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The Sound of Thunder

By´╝ÜWilbur Smith

– 1 –

Four years of travel in the roadless wilderness had battered the wagons. Many of the wheel-spokes and disselbooms had been replaced with raw native timber; the canopies were patched until little of the original canvas was visible; the teams were reduced from eighteen to ten oxen each, for there had been predators and sickness to weed them out. But this exhausted little caravan carried the teeth of five hundred elephant; ten tons of ivory; the harvest of Sean Courtney’s rifle; ivory that he would convert into nearly fifteen thousand gold sovereigns once he reached Pretoria.

Once more Sean was a rich man. His clothing was stained and baggy, crudely mended; his boots were worn almost through the uppers and clumsily resoled with raw buffalo hide; a great untrimmed beard covered half his chest and a mane of black hair curled down his neck to where it had been hacked away with blunt scissors above the collar of his coat. But despite his appearance he was rich in ivory, also in gold held for him in the vaults of the Volkskaas Bank in Pretoria.

On a rise of ground beside the road he sat his horse and watched the leisurely plodding approach of his wagons. It is time now for the farm, he thought with satisfaction. Thirty-seven years old, no longer a young man, and it was time to buy the farm. He knew the one he wanted and he knew exactly where he would build the homestead – site it close to the lip of the escarpment so that in the evenings he could sit on the wide stoep and look out across the plain to the Tugela River in the blue distance.

‘Tomorrow early we will reach Pretoria.’ The voice beside him interrupted his dreaming, and Sean moved in the saddle and looked down at the Zulu who squatted beside his horse.

‘It has been a good hunt, Mbejane.’

‘Nkosi, we have killed many elephant.’ Mbejane nodded and Sean noticed for the first time the strands of silver in the woolly cap of his hair. No longer a young man either.

‘And made many marches,’ Sean went on and Mbejane inclined his head again in grave agreement.

‘A man grows weary of the trek,’ Sean mused aloud. ‘There is a time when he longs to sleep two nights at the same place.’

‘And to hear the singing of his wives as they work the fields.’ Mbejane carried it further. ‘And to watch his cattle come into the kraal at dusk with his sons driving them.’

‘That time has come for both of us, my friend. We are going home to Ladyburg.’

The spears rattled against his raw-hide shield as Mbejane stood up, muscles moved beneath the black velvet of his skin and he lifted his head to Sean and smiled. It was a thing of white teeth and radiance, that smile. Sean had to return it and they grinned at each other like two small boys in a successful bit of mischief.

‘If we push the oxen hard this last day we can reach Pretoria tonight, Nkosi.’

‘Let us make the attempt.’ Sean encouraged him and walked his horse down the slope to intercept the caravan.

As it toiled slowly towards them through the flat white glare of the African morning a commotion started at its rear and spread quickly along the line, the dogs clamoured and the servants shouted encouragement to the rider who raced past them towards the head of the caravan. He lay forward in the saddle, driving the pony with elbows and heels, hat hanging from the leather thong about his neck and black hair ruffled with the speed of his run.

‘That cub roars louder than the lion that sired him,’ grunted Mbejane, but there was a fondness in his expression as he watched the rider reach the leading wagon and drag the pony from full run down on to his haunches.

‘Also he spoils the mouth of every horse he rides.’ Sean’s voice was as harsh as Mbejane’s, but there was the same fond expression in his eyes as he watched his son cut loose the brown body of a springbok from the pommel of his saddle and let it drop into the road beside the wagon. Two of the wagon drivers hurried to retrieve it, and Dirk Courtney kicked his pony and galloped down to where Sean and Mbejane waited beside the road.

‘Only one?’ Sean asked as Dirk checked the pony and circled back to fall in beside him.

‘Oh, no. I got three – three with three shots. The gunboys are bringing the others.’ Offhanded, taking as natural that at nine years of age he should be providing meat for the whole company, Dirk slouched down comfortably in the saddle, holding the reins in one hand and the other resting negligently on his hip in faithful imitation of his father.

Scowling a little to cover the strength of his pride and his love, Sean examined him surreptitiously. The beauty of this boy’s face was almost indecent, the innocence of the eyes and faultless skin should have belonged to a girl. The sun struck ruby sparks from the mass of dark curls, his eyes spaced wide apart were framed with long black lashes and overscored by the delicate lines of the brow. His eyes were emerald and his skin was gold and there were rubies in his hair – a face fashioned by a jewelsmith. Then Sean looked at the mouth and experienced a twinge of uneasiness. The mouth was too big, the lips too wide and soft. The shape of it was wrong – as though it were about to sulk or whine.