pass, Gedge.'
'We can only look after him and hope as the fever breaks quick, sir,' said Gedge, putting a confidence he did not truly feel into his voice. 'I'll clean him up, make him a bit more comfortable, and mebbe you could get a spot of food ready? We'll need to eat, even if he can't jest yet.' He was glad to see Bracy willingly go about the task, and not stand about worrying. Quickly he wiped the sweat from Rustem's body and made him as comfortable as he could, speaking to him all the time in a quiet voice, hoping that the boy could somehow hear him, and know that he was with friends. He took a little of the thin porridge that Bracy had inexpertly made, and allowing it first to cool, thinned it further with cold water and spooned a little of it into Rustem's mouth. 'Come on, pard'ner,' he murmured, 'jest take one spoonful for me.' The lad swallowed convulsively, but turned his head restlessly away when Gedge attempted to give him more. Leaving him at last, Gedge ate his food, not tasting a single mouthful, although he remembered to thank Bracy and said it was very good.
'Well, we are going nowhere today nor tomorrow,' said Bracy heavily, and led the horses out to grass. Gedge moved Rustem from the blankets and covered him instead with their heavy coats, giving the blankets a chance to air and dry where Rustem's sweat had dampened them. He looked out at the sky, which was already dimming toward evening and shook his head. 'Don't give up jest yet, Bill,' he told himself. 'Rustem'll get better, Mr Bracy won't look so sad tomorrow, and you'll get them home safe.' He wished that Bracy would come in and talk to him, but the officer seemed intent on walking slowly back and forth with the horses, and did not look back toward the cave even once.
When Bracy finally came back in with the horses, he busied himself with building up the little wall at the cave's entrance, while Gedge took the driest of the blankets and made up a fresh bed for Rustem, wrapping the boy warmly and comfortably. Having done all that he could think of, and having persuaded the boy to drink a little water, he took the remaining blankets and the coats and made a bed for himself and Bracy. 'Let's get some sleep, sir,' he said quietly, saddened to see the shadow in his officer's eyes. Without speaking, Bracy lay down and Gedge lay by him, putting his arms about him and falling asleep almost instantly.
He woke in the deepest part of the night, with the horrible knowledge that something was wrong. By the merest glow of light given by the banked fire he saw Rustem thrashing in the grip of the fever, and rushed to his side. Gently he wiped the sweat from the lad's face and drew the blankets back around him when he tried to throw them off. 'You'll catch yer death,' he scolded him, and then wished he had not said any such thing. 'Now then, Rustem,' he said, 'yer'll take a little water?' But the boy would not, and feebly pushed Gedge's hand away.
'Is he very bad?' he heard Bracy say quietly, and felt his eyes fill with tears.
'Yes, sir,' he said. 'He's very bad.' He stroked Rustem's hair quietly and thought how cruel it was to have his friend restored to him, only to be taken again. He wished he could at least make his friend comfortable, so that he would not be in so much distress. An idea came into his head suddenly, and he put a hand into the neck of his tunic and drew off the gold chain strung with blue beads that Rustem had given him for killing one of the first dragons. Gently he put it about Rustem's neck, whispering as he did so, 'This is the necklace from yer mother, pard'ner, the one to protect you. You listen to me now, yer mother wants you to get well, hear?' He sat, watching the boy and wiping his face gently when he needed it. There was a slight sound behind him, and then Bracy put a blanket over his shoulders, sat by him and put an arm about him.
'We will watch over him together,' said Bracy quietly. 'Lean on me if you are tired. I will stay awake if you sleep, don't worry.'
'Thank you, sir,' said Gedge, resting his head on Bracy's shoulder and keeping his eyes on Rustem in case he should need something.
They sat there, arms about each other until the sky slowly began to brighten once more, and the new day came upon them.