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Authors: Willard Price

06 African Adventure

BOOK: 06 African Adventure
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African Adventure

By Willard Price

 

Note

The characters in this story are fictional. The descriptions of the habits of animals, nature of the Leopard Society and customs of the people are factual. The author made frequent journeys in Africa, including seven safaris in big-game country. As a naturalist, he led expeditions for the National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History.

Chapter 1
Leopard in the night

Hal woke with a start. He found himself sitting up in bed, his spine tingling. What had roused him? A cry of some sort.

The play of light and shadow in the tent told him that the camp-fire outside was still burning. It was meant to keep off dangerous visitors. Wild animals were all about -yet the sound he had heard did not seem the voice of an animal.

Still, he could be mistaken. This was his first night in the African wilds. Beside the camp-fire earlier in the evening he and his younger brother, Roger, had listened to the voices of the forest while their Father, John Hunt, told them what they were hearing.

‘It’s like an orchestra,’ Hunt had said. ‘Those high violins you hear are being played by the jackals. That crazy trombone - the hyena is playing it. The hippo is on the bass tuba. Doesn’t that wart-hog’s ‘arnk-arnk-arnk’ sound just like a snare drum? And listen - far away … you can just hear it, a lion on the ‘cello.’

‘Who’s that with the saxophone?’ asked Roger.

‘The elephant. He’s good on the trumpet too.’

A sharp grinding roar made the boys jump. Whatever made it was very close to the camp. It sounded like a rough file being dragged over the edge of a tin roof.

Roger tried to cover his fright with a joke.

‘Must be Louis Armstrong,’ he said, and the others laughed rather uneasily. It did sound like the gravel voice of the famous jazz singer.

‘Leopard,’ said Hunt. ‘He sounds hungry. I hope he doesn’t come any closer.’

But the sound that had made Hal sit up stiff and startled in his bed was none of these. Now he heard it again - a piercing shriek, followed by the screams of men and women and the barking of dogs. The noise seemed to come from the African village on the hill just behind the camp.

He heard his father’s cot creak. Roger remained fast asleep. Thirteen-year-olds do not wake easily.

‘Better see what the trouble is,’ said John Hunt. He and Hal pulled on their clothes and went out. The African scouts and gun-bearers who had been sleeping around the fire were awake and chattering excitedly.

There was a rushing through the grass just outside the zone of firelight. Hunt put his -375 Magnum to his shoulder. He lowered the gun when he saw that what was emerging was no wild beast but the headman of the village with three of his men.

‘Bwana! quick, help us,’ he called as he came running, ‘The leopard. It has taken one of the children.’

‘Come on, Hal,’ said Hunt. ‘Joro, Mali, Toto - get your guns and come along.’ And to the headman, ‘Did you pick up its trail?’

‘Yes. It went down towards the river.’

‘Get a couple of flashlights,’ said the senior Hunt. Hal plunged into the tent to grab the electric torches. A sleepy voice came from Roger’s bed.

‘What’s up?’

‘We’re going hunting.’

‘What?’ complained Roger. ‘In the middle of the night?’

Hal did not wait to explain. He dived out and joined the men already on their way up the hill. Knowing his adventurous younger brother, he was not surprised when Roger came panting up behind. He was still in his pyjamas, having taken time only to put on a pair of boots.

At the edge of the group of thatch-and-mud huts angry villagers milled about, men shouting, women wailing, children crying.

Here the headman pointed out the leopard’s trail. Hunt played his torch on the tracks and led the way down the hill towards the river.

Hal noticed that a woman was accompanying them.

‘Why is she coming?’

‘It was her child,’ the headman said.

Half-way down they came upon the child’s body. The leopard, frightened perhaps by the commotion, had dropped it and fled. The bare brown skin was deeply cut by teeth and claws, and oozed blood. The woman, with a little cry, gathered up her child. Hunt felt for the pulse.

‘Still alive,’ he said. And while the sobbing mother turned back to the village with the unconscious child in her arms, Hunt again took up the trail.

‘No time to lose,’ he said. ‘It could have gone a mile by this time. Or it might be lying just here behind a bush, waiting for us. That’s one thing you can always expect of a leopard - it will do the unexpected. Watch out’

He stopped, puzzled, where the footprints were indistinct. John Hunt, explorer, collector of wild animals for zoos and circuses, had had long experience in tracking animals - yet he didn’t claim to know everything. The best tracker in Africa is not the white man but the African, who from childhood has learned to interpret every turned pebble and every bent blade of grass. The official tracker in Hunt’s safari was big black Joro, and Hunt now called his name.

‘Joro, take a look at this.’

There was no answer. Hal swung his light on the men. There were the headman and the three others from the village, there was Mali, and there Toto. And the camp dog, a big Alsatian named Zulu. But no Joro

‘I thought I told him to come,’ said Hunt.

‘You did.’

‘He acts strangely sometimes. Well, no matter - I think this is the way,’ and Hunt led on down the hill.

Hunt’s flashlight, strapped to his forehead to leave both hands free in case he had to use his gun, threw a strong shaft of light on the pug marks. Yet John Hunt hesitated. Something was wrong with these footprints. Certainly they had been made by the feet of a leopard. There was no mistaking the imprint of the four oval toes and the large triangular heel. But at the tip of each toe-print was a deeper dent, evidently made by the claw. That was odd, because a leopard has movable claws which come out when he is attacking but are drawn back into the toe when he travels. This looked more like the trail of a cheetah, whose claws are always out.

‘But it can’t have been a cheetah,’ he said to Hal. ‘A cheetah would never enter a house and grab a child. These are a leopard’s tracks all right. But the claws wouldn’t be out - not unless the beast was dead.’

‘Dead,’ Hal repeated. He wondered. Could the tracks have been made by dead feet? The idea was fantastic. But this was a land where the fantastic was commonplace.

His sharp eyes noticed something else.

‘Dad,’ he said, ‘there are no blood-stains along this part of the trail.’

His father stopped and gazed at Hal thoughtfully. That was curious. After clawing the body, the leopard’s feet had left a little of the child’s blood in every print. But now, suddenly, there was no more blood. The feet would get dry, but not so quickly. There should be a trace of blood left. He knelt and examined a print at close range. There was not the slightest speck of red. He grinned up at Hal.

‘You’ll be a tracker yet.’

But Roger wasn’t going to let his nineteen-year-old brother walk off with all the honours.

‘There’s something else,’ he said. ‘When we were after that jaguar down on the Amazon - remember? - it slid along close to the ground - pressed the grass down flat. Doesn’t a leopard do the same?’

‘Yes, it does,’ admitted his father.

But here nothing of the sort had happened. The grass stood up two feet high between footprints.

Hunt shook his head.

‘Beats me,’ he confessed. ‘But we can’t solve the mystery by standing here. Let’s get along.’

They went on down the slope at a half-run. The headman came up beside John Hunt and poured out the troubles of his village. This was the third child the leopard had taken in the last ten days. The first two had been killed. Every time the leopard grew bolder. The people of the village lived in constant terror,

‘You will kill it?’ he pleaded.

‘I didn’t come to Africa to kill animals,’ John Hunt said. ‘I want to take them alive. But a man-eater deserves to be shot. Don’t worry - we’ll get it one way or another.’

They entered a grove of trees and bushes along the river bank. On they went with tense nerves, knowing very well that the beast might spring out at any moment from a patch of grass or brush, 01 might drop from an overhanging limb.

‘What’s that - over there, near the doum-palm?’ said Hal. His father directed his forehead light towards the spot. Something was moving, something yellow with dark blotches. Now it stood out plainly, and it was certainly the hide of a leopard. But the thing seemed to be erect like a man. It was leaping for cover. Just before it disappeared from sight it looked back at its pursuers. Its face was a man’s face, but so poorly lit that one could not clearly see the features.

Now it was gone. The hunters reached the place where it had been seen, and fanned out in all directions. But the beast, or man, or whatever it might be, seemed to have vanished into thin air.

Chapter 2
The leopard-man

Even the tracks had disappeared, hidden by the tangle of brush and grass. No one knew what to do next. The men from the village plainly did not want to go farther. A leopard was bad enough. But a leopard that could change into a man was an evil spirit. It could appear and disappear at will, and no gun or arrow could hurt it. So they believed, and trembling with fear they were ready to call it a night and go back to the village.

‘But how about your children?’ Hunt said. ‘Are you willing to let them be taken, one after another?’

There is nothing we can do,’ said the headman. ‘And nothing you can do. A leopard can be killed, but not a leopard-man. Come - you will return with us to the village. You have lights - we dare not go back in the dark. Listen, he laughs at us.’

From the depths of the wood came a harsh, grating, coughing sound that only a terrified imagination could interpret as a laugh. It was like the rasp of a saw through coarse wood.

That fellow, whoever he is,’ said Hunt, ‘can certainly give a good imitation of a leopard. I’m going after him. You can come along, or stay here, just as you like.’

He and the boys set off in the direction of the sound, and the Africans unwillingly followed. Scrambling through brush, over logs and around trees, they chased the ‘evil spirit’ and hoped it would not be there when they arrived. The two torches, worn by Hal and his father, cast their beams far in among the trees, searching for something in yellow and black.

Hal stopped. ‘I think I see him. Up on a branch, just to the left of that anthill.’

Hunt strained his eyes. Yes, he could just make out something yellow and black, probably the skin disguising the figure of the leopard-man.

The dog Zulu growled softly and began to run ahead.

‘Wait, Zulu,’ Hunt ordered. ‘Come back.’ The dog reluctantly obeyed, still growling.

‘Now that’s strange,’ said Hunt. ‘When we saw the leopard-man before, Zulu was quiet. Now she’s all excited. Why the change?’

‘If we go straight for the leopard-man hell run, just as he did before,’ Hal said. He took off his light and gave it to Roger. ‘Stay here and keep the light shining on him. Ill sneak round and come up behind him. I think I can wrestle him off that branch. And I have a knife I can use if necessary.’

‘Don’t use it unless you have to,’ said his father. ‘Remember, this is just a man and we have no warrant to kill him. I must say his actions are suspicious. But all we can do is arrest him and turn him over to the police for questioning.’

The headman objected. ‘Your son must not do this. He is strong, but he has no magic. The leopard-man will turn into a leopard and kill him.’

But Hal had already crept out into the dark and was making a wide circle round the crouching figure on the branch. Hunt had little fear for his safety. He knew that his six-foot son, with muscles like steel springs, stood a good chance against any human enemy. As for the notion that the leopard-man might turn into a leopard, he had no patience with any such superstition. He noticed that Zulu had followed Hal. The two of them should be able to give a good account of themselves against the mysterious stranger. The impatient dog kept pressing on. Hal warned her. ‘Easy, Zulu, don’t be in a hurry.’ Now they came out on the river bank. The stars glinted down on the smooth surface. Those slow-moving masses on the other shore were hippos. Almost under Hal’s feet a crocodile that had been resting with its head on the bank switched about and dived.

They came up silently behind the tree. It was an ancient baobab with a huge trunk, probably hollow inside. They slipped round it until they could see the dark form on the branch. A strong smell penetrated their nostrils. Hal remembered the same smell in a zoo coming from the leopard’s cage. But, he reminded himself, this was no leopard but only a man.

The eager dog went into action first. With a savage growl she leaped for the branch. At the same instant the thing on the branch leaped at the dog and they met in mid air. Hal realized with a sickening shock that this was no human being but a full-grown leopard. Zulu would not last ten seconds under those terrible jaws and claws. The two animals fell to the ground, the leopard’s teeth around Zulu’s neck.

BOOK: 06 African Adventure
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