An all-new vivid, action-packed adventure across the African landscape in the tradition of Tony Park and Wilbur Smith, from Australian thriller writer, T.M. Clark.
Hiding from the law, they never expected to be caught in the crosshairs of a hunter…
After relocating to South Africa on the heels of scandal five years ago, Chloe and her invalid father, Mike, once wealthy Zimbabwean landowners, now have little. Away at university, Chloe has had to rely on her father’s best friend Enoch and his son Xo to watch over Mike.
When a violent confrontation puts Chloe in danger, Enoch steps in to help – with inadvertent fatal results. With increasing pressure from a right-wing group on the police to charge Enoch, this mismatched family have no choice but to flee back to Zimbabwe.
But crossing the border will be dangerous and near impossible with their route taking them amid warring dissident armies and landmines, and their every footstep is stalked by a shadowy ring of hunters – whose trophies are taken from more than animals…
Only with help from Nick, formerly a soldier under Mike’s command, now a professional game ranger, will the fugitives have a chance of making it home. But Nick has long struggled to come to terms with his fellow soldiers’ choices before their unit was abandoned. Will his past demons put them all at risk?
Matopos Hills, Zimbabwe, 1973
The balanced granite rocks on top of the hills of the Matopos defied logic, but they formed the perfect game funnel. The emerald-green trees, hiding the sandy soil beneath, kept the temperatures at least a little cooler.
Mike rode his horse, Rebel, further into the thick bushes. ‘Stick really close, Chloe,’ he instructed in a whisper.
‘Yes, Dad,’ Chloe said, edging her horse, Mongoose, nearer to his until they almost touched.
Slowly, they walked forward and broke through into a clearing where the herd boy had seen the horses at sunset the previous night. The chances of them being in the same place were slim but a good starting point.
To their surprise, Mike and Chloe saw eight horses, not yet aware of the humans’ presence, grazing on the sweet grasses. Mike smiled when he heard the quick intake of his young daughter’s breath.
The stallion stood slightly away from the herd, a proud bay, curving his neck as he looked around, watching for danger, smelling the morning breeze—as he should, for the area was crawling with leopards. The rocks and caves here were a perfect hiding place for them.
‘Old Man Tyrrell has been telling me about the wild horses of the Matopos for years, but I wasn’t sure if they were a legend or a figment of his imagination,’ Mike admitted quietly.
‘They’re beautiful,’ Chloe said.
There was a dappled grey mare flecked with dirt—she looked tri-coloured, but Mike suspected he would find her only grey and black once they cleaned her. The foal close at her side was almost black. Its short, stumpy tail, small mane, and knobbly long legs evidence of its young age. It stamped its hoof, getting rid of whatever was bothering its leg. The foal looked ready to take on any predator in a race already. Mike was sure, given time, the foal would lighten to the same beautiful grey as its mother. Standing with the mare was a palomino that shone almost golden in the early-morning light, two chestnuts with black manes and tails, and a skewbald. Mike had always had a soft spot for paints. Having grown up on cowboy and western stories of the great American-Indian horses, and what they could endure, he was happy to see that even in his Rhodesia, the breed was strong enough to survive wild in the bush.
‘Please, can I have the palomino? It’s so pretty,’ Chloe said. ‘I can call her Honey?’
‘Let’s see how healthy she is when we get her home. It’s important to remember that these horses come at a price. I had to shoot Mr Tyrrell’s menace leopard that was eating his stud Brahman calves. These few wild brumbies are payment for our help.’
‘Bush bartering,’ Chloe said, her eyes focused on the horses.
‘I don’t want you to think that we’re just taking these horses from the wild. Everything has a price. Old Man Tyrrell and his boys had killed several leopards that were not the one causing him trouble, that’s why he asked for help.’
‘I know, Dad, you and Enoch are always helping the farmers.’
‘It’s the right thing to do, sweetheart. Sometimes when men get old, they forget how to ask for help. They get stubborn,’ Mike said.
‘You’re never going to get old and stubborn, are you, Dad?’ Chloe asked.
Mike almost laughed aloud but held it in, careful not to disturb the horses. He wished he could tell her no, but he tried really hard not to lie to his daughter.
Despite the predators that roamed the Matopos, these wild horses had survived for more than three generations—Old Man Tyrrell swore they were already on his grandparents’ farm when he lived there as a boy.
‘You ready? We’re going to drive these horses north, into the funnel we’ve built to narrow the valley,’ he said, quietly thanking his friends for the cloth borrowed from Brady Barracks in Bulawayo.
‘What happens when the horses get there and they don’t know what to do?’ Chloe asked.
‘Old Man Tyrrell is waiting there with a lead horse. When this little band arrives, he’ll release that schooled horse to make sure the wild horses end up inside the boma. That way, they won’t hurt themselves. Then after we have them there, we’ll funnel them down the cattle chute to load onto the truck.’
As if sensing his life was about to change, and he was about to be taken from the wilderness, the stallion whinnied.
‘Come on, we need to get them moving,’ Mike said as he took out his .303 rifle and shot it into the air. The sound echoed around the kopjes. Rebel and Mongoose stood still—they were used to the sound as they had been trained as hunting mounts.
The wild horses ran from the noise, the stallion leading the way, although one of the bay mares quickly caught him up and began to lead the charge. Mike could see the strength in her muscles as she pounded the ground with her hooves. ‘She’s like the wind,’ he said.
Mike clicked his tongue, and Rebel broke into a trot. ‘They’ve run towards Enoch,’ he told Chloe. ‘We have to help him press them towards those twin hills.’
He glanced at his daughter. She was seated well in her saddle, Mongoose still close to him. He looked north-east—Enoch was riding to his flank, keeping the horses heading in the right direction. He slipped silently through the bush, almost ghosting Mike and Chloe. Xoline, Enoch’s son, was to the west, his horse helping to maintain the herd on track into the funnel.
Mike watched as the wild stallion left the big bay mare to lead the escape. He doubled back behind his herd, getting ready to challenge the danger, then stopped. His nose flared, and with his neck arched he pawed the ground, then reared up. He exuded raw power.
Mike shouted, waved his arms, and the stallion snorted, turned and ran behind his mares again, his flight sense winning over his fight sense.
Despite the bush, the horses weaved their way forward, following the big bay around thornbushes and under low-hanging branches. They were magnificent, never once misplacing their footing, even when they ran over the exposed granite.
A little steenbok female, with her beautiful tawny-orange fur, was surprised from her hiding place. She ran next to the horses in a zig-zag pattern, trying to escape the mayhem. Mike slowed Rebel down in an attempt to give the steenbok a place to escape from the herd. She stopped and looked back at her pursuers. The distinctive marks in her ears, like black fingers, helped to camouflage her in the bushveld. The steenbok could sense that while she wasn’t the target of the trap, it was time to flee. She bounced off again, then disappeared.
They slowed their horses and looked around.
‘Where did she go, Daddy?’ Chloe asked.
‘Not sure,’ Mike said, then smiled when he spotted her. ‘Look, the clever little thing has hidden in an antbear hole.’
‘But she’s a buck,’ Chloe said.
‘Animals have more intelligence than people give them credit for. She found a way to escape her pursuers, that’s all that matters to her. There is a time to run, but then there is also a time to hide. We would’ve ridden past and not known she was there.’
‘Come on, we have to keep the horses moving,’ Mike said as he kicked Rebel in the sides with his heels.
By the time they got to the funnel, the horses were tired, having run for a good forty minutes at a steady pace through the bush.
‘Look how Mongoose is sweating,’ Chloe said.
Rebel’s skin was also lathered. ‘Good boy,’ Mike said as he patted the horse’s neck.
Enoch closed the boma behind the seven horses, Xo right next to him. Their horses hadn’t fared any better and were also slick with perspiration.
‘Xo and Chloe are in for a long, slow walk after rubbing down these horses to make sure they don’t pull up lame,’ Enoch said.
‘The wild ones are really fit, they’ve hardly broken a sweat.’
‘They didn’t have to carry the weight of a person on their backs, now did they?’ Chloe said.
Old Man Tyrrell climbed up the side of the boma. ‘Told you they were here. Aren’t they beautiful?’
‘They are,’ Mike said.
The horses milled around in the boma; the lead horse had stopped and was eating from the lucerne bale that was attached to the side, next to the fresh water in the bathtub that they’d brought in, his presence helping to calm the wild horses. The fact that he was gelded and didn’t challenge the stallion also helped.
The white of the stallion’s eyes still showed, and he baulked at the food, but the smell of fresh water had him sniffing the air, and soon he dipped his head down to it and drank deeply. The big bay followed his lead.
Mike looked at the bay mare. She was beautiful, and she could run fast. ‘Maria,’ he said aloud. ‘After the wind in Paint Your Wagon, that’s what you’re going to be named.’
‘Which one, Daddy?’ Chloe asked.
‘The big bay next to the stallion. She’s a keeper.’
‘Maria and Honey. They’re friends, right?’ Chloe said.
‘Of course,’ Mick said, ruffling his daughter’s hair.
‘Right. Breakfast,’ Old Man Tyrrell said. ‘They can stay in the boma for the day, and when it’s cooler tonight we can herd them down the chute and you can drive them home. From then on, they’re your problem. Nice foal you captured there. You see it run? Those legs were born to make it eat up the miles.’
‘No track for him,’ Mike said. ‘I’m almost sorry to bring his free running years to an end.’
The foal, as if knowing that he was the centre of the conversation, lifted his head and tail, pranced around a little and stamped his foot, before running back to the protection of his mother.
Mike said quietly, ‘Diablo. There’s a devil in that horse, just waiting to be unleashed as he grows into his power. One day, he’ll raise hell.’
Rules of the 6th Society, 1984
General Member: All persons granted membership into the 6th Society must comply with all by-laws as defined below. Failure to comply will result in a member’s immediate termination.
1.No talking about the 6th Society to any person who is not a member.
2.Never acknowledge a 6th Society member outside the safety of the organisation.
3.A 6th trophy can only be verified by one of the six professional hunters of the organisation.
4.Never leave your bullet behind.
5.Only one chance to harvest the 6th trophy; if you refuse, your hunter will silence you.
6.Only one 6th trophy per year per member.
Professional Hunter: Only six professional hunters will be appointed membership into the 6th Society at any one time. They must comply with all by-laws as defined below. Failure to comply will result in a professional hunter’s immediate termination.
1.No talking about the 6th Society to any person who is not a member.
2.The hunter must ensure the personal safety of the member at all costs. If the hunter is unable to do this without jeopardising the safety of the organisation, the hunter is to take whatever steps necessary to ensure the anonymity of the 6th Society at all times.
3.The hunter is to verify all 6th trophies, and to retrieve the bullet. The hunter must also ensure the carcass is disposed of and not traceable back to the member or the 6th Society.
4.The hunter must guarantee that the member hunts mature male specimens only.
5.The member is only allowed one chance to harvest the 6th trophy; if a member refuses, the hunter must terminate the member immediately.
6.The professional hunter has the discretion of harvesting additional trophies personally; however, they must be reported to the organisation on completion of the hunt.
6th Society Headquarters
The building owned by the 6th Society looked the same as many others in the old medieval city centre of Bern. They had been rebuilt after the major fire in 1405 and had stood undefeated on the hill ever since—surrounded on three sides by the river Aare—sharing the space as they shielded the cobbled road.
Except for the old stone carving of a huge eagle-owl that stood sentinel on its lintel above the door, the entrance was as nondescript as all the others in the side street of the financial district. All made of the same large sandstone blocks, with nothing to reveal what was taking place within the solid walls. The security cameras—discreetly concealed in the owl’s eyes—watched the goings-on of the tourists and locals who walked past it each day.
Douglas Smith, known in the organisation as Hunter #4, walked along the corridor behind a woman in a long, flowing purple robe. The fabric looked soft, like velvet, and it moved with her every step, as if it was liquid wrapped around her slim body. He found it totally inappropriate for the organisation, but he had never seen her wear anything else in the four years he’d been coming to the headquarters. Her hair was covered by the hood, and he’d never got a good enough glimpse of her face to say he would be able to recognise her in the street, or to see how old she was. She had neat hands, with a deeper skin tone than the Europeans. Her nails, which were immaculately clipped, were devoid of paint or polish.
She motioned him into the meeting hall for the yearly gathering of the hunters. She’d been part of the society as long as he had, perhaps longer. He didn’t know for sure.
The only time she talked to the visitors at the lodge was to greet them in French when she opened the door, usually before they could even ring the doorbell, and to ask them for their coats and instruct them to empty their pockets before walking through the metal detector just inside the front door. But he was sure that though her French was polished, it was not her native tongue.
The elders were already seated, their black clothes blending with the dark décor of the room. Four of the other 6th hunters were also present. Thankfully, he was not the last one to arrive.
She motioned to the chair assigned for him. Douglas nodded first to the elders then to the others seated at the table, before he lowered himself onto the velvet-cushioned chair that he knew was no Napoleon III rip-off, but a genuine antique from his reign, gifted to one of the 6th Society members.
The purple-robed woman walked out the door, closing it silently behind her, her bare feet making no sound on the plush carpet.
‘Good morning,’ said the female council elder at the head of the table. She wore her long hair in a neat bun on top of her head, and he could see that it was streaked with grey. She also wore distinctive round John Lennon glasses. Douglas hadn’t realised that there had been a leadership restructure since their last meeting. He wondered what else had changed.
‘As you may be aware, our previous leader passed away earlier this year. I have been voted the new chairperson by the elders of the 6th. The first item on the agenda is a serious matter. It is not common for the elders to have to address the hunters as a group at the annual gathering, but it is not often we have news like this.’ She looked gravely at each of the hunters. ‘Hunter #5 showed leniency in offering a member a second chance on a hunt. Furthermore, she was unable to eliminate the member because she had begun a close relationship with them. This jeopardised the 6th by allowing the member time to leave evidence that could damage our organisation. In the end, the member turned #5 into the police in Germany, and the council has had to eliminate both #5 and the member.’
She paused for a moment, giving what she had said time to sink in.
‘This type of collaboration between hunter and member should never happen. We feel it necessary to remind you that the rules are in place for a reason. They are there to protect the society. If the client cannot make a kill or chooses not to complete their hunt, then the penalty must be carried out immediately. Hunter #5 has been replaced, and you will meet the new hunter soon.’
There was silence around the table.
‘On a more positive note, your lists of members for the next year are in the folders in front of you. We also remind you that all copies of faxes used in communications both to and from us must be destroyed after you have the information you require. Any questions?’
Again, there was silence around the table.
‘Let us proceed.’
The hunters nodded and opened their files.
* * *
The meeting had adjourned, and the elders had left the Hall of the Hunters. The silence in the room was shattered when Hunter #3 slammed his hand on the table. ‘Hunter #5 would never have talked. It’s a pity they eliminated the member because I want to kill him with my bare hands.’ He was a tall Icelander, his blue eyes piercing. His accent was strong, and his skin so white it was almost translucent.
‘Agreed,’ Douglas said, ‘but right now, we need to focus on what the council is reminding us of. There are no second chances on a hunt. Either the member kills or we eliminate the member there and then.’
‘Yes,’ Hunter #2 said.
Douglas looked at her. She was a German woman who wouldn’t look out of place on a magazine cover. She’d been one of the 6th hunters since before he’d joined.
‘Aye,’ Hunter #6 said. The man was tall and broad, and his almost bald head had wisps of red sticking out where he had shaved it close to his skull. He had a large wiry beard to match, looking as if the hair had slid off his head and onto his chin. One could almost expect the man to wear a kilt, no matter where he was, Scotland or abroad.
‘Not that I needed it,’ Douglas said, ‘but consider me reminded. It would be inconvenient if I have to shoot my own clients on a hunt. Becomes bad for regular hunting business when a client gets shot, but the rules are the rules.’
‘They did not say they had to be shot. Any accident could happen,’ Hunter #1 said, his Brazilian accent as thick as the black hair on his head, but his English perfectly pronounced.
‘Every time we lose a hunter, they remind us of the rules. Each and every one of us knew what was at stake when we became 6th hunters. Losing a member isn’t good for anyone’s business reputation, so we need to protect our client, no matter what. If that means we need to help them over this decision on the hunt, then so be it,’ #2 said.
Hunter #6 nodded his head. ‘Most of us hunt in the jungles and the wilds of the world. But #5 was a specialist in the urban environment, and she got caught there. Cornered like a rat. I think that #5’s experience was an exception and we haven’t been given all the details.’
‘In reality, how many failed members have we had to deal with? They know the consequences when they pay their fees. I’ve never had a client I couldn’t ease into obtaining their trophy, even if the hunt took a day or two longer. A much better outcome for all—as opposed to losing a client,’ Douglas said. ‘There is a good reason that the council recruited each of us for this job: we are professionals.’
‘I have not lost any,’ #2 said.
‘None,’ #6 said.
‘None,’ #3 said.
‘None,’ #1 said.
‘We must not allow this to happen again,’ Hunter #6 said. ‘I have seen the occupants of each of your chairs change. All have been good hunters, but this is the first time that I have heard of a client being responsible for an empty chair.’
‘Then we need to be more careful, help each other to ensure it doesn’t happen again,’ Douglas said.
‘Agreed,’ #6 said. ‘Anyone ever need help, or find themselves in a similar situation, let’s call on each other to sort it through as the hunters, before the executives step in.’
The door opened, and in walked the woman in purple. All the hunters turned to look at her.
‘Your discussion has been interesting,’ she said.
Douglas clenched his fists. He had always suspected that their hunters’ talk time was being monitored. He guessed nothing was actually secret or personal within the walls of the headquarters, so why wouldn’t the executives listen in on the hunters’ gathering, too?
She sat down at the head of the table, her movement fluid, graceful, and removed her hood.
‘I’m sorry that Hunter #5 did not feel she could confide in the society of her change of heart. And that she did not ask for help. However, it is good to know that none of you let her down either. It is sad that she did not feel she had friends in her colleagues to call on to assist her with her problem.’ She looked around the room, taking the time to look at each hunter’s face.
The hunters all remained silent as they stared back at her.
She continued, ‘The society realised that in our own small way, we need to extend our relationship with the 6th Elite Hunters in this changing hunting environment. From now on, if a hunter needs help in any way, personal or professional, they only need to fax and ask. I will always be on your side, and I will do whatever it takes to help you.’
‘So, who do we address the fax to?’ #2 asked. ‘Until today, we have never seen your face, much less been introduced to you by name.’
‘You may call me Kupua,’ she said.
‘Kupua?’ Hunter #6 said. ‘Like the demigod monster that appears in different kinds of bodies?’
‘I’m impressed,’ she said, yet her eyes were steely. ‘But make no mistake; I live up to my name.’
Crocodile Bridge, Kruger Park, October 1986
There would be no debating it’d been a harrowing night out. As the morning sun touched the tops of the Mopani trees, Nick stopped the Land Rover when Khululani tapped twice on the dashboard and pointed.
Nick squinted through his windscreen, then grinned as he reached for his camera and climbed out. Resting it on the open door, he looked through the viewer and took a series of photographs. ‘The lack of sleep last night was worth it when we get to see Mbulala moving her cubs outside the fence line for the day again.’
‘Yebo,’ Khululani said as he took the binoculars out of the cubby hole and stood on the other side of the Land Rover with them pressed to his eyes. He clicked his tongue. ‘She has blood on her face; she must have joined her pride for the hunt last night.’
‘Look at those fat spotty bellies; they’ve obviously just finished nursing,’ Nick said, taking another photograph.
Khululani nodded. ‘Soon these cubs will be big enough not to hide anymore, and she will stop using our workshop area and fuel drums, and we can mend the fence.’
‘I’ll miss photographing them here,’ Nick said. ‘We’ve built up quite a collection.’
‘It’s an expensive habit, your photography, having those films developed,’ Khululani said, just as one of the cubs started to pounce on their mum’s tail that flicked up and down, the only acknowledgement she showed that she knew they were being watched. Finally, she relaxed enough and began to groom herself, and then each of her cubs, washing them in the early-morning light.
‘It’s worth it, just look at them,’ Nick said. ‘One day there won’t be any lions left in Africa, and at least then I will have proof that I saw them in real life.’
The lioness got up, her nose clean of blood, and slowly walked away. For a moment the cubs continued to play, then as they realised their mother was moving, they ran to catch up and fell into line behind her. They slowly headed away from the workshop, and the complications that being in close proximity to the humans could bring, back through the fence and into the bush.
Nick stretched and put his camera on the seat. ‘Just as well, my eyes are battling to stay open. Let’s put these tools back in the workshop, then I’ll drop you at the compound. I vote we both take today off to sleep. I think we’ve earned it.’
* * *
Nick was dragged out of a deep sleep by the ringing of the phone. ‘Hello.’
‘Hey, boet. Sorry, man, it’s Dave. I need your help. There’re tourists who’ve broken down just north of the Crocodile Bridge near the Lindanda Memorial. When one of the safari vehicles drove past, they found the idiots sitting outside their vehicle. The driver told them to get inside his 4×4—or get back inside their car—till they could contact us. Anyway, they insisted they were okay, and their vehicle would be fine once it cooled down.
‘The driver reported it when they got into Skukuza campsite, and I sent some rangers to check them out. They found the vehicle abandoned. Those tourists have been missing for about four hours, and we need you to come and find them. I lost their tracks close to the Mozambique border.’
Now fully awake, Nick squinted at the clock. Two pm. He’d only got to bed just before five that morning, after helping fix a ranger’s vehicle that had broken down while chasing a hippo that had raided farm lands back into the reserve, and then having to help him get the lumbering mass of blubber back where it belonged before the farmer shot it.
He ran his hand over his stubble. ‘I’m on my way.’
‘I owe you. I need you and your boy to find them. What idiots go walking in a national park with lions when they’re visiting a lion-attack memorial? I’ve been driving around since they were reported. I really expected to get out there, throw a tow rope and bring them into the camp.’
‘I’ll get Khululani, then we’ll join you.’
‘Do you want to know where I am?’
‘Lindanda Memorial, obviously. I’m sleepy, not stupid.’
Dave chuckled. ‘Ja, boet. See ya soon.’
Nick climbed out of bed and hit the shower. After dressing in his khakis, he nabbed a packet of chocolate Romany-cream biscuits and a couple of Cokes—he needed something in his stomach to get him going—and headed out the door, grabbing his hat on the way. He made sure both backpacks were sitting in the back of his Land Rover, and that he had fresh water in the canisters hanging on the outside. Climbing in, he opened the windows to let out the hot air trapped inside. He drove around to the workshop, looking for Khululani, who, if he was awake and at work as Nick suspected he would be, was hopefully servicing the lorry that had broken down when the men were out collecting wood from a big mopane tree that had been struck by lightning. Given that the tractor had blown something the week before, and was still being repaired, taking the lorry had seemed like a practical solution, until that had also broken down.
He found Khululani lying under the lorry. His black legs were recognisable. Lighter than the rest of him, they held a shiny glow to the damaged skin, and were laced with a patchwork of scarring. He refused to wear the long pants of the overalls issued by the Kruger Park management. Instead, he would cut them into shorts so that they didn’t irritate him by rubbing on his scars.
Nick didn’t have an issue with this, but some of the other senior rangers did as it made Khululani look different to the others, and because of that, he hadn’t progressed up the ranks. He’d remained a junior ranger, on a junior’s pay, despite his ability to do everything well, aside from sitting the ranger’s exams. Khululani was illiterate, and that above everything else was probably what was holding him back. Nick was working on that one, and soon they would surprise those idiots who sat in their office and thought that literacy was the most important skill in the park.
There was so much more to being a good ranger. An overall approach was needed, or an alternate way for Khululani to take those exams.
‘Woza, Khululani, time to finish up here. We need to head into the park,’ Nick called out.
The trolley under the lorry zipped out, and Nick saw the familiar wide grin on Khululani’s face, which he always wore when he was going into the bush.
Of all the rangers, Nick knew that Khululani loved the animals and the bush with the deepest passion—as if every animal or tree belonged to him. If you took the time to listen to the older man, he’d tell you stories of the rangers in the past, and how they’d had prison gangs working to clear areas to erect the fences to keep the game inside and safe. He’d tell you of the many deurlopers that came from Mozambique to work in the gold mines of Johannesburg, and how they’d saved many of them after they’d been treed by lions—and buried what was left of the not-so-fortunate ones. Khululani’s face was creased with the years spent labouring in the hot African sunshine, and yet when he smiled, it was a face that was grateful for his full life.
‘You came to save me from this white man’s work and take me into the bush? Twice in twenty-four hours?’ Khululani said as he approached the Land Rover, cleaning his hands on an old rag.
‘Sure did. We’ve got a couple of lost tourists to find.’
Khululani continued to grin as he walked towards the Land Rover, then gathered himself to climb into the tray at the back.
‘Get in the front,’ Nick said. ‘We need to talk about these idiots walking around in lion country unarmed.’
Khululani nodded and got into the passenger seat, closing the door with a loud bang.
Nick drove off, thinking about the friendship he experienced with Khululani. Not so long ago, he’d done everything possible to keep others at a distance. Not so surprising for someone from his background, really. Not with his useless father, and his mother’s inability to stand up to his drunken, thieving ways. Nick had been happy when the bastard had eventually abandoned them and disappeared into Africa somewhere. Nick didn’t know if he was still alive and he didn’t care. By the time he was five, he’d been smacked across the head enough times and told that cowboys didn’t cry, to know that he dared never show any emotions when his father was around, sober or drunk. His mother’s friendship with Sarah Mitchell had been his saviour in a time when a boy needed a decent role model and mentor. Mike Mitchell had been everything that Nick had wanted his father to be and more. But even Mike had let Nick down. Enoch had always been at Mike’s side, and Nick had had a deep respect for both of them, to the point that he had even rushed to enlist into the Grey’s Scouts as soon as he was of legal age to serve with them. He had put them both on a pedestal so high that when they tumbled off they had almost crushed him with their fall.
Though guilt still ate at him for not doing more on the day Mike had been hurt, the resentment he had felt at the time had simmered close to the surface. He had chosen to leave Zimbabwe before he did something he would regret, to cut all ties and start a new life in South Africa.
Away from the heavy burden of being let down. Away from those he’d once believed in.
To others it had appeared that he had run from the demons of war, and the loss of his country to a man he had never even heard of before the elections. Nick had never bothered to correct them. His reasons were more personal than that. He’d walked away from a friendship that had been born in blood and trust but shattered by gold. Gold that was supposed to be the noblest of metals, but which to him represented the stain of betrayal.
He had shied away from relationships and forming connections with others, remaining aloof and reserved. Alone. Until Khululani had saved his life. Nick had accepted the position in Kruger National Park as a chance to start again, but he hadn’t been prepared for what being back in the bush would be really like.
Hours of alone time to think on the past, to mull over and over what had happened. But within the first week of Nick’s arrival in Kruger as a ranger, Khululani had appeared at his door after work and told him they needed to go walking in the bush together. Instead of telling Khululani to get lost, Nick had accompanied him, and then again the next day. Soon they had got into a routine. After the work was done, he wouldn’t even enter his house. Instead, he and Khululani would walk for a few hours.
To anyone watching, Khululani was teaching him the South African names of the trees and plants, and the history of the park. What Khululani had actually done was to give him a new purpose in life, to protect those animals, plants and people within the fence. A different country, a different fence, but the task was just as vital. But to Nick, even more importantly, he’d learned to love Kruger Park with the same fierce passion that Khululani did.
‘How’s the lorry going?’
‘That axle is ifela. Dead. I can’t fix this one. We need to get a new one, or newer at least. Jeremiah has a brother who works at a scrap yard in Pietersburg; he says he is sure he saw a truck just like this last time he was there. He wanted to call him tonight on the telephone if you let him.’
‘Sure. We need it up and running again, and we don’t have lots of money in the budget, so we must maak ’n plan.’
Khululani nodded. ‘What about these tourists?’
‘We don’t have much information—two of them, disappeared early this morning,’ Nick said.
Khululani clicked his tongue. ‘Inthunzi Zingela could have them by now. We could be looking for two dead people.’
The Shadow Hunter, as the black people called him, was the whispered foreboding to whoever went missing around the national park area lately. No one ever saw him, but the body count of those found with bullets dug out of their heads was adding up. As far as Nick knew, the police in the area were not getting any closer to solving the mystery.
‘Do you know how many people have already walked over their spoor?’ Khululani asked.
‘Too many. Dave Muller and whoever was with him lost the tracks; they called us in.’
‘Always, when the other trackers give up, they call you and me. The grease monkeys do their jobs and save their bacon again.’
‘True. But I’d rather talk to an engine and hear it purr when it’s fixed, than have to listen to the constant chatter of the tourists; like parrots screeching in my ear.’
Khululani laughed. ‘One day you will meet the one woman whose voice does not annoy you, and then you’ll think differently.’
‘Not likely.’ But, an image of a beautiful fifteen-year-old girl surfaced in his mind. He blinked and shook away the memory.
‘Did you pack the water?’ Khululani asked, still smiling.
‘Don’t ask stupid questions.’
The Land Rover always had jerry cans of spare diesel and water. Along with his shotgun and hunting rifle, and enough ammo to bring down a small herd of buffalo if needed, his emergency backpack was always ready for days just like this, when he’d be out looking for tourists and could end up spending the night out. He’d rather be prepared than end up in the bush at night with no provisions.
Khululani had once told him a story about a man who’d been driven mad with thirst and chewed on a tree for moisture, as he’d seen the bushmen do. Only he didn’t know the plants of the area—the sap had been poisonous and caused hallucinations. He’d thought that the buffalo around him weren’t real and had tried to pat them on the hindquarters, to tell them they were no trouble to him. He didn’t remember them attacking him, or the men who’d found him a day later lying battered and trampled in the veld. Nick was always doubly cautious about the water after hearing that story.
On arriving at the memorial, they chatted briefly to the other ranger, then got to work. Nick handed Khululani a .303 rifle, and he took the other one from the cab of his Land Rover. He’d trusted his life to the accuracy that Khululani had with a rifle more than once while walking in lion country.
Nick’s tracking skills were good—having practically grown up on Mike’s farm in Zimbabwe and hunted for the pot from an early age—but Khululani’s were much better. It might’ve been the twenty-nine years’ more experience he had on Nick, but the man could find the proverbial mouse in the haystack. Together, they’d become well known for finding lost people inside the Kruger.
They circled around.
‘Here,’ Khululani said, pointing out the heel imprint in the sand. ‘And here. A smaller print. The woman.’
‘That way, towards Mozambique.’
They headed into the bush. He could see where the other rangers had lost the spoor and turned back.
‘Here. This is where they went wrong. Now we look together,’ Khululani said and they changed from single file to walking abreast a few metres apart.
Only a little way further, Khululani said, ‘Two walked this way, one on each side of the dirt road, in the track indentations made by the vehicles. Here, they walked into the pack of lions. The tourists ran that way.’ He pointed. ‘Into the bush.’
‘The lions didn’t give chase,’ Nick said, reading the tracks in the sand.
Khululani laughed. ‘Perhaps they were too surprised by two people walking into their dining room while they were eating,’ he said as he pointed to the fresh zebra carcass.
The carcass was barely bones; a brown hyena crunched on the cartilage in a rib cage, and a few vultures hopped around, their necks still bloody from the feast they’d enjoyed, bellies too full to allow them to take to the skies.
‘I wonder what’s moved the lions on?’ Nick asked. ‘They should be here defending their kill so they can eat again.’
Khululani took his floppy jungle hat from his head and wiped his brow with it. ‘Eish, keep an extra eye out.’
This was where the footprints became faint and harder to follow, once they’d plunged into the veld. Knob-thorn trees dominated the area which had obviously received good rains, as it was lush, green and well grown.
‘They have several hours on us,’ Nick said as he took a small swig from his water bottle, the heat of the day still burning down on them.
‘They are scared. They tread softly, not sure where to put their feet. We will catch them quickly. Maybe before the next pride of lions,’ Khululani said.
‘They’ve turned again and headed south here,’ Nick said.
Khululani nodded. ‘Perhaps they have found the river and will follow it, hoping that it joins the Orpen Dam.’
‘We can hope they headed for water; perhaps they will wait in the shade, or find a decent tree to climb and wait for us,’ Nick said.
‘I will not put my money on them waiting,’ Khululani said. ‘My hope is only that when we find them, they are still alive, and we are not the ones having to see inside their heads. Look—there are other tracks; they might be being followed. I cannot be sure as they crossed the tracks. Two people, one carries something heavy, and is tired, the other walks easier. They are both still fresh. We will need to watch if they cross again, or if they fall in behind the tourists.’
‘You think it could be the Inthunzi Zingela?’
Khululani shrugged his shoulders. ‘I do not know, but there are others walking in the park, and that is never good.’
They tracked southwards, and too soon dusk was upon them.
Nick spoke into his radio. ‘Dave, come in.’
‘We followed their prints a lot further than your team, but we still have no visual. We’re going to stop for a while and see if they light a fire,’ Nick said.
‘Okay, we’ll camp at Tshokwane,’ Dave said.
‘There’s another set of footprints crossing theirs, coming from the Mozambique side. Might check those out once we have the tourists.’
‘Damn it. I’ll let headquarters know. Chances are it’s poachers, but it could be the Shadow Hunter.’
‘Don’t even jinx us with thinking that. We haven’t found a body inside the park, they’ve all been on the perimeter. It’s going to be really dark out here, and he’s the last thing we need to be thinking about.’
‘Ja, boet. Take care out there. Goes without saying that if they walk into camp, let me know.’
Nick smiled. ‘Khululani and I like nights out in the open in the middle of summer with all the mosquitoes as much as you love losing tourists.’
‘Aren’t you the funny one,’ Dave said, then ended the transmission.
* * *
The sky was alight with a million stars, but storm clouds threatened in the distance. Lightning flashed, and the world shuddered at its ferocity. Nick watched Khululani climb up a big knob tree, as high up as the branches would hold his weight.
‘I can see a fire—don’t know if it is deurlopers or tourists—about two kilometres south of us.’
‘Hopefully it’s the tourists. You up for the night walk?’ Nick asked.
‘As long as we are armed and they are not, we do not have a choice, do we?’ Khululani said.
‘Guess not. Come on, get down from there and if we’re lucky we’ll get to them before the rain hits.’
Amazed at how agile Khululani remained, Nick watched him descend the tree faster than what he’d climbed it. They walked in silence, listening to the night sounds of the bush, where crickets chirped, cicadas screamed their never-ending serenade, and the frogs joined in the night chorus. The deep hoot-hoot of an eagle-owl sounded as he voiced his disapproval at the men; their eyes strained to see him in the branches of a nearby tree.
‘Maywe, Nkhunsi,’ Khululani warned.
Nick had heard this often: an owl being a messenger of death from an evil person. ‘Don’t go all superstitious on me,’ he told Khululani. ‘We could see their fire, they’re alive. We’ve watched many eagle-owls without dying.’
‘You know the Shangaan belief. There is death coming …’
Nick knew when Khululani got his mind set on something, he wouldn’t let it go. ‘Let’s pick up the pace and make sure it’s not our tourists and it’s not tonight, then.’
They only had to stop once for a large herd of buffalo to pass by, but the herd seemed to have a destination to reach before the rains came too, so they weren’t delayed for long.
They came up a small incline and could see the fire clearly. Anyone covert wouldn’t have had a fire. Poachers wouldn’t build a fire at all. Deurlopers might have tried for a smaller one. Tourists build theirs big, having no idea that a rhino would try to put it out for them during the night.
‘Smell that?’ Khululani asked, sniffing loudly.
‘Just the smoke.’
‘In the smoke. Tamboti. Cover your mouth and nose,’ he warned as he pulled his hankie from his pocket and tied the knot behind his head.
They heard the vomiting of the tourists before they saw them, standing side by side with the toxic fumes from the wood washing over them as they continued to stay as near to the fire as they could.
‘Good to see you two are alive,’ Nick said, ‘we’ve been looking for you all afternoon. I’m Nick, and this is Khululani. First thing we need to do is sort out your toxic fire.’
They began pulling the logs off the fire and throwing sand onto them to stop them from burning any further, smothering the flames and ending the poisonous smoke. Nick then threw on pieces that were safe to burn.
The woman sat down where she was and sobbed while continuing to sporadically throw up.
‘I’m Herbie, and this is Floss. Thank God you found us.’
Nick took a bottle of water from his pack and handed it to the tourists. ‘Sip it slowly.’
‘Thank you,’ Herbie said and gave it to Floss first.
Nick smiled. They’d be alright.
When the fire was banked and casting a warm light, the tourists sat huddled together, sipping at the water. There was nothing Nick could do for them to help with the nausea; their own bodies needed to fight the poison. Herbie had commented that he was dizzy.
‘It’s one of the effects of burning Tamboti,’ Nick told him. ‘Just sit there and rest. It’ll start to clear out of your system now that the smoke’s gone.’
They heard a distinctive whoop-whoop of a brown hyena close by, and the serenade of the night animals continued. A far-off cry of a jackal had Floss snuggling tighter into Herbie as the fire popped and crackled, sending sparks high into the sky and lighting up the small group around it.
Nick got on the CB radio. ‘Dave, we have them.’ He explained where they were and about the Tamboti intoxication. ‘They should be okay by morning and we’ll walk them out. Think it best if we just camp here for the night.’
‘Lekker, boet. See you at sunrise,’ Dave said.
After putting away the radio, Nick looked around the spot where they would be camping. There was no natural shelter from the rain coming, but at least the ground was almost flat. Khululani and Nick set up their small two-man tents and threw Nick’s sleeping bag into the one that Herbie and Floss would use. It would depend on the rain if Nick and Khululani even bothered getting into theirs. Although they were both tired from the previous night’s excursion, they would take turns to stay awake, on guard, against any predators approaching the camp.
Nick stepped away from the fire and shared the food out onto the two plates. He passed one to Herbie. ‘You need to try to eat. That is for both of you.’
‘What is it?’ Floss asked.
‘Smash—a rehydrated powdered potato with a bully-beef topping. Think of it as bangers and mash with a bush twist.’
Floss pulled a face.
‘You have nothing in your stomach. Your body needs some food to enable you to walk out of here tomorrow. It’s a long way back to our bakkie. You’ll need the energy.’
Floss took the fork and tasted it. ‘It’s not too bad.’
Herbie took the fork. ‘Not bad at all.’ He started to load it into his mouth.
‘Slowly,’ Khululani warned. ‘You need to eat slowly, or it will come back up again.’
Herbie nodded. ‘Tell you what, when we’re back in camp, I’ll buy you two a proper meal of bangers and mash to say thank you.’
‘Deal,’ Nick said.
Khululani was making the tea while they ate. ‘Drink this,’ he said, putting a mug next to each of them. He’d left the teabags in to make it extra strong, and added lots of sugar along with the powdered milk. Khululani’s one vice was that they always carried powdered milk when they went out. Nick had become accustomed to seeing him eat his from the packet.
After dinner, the tourists disappeared into a tent, and soon they could hear Herbie snoring. Khululani and Nick continued to sit on their packs, in front of the low fire, late into the night. When the thunder, lightning and cool rain drenched the camp and put out the fire, the rangers took turns being on watch during the night.
After all, in lion country, you slept with one eye open, or you died.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in Zimbabwe, T.M. Clark completed her primary school years at boarding school in Bulawayo, but on weekends and holidays she explored their family ranch in Nyamandhlovu, normally on the back of her horse. Her teenage years were totally different to her idyllic childhood. After her father died, the family of five women moved to Kokstad, a rural town at the foot of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa, and the boarding school hostel became her home.
She began writing fiction in the UK while a stay-at-home mum to her two sons and she hasn’t looked back.
Now living on a small island near Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, T.M. Clark combines her passion for storytelling with her love for Africa.
Her first novel, My Brother-But-One, was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Award 2014. She is also the author of novels Shooting Butterflies and Tears of the Cheetah, as well as a novella, The Avoidable Orphan, and a children’s picture book, Slowly! Slowly!, which are companion books to Child Of Africa.