Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

Three short stories from 'THE CAPTAIN' volume XXVII online

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field-glasses, counterbalanced by a case containing an automatic
pistol.

Devereux's outfit was almost identical, except that he wore putties
in place of leggings, and a solar-topee, or sun-helmet, instead of
the wideawake affected by his American _confrère_.

"I won't forget," replied Devereux, extending his hand. "We are to
try and do each other as much as we possibly can, but be good pals
notwithstanding."

"Guess you've hit it," agreed Craddock, who felt he could afford to
be tolerant with the inexperienced youth whom the _Intelligence_ had,
in its mild form of insanity, sent out to represent itself. "But I
reckon, sonny, that if you are going to do anything at all you'd best
make a move. There's more than a 'squito buzzing around over there."
And he pointed towards the mountains, whence a faint rattle of
musketry was borne to the ears of the two journalists.

Without waiting for another word Craddock flung himself into the
high-peaked saddle of an Arab horse - a fine, full-spirited beast that
he had purchased from one of the "reconciled" inhabitants of the
captured city - and urged the animal at a furious pace towards the
scene of action.

"He knows that there's something to be picked up over there,"
muttered Devereux, nodding his head in the direction taken by the
American. "So the best thing I can do is to keep at his heels - if I
can."

The young Englishman's mount was but a sorry specimen of a
donkey - the only animal he had been able to procure. Devereux
literally stepped into the saddle, and with his feet dangling barely
eighteen inches from the ground, started in pursuit of his rival.

He was excited - that he was willing to admit - for within a few days
of setting foot on African soil - and beastly soil it was - he was
about to have a chance of smelling powder in real earnest.

The immediate environs of Fez consisted of a vast extent of
undulating ground, sandy and interspersed by low masses of rocks.
Here and there a few date-palms - the outlying sentinels of the
extensive oasis - afforded a slight break to the deadly monotony of
the sandy waste that extended to the base of the mountains.

"Not doing so badly, after all," soliloquised Devereux, as the
sure-footed little animal trotted through the soft sand,
instinctively avoiding all obstacles in the shape of hard rocks or
diminutive "khors" or ravines. "I believe I'm holding my own in any
case." For Craddock's horse had nearly exhausted itself in the first
half-mile, and was now floundering along and almost hiding its rider
from the Englishman's view by the cloud of dust from its labouring
hoofs.

Nearer and nearer the two correspondents drew to the scene of action,
Craddock still maintaining a lead of about four hundred yards.

From a spectacular point of view the engagement was disappointing,
for only an extended line of brownish-grey helmets was visible, as
the French Foreign Legion, taking excellent cover, maintained a rapid
fire upon a practically unseen foe. Beyond the short crack of the
rifles, the peculiar screech of the bullets, and the occasional
pop-pop-pop of the machine guns, there was little to indicate that
the troops were engaged, for the slightest mist given out by the
smokeless powder was quickly dispersed in the scorching atmosphere.
Occasionally two men would stagger to the rear with a wounded
comrade, place their motionless burden in a position of comparative
safety, and resume their places in the firing-line, while members of
the field ambulance party would cluster round the "case" like flies
to a honey-pot.

Presently Devereux became aware of a sharp zip somewhere in the
vicinity of his left ear. Instinctively he ducked, and at the same
time was almost blinded by a shower of sand thrown up by a spent
bullet that struck the ground barely ten paces in front of him.

In his excitement he grew angry.

"What do the bounders mean by taking pot-shots at me?" he growled;
but the next instant he realised that he was crossing the danger
zone, in which the bullets of the Berbers - who frequently aimed too
high - were coming to earth a good eight hundred yards in the rear of
the French lines.

Prudence suggested that Devereux should take cover behind some
friendly rock and watch developments, but there was Craddock still
making his way onwards towards the fringe of skirmishers. Where the
_Moonshine_ was the _Intelligence_ must surely be.

The American had reduced the pace of his horse almost to a walk - a
circumstance that Devereux thought remarkable if not foolhardy. As
Devereux drew nearer he saw that Craddock's mount was limping badly,
with a bullet graze on its fetlock; but ere the young Englishman
could hail the other the horse suddenly reared, then, falling to the
ground with a dull thud, pitched its rider over its mane.

By the time the _Intelligence_ special had joined the American,
Craddock regained his feet and ruefully contemplated his lifeless
steed.

"Hurt?" asked Devereux, laconically.

"Hurt? As dead as a door-nail, I guess. A hundred and twenty dollars
gone bust!"

"But yourself?"

"No; but I guess I'm a fool to try that sort of game, sonny. Ought to
have taken cover straight away. It's getting a bit thick. Here, turn
your precious animal loose, and let's lie low over there."

But Devereux was loth to leave his patient steed in the open.
Nevertheless he dismounted and led the ass to the shelter of a few
palms in the rock-enclosed depression. For nearly a quarter of an
hour the two correspondents watched the skirmish, till the Moorish
fire began to slacken, and the French, by alternate rushes by
companies, began to press home the attack.

"Now's our chance!" exclaimed Craddock, replacing his field-glasses
and shutting the case with an emphatic snap. "We'll make for the rear
of those fellows on the right flank."

Unscathed the two correspondents gained their desired position, and
were soon following up the extended line of infantry, who, advancing
by short rushes and dropping on one knee, were taking rapid yet
careful aim at the dull red spurts of flame betwixt the palm-trees.

"It's not going to be much, after all," exclaimed Devereux. "The
Berbers are bolting already."

"Don't be too cocksure, sonny," replied Craddock, glancing towards
the oasis as he paused in the act of writing in his note-book. "They
are - - "

A loud, irregular discharge of musketry in the rear caused the two
correspondents, and many of the French infantry, to turn their heads
and gaze with mingled feelings at the new danger that threatened.

Out of a khor in the ground already traversed by the French troops
poured nearly a thousand Moorish hillmen, and in a moment the right
flank of the invaders was cut off and surrounded, while the centre
and left flanks, taken completely by surprise, were compelled to
execute a hasty, yet comparatively disciplined, strategic movement to
the rear.

"We're fairly trapped, by George!" ejaculated Devereux.

"Right for once," replied Craddock, coolly. "Stand by with your
revolver. Those varmints won't recognise the rights of
non-combatants, I guess."

The Berbers love nothing better than to come to close quarters with
their foes; and the gallant Foreign Legion realised that once their
ferocious adversaries came to hand-to-hand blows their own chances
would be small. Yet, in spite of the deadly magazine-rifle fire, the
mountaineers rushed in and were soon crossing steel with the French
troops who, shoulder to shoulder or back to back, defended themselves
by bullet and bayonet.

Presently Devereux became aware that the hammer of his revolver was
snapping harmlessly upon empty chambers. Hastily throwing open the
heated weapon he began to thrust fresh cartridges into the six
cylinders. But ere he could complete his task Craddock lurched
violently against his companion, and dropped inertly upon the sand.
As in a dream the Englishman saw his _confrère's_ note-book slip
from the American's grasp. Instinctively Devereux stooped, picked it
up, and thrust it into his own hip-pocket; and, standing astride the
prostrate form of his companion, prepared to defend both the American
and himself to the last.

Feverishly he strove to insert the remaining cartridges into the
chambers, but before this could be accomplished the butt-end of a
rifle, wielded by a desperate Legionnaire, caught the Englishman a
glancing blow, on the temple ere it descended with a crash upon the
skull of a Moor.

Thousands of lights flashed before Devereux's eyes, and, clapping his
hands convulsively to his head, he fell unconscious across the body
of his comrade and rival.

* * * * *

When Devereux came to his senses he found himself lying on the ground
in the shade of a date-palm; his head was throbbing painfully, while
his arms seemed numb and devoid of muscular action. For some minutes
he lay still, wondering where on earth he could be, till the events
of the sanguinary conflict came home to him.

"The interests of the _Intelligence_ must be your first
consideration." The words re-echoed in his mind like a hollow
mockery. Something pressing against his hip told the young special
that his note-book, and Craddock's as well, were so far safe; but to
what purpose? Apparently they had escaped the attention of the Moors,
for everything else of value had been taken from him.

He turned his head with an effort, and saw Craddock lying by his
side.

"Hello, sonny! We're in a pickle, I guess." Devereux attempted to
rise, but found that he was securely bound, hand and foot.

"No use," continued the American, grimly. "They've trussed us up,
sure enough."

"We are prisoners?"

"I guess so. Look over there."

With an effort Devereux rolled over on to his left side. It was a
strange sight that met his view. He was lying in a valley surrounded
on three sides by lofty hills. A large part of the ground was
occupied by a Berber encampment. Between the irregular lines of
camel-haired tents swarmed hundreds of Moors, clad in long, loose,
white garments. Camels, horses, flocks, and bundles of merchandise
were huddled together promiscuously, while women and children had
taken the risk of being at the seat of war, and were mingling with
the throng.

The Berbers were evidently on the point of celebrating their victory,
for half a dozen Moors were making ready with drums and weird-looking
wind instruments to provide the music for their companions'
edification and amusement.

"Where are the French troops?" asked Devereux.

"Having a rest behind the walls of Fez, I guess," replied the
American. "Or those that got away, anyhow," he added, grimly.

"What's going to happen to us, d'you think?"

"Better not ask, sonny. Too many questions on a hot day are bad for
the liver."

Both men relapsed into silence, and watched the movements of their
captors. In a few moments the dance of victory was in full swing,
till the participants literally worked themselves up into a frenzy.

Suddenly above the clash of the beating of the drums came a
succession of sharp reports, followed by a long-drawn whirr.

As if by magic the dancers ceased their exertions, and gazed
skywards. The captives also looked in the direction of the strange
sounds.

"An aeroplane!" gasped Devereux.

"Right you are," assented Craddock. "We'll be right down lucky if we
escape being blown sky-high. Look, the fellow is going to drop a
bomb."

Soaring swiftly towards the Berber encampment was one of the French
monoplanes. Instead of the usual complement of two only one man
controlled the graceful flyer.

Presently, when almost over the camp, he tilted the planes, then,
leaning sideways, let fall a small, black object.

The Moors knew their danger, and began to rush for shelter in the
clefts of the rocks. Dropped from a height of about five hundred
feet, the bomb struck earth, and exploded with a terrific detonation.

From where they lay the two captives could not see the effect upon
the flying Berbers; but several of their camels and horses were
struck down by the fragments of the missile, while the correspondents
were nearly smothered in showers of sand thrown up by the concussion.

"The fellow has spotted us," exclaimed Devereux. "He's coming to the
rescue."

The monoplane alighted with hardly a jar at less than twenty paces
from the two prisoners.

Giving a hurried yet careful glance around to make sure that the
Moorish mountaineers had not recovered from the shock and were
returning, the aviator stepped to the ground.

He was a young man, probably not more than twenty years of age, and
was clad in the active service rig of a lieutenant of engineers.

"Messieurs, I am thankful to be of service - at least to one of you,"
he exclaimed in his own language, with which Craddock was perfectly
familiar, although his companion had but a smattering of French.

"You must know," continued the officer, as he deftly severed their
bonds, "that this monoplane will carry but two. You must therefore
decide, and that quickly, which of you will accompany me. The other
must take his chance of escape as best he can."

"You understand?" asked Craddock of his English _confrère_.

"Yes, I understand."

"Then off you get."

"Me - why? It's not fair. We are free to a certain extent, so let's
make a dash for it."

"Don't be a fool, Devereux. Why should two be sacrificed for one?
You're the youngest so get."

"It's not playing the game."

"Hang it! Get, I say, or I'll kick you on to the beastly monoplane!"

But Devereux refused to take the proffered chance; Craddock was
equally obstinate. The airman began to look anxious.

"We can't decide, monsieur."

"Then I must do so for you. Will you abide by my decision?" asked the
lieutenant. "_Bon!_"

Drawing a cigarette-case from his pocket the Frenchman produced two
cigarettes. One he deliberately broke in two, and threw one half on
the ground.

Then he turned his back to the two men for one brief instant, then
faced them once again. In his closed hand were the whole and the
broken cigarette, the tips showing evenly side by side.

"Choose, monsieur," he exclaimed, extending his hand towards
Devereux. "The whole cigarette means safety. Do not hesitate, for I
see the Moors are showing signs of returning."

The Englishman drew the broken one.

"That's done it, Craddock," he exclaimed, grimly. "Off you go. By the
bye, here's your note-book."

"How did you get hold of it?" asked the American, acutely, and not
without suspicion.

"You dropped it when you fell, and I picked it up," replied Devereux,
simply. "Look here, here's my copy. You might, as a favour, wire it
on as soon as you can for me."

"I will, sonny; but an hour after I've sent mine off to the
_Moonshine_. Personal feelings must stand aside when journalism is at
stake. All's fair in the news hunt, you know. Well, good-bye, and
good luck."

And, wringing the Englishman's hand, the American sprang into the
saddle-like seat. The French officer paused only to hand his revolver
to the Englishman with a significant gesture, then climbed into the
seat in front of the good-as-rescued man. The propeller began to hum,
and the monoplane rose gracefully in the air, raising a column of
sand as high as a four-storeyed house.


[Illustration: He rested his revolver over the horse's body, and took
careful aim. Knowing that a slow and fearful death would follow
recapture, he vowed he would not be taken alive.]


For a moment Devereux was thunderstruck. An hour after the
_Moonshine_ received its copy the _Intelligence_ would be blank as
far as its war news was concerned.

Yes, Craddock had scored.

Devereux gave a hasty glance in the direction of the Berber
encampment. There were several hieries still left unscathed, and were
peacefully browsing on the spot where they had been left hobbled. But
the Englishman dared not trust himself to seek safety in flight on
the precarious perch that a racing camel affords. Good luck! There
was a horse - a swift, powerful-looking beast by its appearance.

Casting off the halter the Englishman vaulted into the saddle and
urged the beast into a gallop, using the leather thong in place of
spurs. Nobly the animal responded, and soon Devereux had left the
mountains behind and was speeding over the sandy, tree-dotted waste.

Just then a rifle cracked, and a bullet whistled over his head. The
Berbers were in close pursuit. Bending as far over the horse's neck
as the high-peaked saddle would permit, Devereux urged his steed by
word and action. One rapid glance behind showed him that the
pursuers - for the most part mounted on hieries - were hot in his
tracks. In the soft sand he knew that the swiftest horse would stand
a poor chance against the ship of the desert.

There were nine of the pursuers; enough, in all conscience, and the
odds were greatly against him. They were gaining.

Drawing the Frenchman's revolver Devereux swung himself round, took
rapid aim, and fired. A bullet singing past his ear affected his aim,
and the shot was thrown away; but the second brought a camel and his
rider headlong to the ground.

This mishap caused the Moors to hesitate, and the pursued gained a
little; till, with redoubled spirit and furious erratic firing, the
pursuers resumed the chase with renewed energy.

With four cartridges left in his revolver, and eight Moors to be
accounted for, could he hope for safety? The sickening truth came
home to the fugitive: his horse was floundering.

Suddenly the animal's legs gave way beneath it, and it sank to the
ground, throwing Devereux over its head. Fortunately the ground was
soft and broke his fall; and in an instant the Englishman had
regained his feet, a shot grazing his ribs as he did so. One glance
showed him that his horse was dead.

Throwing himself down behind the carcase of the horse Devereux rested
his revolver over the body, and took careful aim. He realised that if
he could get in three successful shots the Berbers might draw off. If
not, there would be only one cartridge left, and the Englishman,
knowing that a slow and painful death awaited a recaptured prisoner,
swore that he would never be taken alive.

The Moors were dismounting from their lofty steeds, with the evident
intention of surrounding and rushing their solitary foe.

_Bang!_ Down went one white-robed figure, pitching heavily into the
sand.

_Bang! Bang!_ Two more. Devereux handled his weapon ostentatiously,
yet durst not discharge his remaining cartridge.

A regular fusillade came from the rifles of the remaining Berbers;
but, although the range was short and many of the bullets came
perilously close, none actually hit the desperate man at bay.

Seeing this the attackers made ready to resort to their natural
tactics, and, placing their rifles on the ground, drew their swords
and grasped their spears, and began to extend, preparatory to rushing
their foeman's position.

"Another half a minute will see the wind-up of Jack Devereux,"
muttered the young Englishman, as he took careful aim at the nearest
of his assailants - although he had no intention of using his last
cartridge on him. But the action was thrown away, for the Moor,
scorning the levelled weapon, bounded forward with a fierce yell, his
companions following his example.

Devereux hesitated. He felt unwilling to turn the weapon on himself
until his foes were almost within striking distance.

But the rush never matured. The Moors suddenly checked their furious
onslaught. One swarthy Berber pointed with his scintillating blade in
the direction of the city, and the five turned and ran towards their
hobbled camels.

Devereux looked over his shoulder, scarce daring to hope when hope
seemed dead.

Speeding across the desert was a troop of heavy French cavalry. He
realised that he was saved in the nick of time.

* * * * *

In the stifling heat of the courtyard of the Press Censor's office at
Fez, Devereux rewrote his dispatch with feverish haste. The chance of
a great scoop was once more in his favour, for he learnt that the
monoplane, through a mishap, had come to earth about four miles from
the city. Craddock and his rescuer were in no real danger, and might
be expected to arrive at any moment.

In his shirt-sleeves, his head throbbing like a steam-engine, and his
limbs as stiff as a rusty piston-rod, Devereux wrote as he had never
written before. He had seventeen minutes to complete his task, for he
knew that the Censor's office closed at a quarter to five, and at any
moment he himself might be forestalled by his journalistic rival.

Metaphorically blind to the world, heedless of what was going on
around him, Devereux stuck gamely to his task till the final sentence
was completed. It was twenty minutes to the fateful hour.

The little lean-faced French officer took the proffered "copy," and
began to read it in quite a leisurely manner.

"Good!" thought Devereux; "take your time. Now you've started you
must finish; but I hope you won't before closing time."

At exactly the three-quarters the Censor _viséed_ the dispatch, and
handed it back to the correspondent. With a hurried expression of
thanks, Devereux took his leave, saw with satisfaction the officer
motion to an orderly to close the door, and continued his way to the
post and telegraph office.

"Hurrah! The _Intelligence_ will have it in time for the morning
edition," he exclaimed; as he stumbled out of the telegraph office,
having waited to make sure that the operator had made a move.

Meanwhile Craddock, mounted on a wretched transport mule, ambled into
the city. He grumbled mightily when he discovered that the Censor's
office was closed for the night; but reflecting that gold might do
the trick, he borrowed some money from an obliging officer, and made
his way to the telegraph office.

"Pardon, monsieur, but this dispatch does not bear the official
stamp," said the operator, suavely. "Without being _viséed_ I can do
nothing but refuse to accept it."

Craddock was checkmated. Persuasion and bribery alike were thrown
away, and disgustedly he prepared to return to his quarters.

"Anyway, to-morrow will do," thought he. "I've scored, after all's
said and done. I'm sorry for that youngster, though. He was green,
but he had grit. It's a pity he's gone under. Well, it's the fortune
of war, I suppose."

Entering the quarters assigned to the Press representatives the
American suddenly pulled up and stood stock still, with his eyes
bulging out of his head, and his mouth wide open.

He was face to face with Jack Devereux.

"Done you this time, Craddock," exclaimed the _Intelligence_ man,
affably.

"Snakes! You don't mean to say that you've - - "

"Certainly," replied Devereux, throwing himself wearily upon his
couch, and stifling a yawn. "To quote your own words: personal
feelings must stand aside when journalistic reputation is at stake."

"How," began Craddock, bewildered and angry; "how - - " He stopped
abruptly, for his successful rival was sound asleep.

* * * * *

Next morning the _Intelligence_ came out with two and three-quarter
columns of news from the front, while the _Moonshine's_ space
reserved for the latest war news was as vacant as the expression on
the face of its puzzled editor.

Jack Devereux had made his scoop and his reputation in one stroke.


THE END




THE POWDER HULK
By PERCY F. WESTERMAN
Illustrated by E. S. HODGSON


I


"IT'S no use, Harry. We're losing on every tack."

"Yes, I know. We've drifted quite fifty yards from that buoy. Shake
her up while I let go for'ard. We'll bring up here for the night and
carry on up to Flapperham with to-morrow's flood tide."

Harry Armitage, owner and skipper of the little 3-ton cutter _Spray_,
made his way for'ard. The head sails were quickly lowered, with a
rush and a rattle the chain cable flew through the fairlead, and with
her mainsail flapping in the keen breeze, the _Spray_ brought up head
to wind and tide.

"Now then, bear a hand with the mainsail, Jack; the sooner we get
this business over the better, for we're in for a dirty night." Jack
Standish, who filled every capacity on board the _Spray_ that the
skipper didn't, joined his companion and began to cast off the
throat-halliards.

"Aren't we too close to the powder-ship?" he asked, indicating a hulk
that loomed up darkly against the evening sky - a sky full of angry
tints from deep indigo to pale yellow.

"Too close? We're more than the prescribed 200 yards off. If you're
afraid she'll blow up, we may just as well be here as any other part
of the harbour, for I believe she has over a thousand tons of cordite


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Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanThree short stories from 'THE CAPTAIN' volume XXVII → online text (page 2 of 4)