Chapter IV. The Stranger

By the time the two men had gained the top of the hill the worst heat of the day had passed. Kingozi seated himself on a flat rock and at once began to take sights through a prismatic compass, entering the observations in a pocketbook. Mali-ya-bwana, bolt upright, stared out over the thinly wooded plain below. He reported the result of his scouting in a low voice, to which the white man paid no attention whatever.

"Twiga[2] bwana," he said, and then, as his eye caught the flash of many sing-sing horns, "kuru, mingi." Thus he named over the different animals--the topi, the red hartebeeste, the eland, zebra, some warthogs, and many others. The beasts were anticipating the cool of the afternoon, and were grazing slowly out from beneath the trees, scattering abroad over the landscape.

[Footnote 2: Giraffe.]

From even this slight elevation the outlook extended. Isolated mountain ranges showed loftier; the tops of unguessed hills peeped above the curve of the earth; the clear line of the horizon had receded to the outer confines of terrestrial space, but even then not far enough to touch the cup of the sky. Elsewhere the heavens meet the horizon: in Africa they lie beyond it, so that when the round, fleecy clouds of the Little Rains sail down the wind there is always a fleet of them beyond the earth disappearing into the immensities of the infinite. There is space in African skies beyond the experience of those who have dwelt only in other lands. They dwarf the earth; and the plains and mountains, lying in weeks' journeys spread before the eye, dwarf all living things, so that at the last the man of imagination here becomes a humble creature.

For an hour the two remained on top the kopje. The details of the unknown country ahead, toward which Kingozi gave his attention, were simple. From the green line of the watercourse, near which the camp showed white and tiny, the veldt swept away for miles almost unbroken. Here and there were tiny parklike openings of clear grass; here and there more kopjes standing isolated and alone, like fortresses. Far down over the edge of the world showed dim and blue the tops of a short range of mountains. Vainly did Kingozi sweep his glasses over the landscape in hope of another line of green. No watercourse was visible. On the other hand, the scattered growth of thorn trees showed no signs of thickening to the dense spiky jungle that is one of the terrors of African travel. There might be a watercourse hidden in the folds of the earth; there might be a rainwater "tank," or a spring, on any of the kopjes. Simba and Cazi Moto were both experienced, and capable of a long round trip. The problem of days' journeys was not pressing at this moment. Kingozi noted the compass bearings of all the kopjes; took back sights in the direction from which he had come; closed his compass; and began idly to sweep the country with his glasses. In an unwonted mood of expansion he turned to Mali-ya-bwana.

"We go there," he told the porter, indicating the blue mountain-tops.

"It is far," Mali-ya-bwana replied.

Kingozi continued to look through his glasses. Suddenly he stopped them on an open plain three or four miles back in the direction from which he had come the day before. Mali-ya-bwana followed his gaze.

"A safari, bwana," he observed, unmoved. "A very large safari," he amended, after a moment.

Through his prismatic glasses Kingozi could see every detail plainly. After his fashion of talking aloud, he reported what he saw, partly to the black man at his side, but mostly to himself.

"Askaris,"[3] he said, "six of them. The man rides in a machele[4]--he is either a German or a Portuguese; only those people use macheles-- unless he is sick! Many porters--four are no more white men. More askaris!" He smiled a little contemptuously under his beard. "This is a great safari, Mali-ya-bwana. Four tin boxes and twelve askaris to guard them; and eighty or more porters; and sixteen men just to carry the machele! This must be a Bwana M' Kubwa."

[Footnote 3: Native troops, armed with Snider muskets.]

[Footnote 4: A hammock slung on a long pole, and carried by four men at each end.]

"That is what Kavirondos might think," replied Mali-ya-bwana calmly.

Kingozi looked up at him with a new curiosity.

"But not yourself?"

"A man who is a Bwana M'kubwa does not have to be carried. He does not need askaris to guard him in this country. And where can he get potio for so many?"

"Hullo!" cried Kingozi, surprised. "This is not porter's talk; this is headman's talk!"

"In my own country I am headman of many people," replied Mali-ya-bwana with a flash of pride.

"Yet you carry my tent load."

But Mali-ya-bwana made no reply, fixing his fierce eyes on the distant crawling safari.

"It must be a sportsman's safari," said Kingozi, this time to himself, "though what a sportsman wants in this back-of-beyond is a fair conundrum. Probably one of these chappies with more money than sense: wants to go somewhere nobody else has been, and can't go there without his caviare and his changes of clothes, and about eight guns--not to speak of a Complete Sportsman's Outfit as advertised exclusively by some Cockney Tom Fool on Haymarket."

He contemplated a problem frowningly. "Whoever it is will be a nuisance--a damn nuisance!" he concluded.

"N'dio, bwana," came Mali-ya-bwana's cheerful response to this speech in a language strange to him.

"You have asked a true question," Kingozi shifted to Swahili. "Where is potio to be had for so large a safari? Trouble--much trouble!" He arose from the flat stone. "We will go and talk with this safari."

At an angle calculated to intercept the caravan, Kingozi set off down the hill.

After twenty minutes' brisk walk it became evident that they were approaching the route of march. Animals fled past them in increasing numbers, some headlong, others at a dignified and leisurely gait, as though performing a duty. The confused noise of many people became audible and the tapping of safari sticks against the loads.

At the edge of a tiny opening Kingozi, concealed behind a bush, reviewed the new arrivals at close range, estimating each element on which a judgment could be based. As usual, he thought aloud, muttering his speculations sometimes in his own language, sometimes in the equally familiar Swahili.

"Askaris not pukha[5] askaris of the government. Those are not Sniders they carry--don't know that kind of musket. Those boxes are not the usual type--wonder where they were bought!"

[Footnote 5: Genuine--regular.]

The hammock came into view, swinging on the long pole. It was borne by four men at each end--experienced machele carriers who would keep step with a gentle gliding. Eight more walked alongside as relay. They would change places so skilfully that the occupant of the hammock could not have told when the shift took place. Alongside walked a tall, bareheaded, very black man. Kingozi's experienced eye was caught by differences.

"Of what tribe is that man?" he asked.

But Mali-ya-bwana was also puzzled.

"I do not know, bwana. He is a shenzi[6]."

[Footnote 6: Wild Man.]

The unknown was very tall, very straight, most well formed. But his face was extraordinarily ugly. His flat, wide nose, thick lips, and small yellow eyes were set off by an upstanding mop of hair. His expression was of extraordinary fierceness. He walked with a free and independent stride, and carried a rifle.

"He is not of this country. He is from the west coast, or perhaps Nubia or the Sudan," was Kingozi's conclusion.

"Many of these people are shenzis," Mali-ya-bwana pursued his own thought.

"That is true," Kingozi acknowledged. "If this is a sportsman, from what part did he hail to have got together this lot! We will see."

As the swinging hammock came opposite his concealment, Kingozi stepped forward.

Every one in sight looked in his direction, but none showed any astonishment at this apparition out of the wilderness. The sophisticated African has ceased to be surprised at anything a white man may do. If he can make fire by rubbing a tiny stick once, why should he not do anything under heaven he wants to? A locomotive, an automobile, a flying machine are miracles, but no less--and no greater--than ordinary matches. Once admit the ability to transcend natural laws, once admit the possibility of miracles, why be surprised at anything? If a white man chose to appear thus in an unknown country, why not? If he chose again to vanish into thin air, again why not? Only the fierce-looking savage carrying the rifle rolled his eyes uneasily.

But at this precise moment a diversion on the opposite side of the line attracted attention enough. A galvanic shiver ran down the string of porters, succeeded at once by a crashing of loads cast hastily to the ground. With unanimity the bearers swarmed across the little open space toward and to either side of Kingozi and his attendant. Reaching the fringe of flat-topped trees they sprang into the low branches, heedless of the long thorns, and scrambled aloft until at least partially concealed. A few of the bolder members lurked behind the trunks, but held themselves ready for an instant ascent. From a hundred throats arose a confused cry of "Faru! Faru!"

Not joining this first flight remained only the askaris, the eight men bearing the hammock, and the tall Nubian. Of these the askaris were far ahead and to the rear; the hammock bearers were decidedly panicky; only the Nubian seemed cool and self-possessed. The occupant of the hammock thrust out a foot to descend.

But before this could be accomplished a rhinoceros burst fully into view across the open space. His tail was up, he was snorting loudly, and he headed straight for the hammock. That was large, moving, and directly in his line of vision. The sight was too much for the bearers. With a howl they dropped the pole and streaked it to join their brothers in the thorn trees. The pole and the canopy of the hammock tangled inextricably its occupant.

A ragged volley from the muskets of the askaris merely seemed to add to the confusion. With great coolness the Nubian discharged first one barrel then the other of the heavy rifle he carried. The recoil, catching him in a bad posture, knocked him backward. The bullets kicked up a tremendous dust part way between himself and the charging beast. He was now without defence. Nevertheless he stepped in front of the entangled struggling figure on the ground.

Before the appearance of the rhinoceros into the open Kingozi had exchanged rifles, and stood at the ready. He was a good hundred yards from the hammock. Even in the rush of events he, characteristically, found time for comments, although they did not in the least interfere with his rapid movements.

"Hope they don't wing one another," he remarked of the askaris' volley. "Rotten shooting! rotten!" as the Nubian stood his ground. At the same time he pushed forward the safety catch and threw the heavy rifle to his shoulder.

A charging rhinoceros--or one rushing near enough a man's direction to be dangerous--is not a difficult problem. Given nerve enough, and barring accidents--which might happen in a London flat--a man is in no danger. If he opens fire too soon, indeed, he is likely to empty his weapon without inflicting a stopping wound, but if he will wait until the beast is within twenty yards or so, the affair is certain. For this reason: just before a rhinoceros closes, he drops his head low in order to bring his long horn into action. If the hunter fires then, over the horn, he will strike the beast's backbone. The shot can hardly be missed, for the range is very close and the outstanding flanges of the vertebrae make a large mark. The formidable animal goes down like a stone. In country open enough to preclude the deadly close-at-hand surprise rush, where one has no chance to use his weapon at all, the rhinoceros is not dangerous to one who knows his business.

But in this case Kingozi was nearer a hundred and twenty than twenty yards from the animal. The mark to be hit was now very small; and it was moving. In addition the heavy double rifle, while accurate enough at that range, was not, owing to its weight and terrific recoil, as certain as a lighter rifle. These things Kingozi knew perfectly. The muscles under his beard tightened; his gray eyes widened into a glare like that of Simba in sight of game.

Just before the rhinoceros dropped his head for the toss, the Nubian stepped directly into the line of fire.

"Lala!--lie down!" Kingozi shouted.

Somehow the whip-snap of authority in his voice reached the Nubian's consciousness. He dropped flat, and almost instantly the white man fired.

At the roar of the great gun the rhinoceros collapsed in mid career, going down, as an animal always does under a successful spine shot, completely, without a struggle or even a quiver.

"That was well shot, master," said Mali-ya-bwana.

Kingozi reloaded the rifle and started forward. At the same time the occupant of the hammock finally emerged from the tangle and came erect.