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by L. Patrick Greene

TROOPER JENNINGS opened his eyes wearily. Every bone in his body ached, and he groaned with pain as he moved.

Thompson and Andrews, his two comrades on the Border Guard Patrol, came over to his bed as he threw off the covers and gingerly essayed to stand on his feet; he was still weak, and would have fallen had they not supported him.

"Better take it easy for a while, Jennings."

"Oh, I'll be all right in a minute." He tenderly fingered his bruised face. "Where's that beast Peters?"

The two men looked at each other significantly.

"Peters said that he would be down this afternoon," replied Thompson. "He's going to demand an apology from you."

"Well, he'll never get it. He cheated last night, and you know it." The boy, —Jennings was little more—looked appealing at the two men.

"Yes, he cheated, and you accused him of it. Well, see what you got. The man would have killed you, unconscious as you were, if Andrews here had not pulled a revolver on him."

"And suppose I don't apologize?"

"He said that he was going to bring a sjambok down with him and beat you till you do. And he'll do it."

"And you mean to tell me that you'd stand by and let him do it?"

Andrews flushed.

"See here, youngster! This is not our quarrel. Peters is all you say he is, and then some more. He's a bad man—but he's a strong bad man. Why, he could wipe the floor with the three of us. I know he could. I saw him clear out Joburg's saloon— you remember that, don't you Thompson?"

"Yes. He caved in three of big Dutch Lockner's ribs—with his fist, Jennings. You know what his native name is, don't you? The Schelm— the Bad One. Natives are pretty apt in their naming, and there's not a negro in this district but would gladly kill him; but they are all afraid of him. He beats them viciously, yet there's not one that will lodge a complaint against him. I don't think he knows what fear is."

"And here's another thing—" Andrews took up the tale. "We are dumped on this Border Patrol and aren't likely to be relieved for another six months. The rainy season is coming on and the place will be a fever trap. We can't afford to quarrel with our only white neighbor, 'specially when he happens to be the storekeeper on whom we are dependent for our provisions. Besides, he could make things mighty unpleasant for us with the natives. It's up to you to apologize."

"Why should I?" he demanded. "I was in the right. I can't back down—you surely wouldn't have me do that."

"Why not? No one would know but we three, and we are not likely to talk about it," said Thompson. "After all, it was only a little thing."

"Well, I'll apologize if he'll do the same. He called me a—"

"Peters apologize! Boy, you must be mad. He'll never do that."

"Then neither will I." There was a note of finality in the boy's tone.

Thompson and Andrew looked at each other in despair. "Well, just remember that we're neutral, though we'll try to stop him from using the sjambok on you."

Jennings buried his face in his hands, striving to overcome the fear that all but sickened him. "Will he really beat me with a sjambok," he said after a while, "if I don't apologize?" Andrews nodded. "And if you tried to stop him—what then?"

Andrews shrugged his shoulders. "There will be some blood shed. Possibly his, but more probably ours," said Thompson. "He shoots from the hip."

"Well, I won't be beaten."

"That's the way to talk, Jennings. We knew you'd see this thing in the right light."

Jennings held up his hand. "And I won't apologize. See here," he went on hurriedly, "if there's going to be any fighting I'll see that I get a fair chance; and if there's to be any blood shed it'll either be mine or his. I'm going to challenge him to a duel."

"Don't be a fool, Jennings. This is the twentieth century.

"Besides, how'll that help you? You're only a fair shot with a revolver or rifle— you don't propose to fight with carving-knives, do you?"

"I'm not joking. If you'll agree to my plan it'll put me on even terms with him. That's all I ask. Let's go to scoff—I'm hungry—and I'll tell you all about it while we are eating."

Peters, rising from his midday siesta, yawned and stretched his arms lazily above his head. A big man, fully six feet in height when he stood erect; his usual posture resembled that of a gorilla. His brutal head, set on a short, thick neck, was bowed forward, and he gazed constantly from side to side through shaggy brows. His eyes, set wide apart, were green at times of repose, but when anger roused him they contracted to pin-points and had in them the baleful, hypnotic glare of a, snake's. His arms were abnormally long and mightily muscled. His body was covered with coarse red hair.

As he stretched himself one of his hands hit the low-thatched roof of the hut and dislodged a small grass snake. It fell on his bare chest, hung there a second, then dropped squirming to the floor. Cursing furiously he jumped up and down like a maniac on the harmless thing, then, satisfied it was dead, sat down heavily in a chair, his mighty chest heaving convulsively, his muscles twitching. His face showed ghastly pale through the red beard of several days growth, and his eyes dilated with terror as they fell upon the dead snake.

Reaching for the whisky bottle, he drank deeply, and then called, in a voice thick with anger: "Thuso! Come here, you black—"

A native came running in reply to his call.

"Throw that away," he said, pointing to the snake, "then come back here." After Thuso had left the hut to carry out his master's bidding, Peters rose from the bed and took down a heavy sjambok. "On your knees, dog!" he commanded when Thuso returned.

Abject terror was in the native's eyes as he groveled at Peters's feet.

"Swish." The sjambok came down on Thuso's naked back, leaving a scarlet weal. "Didn't — I — tell — you — to — beat out — the — roof — of — my — hut— every—day?" Each word was punctuated by a blow. Thuso screamed for mercy, but still the sjambok rose and fell. When the screams ceased he ordered two of the natives, who had gathered round the door of the hut, to enter. "Take this carrion and tie him to a tree—but first rub salt on his back. So shall he learn to obey my orders."

"Yah, Inkosi!" They picked up Thuso.

"When that is done, return here and beat out the thatch of this hut lest perchance other snakes are hidden there."

"Yah, Inkosi!"

Singing an obscene song, Peters left his hut and walked toward his store, a rough, galvanized shack. He had not gone very far when he was hailed by Thompson. He turned quickly round and waited for the policeman to come up with him. "Well, what is it? Does Jennings want to apologize?"

"He says he'll apologize if you'll apologize to him for calling him a—"

Peters's answer was a stream of curses. "Where's this Jennings?"

"He's down by that patch of elephant grass yonder." Thompson pointed toward the river which flowed at the foot of the hill. The veldt all around was devoid of vegetation save for this patch of elephant grass about four hundred yards square. Then he continued:

"His plan is this. He's waiting now on the other side of that elephant patch with Andrews; I'm to take you to a place, opposite him, on this side. When you're located I'm to fire a shot. That will be the signal for Andrews to get out of harm's way. Five minutes later you'll hear another shot; that'll be the signal for you to enter the patch from this side, and for him to enter on the other side. You are to keep on walking—as much in a bee-line as possible—and shoot on sight. If you don't sight each other on your first passage through you are to keep on until you do."

"And what happens after I kill him? Do you other two fools try to arrest me for murder?"

"No; here's a signed statement from Jennings testifying that the shooting was accidental. You keep that, and he expects one from you."

"You've thought it all out, haven't you?" sneered Peters. "What weapons?"

"Revolver—and as many cartridges as you please."

"All right, I'm ready. Give me the paper."

"I want one from you first."

"You don't think you'll need it," Peters laughed. "What shall I say?" He took a notebook from his pocket and wrote, at Thompson's dictation:

I, Buck Peters, realizing that I must soon meet my Maker, testify that. I was shot accidentally, and that Wilfred Jennings is in no way to blame.


"I'll have that back before the day's over," he said. " Now let's go."

Andrews looked uneasily at the slender figure of Jennings. The boy was pacing restlessly up and down the bank of the river, puffing furiously at a cigarette.

"For Heaven's sake stand still man, and try to compose your nerves. You'll be easy game if you go on this way."

Jennings checked his pacing. "Do you think he'll agree to my plan, Andrews? Isn't it about time we heard Thompson's shot?"

"We'll hear it soon enough. There's no chance of Peters backing out. Are you sure you want to go through with this thing, Jennings? No one will blame you if you back out, and we can easily find a plan to get you out of Peters's way."

Jennings hesitated a moment before he answered. "No. I've got to go through with it." He shivered as though with a cold.

"Well, don't forget all we've told you. Don't expect to hear any noise. Peters is an expert hunter, and he'll move as quietly as a cat for all his big bulk. Keep your eyes peeled for the slightest movement in the grass, and when you sight him, fire; then drop to the ground and stay there, even if you think you've hit him. He may be bluffing."

"Yes, I know, I know. You and Thompson have been over that with me so many times that I'm not likely to forget it. Phew! It's almighty hot. I'm going to take my tunic off." He started to unbutton the coat of his khaki uniform.

"You keep that on, you silly young fool. Your white shirt 'ud be a nice target!"

Jennings sat down impatiently on a large boulder, and lighted another cigarette.

The air was oppressively still, and the ground seemed to dance in the heat waves; nothing stirred. Even the chattering "Go-away" birds seemed to have been lulled to sleep by the torrid heat. The sun was slowly sinking, casting mysterious, ever- changing shadows on the elephant grass patch. A strong smell of musk filled the air. Jennings sniffed and looked at Andrews inquiringly.

"Cross!" explained Andrews. "Pity you didn't challenge Peters to a swimming race across the river."

A wisp of smoke floated lazily in the still air. Then the sharp report of a revolver came to their ears. Jennings sprang to his feet alert. "He's ready!"

"Yes. I'm going to leave you now, boy. Good luck, old man. We'll be waiting for you up the hill." They shook hands, and a moment later Jennings was alone.

He threw away the half-smoked cigarette and nervously examined his revolver. The impulse to run was strongly upon him. But that was no way out; he couldn't go back—to be pointed out by every one as a coward. That was impossible.

The grass patch before him seemed to loom up larger and larger; it seemed to become suddenly impregnated with a mysterious terror. Fantom shapes had their being there—shapes changed as the grasses swayed slightly in the newly awakened breeze.

A second shot sounded.

Jennings hesitated for a fraction of time, then rushed headlong into the thick elephant grass. His mad rush was abruptly halted as, catching his feet in the entangling vines that entwined themselves round the thick stems of grass, he fell to the ground. His revolver flew from his hand and he lost much precious time before he finally recovered it. When he went forward once again his progress was much slower. As he got deeper into the patch he had to force his way through the grass.

Occasionally he would come to a bare clearing. Then he would cautiously work his way round the fringe. To cross it would have exposed him needlessly. Excepting such places he could scarce see more than three yards ahead of him; the grasses towered high above him, and for all the brightness of the sun he was forced to feel his way forward as one surrounded by a dense fog. At every few yards he would stop and listen; no sound came to his ears save the droning of mosquitoes and the gentle swish of the wind among the grass. Once a giant bustard flew out somewhere ahead of him.

"Peters must have put it up," thought Jennings. A shot rang out and the bustard, turning slowly over and over, fell to the ground.

He attempted to locate the direction from which the shot came, but in vain. The grass was over ten feet high and there was no tree or rock near upon which he could climb in order to take his bearings. Unexperienced in the art of trekking, his progress was a noisy one, though he practised an almost exaggerated caution. The knowledge that he could not disguise his movements filled him with a sudden terror, and dropping to the ground, he tried crawling along on his belly. Finding that this narrowed his field of vision, he soon gave it up.

Strange noises sounded all around him. A dry twig snapped under his foot and he jumped back, expecting to feel the hot searing pain of a bullet. Again, cursing himself for his folly, he went forward. A harsh croaking came to his ears from the sky overhead. He knew it was a vulture, and wondered at its presence. Then the grass became thinner and suddenly ceased. He was out on the open veldt. A strange, elation seized him. He had passed through the lurking peril of the patch. He drew a deep breath as though he would take in courage from the light and cleanness of the open before turning to face the peril once again.

On the hill before him he could see Thompson and Andrews. They waved to him, and he could almost hear what they were shouting. He knew they were words of encouragement. He waved back to them, then turned toward the patch. Again the harsh croaking of the vulture sounded clearly, and looking up he shook his fist savagely at it. Even as he did so the scavenger of the veldt folded its wings and dropped like a stone into the patch.

He scouted for a while along the fringe of the grass until he came to the place where Peters had entered. The trail was plain, and throwing caution to one side, he followed it quickly, hoping to come up on Peters unawares. He gave no thought to the chance that Peters had doubled on his tracks and was lurking in ambush beside his trail. Or if he thought of it, it did not imbue him with caution. He was only conscious of seeing the thing through to a speedy conclusion. After a while he came to a large open space, in the center of which was a stunted tree with low wide-spreading branches.

A vulture perched in the topmost branch of the tree, and in the shade of its branches was Peters. He was lying on his back, stretched at full length.

Cautiously Jennings approached him, his finger trembling on the trigger of his revolver. As he came nearer he saw that Peters's face was distorted with terror—a fearsome sight. His eyes were wide open, but the glaze of death was already creeping over them. Something moved on his chest, and a small black momba—that deadliest of snakes—lifted its wicked head and menaced Jennings. The vulture croaked hoarsely, and Jennings, steadying his shaking hand, fired.

The repellent-looking bird tumbled grotesquely down from the tree, landing with a thud close to the body of Peters; the snake, taking alarm, uncoiled itself and vanished into the tall grass. Jennings then fled from the place.

When he came again to the tree, Thompson and Andrews were with him. Marfwe, one of the police boys and a cunning hunter, came with them. They carefully examined the body of Peters, but could see no telltale puncture hole, nor was the body at all swollen as would be the case had he been bitten by the momba.

"What do you make of it, Thompson?" Andrews, asked in wonder. Thompson shook his head. He was watching Marfwe, who was closely examining the tree and the ground around it. "Can'st read us this riddle, Marfwe?"

"Aye, Inkosi. Somewhat is written plainly here, the rest—because I well knew this dead one—I can tell ye.

"To this place came the Schelm—the Bad One. He rested awhile in the shade of the tree—see ye, he smoked a while "— Marfwe pointed to a cigar stub. "Anon he rose to his feet and went back a few paces from the tree. He sprang suddenly for the branch that hangs low, catching it with his hands; ye can see where his feet left the ground, and see ye here where his nailed shoes sought a footing on the trunk.

"And then, Inkosi, this man who feared not the Spirits of Good or Evil, met Fear face to face. A snake—if thy nose is keen ye can sense his scent; if thy eyes are open ye can see his slime— lay along the branch to which the Schelm hung. And the Schelm suddenly loosing his hold, fell heavily to the ground, and the branch, thus freed of his great weight, shook violently, so that the snake also fell. Onto the Schelm's naked chest it fell, and there, feeling the warmth of the man, coiled itself and was well content.

"Then. What then? See ye here."

Marfwe pointed to Peters's tightly clenched hands; showed how the nails had cut into the flesh. He did that, Inkosi, to prevent the jumping of his muscles. Had he moved but a little, look ye, the snake would have struck." He pointed to the blood-stained lips almost bitten through in the struggle to keep back the screams that sought utterance. "Aye, white men," Marfwe concluded, "so this man died; but first he died the death of the spirit many times. It was not the snake that killed him, nor yet the fall from the tree. Nay! But it was the fear that killed him-the fear born of evil that was within him."