With Buller in Natal by G. A. Henty
Chapter IV. Dundee
After picketing his horse, Chris went into the town. He found the streets full of excited people, for the news that the railway had been cut was serious indeed, and the scene reminded Chris of that which he had witnessed in the streets of Johannesburg but eight days before. Only eight days! and yet it seemed to him as if weeks had passed since then. So much had been done, so great had been the changes. As at Johannesburg, a considerable portion of the population had left, seeing that, although the troops might for a time defend the town, the Boers were certain to cut the line of railway. Work at the coal-mines had been pushed on feverishly of late, for strangely enough there was no store of coals either in Dundee itself or at any of the stations down to Durban, and the authorities had only woke up a few days before to the fact that coal would be required in large quantities for the transports on the arrival of the troops. But now all this was to come to a stop. The hands would be thrown out of employment, and the town would become stagnant until it was captured by the Boers, or until an army arrived of sufficient strength to clear Natal of its invaders. That evening many who possessed vehicles started by road for Ladysmith, feeling that in another twenty-four hours it might be too late.
At seven o'clock, as had been arranged when they arrived, all the members of the band met at the bivouac for supper. There was a general feeling of excitement among them. They had known that hostilities must soon begin, but to find that the line had already been cut, and that the enemy were closing in in all directions, came almost as a surprise. This, however, in no way prevented them from enjoying their meal. After it was over they held, at Chris's suggestion, a sort of council. He had already told them what the general had said to him, and that they were to be inspected in the morning. As their saddlery was all new, there was nothing to be done in the way of burnishing buckles and rubbing up leather. As Chris remarked, all that would be necessary was an hour's work in the morning grooming their horses.
"Now," he said, "that the work is going to begin, we must draw up a few rules, for, volunteers though we are, we must have some regulations. In the first place, I find that the troops all parade in order of battle before daybreak, so as to be able to repel a sudden attack or move in any direction that may be required. If it is necessary for them, it is still more necessary for us, and I think that it should be a standing rule that we are all ready to mount at daybreak. Sentries must be posted at night, however safe we may feel. I think there should be two, relieved every two hours. There will he no hardship in that, as each would only go on duty every other night. In the next place, I think there should be what they call an officer of the day, who would generally be in charge of the arrangements, see that the Kaffirs attended to their horses properly, and so on. You see, we shall not be always acting together, but might sometimes be broken into four troops, in which case one in each five should command. I think the same lot should always keep together. What do you think? Would it be better that in each group of five one should be in charge each day, or that each group should choose one to act as non-commissioned officer?"
There was no reply.
"What do you think yourself, Chris?" Sankey asked after a pause.
"You are as well able to judge as I am," he replied. "I think that it would perhaps be the best way to write down the twenty names and put them in a hat, and draw them one by one. The first five should be number one squad. I don't know whether that is the right word, but anyhow it will do for them. The next five number two, and so on. Then each five can vote whether they would prefer alternate commands, or to choose one of their number as permanent non-commissioned officer. If they prefer this, they must then ballot as to which among them shall be leader. If you can think of any way that you would like better, by all means say so."
All agreed that the plan that he proposed should be adopted. Four groups were first chosen. Before they proceeded to the next step, Peters said:
"Of course I am quite game to carry it out as you suggest, Chris, but don't you think it would be a good plan to let the final decision stand for a week or two, each taking the leadership of his group in rotation? At the end of that time we should be better able to make a choice than we can be now."
"I think that is a very good idea, Peters. What do you all say? Will you each take your turn alphabetically for the present, and at the end of fifteen days, when each of you have led three times, you can decide whether each squad shall choose a permanent leader or go on as you have begun."
All at once agreed to the proposal. They felt, good friends as they were, that it would be very difficult to decide now.
"Very well, then, it shall be so," Chris said. "To-morrow we shall certainly do some scouting, but in a day or two you may be shut up here; and until we get away there will be no scouting to be done. We must have some signals. Suppose we are scattered over two or three miles, we may want to assemble, and must be able to signal. I thought of it before we started from home, and put down in my pocket-book the sort of thing that I fancied would be wanted. I will read it out to you."
He stirred the fire into a blaze and then read:
"One shot followed by another and a third, with ten seconds between them, will mean 'Enemy seen on the right'; with twenty seconds between, 'Enemy seen on the left'; then, after a pause, two shots in quick succession will mean 'Enemy in strength'; three shots will be 'Small party only'; one shot, followed at an interval of ten seconds by two in succession, will mean 'Retire to the point agreed on before we separated'; followed by three shots in quick succession, will be 'Close in to the centre'. We can think of others afterwards, but I think that will do to begin with. I know that you have all pocketbooks, so take down these signals at once."
"We ought to know where you will be," Field said, "so that we could rally round you ready for the next order."
"That might be so; therefore we had better fix on three shots in quick succession, followed in ten seconds by a fourth. The sound will be sufficient to let you know pretty well where I am, and you will on hearing it, join me at once. Are there any other suggestions?"
There was silence and then the books were closed.
"I cannot too strongly impress upon you all," Chris said, after they had chatted for some time, "the necessity for being extremely cautious. We know how slim the Boers are, and how accustomed they are to stalk game; and we shall have to be as watchful as deer, more so, in fact, since we have not their power of smell. When we break up into four parties, each party must scatter, keeping three or four hundred yards apart. On arriving at any swell or the crest of a hill, a halt must be made, and every foot of the country searched by your field glasses, no matter how long it takes. You must assure yourself that there are no moving objects in sight. When you get near such a point you must dismount, and, leaving your horse, crawl forward until you reach a point from where you have a good view, and on no account stand up. While you are making your observations any Boers who might be lying in sight would be certain to notice a figure against the skyline, and we know that many of them are provided with glasses as good as our own. We must be as careful as if we were out after game instead of men. You all know these things as well as I do, but I want to impress them upon you. You see, they have captured five of the Natal police, who are a very sharp set of fellows. However, a few days' scouting will show us far better what is required than any amount of thinking beforehand. There is one thing that I want to say to you. You elected me for your leader, but it is quite probable that when we have worked together for a bit some of you may prove much better qualified for the post than I am. What I want to say now is, if this is the case, I shall feel in no way aggrieved, and shall serve just as cheerfully under his orders as I hope you will under mine so long as I command you."
There was a general chorus of "No fear of that, Chris. We all know you well enough to be sure that we have made a good choice. We knew it before we left Johannesburg, but your pluck in walking up to that Boer with his loaded rifle clenched the matter."
"Well, we shall see," Chris said. "I shall do my best, but, as I said, the moment you want a change I shall be ready to resign; and now I think that we may as well turn in. It is nine o'clock, and we must be up at daybreak. Squads number one and two will each furnish a man for the first watch, taking the first on the list alphabetically. At eleven they will be relieved by two from squads three and four; then one and two furnish the next pair, and so on. Four watches will take us on till daybreak. The two of each squad who will be on duty to-night turn in to the same tent together, then the others will not be disturbed."
The blankets were spread in the little shelter tents, and all except the two men on duty were soon asleep. Chris had a tent to himself, there being an odd number, and an extra waterproof sheet had been carried for this purpose. Before leaving Maritzburg twenty-two poles, a little longer than cricket stumps, had been made under Chris's direction. They were shod with iron, so that they could be driven into hard ground. At the top was a sort of crutch, with a notch cut in it deep enough to hold another of the same size. Twenty-two other sticks of the same length were to form the ridgepoles. Half these were provided with a long brass socket, into which its fellow fitted. The whole, when they were accompanied by the spare horses, would be packed with their stores and spare blankets. At other times each rider would carry two of the poles strapped to his valise behind him.
Chris was the first to stir in the morning. There was but the slightest gleam of daylight in the sky, but he at once blew a whistle that he had bought that evening in the town, and heads appeared almost immediately at the entrances of the other tents, and in half a minute all were out, some alert and ready for business, others yawning and stretching themselves, according to their dispositions.
"First of all, let's put on the nose-bags, and let the horses have a meal," Chris said; "then set to work to groom them. Remember, there must not be a speck of yesterday's dust left anywhere."
All were soon hard at work. The Kaffirs stirred up the embers of the fire, which they had replenished two or three times during the night, hung the kettles again over it, and cut up slices of ham ready to fry. By half-past five Chris, after inspecting all the horses closely, declared that nothing more could be done to them. Then they were saddled, the valises, with a day's provisions and a spare blanket, being strapped on. Then all had a wash, and made themselves, as far as possible, tidy. By this time breakfast was ready, and they had just finished their meal when a party of horsemen were seen in the distance. Rifles were slung over their shoulders, and bandoliers and belts full of cartridges strapped on, and they donned their forage-caps after coiling up the picket-ropes and halters and fastening them with their valises to the saddles. Then they mounted and formed up in line just as the general, with two of his staff, rode up. After saying a few words to Chris, the general examined the horses and their riders closely.
"Very good and serviceable," he said, "and a really splendid set of horses. Of course, gentlemen, you would look better if you were in uniform, but for your purpose the clothes you have on are far more useful. Let me see you in your hats; I can then better judge how you would pass as Boers."
The lads all slipped their forage-caps in their pockets, and put on their felt hats, which were of different shapes and colours. As they had agreed beforehand they at once dropped the upright position in which they had been sitting, and assumed the careless, slouching attitude of the Boers.
"Very good indeed," the general said with a laugh. "As far as appearances go, you would pass anywhere. The only criticism I can make is that your boots look too new, but that is a fault that will soon be mended. A few days' knocking about, especially as I fancy we are going to have bad weather, will take the shine out of them, and, once off, take good care not to put it on again. A Boer with clean boots would be an anomaly indeed. Now, I will detain you no longer."
The only manoeuvre the boys had to learn was the simple one of forming fours. This they had practised on foot, and performed the manoeuvre with fair accuracy. Then Chris gave the word, and, after saluting the general, led the way off at a trot.
"They are a fine set of young fellows," the general said to the two officers with him. "They are all sons of rich men, and have equipped themselves entirely at their own expense. They are admirably mounted, and provided they are not caught in an ambush, are not likely to see the inside of a Boer prison. It says a good deal for their zeal that they are ready to disguise themselves as Boer farmers instead of going in for smart uniforms. However, they are right; for, speaking Dutch, as I hear they all do, they should be able singly to mingle with the Boers and gather valuable information."
As soon as they were fairly south of the town, Chris said:
"Now our work begins. Number one squad will make its way towards the river, and follow its course, keeping always at a distance from it, so that while they themselves would escape notice, they can ascertain whether any bodies of the enemy are this side of it, or within sight beyond the other bank. Number four will take the right flank, and keep a sharp look-out in that direction. Squads two and three will, under my command, scout between the flanking parties, and examine the farmhouses and the country generally. The whole will, as I said last night, maintain a distance of about three hundred yards apart, and each man will as far as possible keep those next to him on either hand in sight."
The two flanking companies starting off, those under Chris separating as they rode off until they were as far apart as he had ordered, and then moved forward. When on level ground they went fast, but broke into a walk whenever they came to the foot of rising ground, and when near the top halted, dismounted, and crawled forward. Each man carried a Union Jack about the size of a handkerchief, elastic rings being sewn to two of the corners. When necessary these flags could be slipped over the rifles, and a signal could be passed from one to another along the whole line--to halt by waving the flag, to advance by holding the rifles steadily erect. Other signals were to be invented in the future. Chris took his place in the centre of the line, in readiness to ride to either flank from which a signal might be given.
For five or six miles no signs of the enemy could be perceived. Most of the fields were entirely deserted, but round a few of the scattered farmhouses animals could be seen grazing, and these Chris set down as belonging to Dutch farmers who had no fear of interference by the Boers, and were prepared to join them as soon as they advanced. Many of these, indeed, during the past fortnight had trekked north, and were already in the ranks of the enemy. Presently Chris, who was constantly using his glasses, saw the flutter of a flag on a hill away to the left, and a minute later the signal to halt passed along the line. It had been agreed that signalling by shot should not be attempted unless the enemy seen were so far distant that they would not be likely to hear.
"What do you see, Brown?" Chris said as he reached the lad who had first signalled.
"There are a good many men and animals round a farmhouse about two miles away. The house lies under the shoulder of a hill to the left, I suppose that that is why the others did not see it."
Dismounting, Chris crawled forward with the other until he could obtain a view across the country. As Brown had said, the farmhouse stood at the foot of the line of hills they were crossing, and was fully a mile nearer to those on the right flank than to the point from which he was looking at it, but hidden from their view. Bringing his glass to bear upon it, he could distinctly make out that some forty or fifty men were moving about, and that a large quantity of cattle were collected near the house.
"It is certainly a raiding party," he said to his companion. "They are too strong for us to attack openly, at least if they are all Boers. It would not do to lose half our number in our first fight. Still, we may be able to frighten them off, and save the farmer, who is certainly a loyalist, and cattle. You gallop along the line as far as it extends and order all to come over to the right. I shall go on at once and get a view of the ground close by. By the time they have all assembled we can see what had best be done."
Going back to their horses they started in opposite directions. In a few minutes Chris reached a point which he believed to be nearly behind the farmhouse, picking up some of the scouts by the way.
"I expect I shall be back in about a quarter of a hour," he said as he dismounted. "You, Peters and Field, may as well come with me, I may want to send back orders."
They walked forward fast until so far down the hill that they could obtain a view of the farmhouse. The moment they did so they lay down, and made their way across some broken ground until they were within a quarter of a mile of it; then seated among some rocks they had a look through their glasses, and could see everything that was passing as clearly as if they had been standing in the farmyard. It was evident the Boers had only arrived there a short time before Brown noticed them. Parties of two or three were still driving in cattle, others were going in and out of the house, some returning with such articles as they fancied and putting them down by their horses in readiness to carry them off. Two men and some women and children were standing together in a group; these were beyond doubt the owners of the farmhouse.
"How many Boers do you make out? I have counted thirty-eight." Peters had made out forty, and Field forty-three, the difference being accounted for by those going in and out of the house and sheds.
"Well, we will say forty-five, and then we shan't be far wrong. We certainly can't attack that number openly, but we may drive them off empty-handed if we take them by surprise." He examined the ground for another minute or two, and then said: "I think we might make our way down among these rocks to within three hundred yards of the house. I will send six more down to you. With the others I will go down farther to the left, and work along in that little donga running into the flat a hundred yards to the east of the house. You keep a sharp look-out in that direction, and you will be able to see us, while we shall be hidden from the Boers. We shall halt about three hundred yards beyond the house. As soon as we are ready I will wave a flag, then you and your party will open fire. Be sure you hide yourselves well, so that they may not know how many of you there are; they are certain, at the first alarm, to run to their horses and ride off. Directly they do so we will open fire on them, and finding themselves taken in the flank they are likely to bolt without hesitation. Don't throw away a shot if you can help it, but empty your magazines as fast as you can be sure of your aim. Between us we ought to account for a good many of them."
"I understand, Chris; we will wait here till the others join us, and then, as you say, we will work down as far as we can find cover."
Chris at once returned to the main party, who had by this time all assembled. "We can bring our horses down a good bit farther without being seen," he said. "There is a dip farther on with some rough brushwood. We had better fasten them there; they have learned to stand pretty fairly, but they might not do so if they heard heavy firing."
Leading their own horses and those of Field and Peters they walked down to the spot Chris had chosen, and there threw the reins over the horses' heads as usual, unfastened the head ropes, and tied them to the bushes. Chris had already explained the situation to the troop, and had told off six of them to go down to join Peters. He now advanced cautiously with these till he could point out to them exactly the spot where the two scouts were lying. Then he returned to the others, and they walked along fast until they came upon the break in the hill, which lower down developed into a depression, and was during the rains a water-course. Down this they made their way. On reaching the bottom they found it was some twelve feet below the level of the surrounding ground.
A couple of hundred yards further they could tell by the sound of shouting, the bellowing of cattle, and other noises, that they were abreast of the farmhouse, and going another three hundred yards they halted. Chris went up the bank until he could obtain a view, and saw that he was just at the spot he had fixed on. Making signs to the others, they took their places as he had directed, some ten yards apart. Then he raised his rifle after slipping the little flag upon it. A moment later came the crack of a rifle, followed by other shots in quick succession. Chris, with his eyes just above the level of the ground, could see all that was passing round the farmhouse. With shouts of alarm the Boers at once rushed towards their horses, several dropping before they reached them. As they rode out from the yard the magazine rifles kept up a constant rattle, sounding as if a strong company of troops were at work. Chris waited until they were nearly abreast of his party, and then fired.
His companions followed his example, and in a moment a fire as rapid and effective as that still kept up from the hill was maintained. This completed the stampede of the enemy. They were soon half a mile away, but even at that distance the Mauser bullets continued to whistle over and among them, and they continued their flight until lost in the distance. Chris's whistle gave the signal for ceasing fire, and the two parties sprang to their feet, gave three hearty cheers, and then ran towards the farmhouse. In the yard lay five Boers and seven or eight horses; the riders had jumped up behind companions, for as they passed, Chris had seen that several of the animals were carrying double. The little group, so lately prisoners, advanced as they came up, almost bewildered at the sudden transformation that had taken place, their surprise being increased on seeing that they had apparently been rescued by another party of Boers, and still more when on their reaching them they found that these were all mere lads.
"We are a party of Maritzburg Scouts," Chris said, with a smile at their astonished faces; "though, as you see, we are got up as Boers so as to be able to get close to them without exciting suspicion. We were fortunate in just arriving in time."
"We thank you indeed, sir," the settler said, "for you have saved us the loss of all our property, and, for aught I know, from being carried off as prisoners. We were intending to trek down to Ladysmith today, and had just driven in our herds when the Boers arrived. If they had been content with stealing them, they would have been away before you arrived; but they stopped to plunder everything they could carry off, and, as I should say, from noises that we heard in the house, to smash up all the furniture they could not carry off. We are indeed grateful to you."
"We are very glad to have had the chance of giving the plunderers a lesson," Chris said. "It will make them a little cautious in future. But I think that you are wise to go at once, for there are certainly parties between this and Elandslaagte, where they have cut the line; so I should advise you to travel west for a bit before you strike down to Ladysmith. We have not heard of any of them being beyond the line of railway yet. Now we have work to do. Number one and two squads will at once go up and fetch down the horses, number three and four will examine the Boers who have fallen here and out on the plain and will bring in any who may be only wounded."
He went out with this party; they found that eight more had fallen. Three of these lay at a short distance from the farmhouse, and had evidently fallen under the fire of the party on the hill; the others had been hit by those in the ambuscade. Altogether ten horses had been killed. Five of the Boers were still alive.
"Have you a spare cart?" Chris asked the farmer.
"Yes, I can spare one. Fortunately I have a small one besides two large waggons. May I ask what you want it for?"
"I want it to carry these wounded men to within reach of their friends. Which is the nearest drift?"
"Vant's Drift, and it is there, no doubt, that the party crossed. It is a little more than two miles away."
"Then we will place the wounded in the cart, and you might send one of your Kaffirs with it to the drift and stick up a pole with a sheet on it; they are sure to have halted on the other side, and will guess that there are wounded in it. As soon as the Kaffir comes within two or three hundred yards of the river he can take the horses out and return. I dare say he will be back again before you are off."
The cart was driven along the line that the Boers had taken, the wounded being carefully lifted and placed in it as it reached them. Two more were found dead and three wounded some distance beyond the spot where the searchers had turned, having fallen nearly a mile from the farm; the lads who accompanied the cart then returned. Long before they reached the house the horses had been brought down. The settler and his Kaffirs were hard at work loading the stores into two ox-waggons. The lads all lent their assistance, and in less than an hour the settlers started for Ladysmith, the women and children in the wagon, and the men on horseback driving their herds with the aid of the Kaffirs. After a hearty adieu, Chris and his party rode on together for some little distance before again scattering widely to recommence their work of scouting. Hitherto they had been too busy for conversation, but now they were able to give words to the satisfaction they all felt at their success.
"It has been splendid!" Sankey said enthusiastically. "We have defeated a force twice as strong as ourselves, have killed or badly wounded eighteen of them, and you may be sure that of those that got away several must have been hit. Not one of us has a scratch."
"Splendid!" another exclaimed. "It could not have been better managed. I think we ought to give three cheers for Chris." Three rousing cheers were given. "After this, Chris," Carmichael said, "I don't think you need talk any more about resigning the command. General Symons himself could not have done better."
"I think, at any rate, we have begun to wipe off old scores," Chris said. "We have paid for a few of the insults the ladies had to submit to as we came along, and I am heartily glad that we were in time to do it. We have baulked them of the haul they expected to make, and saved something like a thousand head of cattle for the colony, to say nothing of preventing these people from being absolutely ruined. It is only a pity that we had not our horses with us. If we had, not many of the Boers would have recrossed the river. But we could not have taken them with us without being detected before we got into position, and in that case we might have had a hard fight, and matters would probably have turned out altogether differently."
There was a general expression of assent, for all felt that in an equal fight the Boers, being twice their own numbers, would have been more than a match for them. It was evening when they returned to Dundee, having come across no more Boers during the day's work. Directly they arrived at the little camp where they had left the tents standing in charge of their two Kaffirs, Chris wrote a short report of their doings, stating briefly that they had come upon a party of forty-five Boers in the act of driving off the cattle and sacking the house of Mr. Fraser, a loyal settler. Having dismounted and divided into two parties, they had attacked the Boers and driven them off, with the loss of ten killed and eight seriously wounded left on the field. Many of their horses had been killed. The wounded Boers had been sent in a cart to Vant's Drift, and the farmer and his herds had been escorted as far as the line of railway, which they had crossed and were making for Ladysmith. There had been no casualties among his party.
Field rode over with this report and delivered it at headquarters, remaining to ask whether there were any orders for the next day. When he returned he brought a line from the general. It contained only the words, "I congratulate you most heartily. The affair must have been managed excellently, and does you all the greatest credit. Continue scouting on the same line to-morrow."
The lads were all highly delighted when Chris read this aloud, and then sat down to a well-earned meal, which was the more enjoyed as it had been voted that Field, as one of the finance committee, should go into the town and buy half a dozen of champagne in honour of their first victory. In the course of the evening one of the general's staff rode into camp on his way to town, having been requested by him to obtain full particulars of the fight at Eraser's farm. He took his seat by the fire with them, and Chris gave him a full account of their proceedings.
"Upon my word, Mr. King," he said, "you managed the matter admirably; no cavalry leader could have done it better."
"There is no particular credit about the management," Chris said; "we acted just as we should have done had we been stalking a herd of deer instead of a party of Boers. One always manages, if possible, to put a party on the line by which they are likely to take flight, before crawling up within shot. If we could have taken our horses down with us before we opened fire we should have done so, and being so well mounted, I think few of them would have got away; but we could not manage it without risking being seen, and in that case the Boers, on making out what our strength was, would certainly have shown fight; and even if we had beaten them, which I don't suppose we should have done, we should have suffered heavily."
"You were quite right not to risk it," the officer said; "we know by old experience that the Boers are formidable antagonists when behind shelter, and, accustomed as they are to shooting on horseback, I dare say they will do well when not opposed by regular cavalry, who, I am convinced, would ride through and through them. I am quite sure that in the open they will not be able to make any stand whatever against infantry, which is the more important, as in so hilly a country as Natal our cavalry would seldom be able to act with advantage."
In the course of conversation he told them that there was no news of any large body of the Boers being near. Joubert's force had not moved out of Newcastle, and nothing had been heard of the Free Staters or of the Utrecht force under Lucas Meyer. "We have sentries on all the lower hills round here and Glencoe, and there is no fear of our being surprised. The sooner they come the better, for we are all longing to get at them; and I can tell you we felt quite jealous when we heard of your spirited affair to-day. I can assure you that we shall have a greater respect for the volunteers than we had before, and if all do as well as you have done to-day they will be a most valuable addition to our force."
After their visitor had left, they sat chatting round a fire till ten o'clock, and then turned in.