Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII

THREE-FINGERED CHOLERA

COLONEL Spottiswoode had composed himself in a steamer chair for another blissful day of gazing upon the sea. Zack invented all sorts of diverting novelties in conversation, but the Colonel wouldn't nibble. Then the negro straggled off and went foraging for companionship amongst the third-class passengers. On the forward deck he lingered beside a low platform carpeted with canvas and sheltered by an awning; four or five bumpy-legged men sprawled beneath this canopy. Maybe they belonged to a side show; anyhow they talked a-plenty,—some kind o' bird-store chatter. Zack couldn't argufy with them so he moved aft. On the open deck amidships he found other men, in accordian-pleated skirts, and wrapped-up women with curtains drawn across their faces—playing with crazy-looking cards—which didn't satisfy Zack.

It was then that a voice from heaven came unto him, saying, "Hello, old man! Where'd you come from?"

Old Reliable halted and grinned a noble grin: "I comes from Vicksburg, Missippi, suh."

Guinea Ryan, the freckle-faced nondescript, lay sprawling in the shade. He wore clothes, but of no describable kind. "What's your name?" he asked.

"Zack Foster, suh! But ev'ybody, white an' black, calls me 'Ole Reliable.'"

Guinea Ryan's hands, covered with sandy hair, showed how the desert had burned them raw, then healed over, but remained raw-colored. He gripped a stubby pipe with thumb and forefinger. Three fingers were missing from the left hand. Freckles, generously spattered, accounted for his name. Everybody from the Mersey to the Yang-tse-Kiang dubbed him "Guinea"—Guinea Ryan, cosmopolite citizen, whose hammer rang around the world, battering rivets from Buenos Ayres to Bombay, and patching boilers from Vicksburg to Vladivostok. His face cracked open in a noiseless laugh: "How's old Paddy Foley, the b'iler-maker on Levee Street?"

Zack switched on all his facial illuminations: "Lordee, Mister, is you 'quainted wid Mister Paddy? I knows 'im real good."

"Sure, I knows Paddy," the globe-trotter answered genially. "Many's the night I've laid flat o' me back in them steamboat b'ilers, holding the hammer whilst Paddy battered rivets from the outside." Guinea sat up, made a pivot of his middle-rear, swung around, and motioned Zack to a seat. "The world ain't no bigger'n a sardine box. Set down. Where are you going?"

Zack's tongue untied itself and started wagging, "I'm aimin' to git off at Afriky Landin'. Me an' Cunnel is done traveled a far ways to l'arn dem niggers how to plant cotton. I reckon I knows all 'bout cotton, an' all 'bout niggers too. Now dar's de Cunnel—yonder he, 'sleep in dat chair, wid dem white clothes on—he's gwine wid me to he'p show 'em how."

"Show 'em how to do what?"

"Make cotton. You see, Mister, I got a plantation, an' Cunnel he owns a little lan'—dat's how come dese gent'men 'vailed on me an' him. Dey jes nacherly had de fidgets till us got started to Afriky Landin'."

"I wonder if that can be new Sudan Syndicate—at Wadi Okar?" Guinea spoke aloud, but it was to himself.

"Yas, suh, I sho heered 'em call dat name 'Suzanne'—Mrs. Suzanne sumbody or 'nother. We's gwine up on her place. Widders can't never manage dey own property."

Far be it from Guinea to smile and scare off a good thing. But he knew that vast Sudan—and knew the syndicate whose ambition it was to plant fifty thousand acres in cotton. "So you are the man that's going to learn them niggers?"

Old Reliable tried to be modest, "I'm him."

"Do you think you'll get along with the Shillooks and Dinkas?"

"What's dem?"

"Them's the kind of niggers that live up yonder."

"Lordee, Mister, 'tain't no two kinds o' niggers—all of 'em jes de same. Some white folks argufies dat dey's diffunt—but d'aint."

Guinea drew himself closer. "How are you going to do it?" he questioned.

What was he going to do? Old Zack blossomed out and confided, "Tain't but one way to l'arn nothin' to niggers, git straight behine 'em every mornin' at fo' 'clock, an' hustle 'em out to de fiel'. Den foller ev'y track dey make. Dey got to git up when I rings dat bell. No sore toes, an' no misery in de back ain't gwine to keep 'em from wrastlin' wid a hoe. Sore toe niggers can't draw no rations on Saddy night. Now dar's de Cunnel; he ain't no more'n a baby. But dem niggers on Sherwood Plantation, dey thinks de sun rise an' set in Cunnel. Ef he say black is white, dey sets deir min' by dat, same as dey sets deir watch by dat big clock in Cunnel's sto'."

The smile at Guinea's mouth lost itself in a wilderness of freckles. He leaned forward and whispered, "Better get your Colonel to tell them quarantine soldiers about you; try to make them believe black is white——"

"How come, mister?" Zack didn't relish the uneasy way in which Guinea glanced behind him. A negro couldn't feel anything but skittish when surrounded by gypsy-like men in skirts, and women whose black eyes peered at him through a slit in their face-cloths.

The Irishman began to talk; his Adam's apple went gulping up and down his scraggy neck. Zack got excited as he watched the performance, for Guinea might swallow it, or spit it out. In all the years since Guinea first won his fame for single-handed lying, he had never cornered such a ravenous listener. He pumped that negro's hide plum full. Old Reliable leaned forward breathlessly. Guinea gulped, and went on with his tale—"Ten thousand folks dyin' every day—cholera—three-fingered cholera, coffins piled up in the street, same as cross-ties longside the rail-road track. An' my pardner—Sh! my pardner turned black in the face whilst I was looking at 'im, and dropped dead."

"Dar now!" Zack exclaimed. "What did you do?"

Guinea winked, "Ole nigger, did you ever see a Irishman run? This ship was pullin' out—I made one leap an' grabbed them steps. Them Rooshians was goin' to fumigate me."

"Fumigate! Huh! war dat all? White folks in Vicksburg used to fumigate nigger houses continual in time of de yaller fever."

Guinea nodded complacently, as if he were merely letting Zack run on.

"At de fust off-startin' o' de epidemic, niggers tuk on mightily, den got so dey didn't min' it. One smart Aleck of a nigger claim he knowed how to fumigate and kill skeeters too. Twarn't no trick in dat. So he shet all de do's and winders an' pasted paper over de cracks, same as de white folks done. His ole gran'ma had been tuk down wid a misery, an' couldn't git out er bed. Dat nigger 'low twuz all right, jes let her be. He say she could stick 'er head under de kivers. Den he sot fire to dem sulphur pans. Huh! never made nary skeeter cough—but dat fool nigger cost my lodge forty-six dollars to bury ole gran'ma."

Guinea pulled deep on his pipe. "That ain't no way to fumigate. They fixes yo' clock over here, fixes it good and proper. See them fingers?" Zack had been wondering how Guinea lost those three fingers. "That's what they done to me in Alexandria, right where we are going. Made me stick out my tongue and squirted a lot o' stuff down my throat with a hoss-syringe; doctor commenced to feel my pulse, started way up here at the shoulder, an' kep' a-feelin' down. The minute he touched them three fingers, he said, 'Whack 'em off; he's got cholera in 'em.' No 'ifs' and 'ands' and 'buts' about it—Gippy soldiers whacked 'em off."

"Uh! Uh!" Zack grunted; "I heered you speak dem words 'bout three fingers o' cholera, but never knowed reel good what twuz." Guinea's lips twitched; he looked mighty mournful, and presently Zack voluntered in a subdued tone, "When us has quawnteen, de white folks sets aroun' de edge o' town wid shot guns, an' won't let nobody come in."

"That part's all right," Guinea admitted; "you wait 'til they git you at Alexandria—this evenin'. They stuffed me into one o' them tall fumigatin' boxes, like a coffin standing up on one end. Gippies was going to strangle me with sulphur and I couldn't speak a word o' their talk. I hollered out the grand hailin' sign o' distress—and a lodge brother heard it. He come pretty nigh not gettin' me out quick enough. That's what blistered me all over; look at my hands." "Lodge brudder?" Zack whispered eagerly, grasping the idea of help and protection. "Lodge brudder? I belongs."

Guinea nodded and winked, "Mighty good thing. Plenty brothers over here."

"What dey gwine to do to me when I gits to Afriky Landin'?" the frightened negro queried.

Guinea looked pained; he hated to say.

"Sh! keep yo' eyes skinned. If you see 'em comin' in a boat, with a yaller flag—look out for snakes. That yaller flag means they're goin' to fumigate. Heap of soldiers come aboard. Sergeant stands at the top o' the steps; doctor makes first class passengers stick out their tongues, feel their pulse an' gives 'em a certificate."

"I'm fust class," Zack announced proudly. Then Guinea added: "That's only the white folks; third cabin, an' dark-skinned people, they chuck 'em overboard in a barge, an' fumigates 'em."

"Dark-skinned? dark-skinned?" old Zack questioned, and Guinea explained very clearly, "When a feller catches cholera he turns black——"

Zack squirmed, "I kin prove by Cunnel dat I always is been dark-complected."

"Better prove by Cunnel that you are white."

"Huh! I'm gwine straight to Cunnel with dat news." Zack's coat tails were already flapping against the stair rail when Guinea jerked him back, "Hold on, that's the worst thing you could do. When them gippies commence asking, 'Where's that black man, with the wide-brimmed hat?' the Colonel, he'd say, 'That must be Zack. He was here a minute ago.' Then they'll get you." The negro sank hopelessly on the covered hatchway. When he caught his breath again he asked, "What makes 'em fumigate black folks, and don't meddle wid white folks?"

Guinea whispered ominously, "This ship sailed out o' the Black Sea."

"My Gawd! my Gawd! Mister, what is we gwine to do?"

Then Guinea whispered, "When I see 'em dumpin' bed clothes in them barges, I'm going to hide."

"Whar at?" To Old Reliable the vessel was a labyrinth of hiding places.

"Come along, I'll show you. Don't sneak like that; walk straight." The Irishman went strolling across the open space and dived into a dark hatch. Like a big black child Old Reliable followed his new Moses.

Leaning over the rail, the Bloodhound and his subordinate watched the performance on the lower deck.

"Shall I arrest the negro?" his subordinate asked.

"No, he is perhaps an American citizen. Watch him, and we'll deal with him—the other way."

Far below in the third-class sleeping spaces, Old Reliable eyed those bunks ranged against the wails, and running in double rows down the middle—iron beds, one above the other, with scanty mattresses. The odor was not pleasant.

"See here," Guinea whispered and pointed; "a man that had any sense could crawl back in that corner. They must take us for suckers; we ain't going to be strangled, and maybe get three fingers chopped off."

"I'll show 'em; I'll show 'em," Old Reliable mumbled and shook his head.

Ryan climbed back to the deck, with Old Reliable following him. But Zack felt safer, now that he'd picked a good place to hide.