Death, the professional hunter knew, always wears a
disguise. She would come as old age, or war, or with the hunter
stalking a trophy for his den wall or survival for his family, but
she was always Death. The hunter had seen Death ugly and glorious.
He’d never looked upon her easily. He pictured Death as an old crone
lurking near by with her long, bony and pale fingers forever
scratching at the air, searching to capture a soul or a spirit
This time Death stalked a young man who should be
dreaming of girls to love and triumphs to win. On this hunt, the PH
sensed the old crone always sitting nearby mocking the living and
the innocent. In the past the hunter had been a soldier. John
Robinson had dealt in Death, lived with her, and treated her as a
commodity. Now, as a professional hunter, he took Death with him
into the bush stalking the most beautiful game his client hunters
could kill. Death had stalked him and his clients had been stalked.
The only time Death had beaten him, she’d taken a reckless client
who hadn’t listened. Now Death was cheating. She was stealing the
innocence of youth a solitary day at a time until there was nothing
left for her cold, withered claws to tear at.
When Robinson looked at Scott Tyler, he noticed the
frail, thin knees drawn up to Scott’s chest so he could rest his
chin on them. Each time he looked at the boy, Robinson hated his
world—the African bush—a little more. It was where he met death
every day, and the bush had become her lair. Robinson wanted to
escape from the drudgery that he was watching, but Death demands
With Scott sitting with his arm folded around his
legs, hugging them to his chest, it looked as though he was trying
to hold his life inside. Robinson could see Scott’s father, Dr.
Howard Tyler, watching his son. Beyond the boy, in the dry African
grass, the hartebeest were grazing. Their heart-shaped horns were
distinctive in the morning light although they were several hundred
"It’s not fair," Dr. Tyler, said.
"I know," the professional hunter said. He answered
the doctor slowly, the way he always answered whenever the doctor
complained about fairness. Each day the routine was the same.
Several times a day the doctor would complain then become angry, but
only when his son couldn’t hear. The hunter waited for the doctor’s
"I’ve cured so many, healed so many with these
The doctor turned around and faced the hunter.
"No John, you don’t know," the doctor said bitterly.
The bitterness was new. John Robinson shrugged,
pretending indifference to his client’s emotions. He asked if the
doctor and his son wanted to hunt. The question was a formality, he
already knew the answer.
"Of course. First, let him watch the sun rise. God
knows he doesn’t have many left."
Robinson nodded, turned, and walked to the idling
Land Cruiser. Ten of the fourteen days of hunting were used up.
Scott had taken everything the doctor had put on his son’s safari
list except the buffalo and leopard. The doctor had pushed the boy
every day, saying, "Take that ram, he’ll go twenty-three or maybe
twenty-four inches," or, "that 18-inch blesbok will go for the
record book and won’t be easily bumped from the list."
If, after the animal was dead and Robinson measured
it, pronouncing the kill a trophy which easily made the top ten in
the Safari Club record book, the doctor would become excited and hug
his son. He’d pump Robinson’s hand then solidly slap the PH’s back
in some obscure male bonding ritual that Robinson forced himself to
endure. Following dinner and after the boy had gone to bed, Robinson
and the doctor would pull their canvas chairs closer to the dying
fire and sip on the last drinks of the day. At first they would talk
about hunting, then the conversation would shift to politics or guns
and become aimless. Robinson would signal the bar boy for more
whiskey and soda and the conversation would slow, then fade. The
quiet bothered the doctor and he would begin to jabber about where
in his apparently sprawling home, he’d display the trophies Scott
had killed that day. Then he’d begin his list of complaints. He’d
talk about the black trackers walking too fast for Scott to keep up
without having to push himself.
He’d talk about the rough track they followed in the
Land Cruiser and how it jostled their guns out of the racks. If they
hadn’t returned to the lodge for lunch, he’d complain about the
sandwiches being too dry, or not having enough soft drinks or
bottled water in the cool box. By the end of his litany he’d become
sullen and stare at the coals then he’d stand up, stretch, and say,
"All in all it’s been a wonderful hunt," and he was proud of his
son. Then his eyes would fill with tears and he’d turn away from the
fire and walk to the bar. While John watched, the doctor would pour
himself a double shot of bourbon—turn the highball glass in his hand
as if studying it would give him insights for the following day, or
maybe make him forget that day. He’d then toss his head back,
downing the whiskey in a single swallow which would make him choke
and gasp for air. Before Dr. Tyler recovered he’d wave slowly to
Robinson and walk to his own chalet. The professional hunter was
left alone in the night and he’d put more wood on the fire. Robinson
would sit quietly and listen to the bush babies in the ironwood
tree, and while watching the flames dance in the center of the
circle of light, growing brighter before they faded, he’d hope for a
night quiet from the killing on the veldt.
Each day had its own sameness and Robinson had begun
to loathe the routine of hunting. The only interest he felt was in
whether the animal killed by Scott was larger or smaller than he’d
predicted. If the animal was smaller so it wouldn’t make the top
ten, the doctor sulked. He then contented himself by making everyone
else suffer with him. His voice would change, acquiring a higher
than normal pitch, and he would ask Scott if he needed to rest
before continuing the hunt. Robinson suspected the boy of placating
Dr. Tyler. In a tone approaching assurance, he’d tell his father he
could hunt, saying he wanted to continue. It was important, the boy
had told the professional hunter, to his father that he hunt every
day. Robinson thought the father’s concern was a way for Dr. Tyler
to remind him and the black trackers that Scott was dying and would
never have another opportunity to hunt in Africa. The doctor’s guilt
became a plea to try harder for bigger trophies.
Robinson watched the senior Tyler study his son,
noting the color of his skin, the sweat or dryness of it. The PH
wondered if the doctor hovered over the boy because he felt it was
his duty, or was it all he could do since nothing would stop Death
from its daily plucking at the young man’s life.
Sometimes Robinson thought the boy seemed healthier
than the office-tower businessman clients he been taking out in the
past few months. At least Scott didn’t snivel about the sun, rain,
dust, bugs or the thorns like the bulbous-nosed clients who’d spent
so much of their day drinking lunch and bragging about their golf
game. Their daily exercise consisted of their jaunts to the men’s
room long enough to drain their stretched bladders. They thought
that hunting on an African ranch was an easy way to hang some exotic
trophies on their office walls to impress clients with their tired
machismo. When it didn’t work that way and they had to get out of
the Land Rover and hunt, they would complain. Some quit hunting.
Others refused to walk. Most of them gamely went out and gradually
discovered themselves, perhaps realizing they’d been lying about who
they were. Scott, however, was alive in the bush. Dying, he seemed
alive to the hunter. The boy seemed to feel the life of the bush
around him. Though Scott’s spirit was still his own, Robinson could
see the Death crone stealing the boy’s flesh.
At night, before young Tyler left the fire, he would
talk about hunting. Robinson could see the boy trying to hide the
day’s strain and losses from his father. As he talked Robinson heard
the hunter’s heart and soul singing stronger in the boy’s voice. In
the morning Scott seemed to be refreshed and ready to hunt. There
appeared to be only a bit less of the life in him from the day
before. The professional hunter thought he could see it but the
doctor either couldn’t, or refused to. Robinson thought about
telling the father, that if he didn’t push Scott so hard to fill the
list of trophies, the boy and his father would have time to
experience the bush. Perhaps, one evening, if the father and son
stopped to watch the sunset while looking over the veldt they would
see Africa’s green flash. But, to do that a person had to have faith
and eyes that were seeing. The doctor had lost the vision.
John Robinson knew he was right but he didn’t speak
up. It wasn’t his place. Every professional hunter has watched this
same scene—parents collecting their son’s or daughter’s trophies
while ignoring the fact that their children had become trophies.
Robinson watched the ugly crone mark off each of the boy’s calendar
days while the doctor marked off each new trophy. "It’s a bloody
race," Robinson told the ranch owner. "Right now they’re running
neck and neck with our animals."
Robinson leaned against the Land Rover, smoking
cigarettes while he watched Scott under the thorn bush and the
doctor watching the boy.
Finally, Scott stood up. He was lanky. Maybe he’d
always been thin. The hunter wasn’t sure. He watched the boy walk to
his father. They talked. He wondered what they talked about. The boy
walked toward the Land Rover and Robinson watched the easy
confidence that made him almost forget the cancer that had eaten
away all hope.
"What today?" Scott asked.
"Cape buffalo," Robinson said.
"You’ve got one that will satisfy my father?"
"Yes, a big bull’s been hanging about near
McKenzie’s Pool. We’ll hunt him."
"Needs to go book--you know--for my father."
The doctor walked up and asked, "What will?"
"The boy’s buff. I’ve seen this old bull close up.
He’ll make book--easy. Probably top ten."
"That’s where I want my son’s name, in the top ten
of the SCI trophy book. I want him to stay there a long time."
The hunter didn’t answer. It was hard enough to make
book with a buffalo in South Africa. Going that high in the book had
become nearly impossible. The boy might make it with this buff
though--if they could find it. That was up to Ajar, the black
tracker. Robinson nodded toward the seat and the boy pulled himself
into it. Scott’s Winchester—a .375 H&H magnum—was in the gun rack.
The bullet loops on the sling were filled with two different bullet
types. The top row of loops held the heavy, monolithic solids that
would be used to smash through the biggest bones of the buffalo. The
bottom roll of loops contained the X-bullets that had become popular
with hunters going after dangerous game. These bullets could power
through a big animal and expand evenly to deliver the shock needed
for a quick kill. The doctor’s gun, a massive, custom built .470
Capstick, was above his son’s. The guide’s weathered and worn .416
Rigby double rifle was jammed between the seats so he could reach it
quickly if needed.
After the doctor was seated, Robinson’s tracker,
Ajar, materialized from the opposite side of the rover and climbed
in the back. The hunter drove off on the track between the acacia
trees and into the bush of the ranch. Twenty minutes later they
stopped on top of a small kopje and the three of them got out of the
rover and stood on the top of the hill. They could see the waterhole
and watch Ajar circling. He was studying the ground.
"Ajar will pick up the buff’s spoor here. We’ll
follow the old bull on foot," Robinson said.
"Fine," the doctor said, then he looked at Robinson
as if to ask for something else that was impossible to deliver.
Robinson got out without answering.
They walked slowly, easily. Ajar followed the huge
bovine tracks that stayed apart from the herd. Even a novice could
read the spoor. The bull walked arrogantly and without fear through
the sand surrounding the waterhole. His bulk, power and horns were
his weapons. The hunters walked steadily all morning, stopping for a
few minutes every half hour to let the boy rest. When Ajar stopped
and kneeled down, Robinson knelt beside him. The hunter nodded to
the whispered words from the tracker. They motioned Scott to come
up. After he was beside Robinson, the boy followed the hunter’s
pointing finger and saw an average-sized warthog rooting.
"Ajar wants some more leopard bait and it’s too hot
to hunt the bull now," Robinson said.
The boy shouldered his rifle, settled the
crosshairs, pushed the safety off and fired. The shot echoed and the
doctor hurried to his son’s side, ready to congratulate him on the
buffalo. Instead, the doctor saw the warthog thrashing his death
throes. The solid had hit the shoulder and ripped it apart,
exploding the heart.
"Why did you shoot that?" the doctor demanded.
"Fresh leopard bait," Robinson said. "I’ll go back
and get the Cruiser and Ajar will stay here. Take a break. This time
of day with this sun, the old bull is holed up in the thick stuff
for now, just trying to beat the midday heat. We’ll take the hog to
the leopard tree, get some lunch at the lodge, and be back on the
spoor this afternoon."
Robinson had been watching the boy and knew he was
tired and needed to rest. Twice the boy had stumbled. Each time he’d
quickly recovered and looked at his father to see if he’d noticed,
then relaxed, realizing his father was intently watching Ajar follow
the spoor. Robinson knew the buff was close, but he wouldn’t move
until the afternoon began to cool. Robinson patted Scott’s shoulder
and told him it had been a good shot, then he left and was quickly
swallowed by the bush.
Dr. Tyler sat down. He was angry with Robinson but
wouldn’t show it in front of the boy. Later, maybe. When Scott was
asleep. After Robinson had disappeared into the bush Scott sat down
without speaking. The doctor watched the boy replace the spent round
with another solid and then cradle his gun. Ajar was a few yards
away, listening to the bush. No one spoke and the quiet under the
African sun was oppressive. Sweat trickled down their backs. The
doctor leaned back and watched his son fidget. The boy had to be
thinking about his death. He wondered if Scott hated him for not
being able to save him. The cancer had created a distance between
them and the doctor had hoped the safari would bring he and his son
back together in the final days. But the distance had become too
great and each time he tried to reach for his son the boy pulled
away. At least the boy’s mother had understood. She had struggled to
face the death but couldn’t and all but admitted she didn’t want to
watch her son whither to a memory. Would death in a hospital have
been better? He wondered. He wasn’t sure. He was a doctor but he
couldn’t trust himself to have the answers that fathers should know.
Ajar didn’t hear it or see it, but he turned and
looked across the clearing. The doctor followed the black tracker’s
movement. The grassy pan had been empty with just the dead warthog
and the ticks fleeing it. The now-dead host was all that could be
seen and suddenly, the buffalo appeared in the clearing. If he
smelled death, the massive animal ignored it. Ajar nodded in the
direction of the bull. The doctor grinned at his son. The wind was
in their favor, and they were well hidden.
"It’s the big bull," the doctor whispered. Fifty
yards from them the bull sensed the threat and his big nose flared
as he tested the wind, looking for the enemy he’d come to kill.
"He is looking for us," Ajar said.
"Take him, son."
"It’s too far."
"No it’s not. We can’t get closer and won’t get
The boy raised his gun but the sun haloed inside the
scope. "It’s not clear, dad," he said.
"This may be our only chance to get one together."
Scott fired. The 300 grain bullet was a little high.
It missed the heart but smashed through the shoulder and the buffalo
fell forward. The boy worked the bolt of the rifle and fired again,
remembering what Robinson said about shooting Cape buffalo. "If you
aren’t sure, keep firing even when the buff is down."
When the gun was empty Scott reloaded, pulling
cartridges from the loops and shoving them in the gun, dropping as
many as he loaded. The doctor reached for Scott, trying to thump his
shoulder in paternal camaraderie. He was telling Scott they could
talk about how he’d killed a record book buffalo without having the
professional hunter with them. But the boy ignored him and stood up,
jerking the rifle to his shoulder. He fired again at the buffalo as
it bellowed its death call. Scott started toward the buffalo,
working the bolt. He fired again. The bullet hit with a thump and
there was a small puff of dust from the buffalo’s hide. Scott took
another step, working the bolt again, lowering the rifle to work the
action then raising it to his shoulder, firing another bullet into
the animal. When his gun was empty he reached to reload but the
loops on the sling were empty. Scott worked the bolt and pulled the
trigger on the empty chamber. The boy froze, holding the gun to his
shoulder, still aiming at the buffalo. Ajar reached for the gun and
Scott gave it to him. The tracker then handed the gun to the doctor.
"Is he big enough for you?" Scott said. "Do you want
me to shoot him again? Kill him again? I can do that you know. I can
kill him again for you."
"Are you okay, son?" the doctor asked. He was
holding Scott’s rifle in his hand.
"You have your buffalo now."
The doctor wiped a tear from his eye while he walked
to the buffalo. "He’s ours son. They can’t take that away from us."
"I think it’s yours, Dad."
Because they killed the buffalo early in the day,
Scott went back to his chalet near the ranch’s lodge and went to
sleep. He rested for several hours. Later that afternoon he walked
to the lodge and joined his father and Robinson at the bar.
"What’s the chance for a leopard?" Scott asked.
"We’ve got them on the ranch," Robinson said. "When
Ajar gets back from checking the baits we’ll know if we’ve got one
Robinson studied the boy’s face. "Why’d you ask?"
"I want a chance at one."
Dr. Tyler heard Scott’s words but he wasn’t sure he
understood their meaning. He looked at the boy and the questions
must have been on his face.
"I’m sorry about his afternoon," Scott said, looking
directly into his father’s face. "I guess I just lost it—the big
buffalo—what’s happening. I couldn’t think."
The doctor relaxed and smiled at his son. The boy
asked Robinson for a beer then he looked to his father who nodded
his approval. After he’d taken a drink from the can he asked
Robinson again to explain to him how to cleanly kill a leopard. He
sat back to listen while the hunter talked.
When Ajar returned to the lodge, he told Robinson
one of the baits had been hit by a big male leopard. Robinson
slapped his open palm against the top of the bar, startling the bar
boy who jumped back. "Bloody good!" Robinson said.
"Leopard?" the doctor asked.
"Yes, and from what old Ajar here says, he’s a fine
Robinson then explained the new bait had been hit by
a big cat, apparently within an hour after the warthog had been
gutted and hung in the tree. The PH figured the cat would probably
come back to finish feeding in the evening. There was a good chance
the cat had been frightened off the bait when Ajar and the others
interrupted the leopard’s feeding when they were checking baits.
"This will finish the hunt if he comes in, right?"
Scott said to his father.
"Damn right it will, son," the doctor said. "We’ll
have taken everything on the list."
Scott didn’t comment instead he turned and walked to
his chalet and got his rifle.
"Well," Robinson said. "We need to get into the hide
now. I’ll bet the ol’ boy will be back to claim his prize right
Once in the Land Cruiser the hunters kept their
rifles close, as if each of them was afraid the cat would jump at
the Land Cruiser from the grass. They followed the track into the
thick bush of the ranch’s river bottom country. Robinson parked the
Rover, and whispered for the hunters to load their rifles.
"The noise of the bolt could spook the cat if he’s
close to our bait," Robinson said.
After the doctor and Scott had closed the bolts of
their rifles, Robinson led them toward the hide. Ajar stayed with
the Land Rover, sitting in the middle of the front seat staring
Once close to the hide they crept in without
speaking and settled themselves for the long wait. Robinson put the
boy between himself and his father, then he tied the rifle’s scope
to an over hanging branch so all Scott would have to do is pull the
rifle to his shoulder and aim and shoot.
They waited through the end of the day’s heat and
into the soft African autumn evening and watched the African day’s
closing light. Then, like the buffalo, the leopard appeared. No one
had seen the cat slip into the tree or heard him climb onto the
limb. He was just there.
Robinson didn’t speak but motioned the boy to pull
the rifle to his shoulder. Any noise would frighten the leopard,
sending it back to the bush. Scott pulled himself into a sitting
position and pushed the rifle through the little opening between the
Robinson knew he’d told the boy to look through the
scope and pick out his target on the leopard’s shoulder. He’d
instructed the young Tyler to find a single black rosette where the
bullet would hit. The boy pushed the safety off and pulled the rifle
confidently into his shoulder. Robinson watched the barrel rise and
fall in a waltz with the rhythm of the boy’s beating heart and
deliberate breathing. Scott’s finger pulled the trigger through the
slack and he squeezed.
The sound of the firing pin on the empty chamber had
been loud, out of place, and man-made. The leopard was gone. The
doctor crawled toward the boy. There was the spittle of anger on his
father’s chin. The boy pulled the bolt back and turned his rifle so
his father could see the chamber. He hadn’t loaded it.
"You didn’t load the rifle?"
"No," the boy answered.
The boy’s eyes were wet. "I want to leave something.
He was mine and I gave him back his life. I want to leave the
leopard--here." His voice was pleading. "That’s my prize—my life!
That’s what’s on my list!" The boy started to shake. His tears were
of anger and pride.
The doctor didn’t answer. He pushed himself out of
the hide and stood up, then started walking back to the Land Rover
In the last morning the boy was sitting under the
acacia tree. The hunter stopped his Land Rover behind the doctor who
was watching his son. There was no more hunting. The list had been
"Can you bring lunch to us. . . here?"
"Yes," the hunter said.
"Good," the doctor said. "Do that, will you?" Then
he walked out to his son and sat down.
"How many animals do you think we’ll see, sitting
here?" the boy asked.
"A lifetime’s-worth this morning," the doctor said.
Robinson watched the hartebeest walk through the dry grass. An
impala ram fed by himself as the African sky’s morning red faded to
a lighter blue. In the afternoon, when the shadows were short, the
boy went to sleep and his father stood alone by the acacia tree
where he finally burned the list. Robinson watched the flames curl
the paper and blacken it. The ashes fell away and were carried into
the bush by the wind.