Departure from Ashira land.—A silent leave-taking.—Thievish porters.—A cunning old rascal.—Misfortune on misfortune.—Without food in the forest.—A desperate plot.—Feasting on monkey-meat.—Out of the woods.
The threat of Quengueza had the desired effect. At last Ondonga succeeded in getting porters, who with my own men, made the number of our company about thirty. No amount of pay could induce more to come. They were afraid of trouble. They could not tell what the trouble would be, but they had a vague fear that something dreadful was impending.
Every thing that we could not take with us I either gave away or destroyed.
Early in the morning of the 16th of March I left Ashira Land. How I had suffered in that poor, unfortunate land! The plague had destroyed the people, and the survivors accused me of having destroyed the victims of the plague. Then things had looked so dark that many and many a time I thought the end had come; that no more explorations were to be made, and I fully expected to be murdered by the infuriated savages.
My party of ten Commi men had been reduced to seven. Retonda had died; Rogueri, a slave, had run away, and it was he who had advised the Ashira to rob me, and who had tried to disabuse them of my power. The plague had disabled Igala-Yengo. He was going back to Goumbi now that he was much better, and he was to take letters for me.
This time there was no gun-firing as we left old Olenda's village, no singing, nothing—we left silently. I had misgivings. I thought of mischief brewing ahead, and I was not mistaken.
That day we crossed the Ovenga, and followed a path which led to one of Olenda's large plantations; there I found a considerable village of Olenda's slaves, a slave himself being chief over the village. His name was Mayombo.
All the porters did not reach the place that evening. Ondonga himself had not come. The next morning he came with the news that several of the porters had run away, leaving their boxes in the path, and that he had been compelled to go back and fetch more porters.
Then I discovered that three boxes of goods were missing, and I became furious. Ondonga got frightened; I knew the rascal was at the bottom of the mischief and once or twice I felt like making an example of him by calling a council of war composed of my men and myself, and, upon the clear proof of his guilt, shooting him dead on the spot.
Ondonga swore that he would find the thieves; but the boxes came back, and they had been broken open, and many things were missing. Ondonga pretended to be in a violent rage, and declared in a loud voice that there should be war, and that the thieves should be sold into slavery. It was all I could do to restrain myself from breaking the fellow's head.
The acting was superb. The old chief and some of the slaves seized their spears, and shouted, "Let us go after the thieves!" They hurried out of the place shouting, cursing, and vowing death to the thieves. They were the thieves themselves; but I kept cool, and thought the day of reckoning would come.
Misfortune seemed to come upon misfortune. That day Macondai complained of a violent back-ache. He had the plague; this was one of the first symptoms.
What could I do? When we left the plantation the dear good fellow tried to walk with us, but he became so ill that we were forced to come to a stand in the woods. No greater calamity could have befallen me. I felt as if I could cry, for my fortitude was on the point of giving way, and it seemed as though the hand of God was against me.
When any thing very important had taken or was about to take place, it was always my custom to summon my Commi men, and hold a council to see what was to be done. So my faithful body-guard were now summoned to my side. As soon as we were seated together, every one of us wearing an anxious look, I said, "Boys, you will go ahead; I will remain here and take care of Macondai."
The men said, "No, Chally." Macondai himself said no. "If we go without you," said the men, "they will begin stealing again." "If you do not go," said Macondai at once, "you will not have one porter left, for I heard to-day some say they were afraid to follow you; they were afraid on account of those who had robbed you; and if you give them time to talk together, they will agree to run away. Go now, Chally," said Macondai, "for if you do not you will never reach Mayolo. I shall get well."
After some consultation it was agreed that Igalo should remain with Macondai on a small plantation near at hand, and Ondonga said the Ashira would take care of him. I could not bear parting with Macondai. I knew, of course, that the Ashira would not dare to murder him, but then he was ill.
After making every possible provision I could for the comfort of the sick boy, and enjoining upon Igalo never to leave him, and after weighing out medicine to be given him at stated times, we continued our march; but I was so wretched that I can not describe to you my feelings.
The traveling was exceedingly toilsome. The men were overloaded, and I myself carried on my back in my otaitai over sixty pounds of ammunition, besides having my heavy revolvers slung by my side, and my most formidable double-barreled breech-loader on my shoulder. The path—for there was a path—lay through a most picturesque country, and along a mountain range, extending north and south, which lies between the country of the Ashira and the Otandos. The hills of this range were very much broken up, so that we did nothing else than make continuous ascents and descents. The forest was dense, and impeded with numerous blocks of quartz which lay strewn along the path nearly all the way, and quartz crystals covered the beds of all the sparkling rivulets that flowed at the bottom of every valley.
The porters began to lag behind under the pretext that the loads were too heavy for them. For two days I had succeeded in making all the porters keep up with me and sleep in my bivouac; but there was not much sleep for me or my men, for we had to keep a sharp look on the porters, though they were not armed, lest they should have given word to their people beforehand to hide spears and bows and arrows somewhere in the forest near where they knew we would camp for the night.
The third night, in despite of all my endeavors, some of the men would not keep pace with us; so, when I ordered the people to stop for the night, Mintcho and a few men were missing. I knew at once that something was wrong, and I said to the Ashira that were with me that if I saw one of them move off I would shoot him on the spot.
The next morning we waited for Mintcho and the met, and they made their appearance an hour after sunrise. Mintcho immediately affected to be very angry with them. "I waited for you," shouted he, "and you did not come, so I could not come and sleep by the side of my friend Chally. Where did you sleep? I blew the horn and you did not answer."
He raised some of the boxes from the ground, and cried, "Yes, these are not as heavy as they were, you have been stealing my white man's things; you are thieves." At this the culprits got frightened for fear of punishment from me, and, leaving their loads in the road, fled into the jungle.
Then came a tremendous excitement. The men openly declared that it was no use to go farther with the white man, for they would not get any pay, as some people had robbed him; that they had worked for nothing.
It was a plot; they were all in it. I saw that they wanted to leave me in the forest. Some had not dared to steal, but Mintcho was the chief thief. I forgot myself, and accused him of it. It was a mistake on my part. Mintcho appeared to be terribly angry at my accusing him. I saw the blunder at once, and I retracted and said that his people had stolen my property, and I did not see why he should not be responsible for them; that such was the law of the country." "But," said I, "Mintcho, I know that you are my friend, and that you would not do such a thing yourself." As we were talking, more porters ran away, leaving their loads on the ground.
This strange scene had taken place at a distance from any river. Things had come to a crisis; some lying was to be done at once, or I should be left alone in the woods. Mintcho and a few porters were the only ones left. I could not allow them to go; so, calling my Commi men, I said, pointing my gun at Mintcho, "If you make a step one way or the other, you are a dead man." In the mean time my men, pointing their guns at the Ashira, shouted, "You are dead men if you move." The fact was simply that, if Macondai and Igalo had not been left behind, there would have been bloodshed. Apprehensions for their safety alone prevented me from resorting to very strong measures.
So I said, "Mintcho and you Ashira men must take those loads and carry them to the river; then you will come back and take what remains to the same place, till every one of the packages has been carried thither. If you try to run away you will be shot;" and I ordered all my Commi men, who had now become furious, to shoot down the first man that tried to escape into the jungle. "Follow them," said I to Rebouka; "never let Mintcho move from you more than a step; shoot him dead if he goes two yards." Rebouka swore that he would shoot him dead. Mouitchi, Ngoma, and Rapelina followed the other Ashiras.
So they went, I remaining all alone to watch the goods. I had become furious, and it required all my self-command not to shoot Mintcho as a robber. I kept the sharpest lookout in every direction; my revolvers were ready, and all my double-barreled guns were loaded and by me; but nobody came.
Rebouka, my Commi, and the Ashira came back a short time afterward. They had left the loads near a stream, and Mouitchi had remained behind watching them with six guns by his side. His orders were to fire on the first Ashira that came from the woods. Our blood was up, and we were getting desperate.
The Ashiras took each another load, and I repeated again to Rebouka and the Commi men to shoot them down as they would shoot a monkey if any should try to run away.
At last all the baggage was safely deposited on the margin of a little stream, where we were to build our camp.
The Ashiras then became really frightened, and began to think they should never get back to their country. That night I remained awake with my men, and they saw that they could not escape. I had become vindictive, and they knew it. Mintcho seized my feet, and shouted, "Do not kill us; let me go, and keep the other hostages. I will have all the things that have been stolen restored to you. I will make the porters come back." "No," said I, "Mintcho, there is no going away for you; if you move a step you are dead;" and, to frighten him, I fired a gun at a tree, and he saw that the bullet had made a great gash in the tree.
Then I ordered Mintcho and an Ashira, with one my Commi, to go to Mayolo to get porters. At first they would not do it. They were afraid. The game they had played had not been quite as successful as they had expected.
We had no food; it rained every night, and we could find no large leaves to shelter us from the heavy fall of water. It was clear that strong measures must be taken immediately.
There was still with us our Otando prisoner whom Arangui had given back to me. So I said, "Mouitchi, hurry to Mayolo with that man, and tell Mayolo to send men and food at once, so that we may get to his country." Mouitchi departed with the Otando man, taking with him a necklace of large beads for Mayolo.
I was now left with Mintcho and seven Ashira rascals, and had only two of my faithful Commi men with me—Rebouka and Ngoma—to keep watch over them. We were encamped in a small open space in the loneliest and gloomiest part of the forest, by the path leading to the Otando country. We were absolutely without food. Rebouka, Ngoma, and myself agreed to keep watch over our eight Ashiras, who were now our prisoners. Now and then the rascals would pretend to be asleep, and snored hard. They lay on one side of the path, and we were on the other side, with the luggage piled by us. They saw there was no escape, for two of us were always wide awake, with all our guns by our side ready to fire into the first man who tried to run away.
The Ashiras felt that they were caught, and began to curse those who had robbed me. Mintcho was accused by two of them as having been at the bottom of the whole plot. Mintcho got angry, and swore that it was a lie. I knew that they had told the truth.
It was very plain that something must be done, or we should die of hunger, unless the Mayolo men came with food. If it had been the season of the koola-nut, we should have had plenty to eat. So I determined to go into the bush in search of food, and ordered an Ashira to follow me to find berries for his people. I again instructed Rebouka and Ngoma to shoot Mintcho or the Ashiras if they tried to escape. I was getting very weak; for, besides the want of food, anxiety had almost killed me. I really could hardly walk when I left the camp. I came back without game. I had heard a gorilla, and if I could have killed him we should have had plenty to eat, but he ran away before I came up with him.
That evening I was so exhausted that I said to my Commi boys, "I will rest a little. Keep watch; let not one of these rascals escape. Talk all the time; tell stories; then I will keep watch after I wake, and you shall go to sleep."
There was no sleep for me, and I began to think I was getting crazy for want of food. I thought of home, of dinners, of beef and mutton, and I recalled the hot turkey, and the fish, and the buckwheat cakes; I could remember distinctly several dinners that had taken place years before, and I could have named every dish that came on the table in those days of plenty.
I sent two Ashiras with Rebouka out to hunt, warning them that if they tried to run away they would be killed, and that I would put to death every Ashira that remained in my hands. I assumed a fierce look, and swore that I would do it.
They were more successful than I had been. They came back with two monkeys.
Mintcho and the Ashiras put the meat before me, and insisted that I should eat it all alone, saying that they were accustomed to starving, and could wait. How strange, I thought, these Ashiras were! They had tried to leave me in the woods; they had plundered me, no doubt thinking that I could get other goods; and, in despite of the hard treatment they were now subjected to, their hearts yearned toward me in kindness.
I said, "Ashiras, we are all hungry together, and I will divide the meat in exactly equal portions." This astounded the Ashiras, for with them the chief had always the lion's share.
Those monkeys made a delicious repast. How I enjoyed my share! they were so fat and so nice—only we could have eaten ten monkeys instead of two.
As the Otando people appeared, the allayed fears of the Ashiras returned; they began to believe that I had send word by Mouitchi for the Otandos to come in great force, and that I was to take them captive for their treachery. Once more some of them wanted to go back. I swore that they could not go; that I would shoot them down; and that, if any escaped, Quengueza would make war upon the Ashiras, and capture all those who had come to trade on the banks of his river, and then would call on all the Ashira people to destroy the clan of Olenda.
This talk was hardly ended when I thought I heard voices far in the distance. "Hark!" said I to my Commi, "I hear voices." Were they the Otando people, or were they the Ashiras coming back to rescue their men? I immediately placed the Ashiras in a group together, tied their hands behind their backs, and got the guns in readiness, for I was getting desperate. If the Ashiras dared to come, they were to be met with a warm reception of bullets.
I was mistaken; the Otandos were coming. A gun was fired—up bounded Rapelina to the rescue, followed by a lone line of Otando men laden with food sent by King Mayolo. A wild hurra from every body, including the Ashiras, welcomed the party. That night we rested and feasted in order to be strong for the journey. I slept well, and it was the first good rest I had had for a long time. The next morning I awoke very much refreshed, and at sunrise the horns of the Otandos blew the signal for our departure. It had been raining hard during the night, and the rain-drops on the leaves of the trees glittered in the early sunlight. We marched off at great speed, for I was determined not to sleep another night in the forest. On the tramp we crossed a river called the Oganga, on the banks of which the koola-trees were growing luxuriantly. Nuts in abundance were lying on the ground, and the men fed on them, after which we continued our journey. I remember well it was the 10th of March, in the evening, just at sunset that we emerged from the solitude of the forest into the Otando prairie, so called because the Otandos lived on it. Never shall I forget how glad I felt when I came on the margin of the forest, and saw the blue sky appearing through the breaks in the tree-tops.