“Oh, it was you,” said the mule, “you and your friends, that have been disturbing the camp? All right. You’ll be beaten for this in the morning. But I may as well give you something on account now.”
I heard the harness jingle as the mule backed and caught the camel two kicks in the ribs that rang like a drum. “Another time,” he said, “you’ll know better than to run through a mule battery at night, shouting `Thieves and fire!’ Sit down, and keep your silly neck quiet.”
The camel doubled up camel-fashion, like a two-foot rule, and sat down whimpering. There was a regular beat of hoofs in the darkness, and a big troop-horse cantered up as steadily as though he were on parade, jumped a gun tail, and landed close to the mule.
“It’s disgraceful,” he said, blowing out his nostrils. “Those camels have racketed through our lines again—the third time this week. How’s a horse to keep his condition if he isn’t allowed to sleep. Who’s here?”
“I’m the breech-piece mule of number two gun of the First Screw Battery,” said the mule, “and the other’s one of your friends. He’s waked me up too. Who are you?”
“Number Fifteen, E troop, Ninth Lancers—Dick Cunliffe’s horse. Stand over a little, there.”
“Oh, beg your pardon,” said the mule. “It’s too dark to see much. Aren’t these camels too sickening for anything? I walked out of my lines to get a little peace and quiet here.”
“My lords,” said the camel humbly, “we dreamed bad dreams in the night, and we were very much afraid. I am only a baggage camel of the 39th Native Infantry, and I am not as brave as you are, my lords.”
“Then why didn’t you stay and carry baggage for the 39th Native Infantry, instead of running all round the camp?” said the mule.
“They were such very bad dreams,” said the camel. “I am sorry. Listen! What is that? Shall we run on again?”
“Sit down,” said the mule, “or you’ll snap your long stick-legs between the guns.” He cocked one ear and listened. “Bullocks!” he said. “Gun bullocks. On my word, you and your friends have waked the camp very thoroughly. It takes a good deal of prodding to put up a gun-bullock.”
I heard a chain dragging along the ground, and a yoke of the great sulky white bullocks that drag the heavy siege guns when the elephants won’t go any nearer to the firing, came shouldering along together. And almost stepping on the chain was another battery mule, calling wildly for “Billy.”
“That’s one of our recruits,” said the old mule to the troop horse. “He’s calling for me. Here, youngster, stop squealing. The dark never hurt anybody yet.”
The gun-bullocks lay down together and began chewing the cud, but the young mule huddled close to Billy.
“Things!” he said. “Fearful and horrible, Billy! They came into our lines while we were asleep. D’you think they’ll kill us?”
“I’ve a very great mind to give you a number-one kicking,” said Billy. “The idea of a fourteen-hand mule with your training disgracing the battery before this gentleman!”
“Gently, gently!” said the troop-horse. “Remember they are always like this to begin with. The first time I ever saw a man (it was in Australia when I was a three-year-old) I ran for half a day, and if I’d seen a camel, I should have been running still.”
Nearly all our horses for the English cavalry are brought to India from Australia, and are broken in by the troopers themselves.
“True enough,” said Billy. “Stop shaking, youngster. The first time they put the full harness with all its chains on my back I stood on my forelegs and kicked every bit of it off. I hadn’t learned the real science of kicking then, but the battery said they had never seen anything like it.”
“But this wasn’t harness or anything that jingled,” said the young mule. “You know I don’t mind that now, Billy. It was Things like trees, and they fell up and down the lines and bubbled; and my head-rope broke, and I couldn’t find my driver, and I couldn’t find you, Billy, so I ran off with—with these gentlemen.”