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Fate of the Leopard

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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 drifting past.

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 attention.

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 yards away.

"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 morning anger.

"I’ve cured so many, healed so many with these hands."

"I know."

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."

"It will."

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 another chance.

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 feeding."

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 one."

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 about dark."

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 straight ahead.

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 leaves.

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 and Ajar.

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 filled.

"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.

• Fate of the Leopard •
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• The Parable of the Warthog and the Wildebeest •
• The Ancient Craft •
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