Read CHAPTER XI - BONES AT M’FA of Bones Being Further Adventures in Mr. Commissioner Sanders' Country , free online book, by Edgar Wallace, on

Hamilton of the Houssas coming down to headquarters met Bosambo by appointment at the junction of the rivers.

“O Bosambo,” said Hamilton, “I have sent for you to make a likambo because of certain things which my other eyes have seen and my other ears have heard.”

To some men this hint of report from the spies of Government might bring dismay and apprehension, but to Bosambo, whose conscience was clear, they awakened only curiosity.

“Lord, I am your eyes in the Ochori,” he said with truth, “and God knows I report faithfully.”

Hamilton nodded.  He was yellow with fever, and the hand that filled the briar pipe shook with ague.  All this Bosambo saw.

“It is not of you I speak, nor of your people, but of the Akasava and the N’gombi and the evil little men who live in the forest ­now is it true that they speak mockingly of my lord Tibbetti?”

Bosambo hesitated.

“Lord,” said he, “what dogs are they, that they should speak of the mighty?  Yet I will not lie to you, M’ilitani:  they mock Tibbetti, because he is young and his heart is pure.”

Hamilton nodded again, and stuck out his jaw in troubled meditation.

“I am a sick man,” he said, “and I must rest, sending Tibbetti to watch the river, because the crops are good and there is fish for all men, and because the people are prosperous, for, Bosambo, in such times there is much boastfulness, and the tribes are ripe for foolish deeds deserving to appear wonderful in the eyes of woman.”

“All this I know, M’ilitani,” said Bosambo, “and because you are sick, my heart and my stomach are sore.  For though I do not love you as I love Sandi, who is more clever than you, yet I love you well enough to grieve.  And Tibbetti also ­”

He paused.

“He is young,” said Hamilton, “and not yet grown to himself ­now you, Bosambo, shall check men who are insolent to his face, and be to him as a strong right hand.”

“On my head and my life,” said Bosambo, “yet, lord M’ilitani, I think that his day will find him, for it is written in the Sura of the Djin that all men are born three times, and the day will come when Bonzi will be born again.”

He was in his canoe before Hamilton realized what he had said.

“Tell me, Bosambo,” said he, leaning over the side of the Zaïre, “what name did you call my lord Tibbetti?”

“Bonzi,” said Bosambo, innocently, “for such I have heard you call him.”

“Oh, dog of a thief!” stormed Hamilton.  “If you speak without respect of Tibbetti, I will break your head.”

Bosambo looked up with a glint in his big, black eyes.

“Lord,” he said, softly, “it is said on the river ’speak only the words which high ones speak, and you can say no wrong,’ and if you, who are wiser than any, call my lord ’Bonzi’ ­what goat am I that I should not call him ‘Bonzi’ also?”

Hamilton saw the canoe drift round, saw the flashing paddles dip regularly, and the chant of the Ochori boat song came fainter and fainter as Bosambo’s state canoe began its long journey northward.

Hamilton reached headquarters with a temperature of 105, and declined Bones’ well-meant offers to look after him.

“What you want, dear old officer,” said Bones, fussing around, “is careful nursin’.  Trust old Bones and he’ll pull you back to health, sir.  Keep up your pecker, sir, an’ I’ll bring you back so to speak from the valley of the shadow ­go to bed an’ I’ll have a mustard plaster on your chest in half a jiffy.”

“If you come anywhere near me with a mustard plaster,” said Hamilton, pardonably annoyed, “I’ll brain you!”

“Don’t you think!” asked Bones anxiously, “that you ought to put your feet in mustard and water, sir ­awfully good tonic for a feller, sir.  Bucks you up an’ all that sort of thing, sir; uncle of mine who used to take too much to drink ­”

“The only chance for me,” said Hamilton, “is for you to clear out and leave me alone.  Bones ­quit fooling:  I’m a sick man, and you’ve any amount of responsibility.  Go up to the Isisi and watch things ­it’s pretty hard to say this to you, but I’m in your hands.”

Bones said nothing.

He looked down at the fever-stricken man and thrust his hands in his pockets.

“You see, old Bones,” said Hamilton, and now his friend heard the weariness and the weakness in his voice, “Sanders has a hold on these chaps that I haven’t quite got ... and ... and ... well, you haven’t got at all.  I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you’re young, Bones, and these devils know how amiable you are.”

“I’m an ass, sir,” muttered Bones, shakily, “an’ somehow I understand that this is the time in my jolly old career when I oughtn’t to be an ass....  I’m sorry, sir.”

Hamilton smiled up at him.

“It isn’t for Sanders’ sake or mine or your own, Bones ­but for ­well, for the whole crowd of us ­white folk.  You’ll have to do your best, old man.”

Bones took the other’s hand, snivelled a bit despite his fierce effort of restraint, and went aboard the Zaïre.

“Tell all men,” said B’chumbiri, addressing his impassive relatives, “that I go to a great day and to many strange lands.”

He was tall and knobby-kneed, spoke with a squeak at the end of his deeper sentences, and about his tired eyes he had made a red circle with camwood.  Round his head he had twisted a wire so tightly that it all but cut the flesh:  this was necessary, for B’chumbiri had a headache which never left him day or night.

Now he stood, his lank body wrapped in a blanket, and he looked with dull eyes from face to face.

“I see you,” he said at last, and repeated his motto which had something to do with monkeys.

They watched him go down the street towards the beech where the easiest canoe in the village was moored.

“It is better if we go after him and put out his eyes,” said his elder brother; “else who knows what damage he will do for which we must pay?”

Only B’chumbiri’s mother looked after him with a mouth that drooped at the side, for he was her only son, all the others being by other wives of Mochimo.

His father and his uncle stood apart and whispered, and presently when, with a great waving of arms, B’chumbiri had embarked, they went out of the village by the forest path and ran tirelessly till they struck the river at its bend.

“Here we will wait,” panted the uncle, “and when B’chumbiri comes we will call him to land, for he has the sickness mongo.”

“What of Sandi?” asked the father, who was no gossip.

“Sandi is gone,” replied the other, “and there is no law.”

Presently B’chumbiri came sweeping round the bend, singing in his poor, cracked voice about a land and a people and treasures ... he turned his canoe at his father’s bidding, and came obediently to land....

Overhead the sky was a vivid blue, and the water which moved quickly between the rocky channel of the Lower Isisi caught something of the blue, though the thick green of elephant grass by the water’s edge and the overhanging spread of gum trees took away from the clarity of reflection.

There was, too, a gentle breeze and a pleasing absence of flies, so that a man might get under the red and white striped awning of the Zaïre and think or read or dream dreams, and find life a pleasant experience, and something to be thankful for.

Such a day does not often come upon the river, but if it does, the deep channel of the Isisi focuses all the joy of it.  Here the river runs as straight as a canal for six miles, the current swifter and stronger between the guiding banks than elsewhere.  There are rocks, charted and known, for the bed of the river undergoes no change, the swift waters carry no sands to choke the fairway, navigation is largely a matter of engine power and rule of thumb.  Going slowly up stream a little more than two knots an hour, the Zaïre was for once a pleasure steamer.  Her long-barrelled Hotchkiss guns were hidden in their canvas jackets, the Maxims were lashed to the side of the bridge out of sight, and Lieutenant Augustus Tibbetts, who sprawled in a big wicker-work chair with an illustrated paper on his knees, a nasal-toned phonograph at his feet, and a long glass of lemon squash at his elbow, had little to do but pass the pleasant hours in the most pleasant occupation he could conceive, which was the posting of a diary, which he hoped on some future occasion to publish.

A shout, quick and sharp, brought him to his feet, a stiffly outstretched hand pointed to the waters.

“What the dooce ­” demanded Bones indignantly, and looked over the side....  He saw the pitiful thing that rolled slowly in the swift current, and the homely face of Bones hardened.

“Damn,” he said, and the wheel of the Zaïre spun, and the little boat came broadside to the stream before the threshing wheel got purchase on the water.

It was Bones’ sinewy hand that gripped the poor arm and brought the body to the side of the canoe into which he had jumped as the boat came round.

“Um,” said Bones, seeing what he saw; “who knows this man?”

“Lord,” said a wooding man, “this is B’chumbiri who was mad, and he lived in the village near by.”

“There will we go,” said Bones, very gravely.

Now all the people of M’fa knew that the father of B’chumbiri and his uncle had put away the tiresome youth with his headache and his silly talk, and when there came news that the Zaïre was beating her way to the village there was a hasty likambo of the eldermen.

“Since this is neither Sandi nor M’ilitani who comes,” said the chief, an old man, N’jela ("the Bringer"), “but Moon-in-the-Eye, who is a child, let us say that B’chumbiri fell into the water so that the crocodiles had him, and if he asks us who slew B’chumbiri ­for it may be that he knows ­let none speak, and afterwards we will tell M’ilitani that we did not understand him.”

With this arrangement all agreed; for surely here was a palaver not to be feared.

Bones came with his escort of Houssas.

From the dark interiors of thatched huts men and women watched his thin figure going up the street, and laughed.

Nor did they laugh softly.  Bones heard the chuckles of unseen people, divined that contempt, and his lips trembled.  He felt an immense loneliness ­all the weight of government was pressed down upon his head, it overwhelmed, it smothered him.

Yet he kept a tight hold upon himself, and by a supreme effort of will showed no sign of his perturbation.

The palaver was of little value to Bones; the village was blandly innocent of murder or knowledge of murder.  More than this, all men stoutly swore that the thing that lay upon the foreshore for identification, surrounded by a crowd of frowning and frightened little boys lured by the very gruesomeness of the spectacle, was unknown, and laughed openly at the suggestion that it was B’chumbiri, who (said they) had gone a Journey into the forest.

There was little short of open mockery and defiance when they pointed out certain indications that went to prove that this man was not of the Akasava, but of the higher Isisi.

So Bones’ visit was fruitless.

He dismissed the palaver and walked back to his ship, and worked the river, village by village, with no more satisfactory result.  That night in the little town of M’fa there was a dance and a jubilation to celebrate the cunning of a people who had outwitted and overawed the lords of the land, but the next day came Bosambo, who had established a system of espionage more far-reaching, and possibly more effective, than the service which the Government had instituted.

Liberties they might take with Bones; but they sat discomforted in palaver before this alien chief, swathed in monkey tails, his shield in one hand, and his bunch of spears in the other.

“All things I know,” said Bosambo, when they told him what they had to tell, “and it has come to me that you have spoken lightly of Tibbetti, who is my friend and my master, and is well beloved of Sandi.  Also they tell me that you smiled at him.  Now I tell you there will come a day when you will not smile, and that day is near at hand.”

“Lord,” said the chief, “he made with us a foolish palaver, believing that we had put away B’chumbiri.”

“And he shall return to that foolish palaver,” said Bosambo grimly, “and if he goes away unsatisfied, behold I will come, and I will take your old men, and I will hang them by hooks into a tree and roast their feet.  For if there is no Sandi and no law, behold I am Sandi and I law, doing the will of a certain bearded king, Togi-tani.”

He left the village of M’fa a little unhappy for the space of a day, when, native-like, they forgot all that he had said.

In the meantime, up and down the river went Bones, palavers which lasted from sunrise to sunset being his portion.

He had in his mind one vital fact, that for the honour of his race and for the credit of his administration he must bring to justice the man who slew the thing which he had found in the river.  Chiefs and elders met him with scarcely concealed scorn, and waited expectantly to hear his strong, foreign language.  But in this they were disappointed, for Bones spoke nothing but the language of the river, and little of it.

He went on board the Zaïre on the ninth night after his discovery, dispirited and sick at heart.

“It seems to me, Ahmet,” he said to the Houssa sergeant who stood waiting silently by the table where his meagre dinner was laid, “that no man speaks the truth in this cursed land, and that they do not fear me as they fear Sandi.”

“Lord, it is so,” said Ahmet; “for, as your lordship knows, Sandi was very terrible, and then, O Tibbetti, he is an older man, very wise in the ways of these people, and very cunning to see their heart.  All great trees grow slowly, O my lord! and that which springs up in a night dies in a day.”

Bones pondered this for a while, then: 

“Wake me at dawn,” he said.  “I go back to M’fa for the last palaver, and if this palaver be a bad one, be sure you shall not see my face again upon the river.”

Bones spoke truly, his resignation, written in his sprawling hand, lay enveloped and sealed in his cabin ready for dispatch.  He stopped his steamer at a village six miles from M’fa, and sent a party of Houssas to the village with a message.

The chief was to summon all eldermen, and all men responsible to the Government, the wearers of medals and the holders of rights, all landmen and leaders of hunters, the captains of spears, and the first headmen.  Even to the witch doctors he called together.

“O soldier!” said the chief, dubiously, “what happens to me if I do not obey his commands?  For my men are weary, having hunted in the forest, and my chiefs do not like long palavers concerning law.”

“That may be,” said Ahmet, calmly.  “But when my lord calls you to palaver you must obey, otherwise I take you, I and my strong men, to the Village of Irons, there to rest for a while to my lord’s pleasure.”

So the chief sent messengers and rattled his lokali to some purpose, bringing headmen and witch doctors, little and great chiefs, and spearmen of quality, to squat about the palaver house on the little hill to the east of the village.

Bones came with an escort of four men.  He walked slowly up the cut steps in the hillside and sat upon the stool to the chief’s right; and no sooner had he seated himself than, without preliminary, he began to speak.  And he spoke of Sanders, of his splendour and his power; of his love for all people and his land, and also M’ilitani, who these men respected because of his devilish blue eyes.

At first he spoke slowly, because he found a difficulty in breathing, and then as he found himself, grew more and more lucid and took a larger grasp of the language.

“Now,” said he, “I come to you, being young in the service of the Government, and unworthy to tread in my lord Sandi’s way.  Yet I hold the laws in my two hands even as Sandi held them, for laws do not change with men, neither does the sun change whatever be the land upon which it shines.  Now, I say to you and to all men, deliver to me the slayer of B’chumbiri that I may deal with him according to the law.”

There was a dead silence, and Bones waited.

Then the silence grew into a whisper, from a whisper into a babble of suppressed talk, and finally somebody laughed.  Bones stood up, for this was his supreme moment.

“Come out to me, O killer!” he said softly, “for who am I that I can injure you?  Did I not hear some voice say g’la, and is not g’la the name of a fool?  O, wise and brave men of the Akasava who sit there quietly, daring not so much as to hit a finger before one who is a fool!”

Again the silence fell.  Bones, his helmet on the back of his head, his hands thrust into his pockets, came a little way down the hill towards the semi-circle of waiting eldermen.

“O, brave men!” he went on, “O, wonderful seeker of danger!  Behold!  I, g’la, a fool, stand before you and yet the killer of B’chumbiri sits trembling and will not rise before me, fearing my vengeance.  Am I so terrible?”

His wide open eyes were fixed upon the uncle of B’chumbiri, and the old man returned the gaze defiantly.

“Am I so terrible?” Bones went on, gently.  “Do men fear me when I walk?  Or run to their huts at the sound of my puc-a-puc?  Do women wring their hands when I pass?”

Again there was a little titter, but M’gobo, the uncle of B’chumbiri, grimacing now in his rage, was not amongst the laughers.

“Yet the brave one who slew ­”

M’gobo sprang to his feet.

“Lord,” he said harshly, “why do you put all men to shame for your sport?”

“This is no sport, M’gobo,” answered Bones quickly.  “This is a palaver, a killing palaver.  Was it a woman who slew B’chumbiri? so that she is not present at this palaver.  Lo, then I go to hold council with women!”

M’gobo’s face was all distorted like a man stricken with paralysis.

“Tibbetti!” he said, “I slew B’chumbiri ­according to custom ­and I will answer to Sandi, who is a man, and understands such palavers.”

“Think well,” said Bones, deathly white, “think well, O man, before you say this.”

“I killed him, O fool,” said M’gobo loudly, “though his father turned woman at the last ­with these hands I cut him, using two knives ­”

“Damn you!” said Bones, and shot him dead.

Hamilton, so far convalescent that he could smoke a cigarette, heard the account without interruption.

“So there you are, sir,” said Bones at the side.  “An’ I felt like a jolly old murderer, but, dear old officer, what was I to do?”

Still Hamilton said nothing, and Bones shifted uncomfortably.

“For goodness gracious sake don’t sit there like a bally old owl,” he said, fretfully.  “Was I wrong?”

Hamilton smiled.

“You’re a jolly old commissioner, sir,” he mimicked, “and for two pins I’d mention you in dispatches.”

Bones examined the piping of his khaki jacket and extracted the pins.