In Africa, Heathcliff is sent on a dangerous expedition up the Pongo River
In Liverpool, young Heathcliff signed onto a slave ship and sailed to Africa. In this chapter from Heathcliff: The Lost Years, Captain Collingwood assigns Heathcliff to accompany a canoe expedition up the Pongo River, where the African slave trader King Big Tucker has sent his men to gather more slaves for the English traders.
(C) David Drum
Captain Collingwood tasked Heathcliff with keeping an eye on King Big Tucker’s expedition. That morning, he found himself carrying one end of a long dugout canoe down a narrow path through the jungle that paralleled the ocean. After he followed them sloshing through a thicket of mangroves along the bank of the South Pongo River, all six flat-bottomed canoes hit the water. Heathcliff stepped into the last of the canoes, sweating ferociously and quite uncertain as to what he might expect ahead.
An eel slithered along the surface of the wide brown river. Much farther upstream, the river narrowed and the canoes glided through cloud after cloud of stinging gnats that whirled and twisted over the water. He swatted them away and scratched his arms. Small quick birds skimmed the surface of the mud-coloured water, feasting on insects. Trees formed a canopy over their heads that blotted out the sun and monkeys screeched as the canoes rounded a bend in the river.
The sun returned. A small group of mud huts lay on a clearing near the edge of the river. Smoke rose from a cooking fire in front of the huts. Several naked black-skinned boys dabbled in the yellow mud as the king’s men jumped into the river and pulled their canoes onto the riverbank.
Heathcliff remained in the canoe. He heard a woman shout. He noticed a very skinny boy warily rise to his feet in the mud.
A slender white-haired Negro stepped from the huts, wearing only a loincloth, perhaps an elder of the village. The king’s men shouted something Heathcliff couldn’t understand and the older man walked forward, palms out, responding in a soft, firm voice.
Two of them attacked the old man with cudgels and knocked him down. The raiding party pushed their way into the huts and began pulling men, women, and children outside.
A young boy grabbed a smoldering stick from the cooking fire and stabbed it into the leg of one of the king’s men. Big Tucker’s man screamed. He grabbed the boy’s head, slammed his face into the mud again and again, then dragged him by the hair toward the canoes.
A bare-breasted woman screamed out of a hut, clutching a baby. One of the raiding party pulled the infant from her arms, stomped it into the mud, and dragged her toward Heathcliff’s canoe. When she tried to scratch the man, he hit her in the face with an oar and threw her into the boat.
Heathcliff’s canoe pushed off last and headed back down the river. In the canoes ahead of him, the king’s men silenced their captives with shouts and slaps before turning to their oars. When the muddy-faced boy turned to look at him, Heathcliff noticed his teeth bleeding.
As the canoes glided beneath a large flowering tree, a shower of red flower petals dropped into the water.
The air stank of rotting vegetation. Heathcliff could hardly look at the captives. They sat in the canoes with their heads bowed, beaten and pathetic.
In the twilight, Heathcliff heard distress in the cries of the jungle birds, and helpless anger in the accusatory chatter of the monkeys. The entire forest seemed to sing with pain.
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Heathcliff: The Lost Years is the untold adventure story at the heart of Wuthering Heights. The 111-chapter epic is available in paperback, e-book, and as an audiobook from Amazon, Apple, Audible.com or may be special ordered from any bookstore.