-- Chapter 5
"Breaking-in horses", said Pyecraft, "is not easy. I don't know the English method, but in the Wild West we...but let me show you."
The horses had been housed in various class-rooms, and Pyecraft took one out on a halter, tied a long rope to it, and in the centre of the hockey-field let it run round him. It did so, kicking up its heels wildly. When it had tired itself a little Pyecraft gradually shortened the rope, so that the circle became less and less. But as it got more and more excited, for not only did the unaccustomed rope offend it, but also its fear of man made it wild with terror. It tried to savage Pyecraft with its teeth, and he gave it a sharp rap over the nose with a switch. He went through the performance again and again patiently, and gradually the horse allowed itself to be drawn in meekly. Then Pyecraft put harness on it...he had to tie up one foot to keep it still...and he yoked the horse to a log of wood. Then there was the very devil to pay. It went careering down the field with the log bumping after it, and they could see that it was terror-struck, but again exhaustion brought quiet, and Pyecraft had it walking and pulling.
"The next stage", said Pyecraft, "is to put a saddle on it and ride it. As you can see, I haven't the figure for this, but Neill will show you how this is done."
Neill suddenly remembered that he had cementing to do, and went away hurriedly.
"Just like him", sneered David, and then he was sorry he had spoken, for at the sound of his voice Pyecraft turned to him.
"You show them, David."
David rapidly wondered if Neill didn't require him to help mix the cement, but Betty looked at him hard, and David blushed.
"Okay", he said, and he lifted the saddle and approached the steed. They had to trip the horse up and hold it down while David put the saddle on. Up it jumped, and the brave David jumped into the saddle...well, he leapt, but the saddle was not there. He reddened and set his teeth. He chased the horse round the field, caught it by the mane, and this time vaulted into the saddle. He was there for the thousandth part of a second, but he tried again. Sixteen times he was thrown, but finally he held on, and the brute careered round the field in four-foot jumps. It was great horsemanship, as Pyecraft said, and when finally David got the horse to trot round quietly there was a spontaneous cheer from the group. That did it, and David just escaped having his neck broken.
David volunteered to break-in all the horses, but the others furiously rejected his offer. The girls showed themselves as efficient and as brave as the boys, and Jean even bet them by riding her horse standing on her head on its bare back. The problem was Neill's horse. He refused to break it in on the ground that the horse was a noble animal and it was a crime to break its spirit.
"Which means you funk it", said Bunny brutally.
Neill laughed scornfully. "Any fool cold break-in a horse", he cried. "Too tame for me. Give me an elephant or a rhinoceros and I'll show you."
"Easy to say that", said David, "when you know there aren't any near you. Are you going to break-in your horse or not."
"No", said Neill. "I am a civilised being, and if you fools like to go chasing terriers on horseback, I hope you get a good day for it. And that's final."
"I don't suppose you can help being a coward", said Michael sadly. "Something in your childhood likely, a fright or something like that. We pity you, but it's tiresome for us to be saddled with someone who doesn't pull his weight."
"Pyecraft has weight enough for himself and me", said Neill.
One morning the children lined up at the front door, their horses champing their bits noisily. Neill's horse, which Bunny had broken-in, was to be the packhorse for carrying the puppies home. The dog pack was known to be along Saxmundham way, and all looked forward to a pleasant run. Each child had revolver and sword and also a cane. They swung out of the front drive in a cloud of dust.
Near Saxmundham they heard the noise of yapping and baying, and they came through a wood into a glade and found the pack attacking an old bull.
"Now for it", whispered Robert. "While the old ones are attacking we get behind and snaffle the pups. Come on", and they rode forwards. It was easy work to lean down and lift the pups, and soon every child had a couple. Then it was that the pups squeaked, and the whole pack left the bull and attacked the riders.
"Home!" shouted Michael, and led the way. They thundered through the wood. Suddenly there was a scream: they looked back in time to see the Alsatian leap on Jean and bring her to the ground. They wheeled and charged the snarling pack. "Swords, lads!" roared Robert, and they slashed their way into the centre. Jean was bleeding from a score of bites, and a large collie had her by the throat. "Biff!" said Gordon, and drove his sword through its throat.
His blow had been so terrific that he overbalanced and fell into the centre of open red mouths, and the Alsatian sprang at him. Gordon rammed the muzzle of his revolver into its mouth and pulled the trigger. The trigger jammed.
Things were by this time serious. Six children against a pack of perhaps a hundred dogs. Two members unhorsed, and the horses of the others terrified and almost uncontrollable. The horses of Gordon and Jean had stampeded. The revolvers were emptied and each shot found its mark, but there was no time to reload. It had to be swords, and swords it was. David beheaded a great Dane with one blow. They tried to form a ring round their fallen comrades, but the danger from their horses' feet was too great.
"Dismount!" cried Robert, and he led the way. So there the valiant band stood slashing away like blazes. Some of them managed to reload and the shots kept the pack back, but only for a moment.
"Oh, for a machine-gun", sighed Bunny.
"It's strapped on the packhorse", said Gordon, but the packhorse was shivering under the trees a hundred yards away. David, who had seen Tom Mix in the films, put his fingers to his lips and whistled. The horse pricked its ears, nothing more, but the whistle awoke old memories in the dogs and they came charging. Suddenly Betty gripped Robert by the arm. "Look!", she said, and pointed. Neill was swinging along the trees from branch to branch like Tarzan. He reached the packhorse and quickly unstrapped the machine-gun.
"Run for it!" he yelled, and they picked up Gordon and Jean and bolted. The dogs were so startled by this manoeuvre that they paused, and that pause was their death warrant, for the machine gun began to spit red death, and in a few moments the battle was over. The Alsatian lay dead on the field.
It was a successful outing in one sense, but in another it failed, for they had to drop their puppies in the fight. Only two remained. They very soon took to domesticity, but awkwardly enough they had no hate of rats. They began to fraternise with them, and they romped and played games with them. The inventive Gordon solved the matter by making a wooden rat in the workshop with nails for teeth. Then he made it bite the dogs, and they got furious. That ended the fraternisation, and soon the house was clear of rats.
It would be misleading to say that the chief interest of the group was fighting. They lived their lives very much as they used to do, and they asked Neill to give them lessons. Pyecraft and he sometimes went to play golf at Thorpeness, but that was difficult owing to long grass on the greens and whins in the fairway. However, as they had hundreds of new balls, they got accustomed to going round in 435 and losing sixty balls on the round. The professional had been on the first tee when he was turned to stone, and Neill felt so uncomfortable driving off under his stony eye that he carried him round to the other side of the clubhouse. But it was not the state of the course that made Neill find little plesure in a round. No, what troubled him was the fact that, every time he played the long 3.rd hole, he had to pass the statue of his friend Watson. He had always to blush and look the other way, for the cloud had caught Watson kicking his ball into a better lie.
There were times when the children were sad.
"It's my birthday to-day", sighed Evelyn, "and that's one of the rotten things of being left alive like this: there's nobody to send you presents."
"There are millions of presents in the shops", said Jean.
"Yes", said Evelyn with a tear in her eye, "I know, but it isn't quite the same. And I miss the post. It's awful having no letters or telegrams."
Pyecraft overheard her, and in the afternoon he went off in the airship to London and came back with several parcels. He slipped down to the post-office and put on the uniforms of three postmen and a telegraph boy, and came up to the school and knocked at the door. Then he handed to Michael, who answered the door, four large parcels addressed to Miss Evelyn Williams. Evelyn said it was the sweetest thing that had ever been done to her.
One night they sat and talked about what they missed most. Neill said it made him miserable to have no electric power in his workshop, that he had to drive his lathes by foot power. The boys solved this problem by tried to solve the problem later by fixing up a Daimler engine in the shop...and then Neill complained that he had to crank it up and they threatened to take it away again.
Pyecraft grumbled at the fact that there were no new books in the world, but the boys could see no disadvantage in this. Robert said he missed the comic papers a lot, and at Pyecraft's suggestion he flew to London and brought back an enormous bundle of old ones from Fleetway House. Gordon regretted that the university career he had planned for himself would never come off.
"Make your own university", suggested Neill. "I'll be one of the professors if you like."
"Pity", said Gordon, "that we didn't have a doctor among us. Suppose one of us falls ill. Suppose Betty took appendicitis. We couldn't operate, could we?"
"I'd have a mighty good try", said David. "Do you know what I'd do? I'd get a hammer and chisel and chip open one of the staff and see where the appendix was."
The others thought this a good idea, and next day they got hammers and chisels and began to study anatomy. Robert, after breaking three cold chisels on Eyre (the maths. master), gave up in disgust. The work was too hard, and soon the anatomical study ceased.
"I miss the newspapers", said Michael. "It would be topping to have the Daily Worker every morning again. It's so dull not knowing what is happening in the world."
"Is there anything happening?" asked Neill.
"That reminds me", said David suddenly; "what about old Fritz? We haven't heard from him in a long time. Let's try to get him", and he made for the transmitter. Yes, he was there all right, but he was having a bad time. The wolves from te steppes of Russia had begun to come westwards seeking food, and he could hardly go out to look for food himself, they were so dangerous. They were prowling the streets of Berlin like pariah dogs, and he had to seek the highest room in the new Air Ministry building. But it was the food question that troubled him most. The children were unanimous in voting that they should go to his assistance, and next morning the airship set out. They landed on the Air Ministry roof landing-stage, and saw Fritz's pleasant face grinning at them from a skylight. He was delighted to see them, and when he saw the food they had brought he wept with joy and kissed Betty, and Betty reddened and told him to behave himself. They tried to persuade him to join them, but he firmly refused. All he asked was that they should take him home to his native town of Murnau, and this they did that day. They stayed at his house that night, and the wolves howled around them all night.
"We can't leave you here", said Pyecraft. "There are thousands of wolves around and you won't be able to get any food. Better come with us", but Fritz had a strong sense of patriotism and said he couldn't leave his beloved Deutschland. Michael suggested an alternative.
"Look here", he said, "I tell you what. We'll build a great wall all round the town, one that wolves can't jump, and you can grow your own vegetables and keep a few hens and pigs and maybe a cow or two."
Fritz smiled with gratitude, but said that with so few workers the scheme was impossible to carry out.
"Is it?" said Michael. "Not a wall perhaps, but we could dig a deep trench with these big digging machines I saw outside the town."
And they began next day to use the machines. It took them a month to finish the trench, but they finished it. It was twenty feet deep and twelve feet wide, and no animal could possibly leap over it.
"The only danger", said Neill, "is that with rain the walls will fall in, also that rain will fill the trench and they can swim over it. And again in winter it will freeze and the animals can cross the ice."
The children considered this. They felt that they had bitten off more than they could chew, and were tired of the whole business. Robert suggested running an electric live wire round the trench, since there was a large dynamo nearby driven by a rapid stream, and Fritz said that he could easily fit that up by himself. Feeling that they had done their duty nobly, they left for home next day, and Fritz, the Emperor of Murnau, stood in the centre of his small kingdom and waved them good-bye.
"Quite a nice chap", said David, "but all the same I wish he wasn't alive too. We'll have to spend our time flying over to save him from wolves."
"He'll be needing us to help him grow his spuds next", said Bunny.
"I say", said Betty suddenly. "Don't let's go back to Summerhill yet. We can get petrol anywhere. Let's go round the world just to see if there are any other people alive."
"We don't want to find other people alive", growled David. "What do you say, Neill?"
"Well", began Neill, "I don't agree with you, David. I find that the present company is beginning to get to my nerves a bit. One gets so tired of seeing the same faces and hearing the same fatuous conversation all the time. I want someone I can talk to about psychology or economics or even golf."
"You have Pyecraft", said Gordon.
Neill looked at Pyecraft as he lay asleep with his mouth open.
"True", he said, "but you can't carry on much of a conversation with a man who is awake about half an hour a day. Besides, Pyecraft is a bloated capitalist and I am a Bolshie."
"What's the good", asked Michael, "of talking about things like capitalism and communism now? Moscow's Five-Year-Plan and Hitler's Four-Year-Plan are nowhere now, just a few millions of stone blokes hanging about while the wolves rule Europe."
"Some folks might say that the wolves were already trying to rule Europe", said Neill cryptically. "But don't you think we ought to have our own Five-Year-Plan?"
"Thousand-year-plan more like", said Evelyn. "We don't need a plan. We have everything we need - food, clothes, toys, arms."
Robert considered this.
"Yes", he said, "yes, that is true, but will it be true when we grow up, when Neill and Pyecraft have died of old age? The clothes will all be rotten, and furniture will be worm-eaten, and if we don't produce our own food we'll starve. I am beginning to think that being the last people alive isn't going to be all beer and skittles. Take technical things. Not one of us could make a piece of cloth or glass or anything made of steel. We don't know how to make soap."
"That", said David decisively, "does not matter."
"It doesn't", said Robert quickly; "I shouldn't have brought in soap, but take other things. Which of us could make a bulb for an electric torch? Or a battery? Or cast the cylinders of a motor?"
"In short", said Neill, "we are the wrong people left alive. A gang of ignorant, useless creatures who don't know enough to start a new world civilisation."
"We can study technical books", said Gordon.
"That's not enough", Michael gave his opinion; "we need loads of people. I could possibly read up all about making cars, but to make a car you need any amount of people who would do the digging of coal and iron, the smelting, the casting. the fitting. It's men we need."
"Well", said Betty, "what about my plan to fly around the world? We might find black people who live on mountains that were higher than the green cloud."
"We could make them slaves", said Jean; "or couldn't we catch monkeys and train them to dig coal and iron? Neill could be Tarzan of the Apes, eh?"
"Yes", cried Bunny, "let's go round the world", and when when Pyecraft woke up he said he didn't mind, that he could sleep, if anything, better over India than over England. So they turned the nose of the airship south, and they stopped in Paris and filled up with petrol. They flew low over the Alps hoping to see a shepherd or hunter who had escaped the cloud, but they saw no one moving. They flew to Moscow and saw that the cloud had come during a great demonstration of the Red Army. Stalin stood at the salute, and a million men stood petrified in their march. Robert wanted to land and give them a shove to see how a million men toppled over, but Michael the Bolshie said that that would be awful vandalism.
They flew over the Ural mountains, across Siberia to Japan. No sign of life here. China was also completely stone. India had its three hundred million dark statues. They crossed to South Africa and found no human life there. The animals had broken fromt the Kruger National Park and lions were prowling the streets of Pretoria. They landed beside one of the great gold mines of Johannesburg. Jean wanted to take a few bars of gold, but the others scoffed at the idea, for, as they said, gold is useless unless for filling teeth.
"I have a hole in one of my teeth", said David, "that gives me gyp sometimes. Without a dentist our teeth are going to e a bally nuisance."
Neill said that he had often watched dentists at work and he was sure it was quite easy, and if he liked they would find a dentist's surgery and he, Neill, would fill David's tooth with pure gold. David half-heartedly agreed to the suggestion, and they found a dentist's place and the others sat round while David took the chair and held on tightly to the arms. Neill examined the various tools.
"The first thing, if I remember right", he said, "is to treat the tooth with the machine that goes brrrrrrr, you know."
"Is it?" said David with a shiver. "I don't agree with you", but the others said that Neill was right, and Pyecraft brought forward the drilling machine. After Gordon and Robert had caught David at the bottom of the stairs and fetched him back, Neill began operations. David kept trying to say something, but, as Neill had his mouth firmly open, all that came from his throat was a Grrrr. Neill finished the drilling, and then David was free to say what he had been trying to say, namely, that Neill had drilled the wrong tooth.
"Sorry", said Neill pleasantly, "but that is easily remedied", but David went so quickly this time that they could not catch him. He made for a group of lions at the corner of the street, and only when he was in the very centre of the group did he feel safe. It was with difficulty that they got David to leave the precincts of leonine safety. Later, when David complained of toothache, Neill took from his pocket a hefty pair of dentist's forceps, and David's toothache always went away very suddenly.
They went to Kimberley and the girls took about a million pound's worth of diamonds.
"So silly", said Robert, "for what's the good of them? You can wear them, but there's nobody to see you wear them except us, and we don't admire you any more because you swank with a fortune of bright stones. Women are born capitalists I say; bourgeoisie standards."
"This is interesting", said Neill. "Now you see that diamonds and gold are not wealth. All the gold in South Africa is useless to us because we can't buy anything with it. Political economy shows us that surplus value is - "
"No", said Michael, "we don't want to hear about values. The only values I am interested in at the moment are stomach ones, and I votes we go down to that orange farm and study food values." And they did.
They took the Cape-to-Cairo route, but saw no sign of human life. "We really are the only ones alive", said Evelyn cheerfully.
"There's South America", said Pyecraft. "The Andes, very high. We'll go there."
And, you know, on the highest peak of the Andes they found four men alive. They were Americans, and Pyecraft recognised them from photos he had seen. They were the last survivors of the Pirrolo Gang of Chicago. They had fled to South America after the raid on the Central Bank in which they had shot dead four clerks and five G men. Killers they were, and they looked it. Pirrolo was of Italian origin, a dark, suave, handsome man of about thirty. His companions were true Americans of the gangster class.
The crew of the airship first became aware of their presence when a revolver shot hit the propeller as they were flying low over the mountains. Pyecraft was the first to see the gangsters, and he talked to them through the speaking trumpet. He told them about the cloud and that everyone was dead.
"Are the G men all stone too?" shouted Pirrolo.
"Of course", answered Pyecraft. "Why do you ask?"
Pirrolo said he didn't believe the tall yarn about the cloud, and affirmed that it was all a trick to capture them, that the airship was full of G men, and that, if anyone made an attempt to land and catch them, he would be put on the spot.
The crew consulted among themselves.
"I think we ought to leave them", said Betty. "If, as you say, they are gangsters, they'll kill us all."
The boys objected.
"What!", cried Michael. "Leave a chance like this? Are you dotty, Betty? My only regret is that there aren't a dozen of them."
Said Neill: "That's all very well, Michael, but we aren't all at the gangster stage. We don't think that our new world would be improved by a few Chicago killers, do we, Pyecraft?"
Pyecraft agreed with Neill.
"But, Neill", cried David, "you can psycho-analyse them all and make them honest men."
"If", said Neill sadly, "if I have failed to make you guys honest men, what chances have I of reforming an older lot of crooks."
It was obvious that the boys had made up their minds to make advances to the gangsters, and Robert took the speaking trumpet.
"Say, listen here, yuh punks", he shouted, "us guys is on the up and up, and not us for the double-cross. We ain't no dicks, and the cloud racket ain't no ballyhoo. Hang about till we deliver the cement samps."
"What in all the earth does all that mean?" asked Neill.
"It means", said Robert with dignity, "that I have not read the Black Mask magazine for years without knowing the lingo of Ed. Jenkins, the Phantom Crook. These chaps got what I meant", and apparently they had, for they nodded in agreement.
"Translate", said Neill to Pyecraft, and the latter explained: "Robert told them that he'd prove the cloud story by producing a few statues, so what, Robert?"
Robert said that they must fly to the nearest town, bring a few stone men and lower them with the derrick to the gangsters. This was done, but even then the gangsters were suspicious. So David suggested that they should go down to a village or town and see for themselves. This they did, and at last they were convinced that the cloud story was true. Pyecraft brought the ship to land and introductions followed. Pirrolo introduced his henchmen - Two-Gun Steve, Spike Faro, and Arizona Alf. Each man nodded and the boys noticed that they kept their hands in their jacket pockets, and they knew that each hand gripped a gat.
"Excuse me for not knowing your language", said Neill, "but there is no need to keep your hands on your guns. As my colleague Robert put it, we are on the up and up, and there is no occasion for suspicion."
The gangsters obviously did not understand this speech, so David translated.
"Nix on the spot hijack. We're level. Park the heaters", and the gangsters grinned and slowly took their hands from their pockets.
The girls prepared lunch, and they ate it picnic fashion on the grass. Betty observed that although Pirrolo's table manners were perfect, his men ate like beasts.
"Guess it was lucky for us that you came", said Pirrolo, and, rising slowly, he hit Spike with a straight left to the jaw. Spike went down and out.
"Saw him eyeing them jewels this young jane is wearing", explained Pirrolo. "I never allow my men to snaffle from friends, especially when the friend is a frail", and he bowed to Evelyn, who blushed prettily. Spike sat up after a moment or two, and sullenly continued with his eating.
Gordon asked Pirrolo what his plans were.
"I'd like to go back to Chicago", he said, "got a date with Big Boss Simms."
"Who is he?"
"He double-crossed me over that Central Bank", he said darkly.
"But", said Gordon, "what's the good of taking a stone man for a ride?"
Pirrolo's mouth fell open, and he stared at Gordon.
"Will he be stone too? Here, I say, live ain't worth living if there ain't no one to bump off."
"Must you bump people off?" asked Betty. Pirrolo looked at her thoughtfully.
"Habit of a lifetime, sister. It's going to be hard to adapt myself to a world of stone guys. I've taken 957 men for a ride, and it was my ambition to reach the thousand mark." He broke off with a suspicion of a sob, and stared miserably at the sausage Arizona Alf was wolfing. Betty felt quite sorry for him. He certainly was a handsome villain.
"Why", asked Bunny, "why do they call you Two-Gun Steve?"
Steve grinned broadly.
"I'll show you", he said. "Chuck a sausage in the breeze, Alf."
Alf reluctantly selected a smallish sausage from the dish and threw it in the air. Steve did a quick draw of both irons, and he blew the sausage to smithereens.
"Steve was the best shot in America", said Pirrolo. "Show 'em the three-egg-trick, Steve."
Pirrolo and Alf and Spike took an egg each and, at a signal from Steve, each threw his egg into the air. Using both guns, Steve hit each egg in the air.
"Not bad", said David, "but can you do it with a looking-glass over your shoulder?"
"How?" asked Steve.
"I mean this way", said David. "Robert and Bunny, chuck up two eggs each, and you, Jean, lend me that small mirror in your powder doings. I can't, of course, hold the mirror and two guns at the same time, but if Neill will hold the mirror for me...good, now chuck up the eggs."
Four eggs were blown to nothingness, and David calmly wiped the contents of one egg from his left eye. He pretended not to see the gangsters' look of amazement. "I'm not much good", he said modestly, "but if I keep on trying I hope to beat Robert's six eggs."
"Six eggs!" gasped Steve. "Can't be done."
Then Robert showed him that it could be done with one gun, and Pirrolo clapped his hands and said that he had never seen such shooting.
"Youse yeggs got something to learn", he said to his men, and they frowned, and the children knew that they were jealous.
"What about the janes?" said Pirrolo pleasantly. "Can they use a rod?"
"We aren't very good", said Evelyn. "I can only hit two eggs in the air, but Betty can do three eggs standing on her head."
"Eggs is only eggs", said Spike nastily. "Wot counts is the quickness on the draw."
"I agree", said Gordon, "but that is a thing you can't tell without one man getting killed. Unless of course we had lots of watches - stopwatches that would show exactly when they were hit."
"The bullet would blow the face and hand to bits", said Neill.
"No", said Gordon, "not if you aimed at it edgeways on and got the works without the hands and dial."
"Yuh mean: give it the woiks?" nodded Alf.
It seemed a reasonable method, and Gordon flew to a town and brought back a few dozen stop-watches, and they arranged them in a row with their edges facing one way. Each watch was set to the same second. The signal for the draw was to be a gong stroke by Pyecraft. The competitors lined up, and the children looked rather nervous.
"The conditions", said Neill, "are that each gun must be in its holster, and each must stand with his arms folded. All ready?"
Pyecraft crashed the gong, and there was a roar of guns.
The results were as follows: 1 David, 2 Robert, 3 Betty, 4 Gordon, 5 Bunny, 6 Michael, 7 Jean, 8 Evelyn, 9 Steve, 10 Alf, 11 Spike. Pirrolo and Neill did not compete. It was obvious that Pirrolo's men were chagrined and bitter about the result of the shooting.
"Hitting watches ain't everything", said Steve angrily. "Yuh knows that the watch ain't gonna draw back on yer, but when ye're up agin a loogan with a gat he gets nervy on the draw." He turned to Gordon. "Wot abaht you and me having a go at one another?" he said.
"Oke by me", said Gordon easily, but the others intervened and said it was silly for one to be killed when there were so few people in the world.
"Steve wouldn't be missed much", said Gordon, and if Pirrolo hadn't knocked Steve's gun up...well, someone would have been a corpse. Pyecraft persuaded the rivals to shake hands, and it was agreed that they would all fly to Chicago next day. And...
TO BE CONTINUED.
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Chapter 5 of 'The Last Man Alive' by A.S. Neill. This page is copyrighted.