Luckhoff, in normal circumstances, has little to distinguish it from the many rural villages scattered over the South African veldt. If anything, it is more squalid than the general run of fourth-rate hamlets. But when the New Cavalry Brigade went into billet there, it was more or less a deserted and plundered village. The inhabitants may have totalled a hundred souls, the large majority of whom were women and children; and we should not have found these in possession if our Intelligence guide had been able to give earlier notice of our coming. As is the case with all these hamlets, the inhabitants who had escaped the clutches of the "clearing-up" columns were in the possession of caches in the neighbourhood, where they hid away as soon as the dust-clouds on the horizon forewarned them of the near approach of a British column. Many columns had already "been through" Luckhoff, from Clements in the early days, to Settle moving in stately magnificence with thousands of cattle and hundreds of women in the preceding spring. Each marauder in turn had left something of a mark, but none had left so bare a skeleton or had stamped so plainly the impress of horrid war as a column of somebody's bushmen. The brigadier had planted his little red pennant in front of the villa of the absconded Predikant. It was the only house in the place which had any pretension to decorative finish. But when the staff took possession it was a sorry pigsty. In its halcyon days a part of the house had evidently been in the possession of a young mother, for two of the apartments were knee-deep in a disordered heap of female apparel, intermingled with the tiny garments which mothers store away—small socks and bonnets tied with pink and blue. The ruthless hand of man had ransacked each drawer and crevice, and all that calls forth the sacred care of women lay tossed and tumbled in the dirt of floor and passage. To those who had time to think, a sad, heart-rending sight, pitiful evidence of the degrading influence of war. During the first year of the struggle there was not a man in the British army who would have pushed a woman aside to ransack the sacred corners of her chamber. But war's brutal influence in time blunted the finer instincts. How could it be otherwise? The longer a struggle is protracted the fiercer and more bestial it will become, until at last familiarity with the final arbitration of the beast deadens the better influences of human reasoning. As one saw upon every hand the ruin of these homes—many of which showed evidence of refinement bred of wealth and education—one felt the pity of it all, and cursed the leaders who in their spirit of tin-pot patriotism had pushed a struggle, already hopeless, to its most barbarous issue.
Looting was not allowed. That is true, but how was it to be prevented?—where can you draw the line between legitimate requisition in war and brutal plunder? Can you punish the men who in the morning followed you without flinching in the face of death, because in the evening you find them searching in a deserted house for a 'kerchief, waist-band, or baby's sock to send as a memento to the mother or sweetheart waiting patiently at home? Is there not some extenuation for the man whose "pal" has been ambushed and butchered, when he gleefully places a match to the murderer's byre or dwelling? Place yourselves in the position of the fighting man before you consider actions which are inseparable from partisan warfare, and bear in mind that if the leaders of the enemy had capitulated when it was first evident that they were a beaten people, there would not have been a tithe of the brutality and suffering which marked the final phases of the struggle. The story of the Predikant was strange. Himself a firebrand of the most dangerous nature, he had preached an anti-British jehad with all the force of his ecclesiastical rhetoric. Yet his three sons were of other clay. One, a staunch trooper of Thorneycroft's, had died a soldier's death on Spion Kop's shell-swept summit; another, an athlete of no mean order, had served in Lord Robert's bodyguard; while the third was still fighting against the people of his kind as an officer in some other British corps. The two daughters, both married to veldt kornets, were already widows it may be, for the irony of fate is infinite, by their brothers' rifles.
We found one Britisher in Luckhoff, and he was a Scotsman. His story was plausible; but though it had satisfied other column commanders, it did not find the same credence with our brigadier. According to the man's statement he was neutral. Had been neutral since the outbreak of war. He was an engineer in the Koffyfontein mines, and since these had closed down he had come to Luckhoff and made a living by market-gardening. Two circumstances conspired against the continued freedom of this so-called Scotsman. The first was the fact that he quoted our Intelligence guide as a reference for his good conduct; the second, that we had found a steam flour-mill at work in the vicinity, and circumstantial evidence pointed to our market-gardener as the mechanicien in charge. This being given as the real reason for his presence in the hamlet, there was no need for his sojourn to be continued, as we had closed down the safety-valve until the boiler burst, and wrecked the mechanism of the engine. Flour-mills, even when worked by market-gardeners of doubtful neutrality, can be of service to a starving enemy.
The brigadier determined to halt a little in Luckhoff to procure if possible more definite information. About midday this information came, from both ordinary and extraordinary channels. As the headquarters sat at lunch a mounted messenger arrived from Orange River,—a small spare Hottentot or Griqua, who weighed about five stone, and who had been put upon a horse and told to cover fifteen miles an hour until he found us. The message he brought was in point of fact a confirmation of the information which we had gleaned already from our prisoners of the preceding evening. "De Wet, and with him the President," ran the message, "crossed the Orange River at Botha's Drift at three o'clock to-day (yesterday). By mistake gap in circle let him through. Crossed without transport and with smallest following. Presumedly will go north. Plumer cannot leave Springfontein until early day after to-morrow (to-morrow). Must leave you to act exactly as you think right. Co-operate if possible with Plumer!"
Brigadier. "Presumedly will go north! Well, that is the most ingenuous expression of opinion that I have ever heard. A man crosses from the south bank of a river to the north, and by an extreme effort our friends of the Intelligence are able to conjecture that he will go north. He certainly has the northern field open to him. It is worthy of the information slips issued by our friend the D.A.A.G. for Intelligence at Bloemfontein for the guidance of the columns in his districts: 'Everything in this shop window sixpence halfpenny; take your choice every time.' As usual, we shall have to work out our own salvation. Mr Intelligence, the map!"
The map was duly spread upon the Reverend Predikant's mahogany board, and with the aid of a slip of paper the distances measured off. The brigadier sat back in his chair, drawing meditatively at the bent stem of his Boer pipe. When the measuring was over he remained silent a moment and then gave his opinion of the situation.
Brigadier. "They evidently have no one operating down from Bloemfontein, otherwise they would not quote Plumer. It is just as evident that De Wet slipped across the river at some spot where it is not precisely convenient for any of our Colony brigands to pursue him. That is, we are their only hope and the only mobile people within reach. De Wet crossed the Orange River yesterday afternoon, therefore, according to our information, he should have slept at Philippolis last night. As a rule De Wet never sleeps in the same place on two consecutive nights. But his arrival at Philippolis was in rather peculiar circumstances. He didn't arrive a successful swashbuckler cocking his hat with all his plans made, but a washed-out fugitive with all his plans to make. Therefore the chances are that he won't have got very far on his way from Philippolis to-night. Probably he won't make a start until to-morrow morning. He knows that his right is clear. He knew last night or early this morning that we had arrived at Luckhoff. He will have information by this that we have halted this morning, and that the Riet River is in flood. Therefore it is plain that he, taking us as an average British commando, can leave Philippolis at daybreak to-morrow, cross the Riet, and destroy the Kalabas bridge behind him without inconvenience from us. At least that is the map reading of this picnic. It is a short fifty miles from Philippolis to Fauresmith; we are thirty miles from Fauresmith. A British commando halted to-day would not reach Fauresmith until evening to-morrow; a Boer paarde kommando will have done its fifty miles by the time one of our 'crawlers' outspans for breakfast. Now, old man Baker, get out orders. For public guidance, we march at four o'clock for Koffyfontein and Kimberley, going d——d slow; for private information, as soon as it is dark we will change direction and be in possession of Fauresmith as soon after daybreak as possible. Whoever is in possession of Fauresmith will be in possession of the bridge over Riet River. Mr Intelligence, it will be your business to make it sufficiently well known in this metropolis that our destination is Koffyfontein for Kimberley. Don't make them suspicious by being too emphatic about it."
Brigade-Major. "Very good, sir; but we shall have to cover at least forty miles!"
B. "True for you; what's the odds?"
B.-M. "Only the ox-transport. It can't reach Fauresmith by daybreak, night-marching. There ain't anything of a moon—in fact it's going to be devilish dark with all these clouds about."
B. "True again: but we will dodge all that. As soon as we have changed direction to our true line, we will leave the transport to come along as best it may: it can follow us to Fauresmith."
B.-M. "What escort shall I give it?"
B. "How many dismounted men are there? It can have just as many cripples as we possess. I am not going to worry about transport. If I am wrong in my calculations and De Wet attempts to cross behind me, I want that transport to deceive him. He would never dream of it being unprotected. He cannot be in any strength; besides, I shall want every mounted man I have got for my scheme. The transport, ox and mule, must take its chance. But see that it doesn't straggle. The mule can keep up with us as long as possible, but it must keep together. Likewise the ox-transport, taking its own time, must keep closed up. I assure you the only object of these people on this journey will be to get away. Two blocks of moving waggons will mystify them, not attract them. Right away,—not a word about the change of direction until after dark—not even to C.O.'s. Tell 'em any story you like."
The Intelligence officer had barely got outside when a tall and even good-looking native attracted his attention by raising his battered hat and murmuring "kos." The man, a magnificent specimen of the Basuto savage, was quivering with emotion, and he pointed to a great grey-white weal which showed across his neck and open breast.
Intelligence Officer. "Sjambok?"
Basuto. "Yah, Boss!"
I. O. "How did you come by this?"
The native, who was of more than average intelligence, then told the following astounding story. He was one of the five native scouts employed by the new Intelligence guide. The morning that the New Cavalry Brigade had left Orange River Station, he had been sent forward by our friend with a letter to Commandant Botmann, and, finding that he was not at Luckhoff, the Basuto had warned the acting landrost there of the approach of the British, and had then ridden on to Philippolis, and was there when De Wet and Steyn arrived; and in the truly expressive language of the native he told of their dejection and the dispiriting nature of the speech which the ex-President had made to the assembled burghers. He also furnished the valuable information that De Wet had issued instructions that all stray burghers and Brand's, Wessel's, Akermann's, and Kolbe's commandos should concentrate with him at Petrusberg, whither he was proceeding on the following day with his personal bodyguard under Theron. As the brigadier had anticipated, De Wet was halting a day to allow his stragglers to concentrate. In all he would have about 300 men and forty Cape carts. But at Petrusberg they would concentrate to about 1200 or 1500. The Basuto had ridden through from Philippolis that night, and had arrived back at Luckhoff only half an hour ago. The blow which was responsible for this disclosure of his master's perfidy and the Boer plans was by reason of a favourite horse. In order to ensure the safe delivery of his message, and not dreaming that it would go all the way to Philippolis, the Intelligence guide had mounted the Basuto on his best horse. This best horse had caught the eye of a Winburg burgher in Philippolis, and he had relieved the Basuto of it, leaving him to make his way back upon some scarecrow. Hinc illæ lacrymæ.
The Intelligence officer smoothed over the Basuto's ill-will with fair-mouthed promises, and led him to understand that if he went back to his master and suffered in silence for a short period longer he would be handsomely rewarded. But, said the dignified savage, "he bad man—always bad man, telling d——d Dutchmens always. Boss give me gun, no more telling Dutchmens!" The Intelligence officer pacified the man by promises of an execution in the near future, and then went to the brigadier with the information and an earnest conspiracy against the guide's life. However, the evidence was not conclusive enough for the brigadier. "What proof have you that it is not all a plant on the part of your friend, Mr Intelligence? Besides, I would never hang a white man on the evidence of a black. I am bad at the 'black-cap' game, but I'll tell you what I will do. I don't want any more of this guide; tell him that we are going to Kimberley, and that he can go back to Orange River at once; write a letter to the De Aar Intelligence coves, and tell them we are bound for Kimberley, seal it heavily with sealing-wax, and then, if your 'pal' is the bandit you represent him to be, he will read it and send it to De Wet to-night. If he is not a knave he will deliver it some time to-morrow night, when we shall be out of the ken of the De Aar folk, and the lie won't matter." And so it was arranged....
It has been pointed out earlier in this narrative how often De Wet has owed his freedom, and incidentally his life, to the leaning of the law of chances in his favour. Times without number a sequence of extraordinary circumstances has conspired to defeat the best-laid plans which have been made to enmesh him. It is not intended to deny that the man was possessed of a peculiar genius which constantly of itself freed him from the dangers to which he was exposed. But beyond this there were instances, not so rare as the world would believe, when his genius failed him, and it was upon these occasions that Providence stepped in and furnished a balance against which it was impossible for human endeavour to prevail. It will never be maintained that in the present case the brigadier had divined an infallible scheme. But, as will be seen, the operation of circumstances so dovetailed with the brigadier's appreciation of the situation, that though no certain opportunity was foreseen of seizing the arch guerilla in his bed, yet there was every promise that he would be forced to play a hand with the cards against him,—a circumstance which no Boer—not even De Wet—liked or understood. One such a chance had presented itself before, when a senior influence intervened and kept the New Cavalry Brigade from falling upon Strydenburg. In the present case the intervention was to be made by the elements, and even then the energy and wit of the capable soldier who was in command brought the brigade within an ace of a success which would have made all concerned famous in the history of this war.
At four o'clock the advance-guard opened out on the plain north of Luckhoff, and drew the fire of the observation post on the hills through which the trail to Koffyfontein passes. There would have been no necessity to caution the advance-guard to slowness; and the main body just sauntered on, while commanding officers were asking themselves whether the brigadier was mad or inebriate to plunge into a night march of this character when his object was only to get to Kimberley. The good ladies of Luckhoff watched the last of the transport disappear over the nek into the darkness of gathering night, and then sent their eight-year-old sons or Kaffirs to recall such of their men-folk as lay hid in the neighbouring caches, while the observation post sent a galloper to the next point, that the news might be patented that the column had taken the Kimberley road. By sundown the head of the column had made about six miles, and a halt was called to allow the baggage to close up. As soon as it was sufficiently dark the change in direction was made, and the head of the column left the road and plunged into the trackless veldt, it being estimated that a compass bearing due east would bring it by daybreak within easy reach of the parallelogram of hills in which Fauresmith and Jagersfontein lie. But the favour of Providence was withdrawn: the night, which had been born in suffocating heat, suddenly changed to piercing cold, and great zigzags of white lightning, clutching at the heavens like the claws of some gigantic dragon, heralded a tempest of unwonted fury. And presently it came preceded by a blinding sandstorm, which told how much the burnt surface of the prairie yearned for moisture. That night it drank its fill, for when the flood-gates burst asunder a very deluge was loosed upon the earth. The great storm voided its burden in such rivers of water that in a moment, in spite of waterproof and oil-skin, every man in the force was as drenched as if he had plunged into a stream. Nor was it a passing downfall of temporary duration. It deluged in unbroken stream for the best part of an hour. Automatically the whole force came to a standstill: checked, bedraggled, and miserable, it stood it out. To advance was impossible; each depression in the veldt was a sheet of water, in places inches deep. The whole crust of the earth had become a sticky sodden morass, and in this mire the column lay bogged and helpless. Guns and waggons sank axle-deep, their drunken alignment proving that for the time being they were immobile. Horses, mules, and oxen struggled and floundered for a foothold, sinking with terror-stricken sobs and distressful moans until their bellies were level with the slush. A hideous scene!
There was nothing that man could do: until such time as the natural drainage of the plain and the parched substratum absorbed the superfluous moisture, the brigade was as helpless as a steamer with a broken screw-shaft. Mercifully for the staff, the catastrophe had overtaken the brigade within a mile of a fair-sized farm; and eventually, after much labour in the mire, the brigadier and his immediate following were able to claim its hospitality. Luckily it was occupied. A smiling good-natured frau, on the stout side of thirty, with a bevy of girls ranging from two to twelve, was endeavouring to cope with an inundation of sodden troopers from the advance-guard. It was a nice farm, and to our astonishment Madam Embonpoint proved to be an English Africander. Her husband was in St Helena, and since the outbreak of war she had worked her husband's property single-handed. Madam was anything but hostile; but she prayed that we would not break into her slender store of provisions, since she had ten mouths to feed, and the pinch of war was near at hand. Otherwise we were welcome to such hospitality as her roof would afford us, and she was prepared to cook and prepare for us any food we might have with us. It chanced that the officer of the advance-guard was a captain of the Mount Nelson Light Horse. He was one of the few in that corps who had impressed himself favourably upon the brigadier, consequently the chief did not burst into abusive satire when he discovered this officer in the act of boiling a turkey in the farm kitchen. Now, in spite of the wet and disappointment, the brigadier had lost none of his usual gaiety of nature. It is often the case with the best soldiers, the more adverse the circumstances the lighter their spirits.
Brigadier (commencing to divest himself of his wet clothes in front of the fire and pointing to the turkey), "Honestly come by?"
Captain (closing the lid of the pot with a snap), "Yes, sir; the last of our tinned food, sir!"
B. "Seen the tin for the first time to-day, I should think. But what are you going to do with it? You have got to clear your robbers out of this. This is my booth for the night!"
C. "I realised that, sir, and I said to my subaltern that as it was a cold night we would just open our last tin and offer it to the general as a sign of affection, arguing that if he accepted it in the spirit in which it was given, he would ask us both to dinner."
B. (now in his shirt), "Hearty fellows both. No man born of woman would like a boiled turkey for dinner more than I should, in spite of the fact that it was only killed an hour ago by a captain who should have known better. You are both asked to dinner. Madam, had you not better withdraw?" (This to the lady of the house who had just entered.)
The scene was indeed a strange one. A rough Boer kitchen lit by a dingy dip. The light of the yellow flame impeded by "truck" suspended from the rafters—a side of mutton, some biltong, strings of onions and beetroots. In the corner a more or less modern fire-range, in front of which stood a group of officers, comprising the brigadier, his staff, and the two officers of the advance-guard, all in various stages of déshabille, some trying to get warm, some to dry their wringing clothes, and others to stoke the fire and boil a pot. Add to these the plump hostess and her tribe of all-aged daughters, whom no exposure of masculine limbs and under-dress seemed to terrify. This did not look like catching De Wet—but then much may take place between midnight and daybreak.
A chapter could be filled with the miseries which the troops suffered that night, and this being the case, it would be ungracious to dilate upon the sumptuous nature of the feast within the farmhouse. Let it suffice that during its discussion the brigadier cast over the situation and was ready, with the coffee which Madam Embonpoint contributed to the entertainment, with his plan to amend the chaos which the elements had made of his original undertaking.
Brigadier (stirring his cup thoughtfully until the hostess was out of the room). "Mr Intelligence, what do you make the distance between this and the pass this side of Fauresmith?"
Intelligence Officer. "Three- to five-and-twenty miles, sir."
B. "Have you any one who knows the way?"
I. O. "Yes, sir, there is a man in the Light Horse who has done some transport riding in the Southern Free State, who says he knows something about it."
B. "Better and better (turning to the captain of the advance-guard). Now, I am going to put you in the way of a very big thing. You are senior captain in your corps, are you not?"
Captain. "Yes, sir, senior captain, adjutant, and second in command; we have got no majors!"
B. "That is all right then. Well, I want you to start on at once with two squadrons, and to push on to Fauresmith. I fancy that you will find it has dried up a bit now, and as these storms are usually local, it is quite possible that you may strike better going as you get along. When you get into the hilly country about Fauresmith, go cunning, try and get as close as you can without being seen, and find a position from which you can hold the road leading from Fauresmith to the Riet River. Come over here and look at the map. Now, if you get off by midnight, you ought to make two miles an hour until daybreak. That is twelve miles; the remaining ten you will do inside two hours. If you are sniped, push on; but if opposed in force, do your best, only let me know. Now, these are my plans (pointing on the map). You see the parallelogram? well, you go slap-bang into it. I shall come along as fast as I can with the ground in this condition. I shall, if you come into touch with the enemy in force, send two squadrons and two guns direct to the bridge over the Riet north of the parallelogram, and two squadrons and two guns south of the parallelogram, while I come on with the rest in your direction. Now, your business is, first, not to let yourself be seen; secondly, so to arrange yourself that if De Wet and his crowd get to Fauresmith before we are up, to manœuvre and keep him there until we arrive. It is a difficult job, I allow; but I know that you are the man to make the best of it. Get your men to understand that now they have the opportunity of making a reputation. The brigade-major will give you all this in writing. You may pick your squadrons. Now, get along, and don't waste time!"
While the two squadrons of Mount Nelson Light Horse were picking their way out of camp that night, and while the rest of the brigade was turning into its miserable bivouac, the staff "bedded down" in the drawing-room of the farmhouse. With so large a family of girls, good Madam Embonpoint could only arrange one spare bedroom, and that was reserved for the brigadier; but the rest dragged their sopping valises into the parlour and trusted to get five hours' sleep before a daylight start....
To add to the chagrin of the brigade, and to further demonstrate the singular Providence which ever seemed to attend De Wet in his movements, even unto the eleventh hour, it was found that the force had bivouacked on the very fringe of the storm. As is so often the case with these South African storms, the rigour of the downfall was local, and while the brigade had been so badly caught that it was practically impossible for the teams to move the guns without the aid of drag-ropes, half a mile away the surface of the veldt was unaffected and the going good. This discovery caused the day to dawn with brighter prospects, and as soon as the sodden column, free of its transport, felt the sounder bottom, it shook itself as would a retriever after a swim, and settled down to a swinging drying-trot. The brigadier had theories on the methods to be employed in the kind of war-game with which he was confronted; and he determined, if possible, to be in front of the Boer pickets and observation-posts, realising that two circumstances were in his favour. The concentration ordered for Philippolis should have reduced the strength of the Boer watchmen, and the rain of the preceding night, while rendering sentinels less inclined for the bitter vigil of early morning, had laid the tell-tale dust, which, as a rule, is the greatest impediment to secret movement. He threw out a troop to go very wide on either flank, in order to serve the double purpose of capturing any shirking Boer pickets which might chance to be alarmed at the later arrival of the transport column, and of guarding against De Wet's commando slipping past across the back trail. As the daylight strengthened, and showed that the going improved, everything pointed to a successful ride on the part of the two squadrons which had been pushed forward in the night. By seven o'clock the men had begun to dry, and as the object of the hunt leaked out, a general improvement was apparent in the spirits of the force.
The first information which came in to headquarters, as the whole force moved rapidly forward, came from the Basuto scout, whom the Intelligence officer had relieved of his obligations to the Intelligence guide as soon as the latter had been dismissed. His information was serious: he reported that a party of twenty-five Boers had crossed our trail just about eight o'clock, and, travelling fast, had gone in a north-easterly direction. The brigadier cross-examined the man closely, and seemed satisfied as to the truth of his story.
Brigadier (turning to his staff) "We shall be fairly in it, if we have any luck, I don't think that these fellows who have passed behind us are De Wet's actual advance-guard. They are probably a patrol that he has thrown out to look after his exposed flank. He knows that we were at Luckhoff, and he would not have moved without telling off some one to watch us. Now, these people have seen us and passed behind us; but as we have luckily struck and covered the trail of the advance squadrons, they don't know that we have a force six hours ahead of us. Probably they have sent back to De Wet, who will be from one to two hours' distant from them, to inform him, if he puts a spurt on, he can be through the Fauresmith passes before us. If only the Mount Nelsons can hold him, we shall get even with him yet."
By nine o'clock the Fauresmith hills began to loom up above the dead level of the veldt, and as the trail of the advance squadrons was still steady and we had no news of them, there was every reason to be satisfied that they had successfully made their goal. The situation at least was increasing in interest. A little after ten the column had reached the foot of the Fauresmith hills, and the brigadier wisely called a halt, determined not to commit his troops to the hilly tracts until he had heard something from his advance squadrons.
But the next information regarding the enemy was not destined to come in from the advance-guard. The column had just off-saddled when a dishevelled trooper with a blanched face galloped up to the tiny group of trees beneath which the brigadier and his staff had dismounted.
Brigadier. "Hullo, here's a man who has seen his own ghost. We shall have some news now. Who are you?"
Trooper. "Please, sir, I belong to Mr Crauford's patrol—it has been annihilated!"
B. (soothingly). "Now dismount, and tell us all about it. What do you belong to!"
T. (dismounting). "Mount Nelson Light Horse, sir."
B. "I thought so; now let us have the story."
T. "Well, sir, there was Mr Crauford, and Sergeant Mullins, and——"
B. "Never mind their names. How many men had Mr Crauford with him?"
T. "About six, sir; and I am the only one left alive to tell the tale!"
B. "How truly awful! and if you don't get on with it your tale will outlast all of us as well. (Roughly) Now, throw it out,—what happened?"
T. "Well, sir, you see that farm over there (pointing to low seam of grey hills about four miles distant on our left flank, at the bottom of which nestled a homestead), we were riding up to it quiet-like, when suddenly, as we were passing a kraal, up jumps about fifty Boers and calls us to ''ands up.' We wouldn't ''ands up,' and they shot us down to a man, and——!"
B. "Wait—how did you get away from the general battue?"
T. "I don't exactly know, sir; I kind of found myself galloping for all I was worth, and the bullets just 'umming that thick and awful, that I kept on asking myself the whole way home 'ow it was I managed to escape!"
B. "You may go. Stop! where's your rifle?"
T. (for the first time realising that he had not got a rifle). "I must have dropped it, sir, in the scrimmage—it was awful 'ot, sir!"
B. (brutally). "Off you go; you ought to be ashamed to talk to honest men. (Then turning to the brigade-major.) Look here, Baker, though I don't believe the man's story in toto, or would believe any man who in panic had thrown his rifle away, yet something has happened, and either our men on the left have fallen in with the party of Boers who crossed our trail this morning, or we have let slip the whole 'bag of tricks,' and De Wet is through us. Just you take another squadron of the Mount Nelsons and see what has happened on the left. You can also take the pom-pom. Unless the enemy are in strength don't stay out there long, as I shall probably move on before you are back. Anyway I shall leave a signal-station on the hill above us!"
Brigade-Major. "Very good, sir."
B. "Wait a moment. As the rain-storm has dished my original plans, I shall probably, as soon as I hear from Fauresmith, send half my force direct to the Kalabas bridge, and take the rest to support the Mount Nelson squadrons. But I can make no definite statement until I have some idea of De Wet's force. Gad! I wish I knew where Plumer might be at this moment, or whether there is any one behind De Wet. Without information or maps, this is an uphill game!"...
In half an hour the brigade-major's little command was within a thousand yards of Liebenbergspan farm. Here they met five woe-begone men tramping wearily towards them. They were Crauford's patrol, stripped of most of their clothing, and desired by the Boers to make their way back to their column with all compliments of the season. The subaltern was very dejected, for he was a boy of the right spirit; and it is a strain upon one's dignity as an officer to be turned loose on the veldt with only a flannel shirt as a dress, and a pair of putties tied round the feet in the place of boots. It was not his fault: he had sent on a man to reconnoitre the farm. This man was our friend who had come in in the morning. As he failed to search the kraal, the Boers had let him past, and had waited for the main body of the patrol, which they had "held up" at short range. The scout, who had passed through them, heard the shouts of "Hands up!" and galloping for dear life, had been able to get clear and pitch the brigadier his terror-bred fable. Apart from taking their clothes, the Boers had treated the prisoners well. They were a party of fifteen men, very poorly clad but well mounted, under a commandant of the name of Theron. Crauford, who was a young English Africander, had, while a prisoner, made good use of his time. His captors did not realise that he understood Dutch, and he had gleaned from their conversation that they were, as the brigadier had anticipated, part of De Wet's screen. They were very much upset at the size of the British column, and had not been prepared for its presence so close to De Wet's line of advance. But as they discussed it among themselves they considered that De Wet would be in front of the column, proving that they had no knowledge of the two squadrons detached during the night. All this was such valuable information that Baker dismounted a man and sent Crauford back to the brigadier as fast as he could gallop. He himself kept on, as Theron's party was still in occupation of the farm.
The farm stood at the foot of a low brae. It was only a rise, and as the Boers appeared to take no notice of our approach, not even troubling to efface their presence, the brigade-major determined, under cover of his pom-pom, to gallop over it. Half a squadron on the right, half a squadron on the left. He called up the captain commanding the squadron and gave him his instructions. The man at once began to make difficulties, and suggested a different mode of attack.
Brigade-Major (severely). "I have told you what I want you to do. Kindly go and instruct your troop-leaders. As soon as you are extended, canter, and improve your pace when you get sufficiently near. That knoll on the right and the rise on the left both command the farm, and you will find that the enemy won't stand. Good Heavens! man (as the captain again began to demur), there are only about twenty of them; surely you are not afraid!"
The man did not mean going, neither did his squadron. They dallied over extending, and it was quite a quarter of an hour before they began to move forward. The brigade-major dashed to the head of the right half-squadron and tried to infuse some little enthusiasm into them. But no; it was the very worst squadron of the Mount Nelsons, and when the brigade-major commenced to gallop he found that he was only followed by four men. But this even, added to half a belt from the pom-pom, was sufficient for the Boers: they ran to their horses, which were grazing by the kraal, mounted, and galloped over the rise, without firing a shot. As vultures swoop down upon carrion, so the Mount Nelsons, as soon as it was seen that the rise was clear of the enemy, swarmed down to the looting of the farm. The brigade-major's face was a study when he and the Mount Nelsons' captain met in the verandah. All that he said would not add to the artistic sense of this narrative; but he closed his remarks with the following: "If I catch a man of your regiment touching a single article in this farm I will shoot him myself. Get your men back to their positions, sir. They won't fight; I'll be d——d if they shall loot!"
In war situations develop rapidly, and the brigade-major had barely dismissed his now sulking junior, when a silver glitter from above the halting-place of the brigade brought the laconic message, "Return at once without delay." Precisely at the same moment a messenger came dashing down from the rise above the farm, and excitedly reported that a long line of Cape carts was rapidly crossing the left front. The brigade-major started the squadron back at a trot, and stayed behind for a few moments to make an investigation of the new development. It was quite true, six Cape carts and about thirty men were crossing his front from right to left at a good pace. They were a long way off, and even if he had not had peremptory orders to return, it would have been hopeless to have attempted to pursue them with such material as he had in hand.
Brigade-Major (snapping his glasses back into their case). "You may put it down, Mr Intelligence, in that voluminous diary of yours, that our quarry has escaped. They have slipped us. Come along; we must canter on and see what the brigadier has in pickle for us!"
But, as subsequent events were to prove, the brigade-major for once was in error....
We found the brigadier impatiently awaiting us, with half the battery hooked in, and the 20th Dragoons standing to their horses. He did not wait for rest or explanation; but as soon as we cantered in with the pom-pom, gave the order for the column to advance. The mule-convoy had come in in our absence, and it had orders to follow us as best it could.
Brigadier. "Look here, you fellows; I really am sanguine for the first time since I have been engaged in this kind of 'follow your leader.' Just about half an hour after you left, our friend the turkey-expert of last night sent in a red-hot man with a message that he had held up the main body of a Boer commando in a pass just west of Fauresmith. He wasn't in position to stop the advance-guard, which went through with about six Cape carts; but he had since captured the Boer picket on the pass and had turned the main body—consisting of about thirty Cape carts and 400 burghers—back, and when he wrote they were halted in Fauresmith."
Brigade-Major. "We have seen that advance-guard. But is there no other way by which the enemy can get to the Riet: by swinging round between Fauresmith and Jagersfontein, for instance?"
B. "We can't hope that he will stay and wait for us in Fauresmith. Of course there will be a way round; but he may delay, he may try and force his way past the turkey-expert, and then we may be there first. I sent Goven on with the 21st and two guns at once to strike a bee-line for Kalabas bridge—to reck for nothing, only to get there. But we have neither guides nor maps that can give one any idea of the true lie of the country. I could only furnish him with the direction and the ordinary inaccurate sheet-map."
B.-M. "And what do you intend doing yourself, sir?"
B. "We will just push on hell-for-leather for the position which the turkey-expert is holding; and then if he is being attacked, and wind and tide will allow it, we will just hurl ourselves into ole man De Wet, smother him, or perish in the attempt."
The hills about Fauresmith differ little in formation from the general character obtaining in South Africa. They divide the veldt into a series of rough parallelograms. The brigadier had estimated that we were distant from Fauresmith only about four or five miles, while the inaccurate map showed that when the 21st Dragoon Guards had started, they only had about eight miles to cover before they would reach the Kalabas bridge over the Riet. Therefore the brigadier was satisfied that if he was able to stop the bridge with the 21st and get touch with De Wet's main body before dark, he could deal with it with the force he had kept in hand. But it would be absolutely essential to gain touch that night, and once having gained it, to push through to a conclusion at once. The interior of the first parallelogram allowed the force to advance with an extended front, and six miles of smart trotting brought it to Brandewijnskuil, where the Fauresmith road passes over a stream tributary to the Riet. To the east of this drift, between it and Fauresmith, rise the glacis-like slopes of Groen Kloof—well named, for the whole country here is green, and the immediate neighbourhood of the drift is not unlike many rural spots to be found in Surrey. Bushed as with a hedgerow, the road sinks into the drift, to appear again on the far side, cutting its way between a rough-edged turf upon which geese and goats are browsing. To the left stands a whitewashed cottage, with a corral of stunted shrub and a tree or two. Beside it, in a creeper-grown shed, are the appliances of a blacksmith's craft—yes, just for the moment it might well be Surrey. But we have no time to stay and admire or to soliloquise over scenery. There is men's work ahead. A mounted messenger is dashing down the track in front of us, as if hell and a thousand devils had been loosed behind him. He hands a scrap of paper to the brigade-major, and then throws himself from his horse, which stands motionless with heaving sides and dripping flanks.
Brigadier. "Read it. Who is it from?"
Brigade-Major. "From the officer in command of the two squadrons of Mount Nelsons. He says: 'Groen Kloof, 3.15 P.M.—Boers about 200 strong demonstrated against me, while the convoy made a circle round out of range to north-east. I was unable to prevent this. Convoy is going as fast as it can due north. You could cut it off. Am holding this until you reinforce. No casualties; have six prisoners.'"
Brigadier (taking out his watch). "It is now 3.40. Goven started at 1.30; he ought to be at the bridge well in front of those coves. If he is, we've got 'em. Here, Baker; take the rest of this crush straight for the north-east corner of this sheet of the map. As soon as you reach the corner, make a right angle, steer north-west, and you ought to come out just on the tail of Brother and his Cape carts. Now, off you go; report to Colonel Washington, but I shall expect you to keep the show going. Gad! it's the chance of the campaign, if the Riet is still in flood!"
B.-M. "Very good, sir. But where will you be?"
B. "I shall be here. This is where the transport will outspan to-night. I shall keep the turkey-expert up on the top of Groen Kloof all to-night, in case Brother tries to break back that way! But wherever you find the enemy, go for him bald-headed: it is the only chance!"
B.-M. "But if I find that he has crossed the river? If the other column should not be in position?"
B. (deliberately) "If he has got across the Riet, come back at once with your tail between your legs. Pursuit in those circumstances would be useless. But use your own discretion if it comes to a near thing. Tell Freddy that you've my instructions to fight; you and Freddy ought to be able to convince Washington, and Twine, his second in command, is fighting stuff. Good-bye, and good luck to you; spare neither man nor beast. (As the brigade-major rode off, the brigadier turned to the Intelligence officer.) Now, Mr Intelligence, I want you also to make yourself useful. I want you if possible to get to Goven and acquaint him of the situation. It is of vital importance that he should know how the force behind him is distributed. Even if they are attacking him at the bridge, do your utmost to get to him: the best of forces present flanks that are possible to single men. Just tell him that Washington with half the force is bearing down upon the bridge from the north-east; that Groen Kloof is held by our own coves; that I am here with the baggage, and its escort of sick, blind, halt, and lame; that if Washington gets into them, he is to leave just enough men to make the bridge secure, and hurl his hoplites in to the help of Washington. Now, ride cunning; you may have a difficult job. I should keep well to the left. Good-bye, and good luck to you. Ride cunning!"...
The Intelligence officer rode out on his lonely mission. Luckily he had changed his horse after the affair at Liebenbergspan, and being well mounted, he felt fairly confident. He first steered north-west, hoping to strike off the spoor of Goven's column. But when after four miles he failed to find it, he opined that he was making a detour which, if persevered in, would not bring him to his destination by nightfall. He therefore changed his direction to due north, and put spurs to his horse. He was working along the inner edge of a great veldt-basin, and getting a little uncomfortable as to his direction; and alarmed that he saw no traces of the column, he dismounted in a kloof, and climbed to the top of the edge of the basin. Beneath him lay a track, standing out white against the veldt. There was just a short breadth of veldt, and then the country became very broken and hilly. Within two hundred yards of the spot which he had chosen for his reconnaissance stood a small farmhouse. But it was not the farmhouse that attracted his attention; it was a pillar of dust which showed to the north along the track. He took out his glasses. There was no doubt about it,—it was a body of mounted men and some transport going away from him. They were not more than a mile away; and if it had not been for the dust, he could almost have counted the force. "It is De Wet," he inwardly reflected; "he is going right into Goven's arms; and for Boers to make all that dust, they must be travelling fast." He turned his glasses down to the south; there he could find no sign of living thing upon the track. He was just debating in his mind what would be the right course to pursue, when he heard a voice behind him, "Beg pardon, sir, but them is Boers; they have just all gone past here!" He turned round to find a British dragoon standing stiffly to attention behind him.
Intelligence Officer. "Who are you? and where the devil have you come from?"
Trooper. "Please, sir, we belongs to a patrol that was sent out by Captain Charles, and we got lost."
I. O. "Where are the others? where are your horses?"
T. "I have got the three horses down in the nullah there. The corporal and the other man are down in that farm, sir; at least that is where they went before the Boers came."
I. O. "In that farm? Why, the Boers will have got them; they must have passed quite close to the farm!"
T. "They did that, sir; but I never seed them get them. I expect that they was under the beds when the Boers passed."
I. O. "Did you see all the Boers pass?"
T. "Yes, sir; there was about a thousand, two waggons, and a lot of carts. Some was riding horses, and others riding in the carts."
I. O. "Were they going fast?"
T. "Yes, sir; just as fast as they could, shouting and swearing and calling to each other. They seemed dreadful pressed for time!"
I. O. "We had better see if those other fellows of yours are still in the farm. Have you got your rifle loaded?"
The Intelligence officer and trooper walked down to the little homestead, and as they approached the door out stepped the two most scared and astonished dragoons that South Africa has ever seen. They were escorted by a bevy of smiling girls. When they saw their comrade safe and sound in the company of an officer, they became absolutely nonplussed. But the Intelligence officer got the following history out of the corporal:—
Corporal. "Well, sir, we were sent off as a patrol on the right flank, and somehow among the kopjes we lost touch, and about an hour ago we reached this place. I left the horses under cover with Smith, and I took one man and went to reconnoitre the farm. We found this nice old lady inside, who speaks English; and she told us that she hadn't seen any English troops, but that a small party of Boers had passed in the morning, who had stopped and had some coffee, but who seemed to be in a hurry. The good lady asked us if we would have some coffee. Well, sir, we were very thirsty and hungry-like, so we sat down, and they gave us some coffee and cake and things; and just as we were eating, the old lady rushed in and said the Boers were coming, and hustled us into a small bedroom. Well, sir, we looked through the window, spy-like, and there, sure enough, were about ten Boers on horses galloping past the house. They were mostly quite young boys, but there were some greybeards amongst them. They seemed in a great hurry, for only one just stopped at the house, and he only stayed a moment. Then more and more passed, riding along in no formation, and all seeming in a hurry. Just one or two turned aside and had a word with the people of the house, but none of them got off their horses. Then an ambulance-waggon came by, and quite a string of Cape carts: the last cart had four horses in it, driven by a nigger, and it stopped quite five minutes at the farm. Two men, who kept on shouting orders to the passing Boers, were sitting in the back of it——"
Intelligence Officer. "What were they like?"
C. "One was a stout man with a long black beard; the other had a grey beard and puffy eyes. The people here now tell us that they were Steyn and De Wet."
I. O. "Why the devil didn't you shoot them?"
Trooper (coming to his comrades aid). "How was we to know, sir, as how they were generals? they just looked two comfortable old civie blokes. Besides, we had left our rifles standing in the next room!"
I. O. "How many Boers would you say went by?"
C. "I should say four or five hundred, sir; they was going by in driblets for the best part of half an hour."
I. O. "Who are the people in this house? I can't understand their attitude in screening you here. You have had the most remarkable experience. What an opportunity!"
C. "The lady, sir, is an Irish lady, and she is a very good friend to her countrymen!"
The Intelligence officer then cross-examined the owner of the farm, and she corroborated all that the corporal had said. Both De Wet and Steyn were in the four-horsed cart. They asked her if she had seen any kharkis recently; about the state of the Riet River, and the distance to Kalabas bridge; and before driving off impressed upon her the necessity of putting any of the English off the scent who might be following. As they drove away De Wet shouted back, "They are close behind." This information raised the Intelligence officer to a high standard of excitement, for he now felt sure that the brigade was well in upon the right scent. Already he found himself listening for the sound of Goven's guns. Collecting the three troopers who had been nearer to the person of De Wet than other armed Britishers had for some time, he turned back into the veldt basin and pushed forward northwards. The sun was now nearly down, but that was nothing: buoyed by a great excitement, the Intelligence officer was possessed of only one idea, which was to be in at the death. But a bitter disappointment was in store for him.
Corporal (pointing to the left rear). "Please, sir, there is the column."
The Intelligence officer could scarcely believe his eyes—the thought was too appalling, too ghastly to be true. It was true, nevertheless. Instead of arriving at the bridge, the column had lost direction, and, without an adequate guide or map, had become entangled among the hills. Lost, without forage or food, beast and man weary beyond expression, while De Wet was crossing the Riet over Kalabas bridge, the stop which should have been there was endeavouring to retrace its steps back to camp. As the Intelligence officer realised the truth great tears welled up to his eyes.
It was midnight before the mess servants could turn out a meal at Brandewijnskuil for the staff. Two doleful candles but added to the depression bred of the hour and the disappointment which was uppermost in every mind. We had had our chance and failed. The brigadier alone was philosophic: his natural gaiety would not allow of depression: his manly spirit would not collapse against the ruling of the laws of chance.
Brigadier. "Wake up, you coves, and come and have some dinner. We have lost ole man De Wet; but that is no reason for you all to behave as if we were in for a funeral. Thank Heaven that you are alive. You would probably have all been scuppered if we had got up with the ole man. He would have fought until he was blue in the face!"
Brigade-Major. "I've got the orders out, sir. Start at 3 A.M.!"
Brigadier. "That's all right, but we won't see any more of De Wet. We were too hot on him to-day. All we shall find when we cross the Riet at daybreak to-morrow will be spoor leading in every direction. They will dissolve to a certainty. But though we have failed, we have had a run for our money, and finished a d——d good second. But no maps and no guide are big things as penalties go, and, all considered, I think that the 'crush' has run devilish well. What have your prisoners got to say, Mr Intelligence?"
But Mr Intelligence, having drunk his soup, was sound asleep in his blankets....
 Another curious episode in this strange campaign can be observed here. We had been in nominal possession of the Southern Free State for many months, during a considerable period of which the local administration had been administered by British agents. Yet throughout this period Boer landrosts were also appointed, and whenever a commando strong enough to assert the Orange Free State authority was in the vicinity, immediately took over their duties. Often, it is believed, the same men acted for both belligerents. When Judge Hertzog made his tour of the South-Western Free State immediately before entering upon his invasion of the Colony, he reinstated the Boer administration in all the southern townships.
 De Wet never moved without an advance-, flank-, and rear-guard, removed from him to a distance of about six to eight miles. This screen always gave him ample notice of any British troops in the vicinity, thus enabling him to change his direction and suit his action with calmness and deliberation. These screens were always composed of picked men.