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CHAPTER XIX 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 t............
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