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Authors: Wilbur Smith,Tim Pigott-Smith

Tags: #Historical, #Action & Adventure, #Fiction

When the Lion Feeds (8 page)

BOOK: When the Lion Feeds
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Zama, the old cow with the crooked horn. Where is she? Nkosi, no longer the diminutive Nkosizana, little lord. Nkosi, yesterday I took her to the sick paddock, she has the worm in her eye.

He learned to recognize disease almost before it started.

The way a beast moved and held its head. He learned the treatment for them. Screw worm, kerosene poured into the wound until the maggots fell out like a shower of rice.

Ophthalmia, rinse the eye with permanganate. Anthrax and quarter-evil, a bullet and a bonfire for the carcass.

He delivered his first calf among the acacia trees on the bank of the tugela; he did it alone with his sleeves rolled up above the elbows and the soapy feel of the slime on his hands. Afterwards, while the mother licked it and it staggered at each stroke of the tongue, Sean felt a choking sensation in his throat.

All this was not enough to burn up his energy. He played while he worked.

Practising his horsemanship: swinging from the saddle and running beside his horse, up again and over the other side, standing on the saddle at full gallop and then opening his legs and smacking down on his backside, his feet finding the stirrups without groping.

Practising with his rifle until he could hit a running jackal at a hundred and fifty paces, cutting the fox-terriersized body in half with the heavy bullet.

Then there was much of Garrick's work to do also. I don't feel very well, Sean. What's, wrong? My leg's sore, you know how it chafes if I ride too much. Why don't you go home, then? Pa says I've got to fix the fence round the Number Three dip tank. Garrick leaned forward on his horse to rub his leg giving a brave little smile.

You fixed it last week, Sean protested. Yes, but the wires sort of came loose again. There was always a strange impermanency about any repairs that Garrick effected. Have you got the wire cutters? and Garrick produced them with alacrity from his saddle bag.

I'll do it, said Sean.

Hell, man, thanks a lot, and then a second's hesitation. You won't tell pa, will you? No, you can't help it if your leg's sore, and Garrick rode home, sneaked through to his bedroom and escaped with Jim Hawkins into the pages of Treasure Island.

From this work came a new emotion for Sean. When the rain brought the grass out in green and filled the shallow pans on the plateau with water it was no longer simply a sign that the birdnesting season had begun and that the fishing in the Baboon Stroorn would improve now it meant that they could take cattle up from the valley, it meant that there would be fat on the herds they drove into the sale pens at Lady-burg it meant that another winter had ended and again the land was rich with life and the promise of life. This new emotion extended to the cattle also. It was a strong almost savage feeling of possession, It was in the late afternoon. Sean was sitting on his horse among trees, looking out across open vleiland at the small herd that was strung out before him.

They were feeding, heads down, tails flicking lazily. Between Sean and the main body of cattle was a calf, it was three days old, still pale-beige in colour and unsure of its legs. It was trying them out, running clumsy circles in the short grass.

From the herd a cow lowed and the calf stopped dead and stood with its legs splayed awkwardly under it and its ears up. Sean grinned and picked up the reins from his horse's neck; it was time to start back for the homestead.

At that moment he saw the lammergeyer: it had already begun its stoop at the calf, dropping big and dark brown from the sky, wings cocked back and its talons reaching for the strike. The wind rustled against it with the speed of its dive.

Sean sat paralysed and watched. The eagle hit the calf and Sean heard bone break, sharp as the snap of a dry stick, and then the calf was down in the grass struggling feebly with the eagle crouched on top of it.

For a second longer Sean sat, dazed with the speed at which it had happened. Then hatred came on him. It came with a violence that twisted his stomach. He hit his horse with his heels and it jumped forward. He drove it at the eagle and as he rode he screamed at it, a high-pitched formless Sound, an animal expression of hate.

The eagle turned its head, looking at him sideways with one eye. it opened its great yellow beak and answered his scream, then it loosed its claws from the calf and launched itself into the air. its wings flogged heavily and it moved low along the ground, gaining speed, lifting, drawing away from Sean.

Sean pulled his rifle from the scabbard and hauled his horse back onto its haunches. He threw himself out of the saddle and levered open the breech of the rifle.

The eagle was fifty yards ahead of him rising fast now.

Sean slipped a cartridge into the breech, closed it and brought the rifle up in one continuous movement.

it was a difficult shot. Moving away from him and rising, the beat of its wings jerking its body. Sean fired.

The rifle jumped back into his shoulder and the gunsmoke whipped away on the wind, so he could watch the bullet connect.

The eagle collapsed in the air. It burst like a pillow in a puff of feathers and fell with its six-feet-long wings fluttering limply.

Before it hit the ground Sean was running.

It was dead when he reached it, but he reversed his rifle: holding it by the muzzle, he swung the butt down from above his head onto its body. At the third blow the butt of his rifle broke off, but he kept on hitting.

He was sobbing with fury.

When he stopped and stood panting the sweat was running down his face and his body was trembling. The eagle was a squashy mess of broken flesh and feathers.

The calf was still alive. The rifle was jammed. Sean knelt beside it with tears of anger burning his eyes and killed it with his hunting-knife.

So strong was this new feeling that Sean could hate even Garrick. He did not hate for long, though. Sean's anger and his hatred were quick things, with flames like those of a fire in dry grass: hot and high but soon burnt out and afterwardsihe ashes dead with no smouldering.

Waite was away when it happened. For three consecutive years Waite courtney had been nominated for the chairmanship of the Beef Growers association and each time he had stood down. He was human enough to want the prestige the office carried with it, but he was also sensible to the fact that his farm would suffer from his frequent absences. Sean and Garrick had been working for two years when the annual election of office bearers came around again.

The night before Waite left for the meeting in Pietermaritzburg he spoke to Ada. I had a letter from Bernard last week, my dear, he was standing before the mirror in their bedroom trimming his beard. They insist that i stand for the chair this year. Very wise of them, said Ada. They'd have the best men if you did. Waite frowned with concentration as he snipped at his whiskers. She believed so unquestioningly in him that he seldom doubted himself. Now looking at his face in the mirror he wondered how much of his success was owed to Ada's backing. You can do it, Waite. Not a challenge, not a question, but a calm statement of fact. When she said it he believed it.

He laid the scissors down on the chest of drawers and turned to her. She sat cross-legged on the bed in a white nightgown, her hair was down in a dark mass around her shoulders. I think Sean can look after things here, she said, and then quickly, and of course Garry. Sean's learning fast, Waite agreed. Are you going to take the job?

Waite hesitated. yes, he nodded and Ada smiled.

Come here, she held out her hands to him.

Sean drove Waite and Ada to the station at Lady-burg: at the last minute waite had insisted that she go with him, for he wanted her to be there to share it with him.

Sean put their luggage into the coach and waited while they talked with the small group of cattlemen who were going up to the meeting. The whistle blew and the travellers scattered to their compartments. Ada kissed Sean and climbed up. Waite stayed a second longer on the platform. Sean, if you need any help go across to Mr Erasmus at Lion kop. I'll be back on Thursday. I won't need any help, Pa. Waite's mouth hardened. Then you must be God, he's the only one who never needs help, Waite said harshly. Don't be a bloody fool, if you run into trouble ask Erasmus. He climbed up after Ada. The train jerked, gathered speed and ran out towards the escarpment. Sean watched it dwindle, then he walked back to the buggy. He was master of Theunis kraal and he liked the feeling. The small crowd on the platform was dispersing and out of it came Anna. Hello, Sean. She had on a green cotton dress that was faded with washing, her feet were bare. She smiled with her small white teeth and watched his face. Hello, Anna.

Aren't you going up to Pietermaritzburg? No, I've got to look after the farm , oh?

They waited in silence, uncomfortable before so many people. Sean coughed and scratched the side of his nose. Anna, come on. We've got to get home. One of her brothers called from in front of the ticket office and Anna leaned towards Sean.

Will I see you on Sunday? she whispered.

I'll come if I can. But I don't know, I've got to look after the farm.

Please try, Sean. Her face was earnest. I'll be waiting for you, I'll take some lunch and wait all day. Please come, even if it's only for a little while. all right, I'll come. Promise? Promise. She smiled with relief. I'll wait for you on the path above the waterfall. She turned and ran to join her family and Sean drove back to Theunis Kraal. Garrick was lying on his bed reading. I thought Pa told you to get on with the branding of those new cattle we bought on Wednesday Garrick laid down his book and sat up. I told Zama to keep them in the kraal until you got backPa told you to get on with it. You can't keep them there all day without feed or water. I hate branding, muttered Garrick. I hate it when they moo like that as you burn them, and I hate the stink of burning hair and skin, it gives me a headache, Well someone's got to do it. I can't, I've got to go down and mix new dip into the tanks for tomorrow. Sean was losing his temper. Hell, Garry, why are you always so damn helpless? I can't help it, I can't help it if I've only got one leg Garrick was close to tears again. The reference to his leg had the desired effect, Sean's temper steadied instantly. I'm sorry, Sean smiled his irresistible smile. I tell you what. I'll do the branding, you fix the tanks. Get the drums of dip loaded onto the Scotch cart, take a couple of the stable boys with you to help. Here are the keys of the storeroom. He tossed the bunch onto the bed beside Garrick. You should be finished before dark.

At the door he turned. Garry, don't forget to do all six tanks, not just the ones near the house. So Garrick loaded six drums of dip onto the Scotch cart and went off down the hill. He was home well before dark. The front of his breeches was stained with the dark, tarry chemical and some of it had soaked into the leather of his single riding-boot. As he came out of the kitchen into the passage Sean shouted from the study. Hey, Garry, did you finish them? Garrick was startled. Waite's study was a sacred place, the inner sanctum of theunis Kraal. Even Ada knocked before going into it and the twins went there only to receive punishment. Garrick limped along the passage and pushed open the door.

Sean sat with his boots on top of the desk and his ankles neatly crossed. He leaned back in the swivel chair.

Pa will kill you, Garrick's voice was shaky.

Pa's in Pietermaritzburg, said Sean.

Garrick stood in the doorway and looked around the room. It was the first time he had really seen it. On every previous visit he had been too preoccupied with the violence to come and the only item in the room he had studied closely was the seat of the big leather easy chair as he bent over the arm of it and exposed his backside to the sjambok.

Now he looked at the room. The walls were panelled to the ceiling, the wood was dark yellow and polished.

The ceiling was fancy plaster, in a pattern of oak leaves.

A single lamp hung from the centre of it on a brass chain.

You could walk into the fireplace of brown chipped stone and there were logs laid ready for the match.

Pipes and tobacco jar on the ledge beside the fireplace, guns in a rack along one wall, a bookcase of green and maroon leather bound volumes:

encyclopaedias, dictionaries, books on travel and farming, but no fiction. There was an oil painting of Ada on the wall opposite the desk, the artist had captured a little of her serenity: she wore a white dress and carried her hat in her hand. A magnificent set of Cape buffalo horns above the fireplace dominated the room with their great crenellated bosses and wide sweep to the tips.

It was a man's room, with loose dog-hairs on the Ieopard-skin rugs, and the presence of the man strongly there - it even smelled of Waite. It was as distinctively his as the tweed coat and Terai hat that hung behind the door.

Next to where Sean sat the cabinet was open and a bottle of brandy stood on top of it. Sean had a goblet in his hand.

You're drinking Pa's brandy, Garrick accused. It's not bad Sean lifted the glass and inspected the liquid, he took a careful sip and held it in his mouth, preparing himself to swallow. Garrick watched him with awe and Sean tried not to blink as it went down his throat. Would you like some? Garrick shook his head and the fumes came up Sean's nose and his eyes ran.

Pa will kill you! said Garrick. Sit down, ordered Sean, his voice husky from the brandy. I want to work out a plan for the time Pa's away. Garrick advanced on the armchair, but before he reached it he changed his mind, the associations were too painful. He went to the sofa instead and sat on the edge. Tomorrow, Sean held up one finger, we'll dip all the cattle in the home section. I've told Zama to start bringing them early, you did do the tanks, didn't you?

BOOK: When the Lion Feeds
6.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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