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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.: 1000551h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2010 Date most recently updated: October 2010 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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"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."
"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.
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