In the early years of the century the land north of the Limpopo River was now and then an exciting place to live in. We Rhodesians went on with our ordinary avocations, prospecting, mining, trying out new kinds of fruit and tobacco, pushing, many of us, into wilder country with our ventures. But the excitement did not all lie in front of us, for some of it came from behind. Up from the Rand and the Cape straggled odd customers whom the police had to keep an eye on, and England now and then sent us some high-coloured gentry. The country was still in many people’s minds a no-man’s-land, where the King’s writ did not run, and in any case it was a jumping-off ground for all the wilds of the North. In my goings to and fro I used to strike queer little parties, often very ill-found, that had the air of hunted folk, and were not very keen to give any information about themselves. Heaven knows what became of them. Sometimes we had the job of feeding some starving tramp, and helping him to get back to civilization, but generally they disappeared into the unknown and we heard no more of them. Some may have gone native, and ended as poor whites in a dirty hut in a Kaffir kraal. Some may have died of fever or perished miserably of thirst or hunger, lost in the Rhodesian bush, which was not a thing to trifle with. In the jungles of the middle Zambezi and the glens of the Scarp and the swamps of the Mazoe and the Ruenya there must have been many little heaps of bleached and forgotten bones.
I had come back from a trip to East Africa, and in Buluwayo to my delight I met Lombard, with whom I had made friends in the Rift valley. He had finished his work with his Commission, and was on the road home, taking a look at South Africa on the way. He had come by sea from Mombasa to Beira, and was putting up for a few days at Government House. When he met me he was eager to go on trek, for he had several weeks to spare and, since I was due for a trip up-country, he offered to go with me. My firm wanted me to have a look at some copper indications in Manicaland, north of the upper Pungwe in Makapan’s country. Lombard wanted to see the fantastic land where the berg and the plateau break down into the Zambezi flats, and he hoped for a little shooting, for which he had had no leisure on his East African job. My trip promised to be a dull one, so I gladly welcomed his company, for to a plain fellow like me Lombard’s talk was a constant opening out of new windows.
In the hotel at Salisbury we struck a strange outfit. It was a party of four, an elderly man, a youngish man, and two women. The older man looked a little over fifty, a heavily built fellow, with a square face and a cavalry moustache and a loud laugh. I should have taken him for a soldier but for the slouch of his shoulders, which suggested a sedentary life. He spoke like an educated Englishman — a Londoner, I guessed, for he had that indefinable clipping and blurring of his words which is the mark of the true metropolitan. The younger man was an American from his accent, and at the first glance I disliked him. He was the faux bonhomme, if I knew the breed, always grinning and pawing the man he spoke to, but with cold, cunning grey eyes that never smiled. We were not a dressy lot in Rhodesia, and the clothes of these two cried out like a tuberose in a cottage window. They wore the most smartly cut flannels, and soft linen collars, which were then a novelty, and they had wonderful buckskin shoes. The cut of their jib was not exactly loud, but it was exotic, though no doubt it would have been all right at Bournemouth. Even Lombard, who was always neat in his dress, looked shabby by contrast.
The women were birds of Paradise. They were both young, and rather pretty, and they were heavily rouged and powdered, so that I wondered what their faces would be like if the African sun got at them. They wore garden-party clothes, and in the evening put themselves into wonderful fluffy tea-gowns. They seemed to belong to a lower class than their male escort, for they had high vulgar voices and brazen Cockney accents. The party, apparently, had money to burn. They made a great outcry about the food, which was the ordinary tinned stuff and trek-ox, but they had champagne to all their meals, and champagne was not a cheap beverage in Salisbury.
I had no talk with any of them except the young fellow. He was very civil and very full of questions, after he had mixed me a cocktail which he claimed was his own patent. He and his friends, he said, were out to cast an eye over the Rhodesian proposition and sort of size-up what kind of guy the late C. J. Rhodes had been. Just a short look-see, for he judged they must soon hurry home. He talked a ripe American, but I guessed that it was not his native wood-notes, and sure enough I learned that he was a Dane by birth, name of Albinus, who had been some years in the States. He mentioned Montana, and I tried to get him to talk about copper, but he showed no interest. But he appeared curiously well-informed about parts of Rhodesia, for he asked me questions about the little-known north-eastern corner, which showed that he had made some study of its topography.
Lombard had a talk with the elder man, but got nothing out of him, except that he was an Englishman on a holiday. ‘Common vulgar trippers,’ said Lombard. ‘Probably won some big sweepstake or had a lucky flutter in stocks, and are now out for a frolic. Funny thing, but I fancy the old chap tries to make himself out a bigger bounder than God meant him to be. When he is off his guard he speaks almost like a gentleman. The women! Oh, the eternal type — Gaiety girls — salaried compagnons de voyage. The whole crowd make an ugly splash of aniline dye on this sober landscape.’
We were to be off at dawn next morning. Before turning in I went into the bar for a drink, and there I met a policeman I knew — Jim Arcoll, who was a famous name anywhere north of the Vaal River. I didn’t ask him what he was doing there, for that was the kind of question he never permitted, but I told him my own plans. He knew every corner of the country like his own name, and, when he learned where we were going, he nodded. ‘You’ll find old Haraldsen up there,’ he said. ‘He’s fossicking somewhere near Mafudi’s kraal. Give him my love if you see him, and tell him to keep me in touch with his movements. It’s a rough world, and he might come by a mischief.’
Then he jerked his thumb to the ceiling.
‘You’ve got a gay little push upstairs,’ he said.
‘I’ve only Lombard — the man you met in Buluwayo!’ I replied.
‘I didn’t mean your lot. I mean the others. The two dudes with the pretty ladies. Do you know who the older man is? No less than the illustrious Aylmer Troth.’
People have long ago forgotten the Scimitar case, but a year before it had made a great stir in England. It was a big financial swindle, with an ugly episode in it which might have been suicide, or might have been murder. There was a famous trial at the Old Bailey, and five out of the twelve accused got heavy terms of penal servitude. One of the chief figures had been a well-known London solicitor called Troth, who was the mystery man of the whole business. He had got off after a brilliant defence by his counsel, but the judge had been pretty severe in his comments and a heavy mist of suspicion remained.
‘Troth!’ I said. ‘What on earth is he doing here? I thought the chap upstairs looked too formidable for the ordinary globe-trotter.’
‘He is certainly formidable. As for his purpose, ask me another. We’ve nothing against him. Left the court without a stain on his character and all that. All the same, he’s a pretty mangy lad, and we have instructions to keep our eye on him till he gets on to the boat at Beira or Capetown. I don’t fancy he’s up to any special tricks this time. With his pretty love-birds he carries too heavy baggage for anything very desperate.’
Some days later, after a detour westward to pick up part of my outfit, we were on the hills between the Pungwe and the Ruenya. I thought that we had said good-bye to Troth and his garish crew, and had indeed forgotten all about them, when suddenly one noon, when we off-saddled at a water-hole, we struck them again. There were the four sitting round a fire having luncheon. The men had changed their rig, and wore breeches and leggings and khaki shirts, with open necks and sleeves rolled up, very different people from the exquisites of the hotel. Albinus looked a workmanlike fellow who had been at the game before, and even Troth made a presentable figure for the wilds. But the women were terrible. They too had got themselves up in breeches and putties and rough shirts, but they weren’t the right shape for that garb, and they had a sad raddled look like toy terriers that had got mixed up in a dog-fight. The sun, as I had anticipated, was playing havoc with their complexions.
The four did not seem surprised to see us, as indeed why should they, for they were on the regular trail into Makapan’s country, and a fair number of people passed that way. They were uncommonly forthcoming, and offered us drinks, of which they had plenty, and fancy foods, of which they had a remarkable assortment. They seemed to be in excellent spirits, and were very full of chat. Troth was enthusiastic about everything — the country and the climate, and the delight of living in the open, of which, he lamented, a busy man like himself had never before had a chance. Alas, they could only have a few days of this Paradise, and then they must make tracks for home. No, they were not hunting; they had shot nothing but a few guinea-fowl for the pot. He wished that he wasn’t such a rotten bad naturalist, or that he had somebody with him to tell him about the beasts and birds. Altogether you couldn’t have met a more innocent Bank Holiday tripper. The girls too spoke their piece very nicely, though I couldn’t believe that they were really enjoying themselves. Albinus said little, but he was very assiduous in helping us to drinks.
I asked if we could do anything for them, but they said they were all right. They proposed to have a look at a place called Pinto’s Kloof, which they had been told was a better view-point than the Matoppos, and then they must turn back. It seemed odd that a man with Troth’s antecedents should be enjoying himself in this simple way, and Albinus didn’t look as if he had any natural taste for the idyllic, nor the high-coloured ladies. But I must say they kept up the part well, and Troth’s last word to me was that he wished he was twenty years younger and could have a life like mine. He said it as if he meant it.
When we had ridden on, Lombard observed that he thought that they were anxious to make themselves out to be greater novices and greenhorns than they really were. ‘I caught a glimpse of their ironmongery,’ he said, ‘and there was more there than scatter-guns. I’ll swear there were rifles — at least one Mauser and what looked like an express.’
‘I noticed that too,’ I said. ‘And did you observe their boys? Two they may have hired in Salisbury, but there was a half-caste Portugoose whom I fancy I’ve seen before, and who didn’t want to be recognized. He dodged behind a tree when he saw me. Arcoll is right to keep an eye on that lot. Not that I see what mischief they can do. This part of the world can’t offer much to a shady London solicitor and an American crook.’
Three days later we were well into Makapan’s country and I had started on my job, verifying the reports of our prospectors in a land of little broken kopjes right on the edge of the Scarp. I had with me a Cape half-caste called Hendrik, who was my general factotum, and who looked after the whole outfit. There was nothing he could not turn his hand to, hunting, transport-riding, horse-doctoring, or any job that turned up: he was a wonderful fellow with a mule team, too, and he was the best cook in Africa. We had four boys with us, Mashonas whom I had employed before. Lombard spent his time shooting, and, as it was a country where a man could not easily get lost if he had a compass, I let him go out alone. He didn’t get much beyond a few klipspringer and bushbuck, but it was a good game area, and he lived in hopes of a kudu.
Well, one evening as we were sitting at dinner beside our fire, I looked up to see Peter Pienaar standing beside me. It was not the Peter that you knew in the War, but Peter ten years younger, with no grey in his beard, and as trim and light and hard as an Olympic athlete. But he had the same mild face, and the same gentle sleepy eyes that you remember, and the same uncanny quietness. Peter made no more noise in his appearances than the change from night to morning.
I had last heard of him in the Kalahari, which was a very good reason why I should expect to find him next on the other side of Africa. He ate all the food we could give him and drank two bottles of beer, which was his habit, for he used to stoke up like a camel, never being sure when he would eat or drink again. Then he filled a deep-bowled pipe with the old Transvaal arms on it, which a cousin had carved for him when a prisoner of war in Ceylon. I waited for him to explain himself, for I was fairly certain that this meeting was not accidental.
‘I have hurried to find you, Dick,’ he said, ‘for I think there is going to be dirty work in Makapan’s country.’
‘There’s sure to be dirty work when you’re about, you old aasvogel,’ I said. ‘What is it this time?’
‘I do not know what it is, but I think I know who it is. It is friends of yours, Dick — very nasty friends.’
‘Hullo!’ I said. ‘Was it Arcoll who sent you? Are you after the trippers that we found on the road last week?’
‘Ja! Captain Jim sent me. He said, “Peter, will you keep an eye on two gentlemen and two ladies who are taking a little holiday?” He did not tell me more, and he did not know more. Perhaps now he knows, for I have sent him a message. But I have found out very bad things which Captain Jim cannot stop, for they will happen quickly. That is why I have come to you.’
‘But those four tourists can’t do anything,’ I said. ‘One I know is a crook, and I think the other is, and they’ve got an ugly Portugoose with them that I swear I’ve seen before. But that’s only three, and they are cumbered with two women.’
‘The vrows have gone back to the town,’ said Peter solemnly. ‘They will wait quietly there till the others return. They will make the whole thing seem innocent — naughty, perhaps, but innocent. But the three you speak of are not the only ones. By this time they have been joined by others, and these others are very great scoundrels. You say, how do I know? I will tell you. I am at home in Makapan’s country and Makapan’s people do what I ask them. They have brought me news which is surer and speedier than Captain Jim can get. There is very bad mischief brewing. Listen, and I will tell you.’
The gist of Peter’s story was that after they had got rid of the women Troth and Albinus had moved down from the scarp into the bush-veld. The third, the Portugoose, Peter knew all about. His name was Dorando, and Peter had come across his tracks in many queer places; he had done time for I.D.B. and for selling illicit liquor, and was wanted in Mozambique on a variety of charges from highway robbery to cold-blooded murder. An odd travelling companion for two innocent sight-seeing tourists! Down in the flats the three had been joined by two other daisies, one an Australian who had been mixed up in the Kruger Treasure business, and one a man from the Diamond Fields called Stringer. I opened my eyes when I heard about the last, for Jim Stringer was an ill-omened name at that time in South Africa. He was the typical ‘bad man,’ daring and resourceful and reputed a dead shot. I was under the impression that he had been safely tucked away for his share in a big Johannesburg burglary.
‘He came out of tronk last month,’ said Peter, ‘and your friends must have met him as they came up-country and arranged things. What do you say, Dick? Here are three skellums that I know well, and your two friends who are not good people. They have with them four boys, Shangaans whom I do not know, but they are Makinde’s people, and Makinde’s kraal is a dirty nest. What are they after, think you? They are not staying in the flats. They have already moved up into the Berg, and they are moving fast, and they are moving north. They are not looking for gold, and they are not hunting, and they are not admiring the scenery. Where are they going? I can tell you that, for I found it out before they joined Jim Stringer. The two English do not drink, or if they drink they do not babble. But Dorando drinks and babbles. One of Makapan’s people, who is my friend, was their guide, and he heard Dorando talk when he was drunk. They are going to Mafudi’s kraal. Now who is at Mafudi’s kraal, Dick? They do not want to see old Mafudi in his red blanket. There is somebody else there.’
‘Haraldsen!’ I exclaimed.
‘Ja! The Baas.’ Peter always called Haraldsen the Baas, for he had often worked for him, as guide and transport-rider, and Haraldsen had more than once got him out of scrapes. Peter was a loyal soul, and if his allegiance was vowed to anyone alive it was to the old Dane.
‘But what on earth can they have to do with Haraldsen?’ I demanded.
‘I do not know,’ he said; ‘but they have got it in for the Baas. Consider, Dick. He is not a young man, and he is up there alone, with his little band of Basutos and the Dutchman Malan, who is clever but not a fighter, for he has but the one arm. The Baas is very rich, and he is believed to know many secrets. These skellums have some business with him and it will not be clean business. Perhaps it is an old quarrel. Perhaps he has put it across your friends Troth and Albinus in old days. Or perhaps it is just plain robbery, and they mean to make him squeal. He cannot have much money with him, but they may force him to find them money. I do not know, but I am certain of one thing, that they mean to lay hands on the Baas — and he will not come happily out of their hands — perhaps not alive.’
I was fairly flabbergasted by Peter’s tale. At first I thought he was talking through his hat, for we were civilized folk in Rhodesia, and violence was more or less a thing of the past. But Peter never talked wildly, and the more I thought of it the less I liked it. Five desperadoes up in that lonely corner could do pretty much what they pleased with Haraldsen and his one-armed assistant. I remembered the old fellow’s reputation for having hunted gold all his life and having struck it in a good many places. What more likely than that some hungry rogues should try to get him alone in the wilds and force out of him either money or knowledge?
‘What do you mean to do?’ I asked.
‘I am going straight to Mafudi’s,’ said Peter. ‘And I think you are coming with me, Dick.’
Of course I couldn’t refuse, but I felt bound to go cautiously. Would it not be better to get Arcoll and the police? I didn’t relish the notion of a private scrap with people who would certainly not stick at trifles. Besides, could we do any real good? Haraldsen and Malan might be ruled out as combatants, and we three would be up against five hefty scallywags.
Peter overruled all my objections in his quiet way. Arcoll was a hundred miles off. A native runner had been sent to him, but it was impossible for him to arrive at Mafudi’s in time, for Troth and his little lot would be there by tomorrow morning. As for being outnumbered, we were five honest men against five rascals, and in all rascals he believed there was a yellow streak. ‘I can shoot a little,’ he said, ‘and you can shoot a little, Dick.’ He turned inquiringly to Lombard.
‘I can loose off at any rate,’ said Lombard. He was looking rather excited, for this adventure was a piece of luck he had not hoped for.
The upshot was that we had no rest that night. I sent off one of my boys with another message for Arcoll, giving him more details than Peter had given him, and suggesting a road in by the northwest which I feared he might not think of. I left Hendrik and the mules and the rest of the outfit to come on later — and I remember wondering what kind of situation they would find when they reached Mafudi’s. The three of us took the road just after ten o’clock. Peter’s boy accompanied us, a tough little Bechuana from Khama’s country.
I had travelled the route several times before, and Peter knew it well, but in any case it was not hard to find, for it kept to the open ground near the edge of the scarp, bending inland only to avoid the deep-cut kloofs. There was a wonderful moon which made the whole landscape swim in warm light — an African moon, which is not the pale thing of the north, but as masterful as the sun itself. When it set we were on high ground, a plateau of long grass and thorns, with the great hollow of the lower veld making a gulf of darkness on our right. The road was easy enough to follow, and when dawn came with a rush of gold and crimson out of the east we were close to the three queer little peaks between which lay Mafudi’s kraal.
We went straight to Haraldsen’s camp, which was about half a mile from the kraal on one of the ridges. It was the ordinary prospector’s camp of which at that time you could have found a score or two in Rhodesia, but more professional than most, for Haraldsen had the cash with which to do things properly. Gold is not my pidgin, but the heaps of quartz I passed looked healthy. He had struck an outcrop which he thought promising, and was busy tracing the run of the reef, having sunk two seventy-foot shafts about a quarter of a mile apart. But I wasn’t concerned with old Haraldsen’s operations, but with Haraldsen himself. We had been sighted by his boys, and he stood outside his tent awaiting us, a figure like a patriarch with the sun on his shaggy head.
While our breakfast coffee was being made I told him our story, for there was no time to lose, since Peter calculated that Troth and his lot, by the road they were coming, could not be more than five miles off. Haraldsen had a face so weathered and set in its lines that it didn’t reveal much of his thoughts, and he had grey eyes as steady as a good dog’s. But the mention of Troth woke him up and the name of Albinus didn’t please him. He seemed to be more worried about them than about the other scallywags.
‘Troth I know,’ he said in his deep voice and his precise accent, for he always spoke English as if he had got it from old-fashioned books. ‘He is a great scoundrel and my enemy. Once — long ago — he was my partner for a little. He does not like me, and he has a reason, for I most earnestly laboured to have him put in tronk. He comes now like a ghost out of the past, and he means evil.’ Of Albinus, he would only say that his father had had a great devil in him, and that he did not think that the devil had been exorcized in the son.
He had not the smallest doubt that the gang were after him, but he didn’t explain why. All he said was, ‘They will try to make me do their will, and if I do not consent they will kill me. Unless, indeed, I first kill them.’
I tried as usual to put the common sense of it. ‘If they find us with you,’ I said, ‘they won’t dare to do anything. A quiet murder might be in their line, but they won’t want to fight a battle.’
But Haraldsen shook his head. He knew Troth, he said, and he knew about Albinus. He must have laid these gentry out pretty flat some time or other for them to have such a murderous grudge against him, or else he knew the depth and desperation of their greed. But what impressed me most was Peter’s view. He knew about Stringer and Dorando, and was clear that they would not go home without loot. They would not think of consequences, for they could leak away into the back-world of Africa.
I was never one for a fight except in the last resort, so I proposed that Haraldsen should take his best horse and make a bolt for it, leaving us to face the music, since there was nothing much to be got out of Peter and Lombard and myself. But Haraldsen wouldn’t hear of this. ‘If I flee,’ he said, ‘they will find me later and I shall live with a menace over my head. That I will not face. Better to meet them here and have done with it.’
That was all very well, but I wasn’t keen on being mixed up in any Saga-battle. I asked him if his boys were any use. ‘None,’ he said. They are Mashonas and are timid as rabbits. Besides, I will not have them hurt.’
‘What about Mafudi’s men?’ I asked.
It was Peter who answered. ‘Mafudi is always drunk, and also very old. Once his people were warriors, but now they have no guns. They will not fight.’
‘Well, then, it’s the five of us — and one of us crippled — against the five of them.’
But it was worse than that, for it appeared that Malan had a bad go of fever and might be counted out. Also Haraldsen had run out of ammunition and had sent a boy off to get a fresh supply, and as his rifles were Mannlichers and ours Mausers we could do nothing to help him out. This seemed to me fairly to put the lid on it, but Peter did not lose his cheerfulness. ‘We must make a plan,’ he said — a great phrase of his; and he delicately scratched the tip of his left ear, which was always a sign that his mind was working hard.
‘This is my plan,’ he said at last. ‘We must find a place where we can defend ourselves. Captain Arcoll will be here today — or perhaps to-night — at any rate not later than tomorrow. We cannot fight these skellums on fair terms in the open, but in a strong fort we may beat them off for perhaps twelve hours, perhaps more.’
‘But where is your fort?’ I asked. As I looked round the bright open place, the jumble of kopjes with the green of Mafudi’s crops in the heart of it, I didn’t see much hopes of a refuge we could hold. It was all open and bare, and we hadn’t time to dig trenches or build a scherm.
‘There is the Hill of the Blue Leopard,’ said Peter, using a Mashona word. ‘It is above the kraal — you can see the corner of it beyond that ridge. It is a very holy place where few go but the priests, and it has round it a five-foot hedge of thorns and a big fence of stakes. I do not know what is inside except a black stone which fell from heaven. It is there that the young men must watch during the Circumcision. If we get in there, Dick, I think we could laugh at your friends for a little — long enough to give Captain Arcoll time to get here. There is another thing. If the skellums were strong enough to break in, I think that Mafudi’s men might be very angry. It is true that they have no guns, but very angry men can do much with knobkerries and axes.’
‘But they’ll never let us enter,’ I protested.
‘Perhaps they will. I will try. I have always been good friends with Mafudi’s folk.’ And without another word he strode off in the direction of the kraal.
I was doubtful about his success, for I knew how jealous the natives were of their sacred places, especially the Mashonas, who have always been in the hands of their priests. Still I knew that Peter had an amazing graft among the tribes, for he was not the kind of man who damned them all as niggers. People used to say that he was the only white man who had ever been present at the great Purification Dance of the Amatolas. It was a nervous business waiting for his return, for he took a long time about it. I made Haraldsen collect his valuables, and we prepared a sort of litter for Malan, who was at that stage of fever when a man is pretty well unconscious of his surroundings. Always I kept my eye on the corner of the kloof where any moment Troth and his gang might be expected to appear.
But they did not come, and at last Peter did. He had succeeded in persuading the elders of the tribe to let us inside the sacred enclosure. He did not tell me what arguments he had used, for that was never his way; he presented the world with results and left it to guess his methods. We bundled up our traps in a mighty hurry, for there was no time to lose, hoisted Malan into his litter, and told Haraldsen’s boys to take the horses up into the berg and to lie low till we sent for them. In the kraal, in the open space in the centre of the kyas, we were met by most of Mafudi’s people, all as silent as the tomb, which is not common among Kaffirs. We had to have water poured on our heads — what the books call a lustration — and to have little dabs of green paint stuck on our foreheads. Peter’s Bechuana boy was not allowed to be of our party, only the white men. Then we were solemnly conducted up a narrow bush road to the Hill of the Blue Leopard, and as we started there was a great ‘Ouch,’ a sound like a sigh, from all the natives. There was a kind of cattle-gate in the wall of the scherm, which a priest ceremonially opened, and the four of us and Malan in his litter passed into the holy place.
At first sight it looked as if we had found a sanctuary. The hill was perhaps a hundred feet high, and most of it was covered with thick bush, except a bald cone at the top where the sacred stone lay. The bush was mostly waak-embeetje thorn and quite impenetrable, but it was seamed and criss-crossed by dozens of little paths, worn smooth like a pebble by ages of ceremonial. One of the items in the Circumcision rite was a kind of demented hide-and-seek in this maze. Around the foot of the hill, as I have said, was a dense quickset scherm which it would have taken a regiment to hack through. The only danger-point was the gate, and I thought that in case of trouble two of us might manage to hold it, for I didn’t envy the job of the men who tried to rush it in the face of concealed rifles. Anyhow, we could hold it long enough, I thought, to give Arcoll time to turn up. Indeed, I had hopes that Troth and his gang would miss us altogether. They would find Haraldsen’s camp deserted and conclude that he had moved on.
In every bit of my forecast I was wrong. In the first place our enemies came round the edge of the kloof in time to see the movement of Mafudi’s people toward the little hill, and if they didn’t guess then what had happened, they knew all right when they got to Haraldsen’s camp. For his boys had been too slow over the job of scattering into the woods. One of them they caught, and, since they meant business and were not fastidious in their methods, they soon made the poor devil blab what he knew or guessed. The consequence was that half an hour after we were inside the scherm the others were making hell in Mafudi’s kraal. I had found a lair well up the hill where I could spy out the land, and I saw that Troth’s party was bigger than I had supposed. I made out Troth and Albinus, their natty outfit a little the worse for wear, and the trim figure of Dorando, and Jim Stringer’s long legs. They had left their natives behind, but they had four other white men with them, and I didn’t like the cut of their jib. They were eight to our four, odds of two to one. I called Peter up beside me, and his eyes, sharp as a berghaan’s, examined the reinforcements. He recognized the Australian and one other, a Lydenburg man whose name he mentioned and then spat. ‘I think we must fight, Dick,’ he said quietly. ‘The greed of these men is so great that it will make them brave. And I know that Dorando and Stringer are bad, but not cowards.’
I thought the same, so I started out to make my dispositions, for I had learned some soldiering in the late war. Haraldsen I kept out of sight, for his life was the most valuable of the lot, and besides I meant to pretend that we knew nothing about him. Peter, who was far the best shot among us, I placed behind a rock where he had a good view of the approaches. I told him not to shoot unless they tried to rush the gate, and then to cripple if possible and not kill, for I didn’t want bloodshed and a formal inquiry and screeds in the papers — that would do no good to either Haraldsen or me. Lombard and I took our stations near the gate, which was a solid thing of log and wattle jointed between two tree trunks. We had a rifle and a revolver apiece; but I would have preferred shot-guns. I could see that Lombard was twittering with excitement, but he kept a set face, though he was very white.
The affair was slow in beginning. It was after midday before Dorando and Stringer appeared on the track that led up from the kraal. They had a handkerchief tied to a rifle muzzle by way of a white flag. I halted them when they were six yards from the gate, and asked what they wanted.
Butter wouldn’t have melted in their mouths. They had come to see Mr. Haraldsen, who was a friend of theirs — to see him on business. They understood that he was on the hill. Would he step out and come down to luncheon with them? They were kind enough to include me in the invitation.
I said that I knew nothing about Mr Haraldsen, but that I knew a good deal about them. I proposed another plan: let them leave their guns where they stood, and come inside the scherm and take a bite with us. They thanked me, and said they would be delighted, and moved to the gate, but they did not drop their rifles, and I saw the bulge of revolvers in their pockets. ‘Stop,’ I shouted. ‘Down guns or stay where you are,’ and Lombard and I showed our pistols.
‘Is that a way to talk to gentlemen?’ said Dorando with a very ugly look.
‘It’s the way to talk to you, my lads,’ I said. ‘I’ve known you too long. Strip yourselves and come inside. If not, I give you one minute to get out of here.’
Dorando was livid, but Stringer only smiled sleepily. He was the more dangerous of the two, for he was mighty quick on the draw and didn’t miss. He had a long thin face, and few teeth, which made his mouth as prim as a lawyer’s. I kept my eye on him, having whispered to Lombard to mark Dorando. But they didn’t try to rush us, only said a word to each other and turned and went back. That was the end of the first bout.
All afternoon nothing happened. The heat was blistering, and as there was no water on the hill and we had nothing liquid but a flask of brandy, we suffered badly from thirst. Malan babbled in his fever, and Haraldsen, who was in the shade beside him, went to sleep. Old Haraldsen had been in so many tight places in his life that he was hard to rattle. Little green lizards came out and basked in the sun on the tracks, widow-birds flopped among the trees, and a great ugly aasvogel dropped out of the blue sky and had a look at us. The whole land lay baking and still, and down in the kraal there was not a sound. There was nobody in the space between the huts, not a child or a chicken stirred, and we might have been looking down at a graveyard.
Suddenly from one of the kyas there came a cry as of some one in deadly pain. In the hot silence it had a horrible eeriness, for it sounded like a child’s scream, though I knew that a Kaffir in pain or terror often gives tongue like an infant. I saw Lombard’s face whiten.
‘Oughtn’t we to do something?’ he croaked, for his mouth was dry with thirst.
‘We can’t,’ I told him. ‘I don’t know what these swine are up to, but it will soon be our turn. Our only hope is to sit tight.’
When the twilight began to fall Peter descended from his perch. Being higher up the hill he had had a better view and he brought news.
‘The stad is quiet,’ he told us. ‘All Mafudi’s people are indoors, for they have been told that they will be shot if they show their faces. Of the others, two are on guard and the rest have not been sleeping. They have been pulling down a kya to get the old straw from the roof, and they have been down at the byres where the hay is kept. As soon as it is dark they will be very busy.’
‘Good God!’ I cried, for I saw what this meant. ‘They mean to burn us out.’
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘They are clever men. The moon will not rise till nine o’clock. Soon it will be black night, and we cannot shoot in the dark. There are eight of them, and of us only four. At this time of year there is no sap in the thorns, so they will burn like dry tinder. The gate will no longer matter. They can fire this scherm at six places, and we cannot watch them all. We are in a bad fix, Dick.’
There was no doubt about that. At infighting those scallywags — leaving out Troth and Albinus, whom I knew nothing about — were far more than our masters. If Peter was right, our sanctuary would very soon be a trap. I summoned Haraldsen, and the four of us had a solemn council. We couldn’t hold the place against fire, and we couldn’t escape, for the gaps made by the flames would all be watched, and likewise the gate.
‘Have you any plan?’ I asked Peter.
He shook his head, for even he was at the end of his resources.
‘We can only trust in God,’ he said simply, and his mild quizzical face was solemn. ‘Perhaps Jim Arcoll may come in time.’
Haraldsen said nothing. He had no weapon, so I offered him my rifle. But he preferred to take an axe which Peter had insisted on bringing from the camp, and he swung it round his head, looking like some old Viking. I apologized to Lombard for having got him into such a hole, but he told me not to worry. That cry from the kraal had stripped him of all nervousness or fear. He was thinking only of what mischief he could do to the eight devils at the foot of the hill.
The short mulberry gloaming faded out of the sky, and night came down on the world like a thick black shawl. I had sent Lombard and Peter up to the summit where they could get early news of what was happening, for I knew that an attempt would be made to fire the scherm in several places at once. I stayed at the gate, and Haraldsen for some reason of his own insisted on staying beside me. We moved the sick Malan out into the open, for I feared that the firing of the scherm might kindle all the bush on the hill.
I can’t say that I enjoyed the hour we had to wait. I saw no chance for us, short of a miracle, and the best we could hope for was a good scrap and a quick death. You may ask why we didn’t parley with our enemies to gain time. The answer is that we were convinced that they meant black murder if we gave them half a chance; at least they meant to do in Haraldsen, and we couldn’t allow that. Haraldsen himself had wanted to be let out and to go down and face them alone, but Peter and I told him not to be a fool.
The crisis came, as such things do, when I wasn’t expecting it. Suddenly I saw a red glow in the night, apparently on the other side of the hill. The glow spread, which must mean that other fires had been started. There was a rifle shot, which I assumed to be Peter’s, and then Lombard stumbled down with the news that the scherm was burning in four places. The next thing I knew was that there was a big burst of flame about five yards from me, and at the same moment faces appeared in the gate. I fired at one, there was an answering crackle of shots, and I felt a raw pain in my left shoulder. Then I saw the gate in a sheet of flame, for the wattles had been fired.
After that there was a wild confusion. I found an ugly face close to me, fired at it, and saw it go blind. That was the man from Lydenburg, for we found the body later. I saw other figures in the gap, and then I saw an extraordinary sight. Haraldsen, looking like a giant in the hellish glow, had leaped forward and was swinging his axe and shouting like a madman. The spectacle must have confounded the attackers, for they made wild shooting. He had a bullet through one pocket and another through his hair, but he got none in his body. I saw him jump the blazing remnant of the gate and bring his axe down on somebody’s head. And then he was through them and careering out into the dark.
I was pretty dazed and wild, and I decided that it was all up now, when suddenly the whole business took a new turn. Above the crackle and the roar of the flames I heard a sound which I had not heard since the Matabele Rising, the deep throaty howl of Kaffirs on the war-path. It rose to heaven like a great wind, and I clutched at my wits and realized what had happened. Mafudi’s men were up. They had been like driven cattle all day, but this outrage on their sacred place had awakened their manhood. Once they had been a famous fighting clan and the old fury had revived. They were swarming like bees round the scherm, and making short work of our assailants. The Kaffir sees better in the dark than a white man, and a knobkerrie or an axe is a better weapon in a blind scrap than a gun. Also there were scores of them, the better part of a hundred lusty savages, mad with fury at the violation of their shrine.
There was nothing I could do except join Peter and Lombard on the top. But there was no sign of them there, for they had each made for one of the burning gaps to do what they could to hold the fort. As a matter of fact the fires at no place had gone far enough to make an opening, so none of our assailants had got inside the scherm. Pandemonium was in full blast around it, where some of Mafudi’s men were rounding up Troth’s lot and the rest were beating out the flames. This latter wasn’t an easy job and the moon was up before it was over. I simply sat on the bald crest beside the sacred stone and waited. This was no work for me. Peter and Lombard were somewhere on the hill, but it was impossible to find them in that dark maze. The noise of native shouting soon died away, so I realized that they had finished their business. The fires were all mastered except one that kept breaking out afresh. Then over the rim of the horizon rose the moon, and the world was bright again. I was just starting out to look for the others when I heard the jingle of bridles and the clatter of hoofs and knew that Arcoll’s police had arrived at last.
Arcoll made a fine bag of miscreants — five, to be accurate, who were firm in the grip of Mafudi’s people. Three were dead — the man from Lydenburg whom I shot, one of the new fellows whose skull Haraldsen split with his axe, and, as the fates would have it, Troth himself. Peter had got Troth at the very start, when he showed up for a second in the gleam of the first fire. There he lay with his neat London outfit punctured by Peter’s bullet, a home-bred hound among jackals, but the worst jackal of the pack.
‘That’s a pleasant yarn,’ said Sandy. ‘Old Haraldsen told me a good many of his adventures, but not that one. It had the right sort of ending.’
‘That wasn’t quite the end,’ I said. ‘Haraldsen had burst through the ring into the arms of Mafudi’s men, who knew him well and recognized him and kept him out of danger. But as soon as Arcoll arrived and took charge the old man got busy. He had been berserk at the gate, and now he seemed to be ‘fey.’ He said there was something still to do, and he insisted on Peter and Lombard and me accompanying him to the top of the Hill of the Blue Leopard. There he made us a speech, looking more like an old Norseman than ever. He said that we were his blood-brothers, who had been ready to stand by him to the end. But the end hadn’t come, though Troth was dead and the others would soon be in quod. There was a legacy of ill will that would follow him to his last day, and the dead Troth would leave it as a bequest to his successors. So he wanted the three of us to swear that if he called for us we would come to his aid wherever in the world we might be. More, we must be ready to come to his son’s help, for he considered that this vendetta might not end with his own life, and we were to hand on the duty to our own sons. As none of us was married that didn’t greatly worry us.
‘It was like something out of one of his Sagas. There we stood above the silvered bush on rocks which were like snowdrifts in the strong moonlight. We took his right hand in turn in ours and put it to our foreheads, and then we raised our right arms and repeated a mad formula about dew and fire and running water. . . . Lord, how it all comes back — that white world, and the smell of charred bush, and the pain in my shoulder, and Lombard, who had had about as much as he could stand, whimpering like a scared dog!’
‘Well, he’s dead now,’ said Sandy, ‘and your oath is finished, for it’s not likely that his son will trouble you. Heigh-ho! The old wild days have gone. Peter long ago entered Valhalla. What about the third — Lombard, I think you called him?’
‘Curiously enough,’ I said, ‘I met him last autumn. He’s not thinking about any Saga oath nowadays. He is bald and plump and something in big business.’
Last updated Thursday, July 16, 2015 at 13:15