Free Ralph! An Evolutionary Fable
A Monkey Without a Tail
TRAPEZE ARTIST REPLACES HUMAN PARTNER
by Maxwell Martin
Mexican immigrants have already claimed most of the backbreaking minimum-wage jobs in south Florida. Underpaid Chinese factory workers underbid us on everything from crayons to computers. Customer service calls are now answered by cheap labor in India, and even cheaper labor in minimum security prisons.
But could a chimpanzee steal your job? If you are a trapeze performer in the circus, the answer could be yes.
The credit for this new milestone in primate history goes to Dale Hardy, a trapeze star or “aerial artist” with the Rufus Barnabas Circus Spectacular, which winters here in Dade County and starts each annual spring tour with a special hometown show.
After the tragic death of his wife and trapeze partner Tess Michaels during a performance in Oakland, California, almost a decade ago, Hardy stopped performing for a while and disappeared completely from the circus scene. Last year he announced his return to the heights under the Big Top. But prudently, perhaps, he chose as his second wife not a trapeze performer but an animal trainer with the circus, Peg Tyler.
At a press conference yesterday, the couple proudly unveiled a stunning breakthrough in interspecies cooperation, and its name is Ralph— a seven-year-old, three-and-a-half-foot immigrant from the African jungle.
“He’s the smartest chimp I’ve ever trained,” Tyler says. “I can’t sneak anything past him.”
“Ralph catches on so quick that sometimes it seems like we’re inventing our routine together,” adds Hardy with a chuckle. “Pretty darn good for a monkey without a tail!”
Chimpanzees share 98% of the human genetic blueprint, and are known for their delight in climbing and swinging through the giant trees of their native Africa. So it was probably only a matter of time before they cracked the south Florida aerial-artist labor market.
Still, it’s clear that for the Hardy-Tylers, who are childless, training Ralph as Dale’s new partner has been a labor of love. Not only is Ralph the first non-human primate ever to be teamed with a human on the high trapeze, Tyler has pioneered a revolutionary new style of animal training which involved giving Ralph his own bedroom in the Hardy-Tylers’ circus trailer and raising him like a human child.
“I’ve just about got him toilet-trained,” says Tyler, smiling. “He only has to wear his diaper at night now.”
The Hardy-Tylers’ project is so unusual that when the Dade County Animal Services department caught wind of it, they came sniffing around the circus grounds for evidence of animal endangerment. To avoid any potential legal problems, the Hardy-Tylers have agreed to use a safety net for all performances in this first season, as they do during training and practice sessions.
The entire world waits breathlessly to see the daring and dynamic duo in action on the flying trapeze. But Dade County gets to see it first! “Dale & Ralph,” as the new act bills itself, will be one of the star attractions in the annual hometown exhibition of the Rufus Barnabas Circus Spectacular, Saturday, April 1— your chance to witness evolution unfolding before your eyes!
Ralph? said Guma, studying the large color photograph that accompanied the article. Grandmother Min had been staring over his shoulder as they read together, trembling from head to foot. Guma’s brother, Uncle Noko, held the mud-stained newspaper open for them, braced on the knuckles of one front paw.
The picture showed a short, muscular, square-chinned human male and an even shorter male chimpanzee with wide, gentle eyes. The man leaned to the left, the chimp to the right, each gripping one end of a shiny metal bar and flinging a hairy arm out toward the edge of the picture. Both wore identical red and blue oufits that showed off the hair on their chests, and both were grinning broad foolish grins.
The resemblance is unmistakable, Noko murmured to his brother. Otherwise I never would have brought you this piece of journalistic trash. But who could forget that crooked little grin?
It— it looks like my little Kumbu— all grown up! said Min, and fainted to the forest floor.
Dar looked over from a group who were feeding at a termite mound and hurried across the clearing. Her companions continued to take turns threading a long stem of grass into the tiny hole at the top of the mound, drawing it out again and licking off the juicy termites.
Around them the other chimps browsed among the ferns, chattering soundlessly across the silence and the slant of afternoon sun. One by one they looked around and saw Grandmother Min lying among the ferns. Soon the clan had gathered around their fallen elder, stroking her fur and glancing curiously up at Guma and Noko.
The two brothers looked somberly at one another for a long moment.
Perhaps I should have shown it to you privately first, said Uncle Noko.
It wouldn’t have mattered, Guma replied. She knows her baby. Her reaction would have been the same. But where in the world did you get it?
Litter, snorted Noko. I told you it was trash, didn’t I? Another expedition of tourists with guns. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. What a load of dung!
I don’t think it’s serious, Guma said. Just some clever advertising disguised as journalism.
Sure it is. And they looked nearly stupid enough to believe it!
The two powerful full-grown males gazed down at Min as she lay breathing gently, surrounded by the clucks and murmurs of her closest loved ones, peacefully asleep.
Sometimes I wish we chimps were not so damned intelligent, said Uncle Noko. Picking up their mental noise as they traipse through the forest is polluting our minds. It’s not what Life gave us the Gift for.
Well, it does help when they’re coming after one of us, said Guma. I mean, to know just a little about that alien dimension they come from.
It didn’t help little Kumbu, Noko growled.
Guma glanced up through the sun-speckled canopy of leaves. Then Noko realized his eyes were closed. A tear was glistening in a beam of sunlight.
Sorry. Uncle Noko began to groom his brother’s thick black fur, searching for tasty insects. I’m forgetting Kumbu was your little one, too.
That was six years ago, Guma went on, returning from somewhere deep inside. We didn’t know who we were dealing with then. We were still hiding out in the hills, waiting for them to go away, as some of the other clans still do.
We learned, said Uncle Noko, wrinkling his nose. They don’t go away. We’ve got to deal with them on their own terms.
And simultaneously on ours. It’s the only way we can possibly survive.
Then maybe picking up their mental pollution is what Life gave us the Gift for after all! Uncle Noko was teasing now.
It’s what all our gifts are for, said Guma. You know that. To survive, so we can reproduce, so we can evolve. We can outlast them, I’m sure of it— our poor, dumb, wayward cousins. I have a feeling it won’t be long now.
I know, chuckled Noko. I read a few of the other stories in that paper.
Still, Guma said. Kumbu was so young. His Gift was barely beginning to develop. It’s been hard for poor Min, casting her Gift out in search of him again and again, waiting for him to reach the stage where he can respond.
At least now we know where he is, Noko said. I’m sure he’s just as brilliant as his papa, even over there in Dade County Florida. That could explain why this couple, these surrogate parents, are so convinced they’ve trained him.
Because he’s been training them, you mean.
Precisely. I guarantee you, most chimps that get hijacked out of here end up living sad, boring, frustrated lives. Kumbu is going to be a star!
A star named Ralph?
Guma and Noko thought for a moment, looking down at Ralph’s ridiculous grin.
No, said Noko, shaking his head. I guess showing off for the humans is no substitute for a quiet life in the forest among your family. Even if you’re a star. Besides, how can a young chimpanzee’s Gift develop properly among humans? It takes teachers who understand the Gift and the world and the Giver. Teachers like we had when we were young, remember?
I guess you’re right. But don’t underestimate the Gift, or the Giver.
The two brothers meandered off, leaving the newspaper where it had fallen. Dar reached for it, drawn by the brightly colored picture and the oddly grinning chimpanzee in the clown suit. Suddenly she gasped, eyes widening. The other chimps who had gathered to comfort Grandmother Min clustered around the younger female as she held her open palm just above the newspaper’s columns of print and began to read.
Dr. Jane Keller, BA, MS, PhD, narrowed her eyes and read it again. All of it, flaring her nostrils when she reached the part about Dade County Animal Services. Then she folded the page along the margins of the article and tore it precisely out of the Entertainer without losing a single word.
She wasn’t a regular reader of the Entertainer by any means; it had surfaced in a stack of newspapers donated by a neighbor. She had been spreading out sheets of newsprint to line the bottom of Coo and Caw’s luxurious birdcage when the young chimp’s lopsided grin and obscene circus costume had caught her eye.
The clipping decorated her refrigerator for a little over six minutes before she snatched it off, scattering little magnets across the gleaming finish of her kitchen floor. She slipped it into a fresh manila folder, which she marked CIRCUS in square, neat capitals and slid into the file drawer in her desk. She didn’t bother to file it under C.
“This one goes right in front!” she exclaimed aloud. “The things wild creatures have to put up with . . .” She was muttering now, and uncomfortably aware that no one was listening except her two African parrots. Coo and Caw looked at one another and did not reply.
The parrots had grown up in human custody and sadly no longer qualified as wild. That was only one more example, one she’d lived with every day since she had rescued them— the only survivors of an entire colony of escaped pet African parrots that had nested in her apartment complex until management called in the exterminators.
The really obscene thing was that the gorgeous, garrulous birds were still being captured every day in the African jungle and shipped out to pet stores around the world.
If Jane Keller were only the household word it deserved to be, came the next thought, startling her— if that other Jane had not had the uncanny luck to be first—
But that was unjust. Jane Goodall deserved every bit of her fame, had earned it with stellar devotion to her chimps and had never compromised it in any way. Jane Goodall and her chimps, Dian Fossey and her gorillas, Birute Galdikas and her orangutans: they had done more to keep the primate kingdom wild and free than anyone else she could name.
It was Jane Keller’s uncanny bad luck that she too had fallen in love with a band of African chimps, a few years after Dr. Goodall and in another country, and that Goodall had published her research first. If Jane had only chosen baboons, or gibbons, or mangabeys, she too might have joined the pantheon of primate saviors, and perhaps the baboons or gibbons or mangabeys would be a little more wild and free today.
She might have been featured in her own Hollywood movie, like Dian Fossey.
She might have been shot down by poachers in the jungle, like Dian Fossey.
But it was the chimpanzees who had chosen her, after all. So she’d had no choice but to join the chorus of voices praising Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas, present papers citing their pioneering work, testify at hearings and appear on television panels when they were not available, do her bit to preserve precious African habitat.
Nearing retirement age, long since divorced and denied tenure once more at Miami State University, her latest book turned down by yet another publisher, Jane’s trips to Africa were no longer as frequent. None of the chimps she had fallen in love with so long ago could possibly have survived this long; her heart had broken all over again each time she went back and discovered another familiar face missing from the little mountain valley.
It hadn’t helped when after her divorce she had legally reclaimed her maiden name, breaking her long string of published academic papers in two and forever confusing the record of her accomplishments.
“Keep quiet, you two, I’m working!” Coo called out, mocking her.
“Why don’t you both get jobs and buy your own crackers?” Caw chimed in, never content to let Coo have the last word.
Staring across her tidy living room from the study, the file drawer still open beside her, Jane let her eyes feast on the bright feathers of her companions in exile. And gradually began to smile. Dr. Jane Keller, BA, MS, PhD, might be washed up academically. But if a chimpanzee needed help, especially right here in Dade County, she was ready.
She would have to move quickly, however. The newspaper story was already several days old; April first was just over two weeks away. She flicked open her cell phone and began to scroll through her large collection of contacts.
Every time she closed her eyes the garish photo of little Ralph was still there, imprinted on her memory, superimposed on the unforgettable faces of the chimps she had named Hamlet, Ophelia, Desdemona, Romeo. The little fellow’s clownish grin still bothered her. But gradually, as she dialed number after number and refined her call to action, her own smile was spreading just as wide. Perhaps wider.
Min lay face down in the gentle, fragrant ferns, dreaming of Kumbu. Her favorite. Was it because he was her last-born, child of her last fertile season? Or was it because she’d lost him so early, never watched him grow and learn and develop his Gift, like her six other sons and daughters? Or was he truly different from the others, as she had sometimes suspected?
She’d lost a few the other way. The mothers always got over that. It was their silent understanding with Life: Send another. Another bright little face to love, lips to suckle, another sacred living sprout to feed and teach and protect until the little boy chimp or little girl chimp grew big enough to browse among the clan and join the mating dance. And then: Life, send another. Her sacred duty: to reproduce, in order to evolve.
But Kumbu. She had missed him so. Snatched so suddenly away from her, and still so young. Was it only her imagination, her feverish memories of him, that sealed him in a secret vacuum inside her heart?
She saw there his innocent, undemanding smile, awakening the morning after the birth. His amazement at the wide beams of sunlight coming down through the forest, all at the same broad, smiling angle.
She saw his wide gentle eyes discovering each new thing, just as fresh and surprising to him as to every newborn chimpanzee before him. A lizard. An orchid. A spiderweb.
She saw his tender little face upturned to hers in helpless, hopeful questioning. His Gift was stirring. He saw the adults communicating with looks, grunts, gestures, and she could watch day by day as he began to sense the silent, simultaneous higher levels of syntax. Just like all the others at his age. But somehow . . . different.
And now, just as suddenly, Kumbu had returned. Just a picture of him, dressed up as a clown named Ralph, but it was Kumbu all the same. Suddenly she knew where he had gone and what had become of him there— adopted by humans, forced to perform in a circus, and to judge by the look on his face, thrilled about it.
She wondered if he loved this human couple who had adopted him. Of course he did; Kumbu was always filled to overflowing with love for everyone around him, and never shy about spilling it.
But did they love Kumbu in return, this man and this woman? They spoke of him affectionately, but as a lower being: an animal they had trained. The man was almost as hairy as a chimpanzee himself. But what about the woman? The newspaper had shown no picture of her, so Min had to reach far into the fog of space and time, stretching her Gift, seeking clarity.
All she received was an impression of deep attachment, strong love, holding steady across the species barrier. Still, something she felt out there troubled her. Something that was coming, something yet to be. Trouble between the chimpanzee and the two humans.
Her Kumbu was loved.
But . . . Ralph?
In Min’s dream, Kumbu and the man in the photograph wore their red and blue circus costumes, but they had changed places. The man now stood no higher than Kumbu’s waist. Towering above him, Kumbu held a cluster of vines in each fist: one vine attached to the top of the little man’s head, one to each of his hands, one to each elbow and knee. Kumbu raised the two clusters of vines and the man danced an awkward, grinning, elbow-flapping dance.
Kumbu was grinning too, but it was a sly, proud grin— a little like the grins of the paleskinned humans Min had seen, posing over the lifeless heaps of flesh they had speared with their noisy metal weapons. She wasn’t sure she liked that grin on her precious Kumbu’s kind and gentle face.
But the little man danced on, unaware of the looming chimpanzee who held him upright and moved his elbows and feet. His clumsy dancing seemed to be growing more skillful, but Min saw that in fact it was Kumbu whose skill at manipulating the vines was gradually improving.
Now Min began to hear the drumming: a complicated rhythm, steady and powerful, the kind of drumming the villagers by the river used to dance to when Min was young. That was before they had all acquired radios and begun to listen to simpler rhythms from across the sea— crude, noisy music from that hellish netherworld where the humans had taken little Kumbu to make him a star.
But Kumbu had grown up now, twice as tall as any human. He raised the vines high above his head and began swinging the little man back and forth in wide arcs. Deftly he dropped one arm and the man crouched in mid-air, flipped upside down, then somersaulted and straightened again, still grinning that silly grin.
The look on Kumbu’s face had changed, she noticed: still proud, but lovingly protective, as if the little man were a responsibility Kumbu cared about. It was like a mother’s look when she huddled with the other females in the grooming circle, glancing away every so often to check on her little one. As the little one grew, the glances were less frequent and less anxious, yet the feeling of responsibility took a long time to fade. The mothers only gradually let go of the urge to look around and search the faces of the browsing clan for their special one. And then: Life, send another.
Now Kumbu was carefully lowering the little man’s feet to the ground, where a little woman waited, exactly the same size. Kumbu had somehow gathered all the little man’s vines in one hand, and in the other he now held a second set of vines that were attached to the little woman. The drumming slowed and grew quieter. Kumbu swung the two faces carefully together and they touched. Then he lifted the two sets of vines and the little couple danced, swaying gently.
Min could see that they loved each other, this couple. Kumbu loved them both. And they loved Kumbu. The clown suit, the circus act, the grotesque photograph, the sleazy newspaper article— none of that mattered if her Kumbu was loved.
Min slept a while and woke up feeling comforted. Dar, her spirit-daughter, smiled anxiously down. Her eldest son, Tunga, her sister Shan and several younger ones sat around her feet. Guma squatted beside her holding a ripe, perfect mango.
Kumbu was loved.
Wilbur Trimble stood up and stretched, staring down into the red-hot intensity of the campfire. Then he turned, nearly tripping over the camp chair he’d been sitting on, and shivered. The night wasn’t cold, really, but it was astonishing how dark everything became as soon as he turned his back on the fire.
Regaining his balance, he stepped away from the warmth and light and the laughing voices in search of a little privacy, and started into the forest.
Was it his imagination, or was the African night blacker than the nights back home in Indiana? Instinctively he looked up, but saw no stars. They were hidden, of course, by the arching canopy of branches he had admired before the sun went down. The safari’s base camp stood just under the trees at the edge of a vast forest. But still . . . Indiana had forests, too, and Wilbur had never seen a night so dark.
He stopped, sensing a treetrunk directly in front of him. Glancing back, he saw a burning matchstick that had to be the campfire. He’d wandered farther than he thought. He unzipped his safari pants and aimed into the blackness, his thoughts drifting away on the dark.
It was hard to believe he was really here. Coming to Africa had been his lifelong dream. How had it started? All those Tarzan books he’d read as a kid, he supposed. Then the movies and the TV shows. The actor playing Tarzan had changed from time to time, but the same steamy, overgrown jungle or wide savannah filled the background of every scene, the same supporting cast of wild, exotic animals.
Now he was here, surrounded by the scenery he remembered. It still looked the same, in a way, but somehow . . . especially at night . . . Wilbur shivered again. Then he zipped up his safari pants and turned back toward the fire.
It had been over there, hadn’t it? Or maybe that way? Surely they hadn’t put it out and gone to bed. Not yet. Not without noticing one member of the safari party was missing— surely not! Not after the sizeable chunk of his savings he’d handed over to Great White Hunter Adventure Tours—
But whichever way he looked he saw the same black starless shadow of African night. The more he tried to recall which direction he had wandered from to stand in front of this particular tree, the more directionless the night around him became.
And here he was. Lost. With nothing to defend himself with except the Swiss Army knife in his pocket. Which, he remembered suddenly, his father had given him for graduating from the Cub Scouts, almost half a century ago.
Suddenly Wilbur laughed out loud. It was too ridiculous to take so seriously. All he had to do was take a couple of steps directly away from the tree he’d just watered, and the fire would appear again from behind whichever other tree was momentarily obstructing his view.
Still he hesitated, breathing deeply, waiting for his heart to stop pounding so loudly against the dark. Then he took three resolute steps in a direction that felt right. Something moved under his foot. He felt his safari pants rip at the crotch as his feet went in opposite directions, and with a frightened yelp he fell.
In an instant he was up again, calling at the top of his voice, begging for a noise, any noise, to help him locate the camp.
Something laughed, much too loudly, from somewhere directly overhead. It wasn’t human laughter, though, and with another terrified yelp Wilbur turned and ran. Tripped, rolled, leapt to his feet, and ran again. Caught a low-hanging vine across his throat, twisted free, collided with an invisible treetrunk, and ran again. All directions were the same in the black, quietly breathing African night.
Kumbu woke up without opening his eyes. He’d been dreaming about the forest. His mother must have been thinking about him again. He couldn’t recall her face, but he remembered how she felt. He lay curled around himself for a minute, stroking his fur, remembering. Her soft touch. Her soft murmur. Her soft, fragrant breathing. Her strong arms lifting him to her breast, and the taste of her milk as he held on and sucked.
The milk his human parents poured over his cornflakes every morning didn’t taste nearly as good as this favorite memory. His human mother treated him kindly, gave him plenty of good things to eat and drink, but she had never offered him her breast. He knew she had them, just like his first mother— two of them, hidden under her blouse and her bra. Even at the swimming pool she wore a bright yellow bra that covered her breasts without actually hiding them.
Kumbu had seen her without her bra only once: that night years ago when she’d brought home his human father for the first time.
The milk they gave him came in plastic bottles from the supermarket. Still, it was as close as he could get, so he had sucked it greedily from his rubber-nippled bottle, and later from each spoonful of cornflakes, remembering home.
It was the games his human Mommy played with him that he’d always liked best, ever since she had brought him home to the little circus trailer. When his Daddy had come to live with them, the games had grown even more interesting. Soon Kumbu had found his strange life with the humans becoming a challenge: something he had to work at, not just to please Mommy and Daddy but to satisfy himself.
And yes, he’d found, over and over: he could do it! He could master the swinging bar that started low and gradually moved up, higher and higher every week. He could learn the games his Mommy and Daddy taught him, each one more complicated than the last. Lying there in his crib with his eyes closed he went over the moves he’d learned in order, one by one. He loved the excitement of swinging, letting go, flying across space, catching hold of another bar— or even better, catching his Daddy’s wrists or ankles— and swinging on through the familiar routine.
Most of all he loved the feeling that his Mommy and Daddy were pleased when he learned a new thing. They loved him, he knew, but they loved him most when he performed the right move at the right time, exactly the way they wanted. It made him feel almost as if he were back in the forest with his mother again, learning to answer the sounds she made with sounds of his own.
And when he made a mistake, missed his grab and hit the safety net below with a squeal and a roll, he could feel their hearts falling with him, and he knew they loved him then, too. But the flying love felt so much better than the falling love that he tried hard not to fall.
He lay holding himself in his crib, remembering everything.
When he opened his eyes, the light came slanting low through the slats of the blind, striping the wall with light and dark. It reminded him of the sun coming through the trees when he was a tiny furry ball clinging to his mother. For a long moment, the memory held him as he held himself. He let his fingers wander through his stomach-fur and down into his diaper to scratch his balls. He loved the tickling sensation.
“Good morning, Ralph! How’s Mommy’s little baby?”
The cheery voice was his Mommy’s, but for another moment Kumbu lay staring up at the stripes of light on the wall, scratching his balls and remembering.
“No no no, mustn’t scratch there, no!” Mommy tugged the cord that raised the blind, and the dark stripes between the light ones fled up the wall and vanished. “That’s your private place. We can’t let people see us scratching there, not even Mommy, no no!”
She was smiling as she scolded him, but Kumbu recognized the gentle pressure that slowly, day after day, pushed and molded him into the Kumbu she wanted. He couldn’t understand why it mattered when no strangers were watching. But he didn’t mind, because he’d also noticed that slowly, day after day, his life with his human mother and father grew more and more interesting and exciting— until now, every single day he was swinging high in the air, dangling from his Daddy’s wrists and ankles. What could be more wonderful?
He knew the answer to that: tomorrow. Every day, it seemed, something came along that was even more wonderful than the day before. He could hardly wait for each new day to begin.
“Ready for your cereal, Ralph?”
Kumbu was always ready for cornflakes. Mommy opened the bedroom door and led him with a firm grip on his wrist through the living room and the arching doorway to the trailer’s tiny dining room. His Daddy looked up and grinned, slicing Kumbu’s banana into the bowl of cornflakes waiting on the table. Kumbu knew why Mommy was holding his wrist so tight: sometimes he got so excited at the sight of his cornflakes and his banana and his Daddy that he lost control and jumped up on the table. He was learning not to do that. He had almost learned it. But just last week—
“Morning, sport!” Daddy’s grin spread wider across the stubble of his chin. “Are we going to have fun today, like yesterday, Ralphie boy?”
More! Kumbu thought, jumping up and down just a little as he beat his free hand against his leg, and he felt Mommy’s grip tighten. But he wasn’t losing control today. He knew exactly how high to jump and when to stop. When they reached the table, he pulled against Mommy’s grip and she lifted and he walked up her leg and swung into his high chair. It was one of the first games they’d ever learned together.
Mommy strapped him into his chair and tied on his bib. Daddy poured the milk. Then Mommy picked up his special spoon and fed him.
He loved his cornflakes. He loved his banana. He loved his Mommy and his Daddy and he loved his morning: just like yesterday morning, except brand new.
Something was going to happen today that had never happened before. That was one thing he’d learned. Even while he practiced a move that he’d practiced again and again, he always waited for it. He always watched for it.
Something new was going to happen.
Kyle Wilson rolled out of the sack, a little bit hung over. Something hurt. He sat up and felt under the folds of his mosquito net. Damn. He’d slept on his pistol again. Without quite opening his eyes he felt along the barrel, just making sure. Yes, the safety catch was on. But he’d better watch that. These so-called hunters he was squiring around central Africa were worth too much money to risk plugging one in his sleep. Not to mention his own worthless skin.
He tried to pry one eye open. First the right eye, then the left. But they rebelled. How much had he siphoned from his pocket flask by the campfire last night, anyway? He was supposed to keep track. No more than ten good sips per night. And none of those extra-long slurps, either. Discipline, man. Thurgood had told him straight: one more screw-up and he went on probation.
To drive home the point, the front office had paired him up with Solomon Purgis this time out, a veteran hunter nearly twice Kyle’s age. No drinking buddies on this safari. Strictly business. Except hunting was more than a business to Purgis: it was an obsession.
Kyle succeeded in opening his right eye, which immediately closed again. Then he tried cracking both eyes just a little. His mosquito net turned a shaft of sunlight into a bright gauzy mist that seemed to surround him in glittering droplets of light. His headache throbbed against the glare.
Closing his eyes again, he felt under his cot for his boots. Dangerous, he knew. What if a snake had curled around them in the night? Strictly against the safety drill. After reciting it to one wide-eyed bunch of tourists after another, he knew the drill by heart.
Great White Hunters! What a joke. Not one of them had the guts to venture twentyfive feet away from the trail to track a kill. Or worse, an animal they might have only wounded. They all talked big in front of the African guides and gun-bearers, lines they’d memorized from Hollywood movies about big-game hunting in Africa. Then stayed as close to the natives as they could, twitching at every little jungle noise and wetting their safari pants if someone fired off a gun.
Deep down, they all wanted Kyle or Purgis to aim the gun, pull the trigger, then hand it to them so they could pose for the photograph. And Purgis was just the one to do it. Purgis had a house full of animal-heads somewhere, like most professional hunters, but he didn’t really care about the trophy. All he wanted was the kill. Kyle had watched him opening his little pocket notebook at night by the fire, or in his tent by lanternlight. Scratch scratch. Adding one more lion, one more wildebeest, one more gazelle to his personal tally.
It made Kyle a little queasy. All he wanted was his paycheck. And his pocket flask. And his peace and quiet. Though not necessarily in that order.
Speak of the devil. Kyle found his other boot, tugged it on and thrashed his way out of the mosquito net. Purgis loomed in the door-flap, thick-necked and powerful, holding a rifle as usual.
“Look, Wilson, we got a problem. One of the black boys says we’re missing one. The tall thin one, name of Trimble. Wilbur Trimble. Cot wasn’t slept in. You remember him staying up by the fire last night?”
Damn. Purgis always turned in early. Campfire duty belonged to Kyle.
“Sure. He stayed up a while. Then I thought he hit the sack. I looked up and he was gone.”
“Anyone else up that late besides you?”
“Sure, sure. The older couple, whatstheirname. Mott. I thought they never would get tired of regurgitating memories. And the young guy whose father . . . Parks? Pike?”
“Everyone else is accounted for, I guess. The boy says he found tracks going into the bush, but they never made it across the creek. Either he turned upstream or down, or just . . . drowned and washed away.”
Kyle’s headache jabbed suddenly against the inside of his skull as if a prizefighter were trapped in there, trying to punch a way out. Three quick punches. Pro-ba-tion.
“Any sign of—”
“Nope.” Purgis sounded disappointed. “No animal sign, no blood, no smashed vegetation. Wherever he is, he’s probably alive. My gut instinct is, the natives got him. Slave trade is alive and well, of course, though not exactly around here. Even our own crew ain’t immune to the temptation.”
“We’re paying them too well for that,” said Kyle. Suddenly he wished he knew exactly how much the guides and gun-bearers and kitchen staff were paid.
Purgis thought for a minute, his eyes like hard black beads in a face like tooled leather, the military haircut increasingly irrelevant to his balding skull. “Listen. You round up the dudes and dudettes and see what you can find out. I’ll interrogate the black boys. We got to take care of this quick.”
Kyle felt his stomach lurch and start to roll. “Right. Be right with you. Just let me . . .” He bent over to tie his boots and nearly lost last night’s dinner. “I’ll be right . . .” He jammed his pistol into its holster and snapped it. Then gently lowered his pith helmet over the pounding reverberation in his skull and delicately fastened the strap.
He sat still for another long minute on the edge of his cot, trying to picture Wilbur Trimble in his mind. But he’d been out in the bush too long. He’d led too many herds of timid and eager and nervous and vicious tourists into the wilds of Africa. Their faces all blended together in the gauzy haze of his brain. And it all just hurt too much.