The Vanishing Tribes 4

Pleiku was an authentic frontier town, with military notices on all sides. Pine trees grew in the bright red earth, but there was no grass – only the red soil and the pines. The smart, Mediterranean-looking villas were set back from the road and surrounded by spiked palisades. A few cars with armoured wind-shields were running about, and civilians as well as the soldiers carried rifles. We passed a strong-point at the crossroads and I was charmed to see that warning was given by beating a gong. Hairy, long-snouted pigs, indistinguishable from wild boars, dashed about the streets. I noticed that the urbanised Jarais had discarded their fine wicker baskets and jars, replacing them with jerry-cans. All Pleiku resounded with the same powerful nightingale song which I had heard, only in rare bursts, in Ban Methuot.

The cross-country journey into Laos, which at Saigon had sounded so simple and reasonable, and at Ban Methuot had taken on a more prob¬lematical colour, was now at Pleiku beginning to look like a hopeless proposition. Laos, as one approached it, seemed to exert a powerful anti- magnetic repulsion. At Saigon there were vague memories of many cross-country trips, dating perhaps from pre-war days. In Ban Methuot professional hunters were thought to have sometimes made the journey. But in Pleiku the information was uncompromisingly definite. No one went there at all, said Monsieur Preau, the Resident, and the most he could promise to do, in the most favourable circumstances, would be to get me to Bo-Kheo, about half way to Stung Treng, in Laos, and after that it would be up to me.
But even the Pleiku to Bo-Kheo section of the journey would call for careful organising, because it was a year or two since anyone had done it, and therefore the bridges might be down. From Bo-Kheo to Stung Treng, Preau said, there used to be a regular lorry service run by the Chinese. Regular, but on what days? It was important to be in possession of all the facts, because there were no Europeans in Bo-Kheo, and nowhere to stay; therefore one’s arrival had more or less to coincide with the lorry’s departure. And, said Monsieur Preau, he would have to see me quite definitely on the lorry and the lorry in motion, before turning back, because Chinese lorries had a habit of breaking down and sometimes it took several weeks to get spare parts – several months in Bo-Kheo perhaps, since how were they to get there?
Then again there was the question of the security of the Bo-Kheo- Stung Treng area. By that, he meant, whether or not there were bandits about, and if so what kind, and how many. All this information would take a few days to get and Preau suggested that I might like to fill in the time visiting some of the outlying military posts in his territory. He was sending a man next day for a report to Mang-Yang, their furthermost outpost in the East, and I was welcome to go with him.
Doustin had sent an official telegram to Preau, advising him of my arrival, but in addition to this I carried a personal letter from Ribo and Cacot, from whom I had parted on the best of terms. The three men had been in the Colonial Service together in Mauretania. Preau evidently wanted to do all he could, but had I known at the time what he was up against in Pleiku, I should have hesitated to trouble him with my presence. A few days before, Viet-Minh groups had visited most of the villages in the zone and had requisitioned rice. They had also set up their own posts, some of which the French were still trying to find. At this moment when it was thought necessary to press every available Moi into the militia, the planters had suddenly brought pressure to bear for the increase of the supply of labour to the plantations. Preau was between the devil and the deep, but I only learned this, a little at a time, in the days that followed.
Next morning we set out for Mang-Yang. Among the Resident’s many troubles was a chronic shortage of transport. That morning the jeep we were to use broke down as soon as it was started up, and the driver spent the time, until Preau arrived to find out what had happened, shooting at pigeons with a crossbow. In the end we had to go off in the Resident’s Citroen, leaving him only a lorry for use in emergency. Mang- Yang was about eighty miles away, nearly half way to Qui-Nhon, on the coast, which, with a belt of territory of uncertain width, was solidly in Viet-Minh hands.
My companion, Préau’s secretary, was an excessively peaceful-look- ing young man. He sat beside me in the back of the car, with a sporting gun on one side and a Sten on the other. Our road wound around the great eroded stumps of volcanoes, and it was in these bare surroundings, quite out of their normal element, that we suddenly saw ahead of us a group of seven or eight peacocks. They were sauntering in the road and paid no attention whatever to us. It would have been possible to run them down. My friend fired and the birds, without signs of alarm, trooped away into the grass, all but one, which fell sprawling in a ditch. The driver went to pick it up. There was something that was rather shocking about the ungainly posture of this bird in its shattered dignity. It was slightly indecent. Searching in the stiff screens of plumage, the driver could find no injury, there was no dappling of blood, the muscular legs struck out, and when released the wings beat down strongly. Which ever way the bird was held, its head curved up towards us fixing us reproachfully with its eyes. The secretary told the driver to kill it, and the man looked embarrassed. He made some incomprehensible excuse, speaking in Jarai. Nobody, it seemed, cared to kill the bird and it was stowed away in the back of the car. I felt uncomfortable about this and the secretary probably did so too, as he talked about taking the bird back and keeping it as a pet. When later in the day we opened the back of the car to inspect it, the secretary was horrified to find that all the bird’s fine feathers had been quietly plucked out at some time when we had left the car unattended.

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