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Posted by John on Sunday, 23 July

d also estimated the animals age at thirty-plus and used the word dottering, which Asa Lando took to mean at deaths door. Time was of the essence. Durgess opened the stall and Asa Lando rolled in atop the forklift. They couldnt tell if the rhino was awake or asleep, but Durgess kept a rifle ready. El Jefe exhibited no awareness of the advancing machine. Durgess thought he saw one of the ears twitch as Asa Lando cautiously slid the steel tines beneath the rhinos massive underbelly. Slowly the fork began to rise, and a tired gassy sigh escaped the animals bristly nostrils. Hoisted off the matted straw, the great armored head sagged and the stringy tail swatted listlessly at a swarm of horseflies. The stumpy legs hung motionless, like four scuffed gray drums. Easy now, Durgess called, as Asa Lando backed out the forklift and headed for the flatbed truck. Durgess was astounded: Suspended eight feet in the air, the rhinoceros was as docile as a dime-store turtle. A tranquilizer dart would have put the damn thing into a coma. In preparation for the fragile cargo, Asa Lando had padded the truck bed with two layers of king-sized mattresses. Upon being deposited there, the pachyderm blinked twice (which Durgess optimistically interpreted as a sign of curiosity). Asa tossed up an armful of fresh-cut branches and said, Here go, Mr. El Jeffy. Breakfast time! Durgess himself had selected the location for the kill: an ancient moss-covered live oak that stood alone at the blue-green cleft of two vast grassy slopes, about a mile from the Wilderness Veldt lodge. A hundred years ago the land had produced citrus and cotton, but back-to-back winter freezes had prompted a switch to more durable crops watermelon, cabbage and crookneck squash. It was the sons and grandsons of those early vegetable growers who eventually abandoned the farm fields and sold out to the Wilderness Veldt Plantation Corporation, which turned out to be co-owned by a Tokyo-based shellfish cartel and a Miami Beach swimsuit designer named Minton Tweeze. In the dark it took Durgess a half hour to find the designated oak tree he was driving the flatbed slowly so as not to lose Asa Lando, who was following with the forklift. Durgess parked the truck so that its headlights illuminated the clearing around the craggy trunk of the old tree. Before unloading the rhino, Durgess looped one end of a heavy cattle rope around its neck. The other end he secured to the trailer hitch of the flatbed. Why bother Asa Lando said. I got fifty thousand excellent reasons. But the rhino never made a move to break free; in fact, it made no movement at all. When Asa lowered the animal to the ground, it settled immediately to its knees, its drowsy demeanor unchanged. If it was happy to be outdoors again, neither Durgess nor Asa Lando could tell. They might as well have been rearranging statuary. Uneasily, Durgess studied Robert Clapleys high-priced quarry in the twin beams of the truck lights. Asa, he dont look so good. Old age. Thats what hes dyin from. Long as he makes it till morning. Durgess cocked his head and put a tobacco-stained finger to his lips. You hear a dog bark No, but I heard a wheeze. Asa Lando jerked a thumb toward the rhino. Chest cold. Doc Terrell says he probably picked it up on the aeroplane. Durgess hastily stubbed out his cigarette. Christ. A rhinoceros with fucking asthma. Comes and goes, Durge. Same with the arthritis. To hell with that. I heard a dog out there, I swear I did. He cupped a hand to his ear and listened: Nothing. Asa Lando shrugged. Im tellin you, its Jeffy got a chest wheeze. Thats all. Durgess edged toward the somnolent load and unslipped the rope. It seemed unnecessarily harsh to keep the aged creature tied down, as some prey had to be (due to the incompetent riflery of Wilderness Veldt clients, most of whom had no reasonable chance of hitting anything that wasnt tethered to a stake). Asa Lando took out a camera and snapped a picture of the rh