Like a dog on the scent and ready for the plunge, Captain Frazer had straightened to the full of his height and stood tense, waiting an instant to measure the scope of the coming fight.
"It's a row, sure enough; and thank God, I'm in it!" he said quietly then. "Come back to the line, Weldon. There'll be work for us all, in a few minutes."
Even as he spoke, and while they were hurrying back to the squadron, a random shot pierced the darkness just before them, and a bullet whirred close above their heads. Another shot tossed up a spray of dust at their feet, and a third fell full in the tent where Carew was swiftly tightening his belts and assuring himself that his bandoliers were full.
They found the camp already humming like a hive of angry bees. A small matter of forty miles a day counted for nothing to men wakened from heavy sleep to face the firing of an invisible foe. There was no need of the murmured report that De Wet had bidden his followers break through the British chain wherever its links were weakest. Instinctively each man threw himself into fighting array, convinced that the present minute marked the climax of the past days.
And, meanwhile, the limitless darkness shut down over the determined cordon of British men facing steadily inward towards the foe which they could not see; over the scattered knots of Boer horsemen, secure in their full knowledge of every yard of the ground, riding forward to fight their way through the chain into the veldt beyond. And, far to the northward, De Wet was lurking in shadow long enough to cut the wires and then ride away with his trio of faithful followers.
To Weldon, fresh from the darkness and silence of the open veldt, it seemed as if, of a sudden, the frosty night were tattered into shreds. As the fight waxed hot about him, he lost all memory of the intermediate stages. At one instant, all had been still and dim; at another, the air before him was thick with vivid rifle flashes, his ears were full of the strident din of flying bullets, of shouting men, of squealing, moaning horses. For a time, he could see nothing of the enemy but the flashing dots of fire. Then the dots drew nearer, closed up, and the din was increased by the rattle of fixing bayonets, by the dull, sucking sound of steel prodded into soft masses, and by the thud of falling bodies. And always from the outer circle the pitiless rain of bullets came splashing down upon them, striking impartially on friend and on foe.
Side by side in the foremost rank, Weldon and Carew were fighting like tigers. Carew's cheek was gashed by a passing bullet, and Weldon's coat showed dark and wet over his left shoulder; but neither man was conscious of pain, or of fear, or of anything else than a surly determination to check the maddening rush before them. Carew was slashing about him with all the strength of arm and bayonet; but Weldon, disdaining his bayonet, was firing with a steady aim which sent one man and then another to join the heap on the ground at his feet.
A second bullet grazed his wrist, and a horseman swept down upon him. For an instant, he wavered. Then he straightened his shoulders and took careful aim. From ten feet away, he had heard a ringing order, and the order had been given, not in the voice of his own captain, but in that of Captain Frazer who, as ranking officer, had taken command of the fight into which chance had led him. Weldon's every nerve answered to the tonic of that voice. Not since Vlaakfontein had he been under its command. Nevertheless, the old spell was upon him, and he responded to its call. An instant before, the rush towards him had seemed indomitable. Those furious, fighting horsemen could not be stayed in their course. Now he braced himself for the shock of their coming, while tired hand and blurring eye roused themselves to do the bidding of his brain. He was dimly aware that Paddy had struggled forward to his other side and, shoulder to shoulder with him, was helping to beat back the iron-like force pressing down upon them. Then, with the keen grasp of trifling detail which often marks the supreme moment of mental exhaustion, he became conscious that the hairy tail which brushed across his face was unduly coarse and tangled, while a sudden cheer from around him told that the Boers were turning in flight.