By Stalbon

A fly buzzed its way past James Harrison's face, obscuring his vision for a moment; he did not move to swat it away. It moved on to the man at his right, a hand came up and slapped at it, disturbing the tall plains grass.

Harrison silently cursed the man's stupidity, but then he was a tourist. They did not seem to understand Africa; on the Savannah a predator withheld from all unnecessary motion. As a hunter, he considered himself among the best of the continent's predators.

“Keep your hand down and on the gun, your eye on the sight,” he said in a whisper that barely passed his lips. “Try not to shift around, lay yourself down flat.”

The tourist, who had said his name was Jones, grunted and set his hand back on the rifle, eyeing over at Harrison. “Why are we going after zebra? Why not a rhino or a lion? I'd like to bag a lion, make a nice story.”

Harrison never took his eye from the rifle sight, the nearly invisible crosshairs focused on the head of a big buck. “We are going after zebra,” he said in that same whisper, “because you are not ready for what you want to bag. Now be quiet and focus on the animal.”

The tourist widened the stance of his elbows with an indignant sniff and thankfully did as he was told. The American had told Harrison that he went to the ranges on weekends and knew how to handle a rifle, but shooting at a bullseye in a roofed enclosure and being out in the sun and grass, staring down at a living, breathing creature were two different things.

His grip was tight, shoulder pressed against the rifle butt, and his hand never wavered, but he fancied Jones' fingers shaking and slipping down the stock, the American pressing his shoulder too tight to the rifle butt, risking injury.

He spoke slowly and lowly, as if to himself, but he made sure his companion could hear him. “Calm down, relax. Shoulder to the curve of the butt, chin to the side of it.”

Harrison slid his index finger against the trigger while shifting the barrel as the zebra moved, focusing up on the liquid pool of black that was the eye. “Keep your forearm steady and aim at the eye. Lead it a bit and compensate for wind and distance. Steady it, steady…….now!”

The double crack of the rifles sent birds flying up from the concealing grasses and echoed across the plains. Harrison's buck was already down, the bullet having gone straight through the orbit and piercing the brain.

Jones' buck, however, was screaming and kicking up a storm. The bullet had hit behind the eye and was now lodged in the skull, blood pouring from the wound, drenching the striped head and neck with crimson fluid.

While the American stared at the spectacle in stupefied awe, Harrison had already leapt to his feet and was digging his pistol from the belt holster. “Fuck! You missed!”

The rest of the herd was already kicking up dust as they wheeled and fled, their strange vocal cries fading into the distance. The wounded male had finally fallen over, but was now writhing and kicking in the blood-stained grass as Harrison came up.

Keeping well away from the sharp hooves and the frothing mouth, he took aim with his pistol and put a round through the eye, ending the dying beast's suffering. By now, Jones had come up with his rifle, huffing and puffing and staring at the oozing carcass with disgust and awe, covering his nose at the sharp odor.

Harrison hefted his rifle onto his shoulder and spat, wrinkling his nose in distaste. “Well, this is a fine fucking mess. Your trophy's worthless now.” Sucking on his teeth at the sorry sight, he turned to wave the locals over, three African men he'd been working with for several years now. The heavy engine in the oversized pickup turned over as Jones tried to resist vomiting over at the side.

“It wasn't my fault! It must have been the damn wind or something. Maybe it moved and that made…look, it wasn't my fault. Besides, can't we still…make something of it?” With one hand still hovering over his nose and mouth, he waved the other at the fly-gathering carcass.

As the pickup slowed to a stop several feet from the two men, Harrison strode over to the back and put his rifle in, two of the blacks hopping out with machetes and heading over to the fallen bucks at his direction. He gathered up a large tarpaulin and a large bottle of water, taking a drink from it before leaning down to splash it over his buck's head while the men began to cut and carve at its neck.

“Nope, it's gone to shit. It's our job to make sure a taxidermist gets a clean head to mount, and I'm not spending an hour cleaning off all that blood just so I can hand in a half-assed trophy that no one would want on their wall. You'll have to be satisfied with mine, if you want anything for your trip.”

The American was already heading back to the pickup's bed to rummage about in his pack and take out a bottle of water for himself, guzzling it in a manner that wasn't smart for the hot plains. “Well, I guess if we still get one out of this deal, it isn't so bad. But I tell you, it wasn't my fault. Something else went wrong.”

Harrison grunted an acknowledgement and kept splashing water on the zebra's head. His assistants managed to sever the thing from the rest of the body, the three quickly hefting it up and tilting the bloody stump of its neck down to let all the fluids drain out before wrapping it up in the tarpaulin. In his opinion, it had been the American's fault. He had probably not led the buck as he had instructed, or had slipped his hand on the stock, but no matter what the outcome, his customers never blamed themselves. They were the paying customers here, and if something went wrong, it was always an accident of nature or a faulty gun, not their own inexperience.

He and his men loaded the misshapen lump in the pickup's bed, swiftly climbing up onto the railings and each having another drink of water. Harrison thumped the top of the cab and the engine turned over again, the heavy vehicle picking up speed and rolling away from the kill site towards the road they'd headed in on, the hunter's eyes already picking up on some vultures circling down towards the carcasses.

“Look, it's nearing noon and I'd like to get back before we bake out here. It's no good to stay out much longer, since most of the animals will be seeking what shade there is.”

Jones nodded absently, but it was clear the tourist's mind was elsewhere, his eyes averted from the lump between the four men and scanning across the plains, focusing on a single large tree and growing excited. Harrison followed his gaze towards the spot, making out a flat rock beneath the encompassing branches, a lioness perched atop it with several other females sprawled around her.

“You know,” Jones piped up, “bagging a lion would really make up for the loss of our other zebra…”

Harrison quickly shook his head at the idea. “No way. I told you you're not going to be able to get a lion. They're not like the herds. They won't scatter so you can go pick up your head.”

Jones looked determined, however, his head and shoulders hunched over as the jeep bounced along the dirt road. “Fine then, you go out and get one. I'll pay you double for it so long as you and your buddies say I was the one who brought it down.”

Harrison mulled that one over, looking to his two companions. They rolled their eyes up to indicate the time and the growing heat that already made their dark skin slick with sweat, but he was an enterprising man. “All right then. We bag one and you get the credit.” He sat up and thumped on the top of the cab again, the truck slowing to a crawl before it ceased moving, dust blowing up from the road.

Harrison hopped back off the railing, gathering up his rifle and making sure it was fully loaded before slinging it over his shoulder and nodding to his assistants. He then turned to Jones. “You stay here, and I'll bring you back your trophy. Don't move from the truck.”

The heavier tourist looked crestfallen, but made no move to get up. With a heavy sigh, Harrison started off, making his way along through the shorter grass slowly, wetting his lips as he looked around for a small hill or mound he might lay his rifle against. It wouldn't be good to be caught flat on his stomach in the grass with lions about.

From what he could see, there were four females lounging about the flat rock, one atop it and the other three surrounding it. Prowling around the edges of the tree was a sub-adult male, its mane rather scraggly and not yet covering its back and chest as a full adult's would. Likely this was a male from another pride attempting to gain entrance into this one. Given its distracted pacing, it would be the best target.

Harrison spent nearly a minute searching the nearby area for a place he thought would be best to shoot from, every so often the male's guttural roars making him look to the pride. So far, only a couple of the females were paying attention to him, and the others seemed utterly disinterested.

Finally, he found a small mound rising about eight or ten inches up off the level ground and settled himself down behind it, laying his upper body on the curve and planting his elbows on the top. Here he was still in plain sight, but it was better than taking the risk of not seeing all of the big cats.

By the time he had set his rifle down along the top of the mound, one shoulder now forward with the other braced to the butt, and looked through the high-powered scope once more, the male's guttural roars had ceased and the local air had a heavy silence to it. Harrison made sure to look without the scope to the shaded outcropping of rock, and was surprised to see the female that had been atop it was now gone.

Tensing up, the hunter began quickly scanning the surrounding grassland, but with the tall stalks of yellowed grass blowing and whispering in the slight wind, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to pick out a crouched lion within them. His index finger clenched over the trigger as he thought through his options, elbows digging into the hard earth in case he needed to push up.

It would be best to simply cancel this off-schedule shooting and head back, but then he'd have to hear the American berate him about missing out on an opportunity, being chicken, what have you. He slowed his breathing, which had grown a bit panicky, and lowered his head back to rest against the scope. No, it would be best to make it quick with the male and hope the crack of the gun scared the lioness enough.

He calmed himself, getting his breathing back to regular while slowly swinging the scope to the outcropping, scanning for the male. It took a moment, but he found the shaggy-maned feline, just before the tree looming over the spot. It no longer paced eagerly about the remaining females, and instead of looking to them, it now looked…at him!

Harrison blinked, trying to ascertain if the lion was indeed looking his way, or if it was merely swinging its head about, but no, it was gazing directly at him, calmly and coolly, the very picture of the majestic predator. It unnerved the hunter to see his prey staring back at him so defiantly, and he let out a sigh of relief as the head slid off to his right, stopping at a point where he could easily target its tawny eye.

His fingers gripped the stock of his gun tightly while he curled his index finger about the trigger, slowly pulling on it as he drew the crosshairs over his target…and then stopped. There was still something about the male, about how it stared off to the side in the same way it had stared at him. Harrison swallowed thickly in the blazing noon heat and took his eye from the scope, turning his own head to the side just in time to hear a low growl rip through the air.

As he saw the tawny flash of muscle and fur flying through the grass, he knew it would be too late to do anything, to even scream…yet the lion was not pouncing towards him, but instead running full-out to the truck! He pushed off with his elbows and got to his knees, holding his rifle across his belly as he stood shakily and shouted to his assistants, “Hey, lion! Lion! Shoot it, shoot!”

He swiveled on one booted foot and began running as hard as he could, tilting, bending over until he finally got himself up right, seeing as he did that the American was out of the truck and on the ground, looking in terror at the lioness speeding towards him. The stupid asshole had disobeyed him and now he was probably going to get killed and he watched as his men lifted their rifles, the feline's huge body leaping forward as the heavyset tourist turned to run and then there was a roar and a scream and a crash to the ground, dust lifting up as he shouted, “Wait, wait! Don't shoot her if she's got him!”

His men had their rifles trained, and as Harrison ran up he could see the lioness's great, powerful body atop Jones's squirming, screaming one, paws half the size of his head latched onto his side, bright, terrible eyes slitted, saliva flying as the jaws gaped. She'll go for his throat, she'll go for his throat… He lifted up his rifle and trained it down on the feline's skull, ready to fire…and then he couldn't, because she wasn't going for his throat.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw his three men, one still in the cab, looking on as well, Harrison's mind blanking at the sight of the lioness looming over the screaming, pleading man, its jaws gaped so wide he could see her entire gum line amidst those shining, terrible fangs. The feline ducked her head, and Jones stopped moving, for those fangs now scraped dangerously close atop the flesh over his skull, and Harrison couldn't believe it, but she was actually trying to swallow the man's head.

He could see the sweat from the tourist's brow mingling with thick saliva that ran down from the lion's stretched black lips, her jaws gaping in a manner akin to a serpent's, that heavy body still pinned over Jones's own. Harrison swallowed as he watched those stretching jaws slide down over the man's quivering cheeks and chin, the one eye he could see gazing frantically about for an escape.

“D-don't shoot…we can't…”

But he couldn't finish it. He dared not speak during this spectacle, as if some instinct held him back. Clearly, instinct held the American from moving as well, but even so blood still dribbled down the back of his neck as those great canines dragged along his flesh, the man letting out a whimper that grew muffled as the lion's cheeks bulged out and it forced its jaws down even further, until, impossibly, the man's entire head slid within stretched, black lips.

Harrison risked a glance to his men, but they were ignoring their rifles now, the weapons held loosely at their knees as they gaped in awe, and he quickly looked back as the lioness's claws came out and slid across the man's arm, eliciting another muffled cry from him, though the hunter shuddered to think what it was like in there, even as he watched rippling muscles in that thick, powerful neck drag the spheroid bulge of the head from those puffed out cheeks down into the cylinder of its throat.

He had seen snakes feed, taking prey larger than their heads, but it seemed so unreal to watch as the lioness scraped her fangs down against the man's nape and then stretched one side of her jaws over a shoulder, the cloth covering it ripping as the teeth shredded through it, and then repeated the motion on the other side, her cheeks now bulging ridiculously with the man's upper chest.

He ignored the sweat sliding down his face and over the bridge of his nose as another rippling motion of muscle, a swallow he could actually hear in the dead heat, pulled the squirming man inside deeper. Now the lioness's neck bulged further as the shoulders began forcing down inside, and it only pressed its head down further along Jones's body, the paws that gripped and clawed at his waist somehow helping to feed him in.

Harrison could hear no sound from the American now, and once more he shuddered at the thought of the man disappearing, whole, like this right before his eyes. He could not take his gaze away, however, even as the feline, her jaws now stretched tremendously, lips a thin black line running around the man's body, dragged him in with another thick, deep swallow. Now the man's thick chest lay bulging out the bottom of her jaw, with all the gear he had been wearing pressing out her fur and skin even tighter. Yet still the lioness continued on, swallowing thickly, Jones's kicking feet and sweaty, grasping hands dragged out from her swollen chest, his own torso continuing to gradually vanish slickly into her maw.

By now, the American's heavy waist hung from the lion's jaws, and it finally let out a low growl, starting the hunter into dropping his rifle. He blinked several times and then looked down along those swollen jaws and barrel-like neck to its torso and belly, both now beginning to fill out as, and he tried once again not to think of it, the man headed towards that place.

The big feline had paused for a moment at the tourist's waist, seemingly daunted in her meal by the thickness of the flesh and gear there, but Harrison watched as she simply stretched her neck out straight, clearly defining the bulges within it, and another rippling swallow let her continue. Her fangs sunk into the soft flesh around his thighs and rump, and he heard a muffled cry from deep within the lioness's belly, but that was all.

The lioness lifted her head some now, the man's legs dangling weakly from her jaws as she once more began to stretch out her jaws and neck to engulf them, the pant legs pressing to skin in the heat, the man's booted feet wriggling softly, but to no avail. Harrison knew this was over, but he wanted to watch it, to feel a sense of finality. The lioness's muscular neck continued to ripple as she swallowed, and her belly, which had filled out as he had sometimes seen when they were gorged, now began to droop and sag even further, the squirming mass within making him look away.

He met her eyes now, and he once more started as he realized she was looking at him, only Jones's lower legs wriggling from her jaws now, slowly drawing within as some internal muscles worked to pack away her meal. Her eyes were cold, but not cruel. It was as if he stood staring at some primeval judge who had passed sentence. They told nothing of kindness, of mercy, but there was no malice, either. This man was no hunter, they said. This man was weak, food, and we both know it.

He continued to stare at those eyes, losing his fear to find it replaced with a calm sense of reality once more, even as the lioness tilted her head up and gaped her jaws wide again, snapping her fangs forward to bite into the tourist's boots hard, and then snapping her jaws once more to finish him, that final clack of teeth meeting teeth spelling the man's doom.

It was over now, and all who stood there, man or beast, knew it. Harrison's men slowly started to lift their rifles again, but he thrust his open palm into the air, halting them. He stared at the lioness now, watching as her belly slowly filled with the last of the man, her squirming gut now stretched far past her sides and drooping so low it scraped the ground. Hunter and huntress stared at one another, eyes locked in some sort of understanding, even as the silence was broken with the wet slop of her tongue licking over her chops, and her lips parting with a heavy, echoing belch.

“Don't even bother, anymore. He's dead.”

It was not hard to say those words, harsh as they were. His hand dropped once more to the side, and the bloated lioness before him appraised him with a look that seemed to approve before she started padding off, her gait slow and awkward with the tremendous stomach hanging underneath her.

Harrison watched coolly as she padded back off to her pride, they accepting her back with low moaning roars and the male giving her a wide berth, for the time being. Then, as if he had been given permission to breathe again, Harrison let out a low sigh and stooped to pick up his rifle, finding his body quivering with some unknown emotion. He walked stiffly back to the back of the truck, and with the help of his men, climbed back in and fell back against the side, rifled resting between his legs.

“What do we tell the others, boss?” asked one of his men. “No one going to believe us if we tell the truth.”

The hunter sighed and shook his head, slowly reaching over to thump the cab's top weakly, feeling the vibration of the engine starting once more, and looking on at the lioness in the distance as she sprawled out to digest her meal, no doubt. “We'll tell them he was killed hunting lions. Close enough, really. Men get killed on safari all the time.”

His men made no objections, and he didn't feel like talking much anyway. As he bounced along with the truck, looking up to the hot sun, he felt tired, drained.

“Strangest damn thing I ever saw.”

The End