Anna nudged him, and Doug followed her eyes. This morning, Doug and Percy had left in time, or the cat broke off, but now the sign was clear, the furry-pawed creature had strolled away at a casual pace without attacking the unknowing men. Anna signed Doug to take the track, while she moved to the right about ten feet. He followed the spoor, one step at a time, with the rifle at his shoulder. Anna paralleled from the right and watched their back as they ghosted through the forest in this formation. Afraid to take a hand off the rifle, sweat running into his eyes, Doug constantly remained intent on the spoor. The hunting partners did not cross any water as the afternoon wore on, but now the bush was high and tight, and at times, Anna and Doug lost sight of each other.
The spoor led into a higher and drier open area, under a tremendous interlocking canopy of teak, where the tracks vanished. Doug straightened and signaled for Anna to join him. Anna came up and understood without words. They turned together at an angle, almost back to back, and cautiously stalked forward under the thick covering.
Using this new formation, they circled, but found no sign. Doug relaxed. Anna did not. She began to scan the canopy in earnest. He cocked his head, understood and became tense, carefully inspecting each leaf, branch and tree, while circling again. When satisfied there was nothing above, both relaxed. Doug sat down and sipped some water. Anna walked a short distance then leaned against a tree, running her hand over the bark in a caress.
The trunks of these trees, Zambezi teak, Baikaea plurijuga, were enormous, at least fifteen feet around at breast height with a sensuous-smooth grey-brown bark.
Doug attempted to capture coordinates from the GPS, but the canopy was too tight for a high altitude sat, although there was enough stored memory to enable a partial route back to the boat. He sipped more water, planning to come back here and spend the night. The place held a special feel, and he hoped he could describe it by the time he arrived at camp. He sipped again and slid the bottle back into his pack. Relaxed, leaving his pack on the ground and the rifle out of the way against the tree, he journeyed round the thick tree and into the open looking for Anna.
At first, he didn’t understand what he saw and couldn’t remember a large boulder in the understory opening. Doug blinked, looking again from another angle, but nothing then he glanced about for Anna. When he turned his head, the boulder moved, and Doug realized it was the biggest elephant he had ever seen. Amazed and immobile, he wondered how anything so large could have gotten so close without snapping a twig or crunching a blade of grass.
The mountainous beast glared at Doug through the increasing darkness. The right tusk was broken two feet from the bull’s face, the other was long and stained. From a distance of thirty feet, the broken tusk bull loomed enormous and black. Filtered last light shafted through tattered ears. The bull, at least Doug assumed it was the broken tusk bull, hissed as Doug looked into its red swollen eyes. The bull flared his ears, raised his trunk, and now looked even larger.
Spell broken, Doug’s eyes darted to what was leaning against the tree, and the bull followed his glance. The broken tusk bull trumpeted in deep rage and swiftly shuffled towards the rifle. Realizing the elephant would beat him there, Doug broke in the opposite direction. About ten yards away, three enormous teak had fallen together, and there was shelter under the tangle. With no time to wonder if the bull could move those large logs, Doug ran. As he ran, time slowed, the distance taking an eternity, and all the while, he felt for the elephant: the trunk that would grab, the tusk that would gore and the feet that would stomp. He was almost to the downfall when the unbroken tusk struck him from behind.
Sailing forward, skidding to a stop under the fallen trees, the researcher’s mind offered one notion about teak; it was strong. The bull closed the distance and rampaged, looking for a way to get to the man. The bull continued the awful trumpeting, which echoed through the forest and came back, adding to the roar in Doug’s ears and the hammering of his heart. Trying to find a route to safety with his hands, without taking an eye off the bull, time slowed even more.
The bull now measured his rampage and became methodical.
Close, so close, tusk, toes, and trunk probed the teak shelter, and Doug accepted. If the logs gave, there would be no mercy. Relinquishing all desperate hope, knowing he could not outrun the bull, the researcher composed himself, and the bull became calm, as if it knew the man had surrendered. Witnessing the obvious change in the bull, Doug began to think of death, not this bull’s, or that killer cat’s, but his own. His mind softly drifted to bicycles on two wheels, and he wondered if animals understood mortality.
A large teak log heaved and squeaked, and the long tusk poked through. Doug rolled to the side and reached back to touch the thick ivory before the bull could pull back. The tusk was cold and smooth. It would crush him, not cut him. Doug hoped the bull might lose interest and go away, but the bull probed and lifted, while the forest waited patient and quiet. He hoped the natural shelter would protect him from the savage beast. Time floated needless.
A log screeched as the bull pried it from the others then an enormous head poked through. The bull jabbed, and would have killed Doug, but the broken tusk could not reach when the other went deep into the sand. The bull pulled back. Now his trumpeting was even deeper, more urgent.
The bull circled the log tangle, pacing quickly in a fresh frenzy.
Back and forth, butting the stumps with its head and gouging with its tusk, the crazed elephant shuffled to the end of the deadfall and pushed at one protruding log with a front foot. The ancient teak log rocked. The bull calmed.
The bull pushed again, and the top log skidded away, creating a greater opening. The bull rushed the opening and jabbed at the man, but there was not enough room, yet. The bull hurried back to the end of the log.
Doug knew his adversary had him now. It was all just a matter of time before the clever elephant would succeed with the logs and Doug’s shelter would no longer exist. He could stay here and take it, or try for a tree. He wondered how long he could go round and round a tree with the bull then clapped his hands. The top log skidded further, and the bull came to jab again. Next time it would succeed.
The bull stopped at the end of the deadfall, taking his time, now confident, no longer trumpeting in madness and glared back at the man. The trapped man stared down the length of the log at the wild thing, which was about to kill him. Locking eyes, the big-as-an-L-train elephant smiled, and Doug saw the folds of the animal’s skin, its pores, with three-inch hair protruding from each, and its red-framed, blue-gray eyes. Doug’s nose identified the sweet smell of mud and his adrenaline-keen ears found the tiny sound of snot dripping from the end of the animal’s trunk.
Doug wanted to touch the broken tusk attacker, pet it and reassure it.
The determined bull pushed with a front foot and pulled with his trunk as the last of the logs came down. Doug knew it was time to run. He tried to jump up and begin for the closest tree, an impossible distance, fifty feet, but he could not move. He gazed downward, almost in a trance, to see that his pants were torn and some loose fabric had caught under the last log. He tugged, but nothing. He laughed. The bull hurried in to the finish. Doug closed his eyes.
All afternoon, Laura and Percy idled in camp. Percy slept in a chair, but Laura could not settle and used up time pacing, though never far from Percy and the double.
Laura fidgeted, wringing her hands and rubbing her brow. In the plane, before touching down, her opinion of Zambia bounced between, the country was out of control, deranged killers dragged innocent victims into the streets, hacking them to death, while the homeless died in swarms from disease, or it was a slick little country run for tourist money and everything would be more like Disneyland than realty. Of course, neither of these she knew to be true. Zambia had missed most of this and, as such, held the greatest potential for her to see the real Africa.
Gathering wood to keep busy as afternoon shadows lengthened, Laura worked at the lunch coals, dropping dry branches across the top to keep the flames busy. A proud fire licked the new to life and the crackling woke Percy. He rubbed his eyes and stomach, looked around then glanced at his watch.
“Is Anna about?”
“No, they aren’t back yet. I’m worried.”
Percy rose from his comfortable seat and, from reflex, took up the double. “Don’t suppose they found a nice place to eat?”
Laura stared at him from across the fire.
“Felt like a bit of humor.” Percy’s eyes twinkled. “Let’s have a tea and a sit. Nothing to do but wait. I’ll have a go at dinner if you are hungry.”
“No, thank you. I’m not hungry. Besides, it’s too early. We should wait.” Laura watched the gray ashes puff and drift then settle. “There is so much death and killing here.”
“Quite. Never have gotten all together over it.” Percy motioned to a chair with a practiced gentleman’s grace, and Laura sat down. The old Africa hand worked the fire, improving the flame and nesting a pot of water before searching for tea. When he had all in order, Percy sat down next to Laura with the double across his lap. With a free hand, the gentleman touched her knee.
“No worries, young lady. That Doug of yours has a cool level head, or I don’t know a thing. And I assure you I do…Don’t forget my Anna’s with him. She’s good in the bush for her size and dead-on with her light rifle.” He rubbed the dense walnut stock of the double. “You should see her with this. Weighs almost as much as she does. Hell-quick with it. No worries. Tea’s ready.”
Percy poured two mugs full, handing one to Laura, who calmed and softened.
“Tell me about your wife,” Laura said.
“Oh my word, she’s good to me, and for me. I love her.”
“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but is she mute?”
“No, just prefers not to talk. Takes some getting used to. She’s not shy mind you, speaks right up when necessary, not afraid to have her say, or say what’s on her mind.”
“How did you meet?”
“Laura, my life, Anna’s life, neither is open for your entertainment. There’s nothing there really, but it is none of your business.”
“Real life is not for the tabloids, it’s for living. City people grow used to being nosy without being friends first. Not your fault but if you remain long enough, you’ll hear everything and that’s the beauty of it.” He paused. “I have nothing to share. But go on, ask Anna if you like. Maybe she’ll tell you her story if she feels it.”
The day was now long but with plenty left. As Percy fed the fire from habit, the gentleman in him rose again. “I like your Doug, like rooting for him. He has bags of spirit, doesn’t mind having his say. I like that in a man, always know where you are then.” He grinned until Laura noticed. “He has a talent for understanding nature, and I hope he stays with it. Damn fine athlete too. You know, he may be right.”
Laura’s mind pulled in opposite directions. “About what?” Her voice was uncharacteristically high and quick from surprise.
“It is possible there could be a new species about. Maybe not even a cat.” Percy rubbed his scalp. “Back in Mwinilunga, I heard that boatman, Legal, speak one word, marozi. Hadn’t heard it for years, always considered it superstition, but one can never be certain…There’s something to everything if I remember my Tolkien…event becomes history, which turns to legend before becoming a myth. Well, could be.”
Laura struggled. “Do you really think this could be something new?”
Percy did not answer. Instead, he turned full, raising the double with his back to the fire and facing the path to the river. Laura followed his gaze then sunk back into her chair, unable to stand or breathe. Anna came up the path alone, her red face glistening in the soft late light. As she drew near, they saw her bloodstained clothes. A single tear streaked down her cheek.