Morning came too soon. The spell which had fallen over Cain the night before shattered when Strife crawled over him to get out of bed. One more day of travel. They should arrive at their destination by nightfall. But it still meant another day on camelback. Another day under the hot sun.
“Next time… we take the jeep.” He grumbled as his legs swung around and he sat on the edge of the cot.
Strife just chuckled before he took a drink from the canteen, then tossed it to Cain. “Wash yer face… ya got something on yer chin.”
Cain caught the canteen and casually flipped Strife the bird as he used a bit of water to clean away some of the mess Strife had left him in the night before. “We should reach Hierakonpolis by nightfall. If the Libyans are going to meet someone it’ll either be on the road or when we get there. Keep hanging back with the baggage. Don’t let the camels with the C4 out of your sight. I’ll keep my eye on our friends.”
“A’yup. Too many civilians ta risk being surprised.” Strife pulled on his clothes, his Colt in its holster at the small of his back, and his bowie knife at his hip. He was never a man of many words and as soon as he dressed Strife was out of the tent and off to get breakfast.
Cain paused as Strife left. Even in just the few short years he had known Strife, rarely had he heard the man express any sort of concern for civilian casualties. With a hint of a smile on his lips he dressed then headed out to join the rest. Around the fire the tourists all looked tired and ready for the trip to be over. At least the kids weren’t whiny as they ate their breakfast. Then once their guides had everything packed up they got on their camels for the last leg of the journey.
Hot. Dry. Too many damn flies. Cain had taken up a position in the caravan behind the Libyans. They didn’t talk much, though they did occasionally look back at Cain. He gave them a friendly wave and a smile until they looked away once more. All he wanted was to do some tourist shit. Not deal with some bad plot out of a spy movie. If some dapper asshole with a British accent showed up he was shooting them in the head. This wasn’t what he signed up for.
It was still early in the day when one of their guides rode up next to him, “Mr. Jackson. You wish to see lion? The big predators?” He had an eager smile as he used crop in his hand to point to vultures as they circled in the sky. “Is probably lion. Maybe hyena.”
Cain shaded his eyes with a hand as he looked toward the circling birds. “How close is that to our trail? Cause as much as I want to see a big predator… I am ready to have this day be over.”
“Father thinks it be right on river bank. Lions make many kills when prey come to drink.” The young man was eager, his smile bright.
He nodded slowly. “I would too if I were a lion. Alright… thanks for keeping an eye out. I’ll make sure Flint takes plenty of pictures.”
“Good good.” He nodded then gave the camel he rode a hearty switch to have it jog to the front of the line. Their guides were all family. Father, his sons, brothers, some cousins. There were even two women who did all the cooking and never talked to any of the tourists, Cain wasn’t sure if they were wives or daughters. The family that bilked tourists together, stayed together. Or something like that.
Soon everyone in the caravan caught sight of the vultures. There was a lot of speculation over what had died and what kept the vultures at bay. Cain looked back to see that Strife had his camera out as he snapped pics of the birds in the sky and their surroundings. Their guides also pulled out rifles just in case whatever predator remained decided they were hungry for something else. As they came upon a bend in the river they could finally see the pride of lions around their kills. More than one by the look of things. Vultures tried to sneak in for bites, but the angry lions chased them off.
Cain found himself drawn to the sight. He could appreciate a skilled predator. He was one. His lover another. A couple of males with huge dark manes sprawled out nearby as they cleaned blood from their muzzles just like a housecat would do after a dish of cream. He could hear the click of Strife’s camera, then a low growl. As Cain turned to look back and see what had angered Strife the wind changed to bring the scent of the slaughter to his keen nose. Cain’s head whipped around and he didn’t even bother to have his camel kneel. He jumped down, pulled his colt from the shoulder holster under his over shirt as he took off at a sprint toward the lions.
He could hear the shouts of alarm behind him. Then more shouts as he knew Strife had followed. Cain saw the lions look up and toward the crazy humans. He pointed his gun in the air and fired off a shot. The big cats startled but didn’t want to give up their meal just yet. A second shot kicked up dust and that was enough to send the younger lions into the bush. By the time he fired off a third the rest of the pride scattered. Though the big males were the last to go and the slowest. He didn’t think they would go far. But he just needed them to stay back and not try to make a meal of him.
Cain didn’t stop until he was upon the scene of the slaughter. The lions had been at their meal for a while. There was not much left of the bodies. Ribs there. A skull here. He could just see scraps of cloth that had made up the clothes of the dead. Cain began to circle the clearing as Strife arrived, his own colt in hand. His lip peeled back from one corner of his mouth as he surveyed the destruction with Cain. Then the owner of the caravan joined them, and immediately offered a prayer for the dead.
Back at the caravan confused tourists pointed in their direction. When Cain looked up he saw Mr. West Point and Mr. Car Salesman on their way. He ignored them as he squatted next to a skull that had most of the flesh peeled off. Cain picked it up and turned it over. While lion canines had caused damage, it didn’t completely disguise the bullet hole in the back of the skull that had exited through the upper jaw. The front of the skull’s mouth was in pieces. He set it back down then rose.
“I see four bodies. How bout you?” He asked Strife who had performed a circuit of the scene as well.
“Yeah… tracks heading down to tha river. These folks had on sandals… tha ones walked away were wearin’ boots.” Mr. Smith had gotten close enough to realize what they looked at and immediately turned away to vomit. At least Mr. Pierce had a stronger stomach as he walked up on the scene. Strife looked over at them and the owner before he turned away and headed for the river bank to see what he could find.
“How in the hell did you know?” Mr. Pierce asked as he looked around at the carnage. “I couldn’t make out anything from so far away.”
Cain stood and arched his back until joints crackled, “Flint and I do a lot of sniper work. You get a good eye for details that way.” He wasn’t about to tell the man he smelled the human death before he saw it. They didn’t need to know any of that. He walked over to their guide, “You recognize anything? Clothes?”
The man shook his head. “No. The lions have destroyed too much.” He turned in a slow circle and shook his head, “No one would camp here without tent. Weapons. It is known the lions stalk the river at night.”
Strife pushed through some brush as if it were nothing. He ignored the thorns. “There’s a boat. Looks local. Fishin’ gear. And signs ‘nother was pulled up tha bank. Mud ain’t even dried yet. Maybe an hour, two at the most.”
Cain looked at Strife and nodded. They needed to talk away from prying ears. He suspected it connected to the Libyans. The someone’s they raced to meet kept their secrets close. They executed the fisherman rather than allow them to tell anyone who or what they saw. “And scavengers wouldn’t leave good meat to go to waste.”
Mr. Smith had gotten himself under control again, until Cain spoke. He turned away, hand over mouth as he returned to the caravan. Mr. Pierce looked back at him then at the rest. The guide and his son had gone to see the boat Strife spoke of. He looked at Cain and Strife and one could almost see the gears in his head work. One didn’t get into West Point if one was stupid. “You have some idea what’s going on?”
Cain and Strife exchanged a look before Cain spoke, “Maybe. Not one hundred percent sure though. Just got a feeling there might be trouble tonight. Keep a sharp eye on our two pilgrims.” He could see the two men back at the caravan as they had moved away from the rest of the group and appeared to be in deep conversation. Cain would give anything to know what they talked about right then.
Mr. Pierce looked momentarily confused, then his eyes opened a little wider, “Ah. Yes. The pilgrims.” He looked at their weapons then over his shoulder at the caravan then back. “You wouldn’t happen to have an extra Colt, would you?”
Cain snorted. “Yeah… we can give you a spare.” He paused to chew on his lower lip, “Warn the Higginbotham’s. I think they can keep a secret. You think the Smiths can keep their yaps shut if you told them?”
The man smirked, “I think Mrs. Smith can. Her husband likes the sound of his own voice too much. And the backpackers?”
Cain shook his head, “They’re so stoned they’d probably sing about it. Hopefully if shit goes pear shaped they’ll at least have the smarts to duck.”
He turned to head back to the caravan as their guide returned. The decision made for the man’s brother and nephew to stay there. Retrieve what they could of the bodies then use the boat to take them to the closest settlement which was probably where they were from. The pair would get a ride on another boat upriver to catch up. They each had two rifles, loaded in case the lions tried to return. When they weren’t paying attention, Strife went around the area to piss on the bushes. One predator to another. Cain pinched the bridge of his nose, at least it was an effective deterrent.
Back at the caravan, Cain took a few minutes to retrieve one of their spare guns from the baggage camel. He kept it wrapped up as he handed off to Mr. Pierce. A little over an hour after they found the bodies, the caravan was on the road once more. Cain thought it looked like the two Libyans were pale as ghosts. The bodies had them spooked, and frightened men were the most dangerous kind as you couldn’t predict their actions. Now that the whole caravan also knew Cain was armed, the Libyans looked at him more often. He just smiled, though now he showed his teeth.