Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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KINGI BWANA'S safari wound like a monstrous snake through low, rolling hills of parched brown grass and dusty mimosa scrub—like a black snake with a swift, olive-drab head. Over a low rise came King, tall, khaki-clad, tireless, his face tan as his ragged shirt, his quick gray eyes scouting ahead from under his shapeless double terai-hat. At his heels trotted, like a dog—or rather like a well trained monkey—his wizened little Hottentot whose name was longer than all his shrunken body. Kaff'enk wa n'dhlovo, abbreviated even by his own tribe, who loved staccato, monosyllabic stanzas of names, to Kaffa.
Behind them in an undulating line hurried the Shenzie porters under light loads. And last of all a resplendent figure of a black man all decked out in leopardskin moocha and monkeyhair garters at knee and elbow. His great, sword-bladed spear and his nodding black ostrich plume showed him to be an elmoran of the Masai, a single-handed slayer of lions—and of men.
From time to time the Masai would utter a gruff shout of—
"Bado, m'panze, bado!"
Which was quite unnecessary, since the porters were keeping up splendidly with King's fast lead.
Anybody could see that the safari was hurrying on the home trek; and anybody who knew Africa could see why.
Brilliant clouds, as white and as hard edged as if cut out of paper, were piling up on the horizon. Within very few days the clouds would drift up to spread over the sky, and their clear cotton white would turn to gray, from gray to threatening purple-black. Then would come the rain. People who know Africa try to avoid being caught out on trek by the rainy season.
The sun, that had been doing its brazen damnedest, poised in the exact zenith throughout the whole day as tropical suns seem to have the power to do, began to drop. And having so decided, it fell as fast as a hot rivet, dull red in the dust haze.
King, squinting through narrow eyelids to right and left, pointed to one side with his rifle. The big Masai at the far end of the line barked orders. The black line of Shenzies swung over toward the thorn patch that King had indicated.
King and the Hottentot, without looking back, strode on and were quickly lost to view over the next low hill.
The Masai expertly marked out a rough circle with his steel-spiked spear butt where the labor of thorn bush clearing and piling up would be least. Under his growled directions a boma quickly began to grow. This was bad country.
The Shenzies chanted mournfully as they dragged the spiny, stunted mimosa trees to form a tangled wall. This was to be another dry camp. Water would be handed out by the gourd measure, just sufficient to every man's need. But African safari porters grumble when they can not be appallingly wasteful of everything, even of the turbid, befouled water of the ending dry season's water-holes. So with all armies on march.
There was no water-hole. King was not trekking a standard route, zigzagging from one hole to the next in easy stages. He was making a bee-line across country, and he camped wherever the nights caught him.
Presently the sound of a far shot drifted in on the still air; and quickly after it another.
"Hau!" grunted the Masai. "There will be meat. Two bucks. In this country they will be kongoni Let four men go, and swiftly."
When the four returned with King and the Hottentot—and sure enough with two kongoni antelopes—the swift darkness was falling like a blanket. Within the boma, cooking fires smoked and stank under the profuse grease drip. The porters gorged themselves with meat, recklessly wasteful. They forgot about the water shortage and were happy.
Stars blazed overhead, but from the horizon line came low rumbles of thunder. The rain gods growling in their bellies, working up their rage for the fury of the monsoon, said the natives. Deep, moaning rumbles sounded nearby, awesomely close, yet impossible to locate with exactness. The windless air was filled with guttural sound. Somewhere out in the dark reverberated a series of vibrating roars which coughed away to silence.
"Better get the doorway thorns dragged in, Barounggo," said King. "Game was scarce today. They'll be hungry."
"It is done, bwana," boomed the voice of the Masai.
KING lay back with his hands folded under his head. The hard angles of his face were lighted in red outline by the glow from his pipe. Another far rumble throbbed across the night. King raised himself on his elbow to listen.
"What man among you can perhaps read that drum talk?" he asked.
The chattering of the porters ceased. They remained dumb—which is characteristic of African porters when speech is required. Fitfully the sound eddied and faded and surged in again.
"It will be a ngoma—a dance at some village," hazarded the Masai.
But the Hottentot, crouched like a blanketed gnome over the fire at King's feet, screwed up his face and clucked derisively.
"We passed no shambas by the way," he argued. "Nor, by the movements of the scattered game, was any village in that direction. Who then would dance in this empty country, unless it be the devils of the dust?"
King nodded toward him.
"Wisely spoken, apeling. It is no dance, but a talk. Can you of your experience read that talk?"
The Hottentot gathered his blanket closer around his shoulders.
"Nay, bwana. It is a talk that I do not know. But the skin within my belly is cold, by which sign I know that it is an evil talk."
The Masai's figure loomed immensely naked beyond the fire. His voice rumbled like a lion's.
"Evil walks always in the outer dark. But what is that to us? We are men; we are in boma; we have weapons. It is enough."
King knew that the Shenzie porters, huddled in the farther dimness, listened wide-eyed to every word; he knew, too, that panic came to porters more easily even than hunger. He nodded this time towards the Masai.
"Wisely spoken, warrior," he said. "In boma and armed. Let the outer evil walk where it will. It is no affair of ours."
Yet in Africa, where evil things are many, some things can force themselves most unexpectedly upon the affairs of people comfortably secure in a well constructed thorn boma.
With the suddenness of a rising sky rocket a scream cut into the normal noises of the night. Long drawn and wailing, it quavered and faded and rose again to a high shriek.
The Shenzie porters cowered.
"Aie! Awowe!" they moaned. "It is a bush devil that calls one to his death. Let the fires be fed and let no man venture forth."
But the little Hottentot, despite the coldness of his internal skin, was coolly alert.
"A fool," he said. "A fool who tells the lions where he is. Yet the trouble of a fool is none the less trouble." Already he was applying a match to the camp lantern.
King was on his feet, feeling in the chamber of his rifle to assure himself that the load which he knew to be there was intact.
"Quick, Barounggo! Six men with spears. Both lanterns, Kaffa. And you take charge of the boma. Let nothing enter. Haul clear the doorway there. Each man armed? Come along."
Outside the boma the fires from within made a tangled tracery of shadows through the thorn branches; but within a few feet these merged into the darkness. Soon the party was swallowed up in the outer dark of the African night where there lurked bush devils and other things.
Certainly other things. Yellow-green spots of light, always in pairs, looked at them with the unwinking intensity of night creatures. Given time an opportunity for observation, an experienced hunter might attempt the supremely difficult feat of judging distances in the dark and then, from the space between the eyes, guessing whether the owners might be jackal or hyena or lion.
But there was no time for any such calculation now. No chance for anything but to rush straight ahead, making as much display of the lanterns and as much noise as possible, hoping that the creatures that stared so steadily might not be too hungry.
THE six conscripted Shenzies crowded on King's very heels, stepping upon his boots till he cursed them fiercely over his shoulder. Behind them, as always, came their herder, the Masai—which was the only reason why all the six had not shrunk back into the boma the moment that their leader had passed beyond the doorway. But they made up for their reluctance by the volume and quality of their yells.
Before the onrushing hullabaloo the staring eyes blinked, then swung away and disappeared. More than likely this diversion drew the attention of prowling beasts away from the human thing that wailed its grief into the open night. The big cats hunt as much by sound and sight as by scent.
Again the shriek split the air, closer now. The rescuers, stumbling through the hot night, chilled at the note of terror. Even King, as the wild screech rose out of the blackness ahead, felt a tingle along his spine, in apprehension of he knew not what.
"That," panted the Masai, "is the voice of a man whom the devils have caught." And a little later, as the sound quavered again into the higher atmosphere, "The voice, too, of a white man."
Yet the word that was distinguishable now was a native word.
"N'gamma!" it wailed. "N'gamma!"
And, n'gamma, whatever it might mean, seemed to be the focus of its fear.
"Hello!" yelled King. "Where away? Hold tight. We're coming."
But only, "N'gamma!" screamed back at them out of the dark.
And then a shape was apparent in the lanternlight. A shadow that ran on all fours like an ape, then rose and tottered forward on its hind legs and lurched and crawled again on hands and knees.
In another second they were up to it, surrounded it. Light from both lanterns in unsteady hands showed it clear.
"Lord!" gasped King. "A white man it is!"
He lifted the groveling creature, the weight hanging on his arms.
"Steady, old man," reassured King. "You're safe now. We'll see you through."
But the man only whimpered and averted his swollen eyes from the light, clawing away with an emaciated hand. And what a sight of a live human thing it was—rag-wrapped; thorn-gashed; knees and palms cut to raw shreds by gravel, sharp chips of which were still embedded in the pulp-like flesh. Every visible surface was a blood streaked mess of caked grime and sweat.
"Lord!" King stared at the man. "What new horror of Africa is this?"
Suddenly a spasm of renewed vitality came to the sagging figure. It jerked upright.
"N'gamma!" it shrieked again, and fought to break away from the hands that held it.
The Shenzies shrank away.
"Awo!" they muttered. "Surely have the devils of the bush laid hands upon this one."
But the effort was soon spent. Panting and whimpering, the man hung in King's arms. King motioned with his head to the two sturdiest Shenzies.
"Make a chair with your joined hands," he snapped. "We must carry him back to camp. Quick."
IN the boma, the Hottentot, wise in the unexpected ways of the bush, already had a can, one-third full of water, heating over a fire.
"Thirst is for tomorrow," he grunted. "But trouble is here tonight. See, bwana, the bandages are ready and I have taken the medicine box out of the pack."
King grunted a brief appreciation.
"It was well done. There will be a gift. Now lay out a blanket and help with the washing. Barounggo, if those Shenzies hold not the lanterns steady, beat their heads together."
The exhausted man struggled no more. He lay and moaned, now and then a tremor passed over his wasted body. As the encrusted blood and grime soaked away from the derelict's chest, a curious mark emerged and held King's eyes. A queer sort of crude design that had been smeared on with some yellowish ochre stuff: on each breast a circle with a dot in its center, and down over the abdomen a wavy line that divided at the navel and pointed away to each groin, like a crudely drawn inverted letter Y.
King raised his eyes, narrow and perplexed, to look into the round, simian orbs of the Hottentot. The little bush dweller screwed up his face and shook his head.
"I do not know this thing, bwana; yet it is in my belly that it is a mark of evil."
"And this word that he mutters?" asked King. "N'gamma? Is that known to you? Or anything like it?"
Again the Hottentot shook his head. King continued the washing and dressing of the innumerable wounds in frowning silence. When it was finally done the man was a mummy swathed in antiseptic bandage, torn trade cloth, and sticking plaster.
"If those Shenzies have left any meat, put a piece on to stew," ordered King. "Then sleep. I watch. Later I will wake you."
In the silent camp King stood on widespread legs and scowled into the night. Outside, throaty rumblings and snufflings circled the boma. Lambent lights in pairs stared at him out of the dark. Dull thunder grumbled. Fitfully the far drums talked their black secrets to one another.
"What mystery is this?" muttered King. "What hellish mystery of Africa?" And a little later, "Drum talk and a hunted man. Guess we'll know soon enough. They'll surely follow."
IN the morning the man was still alive, which was surprising enough, considering what he had been through. The let-down after his terrific strain, of what must have been many days of privation, was upon him. He lay and moaned. At intervals a spasm contorted his face. Fear. Horror of something beyond human sanity.
"Well, we can go no faster than we're going. Two days ought to see us at Archer's Post, and maybe there'll be a medico there. Barounggo, two men at a time in relays for a blanket hammock. Divide loads accordingly. Bado-bado— and trek."
That day was like the preceding one. Whirling dust devils and merciless sun and thorn scrub. Like many previous days, except that the safari edged over to the westward off the straight line to pick up a water-hole somewhere along the Ol-Doinya foothills. Behind them drums still muttered to one another. King frowned into the heat haze.
The next boma was like the last. King personally saw to it that it was a particularly strong one. The drums that had been talking all across the horizon seemed to be converging upon the camp. King whistled tunelessly through his teeth and directed, that half a dozen large piles of dried thorn and debris be gathered in a circle thirty or forty yards outside the little fortress.
The darkness closed down, and, unlike the previous night, the drums seemed to have said all that they had to say and were silent. King smiled thinly. The Masai squatted over a fire that threw red highlights and ebony shadows upon his great muscles as with a small whetstone he stroked the long blade of his spear. Far away the thunder grumbled.
After a long silence King spoke.
"Have the Shenzies each man his shield and spear?"
"It is done, bwana. They will fight, for they are afraid."
At last it came. Jackals howled to one another—the demoniac low and high notes of gray-backed jackals.
"And that," said the Hottentot, "is foolish. For here are no gray-backed jackals."
"By which sign," added King, "we may know that those drum talkers have followed their man far; strangers, otherwise they would know. Douse fires within," he told Barounggo, "and send a man out to set light to those prepared piles of thorn."
But the Shenzies huddled together and chattered, clinging to one another like so many monkeys for protection. No man dared to venture out into the dark where there was a most mysterious kind of menace.
With superb disdain the Masai plucked his standing spear from the ground. Unhurriedly he stooped to pick up a brand and with a magnificent swagger stalked out and made the circuit of the stacked woodpiles. He knew that King with ready rifle covered his march. But so had the Shenzies known it. That was the difference between one man and another.
King grinned through tight lips as the bonfires blazed up. Within his own boma, shadowed by the interlaced thorn, was darkness. In the outskirts of the outer glare he could see figures flitting between the bushes.
Now a queer quirk of King's character, hard and efficient as he was in all his dealings with the difficult problem of the African in reasonless emotions, was that he hated to resort to the white man's ultimate argument of guns.
"They're just dumb fools," he maintained. "Barely descended from the trees. A swift kick in the tail or just the right kind of hokum, according as circumstance and opportunity demand. It will always bring them around grinning."
But here was no opportunity for the persuasive psychology of a stiff boot well placed to the nether loincloth. King was no sentimentalist about his theories. He knew very well that people who came as did these furtive forms in the night came for war, and he knew the persuasive psychology of the first move in a war.
One unwary figure was too slow in dodging between bushes in its advance. King snapped up his rifle and fired. The man flung up his arms and pitched into the thorn bush.
These strangers who had come from some far place behaved as no East African tribe that King knew would have. They did not yell, and gather to adjust their minds to the suddenness of it, to shout encouragement to one another, to work up the necessary rage for attack. They did yell; but with their first shout they charged in to the attack.
"Whau!" grunted the Masai. "These be good people. Shenzies, let no fool throw a silly spear. Thrust through the thorn barrier."
It was by that simple defence that the attack was broken. The horde of dark forms surged up to the boma. But stiff acacia thorns are as effective a barrier against naked savages as ever was barbed wire against khaki clad soldiers. Around the boma dark shapes pranced, howling the typical demoniac accompaniment of African fighting.
Thrown spears flicked over the thorn wall. But they were without aim. Within the enclosure was darkness. The leaping shapes were clearly outlined against the outer circle of bonfires. From the inner darkness spears licked out at them. Blood spurted, shiny as dark oil. Yells of attacking fury were interspersed with yells of sudden pain. King deftly slung his rifle over his shoulder. His Luger pistol spat viciously. Leaping shapes writhed or lay still.
IT was a strong defence. But the attackers, as the Masai had said, were good people. A group of them snatched off their loincloths, and, stark naked in the fire glow, wrapping their hands, they set to dragging away a section of the thorn barrier. Half a dozen interlaced thorn bushes began to tear away in a series of jerks under the strong tugs. One of the group started a grunting chant as with a will they heaved together. If that section were torn clear there would be a breach at which numbers would count. Inside, Shenzies clawed madly to hold the barrier in place.
King shouted at them. But in their unreasoning fear his voice only added to the dark pandemonium. With arms and legs he fell upon his own men from behind, and kicked and cuffed at them indiscriminately, till they shrank away, jabbering.
"Kaffa," he ordered then, "the shotgun here. Step well back. Let it spread all it can."
The twelve-bore roared out. The bunched group beyond the thorns fell away, shrieking.
The defence—the strong boma with an outer ring of light—had been prepared with an experience that these attacking strangers, good men though they were, found to be beyond all their expectations.
"Bwana." The Masai's eyes showed white; his nostrils were twitching wide. "Bwana, they waver. A charge now with shield and spear will catch them in their fear and will slaughter many."
"So speaks Kifaru the rhinocerous who has little sense," said King. "But another weapon is given to us."
Little blazes, offspring of the bonfires, were beginning to flare among the dry bunch grass. The lesser blazes began to meet in a flickering line. The attackers looked behind them. King watched with hawk eyes.
"Kaffa, give me that shotgun."
A few charges of No. 4, sprayed wherever there seemed to be anything like an organizing group, were a devastating argument. Isolated from one another, the attackers' hot courage waned. Dark forms began to leap back over the spreading line of flames. Shrill whistles of recall sounded. Black shapes raced past, bounding high like frightened bucks, to join the others before the fire should grow too wide.
King grinned mirthlessly.
"Take note, Barounggo, that wit must be added to courage. Had these men had any, they would have gathered on the windward side of our fires instead of senselessly in the direction from which they came. Take men quickly now outside the boma and stamp out fires that creep toward us from the other side."
The soft night wind blew with persistence. In a little while the boma was a dark island with little waves of fire flowing past it on either side. Beyond was a widening sheet of flame and sullen, red, low-hanging smoke.
King peered out at the scene with critical eyes.
"I guess that's that—" he grunted—"though if they are wise they can backtrack and close in as the embers cool. Barounggo, take those Shenzies by the ears and tell them that it was well fought. To each man there will be a blanket. And swift now. Get the wounded who lie outside into our boma for whatever protection it may offer the poor devils. We have won the first fight and a breathing space of time. Up loads then, and a hard all-night trek. It seems, that it is his fate to win free—this white man whom the drums have followed so far."
AT Archer's Post life still remained in the man who had been the object of that relentless pursuit. His mind still wavered on a borderland of some horror that had driven it into the outer blankness.
The young medico at the post complimented King on his emergency first aid.
"He'll owe his life to your poisonous trade cloth bandages, if he pulls through. And he may—he must have had incredible stamina. I suppose you have no idea how long he was out, or where from?"
King shook his head.
"Must have been days. A long succession of ghastly days with the drums driving him on. Is he talking any?"
"Only that word, n'gamma, or whatever it is, and he mutters something about those painted symbols. 'Dedicated', he mumbles, and then he escaped."
King scowled into the far nothing.
"Dedicated, eh? Some hellish juju stuff he must have run into. Must have busted right into their secrets or they wouldn't have kept after him so hard." He strode a short turn up and down the room, thumbs hooked in his belt, head forward, frowning. A twisted smile tightened his mouth. "And I suppose I inherit a choice dose of voodoo vengeance for snatching him out of it. Well, that's Africa. Who around here knows anything about cults up north? That drum talk was new to all my people."
"Nobody knows much. North of Uasu Nyiro River is pretty well back of beyond. And I'm afraid—" the doctor shook his head soberly—"I'm very much afraid our patient will never tell us. Whatever it was has been a terrible strain on his reason. The fever is coming on him. I'm wondering whether we'd better put him in a car and rush him down to Nairobi where there'll be ice, or whether the jolting over the veldt trails will be worse for him than staying here. It's a devilish fix for a man as sick as he."
"There are many devilish things in this country," said King darkly. "If you take him down I guess I'll come along. If he ever talks I'd like to know for my own sake."
IN Nairobi a military attaché, immaculately incongruous in the hotel where traders and white hunters congregated, waited upon King. No less a personage than the governor desired to have speech with him.
"O-ho, so he's a somebody!" was King's instant conclusion. "What does the governor want to know?"
But the attaché knew nothing, or at all events would say nothing. Whatever was on the governor's mind, his Excellency would communicate if he saw fit.
King grinned at the official formality and went along. The governor dismissed the faultlessly dressed secretary and regarded with quizzical thoughtfulness the tall brown figure in rough shirt and riding breeches. He knew King of old, and King knew him. The attitude between the two men was one of friendly disagreement on almost every subject.
"And what trouble have you picked up now, Kingi Bwana of the wild places?" was the governor's characteristic opening.
King shook his head.
"Hanged if I know, Governor Bwana. It's a dark mystery to me."
"Honest? You don't know anything more than you reported to Archer's?"
King grinned at the implication.
"Not a thing—this time. Cross my heart. I picked the man out of the night, and nothing that he has babbled since has enlightened me."
"Hmh! Well, sit down. I'm going to ask you to take on one of these jobs that you're always refusing."
King's expression became obstinate. He disliked official assignments. His whole soul revolted from their encumbering red tape and the ponderous tedium of their reports.
"Now this is confidential, Kingi."
King nodded in silent agreement. The governor was serious.
"The man is dying. He will never enlighten us—his mind won't recover in time. If you know nothing his case will remain one of the dark mysteries of Africa—unless you can find out."
King made no sign of acquiescence. He waited to hear more.
"The man," said the governor slowly, "is a guide and safari conductor of wide experience. An ex-soldier, in Africa since the War. A first class man. He was one of a confidential mission that we sent out to discover, if possible, evidence about the constantly recurring complaints about Abyssinians raiding slaves across our borders."
"Aa-ah!" King was immediately antagonistic. "The old imperial policy. Anything that happens along the border, blame the Abyssinians for it. Somebody stands up in Parliament and clamors for indemnity."
"Yes, yes." The governor nodded amiably. "I know you think that everything we do is just another move toward the acquisition of more territory. But I'm afraid, I'm very much afraid, my dear Ethiophile, that in this case our men must have found the evidence."
"Listen, Governor Bwana." King was positive. "I've got friends among the Abyssinians; they may be black men, but they've treated me white. Let me assure you that the new Abyssinian law imposes the death penalty for slave raiding. And figure it out for yourself: no Abyssinians could ever have chased this poor devil so many days through British territory; no East African tribe could have chased him through the country of other tribes. There's only one explanation. Your mission ran into some high juju stuff. Only a secret cult gang could pass tribal borders that way."
The governor was one of those officials who had won to his position through long service in Africa, not through the fortune of blue-blood. He understood Africa and African needs—though always from the imperial viewpoint—better than King would have thought possible. He frowned thoughtfully.
"Perhaps you are right. We may be much more deeply involved than for a few black slaves. If it's juju there's hysteria with it. Tribal uprisings have started from less. But we must have information, accurate and reliable information, before we can crush the thing in its inception."
"Aa-ah." King breathed understanding. "So you offer me the sweet job of sticking my nose into whatever deviltry of African imagination it was that overtook your mission and drove this other fellow shrieking crazy through the night—to say nothing about their being a heap of territory along your Abyssinian border, and very presently it's going to rain a whole lot over all of it."
"Kingi Bwana," said the governor seriously, "we've got to follow up this trail while it is hot. You know Africa. You know how quickly the most murderous happening can be buried in native secrecy and remain a dark mystery forever. We must trace this thing to its source; and if there has been murder or treachery there must be swift retribution."
Cynicism hardened King's wide mouth.
"Yeah, retribution. Military police. Machine guns. That's the history of Africa. I don't hold with shooting up the dumb feed African just because he's been an African fool."
"My dear Kingi—" the governor spoke with the conviction of all imperial policy behind him—"British lives must be protected in our farthest borders. British prestige must be upheld. That is our undeviating principle that affects every white man in the country."
"Yeah?" King's own principle was sacrilege to imperial tradition. "I'm strong for the principle of top dog. But in my home state of North Dakota a man's prestige is exactly as good as he can hold up with his own two hands, and if he rides into somebody else's range and gets into trouble that's his personal hard luck. Who all was the rest of this secret mission that's so important to British prestige?"
The governor looked into King's stubborn face with a wintry smile.
"Just one other man," he told him slowly. "Sir Henry Ponsonby. The man you found was his orderly."
"The devil you say!" King's whole expression changed. "Ponsonby was—is too good a man to fool away his time on any wild goose chase after a slave rumor. Governor Bwana, if it was Ponsonby who went up he's quite likely to be marooned in some juju den, holding his end up with a stiff grin and packing more white man's prestige in his own two hands than a whole platoon of military police. And you can't turn the constabulary loose on a case like that. This juju stuff needs to be handled with kid gloves, else there are killings and general hell to pay. You know that."
The governor's smile was almost undignified enough to be a grin.
"Kid gloves, do you say? I have been informed, my Kingi, that your method was a stiff cowhide boot. But since even that is preferable to what you so aptly describe as general hell to pay, I shall make you a concession that will upset the whole system of our colonial government. I shall instruct the comptroller of accounts to pass your expense sheets—scribbled as they will be upon scraps of wrapping paper and what not—and to honor them without question."
King was blasphemous.
"To hell with your system of colonial government! But listen, Governor Bwana—Ponsonby owes me pretty nearly three dollars on a shooting bet. If I should go slopping around in the rain to collect I'd need letters to all outposts to requisition supplies and relay porters to relieve my own when they'd stick in the mud and die. And I'd need a game law waiver—water-holes being flooded and game scattered—to shoot whatever I could get for safari meat whenever I needed it. I'd need a double fly tent and porter tents and half a ton of quinine and tarpaulin covers and slickers and—oh, hell, a twenty-man load of dude outfit."
The governor's smile was now undisguisedly a grin.
"I knew you would need all of that and an armed escort besides. In the circumstances I think your bet is worth collecting. I have already signed a blank requisition for you upon military police stores. When do you start?"
KINGI BWANA'S safari was once again at the place where the cry of gray-backed jackals had signaled the determined but ill-judged attempt to recapture a man whose reason had left him, but who still might know too much of things that white men must never know.
But this was a very different safari. Tents glistened wetly in the light of the sputtering fires. A huddle of narrow, steep-sided shelters fit only for a dog and aptly named pup tents; and a trim green one with a wide double fly under the eaves of which, raised from the ground on logs, were stacked boxes and bales. A tarpaulin covered another pile of lumpy shapes. There was no thorn boma. There were men enough to stand an all-night guard. Fifteen were askaris pure and simple, men who carried no pack loads save rifles of an outmoded military pattern which they could shoot off with a lot of noise and whose united front looked very formidable.
King would just as lief have dispensed with these noisy bravos who always caused envy and discontent among humble Shenzie beasts of burden. But since they were pressed upon him at the expense of his Majesty's imperial government, he shrugged and said to Barounggo, the safari driver—
"At least these be fifteen strong men; and when the strength of our porters fails in the clinging mud—"
The Masai placed a great hand over his mouth to cover a chuckle like the rumble of a lion and completed the thought:
"Out of our own good porters have we made not-so-bad fighting men, thou and I together, bwana. Surely then, when the more obstreperous of these not-so-good fighting men have eaten stick, can we make not-so-bad porters out of them?"
But it was a strong safari. King knew better than anyone in Africa what he was deliberately going into, and he was prepared for it. He knew that he was going into something that nobody knew. Africa at its darkest. Something that had swallowed up one white man because he came too close. Something that had driven another one crazy. And the latter had escaped from the immediate horror only because he had been a man of wide African experience, a first class man—a man perhaps as good as King himself.
There would be first the blank wall of honest ignorance: actual lack of knowledge on the part of the great dumb majority. There would be, when one finally penetrated closer to the mystery, the ox-dull stubbornness of people who knew something but lived in superstitious terror of it themselves and dared not even speak about it. With silence there would be the age-old defences of Africa against the white man—obstruction, underground intimidation, boycott on food supplies, queer sicknesses. And there would be, if one survived and persisted in trying to penetrate yet farther, Africa implacable, savage, diabolically ingenious in keeping hidden the sinister things that are African.
Soberly, and with a very hard expression, King led his safari through country that was new to him, scouting around in the neighborhood where he had picked up the crazed orderly. The caravan squelched through a sticky mud that less than a fortnight before had been the deep dust of the dry season. The procession was not now in a long snaky line, as it had come over that path, for each following man would but tread deeper into the sucking puddle left by the feet of his predecessor. Spread out like a line of skirmishers the men went, each one picking the best ground he could find.
It was the duty of the Masai, helped—for the present—by the askaris, to see that no man resorted to the simple African trick of dropping his load behind a thorn bush and slinking away out of the clammy wet to the shelter of the nearest native village.
Later on, when the safari would come into the really wild country of unfamiliar tribes—wherever that direction might turn out to be in this morass of nonexistent clues and obliterated paths—no persuasion or beating would drive a man of them beyond sight of the bwana whose white prestige protected them.
"From the direction of the sun's left side came the drum talk that pursued that man," said King. "Somewhere in that direction will be a village, and somewhere near the village a witch doctor. Perhaps I have that which will induce him to talk."
It was on the second day of the mire that the Hottentot pointed to the unmistakable signs of Africa in a donga whose steep sides they skirted. And "days" as applied to travel in this weather meant, not the twenty miles or so that King with his customary light safari covered, but a bare eight or ten. The donga, two weeks ago a dry sandy gash that twisted across the plain, was now ten feet deep with turbid water in which floated scraps of thatch and splinters of wood, the debris of a hut, and the carcass of an undernourished cow.
It happened every year. The rain came in its fury, the deluge tore away great slices of overhanging bank and with them huts, cattle byres, everything built too close; and every year Africa, callous, without thought, rebuilt in just the same feckless manner as it had always built.
IT was a big village, the usual sprawling mess of mud-and-thatch huts. The rain had lasted just long enough to wash away the accumulated smells of appalling African insanitation. King told the Masai to let the men run free to indulge in a holiday of the chitter-chatter and gossip of the road that is dear to the native heart.
In matters requiring wit rather than brawn it was the shrewd little Hottentot who served as a go-between for dealings that were not usual to white men. To him King gave an old brier pipe the bowl of which had been carefully carved with an intricate design.
"Go, little apeling," he told him, "and ferret out the witch doctor. Tell him that the Old One of Elgon cut that pattern. Perhaps this wizard is not so far but that he can read it and will exchange wisdom for a gift of a good blanket of many colored stripes."
The Hottentot returned in due course carrying the pipe wrapped in a banana leaf as an object worthy of reverence.
"It is a great magic in that pattern, Bwana. For the tagati, having seen it, was immediately well disposed. And, moreover, bwana—" the little man stood on one leg and clicked his tongue in awesome excitement—"he owns a lebasha, a finder of lost things, and he will let him turn his eyes into the darkness for you."
"A lebasha, hm? That's a hokum that I've heard of but have never yet seen. This may be interesting."
King was ruminative as he picked out a gaudy blanket from the trade goods. He numbered the ancient Wizard of Elgon among the first of the black men who had treated him white. That old pipe bowl, carved with whatever symbol it was of witch doctory, had won him entry to many things that white men never saw. This was going to be a new one.
The lebasha, he knew, was a clairvoyant, who by magical processes could be endowed with the scent of a bloodhound and could then pick up trails or trace stolen articles to the very door of the robber. What made the hokum interesting was that King knew certain unbelievable stories of such articles having been found. By all means the lebasha might prove to be worthwhile.
The magician lived in a clearing a mile away from the village. The tortuous path to it was hung with witch signs: skulls of animals; pointers; warning marks; grass curtains that nobody would dare to pass across the path. But these were now drawn aside. The symbols on the pipe bowl had opened the road for the white man.
The witch hut was surrounded by a thorn boma festooned with the usual emblems of magic—bones and snake-skins and dried embryos of unborn creatures, all the gruesome claptrap dear to African superstition. At the entrance stood an ebony figure, as stiff and as motionless as a statue carved out of the same wood and as naked as an idol except for a maze of painted designs. Only moving white eyeballs showed that the man was alive.
King looked keenly at the paint-smeared design. No leopard spots or wavy lines there. The cult that he sought was not there. But information that might lead to it perhaps would be.
King passed through the gateway. The Hottentot groveled after him. Within the hut, an enormous megaphonic voice boomed—
"Jambo, bwana m'kubwa, who has the favor of the Old One of Elgon."
King smiled a little grimly. He was too old a hand, he told himself, to be impressed by any skullduggery. Yet the performance that he now witnessed left him wondering.
The hut was illuminated only by such light as came through the low door, and by a tiny fire of cowdung on the bare mud floor that smoked acridly and hurt the eyes. A blanket-muffled figure squatted on a three-legged stool almost in the embers.
King knew the ceremonies of calling upon magicians. He stayed on one side of the fire and passed his gift through the smoke. The wizard took, but did not inspect it. He was shrewd enough to know that a man who knew so much of the proper etiquette would know enough to bring a proper gift.
A stool was in readiness on the near side of the fire. King squatted upon it.
"I come, wise one, seeking knowledge of a word and of the trail from where that word came."
"So much bwana's servant has told me, but the word he has not said. The seer into the dark is ready, the magic drink is ready. What is given to him to smell out shall be smelled."
The wizard grunted an order, and out of the farther gloom of the hut shuffled a youth. A thin, anemic looking creature with a witless look in his eyes and a nervous affliction that twitched one side of his face. The wizard raked a pot from the embers and poured from it into a gourd a liquid that stank of dead things.
King watched with cold criticism.
The boy squatted, gulped down the liquid and shivered. The wizard stroked his face with tense fingers and muttered incantations. The boy began slowly to rock on his heels. King saw that his eyes rolled upward in their sockets till only the yellowish whites were visible.
The Hottentot moaned in awe at the workings of black magic. King, coldly skeptical, commented to himself—
"Hm, a neurotic type, a narcotic drink and some sort of hypnotism."
The boy ceased his rocking motion and sat back stiffly at an impossible angle, breathing stertorously.
The wizard drew away his fingertips as if tenuous threads were attached to each. He whispered:
"He has gone into the place where the dead thoughts of men are stored. His eyes see into the darkness. Let bwana ask now what he will know."
"Ask him," said King, "whether he knows the word—N'gamma."
It was not the entranced boy at whom King looked. He watched the wizard keenly. But if the latter knew anything about the word whose significance had driven a man crazy he kept his composure with an astounding coolness. It was upon the boy that its effect was surprising.
He whimpered like a dog and cowered on all fours. He gave the exact impression that if he had a tail he would have tucked it between his legs.
"Ha!" said the magician. "He has found the word. It is a word of fear. He will smell out the trail to the place of that fear."
The boy breathed deeply; sniffed, in fact. Then suddenly he made a throaty barking noise for all the world like a dog, and scurried out of the hut.
"Come," said the magician. "We must follow fast."
THE boy ran in a queer, dead sort of way, his head lolling forward, his body limp. King, catching up with him, noted with a distinct shock that his eyes were still turned up in his head. Like a sleepwalker the boy ran, seeing nothing, guided by some queer subconscious sense, avoiding obstacles and trees by inches. At intervals he threw up his head and barked.
In a straight line the extraordinary trail ran, for some two miles, till a donga intersected the path, filled of course with rushing, turbid water. At the donga's edge the bey stopped and howled mournfully.
Still he pointed with his hand in the exact direction of his course. Then he fell down and lay gasping and twitching in a convulsion.
King knew that it was said of a lebasha that in his assumed characteristic of a hound he could not follow a trail across running water; that at a stream the magic power left him.
"It is finished," said the wizard. "He can go no farther. Yet there where he points is the true trail, bwana. That is all. In this matter I can do no more."
King walked back to his camp through the thin drizzle, his head sunk on his chest, wondering.
"And what, wise little apeling, do you make out of all that?" he asked the Hottentot.
The little man shivered.
"It is a great magic, bwana!"
That night a drum tapped rhythmically. Fitfully it throbbed into the dark. It stopped. Then repeated. Then stopped again. Then repeated once more.
"And of that what do you make?" King asked of the little man who shivered in his blanket.
"Nay, bwana, it is a drum talking," said the Hottentot. "Of it I make nothing. Only it is not the same talk that those other drums spoke." Curiously the little bush dweller, so astute in other things, when magic was in the air remained truly African, foolish, frightened, witless.
"I make of it," muttered King, "that this wizard was in so far honest that this word of fear has no significance for him.
"He is not of that dark cult. Yet, true to the brotherhood, he taps information for such as may have interest to know that a white man comes seeking. There will be trouble on that trail."
IT was a credit to King's organization of his safari that with the morning's start only one man was missing. It was to be expected that on any hard and unpleasant trek men would desert at an opportunity like this in a comfortable village.
But the Masai took it as an affront upon his personal honor that even one man should have gotten away. He shouted threats and raged through the village, dragging frightened men out of their huts, shaking his great spear in their faces, and promising death and dismemberment if the fugitive were not delivered.
But to no avail.
"Let him go," said King. "Time is more valuable than one man. Give his load to an askari."
That was another source of shouting and argument. They were fighting men, screamed the askaris; they would not stand by and see one of their number reduced to the low estate of a burden carrier. It was exactly as had been foreseen.
The Masai charged in among them like a raving lion. They shrank from his fury.
"Fighting men?" he growled at them throatly. "Who among you is a fighting man? Let him stand forth and speak. Lo, I will fight him; shield to shield and spear to spear. Or, if he has a brother, let the twain stand forth. Or if a cousin or relative, let the family stand forth together against an elmoran of the Masai and let us see who has knowledge of fighting!"
Magnificent in his wide-flung challenge, tall ostrich plume and monkey-hair elbow-garters flying in the wind, the great fellow glared at them. His eyeballs rolled white; his nostrils twitched; the white scars of a hundred battles showed upon his chest and arms.
Of all fifteen askaris, no man, no family, showed any eagerness to put their claims to so heroic a test.
"So?" snorted the blood-hungry one. "Then we can talk. Thou, loud mouthed one." He took the selected man by the throat and shook him. "Thine is the burden today. Tomorrow it falls to the lot of the next loudest."
King affected not to notice all this.
"Up, up!" he called. "Up loads and away! What is this bickering? Time passes and the way is long before us. Up and trek."
He strode ahead. He knew that the safari would follow. A boy showed him the ford across the donga. He followed down on the other side to a point opposite to where the lebasha had fallen to the ground after his weird performance. From there he set a compass course.
"Since no other trail is known to us," he said to the Hottentot, "this at least is a direction."
So in that direction he led the way. The safari strung out behind him, picking the best ground available.
Hardly a mile had they progressed when King stopped suddenly. A clucking noise of dismay escaped from the Hottentot. What lay on the trail was no sight for panicky porters. King threw up his hand and shouted back:
"Here is quicksand. Let the men make a circle to the right—a wide circle. Let no man approach this bad ground. Barounggo, come here and see."
The safari swung away in a detour. The Masai splashed up through the puddles, wondering what need his master had to show him a quicksand in a country where there were thousands of quicksands.
"Not a quicksand," said King. "But we've found your lost man."
The Masai looked and started. Instinctively he lowered his spear and crouched ready to meet an attack. But there was no hostile force in sight, no lurking figures behind bushes. Only a man, the porter who had been missing that morning. He lay face up in the thin rain, naked, his arms stretched out as if crucified on the sticky ground.
In dry weather the hyenas would have nosed him out before dawn. The steady rain flattened the scent. The body was therefore intact and the yellow clay design stood clear against the sodden black skin. A crude leopard spot on each breast and down the belly a line that divided to point to each thigh.
King's voice was hard.
"This is no thing for the eyes of the Shenzies," he said. "But you two, who have made many safaris with me, my right hand and my left, what counsel have you to offer in this matter?"
He wanted to know right then and there whether superstitious terrors of black magic were undermining the courage of his henchmen, without whose loyal support he might as well turn back from this sinister thing to which he had put his hand.
His right hand and his left. Both men's eyes shone. There were times over late camp-fires when they argued with endless acrimony as to which one was right and which left. Never could they agree, and shrewdly King never told them.
"You, apeling, who have wisdom in the ways of the bush, what say you?"
The Hottentot stood on one foot and scratched his knee with the toes of the other.
"Bwana," he rendered his well considered verdict, "this is no witchcraft here; but the doing, as we know by this mark, of fierce men from a far place. Of men moreover—" he grimaced with the preternatural wisdom of a very old chimpanzee—"of evil men who have that which they wish to hide; otherwise they would not leave a sign such as this to frighten us from the trail. And when a secret is hidden—" monkey inquisitiveness chuckled from his wizened face—"it is honor to him who has the wit to find it out."
There was no suggestion of turning back from this trail that gave its stark warning that this was a phase of Africa not to be meddled with. King ruffled his hand through the little man's woolly hair, at which he, suddenly shy, chittered away like a marmoset.
"And you, warrior?" King turned to the other.
"Nay, bwana," said the great fellow simply. "Shall strange bush pigs do this to an elmoran? Painter folk who smear designs with colors. Shall such people slay one of my Shenzies and go unscathed? Let bwana give his order, and the safari shall proceed."
King stood scowling down at the dead thing that had been laid out in his path. Perplexity furrowed two deep lines in his forehead.
"I have never heard of any leopard society this far east," he mused. "And the leopard cultists don't paint; they use steel claws. What in all black deviltry is the meaning of this mark?"
Questioning the empty air brought no light to the enigma. King shrugged.
"At least it means that that queer hypnotized creature was right, that this is exactly the direction that we want to go. Let's go."
That was the only clew. A direction, no more. But a direction given by black magic and confirmed by a dead man. King held his compass to it.
THERE followed days of dreary tramping through the slush. Progress was wretchedly slow. Long detours had to be made to find fords across the flooded dongas. Actual distance gained was sometimes barely a mile in a long day's hard going.
Porters fell sick. African natives, who are capable of enduring privation and poor food under heavy loads when engaged on their own futile affairs, revel in the luxury of sickness in a white man's safari.
Patiently King dosed them—a long line of complaints every morning. Quinine and cathartics were the stock prescriptions. King made them as nauseating as a Nairobi chemist had taught him. The men engulfed them and liked them. Medicine in all the horrible and revolting brews of native quackery was their heritage and was good for them in strict ratio to the price extorted by the quack. Free medicine at the hands of a white man was a luxury, and the whole staff vied for it accordingly.
Without the dosage their susceptible minds would have magnified their vaguely imagined ills into honest cramps and gripings. Discontent, sullen conviction of persecution and general disorganization would have ensued. So King held daily clinic and fretted for the squandered time.
Villages were few and far between. This was sparsely settled country. In the villages no information was to be picked up. Here was the blank ignorance that King had expected. To the stupid Algain tribesmen the word N'gamma meant nothing. And King hardly hoped to be able to work a witch doctor again. But he persisted on his compass course. That stark warning at the beginning had been evidence that he was aiming right; and no other course, no clew, was available.
There was some small compensation. The rain, after the first fury of the monsoon burst, slackened to intermittent downpour and drizzle. The sun managed to break through now and then to warm chilled bodies; though no day passed without its good six or eight hours of wetness. Clothes, despite slickers, were never dry. Blankets were soggy. Leather goods sprouted green fungus overnight; and worse, so did the loose cereals of the food supply. Maize, rice, beans, the staples of porter diet, ran to mold—which meant fermentation; which meant stomach ache; which meant more medicine.
Conversely to human misery, all nature rejoiced. Man pays for superiority over nature by having become a creature of artificial shelters. Without them he is wretched. Denied them for too long, he sickens. But nature blooms.
The burnt bush country that had been waiting for its first drop of moisture literally burst into exuberant green. Flowers leaped out of what had been barren dust patches without a speck of leaf in sight. Even the mimosa thorn sprouted pink rosettes of bloom that scented the air—and the long thorns grew inches longer.
Birds of gaudy plumage appeared out of the long leagues of nowhere and sang their derision of the rain. Insects hatched in their myriads and nearly all of them seemed to require human food. But game was scarce. It kicked its heels all over many hundred miles of green plain and drank where it willed.
Meat therefore was infrequent. And corn was moldy. And through all that misery nearly two score of African males had to be pushed along, cajoled, coaxed, bullied, carefully herded like beasts of burden. There was potent reason why people did not travel in the rainy season; why Africa, beyond rail and auto road reach, sits down and stagnates, isolated, for six months in every year.
DOGGEDLY King pushed on. The direction was exactly eleven degrees west of North; and by compass bearing King held to it till his reward came in meeting with obstruction.
Native villages began to be vaguely helpless about finding fords. Food supplies were curiously unobtainable. There was no corn; there had been a famine; the elephants had trodden down the last season's crop; the villagers were starving themselves.
The restlessness of the porters was evidence that they were being slyly urged to desert. And desert some of them did.
King smiled thinly. This was the second phase of his quest that he had expected. It was proof that, while the common herd knew nothing about the dark mystery, they had been tipped off to impede the white man. A food strike in the wilderness is a weapon a hundred time more potent than in a civilized city. Africa was sullenly defending its secrets.
Against that stolid, unwavering defence many a white man's advance has helplessly wilted and come to an end; and that, incidentally, is one of the administration's strongest reasons for the employment of native police.
Barounggo stormed into the presence of local chieflings and flung down one of two choices.
"The bwana m'kubwa, my master, requires potio for his men. So and so many baskets of this and so many of that. If they be forthcoming swiftly, perhaps we condescend to pay. Otherwise we slay and take."
Of all peoples the African is perhaps more susceptible to lordly bluff than any other. And at that it was precarious guessing for those back country chiefs to determine whether the truculent great fellow were bluffing or not. It was a strong safari; the white man who ran it looked like a hard and determined individual; and the Masai was an awe-inspiring figure. Sulky orders were given, and women brought the required potio to the camp.
THE country began to change. The open thorn scrub with its tall sentinel acacia trees began to close in. Trees in clumps began to be frequent: tamarisks, silk cottons, copals. The safari was beginning to come into jungle country.
King mused upon a phenomenon of his own observation in Africa—that it was the people who lived in the jungles, rather than the open dwellers, who seemed to have evolved the more diabolic forms of dark and fantastic cults.
He was out hunting for meat when he met the first of these forest men. With the Hottentot carrying the extra gun and four pole bearers to carry in whatever he might shoot, he was skirting the jungle fringe, himself in advance, treading like a cat. A man blundered into view before he knew that strangers were near.
Seeing them, the man gave a howl, dropped his pack and bolted back into the bush path. King called after him and set the Hottentot to shouting in the half dozen or so different languages that he knew. After a frightened silence the man hesitantly called back and presently was persuaded to emerge. A stalwart, quite intelligent looking man he was, and it turned out that he understood Swahili very creditably.
There were Boranna tribes in the jungle country, he said. He himself was journeying from his uncle's father's village—he pointed with his chin—two days' journey distant to his own village; he pushed out his lips in the other direction. His pack contained fish that he had netted in a jungle pool and mealie cakes that his uncle's father's second best wife had made as a gift to his own woman who was sister to—
King cut the man short. These African family affairs were always terrifically involved. He wanted to talk about other things. Yes, said the man, there was plenty of game in the jungle; he had passed bush bok only fifteen minutes back; but why worry about bush bok? If bwana were hungry, the man would gladly trade some of his fish and mealie cakes for a brass cartridge or whatever the white man would give him. In fact, he would trade all his fish and mealie cakes; for he could catch more fish and many women could make mealie cakes, while no woman could make a brass cartridge.
Altogether an obliging and ingenuous fellow; an unspoiled son of the wild. King asked him a few more questions about the beyond, of which the man knew nothing, traded in his mealie cakes for two empty shells and sent him grinning on his way.
Strictly enjoining his four men not to monkey with that pack and particularly not to become suddenly panicky and come clamoring on his heels, King with the Hottentot went into the dim jungle path to look for bush bok.
Bush bok were not so plentiful as the man had indicated; but natives always have the most fantastically inaccurate information about game, depending upon what they think the questioner wants to know rather than upon fact.
But meat was badly needed in the camp. Fish and mealie cakes were a delicacy; but after all, one native basket would not extend to any miracle of loaves and fishes for a whole safari. King crept quietly on, a long way farther than the fifteen minutes within which bush bok tracks should have been apparent.
The farther he went, the more perplexed became his expression. A couple of times he consulted his pocket compass. Finally he stopped. A phenomenon was here that required consideration before plunging ahead. It was through a cautious observation of things that did not just click that King was still alive. The Hottentot's cunning round eyes peered up at him.
"Does the pointing machine say what my feet have been thinking?" he asked, chuckling at what he knew would be a confirmation of his own observation.
"It says, little wise imp, that this path follows parallel with the jungle edge; and I'll bet you not fifty yards from it, just to keep out of the sun in hot weather."
"Aho? So that that man, who was not a fool, walking this path, would have known that we hunted along the fringe?"
King nodded, his eyes narrow with suspicion.
"And yet he pretended to be surprised—and I have seen no other path by which he might have come."
"Nor are there any bush bok. In such a path, bwana, there may well be a man trap, or men with spears hidden."
Why, King wondered, would a native pretend not to know that a white man was hunting parallel to his own path? Very cautiously, stepping on noiseless toes, King picked his way back along that suspicious path, pausing to listen, peering into every bush tangle.
It was with relief that he came into the open where the ingenuously obliging jungle dweller had blundered into view.
Nothing had happened. No attack; not a suspicious sound. The sun had broken through a ragged hole in the clouds. Steam rose from the wet grass, warm and pleasant and cheerful.
"So-ss-ss!." The Hottentot, standing frozen on one leg, hissed the warning note of a puff adder and pointed.
The plantain leaf cover of the native pack had been removed. King might have known that four greedy native boys would plot to steal a little—just a taste—of the delicacy and then cover up their little depredation. And of course that was just what they had done. They lay now, all four of them, half hidden in the long grass, twisted into horrible contortions. Death had not come easily to them.
King's long exhalation of understanding was almost as sharp as the Hottentot's hiss. In three long strides he stood looking down at the four twisted bodies—and seeing nothing but the racing pictures of his own thoughts.
So this was the place. That uncanny boy with all his hokum of smelling out the trail had been right. Right to a compass degree. Somewhere in this jungle happened whatever it was that had happened to Sir Henry Ponsonby and had driven his orderly crazy. The blind search had passed through the baffling belt of blank ignorance, through the outer defence of passive obstruction, and now this was the third stage: active opposition unhampered by a single inhibition of civilization. Africa fighting with every weapon of its dark imagination to prevent the white man from finding out what the white man must not know.
"Somebody who backs this thing is very clever," muttered King. "It just happens by the grace of God that I hike and hunt better on an empty stomach."
"And what," the foresighted little Hottentot wanted to know in advance, "is to be told to the remaining porters who have not already deserted about these four who do not return?"
"Hmph! Tell them just this," said King. "They will now stick closer than bush ticks. In this jungle we find trouble in many forms."
"Truth," clucked the Hottentot. "The skin inside of my belly tells me that here live the father and mother of trouble."
YET both forebodings seemed to have been unnecessarily gloomy. King entered the jungle tense and alert against any treachery. With six askaris he took the lead. The porters, as many as were left of them, huddled behind. The Masai and the remaining askaris formed a rear guard, every man armed, watchful.
King knew the devilish ingenuity of man-traps, springy, bamboo things armed with hardwood spikes and set beside the trail, held by the most innocent looking liana vine triggers. Another kind might be set in the path, covered with leaves. Such a thing, sprung by a passerby, would rake the bowels from a man's belly, or a heavy knob would crash into his face. Another deadly trick was to tie venomous snakes beside the path. And what new devices there might be besides, nobody could guess.
Every forward step therefore was tested; every bush scrutinized. Progress was agonizingly slow. Nor was there any means of knowing which path might lead to the headquarters of the trouble or which might meander for miles to some unimportant hidden village.
"Presently," said King, "we shall hear the drums that tell of our advance; and we shall know at least the direction."
But there were no drums. Giant frogs boomed question and answer with deceptive regularity. A bittern kind of bird thrummed in a marsh with a volume worthy of a war drum. But no signals. Nor, as the party slowly progressed, were any man-traps encountered.
Of course, the obvious remedy for all this uncertainty was to waylay some jungle native, grab him and make him lead the advance. Even though he might refuse to betray the big juju village, he would know where the tribal man-traps would be located.
And it was just such a native that they caught—a tall fellow who came trotting along, singing lustily. Strangely enough, he exhibited no surprise at meeting a white man's safari creeping through the jungle. The surprise was rather on the part of the safari at the man's open-faced honesty.
Surely, he said. There was a big village barely a day's journey distant; and if the bwana were afraid of turning into the wrong path, he himself would be glad to lead the way for a small gift out of the bwana's generosity.
King remembered the cheerful ingenuousness of that other jungle dweller who had happened along with his mealie cakes and fish. Grimly he said:
"All right. Just three paces ahead all the time; no monkey tricks."
The man actually looked hurt. But the tempers of white men are always incomprehensible to natives. This man accepted the condition as the tantrum of just another queer white man and presently he was trotting ahead, chattering along over his shoulder in African good humor.
King thought to surprise something out of him.
"What do you know about the word, n'gamma?" he asked abruptly.
But the man displayed blank ignorance.
"Nay, bwana, I am but a cultivator of yams, and from them I make beer which I sell. I am no wise man who knows strange words. But in the big village is a m'zungu monpéré He knows many strange tongues of many peoples. Without doubt he will enlighten bwana."
Well, that certainly seemed to knock the bottom out of a lot of things. A monpéré was a distortion of nothing less peaceful than mon père, handed down from the days of the early French missions. All missionaries, irrespective of race or creed, were monpérés.
A missionary was established at the big village. And it was there that King had been expecting to find the seat, the very home, of the black cult that was not afraid to lay hands upon white men. This thing was more baffling at the end of the trail than it had been at the beginning. Or was he off the trail altogether? King wondered. But then he remembered, not two hours' run behind, four men twisted into horrible shapes because they had stolen just a taste of mealie cakes and fish.
However, they all arrived at the mission station without mishap. The missionary was a Reverend Dr. Henderson, a Scotch Presbyterian. He was delighted to have a visitor and was, of course, the very soul of hospitality, as missionaries in the far outskirts of nowhere always are. He insisted that King should take up quarters in his own little bungalow. For King's servants he found room in his compound with his own black boys; and the safari he allocated among the huts of his converts, quite a little village among themselves.
"A dry hut and a few days of recuperation after this dreadful weather will set them all up," he said.
When all that was done and everybody comfortable he perked his lean face to one side.
"Let me see, er, Mister King," he inquired. "Is it possible that I have heard of you, Kingi Bwana? Er, might it be the same?"
"I hope the stories haven't been all bad."
The Reverend Henderson's wide blue eyes displayed almost alarm.
"Dear me, dear me. I sincerely hope—you know, Mr. King—er, you must forgive me. But it is said, as I suppose you must know, that where trouble is brewing, there Kingi Bwana is likely to show up. Nobody would travel during this season unless there were something serious. I do hope that nothing is wrong anywhere near here. Everything has been going along so nicely."
KING postponed a discussion until the after-dinner prayers were concluded and the houseboys had distributed themselves among their huts within the wire fenced compound. Then over his pipe he told the missionary his story quite frankly, and concluded:
"I figured I was absolutely hot on the trail. But now I'm hanged if I know whether I'm not away off."
The Reverend Henderson was, of course, shocked at the recital.
"Oh, I hope so," he almost pleaded. "I hope you are wrong. In fact, I am sure you must be wrong. Nothing so dreadful could have happened here. Everything has been so quiet. And as for any juju cult—" He shook his head.
"But hang it all," King insisted, "I know I've been aiming right. There's been proof enough in the murderous interference. And it couldn't be much farther. That orderly of Ponsonby's could not in any circumstances have been running and hiding for more than a week; and it's just about a week's hard going from here in good weather to where I picked him up."
"Indeed? Good heavens, how horrible! They were here, of course. It was barely a month ago. As a matter of fact, Sir Henry was going to send me a runner from Lenia to return some books. But—er, well, somehow he failed to do so."
"Aa-ah! He was at Fort Harrington and he was here—and he disappeared. Hmm! Well, leaving aside my theory about a juju—which I don't yet give up—what about slave raiding?"
"My dear Mr. King—" Dr. Henderson spread out his thin hands deprecatingly—"you know very well that most of this slave raiding is propaganda put out by certain European powers that want to embarrass Abyssinia in order to gain trade concessions. We are just a few miles south of the border here, and if there were any such horrible traffic—"
"So? Just below the border, eh?"
"Yes, Bagawaiyo, this village, is on the old caravan route; and established in British Territory, I have no doubt, for security's sake."
"Aa-ah! An old caravan route? Right handy for running off a few men now and then."
"My dear Mr. King! I should have heard some rumors. Men, of course, disappear. Some fall victims to the jungle; some just go away in the haphazard African manner; and in the borderland district the percentage is always high. But I have been here two years now and I have heard nothing that might lead to suspicion of anything so dreadful as slave traffic. Nor did my predecessor leave any such notes. Oh, let me assure you that nothing that might call for official intervention has been going on here."
King remained silently noncommittal. He liked missionaries on the whole. Skeptically tolerant, he felt that their Christian endeavors at least did no harm and he strongly agreed with their civilizing influence—though that did not mean that he agreed always with the soundness of their individual judgment. And then again, regrettably, there had been, in the history of Africa, renegade preachers who actually made use of their influence and their cloth to cover relationship with the most objectionable kind of back country traders.
King reserved his comment. The Reverend Henderson went on:
"Let me tell you what we shall do. I shall send a note over tomorrow morning to the Reverend Leroy. He knows these people much better than you or I could ever hope to."
"And the Reverend Leroy is—"
"A colored brother. From Jamaica, I believe, or Barbados. I can not altogether agree with some of his dogma, and he can not agree with some of my theories of approach to the native. An educated black man, you know, is always apt to feel a little superior. But he felt the call to minister to his own race and he is doing splendid work. Naturally he is closer to the undercurrents of native doings than any white man can be."
THE Reverend Leroy proved to be a splendid specimen of light negro, broad shouldered and robust, with a keenly intelligent face. He was meticulously dressed in proper clerical garb and he spoke educated English with a vaguely elusive accent.
He smiled broadly at the idea of juju.
"Not among these Boranna tribes. These people are two-thirds Galla blood. The Galla are fighting men, almost as ferocious as that Masai of yours. They are animists. There is some minor witch doctory among them in outlying districts; though none here.
"At worst, their function is rather the interpretation of the forces of nature, predictions of rainfall, birth auguries, luck charms; a mild form of sorcery that no sensible man can object to in Africa where so many more important evils have to be combated. Juju, on the other hand, is the most debased form of idolatry. Anybody who has made a study of Africa knows that the more virile fighting people, the Zulu, the Masai, the Galla, never went in for that sort of thing."
King grasped at once what Dr. Henderson had gently hinted at. Leroy was distinctly superior; didactic, one might even say. King had to admit that he ought to have thought of all those quite patent facts himself. It was true. Juju belonged among the debased Central and West Coast peoples. The men here were an upstanding, open faced folk. He laughed and said to the Reverend Leroy:
"Well, I figured I was hot on the trail. But you know your own people."
"Not my people, Mr. King." The preacher's voice was bitter. "I do not know my own people. My parents were taken away from wherever they belonged—as slaves—by white men. I have no people."
King felt suddenly quite queerly shocked. He had known slaves; he had seen plenty of them in his own day. Savages they had been, dull creatures of no understanding, quite possibly better off in their condition than at large, exposed to the diseases and dangers of their native state. Right in his own country he had known colored men whose parents had been slaves. Humble people they were, far from the country of their origin.
That had seemed different somehow. But to meet an educated man, a man of understanding, in Africa, at home so to speak, who did not know where was his home! That was shocking. King could understand the resentment that such a man could feel against the system that had caused his condition. The preacher was talking again.
"And now his Majesty's government is all in a pother because politicians in Parliament point indignant fingers at black Abyssinia about slave raiding. Let his Majesty's government turn its eyes closer to home to look for slaves, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, for instance. You know as well as I do, Mr. King, that slave raiding today is punishable in Abyssinia by the death penalty. It is possible, despite that law, that some bold petty chief may dash across the border now and then and kidnap a prospective servant or so. And as a matter of fact that possibility must account for some of the occasional disappearances that do occur. But slave raiding on any organized scale? I assure you, Mr. King, there is no such thing in this district."
King could not help but be convinced. Yet doggedly he asked the question:
"So men do disappear, eh? And if not slaves, what did Sir Henry Ponsonby find out before he, too, disappeared?"
That question remained a dark mystery. If Leroy could throw no light on it, then it was indeed one of the hidden things of Africa that would be likely to remain hidden forever. King was impressed by the intelligence and force of the man. The Reverend Henderson, good soul, was the acme of hospitality and helpful solicitude; but he was the type of man of God who would never be able to see his flock other than as errant children. Leroy, however, knew what he was talking about.
The Masai, leaning on his spear, stood scowling after his departing figure.
"A proper man," he growled. "A whole figure of a man. What need has he to be ashamed and hide beneath a copy of white man's clothing?"
The Hottentot impishly strutted in imitation, copying the play of the big hands, the swing of the clerical coat, choking in paroxysms over an imaginary collar.
"Be silent!" ordered King. "And cut that out, ape's offspring. He is a holy man."
"Wagh!" growled the Masai. "I would like to fight that one."
Both men curiously resented the black man's conversion to white man's ways and clothing. Perhaps it was that both sensed the attitude of superiority. King, smiling skeptically, wondered, if that were the general native reaction, what might be the pros and cons of the never ending debate in religious circles in Africa about sending native missionaries to their own people.
But that was an idle and transient cogitation. The dominating thought in King's mind was that here or hereabouts Ponsonby was last seen and from here or hereabouts his orderly had escaped as a shrieking lunatic. Yet two missionaries who lived and worked here both gave the district a clean bill of health. That made a dead end to the whole trail.
King felt as completely defeated as a chess player when checkmated. Yet the muscles of his jaws, bunched as he prowled a long beat up and down the compound. He refused to condemn utterly his own judgment; he had been too careful; he had thrown all his knowledge of Africa into this blind game of chess where dead men marked the dark squares as proof of correct play. Now the whole board seemed to have been snatched from before him. Not very hopefully he turned to the Hottentot who crouched on a tree stump like a gnome on a toadstool.
"What wisdom of the lower pit have you to offer, impling?"
"This," said the grotesque one with certitude, "is an emptiness where one must buy wisdom from a great witch doctor."
"Bah! The monpéré says there is no witch doctor here."
The goblin gave vent to a sepulchral croak of negation.
"The monpéré is a man who has two hearts and three open hands with which to give; but knowledge is not among his gifts. Buy wisdom rather of that great black one who has become a white witch-doctor. It is written in his face that he has much—if he will sell to a white man."
King was startled at the accuracy of the little man's observation. What he implied was true. The Reverend Leroy's attitude was distinctly mistrustful of white men.
King was just a semi-official white man to him. For all that he knew, this white investigator was the usual kind: loftily misunderstanding the black man's crudely torturous viewpoint, didactically positive of the white man's law, a forerunner possibly of soldiers and machine guns. Perhaps the Leroy did know something. But if, as a black man, he had made up his mind that silence meant protection for black men, no argument that King knew would persuade him to speak.
No, the next move in the game must be King's, to find somehow another dark square on the board where something or other—another dead man perhaps—would be a clue.
THAT night the rain roared on the thatch roof with the muffled thunder of drums. King sought for circumstantial arguments to break down the Reverend Henderson's bland assurance of prevailing peace and innocence. All that King could produce were a hypnotized boy and some dead men by the way; against which the Reverend Henderson quoted two years of tranquil residence among a superior class of natives with a growing colony of converts.
Then King heard it—soft and sublimated through the rain, barely distinguishable. But King had been listening for just that sound for a long time. He sat up tense, his eyes blazing.
"It is a dance somewhere," was the missionary's ready explanation. "These foolish boys will dance all night for the most absurd reasons, and in the morning they are totally unfitted to work on their cultivated clearings."
"What hut is there big enough to stage a dance in this rain?" King, skeptical, wanted to know.
The missionary was nonplused. The thought had not occurred to him. Kaffa the Hottentot knocked on the door with the silver ring that he wore on his big toe. Entering, his round eyes glittered with excitement. Words bubbled from his mouth.
"It is the same talk, bwana, that we heard before that no man of us could read."
"Hellfire!" King muttered. "I'll bet I can read it now. I'll bet it's a gathering signal. Excuse me, Padre, for cussing, but this is big news. That's signaling the gang for a night pow-wow because we're here. And, come to think of it, that same signal when we heard it before was calling the scattered search parties together after we'd picked up their man. By golly, this is headquarters. I knew it. I knew darn well we hadn't gone astray. And me, I'm going right out and find where the gang meets."
The missionary was flustered and fearful.
"But, Mr. King, that is impossible. Nothing like that could be going on here. And if it were, remember, I beg you, 'He that meddleth with strife belonging not to him is like one that taketh a dog by the ears.' "
"This belongs to me all right," said King grimly. "It's my shauri that I came up here to meddle into."
"But to plunge into a secret native gathering—and at night—would be extremely dangerous. My dear Mr. King, I counsel and implore you to wait till the morning."
King was impatient to the point of discourtesy.
"Aw, shucks! Don't be silly. I mean—I beg pardon—have some sense. What would I ever find in the morning? Your peaceful native village, as ox-dumb and quiet as you've always known it."
"Barounggo is ready," said the Hottentot. "He waits."
"Good," said King. "Let's go!"
The rain made a blurred patch of the shaft of light from the mission bungalow door—just sufficient to designate in dim outline the gateway through the wire fence. In a moment the three were out of it and in pitch blackness. King carried only his flashlight; a lantern would have been a stupid advertisement of their presence. The other hand held his Luger pistol, the safety catch thrown back.
He had no illusions about what he might be going into. His first meeting with the people who drummed that way had shown that they were fighters, and their warnings along the way were stark evidence that they were killers—to say nothing as yet of Ponsonby who had disappeared or of his orderly who had been driven mad.
"What weapon have you, Kaffa?" he asked. As for the Masai, King knew that he stirred nowhere without his great spear and that he scorned all other weapons; the voice of the Hottentot panted excitedly from the darkness behind him:
"I have in my waistband the short sword that I took from the Somali dog last year and in my left hand a knife and in my right hand bwana's second gun that shoots six times out of the box that turns."
"Hmh! Sounds almost like you're armed. Now what direction are those cursed drums coming from?"
Fitfully the throb and plunk of the drums eddied about on the gusty wind. Big voice and little voice, talking their message now from dead ahead, now from away to one side. Guided half by guesswork, King found a path and crept along it stealthily, flashing his light for the briefest fraction of a second at a time.
Once the ray fell upon a crouching something that snorted and crashed away in the undergrowth. A hyena howled fiendishly out of the blackness. Intersecting paths confused the way. All around the village, of course, was a maze of paths. King swore in perplexity.
The driving rain drowned out the drum signals for minutes at a time. When King was just about ready to concede that perhaps the signals were finished, the message transmitted, the elusive thump-a-thump! would drift in—but from where? King's ears were trained. But he could not place those drums.
By trial and error the three progressed, following a path till they were sure that the sound bore more to one side.
Not a native was encountered. Either the whole community had hurried to the rendezvous, or those who perhaps did not belong among the initiates knew enough to stay very properly in their huts when the juju drums talked. Even had King been able to catch a native or two, he knew that there would be no hope at all of getting the men to admit that they could hear the dread drums.
SLOWLY the three floundered along, King in the lead with his momentary spark of light. He was not afraid of man-traps. So close to the village they would be a danger to any blundering native. Besides, he was sure the signalers had relied upon the heavy shower to cover their cautious messages.
All of a sudden a veering gust of wind carried the sound unmistakably from ahead, convincingly loud. Momentarily the rain ceased. King tingled with expectations of he knew not what; but he was on the right path to find out. He pushed on, as silently as a cat, by feeling the bushes on either side, the flashlight switched off.
His boot bumped into something soft that lay across the trail. It heaved up under his foot. King sprawled over it; but, falling, clutched at it. In a moment he found himself tangled with a muscular naked body that writhed under him.
"Awo! What happens?" came the Hottentot's whisper; and on the instant he flung himself into the tangle.
The Masai's great hands came diving down out of the dark and clutched at whatever he could find.
Now three men, it would seem, ought to have been well able to capture one, however muscular. But the darkness impeded them, and the muscular body for which they fought had been carefully oiled from head to foot. Inevitably the man wriggled free. He emitted a shrill whistle, and there followed the quick pad of feet running down the path. After that nothing.
Nothing at all. No further sound of human origin. The drums ceased abruptly; that was all. The wind shook the branches high above, and heavy drops plopped with leathery concussions upon soggy, dead leaves. Soaked to the bone, the three men shivered. Somewhere a jackal moaned its long preliminary note and its fellows took up the hellish chorus of low howls rising crescendo to high pitched shrieks. King knew that they sat in a circle round some garbage heap in the very center of a huddle of huts with their noses pointed skyward while they screamed under whatever fell impulse it is that causes jackals to congregate and scream.
"Ai thuah!." The Hottentot shivered. "Sickness will come of this night."
King pressed his flashlight button on and turned it upon himself and his two men. There were no hurts. The muscular oiled man in the path had carried no knife. Just a watcher, lying craftily low like a snake across the trail.
King shrugged. There was nothing else he could do.
"Somebody," he repeated his conviction, "somebody who is back of this thing is very damned clever indeed."
IN the morning King was grimly suspicious of everything and everybody in this hidden jungle village that was given such a clean bill of health by no less than two resident missionaries. He was determined to try to retrace his wanderings of the night. Somewhere at the end of the path, if he could pick it out from its crisscrossed intersections, was something; or at all events there had been something doing last night; something secret enough to occasion the posting of a watcher on the path.
Quietly he told the Masai to post unobtrusive guards to see that nobody left the mission, and he ordered the Hottentot to keep eyes and ears open for whispers and rumors. He suspected even this missionary. But, surprisingly, the missionary was eager to accompany him on his quest.
"If there is any underground wickedness going on, Mr. King—and your extraordinary experience of last night almost convinces me—it is my duty to find out about it and put a stop to it before it grows to something that will perhaps need police interference."
King smiled thinly.
"So you don't approve of a police investigation coming here, eh?"
The missionary flushed.
"Oh, don't mistake me, Mr. King; don't misunderstand me. There are some splendid and honorable men among the police; but some natives elevated to power, Mr. King— Surely you recall the text:
'For three things the earth is disquieted, and for four which it can not bear; for a servant when he reigneth; and for a fool when he is filled with meat.'
and I am afraid, I am very much afraid, that native constabulary fall all too often into both categories."
"Hmh! It seems that we agree on some things at least," said King shortly. "But how about the danger of butting into secret native ceremonies?"
"Am I not my brother's keeper, Mr. King?" was all that the missionary replied. "Come, let us go. I shall take my Jezebel for a run, if you don't mind."
King raised his eyebrows.
"My watchdog," said the missionary, and was immediately embarrassed at having to explain. "A female, Mr. King; and quite, ah—indiscriminate." It was probable the solitary wavering attempt at humor in that earnest man's life.
The rain had for the time being ceased. As King picked out the previous night's path by no more than memory of turnings he watched the shivering "dew-boy" like a hawk for the least indication of lagging or unwillingness. The dew-boy in Africa is a wretched youth whose function it is to go ahead and shake down upon his own naked shoulders the accumulated moisture from overhanging branches and bushes that crowd the narrow pathways. But the boy trotted ahead wherever directed without hesitation. The Reverend Henderson's faith in the peacefulness of his bailiwick was renewed.
"You will find no juju house or devil-doctor along here, Mr. King. This road leads past brother Leroy's little settlement and on to some old rock carvings, and there it comes to an end."
King was immediately keen.
"Rock carvings, eh? Crude sculpture and native cults often go hand in hand. By all means let us examine these rock carvings."
Reverend Henderson laughed.
"You are too suspicious. You won't be able to attach any blame to my people here on account of those carvings. They are many hundreds of years too ancient for that."
The trail, as King picked it out, passed along a low embankment on one side of which, rudely fenced by the haphazard intertwining of a skimpy bush fringe, was a wide, ready lake. King stopped, wondering whether he were on the right path; whether, if they had passed so close, the Hottentot with his extraordinarily acute senses would not have smelled the water. But he reflected that the heavy rain of the night might well have drowned out the dank odor of the lake.
But another matter was causing King to stare frowningly and to whistle a tuneless air through his teeth. Gray-green, moss-grown, log-like things floated in the lake—swarms of them. The dog, Jezebel, bristled and growled at them; then barked in a frenzy of hate. Some of the nearer logs rose just the merest trifle higher and swung end-on; almost imperceptible ripples showed that they moved forward. The dog quickly tucked her tail between her legs and fled yelping.
Crocodile worship was the idea that was revolving in King's head. His mind seized upon and analyzed the pros and cons. He could conceive of horrific things connected with crocodiles and African imaginativeness. Orgies fearful enough perhaps to unseat a man's mind. Yet juju rites, as he knew them, invariably centered around some individual fetish, some enormous patriarch crocodile perhaps, but not a lakeful of them.
"Still," he muttered the practical question to himself, "what do they eat?"
"Fish," said the Reverend Henderson readily. "They have left no fish in this lake. The natives travel a long distance to another pool to catch fish. Possibly, too, they are cannibalistic and devour each other."
"Crocodiles aren't cannibalistic," King grunted his observation of nature lore. But "cannibals" was another thought that flashed into his mind; though he was ready to reject it almost before the Reverend Henderson, shocked, said:
"My dear Mr. King, you have seen the people, a fine upstanding lot. They are not the type."
"And yet—" King doggedly groped for a connecting clew—"Ponsonby disappeared and his orderly went screaming crazy."
His eyes were focused upon a little low-lying island that loomed ghostly through the drifting mists that steamed from the scummy water's surface. Miasmatic islands and gruesome fetish cults were another combination that linked darkly together.
The Reverend Henderson read his thoughts.
"The place is little more than a morass," he argued. "Or at least so it looks to be; and the low scrub on it is not high enough to conceal even a shack, much less any sort of juju house. Furthermore, there is no means of getting to it through this infested water; there is not a canoe in the place, as you can easily assure yourself."
King was half convinced, barely half. A reptile-infested lake and a reedy island offered nightmare possibilities to the devil-ridden African mind. Decidedly the lake must be investigated further. Grudgingly he conceded:
"You sure give the place a clear alibi. But answer this: Hut groups, you say, are all around in the bush. This is a well trodden path, well used. Why have we met nobody in pretty near two miles of it? It doesn't smell natural to me. But I'll bet you we'll find something not so healthy at the end of it. Let's get along and take a look at those rock carvings."
The missionary was complacent.
"I doubt it, Mr. King. Indeed, I venture to doubt it. I have been here for two years and my predecessor for five, and we have not found the soil unfruitful to our labors."
King grunted. To him the argument was not so convincing as the more practical one of lack of canoes and sheer excess of commonplace reptiles upon which to focus a cult. Yet a shock was coming to disturb the missionary's equanimity.
The dog, Jezebel, was running ahead in the path, nosing and scuffling in the underbrush. She turned a corner and pattered on. There sounded a whirring twang, an agonized yelp, and the body of the dog hurtled back into view as if it might have been one of those gruesome living projectiles that used to be fired from Roman catapults.
THE dew-boy uttered a strangled shriek and shrank back into the bushes, his eyes goggling with horror at the thought of what might have happened to him. King leaped to the corner, his pistol drawn. No human being was in sight; but standing at the edge of the path, still gently quivering, was a springy bamboo, to the head of which, at waist height, was lashed a chevaux-de-frise of sharp hardwood spikes. Had a man pushed against the innocent looking tendril of vine that now hung from the adjacent bush, the instrument would have smashed full into his unprotected stomach.
King stared at it, and his mouth pinched down to a grim line. He nodded, acknowledging to himself the answer to the question he had but a few moments ago fired at the missionary.
"So that's why we met nobody on this path. Tipped off. Every man, woman and child in the village—except maybe the Reverend's converts; else that dew-boy would have known. And every African one of them kept the secret— The path I went over last night. And they knew damn well I'd trace it today. Clever. Hellishly clever."
King went back to the Reverend Henderson, whom he found gulping dry-eyed over the body of the mangled dog, incredulity and horror in this thin, ascetic face. Any vague part that the unhappy missionary might have had in King's all-embracing suspicion was dissipated at sight of his genuine grief and amazement. All that King found within himself to say rather gruffly was—
"Well, I guess this has been something of a revelation that big juju is afoot somewhere."
The Reverend Henderson rose from his knees. He was trembling.
"Revelation indeed, Mr. King. 'The sorcerers and idolaters shall have their part in the lake.' But what does it mean? What is this abomination of desolation of which I have known nothing in all my two years?"
King's voice was grim.
"It means just Africa, Padre. Things that white men—and maybe some black men—mustn't know. So my advice to you is to go right back to your mission."
King knew that he was at close grips at last with the sinister power, whatever it might be, that had eliminated Sir Henry Ponsonby for coming too close to its secret. He knew that all around him were savages who knew about that power—some of them without doubt a part of it, ready to carry out its ruthless commands as soon as it should judge its time to be ripe. But beyond that he knew nothing. He was up against one of the dark things of Africa. It behooved him to go very carefully. He did not want to be hampered in retreat by a frail and not very practical missionary.
But the Reverend Henderson was suddenly determined.
"Not alone, Mr. King, not alone. If this means some horrible form of witch-doctory I must find out about it and crush it before the police—before a worse thing shall befall. I can not hold with Brother Leroy's tolerance of what he calls the milder forms of sorcery. I'm coming with you. And, as a matter of fact, we shall pick up Brother Leroy on the way and convince him about the seriousness of this evil."
King shrugged. He had had experience of the obstinacy of these righteous men when they felt that duty called. He had no time to waste in argument just then. The dew-boy, after his narrow escape, was quite useless. He chattered and his knees trembled. King pushed him to the rear and himself led the way, cautious, alert in a strange territory. But there was no other man-trap. Shrewdly enough, the setter of the one reasoned that if the first should fail every succeeding step would be so carefully inspected as to render others useless.
A pattering of feet sounded behind them. King tensed, prepared for anything on that path. Then he relaxed.
"It is only one man," he said. In a few seconds the little Hottentot appeared. He carried King's rifle and ammunition pouch.
"Bwana," he panted, "the order to stay behind must be forgiven. For it was thus: Barounggo and I held conference, and Barounggo said, 'I smell blood in this place. Death walks upon crafty feet. Go thou, therefore, to the bwana and carry his gun. I stay and keep guard and I utilize the time in exercising these worthless askaris in the use of shield and spear.' So, bwana, I came, and if it was an offence I await rebuke."
"Huh!" King grunted. "Barounggo is always smelling blood." But a smile cracked his hard face. "It was no offence, apeling. But wit is needed here rather than shield and spear. Be watchful and absolve no man from suspicion."
BROTHER LEROY'S settlement was not so extensive as that of his confrère. Evidently his converts were not so numerous. The mission house was a neat little square building of adobe and thatch, thickly whitewashed. Straggling about it were a collection of round huts; and a short distance away a very large circular one surmounted by a cross, the three points of which were rounded off with gleaming ostrich shells.
"His chapel," whispered the Reverend Henderson, "though I deplore any pandering to native superstition in permitting their ideas of decoration. I can not help feeling they are grafting on to Christian teaching some pagan significance of which we are not aware, a practice which, alas, we have to combat in all conversion."
The Reverend Leroy was standing at his door. He came forward to meet them, and at the Reverend Henderson's serious face he laughed with a superior condescension. There was a certain derision in his tone.
"I know he is telling you about my ostrich eggs, Mr. King, no? Though I have assured my white colleague that in black Abyssinia—which was officially Christianized by the Alexandrine Monk Frumentius while my good friend's own naked forebears were still slinging stones at the Roman wall across North Britain—he will find all crosses decorated with ostrich eggs. But—" he became serious—"I hear that you ran into some secret ceremonial or other last night."
King's eyes narrowed.
"How do you know?" he asked bluntly.
"One of my little flock had some story about it. He did not know what it was all about. Local magicians, you know, don't let our converts into their doings. But it is noised abroad that you stumbled over a watcher."
"Yeah? Why was there a watcher? That's what I want to know," said King.
The Reverend Leroy shrugged.
"Obviously to keep the uninitiated away. Or—" his smile was malicious—"Kingi Bwana is known in Africa for prying into the more secret little native doings."
To which King grunted:
"Huh! Well it was a darn sight more than little doings, and I'm going to find the juju house where all this hellery centers."
"Oh, you won't find any juju house around here." The Reverend Leroy was positive. "There's not a hut in the whole district big enough to house any secret gathering, excepting—" he laughed—"my colleague's chapel and mine."
Again there seemed to be a blank wall of impossibility against which King knocked helplessly. Juju ceremonies, as he knew them, were inconceivable without some central home of horrors, some dark, skull-festooned temple of gruesome superstition. The only thin hope of a clew to the enigma that was left to him seemed to be the rock carvings.
The Reverend Leroy flouted the idea of danger lurking beside the path; and to prove his faith he insisted upon leading the way himself. He swung along with great, careless strides, and as he went he lectured learnedly on ancient sculpture in Africa.
Without mishap they came to a low bluff of outcropping granite upon the face of which crude figures had been chiseled in outline, like the inexpert drawings of a child upon a blackboard. Some were so worn as to be indistinguishable, some almost intact. Monstrous distortions of gods or devils they seemed to be, depicting the baser human attributes. Some were appallingly obscene. All conveyed the impression, so startlingly common to primitive religious statuary, of dreadful thought in their inception.
One in a surprisingly good state of preservation particularly attracted King's interest. It depicted an enormous serpent that seemed to be engulfing a whole line of human victims in a row. With stark realism a series of bloated swellings showed the passage of the bodies down the creature's gullet.
Another group pictured some sort of ceremonial. The monster seemed to be dead. A priest of some sort, decked in trappings of bones, performed an invocation while naked men beat their heads upon the ground in grief and veneration. Out of the dead body, phoenix-like, a crude outline of its spirit rose and towered above the worshipers.
King stared at the things, fascinated. The Reverend Henderson, though he had seen them before, shuddered.
"A singularly fearsome conception, even for Africa, is it not?"
King continued to stare in frowning silence. Then—
"So fearsome," he murmured, more to himself than to anybody in particular, "that if a man were to see such a thing in real life, I could well imagine him going shrieking crazy...."
THE Reverend Henderson stared at him round eyed, incredulous that so fantastic a horror could have any basis in truth. The Reverend Leroy had the greater callousness of his heredity. He dismissed the gruesome possibility with a large wave of his hand and discoursed expansively upon ancient serpent worship, showing a wide knowledge of the subject, tracing the venerable cult through earliest Europe and back to Africa in Egyptian sculpture.
But King was not listening to him. He was poking at some mud-spattered, fluffy substance with the toe of his boot. When the dirt and rubble was kicked away it turned out to be a little heap of feathers—chicken feathers that had once been white.
"Hmh!" King surveyed them blackly. "Looks like somebody don't think those pictures are too ancient to appreciate a little attention."
The Reverend Leroy's assurance was jolted. He stared at the feathers, his eyeballs white in his dark face. Then he found an explanation.
"Some superstitious savage, I suppose, making a luck sacrifice to the ancient gods. I must confess I did not know that any such practice existed here."
King was suddenly overcome by the feeling that this deserted scene of an ancient cult was dangerous ground; that eyes watched from the jungle. His skin tingled with a sense of impending hostility and with it of imminent discovery of something profoundly important.
Then he got it. The Hottentot's dry coughing attracted his attention. The little man's eyes caught his and rolled furtively in the direction of the Reverend Leroy. King's carefully casual scrutiny could making nothing of it at first, till, looking back at the Hottentot, he saw the cunning little face move almost imperceptibly sidewise. Carelessly he stepped aside himself; and then he saw what had been screened from his view by the great bulk of the black missionary—a symbol cut into the rock: two leopard spots and a wavy line that bifurcated at the lower end.
King's pulse pounded suddenly. But he forced himself to concentrate his interest upon the sculpture of the monstrous snake. He made vacuous talk while his mind raced.
"A fearful thing, as you say, Dr. Henderson. Fascinatingly so. A thing to which I must certainly devote more study."
"Yes, indeed." The Reverend Henderson shuddered. "Sir Henry Ponsonby, too, was very much interested in it."
This time there was no disguising King's emotion. All of a sudden, like lightning breaking through a black thunder cloud, a gleam of understanding lighted his eyes, and then his expression closed down on it, scowlingly introspective. Suddenly he said:
"Let's go home. This is quite the most horrible thing that I have come across in Africa."
On the way home he sent the Hottentot in front with his pistol, the Reverend Henderson in the center, himself bringing up the rear. He was more alert and watchful even than when he came, suspicious of more man-traps.
The only observation that King made as he went on his scowling way was:
"I had hoped to find Ponsonby somewhere, but—"
The Reverend Henderson gaped at him wide-eyed as he panted alongside.
"But what?" he whispered the nervous question.
"I don't know," said King shortly. A thought struck him and he gave the Hottentot some instructions. The little man's face contorted with wise understanding as he turned back on the path.
THE Reverend Henderson slumped in his stiff, handmade chair, amazement, incredulity and utter dejection in his expression. His world was crumbling about his feet. A delegation of his flock, headed by his chief convert, a presbyter of his church, had come to him and had urged him to flee from that place.
They were afraid, they said. They had been warned, furtively and in quick whispers, by relatives who did not belong in the flock that the devil-devil of the place was angry with them.
When their minister, gravely reproving, had reminded them that their Father in heaven was all powerful to protect them from the power of the devil, they had replied with African literalness that, yes, they believed that, because their good teacher had so taught them; but heaven was far away and the devil-devil was here in their midst.
That was the first shock to their pastor. But they went on to worse. This was not the pastor's devil in far away hell who was at constant warfare with the Father in far away heaven—about men's souls in the future and that vaguely understood thing called sin—but a very imminent devil-devil who snatched up men's bodies right here and now and caused them utterly to disappear.
This was awful. It was nothing short of idolatry. What did they mean? Their pastor stormed at them. What stupid superstition was this about witch-doctory or—he turned miserable eyes to King and he used the hated word—juju?
Not witch-doctory, said the delegation; nor juju. "When juju killed a man the remains were always fearsomely displayed as a mark of juju's power. The body was found, or the horribly torn skin was draped over somebody's thorn fence, or at least the skull grinned from a pole in some fetish grove. But this devil-devil devoured men, hair, bones and hide; there was never a trace. Nobody knew who might be gobbled up next; the strongest men and the bravest warriors disappeared as silently as any. The drums talked; the men went; that was all.
The missionary was appalled. Not so much at the bizarre superstitions as at the revelation that such superstitions continued to exist among his Christianized flock.
"But why—" he wailed—"why am I hearing this now? Why in all my two years of ministry here have I never heard anything about these pagan beliefs?"
At that the converts' expressions became wooden, and they remained dumb.
King gave the answer.
"Because, my dear Padre, you have never until now butted into the secret doings of Africa. You have been content to gain your converts and to lead them according to your lights; and the dark outside has left you alone. But now, as your Book so aptly says, you have meddled with strife that doesn't belong to you and you are in the position of one who has taken a dog by the ears."
Curtly he demanded confirmation of the chief convert. The man had talked with King's safari men. He knew that this bwana was not one to be put off with evasions. Yes, he admitted, hitherto the devil-devil had confined its attentions to the unconverted herd; but the converts, feeling secure under the white preacher's protection, had been content. But now they had been warned by frightened relatives that the devil beast was about to turn its anger upon them. So therefore they came to their pastor and wanted him to pack up and flee from the place.
And they meant exactly that. To up and go, no matter where, to any far place out of this particular demon's range. To an African, of course, it is nothing to pack his few pots and other belongings into a bundle and leave his mud hut that he could rebuild somewhere else with no expenditure except a little labor. That was what the whole panic stricken colony was ready to do.
"Yeah," said King through set teeth, "that's how secret Africa works. Frighten off your men with ghost stories, and the white man has got to up and go with them or be left stranded. That one is the oldest and the easiest of tricks to pull off and the hardest for the white man to combat. I tell you, Padre, my whole safari would be bolting, gibbering through the jungle right now, except that my Masai stands over them with his spear and threatens to pin the first man to the ground like a beetle."
He tried to extract some particulars of the devil-devil from the converts; but quite quickly he was convinced that they knew nothing. They themselves, of course, were not initiated into the mystery; nor were most of the other people. Only a few men and some women of the village were let in on this thing; and nobody knew exactly who they were. The devil thing existed and devoured some dozen people every month—at that a long whistle escaped from King—but that was about the sum total of the common knowledge.
"Well," King told them grimly, "I, personally, am going to kill this devil-devil. So get out and tell your friends that." He turned to comfort the Reverend Henderson, who was now a wilted and piteous figure of dejection.
"Why?" he kept moaning to himself. "Why have I not known? In all my years of labor among my people I have not learned to know their hearts. I have been filled with pride of mere numbers. I thought I was leading them out of their blindness to the light without ever realizing my own blindness. 'They made me keeper of the vineyards, but mine own vineyard have I not kept'."
Deliberately King began to jolt him out of that self-reproachful introspection.
"Of course, I'm the Jonah who has brought all this on to you; so I'll just take my crowd and get out. I'll camp—by golly, I'll camp bang in the middle of the village square and call on this secret society to do its stuff in public."
The Reverend Henderson was properly shaken out of his mood.
"Oh, by no means, Mr. King," he hastened to insist. "Such a thing is not to be thought of. In any case they—it—whatever this diabolical business is—have marked me down for destruction because they feel sure that I now know as much about their foul secrets as you do. And they know—as you know, Mr. King—that I inevitably abhor their every thought and deed and that I am bound to fight them with you."
KING'S black frown twisted to a wry smile at the stoutness of the frail missionary's spirit.
"I wish I could think you understood exactly how tough a proposition this is, Padre. What your boys just said bears out what you yourself have maintained all along—that these people of fighting Galla stock are as a general type above the grosser forms of African cults. Only a few, the more debased individuals, are initiates in the devilish thing. Further—" he pointed a sudden finger at the missionary—"it bears out what I've been telling you about those sculptures and their meaning. This devil-devil thing devours without a trace—hide, hair and bones, like a snake devours. It all fits exactly."
The Reverend Henderson, pale, almost gasping, fought away the incredible horror with nervous hands.
"But such a thing is impossible, Mr. King. It is insane. Those sculptures are hundreds of years old. Nothing could live that long."
King shook his head.
"Some of them are old. The place is undoubtedly old—a good place to graft a new cult on to. But the rubble that I kicked up over those chicken feathers wasn't old; not weather-worn; the chips were sharp edged."
The missionary stared at him, trying to digest the implication.
"That symbol," said King. "Two spots and a wavy line cut into the rock; the same thing smeared with paint on the crazed orderly's chest. Not leopard spots; but the two eyes and the forked tongue of a snake."
The missionary stared in horrified silence.
"A clever man," King went on with awful conviction, "could easily chip out those snake pictures. He could scarify them; he could rub down the edges to make them look old. He could tell his fanatical gang any miracle story of how they got there. And the man who heads this thing is very clever indeed."
Against his conviction the missionary's mind rejected the hideous thought.
"I can not believe it, Mr. King. I will not believe that any human being can be so close to the devil as to feed human victims to a—" A tremor of shuddering choked his voice.
"In Africa," said King, "the devil is sometimes very close to the surface."
"But—" the missionary still refused to accept so awful a possibility—"but such a thing would be physically impossible. No snake, however monstrous, could—" He was unable to put the thought into words.
"I don't know," mused King. "I'm guessing in the dark. But I know this. I have seen in Nairobi an East Indian snake charmer feed six large rats, one right after the other, into a four-foot python no thicker than my wrist—and you could see the bulge of each one of them in its gullet just like in the stone picture. So a big snake perhaps—maybe a thirty-foot python—"
A choked sound came from the Reverend Henderson's throat.
"Merciful God forfend! Stop, Mr. King. For pity's sake, stop. I can stand no more. I can not; I will not believe such diabolism. But even if—" a ghostly ray of hope came into his ashen face—"even if a devil incarnate should organize so fiendish a cult, the physical impossibility remains. I know very little about snakes; but I understand they feed not more than once a month or so. A dozen disappearances in every month, then, as my converts said, could not by any stretch of even your imagination be accounted for by your horrible theory."
Relief came into his face. He even ventured to smile—in ghastly manner, it is true. His lips parted and his eyes lost some of their horror.
"Yes," King was forced to admit, "there you have me guessing again. Something doesn't fit. It's baffling. It's like no juju that I ever came across. But I'm almost hoping that I can find a lead to something. I've sent for that relative—brother or whatever he was—who warned your boys. Maybe he knows more than he told. I'm going to work a great magic on him, and he will, if he knows, lead me to the headquarters, the temple, the witch-house, or whatever it is, of this devil-devil cult."
The missionary stared at him. Since this hard and restless man had come into his life unbelievable phenomena of Africa had opened up before his dazed vision. He was prepared to expect anything now. Still he repeated the conviction of his two years:
"I am afraid, if your plans for destroying this horrible thing hinge upon finding a juju house, you are foredoomed to failure. I know my district, Mr. King. I assure you that within a radius of a day's journey there is no native building large enough to house a gathering of a dozen men."
"Somewhere is a headquarters, a big witch-doctor, a juju grove, something I'm going to find it. I've got to find it, him, them. Without that we're up a bare pole. We know that a hideous thing happens. To destroy it we've got to know where it happens. Let's have the man in."
THE relative who had known enough about the dark business to warn his convert brother was ushered in. He proved to be a stupid looking hulk of a man, very frightened just now and inclined to be obstinate.
"Good!" muttered King. "The dumber the better." Sternly he said to the fellow, "I seek information. I desire to be led to the house of the big witch doctor."
Immediately the man's face assumed an expression of ox-like dumbness. His eyes stared white. In a mumble he began the conventional rigmarole—
"Nay, bwana, I am a poor man, a cultivator of—"
"Good," snapped King. "That means you know at least something. Therefore, by means of the witchcraft that I now put upon you, you will tell. Look now upon this fetish box. It was given to me by the Wizard of Elgon. The Old One. The Wise One. The strong witch-binder. The One-eyed who reads men's hearts. It contains a fetish older than age, wiser than wisdom, stronger than strength."
King flashed the dread box before the man's popping eyes. It was a little flat box of metal, golden in color, impressed with a fishbone design of fine lines having a mirror-like clear oval in the center. It contained a safety razor. King intoned some more mumbo-jumbo.
"The fetish that no man may look upon and live is the fetish of the lion's heart that is strong, of the eagle's eye that sees afar, of the ancient serpent's brain that knows all things. Now, therefore, by the power of this fetish that I shall press against the back of your head where the hole is through which the life cord enters, you will lead me to the witch-house of the big witch-doctor."
The man goggled at the potent thing that glittered in King's hand. Fearfully he backed away from it.
The missionary stared at King as horribly fascinated as the native.
"What? How can—? Good heavens, what mad thing are you doing?"
King darted forward and clapped the cold metal against the nape of the native's neck. The man groaned like a stricken ox and sank to his knees. From behind him King grinned at the missionary.
"Magic not so black as it looks, A simple little psychological hokum. I shove this great oaf before me, pretty well at random. Wherever he goes willingly I know I'm away off; where he hesitates I know I'm on the right path; where he instinctively shrinks, I know I'm hot on the trail. Tactile telepathy, the scientific sharps call it. It's no more than keeping a sharp watch on a man's reflexes. Surprising how often it works. So if this frightened fool knows anything he may betray it. I'm leaving Barounggo on guard, and I told him to draft in your boys too. Ordinarily I'd not bother about juju by daylight. African juju works in the dark; it's got to use the dark to inspire the fear on which it builds its power; but I don't know what I may run into in this devilish business. I'm taking Kaffa and half a dozen askaris".
King's first random cast in his essay at witchcraft was in the general direction of the rock carvings; and immediately he knew, from the native's unwillingness, from his readiness to turn into side paths, that he was on the right track. Of course, the success of the trick was cumulative. The more often the man was steered into a path that he would have avoided, the more he was convinced that he was inexorably under a spell.
Unlike the previous occasion on that path, villagers were encountered, at which King grunted satisfaction, for it meant that, this move on his part being quite unexpected, no man-traps had been planted in the path. The natives who passed stared at the spectacle of a badly scared man being dazedly propelled by a little gold box in the hands of this strange white man who had descended like a tornado into their village.
The Hottentot shrilled abuse at them.
"Away, away, monkey folk! A great magic goes on here. Not for common jungle people to see. Away!"
The common jungle people covered their mouths with their hands that evil might not enter and hurried by.
Passing the big reedy lake, King stopped. It was inviting. It had the attributes of sorcery. Green scum, slimy algae, floating reptilian heads. He scowled at the low island, half a mile out, drenched in the warm vapor that rose from the water as soon as the rain ceased. A stage setting for witchcraft. But, as the Reverend Henderson had pointed out, the bushes that grew on it, though lush and dense, were certainly not more than six or eight feet high, and certainly there was not a canoe hidden anywhere along the lake shore—King had sent a searching party out to make very sure of that.
The unwilling guide squatted on his heels and chewed a sort of a contented cud. He was betraying no knowledge of wizardry there.
KING left the place with a last longing look and pushed the man on, a half step behind him, keeping a firm grip of his arm with one hand while with the other he pressed the magic box against the back of his neck.
Immediately he felt the fellow's reluctance. King tested him out on a side path, deliberately steering him into one. The man's relief was obvious. King muttered at him:
"No. The fetish in the box tells me no. It says that this is not the path. Beware, foolish man, how you try to hoodwink the fetish that sees into the inside of men's heads. The witch-house of the big witch-doctor is where the fetish wishes to be led."
He shoved the man back on to the trail that led toward the sculptured rocks.
The Hottentot clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth in awe.
"Tla-awo! It is indeed a strong fetish. For the man's knees are loose with fear, yet he leads the way."
Which was just what the wretched fellow was doing. His resistance to King's push from behind was beginning to be as unmistakable as his fear. King shoved him along, tingling with the expectation of success. If he could find the witch-house, the focal center of this cunningly hidden cult, his problem was solved. He would resort to simple strong-arm methods to break it up. That would mean a fight; somebody would get hurt; and there was no certainty as to who might be hurt most.
King waxed profane under his breath. Let him find the master mind who pulled all these strings from the security of his anonymity which he maintained by fear; that was the snake to scotch; the rest would be easy.
And then came a denouement that knocked his hopes high through the clouds that hung gray above him. King's profanity turned upon himself. Fool, he called himself, dolt and worse, for ever imagining that he understood the twists of the native mind.
Approaching the Reverend Leroy's settlement, the guide's reluctance became frantic. But inexorably King pushed him on, headed for the rock carving beyond and—he grew tense with expectation—some dark den of witch-doctory in the jungle beyond that.
And then the man, coming abreast of the Reverend Leroy's big circular chapel hut, bleating with terror, stopped there and goggled at the building as if the devil himself might emerge at any moment.
King stood dumbfounded. He knew from the wretched guide's abject limpness that, as far as he was concerned, this was the end of the trail. It was the Hottentot who voiced the complete deflation of their bubble that had seemed to soar with such buoyant hope. He spat.
"Awah, thuck-a! The fool has led us to the prayer house of the black man who has become a white witch-doctor."
And it was just that. The big witch-doctor, King had demanded; and who might more properly fill the role in a foolish savage's eyes than the burly black missionary?
Then the man moaned and cowered to the ground; for, as it might be verily a demon emerging from his den of mystery, the massive form of the Reverend Leroy loomed through the dark doorway of his chapel.
"Hello, Mr. Kingi Bwana," his voice boomed. "An unexpected visit, eh?" Then his face lowered angrily. "Why, what are you doing with that blockhead M'bangra in the charge of an armed force of askaris?"
He volleyed some guttural sentences at the man in a hybrid tongue that King did not know. They seemed half to reassure the groveling wretch; for he rose, and a thick grin began to replace his terror. Still half fearful, he shambled away.
"Those Gubkani tribesmen are all fools," the preacher explained, still with a trace of exasperation. "Some of his people are of my flock, and this dolt pesters me perpetually to set them free of the spell that he feels sure I have put upon them and to let them return to their pagan practice of dog meat sacrifices in order that the ants may not devour their yam crop.
"But come in. Wait just a moment till I lock my chapel door, and then won't you come into my modest home and let us resume our most absorbing little excursion into serpentology. I have been looking up and marking some references which I am sure will interest you."
King morosely shook his head.
"I'd be a poor sort of guest today, Reverend. I've been congratulating myself that I was on the road to finding out something about the Ponsonby mystery; but I've just received a severe kick in the slack of my self-esteem.
"And I'll tell you without being ashamed; when I'm out in this sweet district that you boost as being so peaceful I don't like to allow too much time for any smart hellion to fix up a little surprise for me somewhere on the way back. Thanks all the same, but I'll be getting along."
IF there had been any people among those who had noted King's trip and were therefore planning some ingenious deviltry along the return path King would have fallen an easy victim. He stalked along, his head sunk on his chest, seeing nothing. Precautions were left to the Hottentot who scuttled in advance with the alert suspicion of a monkey.
King was immersed in his own dark thoughts, building extravagant theories, analyzing, tearing down.
He had been so full of confidence, so sure that he was on the right trail. And he was half sure still. That man had been so genuinely terrified, so desperately afraid that he was being bewitched into betraying—what? A colored missionary? Bah!
There was that blank wall again. That baffling checkmate. King thought he had discovered a forward move in the game; but the crafty opponent had every move covered. There seemed no move that King could make. He had explored every trail his mind could visualize. And here he was baffled, confused.
Yet—King swore—exactly what had that doltish native been so afraid of? What did he know, or think he knew, that he was so fearful of betraying in a Christian church? Of course, savage superstition might conjure up the most bizarre interpretations of Christian theology; but—
"Well, hell!" growled King. "One thing is damn sure; and that's that the other side has got to make the next move. My play is to watch and to miss nothing."
The only rational question that he evolved out of his long cogitation was to ask the Reverend Henderson—
"Have you ever been inside of Brother Leroy's chapel?"
"Why, er, no," said the Reverend Henderson. "He is not very orthodox, I am afraid, and—"
"What do you know about a hut just back of the sculptured rocks?"
"I, er—I didn't know there was a hut there. You see, it is rather in Brother Leroy's diocese, so to speak, at the other end of the village, and we don't like to be unduly inquisitive about one another's doings. I suppose it is just a native hut."
"One hut," said King. "Alone. Nothing else anywhere in sight. Does that sound honest native to you? I sent the Hottentot scouting yesterday after we had looked at those rocks, and he discovered it behind the bluff."
The missionary gazed at King with new apprehension.
"Was—is it big? Large enough to—"
He leaned forward, afraid.
King shook his head.
"Too small. Barely a one-man hut. Perhaps a prison. I'm going to see; and I want one of your boys, one who can lead me quietly by back paths where we'll meet nobody."
The missionary rose with determination.
King knew without asking what was in his mind. He wondered at the spirit that drove so sensitive a man to go out and fight this dark fearsome thing.
"All right." He shrugged. "But we must hurry. I didn't want to be caught out after dark; and I don't want to take any fool askaris because that devil-doctor is smart enough to catch one of them and play the same psychological hokum that I tried.
"If I can help it he mustn't know what tree I'm shinning up till I'm ready to raid his whole gang."
THE convert was a shrewd enough black youth. Leading the two white men out of the back of the mission grounds, he chose winding back paths, barely used, overgrown with vegetation. Only once did they meet anybody, and then they heard singing as he came and they squeezed into the bushes till he had passed.
The hut was small, smaller even than King had expected, and not especially concealed. In fact, it rather flaunted itself on a little grass-grown eminence behind the sculptured bluff. Heavy jungle surrounded it, but the little hillock stood clear. King stopped warily at the jungle fringe and eyed the scene; and, doing so, his mouth twisted in disappointment. He had been hoping almost to find a prison cell. But even the missionary could see that the place was quite unfrequented by humans. The grass grew lush and untrodden; not a path led to the hut.
"The perfect site for a juju hut," said King, whispering in the stillness. "I don't mean a gathering place; a witch-hut; it should be hung all around with bones and claptrap and should be full of magic gimcrackery. But nary juju sign is there; the place is barren. Queerest witch-doctory I've ever come across."
He crouched low in the grass and wormed his way up the hillock, the missionary crawling less expertly behind him. Nobody seemed to be keeping guard over the place; no spears whistled out of the still jungle. Crawling round the hut, King pointed silently to a trail.
Five inches wide it was, as mathematically exact as if cut by a machine, and stripped as clean of the last vestige of grass as if shaved with a razor right down to the bare soil. From the jungle it came, an uncanny Lilliputian road that wound round an outcropping rock in one place and tunneled under a fallen tree in another; always exactly the same width and always swept clear of blade and twig. Right up to the wall of the hut the little road came, and there at a crack in the adobe it finished.
"Soldier ants!" whispered King grimly.
The missionary's eyes grew large.
"You mean—the man is dead?"
King refrained from any needless answer. He crawled on round the wall; and when he arrived at his starting place there was another queer discovery about that silent hut. It had no door! Unbroken by any sort of entrance, the wall circled it.
The missionary knew enough about Africa not to ask any foolish question. His face was haggard.
"Entombed alive! May God have mercy on his soul."
"One thing about rain-soaked adobe," said King shortly, "is that it cuts like cheese." He pushed his ready pistol back into its holster and drew out his hunting knife. Big chunks of the sticky material fell out before his silent attack. Soon he was at the bamboo core. He slashed away the cane lashings and wrenched away half a dozen poles at once. The inner lining of mud and straw was drier and harder. Working quickly, he undermined that and then a heave of his shoulder pushed in the whole section. The dim interior was exposed to his view.
The atmosphere within was not so foul as might have been expected—the thatch roof allowed for a certain seepage of air. King squeezed through the opening, the missionary with set face behind him. The hole was wide enough to admit some light; quite sufficient to see the gleaming white of a skeleton.
It was not the skeleton that both men had feared to find. On a raised pedestal of bamboo framework, it was a startlingly beautiful skeleton. Composed of innumerable fine bones in exact pairs on either side of a sinuous spinal cord; semicircular tapering bones, for all the world like a gigantic centipede. Round and round they coiled in a mountainous pyramid and at the very apex lay a flat skull, broad nosed, as big as a small shovel.
King had seen snake skeletons before; but it was the monstrous size of this thing that appalled him. As wide as a man's body was the spread of those curving rib bones. The length of the brute he could only guess; but his estimate made it at least thirty feet.
"Good Lord!" he muttered. "A snake like that could do it easy."
The Reverend Henderson knew perfectly well what was in King's mind, but he dared not let himself accept the thought. King put words to it.
"Just what the rock picture showed—gulp down a man, or maybe more."
The Reverend Henderson covered his eyes with his hands.
"Incredible," he moaned. "Incredible."
King stared at the awesome thing, marveling at its size and symmetry. He had never been repelled, as some people are, by snakes; and this thing was really an extraordinary work of art in its interlaced curves that mounted up and up in constantly decreasing circles to its apex. Picked meticulously clean by the ants; not a bone displaced; everything intact; a perfect museum specimen.
Only the head. King stepped closer. The broad skull that caped the apex was cracked; cut apparently by some sharp instrument; and that, explained the death of the reptile.
"So that's it," said King. "This juju business is a snake worship with human sacrifices. Just like I thought. This was the god. Something killed it; and this is its shrine, walled up, inviolate, so nobody could monkey with it even if he dared."
"Incredible," murmured the missionary again. "Incredible."
King from his closer position saw what he had overlooked before. He thrust his hand between some of the curving ribs and brought away a small object, a small circular thing some four inches in diameter, with a dull sheen.
"Incredible, you say? Look at that. D'you know what that is? That's a native bracelet; brass; the only part of a victim that a snake couldn't digest. And look in there; that'll be a nose ring. Proof enough, I guess. And there's—"
King stopped short and, regardless of sharp bones, plunged his hand into the mass. He gave one close look at what he found, and it seemed that the sun tan paled from his face. He gripped the thing in his fist and stood tense and silent.
"What—what is it?" The Reverend Henderson asked in a quavering voice.
King opened his hand. What he held was a piece of gold dental bridge work.
The Reverend Henderson shrank away from it and covered his eyes once more. No words came from him; his whole body shuddered.
"I guess," said King very grimly, "we've found poor old Ponsonby. Let's get away from this ghastly place."
THE Reverend Henderson slumped in his uncomfortable chair. It had been a strenuous day for him. His eyes were closed against the light from the little kerosene oil lamp upon the massive communal table that almost filled the rest of the room; yet weakly he insisted upon denying the existence of further evil in the district where he had labored for two years. King strode up and down on the other side of the table, stopping only to fire arguments at him.
"So that's how the thing must have happened," King summed up. "Ponsonby found out too much. They grabbed him and put him up for sacrifice. The orderly was marked. 'Dedicated!' he kept babbling. Maybe he saw the thing happen; maybe, if that rock picture is true—and it has proved up so far—he was next in the line; one of a string to be 'devoured without trace'. Good Lord, that would drive any man crazy! We don't know how he ever got away; but I tell you, Padre—" King pointed his finger at the missionary and his thumb at his own chest—"you and I, we've found out too much. I'm not trying to scare you; but you've got to be careful how you go around on your business, visiting your sick and all, alone, away out in the bush like I've seen you do."
The Reverend Henderson let his head fall back against the wall.
"Thank God I need have no fear. The hideous thing is dead and this wickedness has ceased. Lacking their frightful idol, the cult must decline. With God's help we can stamp out the last vestiges that still cling."
Skeptically King expected no immediate help from any deity to stamp out a ferocious cult that had flourished until a short month ago—the time since Ponsonby had disappeared. He knew the tenacity of African superstitions. For any evidence to the contrary the cult was still going strong.
"I tell you, Padre," he argued, "dead cults don't set man-traps in the bush to murder people who are investigating them."
"Vestiges," repeated the missionary stubbornly. "The idolaters remain. Their god is dead. It is my function to deal with idolaters."
"But, Padre, that thing has been dead a month, by all indications; and your own converts have told you that eight men disappeared within the month."
The Reverend Henderson pressed his fingertips wearily against his eyelids.
"Dead snakes do not eat eight men," he insisted. "Nor, for that matter, as you yourself have agreed, could a live snake eat eight men within one month."
King swore under his breath.
"There you've got me, I'll admit. I don't understand that part of it—yet. But all the same, maybe they've got a new snake. This gang is a darn sight too active to be hanging on to the memory of a skeleton. What do you know, now, about snakes in this district? What's the current talk about big ones?"
Slowly the missionary removed his fingers from his eyes and stared at King. By sluggish inches one hand traveled down his face and dragged at his lower lip. There had been such tales, many of them; but he had taken them with the white man's customary grain of salt. With reawakened anxiety he nodded at King.
"Aa-ah!" King pointed his finger impressively. "Then I'll bet they've got another someplace. Don't argue with me, Padre. There's no trick to catching and caging a big snake. I know. I've caught 'em for zoos. Anybody who knows how can catch even a thirty-foot snake—let alone the possibility of anything bigger existing in these jungles. I tell you, Padre, this cult is alive."
THE Reverend Henderson covered his eyes again and bowed his head in his hands. He was too physically weary to find further arguments.
King was full of determination.
"We know half the mystery now. We've found out what this devilish business is. We've got to find out who is the clever devil and where he operates." He bit his teeth together. "And when I find him, by—" He did not complete the sentence. "One move he's got to make. One false move in his game, and you pray to your God, Padre, that I don't slip up on my end."
The next move in the game that was growing so dreadful in its uncertainty was made with a bold suddenness that even King had never expected.
Midnight had barely struck when a frightened convert came in, wet and glistening, out of the rain; and before the missionary could prevent it he clasped his knees and bowed his head upon his shoes. Moaning, he reported that his wife's brother, the one who had given warning about the devil-devil and had been put under the fetish by King, had not returned to his hut; that his womenfolk had waited and waited and had then inquired at neighboring huts and had finally searched the jungle paths; but had found no sign of the man. He had, in fact, disappeared without trace.
King whistled a thin note of alarm and sprang to his feet. He snapped out of the morose abstraction in which he had been sitting. The table in the room, designed for communal gatherings, was an immense thing built of great hand-hewn planks two inches thick and supported by sturdy treetrunks for legs. King banged his fist upon it so that his rifle and cartridge belt, lying upon the farther corner, rattled.
"By God!" he swore shamelessly. "The fellow did know something. I knew it. He fooled me, taking me to Brother Leroy's; but somebody saw him leading me. The word went to headquarters. He was recognized as a possible source of danger and was removed. Slam, just like that." He crashed his fist upon the table again.
The missionary's white face stared at him. His lips moved in unconscious habit of prayer, but no spoken words came from them. King paced the room like an animal in a cage.
"Somewhere," he insisted. "Somewhere is a key to this hellish business. The man can't be so clever that he leaves never an opening. Somebody must know something—if I could but catch such a one and beat it into his thick skull that I'd protect him from this devil that has them all scared dumb and blind. By golly, I'll tear this village apart hut by hut. Somebody will show me the key."
The Reverend Henderson sat with his hands folded.
"I hope so, Mr. King. I pray so. We walk in darkness and the shadow of death. O Lord, enlighten our darkness."
In answer to which the thin rain whispered on the thatch and heavy drops chuckled in the puddles below the eaves.
King prowled back and forth, grumbling to himself like a bear.
A houseboy stood trembling at the door. A man had brought a message, he said.
King sprang at the boy.
"Where?" he demanded. "Bring him in. Who is the man?"
But the man had not waited. He had come in the rain, the boy said, secretly, his face covered with a cloth so that nobody should ever be able to say who he was. He had whispered his message and he had fled.
The message was that if indeed the fierce new bwana was not afraid to make war upon the devil-devil and to deliver the people of the village from its devourings, then let him know that the black drums were talking even now in the place of the rock carvings.
King made one long stride to snatch up his rifle. The next step carried him to the door. He called:
"Kaffa! Barounggo! Quick! Six good askaris!"
He swung round to the missionary.
"Sorry I can't take you, Padre. I don't doubt your nerve; but this is a matter of speed, and maybe a stiff scrap in the dark. Watch out while I'm away. One thing is, if that gang is busy doing juju at the rocks, they won't likely be coming raiding here. By golly, maybe this is that clever devil's false move. Ready, Barounggo? Away! Away!"
THE raiding party came into the vicinity of the rocks without having stumbled over any greased watchers or having sprung any man-traps. It had taken time; for even on the most circuitous route King had been infinitely cautious. The rhythmic drone of the drums had long since ceased. But a dull glow of light glimmered through the bushes. A voice mumble-jumbled words. Other voices moaned a responsive chant.
King reached his hand into the wet darkness and drew the Masai close to him.
"How many of these four whom you have picked, if we see what I think we may see, will stand and not run?"
"Nay, bwana," the Masai whispered back. "Have I not picked them knowing that death stalks in the night? The six will stand."
"Good. Listen then: If we are discovered and attacked, let no fool run bleating into the jungle, but stand back-to-back. So may we win clear. Forward now, more silently than snakes."
On their stomachs the men wormed through the dripping underbrush. King squeezed his face through a tangle of scrubby roots, and the dim view that he achieved offered him the first cause of elation that he had found since he had started on this quest. It was the small number engaged in the gruesome rite. Not more than thirty dim figures moved in the light of the torches that sputtered in the rain. It bore out what the converts had said—that this dark cult was restricted to a carefully chosen band of initiates; and that, of course, also accounted for the secrecy which it had been able to maintain.
The ceremony, whatever it was, had proceeded well on its way. King could see only that the votaries squatted on their heels in three irregular lines before the low granite bluff upon which were carved the serpentine figures, and that they swayed in unison to their moaning chant.
Facing them with his back to the rock stood an enormous black man painted and made up with all the grotesque imagery of African art to resemble a devil. White circles enlarged his eyes; great white teeth were painted on to his lips; goat's horns added to his height; necklaces and armbands of bones hung about him. Flanked by two torches in the hands of deputy demons, he presented as fearsome a picture as the most debased superstition could conceive.
The devil-doctor mumbled some sort of litany, and the congregation swayed on its heels and chanted its response. King could catch only the jumbled rhythm; he was too far distant to recognize words. Quite clearly the ceremony was being conducted with a careful regard to quiet secrecy in the rain and dark. It had progressed to a point at which it became startlingly clear that the fantastic devil personification was not by any means the object of veneration; he was no more than the high priest of rites that were more gruesome than himself.
Sacrifices apparently had been made. Feathers again. King could distinguish white feathers at the demon priest's feet, wet and bedraggled in the rain. Now a single soggy boom sounded from a hidden drum. The devil-doctor raised his arms above his head. He loomed gigantic in the smoking torchlight.
Then King tensed to the word that he had trailed through so many dark and twisted ways; the word that had associated itself with fear beyond human reason.
"N'gamm-a!" intoned the devil priest with a deep inflection that boomed like a drum.
"N'gamm-a! N'gamm-a!" wailed the congregation.
The blacks heaved forward on their hams to bow their heads to the ground. In that position they remained, faces in the mud, moaning and groaning the dread word; and then a movement commenced over the brow of the granite bluff above the priest's head. A movement that drew a startled gasp from King and caused him to snatch his pistol from its holster.
Spasmodic gulps and shufflings in the brush beside King were evidence that the others had seen the fearsome thing too. Then a warning growl from the depths of the Masai's belly, and the shufflings stilled.
Over the rim of the rock the head of an immense snake began to appear. Broad and flat, the size of a small garden shovel, it hung there motionless: then it turned its neck to look this way and that.
"N'gamm-a! N'gamm-a!" groaned its prostrate votaries. Their bodies were contorted in Negro ecstacy; their voices rose to a clamor.
Immediately, like some demoniac bandmaster, the devil-doctor shushed and toned down their ardor. Blood-chillingly careless of the great head that swayed above him, he devoted his whole attention to quelling the hubbub of the worshipers. Slowly the head swung down to him.
Stiffly. Too unnaturally stiffly.
And then King's tension escaped from him in a long, windy whistle. He could see that the thing was manipulated by men from above. The great head was a mask; the body was a hollow of woven grass, painted in flowing triangles and circles.
Grotesquely the thing twined and swayed in imitation of a vast serpent. Its neck arched high; it curved down to nuzzle at prostrate men. In the dim torchlight it was horrifyingly life-like. It slid down off the bluff. With gruesome realism it opened its great jaws and made as if to engulf a man whole. Its devotees beat their heads upon the ground and moaned its dread name:
It smacked its lips and moved on to another victim.
WATCHING the fantastic ritual, King knew that these men were not engaged in any exaggerated play-acting; they were reproducing something that they had seen, something that they knew to be true. A thought flashed to him, a bold idea which he turned over in his mind as he lay. He surveyed the scene, the numbers. Scowling, he calculated distances and possible obstacles. Then his tight lipped ghost of a smile hardened on his face and he wriggled backward from his position.
Feeling in the dark, he found the Hottentot and the Masai and drew them together. To them he whispered his thought.
"Look you now. Those are men, full already of a fear that they make in their own minds, unsuspicious of danger, feeling themselves secure from observation. Moreover, worshipers; weapons not to hand. If therefore we rise suddenly out of the dark with a great outcry and a shooting off of the guns that these Shenzies have brought, it is in my mind that in the confusion and the aimless running we may capture that devil-doctor."
He waited to learn whether the idea was too entirely reckless to stand the judgment of his two henchmen. The Hottentot was the first to assimilate it.
"And that one being without doubt the chief," he whispered, "so would the head of the serpent be crushed."
"We be eight armed men," said the Masai gravely. "Let us rush upon them shouting our war cries and slay before they find their weapons in the dark."
With that much assurance of cooperation King was encouraged. The object to be gained justified the risk. Cautiously he gathered his men and gave his instructions. They were all to burst out together with all the uproar of a surprise attack, yelling, calling upon imaginary hosts, shooting off guns. King and his two henchmen would make a rush for the devil-doctor; the others would act as supporting interference wherever they saw fit. If attacked, they would get their backs to the serpent rock and fight it out.
The very boldness of the plan was the reason for success more complete than King imagined. Secrecy of personnel was the basis of the fear by which this dark cult ruled—anonymity and the silent suddenness with which it snatched away its victims. It was the tried and tested method of any secret police. And should fear alone be insufficient to deter prying eyes, should some bold investigator elude the watchers of the outer approaches, the cunning organizer had foreseen even that and had drilled his people accordingly.
At the first shout of the attack the giant devil-doctor roared an order. Immediately every torch was plunged into the nearest puddle. Black darkness blotted out the scene. No man of the worshipers yelled in aimless African confusion; only the fast pad and splash of running feet betrayed flight.
King charged forward in the darkness. Naked bodies lurched past him. He collided with one man and flung his arms around him. The fellow was too small; it could not be the burly witch-doctor. He hurled the captive from him and plunged on. Ugh! He barged into another and recoiled from the collision. An answering grunt came from the darkness and a heavy blow thudded on the side of his head. Ears ringing, he ducked low and lurched for the man's waist.
Another grunt answered the impact of his shoulder. Powerful arms gripped and whirled him around. His own clutching hands felt dangling festoons of ornaments. His heart surged with a fierce exhilaration. This one felt more like it. This must be the burly devil-doctor himself. But King had a fight on his hands. He locked a leg behind the other's knee to trip him; but the ponderous defence to that was a blow that descended on the back of his neck and had him clinging dizzily.
"Bwana! Bwana! Where?" came the voice of the Masai.
"Here!" grunted King. "To me! No spear play. Hold him."
King tore one arm free and repaid the punch by hacking down over the other's kidneys. That fetched an answering grunt.
The Masai joined the struggle.
Like a bull the big witch-doctor plunged and heaved between them. In the thick blackness no one knew whom he held or whom he hit. King, straining mightily against muscular limbs as hard as his own, was aware of the thud of heavy feet receding. His earlier surge of exhilaration reversed itself to a plunge into bitterness as he realized that he was wrestling with his own Masai.
The footsteps died into the bush. Far rustlings still sounded here and there. In the amphitheater before the rocks was only the sound of groping men. King swore loudly into the night and fished his flashlight from his hip pocket. But that had been thoroughly crushed in the fight. It took time to open up a waterproof matchbox and by the light of carefully cupped sticks to survey the damage.
King held in his hand a length of necklace composed of teeth and other symbols of sorcery. The Hottentot had a man's dirty loincloth. The others had nothing. The Masai was worst off. He bled freely from his smashed nose.
"Upon that one," he growled, "will I yet lay my hands and rend his bowels from him."
King had a guilty recollection of having planted a full blow upon somebody's nose in the dark, but of that he said nothing.
"Home," he ordered. "And fast. That devil is clever enough to organize an ambush on the way."
IT was dawn when King arrived at the mission. In spite of his failure he was keyed up with elation. He had been at grips with that elusive devil-doctor, and ideas had been racing through his brain.
"Padre," he told the Reverend Henderson, "you've got to help. Oh, I know you've been doing your utmost; but it's your converts who've got to help; and you've got to make them. I guess you know by this time that black men—the very best of them—know things and talk things that you never dream. I've known it all along. Now nobody can tell me that your converts don't know a few more things that they've never told. They've been scared witless. But already they've spilled more than they've ever whispered in all your two years; and you've got to make them tell more; or if they don't know, they've got to go gossip in the village and find out more.
"As smart as this devil-doctor is, some one of his people must have talked a little to somebody. I've got the beginnings of suspicions, horrible suspicions. But I've got to know more before I dare make a move. I've got to have a key; and to find the key I must have some native help. We're at a stage where this thing has gone beyond white man's sleuthing.
"What natives will never tell us they'll tell each other; and I want you to send your boys out to rake up information. I want you to do it right away. This cunning devil-doctor knows now that we're on to his game, and we must act fast before he can think up some new hiding—or maybe he's bold enough to take the offensive on a large scale. This is war now, Padre. I'm going around to see about the morale of my own crowd. You go and see what you can get out of your converts. Tell them we'll protect them; get that scare out of them."
KING'S plans and exhortations took up his whole morning. The men were badly frightened. Talk of magic and devil-devil had been spread insidiously among them; and not a man of them knew just how or by whom. This one had heard that such a one had said, and so-and-so had been told by somebody else; and that was as far as King could get.
Heard what? Said what? But nobody knew just what. There was a devil-devil that devoured men. That was all. And there was the stark proof of the man who had dared to give a warning and had immediately disappeared.
There was no arguing against that, no cajoling. King cursed in helpless fury; but he knew better than anybody else the effectiveness of Africa's age-old weapon against the white man. With the exception of his two staunch boys he knew that the rest of his men were useless, ready to run at the first sight of a painted face in the night or the first blare of a ghost gong.
He came into the house, very serious. The things that he muttered to himself were through hard-clenched teeth.
The Reverend Henderson was dejected.
"I could learn almost nothing. It is my honest belief that my people don't know. The secret has been too fearfully kept among its votaries. It is generally known that a secret cult exists, and my one consolation for not having learned of it is that the villagers have scarcely dared to talk about it among themselves, not knowing who in their very midst might be a member."
He flung out his hands helplessly.
"Verily, Mr. King, as it is written in Revelation, we are face to face with that old serpent which is the devil. This is one of those manifestations of evil that the good Lord in his wisdom permits from time to time for the trial of men's souls; and—"
"My Lord!" insisted King in his desperate impatience. "Were you able to learn nothing? Couldn't you get even a hint out of them?"
"Only," said the Reverend Henderson, "that this word, N-gamma, or whatever it is, seems to be the individual name of the devil-devil and that the cult is that of a horrible demon called by the curious name of Dumbell."
"What's that?" King whirled and gripped the missionary's arms so that he winced. "What was that name?"
"Dumbell," repeated the missionary, his pale eyes wide with apprehension at King's vehemence. "As nearly as I could gather from them, just Dumbell."
King slowly let go of the missionary's arms and drew away from him. He was suddenly very calm. A hard grin that had long been absent from his face came back to it. His chest and shoulders expanded with the throwing off of a weight.
"The key!" he whispered. "At long last the key! And it fits! Hell, why couldn't I stumble on that before? But here in Africa where it doesn't belong! Good Lord, who will ever understand Africa?"
His finger pointed his conviction.
"Padre, do you know what your boys' Dumbell is? It's Dambala, the serpent god of voodoo. And it all fits. It fits everything—and it's going to shock you harder than anything yet.
"Voodoo doesn't belong in Africa—and that accounts for the discrepancies that couldn't jibe with juju. Voodoo is dumb African superstition transplanted by the slaves to the West Indies and there enlarged by the sharpened imaginations of the slaves' descendants, embellished, built up away beyond crude juju into the fantastic horrors conceivable by black men who have been taught all about the Christian's devil. Those feathers! White roosters are sacrificed in voodoo rites. Those goat's horns that the witch-doctor wore—the emblems of a voodoo priest or papa-loi. Every item of it fits. Gosh, why couldn't I tumble to it before? But who'd have thought to find it in Africa?
"And the man. Educated. Talking English with just a trace of an accent. Clever enough to organize this thing and to run it the way it's been run. Hounded out of his own island, maybe, by the local police. Now hold steady, Padre. All that you know about Brother Leroy is that he came from some West Indian island."
"Mr. King!" The Reverend Henderson sprang to his feet. "The Reverend Leroy is a Christian missionary! He has been doing a great work; his converts' devotion to him is a—"
King brushed him aside.
"Yeah? Who told you?"
His conviction was growing on him.
"A missionary of what? He was vague even as to his denomination. What converts? How many? Just the brothers of his cult. Most of the people here, as you yourself have pointed out, are a good bunch of fighting men, too straightforward for crazy horrors. And the only two buildings in the district big enough to house a gathering, as he had the nerve to point out—golly, how he must have laughed—are your chapel and his. And that poor devil of a man who disappeared led me straight to his. And you've never seen inside of it. It fits, I tell you. Every last little bit fits." He flung away and paced the floor with long strides.
The Reverend Henderson stood staring at him miserably. The accumulation of facts was inevitable. He could find no excuses or explanations. King whirled on him again with outthrust finger.
"And I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to raid that chapel! Oh, I know the trouble he can make for me with the government if I'm wrong. I'd have to leave the country; my reputation would be blacker mud than this whole business is black. But—" he continued with determination—"I'm going to raid."
His eyes blazed with exhilaration and the excitement of discovery. His stride was a nervous prowl as he laid his plans.
"Tonight. As soon as it's dark. I'll take men enough to fight his gang off. I can muster enough of them for that."
The Reverend Henderson sank back into his chair. His slender body shrank into its hard angles. It's hand-hewn African hardwood engulfed him. He looked very frail and small. His world as he had known it had crumbled to black dust.
IT was dark when King and his picked party slipped away from the mission. Men had been sent scouting the nearby paths an hour in advance to hunt out any possible watchers. No warning must be permitted to reach that clever adversary. A thin drizzle made the night black.
More roundabout than ever, King made a convert lead the way. The farther they progressed, the deeper grew King's frown; for, as once before, no villagers were encountered.
"Warned off," growled King; and to the convert, "Feel out every foot for man-traps even this far out. In spite of all precautions that devil suspects something."
To the Masai—
"Pass the word down that if we're attacked in ambush the torchmen will light up instantly, stick the torches in the ground and every man take cover."
No ambush, however, was encountered. But a drum throbbed dully. King drew the Hottentot to him.
"The same signal, apeling, is it not?"
"N'dio bwana. The signal of gathering. By some magic he knows and he gathers his men."
Going with infinite caution, the raiding party came finally to the so-called mission settlement without having encountered mishap or man-traps. They had made a complete circuit and stood grouped now at the edge of the clearing on the far side.
The straggling huts loomed shapeless among the banana leaves; the patter of rain upon their wide surfaces was the only sound. High above the general mass was the dimly outlined dome of the chapel with its ostrich eggs against the sky. All of it was menacing, as if silently waiting. Not even a dog barked.
At an African village such a phenomenon was cause for suspicion. But the Hottentot said with callous matter-of-factness—
"A snake god, if its taste be not entirely spoiled, will at a pinch eat even dog."
King marshaled his men according to a simple but effective plan. He and the Hottentot with a brace of torchmen were to rush the chapel. The Masai and the rest were to act as outside defence.
"Watch more carefully than ever in your lives," warned King. "That cunning devil is up to something. Now Kaffa and I go first, and the rest of you deploy out around the building. Quietly if we can. Barounggo, if by chance they are all inside, waiting in silence, upon my call charge your men in. Come ahead."
It was with something of misgiving that King found himself before the dark recess of the chapel door; he had met not a soul in his cautious crawl and he did not know what peculiarly hellish thing his adversary might be up to. The door, of course, was locked. King took a long breath. So far, good; but now for whatever might be inside.
Nothing was to be gained by waiting. Already the dark forms of the Masai's men were shaping up behind him. He drew back, felt the distance and lunged his shoulder at the door.
It was built of massive, hand-cut planks, but it was set in a frame of bamboo and adobe mud. The whole thing tore out under his impact. He lurched into the darkness, sprawling over the wreck of it. Immediately, mindful of spears waiting at the entrance, he rolled over and over to the middle. The first thought that flashed to him was that he encountered no furniture, only a bare mat floor. He heard feet dash in behind him. On the instant he was on his own feet, tense in the blackness.
No spears. No breathing of crouching men. A match sputtered to a pitch torch and shortly its smoky light flared and revealed emptiness.
No benches, no chairs, not even the crudest kind of church furniture. The big circular floor space was bare—a meeting place for naked men, that was all. But piled against the walls was an assortment of other things that proved King's suspicion.
At any moment he expected to hear the uproar of conflict outside. Hurriedly he swung the torch round the walls. The adobe surface was ornamented with crude anthropomorphic designs, most of them obscene like those on the sculptured rocks. Predominant was the symbol of the eyes and the forked tongue.
Hanging from pegs thrust into the adobe and in untidy piles upon the floors was a collection of all the gimcrackery of African witchcraft coupled with the paraphernalia of voodoo—bones, animal skulls, dried embryos, woven grass masks with painted eyes; and with them goatskins, horns, bladder-rattles and phallic objects.
In one corner, black and shiny with use, the drums, a pair of them—big voice and little voice; the black drums that only an hour ago had been talking a message of deviltry into the night.
But it was still something else that King sought. Quickly he made the circuit of the great room, kicking away piles of skins, lifting floor mats, peering behind the raised altar. It was a den or a pit of some kind that he hoped to find; some sort of cage or something that might house a big snake. But nothing of the sort came to light. Only the hanging objects and the disorderly piles ranged along the wall.
Still no sounds of conflict came from outside. King went to the door. His spearmen stood in an irregular line before it. Torches had been lighted, and they sputtered in the rain. The untidy hut groups stood silent, the open spaces between them empty.
The Masai's big shoulders loomed up from the direction of the little whitewashed house. He laughed as he reported:
"We have been fearing shadows in the emptiness, bwana. They have gone. By some devil's trick they knew that warriors came. The drums spoke the signal, and they have fled."
But King could conceive of no such tactical error on the part of so shrewd a man as Brother—or to name him correctly—Voodoo Papa-loi Leroy. He was filled with a very wholesome suspicion of that man's every move.
"More likely," he grunted, "the drums signaled the gathering for some devil business in the woods."
The Hottentot snatched a torch to peer at a trail on the ground. The men stooped to look and clapped their hands over their mouths. Ox-eyed, they stared at it and fearfully they cast glances over their shoulders into the shadows.
From the door of the voodoo house the trail ran, a smooth swath in the moist ground. As thick as a man's body, it wound away into the darkness. The Hottentot whispered the thought that awed all of them.
"Such a trail is made by a snake. A snake big enough to devour men. The very father of all snakes."
King scowled down at the wide track, deeply impressed by a great weight. An involuntary chill crept up and down his spine. What new and incredible trickery was this? Naked footprints showed alongside the wet spoor. King gnawed at his lower lip. Was it humanly possible that a monstrous thing like that could be trained? Could it be herded along on a sacrificial hunt with its attendant ghouls pattering on swift feet alongside? In the drizzly dark of that deserted and silent voodoo den he was ready to believe any diabolism of Papa-loi Leroy.
"Up! Up!" he ordered. "Home! And by the shortest route, To hell with mantraps—they'll be set the other way anyhow. Get going. The very devil is abroad this night."
NOT a soul was encountered on the path; though in places it wound among outlying clusters of huts. Never had a trail been so deserted. But the Hottentot, pattering ahead with a torch, testing, literally nosing out the trail, announced—
"Men have passed this way before us; and with haste, stopping not even to reset these empty traps behind them."
Men. In haste. On the trail that led to the mission. Apprehension began to reach cold fingers toward King's heart.
Never were hut groups so silent; not even the glimmer of a dried dung-fire showed between the chinks where the rain had eroded the mud plaster. But that, King knew, was to be expected when the black drums had given warning that juju walked in the night.
King's apprehension as they drew near to the settlement became certainty when that, too, showed no signs of life. Not a light shone from the little mission house; there was not a sound.
"Something wrong. Come ahead! Barounggo, watch out for ambush."
He dashed forward. His gun had been ready to his hand throughout that jungle trail. No challenge came at the mission gate from the askari whom he himself had posted. In two leaps he was across the compound. The mission door was an open black shadow.
"Padre." King called through the four rooms. "Padre, are you all right?"
Not a sound. Running, King kicked open the back door. Beyond the empty rear compound the convert huts stood dark and silent. King snatched a torch from the nearest man and raced to a hut. He kicked the door down.
Within the hut, huddled with blankets over their heads, were men. Cursing, King kicked them till, howling, they found their feet.
"What happened?" King stormed at them. "What hell's business has been here?"
White eyed, they goggled at him.
King took the nearest one by the throat and shook him.
"What happened? Speak, idiot, damn you, or I'll beat your dumb face in!"
Then they all gave clamorous tongue at once. Men had come—men with grass masks over their faces. Not men—devils. They had slain, the askaris, or the askaris had run away; they did not know. The devils had seized the monpéré, their master, thereby proving that their power was greater than the monpéré's god. Those who had not been seized had barricaded themselves in their huts or had fled into the jungle.
King leaped to other doors. Without prelude he kicked them down. Within were other cowering men. King kicked them too. They knew nothing. Nobody knew anything. Masked devils had come; that was all.
King swore into the night. The Masai's dark form bulked beside him. Imperturbably he reported;
"Seven we find slain. Two will live. The rest—" He shrugged his shoulders. "A full day will I expend in administering beatings."
"Up!" shouted King. "Up! Beat those frightened fools to work! That devil had the same thought to raid here while we raided there; and his is the greater gain. Up and after them, and we may yet come in time."
"After them indeed," said the Masai. "But where in this night? If one of these fools upon whom that good man has wasted his labor had but the wit to follow and bring word—"
King had an inspiration.
He revolved the thought in his mind and his eyes glowed. He nodded his conviction. "Yes, the lake! There can be no place other than that island."
"Awah!" Even the Masai recoiled at the prospect. "A fit place, indeed, in the midst of that evil water, for a devil serpent that devours men. But, bwana, without a canoe how could even that devil doctor do such a witchcraft?"
"That trail!" King was running to the mission. "The trail that led from the voodoo-house door. It was not a giant serpent. It was a canoe dragged along by men. That's where that cunning devil kept it hidden. To work! Beat those men to work!"
The Masai roared among the shivering converts. With kicks, blows and pricks with the point of his spear he set to herding them into the mission-house. How, without a second canoe, anybody might traverse that crocodile-infested water, he had no idea. But his faith in his master was immense. If the bwana said he would go to the island, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the odds might be when he should get there, to the island he would go. Without asking questions the great fellow collected and bullied the men to whatever work it was that the master planned.
King was heaving at the great community table; that ponderous thing of solid planking and young sapling legs.
"Of this we make a raft," he shouted. "Swift, swift, every man! Ropes, axes, chairs, beds, whatever there is! Kaffa, set two men to rip boards from somewhere and thin down shafts to make paddles. Speed! Speed!"
The table was a good ten feet long, and solid. Beneath it, just under the edge, ran a stout six-inch horizontal strip to give bracing to the legs; it was a veritable coaming for a boat with the table upside down.
For a breathless moment King thought of felling trees and hewing logs, but the immediate shade trees of the mission were hardwoods. To go hunting through the jungle in the dark for something lighter was not to be thought of. Time was important.
There was no knowing what awful, unholy, gruesome rite might be progressing on that island.
Ruthlessly King smashed chairs, cupboards, all the meager furnishings of the place—anything that would float—and lashed the lumber thus obtained lengthwise along the table top. Heaving with half a dozen men, he turned the thing over. Furiously swinging an ax, he knocked the sturdy legs flying. They, too, went under to add buoyancy.
TIME sped inexorably; but so did the making of the raft. A mass of ropes and planks and odd firewood, it was finished faster than anything that had ever happened before in that part of Africa.
"Good enough," panted King. "It'll hold together. Now, then, get under it, every man! Hoist! Edgewise through the door, fools! The shotgun, Kaffa. It'll be a murderous weapon at close quarters; but this is a murderous business. Away! Away! Axmen ahead to clear the path! Speed! Speed!"
Supported by every man who could put shoulder to it, the cumbersome raft went lurching out into the night.
At the lake edge King stared in the direction where he knew the island should be. No glimmer of light came from it. No whisper of sound. It seemed that, if men moved on it at all, they groped their way in some nameless ritual of the deeper hell. Coupled with the blackness of night, the rain roared down upon the water's surface with a sudden fury that drowned out all other sound.
Gingerly, wary of the water's edge, the men pushed the raft in. It floated high. King's quick estimate was that it would carry five. That would be, besides himself and his two henchmen, two others.
But which two? Explosive grunts and staccato croaks came from the dark water. Who of those shivering men would be willing to go? And of what value would frightened men be in—in whatever it might be that would be met on that fearsome island?
It was no time for speculation. King pounced upon the two men nearest to himself, irrespective of whether his own or converts. He pitched them bodily on to the float. For half a mile they had to drive that cumbersome thing through reedy water; he wanted stout arms for paddles; he could not stop to pick fighting men. Speed! Speed!
He jumped on board after them. The raft lurched. The two men screamed. The Hottentot was already there. The Masai heaved mightily against the raft, wading knee deep to give it a good send-off. Then calmly he swung aboard.
"Crocodiles," he said coolly, "are more fearful even than these jungle people; they do not come where much noise is. Think you, bwana, that those devil men will fight?"
King did not at once reply. He drove great straining strokes with his crude board paddle. Things other than paddles splashed out of the darkness ahead. The raft gathered way. Once it bumped jarringly against something that grunted. Something swished and hit the water with a slap that sent a wave over the six-inch gunwale. A man groaned.
"Speed!" growled King. "Speed!"
"Even rain like a waterfall," panted the Hottentot between strokes, "is not without its virtue; for thus will the devils not hear our coming."
"And at least," said King with a grim satisfaction, "this time they will not be expecting any interference."
The low island loomed ahead, a blacker shadow upon the black water. King strained his eyes to distinguish a possible landing. Before he could adjust his sight to distances the raft grounded softly. The rain's fury was abating; but its patter upon leaves drowned out all sounds of the hurried scramble ashore.
A narrow fringe of weedy beach encircled the island. Beyond that were the bushes that could be seen from the main shore—dense, tough, a veritable wall. Stiff thorns against his groping hand quickly convinced King that passage through it would be a matter of machete work.
From within the wall, from the very belly of the island, there now sounded above the patter of the rain, like a bass accompaniment to it, a low, booming rhythm. Too low to distinguish words; but King had listened to that emphasized rhythm before.
When he had heard it before it was a prelude to the appearance of the great stuffed snake above the sculptured rock. Here on this island, what?
"Hell! There must be a path someplace. Quick!"
In a frenzy of anxiety they stumbled along the beach, which was littered with flotsam and driftwood, holding on to each other to keep their feet. The two extra men followed only because they dared not remain behind. A black shadow that lay like a log across the way grunted and scuttled into the water.
"The hell with them! Come ahead!" King whispered fiercely.
Other shadows slid away from their advance. The island was small and roughly circular. They had scrambled round perhaps a third of it when an immense shadow loomed ahead, full across the path.
Huge and black, disdainful of a handful of stumbling men, it refused to move.
King's hesitation was only momentary.
Muttering something about hell, he ran at it and jumped high. Clearing it with room to spare, he landed, turned and stood his ground, laughing hysterically—but determined.
It was the dugout canoe.
Hauled well up, its nose stuck into a dark tunnel that opened through the tangled bush wall.
"N'gamm-a! N'gamm-a!" The low rhythm sounded clearer now. At intervals came the terrifying drone of a devil's litany.
King plunged into the path, the Masai at his heels. The shrewd little Hottentot waited a moment and then his soft, insistent, whisper came from behind.
"The canoe would hold perhaps ten men, bwana."
"Hau! Perhaps then they will fight," growled the Masai.
"Perhaps," amended King grimly, "it has made more than one trip."
FORGING ahead by touch, King pushed his face into thorns. The rain drowned his sharp exclamation. The tunnel had suddenly zigzagged; and immediately King knew why. It was to hide the light. Ahead was a glow.
In a half dozen long, cautious strides King stood at the end of the tunnel; and all at once he understood the whole devil-begotten secret of the island. He understood why no structure was ever visible from the main shore, why no lights were ever seen—the dense bush tangle, of course, accounted for that. But structure there was, and no imagination was necessary to tell King just what its grisly significance might be.
The tunnel debouched into a space cleared of bushes, like the island, roughly circular, perhaps some sixty feet across. The structure in the center of the clearing was nothing more or less than a wide cage, a glorified mousetrap in which victims awaited whatever death their captor decided upon. The victims in the trap were the missionary and two of his converts. Just what form of death their captor had planned was not as yet apparent.
The cage was constructed of stout bamboo poles driven into the ground a few inches apart, braced with crosspieces and strongly lashed with split canes. A flat top covered it, just above man height, similarly braced and lashed. A quite unescapable cage; in fact, an arena.
And like an arena, it was lighted. On little bamboo shelves, screened from the rain by matting, burned wicks of twisted bark floating in clay saucers of grease. Outside the arena, at intervals all round its circumference, stood men, black, stark naked, perhaps a score of them. They jigged a shuffling step to accompany the droned litany. Their responses fell in cadenced unison:
That ominous word had meant fear wherever King had met it. The last time it had preceded the appearance of a serpent god.
Fear was upon the jigging men now, though not the abject, face-in-the-mire reverence of the rock ceremony.
"Something queer about that," was King's immediate suspicion as he stood tense in the black shadow of the passage, on tiptoe to explode into action just as soon as he should know what and how.
He could have reached out his shotgun and touched the man directly in front of him. He felt almost as if the man must hear his breathing. But the fellow's whole attention was focused upon whatever it was that was happening—or going to happen—behind those bamboo bars. Farther down the line King could get a view of faces. They, too, were keyed to a pitch of expectant excitement that left room for observation of nothing outside. Blubbery lips trembled, eyes goggled white, features twitched. Brutal faces all. Debased. Like the faces of gorillas—or of devils.
And then it came to King why these people were not all bowed down to the mud at the word, N'gamm-a. This spectacle was not worship. It was sport.
Worship might come later. But these men were waiting for something to happen, some horrific thing that would glut that appetite for blood which was the necessary prelude to voodoo ecstacy.
Whatever it was that was coming, the Reverend Henderson inside the cage knew as well as did the fanatical audience. King could see him between the bamboo bars. He was upon his knees, his hands folded before him, his lips moving. His thin body was naked. Smeared upon his breast with yellow ocher was the symbol of the serpent eyes and the forked tongue. Hope had left him. He was praying.
King thought gravely that so must other Christians have prayed in an arena long ago as they waited for the lions.
As for the converts, terror had bereft them of all voluntary motion as well as speech. They lay on the ground, caked with mud; at intervals their bodies twitched spasmodically; their eyes rolled in their heads. Then King saw that dirty cloth gags covered their mouths.
It was on the farther side of the cage that all eyes seemed to be so hypnotically fixed. Vision there, through a double line of bars and against the smoky grease lamps of that side, was not so easy for King. He could make out the big form of the voodoo papa-loi who droned the monotonous chant to which his lesser devils kept time. Beside him seemed to be a multiplicity of bamboo stems adjoining the cage, a sort of supernumerary cage, as it were; though its function remained vague.
The papa-loi waved his arms high in impious imitation of invoking a blessing, calling upon the spirit of his demon god to manifest itself before its people. And from the slavering excitement of its people it seemed that they saw something; that the god was manifesting itself.
Then King saw it too, and his heart came into his mouth. Having once discerned it out of the smoky gloom, he wondered that he had not picked it out before. Connecting the supernumerary cage with the arena cage was a square black hole, a sort of trapdoor, high up, just below the ceiling. Out of this hole protruded a frightful head, enormous and flat, the size of a garden shovel. Motionless, it hung there. It might have been a wooden mask. But then a great bifurcated tongue licked out and flicked slowly up and down, tasting the air.
"N'gamm-a! N'gamm-a!" intoned its jigging demons. Their nostrils twitched; they licked bubbling lips.
Unhurriedly a length of thick neck slid out of the hole and hung there hesitantly. This way and that the broad head turned to look—exactly as had the wooden one at the rock ceremony.
"N'gamm-a! N'gamm-a!" The rhythm speeded up its tempo. The stamping feet sent a tremor through the ground.
The cold-eyed devil-devil seemed to be satisfied with its scrutiny. With effortless ease a vast body began to flow out of the trapdoor. The great head arched gracefully down to accept its sacrifice.
The enormity of their effort brought stifled groans from the gagged converts. Their spasmodic jerking threw them bounding and skittering across the arena mud. The missionary, with the superhuman moral strength of a stout soul enclosed in a fragile body, remained on his knees and prayed to his God.
King's jump carried him right up to the bars of the cage. A naked body stood in his way. A back arm blow hurled the man sprawling. King shoved his shotgun between the bamboo bars and let go both barrels at once.
The great head and neck disintegrated into a red mass of streamers and ribbons. Like a vast rubber cable the body that had protruded jerked back into the hole. An agonized howl came from a naked man who had been watching the show from directly behind. A brief space of silence was caused by sheer astonishment. Then a vast writhing and a rending of wood from the supernumerary cage—and hell's pandemonium.
Shocked beyond all reasoning by the apparition entering their confident security, the devil-worshipers' single impulse was to bolt around either side of the trap to the protection of their papa-loi. There they milled, a yelling mass, in the narrow space between the cage and the jungle wall.
"After them!" yelled King. "Don't let them get set!"
The Masai shouted his ferocious war cry of stabbing spears:
"Ss-ghee, ss-ghee! The devil-doctor is mine, bwana," he pleaded as he ran. "He who smote my nose is mine."
GIVING the devil his due, credit must be given to Papa-loi Leroy. Bellowing rage and encouragement, he launched himself from the platform on which he had been standing and pushed a wave of his men before him. King found himself engulfed. His gun was knocked from his hand in the first rush. Hot, naked bodies pressed upon him. They shrank from him as from a materialized ghost; but sheer pressure of numbers in that confined space forced them on to King. Foot and knee and fist, he fought with yelling men who clawed at him more in fright than in battle rage.
He saw the Masai wading shoulder deep through screaming men, his great spear flashing redly as it rose and fell. But those were only obstacles in his path.
"Wait for me, Rainmaker," he shouted. "Hold fast, thou great one. Hau! Art thou running from an elmoran of the Masai among all thy demons?"
The terrific flailing of an enormous body in the supernumerary den began to burst the walls apart. Sections of bamboo flew in the air. With a splintering crash a whole side fell out. Something like a ship's hawser swept the feet from under the milling mob. A huge coil writhed high and fell crunchingly. Men howled beneath it and leaped frantically to avoid it.
King began to realize that the hands that beat at him were weaponless. With relief he remembered that these men had come as spectators to a sacrifice; weapons, if any, would be stacked somewhere; probably left in the canoe. How long before somebody would gather his wits sufficiently to go for them? In desperation King put into practice every low, man-maiming trick that he knew—knee to the groin; elbow twisted till the bone cracked; rabbit punch. Men fell howling away from him.
It came to him with a sickening feeling that in all this confusion there was no sign of the Hottentot. Perhaps the little man had gone down. Under his feet King felt himself treading upon his gun. Risking everything, he fought down to get at it. Men howled and piled themselves on top of him. From somewhere outside of his own fight King heard a shot spit viciously. He heaved up out of a mound of men to see Leroy, a pistol in his hand, struggling over surging heads to bring his arm down and point it again at the Masai. The Masai roared and plowed through a barrier of bodies.
"There's for thee, father of devils!" he shouted.
The great spear licked out in a full arm lunge. A foot of it suddenly stuck out of the voodoo-doctor's back. He disappeared in the screaming mob; but the shaft of the spear with its monkey-tail tuft waved drunkenly in the air above their heads.
Seeing the Masai unarmed, a wave of men threw themselves at him, howling like the devils that they worshiped. The Masai went down; but from beneath the bodies his indomitable shout came:
"Whau! That was a stroke! Wait, devil's offspring. Wait but till I get my weapon again."
His voice was muffled. His breath came gaspingly. King wrenched free and swung his gun to waist height. He fired. Men writhed away, shrieking. Other men, finding King's hands engaged, clawed at him from behind. King swung round and fired blindly. It seemed that the whole pressure before him disintegrated. Only groans came from about his feet. He saw the Masai surge up out of a sea of men, his spear in his hand. The men yelled and broke before him.
The Masai had no inhibitions. Armed or unarmed, enemies were before him, men who did demoniac things. They fought against his master. His business was to slay them.
Before the threat of his spear they broke and ran. Shouting, he chased them. Round and round the cage he chivvied them. Some in their desperation dived for what they hoped might be thin spots in the bush tangle and there they stuck. They were speared. Some broke partially through. The Masai reserved them for a later hunting. Some climbed monkey-like to the top of the cage.
King smashed his fist into the face of the last man before him and was free to run and catch the berserk Masai by the arm.
"Have done! Cease, slaughterer!" he shouted and shook the man out of his red fury. "There is work. Cut me the cords of this door with your spear and let us get the monpéré out of this. Put him in the canoe under guard of those two cowards who would not follow; and then we must go and look for Kaffa."
The Masai was immediately sober.
"What? Is the little man gone? The apeling with whom I have had my daily quarrel? Awowe! Then will there indeed be a slaughter. Speed, bwana; he may yet live."
He sliced his spear blade against the fastenings of the cage door and plunged in with King. The skulkers on the roof scuttled away like spiders. The missionary had fainted. King took the frail body up in his arms. The Masai followed with a grease lamp.
At the tunnel's farther entrance dark forms sprawled on the beach. A goblin figure perched on the prow of the canoe. He started up and lifted a short Somali sword. Then he clucked.
"Whah, bwana! I thought it was another of them. One came like a fool, not looking, bellowing for weapons. Him I slew. Another came. Him also I slew. Yet another came. Him also—"
"Shut up!" said King. "Murderers twain have I for servants. Here, get the monpéré into the canoe."
"N'dio, bwana. But softly, bwana, softly. Spears are in the canoe and knives. Show a light, thou great oaf of a Masai, that we do not lay him upon sharp edges."
King held the lamp above his head and watched his incongruous pair tenderly handle the missionary between them. In the shadow he was not ashamed to let the hard lines of his face soften in appreciation of two black men who stood more staunchly by him than many a white man might have done. But bruskly he shook sentiment from him. His voice was gruff.
"Carefully now, carefully. Otherwise the gifts that it was in my mind to give for a little blood spilled in the right time and place will be forfeited for clumsiness. Come now, Barounggo, ungag those rascals and kick them to their feet. Then swiftly away from this evil place."
"And those others, bwana?" The Masai voiced disappointment. "Those devil men who have temporarily escaped? It would be a hunting like rats in last year's straw, bwana. Shall those evil ones go free?"
"They shall stay right here," said King grimly, "till we come and collect them in our own good time. If they hunger, let them eat their own dead, as do all devils. If they don't like this den of their own making, let them swim. Come, let's get going."
ONCE again the Reverend Henderson sat in a chair of stiff, hand-hewn hardwood—brought from Brother Leroy's "mission." King swung his legs from a sturdy table, late of the same place. The missionary was pale and exhausted; but his spirit remained unquenchable. King's grin was that of an archangel who has well and truly executed a major readjustment of the universe.
"So that just about cleans up that," he said. "They were pretty well tamed when I went to fetch them off their island—what was left of them. A boot at the exact psychological root of their tails and a sight of something to eat brought out a whole basketful of confessions. The mystery is very simple—I mean about their snake's impossible appetite. I should say Leroy had a complex about slaves; he couldn't forgive the white men who had run off his own parents; so when he got into trouble in Jamaica over his voodoo stuff he came over and started a slave racket right here in British territory, knowing that the Abyssinians would be blamed; and to cover up disappearances here he organized his Dambala devil cult and had them believing that it got all the victims. The slaves marched up into Abyssinia and turned them over to the borderland chief, who took them quietly through Jubaland to the coast, where Arab dhows picked them up for sale in Hadramaut.
"A right smart lad was Brother Leroy. He was making a pile of money out of his game and he sent it all away to the coast; must have banked it somewhere; though these poor dupes, of course, couldn't understand anything about that."
"Thank God for that," said the missionary piously. "And did you find out about—about that unhappy orderly?"
"That too. They put up a scrap, he and poor old Ponsonby. The gang was afraid they'd upset the canoe in the middle of the lake, so they were tied up. But the orderly seems to have managed to pick up a panga knife in the dark and concealed it somehow. The snake got Ponsonby and was kind of taking things easy, sniffing around the other. It was then that his mind cracked. He howled and gibbered something awful, they said. It must have been a ghastly business. But he managed to cut loose and, gone berserk, he took a tremendous swipe at the snake's head with his knife; didn't kill it outright, but that's what it died of later.
"Of course there was a tremendous confusion, what with the snake thrashing around in the cage and the worshipers struck dumb. And then the orderly, still howling horribly, burst through a rotten spot in the cage wall, hacked down a couple of men in his way and got clear away in the canoe. That's why they just had to go after him to get him back. The N'gamma died a couple of days later; so they put it away in its little hut to lie in state, and Leroy had his men out and caught the new one within a week. They tell me there's a warm water pool where the snakes come to shed their skins."
The Reverend Henderson was silent with closed eyes. Several times he shuddered. At last—
"What are you going to do with them?" he asked.
King knew that the missionary was thinking of men, not of snakes. Frowning in troubled thought, he kicked his boot heels together
"I don't exactly know. If I take them in to Nairobi they'll be officially tried and hanged as accessories. Yes, hanged. Just for being dumb African fools, dupes of the devil Leroy, crazed by mumbo-jumbo. And then'll be more trouble."
The missionary opened his eyes and looked up.
What could be worse than the hanging of men? King nodded.
"Yes. Official trial will mean witnesses. You and me and dozens of these people. Investigations of local conditions. Police. Tribal punishment for not reporting the thing. Fines. Impressing of the prestige of the colonial government."
"Oh, Mr. King—" the missionary cried appealingly—"cannot that be avoided? Is there no other way?"
King nodded again.
"Sure there is—if your conscience will let you collaborate with me in throwing a little dust into the eyes of his Britannic Majesty's colonial government. A quite simple way. I can let Barounggo cuff their ears and give each of the gang a swift kick in the nether loincloth—in public—and then turn them loose. Their bad influence will be busted for keeps, and their own people will twist their tails plenty. And you can start all over again with a lot of knowledge that you didn't have before.
"I shall report to the governor that no slaves were being raided from Abyssinia—which is true; that Ponsonby was unfortunately killed by a snake—which is also true; that I have killed the snake—which is the truest thing you know.
"I shall write that report, and I shall keep away from Nairobi for a year—go exploring in Abyssinia maybe; lots of things in Abyssinia I've never seen. And you—" King pointed his finger at the missionary—"you will stretch your conscience and write an enclosure to my report to back me up with your O.K."
The Reverend Henderson remained silent, his head against the hard chair back. For a moment he was silent, his eyelids closed in thought. Then softly he murmured the quotation:
" 'Therefore shall I save my flock, and they shall no more be a prey.' "
He sat resolutely upright.
"Mr. King," he gave his conviction, "it is my sincere belief that in this case the end justifies the means."
Weeks later, when the governor read that report—scrawled on a sheet of mission copybook paper—he told a scandalized secretary—
"File as officially accepted."
He drummed his fingers on his desk. Slowly a wise smile spread over his august features.
"Good man, that Kingi Bwana chap. Saved us no end of native trouble and military expenditure—and he always thinks we don't know. Some day I must catch him and find out what really happened."
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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