Reynolds and his section were just getting out of the rowing boat when the monsoon rains hit. The air went from hot and dry, parched almost, to a torrential downpour within just a few seconds. Large droplets rained down from above, drenching the soldiers. Their wool coats absorbed the water, becoming sodden and heavy. Reynolds removed his cap to feel the water flowing down his head, enjoying this brief moment of refreshment, before returning to the task at hand.
The soldiers had to pull the small, wooden rowing boat up the beach far enough to avoid it being swept away by the tides – and leaving them stranded. The job was not an easy one, for the hull of the craft kept jamming on the sand, which was being turned to a sticky mud by the rains.
Just as they had the vessel safely above the high-water mark, and lashed to a tree, the rains vanished as abruptly as they had appeared. Reynolds looked around. The other soldiers on this small beach with him were all from his section – as a corporal, he was in command. There was, however one problem: his was only one section of many, spread across the coastline. Getting to the others, linking up, was not going to be easy on an as-yet uncharted and un-colonised island. There were no roads, no tracks, no way through the jungle.
“This is going to be fun,” remarked Reynolds to no-one in particular.
“Aye, what with the jungle, the weather, and most likely, the natives,” came a reply from Lance Corporal MacCallaghan. MacCallaghan was a surprisingly short man, who made up for his diminutive stature with his loud voice. A Castonian, with a definite accent, no-one really knew why he had made his way all the way to Rentaunt to join the army, instead of simply signing up with a Scottish regiment in his native Inveraray.
Reynolds turned around to look out to sea, and began pondering the solution to their current problem. There was an incredible amount of beauty inherent in his current view: the sun was reflected off the water, casting dazzling sparkles across the air; the island of Kasapur (the regiment’s base) was just barely visible across the waters, rising out of the haze. The ship from which they had disembarked earlier lay at anchor off the coast, her funnels no longer emitting smoke. Between the shore and the ship was another small boat, rowing its way towards the beach. Reynolds could make out eight more crimson figures crewing this boat, rocking backwards and forwards in unison as they tugged on the oars.
Reynolds clapped his hands together twice to get the men’s attention, and began to issue orders, “Well then. Lads, we are here, on this beach. Everyone else is somewhere different, on another beach. We’ve got to go and find them. These sea-forests’ll be a menace to travel through, so… MacCallaghan, you take a look at the jungle. See if you can spot a way through it, and report back to me in a few minutes. No full scouting, just take a look at the area. Davies, you got the flare pistol?”
“Yes, boss. Right here.” Davies, a private, pulled the flare gun from its polished leather holster and showed it to Reynolds.
“Good. Keep it with you. We don’t need it yet, but we may soon. Rest of you, might as well sit down and enjoy the sunshine while we wait for MacCallaghan to get back.” Saying this, Reynolds removed his coat, peeling the still sodden wool away from his tunic, and hung it on the prow of the boat to dry out.
A few minutes later, right on time, MacCallaghan returned and informed Reynolds that the jungle wasn’t particularly thick, and they would probably have an easy enough time getting through it. The men put back on their caps and coats, and picked up their rifles.
It was only after around an hour and a half of trudging through the jungle in single file that Reynolds and his section found themselves on the next beach along.
Taking his first step onto the beach, Reynolds suddenly caught sight of the muzzle of a rifle, pointed squarely at his chest. He traced the barrel back to a man, with shoulders tense and rigid – and a bright red coat on his body. Reynolds watched the man as he came to the realisation that they were both British soldiers, redcoats, and saw the tension flowing out of the man, his shoulders dropping and the rifle being lowered. Hell of a way to go, thought Reynolds. Blown to high heaven by a startled comrade.
“I expect you’ll want to speak to the Lieutenant,” remarked the sentry. “He’s right over there, by the boat.”
“Thanks. And I don’t want you shooting any of my men! There’re seven more behind me.”
Reynolds strolled over to the Lieutenant, a bespectacled man with sunburnt skin and a perfectly sculpted moustache who was crouching down with a notebook. As Reynolds approached, the lieutenant noticed him and stood up. They saluted, and Reynolds asked, “What is the plan, sir? I bring with me seven soldiers.”
“Well, corporal. For now, my unit is just sitting around. We conducted a scouting mission earlier, and as it turns out the majority of our force is on a large beach about ten minutes walk from here. We’re staying to guide others in, but I’d suggest you head over that way.”
“Yes, sir. Would you be willing to loan us one of your soldiers to show use the way, sir?”
“Of course. Arthur?” One of the soldiers got up and strode purposefully over to Reynolds and the Lieutenant.
“I’d like you to guide this corporal and his section over to the main beach. Remember where it is?”
“Well, that’s all. The best of luck to you, corporal.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Reynolds saluted once more, and, his salute being returned, walked back to where his section were standing, conversing with the sentry. The guide, Arthur, followed along behind him.
Following a brief walk through the jungle, Arthur ushered Reynolds and his men onto the main beach. Reynolds was genuinely taken aback by the sights that presented themselves to him. In the time it had taken him and his seven comrades to reach the beach, a camp had been set up: tents were pitched, supplies had been offloaded – and there was even serious progress being made towards the construction of a jetty. Several rowing boats were sat on the beach, upside down with soldiers resting against them, several smoking pipes. Aside from these few, the area was a bustling hive of activity. More tents were being pitched, and some men were working at clearing away some of the jungle at the back of the beach. Reynolds caught sight of the officer in charge of his platoon, and, pausing only to tell his men to wait where they were, jogged over to him. Or rather, to be more precise, he jogged halfway, before having to return to a walking pace. Running in a thick coat in 30-degree heat was a mistake. By the time he reached the officer, he was practically drowning in his own sweat. Panting, he called out, “Sir, Corporal Reynolds reporting!”
The Lieutenant, who had been ambling along, deep in thought, suddenly spun around and replied, “Oh. Reynolds. Of course your section is the last one to report in. The other four got here ages ago.”
Reynolds was not particularly fond of his commanding officer.
“Well, sir, we advanced as fast we could. We were just the furthest away.”
“Oh, really? Are you sure you didn’t stop off for a nap halfway here?”
“Well, go and join the others in that tent over there.”
The Lieutenant pointed and lazily brought two fingers of his right hand up to touch his forehead. Reynolds responded with an equally heartfelt salute and returned to his section, leading them over to the platoon’s tent.
The atmosphere inside was relaxed. Beds had been set up, and soldiers had stripped down to their white undershirts, leaving their coats hanging from anywhere they could find. Several of the men inside were smoking, others were reading. Off at the far end, one was sharpening a pen-knife. The other four corporals in the platoon were sat in the centre of the tent, slouching, lounging around. One turned to Reynolds and, removing his pipe from his mouth and, releasing a great cloud of tobacco smoke, called out mockingly.
“Oi, look at this! It’s Reynolds! Nice of his lot to join us. We were hoping you’d been dashed on the rocks old chap! But I mean, really, for them to sit around waiting while we did the work, setting up the tent and all, what slobs! I’m sorry, old chap, but there isn’t any space in the tent for your lot. We did what we could, the beds are as close together as we could make them, but there just simply isn’t enough room…” For this last line, the Corporal, Corporal Wilks, put on a voice of mock-pity, and the other three tried – and failed – to hide sniggers behind their hands.
Reynolds looked around, his mouth open in exasperation. The beds were, quite clearly, not ‘as close together as they could make them’. In fact, it looked more like they had been placed in a manner specifically intended to prevent the addition of more beds to the tent. And, of course, that was exactly what had happened. Reynolds eventually managed to get some words out, “You… Dickheads…” With this, he sloped off, fuming. He knew from prior experience that there was no use trying to fight them. It would get him nowhere in the end. And he couldn’t rely on the support of his CO, either. Maybe he was just paranoid, but every member of his platoon seemed to hate him.
Lying down on a blanket on the sand wasn’t too bad, Reynolds told himself. He wasn’t fooling anyone. On the one hand, the cool sea breeze tickled his skin, and he had a beautiful view of the stars, pinpricks of light in the inky blackness. On the other hand, the cool sea breeze blew sand into his eyes, and the mosquitoes kept biting him, pinpricks up and down his body. In all honesty, it would probably be tolerable if it weren’t for the mosquitoes. There seemed to be a limitless number of them, swarming around him. Just as he began to drift into sleep, one of the buggers would bite into him, and he’d snap awake and slap it, before trying to settle down once more. It was a long night.
Reynolds must have fallen asleep at some point, however, for when the trumpeter blasted his morning fanfare, he awoke. Sanders addressed the men this morning, in what was probably the most sober state he’d ever been in. Essentially, Reynolds’ platoon was going to be advancing into the jungle, exploring the new territory. The other platoons would remain on the beach and improve the encampment, with the intention of setting up a trading post in the bay. Sanders finished by announcing the creation of a committee to come up with a name for the new colony, chaired by none other than himself.
The platoon was to set off immediately following the morning meal (to call it a meal was a bit of a stretch, but that was the Matilum army for you).
Their red uniforms, while an icon of Matilum, were totally unsuitable for the mission at hand. The hot, clinging humidity of the jungle air combined with the sweltering sunlight had a terrible effect on a soldier. The thick, warm coats provided excellent insulation – exactly the opposite of what was needed. Reynolds felt as if he was sweating out enough water to flood the island, and the fabric of the coat absorbed the moisture, becoming heavier, and preventing the sweat from drying and cooling him down. They had only been walking for an hour and a half or so when Corporal Wilks fainted from dehydration. They continued their march across the island, carrying Wilks, until they reached a stream. The platoon CO called a halt. Reynolds sat down on a boulder and removed his cap and coat. The Lieutenant got up and made an announcement.
“Listen up, you lot. It’s too bloody hot in this bloody jungle. I know army regulations say we are meant to be in uniform at all times while on duty, but, well, stuff regulations. I’ve got one man combat ineffective because of the heat, I don’t want any more. I suppose we should at least maintain an air of uniformity, so… I know, tie the sleeves around your waist behind you, leaving the rest at the front as a kind of apron. Yeah, that’ll do.”
Everyone did as the Lieutenant had ordered, making them look a lot like an army of chefs, to Reynolds’ mind. After a few more minutes of blissful rest, the men began to move off. As Reynolds stood, he noticed writing on the boulder upon which he had been sitting.
“Hey, sir! What’s this?” he called out.
Next Chapter: The Acquisition, Part 3 (June 7th – , 1856)