Because young Bothma was, after all, a mounted policeman in a khaki uniform, with brass letters on his shoulders, we did feel a measure of constraint in his company. The circumstance of our not feeling quite at ease manifested itself in the way most of us sat on our riempie chairs – a little more stiffly than usual, with our shoulders not quite touching the backs of the chairs. It also manifested itself in the unconventional way in which Gysbert van Tonder saw fit to sprawl in his seat, an affectation of mental contentment that would have awakened mistrust in any policeman with some experience.
It was then that Chris Welman made a remark that went a good way towards relieving the tension. Afterwards, in talking it over, we had to say that we could not but admire the manner in which Chris Welman had worked out the right words to use. Not that there was anything clever in the way that Chris Welman had spoken, of course.
No, we all felt that the statement Chris Welman had made, then, was something that was easily within the capacity of any of us, if we had just sat back a little and thought, and then made use of the common sense that comes naturally to anybody who has lived long enough on a farm.
‘The man you should really ask questions of,’ Chris Welman said to Constable Bothma, ‘is Gysbert van Tonder. That’s him there. Sitting with his legs taking up half the floor, his hands behind his head, and his elbows all stretched out. Just from the way he’s sitting, you can see he’s the biggest cattle-smuggler in the district.’
Well, that gave us all a good laugh. For everyone knew that Gysbert van Tonder had smuggled more cattle across the border than any other man in the Marico. What was more, we knew that Gysbert van Tonder’s father had regularly brought in cattle, over the line from Ramoutsa, before there had even been a proper barbed-wire fence there. And we also knew that, in the long years of the future, when we were all dead and gone, Gysbert van Tonder’s sons would still be doing the same thing.
What was more, nothing would ever stop them, either. Not even if every policeman from Cape Town to the Limpopo knew about it.
For the Bechuanas from whom he traded cattle felt friendly towards Gysbert van Tonder, and that was a sentiment they did not have for a border policeman – unreasonable though such an attitude might seem to be. This was an outlook on life that, to a considerable degree, Gysbert van Tonder shared with the Bechuanas.
Consequently, in speaking the way he did, Chris Welman had cleared the air for us all – Gysbert van Tonder included. As a result, Gysbert van Tonder could, for one thing, sit more comfortably in his chair, relaxing as he sat. There was no longer any need for him to adopt a carefree pose, which must have put quite a lot of strain on his neck and leg muscles, not to mention how hard it must have been for his spine to maintain the posture that was intended to suggest indifference.
Anyway, Gysbert van Tonder joined in the laughter that greeted Chris Welman’s words.
And Constable Bothma laughed, too. It was clear from his laughter that the sergeant at Bekkersdal had told him to keep an eye on Gysbert van Tonder.
After that it was Oupa Bekker who spoke. And although his story related to the distant past, when the functions of a police constable were exercised (apparently not unsuccessfully) by the local veldkornet, it seemed that the difficulties Constable Bothma was experiencing were not dissimilar from the vicissitudes of the young veldkornet in Oupa Bekker’s story.
‘Many a man would have been satisfied with the position of veldkornet,’ Oupa Bekker said, ‘because of the honour that went with it in those days. For one thing, even if you didn’t have a uniform, or an office with a telephone, or a mounted-police horse with a white star on his forehead – that could keep time to the music at the Johannesburg Show – and even if you had to ride one of your own horses on a patched saddle, with a patch on the seat of your trousers too, you still had a printed certificate, signed by the President, to say that you were the veldkornet. And you could hang that certificate in a gold frame on the wall of your voorkamer.’
But the glitter of rank and the burden of office were as nothing to that young veldkornet, Oupa Bekker said. What worried him far more was that, because it was his job to maintain law and order, he had to act as an informer on his neighbours, however delicately. And the thought that, because of his job, he was cut off from intimate contact with them, saddened him. He liked having friends, but found that he couldn’t have friends – well, not real friends – any more, now that he was the veldkornet.
‘In the end …’ Oupa Bekker said.
We would have preferred Oupa Bekker not to continue to the end, for the only true friend the young veldkornet had, in the end, was Sass Koggel – a scoundrel, the likes of which the Groot Marico had had but few in its history.
Only with Sass Koggel could the veldkornet be himself. They each took the other for what he was; and neither, in his relations with the other, had to maintain any sort of pretence. They were on opposite sides of the law.
Vocationally speaking, the veldkornet was devoted to apprehending Sass Koggel; and Sass Koggel was determined that the veldkornet would never come across anything against him. Outside of that technicality, however, it would have been hard to find two firmer friends in the whole of the Marico.
It was a long story that Oupa Bekker told, and we listened to it with fluctuating levels of attention. But Constable Bothma and Gysbert van Tonder did not listen to Oupa Bekker at all. They were too engrossed in what each had to say to the other. And while talking to Gysbert van Tonder, the cattle-smuggler, it was necessary for young Bothma, the policeman, to open his policeman’s notebook only once.
Constable Bothma opened his notebook in order to extract a photograph, which he handed to Gysbert van Tonder. Gysbert studied the likeness for some moments, and then he asked: ‘Takes after you, does he?’
And in his voice, there was only sincerity.