The Angels Weep, стр. 3

"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." Ralph dropped a coil of manilla rope down to Jan Cheroot, and between them they hauled him and the saddle from the dead horse to the surface.

The excavation into which Jan Cheroot had fallen was a deep narrow trench along the crest of the ridge. In places it was twenty feet deep, but never more than six feet wide. Mostly it was choked with creepers and rank vegetation, but this could not disguise the certainty that it had been dug by men.

"The reef was exposed along this line," Zouga guessed, as they followed the edge of the old trench, "the ancient miners simply dug it out and did not bother to refill." "How did they blast the reef" Ralph demanded. "That's solid rock down there." "They probably built fires upon it, and then quenched it with water. The contraction cracked the rock." "Well, they seem to have taken out every grain of the ore body and left nary a speck for us." Zouga nodded. "They would have worked out this section first, and then when the reef pinched out they would have started sinking potholes along the strike to try and intercept it again." Zouga turned to Jan Cheroot and demanded, "Now do you recognize this place, Jan Cheroot?" And when the Hottentot hesitated, he pointed down the slope. "I'he swamp in the valley down there, and the teak trees--" "Yes, yes." Jan Cheroot clapped his hands, and his eyes twinkled with delight. "This is the same Place where you killed the bull elephant the tusks are on the stoep at King's Lynn." "The ancient dump will be just ahead." Zouga hurried forward.