"To work, my hearties!" cried Poppa as he dragged away the mat. "We'll dig the hideout all ready for tomorrow night."
Rows of tents were in front of ours, and to each side. But our tent was one of the back row and there was only desert behind us. Poppa kept watch outside the door, Fitz squatted down with a book outside the tent, Gordie sat idly whistling on the side opposite. I sprawled out at the rear of the tent. Inside, Don, Feathers and the Gogg got to work. Now and again a low "all clear!" would come from the three watchers. I would reach in under the tent bottom and Gordie would place a bucket of sand to my hand. Cautiously I would hurry to empty it in an old disused trench at the rear, then hurry the bucket back. We must not leave a pile of damp sand outside the tent.
It meant a considerable number of buckets and there were numerous interruptions for of course men were moving about all the time. In a few hours the boys had dug a hole five feet long, five feet deep and two wide in the tent floor where my mat should be. We lined the hole with packing case boards and at last in pleasurable triumph gazed down at a deep, secure comfortable hideout. When the sleeping mat was pulled over the hole there would not be a man in ten thousand who could have the slightest suspicion of what was underneath.
"All we've got to do now is to train Horrie to stay quiet as a mouse in his foxhole," chuckled the Gogg.
That night after lights out, with Horrie coiled asleep as usual at my feet, I lay awake planning details of the coming morning's venture. There must be no mistake.
Immediately after breakfast I set out for the police block-house near Ascalon, but without the military policeman. The blockhouses were built at vantage points across the desert, to be used as strong posts in the event of a native uprising. Large, square concrete buildings two or three storeys high, they were believed capable of withstanding a siege of twelve months High above each was an observation tower giving a wide view over the countryside and also ensuring communication by signal with the next block-house in the event of telephone lines being destroyed. Surrounding the approach to my blockhouse was a barbed-wire fence. A policeman was busy washing down a police car; he glanced up as I approached.
"What is it you want, Aussie?" he inquired.
"Well," I grinned bashfully, "I was wondering if you would do me a favour.
"Certainly, if I'm able to."
"Thanks. It's this way. In an hour or so I've got to drive our major to Gaza. After dropping him there, well, the truck's mine for the rest of the day so long as I don't drive straight back to camp, of course. My mates and I want a last fling in Tel Aviv. But here's the snag. The major always takes his little dog in the truck with him and I'll be expected to take truck and dog straight back to camp. I don't want to take the dog to Tel Aviv lest he gets lost or someone steal him from the truck. So I was wondering if I could leave him here and pick him up on our way home tonight?"
"You Aussies always seem to be A.W.L.," he smiled.
"It's our last flutter in Palestine," I grinned hopefully. "All is set, but I wouldn't like to lose the major's little dog. He's a good sort."
"What time would you be returning?" he asked.
"About 9 o'clock tonight."
"I will be working here throughout the day only. However, when I'm finished this evening I'll ask the duty man at the gate to hand the dog back to you. Will that suit?"
"It certainly would, and thanks very much."
"Very well. When are you bringing the dog?"
"Very well, I'll be here." And I drove happily back to camp.
"It's all set!" I told the waiting Poppa. "Now contact the provost sergeant straight away. If you can persuade him to send a provost with me in a truck to hand Horrie over to the Palestine police, then all's well."
"I'll fix it," declared Poppa.
"Right. And spread the news that Horrie is being handed over to the Palestine police as a mascot."
"You bet I will."
I hurried to the Rebels to report progress. The Rebels scattered to spread news of Horrie's fate, while I took Horrie on a lead to Captain Hindmarsh and Big Jim to tell them the little dog was on his way to a new home. They were very sorry to see him go, but agreed with me that it was far better than destroying him.
"At least he'll have a good home," said the captain sympathetically.
It was only when they were farewelling Horrie that I imagined I detected a faint glimmer of suspicion in the officers' expressions, so I hurried to the waiting truck lest I say or look too much. The Rebels and quite a few other lads had already gathered at the truck to see the little dog off, others were coming from among the tents, they were strangely silent. I caught a puzzled questioning look in face after face. I thought we'd better push off before the crowd gathered. We lumbered away to shouts of "Farewell Horrie", "Good-bye Wog-dog", "Good luck, little fellow". Then came an oppressive silence with only Horrie barking.
Ron Ford, the truck driver, was very quiet; he was an old cobber of mine but I dare not tell him or anyone about the scheme; we had made an unbreakable rule that for perfect safety no one must know but the Rebels. Of course, the provost in the truck was not in the know either.
The truck pulled up outside the police fence and I jumped straight down with Horrie and hurried inside lest the policeman still washing the cars should stroll out to the truck. The policeman ceased work, nodded and said, "Tie him up here," indicating a horse trough. I tied Horrie to the trough.
"He will be quite all right here," promised the policeman.
"Thanks very much. I'll call back for him tonight."
"Good-oh. Have a good time and don't get into trouble!"
"No fear of that," I grinned, "it takes me all my time getting out of it. So long for the time being."
I hurried back to the truck with Horrie's entreating barking ringing in my ears. I turned and called to the policeman.
"Take good care of him, please!"
He waved his arm in reply.
"Let's go," I said and climbed into the truck.
As we drove back to camp Ron said, "Bad luck, losing Horrie after all this time!" The provost also sympathized with me. I mumbled something about "He'll have a good home, anyway," and lapsed into moody silence.
On arrival at camp I found Horrie the sole topic of conversation; the unbelievable news had spread that Horrie was handed over to and accepted by the Palestine police as a mascot. Captain Hindmarsh and Big Jim unconsciously helped our plans, declaring it an accomplished fact, as did Ron Ford and the provost. They had seen the Wog-dog handed over and accepted.
"Just in the nick of time!" Poppa hoarsely whispered to me. "Orders are out! All pets must be destroyed!"
This news helped us face the boys, for some of them did not take the news of the Wog-dog's departure too well at all. Cal Taylor, the pay-sergeant, demanded, "Don't you think you at least could have tried to get Horrie home?"
No excuse would satisfy Cal, plainly showing by his manner he believed we had let Horrie down. Major Haupt sympathized with me at the loss of the little Wog-dog, while Big Jim told us it was the topic of conversation during the evening meal at the officers' mess. Bill Cody, one of the signallers, came up to me and demanded, "What's this I hear about Horrie being given to the Palestine Police?"
"Yes, that's right, Bill."
"Then it's a darned shame; I'd have tried to get him home if you'd given him to me!"
"No go, Bill; he would surely have been destroyed if caught and you know how strict the order is. As it is, he's alive and in kindly hands."
"Are you sure he will be well looked after?"
"Certain. They're Englishmen, you know."
"I suppose he'll be all right," he said doubtfully, "but I would have given anything to see that little dog get home."
Scores and scores of the troops came to us to learn the truth about Horrie; some were outspoken in their opinion that we should at least have tried to get the little fellow home. We could see that many were not happy about it at all though they grudgingly admitted it was far better that he be in kindly hands than destroyed. We sensed that others secretly thought we had let the little dog down.
The desire to tell them the truth was almost over-whelming, but one whisper might spoil all. We took all that was coming to us and were not happy about it, keeping up the deceit for Horrie's sake.
Now, the secret is out at last. Very many soldiers who still think Horrie is a mascot of the Palestinian police will be happily surprised to learn he is at home in Australia.
But the getting of him there! That evening I slipped away from camp, a towel over my shoulder as if going to the shower down the road. At 9 sharp I was outside the police fence. I whistled, and a moment later a little white shape came racing to me fast as his tiny legs could carry him. The policeman had unleashed him the moment I whistled. I picked up the Wog-dog and laughingly trying to quieten his embraces hurried back to camp. Quite a few shadows were coming and going among the tents so I wrapped Horrie in the towel and whispered to him, "Lie quiet, lie quiet!" Swiftly but cautiously approaching the tent I was glad to see the rubbish can was in its usual place; had it not been there it would have meant we had visitors. Inside, the Rebels were anxiously waiting and I almost spoiled everything by slipping Horrie loose. But Don's hand snatched over his mouth just as he was about to bark.
Horrie cocked his head to one side looking very concerned, trying to understand what it was all about. We worked hard on him; obediently he settled down, big brown eyes asking us what was next. We were about to try him in his hideout when the Gogg who was keeping watch at the door hissed "Gow". Instantly I scrambled under a blanket making a tent with my knees, with Horrie wedged between them. Big Jim popped in with cheery greeting and sat on Don s bunk.
"And what's the matter with you?" he said down at me, "on your sleeping mat in bed at this time of the evening?"
"I've got a touch of sandy fever," I sighed.
"Heavens! For goodness sake, don't get sick now!"
"I'm quite all right," I said hastily. "Will be O.K. by morning.
"You'd better," he said grimly. "It would be awful if we had to leave you behind."
"I'll be jake!" I declared and quietly spread my hand down over Horrie's nose.
"I wonder how poor old Horrie is tonight," mused Big Jim. My hand had tightly closed around Horrie's nose, my knees around his body in the nick of time to stay the violent wriggle at the well-known voice and mention of his name.
"Oh, he'll be all right," I said and wearily closed my eyes. I dare not glance at the faces of the Rebels.
Don sauntered to the door of the tent drawling, "I guess he's pretty miserable, poor little Wog-dog," and sauntered on out of the tent.
What's the matter with Don?" inquired Big Jim.
"Upset over Horrie," answered Poppa.
"It s a darned shame!" declared Big Jim. "Horrie was a great dog, a great -"
"Ssh!" I said and sneezed to the convulsion between my knees. "Let's not talk about it," I added weakly and turned over.
"Well, I think I'll be turning in," declared Sergeant Poppa and led the way to the tent door. The Rebels solemnly agreed they might as well turn in also and Big Jim rose yawning to his feet. He wished us all good night, and followed Poppa out the door.
Breathlessly we listened until the crunch of sand died away, and then doubled up in suppressed laughter.
"For heaven's sake, don't laugh!" came Don's voice as he reappeared at the tent door. "This thing is serious!"
Presently Poppa reappeared, having seen Big Jim to his tent.
"I can't stand too much of this," he grinned, "but what is more I object strongly to being a party to deceiving a very good superior officer!"
"I wonder really what Big Jim would think if he knew the truth about Horrie?" said Feathers. "Couldn't we let him in on it?"
"No!" replied Poppa. "He'd be as right as rain, but it would not be fair to him. Orders are orders whichever way you may look at it!"
We were all in perfect agreement. "I bet he'll laugh when he finds out, all the same," declared Don. "And now we'd better train Horrie to his hideout."
The Gogg kept guard again outside the tent door-while we rolled the matting back and introduced Horrie to his new home, all nice and cosy with what old clothes we could spare. We lowered him down into it saying "Good dog, good dog!" but Horrie thought it was a new game and tried to jump up while urgent hands reached down to smother his bark. We "Ssshd!" at him until in sheer disgust he lay down on the old clothes. "Good dog, good dog," we assured him and rolled the matting back over the hole When I'd spread my blanket over the matting it was pretty dark down there. There wasn't a whimper from Horrie; he went to sleep.
At reveille, we let Horrie scamper around inside the tent for exercise.
"You'd better suffer a relapse of that sand-fly fever and stay in bed all day," ordered Sergeant Poppa as the boys filed out to the parade ground. "Meanwhile, continue with the training of Corporal Horrie for if you think you are going to malinger here doing nothing you're jolly well mistaken!" and the old warrior tramped out to parade.
So back Horrie went to his dugout while I "Ssshd" him, and soothed him all through the morning. He was a bit restless down there, trying to understand why he should not be out on parade on such a beautiful morning. I removed the tin drinking-dish as he bumped it now and then; such a noise could give the secret away. By and by he quietened under the "Sssh!" at regular intervals.
The supreme test came later when I heard approaching footsteps.
"Tent inspection!" I thought. "Heavens!"
And in marched Captain Hindmarsh with Ron Flett, the sergeant-major.
"Hullo, Moody," said the captain, "what is the matter?"
"A touch of sand-fly fever, sir," I replied.
"Better take it easy for a while," he advised.
"Very good, sir."
The inspection was quickly over. The Rebels purposely had left the tent unusually tidy with all gear stacked in correct place. The orderly officer, with a nod to me marched out followed by the N.C.Os.
When they'd stepped outside the tent I heard a distinct dog's yawn down in the depths below. Horrie had remained quiet as a mouse.