Up the river

by joetwo

War! What is it good for? As the wise man once said; absolutely nothing. For the vast majority of people that is completely true but there is a certain subset, comparatively rare, for whom war is an opportunity to make vast sums of money. They are the smugglers, arms dealers and mercenaries of the world. Most like just to retire once the fighting is over, to enjoy their not quite ill-gotten gains in peace. But there are an even rarer subset who positively love war and anarchy and all that go with it. When everyone is indecent enough to go and stop fighting and start being nice to one another they decide to take matters into their own hands and go about setting up little islands of chaos around a much more peaceful world. It was just such a bunch of people that I found myself attached to when I joined James’ band. Though of course I did not know that at the time.

I was still severely drugged when I was dragged back to my feet after I got out of the taxi in front of the Hotel Royal by two of James’ burly compatriots. “Somebody must have tried to get the best of you eh Enrique?.” James said as I tried again to stand and the promptly fell again to the ground “Still you managed to make your way back here. Gunther!” he said to one of the men, “See! I told you this guy has spunk. Let’s see what we can make of him.”Somehow I was able to drag myself back to my feet and staggered waveringly back into the hotel.

It was there that I was introduced to the rest of the group. There was twenty men from many countries and walks of life, I can’t recall all of them it was so long ago but there where three who really stuck with me, mainly because they scared the pants off me. There was a French man by the name of Christoph who had the air of someone who could cut the neck off you as soon as look at you. There was a Black Brazilian called Pedro who was as built like a tank and had a tendency to take out a large knife and start stabbing at things (not people as far as I have seen) and looking at someone he wanted to intimidate. Finally I remember Gunther who was German. There were several former axis soldiers in James’ cabal but the other Germans all made it a point of denying they had ever been Nazis, even though I had never asked them. Gunther though when he heard the other Germans denying so vehemently just took a look at them and they shut up. Gunther, I soon found, was very much James’ second in command. As harsh an unforgiving leader as James was generous. Notwithstanding the veritable United Nations of hard men around whom I was rapidly sobering up. They all got on reasonably well and it were actively engaged in work together which at that particular case referred to barking orders at me while I did a lot of the heavy lifting.

There was plenty to move. Boxes covered with lines of numbers and other packages that I was unable to identify littered the ground as well as all the available tables and shelf space. Most of the boxes were grand, if not a little heavy and I was able to move them with about much bother and a little elbow grease. A few on the other hand, I was warned not to go near and they were carefully wheeled out by the others with all the care the could muster. In all it took us nearly an hours to load two trucks at which point it was near 10 O’Clock.

The two trucks left behind the hotel and we all followed in a third. It was there that James told me that I had arrived on an auspicious day “We are going on a mission!” he said with evident glee. These trucks are going to deliver us and those supplies to our boat in the docks and we will then make our way up the river. I know you understand that it is sometimes better to do these things at night.” I nodded pretending I understood.

We emerged by the Congo river in a more industrial setting than the ferry dock that I had arrived in early that day. Moored along the pier was a old riverboat that looked, if anything more old and decrepit than the Magnificent that I had so readily abandoned. Whatever reservations I had were silenced when Gunther barked orders for us to leave the truck and start loading all the boxes into the boat. We all worked this time and were joined in our exertions by and old-looking man who had come off the boat. This man; the others just called him Billy, somehow whipped all the men into an efficient frenzy and the trucks were empty in less than half an hour. By just after midnight we were cast off and on our way.

The Congo is a wide river, without much in the way of obstructions along its path but there was still the need for constant vigilance on the part of the pilot to avoid the unexpected. Billy, William Mackintosh to his mother, was in late middle age and hailed from (heavens praised) Scotland. I immediately highlighted the Hamish in my name and tried to play up the Scottishness of my ancestry as well as I could (It might have been true!). I doubt Billy cared. He had worked for the royal navy during the first great war and sailed on cargo ships and river boats for over twenty years. He hadn’t seen Scotland in all that time and didn’t much care for that fact. Billy loved the river and to hear him he knew it better than anyone else.

Though it was as dark as pitch for all of the night, thanks to some miracle and no doubt Billy’s skill, we were still free and heading up river when the sun rose above the trees. I had spent most of the previous days travelling through jungle but to really appreciate its scale, you have to see it from a distance like in the middle of a river. The tall trees and sheer distance that the carpet of green extends can only be seen if you step back a little, the wood literally cannot be seen  for the trees. The assortment of men were busy at work amongst the boxes. With the benefit of the fresh light they had opened them and started to remove and prepare a frightening assortment of weapons. Most of them I had never seen before with the possible exception of war film and even then it was hazy. Boyhood fascination aside, I found myself increasingly nervous with this and decided to join Billy in the pilot’s house.

Billy; whether he believed my Scottish dimension or not, seemed to like me and while the sun rose he started to tell me the ins and outs of river navigation. The way he spoke it sounded so incredibly easy. It was only when I tried to remember that I realised that I didn’t understand half of it. Still I learned some new things from him that morning and every time I came to speak with him. This was to be a defining feature of our relationship.

When the sun was close to its zenith. James summoned me and announced what he expected me to do. There was a small galley in the bowels of the boat and I was to go there and fix them up something. I did know how, didn’t I?

I once again lied through my teeth and heading into the stifling heart of the boat found the small remedial galley and tried to summon what little I had learned from Granny and Hans. A number of packages had been stashed into the galley and a quick survey of their contents found that they were filled with canned and dried foods of several kinds. These were all fighting men, simple folk, they wouldn’t want fancy, they would want filling and warm, or cold, depending on the weather. I worked as well as I could.

Soon enough. I was dishing out “O’Brien’s Broth” to each and everyone. A light, simple chicken broth with some added spices and vegetables. Perfect for a warm day. The comments were generally favourable and I was told in no uncertain terms that they expected more of the same for dinner at nightfall. My mind started spinning with ideas.

Food prep if you do it right is not all-consuming and I found plenty of time to spend on deck talking with the others mostly Billy mind. I had found that after you watch a man slurp down a bowl of food, you can never be truly scared of him. That had worked for most of them, except for Gunther and the other three. Nothing could make them seem non-threatening. But even they treated me a little better after I had fed them. I asked a few what they were doing, mostly it was cleaning and fixing guns, bombs, general mischief matériel. They were a little reticent to talk about what they were going to do, even Billy, I figured I would soon find out.

I made boiled rice with fish of some sort for dinner then after everyone had finished and the galley and dishes were clean, I made my way back to Billy for another chat. I must have fallen asleep in the Pilot’s house because I was awoken with it still dark and was met by James telling me to go to the galley and stay put. He said they wouldn’t be needing any breakfast that morning but if I could rustle up some coffee, that would be good.

I rustled up four pots of steaming coffee and handed them to Christoph and another man who had seemingly been sent down for the purpose of collecting them. They didn’t seem too non-plussed about their errand work, the looked excited, eager even. Like they had already drank too much. When they had gone I couldn’t tell too much more. The galley window showed that the sun was already coming back but it only looked like the river bank was even further away than it had been the previous day.

It was then that I felt a lurch and was nearly knocked onto the still warm oven. We must had hit something. A sandbank maybe? Not likely with Billy in charge. Heard voices and the unmistakable tones of Gunther barking something harsh. This continued for a few minutes, then, nothing.

I waiting down in my station for it must have been half an hour without any sign or visit when I gathered the courage to climb back up to the deck. The place was deserted. I quickly realised that we where not in the middle of the river any more, we had pulled up in a little inlet, right against the bank. A long gantry had been extended and was lost in the greenery of the undergrowth. I was about to step onto it and investigate when I heard behind me “Hey you! I thought they told you to stay down in the galley!” It was Billy. I asked him where everyone had gone. He sighed and said “I’m sure you were going to ask sooner or later.”

Before he could say anything else there was a popping sound from further up the river, like fireworks in the distance From my youth I knew what they were, that was  gunfire, occasionally the popping would be accompanied by a muffled thump, the sound of explosives going off. The sounds continued at a rapid pace for a few minutes, then gradually subsided down to only a few pops a minute then there was silence. I looked in the direction of the sounds and then back at Billy, his face was stoic, he was looking at the river. I was confused a little at what could have grabbed his attention and then I saw it.

On the river, running down with the flow was a veritable armada of boats. The first were large metal boats,  I could just pick up the whirr of their motors. With each passing moment the boats got more and more simple going from modern diesels to steam junkers and finally to dugout canoes, moving on human power. They all had one thing in common; they were all filled with people and not much else.

“That is why we were here.” Sniffed Billy, his eyes not showing much emotion at all. I was confused again, “We were there to protect them?” I asked. Billy choked out a laugh “What! Of course not! We were here to get rid of them” He put a hand on my shoulder “You see son; there are hundreds of little settlements like that which have grown along the river in the past few years, all of them without permission. Sometimes they find that they are sitting on something valuable, like gold, or diamonds, or the like. Well then; there are powerful, people with powerful companies that would want to use that. So they send us in to scare them away and then they can come in and claim the site like the village was never there. We get paid plenty for our work and there is enough to make sure certain Belgian officials look the other way as well. Everybody wins!”

“What about them?” I asked pointing at the flotilla “What do they get?” Billy sniffed again “If their lucky they won’t get killed. We don’t want them dead, we just want them gone, it’s too hot to be burying people. They can set up somewhere else just as fast and if they have sense they wouldn’t stay were there is something valuable. Listen to me, we all are going to get very,very well paid for this, if you have any kind of moral issues about it then you are free to walk away.”

But that was the thing. I wasn’t free to walk; I couldn’t go anywhere. James had found me with literally nothing and had taken me in, at the very least I owed him, and I would have to stay until that debt was repaid. I resigned to my fate. “So what happens next?” Billy looked back in the direction of the original noise, already some wisps of smoke could be seen. “Well it looks like they have already started razing the village. They will burn everything they can and then they will wait for a crew from whoever hired us to show up and bulldoze what is left. Then it is back to Leopoldville. Soon I will be getting a message from them on the radio to sail up the river and land where they are. Son! They would be expected some lunch when their done, something good. The job makes you hungry.”

I stepped back down to the galley and started to put together what I could from what I had. They had devilled ham and it I lightly fried that with some onions I might be able to pass that off as steak. I wouldn’t be exactly but they might appreciate it all the same. They did.

That was my first excursion with James and his band but it wasn’t my last. I never saw much more than I did that first day; I wasn’t meant to, I was support staff. Still what little I saw gradually hardened my heart. A testament to what familiarity can breed in us all.

I wouldn’t stay with James forever though and the tale how I finally left his service was every bit as weird as how I entered it. But that; dear reader, is for the next part of my story.