The Leopard Woman by Stewart Edward White
Chapter II. The Camp
The game trails converged at a point where the steep, eroded bank had been broken down into an approach to a pool. The dust was deep here, and arose in a cloud as a little band of zebra scrambled away. The borders of this pool were a fascinating palimpsest: the tracks of many sorts of beast had been impressed there in the mud. Both Kingozi and Simba examined them with an approach to interest, though to an observer the examination would have seemed but the most casual of glances. They saw the indications of zebra, wildebeeste, hartebeeste, gazelles of various sorts, the deep, round, well-like prints of the rhinoceros, and all the other usual inhabitants of the veldt. But over these their eyes passed lightly. Only three things could here interest these seasoned African travellers. Simba espied one of them, and pointed it out, just at the edge of the narrow border of softer mud.
"There is the lion," said he. "A big one. He was here this morning. But no buffalo, bwana; and no elephant."
The water in the pool was muddy and foul. Thousands of animals drank from it daily; and after drinking had stood or wallowed in it. The flavour would be rich of the barnyard, which even a strong infusion of tea could not disguise. Kingozi had often been forced to worse; but here he hoped for better.
The safari had dumped down the loads at the top of the bank, and were resting in utter relaxation. The march was over, and they waited.
Bwana Kingozi threw off the carefully calculated listless slouch that had conserved his strength for an unknown goal. His work was not yet done.
"Simba," he directed, "go that way, down the river and look for another pool--of good water. Take the big rifle."
[Footnote 1: Every watercourse with any water at all, even in occasional pools, is m'to--a river--in Africa.]
"And I to go in the other direction?" asked Cazi Moto.
Bwana Kingozi considered, glancing at the setting sun, and again up the dry stream-bed where, as far as the eye could reach, were no more indications of water.
"No," he decided. "It is late. Soon the lions will be hunting. I will go."
The men sprawled in abandon. After an interval a shrill whistle sounded from the direction in which Bwana Kingozi had disappeared. The men stretched and began to rise to their feet slowly. The short rest had stiffened them and brought home the weariness to their bones. They grumbled and muttered, and only the omnipresence of Cazi Moto and the threat of his restless whip roused them to activity. Down the stream they limped sullenly.
Kingozi stood waiting near the edge of the bank. The thicket here was very dense.
"Water there," he briefly indicated. "The big tent here; the opening in that direction. Cook fire over there. Loads here."
The men who had been standing, the burdens still on their heads, moved forward. The tent porter--who, by the way, was the strongest and most reliable of the men, so that always, even on a straggling march, the tent would arrive first--threw it down at the place selected and at once began to undo the cords. The bearers of the kitchen, who were also reliable travellers, set about the cook camp.
A big Monumwezi unstrapped a canvas chair, unfolded it, and placed it near his master. The other loads were arranged here, in a certain long-ordained order; the meat piled there. Several men then went to the assistance of Mali-ya-bwana, the tent bearer; and the others methodically took up various tasks. Some began with their pangas to hew a way to the water through the dense thicket that had kept it sweet; others sought firewood; still others began to pitch the tiny drill tents--each to accommodate six men--in a wide circle of which the pile of loads was the centre. As the men fell into the ordered and habitual routine their sullenness and weariness vanished.
Kingozi dropped into the canvas chair, fumbled for a pipe, filled and lighted it. With a sigh of relief he laid aside his cork helmet. The day had not only been a hard one, but an anxious one, for this country was new to every member of the little expedition, native guides had been impossible to procure, and the chances of water had been those of an arid region.
The removal of the helmet for the first tune revealed the man's features. A fine brow, upstanding thick and wavy hair, and the clearest of gray eyes suddenly took twenty years from the age at first made probable by the heavy beard. With the helmet pulled low this was late middle age; now bareheaded it was only bearded youth. Nevertheless at the corners of the eyes were certain wrinkles, and in the eyes themselves a direct competent steadiness that was something apart from the usual acquisition of youth, something the result of experience not given to most.
He smoked quietly, his eye wandering from one point to another of the new- born camp's activities. One after another the men came to report the completion of their tasks.
"Pita ya maji tayiari," said Sanguiki coming from the new-made water trail.
"I zuru," approved Kingozi.
"Hema tayiari," reported Simba, reaching his hand for the light rifle.
Kingozi glanced toward the tent and nodded. A licking little fire flickered in the cook camp. The tiny porter's tents had completed their circle, and in front of each new smoke was beginning to rise. Cazi Moto glided up and handed him the kiboko, the rhinoceros-hide whip, the symbol of authority. Everything was in order.
The white man rose a little stiffly and walked over to the pile of meat. For a moment he examined it contemplatively, aroused himself with an apparent effort, and began to separate it into four piles. He did not handle the meat himself, but silently indicated each portion with his kiboko, and Simba or Cazi Moto swiftly laid it aside.
"This for the gun-bearer camp," commanded Kingozi, touching with his foot the heavy "backstraps" and the liver--the next choicest bits after tenderloin. He raised his voice.
"Kavirondo!" he called.
Several tall, well-formed black savages of this tribe arose from one of the little fires and approached. The white man indicated one of the piles of meat.
"Wakamba!" he summoned; then "Monumwezi"; and finally "Baganda!"
Thus the four tribes represented in his caravan were supplied. The men returned to their fires, and began the preparation of their evening meal.
Kingozi turned to his own tent with a sigh of relief. Within it a cot had been erected, blankets spread. An officer's tin box stood open at one end. On the floor was a portable canvas bath. While the white man was divesting himself of his accoutrements, Cazi Moto entered bearing a galvanized pail full of hot water which he poured into the tub. He disappeared only to return with a pail of cold water to temper the first.
"Bath is ready, bwana," said he, and retired, carefully tying the tent flaps behind him.
Fifteen minutes later Kingozi emerged. He wore now a suit of pajamas tucked into canvas "mosquito boots," with very thin soles. He looked scrubbed and clean, the sheen of water still glistening on his thick wavy hair.
The canvas camp chair had been placed before two chop boxes piled one atop the other to form a crude table on which were laid eating utensils. As soon as Cazi Moto saw that his master was ready, he brought the meal. It consisted simply of a platter of curry composed of rice and the fresh meat that had been so recently killed that it had not time to get tough. This was supplemented by bread and tea in a tall enamelware vessel known as a balauri. From the simplicity of this meal one experienced would have deduced--even had he not done so from a dozen other equally significant nothings--that this was no sporting excursion, but an expedition grimly in earnest about something.
The sun had set, and almost immediately the darkness descended, as though the light had been turned off at a switch. The earth shrunk to a pool of blackness, and the heavens expanded to a glory of tropical stars. All visible nature contracted to the light thrown by the flickering fires before the tiny white tents. The tatterdemalion crew had, after the curious habit of Africans, cast aside its garments, and sat forth in a bronze and savage nakedness. All day long under the blistering sun your safari man will wear all that he hath, even unto the heavy overcoat discarded by the latest arrival from England's winter; but when the chill of evening descends, then he strips happily. The men were fed now, and were content. A busy chatter, the crooning of songs, laughter, an occasional shout testified to this. A general relaxation took the camp.
The white man finished his meal and lighted his pipe. Even yet his day's work was not quite done, and he was unwilling to yield himself to rest until all tasks were cleared away.
"Cazi Moto!" he called.
Instantly, it seemed, the headman stood at his elbow.
"To-morrow," said Kingozi deliberately, and paused in decision so long that Cazi Moto ventured a "Yes, bwana."
"To-morrow we rest here. It will be your cazi (duty) to find news of the next water, or to find the water. See if there are people in this country. Take one man with you. Let the men rest and eat."
"Are there sick?"
"Let them come."
Cazi Moto raised his voice.
"N'gonjwa!" he summoned them.
Kingozi looked at them in silence for a moment.
"What is the matter with you?" he asked of the first, a hulking, stupid- looking Kavirondo with the muscles of a Hercules.
The man replied, addressing Cazi Moto, as is etiquette; and although Kingozi understood perfectly, he awaited his headman's repetition of the speech as though the Kavirondo had spoken a strange language.
"Fever, eh?" commented Kingozi aloud to himself, for the first time speaking his own tongue. "We'll soon see. Cazi Moto," he instructed in Swahili, "the medicine."
He thrust a clinical thermometer beneath the Kavirondo's tongue, glancing at a wrist watch as he did so.
"Cazi Moto," he said calmly after three minutes, "this man is a liar. He is not sick; he merely wants to get out of carrying a load."
The Kavirondo, his eyes rolling, shot forth a torrent of language.
"He says," Cazi Moto summarized all this, "that he was very sick, but that this medicine"--indicating the thermometer--"cured him."
"He lies again," said Kingozi. "This is not medicine, but magic that tells me when a man has uttered lies. This man must beware or he will get kiboko."
The Kavirondo scuttled away, and Kingozi gave his attention to the second patient. This man had an infected leg that required some minor surgery. When the job was over and Kingozi had washed his hands, he relighted his pipe and sat back in his chair with a sigh of content. The immediate foreground sank below his consciousness. He stared across the flickering fires at the velvet blackness; listened across the intimate, idle noise of the camp to the voice of the veldt.
For with the fall of darkness and the larger silence of darkness, the veldt awoke. Animals that had dozed through the hot hours and grazed through the cooler hours in somnolent content now quivered alert. There were runnings here and there, the stamp of hoofs, sharp snortings as taut nerves stretched. Zebras uttered the absurd small-dog barks peculiar to them; ostriches boomed; jackals yapped; unknown birds uttered hasty wild calls. Numerous hyenas, near and far away, moaned like lost souls. Kingozi listened as to the voice of an old acquaintance telling familiar things; the men chattered on, their whole attention within the globe of light from their fires.
But suddenly the noise stopped as though it had been cut by a knife. Total silence fell on the little encampment. The men, their various actions suspended, listened intently. From far away, apparently, a low, vibrating rumble stole out of the night's immensity. It rose and seemed to draw near, growing hollow and great, until the very ground seemed to tremble as though a heavy train were passing, or the lower notes of a great organ had been played in a little church. And then it died down, and receded to the great distance again, and was ended by three low, grunting coughs.
The veldt was silent. The zebra barkings were still; the night birds had hushed; the hyenas and jackals and all the other night creatures down--it almost seemed--to the very insects had ceased their calls and cries and chirpings. One might imagine every living creature rigid, alert, listening, as were these men about the little fires.
The tension relaxed. The men dropped more fuel on the fires, coaxing the flame brighter. A whispering comment rose from group to group.
"Simba! simba! simba!" they hissed one to the other.
A lion had roared!