In the strange, inexplicable way time slows down during times of catastrophe, a lot may happen in the shortest little period of time. For instance: in that second after Smartryk was shot, a multitude of actions took place simultaneously; yet it remains difficult to describe – let alone explain -how the hapless group of Rolbossers managed to get it all done in such a short time.
Boggel, of course, is the only one not to react. Well ensconced in his unconscious state, he remains exactly where he is – hidden under his heap of wetted sand. The same cannot be said for the rest of the group.
Kleinpiet and Vetfaan recognises the sound of the shot immediately. The instinct (rather than discipline), so rudely formed during their days as army conscripts during the Border War, kicks in immediately as they fling themselves to the ground. Oudoom, bewildered and never having been under fire before, starts running away from the sound as fast as his ample frames allows movement; while Precilla and Gertruida does the sensible thing to cower down behind the bulky frame of Vetfaan. The overburdened Mary, panicked beyond measure, does an even more sensible thing: she falls down in a dead faint. And Sersant Dreyer? He scrambles for cover behind the police van, like a good policeman should.
Servaas stands rooted to the spot for a microsecond – but galvanises into action when he sees Dawid running. Despite his age, he does a sterling job of catching up with the Bushman. Did he – at that stage – know what he was getting himself into? Probably not. But still, his action will raise a few glasses in the days and months to come: the patrons in Boggel’s Place owe him that, at least..
Dawid’s reaction may be understood if you knew the history of the Bushmen. Centuries of persecution and scorn have driven these men and women into the most inhospitable parts of Africa. They chose to hide here rather than fight against overwhelming odds of civilisation and gunpowder. The sand and the dunes formed their fortress against these formidable enemies of their way of life. Now, as one of the last of the remnants of a once-great culture, Dawid lives in this barren and desolate area, the last refuge available to him and his kin. He’s no coward, though. He’ll face a lion – or a leopard – with dignity: not with the aim of killing such a beast, but to reassure the animal that he, Dawid, respects the animal’s right to hunt where and when it pleases. And, he’ll tell the ignorant westerner, it’s due to this reciprocal respect that man and animal may find the way to peaceful coexistence.
But…being shot at does not in any way fit in with his concepts of respect and coexistence. Being shot at implies the possibility that you may be hurt – killed, even – and that is the most profound form of disrespect shown to any man. Also bear in mind that he found himself on Zosi Plain – a flat and empty space. There simply isn’t anywhere to hide. So Dawid did what he did, because there wasn’t anything else to do.
With the acute hearing Bushmen have, Dawid not only discerned where the shot came from, but also how far away the shooter should be. And then, instinctively or not, he ran, crouching all the way, straight in that direction, not knowing that Servaas was right behind him.
Under different circumstances he would have hesitated when he saw the man holding the pistol. After all, you don’t take on a giant of a man if you only weighed about 50 kg and could barely reach his shoulder. But the man had a gun and Bushmen know all they need to know about guns: they kill. What Brutus Malherbe thought at that stage, will never be known. Most probably he registered surprise or even disbelief at the small man storming at him. He did, however, manage a guffaw – but whether that was due to his natural feeling of superiority or simply an incredulous outing of astonished contempt, we’ll never know. When Dawid dived at him, Brutus stepped aside, caught him by the scruff of his neck and hoisted him high. He needed both hands to do this – dropping the pistol in the process.
Gertruida later said Brutus had the look of a madman at that moment. He, too, was covered in dried blood – some fresh bleeding was still evident from a long gash over his forehead. With his clothes in no better state than Boggel’s and his skin and face similarly affected by heat and thirst, he seemed completely out of control. While one may speculate about his sanity at that moment, there could be no doubt what he was trying to do: his huge hands were wrapped around the thin neck of his dangling and helpless attacker…
Servaas doesn’t think. For a while he might have thought that Dawid was leading him to safety (something he’ll emphatically deny afterwards), but when he sees Brutus and the way he looks at the pathetically squirming man in his grasp, Servaas managed to find another gear to power his aging legs. He lowered his head, and – bull-like – bellowed as he rammed his bald cranium into Brutus’s middle. Or, at least, where he thought Brutus’s middle might be. Suffice to say that a bent-down Servaas might just reach the height of Brutus’s hips – or thereabouts…
Take any man – big or small, old or young – and take a swing at the core of the nuclear power station. Remember the axiom of aiming an unstoppable force at an immovable object? Well, If that force should connect the immovable object right on the male main switch, the power goes off and the lights go out. The circuit blows. Elvis leaves the building. The fat lady sings. It’s simple physics.
True, Servaas was stunned a little by the impact, and Dawid dropped like a sack of corn next to him, but the real damage was done to Brutus while the others – cowering as they did – let out a protracted ‘…ooooooo...!’. Even the astute Gertruida winched.
“Quick, Mister Vetfaan, tie him up!” Dawid is the first to recover. He scoops up the pistol and hands it to Sersant Dreyer, who has left his hiding place behind the police van. The three of them – Dreyer, Vetfaan and Dawid – get busy unlacing the boots of their adversary and tying his huge wrists. A belt suffices for the ankles.
“Help! Somebody please help Ryk. He’s bleeding…” Mary’s anguished cry cuts through the mayhem of the moment. Getruida rushes over, takes a look at Smartryk, and takes a deep breath.
Gertruida doesn’t panic. Well, not usually. Now, however, she feels faint at the sight of so much blood. Gingerly, with trembling hands, she undoes the buttons of the soaked shirt. Then, folding back the flaps of the shirt, she inspects the damage.
“Let’s see…” Her voice is as unsteady as her hands, but she presses on regardless.
A long, cut-like wound courses across Smartryk’s chest. Apparently Smartryk was standing side-on to the shooter and the bullet raced across his chest from right to left, cleaving the skin and flesh open to the bone. In the middle of the wound a severed artery spurts a little fountain of red.
“It’s the Thoracoacromial,” she announces in a much relieved tone. “One of the arteries to the chest wall.” Applying a delicate thumb to the bleeding artery, she presses down gently. The bleeding stops immediately. “The shock of the bullet hitting the ribs must have caused a faint. See – he’s already moving.” Making soothing noises, she tells Smartryk to lie still.
Take a moment here. Forget the tied-up Brutus, the unconscious Boggel and the wounded Smartryk. Push aside thoughts of anger and pity, and don’t – for the moment – worry about how the group is going to get back to civilisation. Most of all, don’t contemplate the delicate situation with Brutus’s heart – remember his cardiac condition? No, ignore all these issues for a moment and consider the turmoil in Mary’s mind.
Look at her now – there where she’s standing motionless on trembling legs, with Brutus a few yards away, Boggel under the damp sand and Smartryk being attended to by Gertruida and Precilla. Scattered around her you see the fragments of her past, her present and – what she hoped for – her future. Yet now it doesn’t make sense, not at all, as her anger at men – all men – boils down to a reduction of white-hot rage. Damn Brutus for causing all this! Damn Boggel for not pursuing their friendship back then, when they had so much time and so much innocence! Damn Smartryk for getting hurt and…and…being so bloody nice, for goodness’ sakes!
Gertruida says all people experience at least short periods of insanity from time to time. It’s quite normal to feel control slipping and then to do something totally irrational: like commenting on a speeding ticket you got a minute ago, or laughing at our president, or falling in love. Some things, she says, just aren’t rational and some actions simply cannot be explained in a logical way.
So, go on, just accept that Mary cannot be held responsible for what she felt and did at that moment. The years and years of struggle, of being abused and misused, of being deceived and disappointed, of hoping and then seeing her dreams shattered… Well, all these emotions burst into an all-consuming blaze in her overloaded mind; white-hot and with an anger so intense that it made her vision shrink to fade out everybody…except for Brutus, who started screaming obscenities at that moment.
Mary Mitchell lost control…maybe that’s the way one should look at it. She rushed over to the tied-up brute of a man who now became the focus of her wrath. In her helpless bitterness, she kicked at Brutus. She kicked hard, venting the years of pent-up resentment in the force of that kick. In the moment before her boot struck the broad chest of Brutus Malherbe, she let out a primeval scream, causing the man to turn his head away from her, as if he saw the madness he had caused in the once-pretty girl. Then, with her face screwed up in a paroxysm of hatred, her heavy boot thudded against the ribs.
And Brutus – the strong, invincible, ruthless, abusive, crooked lawyer – felt his heartbeat skip, take, skip…and stop.