He'd been walking for several days now. The heat had been like a weighted blanket, surrounding and suffocating. The waves rising up from ground added to feeling of being completely enveloped. The mountains in the distance never seemed to get any closer. They just hung there, like a bad ornament on a tree. The parched ground was cracked and hard. It was irregular and difficult to walk on. Occasionally a tumbleweed of sorts would roll languidly by, and the few trees looked more like skeletons than anything that once could be green.
Times had been hard in this part of the continent. The months of drought and oppressive heat had been unrelenting. Worse, there did not seem to be any end in sight. The bleached remains of many animals were scattered over the landscape and even the cactuses seemed to be struggling for life. It was a hard land to begin with, but this year it was plain unforgiving. It would not tolerate the weak and even the strong would be hard pressed to survive. Carelessness would be harshly treated, death an almost certainty.
Midday was fast approaching and he knew he would have to rest and seek what shelter there may be. Travel during these hours was impossible and sure invitation to disaster. The few clothes that hung like rags on his body offered little protection against the baking sun. Fortunately, the nights while cool, did not challenge his few remaining belongings. With luck a sleeping snake hidden in a crevice might make for the days meal. Not much for sure, but the best the tortured earth would offer him. Even the animals crawling on their bellies were paying a high price.
An outcropping of rock atop a small knoll would be home for the remainder of the day. There was even some condensation on some of the stones further back. The gods were good to him today. He collapsed on the hard ground with his back against the cooler sides. It was getting harder to move lately. He knew that his time was getting short and that the mountains in the distance would have to be reached soon. He tried to remember a different time, but the memories eluded him. He was sure that there once was something pleasant. But now, it was only exhaustion, and heat, unrelenting heat that drove not only moisture from his body, but those memories as well.
He was surprised when he awoke. It was much later than he would normally rest. This worried him. One more sign of the toll on his body and that his time was growing short. The stiffness and ache in his body just added to this feeling of urgency. It was taking longer to move and react. He began to ponder just how much time there was actually left. Slowly, he pulled himself up and out into the moonlight. It was huge tonight. As bright and full as a small sun. It cast an eerie and uncharacteristic glow across the space in front of him. He wondered if his thirst and weariness was now affecting his vision as well. Everything seemed to take on an almost surreal air. Almost like one of the picture books from his youth.
At first he wasn't sure what he had seen, just some movement in the distance to his right. Almost imperceptible at first but then it began to move ever so slightly and seemed to grow in size. The moonlight didn't seem to help, but rather add to his confusion. But then suddenly he realized it was a herd of some sort. He could almost feel the undulating movement of the animals as they moved slowly forward. It was still night but the moon made making out their shapes relatively easy. He watched them intently for their fluid motions seemed to captivate him. He hadn't seen much life over the course of his journey and certainly the brutal weather did not do much either. The size of the herd itself was surprising , the fact that it had survived this long was even more mystifying.
Slowly the inky night sky began to give way to the cobalt blue of the day. He became slowly aware that he had now been watching the herd for several hours. The very communal nature and their unified movements had seemed to hypnotize him. He wondered how these animals had been able to survive while so many others had succumbed. They didn't appear to have any specific leader yet moved in a manner that appeared long practiced and well accepted. The manner in which the herd moved was also curious. All the animals were organized in concentric circles almost as if in some form of defensive posture. Very unusual and something he couldn't ever remember hearing of. Was this the secret to their longevity?
As the sun crept higher he could now see that the animals were hinterbeests. Distant cousins to the much more known and abundant wildebeest. Though roughly the same stature and size of a wildebeast, they sported two short but razor sharp horns on the top of their heads. Many a would be predator had been eviscerated by those pointed horns. He had seen them before, once in a zoo and perhaps a few times in the wild, but never in a number as large as this. It was surprising to see them work so collectively, he imagined them much more singular in their behavior. Their movements at times were almost ballet like. Smooth, graceful and always almost as one. Their muscles rippled easily under the short hair. He wondered if others had seen this before.
The hours began to slip by and he found himself dozing, soon the sun would make further travel impossible. He knew he should be moving, yet, he did not find this disturbing. Watching the herd in it's imperceptible dance was vaguely comforting. He had seen so much suffering over the past months that this was almost a salve for his soul. It was hard to believe that this was some random behavior. It was then that he realized that the one hinterbeast in the middle seemed some how favored. Though this animal did not seem in charge it suddenly became clear that somehow it had a special role. The circles now even seemed to revolve around it.
Now he had even more to ponder. Perhaps this was just one more sign of the toll this journey was taking on his body and mind. It was evident that the hinterbeest in the center was receiving special treatment but he couldn't seem to figure out why. It wasn't a leader as it seemed more guided along than anything else. And the creature didn't seem to be any sort of battle proven warrior. Moreover it appeared quite willing if not pleased with the role of merely being pushed about. Curious behavior for sure, he couldn't recall ever having read of or seen this before. Then he saw it. He knew why the beest in the middle was being treated in this way. It was wounded, it was limping.
This moved him. In the face of such hardship and misery, the herd was tending to the weakest. He found this almost refreshing. The land and its inhabitants had been severely tested of late and yet there was still room for some compassion. Even the heat that was now getting stronger seemed to not be as oppressive. The hinterbeest seemed quite comfortable in its protected role. It easily followed the movement of the herd and seemed quite practiced doing so. This interesting ballet now became all the more poignant.
The herd was truly well rehearsed in their activity. Grazing on what little vegetation existed their movements were as fluid as they were consistent. He found his thoughts again drifting as he watched the herd almost as if being hypnotized. This was a rhythm well understood and well drilled. Each knew its part, particularly the hinterbeest in the middle. Here was order in a world that had known little for quite some time.
A ripple suddenly moved through the herd. The hinterbeasts tensed and piqued their ears and noses. It seemed as if some current had run through all of the animals. It was evident that some thing was happening but he couldn't tell exactly what. No doubt the herd was very alert and their awareness seemed heightened. Some flicked their short tails nervously and he could hear a low snorting sound coming from some. Oddly the hinterbeest in the middle did not seem concerned. Clearly now it was not the leader, but it's lack of concern seemed strange. He imagined that it must feel particularly safe tucked in the middle of such a well disciplined group. Then the herd began to move.
He then saw what had made the herd react. It was now no surprise to him that tension had spread through the herd like a cold wind. The reaction was one well know to all in the animal kingdom, a predator had been detected. Off in the distance was the subject of their fear. A large, old and heavily scarred lion crested a small ridge and was heading slowly toward his location. This cat had certainly been around for awhile as demonstrated by his poorly healed wounds. He was also huge. This was a predator not unused to fighting hard for what it wanted. It also looked ravenous.
He was now actually curious to see how the herd would react. Their horns though short were well known for their almost surgical ability to cut. And there were many of them, fighting together would certainly make even the most violent foe cautious. Hinterbeests were well known to leave little but a the bleeding carcass of an enemy behind. He was also interested to see how the herd would protect the injured one in the center. Clearly, they had gone to great lengths to shelter it just in their daily existence. Threatened by such a predator must cause them to be even more defensive. He had no doubt that this would not be an easy meal for the stalking menace in the distance.
The lion approached and the herd began to move. Almost as one the concentric circles began a hurried walk. There was gnarly terrain and hardscrabble a few hundred meters away. Perhaps that is where they wanted to draw the lion. Feint him to ground where the herd would have the advantage with their footing and speed on difficult earth. They eased into a trot and closed the distance to the anticipated protection. The lion reacted to the pace and now began a quick lope. He anticipated their direction and began to move to intercept their course. The herd sensed this and now started to race. In seconds the lion bolted and was ready to tear into the outermost circle.
But what began to happen caused a slow trickle of sweat to run down his back. The herd did not turn to fight. It did not assume some sort of defensive posture. It did not even begin to change direction. The herd did nothing at all that might be expected when threatened by such a beast. The circle began to open and incredibly laid bare a path right to the injured beast in the middle. There was no way for it to keep up with the others and almost seemed resigned to that fact. The herd then turned slightly and suddenly the lame animal was alone. It could not keep up, slowed slightly and then began to hobble helplessly. Now it was all to clear. The herd had protected it to protect themselves. Rather than offer a fight, they offered sacrifice.
The attack, when it came, was a brutal as it was fast. It reminded him of when he was a soldier fighting in the east. Combat was mostly interminably long periods of boredom punctuated by incredible terror and violence. Surprisingly the victim showed no effort to resist. It was almost as if the end was already set and that there was no way to change it. The big cat shredded the hinterbeests neck and shoulder. The crunch of bone carried in the still air. A gush of blood and a spastic kick was the victim's only response. Not even a triumphant roar or gloat issued from the predator. It immediately began the business of eating. Vultures were already beginning to circle above them knowing that they too would feed well today.
Now the lion showed no haste. The wet sound of tearing flesh and the occasional grunt drifted to his ears from the carnage. The process went on for a while, maybe an hour, but he really had no idea. The lion seemed to acknowledge his shock by leisuring in his feeding, often stopping to lick his dripping jowls. He was surely mistaken, but at one point he felt as though they had made eye contact. He only knew it was over when the lion, bloated and distended, lumbered away back to whence it came. It almost swaggered as it left. And as it walked, it looked over it's shoulder, no mistaking that this time.
The sight of the hinterbeest almost willingly giving up and offering barely token resistance was burned into his brain. He had often heard of these animals fighting prowess and tenacity and still could not understand what he had witnessed. Could it be that this is why the herd had survived? Allowing the strong to continue to flourish by forgoing the weak? Was this culling of the herd a sort of selection? Or was it an acknowledgement of the predator? That somehow it must also survive.
Evening began to settle around him. Grey hues replaced the bitter starkness of that blazing orb. The moon, fat and heavy, started to rise to his right. It seemed so long ago when this theater first began. He again felt so tired. Time and time again he was reminded of the harshness of this environment. It was hard not to think that his time may well also be limited. No schooling or military training had prepared him for the hard life lessons that he had recently learned. He wondered if things would ever be the way they once were. He tried hard to return to those distant days, but they would not come.
Then once again he sensed movement to his side. Like earlier, it was just a sensation more than anything else. And again like earlier, he realized it was the herd. It was slowly picking it's way across the hard ground it had only recently raced across to safety. Back to where the sacrifice had been made. The herd moved as earlier with that unusual grace and synchronization. It once again had the circles and order that had so astounded him earlier. Order seemed to be again restored after the frenzy of their predator's assault. The herd had been brought back to the state where they would be assured of their survival. Even the hinterbeest in the middle had been restored.
To his horror he saw it was limping.