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Authors: Allan Mallinson

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BOOK: Hervey 09 - Man Of War
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He raised his right arm and motioned to Corporal Hardy to advance. Turning to Somervile, he smiled grimly. ‘Very well, sir, just a couple of miles.’

Somervile nodded.

Serjeant Wainwright’s face was bereft of all colour, even the browning of the summer’s sun, but he was conscious enough to gather up the reins – no doubt instinctively, Somervile supposed.

The hoofs sounded like so many drums on that parched earth. A little flock of Cape starlings left a nearby kiaat tree noisily. They must have sat out the Xhosa attack, or else alighted soon after, he reckoned; why did they take off now? He was certain that in India the branches would by this time be full of vultures.

A weasel ran across the track between him and Armstrong a dozen yards ahead, its white-striped back arched like a cat at bay.

His trooper stopped dead. ‘Just a couple of miles’, he thought, wearily, as he dug in his spurs to get her moving again.

It was strange, this country. Not at all like India, yet so different from England as to make a man wonder powerfully about the nature of Creation. Why was there no native civilization in Africa? There might conceivably be something in the middle of the great dark continent –
ex Africa semper aliquid novi
– but he imagined the place was so vast as to be unexplorable inside a hundred years, even if they set the whole of the Ordnance Survey to the task. Whatever an explorer might find, however, he could not suppose it likely to approach the advancement that India had known even five centuries ago. The savagery of the kind they were seeing here was as primitive as . . . well, if Mr Hobbes had wished to demonstrate his theories, he could have found no more brutish state of nature than here. Why, there was not a single road but that was cut by a colonist; even the track they rode along now was made by the beasts of the field. The trouble was—

Piet Doorn’s big American rifle went off like a cannon. And then two more shots, less thunderous – his pistols, perhaps.

Armstrong turned to look, without halting.

The rifle boomed again. Armstrong nodded with grim satisfaction: fifteen or twenty seconds to reload – a sure sign that Piet had things in hand (it certainly helped to have a breechloader in the saddle). Warning shots, maybe?

There was silence for a full minute but for the plodding hoofs. Armstrong cursed he had not a man to drop back to see the business. He could only wait for Piet to canter in and tell him.

Another minute passed. He felt like handing the two lead-ropes – Parks’s trooper’s and the one binding the captive – to Somervile and going himself. But that would have been asking too much. It was the deucedest luck that this stretch of the track was so thread with trees: he could see nothing to the rear beyond fifty yards.

Then he had his answer. Instead of Piet Doorn, it was Xhosa who came down the trail – warily, almost stealthily, though not concealing themselves. One of them carried Piet’s rifle; others brandished his pistols. Had they known how to load them?

Now was the reckoning. Perhaps they could make a run for it; or threaten to put a bullet into the captive’s brains? But these savages had shown no sentiment for one another before. And how could they outrun them, making the river without being cut off? There were probably Xhosa waiting for them astride the track even now.

Armstrong got down from the saddle and handed the reins to Somervile. ‘If you wouldn’t mind, sir? Just for a short while.’

Somervile looked appalled. ‘Sarn’t-Major, what—’

‘Be so good as to hold the reins, sir. That’s all.’ Armstrong glanced at Serjeant Wainwright as he pushed the captive to his knees and bound his legs and ankles with the rest of the lead-rope. ‘Jobie, I want you to take a good deep breath of this fine Cape air and cover me with that excellent firearm His Majesty gave you.’

‘I will, sir,’ gasped Wainwright, reaching painfully for his carbine.

‘This is madness,’ said Somervile, beneath his breath, looping the reins of the Serjeant-Major’s trooper round his wrist, trying to work out how he might do as he had been bidden while taking some more active part in the destruction of the enemy.

Armstrong unshipped his carbine from the saddle sleeve, coolly checking it was ready, and began to walk back along the track. The Xhosa halted, as if puzzled – as if it were not at all what they had expected from the men on horses.

At forty yards Armstrong dropped to one knee, took careful aim resting an elbow on his left foreleg, and fired.

It was the limit of accurate shooting for the carbine, but the Xhosa with the rifle crumpled and fell backwards, dead. Two more Xhosa appeared – six now. Armstrong cursed as he bit off the cartridge, took the ball between his teeth, tapped a little powder into the pan, and emptied the charge into the barrel.

Still the Xhosa made no move.

Armstrong spat in the ball and brought the carbine to the aim again without tamping, firing a split second later and felling another of Piet Doorn’s slayers.

The five that remained suddenly woke. They began again to close, with the same wary walk, half crouching, gesturing with their spears. Armstrong knew he had one more shot before they would rush him, and then there would be four, and Wainwright would have one of them, and he, the non-commissioned officer in charge of Somervile’s escort, would have the other three – one with the pistol at his belt, the other two (if they pressed home the attack) with the edge of the sword.

He fired. Another Xhosa fell. He laid down his carbine to draw his sabre, transferring it to his left hand, then took the pistol from his waist belt with his right and cocked the hammer.

At a dozen yards Wainwright’s carbine fired. The biggest of the four Xhosa clutched at his chest, stumbled, then fell.

Armstrong levelled his pistol at the middle Xhosa – twice the distance he wanted, but he needed time to transfer the sabre to his right hand. He pulled the trigger, the hammer fell. There was no spark. Nothing.

The Xhosa checked, but seeing there was no more to fear from the pistol, came on, crouching lower, animal-intent.

Armstrong switched pistol for sabre, coolly weighing the blade as he took stock of the new challenge: three Xhosa, three spears – odds he would not have faced willingly.

They edged towards him.

He could see their eyes – murderous as the tiger’s. He stayed on one knee.

They checked again.

He sprang – left, well left, to the flank of the right-hand Xhosa, cutting savagely, backhand, tearing open his shoulder. He leapt thence at the furthest before he could turn, slicing deep through the back of his neck. The remaining Xhosa spun round and feinted with his shield. But Armstrong knew the ruse. He dropped to one knee and drove his sabre under the shield into the gut with savage force. Two more points finished off the other two, leaving Armstrong on his feet, heart pounding, surveying the bloody outcome of twenty years’ drill and gymnasium.

Somervile could not speak, such was his admiration:
Armstrong Agonistes

Available in hardcover from Bantam Press in June 2008

: 1791, second son of the Reverend Thomas Hervey, Vicar of Horingsham in wiltshire, and of Mrs Hervey; one sister, Elizabeth.
: Shrewsbury School (praepostor)
: 1817 to Esady Henrietta, Lindsay, Ward of the Marquess of Bath, (deceased 1818).
: a daughter, Georgia-no,, born, 1818.
1808: Commissioned cornet by purctiase in His Majesty’s 6th Light Dragoons (Princess Caroline’s Own.)
1809-14: served Protugal and Spain; evacuated with army at
Corunna, 1809, returned with regiment to Lisbon that year: Present at numerous battles and actions including
BOOK: Hervey 09 - Man Of War
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