FOR a long time we remained on the top, still hoping to see our men, but at last yesterday's English column came down the opposite bank of the river, so we made haste to get down to our horses and reach safer quarters. Searching out a less conspicuous hill, we left our animals to graze in a neighbouring hollow, while we lay amongst the boulders watching the progress of the enemy. Instead of trekking on, as we expected them to do, they went into camp at a farm three miles away. This was a misfortune, as our chief desire was to make a start towards picking up the trail, but, with the English halted by the river and their patrols scouring the plain in all directions, we dared not venture out into the open, and were obliged to let the valuable hours go by while our commando was getting farther and farther away.
They kept us until nearly sunset before moving off, and then went south, from which we inferred that they were starting on a night march after General Smuts. So we only waited until the last horseman was riding away before we went down to the farm to get information.
It was dark before we reached there, and the owner, a well-to-do Dutch farmer, named le Roux, quickly told us such news as he had gleaned from the officers and soldiers during the day.
In the first place he said that three or four of our delaying party had been captured, and that one of them, my friend Jack Baxter, had been executed that morning at an adjoining farm for wearing khaki.
We were thunderstruck. The inhabitants of the districts through which we had passed could not have known of the death penalty or they would surely have mentioned it to us, and it was only when le Roux produced a recent newspaper, containing Lord Kitchener's proclamation, that we understood the position. We learned, too, for the first time, that other men of ours had been shot for the same reason, although it was only later, as more newspapers came into our hands that we found out their names.
From what I could make out, the executions had been kept quiet, but now, for some reason or other, perhaps the killing of Captain Watson, the military authorities were giving them publicity. From a farm labourer who came in, we had details of Baxter's shooting, which brought home to me how narrowly I had on several occasions missed a similar hate, so I lost no time in changing the tunic I wore for a coat which I borrowed from our host, who also supplied such of my companions as were in khaki with whatever he had in the way of civilian dress.
As to the commando, le Roux said that General Smuts was believed to be heading for the Swartbergen, a great range whose peaks we had seen during the day, looming fifty or sixty miles to the south. We said good-bye and rode on all night, and for the next three days made our way across the plains that lie towards the mountains.
The local inhabitants gave us word that General Smuts had passed by, but there were several English columns moving between, and their patrols were so active that we had to go warily. Once at dawn we were hotly chased for many miles, so our progress was slow, and our chance of speedily overtaking the commando grew perceptibly less.
William Conradi, who was with us at the Kraal during the 17th Lancers fight, as the oldest and most experienced of our party, took charge. The others were: Albert von Rooyen, Albert Pienaar, Cornelius Brink,W. Pypers, W. van der Merwe and a boy named Michael du Preen, all Transvaalers, except Conradi, who came from the Western Cape, and all good, brave fellows. On the afternoon of the third day I was ahead to watch the doings of a small English force, when I saw a horseman detach himself from them and come riding up the road in my direction. I lay in wait for him behind some trees, and, as he passed, I leaped out and knocked him from the saddle with the butt of my rifle.
He turned out on closer inspection to be a Hottentot soldier, such as the English employed as scouts and dispatch-bearers. He was more terrified than hurt, and, when on the off chance I ordered him to hand over the message which I thought he might be carrying, he did actually produce one from his boot. When my companions came up we carefully studied this document, which was addressed to a Colonel Scobell, informing him that General Smuts had crossed the Swartbergen into the district of Oudtshoorn the night before. It added that he had been reinforced by nearly a hundred men, which was a mystery to us, but we found afterwards that a roving band of fifty men had joined him the day before. They were the remnant of a commando that had long been operating in these parts under Commandant Scheepers, who had recently been executed for train-wrecking. All was therefore well with the commando, and we were still on the right track, so we divested our prisoner of his horse, rifle and ammunition, and told him to clear off, a command he obeyed with a cheerful 'Dag, mij haasies', as he trotted up the road.
We were by now within fifteen or twenty miles of the Swartbergen, but a ragged tract of foothills had to be crossed before we could reach the bottom of the range itself, and it took us the whole of the ensuing night to get there, for the going was dreadfully rough. Towards morning we came to a beaten highway, which, from information previously received, we knew to be the approach to Meiring's Poort, a pass leading over the mountains near here. The pass was not for us, because it was held by a garrison, but we decided to make use of the road for a while, as preferable to the boulder-strewn country across which we had been toiling. This landed us in a mess, for we ran into a body of English horsemen. It was too dark to make out their strength, and we were so mixed up with them that no one could shoot. For a few seconds we were milling about, neither side quite certain whether we were dealing with friend or foe, and no one uttered a word for fear of precipitating trouble. Then we heard Williani Conradi shout to us in English to break away, so we disengaged ourselves and turned back into the rough, while the English clattered away along the road without a shot having been fired.
After this we went more carefully, and sunrise found us leading our horses up the street of a tiny village standing at the bottom of the pass. Dogs began to bark, and windows to open, and we saw soldiers running to a large building, so we mounted and rode hastily out.
Before us rose the Swartbergen, steep as a house, but we climbed it all day, dragging our leg-weary horses, until we reached the top at dusk. From here we could look south over more mountains and deep valleys, and far beyond lay a grey haze, which we took to be the sea.
Our ascent during the day had not been unreasonably difficult for the north face, up which we had come, though steep, was grass-covered and devoid of krantzes, but the slope down which we had now to go was fringed with high crags, so, with darkness coming on, we were obliged to halt for the night.
We had eaten nothing for twenty hours, as the presence of the troops the day before had prevented us from foraging, so we sat cold and hungry, looking down into the black depths below.
After a while there was a faint twinkle of a light, evidently a farmhouse in some valley, and, as Michael du Preez and I were the youngest and hungriest of the party, we prevailed on the others to let us go down the mountain. It was a bad climb, for we had to feel our way in the dark by cracks and crevices, to the bottom of the cliffs, and it took us the rest of the night to do the remainder. So it was not till well after sunrise that we reached the farm whose light we had seen in the evening. The owner, an Englishman named Holm, gave us a generous meal, including an omelette made from ostrich egg, to which we did full justice. After getting from him a further supply of food for our companions, and eliciting the information that General Smuts had passed down the valley the day before with enemy troops hanging on behind, Michael and I started up the mountain once more. We were desperately tired, having had no sleep for two nights running, so it took us seven hours to drag ourselves to where the others were waiting. They had, in the meanwhile. succeeded in finding a practicable way down the cliff for the horses, and we found them considerably below the spot at which we had left them the night before. They were so famished that they had begun to look over the horses with a view to shooting the worst of them for food, but our arrival, each with a bag containing an ostrich egg, meat, and bread, made this unnecessary, and they fell to cooking a huge meal instead. When all had finished, Conradi ordered an immediate start, for we had told him that General Smuts was in the valley, and he was for not losing a moment in going after him, so Michael and I had to go along once more.
Climbing down was difficult, and in places we had to roll boulders into the torrent that rushed down the gorge we were descending, to form a bridge for the horses. Halfway down, we came on a cattle-path, which made progress easier, and we reached the foot of the mountain by ten or eleven that night. We halted in an orchard, and I was asleep almost as soon as I had the saddle off my horse.
We were now in the great valley that runs parallel to the Swartbergen towards the town of Oudtshoorn, and I well remember how oppressed we felt in this region of mountains, for we were accustomed to the open country and wide horizons of the north.
As we made our way down the valley all that day, we were comforted with news of General Smuts at every farm-house, and we were hopeful of coming up with him at any moment, for the commando tracks lay plain before us on the road. By nightfall we were so hot on the trail that we passed a homestead where our men had halted that afternoon, and a little farther on we were told that Edgar Duncker and Nicolas Swart had gone by on foot only an hour before. Their horses had been killed during the retreat at the Kareega River, and, like ourselves, they had been following the commando ever since.
We hurried on, intending to catch up before halting, but after dark we lost the tracks owing to stony soil, and could find no farmhouse at which to make inquiries, so we camped in a gully for the night, feeling sure that we should see the commando the first thing in the morning.
We were up at sunrise, eagerly gazing down the valley. Sure enough there rose a cloud of dust, and we could make out horsemen riding among the trees, and we saddled in haste, congratulating ourselves that our search was over.
But disappointment was in store, for, as we hurried down the road, a woman ran from a field with outstretched arms, to warn us that those men were English troops who lead come into the valley overnight, and indeed, before long, so many of them came riding from farm to farm in our direction that we had to go up one of the smaller lateral valleys to escape their attentions. We did not know what had become of our men, but from what the woman told us, General Smuts had evidently got wind of the English movements and had escaped under cover of darkness, but in which direction we were unable to discover - a sad blow, after having so nearly rejoined the commando.
We continued up the smaller valley, then climbed over a height and descended into another of the broad valleys that abound in these parts.
I had never been here before, but our family clan is a large one, some of whose branches have spread far from the older settlements around Table Bay, so I was not surprised that afternoon to come on a connection of mine named Rex, a lineal descendant of George Rex, the morganatic son of King George III by Hannah Lightfoot, the Quakeress. George Rex had been sent out to South Africa in 1775, and given a large tract of land at the Knysna, on condition that he did not again trouble his august parent. His descendants still live there, and one of them had married my mother's brother.
Rex and I spent an hour discussing family ties, and before I left he insisted upon giving me a pair of new boots, as mine were considerably the worse for wear. For this he -was fined and imprisoned by the military, and I read in a newspaper that he was convicted of 'comforting the King's enemies', which amused me greatly, although I was sorry that I had landed him in trouble.
Soon after this the ubiquitous English patrols were once more in evidence, on a house-to-house visitation, so a local farmer accompanied us to where a path led into a narrow kloof, and, having put us on our way, slipped home again. This path ran between high crags, that sometimes almost met overhead, until at length it reached the side of a mountain up which it ran. We followed to the top, and got there long after sunset. We could not see the country beyond, but through the darkness shone a light from a farmhouse, and, as we were anxious to pick up the lost trail of the commando, Pypers and I went down to make inquiries. The slope was steep, but clear of rocks, and by midnight we were hammering at the door of a large homestead. It be-longed to an Englishman named Guest, who, when he opened the door and saw who we were, exclaimed,
'My God! First come the Boers this morning and slaughter my sheep; then come the British, who kill more sheep instead of catching the Boers, and now I am hauled out of bed at this time of night by more Boers!
We spoke to him pleasantly, and the old fellow cooled down enough to explain that General Smuts had camped on his farm at eleven that morning, and was followed by a pursuing English force, that had also halted here and made free of his live-stock, so he not unnaturally looked upon our arrival as the last straw in a distressful day. Becoming more affable, he roused the servants and gave us a good supper, during which he told us that Duncker and Nicolas Swart had caught up the Commando here. Having eaten well, and obtained as much information as we could, we persuaded our host to give us enough food for our friends, and started back.
As we went off he doubtless heaved a sigh of relief at having got rid of us, but, had he known it, his troubles were only beginning.
Pypers and I reached the others shortly before daybreak, and as Conradi was not one to let the grass grow under his feet, he started us off at once. At the first dawn of what turned out to be a lively day, we began leading our horses down the mountain, and towards eight o'clock were nearing Guest's house, when there swung into view, round a bend of the valley, some two hundred English horsemen, riding hard for the farm. Our presence there during the night must have been reported to them, for they were riding like men with a set purpose, and on nearing the homestead they divided to right and left, to surround the buildings and orchards. Luckily we were able to hustle ourselves and our animals into a gully, without being seen, and from our hiding-place we watched the activities of the soldiers with considerable interest. When they drew a blank at the farm, they deployed along the foot of the slope on which we were, and, splitting into parties, began a systematic search. Soon on every knoll and hillock men stood scanning the mountain-side, as if they knew that we were somewhere about, but, although some of the troopers came within a hundred yards of us, we were not discovered. We did not fires for we knew that if we did it would be all over with us, so we lay hidden, meaning only to shoot when there was no other alternative. A man on a white-faced Argentine came trotting up to within twenty yards of us. He dismounted to examine the path for hoof marks, and was so close to us, that had one of our horses jingled a bit, he must have heard it. We held our breath until he got into the saddle again and rode away, little thinking on what a thread his life had hung, for we had him covered, and, had he seen us, he would have been a dead man, but we had no wish to precipitate a general battle against impossible odds, and we let him go.
After what seemed an age, the hunt died down and the soldiers gradually drifted back to the farmhouse, where they camped for two hours, during which we could not move. We saw the men flinging oat-sheaves from a loft, and chasing poultry, and I could not help feeling sorry for Mr Guest, who was once more being put under the harrow — and not for the last time either, as it proved.
When the troops at length saddled and rode away, we waited barely long enough for the last man to be off the premises before we hurried to the house.
When Mr Guest saw us appear, with the soldiers only just going through the garden beyond, he looked as if he had seen an apparition, and when we laid him under further contribution he seemed on the verge of a fit. However, he complied with our demands, grumbling and complaining at first, and then laughing at his ill luck. Having satisfied our requirements we rode up the valley a little distance, to where there was a pleasant orchard and a large cultivated field hedged round with high branches of thorn, in the manner customary in this area. This was the one error of judgment we made throughout our trip, for instead of making for the wider country lower down, we had entered a cul-de-sac.
We thought that the English were finally gone, and prepared a meal, after which I made a second mistake, for, while the others kept their horses by them, I turned my little Arab, all saddled as he was, into the field, and, thoroughly weary from having been up all night, sought out a shady spot in the lee of the thorn fence and; without telling the others where I was, fell sound asleep.
I was awakened, I do not know how long after, by the clash of rifle-fire near by, and, starting to my feet half dazed, saw a number of English soldiers standing before their horses and blazing away at my seven companions, who were riding down the valley for their lives. I had only myself to blame for being left behind, as they did not know where I was, and were in any case unable to wait. My chief hope of escape was my horse, but he was standing inside the field in full view of the firing soldiers. They had not yet noticed me, as I was screened by the fence, so I parted some of the branches to see what chance there was of getting at my pony. By great good luck he was standing on the other side, within a few yards of me. The firing had alarmed him, for he was restlessly tossing his head and sniffing the air, and I could see that in another moment he would bolt, so I called to quiet him, and, worming my way through a weak spot in the fence, ran up to where he stood quivering with excitement. Jumping into the saddle, I rode for a small gateway in the far corner, which was the only outlet. The soldiers saw me at once, and turned their fire upon me, in spite of which I managed to get through the opening, but, just as I was gathering speed beyond, a bullet brought my poor horse headlong to the ground and flung me yards over his head. Picking up my rifle I ran towards the homestead, thinking that my party might be making a stand there. The soldiers beyond the field kept firing at me as I appeared and disappeared amongst the trees, but I got within hail of the house unharmed. At the corner of a barn stood six or seven men, whom in my haste I took to be my friends, and I made straight for them. But as I came within thirty yards of them, one stepped forward, and, levelling his rifle, called on me to halt.
They were English soldiers, and not the only ones, for more came rushing round from the stables and out of the dwelling-house. Escape seemed impossible, but I made a bid for it. To my right was a small grove of poplars, and, swerving aside, I dashed for this cover before they could send more than a bullet or two after me.
Volleys came crashing through the trees as I ran, but I emerged safely on the other side into hummocky ground, where I twisted and turned to such good effect that, although the men came hurrying round to cut off my retreat, I got into a broken stretch with no more serious damage than a gash from a bullet, which ripped up the sole of my boot and made running difficult.
Breasting a knoll, I glanced back. The soldiers near the field had mounted their horses, and were conning after me. Of those around the homestead, some were running in my direction, and others were in the yard throwing saddles on their animals, and I had a final glimpse of Mr Guest in his shirt-sleeves on the stoep wildly gesticulating, but whether he was urging on the men to my capture or protesting against the crowning disaster of a battle on his doorstep, there was no time to consider, for I was in a very tight corner.
There was no sign of my companions. The sharp ground was cutting my foot, the horsemen were close behind me, and already I could hear the men yelling at me to stop, and I was just deciding that I had better do so, when I came on a deep nullah running down the mountain-side. Here it flashed on me that if my pursuers saw me disappear over the bank, they would naturally think that I was making down its bed to the centre of the valley, or up towards the mountain. Looking aslant my shoulder, to make sure that they saw what I was doing, I went over the bank, but instead of trying to escape up or down the water-course, as they would expect, I found a spot on the opposite side, where the rains had washed out a shallow runnel, and, crawling up this, went flat on my face into the bushes beyond, which stood just high enough to conceal a prostrate man. Having left the nullah unperceived, I worked myself forward another fifty yards to a slightly denser patch, and stopped there.
The soldiers, seeing me jump into the spruit, did exactly what I anticipated. On reaching the spot where they had, seen me vanish, they separated into two parties, one of which galloped up the mountain-side, and the other down towards the valley. I had a clear view of the search from where I lay, and after a while I could see, from the undecided way in which they were riding about, that, they were completely nonplussed.
In the end they must have concluded that I had got away on the upperside, for they spread out along the mountain slope like beaters at a shoot, moving farther and farther from my hiding-place. I knew now that I was comparatively safe, for the sun was setting, and before long I heard them clattering back to the farm, where presently their camp fires shone out, indicating that Mr Guest was once more to be an unwilling host.
I felt proud of my successful ruse, but there was little else pleasant to contemplate. I lay in the bracken like a hunted rabbit; my foot throbbed painfully; my companions were gone, and so was the commando; my horse was dead and my saddle and belongings were in the hands of the enemy.
As thinking did not mend matters, I rose at length, and limped off in the dark.
After about an hour, I heard the sound of a hymn and the wheeze of a harmonium, such as stands in almost every Dutch farmhouse, and knew that I was nearing friends. When I knocked at the door there was a hush at first, for in these disturbed times a visit late at night meant military requisition, but then I heard a shuffle of feet and the door opened.
A whole family was peering from within. When I told them who I was, they almost dragged me into the house, so eager were they to help. I must have looked very dishevelled, for the women wept with pity while removing the boot from my sore foot, and during the more painful process of extracting a thorn, nearly an inch long, that had run into the palm of my hand when I was thrown from my horse that afternoon. They fetched hot water and tore up clean linen for bandages; a meal was laid, with coffee, and the kindly people almost quarrelled for the right to serve me, so keen was their sympathy, although they knew that it might mean for them fines and imprisonment. Having attended to my wants, they took further counsel. It was agreed that I could not remain here, for even if the continuous patrols did not ferret me out for themselves, my presence was certain to be reported by the coloured farm labourers, who all over the Cape sided with the British. As I assured them that I was well able to walk, it was decided that I must continue westward on the off chance of coming up with General Smuts, who might beheld up somewhere. It seemed a forlorn hope, but as there was the risk of an enemy detachment coming by at any moment, I made ready to start as soon as my boot had been sufficiently repaired.
The head of the family, a patriarch of seventy, insisted on acting as my guide during the first stage of the journey and firmly refused to waive the right in favour of his sons, who offered themselves. A grain-bag was packed with food, and after an affecting leave-taking, the old man and I set out. We trudged along, hour after hour, until his strength gave out and I made him turn back, his voice shaking with emotion as he wished me God-speed. My foot scarcely hindered me, and now that I was alone I made good speed on the well-marked wagon-road upon which he had set me, until, towards three in the morning, it dipped down into a ravine. By the time I reached the bottom the moon was clear, and by its light I saw several fresh hoof marks on the ground. On examining these, I recognized the slightly malformed marks of Michael du Preez's pony, and closer investigation showed me the footprints of men which I knew at once as those of some, if not all, of my seven missing companions, who had crossed the road here on their way down the ravine. This providential discovery cheered me immensely, for I had known all along that my hopes of overtaking the commando by myself were slim, but it was pretty certain that I could catch up with the men who had passed here so recently, and I lost no time in following their spoor.
After some miles they had branched off into a smaller kloof, and I followed along this without difficulty, for the tracks lay clear in the dusty cattle-path. At last, as day was breaking, I heard the whicker of a horse and, going forward carefully, found all seven men fast asleep beneath the trees. They were astonished to see me, as they had made certain that I was either dead or taken. They themselves had been hard put to it to make their escape from the farm, and although not one of them had received a scratch, yet out of the nine horses we had possessed between us, no less than six had been killed, and, what was almost as serious, We had lost the bulk of our saddles, cooking-tins, and blankets. We agreed that the first thing to do was to replenish our equipment, so we continued along the gully, until a long march brought us into the thickly populated valley of the Caminassi River, where we heard many rumours about our commando, but no certain news, beyond the fact that General Smuts was making west with a strong force of cavalry closely pressing him. The people willingly supplied our wants, and, for the next three days, we slowly felt our way down the broad valley. Far ahead were tall pillars of dust, made, they told us, by General French with thousands of horsemen, engaged in a great drive behind our Commando, and occasionally we heard the distant boom of guns. As five of us were on foot, we had to proceed with great caution, and repeatedly we had to hide for hours at a time, to avoid bodies of horsemen passing from the rear to join their advance-columns ahead.
The more we saw of the valley, crowded with columns on the march, the less we liked it. William Conradi, after watching for some time, said that he had a better plan. Instead of following the commando any longer, he proposed to turn north across the Swartbergen, back into the Karroo country from which we had come. He said that General Smuts was almost certainly heading for the Western Cape, and, if we got that mountain range between ourselves and the troops, we could travel unmolested and perhaps join him when the chase had died down. We agreed, and set off at once. For two days we worked our way through the intervening country, towards where the Swartbergen stood like a wall on the northern horizon. At a village called Armoed we had trouble, for a party of soldiers rode at us as we were leaving it, and only the falling dusk and our brisk reply to their firing enabled us to escape through the river, into the bush on the other side.
My foot gave me no pain, and we got along safely, thanks to the local farmers, who kept us well informed.
On the morning of the third day we reached the foot of the mountain chain, just east of the Seven Weeks Gorge. Into this poort ran the main road to the open Karroo, but the pass was garrisoned, and our only course lay up the flank of the range. As there were English patrols riding about we began the ascent without delay, toiling upward steadily, until we made the summit by evening. These were the same mountains which we had crossed coming in the opposite direction days before. At that crossing the Swartbergen had consisted of a single clear-cut barrier, but here it forked out into numerous sierras, that looked like giving us much trouble.
As it was getting dark, and heavy rain began to fall, we dropped some distance over the crest to seek shelter for the nights It was too cold to sleep and too damp to light a fire, so we sat shivering until dawn, when we started to grope our way down the mountain-side enveloped in a dense mist. Towards four in the afternoon we were below the clouds, and could see a long narrow canyon lying at our feet, its sides closed in by perpendicular cliffs. On the floor of the chasm, a thousand feet below, we made out a cluster of huts, and, thinking to find natives there to guide us, we went down in a body to investigate, leaving the horses in a ravine to look after themselves. We climbed through a fissure in the crags, and reached the bottom soon after sunset. As we approached the huts, a shaggy giant in goat-skins appeared and spoke to us in strange outlandish Dutch. He was a white man named Cordier, who lived here with his wife and a brood of half-wild children, in complete isolation from the outside world. He knew all about us, for one of his sons had been up the mountain that morning, and, hearing the sound of men and horses in the mist, had stalked us and carefully noted our number and the language we spoke, after which he had vanished over the edge of the cliffs to warn his father.
We were received with uncouth but sincere hospitality, and we applied ourselves gratefully to the goats' meat, milk, and wild honey that were placed before us. Cordier told us that no British troops had ever penetrated this fastness and that we were the first Boers to do so. He had heard vaguely of the war, but his knowledge of the events of the last two years was scanty.
We spent that night and the next day with this curious Swiss Family Robinson, and in the evening toiled up the cliffs again, accompanied by our host and some of his colts, who stayed with us around our camp fires, and led us the following morning across rugged mountains, until by dark we looked down at last upon the northern plains. Our intention now was to descend to the open country and, keeping the mountains well on our left, to strike west towards the districts of the Cape lying along the Atlantic seaboard two hundred miles away, where we hoped ultimately to get news of General Smuts.
We spent another night on the heights, and, parting from our guides at daybreak, climbed down the slopes to level ground and headed across the plains. We were now in the 'Gough' Karroo, as the Hottentots call it, an arid, waterless action, sparsely occupied by wandering herdsmen. By next day we crossed the railway line that runs from Capetown to the north. There were no block-houses, as in the Transvaal and Free State, so we had no difficulty, although we saw the double-tiered watch-towers at either end of the bridge over the Dwyka River.
On the far side of the line lay country even less inhabited, and we suffered severely from thirst and hunger, for water was to be had only by digging in the dry gravel-courses with our bare hands, and for food we had to subsist on what we had brought with us.
About a week after passing the railway line, always going due west, a patrol of English soldiers appeared on the baking plain. They opened fire at us, and when we replied they made off, doubtless to report to some larger force in the neighbourhood.
The day after that we reached a prosperous-looking farmhouse, the first we had seen since crossing the Swartbergen. At this place we had a miniature battle, for while we were talking to the owner and his wife, twelve or fifteen troopers suddenly rode on to a ridge and fired on us. We told our friends to go indoors, and ran down into the spruit, from which we worked forward, thinking to get near enough to our opponents to dislodge them and capture their horses, but by the time we got within a hundred yards of the troopers they were pinning us down with such accurate shooting that we had to hug the earth, and were only too glad to crawl back out of harm's way after dark, and retrieve our three horses and belongings at the farm.
For the next two days we travelled slowly on, gradually approaching the more thickly settled district that lies towards Calvulia.
At every house at which we touched we made inquiries for General Smuts, but no word of him was known. However, a pleasant surprise was awaiting us. Early one morning, as we sat by our fire, we saw a diminutive cart come over the rise, drawn by two donkeys. On the seat was a grey-bearded old Dutch farmer of the poorer class and beside him a smart English sergeant. When we stopped this queerly assorted couple, we were astonished to learn that they had quitted General Smuts and his commando only an hour or two before. The soldier said that he had been captured the previous day while scouting, and after spending the night with our men, had been released that morning.
We were so delighted with this unexpected good news that we insisted on shaking hands with our informant, who could not at first understand our elation. When we explained, he said that for his part he had less cause for congratulation because, having been deprived of his horse, and having no mind to walk ninety-odd miles to the nearest military post, he had ordered his fellow-traveller in the King's name to provide him with transport.
As the only available conveyance was the one we saw, he was not looking forward to the journey, particularly as relations were strained with the driver. The farmer was glum and angry at having to drive a verdomde rooi nek (as he called hills) on a journey that would take him from home for the better part of a fortnight, and would subject him to the jeers of all his neighbours on his return, while the servant was no better pleased with his companion, who, he said, did not understand a word of English and only grunted when spoken to. We did not waste much time on the incongruous pair, and, after wishing them a pleasant journey, hurried on.
Tramping forward for seven or eight miles, we breasted a rise, and there, on the banks of a river below, was the welcome sight of many horses at graze and smoke rising from among the trees to show that our long quest was at an end. A mounted sentry rode out to see who we were, and, after shaking hands, galloped back to spread the news of our arrival. Soon the entire commando was running to meet us, and we were surrounded by a laughing, cheering crowd, all anxious to show their pleasure at our safe return. General Smuts was among the foremost to greet us. He said he had long given us up for lost, and warmly praised the way in which we had come through without losing a man.
Great indeed was our joy at getting back, but for me there was a fly in the ointment, for I found that the 'Rijk Section' was practically wiped out. First, there was Jack Borrius minus an eye, and still suffering from a swollen, festering hand; then there lay Ben Coetzee with a bullet in his leg; Nicolas Swart, with a shattered arm, the result of a revolver shot at close quarters; and Edgar Duncker, with a bullet through his thigh and three fingers of his right hand blown to pieces. In addition, my uncle Jan Mulder (he was really my step uncle) and our inconspicuous but loyal companion, Jan van Zijl, had been captured, so that there was very little left of the old unit, Wyndell, Frits Balogh, and I being the only foundation members not incapacitated.
The total loss to the commando during our absence, apart from a dozen wounded who had come along, was not more than seven or eight men, in spite of heavy fighting all the way.
In the meanwhile, the other half of our force under van Deventer was not yet accounted for, but General Smuts fully expected that, under so experienced a leader, they would eventually turn up.