The Leopard Woman by Stewart Edward White
Chapter VIII. The Thirst
The little safari made the distance to Simba's guarded water in a trifle over the four hours. Camp was made high up on the kopje whence the eye could carry to immense distances. The wall of mountains was now nearer. Through his glasses Kingozi could distinguish rounded foothills. He tried to make out whether certain dark patches were groves or patches of bush-- they might have been either--but was unable to determine. Relative sizes did not exist. The mountains might be five thousand feet tall or only a fifth of that. And by exactly that proportion they might be a day's or a five days' journey distant!
Carefully Kingozi examined the length of the range. At length his attention was arrested. A thread of smoke, barely distinguishable against the gray of distance, rose within the shadow of the hills.
"Simba!" Kingozi summoned. Then, on the gun bearer's approach: "Look through the glasses and tell me whether that smoke is a house or a fire in the grass."
Simba accepted the glasses, but first took a good look with the naked eye. He caught the location of the smoke almost at once. Then for a full two minutes he stared through the lenses.
"It is a house, bwana," he decided.
As though the words had been a magic spell the mountains seemed in Kingozi's imagination to diminish in size and to move forward. They had assured a definite proportion, a definite position. Their distance could be estimated.
"And how far?" he asked.
"Very far, bwana," replied Simba gravely, "eleven hours; twelve hours."
Kingozi reflected. The safari of the Leopard Woman had passed the kopje not over a mile away; indeed Kingozi had left her trail only a short distance back. On the supposition that she was well informed, it seemed unlikely that she could expect to make the whole distance from the last camp to the mountains in one march. Therefore there must be another water between. In that case, if Kingozi followed her tracks, he would arrive at that water. On the other supposition--that she was striking recklessly into the unknown--well, all the more reason for following her tracks!
They commenced their journey before daylight the following morning. Each man was instructed to fill his water bottle; and the instructions were rigidly enforced. In the darkness they stumbled down the gentle slopes of the kopjes, each steering by the man ahead, and Kingozi steering by the stars. The veldt was still, as though all the silences, driven from those portions inhabited by the beasts, had here made their refuge. The earth lay like a black pool becalmed. Overhead the stars blazed clearly, slowly faded, and gave way to the dawn. The men spoke rarely, and then in low voices.
Kingozi led the way steadily, without hurrying, but without loitering. Daylight came: the sun blazed. The country remained the same in character. Behind them the kopje dwindled in importance until it took its place with insignificant landmarks. The mountains ahead seemed no nearer.
At the end of three hours, by the watch Kingozi carried on his wrist, he called the first halt. The men laid down their loads, and sprawled about in abandon. Kingozi produced a pipe.
The rest lasted a full half hour. Then two hours more of marching, and another rest. By now a normal day's march would be about over. But this was different. Kingozi rigidly adhered to the plan for all forced marches of this kind: three hours, a half-hour's rest; then two hours, a half- hour's rest; and after that march and rest as the men can stand it, according to their strength and condition.
This latter is the cruel period. At first the ranks hold together. Then, in spite of the efforts of the headman to bring up the rear, the weaker begin to fall back. They must rest oftener, they go on with ever- increasing difficulty. The strong men ahead become impatient and push on. The safari is no longer a coherent organization, but an aggregate of units, each with his own problem of weariness, of thirst, finally of suffering. More and more stretches the distance between the bwana and his headman.
No native of the porter intelligence has the slightest forethought for the morrow, and very little for the day. If it is hot and he has started early, his water bottle is empty by noon.
This wise program Kingozi entered upon carefully. The three hours' march went well; the two hours followed with every one strong and cheerful; then two hours more without trouble. Kingozi's men were picked, and hard as nails. By now it was one o'clock; coming the hottest part of the day. The power of the vertical sun attained its maximum. Kingozi felt as though a heavy hand had been laid upon his head and was pressing him down. The mirage danced and changed, its illusions succeeding one another momently as the successive veils of heat waves shimmered upward. Reflected heat scorched his face. His spirit retired far into its fastness, taking with it all his energies. From that withdrawn inner remoteness he doled out the necessary vitality parsimoniously, drop by drop. Deliberately he withdrew his attention from the unessentials. Not a glance did he vouchsafe to the prospect far or near; not a thought did he permit himself of speculation or of wandering interest. His sole job now was to plod on at an even gait, to keep track of time, to follow the spoor of the Leopard Woman's safari, to save himself for later. If he had spared any thought at all, it would have been self-congratulation that Simba and Cazi Moto were old and tried. For Simba relieved him of the necessity of watching for dangerous beasts, and Cazi Moto of the responsibility of keeping account of the men.
At the rest periods Kingozi sat down on the ground. Then in the relaxation his intelligence emerged. He took stock of the situation.
Mali-ya-bwana and nine others were always directly at his heels. They dropped their loads and grinned cheerfully at their bwana, their bronze faces gleaming as though polished. If only they were all like this! Then perhaps five minutes later a smaller group came in, strongly enough. The first squad shouted ridiculing little jokes at them; and they shrieked back spirited repartee, whacking their loads vigorously with their safari sticks. These, too, would cause no anxiety. But then Kingozi sat up and began to take notice. The men drifted in by twos and threes. Kingozi scrutinized them closely, trying to determine the state of their strength and the state of their spirit. And after twenty minutes, or even the full half hour allotted to the rest period, Cazi Moto came in driving before him seven men.
The wizened little headman was as cheerful and lively and vigorous as ever. He, too, grinned, but his eyes held a faint anxiety, and he had shifted his closed umbrella to his left hand and held the kiboko in his right. At the fifth rest period five of the seven men stumbled wearily in; but Cazi Moto and the other two did not appear before Kingozi ordered a resumption of the march.
But the mountains had moved near. When this had happened Kingozi could not have told. It was between two rest periods. From an immense discouraging distance, they towered imminent. It seemed that a half-hour's easy walk should take them to the foothills. Yet not a man there but knew that this nearness was exactly as deceitful as the distance had been before.
The afternoon wore on. Kingozi's canteen was all but empty, though he had drunk sparingly, a swallow at a time. His tongue was slightly swollen. The sun had him to a certain extent; so that, although he could rouse himself at will, nevertheless, he moved mechanically in a sort of daze.
He heard Simba's voice; and brought himself into focus.
The gun bearer was staring at something on the ground. Kingozi followed the direction of his gaze. Before him lay a dead man.
It was one of the common porters--a tall, too slender savage, with armlets of polished iron, long, ropy hair--a typical shenzi. His load was missing: evidently one of the askaris had taken it up.
Kingozi's safari filed by, each man gazing in turn without expression at the huddled heap. Only Maulo, the camp jester, hurled a facetious comment at the corpse. Thereupon all the rest laughed after the strange, heartless custom of the African native. Or is it heartless? We do not know.
The day's march had passed through the phase of coordinated action. It was now the duty of each man to get in if he could. It was Kingozi's duty to arrive first, and to arrange succour for Cazi Moto and those whom he drove.
Twenty minutes beyond the dead man they came upon three porters sitting by the wayside. They were men in the last extremity of thirst and exhaustion, their eyes wide and vacant, their tongues so swollen that their teeth were held apart. Nothing was to be done here, so Kingozi marched by.
Then he came upon a half-dozen bags of potio. They were thrown down pellmell, anyhow; so that Kingozi concluded they had been surreptitiously thrown away, and not temporarily abandoned with intent to return for them.
After that the trail resembled the traces of a rout. Every few yards now were the evidences of desperation: loads of potio, garments, water bottles emptied and cast aside in a gust of passion at their emptiness. At intervals also they passed more men, gaunt, incredibly cadaverous, considering that only the day before they had been strong and well. They sat or lay inert, watching the safari pass, their eyes apathetic. Kingozi paid no attention to them, nor to the loads of potio, nor to the garments and accoutrements; but he caused Simba to gather the water bottles. After a time Simba was hung about on all sides, and resembled at a short distance some queer conical monster.
Then they topped the bank of a wide shallow dry streambed and saw the remnants of other safari below them.
The Leopard Woman sat on a tent load. Even at this distance her erect figure expressed determination and defiance. The Nubian squatted beside her. Men lay scattered all about in attitudes of abandon and exhaustion; yet every face was turned in her direction.
Kingozi descended the bank and approached, his experienced eye registering every significant detail.
She turned to him a face lowering like a thundercloud, her eyes flashing the lightnings, her lips scarlet and bitten. Kingozi noted the bloodied kiboko.
"They won't go on!" she cried at him harshly. "I can't make them! It is death for them here, but all they will do is to sit down! It is maddening! If they must die----"
She leaped to her feet and drew an automatic pistol.
"Bandika!" she cried. "Take your loads! Quickly!"
She threatened the man nearest her. He merely stared, his expression dull with the infinite remoteness of savage people. Without further parley she fired. Although the distance was short, she missed, the bullet throwing up a spurt of sand beneath the man's armpit. He did not stir, nor did his face change.
Kingozi's bent form had straightened. An authority, heretofore latent, flashed from his whole personality.
"Stop!" he commanded.
She turned toward him a look of convulsed rage. Then suddenly her resistance to circumstances broke. She hurled the automatic pistol at the porter, and flopped down on the tent load, hiding her face in her hands.
Kingozi paid her no further attention.
"Simba!" he called.
"Take one man. Collect all water bottles. Take a lantern. Go as rapidly as you can to find water. Fill all the bottles and bring them back. There are people in the hills. There will be people near the water. Get them to help you carry back the water bottles."
Simba selected Mali-ya-bwana to accompany him, but this did not meet Kingozi's ideas.
"I want that man," said he.
Simba and one of the other leading porters started away. Kingozi gave his attention to the members of the other safari.
They sat and sprawled in all attitudes. But one thing was common to all: a dead sullenness.
"Why do you not obey the memsahib?" Kingozi asked in a reasonable tone.
No one answered for some time. Finally the man who had been shot at replied.
"There is no water. We are very tired. We cannot go on without water."
"How can you get water if you do not go on?"
"Hapana shauri yangu," replied the man indifferently, uttering the fatalistic phrase that rises to the lips of the savage African almost automatically, unless his personal loyalty has been won--"that is not my affair." He brooded on the ground for a space then looked up. "It is the business of porters to carry loads; it is the business of the white man to take care of the porters." And in that he voiced the philosophy of this human relation. The porters had done their job: not one inch beyond it would they go. The white woman had brought them here: it was now her shauri to get them out.
"You see!" cried the Leopard Woman bitterly. "What can you do with such idiots!"
Kingozi directed toward her his slow smile.
"Yes, I see. Do you remember I asked you once when you were boasting your efficiency, whether you had ever tried your men? Your work was done smartly and well--better than my work was done. But my men will help me in a fix, and yours will not."
"You are quite a preacher," she rejoined. "And you are exasperating. Why don't you do something?"
"I am going to," replied Kingozi calmly.
He called Mali-ya-bwana to him.
"Talk to these shenzis," said he.
Mali-ya-bwana talked. His speech was not eloquent, nor did it flatter the Leopard Woman, but it was to the point.
"My bwana is a great lord," said he. "He is master of all things. He fights the lion, he fights the elephant. Nothing causes him to be afraid. He is not foolish, like a woman. He knows the water, the sun, the wind. When he speaks it is wisdom. Those who do what he says follow wisdom. Bassi!"
Immediately this admonition was finished Kingozi issued his first command:
"Bring all loads to this place."
Nobody stirred at first.
"My loads, the loads of Bibi-ya-chui--all to this place."
Mali-ya-bwana and the other fourteen of Kingozi's safari who were now present brought their loads up and began to pile them under Kingozi's direction.
"Quickly!" called Kingozi in brisk, cheerful tones. "The water is not far, but the day is nearly gone. We must march quickly, even without loads."
The import of the command began to reach the other porters. This white man did not intend to camp here then--where there was no water! He did not mean to make them march with loads! He knew! He was a great lord, and wise, as Mali-ya-bwana had said! One or two arose wearily and stiffly, and dragged their loads to the pile. Others followed. Kingozi's men helped the weakest. Kingozi himself worked hard, arranging the loads, covering them with tarpaulins, weighting the edges.
His intention reached also the Leopard Woman. She watched proceedings without comment for some time. Then she saw something that raised her objection.
"I shall want that box," she announced. "Leave that one out. And that is my tent being brought up now."
Apparently Kingozi did not hear her. He bestowed the box in a space left for it, and piled the two tent loads atop. The Leopard Woman arose and glided to his side.
"That box----" she began.
"I heard you," replied Kingozi politely, "but it will really be impossible to carry anything at all."
"That box is indispensable to me," she insisted haughtily.
"You have no men strong enough to carry a load: and mine will need all the strength they have left before they get in."
He went on arranging the loads under the tarpaulins.
"Those loads are my tent," she said, as Kingozi turned away.
"We cannot take them."
Her eyes flashed. She whirled with the evident intention of issuing her commands direct. Kingozi's weary, slow indifference fell from him. In one bound he faced her, his chin thrust forward. His blue eyes had focussed into a cold, level stare.
"Don't dare interfere!" he ordered. "If you attempt it, I shall order you restrained--physically. Understand? I do not know how far you intend to travel--or where; but if you value your future authority and prestige with your own men, do not make yourself a spectacle before them."
"You would not dare!" she panted.
The tenseness relaxed. Kingozi became again the slow-moving, slouching, indifferent figure of his everyday habit.
"Oh, I can dare almost anything--when I have to. You do not seem to understand. You have come a cropper--a bad one. Left to yourselves you are all going to die here. If I am to help you to your feet, I must do it without interference. I think we shall get through: but I am not at all certain. Go and sit down and save your strength."
"I hate you!" she flashed. "I'd rather die here than accept your help! I command you to leave me!"
"Bless you!" said Kingozi, as though this were a new thought. "I wasn't thinking especially of you; I am sorry for your boys."
Mali-ya-bwana, under his directions, had undone the loads containing the lanterns. Everything seemed now ready for the start. All of Kingozi's safari had arrived except Cazi Moto and five men.
"Have you any water left?" Kingozi asked the Leopard Woman.
She stared straight ahead of her, refusing to answer. Unperturbed, Kingozi turned to the Nubian.
"Which is memsahib's canteen?"
The Nubian silently indicated two of the three hung on his person. Kingozi shook them, and found them empty. His own contained still about a pint, and this he poured into one of hers. She appeared not to notice the act.
The march was resumed. Mali-ya-bwana was instructed to lead the way following the scraped places on the earth, the twigs bent over, and the broken branches by which Simba had marked his route for them. Kingozi himself brought up the rear. Reluctantly, apathetically, the Leopard Woman's men got to their feet. Kingozi was everywhere, urging, encouraging, shaming, joking, threatening, occasionally using the kiboko he had taken from one of the askaris. At last all were under way. The Leopard Woman sat still on the load, the Nubian crouched at her back. The long, straggling, staggering file of men crawled up the dry bank and disappeared one by one over the top. Each figure for a moment was silhouetted against the sky, for the sun was low. Kingozi toiled up the steep, his head bent forward. In his turn he, too, stood black and massive on the brink, the outline of his powerful stooped shoulders gold-rimmed in light. She watched him feverishly, awaiting from him some sign that he realized her existence, that he cared whether or not she was left behind. He did not look back. In a moment he had disappeared. The prospect was empty of human life.
She arose. For an instant her face was convulsed with a fairly demoniac fury. Then a mask of blankness obliterated all expression. She followed.