Harrington eyed the platoon as it formed up into firing line astride the trail. "Come along, come along! Let's be having you. Georgie G'wunda won't wait on your dilly-dallying!"
One of the deadliest implements of Victorian warfare - the Thin Red Line.
The platoon had advanced across the savanna in skirmish order, but on approaching the objective Captain Pike had ordered it into firing line. Harrington glanced at the Captain where he stood examining the distant hill through his binoculars, with Bugler Bates and anthropologist Dr. Emil Beckenbaur of Hetzenberg University beside him. Fred's sniffing the wind. He's developed a nose for trouble in his time out here. Harrington looked over to the right, where the Volunteers were closing on the wood. And I hope that silly ass Tuck-Poynter doesn't find it first!
The presence of the Volunteers, all ten of them, had been a sore bone of contention for the platoon. Amateurs to a man, the Volunteers were led by Harrington's old Harrovian bête noire, Nugent "Brickie" Tuck-Poynter. A mixture of social classes, they’d proven game and quick to adapt to conditions in the field, which drew Harrington’s grudging approbation. The rest of the platoon had scoffed in the way old soldiers do. It would take a lot more action on the Volunteers’ part to win their approval.
Harrington ran over to Pike who handed him the binoculars. “Take a look at that hut on the forward slope of the hill.”
Harrington soon found the object, adjusted the focus and scanned the humble dwelling. A number of western goods stood outside the door, and he could make out the squat form of a well to one side. On the other side a small field of millet waved in the north-westerly breeze. “No sign of life, sir.”
“No. It appears the Reverend Tyler has quite vanished.” Pike rubbed his left thigh, an unconscious gesture he made when thinking deeply. He’d suffered a wound there in a fierce skirmish when the regiment had first come to Africa in search of a missing merchant. Now on their way north, they searched for a missing missionary...
Pike took back his binoculars. “Something’s in the wind, Sarn’t-Major.” He looked to where the Volunteers approached a small wood. They’d been ordered to scout it, but they did so with every appearance of trepidation. “If those chaps want to play soldier, we’ll let them do so.”
“Sir!” A shout came from the left. Harrington saw one of the new men pointing urgently at a stand of scrub some yards away. Birds flew up from the cover, shrieking their alarm calls. Dark figures moved there.
Pike looked at the assembling mass and nodded, as if he’d been told the cricket score at Lords. “Well spotted... ah, Barlow? Good eyes, that man.”
“Yes, George Barlow, sir. New recruit.” Harrington came to attention. “Permission to take post, sir?”
“Please do, Sarn’t-Major. I intend to left wheel and face those fellows.”
The bugle sounded. Under the urging of Harrington and the other non-coms the platoon wheeled to face the burgeoning threat. Harrington checked the Volunteers. They’ve made little progress into the wood, but at least they’ll act as a tripwire should anyone come at us from that direction.
After that he turned his attention to the oncoming tribesmen. Menace filled their very being. A small shiver ran down his spine in recollection of the platoon’s first foray into G’wundaland. At least we’re now familiar with these gentlemen and their ways.
Pike eyed the diminishing distance. When he judged the moment right, he raised his arm and barked his orders. “Platoon! Five rounds rapid! Make ready! Fire!”
The deadly volleys crashed; the Martini-Henry bullets harrowed the oncoming warriors, cutting great swathes through their number. Men fell and the warband shuddered and stopped. Through the smoke Harrington could see a leader waving his spear not at the Barsetshires but to the rear of his band. Slowly, reluctantly, the natives withdrew. One last volley and the bugle blew cease fire.
“Good work, men.” Pike’s voice sounded loud in the sudden silence that followed the last volley. “You’ve seen them off. Sarn’t-Major, realign across the trail. Keep an eye on those fellows in the wood.”
“Sir.” Harrington resumed his position on the right of the line, the better to check the platoon’s alignment and watch the activity in the wood. It wasn’t long before trouble started with a rustling in the scrub just north of the little patch of woodland. “Sir!”
Pike shouted back. “I see ‘em! Saints alive, the Volunteers are in for a hot time!”
Native appeared out of the brush, ghosts become flesh in the afternoon heat. They moved with cunning, flitting into the wood before the platoon could get a bearing on them and give fire in support of the Volunteers. Harrington's heart gave a lurch as a wild scream rang through the sultry air. Dark shapes rushed through the streams of light coming through the trees and within seconds the sounds of combat arose.
Harrington had been in combat enough times to know how time seemed to dilate when it came to fisticuffs. The fighting in the wood went on a long time by his measure.
Eventually a single figure emerged from the wood, bloodied and staggering, new clothes torn, broad brimmed hat still on his head but skewed at a rakish angle. Harrington waved. “Brickie! Over here man!”
The Old Harrovian swayed, peered like a drunkard in the CSM’s direction then tottered over to the platoon on unsteady legs. “They’re dead,” he mumbled as he came up, slurring like a drunkard too. “They’re all dead.” Tuck-Poynter’s eyes streamed with tears as Harrington took his arm. “My men fought like demons but there’s too many of ‘em. I...”
Corporal White glanced at Harrington and offered his canteen to the broken man. Knowing White, Harrington suspected it contained something a little stronger than water but declined to comment. Tuck-Poynter accepted the offer and drank deep. After a few moments he seemed to regain some of his composure. Handing the canteen back with a grateful nod to White, he resumed his tale. “I was the only man standing. The natives... they made to surround me. I remembered what the old gymnastics master at school told us, Horrible.”
Harrington winced inwardly at the use of his old nickname. White tried to hide a smile. His face turned blank when Harrington gave him a hard glance. “Old ‘Smasher’ Smethurst?”
“The very same." Tuck-Poynter grinned manically. "‘If faced by a bully, then face him like a man!’ I faced the leader of that band, challenged him by signs to fight me man-to-man. I think I surprised the fellow but he was game.
“We squared off. He came at me with arms wide but I tapped him, one-two Marquis of Queensbury fashion, and he went down on his arse.” Tuck-Poynter giggled, a note of incipient hysteria in his voice. “He and his chums looked so surprised I took my chance and hoofed it!”
Harrington gripped his old school chum’s shoulder. “Have some more of Corporal White’s medicine, Brickie. You’re safe now.”
George White looked a little embarrassed at Harrington’s dig, but gamely offered his canteen again.
Pike came up. “What news, Sarn’t-Major?” Harrington filled him in. “Ah, bad show, that.” Pike looked at the wood where dark forms lurked, his expression grim. “We’d better address the matter. Left wheel, Sarn’t-Major.”
Harrington took over. “Platoon! By the left, wheel!”
He and Captain Pike watched as the left flank of the platoon marched forward at a steady pace until the line faced the wood. “Platoon, halt!”
Feet crashed, dust rose, and the line of Barsetshire men faced the enemy. Pike raised hand and voice. “Five rounds rapid... fire!”
The volleys crashed out, gunsmoke drifting away down the line as bullets slashed through the wood. Screams and cries rose and Harrington could see the natives recoil under the impact. Within minutes they’d fled the wood, leaving a few bodies behind. “Cease fire!” he shouted.
Pike scanned the area, assessing the situation. “Right wheel!”
The platoon responded like a well-oiled machine, wheeling by the right to face north-west and the scrub to one side of the rudimentary track. Pike pointed to the western side of the steep knoll, beyond the scrub. A mass of men appeared to be gathering there. “There’s our next threat. We’ll deal with them, by-the-by. Stand easy a moment, men. Drink some water.”
Harrington saw Tuck-Poynter had calmed down after his near-death escape. Whilst he felt sorry for his old school-fellow, there were other issues to take care of. He went down the line, ensuring the corporals were seeing to their men and that ammunition was ready in sufficient amount. When satisfied he returned to his position on the end of the line, ready for Pike’s next order.
It wasn’t long coming. “Atten-shun!”
The platoon hastily dropped their canteens on their slings and came to attention. The native mass, a threatening body of some fifty or so were moving toward the platoon through the scrub, menace plain in their bearing. Pike waited until the main part of the warband had emerged from the scrub before barking his next order. “Shoulder arms! Present arms! Load!” Up and down the line twenty-four thumbs pressed fat cartridges home into twenty-four breeches. The natives came on. “Make ready!” The range dropped to scant thirty yards. “Volley fire, by command – fire!”
Rifles blazed, dun colored smoke gushed and the volley tore through the warband. It recoiled, but Harrington’s experienced eye told him only a few fell. “Fire!”
Shock mounts up fast in the G'Wunda warband, stopping it in its tracks.
Volleys crashed, one after the other. The native horde seemed to shiver and came no further. More men fell there. The Men of Barsetshire perspired as they rammed cartridges into their Martini-Henrys and plied their weapons to telling effect. Eventually, with evident reluctance, the warband retired back into the scrub.
Harrington squinted, his eyes stinging with gun smoke. The bugle called the cease fire and the world fell quiet.
“Is that it?” someone in the ranks asked.
“Quiet there, Moss,” Harrington said without heat. “Thank your lucky stars they didn’t come to grips.” Now his ears ceased ringing he could hear the moans and cries of the wounded natives.
Pike came up and also looked in that direction. “We’ll attend to those poor devils shortly.”
“Right sir. We didn’t see any of their musketeers or archers this time.”
“No.” Pike rubbed his jaw. “Colonel Trollope told me there’s a rumor the Belgians are active to the west of G’Wundaland. Perhaps the tribe is busy with those. In any case, now the area is clear we can investigate the Reverend’s hut over there and see if we can find any trace of him.”
The hut proved empty of humanity but showed evident signs of systematic looting. A plain wooden cross had been smashed and discarded at the foot of the wall where it once hung. As Harrington and Pike looked around the one-room dwelling Harrington spotted something odd. Stooping, he moved a bed pallet aside and picked up a long scarf of bright scarlet silk which had been partially covered by the bedding. A delicate perfume filled the air around it. “Sir? It looks like a woman was here.”
“Really” Pike examined the article, fingering the smooth material. “Arabic, if I’m any judge.”
“Yes, sir. It’s what I think.” He looked around again at the few pathetic remnants of a hard religious life lived on the edge of tolerance. “Something tells me the G’Wunda tribe aren’t responsible for this.”
Pike nodded, his expression thoughtful. “I think you’re right. This looting, the broken cross, all bear the hallmarks of slavers. And that scarf... Y’know, Albert, the Al-quadi’s daughter is still missing. Too much of a coincidence should this scarf prove to be hers, do you think?”
“It’s possible, Fred. It’s dashed odd they’ve kept her as a hostage when her old man said they wouldn’t.”
“Hmm, quite.” Pike sighed. “Well, we’d better move on, do what we came here for. Perhaps the Reverend and the young lass will turn up yet.”
Harrington nodded. ‘We can but hope.”
The command party meet atop the hill to confer.
Will Tyler's Knoll solve the British army's G'Wundaland headache?
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The cold still lingers but I'm feeling much better. Thoughts on the game and how it played out soon.