Chapter VIII. A Desperate Project
 

Scarcely had the band taken cover in the gorge than the Boers appeared some five hundred yards away.

"Open fire at once!" Chris shouted, "the farther they have to come under fire the less they will like it."

The rifles at once spoke out. The lads had all used the boulders behind which they crouched as rests for their rifles, and confident of their shooting and their position, their aim was deadly. Five or six of the leading Boers fell and several horses, the rest came to an abrupt pause, galloped back some little distance and then dismounted, and leaving their horses in shelter, disappeared from sight. In a short time a dropping fire was opened from both sides of the valley.

"Don't fire unless you see a man," Chris ordered, "there are gaps on the hillside that they can't pass without giving you a chance. Fire in rotation, it is no use wasting a dozen bullets on one man; if the first misses, let the next shoot instantly, and so on. When they learn that it is death to leave shelter, they will soon get sick of it. Keep yourselves well under cover."

The rifle duel continued for an hour. As Chris had said would be the case, after seven or eight had fallen, as they were trying to make rushes across pieces of ground where boulders afforded no cover, the rest became very cautious, and at last only an occasional shot was heard.

"We will fall back now," Chris said, "for aught we know a party of them may be working round somewhere to take us in rear. We know that they have not got their horses with them, for we can see the spot where they hid them. Still, we do not want to be caught between two fires. Let four on each flank crawl back; keep well among the rocks, and don't let them catch sight of you. We will fire occasionally to let them know that we are still here. When you have got the horses up and everything is ready, whistle, and we will come back to you. It will be a long time before they venture to crawl up and discover that we have gone, an hour most likely, and by that time the cattle will be a dozen miles on their way to Estcourt, and the Boers are not likely to follow them."

Ten minutes later all were in their saddles. They had left the horses at a spot where there was a sharp elbow in the gorge, and their retreat could not be seen from the valley below. They cantered along in high glee; not one had received a scratch, while some twelve of the first party of Boers had fallen, and fully fifteen of the second, and it was certain that at least as many more must have been wounded.

"I expect they really gave up all idea of carrying our position long ago," Chris said, "and have only been keeping up their fire to prevent our turning the tables upon them. They must have seen that we are better mounted than they are, and have been afraid that we should in turn take the offensive. I should not be surprised if they stay where they are all day, and don't venture to mount and ride off till it gets dark" "You are something like a leader," Peters said enthusiastically. "We knew that you were a good fellow, and would make the best leader among us, but no one could think that our choice would turn out so well as it has done. This is the second fight we have had with the Boers, and we have thrashed them well each time, although the first time they were twice as strong, and in the second something like four times, and we have not lost one of our number. I am sure if we had been caught where we were without you with us, at least half of us would have been killed, and we should have been lucky to get away with only that."

Riding without pressing their horses, it was two hours before they overtook the party with the cattle. These had now broken into a walk.

"We kept them at it till half an hour ago," Willesden said apologetically, when they came up, "but the Kaffirs said that unless we gave them a rest half of them would drop, so we let them go easy till you came up."

"Quite right," Chris said. "We have given the Boers such a thrashing that there is no fear of their continuing the pursuit. Unless we meet some more of these thieves, we can go on as quietly as we like. I have some sort of respect for men like those we met at Dundee and Elandslaagte, who fight manfully and stoutly, but for these raiding scoundrels who only come out to rob and plunder, and do wanton damage to quiet people, one feels only disgust, and shoots them without the least compunction."

There was a general chorus of agreement.

"Did they get near you, Chris?"

"Not within about four hundred yards. They got it so hot at first that they dismounted and took to the rocks; they pushed on for a bit, and if the whole hillside had been covered with boulders we might have had some sharp fighting, but there were some open spaces to be crossed, and after getting over two or three of them they found it safer to lie as close as rabbits. For aught we know they are there still."

They travelled quietly till sunset, and then halted in an open valley where there was water and good grass. Half the company kept watch by turns, being posted with their horses some half a mile out in the country, taking the animals with them not only because they could fall back more quickly, but because they knew the horses would hear any approaching sound long before their masters were able to do so, and would evince their uneasiness unmistakably. There was, however, no alarm, and two days later, travelling by easy stages, they arrived at Estcourt, where their arrival with so large a number of cattle created quite a sensation. They at once put up a notice at the post-office, that all persons who had been raided by the Boers could come and inspect the herd and take all animals bearing their brand. It soon appeared that the cattle were the property of four farmers living within a short distance of each other. They had arrived in Estcourt with their families two days previously, weary and broken down with fatigue, hunger, and the loss and ruin of their property. Their gratitude was deep indeed at this wholly unexpected recovery of a large portion of their herds, and they started the next morning, mounted on some ponies they had picked up for a trifle, to drive them down the country.

Chris saw the officer in command as soon as they arrived in the town, and gave him an outline of their adventure, upon which he was warmly congratulated. "Shall I send in a written report to you, sir?" Chris asked.

"No, you are not under my orders; and I should say that you had better write and post it to the officer commanding the force at Maritzburg. I do not know who it may be."

"Is the road closed to Ladysmith?" Chris asked.

"Yes, two days since. General French, who is ordered to Port Elizabeth to take command of the cavalry brigade that is forming to drive back the Boers who have crossed the Orange River, came down in the last train that got out. It was hotly fired upon by the Boers, but luckily they had not taken up the rails, and the train got through safely. We have had no news since, for even the wire to Colenso has been cut, and for anything we know the place may be in possession of the Boers. We have a little fort here, and have been throwing up entrenchments, but if they come in any force there is not much hope of our getting off. We have an armored train, which yesterday ran to within a mile or so of Colenso without being interfered with, though several parties of the enemy could be seen in the distance. I have great hopes that we shall get half a battalion up from Maritzburg to-morrow; if so, by loopholing the houses and throwing up some breastworks, we ought to be able to keep the Boers out of the place, unless they come in force. At any rate, I should advise you to scout next time beyond the Mooi River and to make Maritzburg your head-quarters. So far as we know the Boers have not yet gone beyond that river, and any news of their doing so would certainly be of value. You have done marvellously well in getting away from that party you met, but you might not be so lucky next time, for as they push on they are sure in a short time to be strong all over the country between the Tugela and the Mooi."

This, after some consultation, was agreed to by the troop. There was no reason for haste, and they rode by easy stages down to Maritzburg, stopping at Weston and Hawick. Many of their friends had gone down to Durban, but some still remained, and from these they received a hearty welcome. All found letters awaiting them, for it had been arranged that as it would be impossible to give any address, these should be sent to Maritzburg. Their friends were scarcely ready to credit their stories, but, on being shown General Yule's letter, saw that at least the accounts of their early doings were strictly correct.

Troops were coming up fast from Durban, and there was already a strong brigade there. Chris called upon the brigadier and presented General Yule's letter, and his own report of the fight with the Boers subsequently.

"This shows what can be done by young fellows who are good shots and good riders, and who, I may say, Mr. King, have been admirably commanded. What are your wishes now? There are two or three troops of volunteer horse here; would you wish to be attached to one of them? Of course, if you do so there will be no difficulty about it; but really, I think that you would be more useful in carrying on your work in your own way."

It had been known for a long time past that a large proportion of the cannon, rifles, and ammunition of the Boers had been landed at the Portuguese port of Lorenzo Marques, and taken up by rail from there to Komati-poort--a station on the frontier, where there was a bridge across the Komati river--and thence by rail to Pretoria. Chris heard that it was generally known that the Portuguese officials, who had long been influenced by Boer money extracted from the Uitlanders, were still winking at the practice, although it was a breach of neutrality. So much indignation was expressed on the subject at Maritzburg that Chris, one day when the party assembled at the spot where their horses were tethered, said:

"I want to have a serious talk with you all. You have all heard that immense quantities of arms and dynamite are passing through Lorenzo Marques. Now, at present we don't see much for us to do here. My idea is, that if we could manage to blow up the bridge across the river that divides Portuguese territory from the Transvaal, we should do an infinitely greater service than by killing any number of plundering Boers."

His troop looked at each other in surprise.

"You are not really in earnest, Chris?" Peters said; "it would be a tremendous business."

"It would be a big business, no doubt, but I was never more earnest in my life than in proposing it. Now that we know how strong the Boers are round Ladysmith, and what terribly hard work it will be for an army to fight its way through all those hills, we can see that the first calculations as to the time when it can be relieved are a good deal short of the mark. There must be at least twenty thousand men collected here to do it, and I think it is more likely to be the end of January than the end of December before the Boers are driven off. We have in the one case seven weeks and in the other twelve before the place is relieved, and we begin to turn the tables on the Boers; and according to the way we carry my idea out it depends whether we are back here by the end of the year or by the end of January--that is, I acknowledge, if we get back at all.

"I have been thinking it over. There are two ways of doing it. We can go on board a ship touching at Durban and going on to Lorenzo Marques. I don't say that we could not all do it, but it would be better to choose only four; a larger number would excite more observation. Those who go will of course take dynamite with them. We can buy that at Durban. At Lorenzo Marques we should assume the character of four young Irish fellows. We know there are lots of them already up there, and Germans too, fighting in the Boer ranks and I am glad to know that they got peppered at Elandslaagte, although that is not to the point. We should go as four Irish lads who have come across from America to fight for the Boers. We have heard plenty of Irish in the mines and at Johannesburg, so shall be able to put enough brogue in our talk to pass. I know from what I have heard that a trip to the Portuguese officials would be quite sufficient for them to pass anything without examination; but even if they did open our cases and find dynamite in them, we could account for it by saying that we had been told before starting that it would be the handiest thing to take with us, and would be of more assistance to the Boers than anything we could bring them.

"No doubt some of the passengers would know that we got on board at Durban, but if any questions were asked we could account for that by saying that the ship we came over in, was going on to Australia, and therefore we had been obliged to land and take another on to Lorenzo Marques. Once landed, we should of course take a train for Komati-poort, and slip off it after dark at some station a few miles from there. Then, you know, we could first reconnoitre the bridge, and when we had settled on the best place for the dynamite, we could put it there the next night. I know a good deal about the use of dynamite. It is not like gunpowder, that you have to put in a hole and fasten up tightly, you only have to lay it upon an iron girder or arch, and light your fuse and leave it to do its work."

The boys listened with increasing surprise to his proposal.

"And what is your other plan?" Peters asked after a long pause.

"The other plan is that we should all take a passage in some small craft, which we could hire, to St. Lucia Bay, and then go up through Zululand and Swaziland, which extends to within a short distance of Komati-poort. Both tribes are friendly enough with us, and hate the Boers like poison. Of course in that case we shall take the dynamite with us, and then must be guided by circumstances as to our course and what we should do when we got to the bridge."

There was again a long silence, then Brown said: "If anyone but you had proposed it, Chris, I should have scoffed at it as impossible, but for myself I have come to have such confidence in you that I believe you would manage it. There can be no doubt that it would be a grand thing if we could do it. I have heard my father say that the river is a terribly bad one, and that sometimes it is altogether impassable for weeks at a time. Except by the bridge, even in the best times, I should think, from what he said, it would be quite impossible for them to take heavy things like cannon across. Anyhow, I am ready to go with you."

"Thank you, Brown," Chris said. "I should certainly not ask anyone to go. Those who are willing to do so must volunteer. Of course we only combined for the purpose of acting as scouts, and no one ever contemplated doing more. So far, we have, as all allow, carried out that object well; and I have no doubt that those who do not care to join in what is a sort of forlorn hope, will continue to do well after we have started on it, and of course I shall, if I get back, rejoin them. My scheme would, no doubt, be considered a very wild one, but I can see no reason why, with good luck, it should not succeed. Indeed, I believe that it will succeed, if, when we arrive there, we do not find that the Boers are guarding the bridge. Of course, if they do so there is but little hope of carrying the matter out. They will know the importance of the bridge to them, and how greatly its destruction would be desired by the British Government, and may think it possible that such an attempt as I propose would be made, and take precautions to prevent its success.

"I do not mean to throw away my life. If, when I get there, I find that it is next to impossible to carry the matter out, I shall give it up; but even then the information I should get about matters up there, both as to the Boers and the Swazis, would be of use. We know that Boer agents have been doing their utmost to get the Basutos to join them, and it is likely that they may be trying to induce the Zulus and Swazis to do the same; and even if we fail in the principal object, I should say that the time would not be wasted. When I am up there, I can, of course, get news as to how the war is going on, and if I find that our forces are pushing up into the Transvaal, I shall make straight across the country and join them. I have been thinking over the matter a good deal since we came here, and made up my mind that anyhow I shall try to carry it out, so I now resign the leadership, and also for the present my membership. Now, I don't want to influence you in any way. It has all come suddenly upon you. You had better talk it over together. All I ask you is that you will not say a word about it to anyone, not even to your relations.

"Not only because, as I know would be the case, they would be afraid of having anything to do with what they would consider an absolutely mad scheme, but because a chance word might prove fatal to success. As everyone knows, there are a great number of Dutch in the colony, who, although they may not be openly hostile, are in favour of the Boers, and will no doubt keep them acquainted with every movement of troops here, and can have no difficulty in communicating with them by native runners. Were one of our friends even to mention it casually that we had gone north, suspicions might be aroused. Therefore I beg that no one will breathe a word about the matter, but that you will decide for yourselves without consulting anyone. I shall leave you now, and we will meet here at the same time to-morrow. You will have had time to think it over then. I wish to say before I go that I don't consider that the success of my plan depends upon my having the whole twenty of you with me. I repeat, that four would be quite sufficient.

"There are advantages as well as disadvantages in having only that number. We should travel without exciting so much notice; we should have less difficulty about food; we could conceal ourselves more easily in case we were pursued. On the other hand, with a stronger party we could repulse an attack if chased by the Boers. So you see I really do not want more than three of you to join. I think four is the best number, and should be glad if only two besides Brown wished to go with me; but at the same time if more desire it, of course, as we are all comrades, they would have a right to go."

So saying he turned away, leaving the others to talk the matter over. They went through their usual drill that afternoon without any allusion being made to the subject. When they met the next day Chris said cheerfully, "Well, what have you decided? First, Brown, do you stick to what you said yesterday, or do you think better of it?"

"Certainly I stick to it," Brown said. "When I say a thing I mean it."

"And how about the others?"

"I have made up my mind to go with you, Chris," Peters said, "and so has Willesden. Field and Capper and Sankey would all go with you if you wanted to take more than four, and all would go if you wanted the troop; but if you would rather only have three of us, it is settled that Brown, Willesden and I go."

"Very well," Chris said, "that just suits me. I am glad that you would all go if you were wanted; but really I think that four would be the best number, so we will consider that as settled. And now there is one other thing I want to ask you about. You see, we have no right to take any money out of the common fund, but we shall have some heavy expenses. In the first place we shall want, I should say, a couple of hundred pounds of dynamite; then we shall have to take some natives with us, a couple of Zulus and two or three Swazis. There will be no difficulty in getting them, as so many have been thrown out of employment owing to the farmers losing their herds. We may find it useful to make presents to chiefs as we go along, and, of course, we shall have to take a certain amount of provisions for the party. Have you any objection to our each taking half our share out of the bank? Nothing has been drawn at present, and with a couple of hundred pounds between us we shall have enough and to spare for however long we may be away."

There was a chorus of agreement.

"We are all awfully sorry that you are going, Chris," Field said. "It won't be the same without you at all. We have agreed to ask you to nominate a leader during your absence."

"I would much rather not do that," Chris said. "Everyone has done equally well, and it is a question that you should settle among yourselves."

"We are all against that," Field said positively. "We have talked it over and agree that we shall never be able to fix on one. Suppose our votes were divided between four and five I don't think we should feel more comfortable afterwards. We would rather put all the names in a hat and draw one out, just leaving it to chance."

"I almost think that it would be better," Chris said, "to do as you propose. Agree first that, as we have done up till now, all important matters shall be discussed and decided by vote, then draw all the names from a hat and let each be leader for a week in the order in which they come out, with the proviso that if as time goes on you find that you can have more confidence in one than another, you can by a majority of three to one elect him as permanent leader."

"That would be a very good plan," Carmichael said, "but, you see, the difficulty is that, supposing we were going to attack the Boers or the Boers attack us, the plan the leader fixed on might not seem to us at all the best. In the two fights we have had there was not that difficulty, for everyone felt that the plan you adopted was the best, and indeed much better than any of us would have been likely to think of. I don't say that that would occur, but it might. It is not everyone who could fix upon the best thing to be done all at once as you did."

Chris thought for a minute. "I would suggest," he said, "that in such a case as you mention the leader should tell the next two on the list what he proposed. If one of the two agreed with him it would be a majority, and there would be nothing more to be said on the matter. If both disagreed with him there must be a general vote. I should hope such a thing would never occur, because the loss of five minutes would sometimes be disastrous, though in some cases it might not make any difference. Still, that is the best plan I can think of. There is no occasion for you to decide that straight off. At any rate, if you should find that any arrangement you make does not act perfectly well, I should advise you to join Captain Brookfield's troop and act with him."

The general opinion was strongly in favour of Chris's suggestion. It was agreed that at any rate the first leader should be chosen by chance. Carmichael's name came first out of the hat.

"I shall not have much responsibility," he said, "as we have settled to remain here until the advance begins. Now, Chris, about the spare horses."

"I should like to take one of them. We may have to gallop for it, and it is of no use our being well mounted if we are hampered with a pony that cannot keep up with us. We have only to lighten its load by getting rid of most of its burden, and then we should be free to go our own pace.

"I should like to take one of our Kaffirs. They have both turned out very well, and have a good idea of cooking, and are accustomed to our ways. I don't care which I have, but I should certainly like to have one of them. He would stick to the spare horse, while the other natives would be all right if they scattered and shifted for themselves."

"Would you not like two spare horses, Chris?"

"No, thank you, one would be enough. He would carry our stores, and I should get two native ponies to take the dynamite along. We shall not be travelling at any extraordinary rate of speed, and if they broke down we could always replace them. Certainly there would be no danger if we go through Zululand, and, I should think, not until we get north of the Swazis' country; for though I know there are Boers settled among them, a good many would of course have joined their army, and it would be easy to avoid the others. The danger will only lie in the last part of the journey."

"Then you have settled to go by land?"

"Yes, I have decided to go all the way on horseback. We might find difficulties with the Portuguese at Lorenzo Marques, and if we manage to blow up the bridge, should have no horses, and should have a very bad time indeed in getting back. If I can get dynamite here I shall go all the way by land, and it would be safer. No doubt the Boers have spies at Durban, and we might have difficulty in hiring a craft to take us to St. Lucia, and our starting with horses and five or six natives would be safe to attract the attention of someone looking out for news to send to the Boers. I think the best plan will be to keep a little to the east of the road to Greytown, where no doubt there are some Dutch, and strike the road that runs from there to Eshowe. A little west of Krantzkop there must be either a drift or a bridge or a ferry where it crosses the Tugela. I shall of course avoid Eshowe, and then keep along inside the Zulu frontier as far as the Maputa, which is its northern boundary, then we shall cross the Lebombo range into Swaziland. I don't know how far it would be by the way we should have to go, but as the crow flies it is about three hundred miles from here. I suppose, what with the detours and passes and so on, it will be four hundred. Ordinarily that distance could be done in twenty days, but we must allow a good bit longer than that; fifteen miles a day is the utmost we can calculate upon. However, in about a month after we start we ought to be there or thereabouts. Coming back we should do it more quickly, as we should have got rid of our weight and need not be bothered with pack ponies."

"You talk as coolly about it," Field laughed, "as if you were going out for a few days' picnic."

"It is the same sort of thing," Chris said, "except that it will be longer, a bit rougher, and a good deal more interesting."

"When will you start?"

"As soon as possible; all I have to see about are the dynamite and stores for the journey. We know pretty well by this time what we shall want. We are sure to be able to buy mealies and a bullock when we want one from the natives. Some tea and coffee, a dozen tins of preserved milk, and half a hundredweight of biscuits, in case of finding ourselves at a lonely camp with no native kraals near, and we shall be all right. Of course we will take a gallon or two of paraffin, a frying-pan, a small kettle, and so on, and a lantern that will burn paraffin. We will fill up our pouches with a hundred rounds of rifle cartridges and fifty for our revolvers, and then I think we shall be ready. Now mind, the success of our enterprise depends entirely upon your all keeping the secret absolutely. Neither Willesden, Brown, nor Peters have friends here to bother themselves about their absence. We are not likely to be missed, but if any questions are asked, you can say casually that we are off on a scouting expedition. I shall write four or five letters, with dates a week or ten days apart, and direct them from here, and leave them for you to post one by one to my mother. Be sure you send them in the right order. As she will suppose that we are stopping here quietly, and out of all harm, she won't be uneasy about me. Peters' and Willesden's friends have gone to England, so they are all right, and Brown's are at the Cape. You had better write two or three letters too, Brown, to be posted a fortnight or three weeks apart."

When these matters were arranged, Chris saw Jack, and the Kaffir agreed without hesitation to go with him. He had been so well treated since he joined them that he had become quite attached to Chris, who generally gave him his orders. He was only told they were going up on an expedition to Zululand and Swaziland.

"I want you to find two good Zulu and two Swazis. Do you think that you could do that?"

"There are plenty of them here, baas. I look about and get good men. What shall I tell them that they will have to do?"

"To act as guides, to tell the chiefs who we are, and on the march to look after two or three ponies. We shall only take one of the spare horses, you will look after him."

"Will they have guns, baas? All men like to have guns."

"Yes, they may as well carry guns, and you too, Jack."

"Much better for men to have guns, baas. They would be thought nothing of without them." "All right Jack, there shall be no difficulty about that; the stores are full of them."

This was the case. Men entering the volunteer corps, or who intended to do any fighting, sold the rifles they had previously used and obtained those of Government pattern and carrying the regulation cartridge, so that for ten pounds Chris got hold of five really good weapons, carefully selecting those that carried the same-sized cartridge.

"You can take whichever you like," he said to Jack, who had gone with him to buy them; "and I shall tell the men I engage that if at the end of the journey I am well satisfied with their behaviour, I shall give them the guns in addition to their pay."

A few hours afterwards Jack brought up four natives for his inspection. They were all strong and well-built men, and looked capable of hard work. Having been thrown out of their employment by the events of the past fortnight, they were glad of a fresh job, and were highly satisfied when they were offered wages considerably higher than those they had before received. All preparations were completed by the following evening, and the next morning at daybreak, after bidding their comrades a hearty farewell, the little party started.