With Buller in Natal by G. A. Henty
Chapter XVI. A Colonist's Adventure
In the morning after the battle orders were issued for the greater part of the troops to return to Chieveley, and among the first to leave were the Maritzburg Scouts. They were heartily glad to be off. During the three preceding days the position of the cavalry had been a galling one. They had seen nothing of the fighting, being kept down at Potgieter's Drift in readiness to advance the moment that orders came. They had nothing to do but to stand or sit down near their horses, watching the fire from the enemy's batteries on the hills, and the bursting of our lyddite shells among them, the outburst of brownish-yellow smoke rendering them easily distinguishable from the sudden puffs of white vapour caused by the explosion of the shrapnel shells of the artillery. How the battle was going was only known from the wounded men brought down from the front. The reports at first were encouraging, but it became evident on the following days that no progress was being made.
Each evening when the sun set both the colonial and regular cavalry returned to their camp, for it was certain that they could not act at night. When it became known on Wednesday evening that a retreat was ordered, the news came almost as a relief, for the suspense had been very trying.
After dinner Chris went into the tent where the officers of the troop were gathered. As usual, the talk was of the battle, but in a short time Captain Brookfield said:
"Let us try and get away from the subject. We have talked of nothing else for the past three days, and I defy anyone to say anything new about it; it is not a pleasant subject either. Richards, you were in the last war, I know, and took part in the defence of Standerton. Suppose you tell us about that; it is one of the few pleasant memories of that time."
"I don't know that there is much to tell you about it, but I will let you know how I came to take share in it. That was an exciting time for me, for I was never so near rubbed out in all my life. Just before the last business broke out I happened to be returning from Pretoria, intending to sell for anything that I could get a large farm that I owned in the Leydenburg district. Of late the Boers had been getting so offensive in their manner that I thought something would come of it, and made up my mind to sell out at any price and return to Natal. When I rode into Leydenburg I found that two hundred and fifty men of the 94th Regiment were starting next day with a large train of waggons for Pretoria. As I was frequently in the town, and had made the acquaintance of several of the officers, I thought it would be pleasant to ride down with them, as it made no difference whether I got into Pretoria a day or two earlier or later. The general idea was that war would come of it, but no one thought it would begin without the usual notice and warning.
"I told the officers that I would not trust the Boers further than I could see them, for that a more treacherous set of fellows are not to be found on the surface of the earth. Still, I must own that I had no more idea that an attack would be made upon us than they had. Well, you all know what came of it. We were going along a hollow with rising ground on either side when, without the slightest warning, a tremendous fire was opened from both flanks. It can hardly be said that there was any resistance. The troops were strung out along the line of waggons; numbers were shot down before a single musket was fired in defence. The main body, such as it was, fought stoutly, but as they could only catch an occasional glimpse of the heads of the enemy, while they were themselves altogether exposed, there could be but one end to it. A hundred and twenty men were killed or wounded in a few minutes, and to save the rest from a similar massacre the officer who commanded surrendered.
"I fired a few shots at first, but as soon as I saw how it would end I rode for it. I was with the rear-guard when the firing began, and so took the back track. As soon as the firing ceased I saw half a dozen Boers galloping after me. My blood was up, as you may imagine, and on getting to a dip I jumped off my horse, left it in shelter, and threw myself down on the crest of the hollow, and as they came within range I picked off the one who was nearest to me. That brought the others up with a round turn. They retired a little way, then dismounted and separated, and proceeded to stalk me. We exchanged shots for an hour or two. I killed another, and got, as you see by this scar on my cheek, a graze. However, I think they would have tired of the game first. But suddenly I saw a dozen Boers galloping across the country in our direction. They were doubtless a party who had arrived too late to take part in the fight, if you can call such a treacherous massacre a fight, and hearing the sound of shots were riding to see what was going on.
"I saw that things were getting too hot, and ran down to my horse again and rode along in the hollow, which fortunately hid me from the sight of either the men I had been fighting or those riding up. I had therefore about a quarter of a mile start when I heard a shout, and knew that they were after me. After what had happened I did not dare ride for Middleburg, as there was no saying whether that place might not have already risen; so there was nothing to depend upon but the speed and bottom of my horse. It was a fairly good animal, but nothing particular. It had had an easy time of it while on the march, for we had only done some fourteen or fifteen miles a day. I might have had hopes that I should outride the men in pursuit of me, but they would be joined by more men on fresh horses from any Boer farmhouse or village we came near. Besides, the news of this intended attack on the convoy must have been known far and wide. Occasionally a shot was fired, but as I was riding at a gallop, and the Boers were doing the same, I had no great fear of being hit. I gained a little at first, but after two hours' riding they were about the same distance behind as when they had first started on the chase.
"I felt that my horse was beginning to fag a bit, but the sun was setting, for the attack had taken place in the afternoon. I kept on till it was too dark for me to make out my pursuers, some of whom were not more than three hundred yards behind me; then, while my horse was going at full gallop I leapt of? without checking him, a trick that most hunters can do. I chose the spot because I could make out that there was some low scrub close to the road. Stooping among this I ran forward. I was glad to hear that my horse was still galloping at the top of his speed, and, deprived of my weight, would probably get a good bit farther before he was taken, if he did but keep on. This I hoped he would do, for he had evidently entered into the spirit of the chase, and had laid back his ears whenever the Boers raised their voices in a yell or a rifle was fired. They were yelling pretty hard when they passed me, urging their horses on in the belief that the chase was almost at an end. I heard no more of the Boers that time, for as soon as they had gone on I ran at the top of my speed for some distance, and then broke into a trot, and by the morning must have been thirty miles away.
"I decided to make for Standerton, for there I felt sure I should be safe, for at that place was a considerable English population, and they would certainly hold out. I had a Colt's rifle with me and a brace of revolvers, for even when I went down to Leydenburg I heard that several Englishmen had been maltreated, and one or two shot by Boers they met. I tramped for four days, and as the attack on our troops had been made on the 20th of December, it was now Christmas-eve. I had not ventured to go near a Boer farm, for fortunately I had shot a springbok, and was therefore under no trouble as to food; but on the previous day I had not come across water, and the heat was terrible, so I felt that whatever came of it I must go and ask for a drink. I saw a farmhouse about nine in the morning and made for it. As I approached, a woman came out of the door and, seeing me, re-entered, and two Boers with their guns in their hands ran out.
"Who are you?" they shouted. Of course I speak Dutch as well as English, and shouted back that I only wanted some water.
"'Are you an Englishman?' they shouted again.
"'Yes, I am,' I said; 'but what difference does that make?' I saw their guns go up to their shoulders, and flung myself down, and their shots went over my head. It was my turn now, and I fired twice, and the two Boers rolled over. I walked forward now ready to fire on an instant, as there might be more of them. Some women ran out but no man, and I went straight up. They were screaming over the bodies of the men, and heaped curses on me as I came up. I slung my rifle behind me, and taking out my pistols I said, 'Your men brought it on themselves. I only asked for water, and they fired at me. I don't want to hurt any of you, but if you attack me I must protect myself.' Several times I thought they would have done so, but the sight of my pistols cowed them, I walked straight into the house, dipped a pannikin into a pail of water, took a long drink, then I filled my water-bottle, and went out. Though they cursed me again, they did not attempt to stop me, as I rather feared they would; but I understood it when, before I had gone fifty yards, I heard a horse's hoofs, and looking round saw a girl riding at full speed across the veldt. She had no doubt gone to fetch the men who were away or to the next farm to summon assistance. The draught of water had done me a world of good, and I soon broke into a run, though I did not conceal from myself that I was in a bad fix. Once out of sight of the farm I changed my course, and did so several times in the course of the next two hours; then, on getting to the crest of high ground, I saw a river half a mile away. This, I felt sure, was Broot Spruit. Before starting to walk down I looked round, and a little over a mile away could see a party of some fifteen Boers. I ran at full speed down the slope, and could see no other place where I could make a fight of it; but many of the rivers have, like those here, steep banks, and I could at least sell my life dearly. It could only be for a time, for some of the Boers would cross the spruit and take me in rear. Still, there was nothing else to be done.
"When I reached the bank I gave a shout of satisfaction. The river was in flood; there must have been rain up in the hills, and you know how quickly the streams rise. Unless the Boers knew of some very shallow place, there would be no crossing it; for it was running like a mill- stream, and except at some waggon drift the banks were almost perpendicular. At any rate I could not hope to swim half across before the Boers came up, and so I must fight it out where I was. I had scarcely found a point where I could get a comfortable foothold on the bank, with my head just above the level, when the Boers appeared on the top of the hill. They stopped for a minute and then broke up, and scattering rode forward. They felt sure that I must have made for the river, as there was no other place where I could be concealed. When they came within a couple of hundred yards of it they dismounted, and three or four came forward on foot. When the nearest was within a hundred yards of me I fired.
"At so short a distance, and with so good a rest, I could not miss, and before the smoke cleared away I winged another, and the rest ran back hastily. I sent a shot or two among them as they were consulting, with the result that they rode off three or four hundred yards farther back. They did not attempt to return my fire, for, except when I raised my head for a moment, they could see nothing of me. They doubtless learned from the women that I had a Colt's rifle and a brace of revolvers, and that if they were to make a rush across the open not many of them were likely to reach me. After a talk two or three of them mounted their horses and rode so as to strike the river both above and below me, intending no doubt to cross if they found a place where there was a chance of doing so. I felt pretty sure that they would do nothing till it was dark, then they would crawl up and make a rush; I was certain, anyhow, that they would not give it up, as there were two of their number lying on the veldt besides the two at the farmhouse. There was, however, more pluck in them than I had given them credit for, for about mid-day they began to advance, crawling along the ground as if stalking a quarry. The men who had gone out on horseback had all returned, but just as the others started crawling up three of them galloped away down stream. I determined at once to shift my position a bit, so as to put off the evil hour. I pulled a stone as big as my head out of the clay of the bank and put it on the edge where my head had been, and then got down into the water. It was waist-deep at a couple of feet from the bank, which above was too steep to walk along. I had gone a hundred yards when I saw, seven or eight inches above the water-level, a hole, and pushing my arm in I found it was a place where a good bit of the bank had caved in. Laying my gun and pistols down on a ledge I felt about farther. At the top it went in nearly three feet, and was higher at the back than it was at the water's edge. At any rate it afforded a good chance of safety. Holding the revolvers, the chamber of the rifle, and my ammunition above water, I stooped until I could get into the hole, which was but just wide enough for the purpose; then I pushed myself back to the end. I found there was just height enough for me to sit with my mouth above water. The back sloped so that I had to dig my heels into the clay to prevent myself from slipping forward.
"It was not a comfortable position, but that was a secondary consideration. I had noticed as I came along that the river was already falling, so that I had no fear of being drowned as long as I kept my position. With some trouble I fastened my pistols and ammunition on the brim of my hat; the rifle I was holding between my knees. There I sat hour after hour. Fortunately, being pretty near midsummer day, the water was not cold. I had at least the consolation of knowing what a state of fury the Boers must be in. They would have seen by my footsteps where I had entered the river, just below where I had been standing. No doubt they would have gone along the top of the bank to see if I had come out of the water again, and when they reached their friends on horseback and heard that I had not swum down the river, they would have concluded that I must have been drowned. Had I managed to cross, they would have seen me climb the opposite bank.
"In an hour the water had fallen to my shoulders, and when it became dark it was but waist-deep where I was sitting. To make a long story short, by midnight the water was below my feet and still falling rapidly. I waited a couple of hours and then started to cross. It was about fifty yards wide, and I was fully half-way over before it reached my chin. The stream had lost much of its force, and I had no difficulty in swimming across the rest of the way, though the water was deep until I was within a couple of yards of the bank. Then I climbed the bank and made off. I saw nothing more of my pursuers, and three days later I arrived at Standerton, and remained there til the end of the war, for the gallant little town repulsed all attempts of the Boers to capture it."
"That was a narrow escape indeed, Richards," Captain Brookfield said. "If you hadn't had your wits about you the Boers would certainly have got you. It was a first-rate hiding-place, but I don't think many of us would have thought of adopting it. Now, will someone else give us a yarn?"
Two or three more stories were told, and then the party broke up, feeling all the better for having for an hour avoided the standing topic. Two days later all were settled at Chieveley again, and it was generally believed that the next attack would take place very shortly, and that it would probably be directed against Colenso. That evening a farmer came into camp. His horse had dropped dead a mile away. He stopped, as he passed through the tents of the scouts, and asked where he could find the general. Captain Brookfield, who heard the question, stepped out from his tent with Chris, to whom he had been talking.
"Why, Searle, is it you? I thought the voice was familiar to me. What is it?"
"I have ridden in to get help. The other day a raiding party of Boers came down through Inadi, and riding in between Dingley Dell and Botha's Castle--you know the hill--swept off a quantity of cattle. They have not penetrated so far before, and no one about thought that there was any danger while you were attacking them up here. One of the farmers rode to Greytown for help. Most of the young men there had joined one or other of the colonial troops, but fifteen of us said that we could go out. It seemed that there were not more than some fifteen or twenty Boers. Well, I can't tell you all about it, for, as it is a matter of life and death, I have not a moment to lose. However, we came up to them north of Botha's Castle. We had a sharp fight. Two of our men were killed and five of the Boers; the rest rode off. We set to work to bunch all the cattle, and as we were at it we were attacked suddenly by a party sixty or seventy strong. The fellows that we had driven off had evidently come across them and brought them down upon us. We made a running fight, but our horses were not so fresh as theirs; and seeing that they had the speed of us we made for an empty farmhouse, and as they rode up we brought down several of them.
"There was a wall round the yard, and the Boers drew off for a bit to consider. Then they dismounted and planted themselves round the house in such shelter as they could find within two or three hundred yards, and the affair began in earnest. The first day they kept up a heavy fire, to which we could make but little reply, for it was certain death to lift a head above the wall or to show one's self at a window even for a moment. We lost three men that way. During the night they tried to carry the place, but we were all at the wall; and had the best of it, as we had only to show our heads, while they were altogether exposed. There was not much firing next day, and it was evident that they meant to starve us out. There was not a scrap of food to be found in the place; but fortunately there was a small thatched kraal inside the yard which gave some forage for the horses. The next day we killed one of them for food.
"That night we agreed that when the Boers saw that we did not surrender in a day or two they would be sure that we must be eating the horses, as any food we brought with us must be exhausted, and they would then make a determined attack; for we knew we had killed eight or ten of them, and that they would not go away. So we decided that the only hope was for one of us to ride here; we tossed up who should try to get through the Boers, and the lot fell upon me. I took the best of the horses. We had agreed from the first that this would have to be done, and had given what scraps of bread we could spare to it; besides which, they were all in fair condition, as the yard was strewn with rubbish, and some party of Boers had ripped up all the beds and straw mattresses and scattered the contents about.
"Some of them were sure to be on watch, and I rode at a walk. I made for the north, as that side was less likely to be watched. I had gone about two hundred yards when a man jumped up just in front of me. My rifle was ready, and before he could lift his I shot him, and then clapped spurs to nay horse. There was a tremendous hubbub; shots were fired at random in all directions, but I doubt whether they could have seen me after I had gone fifty yards. I rode for a quarter of a mile due north, and then turned west. I had no fear of being overtaken, for although the Boers would all have their horses close, in readiness to mount if we should try to break out, I must have got a good quarter of a mile start, and they were not likely to keep up the chase long, as they could not tell which way I might have doubled, and if they pursued far, it would be in the direction of Greytown. It was about a seventy-mile ride, and as I started about twelve, I have done it in nine hours. I foundered the horse, but fortunately he did not drop till I was within half a mile of the camp. Now, where can I find the general?"
"You will find him at Frere, but I am afraid it will be of no use. We have tried him again and again--at least, one or other of us have done so--to let us go out scouting, but he will not hear of it, though the whole of us Colonials are terribly sore at leaving the whole country at the mercy of the Boer marauders; and now that we shall probably be at work here again directly, he is less likely than ever to let anyone go."
"You can't go without orders, I suppose?"
Captain Brookfield shook his head. "We are just as much under orders as the regular troops are, and it would be a serious matter indeed to fly in the face of his repeated orders on this subject." The farmer made a gesture of despair.
"Captain Brookfield," Chris said, speaking for the first time, "I think that by the terms of our enlistment in your corps we were to be allowed to take our discharge whenever we asked for it?"
"That was so, Chris, but--"
"Then I beg now, sir, to tender our resignation from the present moment."
"But Chris, you have but twenty men, and by what Searle says, there are sixty or seventy of them."
"Of whom ten or so have been killed. Well, sir, we have fought against nearly a hundred before now, and got the best of it; besides, we shall have the help of the little party shut up. However, now that we have resigned, that is our affair. I suppose that if we rejoin you, you will have no objection to re-enlist us?"
Captain Brookfield smiled. "I should have no objection certainly, Chris, but General Buller might have."
"I don't suppose he will know of our having been away, sir; he has plenty more serious things to think of than the numerical strength of your troop, and as the news of a skirmish some thirty miles north of Greytown is not likely to be reported in the papers, or at any rate to attract his attention, I don't think you need trouble yourself on that score. Besides, if it was reported, it could only be said that one of the besieged party escaping, returned with a small body of volunteers he had collected; and the name of the Maritzburg Scouts would not be mentioned. I am sure that Mr. Searle would impress the necessity for silence about that point, on his friends."
"Well, I accept your resignation, Chris; a headstrong man will have his way; and indeed I have great faith in your accomplishing, somehow, the relief of this party."
The farmer had listened with surprise to this discussion between the lad and Captain Brookfield. The latter now turned to him and said:
"This young gentleman is the commander of twenty lads of about his own age. They have been in two serious fights, and in both cases against a Boer force much superior to themselves in numbers, and I have as much confidence in them as in any men in my troop. They are all good shots, and admirably mounted, and you can be perfectly sure of them, and can take my assurance that if any twenty men can relieve your friends, they will do so."
"Will you be able to ride back again with us, sir? I can mount you."
"Certainly I can, if my friend Captain Brookfield can furnish me with a meal before I start."
"That I will with much pleasure. How long will it be before you are ready, Chris?"
"Half an hour, sir. I left them all rubbing down their horses when I came in here a quarter of an hour ago, and it will take but a very short time to pack up and start."
"Very well; I dare say that Mr. Searle will be ready by that time. Breakfast shall be ready for you in ten minutes, Searle, and while you are eating it I will tell you enough of these gentlemen's doings to reassure you, for I see that you do not feel very confident that they will be able to tackle the Boers."
"After what you have said, Captain Brookfield, I can have no doubt that they will do all they can, but it seems to me that twenty men--or twenty boys--are no match for fifty or sixty Boers. While they were speaking, Chris had returned to his camp. The lads were all engaged in rubbing up their saddlery.
"You can knock off at once," Chris said; "I have need for you. You no longer belong to the Maritzburg Scouts."
There was a general exclamation of astonishment.
"What do you mean, Chris?"
"I mean that I have resigned in my own name and yours, and Captain Brookfield has accepted the resignation."
"Are you really in earnest, Chris?"
"Very much so; but I will not keep you in suspense. A small party of Greytown men are besieged near Botha's Castle; one of them has just ridden in for help. But you know well enough that Buller will not hear of detached parties going out all over the country; and Captain Brookfield told the farmer that it was of no use his going to the general, and that none of the Colonial troops could leave the camp without orders. As it was evident that there was nothing more to be done, and we could not leave the man's friends to be massacred, the only thing to do was to give in our resignation at once; and of course, now that it is done and accepted, we are at liberty to mount and ride off where we please. When we have done our work we will come back and reenlist, and no one will be any the wiser. We shall start in half an hour. We need not take the tent poles, or anything but a blanket and a waterproof sheet."
There was lively satisfaction at the news that they were again going to be employed in what they considered their proper work.
"What shall we do about the men and stores?" Willesden asked; "you know that those two big boxes of the things we ordered at Maritzburg arrived yesterday." "I think, Willesden, we will take Jack and the two Zulus, and leave Japhet and the Swazis here in charge of the stores, and blankets, and other things we leave behind us. Captain Brookfield will keep an eye on them for us. The farmer is going to ride back with us on one of the spare horses, and the three natives can ride the others. There is a hundredweight of biscuits in the sack that came with the boxes; each of us can take five pounds in his saddle-bag, a tin of cocoa and milk, and a pound or two of bacon. Jack can take a kettle and frying-pan, and the natives their blankets and twenty pounds of mealie flour for themselves and five times as much mealies for the horses. We can get them at the stores that were opened a few days ago."
Some of the men from the other tents walked over on seeing the tents pulled down and the waterproof sheets and blankets rolled up, and asked: "Where are you fellows off to?"
"We have resigned; we are sick of doing nothing."
As it was known that they drew neither pay nor rations, the news did not create much surprise.
"You are lucky fellows," one said. "We get no share of the fighting and a full share of the hardships; still, I wonder you do not stop till we are in Ladysmith."
"When is that going to be?" Field asked innocently. "We have been told that we shall be in Ladysmith in a week many times since we first came up here in the middle of December, and we are no nearer now than when we arrived here. Do you think that you could guarantee that we should be there in another week? because, if so, we might put off going."
The trooper shook his head with a laugh. "That is a question no man in camp can answer," he said. "Perhaps in a week, perhaps in a fortnight, perhaps," he added more gravely, "never. We know by the messages they flash out that they are nearly at the end of their food, and if we don't get there in a fortnight or thereabout, our motive for going on may be at an end. In that case I suppose we shall wait here till Roberts has relieved Kimberley and marches on Bloemfontein. That will send all the Free Staters scurrying back in a hurry, and even the Transvaalers will begin to think that it is time to go. Then I suppose we shall advance and clear Natal out."
"Well, perhaps we may be back again to help you by that time," Field answered; "but we are heartily tired of this place, and of watching the Boers making their positions stronger and stronger every day."
"It is about the same with us all," the trooper grumbled, "and I for one wish that I could go down with you to Maritzburg and have a week off. It would be such a comfort to sleep in a dry bed and to dress in dry clothes, that I doubt whether I should ever have the strength of mind to come back again. I wish that the general would issue an order dismounting us all and filling up the gaps in the line regiments with us. Then at least we should have a chance of fighting, which does not seem likely ever to come to us here. You are not going to leave those big boxes behind you, are you?"
"Yes, we are going to leave them in the care of the captain, with a note saying that if we do not turn up again before Ladysmith is relieved, they are to be handed over to the poor beggars there."
"There is one thing I cannot say, and that is that we have been short of food, for the Army Service Corps has done splendidly, and no one has ever been hungry for an hour, except when on a long march or engaged in a battle. If everything had been worked as well, we should certainly have no reason whatever to complain. If I were my own master, and could afford it, I would go down to Durban and take a passage for myself and my horse for Port Elizabeth, and then go up and enlist in one of the yeomanry corps with Roberts. When he once starts there will be plenty of movement on that side; while here, even if we get to Ladysmith, we may be fixed there for no one can say how long. You see what it is here, and if the Boers don't lose heart, and defend the Biggarsberg and the Drakensberg, we shall find at least as much difficulty there as we shall here. It is quite certain that the Ladysmith men will take a long time to recover from what they have gone through; and as for the cavalry, I fancy their horses have been eaten. If they had been out here with us, instead of being cooped up in there, we should have been able to make it hot for the Boers when they retire, and to keep them on the run, but with so small a force as we have we should hardly be able to do so. Besides, they have so many lines of retreat. The Free Staters can go over to the left to Van Reenen and the other passes; another commando can go east; there are plenty of fords on the Buffalo; and they would retire on Vryheid, while the main body could make a stand at the Biggarsberg; and as they always seem able to carry their cannon off with them, our cavalry would do nothing without artillery and infantry."
There had been no pause in the work of preparation while they were talking, and the horses were now saddled, the food divided, the saddle- bags packed, and the blankets and waterproofs strapped on. Chris went across to Captain Brookfield's tent. "We are all ready for a start, sir."
The officer looked at his watch. "It is three minutes under the half- hour, Chris. How much ammunition are you taking with you?"
"A hundred and fifty rounds each, sir, of which I don't suppose we shall use above ten at the outside. Still, there is never any saying; and if we should get besieged we shall want it all. Your horse is ready for you, Mr. Searle."
"And I am ready too," the farmer said, getting up from the table and stretching himself. "I ought not to have sat down. I could ride as far as most at twenty, but I have not done so much for the last fifteen years, and I feel stiff in every limb. However, I shall be all right when I have gone a few miles, and that wash I had before breakfast has done me a world of good. Now, sir, I am ready, and whether we shall succeed or not, I thank you with all my heart for coming with me." "Good-bye, Chris!" Captain Brookfield said. "I expect you will all turn up again, like bad pennies, before many days have gone."
"I hope so, sir," Chris said. "I should be sorry to miss the end here after having seen it so far."