Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER XIII

The Drift of the Letaba

The dusk was gathering fast as we neared the stream. From the stagnant reaches above and below a fine white mist was rising, but the long shallows of the ford were clear. My heart was beginning to flutter wildly, but I kept a tight grip on myself and prayed for patience. As I stared into the evening my hopes sank. I had expected, foolishly enough, to see on the far bank some sign of my friends, but the tall bush was dead and silent.

The drift slants across the river at an acute angle, roughly S.S.W. I did not know this at the time, and was amazed to see the van of the march turn apparently up stream. Laputa’s great voice rang out in some order which was repeated down the column, and the wide flanks of the force converged on the narrow cart-track which entered the water. We had come to a standstill while the front ranks began the passage.

I sat shaking with excitement, my eyes straining into the gloom. Water holds the evening light for long, and I could make out pretty clearly what was happening. The leading horsemen rode into the stream with Laputa in front. The ford is not the best going, so they had to pick their way, but in five or ten minutes they were over. Then came some of the infantry of the flanks, who crossed with the water to their waists, and their guns held high above their heads. They made a portentous splashing, but not a sound came from their throats. I shall never know how Laputa imposed silence on the most noisy race on earth. Several thousand footmen must have followed the riders, and disappeared into the far bush. But not a shot came from the bluffs in front.

I watched with a sinking heart. Arcoll had failed, and there was to be no check at the drift. There remained for me only the horrors at Inanda’s Kraal. I resolved to make a dash for freedom, at all costs, and was in the act of telling Arcoll’s man to cut my bonds, when a thought occurred to me.

Henriques was after the rubies, and it was his interest to get Laputa across the river before the attack began. It was Arcoll’s business to split the force, and above all to hold up the leader. Henriques would tell him, and for that matter he must have assumed himself, that Laputa would ride in the centre of the force. Therefore there would be no check till the time came for the priest’s litter to cross.

It was well that I had not had my bonds cut. Henriques came riding towards me, his face sharp and bright as a ferret’s. He pulled up and asked if I were safe. My Kaffir showed my strapped elbows and feet, and tugged at the cords to prove their tightness.

‘Keep him well,’ said Henriques, ‘or you will answer to Inkulu. Forward with him now and get him through the water.’ Then he turned and rode back.

My warder, apparently obeying orders, led me out of the column and into the bush on the right hand. Soon we were abreast of the litter and some twenty yards to the west of it. The water gleamed through the trees a few paces in front. I could see the masses of infantry converging on the drift, and the churning like a cascade which they made in the passage.

Suddenly from the far bank came an order. It was Laputa’s voice, thin and high-pitched, as the Kaffir cries when he wishes his words to carry a great distance. Henriques repeated it, and the infantry halted. The riders of the column in front of the litter began to move into the stream.

We should have gone with them, but instead we pulled our horses back into the darkness of the bush. It seemed to me that odd things were happening around the priest’s litter. Henriques had left it, and dashed past me so close that I could have touched him. From somewhere among the trees a pistol-shot cracked into the air.

As if in answer to a signal the high bluff across the stream burst into a sheet of fire. ‘A sheet of fire’ sounds odd enough for scientific warfare. I saw that my friends were using shot-guns and firing with black powder into the mob in the water. It was humane and it was good tactics, for the flame in the grey dusk had the appearance of a heavy battery of ordnance. Once again I heard Henriques’ voice. He was turning the column to the right. He shouted to them to get into cover, and take the water higher up. I thought, too, that from far away I heard Laputa.

These were maddening seconds. We had left the business of cutting my bonds almost too late. In the darkness of the bush the strips of hide could only be felt for, and my Kaffir had a woefully blunt knife. Reims are always tough to sever, and mine had to be sawn through. Soon my arms were free, and I was plucking at my other bonds. The worst were those on my ankles below the horse’s belly. The Kaffir fumbled away in the dark, and pricked my beast so that he reared and struck out. And all the while I was choking with impatience, and gabbling prayers to myself.

The men on the other side had begun to use ball-cartridge. I could see through a gap the centre of the river, and it was filled with a mass of struggling men and horses’. I remember that it amazed me that no shot was fired in return. Then I remembered the vow, and was still more amazed at the power of a ritual on that savage horde.

The column was moving past me to the right. It was a disorderly rabble which obeyed Henriques’ orders. Bullets began to sing through the trees, and one rider was hit in the shoulder and came down with a crash. This increased the confusion, for most of them dismounted and tried to lead their horses in the cover. The infantry coming in from the wings collided with them, and there was a struggle of excited beasts and men in the thickets of thorn and mopani. And still my Kaffir was trying to get my ankles loose as fast as a plunging horse would let him. At last I was free, and dropped stiffly to the ground. I fell prone on my face with cramp, and when I got up I rolled like a drunk man. Here I made a great blunder. I should have left my horse with my Kaffir, and bidden him follow me. But I was too eager to be cautious, so I let it go, and crying to the Kaffir to await me, I ran towards the litter.

Henriques had laid his plans well. The column had abandoned the priest, and by the litter were only the two bearers. As I caught sight of them one fell with a bullet in his chest. The other, wild with fright, kept turning his head to every quarter of the compass. Another bullet passed close to his head. This was too much for him, and with a yell he ran away.

As I broke through the thicket I looked to the quarter whence the bullets had come. These, I could have taken my oath, were not fired by my friends on the farther bank. It was close-quarter shooting, and I knew who had done it. But I saw nobody. The last few yards of the road were clear, and only out in the water was the struggling shouting mass of humanity. I saw a tall man on a big horse plunge into the river on his way back. It must be Laputa returning to command the panic.

My business was not with Laputa but with Henriques. The old priest in the litter, who had been sleeping, had roused himself, and was looking vacantly round him. He did not look long. A third bullet, fired from a dozen yards away, drilled a hole in his forehead. He fell back dead, and the ivory box, which lay on his lap, tilted forward on the ground.

I had no weapon of any kind, and I did not want the fourth bullet for myself. Henriques was too pretty a shot to trifle with. I waited quietly on the edge of the shade till the Portugoose came out of the thicket. I saw him running forward with a rifle in his hand. A whinny from a horse told me that somewhere near his beast was tied up. It was all but dark, but it seemed to me that I could see the lust of greed in his eyes as he rushed to the litter.

Very softly I stole behind him. He tore off the lid of the box, and pulled out the great necklace. For a second it hung in his hands, but only for a second. So absorbed was he that he did not notice me standing full before him. Nay, he lifted his head, and gave me the finest chance of my life. I was something of a boxer, and all my accumulated fury went into the blow. It caught him on the point of the chin, and his neck cricked like the bolt of a rifle. He fell limply on the ground and the jewels dropped from his hand.

I picked them up and stuffed them into my breeches pocket.

Then I pulled the pistol out of his belt. It was six-chambered, and I knew that only three had been emptied. I remembered feeling extraordinarily cool and composed, and yet my wits must have been wandering or I would have never taken the course I did.

The right thing to do — on Arcoll’s instructions — was to make for the river and swim across to my friends. But Laputa was coming back, and I dreaded meeting him. Laputa seemed to my heated fancy omnipresent. I thought of him as covering the whole bank of the river, whereas I might easily have crossed a little farther down, and made my way up the other bank to my friends. It was plain that Laputa intended to evade the patrol, not to capture it, and there, consequently, I should be safe. The next best thing was to find Arcoll’s Kaffir, who was not twenty yards away, get some sort of horse, and break for the bush. Long before morning we should have been over the Berg and in safety. Nay, if I wanted a mount, there was Henriques’ whinnying a few paces off.

Instead I did the craziest thing of all. With the jewels in one pocket, and the Portugoose’s pistol in the other, I started running back the road we had come.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32