When the Lion Feeds

When the Lion Feeds

Part of the 'Courtney' series

'Something always dies when the lion feeds and yet there is meat for those that follow him.' The lion is Sean, hero of this tremendous drama of the men who took possession of South Africa in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Sean and his twin-brother Garrick grew up on their father's farm in Natal. The first part of the book deals with his childhood and youth and his longing to become a successful farmer and hard-hitting fighter like his father.

The tough life of cattle-farming is brusquely interrupted by the Zulu Wars, when Sean and his brother see fighting for the first time. Wilbur Smith vividly recreates the excitement of the war for the young men-their hope of winning their own cattle, the horror of the massacre at Isandhlwana, the heroism of the defence at Rorkes Drift.

'Witwatersrand' is the name of the second part of this book and it tells the story of Sean's fabulous success in the gold rush and his rich life with Duff Charleywood and the beautiful Candy in the new town of Johannesburg, where huge fortunes were made and lost in a morning's dealing on the Exchange.

The atmosphere of this feverish, violent time is brilliantly drawn: the heavy drinking, the elaborate houses, the ruthless abandonment of the failure. Sean and Duff are caught at last in a trap laid by their rival, the sinister and clever Hradsky, and leave Johannesburg for the wilderness to seek their fortunes once more.

And now the book moves to its climax. At last it seems as though Sean will settle to a quiet married life – but fate has other plans for him. They return to Johannesburg and tragedy strikes quickly. Sean finds himself alone once more...

Filled with action scenes in war and the early heady days of the gold rush, and adventure among the vast game herds of the African wilderness, this novel is dominated by the towering compelling personality of Sean, whose life story is continued in The Sound of Thunder and A Sparrow Falls.


  • 'Plenty of incident and colour' – The Observer, 1966
  • 'Pride of place goes to When the Lion Feeds because it is bigger, wider and more full of plot than all the others put together ...'
    The Daily Telegraph, 1966.
  • 'Wilbur Smith has built up his wide-screen adventure story with energy and shrewdness.' – Sunday Times, 1966
  • 'Mr. Smith is a natural story-teller who moves confidently and often splendidly in his period and sustains a flow of convincing incident without repeating his excitement.' – The Scotsman. 1966
  • 'A very impressive book in its wide scope and its descriptive colour.' – Sphere

Listen to an Audio Extract from 'When the Lion Feeds'

Text Extract from 'When the Lion Feeds'

A single wild pheasant flew up the side of the hill almost brushing the tips of the grass in its flight. It drooped its wings and hung its legs as it reached the crest and then dropped into cover. Two boys and a dog followed it up from the valley: the dog led, with his tongue flopping pink from the corner of his mouth, and the twins ran shoulder to shoulder behind him. Both of them were sweating in dark patches through their khaki shirts, for the African sun still had heat although it stood half-mast down the sky.

The dog hit the scent of the bird and it stopped him quivering: for a second he stood sucking it up through his nostrils, and then he started to quarter. He worked fast, back and forth, swinging at the end of each tack, his head down and only his back and his busy tail showing above the dry brown grass. The twins came up behind him. They were gasping for breath for it had been a hard pull up the curve of the hill.

‘Keep out to the side, you’ll get in my way,’ Sean panted at his brother and Garrick moved to obey. Sean was his senior by four inches in height and twenty pounds in weight: this gave him the right to command. Sean transferred his attention back to the dog.

‘Put him up, Tinker. Seek him up, boy.’

Tinker’s tail acknowledged Sean’s instructions, but he held his nose to the ground. The twins followed him, tensed for the bird to rise. They carried their throwing sticks ready and moved forward a stealthy pace at a time, fighting to control their breathing. Tinker found the bird crouched flat in the grass; he jumped forward giving tongue for the first time, and the bird rose. It came up fast on noisy wings, whirling out of the grass.

Sean threw; his kerrie whipped past it. The pheasant swung away from the stick, clawing at the air with frantic wings and Garrick threw. His kerrie cartwheeled up, hissing, until it smacked into the pheasant’s fat brown body. The bird toppled, feathers flurried from it and it fell. They went after it. The pheasant scurried broken-winged through the grass ahead of them, and they shouted with excitement as they chased it. Sean got a hand to it. He broke its neck and stood laughing, holding the warm brown body in his hands, and waited for Garrick to reach him.

‘Ring-a-ding-a-doody, Garry, you sure gave that one a beauty!’

Tinker jumped up to smell the bird and Sean stooped and held it so he could get his nose against it. Tinker snuffled it, then tried to take it in his mouth, but Sean pushed his head away and tossed the bird to Garrick. Garrick hung it with the others on his belt.

‘How far do you reckon that was – fifty feet?’ Garrick asked.

‘Not as much as that,’ Sean gave his opinion. ‘More like thirty.’

‘I reckon it was at least fifty. I reckon it was farther than any you’ve hit today.’ Success had made Garrick bold. The smile faded from Sean’s face.

‘Yeah?’ he asked.

‘Yeah!’ said Garrick. Sean pushed the hair off his forehead with the back of his hand, his hair was black and soft and it kept falling into his eyes.

‘What about that one down by the river? That was twice as far.’

‘Yeah?’ asked Garrick.

‘Yeah!’ said Sean truculently.

‘Well, if you’re so good, how did you miss this one – hey? You threw first. How come you missed, hey?’

Sean’s already flushed face darkened and Garrick realized suddenly that he had gone too far. He took a step backwards.

‘You’d like to bet?’ demanded Sean. It was not quite clear to Garrick on what Sean wished to bet, but from past experience he knew that whatever it was the issue would be settled by single combat. Garrick seldom won bets from Sean.

‘It’s too late. We’d better be getting home. Pa will clobber us if we’re late for dinner.’ Sean hesitated and Garrick turned, ran back to pick up his kerrie then set off in the direction of home. Sean trotted after him, caught up with him and passed him. Sean always led. Having proved conclusively his superior prowess with the throwing sticks Sean was prepared to be forgiving. Over his shoulder he asked, ‘What colour do you reckon Gypsy’s foal will be?’

Garrick accepted the peace-offering with relief and they fell into a friendly discussion of this and a dozen other equally important subjects. They kept running: except for an hour, when they had stopped in a shady place by the river to roast and eat a couple of their pheasants, they had run all day.

Up here on the plateau it was grassland that rose and fell beneath them as they climbed the low round hills and dropped into the valleys. The grass around them moved with the wind: waist-high grass, soft dry grass the colour of ripe wheat. Behind them and on each side the grassland rolled away to the full range of the eye, but suddenly in front of them was the escarpment. The land cascaded down into it, steeply at first then gradually levelling out to become the Tugela flats. The Tugela river was twenty miles away across the flats, but today there was a haze in the air so they could not see that far. Beyond the river, stretched far to the north and a hundred miles east to the sea, was Zululand. The river was the border. The steep side of the escarpment was cut by vertical gulleys and in the gulleys grew dense, olive-green bush.

Below them, two miles out on the flats, was the homestead of Theunis Kraal. The house was a big one, Dutch-gabled and smoothly thatched with combed grass. There were horses in the small paddock: many horses, for the twins’ father was a wealthy man. Smoke from the cooking fires blued the air over the servants’ quarters and the sound of someone chopping wood carried faintly up to them.

Sean stopped on the rim of the escarpment and sat down in the grass. He took hold of one of his grimy bare feet and twisted it up into his lap. There was hole in the ball of his heel from which he had pulled a thorn earlier in the day and now it was plugged with dirt. Garrick sat down next to him.

‘Man, is that going to hurt when Ma puts iodine on it!’ gloated Garrick. ‘She’ll have to use a needle to get the dirt out. I bet you yell – I bet you yell your head off!’

Sean ignored him. He picked a stalk of grass and started probing it into the wound. Garrick watched with interest. Twins could scarcely have been less alike. Sean was already taking on the shape of a man: his shoulders were thickening, and there was hard muscle forming in his puppy fat. His colouring was vivid: black hair, skin brown from the sun, lips and cheeks that glowed with the fresh young blood beneath their surface, and blue eyes, the dark indigo-blue of cloud shadow on mountain lake.

Garrick was slim, with the wrists and ankles of a girl. His hair was an undecided brown that grew wispy down the back of his neck, his skin was freckled, his nose and the rims of his pale blue eyes were pink with persistent hay fever. He was fast losing interest in Sean’s surgery. He reached across and fiddled with one of Tinker’s pendulous ears, and this broke the rhythm of the dog’s panting; he gulped twice and the saliva dripped from the end of his tongue. Garrick lifted his head and looked down the slope. A little below where they were sitting was the head of one of the bushy gullies. Garrick caught his breath.

‘Sean, look there – next to the bush!’ His whisper trembled with excitement.

‘What’s it?’ Sean looked up startled. Then he saw it.

‘Hold Tinker.’ Garrick grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled his head around to prevent him seeing and giving chase. ‘He’s the biggest old inkonka in the world,’ breathed Garrick. Sean was too absorbed to answer.

The bushbuck was picking its way warily out of the thick cover. A big ram, black with age; the spots on his haunches were faded like old chalk marks. His ears pricked up and his spiral horns held high, big as a pony, but stepping daintily, he came out into the open. He stopped and swung his head from side to side, searching for danger, then he trotted diagonally down the hill and disappeared into another of the gullies. For a moment after he had gone the twins were still, then they burst out together.

‘Did you see him, hey – did you see them horns?’

‘So close to the house and we never knew he was there–’

They scrambled to their feet jabbering at each other, and Tinker was infected with their excitement. He barked around them in a circle. After the first few moments of confusion Sean took control simply by raising his voice above the opposition.

‘I bet he hides up in the gulley every day. I bet he stays there all day and comes out only at night. Let’s go and have a look.’

Sean led the way down the slope.

On the fringe of the bush, in a small cave of vegetation that was dark and cool and carpeted with dead leaves, they found the ram’s hiding-place. The ground was trampled by his hooves and scattered with his droppings and there was the mark of his body where he had lain. A few loose hairs, tipped with grey, were left on the bed of leaves. Sean knelt down and picked one up.

‘How are we going to get him?’

‘We could dig a hole and put sharpened sticks in it,’ suggested Garrick eagerly.

‘Who’s going to dig it – you?’ Sean asked.

‘You could help.’

‘It would have to be a pretty big hole,’ said Sean doubtfully. There was silence while both of them considered the amount of labour involved in digging a trap. Neither of them mentioned the idea again.

‘We could get the other kids from town and have a drive with kerries,’ said Sean.

‘How many hunts have we been on with them? Must be hundreds by now, and we haven’t even bagged one lousy duiker – let alone a bushbuck.’ Garrick hesitated and then went on. ‘Besides, remember what that inkonka did to Frank Van Essen, hey? When it finished sticking him they had to push all his guts back into the hole in his stomach!’

‘Are you scared?’ asked Sean.

‘I am not, so!’ said Garrick indignantly, then quickly, ‘Gee, it’s almost dark. We’d better run.’

They went down the valley.

Sean lay in the darkness and stared across the room at the grey oblong of the window. There was a slice of moon in the sky outside. Sean could not sleep: he was thinking about the bushbuck. He heard his parents pass the door of the bedroom; his stepmother said something and his father laughed: Waite Courtney had a laugh as deep as distant thunder.

Sean heard the door of their room close and he sat up in bed. ‘Garry.’ No answer.

‘Garry.’ He picked up a boot and threw it; there was a grunt. ‘Garry.’

‘What you want?’ Garrick’s voice was sleepy and irritable.

‘I was just thinking – tomorrow’s Friday.’


‘Ma and Pa will be going into town. They’ll be away all day. We could take the shotgun and go lay for that old inkonka.’

Garrick’s bed creaked with alarm.

‘You’re mad!’ Garrick could not keep the shock out of his voice. ‘Pa would kill us if he caught us with the shotgun.’ Even as he said it he knew he would have to find a stronger argument than that to dissuade his brother. Sean avoided punishment if possible, but a chance at a bushbuck ram was worth all his father’s right arm could give. Garrick lay rigid in his bed, searching for words.

‘Besides, Pa keeps the cartridges locked up.’

It was a good try, but Sean countered it.

‘I know where there are two buckshots that he has forgotten about: they’re in the big vase in the dining-room. They’ve been there over a month.’

Garrick was sweating. He could almost feel the sjambok curling round his buttocks, and hear his father counting the

strokes: eight, nine, ten.

‘Please, Sean, let’s think of something else . . .’

Across the room Sean settled back comfortably on his pillows. The decision had been made.

Waite Courtney handed his wife up into the front seat of the buggy. He patted her arm affectionately then walked around to the driver’s side, pausing to fondle the horses and settle his hat down over his bald head. He was a big man, the buggy dipped under his weight as he climbed up into the seat. He gathered up the reins, then he turned and his eyes laughed over his great hooked nose at the twins standing together on the veranda.

‘I would esteem it a favour if you two gentlemen could arrange to stay out of trouble for the few hours that your mother and I will be away.’

‘Yes, Pa,’ in dutiful chorus.

‘Sean, if you get the urge to climb the big blue gum tree again then fight it, man, fight it.’

‘All right, Pa.’

‘Garrick, let us have no more experiments in the manufacture of gunpowder – agreed?’

‘Yes, Pa.’

‘And don’t look so innocent. That really frightens the hell out of me!’

Waite touched the whip to the shiny round rumps in front of him and the buggy started forward, out along the road to Ladyburg.

‘He didn’t say anything about not taking the shotgun,’ whispered Sean virtuously. ‘Now you go and see if all the servants are out of the way – if they see us, they’ll kick up a fuss. Then come round to the bedroom window and I’ll pass it out to you.’

Sean and Garrick argued all the way to the foot of the escarpment. Sean was carrying the shotgun across one shoulder, hanging onto the butt with both hands.

‘It was my idea, wasn’t it?’ he demanded.

‘But I saw the inkonka first,’ protested Garrick. Garrick was bold again: with every yard put between him and the house his fear of reprisal faded.

‘That doesn’t count,’ Sean informed him. ‘I thought of the shotgun, so I do the shooting.’

‘How come you always have the fun?’ asked Garrick, and Sean was outraged at the question.

‘When you found the hawk’s nest by the river, I let you climb for it. Didn’t I? When you found the baby duiker, I let you feed it. Didn’t I?’ he demanded.

‘All right. So I saw the inkonka first, why don’t you let me take the shot?’

Sean was silent in the face of such stubbornness, but his grip on the butt of the shotgun tightened. In order to win the argument Garrick would have to get it away from him

– this Garrick knew and he started to sulk. Sean stopped among the trees at the foot of the escarpment and looked over his shoulder at his brother.

‘Are you going to help–or must I do it alone?’

Garrick looked down at the ground and kicked at a twig. He sniffed wetly; his hayfever was always bad in the mornings.

‘Well?’ asked Sean.

‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Stay here and count to a thousand slowly. I’m going to

circle up the slope and wait where the inkonka crossed yesterday. When you finish counting come up the gulley. Start shouting when you are about halfway up. The inkonka will break the same way as yesterday – all right?’

Garrick nodded reluctantly.

‘Did you bring Tinker’s chain?’

Garrick pulled it from his pocket, and at the sight of it the dog backed away. Sean grabbed his collar, and Garrick slipped it on. Tinker laid his ears flat and looked at them reproachfully.

‘Don’t let him go. That old inkonka will rip him up. Now start counting,’ said Sean and began climbing. He kept well out to the left of the gulley. The grass on the slope was slippery under his feet, the gun was heavy and there were sharp lumps of rock in the grass. He stubbed his toe and it started to bleed, but he kept on upwards. There was a dead tree on the edge of the bush that Sean had used to mark the bushbuck’s hide. Sean climbed above it and stopped just below the crest of the slope where the moving grass would break up the silhouette of his head on the skyline. He was panting. He found a rock the size of a beer barrel to use as a rest for the gun, and he crouched behind it. He laid the stock of the gun on the rock, aimed back down the hill and traversed the barrels left and right to make sure his field of fire was clear. He imagined the bushbuck running in his sights and he felt excitement shiver along his forearms, across his shoulders and up the back of his neck.

‘I won’t lead on him – he’ll be moving fairly slowly, trotting most probably. I’ll go straight at his shoulders,’ he whispered.

He opened the gun, took the two cartridges out of his shirt pocket, slid them into the breeches and snapped the gun closed. It took all the strength of both his hands to pull back the big fancy hammers, but he managed it and the gun was double-loaded and cocked. He laid it on the rock in front of him again and stared down the slope. On his left the gulley was a dark-green smear on the hillside, directly below him was open grass where the bushbuck would cross. He pushed impatiently at the hair on his forehead: it was damp with sweat and stayed up out of his eyes.

The minutes drifted by.

‘What the hell is Garry doing? He’s so stupid sometimes!’ Sean muttered and almost in answer he heard Garrick shout below him. It was a small sound, far down the slope and muffled by the bush. Tinker barked once without enthusiasm; he was also sulking, he didn’t like the chain. Sean waited with his forefinger on one trigger, staring down at the edge of the bush. Garrick shouted again – and the bushbuck broke from cover.

It came fast into the open with its nose up and its long horns held flat against its back. Sean moved his body sideways swinging the gun with its run, riding the pip of the foresight on its black shoulder. He fired the left barrel and the recoil threw him off balance; his ears hummed with the shot and the burnt powder smoke blew back into his face. He struggled to his feet still holding the gun. The bushbuck was down in the grass, bleating like a lamb and kicking as it died.

‘I got him,’ screamed Sean. ‘I got him first shot! Garry, Garry! I got him, I got him!’

Tinker came pelting out of the bush dragging Garry behind him by the chain and, still screaming, Sean ran down to join them. A stone rolled under his foot and he fell. The shotgun flew out of his hand and the second barrel fired. The sound of the explosion was very loud.

When Sean scrambled onto his feet again Garrick was sitting in the grass whimpering – whimpering and staring at his leg. The blast of the shotgun had smashed into it and churned the flesh below the knee into tatters – bursting it open so the bone chips showed white in the wound and the blood pumped dark and strong and thick as custard.

‘I didn’t mean it . . . Oh God, Garry, I didn’t mean it. I slipped. Honest, I slipped.’ Sean was staring at the leg also. There was no colour in his face, his eyes were big and dark with horror. The blood pumped out onto the grass.

‘Stop it bleeding! Sean, please stop it. Oh, it’s sore! Oh! Sean, please stop it!’

Sean stumbled across to him. He wanted to vomit. He unbuckled his belt and strapped it round the leg, and the blood was warm and sticky on his hands. He used his sheathed knife to twist the belt tight. The pumping slowed and he twisted harder.

‘Oh, Sean, it’s sore! It’s sore . . .’ Garrick’s face was waxy-white and he was starting to shiver as the cold hand of shock closed on him.

‘I’ll get Joseph,’ Sean stammered. ‘We’ll come back quickly as we can. Oh, God, I’m sorry!’ Sean jumped up and ran. He fell, rolled to his feet and kept running.

They came within an hour. Sean was leading three of the Zulu servants. Joseph, the cook, had brought a blanket. He wrapped Garrick and lifted him and Garrick fainted as his leg swung loosely. As they started back down the hill Sean looked out across the flats: there was a little puff of dust on the Ladyburg road. One of the grooms was riding to fetch Waite Courtney.

They were waiting on the veranda of the homestead when Waite Courtney came back to Theunis Kraal. Garrick was conscious again. He lay on the couch: his face was white and the blood had soaked through the blanket. There was blood on Joseph’s uniform and blood had dried black on Sean’s hands. Waite Courtney ran up onto the veranda; he stooped over Garrick and drew back the blanket. For a second he stood staring at the leg and then very gently he covered it again.

Waite lifted Garrick and carried him down to the buggy. Joseph went with him and they settled Garrick on the back seat. Joseph held his body and Garrick’s stepmother took the leg on her lap to stop it twisting. Waite Courtney climbed quickly into the driver’s seat: he picked up the reins, then he turned his head and looked at Sean still standing on the veranda. He didn’t speak, but his eyes were terrible – Sean could not meet them. Waite Courtney used the whip on the horses and drove them back along the road to Ladyburg: he drove furiously with the wind streaming his beard back from his face.

Sean watched them go. After they had disappeared among the trees he remained standing alone on the veranda; then suddenly he turned and ran back through the house. He ran out of the kitchen door and across the yard to the saddle-room, snatched a bridle down from the rack and ran to the paddock. He picked a bay mare and worked her into a corner of the fence until he could slip his arm around her neck. He forced the bit into her mouth, buckled the chin strap and swung up onto her bare back.

He kicked her into a run and put her to the gate, swaying back as her body heaved up under him and falling forward on her neck as she landed. He gathered himself and turned her head towards the Ladyburg road.

It was eight miles to town and the buggy reached it before Sean. He found it outside Doctor Van Rooyen’s surgery: the horses were blowing hard, and their bodies were dark with sweat. Sean slid down off the mare’s back; he went up the steps to the surgery door and quietly pushed it open. There was the sweet reek of chloroform in the room. Garrick lay on the table, Waite and his wife stood on each side of him, and the doctor was washing his hands in an enamel basin against the far wall. Ada Courtney was crying silently, her face blurred with tears. They all looked at Sean standing in the doorway.

‘Come here,’ said Waite Courtney, his voice flat and expressionless. ‘Come and stand here beside me. They’re going to cut off your brother’s leg and, by Christ, I’m going to make you watch every second of it!’