Monday, August 24, 2009

Jim Woods Excerpt

Excerpt, PARTING SHOT, by Jim Woods

It was time to get to buffalo country. We flew from a small airport near Lundi Camp to Chete, in a charter plane that barely offered room for the three of us--me, my wife, and our pilot. We landed on a runway that seemed, from the air, to be little more than a slash in the bush and a scratch in the dirt. Before landing we announced our arrival by buzzing the camp, which was high above a scenic lakeside cliff. Once we had taxied to a stop, we were met by our professional hunter, Nigel Thiesen, who explained all the ground rules as we made our short ride to the almost luxurious but rustic camp.

We would be hunting on National Parks property. A parks-staff game scout armed with an FN-FAL battle rifle would accompany us anytime we were in the bush. His primary job was to protect us against the many black rhino that inhabited the areas we would be hunting, and to protect the rhino from us. Of course, he would do all he could to avoid actually shooting a rhino; the animals are totally protected. He would try his very best to turn a charging rhino with shots fired into the ground.

Some other rules that governed our hunt. Shooting from the vehicle was not allowed; the vehicle could not be used as a support, as I had with my kudu, even if the shooter had both feet solidly on the ground. The hunter had to be completely free of the vehicle, even though it often was the only structure around that was sturdy enough to serve as a rifle rest. Hunting was not permitted within one kilometer of the camp, and one could not hunt on the day he flew into camp. That restriction was intended to prevent scouting buffalo from the air, and then walking into their location.

The established hunt method was to drive the few narrow roads through the bush and watch for sign indicating that buffalo had crossed. Then the hunting party parked and followed the spoor afoot.

Once, after a careful stalk, we came on a herd that later was determined to number more than two hundred animals. We were close enough to them to hear as they grazed on the move. The dense bush shook under their collective movement, and the dust they threw filtered above the high bush cover. Nigel climbed a tall tree in order to see the closest ones. We were less than thirty yards from them, but we couldn’t see a single animal from our position on the ground. We remained stationary and silent for more than an hour as the entire herd passed. After we were satisfied that they were gone, we circled the herd’s position on the run and concealed ourselves in the rocks near the lake where Nigel expected the herd to appear. Shortly, the bush erupted with buffalo and the beach was blackened with them as they all headed for the water.

We didn’t disturb their drink for a good three-quarters of an hour, but took advantage of the opportunity to look them over thoroughly. Then in near darkness, we stood and walked out, having determined that the herd contained no trophy bulls. At the sight of us, the herd parted and some animals scattered toward the bush, but not in a wholesale stampede. In the poor light, they were not entirely sure of what we were, seven of us strung out single file. As we looked back, the herd was milling back to the water.

Early on the third day, we cut tracks of a herd of eight bulls. We tracked them all morning, during which time we saw them, and they saw us, twice. After the animals spooked the second time, we decided to back off our pursuit to let the bulls calm down. We would pause during the heat of the day for lunch and a rest stop back at camp, then return to where we had given up the trail. In an hour’s walking, we found where the bulls had rested for their own midday nap, and we continued tracking them.

Our lead tracker, Unetsi, slowed our pace drastically when he felt or smelled the bulls’ presence. From this point, Nigel ordered the balance of our party--my wife, another guest hunter from camp, the second tracker, and the game scout--to hold back about sixty yards. Unetsi, Nigel and I proceeded alone in single file in order to hold noise and movement to a minimum.

Again we worked our way into a herd that we couldn’t see, and as before, we could hear them very clearly, even to the rumblings in their stomachs. Not knowing if they could see us, we scarcely dared even to brush the troublesome flies from our faces for fear that the motion might give away our presence. From their sounds, though, we could pinpoint the locations of all eight bulls.

When one bull passed through an opening in the bush, Nigel silently mouthed, “No! Too small.” Another bull walked through the same gap, and Nigel’s reaction told me it was the one we would go for. We remained frozen as a third bull came by, then we carefully squirmed into position for a shot. We covered no more than sixty feet in the next hour, and our intended bull was moving only slightly ahead of us. I was third in line, and the last to see him.

Unetsi eased ever so slowly into a standing position concealed behind a tree too thin to offer any real cover. Once he became completely erect, Nigel and I masked our own movement as we stood, using the stationary Unetsi as our concealment. The bull was sixty yards away, farther than I wanted, and he was facing in our direction. He was disturbed by our presence but couldn’t quite make us out. After staring our way for several long minutes, he wheeled and ran a couple of steps, then instantly returned to where he had stood before, as if trying to trick us into a movement he could identify.

My time on this segment of the hunt was running out, and the sun was setting on this hunting day. The situation was not entirely to my liking. I had to decide whether to pass up the bull and take a chance on a better opportunity another day, or salvage what I could of this day’s work. Nigel whispered that I had better shoot if I was going to shoot at all since the alerted buff was about to run. I decided to take the bull, and looked around for a rifle rest. There was none so Nigel offered his shoulder. I settled the gold bead into the middle notch of the express sight, and found the buff’s left shoulder. It wasn’t much of a target with the nearly frontal position the bull presented. When I fired, my view of the buffalo was lost in the recoil of the rifle, but I could hear the hit of the bullet.

The buff collapsed in his tracks and was scrambling to regain his feet, but it looked as though he was down for good. We all thought so, and we started our approach to the animal to put in the finishing shot that Nigel said was necessary even if the bull was dead. That’s the way he and most other professional hunters feel about buffalo. As we moved in, I extracted the empty brass. I did not replace the round I had expended, but closed the bolt and chambered the next round from the magazine.

When we were about twenty paces away from the buffalo, he scrambled to his feet, thrashed about, plowed the ground with his enormous hooves, and swung his great head in an attempt to locate the reason for his hurt. It was a mesmerizing dance display he was putting on. He presented his left quarter to me again, and although he was in motion, I snapped off my second round. The 300-grain solid connected, but at that instant, the buff’s head swung to inspect that shoulder that I had hit with my first shot, and my second shot smacked his nose bridge halfway between the nose tip and the eyes. We found afterwards that the bullet exited the skull behind the right eye, perhaps blinding him on that side. It missed anything that was immediately vital, but the infuriated bull did go down in a heap.

He was up again instantly and I recovered quickly this time, no longer content just to watch the bull’s actions as I had been following the first shot. I fired another round, the third of the four in my rifle, this time to his right shoulder as he twisted in struggling to regain his feet. At that hit, the bull took off, running very well indeed for having taken solid hits on or around both shoulders. He angled to my right and closed to within twenty yards of me, and I gave him my fourth and last round, once more into his right shoulder area.

The bull was battered by now, but he turned sharply and charged to my left. Apparently he still had not found me but was going to pass very close to me, and he seemed finally to be narrowing down the path to the source of his trouble.

My rifle was empty. As I was retrieving a round from the cartridge carrier on my belt, Nigel yelled from somewhere over my left shoulder, “Jim! Do you want me to shoot?” I yelled back, “No! I’ll handle it!” It seems strange, in retrospect, that we could be carrying on such a seemingly coherent conversation, but I remember it vividly.

I closed the bolt on the singly loaded round as the bull quartered past me no more than fifteen feet away, and I let him have another hit on his left shoulder. He spun around at the hit, now having pinpointed my position, and came directly for me. I was snatching another cartridge from my belt as he closed on me, and with both arms raised to give some clearance from him, I jumped back and managed to avoid the hook of his horn. Inexplicably, he reacted to my backward movement by turning from me; possibly he was confused because of the injury to the right side of his head and the impairment of his vision on that side. We tried to analyze it afterwards, because he sure could have had me, right at the belt buckle, at that moment.

Almost immediately, though, he whirled about and came at me head-on. Nigel shouted a warning, but I was fully aware of my predicament. I had dipped the muzzle of my rifle and dropped another round directly into the chamber, and had barely slammed the bolt on it as the bull reached me. Somehow, in the excitement, my rifle had changed hands. I was holding it with my right and had no chance to juggle it to the more familiar left. Holding the husky .375 rifle as an unwieldy pistol, I jammed it forward, one-handed, and felt the muzzle contact the bull’s flank. I jumped backward and pulled the rifle to me slightly, corrected its position, and fired. The bullet went into the bull’s left shoulder, and he collapsed at my feet.

After a brief scuffle on the ground, and several short grunts, the big animal was stilled. Nigel verified that he was dead by touching his rifle barrel to the bull’s eyeball. I was relieved that it was over, as was Nigel, and also the rest of our party who were finding their way out of the bush to the site of the drama. They had heard the commotion but couldn’t see the action.

When I thanked Nigel for not shooting, he explained that it appeared I had things under control--this at a time when my rifle was empty and I was getting a mighty close look at one very angry buffalo!

I’m glad that Nigel respected my need to take the bull on my own terms, although it was comforting to know that he was backing me up. Perhaps, because I wasn’t totally green in dealing with African game–and perhaps as a result of the frank talks Nigel and I had held over Lion Lager sundowners on the two evenings prior to the buffalo, about how I wanted the hunt to go--he held back and wouldn’t intrude on my situation unless I invited him to do so. I know that some PHs would have gotten actively involved rather earlier, and I appreciated Nigel’s restraint.

As I look at the trophy mount on my wall, I remember all that it took to put the buffalo there. It crossed my mind during the melee that the last thing on this earth that I might witness was that dirty, dripping nose and those awesome dark and vengeful eyes when that ton of murderous intent was launched my way, the bull with his broken body and me with an empty rifle.

It is, then, with some satisfaction, that I look upon the buffalo on my trophy wall among the rest of the animals from Zimbabwe. I now count myself among the brotherhood of Frederick Courteney Selous and the others whose words sent me to Africa so that I might write my own.

The end

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