Across the Cameroons: A Story of War and Adventure
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Harry explained that he was prepared to take the gravest risks, since the object of his journey was of more than vital importance, and shortly afterwards took his leave, returning to the ship.
They had brought with them all they needed in the way of provisions, clothing, arms and ammunition; and at Old Calabar they purchased a canoe and engaged the services of six stalwart Kru boys. Harry's idea was to travel up-river, crossing the Cameroon frontier west of Bamenda, and thence striking inland towards the mountains in northern German territory, beyond which the Caves of Zoroaster were said to be. They also interviewed an interpreter, a half-caste Spaniard from Fernando Po, who assured them he could speak every native dialect of the Hinterland, from Lagos to the Congo, as well as English and German. This proved to be no exaggeration. Urquhart was assured that the man was indeed a wonderful linguist, and, moreover, that he could be trusted implicitly as a guide-the more so since he hated the Germans, who had destroyed his 'factory' to make room for a house for a Prussian Governor, who had hoped to rule the West Coast native with the iron discipline of Potsdam.
This man-who called himself "Fernando" after the place of his birth-said that he would never venture across the Cameroons to Maziriland unless his brother was engaged to come with him.
He explained that this brother of his was younger and more agile than himself. Before they became traders they had been hunters, in the old days when the West Coast was practically unexplored, and they had worked together hand-in-glove.
Accordingly, it was agreed that both brothers should join the expedition; and when they presented themselves before Harry Urquhart, the young Englishman could hardly refrain from smiling at their personal appearance.
They were plainly half-castes, and, like most such, considered themselves Europeans, though neither had ever set eyes upon the northern continent. Though they were almost as black of skin as a Kru boy, they wore large pith helmets, suits of white ducks and blue puttees, being dressed to a button exactly the same. Both wore brown leather belts from which depended revolver holsters and cartridge pouches. The one was robust, wrinkled, broad of chest, and upright; the other, stooping, tall, and abnormally thin. There was a business-like air about them both that appealed to Harry; and this favourable impression was by no means dispelled when the brothers, in quite tolerable English, raved against the Germans, who, they swore, had bought the Cameroons with rum, in order to manage the country to their own profit without regard to the welfare of the natives. It was owing to the German occupation of the Cameroons that Fernando and his brother-who went by the name of Cortes-had been ruined by the State-aided German factories that had sprung up as if by magic in the early 'nineties. Later, they had been accused of inciting the natives to rebellion, heavily fined, and banished from the country.
This increase in numbers necessitated the purchase of a second canoe.Before leaving Calabar they supplemented their commissariat with a new supply of provisions; and, a few days after, it was a small but well-equipped and dauntless expedition that set forth up-river in the sweltering heat, making straight for the heart of the great West African bush and the very stronghold of the enemy's position.
CHAPTER VIII-Danger Ahead
Three weeks later they camped on the river bank not many miles from the German frontier. The heat was terribly oppressive. Thousands of insects droned about their ears. A thick mist hung upon the river like a poison-cloud. They were in the very depths of the great White Man's Grave.
Four days afterwards Fernando deemed it advisable to leave the river valley, and unloading the canoes-which they hid in a mangrove swamp-they began their journey through the bush.
It would be tedious to describe in detail the long weeks that followed or the hardships they had to undergo. One by one the Kru boys deserted them, to find their own way back to the coast. But both Cortes and Fernando proved loyal to the hilt, and eventually the party came out from the jungle upon the high ground in the central part of the colony.
The country here was savage, inhospitable, and bleak. There was little vegetation save rank mountain grass and withered shrubs in sheltered places. Day by day they advanced with the utmost caution, giving native villages a wide berth and always on the look-out for an ambuscade.
Fernando proved himself to be an excellent cook, whereas his younger brother prided himself upon his skill as a runner. It was his custom on the line of march to jump fallen trees and brooks.
In these higher altitudes there was a plenitude of game, whereas in the bush they had been near to starving, and one morning they were crossing a spur of a great cloud-wrapped mountain when Cortes, who had been walking about fifty yards in advance of Harry and Jim, dropped suddenly upon his face, and motioned the two boys to do the same. They had no idea as to what had happened, and suspected that the guide had sighted a party of the enemy.
Crawling on hands and knees, they drew level with the man.
"Goat," said he, pointing towards the mountain.
And there, sure enough, was a species of mountain goat with his great horns branching from the crown of his shaggy head.
"Come," said the man to Harry; "you shoot."
They could not afford to let the beast escape. The flesh of all the wild goats, though perhaps not so good as that of the wild sheep, is by no means unwelcome when one must journey far from civilization in the wilds of the African hills.
Harry adjusted his sights to six hundred yards, and then, drawing in a deep breath, took long and careful aim. Gently he pressed the trigger, the rifle kicked, there came a sharp report, and the bullet sped upon its way. On the instant the beast was seen galloping at breakneck speed down what seemed an almost perpendicular cliff.
"Missed!" cried Harry.
"No," said Cortes. "He's hit-he's wounded. He will not go far."
For a few minutes the members of the party held a hurried consultation. Finally it was decided that Fernando should go on ahead with the camp kit and cooking-utensils, whilst the younger brother accompanied Harry and Jim in pursuit of the wounded goat. They agreed to meet at nightfall at a place known to the brothers.
It took them nearly an hour to scramble across the valley, to reach the place where the animal had been wounded. There, as the guide had predicted, there were drops of blood upon the stones. All that morning they followed the spoor, and about two o'clock in the afternoon they sighted the wounded beast, lying down in the open.
He was still well out of range, and, unfortunately for them, on the windward side. That meant they would have to make a detour of several miles in order to come within range.
For three hours they climbed round the wind, all the time being careful not to show themselves, for the eyes of the wild goat are like those of the eagle. With its wonderful eyesight, its still more wonderful sense of smell, and its ability to travel at the pace of a galloping horse across rugged cliffs and valleys, it is a prize that is not easily gained. When they last saw the animal it was lying down in the same place. They were then at right angles to the wind, about two miles up the valley.
From this point, on the advice of Cortes, they passed into another valley to the west. Here there was no chance of being seen or winded by the beast; and, since it was now possible to walk in an upright position, they progressed more rapidly.
When they had arrived at the spot which the guide judged was immediately above the wounded animal they climbed stealthily up the hill. On the crest-line they sought cover behind great boulders, which lay scattered about in all directions as if they had been hurled down from the skies. Lying on their faces, side by side, Harry with his field-glasses to his eyes, they scanned the valley where they had left their quarry.
Not a sign of it was to be seen. The thing had disappeared as mysteriously as if it had been spirited away.
"He's gone!" said Harry, with a feeling of bitter disappointment.
He was about to rise to his feet, but the half-caste held him down by force.
"Don't get up;" he cried. "Lie still! There are men in the valley yonder."
"Men! Have you seen them?"
"No, I have not seen them," said Cortes. "But the beast saw them, or got their wind. Otherwise he would not have gone."
"It's von Hardenberg, perhaps!" said Harry, turning to Braid, the wish being father to the thought.
Both looked at their guide.
"It is either the man you want," said the guide, "or else it is the Germans."
The wounded animal was now forgotten. They were face to face with the reality of their situation. They had either overtaken von Hardenberg and Peter Klein or else the Germans had received news of their having reached the frontier.
"We'll have to cross the valley," said Harry, "to get back to camp."
"That is the worst of it," said Cortes; "we must rejoin my brother. He will be awaiting us."
He had learnt his English on the Coast. He spoke the language well, but with the strange, clipped words used by the natives themselves, though the man was half a Spaniard.
"How are we to get there?" asked Jim.
The guide looked at the sun.
"It is too late," said he, "to go by a roundabout way. We must walk straight there. There are many things which cause me to believe that danger is close at hand."
"What else?" asked Harry, who already was conscious that his heart was beating quickly.
"Late last night I saw smoke on the mountains. This morning, before we started, my brother thought he heard a shot, far in the distance. Also," he added, "during the last three days we have seen very little game. Something has scared them away."
"Come," said Harry. "We waste time in words. As it is, we have barely time to get back before nightfall."
As he said this he rose to his feet, and the moment he did so there came the double report of a rifle from far away in the hills, and a bullet cut past him and buried itself in the ground, not fifteen paces from his feet.
"Down," cried the guide, "for your life!"
CHAPTER IX-The Captive
Harry was not slow to obey. He fell flat upon his face, whilst a second bullet whistled over his head.
"Come," said Cortes; "we must escape."
As he uttered these words, he turned upon his heel and ran down the hill, followed by the two boys. The man held himself in a crouching position until he was well over the crest-line. Then he stopped and waited for his companions.
"Who is it?" asked Braid, already out of breath as much from excitement as from running.
"The Germans. They are on our track."
"You are sure of that?" asked Harry.
"Master," said Cortes, "it is not possible to mistake a German bullet. In this part of the world only those natives carry rifles who are paid by Kaiser Wilhelm."
Indeed, for weeks already, they had been in the heart of the enemy's country. The elder guide was some miles away, and, since they could not cross the valley, they would have to make a detour; which meant that they could not possibly rejoin Fernando before nightfall. By then, for all they knew, they might find him lying in his own blood, their provisions and their reserve ammunition stolen.
Harry looked at Cortes, who seemed to be thinking, standing at his full height, his fingers playing with his chin.
"We must not desert your brother," said the boy.
"I am thinking," said the guide, "it will be easier for him to reach us than for you and your friend to go to him. My brother and I are hunters; we can pass through the bush in silence; we can travel amid the rocks like snakes. I could cross that valley crawling on my face, and the eye of an eagle would not see me. As for you, you are Englishmen; you have not lived your lives in the mountains and the bush; you do not understand these things."
He said this with some scorn in his voice. There was something about the man-despite his European clothes-that was fully in keeping with the aspect of their surroundings, which were savage, relentless, and cruel. He went on in a calm voice, speaking very slowly:
"In this valley we are safe," said he. "I know the country well. Yonder," and he pointed to the north, "there is a forest that lies upon the hill-side like a mantle. I will guide you. It will take us about two hours to get there. Then I will leave you. You will be quite safe; for many of the trunks of the trees are hollow, and should the Germans come, you can hide. I will go alone to my brother and bring him back with me."
They set forward without delay, sometimes climbing, sometimes walking, on the mountain-side. About four o'clock in the afternoon they sighted the forest of which the man had spoken. It opened out into a mangrove swamp, thousands of feet below them, where the heat hung like a fog.
Among the trees they found themselves in a kind of twilight. By then the sun was setting; but as the daylight dwindled a great moon arose. Cortes led them to a place, on the verge of a deep ravine, where there was an old tree with a hollow trunk that looked as if it had been struck by lightning.
"You and your friend will remain here," said the man to Harry. "I will be as quick as I can, but in any case I cannot be back until midnight. If I do not return by then, you will know that I am dead; then-if you are wise-you will go back to Calabar. If the Germans come, you will hide." And he pointed to the hollow tree.
Without another word he set forward on his way, gliding down the face of the living rock like some gigantic lizard.
The two boys found themselves in a place romantic but terrible. On every side they were surrounded by the impenetrable hills. The trees of the forest stood forth in the semi-darkness like great, ghostly giants. Somewhere near at hand a mountain stream roared and thundered over the rocks. The breeze brought to their nostrils the smell of the swamp lower down the valley. The hollow tree stood on the edge of the bush. A few yards away was the ravine, the bottom of which was wide and bare and stony.
Throughout the earlier part of the night they possessed their souls in patience. It was stiflingly hot after the cool mountain air.
Harry looked at his watch. It was midnight. There was no sign of the brothers.
Suddenly they heard a stone shifted from its place somewhere in the forest to go rolling down into the ravine. Both stood motionless and expectant.
"I heard something," said Braid.
"So did I," said Harry.
Again a stone was moved, this time nearer than before. Something was approaching through the bush. If this were an enemy they would have small chance of escaping, for the side of the ravine was inaccessible; it was like a precipice.
They waited in suspense, and presently to the great gnarled roots of the very tree by which they were standing, there crawled a dying, wounded mountain goat.
It died almost as it reached them. Indeed, it was almost a miracle that the animal had lived as long as it had, for Harry's bullet had penetrated its chest.
The long night passed in waiting, and still there was no sign of the half-caste brothers. It was then that they fully realized for the first time the extreme danger of their mission, that they were alone in the heart of a country which was almost unexplored, cut off from their friends and civilization, with no chance of succour and little of returning in safety to the coast.
"Jim," said Harry, and his voice was husky, "I wonder if we shall ever get out of this alive."
"I can't say, sir," answered Braid; "but I'm sure of this: if we have to die, we'll make a fight of it, at least."
It was then that a sound came to their ears that caused them to hold their breath. It was a loud word of command in the German language, and which, moreover, came from not far away.
They lay down flat upon their faces. Screened by a clump of long grass, they were able to look down into the ravine, where they beheld a company of German native troops with whom were two or three European officers and several German noncommissioned officers. The men marched well in step, keeping their dressing and acting promptly and smartly at each word of command. Except for their black skins and coarse negro features they might have learned their drill on the parade-grounds of Potsdam and Berlin.
The two boys regarded them in consternation, mingled with amazement-due to the fact that in the centre of the company was a European whose hands were bound behind his back and around whose neck was a kind of halter.
Jim Braid recognized this man at once. It was Peter Klein, the spy.
CHAPTER X-When All was Still
Among the native troops was a man who was not dressed in uniform, who was tattooed from head to foot, and who wore upon his head an abundance of coloured feathers. They learned afterwards that he was a medicine or "fetish" man-and "fetish worship" is the curse of the Dark Continent, from Ashanti to the Zambesi. The medicine-men, who profess to practise witchcraft, are far more powerful than the majority of the native kings. At their bidding innocent people are often put to death, which enables them to use their powers for bribery and corruption.
In the centre of the ravine, immediately below the place where the two boys were hiding, the officer in command called a halt. When the men had fallen out and released their packs from their shoulders, the witch-doctor addressed them in an excited, high-pitched voice. Neither Harry nor Braid could understand a word of what he said, but his grimaces and gesticulations were so expressive that they could have no doubt that he was performing some kind of religious ceremony.
It was evident that the party intended to pitch their camp in the ravine, for several men under the command of one of the non-commissioned officers set about collecting wood with which to make a fire.
The boys knew not what course to take. Their first inclination was to take to their heels, seeking refuge in the forest. Then they remembered that if they did this there would be small chance of their being found by Cortes, who had promised to return to the ravine. As silently as possible they crawled on hands and knees to the hollow tree, and hid themselves in the trunk.
There they remained for hour after hour. From that position they were just able to see into the gorge. The party had split up into three groups: the German officers sat alone; the European noncommissioned officers formed a ring around a smaller fire; whereas the natives were congregated around the fetish-man.
Peter Klein sat like a figure of stone, a sentry with bayonet fixed standing over him. His lips were bloodless, his eyes staring, his face like that of a ghost. From time to time the Germans looked at him and laughed. For all that, they repeatedly offered him food; but he refused to eat, though now his hands had been unbound.
After a while many of the men disposed themselves for sleep, lying down upon the bare rocks about the embers of the fire. The officer in command-a stout major with a bristling moustache-gave orders that the prisoner's hands should again be bound. Whereupon a sergeant propped the prisoner up, with his back to the side of the ravine, making it perfectly plain-even to the boys who could not understand the German language-that, if he endeavoured to escape, they would not hesitate to kill him.
The sentry was not posted for the night on the side of the ravine on which were the two boys, but on the other side, overlooking the valley to the east. It was apparently from this direction that the Germans seemed to fear for their safety.
Harry thought the matter out. If the two brothers were alive, he could not think why they had not returned. It was now past one o'clock, and Cortes had said he would be back certainly before twelve.
The night passed in the bush in solemn tranquillity, save for the droning of myriads of insects from the mangrove swamp and the gurgling sound of the river. Hour by hour the moon mounted in the skies above the hill-tops, which were capped by mist. The two boys were squashed together in the tree-trunk. Braid, it seemed, had gone to sleep in a standing position. He was breathing heavily.
Stealthily Harry left his hiding-place and dropped down upon hands and knees. Cautiously he crept to the edge of the ravine and looked over. To the boy's surprise, he observed that not only the Germans and the native soldiers, but also the sentry, were sound asleep. They lay in huddled attitudes around the dying fires.
With his back against the rock was Peter Klein. As Harry watched him the man moved and heaved a sigh. Presently he groaned.
Harry Urquhart was one who was quick to think. This man, Klein, was a spy, one fit to be despised, and moreover a German, an enemy of his country. And yet, for some reason or other, Klein was a prisoner in the hands of his own countrymen. Von Hardenberg, perhaps, was not so far away. These were questions that could possibly be answered by Peter Klein himself, who might be disposed to speak in gratitude for his deliverance.
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