When Dickie called me from the Ministry, I wasn’t alerted. We’d been friends for thirty years. But when he finished speaking, I was stunned.
“You’re what, fifty-nine?” He asked.
“Are you fit?”
“Very”, I said. “I run four miles every day, and then finish at the gym.”
“How long does the run take?” He pressed.
“Fifteen minutes. I reward myself with stops to do sit ups in the park, pull ups on a tree branch. Dickie”, I said and paused, “I’ll get it done.”
His voice warmed. “Come back in one piece. We’ll have dinner when you return. I’ll want to hear about it.”
“I’ll need my gun.”
“We’ll take care of it. I’m sending a brief to your flat.”
“Alright”, I said, “I’ll leave tomorrow morning.”
“Best of luck now”, he said and rang off.
I went to my gun company by Chelsea Bridge, where my firearms were stored.
“Good morning, my Lord”, Lowndes said. I liked him; a good man, in his place.
“I’ll need my H and H”, I said.
“Very good”, Lowndes said. “I have a young man caring for it. He was amazed when he saw the inscription from HRH on the trade label.”
“He’s the finest man I know,” I said, and meant it.
My Holland and Holland was perfectly suited. Fourteen hundred pounds of stopping power, like a lorry, leaving a small hole.
The brief was waiting at home, and I read. A leopard, old or injured, had turned man-eater and had carried off twelve natives in a northern Indian village called Kotali. I knew the area. Thunder and lightning worked each day there, hammering its anvil, and giving off sparks. Elephants lived below its constant rain who had, long ago, migrated the length of the continent without the slightest barrier.
There was no legalized hunting of big game in India. It wasn’t necessary. Destruction of habitat and overpopulation assured that danger would be kept at bay, its wild heritage crushed under the weight of the poor. A leopard was devouring poor villagers who stumbled to an outdoor latrine after long bouts of drinking. Ten men thus far and two women. The villagers were terrified, staying in their homes, carrying sticks, not visiting nearby hamlets. I’d promised Dickie it would stop.
I boarded the next morning; my luggage had been fetched earlier, and I found my leather case, the rifle disassembled within, overhead my assigned seat. I settled in.
“And what am I?” I wondered. “A lighted stick of incense, to propitiate the god of war.” The ministry had a full plate, but a serious worry was the pitiful relations between India and Pakistan, both nuclear armed, both despising the other. The gesture would not go unnoticed that the U.K. had dispatched a seasoned hunter to its aid. Whatever my life was worth was equal to no more or less than a fractional leverage of influence.
I would need to be close, to get the right shot. About ninety meters, to destroy an animal capable of killing a whole hunting party, let alone a single shooter.
I’d stayed up late deliberately the night before; I forced myself asleep.
The village was everything bad I had expected. Patel told me the leopard had not attacked for five days. “Tonight”, I thought, “or tomorrow”. I would have no aid. I cleared brush from behind the latrine, watched only by spectacle monkeys overhead.
I dreaded the animal’s stealth. They stalk in utter silence. A full grown leopard possesses cunning beyond humans to understand. They have a small home range, and this cat had become habituated to eating humans, rather than wild prey. A leopard in Rudraprayag killed more than a hundred and twenty five people; in Panar, more than four hundred. It is walking death. If I was killed, there would be no suffering: a swift bite to the neck–that I would not see coming- and I would be done.
I told Patel I would need some sacks and a load of grass or hay. I would need fishing line; plastic, if he had it. The villagers huddled each night in their homes, waiting out the hours. Tonight, I told Patel, they must gather in the house closest to the latrine and pretend to make merry. They must sing and be loud throughout. He stared at me. There were three hours left of daylight.
My man of stuffing in rice sacks was no art work, but I sat him inside the latrine. I cut the underside of my left arm, and let the blood fall to the left and right on the foliage behind it, and on my scarecrow for good measure. I washed the cut in hydrogen peroxide and dressed it. I would shoot from behind a tree near the house by the latrine, where I’d tied fishing line to its door, not firmly closed. A villager had a standing mirror. I placed it by the tree for more cover and to see behind. But the truth was that if the cat got behind me, I was dead. The ruthless men in gray suits back home would take full advantage. There would be a memorial in Bombay, and carefully placed features in the Indian press.
Night fell. My palms had been wet since twilight. The villagers began their din, strained, but right. “Thank you, God”, I whispered, “for your moon.” How many of our wild ancestors said that prayer? My cartridges lay in a row on the ground. Many died on safari because they did not reload. They abandoned themselves to the myth that they had power over the spirit of game.
The darkness ticked. My thoughts never strayed; they were as focused as the cat whose life was linked to mine. I looked at my watch. One A.M. Slowly, I pulled on the fishing line and the door to the latrine pried open.
His eyes were to the left of it and he creeped forward. He was immense. I wished to be anywhere but here. I looked down the barrel. I would have one shot, to the brain. Suddenly, he turned his side to me. He was going inside the latrine. He leapt on the straw figure, clasping its neck in his jaws. In an instant, he was enraged, and turned. I squeezed the trigger. The recoil was violent.
I knew he was dead but I reloaded and was motionless. “I’m sorry,” I said aloud. I had antibiotic, Percocet. He deserved them. He was the symbol of Africa’s oldest kings and the only animal there that could stampede elephants.
I stood, my rifle trained on him. I rapped on the nearby door. It was silent inside immediately. “He’s dead”, I said.
I walked into the gun shop around noon, and saw Lowndes eating Italian muck in the back office; he spied me, and wiping his mouth with a napkin, came to the counter.
“Did you have a fine trip, my lord? he asked.
“Very pleasant”, I said.
Charles Bane, Jr. is the American author of The Chapbook (Curbside Splendor, 2011) and Love Poems ( Kelsay Books, 2014). His work was described by the Huffington Post as “not only standing on the shoulders of giants, but shrinking them.” Creator of The Meaning Of Poetry series for The Gutenberg Project, he is a current nominee as Poet Laureate of Florida.