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HOME > Short Stories > In Times of Peril A Tale of India > CHAPTER XXIV. BEST AFTER LABOR.
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 With a tender farewell of his father and brother, the midshipman prepared for his expedition. One end of the rope had been fastened round the large mast which rose from the dome. Holding the coil over his shoulder, Dick made his way down the dome, on the side opposite that at which they had ascended, until it became too steep to walk; then he lay down on his back, and paying the rope out gradually, let himself slip down. The lower part of the descent was almost perpendicular; and Dick soon stood safely on the terrace. It was, as he expected confidently that it would be, quite deserted on this side. Then he let go of the rope, and Major Warrener, who was watching it, saw that the strain was off it, pulled it up a foot to make sure, and then untied the knot. Dick pulled it gently at first, coiling it up as it came down, until at last it slid rapidly down. He caught it as well as he could, but he had little fear of so slight a noise being heard on the other side of the great dome; then he tied the rope to the parapet, lowered it carefully down, and then, when it was all out, swung himself out over the parapet, and slid down the rope. The height was over eighty feet; but the descent was a mere nothing for Dick, accustomed to lark about in the rigging of a man-o'-war.  
He stood perfectly quiet for a minute or two after his feet touched the ground, but outside everything was still. Through the open-carved stonework of a window he could hear voices inside the tomb, and had no doubt that the leaders of the enemy's force were there.
From the parapet, in the afternoon, he had gained an accurate idea of the position of the cavalry, and toward this he at once made his way. He took off his boots and walked lightly until he approached the enemy's bivouac. Then he went cautiously. The ground was covered with sleeping figures, all wrapped like mummies in their clothes; and although the night was dusk, it was easy in the starlight to see the white figures. Even had one been awake, Dick had little fear, as, except near a fire, his figure would have been indistinguishable. There was no difficulty, when he neared the spot, in finding the horses, as the sound of their pawing the ground, eating, and the occasional short neigh of two quarreling, was clearly distinguishable.
Their position once clear, Dick moved round them. He had noticed that four officers' horses were picketed further away, beyond the general mass of the men's, and these could therefore be more easily removed, and would, moreover, be more likely to be fast and sound. They had, too, the advantage of being placed close to the road by which the English force had marched on the day before.
Dick was some time in finding the horses he was on the lookout for; but at last he heard a snorting at a short distance off, and on reaching the spot found the horses he was in search of. They were all saddled, but none had bridles. It would be, Dick knew, useless to look for them, and he felt sure that the halter would be sufficient for well-trained horses.
Before proceeding to work he reconnoitered the ground around. He found the way to the road, which was but twenty yards distant, and discovered also that the syces, or grooms, were asleep close by the horses; a little further off were a party of sleeping troopers. Dick now cut off the heel ropes by which two of the horses were picketed, and then, leading them by the halters, moved quietly toward the road. To get upon this, however, there was a ditch first to be passed, and in crossing it one of the horses stumbled.
"What is that?" exclaimed one of the syces, sitting up. "Halloo!" he continued, leaping up; "two of the horses have got loose."
The others leaped to their feet and ran in the direction whence came the noise which had awakened them, thinking that the horses had drawn their picket pegs.
By this time Dick was in the saddle, and giving a kick with his heels to the horse he was on, and striking the other with the halter which he held in his hand, dashed off into a gallop.
A shout burst from the syces, and several of the troopers, springing to their feet and seizing their arms, ran up to know what was the matter.
"Some thief has stolen the colonel's horse," exclaimed one of the syces.
The troopers did not like to fire, as it would have alarmed the camp; besides, which a random fire in the darkness would be of no avail; so, grumbling that the syces would have to answer for it in the morning, they went off to sleep again; while the men in charge of the two horses which had been taken after some consultation decided that it would be unsafe to remain to meet the anger of the officers in the morning, and so stole off in the darkness and made for their native villages.
Dick, hearing that he was not pursued, pulled up in a half a mile, and gave a loud, shrill "cooey," the Australian call. He knew that this would be heard by his father, sitting listening at the top of the dome, and that he would learn that so far he had succeeded. Then he set the horses off again in a hand gallop and rode steadily down the road. Every hour or so he changed from horse to horse, thus giving them a comparative rest by turns. Occasionally he allowed them to walk for a bit to get their wind, and then again rode on at a gallop. It was about eleven o'clock when he started on his ride. By four in the morning he was at the spot where the party had separated from the column, having thus made forty miles. After that he went more slowly; but it was a little past nine when, with his two exhausted horses, he rode into the camp at Lucknow, where his appearance created quite an excitement.
Dick's story was briefly told; and the two horses, which were both splendid animals, were taken off to be fed and rubbed down; while Dick, accompanied by the colonel of the cavalry regiment where he had halted, went at once to the camp of the commander-in-chief.
Sir Colin listened to Dick's story in silence.
"This will be the band," he said, "that Colonel Lawson's column went to attack; they must have altered their course. Something must be done at once. There shall be no delay, my lad; a force shall be ready to start in an hour. I suppose you will want to go with them. I advise you to go back to Colonel Harper's tent, get into a bath, and get a couple of natives to shampoo you. That will take away all your stiffness. By the time that's over, and you have had some breakfast, the troops will be in readiness."
Dick left Sir Colin, but delighted at the readiness and promptness of the fine old soldier; while Sir Colin called his military secretary, and at once arranged for the dispatch of a body of troops.
"There must be no delay," the commander-in-chief said. "If possible—and it is possible—these scoundrels must be attacked at daylight to-morrow morning. They will see the rope the lad escaped by, but they will not dream of an attack so early, and may be caught napping. Besides, it is all important to rescue those officers, whom they will have been making a target of all day, especially as one is badly wounded, and will be in the full blaze of the sun. See that a wagon and an ambulance accompany the column. Send a regiment of Punjaub horse, three field guns, and three hundred infantry in light marching order. Let gharries be got together at once to take the infantry forty miles, then they will start fresh for a thirty-mile march. The cavalry and guns can go on at once; let them march halfway, then, unsaddle and rest. If they are off by half-past ten, they can get to their halting-place by five. Then if they have five hours' rest they will catch the infantry up before daybreak, and attack just as it gets light. Those light Punjaub horse can do it. Now, which regiments shall we send?"
A quarter of an hour later bugles were blowing, and by ten o'clock three hundred British infantry were packed in light carts, and the cavalry and guns were drawn up in readiness. Dick took his place in the ambulance carriage, as, although greatly refreshed, he had had plenty of riding for a time, and in the ambulance he could lie down, and get through the journey without fatigue. Sir Colin himself rode up just as they were starting, and shook hands with Dick, and expressed his warm hope that he would find his friends safe at the end of the journey, and then the cavalry started.
Dick has always asserted that never in his life did he make such a short journey as that. Worn out by the excitement and fatigue of the preceding thirty hours, he fell fast asleep in the ambulance before he had gone a mile, and did not awake until the surgeon shook him by the shoulder.
"Halloo!" he cried, leaping up; "where are we?"
"We are, as far as we can tell, about half a mile from the tomb. I would not wake you when we halted, Warrener. I thought you wanted sleep more than food. We have been halting half an hour here, and the cavalry have just come up. It is about an hour before daybreak. The colonel wants you to act as guide."
"All right," Dick said, leaping out; "just to think that I have been asleep for eighteen hours!"
A hasty council was held, and it was determined that as the country was somewhat wooded beyond the tomb, but perfectly open on that side, the cavalry and artillery should remain where they were; that the infantry should make a détour, and attack at daybreak from the other side; and that as the enemy fell back, the artillery and cavalry should deal with them:
Not a moment was lost. The infantry, who were sitting down after their long tramp, got cheerily on to their feet again, for they knew that they were going to attack the enemy; and Dick led them off the road by a considerable détour, to come upon the enemy from the other side. By the moonlight the tomb was visible, and served as a center round which to march; but they were too far off to enable Dick to see whether any damage had been done to the dome.
Day was just breaking when the infantry gained the desired position; then throwing out two hundred men in skirmishing order, while the other one hundred were kept in hand as a reserve, the advance began. It was not until they were within three hundred yards of the enemy that they were perceived by the sentries. The challenge was answered by a musket shot, and as the rebels sprang to their feet a heavy fire was poured in upon them. In an instant all was wild confusion. Taken completely by surprise, and entirely ignorant of the strength of the enemy, the natives, after a wild fire in the direction of the advancing foe, fled precipitately. Their officers tried to rally them, and as the smallness of the force attacking them became visible, the Sepoys with their old habit of discipline began to draw together. But at this moment the guns, loaded with grape, poured into their rear, and with a cheer the Punjaub cavalry burst into their midst.
Thenceforth there was no longer any idea of fighting; it was simply a rout any a pursuit. The rebels' own guns fell at once into the hands of the infantry, and were quickly turned upon the masses of fugitives, who, mown down by the fire of the nine guns, and cut up by the cavalry who charged hither and thither among them, while volleys of musketry swept through them, threw away their arms and fled wildly. Over a thousand of them were left dead on the plain, and had not the horses of the cavalry been too exhausted to continue the pursuit, a far greater number would have fallen.
Dick took no part in their fighting; a company, fifty strong, with an officer, had been told off to attack and carry the tomb, under his guidance. Disregarding all else, this party with leveled bayonets had burst through the throng, and made straight for the door of the tomb. Many of the enemy's troops had run in there, and for a minute or two there was a fierce fight in the great hall; then, when the last foe had fallen, Dick led the men to the stairs, up which many of the enemy had fled.
"Quick," he shouted, "follow them close up!............
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