Saturdays are quiet days in the Rolbos district. The sheep munch away at the stunted vegetation, the occasional Oryx gallops regally across the vast open spaces and Vrede will follow the shade around Boggel’s Place as the day wears on. It’s as if the animals sense the slacking of pace in the Kalahari as the farmers and townsfolk gather in the little bar to reflect on the events of the past week.
Usually, talk around the counter will centre around the drought and the price of diesel. Or somebody might make a remark about the Springboks and the way the referee bungled the last game. On exceptionally quiet days, the patrons will share a comfortable silence.
Lately, however, there is much to talk about. With knowing glances towards Boggel and Lucinda – or winks when they talk about Gertruida and Judge – the townsfolk wonder and admire the romances that blossom in the small town. And, with Kleinpiet apparently making slow but steady progress in his clumsy attempts to woo Precilla, the conversations are lively, speculative and varied.
“The one man that needs help with his love-throttle is Servaas. He wears his black suit all the time, and finds fault with everything. Even Oudoom has been avoiding him lately. If we can get some woman to fluff up his feathers a bit, he’d be in a better mood. “ Boggel talks from below the counter, where Lucinda has joined him on his cushion.
“Forget it. That mechanism is so ancient; if some dame puts her foot on that pedal, it’ll break off.” Vetfaan orders another round. “And I’m sure he can’t remember what to do, anyway. No, if we want to improve his mood, we’ll have to think of something else.”
“I’m not sure if that is possible,” Precilla smiles shyly. “He’s angry about everything. The new organ is too loud, Oudoom hasn’t said anything about Frans and Pete, and he twisted his ankle in that pothole outside. I think there’s nothing we can do. Maybe he’ll get better if we simply leave him alone.”
“Not a good idea, Sweetie.” Kleinpiet doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. “That old man has a way of simmering, building up steam – and then exploding. What we’ve seem so far, are a few mock charges. But … if something really awkward comes to his attention, it’ll light his fuse. I remember the last time he was like this. It was way back in the nineties, just after the election. He bought up all the baked beans and bully beef in Sammie’s Shop, dug a bomb shelter and wore his black suit all the time. He predicted a civil war. Well, nothing happened, and that made him even angrier. Then one day he insisted that Sammie must buy those supplies back. Sammie refused, of course. If Oudoom hadn’t walked into the shop at the right moment, we would have had our own civil war, right on our own doorstep. So, my thinking is we must defuse the old man before he gets to that point. “
“I’m to blame.” Gertruida drops the bomb without warning. With a nervous glance at Judge, she continues. “Old Servaas is jealous, that’s all. Before Judge arrived here in Rolbos, Servaas and me often shared a nightcap, or listened to music or simply chatted. I think he had a bit of a crush on me, and I didn’t see any harm in that. Two lonely people and all that. Of course nothing ever happened, but there you are: we were friends. Now, with Judge in my life, he most probably feels cheated. He’s angry because of me. I’ll have to fix it again.”
Judge Gericke puts a soothing hand on her shoulder. “I’m a big boy now, Gerty. I understand these things. I’ll go and have a chat with him, explain how things are, and beat the living daylights out of the old bastard. He’ll understand that; it’s how men settle their differences.”
Gertruida’s hand flies to her mouth. Not used to the judge’s sense of humour, she isn’t quite sure he’s just made a joke. He bursts out laughing.
“No, not like that, not at all. But I will talk to him. Being a judge requires considerable negotiating skills – you often have to mediate between various parties to get to the right answer. I’ll talk to him today. He should be in soon.”
Vrede looks up as Servaas shuffles towards Boggel’s Place. Dogs sense things. They are especially sensitive about moods and pain. They know when somebody needs a bit of love and attention. They also know when it’s better to stay away from somebody. Maybe it stems from the cavemen days, when an injured hunter had to be nursed back to health, otherwise there’d be no bones to gnaw on that night. Over generations and generations of dogs, survival of the fittest resulted in the canines we have today – they sense things. The others starved to death.
Vrede tucks his tail between his legs and scampers off. This caveman is in no mood to pamper.
Servaas slumps down in the chair in the corner, staring sourly at the laughing group at the counter. Drinking. Laughing. Soon they’ll be tipsy. Crack silly jokes. Waste time talking their silly little talks. The thoughts in Servaas’ mind are dark and gloomy. He can’t understand how good, Christian folks can spend their time talking nonsense. Tomorrow they’ll sit in church, holy-faced and pious, while they nurse their hangovers. The whole lot are two-faced pretenders, that’s all. He’ll have to talk to Oudoom about it.
Judge Gericke walks over with a dishcloth he borrowed from Boggel. With a flourish, he chucks it down on the table in front of Servaas.
“I challenge you to a duel, sir. A fight to the death. Right here, in front of Boggel’s Place, in Voortrekker Weg. The winner gets Gertruida. The loser will be buried with honour.”
Shock. Horror. Disbelief. Silence.
The group at the counter didn’t expect this. Servaas is breathless. Gertruida feels the blood draining from her cheeks.
“Whaaa…?” Completely confused, Servaas struggles to talk.
“You hear me. We are both grown men. You have an interest in the woman I love. There’s only one way to settle this. Rolbos isn’t big enough for the two of us. So let’s do the honourable thing. And you can choose your weapon. I challenge. You choose. It’s not so complicated, surely? You do understand, don’t you?”
Servaas regains some of his composure. Why, this man arrives in Rolbos, flaunting his title all over the show and stealing Gertruida from him! And he’s always got an opinion about everything, expecting people to listen to his so-called wisdom all the time! Now he wants to make a fool out of him, Servaas, who has always been the pillar of righteousness in the community? He feels the anger rising. Right! They’ll settle this here, permanently! No stupid judge is going to make a fool of the head elder in the congregation.
Getting to his feet, he snatches the dishcloth from the table and throws it back at the judge.
“Right. We’ll take it outside, right now. It’s time somebody puts you in your place.” With all the dignity he can muster, he stomps out towards the street.
“You all stay here, now. This is between Servaas and me. It’s a private matter and not a public display. One of us will come back. May the best man win.”
Boggel will say later that the atmosphere inside his bar defied description. Nobody expected the judge to act the way he did. And a duel? For goodness’ sakes – such things don’t happen in modern times!
For several long seconds they all sit there, transfixed, unable to move; totally unsure what to say. Then Gertruida lets out a drawn-out Nooooo! as she storms out to the street. On cue, the rest follow. Only Vrede, with his deep sense of decorum, slips inside to claim his place on Boggel’s cushion.
“I’ll use a gun,” Servaas hisses through his remaining teeth. “Like they did in old time. Back-to-back, twenty paces, turn and fire. That’s what we’ll do.”
“You use a gun, I’ll use my knife. I have a slight tremor, so my aim isn’t that good. I hope you understand?” The judge fishes a Swiss army knife from his pocket, flipping open the short blade.
“It’s your funeral,” Servaas says. “I used to be the champion marksman in the district. You’re going down, man!”
“Good. We’ll count the twenty paces, turn. You shoot. If you miss, I get my chance to approach you and attempt to stab you to death.” The judge is completely calm. “Are we agreed on these terms?”
“You’re even more stupid than I thought. But yes, I’m satisfied.”
Servaas scurries off to his cottage to return with his hunting rifle. In the meantime Gertruida and the rest plead with the two men to stop this absurd game. Judge just waves them off, but Servaas seems way beyond reason. Hurling abuse at the judge, he takes his position.
“I’ll kill you today!” He shouts. “Kill you dead.”
“Most probably.” Judge Gericke positions himself carefully. Back-to-back, in the middle of Voortrekker Weg, the two men ready themselves for the duel. “Of course, you’ll be doing in public, with lots of witnesses around. There’ll be a murder docket. You’ll be charged. Oudoom will kick you out of the church. And I doubt if Gertruida will want to continue her friendship with you, if you kill me. The crown of the winner rests heavily on the victor’s head, remember? But … lets get on with it. It’s hot out here.”
Something in the judge’s voice, or maybe the calm manner in which he spoke, seems to touch a nerve: “Murder? This is a duel! Self-defence. Protecting honour….”
“Ah yes, I can just see the court case unfolding. The judge looking at exhibit A and B. Please tell the court how you justify killing a man with a hunting rifle, when he’s twenty yards away from you and armed with a pocket knife.” Judge Gericke uses his formal voice to mimic the prosecutor’s question. “Not a difficult decision for the judge, I’d think.”
Servaas is angry all over again. “You! You challenged me! If anybody is guilty, it’s you! You are the murderer, not me. You forced me into this! The duel is your idea, not mine. I had no choice…”
Judge Gericke walks around to face Servaas. “Then I retract my challenge. I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life in jail – and I’d like to live a bit longer.” He folds the blade back into the knife. “But we have to talk…”
And they do. Vrede eventually comes out to see what was happening, and found the two men on the veranda in deep conversation. The rest of the townsfolk realised the importance of privacy, and trooped back to the bar for some calming refereshments.
“….so, you see, I didn’t want to fight you at all. I simply wanted you to face up to your anger, acknowledge the nature of it, and get rid of your fury. I think you’re a sensitive man, Servaas. People don’t really know you – because you don’t allow people the opportunity. With Gertruida it was different, wasn’t it? You trust her, and you think my friendship with her is going to spoil your relationship. Well, let me assure you: I’d consider it an honour to have you as a friend.
“So, I have a better idea, Servaas. We walk into the bar, and I’ll apologise for my challenge. You accept, on condition that the rest of today’s drinks are on me. As a penalty, you see? You’ll be the hero.
“But here’s one more condition. You have to get rid of your black suit. The colour doesn’t suit you at all. On Monday I’ll take you to Upington, and we’ll get you something nicer. Now, what do you say?”
When the party becomes too noisy, Vrede leaves the cushion to look for peace on the veranda. Inside, aided by an endless supply of Cactus Jack, the townsfolk are having a great time. Some of them think the judge is a skilled negotiator. Others agree that he just pulled off an extremely stupid stunt. Gertruida can’t quite make up her mind whether she liked the way the judge went about the situation. Certainly it wasn’t necessary to go to such lengths?
Still, the one with the biggest smile on his face, is Servaas. In true caveman tradition, he defended his honour. He can see Gertruida glancing at him from time to time with a worried look in her eyes. And the judge isn’t such a bad sport, after all. His old suit is wearing thin and he really needs a new one. Scoring a suit out of the dispute isn’t such a bad deal.
But that isn’t the reason the old man is smiling. What tickles him, is the fact that the judge really though he’d shoot. He saw it in the man’s eyes. There were a lot of caution – and a tinge of fear – in those eyes when they talked out there in the street today. And yes, that gun is a deadly weapon most of the time, after all.
Most of the time. Especially if it is loaded.
Which it wasn’t.