OUR journey the top of Isarwa hills had been a bit adventurous. First, a python that had swallowed a goat frightened us out of our skins.
The reptile was taking a nap in the shade of a large tree when we came along shuffling our feet in the tall grass talking merrily about the challenges of living. Then, a cobra gave us a chase. After our harrowing episode with the cobra we came to a cave in which antelopes slept.
Wambura and Magoto had flushed them out the previous day but we believed that the browsers normally returned to the same den at night. We took positions around the cave looking forward to a wonderful hunting success. I expected to mow down two or more antelopes with my high-velocity Magnum.
I was standing on the edge of the curious cave with my hunting rifle held at the ready as Wambura and Magoto peered into the cave. You never know, an angry hyena or terrified porcupine could storm out instead of a meaty antelope. I was ready to mow down anything that came my way.
But it was the emergence of a hyena that worried me most. An angry or terrified hyena can disembowel anyone in a split second. Kuruya had not yet forgotten the day a large hyena disemboweled Nsato's dog during a hunting foray. Hyenas were a menace in Kuruya.
They emerged from their subterranean homes in the hills at night and came cantering into the village to forage for food. They stole cattle and terrified women and children at night with their weird screams. Kimbo had taken his position behind a lush thicket a few paces from the cave.
He lobbed stones into the cave in a bid to flush out the antelope that Magoto had seen in the area the previous evening. But the spectre of a hyena lurking in there still weighed heavily on my mind. We were not interested in hyenas, foxes or wild dogs. When provoked, these animals can easily turn around and attack intruders. Kimbo lobbed the fourth stone into the cave. It sailed deep into the cavern and landed with a thud.
The fall sounded strange to our ears. It was a hollow echo. There was a split second of silence after the echo. Then, two surreallooking beasts emerged from the cave -- their teeth bared ready for nefarious action. Their growl thundered and reverberated in the hills.
I clambered up a tall, pointed rock and managed to reach the peak rather miraculously. One of the animals nearly seized my leg. The beast, a large male, circled the rock growling. The other beast, a female, went after Kimbo, who had already made it to the top of a musisi tree and was sitting in the canopy trembling like a housecat. He looked limp and lifeless with fright. I soon discovered that we had a dangerous fight in our hands.
The beasts were actually mountain leopards that were known for their versatility in climbing sheer rocks and branchless trees. I saw the leopard that was pursuing me leap in an attempt to make a solid paw-hold on the smooth rock. My father's advice on how to handle life-threatening situations rang back in my mind. One chilly night my old man told me to remain calm in the face of danger. "Be brave in the face of danger.
Fight back aggressively. Some people wind up in graves because of fright," he said. "Look your enemy in the eye. Make it out to him that you have superior firepower. Fight back bravely and stoically, landing blows where it hurts most. You might defeat your enemy if you score good hits especially to the head. Enemies may come in the form of beasts.
The rules are the same." That was the advice from my old man. I plucked up courage and aimed my rifle at the leopard that was attempting to climb the sheer rock. When I was serving in the army I was the best shot in my brigade. I could hit nine out of ten flying beer cans with uncanny precision without aiming.
So, the leopard that was growling menacingly at the foot of the rock was in real danger. I could easily score a brain shot with my eyes closed. Even the female leopard that was giving Kimbo the jitters was mincemeat to me. As these thoughts and ideas crossed my mind I discovered that my hands were trembling and that there was a chill crawling in my spine.
I used to be a stoical, fearless fighter. But now, it appears, I must have lost some of the mettle. My hands were trembling like reeds in the breeze. The leopard pawed the rock in a quest to come after me. It very nearly succeeded in hauling its bulk up in its fourth attempt. It got a solid pawhold but slid and fell back when it heaved its hindquarters.
It was at this juncture that my Smith-and-Wesson thundered. But, alas! I made a wide miss. The slug dug a hole in the ground stirring up a cloud of dust. Two things happened at the same time. Terrified by the object that had thundered the beast fled; and Kimbo lost his grip on the branches and came crushing to the ground. He fell down helplessly like an old cow.
The leopard that had been pursuing him grabbed his left leg and shook it furiously. Kimbo screamed in desperation thrashing his right leg. I took aim with tremulous hands and fired. I hit the beast in the rump, obviously by fluke. This turned out to be a grave mistake. The shot simply injured the animal making it more savage.
It leapt into the air, groaned in pain and fell back on the ground. It grabbed Kimbo's second leg and shook it viciously. I aimed hastily at the beast again and fired. This time I scored the all-important brain shot. The beast took a greater leap, howled and fell down. It lay still in a heap near Kimbo, dying. I laid down the gun but, to my chagrin, I discovered that the fight was not over yet. The male leopard that I was vanquished reappeared from the opposite direction keen on a fresh fight.
Unknown to me, the female's howl was a distress call. I grabbed the riffle again and took aim as the seemingly more aggressive male arrived on the scene. Astonishingly, it seized Kimbo by the leg. Kimbo screamed like a maniac. I fired my gun again and managed to score a good shot in he rib cage.
The shot saved Kimbo's life. As I climbed down the rock I discovered why the cats were eager to kill us. I saw a ten-strong litter of puppies bounding out of the cave. They must have been looking for their mother. No wonder the cats put up a vicious fight. They must have been defending their young and their colony. I trudged back to Kuruya with Kimbo riding on my back, squealing.