The sun flamed down from a cloudless sky upon the green and gold of the wide valley, hot and sensuous in the early afternoon. The joyous piping of sheeny spreeuws mingled with the crowing of cock koorhans concealed amid the grass, or noisily taking to flight to fuss up half a dozen others in the process. Mingled, too, with all this, came the swirl of the red, turgid river, whose high-banked, willow-fringed bed cut a dark contrasting line through the lighter hue of the prevailing bush. From his perch a white-necked crow was debating in his mind as to whether a certain diminutive tortoise crawling among the stones was worth the trouble of cracking and eating, or not.
Wyvern moved stealthily forward, step by step, his pulses tingling with excitement. Then parting some boughs which came in the way he peered down into the donga which lay beneath. What he saw was not a pleasant sight, but—it was what he had expected to see.
Two Kafirs were engaged in the congenial, to them, occupation of butchering a sheep. Not a pleasant sight we have said, but to this man doubly unpleasant, for this was one of his own sheep—not the first by several, as he suspected. Well, he had caught the rascals red-handed at last.
Wyvern stood there cogitating as to his line of action. The Kafirs, utterly unsuspicious of his presence, went on with their cutting and quartering, chattering gleefully in their deep-toned voices, as to what good condition the meat was in, and what a succulent feast they would have when the darkness of night should enable them to fetch it away to the huts from this remote and unsuspected hiding-place. One was clad in a pair of greasy moleskin trousers, hitched up to his shoulders by a pair of filthy braces, largely repaired with string; the other was clad in nothing at all, unless a string of blue beads round his neck counted for anything. In the trouser-wearing savage Wyvern recognised one of his own herds, whose absence from the flock under his charge had led to the present discovery. The other, a tall, powerful, desperate-looking scoundrel with a deeply pock-marked countenance, he did not recognise at all.
It was all very well to have caught them red-handed, but the question was, what course to pursue. They were two to one, hard, wiry savages at that. They had sheath knives and he was unarmed; for a pocket-knife is of little or no use as a defensive weapon in that it is bound to shut on the hand of the wielder. They were engaged in an act the penalty of which spelt lashes and fine, or, at best a year’s hard labour; was it likely they would submit meekly to capture? And then, as there flitted through his mind a recent instance of a stock fanner being unhesitatingly murdered under precisely similar circumstances, Wyvern began to realise that his own position was one of some little danger. Would it not be wiser to withdraw now, and take steps for trapping the culprits when he should have more force at his disposal? Decidedly here was food for reflection.
But the matter was taken out of his hands by one of those unforeseen trifles upon which so much may turn. In his eagerness to watch the proceedings just below he had let one hand come into contact with the leaf of a prickly pear, which sprouted interwoven with the bushes through which he was peering. Now contact with an ordinary thorn would not have moved him, but contact with these innumerable and microscopic stings, as it were, which once in the skin are bound to leave painful recollection of that fact even for weeks, inspired a sort of instinctive horror that had made him start. Even before the stone which he had dislodged beneath his foot had begun to roll into the donga the two miscreants looked up quickly and saw him.
The startled ejaculation which escaped them, gave way to a rapid murmur. Wyvern caught but one word and that was sufficient. He knew that he was about to fight for his life—and, he was unarmed.
The donga was of no depth, perhaps the height of a man, nor were the sides perpendicular; further down where it joined the river-bed they were both high and steep. Lithe, agile as monkeys or cats, the two Kafirs sprang up the bank, gripping their blood-smeared knives, but—each from a different end. They were going to assail him from two sides at once.
Cool now, and deadly dangerous because cornered, in a lightning flash of thought Wyvern decided upon his plan of campaign. He picked up two stones, each large enough to constitute a handful.
The first to appear was his own boy, Sixpence, and no sooner did he appear than he received one stone—hurled by a tolerably powerful arm, and at five yards’ distance—bang, crash on the forehead. It would have broken any skull but a native skull. The owner of this particular skull stopped short, staggered, reeled, shook his head stupidly, half-blinded by the blood that was pouring down his face, then subsided; incidentally, into a mass of prickly pear leaves—and thorns. Wyvern, his eyes ablaze with the light of battle, stood, the other stone ready in his right hand, ready to mete out to Number Two a like reception.
But the other did not appear. Instead, a volume of exclamations in deep-toned Xosa, together with a wholly unaccountable hissing, came from the other side of the bush by which he was standing. Wyvern stepped forth. The other Kafir stood, literally anchored by a huge puff-adder which was twined round his leg, not daring to use his knife lest missing those sinuous coils he should fatally wound himself. And the hideous bloated reptile, blown out in its wrath, hung there, tightening its coils in spasmodic writhings as it struck the imprisoned limb again and again with its deadly fangs.
“Throw down the knife, and I’ll help you,” cried Wyvern, in Boer Dutch.
But the savage, whether it was that he understood not a word of that classic tongue, or that he had gone mad with a very frenzy of despair, instead of obeying, with lightning-like swiftness, hurled the knife—a long-bladed, keenly-ground butcher one—full at the speaker. Wyvern sprang aside, but even then the whizz past his ear told that he had looked death rather closely in the face that day.
His first act was to possess himself of the weapon, then self-preservation moved him to go back to the other, and get possession of his. The said other lay stupidly, still half-stunned, but he had dropped his knife in the fall. This, too, Wyvern picked up, and now, feeling equal to the pair of them, he went back to where the man and the snake were still struggling.
And a ghastly and horrible scene met his eyes. The man, who seemed to have gone completely mad, was plucking and tearing at the snake, uttering the most hideous howls, and literally foaming at the mouth, as he strove to free himself from those terrible coils. He must have been bitten again and again, as now with his hands within the reptile’s very mouth he strove to tear its head asunder. The struggle had brought him to the brink of a much deeper part of the donga, and now, as Wyvern looked, puzzled what to do next, seemed to be weakening or to lose his balance. He swayed, then toppled heavily through the bushes, and man and snake went crashing down the well-nigh perpendicular bank.
His own peril thus removed, Wyvern’s blood curdled within him at the horror he had witnessed. He went to the place and looked over, but could see nothing. It was too much overhung with bushes—and save for where these had been displaced by a heavy body crashing through, there was no sign or trace of life; no sound either. Probably with all that venom in his system the wretched Kafir was already in the state of coma which should precede death. For him there was no chance, absolutely none. Wyvern went back to where he had left the other.
“Now, Sixpence,” he said, speaking in the taal, which in the Cape Colony is the usual means of communication between white men and natives, “stand up, and put your hands behind you. I’m going to tie them.”
But the fellow begged and prayed that he might be spared this. He would not try to run away, he protested. Where was the use, since his wife and children were at the huts, and besides, was he not well known? Farther he felt very ill, and hardly able to walk as it was, from the effects of the terrible blow the Baas had given him. Perhaps, too, on the strength of that the Baas might bring himself to forgive him. He would serve him so faithfully after that—and the Baas could take twice the value of the sheep out of his wages. Surely the Baas might bring himself to forgive him.
Wyvern, contemplating him, thought he might even be fool enough to do that; and as he put back into his pocket the lanyard of reimpje wherewith he had intended to tie the fellow’s hands, he feared that he might.
“I don’t know about that, Sixpence,” he said. “You have been a pretty schelm sort of a boy, you know. Besides, you would have killed me, you and that other. Who is he, by the way?”
“One of Baas Ferreira’s boys, Baas,” naming a Dutchman whose farm adjoined the river on the other side.
“Well, and which of you was it that planned this slaag?”
The Kafir shrugged his shoulders.
“We did it between us, Baas,” he said, and the answer moved Wyvern the more to let him down easy, though fully alive to the bad policy of doing so, for he appreciated the fact that the fellow had not tried to save himself by throwing the blame on his accomplice.
They had reached the place where Wyvern had left his horse, and now as he mounted he said:
“Now walk on in front of me, Sixpence. I shall think seriously over what I shall do about you. You would get ever so many years in the tronk you know, for coming at me with the knife—and that apart from what you’d get for ‘slaag-ing’ the sheep. I expect the other fellow is dead by this time. The snake struck him again and again.”
“Nkose!” murmured the Kafir deprecatorily, then relapsed into silence. Before they had gone far Wyvern said:
“Go back to your flock, Sixpence. I expect it has straggled a good bit by this time. But—” impressively—“don’t attempt to run away. You are sure to be caught if you do, and then you will have thrown away your last chance.”
“Nkose!” murmured the Kafir again, and bending down he kissed his master’s foot as it rested in the stirrup. Then he walked away.
“Poor devil,” said Wyvern to himself, gazing after him as he rode on. “Well, we are all poor devils—I the most of the lot. I believe I could almost bring myself to envy that ochre-smeared scion of Xosa. He doesn’t need much, and gets it all, while I—?”
Categories: English Literature