Prester John, by John Buchan


Arcoll’s Shepherding

While I lay in a drugged slumber great things were happening. What I have to tell is no experience of my own, but the story as I pieced it together afterwards from talks with Arcoll and Aitken. The history of the Rising has been compiled. As I write I see before me on the shelves two neat blue volumes in which Mr Alexander Upton, sometime correspondent of the Times, has told for the edification of posterity the tale of the war between the Plains and the Plateau. To him the Kaffir hero is Umbooni, a half-witted ruffian, whom we afterwards caught and hanged. He mentions Laputa only in a footnote as a renegade Christian who had something to do with fomenting discontent. He considers that the word ‘Inkulu,’ which he often heard, was a Zulu name for God. Mr Upton is a picturesque historian, but he knew nothing of the most romantic incident of all. This is the tale of the midnight shepherding of the ‘heir of John’ by Arcoll and his irregulars.

At Bruderstroom, where I was lying unconscious, there were two hundred men of the police; sixty-three Basuto scouts under a man called Stephen, who was half native in blood and wholly native in habits; and three commandoes of the farmers, each about forty strong. The commandoes were really companies of the North Transvaal Volunteers, but the old name had been kept and something of the old loose organization. There were also two four-gun batteries of volunteer artillery, but these were out on the western skirts of the Wolkberg following Beyers’s historic precedent. Several companies of regulars were on their way from Pietersdorp, but they did not arrive till the next day. When they came they went to the Wolkberg to join the artillery. Along the Berg at strategic points were pickets of police with native trackers, and at Blaauwildebeestefontein there was a strong force with two field guns, for there was some fear of a second Kaffir army marching by that place to Inanda’s Kraal. At Wesselsburg out on the plain there was a biggish police patrol, and a system of small patrols along the road, with a fair number of Basuto scouts. But the road was picketed, not held; for Arcoll’s patrols were only a branch of his Intelligence Department. It was perfectly easy, as I had found myself, to slip across in a gap of the pickets.

Laputa would be in a hurry, and therefore he would try to cross at the nearest point. Hence it was Arcoll’s first business to hold the line between the defile of the Letaba and the camp at Bruderstroom. A detachment of the police who were well mounted galloped at racing speed for the defile, and behind them the rest lined out along the road. The farmers took a line at right angles to the road, so as to prevent an escape on the western flank. The Basutos were sent into the woods as a sort of advanced post to bring tidings of any movement there. Finally a body of police with native runners at their stirrups rode on to the drift where the road crosses the Letaba. The place is called Main Drift, and you will find it on the map. The natives were first of all to locate Laputa, and prevent him getting out on the south side of the triangle of hill and wood between Machudi’s, the road, and the Letaba. If he failed there, he must try to ford the Letaba below the drift, and cross the road between the drift and Wesselsburg. Now Arcoll had not men enough to watch the whole line, and therefore if Laputa were once driven below the drift, he must shift his men farther down the road. Consequently it was of the first importance to locate Laputa’s whereabouts, and for this purpose the native trackers were sent forward. There was just a chance of capturing him, but Arcoll knew too well his amazing veld-craft and great strength of body to build much hope on that.

We were none too soon. The advance men of the police rode into one of the Kaffirs from Inanda’s Kraal, whom Laputa had sent forward to see if the way was clear. In two minutes more he would have been across and out of our power, for we had no chance of overtaking him in the woody ravines of the Letaba. The Kaffir, when he saw us, dived back into the grass on the north side of the road, which made it clear that Laputa was still there.

After that nothing happened for a little. The police reached their drift, and all the road west of that point was strongly held. The flanking commandoes joined hands with one of the police posts farther north, and moved slowly to the scarp of the Berg. They saw nobody; from which Arcoll could deduce that his man had gone down the Berg into the forests.

Had the Basutos been any good at woodcraft we should have had better intelligence. But living in a bare mountain country they are apt to find themselves puzzled in a forest. The best men among the trackers were some renegades of ‘Mpefu, who sent back word by a device known only to Arcoll that five Kaffirs were in the woods a mile north of Main Drift. By this time it was after ten o’clock, and the moon was rising. The five men separated soon after, and the reports became confused. Then Laputa, as the biggest of the five, was located on the banks of the Great Letaba about two miles below Main Drift.

The question was as to his crossing. Arcoll had assumed that he would swim the river and try to get over the road between Main Drift and Wesselsburg. But in this assumption he underrated the shrewdness of his opponent. Laputa knew perfectly well that we had not enough men to patrol the whole countryside, but that the river enabled us to divide the land into two sections and concentrate strongly on one or the other. Accordingly he left the Great Letaba unforded and resolved to make a long circuit back to the Berg. One of his Kaffirs swam the river, and when word of this was brought Arcoll began to withdraw his posts farther down the road. But as the men were changing ‘Mpefu’s fellows got wind of Laputa’s turn to the left, and in great haste Arcoll countermanded the move and waited in deep perplexity at Main Drift.

The salvation of his scheme was the farmers on the scarp of the Berg. They lit fires and gave Laputa the notion of a great army. Instead of going up the glen of Machudi or the Letsitela he bore away to the north for the valley of the Klein Letaba. The pace at which he moved must have been amazing. He had a great physique, hard as nails from long travelling, and in his own eyes he had an empire at stake. When I look at the map and see the journey which with vast fatigue I completed from Dupree’s Drift to Machudi’s, and then look at the huge spaces of country over which Laputa’s legs took him on that night, I am lost in admiration of the man.

About midnight he must have crossed the Letsitela. Here he made a grave blunder. If he had tried the Berg by one of the faces he might have got on to the plateau and been at Inanda’s Kraal by the dawning. But he over-estimated the size of the commandoes, and held on to the north, where he thought there would be no defence. About one o’clock Arcoll, tired of inaction and conscious that he had misread Laputa’s tactics, resolved on a bold stroke. He sent half his police to the Berg to reinforce the commandoes, bidding them get into touch with the post at Blaauwildebeestefontein.

A little after two o’clock a diversion occurred. Henriques succeeded in crossing the road three miles east of Main Drift. He had probably left the kraal early in the night and had tried to cross farther west, but had been deterred by the patrols. East of Main Drift, where the police were fewer, he succeeded; but he had not gone far till he was discovered by the Basuto scouts. The find was reported to Arcoll, who guessed at once who this traveller was. He dared not send out any of his white men, but he bade a party of the scouts follow the Portugoose’s trail. They shadowed him to Dupree’s Drift, where he crossed the Letaba. There he lay down by the roadside to sleep, while they kept him company. A hard fellow Henriques was, for he could slumber peacefully on the very scene of his murder.

Dawn found Laputa at the head of the Klein Letaba glen, not far from ‘Mpefu’s kraal. He got food at a hut, and set off at once up the wooded hill above it, which is a promontory of the plateau. By this time he must have been weary, or he would not have blundered as he did right into a post of the farmers. He was within an ace of capture, and to save himself was forced back from the scarp. He seems, to judge from reports, to have gone a little way south in the thicker timber, and then to have turned north again in the direction of Blaauwildebeestefontein. After that his movements are obscure. He was seen on the Klein Labongo, but the sight of the post at Blaauwildebeestefontein must have convinced him that a korhaan could not escape that way. The next we heard of him was that he had joined Henriques. After daybreak Arcoll, having got his reports from the plateau, and knowing roughly the direction in which Laputa was shaping, decided to advance his lines. The farmers, reinforced by three more commandoes from the Pietersdorp district, still held the plateau, but the police were now on the line of the Great Letaba. It was Arcoll’s plan to hold that river and the long neck of land between it and the Labongo. His force was hourly increasing, and his mounted men would be able to prevent any escape on the flank to the east of Wesselsburg.

So it happened that while Laputa was being driven east from the Berg, Henriques was travelling north, and their lines intersected. I should like to have seen the meeting. It must have told Laputa what had always been in the Portugoose’s heart. Henriques, I fancy, was making for the cave in the Rooirand. Laputa, so far as I can guess at his mind, had a plan for getting over the Portuguese border, fetching a wide circuit, and joining his men at any of the concentrations between there and Amsterdam.

The two were seen at midday going down the road which leads from Blaauwildebeestefontein to the Lebombo. Then they struck Arcoll’s new front, which stretched from the Letaba to the Labongo. This drove them north again, and forced them to swim the latter stream. From there to the eastern extremity of the Rooirand, which is the Portuguese frontier, the country is open and rolling, with a thin light scrub in the hollows. It was bad cover for the fugitives, as they found to their cost. For Arcoll had purposely turned his police into a flying column. They no longer held a line; they scoured a country. Only Laputa’s incomparable veld-craft and great bodily strength prevented the two from being caught in half an hour. They doubled back, swam the Labongo again, and got into the thick bush on the north side of the Blaauwildebeestefontein road. The Basuto scouts were magnificent in the open, but in the cover they were again at fault. Laputa and Henriques fairly baffled them, so that the pursuit turned to the west in the belief that the fugitives had made for Majinje’s kraal. In reality they had recrossed the Labongo and were making for Umvelos’.

All this I heard afterwards, but in the meantime I lay in Arcoll’s tent in deep unconsciousness. While my enemies were being chased like partridges, I was reaping the fruits of four days’ toil and terror. The hunters had become the hunted, the wheel had come full circle, and the woes of David Crawfurd were being abundantly avenged.

I slept till midday of the next day. When I awoke the hot noontide sun had made the tent like an oven. I felt better, but very stiff and sore, and I had a most ungovernable thirst. There was a pail of water with a tin pannikin beside the tent pole, and out of this I drank repeated draughts. Then I lay down again, for I was still very weary.

But my second sleep was not like my first. It was haunted by wild nightmares. No sooner had I closed my eyes than I began to live and move in a fantastic world. The whole bush of the plains lay before me, and I watched it as if from some view-point in the clouds. It was midday, and the sandy patches shimmered under a haze of heat. I saw odd little movements in the bush — a buck’s head raised, a paauw stalking solemnly in the long grass, a big crocodile rolling off a mudbank in the river. And then I saw quite clearly Laputa’s figure going east.

In my sleep I did not think about Arcoll’s manoeuvres. My mind was wholly set upon Laputa. He was walking wearily, yet at a good pace, and his head was always turning, like a wild creature snuffing the wind. There was something with him, a shapeless shadow, which I could not see clearly. His neck was bare, but I knew well that the collar was in his pouch.

He stopped, turned west, and I lost him. The bush world for a space was quite silent, and I watched it eagerly as an aeronaut would watch the ground for a descent. For a long time I could see nothing. Then in a wood near a river there seemed to be a rustling. Some guinea-fowl flew up as if startled, and a stembok scurried out. I knew that Laputa must be there.

Then, as I looked at the river, I saw a head swimming. Nay, I saw two, one some distance behind the other. The first man landed on the far bank, and I recognized Laputa. The second was a slight short figure, and I knew it was Henriques.

I remember feeling very glad that these two had come together. It was certain now that Henriques would not escape. Either Laputa would find out the truth and kill him, or I would come up with him and have my revenge. In any case he was outside the Kaffir pale, adventuring on his own.

I watched the two till they halted near a ruined building. Surely this was the store I had built at Umvelos’. The thought gave me a horrid surprise. Laputa and Henriques were on their way to the Rooirand!

I woke with a start to find my forehead damp with sweat. There was some fever on me, I think, for my teeth were chattering. Very clear in my mind was the disquieting thought that Laputa and Henriques would soon be in the cave.

One of two things must happen — either Henriques would kill Laputa, get the collar of rubies, and be in the wilds of Mozambique before I could come up with his trail; or Laputa would outwit him, and have the handling himself of the treasure of gold and diamonds which had been laid up for the rising. If he thought there was a risk of defeat, I knew he would send my gems to the bottom of the Labongo, and all my weary work would go for nothing. I had forgotten all about patriotism. In that hour the fate of the country was nothing to me, and I got no satisfaction from the thought that Laputa was severed from his army. My one idea was that the treasure would be lost, the treasure for which I had risked my life.

There is a kind of courage which springs from bitter anger and disappointment. I had thought that I had bankrupted my spirit, but I found that there was a new passion in me to which my past sufferings taught no lesson. My uneasiness would not let me rest a moment longer. I rose to my feet, holding on by the bed, and staggered to the tent pole. I was weak, but not so very weak that I could not make one last effort. It maddened me that I should have done so much and yet fail at the end.

From a nail on the tent pole hung a fragment of looking-glass which Arcoll used for shaving. I caught a glimpse of my face in it, white and haggard and lined, with blue bags below the eyes. The doctor the night before had sponged it, but he had not got rid of all the stains of travel. In particular there was a faint splash of blood on the left temple. I remembered that this was what I had got from the basin of goat’s blood that night in the cave. I think that the sight of that splash determined me. Whether I willed it or not, I was sealed of Laputa’s men. I must play the game to the finish, or never again know peace of mind on earth. These last four days had made me very old.

I found a pair of Arcoll’s boots, roomy with much wearing, into which I thrust my bruised feet. Then I crawled to the door, and shouted for a boy to bring my horse. A Basuto appeared, and, awed by my appearance, went off in a hurry to see to the schimmel. It was late afternoon, about the same time of day as had yesterday seen me escaping from Machudi’s. The Bruderstroom camp was empty, though sentinels were posted at the approaches. I beckoned the only white man I saw, and asked where Arcoll was. He told me that he had no news, but added that the patrols were still on the road as far as Wesselsburg. From this I gathered that Arcoll must have gone far out into the bush in his chase. I did not want to see him; above all, I did not want him to find Laputa. It was my private business that I rode on, and I asked for no allies.

Somebody brought me a cup of thick coffee, which I could not drink, and helped me into the saddle. The Schimmel was fresh, and kicked freely as I cantered off the grass into the dust of the highroad. The whole world, I remember, was still and golden in the sunset.

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