“Journey to the Highlands of Papua: XII. The Upper Tagarree and the King of the Jews” by Regan Wolfrom
It was the rain-soaked parish of Kareega where the Fox Brothers first put our lives in danger. The brothers were long gone, having returned to Mount Hagen empty-handed in ’34, but to the natives who remembered their journey the life of any white man was now forfeit.
Only compensation for past wrongs had allowed us to travel this far up the Tagarree River, but we now had little left to trade for our safety. I began to fear that we would never reach the mountain of gold, and I was beginning to lose hope that we would come out of the Highlands alive.
A community of several hundred Wigmen, Kareega lay at the fork of the upper Tagarree, where the main river was met by a now-swollen branch that ran south from the Alooni Valley. This was the true highlands now, every plant and creature like nothing I’d known before, and where the natives were by far the fiercest of the dark lands.
The dwellings of the Wigmen were spread out along a gentle rise, surrounded with mounds of sweet potatoes and terraced plots of sugar cane. We were met in the driving rain by the village headman, a powerful-looking man with sullen eyes and an orange-dyed beard, his head crowned with one of the largest wigs I’d seen. He was accompanied by a half dozen warriors, armed with bone knives and stone adzes. The headman appeared to have no knowledge of Pidgin, so our guide Bapo, himself a Wigman from further north, served again as our interpreter.
The headman said that he remembered us from before, that we had stolen several pigs and killed many of his warriors. His manner reflected more a business negotiation than a threat, but his warriors stood ready.
“That was not us,” I said. “We are new to this country.”
As Bapo translated, the headman frowned at us. He then blamed the heavy rains and flooded banks on us as well, saying that the Earth was trying its best to wash us away.
“We are good men,” I said.
The headman awaited Bapo’s words before responding with irritation.
“He does not believe you,” Bapo said. “But — ”
“But he will accept payback.” I looked over to Samby. This was nothing new, paying for the sins of the prospectors who came before; but unlike other tribes, the Wigmen had no interest in our steel tools, so we were left with only trinkets to pay our ransom.
“Nothing but tambu shells,” Samby said.
“No gum shells?”
Samby shrugged. “Sorry, Yalla…none left.” He took several shells from his pack and held them out.
The headman looked at the offering and it was clear that he was not satisfied. He gave an angry reply that needed no translation; the bargaining was over.
“Get your weapons,” I said, reaching down for the handle of my revolver. Samby and Lewis followed my lead, and our boys began to unstrap their rifles from their packs. I lifted my gun in the air, pointing it above the natives’ heads, hoping they would scatter once they heard the shot.
“Do not fire!” a man called out from behind us, in King’s English. I turned around, expecting to see a colonial Kiap with his patrol, even though the nearest station was far behind us in the peaceable lowlands.
I saw a short-legged man with dark hair and heavy beard; he looked as unlike an English official as the Wigmen of Kareega. He was dressed much as us in light shirt, strides, and high boots, but he seemed in better form, as though he had arrived from nowhere, as though he had not yet spent a day in the drenched Highlands.
He spoke in native tongue to the headman, who appeared to understand. They spoke for several minutes but the tension did not ease. By now our boys had their rifles in hand, so, nodding to Samby and Lewis I prepared to fire.
The bearded man held up his hands and chanted: sharp words far harsher than the sing-song language of the Wigmen. At that instant the rain stopped, as though a tent canopy had been drawn across the sky.
The headman appeared to take this oddity as a sign; his eyes widened and his stance changed. The bearded man spoke again to the headman, and the response was much friendlier. The headman motioned to a large men’s house and smiled.
“You are welcome to come and trade,” the bearded man said to us. “And he has invited you to take from his garden.”
“No compensation?” Samby asked.
“I said that you will compensate them on your return.”
“What if we can’t do that?” I said.
“Then you’d better push on through to the Dutch East Indies.”
We went to the headman’s house and took from the garden, and even managed to trade several small tambu shells for a pig, enough meat for us but little extra for the boys.
I invited our new acquaintance to camp with us. We set up to the north across the Tagarree, ringing our tents with fishing wire to protect against intruders. But since this was the village of a now obliging headman, the only visitors we had were natives begging to join our ranks. If we had allowed them, half the village would have left with us come morning.
The bearded man called himself a traveling hermit, his name being Joshua Josephs. I introduced myself, and Samby and Digger Lewis, and told of our explorations. I gave no mention of the secret Bapo carried along with the dynamite in his pack; we had no need of another partner in our stake.
As we ate our meal of rice and pork, I noticed that Josephs did not share in our meat.
“How long have you traveled?” I asked.
“A long time,” Josephs said. “You’re the first whites I’ve seen here.”
“We won’t be the last.”
“That is my fear. I heard of Hides and O’Malley and of the Fox Brothers. I wish I had had the chance to find them and turn them back. They killed any man who dared to defend his home.”
“We haven’t killed a single tribesman,” I said.
“But I know you are here for gold, just as they were. If you find it, you’ll bring more whites and more death.”
“Listen here,” Samby said from across the campfire, “you’ve no right to look down on us.” He was cradling his rifle in his lap, patting his hand on the stock. “I’m sure you’re here just to walk about and study the plant life?”
“I’m not here for gold,” Josephs said.
“Then why?” Samby asked, making no effort to be friendly.
“I’m here to get away from your idea of civilization.”
“A true hermit,” I said. While I was unsure why anyone would leave cobblestone streets and indoor plumbing by choice, I was impressed by the man’s devotion to a simpler life.
“A hermit for as long as I can be one,” Josephs said. “You’re bringing your world to me as fast as you can carry.”
“I don’t understand you,” Samby said. “If you don’t want us here, why bother to save us? Why not have those savages cook us for supper?”
“I wish you no harm. And you would have killed many before the Wigmen managed to kill you, and your countrymen would be sure to avenge your deaths. Keeping you alive is far simpler than protecting all of New Guinea from the white man’s notion of justice.”
“You’re not keen on civilization,” Samby said, “but these tribes will have it soon enough, along with airstrips and missions. What’s so bloody awful in saving souls?”
“There’s much that’s bloody awful in that,” Josephs said. “The Wigmen have no need for your God.”
“What was that?” Samby stood and put his rifle down. He stepped over the fire, facing Josephs with fists clenched; he’d have already struck the man had he been closer to drunk. I looked over to see Lewis watching the exchange with some amusement as he chewed his meat.
“I mean no offense,” Josephs said. “I don’t like missionaries. They are worse than prospectors, as they don’t recognize the greed that consumes them.”
“You should keep your opinions to yourself.”
“I think you’re right,” Josephs said. He smiled and turned back to me. Samby seemed satisfied with the concession and returned to his seat. “Now tell me, Mr. King,” Josephs said to me, “where will your travels take you?”
“We’re traveling north to the Alooni Valley,” I said. I chose not to lie, as I was a poor liar at best and I’d learned long ago that it was better to hide secrets unsaid amongst the truth.
“I must warn you, the parishes to the north are dangerous,” Josephs said. “I suggest you find another route. The parish of Kopayago has been corrupted by an evil magic.”
“Magic?” Samby said. “We’ve seen the magic of these tribesmen. Shaking sticks, chanting in nonsense…the superstitions of a people in Satan’s bondage.” He picked up his rifle again, patting the stock once more as he placed the weapon back in his lap. “We have ways of bringing the Glory of Christ to these savages.”
“It’s not superstition,” Josephs said. “It is a true magic. A sangumaman, in our words a sorcerer, has taken control of that parish. His power is growing, and the people under his command are doing unspeakable things.”
“And you believe in that furphy?”
“Your Christian faith may not believe in the power of the sangumaman, but that does not make it any less real.”
Samby laughed. “He’s gone native, Yalla! Too much time in the rainforest eating undercooked pork.”
“As a Son of Abraham I don’t eat pork…it is unclean.”
Samby muttered to himself and rose from the campfire, taking his rifle with him as he walked away. I chose to follow, so I bade goodnight to Digger Lewis and to Josephs, who said that he intended to sleep with the boys by the fire. I found Samby along the line talking to one of the sentries in Pidgin. I overheard him telling the sentry to keep an eye on the man with the hair on his chin.
“He plans to follow us,” Samby said to me in a low voice.
“I think so…there may be some good in that.”
“We don’t need another boy to carry our packs.”
“He has influence among the Wigmen,” I said. “We have nothing left to offer these tribesmen. Josephs may be able to carry us through to Bapo’s creek. I’d rather put up with a superstitious hermit than go to war with every Wigmen in the Highlands. And I doubt he’s interested in sharing our gold.”
“Don’t be a fool, Yalla…no man ever turned away from striking it rich.”
“I’ll handle it.”
Samby shook his head. “I swear, Yalla, I swear…I’ll kill that miserable Jew before I let him take our gold.”
“There’s a good Christian,” I said.
Samby cursed me under his breath. I could see that he wanted nothing more than to strike me, but he simply walked away; he was not ready to challenge me yet.
We broke camp the next morning and walked in the rain along the north branch of the Tagarree, Josephs along with us. His pack was lighter than one would expect for a traveler; he seemed a man who lived on the kindness of others, a foolhardy act among the savage tribesmen of the Highlands.
There were two roads leading along the river, one by the bank and another that climbed high above, along a muddy ridge. Bapo, who claimed to live only a few days travel to the northeast, told us that the lower trail was likely to have been damaged by the past two years of flooding, and warned us of falling mud that could bury us in seconds. As he was by far our most reliable carrier in navigation and attitude, we trusted his judgment and climbed to higher ground.
As we walked I could hear our boy from Mount Hagen chattering about tribesmen eating long pig: human flesh. Bapo attempted to calm him down, explaining that his people where not cannibals, but the boy did not believe him. Every tribe in New Guinea seems convinced their neighbors are head-hunters.
“Wigmen do not generally eat long pig,” Josephs said in Pidgin. “But the sangumaman has commanded his warriors to steal men for meat.”
“My people would not do that,” Bapo said.
I interrupted in English: “Listen, Josephs…I’d rather you didn’t speak of this to our boys.”
“They should know the truth,” Josephs said.
“There’s no good in worrying them.”
I could see that the boy was now unsteady in his walk, his eyes chasing every sound about him. We’d lost more than one carrier to superstition, so I took a length of rope from my pack and tied the Mount Hagen boy’s hand to Bapo’s, knowing that he would keep the panicked boy from running away.
“You’re obsessed with magic,” Samby said to Josephs. “Unusual for a Hebrew.”
“I am a magician,” Josephs said, “schooled in the Jewish magics.”
“The Jewish magics? Stealing babies and poisoning wells?”
Josephs gave no sign of anger. “I have the power of the tzadik, the holy man.”
“I’ve never heard of such a magic,” I said. “What is it you are able to do?”
Josephs seemed hesitant to speak further. “The tzadik can command the power of The Most High. It is a magic rooted in meditation and prayer.”
“It’s blasphemy,” Samby said. “And witchcraft. And utter piffle.”
“Piffle? How do you think Christ performed his miracles? A holy man who is right with the Lord can command great things.” Josephs grinned. “Definitely greater things than the work of a disgraced clergyman.”
“Son of a bitch!” Samby yelled, pulling his revolver from his belt. For a moment I feared that Samby would shoot the man dead, but along with waving his weapon all he did was kick a stone off the edge of the ridge, almost losing his balance as he did. Looking down I could see that the fall down to the banks of the river would have killed him. “Yeah…a holy man,” Samby said. “Disgusting.” He stomped back to join Lewis, who never gave much bother to conversation.
“I could see it in him,” Josephs said to me. “The pride of the cleric. They want so much to be perfect like God himself…but they can’t, so they take it out on everyone else.”
“He’s a good cobber,” I said. “Once you get to know him.”
“He is…as are you. I can see that as well, Yalla. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past.” He smiled, and it seemed as though he truly knew of what had come before, but that he did not hold any of it against me.
Here was a Jewish holy man traveling with an expelled minister, a shell-shocked veteran and a second-rate gangster. It made me laugh.
Not long before midday Bapo led us along a place where the ridge narrowed among a stand of beech trees, under a large limestone outcrop that stuck out from the mud slope above us. I spotted a pineapple-shaped club on the ground, a weapon altogether different from the bows and knives of the tribesmen we had encountered thus far. While leaning down to look, I felt the ground shake and heard a sound that I do not believe I can fairly describe, as though the ground were folding in on itself.
I pulled back by instinct, missing the collapse of the footing in front of me by inches alone. Bapo and the boy from Mount Hagen were ahead of me under a shower of mud and rock. At my side I saw no sign of Josephs. A boulder hit Bapo on his shoulder, and he fell as another hit his pack. I feared that the explosives inside would react, tearing a hole larger than the ridge we stood upon.
The Mount Hagen boy began to tear away at the rope tied to his hand, pulling on the knot but making no progress in his frenzied state. A jagged rock soon smashed his head open as the last of the mud slid down.
I waited a moment before I climbed over to Bapo and helped him to his feet.
“I am good,” he said, “but the man with the hair on his chin has fallen off the mountain.”
I looked over the edge and saw no sign of Josephs. I knew that he could not have survived the drop. Without a word to my companions, I pulled the climbing equipment from my pack. I slipped on the harness and handed the rope to Bapo, who had untied himself from the dead boy.
“What are you doing?” Samby asked. “There’s no reason to go down there.”
“We should give him a proper burial,” I said.
“There’s no need to give a Christian burial to a Jewish holy man. I’m sure he’ll be carried to heaven in a chariot of roast pork.”
“I’m going down.”
Bapo secured the rope to a tree left standing and I climbed down the side of the ridge, sinking to my hips in unstable mud. I reached the bottom without incident, setting down in a slush of dirt, stone and broken trees, the fallen side of a mountain that was scattered down to the river itself. I realized that I might never find Josephs’ body and that I could not afford to spend much time in the search.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Josephs smiling at me. His clothes were torn and stained with mud yet he looked well. He thanked me for coming to his aid. I nodded, not knowing what to say, and he and I climbed back to the top of the ridge as though nothing out of the ordinary had been.
The scene at the top was one of chaos. In addition to the slide and the death of one carrier, the boys had witnessed the slide and Josephs’ fall, and it was clear even to them that the man should have died. Bapo said with surprising calm that Josephs was the spirit Datagaleewabeh come to settle an unknown score, while two of the boys from Kerema Bay had reacted more strongly, having dropped their packs and run off. Samby was uneasy, having pulled his rifle from his pack, and even silent Lewis managed several curse words at the sight of Josephs returned from the dead.
“There is no way you should still be alive,” Samby said.
“A miracle,” I said, not knowing if it was.
“What miracle? God would not spare the life of a Jew.”
“Have you not read Galatians 3:28?” Josephs asked.
I looked at Samby and could see that he did not know the verse.
Josephs laughed. “It means you should calm down and stop pretending you’re the bloody pope.”
Samby aimed his rifle at Josephs. “I demand to know who you are,” he said.
“I told you who I am. Joshua Josephs. Yehoshua ben Yosef of Nazareth.”
Samby’s eyes widened. “I know that name…the name of my Lord and Savior. You are not He.”
“I am not. The Son of God was born into a mortal body. I am that body resurrected and made new, but your Lord is no longer here with me.”
“So who are you now, then?” I asked.
“I suppose in a way I am the King of Israel. The King of the Jews.”
“King of the Jews?” Samby said. “I will not abide with having this charlatan among us.” He was speaking in his preacher’s voice, a bigger worry than when he was drunk.
“I cannot accept that, either,” I said. “Christ ascended to heaven.”
“His Spirit ascended,” Josephs said. “I am what remains.”
“I don’t think your presence will work with our boys and their superstitions,” I said.
“I won’t leave,” Josephs said. “Not until you have left this land. I’ll keep the peace for as long as I can.”
“We’re not leaving until we get our gold.”
“I’m not here to stop you.”
“I don’t trust you,” Samby said. He still had his rifle trained on Josephs.
Josephs walked over to him. “You can put your gun down…it’s no use on me.”
“Do you swear you won’t try to stop us?” I asked.
Josephs grinned. “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’,” he said. “I have no plan to stop you, but that may change.”
Samby looked over to me. “This is your fault, Yalla. You should have left him down there.”
I did not reply, since at that moment I agreed with him.
There was little conversation as we buried the boy from Mount Hagen. Lewis carved what he believed was the boy’s name onto a rock that he placed on the grave and Samby said a stuffy Methodist prayer. The boy had been a good carrier, if a little unsteady, and I regretted the loss.
After tracking down the runaways, we continued along the path as it started downhill, towards a small and strangely quiet collection of farms along the riverbank.
The settlement was deserted, homes not burnt out but simply abandoned. There were no signs of violence, as though the residents had simply chosen to find somewhere else to live.
“This is a bad place,” Bapo said in Pidgin. “There is food but no people. A bad magic is here.”
“The sangumaman was here,” Josephs said. “His territory is growing more quickly than I expected.”
“Where did the people go?” I asked.
“I believe they were taken. The children will be adopted and the adults will be killed and eaten.”
“You’re not serious,” I said.
Josephs turned to Bapo and spoke to him in Pidgin. “Where is the closest ground for the Tee?”
Bapo pointed to the north. “Along the river. A walk of a day.”
“What is the Tee?” I asked.
“It is the exchange of gifts,” Josephs said. “I believe we may find the sangumaman there.”
“We don’t want to meet him.”
“Then pray that you don’t.”
We ate a meal from the food that remained in the empty village (which the boys would not touch), before continuing on a path that ran near the river. The forest was thicker here than in the south and the hills steeper. Every farm we passed was empty and looked to have been abandoned weeks before.
We set up camp uphill, our sentries watching the road. There was another trail that ran east towards Bapo’s parish, but that was not the way to Bapo’s creek and the mountain of gold, so we decided that come morning we would keep to following the river. I was not eager to meet the tribal sorcerer, but I had faith in our guns and especially in Digger Lewis. I knew little of his time in the Great War, whether he had gone to Gallipoli, but I was sure of his ability and courage. Still, we spent an anxious night at camp, worried that our campfire would be spotted by the head-hunters.
The next morning came without an attack, and we continued upriver as the rain fell. The trail reached a junction, one fork fording the river, but Bapo declared that the flooding waters might be too swift to cross. He took us down the less-traveled path along the left bank of the river, and soon I saw the smoke of cooking fires on the far side.
We reached a suspension bridge of bamboo and vine, a narrow track that hung precariously over the swollen waters. I was unsure of the bridge, partly because of its construction but also because the crossing downriver had appeared to be better used.
I had some of the less experienced boys cross over the bridge as a test, with the happy aside that their packs of mainly rice and beans were among the most buoyant. They made it across, so the rest of our party soon joined them on the east side of the river.
The farms that stood before us had the trappings of habitation, but we were not met by any tribesmen as we entered. We could hear noise from a gathering further in so we continued along the path, our guns at the ready.
At the meeting place, a large clearing of trimmed grass set beside a large men’s house, we found tribesmen gathered together numbering in the thousands. There was much activity yet a strange quiet ruled the day. The men spoke few words to one another and none seemed bothered that the rain was still falling heavily as it had for weeks.
A group of older men were clustered together with younger men nearby. A major chief was there, carrying a prayer stick and dressed in full costume, one large shell on his chest and a pauwink shell adorning his forehead. Every man wore soot and pig fat on his face, their hair and skin colored black as night.
In front of the men were rows of wooden stakes, at the least five hundred. Among the stakes nearest the men’s house I saw women and children lying on the ground. I realized then that all those who stood were men.
“This is a perversion of the Tee,” Josephs said. “Instead of exchanging pigs in payment of past gifts, they are trading in the lives of their women and children.”
I saw then that those on the ground were bound, their wrists and legs tied together like cattle, each captive attached to a stake. Their bodies were covered in clay and their mouths stuffed with sod.
The sheer size of the headhunter army before me was overwhelming, and I could not help but worry at the expansion that Josephs described. What damage would come if they were to march to Mount Hagen or even down to the Markham Valley? Could this unholy force grow to envelop all of New Guinea?
A group of villagers saw us but did not approach.
“We are not welcome,” Josephs said, “but I think they fear our bad magic enough to keep their distance. With luck they’ll ignore us and hope that we leave.”
“This is some form of human sacrifice?” I said.
“In the gift exchange, each man in the village brings his pigs to the meeting square where they are taken by those who are to receive them. They then bring the pigs to the next Tee ceremony, and continue on until it reaches the source of the original gift. I assume that these captives will be taken to the homes of their new masters, and there they will be slaughtered.”
“We must stop this,” Samby said.
“This does not involve you,” Josephs said. “There is no gold in this village.”
“We can’t help them,” I said. “There are thousands of warriors here. We should find a way to bypass this village, perhaps through Bapo’s parish. This is not our fight.”
“This is an affront to the Lord,” Samby said, his eyes fixed on me. “You chose this path, but now you want to run away and let these innocents be slaughtered.”
“It’s their way of life,” I said. “There is no good or evil here.”
“There is evil here,” Josephs said. “I can feel it.”
“I feel it as well,” Samby said.
Josephs’ expression had changed to worry; on other men I would see it as fear. “It’s a spirit that I believed had gone from the Earth,” he said.
“Then we best avoid it,” I said. “It has nothing to do with us.”
Samby shook his head. “You’re a coward, Yalla.”
“Watch your words.”
“You ran from Melbourne, and then from all Australia. Now you want to run away again.”
“You’re damned lucky we ran away.”
“It was your doing, Samby,” I said. “All of it. It takes a boofhead like you not to know what a naughty with Squizzy Taylor’s niece will get ya. You’d be dead if it wasn’t for me.”
“Yeah…if it wasn’t for Yalla King’s fast feet. The big bad sly-grogger of Carlton, that’s what they called ya, and all you could offer me was a run for the hills. Well, not this time, mate. This time we’re gonna stay right here.”
“Not gonna happen, Samby.”
“Then I’ll do it myself. I’m not fooling.” He pointed his rifle into the air.
“Hold on,” I said, knowing he’d do it. “If you’re going to fire, we’ll fire together. A coordinated volley; hopefully that’ll make them scatter.”
“Don’t do it,” Josephs said. “You cannot win against the spirit that commands these people. This is the magic of an ancient god. You cannot defeat him with rifle shot.”
But I knew that Samby wouldn’t believe him and that Samby would shoot no matter what I did. “On my mark,” I said, waiting for the boys to pull their guns. “Ready…fire!” We fired a full volley, fifteen rifles. All activity on the meeting square came to a halt.
“Tanim tok ples,” Samby said to Bapo, asking him to translate. Samby cleared his throat and puffed out his chest. “Hear my words! You are defying the true God of the world. You are tools of the devil. Release your captives and beg the Lord’s forgiveness.”
Before Bapo had even begun to translate, most of the tribesman began to flee. Several dozen warriors stood their ground but none seemed ready to charge.
“They now know the power of Christendom,” Samby said with a satisfied grin.
“Do not underestimate your enemy,” Josephs said.
The native chieftain raised his prayer stick and chanted in a harsh tongue. As with the words of Josephs at Kareega, I knew it was not the language of the Wigmen. The warriors who had fled soon returned to the field, and every man there began to chant along with their master. A bank of warriors formed at the front, with axes and clubs rather than bow and arrow. I knew from the tales of the Ancient Mexicans just what their axes and clubs were for; the Wigmen were looking to capture us alive, to make us part of their ceremony.
“He brought them back together with a chant,” Samby said. “I don’t believe it.”
“It is a spell of compulsion,” Josephs said. “It is the god Ramman…he can command armies of many thousands with those words. He has done so before, in Assyria, in Babylon…” I was surprised to hear his voice tremble as he spoke. “All of New Guinea is in danger.”
“So we’d better make sure we’re quick on reloading,” I said.
“That will not work. I will hold them back, but you must take your men and run.”
“How do you plan to do that?”
“You must run!”
I started to step backward, keeping my eyes and my rifle on the crowd of warriors. The boys all did the same, as did Lewis, while Samby remained, staring at the tribesmen before him.
“Dammit, Samby,” I said. “I’ll kill you myself if you don’t come with us.”
He waited a moment longer before joining us in our slow retreat.
The sangumaman pointed his stick towards us and called out. Hundreds charged towards us.
Josephs raised his arms in the air and spoke his own chant, a mix of hard sounds and a more lyrical tongue. The rain stopped again and the wind began to blow. Dust and leaves rose into the air and blew towards the advancing warriors.
Their charge slowed but did not falter.
Josephs’ voice grew louder and the wind matched his climb, and some of the tribesmen began to fall back.
I waited no longer and turned to run. I took selfish comfort in the fact that I was now in the lead, with our pack-laden boys following behind; I would be first on the bridge and first over the river.
I reached the water and climbed onto the bridge. Behind me I saw that the tribesmen were but several paces behind our boys and their heavy loads, while Samby and Lewis were right to the back of me. Josephs was nowhere to be seen.
As I crossed the bridge I heard the sounds of the attack, cries of rage and pain along with the carnage of axe and club on unshielded flesh. There was nothing I could do for our boys and I had no choice other than to keep to my escape.
I reached the far side of the river and continued to run, as the noise of battle disappeared into the sound of the rushing Tagarree. I did not stop until I reached an empty farm, where I hid along a fence in a field of sweet potato.
Samby and Lewis soon joined me, along with one carrier, a Motu from Hanuabada. Bapo did not arrive, nor did the eleven others. I did not know how many were captured or how many were killed.
“I can’t believe what my own eyes have seen,” Samby said. “There’s a demon in both of those men.”
“I don’t know what that was,” I said. “But we’ve lost almost everything.”
We checked our supplies and posted the Motu boy to watch. We waited to see what would happen while we gathered what food was available from the farm, hoping to resupply as best we could. I had little doubt that we no longer had enough food to keep going, and we had also lost much of our ammunition. And we no longer had the equipment or the carrying space for the mountain of gold where our missing guide was to lead us.
Yet I still wanted to hold there at that farm. With no faith in our supplies or the scant force of us who remained, I needed to place my hope in something. So I waited for Josephs to return.
And Samby and Lewis did not push me to leave, but that was likely more from exhaustion than faith.
Josephs arrived almost an hour later, covered in dirt, blood, and grease. But what was most striking about him was that his hair had turned white and his face was aged. He had looked younger than me that morning, but Josephs had grown old, years of life torn away.
“I couldn’t hold them off,” he said quietly. “There were too many.The sorcerer saw who I am, but he is not frightened of me.”
“Who you are?” Samby said.
“Yes,” Josephs said. “Ramman knows me. He knows who dwelt within my body.”
“Piffle. You’re of Satan if anything.”
“Quiet, Samby,” I said. “We need a plan.” We had lost almost all of our boys, Papuan men I had promised to protect. And gone with them were most of our supplies. Even if we turned back, if we were to push downriver and back through the gap there was little hope we could make it to Mount Hagen with what we had left. “We need to go back for our boys and our supplies.”
“If we can break the power of Ramman,” Josephs said, “we can free the warriors from his magic.”
I was unsure of just what Josephs could do, but I had not expected to see what I had seen that day, and the notion of magic no longer found me in such casual disbelief. “Will that be enough to break up his army?” I asked.
“I don’t know…from the size of the force, I believe that they are made up of several parishes. It would be almost impossible to maintain such an alliance of hostile neighbors.”
“Do you think they’ll turn on each other?”
“No,” Josephs said, “but I think you’ll have a better chance of persuading them to quit the field if they are no longer united.”
“What will it take to break the spell?”
“Like all false gods, the power of Ramman depends on belief. A sangumaman has magic through the prayer stick and through his words, and that is where Ramman has found his power in this land. But he has no power over you or I because we do not believe.”
“But that doesn’t stop us from being captured and killed.”
“You must capture the sangumaman and prevent him from using his magic; I don’t have enough power to protect you and there is no time for me to rest and restore my strength. Once you have captured him I will do my best to cast Ramman from his host.”
“So we need to march through a crowd of several thousand warriors and capture their leader.” I did not expect we had a different choice left to make. I looked over to Lewis, who had been listening silently. “Well, Digger…you’re the military expert.”
Lewis nodded. “They aren’t carrying bows and arrows,” he said. “They’re fighting hand-to-hand, likely to take more prisoners. What we need is a phalanx formation.” He took his rifle point and began to draw in the dirt. He drew five circles in the shape of a cross. “Three men with rifles form a triangle…one man in the middle handles reloading while the other bloke fixes his bayonet to spear any savage who comes close.”
“I will not kill,” Josephs said. “There are only four of you to fight.”
“We’ll be more exposed,” Lewis said. “Whoever has the bayonet will need to double up on reloading.”
“I can handle both,” Samby said.
“Good on ya,” Lewis said.
“Now remember,” I said, to Samby for the most part, “we won’t be getting home without our boys and our packs…so there’s no point in turning back halfway.”
“You know I won’t run,” Samby said.
I could see that he was telling me the truth. I was proud of him.
“Then let’s have it,” I said.
After a quick test of the formation, we started back towards the meeting ground. Lewis recommended we ford the river to change our approach and we managed it despite the swollen waters.
The farms we saw were empty; the meeting was still taking place. We brought ourselves into formation before reaching the landing of the suspension bridge with Samby as the spearman in the middle. The Motu was placed in front, in part to prevent his flight, while Lewis and I took positions on the left and right. Josephs walked just in front of Samby, relying on the men on the flanks to protect the pack he was carrying with the ammo we had left.
We found that the warriors had posted watch at the junction, two men with bows. I saw no choice but to fire, but my first shot fell wide due to the fixed bayonet. Lewis followed and shot both men dead.
We continued steadily and were met by a group of ten warriors, armed with axes and clubs. We brought them down quickly. I had always imagined myself aiming to wound rather than kill, but in the moment I could not keep from choosing the easier path, aiming for the chests of my opponents. I gave no second thought to my targets; to me, they had been the victims of the sorcerer, and their deaths should not burden my soul. (Although I have not been so successful in forgetting their faces.)
We met the main body at the edge of the meeting grounds, and found that their numbers had lessened to about a thousand, some men having apparently left the meeting place with their prisoners. A good number of captives were still bound on the grass, though I did not take the time to see if any were our boys.
“Ready men,” Lewis said. “Keep to your area of fire and maintain a steady pace.”
“I see our packs,” I said. “10 o’clock, by the men’s house.”
They were piled together, unopened, not far from where the sangumaman stood, watching us. He held his prayer stick high and began his chant. The tribesmen began their charge, and we began to fire.
I had to push the Motu boy to keep him advancing. The warriors circled around us, and I saw that Samby had to spear several men who tried to attack from the rear.
“Reload!” Lewis shouted, throwing his rifle to Samby and pulling out his revolver.
Samby was quick to the task, throwing his rifle over his shoulder without a moment’s pause. “Here,” he called out, passing the rifle back. I requested a cartridge as well, using my revolver to take shots at two men rushing up on our Motu boy. I brought down the first but merely grazed the second. I called out to Samby as the warrior began to hack at our boy with his axe. Samby’s bayonet came quickly and our boy was able to continue advancing, but I could see that he was bleeding from his side.
“There’s too many,” I said as I switched back to my rifle. “You need to do something, Josephs.”
“I won’t kill,” he said.
“I don’t want you to kill, dammit! Just do something!”
Josephs pushed back behind Samby, breaking from the formation and running off to the right of us. Over a dozen warriors gave chase, opening up a large space on one side of the field.
Josephs tried another chant of his own, but his voice seemed tired and his words quickly faded. The savages had surrounded him by then and had begun hacking at him with their weapons, but their blows landed without harm against his body, as though their axes and clubs were no more dangerous than a grilled fish. He pushed aside several warriors as he worked to escape, but soon the mass was too great and they came to pull him to the ground. I fired a shot into the group, but it did nothing to disperse the tribesmen.
“They’re going to tear him apart,” Samby said.
“This is our chance,” Lewis said. “Let’s take the sorcerer.”
We broke formation, Samby and Lewis pushing towards the sangumaman with their best effort while I aimed for our packs. Samby reached the sorcerer first, pulling away the prayer stick just before turning to fight off a couple of attacking warriors, while Lewis pulled out his blade and drove it into the sangumaman’s throat.
I reached the packs and started to pull open each one, looking for the dynamite. As I found Bapo’s pack I felt a sharp push into my back. I swung around with the butt of my rifle, catching my attacker in his stomach. I pulled out my revolver and fired into his head.
I took out three sticks and blasting caps. I put a short fuse on the first stick, lit it with my lighter and threw it towards the crowd of warriors attacking Josephs. It exploded a moment before landing, lessening the casualties but making a strong statement. I threw the second stick as the warriors began to disperse, and by the time I had thrown the third most of the tribesmen were in flight. And as the wounded sangumaman could give no chant, the field began to clear.
I looked down to see Josephs on the ground, his eyes closed. “Josephs,” I said.
“I’m here.” He opened his eyes and slowly stood.
The army of tribesmen had given up the fight at that point, the warriors gathering at a distance to watch the proceedings. Their curiosity at the risk of their own safety was something that impressed me a great deal. I was given to believe that the Wigmen were among the fiercest and bravest of men, and that sentiment has yet to fade.
Josephs and I walked over to the sorcerer, whose throat was badly cut. Yet I could see no blood from the wound.
Josephs extended his right hand and placed it under the sorcerer’s nose. I could see a ring on his forefinger that I had not seen before. He spoke in his mystical tongue as we all watched in silence.
The sangumaman did not resist, and in a moment Josephs had finished and the sorcerer was collapsed on the ground, gasping for air as blood began to pour from his throat. Josephs knelt down and held his hand over the man’s neck and said what I believe was a prayer. The gasping stopped.
“Have you healed him?” I asked as I slowly lowered myself down into the grass beside Lewis and Samby.
“I released him,” Josephs said. “They would have killed him the moment we left.”
He then stood and addressed the tribesmen directly in their tongue. He spoke for over a minute, and as he spoke the people drew closer, and when he had finished the warriors came forward to release the prisoners who remained.
“They will track down the other captives,” Josephs said. “The bad magic is gone.”
The battle won, I began to feel the weakness in my body and the pain of the blade still lodged in my back. I saw that our Motu boy was dying not far from us, and that both Samby and Lewis had taken several bad blows from the axes and clubs. I was probably the worst off of the three of us, but none of us looked like we’d make it home.
“You are all a mess,” Josephs said. “Not one of you will be able to walk out of here.” There was some irony in that, as Josephs himself looked much weaker than before. His breathing was labored and his skin matched the leather on my canteen.
“Just what you wanted,” Samby said. “We won’t be bringing back any gold.” He grimaced as he adjusted his position. A large part of his right ear was missing, and I could see a pool of blood beneath him.
“But we did something worthwhile,” Lewis said, clutching a wound in his stomach.
“It was a good thing you’ve done,” Josephs said. “I could see that you took no pleasure in killing. Maybe you understand now that these men of Papua are your brothers.”
“I know,” I said. I tried to smile, tasting the blood in my mouth. “On the balance, we’re pretty good blokes. It’s a good way to end it.”
Feeling tired, I closed my eyes. I could feel a warm hand press down on my stomach, and I began to feel a little better, as though I too was being released. I took a deep breath and went to sleep.
I awoke to the sounds of yet more rain. We were camped on a rise above the river, where the ground was rocky but still wet with mud. The boys were at work gathering firewood. There were several new faces in the group, alongside the familiar ones, such as Bapo and the Motu boy from Hanuabada.
I saw Samby by a large outcrop, chiseling away on the wall of stone. Lewis stood nearby, and both looked well. And I felt well, better than I had since we left Mount Hagen. Like the wretched lepers who came to Jesus, we had been healed. By the Grace of God, Joshua Josephs had mustered the power to give us all a second chance.
We could continue upriver now, to the Alooni Valley and the gold that Bapo would show us. I knew that Josephs wouldn’t begrudge us that after all we had done. I knew he’d help us get there.
I took my time climbing up to the outcrop, though my body didn’t require such gentle treatment.
Samby had finished carving before I reached him. He had a tear in his eye, and even silent Lewis mouthed a prayer. I looked over to see what he had written.
Here lies Yehoshua ben Yosef of Nazareth
Friend to the Wigmen
King of the Jews
|Regan Wolfrom is a Canadian writer and ongoing safety concern. His first novel, After The Fires Went Out: Coyote, was released in February, while its followup, Shards, comes out in June 2013. More info can be found at www.reganwolfrom.com|