Leopard Hunts in Darkness, стр. 1

Wilbur Smith - B4 The Leopard Hunts In Darkness

This small wind had travelled a thousand miles and more, up from the great wastes of the Kalahari Desert which the little yellow Bushmen call "the Big Dry." Now when it reached the escarpment of the Zambezi valley, it broke up into eddies and backlashes amongst the hills and the broken ground of the rim.

The bull elephant stood just below the crest of one of the hills, much too canny to silhouette himself on the skyline. His bulk was screened by the new growth of leaves on the msasa trees, and he blended with the grey rock of the slope behind him.

He reached up twenty feet and sucked the air into his wide, hair-rimmed nostrils, and then he rolled his trunk down and delicately blew into his own gaping mouth. The two olfactory organs in the overhang of his upper lip flared open like pink rosebuds, and he tasted the air.

He tasted the fine peppery dust of the far deserts, the sweet pollens of a hundred wild plants, the warm bovine stench of the buffalo herd in the valley below, the cool tang of the water pool. at which they were drinking and wallowing. these and her scents he identified, and accurately he judged the proximity of the source of each odour.

However, these were not the scents for which he was searching. What he sought was the other acrid offensive smell which overlaid all the others. The smell of native tobacco smoke mingled with the peculiar musk of the flesh-eater, rancid sweat in unwashed wool, of paraffin and carbolic soap and cured leather the scent of man; it was there, as strong and close as it had been in all the long days since the chase had begun.

Once again the old bull felt the atavistic rage rising in him. Countless generations of his kind had been pursued by that odour. Since a calf he had learned to hate and fear it, almost all his life he had been driven by it.

Only recently there had been a hiatus in the lifelong pursuit and flight. For eleven years there had been surcease, a time of quiet for the herds along the Zambezi. The bull could not know nor understand the reason, that there had been bitter civil war amongst his tormentors, war that had turned these vast areas along the south bank of the Zambezi into an undefended buffer zone, too dangerous for ivory hunters or even for the game rangers whose duties included the cull of surplus elephant populations. The herds had prospered in those years, but now the persecution had begun again with all the old implacable ferocity.

With the rage and the terror still upon him, the old bull lifted his trunk again and sucked the dreaded scent into the sinuses of his bony skull. Then he turned and moving silently he crossed the rocky ridge, a mere greyish blur for an instant against the clear blue of the African sky. Still carrying the scent, he strode down to where his herd was spread along the back slope.

There were almost three hundred elephant scattered amongst the trees. Most of the breeding cows had calves with them, some so young that they looked like fat little piglets, small enough to fit under their mothers" bellies.

They rolled up their tiny trunks onto their foreheads and craned upwards to the teats that hung on swollen dugs between the dams' front legs.

The older calves cavorted about, romping and playing noisy tag, until in exasperation one of their elders would tear a branch from one of the trees and, wielding it in his trunk, lay about him, scattering the importunate youngsters in squealing mock consternation.

The cows and young bulls fed with unhurried deliberation, working a trunk deep into a dense, fiercely thorned thicket to pluck a handful of ripe berries then place them well back in the throat like an old man swallowing aspirin; or using the point of a stained ivory tusk to loosen the bark of a msasa tree and then strip ten feet of it and stuff it happily beyond the drooping triangular lower lip; or raising their entire bulk on their back legs likea begging dog to reach up with outstretched trunk to the tender leaves at the top of a tall tree, or using a broad forehead and four tons of weight to shake another tree until it tossed and whipped and released a shower of ripe pods. Further down the slope two young bulls had combined their strength to topple a sixty-footer whose top leaves were beyond even their long reach. As it fell with a crackle of tearing fibres, the herd bull crossed the ridge and immediately the happy uproar ceased abruptly, to be replaced by quiet that was startling in its contrast.

The calves pressed anxiously to their mothers" flanks, and the grown beasts froze defensively, ears outstretched and only the tips of their trunks questing.

The bull came down to them with his swinging stride, carrying his thick yellow ivories high, his alarm evident in the cock of his tattered ears. He was still carrying the man smell in his head, and when he reached the nearest group of cows, he extended his trunk and blew it over them.

Instantly they spun away, instinctively turning downwind so that the pursuers" scent must always be carried to them. The rest of the4 herd saw the manoeuvre and fell into their running ormation, closing up with the calves and nursing mothers in the centre, the old barren queens surrounding them, the young bulls pointing the herd and the older bulls and their attendant askaris on the flanks, and they went away in the swinging, ground-devouring stride that they could maintain for a day and a night and another day without check.

As he fled, the old bull was confused. No pursuit that he had ever experienced was as persistent as this had been.

LOA

It had lasted for eight days now, and yet the pursuers never closed in to make contact with the herd. They were in the south, giving him their scent, but almost always keeping beyond the limited range of his weak eyesight. There seemed to be many of them, more than he had ever encountered in all his wanderings, a line of them stretched likea net across the southern routes. Only once had he seen them. On the fifth day, having reached the limits of forbearance, he had turned the herd and tried to break back through their line, and they had been there to head him off, the tiny upright sticklike figures, so deceptively frail and yet so deadly, springing up from the yellow grass, barring his escape to the south, flapping blankets and beating on empty paraffin tins, until his courage failed and the old bull turned back, and led his herds once more down the rugged escarpment towards the great river.

The escarpment was threaded by elephant trails used for ten thousand years by the herds, trails that followed the easier gradients and found the passes and ports through the ironstone ramparts. The old bull worked his herd down one of these, and the herd strung out in single file through the narrow places and spread out again beyond.

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