The Most Dangerous Game

An errant shot sent a wounded lion into the bush. Now we'd have to track him into his thornbush world where all the advantage was his.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

He's not the one I want," I whispered.

"Okay," Lionel hissed, "keep him covered and back out of here, slowly." We were looking at an enormous Botswana lion and two lionesses, lazing away the heat of the day in the shade of dense bush. When we had retreated a safe distance, Lionel Palmer-probably the greatest lion hunter then active-remarked that he hoped we wouldn't regret that decision. Of the lion, which we'd tracked for more than four hours, Lionel commented, "He's the only ten-footer I've seen this year."

For those who have never measured one, any African lion that stretches the tape 10 feet in a straight line from nose to tail-tip is a monster and a good bet for the record book.

"Yeah, he was big," I replied, "but his mane wasn't. He reminded me too much of my old friend Grits Gresham, with a pair of big fuzzy sideburns and a tuft on top. I just couldn't shoot old Grits."

As it turned out, we didn't regret that decision, but I made one a week later that we did.

We'd located another lion with a beautiful, full, honey-colored mane (no 10-footer, but big enough) escorting three lionesses, and had spent three intense days trying for a shot. One of his females was in heat; otherwise our maneuvers would certainly have driven him out of that quarter of the Okovango Swamp, even though we treated him to a nice juicy wildebeest. Late in the second day, he finally had enough and struck out westward, alone. We tracked him on foot for hours until we lost the light and quit...before darkness made us the huntees instead of the hunters.

Yeah, he was big," I replied, "but his mane wasn't. He reminded me too much of my old friend Grits Gresham, with a pair of big fuzzy sideburns and a tuft on top. I just couldn't shoot old Grits."

As it turned out, we didn't regret that decision, but I made one a week later that we did. We'd located another lion with a beautiful, full, honey- colored mane (no 10-footer, but big enough) escorting three lionesses, and had spent three intense days trying for a shot. One of his females was in heat; otherwise our maneuvers would certainly have driven him out of that quarter of the Okovango Swamp, even though we treated him to a nice juicy wildebeest. Late in the second day, he finally had enough and struck out westward, alone. We tracked him on foot for hours until we lost the light and quit...before darkness made us the huntees instead of the hunters.

In the wee hours of the night, from my cot in our tented safari camp, I heard him coming back. So did every other soul who was there. I could picture him, slouching along the dark savannas, grumbling and cursing and muttering to himself and calling his women...not half a mile from camp. The remainder of the night I slept little, and we rose early.

We found his fresh pug marks, along with those of his lionesses, and saw where they had all walked back over his incoming tracks the night before. Dismounting from the vehicle, we double-checked our rifles' magazines, gulped some water and prepared for another long, hot day of spooring.

The day was hot, but not exactly as we expected. We caught the pride lounging on the cool, bare earth of a dried-up waterhole about noon. Approaching under cover of a termite mound, we were rewarded with the sight of the lions loafing, completely relaxed. We had him.

Then, just as I lifted my .416, an unseen troop of baboons in the trees overhead went into hysterics, shrieking and hooting. The lions were up and running in a flash. The male brought up the rear, at about 60 yards.

Lionel said "Shoot!"

It was a mistake. A prudent hunter never fires at an unwounded, dangerous animal running. I knew that, but my blood was up. Lionel knew it, too, but I'd been shooting very well on the safari and we had so much invested in this lion that he took the obvious risk. The finalesponsibility, nevertheless, rests with the man who pulls the trigger, and that was me.

The lion reacted to the shot with only a choppy, coughing roar. Instantly, one of the lionesses whirled and charged the sound of the rifle, snarling savagely. We covered her, triggers half-pulled, as she slid to a stop 15 yards away. There followed a long, long moment during which the Okovango seemed to hold its breath.

A single step forward would have brought two big bullets crashing into her, but she finally turned and loped after her companions.

Lionel consulted with Soaconga and John, the near-supernatural Mambakush trackers with whom he had been collaborating on African lions for more than 20 years. Their joint opinion was not reassuring. The lion was hit but was moving normally when last seen. He was not crippled and would still have all his blinding speed when we finally confronted him. And with Soaconga and John tracking for us, that confrontation was just a matter of time.

We started out with the trackers leading, patiently piecing together the story of the spoor. Then came Lionel and I, rifles ready, chamber loaded and safeties off but with bolt handles raised. Our right palms rested on the bolt knobs, ready to slap them down into battery instantly as our hands went to the triggers.

By now the day was becoming very tropical. Even unwounded African lions hate being pushed around during the heat of the day. All the sign said this one was wounded, but we couldn't tell how badly. Mysteriously, my one shot had produced bleeding from two separate wounds.

To say that we moved cautiously and kept a sharp eye out all around is a staggering understatement. Many old Africa hands call a wounded lion the most dangerous animal on earth, and this one was keeping to the thickest bush, giving himself every edge in our deadly game. Whenever the trackers sensed that the lion might be close, they would silently drop back and let Lionel and me take the lead.

The first time they did this, the four lions could actually be seen ahead, resting, but before any shot was possible they sprang up, growled ferociously and fled.

Not long after that, the hair stirred on the nape of my neck as I noticed we were crossing our own tracks, meaning that the lion had doubled back and had been behind us. This happened two more times during the next couple of hours, each time in heavy cover where the lion could have-but had not-charged from point-blank range.

Twice more as the hours crawled by we jumped the pride from resting places with no chance to shoot, and their hair-raising vocalizations made it clear that their patience was running out. The air felt like a kiln now, unrelieved by any hint of breeze, and the dusty bush was as silent as a tomb. Each of us walked alone with his own thoughts as the spoor took us inexorably, step by step, toward that final, fatal showdown. At any turn, death could be staring at us from a nearby thicket...an idea that tends to keep a thoughtful man's eyes moving.

Even so, I would not have traded places with any human on earth during those sweaty hours. The unspoken mutual commitment to finish the job-to undo my hasty mistake- carried us forward. I was grateful to Lionel for permitting me to share this classic, climactic adventure and to the unarmed trackers for lending me their incredible talents. Never before or since have I felt so alive.

The first three times we caught the pride resting, the four lions had retreated together. But when we jumped them the fourth time, the male took a slightly different line of flight from the females. It was the break we needed. "Let's go!" Lionel hissed, breaking into a run. Running in Botswana's deep sandveldt is hard work, and I was near my limits from a sleepless night and hours of relentless tension and fatigue. But the excitement I could see in the trackers' faces told me that the climax was very near. I ran like hell.

We sprinted for maybe 150 yards before Lionel stopped and glanced hastily around. He stabbed his finger toward the bole of a giant strangler fig tree, and we dove into its inky shade. The hunter caught John's eye and gestured toward his throat. The tracker nodded, grinning, and from somewhere deep down in his chest there issued an uncanny series of muffled, moaning calls-perfect imitations of lion noises I'd heard from the big-cat house in the Houston zoo when I was a little boy, dreaming of Africa. Immediately, from somewhere behind us, a lioness answered, once. My heart pounded, more from sheer exhilaration than exertion. We waited in silence; the next move was the lion's.

All four of us started as a francolin, a partridge-like game bird, broke the silence, flushing in panic somewhere back in the thicket into which the lion had disappeared. Black John seized my arm and whispered, "He's coming!" (It was my first hint that John either spoke or understood any English.)

Then the lion walked out of the bush into the sunlight 30 yards away. His movements were fluid and catlike, showing no sign of pain or disablement. The image of him standing there in the sun, head up and confident, looking keenly about for the lionesses he'd heard calling, will live in my memory until the last breath I draw.

I raised the rifle. He caught the movement even in the deep shadow and turned his head to look directly at me. I saw this through my 1.5X scope as the crosshairs centered on his chest, and I remember saying to myself, he knows-he knows who hurt him and messed with his love life and has been pushing him around in the heat! I could see it in those great yellow eyes staring coldly into my rifle muzzle. Then I thought, he's too close-two, maybe three jumps away. If I don't anchor him, there won't be time to reload. Lionel will have one shot and then it will be hand-to-claw. The time had come to pay the bill for my bad and foolish first shot.

When the big rifle bellowed, the lion turned into a huge, roaring, writhing yellow ball of violence and noise. He made a tremendous leap straight upward, higher than my head, screeching like all the demons in hell. I heard Lionel's .458 roar but saw no result. The lion hit the ground running as I grimly wrestled my rifle down out of recoil and racked the bolt. Then I realized that he was not charging, even then. Amid all the uproar there somehow remained room in my awareness to marvel at that. Then the lion died in mid-stride, crumpling like a 500-pound dishrag.

I had made amends; this bullet had gone through his heart. Lionel's shot had been needless, although prudent. He was, at last, truly my lion. My first shot, as it turned out, had passed cleanly through his right hindquarter, missing bone and arteries, exited and thenold me that the climax was very near. I ran like hell.

We sprinted for maybe 150 yards before Lionel stopped and glanced hastily around. He stabbed his finger toward the bole of a giant strangler fig tree, and we dove into its inky shade. The hunter caught John's eye and gestured toward his throat. The tracker nodded, grinning, and from somewhere deep down in his chest there issued an uncanny series of muffled, moaning calls-perfect imitations of lion noises I'd heard from the big-cat house in the Houston zoo when I was a little boy, dreaming of Africa. Immediately, from somewhere behind us, a lioness answered, once. My heart pounded, more from sheer exhilaration than exertion. We waited in silence; the next move was the lion's.

All four of us started as a francolin, a partridge-like game bird, broke the silence, flushing in panic somewhere back in the thicket into which the lion had disappeared. Black John seized my arm and whispered, "He's coming!" (It was my first hint that John either spoke or understood any English.)

Then the lion walked out of the bush into the sunlight 30 yards away. His movements were fluid and catlike, showing no sign of pain or disablement. The image of him standing there in the sun, head up and confident, looking keenly about for the lionesses he'd heard calling, will live in my memory until the last breath I draw.

I raised the rifle. He caught the movement even in the deep shadow and turned his head to look directly at me. I saw this through my 1.5X scope as the crosshairs centered on his chest, and I remember saying to myself, he knows-he knows who hurt him and messed with his love life and has been pushing him around in the heat! I could see it in those great yellow eyes staring coldly into my rifle muzzle. Then I thought, he's too close-two, maybe three jumps away. If I don't anchor him, there won't be time to reload. Lionel will have one shot and then it will be hand-to-claw. The time had come to pay the bill for my bad and foolish first shot.

When the big rifle bellowed, the lion turned into a huge, roaring, writhing yellow ball of violence and noise. He made a tremendous leap straight upward, higher than my head, screeching like all the demons in hell. I heard Lionel's .458 roar but saw no result. The lion hit the ground running as I grimly wrestled my rifle down out of recoil and racked the bolt. Then I realized that he was not charging, even then. Amid all the uproar there somehow remained room in my awareness to marvel at that. Then the lion died in mid-stride, crumpling like a 500-pound dishrag.

I had made amends; this bullet had gone through his heart. Lionel's shot had been needless, although prudent. He was, at last, truly my lion. My first shot, as it turned out, had passed cleanly through his right hindquarter, missing bone and arteries, exited and then