Chapter VI.

23 Apr

Before anyone realized what had happened, a large human shape stood in the roadway, immediately beside the head of the immobile horse.

The bronze color of the man’s naked upper body revealed that he was a native triber. His muscular torso was bare above a pair of piassava pants that reached from the knees to the waist. The coarse palm fiber had been dyed to a brilliant light orange hue that stood out brightly.

No one spoke or moved as the intruder examined each of them in turn with his large charcoal eyes. His gaze, finally, settled upon Thav and he spoke directly to her.

“Your brother is brutally cruel to those who labor for him,” calmly said the native in a strong, self-assured voice. “There have been three canings by your overseer in only the past week.” His eyes flamed at the sister of Mem Samekh. “Tell him to cease his assaults at once. Not a single person can any longer be beaten or abused. If these outrages continue, a high price shall have to be paid by your family, Miss Thav. I promise you that will happen.”

As all eyes followed the husky Varzean, he leaped to the side of the road and disappeared into the thick, dark rain forest, running with incredible speed. It took a little time for those in the vehicle to realize that he had disappeared.

For several moments after the stranger was gone, no one dared speak a word.

The first comment came, of all places, from the drosky driver.

“That is the dacoit leader everyone fears,” he informed his passengers, twisting his neck around so as to face him directly. “That is the dangerous brigand who calls himself Yod. He is a fearless individual, everyone says.”

Thav turned to the others, her hands slightly shivering with dread.

“Yod Teth. My brother meant him when he told you about the depredations of the dacoits in our district. He is the worst of them. Every planter fears him. This triber is a menace to every plantation family.”

Gimel took her left hand into his right and held it tightly.

“We must get back and tell your brother what has happened,” he mumbled lowly.

Mem Samekh barely said anything when told of the incident by the Vexas and his sister. “Something will have to be done about this threat,” he grumbled, his teeth clenched. “An end must be put to such criminality. There can be no tolerance of outlaws. This man is dangerous to all of us.”

During the evening meal, a ricebird allapodrida, the four of them were mostly silent. Only after all were finished eating did Mem turn to the topic on everyone’s mind.

“We planters have allowed the problem to grow out of hand. The police are too shorthanded and passive to accomplish anything. My opinion has been that the landowners must take the initiative in order to rid us of the dacoit danger once and for all. There can be no alternative for us.”

A shadow of rage crossed his dull gray eyes, reflecting his inner passion.

“The man called Yod Teth is the most brazen of all the brigands. He is descended from the ancient line of chieftains of the Teth tribe. The land of my own latifundium belonged to them before our great-grandfather came to this district and carved out our holdings. You see, the Varzeans had no legal title or registration. That was considered to be against their tribal principles. All the territory on which the tribers lived was open to claims of outsiders like us. Decades passed, and the leaders of the Teth tribe refused to take any legal actions concerning the property. There was nothing wrong with what my ancestors did in taking control of this particular land claim. All the other Tochian planters did exactly the same. It was the general practice everywhere. Everything that was done fell within the limits set by the laws.”

“That is extremely interesting,” declared Gimel. “But the young man who stopped us on the road appeared to be acting as a sort of protector or champion of the Varzean workers, not a common robber. Nothing at all was taken from us. There was no demand for anything of value from this man who addressed us.”

Mem stared at him as if his guest was a naïve child.

“That is only a false pose,” he said with a frown. “Yod Teth’s secret aim is to rouse our tribers against us, with him as their head and leader. Then, he would take back the land of his ancestors, as would all the other tribers as well. He is a potential leader of a violent rebellion. There is nothing innocent or unselfish in his evil character.”

At that point, Lea decided to say something.

“Is the man capable of violent action, then?” she gently asked.

The planter turned his face to her.

“I believe that the landowners must organize and arm a posse to hunt him down. As long as he is freely roaming at large, we are in peril. Only his capture will ensure our safety. That alone can put an end to the danger the man represents. There is no one who is personally willing to carry out what has become necessary, but I myself am ready and willing to take direct action against the danger presented us by this hot-headed brigand-rebel. He must be stopped one way or another.”

No more was said about the matter that evening.

Early the next morning, a group of three tribers were digging up cassava roots in a clearing at the far northern end of the Samekh plantation. The green rays of the daystar grew brighter and hotter, until the small crew could no longer continue. One, then two of the men in loincloth dropped his grub hoe and lay on the open ground under a bamboo tree with leafy branches.

“Put down your grubber,” cried the first resting man. “It’s too hot to work in such heat. We can catch up later today. The air will be cooler then.”

Soon all three of them were on their backs under the shady tree. It took only a minute of silence for two of the laborers to fall asleep. The single one still awake failed to hear the approach of the latifundium’s overseer.

Khaph Daleth had tied his horse to a stump a short distance away and was making a circuit tour of a number of fields where plantation tribers had been assigned tasks to perform that morning. He meant to survey how near completion the work had progressed.

The worker who spied him approaching gasped for breath, then leaped up on his feet.

“Wake up the others,” ordered the supervisor in a loud, angry voice.

The one who was told this went over to his co-workers and shook each of them in turn. The crew, upon catching sight of Khaph, began to tremble with anticipatory fear.

“Get up,” shouted the giant. “Both of you, get off your backs at once.”

All three were in seconds upright.

Daleth stared irately at each man in turn before addressing them again.

“What you have been doing is inexcusable,” he said in a strangely subdued tone. “For now, return to the field and finish your job. Punishment will come tonight. Be sure of this: it will be fitting and most severe. There is no excuse for what I have seen here.”

With that, he stepped away, continuing his inspection of what other workers were doing.

The oldest and closest friend that Resh Zayeth had from his childhood years in Tochian City was Chak Dara. The latter was a Tochian who worked as editor of the Weekly Herald in the capital. He also wrote occasional articles for several major news-sheets with wide circulation. His political connections with important, influential figures in government posts were considerable. He was a well-known journalist who was widely read throughout Tochsylvania.

Resh and Chak found that they had much in common. Both men were dedicated readers and possessed wide knowledge of the historical and contemporary literature of Tochsylvania. Their opinions on conditions matched perfectly.

The short, round, slow-moving journalist made frequent visits to the forest preserve, often staying overnight before returning to the Landing Station and returning by steamer to the capital city. He found great benefit and satisfaction in the company of his chum.

Both friends had similar evaluations of the treatment of the Vazean aborigines by the Tochian plantation-owners, especially what they themselves saw around them in this particular district of Tochsylvania.

“This is by no means a new phenomenon,” groaned Chak one evening as they sat on the closed-in veranda of the station residence. “Since our people first moved down the Toch River into this area, there has been a continuous, unending campaign to uproot and remove the native tribes. I have no question in my mind that the settlers came here with the aim of destroying the traditional life and culture of the Vazeans. Is there any other way to explain what has happened to the tribers living on the forest land?

“The latifundia were set up to transfer the best tribal acreage into property of the newcomers. The is how things have actually come out. The aborigines have had to retreat into the poorest forestland, while a newly-formed gentry has taken over the productive land and exploited it using the desperate local labor of Vazeans. The entire system rests upon a foundation of merciless, brutal exploitation. Who can dispute that unquestionable conclusion?

“The bulk of the tribers live today in miserable poverty. They have fallen to the position of day laborer. The entire regional economy has become one of the exploited and their exploiters. All sense of hope has departed from the Vazean population. Nothing is left them except the trees left in the old, undivided forests that remain public, tribal property that is shared in common.”

Resh intervened with his own thoughts on the subject raised by his friend.

“If I can create new types and varieties of trees, that may eventually help lift up the old population and their needs. Nothing is now left to the tribers but the native trees that rise in their forests as they always have.

“But I have my reasons for a modicum of optimism. When our forests become renewed and reborn, the lives of the natives may finally be changed. I am certain of that, Chak. The solution for the aborigines lies in science and bio-technology.”

His friend frowned in despair. “But when will you have some simple, practical way of increasing the height, the weight, and the size of the trees of the tropical forest? When will all your experimentation give us some pay-off? And how will it help the aborigines if the new methods become owned and controlled by the plantation-owning gentry? Will it not be the same system that we now have around us today? The new system of tall trees might not be all that we have hoped for. Who can say or predict?

“I can see no difference in the economy of the forests even if the trees can be remade and reborn. The Vazeans will still remain where they are today, working for almost nothing on the latifundia, eating what they can obtain from their tribal commons and forests. Little would have altered for them. Only the trees themselves will have changed to any degree.”

Resh spoke after a silence during which he thought on the question posed to him by his friend, the journalist.

“Our laws will have to be changed with thorough, radical land reform, I believe. That is the only way of reconstruction of the way things are now done in the forestlands.

“It will have to be done by national law for all of Tochsylvania, in all our regions and districts. That is the only route to reform, it appears, even with the new type of trees that will tower up higher than what we have had down to today.”

“It may turn out to be a very long wait for all of us,” said Chak, almost cynically. “I foresee no limit to the colossal greed of the planters. They are totally out of control and seem to have gone mad with material ambitions. No one has been able to overcome the power that they hold in their hands.

“How are matters going to end in our rainforests?

“No one has any idea of what the final outcome is going to be.”

The two friends looked at each other a long time in silence.

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