The reason for all this hurry-scurry became plain when we learnt that De Wet, tired of playing at hide-and-seek with the enemy on the other side of the Vaal, had crossed over and passed by Potchefstroom the night before. It was into the pursuing force that we had ridden.
Reaching the laager, we found the majority of our comrades there. Of the fate of those who had delayed to leave the town we were ignorant. The laager inspanned and followed De Wet, who had just passed here, and after a few hours' rapid trekking caught up to him. A halt was called for breakfast, but before the water boiled for coffee the enemy came in sight behind us. The cattle were rapidly driven together, oxen yoked and horses saddled, and in about three minutes' time we were on the move once more. De Wet's force and our own combined comprised nearly three thousand men, with six hundred waggons and carts, forming a train that made a splendid target for the British gunners.
There was not much difficulty in keeping the enemy back, but still they hung on persistently, worrying us day after day, until our horses, and even the tougher mules, began to drop in the road, and our men to grow weary of the saddle.
The oxen bore up best of all; we now made the discovery that they could trot just as well as mules, and with less effort. But even they felt the strain.
As far as we went the road we left behind us was littered with abandoned animals. It was pitiful to see these dumb creatures try to drag themselves after us, as if they too feared the pursuing foe. But still the weary march went on, night and day, until a numbed indifference settled over us.
Shells fell to the right and left unnoticed; was the apathy, not of despair, for our faith would never let us feel that, but of sheer and utter exhaustion.
Haggard men, sunk in slumber, beat a mechanical tattoo on their horses' ribs as the gaunt animals dazedly staggered forward. And now came the stunning news that Prinsloo, Prinsloo with 4,000 men, had surrendered! Only one hope sustained us—the Magaliesberg. There we would find shelter and rest.
But Clements was lying in wait for us there, waiting for us to walk blindly into the trap he had set. Well was it for our straggling train that Delarey came dashing down on Clements in the night, slaying and capturing right and left, till the British general was glad to take refuge in entrenched Pretoria! Else we were surely taken and the war ended. When at last we struggled over Olifant's Nek, it was to find the pass held by friends, not foes, many signs of the enemy's occupation, from plundered farm-houses to hundreds of biscuit tins, strewing the ground.
Our waggons were drawn up in a line behind the mountain, and we manned the passes, confident in our ability to hold them. But we were too wearied, and the enemy too persistent. On the third day they forced the weaker of the passes, and we were forced to fly once more. Had the British continued their stern chase our capture were almost certain; strange to say, with success within their grasp, they held their hand, halted, and followed us no further. In the retreat the Free State and the Transvaal commandoes took different directions, myself remaining with the latter. We marched all night, past frowning kopjes, and camped in a thick mimosa forest at dawn.
Here the commando decided to remain for a while. I obtained a pass from Liebenberg and set off alone to make my way through the dense bush to Middelburg.
The first day I discovered De Wet's "meagre commando," about a thousand men, who had been ordered to conceal themselves here and feed up their animals, whilst De Wet himself, with the other half of his force, scoured the country to within ten miles of Johannesburg.
In the evening I arrived at a mission station, where the only whites were the missionary's young daughter and her youthful brother. Their father had left for a visit shortly before the war broke out, and had not been able to return. They themselves had done the mission work, unaided, through all these anxious months. And remember that at this time the bushveld Kafirs were waging war amongst themselves!
The next day I encountered a couple of waggons laden with ammunition for Delarey. The escort told me they had left Middelburg eighteen days before. Making circuits to avoid the enemy and taking wrong roads had delayed them.
Then—it is wonderful how news travels amongst the Kafirs—I heard that Steyn was also somewhere in the bush, on the way to join the Transvaal Government. Fortunately for me, I rode right into his party that evening, just as they were starting off again. I had only off-saddled once since sunrise, but the chance was too good to be missed, and I joined them. The party consisted of barely fifty men—not an extravagant escort, but sufficient, under the circumstances.
We travelled till midnight, halted for an hour, and then forward again till sunrise, when we crossed the Pienaar's River. Here we found a fair-sized commando under a general whose name I forget, as that was the only time I ever heard it. He was expecting an attack, the waggons were already retreating. We halted long enough to prepare breakfast, during which time the President shot a few bush doves. Hardly had we finished the meal when the rat-tat, rat-tat of small-arms showed that the British were approaching. Then a Maxim rattled forth amongst the rocks, and warned us that the action had begun in earnest.
The commando kept the enemy back just long enough to give us a decent start, and then retired. We afterwards learnt that this British force—under Barnum-Powell, of Tarascon—had been sent out from Pretoria expressly to intercept us. It was a close thing—had the enemy been a little smarter they might have had us. As it was, we doubled away under cover of the bush, and were soon out of reach.
Now followed a week of rapid trekking, varied with a little shooting now and then at the partridges and bright-plumaged birds that abound in the bushveld, and once relieved by the sight of a magnificent bush fire, a sea of roaring flame. I must not forget our banjoist, who of nights beguiled our careworn chief with cheery marches, quicksteps, and comic songs. Finally we emerge upon the hoogeveld of Middelburg, to find the town in the enemy's hands. We make for Roossenekal. Again the British are before us. We turn away towards Machadodorp. As we near the village Schalk Burger comes out to meet us. He and Steyn speak earnestly together. Burger is more silent, more taciturn than ever. We push on, and reach Machadodorp, where a train is in waiting. The station is crowded with Transvaalers, all eager to shake their gallant Free State brethren by the hand. The President and party enter the carriage, the engine whistles, and the train speeds down to Waterval Onder, where Paul Kruger and his advisers are impatiently awaiting its arrival.