The story of a boy who comes into manhood during war, this book follows an illiterate European child who is stranded on the southern tip of Africa. As the British and the Xhosa have been engaged in battle for 80 years, the young man signs up for the conflict in the hope of steady meals and a few shillings a month. His new commander, the Captain—hardly more than a boy himself—commands an assortment of convicts, sailors, and drunkards culled from the port at the Cape of Good Hope. While the group travels through a landscape prowled by wild beasts, the distinction between man and animal becomes increasingly blurred. Based on firsthand accounts of the 8th Xhosa War, this book converts the bare facts into something terrible and strange.
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The Book of War
By James Whyle (Pty)Ltd
Jacana Media (Pty) LtdCopyright © 2012 James Whyle
All rights reserved.
Mutiny – The lash – A destination.
The ball hummed past the Captain's ear buzzing in the air like a live thing and for a moment the cicadas stopped. The Captain put a hand to his neck as though a fly had landed there. He was twenty-two years old. He turned his horse and looked back along the column of irregulars. There were men gathered around Waine and Happy Jack. The sun was low and their shadows and those of the oxen and the wagons lay elongated in grim grotesquery on the sand. The Captain watched the murmuring men and then he dismounted and loosened his Adams in the holster-pipe and he walked back down the line.
He came to the dissenters and they stopped talking and looked at him.
Who fired, said the Captain.
Waine dug a finger into his ear and brought it out again.
Who gave the order?
Waine examined the knob of dirt and wax on his finger tip and tested its consistency with his thumb.
The Captain stared at Waine and then he nodded.
Herrid shambled forward. His chest was level with the top of Waine's head.
Take his firelock.
Herrid reached out a paw and grasped Waine's weapon. Waine tightened his grip and Herrid dug his fist hard into Waine's midriff. The breath squeezed from his diaphragm and the weapon came free in Herrid's hand.
Give him three dozen.
Waine was bent and winded and he lifted an arm and groaned.
You'll see me flogged like a nigger?
He put his hand on Happy Jack's arm.
Like a nigger?
Happy Jack shook his head.
There's regulations, he said.
The Captain lifted the Adams and thumbed back the hammer and put the barrel to Jack's temple.
I'll blow the brains out of the next man who speaks.
Jack watched the Captain from the corner of his eye and he felt the bore at his head and he raised his hands.
Herrid took Waine by the throat and Waine struggled and Herrid squeezed and lifted his hand three inches and Waine stopped struggling.
We don't have a cat, Skipper.
Use your belt.
Herrid released Waine's throat. He took a leather thong from his pocket and tied Waine's hands before him. The Captain lowered his weapon and Jack wiped his hand across his brow.
Bring me my horse, said the Captain, and a man walked up the line to get it.
Herrid hauled Waine up against a gun carriage and bound his wrists to a spoke. He pulled up Waine's jacket to expose hairy flesh. He unbuckled his belt and withdrew it from its holdings. He wound the buckle end twice around his right hand. He placed his feet for purchase and swung the leather up into the sky and dragged it down again. There was a sound like a gunshot and a weal of red grew across Waine's ribs and he roared. He jerked back against the thong at his neck and bounced forward again and his forehead split against the metal rim of the wheel. Blood dripped onto a dusty spoke.
Shame, said Happy Jack. For shame.
The Captain remounted and watched. Herrid shifted his footing in the dust and the second blow marked Waine's skin with a tall crooked X.
I'm ashamed, said Happy Jack. I'm ashamed I helped recruit you.
Herrid's third blow brought blood and a fat bluebottle fly settled to taste it. Happy Jack lifted his arms and appealed like a politician at the hustings.
It will be me next. Then you.
The Captain pulled his horse around to face Jack and the animal pricked its ears and watched him with great attention. The Captain nudged his heels inwards and the horse leapt forward and Jack tumbled in legs and hooves. The Captain wheeled the horse and it rose above and Jack scrabbled in the dirt and levered himself backward on arse and palms. The horse came down and Jack jerked back from its hooves and then he howled and hunched forward again. An inch of mimosa thorn protruded from the back of his hand. His palm was decorated with twig and foliage. He grasped at the twig and pulled and the thorn came out clean and blood welled in the grime. He leant forward and bound himself about his knees.
Near kilt me, he said.
He clasped his hand and groaned.
The Captain sat his horse and watched. Jack lifted his hand to his mouth and sucked. When he lowered it the sucked flesh showed in a circle in the dirt and blood welled dark and thick from the centre of it.
The irregulars looked about, one at another. Evans, a bent man with but one ear, lifted an arm to point.
That thorn obeying regulations?
Jack looked at Evans. Evans turned elaborately to the side and spat. Somewhere in the ranks of those improvident pilgrims a man laughed and then others laughed also. The Captain leaned in and put a hand on Herrid's shoulder.
Thirty-three to come.
Herrid lifted his belt and lashed Waine thirty-three further times and the Captain wrote it down in his book and then the column formed once more and they moved on through the green singing bush towards Mount Misery.CHAPTER 2
River crossing – Ablutions interrupted – Fingo defectors – General flight – The case against desertion – Slay and eat – Thoughts of women.
In the noontime they crossed a thirsty plateau where lizards skittered on baked rock. Coming to the rimlands they halted and looked into the valley where the river coiled through dark thickets of boerboon and mimosa. The Hottentot drivers cried out and applied the brakes and the wagons skidded down the rocky track towards the ford. Happy Jack was tied with Waine to a gun carriage.
Flogged with no medical man present, he said. Court marshal offence.
Waine groaned and Happy Jack looked about in search of sympathisers. The kid walked behind the gun carriage and he looked away when he saw Jack's head turn towards him. The kid had no beef with Jack but his belly was full and he had no beef with the Captain either. He trudged after the gun carriage and the new rifle clattered against his pack. He thought of the bullet seated snug on its charge and he put his hand back to steady the weapon and felt the rich smooth warmth of the stock. His nostrils drew in smells of horse and sweat and dust and the next time Jack looked at him the kid was grinning.
They came down into the bottomlands and approached the river. The Captain and Herrid conferred with the God-struck Lieutenant and then Herrid lined each side of the ford with a rear and advance guard as though in enemy territory. The wagons were some time crossing. Evans, standing next to the kid, scratched at the place where his ear had been.
There no heathens here.
How do you know?
Evans stared up at the dark hills to the east. Upriver the Hottentot drivers called out the names of the oxen and their whips reached for the beasts and cracked like leather lightning. Evans took off his hat.
Be good to wash.
He turned and sauntered downstream. The kid followed and they passed a thicket at a bend and were out of sight of the wagons. Evans took off his boots and removed his jacket. The kid frowned. There was a tang of fermented beans and cabbage on the air. But the next breath brought only rock and water and dust and he followed Evans in undressing and wading into the water.
Evans submerged himself and came up expelling a spray of air and water that glittered like gems in the late afternoon light.
There she blows, said the kid.
Evans wiped a hand across his face and looked at the boy. A thatch of hair over green eyes. Cunning as a ship's cat. With as much chance of surviving.
You worked a whaler?
What were you?
They heard a cry and the kid looked east and saw an irregular hopping out from a bush and hauling his trousers from his ankles. Behind him came a brown giant wearing a ragged uniform all dressed with dog skin and feathers. He wielded an iron-tipped spear. The irregular hollered and the giant hurled the weapon which vibrated through the air and entered the irregular's back below the shoulder blade and emerged clean through the front of his jacket. The irregular let his trousers fall and looked down at the spearhead. He took it in his hands and examined it like some marvellous prophecy of future journeys and then he fell forward onto the earth. The shaft, on impact, grew by a foot and stood vertical.
The kid leapt from the water. The speared man lay there, a strange sight, impaled and with his bare nates pallid in the sunlight. The giant moved boldly to recover his lance. The kid scrambled for his rifle and felt for a cap. There were yells upriver and also from the forested hillside and the giant bounced like a genie up the rocky slope and was gone. The kid placed a cap on the nipple and fired at the flora that might conceal the monster and then he turned for his clothes.
The irregulars had fled in mirror image of the surprised Fingo defectors whose calls could be heard on the hill. The Hottentot drivers were cutting the traces of the oxen and turning them back into the safety of the western bush and the Captain stood in the ford with Herrid and the God- struck Lieutenant. He cursed and called and ordered and it made no difference for he was like the epicentre of some awful cataclysm from which all men depart.
As the sun slipped toward the horizon sloping wolves moaned and yipped in the gloom and the irregulars' stomachs began to growl. In small groups of two or three they approached and assessed the ford for safety and then they emerged shamefaced from their cover and waited. When all or most were returned, Herrid assembled them in their ranks with the irregulars at one end and the tiny voorlopers at the other. The Captain paced and his face was pale beneath its dirt.
A bright moon arose and the Captain's voice bounced and skittered off the water and the rocks and the hills and an echo came back ethereal from the cliffs upstream.
We have come to kill the heathen. When we reach Gatestown, the Minié rifles will be there for us to do it with.
He pointed to the east and his voice rose.
They possess upwards of three thousand stand of arms. They have six million rounds of ball cartridge and half a million assegais. Their prophet has told them to slay and eat. Those who flee them will be overtaken and have their throats slit. Any who escape will be hunted and eaten by wild beasts. And should a deserter survive these adventures and return, I will hang him.
The men stood silent and Waine moaned on the gun carriage and Happy Jack cried out.
Justice? the Captain replied, and the cliffs upstream repeated the question again and then again again again. The men stood in silence. The river ran on towards the sea.
Yoke the oxen and get the wagons across. We camp on the far bank.
The irregulars did as the God-struck Lieutenant bade them and made their fires and ate and lay to sleep and the kid stared up at the stars which marched in good order across the deep rich blackness of the void. He felt for himself under his blanket and thought of the naked women he had seen in the bay, their breasts like long sacks of chamois hanging black-tipped but in the young ripe and lifting at the nipple like dark sweet fruit.CHAPTER 3
A burial – The suffering of beasts – Bitis arietans – A Dutchman – A long shot – A crone's daghasack – Fingo levies – Gatestown – Disagreements in a bar – A fountain of blood – Waine recovered – The Minié rifle – Evans' reaping hook – Happy Jack deserted.
On the day following flies buzzed loud and intimate as the dead man was buried by the side of the river. The God-struck Lieutenant opened his book and began to read of ashes and dust but the Captain cut him short. He shouted orders at Herrid and Herrid shouted in turn and a shovel-load of dirt and rock landed on the dead irregular's face and open mouth and the oxen were yoked.
The column creaked up the hill and onto a narrow track arched with overhanging trees and hung with grey festoons of lichen. Bees mumbled in blue plumbago and euphorbias rose thirty feet into the air like hellfire plants shaped by a prevailing wind from below. As the sun reached its meridian the path turned to sand. The earth baked and the oxen stumbled and the Hottentot drivers lifted their whips and cracked them down to release blood from scrawny rumps. The beasts roared and two fell almost simultaneously, their tongues swollen and lolling in the dust, thick strands of mucus gathering up grit and sand.
The irregulars rested for two hours and then they hauled the dead beasts off the path and when they moved on there were vultures hanging in the sky and ready to feed.
In the afternoon they crossed a plain of thin baked grass. They travelled in a cloud of dust borne by a blast from the interior. A Hottentot voorloper ran off the track to relieve himself and a rock uncurled beneath his bare feet and a flat head like a beaten arrow flashed up injecting a virulence into his thigh at the spot where the tendons come down to meet the knee. The bitten child was loaded onto a gun carriage and the God- struck Lieutenant prayed by his side and they moved on. The boy was silent and his calf and thigh swelled as though become a plant that harbours water and then he died.
Excerpted from The Book of War by James Whyle (Pty)Ltd. Copyright © 2012 James Whyle. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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