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THOMAS CHARLES BRIDGES
(WRITING AS T.C. BRIDGES)

"FRIENDLIES"

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Based on a British poster (ca. 1915)

A TALE OF THE MESOPOTAMIAN CAMPAIGN


Ex Libris

First published in Chums, Cassell & Co., London, 6 January 1917

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2022
Version Date: 2022-11-06

Produced by Keith Emmett and Roy Glashan

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SECOND-LIEUTENANT LESTER HUME, of the Fifth Southshires, entered the mess-tent, which was only a few degrees less hot than the blazing sand outside, and stood a moment, looking round.

"Hallo, Hume!" came a voice. "How goes it, old son? Come and partake of a pot of tea."

"You bet!" replied Hume emphatically, as he came across to where the other, a youngster of his own age and rank, was boiling a tin kettle on a spirit stove, the whole, together with two mugs and a tin of biscuits, being laid out on top of an empty packing-case. "You bet I will, Marryat. Jove, I never struck such a thirsty spot as this."

Marryat looked up with a pleasant smile on his brown face. "You're kicking too soon, Hume. Wait till you get up country. Then you can talk about heat."

"Don't," said Hume protestingly. "If I ever strike anything hotter than this, I shall take refuge in the camp kettle."

He pulled up another packing-case. Chairs, even canvas ones, are at a discount in the Basrah country. Seating himself on this, he took the mug of milkless tea which Marryat handed him and put it away almost at a gulp.

"I hear a new chap's arrived to command our company," he said. "I hope he's decent, but will hardly come up to poor old Shaw. Rotten luck, his getting scuppered!"

"It was. Have you seen the new man?"

"No. He's a Captain Harmer."

Marryat started so that he upset his tea. It splashed over his well-worn khaki breeches, but he paid no attention.

"Harmer? Not—not Cyril Harmer?"

"C. Harmer. I don't know about the Cyril. But what's the matter, man? Do you know him?"

"I do," said Marryat, and there was a grimness in his voice and face which startled Hume.

It was on the tip of his tongue to ask what the trouble was; but well as he knew the other, he did not quite like to. After a pause, Marryat spoke again.

"He's my cousin. He hates me. You see, he—he expected to have Winchcote, and—and it was left to me."

Hume merely nodded. The explanation was quite sufficient. He knew the lovely old Sussex house of which his friend was master, and he now remembered some story of another cousin who had been furious at being cut out of the will.

As he sipped his second cup of tea his thoughts were busy. He plainly foresaw that this was going to be infernally awkward. Harmer would be their superior officer. If he chose to make trouble it would be only too fatally easy for him to do so. But the extent of that trouble even he did not begin to foresee.

The very next morning Harmer put in an appearance, and Hume, watching him quietly, by no means liked the look of him. A man of about thirty, he looked older. He had high cheek-bones, a thin-lipped mouth, and pale-blue eyes as cold and hard as polished steel.

He was a good man at drill, but more than a bit of a martinet. The men did not like him. One good thing, he did not pitch on his cousin particularly. Not that it would have been easy, for there was not a smarter sub in the regiment than young Roy Marryat.

The force under General Nixon had at that time advanced no farther than Kurna at the junction of the rivers. The staff was busy trying to find out what tribes could be depended upon to remain friendly, and which were purely Turkish in their sympathies. Small parties were constantly sent out to parley with the chiefs and bargain with the friendlies for their assistance.

About a week after Harmer's arrival, Harmer himself was detailed for work of this description. Colonel Barrington, who was in command of the regiment, ordered him to take two officers and about a dozen men and go out to the oasis of Ge Kasr which was held by the Tanis, a tribe whose chief, Ben Yusaf, was known to be well disposed towards the British. Harmer was to collect from him information as to the movements of the Turks, and also to carry to him a sum in English gold as payment for past services.

The first that Marryat heard of this was his reception of a written message from Harmer, ordering him to be ready to start at dawn the next morning.

Marryat was astonished. "Fancy his choosing me!" he said to Hume. "I should have thought I was about the last to get a chance of this sort."

"I expect the Colonel told him to take you," said Hume sagely. "You're the only chap who knows the lingo, to say nothing of the lie of the land."

Marryat shrugged his shoulders. "You may be right. But all the same, I don't know that I'm keen about it. You can take it from me that Cyril Harmer likes me as little as he ever did."

"Wish I was going," said Hume regretfully. "But he knows we're pals, and he'll choose Nisbet."

In this Hume was right. Nisbet was the other sub chosen, and at four next morning the little party moved off.

They had to go right away from the river, so it was necessary to carry water as well as food. For this purpose they had a couple of pack mules with native drivers.

Sunrise found them far out on a waterless desert. There was not a green thing in sight—nothing but endless sand, and here and there a clump of bare, sun-baked rocks. As the sun rose higher the heat soon became intense. The sand seemed almost red-hot, and weird mirages began to float upon the shimmering horizon.

The party did not stop. They were to make their midday halt at Heira, a place where some dry wells were surrounded by a few palms which would give a little shelter from the savage sun-glare.

Half-blinded by the fierce reflection beating up from the sand, Marryat was tramping mechanically onwards, when his sergeant, Lane, came alongside.

"Beg pardon, sir, I don't quite know whether they're men, or another of them mirages, but aren't those Arabs over there?"

Marryat stared in the direction indicated, shielding his eyes with his hands.

"You are right, sergeant. They are Arabs. I will inform Captain Harmer."

He stepped quickly forward to his cousin.

"There are Arab horsemen over on those sandhills to the north, sir," he said formally.

Harmer stopped, took his field-glasses from their case, and focused them on the horsemen.

"Ah, Tanis!" he said coolly. "No doubt they are coming to escort us in."

Marryat dropped back. He kept his eyes on the horsemen, and soon noticed that there were a great many of them, and that they were moving parallel with, not towards, the British party.

He took out his own binoculars and looked at them searchingly. His face grew anxious, and again he approached Harmer.

"I do not think they are Tanis, sir," he said.

The dust, the heat and his dry throat had not improved Harmer's never very sweet temper.

"What do you know about it?" he asked in a tone which, in itself, was an insult.

Marryat reddened, but kept his temper.

"The Tanis wear turbans!" he answered. "Those men do not. I believe that they are hostiles."

"You do, do you? And who asked you for your opinion?" sneered Harmer.

The insult was gross, for the words were heard by all the men.

"You did, sir. You asked me what I knew about it."

Marryat's calmness infuriated Harmer. Two deep lines appeared in his forehead, and there was an ugly glint in his pale eyes.

"I shan't ask you for it again. Just because you have been in the country a few months, you imagine you know everything, and are insubordinate on the strength of it. Get back to your place, and in future keep your mouth shut until you are asked to open it."

There was a dangerous flash in the younger man's eyes, but he had sense enough not to answer back. He saluted in silence and dropped behind. Glances of sympathy came from almost every man in the little party, but he did not see them. His whole being was seething with anger.

For the time even the Arabs went clean out of his mind. It was Lane who reminded him.

"Them Arabs are getting a lot closer, sir," he whispered in his ear.

Marryat looked up. Lane was right. The Arabs on their wiry horses were closing in. There was no longer any need of glasses. His unaided eyes were enough to tell him that these were no Tanis, but bloodthirsty treacherous foes.

For the moment Marryat felt nothing but a fierce exultation. If he was to be wiped out, Harmer at least would go too. But that feeling only lasted a moment. There were the others to be considered. Yet, could he subject himself again to the certainty of insult?

It was the other sub, Nisbet, who solved the problem. He came up quickly. "I say, Marryat, those Arabs are acting queerly. I think they're going to attack."

"I don't think; I'm sure," answered Marryat grimly.

"Then—then shall I tackle Harmer?" asked the other in a low voice.

"You'd better if you expect to live another hour."

Nisbet hesitated no longer. He went straight to Harmer.

Before he could even speak, half a dozen of the leading Arabs were within five hundred yards, and suddenly the crack of their rifles echoed through the dry air and bullets whipped up spits of sand just ahead of the British party.

Harmer pulled up and glanced round sharply. A little to the left was a hummock of rock. It was the only possible cover for a considerable distance. In a sharp, snarling tone he ordered his men to make for this at the double.

That started it. If the men had gone quietly the Arabs might have done the same. As it was, seeing the British run, they galloped, firing as they came.

The rocks were near and that was lucky, for if they had been another two hundred yards away not one of the party would have reached there alive. As it was, two men were hit and had to be carried in.

Inside they found a sort of rough basin well protected on three sides, badly on the fourth. But so far as defence went, it was a rotten position, for there was no means of closing the big gap on the south side. Also, the rocks were nearly red-hot, and to make matters worse they were smooth-surfaced, so that bullets hitting them splashed horribly, flinging splinters in every direction.

Hastily Harmer disposed his men around the basin, and a brisk fire answered the rain of Arab bullets.

But galloping men are hard to hit, and the refraction added to the difficulty of accurate shooting. The Arabs, on the other hand, had only to pitch enough lead into the small circle to make sure of doing some damage.

Presently came the horrid scream of a man shot through the stomach, and a private named Denby rolled over, dying.

The Arabs heard the scream. They came circling nearer. Their bullets fell thicker and thicker.

Marryat lay flat on a scorching slab of wall firing carefully and deliberately through a natural loophole. He had already got two of the enemy. If the others had followed his example all might yet have been well, but unfortunately most of the Tommies were blazing away at random, waiting their ammunition.

There was a groan close by. Another man had gone down, shot clean through the head. As he glanced at him, Marryat saw still another in the act of fastening a handkerchief over a spouting scalp wound.

The Arabs grew bolder still. A score or more came galloping furiously inwards.

"Steady, men!" cried Marryat. "Hold your fire till they're close enough to make sure of."

Nisbet repeated the order to those beside him, and the firing ceased. Marryat waited till the Arabs were within two hundred yards.

"Now!" he ordered curtly. A combined volley rang out, and no fewer than eight of the hostiles collapsed, while the rest turned and bolted as hard as their horses could leg it across the hard yellow sand.

"Good business!" sang out Marryat. "That's given them something to chew on."

It had. The whole horde swept off northwards to what they considered a safe distance, and scattered in a wide semicircle. Behind the line three or four of the chiefs were in a group, consulting.

Nisbet came across to Marryat. "Are they going to let up?" he asked.

"Not much!" returned Marryat. "They're planning a fresh rush."

"Then, by gosh! they'll get us," said Nisbet in a low voice. "We've lost five men already, and we haven't a tremendous lot of ammunition left."

"Get back to your place, Nisbet." It was Harmer's voice that broke in harshly. "Get back to your place.

"You, Marryat," he continued, fixing his pale eyes on his cousin's face, "you must go for help."

"Go for help?" repeated Marryat, doubtful if he had heard aright.

"That's what I said," snarled Harmer. "Are you afraid?"

Marryat glanced at the open desert, with nothing to break it for miles but a few rocks and sand dunes—nothing to protect him from the bullets of the enemy, nothing to hide him as he, on foot, was galloped down by a score of savage horsemen.

He laughed outright.

Harmer muttered savagely under his breath. "Are you mad?" he demanded.

"Neither afraid nor mad," answered Marryat, and this time he did not trouble to conceal his bitter contempt. His voice rang with it.

"Then are you going to obey?" demanded the other, gritting his teeth with rage.

Marryat saluted. "Certainly!" he said. "Am I to go on foot, or shall I take one of the mules?"

At this moment, evidently acting on some prearranged signal, the Arabs poured in a simultaneous volley. A man close, to the spot where the two stood rolled off his rock and fell almost under their feet. Harmer sprang into his place.

"Take anything you like," he shouted furiously at Marryat. "Take anything you like, but get help."

Marryat flung down his own rifle. He could not carry it. He must trust to his pistol. As he turned another man quite near him dropped with a groan, shot through the lungs. At the same instant a bullet took Marryat's own helmet off his head.

He turned quickly, picked it up, put it on again, and, bending double, made a dash out through the gap to the south.

A curious recklessness possessed him. He knew that he was going to his death—knew, too, that this was what Harmer had deliberately planned. A grim smile twisted his lips.

"A lot of good it will do him!" he muttered. "His chances of ever seeing Winchcote again are precious little better than mine."

Help! Help was miles away—twelve at least. Even well mounted he could hardly hope to reach it. It was more by instinct than reason that he ran onwards.

The Arabs were at the moment on the far side of the rocks. He was a quarter of a mile out on the plain before they spotted him. Then he heard wild shouts, and, glancing round, saw a couple of horsemen, their burnooses flying behind them, their long spears couched, galloping wildly after him.

Two only. His spirits rose a trifle, and his fingers gripped the butt of his heavy pistol. Two was not the odds he had expected.

He looked for cover. There was none. He must meet them in the open. He still ran, but not hard enough to wind himself. Every yard was worth gaining, yet he knew that he must be steady enough to shoot.

The hoofs drummed closer across the hard sand. Again he looked back. Yelling like demons the two brown-faced raiders bore furiously down upon him.

He waited until the first was within twenty yards, then suddenly whipped round and fired. His bullet caught the horse in the head, killing it stone dead, and it came down with a crash, catapulting its rider a dozen feet over its head with a force that either stunned or killed him.

Like a flash Marryat fired at the second Arab. But the fellow ducked like a dabchick, and the bullet went over his head. Before Marryat could pull trigger a second time the sharp lance-head flashed before his eyes.

He made a wild spring sideways, and the lance missed him by inched only. He dropped behind the shelter of the dead horse, and as his enemy wrenched his steed around fired again and a third time.

It was the last bullet that did the trick. The Arab's arms flew up spasmodically, he topped over sideways, and with one foot still hanging in the stirrup was dragged onwards, his body ploughing in the sand.

The horse, terrified, stopped and kicked, trying to free itself of the encumbrance. A wild hope shot through Marryat. He sprang up and dashed forward. Two springs and he was alongside the horse, and with a desperate effort grasped the reins.

The horse plunged furiously, but it was life or death for Marryat, and he hung on desperately. At last he succeeded in quieting the frightened beast; then with a jerk pulled the dead Arab's sandalled foot free from the stirrup.

He sprang into the high pommelled saddle, and with a gasp of relief turned the creature a head in the direction of Kurna.

Savage yells came pealing through the hot air. The enemy had seen his feat, and now no fewer than eight of them had detached themselves from the main body, and were pounding in pursuit.

Marryat drew a deep breath. All his work was yet to do; but now he had at least a chance, and he meant to make the most of it. He sat down to ride in earnest. For the next three or four miles he kept his lead. Then, whether it was that his horse was tiring, or whether it was the difference of his hand and seat, he realised that his pursuers were creeping up.

Another mile, and they were no more than four hundred yards behind him. His hopes sank to zero. Eight to one. The odds were impossible. He could but die fighting.

Once more his eyes searched the blazing plain for any coign of vantage—any possible place where he might turn to bay and use his last cartridge to the best advantage. All he could see was a long low hillock, a sort of dune, some half-mile in front.

It was better than nothing. He drove his heels in, and forced his flagging beast on.

Triumphant yells pealed out. It was clear that his enemies realised his straits and now were sure of him. His mount was failing with every stride, and just as he reached the dune it stumbled and came down.

He leaned clear, and, snatching out his pistol as he ran, made for the dune. A scattering volley crackled out and bullets whined overhead, as he flung himself down on the far side of the slope, ready for his last fight.

On came the Arabs until he could plainly see their fierce brown faces and gleaming eyes. But before they were within pistol range they broke and scattered.

The firing began again. A bullet flung the hot sand into his face, half-blinding him. Before he could see again he felt a sudden blow in the right shoulder. His pistol dropped from his nerveless fingers, and bitterly he realised that his last hope was gone. Yet, faint and sick as he was, he picked up his weapon in his left hand.

The shouts grew louder, the firing faster. They were coming in on him now.

He heard a medley of wild veils. Yells—they were surely shrieks. And the firing was hotter and harder than ever. He strove to look up, but his head was spinning, and black specks floated before his eyes. He dropped back, and his senses left him.

"De mortuis—Yes, I know, but it's got to be told some time or other, and you as his chum ought to know it, Hume. It was simply sending him to his death, and Harmer knew that as well as I did, or as well as Marryat himself."

The words came dimly to Marryat's drowsy senses; then it was that Hume's voice reached his ears.

"Well, don't say anything to anyone else, Nisbet. Not for the present, anyhow. I know Marryat wouldn't like it."

Marryat opened his eyes, and saw a canvas roof overhead and two men standing beside the cot on which he lay.

"You're right, Hume," he chimed in, his voice no more than a hoarse whisper.

Weak as he was, he nearly laughed at the amazement on the face of his two companions.

"You—you're awake?" exclaimed Hume.

"Did you think I was talking in my sleep?" rejoined Marryat. Then, in a more serious tone: "By Jove, I'm glad to see you both you especially, Nisbet. I hardly thought any of you would get clear."

"We shouldn't if you hadn't sent us help, old man."

"I!" gasped Marryat.

"Yes. Some of the Tanis—the friendlies, you know—saw you being chased and came to the rescue, riding up a gully behind that long dune. They wiped out the lot who were closing in on you, and found you lying apparently dead. Old Ben Yusaf himself was leaning over you, when all of a sudden you opened your eyes and said in his Arabic:

"'Take help. Small party, five miles north.'

"Then you collapsed again. Some of them brought you in here to Kurna. The rest came along and lent us a hand."

Marryat was silent a moment.

"I don't remember a thing about it," he said. Then, after a pause: "And Harmer?"

"Dead," said Nisbet curtly.

"And a very good thing too," observed Hume quietly.

Even Marryat did not contradict him.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.