McOobo wasn’t the only one blinded by bright light. It was mid-afternoon when Steiger pulled himself out from the hole where the river came to the surface, above Hadeles. Removing the helmet and lamp he had taken from Kingsley he collapsed into the first bushy clump of veldt grass he could find, blinking in the sunlight. For the first time in two, three days – he didn’t know quite how many – he felt the heat of a relentless sun beating down on him.
Since leaving Kingsley, he had taken another four hours to get out into the open. He was exhausted but he knew that he couldn’t rest long. Kingsley was back in the mine and was badly injured. He had to get help for him – but where to begin?
He shaded his eyes against the sun’s glare and, looking around, he saw that Kingsley had been right: The river came out at the bottom of the hill – although not exactly at Hadeles, which lay a good mile further down. He could see the village, a mud wall encompassing huts built of mud and dung, all roofed over with grasses or reads. The huts were clustered around an open space that had to be the village meeting place; and beside it, in a corral, goats were penned. Children, splashes of red and white against the glare of the sun were leading their Xhosa cattle out of the village and into the veldt to graze or to water at the shallow trickle that the river had now become.
There was still more than a mile to cover: What sort of reception would he get when he reached the village? He didn’t think they would eat him – but they might not like a Boer crawling into their midst.
These people were, he guessed, itinerant Xhosa herdsmen who had migrated west, following their cattle to the grasslands around Ochatingi. The local Venda people had accepted them without there being too much squabbling. He had no idea what Kingsley’s tribal roots were – but a black man was a black man: surely it wouldn’t be difficult to persuade people of another tribe to help one of their fellows in trouble?
He wondered if they knew that the river led back into the very heart of the mine. He doubted it: Xhosas were highly superstitious people. To them the black hole in the side of the mountain out of which he had crawled would be sinister: It represented the unknown – and of the unknown they had a deep mistrust.
But he could bet that there were plenty of blacks who did know about it! Now he had a pretty good idea where the explosives of which the terrorists had such a bountiful supply were coming from – and he was certain that was why Kingsley knew so much about the route, too.
But, back in the mine, the blind man was injured and he had to get help quickly.
Kingsley had warned him that the last fall was the big one; and they had found that out to their cost. As usual Steiger had crawled to the edge to look over the drop; and had noticed how faint the beam from his lantern had become. Its battery had to be nearly exhausted. But Kingsley’s lamp had been turned off all the while, so the battery on it should still be pretty good. Kingsley readily agreed that they should swap: Good battery or bad battery, a lamp was no use to a man who was blind.
It was as he took his own helmet off that he felt his bad leg slip away from under him; and the next thing he knew was that the torrent was sweeping him over the ledge.
“Ahweeh!” It was a long drawn out yell that he made – but then it seemed to be a long drawn out descent. He was falling head down, trying right himself so that he hit the water feet first. Still upside down, he remembered trying to shout a warning to Kingsley, but he hit the water before the words could form. He remembered hitting the water; and then, as he went under, presumably he hit rock – because after that he didn’t know anything.
When he came round he thought he was at the seaside. He found himself half out of the water, beached on shale, shallow water gently swirling around him. They were on an outer bend of the river; and, beside him, Kingsley was lying very still and groaning…
Kingsley had heard the yell and the splash. He couldn’t see anything; and, listening, he couldn’t hear anything either. The silence was ominous: He knew what had happened and he could imagine Steiger floating unconscious face down in the pool. There was nothing to do but follow; and he did just that. He rolled onto his stomach and let himself drop unchecked. Perhaps he should have heeded his own advice, tried to slow the gathering momentum as he went over the edge – but he was a black man in a hurry.
Kingsley hit the surface and felt himself brushing against Steiger’s body as he went under. The pool wasn’t as deep as he had thought: His legs jarred against the bottom and he felt his spine concertina, buckling with the impact. He tried to kick off the riverbed and a spasm of pain shot up the length of his spine, spreading outward around the small of his back. Then his whole lower body went numb, all feeling from it lost from the waist downward.
When he surfaced there was no trace of Steiger. He thrashed about, feeling around for his friend. He realised that, whilst his arms were working properly, his legs were passive and wouldn’t obey him. Then that he felt the back of Steiger’s head and knew he had guessed right – Steiger was floating face down.
Kingsley needed both arms just to keep himself afloat. He wondered how he was going to get Steiger turned over before his lungs filled with water. He dedicated one hand to keeping hold of the unconscious man, paddling with the other. With the stream giving him his direction, he seemed to be making some progress; and the he sensed that his unfeeling legs were dragging over the bottom. He had made it shallow water and now he might be able to beach Steiger and turn him over – if he had the strength to do so. With his arms and the strength only of his upper body he rolled the white man onto his back.
When Steiger’s vision cleared, he was that Kingsley breathing was shallow and his eyes were closed. He was groaning; and Steiger saw him grimace, his body tensing as a spasm of pain seemed to overcome him.
Levering himself onto his side, Steiger asked, “Kingsley? You alright, Man?”
It was a stupid question: He could see that Kingsley wasn’t alright. His eyes remained closed but Steiger saw his lips move; and he could just hear him saying, “You right, Don Steiger Baas? Me, I’m not so good. My legs don’t work. I did something bad when I hit the bottom.”
Steiger asked, “Can’t you sit up?”
Kingsley shook his head, running his hands down along his waist. “Something not working just here,” he said. “And my legs… I don’t feel anything from them.”
Kingsley had broken his back. Steiger saw that blood was trickling from his lips; and, trying to wipe it away, he said: “If you think we’re nearly out of here then maybe I should go on ahead and see if I can get help?” Kingsley nodded; and Steiger, grabbing hold of his hand, said: “Okay, I’m going off to do that, Kingsley. You just hang on now, because I’m coming back…”
He didn’t know how long it would take him; and he wondered if he would find Kingsley alive when he got back. He said, “I can’t say how long I’ll be, Kingsley – but you hang on and lie still. Help is coming: of that I promise you.”
He let go of Kingsley’s hand and turned to crawl on alone.
It seemed an eternity before he had emerged into the sunlight. As soon as he had got his bearings he started to work his way down the slope towards the village. His broken leg felt as though it had been run over by an eight-wheeled truck that had then reversed and done it again.
When he was forced to stop for a brief rest, he tried to assess the distance still to be covered. He was tired and the village didn’t seem to be getting any closer.
The next time he stopped, he looked up and saw that he had crawled into the middle of a herd of cattle – big kindly looking Xhosa cattle staring at him with sad eyes and expressionless faces at the white man who had crawled into the middle of their timeless existence. Two herding boys found him just as dizziness was overcoming him. Shaking his head to clear it, he rolled onto his back and saw them – two lean shiny boys with red cotton shawls draped around their shoulders, their ebony faces and they looked impassively down on him. They bore their weight on their staves, stout poles that seemed to reach on up forever into a hot and cloudless sky. He wondered if he was near to delirium; and then he lost consciousness again…
When he woke he appeared, without too much ceremony, to have been slung over the back of a donkey: His face was buried in the animal’s flank and he could feel the warmth of the beast’s flesh and smell the oil in the woollen blanket that had been placed under him. He was aware of the sway of its body as, led by the boys, it seemed to be making its sure-footed way down the track to the village.
They stopped in the village centre. From his upside down viewpoint he could see people clustering around him and chattering. There was much excitement and even more curiosity. He presumed they were speaking in Xhosa. He didn’t speak a word of Xhosa and he could only hope there was someone in the village who could understand English or Afrikaans.
They lifted him off the donkey and set him down gently at the foot of a baobab tree, where they peered at his broken leg and the protection that Kingsley had wrapped around it. The shirt that Kingsley had given up for him was black with mix of grime and blood, and they pointed at it and clucked in concern. When an old man came forward, he wondered if he was to be committed to the care of the tribal witchdoctor; but it transpired the man was there to translate.
Through the interpreter he told them that Kingsley was back up in the mine and it seemed that his back was broken. The interpreter translated directly to an even older man who had to be the headman. He was sitting on an upturned packing case switching at flies with a horsehair switch and listening to the herding boys, who seemed to be explaining how they had found him; and to translator’s translation of the account Steiger was giving.
The headman seemed to have made a decision. He stood up, addressing the crowd. He appeared to be issuing orders, because from nowhere four young men came forward. Their bodies were painted and they carried spears. Steiger could only assume that they were the hunters or the young warriors of the tribe. They listened attentively to the headman’s orders; and then they bowed and, turning away, with a whoop they set off across the veldt in the direction of the mine, running with the grace and speed of antelopes.
“Hey, wait!” Steiger called after them. “I’m coming too.”
The headman asked for a translation of that; and, when he heard it, he smiled, shaking his head as though Steiger was a nut. But he called for the donkey to be brought forward again and instructed the two herding boys to bunt him up on its back again. With the interpreter coming to interpret and the herding boys leading the donkey, they bumped their way back across the veldt, following the runners as best they could.
They didn’t catch up until they reached the hole where the river came out, where they found there was a problem. The four warriors circled the black hole, viewing it with suspicion, their spears pointing down towards it. They were reluctant to go any further.
Steiger slid down off the pack animal and onto his sound leg. Then, trying to encourage them, he dropped onto all fours and crawled up to the hole. He recovered Kingsley’s helmet from where he had left it, switched it on and pointed the beam down into the hole: It shone down into the blackness with a power that was still pretty good.
“Tell them that I’ll go in ahead and give them light,” he told the interpreter.
Donning the helmet he crawled into the hole and looked back. No one followed. Returning to the entrance he asked the interpreter, “What is it that they’re so frightened of down there?”
“Evil spirits,” the interpreter said. He must have been in the village’s amateur dramatic society because with his arms he made a ridiculous play of wings flapping, holding his throat, sticking out his tongue grotesquely and rolling his eyes, like one demented.
“Ghosts? Who says there are ghosts in here?”
The interpreter pointed back up the hill. Was he trying to tell him that the rumours came from Ochatingi?
The interpreter nodded; and Steiger thought: Oh, clever activists! They wouldn’t want people poking around in this place, discovering the route used by them to take away the explosives. A few rumours that there were evil spirits here would keep these simple folk away.
“It’s just an underground tunnel through which the river flows,” he tried to assure them.
They weren’t going to buy that. They were not coming with him and that was that. Steiger’s contempt for Kaffirs was beginning to rise again: “Look, you stupid fuckers,” he shouted at them, “Don’t you understand that one of your own kind, a black, is stuck down there badly hurt and in pain?
“Aren’t any of you prepared to come with me? To help me to get him out? He’s one of your own people you know!”
The interpreter interpreted, met by impassive faces and shuffling feet. Their heads were bowed and no one stepped forward. Even the donkey was looking ashamed.
“Well I’m going down even if you’re not,” he shouted at them. “Shall I tell you why?
“I’m going because that man down there saved my life, that’s why. If it wasn’t for him I’d be back in there, floating face down in water, dead; and that brave man would be the up here safe. That’s why I’m going.”
He glared at the interpreter. “And tell your headman that if these gutless bastards want to redeem themselves any then the least they can do is to run up to Ochatingi and get help.”
The interpreter interpreted and, shrugging, the men turned back towards the village, their movements a little more reluctant now. Steiger watched them go; and then he switched his lamp on and began the crawl back up the river.
Going up was slower than going down had been: It took the best part of an hour before he pulled himself over the last rocks and flopped down into the pool that had nearly drowned him and which had broken Kingsley’s back. His lantern picked up his friend’s form: He lying where he had left him and he looked in a bad way.
“I see you, Kingsley,” he said, pulling himself up close.
“I see you too, Don Steiger Baas – or should say I hear you.” Although he managed to smile the reply was weak.
“Help is coming, I promise. People are running to Ochatingi to get help. They won’t be long.”
The black man shook his head as if he knew that, for him, not long wasn’t going to be enough. He was weakening fast. Reaching out, he pulled Steiger’s hand towards him; and it was then that he said, “Anulka!”
“Anulka? Your wife? You told me your wife was dead.”
The black man both nodded and then he shook his head: Yes, his wife was dead; but, no, it wasn’t his wife he was talking about. With a struggle he managed to bring the palms of both hands together to indicate something small.
“A baby? A picaninni? Your daughter?”
Kingsley nodded again. “My daughter, Anulka, Don Steiger Baas,” he managed to say. “Who care for her now?” He looked at Steiger through blind eyes that seemed to be imploring.
This man had saved his life; and Steiger could only say softly, “Trust me, my friend. I promise you that I will make sure your daughter goes well.”
He knew Kingsley had heard him. Even as a smile came to his lips the trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth became a flow.
“Talk to him!” Steiger told himself. “Talk to him, talk to him about anything but don’t let him have any time to be afraid.”
He said: “That was a great journey we did together, Kingsley, you and I. I was proud to do it with you alongside me. Without you I never could have managed, because you knew the secret of the river…
“How did you know that, Kingsley? Are you one of those who are with the activists?”
Kingsley tried to tap the side of his nose in that infuriating conspiratorial gesture he used. But he never made it: His hand dropped limp, his head rolled to one side and his breathing seemed to have stopped. Bending over, Steiger tried to listen for a heartbeat but he couldn’t hear it. He felt for a pulse but there was none; and he knew that Kingsley, still smiling, had gone to some other place. Just where he didn’t know. Was it to his Saviour or was it to some tribal ancestor of the black nation?
It didn’t matter – one thing was for sure: Kingsley would never have gone to hell.
There was no one else down in the blackness of the mine to see that Steiger was crying as he closed shut the Bantu’s unseeing eyes.