Nathan stayed watchful for the next three days. He noticed nothing untoward, other than Hawley becoming uncomfortably chummy with him and his brother. But every time the bigot tried to ingratiate himself to them, Nathan felt his insincerity meter implode.
On the evening of the third day, Nathan sat by himself on a split log watching the campfire burn down to cinders. An occasional flame jumped and flared, only to dwindle and die into its glowing grave. Nathan raised his gaze to where the tethered mules stood huddled together at the edge of the fire’s weakening ring of light. Each mule balanced on three legs, the forth leg cocked at the knee, the tip of the hoof resting nonchalantly on the ground. Periodically one animal would shift his weight, bumping his neighbors and setting off a wave of rebalancing.
With a deep sigh, Nathan scraped the last mouthful of stew from his aluminum dish and spooned it into his mouth. Still chewing, he got to his feet and walked over to the animals, tied and hobbled beside Wogan’s tent, which glowed in the darkness from a camp light within.
“You don’t hate the others for being colored, do you, big guy?” he whispered to the only pale roan in the bunch. “Didn’t think so. Animals don’t kill each another over color.”
Nathan toyed with the animal’s thin forelock for a moment. He ran his hand over the arched neck, down its coarse-haired mane, and patted his rump. Then he sauntered over to the improvised serving table, a short board balanced between two cut logs.
Nathan had opted for an early rest and a late dinner due to having pulled watch duty for the first half of the night. By the time he had risen, the sun had set and the others were already heading for their tents in anticipation of an early morning.
Nathan sloshed water from a pan into his dish. He swished it around with the stained dishrag they boiled daily, and then flung it to the side. The ribbon of water hit the ground with a running splat. Nathan stacked his dish upside down on the pile in the center of the board to dry.
A twig snapped behind him and he spun around, ready for anything.
Tonto squatted on the other side of the fire, his brown face dancing with shadows from the dying flames. His friend held up two ends of a twig he had deliberately broken, and then tossed them into the fire. “How,” he said, raising the open palm of his right hand. “Can’t say ‘paleface,’ though.”
Nathan steadied himself and returned the salute. A sign of peace, to show the warrior’s strongest hand empty of weapons. “How, Chief.”
Tonto rose and hefted the M2 carbine Nathan had been assigned for guard duty—but which he had negligently left propped against his split-log seat. With an inscrutable wink, the native handed him the weapon, gathered an armful of firewood from the pile at their feet, and set it down beside the nest of glowing embers.
Habit, Nathan thought. Slinging the semi-automatic rifle over his shoulder, he walked over and sat beside his friend. The resinous wood sizzled and popped as Tonto laid it on the coals, and almost immediately burst into flames.
The light in Wogan’s dome tent blinked out, leaving all five of the two-man tents in the dark. The Americans paired up, but Charles Hawley slept alone. The natives, as always, occupied a lean-to.
“Quiet out there,” Nathan said.
“Too quiet,” Tonto said. “Insects start talking in an hour. Should be.”
The brief silence was broken by a tropical bird, crooning a haunting goodnight song far overhead. A nearby bush shook with the rustle of a rodent drawn by the smell of food, and a chorus of snores drifted out from the tents to blend with the sizzles and pops from the fire.
“You’re worried,” Tonto said.
The native nodded slowly. “Not the same worry.”
Tonto jerked his chin past the tents to the black shadow where the guides slept under the lean-to, indistinguishable in the dark. “Three days, no fights for more money. Not normal.”
Not normal. Huh. Nathan realized he had been so wrapped up in his own concerns he hadn’t noticed. But Tonto was right. Had they given up on trying to squeeze Wogan for higher wages, or was there another reason? Suddenly he felt wide awake.
“Do you know something?”
“No, Jane. Not normal is all.”
“Can you talk with them? See what they’re thinking?”
The native tossed another log onto the fire, now fully ablaze, sending a shower of sparks dancing up the swirl of vapors. “You’re worried about Hawley.”
“I’ll sit with you—sleep outside your tent later.” Tonto fixed his gaze on the fire.
Talk about not normal. Nobody would ever do that for me back home. With a start, Nathan realized he was unlikely to ever find a more loyal friend than Tonto—here or anywhere—perhaps for the rest of his life.
After turning over the guard at midnight, he went to sleep beside his brother with the same peaceful thought, having watched Tonto bed down outside the tent flaps.
He awoke to shouts, followed by a gun blast that shook the very core of his being.
The camp exploded with cries. Grabbing his survival rifle, he rolled over, only to find the sheet Mark slept in empty. In one fluid movement he pushed to his knees and launched himself through the tent flaps. He expected the ties to tear, but the flaps flew open without resistance and he caught a half-naked body with one shoulder. Instinctively wrapping his arms around the man, together they tumbled to the ground. A melee of shouts at the camp’s center were punctuated by another explosion of gunshots. Nathan felt a rush of adrenaline, and struggled in the darkness to get the better of his opponent. Pitching to one side, he quickly reversed, caught the native off balance, rolled on top and pinned both the man’s arms to the ground beneath his knees. Raising his rifle butt in both hands to bash in the man’s skull, only then did Tonto’s cries of “Kemosabe! Kemosabe! It’s me, Kemosabe!” penetrate the haze of his panic-fogged mind. For a moment he froze, and then he leapt off as if electrified.
Tonto nimbly jumped to his feet and grabbed him by the arm in the dark. Together they turned and ran toward the din of voices in the center of the camp. They found the expedition members milling around in confusion, the scene dimly illuminated by the campfire.
Nathan grabbed one of the grad students as he raced by, carrying an unlit lamp. “What happened?”
“Murder,” he said. Pulling away, he stepped back. “Got a match?”
“Here. I’ve got a lighter.” With a shiver of fear, Nathan realized the calm, controlled voice of the man who stepped forward was Hawley’s. A metallic snap in the dark was followed by the rasp of a lighter’s striker on flint, and a long daisy-petal of flame leapt from his silver lighter. The pale hand that held the lighter was smeared with blood.
Nathan felt his world close in upon him. “Where’s my brother?” he asked, unable to keep the chill from his voice.
“Wait until we get this lamp lit,” the grad student said.
The mantles of the Coleman lantern sputtered to life, just as Scott Campbell stepped from a tent holding another lantern high. Together they bleached the scene white, and for a moment nobody moved. Spread-eagled on the ground was a body, arms wide as if to embrace the earth. He was dressed in the same safari khakis they all wore, even to bed. One hand was stuffed under the split log seat Nathan had sat upon earlier that night, the other lay draped into the fire where it sizzled and sputtered with an unholy stench, engulfed by flames.
A huge puddle of blood spread out from where the body’s head should have been.
“Mark,” he said, his heart and hopes sinking.
“Yeah? What happened?”
He snapped his head around as his brother stepped into the circle of light, only three feet away.