With Buller in Natal by G. A. Henty
Chapter X. An Explosion
Having given up all hopes of blowing up the bridge, Chris and his comrades turned their whole attention to the lines of waggons. The train that had come in on the previous evening had added to the number, although it had taken some of them away with it up country. They now made out that there were eight waggons piled with cases, that almost certainly contained rifles; six with tarpaulins closely packed over them, and these they guessed contained ammunition boxes; four, each with two large cases that might contain field guns; while the two with what they were sure were big guns still remained on the siding.
"I should say that about four or five pounds of dynamite would be an abundance for each of those ammunition waggons; less than that would do, as we could, by slitting the tarpaulins, put a pound among the cases, and if one case were exploded it would set all the others off. There is no trouble about them. I will just take a note. They are on the second siding; there are eight other waggons in front of them and six behind, so we cannot make any mistake about that. There must be a good heavy charge under the rifle trucks, for we shall have to blow them all well into the air to bend and damage them enough to be altogether unserviceable. As for the guns, and especially the heavy ones, it is a difficult question. Of course, if we could open the cases and get at the breech-pieces, and put dynamite among them, we could damage all the mechanism so much that the guns would be useless until new breech-pieces were made, which I fancy must be altogether beyond the Boers; but as there is no possibility of opening them, we must trust to blowing the guns so high in the air that they will be too much damaged for use by the explosion and fall. We have got altogether two hundredweight; now two pounds to each ammunition waggon will take twelve pounds. What shall we say for the rifles?"
"Ten pounds," Brown suggested.
"That would take eighty more pounds," Willesden objected, "which would make a big hole in our stores."
"We must have a good charge," Chris said. "Suppose we say nine pounds to each, that will save eight pounds; fifteen pounds apiece ought to give the eight cases which we suppose hold field-guns a good hoist; that will leave us with over a hundred pounds, fifty for each of the big guns. Now that we have seen all that is necessary, we may as well be off and begin to get ready."
The covers were taken off the boxes of dynamite, and these were unscrewed, and the explosive was with great care divided into the portions as agreed upon. Two of the cases furnished just sufficient for the ammunition waggons and the two big guns, the other two for the smaller cannon and the trucks with the rifles. The charges were sewn up in pieces of the canvas, the smaller charges for the ammunition boxes being enclosed in thinner stuff that had been sewn under the canvas used in packing; the fuses and detonators were then cut and inserted. Chris was perfectly up in this work, having performed the operation scores of times in the mines. The length it should burn was only decided after a discussion.
There would be in all nineteen charges to explode, and these were in three groups at some little distance from each other, all the cannon being on the same siding. It would be necessary, perhaps, to wait for some time till all these were free from observation by natives or others who might be moving about the yard, then a signal must be given that they could all see. It would not take long to light the fuses, for each of them would be provided with a slow match, which burns with but a spark, and could be held under a hat or an inverted tin cup till the time came for using it. The question was how far must they be away to ensure their own safety, and Chris maintained that at least four or five hundred yards would be necessary to place them in even comparative safety from the rain of fragments that would fall over a wide area. Finally it was agreed to cut the fuses to a length to burn four minutes; this would allow a minute for any hitch that might occur in lighting them, and three minutes to burn. It was of course important that they should be no longer than was absolutely necessary, as there existed a certain risk that one of the little sparks might be seen by a passing Kaffir, or, as was still more probable, the smell of burning powder should attract attention. It was agreed that Chris should light the fuses at the cannon, which were farthest from the others, that Peters should see to the six rifle trucks, and Willesden and Brown attend the eight trucks with the ammunition, one to begin at each end of the line.
When each had finished his work, he was to run straight away in the direction of the encampment, and all were to throw themselves down when they felt sure that the time for the explosions had arrived. As soon as all was over they were to meet at their place of encampment. Tents and all stores were to be removed before the work began to the ravine where the horses were, the men with them being charged to stand at the animals' heads, as there would be a great explosion, and the horses might break loose and stampede. The matter that puzzled them the most was how, when they reached their respective stations--separated from each other by lines of waggons, and in some cases by distances of a couple of hundred yards--they were to know when the work of lighting the fuses was to begin. It could not be done by sound, for this would reach the ears of any awake in the yard or the sentries at the bridge. Chris at last suggested a plan.
"When we start, Jack shall be stationed at a point on the hillside high enough for us to see him from all points of the yard. We will show him the exact spot while it is light. When we start he shall go down with us to the edge of the yard, and as we separate will turn and go up to the point we had shown him. He will be ordered to walk up quietly, and not to hurry; that will give us ample time to get to our stations before he reaches his. We must all keep our eyes fixed on that point. He will take the dark lantern with him; when he gets there he must turn the shade off, so as to show the light for a quarter of a minute. That will be our signal to begin. It is most unlikely that anyone else will see it, but even if they did they would simply stare in that direction and wonder what it was. Of course, only a flash would be safer; but some of us might not see it, and would remain waiting for it until the other explosions took place."
All agreed that this would be a very good plan. Chris crawled up with Jack until he reached a spot where he commanded a perfect view of the yard, and explained to him exactly what he was to do. He had already been told what was going to take place. Knowing that the Kaffirs have very little idea of time, he said: "You will hold it open while you say slowly like this, 'I am showing the light, baas, and I hope that you can all see it.' You will say that over twice and then turn off the light, and lie down under that big rock till you hear the explosion. Wait a little, for stones and fragments will come tumbling down. When they have stopped doing so make your way straight to where the horses are; you will find us there before you. Now, repeat over to me the words you are to say slowly twice."
Jack did so, and finding on questioning him that he perfectly understood what he was to do, Chris went back with him to the encampment, where they remained quietly until the sun set and darkness came on. Then, according to arrangement, the four natives came in and carried all the things back to the ravine, and laid them down ready to pack the horses as soon as their masters returned.
The day passed slowly to the lads. All were in a state of suppressed excitement, an excitement vastly greater than they had felt during their two fights with the Boers.
"How they will wonder who did it when they hear the news down in Natal!" Peters said.
"I don't expect they will hear much about it," Chris said. "You may be sure the Boers will not say much; they make a big brag over every success, but they won't care to publish such a thing as this. Probably their papers will only say: 'An explosion of a trifling nature occurred on the Portuguese side of Komati-poort. Some barrels of powder exploded; it is unknown whether it was the result of accident or the work of spies. Due precaution will be taken to prevent the recurrence of the accident. Beyond a few natives employed at the station, no one was hurt.'"
The others laughed. "I suppose that will be about it, Chris. However, I have no doubt that that commando from Barberton will keep a very sharp look-out for us as we go back."
"Yes, but they won't catch us. We won't venture into Swaziland again, but will make our way down on the Portuguese side, following the railway till we are fairly beyond the mountain range. We can ride fast now that we have got rid of the dynamite. It will be some time before they get the news about what has happened here, for the telegraph wires are sure to be broken and the instruments smashed. I really think that our best way will be to ride straight down to Lorenzo Marques. When we get there we can very well state that we had been ordered to leave Johannesburg, and that, as the trains are so slow and so crowded with fugitives, we had ridden down. I don't suppose that we shall attract the least notice, for we know that a great many of those who had intended to stay have been ordered off. That way we shall get back to Natal in a few days and avoid all danger." The others agreed that this would be a capital plan; and the distance by the road, which they had crossed a few miles to the south, and which runs from Lorenzo Marques up to Ladysdorp and the Murchison and Klein Lemba gold-fields, would not be above seventy miles. They would wait till daybreak showed them the amount of damage that had been done, and then start, and would be down at Lorenzo Marques in the evening, when, even if the news of the explosion reached the town, the Boers' suspicions that some Englishmen were in the hills, and that it was probably their work, would not be known. Not until ten o'clock was a move made. Then they took up the packages of dynamite, and, accompanied by Jack, made their way noiselessly down to the railway yard.
Here they separated. Chris, aided by Jack, carried the big packets for the large guns and for the eight smaller ones. They met no one about, and depositing their packages in the right position under them--the fuses had been already inserted--they returned to the spot they had left. In a minute or two they were joined by the others. Peters had placed his parcels under the eight trucks with rifles; Willesden and Brown had cut holes in the tarpaulins of the ammunition trucks, and thrust down their charges well among the boxes. All was ready. While the others stood closely round him Jack opened the lantern just widely enough for them to light their slow matches.
"Now, you are not to hurry back to the place, Jack; we shall all be on the look-out for you by the time you get there. You know your instructions; you are to turn round, open the slide of the lantern, say the words I told you over twice slowly, then shut the lantern and get under that great boulder lying against the rock. You will be perfectly safe in there."
"I understand, baas," he said, and at once turned and went off. The others hurried to their respective posts, and then turned round and gazed at the spot where the light would be shown. In their anxiety and excitement the time seemed interminable, and each began to think that the native had somehow blundered; at last the light appeared, and they turned at once to their work. Half a minute sufficed to light the fuses, and then they hurried away cautiously until past all the waggons, and then at full speed along the hillside, their thickly-padded shoes making no noise upon the rocks. Knowing that they were sure to be confused as to the time, they had calculated before the sun had set how far they could run in three minutes, which should be, if all went well, the time they would have after leaving the yard. They thought that even on the rough ground, and in the dark, they could make a hundred and fifty yards a minute, and at about four hundred and fifty from the waggons there was a low ridge of rock behind which they would obtain protection from all fragments blown directly outwards.
Chris was the first to arrive, for the trucks with the cannon were those farthest away from the bridge, and he was able to run for some distance along the line before making for the elope, and therefore travelled faster than his companions, who had farther to run on broken ground. In half a minute they rushed up almost together.
"Throw yourselves down," Chris shouted; "we shall have it directly."
Twenty seconds later there was a tremendous roar and a blinding crash, and they felt the ground shake. Almost simultaneously came eight others, then in quick succession followed six other reports, and mingled with these a confused roar of innumerable shots blended together. There was a momentary pause, and then a deafening clatter as rifles, fragments of iron and wood came falling down over a wide area. Several fell close to where the lads were crouched against the rock, but none touched them. For a full half-minute the fragments continued to fall, then the boys stood up and looked round. It was too dark to see more than that the yard was a chaos; the long lines of waggons, the huts and buildings, had all disappeared; loud shouts could be heard from the other side of the bridge, but nearer to them everything was silent. There was no doubt that the success of the attempt was complete, and the lads walked back quietly until they were at the spot where the horses had been placed, Jack overtaking them just as they reached it.
"It was terrible, baas," he said in an awed voice. "Jack thought his life was gone. Things fell on the rock but could not break it."
"Nothing short of one of those big cannon would have done that, Jack. Well, we shall see in the morning what damage is done."
The four natives, although they had been warned, were still terribly frightened. The horses had at the first crash broken away and run up the ravine, but they had just brought them down again, still trembling and lathering with fear. For some minutes the boys patted and soothed them, and accustomed to their voices and caresses they gradually quieted down, but were very restless until day began to break. The boys had no thought of sleep. The lamp was lit and tea made, and each of the Kaffirs was given a glass of spirits and water, for they had brought up a bottle with them in case of illness or any special need; and it was evident from their chattering teeth and broken speech that the natives needed a stimulant badly. Before it became light the horses were saddled, and the five natives told to take them along the hill a mile farther. When they had seen them off the lads returned to their former post above the station. They had several times, when they looked out during the night, seen a great light in that direction, and had no doubt that some of the fallen huts had caught fire.
Prepared as they were for a scene of destruction, the reality far exceeded their expectations. All the waggons within a considerable distance of the explosions were smashed into fragments, their wheels broken and the axles twisted. The ammunition trucks had disappeared, and many close to them had been completely shattered. Those in which the muskets had been were a mere heap of fragments; the rest of the trucks lay, some with their sides blown in, others comparatively uninjured. Some were piled on the top of others three or four deep; their contents were scattered over the whole yard. Boxes and cases were burst open, and their contents--including large quantities of tea, sugar, tinned provisions in vast quantities, and other stores--ruined.
Some still smoking brands showed where the huts had stood, and the dead bodies of some twenty natives and several Portuguese officials, were scattered here and there. The bodies of eight Boers were laid out together by the bridge, and forty or fifty men were wandering aimlessly amid the ruins. A huge cannon stood upright nearly in the centre of the yard. It had fallen on its muzzle, which had penetrated some feet into the earth. They could not see where its fellow had fallen. Five others, which looked like fifteen-pounders, were lying in different directions, the other three had disappeared. Rifles twisted, bent, and ruined were lying about everywhere.
"It is not as good as the bridge," Chris said after they had used their glasses for some time in silence, "but it is a heavy blow for them, and I should think it will be a week before the line can be cleared ready for traffic. Even when they begin they will feel the loss of so much rolling-stock. There were five engines in the yard. Every one of these has been upset, and will want a lot of repairs before it is fit for anything again. I wish I had a kodak with me to take a dozen snap-shots, it would be something worth showing when we get back. Well, we may as well be moving. The Boers look as if they were stupefied at present, but they will be waking up presently, and the sooner we start for Lorenzo Marques the better."
Half an hour later they had mounted and were on their way, travelling slowly till they came upon the road, and then at a fast pace. Jack rode the spare horse, the other natives rode the ponies in turn, those on foot keeping up without difficulty by laying a hand on the saddles. Sometimes they trotted for two or three miles, and then went at a walk for half an hour, and stopped altogether for four hours in the heat of the day, for they were now getting on to low land, being only some three hundred feet above the sea. They reached Lorenzo Marques at about nine o'clock in the evening, and failing to find beds, for the town was full of emigrants from the Transvaal, they camped in the open. In the morning they sold the two ponies, and were fortunate in finding a steamer lying there that would start the next day. Being very unwilling to part with their horses they arranged for deck passages for them, taking their own risk of injury to them in case of rough weather setting in. Every berth was already engaged, but this mattered little to them, as they could sleep upon the planks as well as on the ground.
They found that there was some excitement in the town, as there was a report that there had been an explosion and much damage done near Komati-poort. No particulars were, however, known, as the railway officials maintained a strict silence as to the affair. It was known, however, that the telegraphic communication with the Transvaal was broken, and that three trains filled with Kaffir labourers, and accompanied by a number of officials and a company of soldiers, had gone up early that morning. Among the fugitives strong hopes were expressed that the damage had been serious enough to interrupt the traffic for some little time, and to cause serious inconvenience to the Boers, and some even hazarded the hope that the bridge had suffered. This, however, seemed unlikely in the extreme.
Fortunately the weather was fine on the run down to Durban, and the passage of three hundred miles was effected in twenty-four hours. It was now just a month since they had left Maritzburg, and as soon as they landed with their horses and followers they learned that much had taken place during that time.
They had started on the 10th of November. The Boers were then steadily advancing, and so great did the danger appear, that Durban had been strongly fortified by the blue jackets, aided by Kaffir labour. On the 25th Sir Redvers Buller had arrived, and by this time a considerable force was gathered at Estcourt. The British advance began from that town on the following day. The place had been entirely cut off, Boers occupying the whole country as far as the Mooi river. General Hildyard, who commanded at Estcourt, had been obliged to inarch out several times to keep them at a distance from the town, and one or two sharp artillery engagements had taken place, the Boers being commanded by General Joubert in person. They had always retired a short distance, but their movements were so rapid that it was useless to follow; and the troops had each time fallen back to Estcourt. On the 28th the Boers had blown up the bridge across the Tugela, and our army was moving forward, and a great battle was expected shortly. On landing Chris rode at once to the address given by his mother, and found that she had sailed for Cape Town a week before. Riding then to the railway, he found that the line was closed altogether to passenger traffic, but that a train with some troops and a strong detachment of sailors was going up that evening. Learning that a naval officer was in command, as the military consisted only of small parties of men who had been left behind, when their regiments left, to look after and forward their stores, he went to him. He had, before landing, donned his civilian suit.
"What can I do for you, sir?" the officer, who was watching a party loading trucks with sheep, asked.
"My name is King, sir. I have just returned from an expedition to Komati, I and three friends with me, and we have succeeded in blowing up a large number of waggons containing a battery of field artillery, two very heavy long guns, which, by the marks on the case, came from Creusot, some eight or ten thousand rifles, and six truck-loads of ammunition."
"The deuce you have!" the officer said, looking with great surprise at the lad who told him this astonishing tale. Then sharply he added: "Are you speaking the truth, sir? You will find it the worse for you if you are not."
"What I say is perfectly true," Chris said quietly. "We only arrived an hour since from Lorenzo Marques. This open letter from General Yule will show you that the party of boys of whom I was the leader, have done some good service before now."
The officer opened and read the letter. "I must beg your pardon for having doubted your word," he said, as he handed it back. "After adventuring into a Boer camp, and giving so heavy a lesson to a superior force of the enemy, I can quite imagine you capable of carrying out the adventure you have just spoken of. Now, sir, what can I do for you?"
"I have come to ask if you will allow myself and my three friends to accompany you."
"That I will most certainly. And indeed, as you have a report to make of this matter to General Buller, you have a right to go on by the first military train. Is there anything else?"
"Yes, sir; I should be greatly obliged if you will authorize the station-master to attach a carriage to the train to take our five horses."
"I will go with you to him," the officer said. "I can't say whether that can be managed or not."
The station-master at first said that it was impossible, for his orders were for a certain number of carriages and trucks, and with those orders from the commanding officer he could not add to the number.
"But you might slip it on behind, Mr. Station-master," the officer said. "There are four gentlemen going up with a very important report to Sir Redvers Buller."
"I would do it willingly enough," the station-master said, "but the commanding officer is bound to be down here with his staff, and he would notice the horses directly."
"They might be put in a closed van, sir," Chris urged. "And as there are so many full of stores, it would naturally be supposed that this was also loaded with them."
The official smiled. "Well, young gentleman, I will do what I can for you. As the officer in command of the train has consented, I can fall back upon his authority if there should be any fuss about it. The train will start at eight this evening; you had better have your horses here two hours before that. Entrain them on the other side of the yard, and I will have the waggon attached to the train quietly as soon as you have got them in. The general is not likely to be down here till half an hour before the train starts, and it is certainly not probable that he will count the number of carriages."
It was now half-past five, and Chris joined his friends, who were waiting with the horses and Kaffirs near the station. They had hardly expected him so soon, as they did not know that his mother had left.
"Good news," he said. "There is a through train going up this evening, and I have got permission for us and the horses to go; but they must be put in a truck by half-past six, and we may as well get them in at once. We still have our water-skins; the Kaffirs had better get them filled at once, and a good supply of mealies for the horses on the way; there is no saying how long we may be. Willesden, do you run into a store and get a supply of bread and a cold ham for ourselves; a good stock of bread for the Kaffirs, and a jar of water, and a hamper, with a lock, containing two dozen bottles of beer, the mildest you can get, for them. We are sure to get out for a few minutes at one of the stations, and can then unlock the hamper and give them a bottle each. It would never do to leave it to their mercy; they would drink it up in the first half-hour, and then likely enough quarrel and fight. For ourselves, we will have a small skin of water and, say, three bottles of whisky. The carriage is sure to be full, and it will be acceptable in the heat of the day tomorrow. The remainder of our supply of tea and so on, and the lamp and other things, had better all go in with the horses, and everything we do not absolutely want in the train with us; there will be little room enough. Get an extra kettle, then we can not only make ourselves a cup of tea or cocoa on the road, but give some to any friend we may make; besides, it is sure to come in useful when we get to the front."
"I will see to all that."
"If you will, take Jack with you to carry the things you buy."
"I had better take two of them; it will be a good weight."
"Very well, take one of the Zulus; the other can lead the spare horse, and likely enough we shall have some trouble in getting them into the waggon."
That work, however, turned out more easy than he had expected. The station-master pointed out the waggon that he was to take, which was standing alone on one of the lines of rails. They all set to work, and were not long in running it alongside an empty platform, from which the horses were led into it without trouble, being by this time accustomed to so many changes that they obeyed their masters' orders without hesitation. They had, too, already made one railway journey, and had found that it was not unpleasant. The station-master happened to catch sight of them, and sent two of the porters to take the waggon across the various points to the rear of the train, where it was coupled. The water-skins had been filled and the horses given a good drink before entering the station, and the stores, waterproofs, and other spare articles stowed with the horses. The shutter was closed, and the Kaffirs told that on no account were they to open it or show their faces until the train had left the station.
In a few minutes Willesden came up with the two natives heavily laden. As soon as the stores and natives were all safely packed away and the door of the van locked by one of the porters, the lads went out and had a hearty meal at an hotel near the station. When they returned a large number of soldiers and sailors were gathered on the platform. Their baggage had already been stowed, and they were drawn up in fours, facing the train, in readiness to enter when the word was given, the officers standing and chatting in groups. The station was well lighted, as, in addition to the ordinary gas-lamps, several powerful oil-lamps had been hung up at short intervals. The naval men were in the front part of the train, and on Chris walking up there the officer in command beckoned to him.
"I will take you in the carriage with me, Mr. King. We want very much to hear your story, and there is plenty of room for you. Your three companions will go in the next two compartments, which will contain junior officers and midshipmen, and I am sure that they too will be very welcome. Before we board the train I will get you all to go and sit at the windows at the other side. If you will bring your friends up I will introduce them to their messmates on the trip. As soon as we have all entered, we shall be at the window saying good-by to our friends, and no one will catch sight of you. It is just as well, for although I feel perfectly justified in taking you on to make your report to the commander-in-chief, my senior might fuss over it; and although he might let you go on, there would be a lot of explanations and bother. Have you got your horses in?"
"Yes, sir; we were able to manage that capitally."
"Then you had better bring your comrades up at once, Mr. King, and I will introduce them to those they will travel with." Chris brought up his three friends and introduced them to the officer, who then took them to the group of youngsters.
"Gentlemen," he said, "these three gentlemen will travel in your compartment. They have seen a great deal of the war, and belong to one of the mounted volunteer corps. They have a wonderful story to tell you, and I am sure you will be delighted with their companionship. They will take their seats just before the men entrain. They must occupy the seats near the farther window, and as you will no doubt all be looking out on this side, they will probably not be noticed, which would be all the better, as it is a little irregular my taking them up."
By this time a considerable number of people were crowded in the station, friends of the officers and comrades of the sailors, who looked enviously at those going forward, while they themselves might possibly not get a chance of doing so. A quarter of an hour later the officer said:
"I am going to give the order to entrain. This is my compartment. You and your friends had better slip into your places at once."
As soon as they had got in the order was given, and with the regularity of a machine the three hundred men entered the train. As soon as they had done so the officers took their places. The crowd moved up on to the platform, and there was much shaking of hands, cheering, and exhortations to do for the Boers. Suddenly there was a backward movement on the part of the spectators, and the commanding naval officer on the station, with several others and a group of military men, came on to the platform. They were received by the officers in command of the sailors and soldiers, and walked with them along the platform talking. This was evidently a matter of ceremony only. The usual questions were put as to the stores, and after standing and chatting for eight or ten minutes the officers took their places in the train, the engine whistled, and the train moved on, amid loud cheering both from those on the platform and the men at the windows. As soon as they were fairly off, Chris's friend said:
"I have already introduced you to these officers, Mr. King, but I have not told them any of your doings. I can only say, gentlemen, that this young officer is in command of a section of Volunteer Horse, and has done work that any of us might be proud indeed to accomplish. The best introduction I can give him, before he begins to tell his story, is by reading a letter with which General Yule has furnished him."