Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

'Tween Snow and Fire: A Tale of the Last Kafir War

Bertram Mitford

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  'Tween Snow and Fire, by Bertram Mitford.


  ________________________________________________________________________'TWEEN SNOW AND FIRE, BY BERTRAM MITFORD.



  The buck is running for dear life.

  The dog is some fifty yards behind the buck. The Kafir is about thesame distance behind the dog, which distance he is striving rightmanfully to maintain; not so unsuccessfully, either, considering that heis pitting the speed of two legs against that of eight.

  Down the long grass slope they course--buck, dog, and savage. Theformer, a game little antelope of the steinbok species, takes the groundin a series of long, flying leaps, his white tail whisking like a flagof defiance. The second, a tawny, black-muzzled grey-hound, stretchinghis snaky length in the wake of his quarry, utters no sound, as witharrow-like velocity he holds on his course, his cruel eyes gleaming, hisjaws dripping saliva in pleasurable anticipation of the coming feast.The third, a fine, well-knit young Kafir, his naked body glistening fromhead to foot with red ochre, urges on his hound with an occasionalshrill whoop of encouragement, as he covers the ground at a surprisingpace in his free, bounding stride. He holds a knob-kerrie in his hand,ready for use as soon as the quarry shall be within hurling distance.

  But of this there seems small chance at present. It takes a good dogindeed to run down an unwounded buck with the open _veldt_ before him,and good as this one is, it seems probable that he will get left. Downthe long grass slope they course, but the opposite acclivity is thequarry's opportunity. The pointed hoofs seem hardly to touch ground inthe arrowy flight of their owner. The distance between the latter andthe pursuing hound increases.

  Along a high ridge overlooking this primitive chase grow, at regularintervals, several circular clumps of bush. One of these conceals aspectator. The latter is seated on horseback in the very midst of thescrub, his feet dangling loosely in the stirrups, his hand closedtightly and rather suggestively round the breech of a double gun--rifleand smooth bore--which rests across the pommel of his saddle. There isa frown upon his face, as, himself completely hidden, he watchesintently the progress of the sport. It is evident that he is moreinterested than pleased.

  For Tom Carhayes is the owner of this Kaffrarian stock run. In thatpart of Kaffraria, game is exceedingly scarce, owing to the presence ofa redundant native population. Tom Carhayes is an ardent sportsman andspares no effort to protect and restore the game upon his farm. Yethere is a Kafir running down a buck under his very nose. Small wonderthat he feels furious.

  "That scoundrel Goniwe!" he mutters between his set teeth. "I'll put abullet through his cur, and lick the nigger himself within an inch ofhis life!"

  The offence is an aggravated one. Not only is the act of poaching avery capital crime in his eyes, but the perpetrator ought to be at thatmoment at least three miles away, herding about eleven hundred of hismaster's sheep. These he has left to take care of themselves while heindulges in an illicit buck-hunt. Small wonder indeed that his saidmaster, at no time a good-tempered man, vows to make a condign exampleof him.

  The buck has nearly gained the crest of the ridge. Once over it hischances are good. The pursuing hound, running more by sight than byscent, may easily be foiled, by a sudden turn to right or left, and adouble or two. The dog is a long way behind now, and the spectator hasto rise in his stirrups to command a view of the situation. Fifty yardsmore and the quarry will be over the ridge and in comparative safety.

  But from just that distance above there suddenly darts forth anotherdog--a white one. It has sprung from a patch of bush similar to thatwhich conceals the spectator. The buck, thoroughly demoralised by theadvent of this new enemy, executes a rapid double, and thus pressed backinto the very jaws of its first pursuer has no alternative but to headup the valley as fast as its legs can carry it.

  But the new hound is fresh, and in fact a better dog than the first one.He presses the quarry very close and needs not the encouraging shoutsof his master, who has leaped forth from his concealment immediatelyupon unleashing him. For a few moments the pace is even, _then itdecreases_. The buck seemed doomed.

  And, indeed, such is the case anyhow. For, held in waiting at a givenpoint, ready to be let slip if necessary, is a third dog. Such is theKafir method of hunting. The best dog ever whelped is not quite equal,either in speed or staying power, to running down a full-grown buck inthe open _veldt_, but by adopting the above means of hunting in relays,the chance are equalised. To be more accurate, the quarry has no chanceat all.

  On speeds the chase; the new dog, a tall white grey-hound of surprisingendurance and speed, gaining rapidly; the other, lashed into a finalspurt by the spirit of emulation, not far behind. The two Kafirs,stimulating their hounds with yells of encouragement, are strainingevery nerve to be in at the death.

  The buck--terror and demoralisation in its soft, lustrous eyes--isheading straight for the spectator's hiding place. The latter raiseshis piece, with the intention of sending a bullet through the first dogas soon as it shall come abreast of his position; the shot barrel willfinish off the other.

  But he does not fire. The fact is, the man is simply shaking with rage.Grinding his teeth, he recognises his utter inability to hit a haystackat that moment, let alone a swiftly coursing grey-hound.

  The chase sweeps by within seventy yards of his position--buck, dog, andKafirs. Then another diversion occurs.

  Two more natives rise, apparently out of the ground itself. One ofthese, poising himself erect with a peculiar springy, quivering motion,holds his kerrie ready to hurl. The buck is barely thirty yardsdistant, and going like the wind.

  "Whigge--woof!" The hard stick hurls through the air--aimed nearly asfar ahead of the quarry as the latter is distant from the marksman.There is a splintering crash, and a shrill, horrid scream--then areddish brown shape, writhing and rolling in agony upon the ground. Theaim of the savage has been true. All four of the buck's legs aresnapped and shattered like pipe-stems.

  The two hounds hurl themselves upon the struggling carcase, their savagesnarls mingling with the sickening, half-human yell emitted by theterrified and tortured steinbok. The four Kafirs gather round theirprey.

  "_Suka inja_!" ["Get out, dog!"] cries one of them brutally, giving thewhite dog a dig in the ribs with the butt-end of his kerrie, and puttingthe wretched buck out of its agony by a blow on the head with the same.The hound, with a snarling yelp, springs away from the carcase, and liesdown beside his fellow. Their flanks are heaving and panting after therun, and their lolling tongues and glaring eyes turn hungrily toward theexpected prey. Their savage masters, squatted around, are resting aftertheir exertions, chatting in a deep bass hum. To the concealedspectator the sight is simply maddening. He judges the time forswooping down upon the delinquents has arrived.

  Were he wise he would elect to leave them alone entirely, and wouldwithdraw quietly without betraying his presence. He might indeed derivesome modicum of satisfaction by subsequently sjambokking the defaultingGoniwe for deserting his post, though the wisdom of that act ofconsolation may be doubted. But a thoroughly angry man is seldom wise,and Tom Carhayes forms no exception to the general rule. With a savagecurse he breaks from his cover and rides furiously down upon theoffending group.

  But if he imagines his unlooked for arrival is going to strike terror tothe hearts of those daring and impudent poachers, he soon becomes aliveto his mistake. Two of them, including his
own herd, are alreadystanding. The others make no attempt to rise from their careless andsquatting posture. All contemplate him with absolute unconcern, and thehalf-concealed and contemptuous grin spread across the broad countenanceof his retainer in no wise tends to allay his fury.

  "What the devil are you doing here, Goniwe?" he cries. "Get away backto your flock at once, or I'll tan your hide to ribbons. Here. Get outof the light you two--I'm going to shoot that dog--unless you want thecharge through yourselves instead."

  This speech, delivered half in Boer Dutch, half in the Xosa language,has a startling effect. The other two Kafirs spring suddenly to theirfeet, and all four close up in a line in front of the speaker, so as tostand between him and their dogs. Their demeanour is insolent andthreatening to the last degree.

  "_Whau 'mlungu_!" ["Ho! white man!"] cries the man whose successfulthrow has brought down the quarry--a barbarian of herculean stature andwith an evil, sinister cast of countenance. "Shoot away, _'mlungu_!But it will not be only a dog that will die."

  The purport of this menace is unmistakable. The speaker even advances astep, shifting, as he does so, his assegais from his right hand to hisleft--leaving the former free to wield an ugly looking kerrie. Hisfellow-countrymen seem equally ready for action.

  Carhayes is beside himself with fury. To be defied and bearded likethis on his own land, and by four black scoundrels whom he has caughtred-handed in the act of killing his own game! The position isintolerable. But through his well-nigh uncontrollable wrath there runsa vein of caution.

  Were he to act upon his first impulse and shoot the offending hound, hewould have but one charge left. The Kafirs would be upon him before hecould draw trigger. They evidently mean mischief, and they are four toone. Two of them are armed with assegais and all four carry--in theirhands the scarcely less formidable weapon--the ordinary hard-woodkerrie. Moreover, were he to come off victorious at the price ofshooting one of them dead, the act would entail very ugly consequences,for although the frontier was practically in little short of a state ofwar, it was not actually so, which meant that the civil law still heldsway and would certainly claim its vindication to the full.

  For a moment or two the opposing parties stand confronting each other.The white man, seated on his horse, grips the breech of his gunconvulsively, and the veins stand out in cords upon his flushed face ashe realises his utter powerlessness. The Kafirs, their naked, muscularframes repulsive with red ochre, stand motionless, their savagecountenances wreathed in a sneer of hate and defiance. There arescarcely ten yards between them.

  The train is laid. It only needs the application of a spark to cause amagnificent flare-up. That spark is applied by the tall barbarian whohas first spoken.

  "_Au umlungu_!" he cries in his great, sneering tones. "Go away. Wehave talked enough with you. Am I not Hlangani, a man of the House ofSarili, the Great Chief, and is not the white dog mine? Go away._Suka_!" ["Get out." Usually only employed toward a dog.]

  Now whether through pure accident--in other words, the "sheercussedness" of Fate--or whether it imagines that its master's last wordwas a command to itself, the white dog at this juncture gets up, andleaving the protecting shadow of its master begins to slink away overthe _veldt_. This and the swaggering insolence of the Kafir is too muchfor Carhayes. Up goes his piece: there is a flash and a report. Thewretched hound sinks in his tracks without even a yelp, and lies feeblykicking his life away, with the blood welling from a great circularwound behind the shoulder. The poor beast has run down his last buck.

  [Commonly known as Kreli--the paramount chief of all the Xosa tribes.]

  The train is fired. Like the crouching leopard crawling nearer for asurer spring the great Kafir, with a sudden glide, advances to thehorse's head, and makes a quick clutch at the bridle. Had he succeededin seizing it, a rapidly followed up blow from the deadly kerrie wouldhave stretched the rider senseless, if not dead, upon the _veldt_. Butthe latter is too quick for him. Jerking back his horse's head anddriving in both spurs, he causes the animal to rear and plunge, thusdefeating any attempt on the part of his enemies to drag him from thesaddle, as well as widening the distance between himself and them.

  "Stand back, you curs!" he roars, dropping his piece to a level with thechest of the foremost. "The first who moves another step shall beserved the same as that brute of a dog!"

  But the Kafirs only laugh derisively. They are shrewd enough to knowthat the civil law is still paramount, and imagine he dare not fire onthem. A kerrie hurtles through the air with an ugly "whigge." Blindwith fury, Carhayes discharges his remaining barrel full at the tallsavage, who is still advancing towards him, and whose threateningdemeanour and formidable aspect seems to warrant even that extreme stepin self-defence. The Kafir falls.

  Surprised, half cowed by this unlooked for contingency, the others pauseirresolute. Before they can recover themselves a warning shout, closeat hand, creates a diversion which seems likely to throw a new light onthe face of affairs.