It was a long night.
We had a quick breakfast and loaded up the truck with Dries Sr., Dries Jr., Ben, another tracker, 3 dogs and myself. When we arrived at the ranch we swung by to pick up the landowner and were on our way up the trail.
The first stop was the bait site where we looked for the arrow. It took a bit but Ben found the arrow 25 yards behind the bait tree. It didn't look good at all. The arrow was not soaked with blood nor did it have any digestive matter on it. With the exception of a thin coat of blood splatter here and there it almost looked clean! That sick feeling set it. All that preparation and practice, all that baiting, switching bows - and my hit looked to be nonfatal. The one strange thing was that the blood trail was very good. Things were not making sense.
With Guns loaded and ready for the worst, Dries Jr. headed down the trail first, followed by Dries Sr, the trackers then me and the landowner. The three dogs sniffed around the trail haphazardly - trying to get a line on the cat. Twenty yards down the trail Ben and Dries pointed to a pool of blood where the leopard had stopped. The tracks indicated he was watching his backtrail. We remembered the dog becoming unglued last evening. That little pup had smelled the leopard - who was waiting for us in the brush. Thank God we didn't go any further last evening.
This added to our intensity while we continued tracking. A few more yards down the trail Ben handed something to Dries. It was a small leaf with wet blood on it. About this same time, Rusty - the dog owned by Dries' uncle - ran ahead of the others. The other two dogs were hanging close to us - they were afraid and would not push foward. Suddenly, a God-awful squeal came from the thick brush. It was Rusty and the my first thought was the leopard had killed him. But rusty came screaming back down the trail and ran under Dries' feet - unharmed. The leopard had touched him - he was still alive.
"He will kill these dogs" Dries exclaimed. "They are too small, we must get more dogs, bigger dogs. These dogs won't attack him."
This was not turning out well at all. Everyone was on edge. The cat was close. I felt crappy. I wanted a clean kill on the cat and prepared for this hunt more than any other just so this kind of thing would not happen.
Ben, sensing my concern, turned to me and in his soft voice and compassionate look said "Don't worry." He knew the hit was fatal and the cat was mine - his gesture was a huge comfort to me.
Dries came back down the trail to speak with me. He said "he's really hurt. He did not even go 80 yards since last night. We'll get him but we'll need to go get big dogs. You stay here with my father and Ben. It will be a long wait but we'll be back as soon as possible."
As Dries and the others headed back toward the blind, Dries Sr., Ben, and me found a spot to make ourselves comfortable. For the next two hours Dries Sr. told me stories about growing up hunting in old Africa. The stories passed the time easily. As the sun was growing higher the sound of the others coming down the trail meant it was back to business.
Dries was accompanied by the dog's owner, his son, and his hired hands. Each was holding a leash connected to the ugliest (and meanest) pets I'd ever laid eyes on. I don't know the breed but they had big blocky heads and stout, muscular bodies. They were prepared to fight my leopard to the death - if necessary - you could just see it about them. Everyone except me had a gun. And all of them had that same "serious" look.
The dogs were released. We stayed motionless and listened. A few minutes later the tell-tale bark signaled they had found the leopard - we moved quickly yet cautiously as we approached the dogs. The dog's owner along with Dries and his dad had their guns pointed in the direction of the commotion - ready for the worse. You could cut the tension with a knife. These experienced hunters knew this situation well. But as we approached, it was obvious the cat would be no danger to us. The dogs were called off as we could plainly see the leopard laying on its side - barely alive. Ben handed me my bow and I moved forward to put a finishing shot in him. The leopard was mine.
Upon inspection my shot last evening was low and too far back - maybe at the far edge of his liver but clearly mid-level in his paunch. In hindsight, moving the sight was probably the culprit but I'll never know for sure. One thing was sure, the cat would have been dead in two hours had we left him a little longer.
Dries was grinning. "This was a huge male" he said. I had seen leopard kills before but this one looked substantially bigger than most. The only one that was in the ballpark was the pic of the world-record leopard - also guided by Dries. I struggled to lift the massive body off the ground as our tracking party laughed and relaxed. The situation was no longer serious - it was time to celebrate.
The trackers, Dries, and myself carried the big tom back to the truck. Ben was right, I didn't need to worry. The shot was not perfect but it was certainly fatal. I had my leopard and he was better than I ever dreamed. Dries came through in a big way - I will always be grateful for this exceptional animal and this incredible skill as a Professional Hunter.
With that huge relief behind me it was time to have fun and go get that gemsbok and zebra. I still have three more days to hunt.