As for his soldiers, they had about them a solid air of determination. The Barsetshire Regiment was not accustomed to defeat. The reverse of a few days' previous had upset the men for a while, but now they had a gleam in their eyes that spoke of trouble for any who dared to get in their way.
As the day shifted into afternoon the head of the column topped a rise. Pike peered into the distance and saw rooftops shimmering through the heat haze above a fortified wall. Atop the little hill the southerly wind seemed fresher, and held the rich scent of flowing water and vegetation. Pike could just see the gleam of the river beyond the town. He turned his head and called back to the column. "Sarn't-Major? Halt the men and come up here."
The company stopped, and the dust cloud began to settle out of the air. CSM Harrington strode up the slope and came to a halt beside Fred. "Sir?"
Fred pointed to the distant settlement. "Unless I miss my guess, that's Fahtah." Pike allowed a smile to touch his dry lips. "We're nearly home."
Harrington tipped his pith helmet back and mopped his sweating brow with a grubby handkerchief as he surveyed the distant town and the immediate area. "It's right good to know, sir. Even so, we'd best keep sharp." He looked thoughtful as he gestured to the thick belt of scrub that edged the ridge crossing their front. "I don't like the look of that lot, sir."
Pike rubbed his jaw with a rasp of stubble. "I think you're right. Very well, we'll stay sharp. Bring the chaps up in line, and we'll advance when we know what's what."
The company marched up the slope and over the crest. "Sir?" Harrington pointed ahead. "We've got visitors."
Pike followed the direction he pointed and sighed inwardly. They'd succeeded in evading the Gwunda tribal warrior bands, but now it seemed they had caught up. The scrub looked alive with dark bodies, flitting in and out of the shadows. "Form firing line," Pike barked. Harrington gave the orders, and the company shook out into the classic double rank of the British Line.
As the warband gathered to spring from below, Pike couldn't help but reflect wryly on the formation change forced on him by battle casualties, which themselves had occurred due to the new unit organization handed down from on high. With most of the company formed up in mass instead of by sections, he now had a much beefed-up firing line - which would've saved them in the previous encounter. He glanced speculatively at the warband. It remains to be seen how it'll affect those fellows.
Even as he watched the warriors screamed their war-cry and charged across the little valley. They poured from the undergrowth, and looked to number at least as many as the men from Barsetshire. Harrington nodded in satisfaction and hefted his rifle. "Company-y-y..!" he roared. "Present! Fire!"
From the first he saw the native charge lacked impetus. Three of his men fell beneath savage blows, but the rest gave better than they got, plying bayonet and clubbed rifles with fierce determination. After what seemed mere seconds the warband drew off, leaving plenty of dead and dying.
The wind came from the south, bearing wails of pain and fear. It also served to disperse the smoke from the little valley. After some minutes the scene became clear. Harrington stepped up beside him. Pike glanced at the tough CSM and saw he looked annoyed. "What's wrong, Sarn't-Major?"
"I'm going to have to work on our musketry, sir." Harrington pointed into the valley. "The men didn't allow for the downward slope. They fired high and only caught the rear of that band. We should've stopped them cold down there."
Pike smiled. "It wasn't so bad, Albert." He indicated the body of a well-dressed native. "If you look, it seems we did kill their leader. These fellows looked nervous from the first, so that fellow must've been whipping them in from behind. It's just his bad luck that's where our fire struck hardest."
Harrington looked thoughtful then gave a sour grin. "I suppose you're right sir. I'll still have to tighten up our drill, though."
"As you wish, Albert." Pike looked around. "I think enemy's gone far deeper into the bush. Check our men. Those who're dead will have to abide here until we come back. We'll get a move on now."
Harrington nodded and sketched a salute. Under command, the company descended into the valley. They'd scarce reached the bottom before another war-cry split the air. Surprised, Pike shot a look over to the left flank where another war band charged out of the scrub. "Action left!" he shouted, but Harrington had already headed that way.
The fight took even less time than the first, although the men had been unable to fire. Their fighting spirit and the bayonet won out again over the natives, who withdrew sullenly. Harrington turned half the platoon to face them then got on with doing what he did best, directing rapid aimed fire into an enemy. The warband melted under three stinging volleys of Martini-Henry fire. Pike saw Marksman Lewis take careful aim at a prancing figure much like the dead leader lying close by. The man jumped and staggered as Lewis' bullet struck, but he got up and ran away, his fellows close behind him. Lewis shook his head ruefully as the men stood-down and chafed him in good-natured fashion over his poor aim. Lewis still wore a bandage from the wound suffered in the last encounter with the Gwunda tribe, and held this up as mitigation for his poor aim.
"It sounded like Arabic, sir." Pike held up his hand to the fellow and uttered a brief phrase in the same language, hesitating over some of the words. The fellow nodded and began to walk toward them.
Pike shot an admiring glance at Harrington. "That's rather good, Sarn't-Major. I didn't know you spoke the lingo."
"Just enough to get by in the marketplace, sir. If this fellow wants to talk, I'd suggest Mr. Carstairs should take over. He speaks fluent Arabic." Harrington hesitated. "I do believe the fellow has a monkey on his shoulder."
Pike sent a runner back to the civilian group, and DC Carstairs came forward as the Arab fellow reached Pike. Greetings were exchanged. Carstairs and the Arab began to converse at a rapid rate. Pike watched the monkey, who picked its nose and gazed back with mild interest.
Eventually Carstairs turned to Pike. "This is Mustapha ibn Daud, the Al-qadi, or mayor, of Fahtah. He wishes to surrender the town to us if we agree to good treatment of his people. I've assured him we have no hostile intent there."
"I should think not," Pike said, but ibn Daud had begun speaking again. Carstairs listened for a few moments then began a simultaneous translation. "Mr. ibn Daud tells me a band of Zanzibari slavers passed through but yesterday. Their leader ordered ibn Daud to muster his men and refuse us entrance, and to fire upon us should we attempt to enter the town." He frowned. "He says they took his youngest daughter Fatima hostage against his cooperation."
"The hounds!" Pike exclaimed.
"Quite." Carstairs listened some more and nodded. "The gentleman thinks a slaver spy is still in the town, so he disguised himself and came out to contact us before we reached there."
"I see. The eye-patch speaks for itself, but the monkey's a nice touch." Pike smiled. "Who'd suspect a fellow with a monkey of being up to no good?"
"Just so. He tells me he'd happily lead the way with us, and his men will keep watch from the walls to ensure the natives don't molest us during the approach."
"That seems fair enough." Pike rubbed his jaw, well aware they still stood on a battlefield. "But what of his daughter? Would the slavers not harm her if ibn Daud breaks his word?"
Carstairs put this question to the Al-qadi, who shook his head in lugubrious fashion and said something. Carstairs shook his head too. "He says his daughter will cease to be of value to them if he demonstrates he will not be swayed. They will not harm her in that case. I only hope he's right, for the poor girl's sake."
Pike sighed. "I see. Can we trust him?"
Carstairs nodded. "I'm sure we can."
"So be it. Let's get moving. The sooner we're in the shelter of the walls the better for the wounded."
Pike ordered the company into a column two men wide and led the way up and over the hill. The column could turn to face either side and be in firing formation at a moment's notice. Stirrings in the bush told of natives still present, so Pike knew his precaution to be sound. "Keep watch, men! Those fellows look ready to make more trouble."
"If it saves us and them from more needless casualties, then I'm glad of it!" Pike retorted.
* * * *And so ends the Barsetshire's Trek to Fahtah. I'll post a few notes on the game at a later date, time and work permitting.