Death on the Ice

Death on the Ice by Robert Ryan

Book: Death on the Ice by Robert Ryan Read Free Book Online
Authors: Robert Ryan
cloud had troubled the sun for their march, yet at night they suffered tropical downpours that left them cold and shivering in their blankets. It was as if the southern African climate were a Boer supporter too.
    Over the day, the procession of men, horses and carts had grown ragged, and although Oates and Culshaw made sure their own portion of the expeditionary force remained tight, they could do little about the other three hundred men who made up the mission to chase the Boers out of Aberdeen. Occasionally, Oates left his own troopers to try to ascertain why there were vulnerable stragglers. As often as not he was told to get back to his own business by a crotchety senior officer.
    Disquiet had been gnawing at him for weeks. He was pleased to be at war at last—what man wouldn’t be?—but this army was not the one of his imagination. As he had told his mother, there was much that was disappointing, from the quality of leadership to the paucity of some vital equipment and supplies. On the positive side, he had two good horses, especially Sausage, the charger he was riding that day, and one of his brace of servants was his old Boots, McConnell, who had managed to find passage.
    Those little fillips aside, though, he had to admit that what he had seen of the British army so far was disenchanting to someone brought up on tales of the Peninsular wars. How did this ill-disciplined, ill-equipped mob defeat Napoleon? And the drabness of the new khaki uniform certainly diminished the army’s impact. It seemed the War Office wanted to make the men invisible. The latest ruling was to stop shining buttons, as they attracted snipers. What rot, Oates thought. Soldiers attracted snipers, not their fastenings.
    They were moving through semi-arid scrub, low sandy hills covered mostly with thorns of one description or another—every plant seemed to come bristling with them—when Oates heard the first shots.
    He whirled his charger around, and glimpsed four or five black wraith-like shapes cresting one of the low rises to the south. Captain Anstice signalled for Oates to stay put and spurred his horse forward, no doubt to consult Colonel Herbert, who was at the van of the column.
    There came a series of distant cracks and he saw two or three muzzle flashes come from the raiders. Oates realised the men were firing from the saddle, like accomplished cavalrymen. Mere farmers, Anstice had said. These men didn’t ride or shoot like farmers.
    The air around him whistled and snapped. Another five men, blurred, darting figures, had appeared from beneath a bluff. Return fire had started from the British column, but it was like trying to hit fast-moving crows. And too many British soldiers had, like Oates, Martini-Henry carbines, rather than the more effective Lee Enfields.
    Fresh firing erupted from the far side of the line and then from the vanguard. In a flash of clarity, Oates visualised the column as the enemy saw them: overstretched, underdefended and plodding along a valley floor, hemmed in by a series of hills and ranges.
    Oates extracted the carbine from Sausage’s flank and levered a round into the chamber.
    ‘Dismount!’ he shouted, sliding off his own horse.
    Culshaw took up the call. ‘Troopers dismount and suppress fire!’ Individually, the carbine was a feeble weapon, but en masse it could be effective, just as long as the enemy was foolish enough to approach within its limited range.
    Anstice returned at the double, his horse kicking up a plume of sandy dust. The captain began yelling at Oates and the Inniskillings. He, apparently, didn’t want them off their horses. They were to mount a counter attack.
    ‘That’s just what they want, sir,’ Oates protested. ‘A fight on their terms, in their country.’
    Anstice, who had had trouble with Oates before, turned quite puce with anger and was about to lambaste his lieutenant when his two front teeth and top lip disappeared in a conical splash of crimson. His eyes went wide

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