From ‘The Terror of the Malopo’
In A Bekkersdal Marathon
by Herman Charles Bosman
Oupa Bekker was camped out near Renosterpoort with Japie Uys on an afternoon, long ago, when a stranger who was tall and dark came riding up to them from out of the bush. This was how he met Hubrecht Willemse, Oupa Bekker said to us.
‘I didn’t know the man who dismounted there, where Japie Uys and I were resting,’ Oupa Bekker explained. ‘But I knew his horse. It was one of Koos Liebenberg’s prize stallions. I also knew the saddle. It belonged to Gert Pretorius. And the suit the stranger had on was Krisjan Steyn’s black church clothes.’
Oupa Bekker said that he identified the suit by the mended place in the knee of the trousers from where Krisjan Steyn had fallen on the sidewalk in front of the Zeerust bar, one Nagmaal. Why Krisjan Steyn fell was because of the half-dozen steps in front of the bar that he hadn’t noticed, on account of the heat.
‘The stranger introduced himself as Hubrecht Willemse,’ Oupa Bekker added, ‘and he said he had been round the neighbourhood a bit. Well, a good bit, he could have said, I thought, judging from his suit and horse, not to mention Gert Pretorius’s saddle.
‘Japie Uys and I looked at each other. And I was glad I wasn’t Japie. For Japie Uys was wearing a new pair of store boots that would be just about the stranger’s size.’
Oupa Bekker said that Hubrecht Willemse came and sat down on a fallen tree-trunk beside Japie Uys and himself. Hubrecht Willemse took off his hat and fanned himself with it.
‘I don’t know whose hat it was,’ Oupa Bekker said, ‘although it looked so old and shapeless that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Hubrecht Willemse’s own hat.
‘But it was when we saw how short Hubrecht Willemse’s hair had been cut that Japie Uys started apologising very fast for the uncomfortable tree-stump that Hubrecht Willemse had to sit on. There was a much better trunk he knew of, just down the road, Japie Uys said, and he was already disappearing into a clump of withaaks after it, when Hubrecht Willemse called him back, pretty sharply.
‘None of that,’ Hubrecht Willemse said when Japie Uys returned, looking sheepish. ‘You’re going to stay right here, both of you.’
Oupa Bekker said that although it was a hot afternoon, yet, sitting there in the bush next to Hubrecht Willemse on a fallen tree-trunk, he actually found himself shivering. He didn’t feel very different from a hollowed-out tree-trunk himself, Oupa Bekker said.
Then there was a sudden, cracking sound. The white ants had been at work on the inside of that tree-trunk, and so the wood gave way in one place, with the weight of three men on it. Nevertheless, both Oupa Bekker and Japie Uys jumped up.
‘When we sat down again,’ Oupa Bekker proceeded, ‘Hubrecht Willemse said to us: “You know, I’m an escaped convict.” Just like that, he said it. Of course, that information did not come as much of a surprise to Japie Uys and myself. All the same, we thought that the stranger might feel better about it if we pretended to be astonished.
‘So Japie Uys said, no, he just couldn’t believe it. It was just about the last thing he would have imagined, Japie Uys assured Hubrecht Willemse. And I said to him that he looked more like an insurance agent.
‘Then, remembering about a bit of unpleasantness there had been with an insurance agent in those parts not so long ago, I said he looked more like a Senator, perhaps.’
Oupa Bekker said that his words did not please Hubrecht Willemse as much as he thought they might.
‘But it was Hubrecht Willemse’s next remark that made me wonder whether he was quite right in the head,’ Oupa Bekker continued. ‘I started thinking that the years he had spent behind prison walls, with just rice water and singing hymns, must have turned his mind queer. I got a chillier feeling than ever between my shoulder-blades, then, in spite of the heat.’
For Hubrecht Willemse told Oupa Bekker that the reason why the men from the landdrost’s office would not be able to capture him was because he had the power to render himself invisible.
‘Sometimes they don’t see me at all,’ Hubrecht Willemse said to Oupa Bekker. ‘Other times they think I’m somebody else. I’ve noticed it all the way through these parts. That’s why I’m glad that I’ll be crossing the border soon.
‘Because it’s worrying me a bit, this thing. It’s a power I didn’t have before. It must be something that came to me without my knowing about it, this last time I was in prison. Maybe it was something I ate.’
Oupa Bekker said that he thought to himself, then, that it was not so very surprising that the landdrost’s men should make mistakes about Hubrecht Willemse’s identity.
‘I thought, well, if I had seen him from not so very nearby,’ Oupa Bekker said, ‘and I went just by the horse he was riding, then I might easily have taken him for Koos Liebenberg. Or, again, if I had seen him just walking, with the light not too good, and going by how he was dressed, then I might have thought he was Krisjan Steyn.
‘So it was not surprising that the landdrost’s men, who did not have occasion to visit the Dwarsberg side of the Groot Marico often, should get a bit mixed up, perhaps, in looking for Hubrecht Willemse. Like if he should walk into a bar, for instance, carrying Gert Pretorius’s saddle under his arm, I also thought.’
It was the next day, Oupa Bekker said, that he saw for himself something of that mysterious power that Hubrecht Willemse had spoken about having, whereby Hubrecht Willemse could become invisible or could appear to be somebody quite different.
A horseman again drew up in front of them, Oupa Bekker said, and came and joined them on the tree-stump. But this time they recognised the visitor. It was the veldkornet, who had been sent from the landdrost’s office on the escaped convict’s trail.
‘Japie Uys and I were both very glad to see the veldkornet,’ Oupa Bekker said, ‘ and the veldkornet was able to tell us a lot about Hubrecht Willemse, whom he described as a dangerous character. But we knew that much without the veldkornet having to tell us. “Whatever he wants he just takes, and he doesn’t care how,” the veldkornet said. That too we knew.
‘The veldkornet went on to say that in the records of the landdrost’s office, Hubrecht Willemse was known as the Terror of the Malopo.’
‘What, has he been there as well?’ Japie Uys asked.
‘No,’ the veldkornet replied, ‘but that’s where he’s heading now. And if he’s not going to be a holy terror there, in the Malopo, then I don’t know. But it’s outside our district, and the quicker he gets there, the better we’ll all like it, I can tell you.’
Oupa Bekker said that he thought that was a very peculiar thing for a veldkornet to say. Never mind about wanting to call Hubrecht Willemse the Terror of the Malopo, Oupa Bekker thought, why, he was enough of a Terror of the Marico. Oupa Bekker tried to suggest something along these lines to the veldkornet.
‘Well, if he gets into the Malopo, then it’s their lookout,’ was all the veldkornet could say.’
When once Hubrecht Willemse had got across the Malopo, it wasn’t so very far from there to the Bechuanaland border. Yes, he wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hubrecht Willemse was almost out of the Transvaal by now, the veldkornet added.
You couldn’t get to the Bechuanaland border that way, Japie Uys said. Not at that time of the year, you couldn’t. The only way was through the Renosterpoort. And from where he was sitting on the stump, Japie Uys pointed out the Renosterpoort to the veldkornet.
‘That scoundrel Willemse will have to come right back here again, along that same road,’ Japie Uys said, gleefully. ‘He’ll have to. There’s no other way. And that’s when you’ll get him. What’s more, Hubrecht Willemse will be coming past here again, quite soon.’
Just then another cracking sound came from the hollowed-out tree-trunk. This time it was the veldkornet that jumped up suddenly, Oupa Bekker said.
‘And later on that same afternoon, it was proved to us that Hubrecht Willemse did indeed have those ghostly powers that he had claimed,’ Oupa Bekker added. ‘For Hubrecht Willemse came back again along that road, as Japie Uys had said he would. And from a long way off we pointed him out to the veldkornet, but the veldkornet just couldn’t see him at all.
‘And when, afterwards, Hubrecht Willemse got so near that the veldkornet just had to see him, the veldkornet said that it didn’t look like Hubrecht Willemse to him in the least.
‘It looked more like a Senator he knew, the veldkornet remarked, when Hubrecht Willemse had gone past, and the sound of galloping hooves was dying in the distance.’