Morag MacDonald goes prospecting

End of the previous post: Rory barking ferociously sprang at the horse and whistling him Morag darted forward. “Morag by all that’s Holy” shouted the dust-covered rider “Down Rory/Ruairí (the Gaelic spelling is also used in the original) Down! or you’ll have me off, Whoa! Ginger Whoa!”

Absolutely bewildered Morag stood staring into a red cloud in which a frightened horse was rearing and plunging before a frantic Highland collie. From the rider came a stream of ejaculations, protests and shouts ending in, “Hold on Morag I’ll be back in the second” and down through the Hamlet tore the thick red cloud with Ruairí’s voice yapping with it.

“But what on earth is Mick doing here?” cried Morag as she stepped out after the cattleman’s trail. Halfway to the hotel, she met the Rhodesian skipping along like a schoolboy with Ruairí racing round, springing and twisting in the air.

With a wild whoop from Mick and a deafening din from Ruairí, man and dog swooped down on the girl.

“Morag! What lucky wind blew you here? Mick cried seizing the girl and waltzing gaily round the dog.

For a few moments, Morag romped lightheartedly vainly striving to sober not only her assailants but her own surging blood. But Mick was for no sobriety and hand in hand the two raced for the hotel, Ruairí, his muscular body stretched flinging up dust clouds ahead.

Panting and laughing the boy and girl drew up before the scandalized Reggie, a greatly amused Mr Anderson and a wondering Mrs O’Connor.

“What on earth are you doing here Mick?” asked the latter severely.

“Just what I’ve been asking Morag” laughed the cattleman, “I brought a mob of cattle down here from the ranch on transfer to the Bankwe people, Hello Reg, Hello Mr Anderson.”

“Well, we’ve come down to look for Morag’s gold mine.” Mrs O’Connor informed him “Have you delivered the cattle?”

“Not yet, they’re coming, there are about five hundred heifers in that dust behind.”

“Then,” said Mrs O’Connor sweetly “we’d better not keep you, Mick, you’ll be busy watering and settling them, I’ll tell Mr O’Connor we met you, any message?”

“Just that all’s gone well. I left two lame heifers behind at the Emerald Ranch and lost one,” replied Mick sulkily.

“Tata then Mick, you’ll see Miss MacDonald again one of these days I suppose. Rightio Mr Anderson! Climb in Morag.”

“Mollie you’re a pig,” said Anderson as he drove off Reggie and Morag waving to a disconsolate figure standing next to a horse.

“I couldn’t resist the temptation Jock! ‘Sides we couldn’t really let him leave his cattle and come along. What would Dennis have said?”

“Rot Mollie! It’s pure devilment! The cattle will rest most of the day at Mapeta with poor little Mick sipping whiskey and cursing Manager’s wives and his darn bad luck. Let’s pick him up – Lord you never even told him Miss MacDonald was coming down to the ranch and his face looked as though the news would have cheered him.”

“Have it your own way,” answered Mrs O’Connor laughing, “only I don’t like spoiling men. What do you say Morag?”

Morag flushed. Her whole being was running riot to the reaction of a cheery voice filled with joy at meeting her just when her spirits had dropped into the dust of Mapeta. Mick’s sinewy frame swinging easily to his horses’ plunges, the light of overwhelming joy in the grey Irish eyes, the boisterous schoolboy welcome he’d given her were all pictures filling Morag with longing for Mick and Mick alone.

Anderson swung the car around and running back found Mick mournfully opening the bar with a key borrowed from the storekeeper to busy himself in serving natives to attend to the hotel business.

“Where’re you resting your stock, Mick?” shouted Anderson applying the brakes.

“About three miles from here on the Maputa River,” answered the other, “I reckon to push on this evening and hand over at main camp just after dark.”

“Well jump in. I’ll run you back to the mob so you can tell your boys where to go. Mrs O’Connor thinks you might as well come along. We’re stopping at Bankwe Ranch so you can tell them about the cattle.”

Even Reggie guffawed at the change in Mick’s expression.

“Push the bus along Mr Anderson” he yelled swinging a leg over the door, “Gosh you people are tramps.”

Unceremoniously Mick made room for himself between a shy, blushing girl and an excited collie and a much amused Reggie.

“Well, I don’t care if it snows” Mick laughed “I’m happy, Gosh Reg I haven’t had time to say Hullo, What do you think of Rhodesia?”

“A dashed good country, Mick – Jove you look a sort of two gun man” said Reggie as he gazed admirably at Mick whose appearance was undoubtedly that of a desperado with his pinched in grey Stetson, wide khaki drill trousers, spurred boots and unbuttoned shirt its sleeves rolled above the elbows of a pair of lean sinewy arms whose colour was tanned to that of Maputa dust.

“I keep them much cleaner on the ranch Morag,” Mrs O’Connor remarked looking disapprovingly at the cattleman. “Why haven’t you shaved Mick and can’t you sew on a few buttons? Surely you didn’t intend presenting yourself at Bankwe headquarters in that state ?”

“Sorry, Mrs O’Connor” grinned the culprit “I’ve been more or less in the saddle for three days and there isn’t much encouragement riding through Mapetu in a ducky bowtie and Saville Row suit.”

“Personally I think Mick fits in well” chimed in Reginald “Dash it all I’m going to grow a beard once Morag and I start prospecting.”

Prospecting, you and Morag?” exclaimed Mick “What the devil are you wanting to prospect for Reg, I thought you were going tobacco growing?”

“Nothing so dull Mick me boy. Dammit, one doesn’t come to the wilds to grow things. Gold mining’s the thing. You just wait and see the blessed nuggets with diamonds sticking in them. Dash it De Beers will hide their dashed faces when we start opening Morag’s reef.”

“Don’t be stupid Reg,” said Morag severely “one doesn’t find diamonds stuck in gold does one Mr Anderson?”

“Only in engagement rings” shouted back the miner with a burst of laughter “There’s  Taba Mhlope sticking up Miss MacDonald, let’s hope you find both the diamonds and gold in all their fashions.”

But chaff was wasted on Morag at the mention of their goal being in sight.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 66 Lightning and Maddened Horses

End of 65th Entry: Shortly afterwards the Orange River came down in flood. When it came the mass of water arrived like a tidal wave.

Many of the troops were encamped in the dry river bed and islands. The men got away with their horses but their equipment, great quantities of stores and much of the bridge material together with some of the half-built piers went downstream.

The Rebels now began to threaten the town. Several bodies of Defence Force men were captured outside Upington without them firing a shot, the Rebels laughingly stripping them of their horses, rifles and equipment sending them back to Upington to be re-equipped.

PT-Manie_Maritz-Upington-1914-2

Pictured is Manie Maritz and his force entering Upington 

The congestion of transport supplies, owing to the flood had made the ford impassable, was now tremendous – the river rose day after day and it was known that weeks would elapse before it would be fordable again.

The water too was running in two great, and half a dozen lesser channels cutting the big town pont off from its southern approach. It was just possible to cross the new big stream though the danger was great.

Mick had now a new honour bestowed upon him. Donkeys drew loaded waggons to the brink of the stream, where they were unhooked, teams of picked mules taking their places. Mick mounted on a powerful horse, himself stripped to nature’s garment, fastened a rope from the leading off mule of a team to his saddle and rode into the stream.

The Coloured driver his leader holding the reins, himself wielding the long bamboo whipstick with its twenty-five-foot lash urged on the sixteen mules. Encouraging the horse with voice and rhinoceros hide sjambok, Mick swam his mount across keeping the rope taut and helping with all his power to hold the mules’ heads slightly upstream.

Boer sjambok whip, 1901 (c)

Boer sjambok whip, 1901 (c)

In one hand he gripped a keen-bladed knife ready to instantly sever the rope if the mules once allowed the force of the current to turn their heads down. If this happened, nothing could save the mules, waggon or the natives as the stream would instantly carry them into the boiling mill race of water.

It was strenuous, exciting work crammed with thrilling moments and Mick loved every minute, especially when on one occasion, a little more decently clad he conducted an ambulance filled with hospital nurses across the stream.

Within a few days of the coming of the flood, several whaleboats with Malay crews arrived. The military pont was now in full working order so something of control was established.

Then one night in the pouring rain came the news that an immediate attack was being threatened on Upington. Supplies of ammunition were rushed up to the pont and whaleboats, but there the loading gangs of Amaxosa refused to carry on saying that they were weary.

Mick tried blandishment in vain, resorted to commands and was laughed at, grew furious and drawing his revolver threatened them instantly a jeering angered mass of men belonging to the finest warlike race in the world surged down on Mick. Sticks were brandished, stones flung and only the quick action of an overseer who gave Mick’s horse a cut with a stick saved bloodshed for the Rhodesian was on the point of firing.

The horse a spirited one in perfect condition reared, swerved and bolted. Mick losing his revolver barely managed to retain his seat, and on recovering control and returning to the scene was ordered to take charge of the pont.

It was his first experience of the work and the night was black, pouring with rain, split by pillars and jagged zigzag flashes of lightning – the river roaring past an angry dark flood crested with white, neither sounded nor the flashes of lightning, looked as though venturing on it could be possible. To add to Mick’s disquiet he was ordered to be very careful as a strand had gone in the hawser.

The first load was a section of Mounted Infantry with their horses Mick – Mick his marrow turning to water gave the order to pull off the shore, hauled up the nose of the pont and tried to slacken off aft. Something jammed and the pont already in the current began to tip whilst in an instant water came flowing over it.

The horses frightened started to rear and plunge, the Burghers terrified clinging to the bridles began to shout and their officer dropping on his knees prayed loudly to his God, sparing intervals to curse Mick, the war and the Orange River.

horse rain

Mick worked feverishly at trying to free the jam in the block but he was in pitch darkness broken only by terrific lightning flashes. Working on a raft filled with half maddened horses and men, lying out in pouring rain amidst roaring welts of rushing, angry water, one could only go by sense of touch nor was it easy to move on the packed pont. 

The jam was for’rad but the difficulty was to thrust a way through the rearing plunging horses and shrieking men. Mick crawled along the hawser his body waist deep in water succeeded in freeing the jam, and the current catching the stern drove the pont flying into the darkness ahead.

Landing his men Mick returned but in midstream, a second strand parted. The trips were now almost suicidal but Mick succeeded in making three more crossings before the third strand went.

Orders were then given to stop further work and luckily so for a few minutes later the hawser parted.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 61 War, Whiskey, and Women

End of 60th Entry: Swimming his horse around the mob Mick regained the shore, lit his pipe and chattered with his mates until the drove was ready to once again gallop back to its camp.

Mick found no members of a Young Men’s Christian Association amongst his fellow conducters. 

The Head Conductor, Vijoen, a huge hard bitter man had been a secret service agent of the Old Transvaal Republic. The story had it that on the day Lord Roberts entered Johannesburg, Vijoen had shot two Australian officers whilst an Armistice was on. For this, he had been sentenced to death, to be later reprieved and banished from South Africa. He had gone to the Argentine which had eventually found him too desperate a character for even that tough country.

Returning to Africa Viljoen joined Colonel Maritz then a transport conductor in the Germans Service. The Germans were at war with the Hottentots and the rough conditions suited Viljoen to the ground. Some trouble arose between him and Maritz which resulted in Viljoen being fastened to a waggon wheel and mercilessly flogged. Forsaking the German Service Viljoen wandered into Bechuanaland where he traded and hunted until the Great War broke out.

Jan Kemp, unknown rebel, Manie Maritz at Keetmanshoop in “German West

Another was an ex-attorney who had been struck off the Rolls for some reason and had led a shadowy life ever since. A third was a racecourse man whose life was regarded with suspicion, and a fourth, Mick’s billet mate was a cab driver who, the story went added the post of Assistant Hangman to his more prosaic occupation.

By some means or other, the Transport men seemed to have an arrangement with a hotel proprietor by which whiskey was supplied free apparently without limit. Mick until then had rarely drunk except out of bravado but now he fell easily.

He liked the company. Rough and wild though they were, unsavoury characters perhaps in civilian life they might be, yet all were old campaigners of the Boer and Frontier Wars and made good companions in the present type of life. They fed well, handled natives and animals with uncanny skill, shirked nothing in the way of danger or work and lived entirely for the day.

Mick found he could drink glass for glass with the others, work unafraid with them amidst a chaotic mass of wild frightened animals, handle natives, mules or horses with the best. The young Rhodesian, therefore, dropped readily into the life.

Related image

There were no troops actually in Prieska – the Transport men as yet ranked as civilians and Viljoen was apparently the Commander-in-Chief. Discipline was practically non-existent except as regarded the actual work in the Transport camp itself.

In spite of very heavy drinking scarcely any untoward incidents occurred for the work taxed every fibre and muscle so that the alcohol was sweated out almost as soon as it entered the system. The heat was terrific, the work was not only heavy physical labour but work that needed all a mans’ wits to be ever on the alert to preserve his life.

A drunken man would not have lasted five minutes working in the midst of a few hundred untamed mules or horses. Death or at best, broken bones would have been his portion immediately. Most probably the very act of concentration required to preserve mastery over an inflamed brain caused the alcohol to act purely as a stimulant.

In any case, sober men would never have continued at the pressure demanded of Transport Conductors at that time. Nerves and muscle would have wilted under the strain but as it was the alcohol acted as paraffin cast at intervals on steadily burning fires.

Mick had one or two narrow escapes from disaster. He and his mates were accustomed to race through Prieska as hard as their horses could gallop. Several children and civilians thereby escaped death by the fraction of an inch.

One night shortly after Mick’s arrival, the daughter of the house had a visitor, a civilian policeman. The two retired into the sitting room and a good many hours past. Now the ex-cabby and supposed hangman was not a man whose moral character was above fear and reproach. He thought the girl easy game and made a suggestion that on the departure of the policeman he and Mick should, in turn, share the lady’s favours.

Mick held rather high ideals but the life was having a wearing effect upon them. Although he felt repugnant he yet dallied with the idea, protesting as a matter of conscience, but not taking any decisive stand.

During the early hours of the morning, the policeman departed and the hangman immediately slipped into the sitting room to be received with screams of fear and anger. Mick instantly ran in to find a weeping girl, the hangman in his shirt and the girl’s mother violently protesting.

The hangman ordered the woman to clear out, cursed Mick and caught hold of the girl. Mick jumped in but received a blow which half stunned him. Instantly the Rhodesian ran into his bedroom, returned with a loaded revolver and the hangman seeing murder blazing in his comrade’s eyes loosened the girl and delayed not in his return to his bedroom.

Mick followed him seething with rage to be met by a roar of laughter from the immoral one who produced a bottle of whiskey. The two speedily dismissed the past event from their minds and apparently were the best of friends.

That evening there was some particularly hard-drinking which ended in the hangman becoming fighting drunk. He cursed Mick, insulted him and finally left with the avowed intention of riding the hell out of Mick’s horse – an animal Mick worshipped.

Mick started after him protesting and threatening – turning the hangman sent the lash of his stockwhip hissing through the air, gave a quick turn of the wrist and the cruel hide cut the Rhodesian’s face to the bone – instantly Mick howling with rage and pain drew his revolver. The hangman leaping into the saddle dashed off. Mick emptied three chambers after him sending the dust spurting around the galloping horse. The Head Conductor leaping forward knocked Mick senseless and the affair was over.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 60 Wild, Free and Dangerous

End of 59th Entry: The new destination was Prieska in the North-West of Cape Colony where forces were being assembled to operate against the Dutch rebels.

It is now October 1914. Throughout the Union, thousands of traitor Dutch had risen in open revolt choosing the time of Britain’s need to betray their oaths, their fellow countrymen, their race and their nation.

It was not like a rebellion of Irishmen against a foreign power holding Ireland by the might of armed occupation. It was an absolute fouling of their own nest by a traitorous section of a nation. 

Beyers the Commandant General of the Union, Colonel Maritz, General Kemp, the famous De Wet with other leaders used their personal influence to lead thousands of ignorant Boers into the armed rebellion.

Fortunately, South Africa possessed honourable men worthy of the grand ancient names of Holland and France which they bore. General Botha, the Premier of South Africa, a man against whose honour, courage and wisdom no man, friend or foe has ever cast stone rallied the mass of Dutch South Africa – ably seconded by General Smuts, by many of the famous Boer generals and leaders of the old Republican forces who for three long years fought Britain’s might General Botha dealt swiftly and surely with the renegades.

Disdaining the leprous section who attempted to sit on the fence egging on the armed rebels but fearing to risk their own skins, General Botha and Smuts took the field in person.

De Wet and most of the leaders of the Free State and Transvaal rebels were soon in gaol, their bands were broken up and dispersed. General Beyers was shot whilst fleeing across a river in flood.  One or two brigands were executed and Kemp chased through the Kalahari. At Upington, he was surrounded but the loyal troops were forbidden to fire and he was allowed a chance, quickly availed of, to escape and link up with his fellow rebel Manie Maritz.

The surrender of General de Wet.
(Photo: By courtesy, SANDF Doc Ctr)

General Botha having then crushed the rebellion with the use of mostly Boer forces began to once more resume operations against the Germans.

Meanwhile, Mick’s train after six days of monotonous and wearing jolting arrived at Prieska late at night. The train had again and again been sidetracked for many a weary hour, all kinds of difficulties had been experienced in feeding and especially in watering the animals and the men were incredibly sore, tired and quarrelsome.

Their troubles ended with the journey. A fresh detail of transport men took over the offloading of the animals after their riding horses had been taken out of the trucks and guided by Head Conductor who had been in charge of Mick’s Cape Town depot, the party cantered through the town to where the whole staff of Transport and Remounts were billeted.

A smoking meal of fried steak, onions, potatoes and bread with unlimited whiskey and hot coffee awaited them at the Heat Conductor’s billet. Their wants satisfied the newcomers were then taken to billets Mick finding himself together with a companion detailed to a large house which contained a pretty daughter a girl of eighteen.

The quarters were good. The two men shared the guestroom sleeping together in a huge old-fashioned four-poster bed. Their meals were to be taken across the road at theHeat Conductor’s billet where a transport mess had been formed.

At daybreak, the morning after their arrival Mick and his mate on reporting to theHeat Conductor had a Coloured batman detail to them and were told that when not on duty they were to remain in the vicinity of the mess so as to be handy if required.

Tens of thousands of animals – horses, mules, donkeys and oxen were being concentrated at Prieska. From dark, in the morning until long after dark at night the transport men laboured feverishly.

Every horse and mule had to be caught, branded and shod – every donkey and ox branded. Then came orders to shoe ten thousand transport oxen for work in the sandy desert country. Hundreds of transport waggons had to be greased, tens of thousands of pieces of harness buckled together, teams of sixteen mules, twenty-two donkeys or sixteen oxen picked, caught and hauled out of hundreds of frightened kicking, struggling animals.

The role of the horse during WW1 cannot be underestimated. Although advances in technology meant mounted warfare was coming to an end, the cavalry were still used for reconnaissance work and carrying messages. Horses also pulled artillery, wagons and ambulances through the deep mud. By 1917, it was difficult to replace a horse and so some troops were told that the loss of a horse was more of a strategic anxiety than the loss of a soldier.

Mick found the work intensely fascinating. Now he was amongst a wild excited mob of mules selecting likely looking leaders, wheelers or couples for intermediate positions, helping to work the picked animals out of their plunging fellows into a corner – quietening them or getting them jammed until halters could be slipped over their heads –  hauling them away to be shod and branded, then escorting the animals to where a long line of waggons stood ready to have them inspanned.

It was dangerous exciting work with numerous casualties occurring through men being kicked, trodden on or savaged. Half the animals were fresh from the farms the buck wild untrained things that had never known halter or harness. What Mick enjoyed the most was the watering of the horses. Twice daily a strong body of mounted men, Conductors and Basutu rode up to the Remount paddocks. Mick himself being the lightest weight took the most perilous post.

Mounted on the fastest horse to procurable he rode before the gateway of the paddock and turned his horse into the road leading to the Orange River quarter of a mile or so away. The other mounted men meanwhile forming a line either side of the road.

The gates were flung open Mick started forward and three to four hundred horses pouring from the paddock galloped after him, with a score of mounted men riding hard on flanks and in the rear cracking stock whips and shouting.

The road was worn, full of ruts, stones and other pitfalls – behind were hundreds of horses galloping with tossing mains and streaming tails – a slip, a stumble, a fall and Death was certain; but what youth ever realises the meaning of danger.

Singing, yelling, Mick bending jockey fashion used the whip and spur without stint exalting in the wind howling past, the thunder of the great drove behind. The Orange River loomed ahead – driving in spurs, sending the long cruel lash of his short handled stockwhip curling in a vicious stinging back twist under his horse’s belly he lifted the maddened animal to face the running stream.

The horse dashed into the water and almost simultaneously the following drove sent the spray flying as they to galloped furiously into the river. Swimming his horse around the mob Mick regained the shore, lit his pipe and chattered with his Mates until the drove was ready to once again gallop back to its camp.