With Buller in Natal by G. A. Henty
Chapter XIV. Spion Kop
"It is almost a pity that you did not commandeer two ponies and saddles while you were about it," Chris laughed, as they set off again feeling all the better for their meal. "We only want that to complete our outfit."
"You should have mentioned it before I started, Chris. There is no saying what I might not have done; and really, without joking, a pony is one of the easiest things going to steal when there are Boers about. They always leave them standing just where they dismount, and will be in a store or a drinking-place for an hour at a time without attending to them."
"It is not the difficulty, but the risk; for even if a thief gets off with a pony, he is almost sure to be hunted down. It is regarded as a sort of offence against the community, and a man, whether a native or a mean white, would get a very short shrift if he were caught on a stolen horse."
"Yes, I know. Still, for all that, if I could come upon a saddled pony, and there was a chance of getting off with it, I should take it without hesitation as a fair spoil of war."
"Yes, so should I, for the betting would be very strongly against our running across its owner; and in the next place, it would greatly increase our chance of getting safely through. It is the fact of our being on foot that will attract attention. We could walk about a camp full of Boers without anyone noticing it, but to walk into the camp would seem so extraordinary, that we should be questioned at once. A Boer travelling across the country on foot would be a sight hitherto unknown."
"There I agree with you; and I do think that when we get to Helpmakaar, which we can do to-morrow evening if we make a good long march to-night, we had better see if we can't appropriate a couple of ponies. We can walk boldly into the place, and no one would notice we were new-comers. There are sure to be ponies standing about, and it will be hard if we cannot bag a couple. Then we can ride by the road south from there to Greytown, and after crossing the Tugela, strike off by the place where we had the fight near Umbala mountain, which would be a good landmark for us, and from there follow our old line back to Estcourt. It would be rather shorter to go through Weenen, but there may be Boers about, and the few miles we should save would not be worth the risk."
They made a long journey that night, slept within seven or eight miles of Helpmakaar, and started late in the afternoon. When near the town they left the main road, passed through some fields, and came into the place that way, as had they entered by the road they were likely to be questioned. Once in the little town, they walked about at their ease. It did not seem that there were any great number of Boers there, but the town was well within the district held by them, and such loyalists as remained were sure to be keeping as much as possible without their houses. In front of the principal inn were nearly a score of Boer ponies, but the lads considered it would be altogether too risky to attempt to take a couple of these, as their owners might issue out while they were doing it; however, they stood watching. For some time there was a sound of singing and merriment within, and for a quarter of an hour no one came out.
"If we had taken a couple of ponies at first," Sankey said savagely, "we might have been two miles away by this time."
"Yes; I don't know that it is too late now. Wait till they strike up another song with a chorus, none of them are likely to leave the room while that is going on, and it will drown the sound of hoofs."
There were few people about in the streets; and even had anyone passed as they were mounting, he could not tell that they were not the legitimate owners.
"If anyone should come out," Chris said, "don't try to ride away. We should have the whole lot after us in a minute, and it is not likely we should have got hold of the fastest ponies. Besides, they would shoot us before we got far. So if anyone does come out and raises an alarm, jump off at once and run round the nearest corner, and then into the first garden we come to. We should be in one before they could come out, mount their ponies, and give chase. Once among the gardens we should be safe. If the man who comes out does not shout we would pay no attention to him, but ride away quietly. If the ponies don't happen to belong to him or some friend of his, he would not be likely to interfere, for he would suppose that we were two of the party who had left the place without his noticing them. But if he gives a shout, jump off at once, and rush round the corner of the nearest house."
They waited for a minute or two, and then two Boers came out, mounted a couple of the ponies, and rode quietly down the street. At that moment another song was struck up. "That is lucky. If anyone comes out and sees us mounting he will take us for the two men who have just ridden off." Then they strolled leisurely across the street, took the reins of two of the ponies, sprang into the saddles, and started at a walk, which, twenty yards farther, was quickened into a trot. The two men had fortunately gone in the other direction. Once fairly beyond the town, they quickened their pace. "Now we are Boers all over," Chris said exultantly; "but there is one thing, Sankey, we must be careful not to go near any solitary farmhouse. There must still be some loyal men left in these parts, and if we fell in with a small party of them the temptation to pay off what they have suffered might be irresistible."
"Yes, Chris; but they certainly would not shoot unless certain of bringing us both down, for if one escaped, he would return with a party strong enough to wipe them out altogether. However, we need not trouble about that for the present, though no doubt it will be well to be careful when we are once across the Tugela."
"Well, we shall be there long before morning; it is not more than seven- or eight-and-twenty miles."
They rode fast, for it was possible that when the loss of the ponies was discovered someone who might have noticed them go down the street might set the Boers on the track, and in that case they would certainly be hotly pursued. The ponies, however, turned out to be good animals, and as the lads were at least a couple of stones lighter than the average Boer, they could not be overtaken unless some of the ponies happened to be a good deal better than these.
After riding at full speed for eight or nine miles, they broke into a walk, stopping every few minutes to listen. They knew that they would be able to hear the sound of pursuit at least a mile away, and as their ponies would start fresh again, they were able to take things quietly. So sometimes cantering sometimes walking, they reached the river at about one o'clock in the morning. On the opposite bank stood the little village of Tugela Ferry. Here there was a drift, and there was no occasion to use the ferry-boat except when the river was swollen by rain. It now reached only just up to the ponies' bellies; they therefore crossed without the least difficulty, and after passing through the village, left the road, and struck off across the country to the south- west. When four or five miles away they halted at a donga, and leading the ponies down, turned them loose to feed, ate their supper, and were soon asleep.
It was no longer necessary to travel by night, and at eight o'clock they started again. They kept a sharp look-out from every eminence, and once or twice saw parties of mounted men in the distance and made detours to avoid them. So far as they were aware, however, they were not observed. The distance to be ridden from their last halting-place was about thirty-five miles, and at one o'clock they were within five miles of Estcourt. On an eminence about a mile in front of them they saw a solitary horseman.
"That is evidently one of our scouts," Chris said. "I dare say there is a party of them somewhere behind him. If I am not mistaken I can see two or three heads against the sky-line--they are either heads or stones. We should know more about it if the Boers hadn't bagged our glasses when they took us."
Two or three minutes later Sankey said, "Those little black spots have gone, so they were heads. I dare say they are wondering who we are, and put us down either as Boers or as loyal farmers, though there cannot be many of them left in this district."
Presently from behind the foot of the hill six horsemen dashed out. The lads had already taken the precaution of taking off their hats and putting on forage-caps again.
"It is always better to avoid accidents," Chris said. "It would have been awkward if they had begun to shoot before waiting to ask questions, especially as we could not shoot back. They are Colonials; one can see that by their looped-up hats, which are a good deal more becoming than those hideous khaki helmets of our men."
The horsemen had unslung their guns, but seeing that the strangers had their rifles still slung behind them with apparently no intention of firing, they dropped into a canter until they met the lads.
"Who are you?" the leader asked. "Do you surrender?"
"We will surrender if you want us to," Chris said; "though why we should do so I don't know. We belong to the Maritzburg Scouts, and were taken prisoners, being both wounded, eight or nine days ago; and, as you see, we have got away."
"I dare say it is all right," the officer said; "but at any rate we will ride with you to Estcourt."
"We shall be glad of your company, though I don't suppose we shall be identified until we get to Chieveley. Will you please tell us what has taken place since we left?"
"That, I think had better be deferred," the officer said dryly. "We don't tell our news to strangers."
"Quite right, sir."
"It is evident that you are not Dutch," the officer went on; but there is more than one renegade Englishman fighting among the Boers, and except for your caps you certainly look as if you belonged to the other side rather than to ours."
"Yes, they are Boer coats, Boer ponies, and Boer guns," Chris said. "We have taken the liberty of borrowing them as they borrowed our guns and field-glasses. Whether they borrowed our horses we shall not know till we get back. You see," he went on, opening his coat, "we still have our uniforms underneath. Who is at Estcourt now? Ah, by the way, we are sure to find some officers in the hospital who know us."
The officer by this time began to feel that the account Chris had given him of himself was correct, and when they arrived at Estcourt it was rather as a matter of form than anything else that he accompanied him to the hospital. Upon enquiry Chris found that among the wounded there was one of the naval officers he had travelled with from Durban. Upon the surgeon in charge being told that he wished to see him, he was allowed to enter with the officer. The wounded man at once recognized him.
"Ah, King," he said, "I am glad to see you again. Have you brought me down a message from Captain Jones or any of our fellows?"
"No; I am very sorry to find you here, Devereux, but I am glad to see you are getting better. I have really come in order that you might satisfy this gentleman, who has taken me prisoner, that I am King of the Maritzburg Scouts."
"There is no doubt about that. Why, where have you been to be taken prisoner?"
"Oh, it was a fair capture. I was with one of my section caught while out scouting, and have got away in Boer attire, and as we were riding in we met this officer's party some five miles out, and not unnaturally they took us for the real thing instead of masqueraders."
"I can assure you that King is all right," the sailor said. "He came up in the train with three of his party from Durban."
"Thank you," the officer said with a smile. "I am perfectly satisfied, and was nearly so before I came in here. Well, I wish you good-day, sir, and hope we may meet again," and shaking hands with Chris he left the tent.
Chris remained chatting for a few minutes more with the sailor.
"I suppose there is no great chance of getting a bed here?" he said, as he rose to go. "We have had two pretty long days' ride, and I don't care about going on to Chieveley."
"Not a chance in the world, I should think."
"Well, it does not matter much. We have been sleeping in the open for the past five nights, and once more will make no difference. We are just back in time, Sankey," he said when he joined his friend outside. "Devereux tells me that there is a big movement going on, and that a severe fight is expected in a day or two. He hears that the baggage train has been moving to Springfield, so that it will be somewhere over in that direction; and I suppose we are going to move round to Acton Homes and force our way into Ladysmith through Dewdrop. You know, they say that it is comparatively flat that way."
They got rid of their long coats and fastened them to their saddles; then led their ponies to the station, and leaving them outside entered. An enterprising store-keeper had opened a refreshment stall for the benefit of the troops passing through, or officers coming down from the front to look after stores or to visit friends in hospital. Chris had explained their position to Devereux, and the latter had said: "Then I suppose they have eased you of all your money?"
"Yes; they did not leave us a penny."
"There is my purse with my watch in that little pocket over my bed," he said. "You must let me lend you a sovereign till I see you again." And Chris had thankfully taken the money.
They now had what to them was a gorgeous feast; some soup, cold ham, and a bottle of wine. They gave what little remains they had of bread to the ponies, and then led them a quarter of a mile out of the town and camped out with them there, the Boer coats coming in very useful. The next morning they started at daybreak, and arrived at their camp at Chieveley just as their friends were sitting down to breakfast. They were received with a shout of welcome, and a torrent of questions was poured upon them.
"I will leave Sankey to tell you all about it," Chris said. "I must go and report myself to Brookfield and get our names struck off the list of missing. I shall not be five minutes away."
The captain received Chris as heartily, though not so noisily, as his comrades had done.
"We have been very anxious about you," he said, after the first greeting. "When we came back to the point where you left us, and did not find you there, we thought there might be some mistake, and that you had ridden on. We picked up all the others, but were not uneasy until we got into camp, and found that you did not return. Then two of your friends took fresh horses and rode out again, taking two of your blacks with them. The blacks found the place where you had left us, and following your tracks down came on your horses. Then they went on till they saw the river in front of them. The blacks traced your footsteps along near the bank till they came to a spot where there was evidently a drift, as a road was cut down to the water on both sides. They then crawled along till they could look down into the road. They were some time away, and returned with the news that they had seen below them on the road a patch of blood and the mark of a body in the mud, another step they said had gone down to the water, and had not come back. Crawling along by the edge of the bank they found some empty cartridges. They said whoever had been up there had crawled once or twice to the edge above the sunken road where the other was lying, and that he had then gone back from the river and afterwards down into the road. A little farther there seemed to have been a fall, and then two men with big feet came to the spot, and, they asserted, carried the one who had fallen there down to the other; but they could not see what had happened then, for it was evident that the Boers were in force on the other side of the river, and they dared not go down farther to examine the tracks. Enough had been seen, however, to show that you must both have been wounded. It was pretty certain that you had not been killed, for if so the Boers would not have troubled to carry your bodies across the drift. Now, Chris, let us hear your story."
"If you don't mind, Captain Brookfield," Chris said with a smile, "I will put off telling it for another half-hour. The fact is, breakfast is ready, and I have only had one square meal since I went away, and that was yesterday at Estcourt."
"Go, by all means," the captain laughed. "I breakfasted half an hour before you came in, and forgot that it was possible that you had not done so." It was a full half-hour before Chris returned, and when he did so he left Sankey still telling the story of their adventures, which had made very little progress, as he had declared that he could not enjoy his breakfast if he was obliged to keep on talking all the time. When Chris, on his part, had told the story to Captain Brookfield, the latter said:
"I can't say that I am altogether surprised to see you back, though I certainly did not expect you for a long time, for I felt sure that if you and Sankey were not seriously wounded you would manage to give them the slip before you got to Pretoria; and I thought we should hear the first news of you at Durban, for it would be shorter and easier for you to make your way down again to Lorenzo Marques than to follow this line."
"We should certainly have gone that way if we had not escaped until we were near Pretoria, but it was a great deal easier to slip away from the waggons than it would have been if we had been once put into the train. I hope, sir, we have not been returned as missing, for it will have frightened our mothers terribly if we have been."
"No; I thought that there was no occasion to give your names until you had been away for a month. If you were not heard of by that time, I should consider it certain that you were dead or at Pretoria. I knew that, as you say, it would be a terrible shock to your mothers if they were to see your names among the missing; while it could do no harm to anyone if I kept it back for a month, and put you down as missing the first time after the corps were engaged. Well, you are just back in time for a big fight, though we are not likely to take any part in it. It is supposed to be a secret as to the precise position, but orders have been privately circulated this morning. Dundonald with the regular cavalry, the Natal Horse, and the South African Light Horse went on four days ago, with one or two other colonial corps, and occupied Springfield, and the baggage train followed them; and after occupying the place, instead of waiting for infantry to come up, he moved on to a river. Some of his men, with extraordinary pluck, swam across and managed to bring the ferry-boat over under a very heavy fire. Then a number of them crossed, scattered the Boers like chaff, and took possession of a rough hill called Swartz Kop, and held it till support came up. It was a capitally managed affair, and one cannot but regret that the same care was not shown at Hlangwane. We are to go on this afternoon, but as we are not in Dundonald's brigade I expect that our duty will be, as it was in the last fight, to guard the baggage."
"But what will Dundonald's brigade do?"
"The general opinion is, that they will push round to Acton Homes. I am not sure that the whole force is not going that way. It would be a grand thing if it could be done; but I doubt whether the train could carry enough stores, for it would be a long way round, and we should probably have to fight two or three times at least, and it might take us five or six days."
"Then most of the infantry have gone on already?"
"Yes, Hart's and Hildyard's brigades have marched straight from Frere. By the way, did you hear of the Boer attack on Ladysmith on the night of the 6th?"
"No; that was the night we were at Glencoe. On our way up we did hear some very heavy firing. At least, we were not certain that it was firing, and rather thought it was a distant thunder-storm."
"The firing began at two o'clock in the morning," Captain Brookfield said, "and was so heavy that everyone turned out. It lasted four hours, and there was no doubt that the Boers were making a determined attack. Everyone wondered that we did not at once make a diversion. When the day broke it could be seen that numbers of mounted Boers were hurrying off from their camps among the hills towards Ladysmith, but it was not until two in the afternoon that five battalions of infantry marched down towards Colenso, and the naval guns opened in earnest on their lines. It had the effect of bringing the Boers scurrying down again to their trenches. Our fellows marched in open order and worked their way nearly down to Colenso, which was more strongly garrisoned than it had been at the time of our last attack. No doubt they had seen us preparing to advance, and strongly reinforced the garrison. Our guns were taken a long way down, and at six o'clock their trenches were bombarded; then it came on to rain, and the Boers ceased to fire, and at seven o'clock our men turned into camp. The firing in Ladysmith had ceased some time before that."
"And what had taken place there?" Chris asked anxiously, "for I know the place has not fallen or we should have heard of it."
"No, they beat the Boers off splendidly. However, they had hard work to do it, for the heliograph flashed a signal at about nine o'clock in the morning to say that they had so far beaten off the enemy, but were much pressed. We heard the next day that this had indeed been the case. Caesar's Camp had been taken and retaken several times--by our men at the point of the bayonet, by the Boers, by rushing up in overwhelming numbers. It is said that we have twelve hundred casualties, and the Boers at least fifteen hundred, of whom a large number were bayoneted. They say the loss fell chiefly upon the Free Staters, who were put in the front by the Transvaal people. They fought pluckily, and several of their commanders were among the killed. I should think that they would hardly try it again. A native got through two days afterwards with a despatch. We have not heard what it contained, but we fancy from what has leaked out that our defences were very weak."
"We ought to take a lesson from the Boers," Chris said. "I saw something of their trenches as we went up the railway valley, and they are wonderful."
"Yes, we must do the Boers the justice to say that they are not afraid of hard work. Ever since they first came here they have been at work everywhere every day in the week, including Sundays. Of course, as we are not standing on the defensive, there is no occasion for us to construct works to the same extent; but I cannot myself understand why we do not throw up batteries for our guns, pushing forward zigzags every night, and advancing the batteries until we can plant all our naval and field guns within a hundred yards of Colenso, when we should be able to smash their entrenchments in no time, and effectually cover an advance across the bridge or one of the drifts. When I was in the army it was always said that the next war would be fought with the spade as much as with the rifle, but so far we have seen nothing whatever of the spade, except just by the guns. We were also taught that strong positions held by steady troops armed with magazine guns and supported by good artillery were absolutely impregnable against direct attack. I grant that Dundee and Elandslaagte, and Belmont and Enslin on the other side, seemed to contradict that idea, but our experience here is all the other way; and if we keep on knocking our heads against those hills I suppose the axiom is likely to be finally confirmed."
"Then you don't think that we are going to fight our way into Ladysmith, Captain Brookfield?"
"Not direct into Ladysmith. Possibly we may work our way round; but after what we saw of the fire from their position, trench above trench, and miles upon miles in length, my own conviction is, that allowing to the utmost for the gallantry and devotion of our men, we shall never win our way across those hills."
"Then we move off at two o'clock, sir?"
"Yes, fresh batches of waggons are going on, and we are to escort them, and if we reach Springfield by to-morrow night we may think ourselves lucky, for some of the officers who went with the first lot have come back, and say that the roads are simply awful--there are dongas to be passed where the waggons sink up to their axles--and that at one point ninety oxen were fastened to a single waggon and could not pull it out from a hole in which it was sunk, and there it would be now if one of the Woolwich traction engines hadn't got hold of it and drawn it out. They are doing splendid work, and if the War Office authorities can but take a lesson to heart, the next war we go into we shall have five hundred of them and not a single transport animal. They would cost money, no doubt, but they would eat nothing and drink nothing; they would only require to be oiled and cleaned occasionally to keep them in order, and when they were wanted they would do the work without our having to hunt the world over for transport animals. They would save their cost in one war; there would be a thousand drivers and stokers instead of twenty thousand camp followers; it would not matter whether the country was burnt up dry or deep in grass, they would drag their fuel with them; and would save the artillery horses by dragging the guns till they were in the neighbourhood of an enemy. It might not look so pretty or picturesque as the present system, but it would be enormously more useful, and in the long run vastly more economical. I should like to see Kitchener put at the War Office with authority to sweep it out; Hercules in the Augean stable would be nothing to it."
Chris laughed at the earnestness and vehemence with which the commander spoke.
He went on. "I am an old army man, and have been as staunch a believer in army traditions as any man, but I tell you fairly that I am disgusted at the amount of routine work, delay, and, if I may use the word, priggism, that I see going on. I am not surprised that the Colonials to a man are convinced that they would manage matters infinitely better if they were left to themselves. They would harass the Boers night and day, sweep their plundering parties out of the land, make a circuit no matter how far into Zululand, and come down behind and cut the line of railway, and blow up the bridges, and worry them out of the colony. I don't say they would succeed, but I am sure they would try, and I believe firmly that five thousand mounted Colonials fighting in their own way would relieve Ladysmith and clear Natal sooner than we with thirty thousand shall do. I am not saying that they would succeed in a Continental war, though they would certainly harass and bother any regular force four times their own strength. To succeed they would require guns and a greater degree of discipline than they have got, but such a force would be absolutely invaluable as an assistant to a regular army. Don't repeat what I say, Chris; there is a good deal of soreness of feeling on both sides already, and I don't want any utterance of mine to add to it. Still, I can assure you it has been a relief to me to let the steam off."
At the appointed hour the Maritzburg Scouts and another Colonial corps started with a train of two hundred waggons, and with immense exertion made eight miles before it became dark. The men were more often on foot than in their saddles, sometimes roping their horses to the sides of the waggons to aid the oxen, sometimes putting their shoulders to the wheels, or working with a score of others with railway sleepers that had been brought for the purpose, to lever the axles out of deep holes into which the wheels had sunk.
"I don't think I ever knew what it was to be really dirty before," Field said, as they finally dismounted and prepared to camp. "I thought I did know something about mud, but I can see that I did not. I feel that I am a sort of animated pie, and could be cooked comfortably in an oven. If we could but get a big fire and stand round it, our crust might peel off; and I really don't see any other way. There is one advantage in it, and that is that we shall be able to skirmish, if necessary, across either a sandy or muddy country, without the possibility of our being made out more than fifty yards away by the keenest-sighted Boer. What do you propose, Captain Chris? If there were running water near, the course would be clear. We would lie down by turns, and be rolled over and over, and thumped with stones, and rubbed with anything that came handy till we were in a state of comparative cleanliness."
"Why running water?" Chris asked. "Why not a pond?" "A pond!" Field said, contemptuously. "Why, sir, before our section alone was washed, the water of anything short of a lake would be solid."
There was a general burst of laughter.
"Well, Field, you do us almost as much good as a wash," Peters said. "Anyhow, we are better off than the others. We have got our tents and our spirit-lamp, and can have our tea with some degree of comfort, which is more than the others will be able to do. Now, as we have not running water, I think we might as well scrape as much of this mud off as we can."
"I would almost rather remain as we are," Field said. "Hitherto I have felt rather proud of our appearance. As we only got our uniforms when we came up here, and have always had our tents to sleep in, we looked a great deal cleaner than the average. Now we shall be conspicuous for our dirtiness."
"In spite of what Field says, I will adopt your suggestion, Peters. We had better help the Kaffirs to get up our tents first," Chris said, "then we can do the scraping while they are getting our supper ready. It is very lucky that we had the water-skins filled before starting. We should hardly taste the tea if it had been made from water from any of these spruits."
The tents were erected, and then jack-knives were taken out; and giving mutual aid to each other, they succeeded in removing at least the main portion of the mud. That done, they sat down to supper. Fortunately, the rain that had come down steadily the greater portion of the day had now ceased, and with a tin of cocoa and milk, and some fried ham and biscuits, they made an excellent meal. Their less fortunate comrades brought their kettles, which were boiled for them one after another, until all who had waited up in hopes of their turn coming had been served. As they carried tea and their ration bread, they were able to make a fairly comfortable meal, instead of going supperless to bed, which they would otherwise have done, as few would have cared after their hard work to go out into the veldt to gather soaked sticks, which they would hardly have been able to light had they found them. A small ration of spirits and water was given to each of the five natives, and then the lads crept into their tents feeling that after all, things might have been much worse.