I saw him first, years ago upon a station in New South Wales; a neat, smart figure less than nine stone in weight, but it was nine stone of fencing wire full of the electricity of life. He was in the stockyard when I first saw him, working like any ordinary station hand, for it was the busy portion of the year, and at such times the squatters' sons work like any hired hand, only a lot harder, if they are worth their salt, and have not been bitten by the mania for dudeism during their college course in the cities. There was nothing of the dandy about this fellow. From head to heel he was a man's son, full of the vim of living, strong with the lust of life. The sweat ran down his face, dirty with the dust kicked up by the cattle in the stockyard. His clothes were not guiltless of mire, for he had been knocked over more than once that morning, and there was an edge upon his voice as he rapped out his orders to the stockmen who were working with him. He did not look in the least degree pretty, and there was not enough poetry about him just then to make an obituary jingle on a tombstone. I little thought that day that a time would come when he would prove the glory of his Australian breeding in the teeth of an enemy's guns on African soil.
I saw him again--under silk this time--as a gentleman rider. He was the same quiet, cool little fellow, grey-eyed, steel-lipped, stout-hearted, with "hands" that Archer might have envied. He rode at his fences that day as the Australian amateurs can ride, with a rip and a rattle, with the long, loose leg, the hands well down, and head up and back, and "Over or Through" was his motto. I did not know him to speak to in those old days. We were to shake hands under peculiar circumstances away in a foreign land, in a foreign hospital, both of us prisoners of war, both of us wounded. That was where and how I spoke to little Dowling, lieutenant in the First Australian Horse, as game a sample of humanity as ever threw leg over saddle or loosed a rifle at a foe. He came to my bedside the morning after I entered the hospital, and standing over me with a green shade over one eye, and one hand in a sling, said laconically:
"Australian ain't you?"
"Yes, by gad, and I know you." He reached out his left hand, and placed it in mine.
"Been 'stopping one'?" he remarked.
"Only a graze, thank God," I replied.
Then the matron and the German doctor, as fine a gentleman as ever drew breath, came along to have a look at me, and he was turned out; but we chummed, as Australians have a knack of doing in time of trouble, and I tried hard to get him to talk of his adventures, but he was a mummy on that subject. He would not yarn about his own doings on the fateful day when he was laid out, though he was eloquent enough concerning the doings of his comrades. All I could get out of him in regard to his own part in the fray was that his men and he had been ambushed, and that he had "stopped one" with his head, and one with his hand, and another with his leg, his horse had been killed, and he knew mighty little more about it until he found himself in the hands of the Boers, who had treated him well and kindly. I asked the matron about his wounds, and she told me that a bullet had entered the corner of his right eye, coming out by the right ear, ruining the sight for ever. Another had carried away his right thumb, and a couple had passed through his right leg, one just below the groin, another 'just above the knee. That was what he modestly termed "stopping a few."
After I had been in hospital a little while, the matron gave me leave to prowl about to pick up "copy," and my feet soon led me into the ward where the wounded Dutchmen were lying, and there I met a couple of burghers who had been in the mêlée when Dowling was gathered in. One of them was a handsome Swede, with a long blonde moustache, that fell with a glorious sweep on to his chest, as the Viking's did of old. He was an adventurer, who knew how to take his gruel like a man. He had joined the Boers because he thought they were the weaker side, and had done his best for them. He saw Dowling talking to me one day, and asked me if I knew the "little devil." "Yes," I replied, "we are countrymen." "Americans?" he asked. "No, Australians." He raised himself on his elbow, whilst I propped his shoulders up with pillows, and as he remained thus he gazed admiringly at the slight, boyish figure which limped lazily through the ward. "What a little tiger cat he is," muttered the recumbent giant. "I thought we'd have to kill him before we got him, and that would have been a shame, for I hate to kill brave men when they have no chance." "Tell me about it," I said. "He won't give me any information himself, only tells me he 'stopped a few.'" The big, handsome Swede laughed a mighty laugh under his great blonde moustache.
"Stopped a few, did he? If all your fellows fought it out to the bitter end as he did, we should run short of ammunition before the war was very old."
A Boer nurse came over and asked us "what nonsense we made one with the other, that we did laugh to ourselves like two hens clucking over one egg." The blonde giant turned his joyous blue eyes upon her, and paid her a compliment which caused her to bridle, whilst the blood swept like a race-horse in its stride over neck, and cheek, and brow, causing her dainty, girlish face to look prettier than ever. "Ah, little Eckhardt," he whispered, and then murmured something in Dutch. I did not understand the words, but there was something in the sound of the adventurer's voice which conjured up a moonlit garden, a rose-crowned gate swinging on one hinge, a girl on one side and a fool on the other. The nurse tossed her pretty head with its wealth of jet black hair, and as she smoothed his pillows with infinite care she murmured: "Fighting and making love, making love and fighting--it is all one to you, Karl. I know you, you big pirate; you are as a hen that lays away from home." And with that round of shrapnel she left us.
Karl got rid of a fourteen-pound sigh, which sounded like the bursting of a lyddite shell. Then he slipped his hand under his pillow and drew forth a flask of "Dop." "Drink to her," he said. "To whom?" I asked, falling in with the humour of the man. "To the girl I love," he muttered like a schoolboy. "Which one, Karl?" I asked, and I laughed as I spoke. He snatched the brandy from my hand, lifted the flask to his lips, and drank deeply. Then again his mighty laugh ran through the hospital ward. "Which one?" he said; "why, all of them, God bless them. But the maid that is nearest is always the dearest." "Shut up, you Goth," I said, "and tell me about Dowling, for some day I shall write the story, and I would like to hear it from the lips of one of his enemies." The Swede lay back upon his pillow, stroking the golden horns of hair that fell each side of his mouth, and I noticed that the lips which a little time before had been smiling into the face of the nurse were now hard set and stern. So I could have imagined him standing by the side of his gun, or rushing headlong on to our ranks. A man with a mouth like that could not flinch in the hour of peril if he tried, for his jaw had the Kitchener grip, the antithesis of the parrot pout of the dandy, or the flabby fulness of the fool.
"It was in the fore part of the day," he said at length. "We had been posted snugly overnight on both sides of two ranges of kopjes, for we knew that your fellows were going to attempt a reconnaissance next day. How did we know? you ask. Well, comrade, ask no questions of that kind, and I'll tell you no lies. The truth I won't tell you."
But we knew, and we were ready. We were disappointed when we saw the force, for we had expected something much bigger, and had made arrangements for a larger capture. It was only a troop of Australian Horse that came our way, and 'the little devil' was riding at their head. We bided our time, hoping that he might be followed by more men, and, above all, we expected and wanted some guns; but they did not put in an appearance, so we loosed upon the little troop. They were fairly ambushed; they did not know that a rifle was within miles of them until the bullets were singing through their ranks. Horses plunged suddenly forward, reared, lurched now to the near side, now to the off, then blundered forward on their heads, for many of our men fired at the chargers instead of at the riders. Dowling's horse went down with a bullet between the flap of the saddle and the crease of the shoulder, and the little chap went spinning over his head amongst the rocks. But a good many saddles were empty. He was up in a moment, yelling to his men to ride for their lives, and they rode. We charged from cover, and rode down on the men who had fallen, and as we closed in on them your countryman lifted his rifle and loosed on us.
"One of our fellows took a flying shot at him at close quarters, for his rifle was talking the language of death, and that is a tongue no man likes to listen to. The bit of lead took him in the eye and came out by his ear, and down he went. But he climbed up in a moment, and his rifle was going to his shoulder again, when I fired to break his arm, and carried his thumb away--the thumb of the right hand, I think. The rifle clattered on to the rocks, but as we drew round him he pulled his revolver with his one good hand, and started to pot us. He looked a gamecock as he stood there in the sunlight, his face all bathed in blood, and his shattered hand hanging numbed beside him. So we gave him a couple in the legs to steady him, and down by his dead horse he went; but even then he was as eager for fight as a grass widow is for compliments, and it was not until Jan Viljoens jammed the butt of his rifle on the crown of his head that he stretched himself out and took no further part in that circus. We carried him into our lines, and handed him over to our medical man, though even as we gathered him up our scouts came galloping in to tell us that a big body of British troops were advancing to cut us off from our main body. But we knew that if we left him until your ambulance people found him, it was a million to one that he would bleed to death amongst the rocks, and he was too good a fighter and too brave a fellow to be left to a fate like that. Had he shown the white feather we might have left him to the asvogels."
"And so," said I, "that is how little Dowling, son of Australia, came, as he said, 'to stop a few' for the sake of his breeding. If I live, the men out in the sunny Southland shall hear how he did it, and his name shall be known round the gold-hunters' camp fires, and be mentioned with pride where the cattle drovers foregather to talk of the African war and the men who fought and fell there."