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, @ 2004-03-22 13:11:00
Current mood: chilly and manly
The first day was chill, yet fine. Gedge felt his heart lift as they journeyed along, Bracy in the lead, a cheerful expression on his face. Rustem looked about him with interest, and rested comfortably in Gedge's arms. The air seemed even clearer than it had been on their journey outward, and even the sound of their horses' hooves seemed sharp and magnified in the stillness of the mountains. When the light began to fade, Bracy helped Gedge make a bed of the bundles of grass for Rustem, who grumbled at such treatment, but who did not resist being made comfortable and warm. The three of them kept close under their blankets, and passed an undisturbed night, rising in the early dawn once more.
In the afternoon of the fourth day, the clouds thickened overhead, and it began to snow. At first the flakes simply drifted earthward, but then the wind picked up, and the snow blew with more force. Gedge held tight onto Rustem, and was glad when the boy turned his face to Gedge's chest for warmth.
'Good job we're going with the wind, not against it!' he cried to Bracy, who laughed shortly, and pulled his hat further down on his head. That night they could not manage to light a fire, and huddled together, Gedge freeing Rustem's hands from their mittens and tucking them inside his coat to heat properly. Bracy, on the other side of the boy, put his arms about both of them and held them close against the cold.
From that point on the weather worsened and worsened. The snow increased and became thicker on the ground, tiring the horses as they made their weary way along. They had to make rest stops frequently, so that the horses did not completely exhaust themselves. At each stop, Gedge hunted out patches of grass, uncovering the sparse growth from its blanket of snow. The horses did not seem grateful in the slightest for this unstinting work of his, casting covetous eyes on the piles of grass instead. However, while there was the chance of them finding grazing on the journey, both Bracy and Gedge were united in their determination that the store of grass should not be touched by the beasts.
Bracy became quieter, and, if he thought the others were not paying attention to him, at times let a look of deep worry cross his face. 'We shall just have to get through this,' he thought, reminding himself that Gedge, although small and slight was still healthy and strong. 'And Rustem will recover quickly if we can but keep him warm and dry,' thought Bracy in deliberate optimism, 'the lad has a strong constitution.' Fighting back the feelings that he had brought all their misfortunes upon them, Bracy dedicated his efforts to seeking out the trail upon which they had previously journeyed, thinking that he could at least redeem his past bad decisions by bringing the young men in his charge to safety once more.
One day it did not snow, but instead sleet howled down from the sky. After the shortest of travel times, Bracy turned aside into the rough shelter afforded by some rocks by the side of the trail, and, putting his mouth to Gedge's ear cried, 'We must take shelter! We can't risk Rustem becoming soaked through!'
'Yes, sir!' yelled Gedge, and slid from his horse, pulling Rustem with him. 'C'mon, pard'ner,' he said. 'We don't want to be beaten to death by the sleet!' They spent a miserable day huddled behind the rocks, a piece of their oilskin stretched overhead to provide a rough tent. Rustem shivered between them, but seemed in good enough spirits, remaining uncomplaining. Gedge felt torn with worry for his friend and for Bracy, who, he saw, had been caught in an unfortunate cross-draught, and who had not remained as dry as the others. Gedge shuddered at the icy feel of Bracy's flesh when he reached out to put a hand on the officer's face. 'Sir, you're freezing,' he said in alarm. Bracy shrugged and did not spend any energy on a reply. Finally Gedge thrust Rustem into the farthest corner and pulled Bracy closer, resorting to heating his face by placing his palms flat against his cheeks. Bracy laughed a little, unwillingly, as if he were amused, but did not pull away. When at last the sleet died away, they slept as best as they could, damp and chilled.
Gedge felt a thin streak of worry grow within him from that day on. Rustem did not seem to get warm again for over a whole day, and Bracy began to cough with a dry, rasping sound. Gedge boiled snow and some dried fruit together, trying to make a soothing drink to ease Bracy's throat, but it did not seem to help much. The horrid conviction niggled at Gedge that while he had been trying to keep Rustem warm and as well as possible he had failed in looking after Bracy and he became convinced that his officer was hiding illness from him out of a desire not to cause him worry. Why he tried to act on this, holding Bracy at night to warm him up, he was gently pushed aside and told that Rustem was the one who needed special care. Gedge lay, awake and miserable with Rustem sleeping contentedly in his arms, wondering why Bracy was taking so little care of his own health. 'I can't manage if they both get sick,' thought Gedge, the worry keeping him from sleep. 'He's not sleeping well with that nasty cough, I don't know how he keeps going. Oh, when we get back to Rustem's valley I'm going to keep him in bed for a week, and not stand for any complaining!' Beside him, Bracy shook with coughing and half woke up, muttering with displeasure and Gedge fought back the urge to fetch him a drink. 'He'd only be annoyed with me,' thought Gedge sadly, 'I haven't been able to do anything right for him since we set out.'
They refrained from using the grass they had brought from the valley. 'We have to make sure it lasts us till we reach Rustem's people,' said Bracy, casting an anxious eye over their stocks. 'It does not seem so much now, Gedge, I wish we had brought more.'
'Well, but we wouldn't have fitted on the horses,' said Gedge, trying to bring a smile to Bracy's face. 'Don't you worry about the stuff for the horses, sir, there'll be enough, you'll see.'
'I hope so,' said Bracy. 'What of our supplies? Will we have enough for ourselves?'
'They're going down faster than I like,' said Gedge quietly. 'It's the cold, sir, we're always hungry, we need to eat more to keep ourselves warm. But we don't have it, so we'll just have to get used to bein' a bit chilly.' He paused, then went on, 'But yer cough, sir. I don't like that. We need to do something about that.'
'What can we do?' said Bracy. 'It will clear in time. I'll be all right, Gedge, you mustn't worry about me.'
'I do, sir,' said Gedge quickly, determined he would not let Bracy change the subject. 'You've been awful low in yerself, since - since we were in that valley,' he finished unsurely.
Bracy looked at the ground. 'I feel,' he said, 'that a better officer would have made different decisions, better decisions.' He paused, then continued, 'Captain Roberts would never have led you out here on such a crazed errand, nor would he have put you and the lad in such danger from those vile creatures.'
'Course he wouldn't,' muttered Gedge. 'We wouldn't be his sort of company.' He looked at Bracy, alarmed by his daring, and saw Bracy blink in surprise and then hide a smile. 'Sorry, sir,' he said, 'I spoke out of turn.'
'It's all right,' said Bracy, and reached out to briefly touch Gedge's hand. 'Don't worry about me,' he said again. 'I am quite well.'
Gedge's worry, however, did not abate, and he noted how long it took for Bracy to get to sleep that night, and how the cough racked him, waking all of them. Over the next days the weather worsened further, and the falling snow obscured their view of the path.
'I should get down and walk,' said Rustem, as Gedge slipped down from the saddle to lead the horse. 'I am well now.'
'Jest stay where you are,' said Gedge. 'You were a bit feverish last night, and I ain't takin' chances with you.'
The boy heaved a sigh, but did not disobey. Gedge looked worriedly ahead to where Bracy led his horse, and saw that the officer stumbled, catching himself quickly. Bracy walked on, back straight, but Gedge felt there was more effort there than there should be. That night he managed to give Bracy more than his share of the food, and felt he had done the right thing when the officer managed to fall asleep quicker than he had on previous nights. Gedge huddled as close as he could, his arms about both Rustem and Bracy, telling himself that his own hunger was a small price to pay for giving Bracy a better night's sleep. Sadly for Gedge, that was the last peaceful night that he spent - the wind howled against them the next day, driving the snow hard into their faces. They forced themselves on and on, losing track of the days, and collapsing exhausted at night. They had to feed the horses from the grass they had brought from the valley, as it was more than clear that the meagre amounts they found on their journey were not enough. Gedge portioned out their own food, grimly noting how little there was left, and giving as much as he could to Bracy and Rustem. He found he himself had little appetite when it came time to eat, longing for food beforehand, but too tired and worried for the others to eat it when it was prepared. At last it came clear to him that they would have to stop and rest for a day to regain some strength. 'A proper sleep, that's what we all need,' he thought, going up to Bracy.
'Sir,' he said. 'we need to rest, us and the horses. One day will give us a bit of strength and then we can push on.' He spoke quickly, seeing Bracy's stubborn expression, saying, 'Please, Mr Bracy, I know you want us to get back as quick as we can, but I need a chance to sleep. Please, sir.' He looked into Bracy's eyes, ashamed to think the man would consider him weak, but knowing full well that the officer would not take rest merely for his own sake.
'Very well,' said Bracy after a minute. 'I don't want you falling ill, Gedge.'
'Thank you, sir,' said Gedge. 'Let's all have a nap. We'll be warmer that way.'
He was very glad that Bracy put up no resistance to this suggestion, and for some hours the three of them slept in the small shelter afforded them by stretching their oilskins between some large boulders and the ground. Gedge woke at last to find Bracy standing and looking bleakly out at the cold white landscape. He unwillingly crept out from the nest of blankets, tucking them tight around Rustem and stood beside Bracy.
'Come back to bed, sir,' he said. 'You'll feel better than standing here.'
'The horses are starving,' said Bracy dully. 'We do not have enough feed for them.'
'We have enough,' said Gedge.
'We do not. We do not even have enough for ourselves,' said Bracy. 'You are no good at hiding your thoughts, Gedge. I have seen your face when you look at our stores. Tell me the truth now, do we have enough to last us on the journey?'
Gedge felt his heart sink. 'No, sir,' he said. 'We don't, but we've got to have a clear day sooner or later, and you and me, we can hunt.'
'A clear day. I have all but forgotten what that might be like,' said Bracy. 'If the clouds lift it will become even colder. The horses are already slipping and stumbling, how will they keep their footing if the path freezes to ice? The poor brutes need food for strength and we cannot give them that.' He turned to look at Gedge for the first time, his eyes hopeless. 'What we must do,' he said, 'is shoot one of them. The bay - it seems weaker. Then the other will have food for a longer time, and we will have meat.'
'Sir, no!' said Gedge. 'We'll go even slower! We can make good time if the weather lifts a bit, you'll see. We'll make up any time we've lost. Me and Rustem, we're light, we won't be much of a burden on the horse.'
'I'm sorry, Gedge,' said Bracy, 'I know you like your horse, but we have to do it. My mind is made up.'
'It's not because it's my horse, sir,' said Gedge, 'it's because only having one horse will slow us down. Can't you see that?'
'With meat and only needing to feed one horse we can go another several days at least,' mused Bracy as if Gedge had not spoken. 'Then when the grass is quite gone we can shoot the other horse - you see, Gedge, I am not keeping mine selfishly safe - and we can go on from then on foot.'
'And what do we do then, sir?' asked Gedge harshly. 'With you weak from that cough and Rustem nowhere near his full strength? Which one of you will I carry if you fall down in the snow? Best give me yer orders now, sir, while you can still talk. We need the horses, sir, and I don't want to hear you tell me otherwise.'
'You think we're going to die out here,' said Bracy, and his shoulders sagged. 'I cannot blame you, Gedge.' He looked all at once as if he had aged horribly in an instant. 'This is all my fault,' he said. 'But we must go on as best we can, we cannot wait for death but must act like men till we can go no further.' He smiled weakly at Gedge and stroked his brow, looking intently into the lad's face. 'Oh, Gedge,' he said quietly. 'You must trust me. I'll take care of you.'
'I do trust you, sir,' said Gedge.
'I won't let you suffer,' said Bracy, as if speaking to himself. 'Nor the lad neither. When it comes to the time, I'll do what needs to be done. It's my responsibility, and you needn't --'
'Sir!' cried Gedge, shocked. He pulled away from Bracy and looked at him in horror. 'Don't you even think such a wicked thing, sir! You look me in the eye and promise me you won't think like that again.'
Bracy let his hand fall limply by his side. 'I don't want you and the boy dying of cold and hunger,' he said. 'I can't do anything else for you. We're lost and we're going to die out here. And even if I could get us to the fort by morning, I -- oh, Gedge, they would make me break my promise to you and I would rather die than that.'
'Sir?' said Gedge, wondering how he might take Bracy's revolver without the officer knowing.
'They will take you away from me,' said Bracy brokenly, 'I could not bear that.' He stared down at the ground, whispering, 'I don't want you taken from me.'
Gedge sighed and stepped closer, pulling Bracy's head down so their brows rested together. 'I ain't going nowhere,' he said. 'No one's takin' me away from you. It's all right, sir, yer jest tired. You let me get you nice and warm and you'll feel fit for anything. But you have to promise me you ain't going to do nothing silly.'
'No,' said Bracy in a voice that was little more than a breath in Gedge's ear, 'I won't, I promise.'
'Good,' said Gedge, intertwining his fingers with Bracy's. 'You've got to be sensible, sir, 'cos I need you to tell me what to do.'
'I don't think I've ever found any man who needs that less,' said Bracy, raising his head and touching his lips to Gedge's brow. He pulled Gedge into a tight embrace, sighing deeply as the young sergeant put his arms about him. 'How do you keep so calm and cheerful?' asked Bracy, holding on as if he would never let go.
'I jest think there's no point in worryin' about something that ain't happened yet, and that might never happen,' said Gedge. He stepped back, pulling Bracy away from the entrance to their little shelter and saying, 'Come on, you'll be a lot warmer under the blankets.' As he did so he saw Rustem was awake and watching them, his face angry and tears glittering in his eyes. The boy deliberately turned his back and would not respond to Gedge's greeting. Burdened by worry and by Bracy's unhappiness, Gedge felt great misery that he had somehow also made his young friend angry, and curled up in a sad, tired ball under the blankets once more, his only consolation being the ease with which Bracy slipped once more into slumber.
The next day they went on. Rustem would not speak beyond curt responses of 'yes' and 'no' when asked a question, and would not even look directly at Gedge. Bracy looked to Gedge at all times, asking his opinion and seeking direction. For his part, Gedge felt unutterably weary, but put on a smile and spoke as cheerfully as possible to keep them moving without complaint. 'It's up to you, Bill,' he thought. 'You've got to get them back safe. Oh, I wish as Mr Bracy'd tell me what to do!' He smiled encouragingly at Rustem when they took a break and the boy looked away, sending Gedge's already low spirits plummeting even further. When they camped for the night Gedge took his rifle and went out a little way by himself, hoping that he might find some game. He found nothing, but stood still in the dimming light, pretending for a few moments that he had no responsibility to anyone but himself, that he had not somehow offended his friend and that his officer was not relying on him so very heavily. 'This ain't no good,' he told himself angrily. 'You go back to them and make yerself act pleasant, it's what they need. Sulkin' out here like a baby, d'yer call yerself a man?' Remonstrating thus with himself, he returned to the others and smiled as cheerfully as he might, saying, 'Better luck tomorrow, I'm sure.' And to Rustem, when Bracy's attention was elsewhere, he murmured, 'I'm sorry if yer upset with me, pard'ner. How c'n I mend whatever it is I've done?'
Rustem looked searchingly at him, and shook his head. 'You have done nothing,' he said in a small voice. 'I am just a stupid boy. My father was right, you do not want me.'
'I jest wanted to keep you safe,' said Gedge. 'I was glad to see you when you turned up, though. How'd we have dealt with that bear without you? And killed all them dragons? And then that -- well, I jest don't think I've ever seen anyone do anything braver.' He paused, thinking that perhaps such foolhardy actions were not to be encouraged and he should set an example for his young friend. 'Mind,' he continued, 'I don't want you doin' anything like that again. No more playin' with monsters, all right, pard'ner?'
Rustem smiled at him sadly. 'No,' he said.
Gedge put an arm about his shoulders, saying, 'Are we friends again?'
'Yes,' said Rustem, leaning against him and letting his eyes close. 'I am glad to be your friend, Gedge.'
Gedge smiled with genuine cheer over at Bracy, who was watching them. 'He's all right, sir,' he said. 'He jest wasn't feeling himself.' He was very glad to be on good terms with the lad, and felt at that moment equal to any task set before him. He set about making the dinner, and was very pleased to see both his companions eat and quickly sleep. 'We'll make it,' he told himself. 'We jest have to.'
The mountains themselves seemed more amenable over the next day, with only light winds and no snow falling. The day after, however, the country turned treacherously against the travellers, making their every step a hazard as winds blew up from nowhere, and they found it difficult to see more than a few feet in front of their faces. Gedge watched in dismay as his horse slipped and righted itself with difficulty, walking with hesitant gingerly steps thereafter. 'Don't you go lame,' he told it. 'You don't want to know what'll happen to you if you do.' By the end of the day after that, it was clear to him that his poor horse could not manage another day's travel, and, although he would have been ashamed to weep for himself, he buried his face in its neck and wept for it.
'I will do it,' said Bracy quietly, unholstering his revolver.
'No,' said Gedge, 'no. He's my horse, I'll do it.' He took the revolver and stood a moment, feeling its weight in his hands. It came to him that now, with only one horse, they would all die, lost in the mountains far from home and for a few wild seconds he felt that maybe Bracy had been right in his despair, that a quick end was better than dragging on slowly. He looked over at Rustem, so thin now that his green eyes seemed huge in his young face, and at Bracy, seeing the lines of care that should not have been carved on his brow, and he felt a horror that he should stand by and let his friends have a lingering death. Then the wildness passed, and he cocked the revolver, thinking that whatever happened, they would meet it like men. He sighted between the horse's eyes, and was alarmed beyond measure to have Rustem leap at him, and jerk his hand off-balance. The report of the revolver echoed along the mountain-trail. 'You bloomin' idiot!' yelled Gedge. 'D'yer want to be killed? What did you do that for?'
'Look!' cried Rustem, 'look!' He spun Gedge around, pointing. The whirling snow cleared for an instant and Gedge saw a stern face, and a form dressed in antique armour holding out a spear. 'It is Sikander!' cried Rustem. 'We are back in the lands of my people!'
Gedge stood stock-still, his mouth open, then he laughed and grabbed Rustem, kissing him soundly. He whirled round to embrace and kiss Bracy and, for good measure, kissed the horses also.
'That village!' he crowed, 'that village is near here! We ain't goin' to die!'
The others laughed at him, and they all patted and congratulated his horse, telling it that it had to go only a short distance more, and there would be hay and a warm stable. They set out, Gedge and Bracy trying to remember the signs for the path to the village and, after one or two false starts, discovering it meandering off into the mountains. Leading the horses, their hearts lighter than they had been for many days, the young men saw at last the houses beneath them in the valley, and slid and slipped their way down to warmth and light and life.