It could have been a pleasant walk in slightly cooler conditions, but the heat persisted even though the sun was slowly setting. Not only was I a trifle short of breath, but I also had to keep shooing away the tiny insects that concentrated their attention on my face and neck.
I scanned the horizon, but visibility was restricted by a milky haze.
All at once, the cicadas fell silent. It was so quiet, we halted abruptly. I knew from my earlier sojourns in the wild what the reason for the insects’ behavior could be: a wild animal, possibly a big cat, prowling in the immediate vicinity.
Howard Woolf must have had the same thought because his hand went to the revolver holster on his belt.
We paused in the middle of the path and peered in all directions. The only sound-a faint rustle-stemmed from dry stalks of grain rubbing together in an almost imperceptible breeze.
The wheat, which came up to my hips, offered perfect cover to any assailant.
Big cats could move silently, so it was possible that we would fail to spot one until it sprang at our throats. Even though human beings were not the favorite fare of such animals, an attack could not be completely ruled out. Hunger increases the willingness of any living creature to take risks.
We could now hear the sound of breathing. It sounded hoarse and labored as if some animals were finding it hard to suck enough air into its lungs.
Whatever was skulking around in the fields, it was unlikely to be a big cat.
I suddenly thought of the numerous victims of abduction whose whereabouts were still a mystery. Could the creature bear down on us be responsible for their disappearance?
“Hey!” yelled my companion. “Be off with you!” He had drawn his revolver.
The stalks of wheat only a few yards in front of us were quivering, and I could hear menacing growls.
“What can it be?” I asked, leaning forward for a better look.
Woolf pointed his gun in the air and fired a warning shot.
The head of a dog, a huge black mastiff, came into view.
The animal bared its teeth and fixed us with a pair of lackluster eyes. Its tongue, which was lolling out of its mouth, had turned an unusual color-almost black.
Woolf aimed straight at the mastiff’s head, but the dog abruptly turned away and ran off.
“That animal must be sick,” I said. “It may have rabies.” Although the dog was out of sight, Woolf was slow to holster his revolver again.
“Better hurry,” he told me. “Darkness falls fast in South Africa.”
We got to the Bongers farm just as the last of the daylight faded. It looked to be a run-down property. The roof of the main building had been crudely patched with sheets of corrugated iron. Hanging from the dead tree outside were some cows’ skulls bleached by the sun.
An old woman was sitting in a rocking chair beneath the lopsided canopy over the veranda.