'Orders, sir?' Harrington prompted. Pike glanced at him. 'Hmm? Not yet, Sergeant. Let me think.'
What on earth is there to think about? Harrington wondered. We're here to do a job, not contemplate infinity.
'There, sir!' Corporal Gedge called from the end of Pike's section. He pointed to the area of scrub and bushes on the right flank. 'Someone running, over there!'
'It could be a scout, sir,' Harrington said to Lt. Pike. 'We'd better assume the natives will know we're coming.'
Pike sighed. 'Very well, Sergeant. Move your section forward ten paces and halt. I'll leap-frog my platoon past yours. That way we'll be covered if anything else comes out of the undergrowth.'
'Yessir,' Harrington saluted, barked his orders and his section moved forward.
Harrington kept the section's pace steady, and halted them on the line. Lt. Pike called out the command to advance, and his section moved up and through the line of Harrington's men. Nothing emerged from the scrub. Harrington sighed inwardly. I didn't expect anything, either. He watched the lieutenant ordering his section into an open box formation. There's caution, and then there's paranoia. Why bother with cumbersome maneuvers? This is Africa, man, not bloody Waterloo!
Meanwhile, in the village, Chief Bubbalazi sat by the storage hut. He weighed up the stash of trade goods confiscated from the idiotic white trader who'd ventured into his lands. Ahuru, his number one wife, worked at the oven nearby, preparing the next meal. From time to time he noticed her casting glances at a crate which he knew contained several bolts of trade cloth. Bubbalazi could guess what her next request would be.He was contemplating a mental image of Ahuru dressed head to foot in fine red calico, when a warrior ran in through the gate. The man saluted. 'Red warriors on the river bank, lord!' he shouted in obvious excitement.
'What?' Bubbalazi roared and sprang out of his seat. That red-clad warriors of the Great White Queen lived farther up the coast was common knowledge, but they'd never ventured into Ukraziland before now. 'What do they here?' Even as he uttered the words, he knew just what the white men were after. He cast a glance at the hut where the trader lay prisoner. 'We'll see about this!' he snapped. 'N'Kwana-a-a!'
His sub-chieftain emerged from his hut, spear in hand to answer Bubbalazi's summons. 'Lord?' he said, looking from Bubbalazi to the sentry and back.
Bubbalazi pointed his ceremonial baton at the sub-chief then swept it in an arc to point south. 'We have red warriors on our lands, N'Kwana, down by the river. See them off!'
N'Kwana's teeth flashed in a fierce grin. He turned and saw his warband already assembling behind him. A quick head count showed him ten warriors present, with others emerging from field and hut at the summons. 'Follow me!' he shouted, waved his spear and ran for the gate.
Bubbalazi watched him go with hooded eyes. Glory hound! Jackal! he thought. Let the gods grant you do us some good, but not at my expense!
Lt. Pike led his men forward to the line of the watercourse, all the while casting wary glances at the vegetation to either side. To his relief the gully was devoid of water, the stony bed long dried under the burning sun of the dry season. 'Halt!' he called, raising his hand. The village was clearly visible now across the gully. Shouts and cries sounded from that direction. I hope I haven't taken too long to get here, he thought. Less haste and more speed, as the good Reverend used to say, but there's a time and place for everything.
He looked back to see if Sergeant Harrington was moving up. The gentleman ranker seemed capable and level-headed. Pike felt sure he'd be reliable in a pinch.
'Sir!' someone shouted. Pike glanced up, saw a private pointing north, followed the direction of his gaze - and saw a perfect mass of tribal warriors boiling out through the village gate.
And so it proved. With horrifying swiftness the warriors surged across the gully as if it wasn't there and slammed into Pike's formation. In seconds the British line was engulfed in a hacking, stabbing melee, with no quarter asked nor given. A warrior sprang at Pike, teeth bared, spear raised to thrust. Pike emptied his revolver into him and saw the man fall.
Something slammed into his ribs and he felt a hot, scouring pain shoot through him. Stunned, Pike stumbled, and saw a warrior standing over him, bloodied spear raised. From the plumage on his head the man had to be the leader of the warband. With a snarl the warrior thrust again. Pike turned, avoided the fatal thrust, but screamed in pain as the spear point raked along his thigh. He felt a blow to the head and the lights went out.
Battered, decimated, confused, the British soldiers fell back to the second line, fighting all the way. Flushed with success the warriors followed-up, and the whole mass crashed into the second line.Harrington saw them coming, but couldn't fire through fear of hitting his own troops. Instead he found himself fighting for his life in the middle of a ferocious melee.
A new threat appeared on the British left flank. Unseen by the red soldiers, the mercenary Sunny N'Sher had threaded his command through the thick tangle of undergrowth and into a prime enfilade position. He steadied his musketeers as he watched the fierce hand to hand combat, and awaited the right moment to fire.
Men fell right and left, but Harrington fought on, his rifle growing increasingly heavy in his hands as he jabbed and thrust with the bayonet. Pike's section had become thoroughly entangled with his own by now. A brief glance showed all those who could reach the second line had done so. 'Fall back to the bank!' Harrington roared over the shouts and screams of battle. 'Fall back to the bank!'
His command was heard and obeyed. Fighting off the tribesmen the men ran back and began to form line. Right back where we bloody well started! Harrington thought, backing away at a smart clip, his face to the foe. God, who'd be a soldier?The men looked nervous, fingering their Martin-Henry rifles and watching the enemy. The warriors seemed to have decided celebration was in order. They capered in exuberant fashion on the site of their successful skirmish. Harrington watched their leader trying to get his men under control. Good luck with that, old boy, he thought. I rather fancy my chaps are more amenable to discipline. Lt. Pike had vanished. No time to waste.
'Form line!' Harrington bellowed, pushing men into position when they proved slow to act. 'Form line, if you want to see Barchester again!'The men obeyed, forming a rough line facing the enemy. 'Five rounds rapid!' Harrington called. 'Present! Fire!'
Rifles barked, smoke jetted from muzzles, and the solid British infantry proved once again how they dealt with all who faced them in battle. Harrington nodded with fierce satisfaction as the capering party of warriors fell almost as one. The leader spun and dropped, the bright feathers in his hat turning blood red.
Gunfire erupted from the left. Harrington looked that way and swore when he saw a band of tribal musketeers had appeared at the edge of the scrub.
The immediate threat to the front had vanished. 'Steady lads!' Harrington called, even as Private Lipton gasped and fell to a shot from the brush. 'Platoon, left wheel!' The men marched forward obediently, pivoting to face the enemy. 'Halt! Let's give 'em what for, lads. Volley fire, present, fire!'The rifles crashed again. Covered as they were by vegetation the enemy musketeers suffered only lightly, but Harrington suspected their numbers to be few. 'Independent fire!' he called.
The men blazed away. Within minutes the return fire slackened then died away. Harrington caught a glimpse of dark bodies slipping away into the scrub. 'That's the ticket, men! Cease fire.'
With the latest threat negated, he took stock of the situation. Off in the direction of the gully he could see another warband moving up toward the scrub on the right, with the obvious intention of flanking his line. 'We'll see about that,' he muttered under his breath. 'Corporal Gedge! Take six men and line 'em up, facing that scrub.'
Gedge nodded and barked commands. Harrington lined his own men to face the direction of the enemy musketeers. I think they've buggered off, but it pays to be sure, he thought.
Assistant Surgeon Barrington walked up from the river bank, puffing his pipe and looking as calm as if he were on a Sunday morning stroll. He nodded in response to Harrington's salute, and bent to inspect the fallen Private Lipton. 'He'll live, Sergeant,' he called after a few moments. 'I'll take care of him.''Thank you, sir,' Harrington replied.
A volley suddenly crashed out over to the right. Harrington looked across to see the enemy warband had emerged from the scrub - right under the noses of Corporal Gedge's party. Three rounds rapid dealt with that threat. Within minutes the warriors had melted back into the brush, never to return.
Harrington surveyed the scene. The situation looked far more promising. His men were steady now, and, with Lt. Pike missing, his to command. He thought about the mission, and felt it still within their grasp to complete successfully.With Gedge's party watching the right flank and his own the left, Harrington ordered the advance. With steady tread the platoon moved off in the direction of the gully. They'd barely covered a few yards before the eerie throb of talking drums filled the air. The troops glanced at each other. Harrington narrowed his eyes. 'Steady as she goes, lads. Keep your eyes peeled, there. What the - ?'
Feet scuffled as bhisti-wallah Manit Ram and Tobias the bearer ran for the river, their thin wails of fright merging in strange harmony. Harrington rolled his eyes and kept walking. All the blood and violence they've seen today, and those two take fright at the sound of a drum?
Before long the advance reached the line of Lt. Pike's desperate stand. Harrington looked around the scene. Private Rodman was obviously dead, his unseeing eyes fixed on the blue sky above. His belly had been slashed open, entrails spilled into a fly-covered blue heap. Farther along Lt. Pike lay in a crumpled heap, his eyes closed. Harrington trotted over and checked for a pulse. He felt the faint throb beneath his fingertips, and inspected the lieutenant's wounds. He'd suffered a bad stab to his side below the ribs, a blow to the head and a gashed leg, but at least he was alive.
Surgeon Barrington had already come up to the fighting line and came at Harrington's call. He knelt to inspect Pike and nodded. 'Another one who'll live to fight another day,' he pronounced with satisfaction.
Harrington smiled. One less thing to worry about. 'Then if you'll see to him, sir, I'll conclude today's business.'
He could see no sign of further surprises lurking nearby, and took his first good look at the village. The palisade surrounding it offered an effective barrier to wild beasts, but little in the way of military defense. Tribesmen moved there beyond a rough barrier formed from mimosa bushes. They seemed disinclined to come out to play.
'Corporal Gedge, form up on me,' he called. Gedge and his men trotted into position. 'Form line,' Harrington ordered, indicating a position beneath the lip of the gully. 'Rose, Moss, stand by me here,' he added, pointing to the top of the bank. 'Everyone load if you haven't already done so.'
Fresh ammunition went from pouch to breach. 'The target is those fellows at the village gate,' Harrington said, indicating. 'Volley fire by command. Present...' Rifle butts moved to shoulders. 'Fire!'
The gully filled with smoke as the volley crashed out. From his elevated position on the bank, Harrington could see chips of white wood appear on the palisade logs as bullets struck home.
Before long the men found their range and poured fire into the village. Harrington alternated between gauging the effectiveness of the fire and watching the surrounding terrain for enemy activity. The increasing heat haze made it difficult to see, but he felt in his gut the tribesmen no longer posed a threat outside their village. The talking drum had long since stopped. Whoever the summons had been addressed to had failed to respond.
Something pink fluttered over the line of brush in the village gateway. Harrington squinted. Is that a parasol? He watched it move violently back and forth then remembered certain tribal leaders favored the parasol as a kind of personal standard. Another volley crashed out, and he saw the parasol jerk as if hit. He could hear the cries of wounded men over there. Now he could make out the cries of women and children. 'Cease fire,' he ordered. 'Stand easy.' His ears rang in the sudden silence, but he could still hear the cries. The parasol appeared again, waggled this time with greater force. 'I think they want to talk.''Can you trust 'em, sarge?' Corporal Gedge wondered.
'I think we can, George,' Harrington replied. He sucked his teeth for a moment then nodded. 'Let's see. Form line, and follow me.'
He walked through the single rank of the platoon, trying not to think of the men who'd fallen this day, and crossed the stony floor of the gully. Figures moved in the village and the mimosa barrier was pushed aside far enough for a small procession to emerge. Harrington saw a portly individual dressed in the garb of a tribal chieftain, accompanied by a curious-looking individual carrying the parasol and wearing what appeared to be a Greek chiton. A white man in pith helmet and khaki jacket walked behind them, escorted by a bare-breasted female warrior toting a musket.
Harrington climbed the low north bank of the gully, and came to parade rest, not taking his eyes off the group coming to meet him. The parasol man stopped a few paces off, produced a low stool and placed it for the chieftain to sit on, which he did with a grateful wheeze. He glared at Harrington, who stared coolly back. The woman warrior used her musket to stop the white man in his tracks. Harrington guessed he had to be Willoughby Pond. Pond stared at him with undisguised anxiety. Beyond a profusion of sweat and scuffed clothing, he looked none the worse for wear from his captivity.
Someone in the village began to kick up a deuce of a row, wailing like a sackful of banshees. Harrington ignored it, keeping his attention focused on the chieftain. 'You wish to parlay, sir,' he said.
Chiton-wearer translated this to the chieftain, who didn't soften his glare. He growled something in reply, and chiton-wearer turned to Harrington. 'Great Chieftain Bubbalazi says you have come to his land with war in your hearts.' The man's voice sounded cultured, his English accent flawless, and Harrington wondered if he'd attended a British public school. It'll be a rum go if he was at Rugby with me, he thought. Although, with that dress, he could be an Old Harrovian...
He raised his chin. 'We come seeking our compatriot, this gentleman here. We were attacked by your warriors without warning, without a chance to speak. The White Queen will be very angry. Give us our friend and we'll depart in peace.'
This was translated. The chieftain glowered then gestured to the woman warrior. She jabbed Pond with her musket, and he tottered forward. 'Oh, my dear chap!' he cried, all but falling on Harrington.
'Go to the rear, sir,' Harrington snapped, not feeling well-disposed toward a man who'd caused so much death. 'We'll take our leave here, momentarily.'
'My goods, sir,' Pond murmured, pawing at Harrington's sleeve. 'What about all my trade goods?'
Harrington gave him a look of pure disgust. 'Men died because of your goods, sir,' he snapped. 'Be thankful you're here with your hide intact. Now go to the rear!'
Pond sloped off like a beaten cur. The chieftain spoke again, and Harrington looked to the interpreter. 'Great Chieftain Bubbalazi says he does not wish conflict between our peoples. He desires you to tell the White Queen to keep her followers in her lands, as he'll keep his in ours.'
'That seems fair enough,' Harrington said, although privately he doubted the Powers That Be would keep from interfering in Ukraziland. 'Please tell him we do not seek to reclaim the trader's goods. Let them be some measure of compensation for his losses today.'
The chieftain nodded approval when this was passed on. Harrington came to attention and saluted. 'Thank you, sir. We'll collect our dead and wounded, and depart.'
* * *Much later, Harrington leaned on the taffrail of the Altair, smoking a well-earned cigarette as he watched the sun go down over the Ukrazi Delta, and thought on the events of the day.
Lt. Pike lay below, as comfortable as he could be made with his wounds. Privates Walters, Lipton and Harrison, Burke, Dyer and O'Shea lay severely wounded too, and it remained to be seen how they would fare. Privates Hayward, Walker, Granger and Rodman would soon lie in a corner of a foreign field that would be forever England. As for Willoughby Pond, his profuse expressions of gratitude were being met with polite - and less than polite - rebuff from the men. In consequence he'd retired to a cabin to sulk.
The last sliver of sun dipped below the horizon and the equatorial dusk came down with its customary rapidity. Harrington heard voices raised in song from somewhere forward, as the men gathered on deck and unwound from the horrors of the day. He pitched the cigarette over the side, watching the red spark trail downward to disappear in the white foaming wake. Enough dwelling on what's done, Albert, old son, he thought. Tomorrow's another day in Her Majesty's service. For tonight, I reckon I've earned my rest.
Turning his back on Africa, he went forward to join his men.
* * *