The Leopard Woman by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XV. The Sharpening of the Spear
Thus passed six weeks. By the end of this time the combined safaris had progressed out into the unknown country about a normal three weeks' journey. The rest was delay.
They had ventured out into the plain as into an enchanted sea. The mountains had dropped below the horizon behind them; none had as yet arisen before. The veldt ran in long, low undulations, so that always they walked up or down gentle slopes. It was as though a ground swell had set in toward distant, invisible shores. Here the short grass was still green from the rains. Water lay in pools at the bottom of dongas. By this good fortune travel was independent of the permanent water, and hence safe and easy. Game was everywhere. Not for a single hour in all that six weeks were they out of sight of it. Scattered over the sward like deer in a pack the beasts grazed placidly in twos or threes, or in great bands. Without haste, almost imperceptibly, they drew aside to allow the safari to pass, and closed in again behind it. Thus the travellers were always the centre of a little moving oasis of clear space five hundred yards in diameter. Occasionally some unusual and unexpected crease in the earth or density of brush in the dongas brought them in surprise fairly atop an unsuspecting herd. Then ensued a wild stampede. This communicated itself visually to all the animals in sight. They moved off swiftly. And then still other remote beasts, unaware of the cause of disturbance, quite out of sight of the safari, but signalled by twinkle of stripe or flash of rump, also took flight. So that far over the veldt, at last, the game hordes shifted uneasily until the impulse died.
In this country were many lions. Most of the requisites of a lion were here present--abundant game, water, the cover of the low brush in the dongas. Only lacked a few rocky kopje fastnesses to make it ideal; but that lack could be, and was, overlooked. The members of the safari often saw the great beasts sunning themselves atop ant hills; walking with dignity across the open country; sitting on their haunches to stare with great yellow eyes at these strangers passing by. Here they had never been annoyed or hunted; so here they had not become as strictly nocturnal as nearer settlement. In all their magnificence they stalked abroad, lords of the veldt. Kingozi's finger itched for the trigger. There is no more exciting sport than that of lion shooting afoot. It is a case of kill or be killed; for a lion, once the issue is joined, never gives up. He fights literally to the death; and when he is so crippled that he can no longer keep his feet, he drags himself forward, and dies facing his opponent dauntlessly. No other beast furnishes the same danger, the same thrill. His mere appearance stirs the most sluggish spirit.
"Simba! Simba! Simba!" the exclamation ran back the line of the safari, the sibilant hissed excitedly. Kingozi's heart bounded, and his knuckles whitened as he gripped his rifle.
"Bwana hapana piga?" Simba implored. "Is not bwana going to shoot?"
But Kingozi shook his head. The temptation was strong, but he resisted it. He refrained from shooting at the lions for exactly the same reason that he had insulated himself against the Leopard Woman's charms.
In all this wide country were no settled habitations. Your African native requires hills or forests; he will not dwell on open plains at any great distance from his natural protection. A few people there were, hunters and nomads, living on wild honey and game. They were solitaries and lived where night found them, a little race, shyer than the game. For days and days they flanked the safari before venturing to approach. Then one would appear a hundred yards away and open shouted negotiations with the porters. Perhaps after a few hours he would venture into camp. Invariably Kingozi interrogated these people. They stood before him palpitating like birds, poised, tense for flight. He asked them of water, of people, of routes. By means of kind treatment and little presents he tried to gain their confidence. Sometimes thus he induced them to talk freely, but never did he succeed in persuading them to guide him. The mere fact of interrogation rendered them uneasy. Probably they could not themselves have understood that uneasiness; but invariably at nightfall they disappeared. They made fire by the rubbing of sticks, shot poisoned arrows at game.
From them Kingozi gained little but chatter. They knew accurately every permanent water, to be sure. This information, in view of the abundance of rain pools, was not at present valuable; nevertheless Kingozi questioned them minutely, and made many marks on the map he was preparing. Always he mentioned M'tela. At first he introduced the name at any time in the course of the interview; but soon he found that this dried up all information. So then he reserved that subject for the last. They were afraid of the very syllables. They spoke them under their breaths, with side glances. M'tela was a great lord; a lord of terror, to be feared.
At first the information was most vague. M'tela was over yonder--a long distance--who knows how far? He possessed more or less mythical characteristics, ranging from a height of forty or fifty feet down to the mere possession of a charm by which he could kill at a distance. Then, as the journey went on, the vagueness began to define. M'tela took form as a big man with a voice like the lion at night. His surroundings began to be described. He lived in the edge of a forest; his people were many; he had forty wives, and the like. Still it was far, very far. Kingozi concluded that none of these people had in person visited the Kabilagani, but were talking at second hand.
And finally direct information came to him--in the form of fear. M'tela was a great lord, a lord of many spears, his hand was heavy, he took what he desired, his warriors were fierce and cruel and could not be gainsaid. Told under the breath, with furtive glances to right and to left. And not far: a three days' journey. Kingozi translated this into terms of safari travel and made it about eight days. And, indeed, though no mountains as yet raised their peaks above the horizon, fleets of clouds setting sail from the distant ranges winged their way joyously down a growing wind.
The Leopard Woman fell ill and kept her tent. Kingozi waited two days, then sought her out. His patience over delay was about gone. The headaches to which physical exhaustions always made him subject had annoyed him greatly of late, had rendered him irritable. His eyes bothered him--a reflex from his run-down condition, he thought, combined with a slight inflammation due to the glare of sun or yellowing grass. Boracic acid helped very little. The halo he had noticed around the light that evening when they had first arrived at the sultani's village returned. He saw it about every campfire, every lantern flame, even around the, brightest of the stars. Altogether he approached the interview in a strongly impatient mood.
The Leopard Woman lay abed beneath silken sheets. This was the first time Kingozi had ever seen sheets of any kind on any kind of a safari. In reality the Leopard Woman was an enticing, luring vision, but Kingozi, through the lenses of his mood, saw only the silkiness and "sheetiness" of those covers. He began to comprehend the numerous tin boxes.
"I'm going to leave you here and push on," he began abruptly. "You will be all right with the men I shall leave you. When you feel able to do so, follow on. I'll leave a plain trail."
She objected feebly; but immediately, seeing that this would not touch his mood, she asked him the reason of his haste.
"I'll tell you," he replied, "about a week distant is a chief named M'tela. Did you ever hear of him?"
"M'tela?" she repeated the name thoughtfully. "No--but I don't know much about native tribes."
Remembering her map Kingozi's lips compressed under his beard. What earthly object could she have in lying?--unless her errand was as secret as his own.
"Well, he is described as being very powerful. And of course he will hear of us. It is well to make friends with him before he has had a chance to think us over too long. I'll just go on and see him."
"When will you start?" she asked, conceding the point without discussion.
"To-morrow morning. I shall make the distance in about five days, probably: you should be able to do so in eight or ten. How are you feeling to-day?"
"Better. I wondered would you ask."
He picked up her wrist.
"Pulse seems steady. Any fever?"
"A little early and late."
"Well, keep on with the hydrochlorate. You'll pull out in a day or so."
But the Leopard Woman pulled out in a second or so after Kingozi's departure. As soon as he was safe away, she threw back the covers and swung to the edge of the cot. At her call Chake, the Nubian, appeared. To him she immediately began to give emphatic directions, repeating some of them over and over vehemently. He bent his fuzzy head listening, his yellow eyeballs showing, his fang-like teeth exposed in a grin of comprehension. When she had finished he nodded, said a few words in his own tongue, and glided from the tent.
At his own camp he stooped and picked up a weapon. This was a spear, and belonged to him personally. He had brought it all the way from Nubia. It differed from any of the native spears of East Africa both in form and in weight. Its blade was broad and shaped like a leaf; its haft was of wood; and its heel was shod with only the briefest length of iron. Chake kept this spear in a high state of polish, so that its metal shone like silver. He lifted it, poised it, made as though to throw it, to thrust with it. Then with a sigh of renunciation he laid it aside. From behind one of the porters' tents he took another spear, one typical of this country that had been traded for only a day or two before. This Chake considered clumsy and unnecessarily heavy. Nevertheless he bore it out into the long grass where he squatted in concealment; and, producing a stone, began painstakingly to sharpen the point and edges. As the slow labour went on he seemed to work himself gradually to a pitch of excitement. A little crooning song began to rise and fall, to flow and ebb. His eyes flashed, his back bent to a tense crouch. Every few moments he dashed the spear against an imaginary shield, poised it, thrust with it strongly, the chant rising. Then abruptly his voice fell, his muscles relaxed, he resumed the rythmical whetting with the stone.
All afternoon he squatted, passing the stone over the steel; polishing long after the point and edges were as sharp as they could be made. When the sun grew large at the world's edge he threw himself flat on his belly and wormed his way to a position a few yards from Kingozi's tent. There he left the spear. When he had gained a spot a hundred yards away, he arose to his feet and walked quietly into camp. A moment later he was sitting on his heels before his fire, eating his evening meal.