Excerpted from Beneath a Hunter's Sky
a collection of outdoor themed short fiction
by John Bascom
A story in four parts
We left camp early in the predawn darkness, traveling slowly for more than an hour over the rough two-tracks barely scratched on the Botswana landscape. Peter was driving and pulled off the trail about two miles from the place where we took my lion. As the glow of the dawn just became visible on the horizon, we started our trek into the mixed African savannah and bush.
We threaded our way through the countryside for what seemed to be days but in reality was only hours, seeing little but old buffalo spoor, several elephant cows with their calves in a dry riverbed, and a troop of baboons barking angrily. We stopped in the shade of a huge, spreading baobab tree for water and a sack lunch Enteie's young son, our porter, had brought along. The ever-present Botswana dry-country sun had climbed high into the sky and the heat was bearing down on us.
After finishing lunch, we pressed on at a brisk pace for some time until Enteie, in the lead as always, began motioning urgently. We moved up to where he was examining plenty of moist dung piles and a whole parade of obviously fresh tracks.
Peter conferred with him for a moment and then said, “Very fresh. They've moved through here quite recently, within the hour I'd say. Let's be careful now.”
Again we moved forward, this time more cautiously. Everyone's eyes were darting around, on the alert for any odd shape, movement, or sound. It was only a few minutes before we all spotted them at about the same moment. A herd of sixty or more animals moving leisurely through the grass and bush just ahead of us. No more than two hundred yards away.
From our position among a clump of thorntrees, we had a pretty good view of the group. Peter put his binoculars to his eyes and studied the massive black forms carefully. Then he motioned me back a few yards to talk while Enteie and his son stayed forward to keep an eye on the animals.
“We're in luck,” he whispered excitedly. “There's a fine bull in there. Big-bodied with symmetrical horns easily over forty inches. They've got great drop, spread, and curl,” he said, refering to the size and shape of the horns. “And the boss is massive,” he added, describing the thick, bony covering of the forehead where the two horns joined together. “A big herd bull, only just now past his prime. He's near the right side. Move up a little and have a look.”
I moved forward again, observing the herd with my naked eye and also glassing with my field binoculars. I spotted the trophy bull right away. Then I noticed one even more impressive, more or less by himself off to the far left of the group. “What about the one over there?” I said, pointing. “The brownish one. He's even bigger.”
“A big old dagga-boy,” said Peter. “A bull well past his prime that's a hanger-on so to speak. I'm afraid he's in advanced decline. The fit breeding bulls beat them up when they get old and weak. Drive them from the herd and don't allow them to mate. They leave and rejoin periodically until they're booted by the young bulls again.”
“His color is different,” I said. “More like a reddish-brown.”
“When they're that old they're vulnerable to parasites,” Peter said. “Dagga-boys off on their own wallow whenever they can. Keeps a coating of mud, dirt, and dust on the hide to hold the ticks and flies at bay. That's what 'dagga-boy' means in Bantu—the dirty one. They urinate and defecate in those wallows. Makes them smell like hell. Do you see all the oxpeckers on him, the little birds that hop around on his nose, forehead, and ears mostly? They pick off all the insects, a real lunch wagon for the oxpeckers. They're thick on these dagga-boys.”
“His head is massive, though,” I said. “And his body is huge.”
“Quite the lover and fighter in his day, I'm sure. It's certain he sired many of the juveniles in this and the other herds around here. But take a close look at those horns. They've started to deteriorate, from old age and parasite infestation. The horn is broken off the one side, and there are areas of cavities and craters in the bosses and along the inner parts of the other. When both horns are broken, we call them 'scrum caps.' The remaining short horn fragments fit tight to the side of their head, like a rugby player's helmet. This one is like that on only the one side. A half scrum cap,” he smiled.
“Still, there's something noble about him,” I said.
“His better days are behind him. It's well enough to take an old trophy animal beyond breeding age, but this aging gentleman has been savaged by Mother Nature. On his last leg. He's junk, a 'management' bull. The government issues extra permits for animals like him to thin the herd and keep it healthy.”
“It looks like he's injured, too,” I said. There were scars all over his head and body. Some looked fresh, moist with seepage.
Peter took a closer look with his field glasses. “He's almost certainly been attacked by lions. Quite recently. Maybe that scrap with the two bad boys we bumped into yesterday. His nose has been bitten, and there seem to be claw marks on his hind quarters and neck. A younger bull might survive that kind of ballyhoo, but I'm not sure about this old fellow.”
Peter seemed to sense my hesitation. “That mature, fit herd bull is the one you want hanging in your study,” he said. “He's had his chance, passed on his genes and will be yet another dagga-boy all too soon. I'll see that broken-down scrum cap is collected for hyena bait by another party later, one that has extra licenses.”
Peter was right enough, of course. But sometimes you follow your gut rather than your head. “I'm taking the dagga-boy,” I said. And that decision would change everything.
“You're the client,” he said resignedly. “We'll need to get closer. Stay low and be absolutely quiet. I'll tell you when to shoot. If the whole herd comes, back slowly away and I'll handle it or give you instructions. Let's go.”
Enteie and his son faded behind us as Peter and I moved closer. About fifty yards from the edge of the herd—from the monstrous, old, ravaged m'bogo—Peter stopped. The wind was in our face. The herd was oblivious.
“Wait until he's broadside. Take him in the center of the shoulder when I give the word. What kind of round is chambered?” Peter asked.
“A 270-grain expandable now and 300-grain solids in the magazine under it,” I said.
“Quietly eject the softpoint,” Peter whispered, “and load the big solid. We'll need to crush plenty of bone on this big boy with our first shot.
I did as Peter asked and slowly worked the bolt. The sound must have been just enough for the m'bogo to hear, because he abruptly stopped grazing, raised his head, and stared directly at me. He was perfectly broadside.
“Take him NOW,” Peter said in a hoarse whisper. Just as I fired, the old bull lurched forward, the herd wheeling in unison. I saw a shower of dust, mud, and dried dung chips explode from the bull's ribcage where the bullet struck. “Hit him again!” Peter shouted as the buffalos thundered down toward a dry riverbed bordered with an area of unusually dense brush. “Hold up—hold up—hold up!” Peter yelled. The dagga-boy had merged into the compressed, stampeding herd and no longer offered a shot. They disappeared over the riverbank.
“I saw him move just as you fired,” Peter said. “He simply bolted at the last instant. Bad luck. But you smacked him neat enough in the boiler room. A good lung shot.”
I felt pretty good about the shot. It was the same bullet placement as with my lion the day before, and I saw what it had done to him.
“Let's have a rest for a few minutes to let him lie down,” Peter said. “These boys can absorb a lot of punishment, but they're not Superman. Eventually he'll bleed out. No point in riling him up before he's finished.”
After about fifteen minutes Peter got up and said, “I think we're okay to go now.”
Enteie tracked in the lead, followed by Peter with his double elephant gun and me close behind. Enteie's boy, our bearer, took up the rear with an extra, loaded gun for Peter and plenty of ammo. Enteie quickly pointed to blood spoor as we worked carefully toward the river's edge. We stopped close to the dry riverbed and just next to the dense area of jesse bush. It extended far to our right and all the way forward over the bank. The willows were thick and leafless back from the river's edge, but were choked with green where we stood closer to the river, betraying the trace of water it must have held. We couldn't see into the riverbed or the brush either, for that matter.
I was standing with the tangled thicket to my right when it happened. Enteie's boy, our bearer, had moved up directly next to me on my left, then Enteie to the boy's left, and finally Peter. All in a row. I was aware of an odd, total silence.
First came the quick flush of the oxpecker from the jesse, only a few feet to my right. Then the massive, rusty brown-black form of M'bogo rose from his knees in the heavy green tangle, simultaneously driving toward me. In my mind everything unfolded in surreal slow motion. I felt his breath, the fine mist of lung blood enveloping my face as the wounded animal grunted under the great effort of his charge.
As if in a single, perfectly choreographed dance, I wheeled and pushed the safety forward on my rifle. I realized at the same instant I was between the others and the buffalo. I thought of jumping to the side, but even if there had been time, I somehow understood Peter would not raise his rifle with me between him and the bull. Even if I cleared his line of fire, with the speed of this dagga-boy's rush, there would be no chance to get a round off. The dying bull would slam full-force into Enteie's child and the rest of them. I had the only possible shot. “You can kill a buff, but you can't stop him,” I recalled Peter saying.
I fired from just above my hip far less than a second before the impact. I could see the muzzle flash on the buffalo's shoulder, a shot I instinctively understood would most certainly crush a shoulder blade and angle back and down through muscle and organs. His massive boss struck me cleanly in the chest, and I was wrenched up and onto the one side of his head that held the slab of broken-off horn as he simultaneously hooked and lifted. I realized I was airborne from the attack, but the shortened, downward-cast horn fragment did not have the shape to succesfully gore me. As I spun through the air, I recall thinking, “Hold onto the gun—hold onto the gun.”
I crashed down on the animal's back as he kicked and spun. I quickly found myself on the ground under his head and between his front legs. In the instant it took for the m'bogo to comprehend my location, I somehow worked the bolt once more. Just as I fired for the last time, he bore down on my body with his good horn and forehead, twisting and thrusting. The crushing sensation on my chest and abdomen was intense. With me lying on the ground, my last, desperate shot drove into his underside angled upward toward the base of his tail. The big dagga-boy slumped heavily to the ground, the side of his bloodied head on my stomach. I realized he was finished just before I heard the twin roars of Peter's rifle. The whole episode might have taken four or five seconds.
“Then you chose to kill the dagga-boy rather than the kuu tuzo, the magnificient trophy bull?” the priest said.
“And you stood to face M'bogo alone to save the child?”
“And the others. It happened without thinking.”
“My son,” said the young priest, “by the Lord's providence did you select the old dagga-boy so that your destiny might be fulfilled. It could not be otherwise.”
“But why here, now?” I asked.
“There is a final verse to the Bantu song, to our creed. It concludes, 'Mtu lazima kupata na kutimiza hatima yake, Katika nchi ya mababu zetu.' A man must find and fulfill his destiny, In the land of our ancestors.”
“But Father, this is not the land of my ancestors.”
“The prayer says, 'the land of our ancestors.' “ He emphasized the word “our.” “We all trace back to African forefathers. That is well established. But the words 'Katika nchi ya mababu zetu—the land of our ancestors,' are understood to mean, not the listener's home, but simply in Africa, the land of the Bantu and San people. Here, where fate has now brought you. Perhaps to face your destiny.”
“I see,” I said.
“In the meaning of our legend, you have fulfilled the requirements of singularly confronting and slaying the beast, twice over. And now saving a child. I hear no sin, my son.”
I fell silent again.
“What brought you here, then, to our small church?” the priest said at last.
“After the attack I was badly hurt. I don't remember everything. I'd been battered and slammed around violently. Lost consciousness for a time, I think. They brought me to the nearest medical clinic, here. Then I began to think I was wrong to kill the noble old M'bogo who had endured so much. Who had served his herd, defeated the lions, who deserved his remaining years in Africa. That I should have have taken the younger bull who had not yet earned his place of esteem. I began to think I had brought bad fortune on myself and the others through my blasphemy. That I had affronted God's plan. Sinned.”
“In Africa we understand it is a sign of respect to hunt a magnificent animal,” the priest said. “It is no sin to fairly and honestly slay the most noble prey. It has been our way for all of creation. Nature demands those who have fulfilled their purpose must leave to make way for others. You were right to kill the old dagga-boy. The sin that led you here must be something else. Continue on then, my child.”
“I knew of this church since I had passed through this town after our charter flight landed at your airstip on my arrival in Botswana. After I was checked over by the nurse, I simply left and walked over here to make my confession. It seemed like the thing I needed to do.”
“I understand,” the priest said.
He seemed to pause in thought. “The final piece of our code? Have you then fulfilled a woman?”
“How do you mean?”
“We understand it to include providing her with a child, unconditional love, support, forgiveness, devotion. Placing her above others, above yourself. Merging your life with hers.”
“I've been married twice,” I told the priest. “As I said, I have no children. It was my choice. I simply felt it wouldn't be wise. There have been many problems between us, she—my wife now—at fault as much or more so than I.”
“Our code makes the obligation that of the man, not the woman,” the priest said.
“It's difficult, Father. We've turned out to be very different people than either of us understood when we married. God knows I've tried.”
“You were wise to come here, my child. I understand now. You have turned your back on the final requirement. Your sin has been great in scorning your destiny. Your confession is complete.”
“May I have your absolution, My Father?”
“Have you repented your sin?” the priest asked. “Are you resolved to sin no more? Will you make amends for your crime against God? Only if you so resolve can you be absolved.”
“I...I think so, Father,” I said. “Yes.”
“Then say a prayer of contrition.”
“I confess to almighty God...” I began, “... I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed...”
“Deus, Pater misericordiárum—God the Father of mercies,” the priest recited, “through the death and resurrection of your Son, You have reconciled the world to Yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace.”
“Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…” I prayed. “I beseech blessed Mary ever Virgin and all the saints, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”
“Your sins are forgiven,” the priest said. “Go in peace, and sin no more.”
“Father,” I said, “what if I am unable to make amends through events beyond my control? May I still be forgiven?”
I watched as the priest pulled aside the mosquito netting separating us. He reached his hand through the opening. I could feel the warm, thick balm he had placed on his thumb tracing the figure of a small cross on my forehead. “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” he said. “By this laying of hands may the power of evil be overcome. By this holy anointing and by His most tender mercy may the Lord forgive you all the evil you have done. May your purified soul be accepted by God.”
I heard the divider between our compartments close. I leaned back in exhaustion, slowly taking in and exhaling a deep breath. I could see from the gap at the edge of the curtain the intense afternoon desert sun had moved to a position where it flooded through the single plain window on the opposite wall of the church and engulfed the interior with blinding white light. Still, I could faintly detect that people had entered the church and filled the pews. I experienced the puzzling, impossible illusion that the faces were those of friends, relatives—people from my past, some long gone. I relaxed my body and decided to close my eyes for a moment before leaving the confessional.
When I opened my eyes again, Peter was standing by the mosquito netting surrounding my hospital bed. “Welcome back,” he said.
“Hi, Peter,” I said slowly and softly, feeling as if I were enveloped in a thick mist. Then I was aware of an uncomfortable oxygen cannula clipped between my nostrils and an IV needle in my arm connected to an array of liquid-filled plastic bags. Sensors were stuck to my chest. “How long have I been here?”
“Going on two days. You gave everyone quite the fright. A bit more exciting than simply putting down your charging lion. You really do have the flair for the dramatic.”
“How is everyone?” I asked. My memory was foggy and I wanted reassurance no one else had been hurt.
“All fine... except you. You were the only one in the fray. Enteie and his son got the hell out of the way in a flash. I simply couldn't shoot with you bouncing all over that buff until you were clear. By then he was down anyway and pretty much dead. I put two into him for insurance. He doubled back on us through the thicket, you know. While we were waiting. Then laid down until we walked by.”
“I remember everything until after you shot. After that it's mostly a haze.”
“You were out cold most of the time. A few delerious moments of semiconsciousness. We had to bring the lorry in and get you here to Ghanzi. Only medical clinic in the area, such as it is. I'm sure you don't remember, but you were pretty bad off. Lots of bleeding, broken bones. We thought you were gone more than once. That old dagga-boy you were so keen on gored you with his one intact horn all the way through your belly to the backside.”
“Jesus!” I said. Even with the cocktail of drugs flowing into the IV, I was aware of intense pain.
“There were no doctors here, just the nurse. And no plane to evacuate you. When they sent a plane from Johannesburg they put a couple surgeons on it because you wouldn't have lasted the flight out. Couldn't believe you were still alive when they first saw you. They performed emergency surgery here at this broken down little bush clinic. A first, they tell me.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I'm grateful. I'll thank the doctors and staff when I have the chance.” My head was slowly beginning to clear.
“Now that you're stable and awake, they said they'll be taking you to Cape Town in a small medivac jet. That's where I'm from. World-class docs and facilities there. You're a lucky man.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Stayed with you since we brought you in. You were here a few hours before the plane arrived, then they took you straight off into surgery. By the way, you're a little lighter now. Minus one spleen. They had to stitch a few blood vessels and intestines back together. You've been on massive antibiotics since surgery. Last thing was to tape your broken ribs and sternum. Must hurt like the devil, eh?”
“It's not too bad,” I lied. I knew enough to realize there was morphine in my IV, too.
“It was all touch and go here at first. They brought a young Bantu priest, a nice fellow, over from the local church. You were out like a light. Just so you know, he gave you the Catholic last rites.”
“Yes,” I said. “I know. Extreme Unction.”
“Annointed your head with some kind of holy oil. Said something in Latin or whatever. All that's beyond me.”
“I haven't practiced the faith for years, but still I appreciate it,” I said. “Must thank him as well if I have the chance.”
“And in case you're interested... your dagga-boy? He weighed in at nearly a ton and a quarter. If his horn hadn't been broken, he would have gone forty-eight inches. He would have stood as the Botswana official record, another kuu tuzo,” he laughed. “For the 'M'windaji'—the great hunter.”
“Wait'll next year,” I smiled. I was coming out of it enough to kid with him a little.
“There's someone else here who's been with you the last few hours, too. She traveled thirty-six hours straight as soon as I called to tell her. Just stepped out for the first time a second ago. I'll get her. And by the way, don't let her get away. She's a pretty one.”
Bitsie walked through the door and over to the bed. She pulled the netting aside, put her hand on my arm, and kissed my forehead. “And how's my hunter this morning?” she said softly.
“Oh my God, I'm so glad to see you.” I could feel my eyes moisten with tears although I doubted she realized it, probably thinking they were just rheumy from the drugs. I reached for her hand and held it.
“You've had quite the adventure,” she said. “Peter told me everything. Your encounter with the lion, the buffalo. Bringing you here. The doctors have gone back for now, but I've spoken with the nurse. Your care here has been remarkable for such a poor place. The people are just wonderful.”
“I feel blessed,” I said.
“What a stunning course of events. I simply couldn't have even imagined. I'm so glad you're going to be all right. I rushed here as soon as I heard.”
“Even before getting hurt,” I said to her, “it’s been such an incredible experience. I've seen and learned so much. Nothing like I thought. The African culture here, the ingrained wisdom of the people. I couldn't help but learn some things about myself.”
“What kind of things?” She sat carefully on the edge of the bed.
“I learned a Bantu credo. They sing it. I remember some of the first part. Something like 'Hatima ya mwanadamu si kutimia' is how it starts. It has to do with a man fulfilling his destiny through courage, children, relationships. I know it sounds silly, but it penetrates right to the soul when you hear and understand it. There's a second part, another verse, too, but I don't recall it exactly just now. Honestly, it made me think of us.”
“From what Peter explained, there was no shortage in the courage department,” she said. “My God, it's hard to imagine what you must have felt. A huge lion coming at you and an awful buffalo goring you. You certainly came away with remarkable trophies.”
“I did,” I said. “Kuu Tuzo. A phrase the Africans taught me. The Greatest Prize.”
“A wonderful lion and buffalo,” Bitsie said. “You have every right to be proud.”
“Not the animals,” I said. “My name for you. Being with me here, now. Kuu Tuzo. The greatest prize I could imagine.”
She looked at me quietly, and I could tell her eyes were filling with tears as well. Through the pain I pulled her to me and we kissed. It was the kind of warm, lingering, sensual kiss that goes beyond simple attachment or affection or caring, the kind that defines relationships that are deep and meaningful and intimate and enduring. A renewed relationship that would fully and endlessly fulfill each of us, I knew.
Our lips moved against one another's for a very long time. When we finally parted I said, “I don't give a damn about anything we've argued over. None of it is important. I just want you to be happy.”
“I feel exactly the same way,” she said. “About you.” A tear was trickling down her cheek.
“You were right about everything,” I said. “Let's do it just as you want. That's what would make me happiest. Believe me, I'm just being selfish.”
“No you're not,” she said. “I don't care about things being my way.”
“And we should talk about children again,” I said. “There's still time. You're still young. Or we could adopt if you'd rather.”
“Oh, God, I've wanted a child so much,” Bitsie said. “You know that.”
We embraced again. “I've remembered it now,” I said.
The last part of the credo. You know, the one I just told you about.”
“What is it?”
“As nearly as I remember, 'Mtu lazima kupata na kutimiza hatima yake, Katika nchi ya mababu zetu.' Something like that. I'm sure I've massacred it. But it means roughly a man will fulfill his destiny only in the land of our ancestors.”
“ 'In the land of our ancestors?' “ she said, not comprehending the Bantu meaning—as I had not—upon first hearing it.
I kissed her again. “It means where I did. Here,” I smiled.