SARAH'S GIFT - Book #1 in the Dare to Follow Series
My first Novel Sarah's Gift, which is the first in a series of three in the Dare to Follow series is due for release on the 27th November 2012. These novels are classified as Adult Fiction Christian/Romance and are not suitable for young readers.
“SARAH’S GIFT” is the first of three novels which fits into the Romance/Christian Fiction genre and will be released on the 27th November, 2012.Sarah White is an Aussie Horse trainer/Breaker who is running away from her past. Starting a new life with a Safari Trailing Riding business in South Africa; Sarah, along with Trail Boss Mark van der Merwe take tourists daily through Kruger National Park. When necessary Elephant Culling in the park alarms Sarah, she realises that the dreams she’s been having are leading her towards discovering an amazing gift she has with not only horses, but also elephants. As she discovers her gift, she also discovers the gift giver in a supernatural encounter.She embarks upon an amazing adventure where she is going to muster the elephants to safety, but things aren’t as easy as they seem when ivory smugglers try to intercept her plans. Will she succeed, or will she need to overcome incredible loss first?
SARAH’S GIFT is a story of courage, determination and never giving up on your dreams!
For more information regarding the publisher, please don’t hesitate to contact them or explore their website on the below link: http://www.shadetreepublishing.com/
Read on for an excerpt of Sarah's Gift....
WARNING: This is one of the final drafts - not the final product.
SKYE WIELAND(c) 2012
Ten-year-old Sarah quietly cowered in her bed. Her dad had just walked in the front door; drunk again from a night out with his workmates. A heated argument had started between him and her mum downstairs.
Echoing sharply up the stairwell, her father’s shouting escalated with violent speed and her mum’s shrill voice mounted with nervous anger. Covering her ears, Sarah tightly closed her eyes as tears forced their way out.
Why does he keep doing this?
Something smashed, then more yelling. Silence. She heard her mum crying. Sarah opened her eyes gingerly and glanced across her room at her suitcase that was still open and half packed in the corner. Quickly slipping out from her sheets, she kicked it under the bed, and then dashed back to the warm safety of her blankets. If Dad discovered it, she’d cop it really bad. He did this all the time. Last time was too far. Mum had planned for them to leave. In fact they were going early in the morning. Where they were going, Sarah didn’t know. All she knew was that she wished with all her heart that they had left before now.
Her dad started yelling again, startling Sarah from her thoughts. Her mum cried out with shrills, and then stopped. Her dad kept yelling when Sarah heard another crash as something thumped loudly. The sounds of her mum groaning made Sarah sit up in alarm. In sudden panic, she flew out of bed and ran down the steps two at a time. Sarah had no idea what she’d do when she got there. For now, she wasn’t thinking logically because something was terribly wrong.
Sarah skidded to a stop as she rounded the corner into the kitchen. Her dad was standing hunched, breathing heavily over her mum’s lifeless form. Sarah could just see around his legs that her mum’s face was covered in fresh bruises, and blood seeped slowly onto the kitchen floor. Still in a drunken rage and annoyed that she had given up, he spat at the limp form and then looked at Sarah with cold eyes.
“Git back ta bed!” he snapped.
Sarah stood frozen to the spot, staring wide-eyed at her mum, perspiration pricking at the skin on the back of her neck. Her mum wasn’t waking up. She clasped her hands to her mouth and shook her head, eyes brimming with tears.
“I said, GET BACK TA BED!!!” roared her dad. His voice boomed around the inside of her head, causing her to rock back on her heels with uncertainty. Her hesitation was all he needed to push him over the edge completely as he closed the distance between them, yanking and twisting her wrist, roughly. A slight yelp escaped Sarah’s lips, as her father pulled her ear to his mouth. “You saw nothing here,” he growled closely, the smell of alcohol strong on his breath.
Sarah’s face burned as she mustered her strength and ripped her arm from his grip. Like a bolt, she took off, bursting from the back door and running for her life. Tears streamed down her face.
“SARAH! GIT BACK ‘ERE!”
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw his dark figure silhouetted in the doorway of the house. Gritting her teeth and turning back into the wind, Sarah sprinted hard, willing herself to fly.
After running for what felt like an eternity, she slowed and stepped up the curb onto someone’s front lawn, her cheeks flushed. Bending over, holding a stitch in her side, Sarah breathed raggedly as she stepped up onto the patio. While catching her breath, she banged on the door, crying out for help. An elderly man and woman appeared, suspicious lines forming between their brows as they tightened their night robes about them. Sarah spluttered out her situation between gulps of air, and the man quickly stepped inside and dialed the police and ambulance. Sarah gratefully allowed herself to be led inside. Her stiffened muscles relaxed ever so slightly once the door clicked closed behind her.
Seating their unexpected guest in the living room, the woman covered Sarah’s shoulders with a warm blanket and went to prepare her a hot chocolate to drink. Sarah wasn’t very thirsty, but snuggled nervously into the blanket, raising her brows anxiously to see what would come of the phone calls as the people moved briskly about the house. Sarah sank timidly into the couch, her spindly legs tucked up under her, trying to block out the sounds of her mum screaming that still echoed in her head. Fatigue was overcoming her, but she doggedly willed them to stay open, lest she see visions of her mum’s lifeless form behind her eyelids. The woman moved back into the room and sat opposite her, watching her with a drawn expression. Sitting up slightly, questions in her eyes, Sarah frowned when the woman simply shook her head. She wasn’t told anything. Beyond all other things, Sarah needed to get to the hospital, see if her mum was ok. Why were the police taking so long?
After what seemed like an eternity, a police officer arrived at the house and Sarah rapidly repeated her story, a sick feeling growing in her gut as she watched the officer taking notes. Several other policemen had been sent on to her home and soon enough, the officer excused himself to take a call on the two-way. Sarah’s hands fumbled nervously in her lap. Mum? Why won’t they hurry up and tell me what happened to my mum?
Later that evening, Sarah sat in a patrol car, listening glumly as policemen radioed back and forth. The officer, who had interviewed Sarah, glanced back at her from the driver’s seat as he received word about an arrest. Sarah blinked through her puffy tired eyes, pulling uneasily at the blanket that was gifted to her by the couple. She asked again about her mum, but the policeman offered no information except to repeat that they had no word from the hospital yet.
He drove on silently, keeping Sarah prisoner to her thoughts and fears. She looked glumly out the window as a light misty rain began to flick onto the tinted glass, enhancing the colours from passing shop windows and street lights. Tiredness washed over Sarah. She had no idea what time it was and she didn’t even care. She resolved not to let herself rest until she found out about her mum.
The patrol car swung into the hospital loading bay. Sarah tugged herself upright, fatigue falling from her shoulders like the discarded blanket. The officer opened the door and motioned for her to follow.
In the early hours of that morning, as Sarah sat next to her mother’s hospital bed, tangled with tubes and monitors, her mother slipped peacefully away; never to be attacked by her husband again. The nurses roused Sarah, who had been drifting in and out of restless sleep, and informed her that they had done all they could, but her injuries were too much. Feeling numb, Sarah allowed herself to be led to a spare bed, where she cried herself again into a restless sleep.
South Africa 1990
It was October; beginning of the Summer months where rains were anticipated by all, and the air was mingled with the stirrings of change. The wind swept through her loose tendrils of black hair like cool fingers of scented freshness.
Sarah White gasped with awe as she watched the dawn opening like a stage curtain, rising in symphony as the warm, orange glow began to kiss the tips of the ever plentiful African Mopane shrubs. A fine pink-hued mist in the bushveldt below was weaving its way delicately up through the boulders and shrubs surrounding Sarah as she sat atop the small rise. Small parties of exotic birds began their morning chorus; Scarlet-Chested Sunbirds seeking out the life-giving nectar from the various seasonal blossoms, grey flycatchers darting to and fro, hunting insects and the occasional Woodland Kingfisher as it descended towards the waterholes at the base of the hill beyond. Sarah sighed softly as she raised her flawlessly delicate hand with long slender fingers and tucked another stray piece of her thick black hair behind her ear as the soft wind kept chasing the loose bits about. She was far from annoyed though, as her green eyes scanned the horizon and she allowed her skin to soak in the warmth. This place was magical. Similar to the dawns of her homeland, Australia, just the colours here seemed richer and more vibrant. She could see why many called it God’s own country. Another rogue piece of hair flew across her vision and Sarah casually blew it from her olive face. Perhaps it was just her personal perception because of the hardships of home that made the place appear better. This place reminded her of a spot back in Outback Queensland at home, where she’d frequently sit astride her horse, gazing over a land filled with woody Mulga bushes. Here the land was dotted with both the woody Mopane trees, thicker heart-shaped leaves and no thorns that elephants would most often keep in check, as well as its relative; the lower Mopane scrub bushes. Back in Australia though, the only dangers were wild pigs, dogs or territorial emus. Here it was a different kettle of fish.
Since her arrival in this new country on her 22nd Birthday, this quiet spot just outside the protection of the Brennan’s property had fast become her favourite place. Much to the alarm of her co-workers, who constantly warned her it was against the rules and dangerous, she would come here as often as she could and just drink up the beauty of creation at dawn. It was where she could think, where she could clear her head and try to sort out some of the clutter, or perhaps just forget for a while. Sometimes her mind was a fog during all the whirl and chaos of normal life.
Her horse, Honour yawned and licked her lips, half shutting her eyes against the warm glare of the rising sun. Sarah leaned forward over the animal’s neck and scratched behind her ears. The palomino mare turned her head into Sarah’s hand, enjoying every bit. Sighing, Sarah closed her eyes, and tried to savour the stillness and beauty of the morning before time began to close in on her. She’d moved here from Australia four years ago as a volunteer to work for Johnno Brennan at his safari Trail-riding establishment. Her skills as a trainer/breaker combined with her Bachelor of Applied Science in Equine Management made her a catch that Johnno was reluctant to lose. Despite her slight figure and less than average height, Sarah had proven to all that her strength as good as any and that she was irreplaceable. After finding her feet, she’d fallen in love with the place and had sorted out her working Visa to stay on indefinitely. At several points over the last few years, she even contemplated becoming a permanent citizen of the country, but had failed to check into what would be required of her to do so. The majesty, the beauty, and the dangers of this land enthralled her to no end. In Africa, she felt more alive than she’d ever felt before. Despite constant nagging from her family and friends to return back home to Australia, and with the current political climate in South Africa, Sarah insisted on staying; justifying it with the fact that she was out of harms’ way, most of the time. Occasionally word of rallies and new bombings of the railway would make her doubt her decision, but it was something she was loathe to discuss with her adopted family back in Australia. She glanced over her shoulder nervously. She might soon wear out her welcome though. If she got busted out here again this morning, there’d be hell to pay. She wondered how many more times she would get away with riding out before work into dangerous territory before she’d be asked to leave and go back to Australia. While not as dangerous as the Kruger, this place was still known lion country; extremely dangerous to venture out alone without protection.
Brennan Safari Trails was situated snugly along the western side of Kruger National Park (or the Kruger as locals liked to call it) in the Eastern Transvaal region of South Africa. North of Brennan was the Letaba Ranch Game Reserve, where Sarah now sat perched; which boasted a large variety of game. Mainly using Letaba Reserve to take horse rides, John Brennan had just recently established tentative ties with the government to take some rides into the Kruger for overnight treks; something he seemed to be pushing more and more lately. They catered for riders from mainly South Africa and surrounds, but had more recently attracted the attention from some overseas tourism agencies. Life was always busy in this part of Africa, but in a laid back, relaxing kind of way. It was part and parcel of the tourism industry, which grew strong along the border towns of the Kruger. Sarah often overheard her co-worker Mark arguing with Johnno about the safety risks that were being imposed on them, but their boss always pushed for his own way. She wondered how long the horse business here would last with more local horses getting taken down by lion recently, and disease starting to creep in and threaten their stock. She’d heard rumour that soon enough, the Kruger would be open to safari’s via game viewing vehicles only.
In many ways, Sarah felt like she still didn’t fit in to this lifestyle and culture. She was constantly struggling to pick up the various phrases of the people that often mingled English with their Afrikaans. Even harder to grasp was the Zulu and Sotho languages. People kept assuring her, that with time, she would pick it up, or at least enough to get by. It was as if she were sitting back and watching herself through a window. It was happening, but she still didn’t feel totally present. It seemed too good to be true at times. Sure, the work was similar to what she did back home with her adopted parents, but there she mustered cattle and trained horses. Here, it was so much more. She was employed for her degree in stable management and was expected to run the herd with the limited funds that were available. She helped take the trail rides and took on some horse training and breaking, much to the disgust of her co-worker who maintained that they needed to get in old reliable stock and stop wasting time on training. This part of the day, though, the glory of the mornings was the only thing that seemed to give her a glimpse of what she’d hoped she would feel in her heart while trying to live her dream of creating hope, meaning and purpose in Africa. Reality was much harder.
A twig snapped behind them, followed by a dull thudding, jolting Sarah from her thoughts. She turned and saw Brandi trotting up the track on her little, black pony, looking flustered and out of breath. She was wearing new jeans and the Brennan’s uniform shirt. A khaki work-shirt, with the Brennan’s Safari Trails emblem embroidered on front pocket. The girls often wore tight fitting singlets underneath, so that when the afternoon wore hot, after hours, they could strip off a layer. Summers were hot and humid out here, and you did what you could. Sarah noted that Brandi already had the top button undone in the rapidly rising temperature, her hot pink singlet peeping from underneath. Sarah was no better in her attire, wearing her work jeans and white singlet. Her uniform shirt was still hanging over the rail back at the horse yards.
“What are you doing out here?” Sarah chided her, noting how she too had ventured into Letaba alone on horseback. Brandi ignored the biting comment and catching her breath, addressed Sarah urgently. “Johnno says that you’ve got to get back now!”
Sarah grimaced, “I’m not late am I?”
Brandi paused and looked her up and down with exasperation, “No...You’re not late...yet! But he said that if you don’t come and do your job now, you won’t have one! What are you even doing out here? Are you crazy?”
“Are you?” Sarah shot back with a challenging expression twisting her lips. Red frustration crept up Brandi’s neck and when she went to speak, Sarah cut her off.
“It’s not like I’m in the Kruger!” Sarah retorted swiftly. Brandi shook her head dismally.
“Still lion country.” She grumbled, her eyes darting back and forth, scanning through the thick foliage. Swallowing hard, Sarah took up her reins, and turned towards camp, Brandi trailing awkwardly behind her, glancing around nervously as if they were being stalked. Sarah didn’t want to lose this job. This was what she had always wanted to do. So why aren’t I happy? she pondered.
They picked their way down the small rise before breaking into a canter. Sarah sped ahead deliberately, for she didn’t want to spend any longer than necessary talking to Brandi. Brandi Coetzee irritated her to no end. She was one of those happy people, who was always chipper, even when you rationalised that she should be having a bad day. When everyone else was normal, there she was - chirpy and praying. Brandi was known as the person on staff who was always praying about everything. She went to some church in town, and Christianity was something that she took more seriously than most people that Sarah knew who called themselves Christians. Mark van der Merwe, her other work colleague, liked to call Brandi the “God-Botherer”. He felt that if there were a God, he’d be sick and tired of hearing from Brandi all the time. Sarah knew that she was supposed to take the younger staff under wing, but something in Brandi just grated on Sarah’s nerves. Sure, Johnno found a good catch when he employed Brandi. Her father owned the saddlery in town, and she had learnt all kinds of leatherwork, including mending saddles and other gear. While she was the most junior staff member on the team, she was still a valuable asset.
As they trotted into the campsite, Brandi sidled up to Sarah. “You scared me half to death doing that! Is Mark right? That you do that all the time, even though you are told not to? It’s lion country Sarah! And what’s more, elephant territory! My Uncle nearly got trampled by one. I’ve seen a cow take out a bakkie that got too close when she was protecting a calf! I know you have been at Brennan’s longer than me, but you are not in Australia anymore.” She stopped taking suddenly and Sarah wondered if she was about to change tact. She was right.
“Are you ok?” Brandi queried, her voice still shaking.
“Are we done?” The cutting words issued from the Aussie’s mouth wounded Brandi’s quiet nature for the third time that morning and she cringed visibly. Impatiently, Sarah rolled her eyes and vaulted off Honour, leading her away. As she turned her back on Brandi, Sarah felt a strange jolt in her chest, like a slight pang of guilt that she had been so abrupt again. Disturbed by the weakness, she brushed it aside nonchalantly. Glancing back, she noticed with dismay that Brandi was still watching her, the younger woman’s brows creased anxiously as she led her own horse away. Their eyes met briefly and Brandi, shedding her disquiet like a discarded coat, kicked up her chin with a brave smile. Sarah shrugged and shook her head. Happy people. Turning her thoughts away from the blonde Afrikaner woman, she tied Honour in her stall, leaving her saddled up, grabbed her work-shirt and strode purposefully to the tack-up area. Mark was already there, saddling up horses. His face was set with aggravation, causing a nerve to twitch in his distinct jaw-line as he glanced her way. She was casually finishing buttoning up her shirt as she approached.
She rocked to a stop in front of him, defiantly ready to receive the verbal hiding. She didn’t give him the satisfaction. “I know! I know! Lions, tigers and bears, Oh my!” Sarah clasped her hands mockingly to her cheeks as she quoted from The Wizard of Oz.
Glaring at her intensely for a moment, he shook his head of thick light brown hair. Sarah lifted her chin triumphantly. She knew was he was thinking - Sarah was Sarah; stubborn and full of disregard for any of the warnings that he constantly gave. He wasn’t winning anymore and he knew it. Moving along and bending to straighten her chapette, Sarah heard him wind up to speak with her and she peeped under her armpit at him. “Get Pete, Mac, and Zander ready. The people are already here and they brought two extra.”
He sounded agitated and Sarah knew better than to ask questions. Worrying her lip, she straightened up and began to brush and tack up the last three horses that were tied, quietly waiting. The other nine horses were ready, as well as Mark’s bay gelding, Sniper, who was just getting bridled. Mark snapped the bridle strap into place and stalked off, leaving Sarah wondering. Extra tourists on a ride meant another guide - namely Brandi. This many people riding in lion country upped the risks to the point that Mark’s nerves wouldn’t cope. Why did Johnno keep doing this to them? Did he want to go out of business? Groaning, Sarah finished up with the horses and went to check in with Johnno in the office and get her two-way radio and rifle. Why were they getting ready this early anyway? She thought it was a late ride today.
Johnno wasn’t in the office, but out in the foyer where twelve riders were being welcomed and directed to fill out their waiver forms. Johnno looked up briefly; his white bushy eyebrows rising as Sarah walked in. Ignoring her, he continued his conversation with the young gentleman before him. Sarah quirked her mouth-he obviously wasn’t too grumpy this morning, otherwise he would of excused himself and spoken to her immediately about riding again. Maybe like Mark, he was so used to her defiance that he’d given up. She walked past the foyer, silently taking stock of the tourists who would be riding, before making her way back into the offices to retrieve her other gear.
“You going to have a go at me this morning?” Challenged Sarah as she breezed past Mark nonchalantly.
He grunted in reply before looking up at her sharply. “Nice of you to be around this morning to help, by the way.” Mark tossed a radio to her, a sarcastic twist to his mouth.
She flinched slightly. “I’m not late, in fact. I’m still early.”
“But they weren’t.” Mark jerked his head towards the foyer.
“That’s not our problem, Mark. Let them wait outside. Who let them in early anyway?...oh...” Sarah suddenly remembered the day with horror, but Mark cut across her thoughts briskly, speaking as if to a child.
“The boss said that we had to get on the trail early today. The Park’s board notified us yesterday that they need to cull again. They said the team would be in to start at noon. Or didn’t you get that message?”
Sarah bit her lip. She’d forgotten.
“Well?” Mark pressed, stopping and staring at her intensely.
“I’m sorry...” Dropping the radio onto the side bench, she closed her eyes and kneaded her forehead, suddenly weary of the conversation. “I forgot!”
Mark stormed off into the next room. Eyes widening as his dark mood, Sarah followed him through to the rifle safe and waited as he unlatched the locks.
“Forgot? You of all people should have remembered. After all, it is your beloved elephants that are getting shot this afternoon.”
“If we need to get in and out before the culling, why are we even going into the Kruger? Why not stay in Letaba?” She cocked her hands on her hips waiting for a reply. Eyes smoldering, Mark swiftly closed the gap between them, growling low through gritted teeth. “Because what Johnno wants, Johnno gets!”
Stepping backwards, Sarah shook her head, not following. Mark glanced over his shoulder towards the foyer where Johnno was meeting the guests. “Those people are paying extra to see those elephants. Since the fences were taken down last month, D10 herd has moved into the Kruger. It doesn’t even matter where we go, the fence is down; the elephants some and go as they please. The riders, they want elephants, we show them elephants. Got it?”
“But it’s dangerous –,”
“I know it’s bloody dangerous, but it’s our job, ok!?”
“But Johnno -,”
“I don’t care about what he says! Johnno is a money hungry idiot!” He stopped suddenly, as if he’d said too much. Sarah arched an elegant brow as he quickly moved and closed the door leading down towards the foyer. Turning back to her with suspicion, he tilted his head ironically. “I thought you liked it dangerous!”
Heat rose into Sarah’s features as she struggled not to retort at him. Mark shrugged and turned back to the gun safe. His temper cooling, he handed her a Winchester rifle and ammunition. “What Johnno wants, Johnno gets, and today…he wants us to take the people to see D10 before they’re culled.”
Ignoring his words, Sarah turned to her own thoughts. She hated his persistent sarcasm and bad moods, but then again, hers weren’t much better this morning. Sarah cocked her head to one side, cradling the weapon. “Aren’t the elephants important to you too?” She queried sincerely, feeling her own emotions coming back under control. Mark shrugged again as he loaded shells into his utility belt. His indifference caused a fresh surge of anger to rise in her. “Why do you even work here, anyway, if you don’t feel connected to the wildlife?” She spat the words with more venom than she intended.
Mark started to pull an angry expression, but smirked instead, “The attractive tourists.” Sarah stood rigid, her clenched fists causing the biceps on her delicate bare upper arms to bulge in response. She noticed him watching her and it filled her with even more angst towards the man. He held her gaze for a moment before exhaling loudly, his shoulders relaxing slightly. “What’s going on Sarah? Do you not like it here? If you want to go home, all you have to do is ask.” Narrowing his eyes, he continued to watch her. Sarah turned away from his gaze. She knew it was his job to look out for her, keep her welfare in his priorities, but the way he sometimes went about it infuriated her. He was trying though, she owed him that much.
“It’s not that Mark.” She turned back towards him as he handed her the ammunition she was required to also carry on her belt. They wouldn’t load the firearms, unless Mark felt it necessary. “I’m stressed.” She admitted, sighing. Mark’s lip twisted into another smirk and she knew he’d just figured he’d won by drawing her out. “I can tell.” He picked up her radio from the bench and tossed it back to her. Holding the rifle, she lurched out and juggled it momentarily before securing it in the crook of her free arm. Mark’s eyes danced sardonically. “Maybe you should flirt with some attractive riders yourself…might take away the stress.” Sensing the brief moment of professional sympathy swiftly pass, Sarah’s brow furrowed as she grabbed up her first aid kit from the bench. She noted it felt rather light and glaring at him for not restocking last week, she put the other items down and set about restock it from the shelving above. She pointedly ignored Mark, giving him a silent treatment he didn’t seem the least bit perturbed about.
Mark laughed pleasantly at her pouting, . “Another point to me!” He flicked his index finger over his tongue and touched it to the air, making a hissing sound. Sarah screwed up her face. “You’re still in my bad books for real though, leaving me to do all the work again. Meet you at the perde?”
Nodding slightly, she huffed away to the next room, applied her sunscreen, took up the radio, first aid and rifle in her arms. Checking that everything else was locked and stowed away properly, she made her way out to make sure all the horses were ready for the ride, without another glance at her superior. Mark might have been trail boss, but he acted like such a child! Brandi was already in the greeting area with Jet, her black pony. She grinned at Sarah, the excitement of the job still fresh in her young heart. Brandi had only been with them for a few months. Sarah wondered why Brandi was so different, not holding the same stress levels as herself and Mark before a ride of this nature. Surely she knew the dangers; she was always sprouting them off to Sarah. She had the blasé of a naïve tourist, despite sitting through all the safety briefs. A surge of jealously was roused in Sarah to be blessed with the same lack of apparent fear and nerves.
Sarah’s mouth tilted back weakly, dismayed that only after a few years on this job, her heart had already waned with the monotony and stress of it. She thought this was her heart’s desire, to be part of a trail-riding safari in South Africa. To be training, managing and riding horses, and be surrounded by the beauty of Africa’s finest. Brennan’s Safari Trails was a good place to work. The boss was passable, though constantly putting money over safety, buying in unsuitable horses and expecting her to deal with it; the staff were bearable, and she was doing what she always wanted. But, something was still missing. Sarah shook her thoughts away. It was time to work and she needed to be on her toes.
Laughter and chatter filled the air as Mark led the twelve riders into the tack-up/horse greeting area. Sarah sat on a log, propping her elbow on her knee and resting her chin on her hand. She watched with boredom as Mark settled the tourists and began the tiresome safety brief that would precede the ride. Sarah watched Mark as he spoke. His earlier mood swing from temper to mischief had been replaced yet again. His face now carrying a serious and drawn appearance as he went through the spiel, his eyes scanning the too large group. There was a young girl in the mix, Sarah judged her to be possibly ten years old. Too young! Mark noticed it too, because his eyes flicked to the girl frequently; a clouded look of concern briefly crossing his features. No one else would have noticed but Sarah. She knew how to read him most of the time. He often signaled her with his eyes when he found a rider he thought might need her extra set of eyes trained upon. This was one of those times. When his eyes passed her way, she nodded her head ever so slightly and saw him respond. Sarah knew that even though they often couldn’t stand each other, they worked well together and relied on each other to watch the others back. Sarah tore her thoughts away from the young girl and examined the rest of the group.
Most of them were overseas tourists, a rarity. No wonder Johnno was giving them what they wanted. Sarah wondered if Johnno had charged extra. The staff wouldn’t see any of it, even though they did the work. Why Johnno kept taking unnecessary risks by booking too many inexperienced people and demanding that Mark and Sarah just deal with it, was getting beyond a joke. All in the name of money. It was a miracle they hadn’t been closed down already.
Safety talk over, Mark nodded nervously to Sarah as he exhaled deeply. Sarah stood to help mount the riders. Rubbing his hands together, Mark suddenly was accosted by a tall, red-haired woman with an English accent, who seemed to regard the tall, tanned, ruggedly handsome Afrikaner with the girlishness of a teenager with a crush. His eyes flickered Sarah’s way in a plea for assistance. Ha! This was her chance for some friendly pay-back. Approaching Honour, Sarah simply rolled her eyes and smiled to herself; she was not going to rescue him.
If he joked that he was attracted to the tourists, then he could get himself out of it. One point to Sarah! As the riders bustled into action, Sarah moved into Mark’s view only. Swiftly, she flicked her index finger over her own tongue and touched it to the air, grinning a toothy grin that he would understand as the hiss that went with the action. A slight nod of his head showed his acceptance of defeat. The red-head suddenly looked over her shoulder towards Sarah in confusion. Ducking her face with amusement, Sarah walked away. Time to focus! She started to think about the trails that they would take in order to find the wayward elephants. This was going to be a long and slow ride with so many people. Hopefully, they would spot some interesting game today, or it would be a complete loss, and hopefully they all knew how to canter if they needed to ride out of harm’s way; Sarah thought hopelessly Setting her face bleakly, she launched herself towards the group and began a conversation with a middle-aged balding man who was led her way to be mounted on his horse.
As they headed out, Sarah rode flank and observed them all snaking their way along the dry grasslands that weaved in and around the prolific Mopane shrubs. Sarah liked this time of year. Soon, the rains would bring back life and colour to the scrubby dry landscape. Brandi was up the back relaying excitedly some tale from her adventures on the trail. Mark was, as usual, leading the group and telling them the history of the area and what game they should expect to see. They were still working their way through the large Letaba Game reserve. Eventually, they would cross the border into the Kruger, where the veldt would flatten out even more and the Mopane was thicker and harder to spot game in. Sarah saw a young lady in the middle struggling to work out how to hold her reins. Her father rode behind her exasperatedly trying to help. “Amy, just...I can’t see...Just try to kick him on and he might stop doing it.”
“Daaad! I AM doing that and he keeps throwing his head.”
Sarah struggled against the anger towards Johnno that rose up and forced a warm smile as she sidled up to help the girl. “Hi there. Need a hand?”
“Um....Hello,” stuttered the girl, as she pulled on the reins to get the horse to stop throwing its head. She struggled to even answer.
Sarah cut in, “Ok,...first...relax. That’s it. Take a big breath and make yourself flop like jelly. Good job! Now you’re relaxed. Ok, so sit up a bit now, keep loose though. Don’t let yourself go stiff. Now, loosen your reins right up.”
“But he’ll run away with me,” protested the girl.
“Trust me, he won’t. That’s it. Loosen them right up. Good! Now, take another deep breath.”
The girl sighed and flopped into the saddle.
Sarah chuckled. “Now, he’s just going to follow the other horses. Don’t pull on his head, or he’ll get upset, like he did before.”
Amy giggled in delight at being able to relax into the ride.
“What do you say Amy?” prompted her father.
“Thank you,” responded the girl. “You’re right! He is following the leader.”
“Most of our horses here do that. They’re good like that. Look!” Sarah pointed towards a small herd of zebra that they were nearing. Amy gasped. Somewhat satisfied, Sarah’s mouth tightened as she moved on to help another rider. This was Sarah’s life. Aiding people with the simple aspects of riding on the trail was starting to become an onerous chore. She was disgusted at Johnno for not following Mark and her advice on limiting rides to experienced riders only. A rider as green as Amy was sure lion fodder if anything went wrong. At the very least they should test them, give them a short arena lesson. It annoyed Sarah that Johnno didn’t believe in testing and teaching some basics in the arena first. Some of the basics could be shown in minutes in an arena, and then fine tuning could happen on the trail. But no, it wasn’t like that. He just expected Sarah to fix it on the ride. If Sarah had her way, that would be the first thing to change. Alas, she could not hope for such fortune. It would forever be as it was now. If Johnno moved on, Mark would take over and at least things would change for the better, but she doubted he would keep her on staff.
Sarah sighed, this isn’t what her dream was supposed to end up like. They moved on for quite some time, stopping occasionally to do some birding, as Mark spotted the more allusive species. Many a bird watcher had ventured to Africa, hoping to add some of these native tit-bids to their proud life-list’s of spotted birds. This crowd was not interested though.
“When are we going to see some Elephants?” The tall red-haired English woman asked after a while. Mark didn’t bother to turn as he kept the group moving. “Hopefully soon. We’re about to go through into Kruger.”
Sarah watched with idle interest as they stepped through the unmarked boundary, and the landscape gradually became denser and more scrubby as they moved into the Kruger.
“LOOK! Over there!”
Several people pointed out towards an acacia where a couple of willowy giraffe were stretching into the leaves, chomping away the tree to shape the canopies into perfect umbrellas, while solid little Oxpeckers jumped about their hides, cleaning away the insects in a beautiful display of mutualism. . Mark halted the horses so everyone could watch, then settled back into Sniper’s saddle, cocking a leg up on the pommel. Several cameras slipped out from hidden pockets and began to flash and click away towards the unconcerned haughty animals.
Sarah gazed around the heavy foliage to their left, littered with thick Mopane shrub and Red Bushwillow trees. Prime hiding for feline hunters. Shuddering, she looked towards Mark, ready to move on.
A gunshot suddenly rang out, making several of the horses jump. The giraffes’ heads both snapped in the same direction, looking for the intrusion to their peaceful grazing. Swiveling their ears back and forth in agitation, they began to lankily move off.
Mark spun his horse to look for Sarah. “Sarah!”
She trotted up to him anxiously. “I thought you said that they were starting at noon? It’s only eight a.m!”
“I know Sarah!” he snapped. “I’ll start over that way with the group.” He pointed towards a grassy slope. “Can you go up that rise where there’s a clearing and have a look?” He kept his voice low so only Sarah could hear. “This will stuff up the ride if they start now. These people want to see D10 alive; not blood and guts.”
Sarah nodded, relieved for a break in the routine, but concerned about the cull. Throwing all caution to the wind, she cantered ahead as Mark radioed back to base.
Mark tried several times to contact Johnno while he was leading the group down the track. “Mark to base, Mark to base. Do you copy?” Nothing. Mark cursed under his breath in Afrikaans and glanced over his shoulder at the group. Nobody looked worried about the gunshot, but everybody was talking and looking around excitedly.
“Do you think it’s hunters?”
“I didn’t think that was allowed?”
“Surely not in Kruger.”
“I wonder if someone got attacked!”
“Mum, I want to go home. I don’t want my horse to go crazy.”
Mark knew that this part of The Kruger was off limits to hunting, but with the current unstable climate of the country, who knew what a gun-shot would mean. Since the man Mandela had been released from jail at the beginning of the year, all chaos seemed to be breaking loose as Apartheid was losing its hold over South Africa. Right-wing factions were unhappy with change as President Frederik de Klerk wrestled to bring peace to the nation. Mark felt a pang of insecurity and guilt about his personal heritage.
Where are you, Johnno?
He pressed the two-way up to his lips again and pressed the relay button. “Mark to Sarah. Do you copy?”
“Sarah to Mark. I copy you. Over.”
“Can you see anything? Over.”
“Nothing. Not even plains game. The wildebeest, zebra – well, everything is gone. The veldt is empty. It’s eerie. Over.”
Mark furrowed his brows. He couldn’t hear the sounds of any vehicles from another safari. Still, someone must be out there. He subconsciously reached down, touching his hand to his rifle. Should he go on with the group, take them back and refund their money, or go another way? Taking them back wasn’t an option. He was reluctant to keep looking for elephant now. Mark rubbed his chin, trying to make a decision, and then turned to the group, preparing to make some kind of announcement.
“Well, they must have got it.” He chuckled, trying to disperse rumors of danger.
A murmur of laughter rippled through the group.
“But to play it safe, we’ll go the other way through Scrubby Trail, back towards Letaba. It’s a good trail to spot birds, and occasionally we get some big game there too...”
A murmur of grumbles resonated through the group, but Mark didn’t care. He didn’t care if Johnno had promised elephant; their safety was in his hands and that came first.. Mark set his face and turned to continue, putting his radio to his lips again. “Mark to Sarah. Do you copy?”
“Are you coming? We’ll go to Scrubby, just in case. Over.”
“Ok. I just want to check something out over the crest first. Over and out.”
“No Sarah, it’s too dangerous. Just leave it. I need you back with the group now! Over.”
Mark frowned again. “Sarah? Sarah? Blast it!” Mark shook his head angrily. Why must she go off and do her own thing all the time? Doesn’t she realise how dangerous it is, or that she is part of a team? Mark clipped his two-way back onto his belt and started off again, trying not to imagine Sarah as lion’s bait. He would try Johnno again later, but for now, he had a group to look after.