by Herman Charles Bosman
Leopards? – Oom Schalk Lourens said – Oh, yes, there are two varieties on this side of the Limpopo. The chief difference between them is that the one kind of leopard has got a few more spots on it than the other kind. But when you meet a leopard in the veld, unexpectedly, you seldom trouble to count his spots to find out which kind he belongs to. That is unnecessary. Because, whatever kind of leopard it is that you come across in this way, you only do one kind of running. And that is the fastest kind.
I remember the occasion when I came across a leopard unexpectedly, and to this day I cannot tell you how many spots he had, even though I had all the time I needed for studying him. It happened at about midday, when I was out on the far end of my farm, behind a koppie, looking for some strayed cattle. I thought the cattle might be there because it is shady under those withaak trees, and there is soft grass that is very pleasant to sit on. After I had looked for the cattle for about an hour in this manner, sitting up against a tree-trunk, it occurred to me that I could look for them just as well, or perhaps even better, if I lay down flat. For even a child knows that cattle aren’t so small that you have to stand on stilts or something to see them properly.
So I lay on my back, with my hat tilted over my face, and my legs crossed, and when I closed my eyes slightly the tip of my boot, sticking up into the air, looked just like the peak of Abjaterskop.
Overhead a lonely aasvoël wheeled, circling slowly round and round without flapping his wings, and I knew that not even a calf could pass in any part of the sky between the tip of my toe and that aasvoël without my observing it immediately. What was more, I could go on lying there under the withaak looking for the cattle like that all day, if necessary.
The more I screwed up my eyes and gazed at the toe of my boot, the more it looked like Abjaterskop. By and by it seemed that it actually was Abjaterskop, and I could see the stones on top of it, and the bushes trying to grow up its sides, and in my ears there was a far-off humming sound, like bees in an orchard on a still day. As I have said, it was very pleasant.
Then a strange thing happened. It was as though a huge cloud, shaped like an animal’s head and with spots on it, had settled on top of Abjaterskop. It seemed so funny that I wanted to laugh. But I didn’t. Instead, I opened my eyes a little more and felt glad to think that I was only dreaming. Because otherwise I would have to believe that the spotted cloud on Abjaterskop was actually a leopard, and that he was gazing at my boot. Again I wanted to laugh. But then, suddenly, I knew.
And I didn’t feel so glad. For it was a leopard, all right – a large-sized, hungry-looking leopard, and he was sniffing suspiciously at my feet. I was uncomfortable. I knew that nothing I could do would ever convince that leopard that my toe was Abjaterskop. I wanted to get up and run for it. But I couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t work.
Every big-game hunter I have come across has told me the same story about how, at one time or another, he has owed his escape from lions or other wild animals to his cunning in lying down and pretending to be dead, so that the beast of prey loses interest in him and walks off. Now as I lay there on the grass, with the leopard trying to make up his mind about me, I understood why, in such a situation, the hunter doesn’t move. It’s simply that he can’t move. That’s all. It’s not his cunning that keeps him down. It’s his legs.
Those were terrible moments. I lay very still, afraid to open my eyes and afraid to breathe. Sniff-sniff, the huge creature went, and his breath swept over my face in hot gasps. You hear of many frightening experiences that a man has in a lifetime. I have also been in quite a few perilous situations. But if you want something to make you suddenly old and to turn your hair white in a few moments, there is nothing to beat a leopard – especially when he is standing over you, with his jaws at your throat, trying to find a good place to bite.
The leopard gave a deep growl, stepped right over my body, knocked off my hat, and growled again. I opened my eyes and saw the animal moving away clumsily. But my relief didn’t last long. The leopard didn’t move far. Instead, he turned over and lay down next to me.
Yes, there on the grass, in the shade of the withaak, the leopard and I lay down together. The leopard lay half curled up, like a dog, and whenever I tried to move away, he grunted. I am sure that in the whole history of the Groot Marico there have never been two stranger companions engaged in the thankless task of looking for strayed cattle.
Next day, in Fanie Snyman’s voorkamer, which was used as a post office, I told my story to the farmers of the neighbourhood, while they were drinking coffee and waiting for the motor-lorry from Zeerust.
At first people jested about this leopard. They said it wasn’t a real leopard, but a spotted animal that had walked away out of Schalk Lourens’s dream, and the upshot of this whole affair was that I too began to have doubts about the existence of the leopard.
But when, a few days later, a huge leopard was seen from the roadside near the poort, and then again by Mtosas on the way to Nietverdiend, and again in the turf-lands near the Malopo, matters took a different turn. And when his spoor was found at several waterholes, people had no further doubt about the leopard. It was dangerous to walk about in the veld, they said.
Exciting times followed. There was a great deal of shooting at the leopard and a great deal of running away from him. The amount of Martini and Mauser fire I heard in the krantzes reminded me of nothing so much as the First Boer War. And the amount of running away reminded me of nothing so much as the Second Boer War.
But always the leopard escaped unharmed. Somehow, I felt sorry for him. The way he had first sniffed at me and then lain down beside me that day under the withaak was a strange thing I couldn’t understand. I thought of the Bible, where it is written that the lion shall lie down with the lamb.
I also wondered whether I hadn’t dreamt it all. The manner in which these things had befallen me was unearthly, and the leopard began to take up a lot of my thoughts. Also, there was no man I could talk to about it who would be able to help me in any way. Even now, as I’m telling you this story, I’m expecting you to wink at me like Krisjan Lemmer did. (You know that kind of wink. It was to let me know that there was now a new understanding between us, and that we could speak in future as one Marico liar to another.)
Still, I can only tell you the things that happened as I saw them, and what the rest was about only Africa knows.
It was some time before I again walked along the path that leads through the bush to where the withaaks are. But I didn’t lie down on the grass again. Because when I reached the place, I found that the leopard had got there before me. He was lying on the same spot, half curled up in the withaak’s shade, and his forepaws were folded as a dog’s are sometimes. But he lay very still. And even from the distance where I stood I could see the red splash on his breast where a Mauser bullet had gone.