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Windrush - Warriors Of God

Windrush - Warriors Of God

Book excerpt


Daffadar Habib Khan heard the tiny click through the sinister blanket of night. It could have been nothing, a stone dislodged by the wind, the noise made by a nocturnal animal, but Habib Khan was instantly alert. Born and bred to Pakhtunwali, the Pashtun way of life, he touched the shoulder of the sowar to his right, nodding in the direction of the sound. Immediately understanding, the sowar passed on the message until every man of the Guides patrol was alert.

 A chill wind blew from the unseen heights of the Spin Ghar, the range of mountains otherwise known as the Safed Koh. Here, in Pakhtunkhwa, the unstable North-West Frontier between British India and the independent land of Afghanistan, every sound could mean danger.

 When Habib Khan heard the slither of cloth on rock, he knew that a man was approaching. When he caught the slight whiff of gun oil, he knew that the man was armed. Every single sound or smell added to his knowledge so that within minutes Habib Khan had a complete picture of what was out there in the dark. He did not have to think; the instincts of generations of hillmen had been bred into him.

 Twenty men, he told himself. Ghilzais; they are moving into an ambush position.

 Lying prone, Habib Khan nestled his rifle behind a rock and got ready to fire. He did not have to load; any man who carried an empty firearm in Pakhtunkhwa was either a fool or dead. Habib Khan was not the former and had no desire to be the latter. There was no sound from his colleagues; they knew the danger as well as he did.

 A horse whinnied behind them, the sound carrying far in the dark. It was a tiny incident but enough to preempt the Ghilzai tribesmen’s attack. They rose as one, moving onto what they hoped would be a sleeping camp. Instead they walked into the fire of a dozen Guides’ rifles.

 The shots shattered the silence, echoing from the surrounding hills as each muzzle flash gave a tiny vignette of the scene. Habib Khan had a partial picture of a score of Ghilzais advancing through the night with Khyber Knives or pulwars naked in their hands and rifles slung across their backs. Then came sudden darkness as the firing stopped. The acrid reek of powder smoke drifted in the sharp air.

 ‘What the devil…’ Lieutenant Beattock, back with the main body of the Guides, shouted. ‘What’s happening up there, Daffadar?’

 With no time to explain, Daffadar Habib Khan ordered his men to fix bayonets. The metallic snicks sounded sinister on the hushed hillside.

 ‘Ready?’ Habib Khan had no need to ask.

 The Guides followed, feet silent in the dark as Habib Khan led them forward to meet the Ghilzais, men of their blood, men every bit as adept in hill-craft as themselves, men eager to meet their attack.

 Bayonet to Khyber Knife, rifle butt to pulwar, the skirmish lasted only five minutes and ended with the Ghilzais melting back into the dark. Lieutenant Beattock scrambled up in time to see the final few seconds. ‘Well done, Daffadar.’ He looked around at the crumpled bodies of three Ghilzais while a single wounded Guide tried to hold his entrails in place. ‘Take Khazi back down the hill and we’ll get him attended to.’

 ‘Yes, Beattock Sahib,’ Habib Khan said.

 ‘Halloa now.’ Beattock turned over one of the Ghilzai dead. ‘What have we here?’ Removing the rifle from the man’s back, Beattock held it up. ‘Now here’s mischief. Where did you get this from, my fine fellow?’ Lifting the rifle to his shoulder, Beattock sighted along the barrel. ‘You did very well, Daffadar, even better than you think.’ He looked again at the dead Ghilzai, swore softly, and crouched down. ‘We have trouble,’ he said, pulling at the red cord the man sported on his right wrist. ‘We could have major trouble.’

Chapter One

Gondabad, India, June 1863

 ‘Have you seen this, Jack?’ Mary tapped the relevant paragraph of the Times with her forefinger. ‘It’s about your brother.’

 Captain Jack Windrush looked up from the fishing fly he was tying. ‘I didn’t know the papers had arrived. What’s William doing now? Winning the Victoria Cross for bravely parading down Pall Mall?’

 ‘He’s making more babies,’ Mary said. ‘I’ll read it out to you: “We are pleased to announce that Captain William Windrush of the Royal Malverns has been blessed with a child. The new arrival, William Crimea Windrush, came into this world on the 13th of January 1862. Mother and baby are both well. Captain William Windrush is already the proud father of a three-year-old girl, Helen Sevastopol Windrush.”’

 ‘I’m glad they are both well,’ Jack said.

 ‘You are glad that William’s Helen is well even though Helen transferred her affections from you to William?’ Mary reminded sweetly.

 ‘That was a long time ago.’ Jack did not enjoy the memory.

 ‘Well, I am glad she did,’ Mary said. ‘It left you open for me.’

 Jack grunted as he missed the knot. He began to tie the fly again. ‘That was fortunate.’

 Mary put the newspaper down. ‘What does William’s male child mean for your position, Jack?’

 Jack considered for a moment, sighed, and put the fly aside. He knew he would not get any peace until Mary had exhausted the subject. ‘I grew up thinking I was the heir to Wychwood Manor, as you know. It was not until my father died that I learned that, although I was the oldest, I was also illegitimate, with William the oldest legitimate son and, therefore, the heir.’

 ‘I know that,’ Mary said patiently.

 Jack leaned back in his chair, swatting at a circling mosquito. ‘When my mother, or rather my step-mother, told me that I was illegitimate, I was devastated.’

 ‘I can imagine.’ Mary did not remind Jack she had heard the story before. ‘Your mother must be a cruel woman. Was she cruel?’

 ‘No.’ Jack shook his head. ‘I have had years to think about this. When my step-mother first told me that I was illegitimate and would lose what I thought was my inheritance, I did believe she was cruel.’ He looked away, reliving those dark days. ‘I thought it was unfair that I should not join the family regiment, the Royal Malverns. I thought it wrong that I was only commissioned into the 113th, the lowest regiment in the army, with what I considered a pittance to live by.’

 Mary listened. ‘Do you still think the same, twelve years later?’

 ‘No.’ Jack shook his head. ‘The family is not anything like as rich as I once thought we were. The Windrushes are only country gentry with a handful of acres, not some great landowners with a vast estate. With two legitimate sons to support as well as me, our land was insufficient to grant me a large allowance. In fact, Mother was more than generous giving me what she did. She could legally have thrown me out without a penny.’

 ‘Did you ever speak to a lawyer about your position, Jack?’

 ‘Not right away,’ Jack said. ‘I was young, foolish and angry. I wanted to make my name and get rapid promotion to show the world how clever I was.’ He shook his head. ‘When I think now of the risks I took!’ He looked away. ‘I despair of some of the young griffins I meet now, but I was worse than any of them.’

 ‘Did you speak to a lawyer eventually?’ Mary kept the subject on topic.

 ‘Eventually,’ Jack said. ‘I consulted a Mr Stark in Calcutta. He told me that an illegitimate child, which I was, was not entitled to inherit anything unless the parents married each other after the child was born. In that case, the child could legally inherit wealth – movable assets.’

 ‘I don’t understand,’ Mary said. ‘What are movable assets?’

 ‘Movable assets are money or possessions. The land or the house would only come to me if my father had specifically mentioned me in his will.’

 ‘Did he?’

 ‘He did not leave a will. He died of disease. I presume that he expected to live longer and may have intended to write a will later. As it happens…’ Jack shrugged. ‘I got nothing, as you are well aware. My father did not marry my mother. My half-brother William got the estate, and the commission into the Royal Malverns, with my other half-brother Adam having the right to live here plus inheriting half the movable assets.’

 Mary sighed. ‘It would have been good to have a base in England, somewhere to go Home when you retire from the Army.’

 Jack said nothing until Mary prompted him. ‘Do you miss Wychwood Manor?’

 ‘I miss it because I always thought of it as Home, despite not being there much,’ Jack said. ‘I was in India until I was about five, although my memories are a bit vague. Father sent me to England, but I was at boarding school most of the time.’ He leaned back as the memories returned. ‘It’s strange. I used to think that Wychwood Manor was huge until I went to India. Now I see that it’s only a small country house, unpretentious and rather ugly, really.’

 Mary patted his arm. ‘I’m sure it’s a lovely house. Will you show me sometime?’

 ‘I’d like to,’ Jack said. ‘I’m due leave; in fact, I’m overdue leave.’ Lighting a cheroot, he blew a slow cloud of smoke toward the mosquito, which reacted with an angry whine. ‘I need a change, Mary. When I took this job with Colonel Hook, I believed it would be interesting. All I’ve done for the past four years has been routine and, quite frankly, dull.’

 ‘I know what you have been doing,’ Mary said. ‘You’ve helped reorganise the country after the Mutiny; you’ve learned Pushtu and Urdu and some Persian; you’ve improved your horse-riding immeasurably.’ Leaning forward, Mary took the cheroot from him and drew on it, smiling. ‘Most importantly, you’ve been married to me, and we’ve created a child together.’

 ‘I certainly don’t regret that part of it.’ Jack thought of young Andrew, sleeping in his cot with the ayah looking after him whenever Mary allowed. He did not mention to Mary that it would soon be time to send the lad back Home to be properly educated. After surviving the horrors of childhood disease, such partings of mother and child were the most heart-wrenching in the world. Taking his Home leave would enable them all to travel together and ease some of the pain.

 ‘It was a wonderful day.’ Mary handed back the cheroot, still smiling. Jack knew she was reliving the day of their marriage.

 Jack had intended the wedding to be low-key affair, knowing that Mary was not a woman who sought to be the centre of attention. With his half-Indian mother, Jack was on the very margin of British respectability, while Mary as a Eurasian was on the opposite side of that definite social divide. He had not expected many guests.

 They had married in the garrison church at Gondabad, with newly promoted Captain Arthur Elliot as best man and one of the mission teachers as maid of honour. Few of the officers of the 113th attended, for Colonel Snodgrass had made his disapproval evident. Only Ensigns Peake and Wilden, men who had marched with Windrush in the latter part of the Mutiny campaign, accompanied Elliot.

 ‘The church is nearly empty.’ Mary had tried to hide her disappointment as she surveyed the echoing interior.

 ‘Your presence fills it all for me.’ Jack was insufficiently skilled with words for his attempt at gallantry to succeed.

 ‘Thank you, Jack.’ Mary had looked beautiful dressed in white, with her veil pushed back and the white gloves extending almost to her elbows. She forced a smile for him. They had both turned around as the church door crashed open, with Jack instinctively reaching for his sword.

 Mary had taken hold of his wrist. ‘It’s all right, Jack.’

 ‘Sorry,’ Jack had said. ‘Old habits.’

 Mary had released him. ‘The Mutiny is over now. We’re all at peace.’

 ‘Sorry we’re late, sir!’ Dressed in his Number One uniform, Sergeant O’Neil had stridden into the church with a squad of men at his back. Jack had known who they would be even before he looked at them. There were Thorpe and Coleman, the Burma veterans, Riley the gentleman thief, and Logan, the diminutive Glaswegian with his face split into an uncharacteristic smile. There was Williams, limping from his recent wound, and Mackinnon who possessed some instinct that enabled him to sense danger. At the back was Parker, the quietly kind-hearted Liverpudlian.

 ‘Thank you for coming, lads.’ Jack had felt his words were inadequate. He knew his men would understand. ‘I hope you don’t get into any trouble for coming here.’

 ‘No, sir.’ Riley had said.

 Jack had said no more. He could trust Riley to have thought of some dodge to subvert authority.

 Mary had patted Jack’s arm. She did not have to say anything. Her smile wrapped around the grinning men.

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