HEVI STOOD AT the entrance to the cave, his short, thick legs shaking like jelly. The cave was dark and he couldn’t see a thing inside. It smelled funny too, like wet hair and rotten food. Hevi listened with both ears pointed. At first, he couldn’t hear anything. But then he thought he heard what sounded like a child’s whimper. The boy was in there! Hevi took a deep breath and one step forward. He had never done anything so brave in his life! Or so dumb. He trusted his friends, but now all he could hope for was that they would all play their part and that the plan would go . . . well, according to plan!
“Hey, hyenas!” Hevi called out, as he put one trembling foot in front of the other, walking forward slowly. Silence. “Hey!” Hevi stopped just inside the cave. Still silence.
Just as he was about to take another step, a sudden glint of gold appeared out of the dimness and Hevi stopped in his tracks. The glint became two yellow-gold lights that moved closer to him, menacingly, followed by another two and then another two. And then the evil face of a hyena broke through the darkness just in front of him. Hevi gulped and began moving back quickly as the hyena advanced, followed by another evil, grinning face just behind him. Hevi knew that the third hyena was hiding somewhere behind the other two. He had seen his eyes, but he couldn’t see him.
The hyenas inched closer and closer. Hevi glanced left and right, and then hesitantly behind him, looking for an escape route. Suddenly, the hyena nearest to him darted forward and circled around him, and in a split second Hevi found that he was trapped between two snarling sets of fangs! He froze. The third hyena had still not appeared, which meant it wasn’t leaving the child. Hevi began to panic. What should he do? The plan was starting to unravel!
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, Hevi spotted a flash of brown fur streak past him, close to the ground. The hyenas had their eyes glued on the little hippo and did not notice the funny little creature dash past them and head straight into the darkness, to the back of the cave.
They did notice, however, as an unearthly shriek echoed off the rocks and pandemonium erupted from deep within the cave. They stared in amazement as the third hyena came sprinting past them, missing clumps of hair from its tail, and with a small meerkat attached to its rump!
The hyena ran out of the cave and down the hill, turning every now and then to snap at Manji who was starting to enjoy the free ride, as he hung on by his clenched teeth!
That was Hevi’s cue. He ran straight past the hyena that had been blocking the entrance to the cave, and followed Manji’s disappearing figure. Startled, the hyenas ran around in circles, completely confused, not sure whether to follow Hevi or stay with the child. Finally, they both gave chase after the little hippo, who was quite a distance away by now. Halfway down the hill, however, they realized they would never catch up with Hevi, gave up on the pursuit and turned back in the direction of their cave.
It was now or never! Bongo had been hiding behind a thorn bush nearby and he slipped into the cave, his eyes quickly taking in the scene. Bones of a slain impala—the leftovers of the hyenas’ last meal—lay piled in a corner. The floor was dank and dirty. Bongo curled his lip up in disgust.
“Yuck!” he muttered.
A faint whine drew the young baboon’s attention to the back of the cave and he ran to where the sound was coming from. Yes, he could see a shape lying there! The little boy was curled up on the floor, with his head pressed against a rock. He wasn’t moving and his eyes were closed. Bongo stared at the child’s tear-stained face, wondering what to do now. Lee O hadn’t told him about this part of the plan!
“Just run in and get him!” Bongo snorted, remembering Lee O’s words. They had sounded simple enough at the time!
He reached out, grabbed the child’s hand and pulled. The boy did not move. Bongo bounced up and down anxiously, and then pulled again, harder this time. Suddenly, the boy sat up and stared at him. Bongo got such a fright that he let go of the child’s hand and fell back. The boy stared at the baboon with big, glassy eyes. And then he giggled. Bongo looked at him uncertainly and then stood up on his back legs. The child giggled again and pointed at him. Bongo jumped up and down, excitedly. He put out his hand, took the boy’s chubby fingers and pulled once more. Thankfully, this time the child stood up and began to follow Bongo out of the dark cave.
As they walked into the sunlight Bongo looked around, nervously. In the distance he could see the hyenas returning. They had to hurry! He pulled on the child’s arm and waved at Vile, who was flying around in circles in the sky.
“Bongo has the boy!” Vile called down loudly to Lee O, in warning.
The young cub emerged from behind a rock and dashed up to the waiting baboon. “Get him onto my back!” Lee O ordered. “Hurry!”
But it was as if the child knew that the animals were trying to save him. Without any help from Bongo, he climbed onto Lee O’s back and curled his arms around the little lion’s neck. He rested his head on the soft, spiked mane and closed his eyes.
“Run!” Bongo shouted to Lee O. “Those crazy hyenas are getting closer!”
And Lee O ran. He ran down the hill and through the tall grass, passing thickets of trees and herds of impala and zebra. He ran past the dam, where two elephant bulls wallowed in the shallow water. But Lee O saw nothing except the end destination. He knew Vile was flying somewhere high overhead, and he felt better because of it, but his big eyes remained completely focused on his rescue mission.
Finally, exhausted, Lee O arrived at a big, leafy marula tree. It was spring and the flowers on the tree were blooming in welcome. Lee O stopped in the shade of the tree’s protective branches and lay down. The boy’s hands unclasped slowly as he slid off the young lion’s back. He lay down and curled up on the ground next to Lee O. As the lion cub watched him, the child’s eyes closed and he drifted off into a deep, peaceful sleep.
Panting from the long run and the heat, Lee O looked around him. There was nothing to be seen in any direction. Vile had gone to find the others and lead them back to the marula tree, the agreed meeting spot. Now, there was nothing for Lee O to do but wait. He yawned. The sound of the soft breathing of the little boy was making him feel very sleepy. Perhaps he would just close his eyes for a minute . . . !
Lee O awoke with a start a little while later, opening first one eye and then the other. For a moment he couldn’t remember where he was, but then the memory of the events of the day flooded back and he sat up quickly. A sick, sinking feeling went though him as his head whipped from side to side. The boy was gone!
“Hello, handsome!” Bongo’s voice rang out behind him.
Lee O spun around. Sitting in a circle, with the child propped between them, was the whole beaming gang! Hevi, Vile, Manji and Bongo grinned at him.
Unable to contain himself any longer, Bongo jumped up and shouted at Lee O, “We did it! We saved the child!”
Lee O grinned back, happy that his plan had worked. He knew now that he would definitely listen to his inner voice more often!
“Yes, we did do it. But we haven’t saved the child yet! We still have to get him back to the lodge,” Vile piped up. He stretched his long, thin neck towards the boy, who seemed perfectly happy to be surrounded by five wild animals!
“Well, let’s get going then!” said Lee O. He stood up and stretched. “Has everyone rested enough?”
The animals nodded. Bongo reached out for the child’s hand and this time the little boy did not hesitate. He slipped his fingers into Bongo’s small paw and all together, they left the shelter of the marula tree and began the next leg of their intrepid rescue mission.