With the sun dipping to the horizon, Kleinpiet slips out to light the braai fire. It’s been an interesting afternoon, and he doesn’t want to miss out on the rest of the story – but like Vetfaan always reminds them: a good story and a good meal compliment each other: an empty stomach can’t digest a great tale…
Meanwhile, Gertruida arranged for the Himba to sleep over in the parsonage. Whatever his quest might be, he’ll need to stay until he’s told them all. Anyway, they still don’t know who Sergeant Ben is, or why the man wants to find him…
“I could see the men setting up the ambush for Badenhorst and his men – and could do nothing about it. I knew that if I cried out, Badenhorst would come looking for me – and be killed. So, despite my fear, I kept quiet, hoping the horsemen wouldn’t see me and pass by. It was stupid, of course, to think so. Badenhorst was following the tracks, and where else could they lead to than right into the ambush?
“I struggled with the ropes, but there was no escape. The men, like me, were doomed…”
“The Equestrian Unit was quite an elite force,” Gertruida says while Kleinpiet is busy outside. “It was set up as a counter-insurgency force by the SA Defence Force, and it consisted of well-trained young men. They were particularly effective in tracking, pursuing and eliminating the infiltrators, which often operated under the command of Cuban instructors. They weren’t only brave fighters, but they were also renowned for their softer side: they took great care of their horses.”
“Ja, I heard that, too.” Vetfaan remembers his days on the border, “Fighting was only a small part of that war – and maybe any war, for that matter. Forget about months of training and the days of preparation for an attack…what was more important was the bonds you formed with your compatriots. There was a respect for life and the fear of death. Under those circumstances, you form friendships that last a lifetime. That includes animals, by the way. Many troops had pets – adopted from the area where they were stationed. A cat here, a dog there…one guy even had a pet frog. It was as if the horror of war made the men aware of the need for love and caring.”
“That’s true,” Kleinpiet sits down to accept the beer Boggel pushes across the counter. “That;s why love affairs during wartime is so intense.” He glances over to Vetfaan, who lost his heart to a young lady during his stint on the border, with tragic consequences. Vetfaan, with Fanny at his side, looks down at his shoes but doesn’t respond.
Lieutenant Badenhorst was wary. He could see the tracks of many feet around, but the clearing ahead was deserted despite the kettle next to the smouldering fire under the big tree. He trained his binoculars on the clearing and there…there….was the little boy, tied to a tree. Holding up a clenched fist, he signals for the others to stop.
“Get the gunships,” he whispers to the young man with the radio. “It’s a trap. I’m sure they’re waiting for us.”
“And then what? They bomb the area and take out the boy, too?”
“No.” Badenhorst sets his jaw firm. “I’ll make a plan. As soon as the Puma arrives, you give me covering fire. I’ll get him.”
The whupp-whupp of the approaching helicopter made the boy look up at the pale-blue sky in hope. A hundred yards away, the big Cuban swore under his breath. He had hoped that the ambush would be a simple affair; the last thing he wanted, was to be blasted at from the air. And a kilometer away, the four horsemen mounted again. Surprisingly, their request for air support was immediately approved, but they still had to wait a full hour before the helicopter arrived.
“Showtime, guys,” Badenhorst said. “Get to your positions and let’s get this over with.” He knew skirmishes like these only lasted a few minutes and that timing was crucial. His plan was simple: the gunship would strafe the surrounding bush, his own men would lay down covering fire, and he’d dash out, cut the ropes and free the child. It should have been easy…
The helicopter crew was spot on. The 25 mm slugs tore up the dry ground while it hovered, seemingly oblivious of the returned fire from the ground. Badenhorst spurred his horse on to a full gallop and reached the boy. He jumped down. Cut the ropes. Bent down to pick up the boy. Straightened.
And got shot.
The big Cuban got him. Headshot. Dead in an instant. Boy dropped. Time ceased.
“I saw it all in slow motion. When the lieutenant fell, the other three horsemen became insane. Mad. Crazy. There’s no word for what happened to them. Even after all these years, I don’t understand why they did what they did.” He sighs, shakes his head. “But suddenly the three of them stormed the clearing to stand around us. And then, from the height of their saddles, they started firing at the men laying in ambush. They had no protection, out there in the open, while the others took shots at them from behind rocks.”
The gunship came swooping down, intensifying the effort to distract and kill the enemy. The effect was immediate and devastating, Casualties mounted on both sides. Two more horsemen got hit, the third on the ground as well, his horse mortally wounded. Then, suddenly, the terrorists fled. One moment they were concentrating fire on the trio in the clearing, the next they were running, running away from the hovering helicopter.
The crew jumped to the ground, helping the three survivors – two seriously injured – to the gunship.
“That’s when I first saw Sergeant Ben. He came running over to pick me up. I was just sitting there, right where Badenhorst dropped me when he was killed…paralysed with fear. I’ve never seen anybody killed, never been in a fight like that.
“Sergeant Ben ignored the shouts from the rest of the crew. They wanted to get out of there, afraid to stay too long. By then they had loaded the injured men and Badenhorst; there was no reason for them to hang around to rescue a scruffy little boy. But Sergeant Ben did. He slung me over his right shoulder and started running towards the helicopter.
“That’s when the big Cuban stood up from behind his rock. I was facing backwards over the sergeant’s shoulder and saw him take aim. I screamed. Sergeant Ben stopped, turned around. I saw the Cuban steady his gun. And then I saw the rifle spit fire and felt the impact when the bullet struck Sergeant Ben.”
Even after all these years, the Himba man can’t force himself to remain calm during the telling of his story. He thumps his chest to create the sound of the bullet striking his rescuer while tears stream over his cheeks. Swallowing hard, he continues in a strained voice.
“The crew in the helicopter got the Cuban, then. Shot him down where he stood. And then they rushed out to get me and the sergeant to the aircraft.”
You can hear a pin drop in Boggel’s Place. Precilla wipes away a tear while Oudoom blows his nose loudly. The braai fire is forgotten, the empty glasses in front of the patrons ignored. Vetfaan hands the Himba his handkerchief.
“And the sergeant? What happened to him?” By now, Boggel is sitting on top of the counter.
“That’s why I’m here…” The Himba’s voice conveys incredible sadness. “That’s why…”