CHAPTER XV. A start made at last - A forced march - Lightening the ship - Waiting for the caravan - Success hangs in the balance - The greatest rascal in Central Africa - Legge demands another bottle.

The country was park-like, but much parched by the dry weather. The ground was sandy, but firm, and interspersed with numerous villages, all of which were surrounded with a strong fence of euphorbia. The country was well wooded, being free from bush or jungle, but numerous trees, all evergreens, were scattered over the landscape. No natives were to be seen but the sound of their drums and singing in chorus was heard in the far distance. Whenever it is moonlight the nights are passed in singing and dancing, beating drums, blowing horns, and the population of whole villages thus congregate together.

After a silent march of two hours we saw watchfires blazing in the distance, and upon nearer approach we perceived the trader's party bivouacked. Their custom is to march only two or three hours on the first day of departure, to allow stragglers who may have lagged behind in Gondokoro to rejoin the party before morning.

We were roughly challenged by their sentries as we passed, and were instantly told "not to remain in their neighborhood." Accordingly we passed on for about half a mile in advance, and bivouacked on some rising ground above a slight hollow in which we found water.

The following morning was clear, and the mountain of Belignan, within three or four miles, was a fine object to direct our course. I could distinctly see some enormous trees at the foot of the mountain near a village, and I hastened forward, as I hoped to procure a guide who would also act as interpreter, many of the natives in the vicinity of Gondokoro having learned a little Arabic from the traders. We cantered on ahead of the party, regardless of the assurance of our unwilling men that the natives were not to be trusted, and we soon arrived beneath the shade of a cluster of most superb trees. The village was within a quarter of a mile, situated at the very base of the abrupt mountain. The natives seeing us alone had no fear, and soon thronged around us. The chief understood a few words of Arabic, and I offered a large payment of copper bracelets and beads for a guide. After much discussion and bargaining a bad-looking fellow offered to guide us to Ellyria, but no farther. This was about twenty-eight or thirty miles distant, and it was of vital importance that we should pass through that tribe before the trader's party should raise them against us. I had great hopes of outmarching the trader's party, as they would be delayed in Belignan by ivory transactions with the chief.

At that time the Turks were engaged in business transactions with tile natives; it was therefore all important that I should start immediately, and by a forced march arrive at Ellyria and get through the pass before they should communicate with the chief. I had no doubt that by paying blackmail I should be able to clear Ellyria, provided I was in advance of the Turks; but should they outmarch me, there would be no hope; a fight and defeat would be the climax. I accordingly gave orders for an IMMEDIATE start. "Load the camels, my brothers!" I exclaimed to the sullen ruffians around me; but not a man stirred except Richarn and a fellow named Sali, who began to show signs of improvement. Seeing that the men intended to disobey, I immediately set to work myself loading the animals, requesting my men not to trouble themselves, and begging them to lie down and smoke their pipes while I did the work. A few rose from the ground ashamed and assisted to load the camels, while the others declared it an impossibility for camels to travel by the road we were about to take, as the Turks had informed them that not even the donkeys could march through the thick jungles between Belignan and Ellyria.

"All right, my brothers!" I replied; "then we'll march as far as the donkeys can go, and leave both them and the baggage on the road when they can go no farther; but I GO FORWARD."

With sullen discontent the men began to strap on their belts and cartouche boxes and prepare for the start. The animals were loaded, and we moved slowly forward at 4.30 P.M. We had just started with the Bari guide that I had engaged at Belignan, when we were suddenly joined by two of the Latookas whom I had seen when at Gondokoro and to whom I had been very civil. It appeared that these follows, who were acting as porters to the Turks, had been beaten, and had therefore absconded and joined me. This was extraordinary good fortune, as I now had guides the whole way to Latooka, about ninety miles distant. I immediately gave them each a copper bracelet and some beads, and they very good-naturedly relieved the camels of one hundred pounds of copper rings, which they carried in two baskets on their heads.

We now crossed the broad dry bed of a torrent, and the banks being steep a considerable time was occupied in assisting the loaded animals in their descent. The donkeys were easily aided, their tails being held by two men while they shuffled and slid down the sandy banks; but every camel fell, and the loads had to be carried up the opposite bank by the men, and the camels reloaded on arrival. Here again the donkeys had the advantage, as without being unloaded they were assisted up the steep ascent by two men in front pulling at their ears, while others pushed behind. Altogether the donkeys were far more suitable for the country, as they were more easily loaded. The facility of loading is all-important, and I now had an exemplification of its effect upon both animals and men. The latter began to abuse the camels and to curse the father of this and the mother of that because they had the trouble of unloading them for the descent into the river's bed, while the donkeys were blessed with the endearing name of "my brother," and alternately whacked with the stick.