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CHAPTER XXV BESIEGED
The fence round the house was made of stone, and the Boers took advantage of this as cover, whilst some of them sheltered behind the trunks of the red gums. Even then the besieged had the advantage, for they were protected by the walls of the farmhouse, and could shoot without exposing themselves. To Van Zwieten, the disappointment of not having succeeded in shooting Harold in the first dastardly attack was very great. Had their leader been killed, he imagined that the soldiers would have surrendered, quite forgetting that it was not the custom of Englishmen to yield to anything but death. Now, however, there was nothing for it but to take the place before relief could arrive. By all his gods he swore that Brenda should be his.

Mrs. Burton herself remained in the sitting-room, revolver in hand. Far from being afraid, the girl, much to her own surprise, was filled with the terrible joy of battle; indeed, she was in the highest spirits. The Boers fired at the windows and wherever they saw a puff of smoke. As the bullets sang, and the smell of powder became stronger, Brenda could hardly contain her excitement. The Boer woman was on her knees in a back room praying with all her might that the accursed rooineks would be taken and killed. Her husband and sons were with the armies of the Republic, and her whole heart was with her countrymen outside. How gladly, had she dared, would she have opened the door to them!

Harold ordered his men to reserve their fire. His aim was not so much to score a victory as to hold the house until help arrived. On their side the enemy were equally careful, and the fight progressed but slowly. There were thirty Boers, more or less, and of these three were already dead, while two were wounded. Of those in the house only the man shot under the white flag was dead. Van Zwieten, looking anxiously over the plain, fearing every moment to see some sign of the British advance, cursed the slowness of the affair. At last he picked some men and sent them round to try and get at the horses of the besieged; but Harold had got them under shelter in a shed, with five men in front to guard them. The Boers creeping round the corner were met by a volley which killed four and wounded two. They fled swearing, and Captain Burton rejoiced.

"Reserve your fire, men! We shall hold out after all!"

"By Heaven we will, sir!" one of the men answered. "We\'ll fight to the last rather than an English lady should fall into the hands of these dirty rascals. Ho! Give \'em beans, you beggars!"

And this the beggars in question proceeded to do.

Then Van Zwieten sent forward a dozen men on to the verandah with a rush. Their advance was covered by a steady fire from the rear, though not one of the besiegers showed himself. Simultaneously another body attacked the back shed wherein the horses were housed, and in spite of the British fire succeeded in effecting their entrance to the yard. Then they rushed the shed, which was an open one. Two Englishmen fell, and there was no one to fill their places, for their comrades were fighting desperately on the verandah in front.

Van Zwieten, seeing his advantage, led the remainder of his force to the other side of the house, where there was a wide window. It opened into the room where the Boer woman was kneeling. She flung open the shutters. Van Zwieten jumped in, followed by half-a-dozen of his men, and the first those within knew of it was when they found themselves attacked in the rear. They right about faced, put their backs to the wall, and fought like men. Then, as a reward for her treachery, a stray bullet pierced the brain of the Boer woman.

Meanwhile, the men who forced entrance into the yard were steadily gaining ground. But hearing the firing within the house they turned back by the front again, in order to come to the rescue of their comrades. The party on the veranda broke through the door and hurled themselves forward. Boer after Boer fell before the British fire, for Harold had now concentrated his men--what there were left of them. Gradually he was driven back to the sitting-room. A shout of triumph from outside announced that those who had remained had succeeded in capturing the horses.

Within, the whole place was dense with smoke. Brenda, in obedience to her husband\'s orders, was lying flat on the floor beside the sofa. She gave up all for lost, but determined she would not be taken alive. She was only waiting until her husband fell. In the midst of it all she could discern Van Zwieten. Rifles were useless now. It was hand to hand work. The end was near.

There, in the little room, Harold stood with three of his men beside him. The others were either dead or dying. But the Boers had got off by no means cheaply. At least twenty of them had been done for. The four Englishmen, with their backs to the wall, fought on, using revolver, muzzle and butt-end, until at last their cartridges gave out, and they threw down their weapons with a curse and surrendered. There was nothing for it. Van Zwieten gave vent to a yell of triumph. His men threw themselves on Burton. But the Englishman was too quick for them. He stepped back quickly and levelled his revolver. He had one chamber loaded.

"I have just one left," he said hoarsely "stand up to it, Van Zwieten, for I am keeping it for you!"

"Finish him, men!" roared the Dutchman.

"No, no," cried Brenda, and before a man could move she had flung her arms around her husband and stood between him and them. "The last shot, dear, is for me!" she said.

There was a pause. They held back. Harold never flinched. His wife clung to him desperately. His face was streaming with blood from the graze of a bullet. But he was determined to make good use of that last shot.

Beside Van Zwieten stood a huge man with a white, flowing beard. At last the Dutchman made a dash forward and attempted to take Brenda from her husband\'s arm.

"You are mine," he cried madly, "mine! You shall not die!"

"Coward!" hissed Burton, "take your lead like the dog you are!" He fired. But she, struggling to free herself from the Dutchman\'s grasp, fell heavily against his right arm and spoilt his aim. The bullet whizzed overhead. He threw down his weapon and prepared for the worst. He put her behind him. Sobbing, she fell on her knees and clasped her arms around his legs. She felt for her revolver that she might be sure of death when he died.

"Fire!" rang out from Van Zwieten. "Spare the woman, kill the man!"

Two Boers levelled. But the old man with the white beard rushed forward and struck them aside. They fell wide. "Hold!" he cried, "let no man fire!"

"Damn you, Piet Bok, what do you mean?" asked Van Zwieten, savagely.

"Ah! Piet Bok!" cried Harold, seeing a chance of life and of saving his wife, "I am your prisoner again. I yield to you."

"Fire, men!" shouted Van Zwieten. "Fire, I tell you!" He was seething with rage at the fear lest his prey was going to escape him. Then turning to the old man he said, "Piet Bok! this is my business!"

"It is the business of the Republic," retorted Piet, coolly, and at the same moment he struck down a Boer who was about to fire. "I\'ll shoot the first man who disobeys my orders," he said. "Clear the room. I am in command here!"

It was done. Then they set to work to drag out the bodies of the dead and tend the wounded.

Soon Harold and his wife, Piet Bok and Van Zwieten, were left alone. For the third time the Dutchman had been baffled. The man whom of all others he would have had dead still lived.

Harold, knowing well that Piet Bok would stand his friend, said nothing for the moment, but wrapped his arms round Brenda and faced the two men. The issues of life and death were in their hands.

"Will you sit down, Englishman?" said Piet Bok. "I see you are wounded."

"A mere scratch!" replied Harold; "but my wife will sit with your permission!"

"Your wife!" echoed the Boer leader, who spoke English well enough. "You never told me she was the rooinek\'s wife!" he added, turning to Van Zwieten.

"I did not think it was necessary," growled the other; "besides, I thought that would have ceased to be by now!"

"Yes, I can well believe that!" cried Brenda, with sudden energy. "Mynheer Bok, do not believe what this man says. He tried to carry me off from my husband last night; and when I escaped to this place he brought you and your men up with the sole object of having my husband shot. He would shoot him now if he dared!"

"That he shall not do whilst I am here!" cried Piet Bok. "You are both prisoners of the Republic, and as such you shall be treated."

"Nothing of the sort!" cried Van Zwieten, mad with rage. "I demand that the man be shot and the woman be given to me!"

Piet Bok signed to Harold to remain silent. "On what grounds?"

"On the grounds that this woman was engaged to marry me with the consent of her father, and that this man has married her again............
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