NEXT day the big camp was busy packing up for the move. All knew that battle, hardship, sudden death for some, all the terrible chances of war, lay ahead. In many a man's mind was the rumble of guns far away.
Having put the final touches to our signal gear, the Rebels carefully packed their personal belongings. My gear was divided amongst the Rebels, for mine would be the full-time job of carrying Horrie in the kit-bag. With a quaint earnestness he watched our operations; he sensed this was no play, no preparing for any ordinary route march, but that something serious was afoot.
Long after lights-out that night I lay awake; Horrie crept from the foot of my bunk and rested his little chin on my arm. As I stroked the faithful little head I wondered and wondered what the future had in store for us. During these long months we had been training steadily while longing to get into action, and now it was coming!
That knowledge brings a grimness to every soldier, no matter whether he be veteran, untried soldier or carefree scallywag. Between the recurring visions of fire and battle my thoughts switched again and again to thoughts of the old folk, of friends, of home and Australia. I just could not sleep those deathly silent hours away.
A match flared up to light a cigarette.
"What's up Don? I murmured. "Can't you sleep either?"
"No," he answered quietly. "I was wondering if that last letter I wrote will arrive home safely."
"Of course it will," I replied.
"It's funny, you know," he murmured, "the little things you try to say in a letter home. You can't. Somehow, they seem sort of sissy on paper."
"Reckon she'll be pretty willing in Greece," ventured Don.
"I think so too."
"Wonder how Poppa will go?"
"He'll be jake; you couldn't kill him with an axe."
"Sorry the Gogg and Big Jim won't be with us at the start. "
"I'm sorry too, but they'll catch up. Nothing could keep those two out of this stunt."
"What about putting on a brew, you blokes?" came Murchie's voice.
"Can't you sleep either?" asked Don.
"No. I can't remember which box I put the Bren magazines in, that I loaded with armour-piercing bullets."
"Still thinking about your old guns."
"No sugar in my tea, thank you!" came from the direction of Fitz's bunk.
"None for me either," called Gordie.
So we got the primus going and soon were sitting around it waiting for the billy to boil. As we were pouring out the tea there came a snorting sniff and Poppa stepped in the tent door.
"Thought I smelled it," he grumbled. "Heard voices too."
"Not mine," called Feathers from his corner. "I was waiting for them to wake me up and offer a cup of tea."
"You lazy leadswinger," said Murchie. "Poling on your mates as usual."
"It's a luxury to get the chance," grinned Feathers. "They're such expert polers themselves."
"Our last night in the land of milk and honey!" droned Poppa sepulchrally.
"Yeh!" drawled Fitz, "if you bring your own bees and cows."
"Oh, don't take any notice of Poppa," said Murchie witheringly. "The only milk he knows is in a beer jug."
"I wasn't dragged up anyway," said Poppa as he squatted down and reached out a horny paw. "Ah! this tea will go down good!"
The great day dawned. A quick, more serious breakfast than usual and the troops stood to their kits in suppressed excitement. Horrie's great moment had also arrived. He was so excited he could not keep still, hurrying from Rebel to Rebel to gaze outside the tent at a thousand men fitting on their packs, handling machine-guns and rifles in queerly realistic fashion. Line after line of loaded trucks rumbled away across the desert to sharp words of command. Troops were now forming up. Horrie waited with eager eyes, alert little body on quaint stubby legs trying hard to stand with martial bearing, proudly dressed up in a new collar flaunting the battalion colour-patch. We kept a sharp eye on him, otherwise he would have dashed out the tent and lined up at the head of the battalion.
"Fall in!" came a shouted order and the Rebels hurriedly grabbed the last of their gear.
"In you go, Horrie!" I ordered, and the dumb look of misery on the little Wog-dog's face hurt me, as quickly he submitted to the indignity of the kit-bag. This was to be no brave show for him; in all his glory he was hidden in the hot, gloomy depths of a kit-bag.
As we filed out for final inspection, it could not be over too soon for me. The ranks stood like statues as the in-specting officers came slowly, ever so slowly, down rank after rank, closely inspecting each man. There could be no replacement of kit from now on; it could be a serious matter if any careless or flurried man left an article of gear behind. The stifling hot day was not the cause of my sweating as those intent officers drew nearer and nearer. Would Horrie bark? Would he growl? Would he shuffle deep down in that stuffy kit-bag? I knew what he was feeling, half suffocated listening to the beloved sounds of the parade around him.
Horrie was a little brick. Not a whimper, not a movement as the inspecting officers ran careful eyes over me and my gear. At last they moved on.
Soon we were on the march across desert to the Ikingi-Maruit railway station.
And fate was kind. A truck came along whose driver was in the know, and I passed the little dog up to him.
"He'll be all right," smiled the driver. "I'm to unload at the station, then goodness knows where I'll be ordered. I'll tie Horrie up to that little tree away back of the station. You know the one I mean."
We did. There was a Rebel story to that same tree.
Horrie was fortunate to dodge that long, hot trek. It would have been awful in the kit-bag.
During the dense muster at the station the Rebels "clocked" me while I quietly edged aside and hurried away to the tree. Horrie was there, a pathetic little figure staring out towards the station. His frantic delight subsided to pleading little whimperings and pawings at my urgent warnings. I bundled him into the kit-bag again and there was not a movement out of him as I hurried back to the station.
Once aboard the train we let him out amongst the packed troops. He dived straight for a window and for the remainder of the trip was the keenest of us all; every-thing in the passing countryside was of interest to him but his delight was to growl and bark at every Arab we passed.
It was a monstrously slow trip. Again and again we stopped to allow the passing of troop-train after troop-train. Something big was doing.
Horrie enjoyed the stops. Urchins and full-grown Arabs would appear at the carriage windows with cries of "Eggs acook!" "Eggs er bread!" hopefully offering us dirty-looking boiled eggs and rolls of alleged bread. That they grinned at Horrie from the safety of the platforms made the Wog-dog all the madder.
With a speculative eye, while disregarding the angry Horrie, a Wog shuffled up to the Rebels' carriage obviously clutching something precious under his dirty rags.
"Good whisky" he whined with a cunning glance around him.
"Shufti, George (show me)!" demanded Murchie and the Wog, casting suspicious looks around shuffled to the window then slipped a bottle of whisky into Murchie's hand. With a frown, Murchie carefully examined the bottle, the cork which certainly had not been tampered with; nor had the label, or the tempting, clear amber fluid within. We were not going to be taken down, no wretched Wog was going to catch us. Silently we awaited Murchie's verdict; this really did look the goods.
"Undoubtedly Scotch!" declared Murchie.
"Hooray!" yelled Poppa, "buy it!"
"How much?" demanded Murchie.
"Five hundred mils (12s.)," replied the Arab.
Murchie paid over, and the Arab with an eye alert for military police disappeared amongst the station crowd.
"Cheap!" declared Murchie, fondly handling the bottle.
"Open her up!" advised Poppa.
Murchie did so with a gusto and offered the first drink to me. I was just in time to intercept and interpret Poppa's urgent wink, so handed the glass back to Murchie with a polite "After you, Dig!"
Murchie slung back his head and took a long, deep gulp that screwed his face into an agonized expression. With bulging cheeks he dived for the window, to Poppa's uproarious mirth. In surprise we laughed at Murchie's anguished spittings as he howled swear words back to the station as the train moved off. Something obviously was lamentably amiss with that "Undoubted Scotch!"
"Ha, ha, ha!" roared Poppa. "Five hundred mils for a bottle of weak tea - if it's not something a jolly sight worse!"
We looked aghast at the implication while Murchie yelled "Well, it's for, you gloating sewer rat! It's only weak tea!"
We roared, as Murchie glowered at Poppa, who smiled with the knowing expression of the old desert campaigner.
"You don't deserve your luck!" He wagged a finger at Murchie. "It's not often the Wogs fill the bottle with good weak tea. Mostly it's camel's water, or horse, or donkey, or Wog. What I'm surprised at is that dull-witted Wog who picked you didn't sell you a bottle of Wog's!"
"Oh yeh!" spluttered Murchie. "Well now I'll tell you something, you'll be surprised at. That five hundred mils I paid the Wog was the five hundred mils I owed you!"
"You're telling me!" demanded Poppa.
"I'm telling you! Now laugh that off!"
"What I want to know, broke in Feathers, "is how they got the whisky out! I'd swear that that stopper has never been tampered with."
"Neither it has," explained Poppa, "but look at the bottom.
We did so, but could distinguish nothing strange until Poppa pointed out a tiny round mark in the glass on the bottom of the bottle.
"They bore a little hole in the bottom," explained Poppa, "drain the whisky out, then fill the bottle with cold tea or what not. Then they mix up a pinch of borax and soda, heap it around the hole, and melt it into glass with a blow-pipe. The glass bead fills up the hole again. Given a good man at the job, it is practically impossible to detect."
"So that's it!" exclaimed Feathers. "Well, I'm blessed."
"Not quite all of it," said Poppa pityingly. "When the bottle is filled they sell it to some poor mut for five hundred mils."
"Just so," broke in Murchie unforgivingly, "but in this case you are the mut who's paid the mils."
"We'll see about that, me lad!" said Poppa fiercely.
"Oh yeh! How are you going to get it?"
"I'll take it out of your hide!"
"Yeh! You can't give me one more fatigue than I'm willing to do."
"We'll see about that!" promised Poppa darkly.
At long last we reached the wharf at Alexandria, the little Wog-dog a bundle of excitement as I put him back into the kit-bag and petted him warningly. Now was the critical moment. One slip, and the Wog-dog would never see active service with us.
We filed out of the train on to the wharf and formed up in three ranks for the final roll-call. I gazed up at the troopship awaiting us, the crew lining the rails.
On the bows was the dim name Chakla. She was only about three thousand tons. I wondered how on earth we were all going to pack aboard. We thrilled while gazing up at the scars of shell and bomb that had not stopped the little ship. But my anxious concern was to be aboard her. Once up that gangway, now so very close, and the Rebels could vanish in the search for Horrie's "suite". "Once aboard the lugger " kept recurring to my mind.
Sharp and clear rang out the roll-call and man after man smartly answered. No inspection this, so for air I'd allowed Horrie's head out of the bag, his "port-hole" part hidden by my arm. As bad luck would have it just as I opened my mouth to answer my name Horrie spotted an Arab and his bark yelped out with my "Here, sir."
A low chuckle rippled from the ranks, a smothered growl from Horrie. With an innocent expression I cast a glance in the direction of the officers and noted a discreet smile or two. Ah! Horrie in camp had made more friends than we knew. My eyes faced front on the instant and the old heart beat again as the roll-call carried on.
Presently we were filing up the gangway. Only a matter of minutes now. The quarters allotted the signal section were down aft and immediately we clambered down there into the depths I laughed with sheer relief.
"Good lad," smiled Don, "you've done it."
"We've all done it," I replied.
Which was true. I cannot express on paper the willing team-work of all the Rebels on Horrie's behalf.
The noisy throwing off of our gear, the thumps as men tried bunks and laughed and joked brought a whimper and sympathetic wriggling from the kit-bag.
"We'll let him out a while," I said. "He's safe here; no one here but the boys."
"Let him out," advised Gordie. "No one is likely to look in on us, and if somebody does we can smother him up in a second."
"Give him a breather," they all agreed, "until we have time to scatter and find his suite."
So to Horrie's delight he was free among the litter of gear with his friends, deep down in a little ship's hold.
We'd almost got everything shipshape, every man had found a bunk, the gear was almost all stowed away for the voyage when to a warning hiss I snatched at Horrie and rammed him into the kit-bag; but the little wretch objected and strenuously fought to struggle out again, stern first. A Tommy sailor, unseen away down in the dim end of the hold had been watching proceedings. With uneasy defiance I stared down towards him.
"It's O.K. digger," he grinned. "You can let him out; we've got one too."