There were three of us: Komo Shagani, myself, and a rock. Me and Komo were passing through. The rock lived there. The rest of the world was somewhere over the horizon being its usual bitch. I probably remember that moment clearly because; despite the rock - which was posing a problem - I was at last feeling content with my lot. It had all been my choice, so was my responsibility. No-one else's.
As starting points go, it's as good as any.
Komo was a six-four mountain of drumhead skin stretched over a complex weave of steel-hawser muscles. Most men gave Komo a wide berth. Most women did the opposite. That's not much of a description, but it's accurate.
Except for the issue of where it lived, neither of us had anything at all against the rock. Yet we were doing our best to destroy it. American history, such as it is, is fraught with such oblique situations. But we were not in America; we were somewhere in Nigeria. Maybe even as far north as the Chad border. If not beyond it.
The 20lb sledgehammer was a toy in Komo's hands. He stood there for a moment staring off into the shimmering distance, then he glanced over at me as if he'd just had an interesting thought. At that stage I was open to any and all interesting thoughts. But this one apparently went nowhere. In the end he sniffed his patent end-of-story sniff and his expression wiped itself clean. He pursed his lips and blew upwards at his nose. The droplets of sweat glinted like diamonds in the pitiless sunlight. The sledgehammer blurred in its arc..
Stone chipping flew everywhere.
I said, “Forty-one,”and I wondered where his mind had been. But not for long.
It was hotter than yesterday. The sun blasted a fiery hole out of a brassy sky and the valley, way below us, shimmered and danced like a steaming cauldron. There were no cold places left in the world.
I said, “Forty-two,” and lifted the water bottle from beside me on the anthill. I took a deep swallow. Komo eyed me malevolently. I smirked and waved him back to work. He swung the hammer.
I said, “Forty-three,” and sighed. I took another swallow from the bottle. Komo glanced over at me. His craggy, angular black face reminded me of a statue that had been rained on. He stood there, hefting the hammer in his massive hands. I returned his gaze and smiled. “Forty-three,” I reminded him, not unkindly.
He sucked in a breath then let it out again. The hammer swished through the suffering air.
I nodded. “Forty-four.”
Komo took another pause. Things always slowed down in the forties. He said, “Throw me the bottle, boss.”
I looked at his outstretched hand. Then I looked at his sweat-streaked face. I said, “Stuff you! Get hammering!”
He muttered something I didn’t catch and swung again.
A sliver of rock the size of a silver dollar hissed through the air and near scalped me. “For chrissakes!” I spat, “Watch it!”
Komo groaned and shook his head, like he thought I was being unreasonable. As far as he was concerned there was actually very little chance of me ever being reasonable. He lifted the hammer.
I said, “Forty-five,” and screwed home the cap of the water bottle. Komo groaned again. He pursed his lips and blew upwards at his nose. The droplets of sweat glinted in the sunlight. The handle of the hammer creaked, reminding me of my bones.
That damned rock seemed to grin over at me, smug and self-righteous. Pathetic!, it said to itself. I hated it. I said, “Forty-six,” and lay back on the anthill, closing my eyes tightly against the sun. All the same it seemed to drill right through to my brain.
I said, “Forty-seven,” from the prone position.
I sat up and looked over at Komo and the rock. Both were still there. “What?” I inquired.
Komo raised his eyebrows, pulled a face and shook his head. Nothing. Just resting. Fine. I lay back down and waited. I smelt of stale sweat and worse.
I tried to say Forty-eight, but it wouldn’t come out. I sat up again and spun the cap off the water bottle. I took a lubricating sip. The water was near as hot as the air. Then I said, “Forty-eight,” and this time it came out.
Komo nodded at me, as if satisfied that I was paying attention. He glared at the hammer in his hands, then down at the rock under his feet. I waited for him to glare over at me. He didn’t. He swung the hammer.
I said, “Forty-eight” again, and had a quiet chuckle to myself.
Komo said, “Forty-nine!” and he settled his bare feet firmer of the rock.
I shrugged. “Okay, if you must be exact. Forty-nine.” I took another swallow from the bottle to stock up on a reserve and I slid down off the anthill. I cursed that rock to hell and back. I also cursed Freddy Garrant and his defective detonators.
Not just one.
Not just two or three.
But two whole boxes of the damned things!
Three weeks wasted time and effort.
And now the goddam rock!
Komo, hardly breathing heavy, said “Fifty” himself and the hammer came sailing over at me. I almost caught it. It buried its twenty-pound head in the dirt and I near took a hernia getting it free. Komo relieved me off the water bottle and took my place on the anthill. He had this smug look on his face as he sucked at the bottle. I tried to ignore it.
One of the blisters on my left hand had burst and there was pus and gunge all over, and pain in all the most inconvenient places. Sod’s Law. Under my breath I called Komo a smug bastard and tried to look intimidating for the rock, which now seemed to be laying there sun-bathing. I put what I had into the swing.
The shock-waves zapped up through my arms and shivered down to my toes. My teeth sang like a buzz saw. There’s this feeling you have when you know damned well something is useless. I experienced it then.
Komo, smiling that superior smile of his, said, “That’s one.”
I said, “That’s one...bwana!”
He treated me to an old-fashioned look. “That don’t make it any more’n one...bwana. An’ you got forty-nine to go.” He lay back on the anthill as if he, like the rock, was taking the sun. Neither of them needed to take the sun.
The hammer felt like a ton weight in my hands. The sun sent its needle rays into my head and shoulders and I was reasonably certain I did not have another fifty swings in me. I tried number two. It ought to be impossible to miss a damned great rock that you are actually standing on. But miss it I did. The hammer swished in the wrong direction entirely and took me with it. The red dust billowed up around me and I coughed my lungs up trying to get sorted out. I blinked over at Komo, daring him to laugh. He just looked at me. Then he shook his head sagely.
“That one don’t count, boss.” Pure matter of fact
I said, “It freekin’ does!”
Komo shook his head again. “No, it do’n.”
Through gritted teeth I hissed, “It counts, for chrissakes!” and climbed back on the rock.
Komo lay back down and rested the water bottle on his chest. He sighed gently. “One.”
I stood there, glaring at him.
He raised an idle hand, second finger extended. He’d learned that gesture from me. Komo was learning most of his bad habits from me.
I spat some dirt from my mouth. “You just wait, you bastard!”
The hand flopped down beside him. He sighed again. “One.”
You couldn’t win with Komo. It was in his genes. I said, “Okay, dammit. One!” I tried number two again and made it.
Komo muttered, “That’s two, boss!”
Boss! I could not persuade Komo to call me anything else. Pal would have been a vast improvement. Or Buddy. He had never once called me by name, and I never got to find out what it would have taken to have him do that. Telling him to call me Martin just didn't work.
I glared over at him. My head was already swimming. I was sweating like a pig and covered in a layer of soggy red dust. I lifted the hammer.
Komo said, “Maybe yours, boss.”
He was talking about our bet as to who of us would strike the fatal blow and split that rock down the fault that was there for all the world to SEE, dammit!
I did not think it would be me.
I clamped my jaw tightly and swung, remembering to open my mouth just before impact. I’d been down that road before.
Komo said, “Three,” then added a facetiously exaggerated, “Bwana.” He inclined his head in my direction and gave me a crooked smile.
I smiled back at him and waggled my head, Asian style. “Just so long as you know your place, old buddy.”
Komo closed his eyes. “I do, boss. I’s here on the anthill. An’ you got forty-seven more to go.”
I couldn’t see a lot of point in reacting to that, so I swung the hammer.
Komo said, “Four,” then he sat up suddenly, his face creased in a puzzled frown. “I did fifty-one!”
I was glad of the respite. “How d’you make that out?”
He said, “You didn’t say forty-five after forty-four. You said it after the next one!”
I looked at him. He’d finally lost the plot. Or had he? Then again, did it matter a pig’s ear? The whole damned thing was ridiculous. I said, “I didn’t!”
He slid down off the anthill and stood there glaring at me. Then he nodded firmly. “You did! You didn’t say forty-five when you should’ve.”
This was Komo.
He had a memory like an elephant and a sense of justice that I could only barely fathom. Also, his notions of what was and what was not important in the general scheme of things left me standing. Here we were, halfway up a tortuous mountain track, overlooking a valley that killed people without blinking, under a sun that didn’t need to take lessons, and he was trying to keep the tally straight. Really straight, as opposed to the frivolous kind.
The only thing about it was that it gave me some free resting time. I said, “I think you’re mistaken.”
The remark sounded ludicrous even to me.
Komo replied, “I’m not, boss.”
I said, “Oh, I think you are...”
And so it went on.
In the end, I said, “Okay. You grant me the one I missed, and I’ll lop one off your next go. How’s that?”
I was sure he was going to fall for it. He thought about it for a moment as the sun looked down and shook its head at the stupidity some people can perpetrate. He, Komo, almost nodded. In the end he didn’t. He cocked me a suspicious look.
“That won’t work.”
I said, “But it was worth a try.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I did fifty-one,” he said pedantically.
To be truthful, I couldn’t remember if he had or not. But I did know that Komo would never lie, even as a joke – well, especially as a joke - about something that important to him. Komo was Komo. His lines were drawn in different places. And the whole thing had gone quite far enough. “Okay. You get to do forty-nine next trip.”
He nodded, honor satisfied, and climbed back onto the anthill.
I swung the hammer, glad that no one else had been around to witness the exchange.
Komo said, “Five,” and stretched languidly, all in his world now right and proper.
I swung again.
Komo said, “Six,” and he slid back down off the anthill and wandered over to the edge of the drop and gazed down at the river, some sixty feet below the track.
At his back I yelled, “Crack!”
He held up both his hands and showed me six fingers without turning. I displayed two at his back and returned to the rock.
The vibrations rattled my bones
Komo called, “Seven.”
The day wore on, with the rock loosing all the chippings in the world but none, it seemed, of its size. It just lay there being a goddam awkward rock in a goddamn awkward spot of the only track up the ridge, taking everything we could throw its way.
But we stuck at it, taking our turns.
It was either that or a sixty-mile back- and side-track to the route we’d used to get into that suntrap of a valley in the first place. And down in that boulder-strewn, crevasse-pocked waste of super-heated nothingness, sixty miles meant four days, plus, in all probability, another broken drive shaft. And who carries more than one spare drive shaft with them?
Come to that, who in their right mind would spend three weeks trying to shoot dynamite with rifles!
Me and Komo is who!
Because Freddy Garrant, back in Port Harcourt, had sold us a whole load of useless detonators. And because we had spent all that time and energy getting to the interior in the first place, we had to try some damned thing.
And we’d tried it all.
We tried hammers and picks.
We tried hammers and cold chisels.
And all we got by way of a return on investment was aching backs and calluses.
Then we tried shooting the dynamite to death, and that hadn’t worked either.
If I’d been certain of finding gold-bearing quartz beneath that slab of granite; one hundred and one percent certain, I might have tried worrying my way through to it with my teeth. But I was never that certain. And you don’t risk your teeth and your sanity on a second-hand maybe.
So in the end, the bitter end, we’d decided to cut on back to civilization. The quicker way!
Up over the high plains instead of all the way around them. And then there was the damned rock. It was stuck in the middle of what was otherwise a reasonable track. A track with a river-filled gorge on the one hand, and a near-vertical rise on the other.
That was late yesterday afternoon.
At first, for want of a better idea, we had tried our original rock-blasting ploy; the one that had been so singularly unsuccessful back in the valley. We cold-chiseled a hole into the side of the thing, slap in the middle of this fault that was there for all the world to SEE. Dammit! And we had shoved in a stick of dynamite. Then we retired to a safe distance and let loose of upwards of fifty rounds of .42 rifle shot at the hole, trying to get a slug down into it to explode the dynamite.
But the angle was all wrong, if it could ever have been right. Plus, there was the equation of being far enough away for safety, yet close enough for accuracy. Anyway, it needed the luckiest shot on God’s tortured earth.
And we weren’t having too many lucky days.
Hence the twenty-pound sledge hammer. Give the bloody thing enough concentrated punishment, I figured, and it must eventually snap clean in half, right down that fault that was there for all the world to SEE. Dammit!
Pushing dusk that second day...
Komo had the honors and the count stood at a judiciously correct thirty-two. He started to take his swing. Then he stopped. He rested the hammer on the rock and folded his arms on the tip of the handle. He had this faraway look in his eyes.
I figured I was about to hear something profound. “What?”
“I think,” Komo went on, “maybe I rip Garrant’s balls for him.”
He presented an odd picture, standing there on that rock wearing nothing but a pair of my old ripped-off-at-the-thigh jeans, covered in a layer of sweat-sodden red dust and trying to look serious while he talked about ripping someone’s balls. (Off, I guessed. He didn’t elaborate).
“That’s it?” I asked.
He nodded. “That’d be good.” He lifted the hammer and swung it an almighty blow at the rock; which at that moment probably represented one or both of Freddy Garrant’s balls.
The head hit, and the handle, I guess figuring that enough punishment was enough punishment, snapped cleanly. The head rebounded off the rock and sailed through the air over my head.
I said, “Thirty-three,” and stepped over to the edge of the drop and watched the hunk of solid metal curve neatly down. The water exploded in a million diamonds of reflected sunlight. I lit up a cigarette and watched the ripples subside.
Komo stepped over to join me. He took the cigarette from between my lips, sucked at it, then replaced it in my mouth. He heaved the broken handle out to join its head.
Komo was a Masai, of course, of the Manyatta tribe. And those people are not noted for an inbuilt deference to those who arbitrarily consider the color of their skin a passport to the world and all its treasures. They have this weird notion that a person; black, white or pink, is to be judged only by the value of his or her deeds.
I once tried to explain the way things were.
He didn’t get it. He was learning my slant on the subject, certainly. But his own opinions were still just that; his own.
We looked down at the river in silence. The ripples had been replaced by muddy bubbles that burst in a vaguely obscene manner on the surface.
Komo surprised me by saying, “Fuck me, boss!”
My guess was that he was puzzled as to why a hammer, one of modern civilization’s wonders, should have seen fit to break. Komo rarely swore; at least not in English. For sure I had never heard him say, “Fuck me” before, in any context.
I said, “No. Thanks all the same,“ and he gave me an odd sideways glance. Then we both turned to look at the rock.
It hadn’t moved so much as a muscle.
A rethink was indicated.
I said, “Let’s eat.”
And that was when the first shot rang out.
The bullet hissed between me and Komo and thudded into the rise behind us. The echoes of the shot raced away over the valley in a diminishing volley. It was so sudden and so unexpected that for a moment neither of us could move.
This bullet clipped a rock at our feet and screeched away into the air.
We woke up at last, spun around and dived in stereo for the cover of the rock we’d been wishing was not there, as a third shot kicked up a fountain of dirt from the track.
And for fifteen seconds it was bedlam.
Shots splattered everywhere.
Dirt flew everywhere.
Lead ricocheted everywhere.
We huddled there behind the rock that, all of a sudden, did not seem so big after all. Then there was silence.
Komo, his face buried somewhere in the small of my back, said, “Who’s that, boss?”
Under the circumstances, an odd question. I hissed, “How the hell should I know!” and I wondered why we were whispering.
Komo offered, “Bandits, maybe.”
He meant rebels.
This was rebel country.
I grunted. What did it matter who it was; it was what they were doing to us that mattered. I risked a peek out around the rock.
I got a faceful of dirt for my pains and ducked back into cover. But I was sure I had seen a puff of smoke over on the rim of the escarpment on the far side of the river. The distance was five hundred yards if it was a foot, so it was pretty good shooting.
I looked back down the track to where we had left the Land Rover. Our rifles were propped against the blindside front mudguard. They seemed a million miles away.
But it had to be done.
I was wondering about the best way to do it when I felt Komo move behind me. He mumbled something, slapped my shoulder, and was gone before I could stop him.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
The shots stitched a pattern of dust-puffs into the rise at Komo’s right hand as he charged, ducking and weaving, down the track. I called him a dumb, impetuous bastard in my mind and urged him on. It should have been me out there doing the hero stuff. I paid Komo to help, not lead the way.
But Komo was Komo.
I risked another peek out around the rock.
That ricochet near parted my hair and a small sliver of rock bit into my cheek and stayed there. I ducked back. I now knew that there were two guns over there - at least - and that both of them were on the ball, coordinating well. This was not good news.
But Komo was luckier than a farmyard of geriatric chickens. With bullets kicking up dirt and gravel all around him he made it to the Land Rover, grabbed the rifles, and skidded on around the bend.
The shooting stopped and I let out the breath I’d been holding. I yelled, “You okay, Komo?”
The corner muffled his reply. “Yeah, boss.”
The rifles on the escarpment went Crack! Crack! Crack! and the rock in front of me lost more chippings. I tasted blood and dust. I tweaked the sliver of rock from my cheek and looked at it.
That was Komo’s Savage-99. It had a clean, sophisticated sound. I was glad to hear it. He fired again and I took another look out around the rock. This time I did not get a faceful of dirt. Now we’re rolling, I thought, and I looked at the stretch between the corner and me.
Komo called, “Ready, boss?”
I yelled, “Whenever you like, Komo.” I added, “You got them pinpointed?”
Komo called, “No, boss. But I know where they are.”
Wars have started on less important misunderstandings than that. I could imagine Komo down there wondering what the hell points of pins had to do with anything. Komo's english was good, if a shade lacking on the syntax side. You had to keep reminding yourself that it was a foreign language to him. I yelled, “Okay!”
Komo called, “Now!” and his Savage began to spit on semi-automatic.
I launched myself from behind the rock and charged down the track. The sweat poured from me in rivers as I pumped power into my legs, leaping and jumping and jigging like a madman. If I drew fire I was not aware of it. I had eyes only for the bend in the track, those million and a half miles away.
I drew level with the Land Rover and had a brief urge to dive behind it. That urge died as quickly as it had come. If I used the Land Rover as cover, and it took a bullet in the wrong place, we’d be stuck out there whatever happened with our unknown assailants. I ran on.
Against all the odds I made it around the bend and skidded to a messy stop in a cloud of red dust, gasping like an asthmatic.
Komo stopped shooting. He said, “Old women, boss.”
I coughed up a lungful of dust and sorted myself out. “What?”
Komo handed me my Enfield. “Old women,” he repeated, nodding his head in the direction of the now invisible escarpment. “They’re shooting like old women.” He ducked down and snatched another quick volley out around the corner. The reply kicked up more dirt and sent another ricochet screaming into the air. Komo shook his head and clucked his tongue, like he knew something I didn’t.
I sucked in some more air and checked the Enfield for a load. You sometimes had to think twice before replying to one of Komo’s more oblique statements. I said, “Speaking on a purely personal level, Komo, I don’t think they’re doing too badly at all. That’s five hundred yards if it’s an inch.”
He looked at me. His face was a map of sweat-streaked red dust. “Then why they keep missin’ so close?” Beneath the dust I could just make out his sage expression. His eyes glinted in the sunlight like water at the bottom of dark wells.
I remembered my maxim about always listening to Komo when he was being sage. I thought about it. And he was right. It did not make any sense, but he was right. I sat on my haunches and thought about it some more. A miss is generally considered as good as a mile. But their misses had been too localized, too grouped. The rock, for example, had taken at least three out of every four bullets. And it was not that big a rock. Awkward, yes. Higher than the axle of the Land Rover, yes. But big, no.
Yet they had plastered it with almost every shot!
Surely to God, I thought, with such grouping the law of common averages would have dictated a body-hit of some kind. Yet there we both were. Fifty yards from the rock in two separate runs and neither of us with so much as a scratch - discounting the rock sliver in my face.
I said, “That doesn’t make any sense, Komo.”
He looked at me. “Then what, boss?”
I pulled a face. What indeed? I shrugged. “Let’s find out. I’ll cut on up the blind side of this ridge. You stay here and keep them occupied. Okay?”
He returned my shrug. “Okay, boss.”
I glanced up into the gaping maw of the sun. I closed my eyes, wishing I hadn’t bothered. I opened them again and looked at the ridge above me. The sun’s image clung to my retinas.
I started to climb, seeing the sun superimposed on every rock.
It took me twenty minutes to get to a good position, during which time Komo let go with a couple of rounds. He received nothing by way of a reply, which was indicative of something or other. I slipped into a handy gully and waited for the sweat to stop gushing out of my pores. It eased, but it didn’t stop. The sun hammered down like a living thing. The valley below swam in a sea of shimmering haze and the mountains to the north looked like a convoy of misshapen yachts plying the horizon. I could not see the river or the track from my position.
I eased myself upwards and took a look out over the void.
I was slightly higher than the far escarpment but could see no signs of movement. I raised myself a bit more. It all looked different from up there and I’d lost my bearings.
I called, “Komo!”
His voice drifted up to me, thin and reedy on the superheated air. “Yeah, boss?”
“Fire at their position!”
I saw tiny blobs of white as his hits raised dirt.
I raised my Enfield and rested it on the rock in front of me, focusing the cross hairs of the sight on the position Komo had fired at. Rocks, and more rocks. I panned left and right. Then up and down. Nothing. A droplet of sweat loosed its grip on my right eyebrow and ran into my eye. It stuck like the devil.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
The mound of dirt just forward of the rock seemed to rise up and smother me. I ducked back, cursing, more annoyed than startled. My right eye was streaming water and refused to be blinked clear. I rubbed at it with a knuckle and made it worse. I heard Komo’s voice.
The gully was as hot as a skillet and I felt I was being parboiled over a high flame, right eye first. I blinked and rubbed and swore.
That was the Savage.
At last the eye cleared.
Keeping my head low, back beneath the level of the ridge, I scanned the distant escarpment, panning upwards.
A figure disappeared behind an outcrop, moving upwards. Then another.
The Savage again.
I lined up my Enfield and waited.
Something moved over there. I fired and saw my shot raise dirt at least a yard below the intersection of the sight cross hairs. I extended my right thumb and gave the knurled knob of the rangefinder a slight twist. Then I fired at nothing but the crosshairs.
The puff appeared dead centre this time.
I waited for a target.
The sun drilled into my head and shoulders. It was vicious. I hated equatorial Africa and everything in it. And I waited. And waited.
Komo’s voice: “See them, boss...” His tone seemed to rise to the question.
I called, “No!” seesawing the sight gently over the rocks over there.
There was a moment’s puzzled silence.
Then, from Komo again, a petulant, “Yes, I can, boss.”
I realized he had been telling me, not asking. Syntax, inflection and the odd missing verb. A potentially lethal combination. “Where?”
“High up now.”
I looked higher up. Nothing. “Shoot at them, for chrissakes!”
“Too far, boss.”
I looked higher up still, up at the top of the jagged slopes. Komo was right, as usual. There had to be an extended draw over there. Now the two figures were almost at the top, well out of effective range - a fact they obviously realized, because they were no longer looking for cover. I called down to Komo. “Just the two of them? That’s a question, Komo!” To myself I added, “For chrissakes!”
“Yeah, boss. Think so.”
I toyed with the idea of going after them. Then I toyed with the idea of not bothering. Not bothering won. I stood up. I put the Enfield’s scope on full power and squinted up at the two scrambling figures. They were now barely more than tiny moving specks. The most I could distinguish about them was that one seemed to have on a red shirt. The other might have been naked. I pulled off a round just for the hell of it. The man in the maybe red shirt turned and waved, then both of them disappeared.
What the hell was that all about?
Komo called, “Bandits, boss. We scared them off.”
I was pretty sure he was wrong on both counts.
I picked my way back down the mangled slope and found Komo idly throwing stones out over the drop at nothing in particular. Over his shoulder, he said, “Old women, boss,” and he tossed out another stone.
I forearmed sweat and dust from my face. “Old women, eh?
He shrugged. “They didn’t wannna hit us, did they?” He couched that in his special close-of-subject tone of voice. He picked up his Savage and started back up the track. “I’m hungry.”
I was too shattered to argue.
We checked the Land Rover to make certain it hadn’t taken any fatal hits. It had not been touched.
Why was that?
If it had been me up on that escarpment and I’d opened a firefight for whatever reason, I’d sure as hell have gone for the transport. We could have been bottled up for a very long time indeed. I could not figure it out. But there are times when inquests are indicated, and times when they are not. This seemed to be the latter case, and mainly because of the debilitating heat. So I forgot the questions.
While Komo got the stove going I climbed down to the river to get more water. While I was at it I stripped off and had a swim. The dust and the filth of the countryside trailed after me. But the water was cool and fairly slow moving at that point, and I enjoyed myself.
As far as it went.
Oddly enough, despite the detonators and the wasted time and effort, and the rock up there, and the chicken-hearted sharpshooters, I was enjoying the whole useless endeavor. The past years of my life - the recent past, that was - had been one unfulfilled project after another. And it had been, it was, pure bliss.
I did not think it could last indefinitely.
The black spots in my life were the memories of how I had come by my money in the first place. Memories of blood, dead friends and wasted life. Of guns and bombs. Of ambitious men and stupid ones. Of other people’s struggles which never came to anything. Of well-paid butchery.
But time was passing and the memories were getting weaker, less tangible. Dimming into a kind of obscurity. But tenaciously mnemonic for all that.
My hands, like the basic pigment of people’s skin, would always be the same color. Blood red.
And Komo, apparently, was due his lucky day...
I was out there in midstream, floating idly on my back and looking up at a sky that was so blue-white it would take your breath away, when:
I knew what it was.
I could never mistake the yap of the Savage. And I could never mistake the slap as the bullet hit the rock. I had heard that same sound too many times.
Komo was taking another stab at being a long-distance, human detonator.
I looked up at the overhang of the ridge, and at the mountain towering high above that, the whole shivering nervously under the pounding of that merciless sun, and I thought, “Komo, you’re wasting ammo.”
Then I thought, “But what if...”
There was a second shot.
Milliseconds later, if there was any separation at all, there was this anvil-clap of thunder and the ridge blossomed in a shooting cloud of dust, chippings, smoke and rock. I had time, just, to mouth, “Oh, shit!” before it all rained down on me.
I flipped over and dived deep at a speed I had never achieved before, nor have since, nor ever will again. I touched muddy bottom and tried to keep on going, and all the time I was being struck by chunks of Africa. True, the smaller stuff was robbed of a lot of its velocity by the depth of water, but there were boulders out there that laughed at anything less than an ocean.
A rock the size of a football took me on the shoulder and I was knocked all to hell. Another monster fell so close to my head that I actually heard the PLOOP! as it buried itself in the mud.
And it kept coming.
Then I ran out of puff.
I came up at an angle, away from what I figured to be the centre of the fall. My head broke surface and I gulped down a lung-refill. I couldn’t see because my eyes were clogged with mud. Something hit me hard over my right ear and I saw shooting white dots inside my head. I swam like hell, swooshing my face in the water to clear the mud. The stuff tasted like nothing I’ve ever tasted. I hit the bank and scrambled blindly up it until the cliff would not let me go any further.
When I finally managed to get my eyes clear it was all over.
I looked up.
The mountain was still in place, when it should by rights have been over in Chad someplace. The overhang was there, too. And there was Komo’s face peering over the ledge.
He called, “You okay, boss?”
Was I okay!
I spat out the remnants of that foul-tasting mud. “Komo, you bloody murderer! I’m going to skin you alive when I get up there!”
He looked down at me. “Okay, boss.” He added, “You owe me the bottle,” and his head disappeared.
I sat there and waited for the shivers to go away.
We polished the bottle off between us.
Then we spent the remaining daylight hours filling in the hole vacated by one very surprised rock. We finally got around to food pushing nine-thirty that night. Komo built and lit a fire because you need a source of heat at night out there. The heat of the day just doesn’t seem to stick around for long. Komo was a wizard at building fires that stayed in most of the night.
First thing next day we negotiated the Land Rover around the now not-so awkward bit and pushed on. We met a Fulani tribesman who was chivvying a couple of threadbare cows down the track to God knows where. We waved hello and he just watched us bump up past him. He had an impassive expression on his pockmarked face. I hoped that the rock was not a favorite resting-place of his.
Then we hit the high plains.
The high plains are just like the low plains, only higher. They are just as boulder-strewn, though perhaps not quite as hot and dusty. We saw tire tracks, wide enough to be those of a truck. They were fresh. Komo said they probably belonged to our bushwhacking rebels. We discussed that subject for a while, then forgot about it.
We passed one village, then another.
People came out to watch us go by.
They waved, and we waved back. All very friendly. Like on holiday.
At last we reached the flatlands, and grass.
We headed south singing some inane song or other.
Komo said that if it was okay by me he’d just as soon give the plains a miss next time. I said it was okay by me.
The rain forests came up to meet us.
North-east of the plains, high and low, the land is desert and stretches way over to Chad. Fall south of the plains and you are in a different world altogether. Here are the rain forests, which catch the moisture-laden air off the Bight of Biafra and the south-west coastals off the Gulf of Guinea. In these forests the natives raise their cattle, goats, maize, pigs and chickens.
The pigs and the chickens are a hazard to driving.
And with the kind of roads they’ve got in south-east Nigeria you don’t need more hazards.
It was raining as we passed through Bell and turned west.
Bell has a railway station, a small refinery, one or two stores and a military base of currently indeterminate provenance, that I had once lobbed mortar shells at. Aside from the military presence, it is actually quite a nice little town set in rolling countryside. It even has a vineyard. I can't remember why I was lobbing mortar shells at it. It was very early on in my mercenary career, back when I didn’t give a damn who, what, why or where. I had never mentioned it to Komo because I didn't think he'd understand. Besides, as it was several administrations ago in any case, it wasn't relevant. Mind you, I'm not certain it was relevant even back then
It would be trite to say that life is one big circle made up of lots of little ones. Nevertheless, it would be true.
We left Bell behind us and the rain stopped. There may have been a connection, I don’t know. Nigeria rains when it feels like it. I don’t think it gives a toss for anyone.
Komo said he thought our bushwhackers might have been a couple of kids looking for a giggle. I didn’t go a bundle on that suggestion either, but I still couldn’t come up with one of my own. The topic whiled away the time. If nothing else.
At Gida we hit a roadblock and the soldiers made us unload the Land Rover. Then they let us load it up again. They laughed when Komo told them we’d been up on the plains looking for gold. Luckily they did not ask to see his papers.
Komo had papers, but these were not strictly legal papers. Come to that, they weren’t even loosely legal papers.
Komo had been deported from Kenya for killing a lion with a spear. In Kenya it was illegal to do that, whether or not you did it to prove your manhood to your tribal peers.
Like me, Komo had just sort of drifted into Nigeria.
Unlike me, he had never so much as raised a finger against that country. Yet Komo was considered illegal. You’ve got to stay up all night to figure this world out. Best not to bother.
We headed southwest again.
I was driving.
Komo, who had been abnormally quiet since the roadblock, said, “You still gonna pay me, boss?”
We hit a pothole and everything rattled and banged.
I said, “What the hell does that mean, Komo?”
He studied a broken finger nail as if he’d only just noticed it. “You know, boss,” he said, “No gold nor nothing.”
Komo had been with me for the best part of a year, and though I didn’t figure I knew all his angles - the Masai have this distant, unreachable streak - I thought he should have known me. With me, what you see is what you get. I gave up trying to impress people, especially friends, long ago. I took out my wallet and tossed it over to him. “What has no gold got to do with no wages? Take it.” I couldn’t figure out why he thought he wouldn’t get his wages.
Komo didn’t take it. He sat there fiddling with the wallet and mouthing the occasional word without saying anything. Another Masai trait is that they hurt easily, and for no apparent reason. Though I don't think hurt is the word I'm after. The thing was, you could kick Komo in the crotch and he’d laugh it off somehow. Other times a blink in the wrong place would set him off. It was a hereditary thing, cultivated over a million years of tribal history. And you don’t wipe that out with a few well-intentioned diatribes on the ways of the modern western world.
I said, “So?”
Komo shrugged. “What you gonna do now, boss?”
Then I had it. Komo was off on his tangent again. The uniforms back at the roadblock had done it. I should have known they would. I said, “We’ll take a few days off, then we’ll see. But first we pay a visit to Freddy Garrant, eh?”
I thought that last bit would cheer him up.
I suffer from obscure depressions myself - I guess everyone does - so I had every sympathy with Komo.
I had hired Komo to help me in this repair-shop business I’d started. Autos and stuff. Down in Port Harcourt. As a business venture it had been a sound enough idea, I guess. I’d figured to catch the white ex-patriot trade. For sure I was the only non-black in that line down there. We’d done pretty well, too, at the start. It could have been a little gold mine in itself if we – well, I - hadn’t pratted about so much.
We did a couple of punctures, one or two brake jobs, some electrical rewiring, even a big-end replacement that actually worked afterwards. Plus odds and ends. And we’d had a lot of fun in the process.
The repair shop had as many empty bottles scattered around as spanners and wrenches. What was lacking was any kind of serious effort on my part and the customers had just drifted away.
I couldn’t blame them.
So I’d bought the Land Rover and we’d spent many happy hours fitting it out for rough country. We figured to become gold miners. Which, on paper again, was not as hare-brained as it might appear. There was still gold to be found in Nigeria. People were coming in with small finds all the time.
It was a guy called Ponce who directed us to our little slab of granite. Ponce was a Belgian who didn’t have any legs any more. He’d lost them using questionable dynamite. Probably - but this is only a guess - supplied by Freddy Garrant. Garrant didn’t take the small prospectors seriously enough. He had eyes only for the big boys, the ones who dig deep and sell globally.
We had promised Ponce a share in any finds.
Ponce lived the best way he could down in Harcourt... (I was going to say “bumming around”, but that could be misconstrued as some kind of a sick joke). What he did was he lived mostly off handouts from the five hundred or so French and Belgians working for Forcados Oil. He played a fair piano, so it wasn’t all one-sided. The only thing Ponce couldn’t hack on the piano was the pedals, so everything came out the same shade. I’m no great music lover, but when you’re several sheets to the wind, you don’t need to be. And Ponce did his playing in places where they served the hard stuff, so that was all right.
Yes, Ponce did okay, and he seemed happy enough despite his losses. For sure he did better than Bonny River Repairs.
Bonny River Repairs.
That was what Komo and I called ourselves when we weren’t out shooting at dynamite.
Komo was still deep in thought.
I once did not have a desperately high opinion of purebred Africans; probably because I never bothered to look further than the end of my nose. Komo, on a personal level at least, and by some kind of strange default, changed that. He was sure as hell my style, moods or no moods. Currently, that was. Perhaps at another time in my life he wouldn't have fitted at all, and who knew how long the current situation would last. But for the time being we could generally laugh at the same things and the same things made us mad. And if I forgot something, Komo would not. And it could be a toss-up - so long as I cheated - as to who could drink who under the table.
Komo, like most Masai, was a vegetarian.
I do not know their reasons.
These people can drink milk by the gallon.
Komo could get through 12 liters a day and still find room in there for beer and whisky. I shudder to think what chemical forces were at work in his stomach with that mix.
Anyway, against all the odds, or because of them, we had hit it off from the word go.
I guess it happens sometimes.
I said, “What is it, Komo?”
He lifted his massive shoulders. “I think maybe you pack up and leave now, boss.”
I’d thought that was it. I said, “I already told you, you great ape. In any case, where would I go, for Christ’s sake!”
Komo said, “I dunno, boss. Back fightin’ maybe.”
I sighed. That was it, of course.
A hundred years ago I’d been a mercenary. It was what had brought me to Africa in the first place. Direct from Bosnia.
But a hundred years is a hundred years.
I was not a mercenary anymore.
Which was what I liked to think.
I guess Komo knew me better than I knew myself.
The big problem was I’d still get the occasional visit from some clown who thought I was merely taking an extended rest from the killing grounds.
Another problem was that I’d been good at it.
I’m not proud of that, I merely state facts.
So they kept coming out of the woodwork. Like a few weeks ago, for instance. This guy with red hair who wanted to pay me two hundred thousand dollars for a job down in Namibia. I have to confess that I did give this one some thought. Namibia was unfinished business for me. I lost a lot of good friends down there.
The Keetmanshoop Retreat.
But more about that later.
Anyway, I told the man with red hair that I wasn’t interested. We were on our way up to the plains in any case, which was perhaps just as well. To keep things out where they can be seen, I had told Komo about the man, the visit and the offer. He had looked at me long and hard, and I guess he saw in my eyes what I had yet to realize in my own mind. The seed was sown. And seeds germinate, wherever you throw them. But, off we had traipsed.
Being a mercenary had done several things for me. It had jaundiced my outlook on life in general and people in particular. It had robbed me of any real sense of purpose and direction, and it had made for me a lot of money.
Tainted money that didn’t mean a whole lot.
But money just the same. I wonder if there’s a single cent out there that isn’t tainted.
My current philosophy was that if I felt like nose-diving a few business ventures then I could afford to do so. So why the hell not?
That was my short-term philosophy.
My long-term philosophy was anyone’s guess.
And Komo was a great guy to have along on a directionless wander. His problem - which was also my problem in a manner of speaking - was that he was trying to get somewhere, to achieve something with his life, and he couldn’t figure out why I was not. To which I could give him no rational answer. In hindsight, I know I should have given that more thought. It's amazing how easy it is to fool ourselves.
I said, “Komo, I shouldn’t have to say this, but here it is, the bottom line on our future activities, We’re going back to Harcourt and take a few days off. Maybe after that we’ll go back after the gold. Then again, maybe we won’t. For sure not the plains. eh? But whatever we do, we’ll do. And I do mean we. That is unless you want to zoom off and do your own thing someplace. In which case I’ll stake you for whatever you want. But I’d like to have you stick around. Don’t ask me why, because you’re an ugly black bastard who steals all the good-looking girls without even trying.”
Komo smiled at last. He nodded. “I’s true, boss. You right about that.”
I grunted, the ice broken at last. But, in truth, all I had done was postpone the inevitable. “Right,” I said, “So there’s the money. Take six months wages in advance and give yourself a rise while you’re at it and don’t ask any more stupid questions.”
He nodded his sage nod. “Okay, boss.” He handed me back the wallet without going into it. He added, “You’re a good man, bwana.” Komo was selective in his use of that word. It could be a mark of respect, a joke, or an insult.
I said, “Bwana, eh?”
He nodded, his face all cheery again. “All white people is bwana, boss.”
I said, “That shows how much you know about white people, Komo.”
He pulled a face. “There sure ain’t no black bwanas, boss.”
What could I say to that?
I stopped the Land Rover and we changed seats. I pushed a wad of local currency, Naira, into Komo’s pocket as he let in the clutch. “Don’t forget to bank some of it,” I said.
Komo kept this book on how much he was salting away for his rainy day. I added, “You coming back to the bungalow with me, or what?”
He said, “Maybe I go see Kandy first.”
Kandy was a local girl. I never knew her last name. She was Komo’s irregular sex-stop, or was it the other way around? She waited tables down at the Forcados Oil Social Club, which was also one of Ponce’s venues. They had a piano there that refused to die decently. Ponce never played at the big hotels and clubs. They had professionals in those places. We saw a lot of Ponce.
I said, “Okay,” and I pummeled my coat into a pillow, propped it against the window and had a sleep.
There are a hundred things I can have nightmares about, the kind where you wake up in a cold sweat, shouting something. This time, probably because of the guy with the red hair, it was about The Keetmanshoop Retreat.
Blast from the past.
If someone ever writes: “A Concise History of Mercenary Warfare in Africa,” the Keetmanshoop Retreat will figure prominently.
There were 78 of us. We had been paid to wipe out the Gemsbok Garrison in Twee Rivieron. That’s on the Botswana/Namibia border. Except that someone else had been paid to drop that information in someone else’s lap. Mercenary warfare is busy with such encumbrances. The garrison was waiting for us, fangs drawn and ready. We were blasted to hell and sent packing into Namibia proper. But it didn’t end there. The entire garrison, right down to the tea boys, plus a whole bunch of reinforcements that had appeared out of nowhere, followed us over the border. The running battle lasted seven weeks and we were harried this way and that.
Rietfontain to Aroab.
Aroab to Narubis.
Narubis to Naute Dam, in the Fish River canyon, where we tried to make some kind of a stand.
They sent in helicopter gun ships and fried us.
We stole transports; trucks, from some mining company and cut west to the Konkiep River, ending up at Witputz. 56 of us now. It was at Witputz that we thought we’d lost them.
But they showed up again. Now with Namibian troops.
Our number dwindled to 45.
We had to leave the wounded behind.
About that time we heard that our paymasters had pulled the plug and were disowning us. A few of the guys deserted. Just another occupational hazard.
I offered the rest the opportunity of simply splitting and going our separate ways. No-one else took that option. Pride, I guess. Or sheer bloody-mindedness.
Anyway, we made it to Luderitz, on the west coast, and scared the hell out of a whole bunch of miners who had somehow gotten mixed in with us right when the opposition called in more air strikes.
Come dark one night we managed to commandeer some boats and slip south past them. This time we thought we’d really lost them. We abandoned the boats and tried to steal an old Mitchell from an airfield owned by one or other of the mining outfits. By now we were down to below forty, plus some walking wounded. We had to try something pretty desperate, and one of the guys could fly aircraft.
We almost made it. But one of the Mitchell’s engines started coughing at the wrong moment and we piled up in a sand-drift, which accounted for 10 more dead and a limp that comes back to me in damp weather.
After a halfhearted firefight with the airstrip guards we stole more trucks and hightailed it east into the Namib desert, eventually arriving back at Witputz. From Witputz for that second time we headed north to Keetmanshoop, where we knew there to be another airport.
At Keetmanshoop we were decimated, right when we thought we had it made.
Only seven of us got away in the trucks.
A long, tired story later, three of us; myself, a Chinese called Wi Yang, and a Madagascan called Kooty, were back in the Fish River canyon. We had left dead and dying and condemned trailing in circles all over the country.
Kooty called it The Rout of Civilization.
Chitti, as we called Yang, said it was our just desserts.
He was a deep man.
We wintered in an abandoned mining camp a million miles from nowhere, living off lizards and the occasional desert deer and brackish water from an old well. Come spring we were three thin mercenaries.
Chitti died on the trip north. From what, I don’t know. He just wasted away and died. Three days from start to finish.
At the Namib-Naukluft Park, which is not a park at all but a waste of sand with the odd rock sentinel, I drove the truck into a salt lake, one of several in that region, and the two of us hoofed it out to Walvis Bay, on the coast.
My nightmares would often centre on an expanse of sloping sand upon which my feet could find no purchase. I’d just keep slipping and sliding, like on ice. Then Mark Travers, who was actually one of the first to die, would be flying this battered old Mitchell straight at me. He’d be laughing. Then, just as the starboard prop was about to hit, I’d wake up.
Komo said, “You bin dreamin’ again, boss.”
The air was hot and muggy and we were passing the Wangatto Timber Mills. My shirt stuck to my sweat-drenched skin. I smelt like a mountain bear I’d once had an argument with. I nodded over at Komo, thanking him for his observation, then I twisted over and tried to get back to sleep.
I have this death wish about that particular nightmare.
I’d really like to know if that prop would cut me to pieces.
I knew it wouldn’t, but was interested to know how the subconscious part of me would handle the crunch.
Maybe there was something just beyond that spinning, near-invisible prop that I ought to know about.
This time my sleep was dreamless.
When I woke up again the rain was coming down in a vertical torrent and Komo was fighting the wheel. We were skidding all over the place. There was never any point in telling Komo to slow down. So I nodded off again.
This time it was a dream and not a nightmare.
The guy with red hair was in it.
So were our two lucky-missing bushwhackers.
So were a couple of the Keetmanshoop boys.
The venue was the Fish River Canyon.
And I was swimming in a lake of dollar bills.
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