A close friend of mine once served as a policeman in Kalahari ranching country. As happens where cattle roam arid grazing land, rustlers find opportunity to lead away valuable critters on the hoof when no one is watching. My friend was assigned to investigate just such a case.
With a contingent of fellow officers he set out in a Landrover following the telltale trail deep into the wilderness. Having left behind charted country, they pressed on into terra incognita, suspicious now that the culprits must surely be savvy desert San. Who else would dare the howling waste – and with a herd of rustled cattle, no less?
That howling waste eventually bested the Landrover. Without radio communication and far from any hope of help, they felt the full fury of the daytime furnace, laying in the shade of the disabled vehicle to escape the sun. Several days passed. They drained the radiator of its rusty water so desperate was their thirst. It was clear now that help would not reach them. They would end up as fare for the hyenas and the vultures.
In such a moment of extremis, a lone San hunter stumbled onto the dire scene. Recognizing that life itself was in the balances for these luckless babes in the wilderness, he led them a short distance to a gnarled old acacia. Leaning down, he plucked a long shaft of desert grass, trimmed it deftly and inserted it through a knot hole into the tree. Then he directed them to suck on the improvised straw. From a secret somewhere deep inside the tree, said my friend, came the coolest draught of water he has ever tasted. Life preserving rainwater collected in a hollow thorn tree.
Though greatly reduced in strength, with the help of the hunter, my friend and his colleagues, now revived, were led out of desert straits to resume lives they had all but surrendered to misfortune. Those lives would never seem casual or ordinary to them any longer. They were the walking dead who had cheated the vultures and a desert fate.
I never asked him about the one who showed them such timely mercy. But I sometimes sensed he considered their rescuer to have been ‘a person of interest’. All of that is now, well, life-giving water under the bridge. And nobody’s counting the cattle.