Three horsemen rode out from the edge of the forest with a restrained eagerness that not even weary weeks of constant searching could dull.
They reined in, stirrup to stirrup, and looked down into another shallow valley. Each stalk of the dry winter grass bore a fluffy seed-head of a lovely pale rose colour, and the light breeze stirred them and made them dance, so that the herd of sable antelope in the gut of the valley seemed to float belly-deep in a bank of swirling pink mist.
There was a single herd bull. He stood almost fourteen hands tall at the withers. His satiny back and shoulders were black as a panther’s, but his belly and the intricate designs of his face-mask were the startling iridescent white of mother-of-pearl. His great ridged horns, curved like Saladin’s scimitar, swept back to touch his croup, and his neck was proudly arched as that of a blood Arabian stallion. Long ago hunted to extinction in his former southern ranges, this noblest of all the antelopes of Africa had come to symbolize for Ralph Ballantyne this wild and beautiful new land between the Limpopo and the wide green Zambezi rivers.
The great black bull stared arrogantly at the horsemen on the ridge above him, then snorted and tossed his warlike head. Thick dark mane flying, sharp hooves clattering over the stony ground, he led his chocolate-coloured brood mares at a gallop up and over the far ridge, leaving the watching men mute at their grandeur and their beauty.
Ralph Ballantyne was first to rouse himself and he turned in the saddle towards his father.
‘Well, Papa,’ he asked, ‘do you recognize any landmarks?’
‘It was more than thirty years ago,’ Zouga Ballantyne murmured, a little frown of concentration puckering an arrowhead in the centre of his forehead, ‘thirty years, and I was riddled with malaria.’ Then he turned to the third rider, the little wizened Hottentot, his companion and servant since those far-off days. ‘What do you think, Jan Cheroot?’
The Hottentot lifted the battered regimental cap from his head, and smoothed the little peppercorns of pure white wool that covered his scalp. ‘Perhaps–’
Ralph cut in brusquely, ‘Perhaps it was all merely a fever dream.’
The frown on his father’s handsome bearded features sharpened, and the scar upon his cheek flushed from bone-porcelain to rose, while Jan Cheroot grinned with anticipation; when these two were together it was better entertainment than a cock-fight any day.
‘Damn it, boy,’ Zouga snapped. ‘Why don’t you go back to the wagons and keep the women company.’ Zouga drew the thin chain from his fob pocket and dangled it before his son’s face. ‘There it is,’ he snapped, ‘that’s the proof.’
On the ring of the chain hung a small bunch of keys, and other oddments, a gold seal, a St Christopher, a cigar-cutter and an irregular lump of quartz the size of a ripe grape. This last was mottled like fine blue marble and starred through its centre with a thick wedge of gleaming native metal.
‘Raw red gold,’ said Zouga. ‘Ripe for the picking!’
Ralph grinned at his father, but it was an insolent and provocative grin, for he was bored. Weeks of wandering and fruitless searching were not Ralph’s style at all.
‘I always suspected that you picked that up from a pedlar’s stall on the Grand Parade at Cape Town, and that it’s only fool’s gold anyway.’
The scar on his father’s cheek turned a darker furious red, and Ralph laughed delightedly and clasped Zouga’s shoulder.
‘Oh, Papa, if I truly believed that, do you think I would waste weeks of my time? What with the railroad building and the dozen other balls I am juggling, would I be here, instead of in Johannesburg or Kimberley?’
He shook Zouga’s shoulder gently, the smile no longer mocking. ‘It’s here – we both know it. We could be standing on the reef at this very moment, or it could be just over the next ridge.’
Slowly the heat went out of Zouga’s scar, and Ralph went on evenly. ‘The trick, of course, is to find it again. We could stumble over it in the next hour, or search another ten years.’
Watching father and son, Jan Cheroot felt a small prick of disappointment. He had seen them fight once before, but that was long ago. Ralph was now in the full prime of his manhood, almost thirty years of age, accustomed to handling the hundreds of rough men that he employed in his transport company and his construction teams, handling them with tongue and boot and fist. He was big and hard and strutty as a game cock, but Jan Cheroot suspected that the old dog would still be able to roll the puppy in the dust. The praise name that the Matabele had given Zouga Ballantyne was ‘Bakela’, the Fist, and he was still fast and lean. Yes, Jan Cheroot decided regretfully, it would still be worth watching, but perhaps another day, for already the flare of tempers had faded and the two men were again talking quietly and eagerly, leaning from their saddles towards each other. Now they seemed more like brothers, for although the family resemblance was unmistakable, yet Zouga did not seem old enough to be Ralph’s father. His skin was too clear and unlined, his eye too quick and vital and the faint lacing of silver in his golden beard might have been merely the bleaching of the fierce African sun.
‘If only you had been able to get a sun-sight, the other observations you made were all so accurate,’ Ralph lamented. ‘I was able to go directly to every cache of ivory that you left that year.’
‘By that time the rains had started.’ Zouga shook his head. ‘And, by God, how it rained! We hadn’t seen the sun for a week, every river was in full spate, so we were marching in circles, trying to find a ford–’ He broke off, and lifted the reins in his left hand. ‘But I’ve told the tale a hundred times. Let’s get on with the search,’ he suggested quietly, and they trotted down off the ridge into the valley, Zouga stooping from the saddle to examine the ground for chips of broken reef, or swivelling slowly to survey the skyline to try and recognize the shape of the crests or the blue loom of a distant kopje against the towering African sky, where the silver fair-weather cumulus sailed high and serene.
‘The only definite landmark we have to work on is the site of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe,’ Zouga muttered. ‘We marched eight days due westwards from the ruins.’
‘Nine days,’ Jan Cheroot corrected him. ‘You lost one day when Matthew died. You were in fever. I had to nurse you like a baby, and we were carrying that damned stone bird.’
‘We couldn’t have made good more than ten miles a day,’ Zouga ignored him. ‘Eight days’ march, not more than eighty miles.’
‘And Great Zimbabwe is there. Due east of us now.’ Ralph reined in his horse as they came out on the next ridge. ‘That is the Sentinel.’ He pointed at a rocky kopje, the distant blue summit shaped like a crouching lion. ‘The ruins are just beyond, I would never mistake that view.’
For both father and son the ruined city had a special significance. There within the massive stone-built walls Zouga and Jan Cheroot had found the ancient graven bird images that had been abandoned by the long-vanished inhabitants. Despite the desperate straits to which they had been reduced by fever and the other hardships of the long expedition from the Zambezi river in the north, Zouga had insisted on carrying away with him one of the statues.
Then many years later it had been Ralph’s turn. Guided by his father’s diary and the meticulous sextant observations that it contained, Ralph had once again won through to the deserted citadel. Though he had been pursued by the border impis of Lobengula, the Matabele king, he had defied the king’s taboo on the holy place and had spirited away the remaining statues. Thus all three men had intimate knowledge of those haunting and haunted ruins, and as they stared at the far hills that marked the site, they were silent with their memories.
‘I still wonder, who were the men who built Zimbabwe?’ Ralph asked at last. ‘And what happened to them?’ There was an uncharacteristic dreamy tone to his voice, and he expected no answer. ‘Were they the Queen of Sheba’s miners? Was this the Ophir of the Bible? Did they carry the gold they mined to Solomon?’
‘Perhaps we will never know.’ Zouga roused himself. But we do know they valued gold as we do. I found gold foil and beads and bars of bullion in the courtyard of Great Zimbabwe, and it must be within a few miles of where we stand that Jan Cheroot and I explored the shafts that they drove into the earth, and found the broken reef piled in dumps ready for crushing.’ Zouga glanced across at the little Hottentot. ‘Do you recognize any of this?’
The dark pixie face wrinkled up like a sun-dried prune as Jan Cheroot considered. ‘Perhaps from the next ridge,’ he muttered lugubriously, and the trio rode down into the valley that looked like a hundred others they had crossed in the preceding weeks.
Ralph was a dozen strides ahead of the others, cantering easily, swinging his mount to skirt a thicket of the dense wild ebony, when abruptly he stood in the stirrups, snatched his hat from his head and waved it high.
‘Tally ho!’ he yelled. ‘Gone away!’
And Zouga saw the burnt gold flash of fluid movement across the far slope of open ground.
‘Three of the devils!’ Ralph’s excitement and his loathing were clear in the pitch and timbre of his voice. ‘Jan Cheroot, you turn ’em on the left! Papa, stop them crossing the ravine!’
The easy manner of command came naturally to Ralph Ballantyne, and the two older men accepted it as naturally, while none of them questioned for an instant why they should destroy the magnificent animals that Ralph had flushed from the ebony thicket. Ralph owned two hundred wagons, each drawn by sixteen draught oxen. King’s Lynn, Zouga’s estates, taken up with the land grants that the British South Africa Company had issued to the volunteers who had destroyed the Matabele king’s impis, covered many tens of thousands of acres that were stocked with the pick of the captured Matabele breeding herds running with blood bulls imported from Good Hope and old England.
Father and son were both cattlemen, and they had suffered the terrible depredations of the lion prides which infested this lovely land north of the Limpopo and Shashi rivers. Too often they had heard their valuable and beloved beasts bellowing in agony in the night, and in the dawn found their ravaged carcasses. To both of them, lions were the worst kind of vermin, and they were elated with this rare chance of taking a pride in broad daylight.
Ralph yanked the repeating Winchester rifle from the leather scabbard under his left knee, as he urged the chestnut gelding into full gallop after the big yellow cats. The lion had been the first away, and Ralph had only a glimpse of him, sway-backed and swing-bellied, the dense dark ruff of his mane fluffed out with alarm, padding majestically on heavy paws into the scrub. The older lioness followed him swiftly. She was lean and scarred from a thousand hunts, blue with age across the shoulders and back. She went away at a bounding gallop. However, the younger lioness, unaccustomed to men, was bold and curious as a cat. She was still faintly cub-spotted across her creamy gold belly, and she turned on the edge of the thicket to snarl at the pursuing horseman. Her ears lay flat against her skull, her furry pink tongue curled out over her fangs, and her whiskers were white and stiff as porcupine quills.
Ralph dropped his reins onto the gelding’s neck, and the horse responded instantly by plunging to a dead stop and freezing for the shot, only the scissoring of his ears betraying his agitation.
Ralph tossed up the Winchester and fired as the buttplate slapped into his shoulder. The lioness grunted explosively as the bullet thumped into her shoulder, angled for the heart. She went up in a high sunfishing somersault, roaring in her death frenzy. She fell and rolled on her back, tearing at the scrub with fully extended yellow claws, and then stretching out in a last shuddering convulsion before slumping into the softness of death.
Ralph pumped a fresh round into the chamber of the Winchester, and gathered up the reins. The gelding leaped forward.
Out on the right Zouga was pounding up the lip of the ravine, leaning forward in the saddle, and at that moment the second lioness broke into the open ahead of him, going for the deep brush-choked ravine at a driving run, and Zouga fired still at full gallop. Ralph saw dust spurt under the animal’s belly.
‘Low and left. Papa is getting old,’ Ralph thought derisively, and brought the gelding crashing down to a stiff-legged halt. Before he could fire, Zouga had shot again, and the lioness collapsed and rolled like a yellow ball on the stony earth, shot through the neck a hand’s span behind the ear.
‘Bully for you!’ Ralph laughed with excitement, and kicked his heels into the gelding’s flank as they charged up the slope, shoulder to shoulder.
‘Where is Jan Cheroot?’ Zouga shouted, and as if in reply they heard the clap of rifle fire in the forest on the left, and they swung the horses in that direction.
‘Can you see him?’ Ralph called.
The bush was thicker ahead of them, and the thorn branches whipped at their thighs as they passed. There was a second shot, and immediately afterwards the furious ear-numbing roars of the lion mingled with Jan Cheroot’s shrill squeals of terror.
‘He is in trouble!’ Zouga called anxiously, as they burst out of the thick scrub.
Before them there lay parkland, fine open grass beneath the tall flat-topped acacia trees along the crest of the ridge. A hundred yards ahead Jan Cheroot was tearing along the crest, twisted in the saddle to look over his shoulder, his face a mask of terror, his eyes huge and glistening white. He had lost his hat and rifle, but he was lashing his mount across the neck and shoulders, although the animal was already at a wild uncontrolled gallop.
The lion was a dozen strides behind them, but gaining with each elastic bound as though they were standing still. Its heaving flank was painted slick and shiny with bright new blood, shot through the guts, but the wound had not crippled nor even slowed the beast. Rather it had maddened him, so that the solid blasts of sound from his throat sounded like the thunder of the skies.
Ralph swerved his gelding to try and intercept the little Hottentot, and alter the angle to give himself an open shot at the lion, but at that moment the cat came up out of its flat snaking charge, reared up over the bunched and straining quarters of the horse and raked them with long curved talons so that the sweat-darkened hide opened in deep parallel wounds, and the blood smoked from them in a fine crimson cloud.
The horse shrieked and lashed out with its hind hooves, catching the lion in his chest, so that he reeled and lost a stride. Immediately he gathered himself and came again, quartering in beside the running horse, his eyes inscrutably yellow as he prepared to leap astride the panic-driven animal.
‘Jump, Jan Cheroot!’ Ralph yelled. The lion was too close to risk a shot. ‘Jump, damn you!’ But Jan Cheroot did not appear to have heard him, he was clinging helplessly to the tangled flying mane, paralysed with fear.
The lion rose lightly into the air, and settled like a huge yellow bird on the horse’s back, crushing Jan Cheroot beneath his massive, blood-streaked body. At that instant, horse and rider and lion seemed to disappear into the very earth, and there was only a swirling column of dust to mark where they had been. Yet the shattering roars of the enraged animal and Jan Cheroot’s howls of terror grew even louder as Ralph galloped up to the point on the ridge where they had disappeared.
With the Winchester in one hand he kicked his feet from the stirrup irons and jumped from the saddle, letting his own momentum throw him forward until he stood on the edge of a sheer-sided pitfall at the bottom of which lay a tangle of heaving bodies.
‘The devil is killing me!’ screamed Jan Cheroot, and Ralph could see him pinned beneath the body of the horse. The horse must have broken its neck in the fall, it was a lifeless heap with head twisted up under its shoulder and the lion was ripping the carcass and saddle, trying to reach Jan Cheroot.
‘Lie still,’ Ralph shouted down at him. ‘Give me a clear shot!’
But it was the lion that heard him. He left the horse and came up the vertical side of the pit with the ease of a cat climbing a tree, his glossy muscular hindquarters driving him lightly upwards and his pale yellow eyes fastened upon Ralph as he stood on the lip of the deep hole.
Ralph dropped on one knee to steady himself for the shot, and aimed down into the broad golden chest. The jaws were wide open, the fangs long as a man’s forefinger and white as polished ivory, the deafening clamour from the open throat dinned into Ralph’s face. He could smell the rotten-flesh taint of the lion’s breath and flecks of hot saliva splattered against his cheeks and forehead.
He fired, and pumped the loading-handle and fired again, so swiftly that the shots were a continuous blast of sound. The lion arched backwards, hung for a long moment from the wall of the pit, and then toppled and fell back upon the dead horse.
Now there was no movement from the bottom of the pit, and the silence was more intense than the shattering uproar that had preceded it.
‘Jan Cheroot, are you all right?’ Ralph called anxiously.
There was no sign of the little Hottentot, he was completely smothered by the carcasses of horse and lion.
‘Jan Cheroot, can you hear me?’
The reply was in a hollow, sepulchral whisper. ‘Dead men cannot hear – it’s all over, they have got old Jan Cheroot at last.’
‘Come out from under there,’ Zouga Ballantyne ordered, as he stepped up to Ralph’s shoulder. ‘This is no time to play the clown, Jan Cheroot.’