Authors: Jeff Buick
NEW YORK CITY
To my first grandchild, Mikayla,
in my humble, and unbiased opinion,
the cutest little girl on the planet.
How fascinating it is to rediscover
our world through a child’s eyes.
Darvin kept her van within his line of sight for the first three miles, losing it on some of the twisty sections of road.
He wasn’t worried. Following someone on a highway was easy. Unless they turned off on one of the tiny secondary roads, or
into a campground, they weren’t going anywhere but straight. Four miles from the parking lot he touched the accelerator and
closed the distance between his vehicle and the van.
“Almost there,” he said. “What’s it like to have a minute left to live? But then, you wouldn’t know that, would you?”
He slipped a remote control from his windbreaker pocket. He entered a four digit code and waited. The road climbed slightly,
then crested and began a long downward slope. His index finger touched one of the buttons, triggering a deadly sequence of
events. A tiny receiver under the driver’s seat in the van picked up a radio signal, electronically closing a circuit and
sending a current from the battery to the solenoid coil. A small electric magnet opened the canister, releasing the pressurized
cyanide gas into the passenger compartment of the van.
A vast plateau of scrubland stretched out before the group of armed men. Heat waves rose off the parched earth, distorting
their view of the elephants gathered on the edge of the tree line that marked the start of the forest. Overhead, the cloudless
sky was deep blue, scarred only by the intense, noonday sun. The mercury was pushing one-ten and still rising. Africa at its
“The large male closest to the acacia tree is the leader,” one of the men said, pointing a long, thin finger in the general
direction of the animals. “We call him Albert.”
“Albert?” the woman asked. “Why Albert?” Her name was Leona Hewitt, and as the only woman, and white person, in the group,
she stood out. Her off-blond hair fell to her shoulders in ringlets, and her face was tinged red from the relentless, scorching
sun. Her greenish brown eyes were quick and lively, and when she smiled or laughed, her lips curled back, revealing slightly
crooked, but very white teeth. A youthful thirty-seven, she welcomed the tiny lines around her eyes and mouth. They were the
only sign she was pushing forty, and they gave her character.
The man smiled, his white teeth in stark contrast to his black skin. “He’s very smart, so we named him after Albert Einstein.”
Kubala Kantu’s arm dropped back to his side. A native of the Samburu region of central Kenya, he was Leona’s key man; the
one who managed the African end of Save Them, Leona’s wildlife foundation. A sketchy high school education was the strong
point on his short résumé, even that probably embellished, but Kubala had an elusive mixture of street smarts and natural
intelligence. It was a blend of talents that kept him alive while he protected the elephants from poachers. Kubala was tall,
six-four, but rail thin with bushy hair and intense brown eyes that belied his easygoing nature. The loaded AK-47 slung loosely
over his shoulder was another clue that he was not a man to mess with.
“They are unsettled today,” he said quietly, his voice carrying easily through the hot, dry air.
“Why is that?” Leona locked her gaze on the animals, some two hundred yards in the distance.
“Poachers, perhaps?” Kubala shrugged. The gun moved with the motion. “They can smell danger. It is in the air.”
“Have the poachers tried to kill Albert?”
Kubala laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “Many times, but he is too smart. The poachers try to frighten the elephants,
to trap them in a remote area where they can massacre them before we arrive. Albert will not be fooled by such tricks. He
keeps his herd where we can watch them.”
Leona turned slightly so Kubala came into her peripheral vision. “Animals act by instinct, not reason.”
Kubala stared straight into her eyes. “Whatever you say, Ms. Hewitt. Whatever you say.”
A slight gust of wind pulled at his robes and he cinched them tight. For six years he had watched over Albert’s herd, and
six others. Courtesy of the money Leona Hewitt raised in the United States, his group of twenty-seven park rangers was well
organized and even better equipped. The poachers knew it, and they mostly stayed away from the seven-hundred-square-mile tract
of land the Kenyan government had ceded wildlife control of to Save Them. It was a huge step to preserving the elephants,
and one that had not come easily. Leona’s concession to the government was that for every dollar she spent on conservation,
she had to spend two on improving the quality of life for the local people. It was her idea, and had met fierce resistance
at first. But new water wells, schools, and even a medical clinic appeared as she pumped money into the village of Marsabit,
and the central government in Nairobi had backed off. Now, in the village that housed one thousand African men, women and
children, she was a hero.
The elephants turned and disappeared into the trees, a few wisps of dust the only sign that they had visited the savannah.
Within eyesight, a pride of lions lounged in the afternoon sun, and across the endless stretch of arid land was a massive
herd of wildebeests and zebras. The elephants and the villagers weren’t the only ones that benefited from the foundation.
“We should head back for the village,” Kubala said. “Your plane leaves Nairobi early tomorrow morning.”
Leona nodded. “I’m glad we got to see this herd,” she replied, taking a long draw on her water bottle. She grasped Kubala
by his forearm. “Thank you for taking such good care of the animals.”
Kubala grinned. “Thank you, Miss Leona, for taking such good care of us.”
It was a powerful moment, but it didn’t last. The unmistakable crack of gunfire rifled across the plateau. The lions were
instantly on the move, as was the group of rangers. Kubala grabbed Leona and pulled her to the Land Rover. They jumped in
and he yelled instructions to the driver. Seconds later they were flying down the rutted dirt road toward the origin of the
sound. The guns were off their shoulders and all eight men in both vehicles were checking their clips and snapping off the
safeties. Thirty seconds and three bends in the road brought them to a horrific sight.
Two elephants were down and dying. A third was stumbling across the small clearing they had just entered. Albert and the rest
of the herd were gone, having stampeded into the dense jungle bordering the west side of the clearing. On the east side, hovering
over the two stricken elephants, was a handful of heavily armed men. One had a machete in his hand and was hacking at the
skin and bone around one of the tusks. Rivulets of blood coursed down the dead animal’s neck and the man’s face was covered
The moment their Land Rovers entered the clearing, Kubala’s men were under fire. The poachers had automatic weapons and handguns.
One of the bullets smashed out the glass on the side windows and embedded in the seat between Kubala and Leona. He pulled
a pistol from his holster and thrust it into her hand, then grabbed her by the shoulder and pushed her to the floor. He leapt
from the vehicle as it careened to a stop at the edge of the clearing. The driver was hit in the neck as he opened the door,
and dropped heavily onto the dry grass, unmoving, blood gushing from the wound.
Kubala’s team was out of the vehicles and behind cover in seconds. They returned the fire, bullets cutting through the dense
jungle that had been peaceful only minutes before. One poacher took a round in the head, then another in the shoulder. Leona
kicked open the door, giving her a view of where the poachers had dug in. Growing up as a farm girl meant she knew the basics
of firing a rifle, and to her a handgun was the same, only shorter. She raised the gun and sighted. Before she could squeeze
off a few shots, a swath of bullets tore through the vehicle, ripping into the seats and sending tufts of stuffing flying.
She yanked the door shut and hugged the floor of the Land Rover as more rounds slammed into the side panels, the rifle bullets
tearing through the vehicle just above her prone body. The slugs from the handguns were unable to penetrate into the cabin
and dropped harmlessly into the rocker panels.
Gritty dirt on the floor mats cut into her hands and cheek, and the air was thick with the odor of scorched metal and plastic.
The gun felt heavy and useless in her grip. Kubala and his men were under attack, but she was in no position to help. The
poachers knew she was in the vehicle and opening the door was an invitation to a stray bullet. She lay on the floor, her head
throbbing, her pulse racing.
Realizing they were up against men who were well armed and capable of using the guns, the poachers retreated into the wall
of foliage, laying down a dangerous volley of covering fire as they disappeared. Eighty seconds from the moment the two Land
Rovers entered the clearing, it was again quiet. But now two elephants were dead, another writhing in its death throes near
the tree line. Kubala’s driver was killed the instant the bullet cut through his neck and spine, and one other of his team
was nursing a serious leg wound.
“Get a compress on this wound and drive him to the clinic in the village,” Kubala said to the driver of the second Land Rover.
“Call ahead and tell them you’re coming so they can prepare.”
The man nodded and slung his gun over his shoulder, then barked orders to the others who were assigned to his Land Rover.
It took less than five minutes to stem the bleeding and load the injured man into the vehicle. A trail of dust marked the
vehicle’s exit, then it settled to the ground and the clearing was quiet, save for the labored breathing of the third elephant.
Kubala pulled a high-caliber rifle from inside the truck and walked across to where the elephant lay dying.
“I am sorry you must die at my hand,” he said to the animal as he chambered a round. “But this is only meant to ease your
suffering.” He raised the gun and fired a single shot into the broad forehead. The breathing stopped and a heavy silence fell
over the clearing.
Leona stood beside the Land Rover, ten feet from the dead ranger, fifty from the elephant. Already, the stench of death was
in the air. Soon the buzzards would feast. She looked down at the pistol in her hand. She hadn’t fired a single shot. There
was no opportunity. Kubala’s men had driven the poachers back into the forest while she was trapped in the Land Rover. She
handed the pistol back to Kubala when he returned to where she was standing. Their eyes met.
“You acted bravely,” Kubala said, seeing the emotion in her eyes. “They would have killed you if you had opened the door.”
Leona simply nodded. She pushed her hair back from her face and looked over the carnage. “Why does it have to be like this?”
she asked. “Why is there always death?”
The expression on Kubala’s face didn’t change. He adjusted the shoulder harness on the AK-47 slightly and tucked the pistol
in his holster. “TIA, Miss Leona. TIA.”
“TIA? What does that mean?”
“This is Africa. This is the way things are.”
Leona swallowed and the dryness in her throat hurt. Kubala’s words were simple, but true. And sometimes, the truth hurt.