The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
XXVII. A Visit at Juja
Next day we left all this; and continued our march. About a month later, however, we encountered McMillan himself in Nairobi. I was just out from a very hard trip to the coast-Billy not with me-and wanted nothing so much as a few days' rest. McMillan's cordiality was not to be denied, however, so the very next day found us tucking ourselves into a buckboard behind four white Abyssinian mules. McMillan, some Somalis and Captain Duirs came along in another similar rig. Our driver was a Hottentot half-caste from South Africa. He had a flat face, a yellow skin, a quiet manner, and a competent hand. His name was Michael. At his feet crouched a small Kikuyu savage, in blanket ear ornaments and all the fixings, armed with a long lashed whip and raucous voice. At any given moment he was likely to hop out over the moving wheel, run forward, bat the off leading mule, and hop back again, all with the most extraordinary agility. He likewise hurled what sounded like very opprobrious epithets at such natives as did not get out the way quickly enough to suit him. The expression of his face, which was that of a person steeped in woe, never changed.
We rattled out of Nairobi at a great pace, and swung into the Fort Hall Road. This famous thoroughfare, one of the three or four made roads in all East Africa, is about sixty miles long. It is a strategic necessity but is used by thousands of natives on their way to see the sights of the great metropolis. As during the season there is no water for much of the distance, a great many pay for their curiosity with their lives. The road skirts the base of the hills, winding in and out of shallow canyons and about the edges of rounded hills. To the right one can see far out across the Athi Plains.
We met an almost unbroken succession of people. There were long pack trains of women, quite cheerful, bent over under the weight of firewood or vegetables, many with babies tucked away in the folds of their garments; mincing dandified warriors with poodle-dog hair, skewers in their ears, their jewelery brought to a high polish a fatuous expression of self-satisfaction on their faces, carrying each a section of sugarcane which they now used as a staff but would later devour for lunch; bearers, under convoy of straight soldierly red-sashed Sudanese, transporting Government goods; wild-eyed staring shenzis from the forest, with matted hair and goatskin garments, looking ready to bolt aside at the slightest alarm; coveys of marvellous and giggling damsels, their fine-grained skin anointed and shining with red oil, strung with beads and shells, very coquettish and sure of their feminine charm; naked small boys marching solemnly like their elders; camel trains from far-off Abyssinia or Somaliland under convoy of white-clad turbaned grave men of beautiful features; donkey safaris in charge of dirty degenerate looking East Indians carrying trade goods to some distant post-all these and many more, going one way or the other, drew one side, at the sight of our white faces, to let us pass.
About two o'clock we suddenly turned off from the road, apparently quite at random, down the long grassy interminable incline that dipped slowly down and slowly up again over great distance to form the Athi Plains. Along the road, with its endless swarm of humanity, we had seen no game, but after a half mile it began to appear. We encountered herds of zebra, kongoni, wildebeeste, and "Tommies" standing about or grazing, sometimes almost within range from the moving buckboard. After a time we made out the trees and water tower of Juja ahead; and by four o'clock had turned into the avenue of trees. Our approach had been seen. Tea was ready, and a great and hospitable table of bottles, ice, and siphons.
The next morning we inspected the stables, built of stone in a hollow square, like a fort, with box stalls opening directly into the courtyard and screened carefully against the deadly flies. The horses, beautiful creatures, were led forth each by his proud and anxious syce. We tried them all, and selected our mounts for the time of our stay. The syces were small black men, lean and well formed, accustomed to running afoot wherever their charges went, at walk, lope or gallop. Thus in a day they covered incredible distances over all sorts of country; but were always at hand to seize the bridle reins when the master wished to dismount. Like the rickshaw runners in Nairobi, they wore their hair clipped close around their bullet heads and seemed to have developed into a small compact hard type of their own. They ate and slept with their horses.
Just outside the courtyard of the stables a little barred window had been cut through. Near this were congregated a number of Kikuyu savages wrapped in their blankets, receiving each in turn a portion of cracked corn from a dusty white man behind the bars. They were a solemn, unsmiling, strange type of savage, and they performed all the manual work within the enclosure, squatting on their heels and pulling methodically but slowly at the weeds, digging with their pangas, carrying loads: to and fro, or solemnly pushing a lawn mower, blankets wrapped shamelessly about their necks. They were harried about by a red-faced beefy English gardener with a marvellous vocabulary of several native languages and a short hippo-hide whip. He talked himself absolutely purple in the face without, as far as my observation went, penetrating an inch below the surface. The Kikuyus went right on doing what they were already doing in exactly the same manner. Probably the purple Englishman was satisfied with that, but I am sure apoplexy of either the heat or thundering variety has him by now.
Before the store building squatted another group of savages. Perhaps in time one of the lot expected to buy something; or possibly they just sat. Nobody but a storekeeper would ever have time to find out. Such is the native way. The storekeeper in this case was named John. Besides being storekeeper, he had charge of the issuing of all the house supplies, and those for the white men's mess; he must do all the worrying about the upper class natives; he must occasionally kill a buck for the meat supply; and he must be prepared to take out any stray tenderfeet that happen along during McMillan's absence, and persuade them that they are mighty hunters. His domain was a fascinating place, for it contained everything from pianola parts to patent washstands. The next best equipped place of the kind I know of is the property room of a moving picture company.
We went to mail a letter, and found the postmaster to be a gentle-voiced, polite little Hindu, who greeted us smilingly, and attempted to conceal a work of art. We insisted; whereupon he deprecatingly drew forth a copy of a newspaper cartoon having to do with Colonel Roosevelt's visit. It was copied with mathematical exactness, and highly coloured in a manner to throw into profound melancholy the chauffeur of a coloured supplement press. We admired and praised; whereupon, still shyly, he produced more, and yet again more copies of the same cartoon. When we left, he was reseating himself to the painstaking valueless labour with which he filled his days. Three times a week such mail as Juja gets comes in via native runner. We saw the latter, a splendid figure, almost naked, loping easily, his little bundle held before him.
Down past the office and dispensary we strolled, by the comfortable, airy, white man's clubhouse. The headman of the native population passed us with a dignified salute; a fine upstanding deep-chested man, with a lofty air of fierce pride. He and his handful of soldiers alone of the natives, except the Somalis and syces, dwelt within the compound in a group of huts near the gate. There when off duty they might be seen polishing their arms, or chatting with their women. The latter were ladies of leisure, with wonderful chignons, much jewelery, and patterned Mericani wrapped gracefully about their pretty figures.
By the time we had seen all these things it was noon. We ate lunch. The various members of the party decided to do various things. I elected to go out with McMillan while he killed a wildebeeste, and I am very glad I did. It was a most astonishing performance.
You must imagine us driving out the gate in a buckboard behind four small but lively white Abyssinian mules. In the front seat were Michael, the Hottentot driver, and McMillan's Somali gunbearer. In the rear seat were McMillan and myself, while a small black syce perched precariously behind. Our rifles rested in a sling before us. So we jogged out on the road to Long Juju, examining with a critical eye the herds of game to right and left of us. The latter examined us, apparently, with an eye as critical. Finally, in a herd of zebra, we espied a lone wildebeeste.
The wildebeeste is the Jekyll and Hyde of the animal kingdom. His usual and familiar habit is that of a heavy, sluggish animal, like our vanished bison. He stands solid and inert, his head down; he plods slowly forward in single file, his horns swinging, each foot planted deliberately. In short, he is the personification of dignity, solid respectability, gravity of demeanour. But then all of a sudden, at any small interruption, he becomes the giddiest of created beings. Up goes his head and tail, he buck jumps, cavorts, gambols, kicks up his heels, bounds stiff-legged, and generally performs like an irresponsible infant. To see a whole herd at once of these grave and reverend seigneurs suddenly blow up into such light-headed capers goes far to destroy one's faith in the stability of institutions.
Also the wildebeeste is not misnamed. He is a conservative, and he sees no particular reason for allowing his curiosity to interfere with his preconceived beliefs. The latter are distrustful. Therefore he and his females and his young-I should say small-depart when one is yet far away. I say small, because I do not believe that any wildebeeste is ever young. They do not resemble calves, but are exact replicas of the big ones, just as Niobe's daughters are in nothing childlike, but merely smaller women.
When we caught sight of this lone wildebeeste among the zebra, I naturally expected that we would pull up the buckboard, descend, and approach to within some sort of long range. Then we would open fire. Barring luck, the wildebeeste would thereupon depart "wilder and beestier than ever," as John McCutcheon has it. Not at all! Michael, the Hottentot, turned the buckboard off the road, headed toward the distant quarry, and charged at full speed! Over stones we went that sent us feet into the air, down and out of shallow gullies that seemed as though they would jerk the pole from the vehicle with a grand rattlety-bang, every one hanging on for his life. I was entirely occupied with the state of my spinal column and the retention of my teeth, but McMillan must have been keeping his eye on the game. One peculiarity of the wildebeeste is that he cannot see behind him, and another is that he is curious. It would not require a very large bump of curiosity, however, to cause any animal to wonder what all the row was about. There could be no doubt that this animal would sooner or later stop for an instant to look for the purpose of seeing what was up in jungleland; and just before doing so he would, for a few steps, slow down from a gallop to a trot. McMillan was watching for this symptom.
"Now!" he yelled, when he saw it.
Instantly Michael threw his weight into the right rein and against the brake. We swerved so violently to the right and stopped so suddenly that I nearly landed on the broad prairies. The manoeuvre fetched us up broadside. The small black syce-and heaven knows how he had managed to hang on-darted to the heads of the leading mules. At the same moment the wildebeeste turned, and stopped; but even before he had swung his head, McMillan had fired. It was extraordinarily good, quick work, the way he picked up the long range from the spurts of dust where the bullets hit. At the third or fourth shots he landed one. Immediately the beast was off again at a tearing run pursued by a rapid fusillade from the remaining shots. Then with a violent jerk and a wild yell we were off again.
This time, since the animal was wounded, he made for rougher country. And everywhere that wildebeeste went we too were sure to go. We hit or shaved boulders that ought to have smashed a wheel, we tore through thick brush regardless. Twice we charged unhesitatingly over apparent precipices. I do not know the name of the manufacturer of the buckboard. If I did, I should certainly recommend it here. Twice more we swerved to our broadside and cut loose the port batteries. Once more McMillan hit. Then, on the fourth "run," we gained perceptibly. The beast was weakening. When he came to a stumbling halt we were not over a hundred yards from him, and McMillan easily brought him down. We had chased him four or five miles, and McMillan had fired nineteen shots, of which two had hit. The rifle practice throughout had been remarkably good, and a treat to watch. Personally, besides the fun of attending the show, I got a mighty good afternoon's exercise.
We loaded the game aboard and jogged slowly back to the house, for the mules were pretty tired. We found a neighbour, Mr. Heatley of Kamiti Ranch who had "dropped down" twelve miles to see us. On account of a theft McMillan now had all the Somalis assembled for interrogation on the side verandas. The interrogation did not amount to much, but while it was going on the Sudanese headman and his askaris were quietly searching the boys' quarters. After a time they appeared. The suspected men had concealed nothing, but the searchers brought with them three of McMillan's shirts which they had found among the effects of another, and entirely unsuspected, boy named Abadie.
"How is this, Abadie?" demanded McMillan sternly.
Abadie hesitated. Then he evidently reflected that there is slight use in having a deity unless one makes use of him.
"Bwana," said he with an engaging air of belief and candour, "God must have put them there!"
That evening we planned a "general day" for the morrow. We took boys and buckboards and saddle-horses, beaters, shotguns, rifles, and revolvers, and we sallied forth for a grand and joyous time. The day from a sporting standpoint was entirely successful, the bag consisting of two waterbuck, a zebra, a big wart-hog, six hares, and six grouse. Personally I was a little hazy and uncertain. By evening the fever had me, and though I stayed at Juja for six days longer, it was as a patient to McMillan's unfailing kindness rather than as a participant in the life of the farm.