Authors: John Wilcox
For Betty, again
On the road to Marden, North-West Frontier, India.
They could see from the way that Jenkins sat his horse, up ahead, that he was disconcerted. His head kept swivelling to scrutinise the barren jumble of scree, rocks and large boulders that climbed relentlessly on either side of the narrow track and he kept easing himself in the saddle and occasionally wiping, with a dirty handkerchief, the black moustache that spread across his face as though some great rat had died under his nose. It was hot – nearing a hundred degrees – and it was clear that the Welshman was less than comfortable. A verbal explosion was close at hand.
Eventually he twisted round and addressed Simon Fonthill and his wife, Alice, riding together on the seat of the wagon behind the two mules. ‘I ’ave to say, look you,’ cried Jenkins, ‘that this is the most miserable country on the face of God’s earth. It matches the bloody Sudan – savin’ your presence, Miss Alice – for bleedin’ misery – sorry
again, miss. There’s been not a drop of shade and nothin’ but rocks for miles now. ’Ow much further, then, do you reckon, bach sir?’
Fonthill nodded. ‘I knew you’d enjoy the trip. Maybe another ten miles, I’d say. Don’t break into a lumbering trot, now, or you’ll exhaust yourself.’
Alice waved her sun umbrella. ‘If you see a bit of green growing, 352, stop and pluck it and I’ll pop it into a bottle and save it as a curiosity.’
‘Humph.’ Jenkins turned back and urged his plodding horse onwards. Then, half to himself, but loud enough to be heard: ‘Just don’t know why we ’ad to come all this way back to these bleedin’ ’ills. Nearly got our throats slit last time we was ’ere. Barmy, if you ask me. An’ not a beer to be ’ad for miles, see. A bloke could die o’ thirst if these Parteens don’t get ’im first. Just plain barmy …’
Alice leant towards her husband. ‘Dear old Jenkins has a point, darling,’ she murmured, low enough not to be heard by their servant and old comrade. ‘This must be one of the most desolate places on earth in which to hold a party. Too late now, I know, but perhaps we should have thought a bit more about it before coming out, don’t you think?’
Fonthill frowned and used his whip to flick the flies away from the muzzles of the mules. ‘Now, Alice, you know as well as I do that we were bored to tears in green, wet, flat, old Norfolk. I’d been patiently farming without a word of complaint ever since we got back from nearly getting killed with Rhodes in Matabeland – which I see he’s now named after himself, the arrogant bastard. So the invitation was a blessed excuse to take a break for a while.’
He gestured with the whip to where a distant snow-capped mountain could just be seen poking its tip above the grey tumble of rocks
stretching ahead. ‘Look, my love. The beginning of the Hindu Kush. That’s wonderful country, leading on to the Himalayas and providing some of the best climbing in the world. We’re not exactly young but we’re fit enough. Probably our last chance to get up high while we can and witness some of the world’s best scenery. Think on’t, lass.’
Alice gave him an affectionate smile. They made a good-looking couple, sitting close together, one arm linked through that of the other. Both forty-two years of age, they seemed younger. Fonthill carried little weight but he was broad-shouldered and although not exactly tall at 5ft 9in, his body – toughened by years of campaigning far from home and then farming back in Norfolk – was obviously hard. His hair, flecked at the temples now with grey, remained thick and his face was well formed, only marred by a nose broken years before by a Pathan musket so that it now seemed hooked, giving him a hawk-like expression like that of a hunter. Yet the eyes, brown and soft, seemed unusually diffident for those of a man, born in the upper class in the middle of Queen Victoria’s century, who had spent much of adult life fighting in her wars throughout the Empire. In addition, his cheeks and jaw remained clean-shaven, marking him as a man who did not march with fashion.
His wife, too, had retained her figure and her hair carried very few strands of grey. With high cheekbones, cool grey eyes and a smooth skin – touched a comely brown by the sun (not for her the anaemic, chalk-faced appearance of most British memsahibs in India) – she would have been flawlessly beautiful if it were not for the firm, almost masculine set of a jaw that revealed the determination that had earned her a reputation as one of the best war correspondents in London’s Fleet Street, irrespective of gender.
Now she grinned at her husband and nodded towards Jenkins. ‘I don’t see him climbing many mountains, my love, do you?’
Fonthill returned her smile. Jenkins – his Christian name long forgotten and always known as 352, the last three numerals of his army number, originally to distinguish him from the many other Jenkinses in that most Welsh of Regiments, the 24th of Foot – had the heart of a lion, could ride a horse like a dragoon, and was as accurate a shot as any Pathan. At 5ft 4in, he was almost as broad as tall, and although four years older than Fonthill, he remained immensely powerful. Years of fighting in bars, barrack rooms and on battlefields around the world had given him formidable skills as a fighter, with fists, knife, bayonet or rifle. Simon had seen him crack the neck of a Hindee thug almost twice his size. Yet he retained a lifelong fear of heights and water and had absolutely no sense of direction. The two had met when Fonthill was a young subaltern in the 24th and Jenkins had recently been released from ‘The Glasshouse’, the feared and newly opened army correction centre, where, in addition to losing his two stripes, he had served two years’ detention for striking a colour sergeant. He had become Simon’s batman and then inseparable comrade as the two had carved out unique careers and no little fame as army scouts and very irregular soldiers throughout the Empire. Now the Welshman, though nominally a servant, was an integral part of the small (Simon and Alice had been denied children) Fonthill family.
‘Agreed.’ Simon nodded. ‘But we couldn’t leave him behind. I had already had to work hard to get him off two charges of being drunk and disorderly in Norfolk.’ Suddenly a shadow fell upon them and Fonthill looked up. High in the sky, an eagle had flown across the face of the sun. He frowned. Wherever he looked, the terrain presented the
same grim face: jagged rocks, crumbling scree and jumbled, broken ground stretching up above them for hundreds of feet, the prevailing colour gunmetal grey.
The North-West Frontier was, without a doubt, harsh, unforgiving country. The indigenous Pathans who bestrode it called it Yaghistan, ‘The Land of the Untamed’. Their folklore maintained that when Allah created the world there were many stones and rocks left over and he scattered them along this border between the Punjab and Afghanistan. The trio had got to know it well eighteen years before during the Second Afghan War. It was then that Simon and Jenkins had begun to earn their reputations as army irregulars, operating on the fringe of the armies high in the hills, and Alice, well before her marriage, had earned her spurs as a fearless – towards British generals, as well as the enemy – war correspondent. It was then, also, that Fonthill had received his broken nose and sustained other, more frightening wounds at the hands of the Pathans. And it was then that he had first become part of The Queen’s Own Corps of Guides, one of the Frontier’s most famous regiments in the Indian army.
Holding temporary postings as, respectively, captain and sergeant in the Corps, Fonthill and Jenkins had lived and fought in these unforgiving hills, before cementing their fame – and a touch of notoriety among the British army’s senior ranks – over the next couple of decades in South Africa, Egypt, the Sudan and Matabeland. It was still a surprise, however, when, in the tranquillity of Norfolk, Simon had received a letter from the Colonel-in-Chief of the Guides, inviting the trio to be the guests of the Corps at its headquarters in Marden on the occasion of the delayed celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of its establishment.
‘Come and get some mountain air, do a bit of shooting and climbing,’ the Colonel had written. ‘It would be an honour to have you and show you a little of how the Corps works to keep the peace here now. Get here by 27th July before the champagne runs out. And belated congratulations on your appointment as C.B. after the Gordon business in the Sudan.’
So, free from financial cares after the inheritance of two estates, following the deaths of both Simon and Alice’s parents (they were the only issue of both families), the trio had taken a steamer through the Mediterranean, down the Suez Canal and then on to Bombay, marvelling again at the colour and vibrancy of that place, vying as it did with Calcutta to be the largest city east of Suez until Tokyo and the second city in the Empire after London. The sea voyage had been refreshing, which is more than could be said for the hot and long train journey which had eventually taken them to Peshawar, the capital of the Border territory. Now, they were on the last stage of their tortuous perigrination.
Fonthill had been sceptical at first about riding without escort on the thirty-three-mile last lap from Peshawar, where the rail ended, to Marden. The North-West Frontier of India had been in a more or less constant state of unrest since the British had subjugated the Sikh nation and taken the Punjab into the Empire half a century ago. The Pathans who straddled that border and looked down upon it from their mountain fastnesses were not a homogenous race. They were made up of at least sixty different tribes who were in a constant state of warfare among themselves and, particularly, with the army of British India.
They never accepted formally the suzerainty of the British and
they made a national sport of raiding army outposts, killing sentries and stealing rifles, which became a form of currency for them. They shared the ability to stalk a man with the stealth and cunning of a panther and, when making a night attack, they would discard baggy pantaloons to avoid rustling against the undergrowth and would carry twigs to act as funnels and so reduce noise when they had to relieve themselves during a long wait before they sprang. Their morals were oxymoronic. They had a tradition of unquestioningly extending hospitality to strangers who arrived unannounced in their villages but would unhesitatingly slit their throats once they were outside the village boundary. Their word for cousin,
, was synonymous with ‘enemy’. Fierce warriors and splendid marksmen with their old
(musket) or stolen British Martini-Henry, they were casual homosexuals and quoted a saying in Pushtu: ‘across the river lives a boy with a bottom like a peach, but alas I cannot swim …’
It was rare that the Frontier was quiet. But in Peshawar Simon was assured there had been no major outbreaks of hostility along the 200-mile Border for at least two years – a most remarkable period of tranquillity. There would be no interference with travellers journeying the road to Marden, particularly with the fearsome Guides in residence in that town.
And yet. And yet …
They had camped the previous evening at a rare shady spot by a trickling stream, feeling safe enough and wrapped well in their sleeping bags. Indeed, Fonthill thought it unnecessary to take it in turns to keep watch. The new day seemed to bring no threat and they had made tea over a low fire, watching without concern the smoke
rise languidly above them. It was only then that Simon had realised that, on this allegedly busy highway, they had met no fellow travellers. It seemed strange, although not particularly alarming. Nevertheless, before resuming the journey, he had quietly removed from the back of the wagon the two Lee-Metford army rifles he had purchased at Peshawar and slipped into them the magazines, each containing ten .303 cartridges. He had also taken out from their luggage the three Webley revolvers he had also bought in town from the resident army quartermaster. He left them lying within reach on top of their bags but took the precaution of shortening the leading reins on which his and Alice’s horses were tethered behind the cart. Jenkins and Alice had noticed what he was doing, although his wife made no comment. Also without speaking, Jenkins picked up his rifle and rode now with it balanced across his saddle.
They remained the only riders on the dusty track as the sun climbed in the sky and the intense heat, the dryness of the air at their high altitude and the monotony of the landscape seemed their only enemies as they plodded along. Their only company were three vultures which circled, seemingly disinterestedly, high above them.
The first shots, when they came, then, startled them. The bullets clipped into a boulder on the right above their heads and the crack of the rifles – certainly not old
– echoed along the pass, rebounding from the rocks in dull booms.
‘Can you see ’em?’ shouted Simon to Jenkins. ‘Can we outrun them, d’yer think?’
The answer came with two more shots, from the same direction. The first whistled harmlessly above their heads, but the second thudded into one of the mules, sending it slowly to the ground, sighing and still
in its harness. With only one mule, there was no way they could ride out of trouble.
‘I can see these two buggers,’ shouted Jenkins and, standing in his stirrups, he levelled his rifle and loosed a round into the rocks on the other side of the track, slightly above them. It seemed to have no effect.
Fonthill leapt out of the cart and lifted his arms to receive Alice as she leapt down to him. ‘Quick,’ he cried, ‘take this revolver and get behind that large rock just there.’ She nodded mutely and scrambled away up the scree.
‘Give me some covering fire as I try to bring the horses over here behind the wagon. With the baggage, it might provide enough cover for them. We can sacrifice the mules but we mustn’t lose the horses. We shall be lost in this godforsaken country if we did.’
‘Very good, sir.’
Jenkins slipped from the saddle like a jockey, wrapped the reins around his wrists and then, kneeling, let off a series of rounds to where drifts of gunsmoke could now be seen rising above two large rocks opposite them. It was done almost with one movement, it seemed to Fonthill, as he desperately tried to unknot the lead reins of his and Alice’s mounts. As he did so, he heard the lighter crack of his wife’s revolver. At least this would show their attackers that they weren’t to be taken easily.