"It would only be throwing away your lives to enter the wood," he said. "We should have to dismount, and they could spear us as they chose. Besides, we have other work to do."
They rode straight back to the village. More than half of the inhabitants had been murdered, and the rest were gathered round their dead friends in attitudes of despair, many of them streaming with blood from several wounds.
"Friends," Ronald said, as he rode up, "you must be up and doing. You must either gather in one house for mutual defence – for we have to ride on and the natives will return as soon as we leave – or as will be much wiser, put your horses into light carts, take the bodies of your friends, some of them may be only stunned by the knobkerries, and drive for your lives to the town. We will stop another ten minutes. The natives will not venture out of the woods until we go on."
Ronald's words roused the unfortunate settlers from their stupor. The men, aided by the troopers, harnessed the horses to the carts, lifted the wounded and dead into them, and taking with them a few of their valuables, drove away, and Ronald rode on with his party. At one or two houses the attack had not begun, and the settlers at once harnessed up and drove off. In others the party arrived too late to save, although they were able to avenge by surprising and cutting up the treacherous servants who, aided by the Gaikas from the hills, had murdered their masters, and were engaged in the work of plunder when the troop rode up. In each case they found that the Fingo servants had shared the fate of their employers, showing that they had been kept in the dark as to the deadly intentions of the Kaffirs.
As he neared the house occupied by his friends, the Armstrongs, Ronald Mervyn's anxiety heightened. Each scene of massacre had added to his fears, and he chafed at the comparatively slow rate of speed at which it was now necessary to go in order to spare the tired horses. Presently he heard the sound of distant firing in the direction in which he knew the Armstrong's house was situated. It was a welcome sound, for although it showed that the party were attacked, it gave hopes that they had not been entirely taken by surprise, and were still defending themselves.
"Jones," he said, turning to one of the troopers, "you can't go faster than you are going, but my horse has plenty in hand. I will ride on with the burghers at full speed; you keep well together and follow as fast as you can. If they make a fight of it with us, your coming up suddenly may cow them and decide the matter."
The sounds of firing still continued as Ronald Mervyn, with his party of burghers, rode at the top of their speed towards Mr. Armstrong's house. As they neared it a number of Kaffirs were seen gathered round it. As these perceived the approach of the horsemen there was a movement of flight, but a chief who was with them, seeing the smallness of the force approaching, called upon them to stand, and they at once gathered to meet the advancing horsemen.
"Halt," Ronald shouted as he pulled up his horse a hundred and fifty yards from the house, "there are a couple of hundred of them; we shall be riddled with spears if we charge them, and shall throw away our lives without being of any assistance to our friends.
A second or two later the first rifle spoke out and a native fell. Shot after shot was fired and every bullet told. The two chiefs were among the first who fell, and their loss to some extent paralysed the advance of the natives. Some of them ran back to the shelter under the house, but forty or fifty of them with loud shouting rushed forward.
"Give them one volley," Ronald shouted, "and then to your horses."
Every loaded gun was discharged; the men unhitched their horses, sprang into their saddles, and dashed off. All were accustomed to load on horseback, and as soon as the cartridges were down and the caps on, Ronald led them back again. The natives were this time holding the orchard. Ronald took a sweep as if to cut them off from the house, and, afraid of being separated, they ran back to rejoin their comrades. A volley was poured in, and then a charge was made upon them, sword and pistol in hand.
For a minute or two there was a sharp fight. Many of the natives were shot or cut down, while several of the burghers received assegai wounds.
A large body of natives were running up to the assistance of their comrades, when the six men of the Mounted Rifles rode up. The advancing natives paused at the sight of the soldiers, and before they could make up their minds to advance, the greater portion of those who had occupied the orchard were killed.
"Draw off fifty yards," Ronald said, "and reload rifles and pistols."
This was done, and several steady volleys poured into the Kaffirs.
"That will do," Ronald said; "they are beginning to slip off. Now we will charge straight down upon them; I and my troopers will cut our way through and enter the house. There is fighting going on in there still. Do you, gentlemen, take our horses as we dismount, and ride off, and then open fire again on the rascals from a distance. We shall be able to hold the house if we can once enter."
The plan was carried out. With a desperate charge they burst through the natives round the door. Ronald and the troopers sprang to the ground, and threw the reins of their horses to the colonists who caught them and rode off again.
"Close the door behind you," Ronald said, as he sprang forward into the passage, which was crowded with natives. The troopers followed him, closing and barring the door behind them. There was a sharp fight in the passage, but Ronald's two revolvers and the rifles of his men were more than a match for the natives, and in two or three minutes the last of them fell.
"Close and bar all the shutters," Ronald shouted, as he rushed into the dining-room, over the bodies of eight or ten natives lying inside.
His appearance was greeted with a hearty cheer, and Mr. Armstrong and three or four others ran in through the door of an inner room.
"Thank God we are in time," Ronald said, grasping Mr. Armstrong's hand.
"Thank God, indeed," the farmer replied. "We have had a hot time for the last hour."
"Miss Armstrong is not hurt, I hope?"
"No, she has escaped without a scratch, and I think that that's more than any of the rest of us can say."
"I must see about my men now," Ronald said; "will you get all the shutters downstairs fastened and barred?"
Ronald ran out and found that his men had just succeeded in clearing the house. They had found several Kaffirs upstairs engaged in the work of plundering. Some of them had been cut down, whilst others had jumped from the open windows. As soon as the shutters had been fastened, Ronald and his men took their places at the upper windows and opened fire upon the natives, who were already drawing off. The fire of the defenders of the house was aided by that of the burghers, and the retreat of the natives soon became a flight, many dropping before they were out of range of the rifles. As soon as the natives were fairly in retreat Ronald again went downstairs, where he found Mr. Armstrong and the other defenders of the house engaged attending upon the wounded. Ronald looked round the room.
"My daughter is in there," Mr. Armstrong said, pointing to the inner room. "She has behaved splendidly through it all, but she broke down when she found that the danger was over. I think you had better leave her alone for a few minutes."
"No wonder!" Ronald said, as he looked round the room. Seven or eight natives lay dead close to the doorway, three or four others in other parts of the room, three white men and two women also lay dead; and on the ground lay a table-cloth, broken plates and dishes, and the remains of a feast. Mr. Armstrong and four other farmers were now engaged in attending to each other's wounds, and binding them up with bandages made out of strips of the table-cloth.
"I was never so pleased in my life," Mr. Armstrong said, "as when I heard the first sound of your guns. Who you were I could not of course make out, but I supposed it must be a party from one of the villages which had got news of the attack on us here."
"It is partly so, sir," Ronald said. "We have six of our men besides myself, and fourteen or fifteen burghers joined us as we came along. I hear them riding up to the door now. I am sorry to say that no more were to be obtained, for the attack has been general, and I fear that three parts of the villages along the frontier have been destroyed, and their inhabitants massacred. Fortunately we arrived in time to save the place where we were before encamped, and to rescue a few of those at the next village. But at fully half the farmhouses we passed the work of massacre had already been carried out."
The front door was now opened, and the burghers entered. Ronald found that two of the party had been killed in the charge up to the house, and that most of them had received more or less serious wounds in the fight, while three of the Rifles had also been pierced with the assegais. He himself had been struck by a spear that had glanced off his ribs, inflicting a nasty flesh wound, while another assegai had laid open his cheek. Mary Armstrong and two other women now came out from the inner room and assisted in dressing the wounds, while the men who were unhurt carried the bodies of the Kaffirs who had fallen in the house some distance away, while those of the white men and women were placed side by side in another room. They then got buckets of water and soon removed the pools of blood from the floor.
"Now, Mary," Mr. Armstrong said, "will you and your friends get a fresh table-cloth out, and bring in some cold meat and bread and anything else that you can lay your hands on, for our brave friends? The rascals can't have had time to find out our cellar, and though I don't think any of our party want anything to eat, a draught of spirits and water will be acceptable all round."
"Not for those who are wounded, father; tea will be better for them, I am sure."
"Perhaps it will, my dear."
The women were glad of something to do. One of them was the wife of one of the farmers who had fallen, but she, too, in a dull mechanical manner, aided Mary Armstrong and the other, and as soon as the place was made quite tidy, six or seven children, of different ages, were called out from the inner room.
Ronald and the troopers did justice to the food, for they had ridden upwards of sixty miles, and had had nothing to eat save a piece of hard biscuit before starting.
"Now," Mr. Armstrong said, when their appetites were appeased, "tell us by what miracle you arrived here just in time to save us. I thought all the troops in the colony were somewhere near Fort Cox, at least that was the news that came to us yesterday."
"So we were, sir," Ronald said. "A column advanced from there yesterday morning, and were attacked by the Kaffirs in the gorge of the Keiskamma and some twenty or thirty killed and wounded. It occurred through the treachery of the Kaffir police, all of whom deserted last night. Some parties were sent off the first thing this morning to warn the border settlements, but I am afraid that very few of them arrived in time. We shall have terrible tidings, I fear, of this day's work everywhere."
"You are in command of this party?"
"Yes; I got my corporal's stripes the day before yesterday, and I was lucky enough to be chosen to command this detachment, as I knew the country; and now, sir, how did this business begin here?"
"We were at dinner," Mr. Armstrong said, "when without the least notice, just as we had finished, there was a rush through the door. All my friends had brought their rifles with them, and the instant the Kaffirs entered we knew what was up. Those who could caught their rifles, others snatched up table-knives, and the fight began. As you saw, several of our party were killed at once, but the rest of us made such a good fight with our clubbed rifles and knives that for the moment we cleared the room, then two of us held the door while the rest fell back into the inner room, where, fortunately, all the children were at the time, for the table was not large enough to hold us all, and they had had their meal first.
"Directly those who got in there recapped their rifles – for we found that our rascally Hottentot servants had removed the caps while we were at dinner – Thompson and I, who were at the door, fell back. Then, you see, matters were easy enough. Two of us were posted at the door of the inner room, and the moment a native showed himself inside the door of this room he was shot down. Of course we had shut the shutters of the inner room directly we entered, and one of us kept guard there. I don't think the Kaffirs would ever have forced their way in; but no doubt, as soon as they had stripped the house of everything valuable to them, they would have set it on fire, and then we should have had the choice of being burnt out here or being speared outside.
"I need not say that we had all agreed that it was a thousand times better to die here than to trust ourselves to those fiends, who always put their prisoners to death with atrocious tortures. Anyhow, my friends, we owe our lives to you, for sooner or later the end must have come to us. Now what are you going to do? You do not think of pushing on any further, I hope."
"No, I think that would be useless," Ronald said. "The massacre is apparently universal, and evidently began at the same time all along the line. We should be too late to warn any one now. Still," he said, rising suddenly from his seat, "we might not be too late to rescue them. There may be other parties holding out. I hadn't thought of that, and we had better push on further."
"I doubt if our horses can go any further," one of the men said. "Mine could scarcely carry me for the last five miles."
"Yes, that is so," Ronald said. "I think my horse is good for another twenty miles, and the horses of our friends the burghers are quite fresh, so I will leave you here and ride on with them. You will, of course, keep a sharp look-out; but I do not think it likely that they will renew the attack. They must have lost between fifty and sixty men. I will ride on with the burghers to the last settlement along this line. It is not, I think, more than twenty miles further. We will sleep there and return the first thing in the morning. By that time, Mr. Armstrong, you will, I suppose, be ready to move into town."
"Yes, I shall be ready by that time," the farmer said. "I sent off four loads of wheat yesterday morning, and the waggons will be back to-night. I will pack everything I want to take, and we shall be ready to start by the time you return. Of course, I shall drive the cattle with us – that is, if there are any cattle left to drive."
"I saw them in the kraal behind the house as we rode up," Ronald said. "I suppose the Kaffirs thought they might as well finish with you first, and they could then divide the cattle among them at their leisure."
"Well, that's good news," the settler said. "I made sure they were all gone. But don't you think you have done enough for to-day?"
"Yes; don't go any further," Mary Armstrong added.
"I feel that it is my duty to go, Miss Armstrong. I would much rather stay, I can assure you, but it's possible some of the garrisons may be holding out."
"Yes, we are wrong to ask you to stay," Mr. Armstrong said; "but just wait a minute, my horses are kraaled with the cattle. I will bring one round and change the saddles; it will be a pity to founder that splendid horse of yours. You see he has got a lot of English blood in him, and can't go on for ever like our Cape horses."
Five minutes later, mounted on a fresh horse, Ronald started with the burghers. Every farm they visited exhibited a spectacle of desolation; many had been forsaken some time previously, but they had been broken into, and, in many cases, fired. In others, the bodies of the occupants were beneath the embers of their homes; in a few the settlers had not been taken unawares, and stains of blood round the buildings showed that they had sold their lives dearly, and inflicted considerable loss on the Kaffirs before they had succeeded in bursting open the doors. In one little cluster of three or four houses, the bodies of men, women, and children lay scattered about; but one stoutly-built farmhouse, inhabited by a Boer farmer and six sons, had resisted all the attacks of the Kaffirs. The natives had drawn off before the arrival of the troops. The Boer stated that he intended to see it out.
"Two of my sons," he said, "have already driven off the cattle and horses. I have got a couple of cows in milk in the shed adjoining the house, and I shall bring them inside at night. The Kaffirs will never beat down my shutters or door, and one of us will watch by turns, so that we will give it them hot if they do venture to come on; but I think they have had pretty nearly enough of us."
This was the only house where a successful resistance was made, and on getting to the last station the party bivouacked near the ruins of the house, and, placing two men on guard, were soon asleep. They were undisturbed till morning, and mounting as soon as it was daylight, rode back to Mr. Armstrong's station. Three waggons had arrived late the night before, and with the assistance of the troopers were already loaded with furniture and other effects.
Two of the burghers offered to assist Mr. Armstrong in driving his cattle and horses to King Williamstown. The party was accompanied by the other settlers and their families, several of whom had saved their waggons and animals, as the Kaffirs had made their first attack upon Mr. Armstrong, knowing from the Hottentot servants that the settlers from three or four of the adjoining farms would be gathered there. Their defeat, therefore, had saved not only Mr. Armstrong's, but the other farms from pillage. Very warm were the thanks that the settlers, before starting, bestowed upon Ronald and the troopers, and Ronald, as soon as the caravan had started, rode somewhat thoughtfully off with his men to the first place he had visited.
Here they found that the Kaffirs, after they had left, had made a determined attack upon the place, but had been beaten off with much loss after several hours' fighting. The settlers were now, however, occupied in preparing to leave their farms, as the attack might at any moment be renewed, and perhaps with overwhelming numbers. The party of mounted police remained in the village until the following morning, as their horses, after their heavy work on the previous day, were not fit to take the long journey back to the camp. On the following morning they saw the settlers fairly on their way, and then galloped off to rejoin their corps at Fort Cox.
As they ascended a piece of rising ground within a mile of the Fort, and obtained a fair view of it, they reined in their horses simultaneously. The Fort itself appeared silent and deserted, but at a distance of a few hundred yards from it they could see a large number of men moving about.
"Those are not soldiers," Ronald exclaimed, "they must be Kaffirs. By Jove, the place is absolutely besieged. Look at the puffs of smoke. Yes, there can be no doubt about it. I expect the column has gone out again, and the Kaffirs are trying to take it before they return. Well, lads, it's too late in the afternoon now for us to do anything. We had better ride back two or three miles and then camp for the night. In the morning we must try and find out what has taken place, and where the troop have got to."
All agreed that this was the best plan, and they accordingly rode quietly back, as for aught they could tell keen eyes might be upon them. They did not attempt to halt until it was quite dark, when they turned off at right angles to their former course, and after riding for about a mile, encamped in a clump of bushes. They had plenty of cold meat with them, for the settlers had, before starting, filled their haversacks. There was, therefore, no occasion to light a fire, which, indeed, they would in no case have done, as, should a Kaffir catch sight of a light, he would assuredly bring an overpowering force down upon them.
"We will have two out on sentry, and relieve guard every hour," Ronald said, "but we can eat our meal in comfort first. There is no fear of their coming down upon us at present, at any rate."