/ Language: English / Genre:thriller


W Smith

In 1913 Leon Courtney, an ex-soldier turned professional hunter in British East Africa, guides rich and powerful men from America and Europe on big game safaris in the territories of the Masai tribe. Leon has developed a special relationship with the Masai.

One of Leon's clients is Count Otto Von Meerbach, a German industrialist whose company builds aircraft and vehicles for the Kaiser's burgeoning army. Leon is recruited by his uncle Penrod Ballantyne (from The Triumph of the Sun) who is commander of the British forces in East Africa to gather information from Von Meerbach. Instead Leon falls desperately in love with Von Meerbach's beautiful and enigmatic mistress, Eva Von Wellberg.

Just prior to the outbreak of World War I Leon stumbles on a plot by Count Von Meerbach to raise a rebellion against Britain on the side of Germany amongst the disenchanted survivors of the Boer War in South Africa. He finds himself left alone to frustrate Von Meerbach's design. Then Eva Von Wellberg returns to Africa with her master and Leon finds out who and what she really is behind the mask...

Assegai is the latest of the Courtney novels.



This book is for my wife


who is the best thing

that has ever happened to me

AUGUST 9, 1906, was the fourth anniversary of the coronation of Edward VII, King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India. Coincidentally it was also the nineteenth birthday of one of His Majesty’s loyal subjects, Second Lieutenant Leon Courtney of C Company, 3rd Battalion 1st Regiment, The King’s African Rifles, or the KAR, as it was more familiarly known. Leon was spending his birthday hunting Nandi rebels along the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley in the far interior of that jewel of the Empire, British East Africa.

The Nandi were a belligerent people much given to insurrection against authority. They had been in sporadic rebellion for the last ten years, ever since their paramount witch doctor and diviner had prophesied that a great black snake would wind through their tribal lands belching fire and smoke and bringing death and disaster to the tribe. When the British colonial administration began laying the tracks for the railway, which was planned to reach from the port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to the shores of Lake Victoria almost six hundred miles inland, the Nandi saw the dread prophecy being fulfilled and the coals of smouldering insurrection flared up again. They burned brighter as the head of the railway reached Nairobi, then started westwards through the Rift Valley and the Nandi tribal lands down towards Lake Victoria.

When Colonel Penrod Ballantyne, the officer commanding the KAR regiment, received the despatch from the governor of the colony informing him that the tribe had risen again and were attacking isolated government outposts along the proposed route of the railway he remarked, with exasperation, ‘Well, I suppose we shall just have to give them another good drubbing.’ And he ordered his 3rd Battalion out of their barracks in Nairobi to do just that.

Offered the choice, Leon Courtney would have been otherwise occupied on that day. He knew a young lady whose husband had been killed quite recently by a rampaging lion on their coffee shamba in the Ngong Hills a few miles outside the colony’s fledgling capital, Nairobi. As a fearless horseman and prodigious striker of the ball, Leon had been invited to play at number one on her husband’s polo team. Of course, as a junior subaltern, he could not afford to run a string of ponies, but some of the more affluent club members were pleased to sponsor him. As a member of her deceased husband’s team Leon had certain privileges, or so he had convinced himself. After a decent interval had passed, when the widow would have recovered from the sharpest pangs of her bereavement, he rode out to the shamba to offer his condolences and respect. He was gratified to discover that she had made a remarkable recovery from her loss. Even in her widow’s weeds Leon found her more fetching than any other lady of his acquaintance.

When Verity O’Hearne, for that was the lady’s name, looked up at the strapping lad in his best uniform, slouch hat, with the regimental lion and elephant tusk side badge, and burnished riding boots, she saw in his comely features and candid gaze an innocence and eagerness that roused some feminine instinct in her that at first she supposed was maternal. On the wide, shady veranda of the homestead she served him tea and sandwiches spread with The Gentleman’s Relish. To begin with, Leon was awkward and shy in her presence, but she was gracious and drew him out skilfully, speaking in a soft Irish brogue that enchanted him. The hour passed with startling rapidity. When he rose to take his leave she walked with him to the front steps and offered her hand in farewell. ‘Please call again, Lieutenant Courtney, if you are ever in the vicinity. At times I find loneliness a heavy burden.’ Her voice was low and mellifluous and her little hand silky smooth.

Leon’s duties, as the youngest officer in the battalion, were many and onerous so it was almost two weeks before he could avail himself of her invitation. Once the tea and sandwiches had been despatched she led him into the house to show him her husband’s hunting rifles, which she wished to sell. ‘My husband has left me short of funds so, sadly, I am forced to find a buyer for them. I hoped that you, as a military man, might give me some idea of their value.’

‘I would be delighted to assist you in any possible way, Mrs O’Hearne.’

‘You are so kind. I feel that you are my friend and that I can trust you completely.’

He could find no words to answer her. Instead he gazed abjectly into her large blue eyes for by this time he was deeply in her thrall.

‘May I call you Leon?’ she asked, and before he could answer she burst into violent sobs. ‘Oh, Leon! I am desolate and so lonely,’ she blurted, and fell into his arms.

He held her to his chest. It seemed the only way to comfort her. She was as light as a doll and laid her pretty head on his shoulder, returning his embrace with enthusiasm. Later he tried to re-create exactly what had happened next, but it was all an ecstatic blur. He could not remember how they had reached her room. The bed was a big brass-framed affair, and as they lay together on the feather mattress the young widow gave him a glimpse of Paradise and altered for ever the fulcrum on which Leon’s existence turned.

Now these many months later, in the shimmering heat of the Rift Valley, as he led his detachment of seven askari, locally recruited tribal troops, in extended order with bayonets fixed, through the lush banana plantation that surrounded the buildings of the district commissioner’s headquarters at Niombi, Leon was thinking not so much of his duties as of Verity O’Hearne’s bosom.

Out on his left flank Sergeant Manyoro clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Leon jerked back from Verity’s boudoir to the present and froze at the soft warning. His mind had been wandering and he had been derelict in his duty. Every nerve in his body came up taut as a fishing line struck by a heavy marlin deep in the blue waters of the Pemba Channel. He lifted his right hand in the command to halt and the line of askaris stopped on either side of him. He glanced from the corner of his eye at his sergeant.

Manyoro was a morani of the Masai. A fine member of that tribe, he stood at well over six feet, yet he was as slim and graceful as a bullfighter, wearing his khaki uniform and tasselled fez with panache, every inch the African warrior. When he felt Leon’s eyes on him he lifted his chin.

Leon followed the gesture and saw the vultures. There were only two, turning wing-tip to wing-tip high above the rooftops of the boma, the government’s district-administration station at Niombi.

‘Shit and corruption!’ Leon whispered softly. He had not been expecting trouble: the centre of the insurrection was reported seventy miles further west. This government outpost was outside the traditional boundaries of the Nandi tribal grounds. This was Masai territory. Leon’s orders were merely to reinforce the government boma with his few men against any possibility that the insurrection might boil over the tribal borders. Now it appeared that that had happened.

The district commissioner at Niombi was Hugh Turvey. Leon had met him and his wife at the Settlers’ Club ball in Nairobi the previous Christmas Eve. He was only four or five years older than Leon but he was in sole charge of a territory the size of Scotland. Already he had earned a reputation as a solid man, not one to let his boma be surprised by a bunch of rebels. But the circling birds were a sinister omen, harbingers of death.

Leon gave the hand signal to his askari to load, and the breech bolts snickered as the .303 rounds were cranked up into the chambers of the long-barrelled Lee-Enfields. Another hand signal and they went forward cautiously in skirmishing formation.

Only two birds, Leon thought. They might be strays. There would have been more of them if . . . From directly ahead he heard the loud flapping of heavy wings and another vulture rose from beyond the screen of banana plants. Leon felt the chill of dread. If the brutes are settling that means there’s meat lying out there, dead meat.

Again he signalled the halt. He stabbed a finger at Manyoro, then went forward alone, Manyoro backing him. Even though his approach was stealthy and silent he alarmed more of the huge carrion-eaters. Singly and in groups they rose on flogging wings into the blue sky to join the spiralling cloud of their fellows.

Leon stepped past the last banana plant and stopped again at the edge of the open parade-ground. Ahead, the mud-brick walls of the boma glared, with their coating of limewash. The front door of the main building stood wide open. The veranda and the baked-clay surface of the parade-ground were littered with broken furniture and official government documents. The boma had been ransacked.

Hugh Turvey and his wife, Helen, lay spreadeagled in the open. They were naked and the corpse of their five-year-old daughter lay just beyond them. She had been stabbed once through her chest with a broad-bladed Nandi assegai. Her tiny body had drained of blood through the massive wound, so her skin shone white as salt in the bright sunlight. Both her parents had been crucified. Sharpened wooden stakes had been driven through their feet and hands into the clay surface.

So the Nandi have learned something at last from the missionaries, Leon thought bitterly. He took a long, steady look around the border of the parade-ground, searching for any sign that the attackers might still be near by. When he was satisfied that they had gone, he went forward again, stepping carefully through the litter. As he drew closer to the bodies he saw that Hugh had been crudely emasculated and that Helen’s breasts had been cut off. The vultures had enlarged the wounds. The jaws of both corpses had been wedged wide apart with wooden pegs. Leon stopped when he reached them and stared down at them. ‘Why are their mouths prised open?’ he asked, in Kiswahili, as his sergeant came up beside him.

‘They drowned them,’ Manyoro answered quietly, in the same language. Leon saw then that the clay beneath their heads was stained where some spilled liquid had dried. Then he noticed that their nostrils had been plugged with balls of clay – they must have been forced to draw their last breaths through their mouths.

‘Drowned?’ Leon shook his head in incomprehension. Then, suddenly, he became aware of the sharp ammonia stink of urine. ‘No!’

‘Yes,’ said Manyoro. ‘It is one of the things the Nandi do to their enemies. They piss in their open mouths until they drown. The Nandi are not men, they are baboons.’ His contempt and tribal enmity were undisguised.

‘I would like to find those who did this,’ Leon muttered, disgust giving way to anger.

‘I will find them. They have not gone far.’

Leon looked away from the sickening butchery to the heights of the escarpment that stood a thousand feet above them. He lifted his slouch hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of the hand that held the Webley service revolver. With a visible effort he brought his emotions under control, then looked down again.

‘First we must bury these people,’ he told Manyoro. ‘We cannot leave them for the birds.’

Cautiously they searched the buildings and found them deserted, with signs that the government staff had fled at the first hint of trouble. Then Leon sent Manyoro and three askari to search the banana plantation thoroughly and to secure the outside perimeter of the boma.

While they were busy, he went back to the Turveys’ living quarters, a small cottage behind the office block. It had also been ransacked but he found a pile of sheets in a cupboard that had been overlooked by the looters. He gathered up an armful and took them outside. He pulled out the stakes with which the Turveys had been pegged to the ground, then removed the wedges from their mouths. Some of their teeth were broken and their lips had been crushed. Leon wetted his neckerchief with water from his canteen and wiped their faces clean of dried blood and urine. He tried to move their arms to their sides but rigor mortis had stiffened them. He wrapped their bodies in the sheets.

The earth in the banana plantation was soft and damp from recent rain. While he and some of the askari stood guard against another attack, four others went to work with their trenching tools to dig a single grave for the family.

On the heights of the escarpment, just below the skyline and screened by a small patch of scrub from any watcher below, three men leaned on their war spears, balancing easily on one leg in the stork-like attitude of rest. Before them, the floor of the Rift Valley was a vast plain, brown grassland interspersed with stands of thorn, scrub and acacia trees. Despite its desiccated appearance the grasses made sweet grazing and were highly prized by the Masai, who ran their long-horned, hump-backed cattle on them. Since the most recent Nandi rebellion, though, they had driven their herds to a safer area much further to the south. The Nandi were famous cattle thieves.

This part of the valley had been left to the wild game, whose multitudes swarmed across the plain as far as the eye could see. At a distance the zebra were as grey as the dustclouds they raised when they galloped skittishly from any perceived danger, the kongoni, the gnu and the buffalo darker stains on the golden landscape. The long necks of the giraffe stood tall as telegraph poles above the flat tops of the acacia trees, while the antelope were insubstantial creamy specks that danced and shimmered in the heat. Here and there masses of what looked like black volcanic rock moved ponderously through the lesser animals, like ocean-going ships through shoals of sardines. These were the mighty pachyderms: rhinoceros and elephant.

It was a scene both primeval and awe-inspiring in its extent and abundance, but to the three watchers on the heights it was commonplace. Their interest was focused on the tiny cluster of buildings directly below them. A spring, which oozed from the foot of the escarpment wall, sustained the patch of greenery that surrounded the buildings of the government boma.

The oldest of the three men wore a kilt of leopard tails and a cap of the same black and gold speckled fur. This was the regalia of the paramount witch doctor of the Nandi tribe. His name was Arap Samoei and for ten years he had led the rebellion against the white invaders and their infernal machines, which threatened to desecrate the sacred tribal lands of his people. The faces and bodies of the men with him were painted for war: their eyes were circled with red ochre, a stripe was painted down their noses and their cheeks were slashed with the same colour. Their bare chests were dotted with burned lime in a pattern that simulated the plumage of the vulturine guinea fowl. Their kilts were made of gazelle skins and their headdresses of genet and monkey fur.

‘The mzungu and his bastard Masai dogs are well into the trap,’ said Arap Samoei. ‘I had hoped for more, but seven Masai and one mzungu will make a good killing.’

‘What are they doing?’ asked the Nandi captain at his side, shading his eyes from the glare as he peered down the precipitous slope.

‘They are digging a hole to bury the white filth we left for them,’ said Samoei.

‘Is it time to carry the spears down to them?’ asked the third warrior.

‘It is time,’ answered the paramount witch doctor. ‘But keep the mzungu for me. I want to cut off his balls with my own blade. From them I will make a powerful medicine.’ He touched the hilt of the panga on his leopardskin belt. It was a knife with a short, heavy blade, the favoured close-quarters weapon of the Nandi. ‘I want to hear him squeal, squeal like a warthog in the jaws of a leopard as I cut away his manhood. The louder he screams the more powerful will be the medicine.’ He turned and strode back to the crest of the rugged rock wall, and looked down into the fold of dead ground behind it. His warriors squatted patiently in the short grass, rank upon rank of them. Samoei raised his clenched fist and the waiting impi sprang to its feet, making no sound that might carry to their quarry.

‘The fruit is ripe!’ called Samoei.

‘It is ready for the blade!’ his warriors agreed in unison.

‘Let us go down to the harvest!’

The grave was ready, waiting to receive its bounty. Leon nodded at Manyoro, who gave a quiet order to his men. Two jumped down into the pit and the others passed the wrapped bundles down to them. They laid the two larger awkwardly shaped forms side by side on the floor of the grave with the tiny one wedged between them, a pathetic little group united for ever in death.

Leon removed his slouch hat and went down on one knee at the edge of the grave. Manyoro ordered the small detachment of men to fall in behind him with their rifles at the slope. Leon began to recite the Lord’s Prayer. The askari did not understand the words, but they knew their significance for they had heard them uttered over many other graves.

‘For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, amen!’ Leon ended and began to rise, but before he stood upright the oppressive silence of the hot African afternoon was shattered by a deafening hubbub of howls and screams. He dropped his hand to the butt of the Webley pistol holstered on his Sam Browne belt, and glanced around him swiftly.

Out of the dense foliage of the bananas swarmed a mass of sweat-shining bodies. They came from all sides, cavorting and prancing, brandishing their weapons. The sunlight sparkled on the blades of spear and panga. They drummed on their rawhide shields with their knobkerries, leaping high in the air as they raced towards the tiny group of soldiers.

‘On me!’ bellowed Leon. ‘Form up on me! Load! Load! Load!’ The askari reacted with trained precision, immediately forming a tight circle around him, rifles at the ready, bayonets pointing outwards. Appraising their situation swiftly, Leon saw that his party was completely surrounded except on the side nearest the boma’s main building. The Nandi formation must have split as it rounded it, leaving a narrow gap in their line.

‘Commence firing!’ Leon shouted, and the crash of the seven rifles was almost drowned in the uproar of shouting and drumming shields. He saw only one of the Nandi go down, a chieftain wearing kilts and headdress of Colobus monkey pelts. His head was snapped back by the heavy lead bullet, and bloody tissue erupted in a cloud from the back of his skull. Leon knew who had fired the shot: Manyoro was an expert marksman, and Leon had seen him single out his victim, then aim deliberately.

The charge faltered as the chief went down, but at a shriek of rage from a leopard-robed witch doctor in the rear, the attackers rallied and came on again. Leon realized that this witch doctor was probably the notorious leader of the insurrection, Arap Samoei himself. He fired two quick shots at him, but the distance was well over fifty paces and the short-barrelled Webley was a close-range weapon. Neither bullet had any effect.

‘On me!’ Leon shouted again. ‘Close order! Follow me!’ He led them at a run straight into the narrow gap in the Nandi line, making directly for the main building. The tiny band of khaki-clad figures was almost through before the Nandi surged forward again and headed them off. Both sides were instantly embroiled in a hand-to-hand mêlée.

‘Take the bayonet to them!’ Leon roared, and fired the Webley into the grimacing face ahead of him. When the man dropped another appeared immediately behind him. Manyoro plunged his long silver bayonet full length into his chest and jumped over the body, plucking out the blade as he went. Leon followed closely and between them they killed three more with blade and bullet before they broke out of the ruck and reached the veranda steps. By now they were the only members of the detachment still on their feet. All the others had been speared.

Leon took the veranda steps three at a time and charged through the open door into the main room. Manyoro slammed the door behind them. Each ran to a window and blazed away at the Nandi as they came after them. Their fire was so witheringly accurate that within seconds the steps were cluttered with bodies. The rest drew back in dismay, then turned tail and scattered into the plantation.

Leon stood at the window reloading his pistol as he watched them go. ‘How much ammunition do you have, Sergeant?’ he called to Manyoro, at the other window.

The sleeve of Manyoro’s tunic had been slashed by a Nandi panga, but there was little bleeding and Manyoro ignored the wound. He had the breech bolt of his rifle open and was loading bullets into the magazine. ‘These are my last two clips, Bwana,’ he answered, ‘but there are many more lying out there.’ He gestured through the window at the bandoliers of the fallen askari lying on the parade-ground, surrounded by the half-naked Nandi they had taken down with them.

‘We will go out and pick them up before the Nandi can regroup,’ Leon told him.

Manyoro slammed the breech bolt of the rifle closed and propped the weapon against the windowsill.

Leon slipped his pistol back into its holster and went to join him at the doorway. They stood side by side and gathered themselves for the effort. Manyoro was watching his face and Leon grinned at him. It was good to have the tall Masai at his side. They had been together ever since Leon had come out from England to join the regiment. That was little more than a year ago, but the rapport they had established was strong. ‘Are you ready, Sergeant?’ he asked.

‘I am, Bwana.’

‘Up the Rifles!’ Leon gave the regimental war-cry and threw open the door. They burst through it together. The steps were slippery with blood and cluttered with corpses so Leon hurdled the low retaining wall and landed on his feet running. He raced to the nearest dead askari and dropped to his knees. Quickly he unbuckled his webbing and slung the heavy bandoliers of ammunition over his shoulder. Then he jumped up and ran to the next man. Before he reached him a loud, angry hum rose from the edge of the banana plantation. Leon ignored it and dropped down beside the corpse. He did not look up again until he had another set of webbing slung over his shoulder. Then he leaped up as the Nandi swarmed back on to the parade-ground.

‘Get back, and be quick about it!’ he yelled at Manyoro, who was also draped with ammunition bandoliers. Leon paused just long enough to snatch up a dead askari’s rifle before he raced for the veranda wall. There he paused to glance back over his shoulder. Manyoro was a few yards behind him, while the leading Nandi warriors were fifty paces away and coming on swiftly.

‘Cutting it a little fine,’ Leon grunted. Then he saw one of the pursuers unsling the heavy bow from his shoulder. Leon recognized it as the weapon they used to hunt elephant. He felt a prickle of alarm at the back of his neck. The Nandi were expert archers. ‘Run, damn it, run!’ he shouted at Manyoro, as he saw the Nandi nock a long arrow, lift the bow and draw the fletching to his lips. Then he released the arrow, which shot upwards and fell in a silent arc. ‘Look out!’ Leon screamed, but the warning was futile, the arrow too swift. Helplessly he watched it plummet towards Manyoro’s unprotected back.

‘God!’ said Leon softly. ‘Please, God!’ For a moment he thought the arrow would fall short, for it was dropping steeply, but then he realized it would find its mark. He took a step back towards Manyoro, then stopped to watch helplessly. The strike of the arrow was hidden from him by Manyoro’s body but he heard the meaty whunk of the iron head piercing flesh and Manyoro spun around. The head of the arrow was buried deeply in the back of his upper thigh. He tried to take another pace but the wounded leg anchored him. Leon pulled the bandoliers from around his own neck and hurled them and the rifle he was carrying over the retaining wall and through the open door. Then he started back. Manyoro was hopping towards him on his unwounded leg, the other dangling, the shaft of the arrow flapping. Another arrow came towards them and Leon flinched as it hummed a hand’s breadth past his ear, then clashed against the veranda wall.

He reached Manyoro and wrapped his right arm around his sergeant’s torso beneath the armpit. He lifted him bodily and ran with him to the wall. Leon was surprised that although he was so tall the Masai was light. Leon was heavier by twenty pounds of solid muscle. At that moment every ounce of his powerful frame was charged with the strength of fear and desperation. He reached the wall and swung Manyoro over it, letting him tumble in a heap on the far side. Then he cleared the wall in a single bound. More arrows hummed and clattered around them but Leon ignored them, swept Manyoro into his arms, as though he was a child, and ran through the open door as the first of the pursuing Nandi reached the wall behind them.

He dropped Manyoro on the floor and picked up the rifle he had retrieved from the dead askari. As he turned back to the open doorway he levered a fresh cartridge into the breech and shot dead a Nandi as he was clambering over the wall. Swiftly he worked the bolt and fired again. When the magazine was empty he put down the rifle and slammed the door. It was made from heavy mahogany planks and the frame was deeply embedded in the thick walls. It shook as, on the other side, the Nandi hurled themselves against it. Leon drew his pistol and fired two shots through the panels. There was a yelp of pain from the far side, then silence. Leon waited for them to come again. He could hear whispering, and the scuffle of feet. Suddenly a painted face appeared in one of the side windows. Leon aimed at it but a shot rang out from behind him before he could press the trigger. The head vanished.

Leon turned and saw that Manyoro had dragged himself across the floor to the rifle he had left propped beside the other window. Using the sill to steady himself he had pulled himself on to his good leg. He fired again through the window and Leon heard the solid thud of a bullet striking flesh, and then the sound of another body falling on the veranda. ‘Morani! Warrior!’ he panted, and Manyoro grinned at the compliment.

‘Do not leave all the work to me, Bwana. Take the other window!’

Leon stuffed the pistol into his holster, snatched up the empty rifle and ran with it to the open window, cramming clips of cartridges into the magazine – two clips, ten rounds. The Lee-Enfield was a lovely weapon. It felt good in his hands.

He reached the window and threw out a sheet of rapid fire. Between them they swept the parade-ground with a fusillade that sent the Nandi scampering for the cover of the plantation. Manyoro sank slowly down the wall and leaned against it, legs thrust out before him, the wounded one cocked over the other so that the arrow shaft did not touch the floor.

With one last glance across the parade-ground to confirm that none of the enemy was sneaking back, Leon left his window and went to his sergeant. He squatted in front of him and tentatively grasped the arrow shaft. Manyoro winced. Leon exerted a little more pressure, but the barbed iron head was immovable. Though Manyoro made no sound the sweat poured down his face and dripped on to the front of his tunic.

‘I can’t pull it out so I’m going to break off the shaft and strap it,’ Leon said.

Manyoro looked at him without expression for a long moment, then smiled, his teeth showing large, even and white. His earlobes had been pierced in childhood, the holes stretched to hold ivory discs, which gave his face a mischievous, puckish aspect.

‘Up the Rifles!’ Manyoro said, and his lisping imitation of Leon’s favourite expression was so startling in the circumstances that Leon guffawed and, at the same instant, snapped off the reed shaft of the arrow close to where it protruded from the oozing wound. Manyoro closed his eyes, but uttered no sound.

Leon found a field dressing in the webbing pouch he had taken from the askari, and bandaged the stump of the arrow shaft to stop it moving. Then he rocked back on his heels and studied his handiwork. He unhooked the water-bottle from his own webbing, unscrewed the stopper and took a long swallow, then handed it to Manyoro. The Masai hesitated delicately: an askari did not drink from an officer’s bottle. Frowning, Leon thrust it into his hands. ‘Drink, damn you,’ he said. ‘That’s an order!’

Manyoro tilted back his head and held the bottle high. He poured the water directly into his mouth without touching the neck with his lips. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed three times. Then he screwed on the stopper tightly and handed it back to Leon. ‘Sweet as honey,’ he said.

‘We will move out as soon as it’s dark,’ Leon said.

Manyoro considered this statement for a moment. ‘Which way will you go?’

‘We will go the way we came.’ Leon emphasized the plural pronoun. ‘We must get back to the railway line.’

Manyoro chuckled.

‘What makes you laugh, Morani?’ Leon demanded.

‘It is almost two days’ march to the railway line,’ Manyoro reminded him. He shook his head in amusement and touched his bandaged leg significantly. ‘When you go, Bwana, you will go alone.’

‘Are you thinking of deserting, Manyoro? You know that’s a shooting offence—’ He broke off as movement beyond the window caught his eye. He snatched up the rifle and fired three quick shots out across the parade-ground. A bullet must have thumped into living flesh because a cry of pain and anger followed. ‘Baboons and sons of baboons,’ Leon growled. In Kiswahili the insult had a satisfying ring. He laid the rifle across his lap to reload it. Without looking up he said, ‘I will carry you.’

Manyoro gave his puckish smile and asked politely, ‘For two days, Bwana, with half the Nandi tribe chasing after us, you will carry me? Is that what I heard you say?’

‘Perhaps the wise and witty sergeant has a better plan,’ Leon challenged him.

‘Two days!’ Manyoro marvelled. ‘I should call you “Horse”.’

They were silent for a while, and then Leon said, ‘Speak, O wise one. Give me counsel.’

Manyoro paused, then said, ‘This is not the land of the Nandi. These are the grazing lands of my people. These treacherous curs trespass on the lands of the Masai.’

Leon nodded. His field map showed no such boundaries: his orders had not made such divisions clear. His superiors were probably ignorant of the nuances of tribal territorial demarcations, but Leon had been with Manyoro on long foot patrols through these lands before this most recent outbreak of rebellion. ‘This I know, for you have explained it to me. Now tell me your better plan, Manyoro.’

‘If you go towards the railway—’

Leon interrupted: ‘You mean if we go that way.’

Manyoro inclined his head slightly in acquiescence. ‘If we go towards the railway we will be moving back into Nandi ground. They will grow bold and harry us, like a pack of hyenas. However, if we move down the valley . . .’ Manyoro indicated south with his chin ‘. . . we will be moving into Masai territory. Each step they take in pursuit will fill the bowels of the Nandi with fear. They will not follow us far.’

Leon thought about this, then shook his head dubiously. ‘There is nothing to the south but wilderness and I must get you to a doctor before the leg festers and has to be cut off.’

‘Less than a day’s easy march to the south lies the manyatta of my mother,’ Manyoro told him.

Leon blinked with surprise. Somehow he had never thought of Manyoro as having a parent. Then he collected himself. ‘You don’t hear me. You need a doctor, somebody who can get that arrow out of your leg before it kills you.’

‘My mother is the most famous doctor in all the land. Her fame as the paramount witch doctor is known from the ocean to the great lakes. She has saved a hundred of our morani who have been struck down by spear and arrow or savaged by lions. She has medicines that are not even dreamed of by your white doctors in Nairobi.’ Manyoro sank back against the wall. By now his skin bore a greyish sheen and the smell of his sweat was rancid. They stared at each other for a moment, then Leon nodded.

‘Very well. We will go south down the Rift. We will leave in the dark before the rise of the moon.’

But Manyoro sat up again and sniffed the sultry air, like a hunting dog picking up a distant scent. ‘No, Bwana. If we go, we must go at once. Can you not smell it?’

‘Smoke!’ Leon whispered. ‘The swine are going to flush us out with fire.’ He glanced out of the window again. The parade-ground was empty, but he knew they would not come again from that direction: there were no windows in the rear wall of the building. That was the way they would come. He studied the leaves of the nearest banana plants. A light breeze was ruffling them. ‘Wind from the east,’ he murmured. ‘That suits us.’ He looked at Manyoro. ‘We can carry little with us. Every extra ounce will make a difference. Leave the rifles and bandoliers. We will take a bayonet and one water-bottle each. That’s all.’ As he spoke, he reached for the pile of canvas webbing they had salvaged. He buckled three of the waist belts together to form a single loop, slipped it over his head and settled it on his right shoulder. It hung down just below his left hip. He held his water-bottle to his ear and shook it. ‘Less than half.’ He decanted the contents of the salvaged bottles into his own, then topped up Manyoro’s. ‘What we can’t carry we will drink here.’ Between them they drained what was left in the others.

‘Come on, Sergeant, get up.’ Leon put a hand under Manyoro’s armpit and hoisted him to his feet. The sergeant balanced on his good leg as he strapped his water-bottle and bayonet around his waist. At that moment something heavy thumped on the thatch above their heads.

‘Torches!’ Leon snapped. ‘They’ve crept up to the back of the building and are throwing firebrands on to the roof.’ There was another loud thump above them, and the smell of burning was stronger in the room.

‘Time to go,’ Leon muttered, as a tendril of dark smoke drifted across the window, then rolled with the breeze diagonally across the open parade-ground towards the trees. They heard the distant chanting and excited shouting of the Nandi as, for a moment, the curtain of smoke cleared, then poured down so densely that they could see no more than an arm’s length in front of them. The crackle of flames had risen to a dull roar that drowned even the voices of the Nandi, and the smoke was hot and suffocating. Leon ripped the tail off his shirt and handed it to Manyoro. ‘Cover your face!’ he ordered, and knotted his neckerchief over his own nose and mouth. Then he hoisted Manyoro over the window sill and jumped out after him.

Manyoro leaned on his shoulder and hopped beside him as they crossed quickly to the retaining wall. Leon used it to orientate himself as they moved to the corner of the veranda. They dropped over it and paused to get their bearings in the dense smoke. Sparks from the roof swirled around them and stung the exposed skin of their arms and legs. They went forward again as quickly as Manyoro could move on one leg, Leon keeping the light breeze behind them. They were both choking in the smoke, their eyes burning and streaming tears. They fought the urge to cough, smothering the sound with the cloths that covered their mouths. Then, suddenly, they were among the first trees of the plantation.

The smoke was still thick, and they groped their way forward, bayonets at the ready, expecting at any moment to run into the enemy. Leon was aware that Manyoro was flagging already. Since they had left the boma he had set a furious pace that Manyoro, on one leg, could not sustain. He was already leaning most of his weight on Leon’s shoulder.

‘We daren’t stop before we’re well clear,’ Leon whispered.

‘On one leg I will go as far and as fast as you will on two,’ Manyoro gasped.

‘Will Manyoro, the great braggart, wager a hundred shillings on that?’ But before the sergeant could respond Leon gripped his arm in silent warning. They stopped, peering ahead into the smoke and listening. They heard the sound again: someone coughed hoarsely not far ahead. Leon lifted Manyoro’s hand from his shoulder and mouthed, ‘Wait here.’

He went forward, crouching low with the bayonet in his right hand. He had never killed a man with a blade before, but in training the instructor had made them practise the motions. A human shape loomed directly in front of him. Leon leaped forward and used the hilt of the bayonet like a knuckle-duster, smashing it into the side of the man’s head with such force that he fell to his knees. He threw an armlock around the Nandi’s neck, choking any sound before it reached his lips. But the Nandi had coated his entire body with palm oil. He was as slippery as a fish and struggled violently. He almost managed to twist out of Leon’s grasp but Leon reached around the wriggling body with the hand that held the bayonet and drove the point up under the Nandi’s ribs, shocked by how easily the steel slipped in.

The Nandi redoubled his efforts and tried to scream, but Leon held the lock on his throat and the sounds he uttered were muffled. The dying man’s violent struggles worked the blade around in his chest cavity as Leon twisted and sawed it. Suddenly the Nandi convulsed and dark red blood spouted from his mouth. It splattered over Leon’s arm and droplets blew back into his face. The Nandi heaved once, then went slack in his grip.

Leon held him for a few seconds longer to make certain he was dead, then released the body, pushed it away and stumbled back to where he had left Manyoro. ‘Come on,’ he croaked, and they went forward again, Manyoro clinging to him, staggering and lurching.

Suddenly the ground gave way under them and they rolled down a steep mud bank into a shallow stream. There, the smoke was thinner. With a lift of relief Leon realized they had come in the right direction: they had reached the stream from the spring that ran to the south of the boma.

He knelt in the water and scooped handfuls into his face, washing his burning eyes and scrubbing the Nandi’s blood off his hands. Then he drank greedily, Manyoro too. Leon gargled and spat out the last mouthful, his throat rough and raw from the smoke.

He left Manyoro and scrambled to the top of the bank to peer into the smoke. He heard voices but they were faint with distance. He waited a few minutes to regain his strength and reassure himself that no Nandi were close on their tracks, then slid down the bank to where Manyoro crouched in the shallow water.

‘Let me look at your leg.’ He sat beside the sergeant and took it across his lap. The field dressing was soaked and muddy. He unwrapped it and saw at once that the violent activity of the escape had done damage. Manyoro’s thigh was massively swollen, the flesh around the wound torn and bruised where the shaft of the arrow had worked back and forth. Blood oozed out from around it. ‘What a pretty sight,’ he muttered, and felt gently behind the knee. Manyoro made no protest but his pupils dilated with pain as Leon touched something buried in his flesh.

Then Leon whistled softly. ‘What do we have here?’ In the lean muscle of Manyoro’s thigh, just above the knee, a foreign body lay under the skin. He explored it with a forefinger and Manyoro flinched.

‘It’s the point of the arrow,’ he exclaimed, in English, then switched back into Kiswahili. ‘It’s worked its way right through your leg from back to front.’ It was hard to imagine the agony Manyoro was enduring, and Leon felt inadequate in the presence of such suffering. He looked up at the sky. The dense smoke was dissipating on the evening breeze and through it he could make out the western tops of the escarpment, touched with the fiery rays of the setting sun.

‘I think we’ve given them the slip for now, and it will soon be dark,’ he said, without looking into Manyoro’s face. ‘You can rest until then. You’ll need your strength for the night ahead.’ Leon’s eyes were still burning with the effects of the smoke. He closed them and squeezed the lids tightly shut. But not many minutes passed before he opened them again. He had heard voices coming from the direction of the boma.

‘They are following our spoor!’ Manyoro murmured, and they shrank lower under the bank of the stream. In the banana plantation the Nandi called softly to each other, like trackers following blood, and Leon realized that his earlier optimism was groundless. The pursuers were following the prints of his boots: under their combined weight, they would have left a distinctive sign in the soft earth. There was nowhere for him and Manyoro to hide in the stream bed so Leon drew the bayonet from his belt and crawled up the bank until he lay just below the lip. If the searchers looked down into the stream and discovered them he would be close enough to spring out at them. Depending on how many there were he might be able to silence them before they raised a general alarm and brought the rest of the pack down on them. The voices drew closer until it seemed that they were on the very edge of the bank. Leon gathered himself, but at that moment there was a chorus of distant shouts from the direction of the boma. The men above exclaimed with excitement, and he heard them run back the way they had come.

He slid down the bank to Manyoro. ‘That was very nearly the last chukka of the game,’ he told him, as he rebandaged the leg.

‘What made them turn back?’

‘I think they found the body of the man I killed. But it won’t delay them long. They’ll be back.’

He heaved Manyoro upright, draped the other man’s right arm over his shoulder and, half carrying and half dragging him, got him up to the top of the far bank of the stream.

The halt in the stream bed had not improved Manyoro’s condition. Inactivity had stiffened the wound and the torn muscles around it. When Manyoro tried to put weight on it the limb buckled under him and he would have collapsed had Leon not caught him.

‘From here you may indeed call me Horse.’ He turned his back to Manyoro, then stooped and pulled him on to his back. Manyoro grunted with pain as his leg swung freely and bent at the knee, then controlled himself and uttered no further sound. Leon adjusted the webbing belts to form a sling seat for him, then straightened with Manyoro perched high on his back, legs sticking out, like a monkey on a pole. Leon took hold of them, as though they were the handles of a wheelbarrow, to prevent any unnecessary movement, then struck out for the foot of the escarpment. As they emerged from the irrigated plantation into the bush the smokescreen, which had concealed them thus far, blew away in pale grey streamers. However, by now the sun was low, balancing like a fireball on top of the escarpment, and the darkness was thickening around them.

‘Fifteen minutes,’ he whispered hoarsely. ‘That’s all we need.’ By now he was into the bush along the foot of the escarpment wall. It was thick enough to afford them some cover, and there were folds and features in the terrain that were not obvious from afar. With the instincts and eyes of a hunter and a soldier, Leon picked them out and used them to screen their labouring progress. As darkness settled comfortingly over them and their immediate surroundings were swallowed in the gloom he felt a lift of optimism. It seemed they were clear of pursuit, but it was still too early to know for certain. He sank to the ground on his knees, then rolled gently on to his side to protect Manyoro from jolting. Neither spoke or moved for a while, then Leon sat up slowly and unbuckled the sling so that Manyoro could straighten his injured leg. He unscrewed the water-bottle’s stopper and handed it to Manyoro. When they had both drunk, he stretched out full length. Every muscle and sinew in his back and legs seemed to scream aloud, begging for rest. ‘This is just the start,’ he cautioned himself grimly. ‘By tomorrow morning we should really be enjoying ourselves.’

He closed his eyes, but opened them again as his calf muscle locked in an agonizing cramp. He sat up and massaged his leg vigorously.

Manyoro touched his arm. ‘I praise you, Bwana. You are a man of iron, but you are not stupid and it would be a great stupidity for both of us to die here. Leave the pistol with me and go on. I will stay here and kill any Nandi who tries to follow you.’

‘You whimpering bastard!’ Leon snarled. ‘What kind of woman are you? We haven’t even started and you’re ready to give up. Get on my back again before I spit on you where you lie.’ He knew his anger was excessive, but he was afraid and in pain.

This time it took longer to get Manyoro settled in the loop of the sling. For the first hundred paces or so Leon thought his legs would let him down entirely. Silently he turned his insult to Manyoro on himself. Who is the whimpering bastard now, Courtney? With all the force of his mind and will he drove back the pain and felt the strength gradually trickle back into his legs. One step at a time. He exhorted his legs to keep moving. Just one more. That’s it. Now one more. And another.

He knew that if he stopped to rest he would never start again, and went on until he saw the crescent moon appear above the high ground on the eastern side of the Rift Valley. He watched its splendid progress across the sky. It marked the passage of the hours for him as clearly as the tolling of a bell. On his back Manyoro was as quiescent as a dead man, but Leon knew he was alive for he could feel the fever heat of his body against his own sweat-drenched skin.

As the moon started down towards the tall black wall of the western escarpment on his right, it threw weird shadows under the trees. Leon’s mind began to play tricks on him. Once a black-maned lion reared up out of the grass directly in his path. He fumbled the Webley from its holster and aimed at the beast, but before he could take a fair sight over the short barrel the lion had become a termite mound. He laughed uncertainly. ‘Stupid beggar! Next you’ll be seeing elves and hobgoblins,’ he said aloud.

He plodded on with the pistol in his right hand, phantoms appearing and dissolving before him. With the moon hanging halfway down the sky, the last grains of his strength slipped away, like water through cupped fingers. He reeled and almost went down. It took a mighty effort to brace his legs and recover his balance. He stood with legs wide apart, head hanging. He was finished and knew it.

He felt Manyoro stir on his back, and then, incredibly, the Masai began to sing. At first Leon could not recognize the words, for Manyoro’s voice was a wispy breath, light as the dawn breeze in the savannah grass. Then his fatigue-dulled mind echoed the words of the Lion Song. Leon’s grasp of Maa, the language of the Masai, was rudimentary – Manyoro had taught him the little he knew. It was a difficult language, subtle and complicated, unlike any other. However, Manyoro had been patient and Leon had a gift for languages.

The Lion Song was taught to the young Masai morani at his circumcision class. The initiates accompanied it with a stiff-legged dance, bounding high into the air, as effortlessly as a flock of birds taking flight, their red toga-like shuka cloaks spreading like wings around them.

We are the young lions.
When we roar the earth shivers.
Our spears are our fangs.
Our spears are our claws.
Fear us, O ye beasts.
Fear us, O ye strangers.
Turn your eyes away from our faces, you women.
You dare not look upon the beauty of our faces.
We are the brothers of the lion pride.
We are the young lions.
We are the Masai.

It was the song the Masai sang when they went out to plunder the cattle and women of lesser tribes. It was the song they sang when they went out to prove their valour by hunting the lion with nothing but the stabbing assegai in their hands. It was the song that gave them stomach for battle. It was the battle hymn of the Masai. Manyoro began the chorus again and this time Leon joined in, humming under his breath when he could not recall the words. Manyoro squeezed his shoulder and whispered in his ear, ‘Sing! You are one of us. You have the heart of the lion and the strength of a great black mane. You have the stomach and heart of a Masai. Sing!’

They staggered on towards the south. Leon’s legs kept moving, for the song’s chorus was mesmerizing. His mind veered wildly between reality and fantasy. On his back he felt Manyoro slump into coma. He stumbled on but now he was not alone. Beloved and well-remembered faces appeared out of the darkness. His father and four brothers were there, egging him onwards, but as he drew closer to them they receded and their voices faded. Each slow, heavy pace reverberated through his skull, and sometimes that was the only sound. At others he heard myriad voices shouting and ululating, the music of drums and violins. He tried to ignore the cacophony, for it was pushing him to the edge of sanity.

He shouted to drive away the phantoms: ‘Leave me alone. Let me pass!’ They sank away, and he went onwards until the rim of the rising sun broke clear of the escarpment. Abruptly his legs went from under him and he collapsed as though he had been shot in the head.

The heat of the sun on the back of his shirt goaded him awake, but when he tried to lift his head he dissolved into vertigo, and could not remember where he was or how he had got there. His sense of smell and his hearing were tricking him now: he thought he could detect the odour of domestic cattle and their hoofs plodding over the hard ground, their mournful lowing. Then he heard voices – children’s – calling shrilly to each other. When one laughed, the sound was too real to have been fantasy. He rolled away from Manyoro and, with a huge effort, raised himself on one elbow. He gazed around with bleary eyes, squinting in the glare of bright sunlight and dust.

He saw a large herd of multi-hued and humpbacked cattle with spreading horns. They were streaming past the spot where he and Manyoro lay. The children were real too: three naked boys, carrying only the sticks with which they were herding the cattle towards the waterhole. He saw that they were circumcised, so they were older than they appeared, probably between thirteen and fifteen. They were calling to each other in Maa, but he could not understand what they were saying. With another huge effort Leon forced his aching frame into a sitting position. The tallest boy saw that movement and stopped abruptly. He stared at Leon in consternation, clearly on the point of flight but controlling his fear as a Masai who was almost a morani was duty-bound to do.

‘Who are you?’ He brandished his stick in a threatening gesture but his voice quavered and broke.

Leon understood the simple words and the challenge. ‘I am not an enemy,’ he called back hoarsely. ‘I am a friend who needs your help.’

The other two boys heard the strange voice and stopped to stare at the apparition that seemed to rise from the ground ahead of them. The eldest and bravest child took a few paces towards Leon, then stopped to regard him gravely. He asked another question in Maa, but Leon did not understand. In reply he reached down and helped Manyoro to sit up beside him. ‘Brother!’ he said. ‘This man is your brother!’

The boy took a few quick paces towards them and peered at Manyoro. Then he turned to his companions and let fly a string of instructions accompanied by wide gestures that sent them racing across the savannah. The only word Leon had understood was ‘Manyoro!’

The younger boys were heading towards a cluster of huts half a mile away. They were thatched in the traditional Masai fashion and surrounded by a fence of thorn bushes. It was a Masai manyatta, a village. The outer stockade of poles was the kraal in which the precious cattle herds were penned at night. The elder child approached Leon now and squatted in front of him. He pointed at Manyoro and said, in awe and amazement, ‘Manyoro!’

‘Yes, Manyoro,’ Leon agreed, and his head spun giddily.

The child exclaimed with delight and made another excited speech. Leon recognized the word for ‘uncle’, but could not follow the rest. He closed his eyes and lay back with his arm over them to blot out the blazing sunlight. ‘Tired,’ he said. ‘Very tired.’

He slipped away, and woke again to find himself surrounded by a small crowd of villagers. They were Masai, there was no mistaking that. The men were tall. In their pierced earlobes they wore large ornamental discs or carved horn snuffboxes. They were naked under their long red cloaks, their genitals proudly and ostentatiously exposed. The women were tall for their sex. Their skulls were shaven smooth as eggshells and they wore layers of intricately beaded necklaces that hung over their naked breasts. Their minuscule beaded aprons barely covered their pudenda.

Leon struggled to sit up and they watched him with interest. The younger women giggled and nudged each other to see such a strange creature among them. It was probable that none had ever seen a white man before. To command their attention he raised his voice to a shout: ‘Manyoro!’ He pointed at his companion. ‘Mama? Manyoro mama?’ he demanded. They stared at him in astonishment.

Then one of the youngest and prettiest girls understood what he was trying to tell them. ‘Lusima!’ she cried, and pointed to the east, to the distant blue outline of the far wall of the escarpment. The others joined in shouting joyously, ‘Lusima Mama!’

It was clearly Manyoro’s mother’s name. Everybody was delighted with their grasp of the situation. Leon mimed lifting and carrying Manyoro, then pointed to the east. ‘Take Manyoro to Lusima.’ This brought a pause in the self-congratulation and they stared at each other in bewilderment.

Again the pretty girl divined his meaning. She stamped her foot and harangued the men. When they hesitated she attacked the ferocious and dreaded warriors with her bare hands, slapping and pummelling them, even pulling one’s elaborate plaited coiffure, until they went to do her bidding with shamefaced guffaws. Two ran back to the village and returned with a long, stout pole. To this they attached a hammock made from their leather cloaks knotted at the corners. This was a mushila, a litter. Within a short time they were settling Manyoro’s unconscious body on it. Four picked it up, and the entire party set off towards the east at a trot, leaving Leon lying on the dusty plain. The singing of the men and the ululations of the women faded.

Leon closed his eyes, trying to summon sufficient reserves of strength to get to his feet and follow them. When he opened them again he found he was not alone. The three naked herd-boys who had discovered him were standing in a row, regarding him solemnly. The eldest said something and made an imperious gesture. Obediently Leon rolled on to his knees, then lurched to his feet. The child came to his side, took his hand and tugged at it possessively. ‘Lusima,’ he said.

His friend came and took Leon’s other hand. He pulled at it and said, ‘Lusima.’

‘Very well. There seems to be no other option,’ Leon conceded. ‘Lusima it shall be.’ He tapped the eldest child on the chest with a finger. ‘Name? What is your name?’ he asked, in Maa. It was one of the phrases Manyoro had taught him.

‘Loikot!’ the boy answered proudly.

‘Loikot, we shall go to Lusima Mama. Show me the way.’

With Leon limping between them, they dragged him towards the far blue hills, following Manyoro’s litter-bearers.

As they made their way across the valley Leon became aware of a single isolated mountain that rose abruptly from the wide floor of the plain. At first it seemed to be merely a buttress of the eastern escarpment and inconsequential in the immensity of the great valley, but as they came closer he saw that it stood alone and was not attached to the escarpment. It began to take on a grandeur that had been denied it by distance. It was higher and steeper than the Rift Valley wall behind it. The lower slopes were covered with groves of stately umbrella acacias, but at higher altitude these gave way to denser montane forest, which indicated that the summit was above the cloud, ringed by a sheer wall of grey rock, like the glacis of a man-made fortress.

As they approached this massive natural bastion Leon saw that the top of the mountain was covered with a mighty forest. Clearly its growth had been nurtured by the moisture from the swirling clouds. Even at this distance he could see that the outstretched upper branches of the trees were bedecked with old man’s beard, and flowering tree orchids. The dense foliage of the tallest trees was starred with blooms as vivid as bridal bouquets. Eagles and other raptors had built their nests in the cliff below the summit and sailed on wide wings across the blue void of the sky.

It was the middle of the afternoon before Leon and his three companions reached the foot of the mountain. They had fallen far behind Manyoro and his party of litter-bearers, who were already halfway up the footpath that climbed the steep slope in a series of zigzags. Leon only managed the first two hundred feet of the climb before he subsided in the shade of an acacia beside the track. His feet could not carry him another step along the rocky path. He twisted one into his lap and fumbled with the boot laces. As he levered off his boot he groaned with pain. His woollen sock was stiff with dried black blood. Gingerly he peeled it off and stared in dismay at his foot. Thick slabs of skin had come away with the sock and his heel was flayed raw. Burst blisters hung in tatters from the sole and his toes might have been chewed by jackals. The three Masai boys squatted in a semi-circle, studying his wounds and discussing them with ghoulish relish.

Then Loikot took command again and barked a series of peremptory commands that sent the other two scampering into the bush, where a small herd of the long-horned Masai cattle were browsing on the grey-green scrub that grew under the acacias. Within minutes they returned with cupped handfuls of wet dung. When Leon discovered that it was intended as a poultice for his open blisters he made it clear that he would not submit to any more of Loikot’s bullying. But the boys were persistent and kept importuning him while he tore the sleeves of his shirt into strips and wrapped his bleeding feet in them. Then he knotted the laces of his boots together and slung them around his neck. Loikot offered Leon his herding stick and Leon accepted it, then hobbled up the pathway. It grew steeper with every pace, and he began to falter again. Loikot turned on his comrades and issued another series of stern instructions, which sent them flying up the path on skinny legs.

Loikot and Leon followed them upwards at a dwindling pace, blood from Leon’s bandaged feet daubing the stones of the path. Eventually he sagged once more on to a rock and stared up at the heights, which were clearly beyond his reach. Loikot sat beside him and began to tell him a long, complicated story. Leon understood a few words, but Loikot proved himself a skilled thespian: he leaped to his feet and mimed a warlike scene, which Leon guessed was an account of how he had defended his father’s herds from marauding lions. It included much bloodcurdling roaring, leaping and stabbing of the air with his staff. After the trials of the last few days, the performance was a welcome distraction. Leon almost forgot his crippled feet, and laughed at the engaging lad’s antics. It was almost dark when they heard voices on the path above them. Loikot shouted a challenge, which was answered by a party of half a dozen cloaked morani, coming down to them at a trot. They had brought with them the mushila on which they had carried Manyoro. At their bidding Leon climbed into it and as soon as he was settled four men lifted the pole between them and placed it on their shoulders. Then they took off at a run, back up the steep mountain path.

As they came over the edge of the cliff face on to the table top of the mountain, Leon saw the glow of fires under the gigantic trees not far ahead. The mushila-bearers carried him swiftly towards them and into a zareba of poles and thorn branches to a large open cattle pen. In a circle on open ground more than twenty large thatched huts were assembled around a tall, wide-spreading wild fig tree. The workmanship that had gone into their construction was superior to that of any others Leon had seen on his patrols through Masailand. The cattle in the pen were large and in fine condition: their hides shone in the flames and their horns were huge.

From the fires a number of men and women crowded forward to look at the stranger. The men’s shukas were of fine quality, and the women’s abundant jewellery and ornaments were beautifully made of the most expensive trade beads and ivory. There could be no doubt that this was an affluent community. Laughing and shouting questions at Leon, they gathered around his mushila and many younger women reached out to touch his face boldly and tug at his ragged uniform. Masai women seldom made any effort to disguise their predilection for the opposite sex.

Suddenly a hush fell over the noisy throng. A regal feminine figure was moving towards them from the huts. The villagers drew aside to leave an aisle and she came down it towards the mushila. Two servant girls followed her with burning torches, which cast a golden light upon the woman’s tall and matronly figure as she glided towards Leon. The villagers bowed like a field of grass in the wind and made soft, purring sounds of respect and reverence as she passed between their ranks.

‘Lusima!’ they whispered, and clapped softly, averting their eyes from her dazzling beauty. Leon struggled up from the mushila and stood to meet her. She stopped in front of him and stared into his face with a dark, hypnotic gaze.

‘I see you, Lusima,’ he greeted her, but for a long moment she gave no sign of having heard him. She stood almost as tall as he did. Her skin was the colour of smoked honey, glossy and unlined in the torchlight. If she was indeed the mother of Manyoro she must have been much more than fifty, but she seemed at least twenty years younger. Her bare breasts were firm and rounded. Her tattooed belly bore no marks of age or childbearing. Her finely sculpted Nilotic features were striking and her dark eyes so penetrating that they seemed to reach effortlessly into the secret places of his mind.

Ndio.’ She nodded. ‘Yes. I am Lusima. I have been expecting your coming. I was overlooking you and Manyoro on your night march from Niombi.’ Leon was relieved that she spoke in Kiswahili, rather than Maa: communication between them would be easier. But her words made no sense. How could she know that they had come from Niombi? Unless, of course, Manyoro had regained consciousness and told her.

‘Manyoro has not spoken since he came to me. He is still deep in the land of shadows,’ Lusima assured him.

He started. She had responded to his unspoken question as though she had heard the words.

‘I was with you, watching over you,’ she repeated, and despite himself he believed her. ‘I saw you rescue my son from certain death, and bring him back to me. With this deed you have become as another son to me.’ She took his hand. Her grip was cool and hard as bone. ‘Come. I must see to your feet.’

‘Where is Manyoro?’ Leon asked. ‘You say that he is alive, but will he survive?’

‘He is smitten and the devils are in his blood. It will be a hard fight, and the outcome is uncertain.’

‘I must go to him,’ Leon insisted. ‘I will take you. But now he is sleeping. He must gather his strength for the trial ahead. I cannot remove the arrow until I have the light of day in which to work. Then I will need a strong man to help me. But you must rest also, for you have tried even your great strength to its limit. We will have need of it later.’

She led him to one of the huts and he stooped through the low entrance into the dim, smoky interior. Lusima indicated to him a pile of monkey-skin karosses against the far wall. He went to it and eased himself down onto the soft fur of one. She knelt in front of him and peeled the rags from his feet. While she was doing this, her servant girls prepared a brew of herbs in a three-legged black iron pot that stood over the cooking fire in the centre of the hut. Leon knew that they had probably been captured from a subservient tribe and were slaves in all but name: the Masai took whatever they wanted, cattle and women, and no other tribe dared defy them.

When the contents of the pot were ready the girls brought it to where Leon sat. Lusima tested the temperature and added cold but equally evil-smelling liquid from another gourd. Then she took his feet one at a time and immersed them in the mixture.

It took all his self-control to prevent himself crying out, for the liquid felt as though it was just off the boil, and the juices of the herbs were pungent and caustic. The three women watched his reaction carefully and exchanged approving glances when he managed an impassive expression and a stoic silence. Lusima lifted out his feet one at a time, then wrapped them in strips of trade cloth. ‘Now you must eat and sleep,’ she said, and nodded to one of the girls, who brought him a calabash and knelt respectfully to offer it to him with both hands. Leon caught a whiff of the contents. It was a Masai staple, which he dared not refuse: to do so would offend his hostess. He steeled himself and lifted the bowl to his lips.

‘It is freshly made,’ Lusima assured him. ‘I mixed it with my own hands. It will restore your strength and help to heal your wounded feet swiftly.’

He took a mouthful and his stomach heaved. It was warm but the fresh ox blood mixed with milk had taken on a slick jelly-like consistency that coated his throat. He kept swallowing until the gourd was empty. Then he lowered it and belched thunderously. The slave girls exclaimed with delight, and even Lusima smiled.

‘The devils fly from your belly,’ she told him approvingly. ‘Now you must sleep.’ She pushed him down on the kaross and spread another over him. A great weight bore down on his eyelids.

When he opened his eyes again, the morning sun was blazing through the doorway of the hut. Loikot was waiting for him at the door, squatting against the lintel, but he sprang to his feet as soon as Leon stirred. He came to him immediately and asked a question, pointing at his feet.

‘Too early to tell,’ Leon answered. Although every muscle in his body ached his head was clear. He sat up and unwrapped the bandages. He was amazed to see that most of the swelling and inflammation had subsided.

‘Dr Lusima’s snake oil.’ He grinned. His mood was light, until he remembered Manyoro.

Quickly he rebandaged his feet, and hobbled to the large clay water pot that stood outside the door. He stripped off the remnants of his shirt and washed the dust and dried sweat from his face and hair. When he straightened up he found that half of the village women, both young and old, were sitting in a circle around him, watching his every move with avid attention.

‘Ladies!’ he addressed them. ‘I am about to take a piss. You are not invited to observe the procedure.’ Leaning on Loikot’s shoulder he set off for the entrance to the cattle pen.

When he returned Lusima was waiting for him. ‘Come,’ she commanded. ‘It is time to begin.’ She led him to the hut that stood beside his. The interior was dark after the brilliant sunlight and it took his eyes a minute to adjust. The air was rank with woodsmoke from the fire and a more subtle odour, the sweet, nauseating smell of corrupting flesh. Manyoro lay face down on a leather kaross beside the fire. Leon went to him quickly and his spirits quailed. Manyoro lay like a dead man and his skin had lost its lustre. It was as dull as the soot that caked the bottom of the cooking pot on the fire. The lean muscles of his back seemed to have wasted. His head was twisted to one side and his eyes had receded into their sockets. Behind half-open lids they were as opaque as quartz pebbles from the riverbed. His leg above the knee was massively swollen, and the stench of the yellow pus that exuded from around the broken-off arrow filled the hut.

Lusima clapped her hands and four men crowded in. They picked up the corners of the litter on which Manyoro lay and carried him outside, across the open ground of the cattle pen to the single tall mukuyu tree in the centre. They laid him in the shade while Lusima shrugged off her cloak and stood bare-chested over him. She spoke softly to Leon: ‘The arrowhead cannot come out the way it entered. I must draw it through. The wound is ripe. You can smell it. Even so, it will not give up the arrow easily.’ One of the slave girls handed her a small knife with a rhino-horn handle, and the other brought a clay fire pot, swinging it around her head on its rope handle to fan the coals alight. When they glowed she placed the pot in front of her mistress. Lusima held the blade in the flames, turning it slowly until the metal glowed. Then she quenched it in another pot of liquid that smelled like the brew with which she had treated Leon’s feet. It bubbled and steamed as the metal cooled.

With the knife in her hand Lusima squatted beside her son. The four morani who had carried him from the hut knelt with her, two at Manyoro’s head and two at his feet. She looked up at Leon and spoke quietly: ‘You will do thus and thus.’ She explained in detail what she expected of him. ‘Even though you are the strongest among us, it will take all your strength. The grip of the barbs in his flesh is strong.’ She stared into his face. ‘Do you understand, my son?’

‘I understand, Mama.’ She opened the leather bag that hung at her waist and took from it a hank of thin white twine. ‘This is the rope you will use.’ She handed it to him. ‘I made it from the intestine of a leopard. It is tenacious. There is no stronger thread.’ She reached into the bag again and found a thick strip of elephant hide. Gently she opened Manyoro’s mouth. She placed the hide between his jaws and bound it in place with a short length of the catgut so that Manyoro could not spit it out.

‘It will prevent him cracking his teeth when the pain reaches its zenith,’ she explained.

Leon nodded, but he knew that the main reason for the gag was to prevent her son crying out and disgracing her.

‘Turn him on to his back,’ Lusima ordered the four morani, ‘but do it gently.’ As they rolled Manyoro over she guided the stump of the arrow shaft so that it did not catch in the kaross. Then she placed a block of wood on each side of it to keep it clear of the ground and to give the leg a firm platform. ‘Hold him,’ she ordered the morani.

She moved into position over the wounded leg and laid both her hands on it. Carefully she palpated the front of Manyoro’s thigh, feeling for the point of the arrowhead under the skin of the hot, swollen flesh. Manyoro moved restlessly as her probing fingers descried the shape of the buried arrowhead. She brought the blade of the horn-handled knife down precisely on the spot and began to chant a spell in Maa. After a while Manyoro seemed to succumb to the monotonous refrain. His shrunken body relaxed and he snored softly around the leather gag.

Suddenly, without interrupting her chant, Lusima pressed the point of the blade down. With barely a check it sank into the dark flesh. Manyoro stiffened and every muscle in his back stood proud. The blade grated on metal, and pus welled from the wound that the knife had opened. Lusima laid aside the knife and pressed down on either side of the cut. The sharp point of the arrowhead was forced out through the enlarged wound and the first row of barbs came into sight.

Leon had been able to examine a number of captured Nandi weapons during the campaign so he was not surprised to see that the arrowhead was of unconventional design. It had been forged from an iron pot-leg the thickness of Lusima’s little finger. It was meant for deep penetration into the massive body of the elephant so it had no single large barb, such as appeared on the arrowhead medieval English bowmen had used against heavily armoured French knights. Instead there were row upon row of tiny jags, no larger than minnow scales, that would glide through flesh with little resistance. However, because of their large numbers and their back-facing angle it would be impossible to withdraw the arrowhead along its original entry channel.

‘Quickly!’ Lusima whispered to Leon. ‘Tie it!’

He had the slip-knot in the catgut ready and looped it over the point of the arrow, just behind the first line of jags. ‘I have it,’ he told her, as he drew the loop tight.

‘Hold him now. Do not let him move and twist the thread or it will be cut by the edges of the barbs,’ Lusima warned the morani. Together they threw their combined weight across Manyoro’s supine body.

‘Pull,’ Lusima urged Leon, ‘with all your strength, my son. Draw this evil thing out of him.’

Leon took three turns of the catgut around his wrist and brought it up firmly. Lusima started chanting again as he applied all the strength of his right arm to the thin thread. He was careful not to jerk or twist it around the razor-sharp jags. Slowly he increased the pressure on the loop. He felt it stretch slightly, but the arrowhead remained lodged. He took an additional turn of the thread around his other wrist and moved until both shoulders were lined foursquare with the angle at which the arrow had entered. He pulled again with both arms, ignoring the sharp pain of the thread cutting into his flesh. The muscles of his shoulders under the tattered shirt bunched and bulged. The cords stood out in his throat and his face darkened with effort.

‘Pull,’ Lusima whispered, ‘and may Mkuba Mkuba, the greatest of the great gods, give strength to your arms.’

By now Manyoro was struggling so desperately that the four men could not hold him still. He was making a keening sound into the gag, and his eyes were wide, seeming to start out of the sunken sockets, bloodshot and wild. The trapped arrowhead raised his torn and swollen flesh into a peak, but still the barbs held firm.

‘Pull!’ Lusima urged Leon. ‘Your strength surpasses that of the lion. It is the strength of M’bogo, the great buffalo bull.’

And the arrowhead moved. With a soft, ripping sound a second row of tiny jags appeared behind the first, then a third. At last two inches of dark-stained metal were protruding from the wound. Leon rested for a moment while he gathered himself for the final effort. Then he gritted his teeth until his jaw bulged and pulled again. Another inch of iron came reluctantly into sight. Then there was a rush of half-congealed black blood and purple pus. The stench made even Lusima gasp, but the fluids seemed to lubricate the arrow shaft, which slithered out of the wound now, like some evil foetus in the dreadful moment of its birth.

Leon fell back, panting, and stared in horror at the damage he had wrought. The wound gaped like a dark mouth, while blood and detritus streamed from the torn flesh. In his agony Manyoro had chewed through the elephant-hide gag and bitten into his lips. Fresh blood trickled down his chin. He was still struggling wildly, and the morani used all their strength and weight to hold him down.

‘Keep the leg still, M’bogo,’ Lusima called to Leon. One of her girls handed her a long thin horn of the klipspringer antelope, which had been carved into a crude funnel. She probed the sharp end deeply into the wound and Manyoro redoubled his struggles. The girl held a gourd to Lusima’s lips and she filled her mouth with the liquid it contained. A few drops ran down her chin, and Leon caught its astringent odour. Lusima placed her lips around the flared end of the horn, like a trumpeter, and blew the substance down it and through the sharp end into the depths of the wound. Another mouthful followed the first. The liquid bubbled from the open wound, flushing out putrid blood and other matter.

‘Turn him over,’ she ordered the morani. Although Manyoro fought them they rolled him on to his stomach and Leon straddled his back, using all his weight to pin him down. Lusima worked the point of the horn into the entry wound at the back of the leg, then blew more of the infusion deep into the suppurating flesh.

‘Enough,’ she said at last. ‘I have washed out the poisons.’ She set aside the horn, placed pads of dried herbs over the wounds and bound them in place with long strips of trade cloth. Gradually Manyoro’s struggles abated until at last he slumped back into a deathlike coma.

‘It is done. There is nothing more I can do,’ she said. ‘Now it is a battle between the gods of his ancestors and the dark devils. Within three days we will know the outcome. Take him to his hut.’ She looked up at Leon. ‘You and I, M’bogo, must take turns to sit at his side and give him strength for the fight.’

Over the days that followed Manyoro hovered over the void. At times he lay in such a deep coma that Leon had to place his ear against his chest to listen for his breathing. At other times he gasped and writhed and shouted on his sleeping mat, sweating and grinding his teeth in fever. Lusima and Leon sat on each side of him, restraining him when he seemed in danger of injuring himself with his wild convulsions. The nights were long and neither slept. They talked quietly through the hours with the low fire between them.

‘I sense you were not born on some far-away island over the sea, as most of your compatriots were but in this very Africa,’ Lusima said. Leon was no longer surprised by her uncanny perception. He did not reply at once, and she went on, ‘You were born far to the north on the banks of a great river.’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You are right. The place is Cairo, and the river is the Nile.’

‘You belong to this land and you will never leave it.’

‘I had never thought to do so,’ he answered. She reached across and took his hand, closed her eyes and was quiet for a while. ‘I see your mother,’ she said. ‘She is a woman of great understanding. The two of you are close in spirit. She did not want you to leave her.’

Leon’s eyes filled with the dark shadows of regret.

‘I see your father also. It was because of him that you left.’

‘He treated me like a child. He tried to force me to do things I did not want to do. I refused. We argued and made my mother unhappy.’

‘What did he want you to do?’ she asked, with the air of one who already knew the answer.

‘My father grubs after money. There is nothing else in his life, neither his wife nor his children. He is a hard man, and we do not like each other. I suppose I respect him, but I do not admire him. He wanted me to work with him, doing the things he does. It was a bleak prospect.’

‘So you ran away?’

‘I did not run. I walked.’

‘What was it you sought?’ she asked.

He looked thoughtful. ‘Truly, I do not know, Lusima Mama.’

‘You have not found it?’ she asked.

He shook his head uncertainly. Then he thought of Verity O’Hearne. ‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I have found someone.’

‘No. Not the woman you are thinking of. She is just one woman among many others.’

The question was out before he could check himself: ‘How do you know about her?’ Then he answered himself: ‘Of course. You were there. And you know many things.’

She chuckled, and they were silent for a long while. It was a warm, comforting silence. He felt a strange bond with her, a closeness as though she were truly his mother.

‘I do not like what I am doing with my life now,’ he said at last. He had not thought about it until this moment, but as he said it, he knew it was the truth.

‘Because you are a soldier you are not able to do what your heart tells you,’ she agreed. ‘You must do as the old men order.’

‘You understand,’ he said. ‘I dislike hunting down and killing people I do not even know.’

‘Do you want me to point the way for you, M’bogo?’

‘I have come to trust you. I need your guidance.’

She was silent again for so long that he was about to speak. Then he saw that her eyes were wide open but rolled back in her head so that in the firelight only the whites were exposed. She was rocking rhythmically on her haunches and after a while she began to speak, but her voice had changed to a low, grating monotone. ‘There are two men. Neither is your father, but both will be more than your father,’ she said. ‘There is another road. You must follow the road of the great grey men who are not men.’ She drew a long, wheezing, asthmatic breath. ‘Learn the secret ways of the wild creatures, and other men will honour you for that knowledge and understanding. You will walk with mighty men of power, and they will count you their equal. There will be many women, but only one woman who will be many women. She will come to you from the clouds. Like them she will show you many faces.’ She broke off and made a strangling noise at the back of her throat. With supernatural chill he realized that she was in the struggles of divination. At last she shook herself violently and blinked. Her eyes rolled forward so that he could look into their dark centres as she focused on his face. ‘Hearken to what I told you, my son,’ she said softly. ‘The time for you to choose will soon be upon you.’

‘I did not understand what you were telling me.’

‘In time it will become clear to you,’ she assured him. ‘When you need me I will always be here. I am not your mother, but I have become more than your mother.’

‘You speak in riddles, Mama,’ he said, and she smiled a fond but enigmatic smile.

In the morning Manyoro regained consciousness but he was very weak and confused. He tried to sit up but did not have the strength to do so. He gazed at them blearily. ‘What has happened? What place is this?’ Then he recognized his mother. ‘Mama, is it truly you? I thought it was a dream. I have been dreaming.’

‘You are safe in my manyatta on Lonsonyo Mountain,’ she told him. ‘We removed the Nandi arrow from your leg.’

‘The arrow? Yes, I remember . . . The Nandi?’

The slave girls brought him a bowl of ox blood and milk, which he drank greedily, spilling some down his chest. He lay back gasping. Then, for the first time, he noticed Leon squatting in the gloom of the hut. ‘Bwana!’ This time he managed to sit up. ‘You are with me still?’

‘I am here.’ Leon went to him quietly.

‘How long? How many days since we left Niombi?’


‘Headquarters in Nairobi will think you are dead or that you have deserted.’ He gripped Leon’s shirt and shook it agitatedly. ‘You must report to Headquarters, Bwana. You must not neglect your duty for me.’

‘We will go back to Nairobi when you are ready to march.’

‘No, Bwana, no. You must go at once. You know that the major is not your friend. He will make trouble for you. You must go at once, and I will follow you when I am able.’

‘Manyoro is right,’ Lusima intervened. ‘You can do no more here. You must go to your chief in Nairobi.’ Leon had lost track of time, but now he realized with a guilty shock that it must be more than three weeks since he had had contact with his battalion headquarters. ‘Loikot will guide you to the railway line. He knows that part of the country well. Go with him,’ Lusima urged him.

‘I will,’ he agreed, and stood up. There were no preparations he needed to make for the journey. He had no weapons or baggage, and hardly any clothing other than his ragged khaki.

Lusima provided him with a Masai shuka. ‘It is the best protection I can give you. It will shield you from sun and cold. The Nandi fear the red shuka – even the lions flee from it.’

‘Lions also?’ Leon suppressed a smile.

‘You will see.’ She returned his smile.

He and Loikot left within an hour of making the decision. During the rains of the previous season the boy had herded his father’s cattle as far north as the railway and knew the land well.

Leon’s feet had healed just sufficiently for him to lace on his boots. Limping gingerly he followed Loikot down the mountain towards the great plain below. At the foot he paused to relace his boots. When he straightened again he looked up and saw the tiny but unmistakable silhouette of Lusima standing on the lip of the cliff. He lifted one arm in farewell, but she did not acknowledge the gesture. Instead she turned and disappeared from his sight.

As his feet healed and hardened he was able to increase his speed and hurry after Loikot. The boy covered the ground with the long, flowing stride characteristic of his people. As he went he kept up a running commentary on everything that caught his attention. He missed nothing with the bright young eyes that could pick out the ethereal grey shape of a kudu bull standing deep in a thicket of thorn scrub three hundred yards distant.

The plain over which they were travelling abounded with living creatures. Loikot ignored the herds of smaller antelope that skittered around them, but remarked on anything of more significance. By this time, with his sharp ear for language, Leon had picked up enough Maa to follow the boy’s chatter with little difficulty.

They had carried no food with them when they left Lonsonyo Mountain and Leon had been puzzled as to how they would subsist, but he need not have worried: Loikot provided a strange variety of sustenance, which included small birds and their eggs, locusts and other insects, wild fruit and roots, a spurfowl, which he knocked out of the air with his staff as it flushed on noisy wings from under his feet, and a large monitor lizard that he pursued across the veld for half a mile before he beat it to death. The lizard’s flesh tasted like chicken, and there was enough to feed them for three days, although by then the carcass had been colonized by swarms of iridescent blue flies and their fat white offspring.

Leon and Loikot slept each night beside a small fire, covered with their shukas against the chill, and started again while the morning star was still high and bright in the dawn sky. On the third morning the sun was still below the horizon and the light poor when Loikot stopped dead and pointed in the direction of a flat-topped acacia tree only fifty yards away. ‘Ho, you killer of cattle, I greet you,’ he cried.

‘Who is it?’ Leon demanded.

‘Do you not see him? Open your eyes, M’bogo.’ Loikot pointed with his staff. Only then did Leon make out two small black tufts in the brown grass between them and the tree. One flicked and the whole picture sprang into focus. Leon was staring at an enormous male lion, crouching flat in the grass and watching them with implacable yellow eyes. The tell-tale tufts were the black tips of its round ears.

‘Sweet God!’ Leon took a step back.

Loikot laughed. ‘He knows I am Masai. He will run if I challenge him.’ He brandished his staff. ‘Hey, Old One, the day of my testing will soon come. I will meet you then, and we shall see which is the best of us.’ He was referring to his ritual trial of courage. Before he could be counted a man and have the right to plant his spear at the door of any woman who caught his fancy, the young morani must confront his lion face to face and kill him with his broad-bladed assegai.

‘Fear me, you thief of cattle. Fear me, for I am your death!’ Loikot raised his staff, held it like a stabbing spear and advanced on the lion with a lithe, dancing step. Leon was amazed when the lion leaped to its feet, curled its lip in a threatening growl, then slunk away into the grass.

‘Did you see me, M’bogo?’ Loikot crowed. ‘Did you see how Simba fears me? Did you see him run from me? He knows I am a morani. He knows I am a Masai.’

‘You crazy tyke!’ Leon relaxed his clenched fists. ‘You’ll get us both eaten.’ He laughed with relief. He remembered Lusima’s words, and it occurred to him that, over the hundreds of years that the Masai had relentlessly hunted generation after generation of lions, their persecution had ingrained a deep memory in the beasts. They had come to recognize a tall red-cloaked figure as a mortal threat.

Loikot leaped in the air, pirouetted with triumph and led him on northwards. As they went, Loikot continued his instruction. Without slackening his pace he pointed out the spoor of large game as he came upon it, and described the animal that had made it. Leon was fascinated by the depth of his knowledge of the wild and its creatures. Of course, it was not difficult to understand how the child had become so adept: almost since he had taken his first step he had tended his tribe’s herds. Manyoro had told him that even the youngest herd-boys could follow a lost beast for days over the most difficult terrain. But he was fascinated when Loikot came to a stop and, with the tip of his staff, traced the faint outline of an enormous round pad mark. The ground was baked hard by the sun, and covered with chips of shale and flint. Leon would never have picked out the track of a bull elephant without the boy’s help, but Loikot could read every detail and nuance of it.

‘I know this one. I have seen him often. His teeth are this long . . .’ He made a mark in the dust, then paced out three of his longest strides and made a second mark. ‘He is a great grey chief of his tribe.’

Lusima had used the same description: ‘Follow the great grey men who are not men.’ At the time it had puzzled Leon, but now he realized she been speaking about elephant. He pondered her advice as they went on into the north. He had always been fascinated by the wild chase. From his father’s library he had read all the books written by the great hunters. He had followed the adventures of Baker, Selous, Gordon-Cumming, Cornwallis Harris and the rest. The lure of wild sports was one of the most powerful reasons why he had enlisted in the KAR rather than enter his father’s business. His father termed any activity not aimed specifically at the accumulation of money as ‘slacking’. But Leon had heard that the army brass encouraged their young officers to indulge in such manly pursuits as big-game hunting. Captain Cornwallis Harris had been given a full year’s leave of absence from his regiment in India to travel to South Africa and hunt in the unexplored wilderness. Leon longed to be able to emulate his heroes but so far he had been disappointed.

Since he had joined the KAR he had applied on more than one occasion for a few days’ leave to indulge in his first big-game hunt. Major Snell, his commanding officer, had dismissed his requests out of hand. ‘If you think you have signed up for a glorified hunting safari then you are very much mistaken, Courtney,’ he said. ‘Get back to your duties. I want to hear no more of this nonsense.’ So far his hunting had been restricted to a few small antelope, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle – known to all as Tommies – which he had shot to feed his askari while they were on patrol. But his heart stirred when he watched the magnificent animals that flourished all around him. He longed for a chance to go after them.

He wondered if by counselling him to ‘follow the great grey men’, Lusima was suggesting he should take to the life of an ivory hunter. It was an intriguing prospect. He went on more cheerfully behind Loikot. Life seemed good and full of promise. He had comported himself honourably during his first military action. Manyoro was alive. A new career was opening ahead of him. Best of all, Verity O’Hearne was waiting for him in Nairobi. Yes, life was good, very good indeed.

Five days after they had left Lonsonyo Mountain, Loikot turned east and led him up the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley into the rolling forested hills of the uplands. They topped one and looked down into the shallow valley beyond. In the distance something glinted in the late-evening sunlight. Leon shaded his eyes. ‘Yes, M’bogo,’ Loikot told him. ‘There is your iron snake.’

He saw the smoke of the locomotive spurting in regular puffs above the tops of the trees and heard the mournful blast of a steam whistle.

‘I will leave you now. Even you cannot lose your way from here,’ Loikot told him loftily. ‘I must go back to care for the cattle.’

Leon watched him go regretfully. He had enjoyed the boy’s lively company. Then he put it out of his mind and went down the hill.

The locomotive driver leaned out of the side window of his cab and spotted the tall figure beside the tracks far ahead. He saw at once from his ochre-red shuka that he was Masai. It was only as the engine puffed closer that the man swept open his cloak and the driver saw he was a white man in the ragged remnants of a khaki uniform. He reached for the brake lever and the wheels squealed on the steel rails as they drew to a halt in a cloud of steam.

Major Frederick Snell, officer commanding the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, The King’s African Rifles, did not look up from the document he was perusing when Lieutenant Leon Courtney was marched under armed escort into his office in Battalion Headquarters.

Snell was old for his command. He had fought without particular distinction in the Sudan against the Mahdi, and again in South Africa against the wily Boers. He was close to retirement age, and dreading its arrival. On his army pension he would be able to afford only a mean lodging in a town such as Brighton or Bournemouth, which, for the remainder of their days, would have to be home for both him and his wife of forty years. Maggie Snell had spent a lifetime in army quarters in tropical climes, which had yellowed her complexion, soured her disposition and sharpened her tongue.

Snell was a small man. His once bright ginger hair had faded and fallen out until he was left with only a scraggly white fringe around a freckled pate. His mouth was wide but his lips were thin. His eyes were round, pale blue and protuberant, which justified his nickname: ‘Freddie the Frog’.

He replaced his pipe between his lips and sucked at it, making it gurgle noisily. He was frowning as he finished reading the handwritten sheaf of paper. He still did not look up, but removed the pipe from his mouth and flicked it against the wall of his office, leaving a splatter of yellow nicotine drops across the whitewash. He put it back in his mouth and returned to the first page of the document. He read it again with deliberation, then laid it neatly in front of him and at last raised his head.

‘Prisoner! Attention!’ barked Sergeant Major M’fefe, who commanded the guard detail. Leon stamped his battered boots on the cement floor and stood erect.

Snell eyed him with distaste. Leon had been arrested three days earlier when he had presented himself at the main gates of Battalion Headquarters. Since then he had been held on Major Snell’s orders in detention barracks. He had not been able to shave or change his uniform. The stubble on his jaw was dark and dense. What remained of his tunic was filthy and tattered. The sleeves had been ripped off. His bare arms and legs were criss-crossed with thorn scratches. But despite his present circumstances he still made Snell feel inadequate. Even in his rags Leon Courtney was tall and powerfully built, and he radiated an air of naïve self-confidence. Snell’s wife, who seldom expressed approval of anyone or anything, had once remarked wistfully on how fetchingly handsome young Courtney was. ‘He’s set a few hearts fluttering hereabouts, I can tell you,’ she had said to her husband.

Now Snell thought bitterly, No more fluttering hearts for a while. I shall see to that. Then at last he spoke aloud: ‘Well, Courtney, this time you have outdone yourself.’ He tapped the wad of papers in front of him. ‘I have been reading your report with nothing less than wonder.’

‘Sir!’ Leon acknowledged.

‘It defies belief.’ Snell shook his head. ‘Even for you the events you describe form a low watermark.’ He sighed, but behind the disapproving expression he was elated. At last this bumptious young shaver had gone too far. He wanted to savour the moment. He had waited almost a year for it. ‘I wonder what your uncle will make of this extraordinary account when he reads it.’

Leon’s uncle was Colonel Penrod Ballantyne, the regimental commander. He was many years younger than Snell but he already outranked him by a wide margin. Snell knew that before he himself was forced into retirement Ballantyne would probably be promoted to general and given command of a full division in some pleasant part of the Empire. After that a knighthood would follow as a matter of course.

General Sir Penrod Bloody Ballantyne! Snell thought. He hated the man, and hated his bloody nephew, standing before him now. All his life he had been passed over while men like Ballantyne had soared effortlessly over his head. Well, I can’t do much about the old dog, he thought grimly, but this pup is a different matter entirely.

He scratched his head with the stem of his pipe. ‘Tell me, Courtney, do you understand why I have had you detained since you arrived back in barracks?’

‘Sir!’ Leon stared at the wall above his head.

‘In case that should mean, “No, sir”, I would like to run through the events you describe in this report, and point out those that have given me concern. Do you have any objections?’

‘Sir! No, sir.’

‘Thank you, Lieutenant. On the sixteenth of July you were ordered to take under your command a detachment of seven men and to proceed immediately to the District Commissioner’s headquarters at Niombi and take up guard duties to protect the station against possible forays by Nandi rebels. That is correct, is it not?’

‘Sir! Yes, sir!’

‘As ordered, you left these barracks on the sixteenth but you and your detachment did not reach Niombi until twelve days later, although you travelled by rail as far as Mashi siding. This left you a march of less than a hundred and twenty miles to Niombi. So it seems that you covered the distance at the rate of less than ten miles a day.’ Snell looked up from the report. ‘That could hardly be described as a forced march. Do you agree?’

‘Sir, I have explained the reason in my report.’ Leon was still standing to attention and staring at the nicotine-speckled wall above Snell’s head.

‘Ah, yes! You came across the tracks of a large war-party of Nandi rebels and decided in your infinite wisdom to disregard your orders to proceed to Niombi but rather to follow up and engage the rebels. I hope I have read your explanation correctly.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Please explain to me, Lieutenant, how you knew that these tracks were those of a war-party and not simply those of hunters from a tribe other than the Nandi or refugees fleeing from the area of the uprising.’

‘Sir, I was advised by my sergeant that they were those of Nandi rebels.’

‘You accepted his evaluation?’

‘Yes, sir. Sergeant Manyoro is an expert tracker.’

‘So you spent six days following up these mythical insurgents?’

‘Sir, they were moving directly towards the mission station at Nakuru. It seemed they might be intent on attacking and destroying the settlement. I thought it my duty to prevent them doing so.’

‘Your duty was to obey orders. Be that as it may, the fact is that you never managed to catch up.’

‘Sir, the Nandi became aware that we were in pursuit, broke up into smaller parties and scattered into the bush. I turned back and proceeded to Niombi.’

‘As you had been ordered?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Of course, Sergeant Manyoro is not in a position to corroborate your version of events. I have merely your word.’ Snell went on.


‘So, to continue,’ Snell glanced down at the report, ‘you broke off the pursuit and at long last made for Niombi.’


‘When you reached the boma you discovered that while you had been wandering around the countryside the district commissioner and his family had been massacred. Immediately after this discovery you then realized you had led your detachment negligently into a Nandi ambush. You turned tail and ran, leaving your men to fend for themselves.’

‘That is not what happened, sir!’ Leon was unable to disguise his outrage.

‘And that outburst was insubordination, Lieutenant.’ Snell relished the word, rolling it around his mouth as though he was tasting a fine claret.

‘I apologize, sir. It was not intended as such.’

‘I assure you, Courtney, that it was taken thus. However, you disagree with my evaluation of the events at Niombi. Have you witnesses to support your version?’

‘Sergeant Manyoro, sir.’

‘Of course, I had forgotten how when you left Niombi you placed the sergeant on your back and, outrunning a rebel army, carried him southwards into Masailand.’ Snell sneered luxuriously. ‘It should be remarked at this point that you took him in the opposite direction from Nairobi, then left him with his mother. His mother forsooth!’ Snell chuckled. ‘How touching!’ He lit his pipe and puffed at it. ‘The relief party that reached the Niombi boma many days after the massacre found that all the corpses of your men had been so mutilated by the rebels that it was impossible to identify them with any certainty, especially as those who had not been decapitated had been largely devoured by vultures and hyena. I think you left your sergeant among those corpses, rather than with his mother as you avow. I believe that after you deserted the battlefield you skulked in the wilderness until you were able to recover your nerve sufficiently to return to Nairobi with this cock-and-bull story.’

‘No, sir.’ Leon was trembling with anger, and his fists were bunched at his sides so that the knuckles showed bone white.

‘Since joining the battalion you have displayed a fine contempt for military discipline and authority. You have shown a much greater interest in such frivolous activity as polo and big-game hunting than in the duties of a junior subaltern. It is clear that you consider those duties beneath your dignity. Not only that, you have disregarded the decent demands of social convention. You have taken to yourself the role of a lascivious Lothario, outraging the decent folk of the colony.’

‘Major, sir, I don’t see how you can substantiate those accusations.’

‘Substantiate? Very well, I will substantiate. You are probably unaware that during your prolonged absence in Masailand the governor of the colony has seen fit to repatriate a young widow to England to protect her from your depredations. The entire community of Nairobi is outraged by your behaviour. You are, sir, a confounded rogue, with respect for nothing and no one.’

‘Repatriated!’ Leon turned ashen under the filth and his tan. ‘They have sent Verity home?’

‘Ah, so you acknowledge the poor woman’s identity. Yes, Mrs O’Hearne has gone back to England. She left a week ago.’ Snell paused to let it sink in. He gloated at the knowledge that he himself had brought the sordid affair to the governor’s attention. He had always found Verity O’Hearne devilishly attractive. After the death of her husband, he had often fantasized about comforting and protecting her in her bereavement. From a distance he had gazed at her longingly when she sat on the front lawn of the Settlers’ Club taking tea with his wife and other members of the Women’s Institute. She was so young, lovely and gay, and Maggie Snell, sitting beside her, so old, ugly and crabby. When he had heard whispers of her involvement with one of his subalterns he was devastated. Then he became extremely angry. Verity O’Hearne’s virtue and reputation were in danger and it was his duty to protect her. He had gone to the governor.

‘Well, Courtney, I do not intend to substantiate my allegations any further. All will be decided at your court-martial. Your dossier has been handed to Captain Roberts of Second Battalion. He has agreed to act as prosecuting officer.’ Eddy Roberts was one of Snell’s favourites. ‘The charges against you will be desertion, cowardice, dereliction of duty and failing to obey the orders of a superior officer. Second Lieutenant Sampson of the same battalion has agreed to defend you. I know that the two of you are friendly, so I do not expect you to object to my choice. There has been some difficulty in finding three officers to make up the court. Naturally I am unable to sit on the panel, as I will be required to give evidence during the proceedings, and most officers are in the field against the last of the rebels. Fortunately a P&O liner docked in Mombasa over the weekend carrying a group on leave from India en route for Southampton. I have arranged that a colonel and two captains will travel up from Mombasa by train to Nairobi to make up a full panel of judges. They are due to arrive at eighteen hundred hours this evening. They will have to return to Mombasa by Friday to continue their voyage, so the proceedings must commence tomorrow morning. I will send Lieutenant Sampson to your quarters immediately to consult with you and to prepare your defence. You’re in a sorry state, Courtney. I can smell you from where I sit. Go and get yourself cleaned up and be ready to appear before the court for arraignment first thing tomorrow morning. Until then you are confined to your quarters.’

‘I request an interview with Colonel Ballantyne, sir. I need an extension of time to prepare my defence.’

‘Unfortunately, Colonel Ballantyne is not in Nairobi at the moment. He is in the Nandi tribal lands with First Battalion making reprisals for the Niombi massacre and stamping out the last of the rebel resistance. It is unlikely that he will return to Nairobi for several weeks. When he does, I am certain he will take cognizance of your request.’ Snell smiled coldly. ‘That is all. Prisoner, dismiss!’

‘Guard detail, attention!’ barked Sergeant Major M’fefe. ‘About turn! Quick march! Left, right, left . . .’ Leon found himself out in the brilliant sunshine of the parade-ground, being marched at double time towards the officers’ billets. Everything was moving so swiftly that he had difficulty in ordering his thoughts.

Leon’s quarters were a rondavel, a single-roomed building with a circular mud-daub wall and a thatched roof. It stood in the centre of a row of identical huts. Each was occupied by an unmarried officer. At his door, Sergeant Major M’fefe saluted Leon smartly and said softly but awkwardly, in Kiswahili, ‘I am sorry this has happened, Lieutenant. I know you are no coward.’ M’fefe had never, in twenty-five years of service, been required to arrest and place under guard one of his own officers. He felt ashamed and humiliated.

Even though most of Leon’s company turned out to cheer his performance in any cricket or polo match, and when they saluted him it was always with a sparkling African grin, he was only superficially aware of his popularity among the other ranks so he was moved by the sergeant major’s words.

M’fefe went on hurriedly to cover his embarrassment: ‘After you left on patrol a lady came to the main gates and left a box for you, Bwana. She told me to make sure you received it. I put it in your room next to the bed.’

‘Thank you, Sergeant Major.’ Leon was equally embarrassed. He turned away and went into the sparsely furnished hut. It contained an iron bedstead with a mosquito net suspended over it from a rafter, a single shelf and a wardrobe made from an old packing case. It was scrupulously clean and tidy. The walls had been recently lime-washed and the floor gleamed with a coating of beeswax. His scant possessions were arranged with geometrical precision on the shelf above his bed. During his absence Ishmael, his manservant, had been as meticulous as ever. The only item out of place was the long leather case that was propped against the wall.

Leon crossed to the bed and sat down. He felt close to despair. So many disasters had struck him at once. Almost without conscious volition he reached out for the leather case M’fefe had left for him, and laid it across his lap. It was made of travel-scarred but expensive leather, covered with steamship labels, and fitted with three solid brass locks, whose keys were attached by a thong to the handle. He unlocked it, lifted the lid and stared in astonishment at the contents. Nestled in the fitted green baize compartments were the components of a heavy rifle with, in their own tailored slots, the ramrod, oil can and other accessories. On the underside of the lid a large label bore the name of the gunmaker printed in ornate script:


Manufacturers of

Guns, Rifles, Pistols

and every description of breech loading firearms.

98 New Bond Street. London W.

With a sense of reverence Leon reassembled the rifle, fitting the barrels into the action and clamping them in position with the forestock. He stroked the oil-finished wood of the butt, the polished walnut silky smooth under his fingertips. He lifted the rifle and aimed it at a small gecko that hung upside-down on the far wall. The butt fitted perfectly into his shoulder and the barrels aligned themselves under his eye. He held the bead of the foresight in the wide V of the rear express sight rock-steady on the lizard’s head.

‘Bang, bang, you’re dead,’ he told it, and laughed for the first time since he had returned to barracks. He lowered the weapon and read the engraving on the barrels.H&H Royal .470 Nitro Express. Then the pure gold oval inlay let into the walnut of the butt caught his eye. It was engraved with the initials of the original owner: PO’H.

‘Patrick O’Hearne,’ he murmured. The magnificent weapon had belonged to Verity’s dead husband. An envelope was pinned to the green baize of the lid beside the maker’s label. He set down the rifle carefully on the pillow at the head of his bed and reached for it. He split the seal with his thumbnail and pulled out two folded sheets of paper. The first was a receipt dated 29 August 1906:

To whom it may concern: I have this day sold the H&H .470 rifle with serial number 1863 to Lieutenant Leon Courtney and have received from him the sum of twenty-five guineas in full and final payment. Signed: Verity Abigail O’Hearne.

With this document Verity had transferred the rifle legally into his name so that nobody could contest his ownership. He folded the receipt and returned it to the envelope. Then he opened the other sheet of paper. It was undated and the handwriting was scrawled and uneven, unlike that on the receipt. Her pen had twice left splashes of ink on the page. It was obvious that she had been in a state of upheaval when she had written it.

Dearest, dearest Leon,

By the time you read this I will be on my way back to Ireland. I did not want to go, but I have been given little choice. Deep in my heart I know that the person who is sending me away is right and it is for the best. Next year I will be thirty years old, and you are just nineteen and a very junior subaltern. I am sure that one day you will be a famous general covered with medals and glory, but by then I will be an old maid. I have to go. This gift I leave you is an earnest of my affection for you. Go and forget me. Find happiness somewhere else. I will always hold you in my memory as I once held you in my arms.

It was signed ‘V’. His vision blurred and his breathing was uneven as he reread the letter.

Before he reached the last line there was a polite knock on the door of his rondavel. ‘Who is it?’ he called.

‘It is me, Effendi.’

‘Just a minute, Ishmael.’

Quickly he wiped his eyes on the back of his forearm, placed the letter under his pillow and packed the rifle back into its case. He pushed it under the bed and called, ‘Come in, Beloved of the Prophet.’

Ishmael, who was a devout coastal Swahili, came in with a zinc bathtub balanced on his head. ‘Welcome back, Effendi. You bring the sun into my heart.’ He set the tub in the centre of the floor, then set about filling it with steaming buckets of water from the fireplace behind the hut. While the water cooled to a bearable temperature, Ishmael whipped a sheet around Leon’s neck and then, with comb and scissors, took up position behind him and began to snip at Leon’s sweat- and dust-caked hair. He worked with practised skill, and when he had finished he stood back and nodded, satisfied, then fetched the shaving mug and brush. He worked up a creamy lather over Leon’s stubble, then stropped the long blade of the straight razor and handed it to his master. He held the small hand mirror while Leon scraped his jaw clean, then wiped away the last traces of soap.

‘How does that look?’ Leon asked.

‘Your beauty would blind the houris of Paradise, Effendi,’ Ishmael said solemnly, and tested the bathwater with one finger. ‘It is ready.’

Leon stripped off his stinking rags and threw them against the far wall, then went to the steaming bath and lowered himself into it, with a sigh of pleasure. The bath was hardly large enough to accommodate him, and he sat with his knees under his chin. Ishmael gathered up his soiled clothing, holding it ostentatiously at arm’s length, and carried it away. He left the door open behind him. Without knocking, Bobby Sampson ambled in.

‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,’ he said, with a diffident grin. Bobby was only a year older than Leon. He was a large, gawky but affable youth, and as the two most junior officers in the regiment, he and Leon had formed a friendship that had at its core the instinct for survival. They had sealed their friendship with the joint purchase of a dilapidated and road-beaten Vauxhall truck from a Hindu coffee-grower for the sum of three pounds ten shillings, almost their total combined savings. By working until all hours of the night they had restored it to an approximation of its former glory.

Bobby went to the bed and dropped on to it, placed his hands behind his head, crossed his ankles and contemplated the gecko, which had climbed into the rafters and now hung upside down, above him. ‘Well, old man, you seem to have got yourself into a bit of a pickle, what? I’m sure you know by now that Freddie the Frog is accusing you of all sorts of mischief and wrongdoing. Quite by chance, I happen to have with me a copy of the charge sheet.’ He reached into the large side pocket of his uniform jacket and brought out a crumpled ball of papers. He smoothed them out on his chest, then waved them at Leon. ‘Some pretty colourful stuff here. I’m impressed with your naughtiness. Trouble is, I’ve been ordered to defend you, what? What?’

‘For God’s sake, Bobby, stop saying “what”. You know it drives me mad.’

Bobby put on an expression of contrition. ‘Sorry, old boy. Truth is I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m supposed to be doing.’

‘Bobby, you are an idiot.’

‘Can’t help it, my old beauty. Mother must have dropped me on my head, don’t you know? Anyway, back to the main item on the agenda. Have you any idea what I’m supposed to be doing?’

‘You’re supposed to bedazzle the judges with your wit and erudition.’ Leon was beginning to feel more cheerful. He enjoyed the way Bobby hid his astute mind behind a bumbling façade.

‘Bit depleted in the wit and erudition department, at the moment,’ Bobby admitted. ‘What else is there?’

Leon rose from the bath splashing soapy water over the floor. Bobby balled up the towel Ishmael had left on the end of the bed and threw it at his head.

‘For a start, let’s read through the charges together,’ Leon suggested, as he towelled himself.

Bobby brightened. ‘Brilliant idea. Always suspected you of being a genius.’

Leon pulled on a pair of khaki trousers. ‘Bit short of seating in here,’ he said. ‘Move your fat arse.’

Bobby sat up, serious now. He made room for his friend on the bed, and Leon settled beside him. Together they pored over the charge sheet.

When the light in the hut faded, Ishmael brought in a bullseye lamp and hung it on its hook. They worked on by its feeble yellow light, until at last Bobby rubbed his eyes and yawned, then pulled out his half-hunter and wound it vigorously. ‘It’s well past midnight and you and I have to be in court at nine o’clock. We’ll have to call it a day. By the way, would you like to know what I think of your chances of acquittal?’

‘Not really,’ Leon answered.

‘If you offered me odds of a thousand to one I wouldn’t risk twopence ha’penny,’ Bobby told him. ‘If only we could find this sergeant of yours the story might have a different ending.’

‘Fat chance of that happening before nine o’clock tomorrow. Manyoro’s on top of a mountain in Masailand, hundreds of miles away.’

The officers’ mess had been converted into a courtroom to house the proceedings. The three judges were seated at the high table on the dais. There were two tables below them, one for the defence and the other for the prosecution. It was hot in the small room. On the outside veranda a punkah-wallah heaved regularly on the rope that disappeared into a hole in the ceiling above him, and from there over a series of pulleys to the fan hanging above the judges’ table. Its blades whirred monotonously, stirring the languid air into an illusion of cool.

Sitting beside Bobby Sampson at the defence table, Leon studied the faces of his judges. Cowardice, desertion, dereliction of duty and failing to obey the orders of a superior officer: all of the crimes with which he was charged carried the maximum penalty of execution by firing squad. The skin of his forearms prickled. These men held over him the power of life and death.

‘Look them in the eye and speak up,’ Bobby whispered, holding up his notepad to conceal his lips. ‘That’s what my old daddy always told me.’

Not all of his judges looked human and compassionate. The senior man was the Indian Army colonel who had come by rail from Mombasa. It seemed that the journey had not agreed with him. His expression was sour and dyspeptic. He wore the flamboyant uniform of the 11th (The Prince of Wales’ Own) Bengal Lancers. There were two rows of decoration ribbons on his chest, his riding boots gleamed and the tail of his multi-coloured silk turban was thrown back over one shoulder. His face was flushed by the sun and whisky, his eyes were as fierce as a leopard’s, and the tips of his moustache were waxed into sharp points.

‘He looks a right man-eater,’ Bobby whispered. He had been following Leon’s gaze. ‘Believe me, he’s the one we have to convince, and it’s not going to be easy.’

‘Gentlemen, are we ready to begin?’ boomed the senior judge, and turned his cold, slightly bloodshot eyes on Eddy Roberts at the prosecution table.

‘Yes, Colonel.’ Roberts stood up respectfully to reply. He was Froggy Snell’s favourite, which was why he had been selected.

The president looked at the defence table. ‘What about you?’ he demanded, and Bobby leaped to his feet with such alacrity that he sent his carefully arranged pile of papers cascading on to the floor. ‘Oh, dearie me!’ he stuttered and dropped to his knees to gather them up. ‘I beg your pardon, sir.’

‘Are you ready?’ Colonel Wallace’s voice was as loud as a foghorn in the confines of the small room.

‘I am, sir. I am indeed.’ Bobby peered up at him from the floor, clutching his papers to his chest. He was blushing rosily.

‘We haven’t got all week. Let’s get on with it, young fellow.’

The adjutant, serving as clerk and court recorder, read the list of charges, then Eddy Roberts came to his feet to open the case for the prosecution. His manner was relaxed, and he spoke clearly and convincingly. The judges followed his address with attention.

‘Damn me, but Eddy’s rather good, what?’ Bobby fretted.

After his preamble Eddy called Major Snell, his first witness, to the box. He led him through the charge sheet and had him confirm the details set out in the document. Then he questioned him on the accused’s service record and the performance of his duties up to the time when he was sent to guard the boma at Niombi. Snell was too sly to let his evidence seem one-sided and prejudiced against Leon. However, he managed to make his qualified and lukewarm assessments seem like damning condemnation.

‘I would reply to that question by saying that Lieutenant Courtney is a skilled polo player. He also evinces a passion for big-game hunting. These activities take up much of his time when he might be better employed elsewhere.’

‘What about his other behaviour? Have you been made aware of any social scandal surrounding his name?’

Bobby jumped to his feet. ‘Objection, Mr President!’ he cried. ‘That calls for conjecture and hearsay. My client’s conduct when off duty has no bearing on the charges before the court.’

‘What do you say to that?’ Colonel Wallace turned his searching glare on Eddy Roberts.

‘I believe that the accused’s integrity and moral character have a direct bearing on this case, sir.’

‘The objection is denied and the witness may reply to the question.’

‘The question was . . .’ Eddy pretended to consult his notes ‘. . . are you aware of any scandal surrounding the name of the accused?’

It was what Snell had been waiting for. ‘As a matter of fact there has recently been an unfortunate incident. The accused became involved with a young gentlewoman, a widow. So blatantly scandalous was his behaviour that it brought the honour of the regiment into question, and enraged the local community. The governor of the colony, Sir Charles Eliot, had little option but to arrange for the lady in question to be repatriated.’

The heads of the three judges turned to Leon, their expressions forbidding. It was only a few years since the death of the old queen, and despite the racy reputation of her son, the reigning sovereign, the older generations were still influenced by Victoria’s strict mores.

Bobby scribbled on his notepad, then turned it so that Leon could read what he had written. ‘I am not going to cross-examine on that issue, agreed?’

Leon nodded unhappily.

After a long pause to let the importance of that testimony register with the judges, Eddy Roberts picked up a thick book from the desk in front of him. ‘Major Snell, do you recognize this book?’

‘Of course I do. It’s the battalion order book.’

Eddy opened it at a marked page and read aloud the extract that covered Leon’s orders to take his detachment to Niombi boma. When he had finished he asked, ‘Major Snell, were those your orders to the accused?’


Eddy quoted once again from the open page of the order book: ‘ “You are ordered to proceed with utmost despatch . . .” ’ He looked up at Snell. ‘With utmost despatch,’ he repeated. ‘Those were your precise instructions?’

‘They were.’

‘In the event the accused took eight days to make the journey. Would you consider that he acted “with utmost despatch”?’

‘No, I would not.’

‘The accused has given as his reason for his tardiness the fact that en route to Niombi he came across the tracks of a rebel war-party and felt it his duty to follow them up. Would you agree with him that it was his duty?’

‘Certainly not! His duty was to proceed to Niombi and take up a guard position over the inhabitants, as he had been ordered to do.’

‘Do you think that the accused would have been able to recognize with any certainty that the tracks he was following had been made by Nandi rebels?’

‘I do not. I am strongly inclined to doubt the assertion that the tracks were left by humans. Given Lieutenant Courtney’s predilection for shikar – hunting – it was more likely that the tracks of some animal, such as a bull elephant, excited his attention.’

‘Objection, your honour!’ wailed Bobby. ‘That is merely conjecture on the part of the witness.’

Before the senior judge could make a ruling Eddy cut in smoothly: ‘I withdraw the question, sir.’ He was satisfied that he had placed the thought in the minds of the three judges. He led Snell on through Leon’s report. ‘The accused states that, with most of his men killed and his sergeant badly wounded, he fought a valiant defence against heavy odds and was only driven out of the Niombi boma when the rebels set fire to the building.’ He tapped the page of the document. ‘When that happened he placed the wounded man on his back and, using the smoke from the building as a screen, carried him away. Is this credible?’

Snell smiled knowingly. ‘Sergeant Manyoro was a big man. He stood well over six feet.’

‘I have a copy of his medical report. The man stood six feet three and a half inches with his feet bare. A very big man. You would agree?’

‘Indeed.’ Snell nodded. ‘And the accused claims that he carried him something like thirty miles without being overtaken by the rebels.’ He shook his head. ‘I doubt that even such a powerful man as Lieutenant Courtney is capable of such a feat.’

‘Then what do you think has happened to the sergeant?’

‘I believe that the accused deserted him at Niombi with the rest of his detachment, and made his escape alone.’

‘Objection.’ Bobby jumped to his feet. ‘Conjecture!’

‘Objection sustained. The court recorder will strike the question and the witness’s reply from the record,’ said the turbaned colonel, but he glanced disapprovingly at Leon.

Eddy Roberts consulted his notes. ‘We have heard evidence that the relief column was unable to find the sergeant’s body. How would you account for that?’

‘I must correct you there, Captain Roberts. The evidence is that they were unable to identify the sergeant’s body among the dead. That is a different matter. They found corpses in the burned-out building, but they were charred beyond recognition. The other bodies were either decapitated by the rebels or so badly mauled by vultures and hyena that they also were unrecognizable. Sergeant Manyoro could have been any one of those.’

Bobby cupped his face in his hands and said wearily, ‘Objection. Supposition.’

‘Sustained. Please stick to factual evidence, Major.’ Snell and his favourite exchanged a smug glance.

Eddy went on in a businesslike tone: ‘If Sergeant Manyoro had escaped from Niombi with the assistance of the accused, can you suggest where he is now?’

‘No, I cannot.’

‘At his family manyatta, perhaps? Visiting his mother, as the accused has stated in his report?’

‘In my view that is highly unlikely,’ Snell said. ‘I doubt that we shall ever see the sergeant again.’

The judges adjourned for a lunch of cold roasted guinea fowl and champagne on the wide veranda of the officers’ mess, and when they resumed Eddy Roberts continued his examination of Snell until the middle of the afternoon when he turned to the senior judge. ‘No further questions, your honour. I have finished with this witness.’ He was well satisfied and did not attempt to conceal it.

‘Do you wish to cross-examine, Lieutenant?’ The senior judge asked, as he consulted his pocket watch. ‘I would like to conclude by tomorrow evening at the latest. We have a ship to catch in Mombasa on Friday evening.’ He gave the impression that the verdict was already decided.

Bobby did his best to shake Snell’s self-confident mien, but he had so little to work with that the man was able to turn aside his questions in an indulgent and condescending tone, as though he was speaking to a child. Once or twice he cast a conspiratorial glance at the three judges.

At last the colonel hauled out his gold watch again and announced, ‘Gentlemen, that will do for the day. We will reconvene at nine in the morning.’ He stood up and led his fellow judges to the bar at the back of the mess.

‘I am afraid I didn’t do very well,’ Bobby confessed, as he and Leon went out on to the veranda. ‘It will all be up to you when you give your evidence tomorrow.’

Ishmael brought their dinner and two bottles of beer from his lean-to kitchen at the back of Leon’s rondavel. There was no chair in the hut, so the two men sprawled on the mud floor as they ate with little appetite and went despondently over their strategy for the morrow.

‘I wonder if the Nairobi ladies will think you so dashing and handsome when you’re standing against a brick wall wearing a blindfold,’ Bobby said.

‘Get out of here, you dismal johnny,’ Leon ordered. ‘I want to get some sleep.’ But sleep would not come, and he turned, tossed and sweated until the early hours of the morning. At last he sat up and lit the bullseye lantern. Then, wearing only his underpants, he started for the door and the communal latrine at the end of the row of huts. As he stepped out on to his veranda he almost stumbled over a small group of men squatting at the door. Leon started back in alarm and held the lantern high. ‘Who the hell are you?’ he demanded loudly. Then he saw that there were five of them, all dressed in the ochre-red Masai shukas.

One rose to his feet. ‘I see you, M’bogo,’ he said, and his ivory earrings flashed in the lamplight almost as brilliantly as his teeth.

‘Manyoro! What the hell are you doing here?’ Leon almost shouted, with rising delight and relief.

‘Lusima Mama sent me. She said you needed me.’

‘What the devil took you so long?’ Leon wanted to hug him.

‘I came as swiftly as I could, with the help of these, my brothers.’ He indicated the men behind him. ‘We reached Naro Moru siding in two days’ march from Lonsonyo Mountain. The driver of the train allowed us to sit on the roof and he brought us here at great speed.’

‘Mama was right. I have great need of your help, my brother.’

‘Lusima Mama is always right,’ said Manyoro, flatly. ‘What is this great trouble you are in? Are we going to war again?’

‘Yes,’ Leon answered. ‘Big war!’ All five Masai grinned with happy anticipation.

Ishmael had been alerted by their voices and he came staggering with sleep from the shack behind the rondavel to find the cause. ‘Are these Masai infidels causing trouble, Effendi? Shall I send them away?’ He had not recognized Sergeant Manyoro in his tribal dress.

‘No, Ishmael. Run as fast as you can to Lieutenant Bobby and tell him to come at once. Something wonderful has happened. Our prayers have been answered.’

‘Allah is great! His beneficence passes all understanding,’ Ishmael intoned, then set off for Bobby’s hut at a dignified jog.

‘Call Sergeant Manyoro to the witness stand!’ said Bobby Sampson confidently and loudly.

A stunned silence fell over the officers’ mess. The judges looked up from their notes with immediate interest as Manyoro limped through the door on a crudely carved crutch. He wore his number-one dress uniform, with puttees neatly wound around his calves, but his feet were bare. The regimental badge on the front of his red fez and his belt buckle had been lovingly polished with Brasso until they gleamed like stars. Sergeant Major M’fefe marched behind him, trying unsuccessfully to stop himself grinning. The pair came to a halt in front of the high table, and saluted the judges with a flourish.

‘Sergeant Major M’fefe will act as interpreter for those of us with limited Kiswahili,’ Bobby explained. When the witness had been sworn in Bobby looked at the interpreter. ‘Sergeant Major, please ask the witness to state his name and rank.’

‘I am Sergeant Manyoro of C Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, The King’s African Rifles,’ Manyoro announced proudly.

Major Snell’s face crumpled with dismay. Until that moment he had not recognized Manyoro. Leon had heard him announce more than once at the mess bar when he was on his third or fourth whisky, ‘These bloody wogs all look the same to me.’ Such pejorative remarks were typical of Snell’s overbearing disdainful attitude. No other officer would have used such a term to describe the men he commanded.

Have a good look at this bloody wog, Froggy, Leon thought happily. You won’t forget his face in a hurry.

‘Your honour,’ Bobby addressed the senior judge, ‘may the witness be allowed to give his evidence while seated? He has taken a Nandi arrow through his right leg. As you can see, it has not yet healed properly.’

All eyes in the room went down to Manyoro’s thigh, which had been swathed in fresh bandages that morning by the regimental surgeon. A patch of fresh blood had oozed through the white gauze.

‘Of course,’ said the senior judge. ‘Someone fetch him a chair.’

Everyone was leaning forward with anticipation. Major Snell and Eddy Roberts were exchanging agitated whispers. Eddy kept shaking his head.

‘Sergeant, is this man your company officer?’ Bobby indicated Leon at his side.

‘Bwana Lieutenant, he is my officer.’

‘Did you and your troop march with him to Niombi boma?’

‘We did, Bwana Lieutenant.’

‘Sergeant Manyoro, you need not keep calling me “Bwana Lieutenant”,’ Bobby protested, in fluent Kiswahili.

Ndio, Bwana Lieutenant,’ Manyoro agreed.

Bobby switched back into English for the benefit of the judges. ‘On the march did you come across any suspicious tracks?’

‘Yes. We found where a war-party of twenty-six Nandi warriors had come down the Rift Valley wall from the direction of Gelai Lumbwa.’

‘Twenty-six? Are you sure?’

‘Of course I am sure, Bwana Lieutenant.’ Manyoro looked affronted at the fatuity of the question.

‘How did you know for certain that it was a war-party?’

‘They had no women or children with them.’

‘How did you know they were Nandi and not Masai?’

‘Their feet are smaller than ours, and they walk in a different way.’

‘How different?’

‘Short strides – they are midgets. They do not step first on to their heel and push off with their toe as a true warrior does. They slap their feet down like pregnant baboons.’

‘So you could be certain that this was a Nandi war-party?’

‘Only a fool or a small child could have doubted it.’

‘Where were they headed?’

‘Towards the mission station at Nakuru.’

‘Was it your opinion that they were on their way to attack the mission?’

‘I did not think that they were going to drink beer with the priests,’ Manyoro replied loftily, and when the sergeant major had translated, the senior judge stifled a guffaw. The other judges smiled and nodded.

Eddy was looking glum now.

‘You told all this to your lieutenant? You discussed it with him?’

‘Of course.’

‘He gave you orders to pursue this war-party?’

Manyoro nodded. ‘We followed them for two days until we came so close that they realized we were after them.’

‘How did they reach that conclusion?’

‘The bush was open and even the Nandi have eyes in their heads,’ Manyoro explained patiently.

‘Then your officer ordered you to break off the pursuit and go to Niombi. Do you know why he decided not to engage the enemy?’

‘Twenty-six Nandi went off in twenty-six directions. My lieutenant is not a fool. He knew we might catch one if we ran hard and were lucky. He also knew that we had frightened them off and they would not continue to Nakuru. My bwana had saved the mission from attack and he would not waste more time.’

‘But you had lost almost four days?’

Ndio, Bwana Lieutenant.’

‘When you reached Niombi what did you find?’

‘Another Nandi war-party had raided the boma. They had killed the district commissioner, his wife and child. They had speared the baby and drowned the man and woman by pissing in their mouths.’

The judges leaned forward attentively as Bobby led Manyoro through a description of the Nandi ambush and the desperate fighting that had followed. Without visible emotion Manyoro told of how the rest of the troop had been cut down, and how he and Leon had fought their way into the boma and beaten back the attackers.

‘During the fight did your lieutenant behave like a man?’

‘He fought like a warrior.’

‘Did you see him kill any of the enemy?’

‘I saw him kill eight Nandi, but there may have been more. I myself was occupied.’

‘Then you received your wound. Tell us about that.’

‘Our ammunition was almost finished. We went out to recover more from our dead askari, who were lying in the parade-ground.’

‘Lieutenant Courtney went with you?’

‘He led the way.’

‘What happened then?’

‘One of the Nandi dogs shot an arrow at me. It struck me here.’ Manyoro drew up the leg of his khaki shorts and showed his bandaged leg.

‘Were you able to run with that wound?’


‘How did you escape?’

‘When he saw that I had been struck, Bwana Courtney turned back to fetch me. He carried me into the boma.’

‘You are a big man. He carried you?’

‘I am a big man because I am Masai. But Bwana Courtney is strong. His Masai name is Buffalo.’

‘What happened next?’

Manyoro described in detail how they had held out until the Nandi set fire to the building, how they had been forced to abandon it and use the cover of the smoke from the burning roof to escape into the banana plantation.

‘What did you do then?’

‘When we reached the open ground beyond the plantation I asked my bwana to leave me with his pistol and go on alone.’

‘Did you plan to kill yourself because you were crippled and you did not want the Nandi to catch and drown you as they had done to the district commissioner and his wife?’

‘I would have killed myself rather than die the Nandi way, but not before I had taken a few of the jackals with me,’ Manyoro agreed.

‘Your officer refused to leave you?’

‘He wanted to carry me on his back to the railway line. I told him it was four days’ march through Nandi tribal lands and that we already knew the ground was swarming with their war-parties. I told him my mother’s manyatta was only thirty miles distant and deep in Masailand where Nandi curs would never dare to follow. I told him that if he was determined to take me with him we should go that way.’

‘He did as you suggested?’

‘He did.’

‘Thirty miles? He carried you on his back for thirty miles?’

‘Perhaps a little further. He is a strong man.’

‘When the two of you reached your mother’s village, why did he not leave you there and return to Nairobi immediately?’

‘His feet were ruined by the march from Niombi. He could not walk further on them. My mother is a famous healer of great power. She treated his feet with her medicine. Bwana Courtney left the manyatta as soon as he was able to walk.’

Bobby paused and looked at the three judges. Then he asked, ‘Sergeant Manyoro, what are your feelings for Lieutenant Courtney?’

Manyoro answered, with quiet dignity, ‘My bwana and I are brothers of the warrior blood.’

‘Thank you, Sergeant. I have no further questions for you.’

For a long moment there was a hush of awe in the courtroom. Then Colonel Wallace roused himself. ‘Lieutenant Roberts, do you wish to cross-examine this man?’

Eddy conferred hurriedly with Major Snell, then stood up reluctantly. ‘No, sir, I have no questions for him.’

‘Are there any more witnesses? Will you call your client to the stand, Lieutenant Sampson?’ Colonel Wallace asked. He pulled out his watch and consulted it pointedly.

‘With the court’s indulgence, I shall call Lieutenant Courtney. However, I have almost finished and will not detain the court much longer.’

‘I am relieved to hear that. You may proceed.’

When Leon took the stand Bobby handed him a sheaf of papers and asked, ‘Lieutenant Courtney, is this your official report of the Niombi expedition, which you gave to your commanding officer?’

Leon thumbed through it quickly. ‘Yes, this is my report.’

‘Is there anything in it you wish to retract? Anything you wish to add to it?’

‘No, there is not.’

‘You affirm under oath that this report is true and correct in every detail?’

‘I do.’

Bobby took the document from him and placed it before the judges. ‘I wish this report to be entered into evidence.’

‘It has already been entered,’ said Colonel Wallace, testily. ‘We have all read it. Ask your questions, Lieutenant, and let’s have done with it.’

‘I have no further questions, your honour. The defence rests.’

‘Good.’ The colonel was pleasurably surprised. He had not expected Bobby to be so quick. He scowled at Eddy Roberts. ‘Are you going to cross-examine?’

‘No, sir. I have no questions for the accused.’

‘Excellent.’ Wallace smiled for the first time. ‘The witness may stand down, and the prosecution can get on with its summation.’

Eddy stood up, trying to portray the confidence he obviously lacked. ‘May it please the court to direct its attention to both the written report of the accused, which he has affirmed under oath is correct in every detail, and to Sergeant Manyoro’s corroborating evidence. They both confirm that the accused deliberately ignored his written orders to proceed with utmost despatch to Niombi station, and instead set off in pursuit of the Nandi war-party that he believed might be heading in the direction of Nakuru mission. I submit that the accused has admitted he was guilty of the charge of deliberately refusing to follow the orders of a superior officer in the face of the enemy. Absolutely no doubt about that.’

Eddy paused to gather himself. He took a deep breath as though he was about to dive into a pool of icy water. ‘As for Sergeant Manyoro’s slavish endorsement of the accused’s actions thereafter, may I direct attention to his childlike and emotional statement that he and the accused are “brothers of the warrior blood”.’ Colonel Wallace frowned and his fellow judges stirred uneasily on their seats. It was not the reaction Eddy had hoped for, and he hurried on: ‘I submit that the witness had been briefed by the defence and that he is completely in the thrall of the accused. I suggest to you that he would have parroted any words put into his mouth.’

‘Captain Roberts, are you suggesting that the witness shot himself in the leg with an arrow to cover up his platoon commander’s cowardice?’ Colonel Wallace asked.

Eddy sat down as the court room exploded with laughter.

‘Silence in court! Please, gentlemen, please!’ the adjutant remonstrated.

‘Is that your summation, Captain? Have you finished?’ Wallace enquired.

‘I have, your honour.’

‘Lieutenant Sampson, do you care to refute the defence’s summation?’

Bobby came to his feet. ‘Your honour, we reject not only the entire substance of the summation but we take umbrage at the prosecution’s slur on Sergeant Manyoro’s honesty. We have full confidence that the court will accept the evidence of a truthful, valiant and loyal soldier, whose devotion to duty and respect for his officers is the very stuff that the British Army is made of.’ He looked at each of the three judges in turn. ‘Gentlemen, the defence rests.’

‘The court will rise to consider its verdict. We will convene again at noon to give judgement.’ Wallace stood up and said to the other two judges, in a clearly audible sotto voce, ‘Well, chaps, it seems we might yet catch that ship.’

As they filed out of the courtroom Leon whispered to Bobby, ‘ “The very stuff that the British Army is made of ”. That was masterly.’

‘It was rather, wasn’t it?’

‘Buy you a beer?’

‘Don’t mind if you do.’

An hour later Colonel Wallace sat at the high table and shuffled his papers. Then he cleared his throat juicily and began: ‘Before I proceed with delivering the judgement, I wish to state that this court was impressed by the bearing and evidence of Sergeant Manyoro. We found him entirely credible, a truthful, loyal and valiant soldier.’ Bobby beamed as he heard his own description repeated faithfully by Wallace. ‘This statement should be appended to Sergeant Manyoro’s service record.’

Wallace swivelled in his seat and glared at Leon. ‘The judgement of this court is as follows. On the charges of cowardice, desertion and dereliction of duty we find the accused not guilty.’ There were murmurs of relief from the defence. Bobby thumped Leon’s knee under cover of the table. Wallace went on sternly, ‘Although the court understood and sympathized with the accused’s instinct to engage the enemy at every opportunity, in the tradition of the British Army, we find that when he took up the pursuit of the rebel war-party in defiance of his orders to proceed with utmost despatch to Niombi station he transgressed the Articles of War, which require strict obedience to the orders of a superior officer. We therefore have no alternative but to find him guilty of disobeying the written orders of his superior officer.’

Bobby and Leon stared at him with dismay and Snell folded his arms across his chest. He leaned back in his chair with a smirk on his wide mouth.

‘I come now to the sentence. The accused will stand.’ Leon came to his feet and snapped to rigid attention, staring at the wall behind Wallace’s head. ‘The verdict of guilty will be recorded in the service record of the accused. He will be detained until this court rises and immediately thereafter will be returned to duty with the full responsibility and privileges of his rank. God save the King!

‘These proceedings are at an end.’ Wallace stood, bowed to the men below him and led his fellow judges to the bar. ‘There’s time for a peg before the train leaves. I’ll have a whisky. What about you chaps?’

As Leon and Bobby headed for the door of the courtroom, which had now reverted to its former role as the officers’ mess, they drew level with the table at which Snell was still seated. He stood up and replaced his cap on his head, forcing them to come to attention and salute. His pale blue eyes bulged from their sockets and his lips were set in an expression that gave him the appearance not so much of a frog but of a venomous toad. After a deliberate pause he returned their salutes. ‘I will have fresh orders for you tomorrow morning, Courtney. Be at my office at eight hundred hours sharp. In the meantime you may carry on,’ he snapped.

‘I doubt very much that you’ve made Froggy your friend for life,’ Bobby muttered, as they went out on to the sunlit parade-ground. ‘He’ll make your life extremely interesting from now onwards. My guess is that his new orders will take you on foot patrol to Lake Natron or some other remote and God-forsaken place. We won’t be seeing much of you for a month or so, but at least you’ll be seeing more of the country.’

His askari thronged around Leon to congratulate him. ‘Jambo, Bwana. Welcome back.’

‘At least you have some friends left,’ Bobby consoled him. ‘May I use the jalopy while you’re sojourning in the outer wilderness?’

Many months later two horsemen rode stirrup to stirrup along the bank of the Athi river. The grooms followed at a distance, leading the spare horses. The riders wore wide-brimmed slouch hats and carried their lances at rest. Before them, the wide green expanse of the Athi plains stretched to the horizon. It was dotted with herds of zebra, ostriches, impala and wildebeest. A pair of giraffe stared down at them with great dark eyes as they rode past at a distance of only a hundred paces.

‘Sir, I can’t stand it much longer,’ Leon told his favourite uncle. ‘I’ll have to put in for a transfer to another regiment.’

‘I doubt any would have you, my boy. You have a large black mark on your service record,’ said Colonel Penrod Ballantyne, commanding officer of the 1st Regiment, The King’s African Rifles. ‘What about India? I might put in a word for you with a few friends who were in South Africa with me.’ Penrod was testing him.

‘Thank you, sir, but I would never dream of leaving Africa,’ Leon replied. ‘When you were weaned on Nile water you can never break the shackles.’

Penrod nodded. It was the reply he had expected. He took a silver case from his top pocket and tapped out a Player’s Gold Leaf. He put it between his lips and offered one to Leon.

‘Thank you, sir, but I don’t indulge.’ Leon read the engraving on the inside of the lid before his uncle closed it. ‘To Twopence, happy 50th birthday from your adoring wife, Saffron.’ Aunt Saffron had a quirky sense of humour. Her nickname for Penrod had originally been Penny but after all their years of marriage she had decided his value had doubled.

‘Well, sir, if no one else will have me I suppose I’ll just have to put in my papers and resign my commission – I’ve already wasted nearly three years wandering in small circles in the wilderness, getting nowhere, at the behest of Major Snell. I can’t take any more.’

Penrod considered this, but before he could decide on a suitable reply a movement further down the riverbank caught his eye. A warthog boar trotted out of a dense clump of riverine scrub. His curved white tusks almost met above his comically hideous face, which was decorated with the black wart-like protuberances that gave him his name. He carried his tufted tail straight as a ruler, pointing up at the sky. ‘Here we go!’ Penrod shouted. ‘Tally ho and away!’ He kicked his heels into his mare’s flanks and she was off.

Leon raced after him, leaning along the neck of his polo pony as he couched his long pig spear. ‘By God, this one’s a huge brute. Look at those tusks! Up and at him, Uncle!’

Penrod’s mare ran lightly, closing swiftly on the quarry, but Leon’s bay gelding pushed up half a length behind her streaming tail. The warthog heard their hoofs thundering, stopped and looked back. He stared at the charging horses with astonishment, then whipped around and darted away across the plain kicking up puffs of dust with each beat of his sharp little hoofs, but he could not outrun the mare.

Penrod leaned out of the saddle and lined up the point of his spear, aiming at the patch of bald grey skin between the animal’s humped shoulder-blades.

‘Stick him, Twopence!’ In his excitement Leon called the name reserved for exclusive use by his aunt. Penrod showed no sign of having heard. He carried home his charge, the point of his spear arrowing in towards the boar’s withers. But at the last instant the warthog changed direction and doubled back under the mare’s front legs. Even she, bred and trained to follow a bouncing polo ball adroitly, could not counter the manoeuvre and overran the quarry. The spear head glanced off the boar’s tough hide without drawing blood, and Penrod pulled the mare’s head around steeply. She pranced and mouthed the bit, her eyes wild with the excitement of the chase.

‘Come away, my darling! Full tilt and hell for leather!’ Penrod exhorted her, and touched her ribs with blunted rowels. She came around again for the next run, but Leon cut across her line and his pony fastened on the warthog’s hindquarters as though he was attached to it by a leash. Horse and rider stayed with the pig as it twisted, turned and doubled desperately. They went around in a circle, Penrod laughing and shouting advice after them.

‘Stay with him, sir. Watch out for the tusks – he nearly had you there!’ The boar broke back on Leon’s blind side and almost reached the cover of the dense scrub from which he had appeared, but Leon, rising high in his stirrups, switched his spear neatly to his left hand and drove the point between the warthog’s shoulders. The animal took it cleanly through the heart. Leon let the shaft drop back as the gelding passed over the dying beast and the spearhead came free without jarring his wrist. The bright steel and two feet of the shaft behind it shone with the boar’s heart blood. It squealed once and its front legs folded under it. It dropped, slid on its snout, then flopped on to its side, gave three kicks with its back legs and was dead.

‘Oh, well done indeed, sir! A perfect kill!’ Penrod reined in beside his nephew. They were both laughing breathlessly. ‘What was that you called me a minute ago?’

‘I do beg your pardon, Uncle. In the heat of the moment it just slipped out.’

‘Well, slip it back in, you impudent puppy. No wonder Froggy Snell has it in for you. Deep down, I understand and sympathize with him.’

‘It’s been thirsty work. How about a cup of tea, sir?’ Leon changed the subject smoothly.

As soon as Ishmael had seen they had killed, he had parked the tuck wagon in the shade and was already lighting the fire.

‘That is the very least you can do to make amends. Twopence! What is the younger generation coming to?’ Penrod grumbled.

By the time they dismounted the kettle was brewing. ‘Three teaspoons of sugar, Ishmael, and a couple of your ginger snaps,’ Penrod ordered, as he sat in one of the canvas camp chairs in the shade.

‘Your honourable and esteemed lady wife would not like it, Effendi.’

‘My honourable and esteemed lady wife is in Cairo. She will not be partaking,’ Penrod reminded him, and reached for the biscuits as Ishmael placed the plate in front of him. He chewed with pleasure, washed down the crumbs with a swig of tea and smoothed his moustache. ‘So, what do you intend after you’ve resigned your commission, if you won’t go out to India?’

‘It’s Africa for me.’ Leon sipped from his own mug, then said thoughtfully, ‘I thought I might try my hand at elephant hunting.’

‘Elephant hunting?’ Penrod was incredulous. ‘As a profession? As Selous and Bell once did?’

‘Well, it’s always fascinated me, ever since I read the books about their adventures.’

‘Romantic nonsense! You’re thirty years too late. Those old boys had the whole of Africa to themselves. They went where they liked and did as they wanted. This is the modern age. Things have changed. Now there are roads and railways all over the place. No country in Africa is still issuing unrestricted elephant licences that allow the holder to slaughter thousands of the great beasts. All that is over, and a damn good thing too. Anyway, it was a hard, bitter life, dangerous and lonely too, year after year of wandering alone in the wilderness without anyone to talk to in your own language. Put the notion out of your head.’

Leon was crestfallen. He stared into his mug while Penrod fished out and lit another cigarette. ‘Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ he admitted at last.

‘Chin up, my boy.’ Penrod’s tone was kindly now. ‘You want to be a hunter? Well, a few men are making a fine living doing just that. They hire themselves out to guide visitors from overseas on safari. There are rich men from Europe and America, royalty, aristocrats and millionaires, who are willing to pay a fortune for the chance to bag an elephant or two. These days, African big-game hunting is all the rage in high society.’

‘White hunters? Like Tarlton and Cunninghame?’ Leon’s face was bright. ‘What a wonderful life that must be.’ His expression crumpled again. ‘But how would I get started? I have no money, and I won’t ask my father for help. He’d laugh at me anyway. And I don’t know anybody. Why would dukes and princes and business tycoons want to come all the way from Europe to hunt with me?’

‘I could take you to see a man I know. He might be willing to help you.’

‘When can we go?’

‘Tomorrow. His base camp is only a short ride out of Nairobi.’

‘Major Snell has given me orders to take a patrol up to Lake Turkana. I have to scout out a location to build a fort up there.’

‘Turkana!’ Penrod snorted with laughter. ‘Why would we need a fort up there?’

‘It’s his idea of fun. When I submit the reports he asks for, he sends them back to me with mocking comments scrawled in the margins.’

‘I’ll have a word with him, ask him to release you briefly for a special assignment.’

‘Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.’

They rode out through the barracks gates and down the main street of Nairobi. Although it was early morning the wide, unsurfaced road was crowded and bustling like that of a gold-rush boom town. Sir Charles, the governor of the colony, encouraged settlers to come out from the old country by offering land grants of thousands of acres at a nominal fee and they flocked in. The road was almost blocked by their wagons, which were piled high with their scanty possessions and forlorn families as they journeyed on to take up their parcels of land in the wilderness. Hindu, Goanese and Jewish traders and storekeepers followed them. Their mud-brick shops lined the sides of the road, hand-printed boards on the fronts offering everything from champagne and dynamite to picks, shovels and shotgun cartridges.

Penrod and Leon picked their way through the ox wagons and mule teams until Penrod reined in before the Norfolk Hotel to greet a small man, in a solar topee, who was perched like an elf in the back of a buggy drawn by a pair of Burchell’s zebra. ‘Good morning, my lord.’ Penrod saluted him.

The little man adjusted his steel-rimmed spectacles on the end of his nose. ‘Ah, Colonel. Good to see you. Where are you headed?’

‘We’re riding out to visit Percy Phillips.’

‘Dear old Percy.’ He nodded. ‘Great friend of mine. I hunted with him the first year I came out from home. We spent six months together, trekking up as far as the Northern Frontier district and on into the Sudan. He guided me to two enormous elephant. Lovely man. Taught me everything I know about hunting big game.’

‘Which is a very great deal. Your feats with that .577 rifle of yours are almost as legendary as his.’

‘Kind of you to say so, even though I detect a touch of hyperbole in that compliment.’ He turned his bright, inquisitive eyes on Leon. ‘And who is this young fellow?’

‘May I present my nephew, Lieutenant Leon Courtney? Leon, this is Lord Delamere.’

‘I’m honoured to make your acquaintance, my lord.’

‘I know who you are.’ His lordship’s eyes twinkled with amusement.

Apparently he did not pretend the same high moral ethics as the rest of the local society. Leon guessed that his next remark would be some reference to Verity O’Hearne, so he added hastily, ‘I am much taken with your carriage horses, my lord.’

‘Caught and trained them with my own fair hands.’ Delamere gave him a last piercing glance, then he turned away. Can understand why young Verity was so taken with him, he thought, and why all the old hens in the coop were cackling with jealous outrage. That young blade is the answer to a maiden’s prayer.

He touched the brim of his helmet with his buggy whip. ‘I wish you a very good day, Colonel. Give my compliments to Percy.’ He whipped up the zebra and drove on.

‘Lord Delamere was once a great shikari, but now he’s become an ardent conservator of wild game,’ Penrod said. ‘He has an estate of more than a hundred thousand acres at Soysambu on the west side of the Rift Valley which he’s turning into a game sanctuary, mortgaging his family estates in England to the very hilt to do so. The finest hunters are all like that. When they tire of killing they become the most devoted protectors of their former quarry.’ They left the town and rode out along the Ngong Hills until they looked down on a sprawling encampment in the forest. Tents, grass huts and rondavels were spread out under the trees in no particular order.

‘This is Percy’s base, Tandala Camp.’ ‘Tandala’ was the Swahili name for the greater kudu. ‘He brings his clients up from the coast by railway, and from here he can strike out into the blue on foot, on horseback or by ox wagon.’ They rode on down the hill, but before they reached the main camp they came to the skinning sheds where the hunting trophies were prepared and preserved. There, the upper branches of the trees were filled with roosting vultures and the carnivorous marabou storks. The stench of drying skins and heads was rank and powerful.

They reined in the horses to watch two ancient Ndorobo working on the fresh skull of a bull elephant with their hand axes, chipping away the bone to expose the roots of the tusks. As they watched, one man drew a tusk free of its bony canal. The pair staggered away with it, their skinny legs buckling under the weight. They struggled unsuccessfully to lift the immense ivory shaft into a canvas sling suspended from the hook of a beam scale. Leon slipped out of the saddle and took their burden from them. Effortlessly he reached up and placed it in the sling. Under the weight of the tusk the needle revolved halfway around the scale’s dial.

‘Thanks for your help, young fellow.’

Leon turned. A tall man was standing behind his shoulder. He had the features of a Roman patrician. His short neat beard was silver grey and his bright blue eyes were steady. There could be no question as to who this was. Leon knew that Percy Phillips’s Swahili name was Bwana Samawati, ‘the man with eyes the colour of the sky’.

‘Hello, Percy.’ Penrod confirmed his identity as he rode up and dismounted.

‘Penrod, you look fit.’ They shook hands.

‘So do you, Percy. Hardly a day older than when we last met.’

‘You must be wanting a favour. Is this your nephew?’ Percy did not wait for the reply. ‘What do you think of that tusk, young man?’

‘Magnificent, sir. I’ve never seen anything like it.’

‘One hundred and twenty-two pounds.’ Percy Phillips read the weight from the scale and smiled. ‘The best piece of ivory I’ve taken in the last many years. Not too many of those around any more.’ He nodded with satisfaction. ‘Much too good for the miserable dago who shot it. Cheek of the man! He complained he’d been given short measure for his miserly five hundred pounds. Didn’t want to pay up at the end of the safari. I had to talk to him very sternly indeed.’ He blew softly on the scarred knuckles of his right fist, then turned back to Penrod. ‘I had my cook bake a batch of ginger snaps for you. I remember your penchant for them.’ He took Penrod’s arm and, limping slightly, led him towards the large mess tent in the centre of the encampment.

‘How did you hurt your leg, sir?’ Leon asked, as he fell in with them.

Percy laughed. ‘Big old bull buffalo jumped on it, but that was thirty years ago when I was still a greenhorn. Taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten.’

Percy and Penrod settled in the folding chairs under the flap of the mess tent to exchange news of mutual acquaintances and bring each other up to date with goings-on in the colony. Meanwhile, Leon looked around the camp with interest. Despite its apparently haphazard layout it was obviously convenient and comfortable. The ground was swept clean. The huts were all in good repair. On the periphery of the main camp, on the slope of the hill above it, a small whitewashed and thatched bungalow was obviously Percy’s home. There was only one exception to the camp’s order, which caught Leon’s attention.

A Vauxhall truck, of the same vintage as the vehicle he and Bobby owned, was parked behind a hut. It was in a terrible condition: one of the front wheels was missing, the windscreen was cracked and opaque with filth, the bonnet was propped open with a log and the engine had been removed to a crude workbench in the shade of a nearby tree. Somebody had started to strip it down, but seemed to have lost interest and abandoned it. Engine parts were scattered around or piled on the driver’s seat. A flock of chickens had taken over the chassis as their roost and splashes of their white droppings almost obscured the original paintwork.

‘Your uncle tells me you want to be a hunter. Is that right?’

Leon turned back to Percy Phillips when he realized he had been addressed. ‘Yes, sir.’ Percy stroked his silver beard and studied him thoughtfully. Leon did not look away, which Percy liked. Polite and respectful, but sure of himself, he thought. ‘Have you ever shot an elephant?’

‘No, sir.’


‘No, sir.’

‘Rhino? Buffalo? Leopard?’

‘Afraid not, sir.’

‘What have you taken, then?’

‘Just a few Tommies and Grant’s for the pot, sir, but I can learn. That’s why I’ve come to you.’

‘At least you’re honest. If you’ve never taken dangerous game, what can you do? Give me a good reason why I should offer you a job.’

‘Well, sir, I can ride.’

‘Are you talking about horses or human females?’

Leon flushed vividly. He opened his mouth to reply, but closed it again.

‘Yes, young man, word gets around. Now, listen to me. Many of my clients bring their families with them on safari. Wives and daughters. How do I know you won’t try to rabbit them at the first opportunity?’

‘Whatever you heard is not true, sir,’ Leon protested. ‘I’m not like that, at all.’

‘You’ll keep your fly buttoned around here,’ Percy grunted. ‘Other than ride, what else can you do?’

‘I could mend that.’ Leon pointed to the wreckage.

Percy showed immediate interest.

‘I have one of the same make and model,’ Leon went on. ‘It was in similar condition to yours when I got it. I put it back together and now it runs like a Swiss watch.’

‘Does it, by God? Damn motors are a complete mystery to me. All right, so you can ride and repair trucks. That’s a start. What else? Can you shoot?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Leon won the Governor’s Cup at the regimental rifle competition at the beginning of the year,’ Penrod confirmed. ‘He can shoot, I’ll vouch for that.’

‘Paper targets are not live animals. They don’t bite you or jump on you if you miss,’ Percy pointed out. ‘If you want to be a hunter you’ll need a rifle. I am not talking about a little service Enfield – a pea-shooter isn’t much use in an argument with an angry buffalo. Have you got a real rifle?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘What is it?’

‘A Holland & Holland Royal .470 Nitro Express.’

Percy’s blue eyes widened. ‘Very well,’ he conceded. ‘That is a real rifle. They don’t come better than that. But you’ll also need a tracker. Can you find a good one?’

‘Yes, sir.’ He was thinking of Manyoro, but then he remembered Loikot. ‘Actually, I have two.’

Percy gazed at a brilliant gold and green sunbird flitting about in the branches above the tent. Then he seemed to make up his mind. ‘You’re lucky. It just so happens that I am going to need help. I’m to lead a big safari early next year. The client is an extremely important person.’

‘This client of yours, I wonder, could he be Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the United States of America?’ Penrod asked innocently.

Percy was startled. ‘In the name of all that’s holy, Penrod, how on earth did you discover that?’ he demanded. ‘Nobody’s supposed to know.’

‘The US State Department sent a cable to the Commander in Chief of the British Army, Lord Kitchener, in London. They wanted to know more about you before the President hired you. I was on Kitchener’s staff in South Africa during the war so he telegraphed me,’ Penrod admitted.

Percy burst out laughing. ‘You’re a sly creature, Ballantyne. Here I was believing that Teddy Roosevelt’s visit was a state secret. So you put in a good word for me. It seems I’m even deeper in your debt.’ He turned back to Leon. ‘Here’s what I’ll do with you. I’m going to make you prove yourself. First, I want you to put that heap of rubbish together and get it running.’ He nodded at the dismembered truck. ‘I want you to make good your boast. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘When you’ve done that, you’ll take your famous .470 and your two even more famous trackers, go out there into the blue and bag an elephant. I could never employ a hunter who’s never hunted. When you’ve done that, I want you to bring back the tusks to prove it.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Leon grinned.

‘Have you enough money to buy a game licence? It’ll cost you ten pounds.’

‘No, sir.’

‘I’ll lend it to you,’ Percy offered, ‘but the ivory will be mine.’

‘Sir, lend me the money and you can have the pick of one tusk. I’ll keep the other.’

Percy chuckled. The lad could fight his own corner. He was no pushover. He was beginning to enjoy him. ‘Fair enough, boy.’

‘If you take me on what will you pay me, sir?’

‘Pay you? I’m doing your uncle a favour. You should pay me.’

‘How about five shillings a day?’ Leon suggested.

‘How about one shilling?’ Percy countered.


‘You drive a hard bargain.’ Percy shook his head sadly but stuck out his hand.

Leon shook it vigorously. ‘You won’t regret it, sir, I promise you.’

‘You’ve changed my life. I’ll never be able to repay you for what you’ve done for me today.’ Leon was elated as they rode back along the Ngong Hills towards Nairobi.

‘You needn’t worry too much about that. You don’t think for one minute that I’m doing this because I’m your doting uncle?’

‘I misjudged you, sir.’

‘This is how you will repay me. First, I’m not going to accept your resignation from the regiment. Instead I shall transfer you to the reserves, then second you to military intelligence to work under my direct orders.’

Leon’s face showed his dismay. A moment ago he had felt himself a free man. Now it seemed he was back in the smothering embrace of the army.

‘Sir?’ he responded cautiously.

‘There are dangerous times ahead. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany has more than doubled the strength of his standing army in the last ten years. He’s no statesman or diplomat, but he is a military man, by training and instinct. He has spent his whole life training for war. All his advisers are army men. He has a boundless ambition towards imperial expansion. He has huge colonies in Africa, but they are not enough for him. I tell you, we shall have trouble with him. Think, German East Africa is right on our southern border. Dar es Salaam is their port. They could have a warship there in very short order. They already have a full regiment of askari led by German regular officers stationed at Arusha. Von Lettow Vorbeck, the commanding officer, is a tough, cunning old soldier. In ten days’ march he could be in Nairobi. I have pointed this out to the War Office in London, but they have concerns elsewhere, and don’t wish to spend money reinforcing an unimportant backwater of the Empire.’

‘This comes as a shock to me, sir. I have never looked at the situation in that way. The Germans down there have always been very friendly towards us. They have a great deal in common with our own settlers in Nairobi. They share the same problems.’

‘Yes, there are some good fellows among them – and I like von Lettow Vorbeck. But his orders come from Berlin and the Kaiser.’

‘The Kaiser is the grandson of Queen Victoria. Our present king is his uncle. The Kaiser is an honorary admiral in the Royal Navy. I cannot believe we would ever want to go to war with him,’ Leon protested.

‘Trust the instinct of an old warhorse.’ Penrod smiled knowingly. ‘Anyway, whatever happens I shall not be taken off guard. I’m going to keep a sharp eye on our lovable southern neighbours.’

‘How do I fit in?’

‘At this stage our borders with German East Africa are wide open. There is no restriction of movement in either direction. The Masai and other tribes graze their herds north and south without the least concern for any boundaries laid out by our surveyors. I want you to set up a network of informers, tribesmen who move regularly in and out of German East Africa. You will play a clandestine role. Not even Percy Phillips must know what you’re up to. Your cover story is convincing. As a hunter you’ll have the perfect excuse to move freely through the country on both sides of the border. You will report directly to me. I want you to be my eyes along the border.’

‘If there are questions I could let it be known that the informers are my game scouts, that I’m using them to keep an eye on the movements of the game herds, especially the elephant bulls, so that I know their exact position at any time and can take our clients straight to them,’ Leon suggested. Now the game sounded as though it might be exciting and great fun.

Penrod nodded in agreement. ‘That should satisfy Percy and anybody else who asks. Just don’t mention my involvement or it will be all around the club the next time he has a few drinks. Percy is hardly the soul of discretion.’

Afew weeks later Leon was spending almost every waking hour lying under Percy’s truck, his arms coated to the elbows with black grease. He had seriously underestimated the enormity of the task, and the amount of damage Percy had wrought with his previous efforts at repair. There were few spare parts available in Nairobi and Leon was forced to consider cannibalizing the vehicle he and Bobby owned. Bobby stoutly resisted the idea, but in the end he agreed to sell his share of the vehicle to Leon for the sum of fifteen guineas, to be paid in instalments of a guinea a month. Leon immediately removed a front wheel, the carburettor and other parts, and carried them out to Tandala Camp.

He had been working on the engine for ten days when he woke one morning to find Sergeant Manyoro squatting outside his tent. He was not dressed in his khaki uniform and fez but in an ochre-red shuka, and carried a lion spear. ‘I have come,’ he announced.

‘I see you have.’ Leon had difficulty in hiding his delight. ‘But why aren’t you in barracks? They’ll shoot you for desertion.’

‘I have paper.’ Manyoro brought out a crumpled envelope from under his shuka. Leon opened it and read the document quickly. Manyoro had at last been honourably discharged from the KAR on medical grounds. Although the leg wound had healed some time ago he had been left with a limp that rendered him unfit for military duty.

‘Why have you come to me?’ Leon asked. ‘Why did you not return to your manyatta?’

‘I am your man,’ he said simply.

‘I cannot pay you.’

‘I did not ask you to,’ Manyoro replied. ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘First, we are going to mend this enchini.’ For a moment they contemplated the sorry spectacle. Manyoro had assisted with the restoration of the first vehicle so he knew what lay in store. ‘Then we are going to kill an elephant,’ Leon added.

‘The killing will be easier than the mending,’ was Manyoro’s opinion.

Almost three weeks later Leon sat behind the steering-wheel while, with an air of resignation, Manyoro took up his position in front of the truck and stood to attention. He had lost all faith in the eventual success of the manoeuvres he had performed repeatedly over the last three days. On the first day Percy Phillips and the entire camp staff, including the cook and the ancient skinners, had formed an attentive audience. Gradually they had lost interest and drifted away, one by one, until only the skinners were left, squatting on their haunches and following every move with rapt attention.

‘Retard the spark!’ Leon began the incantations to the gods of the internal combustion engine.

The two old skinners chanted after him, ‘Letaad de paak.’ They were word perfect.

Leon moved the spark control lever on the left-hand side of the steering-wheel to the upright position. ‘Throttle open.’

This one always tested the skinners’ powers of enunciation to the limit. ‘Frot le pen,’ was as close as they could get.

‘Handbrake on!’ Leon pulled it on.

‘Mixture rich!’ He rotated the control knob until the indicator pointed straight ahead.

‘Choke.’ He jumped out, ran to the front of the vehicle and pulled on the choke ring, then returned to the driver’s seat.

‘Manyoro, prime the carb!’ Manyoro stooped and swung the crank handle twice. ‘That’s enough!’ Leon warned him. ‘Choke off!’ He jumped out again, raced forward, pushed in the choke ring, then ran back to his seat.

‘Two more turns!’ Again Manyoro stooped and cranked the handle.

‘Carb primed! Power on!’ Leon turned the selector on the dashboard to ‘battery’ and looked to the heavens. ‘Manyoro, hit her again!’ Manyoro spat on his right palm, gripped the crank handle and swung it.

There was an explosion like a cannon shot and a spurt of blue smoke flew from the exhaust pipe. The crank handle kicked back viciously and knocked Manyoro off his feet. The two skinners were taken aback. They had not been expecting anything nearly as spectacular. They howled with fright and scuttled for the bushes beyond the camp. There was a shouted oath from Percy’s thatched bungalow on the first slope of the hill at the perimeter of the camp and he stumbled out on to the stoep in his pyjama bottoms, beard in disarray, eyes unfocused with sleep. He stared in momentary confusion at Leon, who was beaming with triumph behind the steering-wheel. The engine rumbled, shook and backfired, then settled down into a loud, clattering beat.

Percy laughed. ‘Let me get my trousers on, then you can drive me to the club. I’m going to buy you as much beer as you can drink. Then you can go out and find that elephant. I don’t want you back in this camp until you have him.’

Leon stood below the familiar massif of Lonsonyo Mountain. He pushed his slouch hat to the back of his head and moved the heavy rifle from one shoulder to the other. He gazed up at the crest of the mountain. It took his sharp young eye to pick out the single lonely figure on the skyline. ‘She’s waiting for us,’ he exclaimed in surprise. ‘How did she know we were coming?’

‘Lusima Mama knows everything,’ Manyoro reminded him, and started up the steep path towards the summit. He carried the waterbottles, the canvas haversack, Leon’s light .303 Lee-Enfield rifle and four bandoliers of ammunition. Leon followed him, and Ishmael brought up the rear, the skirts of his long white kanza flapping around his legs. An enormous bundle was balanced on his head. Before they had left Tandala Camp Leon had weighed it. It had come in at sixty-two pounds and contained Ishmael’s kitchen supplies, everything from pots and pans to pepper, salt and his own secret mixture of spices. With Leon providing a daily supply of tender young Tommy buck chops and steaks and Ishmael’s culinary skills they had eaten like princes since they had left the railway line at Naro Moru siding.

When they reached the mountaintop Lusima was waiting for them in the shade of a giant flowering seringa tree. She rose to her feet, tall and statuesque as a queen, and greeted them. ‘I see you, my sons, and my eyes are gladdened.’

‘Mama, we come for your blessing on our weapons and your guidance in our hunting,’ Manyoro told her, as he knelt before her.

The next morning the entire village gathered in a circle around the wild fig tree, the council tree, in the cattle pen to witness the blessing of the weapons. Leon and Manyoro squatted with them. Ishmael had refused to join in such a pagan ritual, and he clattered his pots ostentatiously over the cooking fire behind the nearest hut. Leon’s two rifles were laid side by side on a tanned lionskin. Beside them stood calabash gourds filled with fresh cow’s blood and milk, and baked-clay bowls of salt, snuff and glittering glass trade beads. At last Lusima emerged from the low door of her hut. The congregation clapped and began to sing her praises.

‘She is the great black cow who feeds us with the milk of her udders. She is the watcher who sees all things. She is the wise one who knows all things. She is the mother of the tribe.’ Lusima wore her full ceremonial regalia. On her forehead hung an ivory pendant carved with mystical animal figures. Her shuka was thickly embroidered with a shimmering curtain of beads and cowrie shells. Heavy coils of bead necklace hung down to her chest. Her skin was oiled and polished with red ochre, shining in the sunlight, and she carried a fly switch made from the tail of a giraffe. Her steps were stately as she circled the display of rifles and sacrificial offerings.

‘Let not the quarry escape the warrior who wields these weapons,’ she intoned, as she sprinkled a pinch of snuff over them. ‘Let blood flow copiously from the wounds they inflict.’ She dipped the switch into the gourds and splashed blood and milk on to the rifles. Then she went to Leon and flicked the mixture over his head and shoulders. ‘Give him strength and determination to follow the quarry. Make his hunter’s eyes bright to see the quarry from great distance. Let no creature resist his power. Let the mightiest elephant fall to the voice of his bunduki, his rifle.’

The watchers clapped in rhythm and she continued her exhortations: ‘Let him be the king among hunters. Grant him the power of the hunter.’

She began to dance in a tight circle, pirouetting faster and faster, until sweat and red ochre ran in a rivulet between her naked breasts. When she threw herself flat on the lionskin in front of Leon her eyes rolled back and white froth bubbled from the corners of her mouth. Her entire body began to tremble and twitch and her legs kicked spasmodically. She ground her teeth and her breath rasped painfully in her throat.

‘The spirit has entered her body,’ Manyoro whispered. ‘She is ready to speak with its voice. Put the question to her.’

‘Lusima, favourite of the Great Spirit, your sons seek a chief among the elephants. Where shall we find him? Show us the way to the great bull.’

Lusima’s head rolled from side to side and her breathing became more laboured until at last she spoke through gritted teeth, in a hoarse unnatural voice: ‘Follow the wind and listen for the voice of the sweet singer. He will point the way.’ She gave a deep gasp and sat up. Her eyes cleared and refocused and she looked at Leon as though she was seeing him for the first time.

‘Is that all?’ he asked.

‘There is no more,’ she replied.

‘I don’t understand,’ Leon persisted. ‘Who is the sweet singer?’

‘That is all the message I have for you,’ she said. ‘If the gods favour your hunt, then in time the meaning will become clear to you.’

Since Leon’s arrival on the mountain Loikot had followed him around at a discreet distance. Now as he sat beside the campfire with a dozen of the village elders, Loikot was in the shadows behind him, listening attentively to the conversation, his head turning from face to face of the men who were speaking.

‘I wish to know the movements of men and animals throughout Masailand and down the full length of the Rift Valley, even in the land beyond the great mountains of Kilimanjaro and Meru. I want this information gathered and sent to me as swiftly as possible.’

The village elders listened to his request, then discussed it animatedly among themselves, everyone coming up with a different opinion. Leon’s grasp of the Maa language was not yet strong enough to follow the rapid fire of argument and counter-assertion. In a whisper Manyoro translated for him: ‘There are many men in Masailand. Do you want to know about every single one of them?’ the old men asked.

‘I don’t need to know about your people, the Masai. I want to know only about the strangers, the white men and especially the Bula Matari.’ They were the Germans. The name meant ‘breakers of rock’, for the earliest German settlers had been geologists who chipped away at the surface mineral formations with their hammers. ‘I want to know about the movements of the Bula Matari and their askari soldiers. I want to know where they build walls or dig ditches in which they place their bunduki mkuba, their great guns.’

The discussion went on late into the night with little decided. Finally the self-appointed spokesman of the group, a toothless ancient, closed the council with the fateful words, ‘We will think on all these things.’ They rose and filed away to their huts.

When they were gone a small voice piped out of the darkness at Leon’s back, ‘They will talk and then they will talk some more. All you will hear from them is the sound of their voices. It would be better to listen to the wind in the treetops.’

‘That is great disrespect to your elders, Loikot,’ Manyoro scolded him.

‘I am a morani, and I choose carefully those to whom I give my respect.’

Leon understood that and laughed. ‘Come out of the darkness, my fine warrior friend, and let us see your brave face.’ Loikot came into the firelight and took his seat between Leon and Manyoro.

‘Loikot, when we travelled together to the railway line you showed me the tracks of a big elephant.’

‘I remember,’ Loikot answered.

‘Have you seen that elephant since then?’

‘When the moon was full I saw him as he browsed among the trees close to where I was camped with my brothers.’

‘Where was that?’

‘We were herding the cattle near the smoking mountain of the gods, three full days’ journey from here.’

‘It has rained heavily since then,’ Manyoro said. ‘The tracks will have been washed away. Besides, many days have passed since the moon was full. By now that bull might be as far south as Lake Manyara.’

‘Where should we begin the hunt if not at the place where Loikot last saw him?’ Leon wondered.

‘We should do as Lusima counsels. We should follow the wind,’ said Manyoro.

The next morning, as they descended the pathway down the mountain, the breeze came from the west. It blew soft and warm down the Rift Valley wall and across the Masai savannah. High clouds sailed above, like a flotilla of great galleons with sails of shimmering white. When the party reached the valley floor they turned and went with the wind, moving swiftly through the open forest at a steady jog-trot. Manyoro and Loikot were in the van, picking over the myriad game tracks that dotted the earth, pausing to point out to Leon those that warranted special attention, then moving on again. Slowly Ishmael fell back under his enormous burden until he was far behind.

With the wind at their backs their scent was carried ahead and the grazing game herds threw up their heads as they caught the taint of man and stared at them. Then they opened their ranks and let the men pass at a safe distance.

Three times during the morning they cut the spoor of elephant. The wounds the beast had left on the trees where they had torn down large branches were white and weeping sap. Clouds of butterflies hung over massive mounds of fresh dung. The two trackers wasted little time on this sign. ‘Two very young bulls,’ Manyoro said. ‘Of no account.’

They went on until Loikot picked out another sign. ‘One very old cow,’ he opined. ‘So old that the pads of her feet are worn smooth.’

An hour later Manyoro pointed to fresh spoor. ‘Here passed five breeding cows. Three have their unweaned calves at heel.’

Just before the sun reached its meridian Loikot, who was in the lead, stopped suddenly and pointed out a mountainous grey shape in a patch of sweet thorn forest far ahead. There was movement and Leon recognized the lazy flap of huge ears. His heartbeat quickened as they turned aside and worked their way out to get below the wind before they moved closer. They could tell by its bulk that it was a very large bull. He was feeding on a low bush and his back was turned to them so that they were unable to see his tusks. The wind held fair, and they came up softly behind him, closing in until Leon could count the wiry hairs in his worn tail and see the colonies of red ticks that hung like bunches of ripe grapes around his puckered anus. Manyoro signalled Leon to be ready. He slipped the big double rifle off his shoulder and held it with his thumb on the safety catch as they waited for the bull to move and allow them a sight of his tusks.

This was the closest Leon had ever been to an elephant, and he was awed by its sheer size. It seemed to blot out half the sky, as though he was standing beneath a cliff of grey rock. Suddenly the bull swung around and flared his ears wide. He stared directly at Leon from a distance of a dozen paces. Dense lashes surrounded small rheumy eyes and tears had left dark runnels down his cheeks. He was so close that Leon could see the light reflected in the irises as though they were two large beads of polished amber. Slowly he lifted the rifle to his shoulder, but Manyoro squeezed his shoulder, urging him to hold his fire.

One of the bull’s tusks was broken off at the lip while the other was chipped and worn down to a blunt stump. Leon realized that Percy Phillips would cover him with scorn if he brought them back to Tandala Camp. Yet the bull seemed poised to charge and he might be forced to fire. Night after night over the past weeks, Percy had sat with him in the lamplight and lectured him on the skills required to kill one of these gigantic animals with a single bullet. They had pored together over his autobiography, which he had titled Monsoon Clouds Over Africa. He had devoted an entire chapter to shot placement, and illustrated it with his own lifelike sketches of African game animals.

‘The elephant is a particularly difficult animal to tackle. Remember that the brain is a tiny target. You have to know exactly where it is from any angle. If he turns or lifts his head your aiming point changes. If he is facing you, broadside or angled away from you, the picture changes again. You must look beyond the grey curtain of his hide and see the vital organs hidden deep inside his massive head and body.’

Now Leon realized, with dismay, that it was not an illustration in a book that confronted him: it was a creature that could squash him to jelly and crush every bone in his body with a single blow of its trunk, and it would take only two long strides to reach him. If the bull came at him he would be forced to try to kill it. Percy’s voice echoed in his head: ‘If he is head on to you, take the line between his eyes and move down until you pick the top crease in his trunk. If he lifts his head or if he is very close you must go even lower. The mistake that gets the novice killed is that he shoots too high, and his bullet goes over the top of the brain.’

Leon stared hard at the base of the trunk. The lateral creases in the thick grey skin between the amber eyes were deeply etched. But he could not visualize what lay beyond. Was the bull too close? Must he shoot at the second or third crease rather than the first? He was uncertain.

Suddenly the bull shook his head so violently that his ears clapped thunderously against his shoulders, and raised a cloud of dust from the dry mud that coated his body. Leon swung the rifle to his shoulder, but the beast wheeled away and disappeared at a shambling run among the sweet thorn trees.

Leon’s legs felt weak and his hands holding the rifle were trembling. Understanding of his own inadequacy had been thrust rudely upon him. He knew now why Percy had sent him out to be blooded. This was not a skill that could be learned from a book or even from hours of instruction. This was trial by the gun and failure was death. Manyoro came back to him and offered him one of the waterbottles. Only then did he realize that his mouth and throat were parched, and his tongue felt swollen with thirst. He had gulped down three mouthfuls before he noticed that the two Masai were studying his face. He lowered the water-bottle and smiled unconvincingly.

‘Even the bravest of men is afraid the first time,’ Manyoro said. ‘But you did not run.’

They halted in the blazing noon and found shade under the spreading branches of a giraffe thorn tree while they waited for Ishmael to catch up and prepare the midday meal. He was still half a mile away across the plain and his form wavered in the heat mirage. Loikot squatted in front of Leon and frowned, which signalled that he had something of importance to impart and that this was a conversation between men.

‘M’bogo, this is verily the truth that I will tell you,’ he began.

‘I am listening to you, Loikot. Speak and I will hear you,’ Leon assured him, and assumed an earnest expression to encourage him.

‘It is of no value to talk to those old men as you did two nights ago. Their minds are cooked to cassava porridge by the drinking of beer. They have forgotten how to track a beast. They hear nothing but the chatter of their wives. They see nothing beyond the walls of their manyatta. They can do nothing but count their cattle and fill their bellies.’

‘Such is the way of old men.’ Leon was acutely aware that, in Loikot’s eyes, he himself was probably on the brink of dotage.

‘If you want to know what is happening in all the world you must ask us.’

‘Tell me, Loikot, who do you mean by “us”?’

‘We are the guardians of the cattle, the chungaji. While the old men sit in the sun to drink beer and talk of mighty deeds from long ago, we the chungaji move through the land with the cattle. We see everything. We hear everything.’

‘But tell me, Loikot, how do you know what the other chungaji, who are many days’ march distant, see and hear?’

‘They are my brothers of the knife. Many of us are of the same circumcision year. We shared the initiation ceremonies.’

‘Is it possible that you are able to learn what the chungaji with their cattle on the plains beyond Kilimanjaro saw yesterday? They are ten days’ march away.’

‘It is possible,’ Loikot confirmed. ‘We speak to each other.’

Leon doubted this.

‘At sunset this evening I will speak to my brothers and you will hear it,’ Loikot offered, but before Leon could question him further they heard terrified screaming from out on the plain. Leon and Manyoro seized their rifles and jumped up. They stared out at Ishmael’s distant figure. He was in full flight towards them, holding his bundle on his head with both hands. Close behind him came a gigantic cock ostrich. With its long pink legs it was gaining on him swiftly. Even from this distance Leon could see that it displayed its full breeding plumage. Its body was the deepest onyx black and the puffs of feathers on its tail and wing-tips were brilliant white. Now every feather was fluffed up in rage. Its legs and beak were flushed scarlet with sexual frenzy. It was determined to kill to protect its breeding territory from the white-robed invader.

Leon led the two Masai to the rescue. They shouted and waved their arms wildly to distract the bird, but it ignored them and bore down remorselessly on Ishmael. When it got within striking distance it stretched out its long neck and pecked the kitchen bundle so viciously that he was knocked off his feet. He went down, sprawling in a cloud of dust. His bundle burst open and his cooking pots and crockery clattered and bounced around him. The ostrich leaped on top of him, kicking and clawing with both feet. It lowered its head to peck his arms and legs, and Ishmael squealed as the blood flowed from the wounds it inflicted.

Nimble as a hare, Loikot outran the two older men, shouting a challenge at the ostrich as he closed in. The bird jumped off Ishmael’s prostrate form and advanced menacingly towards Loikot. Its stubby wings were spread and it began its threat dance, stepping high, lifting and lowering its head menacingly, cawing an angry challenge.

Loikot pulled up and spread the tails of his cloak as though they were wings. Then he began a perfect imitation of the ostrich’s dance, using the same high steps and ritual head-bobbing. He was trying to provoke it to attack. Bird and boy circled each other.

The ostrich was being confronted on its own breeding ground and his outrage and affront at last overpowered even its instinct of survival. It rushed to the attack, head thrust out to the full reach of its long neck. It struck at Loikot’s face, but Loikot knew exactly how to deal with it, and Leon realized he must have done this many times before. Fearlessly the boy jumped to meet the huge bird and locked both hands around its neck just behind the head. Then he lifted both feet off the ground and swung his full weight on the ostrich’s neck, bearing its head down to the ground. The ostrich was pinned helplessly off-balance. It could not lift its head. It flopped around in a circle in an attempt to remain on its feet. Leon ran up and raised his rifle. He circled the mêlée to give himself a clear shot.

‘No! Effendi, no! Do not shoot,’ screamed Ishmael. ‘Leave this son of the great shaitan to me.’ On his hands and knees he was fumbling through the scattered debris of his kitchen utensils. At last he came to his feet clutching a gleaming carving knife in his right hand and raced to the struggling pair with his weapon held en garde.

‘Twist its head over!’ he shouted at Loikot. Now the bird’s throat was exposed and, with the skill of a master butcher, Ishmael drew the edge of the razor-sharp blade across it, slitting it neatly from side to side and cutting down to the ostrich’s vertebrae with a single stroke.

‘Let him go!’ Ishmael ordered, and Loikot released the bird. They jumped well clear of its flailing feet with their sharp talons. The ostrich bounded away but a long plume of blood shot high in the air from the open arteries in its throat. It lost direction and staggered in a circle, its long, scaly pink legs losing their driving force and its neck drooping like the stalk of a fading flower. It collapsed and lay struggling weakly to regain its feet, but regular jets of bright arterial blood continued to spurt on to the sun-baked earth.

‘Allah is great!’ Ishmael exulted, and pounced upon its still living carcass. ‘There is no other God but God!’ Neatly he slit open the bird’s belly and cut out the liver. ‘This creature is slain by my knife and I have sanctified its death in the name of God. I have drawn out its blood. I declare this meat halal.’ He held the liver aloft. ‘Behold the finest meat in all of creation. The liver of the ostrich taken from the living bird.’

They ate kebabs of ostrich liver and belly fat grilled over the coals of the camel-thorn acacia. Then, bellies filled, they slept for an hour in the shade. When they awoke the breeze, which had died away at noon, rose again and blew steadily across the wide steppe. They shouldered rifles and packs and went with the wind until the sun was no more than a hand’s spread above the horizon.

‘We must go to that hilltop,’ Loikot told Leon, pointing to a pimple of volcanic rock that stood out directly in their path, highlighted in the ruddy glow of the setting sun. The boy scrambled ahead to the summit and stared down the valley. Shaded blue with distance three enormous bastions of rock thrust up towards the southern sky. ‘Loolmassin, the mountain of the gods.’ Loikot pointed out the most westerly peak as Leon came up beside him. Then he turned to the east and the two larger peaks. ‘Meru and Kilimanjaro, the home of the clouds. Those mountains are in the land that the Bula Matari call their own but which has belonged to my people since the beginning time.’ The peaks were more than a hundred miles on the far side of the border, deep inside German East Africa.

Awed into silence, Leon watched the sunlight sparkle on the snowfields of Kilimanjaro’s rounded summit, then turned back to the long trail of smoke drifting from the volcanic crater of Loolmassin. He wondered if there was a more magnificent spectacle in all the world.

‘Now I will speak to my brothers of the chungaji. Hear me!’ Loikot announced. He filled his lungs, cupped his hands around his mouth and let out a high-pitched sing-song wail, startling Leon. The volume and pitch were so penetrating that, instinctively, he covered his ears. Three times Loikot called, then sat down beside Leon and wrapped his shuka around his shoulders. ‘There is a manyatta beyond the river.’ He pointed out the darker line of trees that marked the riverbed.

Leon calculated that it was several miles away. ‘Will they hear you at such a distance?’

‘You will see,’ Loikot told him. ‘The wind has dropped and the air is still and cool. When I call with my special voice it will carry that far and even further.’ They waited. Below them, a small herd of kudu moved through the thorn scrub. Three graceful grey cows led the bull, with his fringed dewlap and spreading corkscrew horns. Their shapes were ethereal as drifts of smoke as they vanished silently into the scrub.

‘Do you still think they heard you?’ Leon asked.

The boy did not deign to answer immediately, but chewed for a while on the root of the tinga bush that the Masai used to whiten their teeth. Then he spat out the wad of pith and gave Leon a flash of his sparkling smile. ‘They have heard me,’ he said, ‘but they are climbing to a high place from which to reply.’ They lapsed into silence again.

At the foot of the hillock Ishmael had lit a small fire and was brewing tea in a small smoke-blackened kettle. Leon watched him thirstily.

‘Listen!’ said Loikot, and threw back his cloak as he sprang to his feet.

Leon heard it then, coming from the direction of the river. It sounded like a faint echo of Loikot’s original call. Loikot cocked his head to follow it, then cupped his hands and sent his high, sing-song cry ringing back across the plain. He listened again to the reply, and the exchange went on until it was almost dark.

‘It is finished. We have spoken,’ he declared at last, and led the way down the hill to where Ishmael had set up camp for the night. He handed a large enamel mug of tea to Leon as he settled down beside the fire. While they ate their dinner of ostrich steaks and stiff cakes of yellow maize-meal porridge, Loikot relayed to Leon the gossip he had learned from his long conversation with the chungaji beyond the river.

‘Two nights ago a lion killed one of their cattle, a fine black bull with good horns. This morning the morani followed the lion with their spears and surrounded it. When it charged, it chose Singidi as its victim and went for him. He killed it with a single thrust so has won great honour. Now he can place his spear outside the door of any woman in Masailand.’ Loikot thought about this for a moment. ‘One day I will do that, and then the girls will no longer laugh at me and call me baby,’ he said wistfully.

‘Bless your randy little dreams,’ Leon said in English, then switched to Maa. ‘What else did you hear?’ Loikot began a recitation that went on for several minutes, a catalogue of births, marriages, lost cattle and other such matters. ‘Did you ask if any white men are travelling at the moment in Masailand? Any Bula Matari soldiers with askari?’

‘The German commissioner from Arusha is on tour with six askari. They are marching down the valley towards Monduli. There are no other soldiers in the valley.’

‘Any other white men?’

‘Two German hunters with their women and wagons are camped in the Meto Hills. They have killed many buffalo and dried their meat.’

The Meto Hills were at least eighty miles away, and Leon was amazed at how much information the boy had gathered from across such a wide area. He had read the old hunters’ accounts of the Masai grapevine, but he had not set much store by them. This network must cover the entire Masai country. He smiled into his mug: Uncle Penrod now had his eyes along the border. ‘What about elephant? Did you ask your brethren if they had seen any big bulls in this area?’

‘There are many elephant, but mostly cows and calves. At this season the bulls are up in the mountains or over the escarpment in the craters of Ngorongoro and Empakaai. But that is common knowledge.’

‘Are there are no bulls at all in the valley?’

‘The chungaji saw one near Namanga, a very large bull, but that was many days ago and no one has seen him since. They think he might have gone into the Nyiri desert where there is no grazing for the cattle so none of my people are there.’

‘We must follow the wind,’ said Manyoro.

‘Or you must learn to sing sweetly for us,’ Leon suggested.

Before dawn Leon woke and went to be alone behind the bole of a large tree, well away from where the others slept. He dropped his trousers, squatted and broke wind. His was the only wind that was blowing this morning, he thought. The wilderness around him was hushed and still. The leaves in the branches above him hung limp and motionless against the pale promise of dawn. As he returned to the camp he saw that Ishmael already had the kettle on the fire and the two Masai were stirring. He sat close enough to the flames to feel their warmth. There was a chill in the dawn. ‘There is no wind,’ he told Manyoro.

‘Perhaps it will rise with the sun.’

‘Should we go on without it?’

‘Which way? We do not know,’ Manyoro pointed out. ‘We have come this far with my mother’s wind. We must wait for it to come again to lead us on.’

Leon felt impatient and disgruntled. He had pandered long enough to Lusima’s claptrap. He had a dull ache behind his eyes. During the night the cold had kept him awake and when he had slept he had been haunted by nightmares of Hugh Turvey and his crucified wife. Ishmael handed him a mug of coffee but even that did not have its usual therapeutic effect. In the thicket beyond the campfire a robin began its melodious greeting to the dawn and from afar a lion roared, answered by another even further off. Then silence descended again.

Leon finished a second mug of coffee and at last felt its curative powers take effect. He was about to say something to Manyoro when he was distracted by a loud, rattling call, which sounded like a box of small pebbles being shaken vigorously. They all looked up with interest. Everyone knew which bird had made the sound. A honeyguide was inviting them to follow it to a wild beehive. When the men raided it they would be expected to share the spoils with the bird. They would take the honey, leaving the beeswax and the larvae for the honeyguide. It was a symbiotic arrangement that, down the ages, had been faithfully adhered to by man and bird. It was said that if anybody failed to pay the bird its due, the next time it would lead him to a venomous snake or a man-eating lion. Only a greedy fool would attempt to cheat it.

Leon stood up and the drab brown and yellow bird flashed from the top branches of the tree and began to display. Its wings hummed and resonated as it dived and pulled up, then dived again.

‘Honey!’ said Manyoro greedily. No African could resist that invitation.

‘Honey, sweet honey!’ Loikot shouted.

The last vestige of Leon’s headache vanished miraculously, and he grabbed his rifle. ‘Hurry! Let’s go!’ The honeyguide saw them following and darted away, whirring and rattling excitedly.

For the next hour Leon trotted steadily after the bird. He had said nothing of it to the others, but he could not shake off the haunting idea that the bird was Lusima Mama’s sweet singer. However, his doubts were stronger than his faith and he steeled himself for disappointment. Manyoro was singing encouragement to the bird, and Loikot, skipping along at Leon’s side, joined in with the chorus:

‘Lead us to the hive of the little stingers,
And we will feast you on golden wax.
Can you not taste the sweet fat grubs?
Fly, little friend! Fly swiftly and we will follow.’

The little bird flitted on through the forest, darting from tree to tree, chirruping and dancing in the top branches until they caught up, then flashing away again. A little before noon they reached a dry riverbed. The forest along either bank was thicker and the trees taller, fed by subterranean waters. Before they reached the actual watercourse the honeyguide flew to the top of one of the tallest trees and waited for them there. As they came up, Manyoro cried out in delight and pointed at the tree-trunk. ‘There it is!’

Like swift golden dust motes in the sunlight, Leon saw the flight of the bees homing in on the hive. Three-quarters of the way up, the trunk forked into two heavy branches and the crotch between them was split by a narrow, vertical cleft. A thin trickle of tree sap ran from the opening and congealed in translucent globules of gum on the bark around it. Into this opening the homecoming bees flitted, while those leaving the hive crawled out on to the lips of the opening and buzzed away. The image brought Verity O’Hearne to Leon’s mind with sharp, lubricious nostalgia. It was the first time he had thought of her in several days.

The others laid aside their burdens to prepare for the harvest of the hive. Manyoro cut a square of bark from the trunk of another tree in the grove and rolled it into a tube, which he tied into shape with a strip of bark string. Then he fashioned a loop of bark into a handle. Ishmael had started a small fire and was feeding it with dry twigs. Loikot girded the tail of his shuka around his waist, leaving his legs and lower body bare, then went to the base of the tree and tested the texture of the bark and the girth of the trunk with his arms while he gazed up at the hive steeling himself mentally for the climb.

Ishmael fed chips of green wood into the fire and blew on them until they glowed and emitted dense clouds of pungent white smoke. With the wide blade of his panga, Manyoro scooped the coals into the bark tube and took it to Loikot, who used the loop handle to sling the tube over his shoulder, then tucked the panga into the folds of his shuka. He spat on his palms and grinned at Leon. ‘Watch me, M’bogo. No other can climb as I can.’

‘It doesn’t surprise me to learn that you are brother to the baboons,’ Leon told him, and Loikot laughed before he sprang at the tree-trunk. Gripping alternately with his palms and the soles of his bare feet he shot up the trunk with amazing agility and reached the tree’s high crotch without a pause. He climbed into the fork and stood upright, with a swarm of angry bees buzzing around his head. He took the bark tube from his shoulder and blew into one end, like a trumpeter. A jet of smoke poured from the opposite end. As it enveloped them the bees dispersed.

Loikot paused to pick a few stings from his arms and legs. Then he hefted the panga and, balancing easily, ignoring the dizzying drop below him, he stooped and swung the heavy blade at the cleft between his feet. With a dozen ringing blows he made white wood chips fly. Then he peered into the enlarged opening. ‘I can smell the sweetness,’ he shouted to the upturned faces below. He reached into the hive and brought out a large thick comb. He held it up for them to see. ‘Thanks to the skills of Loikot, you will eat your fill today, my friends.’ They laughed.

‘Well done, little baboon!’ Leon shouted.

Loikot brought out five more combs, each hexagonal cell filled to the brim with dark brown honey, and sealed with a lid of wax. He packed them gently into the folds of his shuka.

‘Do not take it all,’ Manyoro cautioned him. ‘Leave half for our little winged friends or they will die.’ Loikot had been taught that when he was still a child and did not reply. Now he was a morani, and wise in the lore of the wild. He dropped the smoke tube and the panga to the base of the tree and slithered down the trunk, jumping the last six feet to land lightly on his feet.

They sat in a circle and divided the combs. In the branches above, the honeyguide hopped and chirruped to remind them of his presence and the debt they owed him. Carefully Manyoro broke off the edges of the combs where the cells were filled with white bee larvae and laid the pieces on a large green leaf. He looked up at the hovering bird. ‘Come, little brother, you have earned your reward.’ He carried the larvae-filled pieces of honeycomb a short distance away, and placed them carefully in an opening in the scrub. As soon as he turned away, the bird flew down boldly to partake of the feast.

Now that custom and tradition had been observed, the men were free to taste the spoils. Sitting around the pile of golden combs they broke off pieces, and stuffed them into their mouths, murmuring with pleasure as they chewed the honey out of the cells, then spat out the wax and licked their sticky fingers.

Leon had never tasted honey like this dark, smoky variety garnered from the nectar of acacia flowers. It coated his tongue and the back of his throat with such intense sweetness that he gasped at the shock, and his eyes swam with tears. He closed them tightly. The rich wild perfume filled his head and almost overpowered him. His tongue tingled. When he breathed he felt the taste drawn down deep into his throat. He swallowed and exhaled as sharply as though he had gulped down a dram of highland whisky.

Half a comb was enough for him. He felt satiated with sweetness. He rocked back on his heels and watched the others for a while. At last he stood up and left them to their gluttony. They took no notice of his departure. He picked up his rifle and sauntered idly into the bush, heading for where he thought the riverbed might be. The vegetation became thicker as he went deeper into it until he pushed his way through the last screen of branches and found himself on the bank. It had been cut back by flood water into a sheer wall that dropped six feet to a bed of fine white sand a hundred paces wide, trampled by the paws and hoofs of the animals that had used it as a highway.

On the far bank a massive wild fig tree’s roots had been exposed by the cutback. They twisted and writhed like mating serpents, and the branches that stretched out over the riverbed were laden with bunches of the small yellow figs. A flock of green pigeons had been gorging on the fruit and was startled into flight by Leon’s sudden appearance. Their wingbeats clattered in the silence as they arrowed away along the watercourse.

Beneath the spreading wild fig branches the white sand had been heaped into large mounds. Scattered around them were several pyramids of elephant dung, which commanded Leon’s attention. He held the rifle at arm’s length in front of him and jumped from the top of the bank. The soft sand broke his landing and he sank into it to his ankles, but soon recovered his balance and set off across the riverbed. When he reached the mounds he realized that the elephant had been digging for water. With their forefeet they had kicked away the dry sand until they had reached a firmer damp layer. Then they had used their trunks to burrow until they had come to the subterranean water table. The prints of their pads where they had stood over the seep holes were clearly visible. They had sucked up the water with their trunks into spongy cavities in their massive skulls, and when these were full, they had lifted their heads, thrust their trunk tips into the back of their throats and squirted the water into their bellies.

There were eight open seep holes. He went to each in turn to examine the tracks left by thirsty animals. Having been instructed by three grand-masters of the trade – Percy Phillips, Manyoro and Loikot – he had learned enough bushcraft to read them accurately. The shape and size of the footprints that the elephant had left around the first four seeps proved them to have been cows.

When he came to the fifth there was only one set of tracks. They were so large that his first glimpse of them made him pause in mid-stride. He drew a quick breath, sharp with excitement, then hurried forward and dropped to his knees beside the prints of the front feet, which were deeply embedded on the lip of the hole where the beast must have stood for hours to suck up water.

Leon stared at them in disbelief. They were enormous. The animal that had made them must have been a massive old bull: the soles of his feet had worn smooth with age. One side of the print he was studying slipped away in a trickle of soft sand – which meant that the bull had left the riverbed only recently: the disturbed earth had not had time to settle. Perhaps the animal had been frightened off by the sound of Loikot chopping open the entrance to the beehive.

Leon laid the twin barrels of his rifle across the pad print to gauge its size, and whistled softly. His barrels were two feet long, and the diameter of the footprint was only two inches less. Applying the formula that Percy Phillips had propounded to him, he calculated that this bull must stand more than twelve feet high at the shoulder, a giant among a race of giants.

Leon jumped up and ran back across the riverbed. He scrambled up the bank and pushed his way through the undergrowth to where his three companions were huddled over the last scraps of honeycomb. ‘Lusima Mama and her sweet singer have shown us the way,’ he told them. ‘I have found the spoor of a great bull elephant in the riverbed.’ The trackers snatched up their kit and ran after him, but Ishmael scooped the remains of the honeycomb into one of his pots before he hoisted his bundle on to his head and followed.

‘M’bogo, this is veritably the bull that I showed you the first time we travelled together,’ Loikot exclaimed, as soon as he saw the spoor, and danced with excitement. ‘I recognize him. This is a paramount chief of all the elephants.’

Manyoro shook his head. ‘He is so old he must be ready to die. Surely his ivory is broken and worn away.’

‘No! No!’ Loikot denied it vehemently. ‘With my own eyes I have seen his tusks. They are as long as you are, Manyoro, and thicker even than your head!’ He made a circle with his arms.

Manyoro laughed. ‘My poor little Loikot, you have been bitten by blow-flies, and they have filled your head with maggots. I will ask my mother to prepare for you a draught to loosen your bowels and clear these dreams from your eyes.’

Loikot bridled and glared at him. ‘And perhaps it is not the elephant but you who has become old and senile. We should have left you on Lonsonyo Mountain, drinking beer with your decrepit cronies.’

‘While you two exchange compliments the bull is walking away from us,’ Leon intervened. ‘Take the spoor, and let us settle this debate by looking upon his tusks and not merely upon the marks of his feet.’

As soon as they had followed the spoor out of the riverbed and into the open savannah it became obvious that the bull elephant had been thoroughly alarmed by the sound of axe blows and their voices as they had raided the beehive.

‘He is in full flight.’ Manyoro pointed out the length of the bull’s strides. He had settled into the long swinging gait that covers the ground as fast as a man can run. They all knew that he could keep up that pace from dawn to dusk without pausing to rest.

‘He is going east. It seems to me that he is heading for the Nyiri desert, that dry land where there are no men and only he knows where to dig for water,’ Manyoro remarked after the first hour. ‘If he keeps up this pace, by sunrise tomorrow he will be over the top of the escarpment and deep into the desert.’

‘Do not listen to him, M’bogo,’ Loikot advised. ‘It is the habit of old men to be gloomy. They can smell shit in the perfume of the kigelia flower.’

After another hour they stopped for a swig from the water-bottles.

‘The bull has not turned aside from his chosen path,’ Manyoro observed. ‘Not once has he paused to feed or even slowed his pace. Already he is many hours ahead of us.’

‘Not only can this old man smell dung in the kigelia bloom, but he can smell it even in the flower between the thighs of the sweetest young virgin.’ Loikot grinned cheekily at Leon. ‘Pay him no heed, M’bogo. Follow me, and before sunset I will show you such tusks as will amaze your eyes and fill your heart with joy.’

But the spoor ran on straight and unwavering. Another hour, and even Loikot was beginning to wilt. When they stopped for a few minutes to drink and stretch out in the shade they were all quiet and subdued. Even though they had driven themselves hard since leaving the dry riverbed, they knew how far they had dropped behind the bull elephant. Leon screwed the stopper back on the water-bottle and stood up. Without a word the others came to their feet. They went on.

In the middle of the afternoon they stopped to rest again. ‘If my mother was with us she would work such a spell as would turn the bull aside and make him start feeding,’ said Manyoro, ‘but, alas, she is not with us.’

‘Perhaps she is watching over us, for she is a great magician,’ said Loikot brightly. ‘Perhaps she can hear me if I call to her.’ He jumped to his feet and broke into a leaping praise dance, hopping high in the air on his long skinny legs. ‘Hear me, Great Black Cow, hear me call to you.’ Leon laughed and even Manyoro grinned and began to clap in time to the dance.

‘Hear him, Mama! Hear our little baboon!’

‘Hear me, Mother of the Tribe! You have shown us the marks of his feet, now do not let him walk away from us. Slow his great feet. Fill his belly with hunger. Make him stop to feed.’

‘That’s enough magic for one day. Surely the bull cannot escape us now,’ Leon intervened. ‘On your feet, Manyoro. Let us go on.’

The spoor ran on. The bull was moving so fast that when it crossed areas of loose earth it kicked spurts of dust forward with each long stride. When Leon looked up at the sun his heart sank. There was no more than an hour of daylight left, no possibility of coming up with the elephant before darkness cloaked the spoor, forcing them to break off the pursuit until dawn on the morrow. By then he would be fifty miles ahead of them.

He was still gazing up at the sky so he bumped into Manyoro, who had stopped abruptly in his path. Both Masai were poring over the earth. They looked up at Leon and, with hand signals, urged him to remain silent. They were both grinning and their eyes shone. They had been revitalized and no longer showed any trace of fatigue. Manyoro indicated the altered spoor with an eloquent, graceful gesture.

Leon grasped that a little miracle had taken place. The bull had slowed, his pace had shortened, and he had turned aside from his determined flight towards the eastern escarpment of the valley. Manyoro pointed to a grove of ngong nut trees a quarter of a mile to their right. The tops of the trees were round in shape, taller and greener than the lesser trees surrounding them. He leaned over to Leon and placed his lips close to his ear. ‘At this season the trees are in bearing. He has smelled the ripe nuts and cannot resist them. We will find him in the grove.’ He took up a handful of earth and let it sift through his fingers. ‘There is still no wind. We can move straight in towards him.’ He looked back at Ishmael and signalled to him to stay where he was. Ishmael laid his bundle at his feet and lowered himself thankfully to the ground beside it.

With the two Masai still leading, they crept forward, moving from one patch of cover to the next, pausing to scan the forest ahead before going forward again. They reached the nearest ngong tree. The ground beneath it was littered with fallen nuts but the branches above were still thick with bunches of half-ripe ones. The bull had stood under this tree for a long time, picking up the hard nuts with the fingers at the tip of his trunk and stuffing them into his mouth. Then he had moved on. They followed his huge pad marks to the next tree, where he had fed again, then moved on once more. This time he had headed towards a shallow depression, above which only the tops of the nut trees showed. They crept forward until they could look down into it.

At the same instant all three saw the enormous black mass of the bull elephant. He was three hundred paces away, standing in the shade of one of the largest nut trees, angled half away from them. He rocked gently from one forefoot to the other, ears fanning lazily, trunk draped nonchalantly over the curve of the only visible tusk. The other was hidden from view by his massive bulk, but Leon stared at the one he could see, hardly able to believe its length and girth. To him, it seemed the size of a marble column from a Greek temple.

‘The wind?’ he breathed to Manyoro. ‘How is the wind?’ Manyoro scooped up another handful of earth and dribbled it through his fingers. Then he dusted his hand on his leg and made a sign that was as clear as any words. ‘No wind. Nothing.’

Leon broke open the barrels of his rifle and removed the fat brass cartridges from the breeches one at a time. He examined them for blemishes and polished them on his shirt before he slipped them back into place. He snapped the barrels shut and tucked the butt of the loaded rifle under his right armpit. Then he nodded to Manyoro, and as they moved forward, Leon took the lead. He angled towards the bull until the tree-trunk covered his approach, then turned straight towards it.

The tree blocked out the bull’s head but his body protruded on one side of it, while the curve of the nearest tusk stuck out beyond the other. A shaft of sunlight pierced the canopy of leaves above his head and struck the ivory like the beam of a limelight. Closer still, and Leon heard the animal’s belly rumble like distant thunder. He moved in steadily upon him, setting down each footstep with exaggerated care. Now he held the heavy rifle at the ready position across his chest.

The Holland was essentially a short-range weapon. He had fired several shots at a target before he had set out from Tandala Camp, and had discovered that the twin barrels were regulated to shoot to the same point of aim at precisely thirty yards. At any greater distance, the bullets would spread out unpredictably. He knew that to be completely certain of his shot he had to get closer than that. He wanted to reach the trunk of the nut tree and fire from behind its cover. Now he was so close that he could see the oxpeckers scrambling around on the elephant’s wrinkled grey skin. There were five or six of the slender little yellow birds, balancing themselves with their tails as they foraged with their sharp red beaks in the creases of the skin for ticks, blind flies and other blood-sucking insects. One crept into the ear and the bull flapped loudly to warn it away from the sensitive parts deep inside. Other birds hung upside-down under his belly or in his crotch, pecking busily at the sagging folds of grey skin. Then, suddenly, they became aware of Leon’s approach and ran up the bull’s flanks to stand in a line along his spine, staring with glittering eyes at the intruder.

Manyoro tried to warn Leon of what was about to happen but he dared not speak, and Leon was so intent on his stalk that he did not see the desperate hand signals behind him. He was still a dozen paces from the bole of the ngong tree when the row of oxpeckers on the bull’s back exploded into flight, uttered their frenzied twittering alarm call. It was a warning that the beast understood well, for the birds were not only his grooms but also his sentinels.

From comfortable somnolence he plunged forward, reaching his top speed in half a dozen strides. He had no idea where the danger lay, but he trusted the birds and simply ran in the direction he was facing. He was heading at a thirty-degree angle away from Leon. For a second Leon was stunned by the speed and agility of the massive creature. Then he raced forward in pursuit, aiming to get ahead of the bull before he could get clear away. For a short distance he gained ground, closing to just under the critical thirty-yard range. He fastened his eyes on the bull’s head. The wide sails of the ears were cocked back so Leon could see the long, vertical slit of the earhole. But the head nodded violently and rolled from side to side with each stride. The oxpeckers were shrilling, and behind Leon, the two Masai shouted unintelligibly. All around there was movement and wild confusion and the bull pulled rapidly away. Within a few more strides he would be out of range.

Leon slammed to a halt. All his vision and attention were concentrated on the long slit of the earhole in the centre of the swinging and swaying head. The rifle came up to his shoulder and he looked over the barrels, hardly seeing them, so intense was his concentration. Time and movement seemed to slow into a dreamlike unreality. His vision was as sharp as a diamond drill. He saw beyond the moving wall of grey skin and the spreading ears. He saw the brain. It was an extraordinary sensation – Percy Phillips had called it the hunter’s eye. With the hunter’s eye he could see through skin and bone, and descry the exact position of the brain. It was the size of a football, set low behind the line of the earhole.

The rifle crashed, and even in the sunlight he saw the flame spurt from the muzzle. He was startled. He had not been aware of touching the trigger. He hardly felt the recoil of five thousand foot-pounds of energy kicking back into his shoulder. His vision was not deflected by it: he saw the bullet strike two inches behind the earhole, precisely where he knew it should go. He saw the bull’s nearest eye blink shut, heard the heavy bullet strike bone with a sound like a woodman’s axe swung against a hardwood tree. With his new gift of the hunter’s eye he could imagine the bullet ploughing through bone and tissue, tearing into the brain.

The bull threw back his head, long tusks pointing for an instant at the sky. Then his front legs folded under him and he collapsed heavily into a kneeling position. The force of the impact sent up a cloud of dust and made the ground tremble beneath Leon’s feet. The elephant lay on his folded front legs as though waiting to be mounted by a mahout, head supported by the curves of the tusks, sightless eyes wide open. The tail flicked once, then all was still. The echoes of gunfire rang in Leon’s head, but all around was a deep hush.

‘It’s the dead elephant that kills you.’ He heard Percy’s warning in his memory. ‘Always put in the coup de grâce.’ Leon raised the rifle again and aimed for the crease in the bull’s armpit. Again the rifle boomed. The beast never so much as twitched as the second bullet drove through its heart.

Leon walked forward slowly and reached out to touch the staring amber eye with a fingertip. It did not blink. His legs felt as soft and limp as boiled spaghetti. He sank down, leaned his back against the elephant’s shoulder and closed his eyes. He felt nothing. He was empty inside. He felt no sense of triumph or elation, no remorse or sorrow for the death of such a magnificent creature. All that would come later. Now there was only the aching emptiness, as though he had just made love to a beautiful woman.

Leon sent Manyoro and Loikot off to some distant villages outside the boundaries of Masailand. Their task was to recruit porters to carry the ivory to the railway. They had to be from some tribe other than Masai, for the morani would not stoop to such menial employment. Leon and Ishmael camped for the following five days at a discreet distance upwind from the putrefying carcass, its belly swelling with gas. They guarded the tusks while they waited for them to loosen with rot in their bone canals.

The nights were raucous as the scavengers gathered. Jackals yipped and packs of hyena giggled, shrieked and squabbled among themselves. On the third night the lions arrived and added their imperial roaring to the general cacophony. Ishmael spent the hours of darkness perched in the top branches of one of the ngong trees, reciting verses from the Koran in Kiswahili and calling on Allah for protection from these demons.

On the sixth day Manyoro and Loikot returned, followed by a gang of stalwart Luo porters whom Manyoro had hired for ten shillings.

‘Ten shillings a day each?’ Leon was aghast at such profligacy. Ten shillings was almost the sum of his worldly wealth.

‘Nay, Bwana, for all of them.’

‘Ten shillings a day for all six?’ Leon was only slightly mollified.

‘Nay, Bwana. It is for all six to carry the tusks to the railway, no matter how many days it takes.’

‘Manyoro, your mother should be proud of you,’ Leon told him with relief. ‘I certainly am.’ He led the porters to where the remains of the carcass lay. Only the great bones and the hide had not been dragged away and devoured by the scavengers. The head was still propped upright by the two curves of ivory. Leon looped a length of bark rope around one of the tusks and the Luo porters sang a work chant as they heaved on the line. The butt end of the tusk, which had been buried in the skull, slid out of its canal with little resistance. Until then almost half its length had been hidden and now the true dimensions were revealed for the first time. When they laid the two tusks side by side on a bed of fresh green leaves Leon was amazed by their length and lovely symmetry. Once again he used the barrels of his rifle as a gauge to measure them. The longest of the two was a hand’s breadth over eleven feet and the lesser was almost exactly eleven feet.

Under Manyoro’s direction the Luo cut two long poles of acacia wood and strapped each tusk to one. With a porter at each end they lifted the poles and started towards the railway, the remainder of the team trotting behind them, ready to spell them as they tired.

Leon was no longer entitled to a military travel pass, so on the steepest stretch of the railway, where it climbed up the escarpment from the floor of the Rift Valley, they waited for the night train from Lake Victoria. Here, even the double team of locomotives was reduced to walking speed. Under cover of darkness they ran along-side one of the goods trucks until they could catch hold of the steel ladder and clamber onto the roof. The Luo porters passed the tusks and Ishmael’s bundle up to them. Leon tossed a canvas purse of shillings down to the headman and the porters shouted thanks and farewells until they were left in the darkness behind the guard’s van. The locomotives puffed gamely to the top of the escarpment. The truck on which they were perched was filled with baskets of dried fish from the lake, but as the train picked up speed the stink was wafted away.

It was still dark when they dropped the tusks and their baggage over the side of the truck and jumped from the rolling train as it slowed before steaming into Nairobi station.

Percy Phillips was eating his breakfast in the mess tent when they staggered into Tandala Camp, bowed under the weight of the tusks.

‘Upon my soul!’ he spluttered into his coffee, and knocked over his chair as he sprang to his feet. ‘Those aren’t yours, are they?’

‘One is.’ Leon kept a straight face. ‘Unfortunately, sir, the other is yours.’

‘Take them to the beam scale. Let’s see what we have here,’ Percy ordered.

The entire staff of the camp trooped after them to the skinning shed and gathered around the scale as Leon lifted the smaller tusk into the sling.

‘One hundred and twenty-eight pounds,’ said Percy, noncommittally. ‘Now let’s try the other.’

Leon hoisted the second into the sling and Percy blinked. ‘One hundred and thirty-eight.’ His voice cracked just a little. It was the largest tusk that had ever been brought into Tandala Camp. However, he could think of no good reason why the youngster should be told so. Don’t want him to get too big for his boots, he thought, as he scratched his beard. Then he said to Manyoro, ‘Put both tusks into the truck.’ At last he looked at Leon and his eyes twinkled. ‘All right, young fella, you can drive me in to the club. I’m about to buy you a drink.’

As the vehicle bounced and rattled over the track, Percy had to raise his voice to be heard above the racket of the engine. ‘Rightyho! Tell me all about it. Start at the beginning. Don’t leave anything out. How many shots did it take you to put him down?’

‘That isn’t the beginning, sir,’ Leon reminded him.

‘It will do as a starting point. You can work backwards from there. How many shots?’

‘One brain shot. And then I remembered your advice and put in a finisher when he was down.’

Percy nodded his approval. ‘Now tell me the rest.’ As he listened, Percy was impressed with Leon’s account of the hunt. He made it sound fascinating, even to Percy who had lived it all a hundred times. One of the most important duties of a white hunter was to entertain his clients. They wanted more than simply to mow down a few animals: they were paying a fortune to take part in an unforgettable adventure and wanted to be taken out of their cosseted urban existence and led back to their primeval beginnings by someone they could trust and admire. Percy knew a number of fine men who were skilled in bushcraft and the lore of the wild but lacked charm and empathy. They were dour and taciturn. They understood the enchanted wilderness intimately but could not explain it to others. They never had a return client. Their names were not bandied around in the palaces of Europe or the exclusive clubs of London, New York and Berlin. No one clamoured for their services.

This lad did not fall into that category. He was willing and eager. He was modest, charming and tactful. He was articulate. He had a quirky, dry sense of humour. He was personable. People liked him. Percy smiled inwardly. Hell, even I like him.

When they reached the club Percy made him park directly in front of the main doors. He led Leon into the long bar where a dozen regulars, most of them living on remittances sent from their families in England, had already taken their seats. ‘Gentlemen,’ Percy addressed the congregation, ‘I want you to meet my new apprentice, and then I’m going to take you outside and show you a pair of tusks. And I do mean a pair of tusks!’

When they trooped out to the front of the building they found that the news had already flashed through the town, and a small crowd was gathered around the truck. Percy invited them all into the bar.

By the time Hugh Delamere limped into the bar on the leg that had been chewed years ago by a lion, the proceedings were noisy. This was a state of affairs much to his lordship’s liking. As was the case with so many English public-school boys, Delamere enjoyed boisterous games that resulted in broken furniture and other peripheral damage. This evening he was accompanied by Colonel Penrod Ballantyne. They congratulated Leon on his prowess as a hunter, and Delamere poured him a large Talisker whisky from his private stock, which he kept under the bar. Then he challenged uncle and nephew to a game of High Cockalorum, which involved a race around the large room without touching the floor. At one stage the shelves behind the bar were unable to bear his lordship’s weight and collapsed in a crash of breaking bottles. Just before midnight one of the club residents came into the bar to complain of the noise. His lordship locked him into the wine cellar for the rest of the night.

A few hours later Percy was carried feet first into the billiard room and laid on the green baize of the table. Leon reached the front seat of the truck, where he passed what remained of the night.

He woke with an abominable headache.

‘Good morning, Effendi.’ Ishmael was standing beside the truck with a steaming mug of black coffee in his hand. ‘I wish you a day perfumed with jasmine.’ The coffee revived him sufficiently to call for Manyoro. Between them they were able to start the Vauxhall and drive down the main street to the headquarters of the Greater Lake Victoria Trading Company. Below the name on the board, some other script had recently been painted out by direct order of his excellency the governor. However, the writing was still legible under the single coat of paint intended to obliterate it: ‘By appointment to His Majesty the King of England purveyor of fine, rare and precious items’. The uncensored text read: ‘Dealer in gold, diamonds, ivory carvings and curios, and all manner of natural produce. Sundry goods of every description for sale. Prop. Mr Goolam Vilabjhi Esq.’

The proprietor hurried to meet Leon as he entered through the front door, carrying the lesser tusk. Mr Goolam Vilabjhi was a well-nourished little man with a beaming smile. ‘By golly, Lieutenant Courtney, for me and my humble establishment this is a jolly great honour.’

‘Good morning, Mr Vilabjhi, but I am no longer a lieutenant,’ Leon told him, as he laid the tusk on the counter.

‘But you are still the greatest polo player in Africa, and I have heard that you have become a mighty shikari. What is more, I see you bring proof of that.’ He shouted to Mrs Vilabjhi in the back of the store, asking her to bring coffee and sweetmeats, then ushered Leon between rows of heavily laden shelves into his tiny cubby-hole office. A book case that occupied one entire wall was filled with all twenty-two volumes of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary, a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Burke’s Peerage and Gentry and several dozen histories of the English kings, their people and language. Mr Vilabjhi was an ardent anglophile, royalist and proponent of the English language.

‘Please be seated, kindest sir.’ Mrs Vilabjhi bustled in with the coffee tray. She was even plumper than her husband and just as affable. When she had filled the glasses with the thick, sticky black liquid her husband shooed her away and turned back to Leon. ‘Now, tell me, Sahib, what is your pleasure?’

‘I want to sell you that tusk.’

Mr Vilabjhi thought about that for so long that Leon was becoming restless. Eventually he said, ‘Alack and alas, revered Sahib, I will not purchase that ivory from you.’

Leon was startled. ‘Why the hell not?’ he demanded. ‘You’re an ivory dealer, are you not?’

‘Did I ever tell you, Sahib, that I was once a horse groom or, as we say in India, a syce, in the stables of the maharaja of Cooch Behar? I am the utmost admirer and connoisseur of the royal game of polo and the men who play it.’

‘Is that why you won’t buy my tusk?’ Leon asked.

Mr Vilabjhi laughed. ‘That is a fine jest, Sahib. No! The reason is that if I buy that tusk I will send it to England to be made into the keys of a piano or carved into pretty coloured billiard balls. Then you will hate me. One day when you are an old man you will think back on what I did with your trophy and you will say to yourself, “Ten thousand curses on the head of that infamous villain and flagitious scoundrel, Mr Goolam Vilabjhi Esquire!” ’

‘On the other hand, if you do not buy it I will call down a hundred thousand curses on your head right now,’ Leon warned him. ‘Mr Vilabjhi, I need the money and I need it badly.’

‘Ah! Money, she is like the tide of the ocean. She comes in and she goes out. But a tusk like that you will never see again in all your existence.’

‘At this moment my tide is so far out that it’s over the horizon.’

‘Then, Sahib, we have to find some ruse or, as we were wont to say in Cooch Behar, some stratagem to accommodate our diverse wishes.’ He posed a moment longer in an attitude of deep thought, then raised one finger and touched his temple. ‘Eureka! I have it. You will leave the tusk with me as security, and I will loan you the money you require. You will pay me interest at twenty per cent per annum. Then one day, when you are the most famous and renowned shikari in Africa you will come back to me and tell me, “My dear and trusted friend, Mr Goolam Vilabjhi Esquire, I have come to repay the debt I owe you.” Then I will return your fine and magnificent tusk to you, and we will be lifelong friends until the day we die!’

‘My dear and trusted friend, Mr Goolam Vilabjhi Esquire, I call down ten thousand blessings on your head.’ Leon laughed. ‘How much can you let me have?’

‘I have heard tell that the weight of that tusk is one hundred and twenty-eight pounds avoirdupois.’

‘My God! How did you know that?’

‘Every living human creature in Nairobi knows it already.’ Mr Vilabjhi cocked his head to one side. ‘At fifteen shillings a pound I find that I am able to advance you the grand sum of ninety-six pounds sterling in gold sovereigns.’ Leon blinked. That was the most money he had ever held in his hand at one time.

Before he left Mr Vilabjhi’s shop he made his first purchase. On one of the shelves behind the counter he had noticed a small pile of red and yellow cardboard packets displaying the distinctive lion’s head trademark of Kynoch, the pre-eminent manufacturer of cartridges in Britain. When he examined the boxes closely he was delighted to discover that they were marked ‘H&H .470 Royal Nitro Express. 500 Grain. Solid’. Of the ten cartridges that Verity O’Hearne had left him as part of her gift, only three remained. He had fired five shots to check the sights on the rifle and two more to despatch the great bull.

‘How much are those bullets, Mr Vilabjhi?’ he enquired, with trepidation, and gulped at the reply.

‘For you, Sahib, and for you only, I will make my very best and extra special price.’ He gazed up at the ceiling as though seeking inspiration from Kali, Ganesh and all the other Hindu gods. Then he said, ‘For you, Sahib, the price is five shillings for each bullet.’

There were ten packets, each containing five rounds. Leon did a quick mental calculation, and the result appalled him. Twelve pounds ten shillings! He touched the heavy bulge in his hip pocket. I can’t afford it! he told himself. On the other hand, he answered, what kind of professional hunter goes out into the blue with only three cartridges in his belt? Reluctantly he reached into his pocket and brought out the canvas bank bag he had so recently deposited there.

The tide of his fortune had come in, all right, but just as rapidly it had started to ebb, as Mr Vilabjhi had warned him it would.

Manyoro and Ishmael were still waiting outside the front of the store. Leon paid them the wages he owed them. ‘What are you going to do with all that money?’ he asked Manyoro.

‘I shall buy three cows. What else, Bwana?’ Manyoro shook his head at such a foolish question. To a Masai, cattle were the only real wealth.

‘What about you, Ishmael?’

‘I am going to send it to my wives in Mombasa, Effendi.’ Ishmael had six, the maximum that the Prophet allowed, and they were as voracious as a swarm of locusts.

Leon drove to the KAR barracks, with Ishmael and Manyoro. He found Bobby Sampson moping over a tankard of beer in the officers’ mess. His friend brightened when he saw him and cheered up so much when Leon paid him the fifteen guineas he owed him for the Vauxhall that he bought him a beer.

From the barracks Leon drove out to the stock yards on the outskirts of the town. ‘Manyoro, I wish to send a cow to Lusima Mama to thank her for her help in the matter of the elephant.’

‘Such a gift is customary, Bwana,’ Manyoro agreed.

‘Nobody is a finer judge of cattle than you, Manyoro.’

‘That is true, Bwana.’

‘When you have chosen your own beasts, pick one out for Lusima Mama and strike a price with the seller.’ That cost Leon another fifteen pounds, for Manyoro selected the best animal in the yard.

Before Manyoro set off to return to Lonsonyo Mountain, Leon gave him a canvas bag of silver shillings. ‘This is for Loikot. If he keeps talking to his friends and brings the news to us there will be many more bags of shillings. Tell him to save all his money and soon he will have enough to buy himself a fine cow. Now go, Manyoro, and return swiftly. Bwana Samawati has much work for us to do.’

Driving the cows ahead of him, Manyoro took the rutted track that led down into the Rift Valley. When he reached the first bend he turned and shouted back to Leon, ‘Wait for me, my brother, for I shall return in ten days’ time.’

Leon drove back to the club to pick up Percy Phillips. He found him slumped in one of the armchairs on the wide stoep overlooking the sun-parched lawns. He was in a foul mood. His eyes were bloodshot, his beard was in disarray and his face as wrinkled as the khaki bush jacket in which he had passed the night. ‘Where the hell have you been?’ he growled at Leon and, without waiting for an answer, stumped down the steps to where the truck was rumbling and coughing blue exhaust smoke. His expression lightened a little when he saw the tusk on which Ishmael was sitting. ‘Well, thank the Lord you’ve still got that. What happened to the other?’

‘We sold it to the infidel Vilabjhi, Effendi.’ Ishmael had got into the habit of referring to his master in the royal plural.

‘That rogue! I bet he diddled you,’ Percy said, and climbed into the front seat. He did not speak again until they were bumping down the final and worst section of the track into Tandala Camp.

‘I managed to have a few words with your uncle Penrod last evening. He had received a cable from the American State Department. The former President of the United States of America and his entire entourage will be arriving in Mombasa in two months’ time aboard the luxury German steamship Admiral to begin the grand safari. We must be ready for them.’

When they parked in front of the mess tent Percy shouted for tea to be brought. Two mugs of the brew restored his sense of well-being and good humour. ‘Get out your pencil and notebook,’ he ordered Leon.

‘I don’t possess either.’

‘In future they will be your most essential items of equipment. Even more so than your rifle and quinine bottle. I have spares in my library. You can replace them when you next go into town.’ He sent one of the servants to fetch them and soon Leon’s pencil was poised over the first page.

‘Now, here is a broad picture of what this safari will involve. Apart from the President there will be his son, a lad of about the same age as you, and his guests, Sir Alfred Pease, Lord Cranworth and Frederick Selous.’

‘Selous!’ Leon exclaimed. ‘He’s an African legend. I was weaned on his books. But he must be ancient.’

‘Not at all,’ Percy snapped. ‘I doubt he’s even sixty-five yet.’

Leon was about to point out that sixty-five was older than ancient when he saw Percy’s forbidding gaze. He understood that, with Percy Phillips, age was a sensitive subject and retreated from the minefield into which he had been about to blunder. ‘Oh, then he is still quite young,’ he said hastily.

Percy nodded and went on: ‘The President has taken on five white hunters other than myself. The ones I know well are Judd, Cunninghame and Tarlton, all fine fellows. I suppose they will have their apprentices with them. I understand from Penrod that there will be more than twenty naturalists and taxidermists from the Smithsonian Institute, the museum that is partially sponsoring the safari. I asked Penrod about journalists and other members of the press, but he tells me that the President has forbidden their presence. After two full terms in office, he has come to value his privacy.’

‘So there will be no journalists?’ Leon looked up from the notebook.

‘Don’t worry about that. No one of any note can ever get away from those cockroaches. American Associated Press is sending out a plague of them, but they will be in a separate safari that will shadow ours closely all the way, sending back copy to New York at every opportunity. A pox on all their houses.’

‘That means our safari will be a party of more than thirty people. There will be a small mountain of baggage, equipment and supplies to deal with.’

‘Indeed,’ Percy agreed sarcastically. ‘The initial estimate from New York is that they will be shipping out about ninety-six tons. The rest will be purchased locally. That will include five tons of salt to preserve the specimens and trophies, and fodder for the horses. The shipment from America will be sent ahead of the main party, which will give us time to bring it up from the coast and have it broken down into sixty-pound packs for the porters.’

‘How many mounts will they need?’ Leon asked, with interest.

‘They intend to do much of the hunting on horseback. The President wants a string of at least thirty,’ Percy answered. ‘That is one of your fields of expertise, so among your other duties I am putting you in charge of the horse lines. You will have to recruit a team of reliable syces to take care of them.’ He paused. ‘And, of course, the two trucks will also be your responsibility. I want to use them for resupply of small items to where the President is camped at any time.’

‘Two motors? You have only one.’

‘I am commandeering the other vehicle from you for the duration of the safari. You had better make sure that both are in good running order.’ Percy made no mention of remuneration for the use of Leon’s truck, or for the cost of repairs to get it back on four wheels and induce them to turn.

‘Lord Delamere is lending us his chef from the Norfolk Hotel. There will be four or five sous-chefs. I will sign on your man Ishmael to work in the camp kitchens. Oh, by the way, Cunninghame will be recruiting around a thousand native porters to carry the baggage and provisions for the safari. I told him last night that you were fluent in Kiswahili and that you would be happy to help him with the job.’

‘Did you mention that I would also be pleased to help him with the actual hunting?’ Leon asked innocently.

Percy raised one beetling grey eyebrow. ‘Would you now? Given your vast experience, I am sure the President would be honoured to have you as a guide. However, you will have many more important duties to keep you entertained, young fella.’ That particular form of address was beginning to irritate Leon, but he had decided that that was why Percy employed it so frequently.

‘You are absolutely right, sir. I hadn’t thought of that.’ And he gave Percy his most winning smile.

Percy had difficulty preventing himself smiling back. He liked it more and more that the lad could take what he handed out without whining. He relented. ‘There will be well over a thousand mouths to feed. Under the game laws of the colony, buffalo are classed as vermin. There is no limit on the numbers that can be shot. One of your jobs will be to keep the safari in meat. You will have all the hunting your heart could desire. That I promise.’

Two months and six days later the German passenger liner SS Admiral steamed into Kilindini lagoon, the deep-water harbour that served as a port for the coastal town of Mombasa. The ship’s rigging was blazing with coloured bunting. At her mainmast head she flew Old Glory and at her foremast the black eagles of the Kaiser’s Germany. On the foredeck the band blared out ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘God Save the King’. The beach was crowded with spectators and government dignitaries, headed by the governor of the territory and the commander of His Britannic Majesty’s forces in British East Africa, all in full dress uniform, complete with feathers in their cocked hats and swords on their hips.

Lying out in the deep water, a flotilla of barges and surfboats waited to ferry the passengers to the beach. Former President Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and his son were first to climb down into one of the waiting boats. As the distinguished visitors took their seats on the thwarts and the oarsmen pulled in towards the beach, the dark rainclouds lowering over the lagoon opened their bellies and, with a barrage of thunder and fork lightning, loosed a torrential downpour on the scene. Roosevelt arrived on the beach, having been carried through the shallows on the back of a muscular half-naked porter. His bush jacket was soaked and he was roaring with laughter. It was just the type of adventure he relished.

The governor hurried forward to meet him, clutching with one hand the plume of white ostrich feathers on his cocked hat, and with the other, trying to disentangle his sword from between his legs. He had placed his private train at the disposal of the President and his entourage. As soon as they were all safely aboard, the clouds rolled aside and brilliant sunshine sparkled on the choppy waters of the lagoon. The large crowd burst into a chorus of ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’. Teddy Roosevelt stood plump and beaming on the balcony of the leading carriage and acknowledged the cheers as the driver blew his whistle and the train pulled away at the start of the journey up-country to Nairobi.

One hundred miles inland the train halted at Voi siding, the southernmost extent of the vast plains that lay between the Tsavo and Athi rivers. A wooden bench had been built as a viewing platform over the cowcatcher at the front of the locomotive. The President and Frederick Selous climbed up and settled themselves on the bench. Selous was the most revered of all the African hunters, the author of many books on travel and adventure, and a naturalist who had devoted his life to studying and cherishing the animals of the great continent. Renowned for his strength and determination, it was said of him that ‘When all the others fall by the wayside Selous keeps on to the end of the road.’ His physique was robust, his beard steely grey, his eyes were steady and far-seeing and his expression was mild and saintly. Selous and Roosevelt, although so different in appearance, were kindred spirits of the wild open spaces.

While the train puffed across the plains of Tsavo, teeming to the horizon with herds of antelope, the two great men huddled together in conversation, discussing the wonders that lay all around them. As darkness fell they retired to the comfort of the governor’s carriage. When the train pulled into Nairobi station early the following morning the entire population was on the platform to catch a glimpse of the former President.

Over the following days a programme of receptions, balls and sporting events, including polo and horse-racing, had been arranged for his entertainment. It was a week before Roosevelt had performed his social obligations and the safari was ready to depart. Again they travelled by train as far as the remote bush siding of Kapiti plains. When they arrived the safari was drawn up like a small army to meet them.

The next morning, when the march began, the President, with Selous and his son on either hand, rode at the head of the column. Behind them, carried by a uniformed askari, Old Glory spread in the breeze. Next came the KAR marching band, giving an approximate rendition of ‘Dixie’. The rest of the thousand-strong group straggled back two miles over the veld.

Leon Courtney was not one of this multitude. For the last six weeks he had been setting up supply dumps at waterholes along the safari’s intended route.

Reluctantly, Percy Phillips had given Leon an assistant. At first Leon had been horrified. ‘Hennie du Rand?’ he protested. ‘I know him. He’s an Afrikaner Boer from South Africa. The fellow fought against us in the war. He rode with the commando of the notorious Koos de la Rey. God alone knows how many Englishmen Hennie du Rand has shot.’

‘The Boer War ended several years ago,’ Percy pointed out. ‘Hennie may be a tough character, but at heart he’s a good fellow. Like most Boers he’s a true bushman, and he has shot more elephant and buffalo than any other man I know. He’s a good mechanic too. He can help you maintain the trucks and drive one. You’ll need somebody to help you shoot enough buffalo to keep the safari supplied with fresh meat, and there’s nobody better. You can learn a hell of a lot from him, if you listen. But his greatest recommendation is that he will work for his grub and a few shillings a day.’

‘But—’ said Leon.

‘No more ifs or buts. Hennie’s your assistant, and you’d better get used to the fact, young fella.’

In just the first few weeks, Leon discovered that not only was Hennie an indefatigable worker but he knew a great deal more about motor maintenance and bushcraft than Leon did, and was happy to share this knowledge with him. His relations with the staff were excellent. He had lived with African tribesmen all his life and understood their ways and customs. He treated them with humour and respect. Even Manyoro and Ishmael liked him. Leon found him good company around the campfire in the evenings and he was a fascinating raconteur. He was over forty, lean and sinewy. His beard was grizzled, and his face and arms were darkly sunburned. He spoke with a strong Afrikaans accent. ‘Ja, my jong Boet,’ he told Leon, after they had run down a herd of buffalo on foot and killed eight fat young heifers with as many shots. ‘Yes, my young friend. It seems we’re going to make a hunter of you yet.’

With Manyoro and four other men they skinned, gutted and quartered the carcasses, then loaded them into the two trucks and delivered them to within half a mile of the great sprawling main camp of the presidential safari. This was as close as Percy would allow the vehicles to approach. He did not want the President and Selous to be disturbed by the sound of engines. Another team of porters came out from the camp to carry in the carcasses.

When they were alone Leon and Hennie parked the older Vauxhall under a pod mahogany tree and rigged a block and tackle from the main branch. They hoisted the truck’s rear and between them removed the differential, which had been emitting an alarming grinding sound. They began to strip down the offending part and lay out the pieces on a tattered square of tarpaulin. They looked up at the sound of approaching hoofbeats. The rider was a young man in jodhpurs and a wide-brimmed hat. He dismounted and hitched his horse, then sauntered up to where they were working.

‘Hello there. What are you up to?’ he drawled, with an unmistakable American twang.

Before he replied Leon looked him up and down. His riding boots were expensive and his khakis were freshly washed and ironed. His face was pleasant, but not striking. When he removed his hat, his hair was a nondescript mousy colour, but his smile was friendly. It struck Leon that the two of them were almost the same age: the other was no more than twenty-two at most.

‘We’re having a spot of bother with this old bus,’ Leon told him, and the stranger grinned.

‘ “Having a spot of bother with this old bus”,’ he repeated. ‘God, I love that Limey accent. I could listen to it all day.’

‘What accent?’ Leon mimicked him. ‘I ain’t got no accent. Now you, you got a funny accent.’ They burst out laughing.

The stranger held out his hand. ‘My name’s Kermit.’ Leon looked down at his own palm, which was smeared with black grease. ‘That don’t matter,’ Kermit assured him. ‘I love to tinker with autos. I’ve got a Cadillac back home.’

Leon wiped his hand on the seat of his pants and took the other’s. ‘I’m Leon, and this ragamuffin is Hennie.’

‘Mind if I sit awhile?’

‘If you’re a famous mechanic you can lend a hand. How about pulling out that rack and pinion? Grab a spanner.’

They all worked in silent concentration for a few minutes, but both Leon and Hennie were watching the newcomer surreptitiously. At last Hennie gave his sotto voce opinion: ‘Hy weet wat hy doen.’

‘What language is that, and what did Hennie say?’

‘It’s Afrikaans, an African version of Dutch, and he said you know what you’re up to.’

‘So do you, pal.’

They worked on for a while, then Leon asked, ‘Are you part of the great Barnum and Bailey circus?’

Kermit laughed delightedly. ‘Yeah, I suppose I am.’

‘What’s your job? Are you from the Smithsonian Institute?’

‘In a manner of speaking, but mostly I just sit around and listen to a bunch of old men talking a load of bulldust about how things were much better in their day,’ Kermit replied.

‘Sounds like great fun.’

‘Did you guys shoot that load of buffalo that was brought into camp this morning?’

‘It’s part of our job to keep the camp in meat.’

‘Now that really sounds like fun. Mind if I tag along next time you go out?’

Leon and Hennie exchanged a glance. Then Leon asked carefully, ‘What calibre of a rifle is it that you have?’

Kermit went to his horse and drew the weapon out of its boot under the saddle flap. He came back and handed it to Leon, who worked the lever action to check that the breech was empty then lifted it to his shoulder. ‘.405 Winchester. I hear it’s a good buffalo rifle but that it kicks like Bob Fitzsimmons punches,’ he said. ‘Can you shoot it worth a damn?’

‘I reckon.’ Kermit took the weapon back. ‘I call it Big Medicine.’

‘All right. Meet us here at four o’clock on the morning of the day after tomorrow.’

‘Why don’t you pick me up in the main camp?’

‘Forbidden,’ Leon said. ‘We lower forms of animal life are not allowed to disturb the great and the mighty.’

At four in the morning it was still dark when he and Hennie drove up to the rendezvous in the two vehicles, with the skinners and trackers, but Kermit was waiting for them. Leon was impressed. He had doubted that he would show up. They followed a game trail through the remaining hours of darkness, Manyoro loping ahead to warn of stumps and holes. It was cold and Kermit huddled under a sheet of tarpaulin to shelter from the wind. When the trail reached a dry riverbed which presented an impassable obstacle to the trucks they parked under a tree and climbed out. When they took out the rifles, Kermit looked hard at Leon’s. ‘That piece has had a long life.’

‘It’s seen some action,’ Leon agreed. Percy had lent him a beaten-up old .404 Jeffreys from his own battery of firearms because its ammunition was less than a quarter of the price and in more plentiful supply than that for the .470 Holland. Despite its appearance the weapon was accurate and reliable, but Leon was not proud of it.

‘Can you shoot it worth a damn?’ Kermit mocked him lightly.

‘On a good day.’

‘Let’s hope that today’s a good day,’ Kermit needled.

‘We shall see.’

‘Where are we heading?’ Kermit changed the subject.

‘Late yesterday Manyoro picked up a large herd that was heading this way. He’s leading us to it.’

They went down into the riverbed and crossed below a large green pool whose waters had not yet dried up from the previous wet season. The edges had been heavily trampled by the many animals, including herds of buffalo, who were regularly drinking from it. They went up the far bank into an area of flowering acacia and open glades covered with fresh green grass.

The dawn came up in splendour, the air cool and sweet. The denizens of the forest were coming to life: the men paused for a few minutes at a clearing to watch a troop of baboons foraging for insects and roots. They were led by the young males, vigilant and alert to danger. Following them came the breeding females, holding their tails high to display their naked pink posteriors and pudenda, advertising their maturity and availability. Some carried infants perched on their backs like jockeys. The older youngsters frolicked and chased each other rambunctiously about the glade. As a rear-guard, the large dog males moved with a swaggering arrogance, ready to rush forward to confront any threat that the younger males in the vanguard discovered. A small herd of bushbuck, delicately built antelope with spiral horns and creamy stripes across their shoulders, kept pace with the troop. They were using the screen of vigilant apes as sentries and lookouts for leopards and other predators.

When the parade of animals had passed the men went on, but stopped again behind Manyoro as he pointed with his spear at the soft earth of the far side of the glade that had been churned by the passage of great hoofs. ‘This is the herd.’

‘How many, Manyoro?’

‘Two hundred, perhaps three.’


Manyoro pointed out a short arc of the dawn sky.

‘Less than an hour.’ Leon translated for Kermit. ‘They’re feeding slowly towards thicker cover below the hills where they will lie up during the heat of midday. Remember now what I told you. We shoot only the three- and four-year-old females.’

‘Why can’t we shoot the big bulls?’ Kermit demurred.

‘Because the meat is as tough as motor tyres, and tastes a hell of a lot worse. Even a hungry Ndorobo wouldn’t touch it.’ Kermit nodded unhappily.

Leon looked back at Manyoro. ‘Take the spoor,’ he said.

They had not gone more than a mile before the open bush became much denser. Within a short space it was so thick that they could not see through it for more than a few yards. Suddenly Manyoro held up his hand and they stopped to listen. From ahead came the crackle of many large bodies moving through the under-growth, and then they heard the plaintive bellow of a weaning calf pleading with its dam for the udder.

Leon leaned towards Kermit and whispered, ‘Right! Here we go. Don’t shoot until one of us does. We have to get in close enough to make certain of brain shots. Don’t shoot for the body. We don’t want to damage the meat, and it won’t be very good for our health to have to follow a wounded buffalo through this thick stuff.’ He nodded to Manyoro and they went on.

They came into an area of second growth where, the previous dry season, a bushfire had burned through. The scrub was low enough to expose hundreds of dark bovine backs, but high enough to cover the rest of their bodies. The herd was browsing as they moved so their heads were down. Then one came up and gazed directly at them. The base of the horns met on top of its head in a rounded boss, and the tips curled down on each side to give the beast a mournful appearance. They froze immediately and the buffalo seemed not to recognize them as human. It was chewing a mouthful of coarse grass, and after a while it snorted and lowered its head to continue feeding.

‘Manyoro, this is too thick,’ Leon whispered, ‘but they’ve changed direction. It looks like they don’t intend to lie up until much later in the day. Now they’re moving back towards the river we crossed earlier this morning. I think they’re going to drink at the pool.’

Ndio, Bwana. They have led us in a circle. The river runs just this side of that little hill.’ Manyoro pointed at a rocky kopje not more than a mile ahead.

‘Get ahead of the herd and we’ll lie in wait for them above the pool,’ Leon ordered.

In single file Manyoro led them at a trot, circling the slowly moving herd, keeping below the breeze. Once they were ahead they broke into a run and sprinted for the river. When they reached it they kept on across the wide, sandy bed, and took up positions among the trees on the far side.

They did not have too long to wait before the leading buffalo came down the bank in a pack. Snorting and lowing with thirst they stampeded into the pool, and when the leading animals were belly deep they lowered their heads and sucked up water thirstily. The noise they were making was loud enough to drown Leon’s whisper to Kermit.

‘Pick out a cow on the side of the herd nearest to you. The range is thirty yards. Remember, go for the head. If you miss I’ll know to back up your shot.’

‘I won’t miss,’ Kermit whispered back at him and raised the Winchester. With alarm Leon saw that the American was shaking. The muzzle of his rifle wavered erratically.

Buck fever! He had recognized the symptoms of uncontrollable excitement that can overpower a novice when first presented with dangerous big game. He opened his mouth to order him to hold his fire, but the Winchester roared and the barrel jumped high in the air. Leon saw the bullet nick the hump on the back of a very large bull at the edge of the pool and fly on to strike the cow standing directly behind him in the rump. He realized that the heavy recoil of the Winchester had thrown Kermit off balance and for the moment he was unsighted. Before he could recover, Leon fired two quick shots, smoothly recycling the bolt of the Jeffreys without lowering the butt from his shoulder. His first bullet hit the wounded bull just below the boss of his horns and the animal dropped, dead before he hit the ground. The second caught the wounded cow just as she was gathering herself to rush back up the bank. It struck the base of the skull at the juncture with the spinal column. The beast flopped nose first into the white sand and lay still.

On Leon’s left side Hennie was working with machine-like rapidity, firing into the herd of milling, panic-stricken animals. At each shot one went down. Kermit recovered from the recoil of the Winchester and saw that the bull he had fired at was dead, as was the cow behind it. He let out a wild cowboy yell. ‘Yee-ha! I got two with one shot.’

He raised his rifle again, but Leon shouted, ‘That’s enough! Don’t shoot.’ Kermit didn’t seem to hear him. He fired again. Leon spun around to mark the strike of his bullet, ready to finish off any animal he wounded. However, this time Kermit had pulled off a perfect brain shot and another bull buffalo crashed down.

‘Enough!’ Leon shouted. ‘Stop firing!’ He pushed down the barrel of the rifle as Kermit tried to raise it again. Below them the herd thundered up the far bank of the riverbed and crashed away into the bush, leaving nine dead buffalo lying around the pool.

Kermit was still shaking with excitement. ‘Hell’s bells!’ he panted. ‘That was the best fun I ever had. I got three buffalo with two shots! Must be some kind of record.’

Leon was amused by his childlike jubilation. He could not bring himself to tell him what had really happened and spoil it for him. Instead he laughed with him. ‘Well done, Kermit!’ He punched his shoulder. ‘That was some shooting. I’ve never seen anything like it.’ Kermit grinned at him ecstatically. Not for a moment did Leon realize that with a tiny white lie his life had changed for ever.

By the time they had butchered the enormous carcasses darkness had fallen. Rather than risk a night drive back along the game tracks, which were filled with old tree stumps and antbear holes that could smash the trucks’ suspension, they camped on the riverbank. Ishmael prepared fresh buffalo tongue for their dinner, and afterwards they sipped their coffee around the fire and listened to the hyenas, who had been attracted by the smell of buffalo blood and guts, sobbing and shrieking in the dark bush around their camp. Hennie fossicked in his haversack and brought out a bottle, pulled the cork and offered it to Kermit, who held it up to the firelight. It was less than half full with a pale brown liquid.

‘The President don’t allow hard liquor in the camp. I haven’t taken a real drink in a month. What kind of poison is this?’ he asked cautiously.

‘My aunty in Malmesbury down in the Cape makes it from peaches. Its called Mampoer. It’ll put hair on your chest and load your fun-gun with buckshot.’

Kermit took a swig. His eyes opened wide as he swallowed. ‘You can call it Mam-whatever. I call it a hundred-per-cent proof moonshine.’ He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and passed the bottle to Leon. ‘Have a blast of that, pardner!’ He was still euphoric, and Leon was even happier that he had allowed him to claim the buffalo kills. The bottle went around the fire twice before it was empty and all three were in expansive mood.

‘So, Hennie, you’re from South Africa. Were you there during the war?’ Kermit asked.

Hennie considered his reply for a minute. ‘Ja, I was there.’

‘We read a lot about it in the States. The newspapers say it was something like our own war against the South. Damn hard and bitter.’

‘For some of us it was worse than that.’

‘Sounds like you were mixed up in the fighting.’

‘I rode with de la Rey.’

‘I read about him,’ Kermit said. ‘He was the greatest commando leader of them all. Tell us about it.’

The Mampoer had loosened the tongue of the usually taciturn Boer. He became almost eloquent as he described the fighting in the veld, where thirty thousand Boer farmers had stretched the military might of the greatest empire the world had ever seen almost to its limits.

‘They would never have forced us to surrender if that bloody butcher Kitchener had not turned on the women and children we had left on our farms. He burned the farms and shot the cattle. He herded all the women and children into his concentration camps and put fish-hooks into their food so they coughed up blood before they died.’ A single tear ran down one of his weathered brown cheeks. He wiped it away and excused himself brokenly. ‘Ag! I am sorry. It’s the Mampoer, but they are bad memories. My wife, Annetjie, died in the camps.’ He stood up. ‘I’m going to turn in. Good night.’ He picked up his blanket roll and walked away into the darkness. After he had gone Kermit and Leon sat quietly for a while, their mood sombre now.

Leon spoke softly: ‘It wasn’t fish-hooks. It was diphtheria that killed them. Hennie can’t understand that on our side it wasn’t deliberate, but the Boer women had always lived out on the open veld. When they were crowded together they had no idea of hygiene. They didn’t know how to keep the camps clean. They became filthy plague holes.’ He sighed. ‘Since the war the British Government has tried to make compensation. They have poured millions of pounds into the country to rebuild the farms. Last year they allowed free elections. Now a government under the two Boer generals, Louis Botha and Jannie Smuts, runs the country. Never has a victor treated the vanquished with such generosity and magnanimity as Britain has shown.’

‘But I understand how Hennie feels,’ Kermit said. ‘There are many people in the south of our country who, even after forty years, have not been able to forget and forgive.’

The following morning Hennie behaved as though the conversation had not taken place. After they had breakfasted on coffee and the remains of the cold tongue, they climbed into the heavily laden trucks. The trackers and skinners sat on the bloody buffalo joints. Kermit cajoled Leon into letting him drive one truck and Hennie followed in the second.

Once again Kermit’s mood was gay and carefree. Leon found him a pleasant companion. They had so much in common. They were both passionate about horses, motor-cars and hunting and had much to talk about. Although Kermit did not elaborate, he hinted that he had a father who was rich and powerful and dominated his life.

‘My father was just the same,’ Leon told him.

‘So what did you do?’

‘I said, “I respect you, Dad, but I cannot live under your rules.” Then I left home and joined the army. That was four years ago. I haven’t been back since.’

‘Son of a gun! That must have taken some guts. I often wish I could do that, but I know I never will.’

Leon found that the better he came to know Kermit the more he liked him. What the hell? he thought. He shoots like a crazy maniac, but no one’s perfect. During the conversation he discovered that Kermit was a keen naturalist and ornithologist. He would be if he’s at the Smithsonian, Leon reasoned, and told Kermit to stop the truck whenever he spotted some interesting insect, bird or small animal to show him. Hennie kept going and disappeared into the distance ahead.

They were not far from the spot where Kermit had left his horse the previous day, only a few miles from the presidential camp, when suddenly and unexpectedly two white men stepped out of the bush into the track in front of them. They were dressed in safari clothing but neither carried a rifle. However, one was armed with a large camera and tripod.

‘Damn it to hell! The gentlemen of the fourth estate,’ Kermit muttered. ‘Just can’t get away from them.’ He braked to a halt. ‘I guess we just have to be nice and polite to them or they’ll cook our goose for us.’

The tallest of the two strangers hurried to the driver’s side. ‘Excuse me, gentlemen,’ he smiled ingratiatingly. ‘May I trespass on your good nature and ask you a few questions? Are you connected to President Roosevelt’s safari, by any chance?’

‘Mr Andrew Fagan of the Associated Press, I presume, to paraphrase the deathless words of Dr David Livingstone.’ Kermit pushed his hat back and returned his smile.

The journalist recoiled in astonishment, then peered more closely at him. ‘Mr Roosevelt Junior!’ he exclaimed. ‘Please forgive me. I didn’t recognize you in that get-up.’ He was staring at Kermit’s filthy, blood-stained clothing.

‘Mr Who Junior?’ Leon demanded.

Kermit looked embarrassed, but Fagan hastened to reply. ‘Don’t you know who you’re riding with? This is Mr Kermit Roosevelt, the son of the President of the United States.’

Leon turned accusingly to his new friend. ‘You didn’t tell me!’

‘You didn’t ask.’

‘You might have mentioned it,’ Leon insisted.

‘It would have changed things between us. It always does.’

‘Who is this young friend of yours, Mr Roosevelt?’ Andrew Fagan asked, and whipped his notepad out of his back pocket.

‘This is my hunter, Mr Leon Courtney.’

‘He looks very young,’ Fagan observed dubiously.

‘You don’t have to grow a long grey beard to be one of the greatest hunters in Africa,’ Kermit told him.

‘. . . greatest hunters in Africa!’ Fagan scribbled shorthand on his pad. ‘How do you spell your name, Mr Courtney? With one e or two?’

‘Just one.’ Leon felt uncomfortable and glared at Kermit. ‘Now see what you’ve got me into.’

‘I guess you’ve been out hunting.’ Fagan pointed at the head of the bull buffalo in the back of the truck. ‘Who shot that creature?’

‘Mr Roosevelt did.’

‘What is it?’

‘It’s a Cape buffalo, Syncerus caffer.’

‘My God, it’s huge! Can we have some photographs, please, Mr Roosevelt?’

‘Only if you give us a couple of copies. One for Leon and one for me.’

‘Of course. Bring your guns. Let’s have one of you on each side of the horns.’ The photographer set up his tripod and arranged the pose. Kermit looked composed and debonair, Leon as though he was facing a firing squad. The flash powder exploded in a cloud of smoke, much to the consternation of the skinners and camp staff.

‘Okay! Great! Now can we have that tribesman in the red robe in the picture? Tell him to hold his spear higher. Like this. What is he? Some kind of chief?’

‘He’s the king of the Masai.’

‘No kidding! Tell him to look fierce.’

‘This mad fool thinks you’re dressed like a woman,’ Leon told Manyoro in Maa, and he scowled murderously at the photographer.

‘Great! God, that’s so great!’

It was another half an hour before they were able to drive on.

‘Does that happen all the time?’ Leon asked.

‘You get used to it. You have to be nice to them or they write all sorts of garbage about you.’

‘I still think you should have told me that your father was the ruddy President.’

‘Can we hunt together again? They’ve given me an old fellow called Mellow as my hunter. He lectures me as though I’m a schoolboy, and tries to stop me shooting.’

Leon thought about it. ‘In two days’ time the main camp is moving on up to the Ewaso Ng’iro river. I have to ferry the tents and heavy equipment up there ahead of it. But I’d like to hunt again with you if my boss gives me a chance. You’re not a bad fellow, despite your lowly antecedents.’

‘Who’s your boss?’

‘An old gentleman called Percy Phillips, though you’d better not call him old to his face.’

‘I know him. He often dines with my father and Mr Selous. I’ll do what I can. I don’t think I can take much more of Mr Mellow.’

Fate played into Kermit’s hands. Two nights after the grand safari moved into the camp on the south bank of the Ewaso Ng’iro river, the chef Lord Delamere had loaned to the President prepared a banquet to celebrate American Thanksgiving Day. There was no turkey so the President himself shot a giant Kori bustard. The chef roasted the bird and concocted a stuffing that contained spiced buffalo liver.

The next morning half the men in camp were struck down by virulent diarrhoea – the buffalo liver had apparently deteriorated in the heat. Even Roosevelt, he of the iron constitution, was affected. Frank Mellow, who had been appointed as Kermit’s hunter, was one of the worst stricken, and the camp doctor ordered him to the hospital in Nairobi.

Kermit, who had not eaten the stuffing, seized his advantage: he negotiated the appointment of his replacement hunter with his father through the door of the long-drop outhouse to which the President was confined by his indisposition. Roosevelt put up only token resistance to his son’s proposal, and Kermit could go to Percy Phillips as the bearer of the presidential decree. That evening Leon found himself hailed into Percy’s tent.

‘I don’t know what you’ve been up to, but all hell’s broken out. Kermit Roosevelt wants you to have the job as his hunter to replace Frank Mellow and has talked his father into allowing it. They didn’t consult me so I have no choice but to agree.’ He glared at Leon. ‘You aren’t yet dry behind the ears. You haven’t dealt with lion, leopard or rhino yet, and I told the President so. But he’s sick and didn’t want to listen. Kermit Roosevelt is a wild and reckless young rascal, just like you. If you get him hurt, you and I are finished. I’ll never have another client, and I’ll strangle you slowly with my bare hands. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, sir, I understand very well.’

‘All right, go ahead. I can’t stop you.’

‘Thank you, sir.’ Leon began to leave, but Percy stopped him.


He turned back in surprise. Percy had never before called him by his first name. Then, with even greater surprise, he saw that Percy was smiling. ‘This is your big chance. You’ll never have another like it. If you’re lucky and clever, you’ll be on your way to the top. Good luck.’

The next day Leon and Kermit rode out at large, not seeking any particular quarry animal but ready to take on whatever the day brought forward. ‘If we found a lion, a big black-maned old male, that would be my dream come true. Not even my father has taken one of those.’

‘You may have to wait until we leave Masailand,’ Leon told him. ‘This country’s extremely unhealthy for big black-maned lions.’

‘How’s that?’ Kermit looked intrigued.

‘Every young morani longs for a chance to kill his lion and prove his manhood. All the morani of the same circumcision year go out in a war-party. They hunt down a lion and surround it. When the lion realizes he cannot escape he picks one of the men and charges him. The morani must stand and meet the charge with his shield and assegai. When he kills he is allowed to make a war-bonnet from the mane and wear it with honour. He can also choose any girl in the tribe. The custom thins out the lion population somewhat.’

‘I reckon I’d take the girl before the fur bonnet.’ Kermit laughed. ‘But you have to admire that kind of courage. They’re a magnificent people. Look at your man, Manyoro. He moves with all the grace of a panther.’

Manyoro was trotting ahead of the horses but at that moment he pulled up and leaned on his spear, waiting for the horsemen to come up. He pointed across the open plain ahead at the huge dark shape that stood on the edge of a clump of bush. It was almost a mile away, its outline insubstantial through the shimmer of heat haze.

‘Rhino. From here it looks like a big bull.’ Leon fished out of his saddle bags the pair of Carl Zeiss binoculars that Percy had given him in recognition of his promotion from apprentice to fully fledged hunter. He focused the lenses and studied the distant shape. ‘It’s a rhino, all right, and the biggest one I’ve ever seen. That horn is unbelievable!’

‘Bigger than the one my father shot five days ago?’

‘I’d say much, much bigger.’

‘I want it,’ said Kermit, vehemently.

‘So do I,’ Leon agreed. ‘We’ll circle out under the wind and stalk him from those bushes. We should be able to get a clean shot for you from thirty or forty yards.’

‘You sound just like Frank Mellow. You want me crawling around on my hands and knees, or wriggling along on my belly like a rattlesnake. I’ve had enough of that.’ Kermit was already trembling with excitement at the prospect of the hunt. ‘I’m going to show you how the old frontiersmen used to hunt bison back out west. Follow me, pardner.’ With that, he clapped his heels into the flanks of his mare and bounded away across the plain, galloping straight at the distant animal.

‘Kermit, wait!’ Leon shouted after him. ‘Don’t be a fool.’ But Kermit did not glance back. He drew Big Medicine from the rifle boot under his knee and brandished it on high.

‘Percy’s right. You’re a wild and reckless rascal,’ Leon lamented, as he urged his own horse in pursuit.

The rhino heard them coming but his eyesight was so weak that he could not place them immediately. He switched his whole massive body from side to side, kicking up dust and snorting ferociously, peering about with myopic piggy eyes.

‘Yee-ha!’ Kermit let out a cowboy yell.

Guided by the sound, the rhino focused on the shape of horse and rider and instantly burst into a charge, coming directly at them. Kermit stood high in the stirrups, raised his rifle and fired from the back of the galloping horse. His first bullet flew high over the rhino’s back and kicked up dust from the plain two hundred yards behind it. He reloaded with a quick pump of the lever and fired again. Leon heard the meaty thump of the bullet slapping into the beast’s body but could not see where it had hit. The rhino did not even flinch from the shot but tore in to meet the horse.

Kermit’s next wild shot missed again, and Leon saw the dust fly between the rhino’s front feet. Kermit fired once more, and Leon heard this shot tell on the baggy grey hide. The bull bucked in agony and tossed his horn high, then lowered it to gore the horse as they came together.

But Kermit was too quick for him. With the skill of an expert polo player, he used his knees to turn his horse across the line of the charge. Horse and rhino passed each other in opposite directions, and although the latter hooked at Kermit with his long horn, the point flashed a hand’s breadth past his knee. At the same time Kermit leaned out from the saddle and fired with the muzzle almost touching the grey hide between the bull’s plunging shoulders. As the rhino received the bullet he hunched his shoulders and bucked. He swung around to chase after the horse, but now his gait was short and hampered. Bloody froth dribbled from his open mouth. Kermit reined in his horse while he reloaded his rifle, then fired twice more. When the rhino took these last bullets his body convulsed and he slowed to a walk. The great head hung low, and he staggered unevenly from side to side.

Coming up at a gallop, Leon was appalled by the brutal display. It ran contrary to every concept he had of the fair chase and the humane kill. Up to this moment he had been unable to intervene in the butchery for fear of hitting Kermit or his mount, but now his field of fire was clear. The wounded rhino was less than thirty paces away, and Kermit was well out on the flank reloading his rifle. Leon dragged his horse back on its haunches and it skidded to a halt. He kicked his feet out of the stirrups and sprang to the ground, bringing up the Holland as he landed. He aimed for the point where the rhino’s spine joined the skull, and his bullet cleaved the vertebrae like the blade of an executioner’s axe.

Kermit rode up to the carcass and dismounted. His face was flushed and his eyes sparkled. ‘Thanks for your help, pardner.’ He laughed. ‘By God! That was really exciting! How did you like the Wild West style of hunting? Grand, isn’t it?’ He showed not the least guilt or remorse for what had just happened.

Leon had to take a breath to keep his temper. ‘It was wild, I’ll give you that. I am not so sure about the grand bit,’ he said, his voice level. ‘I dropped my hat.’ He swung up into his saddle and rode back for it.

What do I do now? he wondered. Do I have a showdown with him? Do I tell him to find himself another hunter? He saw the hat on the ground ahead, rode up to it and dismounted. He picked it up and dusted it against his leg. Then he jammed it on his head. Be sensible, Courtney! If you walk away, you’re finished. You might as well go back to Egypt and take the job with your father.

He mounted up and rode slowly back to where Kermit stood beside the dead rhino, stroking the long black horn. He looked up at Leon as he dismounted, his expression thoughtful. ‘Something bothering you?’ he asked quietly.

‘I was worrying about how the President’s going to feel when he sees that horn. It must be damn nigh five feet long. I hope he won’t turn bright green.’ Leon succeeded in keeping his smile natural. He knew those words were a perfect peace-offering.

Kermit relaxed visibly. ‘That colour might suit him well enough. I can’t wait to show it to him.’

Leon glanced up at the sun. ‘It’s late. We won’t be able to get back to the main camp this evening. We’ll stay here tonight.’

Ishmael had been following them on one mule and leading another, which carried the cooking pots and other necessities. As soon as he came up he set about putting together a rudimentary fly camp.

Before it was fully dark he brought their dinner to them. They leaned back against their saddles with the enamel plates balanced on their laps and tucked into the yellow rice and Tommy buck stew.

‘Ishmael’s a magician,’ Kermit said, his mouth full. ‘I’ve had worse grub at restaurants in New York City. Tell him that, will you?’

Ishmael acknowledged the compliment gravely.

Leon scraped his plate clean and put the last spoonful into his mouth. Still chewing, he reached into his saddle bag and brought out a bottle. He showed the label to Kermit. ‘Bunnahabhain single malt whisky.’ Kermit smiled happily. ‘Where on earth did you find that?’

‘Compliments of Percy. Although he’s unaware of his own generosity.’

‘My God, Courtney, it’s you who’s the real magician.’

Leon poured a dram into their enamel mugs, and they sipped, sighing with pleasure.

‘Let’s suppose for the moment that I am your fairy godmother,’ Leon suggested, ‘and that I can grant you any wish. What would it be?’

‘Apart from a beautiful and willing girl?’

‘Apart from that.’

They both chuckled, and Kermit pondered for only a few seconds. ‘How big was that elephant my father got a few days ago?’

‘Ninety-four and ninety-eight. Didn’t quite make the magic number of one hundred.’

‘I want to do better.’

‘You worry a lot about doing better than him. Is this meant to be a competition?’

‘My father has always succeeded in everything he turns his hand to. Hell, he was a war hero, a state governor, a hunter and sportsman all before he turned forty, and as if that wasn’t enough, he became the youngest and most successful President of America ever. He respects winners and despises losers.’ He took a sip. ‘From what you’ve told me, you and I have lived through the same situation. You should understand.’

‘You think your father despises you?’

‘No. He loves me but he doesn’t respect me. I want his respect more than anything else in the world.’

‘You’ve just taken a bigger rhino than he has.’

They looked across at the enormous carcass, the horn glinting in the firelight.

‘That’s a start.’ Kermit nodded. ‘However, knowing my father, he’d put much more value on an elephant or a lion. Find one of those for me, Fairy Godmother.’

Manyoro was sitting at the other fire with Ishmael, and Leon called across to him, ‘Come to me, my brother. There is something of importance we must discuss.’ Manyoro got up and came to squat across the fire from him. ‘We need to find a big elephant for this bwana.’

‘We have given him a Swahili name,’ Manyoro said. ‘We have named him Bwana Popoo Hima.’

Leon laughed.

‘What’s so funny?’ Kermit asked.

‘You have been honoured,’ Leon told him. ‘Manyoro at least respects you. He has given you a Swahili name.’

‘What is it?’ Kermit demanded.

‘Bwana Popoo Hima.’

‘That sounds disgusting,’ Kermit said, suspicious.

‘It means “Sir Quick Bullet”.’

‘Popoo Hima! Hey! Tell him I like that!’ Kermit was pleased. ‘Why did they choose that name?’

‘They’re very impressed by the way you shoot.’ Leon turned back to Manyoro. ‘Bwana Popoo Hima wants a very big elephant.’

‘Every white man wants a very big elephant. But we must go to Lonsonyo Mountain to seek the counsel of our mother.’

‘Kermit, the advice I have from Manyoro is that we go to a Masai lady witch doctor on a mountaintop. She will tell us where to find your elephant.’

‘Do you really believe in that sort of thing?’ Kermit asked.

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Well, it just so happens that so do I.’ Kermit nodded seriously. ‘In the hills to the north of our ranch in the badlands of Dakota there lives an old Indian shaman. I never hunt without going to see him first. Every real hunter has his little superstitions, even my father, who’s the hardest-nosed guy you’ll ever meet. He always carries a rabbit’s foot when he goes out into the field.’

‘It pays to give Lady Luck a wink and a nod,’ Leon agreed. ‘This lady I’m taking you to meet is her twin sister. She’s also my adopted mother.’

‘Then I reckon we can trust her. When can we leave?’

‘We’re more than twenty miles from the main camp. We’ll lose a couple of days if we take the rhino head back there first. I plan to cache it here and Manyoro will pick it up later. That way we can leave at once for the mountain.’

‘How far?’

‘Two days, if we push along.’

The next morning they hoisted the rhino head into the high branches of a pod mahogany tree and wedged it in a fork where it was well out of the reach of hyenas and other scavengers. Then they headed east, and camped only when it was too dark to see the ground ahead. Leon did not want to risk one of the horses breaking a leg in an antbear hole. During the night he woke and lay for a minute listening for what had disturbed him. One of the horses whickered and stamped.

Lions! he thought. After the horses. He threw off his blanket and reached for his rifle as he sat up. Then he saw an alien figure sitting at the smouldering ashes of the fire. It was shrouded in an ochre-red shuka.

‘Who is it?’ he demanded.

‘It is me, Loikot. I have come.’

He stood up and Leon recognized him at once, although he was several inches taller than he had been when they had last met only six months before. In the same period his voice had broken and he had become fully a man. ‘How did you find us, Loikot?’

‘Lusima Mama told me where you were. She sent me to welcome you.’

Their voices had roused Kermit. He sat up and asked sleepily, ‘What’s going on? Who’s this skinny kid?’

‘He’s a messenger from the lady we’re going to visit. She sent him to find us and bring us to the mountain.’

‘How the hell did she know we were on our way? We didn’t know ourselves until last night.’

‘Wake up, Bwana Popoo Hima. Think about it. The lady is a sorcerer. She keeps her eye on the road and her foot on the gas. You wouldn’t want to play poker with her.’

In the middle of the morning they raised the flat top of Lonsonyo Mountain above the dreaming blue horizon ahead, but it was late in the day when they stood under its towering mass, and dark before they rode into the manyatta and dismounted in front of Lusima’s hut. She had heard the horses and stood tall in the doorway with the firelight behind her. She was naked except for the string of beads around her waist. Her skin had been freshly anointed with fat and ochre, and polished until it gleamed.

Leon walked across to her and went down on one knee. ‘Give me your blessing, Mama,’ he asked.

‘You have it, my son.’ She touched his head. ‘My motherly love is yours also.’

‘I have brought another petitioner to you.’ Leon stood up and beckoned Kermit forward. ‘His Swahili name is Bwana Popoo Hima.’

‘So this is the prince, the son of a great white king.’ Lusima looked closely into Kermit’s face. ‘He is a twig of the mighty tree, but he will never grow as tall as the tree from which he sprang. There is always one tree in the forest that grows taller than any other, one eagle that flies higher than any other bird.’ She smiled kindly at Kermit. ‘All these things he knows in his heart, and it makes him feel small and unhappy.’

Even Leon was amazed at her insight. ‘He longs desperately to earn his father’s respect,’ he agreed.

‘So he comes to me to find him an elephant.’ She nodded. ‘In the morning I will bless his bunduki and point the way of the hunter for him. But now you will feast with me. I have killed a young goat for you and this mzungu, who does not drink blood and milk, and prefers cooked meat.’

They gathered at noon the next day under the council tree in the cattle pen. Big Medicine lay on the tanned lionskin. The blued metal was freshly oiled and her woodwork shone. The sacrificial offering of fresh cow’s blood and milk, salt, snuff and glass trade beads had been set out. Leon and Kermit squatted side by side at the head of the lionskin with Manyoro and Loikot behind them.

Lusima emerged from her hut, magnificent in her finery. She came to the council tree with her regal stride, her slave girls attending her closely. The men clapped with respect and called her praises: ‘She is the great black cow who feeds us with the milk of her udders. She is the watcher who sees all things. She is the mother of the tribe. She is the wise one who knows all things on this earth. Pray for us, Lusima Mama.’

She squatted in front of the men and asked the ritual questions: ‘Why do you come to my mountain? What is it you seek from me?’

‘We beg you to bless our weapons,’ Leon replied. ‘We importune you to divine the path that the great grey men take through the wilderness.’

Lusima rose and sprinkled the rifle with blood and milk, snuff and salt. ‘Make this weapon as the dreadful eye of the hunter that it may slay whatever he looks upon. May his popoo fly straight as the bee returning to the hive.’

Then she went to Kermit and, with the giraffe-tail switch, sprinkled the blood and milk on his bowed head. ‘The game will never escape him, for he has the heart of the hunter. Let him follow his quarry unerringly. May it never escape his hunter’s eye.’

Leon whispered the translation to Kermit, and after each sentence she spoke, they clapped and said the refrain to her prayer: ‘Even as the great black cow speaks, let it be so.’

Lusima began to dance, whirling in a tight circle, her bare feet like those of a young girl, her sweat mingled with the oil and ochre until she glowed like a carving of precious amber. At last she collapsed on the lionskin and her face contorted. She bit her lips until blood ran down her chin. Her whole body juddered and shook, her breath sawing and rasping in her throat, froth coating her lips and mingling pinkly with the blood. When she spoke her voice was as thick and hoarse as a man’s: ‘The hunter makes his way homewards. The clever hunter listens to the cheeping of the small black birds in the dawn,’ she grated. ‘If he waits on the hilltop the hunter will be thrice blessed.’ She gasped and shook herself as a hunting spaniel does when it clambers from the water on to the riverbank.

‘Well, your mama’s clues were fairly cryptic,’ Kermit remarked drily, as they ate the dinner of roasted porcupine, as tender and juicy as a sucking pig, that Ishmael had provided. ‘Was she telling me to give it up and go home, do you think?’

‘Didn’t your Indian shaman teach you that when you’re dealing with occult prediction you have to consider every word for its possible associations? You cannot take anything literally. To give you an example, last time I asked for her help, Lusima told me to follow the sweet singer. This turned out to be the bird called a honeyguide.’

‘She seems to be something of an ornithologist, but she gave us black birds instead of honeyguides.’

‘Let’s start at the beginning. Did she tell you to go home or to go homewards?’

‘Homewards! My home is in New York, USA.’

‘Well, that would give us a bearing of north-west by north and a touch north, I reckon.’

‘In the absence of any other suggestions we’ll have to give that a go,’ Kermit agreed.

Leon navigated on the army-issue compass he had liberated when he left the KAR, and they camped that first night under the lee of a small rocky kopje. Just before dawn they were drinking coffee while they waited for the sun. Suddenly Loikot cocked his head and held up his hand for silence. They stopped talking and listened. The sound was so faint that it was only fitfully audible when the morning breeze dropped a little or veered favourably.

‘What is it, Loikot?’

‘The chungaji are calling to each other.’ He stood and picked up his spear. ‘I must go up the hill so I can hear what they are saying.’ He slipped away into the darkness, while they listened to the distant sounds.

‘They don’t sound like human voices,’ Kermit said, ‘more like the piping of sparrows.’

‘Or the cheeping of little black birds?’ Leon asked. ‘Lusima Mama’s little black birds?’

They burst out laughing.

‘I think you have it. Loikot will have news for us when he comes down the hill.’

They heard him calling, closer and clearer than the other voices, and the exchange of news on the Masai grapevine continued until after the sun was well clear of the horizon. Then, at last, there was silence as the wind and rising heat made further discourse unintelligible. Soon after this Loikot returned. He was puffed with self-importance. It was clear that he was not going to speak until someone pleaded with him to do so.

Leon humoured him. ‘Tell me, Loikot, what did you and your brothers of the circumcision knife speak about?’

‘There was much talk about the safari of ten thousand porters and many wazungu camped on the Ewaso Ng’iro river and the great killing of animals by the king of a land called Emelika.’

‘After this what did you speak about?’

‘There has been an outbreak of red-water disease among the cattle near Arusha. Ten have died.’

‘Is it possible that you also discussed the movement of elephant in the Rift Valley?’

‘Yes, we spoke of that,’ Loikot replied. ‘We all agreed that this is the season when the big bulls come down into the Rift. In recent days the chungaji have seen many in the land between Maralal and Kamnoro. There was talk of three travelling eastwards in one herd, all very big.’ Then, at last, he broke into a smile, and his voice took on an urgent cadence. ‘If we are to catch them, M’bogo, we must go quickly northwards to cut them off before they move on into Samburuland and Turkana.’

Manyoro and Loikot ran ahead of the horses with the long loping stride they referred to as ‘gobbling up the earth greedily’. The two horsemen trotted behind them, then Ishmael, further back, riding one mule and leading the other on which were loaded all his pots, pans and supplies.

Kermit was in his usual irrepressible mood. ‘A good horse between your legs, a rifle in your hand and the promise of game ahead! Son of a gun, this is the life for a man.’

‘I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing,’ Leon agreed.

Kermit reined in suddenly and shaded his eyes with his hat to look out to one side at a patch of grey thorn scrub. ‘That’s a big kudu bull over there,’ he said. ‘Bigger than any that Mellow got for me.’

‘Do you want another kudu, or do you want a cracking hundred-pounder jumbo? Make up your mind, chum. You can’t have both.’

‘Why not?’ Kermit demanded.

‘The big bull elephant with your name branded on his backside may be just over the next rise. You fire a shot here and he’ll take off at a rate of knots. He won’t stop running until he gets across the Nile.’

‘Spoilsport! You’re as bad as Goddamned Frank Mellow.’ Kermit kicked his horse into a canter to catch up with the two Masai, who had pulled well ahead.

In the middle of the afternoon a line of low hills pushed their crests over the flat horizon, resembling the knuckles of a clenched fist. They camped that night below the tallest. Before dawn the next morning they drank coffee around the fire, then left Ishmael with the horses to break camp and pack his mule while they climbed to the summit of the hill. When they reached it Loikot sang out across the valley. He was answered almost immediately by a similar but distant cry coming out of the remaining shreds of the night. The exchange went on for some time before he turned to Leon. ‘That one I was speaking to is not Masai. This is the border between our land and the Samburu,’ Loikot told him. ‘He is half a Samburu, the tribe who are our bastard cousins. They speak Maa but not as we do. They speak it in a funny way, like this.’ He rolled his eyes and made an idiotic hee-hawing sound, like a demented donkey. Manyoro thought this was hilarious and staggered around in a circle, slapping his cheeks and repeating the imitation of a Samburu speaking Maa.

‘Now that you two clowns have had your little joke, will you tell us what your bastard cousin the Samburu had to say?’

Still gasping and hiccuping with merriment, Loikot answered, ‘The Samburu donkey says that last evening as they were driving the cattle into the manyatta they saw the three bulls. He says that every one of them has very long white teeth.’

‘Which way were they heading?’ Leon demanded eagerly.

‘They were coming straight up this valley, towards where we are now.’ Quickly Leon translated this news to Kermit, and watched his eyes light up. ‘So if I’d let you shoot that kudu yesterday you would have blown away any chance we ever had of catching them.’

‘I’m covered with shame and remorse. In future I promise to listen to the words of the Great One who knows all.’ Kermit gave him a sardonic salute.

‘Go to hell, Roosevelt!’ Leon grinned. ‘I’m sending Manyoro and Loikot down into the valley to check that they didn’t pass during the night. However, it’s new moon at the moment, so I doubt they would have kept moving after dark. I’d bet good money that they rested during the darkest hours and that they’re only now starting to move again.’ They sat and watched the two Masai go down the hillside and disappear among the trees in the gut of the valley.

‘So far we’ve followed Lusima’s advice about little black birds cheeping in the dawn. What was her next suggestion?’ Kermit asked suddenly.

‘She spoke of the hunter who waits on the hilltop being thrice blessed. Here we are on the hilltop. Let’s see if your three blessings are on the way.’

As soon as the sun poked its fiery head above the horizon Leon unslung the strap of the binoculars from his shoulder, and settled with his back against a tree-trunk. Slowly he panned the lenses across the valley below. Within an hour he picked out the figures of Manyoro and Loikot coming back up the hill, but they were walking at a leisurely pace and chatting to each other. He lowered the binoculars. ‘They’re in no hurry, which means they’ve had no luck. The bulls haven’t passed this way. Not yet anyway.’ The two Masai came up and squatted close by. Leon looked a question at Manyoro, but he shook his head.

Hapana. Nothing.’ He took out his snuffbox and offered Loikot a pinch before he helped himself. They sniffed and sneezed, closing their eyes, then whispered quietly together so that their voices would not carry down into the valley. Kermit stretched out on the stony ground, pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes and, within minutes, was snoring gently. Leon kept the binoculars moving over the valley, lowering them every once in a while to rest his eyes and polish the lenses on his shirt tail.

Over the ages a number of large round boulders had become dislodged from the hillside and had rolled down on to the valley floor. Some resembled the backs of elephant, and more than once Leon’s heart tripped as he picked up a massive grey shape in the field of the binoculars, until he realized it was a grey rock and not elephant hide he was seeing. Once more he lowered the binoculars and spoke softly to Manyoro: ‘How long should we wait here?’

‘Until the sun reaches there.’ Manyoro pointed to the zenith. ‘If they do not come by then it is possible they have turned aside. If so, we must go down to the horses and ride to the manyatta where the Samburu saw them yesterday. There we can pick up the spoor and follow it until we catch up with them.’

Kermit lifted his hat off his eyes and asked, ‘What did Manyoro say?’ Leon told him and he sat up. ‘I’m getting bored,’ he announced. ‘This is a game of hurry up and wait.’

Leon did not bother to reply. He lifted the binoculars and resumed the search.

Half a mile down the valley there was a patch of greener growth that he had noticed earlier. He knew by the colour and density of the foliage that it was a grove of monkey-berry trees. The fruits were purple and bitter to human taste but attracted all varieties of wild game, large and small. In the centre of the grove lay one of the huge rolling boulders, its rounded top showing above the monkey berry. He picked it out again and was about to pass on when his nerves jumped taut. The rock seemed to have changed its outline and grown larger. He stared at it until his eyes swam. Then it changed shape again. He caught his breath. An elephant was standing behind the boulder, half hidden by it, so that only its rump and the curve of its spine were exposed. How the animal had reached that position without any of them seeing it was another demonstration to him of how silently and stealthily such a large creature could move. He felt his chest closing until he was breathing asthmatically. He kept staring at the elephant but it did not move again. There’s only one, so it can’t be the herd we’re looking for. Probably it’s a stray cow or a young bull. He tried to fortify himself against disappointment.

Then his eyes flicked to the right as he picked up another movement. The head of a second elephant pushed through the screen of monkey-berry branches. He gasped again. This was a bull: his head was huge, the forehead bulged impressively and the ears were spread like the sails of a schooner. The dangling trunk was framed by a pair of long, curved tusks, the ivory thick and bright.

‘Manyoro!’ Leon whispered urgently.

‘I see him, M’bogo!’

Leon glanced at him and saw that both Masai were on their feet, staring down at the monkey-berry grove. ‘How many?’ he asked.

‘Three,’ Loikot answered. ‘One is behind the rock. The second is facing us, and the third is standing between them but hidden behind the trees. I can see only his legs.’

Kermit sat up quickly, alerted by the restrained tension in their voices. ‘What is it? What have you seen?’

‘Nothing much.’ Leon was trembling. ‘Just a hundred-pounder, maybe two or even three. But I suppose you’re too bored to give a damn.’

Kermit scrambled to his feet, still half dazed with sleep. ‘Where? Where?’

Leon pointed. Then Kermit saw them. ‘Well, I’ll be—’ he blurted. ‘Kick me in the head! Shake me awake! This isn’t true, is it? Tell me I’m not dreaming. Tell me those tusks are real.’

‘You know what, chum? From here they look real to me.’

‘Get your rifle! Let’s go after them.’ Kermit’s voice cracked.

‘What a good plan, Mr Roosevelt. I can find no vice in it.’ Even as they watched, the three elephant ambled out of the monkey-berry grove and came down the valley towards them. In single file they followed a broad game path that passed close to the base of the hill on which they stood.

‘How many elephant do I have on my licence?’ Kermit demanded. ‘Is it three?’

‘You know damn well it is. Are you thinking of taking all of them? Greedy boy.’

‘Which one has the biggest tusks?’ Kermit was stuffing cartridges into the magazine of the Winchester.

‘Hard to tell from here. All three are big. We’ll have to get in a lot closer to pick the largest. But we’d better crack on speed. They’re moving fast.’

They scrambled down the hillside, loose stones rolling under their boots. The trees and the intervening bulge of the slope impeded their view, and they lost sight of the bulls. They reached the valley floor with Leon in the lead. He turned left along the base of the hill, running hard to get into a position from which they could intercept the elephants.

He reached the game trail, which was wide and beaten smooth over the aeons by the passage of hoofs, pads and feet, and turned on to it. Kermit was on his heels and the two Masai were only a few strides further back. Leon saw that the trail ahead was cut by a shallow gully that ran down from the hillside. It had been washed out by the run-off of storm water. Before they reached it a number of things happened almost simultaneously. Leon saw the leading bull emerge from the trees on the far side of the gully four or five hundred yards ahead, followed closely by the other two, all moving in single file directly towards them.

Then a booming cry echoed off the hilltop on their left flank: the alarm call of a sentinel baboon warning the troop of danger. He had spotted the men in the valley below his post. Immediately the cry was taken up by the rest. The clamour of harsh barks rang out across the valley. The three elephant stopped abruptly. They stood in a close group, swaying uncertainly, lifting their trunks to test the air for the scent of danger, swinging their heads from side to side, ears spread to listen.

‘Stand dead still!’ Leon cautioned the others. ‘They’ll pick up any movement.’ He stood and watched them intently. Which way would they run? he wondered. His heart was hammering against his ribcage from the exertion of the race down the hill and with excitement: all three elephant carried at least a hundred pounds of ivory on each side of their heads.

Which way must we go? Then he made up his mind. ‘We have to get into the gully before they spot us,’ he panted, and started forward again. They reached the gully without the elephant locating them and plunged down the steep bank into the middle of a herd of impala, which were browsing on the low branches of the bush that choked the dry watercourse. The herd exploded into a panic-stricken rush of leaping and snorting animals, bounded up the far side of the gully and stampeded down the game trail, towards the three great bulls.

The leader saw them tearing towards him, spun around and ran straight at the steep hillside. The other two followed.

Leon looked over the top of the bank and saw what was taking place. ‘Damn those bloody impala to hell and back!’ he gritted. The three elephant were running up the first incline at the base of the hill, heading diagonally away from him, making for the crest of the hills. ‘Come on, Kermit,’ he yelled frantically. ‘If we can’t cut them off before they get to the top we’ll never see them again.’

They ran across the narrow strip of level ground and reached the base of the hill. By now they were two hundred yards behind the elephant. Leon went straight at the slope, taking long strides, jumping over the smaller rocks in his path.

The elephant were unable to tackle such a steep slope head-on. The leader turned across it and began a series of climbing dog-leg turns. Meanwhile Leon and Kermit continued to move straight up, cutting across each of the loops that the bulls were forced to make. On each leg they gained on their gigantic quarry.

‘I don’t think I can keep this up,’ Kermit gasped. ‘I’m about done in.’

‘Keep going, chum.’ Leon reached back and seized his wrist. ‘Come on! We’re nearly there.’ He dragged him upwards. ‘We’re ahead of them now. Not much further to go.’

At last they staggered out on to the summit of the hill and Kermit leaned against a tree-trunk. His shirt was soaked with sweat, his chest heaved and the air whistled in his throat. His legs were shaking under him, like those of a man in palsy. Leon looked back down the slope. The leading bull was a hundred feet below their level, but he was coming up swiftly, taking each turn along the contour. Leon judged he would pass less than thirty yards from where they stood on the skyline, but he seemed unaware of their presence. ‘Get ready, chum. Down on your backside. Give yourself a steady shot. Quickly now. They’ll be on us in a few seconds,’ he hissed at Kermit. ‘They’ll only give you one chance. Take the leader. Shoot him in his armpit, just behind the shoulder. Go for his heart. Don’t try the brain shot.’

Suddenly the leading bull saw the figures crouching on the skyline above him and stopped again, swinging his trunk uncertainly. He began to turn away down the hillside, but Manyoro and Loikot were coming up behind him. They screamed and waved their arms, trying to turn him back towards the hunters on the crest.

The bull hesitated again, swinging his head from side to side. His companions pressed up close behind him. The two Masai raced towards them, howling like demons and flapping their shukas. By contrast the men on the ridge waited silent and motionless. To the leading bull they seemed the lesser threat. He turned back again, and kept on up the slope directly towards where Leon and Kermit were. The other two followed his lead.

‘Here they come. Get ready,’ Leon said softly.

Kermit was sitting flat on his buttocks, elbows braced on his knees. But he was still panting and, with consternation, Leon saw that the barrel of his Winchester was wavering. He dreaded that Kermit was about to put on one of his eccentric displays of marksmanship, but the moment had come. He drew a breath and snapped, ‘Now, Kermit! Take him!’

He raised the Holland, ready to back up when Kermit missed, as he surely must. The Winchester crashed and leaped in Kermit’s grip. Leon gaped and lowered his rifle. The bullet had hit the leading bull not on the shoulder but cleanly in the earhole. The elephant flopped to his knees, killed instantly. Leon jumped as the Winchester crashed again. The second bull, coming up behind the fallen leader, dropped lifelessly to another perfect brain shot. But he fell on the steep slope and began to roll down it. The carcass gathered momentum, and thundered downwards, raising an avalanche of loose rock and rubble. Manyoro and Loikot were almost caught up in it. At the last moment they threw themselves aside and the carcass slithered past.

The third bull stood on the open slope below the summit, cornered between the two groups of men. Manyoro jumped to his feet and ran towards him, shouting and waving his shuka. The bull’s nerve broke and he turned for the crest. Leon and Kermit were standing in his line of escape. The beast’s flight turned into a full-blooded charge: he cocked his ears half back and rushed straight at them, squealing with rage.

‘Again!’ Leon yelled. ‘Do it again! Shoot him!’ He swung up the Holland, but before he could fire the Winchester crashed for the third time. This elephant was below Kermit’s level, but head-on to him, so the aiming point was deceptively higher. Nevertheless he had judged it perfectly and his aim was dead true. The last bull threw his trunk over his head and died as swiftly and painlessly as his companions. He also rolled away down the slope, sliding the last few hundred feet until his body came to rest against the trunk of one of the larger trees near the base of the hill. From the first shot to the last, only a minute or two had passed. Leon had not fired once.

The echoes of gunfire died away against the hills on the far side of the valley and a deep silence descended on the land. No bird sang and no ape barked. All of nature seemed to hold its breath and listen.

At last Leon broke the hush. ‘When I say shoot him in the head you shoot him in the body. When I say shoot him in the body you shoot him in the head. When I give you an easy shot you botch it. When I give you an impossible shot you hit it right on the button. What the hell, Roosevelt? I really don’t know why you need me here.’

Kermit did not seem to hear him. He sat staring at the rifle in his lap with a stunned look on his sweat-streaked face. ‘God love me!’ he whispered. ‘I’ve never shot that good before.’ He raised his head and gazed down at the three massive bodies. Slowly he stood up and walked to the nearest elephant. He stooped and laid his right hand reverentially on one of the long, gleaming tusks. ‘I can’t believe what happened. Big Medicine just seemed to take over from me. It was as though I was standing outside myself, and watching it all happen from a distance.’ He raised the Winchester to his lips like a communion chalice and kissed the blued metal breech block. ‘Hey there, Big Medicine, Lusima Mama put one hell of a spell on you, didn’t she?’

It was six days before the tusks could be pulled from the decomposing flesh, and by then Manyoro had assembled a gang of porters from the nearby Samburu villages to take them back to the base encampment on the Ewaso Ng’iro river. On the return march they made a detour to pick up the cached rhino head. The long file of porters was carrying an impressive array of big-game trophies as they approached the camp. They were still several miles short of the river when they saw a small group of horsemen riding towards them from the direction of the camp.

‘I bet this is my dad coming to find out what I’ve been doing.’ Kermit was grinning in anticipation. ‘I can’t wait to see his face when he lays eyes on this lot.’

While they reined in to wait for the approaching riders to come up, Leon brought up his binoculars and studied them. ‘Hold on! That isn’t your father.’ He stared a few moments longer. ‘It’s that newspaper fellow and his cameraman. How the hell did they know where to find us?’

‘I reckon they must have an informer in our camp. Apart from that, they have eyes like circling vultures,’ Kermit commented. ‘They don’t miss anything. Anyway, we can’t avoid talking to them.’

Andrew Fagan rode up and lifted his hat. ‘Good afternoon, Mr Roosevelt,’ he called. ‘Are those elephant tusks that your men are carrying? I had no idea they grew so large. Those are gigantic. You’re having a wonderfully successful safari. I offer you my heartiest congratulations. May I have a closer look at your trophies?’

Leon called to the porters to lay down their burdens. Fagan dismounted and went to inspect them, exclaiming with amazement. ‘I’d love to listen to your account of the hunt, Mr Roosevelt,’ he said, ‘if you could spare me the time. And, of course, I’d be extremely grateful if you and Mr Courtney would be good enough to pose for a couple more photographs. My readers would be fascinated to hear of your adventures. As you know, my articles are syndicated to almost every newspaper in the civilized world from Moscow to Manhattan.’ An hour later Fagan and his cameraman had finished. Fagan had half filled his notebook with shorthand scribbles, and his photographer had exposed several dozen flash plates of the hunters and their trophies. Fagan was eager to get back to his typewriter. He intended to send a galloper to the telegraph office in Nairobi with his copy and instructions that it was to be sent urgent rate to his editor in New York. As they all shook hands Kermit unexpectedly asked Fagan, ‘Have you met my father?’

‘No, sir, I have not, though I must add that I am one of his most ardent admirers.’

‘Come to see me tomorrow at the main camp,’ Kermit told him. ‘I’ll introduce you.’

Fagan was flabbergasted by the invitation, and as he rode away he was still calling his thanks.

‘What came over you, chum?’ Leon asked. ‘I thought you hated the fourth estate.’

‘I do, but they’re better as friends than enemies. One day Fagan may be a useful man to know. Now he owes me a big marker.’

Leon and Kermit rode into the main camp on the river in the late afternoon. Nobody was expecting them. With his robust constitution, the President had completely recovered from the effects of his Thanksgiving dinner. He was sitting under a tree outside his tent, reading his leatherbound copy of Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, one of his perennial favourites. With a bemused air he regarded the uproar that his son’s arrival had created. The entire personnel of the camp, almost a thousand strong, was hastening from every direction to greet the returning hunters. They crowded around them, craning for a closer look at the tusks and the rhino head.

Teddy Roosevelt laid aside his book, adjusted his steel-rimmed spectacles on his nose, stood up from his chair, tucked in his shirt over the bulge of his belly and came to find the cause of the commotion. The crowd parted deferentially to allow him through. Kermit jumped from the saddle to greet his father. They shook hands warmly and the President took his son’s arm. ‘Well, my boy, you have been away for almost three weeks. I was starting to worry about you. Now you’d better show your old man what you’ve brought home.’ The two went to where the porters had laid out their bundles for inspection. Leon was still mounted and close enough to the President to have a clear view of his face over the heads of the crowd. He was able to watch every nuance of his expressions.

He saw mild, indulgent interest give way to astonishment as Roosevelt counted the tusks lying on the ground. Then astonishment gave way to dismay as he took in the size of the ivory shafts. He dropped Kermit’s arm and walked slowly down the line of trophies. His back was turned to his son, but Leon saw dismay harden to envy and outrage. He realized that for the President to have reached his position of utmost eminence he must be one of the most competitive men on earth. He was accustomed to excelling in any endeavour and ranking first and foremost in any company. Now he was being forced to come to terms with the fact that, for once, he had been outshone by his son.

The President stopped at the end of the line and stood with his hands clasped behind his back. He chewed the ends of his moustache and frowned heavily. Then his expression cleared and he was smiling as he turned to Kermit. Leon was filled with admiration for how swiftly he had controlled his emotions.

‘Splendid!’ said Roosevelt. ‘These tusks beat anything we already have, and almost certainly anything we’ll get before the end of the expedition.’ He seized Kermit’s hand again. ‘I’m proud of you, really and truly proud. How many shots did you have to make to get these extraordinary trophies?’

‘You’d better ask my hunter that, Father.’

Still clasping Kermit’s right hand, the President looked at Leon. ‘Well, Mr Courtney, how many was it? Ten, twenty or more? Tell us all, please.’

‘Your son killed the three bulls with three consecutive bullets,’ Leon replied. ‘Three perfect brain shots.’

Roosevelt stared into Kermit’s face for a moment, then pulled him roughly into the circle of his muscular arms and embraced him fiercely. ‘I’m proud of you, Kermit. I couldn’t be prouder than I am at this moment.’

Over the President’s shoulder, Leon could see Kermit’s face. It glowed. Now it was Leon’s turn to suffer mixed emotions: he rejoiced for his friend, but for himself he felt tearing agony. If only my father could bring himself to say that to me one day, he thought, but I know he never will.

The President broke the embrace at last and held Kermit at arms’ length, beaming into his face with his head cocked on one side. ‘I’ll be damned if I haven’t sired a champion,’ he said. ‘I want to hear all about it at dinner. But my nose detects that you need a bath before we eat. Go and get cleaned up now.’ Then he looked across at Leon. ‘I’d be pleased if you’d join us for dinner as well, Mr Courtney. Shall we say seven thirty for eight?’

While Leon used his straight razor on the dark and dense stubble that covered his jaws, Ishmael filled the galvanized-iron bath almost to the brim with hot water that smelled of woodsmoke from the fire. When Leon stepped out of it, his body glowing pinkly, Ishmael had a large towel ready for him, which he had warmed beforehand at the fire. A set of crisply ironed khakis lay on Leon’s bed and beneath it stood a pair of mosquito boots, polished to a gloss.

A short time later, his hair combed and pomaded, Leon set off towards the circus-sized mess tent. Determined not to be late for the President’s dinner, he was half an hour early. As he passed Percy Phillips’s tent the familiar voice hailed him. ‘Leon, come in here for a minute.’

He stooped through the fly to find Percy sitting with a glass in his hand. He waved it to indicate the empty chair across the floor from where he sat. ‘Take a pew. The President keeps a dry table. The strongest brew you’ll be offered tonight is likely to be cranberry syrup.’ He made a small moue of distaste and pointed at the bottle on the table beside Leon’s chair. ‘You’d better fortify yourself.’

Leon poured himself two fingers of single malt Bunnahabhain whisky and topped it up with river water that had been boiled, then cooled in a porous canvas waterbag. He tasted it. ‘Elixir! I could get addicted to this stuff.’

‘You can’t afford it. Not yet anyway.’ Percy held out his own glass. ‘You’d better refresh me while you’re about it.’ When his glass was recharged he raised it to Leon. ‘Mud in your eye!’ he said.

‘Up the Rifles!’ Leon returned. They drank and savoured the fragrant liquor.

Then Percy said, ‘By the way, did I congratulate you on your recent spectacular successes?’

‘I cannot recall you doing so, sir.’

‘Damn me, I could have sworn I did. I must be getting old.’ His eyes twinkled. They were bright blue and clear in the wrinkled, sun-baked face. ‘All right, then, listen well. I’m only going to say this once. You earned your spurs today. I’m damned proud of you.’

‘Thank you, sir.’ Leon was more deeply moved than he had expected to be.

‘In future you can drop the “sir”, and make it Percy.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘Percy, just plain Percy.’

‘Thank you, Plain Percy.’

They drank in companionable silence for a while. Then Percy went on, ‘I suppose you know I’ll turn sixty-five next month?’

‘I’d never have thought it.’

‘The hell you wouldn’t. You probably thought I was well over ninety.’ Leon opened his mouth to protest politely, but Percy waved him to silence.

‘This is probably not the time to bring up the subject, but I feel myself slowing down. The old legs are not what they once were. Nowadays every mile I walk feels like five. Two days ago I clean missed a Tommy buck at a hundred yards, a dead sitter. I need some help around here. I was thinking of taking on a partner. A junior partner. In fact, a very junior partner.’

Leon nodded cautiously, waiting to hear more.

Percy took the silver hunter watch from his pocket and snapped open the engraved lid, studied the dial, closed the lid, drained his glass and stood up. ‘It would never do to keep the former President of the United States of America waiting for his dinner. He enjoys his food. Pity he doesn’t feel the same way about wine. However, I’ve no doubt that we’ll survive.’

There were ten for dinner in the big tent. Freddie Selous and Kermit had the seats of honour on each side of the President. Leon was placed at the foot of the table, in the chair furthest from his host. Teddy Roosevelt was a born raconteur. His tongue was silver, his knowledge encyclopedic, his intellect monumental, his enthusiasm infectious and his charm irresistible. He held the company spellbound as he carried them with him from one subject to another, from politics and religion to ornithology and philosophy, tropical medicine to African anthropology. Leon let the eland steak on his plate grow cold as he listened with rapt attention to the President evaluating the present international tensions in Europe. This was a subject that Penrod Ballantyne had expounded in great depth with his nephew as they had sat around the campfire on their pig-sticking forays into the veld, so it was familiar ground.

Suddenly the President singled him out. ‘What is your opinion, Mr Courtney?’

Leon was dismayed as every head turned to him expectantly. His first instinct was to escape by replying that he had little interest in the subject and that he did not feel qualified to express an opinion, but then he rallied himself. ‘Well, sir, you will excuse me for looking at this from a British point of view. I believe that the danger lies in the imperial aspirations of Germany and Austria. This, with the proliferation of exclusive treaties between numerous states that is now taking place across Europe. These alliances are complex but they all make provision for mutual protection and support in the event of conflict with an outsider. That could trigger a domino effect if the junior partner in such an alliance blundered into confrontation with its neighbour and called upon its more powerful ally to intervene.’

Roosevelt blinked. He had not expected such a weighty response. ‘Examples, please,’ he snapped.

‘We believe that the British Empire can only be held together by a powerful Royal Navy. Kaiser Wilhelm the Second has made no secret of his intention to build the German Navy into the most powerful force in the world. Our empire is threatened by this. We have been forced into concluding treaties with other nations in Europe, such as Belgium, France and Serbia. Germany has treaties with Austria and Turkey, a Muslim nation. In 1905 when tension rose between Morocco and France, our new strategic partner, it precipitated a crisis across all of North Africa. Because of its alliance with Turkey, Germany was obliged to intervene against France. France is our ally, therefore we were obliged to intervene on her behalf. It was a chain effect. Only intense diplomatic negotiation and a mountain of luck averted war.’

Leon saw the expressions on the faces of his audience turning to respect, and was encouraged to continue. He made a deprecatory gesture. ‘It seems to me that the world is teetering on the brink of the abyss. There are wheels within wheels, and countless threads in the web, as I know you, Mr President, of all people, will be aware.’

Roosevelt folded his arms across his chest. ‘A wise head on young shoulders. You must dine with us again tomorrow evening. I would like your views on racial divisions and tensions in Africa. But now to more important affairs. My son likes to hunt with you. He tells me that the two of you have made plans to build upon your recent triumphs with elephant and rhinoceros.’

‘I am delighted that Kermit wishes to continue hunting with me, sir. I enjoy his company immensely.’

‘What is your next quarry to be?’

‘My head tracker has discovered the lair of a very large crocodile. Would a specimen like that be of interest to the Smithsonian?’

‘By all means. But that shouldn’t take too long, if you know where the croc’s holed up. After that what are your plans?’

‘Kermit wants to take a good lion.’

‘Cheeky young devil!’ He punched Kermit’s shoulder playfully. ‘Not content with beating me at jumbo and rhino, now you want to make it three in a row!’ The company laughed with him and Teddy Roosevelt went on, ‘Okay, buddy, you’re on! Shall we have ten dollars on it?’ The two of them shook hands to seal the bet and then the President said, ‘If it’s to be lions, we are fortunate to have the world’s leading expert on the subject right here with us.’ He turned from his son to the handsome greybeard at his other side. ‘Perhaps, Selous, you would be good enough to give us some hints on how to go about it. In particular I’m interested in hearing you talk about the warning signals a lion gives the hunter before it charges. Can you describe them for us, and tell us what it’s like to face such a charge?’

Selous laid down his knife and fork. ‘Colonel, I have the greatest respect and admiration for the lion. Apart from his regal bearing, his strength is such that he can carry the carcass of a bullock in his jaws as he leaps over the six-foot fence of a cattle pen. His jaws are so formidable that they can crush the hardest bone as though it were chalk. He is swift as death. When he attacks, his first burst of speed covers the ground at forty miles an hour.’

With his soft but authoritative voice Selous kept them enthralled for almost an hour until the President interrupted him. ‘Thank you. I want to make an early start tomorrow, so if you gentlemen will excuse me, I’m off to bed.’

Leon walked with Percy as they made their way back to their tents. ‘I’m impressed, Leon, with your political acumen, although I detected tones of your uncle Penrod in what you had to say tonight. I think Teddy Roosevelt was also impressed. It seems to me that you’ve managed to set both feet securely on the ladder to the stars. Just as long as you don’t get his son bitten by a lion. Remember Frederick Selous’s advice. They’re devilishly dangerous creatures. When the lion lays back his ears and flicks his tail straight up it’s the signal that he’s going to charge, and you’d better be ready to shoot straight.’ They had reached Percy’s tent. ‘Good night,’ Percy said, stooped through the fly and let the canvas flap drop.

Leon and Kermit lay side by side on the riverbank behind a thin screen of reeds that Manyoro and Loikot had built the previous afternoon. The two Masai trackers lay close behind them. They had been waiting since dawn for Manyoro’s crocodile to show itself. There were peep holes in the screen through which they had a view over the algae-green pool. It was almost two hundred yards to the far bank, which was shaded by a forest of tall pod mahogany trees, their branches festooned with serpentine lianas and hung with the nests of bright yellow weaver birds. The males hung upside-down under the nests they had woven, vibrating their wings and chittering excitedly to attract a watching female to fly down and take up residence. Watching their antics passed the time for Leon, but Kermit was already beginning to fidget.

Manyoro had positioned the hide on top of the steep bank directly above the game trail that ran down through the reed beds to the water’s edge. There were few places around the pool that afforded such easy access to the water. The hunters had moved into the hide while it was still dark, and as the light strengthened, Manyoro pointed out to Leon where the crocodile had hidden under the bank by burrowing into the soft mud below the surface. It had wriggled and squirmed until it had stirred the bottom ooze into a porridge, then lain motionless and allowed the fine mud to settle again over its head and back. The only trace of its presence was the regular chicken-wire outline in the mud that adumbrated its scaly back. Leon could barely make out the shape of its head and the two prominent projections in the skull that held its eyes.

It had taken both himself and Manyoro some time to point out the indistinct shape of the great body to Kermit. When at last he located it Kermit, with his usual impetuosity, had decided to fire immediately at the hazy outline of the head. It had taken many minutes of whispered argument before Leon was able to persuade him that even the Winchester, despite Lusima’s blessing, would not be able to drive a soft-nosed bullet through three feet of water without being stopped dead, as if by a brick wall.

It was now almost noon, and in the heat, herds of antelope and zebra had come to drink at the three other watering points around the pool, but nothing had approached the one that the crocodile had staked out. Kermit was becoming more restless by the minute: he was on the point of rebellion and would soon demand to shoot, Leon thought.

Leon’s luck held. He spotted movement on their left flank. He touched Kermit’s arm and pointed with his chin at the small group of Grevy’s zebra emerging from the trees and making their way timidly down the game path towards the waterhole. Kermit perked up. ‘Perhaps we’re going to see some action at last,’ he murmured, and touched Big Medicine’s stock.

The Grevy’s is the largest member of the horse family, larger even than a Percheron carthorse. With good reason its alternative name is the Imperial Zebra. The stallion that led them stood five feet high at the shoulder and probably weighed close to a thousand pounds. The herd moved with the utmost caution, as do all prey animals when they are aware that predators may be guarding the water. They took only a few paces before stopping to search all around for any sign of danger, then coming on a few more paces.

Kermit watched their approach with eager anticipation. Big Medicine was loaded and lay in front of him propped on a saddle bag that gave him a steady rest. At last the leading stallion stepped gingerly on to the pathway that had been cut into the bank by the hoofs of the thousands of thirsty animals that had come before him, and went down it to the narrow beach. He stood at the water’s edge and made another long scrutiny of the banks around him. At last he made the fateful decision: he lowered his head and sank his velvety black muzzle into the water. As soon as he began to drink the rest of the herd followed him down the path, jostling each other in their eagerness to reach the water.

That was the moment the crocodile had waited for so patiently. He used his tail to propel himself upwards, bursting out of the mud and through the surface of the pool in a sparkling cloud of spray. The men on the bank recoiled instinctively, shocked by the size of the monstrous reptile, the speed and violence of the attack.

‘God, he must be twenty feet long!’ Kermit gasped.

The stallion was heavy, but this brute was four or five times heavier. Despite this difference the zebra’s hoofs were anchored on solid ground and all his power was in his legs. The crocodile’s were small, bent and weak. All its strength was in its tail. In a straight tug-of-war the zebra would have the advantage. The croc had to get him into deeper water where his hoofs would find no purchase. There, the croc’s massive tail would give it an overwhelming advantage.

It did not attempt to seize the stallion in its jaws and try to drag it in, but swung its head like a battle club. With all that weight and power behind the blow it was so fast that the eye could barely follow it. The hideous horny skull crashed into the side of the zebra’s head, breaking bone and stunning him. He fell on his side in four feet of water, legs kicking convulsively above the surface, thrashing head from side to side as he started to drown. Now the croc surged forward, seized the zebra’s muzzle in its jaws and dragged him into the deep water. It began a series of barrel rolls, churning the water to foam, wringing the zebra’s neck as though he were a chicken, at the same time disorientating and drowning him. The crocodile kept rolling until the last glimmer of life had been extinguished in the striped body, then released its grip and backed away.

Twenty yards offshore, it hung on the surface, watching the body of the dead zebra for any last signs of life. The body floated almost completely submerged, with only one back leg sticking above the surface, pointing skywards. The crocodile was fully broadside to the hunters, with only the top of its back and the upper half of its head exposed. The head was rendered all the more hideous by its fixed, sardonic grin.

Kermit was stretched prone behind the saddle bag with the rifle tucked into his shoulder, and his cheek pressed to the stock’s comb. His left eye was tight shut and the right was narrowed with concentration, levelled behind the gun sights.

Leon leaned closer to him. ‘Aim for the corner of his smile, exactly at water level, under the eye.’ The last words were still on his lips when the Winchester roared. Watching through the binoculars Leon saw the tiny splash as the bullet flicked the surface directly under the wicked little eye, then went on to smash into the croc’s head.

‘Perfect!’ Leon shouted, as he jumped to his feet.

Piga!’ Manyoro sang out. ‘He is hit!’

Ngwenya kufa! The crocodile is dead!’ Loikot shrieked with laughter as he sprang to his feet and launched into a wild, leaping dance. The crocodile hurled its entire body high out of the water, thrashing the surface with its tail in a series of gigantic convulsions. It snapped its jaws, then again leaped high out of the water and fell back with a mighty splash, spinning over and over, its tail kicking up waves that broke heavily against the beach.

Ngwenya kufa!’ the men on the bank exulted, as the crocodile’s death frenzy reached a crescendo.

Abruptly the massive body froze, the tail arched and went rigid, and the crocodile lay motionless on the surface for moment, then sank, disappearing beneath the green waters.

‘We’re going to lose him!’ Kermit shouted anxiously, and hopped on one leg as he pulled off his boots.

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ Leon grabbed him.

‘I’m going to pull him out.’

Kermit struggled to free himself, but Leon held him easily. ‘Listen, you idiot, you go into that water and the croc’s grandpapa will be waiting to meet you.’

‘But we’re going to lose him! I have to fish him out!’

‘No, you don’t! Manyoro and Loikot will wait here until tomorrow when the croc will have blown up with gas and floated to the surface. Then you and I will come back and put ropes on it.’

Kermit quietened down a little. ‘He’s going to be washed away downstream.’

‘The river is no longer flowing. This is a blind pool. Your croc ain’t going anywhere, chum.’

It was late afternoon, and they were sitting under the fly of Leon’s tent, drinking tea and endlessly going over the details of the crocodile hunt, when there was an excited stir and a hubbub ran through the encampment, indicating the imminent return of the President. Kermit jumped up. ‘Come on!’ he said to Leon. ‘Let’s go see what my old man’s bagged.’ He strode away, but turned back. ‘Don’t say anything about the croc. He won’t believe it until he sees it.’

Teddy Roosevelt rode into camp, and they were there to greet him when he dismounted and tossed the reins to a syce. He smiled when he saw Kermit, and there was a triumphant twinkle in the eyes behind the steel-rimmed spectacles.

‘Hi, Dad,’ Kermit called. ‘Did you have a good day?’

‘Not bad. I opened the lion account.’

Kermit’s face fell. ‘You got a lion?’

‘Yep!’ the President affirmed, still smiling. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. Kermit saw a party of bearers coming down the trail through the trees. They were carrying a tan body slung on a pole between them. They dumped their burden next to the taxidermy tent, and three of the Smithsonian scientists came out to view the day’s bag. They cut the ropes that bound the paws of the lion to the pole, and stretched the carcass on the ground to measure and photograph it.

Kermit laughed with relief. Even he, who knew little about them, could see that this was an immature lioness. ‘Hey, Dad!’ He chuckled as he turned to his father. ‘If you call that a real lion, I might as well call myself the President of the United States of America. She’s a baby.’

‘You’re right, son,’ his father agreed, still smiling smugly. ‘Poor little sweetheart, I had to shoot her. She wouldn’t let us get close to the body of her mate. She guarded it ferociously. At least we can have her mounted as part of a family group in one of the showcases in the African Hall at the museum. What do you think?’ He directed the question at George Lemmon, the chief of the team of scientists.

‘We’re delighted to have her, sir. She’s a fine specimen. Her hide is unblemished, it still has the immature spotting of a cub, and her teeth are perfect.’

The President looked back over his shoulder and remarked comfortably, ‘Oh, good! They’re bringing the male in now.’ Another team of bearers was just emerging from the forest. Four were staggering under the weight of the huge body they were carrying.

‘Good gracious! That looks like a very fine lion to me.’ Frederick Selous had come from his tent in his shirtsleeves, carrying his sketchpad. ‘We must make sure that those fellows handle it carefully. It would never do to have the skin abraded or damaged.’

The bearers came up with the lion swinging on the pole to the rhythm of their trot. They lowered it gently to the ground beside the lioness. Sammy Edwards, the head taxidermist, stretched it out carefully and ran his measuring tape from the tip of its onyx-black nose to the black tuft at the end of its tail. ‘Nine feet one inch.’ He looked up at the President. ‘That’s a great lion, sir, the largest I’ve ever had a tape on.’

After dinner that evening Kermit came to Leon’s tent. He brought with him a silver hip flask of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. They turned the lamp low, sat in the canvas chairs under the mosquito net and kept their voices to a whisper.

‘Andrew Fagan was the guest of honour this evening,’ Kermit told Leon. In response to Kermit’s invitation Fagan had arrived in camp during the afternoon. ‘He got on well with my father. The old man enjoyed having a new audience.’

They were silent for a few minutes, then Kermit went on, ‘I don’t grudge it to my father. He’s as keen as any of us to get good trophies, and he works like a man half his age. You weren’t there, of course, but I can tell you that he did rather overdo it at dinner tonight. He didn’t actually boast or gloat over me but he came damned close. Of course Fagan was lapping it all up.’

Leon studied the amber liquid in his glass and murmured sympathetically in agreement.

‘I mean it was a good lion, a fine lion, but it wasn’t the best lion anyone in Africa has ever taken, was it?’ Kermit asked earnestly.

‘You’re absolutely right. It was a very big-bodied lion, but its mane was a ruff. It wasn’t much bigger than a lady’s ostrich-feather boa,’ Leon assured him, and Kermit burst out laughing, then checked himself with a hand over his mouth. They were more than a hundred yards from the President’s tent, but the great man expected silence in camp after lights out.

‘A lady’s boa,’ Kermit repeated delightedly, then made an attempt at a feminine falsetto, ‘Are we off to the ballet, my darlings?’ They savoured the joke for a while and pulled at the Jack Daniel’s.

Then Kermit said, ‘Sometimes I almost hate my father. Does that make me evil?’

‘No, it makes you human.’

‘Tell me honestly, Leon, what did you really think of that lion?’

‘We can beat it.’

‘Do you think so? Do you honestly think so?’

‘Your father’s lion hasn’t a single black hair in its boa. Not one,’ he said, and Kermit had to smother another burst of laughter at the word ‘boa’. The Jack Daniel’s was warming his belly and lifting his spirits.

When his friend had controlled his mirth, Leon repeated, ‘We can beat it. We can get a bigger and blacker lion. Manyoro and Loikot are Masai. They have a special affinity with the big cats. They say we can do better, and I believe them.’

‘Tell me how we’re going to do it.’ Kermit gazed solemnly into his face.

‘We’ll make up a flying column and ride ahead of the main safari into the country beyond Masailand, where the lions haven’t been picked over for the last thousand years by the morani. We can move many times faster than the rest of them because they’re limited to the pace of the porters. In a few days we can have a lead of a hundred miles or more. When does the President plan to move on north, do you know?’

‘My father told us at dinner tonight that he plans to stay here for a while. It seems that a few days ago the local guides led him and Mr Selous to a large swamp about twenty miles east of here. Near it they found a set of tracks that Mr Selous believes may be those of a male sitatunga antelope, but they were larger than the species he himself discovered in 1881 in the Okavango delta. That one is named after him, Limnotragus selousi. He’s convinced my father that this may be an entirely new sub-species. To my father the opportunity of discovering a species previously unknown to science is irresistible. He dreams of a sitatunga named Limnotragus roosevelti. He would sacrifice his first-born for that.’ He grinned. ‘I expect he’ll want to hang around here until he finds this buck or convinces himself it doesn’t exist.’

‘I can understand his interest. What do you know about the sitatunga?’

‘Not much,’ Kermit admitted.

‘It’s a fascinating creature, very rare and elusive. It’s the only truly aquatic antelope. Its hoofs are so long and splayed that on land it can barely walk, but in deep mud or water it’s as agile as a catfish. When threatened it ducks under the surface and can remain submerged for hours with only the tips of its nostrils above the water.’

‘Hell, I’d love to get one of those,’ Kermit said.

‘You can’t have everything, chum. Lion or sitatunga, it’s your choice.’ Leon did not wait for a reply. ‘The President’s plans suit us well enough. We can leave them to it and ride on the day after tomorrow. Now, do you suppose there may be another noggin lingering at the bottom of that flask of yours? If there is, I don’t think we should let it go to waste, do you?’

They spent the following day hastily assembling the personnel and equipment for their flying column. They picked out a string of six ponies, and three pack mules. Then, with the high spirits of schoolboys escaping the surveillance of their headmaster, they rode northwards.

In the late afternoon of the third day they were following the course of a small unnamed river when there was a shout from the Masai trackers, who were a hundred yards ahead. They gesticulated and pointed at a swift feline shape that had broken out of a patch of scrub and was darting away across the open floodplain, heading for the cover of the thicker forest beyond.

‘What is it?’ Kermit rose in his stirrups and shaded his eyes with his hat.

‘Leopard,’ Leon told him. ‘A big tom.’

‘It has no spots,’ Kermit protested.

‘You can’t see them at this distance.’

‘Can I ride him down?’

‘Gunfire won’t disturb any lions that hear it,’ Leon assured him, ‘not like elephant. They have the curiosity of cats. A few shots might even attract them.’ Kermit needed to hear no more. He let out a wild cowboy yell and, with his hat, urged his mount into a mad gallop, at the same time drawing Big Medicine from her boot under his right knee and brandishing it over his head.

‘Here we go again, folks.’ Leon laughed. ‘Another stealthy, carefully planned stalk with Sir Quick Bullet.’ He kicked his own horse into a gallop, and raced in pursuit. The leopard heard the commotion, stopped and sat on his haunches, gazing back in astonishment. Then he realized how precarious his situation was, whipped around and raced away, stretching out with each bound, long, sleek and graceful.

‘Yee-ha! Up and at him!’ Kermit howled, and even Leon was infected by the excitement of the headlong charge.

‘View halloo! Gone away!’ He gave the old fox-hunting cry and lay flat along his pony’s neck, pushing him hard, both hands on the reins. The rush of the wind in his face was intoxicating. Abandoning all restraint they raced each other across the plain.

The nose of Leon’s pony was creeping up to the level of Kermit’s boot. He looked back under his own armpit, saw Leon gaining, slapped his hat against his mount’s neck and banged his heels into its flanks. ‘Let’s move!’ he urged it. ‘Come on, baby. Get the lead out!’ At that moment his horse stepped in a suricate hole. Its right fore snapped, with a sound like a whiplash, and it went down as though it had been shot through the brain. Kermit was thrown high and clear. He hit the ground with his shoulder and the side of his face. His rifle flew from his hand and he rolled like a ball under the pounding hoofs of Leon’s horse. Leon pulled the mare’s head around and they just managed to avoid stepping on Kermit. She responded to the pressure of reins, bit and spur, tossing her head violently. They rode back to the downed rider. Kermit’s horse was struggling to rise but its foreleg was fractured clean through just above the fetlock joint, the hoof dangling loosely. Kermit was lying still, stretched out on the hard earth.

He’s killed himself. God! What am I going to tell the President? Leon agonized, as he kicked his feet out of the stirrups. He threw his right leg over his horse’s neck and dropped to the ground. He ran to Kermit, but by the time he reached him his friend was sitting up groggily. The skin had been scoured from the left side of his face, his eyebrow was torn half off, and hung over his eye in a loose flap, and the eye itself was bunged up with dust.

‘Mistake!’ he mumbled, and spat out a mouthful of blood and mud. ‘That was a big mistake!’

Leon laughed with relief. ‘You trying to tell me it wasn’t deliberate? I thought you did it just to impress me.’

Kermit ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth. ‘No teeth missing,’ he announced, speaking as though his palate was cleft.

‘Luckily you fell on your head or you might have damaged yourself.’ Leon knelt beside him, took his head between both hands and turned it from side to side, examining the eye. ‘Try not to blink like that, or grit will scratch the eyeball.’

‘Easily enough said. How about “try not to breathe” as your next stupid instruction?’

Ishmael galloped up on his mule and handed Leon a waterbag.

‘Hold his eye open, Ishmael,’ Leon ordered, then poured water into it, sluicing out most of the mud. Then he handed the bag to Kermit. ‘Rinse your mouth and wash your face.’ The two Masai were squatting close at hand where they could have a good view of the proceedings, which they were discussing with relish. ‘Will you two hyenas stop gloating, and set up the pup tent, then lay out Popoo Hima’s blanket roll. I want to get him out of the sun.’

While they helped Kermit into the little tent, Leon drew the big Holland from its boot on his saddle and shot the maimed horse. He made it seem cold and clinical, but his empathy with horses was intense, and even though it was a mercy killing, it tore at his conscience.

‘Get the saddle and tack off that poor creature,’ he told Manyoro, as he ejected the empty brass cartridge case and slipped the rifle back into its sheath. He hurried to the little tent and stooped through the entrance. ‘Where’s Big Medicine?’ Kermit demanded, and tried to get up.

Leon pushed him down. ‘I’ll send Manyoro to find it.’ He raised his voice: ‘Manyoro! Bring the bwana’s bunduki.’ Then he held a finger in front of Kermit’s eyes. ‘Watch it.’ He moved it slowly from side to side, then nodded, satisfied. ‘Despite your best efforts, it doesn’t seem that you’ve managed to concuss yourself, thank God. Now let’s take a look at the place where your left eyebrow was once attached to your face.’ He examined the damage closely. ‘I’m going to have to put in a few stitches.’

Kermit looked alarmed. ‘What do you know about stitching people up?’

‘I’ve stitched up plenty of horses and dogs.’

‘I ain’t no horse or dog.’

‘No, those animals are pretty smart.’ To Ishmael he said, ‘Fetch your sewing kit.’

At that moment Manyoro appeared in the entrance, his expression mournful. He held a separate piece of the Winchester in each hand. ‘She is broken,’ he said in Kiswahili.

Kermit grabbed the shattered pieces from him. ‘Oh, hell and damnation!’ he moaned. The butt stock had snapped at the neck of the pistol grip and the front sight had been knocked off. It was obvious that the rifle could not be fired. Kermit cradled it as though it were a sick child. ‘What am I going to do?’ He looked at Leon pitifully. ‘Can you repair it?’

‘Yes, but not until we get back to camp and I can find my tool-kit. I’ll have to bind that butt with the green skin of an elephant’s ear. When it dries, it’ll be hard as iron and better than new.’

‘What about the front sight?’

‘If we can’t find the original, I’ll hand-file one from a piece of metal and solder it in place.’

‘How long will all that take?’

‘A week or so.’ He saw Kermit’s stricken expression and tried to pull the punch a little. ‘Maybe a bit less. Depends how soon we can find a fresh elephant ear and how quickly it dries. Now, keep still while I sew you up.’

Kermit was in such distress that he seemed inured to the primitive surgery Leon inflicted. First he washed the wound with a diluted solution of iodine, then got busy with needle and thread. Either procedure was more than enough to make a strong man weep, but Kermit seemed more concerned with Big Medicine than his own suffering.

‘What am I going to shoot with in the meantime?’ he lamented, still holding the rifle.

‘Luckily I brought my old service .303 Enfield as a back-up.’ Leon ran the needle through a flap of skin.

Kermit grimaced but clung to the subject doggedly. ‘That’s a pop gun.’ He sounded affronted. ‘It may be fine for Tommy, impala or even human beings, but it’s much too light for lion!’

‘If you get in close and put the bullet in the right place, it’ll do the job.’

‘Close? I know what that means to you! You want me to stick the barrel in the bloody cat’s earhole.’

‘Very well, you go ahead in your usual style and blaze away at half a mile. But I don’t think that’ll work.’

Kermit thought about it for a while, but he didn’t seem overjoyed with the idea. ‘How about you lend me that big old Holland of yours?’

‘I love you like my own brother, but I’d rather lend you my little sister for the night.’

‘Have you got a little sister?’ Kermit asked, with sudden interest. ‘Is she pretty?’

‘I don’t have a sister,’ Leon lied, anxious to protect his siblings from Kermit’s attentions, ‘and I’m not going to lend you my rifle.’

‘Well, I don’t want your pathetic little .303,’ Kermit said petulantly.

‘Good! Then I suggest you ask Manyoro to lend you his spear.’

Manyoro grinned expectantly at the mention of his name.

Kermit shook his head and gave him the sum total of his Kiswahili: ‘Mazuri sana, Manyoro. Hakuna matatu! Very good, Manyoro. Don’t worry.’ The Masai looked disappointed, and Kermit turned back to Leon. ‘Okay, pal. I’ll try a few shots with your pop gun.’

In the morning Kermit’s eye was swollen and closed, and his torso was decorated with a few spectacular bruises. Fortunately the damage was to his left eye, so his shooting eye was still clear. Leon blazed the bark of a fever tree to give him a target at sixty paces, then handed him the .303. ‘At that range she’ll throw an inch high, so hold the pip of the foresight just a touch under,’ he advised. Kermit fired two shots, and they bracketed the mark, a finger’s breadth apart.

‘Wow! Not bad for a beginner.’ Kermit had impressed himself. He cheered up visibly.

‘Pretty darned good even for a marksman like Popoo Hima,’ Leon agreed. ‘But just remember, don’t shoot at anything that’s over the horizon.’

Kermit did not acknowledge the pleasantry. ‘Let’s go find a lion,’ he said.

They camped that evening beside a small waterhole, which still contained water from the last rains. They rolled into their blankets as soon as they had eaten, and both men were asleep within minutes.

In the wee hours Leon shook Kermit awake. He sat up groggily. ‘What’s happening? What time is it?’

‘Don’t worry about the time, just listen,’ Leon told him.

Kermit looked around and saw that the two Masai and Ishmael were sitting by the fire. They had fed it with wood chips and the flames danced brightly. Their faces were intent and rapt. They were listening. The silence drew out for many minutes.

‘What are we waiting for?’ Kermit demanded.

‘Patience! Just keep your ears open,’ Leon chided him. Suddenly the night was filled with sound, a mighty bass booming, rising and falling, like waves driven by a hurricane. It made the skin tingle and the hair rise along the forearms and up the back of the neck. Kermit threw aside his blanket and sprang to his feet. The sound died away in a series of sobbing grunts. The silence afterwards seemed to grip every man and beast in creation.

‘What the hell was that?’ Kermit gasped.

‘A lion. A big dominant male lion proclaiming his kingdom,’ Leon told him quietly. Manyoro added something in Maa, then he and Loikot laughed at the joke.

‘What did he say?’ Kermit demanded.

‘He said that even the bravest man is twice frightened by a lion. The first time when he hears his roar, the second and last time when he meets the beast face to face.’

‘He’s right about the first time,’ Kermit admitted. ‘It’s an incredible sound. But how do you know it’s a big male and not a lioness?’

‘How would I know the voice of Enrico Caruso from Dame Nellie Melba’s?’

‘Let’s go shoot him.’

‘Good plan, chum. I’ll hold the candle and you fire. It should be easy.’

‘Then what are we going to do?’

‘I, for one, am going to climb under my blanket and try to get some sleep. You should do the same. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day.’ Once again they stretched out beside the fire, but they were both far from sleep when another thunderous roar echoed through the night.

‘Listen to him!’ Kermit murmured. ‘The son of a gun’s inviting me out to play. How can I sleep with that racket going on?’ The last sawing grunts died into silence, and then came another sound, almost a distant echo of the first roar, far away and faint. They shot upright, and the Masai exclaimed.

‘What the hell was that?’ Kermit asked. ‘It sounded like another lion.’

‘That’s exactly what it was,’ Leon assured him.

‘Is it a brother of the first?’

‘Anything but. It’s the first lion’s rival and enemy to the death.’ Kermit was about to ask another question, but Leon stopped him. ‘Let me talk to the Masai.’ The discussion was in quick-fire Maa, and at the end Leon turned back to Kermit. ‘All right, this is what’s going on out there. The first lion is the older and dominant male. This is his territory and he almost certainly has a large harem of females and their cubs. But he’s getting old now and his powers are fading. The second male is young and strong, in his prime. He feels ready to challenge for the territory and the harem. He’s prowling the boundary and getting up courage for the death battle. The old man’s trying to frighten him off.’

‘Manyoro could tell all that from listening to a few roars?’

‘Both Manyoro and Loikot speak lion language fluently,’ Leon told him, with a straight face.

‘Tonight I’ll believe anything you tell me. So we’ve got not one but two big lions?’

‘Yes, and they won’t be moving far. The old man dare not leave the door open, and the youngster can smell those ladies. He won’t be going anywhere either.’

After this, there was no question of anyone sleeping. They sat at the fire, planning the hunt with the Masai and drinking Ishmael’s number-one very best coffee until the first rays of the sun gilded the treetops. Then they ate breakfast of Ishmael’s renowned ostrich-egg omelettes and a batch of his equally famous scones, hot from the pot. One ostrich egg was the equivalent of two dozen large chicken eggs, but there were no leftovers. While they mopped up the last drops of grease from the pan with pieces of scone, Ishmael and the Masai broke camp and loaded the mules. The air was still sweet and cool when they rode out to see what the day would bring.

A mile down the riverbank they surprised a herd of several hundred buffalo returning from the water. Leon dropped two with consecutive shots from the left and right barrels of the Holland. They sliced open the paunches so that the smell of carrion would be broadcast on the sultry breeze, then the mules dragged them into the most favourable positions, with open ground around them and no thick cover close at hand into which a wounded lion could escape. While they were positioning the bait, the porters cut bundles of green branches and covered the carcasses so that vultures and hyena would have difficulty reaching them. On the other hand such a flimsy covering would not deter a big lion for more than a moment.

They rode on down the river, and into the area where the lions had been roaring during the night. Every mile or two Leon shot whatever large mammal offered itself: giraffe, rhino or buffalo. By sunset they had laid down, over a stretch of ten miles, a string of highly attractive lion bait.

That night they were again deprived of a full night’s sleep by the roaring and counter-roaring of the two antagonists. At one time the older lion was so close to where they lay that the ground trembled under their blanket rolls with the imperious power of his voice, but this time there was no answer from his challenger.

‘The young lion has found one of our baits.’ Manyoro interpreted his silence. ‘He is feeding on it.’

‘I thought lions never ate carrion,’ said Kermit.

‘Don’t you believe it. They’re as lazy as domestic tabbies. They’ll eat a hand-out for preference, never mind how stinking rotten it may be. They only go to the trouble of making their own kills when all else fails.’

Two hours after midnight the old lion had stopped roaring, and the darkness was still.

‘Now he’s found a bait for himself,’ Manyoro observed. ‘We’ll have them both tomorrow.’

‘How many lions am I allowed on my licence?’ Kermit asked.

‘Enough to satisfy even you,’ Leon told him. ‘Lions are vermin in British East Africa. You may shoot all you wish.’

‘Good! I want both these big guys. I want to take them home to show my father.’

‘So do I,’ Leon agreed fervently. ‘So do I.’

As soon as it was light enough for the trackers to read the sign, they started back along the chain of bait. Leon and Kermit wore heavy jackets, for the morning was chilly, and perfumed like a fine Chablis.

The first three baits they visited were untouched, although the vultures brooded dark, hunch-backed and morose as undertakers in the treetops around them. When they came to the fourth, Leon halted a few hundred yards from it and, with the binoculars, carefully glassed the pile of branches that covered it.

‘You’re wasting time, pal. There ain’t nothing there,’ Kermit told him.

‘On the contrary,’ Leon said softly, without lowering the glasses.

‘What do you mean?’ Kermit’s interest quickened.

‘I mean there’s a big male lion right there.’

‘No!’ Kermit protested. ‘I don’t see a damned thing.’

‘Here.’ Leon handed him the glasses. ‘Use these.’

Kermit focused the lenses and stared through them for a minute. ‘I still don’t see a lion.’

‘Look where the branches have been pulled open. You can see the striped haunches of the zebra in the gap . . .’

‘Yeah! I’ve got that.’

‘Now look just over the top of the zebra. Do you see two small dark lumps on the far side?’

‘Yup, but that’s not a lion.’

‘Those are the tops of his ears. He’s lying flat behind the zebra watching us.’

‘My God! You’re right! I saw an ear flick,’ he exclaimed. ‘Which lion is it? The young or the old one?’

Leon conferred quickly with Manyoro, Loikot interjecting his own learned opinions every few sentences. At last he turned back to Kermit. ‘Take a deep breath, chum. I have news for you. It’s the big one. Manyoro calls him the lion of all lions.’

‘What do we do now? Do we ride him down?’

‘No, we walk him up.’ Leon was already swinging down from the saddle and drawing the big Holland from its boot. He opened the action, drew the brass cartridges from the breeches and exchanged them for a fresh pair from his bandolier. Kermit followed his example with the little Lee-Enfield. The syces came forward and took the reins of their mounts and led them to the rear, then laid down their waterbags, and squatted to take a little snuff. Soon they jumped up, hefted their lion spears and stabbed the air with bloodthirsty grunts, prancing high with each thrust of the long bright blades, priming themselves for battle.

As soon as all the hunters were ready, Leon gave Kermit his instructions. ‘You’ll take the lead. I’ll be three paces behind you so I don’t block your field of fire. Walk slowly and steadily, but not directly towards him. Make it seem that you’re going to pass about twenty paces on his right. Don’t look directly at him. Keep your eyes on the ground ahead of you. If you stare at him you’ll spook him into running or charging prematurely. At about fifty paces he’ll give you a warning growl. You’ll see his tail start to thrash. Don’t stop and don’t hurry. Keep walking. At about thirty paces he’ll stand up and confront you head-on. At this point an average lion will either run or charge. This one is different. Sparring with the young pretender has put him in a belligerent, reckless mood. His blood is up. He’ll charge. He’ll give you three or four seconds, then come. You must hit him before he starts to move or before you can blink he’ll be doing forty miles an hour straight at you. When I call the shot, take him just under the chin in the centre of his chest. These cats are soft. Even the .303 will put him down. However, you must keep shooting as long as he’s on his feet.’

‘You’re not going to fire, are you?’

‘Not until he starts chewing your head off, chummy. Now, walk!’ They moved out in open order, Kermit leading, Leon a few paces back and the two Masai coming up behind him, marching shoulder to shoulder with their assegais presented.

‘Excellent,’ Leon encouraged Kermit softly. ‘Keep up that speed and direction. You’re doing fine.’ Within another fifty paces Leon saw the lion lift his head a few inches. The dome of his skull was now visible and he raised his mane in a threatening gesture. It was like a small haystack, dense and black as Hades. Kermit hesitated in mid-stride.

‘Steady, steady. Keep moving!’ Leon cautioned him. They walked on, and now they could see the lion’s eyes under the great bush of the mane. They were cold, yellow and inexorable. Another ten slow paces and the lion growled. It was a low, deep, infinitely menacing sound, like distant summer thunder. It stopped Kermit in his tracks and he turned to face the beast head-on, at the same time starting to bring up the long rifle. That movement, and Kermit’s direct stare, triggered the lion.

‘Look out! He’s going to come,’ Leon said sharply, but the lion was already in full charge, rushing at Kermit, grunting in short staccato bursts like the steam pistons on a speeding locomotive, black mane fully erect with rage, long tail swinging from side to side. He was enormous, and growing bigger as he closed the gap between them with every stride.

‘Shoot him!’ Leon’s voice was lost in the sharp crack of the .303. The bullet, hastily aimed, flew over the lion’s back, and kicked up a spurt of dust two hundred yards behind him. Kermit was quick on the reload. His next shot was low and struck the ground between the beast’s forelegs. The lion kept boring straight in, a yellow blur of speed, grunting with heart-stopping fury, kicking up dust and slashing his tail.

Sweet Christ! Leon thought. It’s going to get him down! He swung up the Holland focusing all his mental and physical powers on the great maned head and the open grunting jaws. He was only barely conscious of his forefinger tightening on the front trigger. The instant before the lion crashed his full 550-pound body weight into Kermit’s chest at forty miles an hour, Kermit fired his third shot.

The muzzle of the .303 Lee-Enfield was almost touching the shiny black button of the lion’s nose. The light bullet struck the very tip of the snout and lanced through into the brain. The tan body turned slack and flabby as a sack of chaff. Kermit hurled himself aside at the last instant and the lion piled up in a heap on the spot where he had been standing. He stared down at it, his hands shaking, breath sobbing in his throat. Sweat trickled into his eyes.

‘Shoot him again,’ Leon shouted, but Kermit’s legs gave way under him and he sat down. Leon ran up and stood over the lion. At point-blank range he shot him through the heart. Then he turned back to where Kermit was sitting with his head between his knees. ‘Are you okay, chum?’ he asked, with deep concern.

Slowly Kermit raised his head and stared at him as though he was a stranger. He shook his head in confusion. Leon sat beside him and put a muscular arm around his shoulders. ‘Easy does it, chum. You did a great job. You stood to the charge. You never broke. You stood there and shot him down like a hero. If your daddy had been here he would have been proud of you.’

Kermit’s eyes cleared. He took a deep breath and then he said huskily, ‘Do you think so?’

‘I damn well know so,’ Leon said, with utter conviction.

‘You didn’t shoot, did you?’ Kermit was still as unsteady as a long-distance runner regaining his breath after a hard race.

‘No, I didn’t. You killed him yourself, without any help from me,’ Leon assured him.

Kermit did not speak again but sat staring quietly at the magnificent body of the lion. Leon remained at his side. Manyoro and Loikot started to circle them in a shuffling, stiff-legged, hopping and leaping dance.

‘They’re about to perform the lion dance in your honour,’ Leon explained.

Manyoro began to sing. His voice was powerful and true.

‘We are the young lions.
When we roar the earth shivers.
Our spears are our fangs.
Our spears are our claws . . .’

After each line they sprang high with the ease of birds taking to flight and Loikot came in with the refrain. When the song ended they went to the dead lion and dipped their fingers in his blood. Then they came back to where Kermit still sat. Manyoro stooped over him and smeared a streak of blood down his forehead.

‘You are Masai.
You are morani.
You are a lion warrior.
You are my brother.’

He stepped back and Loikot took his place in front of Kermit. He also anointed Kermit’s face, painting red stripes down each cheek then, intoned,

‘You are Masai.
You are morani.
You are a lion warrior.
You are my brother.’

They squatted in front of him and clapped their hands rhythmically.

‘They are making you a Masai and a blood brother. It is the highest honour they can offer you. You should acknowledge it.’

‘You also are my brothers,’ Kermit said. ‘Even when we are divided by great waters, I shall remember you all the days of my life.’

Leon translated for him and the Masai murmured with pleasure.

‘Tell Popoo Hima that he does us great honour,’ said Manyoro.

Kermit stood up and went to the body of the lion. He knelt in front of it as though at a shrine. He did not touch it immediately, but his face shone with a particular radiance as he studied the enormous head. The mane started two inches above the opaque yellow eyes and ran back, wave after wave of dense black hair, over the skull and neck, over the massive shoulders, under the chest, and only ended halfway down the broad back.

‘Leave him be,’ Manyoro told Leon. ‘Popoo Hima is taking the spirit of his lion into his own heart. It is right and fitting. It is the way of the true warrior.’

The sun had set before Kermit left the lion and came to the small fire where Leon sat alone. Ishmael had placed a log at each side to act as seats and another, up-ended, on which he had set two mugs and a bottle. As Kermit sat down facing Leon he glanced at the bottle. ‘Bunnahabhain whisky. Thirty years old,’ Leon told him. ‘I begged it from Percy this time in case something like this happened and we were forced to celebrate. Sadly, he’d only let me have half a bottle. Said it’s really too good for the likes of you.’ Leon poured it into the mugs, then reached across to hand one to Kermit.

‘I feel different,’ Kermit said, and took a sip.

‘I understand,’ Leon said. ‘Today was your baptism by fire.’

‘Yes!’ Kermit answered vehemently. ‘That’s it exactly. It was a mystic, almost religious experience. Something strange and wonderful has happened to me. I feel as though I’m somebody else, not the old me, somebody better than I ever was before.’ He groped for words. ‘I feel as though I’ve been reborn. The other me was afraid and uncertain. This one is no longer afraid. Now I know I can meet the world on my own terms.’

‘I understand,’ Leon said. ‘Rite of passage.’

‘Has it happened to you?’ Kermit asked.

Leon’s eyes narrowed with pain as he remembered the pale naked bodies lying crucified on the baked earth, heard again the flitting of Nandi arrows and remembered the weight of Manyoro on his back. ‘Yes . . . but it was nothing like today.’

‘Tell me about it.’

Leon shook his head. ‘These are things we should not talk about too much. Words can only sully and belittle their significance.’

‘Of course. It’s something very private.’

‘Exactly,’ Leon said, and raised his mug. ‘We don’t have to labour it. We know it in our hearts. The Masai have a description for this shared truth. They say simply, “brothers of the warrior blood”.’

They sat for a long time in companionable silence, then Kermit said, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight.’

‘I’ll keep vigil with you,’ Leon replied.

After a while they began to recall and discuss the tiniest details of the day’s hunt, how the first growl had sounded, how big the lion had appeared as he rose to his full height, how swiftly he came. But they skirted the emotional aspects. The whisky level sank slowly in the bottle.

A little before midnight they were startled to hear horses approaching the camp in the darkness, and voices speaking English. Kermit started up. ‘Who the hell can that be?’

‘I think I can guess.’ Leon chuckled as a figure in riding breeches and a slouch hat came into the firelight. ‘Good evening, Mr Roosevelt, Mr Courtney. I was just passing and thought I’d drop in to say howdy.’

‘Mr Andrew Fagan, I hope you don’t mind if I call you a bloody liar. You’ve been shadowing us night and day for almost two weeks. My trackers have picked up your spoor on most days.’

‘Come, come, Mr Courtney.’ Fagan laughed. ‘Shadowing is too strong a word. But it’s true that I have a more than passing interest in what the two of you have been up to, as has the rest of the world.’ He removed his hat. ‘May we visit with you for a spell?’

‘I’m afraid you’ve come a little late,’ Kermit said. ‘As you can see, the bottle is well-nigh empty.’

‘By some remarkable twist of fate, I have a spare in my pack.’ Fagan called to his photographer, ‘Carl, will you please find that bottle of Jack Daniel’s for us, then come join the party?’ When they had all settled down in the firelight and taken the first taste from their mugs, Fagan asked, ‘Anything interesting happen today? We heard some shooting from your direction.’

‘Tell him, Leon!’ Kermit was bubbling over, but he didn’t want to appear a braggart.

‘Well, now that you mention it, this afternoon Mr Roosevelt managed to shoot the lion we’ve been looking for since the start of our safari.’

‘A lion!’ Fagan spilled a few drops of whisky. ‘Now that’s real news. How does it compare with the one taken a week or so ago by the President?’

‘You’ll have to judge that for yourself,’ Leon said.

‘May we see it?’

‘Come this way,’ Kermit told him eagerly and, picking up a burning brand from the fire, he led them to where the lion lay. Up to now it had been hidden by the night. He held the flame high to illuminate the scene.

‘Well, damn me to hell, that’s a monster!’ said Fagan, and turned quickly to his photographer. ‘Carl, get your camera.’ For almost another hour he persuaded Kermit and Leon to pose with the trophy, although Kermit needed little persuasion. Their vision was starred with the multiple explosions of flash powder when finally they returned to the fire and took up their mugs again. Fagan pulled out his notepad. ‘So, tell us, Mr Roosevelt, how does it feel to have done what you did today?’

Kermit thought about that for a while. ‘Mr Fagan, are you a hunter? It will make it easier to explain if you are.’

‘No, sir. I’m a golfer, not a hunter.’

‘Okay. For me this lion was like you shooting a hole-in-one in the Open Championship, during a playoff with Willie Anderson for the title.’

‘Wonderful description! You have a gift with words, sir.’ Fagan wrote swiftly. ‘Now tell me the whole story, blow by blow, from when you first saw that huge beast to the moment of the kill.’ Kermit was still wrought up with excitement and whiskey. He left nothing out, and did not stint on the use of hyperbole. He appealed regularly to Leon for confirmation of the finer details. ‘Isn’t that so? Isn’t that exactly what happened?’ And Leon backed him up loyally, as a hunter is duty-bound to do for his client. At last, when the story was told, they sat in silence digesting the details. Leon was about to suggest that it was time for everybody to turn in when a thunderous roar came from the darkness.

‘What was that?’ Andrew Fagan was alarmed. ‘What in God’s name was that?’

‘That’s the lion we’re going to hunt tomorrow,’ said Kermit, offhandedly.

‘Another lion? Tomorrow?’


‘Mind if we tag along?’ Fagan asked, and Leon opened his mouth to refuse, but Kermit beat him to it.

‘Sure. Why not? You’re welcome, Mr Fagan.’

Early the next morning the skinners began work on the lion, and coated the wet skin with a thick layer of rock salt. ‘Wait here when you’ve finished,’ Leon told them. ‘I’ll send Loikot to fetch you.’

As the light came up out of the east he watched the treeline across the glade. As soon as he could make out individual leaves against the dawn sky, he said, ‘Shooting light! Mount up, please, gentlemen.’ When they were all in the saddle, he gave a hand signal to Manyoro. With the two Masai trackers leading they moved out in close order. Gradually Leon eased his pony back into the column until he was riding stirrup to stirrup with Fagan. He spoke softly but firmly. ‘Mr Roosevelt was very generous to allow you to join the hunt. If it had been up to me I would have refused. However, you may have underestimated the danger involved. If things go wrong somebody could get badly hurt. I’m going to insist that you keep well back, and safely out of the way.’

‘Of course, Mr Courtney. Anything you say.’

‘By “well back”, I mean at least two hundred yards. I will be taking care of my client. I won’t be able to look after you as well.’

‘I understand. Two hundred yards away and as quiet as a mouse it shall be, sir. You won’t even know we’re there.’

Manyoro led them two miles to the next lion bait. As they approached the bloated carcass of the old giraffe, a large colony of vultures that had been feeding on it launched into flight and a clan of a dozen or more hyenas fled in grotesque panic, their tails twisted over their backs, giggling shrilly, blood and offal smearing their grinning jaws.

Hapana.’ Manyoro shrugged ‘Nothing.’

‘There are three more baits. He’s bound to be on one of them. Don’t waste time, Manyoro, lead us on,’ Leon ordered. The second carcass lay in the centre of an open glade of freshly burned black stubble surrounded on three sides by green Kusaka-saka bush, whose dense foliage hung close to the ground and afforded a safe retreat for a fleeing animal. But Leon had seen to it that there was a wide area of open ground around the carcass. Space enough for them to work in.

The first thing that struck Leon and tautened his nerves was that the upper branches of the trees were loaded with a huge colony of vultures and a small group of four hyena was standing at the edge of the Kusaka-saka. Both vultures and hyena were keeping well away from the dead buffalo cow in the middle of the clearing. There must be something there that they did not like. Then Manyoro, who was well in the lead, stopped and made a discreet gesture that warned Leon as clearly as if he had spoken.

Leon reined in. ‘Be careful. He’s here,’ he said to Kermit. ‘Wait. Manyoro’s getting hot. Let him work it out for us.’ Fagan and his party rode up. ‘You will stay here,’ Leon told them. ‘Don’t come any closer until I give you the signal. You will have a good view of the proceedings from here, but you must keep well out of harm’s way.’ They watched Manyoro test the wind. It was light and warm, but blowing directly from them to the bait. Manyoro shook his head and made another gesture.

‘Right, chummy, the lion’s on the kill,’ Leon told Kermit. ‘We’re going in. Same drill as last time. Steady. Don’t hurry. But whatever you do, don’t stare at the bloody lion this time.’

‘Okay, boss.’ Kermit was grinning with nervous excitement and his hand was trembling as he reached down for the rifle in its boot. Leon hoped that the slow walk-in would give him time to get a grip on himself.

They dismounted.

‘Check your piece. Make sure you have a bullet up the spout.’ Kermit did as he was told and Leon saw with relief that his hands had steadied. He signalled to Manyoro to take up his position behind them and they started the long slow march across the open burned area. Little puffs of fine ash rose from each step they took. They were still two hundred and fifty yards from the carcass when the lion stood up from behind it. He was very big, every bit as big as the old lion. His mane was full but ginger, touched only lightly with sooty black at the tips. He was in beautiful condition, his hide sleek and glossy, with no ugly scars. When he snarled his fangs were shiny white, long and perfect. But he was young, and therefore unpredictable.

‘Don’t look at him!’ Leon warned, in a whisper. ‘Keep walking but, for God’s sake, don’t look at him. We must get closer. Much closer.’ When they were still a hundred and fifty yards from him the lion snarled again and his tail twitched uncertainly. He turned his great maned head and glanced behind him.

Oh, shit! No! Leon lamented silently. He’s lost his nerve. He’s not going to hold his ground. He’s going to break.

The lion looked back at them, and snarled for the third time, but the sound lacked murderous intensity. Then, abruptly, he swung away and bounded across the open ground towards the safety of the Kusaka-saka thicket.

‘He’s getting away!’ Kermit shouted, and ran forward three quick paces, then stopped dead. He lifted the Lee-Enfield.

‘No!’ Leon shouted urgently. ‘Don’t shoot.’ The range was far too long, and the lion was a fast-moving target. Leon ran forward to restrain Kermit, but the Lee-Enfield cracked sharply and the muzzle jumped. The lion’s long lean muscles played beneath the glossy hide like those of an athlete in his prime. Leon saw the bullet strike. At the point of impact the skin jumped and rippled, as though a stone had been tossed into a still, deep pond. It was two hands’ span behind the last rib in the lion’s flank, and low of the central line of the body.

‘Gut shot!’ Leon moaned. ‘Much too far back.’ The lion grunted as he took the bullet and burst into a dead run. In the time it took Leon to get the rifle to his shoulder the beast had almost reached the safety of the Kusaka-saka. It was far beyond the accurate range of the Holland. Nonetheless Leon was forced to fire. The lion was wounded. It was his moral duty to try to finish it, no matter how remote the chances of success. He cut loose with the first barrel, only to see the heavy bullet drop too sharply and throw up dust under the lion’s chest. The report of his second shot blended with the first, but he did not see the strike before the lion disappeared into the bush. He looked back quickly at Manyoro, who touched his left leg.

‘Broken his bloody back leg,’ Leon said angrily. ‘That won’t slow him down much.’ He ejected the spent cartridges and reloaded the Holland.

‘Don’t just stand there with an empty rifle admiring the view,’ he snapped at Kermit. ‘Reload the damned thing.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Kermit said, shamefaced.

‘So am I,’ Leon retorted grimly.

‘He was getting away,’ he tried to explain.

‘Well, now he’s well and truly got away, with your bullet in his belly.’ Leon beckoned Manyoro to join him, and the two squatted, heads close together, talking seriously. After a while Manyoro went back to join Loikot, and the two Masai took snuff together. Leon sat down on the bare earth with the Holland across his lap. Kermit was sitting a little way off, watching Leon’s expression. Leon ignored him.

‘What do we do now?’ Kermit asked at last.

‘We wait.’

‘What for?’

‘For the poor beggar to bleed out, and for his wounds to stiffen up.’

‘And then?’

‘Then Manyoro and I go in there and flush him out.’

‘I’ll go with you.’

‘No, you bloody well won’t. You’ve had enough fun for the day.’

‘You could get hurt.’

‘That’s a distinct possibility.’ Leon chuckled bitterly.

‘Give me another chance, Leon,’ Kermit asked pathetically.

Leon turned his head and looked directly at him for the first time, his eyes hard and cold. ‘Tell me why I should.’

‘Because that magnificent animal is dying a slow and agonizing death in there, and I am the one who hurt him. I owe it to God, the lion and my sacred honour as a man to go in there and put him out of his misery. Do you understand that?’

‘Yes,’ said Leon, and his expression softened. ‘I understand very well, and I salute you for it. We’ll go in together and I’ll count it an honour to have you beside me.’

He was about to say more, but he glanced across the clearing and his expression crumbled into horror. He scrambled to his feet. ‘What does that blithering idiot think he’s playing at?’ Andrew Fagan was riding slowly along the very edge of the Kusaka-saka, directly towards the spot where the wounded lion had disappeared. Leon broke into a run to try to head him off.

‘Go back, you bloody fool! Get back!’ he bellowed, at the top of his lungs. Fagan did not even look around. He rode on slowly into mortal danger. Leon was running hard, covering the ground swiftly, and did not shout again. He was saving his breath for the terrible moment he knew was coming. Now he was so close that Fagan must hear him: ‘Fagan, you idiot! Come away from there!’ he yelled, and waved the rifle above his head. This time Fagan looked around and waved his riding crop cheerily, but he did not check his horse.

‘Come back here immediately!’ Leon’s voice was high with desperation.

This time Fagan stopped the horse and his smile evaporated. He turned towards Leon, and at that moment the lion erupted from the dense screen of Kusaka-saka at full charge, grunting with fury. Mane erect and yellow eyes blazing, he rushed towards Fagan.

His horse threw up its head, then reared wildly on its back legs. Fagan lost one stirrup and was thrown on to his mount’s neck. The horse bolted, and Fagan clung to it with both arms. Over the short distance the lion was faster than horse and rider so he overtook them swiftly. Leaping up, he hooked the long yellow claws of both front paws deeply into the horse’s croup.

The horse whinnied with agony and bucked violently in an attempt to free itself from the cruel grip. Fagan lost his seat and hit the ground with a thump like a sack of charcoal thrown from the back of a coal dray, but his foot caught in a stirrup and he was towed behind the struggling horse, under the back legs of the lion. The horse squealed and kicked savagely, trying to dislodge its attacker. Its hoofs flashed around Fagan’s head. As one of the lion’s back legs was broken, he could not get enough purchase to pull the horse down. The struggle was almost obscured by clouds of ash kicked up from the burned grass. Unsighted by the dustcloud, Leon dared not shoot for fear of hitting the man rather than the lion. Then Fagan’s stirrup leather snapped under the strain and he rolled clear of the mêlée.

‘Fagan, come to me!’ Leon roared. This time Fagan responded with alacrity. He came to his feet with the stirrup steel still on his right foot and stumbled towards him. Behind him the lion and the horse were still struggling, the horse kicking with both back legs, dragging the lion in a circle, the lion roaring, holding on with his front paws and trying to bite into the horse’s heaving rump.

The horse kicked again and this time landed both hoofs solidly on the lion’s chest. The blow was so heavy that he was thrown backwards and his claws tore free of the horse’s flesh. He rolled onto his back but in the same movement sprang to his feet. The horse broke away at a wild gallop, blood spraying from the deep wounds in its croup, and the lion started after it, but the running figure of Fagan diverted his attention. He changed direction swiftly and came after Fagan. Fagan glanced back and wailed pitifully.

‘Come to me!’ Leon was running to meet him, but the lion was faster. He was still unable to fire because Fagan was directly between him and the beast. In a second it would have him.

‘Get down!’ Leon screamed. ‘Fall flat and give me a clear shot.’

Perhaps in obedience, but more likely because his legs simply gave way under him in a paralysis of fear, Fagan collapsed and, like an armadillo, rolled himself into a ball on the bare earth, knees drawn up to his chest and both hands clasped to the back of his head. His eyes were screwed tightly shut in a face that was a blanched mask of terror. It was almost too late. The lion rushed in as silently as death, no longer grunting in the last fatal moments of the charge, jaws agape, fangs bared. He stretched out his neck to bite into Fagan’s helpless body.

Leon let drive with his first barrel and the bullet smashed through the lion’s lower jaw. White chips of teeth flew like gaming dice from a cup. Then the expanded bullet drove on with immense power through the full length of the great tawny body, from breast to anus. It hurled the lion backwards, end over end, in an untidy somersault. He rolled back on to his feet and stood, swaying unsteadily, head hanging, blood dribbling from open jaws. Leon’s second shot crashed into his shoulder, shattering bone and ripping through the heart. The lion fell back in a loose-limbed tangle, eyes tightly closed. His broken, bloody jaws mouthed the air fruitlessly.

Leon had two more fat brass cartridges held ready between the fingers of his left hand. With a flick of his thumb on the top lever and a snap of his wrist the action of the Holland sprang open, and when the spent cartridge cases had pinged away he replaced them with one deft movement, swiftly as a card-sharp palming an ace. The Holland leaped back to his shoulder. He fired the insurance shot into the lion’s chest, and the unbroken back leg kicked spasmodically in the final death throe, then stilled.

‘Thank you for your co-operation, Mr Fagan. You may stand up now,’ Leon said politely. Fagan opened his eyes and looked around as if he expected to find himself lying before the pearly portals of Paradise. He climbed painfully to his feet.

His face was as white as a Kabuki mask, but glossy with sweat. His body was powdered with ash. However, the front of his twenty-dollar Brooks Brothers riding breeches was sopping wet. When he took a hesitant pace towards Leon his boots squelched.

Andrew Fagan Esquire, stalwart of the fourth estate, doyen of the American Associated Press, committee member of the New York Racquets Club, and eight-handicap captain of the Pennsylvania Golf Club, had just pissed his pants copiously.

‘Tell me truly, sir, did you not find that a lot more invigorating than eighteen holes of golf?’ Leon asked mildly.

Eventually the great presidential safari left the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro river and trundled on ponderously towards the north-east through the wildly beautiful hinterland. Kermit and Leon made the most of the dwindling days that remained to them. They rode afar and hunted hard, more often than not with marked success. Once Leon had repaired Big Medicine, Kermit never missed another shot. Was it Lusima’s spell, Leon wondered, or simply that he had instilled into Kermit his own code of ethics, understanding and respect for the quarry they pursued together? The true magic was not in any spell: it was that Kermit had matured into a highly skilled and responsible hunter, a man of poise and self-confidence. Their friendship, tried and tested, took on a steely, durable character.

Four months after leaving the Ewaso Ng’iro the safari came upon the mighty flow of the Victoria Nile at a place called Jinja at the head of that vast body of fresh water, Lake Victoria. Here they had reached the parting of the ways.

Percy Phillips’s contract ended at the river. On the eastern bank of the Nile they could see another vast encampment: Quentin Grogan was waiting to take over from Percy, and conduct President Roosevelt northwards through Uganda, the Sudan and Egypt to Alexandria on the Mediterranean. From there he and his party would take ship for New York.

Roosevelt ordered a farewell luncheon on the bank of the Nile. Although he did not partake himself, he allowed champagne to be served to his guests. It was a convivial gathering, which ended with a speech by the President. One by one he picked out each of his guests and regaled the others with some amusing or touching anecdote regarding the person he was addressing. There were cries of ‘Hear, hear!’ and ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow!’

At last he came to Leon. He recounted details of the lion hunt and the rescue of Andrew Fagan. His audience was hugely delighted when he referred to that unfortunate gentleman as the Piddling Press. Fagan was not present, having given up his pursuit of the safari shortly after the incident with the lion. Shaken, he had returned to Nairobi.

‘That reminds me – I almost forgot. Didn’t I make a bet with you, Kermit? Something about the biggest lion, wasn’t it?’ President Roosevelt went on, amid laughter from the guests.

‘Indeed you did, Father, and indeed it was!’

‘We wagered five dollars, as I recall?’

‘No, Father, it was ten.’

‘Gentlemen!’ Roosevelt appealed to the rest of the table. ‘Was it five or ten?’

There were amused cries of ‘Ten it was! Pay up, sir! A bet is a bet!’

He sighed and reached for his wallet, selected a green banknote and passed it down the length of the table to where Kermit sat. ‘Paid in full,’ he said. ‘You are all my witnesses.’ Then he turned back to his guests. ‘Few of you know that my son was made an honorary member of the Masai tribe by his two trackers after he shot that winning lion.’

More cries of ‘Bravo! Kermit’s a jolly good fellow!’

The President held up a hand for silence. ‘I think it is only fitting that I should repay the honour.’ He looked at Leon. ‘Will you call Manyoro and Loikot, please?’ Earlier Leon had warned the pair that they would be summoned by Bwana Tumbo; President Roosevelt’s Swahili name meant Sir Mighty Stomach.

Manyoro and Loikot were waiting at the back of the tent and came swiftly. They were resplendent in their flowing red shukas, their hair braids dressed with red ochre and fat. They carried their lion assegais.

‘Leon, please translate for these fine fellows what I want to tell them,’ the President said. ‘You have given to my son, Bwana Popoo Hima, the great honour of your tribe. You have named him a morani of the Masai. Now I name you both warriors of my nation, America. These are the papers that prove you have become Americans. You may come at any time to my country and I will personally welcome you. You are Masai but you are now also American.’ He turned to his secretary, who stood behind his chair and took from him the citizenship certificate scrolls tied with red ribbons. He handed them to the Masai, then shook hands with each man. Spontaneously Manyoro and Loikot launched into the lion dance around the lunch table. Kermit jumped to his feet and joined them, leaping, shuffling and miming. The company clapped and cheered, and Roosevelt rocked in his chair with laughter. When the dance ended, Manyoro and Loikot stalked with great dignity from the tent.

The President rose to his feet again. ‘Now, for the friends who are leaving us today, I have a few souvenirs of the time we have spent so pleasurably together.’ His secretary entered the tent again, carrying a pile of sketchpads. The President took them from him and walked around the table handing them out to his guests. When Leon opened his pad he found it dedicated to him personally,

To my good friend and Nimrod, Leon Courtney, To remind you of happy days spent with Kermit and me in the Elysian fields of Africa, Teddy Roosevelt

The pad contained dozens of hand-drawn cartoons. Each was a depiction of an incident that had taken place over the last months. One showed Kermit being thrown from his horse, titled ‘Aff. Son and Heir takes a tumble and hilarious emotions of Mighty Nimrod on witnessing said performance.’ Another was of Leon finishing off the lion, which Roosevelt had annotated, ‘Prominent journalist saved from becoming lion dinner by Mighty Nimrod and joyful emotions of aff. Son and Heir on witnessing prowess of aforesaid Mighty Nimrod.’ Leon was amazed and humbled by the gift, which he knew was priceless, every line drawn by the hand of the mighty man himself.

Too soon the luncheon drew to a close: the boats were waiting on the bank to ferry the presidential party across the river. Leon and Kermit walked together down the bank in silence. Neither was able to think of words to say that would not sound maudlin or trite.

‘Would you take a gift to Lusima from me, pardner?’ Kermit broke the silence as they came to the edge of the water. He handed Leon a small roll of green banknotes. ‘It’s only a hundred dollars. She deserves a lot more. Tell her my bunduki shot real fine, thanks to her.’

‘It’s a generous gift. It will buy her ten good cows. There is nothing more desirable to a Masai than that,’ Leon said.

‘So long, pardner. In Limey terminology, it was all jolly good fun,’ Kermit said.

‘In Americanese, it was super awesome. Goodbye and God speed, chum.’ Leon offered his right hand.

Kermit shook it. ‘I’ll write you.’

‘I bet that’s what you tell all the girls.’

‘You’ll see,’ Kermit said, and went down into the waiting boat. It pulled away from the bank and out across the swift, wide waters of the Nile. When it was almost beyond earshot Kermit stood up in the stern and shouted something. Leon just made out the words above the roaring of the waters in the falls downstream. ‘Brothers of the warrior blood!’

Leon laughed, waved his hat and bellowed back, ‘Up the Rifles!’

‘And now, my fine-feathered friend, it’s time to come back down to earth. For you the fun is over. You’ve work to do. First, you must see to the horses and make sure they’re taken back safely to Nairobi. Then you will gather up the trophies we left at the camps along the way. Make sure they’re well dried and salted, pack them up and get them to the railway at Kapiti Plains. They have to be shipped to the Smithsonian in America as soon as possible, yesterday for preference. You must service all the equipment and the vehicles, including all five ox-wagons and the two trucks. Everything has been on the road for the better part of a year, and some of it is in ruinous condition. Then you must get it back to Tandala Camp so that it can be made ready for our next clients. I’ve several booked and then there’s Lord Eastmont – it’s two years since he arranged his safari with me. Of course, you’ll have Hennie du Rand to help you, but even so it’ll keep you out of mischief for quite a while. Not much time for the Nairobi ladies, I’m afraid.’

Percy winked at him. ‘As for me, I’m going to leave you to it. I’m heading back to Nairobi. My old buffalo leg is hurting like blue blazes and Doc Thompson’s the only man who can fix it.’

Several months later Leon drove one of the trucks with assorted kit into Tandala, followed closely by the second with Hennie du Rand at the wheel. Since dawn that day they had come almost two hundred miles over rutted and dusty roads. Leon switched off the engine, which stuttered to a halt. He climbed down stiffly from the driver’s seat, took off his hat and slapped it against his leg, then coughed in the resulting cloud of talcum-fine dust.

‘Where the hell have you been?’ Percy came out of his tent. ‘I’d just about given you up for dead. I want to speak to you, sharpish.’

‘Where’s the fire?’ Leon asked. ‘I’ve been driving since three this morning. I need a bath and a shave before I utter another word, and I’m in no mood to take bullshit from anyone, not even you, Percy.’

‘Whoa now!’ Percy grinned. ‘You have your bath. You sure as hell need it. Then I’d like a few minutes of your precious time.’

An hour later Leon came into the mess tent, where Percy was sitting at the long table with his wire-rimmed reading glasses on the end of his nose. On the table in front of him was a pile of unanswered letters, accounts, cash books and other documents. His writing fingers were black with ink.

‘I’m sorry, Percy. I shouldn’t have gone for you like that.’ Leon was contrite.

‘Think nothing of it.’ Percy replaced his pen in the inkwell and waved him to the chair on the opposite side of the table. ‘Famous man like you has the right to be uppity sometimes.’

‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.’ Leon bridled again. ‘All I am around here is a famous dogsbody.’

‘Here!’ Percy pushed a pile of newsprint across the table. ‘You’d better read these. Give your sagging morale a boost.’

Mystified at first, Leon began to make his way through the sheaf. He found that the clippings had been taken from dozens of newspapers and magazines from across North America and Europe, publications as diverse as the Los Angeles Times and Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung from Berlin. There were more articles in German than there were in English, which surprised him. However, his schoolboy German was sufficient to enable him to follow their gist. He studied one that read: ‘Greatest White Hunter in Africa. So says the son of the President of America.’ Below it was a photograph of Leon, looking heroic and dashing. He laid it aside and picked up the next, which had a photograph of him shaking hands with a beaming Teddy Roosevelt. The headline under it read, ‘Give me a lucky hunter rather than a clever one. Col. Roosevelt congratulates Leon Courtney on taking a huge man-eating lion.’

The next featured Leon holding a pair of long, curved elephant tusks so that they formed an archway high above his head, the caption beneath it declaring, ‘The greatest hunter in Africa with a pair of record elephant tusks’. Other articles pictured Leon aiming a rifle at an imaginary beast out of frame, or galloping a horse across the savannah among herds of wild game, always rakish and debonair. There were hundreds of column inches of text. Leon counted forty-seven separate articles. The last was headlined, ‘The man who saved my life. Did you not find that a lot more invigorating than eighteen holes of golf? Byline Andrew Fagan, Senior Contributing Editor, American Associated Press.’

When he had skimmed through them, Leon stacked the cuttings neatly and slid them back across the table to Percy, who immediately shoved them back to him. ‘I don’t want them. Not only are they nonsense but they’re a bit too sickly and sycophantic for my stomach. You can burn them or give them back to your uncle Penrod. It was he who collected them. By the way, he wants to see you, but more of that later. First I want you to read this other mail. It’s much more interesting.’ Percy passed a stack of envelopes across the table.

Leon took it from him and shuffled through them. He saw that nearly all of the letters were written on expensive vellum or heavy linen paper, with ornately embossed headings. Most were hand-penned but a few had been typed on cheaper paper. They were addressed in such varying styles as, ‘Herr Courtney, Glücklicher Jäger, Nairobi, Afrika,’ or ‘M. Courtney, Chasseur Extraordinaire, Nairobi, Afrique de l’Est,’ or, more simply, ‘The greatest hunter in Africa, Nairobi, Africa’.

Leon looked up at Percy. ‘What’s this?’

‘Enquiries from people who have read Andrew Fagan’s articles and want to come hunting with you, poor benighted souls. They know not what they do,’ Percy explained briefly.

‘They’re addressed to me but you opened them!’ Leon accused him sternly.

‘I thought you’d want me to. They might have contained something that needed an urgent reply,’ Percy answered, with an innocent air and an apologetic shrug.

‘A gentleman does not open mail addressed to another.’ Leon looked him straight in the eye.

‘I’m not a gentleman, I’m your boss, and don’t you forget it, sonny boy.’

‘I can change that as quick as a flash of lightning.’ Leon had sensed the new authority and status that the letters in his hand had given him.

‘Now, now, my dear Leon, let us not be hasty. You are correct. I should not have opened your letters and I apologize. Dreadfully uncouth of me.’

‘My dear Percy, your very decent apology is accepted unconditionally.’

They were quiet as Leon skimmed through the last of his correspondence.

‘There’s one from a German princess, Isabella von Hoherberg something or other.’ Percy broke the silence.

‘I saw it.’

‘She attached her photograph,’ Percy added helpfully. ‘Not at all bad. Suit a man my age. But you like them mature, don’t you?’

‘Do shut up, Percy.’ At last Leon looked up. ‘I’ll read the rest later.’

‘Do you think this might be the time to talk about my offer of a partnership?’

‘Percy, I’m deeply moved. I didn’t think for one moment you were serious about that.’

‘I am.’

‘All right. Let’s talk.’

It was almost evening before they had thrashed out the framework of their new financial arrangement.

‘One last thing, Leon. You must pay for your private use of the motor. I’m not going to sponsor your amorous forays into Nairobi.’

‘That’s fair enough, Percy, but if you’re going to make such a stipulation, I want to make two of my own.’

Percy looked suspicious and uneasy. ‘Let’s hear what they are.’

‘The name of the new firm—’

‘It’s Phillips and Courtney Safaris, of course,’ Percy cut in hurriedly.

‘That’s not alphabetical, Percy. Shouldn’t it be Courtney and Phillips or more simply C and P Safaris?’

‘It’s my show. It should be P and C Safaris.’ Percy protested.

‘Not any more is it your show. It’s our show now.’

‘Cocky little bugger. I’ll spin you for it.’ He groped in his pocket and brought out a silver shilling. ‘Heads or tails?’

‘Heads!’ said Leon.

Percy spun the coin high and caught it on the back of his left hand as it fell. He covered it with the right. ‘Are you sure you really want heads?’

‘Come on, Percy. Let’s have a look.’

Percy peeped under his hand and sighed. ‘This is what happens to the old lion when the young one starts feeling his oats,’ he said unhappily.

‘Lions don’t eat oats. Let’s have a look at what you’re hiding.’

Percy showed him the coin. ‘Very well, you win,’ he capitulated. ‘It’s C and P Safaris. What’s your second demand?’

‘I want our partnership contract backdated to the first day of the Roosevelt safari.’

‘Ouch, and shiver my timbers! You really are rubbing my nose in it! You want me to pay you full commission for your hunt with Kermit Roosevelt!’ Percy pantomimed disbelief and deep distress.

‘Stop it, Percy, you’re breaking my heart.’ Leon smiled.

‘Be reasonable, Leon. That’ll amount to almost two hundred pounds!’

‘Two hundred and fifteen, to be precise.’

‘You’re taking advantage of a sick old man.’

‘You look hale and hearty to me. Are we in agreement?’

‘I suppose I have no other option, you heartless boy.’

‘May I take that as yes?’

Percy nodded reluctantly, then smiled and held out his hand. They shook and Percy grinned triumphantly. ‘I would have gone up to thirty per cent on your commission if you’d pressed me, rather than the piddling twenty-five you settled on.’

‘And I would have agreed to twenty if you’d held out a little longer.’ Leon’s smile was equally smug.

‘Welcome aboard, partner. I think we’re going to get along together rather well. I suppose you want your two hundred and fifteen pounds right this minute? You don’t want to wait until the end of the month, by any chance, do you?’

‘You suppose right. I want it now and would rather not wait till the end of the month. One other thing. It’s almost a year since I had a moment to myself. I’m taking some time off, and I’ll be needing a motor. I have business to attend to in Nairobi, and possibly even further afield.’

‘Give the lady, whoever she may be, my fond greetings.’

‘Percy, I should warn you that your fly buttons are undone and your mind is hanging out.’

Leon’s first stop in Nairobi was at the headquarters of the Greater Lake Victoria Trading Company in the main street. The Vauxhall’s engine was still stuttering and backfiring in preparation for final shutdown when Mr Goolam Vilabjhi Esquire rushed out of his emporium to greet him. He was followed closely by Mrs Vilabjhi and a horde of small caramel-hued cherubs with raven hair and enormous liquid dark eyes, all clad in brilliant saris and chittering like starlings.

Mr Vilabjhi seized Leon’s hand before he had alighted from the truck and shook it vigorously. ‘You are a thousand and one times welcome, honoured Sahib. Since your last visit to us, my eyes have alighted on no finer vista than that afforded by your pleasing visage.’ He led Leon into the store without releasing his grip on his right hand. With the other he swatted at the circling swarm of children. ‘Away with you! Be gone! Bad children. Wicked and uncivilized female personages!’ he cried, and they took not the least notice, except to keep just out of range. ‘Please forgive and forget them, Sahib. Alas and alack! Mrs Vilabjhi produces only female personages despite my most dedicated endeavours to the contrary.’

‘They are all extremely pretty,’ said Leon gallantly. This encouraged the smallest cherub to sidle in under her father’s ineffectually swinging hand and reach up on tiptoe to take Leon’s. She helped her father to lead him into the building.

‘Enter! Enter! I beg of you, Sahib. You are ten thousand times welcome.’ Mr Vilabjhi and the cherub led him to the back wall of the store. The colourful religious icons of the green-faced, multiarmed goddess Kali and the elephant-headed god Ganesh had been moved to the far ends of the wall to make way for the most recent addition to the gallery. This was a large gold picture frame with a wooden plaque, ornately carved and painted with gold leaf. It bore the legend,

Respectfully dedicated to Sahib Leon Courtney Esquire.

World-renowned polo player and shikari.

Esteemed and deeply beloved friend and boon companion of

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States of America

and of

Mr Goolam Vilabjhi Esquire.

Behind the glass of the frame were pasted a number of the Englishlanguage newspaper clippings originating from American Associated Press.

‘My family and I are very much hoping and praying that you will sign one of these splendid publications to be the jewel in the crown of my collection of cherished memorabilia of our friendship.’

‘Nothing would give me greater pleasure, Mr Vilabjhi.’ Despite himself Leon was deeply touched. The Vilabjhi girls crowded around him as he signed a photograph of himself: ‘To my good friend and benefactor, Mr Goolam Vilabjhi Esq. Sincerely, Leon Courtney.

Blowing on the damp ink, Mr Vilabjhi assured him, ‘I will treasure this personally handwritten autograph for the rest of my days and as long as I shall live.’ Then he sighed. ‘I suppose that now you wish to speak about redeeming your genuine elephant ivory tusk, which I still have in my possession.’

When Manyoro and Loikot carried the tusk out to the truck Leon followed them with small girls hanging from both his hands and others firmly clutching the legs of his khaki trousers. Only with difficulty was he able to dislodge them and climb into the driver’s seat. He drove on to the new Muthaiga Country Club, whose pinkpainted brick and plaster walls had replaced the old Settlers’ Club’s whitewashed mud-daub on a site far beyond the teeming bustle of Main Street.

His uncle Penrod was waiting for him in the members’ bar. The first thing Leon noticed as the colonel rose to greet him was that he had put on a bit more flesh, especially around the belt. Since their last meeting more than a year ago Penrod had moved up from the category of well covered to distinctly portly. There was also a little more grey in his moustache. As soon as they had shaken hands Penrod suggested, ‘Shall we go to lunch? Today Chefie’s serving steak and kidney pie. It’s one of my favourites. I don’t want the riffraff to get at it ahead of me. We can talk as we eat.’ He led Leon to a table on the terrace under the pergola of purple bougainvillaea, set discreetly out of earshot of other diners. As he tucked the white napkin into the front of his collar Penrod asked, ‘I suppose Percy’s shown you the articles written by that Yankee Andrew Fagan, and the letters from prominent people that they have evoked?’

‘Yes, I have them, sir,’ Leon replied. ‘As a matter of fact, I found them rather embarrassing. People seem to be making such an awful fuss. I’m certainly not the greatest hunter in Africa. That was Kermit Roosevelt’s idea of a joke, which Fagan took seriously. Actually I’m still a greenhorn.’

‘Never admit it, Leon. Let them think what they want to. Anyway, from what I hear, you’re learning fast.’ Penrod smiled comfortably. ‘As a matter of fact, I had a small hand in the whole subterfuge. Rather neat, I thought, little stroke of genius.’

‘How are you involved, Uncle?’ Leon was startled.

‘I was in London when the first articles appeared. They gave me a bit of a brainwave. I cabled the military attaché at our embassy in Berlin and asked him to tout the articles to the German press, especially the sporting and hunting publications that are read by the upper crust. It’s a stereotype that most of that type of German, like their English counterparts, are enthusiastic sportsmen and have their own hunting estates. My plan was to lure the notables among them here to go on safari with you. This will give you the opportunity to gather all kinds of intelligence, which will certainly prove invaluable when the time comes that we have to fight them.’

‘Why would they want to confide in me, Uncle?’

‘Leon, my lad, I cannot believe you’re completely unaware of your winning ways. People seem to like you, especially the Fräuleins and the mademoiselles. Safari life, being close to Mother Nature and her creatures, has a way of inducing even the most reticent to relax, lower their guard and speak more freely. Not to mention the way it also loosens the strings of female corsets and drawers. And why would a senior figure in the Kaiser’s Germany, a major arms manufacturer or one of their consorts, suspect a fresh-faced innocent like you of being a nefarious secret agent?’ Penrod lifted a finger in the direction of the head waiter, who hovered nearby in his flowing white ankle-length kanza, scarlet sash and tasselled fez. ‘Malonzi! Please bring us a bottle of the 1879 Château Margaux from my private bin.’

Malonzi returned bearing the lightly dusted claret bottle in whitegloved hands with the reverence it deserved. Penrod watched him go through the solemn ritual of drawing the cork, sniffing it, then decanting the glowing red wine. He poured the first few drops into a crystal glass. Penrod swirled it around and sniffed the bouquet. ‘Perfect! I think you’ll enjoy this, Leon. Count Pillet-Will was awarded the Premier Grand Cru Class Appellation for this particular vintage.’

After Leon had paid respect to the noble claret, Penrod waved for Malonzi to bring on the steaming platters of steak and kidney pie, with a golden crust. Then he fell to with a will, and spoke through a mouthful, ‘I took the liberty of going through your mail, especially that from Germany. I just couldn’t wait to see what fish we had in our net. Hope you don’t mind?’

‘Not at all, Uncle. Please feel free.’

‘I picked out six letters as especially worthy of our attention, then cabled the military attaché at the embassy in Berlin who sent me political appraisals of the selected subjects.’

Leon nodded cautiously.

‘Four are especially important and influential persons in either the social, political or military sphere. They would be privy to all affairs of state and, if not actually members of his council, certainly they are confidants of Kaiser Bill. They will have intimate knowledge of his intentions and preparations regarding the rest of Europe, together with Britain and our empire.’ Leon nodded again, and Penrod went on, ‘I have discussed this with Percy Phillips and told him that you are, over and above all your other responsibilities, a serving officer in British Military Intelligence. He has agreed to co-operate with us in all ways possible.’

‘I understand, sir.’

‘The one prospective client we have picked out in preference to the others is the Princess Isabella Madeleine Hoherberg von Preussen von und zu Hohenzollern. She is a cousin of the Kaiser and her husband is Field Marshal Walter Augustus von Hoherberg, of the German High Command.’

Leon looked suitably impressed.

‘By the way, how is your German, Leon?’

‘It was once fair to middling, but is now more than a little rusty, Uncle. I took both German and French at school.’

‘I saw that in your service record. Seems languages were your top subjects. You must have an ear for them. Percy tells me you speak Kiswahili and Maa like a native. But have you had much contact with German-speakers?’

‘I went on a walking tour of the Black Forest during one holiday with groups of other scholars. I met a number of locals with whom I rubbed along rather well. One was a girl called Ulrike.’

‘Best place to learn a language,’ Penrod remarked, ‘under the bedcovers.’

‘We never got around to that, sir, more’s the pity.’

‘I should hope not, well-bred young gentleman like you.’ Penrod smiled. ‘Anyway, you’d better brush up. You’re going to spend a great deal of time in the company of Germans soon, much of which might in fact be under the bedcovers, given the predilections of upper-class Fräuleins. Does this possibility offend your high moral standards?’

‘I shall try to come to terms with it, Uncle.’ Leon could scarcely refrain from smiling.

‘Good man! Never forget that it’s all for King and country.’

‘When duty calls, who are we to forbear?’ Leon asked.

‘Exactly. Couldn’t have phrased it better myself. And fear not, I’ve already found a language tutor for you. His name is Max Rosenthal. He was an engineer at the Meerbach Motor Works in Wieskirche before he came out to German East Africa. For some years after his arrival he ran a hotel in Dar es Salaam. There, he developed an over-intimate relationship with the cognac bottle, which lost him the job. However, he’s only a periodic drunk. When he’s sober he’s a first-rate worker. I persuaded Percy to employ him to manage your safari camps and to sharpen up your use of the lingo.’

When they parted on the front steps of the club, Penrod took Leon’s arm in a conspiratorial grip and told him seriously, ‘I know you’re new to the business of spying so I offer a word of advice. Write nothing down. Keep no notes of what you observe. Rather, record it all in your head and report it to me when next we meet.’

When Leon met Max Rosenthal at Tandala Camp he proved to be a powerfully built Bavarian, with huge hands and feet and a bluff, jovial manner. Leon liked him on first sight.

‘Greetings.’ They shook hands. ‘We’ll be working together. I’m sure we’ll get to know each other well,’ Leon said.

Max let out a fruity chuckle that shook his belly. ‘Ah, so! You speak a little German. That’s very good.’

‘Not so very good,’ Leon corrected him, ‘but you will help me to improve it.’

Almost immediately Max proved invaluable, a gifted teacher, and a hard, efficient worker, who relieved Leon of much of the mundane work of camp organization and arranging catering supplies. He and Hennie du Rand made a good team of workhorses and freed Leon to learn the organizational and economic skills that the safari business demanded. Leon made it a rule to communicate with Max only in German and, in consequence, as the months passed, his grip on the language strengthened with surprising rapidity.

Lord Eastmont was only weeks away from arriving for his safari when Leon received a cable from Berlin to the effect that the Princess Isabella Madeleine Hoherberg von Preussen von und zu Hohenzollern had decided to come out to Africa on the next sailing of the German liner SS Admiral from Bremerhaven. Her royal duties were such that she could only afford six weeks in Africa before she must return to Germany. She demanded that all be ready for her on her arrival.

This peremptory communication threw Tandala into turmoil. Percy raged through the camp, hindering rather than helping the frantic efforts of Leon and his staff to change the elaborate arrangements already in place for Eastmont. They now had two major safaris to run simultaneously, which they had never attempted previously. In the end the only circumstance that saved the day was that the princess would stay just six weeks, while Lord Eastmont had arranged a four-month adventure. Leon was able to reassure Percy that on the day the princess sailed for Germany he would rush with his staff to assist Percy with the remainder of his expedition.

Accordingly, when the princess arrived in Kilindini lagoon on board the Admiral, Leon went out from the beach in a launch to welcome her. He waited on the deck for almost an hour before she deigned to leave her stateroom. When finally she ascended the companionway to the main deck she was escorted by the ship’s captain and four of his senior officers, all fawning on her obsequiously. The rest of her entourage, including her secretary and two plump, pretty handmaidens, trailed behind her.

The princess cut a striking figure as she stepped into the sunshine. Leon had seen photographs of her but he was still unprepared for her in the flesh. His first impression was of her towering height and her contrastingly lean body. She was almost as tall as him, but he could easily have encircled her waist with his hands. Her bust was boyish and her carriage imperious. Her eye was steely, and as penetrating as a rapier, and her features were hard and as sharp as a whipsaw. She wore a green loden ankle-length riding habit of superb cut. The toes of her boots, which showed under the skirts, glowed with the lustre of expensive leather. Surprisingly she carried a 9mm Luger pistol in a holster on her belt, and a wide-brimmed safari hat in her left hand. Her ash-blonde hair was braided into two thick ropes and looped on top of her head. Leon knew from Penrod that she was fifty-two, but she looked thirty.

‘Your Royal Highness, I am your servant.’

She did not bother to acknowledge his bow but continued to regard him as though he had just let off a particularly obnoxious fart. At last she spoke, her tone icy. ‘You are very young.’

‘Your Royal Highness, this is a regrettable circumstance for which I must apologize. In time I hope to correct it.’

The Princess did not smile. ‘I said you were young. I did not say you were too young.’ She held out her right hand.

When he took it in his he found it as hard and cold as her expression. He kissed the air an inch short of her bony white knuckles. The crêpe of tiny wrinkles across the back tittle-tattled her age.

‘The governor of the territory of British East Africa has placed his private railway coach at your disposal for the journey to Nairobi,’ Leon told her.

Ja! This is fitting and anticipated,’ she agreed.

‘His excellency also begs your presence as guest of honour at a special dinner at Government House to be arranged at any time convenient to you, Princess.’

‘I did not come to Africa to eat in the company of junior civil servants. I came here to kill animals. Many animals.’

Leon bowed again. ‘Immediately, ma’am. Does Your Royal Highness have any particular preference for the animals she wishes to kill?’

‘Lions!’ she answered. ‘And pigs.’

‘How about a few elephants and buffalo?’

‘No! Only big lions and pigs with long tusks.’

Before they set off into the blue, the princess tried out every mount in the string of thoroughbreds that Leon had assembled for her. She rode astride like a man. As Leon watched her appraise the first horse with her disdainful expression, walking around it twice before she swung up gracefully into the saddle and bent the animal to her will, he realized that she was a superb horsewoman. In fact, he had seldom seen another woman who came close to her.

When they rode out from Tandala and were among the game herds, she forgot her original demand for lions and pigs and became a great deal less selective. She had a beautiful little 9.3 × 74 Mannlicher rifle made by Joseph Just of Ferlach, inlaid with gold by Wilhelm Röder with sylvan scenes of fauns and naked nymphs cavorting riotously together. When she bowled over three running Grant’s gazelle at a range of three hundred yards in three consecutive shots without dismounting, Leon decided she was probably the most deadly shot, man or woman, he had ever met.

‘Yes, I want to kill many animals,’ she remarked, as she reloaded the Mannlicher. She was smiling warmly for the first time since she had arrived in Africa.

When he took the princess up Lonsonyo Mountain to meet Lusima, Leon was unprepared for the way the two women reacted instantly to each other. Figuratively, they arched their backs and spat like two cats. ‘M’bogo, this is one with many deep, dark passions. No man will fathom her. She is as deadly as a mamba. She is not the one I promised you. Be on your guard,’ Lusima told Leon.

‘What did the black bitch say?’ the princess demanded. The hostility between the two women crackled in the air like static electricity.

‘That you are a lady of immense power, Princess.’

‘Tell the great cow not to forget that either.’

When it came to the ceremony of blessing the rifles under the council tree, Lusima emerged from her hut in her ceremonial finery, but when she was still ten paces from where the Mannlicher lay on the lionskin she stopped. Her face changed to the colour of dried mud.

‘What troubles you, Mama?’ Leon asked quietly.

‘That bunduki is a thing of evil. The white-haired woman is as powerful a sorcerer as I am. She has placed a spell on her own bunduki that frightens me.’ She turned back towards her hut. ‘I will not leave my hut until that witch departs from Lonsonyo Mountain,’ she vowed.

‘Lusima has been taken ill. She must go to her hut to rest,’ Leon translated.

Ja, I know very well what troubles her.’ The princess gave one of her rare, thin-lipped smiles.

Twenty days later, in country that Manyoro and Loikot had declared totally devoid of lions, they rode out of camp at dawn for the princess to continue her slaughter of warthogs – she had already accounted for more than fifty, including three boars with incredibly long tusks. They had not ventured more than half a mile from the camp when they came across an enormous solitary black-maned lion standing in the middle of an open grassy vlei. Without a moment’s hesitation, and without dismounting, the princess brought up the little Mannlicher and, with a surgeon’s precision, put a bullet through the lion’s brain.

The two Masai should have been delighted with this performance but they were strangely subdued as they began to skin the carcass. It was left to Leon to tender his congratulations, which the princess ignored. He heard Loikot mutter to Manyoro, ‘This lion should never have been here. Where did he come from?’

‘Nywele Mweupe summoned him,’ Manyoro said sulkily. They had given the princess the Swahili name ‘White Hair’. Manyoro had not combined it with either of the titles of respect, ‘Memsahib’ or ‘Beibi’.

‘Manyoro, even from you that is an enormous stupidity,’ Leon snapped at him. ‘That lion came to the smell of all those warthog carcasses.’ He sensed mutiny in the air. Lusima had obviously had a word or two with Manyoro.

‘The bwana knows best,’ Manyoro conceded, with ostentatious courtesy, but he neither looked at Leon nor smiled. When they had finished the skinning, the two Masai did not perform the lion dance for the princess. Instead they sat apart and took snuff together. When Leon remarked on the omission Manyoro did not respond, but Loikot muttered, ‘We are too tired to dance and sing.’

When he shouldered the bundled green skin and started back for camp, Manyoro’s limp on the leg that had received the Nandi arrow, usually barely noticeable, became heavily pronounced. This was his way of expressing protest or disapproval.

When they rode into camp the princess sprang down from the saddle and strode into the mess tent where she dropped into a canvas chair. She threw her riding whip on to the table, removed her hat and sailed it across the tent, then shook out her braids and commanded, ‘Courtney, tell that useless cook of yours to bring me a cup of coffee.’

Leon relayed the order to the kitchen tent, and minutes later Ishmael hurried in with a steaming porcelain coffee pot on a silver tray. He set it down, poured a cup of the brew and placed it in front of her. Then he stood to attention behind her chair, waiting to be dismissed.

The princess raised the cup to her lips and sipped. She pulled a face of utter disgust and hurled the cup with its contents at the far wall of the tent. ‘Do you think I am a sow that you place such pig swill before me?’ she screamed. She seized her riding whip from the table and leaped to her feet. ‘I will teach you to show me more respect, savage.’ She drew back her whip arm to strike at Ishmael’s face. He made no effort to protect himself but stared at her in terrified astonishment.

Behind her, Leon sprang from his chair and grabbed her wrist before she could launch the blow. He swung her around to face him. ‘Your Royal Highness, there are no savages among my people. If you want this safari to continue you should bear that firmly in mind.’ He held her easily until she stopped struggling. Then he went on, ‘You should go to your tent now and rest until dinner time. You are clearly overwrought by the excitement of the lion hunt.’

He released her and she stormed from the tent. She did not reappear when Ishmael rang the dinner gong and Leon dined alone. Before he retired he checked her tent surreptitiously and saw that her lantern was still burning. He went to his own quarters and filled in his game book. He was about to add a comment about the incident in the mess, but as he started to write he remembered Penrod’s caution. Instead of relieving his feelings he wrote, ‘Today the princess proved once more that she is a remarkable horsewoman and rifle shot. The cool manner in which she despatched the magnificent lion was extraordinary. The more I see of her, the more I admire her skills as a huntress.’

He blotted the page, put the game book back in his campaign bureau and locked the drawer. Then, for half an hour, he read the book his uncle Penrod had written on his experiences during the Boer War, entitled With Kitchener to Pretoria. When his eyelids drooped he set it aside, undressed and climbed under the mosquito net. He blew out the lantern and settled down contentedly to enjoy a good night’s rest.

He had barely closed his eyes before he was startled awake by the loud report of a pistol shot coming from the direction of the princess’s tent. His first thought was that some dangerous animal, lion or leopard, had broken into it. He fought his way out of the folds of the mosquito net and grabbed the big Holland, which stood fully loaded beside the bed, ready for just such an emergency. Clad only in his pyjama bottoms he ran to her tent. He saw that her lantern was still burning.

‘Your Royal Highness, are you all right?’ he called. When he received no reply he pulled open the canvas fly and ducked inside, rifle at the ready. Then he stopped in amazement. The Princess stood facing him in the middle of the floor. Her silver hair cascaded over her shoulders and down to her waist. She wore an almost transparent rose pink nightdress. The lantern was behind her so every line of her long lean body was revealed. Her feet were bare but surprisingly small and shapely. She held the riding whip in one hand and the 9mm Luger pistol in the other. The smell of burned nitro powder still hung in the air. Her face was blanched with fury and her eyes blazed like cut sapphires as she glowered at him. She lifted the Luger and fired a second shot through the canvas roof. Then she tossed the pistol on to the enormous bed that filled half the floor space.

‘You swine! Do you think you can treat me like rubbish in front of all your servants?’ she demanded, as she took a step towards him, swinging the whip menacingly. ‘You are no better than the creatures who work for you.’

‘Kindly control yourself, ma’am,’ he warned her.

‘How dare you address me thus? I am a royal princess of the House of Hohenzollern. And you are a commoner of a mongrel race.’ Her English was perfectly enunciated. She smiled icily. ‘Ah, so! Now at last you grow angry, serf! You want to fight back but you dare not. Your bowels are too soft. You do not have the courage. You hate me but you must suffer any humiliation I might choose to heap on you.’

She threw the whip at his feet. ‘Put away that rifle. You cannot use it to bolster your flabby manhood. Pick up the whip!’ Leon laid the Holland on the groundsheet below the entrance wall of the tent and scooped up the whip. He was quivering with rage. Her insults had raked him cruelly and brought him to the brink of abandoning all restraint. He was not certain what to do with the whip, but it felt good in his right hand.

‘M’bogo, is all well? We heard shots. Is there trouble?’ Manyoro called softly through the canvas wall, and the princess drew back a few paces.

‘Go, Manyoro, and take the others with you. None of you must return until I call you,’ Leon shouted back.

Ndio, Bwana.’

He heard their soft steps retreating, and the princess laughed in his face. ‘You should have asked them to help you. You do not have the courage to stand up to me on your own.’ She laughed. ‘Ja, now you grow angry again. That is good. You want to strike me but you dare not do so.’ She leaned towards him until their faces were only inches apart.

‘You have a whip in your hand. Why do you not use it? You hate me, but you are afraid of me.’ Suddenly and unexpectedly she spat in his face. Instinctively he lashed out at her and the whiplash snapped across her cheek. She reeled back, clutching the red weal, and wailed piteously, ‘Yes! I deserved that. You’re so masterful when you’re angry.’ She flung herself at his feet, and clung to his knees. He was trembling with disgust at himself and threw the whip across the tent.

‘I wish you good night, Your Royal Highness.’ He tried to turn away to the door but, with surprising strength, she tripped him. The instant he was off balance she landed on his back with all her weight and he fell across the bed, the princess on top of him. ‘Are you mad?’ he demanded.

‘Yes!’ she replied. ‘I am crazy for you.’

It was only an hour short of dawn when she allowed him to leave her tent. On the way to his own bed he noticed that the tents of her staff, her secretary and handmaidens, were in darkness – despite the cries of the princess, which had made the long night clamorous. It seemed that all of them must have become inured long ago to the princess’s peccadilloes.

The next morning at breakfast she acted as though nothing had changed. She snapped shrewishly at her handmaidens, was cruelly sarcastic to her secretary, and ignored Leon, not even acknowledging his polite greeting until she had finished her second cup of coffee. Then she stood up and announced, ‘Courtney, today I have a great desire to kill pigs.’

Leon had devised a series of small game drives, which gave the princess endless pleasure. He and the trackers would corner a sounder of warthog in a patch of thick scrub, then place the princess in a commanding position over the open ground beyond the thicket, and beat the pigs towards her. As soon as they broke from cover she would wade into them with the Mannlicher. She had trained Heidi, the prettier of her handmaidens, to reload the spare magazines. Each held six rounds, and the princess could change an empty one in an instant. She pressed the release catch and let it drop. Heidi caught it as it fell and reloaded it with her deft pink fingers, trained by relentless needlework since childhood. Then the princess would slip a fully charged magazine into the breech and keep shooting with barely a pause. Her rate of fire was almost as staggering as her accuracy. She could get off twelve shots in as many seconds. Often the warthog would not co-operate with the beaters: they might break from cover in an unexpected direction or double back through the line of beaters, not offering Her Royal Highness a single shot. When this happened she either flew into a coldly furious rage, railing at Leon and his team, or retreated into an icy silence from which she could only be drawn by the prospect of spilling more blood.

Late that afternoon Leon and his beaters, their ranks strengthened by the inclusion of Max Rosenthal, Ishmael and the skinners, managed to pull off their most spectacular battue of the safari. They drove twenty-three warthogs, boars, sows and piglets, past the princess and her loader. She managed to kill twenty-two. The one that escaped was a lean old sow that changed direction just as she fired. The bullet flew wide and the sow doubled back between the princess’s legs when she was least expecting it, sending her flying. She sat up with her skirts above her knees and her hat over her eyes. ‘You dirty little cheat!’ she screamed, as the sow disappeared into the thicket, tail held high and straight as a pennant.

That evening at dinner she was almost genial and expansive, but not entirely so. She urged Leon to take another glass of the excellent Krug, and peeled a grape with her long white fingers before placing it between plump Heidi’s lips.

‘Eat, my darling! You did fine work today,’ she urged. But immediately afterwards she shrieked at her secretary and ordered him to leave the table for his ill manners in taking up a warthog chop in his fingers without excusing himself to her. When she had finished, she stood up without another word and stalked away to her tent.

It had been a long, hot, hard day and Leon was hoping for a full night’s sleep. He had just finished scrubbing his teeth and was buttoning his pyjama jacket when he heard the dreaded pistol shot.

‘For king and country!’ he grumbled, as he went to her tent, but he was intrigued to discover what entertainment the princess had planned for the evening.

The princess was stretched out languidly on the big bed. However, she was not alone. Her maid, Heidi, knelt in the middle of the floor. She was stark naked except for a miniature saddle on her back and a gold bit in her mouth. The tiny golden bells on the reins tinkled as she tossed her head and whinnied.

‘Your steed awaits you, Courtney,’ said the Princess. ‘Would you like to take her for a little trot?’

When she had exhausted her imagination, she sent Heidi away, but when Leon started to follow the girl the princess stopped him. ‘I did not say you could leave, Courtney.’ She moved over on the bed and patted the mattress beside her. ‘Stay awhile, and I will tell you interesting stories of the wicked and wonderful things that I do with my friends in Berlin.’

The goosedown mattress was wondrously soft and warm. Leon stretched out on it. At first he listened idly to her anecdotes. They seemed so far-fetched that they must be fairy-tales, the kind that the devils of hell must spin to their offspring. They were about witchcraft and Satan worship, obscene and sacrilegious rituals.

Then, with a creepy sensation that made the hair at the back of his neck rise, he began to realize that she was naming well-known personages from the upper reaches of the German aristocracy and military. What she was relating as amusing titbits of scandal was political cordite – and sweating, unstable cordite at that. What would Penrod make of such volatile information? Would he believe a single word of it?

The following evening, as he filled in his game book after a hard day’s hunting, he tried to recall every name the princess had mentioned. He started recording them on one of the back pages. There were sixteen on his list when he had completed it. He was about to lock away the book when he became uneasy.

Nobody, except Penrod, will ever read this, he thought. But the niggling doubt remained at the back of his mind as he prepared for bed. Finally he unlocked the bureau and took up his straight razor. He spread open the game book and carefully cut out the incriminating page. He held it over the lantern flame and let it burn to a black crisp. Then he crushed the ashes to dust, and climbed into bed to await the summons of his client. However, that night no pistol shot sounded before he fell asleep.

He woke with the dawn light creeping into his tent, feeling fresh and bright after a full seven hours’ sleep.

Before the company had finished breakfast Manyoro came to the mess tent and squatted outside the opening where only Leon could see him. As soon as they made eye contact Manyoro rose to his feet and slipped away. Leon excused himself and followed him. Manyoro was waiting for him in the servants’ compound.

‘What ails you, brother?’ Leon asked him.

‘Swalu has been bitten by a snake.’

Swalu was the head skinner. ‘Did he see what manner of snake it was?’ Leon asked, with consternation.

‘It was futa, M’bogo.’

‘Are you sure?’ Leon clutched at the faint hope that it had not been a black mamba, the most venomous serpent in Africa.

‘It came into his bed. After it had bitten him three times he killed it with his skinning knife. I have seen the snake. It is futa.’

‘Is Swalu yet dead?’

‘No, M’bogo. He waits for your blessing before he goes to his ancestors.’

‘Take me to him swiftly.’ They hurried to one of the grass huts in the compound and Leon stooped through the low doorway. Swalu lay on his sleeping mat. The other three skinners sat in a circle around him. The body of the snake lay close by. Its head had been hacked off, but a single glance confirmed Manyoro’s identification. It was a black mamba, not a particularly large specimen, only about four feet long, but its single bite would have contained sufficient venom to kill twenty men. Swalu had been bitten thrice.

Swalu lay on his back, naked except for his loincloth. His head was supported by a carved wooden pillow. There were two double fang punctures on his chest, and one on his cheek. His eyes were wide, but glazed and sightless. White froth bubbled out of his mouth and nostrils.

Leon knelt beside him and took his hand. It was cold, but the fingers twitched. ‘Go in peace, Swalu,’ Leon whispered in his ear. ‘Your ancestors wait to welcome you.’ Barely perceptibly Swalu’s cold fingers squeezed his hand. Then Swalu smiled faintly and died. Leon sat with him awhile, then leaned forward and closed his staring eyes.

‘Dig his grave deep,’ Leon told the other skinners. ‘Place rocks above him so that the hyena cannot reach him.’

‘Why would she wish to kill Swalu?’ Manyoro asked, of nobody in particular. The skinners stirred uneasily.

‘No more of that!’ Leon snapped as he stood up. ‘The futa was a futa and nothing else. It was not a witch’s thing!’

‘As the bwana says,’ Manyoro agreed, with studied politesse, but he did not look at Leon.

Leon stood up and went back to the mess tent. The princess was finishing a cup of coffee. She greeted him coldly. ‘Ah, so! You have made time to take care of your client’s needs. I am gratified.’

‘Forgive me, Your Royal Highness, a small matter demanded my attention. What can I do for you?’

‘I have lost one of my gold lockets. It contains a strand of my mother’s hair. It is of paramount importance to me.’

‘We will find it,’ he assured her. ‘When and where do you remember last having seen it?’

‘After the pig battue yesterday. I sat under that tree while I waited for you and your men to butcher the animals. I remember rubbing the locket between my fingers. I must have dropped it there.’

‘I will go to recover it immediately.’ Leon bowed to her. ‘I shall return before noon.’ She waved him away and he strode from the tent, calling to the syce to bring his horse.

When Leon and the trackers reached the area of the warthog drive they found a large and splendidly dappled tom leopard feeding on the remains of the carcasses. It raced away and disappeared into the tall grass. Leon and the trackers went to where the princess had sat and searched the entire surrounding area.

Hapana.’ Manyoro admitted defeat at last. ‘There is nothing.’ They returned to the camp.

The princess’s handmaidens were sitting in the mess tent, working on their embroidery frames, drinking coffee, whispering and giggling together.

‘Where is your mistress?’ Leon asked, and they exchanged a glance, giggled a little more and shrugged, but did not reply. He left them and went to his own tent, ducked in through the fly and found the princess sitting on his bed. His campaign bureau was open and the contents were spread around her. His game book was open on her lap.

‘Princess.’ He bowed stiffly. ‘I regret we were unable to find your jewel.’

She touched the locket, which now hung at her throat. The single large diamond set in the lid glinted in the subdued light. ‘No matter,’ she said. ‘One of my maids found it under my bed. I must have dropped it there.’

‘I am relieved to hear that.’ He looked pointedly at the game book. ‘Is there anything in particular Your Royal Highness was looking for?’

‘No, nothing, really. I was bored in your absence so I was passing the time. I was diverted by your accounts of my prowess . . .’ she paused significantly and stared into his eyes ‘. . . in the chase.’ She closed the book and stood up. ‘So Courtney, how are you going to amuse me today? What is there for me to kill?’

‘I have found a formidable leopard for you.’

‘Take me to it!’

The leopard was in its prime, beautiful even in death. The fur on its back was burned gold alloyed with copper that shaded to fluffy cream under the belly. It was dappled with clusters of starkest black as though it had been touched repeatedly by the bunched fingertips of Diana, the goddess of the hunt. The whiskers were stiff and glassy white, the fangs and claws perfect. There was very little blood. The princess’s single shot had struck the heart squarely as it ran from one of the warthog carcasses. As they loaded it on to the back of a mule, Manyoro whispered to Loikot, just loudly enough for Leon to hear, ‘Will she send the mate of the futa tonight to visit one of us?’

Leon ignored him, pretending not to have heard. Manyoro followed the mule with a dramatically exaggerated limp.

That night at dinner the princess commanded Leon to open a bottle of 1903 Louis Roederer Cristal vintage champagne from her store. Twice during the meal she touched him intimately beneath the table, something she had never done before. Against his will his body responded to the skill of her fingers. When she felt it, she smiled and released him. Then she whispered something to Heidi that he could not catch, but both her handmaidens dissolved into unbridled fits of giggles.

Later that evening the Luger shot through the roof of the royal tent summoned Leon before he had completed the entry in his game book for the leopard hunt. As he set it aside he felt himself succumbing to the perverse arousal she was able to evoke in him so readily. ‘She could corrupt St Peter and all the angels of heaven,’ he told himself, as he went to do her bidding.

The following morning when they rode out to continue the chase for warthogs she spurred up alongside Leon’s horse and chatted as gaily as a young girl. Once more Leon was disconcerted by the mercurial change in her mood and wondered what it foreshadowed. He did not have to wait long to find out.

‘Oh, how I love to kill pigs,’ she remarked, ‘and these African ones are amusing, but they do not match up to our German wild boar.’

‘We have other pigs that are bigger and more dangerous,’ Leon protested. ‘The giant forest hog that live in the bamboo forests of the Aberdare mountains can weigh more than a thousand pounds.’

‘Poof!’ She dismissed his statement with a wave of her hand. ‘There is only one variety of game that truly thrills me beyond all others.’

‘Which is it? Is it a very rare species?’ he asked, with interest, and she laughed lightly,

‘Not at all. In the Polynesian islands they call them “long pigs”.’ He stared at her in disbelief. ‘Ah, so! Now at last you understand.’ She laughed again. ‘I have killed many, but the thrill never palls. Shall I tell you of my first one, Courtney?’

‘If you so wish.’ His voice was hoarse with horror.

‘He was a young gamekeeper on one of the royal estates. I was thirteen. Although I was still a virgin, I wanted him, but he was married and he loved his wife. He laughed at me. When I was alone with him in the forest hunting capercaillie, I sent him forward to pick up a bird I had shot. When he had gone ten paces I shot him in the back of his legs with both barrels of my shotgun. The blast tore away the bone and his legs were held by only strings and tatters of flesh. There was much blood. I sat beside him and talked to him as he lay bleeding to death. I explained why I had had to kill him. He pleaded for mercy, not for himself, he said, but for his slattern of a wife and the miserable brat she carried in her belly. He wept and begged me to fetch a doctor to save him. I laughed at him, as he had once dared to laugh at me. He took almost an hour to die.’ Her expression was dreamy. They rode on in silence for a while, and then she asked innocently, ‘You would never disappoint me as the gamekeeper did, would you, Courtney?’

‘I hope not, ma’am.’

‘So do I, Courtney. So, now that we understand each other so well, I want you to find me two-legged pigs to hunt. Will you do that for me?’

Leon felt his gorge rising, and his voice was shaky when he replied, ‘Your Royal Highness, this is something I never expected. You must give me a little time to think about it. You do know that you are asking me to commit a capital offence?’

‘I am a princess. I will protect you from retribution. Nobody has ever questioned me about the gamekeeper or any of the others. I am not one of the common people. I possess the divine right of royalty. I will be your shield. The disappearance of a few savages will not even be remarked.’ She leaned across from her horse and stroked his muscular forearm. With an effort he resisted the urge to pull it back and punch her in the face. Her voice was low and seductive. ‘Courtney, until you experience it you cannot imagine the pleasure of this special type of hunting.’

Leon drew a deep breath to steady himself, but his senses were reeling with this recital of insensate lust and brutality. He found it difficult to think clearly. He had an almost overwhelming compulsion to put both his hands around her throat and destroy her. Then he realized that his instinctive response was diametrically opposed to his duty, which was to glean every last grain of information from her at any cost to himself and others around him. After that he must use her influence to obtain access to others of her ilk and do the same to them. She was the key to the upper hierarchy of German society that had been fortuitously placed in his hands. He was not the judge and executioner. He was merely a tiny cog in the great machinery of British Military Intelligence.

In the end duty prevailed. With a huge effort of will he managed to control his hands. Instead of taking her by the throat he took her hands and squeezed them. Then he smiled and whispered, ‘Of course, Your Royal Highness. I will do as you ask. However, you must give me time to make the arrangements.’

‘This safari ends in sixteen days’ time. After that I must return to Germany. I shall be angry if you disappoint me . . . very angry.’ There was cold menace in her tone, and the thought of the young German gamekeeper came back into his mind.

It was still early when they returned to camp. The princess went to her tent to bathe, and Leon hurried to his own and scribbled a hasty note to Penrod in his game book:

Uncle, I have such stories to tell you of my new friend and her old friends in the highest places as will turn your hair white. However, I am now in the coils of this monster. She demands that I commit an unspeakably foul act for her amusement. Both my own conscience and the law forbid me to give in to her. If I am forced to refuse her outright, she will take great offence. She will shut down the conduit of information from Germany that you are so carefully nurturing. I implore you to devise some means of diplomatically removing her from British East Africa before this happens. Your aff. nephew.

He tore the page from the book, folded it and buttoned it into the breast pocket of his bush jacket. He left his tent and went back towards the mess tent, passing close enough to the royal tent to hear the princess furiously haranguing Heidi and the maid’s muffled sobs. He walked on down to the servants’ compound where he found Manyoro and Loikot sitting outside their hut, taking snuff. They fell silent as they saw him approaching.

With a quick glance around to make certain they were not watched, he handed the folded note to Manyoro. ‘Take Loikot with you. Go to Nairobi at once with all speed. Give this paper to my uncle, Colonel Ballantyne, at KAR Headquarters. Do not dawdle along the way. Leave now. Speak to nobody of this business except my uncle.’

They stood up immediately and reached for their spears, which were planted in the earth on each side of the hut doorway.

Leon took Manyoro’s shoulders to reinforce his orders. ‘My brother,’ he said softly, ‘run fast and the witch will soon be gone.’

Ndio, M’bogo.’ Manyoro smiled for the first time in weeks, and he was not limping when he and Loikot trotted out of the camp and set off in the direction of Nairobi.

That evening when she summoned him to her tent he was able to assure the princess that ‘I have despatched both my trackers to make the arrangements for us to hunt long pigs. They know of an Arab whose dhows ply the length and breadth of Lake Victoria. His main business is in ivory and hides, but clandestinely he deals in other goods.’

‘That is exciting. I knew I could rely on you, Courtney.’ The princess fidgeted, crossing and recrossing her long legs, wriggling her bottom on the canvas seat of her chair as though she was scratching an itch. ‘The very thought excites me. When do you think your people will return?’

‘I would expect them here in five or six days, leaving plenty of time for you to introduce me to this new sport before you leave.’

‘Until then we must amuse ourselves as best we can.’ She lay back in the chair and lifted the skirts of her riding habit to her knees. ‘I am sure you can find something to entertain me.’

Four evenings later Leon brought the princess back to camp after a day of pursuing warthogs. She was in a black, furious mood. He had orchestrated four drives for her, and none had succeeded. Each time, the quarry had flushed from cover unexpectedly and caught them unprepared. The princess had not fired a single shot all day at her favoured quarry. On the homeward ride she had worked off some of her ire on a troop of baboons, shooting five out of the treetops before the survivors escaped in shrieking panic.

Approaching the outskirts of the camp Leon was surprised to see two Ford motor-cars, painted in drab military brown, parked beside the skinning shed. As they rode past, a handful of askari in the uniforms of the KAR fell smartly into line, sloped their rifles and saluted. Leon recognized the sergeant and his troopers. They were members of the regimental headquarters guard. His spirits soared as he acknowledged them. ‘At ease, Sergeant Miomani.’

The NCO grinned with delight that Leon remembered him and snapped his arm down smartly. He shouted at his men, ‘Order arms! Stand at ease! Fall out. One, two, three!’

They rode on into the camp.

‘Who are those people, and what are they doing here, Courtney?’ the princess demanded.

‘They are British soldiers, Your Royal Highness, that much I can tell you. But as to why they are here I have no idea,’ he lied smoothly. ‘I expect we shall be enlightened soon enough.’ But he held the thought that Loikot and Manyoro must have run like gazelle and Penrod Ballantyne driven like a fury to get here a day earlier than he had anticipated.

Leon and the princess dismounted outside the mess tent and Leon shouted to the kitchen for Ishmael to bring coffee – ‘and make sure it’s hot!’ Then he ushered the princess into the cool gloom of the tent.

Penrod rose from one of the camp chairs and quickly forestalled any remark that Leon could make. ‘I expect you are surprised to see me.’ He seized Leon’s right hand and shook it, then turned to the princess. ‘Would you be so kind as to present me to Her Royal Highness?’

‘Your Royal Highness, may I present Colonel Penrod Ballantyne?’ he said, then noticed the crown and the trio of stars on Penrod’s epaulettes. His uncle’s promotion must have come through since their last meeting, and he corrected himself quickly: ‘I beg your pardon, Princess. I should have said Brigadier General Penrod Ballantyne, the officer commanding His Britannic Majesty’s forces in British East Africa.’ Penrod saluted, then took three smart paces forward and offered her his right hand.

The princess ignored it and studied his face coldly, ‘Ah, so!’ she said, walked past him and seated herself in her usual chair at the table. ‘Courtney, tell your cook to hurry with my coffee. I am thirsty.’ She had spoken in German. Then she looked at Penrod again. ‘What do you want here? This is a private safari. You are disturbing my pleasure.’ Her English was flawless.

Penrod went to the chair facing hers across the table. As he lowered himself into it he said, ‘Your Royal Highness, I apologize for my intrusion but I am here on behalf of His Excellency the Governor of British East Africa.’

‘I did not invite you to be seated,’ the princess told him, and Penrod stood up abruptly.

His face turned puce but his voice remained level. ‘I beg your pardon, ma’am.’

‘They have no manners, these English.’ She spoke to the air above his head. ‘Ja, so? What does this governor of yours want from me?’

‘He has sent me to inform you that a severe epidemic of Rift Valley rabies has broken out and is sweeping through the territory. Already more than a thousand local people have succumbed to the disease, and more are dying each day. The latest reported deaths are from villages not far from here. Your Royal Highness, you are in mortal danger.’ The princess’s lofty expression changed dramatically. She stared at Penrod in horror. ‘What is this Rift Valley rabies?’

‘I believe the German translation is Tollwut, ma’am.’

Tollwut? Mein Gott!

‘Indeed, Your Royal Highness. And this is a particularly virulent and infectious form. It inflicts a horribly cruel and inevitable death, with the victim writhing in convulsions, screaming for water and finally drowning in his own foaming saliva.’

Mein Gott!’ she repeated softly.

‘The governor feels strongly that he should not allow you to remain in danger of contracting the disease, but before making any decision he cabled Berlin. The secretary to His Imperial Majesty has relayed the Kaiser’s instructions ordering you to terminate your stay here and return at once to Germany. Accordingly, His Excellency has reserved a stateroom on board the Italian liner Roma for you. It sails from Kilindini lagoon on the fifteenth of the month for the port of Genoa. From there you will be able to take the overnight express to Berlin. I have come to accompany you to the Roma, which will dock at Kilindini in five days’ time. We must hurry to make the sailing.’

‘When do you wish to depart?’ the princess asked, and stood up.

‘Can you be ready within the hour, ma’am?’

Jawohl!’ She fled, screaming for her maids ‘Heidi! Brunhilde! Pack my travelling bags! Do not bother with the cabin trunks. We leave within the hour!’ As soon as she had gone Penrod and Leon grinned at each other like schoolboys who had just pulled off a spectacular bit of mischief.

‘Rift Valley rabies, indeed! How did you dream up that one, Perfidious Albion?’

‘Absolutely deadly disease!’ Penrod winked almost imperceptibly. ‘Just so happens that this is the first outbreak in medical history.’

‘How do you like Her Royal Highness?’

‘Charming,’ he replied. ‘Bloody charming! I wanted to turn her over my knee and give her six of the very best.’

‘If you had, she would probably have fallen deeply in love with you.’

‘Like that, is it?’ Penrod stopped smiling. ‘You must have interesting tales to tell.’

‘Tales that will set your hair on fire, believe me. You ain’t heard nothing like them. But not here, not now.’

Penrod nodded. ‘You’re learning the game fast. As soon as I’ve packed the lovely princess into the boat at Kilindini, I will be back to listen to your stories and to stand you lunch at the Muthaiga Club.’

‘With a bottle of the ’79 Margaux to go with it?’ Leon suggested.

‘Two, if you’re man enough!’ Penrod promised.

‘You’re an absolute brick, Uncle.’

‘Think nothing of it, dear boy.’

Long before the appointed hour the princess appeared from her tent with her secretary and maids following close behind her, their arms full of her coats and silk dresses. Penrod had the motor-cars standing by, the engines popping and rumbling. Leon offered the princess his hand as she stepped up into the first. She brushed his groin with her fingertips as she sat down, and dropped her voice so that only he could hear her. ‘Give my fond farewell to my big friend.’

‘Thank you, ma’am. His head droops to think of you gone.’

‘Impudent boy!’ She pinched his tender flesh so viciously that he gasped and his eyes watered. ‘Do not be familiar. You must remember your place.’

‘Please forgive my presumption, Your Royal Highness. I am desolate. But tell me, what shall I do with all the equipment you are leaving, the furniture, rifles and champagne? Shall I pack it and forward it to you?’

Nein! I do not want it. You can keep it or burn it.’

‘You are very generous. But will you ever return to hunt with me?’

‘Never!’ she said vehemently. ‘Rabies? No, thank you!’

‘Will you send your friends to hunt with me, Princess?’

‘Only the ones I truly hate.’ She saw his expression and relented slightly. ‘But do not worry, Courtney. The friends I truly hate are more numerous than the ones I truly like.’ She turned to Penrod in the seat behind her. ‘Tell your driver to take me away from this dreadful rabies-infested place.’

Auf wiedersehen, Princess!’ Leon doffed his hat and waved, but she did not bother to turn as the vehicles bumped away along the rutted track.

Two weeks later Penrod rode out to Tandala Camp on his grey stallion, and Ishmael had a pot of freshly brewed Lapsang Souchong tea and a plate of ginger snaps ready to welcome him. Ishmael did not serve his ginger snaps to just anyone but reserved them for especially favoured guests. After Penrod had fortified himself, he and Leon mounted up and set out on the eightmile return ride to Muthaiga.

‘I was really looking forward to a bit of a canter,’ Penrod said. ‘Never seem able to get away from my desk, these days.’ He glanced at Leon. ‘On the other hand, you look to be in fine fettle, dear boy.’

‘The princess kept me hard at it. Did she tell you she mowed down more than a hundred warthogs, not to mention a monstrous black-maned lion and a fine leopard?’

‘That gracious lady and I exchanged barely a dozen words on the entire journey to the coast. I rely on you to bring me up to date. That’s why I came to fetch you. Out here we can talk without fear of eavesdroppers.’ He waved a hand at the surrounding forest and the rolling green hills. ‘Not many big ears and eyes out here. So now, Leon, tell your indulgent uncle everything.’

‘You had better fasten the chin-strap of your helmet, sir, or it will likely be blown sky-high by my revelations.’

‘Start at the beginning, and leave nothing out.’ The leisurely ride to the Muthaiga Country Club took almost an hour and a half, just long enough for Leon to make his report. Penrod did not interrupt except to confirm a name or to ask him to enlarge on some detail. More than once he drew a sharp breath, his features registering extreme disapproval. They were riding up the driveway to the club before Leon was able to say, ‘That’s about it, Uncle.’

‘Enough and more than enough,’ Penrod replied grimly. ‘Coming from anybody but you I would have had reservations. Some of it is so bizarre as to be almost beyond the grasp of a rational mind. You have accomplished more than I could possibly have hoped for.’

‘Do you want me to write all this down, sir?’

‘No. If you had done so previously she would have tumbled to you when she searched your tent. I’ll remember it, probably never forget it for the rest of my days.’ Penrod was silent until they reached the end of the driveway and pulled up their horses in front of the clubhouse. Then he said quietly, ‘A remarkable lady, this princess of yours, Leon.’

‘Not mine, sir, I assure you. As far as I’m concerned the hyenas can have her.’

‘Come, let’s go to lunch. Chefie has marrow bones and cornedbeef hot-pot on the menu today. I hope your grisly tales haven’t spoiled my appetite.’

‘Nothing could do that, sir.’

‘Careful, my lad. Show some respect for my grey hairs and the stars on my shoulders.’

‘Forgive me, General. I meant no offence. I was simply implying that you are a connoisseur of impeccable taste.’

Once Penrod had greeted most of the other diners in the room, stopping for a moment at each table, they finally reached the terrace and settled into their chairs under the bougainvillaeas. Malonzi opened and poured the wine, then served the hors d’oeuvre of marrow bones on toast and withdrew discreetly.

‘Let me bring you up to date with everything that has been happening in the wider world while you’ve been cavorting with royalty and warthogs in the wilderness.’ Penrod scooped a large greasy lump of marrow out of the bone on to his toast, as he began a short résumé of events in Europe. ‘The most startling item of gossip is that in the recent elections the Social Democratic Party has, for the first time in history, become the largest party in the German Reichstag. It has more than doubled its seat total from the 1907 election. Big trouble brewing there. The German military ruling élite will have to do something spectacular to reassert themselves. Anyone for a nice little war?’ He popped the marrow toast into his mouth and chewed with gusto. ‘And Serbia will surely want to wade into Austria. How about another little war? Talking of which, the one in Turkey rumbles on. The Turks have thrown the Bulgarians back from the gates of Constantinople, but it cost them twenty thousand casualties . . .’ He devoured the rest of the marrow and washed it down with a glass of Margaux.

While he waited for Malonzi to serve the hot-pot he went on, ‘Now, closer to home you have a large accumulation of mail, which includes a dozen or more enquiries for your services as a hunter. I picked them up from the post office and read them to save you the trouble.’

‘I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. Uncle, you’re a brick!’

Penrod acknowledged the compliment with a gracious wave of his fork.

‘Most of these communications were from nobodies – I discarded those. However, three show great promise, all from our favourite country, Deutschland. One is from a conservative minister of government, the second from a Count Bauer, an adviser to the Imperial Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, and the third from a captain of industry who is the largest single contractor to the military. Naturally we wish to cultivate all three. However, the most attractive from our point of view is the industrialist. His name is Graf Otto Kurt Thomas von Meerbach. He is the head of the Meerbach Motor Works.’

‘I know of them.’ Leon was impressed. ‘They developed the Meerbach rotary engine for aeroplanes. They’re in competition with Count Zeppelin working on dirigible airships. Hell’s bells and buckets of blood! I’d love to meet the fellow. I’m fascinated by the idea of taking to the skies, but to date I’ve never even laid eyes on one of the incredible new flying machines, let alone had a chance to go up in one.’

Penrod smiled at his boyish enthusiasm. ‘If all goes as planned, you might soon have your chance. With Percy’s blessing I have replied by urgent-rate cable to von Meerbach in your name. I gave him full details of what you have to offer, including available dates and your standard rates. But, in the meantime, you haven’t tasted the hot-pot. It’s jolly good. Oh, and by the way, there’s also a letter from your pal Kermit Roosevelt.’

‘Which you opened to save me the trouble?’

‘Good Lord, no.’ Penrod was horrified. ‘Wouldn’t dream of it. That’s your private mail.’

‘As opposed to all my other correspondence, which is public, Uncle?’ Leon asked, and Penrod smiled comfortably,

‘Line of duty, my dear boy.’ Then he changed the subject. ‘So, I understand that, with the princess out of your hair, you’re charging off hot-foot to assist your partner, Percy, with the Eastmont safari.’

‘That’s correct. I leave first thing tomorrow. Percy’s hunting on the west bank of Lake Manyara down in German territory. He left a note for me at Tandala. He says that Lord Eastmont is keen to get at least a fifty-inch buffalo and Manyara’s the best place to find one.’

‘Percy introduced me to Eastmont when he was passing through Nairobi. We had dinner together here, Percy, me and their two lordships, Eastmont and Delamere.’

‘What did you make of Eastmont, if I might ask, sir?’

‘You might indeed. In fact, I was about to tell all – you and Percy need to know. From our very first meeting I thought he was an odd fish. Something about him troubled me. It was only after he and Percy had left for Manyara that it all came back to me with a rush and a roar, if you’ll pardon the poetic licence.’

‘Pardon granted, sir. Please continue. I’m all ears.’

‘I remembered there had been a nasty little incident in the South African campaign back in ’99. A young captain of the Middlesex Regiment of Yeomanry Cavalry named Bertie Cochrane was in command of a forward reconnaissance platoon at a place called Slang Nek when they ran into a strong Boer contingent. At the first shots young Cochrane ran. He left his sergeant to try to fight off the Boers and ran for home and Mother. It was a massacre. The platoon took fifteen casualties from a strength of twenty before they could extricate themselves. Cochrane was court-martialled for cowardice in the face of the enemy, found guilty and cashiered. He might have been given a blindfold and a .303 bullet if not for his friends in high places. When I remembered all this I sent a cable to somebody I know at the War Office to check my memory of the incident. The reply came back affirmative. Cochrane and Eastmont are one and the same fellow, but there were a few more snippets of information. After his dishonourable discharge, young Bertie Cochrane married an extremely wealthy American oil heiress. Less than two years later, the new Mrs Cochrane drowned in a boating mishap on Ullswater in the Lake District of Cumberland. Cochrane was tried at the Middlesex Assizes for the murder of his wife, but acquitted for lack of evidence. He inherited her fortune, and two years later, on the death of his uncle, he became Earl of Eastmont, with an estate of more than ten thousand acres near Appleby in Westmorland. Thus plain old Bertie Cochrane became Bertram, Earl of Eastmont.’

‘Dear God! Does Percy know this?’

‘Not yet, but I rely on you to give him the glad tidings.’

Leon was in pensive mood when he rode home to Tandala. When he got there Manyoro and Loikot were waiting for him. He gave them instructions for an early start the next morning on the journey to join Percy’s hunting camp on the banks of Lake Manyara, then went to his tent to read his mail.

There were three of his mother’s marvellously fond and entertaining letters. Each was more than twenty pages long, and they were dated a month apart but had arrived at the Nairobi post office together. He learned that his father was well and prosperous, as always. His mother’s latest book was titled African Reflections and it had been accepted for publication by Macmillan of London. Leon’s eldest sister, Penelope, was to marry her childhood sweetheart in May, which was six weeks ago. He would have to send her a belated wedding gift. He laid the three maternal letters aside for reply, then slit open the letter with the New York postmark and Kermit’s red wax seal on the flap.

Kermit had kept his word. His letter was breezy and chatty. He described the last months of the great safari with Quentin Grogan up the Nile and through the Sudan and Egypt. Big Medicine had continued to wreak havoc among the game herds. On the voyage from Alexandria to New York he had fallen in love again, but the girl was already engaged. He seemed to have taken this rejection in good part. Then he went on to describe a dinner party at the home of Andrew Carnegie, the steel multi-millionaire who had financed the great presidential safari. One of the other guests had been a German industrialist from Wieskirche in Bavaria. His name was Otto von Meerbach. Kermit had been seated across the dinner table from him and they had taken to each other immediately. After dinner, when the ladies had withdrawn, they had lingered over the port and cigars.

Otto is an extraordinary character, straight out of the pages of a lurid novel, complete with duelling scar and all. He is a great mountain of a man, booming with energy and self-assurance, and even if one does not like him, one has to admire him. He is the proprietor of the Meerbach Motor Works. I am sure that you have heard of it. In fact, I think I remember you and I discussing it. It’s one of the biggest and most successful enterprises in all of Europe, employing more than thirty thousand workers. MMW developed the rotary engine for flying machines and dirigible airships. It also makes motor-cars and trucks for the German Army and airplanes for their air force. But the really interesting thing about Otto is that he is an avid hunter. He has huge estates in Bavaria where he hunts stags and wild boar. In winter he hosts hunting parties at his Schloss, which are famous. It is nothing out of the ordinary for the guns to shoot more than two hundred wild boar in a day. He has invited me to join him as one of his guests the next time I am in Europe. I told him about our safari, and he was very interested. He told me he has been thinking about an African safari for many years. He asked me for your address and of course I gave it to him. I hope you do not mind?

‘So that’s how von Meerbach found out where to get hold of me,’ Leon said aloud. ‘Thank you, Kermit.’ The letter continued for a few more pages.

Otto’s wife, or maybe she is his mistress, I am not entirely certain of the relationship, is truly one of the most beautiful ladies I have ever laid eyes upon. Her name is Eva von Wellberg. She is very refined and quiet but, my sweet Lord, when she turned those eyes on me my heart melted like butter in a skillet. I would readily have fought a duel with Otto for her favours, even though he is reputed to be one of the most accomplished swordsmen in Europe. That’s how strongly I feel about this lovely consort of his.

Leon laughed. The hyperbole was so typical of Kermit. He interpreted his description to mean that Eva was probably fair-to-middling attractive. Kermit ended by exhorting Leon to reply soon, letting him have all the news of his own activities and of the many friends Kermit had made in British East Africa, particularly Manyoro and Loikot. It concluded, ‘salaams and Weidmanns heil (Otto taught me this, it means Hunters’ Salute) from your BWB’. It took a moment for Leon to work out what the letters stood for. He smiled again. ‘And all the best to you, too, Kermit Roosevelt, my brother of the warrior blood.’

Leon opened his travelling bureau to begin the replies to his mother and Kermit, but before he could dip his pen in the inkwell Ishmael sounded the dinner gong. Leon groaned. He had not fully recovered from his luncheon with Penrod. But Ishmael’s meals were not optional. They were obligatory.

The journey south to Lake Manyara was over brutally rough tracks for the first two hundred miles. The Vauxhall took cruel punishment and they were forced to stop and repair punctured tyres at least a dozen times. Manyoro and Loikot had become past masters at the art of locating and removing the thorns that had pierced them. In the sandy stretches of road the engine boiled over regularly and they had to wait for it to cool before they refilled the radiator.

The boundary between British and German East Africa was neither marked nor guarded. There were no signposts along the way, other than blazes on roadside trees and a few bleached animal skulls set on poles. Navigating chiefly by instinct and the heavens, they at last reached the tiny bush store run by a Hindu trader at Makuyuni river. Percy had left a pair of good horses with the store owner to await his arrival.

Leon parked the truck under a ficus tree at the back of the store and saddled up one of the horses. From there it was a ride of at least fifty miles to Percy’s hunting camp, which was set on a promontory above the lake shore.

Leon and his Masai reached it an hour after dark on the following day. He found out that neither Percy nor his noble client had returned to camp. Percy’s cook served Leon a dinner of grilled hippo heart and cassava porridge with pumpkin mash and thick Bisto gravy.

Afterwards Leon sat at the fire and watched the flamingoes flying across the moon in dark, wavering lines. A bush fire was burning on the far shore of the lake. It looked like a fiery snake crawling through the dark hills, and he could smell the smoke. It was past ten o’clock when he heard the horses coming out of the night and went to the perimeter of the camp to meet them.

As Percy dismounted stiffly and painfully from the saddle, he recognized Leon waiting in the shadows. His shoulders straightened and his face creased in a smile of welcome. ‘Well met indeed!’ he called. ‘Your timing’s immaculate, Leon. Come to the fire and I’ll introduce you to his lordship. I might even be minded to pour you a dram of Talisker.’

Eastmont was a tall, gangling figure, with huge hands and feet and a head the size of a watermelon. His long, thin limbs were illmatched to his bulky torso. Percy stood at a little more than six feet and his Masai tracker was an inch taller, yet Eastmont towered over them, and Leon realized that he must be six foot three. When he shook hands, his fist engulfed Leon’s fingers as though they were a child’s. In the flickering firelight Eastmont’s features were gaunt and bony, his expression dark and morose. He said little but instead left the talking to Percy. Once the glasses were charged he sat staring into the fire while Percy described the day’s hunting,

‘Well, his lordship wanted a truly monumental buffalo and, by golly, we found one this morning. He was an old solitary and I swear by all that’s holy he’s fifty-five if he’s an inch.’

‘Percy, that’s incredible! But I believe you,’ Leon assured him. ‘Show me the head. Are your people bringing it in tonight, or will the skinners come in with it tomorrow?’

There was an awkward silence, and Percy glanced across the fire at his client. Eastmont seemed not to have heard. He continued staring into the flames.

‘Well,’ said Percy, and paused again. Then he went on with a rush of words: ‘There’s a small problem. The buff’s head is attached to his body, and the body is still very much alive.’

Leon felt a chill at the back of his neck, but he asked carefully, ‘Wounded?’

Percy nodded reluctantly, then admitted, ‘Yes, but pretty hard hit, I think.’

‘How hard, Percy? In the boiler room or the guts? How much blood?’

‘Back leg,’ said Percy, then hurried on: ‘Broke the gaskin bone, I do believe. He should be stiff and crippled by tomorrow morning.’

‘Blood, Percy? How much?’


‘Arterial or venous?’

‘Hard to tell.’

‘Percy, it’s not hard to tell arterial from venous. You taught me how, so you should know. One is bright red, the other dark. Why did you find it hard to tell the difference?’

‘There wasn’t very much of it.’

‘How far did you track him?’

‘Until it got dark.’

‘How far, Percy, not how long.’

‘A couple of miles.’

‘Shit!’ said Leon, as though he truly meant it.

‘The polite version of that word is “ merde”.’ Percy tried for a touch of humour.

‘I’ll settle for good old Anglo-Saxon.’ Leon did not smile.

They were silent for a few long minutes. Then Leon looked across at Eastmont. ‘What calibre were you using, my lord?’

‘Three seven five.’ Eastmont did not look up as he spoke. Shit again! Leon thought, but did not say. Goddamned peashooter! ‘How thick is the cover he’s in, Percy?’

‘It’s thick,’ Percy admitted. ‘We’ll follow him up tomorrow at first light. He’ll be stiff and sore. Shouldn’t take too long to catch up with him.’

‘I have a better plan. The two of you stay here and have a quiet day in camp. Rest your leg, Percy. I’ll follow him up and finish the business,’ Leon suggested.

His lordship let out a bellow like a bull sealion in mating season. ‘You will do no such thing, you impudent whippersnapper. It’s my buffalo and I will finish him off.’

‘With all due respect, my lord, too many guns could turn a potentially dangerous situation into a fatal one. Let me go. This is what you pay us so much money to do.’ Leon smiled in an unconvincing attempt at diplomacy.

‘I paid so much money for you to do as you’re bloody well told, my lad.’ Leon’s mouth hardened. He looked at Percy, who shook his head.

‘Leon, it’ll be all right,’ he said. ‘We’ll probably find him down tomorrow.’

Leon rose to his feet. ‘As you wish. I’ll be ready to ride at first light. Good night, my lord.’ Eastmont did not reply and Leon turned back to Percy. He looked old and sick in the firelight. ‘Good night, Percy,’ he said gently. ‘Don’t worry. I have a good feeling about this. We’ll find him down, I know it.’

Leon stood at the edge of the cliff with Manyoro and Loikot. The sun was not yet up, and a low bank of mist hung over the water. The dawn was windless and the lake was a polished pewter grey. Skeins of luminous pink flamingoes flew in long, wavering lines low along it, the unruffled grey waters reflecting their perfect mirror images. It was very beautiful.

‘Bwana Samawati thinks his back leg is broken,’ Leon said, still watching the flamingoes. ‘Perhaps it will slow him down a little.’ Loikot spat a small glob of mucus on to the black lava sand, and Manyoro picked his nose, then examined the crusty product on the end of his forefinger with attention. Neither replied to the fatuous statement. A broken leg would not slow down an angry buffalo bull.

Leon went on, ‘Bwana Mjiguu wants to lead. He says it’s his buffalo. He will shoot it.’ The Masai had named Eastmont ‘Mr Big Feet’ and greeted this latest snippet of information with as much joy as they would news of the passing of a dear friend.

‘Perhaps he will shoot it in the other leg. That will slow it down,’ Manyoro suggested, and Loikot doubled over in paroxysms of mirth. Leon could not control himself. He had to join in, and the laughter eased their feelings a little.

Behind them Percy came out of his tent and Leon left the Masai to greet him. His complexion was as grey as the lake waters and his limp more pronounced.

‘Morning, Percy. Did you have a good night?’

‘Bloody leg kept me awake.’

‘There’s coffee in the mess tent,’ Leon said, and they walked towards it. ‘I saw Uncle Penrod in Nairobi. He asked me to tell you something.’

‘Go ahead.’

‘Eastmont was cashiered from the army in South Africa. Cowardice in the face of the enemy.’ Percy stopped and stared at him. ‘Back home he was found not guilty of drowning his extremely rich wife. Lack of evidence.’

Percy thought about that for a moment, then said, ‘Do you know something? That doesn’t surprise me one little bit. I had him right up against the buff yesterday. Twenty yards. Not an inch more. He shot it in the back leg because he was overcome with terror.’

‘Are you going to let him lead today?’

‘You heard him last night. We don’t have much option, do we?’

‘Do you want me to back him?’

‘You think I can’t cut it any more?’ Percy looked bereft.

Leon was stricken with remorse. ‘Hell, no! You’re still a stick of dynamite.’

‘Thanks. I needed to hear that. But Eastmont is still my client. I’ll back him, but I’ll be grateful to have you behind me.’ At that moment Eastmont came out of his tent and shambled towards them. His gait was ungainly, like that of a performing bear on a chain. ‘Good morning, my lord,’ Percy greeted him brightly. ‘Eager to pick up your buff?’

They rode for an hour before they reached the spot where Percy had abandoned the blood spoor the previous evening. It was a bad place. The thorn bush was dense and grew low to the ground. There were narrow aisles through it that had been trodden by rhino, elephant and buffalo herds.

Percy’s tracker, who had been with him for thirty years, was named Ko’twa. He pointed out the stale spoor, which had been almost obliterated by the passing of other large animals during the night, and Manyoro and Loikot took it away at a jog trot.

The three hunters followed on horseback. Even though the bush was thick the ground was soft and sandy so they covered the first two miles quickly. Then the character of the soil changed, becoming hard gravel that resisted the prints of the buffalo’s hoofs. There was little blood and it had dried black so it was almost impossible to pick out the specks in the mulch of dead leaves and dried twigs under the bushes. The horsemen stayed well back to let the three trackers perform their small miracles of detection without interference. Within another hour the sun was well up and baking hot. There was no breeze and the air was stifling. Even the birds and insects were quiescent. The silence was brooding and ominous, and the thorn grew thicker, until it was almost solid. The trackers squeezed through the narrow openings and aisles between the fanged, clawing branches. Even from horseback the view ahead was severely curtailed.

At last Leon checked his mount and whispered to Percy, ‘We’re making too much noise. The buffalo will hear us coming from a mile off. We don’t want to push him and get him moving. That’ll loosen up his wound. We must leave the horses.’ They unsaddled and hobbled them, but gave them nosebags to keep them contented.

While they took a last drink from the water-bottles, Percy gave Eastmont a final briefing: ‘When the buff comes, and I mean when he comes, not if he comes, he will come with his nose held high in the air. He will probably be quartering across your front. You might think he’s moving slowly and that he’s not actually coming for you. Don’t delude yourself. He’s coming very fast, and he’s coming to get you. He’ll look so big that you might be confused about where to place your shot. You might be tempted to shoot into the middle of him. Don’t do it. There’s only one place to shoot if you’re going to stop him. You have to brain him. Remember, his nose is held high. Go for the end. It’ll be wet and shiny and give you a good aiming mark. Keep shooting at his nose until he goes down. If he doesn’t go down and just keeps coming, throw yourself to the left. I’ll be at your right elbow, and you must give me a clear shot. Left! Throw yourself left. Have you got that?’

‘I’m not a child, Phillips,’ said his lordship, stiffly. ‘Don’t speak to me like one.’

No, you’re not a child, Leon thought bitterly. You’re the gallant gentleman who left his platoon to be shot to bits by the jolly old Boer. I think we might have some fun with you today, my lord.

‘I beg your pardon,’ Percy replied. ‘Are you ready to move out?’ They fell into battle formation. Eastmont was on the point, with Percy close to his right elbow, and Leon brought up the rear. All their rifles were loaded and locked on safety. Leon had two spare .470 cartridges held between the fingers of his left hand ready for a quick reload. They followed the trackers, who knew exactly what to do without being told. This was all in a day’s work for them. As soon as the buffalo broke cover, their duty was to clear the front and leave Eastmont open ground in which to take on the animal. They went forward slowly and silently, communicating with each other by sign language.

The sun rose towards its zenith. The air was as hot as the breath of hell. The back of Eastmont’s shirt was running with sweat. Leon saw drops sliding down the nape of his neck from his hairline. He could hear him breathing in the silence, short, wheezing gasps like an asthmatic’s. They had covered no more than two hundred slow paces in the last hour, and tension seemed to crackle in the air around them, like static electricity.

Suddenly there was a sound from directly ahead, like two dry twigs tapped together. The trackers froze. Loikot was standing on one leg, the other stretched out to take the next step.

‘What was that?’ Eastmont asked. In the silence his voice sounded like a foghorn.

Percy seized his shoulder and squeezed hard to silence him. Then he leaned forward until his lips were almost touching Eastmont’s ear. ‘Buff heard us coming. He stood up from his couch. His horn touched a branch. He’s close. Keep very quiet.’

Nobody else spoke, and nobody moved. Loikot was still on one leg. They were all listening, standing still as waxwork dummies. It lasted for an eternity and an aeon. Then Loikot lowered his foot to the ground, and Manyoro turned his head to look back. He made a graceful and eloquent gesture with his right hand to Leon. ‘The buffalo has moved forward,’ said the hand. ‘We can follow.’

They went on cautiously but heard nothing and saw nothing. Now the tension was like the twanging of steel wires stretched to breaking point. Leon’s thumb was on the safety catch of the Holland, and the butt of the rifle was clamped under his right armpit. He could mount, aim and fire instantaneously. He heard it then, soft as rain in the grass, faint as a sleeping babe’s breath. He glanced left, and the buffalo was coming.

It had doubled back and waited in ambuscade, hidden in an impenetrable thicket of grey thorn. It had let the trackers pass and now it came out, black as charcoal and big as a granite mountain. The sweep of the great curved horns was polished and gleaming, wider than the full stretch of a tall man’s arms. The points were dagger sharp, and the boss between them was gnarled like the shell of a gigantic walnut, and massive as a monolith of obsidian.

‘Percy! On your left! He’s coming!’ Leon yelled with all the power of his lungs. He stepped out to give himself a clear field of fire, but as he lifted the rifle into his shoulder, the buffalo galloped behind an intervening clump of thorn scrub. He couldn’t get a bead on him.

‘Your bird, Percy! Get him!’ Leon yelled again, and from the corner of his eye he saw Percy turn left and shuffle to get into position. But his crippled leg dragged and slowed him down. He braced himself and leaned into his rifle, levelling it at the charging bull. Leon knew that Percy would brain him from that range. Percy was an old hand. He wouldn’t muck it up, not now, not ever.

But they had forgotten about Lord Eastmont. As Percy tightened his forefinger on the trigger, Eastmont’s nerve snapped. He dropped his rifle, spun around and ran for safety. His eyes were wild and his face was ash-white with panic as he lumbered back down the path. He seemed not even to see Percy as he crashed into him with all his weight. Percy went down and the rifle flew from his grip as he hit the ground on his shoulders and the back of his head. Eastmont did not even check his run, but bore straight down on Leon. The path was too narrow for Leon to avoid him. He reversed his rifle and used the butt in an effort to fend off Eastmont’s rush.

It was futile. Eastmont was an enormous man and he was mad with terror. Nothing could stop him. Leon hit him in the centre of the chest with the rifle butt. The walnut stock snapped cleanly at the pistol grip, but Eastmont did not even flinch. He came into Leon like an avalanche. Leon was flung aside by the collision. Eastmont kept going. Leon landed on his right shoulder on the side of the path. He had the stock of the broken rifle in his left hand and pushed himself up with the right. Desperately he looked along the path to where Percy had gone down.

Percy was struggling to his knees. He had lost his rifle and was dazed by the blow to the back of his head. Behind him Leon saw the buffalo burst out of the thorn scrub into the narrow pathway. Its little eyes were bloodshot and they fixed on Percy. It lowered its massive head and swerved towards him. Its off back leg was trailing and swinging limply on the shattered bone, but it came on the other three, swift and dark as a summer tornado.

Leon lifted the shattered rifle. The butt-stock was gone but he was going to fire single-handed. He knew that the recoil might break his wrist. ‘Percy, get down!’ he screamed. ‘Fall flat! Give me a chance.’ But Percy stood up to his full height, blocking his shot. He was shaking his head with confusion, staggering drunkenly and looking around vaguely. Leon tried to shout again but his throat seized with horror and he could not utter a sound. He watched the buffalo roll its head to one side, winding up for the hook, as it covered the last few yards to reach Percy. Its neck was as thick as a tree-trunk and bulging with muscle. It used all that pent-up power to swing the massive half-moon of horns.

The point of a horn caught Percy in the small of the back at the level of his kidneys. The buffalo tossed its head high and he was impaled. With disbelief Leon saw that the point of the long curved horn had emerged from Percy’s stomach. The buffalo shook its head in an effort to dislodge the limp body. Percy was whipped around and his arms and legs flailed slackly, but the horn still transfixed his belly. Leon could hear his skin and flesh parting with a sound like tearing silk. Percy dangled over the buffalo’s head and blindfolded it. Leon raced forward, slipping the safety catch off the broken rifle. Before he could reach them, the buffalo lowered its head and wiped Percy off against the ground. As soon as it was free it smashed its great boss into him and, standing over him, began to grind him into the earth. Leon heard Percy’s ribs snapping like dry twigs. He could not fire into the bull’s skull, for the bullet would have gone straight through and into Percy’s pinned body.

He dropped to one knee beside the buffalo’s shoulder and pressed the double muzzles of the Holland into the massive neck at the juncture of spine and body. He had expected the recoil of the rifle to snap his wrists, but such was his furious abandon that he barely felt it and thought that the cartridge had misfired. But the bull reeled away from the shot and dropped into a sitting position on its haunches, its forelegs braced in front of it. Its head was lowered, and at last Leon could reach the brain. He jumped up and ran forward again, careful to stay outside the sweep of those lethal horns. He thrust the muzzle of the unfired barrel into the back of the skull behind the horny boss and fired the second barrel. The bullet burst the beast’s brain asunder in its casket of bone. It flopped forward, then rolled on to its side. Its good rear leg kicked convulsively, and it let out a long, mournful death bellow, then lay still.

Leon dropped the shattered stock of his rifle and wheeled back to where Percy lay. He fell to his knees beside him. Percy was on his back with his arms thrown wide as a crucifix. His eyes were closed. The wound in his stomach was hideous. The violent movements of the bull had enlarged it so that the torn and tangled intestines bulged through the opening, the contents of the ripped intestines pouring from the wound. From the murky colour of the blood he saw that Percy was bleeding from his kidneys.

‘Percy!’ Leon called. He was reluctant to touch him, fearful of inflicting further pain and damage. ‘Percy?’

His partner opened his eyes and, with an effort, focused on Leon’s face. He smiled regretfully, sadly. ‘Well, I didn’t get away the second time. The first was just my old leg, but now they’ve done for me, good and truly.’

‘Don’t talk such rot.’ Leon’s voice was harsh, but his vision was blurring. He felt moisture on his cheeks and hoped it was only sweat. ‘As soon as I’ve patched you up, I’ll get you back to camp. You’re going to be all right.’ He stripped off his shirt and bundled it into a ball. ‘This might be a little uncomfortable, but we have to plug the leak you’ve got there.’ He stuffed the shirt into the hole in Percy’s abdomen. It went in easily, for the wound was wide and deep.

‘I can’t feel a thing,’ Percy told him. ‘This is going to be a lot easier than I ever imagined it would be.’

‘Do shut up, old man.’ Leon could not look into his eyes where the shadows were gathering. ‘Now. I’m going to pick you up and carry you back to your horse.’

‘No,’ Percy whispered. ‘Let it happen here. I’m ready for it, if you’ll help me over.’

‘Anything,’ Leon told him. ‘Anything you want, Percy. You know that.’

‘Then give me your hand.’ Percy groped for him, and Leon gripped his hand firmly. Percy closed his eyes. ‘I never had a son,’ he said softly. ‘I wanted one, but I never had one.’

‘I didn’t know that,’ Leon said.

Percy opened his eyes. ‘I guess I’ll just have to settle for you instead.’ The old twinkle was in his eyes.

Leon tried to reply but his throat was choked. He coughed and turned his head away. It took him a moment to find his voice. ‘I’m not good enough for that job, Percy.’

‘No one ever wept for me before.’ There was wonderment in Percy’s voice.

‘Shit!’ said Leon.

Merde,’ Percy corrected him.

Merde,’ Leon echoed.

‘Now, listen.’ There was sudden urgency in Percy’s tone. ‘I knew this was going to happen. I had a dream, a premonition. I left something for you in the old tin cabin trunk under my bed at Tandala.’

‘I love you, Percy, you tough old bastard.’

‘Nobody ever said that either.’ The twinkle in the blue eyes began to fade. ‘Get ready. It’s going to happen now. Get ready to squeeze my hand to help me across.’ He closed his eyes tightly for a long minute, then opened them very wide. ‘Squeeze, my son. Squeeze hard!’ Leon squeezed and was startled by the power with which the old man squeezed back.

‘Oh, God, forgive me my sins. Oh, sweet, loving Father! Here I come.’ Percy took one last gulp of air. His body stiffened, and then his hand in Leon’s went slack.

Leon sat beside him for a long while. He was unaware that the trackers had come back and were squatting close behind him. When Leon reached out and gently closed Percy’s staring eyes, Ko’twa jumped up and raced back along the path brandishing his assegai.

Carefully Leon arranged Percy’s limbs and lifted him in his arms as if he was a sleeping child. He started back towards where they had tethered the horses, Percy’s head resting on his shoulder. He had not gone fifty paces before he heard wild shouts.

‘Bwana, come quickly! Ko’twa is killing Mjiguu!’ Leon recognized Manyoro’s voice in the uproar. Still carrying Percy, he broke into a run. As he came around the next bend in the narrow pathway he was presented with a scene of wild confusion.

Eastmont was curled in a foetal position in the middle of the path. His knees were drawn up to his chest and his huge hands covered his head defensively. Ko’twa danced over him with his stabbing assegai raised. He was screaming at the prostrate body. ‘Pig and son of pigs! You have killed Samawati! You thing that is no man! You left him to die. He was a man among men and you killed him, you worthless creature. Now I am going to kill you.’ He tried to thrust the bright assegai head into Eastmont’s back but Manyoro and Loikot were hanging on to his spear arm to prevent the thrust going home.

‘Ko’twa!’ Leon’s voice cracked like a rifle shot, and reached the tracker even in his excess of grief. He looked at Leon, but his eyes were sightless with rage and sorrow.

‘Ko’twa, your bwana needs you. Come, take him home.’ He offered him the lifeless body. Ko’twa stared at him. Slowly he came back from the far regions of his mind, and the red stains of rage faded from his eyes. He dropped his assegai, and shrugged off the restraining hands of the two Masai. He came to Leon, face bathed in tears, and Leon laid Percy in his arms. ‘Bear him gently, Ko’twa.’ He nodded wordlessly and carried Percy away, back to where the horses waited.

Leon went to where Eastmont lay and spurned him with the toe of his boot. ‘Get up. It’s all over. You’re safe. On your feet.’ Eastmont was sobbing softly. ‘Get up, damn you, you craven bastard!’ Leon repeated.

Eastmont uncurled his enormous frame and looked at him with incomprehension. ‘What happened?’ he asked uncertainly.

‘You bolted, my lord.’

‘It wasn’t my fault.’

‘That must be a great consolation to Percy Phillips and the troopers you left to die at Slang Nek. Or, for that matter, the wife you drowned in Ullswater.’

Eastmont did not seem to understand the accusations. ‘I didn’t want it to happen,’ he whimpered. ‘I wanted to prove myself. But I couldn’t help it happening again. Please try to understand, won’t you?’

‘No, my lord, I won’t. However, I have a piece of advice for you. Don’t speak to me again. Ever. I won’t be able to stop myself if I hear any more of your whining. I’ll wring that great grotesque head off your monstrously deformed carcass.’ Leon turned away and summoned Manyoro. ‘Take this man back to camp.’ He left them and went back to where the buffalo carcass lay. He found the pieces of his rifle in the bushes beside the path where he had thrown them. When he reached the horses Ko’twa was waiting for him. He was still holding Percy.

‘Brother, please let me take Samawati from you for he was my father.’ Leon took the body from his grieving tracker and carried Percy to his horse.

When Leon reached the lakeside camp he found that Max Rosenthal had arrived from Tandala in the other vehicle. Leon told him to make the arrangements for Eastmont’s luggage to be packed and loaded. When Eastmont, guided by Manyoro, arrived at the camp, he was hangdog and sullen.

‘I’m sending you back to Nairobi,’ Leon told him coldly. ‘Max will put you on the train to Mombasa, and book you a berth on the next sailing for Europe. I’ll send the buffalo head and your other trophies to you as soon as they have been cured. You will be happy and proud to know that your buffalo is well over fifty inches. I owe you some money as a refund for this curtailed safari. I will let you have a banker’s order as soon as I have calculated the amount. Now get into the motor, and stay out of my sight. I have to bury the man you killed.’

They dug Percy’s grave deep, under an ancient baobab tree on the headland above the lake. They wrapped him in his bedroll and laid him in the bottom of the hole. Then they covered him with a layer of the largest stones they could carry, before they filled it in. Leon stood beside the mound of earth while Manyoro led the others in the lion dance.

Leon stayed on after all the others had gone back to the camp. He sat on a dead branch that had fallen from the baobab and gazed out across the lake. Now, with the sun on the water, it was as blue as Percy’s eyes had been. He made his last farewell in silence. If Percy was lingering near, he would know what Leon was thinking without having to be told.

Looking out across the lake, Leon was satisfied with the beautiful place he had chosen for Percy to spend eternity. He thought that when his own time came he would not mind being buried in such a spot. When at last he left the grave and went back to the camp he found that Max had left for Nairobi with Lord Eastmont.

Well, at least I’m still drinking his whisky, Leon thought grimly. Those words had been Percy’s summation of a safari that had gone horribly wrong.

Leon travelled the rough track to Arusha, the local administrative centre of the government of German East Africa. He went before the district Amtsrichter, and swore an affidavit as to the circumstances of Percy’s demise. The judge issued a death certificate.

Some days later when he reached Tandala Camp, Max and Hennie du Rand were anxiously awaiting his return to find out what fate was in store for them now that Percy was gone. Leon told them he would speak to them as soon as he knew what was the position of the company.

After he had drunk a pot of tea to wash the dust out of his throat, he shaved, bathed and dressed in clothes freshly ironed by Ishmael. Then he faced the fact that he was deliberately marking time, reluctant to go to Percy’s bungalow. Percy had been a private man and Leon would feel guilty of sacrilege if he ferreted around in his personal possessions. However, he steeled himself at last with the thought that this was what Percy had charged him to do.

He went up the hill to the little thatched bungalow that had been Percy’s home for the last forty years. Yet he was still reluctant to enter and sat for a while on the stoep, remembering some of the banter that the two of them had enjoyed while seated in the comfortable teak chairs with their elephant-skin cushions and the whisky-glass coasters carved into the armrests. At last he stood up again and went to the front door. It swung open to his touch. In all those years Percy had never bothered to lock it.

Leon went into the cool, dim interior. The walls of the front room were lined with bookcases, the shelves packed with hundreds of books. Percy’s library was a treasury of Africana. Instinctively Leon crossed to the central shelf and took down a copy of Monsoon Clouds Over Africa by Percy ‘Samawati’ Phillips. It was his autobiography. Leon had read it more than once. Now he flicked through the pages, enjoying some of the illustrations. Then he replaced it on the shelf and went into Percy’s bedroom. He had never been in this room before and looked around diffidently. A crucifix hung on one wall. Leo smiled. ‘Percy, you crafty old dog, I always thought you were an unrepentant atheist, but you were a secret Catholic all along.’

There was one other decoration on the monastically austere walls. An ancient, hand-coloured daguerreotype of a couple, sitting stiffly in what were obviously their best Sunday clothes, faced the bed. The woman held a small child of indeterminate sex on her lap. Despite his sideburns, the man was a dead ringer for Percy. The couple were unmistakably his parents, and Leon wondered if the child was Percy himself or one of his siblings.

He sat on the edge of the bed. The mattress was as hard as concrete and the blankets were threadbare. He reached under the bed and dragged out a battered steel cabin trunk. As it came it encountered resistance. He went down on one knee to see what had snagged it.

‘My oath!’ he muttered. ‘I wondered what you’d done with that.’ It required considerably more effort to drag the heavy item into plain view. Then he was gazing at a great ivory tusk, the pair of the one he had pawned to Mr Goolam Vilabjhi Esquire. ‘I thought you’d sold it, Percy, but all along you had it squirrelled away.’

He resumed his seat on the edge of the bed and possessively placed both feet on the tusk, then threw back the lid of the trunk. The interior was neatly packed with all of Percy’s treasures and valuables, from his passport to his accounts and his cheque book, from small jewellery boxes of cufflinks and dress studs to old steamline tickets and faded photographs. There were also several neat wads of documents tied with ribbon. Leon smiled again when he saw that one comprised all the clippings of the newspaper reports of the great safari, which had so prominently featured himself. On top of this hoard a folded document, sealed with red wax, was inscribed in block capitals: ‘TO BE OPENED BY LEON COURTNEY ONLY IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH’.

Leon weighed it in his hand, then reached for the hunting knife in its sheath on his belt. Carefully he prised open the wax seal and unfolded a single sheet of heavy manila paper. It was headed ‘Last Will and Testament’. Leon glanced at the bottom of the page. It was signed by Percy, and his two witnesses were Brigadier General Penrod Ballantyne and Hugh, the 3rd Baron Delamere.

Impeccable, Leon thought. Percy couldn’t have found more credible witnesses than those two. He started again at the top of the page and read the entire handwritten document carefully. The gist was clear and simple. Percy had left his entire estate, with nothing excluded, to his partner and dear friend Leon Ryder Courtney.

It took Leon some time to come to terms with the magnitude of Percy’s last gift to him. He had to read the document three more times in order to assimilate it. He still had not the slightest idea of Percy’s total wealth, but his firearms and safari equipment must have been worth at least five hundred pounds, to say nothing of the huge ivory tusk that Leon was using as a footstool. But the intrinsic value of the estate was of no concern to Leon: it was the gift itself, the earnest of Percy’s affection and esteem, that was the real treasure.

He was in no hurry to examine the remaining contents of the trunk, and sat for a while, considering the will. At last he carried the trunk out to the stoep where the light was better and settled into the easy chair that had been Percy’s favourite. ‘Keeping it warm for you, old man,’ he muttered apologetically, and began to unpack.

Percy had been meticulous in keeping his records in order. Leon opened his cash book and blinked with astonishment when he saw the balances of the deposits held by the Nairobi branch of Barclays Bank, Dominion, Colonial and Overseas to the credit of Percy Phillips Esq. They totalled a little more than five thousand pounds sterling. Percy had made him a wealthy man.

But that was not all. He found title deeds to land and properties not only in Nairobi and Mombasa but in the city of Bristol, the place of Percy’s birth, in England. Leon had no means of estimating what they might be worth.

The value was more readily apparent of the bundle of Consols, the 5 per cent perpetual bearer bonds issued by the government of Great Britain, the safest and most reliable investment in existence. Their face value was twelve and a half thousand pounds. The interest on that alone was more than six hundred per annum. It was a princely income. ‘Percy, I had no idea! Where the hell did you get it all from?’

When it grew dark Leon went into the front room and lit the lamps. He worked on until after midnight, sorting documents and reading accounts. When his eyelids drooped he went through to the austere little bedroom and stretched out under the mosquito net on Percy’s bed. The hard mattress welcomed his weary body. It felt good. After all his wanderings he had found a place that felt like home.

He woke to the dawn chorus of a thrush under the window. When he went down the hill he found Max Rosenthal and Hennie du Rand waiting anxiously in the mess tent. Ishmael had breakfast ready, but neither had touched it. Leon took his seat at the head of the table.

‘You can relax, and stop sitting on the edge of your chairs. Help yourselves to the eggs and bacon before they get cold and Ishmael throws a tantrum,’ he told them. ‘C and P Safaris is still in business. Nothing changes. You still have your jobs. Just carry on exactly as you were before.’

As soon as he had finished breakfast he went out to the Vauxhall. After Manyoro had cranked the engine to life, he and Loikot scrambled into the back and Leon headed for town. His first stop was at the little thatched building behind Government House that served as the Deeds Office. The clerk notarized Percy’s death certificate and his will, and Leon signed the entries in the huge leatherbound ledger.

‘As the executor of Mr Phillips’s estate, you have thirty days to file a statement of the assets of the estate,’ the clerk told him. ‘Then you must pay the duty before the remaining assets can be released to the named heirs.’

Leon was startled. ‘What do you mean? Are you trying to tell me there’s a charge for dying?’

‘That’s right, Mr Courtney. Death duties. Two and one half per cent.’

‘That’s blatant robbery and extortion,’ Leon exclaimed. ‘What if I refuse to pay?’

‘We will seize the assets and probably lock you up to boot.’

Leon was still fuming at the injustice when he drove through the front gates of the KAR barracks. He parked the truck in front of the headquarters building and went up the steps, acknowledging the salutes of the sentries as he passed. The new adjutant was sitting in the duty room. To Leon’s surprise, this was none other than Bobby Sampson. He now wore a captain’s pips on his epaulettes. ‘It seems that everybody around here is being promoted, even the lowest forms of animal life,’ Leon remarked from the doorway.

Bobby stared at him blankly for a moment, then bounded up from his desk and rushed to pump Leon’s hand joyously. ‘Leon, my old fruit! A thing of beauty is a joy for ever! I don’t know what to say, what? What?’

‘You’ve just said it all, Bobby.’

‘Tell me,’ Bobby insisted, ‘what have you been up to since last we met?’

They talked animatedly for a while, then Leon said, ‘Bobby, I’d like to see the general.’

‘I have no doubt that the Brig will be delighted to oblige, what? Wait here and I’ll have a quick word with him.’ Minutes later he returned and ushered Leon through into the CO’s office.

Penrod stood up and reached across his desk to shake Leon’s hand, then indicated the chair facing him. ‘This comes as a bit of a surprise, Leon. Didn’t expect you back in Nairobi for another month or so. What happened?’

‘Percy’s dead, sir.’ Leon’s voice caught as he made the bald statement.

Penrod stared at him speechlessly. Then he left his desk and went to the window to stand gazing out across the parade-ground, his hands clasped behind his back. They were silent for a while, until eventually Penrod came back to his seat. ‘Tell me what happened,’ he ordered.

Leon did so, and when he had finished, Penrod said, ‘Percy knew it was coming. He asked me to witness his will before he left town. Did you know he had made one?’

‘Yes, Uncle. He told me where to find it. I’ve already lodged it with the registrar.’

Penrod stood up and placed his cap on his head. ‘It’s a bit early, sun isn’t over the yardarm, but we’re duty-bound to give Percy a decent wake. Come on.’

Apart from the barman, the mess was empty. Penrod ordered the drinks and they sat together in the quiet corner traditionally reserved for the commanding officer and his guests. For a while their conversation revolved around Percy and the manner of his dying. Finally Penrod asked, ‘What will you do now?’

‘Percy left everything to me, sir; so I’m going to keep the company running, if for no other reason than to honour his memory.’

‘I’m pleased about that, for all the reasons of which you’re well aware,’ Penrod said, in hearty approval. ‘However, I suppose you’ll change its name.’

‘I’ve already done so, Uncle. I registered the new name at the Deeds Office this morning.’

‘Courtney Safaris?’

‘No, sir. Phillips and Courtney. P and C Safaris.’

‘You haven’t dropped his name. Instead you’ve given it the priority over your own that it never had before!’

‘The old name was decided on the spin of a coin. Percy really wanted it as it is now. This is just my way of trying to repay a little of all he did for me.’

‘Well done, my boy. Now, I have some good news for you. P and C Safaris is off to a flying start. The Princess Isabella Madeleine Hoherberg von Preussen von und zu Hohenzollern has given her endorsement to your company. It seems that Graf Otto von Meerbach, a family friend of hers, spoke to her on her return to Germany and she recommended you without reservation. Von Meerbach has accepted the quotation from Percy that I sent him and has already paid the requested deposit into your bank account. He’s confirmed that he’ll be coming out to British East Africa with his whole entourage at the beginning of next year for a six-month safari.’

Leon grimaced and swirled the ice in his glass. ‘Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter very much, now that Percy has gone.’

‘Cheer up, my boy. Von Meerbach is bringing out a couple of prototypes of his flying machines. Apparently he wants to test them under tropical conditions. Ostensibly he’s developing them as mail-carriers, but on this safari he plans to use them to spot game from the air. Anyway, that’s what he’s saying but, given his connections with the German Army, I doubt that this is the whole truth. I believe he’ll be using them to scout the back country along our border with German East Africa, with an eye to any future military offensives against us. Be that as it may, you might get the opportunity to fulfil your dream of sailing among the clouds while picking up some useful snippets of intelligence for me. Now, if you finish your drink we can return to my office. I’ll give you a copy of the confirmation von Meerbach sent. It’s the longest cablegram I’ve ever laid eyes upon, twenty-three pages in all, setting out his requirements for the safari. It must have cost him a ruddy fortune to send.’

Leon was waiting on the beach of Kilindini lagoon when the German tramp steamer SS Silbervogel anchored in the road-stead. He went out to her in the first lighter. When he went up the companion ladder five passengers were waiting to meet him on the afterdeck, the engineer and his mechanics from the Meerbach Motor Works, part of the team that Graf Otto von Meerbach had sent out as his vanguard.

The man in charge introduced himself as Gustav Kilmer. He was a muscular, capable-looking fellow in his early fifties, with a heavy jaw and close-cropped iron-grey hair. His hands were stained with embedded grease, and his fingernails were ragged from working with heavy tools. He invited Leon to take a glass of pilsener with him in the passenger saloon before they disembarked.

When they were seated with tankards in hand, Gustav went over the inventory of the cargo that was stowed in the Silbervogel’s holds, which comprised fifty-six huge crates weighing twenty-eight tons in total. There were also two thousand gallons of special fuel for the rotary aircraft engines in fifty-gallon drums, and another ton of lubrication oil and grease. In addition, three Meerbach motor vehicles were strapped under green tarpaulin covers on the afterdeck. Gustav explained that two were heavy transport trucks and the third was an open hunting car that had been designed jointly by himself and Graf Otto, and built in the Wieskirche factory. It was the only one of its kind in existence.

It took the lighters three days to ferry this vast cargo ashore. Max Rosenthal and Hennie du Rand were waiting at the head of a gang of two hundred black porters to transfer the drums and crates from the lighters to the goods trucks that were standing in the Kilindini railway siding.

When the three motor vehicles were brought ashore and unwrapped from their heavy tarpaulin covers, Gustav checked them for damage they might have suffered during the voyage, Leon watching his every move with fascination. The trucks were big and robust, far in advance of anything he had ever seen. One had been fitted with a thousand-gallon tank to carry fuel for the motors and aeroplanes, and in a separate compartment between the fuel tank and the driver’s seat there was a compact toolroom and workshop. Gustav assured Leon that, from the workshop, he could maintain all three vehicles and the aircraft anywhere in the field.

Leon was impressed by all of this, but it was the open hunting car that filled him with wonder. He had never seen such a beautiful piece of machinery. From the upholstered leather seats, fitted cocktail bar and gun racks to the enormous six-cylinder 100-horsepower engine under the long gleaming bonnet, it was a symphony of engineering genius.

By now Gustav had taken to Leon’s boyish charisma, and was further flattered by his interest in and unstinted praise of his creations. He invited Leon to be his passenger on the long drive up-country to Nairobi.

When at last the main cargo had been loaded on to the railway wagons, Leon ordered Hennie and Max aboard to shepherd it to Nairobi. As the train pulled out of the siding and puffed away into the littoral hills, Gustav and his mechanics mounted the three Meerbach vehicles and started the engines. With Leon in the passenger seat of the hunting car, Gustav led the trucks out on to the road. The drive was much too short for Leon, every mile a delight. He sat in the leather seat, which was more comfortable than the easy chairs on the stoep of the Muthaiga Country Club, and was cosseted by the swaying Meerbach patented suspension. He watched the speedometer with amazement as Gustav pushed the great machine to almost seventy miles an hour on one particularly smooth and straight stretch of road.

‘Not too long ago there was much debate as to whether or not the human body could survive speeds of this magnitude,’ Gustav told him comfortably.

‘It takes my breath away,’ Leon confessed.

‘Would you like to drive for a while?’ Gustav asked magnanimously.

‘I’d kill for half the chance,’ Leon admitted. Gustav chortled jovially, and pulled to the side of the track to relinquish the steering-wheel.

They beat the goods train to Nairobi by almost five hours and were on the platform to welcome it when it chugged in, its steam whistle shrieking. The driver shunted the trucks on to a spur rail to be unloaded the following morning. Leon had hired a contractor who operated a powerful steam traction engine to haul the cargo to its final destination.

In accordance with one of the numerous instructions that had been cabled from Meerbach headquarters in Wieskirche, Leon had already built a large open-sided hangar with a tarpaulin roof to serve as a workshop and storage area. He had sited this on the open plot of land he had inherited from Percy. It adjoined the polo ground, which he planned to use as a landing strip for the aircraft, which were still in their crates awaiting assembly.

These were busy days for Leon. One of Graf Otto von Meerbach’s cables gave detailed instructions for the provision of creature comforts for himself and his female companion. At each hunting location, Leon was to prepare adjoining quarters to accommodate the couple; he had been issued with detailed specifications for these commodious and luxurious suites. Furniture for them was packed in one of the crates, and included beds, wardrobes and linen. He had also received instructions as to how the dining arrangements should be conducted. Graf Otto had sent full sets of crockery and silver, with a pair of enormous solid silver candelabra, each weighing twenty pounds, that were sculpted with hunting scenes of stag and wild boar. The beautiful bone-china dinner service and the crystal glassware were embellished in gold leaf with the Meerbach coat of arms: a mailed fist brandishing a sword and the motto ‘Durabo!’ on a banner below it. ‘ “I shall survive!” ’ Leon translated the Latin. The fine white linen napery was embroidered with the same motif.

There were two hundred and twenty cases of the choicest champagnes, wines and liqueurs, and fifty crates of canned and bottled delicacies: sauces and condiments, rare spices like saffron, foie gras from Lyon, Westphalian ham, smoked oysters, Danish pickled herring, Portuguese sardines in olive oil, scallops in brine and Russian beluga caviar. Max Rosenthal was enraptured when he laid eyes for the first time on this epicurean hoard.

Apart from all of this there were six large cabin trunks labelled ‘Fräulein Eva von Wellberg. NOT TO BE OPENED BEFORE ARRIVAL OF THE OWNER.’ However, one of the largest had burst open and from it spilled a collection of magnificent feminine clothing and footwear suitable for every possible occasion. When Leon was summoned by Max to deal with the catastrophe of the damaged luggage, he gazed in wonder. The exquisite underwear, each separate article wrapped in tissue paper, caught his particular attention. He picked up a feathery wisp of silk and an enchanting, erotic fragrance wafted up from it. Prurient images bestirred themselves in his imagination. He repressed them sternly, and replaced the garment on the pile as he gave orders to Max to repack the trunk, then repair and reseal the damaged lid.

Over the weeks that followed, Leon delegated to Max and Hennie most of the petty details, while he spent every hour he could afford in the hangar at the polo field, watching Gustav and his team assemble the two aircraft. Gustav worked with precision and thoroughness. Each of the crates was marked with its contents so they were unpacked in the correct sequence. Slowly, day after day, the jigsaw puzzle of assorted engine parts, rigging wire and struts, wing and fuselage started to take on the recognizable shape of aircraft. When at last Gustav had completed the assembly, Leon was amazed by their size. Their fuselages were sixty-five feet long, and the wing spans a prodigious 110 feet. The framework was covered with canvas that had been treated with a cellulose derivative to give it the strength and tautness of steel. The aircraft were painted in marvellously flamboyant patterns and colours. The first was a dazzling chessboard of brilliant scarlet and black squares and the name painted on its nose was Das Schmetterling – the Butterfly. The second was decorated with black and golden stripes. Graf Otto had christened it Das Hummel – the Bumble Bee.

Once the bodywork had been assembled, the aircraft were ready to receive their engines. There were four 250 horsepower seven-cylinder fourteen-valve rotary Meerbach engines for each. After Gustav had bolted them in turn on to test beds made of teak railway sleepers, he started them. Their roar could be heard miles away in the Muthaiga Country Club, and soon every layabout in Nairobi had arrived to swarm around the hangar, like flies around a dead dog. They seriously impeded the work, and Leon had Hennie erect a barbed-wire fence around the property to keep the gaping throng at a distance.

Once Gustav had tuned the engines, he declared he was ready to fit them to the wings of the two aircraft. One by one they were hoisted by block and tackle on gantries built over the wings. Then he and his mechanics manoeuvred them into position and fixed them into their mountings, two engines on each bank of wings.

Three weeks after the commencement of the work, the assembly of the machines was completed. Gustav told Leon, ‘Now it is necessary to test them.’

‘Are you going to fly them?’ Leon had difficulty containing his excitement, but he was immediately disappointed when Gustav shook his head vehemently.

Nein! I am not a crazy man. Only Graf Otto flies these contraptions.’ He saw Leon’s expression and tried to console him a little. ‘I am only going to ground-taxi them, but you shall ride with me.’

Early the following morning Leon mounted the boarding ladder to the commodious cockpit of the Butterfly. Gustav, in a long black leather coat and matching leather helmet with a pair of goggles pushed up on to his forehead, followed him and seated himself on the pilot’s bench at the rear of the cockpit. First, he showed Leon how to strap himself in. From there Leon watched Gustav’s every move as he waggled the elevators and ailerons with the joystick, then did the same with the rudder bars. When he was satisfied that the controls were free he gave the signal to his assistants on the ground below, and they began the complicated starting routine. Finally all four engines were running smoothly, and Gustav gave the thumbs-up sign to his assistants, who dragged away the wheel chocks.

With Gustav playing the throttles as though they were the stops of a cathedral organ, the Butterfly rolled majestically out of the hangar and into the brilliant African sunshine. A cheer went up from the several hundred spectators who lined the barbed-wire boundary fence. Gustav’s men ran beside the wing-tips to help steer the machine as, bumping and rocking, the Butterfly made four ponderous circuits of the polo ground.

Gustav saw Leon’s yearning and, once again, took pity on him. ‘Come, take the controls!’ he shouted, above the din of the engines. ‘Let’s see if you can drive her.’

Joyfully Leon took his place on the pilot’s bench and Gustav nodded his approval as Leon swiftly gained the feel of joystick and rudder bars, refining his touch on the quadruple throttle levers. ‘Ja, my engines can feel that you respect and cherish them. You will soon learn to get the very best out of them.’

At last they returned to the hangar, and when Leon had climbed back down the ladder to the ground, he reached up on tiptoe to pat the Butterfly’s scarlet and black chequered nose. ‘One day I’m going to fly you, my big beauty,’ he whispered, to the towering machine. ‘Damn me if I don’t!’

Gustav came down behind him, and Leon took the opportunity to question him on something that had puzzled him for a while. He pointed out the racks of hooks and braces under the wings on each side of the fuselage. ‘What are these for, Gustav?’

‘They are for the bombs,’ Gustav replied guilelessly.

Leon blinked but kept his manner only mildly curious. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘How many can she carry?’

‘Many!’ Gustav answered proudly. ‘She is very powerful. Let me give you the English numbers, which maybe you will understand better. She can lift two thousand pounds of bombs, plus a crew of five and her full tanks of fuel. She can fly at a hundred and ten miles per hour at an altitude of nine thousand feet for a distance of five hundred miles and after that return to her base.’

‘She’s amazing!’

Gustav stroked the gaudy fuselage, like a father caressing his firstborn. ‘There is no other machine in the world to match her,’ he boasted.

By noon the following day Penrod Ballantyne had cabled the precise performance figures of the Meerbach Mark III Experimental to the War Office in London.

Leon’s next task was to select four landing strips in the wilderness, one at each of the widely separated locations where he intended to hunt with his client. Graf Otto had cabled him detailed instructions, setting out their required dimensions and their alignment to the prevailing winds. Once he had found suitable locations, Leon shot the levels with a theodolite and pegged out the runways. Meanwhile Hennie du Rand recruited hundreds of men from the surrounding villages and put them to work felling trees and smoothing the ground. In some places he had to dynamite termite mounds, in others to fill in numerous antbear holes and dongas. When each strip was completed he marked the periphery of the runways with lines of burned lime so that they were highly visible from the air. Then he raised one of the windsocks that Gustav had given him. It filled with the breeze and flew proudly at the top of its raw wood mast.

While Hennie built the airfields, Max Rosenthal was responsible for the construction of the elaborate camps that Graf Otto had specified. Leon had to drive both men hard to have everything in readiness for the imminent arrival of their guests. In the end they succeeded, but with only a few days to spare before the ocean liner carrying Graf Otto von Meerbach was due to anchor in Kilindini roads.

Leon bribed his way on board the pilot boat when it went out through the mouth of Kilindini lagoon to meet the German passenger liner SS Admiral from Bremerhaven as she hove up over the horizon. The sea was calm, so it was an easy transfer from the pilot boat to the liner. As he ran up the companion ladder he was challenged by the ship’s fourth officer. When he mentioned his client’s name, the man’s manner changed quickly and he led Leon up to the bridge.

From Kermit’s description, Leon recognized Graf Otto von Meerbach at first glance. He was standing in the wing of the bridge smoking a Cohiba cigar and chatting to the captain, whose attitude towards him was obsequious. Graf Otto was the only passenger allowed on the bridge during the complicated manoeuvre of anchoring the massive liner. Leon studied him for a few minutes, then went up to him to introduce himself.

Graf Otto wore an elegant cream tropical suit. He was as big and hard as an oak tree, as Kermit had said. He gave the impression of being all muscle, but carried himself with the poise and overbearing self-assurance of a man of limitless wealth and power. He was not handsome in any conventional sense; instead his features were hard and uncompromising. His mouth was wide, but a puckered white duelling scar ran from one corner to just under his right ear so that it seemed frozen in a lopsided sneer. His pale green eyes had an alert, intelligent sparkle. He carried a white Panama hat in his left hand, but for the moment his head was bare. His skull was well shaped and proportioned, and his thick, short-cropped hair bright ginger.

This is one tough, formidable bastard! Leon made a snap judgment before he approached him. ‘Do I have the honour of addressing Graf Otto von Meerbach?’ Leon gave him a minimal bow.

Jawohl, you do indeed. May I ask who you are?’ The Count’s voice was stentorian, his tone dictatorial.

‘I am Leon Courtney, sir, your hunter. Welcome to British East Africa.’

Graf Otto smiled with patronizing geniality, and extended his right hand. Leon saw that it was powerful and that the back was covered with golden freckles and curling ginger hair. He wore a gold ring set with a large white diamond on his third finger. Leon steeled himself for the handshake. He knew it would be crushing.

‘I have been looking forward to meeting you, Courtney, ever since I spoke to both Mr Kermit Roosevelt and the Princess Isabella von und zu Hohenzollern.’ Leon found he could match the power of that big freckled hand, but required all his strength to do so. ‘Both have a high opinion of you. I hope you will be able to show me some good sport, ja?’ Graf Otto spoke excellent English.

‘Indeed, sir. I have every expectation of doing so. I have obtained hunting permits in your name for a full bag of species. But you must inform me which quarry interests you most. Lions? Elephant?’ At last Graf Otto released his hand and the blood rushed back so painfully that it took all Leon’s determination to prevent himself massaging it. He caught a glint of respect in the pale green eyes. He knew that the other’s hand was also numbed, although he gave not the least indication that he was in pain.

‘Your German is good, but this I was told,’ Graf Otto replied, in the same language. ‘To answer your question, I am interested in hunting both of those species, but especially lions. My father was ambassador to Cairo at the time of Kitchener’s war with the Mahdi. This gave him the opportunity to hunt in Abyssinia and the Sudan. I have many of his lionskins at my hunting lodge in the Black Forest, but they are old now and some have been eaten by moths and worms. I have heard that the blacks here hunt the lions with a spear. Is that true?’

‘It is, sir. For the Masai and the Samburu it is a test of the young warrior’s courage and manhood.’

‘I should like to witness this manner of hunting.’

‘I shall arrange for you to do so.’

‘Good, but I also wish to obtain several pairs of large elephant tusks. Tell me, Courtney, in your opinion, which is the most dangerous wild animal in Africa? Is it the lion or the elephant?’

‘Graf Otto, the old Africa hands say that the most dangerous animal is the one that kills you.’

Ja, that I understand. It is a typical English joke.’ He chuckled. ‘But what do you say, Courtney? Which is it?’

Leon had a vivid image of the curved black horn protruding from Percy Phillips’s belly, and stopped smiling. ‘The buffalo,’ he replied seriously. ‘The wounded buffalo in thick cover is the one that gets my vote.’

‘I can see from your expression that you are speaking from the heart. No more English jokes, nein?’ Graf Otto said. ‘So, we hunt elephant and lions but most of all we hunt buffaloes.’

‘You understand, sir, that although I will do my best to help you procure trophies, these are wild beasts and much will depend on luck?’

‘I have always been a lucky man,’ Graf Otto replied. It was a statement of fact, not a boast.

‘That is abundantly obvious to even the most simple mind, sir.’

‘And it is just as obvious that you do not have a simple mind, Mr Courtney.’

Like two heavyweight boxers at the opening of the first round, they watched each other’s eyes as they smiled and feinted, keeping up their guard as they felt each other out, making quick assessments and subtly shifting their stance to meet every nuance in the charged current that flowed between them.

Then, unexpectedly, Leon became aware of a subtle perfume on the warm, tropical air. It was light and fragrant, the same enchanted scent that had captivated him once before as he held in his hand the silken garment from the ruptured cabin trunk. Then he saw Graf Otto’s eyes flick to look over his shoulder. Leon turned his head to follow his gaze.

She was there. Ever since he had read Kermit’s letter he had anticipated this meeting, but was still unprepared for the moment. He felt a flutter in his chest, like the wings of a trapped bird trying to escape from the cage of his ribs. His breath came short.

Her loveliness surpassed Kermit’s meagre description a hundredfold. Kermit had been correct in one detail only: her eyes. They were an intense blue, a shade darker than violet and softer than dove grey, slanting up at the outer corners. They were wide-spaced and fringed with long, dense lashes that meshed when she closed them. Her forehead was broad and deep, and the line of her jaw finely sculpted. Her lips were full and parted slightly when she smiled to reveal a glint of small, very white teeth. Her hair was a lustrous sable. She wore it scraped back from her face but, beneath the brim of the fashionable little hat cocked at a jaunty angle over one eye, soft tendrils had escaped the retaining pins and curled out over her little pink ears. She was tall, almost reaching Leon’s shoulder, but her waist was tiny.

The puffed sleeves of her piped velvet jacket left her arms bare from the elbows. They were shapely and lightly muscled, the limbs of an equestrienne. Her hands were elegantly formed, her fingers long and tapered, the nails pearly; the hands of an artist. From under her long, full skirts peeped the pointed toes of a pair of snakeskin riding boots. He imagined that the feet within the expensive leather must be as shapely as the hands.

‘Eva, may I present to you Herr Courtney? He is the hunter who is to take care of us during our little African adventure. Herr Courtney, may I present Fräulein von Wellberg,’ Otto said.

‘Enchanted, Fräulein,’ Leon responded. She smiled and proffered her right hand, palm down. When he took it he found it was warm and firm. He bowed and lifted it until her fingers were an inch from his lips, then released it and stepped back a pace. She held his eyes for only a moment longer. Looking into their depths he saw that her regard was enigmatic and layered with innuendo. He had the sensation of gazing into a pool whose secret depths could never be fully fathomed.

When she turned away to speak to Graf Otto, he felt a pang of some emotion totally alien to any he had ever experienced before. It was a strange mixture of elation and regret, of attainment and numbing bereavement. In a blink of time it seemed he had discovered something of infinite value that, in almost the same instant, had been snatched away. When Graf Otto placed one large freckled hand on Eva’s tiny waist and drew her closer to him, and she smiled up into his face, Leon hated him with a bitter relish that tasted like burned gunpowder in the back of his throat.

The transfer ashore was soon accomplished, for Graf Otto and his lovely consort had little luggage with them, fewer than a dozen large cabin trunks with some containers of Graf Otto’s rifles, shotguns and ammunition. Everything else had been sent out in the first shipment aboard the SS Silbervogel. While this luggage was quickly loaded into the big Meerbach truck that stood above the beach ready to receive it, Graf Otto greeted his employees from Wieskirche, who had lined up to welcome him. His manner towards them was that of a father to his young children: he greeted them by name and teased each in turn with little personal references. They wriggled like puppies, grinned and mumbled with gratification at his condescension. Leon saw that they worshipped Graf Otto as though he was God.

Then he turned to Leon. ‘You may introduce your assistants,’ he said, and Leon called Hennie and Max forward. Graf Otto treated them in the same easy, condescending manner, and Leon watched them fall almost immediately under his spell. He had a way with men, but Leon knew that if anyone ever crossed or disappointed him he would turn on them vindictively and mercilessly

Sehr gut, meine Kinder. Very well, children. Now we can go to Nairobi,’ Graf Otto proclaimed. With the Meerbach mechanics, Hennie, Max and Ishmael climbed into the back of the waiting truck, Gustav took the wheel, and the huge vehicle roared away along the road to Nairobi.

‘Courtney, you will ride with me in the hunting car,’ Graf Otto told Leon. ‘Fräulein von Wellberg will sit beside me, and you will take the back seat to show me the road and to point out to us the sights along the way.’ He made a fuss of settling her in the front passenger seat, with a mohair rug to cover her lap, a pair of goggles to protect her eyes from the wind, kid gloves to keep the sun off her flawless hands and a silk scarf knotted under her pretty chin to prevent her hat being blown away. Finally he checked the three rifles in the gun rack behind his seat, then climbed behind the steering-wheel, adjusted his goggles, revved the engine and accelerated away in pursuit of the truck. He drove very fast but with effortless skill. More than once Leon saw Eva’s grip on the door handle beside her tighten until her knuckles showed white as he accelerated through a tight bend, corrected an alarming skid as the wheels hit a patch of floury dust, or bounced through a series of corrugations, but her expression remained serene.

Once the road had climbed away from the coast they entered the game fields and soon they were speeding past herds of gazelle and larger antelope. Eva was distracted by them from the rapidity of their progress: she laughed and clapped with delight at the multitudes and their alarm antics as the car roared past.

‘Otto!’ she cried. ‘What are those pretty little animals, the ones that dance and prance in that delightful manner?’

‘Courtney, answer the Fräulein’s question,’ Graf Otto shouted, above the rush of the wind.

‘Those are Thomson’s gazelle, Fräulein. You will see many thousands more in the days ahead. They are the most common species in this country. The peculiar gait you have noticed is known as stotting. It is a display of alarm that warns all other gazelle in sight that danger threatens.’

‘Stop the car, please, Otto. I would like to sketch them.’

‘As you wish, my pretty one.’ He shrugged indulgently and pulled over. Eva balanced her sketchbook on her lap. Her charcoal flew over the page and, leaning forward unobtrusively, Leon saw a perfect impression of a stotting animal, its back arched and all four legs held stiffly, appear magically on the paper before his eyes. Eva von Wellberg was a gifted artist. He recalled the easel, the boxes of pastels and oil paints that had been shipped in on the SS Silbervogel ahead of her arrival. He had given them little thought at the time, but now their importance was clear.

From then onwards the journey was interrupted repeatedly at Eva’s request as she picked out subjects she wished to draw: a roosting eagle on the top branches of an acacia tree, or a female cheetah sauntering long-legged across the sun-seared savannah with her three young cubs following her in Indian file. Although he humoured her, it was soon obvious that Graf Otto was becoming bored with these checks and delays. At the next stop he dismounted and took down a rifle from the gun rack. Standing beside the car he killed five gazelle with as many shots as they bounded across the road in front of the car. It was an incredible display of marksmanship. Although Leon despised such wanton slaughter he kept a civil tone as he asked, ‘What do you wish to do with the dead animals, sir?’

‘Leave them,’ said Graf Otto, offhandedly, as he replaced the rifle in the rack.

‘Do you not wish to examine them, sir? One has a fine set of horns.’

Nein. You say there will be many more. Leave them to feed the vultures. I was merely checking the sights of my rifle. Let us go on.’

Eva’s cheek was pale as they drove on, Leon noticed, and her lips were pursed. He took this as evidence of her disapproval, and his opinion of her was enhanced.

Graf Otto’s attention was on the road ahead, and Eva had not looked directly at Leon since their first meeting on the ship’s bridge. She had not spoken to him either: all her queries and remarks were relayed to him through Graf Otto. He wondered at this. Perhaps she was naturally extremely modest, or he did not like her to talk to other men. Then he recalled that she had been friendly with Gustav, and had chatted easily to Max and Hennie when they were introduced to her at Kilindini. Why was she so remote from and aloof with him? From the rear seat he was able surreptitiously to study her features. Once or twice Eva shifted uneasily in her seat, or tucked a tendril of hair under her scarf with a self-conscious gesture, and the cheek that was turned towards him flushed delicately as though she was fully aware of his interest.

A little after midday they came around another bend in the dusty road and found Gustav standing on the verge, waiting for them. He flagged down the car, and when Graf Otto braked to a halt, he ran to the driver’s side. ‘I beg your pardon, sir, but your luncheon has been prepared, if you should wish to partake.’ He pointed to where the big truck was parked in a grove of fever trees two hundred yards off the road.

‘Good. I’m ravenous,’ Graf Otto replied. ‘Jump up on the running-board, Gustav, and I’ll give you a lift.’ With Gustav clinging to the side of the car they bumped across the rough ground towards where the truck was parked.

Ishmael had spread a sun awning between four trees and in its shade he had set up a trestle table and camp chairs. The table was covered with a snowy linen cloth, silver cutlery and china. As they climbed stiffly out of the car and stretched their limbs Ishmael, in his red fez and long white kanza, came to each in turn with a basin of warm water, a bar of lavender-perfumed soap, and a clean hand towel over his arm.

As soon as they had washed, Max showed them to the table. Platters of carved ham and cheese were laid out, with baskets of black bread, crocks of butter and an enormous silver dish filled with Russian beluga caviar. He drew the cork from the first of the platoon of wine bottles that were standing to attention on the side table and poured the crisp yellow Gewürztraminer into long-stemmed glasses.

Eva picked delicately at the food. She drank a few mouthfuls of wine, and ate a single biscuit spread with a tablespoon of caviar, but Graf Otto fell to like a trencherman. When the meal was over he had polished off two bottles of Gewürztraminer on his own account, and had left the caviar dish, the platters of ham and the cheese in sorry disarray. He showed no ill-effects from the wine when he took his place in the driver’s seat once more and they drove on towards Nairobi, but his speed increased substantially, his laughter was unrestrained and his sense of humour less decorous.

When they came upon a party of black women walking in single file along the edge of the road with bundles of cut thatching grass balanced on their heads, Graf Otto slowed to a walking pace to study the girls’ naked breasts openly. Then, as he pulled away, he laid a hand on Eva’s lap in a possessive and familiar manner and said, ‘Some like chocolate – but I prefer vanilla.’ She grasped his wrist and replaced his hand on the steering-wheel. ‘The road is dangerous, Otto,’ she remarked evenly, and Leon seethed with outrage at the humiliation he had inflicted on her so casually. He wanted to intervene to protect her in some way but he sensed that Graf Otto in wine would be unpredictable and dangerous. For Eva’s sake, he restrained himself.

But then his anger turned on her. Why did she allow herself to be the butt of such behaviour? She was not a whore. Then, with a shock, he realized that that was precisely what she was. She was a high-class courtesan. She was Graf Otto’s plaything, and had placed her body at his disposal in return for a few tawdry ornaments, fripperies and, most probably, a harlot’s wages. He tried to despise her. He wanted to hate her, but another thought shocked him, like a blow from a mailed fist between the eyes: if she was a whore then so was he. He thought of the princess, and the others to whom he had sold himself and his services.

We all have to survive the best we can, he thought, trying to justify himself and her. If Eva is a whore then we are all whores. But he knew that none of this was relevant. It was far too late to hate or despise her because he had already fallen hopelessly in love with her.

They drove into Tandala Camp as the sun was setting, and Graf Otto disappeared with Eva into the luxurious quarters that stood ready to receive them. Ishmael and three of his kitchen staff carried their dinner into their private dining room. The couple did not reappear until after breakfast the following morning.

Guten Tag, Courtney. See to it that these letters are delivered at once.’ Graf Otto handed him a bundle of envelopes sealed with red wax wafers and embossed with the double-headed eagles of the German Foreign Office in Berlin. They were addressed to the governor of the colony, and to all the other notables in Nairobi, including Lord Delamere and the officer commanding His Britannic Majesty’s forces in British East Africa, Brigadier General Penrod Ballantyne. ‘They are my letters of introduction from the Kaiserliche government,’ he explained, ‘and must be delivered today, without fail, ja?’

‘Of course, sir. I’ll see that this is done immediately.’ Leon sent for Max Rosenthal and, in Graf Otto’s presence, charged him with delivering the letters. ‘Take one of the motors, Max. Don’t come back until every one has been handed over.’

As Max drove away, Eva came from the private quarters to join them. She was dressed in riding kit and looked fresh and rested, her hair shining in the sunlight, her skin glowing with the sweet young blood under it.

Graf Otto scrutinized her approvingly, then turned back to Leon. ‘And now, Courtney, we will go to the airfield. I will fly my machines.’ During the night the hunting car had been washed and polished. All three of them got into it, and Graf Otto drove through the town to the polo ground.

When they arrived Gustav already had the Butterfly and the Bumble Bee drawn up on the edge of the field. Graf Otto walked around each aircraft, inspecting them carefully, while he engaged in earnest discussion with Gustav. Eventually he climbed up on to the wings to check the tension of the rigging wires and the struts. He opened the engine cowlings and examined the fuel lines and throttle cables. He unscrewed the filler caps of the fuel tanks and used a dipstick to ascertain the levels.

It was the middle of the morning before he expressed his complete satisfaction with the two aircraft, then went to the boarding ladder and climbed into the cockpit of the Bumble Bee. He buckled the chinstrap of his flying helmet then beckoned Gustav. The two men had a muttered conversation, Graf Otto pointing to the hunting car. Then Gustav started the engines. When they had warmed up and were running sweetly, Graf Otto taxied down to the far end of the polo field and swung the huge machine around until its nose was pointing into the breeze.

The sound of the engines had summoned the entire population of Nairobi and, once again, they were lining the field in excited anticipation. The four engines burst into a lion-throated roar and the Bumble Bee started to roll back towards where Eva and Leon stood in front of the hangar. Leon was a few paces behind her, in a position of attendance rather than equality. Swiftly the Bumble Bee gathered speed. She lifted her tail wheel from the ground and Leon held his breath as he watched the massive undercarriage bounce lightly over the turf, then break free of gravity and rise into the air. With a mere twenty feet to spare, the machine bellowed over their heads. The crowd ducked instinctively – everyone except Eva.

As Leon straightened he saw that she had been watching him covertly. A faintly mocking smile lifted the corners of her mouth. ‘Goodness me!’ she taunted him lightly. ‘Is this the intrepid hunter and fearless slayer of wild animals?’

It was only the second time since their meeting that she had looked him full in the face, and the first that she had addressed him directly. He was startled by how her demeanour changed when Graf Otto was not present. ‘Fräulein, I hope this is the only time that I fall short of your expectations.’ He gave her a small bow.

She turned away, deliberately terminating the brief contact, and shaded her eyes to watch the Bumble Bee circle the field. It was a light rebuff, but Leon savoured the memory of her smile, no matter that it had been mocking rather than friendly. He followed her gaze and saw that the Bumble Bee was already dropping towards the field for a landing.

Graf Otto touched down and taxied back to the hangar. He cut the engines and clambered down. The watching crowd cheered him wildly and he acknowledged them with a wave of his gloved hand. Gustav rushed to meet him, and the two men walked across to the Butterfly deep in conversation. Graf Otto left him at the foot of the ladder, climbed up into the cockpit and started the engines. He taxied her to the end of the polo field, turned her and came thundering back towards them. Once again Leon marvelled at the miracle of flight as the Butterfly left the ground and swept low over his head. This time he stood stock-still, and when he glanced at Eva she was watching him again. She inclined her head and her violet eyes sparkled with wicked fun. Her voice was drowned by the hubbub of the spectators, but he could read her lips as they formed a single word: ‘Bravo!’ The mockery was softened by another small, secret smile. Then she turned away to watch the aircraft circle the field twice before it lined up into the wind for the landing. It touched down and taxied to where they stood in front of the hangar.

Leon expected Graf Otto to cut the engines and disembark, but instead he leaned over the side of the cockpit and scrutinized the faces in the crowd below. He picked out Eva and signalled to her to come to him. She moved quickly to do his bidding, Gustav and two of his men running ahead of her with the boarding ladder. Halfway to the Butterfly the slipstream from the propellers caught her and flogged her skirts around her legs. Her broad-brimmed hat was whisked off her head, and her long dark hair tumbled around her face. She laughed and continued to run. Her hat was carried to where Leon stood and he caught it as it rolled past him.

Eva reached the bottom of the ladder and climbed lightly up the rungs. Clearly she had done it many times before. Leon watched her disappear over the rim of the cockpit. Then Graf Otto’s helmeted head turned towards him and he beckoned. Taken by surprise, Leon touched his own chest in an interrogatory gesture. ‘Who? Me?’ Graf Otto nodded emphatically and beckoned again, this time more imperiously.

Leon ran through the slipstream, his heart pounding with excitement, and scrambled up the ladder. As he dropped into the cockpit he handed the hat to Eva. She barely turned her head in his direction as she took it from him. The playful exchanges of a few minutes earlier might never have taken place. From somewhere she had found herself a leather flying helmet, which she strapped under her chin. Then she covered her eyes with the smoked lenses of the goggles.

‘Pull up the ladder!’ Graf Otto shouted, and reinforced the command with a hand signal. Leon leaned over the side, lifted it and hooked it into the retaining brackets on the fuselage.

‘Good. Sit here!’ Graf Otto indicated the seat beside him. Leon sat in it and fastened the safety strap across his lap. Graf Otto cupped his hands into a trumpet and bellowed into his ear, ‘You will navigate for me, ja?’

‘Where are we going?’ Leon shouted back.

‘To the closest of your hunting camps.’

‘That’s more than a hundred miles away,’ Leon protested.

‘A short hop. Ja! We will go there.’ He opened the throttles and taxied back to the far side of the field, paused to check the dials on his dashboard, then slowly pushed the four throttle levers forward to their full extent. The thunder of the Meerbach engines was deafening. The Butterfly bounded forward, bumping and thumping over every irregularity in the ground, her wings rocking and swaying as she gained speed swiftly. Leon clung to the rim of the cockpit, peering ahead. Tears started from his eyes as the wind ripped at them, but his heart was singing almost as loudly as the engines. Then, suddenly, all the rocking and bumping stopped with dramatic suddenness. Leon looked over the side and saw the earth dropping away below him. ‘We’re flying!’ he shouted into the wind. ‘We’re really flying!’ He saw the town below him but it took him moments to recognize it. Everything looked so different from that angle. He had to take his bearings from the snake of the railway line before he could pick out other landmarks: the pink walls of the Muthaiga Country Club; the shining corrugated-iron roof of Delamere’s new hotel; the whitewashed bulk of Government House and the governor’s residence.

‘Which way?’ Graf Otto had to shake his arm to get his attention.

‘Follow the railway line.’ Leon pointed westwards. With both hands he was trying to shield his eyes from the hundred-mile-an-hour wind that tore at his face. Graf Otto prodded his ribs with a bony finger and pointed at a small cubby-hole in the side of the cockpit. Leon opened it and found another leather flying helmet at the back. He pulled it over his head and buckled the strap under his chin, then adjusted the goggles over his eyes. Now he could see, and the side flaps of the helmet protected his eardrums from the roar of the rushing wind.

While he had been engrossed with fitting his helmet Eva had risen from her seat and moved to the front of the cockpit where she was standing, holding the handrail that ran around the rim. She resembled a figurehead on the bows of a man-o’-war, as she balanced gracefully against the motion of the Butterfly.

At that moment the aircraft plummeted sickeningly and unexpectedly. Leon grabbed at the nearest handhold in panic. He knew, without a shadow of doubt, that they were about to fall out of the sky and die a swift but violent death in a pile of wreckage on the earth far below. But the Butterfly was unperturbed: she waggled her wings in a dignified gesture of contempt at the forces of gravity and flew on serenely into the west.

Eva was still standing in the nose, and only then did Leon notice the safety-belt buckled around her waist and the karabiner snap-link at the other end of the lanyard hooked into a steel eye bolt in the floorboards between her feet. It had prevented her being hurled over the side when the Butterfly had dropped.

Graf Otto was still handling the controls with gentle touches of his big, freckled hands. He grinned at Leon around the unlit Cohiba cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth. ‘Thermal!’ he shouted above the wind. ‘It is nothing.’

Leon was mortified by his own panicky display. He had read enough about the theory of flight to know that air acted in the same way as water, with all its unpredictable currents and eddies.

‘Go forward.’ Graf Otto gestured. ‘Go forward to where you can see ahead to guide me.’ Leon edged gingerly to the front of the cockpit. Without a glance in his direction Eva moved aside to make room for him and he took up his position beside her and fastened his safety belt to the ring bolt. They braced themselves with both hands on the rail. They were so very close that he fancied, despite the wind, that he could smell a trace of her special perfume. Facing forward, he glanced at her from the corner of his eye. The slipstream flattened the blouse and long skirt against her body and limbs so that every curve and contour was accentuated. For the first time he was able to make out the shape of her legs, long and slender, and then he looked to the twin mounds of her bosom under the velveteen jacket. He saw at once that her breasts were larger than they had seemed, rounder and fuller than Verity O’Hearne’s had been. He forced himself to tear his eyes away and look ahead.

Already they were approaching the rim of the Great Rift Valley. He picked out the glint of the steel tracks where the railway began its descent of the escarpment to the volcanic steppe of the valley floor. He looked back at Graf Otto and gave him a hand signal to turn ninety degrees southwards. The German nodded and the Butterfly dropped one wing and went into a lazy left-hand turn. Centrifugal force pushed Eva lightly against him, and for a long, exquisite moment Leon felt the outside of her warm thigh press against his. She seemed oblivious to this for she made no move to pull away. Then Graf Otto lifted the port wing and the Butterfly came back on to even keel again. The contact was broken.

The Great Rift Valley opened before them. From this altitude it was a vista that belonged not to petty mankind but to God and his angels. Now Leon could truly appreciate the immensity of the land: the seared and rocky hills, the lion-coloured plains blotched with dark expanses of forest, and the blue palisades of hills and mountains stretching away into infinite distances.

Suddenly the deck canted under their feet as Graf Otto lowered the Butterfly’s nose and she dropped into the airy void. The cliffs of the escarpment rushed under them, so close that it seemed her wheels must bounce off the rocks. The valley floor loomed up to meet them. Leon saw Eva’s fists tighten into balls on the handrail. He could see that the tension in her body was arching her back. To pay her back for her earlier sauciness he released his own grip on the rail, and placed his hands on his hips, leaning easily into the dive as the aircraft dropped. This time she could not ignore him, and shot him a quick glance as he balanced against the disparate forces that dragged at his body. Then she looked ahead, but lifted one hand from the rail and turned it palm upwards in a gesture of resignation.

Graf Otto pulled the Butterfly’s nose up out of her dive down the valley wall. Leon’s knees buckled under the force of gravity and Eva was pushed against him once more. She swayed away as the Butterfly came back again on to even keel. They barrelled along the escarpment with the wall flashing past on the port side, so close that it seemed the wing-tip might touch it at any moment.

Suddenly Leon saw what appeared to be a swarm of large black scarab beetles crawling along a mile or so ahead. It was only when the Butterfly raced down on them that he saw it was a large herd of buffalo charging away in panic from their approach. He made another hand signal to Graf Otto, and the Butterfly banked steeply towards the fleeing herd. Once again Eva was pressed against him, but this time she gave him a deliberate bump with her hip. With a surge like electricity through his loins, he understood she was letting him know that she was just as aware of these physical contacts as he was.

They flashed over the heaving backs of the buffalo, so close that Leon could see each pellet of dried mud sticking to their hair, and clearly discern the parallel pattern of scars across the shoulders of the leading bull, left by the raking claws of a marauding lion.

They flew on until Eva waved excitedly and pointed out on her side of the fuselage. Graf Otto banked in the direction she was pointing. Then the Butterfly was straight and lined up on five huge elephant bulls, wading through the dense thorny undergrowth a short distance ahead. Although she no longer had the excuse of gravity, Eva gave him another cheeky little bump with her hip. It was a titillating but dangerous game they were playing, right under Graf Otto von Meerbach’s nose. Leon laughed into the wind and, without moving her head, Eva peeped at him through lowered lashes and smiled secretly.

They bore down on the running elephant. Leon saw that they were all old bulls and at least two carried tusks of more than a hundred pounds a side. Another had only a single, the other broken off at the lip, but the remaining one was colossal and dwarfed those of his companions. Otto dropped lower, then lower still, until it looked as though he meant to fly straight into the herd. The elephant seemed to realize that they could not outrun the Butterfly: they turned back and bunched up, shoulder to shoulder, forming a solid phalanx to confront this threat from the skies. Trumpeting so loudly that Leon could hear them above the engine, they charged headlong to meet the aircraft. As she skimmed over them they reared up, flaring their ears, and stretched out their serpentine trunks as though to snatch her out of the air.

Graf Otto climbed several hundred feet above the ground and flew on southwards. New and unexpected vistas opened before them. They flew over hidden valleys, secret re-entrants and salients in the walls of the Rift, some of which were not reflected on any survey map Leon had ever studied. Two or three valleys were fed by streams and pastured with green grass on which herds of large mammals, from giraffe to rhinoceros, had congregated. Leon tried to memorize the exact location of each one so that he could return to explore them, but they were flying so fast he found it difficult to keep track of their progress.

They climbed higher still until they could make out the vast massif of Kilimanjaro looming on the southern horizon a hundred miles or more ahead. The mountain was blue with distance, its crest wreathed in silver cloud through which the sun threw golden blades of light. Then Graf Otto waggled the wings to attract Leon’s attention and pointed out a closer mountain, only twenty or thirty miles off. The table top was unmistakable, and was probably what had attracted his notice.

‘Lonsonyo Mountain!’ Leon cried, but his voice was lost in the roar of wind and engines. ‘Go there!’ He made vehement hand signals, and Graf Otto opened the throttles wide. The Butterfly rose upwards, but the table of Lonsonyo stood almost ten thousand feet above sea level, near the aircraft ceiling. At first she climbed rapidly, but as the altitude increased her speed bled off. She became so sluggish that they cleared the top of the cliffs by no more than fifty feet.

Before them, Lusima’s cattle were spread out as they grazed on the sweet grasses of the high table land. Beyond them Leon picked out the pattern of the huts and cattle pens that formed the manyatta, and signalled to Otto to turn towards the village. Goats, chickens and naked herd-boys scattered at their approach. It was easy to single out Lusima’s hut from the others, for it was the largest and grandest, closest to the spreading branches of her council tree. There was no sign of Lusima until they were almost directly overhead. Then, suddenly, she appeared, ducking out of the low doorway of her hut and staring up at him. She was naked except for her tiny red loincloth, and the colourful bangles and necklaces around her ankles, wrists and neck. She gazed up at the Butterfly with an expression of comical bewilderment.

‘Lusima!’ Leon yelled, and ripped off his helmet and goggles. ‘Lusima Mama! It is me! M’bogo, your son!’ He waved frantically and suddenly she recognized him. He was so close that he saw her face light up and she waved with both hands, but then they were past and dropping down the far side of the mountain.

Once again Graf Otto waggled the wings and, with hand signals, asked Leon to point out the course he should take to reach the hunting camp. They had left it on the far side of Lonsonyo Mountain, so Leon directed him into a right-hand circuit of the sheer cliffs below the table land. He had never seen this side of the mountain before. Up until now, he had always approached and ascended from the southern side.

The rock was as sheer and impregnable as the outer wall of some monumental medieval fortress and lichen had painted on it a patchwork of many colours. Then, unexpectedly, the Butterfly came level with a break in the wall, a vertical chimney of rock, splitting the cliff from the summit right down to the scree slope at the foot of the mountain. Over the lip of the cliff at the top of the chimney spilled a bright cascade of water, a stream that drained the rain-sodden table land above and fell in undulating lacy curtains down the moss-blackened stone. As they passed, the wind blew eddies of fine spray into their faces. It dewed their goggles, and was cold as snowflakes on their cheeks.

The waterfall fell several hundred feet into the pool at the base of the cliff. The sun’s rays did not reach into that dark and mysterious gorge: it was filled with shadow that turned the pool black as an inkwell. It was so perfectly circular that it might have been built by ancient Roman or Egyptian architects. They were only able to gaze on this grand sight for a few short seconds before the Butterfly had sped past it; the rock flue seemed to close behind them with the finality of a massive cathedral door, shutting from view all trace of the waterfall.

When they flew out of the shadow of the mountain, the sun was already turning red as it passed through the haze of dust and smoke that hung low to the horizon. Leon gazed out over the purple plain, searching for his first glimpse of the hunting camp. At last, far ahead, he picked out the silver sausage of the windsock that marked the airstrip floating at the peak of its mast. He signed to Graf Otto to turn towards it, and soon they could make out the cluster of canvas and newly thatched roofs of what Leon had named Percy’s Camp. Just behind it stood a small kopje, no more than a few hundred feet high but visible for many miles.

Graf Otto circled the camp to check the wind direction and the orientation of the landing strip. As they banked around on the far side of his camp, Leon looked down the wing on to a dense, seemingly impenetrable wilderness of hookthorn bushes. It stretched for many miles, and in its midst he spotted another cluster of those dark shapes. By their bulk he knew at once that they were buffalo bulls, three old bachelors. One thing was certain, and that was that those old recluses would be cantankerous and highly dangerous. When they raised their heads and stared malevolently up at the aircraft, Leon evaluated them quickly, then muttered to himself, ‘Not a decent head among them. They’re all wearing yarmulkas.’ It was an irreverent reference to the Jewish prayer cap, used by the old hunters to describe a pair of buffalo horns so old and worn away that the points had gone, leaving only a skullcap of horn.

As Graf Otto touched down and let the Butterfly run out to the far end of the strip, they saw a cloud of dust tearing down the rutted track from the camp. A truck clattered into view with Hennie du Rand at the wheel, Manyoro and Loikot perched standing in the back.

‘So sorry, boss!’ Hennie greeted Leon, when he came down the ladder from the cockpit. ‘We were not expecting you to arrive for another few weeks at least. You’ve taken us by surprise.’ He was visibly flustered.

‘I’m as surprised to be here as you are to see me. The Graf works to his own timetable. Is there food and liquor in camp?’

Ja!’ Hennie nodded. ‘Max brought plenty from Tandala.’

‘Is there hot water in the shower? Are the beds made up, and is there paper in the thunderbox?’

‘There will be before you can ask again,’ Hennie promised.

‘Then we shall be all right. The Graf’s family motto is “Durabo”, I shall survive. We’ll put it to the test this evening,’ Leon said, and turned to Graf Otto as he came down the ladder.

‘I’m pleased to be able to tell you that all is in readiness for you, sir,’ he lied blithely, and led the couple to their quarters.