I once met some leopards, said Jordan, that walked like men.
One year on the Loita plains the desire to find the Elephant Stone was strong inside me and I let many elephants pass, looking for the tuskless bull that would carry the gem behind his eye-socket. I never found him but I was forced to shoot one big tusker that charged us, and I hit him in the lung. He went away through the scrub, blowing a froth of blood that hung on the vines like pink grapes. We tracked this spoor until nightfall.
The night was moonless and uneasy, and I lay awake for most of it, looking beyond the rim of fire to the darkness, and many times I thought I saw shapes moving there. The only one I saw clearly was a yellow hyena, brushing the earth with its snout, and it came into the firelight and took the foot of my gun-bearer in its jaws. The boy awoke and the camp awoke, and the Lumbwa threshed around in the bush with their spears. I called them in, and I told them that I had seen a strange thing, many leopards out there in the bush, and they looked at me in an odd way and said nothing. But I was puzzled too, for I was sure they had been leopards I had seen, and leopards rarely run in crowds.
We followed the blood-spoor in the morning, westward, and it was a trail I did not much like, for it led toward the hills where the Kisi had been raiding. In two hours we saw vultures hanging, and I knew we had found the tusker. When we came upon it the tusks had gone. My Lumbwa walked about the dead elephant, soft-footed and muttering. I called them and told them that we would pursue the Kisi and recover the tusks.
They stood still and looked at the dust. I asked them whether their blood had turned to water. I asked them whether the Lumbwa were now afraid of the Kisi who
were women compared with the Lumbwa. They were still silent, and I told them that the Lumbwa had always been my brothers and I had not believed there could be this weakness in them.
Arab Moina, my bearer, said it had not been the Kisi who stole the tusks, but the jabla.nket-mach.oies, and when he said it had been the leopard-wizards I laughed at him. My laughing made the Lumbwa more sullen. Arab Moina went to the elephant and pointed his sword at the earth, and suggested that the Bwana see for himself, there was no spoor of man, only the tracks of leopard.
It was the truth. There were no footprints, only the pad-marks of a lioness or a leopard, and many of them. Also I knew that if the Kisi had taken the tusks they would not have left the meat, for the Kisi, if they have no taste for killing elephant, have a great longing for its meat.
I said to Arab Moina, there are no such things as leopard-men.
He said, who took the tusks, Bwana? Which was a question I could not answer.
I said, who are the jablanket-machoies ?
They were shitanis, Bwana. They were devils who were part man and part leopard, with all the evil of man and all the cunning of leopard. Once a month they hunted elephant and hunted man. They carried guns, and they liked to eat women.
I said this was what men dreamed when they had taken too much honey-beer.
It was true, Bwana. Many times had Arab Moina seen their camps in the forest, and the bones of men about the dead fires. There had been a great warrior of the Setick Lumbwa who had been captured by the leopard-men. They had bitten him in the arm and in the shoulder, and had clawed his head the way leopards will. He broke free from them and ran to his village, and as he ran the leopard-men had fired a musket-ball into his arm. Because his people knew him to be a great warrior they believed what he told them. The next day the poison from the claw-marks entered his brain, and he walked in the forest, laughing and talking to himself. This had happened many rains before, but there had been much else to prove that the jablanket-machoies were real.
I said that if this were so the Lumbwa should follow me and destroy the leopard-men. I called them cowards, but although Arab Moina and the others had hunted with me many times none of them would go further than the body of the elephant.
So I took them away and we went down toward the Engabai where the river flows musically, and the heat is less cruel. On the fifth day, needing food and fresh porters I went over to a village of the Buragi on the heights above the river. They had been a happy and satisfied people, but when I arrived their village was empty and the elephant grass had come in like the tide and was growing inside the huts. By the zareba where the Buragi had kraaled their sheep and goats I found the skeletons of men.
Arab Moina looked at them and he said, Jablanket-machoies.
I said that this was nonsense. I said the village had been destroyed in a Masai raid, and this was something the Lumbwa had seen many times, why should it now be because of the leopard-men, when there were no such things as leopard-men.
The butterflies were dancing above the ruins of the huts and over the abandoned shambas, and it was only by threats that I got the Lumbwa to dig sweet potatoes from the gardens.
I said we would go up to the Marti on the blue escarpment above the plains, and they would give us food, but also I was thinking about the leopard-men, and I was not sure what I was thinking.
We climbed the escarpment slowly, and drums began to sound along the ridge of it before we had climbed halfway. Arab Moina said that the drums were calling the old men to a shauri. We had been seen, and there was need for council. The warriors of the Marti were drawn up in a battle-line when we topped the escarpment, and they came down on us, crouching behind their black, elliptical shields, their spears moving rhythmically. I spoke to them and they called out that they had no food. The old chief came, flipping the flies from his face with a lion-hair whisk, and he greeted me amiably for I had killed meat for his tribe during the famine and we were friends. He would not tell me why the drums were beating, why there was need for a great shauri, or why his young men were so angry and so frightened, but he looked sideways and invited me to join the council.
After moonrise that evening fifty old men sat in their blankets about a great fire, including four witchdoctors, dressed in their finest bones and skulls and snakeskins, and so worried were they that they forgot to bless me with their traditional sneer.
From the circumlocutory jargon of the speakers I learnt that two days before a message had come to the Marti from the leopard-men, and I could not understand from the drifting, grunting talk how such a message had come, but it demanded that the Marti send two young girls and two young boys to the shallow ford of the Amala, because they were needed as a sacrifice to the leopard-men's gods. If these children were not sent then the leopard-men would come to the Marti village and take all of the chief's family.
The purpose of the shauri was not to decide whether this demand should be ignored, or whether the Marti should take the field and destroy the leopard-men. It was to decide whose children should be sent, and with this I knew that there were leopard-men.
After two hours they had not decided who should be sent, and they looked at me. I stood up, and I mouthed the compliments, the turgid courtesies of all shauri, and I spoke of my disgust and shame to find the Marti so cowardly. I had always believed them to be warriors and afraid of nothing. The eyes of the old men flicked over my Lumbwa, who were indeed great warriors and greater than the Marti could ever be, but who were now trembling like women, and I knew my words had no strength with the Marti. I threatened them with punishment. I said that if their children were handed over thus, then the Government would consider them murderers and would hang the old chief in the middle of his village.
The Government was miles away across the grass, and meant nothing to them. The Government was not only miles away it was centuries away, and could mean nothing to them.
The witch-doctors flapped their bones and shook their charms at me, and I became angry with their histrionics, and I asked them what kind of medicine they had if it was useless against these leopard-men. They smiled, they said the magic of tht jablanket-machoies was stronger.
The old chief was unhappy about my anger, and I think he knew that I would tell the Government, and that sooner or later the askaris would come for him. He believed that if he said he would not send the children to the Amala ford I would go away, and once I had gone the Marti would send the children. He told me the children would not be sent, but he did not look me in the face, and I knew that he was lying.
I said, when were the children to be sent to the ford of the Amala ?
He said in ten days.
I asked what children ? He said they would be children of poor parents who owned little livestock, but that I was not to worry, now I had come the children would not be sent.
I said, and if you sent them, how would they go alone on this three-day journey without being killed by lion or buffalo?
He said the Bwana knew the children would not now be sent, but if they had been sent then two warriors would have gone with them, for that had been in the orders of the leopard-men. The children were to be escorted to the banks of the Amala and left there, but the Bwana must know that this would not happen now, because the Bwana had advised against it. And I understood what he was trying to tell me. He wanted me to know that he was lying, and he hoped that I would be there at the Amala ford and that I would kill the leopard-men for him.
So I told him that I could see into his mind, and these things I would not do. There was a great sadness in his face, but there was still cunning in him, and he stood up and spoke again.
He said that because the Bwana had great magic the children would be given to him, so that he might make up his mind whether to give them to the leopard-men or not. A great grunt of surprise came from the old men, but one of the witch-doctors vehemently supported the idea, and I could see what was in his mind. He hoped the leopard-men would kill me too.
I was sorry for the chief, he had done as much as he could in face of the threat from the leopard-men and the risk of the Government's anger. He had placed all the responsibility on me.
The next morning the four children were brought to me with great ceremony. They were all about twelve years old, two boys and two girls, and their parents had dressed them with great care. I do not know if they knew what was to happen to them, but they were afraid, and the girls trembled.
The chief said good-bye to me, and what he was thinking was in his face. He knew that I would not deliver these children to the Amala ford, but he was also wondering what the leopard-men would do when their sacrifice did not arrive.
I went down the slope, and my Lumbwa followed me silently, and they too were wondering what I was going to do. After five miles, with the children trotting along behind me in silence, I halted. I told the Lumbwa that we were going to Tamani's village, where I would ask the Masai chief to lend me a regiment of his elmorani to take against the leopard-men and destroy them. These, I pointed out, would be Loita Masai, not Setick Lumbwa. My boys listened glumly. They did not like the Masai, they did not believe the Masai would go against the leopard-men, but if I did persuade them then the Lumbwa would lose face before the Masai. Whichever way they looked at the situation it depressed them.
Tamani, my friend, was very rich, the owner of two thousand cattle, thirty thousand fat-tailed sheep, and half a dozen sleek wives who were the solace of his old age. He had been a great warrior, and he was proud of the courage of his red-haired elmorani. I really thought that these lion-killers would spit in the dust at the mention of leopard-men.
We arrived in the village at dusk, and there were drums beating and horns blowing, women screaming, and a white, crazy fear in the eyes of the elmorani. My Lumbwa looked at this and felt better. Tamani greeted me diffidently, his thoughts on other things. I sat down before him and gave him gifts and asked him what troubled his people.
He said that early in the morning two young endito had gone to gather firewood and had not returned. A party of perhaps ten leopards had been seen carrying the girls over their shoulders, and some of the leopards had run on four legs and some had walked on two, and some had carried guns. All had left leopard's spoor.
I said, Jablanket-machoies.
And he said, it is true, Bwana Mkuba.
I asked him why the Loita Masai, whom I knew to be the greatest warriors in the world (which I said softly so that my Lumbwa could not hear) had not pursued and killed these animals.
It was a simple explanation, the leopard-men were neither animals nor men, they were devils and could not be killed.
I said that I had already saved four children of the Marti from the leopard-men. I pointed to them. I said that if Tamani would give me half a regiment of elmorani I would destroy the leopard-men and bring back his endito. This, I said, he should know and believe, and would do so for he was a great man of medicine.
He said sadly that his medicine was as useless as dust before the leopard-men.
That night I saw fires out on the plains, about five or six miles away, red blotches against the darkness, and some of the Masai warriors came out of their huts and stared at the fires and murmured unhappily. Before dawn I went to Tamani and told him that I was going to see who had lit these fires, because I believed it to have been the leopard-men. I said I would go alone, if necessary, but that I would be proud to take his elmorani with me. I would not only feel proud, but safer, although this I did not tell Tamani.
He looked at me from behind the sleep in his eyes, and he said that he would tell his warriors to follow me, but that he did not believe they would follow me very far.
I had fixed the point of the fires in a blanket of trees below a far ridge. My Lumbwa lagged until they were swallowed by the equally reluctant cloud of elmorani that Tamani had ordered to follow. When we reached the forest patch Arab Moina halted. I called to him, but he shook his head, and drove his spear into the ground, as if marking the spot beyond which he would not go.
I went into the trees cautiously for half a mile until I heard voices, the voices of girls talking softly in fear and in the Masai tongue. I went from tree to tree until I touched the edge of a glade. I saw the girls first, five of them, bound to a tree. Two of them were Loita Masai, and the others were Wanderobo.
There were the grey ash piles of three or four fires, and stretched about them were perhaps thirty leopards, but they were not lying as leopards lie when they sleep. Their bodies were stretched as men stretch in the restless minutes before awakening. I saw black legs, black arms beneath the skins.
Three more were crouched by the fire, sitting with legs crossed, gnawing at bones, and these too were men, although the skins of leopards came up over their backs and along their arms, with the claws over their fingers, and the great, fanged heads of the leopard making hoods.
I pushed back the safety-catch of my rifle, and I stepped into the glade. I called 'Samama! Stand up!'
The three by the fire sprang up, and one reached for a musket. I fired and he rolled over in the white ash of the fire and screamed as it burnt him. Now the others awoke, coming so quickly from sleep that they looked at me stupidly. They were ugly. The skulls of leopards fitted tightly to their heads, thrust backward from their faces, with the teeth jutting down, and they looked like thirty full-grown leopards rearing up with open jaws.
I walked over, skirting them, and I cut the thongs that held the girls to the tree. They ran, screaming, toward Tamani's village.
I hated the sight of those skins and I shouted for them to be taken off. The thongs were slipped from wrists and ankles and the skins fell down, and here were rearing leopards no longer but naked men with sullen and frightened faces.
From their tribal markings I knew them to be men of the Washie, and the Ukerrari and the Majama tribes, and I wanted to laugh, for such men were not devils and had not even a tenth of the courage of the Masai.
I asked them why they were masquerading in leopard-skins, and they looked sly and said that they poached elephants. In this way they could move unnoticed, which was nonsense, and I knew they were trying to insult me with the explanation, while their eyes went furtively to the edges of the glade.
I said, why eat the endito of the Masai ?
They were indignant. They said they captured the girls to be their slaves. I did not look at the bones by the fire, and I did not know whether they were speaking the truth, for although I knew that the Majama would eat anything, the Ukerrari I had believed to be fish-eaters.
Now the elmorani of the Masai came running up, and with them Arab Moina and my Lumbwa. The girls had passed them and told them what had happened. They came in calling, with their spears raised. The leopard-men ran for the forest and that half a regiment of Masai swung past me proudly in pursuit.
I picked up one of the skins. It was not a complete skin, not, that is, a skin from one leopard, but a cape cunningly tailored from several skins, with the head made into a cap so that the lower jaw fitted below a man's chin with the upper jaw coming down like a visor. Teeth had been reset in the gumless bone.
The feet were ingenious. The leopard-men had made sandals from the pads, filling them with wild rubber.
The Masai took back the skins to Tamani on their bloody spears, and the feasting lasted two days.