Chapter IX. Komati-Poort
 

The four lads were no longer dressed in the guise of farmers. These suits were carried in the packs to be resumed when they neared the Transvaal. They now dressed in the tweeds they had worn at Johannesburg, and either felt hats or straw. They still wore jack-boots. The heat of the day was now great, much more so, indeed, than they had been accustomed to, for while Maritzburg lies two thousand two hundred feet above the sea, Johannesburg is five thousand seven hundred. Behind them Jack led the spare horse, and the four new men stepped lightly along with their muskets slung behind them by the side of two strong Basuto ponies, each carrying a couple of boxes containing half a hundredweight of dynamite. These were concealed from view by sacks and blankets, the cooking utensils, and other light articles. The spare horse carried the flour, paraffin, fuses, and other stores, which brought up the weight to a hundred and twenty pounds. This was somewhat lighter than that carried by the ponies, but they were anxious to keep it in good condition in case one of their own gave out.

The baggage had all been very carefully packed, so that even when going fast it might not be displaced. They had found no difficulty in obtaining the dynamite, as several of the stores kept it for the use of the mines. They made no difficulty in selling it, and would not have been sorry to part with their whole stock. In view of the possibility of a siege, it was not an article that any sane man would care to keep on the premises. Chris had gone round to these stores and had obtained an offer from each, and as he said that he intended to accept the lowest tender, it was offered to him at a price very much below what he would ordinarily have had to give for it. The cases were sewn up in canvas, on which was painted respectively, Tea, Sugar, Biscuits, and Rice. Travelling five hours and halting at ten o'clock at a farmhouse that was still tenanted, and again travelling from half-past three until eight, they made about twenty-five miles the first day. Then they encamped at a spot where there was a small spring and consequently good feed for the horses, and knee-haltering them and taking off their saddles they turned them loose.

The natives had collected fuel as they went along, and a fire was soon made. When the kettle approached boiling, some slices of bacon, of which they had brought thirty pounds with them, were fried. There was no occasion to make bread, as they had enough for a two days' supply. The natives parched some mealies (Indian corn) in the frying-pan when the bacon was done, the fat serving as a condiment that they highly appreciated, and they quenched their thirst from the spring.

Four days' travelling took them to the drift across the Tugela. So far their journey had been wholly uneventful. Before crossing the next day they had a long talk with the two Zulus. Their language differed somewhat from that of Jack, but Chris understood them without difficulty; for a considerable portion of the labourers in the mines at Johannesburg were Zulus, and mixing with these, as Chris had done, he understood them even better than he did Jack.

The different routes were discussed, and the position of kraals, at which mealies for the five natives and the horses could be purchased, and meat possibly obtained. This, unless they bought a sheep, would be in the form of biltong, that is, strips of meat dried by being hung up in the sun and wind, and similar to the jerked meat of the prairies and pampas of America. The points at which water could be obtained were discussed. Some were at considerable distances apart; but the Zulus were of opinion that the late heavy rains had extended to the hills of Zululand, and that there would be abundance of water in little dongas and water-courses that would be dry after a spell of fine weather. While passing through Zululand there would be no occasion whatever for vigilance by day or a watch at night, for there perfect order reigned. Here and there resident magistrates were stationed, and at these points a few white traders had settled. All disputes between the natives were ordinarily decided by their own chiefs, but in serious cases an appeal could be made to the nearest magistrate, who at once interfered in cases of violence or gross injustice.

At the first kraal they came to they learned that the natives were everywhere much excited. They were most anxious to be allowed to join in the war against their old enemies, and were greatly disappointed on learning from the magistrates that this was only a white man's war, and that no others must take part in it. If, however, the Boers invaded their territory they would of course be allowed to defend themselves.

Some of the Zulus urged with reason, that though the English might wish to make it a white man's war, the Boers did not desire it to be so, for they knew that they had been urging the Swazis and the Basutos to join them against the English, and that offers of many rifles and much plunder had been made also to some of their own chiefs. To this the magistrates could only reply, that they knew of old that the Boers' words could not be trusted, and that they were always ready to break any arrangement that they had made. "They would like you to join them," they said, "because they would take your help and afterwards turn against you and steal your land. You know well enough that we have always stood between you and them; but they would know that if you had joined them against us we should be angry, and after our war with them was over would no longer protect you." The Zulus, from their knowledge of the Boers, felt that this would be so. But in any case no offers made to them would have induced them to side with the Boers; and it was the general hope that something might occur which would induce the English to allow them to attack their enemies.

Chris and his friends had laid aside their bandoliers, retaining only the cartridges carried in their belts, in order to assume the appearance of Englishmen merely travelling for sport, and as they went on they generally managed to shoot deer enough for the needs of the whole party. Occasionally they slept in the kraals of chiefs, but greatly preferred their own little tents as the smoke in them was often blinding, and more than once the attacks of vermin kept them awake. Still, it would have been a slight to refuse such invitations, and they had to go to the kraals as it was necessary to frequently buy supplies of mealies. At times the travelling was very rough, and with the utmost exertions they could not make more than twelve or fourteen miles a day, and at other times they could make five-and-twenty. Without the supply of Indian corn, the ponies could not have continued this rate of going without breaking down. The native horses are accustomed occasionally to make very long journeys, and can perform from sixty to eighty miles in a day, but after such an exertion they will need a week's rest before making another effort. With their Basuto masters they are not called upon to do so. When one of these makes a long journey he will leave his pony with the person he visits and return on a fresh mount, or if he returns to his own home after his first day's journey he will take a fresh horse from his own stock, which may vary from five to fifty ponies. As they rode they seldom talked of the work that was to be done. Until they saw the country, the positions, and approach, no plans could possibly be formed, and they therefore treated the matter as if it were a mere sporting expedition in a new country, and enjoyed themselves thoroughly. They had heavy work in crossing the Lebombo range, and, travelling a day's journey farther west, turned to the north again. They were now in Swaziland, a wild and mountainous country. Here also they were hospitably received where they stopped, although the Swazis were deeply aggrieved by the shameful manner in which England had refused, after the valuable aid they had rendered in the last war, to give them any support against the Boers. A word would have been sufficient to have kept the latter out of Swaziland, as it had kept them from raiding in Zululand; but that word was not given, and the unfortunate people had been raided and plundered, their best land taken from them, and they themselves reduced to a state of semi-subjection. However, they were glad to see four English sportsmen among them again, and to learn something of the war that had broken out between their oppressors and the British.

"If you beat them we shall be free again," they said. "Last time you were beaten, and gave over the whole country to the Boers, and left all our people, who had fought for you, at their mercy. This time you must not do that. If you beat them, shoot them all like dogs, or make slaves of them as they make slaves of the natives who dwell in their land. Only so will there be peace."

"I don't know that the English will do that," Chris said; "but you may be sure that, when the war is over, the Boers will be no longer masters, and there will be just law made by us, and all white men and all natives will be protected, and no evil deeds will be allowed."

"We are no longer united among ourselves," one of the chiefs said. "Some have been taken by the promises and gifts of the Boers, and our queen is also, it is said, in their favour. She is afraid of them, but most of us would take advantage of their fighting you to drive all of them out of our land, and to win back all the territory they have taken from us. We are very poor, our best land is gone, we can scarce grow enough food; and we long for the time when once again we can have rich mealie patches, and good grazing land for our oxen and our horses, and are again a strong people, and they afraid of us. Had not the English interfered and taken over the Boer country, we should have wasted it from end to end; and they knew it well, and begged your Shepstone to hoist your flag and protect them. Ah, he should have stayed there then! The natives, our friends in the plain, still talk of that happy time when you were masters, and the Boers dared no longer shoot them down as if they were wild beasts and treat them as slaves, and the towns grew up, and your people paid for work with money and not with the lash of a whip or a bullet. All of us have mourned over the time when the English bent their knee to the Boers, and gave them all they wanted,--the mastery of the land, and the right to kill and enslave us at their will."

"That was not quite so," Chris said. "They promised to give good treatment to the natives; that was one of the conditions of the treaty."

"And you believed them!" the chief said scornfully. "Did you not know that a Boer's oath is only good so long as a gun is pointed at him? Perhaps it will be like this again, and when you have conquered them you will again trust them, and march away. But they tell us, it is not you who will conquer them, but they who will conquer you. They tell our people that they will be masters over all the land, and that your people will have to sail away in your ships. Runners have brought us news that they have gathered round the place where our people go to work digging bright stones from the ground, and that very soon they will take all the English prisoners, and that they have also beset Mafeking, and that they have beaten the English soldiers in Natal, and there will soon be none left there; and more than that, that the people of the other Boer state have joined them, and have entered the English territory, and are being joined by all the Boers there. Therefore we, who would like to fight against them, are afraid. We thought the English a great people; they had beaten the Zulus, and dethroned the great King Cetewayo. But now it seems that the Boers are much greater, and our hearts are sore."

"You need not fear, chief," Chris said. "Our country is very many miles away, many days' journey in ships; it will take weeks before our army gets strong. The Boers have always said they wanted peace, and we believed them and kept but a few soldiers here, and until the army comes from England they will get the best of it; but we can send, if necessary, an army many times stronger than that of the Boers, and are sure to crush them in the end."

"But how could you believe they wanted peace?" the chief asked. "Everyone knew that they were building great forts, and had got guns bigger than were ever before seen, and stores full of rifles. How could you believe their words when your eyes saw that it was not peace but war that they meant?" "Because we were fools, I suppose," Chris said bitterly. "It was not from want of warnings, for people living out here had written again and again telling what vast preparations they were making, but the people who govern the country paid no attention. It was much easier to believe what was pleasant than what was unpleasant; but their folly will cost the country very dear. If they had sent over twenty thousand men a year ago there would have been no war; now they will have to send over a hundred thousand men, perhaps even more; and great sums of money will be spent, and great numbers of lives lost, simply because our government refused to believe what everyone out here knew to be the fact. We did nothing, and allowed the Boers to complete all their preparations, and to choose their own time for war. But though we have made a horrible mistake, do not think, chief, that there is any doubt about our conquering at last; the men who now govern our country are men and not cowards, and will not, as that other government did, go on their knees to the Boers, and even if they would do so, the people would not sanction it."

"If what the chief has heard is correct," Chris said as they rode along the next morning, "we must get back again as soon as we can. The Boers may be lying, and, of course, they would make the best of things to the Swazis. It certainly sounds as if not only at Ladysmith, but at all other places, things are going badly at present. However, in another couple of days we shall not be far from the bridge. The chief said that the frontier was only a few miles away, and our own men tell us that it is a very hilly country on the other side, just as it is here. We have certainly come faster that we had expected. Thanks to their good feeding, the horses have all turned out well. If it is really only two days farther, we shall get there in just three weeks from starting."

They had not brought the same ponies all the way; as soon as one showed signs of fatigue, it was changed for another with the arrangement that, should they return that way, they would take it back and give the chief a present for having seen that it was taken care of. The four natives, although well contented with the way in which they were fed and cared for, were much puzzled at the eagerness of their employers to push on, and the disregard they paid to all the information obtained for them of opportunities for sport. Several times they had said to Jack: "How is it the baas does not stop to shoot? There are plenty of deer, and in some places lions. There are zebras, too, though these are not easy to get at, and very difficult to stalk. Why do you push on so fast that the ponies have to be left behind, and others taken on? We cannot understand it. We have been with white men who came into our country to shoot, or to see what the land was like, but they did not travel like this. Besides, we shall soon be in the land of the Boers, and as the English are at war with them, they will shoot them if they find them."

Jack had only been told that his masters were going to strike a blow at the Boers, and had not troubled himself as to its nature. He had seen how they had defeated much larger parties than their own, and had unbounded confidence in them. He therefore only said:

"The baas has not told me. I know that all the gentlemen are very brave, and have no fear of the Boers. I do not think that we need fear that any harm will happen. They shoot enough for us to eat heartily, they buy drink for us at every kraal they stop at, and if they have seen no game they buy a sheep. What can we want more? They have got you guns, but you have never needed to use them; perhaps you may before you get back. If the Boers meddle with them you will be able to fight."

The prospect of a chance of being allowed to fight against the Boers would alone have inspired the four natives to bear any amount of fatigue without a murmur, and each day's march farther north had heightened their hopes that they might use their guns against their old enemies. It was on the twenty-first day after starting that, from a hill commanding a broad extent of country, they caught sight of a train of waggons, and knew that their journey was just at an end. They had debated which side of the Komati river would be the best to follow, and had agreed to take the eastern bank.

The Boer territory extended a few miles beyond this. Komati-poort was close to the frontier. As they knew nothing as to the construction of the bridge beyond the fact that it was iron, and were not even sure whether it was entirely on Boer ground, or if the eastern bank of the river here belonged to the Portuguese, they decided that at any rate it was better to travel as near the frontier as possible, as, were they pursued they could ride at once across the line. Not that they believed that the Boers would respect this, but they would not know the country so well as that on their own side, and would not find countrymen to join them in the pursuit.

Keeping down on the eastern side of the hills, they continued until they could see the white line of steam that showed the direction in which a train from the south-east was coming, and were therefore able to calculate within half a mile where the bridge must be situated. They camped in a dry donga, and next morning at daybreak left their horses behind them in charge of the men and walked forward. A mile farther they obtained a view of the bridge. It stood at the point where the river, after running for some little distance north-west, made a sharp curve to the south. The bridge stood at this loop. If the object had been to render it defensible, it had been admirably chosen by these Boers who laid out the line to the Portuguese frontier, for from the other side of the bank the approach could be swept by cannon and even musketry on both flanks.

Lying down, they took in all the details of the construction through their glasses, and then, choosing their ground so that they could not be seen by any on the bridge, they kept on until they were able to obtain a view from a distance of a quarter of a mile. The examination that was now made was by no means of a satisfactory nature. Near the bridge there were sidings on which several lines of loaded trucks stood. An engine was at work shunting. At least a score of natives were at work under the direction of Portuguese, while several men, who were by their dress evidently Boers, were pointing out to the officials the trucks they desired to be first forwarded. Three or four of these carried huge cases, two of them being each long enough to occupy two trucks.

"There is no doubt those are guns," Chris said. "If we can do nothing else, we can work a lot of damage here, which will be some sort of satisfaction after our long ride. As to our main object, things don't look well."

Half a dozen armed Boers could be made out stationed at the Portuguese side of the bridge, and as many more at the opposite end. Two lately- erected wooden huts, each of which could give shelter to some fifty men, stood a short distance beyond the bridge, and it was evident by the figures moving about, and a number of horses grazing near, that a strong party was stationed there to furnish guards for the bridge.

"I am afraid we cannot do it," Peters said, after their glasses had all been fixed on the bridge for several minutes; "at least, I don't see any chance. What do you say, Chris?"

"No, I am afraid there is none. If we were to crawl up to them to-night and shoot down all at this end of the bridge, we should be no nearer. You see, there are a line of huts on this side, and two or three better- class houses. No doubt the railway officials and natives all live there; they would all turn out when they heard the firing, and the Boers would come rushing over from the other side. It would be out of the question for us to carry forward those four boxes to the middle of the bridge, plant them over the centre of the girders, and light the fuses. A quarter of an hour would be wanted for the business at the very least, and we should not have a minute, if there is as good a guard by night as there is by day. It is likely to be at least as large, perhaps much more than that. The thing is impossible in that way. However, of course we can crawl up close after dark and satisfy ourselves about the guard.

"If it is not to be managed in that way, we must go down to the river bank and see whether there is anything to be done with one of the piers. If that is not possible, we must content ourselves with smashing things up generally on this side. Several of the trucks look to me to be full of ammunition, and there are eight with long cases which are no doubt rifles. We all remember that terrific smash at Johannesburg, and though I don't say we could do such awful damage as there was there--for there were I don't know how many tons of dynamite exploded then, I think about fifty--still, it would be a heavy blow. Any amount of stores would be destroyed, some thousand of rifles, and, for aught I know, all those waggons with tarpaulins over them are full of cartridges. However, the bridge is the principal thing. We will stop here for an hour or two and examine every foot of the ground, so as to be able to find our way in the dark. We need not mind about the trucks now, we can examine their position to-morrow if we have to give up the idea of the bridge."

On returning to their horses they had a long talk. Chris was deeply disappointed, but the others, who had never quite believed that his scheme could be carried out, were greatly delighted at the knowledge that at any rate they might be able to do an immense deal of damage to the enemy. As soon as it became quite dark, they set out again; they did not take their rifles with them, but each had his brace of revolvers. They had no intention of fighting, except to secure a retreat. Before starting, each had wound strips of flannel round his boots, so that they could run noiselessly. Brown had in the first place suggested that they should take their boots off, but Chris pointed out that if they had to run in the dark, one or other of them was sure to lame himself by striking against a stone or other obstacle. There were several large fires in the shunting yard, and at each end of the bridge, and at the Boer barracks. Crawling along on their hands and knees they were completely in the shade, and managed to get within some twenty or thirty yards of the Boers, who were sitting smoking and talking. They were all evidently greatly satisfied with news that they had heard during the day. Listening to their talk, they gathered something of what had happened since they left Estcourt. Colenso had been evacuated by us, an armoured train coming up from Estcourt had been drawn off the line, and most of the soldiers with it had been killed or captured. The last news was that the British had sallied out from Estcourt, which was now surrounded, and had attacked the Boers posted in a very strong position near a place called Willow Grange, but had been repulsed, principally by the artillery, with, it was said, immense loss. This was not pleasant hearing for the listeners. The Boers then had a grumble at being kept so far away from the fighting. It was not that they were so anxious to be engaged, as to get a share of the loot, as it had been reported that something like twenty thousand cattle and horses had been driven off from Natal.

Then their conversation turned upon a point still more interesting to the listeners. A commando had started from Barberton, a border town some thirty or forty miles to the west, into Swaziland. A native had mentioned to one of the Boers there that four Englishmen had passed north. They had stopped at his chief's kraal. They were all quite young, and had five natives with them, and three pack-horses. They had come to shoot and see the country, they said; but they had spoken with one of the men with them, who said that so far they had not done much hunting, only enough for food; he supposed that they were going to begin further on. The Boer had an hour later ridden down to Barberton with the news, and it had been at once resolved to send off a commando of a hundred men to search the hills, for there was a suspicion that the hunters were British officers who had come up to act as spies.

"Our cornet had a telegram this afternoon," one of them said, "that we were to be specially vigilant here, and we must keep a sharp lookout at night. I don't suppose they are on this side of the river. They may be going to pull up the railway, or blow up a culvert somewhere between this and Barberton. Four men with their Kaffirs might do that, but they certainly could not damage this bridge."

At ten o'clock most of the party retired into a small shed a few yards away, but two remained sitting by the fire, and were evidently left on guard, for they kept their rifles close at hand. The lads now crawled away some distance, and then made their way down a steep bank to the river. It was a stream of some size, running with great rapidity, and it did not take them long to decide that it would be impossible to swim out with the cases and place these in such a situation that the explosion would damage the structure. They then moved quietly up to the spot where the end of the last span touched the level ground; it rested upon a solid wall built into the rock, and ran some forty feet above their heads. They were now just under where the Boers were sitting, could hear their voices, and see the glow of their fire. They were unable to make out the exact position of the girders, but they had, when watching it, obtained a general view of the construction.

It consisted of two lines of strong girders on each side, connected by lattice bars, with strong communications between the sides at each pier. The depth of the girders was some twenty feet. After cautiously feeling the wall and finding that there were no openings in which their explosives could be placed, they crawled away noiselessly, ascended to the bank again a couple of hundred yards from the bridge, and returned to their camping ground. They observed as they went that there were still fires burning in the station yard, that some Kaffirs were seated near these, and as, in the silence of the night, a faint sound could be heard like that of a distant train, they had no doubt that they were waiting up for one to arrive. Indeed, before they had reached the camping place they saw a train pass by. It had no lights save the head- lights and that of the engine fire, and they therefore had no doubt that it was another train with stores.

When they reached their tents they had a long consultation. No fire had been lighted. The horses had been taken some way up a little ravine down which a stream of water trickled; here the four natives had taken up their post. These had only come down in the middle of the day to fetch their food, which Jack cooked over the spirit stove. This was alight when the lads returned, but was carefully screened round by blankets so that not the slightest glow could be seen from a distance.

"What do you think of it, Chris?" Brown said.

"I don't know what to think about it. I have no idea what effect dynamite would have when exploded at a distance of thirty or forty feet below a bridge. Certainly it would blow the roadway up, but I have very great doubts whether it would so twist or smash the main girders as to render the bridge impassable. The distance to the first pier is not great, and unless one entirely destroyed the bridge, I should say that it could be repaired very soon--I mean, in a week or two--by a strong gang. If the girders kept their places, two or three days' work might patch it up temporarily. If it were destroyed altogether as far as the first pier, it would stop the cannon getting over till a temporary bridge is constructed; but by rigging up some strong cables, they could pass cases of musket ammunition across the gap in the same way, you know, as I have seen pictures of shipwrecked people being swung along under a cable in a sort of cradle. What do you think, Peters?"

"Two hundred pounds of dynamite would do a lot of damage, Chris. I should think that it would certainly bring the wall down."

"I have no doubt that it would do that, Peters, but the ironwork goes some ten yards farther, and no doubts rests on the solid rock. I expect the wall is put there more to finish the thing off than to carry much of the weight. Again, you see it is only a single line, and not above ten feet wide, which is against us, for the wider the line the better chance it has of being smashed by an explosion some forty feet below it. Well, we will have another look at the bridge and the waggons to-morrow. Of course the bridge is the great thing if it can be managed, though I don't say that blowing up the yard would not be a good thing if we can't make sure of the other. Anyhow, we need not feel down-hearted about it. We came up here on the chance, and even though we may not be able to do exactly what we want, we ought to manage to do them a lot of damage."

After eating their supper they turned in to their two little tents. The spirit-lamp had been extinguished, and as they had not the least fear of discovery, they did not consider it necessary to place a sentinel. In the morning they were out again early and at their former post of observation.

"What are they up to now?" Brown said an hour later when he saw a party of Boers come down the opposite side close to the bridge, carrying posts and planks.

Chris made no answer, he was watching them intently. They stopped near the bank of the river close to the bridge. Then some of them set to work to level a space of ground, while others made holes at the corners.

"I am afraid that it is all up with our plans as far as the bridge is concerned. They are going to put up a hut there, and I have not the least doubt it means they are going to station a guard under the bridge. If they do it that side, they are probably doing the same on this, only we can't see them. The Boers are stupid enough in some things, but they are sharp enough in others, and it is possible that the commando from Barberton has come upon one of the kraals where we slept, and asking a lot of questions about us, they have found out that we had four heavy boxes with us, and the idea may have struck them that these contained explosives. If that did occur to them, it is almost certain that a man has been sent off at once to Barberton with orders to telegraph here and to other bridges, to take every precaution against their being blown up. Anyhow, there is a hut building there, and I don't see that it can be for any other purpose."

After three hours' work the hut was completed, and a party of eight men brought down blankets and other kit. Two of these at once ascended the bank with their rifles and sat down at the foot of the wall.

"That ends the business," Chris said. "However, I will creep round to a point where I can get a view of this side of the bridge. Possibly they have only taken precautions on their own side, for we were travelling for some time in the Swazis' country to the west of the Komati, and that is where they will have heard of us." He crawled away among the rocks, and rejoined his companions an hour later.

"It is just the same this side. They have settled the question for us. Now we will give our attention to the waggons."