|6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.56(d)
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Waiting for Bones
By Donna Cousins
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Donna Cousins
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Wait here," the guide said.
Then he stepped down from the Land Cruiser and set off on a path so sketchy it might not have been a path at all. The four passengers, seated two- by-two in ascending rows behind the front seat, watched puffs of dust explode behind his boots as he stalked away. Bones, the guide, had never left them alone out there—not for a minute.
They were parked beneath a colossal baobab tree that thrust itself up from parched sub-Saharan earth. The sun had only moments before breached the horizon and begun its assault on the cold morning air. Sitting in the roofless, wide-open vehicle in zipped-up jackets they would soon fling away, they stared at their leader's back, alert for any clue to his unexplained departure.
The land around them appeared spare and endless. Random clusters of flat-topped vegetation measured a foot in height—or twenty—and stood a few yards away—or a mile—perspective being the first casualty of a vast, alien wilderness. To gaze into the distant dawn was to feel as small as an insect. Yet a short drive in any direction could change the landscape entirely, from wide open bushveld to dense, riverine woodland or muddy, croc-infested delta.
"He's going for a smoke," Todd said, squinting into the middle range. He was leaning forward, with his kneecaps hard against the back of the vacated driver's seat. "Bones smokes, you know."
Abby was resting her hand on the plank of Todd's thigh, one variation of the bodily contact that was as characteristic of this pair as their fair-haired good looks. They were always touching, if not like this then with Todd's arm around Abby or her head tilted against his shoulder, as though physical contact formed the bond that made them a couple. But as she watched Bones shrink into the landscape, Abby's fingers gripped more forcefully than before the rock-hard quadriceps of the man she would most likely marry.
"No, I think he wants a better look, up there," she said. She released Todd's thigh to point a crescent of varnished fingernail at a rise spiked with termite mounds the size of tepees. "See? He's walking that way."
In her other hand Abby cradled a pair of binoculars so powerful she could spot the ticks on a distant rhino. She held the lenses against her cheekbones and dialed down on a bouncing black cavern that turned out to be the barrel of the rifle slung over Bones's shoulder. Bones took the rifle? She hadn't noticed until now.
A glance across the seat in front of her confirmed that the gun rack was indeed empty—a long, dark void. Bones's canteen was still there, so old and battered it might have watered Ernest Hemingway on his way to shoot a lion. The ignition held a key attached to a fob that hung in the air like a spider lowering itself for a glance at Bones's guide books: The Birds of Southern Africa, Reptile Encyclopedia. Next to the books sat Bones's journal, a rain-swelled volume with curling ivory pages.
"I've seen him smoke," Todd insisted, nodding his head. "More than once." He had watched Bones light up after dinner, the flame of the matchstick a tiny comet next to the campfire that warmed them each night under a bright swath of stars. The guide had stood unblinking in the amber glow of the fire, exhaling tusks of smoke that curled upward and vanished into the night. A man who had seen everything.
Abby rubbed the lenses of her binoculars with a silken square, then folded the cloth in a neat rectangle and tucked it inside her multi-pocketed travel vest. Simple tasks that tidied and organized steadied her in untamed surroundings. A careful traveler, she looked for adventure modified by first- class provisions for comfort and safety. She would go almost anywhere with a guide as capable as Bones, and she planned and packed with attention to the smallest detail, ticking from a list the clothes, hardware, and pharmaceuticals suggested for every possible contingency.
"He took the rifle," she announced, in case anyone had failed to notice. "And the radio."
Behind Abby and Todd their friends Nina and Griff occupied the uppermost seat and a marginally superior vantage point for taking in the great sweep of the African bush. At the moment no parts of Nina and Griff happened to be pressed together, but the two shared the nearly telepathic bandwidth that comes with almost three decades of marriage. Now they exchanged a bewildered look that said, Bones is walking away?
None of them needed reminding that Bones was more than their driver. He was a bush-savvy scout, navigator, and tracker—the unquestioned leader. Safari guides interpreted roars, snorts, and cackles. They were repositories of essential wilderness skills and lifesaving wisdom. Most of all, they stood between the tourists perched high in unenclosed safari vehicles and the harsh realities of the African bush.
In the middle seat Todd shifted his legs to a new acute angle. His tall, angular body appeared devoid of fat, and he had recently worked his storkish stride the entire length of the Chicago marathon. Immobility chafed at him like a tether. Hands that spanned two and a half octaves on the piano now fingered a riff across the tops of his khaki-clad thighs. As he watched Bones stride away, his head bobbed on his long neck as if keeping time to music, and the toes of his shoes rose and fell against the metal floorboard. He was the image of uncontained energy, a man who had spent a lifetime fidgeting and training, every muscle primed for the long haul.
He visored his hand to stare at Bones's retreating form, hoping to prove his own astute grasp of the situation. "He's probably got a Dunhill going already."
"Why couldn't he smoke right here?" Abby wanted to know. "We wouldn't report him or anything." Her voice had grown testy. She needed the wide, reassuring moat formed by expert guides and camp staffs who kept luxury inside and everything that was harsh and dangerous out. For her, Bones's departure changed everything.
"He doesn't know that," Todd answered. "And he's not going to break a rule in front of us."
"Leaving us here isn't breaking a rule?" She lifted her binoculars. "Look how far he's gone." She paused, watching. "Maybe he wants to see what's behind that hill."
"You mean the dagga boy?" A hint of a smile played on Todd's lips.
Abby twirled the focus. "A buffalo?" The pitch of her voice had risen. "There's no buffalo."
Bones had warned them about dagga boys, the bachelor Cape buffalos infamous for aggression. Ornery and persevering, a dagga boy would charge any intruder, even stalk a person on foot for miles.
"Maybe he wants to shoot our supper," Griff said, joking, hoping to ease her discomfort. "Buffalo burgers."
Nina gave him a look. "Bones would rather shoot a poacher than almost any animal. Whatever he's doing, he'll be right back." She said this with her usual unshakable assurance. It suited Nina to believe that life was controllable and that she was in charge of her own roomy universe, but of course this was as untrue for her as it was for everyone else.
She tipped her face to search the forked thicket of baobab that canopied above their heads and wondered uneasily what wild creatures might be attracted to that stout, sheltering leviathan of a tree. Without guidance from Bones, she was not sure exactly what to look at or listen for. Now every twig and mote, every toot and whistle seemed equally significant. She picked out the network of veins in a translucent leaf. A tiny gecko stared back at her. The natural world seemed to be projecting itself with unusual clarity.
Todd locked his fingers and placed both hands flat on top of his head. He twisted around to look at Griff. "This is fun. Just sitting here."
"Relax, Todd," Griff said. "Watch for birds."
Abby pointed at a small one poised like a jewel on the tip of a thistle. "Look. A lilac-breasted roller."
Todd looked, unimpressed. He was okay during game drives, when the excitement of the hunt sucked up every joule of excess energy. Stopped dead under a tree, however, the urge to move tormented him like an itch. Now he squirmed, drummed his fingers, and eyed their guide's diminishing backside.
Abby, too, was watching Bones. He had walked past the termite mounds, hurried right past them. "Now where's he going?" she said, exasperated.
Todd stood and reached for the side rail. "I'll go find out."
"You're not serious." The expression on Abby's face said she knew he was.
"Forget it, Todd," Griff said. "He's only been out there a few minutes."
"Less than ten," Nina put in.
"Less than ten? Who's wearing a watch?" Todd's eyes traveled from wrist to wrist.
Griff reached over and tugged on Todd's sleeve. "Sit. Please. No one walks around here unarmed. He'll come back any minute."
The expression on Todd's face said, You are so lame. But before he could shape his disgust into words, the jarring yak yak yak of a frantic baboon rang across the grassland. Yak! Yak! Yak! An unmistakable warning to head for the trees.
Chapter TwoBones had become a mere speck against the dust-colored plain. Todd sat sullen and fidgety in the Cruiser while the others scanned their surroundings for whatever baboon enemy the alarm call signaled. The sharp bark of a baboon usually warned of an approaching lion, leopard, or spotted hyena—ferocious hunters that pose an ever-present danger on the open plain.
Bones had assured them that predators are not interested in people who sit quietly in vehicles. (They had taken note of the word "quietly," and on game drives, if they talked at all, kept their voices low.) Predators view vehicles as bloodless, bad-smelling intrusions, Bones had said. "Not of interest for feeding, fighting, or, uh, reproduction."
But he also warned that a person on foot presents a far more interesting profile—meat on the hoof—or, equally perilous for the person, a threat, particularly if that person should step between a mother and her offspring or inadvertently startle a creature whose natural reflex would be to strike. If Bones, on foot in the open, had heard the baboon sentry minutes earlier, he would be extremely wary now.
Griff was keeping a close eye on Todd, who had folded his long body back into the seat next to Abby and sat with one arm across her shoulders, rapping a knuckle against the backrest. The alarm call would settle him down for a little while at least.
He estimated that Bones had been away about fifteen minutes. Like the others, he had left his wristwatch back in camp. Keeping track of the hour had seemed irrelevant when a guide was in charge, but in the wake of Bones's departure the lack of a timepiece unnerved him. He felt unprepared and jittery, as though he had acquired the burden of knowing all essential facts—the weight of survival itself.
It came to him that he had no idea where they were, no concept of the way back to camp or what hazards might lurk in any direction. He cast a squint at the plain behind the vehicle. Even land they had covered that morning looked unfamiliar and confusing.
No wonder. Bones had driven over a route as erratic and incomprehensible as the flight of a bee. They had crossed flats and hills, sudden tilting dune slopes, water, brambles, logs, and rocks. Shifting seasonal floods wiped out vehicle tracks before they became permanent, Bones had said, explaining the blank slate, road-wise, over which they traveled each day. Apparently, one road, somewhere, led to faraway civilization. He told them this while gesturing vaguely toward the rising sun as if to dismiss the idea of road travel altogether.
Clearly, roads were not required, at least not by Bones. The guide's driving, tracking, and navigational skills were phenomenal. He seemed to divine through superhuman sensory receptors the precise location of any animal within a mile. The smallest sign—a crushed blade of grass or a crumb of fresh scat—could cause him to yank the wheel in a new direction. He drove fast, dauntless, playing every gear. It had not taken long for the tracking itself, the thrill of a lusty hunt, to become as absorbing to Griff and the others hanging on in back as it appeared to be for Bones.
"How will he get a better look down there?" Abby's voice broke through the silence. "Do you think he heard the baboon?" Bones had skirted a grove of marula trees and was about to sink out of sight into a gully or other sweeping declivity. The distance he had put between himself and the Cruiser struck Griff as irresponsible, no matter what he was up to.
Abby had leaned into the crook of Todd's shoulder. He was staring after Bones too. The heel of his shoe tapped against the floorboard, causing his knee to bounce and on top of it, the fingers of his splayed and rapping hand. Nina, by way of contrast, sat very still. Her hands lay limp on her lap, and her head was tilted back.
Griff suppressed a smile. Agitation in the people around her turned Nina's kinetic motors way down so that her movements slowed to speeds suitable for a coronation. His wife possessed a capacious mind stocked with two foreign languages and an abundant supply of deeply held opinions. Her composure when others came unglued projected either reassuring calm or an utter lack of sympathy, depending on the sensibilities of the agitated. Griff doubted that Todd would notice.
"He's going to the loo, Abby," he said. He was careful to use a doctorly tone he had long ago perfected—authoritative yet soothing; part commandant, part nightclub crooner.
For delicacy's sake, he had kept this theory to himself, but he guessed that Bones required a few minutes alone to accommodate the exigencies of his bowels, a commonly pressing matter in a part of the world where single-cell opportunists colonize every kitchen. The idea of a routine, if urgent, comfort stop reassured him that the guide's absence would be brief—even though in his judgment Bones had walked farther away than necessary.
Griff looked at Abby and added, "That's why he left without explanation and in such a big hurry."
He watched Abby let her binoculars fall on their strap while she registered and seemed to accept this new possibility. An agreeable sense of order and mastery washed over him. Inductive reasoning was a cornerstone of clinical diagnosis, a subject he enjoyed discussing with the residents who rotated through orthopedics, his specialty. He liked to point out that Sherlock Holmes used induction too, thinking retrospectively from available clues back to the likely identity of the perpetrator, from effect to cause, even though Holmes's equally fine powers of deduction had gotten most of the attention.
Now he stared at the horizon, asking himself whether there might be another, more arcane explanation for Bones's departure—something other than a call from nature. He shifted in his seat. Thinking broadly could be stimulating, but in the end Ockham got it right: the simplest explanation was the one most likely to be correct. Common things are common. Medical students learn the principle of Ockham's Razor during their first year of training. One common cause usually explains all the symptoms. Do not multiply entities needlessly. When you hear hoof beats think of horses, not zebras. A smile formed on his lips. Maybe in Africa it was best to think of zebras.
Chapter ThreeThe game drive had begun before dawn and was intended to end around lunchtime at an airstrip scratched in the dirt somewhere to the north. There a light plane would meet the travelers for their flight to another well-appointed encampment about a hundred miles away. Luggage had been sent ahead and might have reached the next camp already, although (as Bones had reminded them more than once) guests could arrive whenever they jolly well pleased.
Like all first-rate safari guides, Bones never hurried clients away from a captivating tableau or abandoned fresh tracks merely to show up on time for something else. Nature's clocks and rhythms determined the flow of each day, and everyone involved in the handling of Bones's charges complied with highly elastic scheduling.
Now, with no sign of a predator slinking their way and no further warning from the baboon, Griff was relieved to see everyone relax a little. Abby dug in a pocket for her sunblock. Todd leaned forward to stretch his long torso. Nina gestured toward the branches above their heads. "There's a hornbill in the baobab."
Excerpted from Waiting for Bones by Donna Cousins Copyright © 2011 by Donna Cousins. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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