This is a work of fiction, a short story of 1319 words.
Gilbert St.John-Henderson was a proud hunter. His trophies adorned the walls of the large country house that had been his family home for generations. Framed photographs of him standing triumphantly over his kills were arranged neatly on the grand piano in the music room, all carefully dusted daily by the skittish Mary, one of the housemaids.
His father, Gilbert senior, had taken him hunting almost as soon as he could hold a rifle. Stags in Scotland, Wild Boar in Germany, Alpine Ibex in Switzerland. When the older Gilbert died relatively young, he left his son well provided for financially, along with a collection of weapons that had been the envy of hunters all over the world. Gilbert was unconcerned about the businesses, and left managers to worry about them, as he took ship to India. He was also unconcerned about continuing the family line, as he really couldn’t be bothered with the silly young debutantes that sought his fortune. With his mother, Maude, safely locked away in an asylum since he was a child, he had no concerns in his homeland. So, he was off to lay waste to the fauna in far-away lands.
After tigers and elephants in India, he took the voyage back to Africa, arranging for the stuffed heads of his victims to be prepared, and sent back to the manor house to await his return. Africa was just the place for a type like Gilbert. If it could move, he shot it. Lion, leopard, cheetah, hippo, bull elephant, and even a crocodile. Filling in between the larger beasts, he whiled away the time with assorted antelope and gazelle, as well as warthog, wildebeest, water buffalo, and even a large baboon.
After more than a year on safari, Gilbert was running out of new things to kill. The trophies were arriving at his house, packed in crates filled with straw, and he sent written instruction to Fitzroy, the butler, as to how they should be displayed. He had decided to winter in Mombasa that year, and avoid the cold and snow of his home county. But a chance meeting with an American hunter caused him to change his plans unexpectedly.
He met Abraham W. Pike over drinks in a Nairobi hotel. Gilbert generally avoided the brash and uncouth Americans, but good manners would not permit him to decline a seat in the bar to the tall American. He guessed Pike to be close to sixty. His weathered face and unusually long white hair gave him the look of the outdoors. But a well-tailored suit, and a gentlemanly manner suggested wealth too.
“I hear tell you’re a hunting man, mind if I sit down?”. Pike was not pushy, and waited patiently for a reply. Gilbert pointed at the chair. “By all means”. They were soon chatting amicably. It transpired that Pike had arrived in Africa very recently, determined to hunt for an elephant, the biggest his guide could find for him.
Gilbert was all too ready to boast of his own kills, reeling off the list of slaughtered animals like his cook ordering meat from the local butcher. Pike nodded appreciatively, occasionally asking about which calibre of bullet was used, or what kind of rifle was preferred for each animal. The American seemed pleased with the information, going so far as to take notes on a small pad, using a tiny pencil wrapped in a silver case. Gilbert caught the eye of a passing waiter, and waving his hand over their empty glasses, indicated that a refill was required.
When the fresh drinks arrived, Abraham leaned forward in his chair. “Tell me Gilbert, have you ever hunted bear?” The Englishman scoffed. “Hunted bear? Why I have hunted black bear in many countries, and brown bear in even more. One day, I intend to travel onto the ice, and get myself a polar bear”. Abraham rubbed his chin, before replying. “But have you ever taken a grizzly?” Gilbert was a little put out. He had to admit that so far, he had never travelled to Canada or America, so was unlikely to have had the chance. The American finished his drink in one swallow, before suddenly standing, extending a hand. “I will say goodnight, and thanks for the conversation. Believe me young fella, you haven’t lived, ’til you’ve hunted for grizzly”.
Gilbert abandoned the idea of wintering in Mombasa. Instead, he arranged to take a ship back to England, to return home and make plans for a trip to America. After checking on the placement of his trophies, and arranging his photographs, he sat down to study the habitat and behaviour of the grizzly bear. He would have to wait until the spring, before making the long journey by ship and train to Montana, where he was assured he would find a good specimen. He travelled to his gunsmith in London, and ordered a .50-calibre rifle, the one most favoured by the hunters he had read about. Then he wrote to a man mentioned in a book he had read, someone who might know a guide to employ, when he arrived. The winter was long and dull, and the staff in the house learned to avoid their bad-tempered master.
The sea voyage to America was pleasant enough. Gilbert treated himself to a first-class cabin, and the company was tolerable. Even the long train trip was enjoyable, and he found the rich Americans he met to be jolly company, most interested in his travels and exploits. The journey by horseback into the mountainous region was less appealing, mainly due to the company of his guide. The sullen man had a skin resembling tanned leather, and he seemed to Gilbert to be far too old for such an occupation. After introducing himself as Trapper Hicks, he offered no real forename for familiarity. He called Gilbert Mister, and asked for his payment in advance. Even during an overnight camp, he hardly spoke, except to reply to questions, and the so-called food he served tasted of grease and slime, as far as Gilbert could tell.
Early the next morning, they tied up the horses, and walked down into a vast woodland area. Hicks had said that they needed to find the bear’s lair, as it would soon be leaving hibernation. “You wait in front, it will be an easy shot”. That’s hardly a hunt, thought Gilbert, but he complied, as he was in unfamiliar territory. After walking for an hour, Hicks touched Gilbert’s shoulder, then put a finger to his lips, indicating silence. On the other side of a small clearing, a pile of earth indicated the winter dwelling of a bear. Hicks leaned in close, whispering. “You set down here, I will go around, and cover the left”. Unwrapping the .50 calibre, Gilbert quickly loaded one of the huge bullets into the breech. He sat down on the firm ground, bracing himself by crossing one leg behind the other, looking down the long barrel until the sight was level with the entrance to the mound. Glancing to his left, he couldn’t see Hicks at all.
He could smell it before he saw it, a strong odour on the breeze from his right. Turning slowly, he watched in fascination as the huge bear bore down on him. It was moving so fast. Did bears really run that fast? Even as he swung the rifle, he knew it was too late.
The bear sat next to what was left of Gilbert. Still ravenous after that kill. Not enough fat, when you have been starving all winter. But it would give him the energy to move on that morning, hopefully find something other than sour berries, far from ripe. He licked a huge bloodied paw, and wiped the side of his head. A head that would never grace a wall in Gilbert’s manor house.