I could see the shrapnel of the nut casings as the taxi driver threw another handful into his mouth. He spent more time looking back at us than at the road. We were providing him with his dream fare, the numbers racking up as his battered hatchback took us deeper into the South African bush. Every few seconds his tanned face would turn to look at us, sweating so much that he looked more like an oil painting.
“So you’re after witch trains, huh?” the taxi driver said, grinning a row of crooked teeth.
I looked away, watching the barren wilderness slide by. There was nothing a racist loved more than witnessing a stereotype. In his eyes, the black man was inferior because he believed in all manners of voodoo and uncivilized legends, and now the taxi driver reveled in hearing the two black postgraduate students in the back of his cab were shadowing the myth of witch trains. While I stayed quiet, Kagiso leaned forward, explaining all about our paper. That was Kagiso for you. He was so adoringly trusting and naïve.
“I had a girl once,” the taxi driver said, beaming at us from the rear view mirror. “A proper girl, not some bush girl, but straight from the heart of European civilization. Saw her step onto a train and never saw her again. Reckon that was a witch train? Reckon she became a zombie? Or just couldn’t handle the bush man!” The taxi driver’s jowls wobbled as he laughed. I yearned for our destination to come quicker. An abandoned station seemed like a stately mansion if it meant being free of the taxi driver.
I spotted the fragments of old railroad between clouds of dust, rushing past the window. The road we were travelling ran parallel to the track. Kagiso must have noted my eyes darting from old twisted rail to old twisted rail. He broke away from his conversation with the cabbie and pointed out my window explaining to me how in the 19th century these old rails were used to transport miners and supplies to and from the gold mines that dotted the savannah. “Hundreds of them out here,” he said, “some are not even on the maps.”
I smiled to myself noting his native cadence, his accent was coming back. Kagiso knew all about the local mythology, he was born out here in the bush. He’d moved to America after the death of his grandparents who’d left him a sizable herd of cattle. He was able to sell it all for enough money to travel and paid his way through school on a series of grants and odd jobs. That’s where we met, at U of A, Albany, New York. He was an eager kid fresh off the boat. Me; a jaded child of privilege, son of a lawyer and a doctor. I think it was a yearning to understand my heritage which drew us together. There is no culture in America.
I didn’t delude myself, it was selfish. No less selfish than attaching myself to this project of his studying indigenous folklore; seemed as good an excuse as any to visit the mother continent.
“Should be a junction just ahead.” He was still talking referencing a fold out map laid across his lap, “There.” He pointed to a weathered signpost jutting out of the dirt, signaling the driver to turn to the left. The force of the motion threw me against Kagiso and the dirt road was so bumpy I didn’t even note the rumble of the old car crossing the ties. We continued in a flurry of dust and dirt still further into the bush.
Witch trains. That’s what Kagiso called them. There were a few different accounts of what they were and what their purpose might be. A few locals we’d spoken with talked about them as little more than stories to keep children out of the bush; a fabricated means of explaining sudden disappearances without resorting to the grizzly truth of night time animal attacks. Others described them as literal, spectral locomotives transporting the ghosts of slaves to the mines, or ferrying the souls of the sinful who died on these dried plains into the afterlife.
Regardless, all the stories pointed us to the same location if we wanted to document one; an old decrepit station, miles into the bush. Kagiso figured we could ride out to the station, spend a couple of nights in the wilderness, then return to town on the third day and document our adventure. Can’t say I wasn’t a little bit nervous, but Kagiso assured me he’d been camping in the bush since he was a child.
“You are safe with me, Little Cub.” He would tell me and laugh.
The cab driver’s voice brought me out of my trance. I’d been watching dust for a long while now and the sun was riding low on the horizon outside my window. “The tank is on half,” he said, tapping the gauge on the dash, “I have to turn back. If you want to stay out here you get out now.”
“Just a bit further, sir?” Kagiso pleaded.
“No, I got a family at home.” The once jovial cabbie took on a more serious tone as the car skidded to a stop in the middle of the road. “You can pay me now.” He pointed to the fare on the meter as he exited the car. I, too, got out and followed him around back helping to retrieve our gear from the trunk.
Kagiso looked downhearted, shouldering his pack. The driver was pouring fuel from a small reserve tank into the vehicle. “You have more fuel. Surely you can take us the rest of the way?”
“No. It’ll be dark soon. What if I get lost going back to the city? Who will find me first? The police or the lions? Maybe your witch train, eh?” He held out his hand to me, flapping his fingers and awaiting payment.
“It’s fine, Kagi,” I said, gesturing up the road to a dark shape in the distance, “I think I see it. We can walk the rest of the way.” I turned my attention back to the driver, “Thank you for the ride.” I placed the money in his palm making sure he noted the sizable gratuity, “We’ll see you again the day after tomorrow, right?”
“Of course.” His smile was wide and fake.
“Good. Bring a bigger gas can next time, huh?” I smiled equally wide and fake.
He got back into his car spinning the wheel and making a dusty circle to point the vehicle back home and throwing gravel in all directions. The cabbie called from the open window, “Good hunting to you boys, I will see you in two days time.” And with his hand still extended out the window he disappeared down the road.
I turned to Kagiso. He was frowning, “It will be dark before we get there.”
I nodded my agreement, and drew a flashlight from my pack, “Let’s get going then.”
It never ceased to amaze me how bright the night sky can be when you’re far from the city lights. For a while the light of the moon alone made it possible to navigate the plain without the use of our flashlights. In time, though, it grew dark enough that we could no longer see our destination in the distance. We moved onto the old train tracks and followed them, allowing the derelict narrow-gauge to guide our path.
I was most familiar with the awkward, albeit, friendly Kagiso. Never settled, never comfortable, always a little restless and out of his element. That man was gone. Rather, that man was me. We were surrounded on all sides by a myriad of animal sounds; I jumped at each of them. Kagiso cheerfully identified them as we walked, directing his flashlight into shining eyes illuminating wild faces. I couldn’t help but wonder if this knot in my gut had plagued him the first time he walked a New York street after dark; not knowing who or what was dangerous.
My watch said we walked for a little over an hour before we arrived at the station. What had appeared to be most of a building at a distance turned out to be little more than a termite eaten shed and a rotten platform. Kagiso stepped his booted foot on one of the stairs, gently placing more and more of his weight upon it until it crumbled beneath him.
“It is a good thing we brought a tent.” He said casually, “You begin setting it up, there.” He pointed with his light, both to indicate a location and to show me there was no wildlife lying in wait. “I will build a fire.”
I did as instructed. I found a flattish area in the vicinity of his designation and swept it clean of pebbles and sticks with a leafy branch. I heard a strange sort of noise in the distance. A low, rhythmic rumbling, “Did you hear that?” I shined my light where Kagiso was working. He stared back at me.
“What are you doing?” He was laughing at me.
“Do you want to sleep on rocks?”
He just shook his head and returned to his task. A small flame erupted from a pile of twigs before him and he set to nursing it into something more substantial.
“Seriously though,” I pressed, “Did you hear that sound? “ Kagiso looked up, “It was a growling sound.”
“Maybe it was a lion. Come to eat you.” He teased.
“Screw you. That’s not funny. No, it was like an engine.“ I felt my voice begin the shake. Cold. Not afraid, cold.
“Maybe it was the witch train?” I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. His eyes and mouth smiled, but a witch train was exactly what we’d hoped to spot. It seemed strange that he’d be making light of the chance to actually see one. He was wrong, anyway, it wasn’t that kind of engine.
“Look, you know animals; I know what traffic sounds like. I’m telling you it sounded like a—“ I looked up from the tent stake I was driving. Kagiso had risen to his feet his hands were rising slowly before him. His eyes were wide and fixated on something in the dark behind me.
“My friend,” he said quietly, “Do not fight back.”
“What?” I turned to look. I caught a quick glimpse of a gaunt ashen-grey figure before something cracked into my temple and the lights went out.
I don’t know how much time passed before I regained consciousness. I was dizzy, nauseous, and blind. “Kagi?” I croaked, my voice was hoarse. Had I thrown up? I was lying on my side in a roughly fetal position. I tried to right myself finding it difficult once I notice my hands were tightly bound. “Kagi, I can’t see. Kagi?”
“I am here,” his voice was close and quiet. “Be calm,” he said, “do not speak.”
“I can’t see.” I struggled against my bonds. A thick plastic tie bit into my wrists as I writhed. I felt a wave of nausea creep up on me and I leaned to the side, my head came to rest on Kagiso’s chest. I took a few deep breaths listening to the sound of his heart thumping out a calm cadence. He wasn’t panicking and I allowed myself to fall under the spell of his heartbeat; finding solace in his presence.
“You are blindfolded. We both are.” He said. Again, his tone was low, quiet and calm, almost comforting. “You mustn’t speak. Do not fight.”
I shifted anxiously, resisting the urge to protest and kick. There were other voices nearby, conversing casually in a language I didn’t understand. Wherever we were, we weren’t alone. The low rumble I’d heard before was louder now and constant. We were moving. I felt the wind across my scalp and the familiar bumps of the dirt road assured me we certainly weren’t riding any rails. This was no witch train. If I’d had to hazard a guess, I’d have said we were in the bed of a pick-up truck.
Kagiso was tense, I could feel it despite his slow and deliberate pulse, but he rode in silence. There were so many questions I wanted to ask and he seemed to have at least some inkling of an answer. What was happening? Who were these people? Where are we going? Why? Is this what had happened to the cabbie’s daughter?
The questions circled in my thoughts weaving in and out of one another over and over, tying a tangled knot of conclusions and confusion. But I held my tongue. I, too, rode in silence with some manner of object digging into my spine. I remembered sweeping the debris from under out tent site to avoid just such a fate.
We travelled like this for at least an hour. Eventually my confusion subsided only to be replaced by fear. The magnitude of the situation closed in slowly and with every passing moment my heartbeat felt heavier and louder; though never so loud as when the truck came to a halt. The absence of engine noise only made the pounding in my chest seem louder still. I could feel the blood pumping past my eardrums, roaring in the night.
Somehow, over the din, I heard the tailgate unlatch and squeak down quietly. There was a sharp “Shh!” from an unfamiliar mouth and a pair of hands grabbed me by the arm and dragged me free of the bed. In a moment I was on my feet, a heavy metal cylinder pressed into the meat beneath my shoulder. A gun, almost certainly a gun. There was a quiet snap and the tie at my ankles broke free. A hand on my bicep urged me forward and I walked, tripping and stumbling over stones and bumpy terrain.
“Pick up your feet.” The voice snarled. The accent was heavier even than Kagiso’s. I experimented with a step more akin to a march, lifting my feet higher with each step. The gun nudging my back told me that approach was too slow. It mattered little though. A few more steps and the packed earth turned to industrial metal grating. I could feel the grid pattern pushing through the soft rubber soles of my shoes. What was going on?
We continued on, down a slight incline, around a corner. I could hear the sound of other footsteps following and Kagiso’s heavy boots on the catwalk. No voices, though. Our captors moved in silence. I smelled dust and metal and the dirty sourness of machine oil. There was a screech like a rusted gate hinge and suddenly we picked up our pace.
The gun jabbed my ribs as I was forced forward. I stepped onto a wooden platform that sunk slightly beneath my weight. Once again I was forced into a seated position. I heard the gate screech again, slamming shut with a metallic clang and a motor roared to life. I felt the earth sink, descending steadily like a high-rise elevator and then, without warning, the bottom dropped out. My stomach lurched into my throat, wind rushed past me blowing my shirt up to the middle of my chest. I felt my rear-end lift slightly from the elevator floor. There were popping sounds from up above, gunfire? It was hard to tell, they faded into the distance too swiftly. Minutes passed as I fell and then, gradually, we slowed and came to a stop.
The gate ripped open and the hand were once again upon me guiding me away from the elevator. No longer did we traverse metal catwalks. The surface beneath my feet was stone. Solid, unrelenting stone. We descended maybe another hundred paces down a stone ramp before being led into another metal cage. A second motor roared to life and I was falling again. I couldn’t help notice the steady rise in temperature. By the time we once again came to a stop the heat was almost unbearable. How far down had we been taken?
Once again I was led by the arm. This time, judging the by the echo of footsteps and heavy breathing, through a series of tunnels. Finally, with a shove, I was free of the hands. I promptly tripped and fell on my face. I heard Kagiso’s boots shuffling behind me and the sound of a heavy door being shut. I rolled onto my back expecting to be hoisted to me feet by unfamiliar hands. But no assault came. I laid there for a few moments in silence, trying to calm my breathing. It was so hot.
Kagiso, too, was silent. I suspect trying to determine the same thing I was. Are we alone? I counted breaths, both mine and those which were not. I concluded it must be only the two of us.
“Kagi,” I started. I expected him to shush me, but he didn’t. “Where are we?” I don’t know why I expected him to know.
His breaths, too were rapid and labored. He was feeling the heat every bit as much as I was, “I do not know. Somewhere deep underground.”
I raised my bound hands to my face and pushed the blindfold up onto my forehead. We were in a small stone chamber, just large enough that the two of us could lie down side by side all splayed out. Overhead a thick-filament bulb burned dimly casting just enough light reach the floor. A not difficult task since the light depended from the low ceiling at just about eye level. I was sure I couldn’t stand up straight in this room. I knew Kagiso couldn’t. He had a good six inches on me. Despite the hot stone I opted to stay low, lying on floor. I was tired. Being knocked unconscious is not as restful as it appears.
Kagiso had taken a similar approach to his blindfold and duck-walked over to where I lay. It wasn’t until he got close that I could see the bruises and swelling on his face. He hadn’t gone quietly. I asked him, “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“I am fine.” He said frankly.
“Any idea what’s going on?”
“A little,” he replied. “The men are zama-zama.”
“What is that?” I asked, struggling again against my bindings; a thick black zip-tie. I searched the floor for something to break it with.
“It means, ‘try your luck.’ They are illegal prospectors.” He gestured with his chin, “Look at the walls. This is a gold mine.”
I shifted my gaze away from the floor and glanced at the wall. Sure enough, at the right angle the dim bulb would catch the almost supernatural glow of gold dust.
“Okay,” I prompted, “why do you think we’re here?”
“I do not know.” He said, “Zama-zama have been in these mines for decades. They hide in the tunnels. They are renegades smuggled into the mines by powerful crime lords from the city. They do not belong here. They do not work for the company who owns the mine, but they can hide in the tunnels for months at a time. Usually they dig gold or, or diamonds to make their pay. It is very unusual to kidnap people.”
“Maybe they’re short on manpower?” I suggested.
“Maybe so. I suspect in time they will tell us.” He shrugged, “Let us hope not or we can expect to spend a great deal of time in the dark.”
I laid my head back on the rocks and closed my eyes. I hoped it was just sleepiness, not a concussion taking over. “Kagiso,” I asked, my eyes heavy, “How do they eat down here?”
I didn’t last long enough to hear his answer.
I was awakened later by Kagiso shaking my shoulder with his foot, “Wake up,” he urged, “Someone is coming.”
I gathered myself into a seated position and listened while a set of keys struggled with the aging lock. The door swung ajar, a rush of cooler air surged into the room. A shadow loomed in the darkness beyond. I saw the silhouette of a man with a rifle strapped across his back in the doorway. His skin was a powdered gray-black. The whites of his eyes were yellowed and contrasted hard against the rest of his face. He wasn’t exceptionally large but in the reduced scale of the tunnels he was practically a giant. He took a step forward into the room, ducking his head, and smiled a beaming, friendly smile. He wore a Dodgers baseball cap.
“Hello,” he said. His accent was thick but his tone unthreatening, “Good morning. Are you hungry?” He drew a couple hard loaves of bread from a pack at his hip and tossed them on the ground before us. “Eat with me. We will talk like,” he paused as though thinking, “civilized men.”
Kagiso scooped up his loaf with hands still tied and tore a fragment loose with his teeth, chewing on it violently. The bread was stale and hard, it was the only way to attack it. The man before us took a bite from some manner of fruit I wasn’t familiar with.
“You must forgive my manners. We should do the introductions,” he smiled again, pushing back a flap on his denim vest revealing a pistol tucked into his belt. He retrieved a pair of small items from an internal pocket; wallets. Our wallets. “My name is Mikah,” he continued, “Now you know me, let’s get to know you.”
I saw Kagiso’s shoulders slump in the corner of my eye. It occurred to me now why he had insisted on my silence.
“This is you?” Mikah held my driver’s license out before him, picture facing me. “You are American, then, yes?”
I nodded. Kagiso sulked.
“And you,” Mikah continued, turning his attention to Kagiso, “You are not American. But!” He drew a card from Kagiso’s wallet, “A student identification card. You have American friends, yes?”
Kagiso’s face was stern and unreadable.
“Here is what we are going to do, boys.” Mikah put the wallets back into his vest pocket, “It seems to me that the two of you have become lost. Lucky for you that I have found you. I am going to have my best men search the cities, and the internet, and the Twitters and Facebooks and we will find out who you belong to. Then you will be returned. And if they wish to give to me a sizable reward for my efforts; who am I to argue?” He gave an exaggerated shrug, “It is simple, yes?”
I couldn’t argue. There was a certain elegance to his plan. When the taxi driver arrives at our camp a day from now and finds everything ransacked and the two of us missing he will surely report it to the authorities. Even if he doesn’t if Kagiso and I fail to check in back home, or with our course advisors, surely someone will note that we’ve gone missing. After that it’s only a matter of a simple Google search to find the people looking for us and demand a “reward” for our recovery. It just meant Mikah had to keep us alive until then, a fact that hadn’t escaped his notice.
“Until then, boys, you will stay here safe with me. You will have food and water and,” he gestured at the room, “a place to lay your head, and a job to do to keep you from getting bored.” Mikah turned and looked over his shoulder as a second man, pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with stone, entered the room. Atop the stack was a pair of crude hammers, sifting pans and a pair of wire cutters. Mikah picked up the wire cutters and gestured to my bound wrists. I lifted them into view and with a quick snip I was free.
For the briefest moment I wondered if I could over-power him. But the man behind him carrying a similar rifle slung over his shoulder, suggested otherwise. Mikah cut Kagiso’s bonds.
“Do not worry, friends,” I began to wonder if Mikah ever stopped smiling, “I will help you find your way home.”
With that he turned and left, bolting the door behind him.
I looked at Kagiso, my eyes strained in the low light. He was looking back at me, equally at a loss for what to do now. The implications were clear, our job was to break big rocks into little rocks and, presumably, remove the gold. We didn’t jump at the opportunity. Instead we spent the first few hours formulating a plan of escape.
They’d given us hammers. Surely if we caught them by surprise we could do some damage and make a run for it. Then what? We didn’t know our way back to the elevators, nor how to get back to the surface even if we’d found it. How big was this place anyway? How many men worked in the mine? Maybe if we could find a company employee, a man who worked the mine legally. Maybe he could guide us to safety.
But how would we know? How would he know we weren’t zama-zama? Other than our darker complexions there was no way to differentiate; especially now that both Kagiso and I were covered in dust and mud without any form of identification to support our story.
“We’d be arrested,” I speculated, “Then we’ll just explain what happened and go home.”
“There are no police down here,” he countered, “Only company security. They would just as likely shoot us.”
I didn’t rebut. Was he right? Was it worth the risk? We passed the questions back and forth for a long while. In time our conversations drifted to other things. Spoke of memories, of hopes and desires. We talked about home, he told me about his childhood, and we made jokes and laughed. Anything we could think of to keep our spirits up.
We heard motion in the darkness a few times and spotted and sliding hatch in the door at eye level. Someone was checking up on us at regular intervals. The two of us talked, and sat in silence, and slept, and cried. The door cracked open a couple of times. Mikah appeared with a pair of plastic jugs filled with water. He glanced toward the wheelbarrow and tools, untouched, and shook his head. A jug tilted and poured a small puddle into a depression in the floor for us to drink and he left us alone once again.
It became evident that if we wished to eat and if we wished to drink as human beings then we had to work. After what felt like days in the near dark we finally relented and began chipping away at the porous stone. The rock was not especially hard and fragments broke loose with each strike. Once crushed down to rubble we swept the crumbled stone into piles with the palms of our hands and poured them into the sifting pans. Then, by the ancient glow of the bulb overhead we’d sift and sort, separating any bits which looked reflective in the orange light. We did not concern ourselves with the dust accumulating below the pans choosing speed over precision we figured Mikah would be more impressed with a moderately sized stack of nuggets than a small and meticulously sorted pile of dust. Moreover, I doubted my eyes could handle much more.
So we mashed and sorted and mashed and mashed and sorted and the next time Mikah looked in on us we each presented him with a handful of miniscule gold nuggets. Predictably, Mikah smiled. This time rewarding us with a stale loaf of bread and a plastic jug of water share. It wasn’t much, but it bolstered hope and we returned to our task with renewed vigor.
It’s hard to judge the passage of time when your day night cycle is reduced to a single ever-burning bulb. We worked when we chose to, slept when we grew tired and refined our sorting methods. The more we worked the better we got and what we did, the more gold we produced the more food and water was sent our way. We went from just a few dozen stones between mealtimes to an entire wheelbarrow, to two or even three. At times when we were feeling especially industrious a small ventilation fan above the doorway would kick on and bring a cool inviting breeze into our chamber.
There was an odd comfort to be had in knowing what to expect each day. We both missed the sunlight, but having one another for company made the time bearable. Mikah, too, became a more welcome presence. His visits began to linger and we’d talk and joke while we ate. He was intensely interested in stories of America and the “big time city” as he called it and he loved baseball. He told us how he was only doing this to raise enough money to move his family to America and often reiterated how sorry he was to have to this to us. There were times I almost believed him.
I don’t think his actions in abducting Kagiso and I were officially sanctioned by his boss. I got the impression that much of the money we made for him went directly to those above him in the chain and that very little trickled down to he and his family. This whole mine was his wheelbarrow. I suspected the money to be gained by our ransom was a windfall of sorts to be divided between himself and perhaps a few cohorts who’d participated in his clandestine plot.
Kagiso asked him once, “Why do you not just keep some of the gold?” In explanation Mikah listed off a chain of horrible fates which had accompanied those few miners who had been caught stealing. It simply wasn’t worth the risk. A strange assessment I mused since Mikah and those like him lived in these tunnels for months on end without seeing the sun under constant threat of being killed by company security if they happened to make a wrong turn; or if one of the few employees who provided them with supplies and arranged passage into and out of the mine were to blow his cover. All it would take is one stray word and everyone in these tunnels could be killed in a hail of gunfire.
I shivered at the thought and suddenly the door separating us from the rest of the mine seemed less like a barrier and more like a shield.
My hammer came down on a stone about the size of my head. A large chunk chipped off the side and beneath it I spied a nugget roughly the size of a fist. It was the largest I’d seen and was surely worth a fortune. “Kagi! Look at this.”
He raised his eyes from his own pile of rubble. “What is it?” he asked lazily. It was getting hot again.
“Look at the size of this one.” I said, hefting its considerable weight in my left hand. My right was heavily blistered from the rough hammer handle. “Do you think I could stash it? You know, for when we get out?”
“Have you forgotten what Mikah said of what happens to thieves?” Kagiso chastised. “No, he will find it and he will kill us both.”
“Then how will he get paid if we are dead?” I challenged.
“He will not need us, he will have that.” Kagiso indicated the nugget.
“So you think he will risk being killed for it? But that we should not?”
“I would,” Kagiso replied. My face twisted in confusion, “If I were in his boots.” He clarified.
I laughed, “Screw it. I’m keeping it.” I said, dropping the heavy slug into the toe of my shoe. I’d become accustomed to walking the smooth floor of our cell barefoot. Unlike the rest of my body, the warm stone felt good on my feet and having my feet bottled up in that heat was uncomfortable on the best of days.
As if on cue the door swung wide and a Mikah stood before us, his smile beaming. “Congratulations, boys.” He said sincerely. He threw a rolled up newspaper on the ground at my feet. The paper unrolled of its own accord exposing a front page headline containing my name above a picture of Kagiso and I that had been posted to Facebook shortly before we left town. “You are famous.”
I just stared at the article dumbfounded, “What does this mean?” I looked at the date in the corner. It was January. We’d been down in the mine for nearly three months!
He did not answer my question only turned away and called back, “Come with me. Quickly and quietly.”
We did as we were told. I didn’t even stop to put my shoes back on. I couldn’t have anyway as one felt considerably heavier than the other. A fact I had to hide when after marching through a maze of tunnels and corridors we arrived at the metal elevator. A man we’d never seen before patted us down. I took the opportunity to look upward at the stars far, far above; one shoe at the end of each extended arm. We stood at the point of an inverted cone taller than anything I’d ever seen, criss-crossed at various intervals with catwalks and platforms. The elevator before us depended from a series of cables countered weighted by a massive chunk of steel suspend above our heads. The entrance to the mine above was higher than any skyscraper in New York, higher I expect than any building anywhere. I’d stood at the base of mountains and felt larger than I did in that moment.
“How far down are we?” I mumbled absently. To my surprise the man answered.
“Over two miles,” he said flatly, “you’re clear, get on.”
Mikah finished searching Kagiso, retrieving his rock hammer, and goaded him onto the elevator. The metal cage jolted into action almost before the gate was closed. If none of us moved the ride remained surprisingly silent. Shifting weight created squeaks and creaks. The higher we rose the darker the night became as we grew further and further from the edges and their accompanying lights.
It took a solid ten minutes to reach the first platform about halfway up where we moved to a secondary elevator to complete our ascension. Mikah and his companion grew visibly tense and, for the first time since we’d known him, Mikah brought his rifle into his hands. The other man did the same, but never the less we reached the surface without incident. I stepped off the elevator onto the metal grate and forward still until my bare feet touched soil. I nearly cried at the contact with cool, moist earth. Had it rained? And it was cold, I shivered, I’d never been so happy to be cold. I turned to Kagiso who stood with his arms wrapped around him, a tooth-chattering smile on his face. I wanted to hug him but restrained myself. We weren’t out of the proverbial woods yet.
In the distance a pair of vehicles were waiting for us, a pick-up truck not unlike, I imagined, the one that delivered us to the mine, and a familiar hatchback. The four of us moved toward them; swiftly, silently. No lights.
As we approached I counted four men waiting there to receive us. It was a tense meeting, I approached with a mixture of anger and joy bubbling just beneath the surface. I knew I was going to recognize at least one of these men, and that was infuriating. But at least this ordeal was coming to an end and we could go home, unharmed. Kagiso, though still smiling, seemed less confident.
“What is this?” A cold voice asked. I recognized that voice. Sure enough, squinting against the low light of the moon I could make out the face of the cabbie.
“You—,“ I started.
“It is the Americans,” Mikah piped up, cutting me off.
“Two of them?” the question hung in the air and the three strangers conversed among themselves in a language I couldn’t understand. Kagiso did though, his body language clued me in. This was bad news. “This one is no American,” the cab driver iterated pointing at Kagiso. “Send the bushman back, nobody is paying for him.”
The words hit Kagiso like a fist to the chest. He backed up reflexively, absorbing the force of it. I don’t think it was the fear of being sent back to the mine that hit him as hard as the reality that no one, stateside, was missing him. Nobody cared if he came home or not. I gave it some quick thought, I was perhaps his only, closest friend. It was likely my parents had paid my ransom, but I knew they never approved of our relationship. They definitely didn’t pay his.
I watched him as if in slow motion reeling from the blow, slowly falling to his knees and a rage swelled in my heart. A hand grasped my left arm, dragging me toward one of the trucks and, as if of its own volition my right hand lashed out swinging my heavy-laden shoe at the man who’d grabbed me.
In the darkness he never saw it coming. A dull thump told me that my shoe had connected with his skull and the man dropped like a sack of potatoes. Before even I realized what was happening there was a pistol in my left hand; stolen from the unconscious mans belt. Kagiso was on his feet and the two of us were backing away from the crowd. Six men stood in the darkness, their hands raised arguing amongst themselves.
“What are you doing? They will catch us. They will kill us.” Kagiso said, franticly.
“No.” I fired a shot into the nearest tire and watched the corner of the hatchback sink. I took aim at a truck tire as my mind moved the gun at Mikah’s side. He didn’t draw on me. Nor did he or his companion go for their rifles. Instead all six of the men scurried into the low brush.
It was too late when I realized my mistake. Spotlights flared to life back at the mine and traced sweeping tracks across the savannah. Security. My gunshot had alerted them.
“Kagi, run!” I shouted. His feet were already in motion and I was but a step behind him. Kagiso was pulling ahead of me, able to run much faster with his boots than I could in my bare feet. I looked over my shoulder, Mikah’s crew had disappeared from view, obscured by headlamps from security vehicles and spotlights from the gate towers sweeping the plain. I heard gun-fire popping and a truck broke from the pack, headed in our direction.
“To the tracks,” Kagiso called back to me, “They cannot drive on the tracks.”
My lungs burned but I followed his advice. The fine gravel of the railway was actually much gentler on my calloused feet that the uneven ground around it and I was able to pick up the pace. It made little difference, though, the truck was gaining. The light enveloped us, shot were fired. We ran as hard as we could. My feet were hamburger now, I was certain.
The truck pulled up parallel to our path, I could see the silhouette of a man in the driver’s seat. “Jump into the back.” A voice called out as the vehicles slowed. It was Mikah, I’d know that baseball cap anywhere, and he was alone.
I weighed our options and quickly decided that taking our chances with Mikah was a better bet than trying to outrun security. Kagiso came to the same conclusion and vaulted into the bed. Throwing the one shoe I still carried and the pistol into the bed of the truck, I climbed onto the tailgate, doing a kick as though propelling the vehicle trying to get my body over the ledge. Kagiso grabbed me by the wrist, trying to pull me in and the truck hit a bump throwing me head over heels into the bed of the truck. I landed on Kagiso, knocking the wind out of him.
The headlights gained on us, yelling voices and the sounds of engines roared. I heard the metallic ping of bullets upon the tailgate. I wrapped my arms around Kagiso and we ducked low, closing our eyes to await the killing blow; the deadly sting of bullets. But it never came.
The truck pursuing us suddenly turned away, retracing its path back to the mine. I could still hear gunfire in the distance. Likely the other men. Perhaps the security team needed the reinforcement to apprehend them. Perhaps we simply weren’t worth the effort. It was a question which would get no answer.
Things grew quiet as Mikah continued to drive us further from the mine. There were no shouting men, no animals or insects. Just the silence of night underplayed with a single rumbling engine. The moon was bright and Mikah drove without headlamps. I considered our options and searched the bed for the pistol I’d thrown in. My hands found the cold metal and I examined it.
Kagiso must have had some idea of the thoughts running through my mind because he frowned, “He saved our lives.” he said. “He did not have to.”
He wasn’t wrong, but never the less, I used the pistol to knock on the window separating Mikah from the two of us. Mikah smiled in the rearview and used one hand to slide open the window, “What do you plan to do with that?” He asked, indicating the gun. He didn’t appear intimidated.
“Where are we going?” I asked him, ignoring his question.
“I am taking you to a friend.” He said without hesitation, “That friend will deliver you to the authorities and collect the reward for you. You will be home, safe and sound. Just as I said.” He beamed his smile back at me.
Kagiso and I rode in silence for a while. I watched the train tracks running parallel to our path and thought about witch trains. The road we travelled might have been the same road we had taken into the bush those few months ago. I took some time to just relax and gather my thoughts.
I wasn’t thrilled about being delivered into the hands of another captor we’d never seen. Who knows how long they’d hold us, or what would be done to us before we ever reached the authorities. I looked at Kagiso. His face said he held similar apprehensions.
Kagiso tore strips from his tattered shirt and helped me wrap my feet. As I’d expected, they were cut badly and bleeding freely. It took a bit to get my head around the situation but suddenly I had an idea. “Follow me lead,” I told Kagiso, quietly.
“What do you think they’ll do when you come alone?” I asked Mikah. I felt the truck slow ever so slightly, I was on the right track. I looked in the window; there was no rifle on the passenger seat, he must have dropped it. Still, Mikah wasn’t afraid of me, he knew I wasn’t going to shoot him; but there was uncertainty about his plan.
Kagiso caught on, leaning with his back against the cab he answered on our driver’s behalf, “Surely, they will give him all six shares for him to divide up. But since his friends are no longer here he will have all of the shares for himself.”
Mikah was silent, his eyes shifted from me back to the road.
“Will they?” I continued, “Or will they figure he got greedy and double-crossed them? Probably not supposed to be Mikah making the delivery in the first place.”
I watched his smile fade. I indicated for Kagiso to give me the one shoe I’d managed to keep. He poured the fist-sized gold nugget into my hand. I held the nugget up where Mikah could see it, “Let us out and I could make you a better deal.”
The truck slowed so quickly that I bumped my head on the window. My world spun for a second and I saw stars. The dust cloud following us washed over Kagiso and I as the truck came to a stop. Kagiso wasted no time in hopping out of the truck. I passed him the pistol and crawled over the tailgate, gingerly.
Kagiso had the gun on Mikah his stance was confident and his jaw set. “Drive away from here.” He commanded, “We do not need your help anymore,” I realized the miner was significantly more concerned with the gun in Kagiso’s hand than he ever had been when I had it.
I limped over to the window placing myself in the line of fire. “Here,” I said to Mikah,” handing him the gold nugget. “Whomever has you under their thumb, get out.”
Mikah just stared at me, then at the gold, then back at me.
Take your family somewhere else. Go see the ‘big time city’.” I said with a smile.
Mikah’s own smile slowly returned. There was a sincere gratitude there I hadn’t expected to see.
“You heard him,” Kagiso said, “Go away.”
Mikah nodded and put the truck in gear. I stepped away from the window as Mikah pulled away slowly. Kagiso and I stood for a long time, leaning against one another for support, watching the truck drive farther and farther into the rising sun on the horizon.
“What do you think he’s going to do now?”
“I do not know, and I do not care.” Kagiso replied. “Here, these tracks should lead us back to the city.” He tucked the gun into his waistband. He was smiling again. Back in his element.
“How far do you think?” I was looking about almost frantically, surveying the horizon for predators or security trucks or zama-zama.
“I do not know this either,” he said, putting his arm around my waist to help me walk, “But do not worry, you are safe with me, Little Cub.”
© A. Stephen Getty 2016
All Rights Reserved