by Ken Howell (from details provided by Elgin T Gates)
AT ONLY three feet from the wall of tangled undergrowth at the edge of the donga, Nzomo was much too close. He wasn’t careless — he just had blind faith in his hunter’s shooting ability. If the buffalo bull was waiting in that undergrowth, he could burst out and smash both of them flat before the hunter ?Elgin Gates ?could lift the .458 Winchester Magnum, much less bring it to bear and fire a killing shot. Silently, Gates motioned Nzomo back. Fifty feet up the slope was more to his liking if the buffalo decided to have a go at them, and this one had already shown homicidal tendencies.
They had struck its spoor and followed it straight to this donga. Now, Gates wanted to wait for his professional hunter, Jack Blacklaws, and Wangi, the other tracker, to join him and Nzomo from where they had circled to look for signs farther up. So Gates and Nzomo waited in the torrid heat, facing that dense wall of undergrowth, fully alert.
Three hours earlier, they had come in from a wide-ranging morning hunt ?hot, tired, and dusty ?and were sitting relaxed in the canvas camp chairs while Kidogo poured ice-tinkling drinks into tall glasses. Overhead, the noon sun filtered down through the big yellow-barked acacia trees and dappled the bright green grass.
“Nothing like a cold drink before lunch to cut the dust,?Blacklaws said, as he reached for his glass. Gates nodded and took a long swallow. Then Kidogo pointed up the long slope at about a dozen Masai warriors who were loping toward their camp.
“Something’s wrong!?Blacklaws exclaimed. “Never knew Masai to hurry unless there was trouble of some kind.?
There was trouble. It took Blacklaws and the Masai twenty minutes of noise, gestures, and palaver to get it sorted out and condensed.
“This morning,?Blacklaws interpreted, “a big buffalo came out of the bush and clobbered two of the old men who were herding the cattle. Killed one outright. Broke half the bones in the other one’s body. He isn’t dead yet, but from what they say, he won’t last out the day. After they brought them in, these warriors ?they’re called morans ?put on their ochre war paint, got blessed by their liabon ?their witch doctor ?and went out to kill the buffalo. Normally, that wouldn’t have been much trouble, but this particular bull was bad medicine. They tracked him to a donga full of dense brush, and he came roaring out and banged up four of them before he went back into the heavy stuff. None was killed, but they’re all laid up with broken ribs and whatnot. They managed to get a few spear thrusts into the buffalo but did no real damage. I reckon he’ll be meaner than ever now. Anyway, my guess is that they couldn’t work up enough nerve to go in after him again. They’re spooked pretty bad??
?–and they want us to go shoot him,?Gates finished.
Blacklaws grinned. “That’s the sum total of it.?
Somehow, all the Masai got aboard the hunting car for the eight-mile ride back to the Manyatta, where the gray-haired old liabon, tall and dignified in his ochre-dyed cloak, filled them in with more details. He was a bit contemptuous of the young Masai, allowing as how he had been in on the killing of many lion and buffalo in his day and hadn’t let fear blemish his manhood.
Stung by his harangue and what Gates gathered were Masai obscenities, some of the young bucks began to work up their courage again. They chanted, waved their long-bladed spears, and leaped high in the air from their peculiar flat-footed stance.
“Let’s keep them out of the act, or I pass,?Gates said to Blacklaws. “Damned if I want an adrenalin-charged moran putting a spear through my back while I’m trying to concentrate on a buffalo in front of me.?
All parties agreed that some of the warriors would lead Gates’s party to where the fracas had taken place, then let them track the buffalo without interference from the Masai. But one moran was still full of Dutch courage when they reached the scene of the buffalo’s attack. From his demeanor and the way he stabbed the air with his spear, it was obvious that he intended to dispatch the buffalo all by himself.
Blacklaws cooled him down with a mixture of Masai, Swahili, and a sprinkling of profanities in English, getting across to the over-eager young warrior the idea that there were few things that he ?Blacklaws ?didn’t fully understand about tracking a wounded buffalo in heavy cover.
Then they got down to the serious business of looking for tracks. They hoped to find a few flecks of dried blood from the spear wounds that the Masai claimed that they had inflicted. But the ground was laced with fresh tracks made by other animals some time after the Masai had encountered the buffalo in the morning. Blacklaws decided to take Wangi and make a circle farther up the valley. “No use following every track we see ?unless we can find one with a blood spoor,?he said.
Nzomo found it thirty minutes later ?a small splotch of dried blood on a blade of grass. The tracks went straight into the dense cover of the donga. At the sight of the blood spoor, the four Masai who were tailing the Gates party decided that hunting a wounded buffalo wasn’t much fun after all. They retreated up the slope and stood leaning on their spears in the shade of a tall acacia tree.
Gates knew that he really should have waited for Blacklaws, but the afternoon sun was slanting in low, creating in the heavy brush dark shadows that would make tracking tougher and the buffalo harder to see and identify. He mulled his options for a few minutes and decided to go ahead with Nzomo. Four men in the narrow trail tunnels would be of little help to each other. Two men would make less noise, and Nzomo had been in front of Gates in other situations like this. He would concentrate on the spoor while Gates looked ahead with his rifle at the ready. At the first sign of the buffalo, Nzomo would duck low and sideways to give Gates a clear shot.
While it is an absolute responsibility in Africa for the hunter to follow up and dispatch wounded game, especially the dangerous species (usually, the job falls to the professional hunter), Gates had no personal responsibility there, only an instinctive desire to kill the buffalo before it bashed more people.
Gates trusted Nzomo. He had that rare and priceless combination of calm courage, steadiness under pressure, and excellent tracking skill, and he was always willing. Both men understood that when and if the moment of truth came, he would duck out of the way so that Gates could shoot, and Gates never doubted that Nzomo would stay near and do whatever he could if Gates failed to stop the buffalo.
They walked to the edge of the cover. Nzomo picked up the spoor, and the two men moved forward slowly and silently, a few feet at a time. Nzomo checked each track and occasionally found a fleck of dried blood. Creeping along, the two men wormed around the projecting branches and dodged thorns that could snag and scratch. Nzomo was intent on the tracks. Gates looked ahead at every dark shadowed place that might harbor the bull, trying to attune his ears for the first crackle of brush above the suddenly loud drone of insects in the dense tangle.
They had to see him before he saw them, if that was at all possible. That might give Gates one more second if the buffalo came at them in a brush-smashing charge. After a dozen close encounters with these crafty beasts, Gates had already developed a healthy respect for their stamina and vitality. Called Mbogo by the natives of East Africa ?a very impressive name ?they can absorb as much or more lead than any other animal in the world.
A big bull weighs upward of two thousand pounds and can be as light on his ebony-hard hooves as a ballet dancer. Usually, they spook and run at the sight or scent of a man. But this one was wounded, and some other grudge or problem had made him clobber the old herdsmen in the first place. Playing hide and seek in dense cover with him would be no child’s game.
He was somewhere there in that donga, maybe deep in the tangle, nursing his wounds, waiting to attack anything, man or beast, that came along. Or maybe he was just inside the screen of brush, ready to burst out and destroy anything that came near him. Gates knew from experience that an African Cape buffalo could run a mile with his heart shot out, take another dozen bullets in the body, and still have enough adrenalin-hyped energy to charge under a full head of steam.
Any man who says that he isn’t scared when he goes after a buffalo in heavy cover is a fool or a liar. His very life is at stake in a shaky balance of sight and sound. He has to see or hear the buffalo in time to move decisively, to pit a rifle bullet against the swift fury of an ugly, evil-eyed beast that is bent on killing him.
Gates and Nzomo crept on with infinite caution, yard after yard, in the sweltering undergrowth. Nzomo crouched low to study the tracks. Now and then, he held up a bit of vegetation with dried blood on it to let Gates know that they were still on the spoor.
Then they heard the faint crackle of brush ahead. After fifteen minutes of agonizing approach, they came to where the bull had been standing. He had left blood there, but it was old and dried, indicating that the Masais’ spear wounds had not been serious. Perhaps he hadn’t been satisfied with his hiding place ?but in any case, he knew that the men were coming. They’d have to redouble their caution.
The narrow, canopied trail dipped into a shallow, clear stream ?still muddy at the edges where the bull had crossed ?then veered to the left and ascended into a pretty little sun-lit clearing. Other vine-grown trail tunnels branched off into the gloom of the forest. If the two men took a wrong turn here, the buffalo could hit them from behind.
Nzomo stopped at the edge of the little clearing and stared intently at each of the branching tunnels, starting at the right and slowly moving his head to the left. Gates relaxed a little and noticed that he had been gripping the .458 with white knuckles.
Suddenly, looking ninety degrees to the left, Nzomo stiffened. Gates saw the muscles of his shoulders bunch up, and he looked quickly where Nzomo was looking. Not more than forty yards away, through a small opening in the brush, he saw the gleam of sunlight on something shiny, something that didn’t belong there naturally. Then he made out the form of the buffalo’s head, with massive down-curving horns sweeping out from both sides.
The buffalo was looking straight at them. He had crossed the little sun-lit clearing, then had cut back and circled around to lay a perfect ambush to take them on from the left. At times like this, the idea of doing something theatrical like provoking a charge never comes to mind. What did enter Gates’s mind, as he raised the .458 silently, careful to make no sudden move that might upset the fragile balance of checkmate, was the intent to put a 510-grain soft-point between the bull’s eyes with all deliberate speed.
The bull snorted and tossed his head in the very split second when the rifle roared. The bullet ?Gates discovered later ?hit him in the neck, a bit to the side. The impact of the .458 bullet spun him sideways for a brief moment, but he turned back and came smashing through the screen of the brush like it was tissue paper.
Gates shot again, trying to put a bullet up his outstretched nose to reach the brain. The shot went low again ?this time, hitting the bull in the center of the throat ?and its impact slowed him down. Gates’s third shot, also low, was a solid hit with no effect that he could see. The bull was still coming on, a bit more slowly. Gates put his fourth shot in the bull’s left eye at fifteen feet, again missing his aiming point, the center of his outstretched nose.
The bull slumped. His death bellow sounded as Gates worked the bolt of the rifle, centered the sights between his eyes ?and the rifle snapped on an empty chamber. He’d had one cartridge in the chamber, three more in the magazine, and had used all four.
The bull was dead before Gates could reload.
My God! Gates thought, a few minutes later, as he tried to light a stub of cigar with shaky hands, the punishment these beasts can take! He hadn’t shot well. One perfectly placed bullet in the bull’s low-set brain would have flattened him instantly. But Gates hadn’t shot all that badly, either. He’d slammed twenty thousand foot-pounds of energy into that ugly, oncoming beast at point-blank range before the bull had gone down to stay.
Maybe that’s what the game is all about, Gates mused. Every time he met old Mbogo, he admitted later, the same old fear started his insides crawling, and every time, he came-out on top and got that same shaky reaction after the action was over. Come to think of it, he said, if the time ever comes when I don’t get scared in advance and shake afterward, it will be time to hang up my guns.
Copyright © 2007 Dr Kenneth E Howell. All Rights Reserved.