|The huge annual gala was planned months before 9/11, |
but when Greg saw the sign he had to wonder
if the date was a coincidence, or if the locals
knew something long before the U.S. did
The Toyota Land Cruiser crawled up the last low escarpment before the drop toward Kenya, braked hard, and slid to a halt in the rocky roadbed. Jolted from the stupor that comes with riding rough roads for hours under the African sun, Greg’s right hand instinctively reached for the rifle in its scabbard on the dash. He glanced left at his driver, Muwinga, who was wide eyed and gripping the wheel, then looked up the hill to see what the problem might be.
“Not good,” Muwinga hissed, as the Land Rover an eighth of a mile ahead reversed from the ridgeline and backed down toward them.
Fearing an ambush, both men jumped from the truck, as did the two gun bearers riding in the back. Hiding in what little cover they could find, they awaited the Land Rover. It stopped opposite where Greg was lying partially hidden behind a termite mound, in a tangle of vines.
Dipa, leader of the poacher patrol Greg had helped fund for two decades, leaned out, casually, with a big smile on his face. “Fill up,” he said. “Please check tires and clean windshield.”
Greg never knew quite what to make of Dipa’s off-beat sense of humor, and often fell victim to his pranks. Playing it safe, he stared hard at the boyish man who had killed a lion with a spear when he was only fifteen, yet would make a joke out of any situation, now that he was in his 30s. “Sure, I’ll get right on it.”
“I give big tip,” Dipa replied, staring back coolly.
“Okay,” Greg said. “I’ll bite. Is there a reason you scared the hell out of us by backing down here?”
“Oh that,” Dipa said. “Yes.”
“Well?” Greg asked. “If you don’t mind, what is going on?”
Dipa gave the distinctive chirp he always did when searching hard for English, or American words.
“Lorries. Trucks,” he said. “Six on plain. Straight ahead.”
“Two miles. Maybe little less.”
“Are they coming this way?”
“No. They just waiting.”
Dipa made a show of giving a long look around, then shrugged his shoulders.
On that point, Dipa had it right. The state department, the CIA, the people in surrounding villages in Ethiopia and Kenya, all told Greg they would never drive across this corner of Somalia without a problem. No one made it without trouble; few made it at all.
So far they had been lucky, just the one incident when four crazies in their two little green Toyota Hi-Lux pickups tried to attack Greg’s convoy of three trucks and twelve guns. That issue was settled with only six well-placed rounds.
Greg knew this would not go down so easily. “So what’s the plan?” he asked.
“You boss,” Dipa replied. “You tell.”
“How about if we walk up to the ridge and take a good look around? And take a vote.”
“That sound good,” Dipa said, raising his hand toward the third truck, an open-top Volvo model that looked like a CJ-style Jeep on steroids, and that ran on diesel, jet fuel, kerosene or even old cooking oil. It had been following a quarter-mile behind for security, now Dipa waved it toward them. At the same time he spit out a few words in Swahili, and the gun bearers dug into the box in the back of the Toyota. They emerged with a sniper rifle that looked like something a Star Wars storm trooper might carry, a box of ammo, and a small bag of grenades.
“Good day for hike,” Dipa said, as the group spread out and walked up the ridge.
Greg was an avid trail runner, but malaria medication, little sleep, and spending two weeks mostly riding, instead of walking and running, had sapped him. When he left for Africa he had just turned 50, but he felt like a 30-year-old, and still ran like one. Less than a year ago he had easily won his age group in the Bull Run 50 Miler back home in Virginia. While in Africa he had hoped to learn from the Kenyans—the best runners on the planet—and return triumphantly to the states running like one.
Instead he had enjoyed only one good trail run in Africa, and he had to cut that one short because a lioness showed up where no lions had been seen in a decade. Greg had learned that when an African said “no animals to worry about, just go run” it was the equivalent of someone saying “Downtown Detroit isn’t that dangerous at night, just go out to dinner and enjoy the evening.” In addition to the encounter with the lioness, his hikes and feeble trail runs had landed him in the midst of a group of aggressive Cape buffalo and a belligerent herd of elephants. He had even been forced into an ignoble retreat by a half dozen surprisingly territorial zebras. The misadventures were ruining his running, but had him climbing trees like he was a teenager.
As he began following Dipa up the hill he realized it was steep, stadium step steep, and the terrain made for hazardous footing as it alternated between loose shale, sandstone pebbles, and sleek, black volcanic rock. The short but steep climb made Greg’s lungs and legs seem even older than his 50 years, and his knees and hips felt like they were going on 70. He was embarrassed to be the last to arrive at the ridgeline, and that he was breathing so hard he knew everyone else could hear him.
|The hill was steep, stadium step steep, and the terrain made for hazardous footing |
as it alternated between loose shale, sandstone pebbles, and sleek, black volcanic rock
Greg shot Dipa a look that widened his eyes and froze him in place. There was no quip this time.
“I should not joke about Keith,” Dipa said, looking at the ground.
“No, you sure as hell shouldn’t,” Greg said, between ragged breaths. “If your people could learn a little birth control, and quit trespassing and poaching animals, Keith wouldn’t have gone nuts from having to shoot so many of them.”
That brought life back into Dipa’s eyes. “It was my people’s land first.”
“Well if they wanted to keep it,” Greg said, “they should have fought harder. And they shouldn’t have sold what was given back to them after they lost every battle.”
Muwinga stepped cautiously toward them. “We should worry about trucks, not history.” He had played mediator countless times with Keith, and even though he hoped otherwise, he realized he would have to do the same with Greg. The new man’s quick decision making concerned him. A devout Muslim, it also greatly concerned Muwinga that Greg was contemptuous of Islam, and all other formal religions. Yet he was begrudgingly impressed by Greg’s blatant honesty and well-thought out opinions.
For years Keith had dodged the subject when Muwinga brought it up, but Greg was quickly to the point when asked about his beliefs. “There is only one god, and that is nature,” Greg had answered. “If people would all believe in the same sun and the same moon there would be nothing to kill each other over. But if people want to call their gods Allah, or Christ, or whatever, so they have an excuse to argue and fight and kill each other, they unfortunately have the right to do so. Stupid as that may be.”
Despite standing six-feet tall, Muwinga felt very small as Greg and Dipa glared at him. Then they looked at each other, then back at him—then back at each other again. Suddenly they burst out laughing. The rest of the patrol had seen this countless times before with Keith, and a surprising number of times with Greg in only two weeks, and they held their breath whenever it happened.
Greg and Keith had grown up as neighbors and best friends in Virginia. Greg was short and stocky and prone to rash decisions. Keith was tall, slim and intellectual; he liked to think things through. It was a strange pairing, bonded by shared interests in boxing and martial arts, and by writing and photography. And shooting. From when they were kids and dispatched an entire colony of hornets with their Daisy Red Ryder BB guns, to the high-school days of building rifles to shoot watermelons and pumpkins at 1,000 yards or more, they pursued precision shooting with nearly the same zeal as they sought meaningful words and photos.
Both were photographers and writers for the school newspaper and competed to see who would publish first in the local weekly. Greg beat Keith by one week, with a photo of a local fire, when they were only fifteen. Keith published a far better photo the next week, and was nominated for a state award. They planned careers either as military photographers or as war correspondents, until they started watching live coverage of the Vietnam War on television. By the time graduation rolled around, they had made a vow that if either was drafted they would both flee to Canada.
Neither was drafted, but both were bored all through college and their early 20s from writing classes and freelancing for various small newspapers. Greg even established a pen name and a Canadian alias just so he wouldn’t have to put his own byline on stories such as “Zack the Prodigious Goat”—who excelled at siring quintuplets instead of just doubles and triples. Such articles helped pay the bills, but Greg found them humiliating.
When they were 25, one of Greg’s mentors put him in touch with a State Department contact. Within a few weeks he and Keith were in Nicaragua, sent there to help carry medical supplies to remote villages, and to document the brutality of the Sandinistas as they attempted to overthrow the American-backed Somoza regime.
Things had gone badly.
The only excesses they could document were by the government, not the rebels, and it turned out the medical supplies were only a layer deep on top of the weapons the group was smuggling to covert counter-revolutionaries. The ambush and the horrible weeks that followed were almost inevitable.
The irony of that whole situation was that Greg’s gut instinct had been to take a pass on the project. It was Keith’s voluminous research, and his burning desire to “do something big” that finally convinced Greg to go. Years later they would realize they were probably involved in the forefront of what would ultimately become known as the “Iran-Contra affair,” but at the time they naively thought they were being brutalized for helping a church group carry medical necessities to the needy.
Despite losing nearly 30 pounds in the weeks after a Sandinista bashed him with the butt of a rifle and broke his jaw, Greg was fueled by rage at being so badly treated for merely doing a good deed. Keith responded like a man sentenced to death, and seemed resigned to the inevitable.
Two events saved them. A major push by government forces nearly overran their camp, and it forced the rebels to move them to a small village less than 10 miles from the Honduras border. The new captors took one look at Greg’s emaciated body and the right side his face—which now looked like half a rotten cantaloupe—and dropped their guard. Two afternoons later, one jailer was left in charge while the others went to a party. Thinking Greg was all but dead, the man stepped over him to give Keith a kick for daring to speak, and the next thing he knew an arm was clenched around his neck. Greg was overwhelmed with exhaustion, but somewhere deep in his brain a primordial spark told him to hang on, no matter what. When the man and Greg quit moving, Keith feared they were both dead. Greg finally stirred, and in minutes that seemed like hours, found keys to their shackles in his foe’s pants pocket. Keith had to practically carry him to a jeep. Wearing some of the rebels’ own coats and hats, and looking every bit the part of men barely surviving a war, the few people they passed hardly noticed them as they drove to the border.
When they finally made it home, they did their best to fit in, but the acting tore at them. Their friends wanted to meet at bars and talk about their great winter ski trips, or about all the women they bedded at the beach. Greg and Keith didn’t even want to think about their winter trip, much less talk about it.
While their friends planned the next drunken weekend chasing women and partying, they immersed in environmental activism. That quickly seemed too passive, so they dived into rescuing pit bulls, Dobermans, Rottweillers. and other heavy-duty dogs from an illegal dog-fighting ring.
When they used to box, Greg was always amazed at Keith’s technical prowess. He could hardly ever lay a glove on his tall and rangy friend, and was peppered with jabs for the effort. When they scuffled with rednecks, Keith was stunned by Greg’s instincts. While Keith traded punches with one attacker, Greg would kick one man in the knee, karate chop another in the throat, and grab any available weapon and lay waste to several more. Keith would finally wear down his opponent, only to discover Greg had used a kick, a chop, and a broom or a stout leather dog leash or any other handy weapon, to put four or five guys on the ground.
Within two years of returning from Central America, Keith gave up any hope of ever again “going domestic” as he called it, and left for Africa. Greg never knew all the details of the next few years, but ultimately Keith found his passion in protecting wild animals in projects from southern Mozambique, near the border with South Africa, to the Tsavo area of Kenya. In between he prowled the famed Serengeti and Masai Mara, and parts of Zimbabwe.
For his part, Greg did what he could from the states. He raised funds by telling the story of Keith’s efforts, and used the money to supply his old friend with weapons that far exceeded the dreams of their high school days. Ultimately Keith was able to start buying crucial properties and establishing his own preserves. At first he gave people second chances, third chances, and even fourth chances. After a few years of catching the same people over and over carrying snares and weapons into the preserves, he gave up and simply started shooting offenders. The mysterious disappearances didn’t play well in local villages, but no one could prove what was happening in an area covered by millions of acres of grass, scrub and forest.
In the early years, Greg was shocked when Keith said he had to shoot an intruder, after a decade he hardly noticed. With the growth of terrorism, and especially after the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the kill rate skyrocketed.
“when i see people in the bush now,” Keith had emailed, “i never know if they are poor locals trying to catch bush meat, or islamic nut cases with heavy weapons. now it is shoot first, ask questions later.”
In retrospect, there were plenty of warning signs that Keith was unraveling, but no one saw them until it was too late. The news came in the form of a terse email Greg received between photo sessions in his Washington, DC studio: “Mastodon found dead in area 3. tusks gone. inside job. should have killed those bastards years ago. through playing politics.”
|Mastodon was an early YouTube sensation. His favorite stunt was to charge vehicles|
with his giant ears flapping, spray dust on terrified tourists, then just turn and walk away
Mastodon had survived to old age because Keith spent most of his free time for several years following him around and sleeping on the ground near him. If a solo poacher stalked Mastodon, they never heard the crack of Keith’s rifle. If it was a group of poachers, they heard a very few shots before their bullet arrived. Keith had decided the life of one good elephant was worth the lives of dozens of Africans, and had long since given up on the idea of convincing poachers to stop their dirty work. When he caught them he shot them, simple as that.
In the PR campaigns Greg played up the myth that the preserve was winning over hearts and minds and that local attitudes were changing. In reality he knew that about the only time a local heart felt any different was when one of Keith’s bullets ripped through it. There were a very few exceptions, and most of them now worked for the poacher patrol. And even then, when it was a far better job than they could have dreamed of when growing up, it was often a mistake to trust them—as proven by the killing of Mastodon.
When paying groups from the states toured the preserve, they expected to meet Keith, but they never did. He was not going to lie to anyone, so he just avoided them.
In an email exchange, Greg had once asked Keith if maybe he should lighten up. The reply: “do you want to save animals or lazy, dishonest, corrupt SOBs? there may never be another like Mastodon. there will be another thousand worthless africans and arabs by the time this email gets to you. if i sit around bullshitting with tourists someone will kill Mastodon while im gone.”
Greg had fired back: “They can’t all be bad. Or all the animals would be dead.”
Keith’s response: “i trust maybe 1 out of 100K. laziness and incompetence is the main reason they dont kill all the animals. that and bullets. our bullets. come over here and spend a month and you will see”
Remembering Keith’s idealism in that distant younger day, his resolve to flee to Canada instead of going to war in Vietnam, and his seeming willingness to die rather than fight his way out of Central America, Greg didn’t know what to make of the changes.
After the death of Mastodon, and Keith’s dire email, Greg emailed and phoned, but could not reach Keith. Not even on his satellite phone. Greg knew what that meant. Keith had “gone sniper,” as he called it, and was on a hunt. This had happened many times before, so Greg was not particularly concerned.
Five days later, Greg had received an email from Muwinga, assistant manager at Kivuko. He asked if Greg could possibly visit: Quickly. He reported Keith had shot three members of the Area 3 poacher patrol, then took his two favorite rifles and a backpack, and just walked into the bush. Over the next three days, two local village chiefs were found shot to death, then the regional game warden. A day later a district legislator who lived more than 70 miles away took a bullet through his head while checking his mail. The shot came from so far away no one heard it.
So now Greg was here, trying to sort out what was lost and what might yet be saved. And he was constantly weighing the price of it all, such as the mess they were in now.
“I’m only two weeks in, and I’m halfway to being Keith,” he mumbled. Muwinga just looked at him, with arms crossed: “The trucks. We need to make plan.”
From the ridge they had a clear view of the problem before them. Their road descended the escarpment onto open, sparse plain, then forked in three directions. Parked by each of the roads they might choose, sat two trucks. It was a safe bet that several men lounged in the shade on the far side of those trucks, and that they were heavily armed and waiting for them.
“And of course we need to take the route right up the middle, right between them,” Greg said, still struggling to breathe normally. “Anyone have a plan?”
The men busied themselves scuffing boots in the sand, looking over their shoulders at the sun to assess the hours of daylight, rolling their heads to loosen their shoulders, and in general waiting for someone else to speak first.
Dipa broke the silence. “Let’s do melon.”
Greg knew he was being played. “The melon? Like Keith did? Will you quit screwing around? Those trucks could be carrying ten men each. And they may have a 50-caliber machine gun under one of those tarps. If they got lucky, they could hit us a mile away.”
“If have all that,” Dipa said, “would be standing where we are, kill us on way up. Or waiting at bottom of hill. Kill us on way down. They not so sure. Melon work.”
Greg looked around and was surprised to see dark faces highlighted by shiny white-toothed smiles as all nodded in agreement.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s do the damn melon.”
They walked back to the trucks, fired the motors, clawed up the ridge and eased down the other side. When they reached the plain they stopped a mile short of the waiting trucks. From there they could now see several men standing beside the vehicles, all dressed in old military fatigues and other ragged clothing. All were carrying assault rifles.
They were probably Russian AK-47s, Greg thought, or Chinese made Type 81s, since the Chinese were using Africa as a testing ground the way the former Soviet Union once used Afghanistan. Either way, they could do a lot of killing at close range, but were mostly ineffective beyond 400 yards, or 500 at most.
|The Russian AK-47s and Chinese Type 81s could do a lot of killing at close range, |
but were mostly ineffective beyond 400 yards, or 500 at most
“Hold that melon high,” he cautioned Dipa. “I don’t want to lose it in the heat.”
“I see you shoot. I hold real high. Don’t be hit.”
With that, Dipa gave a laugh, and walked toward two melons that Sami, one of the best trackers in the group, had pulled from a crate and laid on the ground. Each was half again larger than an American cantaloupe.
“Mighty Samburu warrior,” Dipa said, impaling one melon with his spear. He tossed the other to his driver and looked at Greg. “I kill lion with this spear. Don’t shoot off tip.”
Greg shook his head. “Why didn’t I just stay home?”
“Because you great warrior,” Dipa said. “Mighty melon killer.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Be sure to stop at three clicks. Then go exactly three more if you have to.”
“Done this before,” Dipa said. “Hold melon real high. Don’t be shot.”
The Volvo coughed and vibrated to life, then trundled toward the center truck. At exactly three tenths of a mile it turned right and stopped.
Greg dialed the scope to 16X power so that even though they were a mile away he could watch the men talking and gesturing in the distant trucks. They were obviously and justifiably confused about what was going on. The two trucks guarding the fork of the road that went to the right rumbled to life, but didn’t move.
Greg called down to Muwinga. “If any of those trucks heads this way, bang the roof. If I’m looking through the scope I may not see them before they get a running start. And set a couple of more boxes of ammo up here. If this melon gambit doesn’t work I’m going to be doing some really fast shooting.”
“Sure hope this works,” Greg said to himself. “Would feel really strange to be back photographing politicians in DC in a couple of weeks, if I have to shoot 30 or 40 people here today.”
Dipa raised the impaled melon on his spear and braced the shaft against the side of the Volvo. It was a fairly easy shot, barely 500 yards, but Greg took one last reading, just in case. No wind. He exhaled and pressed easy on the trigger.
The melon detonated like a bomb, with some of the seeds and pulp raining down on Dipa. Through the scope he saw Dipa make a face and shake his fist. Then he pulled the spear down, pointed to the still-intact point, and gave a thumbs up.
Now the communication in the trucks was animated. Greg could watch it through his scope as he heard his guys behind him laughing, trying to envision what the distant Somalis must be saying. The two trucks blocking the road to the right came to life and drove slowly to join those in the center. So, Greg mused, someone had tipped them off. They must have known we had to go up the middle all along.
After five minutes and no further movement, the Volvo again rumbled to life and drove another three tenths of a mile toward the distant trucks. This still put it safely out of AK-47 range, but gave Greg a much more challenging 1000-yard shot.
The Volvo stopped, Dipa hoisted another impaled melon, and Greg took a couple of extra breaths. There was still no wind so he exhaled and again gently touched the trigger. The melon ripped apart, not as spectacularly as the first, but explosively enough to make the point.
This time there was lively discussion in the distant trucks, and the two on the left fired and joined the four in the center.
Greg let out a deep breath and felt his shoulders sag. So there was to be more pointless killing. “Keith, how on earth did you hold it together for 20 years living like this? We want to help animals. All we do is shoot people.”
“What?” Muwinga asked.
Oh no, Greg thought. I am talking to myself. Out loud. That can’t be good.
“Nothing, Muwinga. But I guess they really do want a fight. So let’s go give them one.”
Muwinga cranked the engine to life and drove slowly forward while Greg lay on top of the truck with the gun at the ready. The Land Cruiser swung in behind. Both trucks stopped opposite Dipa and the Volvo.
Dipa shook his head. “I no understand. I be fucking moving if I them.”
Greg smiled, even as he scanned the men with the scope, deciding which one to shoot first. They weren’t entirely stupid, for they were crouching behind the truck and peering out from behind tires and fenders—but didn’t they understand their heads were about the same size as the melons? He laughed out loud when he spotted the two hiding behind the canvas tarp and peeking around the edge. He was only 700 yards away now, how was it possible they did not understand they were about to die?
Just as he was about to shoot a man lying partially hidden behind the twin back tires of the truck on the far right, Muwinga banged hard on the Rover’s roof. “Left truck.”
Greg swung the rifle to the left, expecting to see a truck charging at them. Instead he saw that a man had climbed down from the cab, and was stripping down to colorful wrap-style shorts that looked similar to Dipa’s native Samburu festival garb. He started walking toward them with his hands high overheard. Instead of showing surrender, a long machete spanned between them.
“Now what the hell?” Greg said to no one in particular.
“I have no idea,” answered Muwinga.
Dipa made his clicking sound, then a deep sigh, then more clicking. “He Aushwanga. Somali neighbors of my people. Cattle thieves. I should tell you shoot bastard.”
“Do you want me to?”
“No. He coming to talk. I go talk to him.”
“What? That is a wicked damn machete he is carrying. Looks almost like a sword a Viking would carry.”
Dipa was stripping down to his own shorts, revealing a body built like a middle-linebacker. A body marked by several distinctive scars, his lion-claw necklace, and other various bracelets, rings and anklets.
“You know about Vikings?” he asked Greg.
“Sure. My clan is descended from Vikings.”
“I thought Vikings tall. Strong. Good looking.”
“And your point is?”
“You are short.”
“I diplomat. Don’t want to be shot in back.”
Greg just shook his head. “Do you want me to keep the gun on him?”
“I kill lion with spear. Not worry about Somali with panga.” With that Dipa gave a laugh and began trotting toward the Somali, who was now carrying the machete by his side and was barely 200 yards away.
They met near a small ditch, circled warily, then the Somali drove his machete point first into the dirt. Dipa did the same with his spear. Then they changed positions, each standing by the other’s weapon, still talking. Greg could see Dipa actively gesturing—“no, no”—and he kept the scope centered on the Somali. In a sudden movement the Somali pulled off his necklace and tossed it to Dipa, who eyed it appraisingly. Then he nodded.
With that he picked up the machete, the Somali grabbed the spear, and they both started walking toward the Land Rover, obviously laughing and having a great chat as they grew ever larger in Greg’s scope.
Greg just shook his head: “Now what?” Muwinga got out of the truck, looked through binoculars, and shrugged his shoulders. Greg looked around. All expressions were blank.
“Muwinga, can you tell if he is a Muslim? Is he possibly a suicide bomber?” Greg asked.
“You think all Muslims are suicide bombers?”
“No. But all suicide bombers, so far, are Muslim. So it is a possibility. I hate to kill the guy, but I don’t want him killing all of you guys.”
“I appreciate your concern,” Muwinga replied, “But think he is safe.”
As Dipa and the Somali approached the truck, Dipa pointed at the man walking with him, then to Greg, then took a couple of high steps, like he was climbing.
“You want him to get up here with me? Seriously?”
“Yes, he say you greatest shooter. I tell him it is all the scope. I want him to see.”
As the Somali stepped to the side of the truck Greg reached down to give him a hand up. The man smiled and nodded. Greg showed him how to lie down and look under the rear hood of the scope. Immediately the man began talking excitedly.
Greg was hopelessly lost. He had learned enough Swahili to follow conversation, but this was a new tongue. Some form of Arabic, most likely.
Dipa looked at him.“If he go back to truck and draw circle, will you shoot hole in it?”
Dipa clicked, paused, clicked again. “T-t-trophy.”
“What next? Okay, tell him to draw it on the door.”
The man extended his hand to Greg, shook heartily, smiled and bowed. Then he jumped down, embraced Dipa, and started trotting toward the distant trucks.
“He is taking your spear,” Greg said.
“We trade,” replied Dipa. “He throw in necklace.”
“But that is the spear you killed the lion with.”
Dipa looked down. “It only look same. That spear stay home. Stay safe.”
“But he thinks he has the real one. And he threw in the necklace.”
“Yay,” Dipa said, again looking down. “Somali not so smart.”
“You conned him? That isn’t very noble of a great Samburu warrior.”
“It better than me just kill him and take panga.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that one.”
Muwinga interrupted. “He’s there. He’s ready.”
Greg looked through the scope. The man had drawn a ragged circle not much larger than a softball. He was standing an arm’s length away and pointing at it. All the other men had come out from behind the trucks and were standing well off to each side, eyeing the situation warily.
Greg exhaled and pressed gently. Through the scope he saw the Somali jumping up and down. All the other men rushed toward him and began jumping too. One of them took off his hat, waved it toward Greg, ran out 50 yards or so from the group, and laid it on the ground.
Greg exhaled, squeezed, and the hat went flipping through the dust and short, sparse grass. Much more jumping and yelling followed. Another man ran to one of the trucks and dove under the tarp. Greg tensed, so this was a set up. He studied the tarp through the scope, hunting for any clue where the big gun might be, trying to put the scope on the head of the man behind it. The man emerged a moment later with a metal tin in hand the size of a child’s school lunch box. He waved it in the air then tossed it away from the truck. Greg dialed it in and squeezed. The box flew away from him then bounced high, just once, before coming to rest. The man leaped from the truck and ran to it.
This went on several minutes until all the men finally clambered back into the trucks, fired the engines, and drove away on the left fork of the road. Hopefully only returning to Jalib or Baraawe, Greg thought, not all the way to the hell that was Mogadishu. These weren’t war-hardened killers, they were just out of work fishermen, sent out to do the dirtiest of jobs by men who were war-hardened killers. Instead of bringing back plunder, they would be returning babbling like kids with a wild story to tell. They would not be treated well in Mogadishu, but hopefully they would survive if they were living in a less violent place.
Greg and his crew climbed back into their trucks and headed south, on the middle road, toward Afmadow. There would be some slow, tough, cross-country travel, which would take longer, but was safer because it would keep them away from random attacks on the main road. Eventually they would head west on A3 toward the refugee camps near Dadaab, still more than 150 miles in the distance. Travel on A3 would be faster, but more vulnerable. They would worry about that when they got there.
Greg looked at Muwinga. “Have you ever?”
“No,” Muwinga said, and shrugged. “Strange men.”
“Do you think they will be killed when they return home?” Greg asked.
“I hope so,” Muwinga replied.
Surprised, Greg stared at the man he had known long distance for years, and had come to like very much the past two weeks. He didn’t think much of Muwinga’s Muslim beliefs, but he respected how the man stayed calm and centered. While others reacted chaotically, Muwinga was very systematic, tackling each situation step by step.
“Why on earth would you want them to be killed?”
“Because if they get to tell their story, and they are believed, the price on your head will be even higher than was Keith’s. More men will come for you. I would rather they die than you die.”
Muwinga didn’t like this new man as much as Keith, but he liked his clarity. He shook his head, shoved the truck into gear, instinctively checked the mirrors, and let out the clutch.
Greg’s mood darkened: How freaking ironic is it that I may be worth more dead in the Third World than alive in the First World? The bright spot was that they were moving again, and this time without having to kill anyone.
He grew up killing chickens and fish and wild game, on the farm, on the stream, in the woods. He grew so tired of it he became a vegetarian. He loved the life, the outdoors, the adventure, but not the killing that came with it. And now he was finally here in the Africa he knew he loved long before he arrived, and on too many long nights all he did was relive the day’s killing.
As the truck bounced slowly along under the burning eye of the sun, he pulled his hat low and settled against the back of his seat. He drifted back into the half stupor he enjoyed more than sleep, because here there were no dreams. Killing was probably better than being killed, he thought, but he was no longer certain the difference was worth it.
Even in that stupor, his mind stubbornly turned to thoughts of Keith. The shooting of the legislator was particularly puzzling—surely a 50-year-old man carrying two rifles and a pack couldn’t have walked 70 miles in one night, and crossed two rivers in the process. That shooting had to be a coincidence, but what a strange one.
Greg slumped against the seat and let his eyes drift over the landscape as Muwinga drove. Was it the death of Mastodon, or all the people he had shot, that finally got Keith? Or was he somehow still out there, somewhere, playing some new game his own peculiar way? It didn’t seem possible, but when someone had lived at such a harsh distance from reality as long as Keith, who could say?
Copyright © 2013 by motomynd