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Scatterlings of Africa

Peter Davies

© Peter Davies 2006

Zambezi Valley, December 1972

"Contact... contact... contact..." the radio crackled into life; it was the dawn patrol. Lieutenant Ron Cartwright could hear the suppressed excitement in the corporal's voice as he made his report. After nearly two weeks of nothing, this sounded too good to be true. "We've picked up a whole bunch of terrorist tracks... and 'Big Feet' is with them".

Ron scrambled to his feet, spilling his coffee in the process, and rushed closer to hear more. Shit, if it really was that bastard, Big Feet...

Within minutes he was on a chopper, leading seven picked men from his platoon. The terrs would be on their way to infiltrate the land above the Zambezi Valley, for sure. The area behind the escarpment was occupied by African peasant farmers, where terrorists would rapidly blend in amongst the country folk and become difficult to find. After several years of intimidation up there, the poor bastards were now too afraid to report the presence of gandangas to the authorities.

Half an hour later, they jumped from the two hovering Alouettes onto the tracks. Ron made a last check before raising his thumb, signalling to the pilot that all his men were safely deployed on the ground. No time was wasted - dust and dry vegetation flew as rotor-blades bit into the air, and Ron got his fighting patrol going. The chase was on...

They'd been on the go for hours when Ron stopped suddenly, dropped onto one knee in a single fluid movement and froze. Rifle ready in the firing position at his waist, he signalled the rest of the patrol to halt and melt into the bush.

He studied the veldt ahead and to each side of his position, using the sweeping eye patrol system; the best way to catch real movement, separating it from the mirages that danced before his eyes in the shimmering summer heat. The slightest motion would be detected. Ron knew each of his men would be doing the same, and that the two rearmost soldiers would cover the area behind them. All their lives depended on this.

Confident that his zone was clear, Ron stayed vigilant but his tense muscles eased. At least he'd not led his men into an ambush. Herbie, their leading scout, must have seen something up ahead. There were no birds about, but this was not unusual. They kept to the cooler, green forest during the worst heat of the day. In any event, they would keep clear of human activity in the bush. The background noise of the Valley was still there - a steady screech of insects. Ron allowed his eyes to focus closer in from the middle distance, and saw how the dust lay thick on the small grey leaves of the nearest jesse vine. Shit, but it was a long time since these bushes had felt rain.

The still heat forced more sweat from Ron's forehead below his jungle cap. It mingled with dust, and he could feel rivulets of mud trickle onto his cheeks and running down to form droplets on his chin. Some found their way into his mouth; his teeth were gritty. More sweat dripped from the end of his nose. He wiped it away with his left forearm, still keeping his rifle ready for instant use in his right hand. Hell, they needed the bloody rains to start, especially up there on the Highveld farms.

He sensed, rather than heard heavy movement through the bush nearby and shrank back into the jesse. Then he caught sight of an enormous black shape moving though the scrub. More followed. The rank smell of game assailed his nostrils. They were in the middle of a herd of Cape buffalo, some of the most dangerous animals in Africa.

 

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