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Authors: David L. Robbins

The Devil's Horn

BOOK: The Devil's Horn
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Also by David L. Robbins:

Souls to Keep

War of the Rats

The End of War

Scorched Earth

Last Citadel

Liberation Road

The Assassins Gallery

The Betrayal Game

Broken Jewel

USAF Pararescue Thrillers:

The Devil’s Waters

The Empty Quarter

For the stage:

Scorched Earth (
an adaptation)

The End of War
(an adaptation)

Sam & Carol

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2015 David L. Robbins

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle

www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503945470

ISBN-10: 1503945472

Cover design by Alan Lynch Artists

I am wounded, dangerous, can bear any pain I feel less than this.

Zulu poem

He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.

Samuel Johnson

Chapter 1

A poacher’s moon rose behind the hills and fever trees east of the border. Promise sat on a granite boulder. Here, not far from the broken fence between her country and theirs, she waited for the Mozambicans.

They arrived as the moon’s chin left the earth and the bush became milky. She heard them coming long before they arrived, two men, thin as the light, in sandals, short pants, and American T-shirts, and a rifle.

Promise stood on the rock, taller than the pair until she stepped down. They greeted her in Bantu. She answered in the same, leaving aside her native Zulu.

The first to reach out was the younger, the mule. The hand Promise shook felt boneless, only a shy pressure in the boy’s clasp. He looked away quickly, dropping his hand out of hers. He bore on his back a battered pack and gripped a long-handled hatchet. A panga hung from his belt. He gave his name. Hard Life.

The other Mozambican strode forward, the shooter. This one lacked both front teeth in his forced smile. His handshake was even slighter than the boy’s, detached and hinting cruelty. A strap cut across his narrow chest; the silenced barrel of a Remington .375 H & H rifle rose above his shoulder. Under the full moon he gave his name, Good Luck.

Promise did not offer her name in return. She wore only a cotton tunic and long pants, both black, and rubber-soled sandals. A machete hung from her belt, and across her own back hung a Belgian R-1 .762 rifle.

“Follow me. Single file.”

Good Luck stopped her with a pink palm.

“Wait.”

He slid behind Hard Life to open the backpack. The short boy stared straight ahead while Good Luck tugged out a bundle, untied the string that held it, and shook out a leopard skin. He doffed the rifle before putting his head through a hole in the spotted hide to spread it across his shoulders like a poncho. He belted the string at his waist. Good Luck lifted a boar-tusk necklace from the pack, handing this to Hard Life who bowed his head to put it on. These were
muti
, charms given them by their village
sangoma
, a witch doctor, to keep them safe while in the Kruger. The sangoma had probably blessed the rifle and hatchet, too. As a child Promise had worn charms in the bush, but tonight she had none.

Promise set out along a game trail. Good Luck and Hard Life followed in a line as she’d ordered. She did not hear their footsteps and barely heard her own, all of them stepping lightly now on the worn path, making just shallow prints in the pale dirt. The night had lost little of the day’s heat, but Promise did not sweat. She’d drunk all her water in the morning, a way to trick thirst.

The moon floated higher behind them, casting long shadows like claw marks on the silver ground. Far off, two lions vocalized. The big cats were not hunting in a full moon but patrolling their territory, letting Promise and the Mozambicans know they were entering it. She glanced back at Hard Life. The boy fingered his tusk necklace but beyond that kept his composure. Behind him, Good Luck flashed his broken grin, unafraid in his leopard pelt.

Piles of dung, large and small, speckled the trail, the scattered pellets of giraffes; grassy, round bricks from elephants; and black beads from antelope. Another path joined the one they walked; a hundred meters onward another linked up. Game trails always converged as they headed to water and spread apart away from it.

For an hour, Promise led the Mozambicans deeper into the veld, west on their own shadows. She kept the pace fast, never leaving the game trails, not worrying about their own spoor. Her throat began to dry, she put a smooth stone under her tongue to make her mouth water. Hard Life and Good Luck did not speak to her or to one another, they either knew each other very well or not at all. Hiding in the prickly acacias, behind the great baobabs and red bushwillows, among the blooming cacti and shrubs, or grazing in the open fields, the wild children of the bush watched them pass in silence, grunted in the dark to announce themselves, or fled.

The moon had risen a quarter of its way and gone sallow when Promise halted. The poachers, skinny men, took to their knees to rest. Hard Life, burdened with the pack and hatchet, panted. Good Luck spit. He lisped through the gap of his missing front teeth.

“Are we almost there?”

Promise nodded, keeping more words out of the air. She checked the slight breeze. They stood upwind from the water hole, another kilometer away. They could not approach from this direction.

Without waiting for the Mozambicans to stand, Promise left the trail. The two scrabbled to their feet. Good Luck cursed in Bantu. He took the hatchet from Hard Life to hurry the boy.

She led them into a spiny grove, dropping the rifle into her hands to keep it from catching on the stickers while she ducked under them. The moon did not reach here. Promise kept her face to the earth so her cheeks would not be scratched, and left her machete sheathed. The poachers made noise, muttering about the thorns. Ahead of her, something small and fleet spooked and skittered away.

Promise came out on another game trail but did not take it. She’d not yet shifted the wind off her back. Any animal at the water hole had already heard them, though there were too many sounds in the vast bush for her and the Mozambicans to stand out. But their smell to a beast was like a beacon; men were coming. She bent at the waist and led the poachers into more grasping branches and thorns the size of fingers.

A jackal yelped in the near distance. Another replied, pestering some prey. A lion roared again, this time a female. Grasshoppers and crickets chirped.

Promise stayed in the brush and scraggly trees, a slow and grueling passage. Bush rabbits and lizards rattled the leaves around her. She rotated her torso left and right, the way to stop thorns from snagging. After ten long minutes, two hundred meters southward, she pushed out of the scrub into a clearing. She eased her back and tested the wind. The light breeze nipped her ears and throat, well enough in front of them to carry their scent away from the watering hole.

Behind her, the poachers bashed their way through the vegetation. Hard Life had lost patience and begun to hack the underbrush with his panga. Before they emerged, Promise stepped into a clearing where four game trails converged. She knelt to an animal’s print, a fat five-pointed star, the spoor of a white rhino. Beside the track, the dirt held the impressions of two boots, faded by a day of wind and sun but clearly deeper at the toes than the heels. These were the marks of someone squatting to look at this same print early this morning. Her.

Hard Life chopped his way out of the last of the brush, perspiring. Good Luck came in his wake. The boy and the man, both scratched by the thorns, joined her in the clearing on the crossroads of the trails. Promise pointed at Hard Life’s panga, still sticky with sap and leaves.

“Put that away. Don’t touch it again.”

The boy wiped the blade before sliding it behind his belt. Good Luck kept smiling, a patch of nothing in the middle of his mouth. Promise raised a hand.

“Have you done this before? Either of you?”

The shooter nodded. The boy shrugged, no.

“Up ahead is a water hole. There will be animals there. There are animals all around us right now. Somewhere in this sector there’s also a two-man team of rangers. They are invisible. I don’t know where they are. But they know where the water is, too. They have guns. And they have ears.”

Hard Life shuffled his feet. He did not look up to speak.

“I’m sorry.”

Promise patted the air between them, to forgive and quiet the boy. This young poacher was not important, one of ten thousand unskilled villagers seeking easy money. Hard Life was a little pair of shoulders and legs, a mule. For no more than this, he was recruited to risk his life.

The shooter mattered. Promise would be paid by how well she guided him, not the boy.

“Do you know what you’re doing?”

Good Luck unslung the Remington. In the leaden light the weapon was a harsh thing of gray and ebony, without beauty. The man held the long barrel out to Promise.

“Look at the silencer. I made it myself.”

Promise examined the tube screwed onto the muzzle. It was a clever piece, cobbled from the baffle of a car muffler. Only someone who knew guns could do this. She pushed the rifle back at him and turned.

“One shot.”

At her back, Good Luck repeated, “One shot.”

Promise had farther to go to approach the water from the southwest, to send the scent of Hard Life’s fresh sweat and Good Luck’s leopard pelt wafting over open land. She eased through more brush, switched game trails, and continued to circle. After her reproach, the poachers followed quietly.

Promise chewed on bits of biltong from her pocket, offering some of the dried meat to Hard Life. The moon climbed, shortening the shadows and brightening the path. She eyed the ground for the spoor of men.

She didn’t know where they were, no one did. Promise scanned for broken branches and twigs, scuffed dirt, and flattened grass, to catch the passing of the two-man ECP, the extended clandestine patrol, through this sector of the park, Shingwedzi.

She had no idea which team was on patrol tonight, but it made no difference. All the five-day rangers were excellent trackers, born bushmen, hardened like everything left in the sun. They roamed Shingwedzi’s water holes and ravines, wide plains, high grasses, and all the gathering places and hunting grounds. Each man knew his terrain intimately, just as he knew the creatures that viewed the Kruger as theirs. The clandestine rangers didn’t walk freely but avoided ridgelines, masked their tracks, and dodged tourists, researchers, workers, anyone in the great park who might spot them. The teams camped in hides without open fires, lived on rations, and carried only small tents, camouflage nets and ground sheets, a pot, biofuel stove, radio but no cell phones, Belgian rifles, and ammunition. They washed without soap, buried their waste, moved in day and night. They left little trace of themselves while they hunted poachers.

Promise pressed on until the brush gave way to flat, open ground. The veins of many trails ran together. On all sides, mopane trees had been stripped bare by elephants or knocked over by their passage. Promise stopped on the path. Good Luck sidled beside her, nose in the air.

He whispered, “Water.” Good Luck’s nostrils flared. “Game.”

The faint stink of dung and urine and the moistness of mud drifted on the night air. The poacher tipped his head in the direction of the breeze.

“Go.”

Beyond a stand of marula trees and acacia thorns, a hundred meters off, the water hole was painted in the muted palette of moonlight. The noises of animals bathing and drinking mingled with their smell on the gentle wind.

Promise crept forward, keeping behind cover. The water hole was just a depression in the earth, no larger than the yard of a small house. After rains it overflowed, and even in the dry season the bottom stayed a damp pan for wallowing.

She crept into the open to kneel. Hard Life joined her, but Good Luck rose to his feet. He unshouldered his rifle. Promise hissed and made him take a knee.

Together, they watched the water hole. A pair of horned bok came to sip beside three zebras, then ambled away into the dark. A baby elephant stood knee-deep in the water, splashing with its trunk while a big female watched from the muddy shore. Many times Promise had seen lions and leopards lounging beside this little pond, ignoring hyenas drinking greedily on the far bank after gorging on kill. The wildlife who came here kept a truce, it was safer than the river, without crocodiles and the crowding, competing hippos and buffalo. This was Promise’s favorite place in Shingwedzi. Tonight she’d brought poachers to it.

Hard Life, still a boy, marveled at the antics of the little elephant. Good Luck sniffed.

“Where is the rhino?”

“Not far.”

“It’s not here.”

“It’s been here. Keep quiet. Stay behind me. And put your rifle on your back until I tell you.”

Promise led them in a wide arc around the water hole. Now past midnight, the moon had climbed to its highest perch. Granite in the soil twinkled like tinsel. She leaned to the trail but did not read it for the tracks of elephant pads, the careful clawed paws of a cheetah, the half-moon steps of zebras, or the split hooves of eland, kudu, and impala. A giraffe eyed them over a treetop, and a family of bushpigs squealed across their path, surprising Hard Life into dropping his hatchet. Promise walked a full circuit around the water hole and caught no sign of boots.

She led the grumbling poachers on a second loop around the pool. This time she saw the white rhino in the earth. He had gone north from the water. He would not be far, walking his middens, grazing, solitary.

“This way.”

Promise put the falling moon to her left, the squawks of the water hole behind her. The land opened into a savanna of dried riverbeds dotted by shrubs, nettles, and grassy patches. During the summer days, this part of Shingwedzi lay empty, the cover too sparse for prey or predator. The African sun made the grasses toxic and unappetizing during the day. But in the cooler nights, large mammals came to eat the sweetened grass and sleep in the open.

Sound and sight carried far on the plain. Six kilometers west, on the other side of the river, the headlamps of a car coursed southward, Kruger tourists on a night drive. From the river a hippo roared, like a belch. Promise shielded her eyes from the glaring moon to scan ahead.

Striding forward, the boy, Hard Life, appeared at her side. The shooter hung back. Hard Life said nothing until Promise spoke first.

“Yes?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“You’re a child. Why are you doing this?”

“I’m from a village. Kankomba.”

“Don’t tell me.”

“There’s no work. I could go to Maputo or Johannesburg. And make spit for money.”

“What about him?”

“Good Luck says he is rich. He has a car and a wife.”

“From horn.”

“He says.”

“And you?”

“I will get rich.”

“Not from tonight.”

“No. I will have to do this many times.”

BOOK: The Devil's Horn
2.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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