Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 21

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LOOKING towards the uproar, Old Reliable stole out from the Colonel's room and peeped warily around a corner of the gallery. "Lordee! Dem niggers sho is fightin'." The three Arabs in the garden—Mahomet, Ibrahim and Said—were not actually fighting, merely clutching one another's wrists with much tussling and many ferocious words.

"Huh! Lissen!" Zack cocked up his ear. "Dey mus' be cussin' scan'lous." Seeing no weapons, he moved nearer, step by step, as Mahomet wrested a gold piece from Ibrahim. Said protested with a screech, and Mahomet demanded more. Ibrahim sweated a few drops of silver to the clamorous Said, while Mahomet grabbed his wrist to prevent Said from getting more. Old Reliable had never seen it done exactly that way, yet his kindred instinct laid the transaction bare. "Dar now!" he snorted. "Jes' look at dem niggers, 'vidin' up de Cunnel's money. I'll fix 'em." He moved back stealthily into Colonel Spottiswoode's room, and peered from the window; then he flung open the blinds and shouted, "Whar he? Said! Hommit!" At the scatteration of Arabs, Old Reliable fell back against the window-sill and chuckled with joy. Like a half-plucked rooster Ibrahim tore himself loose, and went flapping through the garden; Mahomet wrangled and jowled with Said until they reached the very door, where these faithful servants answered together, "Here, Effendi."

"What you niggers been doin'? Hump yo'self, Hommit, an' git busy wid dis packin'. Tote Cunnel's stuff to de boat. Come 'long, Said, I got bizness up town." Thrusting a hand into his pocket, Old Zack stirred up the golden coins, letting them drip back with a most pleasing sound. Mahomet glared at the fortunate Said who followed his master—by a rear exit to avoid meeting the Colonel.

Spent money never troubled Zack; it was the unspent kind that gave him the fidgets. Colonel Spottiswoode knew nothing of the twenty sovereigns so innocently gained by Old Reliable at Alexandria. But Zack knew. They had fermented in his pocket and galled his thigh.

Said and Zack passed out of the garden into the openness of a glaring street. Rounding the first corner, they came upon two men busily clip ping a donkey, men in jibbas and scanty turbans intent upon their task. Zack halted and exclaimed, "Huh! Dat sho' mus' be one fine little mule; dem niggers is trimming him up so partick'lar." To one of the donkey men Said whispered fiercely: "Hamuda, thy mind is the mind of a sheep. Why dost thou wait here?"

"The place is good," responded Hamuda undisturbed.

It had been the thrifty Said's desire that his master should first proceed to Achmet, and buy his camel at a high price; but Hamuda waylaid them along the road.

Zack sidled up closer to the donkey and admired the lace-like patterns of his clipping. He even stroked the friendly little beast—"Dat's jes 'zackly de kind o' mule I needs. Is he a good plow mule?"

Hamuda knew three words of English, and spoke them: "Excellency will ride?"

"Reckin I mought jes as well try him; I tries ev'ything I buys, 'specially mules."

Hamuda looked meaningly to Said, who began earning his commission by helping the trade. "Him very fine donkey; very fine donkey. Excellency will ride."

They piled up goatskins on the donkey's back and strapped them down, making a seat most soft. Then all three Arabs hoisted Zack straddle-wise across the beast. Zack pulled the bridle tight, and felt around with both feet for the absent stirrups, then clung with his knees, but could get no grip on the yielding mass of skins. "Hol' up, Side!" he yelled. "Hol' him. I'm a-slippin'."

In a chorus Said and Hamuda strove to make the Excellency comprehend that donkeys must not be ridden with a pressure of knees and a foot in the stirrup, after the fashion of horses.

"No, no, La, La," they insisted, "not so." Effendi must spread his legs much wide. Legs must dangle, so—and balance himself, so—Said stretched out his arms like a soaring vulture, and made the demonstration clear. "Excellency shall guide donkey with stick, not by bridle."

Being nimble-minded with a mule, old Zack caught on to their suggestions: "Sholy, jes bat him over de head on 'tother side fum de way you 'zires him to travel? Lemme try."

Hamuda trotted at the donkey's head, and Said jogged along behind. Zack grinned, and guided with his stick. At a turn too sharp he careened, gripped frantically with his knees and would have fallen but for Hamuda, who restored the proper equilibrium. Then they demonstrated again, until Zack got the hang of it. "Dat's easy; jes like a feller settin' on a tight-rope wid a balancin' pole." Possessing such long legs and heavy feet, there was no sense in Zack's losing his balance. Now he rode alone, laughed aloud, and forged ahead. But it was poor fun in an empty street. Where none admire 'tis fruitless to excel. Beyond the corner Zack saw many people moving amongst the bazaars:

"I'm gwine up dis here street," he called to those behind him. So Old Reliable whacked his donkey on the left ear, aroused a burst of speed, and wheeled to the right—up the middle of the Street of the Bazaars. Said stared aghast at Hamuda, for Achmet would be waiting on that street—Achmet, the desert man of strong arm and savage mood. Nor did Hamuda have mind to seek a crowd until his donkey were well sold. Of which the donkey was not informed, so from the distant rear Said reviled Hamuda's beast, then he stopped, wiped the sweat from his face, and resigned himself to whatever fortune Allah might be pleased to send. But Hamuda was not to be so lightly cheated. He ran doggedly, and by calls, hisses, shouts, and other private blandishments, brought his donkey to a stop. Breathing very hard, Hamuda jerked the bridle and turned him back. After which Hamuda never ceased berating his beast until he dragged both runaways behind the corner again.

"I hates to git off dis here little saddle mule. Gwineter buy him right now. How much do he cost?"

"Ten pounds," Said panted out the price, and Hamuda never blinked at the greatness of it. Together they lifted their prospective purchaser to the ground; both men heard the jingle of money when Zack stamped his feet, and stood critically observing the donkey.

"Him ten pounds," Said repeated.

"Huh! is dat all he weigh? Reckin he mus' be some kin' of a holler donkey. Drif' weighed a heap more'n dat, an' Drif warn't nothin' but a dog."

"Ten pounds; Ingleezi money; price," Said maintained.

"Oh! I 'lowed you was argufyin' 'bout how much did he weigh. Ten pounds o' money? Fer dat donkey? Nigger, does you take me fer a plum fool? Why don't you jes specify a bale o' money an' be done wid it?"

"Ten pounds—it is nothing, Excellency."

"Y'all niggers talks so foolish. What you mean by ten pounds o' money?" Zack drew out a handful of coins, twenty pieces of gold and some trivial silver, while Hamuda grappled Said by the arm and whispered hoarsely, "Fool. Thou shouldst have named twenty pounds. It is little."

The two of them—Said and Hamuda—put their heads close together above the Black Effendi's palm where the money glistened; but every time Hamuda reached forward old Zack clomped his fist.

"I show, I show"—Said spoke so pitifully that Zack opened his gold to the sunlight, and to him. Said licked his dry lips and touched a sovereign with trembling fingers.

"Ten pounds."

"Ten o' dese?" Zack turned them over one by one.

"Yes, yes," answered Said. "Aiwah, aiwah," chorused Hamuda. The lust of gold having deafened their ears, none heard a rapid padding on the sands, nor suspected aught of peril, until a camel fell to his knees, and Achmet thrust his blazing face amongst them. Zack withdrew, and listened to their mutual vilifications. But nothing else happened, so he remarked disgustedly:

"Huh! You niggers talks mighty scrapageous fer de ittle bit o' fightin' what you does." Then he turned away to the camel, an ungainly creature which had always fascinated him. Never, not even in the circus, had he beheld such a vision of luxury and striped tassels. Zack's breath came fast. How those Vicksburg negroes would stare when he went riding past the Hot Cat Eating House!

"Here, Side! Shet up dat jay-bird jabber an' lissen to me. Dat gen'leman wouldn't sell dis here camel, you reckin'?"

Said rejoiced to be summoned from a wrangle which promised no gain. His master had put the gold back into his pocket, and faithful Said must coax it forth again. Hamuda, the donkey-owner, extricated himself from the mêlée, and plucked Zack by the sleeve. Zack shook him off—"G'way from here! Don't you see me studyin' 'bout dis here camel? I ain't got no time to be foolin' wid mules." Thereupon the camel-seller further rebuked the covetous Hamuda with a buffet which caused him to whirl as a spinning-top, and himself took Hamuda's place before the Black Effendi. Zack's bland black face shifted towards Achmet with the childlike inquiry, "Mister, is dem camels hard to ride?"

Said translated rapidly, and for answer Achmet waved his hand to that luxuriant makloofa—a saddle the like of which no Vicksburg negro had ever bestrode.

"Honest, mister? Sho' nuff? Kin I ride? I'd buy dis camel in a minute, ef I could ride him."

The wily Achmet never hinted a promise to sell; he only helped Zack to a seat and crossed the Black Effendi's legs around the little post that stuck up in front of the saddle. There was another peg behind, but Zack didn't know what that was for. With due solemnity, Achmet placed the richly woven halter in Old Reliable's hand.

The camel snarled and reached around with an India rubber neck. His upper lip had a beard; the lower lip hung loose enough to wrap plum around a nigger's leg and bite out a chunk. Zack jerked his legs away.

"Wait, mister, wait! I wants to git down."

But it was too late to get down; Achmet would not hear, and the angels were far away.

"Gawd A'mighty! He's gittin' up."

Said ran in front and bent his body forward, almost double, indicating how Zack should ride.

"Sit so," Said shouted, but Zack got rattled and didn't understand; and he got worse rattled before that camel finished the process of getting up. The camel rose simultaneously, but in disconnected sections, like the folding and unfolding of a jointed rule. His front legs stiffened, which threw Zack violently backward. Then the creature elevated suddenly from his rear and Zack lunged forward until the saddle-peg punched his stomach. With four legs sprawling, the great beast swayed from side to side, while Zack clung to his saddle-peg and dropped the halter.

It might have been the scream of a whistle from the gun-boat that frightened the camel; maybe it was Zack, who clawed and clutched like a kitten on a colt's back. By some mischance the camel escaped from Achmet, whirled, and started up the street. His first get-away was somewhat tentative, but no Achmet held the halter, and that clinging creature upon his back was worse than scared. Then he moved like a camel who knew his business. Luckily for Zack, the camel-yard was only three hundred yards away, instead of three hundred miles across the desert. With his long neck craned ahead, Achmet's beast split the Street of the Bazaars, scattering Arabs who knew better than to get in the way of a bolting camel.

"I wants to git off," Zack yelled. Then he got off. There was nothing deliberate or dignified about the dismounting. Neither man nor beast seemed to have a premonition of it. When a bolting camel stops, he stops, totally and completely—flat as a wet rag hurled upon the floor. All at once, like the collapse of a step-ladder, Achmet's camel stopped. Zack did not. He proceeded—over the camel's head.