It was late afternoon when he realised that the steady thumping of the ram-pump down at the river had stopped. Something was obviously blocking it; he would have to go and check. He glanced at the time, and thought he should be able to make it to the pump and back before dark. He grabbed his hat off the kitchen table and, whistling to the dogs, headed for the path through the thick African bush to the river.
It had been a good decision, he thought, to move his young family to the Copperbelt in Northern Rhodesia after WW2 ended. His wife and daughters were happy living in the mine-house in Kitwe, and he had a good job on the mines. Also, he had been able to buy his first farm, had carved it out of the jungle near the Congo border. For the last three years he had been building the farm-house, and it was nearly complete. The ram-pump he had built in the Lushani River kept a steady supply of fresh water filling the reservoir at the house, and the gardens were starting to take shape.
He loved the bush, and walked along the path briskly, the dogs running ahead of him. The sunbeams angled sharply through the trees, and lit butterflies and birds in abundance. It was a beautiful walk to the river.
They reached the river in very little time, even though it was nearly a kilometre from the farmhouse. The dogs continued their explorations, whilst he busied himself with the repair. It took longer than he expected – he suddenly realised the sun had disappeared, and darkness was rapidly approaching. He would have to rush to get out of the jungle before night fell. He whistled to the dogs and stepped onto the path, walking quickly.
He realised that the dogs had disappeared in the same moment that the feeling he was being watched came over him. He could feel the eyes on his back as though he was actually being touched; the feeling built up his neck and over his skull. As panic jolted through him he nearly stumbled. The instinct to run was almost over-whelming.
‘Steady’, he told himself, ‘steady, walk calmly’. He quickened his pace, but kept walking, not running. He had a good idea of what was watching him, even before he heard the throaty ‘sawing-wood’ growl. With every step he could almost feel the impact of attack, feel claws and teeth and pain and death. He kept walking through the gloom of the forest.
‘I will live’ he told himself. ‘I will not die here, I will not die like this and be eaten’. The words repeated in his head, as he kept walking. He did not turn around, even though the urge to look over his shoulder was so strong he felt his head was being pulled at times. He searched the jungle on either side of the path ahead of him, and checked the trees above him, in case his stalker was ahead of him now. The deep twilight had brought a stillness over the bush, and the coughing growl once again came clearly to his ears, making his heart race and his hands tremble. He tried to place the sound, but could not tell which direction it was coming from.
In the distance he could see light. The path was opening up into the clearing around the farmhouse. He forced himself to walk calmly out of the bush, across to the house.
As he reached the door, the dogs came rushing at him from out of the jungle, and pushed through the door with him. The sound of the door locking was one of the sweetest he had ever heard, and he sank down onto a kitchen chair, nauseous with relief. The dogs crowded around him, panting with wide-open mouths, and quivering as they pushed up against his legs. They also knew what they had escaped.
‘Next time’, he thought, ‘I will go to the pump at mid-day, not evening, and I’ll take a couple of labourers with me, we’ll all be safer together. I will also take my rifle’, although he knew that, unlike when faced with a lion, he would not really get a chance to fire a shot if he was attacked. ‘No’ , he thought, ‘I had better make sure I have my hunting knife on me at all times’.
He knew that would give him at least a chance against a leopard.