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  • The vague plume of dust caught the hawk’s eye. Wings outstretched it banked and circled high in the pale blue sky. Nothing but scrub and rock and one vague plume of dust rising in the wide basin between the ridges of flat topped mountains running north and south in long crumpled folds. The hawk angled lower. The plume became a rider picking his way along a rutted track beside a bone dry riverbed. Blackened stumps like shattered teeth lined the road. The harsh sun glinted silver off the barrel of the rifle he wore slung across his back. Silver off the rifle and gold off the criss-cross of brass shells in the bandoliers strapped across his chest.

    The rider slowed to pass through the broken gate, hanging half off its hinges and blocking most of the track. The horse shied anxiously with the rough ground of the dead river on one side and the scraping creak of the gate as a gust of wind caught it.

    He topped a small rise and saw, ahead, a scatter of broken, burnt out buildings. Once a farm from the spread of outbuildings. Hard to tell if it had been sheep or horses or what, he thought, though the idea of any kind of farm in all this heat and dust and desolation seemed improbable at best. Now the whitewashed plaster was stained black and red where the thatch had gone up like a torch. A few stumps of roof beams hung where they had dropped. The graceful curves of the gables cracked and worn away already now the roof was gone.

    Someone had righted the windmill and even thought to grease it. The vanes spun easily with just the whicker whir as they turned to face the fitful gusts. Righted the windmill and patched the great round cement stock tank as well. It wasn’t being used to water the horses though. He stopped his horse and watched them leap and gambol in the shallow scummy water. Couldn’t blame them he supposed. Hot enough to fair roast a man out here. But still the indignity of twenty men splashing and washing and jumping off the crude board they’d rigged. All naked and bodies pale, pale as fish against their brick red necks and faces.

    Captain Bridges, sir. His orders.

    The sentry rose out of the small patch of shade afforded by the meagre bush. His jacket was spread out over the thorn bush to make the shade as substantial as possible.

    I suppose the Captain suggested that you might have a bit of a kip on post seeing as how your mates are having such a splash of it? He snapped.

    No sir. The sentry straightened , eyes fixed into some middle distance.

    Christ it was too hot for this crap. He could feel the sweat trickle down his back. The war was bloody over. The last straggle of Boers they’d rounded up had been dressed in ragged skirts and bonnets for God’s sake. What harm could it do? Still, his sense of decorum was rankled. Captain or no, Bridges ought to know better than to let things slip. Too bloody minded bent on rooting out Boer gold the Captain was, if the stories were to be believed.

    He swung out of the saddle and led his horse to the back of the ruined farmhouse where the rest of the horses were tethered nose down in a pile of dusty hay.
    You had to credit the Captain there. His company was fitted out in fine fettle. Arms stacked. Horses brushed down. Tack hung with care oiled and clean. He fingered the bright polished buckles.

    Warn’t long ago we roughed them up something terrible. The old sergeant was perched back against the wall, tin mug of tea in his worn rough hands. Bit of bright brought the sharpshooters on us like the plague. Buttons, badges, no offense sir but it were some comical how they all come off.

    He didn’t answer just strode across the litter of broken china and glass between the buildings. In what had been the farm yard a broken wooden bucket lay beside the rock coping of the well. Broken household goods , any that hadn’t been burnt for cookfires or to ward off the night chill, were strewn across the yard. Near what were the barn and stables the dark and bloated carcasses of dead farm animals and a dog were covered with sheets of fiercely buzzing flies.

    It hadn’t been that long for this farm, he thought. Why the hell didn’t they give it a rest. Buller had taken Pretoria almost two years ago and still they rode. For what? He shook his head. For this?

    He wandered down to the front of the farm house. A spreading willow reached down to embrace the black wrought iron of the fence around the family cemetery. A dark figure lurked in the deep shade watching the black labourers methodically digging up the graves. Their picks and shovels scraped against the rock hard ground.

    Found anything John? He called.

    The figure under the willow parted the trailing branches like a sweeping green curtain but didn’t emerge.

    Took your time didn’t you, John Bridges replied.

    What the hell has your father got you digging for John?

    Captain Bridges has received reports specifying the high likelihood of an arms cache.

    Arms? He cleared his throat of dust and spat the gobbet into the nearest trench. It wouldn’t be the same report citing missing saddle bags from the Kimberly diggings would it?

    You’ll want to see the Captain I suppose, John Bridges asked.

    He didn’t answer. It was too fucking hot for pointless banter he thought. Besides if the Captain wanted to set his son to dig up every god damn farm they raided what was it to him. If there’d ever been anything in that rocky ground besides the bones and shattered dreams and bitter memories it had all been gone and spent years ago.

    He watched a pimply sunburnt private scuff along picking up scraps of broken furniture for the fire. Raw, he thought, fresh off the boat. The boy reached back frequently to readjust his rifle. A guinea fowl burst out of a bush with a wild cackle and clatter. The private whirled tripped over his own feet and fell to the ground
    scrabbling for his rifle.

    Boo! the sentry called out laughing. Jesus, where’d they find you? Sunday School?

    Raw, he thought. They told us it would be over in a few months. How long ago was it? 4 years now? And they reduced to sending this across now, the cream of the empire?

    The private got up slowly, looked back at the camp dusted off his ass and then shielding his eyes, scanned the ridge above the farm.


    Tewie set down the battered binoculars softly. He picked idly at the crust of soot and ash. His fingers were split and cracked, the nails torn, ragged and black with grime. Not a doctor's hands anymore, he thought. Not ever. Beside him, Jan blinked down at the soldiers in the stock tank. Tewie noted his eyes, bright and staring. Startling in the patch of dark skin that showed above his ragged beard and below the brim of his worn bush hat. The tufts of dried grass and brush woven through the holes barely wobbled as he reached for the binoculars.

    After you ma’m, he muttered. Tewie adjusted the straps of his stained and tattered bonnet. He didn’t smile but the boy laughed. The boy always laughed.
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