The female elephant was alert to potential danger from the huge cloud mass roiling high over the bush with its billowing turbulence obscuring the sun and splintering its light into golden spears. There were no bright tree-like flashes from it yet, but she had lived 63 years and had seen many such storms lash the land with lumps of ice and searing light. She knew the hot breeze that had risen at her back was nourishing the monster somehow. The base of it was turning darker and she was trying to discern which way the mass would choose to move.
The storm, or something else tugging at her instincts, was making her uneasy.
She was the acknowledged matriarch whose wisdom and rule were unquestioned, and she always stood ready to guide the 11 other elephants, including two of her daughters, out of danger. No adult males were with the herd; they were off foraging in pairs or alone because none of the females was in estrus, so the welfare of this elephant family was largely up to her.
In deep bass frequencies, she mildly cautioned the others to be ready to move and to keep the year-old male baby close.
The old cow was on her sixth and final set of molars, the previous five sets having been ground away over the decades in the ceaseless need to feed her four-ton body some 300 pounds of foliage, bark, twigs, and fruit every day. Her wrinkled gray skin hung on her as though it was a size too large. Her benign long-lashed eyes, naturally nearsighted as with all elephants, were somewhat dimmed by age, but she was still a savvy and formidable beast, quite able to command and counsel and protect her herd.
Because of the bumbling vulnerable baby, which had a penchant for straying off in curious happy pursuit of a waddling armadillo or a darting lizard or a fluttering egret, the matriarch was more attuned than usual to any potential threats, but there were only a few dusky white-striped antelope grazing at a respectful distance. They were long legged, long necked, and regal, with large conical ears, and the males carried their elegant corkscrew horns proudly. Constantly attentive to their surroundings, their abrupt bounding flight would serve as early warning to the elephants of any lurking predators, but they were displaying no unrest. The only other creatures evident were small skittery fire finches burning like licks of flame in the acacia foliage and in the nearby thorn bushes.
The matriarch’s abiding fear was of lions. Her huge heat-dissipating ears were shaped like mirror images of the African continent. The right one was badly tattered along the outer edge and had a long narrow wedge of flesh missing. It was permanent evidence, suffered many years ago, of what lions could do when they attacked out of the tall grass in concerted ambush—swift and silent and deadly—and she was determined not to let them split the young one away from the herd with their clever diversions. It was a danger that always lurked in the shadows of her mind even though there had been no evidence of lions for days.
The herd kept on feeding. The matriarch and her eight-years-younger and smaller sister had found this stand of seven acacia trees a quarter mile from the edge of the forest. Their leafy domes 20 feet above were heavily decorated with delicious protein-rich seed pods. The sister cows had head-butted the stout rough trunks repeatedly, shaking loose many of the pods in a bountiful clattering downpour, and the herd was feasting, picking up the delicacies with their trunks, the ends shaped like two blunt opposed plucking fingers, and thrusting them past their heavy triangular lips. Rumbling with pleasure.
There was the first dull crack and grumble from within the angry cloud mass and a thickening gray veil of rain began trailing from it. But the rain was still some way off so there was little immediate lightning danger, and in fact the cooling showers on the fringe of the storm might bring welcome refreshment to the herd.
The matriarch slowed her feeding and studied the thunderstorm myopically. She noticed that the wind at her back had died away. As the rain descended from the dark belly of the cell in a torrent, it dashed a current of air downward as well, which spread out along the ground in all directions for miles, and it was not long before she felt that cool outflow coming from exactly the opposite direction than the hot breeze that had been blowing only minutes before.
She effortlessly uncoiled her heavy trunk with its thousands of intricately braided muscles, forming it into an S shape with the tip poised high over her head, tasting this new breeze with a sense of smell four times more sophisticated than that of a bloodhound.
Mingled with the pleasant fresh scent of the rain, she detected a trace mixture of rank offensive odors that sent an electric prickle of alarm through her great body and she emitted a warning. All the other elephants, except for the baby, instantly froze in place.
To flee might only call attention to the herd, and the young one would have a difficult time keeping up. Yet staying here in the partially concealing tree shadows might mean the danger would soon overwhelm them if it could not be driven off. She had to decide.
There were nine of them on horseback, each leading a pack animal. Each rider carried a worn and battered AK-47 with two magazines, rolled in beige plastic tarps and lashed behind their saddles. They were grouped just below the crest of the last rise in burning sunlight, their lathered mounts blowing in the heat, the thunderstorm cell churning high behind them. Their scout, Umar, had just returned to report the exact location of the herd. They had approached the elephants from downwind all morning through rough hilly bush riven with dry washes and sun-heated rock ledges, and they would retreat by the same route so the drivers of any vehicles would find it impossible to pursue them. But they were many miles from any kind of opposition here in the wilds of eastern Uganda near the Kenyan border, so pursuit was unlikely.
Their swarthy leader was Muhammadu Raza, born in West Africa, now a wanted outlaw plundering from his hideout deep in the foothills of the snow-capped Mountains of the Moon.
He prowled throughout several turbulent central African nations with a band recruited from the dregs of three different tribes. He was tall and gaunt, with ears that stuck straight out from his shaved head, a prominent beak of a nose, deep creases that ran down the sides of his long face from his cheekbones to his jaw line, his mouth a severe and lipless horizontal line. But it was his eyes that people never forgot. Close-set under an overhanging brow, they glittered like onyx, and when he fixed his glare on another man there was no mistaking the coiled violence that lay within.
He spoke to the men in the common Bantu Swahili because it was the one language understood by all of them, although, like many people in a dozen African countries, including Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya, where he often roamed, he also spoke English, a legacy from past British influence. “We leave the pack horses here,” he said. “You, Negash, will stay to guard them. We will approach slowly at first. Umar tells us it is good killing ground. They do not see well, remember, but the accursed wind has just now shifted, and they may easily have caught our scent, so if they run, we will whip the horses into full gallop on my order.”
He pointed at two of the bare-chested sweating men, their skin like oiled ebony, features devoid of emotion. “You and you, go to the left and head them off before they can seek shelter in the forest. Do not let them get into the trees. Dawud and Yusuf, you will go to the right to half-circle them. The rest of you follow along with me in a line abreast. Remember to aim for the legs to hold them in place. Do not blaze away like crazy men. Cartridges are too costly to waste. Use single fire or short low bursts only, and only when you are close enough not to miss. Any man who damages the ivory will pay in a most painful loss of flesh from his back under my lash, I promise this. Stop them all and then move in close to finish them.”
They unpacked their rifles, checking the actions and clacking the curved 30-round magazines into place, charging the first rounds into the chambers, clicking levers to safe, jamming the extra magazines under their belts, their horses now nervously side-stepping and snorting, sensing this would be the noisy violent time again.
They rode over the rise strung out in a ragged line, Raza in the center, the flankers on either end of the line beginning to head off to half-circle the small herd that was motionless in a close group under a thin stand of acacia trees.
The matriarch saw the indistinct line of movement atop the rise and saw the antelope cease their grazing and come to tense alert.
She roused the herd and got them moving slowly out from under the trees, following one of the faint elephant trails on a line that afforded easy walking and would carry them away from the threat at an angle and eventually closer to the forest where they could disperse somewhat and shoulder in amid the dense foliage for cover if necessary. There were several moments of confusion while the baby’s mother and aunt tried to corral him with their trunks and get him going in the right direction underfoot with the rest of the herd.
The antelope stood uneasily, big ears swiveling and seeking, staring at the approaching riders. On some signal, they all suddenly broke and bounded gracefully away.
Raza urged his horse into a canter and the others slapped their horses’ rumps with the tails of the reins to keep up.
The foul mix of scents was now strong to the old cow and her anxiety increased. These were bad odors she remembered from a place of many bloody elephant deaths she had happened across several seasons ago. She urged the lumbering herd to go faster, the baby running clumsily now, stumbling on grass tussocks and trying to avoid the clomping log-sized legs of the adults, its head bobbing and small trunk flailing. The matriarch hung back protectively at the rear of the procession, turning her great bony head repeatedly to judge the approach of the man creatures, which were now spreading out in a broader line.
Raza shouted an order and the men drove their sweat-sheened chuffing mounts to full gallop.
The old cow heard the increased pounding of the horses’ hooves and felt it in the sensitive pads of her feet, and she came to a stop. Urging the other elephants to keep on as fast as they could, she wheeled around to face the threat. She waited until the line drew closer, swaying her head and trunk from side to side, her huge heart thudding faster as she sucked in gales of air with each breath.
She chose her target. A mounted rider closer than the others.
Raza saw the aged cow single him out and pulled his horse to a skidding halt on its haunches when he was only 200 feet from the beast, dropping the reins and slinging his leg over the pommel and vaulting to the ground with the rifle held high in his right hand, thinking, she is the lead cow. Take her down and the others will be thrown into confusion.
To the elephant, the dust cloud scuffed up by the horse seemed to amplify the threat and she committed. With her trunk curled under and her ears extended wide to either side of her head and the tops rolled back and rippling, increasing her apparent size to intimidate her enemy, she launched into full charge. There were harsh snapping sounds coming from off to her left and one of the elephants screamed.
Raza lost a moment in terrible fascination at the sight of this enraged beast charging down on him, thundering so hard he could feel the earth tremble, trumpeting a deafening blast of metallic sound. On a remote fringe of his mind he noticed something unusual about the old cow’s tusks.
He raised his AK, flicked the selector to full auto, took careful low aim, and tapped the trigger with the pad of his forefinger, traversing rapidly from left to right as the recoil of half a dozen 7.62 mm bullets moving at almost half a mile per second lifted the muzzle. He saw at least three pinkish puffs of dust from leg hits.
For the stunned matriarch it was as though she had run into an invisible blade suspended at knee height. One of the jacketed slugs fractured her lower right leg, another passed cleanly through the flesh, and a third tore tumbling through the inside of her left leg higher up. Her forelegs collapsed and her tusks furrowed the earth, her trunk bending back between her legs painfully, her ears shuddering like gray sails that had lost the wind.
Raza left the dazed old elephant propped awkwardly on her knees and ran around her to take aim at another beast as it fled. He tapped out another carefully aimed short burst. Saw a finger of blood jet out. Watched its rear legs go loose and drag it to a halt, shrieking. Then he saw one of the men, still mounted, try to spray an elephant from the saddle, and he swore under his breath. Wasting cartridges. Risking the ivory. Idiot. The man’s horse had dodged an ant mound at the last instant and the ragged burst flew too high, impacting along the elephant’s side below its humped spine, and it bellowed its sudden pain and extreme fright and flicked its trunk frantically backward, trying to ward off the burning bullet hits as though they were monstrous insect bites. The man finally dismounted and emptied the magazine of his AK at the beast in a long angry chattering burst, raking it from neck to rump. It was the baby’s mother and when she staggered and went down in a welter of dust the youngster was pinned by its hindquarters under her shoulder.
The matriarch heard the squealing of the baby through all the chaos of harsh snapping noises and whinnying horses and bellowing elephants, and she struggled up to stand on three legs, calling to the baby’s mother. The sounds she heard in response told her the mother was badly hurt. The cow swung her head to maintain precarious balance and tried to hop clumsily on her bleeding left foreleg, attempting in vain to cover the impossible distance to the trapped baby. But she could not move more than a few yards.
The shooting went on until she knew that none of the elephants could any longer flee and it was hopeless. She stood unsteadily on three legs, raised her great head and trunk high, and trumpeted her revulsion and outrage at the man creatures.
The men were moving among the downed elephants now, still firing but in random single shots. She saw some of the man creatures lay aside their fire sticks and take up long knives and long-handled tools that had been strapped to their horses. They started swinging the blades into the warm flesh, working to free the tusks. Some of the elephants were still breathing and struggling weakly as the man creatures hacked at their faces.
The young one wailed in terror.
The matriarch still stood, head drooping, feeling pain she had never thought possible suffused by a depthless loss that was even worse. The harsh odors of unwashed man creatures and urinating horses and pools of elephant blood were strong.
One of the men swore loudly and used a single angry ax stroke to silence the annoying tuskless baby.
She saw the man creature she had earlier tried to attack walk up and lift the fire stick again, and she was filled with renewed hatred. She had guided her herds faithfully for decades and defended them against every hazard and threat, but against these reeking man creatures with their painful spitting fire sticks she had no defense at all.
The man fired and she felt another line of sharp hot burstings, this time across her belly and shoulder. She swayed and lost her footing and crashed to the ground and lay on her side, her rear legs weakly trying to find purchase. Breathing raggedly. Knowing she was torn and broken.
She had a terrible thirst. The pain was like several separate red-hot stones deep inside her, but the overriding grief at the loss of her herd family was a spear piercing her soul.
There was a searing crack of nearly simultaneous lightning and thunder and it began to rain fat drops that mercifully cooled her.
She heard a whirring-slapping sound, and with a supreme effort lifted her head slightly, rolling her wide left eye toward the new noise. Through her vast desolation she saw a violently thrashing machine that she knew must carry still more man creatures and her hatred flamed even hotter as her huge heart slowed to random thumps and her limbs spasmed and her sight began to haze.
Raza swung around to see the small helicopter approaching low and fast out of what little clear bright sky remained. The rain beaded on his bald head and made him squint.
The dark cloud mass was moving like an immense shroud across the killing ground.