The Dark of the Sun

A Novel by Wilbur Smith

Also filmed as The Mercenaries

..Many of the visitors to my page list this Wilbur Smith novel as their very favorite. I really enjoyed it because I love the way Smith develops all of his brilliant characters, and this novel has many, many new faces for us to meet. As always Wilbur displays his uncanny ability to mix page after page of adventure with just the right touch of romance.

..Captain Bruce Curry is a mercenary who is commissioned to rescue a distant outpost where residents (and the community's diamonds) have been cut off from the support of the local troops. Opposing forces are everywhere, from the simple yet deadly arrows of the native Baluba tribes, to the more sophisticated machine guns and mortars of the vindictive marauder General Moses.

..Bruce Curry finds transport to this isolated place by train. He and his fifty or sixty mercenary comrades set off into enemy territory not knowing what to expect. Their first encounter comes when a plane is spotted in the near distance.

..The aircraft found them in the later afternoon. It was a Vampire jet of the Indian Air Force and it came from the north.

..They heard the soft rumble of it across the sky and then saw it glint like a speck of mica in the sunlight above the storm clouds ahead of them.

..'I bet a thousand francs to a handful of dung that this Bucko don't know about us,' said Hendry with anticipation, watching the jet turn off its course towards them.

..'Well, he does now,' said Bruce

..Swiftly he surveyed the rain clouds in front of them. They were close; another ten minutes' run and they would be under them, and once there they were safe from air attack for the belly of the clouds pressed close against the earth and the rain was a thick blue-grey mist that would reduce visibility to a few hundred feet. He switched on the radio.

..'Driver, give us all the speed you have - get us into that rain.'

..'Oui, monsieur,' came the acknowledgment and almost immediately the puffing of the loco quickened and the clatter of the crossties changes its rhythm.

..'Look at him come,' growled Hendry. The jet fell fast against the back-drop of cloud, still in the sunlight, still a silver point of light, but growing.

..Bruce clicked over the band selector of the radio, searching the ether for the pilot's voice. He tried four wavelengths and each time found only the cackle and drone of static, but with the fifth came the gentle sing-song of Hindustani. Bruce could not understand it, but he could hear that the tone was puzzled. There was a short silence on the radio while the pilot listened to an instruction from the Kamina base which was beyond the power of their small set to receive, then a curt affirmative.

..'He's coming for a closer look,' said Bruce, then raising his voice, 'Everybody under cover - and stay there.' He was not prepared to risk another demonstration of friendship.

..The jet came cruising in towards them under half power, yet incredibly fast, leaving the sound of its engines far behind it, sharklike above the forest. Then Bruce could see the pilot's head through the canopy; now he could make out his features. His face was very brown beneath the silver crash helmet and he had a little mustache, the same as the Jack of Spades. He was so close that Bruce recognized the exact moment that he recognized them as Katangese; his eyes showed white and his mouth puckered as he swore. Beside Bruce the radio relayed the oath with metallic harshness, and then the jet was banking away steeply, its engine howling in full throttle, rising, showing its swollen silver belly and the racks of rockets beneath its wings.

..'That frightened seven years growth out of him, 'laughed Hendry. 'You should have let me blast him. He was close enough for me to hit him in the left eyeball.'

..You'll get another chance ina a moment,' Bruce assured him grimly. The radio was gabbling with consternation as the jet dwindled back into the sky. Bruce switched quickly to their own channel.

..'Driver, can you get this thing moving?'

..'Monsieur, never before has she moved as she does now.'

..Once more he switched back to the jet's frequency and listened to the pilots excited voice. The jet was turning in a wide circle, perhaps fifteen miles away. Bruce glanced at the piled mass of cloud and rain ahead of them; it was moving down to meet them, but with ponderous dignity.

..'If he comes back,' Bruce shouted down at his gendarmes, 'we can be sure that it is not just to look at us again. open fire as soon as he is in range. Give him everything you've got, we must try to spoil his aim.'

..Their faces turned up towards him, subdued by the awful inferiority of the earth-bound to the hunter in the sky. Only Andre' did not look at Bruce; he was staring at the aircraft with his jaws clenching nervously and his eyes too large for his face.

..Again there was silence on the radio, and every head turned back to watch the jet.

..'Come on, Bucko, come on!' grunted Hendry impatiently. He spat into the palm of his right hand and then wiped it down the front of his jacket. 'Come on, we want you.' With his thumb he flicked the safety catch of his rifle on and off, on and off.

..Suddenly the radio spoke again. Two words, obviously acknowledging and order, and one of those words bruce recognized. He had heard it before in circumstances that had burned it into his memory. The Hindustani word 'Attack!'

..'All right,' he said and stood up. 'He's coming!'

..The wind fluttered his shirt against his chest. He settled his helmet firmly and pumped a round into the chamber of his FN.

..'Get down into the truck, Hendry,' he ordered.

..'I can see better from here. Hendry was standing beside him, legs planted wide to brace himself against the violent motion of the train.

..'As you like,' said Bruce. 'Ruffy, you get under cover.'

..'Too damn hot down there in that box,' grinned the huge Negro.

..'Your a mad Arab too,' said Bruce.

..'Sure, we're all mad Arabs.'

..The jet wheeled sharply and stooped towards the forest, leveling, still miles out on their flank.

..'This Bucko is a real apprentice. He is going to take us from the side, so we can all shoot at him. If he was half awake he'd give it to us up the bum, hit the loco and make sure that we were all shooting over top of each other,' gloated Hendry.

..Silently, swiftly it closed with them, almost touching the tops of the trees. Then suddenly the cannon fire sparkled lemon-pale on its nose and all around them the air was filled with the sound of a thousand whips. Immediately every gun on the train opened up in reply. The tracers from the Brens chasing each other out to meet the plane and rifles joined their voices in a clamour that drowned the cannon fire.

..Bruce aimed carefully, the jet unsteady in his sights from the lurching of the coach; then he pressed the trigger and the rifle juddered against his shoulder. From the corner of his eye he saw the empty cartridge cases spray from the breech in a bright bronze stream, and the stench of cordite stung his nostrils.

..The aircraft slewed slightly, flinching from the torrent of fire.

..'He's yellow!' howled Hendry. "The bastard's yellow!'

..'Hit him!' roared Ruffy. 'Keep hitting him.'

..The jet twisted, lifted its nose so that the fire from its cannons passed harmlessly over their heads. Then its nose dropped again and it fired its rockets, two from under each wing. The gunfire from the train stopped abruptly as everybody ducked for safety; only the three of them on the roof kept shooting.

..Shrieking like four demons in harness, leaving parallel lines of smoke behind them, the rockets came from about four hundred yards out and they covered the distance in the time it takes to draw a deep breath, but the pilot had dropped his nose too sharply and fired too late. The rockets exploded in the embankment of the tracks below them.

..The blast threw Bruce over backwards. He fell and rolled, clutching desperately at the smooth roof, but as he went over the edge his fingers caught in the guttering and he hung there. He was dazed with the concussion, the guttering cutting into his fingers, the shoulder-strap of his rifle round his neck strangling him, and the gravel of the embankment rushing past beneath him.

..Ruffy reached over, caught him by the fromt of his jacket and lifted him like a child.

..'You going somewhere, boss?'

..It is amazing how Wilbur Smith can cram so much into one book. Twists, turns, hate, and love, but mostly excitement. I think you will really enjoy reading this novel, I only wish it lasted another three hundred pages.

'The Dark of the Sun' Smith, Wilbur. Published by Pan Books, Ltd. Cavaye Place, London, 1987.