Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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THE man in the tree stirred into silent activity. His vigil was coming to an end. Far up the donga cautious steps were approaching. The man's brows twitched down over his eyes in an overhanging ridge and the rudimentary muscles of his ears strained forward as actively as a monkey's in critical listening. It was black African night and his vision, keen as it was, availed him nothing.
The man's listening was nervously tense; he must make no mistake about those steps. A leopard strolling carelessly to his lie-up after his hunting might dislodge loose pebbles just like that. So might a hamadryas baboon, for that matter; or even a bush bok—and he had known both those latter beasts upon occasion to have mysterious night errands. He didn't want to fire at any such inadvertent decoy and so give warning to the whole neighborhood.
The strained ears relaxed, the brows retreated and the man nodded. There was no mistake now. Those cautious steps were man—and booted: white man. Surely, therefore, the man. No other would walk so cat-like down the rock and pebble strewn bed of a donga by night. The watcher's eyelids screwed in a silent grin.
He took advantage of a flurry of wind down the ravine to shift his position in the low crotch of his tree and to wrap his legs more securely round the limb while he hitched his gun to the fore—a shotgun; he was taking no chances with a rifle in the tricky dark.
From the donga's steep lip above him a thin drizzle of sand pattered sharply through the sparse leaves of the man's tree. Startled, he peered upward and showed angrily clenched teeth.
The tree was a half naked-limbed euphorbia that had long ago found lodgment in a crevice close to the steep donga wall, had grown to its height and now sent its sprawling roots out in a vain hunt for sufficient nourishment among the washed out rocks and sand, and struggled to maintain clumps of undersized leaves on its gaunt arms.
Against the dense net of stars the man could distinguish the dark grotesques of the leaf masses and the thick roadways of the twisted branches. Up at these he snarled in silent rage. Above all things he did not want to be disturbed just at that vital moment.
What the devil and all might have loosened that sandfall?
He could see nothing other than the fantastic tree shapes. His quick twitching ears could hear nothing more. In angry anxiety he peered and reasoned through a swift elimination of causes.
Elimination was really quite easy; at all events of all the larger and possibly dangerous causes. Lions would not be stalking along a donga edge. A prowling leopard would have caused a landslide. A porcupine was a clumsy beast, too. A jackal would have made more noise. It must have been one of the lesser cats—a genet probably, walking, as they love to, along the sheer edge of nothing. Or the wind alone might well have dislodged the little sand shower; the wind was swishing quite briskly down the ravine now. Anyway, if it had been some beast he would have heard it again.
The man grunted and settled to concentrate on the important business in hand. He must be sure and let no bungle spoil the thing. Down this donga his man—the man—must come. For twenty miles it cut a dry road—like a vast trench, twenty feet across and forty deep—through the plain till it tumbled in a huge succession of straggling leaps down the escarpment to Lake Rudolf. There was no other road because innumerable smaller dongas, scoured out by the monsoon rain, emptied into this main artery and cut up the plain into a crazy checkerboard.
And past that tree the man must come; past that patch of white sand where his bulk would show up in the starlight a sure mark—an almost sure mark—for a shotgun.
That was why the man in the tree had chosen just that tree. Because its very sparseness of foliage gave a clear view and because a tree offered a good deal more security than a rock ambush in case of any mischance. There would be a safe opportunity for a second shot to remedy any mischance; and that was a matter of vital importance.
For that other man who stepped so cautiously down the dry donga was the very devil. Cunning as a leopard and as uncannily fast, so the stories ran. The natives had the most incredible tales to relate about his prowess. Of course those were just native yarns, the man in the tree knew; but there was a sufficiency of other evidence about the fellow to make this night ambush business a matter of quite some nervous strain. A mistake, a bungle, might mean… The watcher drew in his breath sharply to think just what it might mean.
THE thick, empty branches above him creaked in the night wind. Distorted limbs they were, twisted in the throes of malnutrition; swollen with huge warty growths like the limbs of similarly undernourished natives who suffered from elephantiasis. They creaked and groaned as in pain, as if in slow, heaving efforts to rid themselves of their parasitic encumbrances.
They seemed to succeed. A great wart that lay along one of the dim branches silhouetted against the donga rim shook loose and dropped swiftly to a lower limb, where it clung lumpily, as though loath to leave its parent host.
In its quick transition against the skyline it might have been anything; huge fragment of moss and orchid root, or leopard, or more likely ape. Only, had it been moss it would hardly have landed so fortuitously on the next limb.
But the watcher was not watching the skyline. He was straining his eyes up the dark donga bottom to catch those footsteps.
The footsteps came softly nearer; picking their way with an instinctive habit of noiselessness. They dragged interminably; hesitant, feeling out, cautious. Damn it, why couldn't the fellow hurry up and get the thing over with?
The tree man's tension grew. He rubbed his thumb over the bead of his shotgun to renew its luminosity. It didn't satisfy him. With a jerky movement he snatched a tiny vial of radium paint from his shirt pocket and daubed a hasty spot on the bead. That didn't satisfy him either; but, curse it, it would have to do; he couldn't go fooling over the niceties now.
The footsteps were on the very edge of that patch of white sand now. In another second the bulk of the man ought to loom dark against the pale floor. With infinite caution the watcher pushed his gun barrel to the fore—that other man was said to have a diabolical hearing. The clumsy luminous patch on the bead glowed a broad smudge—no sort of a sight. Still, at that range, a shotgun and a charge of buckshot ought to settle the business without any mishap. Just one more second, now.
It was an interminable second. A nerve racking passage of long drawn out time. At the very edge of the patch of sand the footsteps hesitated. The man was there, somewhere in the black shadow; but no farther would he come.
A foliage mass above the tree watcher's head swished more violently than was permissible to the wind. The watcher squinted a quick glance upward; but looked as quickly away again. His every faculty was focused now on the edge of that patch of sand. He dared not be distracted. His hands holding that devastating shotgun at point trembled with pent excitement. Those damnable footsteps! Instead of coming on they seemed to be climbing to skirt that pale target patch. Curse the fellow; could it be possible that anybody could be so inhumanly cautious?
The watcher with a frenzied snarl moved his finger from off the trigger. It was shaking with the man fever which is vastly more potent than buck fever. There must be no such awful mischance as an accidental discharge into nothing. Deadly sure the very first shot would have to be; with a possible second shot for the native who would be with the man—though that didn't matter a whole lot. It was the other man—the man—who was as clever as the devil and more to be feared. Yes, without fail and absolutely the first shot must settle the devil's hash. The shaky finger steadied itself with a quivering effort and began to curl round the trigger once more. The watcher concentrated all his faculties on the edge of that shadow.
And then out of the shadow the man who was as clever as the devil whistled shrilly like an avenging fiend. Out of the foliage mass above the watcher's head with a scramble and a crash fell a black demoniac shape that screamed and wrapped prehensile legs round the watcher's neck and clawed at his face and eyes.
THE watcher's pent up nervousness broke from him in a choked shout—the indrawn, strangled cry of sudden, startled horror. The twittery fingers cramped in a convulsive grip. Both barrels of the shotgun roared into the night. Watcher and screeching incubus fell from the tree to the ground and disintegrated into two shadows, a large bulky one and a small shriveled one. The bulky one lurched to its feet and dashed down the ravine.
Out of that other blackness above the sand patch leaped the long shadow of the man who was the very devil. Two lithe bounds he took across the sand patch, and then fell cartwheeling over a rope that stretched across the donga and lay dazed. Instantly the small shriveled shadow scuttled to him and fussed over him with crooning noises and clucks of dismay.
"Shut up," muttered the fallen man dizzily. "Make a light." He sat up. "No, don't make a light—I must be silly. Golly, what a smash I came!"
The smaller figure was anxiously reassuring.
"Nay, bwana, a light is safe. Listen, he still runs and he is already far. Moreover in his haste he left his gun lying."
"Even so a light is not safe," the man insisted; and to himself he commented, "A jasper who's careful enough to stretch a rope to cover his getaway on the slim chance of his having to make a break is smart enough to have a couple more tricks in his hat. I've been a fool once to get caught by the rope trick; I don't give him another easy chance with a light. Wonder who he was and why he was laying for me?"
"He was a white man, bwana."
"Huh? What's that? How do you know he was a white man? There are no other white men within a day's trek."
"I smelled him, bwana."
The tall man chuckled; he knew the African claim that white men have a distinctive and unpleasant odor. Then he reproved:
"You are a wise little ape, Kaffa, but also a fool. If you had obeyed my order we would have caught this mysterious assassin who is a white man. My order was to throw stones upon him."
"Yes, bwana; and indeed I had a stone as big as a small goat all ready—"
"My order was small stones."
"Yes, bwana, small stones was the order. But, waiting up there, I heard the two clicks of his making a gun ready; and that goatherd boy had said no word of a white man with a gun; only that a man waited in the dark in such and such a tree. So I, knowing that bwana came without suspicion of a gun, I climbed softly into the tree and—"
"It was well intended, little ape man, though you muffed it. Had I required violence I would have sent Barounggo with his throwing spears."
"Yes, bwana. Barounggo would surely have torn his throat out, had he once placed hands upon him. But, bwana, it is also sure that Barounggo could never have climbed into that tree."
"True, thou very ape; that was well done. And for the doing and the foolish intention there will be a gift—a new blanket with stripes of many colors. Also we must find a gift tomorrow for that goatherd boy who shouted his news and ran so fearfully away."
The smaller shadow stooped quickly and clasped the tall man's knees to chatter his thanks.
"Shush, shush! Cut it out," growled the tall man. "For service there is reward. It will be wise now to get out of this donga back to camp to tell that Masai blood letter what a fight he has missed. And tomorrow we shall come to the dipty c'mishna bwana to ask what manner of men are in his district who lie in ambush for people with guns."
LATE the following evening the tall man's compact little safari halted in front of the gate in the barbed wire square that was the official residence of Mr. Sydney Fawcett, Assistant Commissioner of the West Rudolf district of Uganda. The very black, khaki uniformed Kavirondo who stood sentry at the gate grinned and presented arms, and incontinently left his post to announce the visitor.
The tall man gave terse orders to his safari.
"Barounggo, make camp well away from the village, and give to each shenzi a portion of meat with his potio. They have come well this day's trek. Kaffa, it will not be necessary to prepare a meal; I eat with the c'mishna bwana."
The man Barounggo, an enormous Masai, lifted a huge spear in salute and herded the porters off. Kaffa, the shadow of the donga episode, a Hottentot as shriveled and monkey-like as the Masai was big and fierce, grinned and trotted after them.
Assistant Commissioner Sydney Fawcett, who, six months ago had greeted the announcement of this man's presence with the worried query, "Good God, what does that pestilent man want here?" came out into his veranda to wave and call:
"Why, it's Mr. King, no less. I've been expecting you for some days. Come on in, old man, and tell me all the news of what is going on in the farther corners of this district which I govern."
Relaxed in a long cane chair, sipping the tepid whisky peg of tropic hospitality, the man King remarked with affected unconcern, although there was a question behind it—
"So you were expecting me?"
The Assistant Commissioner chuckled.
"Yes indeed, Kingi Bwana, and by all means I was expecting you. Surprised, what? Wasn't it yourself who taught me how to listen for bush telegraph?"
The level brows flicked once, the wide mouth drew tight and then King laughed with a shamefaced expression that was unusual to his hard angled face.
"Glad you made so apt a pupil. And that, incidentally, explains also a mysterious bird who tried to dry gulch me last night."
"I don't at all know what your curious language means, Kingi Bwana, but tell me about it."
King related the facts of the attempted ambush and wound up with—
"But how the devil could he know so accurately just what road I'd be going?"
Mr. Sydney Fawcett was serious. Killing of any sort shocked the dignity of British law and order; and an attempt to assassinate a white man within a days' trek of the very seat of government was an outrage. So unprecedented an offense that the Assistant Commissioner ventured to censure even the innocent near victim, as being to blame for luring that kind of character into his well administered district.
"Now, Kingi Bwana, really my dear fellow, you deserve a lesson. You're so bally confident that nobody knows your comings and goings that you've slipped up at last. Look here, old man, I know—even I, government official—know that you're going to some place back of the Assaua River country. I don't know what for—as yet—but I've been waiting for you."
King's cold gray eyes narrowed.
"Well, I'm glad the bush talk didn't have my plans all drawn up and blue printed. But they might easily have guessed. I got hold of a story about some few hundred quills of gold back there. What else ever happens in those back woods but gold and ivory?"
"Well, there you are, my dear man. Quill gold. That meant, of course, that you would be coming here to get a permit to buy that gold from the natives at whatever rate you could haggle me down to; for all of Africa knows that you're not fool enough to try to bargain the natives down to trashy trade goods and hope to smuggle the stuff out of the country."
Quick wrinkles appeared round King's eyes and he pinched his lips together.
"Thanks for the kind opinion," he drawled. "Not but what a wide awake man could get away with it without straining a sinew; but you paternal government fellows are so damned vindictive when you find out."
"Confident King," jeered the official.
King's face hardened to weather stained oak.
"Yep, I guess I've got that coming to me. I've been careless somewhere and the underground has got hold of the talk of my going, though my own men don't know what I'm going for. I eat dust, O most transcendent of pupils; and from now on you can write me down in your official record as the king clam… So then, having accounted for a broadcast of my route, what in thunder d'you think this well meaning gent wanted to bushwhack me for?"
THE Assistant Commissioner blew out his cheeks.
"Kingi Bwana, your innocence these days astounds me. You don't mean to tell me that you imagine everybody in all of Africa loves you for being a stiff necked, nosey Yankee?"
"From North Dakota," murmured King. "But I'm innocent no more. I was just getting careless in the security of your law abiding colony. This discriminating gent's gun, by the way, is a Ballard, London, twelve bore hammerless ejector, No. 47029; and he uses Kynoch shells. Seems to be no sort of a fool all round. I'll get some of my witch doctor friends to send out the quiet inquiry about such a man; and I won't bother you about him any more. Now what's this talk that you've been waiting for me?"
"I want you to do a small job for me."
King raised an eyebrow.
"Well—er—semi-official," admitted Mr. Fawcett, and added quickly, "but I won't ask you to write a report and I won't offer to put you on the emergency payroll—I know your stiff necked independence. It's just that you're going there anyhow, and the man is one of your pestilent countrymen."
"Ha!" King nodded with immediate understanding. "A missionary is in trouble again. What's the matter this time? Somebody going to hot pot him, and his society will plague my government to plague your government to plague you? What crowd does this man belong to?"
"It's not that bad this time, friend cynic. He's a 'Sudan Interior' man—he ought not to be so far south anyhow. But since he is, it's my shauri. He complains about obstruction, fights with his converts, boycott, petty thieving of mission crops, and all the usual smoke before the fire. His place is at the junction of the Imbobo with the Assaua. So since you'll be somewhere in the neighborhood, I wish you would keep your ears open and let me know quietly what it's all about."
King stretched his big shoulders and relaxed. As long as no official cooperation with its attendant red tape was asked of him, he was glad to oblige. He did not know that the shrewd old governor of the colony had long ago sent voluminous and confidential instructions to the Assistant Commissioner that if he could but inveigle this masterless man into a little freelance information gathering, King would go to endless trouble, would take all responsibility for his safety on his own easy shoulders, and would furnish cooperation more valuable than any official on the staff.
"Sure," said King. "Glad to oblige. I'm strong for missionaries anyhow; I always figure that converting the heathen to religion with a book is no worse than converting him to civilization with a gun. The heathen don't care much for either; and the book men have a lot bigger percentage of good eggs than the gun men."
The Assistant Commissioner laughed.
"You are already docketed officially, my Kingi Bwana," he told the other sententiously, "as a revolutionary, an obstructionist, an anti-imperialist, and a stiff necked Yankee. But if you find out for me just what the festive heathen on the sunny banks of the Assaua are thinking about I shall not ask my government to deport you on the grounds of being a menace to the administration."
"Thanks again," said King. "I'll see what I can do to help out my persecuted countryman."
THE vultures wheeling against the blue steel sky inspected the safari with experienced criticism. They swung a couple of wide circles above it and then set their fringed planes to the exact fractional angle against the wind and with magnificent effortlessness were removed in one vast swoop ten miles from that place, where they wheeled again.
There was nothing to interest them in this safari. It was small—barely a dozen men—compact, no straggling. At the head strode a tall white man; by his side trotted a wizened Hottentot; behind them came the porters, treading almost on one another's heels; and the rear was brought up by an immense spear man who saw to it that the endless straggling of the usual African safari was nipped before it ever started.
There was no profit for vultures in such a safari. They were more interested in their new prospect. The Hottentot pointed to where, pin points in the clear air, they banked in their great circles.
"Village," he said.
The white man shook his head.
"You know better than that, little monkey man. If it was a village they would be there all the time. It is a camp."
"Yes, Bwana, it is a camp—" the Hottentot snatched up dust and slapped his mouth with it. "My head knows, but the words tumbled from my mouth without permission."
The safari plodded on. After an hour the Hottentot ventured again—
"A white man's camp and belonging to one who has little experience."
"And how do you judge that, O wise little ape?"
"Natives would not stay so long in one place by day; the birds would have descended to feast upon the leavings. And as for experience—our camps, bwana, have no such devil's attendants."
"That time your head kept watch over your mouth. I guess you're right. And out of your wisdom tell me now this: White men are few in this country; would it be perchance the camp of that white man whom you smelled in the tree by night?"
"No, bwana. That man had much experience."
"Right again," said King. "So we don't prepare for war. But we might as well be careful. Barounggo, hold back the shenzis a half hour and come in prepared to make a diversion if need be."
The great Masai lifted his spear and barked at the porters. King and the Hottentot went on.
In another half hour the camp became visible. There was a white man's tent, ill pitched and sagging. It was surrounded by an astonishing number of piles of baggage in disorderly heaps, covered over with oddments of canvas and tarpaulin. Native boys in unusual and unnecessary numbers lounged all over the place.
The Hottentot clucked his tongue against his palate.
"My mouth spoke wrong again. It said little experience. This mzungu has no experience."
The word in itself indicated the quick African reaction to that indefinite but vital thing, prestige. It meant merely white man, as differentiated from bwana—white master.
"Hm. Queerest camp I've seen," grunted King. "The man has men and equipment enough for a huge safari with headmen, leaders and whatnot; yet there seems to be nobody to handle things."
As the two came nearer, the herd of lounging boys looked at them with the furtive curiosity of the native, but with no other outward sign. They lounged and lay about in their established indolence; whereas it is customary in the bush for safari men—at least those in the direct path—to rise in deference to a white man's coming.
"These cattle," said the Hottentot, "need a one such as Barounggo to prick respect through their hides."
A boy who squatted on his heels near the tent rose and, without standing at the flap to ask permission, ducked within. In a moment a white man came out; and his appearance at once explained everything to both the newcomers.
"Ow, it is a mon-perea," murmured the Hottentot.
King advanced to the white man with equal certitude.
"I guess you'll be the Reverend Eli Wallace. Howdy. My name's King. Fawcett asked me to look in on you."
The missionary was delighted.
"An American, by all that is wonderful! Why, what a good fortune to temper my misfortune."
"Mm-hm," assented King. "It does look like trouble around here. Your boys seem to be a good bit out of hand. I suppose you can feed a starving stranger! Then let's sit down and tell me all about it."
"Oh, no," the missionary fussed. "I mean—oh, yes, of course, I can still offer you my small hospitality—David, tell cook boy make water hot, please… But I mean, my boys are good boys; they're my little flock, you know. No, the trouble is not with them—they're good lads."
King brought his frowning eyes back from a survey of the slipshod camp and the lolling natives, and he laughed.
"The good black brother, eh? It's the old argument, padre bwana, between your people and we Africanders. My boys are good boys too; and I sometimes even tell them so, but we—well, we camp different. However, let's consider your troubles on the mend from now on, and after some chow you can tell me how they began."
BUT THE Reverend Mr. Wallace was not able to tell King very much; hardly anything, in fact, more than King already knew.
"Fawcett told me you'd been having the usual petty annoyances—and I know my obstreperous African well enough to know exactly what you've been up against. But what then?"
"Well, Mr. King, that's about all I know myself. It kept getting worse and worse; and I had to stand for the most humiliating indignities till—"
"Yeah, that's just it," King interrupted him. "You stood for it instead of socking some fresh black buck in the very beginning. The African will always try it, and he'll carry it as far as you'll let him. But, hell, it's no use ever arguing with you people about how to handle the African. Well, what did it grow into?"
"I don't really know, Mr. King. There was no violence—I mean, nothing against me personally—though my boys were constantly getting beaten up. And then, less than a week ago the whole village came in quite overwhelming numbers and—well, to make it short, they just expelled my converts; made them pack up everything in my mission house and escorted them a day's march out of the village and left them with threats of dire violence, should they return. Of course I came with them."
"Hm. You came of your own accord? No compulsion or anything?"
"No, I was not molested. But of course I came with my flock."
King's eyes narrowed in introspection.
"Pretty smooth," was his comment. "No violence against the white man. Only an expulsion of certain natives against whom they will swear women stealing and half a dozen different community offenses. Ever have any trouble with the chief?"
"Never, Mr. King. He is a man—Tembe Dawa is his name—a man of the average kind: fat and sensuous with a lot of young wives, and lazy and good natured. His attitude was one of amused tolerance as long as I didn't make an issue of polygamy."
"So? That argues a pretty intelligent coon, if you ask me. Have any run-in with the medicine man? How big a man is he in the tribe? Is he a society man—what mark, and so on?"
"I—really, Mr. King, I don't know exactly what—"
"No, you'd hardly know that, of course. Here, let me ask your boys. You, there—David is your name, isn't it? Come here…"
The man came forward slowly—as slowly as he dared; though, as he felt King's level gaze, he speeded up till he stood, respectful but with suppressed insolence just under the surface of his whole being. He made round ox eyes at the questions about the local wizard and tried to pretend with African stolidity that he knew nothing about the man. King shrugged and turned to his Hottentot.
"You talk to him. Ask him what society the witch doctor belongs to."
The Hottentot addressed the man in a stream of quick, low invective that quickly convinced him that the master of such a servant was no white man to be fooled with like his own master. But he was honestly ignorant about witch society marks and a little nervous that this white man seemed to know about them.
"Ask him," said King quickly, "whether the ba-tagati uses the muavi poison magic?"
The mission boy's eyes rolled white at the question. He looked furtively round, then nodded fearfully.
"Hm, that's useful," muttered King. And to the missionary, "Apparently you've had no trouble with the witch doctor; at all events, no serious trouble, else you wouldn't look as healthy as you do. So then it sums up. No trouble with anybody, but continued obstruction, culminating in being thrown out on your ear. Gosh, what a wild and mysterious country is this Africa!"
He sat back and blew thoughtful smoke rings from his polished and intricately carved pipe. At intervals he whistled tunelessly through his teeth. What new enigma was this? What trivial circumstance, utterly obscure to the white man, had jarred upon the inexplicable native mind till it had built a mountain for itself that had eventually erupted into open resistance?
NATIVES in all of Africa were so accustomed to the white interlopers' vagaries these days that they no longer objected to the mere preaching of a new religion. They regarded that as an attendant evil as inescapable as the white man's insensate desire to regulate things and to collect hut taxes. It required something more personal, some more immediate interference with customs or rights, to arouse them to action for which they knew that, in the long run, there would be a penalty. Speculation on so vague a thing was hopeless. King jumped up.
"Tell you what's the only thing to do. I'll go to this Tembe chief's village and prowl around and see what I can pick up."
"Splendid," agreed the missionary. "I shall return with you."
King looked at him through narrowed lids, and then he nodded.
"Padre bwana, you've got all the nerve that your people always have and, like all of you, your nerve outruns your horse sense. Man, don't you realize that you haven't come of your own accord just to be with your flock? You've been thrown out—they're smart enough to know how you'd move. Now, both of us know that the African doesn't get that energetic unless something all red and mussy is in the back of his mind somewhere."
The missionary was calmly resolute.
"If there's danger, what about yourself? Besides, my place is—"
"Hooey." King cut him short. "You stick around with your boys here. If you ask me, you've got none too tight a hold on them, and if you leave 'em they'll melt away like that well known snowball. I'll light out in the morning with just my own boys. Besides, I haven't trod on that crowd's toes—not yet. And, anyway, I'm looking for gold to pay me for any risk that may happen along."
The missionary sighed as he looked over his lounging camp and was forced reluctantly to agree.
"Yes, my place is with my flock."
"Sure is," said King. "Just hold 'em down here awhile and we'll have you reestablished in your own mission house in the course of time. These things always blow over—the African can't hold a mad for very long…
"You say it's a day's trek? I'll leave my safari here with my Masai; I'll guarantee they won't bother you any and, incidentally, I kinda fancy your own boys may pep up a bit, too. I'll just hop over with the Hottentot and see what I can see. Guess I can get Chief Tembe to supply hut and feed for a couple of days. And, by the way, did you ever hear of any gold along your river?"
"Yes, indeed," said the missionary. "Every now and then some native would offer gold dust for medicine; but of course, I couldn't take any such remuneration for my services."
"Good," said King. "Well, I belong in the other side; I'm the unregenerate trader person who accepts all the remuneration I can get. So that'll make my visit profitable as well as interesting."
The missionary looked hard at King; and then suddenly he smiled and held out his hand.
"And yet, Mister Unregenerate Trader, you drop out of a blue sky and offer to help me for nothing."
King shrugged easily.
"Shucks, padre bwana. Your village will pay me with gold for the medicine that you give them for nothing."
IT was quite a big village. Some couple of hundred huts showed their untidy round roofs through prosperous looking banana groves that filled the wedge of land between two shrunken threads of yellow river that wound through wide, rain washed gravel beds.
Scars and scoops in the gravel and a twisty pattern of little canals, without forethought or design, indicated native industry. The wind brought the familiar and never to be forgotten effluvium of an African village left very much to itself.
King's surprised comment to himself was:
"Lot more workings than I had any idea. If that coon who brought the rumor down to Nairobi had reported anything like this, there'd have been half a dozen of the boys out on the jump. Looks like here's where I win out for taking the chance."
He strode on down to the village without any thought of misgiving. The petty disturbance against the missionary could be quietly sifted while he entered into the negotiations for what looked like a profitable trade.
But things were somehow not right in this village. At the outskirts King passed what was clearly the mission house, a wattle and mud hut like the rest, but much larger, much better built, with square walls and a peaked roof; a white man's building, in a square of methodically laid out garden.
The wrong thing about this house was that it seemed to be inhabited. If the natives had just ousted the owner and then left it alone, the thing would have been a normal indication of some passing unrest; but if they had taken possession so soon, that looked like a quite unusual determination that the missionary should not come back.
Two hundred yards farther, as King entered the first filthy lane between the straggly huts, there was a scurrying of startled natives, a peering from dark, beehive doorways and a running of quick feet to convey the news farther up.
A man of less assurance might have wavered in his advance; might even have retreated. But retreat, King knew very well, would have meant a fatal loss of that prestige which is the white man's very necessary God in Africa; a loss that would necessitate years of spectacular daring to recover. And prestige, King knew, sheer white man's indomitable nerve, would hold a native mob in check in all circumstances except the one of crazy, screaming war.
He quietly slipped his rifle bolt to throw a cartridge into the chamber, shifted his pistol holster to the front and went on.
Men came running to meet him, surrounded him and kept pace with him, jabbering.
"Tell them," said King to the Hottentot, "that I am neither a policeman nor an assessor of hut taxes. I come to make trade talk for gold with the Chief Tembe Dawa."
The men merely jabbered more. Other men came; men of a different type. These villagers were thin legged, pot bellied Nilotic negroes. The newcomers were of a sturdier build, men from farther east, the sort that hung about Nairobi to hire out as safari men, more accustomed to white men and less impressionable to sheer prestige.
A swift suspicion flashed into King's mind; and at the same instant—before he could act on it—came the perfectly planned attack.
From somewhere out of sight somebody shouted an order. A black arm from behind flung itself about King's throat. Instantly a dozen paws clawed at him. Something hit him heavily on the head, and he knew no more…
WHEN King came to his senses he was in the dark, in pitch blackness. His head hummed still, but was clear; his hard trained constitution was such that he had never known a headache.
He was in a native hut—he could smell that; he was alone and—miracle—unbound. Listening carefully he was sure that no other person breathed within the hut. It was night outside, too; he could dimly distinguish the low oval of the door opening.
This was quite too good to be entirely true; there was some trick about the thing. King was never one to waste time in speculation when action was possible. He got cautiously to his feet—and then he knew.
A drag at his ankle and a clank told him in an instant that a chain held him. He sat down again and felt carefully with his fingers. Not with any hope. The man who had planned this thing was too smart to leave any such stupid loophole.
It was a white man, of course. That had been King's swift suspicion at the moment when he had been knocked unconscious. He cursed himself bitterly for a fool for having walked into a trap. Then he shrugged and composed himself to think the matter out during the hours before daylight. He felt for his pipe. His fingers found the carved bowl. But matches—means of making fire—had been carefully taken from him.
As he ruminated he began to recover his spirits. What had hurt him most was not that he was in a trap—traps could be gotten out of if one had ingenuity and nerve, and the faculty of quick action upon lightning thought. It was a blow to personal morale and confidence to know that he had walked like any tenderfoot into a trap—for nothing can cure foolishness. But reflection brought with it a certain justification.
How should anybody have suspected an unrest engineered by a white man, when the missionary who had but just come from the scene knew nothing of a white man's presence? The missionary, of course, was new to the interior and, being new, was still trusting and knew nothing about the innate secrecy of the black man in all his dealings with the white. But, even at that, this must be a particularly shrewd white man to have hidden his presence—decidedly a clever white man and one who knew his African. King's eyes narrowed. Who might this white man, who knew his native so well, be? And why had he taken this so determined offensive?
As to why, guessing was not difficult. Wherever there was gold, there were presently to be found white men of every desperate breed who would do anything and would dare almost anything to get that gold, and to prevent anybody else from getting it.
As to who, King could only draw a parallel. That mysterious person of the night ambush in the donga; that man was unscrupulous enough, knew his Africa well enough, and was bold enough also to have engineered this feat. But, who?
With the thought that he must presently meet this man, a certain grim elation overcame any anxiety that King might have felt as to his own fate. Since he was still alive, there was clearly some reason for it. This man wanted something; he would come to get it. And when he came, well, who could tell what might happen—if one had ingenuity and nerve and the faculty of swift action upon lightning thought?
The man came with the early beginnings of morning. Voices jabbered outside, the low oval of the door opening was darkened for a moment, and then King could distinguish the bulk of a large man within the dimness of the hut. He took the initiative.
"My name's King," he drawled in the voice which he used to conceal his readiness for steel spring action. "Squat, won't you, and let's get down to business."
"Business—that's just what I came for." The man spoke a perfect English with only a faint trace of a queer accent that stressed consonants and stretched vowels. He remained standing near the door—too far for King to reach. "It is business that I want to talk with Mr. King, whom—er—I have great pleasure in meeting for the first time."
"First?" asked King lazily. "Didn't I flush you like a baboon from a tree in Lenkoko Donga a few nights ago?"
If this man could be insulted, bluffed, somehow, into losing his temper, many things might be possible.
The man only laughed.
"My dear chap, it hardly matters at this stage of the game, does it, whether you met somebody in a donga or no?"
"Just idle curiosity," murmured King "Matter of future identification. Finger prints on that excellent shotgun and all that sort of stuff."
It was a pure bluff, of course; but that idea of finger prints always stood out as such damning and ineradicable evidence. The man's laugh this time was less assured. King noted it like a hawk and, reassured by the man's uneasiness that he was on the right track, followed up his offensive. He was nonchalant, as though no stout iron chain held him to a thick stake in the floor of the hut.
"All right, let's get down to cases. And, so as not to waste time, let's get this clear. You haven't had me speared while I was dead to the world; and I know from the donga foozle that a little thing like that doesn't bother you. So there's one of two reasons: First, too many people know I'm here—the missionary and the Commissioner, and you've been silly enough to leave too many tracks like shotguns and so on; second, you want something more'n you want my scalp. So cut out all the bluff and intimidation stuff and let's talk turkey."
THE man still contrived to laugh; but there was a snarl in his voice. King's close analysis of the situation with its implication of safety to himself was robbing his captor of his expected advantage.
"You are very clever, Mr. King. You analyze the situation very nicely. So clever that I follow your suggestion and do not try to bluff you. I admit that it would be very—er—inconvenient to have any accident happen to you just now. Therefore, since I, too, am not altogether a fool—as I think you will admit in turn—I want to talk business with you."
"Well, I'm in this country to do business." King was carelessly interested. "So come on in and sit down, and spill your proposition."
The man chuckled fatly out of the dimness.
"Really, Mr. King, you do not give me credit for any cleverness at all. This is three times now that you have tried to lure me into coming within your reach; and I have heard too many things about Kingi Bwana to be doing that just yet."
King hid his impatience under a laugh.
"I have already given you a plenty of credit, Mister Whoever-you-are, and my Hottentot has endorsed you very thoroughly."
"Ah, the Hottentot." The big dim shadow was genial. "A good boy you have there. I have heard of him too. He gave us a lot of trouble."
"I hope—" King's voice was steel—"I hope, and for your sake, Mister Whozis, that your gang hasn't hurt him."
"Oh, by no means, Mr. King. He bit and scratched like a small gorilla; but we knew we could capture him. It was out of compliment to you that we hit you on the head. No, your Hottentot is safe and well—and, as a matter of fact, since it is quite impossible for him to get away from here, you can have him to attend to your wants. You see, I am anxious to have nothing but the pleasantest relations with you."
King laughed out loud. The alert little Hottentot loose in the village, even though he could go no farther, was a decided ace in the hole. King considered his predicament practically solved. It remained only to keep this very wily person from becoming suspicious and changing his mind.
"Go ahead; shoot the works," he said.
"I am glad you are open to reason." The man drew a three cornered stool from the dimness of the hut and sat down, still out of reach. "I am quite sure that you already understand that we are both after the same thing. We both know what conditions the damned government sticks on to trading gold…
"Well, I'm not a fool. I want to do this trade right, so I laid low, of course, and got that fool of a Bible thumper out of the way—and a dashed persistent blighter he was, too. He gave me no end of trouble—just wouldn't get out until I exerted my strongest influence with the chief and had him quietly dispossessed. I was smart enough to manage that."
King was non-committal, yet cheerfully offensive.
"You must have quite a drag with the big smoke. Guess you've maybe come down to sitting in and sharing his mealie beer with him; that'll put you in solid with any of 'em. Well, that's your hard luck, not mine. Go ahead, mister, and shoot what crookedness you're aiming to pull."
The man was still able to force a laugh. From his very patience King deduced that his own neutrality was a much to be desired factor. But the man wanted more than neutrality.
"There is no crookedness, Mr. King. Only business. Now let me talk to you as one trader to another. There is more gold here than you think; enough to make a tidy little haul for both of us—if the business is conducted right."
King grunted. The man warmed to his subject. He was eloquent in his exposition of the age-old quarrel between the freelance man who worked for his immediate profit and the government man who worked for a vague, ultimate national profit.
"The right way, Mr. King, to conduct this business, is not the government way. I'll bet you that I can guess to a penny what rate the Commissioner allowed you to offer for the gold. I'll bet you he considers it a just rate, making all allowances for distance and transportation and all that; and there'll be a reasonable profit for you in that rate.
"But dammit all, my dear fellow, we traders don't do our pioneer work and risk our lives in these blasted places for reasonable profits or for the good of the nigger man. We take our chances and we want our profit for ourselves and to get out of the country as soon as possible. We're not paid by the government to live in comfortable security and build up colonial jobs for our sons to step into."
"Them's my sentiments," said King. "But—let's hear some more."
"Well, my dear chap, since you understand the thing, that's all there is to it. I propose to trade for this gold in the good old way, the trader way. And, since you are here and, I admit, a serious problem, I offer you a partnership in the trade. We can give Chief Tembe a few loads of gimcrackery and get over the Sudan border before anybody finds out about it, and everybody will be happy."
"I don't trust you that far," said King bluntly. "Why am I a problem? If you can trade like you say—which I don't believe—why don't you grab the loot and safari out in a hurry?"
The man was frankness itself and he did not hesitate.
"My dear man, you know what gold weighs. How much can one man carry through the bush, plus his absolutely necessary equipment? Nothing worth talking about. And I tell you there's enough gold, all packed in neat crane quills, for twenty loads. Now I'll admit that I dare not leave Kingi Bwana alone with no better guards than niggers while I make twenty trips to the place I have chosen as a last base; and I am not taking a safari of twenty witnesses with me. To dispose of them would be—In any case, only a fool would trust himself with that much gold and those insolent Nairobi niggers so close to a getaway over the border."
KING picked up the broken thread of the man's previous sentence. With silky coolness he completed it.
"To dispose of them in the good old way would mean quite a lot of good cartridges; and some might get away at that. Have you considered poisoning their water?"
This, when the man was just beginning to think he was winning King over. His patience gave out to the extent of showing his teeth.
"You are very smart, Mr. King. And let me remind you that I'm not such a fool as to take any chances with you. Now, either you come in with me; you implicate yourself or—"
In his enthusiasm the man rose from his stool and strode a short walk up and down the hut. Unconsciously avoiding the arc of the wall, he came closer to the chained man than he knew.
King's swift action followed upon his lightning thought. Like a sliding base runner taking the utmost advantage of his length, he threw himself in a long reach for the man's ankle.
His own ankle jerked agonizingly against his leg shackle. His hands fumbled in the dimness round the big man's boot. The latter, surprisingly fast for his bulk, snatched his foot away, kicked the stool over toward King. King received a solid crack on the head for his pains, and the man was out of reach once more.
King felt rather than saw that a gun was pointing at him while the man stood tense, watching. Finding King secure, he laughed nastily.
"Dashed clever, eh? But I'm not altogether a fool myself, Mr. Kingi Bwana. Good Lord, what a stiff necked ass you are! But you'll be all the more useful if you'll see sense. Don't be a fool, man. I'm offering you a small fortune."
"No luck." King recovered his position, squatting against the hut wall and felt at his ankle gingerly.
His drawl was as unconcerned as though he had but lost a point in a game, and as judicious as though it were he who was dictating terms.
"I'm not being a fool. It's you who's a fool; and I'll tell you why I won't throw in with you. Now I'm no supporter of your grandma government; but in this business the government way is right. The good old way has been tried by your kind of trader for a hundred years, and what's the result? Just those fresh Nairobi niggers that you dare not take a chance with. They've learned that there's some white men that's just men who happen to be white.
"No siree! Your British colonial government has pulled plenty boners; but its policy in Africa is right. It's the square deal for the black man that makes the white man stand out as white. It's white man's prestige that let's you and me and the missionary come to this place and keep our scalps. I don't give a hoot whether the next generation of colonial administrators are British sons or Zulu sons. That should be one of your patriotic worries. But I'm sure that if you gyp this Tembe village, you won't be able ever to come back; neither will I; neither will the missionary—nor any other white man without a military guard."
"You talk like a damned missionary yourself," snarled the man. "Who the devil wants to come back to this filthy hole, once we've made our haul out of it?"
"Well," said King, "I'm living in Africa just at present; and there's a whole lot of white folks aiming to live here all their lives. And it's only white man's prestige that'll let that little handful do it—especially now, after that fool war. I'm no hairy philanthropist about the future of your colony; but I've got to be free to prowl around and pull my fortune out of this country yet."
"You fool!" stormed the man. "I'm offering you a small fortune out of this trade."
"How d'you know this crowd is so anxious to be gypped?" King asked disconcertingly. "Why should Chief Tembe take up your gyp proposition rather than deal with me on a square basis? I've just got to holler my offer and the whole village will hear it."
The man's laugh out of the dimness was a gurgle of sheer delight.
"You persist in underestimating me, my dear chap. Nobody other than the chief would have sense enough to understand. My very good friend Tembe knows that according to authorized procedure every man would weigh out his gold and get the authorized trade for himself. What would he get out of it? He's no gold digger; he's the fat bellied chief. Whereas, dealing with me, he gets the whole payment and gives his silly people whatever he thinks right. That's the good old way. Trader gets something worthwhile for his risk; chief gets some first class beads and knives and everybody is happy. Furthermore, my clever Kingi Bwana—" the unction in the voice was positive oil of self-satisfaction—"he will deal with me and not with you because I have taken the precaution to marry three of his daughters—native fashion, of course; it doesn't tie me up in any way but these poor fools don't know that and it puts me, as you Yankees say, in pretty solid."
"You filthy polecat!" King's blazing speech came after a long moment of astound and disgust. "You poor white offal! It's your stinking kind that smears the white man in the dirt. You're one of those leper lice who'll stick at nothing to get what you want. Taking a shot at a man out of the dark don't sicken me—heaps of fellers who rate not much lower'n hyenas have done it. But this marrying into a savage tribe is the lowest—"
"That's enough. Shut up, damn you!" The command was an ugly growl.
"It's not enough!" King shouted. "I'm telling you one per cent, of what you are. You're—Hell, I know what you are. I got it now. I got that funny accent of yours. I'd been figurin' you were the lowest Britisher loose. But I know now. You're not British at all. You're a yellow belly, that's what you are. A Eurasian, a half caste from India or somewhere down the Cape. You've got the tar brush. Sure you'd marry a nigger family; they're your kind. Trouble is you look whitish an' your stink smears all of us."
A choked scream of rage came from the man, and King could see the glint of high lights on the gun. He jeered at both.
"Put it away. Hide it, cur! You haven't the guts to shoot. You'd take a secret shot out of the dark; but you daren't even hook finger over trigger, now. Too many people know I'm here and you're here. Put it up, yellow belly!"
King was damnably right and the big man knew it. With an inarticulate bellow he ducked quickly through the low door opening and his footsteps told that he almost ran.
King sat back against the wall of the hut and panted. Broken interjections at intervals showed his indignation. Then, at last, he grinned.
"Phew! Forgot myself that time. Now he'll stay away and hatch some particularly slick meanness. I was a fathead. I should ha' made to fall in with his game. But, hell—there's a limit! Wonder what he'll do? He's damn right he daren't trek out an' leave me under nothing less dumb than native guards; he knows I'd be outa here like a rabbit. If he'll just lie still and give me a couple hours, I'll be outa here anyhow!"
He fished his pipe from his pocket, swore softly as he remembered that he had no matches; then, caressing the fine carving on the stem with loving fingers, he composed himself with a feline patience to wait for the appearance of his Hottentot. His captor, he knew, would now quite surely not send the servant to wait on his master; but King had great confidence in the wizened little jungle man's native cunning, a cunning that he had been at pains to develop through many years of close training. Of the man's loyalty he was sure.
YET it was noon before the Hottentot appeared. Like a djinn of fantastic fable diving for its dark hole he ducked suddenly through the doorway and was within the hut. And like a djinn he was miraculous. Instead of the ragged old shooting coat that was his customary raiment he appeared in a wide frocked coat and tight pants of cotton goods that were near white; and in his hands he carried a tray upon which was food, sumptuous fare of rice and curried chicken.
For just a fleeting instant King thought that his captor was mean spirited enough to have swallowed all insults and was still hoping to placate him. Then in the next second he knew better.
"Tell the tale swiftly," he said.
The Hottentot set down the tray and embraced his master's knees.
"Bwana, I could not come before. The order was that no man should speak with you till that white man gave leave; and two great fellows stand before this door with spears. That white man is very strong with the chief and his orders are the chief's orders. The chief is a strong chief over his people. That white man lives in the mon-perea's mission house with his women; and bwana's guns are also there. All this day have I tried to steal them; but I have been caught and beaten. At noon that white man eats food such as this; he had a servant of the Banyan people who prepare it."
"Hm," grunted King. "I was right. He's a Eurasian from British India. But what of the servant?" A suspicion was coming to King. "These are Banyan clothes. Tell the tale."
"Bwana, it is all told. That white man ate, and it is his custom after food to sleep like a bush pig. The servant was preparing to eat his own meal of the surplus, but I said, 'Shall this low fellow eat while my bwana m'kubwa hungers?' And I took it from him and brought it. I took also his clothes so that I might come saying, 'That white man sends food to the prisoner.' Those great fellows at the door are oafs of this village."
"And the servant?" asked King softly. "He gave you all these things?"
"Bwana, he called me ill names and came to hunt me from the cook hut with a broom, calling loudly for his master. So, bwana, I ripped him open with his own cook knife and took the things."
King was silent awhile.
"That was ill done, little devil ape."
"Nay, bwana, it was well done. The body I stuffed into the wood box and covered with fire wood; and I spread ashes over the place where his bowels fell. No man going to look for him will know."
"It was ill done," repeated King. "The man was but a servant. Yet again it was well done, for now the way is clear. There will be six sticks of tobacco—not for the doing but for the quick thinking."
"N'koosa, bwana!" The Hottentot stooped again to clasp his master's knees. "Yes, bwana, the way is clear. By nightfall I shall have dug this stake out with this good cook knife and bwana will then walk forth to slay mightily with the club."
"You've a fine imagination," was King's muttered answer. "But there is an easier way and a surer. The chief is a strong chief over his people; but no man is so strong that there is not a stronger. Listen carefully, now, thou wise ape. What was it that the mon-perea's impudent boy said about the witch doctor of this village?"
"Ow, the witch doctor. Bwana asked the question and the boy said that the wizard knew the magic of the muavi poison ordeal."
"Good. Take now this, my pipe, and go to this witch doctor. Show him the carving of the stem and tell him that it was carved by Batete the Old One, the witch doctor of the Elgon Mountain. Let him take the carving in his hand and let him read the magic of it. It will be sufficient."
"Ow, Batete the Old One!" The Hottentot's eyes rolled white. "Bwana is indeed the friend of that one. Bwana has many magics. Bwana himself is tagati m'kubwa. His strength is as ingaga the gorilla. His wisdom is—"
"Cut out the chatter and beat it," said King gruffly.
"I go with speed."
King composed himself to wait once more—to plan just what he would do when he should be free. That big Eurasian was no fool; he would not be easily caught napping. He had all the guns, too. Planning and careful re-planning were certainly in order.
He had plenty of time to plan. The afternoon dragged on. Footsteps came and went past the prison hut. The guards grunted at each other in monosyllables. They were changed. These also grunted. The swift dusk of African evening came. The patter and sniff of prowling dogs circled the hut, broke into shrill yelpings as they caught the alien scent.
It was not till the door opening had faded to a low, dim oval that soft footsteps stopped at the hut. Mumbled words came. Explosive grunts of surprise from the guards. Footsteps went softly away. A figure shrouded in a blanket ducked through the opening. A monkey form hopped excitedly behind it. The shrouded figure silently felt for King's hand; pressed his priceless pipe into it; with it a cold, rough, three cornered rod; silently still it ducked under the door opening again and was gone. The monkey form chattered in incoherent excitement.
"Bwana, that was a great magic of the carving. I showed it and he spoke a word here and a word there and men obeyed. All is prepared. The guards have gone. Only it took much time to steal this iron from the house of the mon-perea, where that white man now calls in a rage for his servant to make speed with the night meal."
King's blood was racing through his veins. Action at last! His thin, tuneless whistle broke through his teeth. The links of that chain were strong enough to withstand any bare handed wrenching and twisting; but to a file they presented only ten minutes work—and it was a new file. King let alone the shackle round his ankle; he concentrated on the first link. The shackle could wait till later. In less than ten minutes he stood up.
"Come," he said in a short, hard voice.
THE big man sat in a sagging camp chair in the living room of the mission house and ground his heels into the mat that covered the split bamboo floor raised on stilts four feet above the ground. The only other room was the bedroom, separated from the living room by a split bamboo partition daubed with mud. In the low thatched veranda outside a kerosene lantern hung. In the cluster of servant's huts fifty yards away the white man's native boys cowered from his rage and muttered obscene insults about him to one another.
Suddenly the white man stopped his cursing to listen. Something shuffled gently outside the living room window hole which had never known glass. Something pulled gently at the square of print cloth that made a curtain. The white man put his big hands on the leather strap arms of his chair and pushed himself softly to his feet. The bamboo floor creaked horribly. There was a scuffle at the window, a wild clutch that tore the print cloth from its bamboo rod, and then running footsteps through the dark. With a bellow of rage the white man hurled himself at the window, vaulted through and dashed after the running steps.
At the corner of the house a fist like a hoof hit him full in the throat and sprawled him, choking and gagging, on the ground.
"Fool," said King's very quiet voice. "You caught me once with that rope trick in the donga. This one of getting somebody else to do the running away evens us up."
The fist was in the big man's shirt collar, hoisting him to his feet.
"That much for the rope," said King. "Now I owe you something for knocking me on the head."
The fist let go of the shirt collar and smashed against the big man's ear, sending him lurching against the house wall.
"And for chaining me by the leg," continued King with methodical enumeration of wrongs. "And listen, you big hog, don't start getting any idea that this is a fight. If you do I'll let go and split you wide open with my two hands. It isn't a fight. It's just a plain beating up….
"Kaffa, little monkey man, bring that lantern so that I may see the places where I haven't hit him yet—and tell his boys to come and watch how we handle this kind of white man."
The big man, eyes boggling with surprise, tortured with pain, made a desperate attempt to fight back, to use his weight in bull-like rushes.
"What did I tell you?" said King—smash! "I'm not fighting with you." Bang! "There's some things I don't fight with." Slam! "I'm plain beating you up because I don't like you." Smack! "And for disgracing the white man—that one's for your first marriage." Crash!
And methodically and very thoroughly King proceeded to beat the man while his native boys leaped and whooped their derision and his native women screeched in the background.
Till King could hoist the fellow to his feet no longer.
"There," he said, breathing hard. "I figure a whole lot of white men are even with you now… Hey, there, one of you boys throw water on his face. Kaffa, go get my guns from inside the house; and you yourself carry his guns."
The man sat up, moaning, feeling in anguish at his puffed and cut face, dripping a steady stream of blood from his smashed nose all over his front. An unlovely and most unimposing sight.
"Speed it up," King ordered tersely. "Get a move on before I kick you up. We're going on a visit, you and I. Hey, there, you boys, go and tell Chief Tembe his son-in-law is coming to see him."
The man, battered as he was and blear eyed, stared at the sheer effrontery of the thing. It was not possible that this hard grinning person, having once escaped, and with his further getaway open before him, should thrust himself through narrow gullies lined with hostile huts into the very heart of the enemy stronghold.
But King was quietly going ahead, pushing the man before him, his mouth wide and set, his eyes very cold and hard and narrow.
The Hottentot led the way with the lantern through the filth strewn alleys of the village. Shadowy forms lurked behind every hut. White eyeballs peered. Silence descended as the little procession came. Furtive jabbering broke out when it had passed.
THERE were perhaps some hundred and fifty men of fighting age in that village. Half an hour ago they would have rushed screaming to the kill on the order of that big fellow who had married into the family of their chief. Now nobody made a hostile move. Another kind of white man dominated the situation. Quietly he walked, slowly; no gun in his hand—pistol in holster and rifle slung over his shoulder. He looked coolly about him—not timorously to avert attack—easily, almost smilingly.
Many of the natives had seen that kind of bearing before; and those who had not seen had heard of this amazing thing that the white men alone could do. Exactly so was the manner of the white men whose prestige had taken Africa and who with only prestige to carry them held the African millions.
The big, battered man broke under the inexorable progress. He made a desperate appeal on what, to him, were the most powerful of all motivations.
"For God's sake, Mr. King, don't go through with this—this awful humiliation. I'll give you half my share of—I'll give—you can have it all! I warn you, you devil, if you go on you will bring the chief into derision before all his people, he being the father of—of those three women. You'll never get a chance at that gold; not a single quill will you ever see. Good God, man, can't you understand?"
"Shut up," said King. "There's some things more important than quills with yellow dust in them—which you'll never understand. Keep moving."
The little procession came to the center of the village. Chief Tembe had received ample warning. He sat on the ceremonial stool before his hut, a group of lesser chiefs behind him, spear men at their flanks holding torches. He tried to look dignified, but succeeded only in looking fat and surly.
King brought his battered and bedraggled prisoner close into the light.
"Tell your father-in-law," he ordered, "first, the missionary is coming back."
Sullenly the big man obeyed.
"Tell him," continued King mercilessly, "that you are not a full white man." The prisoner stiffened. King laid a hand on the back of his shirt collar. "Tell him, or I'll beat you into pulp right before the whole gang." The man wilted, shuddered, and at last in broken mumbles condemned himself before the assembly.
"You have heard," said King to the chief. "A white man does not do the things that he has done. It is enough."
Slowly the little procession turned and went back through the alleys of filth between the serried huts, leaving, without ever once looking back, the raging chief of a hundred and fifty fighting men.
Not a warrior lifted spear. Not a voice shouted insult out of the dark.
"What are you going to do?" asked the big man very meekly.
"Well—" King squared his shoulders and laughed—"I'm going to take you in to Assistant Commissioner Fawcett."
The man moaned a plea for mercy.
"Shut up," said King. "I'm not going to tell him it was you who took a shot at me. I figure I'm plenty square with you for that. I'm just going to turn you in for marrying native, and he'll probably ship you back to your own country where the white man lost his standing long ago. I may never see any of that gold, but I'll allow that those coons have had a lesson so some other white man'll get a clean break for it—and that's the important thing that you'll never understand!"
With his promise of not bringing any charge more serious than miscegenation King caught a sudden wild gleam of hope in his prisoner's eyes. He laughed softly.
"And," he added unhurriedly, "don't get to having any pipe dream, my very clever friend, about pulling off any getaway some night. I'm carrying a strong leg shackle with me right now and I'm just betting you've got the key. You're going to sleep for the next few nights on trek chained by the leg to a stake in the ground. And thanks much for the lesson. It's one of the neatest and safest tricks I've ever learned."
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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