The Return Match

Swede and Afrikander stage a 'grudge fight' with a French battlefield for ring

FRANK MIELL March 1 1927

The Return Match

Swede and Afrikander stage a 'grudge fight' with a French battlefield for ring

FRANK MIELL March 1 1927

The Return Match

Swede and Afrikander stage a 'grudge fight' with a French battlefield for ring

FRANK MIELL

ABOUT the time that Ole Oleson was beginning to bring real cash into the family exchequer by his first excursion into the lumber woods of Michigan, Jan Van Brunt, a youngster who should have been at school, was busy raiding outposts and dodging British Mounted Infantry among the hills of the Northern Transvaal under one, Christian De Wet, of historic memory.

The circumstances which brought these two together in the little estaminet on the Bailleul road in ’16, the one sporting the Maple Leaf, the other, the springbok, need not be narrated. Their drunken argument is immaterial: men say queer things when the ‘vin blink’ rouses the demon of provocative unreason, do queer things when a chance word offends.

The scene stands out yet. The room, reeking with the fumes of cheap tobacco and cheaper liquor, frowsy in its dingy light; the scared face of Madame, her fat hands clasped over her ample bosom; the silent, tense-eyed khaki figures backed against the wall.

In the centre, Ole, angry eyes blue as his parents’ native fiords, service hat pushed belligerently back on his blonde head, tunic unbuttoned, swaying his six-foottwo of splendid manhood menacingly in the direction of of the bettle-browed Jan, as fine a built man as himself: Jan, the hot blood of the veldt turning his bronzed face a dirty copper hue, huge gorilla shoulders slightly hunched standing square on his feet as solid as the hippo of hi. African jungles.

Lord! What a fight! None of your kid glove, nodecision bouts to this. No Marquis of Queensberry rules, no press reporters, no cinema rights or side stakes—just all fight.

When Ole flashed forward and landed his brawny fist on Jan’s chin with a dull crack, a blow that would have felled an ox, and Jan merely grunted and rocked a little all knew that this was no common drunken scrap. 01must have run into that granite Afrikander mitt en route, for he coughed and shook himself much as a Newfoundland dog does when he comes out of water.

Then they mixed it; stood cheek by jowl and swapped blows that thudded like the sound of heavy cavalry on turfy ground, blows that would have sounded the death knell of many a prizefighter, blows that it hurt to watch, were nerve* racking to listen to.

Outside, the drone of night planes and bursting bombs. Outside, the thunder of the naval twelve inch and the whine of shells, but nobody in that fume-ridden room heeded. The building rocked with the concussion of a ‘coal-box’; Fritzie was searching for the naval gun. Still nobody heeded.

It was gripping, intense, this struggle between two young Goliaths armed only with nature’s weapons. The war outside mattered not, was unreal: the strife within, vital, compelling.

Jan, with blood streaming from cut cheeks, gave a little before the increasing berserk rage of the big Swede, backed up against a table with his shoulders hunched still more, and stayed there, battling fiercely, silently, watching, aye watching.

When Ole, going all out for a K.O., failed to see an upset chair, and staggered just enough for his blow to glance, Jan’s sledge-hammer fist caught him on the shoulder and spun him around so that he fell on one of the frail tables, smashing it and its load of glass to the floor. Like a streak he bounded to his feet before the sound of the crash had got across, and rushed. Jan, enticed from his table by the fall, had barely time to throw his massive frame forward to take the shock, and fall into a clinch.

Up and down they struggled, tables and glasses crashing, men dodging this way and that and to keep clear of these whirling wildcats. Madame ran shrieking from the scene of carnage.

Hitting, gouging, wrestling, snarling, even biting.

Everything counted, yet nothing seemed to weaken their strength, nothing to lessen their determination. Tunics torn, faces fiendish and blood-ribbed.

On the sawdust floor they fell and fought: mad, stark, staring mad with the lust of battle. Not a sound from the wide-eyed spectators save the sharp intake of breath, not a cheer from either Canuck or African.

Up again and apart, breath coming in gasps, deep choking gasps. Without a pause, Ole lunged forward in a clean tackle, caught his opponent amidships, threw his weight against him, and back wards they fell ort top of the big table by the window. A deep grunt from

the Afrikander at the shock, a lightning change to a lower hold by Ole, a ripping, splintering jar, as Ole heaved upwards with his whole remaining strength, and the big carcass of Jan disappeared through the shattered window into the outer darkness. A sickening thud, as two hundred odd pounds of muscle and brawn landed on the cobblestones.

There was a moment of horrified silence, while Ole sank slowly to the floor. A scared voice yelled: “Beat it, you chaps. Red-caps.”

The room cleared. Four pals fell on Ole, lugged him to his feet and thrust him behind the counter and through the baize curtain into Madame’s back parlor. Here they forced cognac down his throat. The fiery liquid roused him from his stupor, and he looked languidly around him.

“Where’s the African?” he muttered. “Get him—he

might be hurt. That African-—might be . . ’“Red-caps,” hissed a white-faced cor poral. “We gotta beat it, Ole, ‘toot sweet’.” Ole stared vaguely. “Red-caps—be—

damned,” he said, slowly. “Good chap— good fighter. Can’t leave him. Might be hurt.”

Hastily, and profanely, it was impressed on Ole that if he was found there with the marks of the fight on him and the body of Jan outside, it would be a court-martial case, and that court-martial on active service might mean anything from ‘crucifixion’ to a firing squad at sun-rise. But the Swede was adamant. He wouldn’t go away and leave the man he had fought lying outside.

He struggled to his feet and started for the bar-room, and only the combined efforts of his four pals kept him from his purpose. Eventually they compromised. They would reconnoitre via the back door. If Jan was still lying there, they would bring him into the estaminet, do what they could for him, and inform the Medical Corps.

Creeping stealthily outside, they edged the cesspool and peered into the street. In the white stabbing beams of flash-lights, they could see that a stretcher had arrived, and that the four bearers were straining in an effort to lift the limp form of Jan.

Red-caps were bustling importantly around, entering and emerging from the estaminet door.

“Bloke’s dead as a door nail,” said one.

“I’m shore!” came the reply. “Plumb cold.”

“The blinkin’ place looks like a five-nine ’ad struck it,” commented another.

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“Not ’arf it don’t,” answered the first voice. “The Major’ll raise merry cain over this night’s work.”

The watchers had heard enough. Backing into the pitchy void, they felt their way round the rear of the building, easing the silent, quivering Ole between them, emerged on a side street, and hastened across to their own lines.

The division moved at dawn, back from the Flanders front on that long hike that ended four days later in the peaceful rural quietness of a wee village on the Calais—St. Omer Road. No official questions followed, although it was weeks before Ole and his pals forgot their furtive feeling at the sight of a red-cap.

The affair at the estaminet was tacitly avoided in conversation, but none forgot it, Ole least of all, for he brooded deeply, and swore off ‘vin blink’.

OLE was restless. This inactive trench life suited him not at all. Moreover, he was out of ‘chewing’, which was the unexpurgated bunk.

He stretched his head forth from the low-dugout, and sniffed at the damp, heavy atmosphere.

From way back behind the lines, came the faint but unmistakable sound of a military band.

Back there, he reflected, men could buy anything they could pay for; chocolate, ‘erfs and chips’,‘snouse’. Snouse—his eyes lit up—he had supped his last pinch during his morning watch.

Three days before relief—three snuffless days.

It was—

A stray breath of wind wafted him two blary bars of ‘He’s a ra-ag picker’, and his lingering sense of active service duty left him, as he thought of the big canteen barely two kilometres distant where the greasy senseless bills he fingered could be exchanged for honest-togosh, he-man’s Copenhagen. He stilled his tractable conscience by repeating the facts of his case. This was a ‘rest-cure’ sector where nothing ever happened; his machine gun post was way behind the front line, his guard over until four a.m. The officer had made his rounds at dusk; he could cut across country and be back in an hour and a half, without anybody saving his gun crew being the wiser. He could—and did— knock over the water, as an additional excuse for leaving the post. It was risky, of course, but he had taken bigger chances than that, during his army career, and had pulled through safe.

Ole wasted no more time. Over went the water, the crew was informed by curses, and bearing the gasoline tins for fresh water, Ole strode into the darkness. With the bush instinct strong in him, he headed straight across fields and ditches, caching his water carriers at a convenient spot. Straight for the home of his beloved ‘snouse’ he headed, detouring only when his keen observation warned him of a lurking eighteen-pounder battery. Spurning the Etang Road as too populous for his immediate fancy, he crossed and was angling an open turnip field when a bulky figure loomed in his path. Both stopped abruptly to avoid a collision, and turned to continue, when—the night became as day. Clusters of star shells soared from the front line, and in the ghastly glow, Ole saw, recognized, was seen and recognized by Jan of the estaminet.

A wave of reckless joy surged through Ole— joy that he had not killed his man at their first meeting, that they had met again, for Ole dearly loved a good scrap. Jan, on his part, was not less happy. His adversary, this man so worthy of his strength, whom he had been longing to meet, was before him. Now for the revenge.

The hurried gasp of mutual recognition was cut short by Jan’s bull-like rush. Their shock of meeting coincided with that dread prelude of a gas attack, the nerve-shattering racket of klaxons, the frantic screeching of whistles, the banging of gongs, but—they heard it not.

INTERLOCKED they struggled, straining, twisting, wrestling, now up, now down. Jan heaved his man from him by brute strength and fell on top, but Ole’s knee sharply drawn up, drove the wind from Ja/? ’s big frame, and the Swede squirmed from under with a useless knee while Jan was gasping back to normal.

Far north, and around a sharp salient to the south, spread the star shells. The infernal din redoubled. Rifle and machine gun fire was incessant. The eighteen-pounders in front opened up with rapid fire, howitzers to the rear belched their thunder. The whole front was aflame, but still the two fight-crazy gladiators hung on, and pommelled, rocked and grunted. Nearer, yet nearer drifted an ominous cloud.

Machine gun bullets swept the Etang road, swept the field where they fought Ole gave a sudden, coughing gasp, and sagged limply in Jan’s steel-hard grip. The Boer felt the wárm, sticky flow on his arms, and knew. His grip retained only tender strength as he eased the

form of his late enemy on the ground. He ripped open his first aid case, and swabbed the ugly wounds with iodine.

The enemy machine gun fire increased, and stabbing fire hit Jan on the wrist. His head jerked up quickly, and in the fitful light of the star shells he saw the approaching mist. For the first time, he realized that a gas attack was on, and that gas was their worst, their immediate enemy. He reached down for the Canadian’s gas mask, but there was none. Ole in his haste or foolhardiness had left it behind.

Two men—one mask—with gas approaching. Jan’s mind functioned truly. Propping up the unconscious man with his knee, he unslung his own mask, and with his good hand rapidly transferred it to Ole’s neck. Precious seconds were Wasted in adjusting the mask and forcing the mouth piece through the clenched teeth, seconds that

could not be spared. Gas-—action is needed when that stuff is around.

Jan raised himself unsteadily to his feet. He was still gasping from the combat, the pain in his wrist was intense his own blood flowing freely. Three hundred yards away lay safety—a dressing station—if he could only make it before that deathly mist reached them. The effort to shoulder Ole unbalanced him. He sank forward, then grunted a potent, barbaric oath as he jerked himself upright again with a super-human effort, Ole still on his shoulder.

Swaying under the strain, he stumbled forward across the uneven ground to the Etang road. Machine gun bullets searched the road behind him, approached, stopped, and started again just ahead. Shrapnel whined and burst in the field they had just left, but Jan’s blurred vision was ever on that floating misty death, which crept, crept quietly.

A hundred yards to go. Staggering wildly now, with great heaves from his over tired lungs. Slowly, but with dulling brain registering undying determination. One of those sobbing gasps—in that mist—Jan knew well what it meant, but, his burden, a helpless sorely stricken man, was the only thing that mattered. Well, a man must breathe!

Before him, he saw that formless mound by the roadside that meant life for them both. Fifty yards only, but the mist was closer to the haven than they.

Gritting his teeth, he quickened his pace. His body sagged with the effort to bend his legs to a running gait.

Thirty yards. A Zulu war chant burst gaspingly from his twisted lips. Twenty. He reeled and edged sideways for some yards. Ten. The mist of death was upon them, had enveloped them. His brain suddenly went blank, he tottered and fell forward with Ole spread across his back.

Many hands lifted them into the warm shelter of the dressing station.

OLE, a pale, shaky Ole, lay back in his cot, awaiting the hospital train that would take him to Boulogne—and Blighty. He was piecing together fragments of conversations which had imperfectly pierced the six-day veil of blackness wished upon him during his fight with Jan. What he made of the jig-saw brain puzzle was that Jan had carried him to safety in the middle of a gas attack, had collapsed, and gone forever under.

Why had he gone under? He must have had his mask? One voice had said, ‘Bravest thing I ever heard of.’ Why? They were well behind the line.

The answer came in a flash. He, Ole, had left his own mask hanging in the dug-out. Jan had given his—his eyes dimmed. What a man! Words from a religious childhood formed in his mind. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he should give his life.’ Jan must have cashed in his cheques, just because he, Ole, had been a selfish fool.

A shadow fell across his cot. He raised his eyes gradually, blinking back, well, nothing much. By stages, he saw two baggy legs of hospital blues, a broad gap between pants top and tunic bottom, ten inches of bronzed forearm sticking out of an absurdly tight sleeve, onesling containing a wounded arm, and lastly, with a gasp of unbelieving delight, the homely face of Jan grinning down at him.

“You—you big stiff,” Ole’s voice was weaker than it might have been. “Scarin’ a feller likethat. You ought to be busy pokin’ up daisies, after swallowin’ an acre or two of gas.”

Jan fairly rumbled with laughter, as he essayed to speak.

“Well, what’s the big joke?”

Ole sounded mildly petulant.

Jan subsided enough to give utterance.

“Gas! Hell!” he boomed. “That was a false alarm. All I swallowed was a bloomin’ Scotch mist.”

It was Ole’s turn to laugh. “It’s hell, all right, Africa,”1 he snickered. “Here’s me been pinning all the V.C.’s and ‘Croy de gaires’ on your manly bosom, an’ all you deserve is a good, swift poke on the jaw for jest about chokin’ me to death with your darned old gas mask. What’s more, I’ll give you one, as soon as these folk lat me up.”

“That’s the real stuff, Canada,” Jan’s voice was vibrant, his uninjured hand had somehow mixed itself caressingly in the blonde hair on the pillow. “Here’s hoping you do, old man—and soon.”