“I really beg your pardon. I—I—suppose I was thinking of something else. Do you mind asking it again?”The strange harshness of his voice struck her. It was well for him— well for both of them—that the friendly darkness stood him in such good stead.“I asked you, how far do you think Tom would have to ride before finding the sheep?”“Tom” again! He fairly set his teeth. “Well into the Gaika location,” was the savage reply that rose to his lips. But he checked it unuttered.“Oh, not very far,” he answered. “You see, sheep are slow-moving brutes and difficult to drive, especially in the dark. He’ll turn up soon, never fear.”“What is that? Look! Listen!” she exclaimed suddenly, laying a hand upon his arm.The loom of the mountains was blackly visible in the starlight. Away in the distance, apparently in the very heart of them, there suddenly shown forth a lurid glow. The V-shaped scarp of the slopes stood dully in relief against the glare, which was as that of a furnace. At the same time there floated forth upon the night a strange, weird chorus—a wild, long-drawn eerie melody, half chant, half howl, faint and distant, but yet distinct, though many miles away.“What can they be up to at the location, Eustace? Can it be that they have risen already?” ejaculated Eanswyth, turning pale in the starlight.The reddening glare intensified, the fierce, wild cadence shrilled forth, now in dirge-like wail, now in swelling notes of demon-like and merciless exultation. There was a faint, muffled roar as of distant thunder —a clamour as of fiends holding high revel—and still the wild chorus gathered in volume, hideous in its blood-chilling menace, as it cleft the dark stillness of the night.“Oh, let us turn back!” cried Eanswyth. “There is something horrible
stag at bay they gave way but to close up again. In a trice the man’s kerrie was struck from his grasp, and he was thrown down, beaten, kicked, and very roughly handled.“Tie up the schelm!”“Give him six dozen well-laid on!” “Six dozen without counting!” “Cheeky brute!” were some of the shouts that accompanied each kick and blow dealt or aimed at the prostrate Kafir, who altogether seemed to be having a pretty bad time of it.“That’s a damned shame!” exclaimed a voice behind them.All started and turned their heads, some astonished—all angry— some perhaps a little ashamed of themselves—towards the owner of the voice, a horseman who sat calmly in his saddle some twenty yards away —an expression of strong disgust upon his features.“What have you got to say to it anyhow, I’d like to know?” cried the man who had just struck the native.“What I said before—that it’s a damned shame,” replied Eustace Milne unhesitatingly.“What’s a shame, Mister?” sneered another. “That one o’ your precious black kids is getting a hidin’ for his infernal cheek?”“That it should take twenty men to give it him, and that, too, when he’s down.”“I tell you what it is, friend,” said the first speaker furiously. “It may take rather less than twenty to give you one, and that, too, when you’re up!” which sally provoked a blatant guffaw from several of the hearers.“I’m not much afraid of that,” answered Eustace tranquilly. “But now, seeing that British love of fair play has been about vindicated by a score of Englishmen kicking a prostrate Kafir, how would it be to let him get up and go?”The keen, biting sarcasm told. The group, which mainly consisted of the low element, actually did begin to look a trifle ashamed of itself. The better element composing it gave way and took itself off, as Eustace deliberately walked his horse up to the fallen native. There were a few muttered jeers about “the nigger’s friend” and getting into the Assembly on the strength of “blanket votes,” (The native franchise, derisively so termed) and so forth, but none offered any active opposition except one, however, and that was the man who had originated the disturbance.“Look here,” he shouted savagely. “I don’t know who you are and I don’t care. But if you don’t take yourself off out of this mighty quick, I’ll just about knock you into a jelly; you see if I don’t.”“Ja, that’s right. Serve him as you did the nigger!” yelled the bystanders, a lot of rowdy hobbledehoys and a contingent of town loafers whom the prospect of an easy-going, devil-may-care life in the veldt had drawn from the more sober avocations of bricklaying and waggon-building within the Colony, and who, it may be added, distinguished themselves at the seat of hostilities by such a line of drunken mutinous insubordination as rendered them an occasion of perennial detestation and disgust to their respective commanders. These now closed up around their bullying, swash-bucklering champion, relieving their ardently martial spirits by hooting and cat’s calls. It was only one man against a crowd. They felt perfectly safe.“Who sold his mate to the blanked niggers!” they yelled. “Ought to be tarred and feathered. Come on, boys; let’s do it. Who’s for tarring and feathering the Kafir spy?”All cordially welcomed this spicy proposal, but curiously enough, no one appeared anxious to begin, for they still kept some paces behind the original aggressor. That worthy, however, seemed to have plenty of fight in him, for he advanced upon Eustace unhesitatingly.“Come now. Are you going to clear?” he shouted. “You’re not? All right. I’ll soon make you.”A stirrup-iron, wielded by a clever hand, is a terribly formidable
weapon. Backing his horse a pace or two Eustace wrenched loose his stirrup. Quick as lightning, it whirled in the air, and as his assailant sprang wildly at him down it came. The aggressive bully went to earth like a felled ox.“Any more takers for the tar-and-feather line of business?” said Eustace quietly, but with the light of battle in his eyes.The insulting jeers and the hooting still continued. But no one advanced. No one seemed anxious to tackle that particularly resolute looking horseman.“Get out of this, you cowardly skunks!” sung out a voice behind him, which voice proceeded from another horseman, who had ridden up unseen during the émeute. “Twenty to one! Faugh! For two pins we’ll sjambok the lot of you.”“Hallo, Errington! Where have you dropped from? Thought you were away down in the Colony,” said Eustace, turning to the new arrival, a fine soldierly looking man of about his own age, in whom he recognised a former Field-Captain in Brathwaite’s Horse. The crowd had already begun to melt away before this new accession of force.“Yer—send yer winder to be cleaned! Stick it in yer breeches pocket!” were some of the witticisms yelled back by the retreating rowdies, in allusion to the eye-glass worn by the newcomer.“By jove, Milne. You seem to have been in the wars,” said the latter looking from one to the other of the injured parties. “What’s the row, eh?”“It speaks for itself. Nothing much, though. I’ve only been reminding our valiant friends there that fair play is a jewel even when its only a Kafir that’s concerned.”—“Which unsavoury Ethiop seems to have been knocked about a bit, however,” rejoined the other, sticking his glass into his eye to examine the fallen native.The Kafir, who had raised himself to a sitting posture, was now staring stupidly about him as though half dazed. Blood was issuing fromhis nose and mouth, and one of his eyes was completely closed up. His assailants had all slunk away by now, the arrival upon the scene of this unwelcome ally having turned the scale against any plan they might have entertained of showing further unpleasantness toward the solitary intervener.Some three or four of the Gaika’s countrymen, who had held aloof, now came up to the assistance of their friend. These gave their version of the story. Eustace listened attentively.“It was a foolish thing to make any remark at such a time and in such a place,” he said. “It was sure to provoke strife. Go and get him a tot of grog,” throwing them a sixpence, “and then you’d better get away home.”“I tell you what it is, Milne,” said Errington in a low tone. “I know that fellow you floored so neatly. He’s one of the best bruisers in the country, and I’m afraid you haven’t seen the last of him. You’d better keep a bright lookout as long as you’re in this part. He’s bound to play you some dog’s trick at the earliest opportunity.”“Is he? Well I must try and be ready for him. I suppose now we must bring the poor devil round, eh? He seems about stunned.”Errington had a flask in his pocket. Dismounting he raised the fallen man’s head and poured some of the contents into his mouth.The fellow revived—gradually, stupidly. He had received a bad blow, which only a thick slouch hat and a thicker skull had saved from being a worse one.“Who the hell are you?” he growled surlily, as he sat up. “Oh, I know you,” he went on as his glance lit upon Eustace. “All right, my fine feller, wait a bit, till I’m all right again. You’ll be sorry yet for that damned coward’s whack you’ve given me. See if you’re not.”“You brought it upon yourself. Why did you try and rush me?”“I didn’t rush you with a stirrup-iron, did I?”“No. But see here. If I’m attacked I’m not going to leave the choice of my means of defence to the enemy. Not much. How would that pan out for an idea in fighting old Kreli, for instance?”“Of course,” struck in Errington. “That’s sound sense, and you know it is, Jackson. You and Milne have had a bit of a scrimmage and you’ve got the worst of it. It might easily have been the other way. So don’t let us have any grudge-bearing over it. Take another drink, man,” pouring out a liberal modicum of whiskey into the cup of the flask, “and shake hands and make it up.”The man, who was not a bad fellow at bottom, gave a growl as he tossed off the tendered potion. Then he held out his hand to Eustace.“Well, Mister, I don’t bear no grudge. If you’ll jest say you’re sorry you hit me—”“I’ll say that with pleasure, Jackson,” replied Eustace, as they shook hands. “And look here, if you still feel a bit groggy on your pins, jump on my horse and ride home. I’ll walk.”“No, thanks. I’m all right now. Besides I ain’t going your way. My waggon’s outspanned yonder on the flat. Good-night.”“I stand very much indebted to you, Errington, for two services rendered,” said Eustace as they rode towards the township. “And I’m not sure that the last isn’t by far the most important.”“Pooh! not at all, my dear fellow. That howling rabble wouldn’t have come within twenty yards of you.”“I don’t know about that. The vagabonds were rather beginning to realise that twenty to one meant long odds in favour of the twenty, when you came up. But the deft way in which you smoothed down our friend with the broken head was diplomatic to a degree. I hate rows, and the knowledge that some fellow is going about day and night seeking an opportunity of fastening a quarrel upon you unawares is tiresome. Besides, I’m nothing of a boxer, and if I were should hate a shindy just as
much.”“I quite agree with you,” said the other, who was something of a boxer. “To form the centre of attraction to a howling, yahooing rabble, making an undignified exhibition of yourself bashing and being bashed by some other fellow like a couple of butcher’s boys in the gutter, is bound to be a revolting process whichever way you look at it. Even the law of the pistol seems to be an improvement on it.”“I think so, too. It puts men on better terms of equality. Any man may become a dead shot and a quick drawer, but not one man in ten can fulfil all the conditions requisite to becoming a good boxer. The fact is, however, I hate rows of any kind, even when only a spectator. When fellows say they like them I never altogether believe them.”“Unless they are very young. But the Berserk taint soon wears off as you get on into life a bit,” said Errington.“Well now—I turn off here. Good-evening.”Chapter Thirty Seven.“It is the Voice of an Oracle.”Swaanepoel’s Hoek, poor Tom Carhayes’ other farm, was situated in the division of Somerset East, somewhere between the Great and Little Fish Rivers. It was rather an out-of-the-way place, lying in a mountainous district, sparsely inhabited and only reached by rough wheel-tracks through narrow, winding poorts. But the scenery was wild and romantic to a degree. The bold sweep of bush-grown slopes, the lofty heights culminating in red iron-bound krantzes whose inaccessible hedges afforded nesting place for colonies of aasvogels, the thunder of the mountain torrent pent-up between black rocky walls where the maiden-hair fern hung in solid festoons from every crack and cranny, the cheerful and abundant sounds of bird and animal life—all this rendered the place a wonderfully pleasant and attractive, if somewhat out-of-the-way, residence.To Eanswyth Carhayes, however, this very isolation constituted an additional charm. The solemn grandeur of the soaring mountains, the hush of the seldom trodden valleys, conveyed to her mind, after the bustle and turmoil of the crowded frontier settlement, the perfection of peace. She felt that she could spend her whole life on this beautiful spot. And it was her own.She had only once before visited the place—shortly after her marriage—and then had spent but three or four days there. Its beauties had failed at that time to strike her imagination. Now it was different. All the world was a Paradise. It seemed that there was nothing left in life for her to desire.The house was a fair size, almost too large for the overseer and his family. That worthy had asked Eustace whether Mrs Carhayes would prefer that they should vacate it. There was a substantial outbuilding, used—or rather only half of it was used—as a store, and a saddle and harness room. They could make themselves perfectly snug in that, if Mrs Carhayes wished to have the house to herself.“I can answer for it: Mrs Carhayes wishes nothing of the sort,” he had replied. “In fact, we were talking over that very thing on the way down.”“Sure the children won’t disturb her, Mr Milne?”“Well, it hasn’t looked like it up till now. Those youngsters of yours don’t seem particularly obstreperous, Bentley, and Mrs Carhayes appears rather to have taken a fancy to them than otherwise.”“If there’s a kind sweet lady in this world, Mr Milne, it’s Mrs Carhayes,” said the overseer earnestly. “I know the wife’ll make her right comfortable while she’s here. She’ll save her all bother over housekeeping or anything of that sort. Excuse the question, but is she likely to be making a long stay?”“I shouldn’t wonder. You see, there’s nowhere else for her to go, and the quiet of this place suits her after all she has gone through. And she
has gone through some pretty lively times, I need hardly tell you.”“I should think so. Why, what a narrow escape she had that time you were bringing her away from Anta’s Kloof, when the trap broke down. That was a frightful position for any lady to be in, in all conscience.”“Oh, you heard of that, did you? Ah, I forgot. It was in every paper in the Colony—more or less inaccurately reported, of course,” added Eustace drily, and then the two men lit their pipes and chatted for an hour or so about the war and its events.“By the way, Bentley,” said Eustace presently. “Talking about that outbuilding. I’ve decided to knock out the partition—it’s only a wooden one—between the two rooms next to the storeroom, turn them into one, and use it as a bedroom for myself. The house is rather congested with the lot of us in it, after all. We might go to work at it this afternoon.”“Certainly, Mr Milne, certainly,” replied the overseer. And forthwith the tool-chest was laid under requisition, and in a couple of hours the necessary alterations were effected.This move did not altogether meet with Eanswyth’s approval, and she expostulated accordingly.“Why should you be the one turned out in the cold,” she said. “There’s no earthly necessity for it. You will be horribly uncomfortable over there, Eustace, and in winter the nights will be quite bitter. Then again, the roof is a thatched one, and the first rain we get will start it leaking like a sieve. Besides, there’s plenty of room in the house.”“It isn’t that, you dear, thoughtful, considerate guardian angel,” he answered. “It isn’t quite that, though I put it that way for Bentley’s behoof. It is something of a concession to Mother Grundy, for even here that arch-hag can make her upas power felt, and I don’t want to have all the tongues in the district wagging like the tails of a pack of foxhounds just unkennelled. We had enough of that at Komgha. So I’ve arranged that at any rate we shan’t be under the same roof. See?”
“Yes; but it’s ridiculous all the same. As if we weren’t relations, too.”“And will be closer relations soon—in fact, the closest. I suppose we must wait a year—but that rests with you.”“I don’t know. It’s an awfully long time,” and she sighed. Then rather hesitatingly: “Darling, you have never yet shown me the little silver box. We are alone now, and—”“And you are dying to see it. Well, Eanswyth, it is really a most remarkable coincidence—in fact, almost makes a man feel superstitious.”It was near sundown. A soft, golden light rested upon the great slopes, and the cooing of doves floated melodiously from the mealie lands in the valley. The mountain stream roared through its rocky bed at their feet, and among the crannies and ledges of a profusion of piled up boulders forming miniature cliffs around, a whole colony of bright eyed little dasjes (The “rock rabbit”—really a species of marmot) were disporting themselves, scampering in and out with a boldness which augured volumes in favour of the peaceable aspect of the two human intruders upon their sequestered haunt.“As you say, the time and place are indeed fitting,” said Eustace, sitting down upon a boulder and taking the box from its place of concealment. “Now, my darling, look at this. The assegai point is broken short off, driven with such force that it has remained embedded in the lid.”It was even as he said. Had the blade been driven with a powerful hammer it could not have been more firmly wedged within the metal.“That was the blow I received during the fight,” he went on. “The dent at the side of it was done when I stood up to the witch-doctress. It did not penetrate much that time; not that the blow wasn’t hard enough, for it nearly knocked me down, but the assegai was a rotten one and made of soft iron, and the point flattened out like a Snider bullet. Heavens! but that was an ordeal—something of a nerve-tickler!” he added, with a grave and meditative look in his eyes, as if he were mentally re-enacting that trying and critical scene.Chapter Eighteen.The Tables Turned.Eager at the prospect of a brush, their appetites for which had been whetted by what had just occurred, they resumed their way in the best of spirits, and at length fixing upon a suitable spot the party off-saddled for breakfast.“We ought to fall in with a patrol of Brathwaite’s Horse lower down,” remarked a man, stirring the contents of a three-legged cooking-pot with a wooden spoon. “Then we should be strong enough to take the bush for it and pepper Jack Kafir handsomely.”“If we can find him,” rejoined another with a loud guffaw. “Hallo! Who’s this?”A dark form appeared in the hollow beneath. Immediately every man had seized his rifle, and the moment was a perilous one for the new arrival.“Hold hard! Don’t fire!” cried Shelton. “It’s only a single Kafir. Let’s see what the fellow wants.” And lowering their weapons they awaited the approach of a rather sulky looking native, who drew near with a suspicious and apprehensive expression of countenance.“Who are you and where do you come from?” asked Shelton.“From down there, Baas,” replied the fellow, in fair English, jerking his thumb in the direction of a labyrinth of bushy kloofs stretching away beneath. “They have taken all my cattle—the Gcalékas have. I can show you where to find theirs.”The men looked at each other and several shook their heads incredulously.“What are you? Are you a Gcaléka?” asked Shelton.
“No, Baas. Bomvana. I’m Jonas. I’m a loyal Mission-station boy.”“Oh, the devil you are! Now, then, Jonas, what about these cattle?”Then the native unfolded his tale—how that in the forest land immediately beneath them was concealed a large number of the Gcaléka cattle—a thousand of them at least. There were some men in charge, about sixty, he said, but still the whites might be strong enough to take the lot; only they would have to fight, perhaps.Carefully they questioned him, but from the main details of his story he never swerved. His object, he said, was to be revenged on the Gcalékas, who had billeted themselves in the Bomvana country and were carrying things with a high hand. But Shelton was not quite satisfied.“Look here, Jonas,” he said impressively. “Supposing I were to tell you that this yarn of yours is all a cock-and-bull lie, and that you’ve come here to lead us into a trap? And supposing I were to tell half a dozen men here to shoot you when I count twenty? What then?”All eyes were fixed upon the native’s face, as the leader left off speaking. But not a muscle therein quailed. For a minute he did not reply. Then he shook his head, with a wholly incredulous laugh.“Nay, Baas,” he said. “Baas is joking.”“Well, you must be telling the truth or else you must be the pluckiest nigger in all Kafirland to come here and play the fool with us,” said Shelton. “What do you say, boys? Shall we trust to what this fellow tells us and make a dash for the spoil?”An acclamation of universal assent hailed this proposal. In an incredibly short space of time the horses were saddled, and with the native in their midst the whole party moved down in the direction of the bush.“In here, Baas,” said the guide, piloting them down a narrow path where they were obliged to maintain single file. On either side was a dark, dense jungle, the plumed euphorbia rising high overhead above thebush. The path, rough and widening, seemed to lead down and down— no one knew whither. The guide was not suffered to lead the way, but was kept near the head of the party, those immediately around him being prepared to shoot him dead at the first sign of treachery.“Damned fools we must be to come into a place like this on the bare word of a black fellow,” grunted Carhayes. “I think the cuss means square and above board—but going down here in this picnicking way—it doesn’t seem right somehow.”But they were in for it now, and soon the path opened, and before and beneath them lay a network of kloofs covered with a thick, jungly scrub, here and there a rugged krantz shooting up from the waves of foliage. Not a sound was heard as they filed on in the cloudless stillness of the sunny forenoon. Even the birds were silent in that great lonely valley.“There,” whispered the Bomvana, when they had gone some distance further. “There is the cattle.”He pointed to a long, winding kloof whose entrance was commanded by cliffs on either side. Looking cautiously around, they entered this. Soon they could hear the sound of voices.“By George! We are on them now,” said Shelton in a low tone. “But, keep cool, men—only keep cool!”They passed a large kraal which was quite deserted, but only just, for the smoke still rose from more than one fire, and a couple of dogs were yet skulking around the huts. Eagerly and in silence they pressed forward, and lo—turning an angle of the cliff—there burst upon their view a sight which amply repaid the risk of the enterprise they had embarked upon. For the narrow defile was full of cattle—an immense herd—which were being driven forward as rapidly and as quietly as the two score armed savages in their rear could drive them. Clearly the latter had got wind of their approach.“Allamaghtaag!” exclaimed one of the men, catching sight of the
mass of animals, which, plunging and crowding over each other, threaded their way through the bush in a dozen separate, but closely packed, columns. “What a take! A thousand at least!”“Ping—ping! Whigge!” The bullets began to sing about their ears, and from the bush around there issued puffs of smoke. The Kafirs who were driving the cattle, seeing that the invaders were so few, dropped down into cover and opened a brisk fire, but too late. Quickly the foremost half of the patrol, reining in, had poured a couple of effective volleys into them, and at least a dozen of their number lay stretched upon the ground, stone dead or writhing in the throes of death; while several more might be seen limping off as well as they could, their only thought now being to save their own lives. The rest melted away into the bush, whence they kept up a tolerably brisk fire, and the bullets and bits of pot-leg began to whistle uncomfortably close.“Now, boys!” cried Shelton. “Half of you come with me—and Carhayes, you take the other half and collect the cattle, but don’t separate more than to that extent.” And in furtherance of this injunction the now divided force rode off as hard as it could go, to head the animals back—stumbling among stones, crashing through bushes or flying over the same—on they dashed, helter-skelter, hardly knowing at times how they kept their saddles.Amid much shouting and whistling the terrified creatures were at last turned. Down the defile they rushed—eyes rolling and horns clashing, trampling to pulp the dead or helpless bodies of some of their former drivers, who had been shot in the earlier stages of the conflict. It was an indescribable scene—the dappled, many-coloured hides flashing in the sun as the immense herd surged furiously down that wild pass. And mingling with the shouting and confusion, and the terrified lowing of the cattle half-frenzied with the sight and smell of blood—the overhanging cliffs echoed back in sharper tones the “crack-crack” of the rifles of the Kaffirs, who, well under cover themselves, kept up a continuous, but luckily ineffective, fire upon the patrol.Suddenly a dark form rose up in front of the horsemen. Springing like a cat the savage made a swift stab at the breast of his intended victim,who swerved quickly, but not quickly enough, and the blade of the assegai descended, inflicting an ugly wound in the man’s side. Dropping to the ground again, the daring assailant ducked in time to avoid the revolver bullet aimed at him, and gliding in among the fleeing cattle, escaped before the infuriated frontiersman could get in another shot. So quickly did it all take place that, except the wounded man himself, hardly anybody knew what had happened.“Hurt, Thompson?” sung out Hoste, seeing that the man looked rather pale.“No. Nothin’ to speak of, at least. Time enough to see to it by andby.”As he spoke the horse of another man plunged and then fell heavily forward. The poor beast had been mortally stricken by one of the enemy’s missiles, and would never rise again. The dismounted man ran alongside of a comrade, holding on by the stirrup of the latter.“Why, what’s become of the Bomvana?” suddenly inquired someone.They looked around. There was no sign of their guide. Could he have been playing them false and slipped away in the confusion? Even now the enemy might be lying in wait somewhere in overwhelming force, ready to cut off their retreat.“By Jove! There he is!” cried another man presently. “And—the beggar’s dead!”He was. In the confusion of the attack they had forgotten their guide, who must have fallen into the hands of the enemy, and have been sacrificed to the vengeance of the latter. The body of the unfortunate Bomvana, propped up in a sitting posture against a tree by his slayers in savage mockery, presented a hideous sight. The throat was cut from ear to ear, and the trunk was nearly divided by a terrible gash right across it just below the ribs, while from several assegai stabs the dark arterial blood was still oozing forth.