The Leopard Woman by Stewart Edward White
Chapter I. The March
It was the close of the day. Over the baked veldt of Equatorial Africa a safari marched. The men, in single file, were reduced to the unimportance of moving black dots by the tremendous sweep of the dry country stretching away to a horizon infinitely remote, beyond which lay single mountains, like ships becalmed hull-down at sea. The immensities filled the world-- the simple immensities of sky and land. Only by an effort, a wrench of the mind, would a bystander on the advantage, say, of one of the little rocky, outcropping hills have been able to narrow his vision to details.
And yet details were interesting. The vast shallow cup to the horizon became a plain sparsely grown with flat-topped thorn trees. It was not a forest, yet neither was it open country. The eye penetrated the thin screen of tree trunks to the distance of half a mile or more, but was brought to a stop at last. Underfoot was hard-baked earth, covered by irregular patches of shale that tinkled when stepped on. Well-defined paths, innumerable, trodden deep and hard, cut into the iron soil. They nearly all ran in a northwesterly direction. The few traversing paths took a long slant. These paths, so exactly like those crossing a village green, had in all probability never been trodden by human foot. They had been made by the game animals, the swarming multitudinous game of Central Africa.
The safari was using one of the game trails. It was a compact little safari, comprising not over thirty men all told. The single white man walked fifty yards or so ahead of the main body. He was evidently tired, for his shoulders drooped, and his shuffling, slow-swinging gait would anywhere have been recognized by children of the wilderness as that which gets the greatest result from the least effort. Dressed in the brown cork helmet, the brown flannel shirt with spine-pad, the khaki trousers, and the light boots of the African traveller little was to be made of either his face or figure. The former was fully bearded, the latter powerful across the shoulders. His belt was heavy with little leather pockets; a pair of prismatic field-glasses, suspended from a strap around his neck, swung across his chest; in the crook of his left arm he carried a light rifle.
Immediately at his heels followed a native. This man's face was in conformation that of the typical negro; but there the resemblance ceased. Behind the features glowed a proud, fierce spirit that transformed them. His head was high but his eyes roved from right to left restlessly, never still save when they paused for a flickering instant to examine some gazelle, some distant herd of zebra or wildebeeste standing in the vista of the flat-topped trees. His nostrils slowly expanded and contracted with his breathing, as do those of a spirited horse. In contrast to the gait of the white man he stepped vigorously and proudly as though the long day had not touched his strength. He wore a battered old felt hat, a tattered flannel shirt, a ragged pair of shorts, and the blue puttees issued by the British to their native troops. The straps of two canteens crossed on his breast; a full cartridge belt encircled his waist; he carried lightly and easily one of those twelve-pound double cordite rifles that constitute the only African life insurance.
Fifty yards in the rear marched the carriers. They were a straight, strong lot, dressed according to their fancy or opportunity in the cast-off garments of the coast; comical in the ensemble, perhaps, but worthy of respect in that all day each had carried a seventy-pound load under a tropical sun, and that they were coming in strong.
And finally, bringing up the rear, marched a small, lively, wizened little fellow, dressed as nearly as possible like the white man, and carrying as the badge of his office a bulging cotton umbrella and the kiboko--the slender, limber, stinging rhinoceros-hide whip.
It was the end of a long march. This could be guessed by the hour, by the wearied slouch of the white man, above all by the conduct of the safari. The men were walking one on the heels of the other. Their burdens, carried on their heads, held them erect. They stepped out freely. But against the wooden chop boxes, the bags of cornmeal potio, the bundles of canvas that made up some of the loads, the long safari sticks went tap, tap, tap, in rhythm. This tapping was a steady undertone to the volume of noise that arose from thirty throats. Every man was singing or shouting at the full strength of his lungs. A little file of Wakamba sung in unison one of the weird wavering minor chants peculiar to savage peoples everywhere; some Kavirondos simply howled in staccato barks like beasts. Between the extremes were many variations; but every man contributed to the uproar, and tapped his load rhythmically with his long stick. By this the experienced traveller would have known that the men were very tired, tired to the point of exhaustion; for the more wearied the Central African native, or the steeper the hill he, laden, must surmount, the louder he sings or yells.
"Maji hapana m'bale, bwana," observed the gun bearer to the white man. "Water is not far, master."
The white man merely nodded. These two had been together many years, and explanations were not necessary between them. He, as well as Simba, had noticed the gradual convergence of the game trails, the presence of small grass birds that flushed under their feet, the sing-sing buck behind the aloes, the increasing numbers of game animals that stared or fled at the sight and sound of the safari.
Nothing more was said. The way led to the top of one of those low transverse swells that conceal the middle distance without actually breaking the surface of the veldt. In the corresponding depression beyond now could be discerned a wandering slender line of green.
"Maji huko!" murmured Simba. "There is the water."
Suddenly he stooped low, uttering a peculiar hissing sound. The white man, too, dropped to the ground, throwing his rifle forward.
"Nyama, bwana!" he whispered fiercely, "karibu sana!"
He pointed cautiously over the white man's shoulder. The safari, at the sight of the two dropping to a crouch, had stopped as though petrified, and stood waiting in silence.
"We have no meat," Simba reminded his master in Swahili.
The white man eased himself back to a sitting posture, resting his elbows on his knees, as all sensible good rifle shots do when they have the chance. Simba, his eyes glowing fiercely, staring with almost hypnotic intensity over his master's shoulder, quivered like an eager dog.
"Hah!" he grunted as the loud spat of the bullet followed the rifle's crack. "Na kamata--he has it!" he added as the wildebeeste plunged into full view.
The hunter manipulated the bolt to throw in a new cartridge, but did not shift his position. In less remote countries the sportsman, unlimited in ammunition but restricted in chances, would probably have pumped in four or five shots until the quarry was down. The traveller and Simba watched closely, with expert eyes, to determine whether a precious second cartridge should be expended.
"Where?" asked the white man briefly.
"Low in the shoulder," replied Simba.
The wildebeeste plunged wildly here and there, kicking, bucking, menacing the unseen danger with his horns. For several seconds longer the two watched, then rose leisurely to their feet. Simba motioned to the waiting safari, who, correctly interpreting the situation, broke into a trot. Both Simba and his master knew that had the animal not received a mortal wound it would before this have whirled to look back. The fact that it still ran proved its extremity. Sure enough, within the hundred yards it suddenly plunged forward on its nose, rolled over, and lay still.
The fierce countenance of the gun bearer lit up in triumph. He shifted the heavy rifle and reached out to touch the lighter weapon resting again in the crook of his master's arm.
"Nyama Yangu! Nyama Yangu!" he murmured. That was Simba's name for the light rifle that did most of the shooting. The words meant simply "my meat." Simba had a name for everything from the sheath knife of his office to the white man himself. Indeed Culbertson in the Central countries was Culbertson to none. Should you inquire for news of him by that name news you could not obtain; but of Bwana Kingozi you might learn from many tribes and peoples.
But now the safari, topping the hill, swept down with a rapid fire of safari sticks against the loads and a chorus whose single word was "n'yama!"
Simba was already at the carcass, Kisu M'kubwa, his thin-bladed knife, in his hand. The men eased their loads to the ground, and stood about with eagerly gleaming eyes, as would well-trained dogs in like circumstances. Simba briefly indicated the three nearest to act as his assistants. The wildebeeste was rapidly skinned and as rapidly dismembered, the meat laid aside. Only once did the white man speak or manifest the slightest interest.
"Sarrara indani yangu--the tenderloin is mine."
The wizened little headman with the umbrella and the kiboko, who answered to the name of Cazi Moto, stepped forward and took charge of the indicated delicacy. Soon all was ready for a resumption of the march. Nothing was left of the wildebeeste save the head and the veriest offal. The stomach and intestines, even, had been emptied of their contents and packed away in the hide.
Already the carrion birds had gathered in incredible numbers. The sky was full of them circling; an encompassing ring of them sat a scant fifty yards distant, their wings held half out from their bodies, as though they felt overheated. And in the low bushes could be discerned the lurking, furtive, shadowy jackals.
The men were laughing, their weariness forgotten. Maulo, the camp humourist, declaimed loudly at the top of his lungs, mocking the marabouts, the buzzards, the vultures great and small, the kites and the eagles.
"Go to the lion," he cried, "he kills much, and leaves. Little meat will you get here. We keep what we get!"
And the men broke into meaningless but hearty laughter, as though at brilliant wit.
But Bwana Kingozi's low voice cut across the merriment.
"Bandika!" he commanded.
And immediately Cazi Moto and Simba took up the cry.
"Bandika! bandika! bandika!" they vociferated over and over. Cazi Moto moved here and there, lively as a cricket, his eyes alert for any indication of slackness, his kiboko held threateningly.
But there was no need for the latter. The men willingly enough swung aloft their loads, now augmented by the meat, and the little caravan moved on.
Scarcely had Cazi Moto, bringing up the rear, quitted the scene when the carrion birds swooped. They fell from the open sky like plummets, their wings half folded. When within ten feet of the ground they checked their fall with pinion and tail, and the sound of them was like the roar of a cataract. Those seated on the ground moved forward in a series of ungainly hops, trying for more haste by futile urgings of their wings. Where the wildebeeste had fallen was a writhing, flopping, struggling brown mass. In an incredibly brief number of seconds it was all over. The birds withdrew. Some sat disgruntled and humpbacked in the low trees; some merely hopped away a few yards to indulge in gloomy thoughts. A few of the more ambitious rose heavily and laboriously with strenuous beating of pinions, finally to soar grandly away into the infinities of the African sky. Of the wildebeeste remained only a trampled bloody space and bones picked clean. The jackals crept forward at last. So brief a time did all this occupy that Maulo, looking back, saw them.
"Ho, little dogs!" he cried with one of his great empty laughs; "your stomachs will go hollow but you can fill your noses!"
They tramped on steadily toward the low narrow line of green trees, and the sun sank toward the hills.