Field and Stream
NEVER MIND HUNTING. NEVER MIND
fishing. The adventure story is one of the great cultural staples of mankind. Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, which dates to the 8th century BCE, is one of the first adventure stories, and it is still very much with us.
Adventure stories are based on the sad reality that most of us don’t get to go on adventures. We’re too old, or out of shape, or tied down by responsibility, or strapped for cash. Moreover, adventures are frequently not fun for the people who have them. They often involve starving, freezing, pants-wetting fear, exhaustion unto death, and sometimes real tragedy. It’s much better to experience all that vicariously.
A good writer can take you where you will not be lucky enough to go yourself. A great writer will do it without letting his own ego intrude on the narrative, because he knows that it’s your adventure as well as his. FIELD & STREAM has always had its share of the latter.
In 1953, FIELD & STREAM hired Robert Ruark to write a monthly column called “The Old Man and the Boy.” The column ran for nine years and is still being reprinted in book form 67 years later. Ruark, who went on to become a major novelist with Something of Value and Uhuru, drank himself to death in 1965, having not reached 50. He made his first safari in 1951, and out of it came what is the best book on African hunting that has ever been written, Horn of the Hunter, as well as magazine articles such as this one.
Unlike previous stories in this genre, which are blood-soaked and contain much chest-thumping, “Suicide Made Easy” presents the writer not as a heroic slayer of monsters but as a mediocre shot who is filled with terror. It’s an accurate portrayal. Harry Selby’s trackers said that Bwana Ruark had “bad legs and much fear.” If you never get to tangle with old nyati yourself, trust me, this is what it’s like. —D.E.P.
SOME PEOPLE ARE AFRAID of the dark. Other people fear airplanes, ghosts, their wives, death, illness, bosses, snakes or bugs. Each man has some private demon of fear that dwells within him. This fear numbs the brain and has a definite odor, easily detectable by dog and man alike.
I love the dark. I am fond of airplanes. I have had a ghost for a friend. I am not henpecked by my wife. I was through a war and never fretted about getting killed. I pay small attention to illness, and have never feared an employer. I like snakes, and bugs don’t bother me. But I have a fear, a constant, steady fear that still crowds into my dreams, a fear that makes me sweat and smell bad in my sleep. I am afraid of Mbogo, the big, black Cape buffalo. He is just so damned big, and ugly, and ornery, and vicious, and surly, and cruel, and crafty. Especially when he’s mad. And when he’s hurt, he’s always mad. And when he’s mad, he wants to kill you.
* * *
From a standpoint of senses, the African buffalo has no weak spot. He sees as well as he smells, and he hears as well as he sees, and he charges with his head up and his eyes unblinking. He is as fast as an express train, and he can haul short and turn himself on a shilling. He has a tongue like a wood rasp and feet as big as knife-edged flat-irons. His skull is armor-plated and his horns are either razorsharp or splintered into horrid javelins, ideally adapted for hooking, and one hook can unzip a man from crotch to throat. He delights to dance upon the prone carcass of a victim, and the man who provides the platform is generally collected with a trowel, for the buffalo’s death-dance leaves little but shreds and bloody tatters.
I expect I have looked at several thousand buffalo at close range. I have crawled after them, and dashed into their midst with a whoop and a holler, and looked at them from trees, and followed wounded bulls into the bush, and have killed a couple. But the terror never quit. The sweat never dried. The stench of abject fear never left me. And the fascination for him never left me.
Toward the end of my first safari [with PH Harry Selby] I was crawling more miles after Mbogo than I was walking after anything else— still scared stiff, but unable to quit.
* * *
One day we got a clear look at a couple of bulls—one big, heavily horned, prime old stud and a smaller askari, feeding on the lip of a thick thorn forest.
“Let’s go and collect him,” said Selby.
Off we zigged and zagged and blundered. My breath, from overexertion and sheer fright, was a sharp pain in my chest, and I was wheezing like an overextended pipe-organ when we finally reached the rim of the high grass.
I lurched up and looked at Mbogo, and Mbogo looked at me. He was 50 to 60 yards off, his head low, his eyes staring right down my soul. He looked at me as if he hated my guts. He looked as if I had despoiled his fiancee, murdered his mother, and burned down his house. He looked at me as if I owed him money. I
never saw such malevolence in the eyes of any animal or human being, before or since. So I shot him.
The buffalo went down. So did I. I had managed to loose off both barrels of this elephant gun. I got up and stood there stupidly, shaking my head. Somewhere away in Uganda I heard a gun go off and Mr. Selby’s clear Oxonion tone came faintly.
“I do hope you don’t mind,” said he. “You knocked him over, but he got up again and took off for the bush. I thought I’d best break his back, although I’m certain you got his heart.”
Mbogo was down, all right, his ugly head stretched out. He was lying sideways, a huge, mountainous hulk of muddy, tick-crawling, scabby-hided monster.
I was shooting a double-barreled Express rifle that fires a bullet as big as a banana. It has a striking force of 5,000 foot-pounds of energy. It had taken Mbogo in the chest. Its impact knocked him flat— 2,500 pounds of muscle. Yet Mbogo had not known he was dead. He had gotten up and had romped off as blithely as if I had fired an air-gun at his hawser-network of muscles, at his inch-thick hide that the natives use to make shields. What had stopped him was not the fatal shot at all, but Harry’s backbreaker.
“Fantastic beast,” Selby murmured. “Stone-dead and didn’t know it.”
We stalked innumerable buffalo after that. I did not really snap out of the buffalo-fog until we got back in Nairobi, to find that a friend, a professional hunter, had been badly gored twice and almost killed by a “dead” buffalo that soaked up a dozen slugs and then got up to catch another handful and still boil on to make a messy hash out of poor old Tony.
I am going back to Africa soon. I do not intend to shoot much. But I will hunt Mbogo. In fear and trembling I will hunt Mbogo every time I see him. I will hate myself while I crawl and shake and tremble and sweat, but I will hunt him. Once you’ve got the buffalo fever, the rest of the stuff seems mighty small and awful tame. This is why the wife of my bosom considers her spouse to be a complete and utter damned fool, and she may very well be right.