Wild life

In the line of fire

19 December 2009

11:00 AM

19 December 2009

11:00 AM

Laikipia

‘Let us go in amongst the cattle and talk,’ said the Councillor Jeremiah. That means a serious matter is to be discussed. It was evening, and the cattle were already in the boma. We went in, and Jeremiah let me know we must prepare for cattle rustling at Christmas. After the worst drought in half a century, pastoralists are out to restock and we have a fine Boran herd. It brings back memories.

‘Stolen!’ yelled the cowboy Lopiyor after lunch two Boxing Days ago. ‘Bandits! Cattle!’ I took seconds to respond. ‘What?’ Lopiyor, now leaning on his knees, panted. ‘Samburu! Rustled! Guns! Steers!’

I looked where Lopiyor pointed and saw a great plume of dust about two miles away. I tried to radio the authorities for help. ‘This is Whisky Eight and we have a cattle raid.’ Silence. So I radioed my neighbours. The rustlers might attack the farmstead to divert attention from the cattle raid, so I decided to evacuate the family.

‘Hurry!’ I urged.


“Oh, I’m not worried,’ said my mother-in-law Jean, visiting from Seaford in Sussex. ‘I was in the war, you know.’

I bustled them off to a more-distant farm. By now I could hear gunfire. A neighbour’s small aircraft was circling in tight turns, just 200 feet off the ground — marking where the raiders were on the ground. A line of vehicles trundled along the horizon. The radio barked. We heard the occasional shot.

The farm askari Ekwom and other workers, roused from meat-eating on their day off, gathered with spears, knives, clubs and tomahawks. They were wide-eyed with excitement and sang war songs as we piled into the car and zoomed eastwards until we met up with others trying to get ahead of the rustlers. Just then a withering burst of AK-47 fire crackled over our heads and we dropped on our faces in the dust. A shout went up as a line of figures about 200 metres off emerged from the thicket and ran to the left. As the sun slanted low in the late afternoon, I could see the raiders were naked, glistening with sheep’s fat and red ochre war paint. Gun metal and spear tips flashed in the softening light.

Askaris returned fire, but we could see no cattle. The raiders’ tactic of firing and moving worked and we lost them again in the scrub and long grass.

Silence. The sun dipped to the horizon. The trackers fanned out to check the possible escape routes. They came back saying the raiders must have gone into the thicket.

‘I don’t think we want to go into that,’ my neighbour Tom said. ‘There’s no point in having anybody hurt.’

But the farmhands would not hear of backing away. We formed a line of men and vehicles and advanced into the bushes. All went quiet. We moved forwards slowly in the twilight. Ahead beyond the thicket there was a rocky outcrop rising against the last of the dusty sunset. In the twilight, as colour drained from the landscape, we suddenly saw figures on the outcrop. We thought they were our scouts but a shout went up and the gunfire started again.

Ekwom was sitting in the car next to me. ‘I’m going to get the bastards!’ he snarled — and with that he tore off ahead.

Muzzle flashes lit up angry faces and men yelled, as we beat through the undergrowth and ran to the flanks of the outcrop. Within a few minutes night had fallen and the rustlers were gone. They had slipped the cordon to flee back towards the river and the low country. They had not got away with any cattle. Nobody had been hurt. Everybody had got a bit of a rush. We were happy.

My neighbour Charles Forde’s vehicle roared up with a bullet hole in the driver’s door. Anglo–Irish Charles had used his car like a galleon, driving straight at the rustlers, then turning sharply broadside so that the askari named ‘Soldja’ could fire his bolt-action rifle. At top speed Charles had circled, allowing Soldja to fire two more volleys. BOOM! went the rifle. Rat-tat-tat! went the AK-47s. Then Charles and Soldja had braved the hot lead and driven at the rustlers full throttle until they separated from the cattle and scattered.

Charles and Soldja had saved my 22 steers. We had fought back against armed criminals who might have casually killed. In the gunfight more than 50 shots had been fired.

Next morning I slaughtered one of our rescued steers for everybody who had helped us. Ekwom sliced into the beast’s throat with his knife. The blood spurted out in great foaming gobs. As the animal fell with eyes rolling back white into its head, Lopiyor roared with laughter and bent his face into the gore and drank the warm blood so that when he raised his face it was soaked dark-red and full of the scent of iron and fear. We hacked up the beast on a bed of red-stained leaves and feasted on it until there was nothing left. What a Christmas!   

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