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CHAPTER XXVII

FISH EATERS

BISM'ILLAH," muttered Said as he cast his net. The Dongalawi waded thigh-deep in the muddy Nile, muttering his prayer, and casting his net, and bringing up nothing, while Old Reliable superintended operations from a safe position at the top of the bank.

"Bism'illah," and Said cast again.

"Side, what dat you keeps on mumblin' ev'y time you throws?"

"In the—name of—God," Said translated unsteadily, as he hauled in the empty net. Old Reliable rose and pointed—"Den, in de name o' Gawd, throw yo' net in dis eddy close up 'side dat stump. Ef you wants to ketch perches, you got to fish whar perches stays."

Said was one of the spiritless fellaheen; he cast as the master bade him, with the habitual "bism'illah," then tugged hard on the line, for his net came up heavy. "Haul 'em out!" Zack yelled. "Haul 'em out!" Said struggled up the slippery slope and turned out a dozen or more flapping perch of three to five pounds weight. In triumph Zack bent over his catch. "Dat's de way to make a nigger ketch fish. Mister Bim, say fer me to wade in. He oughter quit meddlin' wid my bizness. Side, fetch dem fish to de shack, an' git 'em cleaned. I'm gwine to begin sellin' right off."

With some forty pounds of fish Said followed his black master to their brand-new eating house under the palms. Shed, table and bench, kitchen, cook-stove and dinner bell, everything was complete, and erected before Zack could bat an eye. Already it was surrounded by Dinkas squatting on the ground, and Shilluks—after the peculiar fashion of their tribe—standing stork-like on one foot, languidly interested in whatever might happen. Zack smiled at his own foresight—"Dis sho' is a fine stan' fer a eatin' house; plenty niggers hangin' 'roun' po' ez Job's turkey." Then he nodded his satisfaction; possession of the magic nickel would transform each savage into a customer. Their eyes followed him as he passed amongst them; they watched him intently as he bent over the cook-stove and began to kindle a fire. Some of the Shilluks sidled nearer to the stove, some edged toward Said, who set about cleaning the fish, and Zack played to his gallery. The Effendi of the Eating House took a white cap and a long white apron from a nail, stepped outside where the multitude could admire, and arrayed himself. After donning his robe of honor, not a Shilluk eye would have strayed towards Said if it hadn't been for the tantalization of those fish. Naturally a Dongalawi paid no attention to the Shilluks, except to keep his fish well guarded, and to watch the dogs—starven, incredibly thin and creeping near as they dared. With a flourish Zack put on his skillet, and had the grease sizzling. But when he glanced up for applause his prospective customers were drifting away—every one of them, except the dogs.

"What make 'em run off? Sumpin' skeered dem niggers." Then he saw Lyttleton, McDonald and Colonel Spottiswoode strolling towards him from the quarters. None of the white men had a thing to do, and the Colonel carried a long flat board under his arm. "Huh! Dat's it," Zack snorted. "White folks comin'. Mister Bim done pestered dem niggers so regular 'bout goin' to work, dat dey nacherly gits up an' gits." McDonald hurried on with his head down—"Like a goat what's fixin' to butt somebody"—which illustrated Mr. Bim's present attitude of mind and body.

"Well, old man," he questioned, "get any fish?"

"Yas suh, plenty. I tole you Side could ketch 'em."

"What are you going to charge for a lunch?"

Zack lifted the sputtering skillet and considered: "Dunno, suh. I reckin' I'll make it jes 'zackly what dese niggers gits a day. Dey can't spen' money nowhars else; an' dey aint got no pockets to tote none."

"That's right, McDonald," the Colonel assented. "Zack's caught the idea. Lyttleton, that hammer and nails, please." The Colonel unwrapped his board and tacked up the official sign:


HOT CAT EATING HOUSE

MEALS AT ALL HOURS


When Zack had modified his smiles, he led Colonel Spottiswoode mysteriously behind a palm trunk: "Cunnel, please suh, don't let Mister Bim think no harm, but he ain't got onderstandin' 'bout niggers same as me an' you. It'd be a heap better ef y'all white gen'lemen stays away f'um dis catfish stan'—stay away entire. You knows how niggers is: dey don't love to hang aroun' whar de white folks kin watch 'em—'specially dese niggers. Mister Bim is been huntin' 'em an' huntin' 'em till dey scatters like partridges ev'y time he shows up." A hundred naked backs, headed for somewhere else, proved the truth of Zack's assertion.

"Sure, Zack, sure; we'll keep away." And the Colonel eased his British friends from that locality. At which Zack smiled: "Ev'y one o' dem niggers is comin' back. I'll fix 'em, ef Mister Bim quits meddlin'"

There had been small need to advertise the Black Effendi's enterprise. Fifty Shilluks stood around and saw the shack being built; and fifty more recruits had arrived before Said finished cleaning the fish. They came drifting back, with reinforcements, when the worrisome white men left. The place swarmed with sniffing Dinkas, lip-licking Shilluks, and slinking dogs, when a greasy smoke uprose from that first crisp and smelly pan. Zack spread his table, and rang the bell: "Hot fish! Hot fish! Git 'em while dey're hot!"

Nobody got. Zack, in cap and apron, leaned over the rail and rang the bell again: "Hot cat! Hot cat! Five cents to-day; charge mo' to-morrow. Tell 'em dat, Side." Zack laboriously explained, and Said passed the glorified tidings in garbled Arabic to another interpreter, who turned and spoke a few words in the Shilluk tongue.

Mr. Bim from the window of his quarters, observed the maneuver through a field glass, with an excitement almost as tense as if he waited a Dervish rush. The hot-cat proposition got a frost. Not a Shilluk put down his other leg, not a Dinka rose from his haunches. Nobody wanted fish. So Mr. Bim laid aside his glass and hurried towards the river, but the Colonel stopped him, "Come back here, McDonald; let Zack run that show."

"I'm not going there; thought I'd look out and see if my hippos were floating down."

"You come back." McDonald squirmed into a chair and sat still. He saw Zack put down his bell and glare at a crowd which was incapable of being thrilled by hot cat. Then, with unerring intuition Zack picked out their leader, the bell-wether of the bunch. To him he spoke scornfully: "Jes look at you! Aint you a beaut? Standin' on one foot, wid a rag hangin' to yo' neck, an' don't even know what hot cat means. I'm gwine to open yo' mouf an' poke a chunk o' sense into yo' head." Zack slapped a chunk of fish on a plate with a knife and fork, and headed for the leader. Odok, the Shilluk, stood steady on one leg, his hair done into a Punch-cap, plastered with white ashes. Zack met him face to face. "Here, Side," he commanded, "tell dis nigger I'm gwine to give him one piece; twon't cost nary cent." Said filed this message in the circumlocution office, and the answer meandered back: "Shilluk no eat by dem tings; Shilluk eat so." To illustrate the process, Said went through the motions of rending meat with teeth and fingers.

"All right, nigger," said Zack, "if you can't un'erstan' catfish talk, I'll try you on catfish taste. Eat dis!" Zack held out a piece of fish to the savage, who took it suspiciously and crumbled tiny bits to the ground. Then he smelled of it, but did not eat.

"Eat it!" Zack ordered. "Tain't pizen. Here, gimme dat fish!"

After Zack had bit out a section to prove it wasn't poison, Odok nibbled the edges, chewed an experimental bite, bolted the balance, and extended his hand for more.

"Jeemunny, nigger," the Black Effendi exclaimed, giving him another chunk, another and another—hopeless as feeding nickels into a slot machine, but Zack persevered, nearly to the bottom of his pan.

"Side, how much kin one o' dese niggers eat?" Odok answered for himself by pressing closer to the dishpan, and shoving the others away, until Zack choked him off.

"Look here, nigger, you got to fire an' fall back. Let dese other niggers eat some. Tell him dat, Side." His master's flights of rhetoric kept Said guessing, but the wily Dongalawi always translated something to the addressee. Yet, with the aid of two interpreters and much noise, Said failed to convey this "fall-back" idea to Odok. The Shilluk maintained his position with open palm and mouth ready to fly open. Old Reliable and the interpreters flung Odok bodily into the crowd. "Git back, an' 'low somebody else a chance."

Feeding these Shilluks on fish was no case of preparing dainty tid-bits. It took man's size eating for these fellows. Zack massed his reserve fish in two dishpans, "Now, den, one mo' gen'leman step forward. Tell 'em dat, Side."

That was easy. Said only beckoned, and the hungry horde did the rest, rushing against the shack with mouths wide open, and Odok fighting for a front position.

"Quit yo' shovin'!" Zack hollered. "Ev'ybody gwine to git a taste." So the Black Effendi sallied out with a heaped-up plate, and his customers met him. They jostled his arm; the fish spilled, and a tangle of black nakedness fell upon it in the dirt.

Old Reliable retreated within his eating house while the blacks came crowding forward. The pressure of their bodies bent the rail. "Stand back, you niggers, stan' back!" The rail snapped like a pipe-stem, the Shilluks tumbled in, over turning his bench and knocking his table crank-sided; plates and pans clattered to the ground; the shack titled dangerously, and that got Zack agitated.

"Here, niggers, take it all! Take it all!" Old Reliable grabbed both dishpans and hurled their contents over the heads of the crowd. By sacrificing his samples he saved the shack; the scramblers whirled around backwards and scuffled for the fish.

When the riot first broke out, McDonald came bounding across the open space, but failed to cover the fifty yards before the Shilluks had gobbled the grub. Mr. Bim was not a man to get excited, and he did not mean to be abrupt, but he strode amongst them, and they melted away.

"What's the trouble, Zack? How did those fellows happen to rush you?"

"Twarn't no trouble, Mister Bim. Ev'ything nice an' pleasant."

"Didn't they like your fish?"

"Yes suh, dey takes to fish mightily—sho do."

McDonald glanced at the empty pans. "What became of it?"

"Niggers et it."

"All of it? So quick?"

"Dese niggers eats fish mighty swif'."

"Hadn't you better catch some more?"

Zack had shucked his white cap and was now folding up the apron. "Naw suh! I reckin' dis eatin' house is jes about to shet up."

"Why? Won't your plan work?"

"Yas suh, yas suh. It's gwine to work all right, but one man can't do no mo' dan jes so much work in one day. I'm plum wore out."

"Then you'll open up to-morrow?"

"Yas suh." Zack assented without enthusiasm.

"When do I get my plow hands?"

"Mister Bim," he answered, "I reckin' you better rock along kind o' gentle wid dese niggers—dey 'pears to git flustrated ef you stampedes 'em."

McDonald kept thrashing his puttees with a whip, watching Old Reliable move the displaced table and benches into position. "What happened to your railing?"

"Dem niggers busted it." For a moment Old Reliable looked serious, and then let out a wide-mouthed laugh. "Mister Bim, ef dey keeps on bein' dat crazy 'bout fried fish, you'll make plenty cotton befo' I gits 'em fat."

"We'll try." McDonald wheeled, strode back to quarters, and summoned his foremen, while Zack gazed thoughtfully after him, then cut his eye around at the scatteration of Shilluks, Dinkas and Nyam-Nyams. "Mister Bim sho' do cornduck hisself mighty brief. I got a hunch he's gwine to bust up dis catfish stan'."