Journey of Hope

By: Debbie Kaufman
Chapter One

Monrovia, Liberia

September 1920

When the annals of desperation were written, Stewart Hastings figured his name would have its own chapter. What was it going to take to acquire a competent guide into the Liberian jungle? Clearly his visit to this harborside tavern was another complete waste of time.

Six days to interview a promising list of a dozen names, and yet not a willing guide among them. The wages Stewart had offered the previous candidates should have been enough, but the joke was on him. Apparently he was the only man foolish enough to take big money for an expedition into cannibal territory.

He put his sterling on the wooden bar for the meal he’d just eaten, stepped outside and headed off to meet the final name on his list of potential guides. From his understanding of the street layout, his destination wasn’t far from the boardinghouse where he had rented a room.

The cool ocean breeze off the promontory invigorated him, providing momentary relief from the overheated barroom, whose smells of whiskey, palm oil and humanity had left him with a throb behind his right temple. The relief quickly faded as he walked the moonlit turf-covered streets. Whoever said tropical countries didn’t get cold had never been to Monrovia on a September night. After the daily rains let up, the temperature drop had him jamming his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders against the chill.

He couldn’t have come all the way to Africa only to lose his best hope of securing his and his ailing mother’s future. With little more than a day before his ship departed, the outlook was bleak. Exploring for minable geological deposits in a little-mapped jungle area was difficult enough, but add in cannibals and subtract a guide and the task became downright impossible.

His dead father’s drunken rants echoed in his memory. Maybe the son of a dockworker would never be more than a scholarship boy trying to shake off the stench of the slums. With no family name to propel him to success, failure was always a strong possibility. This time it wasn’t an option he could allow.

He had to persist. His mother’s heart doctor was right. Even without the results from that newfangled electrocardiograph machine, the signs were all there, no matter how she tried to hide them. She reached for her digitalis more frequently, became short of breath working in her garden. Spending her days scrubbing the floors of the rich was a ticket to an early grave. She needed the rest and diet the doctor prescribed. Stewart had promised her a better life the day they buried his father. Now that she was ill, he couldn’t fail in that promise.

He had to find a guide and meet his deadline. His hard-won degree from Harvard would mean nothing to his financial future if chaperoned by a reputation for failure.

He crossed Broad Street. Moonlight mocked the darkened light poles lining the avenue. Another confirmation of the government’s financial crisis, one his employer hoped would drive down prices for the Putu Mountains area mining concession they planned to make an offer on.

Clouds rolled across the moon, forcing him to temper his stride or risk a misstep. A figure came toward him in the dark. His hand reflexively moved to the knife at his side and then relaxed as the figure grew closer. A lone Liberian woman with a sleeping baby strapped to her back, hurrying along the otherwise deserted streets. A tiny prick hit his heart as he watched the child’s head gently bobbing with the mother’s swaying pace until the pair was out of sight. He’d always wanted a large family, but without a wife, that would never happen. Even if he was ever deluded enough to believe in love again, what woman would have him once she’d seen the scars the Great War had left?

A piercing high-pitched scream rent the night and then abruptly cut off.

The woman with the baby? Wrong direction. Every instinct the military had honed in him rushed to the forefront.

There. The sound came from the cross street just ahead. Near his boardinghouse. He moved quickly, keeping to the deepest shadows as he assessed the situation.

Two native men with a woman struggling between them. She held a thick book, clutching the volume as if it was written in gold.

Robbery? Why won’t the woman give it up? It’s only a book. Hardly worth her life.

These two miscreants left him no choice but to intervene. Attacking a woman, no less. His frustration boiled to the top. The man he was to interview might not wait, but Stewart couldn’t walk away.

He looked for any others hiding in the wings as he pulled the blade from its leather scabbard. Only the two. He banished fleeting thoughts of the consequences for pulling a knife on Liberian citizens. No one attacked a helpless woman in front of him without repercussion, not since the first time he was big enough to stand up to his father.

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