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Title: An Eye for an Eye: A Story of the War
Author: Vernon Houseman
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1000551.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: October 2010
Date most recently updated: October 2010

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: An Eye for an Eye: A Story of the War
Author: Vernon Houseman

Published in The Queenslander, Saturday 3 March, 1900.

* * *

"If that is true," said Commandant Meintjes, as he reined up his horse
in the shadow of a small copse of scrubby mimosa and thorn, "the Lord
hath surely delivered this foolish man into our hands."

"Ay, it's true enough; for that I'll vouch," said a man on his right,
"for did I not hear it with my own ears when scouting round Mooidorp
yesterday? Two of the rooinek officers were talking in the stable in
which I had hidden myself, and one said that if the trooper sent up from
headquarters with despatches managed to get through he would arrive
to-morrow. That would be to-day. And--"

"Did he say what the despatches were about?" broke in Piet, the
Commandant's son. "No, but he said that he thought it was foolish of the
general to trust to one man, however good a one."

"So he will find to his cost," said the Commandant with a low laugh.
"Kerels," he went on, turning to the small detachment with him, "we must
have this man, alive or dead."

There was a murmur of assent, but not one of the dozen burghers, except
young Piet, looked very eager. Truth to tell, they were almost to a man
sick and tired of the war, and loyalty to their Commandant alone kept
them from hurrying back to their farms.

"My plan," went on the Commandant after a few minutes' pause, "is
this--we must at all hazards take this man, and, if possible, alive.
Wait for him at Klipster's Kopje, and when he has passed you close in
upon him from the rear. One of two things will then happen. Should he
decide to risk the pace of his horse against yours, follow him up, and
if possible, drive him here, where we will wait. Should he show fight,
then take him yourselves, alive or dead. You will be three to one, and
can manage that. Piet," he added, "you go in command, and take Jan and
Henddrick with you."

Young Piet with alacrity prepared to mount, but the other two made no
sign.

"Quick," said Meintjes, "there is no time to be lost;" but his words
failed to infuse any answering briskness into his men.

Piet's lip curled contemptuously. "They are afraid," he said with a
drawl.

"Nay," said the man addressed as Henddrick, "it is not that, and that
the Commandant knows well; but our horses are dead tired, and we
ourselves too; twelve hours or more in the saddle is enough for any
man."

"Tired! Of course you're tired," roared the Commandant, "we're all tired
for the matter of that; but do you think I am going to let a prize like
this slip through my fingers because you are tired?"

"Come, my lads, mount, and off with you, and let me hear no more such
old women's tales till you get back."

Discipline, even at the best of times, is not a strong point in the Boer
forces, and Meintjes's words produced little effect beyond a sullen
murmur from the men; indeed, Jan rather ostentatiously produced a large
pipe, which he proceeded to fill. The Commandant grew furious, and
things were obviously going to be made unpleasant for somebody, when
Piet interposed.

"Vader," he said, "let me go alone; cowards like these are no good to
any one. Trust me to drive this rooinek into the trap; and if he should
show fight, a taste of this," he went on, holding up his revolver, "will
soon settle him!"

The elder man hesitated.

"Let him go," said Jan, "and a good riddance," he added under his
breath. "Why, his hat alone," he continued aloud, "would frighten any
rooinek!"

The general laugh that followed this brought the blood to Piet's cheek,
for his hat was rather a sore subject. Originally of scarlet felt, and
intended for the adornment of the gentler sex, it had been looted at
Dundee early in the war by Piet, and at once adopted by him as a
personal decoration. Hard wear and tear had reduced its once brilliant
hue, but it was, even now, a conspicuous object; and the men of his
father's commando, with whom, truth to tell, Master Piet was no
favourite, were never tired of sarcastic comments on the subject.

Not having any telling repartee ready, Piet felt that it was wiser to
ignore his adversaries; so, gathering up his reins, he sprang lightly
into the saddle, and, turning to his father, said, "Then I can go?"

The Commandant hesitated a moment.

"Yes," he said rather reluctantly, "you can go; but remember, Piet,
drive him here if possible, and don't shoot if you can help it; the
fellow, having despatches, is much more likely to trust to his heels
than to the sureness of his aim."

Piet said nothing, but, nodding to the men, cantered off across the open
veldt.

A handsome young fellow was Piet; tall and shapely, fairer in colour
both of skin and hair than most Boers; his straight soldierly figure
looked well in the brilliant sunlight to his father's eyes as he watched
him out of sight. Handsome he certainly was, but by no means pleasant
looking. Seen at closer quarters, the eyes, small and shifty, the narrow
forehead and thin cruel lips, entirely reversed one's first pleasant
impression of the man. He was turning over thoughts of his mission in
his mind as he cantered along under the blazing sun of an African
summer, and was so preoccupied that beyond a glance now and then to see
if his quarry was in sight, his thoughts were far away. Suddenly, as he
turned down a little valley with a high kopje on either side, there was
a stumble, a convulsive but unsuccessful attempt at recovery, and he
found himself lying with his horse in a confused heap on the ground.

Firing a volley of oaths at the poor brute for what was after all as
much his fault as the horse's, he scrambled to his feet, and tugged at
the reins for the latter to rise; but to his intense disgust a few
ineffective struggles on his part showed him that the mischief was far
greater than bruises or broken knees, and that he was stranded some ten
good miles, away from help, with no food, and a horse with a broken leg.

His feelings on making this unpleasant discovery were too deep for
words, and he sat himself down on a boulder and buried his head in his
hands, the picture of dejection. After a few minutes he rose and walked
to where the poor brute lay moaning, made quite sure that the case was
hopeless, and then slinging off his rifle, put an end to its sufferings
by a bullet through the head.

Meanwhile the same summer sunshine was falling on another scene not very
far away.

Under the partial shade of a small rock a trooper of the Light Royal
Horse was lying where he had managed to drag himself an hour or so
before with a dislocated knee. Cantering leisurely along from kopje to
kopje, his eyes were so employed in searching every possible spot for an
enemy in ambush, that he failed to notice a half-concealed antbear hole,
which brought his horse to grief in the same manner as Piet's some time
afterwards.

In the trooper's case, however, it was he, and not the horse, that had
suffered.

"Infernally bad luck," he muttered; "only at the most another twelve
miles, and now starvation on the veldt or a bullet through the head from
some passing Boer." It certainly was hard.

After lying with his eyes closed for a minute or two the pain in his
knee seemed to grow a little less, and whistling to his horse, who was
browsing quietly a short distance off, he tried to rise, but the pain
was too great, and he sank back with a groan.

An inspiration occurred to him, and, opening the small leather bag which
contained them, and which he wore round his neck, he drew out the
papers, and, breaking the seals, set himself to master the contents.
This took him some time, for he read and reread them to make sure that
he understood them, and then, drawing a matchbox from his pocket, he lit
one corner of the paper and watched it flare up and die out, leaving
nothing behind but a small heap of black ash.

At that moment a rifle shot rang out not far off, and his horse, a
high-spirited skittish mare, snorted and sidled excitedly at the sound.

"Help!" he shouted loudly, first in English and then in the taal.
"Whoever you are," he added to himself, "it is better than dying of
starvation out here on the veldt."

His first call produced no effect, but eventually an answering shout
reached him, and from round the corner of a neighbouring rook emerged
our friend Piet, cautiously at first as suspecting an ambush, but seeing
only one man he came closer, until he stood looking down on the injured
trooper.

They were singularly alike, these two thus so strangely brought
together. Both had the same fair curly hair and bright complexion; their
height and build were identical, but whereas Piet's eyes were cold and
cruel, those of the trooper had the steady frankness of a typical
English eye.

"What's up?" said Piet after a moment's pause, during which each had
tried to gauge the other.

The trooper's blue eyes wandered over the other's outward man, from his
glowing hat and scarf, past his ragged jacket much the worse for wear,
down to his strong, serviceable leather boots and gaiters, which were
very like his own, and a smile flickered over his face as he answered,
"That scoundrel of a horse of mine came to grief over an antbear hole,
and here I am with a sprained knee."

Piet's eyes glistened. Fate had indeed made up to him for past rebuffs.
Here was his prey, disabled and helpless, delivered right into his
hands, and nothing, now remained but to make the best use possible of
his opportunity.

"You will consider yourself my prisoner, of course," he said.

The trooper sighed. "Thanks to my cursed leg, I suppose I must," he
answered; "though, being all alone as you are, what the deuce you are
going to do with me now you have got me passes comprehension, for I
can't ride, as you see, and still less walk. Do you mean to carry me?"
he added with a smile.

"Oh, my men are not far off," said Piet lightly, though, inwardly he was
in much the same state of doubt as his prisoner; "but first of all you
had best hand over the despatches."

"What despatches?"

"Don't be a fool, man," said Piet impatiently, "but just give them up at
once, or I shall have to be under the unpleasant necessity of making
you."

"All right," said the trooper merrily, "don't get excited. Search me if
you like. Come, now, where do you suppose I keep them?"

Piet knelt down and thrust his hand deeply into all the trooper's
pockets, bringing to light a miscellaneous assortment of odds and ends,
including a revolver, all of which he coolly transferred to the pockets
of his own coat, but there was certainly nothing that could be called a
despatch.

"Go on, don't mind me," said his prisoner, to whom this barefaced
spoliation was only what he expected. "Perhaps you think that I've got
them tied round my neck."

Piet's temper was rising fast. "Perhaps I do," he said, with an oath,
and seizing the man's collar he dragged open the neck of his shirt,
disclosing the leather despatch bag.

Instantaneously Piet snatched it, and with a look of triumph proceeded
to open it, and could hardly contain his mortification and fury at
finding himself duped, especially as he caught sight of a look of
malicious pleasure on the other's face.

A string of wild expletives rose to his lips, and throwing himself on
the prostrate man, he seized him by the throat and shook him like a dog.

Piet's fury on being foiled was now ungovernable. "Then die you shall!"
he screamed, and drawing his revolver he discharged it full in the
trooper's face.

* * * * * * * *

The reddening sun was slowly sinking westwards as Piet, with the brand
of Cain upon his soul, mounted the trooper's horse, which he had caught
with some difficulty and slowly started on his journey back. He had not
gone far, however, when glancing downwards, his eye caught his ragged
jacket, and a sudden thought struck him. Wheeling round he cantered
back, and dismounting he proceeded to strip the body of the dead trooper
of his clothes, and rapidly put them on himself, the khaki uniform
fitting him well, as also the gray felt hat. His old clothes he was
about to leave behind him, when it occurred to him that, though old and
ragged, it was by no means a bad thing to own a second suit. Producing
some string from the pocket of his old coat and rolling up the clothes
into a bundle, he tied them securely to his saddle, fixing the hat and
scarf on the outside, and then remounting he once more started westward.
Blessed with an excellent seat on horseback, and, usually a light hand,
something must have affected his nerves this afternoon, as the mare gave
him just as much as he could do to keep her in hand. Possibly she
resented the murder of her late master and the annexation of his
property, including herself. Anyhow, she curveted and shied at every
bush or rock, and several times managed to get the bit between her teeth
and bolt. Each time Piet cursed her heartily, and cursed the sun too for
shining as it did, and dragged his hat down over his eyes, if possible
to escape the almost blinding glare, the result of all which was that he
lost count of time and distance.

Commandant Meintjes was woke up from a sound nap by a sudden exclamation
from one of his men, and, raising himself on his elbow, looked out
towards the distant horizon.

"What do you make of him, Jan?" he said, turning to the man behind him.

"Rooinek," said Jan shortly. "A trooper," he added; "on a right good
horse, too--a darn sight too good for the like of him!"

By this time the whole troop were watching intently the man who,
apparently totally unconscious of their proximity, was engaged in trying
to control his horse, a high-spirited bay mare.

A slouched 'smasher' hat of brown felt, pulled well down over the eyes,
and a khaki uniform clearly told that the wearer was a trooper in the
Royal Light Horse.

"It's my opinion," said Jan suddenly, "that that's the chap Piet went
out to meet. Seems as though he didn't meet him," he went on, "unless,"
he added in a low voice, "the trooper proved the better man."

Low as his voice was the old man heard it, and a swift pang shot through
his heart, for Jan had merely voiced his own unspoken fears.

"Anyhow," he said aloud, "we won't let him slip through our fingers.
Fire a shot across him, one of you, to bring him up."

A trooper obeyed.

The mare, startled by the sound, made a sudden swerve, and then bolted
with her rider sawing at the reins straight for the end of the copse,
not five hundred yards from where the watchers lay.

As they got nearer old Meintjes, with a convulsive movement, sprang to
his feet, and a gray hue spread over his cheek.

"Look!" he whispered hoarsely, "the hat--the hat!"

A hat of scarlet felt, tied up with a bright blue scarf, hung suspended
from the saddle, and left little doubt in the father's mind as to the
fate that had befallen his son.

"Kill him, kill him!" he foamed incoherently, and before a man could
prevent him he had seized his rifle, and dropping down on one knee drew
the trigger.

The mare again swerved suddenly at the noise, and the trooper, throwing
up both arms, fell backwards from the saddle and was dragged a shapeless
mass at his horse's heels.

"So perish all murderers," said the old man, who seemed to have aged ten
years in as many moments. "He that sheddeth man's blood by man shall his
blood be shed," he added after a pause, as though to justify his action
to himself, and then throwing himself on the ground he buried his head
in his arms in an uncontrollable agony of grief. Two of the men had
meantime mounted their horses and started in pursuit of the mare, much
too valuable a prize to lose sight of.

An hour or so afterwards they returned with their capture, and silently
handed to the father all Piet's possessions and those of the dead
trooper.

"Did you leave him on the veldt?" said the old man after a long pause.

"Nay," said one of the men gravely; "we thought it best to bury him."

"That is well," said the former, "for, after all, maybe he was a
Christian."

The men went back to the troop with strangely subdued looks, and for
hours a whispered conversation went on among them, even their rough,
ignorant hearts being touched by the tragedy.

But they never told the Commandant what it was that they found out on
the blood stained veldt.



THE END



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