At Herbert's cry, Pencroft, letting his gun fall, rushed towards him.
"They have killed him!" he cried. "My boy! They have killed him!"
Cyrus Harding and Gideon Spilett ran to Herbert.
The reporter listened to ascertain if the poor lad's heart was still beating.
"He lives," said he, "but he must be carried—"
"To Granite House? that is impossible!" replied the engineer.
"Into the corral, then!" said Pencroft.
"In a moment," said Harding.
And he ran round the left corner of the palisade. There he found a convict, who aiming at him, sent a ball through his hat. In a few seconds, before he had even time to fire his second barrel, he fell, struck to the heart by Harding's dagger, more sure even than his gun.
During this time, Gideon Spilett and the sailor hoisted themselves over the palisade, leaped into the enclosure, threw down the props which supported the inner door, ran into the empty house, and soon, poor Herbert was lying on Ayrton's bed. In a few moments, Harding was by his side.
On seeing Herbert senseless, the sailor's grief was terrible.
He sobbed, he cried, he tried to beat his head against the wall.
Neither the engineer nor the reporter could calm him. They themselves were choked with emotion. They could not speak.
However, they knew that it depended on them to rescue from death the poor boy who was suffering beneath their eyes. Gideon Spilett had not passed through the many incidents by which his life had been checkered without acquiring some slight knowledge of medicine. He knew a little of everything, and several times he had been obliged to attend to wounds produced either by a sword-bayonet or shot. Assisted by Cyrus Harding, he proceeded to render the aid Herbert required.
The reporter was immediately struck by the complete stupor in which Herbert lay, a stupor owing either to the hemorrhage, or to the shock, the ball having struck a bone with sufficient force to produce a violent concussion.
Herbert was deadly pale, and his pulse so feeble that Spilett only felt it beat at long intervals, as if it was on the point of stopping.
These symptoms were very serious.
Herbert's chest was laid bare, and the blood having been stanched with handkerchiefs, it was bathed with cold water.
The contusion, or rather the contused wound appeared,—an oval below the chest between the third and fourth ribs. It was there that Herbert had been hit by the bullet.
Cyrus Harding and Gideon Spilett then turned the poor boy over; as they did so, he uttered a moan so feeble that they almost thought it was his last sigh.
Herberts back was covered with blood from another contused wound, by which the ball had immediately escaped.
"God be praised!" said the reporter, "the ball is not in the body, and we shall not have to extract it."
"But the heart?" asked Harding.
"The heart has not been touched; if it had been, Herbert would be dead!"
"Dead!" exclaimed Pencroft, with a groan.
The sailor had only heard the last words uttered by the reporter.
"No, Pencroft," replied Cyrus Harding, "no! He is not dead. His pulse still beats. He has even uttered a moan. But for your boy's sake, calm yourself. We have need of all our self-possession."
"Do not make us lose it, my friend."
Pencroft was silent, but a reaction set in, and great tears rolled down his cheeks.
In the meanwhile, Gideon Spilett endeavored to collect his ideas, and proceed methodically. After his examination he had no doubt that the ball, entering in front, between the seventh and eighth ribs, had issued behind between the third and fourth. But what mischief had the ball committed in its passage? What important organs had been reached? A professional surgeon would have had difficulty in determining this at once, and still more so the reporter.
However, he knew one thing, this was that he would have to prevent the inflammatory strangulation of the injured parts, then to contend with the local inflammation and fever which would result from the wound, perhaps mortal! Now, what styptics, what antiphiogistics ought to be employed? By what means could inflammation be prevented?
At any rate, the most important thing was that the two wounds should be dressed without delay. It did not appear necessary to Gideon Spilett that a fresh flow of blood should be caused by bathing them in tepid water, and compressing their lips. The hemorrhage had been very abundant, and Herbert was already too much enfeebled by the loss of blood.
The reporter, therefore, thought it best to simply bathe the two wounds with cold water.
Herbert was placed on his left side, and was maintained in that position.
"He must not be moved." said Gideon Spilett. "He is in the most favorable position for the wounds in his back and chest to suppurate easily, and absolute rest is necessary."
"What! can't we carry him to Granite House?" asked Pencroft.
"No, Pencroft," replied the reporter.
"I'll pay the villains off!" cried the sailor, shaking his fist in a menacing manner.
"Pencroft!" said Cyrus Harding.
Gideon Spilett had resumed his examination of the wounded boy. Herbert was still so frightfully pale, that the reporter felt anxious.
"Cyrus," said he, "I am not a surgeon. I am in terrible perplexity. You must aid me with your advice, your experience!"
"Take courage, my friend," answered the engineer, pressing the reporter's hand. "Judge coolly. Think only of this: Herbert must be saved!"
These words restored to Gideon Spilett that self-possession which he had lost in a moment of discouragement on feeling his great responsibility. He seated himself close to the bed. Cyrus Harding stood near. Pencroft had torn up his shirt, and was mechanically making lint.
Spilett then explained to Cyrus Harding that he thought he ought first of all to stop the hemorrhage, but not close the two wounds, or cause their immediate cicatrization, for there had been internal perforation, and the suppuration must not be allowed to accumulate in the chest.
Harding approved entirely, and it was decided that the two wounds should be dressed without attempting to close them by immediate coaptation.
And now did the colonists possess an efficacious agent to act against the inflammation which might occur?
Yes. They had one, for nature had generously lavished it. They had cold water, that is to say, the most powerful sedative that can be employed against inflammation of wounds, the most efficacious therapeutic agent in grave cases, and the one which is now adopted by all physicians. Cold water has, moreover, the advantage of leaving the wound in absolute rest, and preserving it from all premature dressing, a considerable advantage, since it has been found by experience that contact with the air is dangerous during the first days.
Gideon Spilett and Cyrus Harding reasoned thus with their simple good sense, and they acted as the best surgeon would have done. Compresses of linen were applied to poor Herbert's two wounds, and were kept constantly wet with cold water.
The sailor had at first lighted a fire in the hut, which was not wanting in things necessary for life. Maple sugar, medicinal plants, the same which the lad had gathered on the banks of Lake Grant, enabled them to make some refreshing drinks, which they gave him without his taking any notice of it. His fever was extremely high, and all that day and night passed without his becoming conscious.
Herbert's life hung on a thread, and this thread might break at any moment. The next day, the 12th of November, the hopes of Harding and his companions slightly revived. Herbert had come out of his long stupor. He opened his eyes, he recognized Cyrus Harding, the reporter, and Pencroft. He uttered two or three words. He did not know what had happened. They told him, and Spilett begged him to remain perfectly still, telling him that his life was not in danger, and that his wounds would heal in a few days. However, Herbert scarcely suffered at all, and the cold water with which they were constantly bathed, prevented any inflammation of the wounds. The suppuration was established in a regular way, the fever did not increase, and it might now be hoped that this terrible wound would not involve any catastrophe. Pencroft felt the swelling of his heart gradually subside. He was like a sister of mercy. like a mother by the bed of her child.
Herbert dozed again, but his sleep appeared more natural.
"Tell me again that you hope, Mr. Spilett," said Pencroft. "Tell me again that you will save Herbert!"
"Yes, we will save him!" replied the reporter. "The wound is serious, and, perhaps, even the ball has traversed the lungs, but the perforation of this organ is not fatal."
"God bless you!" answered Pencroft.
As may be believed, during the four-and-twenty hours they had been in the corral, the colonists had no other thought than that of nursing Herbert. They did not think either of the danger which threatened them should the convicts return, or of the precautions to be taken for the future.
But on this day, while Pencroft watched by the sick-bed, Cyrus Harding and the reporter consulted as to what it would be best to do.
First of all they examined the corral. There was not a trace of Ayrton. Had the unhappy man been dragged away by his former accomplices? Had he resisted, and been overcome in the struggle? This last supposition was only too probable. Gideon Spilett, at the moment he scaled the palisade, had clearly seen some one of the convicts running along the southern spur of Mount Franklin, towards whom Top had sprung. It was one of those whose object had been so completely defeated by the rocks at the mouth of the Mercy. Besides, the one killed by Harding, and whose body was found outside the enclosure, of course belonged to Bob Harvey's crew.
As to the corral, it had not suffered any damage. The gates were closed, and the animals had not been able to disperse in the forest. Nor could they see traces of any struggle, any devastation, either in the hut, or in the palisade. The ammunition only, with which Ayrton had been supplied, had disappeared with him.
"The unhappy man has been surprised," said Harding, "and as he was a man to defend himself, he must have been overpowered."
"Yes, that is to be feared!" said the reporter. "Then, doubtless, the convicts installed themselves in the corral where they found plenty of everything, and only fled when they saw us coming. It is very evident, too, that at this moment Ayrton, whether living or dead, is not here!"
"We shall have to beat the forest," said the engineer, "and rid the island of these wretches. Pencroft's presentiments were not mistaken, when he wished to hunt them as wild beasts. That would have spared us all these misfortunes!"
"Yes," answered the reporter, "but now we have the right to be merciless!"
"At any rate," said the engineer, "we are obliged to wait some time, and to remain at the corral until we can carry Herbert without danger to Granite House."
"But Neb?" asked the reporter.
"Neb is in safety."
"But if, uneasy at our absence, he would venture to come?"
"He must not come!" returned Cyrus Harding quickly. "He would be murdered on the road!"
"It is very probable, however, that he will attempt to rejoin us!"
"Ah, if the telegraph still acted, he might be warned! But that is impossible now! As to leaving Pencroft and Herbert here alone, we could not do it! Well, I will go alone to Granite House."
"No, no! Cyrus," answered the reporter, "you must not expose yourself! Your courage would be of no avail. The villains are evidently watching the corral, they are hidden in the thick woods which surround it, and if you go we shall soon have to regret two misfortunes instead of one!"
"But Neb?" repeated the engineer. "It is now four-and-twenty hours since he has had any news of us! He will be sure to come!"
"And as he will be less on his guard than we should be ourselves," added Spilett, "he will be killed!"
"Is there really no way of warning him?"
While the engineer thought, his eyes fell on Top, who, going backwards and forwards seemed to say,—
"Am not I here?"
"Top!" exclaimed Cyrus Harding.
The animal sprang at his master's call.
"Yes, Top will go," said the reporter, who had understood the engineer.
"Top can go where we cannot! He will carry to Granite House the news of the corral, and he will bring back to us that from Granite House!"
"Quick!" said Harding. "Quick!"
Spilett rapidly tore a leaf from his note-book, and wrote these words:—
"Herbert wounded. We are at the corral. Be on your guard. Do not leave Granite House. Have the convicts appeared in the neighborhood? Reply by Top."
This laconic note contained all that Neb ought to know, and at the same time asked all that the colonists wished to know. It was folded and fastened to Top's collar in a conspicuous position.
"Top, my dog," said the engineer, caressing the animal, "Neb, Top! Neb! Go, go!"
Top bounded at these words. He understood, he knew what was expected of him. The road to the corral was familiar to him. In less than an hour he could clear it, and it might be hoped that where neither Cyrus Harding nor the reporter could have ventured without danger, Top, running among the grass or in the wood, would pass unperceived.
The engineer went to the gate of the corral and opened it.
"Neb, Top! Neb!" repeated the engineer, again pointing in the direction of Granite House.
Top sprang forwards, then almost immediately disappeared.
"He will get there!" said the reporter.
"Yes, and he will come back, the faithful animal!"
"What o'clock is it?" asked Gideon Spilett.
"In an hour he may be here. We will watch for his return."
The gate of the corral was closed. The engineer and the reporter re-entered the house. Herbert was still in a sleep. Pencroft kept the compresser always wet. Spilett, seeing there was nothing he could do at that moment, busied himself in preparing some nourishment, while attentively watching that part of the enclosure against the hill, at which an attack might be expected.
The settlers awaited Top's return with much anxiety. A little before eleven o'clock, Cyrus Harding and the reporter, rifle in hand, were behind the gate, ready to open it at the first bark of their dog.
They did not doubt that if Top had arrived safely at Granite House, Neb would have sent him back immediately.
They had both been there for about ten minutes, when a report was heard, followed by repeated barks.
The engineer opened the gate, and seeing smoke a hundred feet off in the wood, he fired in that direction.
Almost immediately Top bounded into the corral, and the gate was quickly shut.
"Top, Top!" exclaimed the engineer, taking the dog's great honest head between his hands.
A note was fastened to his neck, and Cyrus Harding read these words, traced in Neb's large writing:—"No pirates in the neighborhood of Granite House. I will not stir. Poor Mr. Herbert!"