The Uphill Heart
A story of India’s fighting frontier and the courage that keeps it safe
"That indestructible libre of the breed with the uphill heart."
THEY RAN with the urgency of men with life at stake, the five of them, yet with a peculiar clumsiness which neither their heavy woollen uniforms nor the crusted blanket of snow underfoot could wholly explain. The pace was labored,
erratic; they pounded along stifflegged as if favoring crippled feet.
Perhaps no incident in the annals of the Indian army quite l>aralleled this, for the live fled through the snow on ice skates.
There had been no time to remove them, to change boots. One minute all had been cheerfully cutting figures on the polished black surface of the little mountain lake now at,their backs; the next, the frozen quiet of the hills exploded. Their rifles were piled, swivel to swivel, in two conventional pyramids of three at the centre of the lake, boots knotted in pairs over the rifles. Six rifles, six men—then.
With the first of the shots the skaters broke for their arms, for while there is breath in his body your Northwest Frontier veteran can never be stampeded into abandoning his I^e-Enfield worth almost its weight in gold to any Pathan. It was while they clutched at their marching boots and hastily unpiled arms that Sapper Murchinson look one high in the neck. He was bending, and the bullet plowed on up through his brain and burst from the top of his helmet. The impact broke his chin-strap. Helmet plopped hollowly to ice; legs turned to rubber and steel-shod feet slid crazily from under him as he crashed face down.
The briefest glance told the rest that Murchinson was beyond human aid. Their skates sang with speed as they went wordlessly away from there. All about them the ice spurted fine powder, as if invisible picks chipped away at it. Bullets cheeped on the hard surface and hummed on in wild ricochets, to hiss into snowy rising ground at the far shore.
Four of the men had the whipcord txxlies and the oaken, hard-lined faces of long service. Much younger, the fifth retained a trace of that Western freshness sometimes called "Blighty bloom.” He was fair and half a head taller than the others, yet in the w inter serge and webbing equipment of the ranks, as like them as is one fence picket to its mates.
They were off the lake and had run but a few jxices when the younger man suddenly stopped dead.
"Murchinson's rifle! We forgot ...”
The rest halted in the grotesquely unreal attitudes of
reality, breath steaming into the cold, windless air; scowled accusingly at each other before their anxious eyes sought the first speaker’s.
“ ’S’right,” a man muttered. “ 'E fell plumb on it.”
“Suicide ter go back, sir,” said another.
The young one shrugged. “Down you go. Load. They’ll try to cut me off. Stop 'em.”
“Don’t you go!” they cried.
But. throw ing his rille and boots at them, he was already away.
Fumbling at their pouches, they extended and went prone.
“ ’E’s crazy.” someone said. ,
Empty clips fell tinnily as cartridges were pressed home; boltAclicked.
“Crazy, mebbe.” a new voice murmured. “But if yer awsks me, ’e’s guts clean through, that ’un.”
■pvESPITE his unfortunate reputation, they thought well of the young man, these tough old buzzards of the Peshawar Signal Company. With affectionate solicitude they had insisted that while the section served at Safed Kot. their officer conceal his rank by donning sapor’s uniform. They had been in these hills before; knew the toll Waziri snipers took of those in the distinctive clothing of the commissioned.
Second Lieutenant James Edward Thayer, a year gone gazetted to Sikhs but for some months on temporary transfer to Signals, abruptly altered his bumpty-ground progress to a smooth glide as ice flashed beneath his skates.
Apparently unaware of the prize concealed by that body sprawled at mid-ice, the tribesmen soon sensed that whatever the mad Englishman’s purpose in returning, he might be taken alive. A score or more popped over the skyline— so many dirty rag bags against the unsullied whiteness.
Down the steep hill they slithered, leaving a snow wake as of claws deep dragged across new paint. Some few were winged by the lire of Jim Thayer’s men. That ended as the rest plunged lower, for the white man was now directly between his protectors and their targets.
Jim’s in-pointing skates plowed twin waves of shaved ice as he screamed to a halt. All in one motion he flipped poor Murchinson over on his back and reached for the precious rifle. The sling was caught in the dead man’s arm. Coolly Jim disengaged it and instantly was in full flight.
So near was the leading Waziri that, fingers crooked to clutch the living prize, the man tripped over Murchinson’s body and tell sprawling. Those behind saw their quarry escaping at a pace they could not hope to match—on ice— and ojxmed fire.
But Jim regained his men unhit.
The Waziris kept coming; once off the ice, they rapidly overhauled the encumbered Signallers. They would capture the whole party—a plum indeed ! Back in their walled village, the old headman and the mullahs had many ingenious methods of entertaining unbelievers. There were ways of slowly taking captives apart so that they lived for days —until the exquisite fun of torturing their bloody, sightless stumps ended when some bhang-crazed warrior carved too deeply into a vital spot.
On rushed the hawk-faced crew. Then, amazingly, they slowed, stopped, stared. All at once they were in full flight.
Led by the commandant himself, a party of the Punjabis who garrisoned the fort were advancing at the double. The men were plainly eager to pursue the Waziris, but a whistle blast halted them.
The commandant. Captain Oakes, was a dark, chunky Comishman in his early thirties. He wore the blouse and turban of his men for the same reason that Jim was dressed as a sapper.
“A close call, Thayer,” the captain frowned. “Even with that lake so near the fort. I’ve always been afraid something like this might happen.”
“The w’orst of it is,” Jim muttered,
“Murchinson’s back there—dead.”
Oakes swore under his breath. “To lose a man like this—bad business. Very bad. ’Fraid it’ll take a lot of explaining.”
“I should have forbidden the whole thing from the start.”
THAT WAS all very well, but on several occasions the captain had actually joined the skaters. Isolated for the winter deep in tribal territory, where route marching would take the little garrison too far afield for safety, any form of violent exercise almost in the shadow of the fort had its good points. When Oakes had first learned that Jim proposed sending for several pairs of skates, he had contented himself with a mild warning.
“But would the Tori Khel be such fools as to kick over the traces right after Government's doubled their subsidy?”
Jim asked. “If ever the Khaisora Valley’s to be safe, it should be now.”
Oakes had shrugged. “You haven’t been up here long enough to realize how deeply these fanatical Moslems feel about intruders. Offer a Tori Khel half a chance to kill a Christian, and he’s apt to forget all about such abstractions as treaties made by his chief.”
“It’s all off if you feel it’s too risky,”
Jim said. He added, half to himself. “I absolutely couldn’t afford getting into another mess.”
That had been Oakes’ cue to kill the idea point-blank. Instead, he reasoned — revealing a not very admirable facet of character— that it was simpler to let the skates come. For he assumed—wrongly, as it had turned out —that well before the skates could reach Sa fed Kot the ice would be out of the lake . . .
As to Jim's allusion to “another mess.” the captain was well aware of the reason for Jim’s transfer to this remote, allegedly peaceful spot; it was common knowledge.
That past summer there had been fighting in the Afridi country about the Khyber. Then not long with his Sikh regiment, young Jim had been in command of a platoon; one of two told off to clean out a sniper-infested Afridi watch tower. Success of the manoeuvre had depended upon the most delicate timing.
Invisible to each other, the two platoons were to approach the tower from opposite sides of the hill which it topped. The final attack was to be launched when the carefully synchronized watches of both platoon commanders read 4.30.
Crouching with his men in a nullah that was his jumpingoff spot, Jim had waited dry-lipped for the zero hour. He had seen the hands of his watch crawl to 4.23, to 4.25. For what seemed an eternity he had resolutely kept his eyes away from his wrist. Surely it was almost time. Then— The hands still pointed to 4.25.
Incredulous, he had put the watch to his ear. Suddenly, far above, had echoed the peculiar Sikh charging cry, almost a wail. The other platoon had attacked—was there. With a kind of stunned, mechanical precision, Jim had reset and wound his watch.
By the time he and his party had reached the tower, the others had already captured it, but at appalling cost. Stormed from one side only, the tribesmen had been able to concentrate their fire.
T DON’T want to be too hard on the boy,” Jim’s colonel had told the brigadier, “but as it happened, sir. I could see his platoon through my glasses, lie deliberately sat there long after the zero hour. As to his story that his watch stopped”—the colonel, aware that the general was Jim’s uncle, chose his words carefully—“all I can say is that the watch was right, almost to the second, when we examined it. That seemed—well, a bit unfortunate.”
The brigadier, known as Bluenose Bentick because of an extremely long, strangely colored nasal extremity, was an old-style martinet who had learned soldiering in the rough, tough school of Lord Roberts. Bad enough that his nephew should have failed so ignominiously in his very first test; the implications behind that failure were intolerable!
“Hard on him. is it? Think I'd favor him because of the relationship? Har-rmph—watch me!”
Jim barely escaped being cashiered. He lost two years seniority and was severely reprimanded. In addition to the official censure, in private the general blistered Jim with a harangue which might well have proved the final straw’ in breaking the spirit of many a young officer.
"So either you’re a coward,” Bluenose concluded, "or the world's most unfortunate young man. I'm just about alone in wanting to believe the latter. Unless you can live this down, you'll be of no further use to your regiment. The men would follow you nowhere. So I’m transferring you to a shorthanded section of the Peshawar Signal Company about to be loaned to the Bannu Brigade. Down there you’ll be out of my sight. But you’ll be watched, young man. One more doubtful experience of any kind or description, mind—and your army career is over.”
ALRP2ADY far advanced, the. short w inter afternoon - had turned blue with evening by the time Murchinson's body was brought in. There were no further signs of the Tori Khel.
“But you can bet they aren’t far off,” the captain told Jim over a hurried whisky peg in their improvised mess. “A killing like this nearly always starts something. Tribal psychology is not unlike that of a kid who breaks a window and. knowing he’s due for a bad time anyway, decides he might as well break as many more as he can. So I think we may have callers. Soon.”
Jim. thinking of Murchinson and recalling his uncle’s ixirting ultimatum, listened gloomily.
“I came down here in trouble up to my neck,” he muttered, “and today will just about finish me.”
Oakes shrugged. “Maybe you aren't cut out for the army, Thayer.” He was uncomfortably aware that much of the blame for Murchinson's death could be pinned on his shoulders as commandant; yet he was not above hoping that Jim’s doubtful record might serve to focus attention upon his subordinate rather than himself.
He drew a pad of Army Forms C2121 toward him and began to write.
“This wire must go off to Bannu at once. If we’re attacked in force, we’ll need help and plenty of it."
Jim hurried downstairs with the message.
“Tumble hard luck this afternoon, sir,” said the duty operator, as he began to tap out BU, BU, BUBannu's call letters. Speaking circuits in field telephones of the i>eriod were so uncertain at long range that experienced signallers seldom bothered with them. “Murchy wuz one o’ the best in the company, too,” he went on. “Certainly wasn’t your fault, though.”
“It was all my fault,” Jim said harshly. “That ain't tin* way us chaps feels, sir.” He ceased sending. Listened. Shook his head. "No answer, sir. Funny."
Jim's eyes narrowed. “The line’s been all right?"
“It wuz up until Bannu stopixxl sendin’ a long bhxk o’ routine stuif. Signed orf nearly an hour ago. Line’s been idle since then.”
“Test your phone," Jim ordered.
The man made the primary and secondary circuit tests. “Okay, sir.” "Perhaps a loose connection?"
The operator shook his head.
“Then it’s the line itself cut!” Jim hurried back to Oakes with the news.
The commandant’s face was grim. "So we’re too late. Cutting that cable proves they mean business.”
“I'll see about repairs at once.”
Oakes’ tone was scornful. “Oh, don’t be an idiot. The tribesmen would wipe out your cable party in the first convenient nullah.”
"You mean, we’ve just got to sit here and do nothing?”
“While you were dow n in the telephone room I gave orders to stand to. There's a Punjabi at every loophole on the outer wall fire-step. Beyond that well. I'll make the decisions, if you please.”
Their eyes met with brief hostility, then Jim glanced at his watch.
“It'll be six in a few minutes a change of operators at Bannu. The new men will test their lines it's routine. Then they'll know something's wrong.”
“A pretty theory! But all they’ll actually think is that there’s some mechanical fault at this end. It’s happened before. They won't begin to worry before morning.” "Morning! Meaning relief couldn't get here before late afternoon?”
“Well, we haven’t been attacked yet.” Oakes said dryly. "But if w e are tonight,” Jim said. “This fort—why, it’s nothing but a makeshift.”
That was true. The flimsy structure had not been put up in the exjxctation that it would have to withstand tribal siege. A thin perimeter wall, chiefly mud and some ten feet high, with w(x»den gates giving to the east—toward Bannu—enclosed the fort proper a square, double-decker, thatch-roofed building of mud, reinforced w ith native brick and a few timbers. The British had only recently occupied the w ild Khaisora Valley, and it was hoped that the Safed Kot post was but temporary. The year before, the Tori Khel had raided British property. The chief, sternly admonished, claimed he would restrain his people in future
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The Uphill Heart
Continued from page 13—Starts on page 12
provided the Raj would help him by making a show of force. The jerry-built fort had been the answer—a mere gesture.
"DRESENTLY Oakes and Jim Thayer sat •E down to an extra-early dinner.
“That unsent message,” Jim said, after a long, uneasy silence. “Isn’t there some way we can get it through tonight?”
Oakes eyed him sourly. “You aren’t by any chance getting windy, are you?”
It was clearly a reference to Jim’s unhappy reputation, but he ignored the slur.
“Patching up that line—it might mean risking a few lives to save the whole garrison.”
Oakes laid down his fork with deliberation. “We’ve already been over that. How many times must I tell you it’s impractical? And let me remind you again that we haven’t been attacked—yet. Had the line been open, I’d most certainly have wanted Bannu to know what’s happened. With the wires cut, we can’t go off the deep end like hysterical women. Should the attack come tonight, we'll simply have to make out the best we can. That’s that.”
Jim was persistent. “Not much use having the brigade come dashing up after we’re all dead. Have we the right to risk the possible consequences of standing pat? I’m thinking of the men.”
“Only of the men?” Oakes flung the words at him.
Jim swallowed the insult, made a final try. “I propose—”
“The matter’s closed,” Oakes snapped. “My orders are that no one set foot outside these walls tonight.”
Like many physically brave people not heavily endowed with moral courage, he would fight and die like a hero rather than risk any precautionary measures which, should they fail or prove unnecessary, might be misconstrued by his superiors; in Oakes’ mind that angle outweighed the possibility that such steps might render ultimate sacrifice needless.
The meal ended as it had begun—in deep silence. Oakes went out to inspect his Punjabis, while Jim returned to the telephone room, now filled with his anxious detail.
He had barely stepped through the door when a muffled shot, followed by hoarse cries, brought the men up standing. More shots, then the shrill of a whistle and the thud of running feet.
“Reassemble here in fighting order,” Jim told them. “I’ll be back.”
He hurried out into the compound, filled with milling men. Somewhere in the darkness he heard Oakes give the order to fire at will; the din redoubled as Jim made his way toward the voice. Oakes stood alone, pipe in hand.
“Reporting my detail present and correct, sir,” Jim said.
Oakes made perfunctory acknowledgment of his salute. “Just stand to”—coldly —“I don’t need you now.”
Jim mounted a ladder to the fire-step on the west wall. At an indeterminate distance beyond the fort something sputtered and sparked —not unlike the preliminary fuss made by a Roman candle. All at once it was well alight and, apparently propelled by a sling, the object leaped away in a fiery arc. With a great hissing the thing sailed into the compound, landed high on the slanting thatch—a flaming brand that commenced to roll slowly down.
So they were trying to fire the fort!
Oakes was yelling for a hose, for a detail to man the pump at the well.
Jim rejoined him. “Could my lot take over that hose job?”
The captain nodded. “Find my quartermaster havildar. He’ll show you where the hose is . . . New touch, these torches.”
To Jim’s signallers, any action was welcome. In short order they had the hose out and coupled, the pump manned. If the roof once got well alight, it was obvious the whole fort would go. Fagots were coming over at an alarming rate. Jim picked up an extinguished one. It was oil-soaked; the smell told him that. The slings, these torches dipped in oil—everything pointed to an attack carefully planned. And that it was to be on a large scale was proved by the steadily increasing volume of tribal rifle fire, which now enveloped three sides of the fort. Only the east seemed quiet.
Spots of fire showed simultaneously all over the roof. The signallers had their work cut out. For a moment Jim, who was taking his place with the men, found himself neither pumping nor directing the nozzle. Sweat-soaked, dead tired, oblivious even to the freezing night, he leaned gratefully against the fort. The acrid smell of exploded powder mingled with the heavier stench of burned straw. The place was a bedlam of noise. Through a swing door into the quarters of the Indian ranks, Jim watched an antlike procession of shadowy figures, each pair bearing a filled stretcher.
Abruptly he became aware of Oakes.
“Got any spare men?” the captain
shouted. "We’re getting shorthanded on the wall.”
“We’re barely holding our own with the roof.”
Oakes sized up the situation, grunted, started away.
Jim put a hand on his arm. “Things look bad. Won’t you let us try to patch that cable? May not be too late, even now.”
Oakes glared. “No men for me—but you’d justify a party for that wild goose chase. Stick to the job you asked for!”
JIM refused to be satisfied. Only minutes later he found Oakes superintending the distribution of ammunition from some freshly opened cases.
“You’ve got to listen,” Jim cried. “I’m sure I can get word through; no cablepatching involved, either.”
Oakes barely looked at him. "Shut up, will you?”
Jim didn’t. "Any fool can see w'e can’t hold on here much beyond dawn—if that long. You spoke of acting like hysterical women; That was before the attack. It’s different now. My plan—”
“I said to shut up. You’re half mad with fear. Thayer. Don’t make a spectacle of yourself before my men. Get back to your hose.”
But still Jim stood fast. “My idea only risks the life of one man. Think—won’t you? One life—to save so many. All I need is permission.”
“Which you won’t get. You mean a runner, of course. I thought of that long ago. No good. How could anyone get through this cordon?”
“Not a runner! As to getting clear, the east is still quiet—”
“Quiet!” Oakes straightened up, stepped clear of the cases, until their faces all but touched. "You blithering fool, what’s being quiet to do with it? They’re all around us. Hither you shut up now and obey orders, or I’ll put you under arrest. That’s final!” Further talk. Jim saw, was useless. Permission or no permission, this time he knew he was right. Suddenly his mind was made up.
“I’m going to raise Bannu,” he told his men. “A one-man job.”
“Whatever ye’re drivin’ at.” said one, “that man shouldn’t be you, sir.”
“Sureme! My scheme, my risk. I’ll take a phone and earth pin and simply plug in to Bannu beyond the cuts in the cable.”
It was a long gamble and the hazards were hideous. They were profanely against his going, each pleading to be chosen in his stead. Jim grinned at them. No matter what this tough crew lacked in polish, they were the salt of the earth. They were still protesting when he left them.
r"PHE UPPER floor was deserted and he reached his alcove without meeting a soul. He would be travelling light. No rifle. For weapon, holster and all, he chose the Webley he had not used here. Into his haversack went a small miscellany, including pencil, jackknife and some Webley cartridges. In the deserted signallers' room below he picked up a spare telephone and earth pin, and was ready.
Once in the compound, he was freshly struck by the fact that no attempt had been made to attack from the east side; perhaps they even avoided it, fearing Bannu had been reached before the wire was cut. Relief would naturally come from the east.
Oakes had been replacing casualties with those originally assigned to the east wall until it was now bare of men. Bright starlight was not so good for Jim’s purpose, but a condition in his favor was that the eastern slojx: of the roof was untouched by fire; all the light was elsewhere, and thus the shadow of the fort darkened the eastern wall. He slid across the wall and dropped to the ground. Until well clear of the fort he avoided the cart track. From the fort the Bannu cable was buried for some way before it rose to lie along the ground the
entire tortuous distance back to headquarters - earth-covered only at points where from necessity it crossed and recrossed the rough path.
A twist in the trail cut off his view of the fort; silenced most of the noise as well. All at once he felt very much alone. In the flat starlight it was easy to imagine a tribesman lurking behind every boulder. The track dipped into a deep gorge; once or twice he thought he heard voices. Each time he stopped to listen. Silence. He pressed on, sweating a little despite the cold. The trail now lay along the floor of a widening valley, and Jim recalled a nearby ford where the cable had been staked up to span a swiftly flowing stream.
When he reached the ford the cable sagged into the water. He waded across. The far stake was missing and the wire had vanished. At least 500 yards had been removed; when he came upon the far end he scraped away the snow and forced his earth pin into the frozen earth.
"BU, BU, BU,” he buzzed, until bare fingers stiffened on the key. How far east had the cable been mutilated? He judged he had already come between four and five miles.
He commenced to fight a mounting sense of discouragement. But he was not even close to admitting defeat. As he stood up he heard those voices again. Imagination? Maybe it was the stream; that rushing burble could be translated into anything fancy dictated.
A FEW hundred yards farther on, the stream dived straight into the side of a mountain. The trail curled off around its southern flank, the wire mockingly visible. Dead wire. Robbed of the noise of the stream, the night was startlingly still. Jim’s boots crunched along the icy way like thunderclaps.
But above that, for the third time he heard something—a muttering? He stood stock-still, held his breath. There it was again. Behind him? Before? No knowing. Yet close at hand, men spoke.
Light-footed, he moved forward. It was only because of his cautious pace that he did not overlook another cut in the wire, for 'this time the severed ends lay only inches apart. Listening intently, he prepared to plug in. The sound of speech had ceased. He cut away insulation and was about to hook wire to phone when an incredible thing happened.
The wire moved.
It slid away just beyond reach as he knelt beside the phone. Of course! He’d been overtaking a slower moving tribal party sent out to destroy the line. Doubtless they were just beyond that rock shoulder which blocked his view of the trail.
They were winding in wire for another cut. But—Jim’s heart pounded thickly— had they made it? If it was a case of pull first, cut second, he mij^it buzz through to headquarters here and now.
He pounced on the wire, temporarily motionless, crooked the shining end about the telephone’s station terminal, tightened the set screw.
His fingers were on the key when the telephone slithered out from under him. It brought up against the short earth-pin lead like a staked horse at the end of its tether. Jim leaped after the instrument. Invisible hands jerked impatiently; the earth pin sagged, was tom from the ground. Slowly, phone and pin slid away again.
Jim picked up the telephone. Walking, he cradled it in his left arm, the earth pin gripped in a left hand wet with sweat. Would the human ground connection work? A right-handed flip cocked his helmet far enough back to permit the dual head receivers to be jammed over his ears. Then he sent Bannu’s signal.
The answer was instant, followed by “G.” (“Goon.”)
"SKATTKD,” he tapped. (“Safed Kot attacked.”)
There was no answer.
Had Bannu received the message? If silence meant another cut. there was no telling the exact second it had been made.
So close to success; the uncertainty was heartbreaking.
A sudden new danger. The rock shoulder was a bare ten feet ahead. He was walking straight into tribal arms. Fingers thick with haste. Jim fumbled to separate wire from phone. The set screw jammed. Suddenly it came free; the cable fell away, vanished.
But the Tori Khel were far from fools. As the wire was pulled in, someone must have reached a quick conclusion about that shaped, scraped end.
Jim heard a harsh exclamation, then followed an eternity of silence. But they were coming back; small sounds began to betray them. Jim’s Webley felt solid in his hand as he crouched behind a huge rock. The long barrel of a Martini-Henry moved black against the snow. A turban followed; the swathed figure of a Tori Khel stepped clear. He motioned to those behind, kept on. passing so close that Jim could hear his breathing. Three ghosts of men followed him. The four moved away, cautiously backtracking.
Their keen eyes had missed Jim and he could scarcely credit such luck. Well, he’d get beyond their last cut and this time there’d be nothing to stop him. All he needed was enough time to repeat his message and receive Bannu’s acknowledgment. It was characteristic of his true temper that he thought little of what would happen were he overtaken.
"D Y NOW the four Waziris were so far away that he deemed it safe to make his break. Ever so slightly relaxed, in a few strides he was around the bend.
Rifle across knees, a fifth tribesman squatted squarely in the trail. Jim was right on him. The man fired with no aim —missed. That shot would bring the
others packing. The man leaped up, clubbing his rifle. Jim shot him cleanly between the eyes.
He had a lead of perhaps 200 yards. The trick was to increase it. His long, tired legs j responded, but soon he knew that good j running with a field telephone was imposJ sible. He tried taking the thing under his ! arm like a football, but even so, the weight ! ruined his stride.
All tribes of the Interzone are tireless ¡ runners and at their very best in a stern j chase. It was Jim’s bad fortune to have a : full mile of uphill trail right at the outset. He had nothing left but heart; and because he was dead-beat to start with, his second wind was doubly slow in coming.
Lungs bursting, legs gone soggy rubber,
! somehow he forced himself to the top of the f rise, where he collapsed to all fours. With ; lolling head he fought for air, the hard breath rasping in his throat. He would have given his soul to lie down. Instead, still on hands and knees, he turned to look back.
Well back, three tribesmen ran toe-toheel. The leader was all but on him. Jim ducked under the skyline and with left hand braced his gun wrist.
The front runner popped over the crest. Seen from the ground he filled the sky—all bearded chin and loose, billowing garments.
He didn’t have a chance in the world, and Jim, sighing, let him have it. But the others? Jim raised himself for a brief survey.
The trail was empty.
A rock not thirty yards away spouted orange flame. Jim tumbled out of range, rolled to his feet, took off downhill. Soon he heard the thud of pursuing feet. So it was to begin all over again—and he had nothing left. He knew, now, that he could not outrun these men. All three were close.
Suddenly he stopped. His snap shot was hurried and low, taking the foremost in the leg. The man went down cursing. His mates fell over him.
Jim fired into the grey mass of them. One swung up out of the tangle. A whirling rifle butt cracked the Webley from Jim’s hand. The gun flew into the air and thudded down somewhere out of sight.
Jim ripped a numbing fist to the man’s jaw. The man’s head jerked; he stumbled.
I The Tori with the bad leg fired from the ground. It was like a world exploding in Jim’s face. Something seared his ribs as he started to run.
The third man was up. He fired, missed, took after Jim with a shout of triumph. An unarmed Artur ezi I ns ha I la It, but this would be rare sport !
Blood ran hot down Jim’s side. He’d run in—run to Bannu. He’d come more than halfway -or had he?
For a space his head cleared. A quick look back showed the Tori Khel running i easily, grinning in his beard.
“Set to run me down alive, "Jim thought. If only he hadn't lost the Webley!
The mists of extreme exhaustion were ! closing in again. Something kept flopping against him—the phone. The earth pin dangled. Earth pin? A weapon ! He jerked it free of the phone, and half fell across the next sizable boulder.
Up bounded the Tori Khel. all evil expectancy. He had run this young dog ! into the ground, had him helpless. Now to take him.
The helpless dog moved suddenly.
With the clean, distinctive crack of a breaking walnut shell, the earth pin took the tribesman just at the point where turban met forehead. The man sprawled against Jim and both slid into the snow.
For a moment Jim lay there, too done to move. Then his will took charge again; he pushed the hot. stinking body away and crawled across the trail to the cable. The telephone, still dragging by its stout straps, followed him.
With owlish clumsiness, he prepared to plug in again. By chance he faced toward Bannu, desperately striving to concentrate upon his task. He had forgotten the tribesman he had no more than stunned, left far back on the trail.
In that moment Jim was an easy mark. All he knew of being stalked was one great, blinding flash as a rifle butt cracked down on his helmet.
And thus he heard nothing of a sudden I shot, seemingly from nowhere, which crumpled his assailant beside him.
JIM sniffed the stench of burned straw, became aware of the hard blue of a Frontier morning. A hundred dwarfs with hobnailed boots were kicking him in the head, his left side was on fire. Through throbbing I eyes he saw Oakes standing near a fire! blackened table. At that table sat though it seemed too absurd to be real his Uncle ! Bentick; old Bluenose in person.
“We’ll withdraw what’s left of this garrison at once,” Bluenose was saying.
¡ “There’s next to nothing left to defend. Glad we got here in time.”
“Frankly, we’d about given up hope.” Oakes said. His face looked as if he had smeared burnt cork over it. “I’m surprised to see you, sir."
"Unexpectedly, I was ordered to take over the brigade did so at six last night. The staff thought little of the dead line to this fort, but as time wore on I liked the look of it less and less. So I ordered all mounted units to stand to, ready to move instantly. And well I did. Just after ten, along came a mysterious two-word message that Safed Kot was attacked. Then the line went as dead as before.”
“The message did get through.” Jim cried.
“So you’ve come to,” snapped Bluenose. Two pairs of steely blue eyes, startlingly alike, stared at each other. “Well, you’re under arrest. Captain Oakes has told me everything.”
“Gross disobedience of orders, deserting your post in the face of an enemy.”
“Oh, I’m well aware it must have been you who got that message through. We came on you slumped over a telephone. A trooper of my advance guard had just shot the man who apparently knocked you out . . All that’s beside the point. Serious charges have been preferred against youand they stand.”
“Very good, sir.” Jim said woodenly. Bluenose turned back to Oakes. “Of course, you realize that your case against Jiagainst Mr. Thayer can scarcely be developed before a court martial without revealing that, as commandant of this fort, you made not the slightest effort to send for help. There’ll be an enquiry about that, I’m sure.”
Oakes looked distinctly uncomfortable. “We were surrounded, sir. I didn’t think runners would stand a Chinaman’s chance. Beyond runners, there seemed no way to get word to headquarters. I hope” “But the fact remains that there was a way.”
Oakes said hastily: “I’ll be glad to withdraw my charges if it isn’t too late, sir.” A rare smile cracked Bluenose’s leathery features. “Since Mr. Thayer saved a good many lives including your own—I’m inclined to permit it.”
He rounded on Jim. “That skating nonsensea fool business. But I blame Oakes, primarily, for letting you carry on with it.” Abruptly he rose, held out his hand. “After last summer’s fiasco, I scarcely knew what to think about you. But after last night I know now you’ve something even more precious than initiative, young Jim . . . Guts!”