"Through the back of the head," whispered Gordon Cundill in the tiniest of tones.
Keeping my eyes locked on the hazy outline of the huge lion, I eased the .375 H&H Magnum to my shoulder. Even through the low setting of the variable scope, his head looked like a small townhouse with excess shrubbery, just a peripheral halo of mane and mass, facing nearly away from me. With an imperceptable snick, I flipped the magnetic scope post into position, held as best I could through the heat waves reflected by the searing Botswana sun that would have staggered a Venetian glass-blower, and leveled at the spot where I reckoned his head met his neck. High, I would take the base of the skull; low, and the spine wouldbe shattered. Either way, a record-book lion for the wall.
If I pulled the shot aside on a horizontal angle, however, both Gordon and I knew what would happen.
After five and a half days of tracking and two close encounters of the worst kind, I could only see a long, grass-shielded impression of the Tau entunanyana --as he is so pronounced in Tswana--just his head; one ear and the curve of his skull. I knew he was accompanied by a female, with whom he had been doing what came naturally but at a rate and frequency that would astonish any human. (How's about a roll in the hay every twenty minutes? Maybe you, brother, are up to such acrobatics but I have had back problems recently.) I lined up the sights, knowing the 300-grain Winchester Silvertip would have to bull through considerable bush and grass, and aware that a deflection was not only possible but probable. I eased off the trigger of the custom Mauser anyway.
That was a major and very nearly fatal error.
Whether through bush deflection, lousy shooting (for which I am not especially known), or simple bad luck, the tremendous lion jumped fifteen feet into the air, swapped ends, and came down in what was most certainly our direction. I believe that he charged the sound of the shot, rather than Gordon, Karonda the gun bearer, and me, as our cover was as good as his. With more than five hundred pounds of male lion coming at us as quickly as he could manage, however, the matter was academic and fast becoming immediate. Unfortunately, he had to clear some heavy cover, mostly mopane scrub, before we could take a second whack at him and have, even in African terms, a relatively clear shot.
He broke around a clump of mopane some ten yards from where he had been lying with his paramour, in company with two fully grown but nontrophy-sized lions. When I tell you that he charged, I use the term not lightly. He wanted us. Badly. Later, we were to discover one of several good reasons was that he contained a not inconsiderable amount of buckshot in his guts, about the American equivalent of a Double-0. They were old wounds but had still made a clear impression on his future attitude toward humans.
As he rounded the clump of bush, you can absolutely bet that I had one thing on my mind: putting as many 300-grain bullets into that bastard as soon as possible and before our acquaintance became any more intimate. I had been knocked down by lions seriously intent on biting me on a couple of previous occasions and was not especially eager to repeat the scenario.
I found out later (although I do notremember hearing it at the time, so intense was my concentration in trying to kill the goddamn thing) that he was roaring fit to blow the leaves off the trees and the calluses off your right foot. Lord, but that was one awfully angry lion. (I suppose that had I just caught a .375 Silvertip at the base of the neck, I would have shared his sentiments.)
I shall never forget the gleam of his amber and anthracite eyes through the scope when he got into thinner cover only a few yards away. They glistened and glimmered in the hot sun above the crosshairs and post of the Bushnell scope like uncut gems, radioactive orbs centered on one thing:
I have no idea why everything tries to eat me. Maybe it's my breath. In any case, this was becoming a rather serious matter, especially when I heard a very strange sound just off to my left: a click, followed after perhaps a second and a half by a tremendous boom! I knew, of course, that it was Gordon firing his .500 Westley Richards Nitro-Express double rifle in a rather fervent attempt to keep the lot of us alive.
The only problem was that his ammo was defective and, after four attempts, Gordon had had three hangfires and one complete dud. It was a rifle worth more than a fine sports car (one of three he owns by noted craftsmen/manufacturers), and it had to be just our luck that when our lives were on the absolute line, his big bore--which should have been the precise item required to keep us all paying taxes--failed. Or, to be fair, at least the ammo did.
I shifted my sight to adjust to the fact that the lion was coming in at a five-degree angle and smashed a bullet right where it should have counted, smack in the middle of the chest. Okay, I knew that a .375 H&H Silvertip right through the engine room of anything less than a Tyrannosaurus rex was going to have a very negative effect on the chances of your becoming a grandfather. Gordon and Karonda knew the same thing.
The lion didn't.
He at least swerved at a few yards, and, with a dexterity I thought long gone, I worked the bolt and got a fresh round up the spout. As he turned, I thought, Aha! Gotcha!
I have not yet had the chance to examine the skull of that grand beast, but I can tell you with a dozen witnesses, three of whom were on the spot when the incident occurred, that I shot that bloody lion exactly behind the base of the left ear. Precisely what the damage was has not yet been determined, but it sure as hell wasn't enough. He spun and came straight for us--and when a lion does that from a few yards, you had betterhave the ammo belt in the Maxim if you want to see the home airfield again.
Gordon's .500 Nitro slapped me again as I heard a peripheral click--boom! Another hangfire!
To say that this lion had me highly motivated would be an extreme understatement. There have probably been men who have worked a Mauser bolt-action faster, but I am inclined to at least give myself the benefit of a tie. I claim not the record, but I will tell you that there was a fourth round in my chamber in an astonishing hurry. As the lion continued his spin, I smacked him up the butt in an attempt to smash the pelvic girdle. Although the bullet hole was not more than an inch from his evacuating mechanism, I might as well have missed the bastard completely. It just made him madder and, trust me, he was mad enough to start with after my first shot.
I heard the snap of Gordon's striker on the .500 again, but this time there was no report at all. Meanwhile, the bloody thing was damned near on us, so old Karonda, the eighty-year-old Subiya gun bearer, decided to have a go at him with the spare .375 he was carrying. I saw it blow a clump of turf into the air some six feet behind the lion, though he later swore he had shot it through the hips. (There was no such bullet mark, more to our bad luck, as Karonda had once saved Gordon's life from a highly imminent lioness under very similar circumstances.)
I believe high-school boys have a term for the position we were now in but it is not for family reading.
I was carrying nine cartridges, all 300-grain Silvertips, and had thus far shot that cat twice through the head, once through the chest, and again up the arse. Gordon, through what I consider magnificent shooting, considering his hangfires, had to date placed at least one big soft-point through his guts. It's not the kind of shot that does much to break a lion down but, let's face it, it must be to some degree discouraging.
Having by now clearly seen us, the brute finished his turn and came straight for us. He was one hell of a lot bigger than the lions you see on television, at the circus, or in the zoo, and I want to tell you he was most definitely on a kamikaze mission. I slammed him again in the chest, which, according to all the textbooks as well as my own work and experience, should have cooled him down considerably. This was, however, not a cooperative lion. I don't think he could read.
You must understand that all this sort of thing goes on in a matter of seconds--if you're that lucky--and it is pure reflex that keeps you alive or gets you killed with amazing rapidity. You just don'tfool around with wounded, charging, record-book lions. Not very often, you don't.
I had now shot him four times, as I said; twice through the noggin, once in the chest, and once more in unspeakable places. Gordon had by that point gotten at least one 570-grain soft-point into him and--it all happened so fast--perhaps a second. (Hitting a running lion at that speed with three hangfires and a dud and connecting with two of the three rounds that actually fired is an amazing feat of marksmanship and shows the kind of, shall we say, intestinal fortitude with which Gordon Cundill is gifted.)
I carry a custom Mauser-action, Blin-dee-barreled, bolt-action .375 by theContinental Arms Corporation of New York. I had it made to hold six cartridges. If one loads directly from the action, however, there is always the risk of breaking the extractor, which is precisely what you don't need in the middle of a safari, let alone a lion charge. I therefore carry four rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber with the hammer down. My last shot was in the chamber of the barrel.
The lion finished his spin and resumed his charge. Gordon was off to my left and Karonda just to my right. As the beast whirled around, I stuck the last round in the rifle into his shoulder and aimed for hi...