From Commando – Of Horses and Men
by Deneys Reitz
When Mr Guest saw us appear, with the soldiers only just going through the garden beyond, he looked as if he had just seen an apparition, and when we laid him under further contribution, he seemed to be on the verge of a fit. However, he complied with our demands, grumbling and complaining at first, and then laughing at his ill luck. Having satisfied our requirements, we rode up the valley a little distance, to where there was a pleasant orchard and a large cultivated field hedged round with high branches of thorn, in the manner customary in this area. This was the one error of judgment we made during our trip, for, instead of making for the wider country lower down, we had entered a cul-de-sac.
We thought the English were finally gone, and prepared a meal, after which I made a second mistake, for, while the others kept their horses by them, I turned my little Arab, all saddled as he was, into the field and, thoroughly weary from having been up all night, sought out a shady spot in the lee of the thorn fence and, without telling the others where I was, fell soundly asleep.
I was awakened, I do not know how long after, by the crash of rifle-fire nearby and, starting to my feet half-dazed, I saw a number of English soldiers standing before their horses blazing away at my seven companions, who were riding down the valley for their lives. I had only myself to blame for being left behind, as they did not know where I was, and were in any case unable to wait. My chief hope of escape was my horse, but he was standing inside the field in full view of the firing soldiers. They had not yet noticed me, as I was screened by the fence, so I parted some of the branches to see what chance there was of getting at my pony. By great good luck he was standing on the other side within a few yards of me. The firing had alarmed him, for he was restlessly tossing his head and snuffing the air, and I could see that in another moment he would bolt, so I called to quiet him and, worming my way through a weak spot in the fence, ran up to where he stood quivering with excitement. Jumping into the saddle, I rode for a small gateway in the far corner, which was the only outlet. The soldiers saw me at once and turned their fire upon me, in spite of which I managed to get through the opening, but, just as I was gathering speed beyond, a bullet brought my poor horse headlong to the ground, and flung me yards over his head. Picking up my rifle I ran towards the homestead, thinking that my party might be making a stand there. The soldiers beyond the field kept firing at me as I appeared and disappeared amongst the trees, but I got within hail of the house unharmed. At the corner of a barn stood six or seven men, whom in my haste I took to be my friends, and I made straight for them. But as I came within thirty yards of them, one stepped forward and, levelling his rifle, called on me to halt.
They were English soldiers, and not the only ones, for more came rushing round from the stables and out of the dwelling house. Escape seemed impossible, but I made a bid for it. To my right was a small grove of poplars and, swerving aside, I dashed for this cover before they could send more than a bullet or two after me.
Volleys came crashing through the trees as I ran, but I emerged safely on the other side into hummocky ground, where I twisted and turned to such good effect that, although the men came hurrying round to cut off my retreat, I got into a broken stretch with no more serious damage than a gash from a bullet, which ripped up the sole of my boot and made running difficult.
Breasting a knoll, I glanced back. The soldiers near the field had mounted their horses, and were coming after me. Of those around the homestead, some were running in my direction and others were in the yard throwing saddles on their animals, and I had a final glimpse of Mr Guest in his shirtsleeves on the stoep, wildly gesticulating, but whether he was urging on the men to my capture or protesting against the crowning disaster of a battle on his doorstep, there was no time to consider, for I was in a very tight corner.
There was no sign of my companions. The sharp ground was cutting my foot, the horsemen were close behind me, and already I could hear the men yelling at me to stop. I was just deciding that I had better do so when I came upon a deep nullah running down the mountainside. Here it flashed on me that if my pursuers saw me disappear over the bank, they would naturally think that I was making down its bed to the centre of the valley, or up towards the mountain. Looking aslant my shoulder, to make sure that they saw what I was doing, I went over the bank, but instead of trying to escape up or down the watercourse, as they would expect, I found a spot on the opposite side, where the rains had washed out a shallow runnel, and, crawling up this, went flat on my face into the bushes beyond, which stood just high enough to conceal a prostrate man. Having left the nullah unperceived, I worked myself forward another fifty yards to a slightly denser patch, and stopped there.
The soldiers, seeing me jump into the spruit, did exactly what I’d anticipated. On reaching the spot where they had seen me vanish, they separated into two parties, one of which galloped up the mountainside, and the other down towards the valley. I had a clear view of the search from where I lay, and after a while I could see, from the undecided way in which they were riding about, that they were completely nonplussed.
In the end they must have concluded that I had got away on the upper side, for they spread out along the mountain slope like beaters at a shoot, moving further and further from my hiding-place. I knew now that I was comparatively safe, for the sun was setting, and before long I heard them clattering back to the farm, where presently their campfires shone out, indicating that Mr Guest was once more to be an unwilling host.
I felt proud of my successful ruse, but there was little else pleasant to contemplate. I lay in the bracken like a hunted rabbit; my foot throbbed painfully; my companions were gone, and so was the commando; my horse was dead and my saddle and belongings were in the hands of the enemy.
As thinking did not mend matters, I rose at length, and limped off in the dark.