Project Gutenberg's Real Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis

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"I know Burnham," the President wrote in 1901. "He is a scout and a

hunter of courage and ability, a man totally without fear, a sure shot,

and a fighter. He is the ideal scout, and when enlisted in the military

service of any country he is bound to be of the greatest benefit."

The truth of this Burnham was soon to prove.
In 1899 he had returned to the Klondike, and in January of 1900 had been

six months in Skagway. In that same month Lord Roberts sailed for

Cape Town to take command of the army, and with him on his staff was

Burnham's former commander, Sir Frederick, now Lord, Carrington. One

night as the ship was in the Bay of Biscay, Carrington was talking of

Burnham and giving instances of his marvellous powers as a "tracker."

"He is the best scout we ever had in South Africa!" Carrington declared.
"Then why don't we get him back there?" said Roberts.
What followed is well known.
From Gibraltar a cable was sent to Skagway, offering Burnham the

position, created especially for him, of chief of scouts of the British

army in the field.
Probably never before in the history of wars has one nation paid so

pleasant a tribute to the abilities of a man of another nation.

The sequel is interesting. The cablegram reached Skagway by the steamer

_City of Seattle_. The purser left it at the post-office, and until two

hours and a half before the steamer was listed to start on her return

trip, there it lay. Then Burnham, in asking for his mail, received it.

In two hours and a half he had his family, himself, and his belongings

on board the steamer, and had started on his half-around-the-world

journey from Alaska to Cape Town.
A Skagway paper of January 5, 1900, published the day after Burnham

sailed, throws a side light on his character. After telling of his hasty

departure the day before, and of the high compliment that had been paid

to "a prominent Skagwayan," it adds: "Although Mr. Burnham has lived in

Skagway since last August, and has been North for many months, he has

said little of his past, and few have known that he is the man famous

over the world as 'the American scout' of the Matabele wars."
Many a man who went to the Klondike did not, for reasons best known to

himself, talk about his past. But it is characteristic of Burnham that,

though he lived there two years, his associates did not know, until the

British Government snatched him from among them, that he had not always

been a prospector like themselves.
I was on the same ship that carried Burnham the latter half of his

journey, from Southampton to Cape Town, and every night for seventeen

nights was one of a group of men who shot questions at him. And it was

interesting to see a fellow-countryman one had heard praised so highly

so completely make good. It was not as though he had a credulous

audience of commercial tourists. Among the officers who each evening

gathered around him were Colonel Gallilet of the Egyptian cavalry,

Captain Frazer commanding the Scotch Gillies, Captain Mackie of Lord

Roberts's staff, each of whom was later killed in action; Colonel Sir

Charles Hunter of the Royal Rifles, Major Bagot, Major Lord Dudley, and

Captain Lord Valentia. Each of these had either held command in border

fights in India or the Sudan or had hunted big game, and the questions

each asked were the outcome of his own experience and observation.
Not for a single evening could a faker have submitted to the midnight

examination through which they put Burnham and not have exposed his

ignorance. They wanted to know what difference there is in a column of

dust raised by cavalry and by trek wagons, how to tell whether a horse

that has passed was going at a trot or a gallop, the way to throw a

diamond hitch, how to make a fire without at the same time making a

target of yourself, how--why--what--and how?
And what made us most admire Burnham was that when he did not know he at

once said so.

Within two nights he had us so absolutely at his mercy that we would

have followed him anywhere; anything he chose to tell us, we would have

accepted. We were ready to believe in flying foxes, flying squirrels,

that wild turkeys dance quadrilles--even that you must never sleep in

the moonlight. Had he demanded: "Do you believe in vampires?" we would

have shouted "Yes." To ask that a scout should on an ocean steamer prove

his ability was certainly placing him under a severe handicap.
As one of the British officers said: "It's about as fair a game as

though we planted the captain of this ship in the Sahara Desert, and

told him to prove he could run a ten-thousand-ton liner."
Burnham continued with Lord Roberts to the fall of Pretoria, when he was

invalided home.

During the advance north he was a hundred times inside the Boer laagers,

keeping Headquarters Staff daily informed of the enemy's movements; was

twice captured and twice escaped.
He was first captured while trying to warn the British from the fatal

drift at Thaba'nchu. When reconnoitring alone in the morning mist he

came upon the Boers hiding on the banks of the river, toward which the

English were even then advancing. The Boers were moving all about him,

and cut him off from his own side. He had to choose between abandoning

the English to the trap or signalling to them, and so exposing himself

to capture. With the red kerchief the scouts carried for that purpose he

wigwagged to the approaching soldiers to turn back, that the enemy were

awaiting them. But the column, which was without an advance guard, paid

no attention to his signals and plodded steadily on into the ambush,

while Burnham was at once made prisoner. In the fight that followed he

pretended to receive a wound in the knee and bound it so elaborately

that not even a surgeon would have disturbed the carefully arranged

bandages. Limping heavily and groaning with pain, he was placed in

a trek wagon with the officers who really were wounded, and who, in

consequence, were not closely guarded. Burnham told them who he was and,

as he intended to escape, offered to take back to head-quarters their

names or any messages they might wish to send to their people. As

twenty yards behind the wagon in which they lay was a mounted guard, the

officers told him escape was impossible. He proved otherwise. The trek

wagon was drawn by sixteen oxen and driven by a Kaffir boy. Later in the

evening, but while it still was moonlight, the boy descended from his

seat and ran forward to belabor the first spans of oxen. This was the

opportunity for which Burnham had been waiting.

Slipping quickly over the driver's seat, he dropped between the two

"wheelers" to the disselboom, or tongue, of the trek wagon. From this he

lowered himself and fell between the legs of the oxen on his back in the

road. In an instant the body of the wagon had passed over him, and while

the dust still hung above the trail he rolled rapidly over into the

ditch at the side of the road and lay motionless.

It was four days before he was able to re-enter the British lines,

during which time he had been lying in the open veldt, and had subsisted

on one biscuit and two handfuls of "mealies," or what we call Indian

Another time when out scouting he and his Kaffir boy while on foot were

"jumped" by a Boer commando and forced to hide in two great ant-hills.

The Boers went into camp on every side of them, and for two days,

unknown to themselves, held Burnham a prisoner. Only at night did he and

the Cape boy dare to crawl out to breathe fresh air and to eat the food

tablets they carried in their pockets. On five occasions was Burnham

sent into the Boer lines with dynamite cartridges to blow up the

railroad over which the enemy was receiving supplies and ammunition. One

of these expeditions nearly ended his life.

On June 2, 1901, while trying by night to blow up the line between

Pretoria and Delagoa Bay, he was surrounded by a party of Boers and

could save himself only by instant flight. He threw himself Indian

fashion along the back of his pony, and had all but got away when a

bullet caught the horse and, without even faltering in its stride, it

crashed to the ground dead, crushing Burnham beneath it and knocking him

senseless. He continued unconscious for twenty-four hours, and when he

came to, both friends and foes had departed. Bent upon carrying out his

orders, although suffering the most acute agony, he crept back to the

railroad and destroyed it. Knowing the explosion would soon bring the

Boers, on his hands and knees he crept to an empty kraal, where for

two days and nights he lay insensible. At the end of that time he

appreciated that he was sinking and that unless he found aid he would

Accordingly, still on his hands and knees, he set forth toward the sound

of distant firing. He was indifferent as to whether it came from the

enemy or his own people, but, as it chanced, he was picked up by a

patrol of General Dickson's Brigade, who carried him to Pretoria. There

the surgeons discovered that in his fall he had torn apart the muscles

of the stomach and burst a blood-vessel. That his life was saved, so

they informed him, was due only to the fact that for three days he had

been without food. Had he attempted to digest the least particle of the

"staff of life" he would have surely died. His injuries were so serious

that he was ordered home.
On leaving the army he was given such hearty thanks and generous rewards

as no other American ever received from the British War Office. He was

promoted to the rank of major, presented with a large sum of money, and

from Lord Roberts received a personal letter of thanks and appreciation.

In part the Field-Marshal wrote: "I doubt if any other man in the force

could have successfully carried out the thrilling enterprises in which

from time to time you have been engaged, demanding as they did the

training of a lifetime, combined with exceptional courage, caution, and

powers of endurance." On his arrival in England he was commanded to dine

with the Queen and spend the night at Osborne, and a few months later,

after her death, King Edward created him a member of the Distinguished

Service Order, and personally presented him with the South African

medal with five bars, and the cross of the D. S. O. While recovering

his health Burnham, with Mrs. Burnham, was "passed on" by friends he had

made in the army from country house to country house; he was made the

guest of honor at city banquets, with the Duke of Rutland rode after the

Belvoir hounds, and in Scotland made mild excursions after grouse. But

after six months of convalescence he was off again, this time to the

hinterland of Ashanti, on the west coast of Africa, where he went in the

interests of a syndicate to investigate a concession for working gold

With his brother-in-law, J. C. Blick, he marched and rowed twelve

hundred miles, and explored the Volta River, at that date so little

visited that in one day's journey they counted eleven hippopotamuses. In

July, 1901, he returned from Ashanti, and a few months later an unknown

but enthusiastic admirer asked in the House of Commons if it were

true Major Burnham had applied for the post of Instructor of Scouts at

Aldershot. There is no such post, and Burnham had not applied for

any other post. To the Timer he wrote: "I never have thought myself

competent to teach Britons how to fight, or to act as an instructor

with officers who have fought in every corner of the world. The question

asked in Parliament was entirely without my knowledge, and I deeply

regret that it was asked." A few months later, with Mrs. Burnham and his

younger son, Bruce, he journeyed to East Africa as director of the East

African Syndicate.

During his stay there the _African Review_ said of him: "Should East

Africa ever become a possession for England to be proud of, she will owe

much of her prosperity to the brave little band that has faced hardships

and dangers in discovering her hidden resources. Major Burnham has

chosen men from England, Ireland, the United States, and South Africa

for sterling qualities, and they have justified his choice. Not the

least like a hero is the retiring, diffident little major himself,

though a finer man for a friend or a better man to serve under would not

be found in the five continents."
Burnham explored a tract of land larger than Germany, penetrating a

thousand miles through a country, never before visited by white men,

to the borders of the Congo Basin. With him he had twenty white men and

five hundred natives. The most interesting result of the expedition

was the discovery of a lake forty-nine miles square, composed almost

entirely of pure carbonate of soda, forming a snowlike crust so thick

that on it the men could cross the lake.
It is the largest, and when the railroad is built--the Uganda Railroad

is now only eighty-eight miles distant--it will be the most valuable

deposit of carbonate of soda ever found.
A year ago, in the interests of John Hays Hammond, the distinguished

mining engineer of South Africa and this country, Burnham went to

Sonora, Mexico, to find a buried city and to open up mines of copper and

Besides seeking for mines, Hammond and Burnham, with Gardner Williams,

another American who also made his fortune in South Africa, are working

together on a scheme to import to this country at their own expense many

species of South African deer.
The South African deer is a hardy animal and can live where the American

deer cannot, and the idea in importing him is to prevent big game in

this country from passing away. They have asked Congress to set aside

for these animals a portion of the forest reserve. Already Congress has

voted toward the plan $15,000, and President Roosevelt is one of its

most enthusiastic supporters.

We cannot leave Burnham in better hands than those of Hammond and

Gardner Williams. Than these three men the United States has not sent to

British Africa any Americans of whom she has better reason to be proud.

Such men abroad do for those at home untold good. They are the real

ambassadors of their country.
The last I learned of Burnham is told in the snapshot of him which

accompanies this article, and which shows him, barefoot, in the Yaqui

River, where he has gone, perhaps, to conceal his trail from the

Indians. It came a month ago in a letter which said briefly that when

the picture was snapped the expedition was "trying to cool off." There

his narrative ended. Promising as it does adventures still to come, it

seems a good place in which to leave him.
Meanwhile, you may think of Mrs. Burnham after a year in Mexico keeping

the house open for her husband's return to Pasadena, and of their first

son, Roderick, studying woodcraft with his father, forestry with Gifford

Pinchot, and playing right guard on the freshman team at the University

of California.
But Burnham himself we will leave "cooling off" in the Yaqui River,

maybe, with Indians hunting for him along the banks. And we need not

worry about him. We know they will not catch him.
End of Project Gutenberg's Real Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis
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