By Mac Snead
The tree carried him, its branches extending for his fingers to grip. He climbed like a child lifted onto a father’s shoulders. The only effort was grabbing hold. The rest was simply trying to be weightless. The leaves upon the bark whispered past, but the leaves upon his clothing remained silent, obedient to his secrecy. He was not a man, but a wind stirring the trees. He was nothing but nature, apart from the weapon slung over his shoulder and the lead in his pocket. Even the countless knives around his waist were made from the land. He was a god of the jungle. The god of death.
He did not climb to the top but perched in the midriff of the tree. His bare feet grasped the bark underneath him, wrapping his toes around the branch he had chosen. So steady was his roost that he was able to use his hands for other matters. He unslung the weapon from his shoulder and brought it up beneath his chin, gazing through its scope, an eagle’s eye view. All around, night was falling. The daylight was morphing into twilight, and the singers of the dark were beginning their song. The darkness was egging him on.
The pack had taken refuge in the clearing below. The grass was tall but his eagle’s eye could still see them, scanning their movements as they roamed the grounds, preparing for the night. He knew there were more of them that he could not see, but the first fire from his weapon would send them scattering, and one by one he would pick the animals off.
He marked his first kill. A large one that he pegged as the alpha. Aiming the barrel of his weapon between the beast’s shoulder blades, he fired, sending it to the ground, never to move again. The rest of the pack panicked at the first shot, as he had foreseen. They ran for the trees, bumping into each other as they went, each caring only for its own skin and plowing over the others to get to safety.
But none of them did. One by one he brought them down, aiming, firing, and moving on. Here one fell with a shriek, there one tried to break its fall with extended arms, only to be delivered a kill shot to the head. Animals like them had proven themselves difficult to track long ago, but they were always easy game to kill.
After what must have been two or three minutes, there was only one left. It had not tried to run, but remained in the middle of the clearing, frozen with fear and holding its arms up to the sky. He studied it for a moment through his eagle’s eye, considering its fate. Then he lowered his weapon and slung it over his shoulder for the climb down. He jumped most of the way past the branches, still as silent as a breeze.
When he landed softly on the ground, he quickly made his way through the trees around the clearing, coming to a spot behind the creature that still trembled in the tall grass. It had not seen him, but it would before the end.
As he crept out into the clearing the smell of blood greeted his nostrils. It swam in the air, clearing his sinuses and making him wild. The blood of these creatures cleansed him and all the land as it spilled. He never took his eyes off the prey, moving his way toward it as silent as a mouse in the grasslands.
He cocked his weapon as he came up behind the animal, standing close enough to smell the sweat in its crevasses and the urine between its legs. The beast jumped at the sound and spun around, its arms still in the air. Its eyes widened at the sight of him.
Behold, the god of death.
The creature’s mouth opened in a gasp. Please . . . don’t shoot, it said.
He heard the words, and understood them. Then another smell entered his nostrils. One he did not like. His eyes scanned the encampment. They fell onto a kind of rack, on which were hung furry skins of all different sizes. Momma skins, and baby skins . . . and others with silver backs.
He turned back to the monster that stood before him, lowering his weapon to the ground. He would oblige this beast’s request not to shoot.
Reaching to his belt, he drew one of his knives.