Chapter III. At the Front
 

At five o'clock the lads from Johannesburg again met and reported the result of the afternoon's work. The nine Mauser rifles had been bought, and six thousand rounds of ammunition had been purchased. This appeared an excessive amount, but as there might be a difficulty in obtaining this ammunition, they bought up all that could be found in the town. Peters and his party had chosen the horses for the troop. The farmer was a well-known breeder of good stock, and was glad to dispose of some of them at a fair price in order to lessen their number. He had already had several enquiries from corps that were being raised, but the prices were higher than could be paid for ordinary troopers, though several had been bought by officers. The lot the lads had picked out had been put aside, and they had given the farmer fifty pounds earnest-money, to hold them till the next morning.

"They are as good a looking lot of horses as I ever saw," Peters said, "in fact, by a long way the best. I always heard that he was one of the largest breeders of good horses in South Africa. He had eight or ten extraordinarily good ones, but, of course, he wanted extra prices for these; but from the rest--and he has some three hundred of them--he let us choose any we liked at one price, and I think I can say that we shall be as well mounted a corps as any out here. Of course we avoided the showy-looking horses, and chose those specially suited to the country and likely to be fast. Mr. Duncan had several thoroughbreds from home, and there is no doubt that his stock has benefited by it; they are all of the country type, sturdy and compact, and yet somewhat finer in the limb than any I ever saw in the Transvaal. We were delighted with them."

All the lads were accustomed from childhood to horses, but those Chris had selected as the committee of inspection were admitted by their friends to be the best judges of horseflesh in the party, their fathers being wealthy men who always bought the finest horses money could obtain.

"We will go over in a body to-morrow," Chris said, "and pay for them and bring them back. We are lucky indeed to have got hold of such a good lot. Are they pretty even animals, Peters?"

"Yes, I really don't think there is anything to choose between them."

"Well then, the fair way will be, to make one-and-twenty tickets with as many numbers and fasten one to the mane of each horse, then we will put another twenty-one numbers into a hat and draw them; in that way everyone will be satisfied. Those of you who have not got their money from their people had better ask them for it this evening, so that we can settle up to-morrow for the horses and rifles and ammunition. The hundred pounds we have each been promised will well cover all our expenses up to the moment we start, and I should think leave us with something like twenty pounds apiece in pocket, but all we have and the other hundred for future expenses we had better put into the bank here to-morrow. We must arrange for four of us to sign cheques, each cheque to be signed by two, but we had better give them all our signatures so that in case what we can call the finance committee of four are all killed or taken prisoners there will be no bother about having fresh signatures to arrange about." "Well," Sankey said, "we might as well settle that at once. I propose that Field, Carmichael, Capper, and, of course, you form the committee." As no amendment was offered, this was at once agreed to.

"What time did you say that we would come over to fetch the horses?"

"About ten o'clock."

"Well, will you all be at my hotel to-morrow at half-past eight with your money? Then we will all sign our names on paper the committee first; afterwards they shall go with me to the bank and pay all the money in, give them the list of signatures, and tell them that until further notice two of the four first names will sign the cheques, but that should circumstances prevent any two of them being able to do so, others will sign instead. The account had better stand as the Johannesburg Scouts. When we have arranged that we will hire a couple of light waggons and start. Have you all got your saddlery?"

"Yes."

"Well, we will take it with us, and then we can ride the horses back. I will get the tickets made out."

As soon as the bank opened in the morning, Chris and his three companions presented themselves, and had an interview with the manager, who was somewhat surprised when twenty-one cheques and cash to the amount of three thousand five hundred pounds were handed in, each member having deducted the amount paid for saddlery and clothes. "We wish the account to stand in the name of the Johannesburg Scouts, and cheques will be signed by two of the four names standing first on this list; but as casualties may occur, you will please accept any of these signatures. Our little corps will form part of the Maritzburg Scouts, but in money matters we keep to ourselves, being all volunteers serving without pay."

The manager ran his eye over the cheques. All the names were well known to him as those of prominent men at Johannesburg, and the great majority had already accounts at his bank, as all had some time previously made arrangements for drawing money in case of necessity.

"I suppose, Mr. King," he said, "that as you and your friends represent the corps, you are all young men?"

"We are all boys," Chris answered with a smile, "but we are old enough to do men's work, and in the Transvaal the Boers are commandeering all boys two or three years younger than we are."

"Well, I congratulate you all both on your patriotism and your pluck, Mr. King, and I have no doubt that you will do good service."

Receiving a cheque-book, they drew two hundred pounds for current expenses, and then going back to the hotel found the two Cape-carts and their companions ready, and the saddlery already stowed away. On arriving at the farm all were highly pleased with the horses their comrades had selected. They had on the way agreed that it would be a good plan to buy four others to act as pack-horses, and to furnish them with remounts in case any of their own were shot. These were to be sent into the town by two Kaffirs, whom they arranged to take into their service, for the farmer said at once, when they asked him that he could very well spare them, as he would be parting with a considerable number of his horses and cattle, and would not require so many hands as he had at present. The two men he chose for them were both active young natives; they made no objection to the exchange of masters, and, indeed, seemed pleased at the thought of going with them to fight the Boers, who were universally hated by the natives.

A cheque was given to the farmer for their purchase, then the horses were chosen by lot as agreed, and were at once saddled and mounted. They had all been partially broken in, and as the boys were good riders, they were after a little preliminary struggle soon at their ease, and, taking a couple of hours' sharp ride through the country, returned on good terms with their mounts. Two or three hours were spent in teaching the horses to stand steady as soon as the reins were thrown over their heads, this being a training to which all horses in the Cape are subjected. Then they rode back to the town and arranged with a farmer near it to picket their horses in one of his meadows, and for their feed while they remained there. The rest of the day was spent in laying in their supplies. The rifles and ammunition were paid for, pack saddles bought for the four spare horses, a brace of revolvers purchased for each member, haversacks ordered for the whole party, and bags to carry a supply of grain for each horse. In the evening they went out to the farm, and after discharging their rifles a few times fed their horses.

This they repeated in the morning, so as to familiarize them with the sound of firearms; then they saddled and mounted them, and after riding for half an hour drew up in line, as Captain Brookfield, who had sworn them in on the previous afternoon, was to inspect them at eight o'clock. They had all put on their working clothes, bandoliers and belts, and high boots, and the captain on his arrival, after closely inspecting them, expressed his strongest approval of their appearance.

"I really congratulate you, Mr. King," he said, "on having command of twenty such serviceable-looking young fellows. As they all can ride, and, as you tell me, can all shoot, they ought to do really good service, and I should be well pleased if all my troop were composed of such good material. From the fact that you can all speak Dutch, and most of you Kaffir, you will have great opportunities of obtaining information, and can, in case of need, pass as young Boers. In fact, I may say that there is some danger of your being mistaken for them by our men. I should take you for them myself, except that you all look brighter and more wide-awake than Boers generally do; but an artilleryman could hardly be blamed if he plumped a shell among you at a distance of two or three thousand yards."

"We thought of that, sir;" Chris turned to his band, "Change caps!" All pulled field-service caps from their pockets, took off the soft felts, rolled them up and forced them into their valises, and put on the caps.

"That is excellent!" Captain Brookfield exclaimed. "That certainly alters your appearance altogether, and as far as your figures could be made out through a glass, it could be seen that you are an irregular body of some sort. And this can be still more plainly seen if, as I should advise you, you always ride in fours when you are approaching our lines; there will then be little chance of a mistake being made. Where did you pick up all those horses?"

"We bought them yesterday from a farmer named Duncan, who has brought them down from his place near Dundee."

"Ah! that accounts for it; he is one of the best-known horse-breeders in the colony. I had not heard that he had come down."

"He only arrived two days ago, sir. We were fortunate to hear of it, and some of us rode over early yesterday and were lucky enough to secure them."

"You were lucky. There are several mounted corps being formed here and at Durban, and horses will go up in price rapidly. Where is he staying'?"

"About a mile and a half farther out, sir. If you want horses I should think that you had better go on at once, for he told me that he had sold sixty yesterday, but that very few of them were anything like as good horses as these."

"No. People are subscribing handsomely, but we cannot afford to mount our troopers on such horses as these. A good many gentlemen have found their own horses, and of course will be well mounted; but a good, sound, country horse is all we can afford for the others; they are excellent for ordinary work, though, of course, not so fast as yours, nor quite so big. Your horses have all a strain of English thoroughbred blood, and if you should at any time have to ride for it there would be little chance of the Boers overtaking you, though some of them are very well mounted, for the two things a Boer will spend money on, are his horse and his rifle. And when do you start?"

"We are going to-morrow morning. I went to the station-master yesterday evening and arranged for trucks for the horses to be attached to an early train to Dundee. We want to get up in time to see the first of it, and we should lose three days if we were to travel by road."

"That is the right spirit, and I wish I could go with you; but my troop will wear a sort of uniform, Norfolk jackets and riding-breeches, and the outfitters are so overwhelmed with orders that it will be another couple of days at least before they are ready. Then the men must have two or three days' drill before they start; I am still short of horses, so I will ride on and see Duncan. I want thirty-five more, and as yet, although subscriptions are coming in well, we are still a good deal short of our requirements. However, I dare say I shall be able to make some arrangement with Duncan, as I shall probably have enough to pay him in full by the end of the week. Altogether, I don't suppose I shall be ready to start for another ten days, and unless the Boers delay their advance I am afraid that I shall not get to Dundee."

"Do you not believe that we shall be able to hold the town?"

"I hardly think that there is a chance of it, and I am sure we made a mistake in sending a portion of the force there. I know the premier was most anxious that our troops should be posted as far north as possible, in order to save the loyal farmers from plunder. If the position were stronger and impossible to be turned, the case would be different; but it is not strong, and can be turned on each flank. If the Boers march to attack General Symons, who is in command there, he may possibly beat them off; but as they can advance towards Ladysmith either from the Free State on one side or the Transvaal on the other, he and his troops would be cut off, and the loyal farmers would be plundered just as much as if Symons had remained at Ladysmith. I fancy all the military men think that a grave mistake has been made, and that General White should not have exposed half his force to disaster. Besides, the position of Ladysmith is no more defensible than that of Dundee. The Tugela would be the natural line of defence, but even that could be turned by troops from the Transvaal going through Zululand, and the line of the river would be very difficult to defend by a force of less than twenty thousand men. However, we shall see how the thing works out--how enterprising the Boers are, and how warmly the Free Staters throw themselves into the work."

"You think that we shall have a hard time, Captain Brookfield?"

"Yes, I think that is certain, even if Cape Colony keeps quiet, which I am very much afraid it will not do. If it rises, it will take all the strength of England to put it down. Well, I wish you all luck. I can assure you I feel proud of my Johannesburg section, and I shall be glad when you join me."

He shook hands with the whole of the lads and then rode off.

"The train starts at eight o'clock," Chris said. "We had better get our good-byes over to-night, get some breakfast if we are able to do so at half-past five, and meet here at six. We ought to be at the station at least an hour before the train starts. We shall not only have to get the horses into the trucks, which is certain to be a troublesome business, as they are altogether new to it, but we shall have to see to our other stores and belongings. I have arranged that we shall travel with the horses, so that we can each stand at the heads of our own animals, and if they are very wild, we can blindfold them until they become accustomed to the situation. I have bought a couple of trusses of hay from Thomas, and he will send down two of his native boys to the station. I should advise you all to put some food into your haversacks, there is no saying how long we may be on the road."

"What sort of trucks are they, Chris?" "They have high sides, but no roofs. Of course I would rather have had roofs, but the station-master could not provide any waggons with them. But he showed me these, and as the sides are quite high enough to prevent the horses getting out, they will do very well."

The saddles were taken off and piled together. There was no chance of rain, so they were left uncovered. The lads then walked back into the town. There was, of course, a sad parting that evening between Chris and his mother, but she bore up well. She knew that hundreds of other women were parting with husbands or sons, and she felt that, as the main cause of the war was to rescue the Uitlanders in the Transvaal from the oppression of the Boers, it behooved all the fugitives from that country to do their utmost.

In the morning the lads all arrived punctually at the rendezvous. The horses were fed to the accompaniment, as usual, of pistol shots. Then they were saddled up, the valises the lads had brought down with them were strapped on, and with their rifles slung behind them they rode to the station.

It was, as they had expected, a long and troublesome business to get the horses into the trucks, but at last this was managed. Nose-bags were put on, with a few double-handfuls of grain, then one trooper was left to each two horses, while the rest saw to their bundles of blankets, their stores of tea, sugar, and flour, preserved milk, cocoa, bacon, and tinned food. A couple of frying-pans, and a canteen of tin cups and plates, a knife, fork, and spoon each, and two kettles, completed their outfit. They had put their soft felt hats in their valises, and were all in their flat fatigue caps.

The train was a long one, but the carriages with it were empty, for while the trains from the north were closely packed, there were few persons indeed proceeding up country. The trucks, however, were well filled, as great quantities of stores were being taken up, some to Ladysmith, and others for the force at Dundee. The horses soon became accustomed to the motion, and their masters took the opportunity of familiarizing themselves with them, by talking to them, patting them, and giving them pieces of bread and an occasional lump of sugar. The two Kaffirs had brought on the pack-horses four water-skins and a couple of buckets, and in the heat of the day the horses were allowed a good drink, while their masters, whose haversacks had been filled by their friends, enjoyed a hearty meal, washed down by tin mugs full of champagne.

They were in the highest spirits, although the meal was taken under difficult circumstances, for all were seated on the upper rails of the trucks, there being no room for them to sit down among the horses. The plates were all packed up, and fingers and teeth served for knives and forks, which was the less important since chickens were the staple of the meal; and these had been cut up before starting. Many were the jokes that passed along the line. All felt that it was the last experience they were likely to have of civilized food, and that it would be a long while before champagne or any other wine would fall to their lot. The Kaffirs, who had each charge of two spare horses, enjoyed themselves no less, for they had a fair share of the provisions of their masters, and were in a high state of contentment with their prospects.

There was a halt of an hour at Ladysmith. Many of the officers and soldiers gathered at the station, their work for the day finished, and the arrival of the train being always an event of some importance in the little town. They were amused and interested at the party of young fellows who alighted to stretch their legs and get a change of position.

"Which is your leader?" a major asked Field.

"The one talking to an officer. His name is Chris King."

"Is he chosen because he is the oldest of you?"

"No, that has nothing to do with it. We are all within a year of the same age. We have all been chums and friends, and have hunted and shot together, and he is the one we elected as our leader, just as you would choose the captain of a cricket club. We all come from Johannesburg, find our own horses, arms, and outfits, and ask nothing whatever from the government; and as we speak Dutch, and all know more or less Kaffir, we fancy we can make a good deal better scouts than your cavalry, who can't ask a question of a Boer or get information from a native."

The major laughed. He saw that the lad a little resented the joking tone in which he had asked the question.

"I have no doubt that you are right," he said, "and I am quite sure I should like half a dozen of you as subalterns. When did you come from Johannesburg?"

"We left there about a week ago, and as we were only at Maritzburg three days, we have not lost any time."

"Indeed, I think that is a record performance. Of course you are all looking forward to your first skirmish; I can assure you we are."

"We had our first on the way down here, when we were between Newcastle and the frontier. Four or five of us went to a farmhouse to try and get some food and milk for the women and children. It was a Boer's place, and the fellow came out with a rifle and warned us off. We went forward, and he took a shot at King when he was quite close to him, but fortunately the bullet only went through his hat. Chris knocked him down and gave him a tremendous thrashing with his own whip. Then we took some provisions and paid for them, and searching the house, found twelve Mauser rifles and a lot of ammunition. We took these off without paying for them. The Boer had made off while we were searching the house, and he and some twenty others pursued us, not dreaming that we were now armed. However, we gave them a volley, and emptied three saddles and killed three or four horses, and they moved off without trying to make our further acquaintance."

"Well done, lads!" the officer said warmly, "that was an excellent beginning, and I have no doubt that you will follow it up well."

Similar conversations were going on all along the platform, and when at last the lads again took their places in the trucks, a hearty cheer was given them. The sun was setting when they arrived at Dundee. It was a larger place than Ladysmith, as there were some coal-mines in the neighbourhood, and a considerable number of men were employed in them. Like Ladysmith it is situated on a plain dominated by hills. The camp was some little distance out of the town. An officer was at the station with a party of men to receive the stores brought up by the train. Chris at once went up to him and saluted.

"We have just arrived, sir; we are a section of the Maritzburg Scouts, acting independently. As we are all from Johannesburg, and find our own horses, equipment, and food, provide our own rations, and, of course, serve without pay, we propose to scout on our own account, and as we all speak Dutch well, I think that we may be useful in obtaining information. We shall, of course, search the country in whatever direction may be considered most useful."

"I have no doubt that you will be of good service, sir," the officer said.

"I suppose we can camp anywhere we like."

"I should think so. As you do not draw rations, it can matter little where you post yourselves; but I don't think that you will be able to get tents to-night."

"We shall not want them, sir; we have each a large waterproof sheet, and intend to use them as tentes d'abri. I suppose I had better report myself at the headquarters of the general?"

"Yes, that would be the proper thing. The camp is a mile and a half away; if you follow the Glencoe railway, you cannot miss it."

As soon as the horses were detrained and the baggage packed, the little party mounted and left the station, and choosing a piece of unoccupied ground a few hundred yards away, proceeded to unsaddle and picket the horses, while Chris rode away to the camp accompanied by one of the natives to hold his horse there. He had no difficulty in finding it, and dismounting, walked to the group of head-quarter tents. His appearance excited a good deal of amusement and some chaff from the soldiers he passed. He looked, indeed, like a young Dutch farmer in his rough clothes, and his rifle, and a bandolier of cartridges. Seeing a young officer close to a tent, he asked him which was that of the adjutant- general.

"He is there talking to the general at the door of his tent. Do you wish to speak to him?"

"I should be glad to do so," Chris replied. The officer walked across and informed the colonel that Chris wanted to speak to him.

"Bring him across, Mr. Williams," the general himself said. "He is evidently a young farmer, and possibly brings in some news of the enemy's movements."

The lieutenant returned to Chris and led him up to the general.

"You have some news that you wish to give us, sir?" Sir Penn Symons said.

"No, general; but I hope to be able to do so to-morrow."

He then stated his position and the nature of his command.

"We are all very well mounted, sir," he went on, "and as we all speak Dutch, hope to be useful. At any rate, we shall be no trouble to you, as we draw neither rations nor pay. We think we can pass anywhere as Boers; that is why we have not adopted any uniform."

"I have no doubt you will be of service," the general said, though I hardly think that you will pass as Boers with those caps."

"We have all wide-brimmed hats to use while we are scouting, general; but we carry these too, so that on our return towards your lines we can be recognized even at a distance as not being Boers, and so avoid being fired at."

"Yes, that is a very necessary precaution. I will have officers commanding cavalry and artillery detachments warned, that a section of Maritzburg volunteers are dressed as farmers, but may be known in the distance by having caps similar to the ordinary infantry field-service caps.

"Well, sir, I shall be glad if you will to-morrow ride to the south, following the river, and endeavour to find out whether the Boers have any considerable force in that direction, either on this side of the river or the other, I may tell you that five of the Natal police were captured on the evening of the 13th at De Jagers Drift. The Boers have been in possession of Newcastle for the past three days, and they are certainly crossing the passes from the Free State. You must be very careful, for they have scouting parties across the river almost as far as the Tugela. However, we hardly expect any serious struggle for another week or ten days; for all the accounts are to the effect that the Boers are still very deficient in transport, and that for the past week those at Laing's Nek, and the other passes, have been very much straitened for provisions. It would be as well for you, while you are at Dundee, to come over once a day to report your doings, and to receive orders as to the point where we most need information. Have you gone into lodgings in the town?"

"No, sir. We have waterproof sheets that form tentes d'abri, and we prefer being with our horses, which were only bought a few days ago; so, as we shall not have much opportunity of sleeping otherwise than in the open for some time, we thought it as well to begin at once, especially as the weather looks threatening, and the horses, being unaccustomed to be picketed, might pull up the pegs and get loose were there a heavy rain."

"You seem to be well fitted for the work, and to set about it in the right spirit."

"We have all been accustomed to hunting expeditions, sir, when we have often been out for some days, so that we understand how to shift for ourselves, though we are new to campaigning."

"What rifles have you? that does not look like a Lee-Metford." "No, general, it is a Mauser. We captured twelve of them, at a Boer's farmhouse three or four miles this side of Newcastle six days ago. He fired at us, and though his bullet only went through my hat, we thought ourselves justified in searching his house."

"Certainly you were. We heard that there had been a skirmish on the road, and learned the particulars from one of those who took part in it, and who stayed here for two or three days before going down the country. He said that four or five young gentlemen, who were coming down with a party of women and children from Volksrust, had gone to a farmhouse to try and get food, milk, and bread for the females. The Boer farmer insulted them, and shot at one of them when but two or three yards away; he had been tremendously thrashed by the young fellow, and they returned laden with a good supply of milk and bread, and twelve rifles and a lot of ammunition that they had found at the farm. And with these they and some of the men had beaten off an attack of a score of Boers without any loss to themselves."

"Yes, general, that was our party; we had sent forward for some waggons, and got into Dundee two hours after the skirmish; and as there was a train just going we went on at once, and reached Maritzburg the next morning, where we were joined by some of our party who had come down the day before. As we had made all our plans before leaving Johannesburg, we were able to start this morning, which was the third after our arrival there."

"You were prompt indeed," the general said with a smile, "and must have needed money as well as brains."

"We had all obtained leave of our families, general, and were well provided with funds to carry us through the campaign if it lasts for a year. We wanted to be in time for the first fight."

"I think yours was the first fight, except that a few shots were exchanged between our scouts and the Boers on the morning after the ultimatum expired. Now, sir, if you should at any time be in want of necessaries I shall be glad to supply you; but I cannot furnish you with ammunition, as the Mausers carry a smaller bullet than our rifles."

"Thank you, general, but we have enough to last us for a considerable time, having brought up six thousand rounds."

"A good provision indeed," the general laughed; "enough to last you through half a dozen pitched battles. I shall be in the town at six o'clock to-morrow morning, and shall be pleased to inspect your little corps before you start."

"I thank you, general; we shall all be very proud to be inspected by you."

Then saluting he returned to his horse and rode back to Dundee. He was pleased to see that the eleven little tents had been erected strictly in line, that the horses were all standing quietly at the picket-rope, and that two of the troop were placed as sentries. A large fire was blazing in front of the tents, the two natives were squatting by it, the kettles were swung over it, and a joint of meat was roasting there. Two or three of the lads were standing talking together; the rest had gone into the town. Cairns came up to him as he dismounted.

"Have you heard the news, Chris?"

"No, I have not heard any particular news."

"I was at the station a quarter of an hour ago, and a telegram had just been received that the Boers were, when it was sent off, entering Elandslaagte station, and were in the act of capturing the passenger train that was standing there. The message stopped abruptly, as no doubt the Boers entered the room where the clerk was at work at the needles."

"By Jove we are in luck!" Chris said. "Of course that was the train that had to leave three hours after us. If we had stopped for that, the horses, rifles, and kit would all have gone, and we should now be prisoners. It is serious news, though, for it is evident that not only are they marching against us in front, and on both flanks, but have cut our communications with Ladysmith. There can be no doubt that, as everyone said there, it was a mistake to send General Symons forward here, as it was almost certain that with four regiments, three batteries of artillery, a regiment of cavalry, and a few hundred of the Natal police and volunteers, he could never maintain himself here. Why, we heard at Ladysmith that a column had gone out the day before towards Besters station, as the news had come in that they were even then in the neighbourhood. It was a false alarm, but it was enough to show that the Boers were likely to be coming down and cutting the railway in our rear. General Symons told me that he did not expect any general advance of the enemy just yet, because he heard that their transport was incomplete, and that they were very short of provisions. But I don't think the want of transport would prevent their advancing. We know well enough that the Boers think nothing of going out for three or four days without any prospect of getting any more provisions than they carry about them, unless they have the luck to bring down an antelope. And as Utrecht and Vryheid and Newcastle are all within a few miles of us, and the Free Staters have already come down through some of the passes of the Drakensberg, they must be within an easy ride of us; and if they are in force enough to drive us out of this place, they must know they would find themselves in clover, for we heard at Ladysmith that there were provisions and stores for two months collected here."