The Rhino’s Horn – Prologue

Ben Matthews braced himself and shot a quick glance at Ewan McAvoy as the small plane pitched violently. As Ewan steered the single-engine Cessna to avoid the dark mass of approaching storm clouds, a loud crack suddenly caused him to look over with concern at his partner.

            Ben was convinced they’d hit something, a bird perhaps.

            Or they’d been hit.

            Ever since coming to Africa, Ben sensed he was finding himself in increasingly dangerous situations.

            Or being placed in them purposely.

            Today’s airborne anti-poaching patrol was just the latest example, considering there was strong evidence a poaching ring notorious for having shot down an aircraft last year was known to be operating in the area. Some suggested it was a splinter group of the Lord’s Resistance Army which primarily operated in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda but that seemed unlikely. Among other things, the LRA was notorious for attacking villages, killing all the adults and stealing the children to recruit into their own forces; Africa’s infamous child soldiers. And just in the last few weeks, the rebel army had shot down two United Nations planes, with the loss of all on board.    

            Considering these recent events, even if they were just rumours, the LRA was suspected of funding its operations through the illegal sale of rhinoceros horn and elephant tusks, and whether accurate or not, as far as Ben was concerned, being shot down was being shot down. Even if it was by another group, Ben wondered why Jackson Sironka would have insisted on an aerial patrol. At least a ground-based effort would have put them on equal footing with the suspected poachers.

            All of this only added to Ben’s concerns about what Jackson Sironka’s real intentions were for him. 

            Sironka had been the man who facilitated Ben and Kate’s exchange to Africa at a time when there was mounting pressure back in Jasper National Park by German mining magnate Helmut Stenger to build a backcountry lodge in one of the park’s premier wilderness areas. And recent suggestions that Ben stay on longer in Tanzania to gain more valuable experience and impart his own knowledge to more of the local rangers, left Ben wondering if it was as Sironka suggested, or if it was merely a tactic to keep him away from Jasper for an even longer period of time. 

            Ben’s previous calls with Kate left him convinced it was more the latter as Stenger’s plans for Jasper seemed to becoming closer to reality despite the park having a new Superintendent who Kate said was making it tough on Stenger’s political allies to push the lodge through. Having Ben out of the way and Kate preoccupied with the environmental assessment for the proposed coalmine on Jasper’s boundary would serve Stenger well.

            And then there was Ben’s defacto Tanzanian supervisor, Dhakiya Jafo, a female ranger assigned to oversee Ben’s time in the country, purportedly to expose him to as much of an African ranger’s work world as possible in the time he was there. While she seemed to have overachieved in that department, keeping Ben busy pretty much seven days a week, he found Dhakiya hard to read and wondered if she had taken on the assignment willingly since she had seemingly been given the job against the advice of Jackson Sironka, who had subsequently been over-ruled by senior bureaucrats in the Park Authority. 

            All of this left Ben wondering if she was just another pawn in the process to keep an eye on him so his attention didn’t turn back to the happenings in Jasper, or if she was the most suitable person to show Ben the ropes, so to speak. Assigning him to Dhakiya’s all-female anti-poaching unit could have been a way to demonstrate the forward thinking happening within the Tanzanian National Park Authority, or it could have simply been a matter of putting him with the lowest person on the totem pole in the male-dominated organization.

            Ben wasn’t convinced one way or the other but felt caught in the middle of a quasi power struggle within the Parks Authority. Even though Dhakiya had softened somewhat in the time he’d been in Tanzania, there was still a lot unspoken between them. He and Dhakiya had never seemed at ease with each other, leaving Ben wondering if it was a question of race, gender, or position? Or was it simply because Ben sensed she was part of Sironka’s plan to keep him in the dark about pretty much everything?

            Whatever the reason, Ben was wondering more and more about motives and losing confidence in his Tanzanian overseers.

            Thankfully he had full confidence in Ewan McAvoy, a wiry, sandy blond-haired South-African ex-pat who’d flown for the country’s Air Force. Once finished his military service with the SAAF, Ewan had turned his attention back to his second love, protecting Africa’s wildlife, offering his skills to the Tanzanians. 

            Coy about the reasons he’d chosen one of Africa’s poorest countries, Ben was pretty convinced it had more to do with Ewan’s love interests than anything else, having initially taken up with a South African wildlife veterinarian who’d been working for one of Tanzania’s NGO’s. When she moved on, Ewan started seeing Mansa Selemani, a ranger in Dhakiya’s unit. He seemed to be happily settled down with Mansa, living in a modest house on the outskirts of Arusha, spending as much time together as their varied and hectic schedules allowed, with Mansa gone for multi-day stretches while Ewan was always on call to fly at a moment’s notice.

            During his service with the SAAF Ewan had flown every conceivable type of fixed-wing aircraft, but once finished with the Air Force came back to the smaller Cessnas that first inspired his interest in flying. Ewan had expressed to Ben that he felt as one with the smaller planes, their wings merely an extension of his own body that he was able to manipulate and maneuver at will, overriding the forces of gravity and the vagaries of African weather.

            But even Ewan had his limits, as any pilot would under these turbulent circumstances.

            And to add to the challenges presented by the weather, Ben was convinced something had struck the plane and done damage.

            Wide-eyed, Ewan wrestled with the controls, trying to strong-arm the aircraft back toward the heavens while gravity fought to counteract his effort. Nothing seemed to be responding then suddenly, without warning, the steering column went slack at the same time as the Cessna lost power. Before Ewan could do anything else, the plane stalled.

            The next thing Ben knew, they were hurtling toward the ground as Ewan fought to steer the small plane away from the trees, barely missing a large acacia before finally slamming into an otherwise barren hillside, careening to a stop against a large boulder.

            For a split second, the ear-jarring screech of ripping metal paused long enough to be overtaken by a loud explosion, the force of it spitting Ewan and Ben out of the plane as the entire aircraft was engulfed in flame.

            Barely conscious, Ben tried to move his damaged body, clawing at the ground, his own survival instinct telling him to get away from the wreckage, while a counteracting force made him search for Ewan. Recognizing the pilot’s crumpled body, Ben dragged himself toward Ewan. Grabbing an arm, Ben pulled for all he was worth, the pain in his legs screaming for him to stop. Finally, after dragging Ewan a safe distance from the Cessna’s burning wreckage, Ben collapsed, folding over Ewan to protect him from further injury, before passing in and out of consciousness himself. 

            Just then the sky opened up.

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