The Angels Weep, стр. 2

"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 kopie, 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 imp is 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 tis sued to the volunteers who had destroyed the Matabele king's imp is 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 butt plate 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 sun fishing 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 stiff4 egged 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.