End of 60th Entry: Swimming his horse around the mob Mick regained the shore, lit his pipe and chattered with his mates until the drove was ready to once again gallop back to its camp.
Mick found no members of a Young Men’s Christian Association amongst his fellow conducters.
The Head Conductor, Vijoen, a huge hard bitter man had been a secret service agent of the Old Transvaal Republic. The story had it that on the day Lord Roberts entered Johannesburg, Vijoen had shot two Australian officers whilst an Armistice was on. For this, he had been sentenced to death, to be later reprieved and banished from South Africa. He had gone to the Argentine which had eventually found him too desperate a character for even that tough country.
Returning to Africa Viljoen joined Colonel Maritz then a transport conductor in the Germans Service. The Germans were at war with the Hottentots and the rough conditions suited Viljoen to the ground. Some trouble arose between him and Maritz which resulted in Viljoen being fastened to a waggon wheel and mercilessly flogged. Forsaking the German Service Viljoen wandered into Bechuanaland where he traded and hunted until the Great War broke out.
Jan Kemp, unknown rebel, Manie Maritz at Keetmanshoop in “German West
Another was an ex-attorney who had been struck off the Rolls for some reason and had led a shadowy life ever since. A third was a racecourse man whose life was regarded with suspicion, and a fourth, Mick’s billet mate was a cab driver who, the story went added the post of Assistant Hangman to his more prosaic occupation.
By some means or other, the Transport men seemed to have an arrangement with a hotel proprietor by which whiskey was supplied free apparently without limit. Mick until then had rarely drunk except out of bravado but now he fell easily.
He liked the company. Rough and wild though they were, unsavoury characters perhaps in civilian life they might be, yet all were old campaigners of the Boer and Frontier Wars and made good companions in the present type of life. They fed well, handled natives and animals with uncanny skill, shirked nothing in the way of danger or work and lived entirely for the day.
Mick found he could drink glass for glass with the others, work unafraid with them amidst a chaotic mass of wild frightened animals, handle natives, mules or horses with the best. The young Rhodesian, therefore, dropped readily into the life.
There were no troops actually in Prieska – the Transport men as yet ranked as civilians and Viljoen was apparently the Commander-in-Chief. Discipline was practically non-existent except as regarded the actual work in the Transport camp itself.
In spite of very heavy drinking scarcely any untoward incidents occurred for the work taxed every fibre and muscle so that the alcohol was sweated out almost as soon as it entered the system. The heat was terrific, the work was not only heavy physical labour but work that needed all a mans’ wits to be ever on the alert to preserve his life.
A drunken man would not have lasted five minutes working in the midst of a few hundred untamed mules or horses. Death or at best, broken bones would have been his portion immediately. Most probably the very act of concentration required to preserve mastery over an inflamed brain caused the alcohol to act purely as a stimulant.
In any case, sober men would never have continued at the pressure demanded of Transport Conductors at that time. Nerves and muscle would have wilted under the strain but as it was the alcohol acted as paraffin cast at intervals on steadily burning fires.
Mick had one or two narrow escapes from disaster. He and his mates were accustomed to race through Prieska as hard as their horses could gallop. Several children and civilians thereby escaped death by the fraction of an inch.
One night shortly after Mick’s arrival, the daughter of the house had a visitor, a civilian policeman. The two retired into the sitting room and a good many hours past. Now the ex-cabby and supposed hangman was not a man whose moral character was above fear and reproach. He thought the girl easy game and made a suggestion that on the departure of the policeman he and Mick should, in turn, share the lady’s favours.
Mick held rather high ideals but the life was having a wearing effect upon them. Although he felt repugnant he yet dallied with the idea, protesting as a matter of conscience, but not taking any decisive stand.
During the early hours of the morning, the policeman departed and the hangman immediately slipped into the sitting room to be received with screams of fear and anger. Mick instantly ran in to find a weeping girl, the hangman in his shirt and the girl’s mother violently protesting.
The hangman ordered the woman to clear out, cursed Mick and caught hold of the girl. Mick jumped in but received a blow which half stunned him. Instantly the Rhodesian ran into his bedroom, returned with a loaded revolver and the hangman seeing murder blazing in his comrade’s eyes loosened the girl and delayed not in his return to his bedroom.
Mick followed him seething with rage to be met by a roar of laughter from the immoral one who produced a bottle of whiskey. The two speedily dismissed the past event from their minds and apparently were the best of friends.
That evening there was some particularly hard-drinking which ended in the hangman becoming fighting drunk. He cursed Mick, insulted him and finally left with the avowed intention of riding the hell out of Mick’s horse – an animal Mick worshipped.
Mick started after him protesting and threatening – turning the hangman sent the lash of his stockwhip hissing through the air, gave a quick turn of the wrist and the cruel hide cut the Rhodesian’s face to the bone – instantly Mick howling with rage and pain drew his revolver. The hangman leaping into the saddle dashed off. Mick emptied three chambers after him sending the dust spurting around the galloping horse. The Head Conductor leaping forward knocked Mick senseless and the affair was over.