Nelson's Dilemma, a short story by Mark Patterson at Spillwords.com
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Nelson’s Dilemma

Nelson’s Dilemma

written by: Mark Patterson

 

“Pick up the rifle and shoot!”
Nelson’s hand shook as he slid it to his right over the sandy dirt of the Kruger park veld and the butt of the gun. The stab of pain in his shot foot blurred his vision. The terror in the man’s voice urged him on but not as much as the sight of the rhinoceros ten metres away, with its head down and feet tremoring the ground like an earthquake. Smelling the animal as it snorted, he dragged the rifle to him and picked it up. He dug the butt deep into his shoulder till it hurt and took a deep breath of the hot dry air, concentrating on what he had to do.

***

The sweet scent from the Natal Mahogany tree washed with the storm from last night, tickled Nelson Dlamini’s nostrils as he sat in the safari vehicle waiting for the clients to appear. He always parked under this tree as it was his favourite of all the trees in the Kruger Park. The mosaic-like trunk bark fascinated him and it made each tree unique. Its copious canopy gave a welcome amount of shade against the blazing African sun.
Often he would sit with his back against the tree and feel the mosaic through his thin cotton shirt. He thrilled to look up through the canopy to glimpses of blue African sky raining down on him. It was his go-to spot to remember his late wife taken before her time. They had met here at the Park, he a trainee ranger and her working in the gift shop. The romance sparked and the passion never ended. He saw her in the faces of their children whenever they came home from University. They had her smile, her gentle soft voice. A permanent memory of what he had lost.
He took a deep breath and the nearby bougainvillea swirled its mystery into his head making him dizzy.
“You wait for Wang Bau and Liu Hu?”
Nelson came out of his reverie and turned his head to where the question came from. Two men were standing next to the vehicle staring at him through glasses. Nelson was always curious why Chinese people seemed to have poor eyesight. One of the men was he estimated in his fifties, well dressed in tan trousers with a crisp crease and a collared check shirt with a crocodile logo. The top two buttons were undone and the white sun-lacking flesh peeked through. His brown shoes were polished to mirror shine. The other was in his twenties. Well-built expensive denim with a plain blue t-shirt sporting a large swoosh logo that showed off his muscular structure. He reminded Nelson of his son. What would he be doing today?
Each carried a large blue sports bag which seemed to Nelson incongruous to take on a game drive but they were the clients. Canon cameras with ridiculous zoom lenses and Swarovski binoculars draped around their necks perfected what Nelson suspected they viewed as what to wear when in the Kruger Park. Nelson climbed down extending his hand and a large welcoming smile.
“Good morning. I am Nelson Dlamini and I am your guide today. Welcome to Kruger and the Crocodile Bridge camp. Which of you is Mr. Wang?”
“That would be me and please call me Bau,” said the smart-dressed man that had addressed Nelson earlier. He took Nelson’s hand and squeezed it gently, a glimmer of a smile on his face.
Nelson turned to the younger man. “You must be Mr. Liu. May I call you Hu? You remind me of my son, you look the same age.”
Hu shook hands without smiling and started to heave the bag onto the vehicle.
“Can I help you with the bags?” Nelson put out his hands to take the bags.
“Thank you but we can manage them.” Bau handed his bag to Hu who lifted them one after the other into the vehicle. To Nelson, they appeared very heavy.
“We sit behind you?” asked Bau. The safari vehicle was capable of carrying 10 passengers and Nelson preferred them closer to him so he didn’t have to talk as loud as when they were at the back.
“Yes that would be preferable,” said Nelson holding the door open, “Please climb in.”
The Chinese climbed in settling into the seats while Nelson went round the front of the vehicle to the driver’s door.
He turned in his seat to talk to them and pointed out on a map where he was going.
“We will take the road towards Lower Sabi and then on to this dirt road. It is only open to guided tours and we are the only one today. We will be stopping to walk at a couple of locations. When we get out I will be armed with a rifle.” He gestured to the roof over the driver where a rifle was secured in a canvas case.
“When we walk I must ask you not to stray from the path. We will not be walking if there are any dangerous animals around. That includes lions, leopards, cheetahs.”
“Rhinos? They dangerous?” asks Bau. A glimpse of white teeth appears between his thin lips.
“They can be very dangerous,” said Nelson returning the smile, “especially if they have calves with them. Very protective they are. By the way, there are cool drinks and water in the cooler box at the back. It is going to be hot today and when we walk it is important to be hydrated. Please help yourselves. Shall we go?”
“Yes, let’s go. You go find rhino for us please,” said Bau.
“Yes, rhino,” echoed Hu.
Why rhino went through Nelson’s mind as he started the engine and they moved out of the camp towards Lower Sabie. There were so many other animals as impressive as the rhino, normally it was a lion or leopard that they asked for. The sun was rising fast and he knew that the animals would be seeking shelter from the heat. He took the dirt road and went about three hundred metres to a crop of thorn trees. There had been lions there a day or so ago but now there were a few bones. He stopped the vehicle.
“We had lions there a few days ago. Killed an impala,” he pointed to the ground with his right hand, “all that remains now is a few bones and the vultures have picked them clean. You can see one of them at the top of the tree on your left. We call them the cleaners of the park.” His clients glanced to the side and then faced the front again.
“We go find rhino now?” said Bau.
“We can try,” said Nelson, eased out the clutch so the vehicle inched forward, “not always easy to find though.” Nelson scanned left and right as he drove.
He drove for another few minutes passing elephant and buffalo without his passengers asking him to stop or take photographs. Not the usual sort of visitors Nelson thought to himself. He pulled over under a large acacia and stopped the engine and turned towards his clients.
“Why do we stop? You see Rhino?” said Bau with his lips clamped together. Not even a hint of a smile and Nelson sensed Bau’s irritation increasing.
“No, this is where we start our first walk. Behind that clump of bushes is a small watering hole. We get a lot of animals including giraffes, impala, and buffalo. It is perfect for you to take some great pictures of the animals, including one of the big five. Your cameras will get some great pictures from there” Nelson turned to open his door.
It was not the first time in his life that he had a gun pressed to his skull. He stopped and lifted his hands up.
“P-please tell me what it is you want?” He stuttered.
“We want you to find a rhino. Do rhino come here?”
“Not usually but they may.”
“Then we go on. We want rhino. Drive!” shouted Bau whipping Nelson on the back of the head with his gun. Nelson felt blood oozing from his head as he started the engine and selected first gear, his mind racing to find a solution to get out of this situation. He was kilometers away from the camp and there was nobody else on this road today. He could start to navigate across the veld back to the camp but this area was not flat and there were warthog burrows around. Going across the veld would not work. He wasn’t in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
He knew this part of the park like the back of his hand. He could take a shortcut a kilometre ahead but what would they do when they saw the buildings of the camp? Going back was not an option. He thought it better to find a way to overpower them but it was two armed men against one unarmed. Not great odds. His best option was to use his park and animal knowledge to his advantage. This was his environment, not theirs. Finding a rhino would reveal more of their plans to him although he suspected that they wanted to get rhino horn. Once they had that Nelson felt that they would not have much use for him. They could use a GPS on their phones to navigate out of the park.
He rounded a turn in the road and the tributary to the Sabie river came into view. Nelson stropped on the bridge and looked at the dry river bed.
“Why you stop?” Bau barked at him.
“I am looking for spoor, animal tracks to see what has crossed here recently. I can see buffalo, elephants, and rhino. Fresh tracks we are in luck.”
He let out the clutch and crossed the river going up the rise at a quick pace. There was thick bush on his right, the grass flattened by the animals that had gone through. A few impalas grazed in the shade and fifty metres beyond, a family of rhinos. He stopped again.
“There, on the right, do you see them? Behind the impala, there are three rhinos. Two adults and one baby. Do you see them?”
Bau and Hu lifted their binoculars for the first time looking in the direction indicated by Nelson. A smile went across Bau’s face. This was what he was here for.
“You drive closer. Yes?”
“I can but we will need to be careful. They are downwind of us and may move away if they smell us.”
The gun pressed against his skull again.
“You go closer.”
Nelson inched forward and he heard the zip of the bags. In the wing mirror, he saw Hu take out a chainsaw. His worst fears knotted his stomach tighter than the worst case of diarrhea. He had to think of a way out. The vehicle was now a hundred metres away from the rhinos and the male lifted his head from the grass he had been chewing. Nelson cut the engine and they drifted to a standstill.
“You take down your rifle and you shoot the rhino, the male and the female not the young one. You know the best place to shoot.”
“I can’t kill them. The rifle is only in case of emergency and…”
Bau aimed his revolver at Nelson’s right foot and pulled the trigger. Nelson doubled over in pain. Through the windscreen, he saw both adult rhinos were looking in their direction, startled by the gunshot.
“You get out now,” Bau said, striking Nelson on the back of the head, ”get out and shoot them.”
Nelson eased the door open, lowering his injured foot to the ground. Blood oozed through his shoe. He grabbed the rifle from the roof before placing his good foot on the ground. Hu was already out of the vehicle, a gun pointed at Nelson in one hand and the chain-saw in the other. Bau came round the back of the vehicle and stood behind Nelson.
“Shoot them.” Nelson could hear a nervous tone in Bau’s voice. The rhinos were coming closer. Nelson took a pace forward but collapsed to his knees with the pain shooting through his right leg and dropped the rifle.
“Pick up the rifle and shoot!”
Nelson’s hand shook as he slid it to his right over the sandy dirt of the Kruger park veld and the butt of the gun. The stab of pain in his shot foot blurred his vision. The terror in the man’s voice urged him on but not as much as the sight of the rhinoceros ten metres away, with its head down and feet tremoring the ground like an earthquake. Smelling the animal as it snorted, he dragged the rifle to him and picked it up. He dug the butt deep into his shoulder till it hurt and took a deep breath of the hot dry air, concentrating on what he had to do.

“Shoot! Shoot now!” screamed both Bau and Hu. Nelson took a deep breath and held it. The rhino was now five metres away. Nelson dived forward with the rifle in front of him and rolled under the vehicle. The clients didn’t stand a chance. The rhino knocked both of them to the ground at the same time. Nelson saw them covering their face with their hands as both rhinos trampled on them. It was over in seconds. As the dust settled, Nelson could see both bodies in the dirt. The rhinos had moved away, safe in their minds they had eliminated the threat. Nelson rolled out from under the vehicle and dragged his body over to where Bau lay. He looked at the crushed skull before touching the neck to check for a pulse. Nothing. He dragged his way to Hu, his rib cage had burst open under the impact and his organs exposed.
The pain in his right foot reminded him of his injury. He hobbled back to the vehicle and grabbed the first aid kit. He discarded his ruined shoe into the passenger seat footwell and cleaned the wound as best he could. The bullet was still embedded in his foot near the sole. Now he would be able to drive. He closed the door and started the vehicle.

***

Nelson sat on the smooth, cold concrete floor, the bricks of the prison cell pressing into his back. The feel of the bricks reminded him of the mahogany tree. The air in the cell was fetid with sweat, boredom and fear. He looked at his naked feet. The scar from the wound looked back at him like an evil red-eye and Nelson smiled.
He tilted his head to rest against the wall and closed his eyes, replaying the judge’s comments in his mind.
“Some will feel this to be a harsh finding as evidenced by the support you have had in the court from the animal activists, but there is no doubt in my mind that you had an opportunity to prevent the deaths of your clients and hence you are guilty of the charge of involuntary manslaughter. In imposing this sentence I have taken into account your background and love of the wildlife of our country. I therefore impose the minimum sentence of six months in jail.”
Nelson opened his eyes and looked at the hint of blue sky through the high steel barred window. Not a view of the Kruger sky but it would suffice for the next few months.

Mark Patterson

Mark Patterson

Mark Patterson completed his education in South Africa after emigrating there in 1970 with his parents. He lived through some of the darkest and yet most interesting times of the past fifty years.
Mark Patterson

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