Chapter 34 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

Gabriel the Bambarra.

The huge stature of the black—his determined attitude—the sullen glare of his lurid bloodshot eyes, set in a look of desperate resolve—the white gleaming file-pointed teeth—rendered him a terrible object to behold. Under other circumstances I might have dreaded an encounter with such a hideous-looking adversary—for an adversary I deemed him. I remembered the flogging I had given him with my whip, and I had no doubt that he remembered it too. I had no doubt that he was now upon his errand of revenge instigated partly by the insult I had put upon him, and partly set on by his cowardly master. He had been dogging me through the forest—all the day, perhaps—waiting for an opportunity to execute his purpose.

But why had he run away from me? Was it because he feared to attack me openly. Certainly it was—he feared my double-barrelled gun!

But I had been asleep. He might have approached me then—he might have—Ha!

This ejaculation escaped my lips, as a singular thought flashed into my mind. The Bambarra was a “snake-charmer”—I had heard so—could handle the most venomous serpents at rail—could guide and direct them! Was it not he who had guided the crotalus to where I lay—who had caused me to be bitten?

Strange as it may appear, this supposition at that moment crossed my mind, and seemed probable; nay, more—I actually believed it. I remembered that I had been struck with a peculiarity about the reptile—its weird look—the superior cunning exhibited in its mode of escape—and not less peculiar the fact of its having stung me unprovoked—a rare thing for the rattlesnake to do! All these points rushing simultaneously into my mind, produced the conviction that for the fatal wound on my wrist I was indebted, not to chance, but to Gabriel the snake-charmer!

Not half the time I have been telling you of it—not the tenth nor the hundredth part of the time, was I in forming this horrid conviction. It was done with the rapidity of thought—the more rapid that every circumstance guiding to such a conclusion was fresh in my memory. In fact the black had not changed his attitude of menace, nor I mine of surprise at recognising him, until all these thoughts had passed through my mind!

Almost with equal rapidity was I disabused of the singular delusion. In another minute I became aware that my suspicions were unjust. I had been wronging the man who stood before me.

All at once his attitude changed. His uplifted arm fell by his side; the expression of fierce menace disappeared; and in as mild a tone as his rough voice was capable of giving utterance to, he said—

“Oh! you mass’—brack man’s friend! Dam! thought ’twar da cussed Yankee driber!”

“And was that why you ran from me?”

“Ye, mass’; ob course it war.”

“Then you are—”

“Am runaway; ye, mass’, jes so—runaway. Don’t mind tell you. Gabr’el truss you—He know you am poor nigga’s friend. Look-ee-dar.”

As he uttered this last phrase, he pulled off the scanty copper-coloured rag of a shirt that covered his shoulders, and bared his back before my eyes!

A horrid sight it was. Besides the fleur-de-lis and many other old brands, there were sears of more recent date. Long wales, purple-red and swollen, traversed the brown skin in every direction, forming perfect network. Here they were traceable by the darker colour of the extravasatod blood, while there the flesh itself lay bare, where it had been exposed to some prominent fold of the spirally-twisted cowskin. The old shirt itself was stained with black blotches that had once been red—the blood that had oozed out during the infliction! The sight sickened me, and called forth the involuntary utterance—

“Poor fellow!”

This expression of sympathy evidently touched the rude heart of the Bambarra.

“Ah, mass’!” he continued, “you flog me with hoss-whip—dat nuff’n! Gabr’l bress you for dat. He pump water on ole Zip ’gainst him will—glad when young mass’ druv im way from de pump.”

“Ha! you were forced to it, then?”

“Ye, mass’, forced by da Yankee driber. Try make me do so odder time. I ’fuse punish Zip odder time—dat’s why you see dis yeer—dam!”

“You were flogged for refusing to punish Scipio?”

“Jes so, mass’ Edwad; ’bused, as you see; but—” here the speaker hesitated, while his face resumed its fierce expression; “but,” continued he, “I’se had rebenge on de Yankee—dam!”

“What?—revenge? What have you done to him?”

“Oh, not much, mass’. Knock im down; he drop like a beef to de axe. Dat’s some rebenge to poor nigga. Beside, I’se a runaway, an’ dat’s rebenge! Ha! ha! Dey lose good nigga—good hand in de cotton-feel—good hand among de cane. Ha! ha!”

The hoarse laugh with which the “runaway” expressed his satisfaction sounded strangely on my ear.

“And you have run away from the plantation?”

“Jes so, mass’ Edward—nebber go back.” After a pause, he added, with increased emphasis, “Nebber go back ’live!”

As he uttered these words he raised his hand to his broad chest, at the same time throwing his body into an attitude of earnest determination.

I saw at once that I had mistaken the character of this man. I had had it from his enemies, the whites, who feared him. With all the ferocity of expression that characterised his features, there was evidently something noble in his heart. He had been flogged for refusing to flog a fellow-slave. He had resented the punishment, and struck down his brutal oppressor. By so doing he had risked a far more terrible punishment—even life itself!

It required courage to do all this. A spirit of liberty alone could have inspired him with that courage—the same spirit which impelled the Swiss patriot to strike down the cap of Gessler.

As the negro stood with his thick muscular fingers spread over his brawny chest, with form erect, with head thrown back, and eyes fixed in stern resolve, I was impressed with an air of grandeur about him, and could not help thinking that in the black form before me, scantily clad in coarse cotton, there was the soul and spirit of a man!