It was long before dawn that the camp commenced to stir. Major White had snatched a few hours sleep after midnight. He was up early routing out the cooks, setting the whites up so that their tents could be struck for an early start, directing the packing and loading by Kwamudi’s men. It was then that he learned that fully twenty-five of the porters had deserted during the night.
He questioned the sentries, but none had seen any one leave the camp during the night. He knew that some of them lied. When Orman came out of his tent he told him what had happened.
The, director shrugged. “We still got more than we need anyway.”
“If we have any more trouble with the Bansutos today, we’ll have more desertions tonight,” White warned. “They may all leave in spite of Kwamudi, and if we’re left in this country without porters I wouldn’t give a fig for our chances of ever getting out.
“I still think, Mr. Orman, that the sensible thing would be to turn back and make a detour. Our situation is extremely grave.”
“Well, turn back if you want to, and take the rats with you,” growled Orman. “I’m going on with the trucks and the company:” He turned and walked away.
The whites were gathering at the mess table—a long table that accommodated them all. In the dim light of the coming dawn and the mist rising from the ground, figures at a little distance appeared spectral, and the illusion was accentuated by the silence of the company. Every one was cold and sleepy. They were apprehensive too of what the day held for them. Memory of the black soldiers, pierced by poisoned arrows, writhing on the ground was too starkly present in every mind.
Hot coffee finally thawed them out a bit. It was Pat O’Grady who thawed first. “Good morning, dear teacher, good morning to you,” he sang in an attempt to reach a childish treble.
“Ain’t we got fun!” exclaimed Rhonda Terry. She glanced down the table and saw Bill West. She wondered a little, because had always sat beside her before. She tried to catch his eye and smile at him, but he did not look in her direction—he seemed to be trying to avoid her glance.
“Let us eat and drink and be merry; for tomorrow we die,” misquoted Gordon Z. Marcus.
“That’s not funny,” said Baine.
“On second thought I quite agree with you,” said Marcus. “I loosed a careless shaft at humor and hit truth—”
“Right between the eyes,” said Clarence Noice.
“Some of us may not have to wait until tomorrow,” offered Obroski; “some of us may get it today.” His voice sounded husky.
“Can that line of chatter!” snapped Orman. “If you’re scared, keep it to, yourself.”
“I’m not scared,” said Obroski.
“The Lion Man scared? Don’t be foolish” Baine winked at Marcus. “I tell you, Tom, what we ought to do now that we’re in this bad country. It’s funny no one thought of it before.”
“What’s that?” asked Orman.
“We ought to send the Lion Man out ahead to clear the way for the rest of us; he’d just grab these Bansutos and break ’em; in two if they got funny.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” replied Orman grimly. “How about it, Obroski?”
Obroski grinned weakly: “I’d like to have the author of that story here and send him out,” he said.
“Some of those porters had good sense anyway,” Volunteered a truck driver at the foot of the table.
“How come?” asked a neighbor.
“Hadn’t you heard? About twenty-five or thirty of ’em, pulled their freight out of here—they beat it back for home.”
“Those bimbos must know,” said another; “this is their country.”
“That’s what we ought to do,” growled another—“get out of here and go back.”
“Shut up!” snapped Orman: “You guys make me sick. Who ever picked this outfit for me must have done it in a pansy bed.”
Naomi Madison was sitting next to him. She turned her frightened eyes up to him. “Did some of the blacks really run away last night?” she asked.
“For Pete’s sake, don’t you start in too!” he exclaimed; then he got up and stamped away from the table.
At the foot of the table some one muttered something that sounded like that epithet which should always be accompanied with a smile; but it was not.
By ones and twos they finished their breakfasts and went about their duties. They went in silence without, the customary joking that had marked the earlier days of the expedition.
Rhohda and Naomi gathered up the hand baggage that they always took in the car with them and walked over to the machine. Baine was at the wheel warming up the motor. Gordon Z. Marcus was stowing a make-up case in the front of the car.
“Where’s Bill?” asked Rhonda.
“He’s going with the camera truck today,” explained Baine.
“That’s funny,” commented Rhonda. It suddenly occurred to her that he was avoiding her, and she wondered why. She tried to recall anything. that she had said or done that might have offended him, but she could not. She felt strangely sad.
Some of the trucks had commenced to move toward the river. The Arabs and a detachment of askaris had already crossed to guard the passage of the trucks.
“They’re going to send the generator truck across first,” explained Baine. “If they get her across, the rest will be easy. If they don’t, we’ll have to turn back.”
“I hope it gets stuck so fast they never get it out,” said the Madison.
The crossing of the river, which Major White had anticipated with many misgivings, was accomplished with ease; for the bottom was rocky. and the banks sloping and firm. There was no sign of the Bansutos, and no attack was made on the column as it wound its way into the forest ahead.
All morning they moved on with comparative ease, retarded only by the ordinary delays consequent upon clearing a road for the big trucks where trees had to be thinned. The underbrush they bore down beneath them, flattening it out into a good road for the lighter cars that followed.
Spirits became lighter as the day progressed without revealing any sign of the Bansutos. There was a noticeable relaxation. Conversation increased and occasionally a laugh was heard. Even the blacks seemed to be returning to normal. Perhaps they had noticed that Orman no longer carried his whip, nor did he take any part in the direction of the march.
He and White were on foot with the advance guard, both men constantly alert for any sign of danger. There was still considerable constraint in their manner, and they spoke to one another only as necessity required.
The noon-day stop for lunch passed and the column took up its snakelike way through the forest once more. The ring of axes against wood ahead was accompanied by song and laughter. Already the primitive minds of the porters had cast off the fears that had assailed them earlier in the day.
Suddenly, without warning, a dozen feathered missiles sped from the apparently deserted forest around them. Two natives fell. Major White, walking beside Ormam, clutched at a feathered shaft protruding from his breast and fell at Orman’s feet. The askaris and the Arabs fired blindly into the forest. The column came to a sudden halt.
“Again!” whispered Rhonda Terry.
Naomi Madison screamed and slipped to the floor of the car. Rhonda opened the door and stepped out onto the ground.
“Get back in, Rhonda!” cried Baine. “Get under cover.”
The girl shook her head as though the suggestion irritated her. “Where is Bill?” she asked. “Is he up in front?”
“Not way up.” replied, Baine; “only a few cars ahead of us.”
The men all along the line of cars slipped to the ground with their rifles and stood searching the forest to right and left for some sign of an enemy.
A man was crawling under a truck.
“What the hell are you doing, Obroski?” demanded Noice.
“I—I’m going to lie in the shade until we start again.”
Noice made a vulgar sound with his lips and tongue.
In the rear of the column Pat O’Grady stopped whistling. He dropped back with the askaris guarding the rear. They had faced about and were nervously peering into the forest. A man from the last truck joined them and stood beside O’Grady.
“Wish we could get a look at ’em once,” he said.
“It’s tough tryin’ to fight a, bunch of guys you don’t ever see.” said O’Grady.
“It sort of gets a guy’s nanny,” offered the other. “I wonder who they got up in front this time.”
O’Grady shook his head.
“It’ll be our turn next; it was yesterday,” said the man,
O’Grady looked at him. He saw that he was not afraid—he was merely stating what he believed to be a fact. “Can’t ever tell,” he said. “If it’s a guy’s time, he’ll get it; if it isn’t, he won’t.”
“Do you believe that? I wish I did”
“Sure—why not? It’s pleasanter. I don’t like worryin’.”
“I don’t know,” said the other dubiously. “I ain’t superstitious.” He paused and lighted a cigarette.
“Neither am I,” said O’Grady.
“I got one of my socks on wrong side out this morning,” the man volunteered thoughtfully.
“You didn’t take it off again, did you?” inquired O’Grady.
“That’s right; you shouldn’t.”
Word was passed back along the line that Major White and two askaris had been killed. O’Grady cursed. “The major was a swell guy,” he said, “He was worth all the lousy savages in Africa. I hope I get a chance to get some of ’em for this.”
The porters were nervous, frightened, sullen. Kwamudi came up to O’Grady. “My people not go on,” he said. “They turn back—go home.”
“They better stick with us,” O’Grady told him. “If they turn back they’ll all be killed; they won’t have a lot of us guys with rifles to fight for ’em. Tomorrow we ought to be out of this Bansuto country: You better advise ’em to stick, Kwamudi.”
Kwamudi grumbled and walked away.
“That was just a bluff,” O’Grady confided to the other white. “I don’t believe they’d turn back through this Bansuto country alone.”
“Presently the column got under way again, and Kwamudi and his men marched with it.
Up in front they had laid the bodies of Major White and the two natives on top of one of the loads to give them decent burial at the next camp. Orman marched well in advance with set, haggard face. The askaris were nervous and held back. The party of Negroes clearing the, road for the leading truck was on the verge of mutiny. The Arabs lagged behind. They had all had confidence in White, and his death had taken the heart out of them. They remembered Orman’s lash and his cursing tongue; they would not have followed him at all had it not been for his courage. That was so evident that it commanded their respect.
He didn’t curse them now. He talked to them as he should have from the first. “We’ve got to go on,” he said. “If we turn back well be worse off. Tomorrow we ought to be out of this.”
He used violence only when persuasion failed. An axe man refused to work and started for the rear. Orman knocked him down and then kicked him back onto the job: That was something they could all understand. It was right because it was just. Orman knew that the lives of two hundred people depended upon every man sticking to his job, and he meant to see that they stuck.
The rear of the column was not attacked that day, but just before they reached a camping place another volley of arrows took its toll from the head of the column. This time three men died, and an arrow knocked Orman’s sun helmet from his head.
It was a gloomy company that made camp late that afternoon. The death of Major White had brought their own personal danger closer to the white members of the party. Before this they had felt a certain subconscious sense of immunity, as though the poisoned arrows of the Bansutos could deal death only to black men. Now they were quick to the horror of their own situation. Who would be next? How many of them were asking themselves this question!