Part three of the Edgar Williams adventure, A Rage in Siam.
Chapter Six: Scent of a Woman
I awoke sharply, instantly feeling the benefit of a surprisingly good night’s sleep. Glancing out the window confirmed that the train had already stopped and the position of the sun told me that I had but ninety minutes to locate the handover point where Nut ta Woot would in theory be waiting for me. I had my doubts however and suspected that the meeting would simply be a further opportunity for these rebels to try and remove me from the equation. I would not go into the jaws of danger unprepared.
Alighting from the train, I searched in vain for Miss Hardwick but perhaps it was best that I did not see her, for from this point on, this was no game and I would need all my faculties about me. And so, I pushed her from my mind and hailed the nearest tuk-tuk to take me into harm’s way.
I dismissed my driver with a handful of colourful notes, not really knowing if I was insulting the man with a meagre tip or whether I had just made him rich beyond the dreams of avarice. I surveyed the area cautiously, watched by innumerable inscrutable Buddha’s. I picked out the most likely points where an amateur would place a sniper and sure enough, I spied three black-clad assassins, trying to make themselves inconspicuous. I chuckled gently to myself, thinking that it was always more fun going up against newcomers to this particular field. I was going to enjoy this.
Despite more searching, I was unable to locate any more snipers, so I carefully selected a position out of their line of fire, with the sun at the most advantageous angle and I settled down to wait.
I was not kept waiting long. A figure appeared from out of the trees, unsurprisingly masked, and headed toward me, picking its way through the piles of ruined stones. When she spoke, for unexpectedly it was a woman, it was in broken English. She repeated the message of the note: Nut ta Woot would be returned to me if I swore to leave now. Otherwise I could expect to die here and now where I stood, with no one to mourn my passing. I coolly demanded that Nut ta Woot be presented before me and a simple nod of the head from the woman brought forth two men holding my guide between them. He seemed in fine fettle and even managed his usual cheerful grin. I gave what I hoped was a reassuring smile in return, but my face hardened as I turned back to the woman.
I informed her that I could not acquiesce to her demands as I was not the kind of man to abandon a contract without fulfilling it to the letter. Her response was that she expected nothing less from the notorious Edgar Williams, preceded as he was by his inflated reputation. I had not realised my endeavours in Africa had somehow become common knowledge here in Siam.
I saw her eyes flicker just the tiniest touch, indicating to me the presence of another sniper. A spin, the Remington found the hollow in my hand with its name written all over and another man fell dead at my doing, tumbling from high above.
My movement continued, returning me to my original position before the woman had even time to react, and the revolver spat fire once more. This was but a warning shot however and drilled a neat hole in a tree not two inches from her head. The next shot, I reliably informed her, would not find its resting place in wood, but in her heart, if Nut ta Woot were not released immediately.
Silently, she nodded her agreement, dismissing the remaining men and I watched them disappear imperceptibly, like shadows into the night. Nut ta Woot ran excitedly towards me, pleased to be free at last, but in his eagerness he stepped into my line of sight, allowing the woman to seize an opportunity she could not afford to miss. She turned and ran, weaving a dizzying line between the ancient temples to prevent me getting a clear shot. But she needn’t have worried for I had no intention of shooting an unarmed woman in the back, no matter how much trouble it might save me in the long run.
Brushing aside Nut ta Woot’s gratitude, I noticed that in her haste, the woman had discarded her scarf. As I stooped to pick it up, an old habit acquired after many years tracking, a hint of some distinctive perfume made its presence known to me. I knew it from somewhere, but I could not place it immediately. However, as there were only a very limited number of places where I might have encountered such a scent, surely this would be but a short-lived puzzle.
Time enough had been wasted on this distraction, and if I were to catch up with Buchanan, haste would by necessity be the order of the day. There would be no time now to learn of his recent movements, and I would have to hope that Chiang Mai would present me with the opportunity. Nut ta Woot and I rejoined the train mere moments before it was due to depart and prior to returning to my cabin, I made a quick check that our equipment was still safe and untampered with. Fortunately nothing seemed out of place and I was able to take my seat with a reassured mind.
Nut ta Woot sat opposite me, a guilty look on his face. Obviously he felt remorse over the recent incident and I did consider taking him to task over his somewhat remiss nature, particularly in view of my warning prior to setting forth on this adventure. Instead, I let silence do my work for me and I felt sure that Nut ta Woot would feel obliged to make up for his shortcomings in due course. I had the distinct impression that the opportunity would soon come knocking.
Pulling my hat down over my eyes, I instructed Nut ta Woot to wake me when dinner was served and reminded him gently that mischief was not a friend worth seeking out.
At dinner that evening, the mystery of the perfumed scarf was most unexpectedly solved. As I dined lightly on some curried local speciality, the exact contents of which I did not enquire too heavily into, I detected a faint waft of the self-same perfume. As I looked up, I realised that the woman before me and the woman I was expecting to see were not one and the same. For the woman I associated with this particular scent was none other than Miss Hardwick!
That night my sleep was plagued with unrest, as I turned this revelation over and over in my mind. It seemed unlikely that a member of the White Tigers would shop at the same perfume counter as two Australian women, which left me with the nearly irrefutable fact that my meeting with Miss Hardwick was no mere coincidence and that she was inextricably mixed up in the plot to deter me from my course. Undoubtedly she would not yet admit failure, which meant that our paths would indeed cross again soon, although not in the way that I had perhaps envisaged. At least now I could put a face to my previously unseen enemy, as Miss Hardwick must surely have been behind the attack in Bangkok and I surmised that her services had been retained by Buchanan to keep me from his back. But it would take more than this to weaken my resolve and when I finally rolled over to slumber, it was with a greatly determined spirit.
Chapter Seven: Into the Heart
Chiang Mai was on first impressions how Bangkok might have once been, some moons ago. Indeed, the relationship might best be defined in terms of two siblings: Bangkok the elder and more rambunctious, with Chiang Mai the adoring younger brother, eager one day to emulate the actions of its more experienced role model.
On the whole, if I had to have a preference, Chiang Mai was the more highly regarded in my humble opinion, although neither would ever be likely to find much favour issuing forth from my lips.
Almost immediately upon our arrival, Nut ta Woot begged my leave to disappear on some mysterious errand for a few hours, once we had secured our lodgings. Needing a short time to collect my own bearings in this new city, I agreed to his request and away he scampered, leaving me to wonder at his motives.
The best way to acquaint ones self in a new place, I have found, is to go where the locals go. As Night had now cast her shroud across the sky, it was that time when a city such as Chiang Mai truly comes alive. I wandered aimlessly, although still ever alert for danger, through the myriad market stalls, marvelling at the sheer diversity of products and at the sheer doggedness of the stall holders themselves. Countless times was I literally chased down the road by an itinerant salesman desperate to conclude a final transaction.
I warily purchased a few items to ease my growling stomach: some lightly spiced chicken on sticks and something tasting pleasantly of sweet coconut satisfied my immediate hunger and it was all washed down with a fresh helping of mango juice. But now I had to turn my hand to other matters, more serious. For the time had come to learn of the White Tigers and their hiding place in the hills which would lead me to my ultimate quarry: Buchanan.
Thinking that there would undoubtedly be some kind of support for the Tigers amongst Chiang Mai’s somewhat disenfranchised population, I had decided to seek out this support in the most likely of breeding grounds: the seediest and lowliest bar I could find. This presented itself, after much searching, in the form of ‘Teepee’s’, a particularly shady hangout that seemed to house the city’s entire stock of oversized musclemen. As I was not on the best terms with Time at the current juncture, I reluctantly decided to abandon subtlety in favour of a somewhat more direct approach.
Noting the suspicious eyes on my back, I marched boldly up to the bar and after knocking back a couple of quick shots of some fiery concoction, I plunged headlong into my inquiries after the White Tigers. Although the barman understood little of my English, the words ‘White Tigers’ instantly struck a chord with the fellow and with some satisfaction I saw him glance towards a small booth at the back of the room. He cursed himself instantly when he realized he had betrayed the Tigers’ confidence, but I laid a large note on the bar which may or may not have gone some way towards the alleviation of his distress.
I picked up my glass and swaggered confidently towards the booth, ignoring the scores of unfriendly eyes, counting my every step. Through the smoke-filled haze, I was able to make out three heavily-tattooed men, lounging casually on some cushions, enjoying a cigar and a joke. They stopped instantly in their actions as soon as they became aware of my presence and after a second or two of mutual sizing up, their obvious leader made an expansive gesture of welcome, inviting me to join them.
I lowered myself to their level, discreetly allowing them a glimpse of the Remington tucked away into its holster, just to make sure they knew what sort of man they were dealing with.
One of the heavies reached across and poured me a shot of Mekong whisky. Seeing this as a test, I downed it in one without difficulty or even a grimace. I was used to far harder stuff than this. From the looks on their faces, this broke a lot of ice and the conversation turned to face the direction I desired: the White Tigers.
The leader, whose name I ascertained was ‘Ae’, was an enthusiastic individual, high on life and probably something else as well, and his train of thought did not run on smooth or straight rails. Ae was not involved in the Tigers himself but he knew well the hills where they were hiding and knew the tribes they were planning to convert, having been born there himself.
When I mentioned Buchanan, Ae’s perpetual grin vanished. Obviously their paths had met, but I could tell when not to push the point and I trusted that finding the Tigers would be enough. When I found them, Buchanan would not be far away.
Ae was a talkative chap and freely gave away precise directions to the main camp, which I stored away in my ordered memory. As he spoke, it was clear to me that he bore no love for the Tigers and this in part gave me the reason for his generous nature. However, what else was expected of me for this information, I as yet knew not. I felt that an offer of money would not sit too well with my host and so my wallet stayed where it was.
In due course, I sensed that the meeting was coming to a close and slowly rose to my feet, offering my hand in grateful thanks. Ae stayed where he was, but shook my hand firmly. As I turned to leave, still uncertain as to how I had learned all I needed to know so cheaply, Ae spoke again. He spoke of the dark Australian woman who rode with Buchanan and I froze. He told me how she had crossed him and betrayed him and again I knew not to ask for more. It was now clear what the price of knowledge was and it was a high one. Somehow I would have to pay it, but it would not be easy.
I strode quickly across the bar and into the heady sweet atmosphere of the world outside, my mind already mulling over plans and strategies for the following day. The hour was now beyond late, so thinking it best to return to my lodgings for some well earned rest, I started swiftly away and soon found myself where I most wanted to be. As I turned the key in the lock, I heard a groan from the shadows, somewhere near the ground. Thinking it to be some drunkard, I idly turned my eye towards the source of the sound. Instead of some inebriated soul in search of redemption however, I was shocked to see Nut ta Woot, battered and bruised and generally the worse for wear. I hauled him onto my shoulder and dragged him inside, laying him down on the much needed comfort of the bed.
After forcing a few drops of whisky through his desirous lips, I was able to determine how he had arrived in this woeful state.
After the kidnap incident, which he saw as a large blot on his record, Nut ta Woot had resolved to restore himself in my eyes. Following a similar plan to my own, he had set off in search of the White Tigers. Although his quest initially proved fruitful, whereby he learned useful information pertaining to the Tigers, things soon after turned sour.
Inadvertently upsetting an actual supporter of the Tigers had led to blows being thrown which quickly spread throughout the bar with poor Nut ta Woot caught up in the middle of a huge fight with no allies and about a hundred enemies. Eventually he managed to crawl out from the chaos he had created and return slowly and painfully back here to the hotel.
He did find out something that Ae had not informed me of, which from my point of view made his Herculean efforts worthwhile, although perhaps not so from his perspective. Buchanan was apparently only a step ahead of us, having been delayed himself, and was due to make the handover of weapons in just two days time. The Tigers were then planning some action immediately after with their new found armoury. This did not interest me so much as the fact that if I were to succeed in my mission, I would have to act before the handover when Buchanan would be at his most vulnerable deep in the jungle. Fortunately I would be the quicker, unladen as I was with large amounts of weapons, supplies and porters. Buchanan had the advantage of knowledge of the area, but I was confident that I would be able to strike hard and win the day.
A quick check on Nut ta Woot revealed that he had already drifted off to a well-deserved but hard-fought slumber. Hoping against hope that this would not cause us further delay, I followed by his example and settled down to sleep myself.
Chapter Eight: Killing Time
Fortunately my fears of the previous night proved unfounded as it was a miraculously restored Nut ta Woot that was the first to waken and it was joked that it was I who had let the side down for once.
In swift and efficient silence, we made the preparations for the gruelling next step of our journey: an exhausting hike, at altitude, through uncertain terrain, in questionable weather conditions with the potential for hostile encounters with the hill tribes, Buchanan and his men, not to mention Miss Hardwick with whatever diabolical scheme she had at her disposal.
I was pleased to see that when it counted, Nut ta Woot could act in the finest possible manner. I had no doubt that from here on in, he would do me proud and I saw fit not to remind him of the grim task that he was expected to bear witness to shortly.
The sun had barely crept over the horizon when it was time to set forth and we did so in grim silence. The next few hours were spent riding horseback along rough tracks and trails, the occasional poor village being the last remnants of civilisation that we would see for a while. But I was not sorry to say farewell and pushing my task to the back of my mind, I actually relished my return to the wilderness, eager to be back in what I considered was my world, even if it was far from home.
The inhabitants of each village observed us curiously yet with smiles of great welcome, offering us refreshments with the utmost of generosity. I was even garlanded with what Nut ta Woot informed me were good luck charms. Perhaps these people could sense that where I was going, I would need all the help I could get.
At last we reached the invisible division between the outside world and the land of the hill tribes of the north. From here on in we would be forced to abandon the comfort of our sturdy mounts and proceed on foot. So without further ado, we slung our packs upon our already sweating backs and with Nut ta Woot leading the way, we went forth.
At first the going was good and we were able to make excellent time, even under the sweltering sun. The tracks were wide and comparatively smooth, with little to catch out the unwary.
Conversation was easy, and so I took the opportunity to have Nut ta Woot enlighten me as to the habits and lifestyles of the tribe we were most likely to encounter, known as the Karen.
These formed the largest of the tribes, numbering somewhat less than half a million. They first arrived in the Siam at some point during the 17thCentury, fleeing from both Burma and China. They tended to remain in the valleys and near the low hills where they practise a system of rotating cultivation. They live in small groups, as opposed to the extended families of other tribes, in bamboo or teak houses built upon stilts. Often these houses would be surrounded by fruit gardens and neat fences.
In addition to farming their own land, the Karen often hire themselves out as labour to other tribes and keep an assortment of livestock including elephants.
The men of the tribe would be generally be seen wearing a combination of loose trousers and shirts, with blue being the principal colour although red was a common variation. The women wear white dresses, usually decorated with grass seeds about the seams.
The Karen follow a system of animist beliefs, whereby all natural objects are inhabited by spirits which must be propitiated in order to keep harm from the people. There may be several religious leaders to each village who would maintain the ritual life of the community, as well as a shaman with the power to mediate with the spirits and determine what must be done in order to please them.
I stopped Nut ta Woot’s lecture dead with a simple gesture of my raised hand. I had caught sight of the first sign that we were on the right track: a carelessly discarded cigar, that I instantly recognised as the foul African brand favoured by Buchanan. Up to now he had covered his exact route well, but perhaps in this incessant humidity and in his over-confidence he was getting sloppy. I could only hope that it was so.
The condition of the cigar led me to believe that we weren’t far off the pace and believing we had time, I allowed us a short pause for water and to catch our breath. As I took in the magnificent views over the valley we were now in, the hills wreathed in heavenly mist, I realised just how good, how alive I was feeling once more. Truly Nature’s unspoilt expanses were home for me.
Shouldering our gear once more, we pressed on, our pace again high, keen as we were to catch up with our target, even if ultimately it would take me away from here.
Soon the easy trails petered out, but thanks to the eagle eyes of Nut ta Woot which spotted several recently crushed ferns, we were able to continue the hunt deeper into the all-encroaching jungle. Our pace slowed somewhat, forced as we were to struggle uphill in far from ideal conditions. Fortunately there had not been any rain recently or the difficulty of our task would have increased manifold.
I was cheered somewhat by the thought of Buchanan fighting his way through this with a much larger entourage. As my reflexes were kept occupied by the technical nature of the climb, my mind was able to access the past and more specifically my third meeting with Buchanan.
Shortly after his incarceration, he was able to effect an escape, for himself only, using the age-old tools of bribery and corruption, and despite the greatest efforts of the local law, he was able to head for the hills, a free man once more.
After my success in his capture, I had been rewarded by my grateful employers with the opportunity for some well paid leave. I leapt at the chance for further travel in my beloved Africa and headed without question to the majestic peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. Now, the story of that calamity-filled climb is a tale in itself, but one which will have to wait. Instead, it was just as I returned triumphantly to the base that who should I run into but Buchanan. He had arrived there leading a party of amateur climbers, a menial task which must have galled him, but since he was somewhat persona non grata, it had been the only job he could find.
Upon seeing me, his face clouded with fury and his gun found itself aimed at my head. Fortunately for me, one of his climbers took that moment to drop all of his equipment, causing the most splendid cacophony, which spoilt Buchanan’s aim and sent my horse careening away in a life-saving cloud of dust.
An urgent whisper from Nut ta Woot was all it took to break the spell of distant recollection. We had at last reached the end of our climb and from our vantage point we were able to see into the valley below. Where, to my dark delight, Buchanan and his party were settling down to make camp for the night.
Nut ta Woot and I threw ourselves into the excellent cover afforded by the heavy foliage and, withdrawing my field glasses, I began to observe the movements of my prey.
Buchanan himself strutted around the makeshift camp like a great dictator, issuing irrelevant orders and generally making a nuisance of himself, whilst all around him, his porters went about their business in the safe knowledge that they knew best.
In an astonishingly short time, the clearing was transformed into a more than serviceable campsite, with several roomy tents to hold the arms and the principal members of the group. Buchanan had always liked to travel in a certain degree of comfort wherever possible, unable to abandon himself totally to the whims of Mother Nature and her wilderness.
I took a sharp intake of breath as one of the tents was swept back and a figure emerged from within: Miss Hardwick. But now when I looked upon her, I saw not the charming young lady I first met aboard the train, but a devious adventuress with a calculating mind and a distinct lack of morals that I found distasteful.
She approached Buchanan and the two engaged in a lengthy conversation, the exact details of which I was unable to ascertain as the words were lost upon the wind, but there was clearly some element of conflict arising between the two objects of my disaffection. All was not well between them, and perhaps I would be able to turn their quarrel to my advantage.
Presently, Miss Hardwick broke off the discussion and turned back for her tent with a flash of anger in her dusky eyes. But as she did so, she paused for the briefest of moments, as if something had caught her attention. Had she seen us? I remained motionless, praying that Nut ta Woot would do the same, as any hint of movement would confirm the suspicions running through her mind, if they did in fact exist.
She seemed satisfied that she had been mistaken though, and continued back into her tent without even a look back. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief, although I could still not be certain that she had not seen us. I started to wriggle backwards, having seen all I needed to for now, and I was closely followed by Nut ta Woot. We retreated to a safe distance where a brief council of war was held.
I planned to carry out my mission in the early hours of the morning. Knowing Buchanan as I did, I could safely say that he was an early riser who liked to survey his troops in the manner of some great general at war. This gave me the perfect opportunity to end his nefarious career from afar and I had already chosen the spot from where I would make the killing shot. Nut ta Woot would act as lookout whilst I was engaged in my solemn duty and would be armed with a double no. 12 central fire Keeper’s shotgun, full choke both barrels and two Remingtons for backup. My own weapon of choice would be my favoured original 1886 repeater, the finest model ever made by that particular firm. It was some years old now, and had seen some action, but had been kept in perfect condition and was absolutely reliable in a pinch, with pin-point accuracy over great distances. A sweet weapon, particularly when loaded with hollow points and one which should serve my needs admirably.
I ran over the plan once more with Nut ta Woot, simple though it was, for confusion is the last thing needed in the heat of the moment when lives are at stake. Once I was certain he had everything fixed precisely in his mind, I ordered him to sleep, whilst I took first watch. We were travelling far lighter than Buchanan and had to forego the luxuries of tented accommodation, so made do with pulling various leaves around us for the purpose of cover and utilising mounds of earth for a pillow.
Soon enough, I could hear Nut ta Woot’s gentle breathing slow down, indicating that he was fast asleep, leaving me alone with the night and the company of the local wildlife. Various insects and birds made their presence known, whilst the occasional insomniac gibbon or macaque howled in their isolation.
Time passed slowly. But I didn’t mind, for I was in no hurry for the coming day to arrive, bringing it with as it did the promise of death. I was made suddenly more alert by the deliberate sound of direct approach. Any animals out here would keep well away from something as uncertain as a man, but something was most certainly heading directly for me. I eased the Remington out, pulling back the hammer with as little noise as was humanly possible.
A voice came out from the gloom, a voice I knew well enough and one which, if I was honest, I had been half-expecting for some time now.
‘There will be no need for violence this night, Mr. Williams,’ said Miss Hardiwick, brushing aside an overhanging branch as she approached me.
I looked up into her gently smiling features, lit as they were by the shining light of the full moon filtering through the light canopy of trees. I did not return the smile, instead trying to keep my face as emotionless as possible, so as not to give anything away. ‘That remains to be seen,’ I whispered hoarsely. ‘Violence is sadly always an option in my life, perhaps not the preferred one, but one which must always remain at close quarters. And your presence I’m afraid brings it even nearer to hand.’
Miss Hardwick moved in closer, circling me, putting me in mind of a stalking predator, confident in its abilities to satisfy its hunger at will. I followed her movements intently, ever watchful for the first sign of danger.
‘You should have left when you had the chance Mr. Williams,’ she declared. ‘Buchanan knows you’re out here somewhere. And he will kill you, when the time comes.’
I shook my head. ‘He may know I’m here, but I still have the edge. He doesn’t know when I will act.’
‘But I do. And all it takes is a word in his ear from me and you will become the hunted, not he,’ she purred slyly.
‘A question springs to mind. If you were hired to keep me from Buchanan’s back, then why are we having this conversation?’
Miss Hardwick laughed, a dangerously alluring sound in the stillness of the night. ‘You intrigue me, Mr. Williams. After our meeting on the train, I decided that the world could be a more interesting place with you still in it. And so I gave you the option of continued survival, if you would just walk away.’
I frowned before answering. ‘But surely you knew I could never agree to such a demand?’
‘I knew,’ she replied. ‘But I had to try. The alternative, well, we both know what that is.’ Her voice hardened. ‘ And although I might have some regrets over ending your journey through this world, fear not that I would so without hesitation.’
‘You really are quite the most delightful woman it has ever been my displeasure to meet. If only it weren’t for your villainous tendencies and complete lack of scruples you really could be quite a catch. For a man that liked to live dangerously.’
She looked back over her shoulder at me, starlight glinting in her eyes like the finest silver. ‘I think that perhaps it was time I was leaving, if you are going to start throwing insults around.’
‘Perhaps you are right, Miss Hardwick. Perhaps you should never have come.’
‘I trust I have nothing to fear from a bullet in the back as I walk away?’ she queried sweetly.
‘You should know better than even to ask. I could have taken you down back in Ayuthaya, but my honour forbade the cowardly act of shooting a woman from behind,’ I replied.
‘Then I will return the favour. Buchanan will not know of your presence from my lips.’
‘For that I am grateful, but you realise this only tells me one thing about you?’ I continued without waiting for an answer. ‘That truly, you cannot be trusted. If you would not carry out the duty for which you have been hired, or even inform your employer that his killer is breathing down his neck, then I would be a fool to ever believe a word you utter.’
To this, she gave no response but a strangely pleasing smile which lingered long after she had disappeared back into the jungle from whence she came.
‘You should kill her while you can, sir.’ Clearly there had been an eavesdropper privy to our conversation.
‘I thought you were asleep, Nut ta Woot,’ I replied, noting the tone of disapproval in his voice.
‘She will cause much trouble. Do not let this woman in your head, or you are not the man Sir Charles had me believe you are.’
‘Have no fear, when the time comes I will deal with Miss Hardwick in an appropriate manner, for I am every inch the man you think I am,’ I growled back, annoyed at being tested by my guide. ‘Now keep watch, for I need some rest.’
With the anger still simmering in the air, I pulled myself into the cover of a particularly gnarled tree and tried to sleep. I could sense Nut ta Woot’s eyes on me as I did so, but ignored the reproach I could feel emanating from him. Miss Hardwick would not cause me to waver in my course.
I awoke to the early morning sound of birdsong, heralding another new day. But this one brought with it the knowledge that I would have to kill again, to end another man’s life and to darken my own soul once more.
I found Nut ta Woot preparing something for breakfast, unfortunately raw, but we could not afford a fire for the smoke would surely give us away. He informed me that the camp was still sleeping, just three men on patrol and they were not exactly alert.
I pulled out my Winchester, checking it over again, to ensure that there would be no chance of failure. I loaded in the hollow points, the deadly messengers of His Majesty’s wrath, while I watched from the corner of my eye as Nut ta Woot checked over his own armaments. He seemed comfortable around the weapons, as if their presence was not unusual and I asked if this was so. He replied casually that he had fired off a few rounds in his time, and I could tell by his pained look that there was more that he was not telling. But now was not the time to press the matter further.
When we had finished eating, we abandoned our makeshift camp and headed once more for the knoll overlooking Buchanan and his men. Nut ta Woot fell into position a few feet to my left, where he had an excellent view of our surrounding area, essential for keeping an eye out for any potential ambush. I myself dropped down beneath a swathe of ferns that covered me completely and rendered me almost invisible. I primed the Winchester and slid it gently forward, so that only the very tip of the barrel protruded from cover. I tracked the movements of the watchmen in my sights, awaiting the arrival of my real target.
Sure enough, exactly as I predicted, Buchanan was the first to arise, emerging from his tent like a proud cockerel, strutting forth as if he owned the land. I swung the rifle over to cover him, his black heart in my cross hairs. Slowing my breathing, I closed both eyes for a second, blocking out the rest of the world, all that did not matter at this very instant. When I opened them again, I saw the undesired company of Miss Hardwick approaching Buchanan. Damn her. I had several seconds of grace before she would be too close to him for a killing shot, but I must act now for I knew not when the chance would arise again.
Fortunately Buchanan’s attention was drawn by the actions of one of his men and he presented himself full on to my Winchester. It would take a lesser gunman than I to end this blaggard’s life now. My finger curled around the trigger, ready to squeeze the life from my mortal enemy. It was at that moment that I felt the presence of something slithering its unwelcome way inside my shirt: a snake, the last thing I needed right now. Glancing down I could see that it was unlikely to cause me harm, not being poisonous, but I had to force myself to ignore its alien presence as it nestled against my chest.
I turned my attention back to Buchanan and found that my window of opportunity was getting smaller by the second. I could not, would not, hesitate. Again, my sights found his heart, my finger found the trigger, there was the insanely loud crack as the bullet sped its way through the air and then the nightmare sound of the impact as it ploughed into Buchanan’s chest.
As if in slow motion, he reeled backwards, a cry of absolute surprise bursting forth from his lips, his eyes rolling back in his head and he crashed like a felled tree to the jungle floor. Nobody moved for several seconds, as they stared down in disbelief at the unmoving body. Miss Hardwick was the first to regain her wits and she rushed towards Buchanan, kneeling beside him and checking for any signs of life. When it was apparent that there were none, she turned to stare directly at me, concealed as I was in my hiding place, and I would swear that the barest hint of a smile found its way onto her lips.
I didn’t wait to find out what happened next, as I quickly withdrew from the mass of ferns covering me and unceremoniously yanked the snake from within my shirt, dumping it on a nearby tree. Moving swiftly through the undergrowth, the Winchester clutched tightly in my numb fingers, I found myself quickly joined by the lithe form of Nut ta Woot sprinting along beside me. There was not time for words, but his respectful smile told me that I was the man he thought I was. Surprisingly, this meant more to me than I would have expected.
Chapter nine: Cry Havoc!
We finally stopped running, I don’t know how long after the death of my nemesis, when I felt certain that there was no way we could have been followed. Breathing heavily from our exertions, it took several moments before either of us were capable of speech. When at last we regained this precious gift, Nut ta Woot chose to congratulate me on a job well done. I was unsure as to his choice of words, still uncertain as to exactly how I felt about the seeming success. On the one hand, I had fulfilled my contract with Sir Charles and ended the life of a notorious villain. And yet on the other, a man who I had shared some of the most memorable times of my life with and who had educated me in the ways of Africa now lay dead deep in this heartland of Siam.
Nut ta Woot knew me well enough by now to realise that I was not ready to speak of Buchanan’s death or what it meant to me, but instead chose to inquire what we would do now. I think he expected me to reply that we would head instantly back to Chiang Mai, for the task for which I had been hired was successfully completed, as the look on his face was one of astonishment when I revealed my true intentions.
Although Buchanan was indeed gone, the supply of weapons could still find its way into the hands of the White Tigers, most likely under the command of Miss Hardwick. After what I had learned of the hill tribes and their peaceful ways from Nut ta Woot, I could not let this happen. If the Tigers were allowed to turn the tribes from their passive lifestyle, then the world would be an altogether poorer place for it.
I informed Nut ta Woot that his commitment had been fulfilled, he had seen me safely through to the completion of my original undertaking, for which I was grateful as I would never have made it this far without his sure guidance. He was now free to head for home, having no further duty to me or my new road forth.
He shook his head, smiling in his typical way. He picked up his pack, clapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘And if I am not to come with you, how do you expect to find your way beyond those trees, let alone to the tribes?’
I laughed back, not really surprised that this young man was choosing to travel onwards with me, given the honourable nature of his character. And again, I found I was pleased that I would not be heading deeper into the jungle alone.
We soon caught up with the party as they moved steadily through the uncertain terrain. Now that their leader had been assassinated, they seemed confident that there was no more threat of sudden death from out of the jungle depths, and we were able to follow close by without any difficulty.
Miss Hardwick had indeed taken it upon herself to seize command of the expedition, her manipulative mind no doubt running through all manner of ways to turn the situation to her advantage. But the men seemed to respond to her better than they did to Buchanan, and we caught snatches of song and laughter as we trailed them almost as close as their own shadows.
The rest of the day passed slowly, with little incident worth recounting. From the party’s direction Nut ta Woot was able to ascertain where exactly they were heading for, where the handover of weapons was due to take place. Trusting in his judgement, I allowed him to lead us further in front of the party, so that we may plan an ambush whereby we could destroy the weapons and prevent their ever reaching the hands of the rebels.
As we pulled ahead, some distance in front of the main group, I felt something in the atmosphere change, imperceptibly, so subtle as to the point where I wasn’t sure if it was simply my imagination playing tricks on me. But at that moment Nut ta Woot confirmed my suspicions with the chilling sentence, ‘Do not stop moving or we are both dead men.’
I suddenly realised what it was that had changed: we were not alone. We were being watched. Every now and then there would be a rustle from the trees, caused not by the wind or some animal, but by the presence of man. Now more alert, I was just able, using all my powers of observation, to see the flickers of movement created by members of the hill tribes as they tracked us.
I asked Nut ta Woot how long they had been watching us. He replied that he had been aware of them for the last ten minutes, which probably meant that they had been tracking us for at least an hour. I was reassured by this, as I felt that it meant that if they wanted us dead, we have been so a long time ago. Nut ta Woot agreed, but still advised the utmost of caution.
I wanted to speak with the tribesmen, to warn them of the danger that was coming to their world and to do all I could to prevent this from happening. I don’t know why I suddenly felt this way, but there was something in a sudden memory of Buchanan, something about his callousness, that made me think that perhaps I had another reason for being here. I mentioned this to Nut ta Woot, inquiring as to how we could make contact with the men following us in such a way that would leave us alive.
His answer was that it would not be easy, but it could be done. I urged him to do all that he could to make it so. He came to a sudden halt and called out in his native tongue, seemingly addressing the jungle, but in reality directing his words at the leader of this hunting party. An answer was immediately forthcoming, and judging by the look on Nut ta Woot’s face, it was more than I could have hoped for. He spoke another long sentence of complex musical syllables then turned to me. Apparently we were to be favoured with a short meeting with the headman of their tribe. Somehow they had already heard of the death of Buchanan and were aware of the White Tigers’ intentions towards them, but Nut ta Woot was unable to ascertain what their response would be.
The party led us at a heart-burning pace through the jungle, so fast that I was lost within minutes and I’m sure even Nut ta Woot would have had difficulty in finding his way back to our starting point. Soon enough though, we reached a clearing thinly veiled with mist. I had assumed that we were simply stopping for a rest, but I became suddenly aware of several tall and imposing figures appearing from out of the haze and striding determinedly towards us.
Nut ta Woot told me that this was the leader of the tribe and his two most trusted aides. They were dressed in surprisingly colourful clothes considering the nature of their home and were adorned with countless items of well-crafted silver.
The leader looked at me with the most piercing eyes I have seen not possessed by one of Nature’s children and spoke in a deep, authoritative voice. Nut ta Woot translated for me. I was apparently in good favour with the tribe for killing Buchanan. They were aware of the arms he was bringing to the Tigers and had no wish to see them in use. I was forced to tell him that the death of Buchanan had not halted the path of the weapons but that they were still on their way to the hands of the Tigers under the leadership of Miss Hardwick.
At that moment, another tall figure burst out from the mist. A jumble of words erupted from his mouth, angrily berating the leader. Under his breath, Nut ta Woot was able to tell me that this was the leader’s son, Kanbo, who apparently did not agree with his father’s policy on the Tiger’s and their beliefs. It appeared that there was in fact a small group of tribesmen who had every intention of embracing the Tigers and joining forces with them.
Kanbo glanced my way with a look of absolute hatred and then spat viciously on the ground. I needed no translation from Nut ta Woot. Obviously the success of my mission had not found support from everyone. The leader now turned back to me and again began to speak through Nut ta Woot, urging me to try and convince his son of the foolishness of his actions. Only too pleased to help, I gave a most impassioned speech, quoting freely from some still remembered Shakespeare and other long ago learned texts. Perhaps something was lost in the translation, for when I was finished, the look of hatred was still present on Kanbo’s face and I could see by the look in the father’s eyes that this rift was threatening to tear the tribe apart.
Kanbo now turned and stormed away, followed by a handful of his supporters, leaving the father to take me by the shoulders, stare deeply into my soul, and implore me to find the weapons and destroy them before his son could get his hands on them.
My reply needed no translation, and I was surprised when the leader grasped me firmly by the hand, in the Western manner, and shook it vigourously.
Struck by a sudden idea, I called out Kanbo’s name and to my great astonishment, he came to an instant halt and glared back at me. I spoke via Nut ta Woot, suggesting that he joined us, so that he might see what embracing the White Tigers would bring to his people.
Kanbo looked back and forth between his father and I, the possibilities of the future running though his fertile imagination. After a few moments of deep thought, he gave a decisive nod and strode towards to me. His father was as astonished as I, but clearly delighted that his son had at last seen some kind of sense.
Nothing further needed to be said, so I turned and headed back into the jungle, closely followed by Nut ta Woot and our new companion.