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CHAPTER XXVIII

THE MEDDLING OF MR. BIM

DURING the long afternoon McDonald's interpreters circulated industriously amongst the blacks, demonstrating all the ins and outs of the catfish system. Fried fish would be sold at one piaster per man—men must plow to get the money, and the news thereof percolated to distant villages. Odok stalked from one group to another, adding his practical endorsement—Odok now being the established authority on fried fish. Zack saw it all and did not approve. "Dat ain't no way to do," he protested to himself; "tellin' dem niggers he needs 'em so bad. He oughter treat 'em like a drove o' mules—not try to drive 'em in a gate, jes' leave de gate onlatched, an' let 'em bust in." Thoroughly disgusted, he straggled over to quarters and sat on the front step, where Mr. Bim casually remarked that, by private arrangement, Odok must have as much fish as he could eat, in consideration of Odok's influence in leading men to the fields. This ominous provision made Old Reliable sit up and take notice, "Mister Bim, ef you undertakes to fill up dat Odok nigger, you got to git somebody to he'p Side ketch fish. An' 'low me a extry cook. One man can't 'tend to no catfish stan' de way dese niggers does deir tradin'."

"Very good. I'll give you competent help." Mr. Bim promptly settled the matter, and Zack composed himself for a long rest. But the Bimbashi was not a man who rested. Excess of steam kept him shoving ahead. He set everybody to ransacking the quarters and commissary for more fishing tackle—hooks and leads, corks and sinkers. "Everything must be ready by daylight." And everything was ready—likewise Mr. Bim.

Long before daylight McDonald, with a lantern, bent over Zack's cot and shook him, not roughly, but effectually. "Who dat? You? Mister Bim?"

"Yes. Get up. It's time to go after the fish."

"Lordee, Mister Bim, I jes' dis minute dozed off." Nevertheless Old Reliable got up yawningly, and fared forth with the fishers.

At sunrise McDonald went to the fields, his face glowing like the dawn, for Odok brought forty-seven men who were eager to grab the plow handles, a somewhat disappointing number, but forty-seven more than McDonald had mustered for many a week. When evening came, this weary vanguard of honor lined up at the catfish counter, with double as many for an audience. McDonald pushed through and whispered to Zack: "Give 'em plenty; you have four times as much fish as you need."

"Yas suh, Mister Bim, ef you say so; but tain't no way to treat niggers. You'll sho spile 'em."

"Oh, McDonald! McDonald!" Colonel Spottiswoode shouted from quarters. "Come over here, quick!"

At this very palpable calling away of Mr. Bim, Old Reliable grinned. "Cunnel's de onlies' white man on dis place what's got sense like a nigger."

Left to his own devices, the Black Effendi proceeded to swap fish for piasters, serving the exact number that had followed the plows. "No work, no fish," was his motto, and receipts from the catfish stand tallied accurately with the amount which Mr. Bim had paid for labor. Dozens of paisterless negroes, sunk-flanked and hungry, looked on with ravenous eyes and a twitching at the mouth. Many times Zack glanced toward them and his heart softened; but finally he shook his head and muttered: "I kin count ev'y rib you got. But—ef I wuz to begin givin' away fish, I'd spile some mighty good plow-hands. Here," he whistled, taking a piece in each hand and feeding a couple of dogs, "Y'allall ain't had no chance to plow."

McDonald sat jubilant over their diplomatic work, as he watched the strutting of the fed, the envy of the unfed.

Next morning Mr. Bim counted one hundred and fifteen recruits actually at work. "Ain't I tole you so, Mister Bim?" Zack reminded him. "In two mo' days I'll have niggers in dat fiel' thicker'n boll-weevils." And the laborers might have gone on multiplying like boll-weevils, if Mr. Bim hadn't over-played his hand.

It happened this way: Towards afternoon, two good hours before quitting time, one hundred and fifteen men were plowing, planting, and looking forward to a feast. A ring of others squatted near the eating house, watching to see if the unbelievable could really be true. By testimony of their own eyes they knew that the Black Effendi, who wore the robe of honor, had fried up four noble dishpans of fish. Thereat they licked their chops and squatted around waiting for the distribution.

All of which came under the momentary observation of El Bimbashi McDonald as he hurried from the fields, and whispered to Zack:

"That was a jolly fine idea of yours. Two hundred niggers will soon be here. Keep 'em fed."

"Sho will. But de main thing is to git dat money from 'em, so dey'll hafter work some mo'.'

Flashing an enthusiastic approval at Zack, Mr. Bim sped on to his quarters, and Zack laughed.

"Huh! Mister Bim sho' is steppin' high. He feels powerful good."

The fact is that El Bimbashi McDonald did feel good, and wanted to reward everybody—which led to his fatal meddling. He had barely passed out of view before Said the Dongalawi—meek-eyed man of experience—reported to Zack that the two hippos previously slain by El Bimbashi had risen and were floating down the river. At first Zack didn't rightly grasp the importance of this calamity. But he soon found out.

Even as Zack stood ready to dish up one hundred and fifteen portions of fried fish—even as Said was drying out his net for another successful day—even at that moment of triumph, some evil Jinn sent Fudl running to the Bimbashi with tidings that his hippos were in sight. McDonald hurried towards the river; it was true. Two huge black bodies, puffed up like balloons, were drifting close inshore. An inspiration seized Mr. Bim. He would prove the white man's generosity—he would feed the multitude.

"Hey, there," his voice rang out, and Zack heard it clearly. "Hey there!" McDonald waved his hands to the idle negroes, "Catch those hippos," he pointed; "they're yours." The simplicity of this suggestion needed no interpreter; one long, shrill cry uprose from a lanky Shilluk at the water's edge—"Renk! Renk! Rau!" Splash! went the Shilluk's ambatch canoe, and the lone man paddled like mad.

At the cry of "Renk! Renk!"—flesh, flesh—and "Rau"—hippo—every Shilluk and every Dinka sprang shouting to his feet. There was a cloud of dust, a scurry of bare legs, and a dozen canoes went paddling swiftly toward the hippos. Naked men rushed along the water's edge to catch up ropes and drag their prizes ashore.

Back through the quarters spread the cry of "Renk! Renk!" Afar off in the fields red throats opened and reëchoed the call of flesh. Exactly one hundred and fifteen men dropped the plow handles, abandoned the mules, flung down their seed sacks, and dashed to the river, heedless of Mr. Bim, who raved and swore.

They beached their hippos fifty yards below the eating house, and every black creature within a mile answered roll call—and abided. Fifty knives slashed the carcasses into a thousand bits. Glistening black bodies capered about, and yellow dogs dodged between their legs. Every human being had deserted the Hot Cat Eating House.

Old Reliable stood dazed, while Said began folding his useless net, just as it came from the box, and resigned himself to the afflictions of Allah. "No peoples buy," he moaned. "No peoples work in field; all eat hippo, much full, same like great snake. All peoples go 'way—two week—one month—no come back maybe—Allah he know."

Zack dropped upon the eating house bench, regarding his piled up dishpans. "Dar now," the Black Effendi muttered. "'Tain't even a dog to eat dis fish. Mister Bim done got dis bizness in a jam."