We took one bow, many arrows, two daggers, two hatchets, a gourd tied to my hip with a piece of the cloth inside, and set out before first light.
“Are we finding the boy or killing him?” I said to the Leopard.
“He’s seven days ahead. These are if someone finds him first,” he said behind me, trusting my nose, even though I did not. The boy’s smell was too strong in one spot, too weak in the other, even if his path was set right before me. Two nights later his trail was still ahead of us.
“Why didn’t he go north, back to the village? Why go west?” I asked.
I stopped and the Leopard walked past me, turned south, and stopped after ten paces. He stooped down to sniff the grass.
“Who said he was from your village?” he asked.
“He did not go south, if you’re trying to pick up the boy.”
“He’s your charge, not mine, Tracker. I was sniffing out dinner.”
Before I said more, he was on all paws and gone into the thicket. This was a dry area, trees skinny as stalks, as if starving for rain. The ground red and tough with cracked mud. Most of the trees had no leaves, and branches sprouted branches that sprouted branches so thin I thought they were thorns. It looked like water had made an enemy of this place, but a water hole was giving off scent not far away. Near enough that I heard the splash, the snarl, and a hundred hooves stampeding away.
Leopard got to me before I got to the river, still on four paws, a dead antelope in his mouth. That night he watched in disgust as I cooked my portion. He was back on two legs but eating the antelope leg raw, ripping away the skin with his teeth, sinking into the flesh and licking the blood off his lips. I wanted to enjoy flesh the way he enjoyed flesh. My burned and black leg disgusted me as well. He gave me a look that said he could never understand why any animal in these lands would eat prey by burning it first. He had no nose for spices and I had none to put on the meat. A part of the antelope was not cooked and I ate it, chewed it slow, wondering if this was what he ate when he ate flesh, warm and easy to pull apart, and if the feeling of iron spilled in your mouth was a good one. I would never like it. His face was lost in that leg.
“The trees are different,” I said.
“Different kind of forest. The trees are selfish here. They share nothing under the earth; their roots send nothing to other roots, no food, no news. They will not live together, so unless rain comes they will die together. The boy?”
“His scent is north. It grows neither strong nor weak.”
“Not moving. Asleep?”
“Mayhaps. But if he stays, we find him tomorrow.”
“Sooner than I thought. This could be your life if you wish it.”
“You wish to go on when we find him?”
He threw down the bone and looked at me. “What else did Asani tell you before he tried to drown you?” he said.
“You will send me back with the boy, but will not return.”
“I said I might not return, not will not.”
“Which is it?”
“That depends on what I find. Or what finds me. What is it to you?”
“Nothing, nothing at all.”
Leopard grinned, stood up, and came over beside me. The fire threw harsh lines on his face and lit up his eyes. “Why do you go back to the village?”
“My family is there,” I said.
“You have no one there. Asani told me all that awaits you is a vendetta.”
“That is still something, is it not?”
He looked to the fire. His mouth goes sick from the sight of cooking, but he made the fire. From the gourd I pulled the piece of cloth carrying the boy’s scent. These were not trees he could sleep in, even if he preferred to sleep off the ground.
“Come with me,” Leopard said.
“No. I mean come with me after this. After we find the boy. She has no interest in him; she wants her foul bladder to place in her foul hair. We find him, scare him, send him back. We go west.”
“Is Asani lord over anyone here?”
“Something came to pass between you two.”
“Nothing came to pass. That is the stick between us. He passes you in years, but in every other way he is the man younger. Gambles with lives and kills for sport. The disgusting features of your form.”
I knew he was looking at me. I was staring into the flames but could feel him turn his head. The night wind was sending a fragrance I did not know. Ripeness from fruit, maybe, but nothing was fruitful in this bush. This made me remember something.
“What happened to them who were following us?” I asked.
“The night we came to the Sangoma. The little woman said somebody was following us.”
“She is always fearing something or someone is after her.”
“You believed it too.”
“I don’t believe in fear, but I believe in her belief. Besides, there are at least ten and six enchantments to throw off hunters and wanderers.”
“No, those are always real,” he said with a wicked smile.
He reached over and grabbed my shoulder.
“Go be with pleasant dreams. Tomorrow we find the boy.”
From “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” by Marlon James. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Marlon James.