Birds of a Feather
By Darrell Cuthbert
"Top O the mornin' neighbour. Seems you could use a little help over there."
Adriaan Johannes Kuyper, AJ to his few friends, looked up from his labour under the sun & groaned. Patrick Blake approached with his son Tommy at his right hand. Certainly he did not need help from such heathen, foreigners who dared to bring their loose English ways into this valley of hard working, God-fearing farmers. Thirteen years into the 20th century & this harsh but beautiful valley in the south part of Africa had been tamed & disciplined into a productive place.
"No thanks Mr. Blake, I have it under control."
Pat & Tommy reigned in their mounts nonetheless & leapt from the saddles to have a look. A single glossy black feather caught on a barb fluttered in the slight breeze.
"Did any of your birds get away Mr. Kuyper?" asked Tommy.
"Two, but we caught them on the riverbank soon after dawn." AJ glanced up at the sun midway along its arc from horizon to noonday zenith & wondered how long the Blakes had been out of bed. As usual he had been up since an hour before dawn to pray & eat an early breakfast. Work on the Kuyper farm took place from sunrise to sunset, the Sabbath excepted of course. Quite possible that the father & son in front of him had only recently arisen & with hangovers too no doubt.
"As long as you're sure, we're happy to help if need be."
"I will be fine. I am sure you have plenty of work to do on your own land & don't want to keep you." AJ did his best to keep the sarcasm well hidden beneath his Afrikaans-accented rejection of the offer. It was no secret locally that he did not regard the growing of oranges to turn to pulp as real farming, even worse that the pulp was then made into orange wine. What this Englishman thought he was doing bringing such a sinful practice into the valley was beyond him. He was sure judging from the music & sound of happy laughter filtering across the river from the Blake farm on most nights that they drank much of the production themselves.
Pat & Tommy mounted up & prepared to ride off. Tommy turned his eager horse back to face AJ.
"My compliments to your daughter Meneer Kuyper, I hope she is in good health."
"She is blessed & well young Tommy but no concern of yours." AJ couldn't conceal the brittle edge of annoyance poking through the velvety mask of civility he usually wore.
"Apologies Sir, I meant no offence."
"Come Tommy", called Pat to diffuse the tension, "We have those barrels to offload from the wagon & get into the shed. Best be at it."
They rode off leaving AJ Kuyper to stare at their backs with a stormy expression. He had noticed before that Tommy Blake seemed to have taken a shine to Wilhelmina & that she was slower that she ought to be to rebuff his advances. AJ would never allow his only daughter to be joined to such a heathen.
"River's coming up, must be rain in the catchment", said Pat as the horses splashed across the drift with more difficulty than on the earlier crossing towards the Kuyper farm. "If this keeps up it may come down in flood. Best be sure nothing is stacked too near the bank in case."
"Yes Da, I'll check when we are back." Tommy rode on in silence for a minute then spoke again, "I wonder why Mr. Kuyper dislikes us so, it's not as if we've done anything to harm him or his kin."
"Probably because he sees us as the English enemy. Remember it's only been 11 years since he & many of his people fought a war against the British army for their freedom. It has nothing to do with us personally I'm sure."
"But we are Irish & no friends of the English if truth be told. You should tell him about your relative Colonel Blake who led his band of Irish volunteers against the English in support of Kuyper's own Boer folk."
"Sure 't wouldn't make a difference. Once people like him make up their mind on a matter they seldom change it."
"But he's disliking us for all the wrong reasons, we are not the enemy."
"Aye well, it is what it is. No point wasting breath arguing it with such as he. Whilst we're talking of it, you'd best be staying away from Wilhelmina, handsome girl though she be. Only likely to stir him up further." Tommy looked saddened by this instruction but rode on in silence.
Across the river AJ Kuyper continued repairing the fence. With the hole securely closed he stretched his stiff back & looked with pride over his farm. Gelderland he had named it, after the ship that transported President Paul Kruger around Europe during the Anglo-Boer war. Likewise he named his only daughter Wilhelmina in honour of the Dutch queen who had made the vessel available to President Kruger. The farm encompassed 150 morgen of prime lucerne land, fenced into half morgen camps each with a breeding pair of ostriches.
The feathers were shipped to London & sold to decorate the hats of fine ladies in England & Europe. Much as he hated the English he was prepared to take their pounds in exchange for his produce. In a way it was plundering the wicked to feed the righteous. As long as the foreign milliners kept the orders coming he would keep the feathers crossing the Atlantic to meet the demand. Ironic that their trade sounded so similar to the English Lord Milner who had tried to use education as a club to beat the Afrikaans language into oblivion. This practice made him a target of even greater hatred from AJ than Englishmen in general.
Despite the challenges he faced AJ felt satisfied with his life here. It was good honest labour under the Lord's sun. The valley was his own Eden & the feather business had brought him prosperity. Unlike Oudtshoorn in the Eastern Cape, farming with Ostriches in this part of Natal province midway between the mountains & the sea was not as prolific or well-known. It was a good local industry though.
There was some concern among the farmers about the possibility of war in Europe in the near future. Frequent reports were heard of growing tension in the region but nobody was sure what effect it would have on the feather business if it did break out. AJ doubted the effect would be great. Wealthy ladies would still dress smartly after all, war or no war.
"Are you sure it is safe to cross Pa?"
"It will be fine Wilhelmina. These horses are strong & the water is still slightly below axle height", said AJ. He threw aside the reed he had used to wade in & mark the depth of the water then climbed up onto the seat. "I need to get this load of feathers to the rail siding before tomorrow afternoon or it won't make it to Durban in time to be loaded on the next ship to England. Besides we urgently need provisions for the house. If the river does come down in full flood we may be cut off from the town for a time."
Wilhelmina settled as comfortably as she could on the hard bench seat & prepared for the long day's ride. At least since the road had been cut over the pass it was possible to get a wagon to town in a single day. In the past it had taken two or even three days with uncomfortable & dangerous overnight stops being necessary.
They would reach the town & spend the night in the home of her father's brother. He was a local lawyer & had a large comfortable house with stables & a yard big enough to safely keep the wagon overnight. The next day AJ would go to the siding to see to the loading of his feathers in a rail car. Wilhelmina meanwhile would accompany her aunt to the main street of the town & buy enough provisions to keep the household fed & running until the next trip to town the following month. After her mother's tragic death from consumption 2 years before Wilhelmina assumed control of the household, proving very capable despite her youth.
The wagon inched forward as AJ urged the horses into the flowing water. A little over halfway across the drift one of the back wheels sank into an unseen pothole. The wagon lurched & dipped slightly as the wheel dropped several inches & stuck fast. AJ shook the reigns urging the horses to pull them free. It was no use, the wheel was trapped."
"What are we going to do Pa?"
"Do not worry, we will get out." He shook the reigns more forcefully. The horses neighed & pulled forward then hesitated as they felt the unfamiliar dead weight behind. AJ pulled the whip from its rest & cracked it loudly over their heads. They lunged forward in fright. AJ cracked the whip again & flicked it over the two rumps for good measure. He hoped to have the horses jerk the wagon free but instead there was a loud splintering sound from behind as the wheel gave way. This panicked the horses even more & they reared up wildly. AJ just had them under control when he felt the wagon starting to move. For a moment he was confused. It felt as if they were moving sideways. Wilhelmina had turned to look behind when the wheel shattered & now spotted the problem.
"Pa, the wagon is filling with water."
AJ turned & looked. She was right. With the one wheel broken that corner hung low, dipping the body of the wagon into the fast flowing current. They were no longer stuck but now an even greater danger threatened. AJ watched the edge of the drift with fear. They were only a few feet from the edge beyond which lay deeper water that churned & thrashed. Neither he nor Wilhelmina could swim & he knew they would be in serious danger if the wagon went over the edge.
The deep water was always dangerous, but swollen as it was from rain upstream it would take a very foolhardy man to bet his life on the river now & win. AJ fought to keep the horses controlled & urged them forward in the hope of dragging the wagon to safety. It moved slightly forward but swung even more towards the edge. He tried to decide whether they should climb out & try wade across the drift. There was a risk of being carried away by the current & the water was rising but to do nothing meant almost certain death if they went over the edge. About to put this idea to Wilhelmina his attention was drawn to the far bank by shouting voices.
A small crowd of local residents, mostly from neighbouring farms, had assembled on both riverbanks. The frightened neighing from the horses attracted the first few & word spread quickly through the valley that there was trouble at the drift. Something splashed into the water a short distance from the wagon & a disappointed cry came from one of the banks. Pieter Van Zyl had tied a small rock to a long rope & was attempting to throw it out to the wagon.
Despite the danger they were in AJ had to smile. Pieter was a fellow farmer & had been a good friend to AJ over the years, going back to the days when they rode on commando together against the English. Trust him to mount a rescue effort.
Pieter made two more attempts to get the rope out to the wagon but it fell short both times. This was not going to work. AJ prepared to go over the side of the wagon & try to reach the bank, or at least get close enough to grab the rope. He looked again with fear at the water, not wanting to think about what would happen if he lost his footing & was swept away. To make matters worse it was starting to rain again. If this carried on the water would rise faster. It was now or never. He explained to Wilhelmina what he was about to do. She looked more terrified than before. He removed his shoes & had one leg over the side of the wagon when Wilhelmina shouted,
A loud cheer came from the bank. AJ squinted through the raindrops now pouring over his face. Something was going on in front of Piet Val Zyl. It was young Tommy Blake. As AJ watched he removed his boots & all his clothes besides his trousers. Some conversation with Pieter followed then he tied the rope around his waist & walked a short way along the river bank. Tommy plunged into the deep water upstream from the drift & everyone present held their breath. AJ thought Tommy had lost his mind with this brave but foolish move.
A louder cheer than before went up as Tommy surfaced & stroked out powerfully towards the middle of the river. The young man was a strong swimmer & maintained control as the river carried him towards the drift. AJ now understood his tactic. With the river flowing so fast he would never cross the darift to the wagon without being washed away. He was using the river to carry him towards the wagon not away from it. Still very risky though.
Almost at the drift Tommy swam a few more strokes to position himself then tucked his legs up & clasped his arms around his knees. He floated over the edge of the drift & towards the wagon. At the last moment he half-stood. He struggled to maintain his balance in the now chest deep water. He remained upright with an effort & Wilhelmina gasped as he thudded heavily against the side of the wagon. He winced as his left shoulder took most of the blow, keeping his right & stronger arm back preferring to injure the other if it came to that.
A moment's pause & he heaved himself over the side, flopping on top of the tarpaulin covering the feathers. He rose to his knees & grinned,
"Top O the mornin' Mr. Kuyper, Miss Wilhelmina. Let's get you out of here shall we."
AJ noticed Wilhelmina blush & drop her gaze, not sure if it was from the cheery greeting or the sight of Tommy's bare torso as he knelt with rain cascading over the muscles of his arms & chest. Even AJ had to admit that he was a fine looking boy &, as he had just proven, not short of bravery. For once he did not feel the usual hostility. AJ spoke,
"Thank you Meneer Blake. We appreciate your help."
Tommy smiled. It was the first time AJ had addressed him with the title; maybe he had finally earned a little respect in the man's eyes. He untied the rope from his waist & tied it onto the front of the wagon then turned to face the bank & waved his arms.
Pieter Van Zyl reacted to this pre-arranged signal by running up the bank & looping the other end of the rope around a strong tree. He pulled it tight & knotted it. AJ looked relieved. At least now the wagon would not easily wash away. Tommy swung back into the water & pulled himself hand over hand to the front of the harness. He hung there for a few seconds talking to the horses to calm them. His hand dipped under the water to his belt & came up with a large hunting knife. He cut the horses free & they tried to bolt, slipping & scrabbling on the slick surface. Both were washed over the edge of the drift but soon their heads bobbed up in the deep water. Most horses are instinctively strong swimmers & at least now they had a fighting chance. Tethered to the wagon they were in much more danger. Tommy turned his attention back to the human victims.
"Mr. Kuyper, do you think you can make it to the bank by holding on to the rope?"
"Yes. But what about my daughter."
"I'll stay with her. As soon as you are out of the water I'll help her to shore."
AJ squared his shoulders. "I can't leave without her."
"I understand your concern Sir but please be sensible. The rope may not hold the wagon & all three of us tugging on it. I'm a good swimmer, if the rope breaks or the wagon slips I can take Wilhelmina overboard & get her to safety." He saw AJ's expression soften a little & tried a slightly different tactic, "Besides Mr. Van Zyl seems to be struggling a bit there. If I'm to get Wilhelmina & myself along that rope we need a few strong men to hold it steady at the other end. Please Sir, I'm not sure if I can do it otherwise."
AJ nodded & Tommy thought he saw tears in his eyes though he couldn't be sure with all the rain. Both knew this last statement was a lie but it allowed AJ to maintain his pride, saving which seemed as important as saving his & Wilhelmina's life. Tommy showed AJ how to put his back to the current & hook the rope under his armpits so he wouldn't slip off. As the older man fought towards the bank Tommy climbed up onto the seat of the wagon,
"Are you alright Miss?"
"Yes", she said with a small voice & eyes full of tears, "Thank you for coming for us. Is my Pa going to be safe."
He slipped an arm around her shoulders. She resisted only briefly & then fell against his chest.
"He will be fine, just look at him go. He's a strong man for his age & determined."
Wilhelmina had to laugh at Tommy's cheerful comment in the midst of danger. AJ was indeed making good progress. To all watching though it felt like hours until he reached the bank & several pairs of strong arms reached out to pull him to higher ground."
"Our turn Miss." Tommy swung over the side & grabbed the rope with one arm. The other he offered to Wilhelmina, "Climb down slowly, I'll not let anything happen to you."
She climbed over the edge & gasped as the cold water rose to her neck. With one arm on the rope & the other tight around Wilhelmina he pulled them slowly to the bank. At first she was petrified by the cold water rushing past but soon realised that Tommy was strong enough to hold both of them against the current. She relaxed & strangely started to enjoy the feel of his strong arm around her. It felt so safe & reassuring. She felt quite sad when they reached the bank & others helped her away from the water. Expecting Tommy to follow her up the bank she was surprised instead to see him turn & start pulling back towards the wagon. What on earth was he doing?
In the commotion & rescue she had not seen Pat Blake come riding up on his own wagon, the back loaded with empty barrels. While Tommy was handling the rescue his father rounded up as many local volunteers as he could find & set them to tying ropes around eight of the barrels. To each of these ropes were fastened several large rocks.
Once Tommy was back on the wagon the first barrel was looped on the long rope & pushed into the water. The rocks caused it to sink slightly & the current carried it along the rope to the wagon. This process was repeated until all eight barrels were on the rope.
As the last one was pushed into the water Pat Blake kicked off his boots, pulled off his shirt & leapt in. He grabbed hold of the barrel & let it carry him across to Tommy. All on the bank cheered yet again. Pat was as brave or maybe foolhardy as his son but one had to admire their spirit. They managed to push all the weighted barrels under the wagon & lash them in place. Tommy disappeared under the water & a hiss of alarm spread along both banks. Had something happened to him? The wagon started to lift slightly in the water.
"He's cutting off the rocks", called an excited voice. As they watched Tommy reappeared with knife in hand. He held on to the wagon & worked his way around to the other side. Ducking under the water he cut the other four barrels free of their weights. The wagon floated up just enough to free itself from the drift & started arcing around on the rope, dangerously close to the edge of the drift. Suddenly it checked & started to move slowly towards the bank.
All the men present on the one bank had acted under the leadership of Pieter Van Zyl, grabbing the rope & pulling the makeshift raft with its two occupants into the shallows. Immediately willing hands started to transfer the bundles of feathers from AJ Kuyper's wagon to that of Pat Blake. They only stopped for a few moments when cheering was heard on the opposite bank. At the same time as the wagon was being dragged ashore by the men on one side of the river some of those on the other side had moved along the bank and recovered AJ's horses. The animals now stood on solid ground, bedraggled but safe & uninjured.
Neighbours continued to transfer the feathers & others took the horses to a dry stable until the river dropped. AJ, with Wilhelmina at his side, walked over to where Pat & Tommy loaded the wagon,
"Meneer Blake", he said. Pat & Tommy both turned towards him. He smiled. "I'll need to call you both Meneer from now on. Tommy here proved today that he is as much a man as anyone in this valley, maybe more so than some of us." He held out his hand & Tommy took it. "Will you forgive a foolish, proud man. I was wrong about you, both of you."
"Think nothing of it Sir, we were glad to help", said Tommy. "All that matters is that nobody was hurt." He smiled & his eyes lingered a moment on Wilhelmina, wet & shivering but smiling back. Her wet clothes clung to her & this time Tommy was the one that blushed a little. He looked away.
Pat hid a laugh. He had looked the same way at Tommy's mother, still did if truth be told. The boy had enough sense to keep his love under control until an appropriate time & she was a girl he would welcome to the family in a heartbeat.
"Tommy", said Pat, "I think you should take Miss Wilhelmina to our house while we finish up here. I'm sure your mother can find some dry clothes for her, even if they aren't a perfect fit. A hot meal after & the young lady will get her colour back & be on top of the world in no time. That is, if you have no objection Mr. Kuyper?"
"Not at all, it's a very sensible idea. One condition though."
A single worry line creased Pat's forehead,
"Aye, & that is?"
"You call me AJ from now on. Under the circumstances I think less formality may be called for."
Pat laughed, "Indeed, AJ it is then. As long as I'm Pat to you, or Patrick if you prefer."
AJ laughed as well, the first time in ages,
"Tommy, take Wilhelmina to your house. I trust you will keep her safe until I get there. I will take your place here & finish the loading with your father."
"Yes Sir, I'll let nothing happen to her I promise." Tommy swung into the saddle & pulled Wilhelmina up behind him. She slipped happy arms around his waist & they rode off .
The two older men watched them go then turned & nodded to each other. Nothing further need be said. Each shouldered a bundle of feathers & the loading continued.
Copyright D Cuthbert 2010