Hunters and the Hunted
“Until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” – AFRICAN PROVERB
“Yes,” Garrett said. “Yes,” and sighting through the scope, he could see the lion as clearly as though he were beside him, facing him now, head low, dark furry mane framing its large face. Its front paws were in the mud, his huge, black, triangular nose just above the water, and water was dripping from the whiskers of its chin. This is perfect, Garrett thought.
He steadied himself, placed the crosshairs in the tall crown of the lion’s shoulder, took a deep breath, and began a long draw on the trigger. The lion stopped, lifted his mighty head, and looked up at him, straight into the sights with his ears widespread.
“Yeah, look at me,” Garrett whispered. “Look straight into my eyes. This one’s for all the environmentalists… all the assholes in the Sierra Club.” And holding his breath, freezing himself inside, he drew back on the trigger.
Bam! The rifle kicked, the barrel surged skyward, and a flock of birds lifted from the flat-topped acacia trees on the far side of the wash, turning the whole horizon black.
There was a loud smack when the bullet hit and the lion went down quickly, his legs scrambling to keep upright. A loud, bellowing cry came from his throat, and just as quickly as it had dropped, the lion was up again, looked back in a glance up the hillside to where Garrett lay, and then disappeared into the thicket beyond the water.
Garrett ran down the hillside, kicking up a cloud of dust.
“Yahoo! He cried.
He held the rifle tight in his burly right hand and dragged his pack in his left, trying desperately to pull it on to his shoulders. By the time he reached the far side of the water hole he was panting pitifully and his legs were feeling heavy as logs.
There was a good deal of blood where the lion had been, and a trail of it through the mud and into the thicket. Garrett took off his grey safari hat, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and studied the blood-trail. It was bright red, and the tracks were deep and clean, clean like they had been cut with a knife. With the toe of his boot, he smudged the blood into the mud.
“He ain’t going far,” he said to himself.
He lifted his head and with his eyes he followed the tracks over the muddy rise to where they disappeared into the bush. Even I can do this, he thought, and he followed the blood to the edge of the woods, searching for dark spots in the dry, powdery white earth. He stopped where the trail led into a thick undergrowth. Though he could not see the ground beneath, he saw bright red drops on the branches and twigs. He ducked low, beneath the acacia trees, and pursued the blood-trail into the brush.
It had all started the night before when they sat around the kerosene lamps drinking Tusker and whiskey. Marge Gordon, the woman he had shared a bed with for the last ten months, had mocked him mercilessly. All the fun was made of his inability to cash in of the trophy fee he paid for a lion. He could picture Marge now, her beautiful red hair flowing in the warm breeze, looking redder yet in the kerosene lights, her shorts fitting snugly around her perfect waist, rolling her big blue eyes. “It’s plenty of money for a piece of paper,” she said, referring to the lion permit. “It will look good framed on your wall.” Even Ron Wilson, his long-time friend and hunting companion, and all the porters, were laughing. Thirty-five hundred dollars and no lion!
For Garrett, it was a crushing blow. He had come to Africa to hunt lions. It was a boyhood dream. Now that he had finally reached Africa, three weeks had gone by without a lion. There had been plenty of wilderbeests storming across the savannah, kicking up clouds of dust, and he had he killed a few. And he killed a kudo on the second day out. Since then there was only the one bushpig and the pack of hyenas, that all of them, frustrated with the lack of game, had used for target practice. Nearly three weeks had passed, and on Wednesday, they would leave the Hwange tribal area back to the tarmac at Victoria Falls.
It was funny, all right, Garrett scoffed now as he followed the blood-trail.
All morning he tracked the lion, crawling through thorn bushes and stepping over large boulders. Most of the way the trail was fresh. But by eleven o’clock, the blood had gone stale. Those beautiful, big, bright-red goblets were now dark and dry, soaked up in the parched earth.
But Garrett knew the power of his rifle, a three-hundred magnum Weatherby. It packed 250-grain, full metal jacket bullets, and he had hit the animal cleanly right in the rise of his shoulder.
Can’t go far, he thought. Hell, nothing could go far with that in its side. He’ll have to slow down sooner or later. Yeah, he’s hurting now, and thirsty. Very thirsty. And Garrett pulled a water bottle from his pack and took a long drink from it. He let the water trickle out from the sides of his mouth, down his neck and into his shirt.
By early afternoon the blood-trail came fresh again, and Garrett pushed himself hard, hard with his legs feeling numb beneath him, hard with the pack-straps cutting deep into his shoulders. Long before he came out into the clearing and saw the wounded lion, he had rehearsed it all in his head – pulling the rifle up to his shoulder, sighting down the length of the barrel, beading in on the large muscle at the top of the shoulder. He knew he had to concentrate and be sure this time. Slowly, calmly, he thought. The lion was wounded and could charge at anytime. Have to be very sure of your shot.
He stopped in the clearing and saw the lion standing not more than thirty feet away. It was without cover and with blood streaming from its shoulder. The size of it was impressive, at least five-hundred pounds, with wonderful markings, and a big crowning mane that was dark, almost black. And it was panting mow, and weak, and there was foam and saliva was dripping from its mouth.
Garrett wheeled the rifle to his shoulder, fixed a bead on the lion, and drew back the trigger. The rifle kicked and a white cloud of dirt puffed up in the embankment over the lion’s shoulder.
“Shit!” Garrett shouted.
Then they were both running, the lion into the brush, Garrett in hot pursuit, running hard, his stride long, his muscular legs stretching, then stumbling, up again and following the fleeing animal. He stripped the pack off his back and let it drop behind him. He leaped over bushes and saw the long, brown, sleek flank of the lion streak ahead, darting behind some green brush. He followed the noise of crashing thicket and saw the lion again, its hind quarters flashing before him, then vanishing in the undergrowth.
He could taste it now, and it tasted good. Each time he caught a glimpse of the lion, the lion was closer and the taste was better. You’re mine, he thought. You are all mine. And he thought of all the conservationists, all the bleeding-hearted, save-the-world liberals of this planet, and he smiled broadly. And he thought of Marge Gordon’s disdainful laugh, and he smiled even more broadly. This lion is mine!
“You are coming back to California with me!” he shouted out to the lion.
The same thirst Garrett had for killing, the lion had for living. Though his strength was nearly gone, taken by the bullet and the long flight across the rugged countryside, beneath the hot African sun – the same sun he had known for eight years of life and had basked in after a good hunt and a good feeding, the sun which was killing him now – his instincts to survive drove him further.
Now, Garrett running with all his might, exuberantly, waiting for the brief moment when they would come into a clearing and he could raise the rifle to his shoulder again, remembered three weeks without a lion, remembered Marge Gordon mocking him and how they all laughed sitting around the table beneath the glow of the kerosene lamp. And he was flying now, the ground passing quickly beneath him, his strong, sure-footed legs zigzagging wildly through the undergrowth, the brush streaking by on both sides, cutting through his shirt and into his arms.
Suddenly there was no ground left. The blue Zimbabwe sky flashed overhead, and Garrett was tumbling down a ravine in a cloud of dust. A sharp pain bit into his left ankle, and when he came to rest, coughing and choking on the dust, the pain throbbed up into his head and the sky went black. When the sky turned blue again, he found himself lying atop some boulders at the bottom of the ravine looking up at the top edge from where he had fallen. He was holding his ankle tightly in both hands, grimacing in pain.
He clawed his way back up and out of the ravine and walked gingerly through the bush to the edge of the gorge to look down for his rifle. There it lay on a ledge, some thirty feet below him. There was no way down to it, not on a broken ankle. Its history, he thought. C'est la vie.
He squinted into the glare of the hot, Zimbabwe sun, which was just a thumbnail above the horizon now. Across the ravine to the north was a table of rolling hills covered with yellow grass and flat-topped acacia trees. Beyond his vision, loping across an open field, the wounded lion headed for the shade of the acacia trees.
“Lucky bastard,” he said aloud.
Immediately he starting thinking about Marge Gordon, how she would have much to talk about now, much to ridicule – thirty-five hundred dollars and no lion! A fifteen-hundred dollar rifle lost in the bush, and plenty of doctor bills. She was always thoughtful in that way, he thought.
And he came so close, he thought. Had him in my hand! Now you have nothing, nothing but a broken ankle. Think of that! A hunter without a rifle, without a pack, a broken ankle, wandering through the African bush! Have to get my pack, he thought. Not going anywhere without my pack.
It was now dusk, and he had limped back several hundred yards to where he had dropped his pack, and he could not find it. The sky to the west was fiery red, fading eastward into deep tones of sapphire and tanzanite blue; his tall muscular frame just a silhouette against it. He gathered wood and lit a fire and propped himself against a large smooth stone. The African sky arched dark above him, shimming with starlight. He tried to sleep, but could not. Too many haunting thoughts, on how he would explain it all to the group, and if they would even believe him. The fire died down and the air got very cold and his ankle throbbed and was very swollen now. He threw some more branches into the dimming firelight, and he rested his head back against the stone. Now he thought about how he had broken off from the others; how they had found the tracks late in the afternoon; how they had determined it was too late to pursue a hunt; how they had gone long without seeing a lion and were scheduled to leave in two days; how Livingston, their young Zimbabwean guide who was as tall and thin as a young Abe Lincoln, had urged him to stay; how he walked away nonetheless, alone, with only his pack and his rifle in his hand.
It will be okay, Garrett thought, and he stared coldly into the fire. It’ll be just fine tomorrow. Half a day and you’ll be back at the water hole. Just half a day. Then it’s a flat day’s walk to the Camp.
It was morning again, and he searched for his pack for an hour and could not find it.
So now, this is the way it’s going to be? he thought. All right then, you’ll make it back to the water hole without the pack. Don’t really need water. You can do this without water. You’ve done it before, he thought, and he hobbled awkwardly through the thorn bushes and rocks, heading northeast. He found a sturdy branch from a baobob tree and used it as a crutch. The hot Zimbabwe sun beat down on him mercilessly, growing hotter as it rose higher in the sky. The tsetse flies were out en masse, swarming around his blond head. He no longer had the benefit of his safari hat, gone in the chase, nor his sun block or insect repellent, lost in his pack somewhere in the bush. His rugged, handsome face was now baked red, and the ground he had covered swiftly the day before, passed slowly beneath him now, with great pain.
A mile back, moving slowly through the green underbrush, in equal pain, was the great lion, following the scent of the man-creature which had caused this tremendous wound in his shoulder. He had spent the night, bullet burning deep within him, his strength all but gone, sensing death coming on, and in the morning found new strength when the wind brought to him this despicable scent. He did not know hatred, not as man knows it, but knew the instinctual desire to crush and destroy a menacing creature – one that caused harm to him or his pride or competed for the meat which sustained them. It was his desire to kill, more dominant now than his urgency to live, that gave him strength. Within the lion’s weary mind there was but one thought, that which he was born for, the primordial desire to kill, an overwhelming need to lock his powerful jaws upon the man-creature, crush down into his bone, feel his warm blood spurt in his mouth, and cause the cessation of his movement. He was a hunter, the greatest of hunters, and he would hunt as long as he lived and as long as there were animals to hunt, and as long as this man-creature moved. Not for the trophy of it, but because it was part of him, ingrained in his genetic makeup.
He lifted his head and sniffed the warm air. From afar, through the tall elephant grass, the breeze brought to him the scent of the man-creature, within it the distinct trace of an animal, lame or wounded. The lion lifted his head higher, and through the heat shimmer rising from the land, three-quarters of a mile off, he saw Garrett dry-mouthed and throat parched, struggling up a steep grade now. The bullet began burning in his shoulder again, but his hunger to destroy Garrett made the pain tolerable. He looked upon Garrett now with a predatory eye. He was feeling very weak, breathing hard with his tongue lolling out from his mouth, and the death he had caused many creatures on the savannah was coming over him like a dark shadow now. Still, within, was the insatiable urge to hunt for living meat, and he looked upon Garrett as a creature he wished to hunt and kill. To kill a man, the noblest game of all, was to be his last fury.
From the top of the grade Garrett could see that he had gotten far off course. There were big, puffy white clouds drifting slowly across the blue sky, and below them he could see the hilltop beyond the water hole, at the edge of the savannah – the place he had stood the morning before. But it was a long way off to the southeast, wavering in the midday heat. The rim of the large river gorge ran near him to the west and curved around to the southeast close to the water hole. It was clear of brush, so he hobbled down toward it, awkwardly, shifting his weight to his good leg and bracing each step with the baobab stick.
For some time now, Garrett had been aware of a feeling inside, a sense that he was being followed. It had been eating at him all day, and now as he hobbled along the rim he found himself looking back frequently. When he first saw the lion, he could not believe it. A fleeting figure appeared near the top of the grade and then vanished in the bush. He squinted his eyes through the haze of heat. The figure reemerged. Can’t be true, he thought. He stopped and watched it coming down the game trail, swaggering gracefully as only a cat can walk.
Can’t be, he thought. Not his lion.
It was still a quarter mile off, but he could see now what looked like dried, red blood running down the length of its shoulder and matted in its furry mane. Then it came out from under a cloud-cover, into sunlight, and Garrett said aloud: “Shit! It is!”
Garrett was overtaken by a great fear and he hobbled double time now, finding strength flowing from a source unknown. After fifteen minutes of hard peddling he looked back and saw that the lion had gained ground on him. His ankle was killing him and he stopped and unlaced the boot straps, hoping to relieve the pressure. Still the pain was intolerable and he was forced to stop frequently.
The next time he saw the lion, it had closed the gap even more. He pushed on, faster, but a spike of pain ran up his leg with each step he took. He managed another fifty yards. Then, finally, he collapsed, fully exhausted, along the edge of the river gorge. His face was covered with sweat and dirt, and he could smell his sweat. The tsetse flies were swarming around his head and biting at the back of his neck. He quickly took off his boot and peeled back the sock. The ankle, twice its normal size, was black and purple. It made him queasy just looking at it. He quickly wrapped it in strips of cloth torn from the bottom of his shirt and slipped it carefully back in the boot.
By the time he got going again the lion had drawn within a couple hundred yards. The next time he looked back he saw that the lion had drawn within a hundred yards. He moved quicker. Then he heard it thrashing through the thicket behind him.
Garrett was hobbling wildly now, kicking up dust, choking on the dry parched air, frantically oaring the ground with the stick which he held tight in both hands. He tripped, fell to the ground, got up and tripped again. He scrambled to his feet a second time, looked back, and saw the lion coming on him, in full stride.
The lion had metamorphosed into a raging fiend, his eyes bloodshot, mouth foaming, and hair bristling. With long strides, he quickly closed the distance between them and leaped through the air at Garrett. But just as his paws should have crushed down upon him, Garrett slipped down the side of the gorge and tumbled end over end in a huge cloud of gray dust. When Garrett came to, he saw, with more certainly than he wished, the lion scrambling down through the same dust cloud, its forward momentum causing it to slide, and though it tried to brace itself with its front paws, it tumbled past him, snarling viciously, and came to rest some twenty feet below. Through it all, Garrett held tightly to the baobab stick and he used it now to get to his feet and climb, quickly, up the canyon and along a ledge. But he was limited in what direction he could flee. Above him was a sharp-rising cliff, and below the steep river gorge.
The lion, briefly shaken by the fall, was back to his feet and laboring up the slope to where Garrett had just been. Before Garrett could negotiate his way across a slope of talus rock, which would have led him to a higher ledge, the lion cut him off. All he could do now was go higher, straight up the slope, which he did promptly, hopping on his good leg, kicking down rocks, then crawling on all fours. Then he was clambering on his back like a crab, kicking and pushing down rocks and dust on the lion. Then there were no more rocks to climb, and he found himself flush against the wall of the cliff with only the stick in his hand to ward off the snarling lion. His heart was pounding hard now, and his lungs ached with the pain that comes from breathing too hard too long.
The lion, knowing he had Garrett cornered, came up the slope slowly now, his eyes wild, head low to the ground, swaying from side to side. His neck, from head to shoulders, was a mass of dark bristling hair. He grunted uneasily and looked fiercely into Garrett’s eyes. Then he raised his head and let out a thunderous, deep-throated roar which echoed far down the canyon. From deep within, the lion drew upon his primordial strength, the sum of all he was, hunter above all hunters, all the pride and pain he had known, and prepared for the spring.
Garrett looked nervously from side to side, then to the rear, and he saw a black crevice behind him at the based of the cliff. He glanced quickly at the lion, then back at the crevice, and lunged for the crack just as the lion came at him. He fell sideways and tumbled into the shallow cave with his stick dragging behind him.
The crevice was thin and narrow at its entry, and the lion, coming on in a mad forward rush, smashed into the rock and was repelled backward. He reached deep into the cave with his giant paw and tore into the flesh of Garrett’s forearm, momentarily snagging it. Garrett jabbed at the lion’s face with the stick. But in a quick snap and crunch, the end of the stick vanished, consumed in the lion’s powerful jaw. Reaching in and stretching, the lion clawed at Garrett who lay just beyond his reach. Then looking into the cave with his big yellow, dominating eyes, reaching in with his huge forearm, the lion roared.
Darkness came slowly and the lion remained, like a sentinel, at the entrance of the cave, breathing heavily, its forearm extended deep within. Garrett, faint and feverish, with lips dried and parched, did all he could to stay outside the lion’s reach at the far end of the cave. His mind drifted in and out of consciousness and he fought from passing out. He wished the lion would just leave. If the lion would just get up and walk away, he thought, he could survive this. But the lion’s breath, his huge muzzle just a few feet away, snorting and blowing up dirt in his face, kept his presence known.
And the breath of the lion was horrible. It was the smell of dead and putrefying flesh. Each time Garrett tried to block it out of his mind, there came a deep-throated purring, gurgling sound from down inside the lion’s chest with vibrations that shook the earth beneath him, and the cave filled again with the odorous smell.
“Please God! Help me out of this,” Garrett whimpered. “I will do whatever is necessary. Make me promise I will never hunt again. I will promise. I will never hunt again!” And he repeated this to himself over and over again.
Even now, in the dark of night, Garrett found himself dozing in and out. When he awakened and realized time had passed, he did not know for how long he’d been awake or had been out. There was consciousness, nothingness, then consciousness again. He could still hear the lion breathing, faintly now, from a place far away. Then he heard the sound of beating drums from a distant tribe, only to realize he had not heard the sound at all.
He began to fade off again when the drums came back. He fought to stay awake, listening intently. The drums were louder each time, beating methodically, throbbing in his head.
Then he knew they were the drums of death, and he fought more fiercely to stay awake. He could not believe this was happening, happening to him. If only he could wake up and find himself back on his cot at the Game Camp, he would summon the porter for a cold beer. He could laugh about it all, and tell everyone about the bad dream that never was.
The taunting sound of the drums stayed in his head, but changed now. It was accompanied by a human-like noise – the sound of voices that were singing, or chanting a song.
It is my name! he thought. Yes, it is my name! Now he could hear it clearly. It was human voices, he knew, singing him a song: “Jack-Gar-rett! Jack-Gar-rett! Jack-Gar-rett! Jack-Gar-rett! Jack-Gar-rett! Jack-Gar-rett!” The sound pounded in his head, causing him to shiver and tremble all over. The more deafening it became, the more he thought it would cause his head to burst. Then, suddenly, it softened, and he recognized it to be the sound of a familiar voice: “Jack! Jack Garrett!”
From down below in the brush near the base of the talus slope, Ron Wilson, Garrett’s long-time friend, hollered out: “Jack! Jack Garrett!”
“Here!” Garrett coughed and strained. “Over here!”
In the dim opaque light of dawn, Garrett could see the lion moving, and the large paw and forearm of the lion which remained out-stretched toward him, withdrew slowly from the cave, the life in it gone. And then there was a hand, a human hand, reaching in for him, and he grabbed it and held tight to it and let it pull him from the cave.
It was the third morning, and they all gathered around now, marveling at the greatness of the huge beast. Livingstone stood, rifle strapped to his lean shoulder, watching as one of the gun-bearers ran a metal tape down the length of the lion. Ron Wilson, his safari hat resting back on his head exposing his white forehead and sandy brown hair, watched with one foot propped up on a rock and his arm resting on his knee. There were other gun-bearers, the cook, and many porters who had come in from the Land Rovers, parked a quarter mile away. They were all standing around and looking at the huge animal, the flies buzzing around its head. Garrett now sat, bandaged up on a piece of canvas, watching the others.
“It is the largest,” Livingston spoke. “The largest I have seen all year. It is very good, Mr. Jack! You got your lion! And it is a fine lion, Mr. Jack!” He reached down and found the bullet hole with his hand and he stuck his finger into it up to the first knuckle. “A fine shot!” he said.
The lion had clearly taken only the one shot. The blood dried, reddish-brown around the wound, covered the length of the lion’s flank and was matted thickly through the breadth of the mane. The porters, who had circled in, had seen Garrett’s injuries. They spoke now to one another in Swahili, recounting how Garrett had been pulled from the cave, stick – with large teeth marks in it – still clenched in his hand. They began crooning and shrilling in a high-pitched chant that Garrett had never heard before.
They hoisted Garrett onto their shoulders and began parading him triumphantly while others prepared the lion, strapping him onto long poles for transport back to the Land Rovers. There was one tall, skinny porter who had a long, cylinder-shaped drum strapped to his back. He was very dark and native-looking, bare-legged and bare-chested, except for a colorful cotton cloth he wore gathered over his shoulder like a toga. He took the drum from his back, set it on the ground, and began beating on it sending a message to nearby villages that a great lion had been killed.
From high on the porters’ shoulders, Garrett watched him, watched his bare hands methodically striking down against the thin strip of zebra hide that stretched across the drumhead. Meanwhile, two of the porters began sprinkling the dead lion with lye.
“Put me down!” Garrett yelled.
At first they did not hear him, perhaps it was difficult to hear over the sound of the drum, or they heard and ignored him, but he continued to yell, “Put me down!” And, weak as he was, he began to fight with them, slapping one on the head, and all them, surprised at his resistance, put him down quickly.
Garrett hopped, one-legged, back to the lion.
“Leave him,” he cried. “Leave him be!”
“It’s okay,” said Livingston. “They pack him for the trip home. It is a disinfectant.”
“Leave him,” Garrett said.
“It is okay, really. It is your lion. They are just making preparations.”
“Leave him,” Garrett insisted.
Livingston stepped up to the lion, dropped to one knee, and lifted the skin on the lion’s upper lip to expose the huge white fangs.
“He will make a beautiful trophy, no? he asked.
“Leave him, damn it!”
“All right,” Livingston said, and he waved off the porters who were preparing the lion. “Basi! Stop!” he told them in Swahili. “Bakiska. Bakiska.”
There was silence among the porters. They were all very puzzled and looked at one another, and at Livingston, with curious expressions. Livingstone spoke to them again in Swahili and they dropped what they were doing and began gathering up their equipment, bringing it back to the Land Rovers.
A few minutes passed and two porters came with a canvas litter and helped Garrett into it. As they carried him through the tall green grass to the Land Rovers, he looked back at the huge animal, slumped lifelessly upon the boulders, thirty-meters down from cave entrance. He continued to look back, turning his head awkwardly until the lion was out of his vision. Then he closed his eyes and he saw the face of the lion looking in at him from the cave’s entrance, the big yellow wild eyes, taunting him, and he could hear it purring and grunting in low, deep-throated bursts, rumbling the whole earth beneath him, and he could smell its breath, the breath of carrion and death. Then the sound of drums came back, just as he had heard them deep in the night, and he felt himself trembling all over again.
He opened his eyes and saw the tall, skinny native who had been beating the drum earlier, walking along side the litter in the tall grass. The drum, idle now, slung low from his shoulder with a thin piece of leather so that it dangled low in the center of his back.
The porters lifted the litter up a steep rise of rocks and carried him through the tall grass toward the Land Rovers. Garrett, still very faint and weak, rested his head back against the canvas. There was a long moment of silence, and while lying there, he became mindful of a noise from far off. He lifted his head and held himself perfectly still. Then he could hear it, coming back across the vast savannah, through the deep river gorge, the sound of beating drums of a distant tribe in celebration.