The Leopard Hunts in Darknessby Wilbur Smith
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“Smith deftly evokes not only the horrific but also the beautiful, particularly the lush landscape of Africa.” The Washington Post Book World
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The Leopard Hunts in Darkness
By Wilbur Smith
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1984 Wilbur Smith
All rights reserved.
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 other 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 like a 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 the herd saw the manoeuvre and fell into their running formation, 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. 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 like a 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.
He kept them going through the night. Though there was no moon, the fat white stars hung close against the earth, and the herd moved almost soundlessly through the dark forests. Once, after midnight, the old bull fell back and waited beside the trail, letting his herd go on. Within the hour he caught again the tainted man-smell on the wind, fainter and very much more distant — but there, always there, and he hurried forward to catch up with his cows.
In the dawn they entered the area which he had not visited in ten years. The narrow strip along the river which had been the scene of intense human activity during the long-drawn-out war, and which for that reason he had avoided until now when he was reluctantly driven into it once again.
The herd moved with less urgency. They had left the pursuit far behind, and they slowed so that they could feed as they went. The forest was greener and more lush here on the bottom lands of the valley. The msasa forests had given way to mopani and giant swollen baobabs that flourished in the heat, and the old bull could sense the water ahead and he rumbled thirstily deep in his belly. Yet some instinct warned him of other danger ahead as well as that behind him. He paused often, swinging his great grey head slowly from side to side, his ears held out like sounding boards, his small weak eyes gleaming as he searched cautiously before moving on again.
Then abruptly he stopped once more. Something at the limit of his vision had caught his attention, something that glistened metallically in the slanted morning sunlight. He flared back with alarm, and behind him his herd backed up, his fear transmitted to them infectiously.
The bull stared at the speck of reflected light, and slowly his alarm receded, for there was no movement except the soft passage of the breeze through the forest, no sound but the whisper of it in the branches and the lulling chattering and hum of unconcerned bird and insect life around him. Still the old bull waited, staring ahead, and as the light altered he noticed there were other identical metal objects in a line across his front, and he shifted his weight from one forefoot to the other, making a little fluttering sound of indecision in his throat.
What had alarmed the old bull was a line of small square galvanized sheetmetal plaques. They were each affixed to the top of an iron dropper that had been hammered into the earth so many years ago that all man-smell had long ago dissipated. On each plaque was painted a laconic warning, which had faded in the brutal sunlight from crimson to pale pink. A stylized skull and crossbones above the words 'DANGER. MINEFIELD'.
The minefield had been laid years previously by the security forces of the now defunct white Rhodesian government, as a cordon sanitaire along the Zambezi river, an attempt to prevent the guerrilla forces of ZIPRA and ZANU from entering the territory from their bases across the river in Zambia. Millions of anti-personnel mines and heavier Claymores made up a continuous field so long and deep that it would never be cleared; the cost of doing so would be prohibitive to the country's new black government which was already in serious economic difficulties.
While the old bull still hesitated, the air became filled with a clattering roar, the wild sound of hurricane winds. The sound came from behind the herd, from the south again, and the old bull swung away from the minefield to face it.
Low over the forest tops rushed a grotesque dark shape, suspended on a whistling silver disc. Filling the sky with noise, it bore down upon the bunched herd, so low that the down-draught from its spinning rotors churned the branches of the tree-tops into thrashing confusion and flung up a fog of red dust from the earth's dry surface.
Driven by this new menace, the old bull turned and rushed forward beyond the sparse line of metal discs and his terror-stricken herd charged after him into the minefield.
He was fifty metres into the field before the first mine exploded under him. It burst upwards into the thick leather pad of his right hind foot, cut half of it away like an axe-stroke. Raw red meat hung in tatters from it and white bone gleamed deep in the wound as the bull lurched forward on three legs. The next mine hit him squarely in the right fore, and smashed his foot to the ankle into bloody mince. The bull squealed in agony and panic and fell back on his haunches pinned by his shattered limbs, while all around him his breeding herd ran on into the minefield.
The thump, thump of detonations was intermittent at first, strung out along the edge of the field, but soon they took on a broken staccato beat like that of a maniac drummer. Occasionally four and five mines exploded simultaneously, an intense blurt of sound that struck the hills of the escarpment and shattered into a hundred echoes.
Underlying it all, like the string section of some hellish orchestra, was the whistling clatter of the helicopter rotor as the machine dipped and swung and dropped and rose along the periphery of the minefield, worrying the milling herd like a sheepdog its flock, darting here to head off a bunch of animals that had broken back, racing there to catch a fine young bull who had miraculously run unscathed through the field and reached the clear ground of the river-bank, settling in his path, forcing him to stop and turn, then chasing him back into the minefield until a mine tore his foot away and he went down trumpeting and screaming.
Now the thunder of bursting mines was as continuous as a naval bombardment, and each explosion threw a column of dust high into the still air of the valley, so that the red fog cloaked some of the horror of it. The dust twisted and eddied as high as the tree-tops and transformed the frenzied animals to dark tormented wraiths lit by the flashes of the bursting mines.
One old cow with all four feet blown away lay upon her side and flogged her head against the hard earth in her attempts to rise. Another dragged herself forward on her belly, back legs trailing, her trunk flung protectively over the tiny calf beside her until a Claymore went off under her chest and burst her ribs outwards like the staves of a barrel, at the same instant tearing-away the hindquarters of the calf at her side.
Other calves, separated from their dams, rushed squealing through the dust fog, ears flattened against their heads in terror, until a clap of sound and a flash of brief fire bowled them over in a tangle of shattered limbs.
It went on for a long time, and then the barrage of explosions slowed, became intermittent once more, and then gradually ceased. The helicopter settled to earth, beyond the line of warning markers. The beat of its engine died, and the spinning rotor stilled. The only sound now was the screaming of the maimed and dying beasts that lay in the area of churned earth below the dust-coated trees. The fuselage hatch of the helicopter was open and a man dropped lightly from it to the earth.
He was a black man, dressed in a faded denim jacket from which the sleeves had been carefully removed, and tight-fitting tie-dyed jeans. In the days of the Rhodesian war, denim had been the unofficial uniform of the guerrilla fighters. On his feet he wore fancy, tooled, western boots, and pushed up on the top of his head gold-rimmed Polaroid aviator's sunglasses. These and the row of ballpoint pens clipped into the breast-pocket of his jacket were badges of rank amongst the veteran guerrillas. Under his right arm he carried an AK 47 assault rifle, as he walked to the edge of the minefield and stood for a full five minutes impassively watching the carnage lying out there in the forest. Then he walked back towards the helicopter.
Behind the canopy, the pilot's face was turned attentively towards him, with his earphones still in place over his elaborate Afro-style hairdo, but the officer ignored him and concentrated instead on the machine's fuselage.
All the insignia and identification numbers had been carefully covered with masking-tape, and then oversprayed with black enamel from a hand-held aerosol can. In one place the tape had come loose, exposing a corner of the identification lettering. The officer pressed it back into place with the heel of his hand, inspected his work briefly but critically, and turned away to the shade of the nearest mopani.
He propped his AK 47 against the trunk, spread a handkerchief upon the earth to protect his jeans and sat down with his back to the rough bark. He lit a cigarette with a gold Dunhill lighter and inhaled deeply, before letting the smoke trickle gently over his full dark lips.
Then he smiled for the first time, a cool reflective smile, as he considered how many men, and how much time and ammunition it would take to kill three hundred elephant in the conventional manner.
'The comrade commissar has lost none of his cunning from the old days of the bush war — who else would have thought of this?' He shook his head in admiration and respect.
When he had finished the cigarette, he crushed the butt to powder between his thumb and forefinger, a little habit from those far-off days, and closed his eyes.
The terrible chorus of groans and screams from the minefield could not keep him from sleep. It was the sound of men's voices that woke him. He stood up quickly, instantly alert, and glanced at the sun. It was past noon.
He went to the helicopter and woke the pilot.
'They are coming.'
He took the loudhailer from its clamp on the bulkhead and waited in the open hatchway until the first of them came out from amongst the trees, and he looked at them with amused contempt.
Excerpted from The Leopard Hunts in Darkness by Wilbur Smith. Copyright © 1984 Wilbur Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Wilbur Smith is the bestselling author of many novels, each meticulously researched on his numerous expeditions worldwide. His bestselling Courtney series includes Assegai, The Sound of Thunder, Birds of Prey, Monsoon, and Blue Horizon. His other books include Those in Peril, River God, Warlock, The Seventh Scroll, and The Sunbird. His books are now translated into twenty-six languages and have sold over 120 million copies. Smith was born to a British family in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in Central Africa, and attended Rhodes University in South Africa. He has homes in Cape Town, London, Switzerland and Malta.
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I purchased this book in 1984 after living in southern Africa for a year. I finally read it in July 2001 and Smith's writing brought me right back to the sights, smells and politics that are uniquely African. I couldn't put it down. It's a suspenseful story, but the discourse between the characters provides a much deeper and subtle understanding of socio/polictal issues still relevant today.
Reading this book took my breath away and I couldn't put it down. It's exciting and historically correct - that's what I love about Wilbur Smith's books. They keep you wanting to read and read and read...