Menschvretersberg (Cannibal Mountain), near Thabanchu, was at this time the site of the Boer headquarters, and it was our duty to establish telegraphic communication between this point and Winburg, a distance of about forty miles.
After consideration, the inspector decided that it would take too long to lay a cable.
Wire fences had already been utilised in America for short-distance telephonic communication, and this system had already been tried at Van Reenenspas by ingenious young Bland, of the Free State telegraphs, employing, however, the vibrator instead of the telephone. We determined to follow his example.
According to the law of the land, every Free State farm has to be fenced. Blocks of sandstone, about four feet high and twelve inches square, are generally used for fencing uprights. Here, then, were lines ready made, and covering the country in every direction like network.
The only thing necessary to isolate the wire was to walk along the fence, cut the cross-bindings connecting the upper wire with the lower ones, lay a cable under the gates, and there you were. This did not take long, and soon messages were gaily buzzing to and fro over the fence. There was naturally a great loss of electricity, but not enough to prevent the working of the sensitive little vibrator.
As with the cable in Natal, however, there were frequent interruptions. A herd of cattle would knock a few poles over, a burgher hurrying across country would simply cut a passage through the fence, or a farmer in passing through a gate would notice the cable, dig it up, and take it along, swearing it must be dynamite, and that the English were trying to explode the Free State with it.
All this necessitated constant repairing, but on the whole the system proved fairly satisfactory, allowing the Government in Kroonstad to keep in constant touch with the fighting line.
In Natal everything was very quiet; here, on the contrary, the British were pushing forward vigorously. General Louis Botha came down from Glencoe to aid De Wet, leaving his brother Christian to oppose bulldog Buller, or "Red Bull," as we called him.
In spite of Louis' presence the enemy continued to gain ground, and it was not long before Brandfort had to be given up. The enemy next took Thabanchu, and it became clear that our positions at Menschvretersberg could not be held much longer. President Steyn himself visited the positions, cheering and encouraging the men, but the strain of attempting to stem the British advance could no longer be sustained. Within a few days we received orders to retire to Lindley.
Retire! But how? We were three, our horses two, our luggage heavy. By a stroke of luck we managed to hire a cart and two. Hitching our horses on in front, we had a team of four, and the difficulty was solved.
When driving away from the spot where, in the midst of war's alarms, I had yet spent some of the happiest hours of my life, I could not help looking back long and earnestly at the beautiful homestead, and wondering what fate held in store for it and its kind-hearted owner, who, always against the war, and weary of sacrifices he deemed useless, had determined to remain behind and surrender to the enemy. Like many of our best and most progressive men, he had become disgusted with the want of discipline in the ranks, and the painful lack of unanimity amongst the leaders. Sincere in his convictions, I do not think he could be blamed for acting up to them. Those who have rightly earned the contempt and hatred of every true Afrikander are those Boers who, not content with deserting, have gone yet further, and attempted to assist the enemy that they were fighting against only the day before. Even their new masters must surely despise such willing slaves!
Absorbed in these reflections, I yet had time to notice the approach, from the opposite direction, of a Cape cart drawn by six bays.
As the two carts passed each other the team of bays was stopped by a vigorous hand, and President Steyn addressed us, force and determination stamping every word and gesture.
"Good morning! Why are you leaving already? I want communication with Kroonstad!"
"Good morning, President. We had orders to leave at once, but there is an operator in the office still; he will remain till the last moment."
"Very well; good-bye!" And off he went, the dust clinging to his long brown beard.
We drove on, our four horses trotting merrily along. We were five in the vehicle, however, including the driver and his little boy, and presently the weight began to tell. After the first halt one of the leaders failed.
"He won't make it much further," said the inspector. "Better turn him loose and see what can be done with three."
"I have a better plan," said our other companion. Stopping the cart, he unharnessed the animal, passed the rope through its mouth, vaulted on its back, and rode to a farmhouse some distance away. Presently he returned, bringing another horse, which he had obtained in exchange for our exhausted animal.
Thus reinforced, we pushed on, arriving at Senekal at ten that night. The only hotel was crowded; we were glad to sleep on the parlour floor. After breakfast the next morning we continued our journey, passing group after group of burghers on their way home.
It was truly painful to see these poor fellows struggling along, their horses scarce able to walk and themselves in a condition not much better. At noon we outspanned at some water-pools, where several of these groups were also resting. We entered into conversation with them, and they told us that they had retired earlier than the others on account of the weakness of their animals; that one of their number had been taken ill, and could ride no further, even if his horse could carry him, which was doubtful.
We spoke to the sick man, who was lying in the shade of a tree. He was quite a youth, and evidently of a better stamp than his companions.
"If only I could reach a certain farm about five miles further on," he sighed, "I think I should manage."
"Take my seat," said I, "and I'll ride your nag."
"I must tell you," he objected, "that the poor beast is quite exhausted. It would take hours to get him there."
"Never mind, I'll start now, and you can follow on with the cart when our horses have had a feed."
Our business admitted of no retard, so I meant to get a good start in order not to delay my companions.
I mounted the nag and shouted "Get up!"
He stumbled forward a few steps and stood stock still. I pricked him with the spurs, he moved on a little further and halted again. By dint of spurring, striking, and shouting, he at last broke into a slow trot, wearily dragging his hoofs, but before long he stopped once more.
I dismounted and tried to lead him, but he would not budge. Then I tried driving him on ahead, but as soon as I got behind him he turned out of the road, first to the right, then to the left. Of all heart-breaking experiences this was the worst. I could not leave the animal to die by the wayside; the farm was only a few miles further on, where he would find water, food, and rest. I mounted again, shouted, cracked my sjambok—blows he could no longer feel—flourished my arms, jerked my body up and down in the saddle, and finally got him into a walk—but such a walk! slow, mechanical, every step an effort.
When we finally reached the farmhouse I sprang down and quickly threw the saddle off. No sooner did the faithful animal feel itself released from its service than it sank to the ground, utterly exhausted. I myself was not much better off, after my exertions in the blazing sun. If you are fond of horses, never try to repeat my experiment. Straining the last ounce out of your mount is too much like mule-driving, and that is the most soul-killing occupation on earth, as any Afrikander can testify.
The cart was waiting for me here. We bade adieu to the sick man, and drove on. Towards sunset we overtook a man struggling along on foot, carrying a heavy saddle on his head. He signalled to us to stop, and came panting up to the side of the cart.
"My horse died this morning," he said, "and I've been carrying this saddle all day. Can't you load it up for me as far as Lindley?"
The man looked so thoroughly done up that I felt sorry for him. Besides, I wanted to stretch my legs a bit, so I said that he could take my seat, and I started off on foot while they were strapping fast the saddle. The exercise was so agreeable in the fresh evening air that I continued it, and kept ahead of the cart until we reached Lindley. We went to the hotel, had a good dinner, and then to bed.