Wildlife Classics: Bhoota's Last Shikar (A Lion Hunt)

by JH Patterson
from Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907)


I lay awake listening to roar answering roar in every direction round our camp, and realised that we were indeed in the midst of a favourite haunt of the king of beasts. It is one thing to hear a lion in captivity, when one knows he is safe behind iron bars; but quite another to listen to him when he is ramping around in the vicinity of one's fragile tent, which with a single blow he could tear to pieces. Still, all this roaring was of good omen for the next day's sport.

According to our over-night arrangement, we were up betimes in the morning, but as there was a great deal of work to be done before we could get away, it was quite midday before we made ready to start. I ought to mention before going further that as a rule Spooner declined my company on shooting trips, as he was convinced that I should get "scuppered" sooner or later if I persisted in going after lions with a "popgun," as he contemptuously termed my .303. Indeed, this was rather a bone of contention between us, he being a firm believer (and rightly) in a heavy weapon for big and dangerous game, while I always did my best to defend the .303 which I was in the habit of using. On this occasion we effected a compromise for the day, I accepting the loan of his spare 12-bore rifle as a second gun in case I should get to close quarters. But my experience has been that it is always a very dangerous thing to rely on a borrowed gun or rifle, unless it has precisely the same action as one's own; and certainly in this instance it almost proved disastrous.

Having thus seen to our rifles and ammunition and taken care also that some brandy was put in the luncheon-basket in case of an accident, we set off early in the afternoon in Spooner's tonga, which is a two-wheeled cart with a hood over it. The party consisted of Spooner and myself, Spooner's Indian shikari Bhoota, my own gun-boy Mahina, and two other Indians, one of whom, Imam Din, rode in the tonga, while the other led a spare horse called "Blazeaway." Now it may seem a strange plan to go lion-hunting in a tonga, but there is no better way of getting about country like the Athi Plains, where -- so long as it is dry -- there is little or nothing to obstruct wheeled traffic. Once started, we rattled over the smooth expanse at a good rate, and on the way bagged a hartebeeste and a couple of gazelle, as fresh meat was badly needed in camp; besides, they offered most tempting shots, for they stood stock-still gazing at us, struck no doubt by the novel appearance of our conveyance. Next we came upon a herd of wildebeeste, and here we allowed Bhoota, who was a wary shikari and an old servant of Spooner's, to stalk a solitary bull. He was highly pleased at this favour, and did the job admirably.

At last we reached the spot where I had seen the two lions on the previous day -- a slight hollow, covered with long grass; but there was now no trace of them to be discovered, so we moved further on and had another good beat round. After some little time the excitement began by our spying the black-tipped ears of a lioness projecting above the grass, and the next moment a very fine lion arose from beside her and gave us a full view of his grand head and mane. After staring fixedly at us in an inquiring sort of way as we slowly advanced upon them, they both turned and slowly trotted off, the lion stopping every now and again to gaze round in our direction. Very imposing and majestic he looked, too, as he thus turned his great shaggy head defiantly towards us, and Spooner had to admit that it was the finest sight he had ever seen. For a while we followed them on foot; but finding at length that they were getting away from us and would soon be lost to sight over a bit of rising ground, we jumped quickly into the tonga and galloped round the base of the knoll so as to cut off their retreat, the excitement of the rough and bumpy ride being intensified a hundred-fold by the probability of our driving slap into the pair on rounding the rise. On getting to the other side, however, they were nowhere to be seen, so we drove on as hard as we could to the top, whence we caught sight of them about four hundred yards away. As there seemed to be no prospect of getting nearer we decided to open fire at this range, and at the third shot the lioness tumbled over to my .303. At first I thought I had done for her, as for a few minutes she lay on the ground kicking and struggling; but in the end, although evidently badly hit, she rose to her feet and followed the lion, who had escaped uninjured, into some long grass from which we could not hope to dislodge them.

As it was now late in the afternoon, and as there seemed no possibility of inducing the lions to leave the thicket in which they had concealed themselves, we turned back towards camp, intending to come out again the next day to track the wounded lioness. I was now riding "Blazeaway" and was trotting along in advance of the tonga, when suddenly he shied badly at a hyena, which sprang up out of the grass almost from beneath his feet and quickly scampered off. I pulled up for a moment and sat watching the hyena's ungainly bounds, wondering whether he were worth a shot. Suddenly I felt "Blazeaway" trembling violently beneath me, and on looking over my left shoulder to discover the reason, I was startled to see two fine lions not more than a hundred yards away, evidently the pair which I had seen the day before and which we had really come in search of. They looked as if they meant to dispute our passage, for they came slowly towards me for about ten yards or so and then lay down, watching me steadily all the time. I called out to Spooner, "Here are the lions I told you about," and he whipped up the ponies and in a moment or two was beside me with the tonga.

By this time I had seized my .303 and dismounted, so we at once commenced a cautious advance on the crouching lions, the arrangement being that Spooner was to take the right-hand one and I the other. We had got to within sixty yards' range without incident and were just about to sit down comfortably to "pot" them, when they suddenly surprised us by turning and bolting off. I managed, however, to put a bullet into the one I had marked just as he crested a bank, and he looked very grand as he reared up against the sky and clawed the air on feeling the lead. For a second or two he gave me the impression that he was about to charge; but luckily he changed his mind and followed his companion, who had so far escaped scot free. I immediately mounted "Blazeaway" and galloped off in hot pursuit, and after about half a mile of very stiff going got up with them once more. Finding now that they could not get away, they halted; came to bay and then charged down upon me, the wounded lion leading. I had left my rifle behind, so all I could do was to turn and fly as fast as "Blazeaway" could go, praying inwardly the while that he would not put his foot into a hole. When the lions saw that they were unable to overtake me, they gave up the chase and lay down again, the wounded one being about two hundred yards in front of the other. At once I pulled up too, and then went back a little way, keeping a careful eye upon them; and I continued these tactics of riding up and down at a respectful distance until Spooner came up with the rifles, when we renewed the attack.

As a first measure I thought it advisable to disable the unhurt lion if possible, and, still using the .303, I got him with the second shot at a range of about three hundred yards. He seemed badly hit, for he sprang into the air and apparently fell heavily. I then exchanged my .303 for Spooner's spare 12-bore rifle, and we turned our attention to the nearer lion, who all this time had been lying perfectly still, watching our movements closely, and evidently just waiting to be down upon us the moment we came within charging distance. He was never given this opportunity, however, for we did not approach nearer than ninety yards, when Spooner sat down comfortably and knocked him over quite dead with one shot from his .577, the bullet entering the left shoulder obliquely and passing through the heart.

It was now dusk, and there was no time to be lost if we meant to bag the second lion as well. We therefore resumed our cautious advance, moving to the right, as we went, so as to get behind us what light there was remaining. The lion of course twisted round in the grass in such a way as always to keep facing us, and looked very ferocious, so that I was convinced that unless he were entirely disabled by the first shot he would be down on us like a whirlwind. All the same, I felt confident that, even in this event, one of us would succeed in stopping him before he could do any damage; but in this I was unfortunately to be proved mistaken.

Eventually we managed to get within eighty yards of the enraged animal, I being about five yards to the left front of Spooner, who was followed by Bhoota at about the same distance to his right rear. By this time the lion was beside himself with fury, growling savagely and raising quite a cloud of dust by lashing his tail against the ground. It was clearly high time that we did something, so asking Spooner to fire, dropped on one knee and waited. Nor was I kept long in suspense, for the moment Spooner's shot rang out, up jumped the lion and charged down in a bee-line for me, coming in long, low bounds at great speed. I fired the right barrel at about fifty yards, but apparently missed; the left at about half that range, still without stopping effect. I knew then that there was no time reload, so remained kneeling, expecting him to be on me the next moment. Suddenly, just as he was within a bound of me, he made a quick turn, to my right. "Good heavens," I thought, "he is going for Spooner." I was wrong in this, however, for like a flash he passed Spooner also, and with a last tremendous bound seized Bhoota by the leg and rolled over and over with him for some yards in the impetus of the rush. Finally he stood over him and tried to seize him by the throat, which the brave fellow prevented by courageously stuffing his left arm right into the great jaws. Poor Bhoota! By moving at the critical moment, he had diverted the lion's attention from me and had drawn the whole fury of the charge on to himself.

All this, of course, happened in only a second or two. In the short instant that intervened, I felt a cartridge thrust into my hand by Spooner's plucky servant, Imam Din, who had carried the 12-bore all day and who had stuck to me gallantly throughout the charge; and shoving it in, I rushed as quickly as I could to Bhoota's rescue. Meanwhile, Spooner had got there before me and when I came up actually had his left hand on the lion's flank, in a vain attempt to push him off Bhoota's prostrate body and so get at the heavy rifle which the poor fellow still stoutly clutched. The lion, however, was so busily engaged mauling Bhoota's arm that he paid not the slightest attention to Spooner's efforts. Unfortunately, as he was facing straight in my direction, I had to move up in full view of him, and the moment I reached his head, he stopped chewing the arm, though still holding it in his mouth, and threw himself back on his haunches, preparing for a spring, at the same time curling back his lips and exposing his long tusks in a savage snarl. I knew then that I had not a moment to spare, so I threw the rifle up to my shoulder and pulled the trigger. Imagine my utter despair and horror when it did not go off! "Misfire again," I thought, and my heart almost stopped beating. As took a step backwards, I felt it was all over no for he would never give me time to extract the cartridge and load again. Still I took another step backwards, keeping my eyes fixed on the lion's, which were blazing with rage; and in the middle of my third step, just as the brute was gathering himself for his spring, it suddenly struck me that in my haste and excitement, I had forgotten that I was using a borrowed rifle and had not pulled back the hammer (my own was hammerless). To do this and put a bullet through the lion's brain was then the work of a moment; and he fell dead instantly right on the top of Bhoota.

We did not lose a moment in rolling his great carcase off Bhoota's body and quickly forced opening the jaws so as to disengage the mangled arm which still remained in his mouth. By this time the poor shikari was in a fainting condition, and we flew to the tonga for the brandy flask which we had so providentially brought with us. On making a rough examination of the wounded man, we found that his left arm and right leg were both frightfully mauled, the latter being broken as well. He was lifted tenderly into the tonga -- how thankful we now were to have it with us! -- and Spooner at once set off with him to camp and the doctor.

Before following them home I made a hasty examination of the dead lion and found him to be a very good specimen in every way. I was particularly satisfied to see that one of the two shots I had fired as he charged down upon me had taken effect. The bullet had entered below the right eye, and only just missed the brain. Unfortunately it was a steel one which Spooner had unluckily brought in his ammunition bag by mistake; still one would have thought that a shot of this kind, even with a hard bullet, would at least have checked the lion for the moment. As a matter of fact, however, it went clean through him without having the slightest stopping effect. My last bullet, which was of soft lead, had entered close to the right eye and embedded itself in the brain. By this time it had grown almost dark, so I left the two dead lions where they lay and rode for camp, which I was lucky enough to reach without further adventure or mishap. I may mention here that early next morning two other lions were found devouring the one we had first shot; but they had not had time to do much damage, and the head, which I have had mounted, makes a very fine trophy indeed. The lion that mauled Bhoota was untouched.

On my arrival in camp I found that everything that was possible was being done for poor Bhoota by Dr. McCulloch, the same who had travelled up with me to Tsavo and shot the ostrich from the train on my first arrival in the country, and who was luckily on the spot. His wounds had been skilfully dressed, the broken leg put in splints, and under the influence of a soothing draught the poor fellow was soon sleeping peacefully. At first we had great hope of saving both life and limb, and certainly for some days he seemed to be getting on as well as could be expected. The wounds, however, were very bad ones, especially those on the leg where the long tusks had met through and through the flesh, leaving over a dozen deep tooth marks; the arm, though dreadfully mauled, soon healed. It was wonderful to notice how cheerfully the old shikari, bore it all, and a pleasure to listen to his tale of how he would have his revenge on the whole tribe of lions as soon as he was able to get about again. But alas, his shikar was over. The leg got rapidly worse, and mortification setting in, it had to be amputated half way up the thigh.

Dr. Winston Waters performed the operation most skilfully, and curiously enough the operating table was canopied with the skin of the lion which had been responsible for the injury. Bhoota made a good recovery from the operation, but seemed to lose heart when he found that he had only one leg left, as according to his ideas he had now but a poor chance of being allowed to enter Heaven. We did all that was possible for him, and Spooner especially could not have looked after a brother more tenderly; but to our great sorrow he sank gradually, and died on July 19.

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