Yes, we have killed people, and they deserved it. We’re poacher hunters, from Frankfort, Kentucky, moved to Africa to work alongside the Big Game Protection Agency. They gave us a gun, a uniform,a four-by-four, and a target. We camp in the desert, crammed in tents. Tinned food is all we get. We could wait days, weeks, one time it was a month and a half before we saw one of them. But when they cross our sights it’s a rush like none other. We guess that’s why the poachers do it too.
We got a letter from our parents. We’re all brothers, one sister is here too. The letter said, “Come home we miss you. We don’t want you all dying out there in the sand.”
We sent one back with a list of the animals we’ve saved: three lions, four tigers, two elephants and six rhinos. We chalk them up on a board in our tents.
We sat in a circle around the fire and told stories. Ghost stories, fictional or not, depends who you ask. They swear they saw one. “We saw it right there in the damn garage,” they said. I didn’t believe them for a second. They say it moved the can of oil in the corner. Then we talked about home, do we miss it? Sure. Do we want to go back? Not until the job’s done, we don’t. Remember the lasagna? The one with taco pieces on top instead of another layer of pasta? Sure we do, we all remember that. Sure as heck would beat the cold beans we live off now.
We’re all religious, hang a cross around our neck, all day and night. The letter said “That cross isn’t going to protect you, you know?” Sure has done so far. Haven’t got a scratch on us yet.
Once, a while back, there was a lion. Big mane, scars all over its face, real mean type. I was just getting out of the tent, Lucy too, but she wouldn’t move. I saw her and asked “What’s wrong?” She lifted her arm at a tree in the distance. This lion was creeping towards us. From how far away it was, looked like a cat, just a beaten up house cat. It got closer and snarled, raised its upper lip and showed his teeth. It ducked down behind the tree, I pulled Lucy towards the tent and told her, “Get everyone up, we gotta go.” When I turned, the lion was there with something in its mouth. A little cub, holding it like like a dog holds a newspaper. I kept my eye on him, the whole group woke up and peeked out their tents. I understand money, what I don’t understand is how you can pull a trigger while looking at something like that.
Summer rolled around and the days became unbearable. Sand blew across the ground, it looked like a swarm of orange flies charging towards us. We had to rip one of our shirts in half and use it as a face mask to keep the sand from stinging our eyes, or going into our mouths. The trees around us were thin. In the distance there was a small forest that the animals cowered in while they waited for the storm to pass. Most of the poachers had gone home because of the poor visibility. But there was one group we saw. I was on lookout duty, saw an SUV charging across the sand in the distance towards the forest. The others were resting. I stood up and grabbed their tents, shaking them while shouting through my mask. The words were muffled but they got the message and came out. I pointed to the distance. The car was just disappearing out of view. Without a word we jumped in the back of our pickup truck and we hauled ass to the forest.
In the forest we couldn’t see past the tip of our ARs. But we knew we were heading to heck in a handbasket. Sounds of animals growling and the SUV engine mixed with the wind as it swayed my mask like a flag. I shut the engine off. It let out a rumble and we stopped by a tree. Lucy took point West, found a boulder to hide behind, did hand signals to us to get a move on. We all got out, the sky was orange with dust. Heck, the whole forest was orange except a couple of trees nearby. Derek laid his hand on my chest and pulled me back a bit. “Watch your toes, these parts is snake land.” He aimed his barrel to the ground and scanned the floor. “Got bitten once, ain’t something you let happen twice.”
“Isn’t much help us being in a crowd.” Lucy stood up and looked around us. “Split up, it’s our best shot. Holla if you see anything.”
The group split, we all took a direction each. I took South West, took it real slow. Used my left hand like a feeler, touching everything around me. Right hand gripped on the handle of my AR-15. Bending my knees, I shuffled through the forest on my toes, keeping as quiet as I could. Brushing through the trees that towered over me I didn’t see nothing. The sounds of the animals got quieter and quieter the further I went.
“Everyone hear this? Over.” Derek asked over the walkie-talkie.
We all said yeah. The signal was a little fuzzy but I could make out what everyone was saying.
“I got some footprints down here.”
“Boots or hooves?” Lucy asked.
“Why’d I call about some damn hooves? North, that’s where they’ll be.”
I nodded. I knew they couldn’t see me nod but it was less for communication and more for preparation. The forest was clear now and I could see as far as the trees would let me. Every now and then animals ran in front of me, sometimes brushing against my loose camo shirt. The further I got north, I started hearing faint bangs. It was too early to tell if they were gunshots; my mind went to the sight of blood and bullets flying.
The sounds grew louder and echoed through the trees. With each bang, a new animal would dart out from the foliage: deers, gazelles, even a honey badger. “Carter, you there?” Lucy said over the walkie-talkie, her voice was like she’d got back from a run.
“Yeah, yeah, on the way,” I said.
I think she replied. The signal broke up and all I heard was white noise. The forest turned silent. I could see an SUV parked behind some trees, there were bullet holes and some dents in the side. No blood. The front bumper was caved in and bent around a rock. The front window, smashed. I raised my barrel and trod lightly to the car. My eyes were darting to anything that moved, trees, animals, heck, even blades of grass if they shook enough.
Footsteps were imprinted into the grass like crop circles. Wide gaps between each step like someone had been running. Around them were more footsteps, chasing the others. They were all human, different sizes with different soles. Drops of blood were on the ground with each new footprint I found. On the tree to my right was a splat of red. I followed the blood drops, they got thicker and thicker. Groans, I heard groans echoing through the trees. A human, a man, painful groans, they got louder.
“What’s that?” I heard Derek shouting.
The man groaned again, this time sharper and louder than before. I forgot to move any further. I thought Derek would be in trouble, that blood was his and Lucy and him were running together. Why was he shouting? Maybe he couldn’t hear Lucy. Maybe he was fading, maybe—-I shook the thoughts out and walked on, gun in hand, feet rustling the tall grass. Then I heard Lucy. “That’s enough,” she screamed. “Get off him.”
I messed up, I should’ve been there. I picked up my pace, I didn’t run, that would’ve given away my position. I scurried, like a fox, low to the ground. The blood on the floor had become a thick line. I reached a bush, there was grunting and soft thumping sounds. I parted the bush’s branches with my hands and peered through. There was a body on the ground, facing away from me, curled up and limp. Someone stood over him, kicking his lifeless body. Blood pooled around them. I used this noise to shield my movements, sneaking around the edge of the bush, my sight on the man.
“Seriously Derek, that’s enough.” Lucy pushed him off the body.
“Wait, wait.” Derek put his foot on the lifeless body of a poacher. Blood trickled down the man’s ear as he lay on the ground. Derek posed, flexing his muscles. “Take a picture, I’ll send it back home.”