Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.
KING stood teetering slowly on his widespread legs, his thumbs hooked in his broad pythonskin belt. He frowned ruminatively down at the man who sat expectantly at the table with a heavy gold banded fountain pen poised over an open checkbook.
The difference between the two men equalled all the disparity between the tropics and the north pole. One was tall, angular, lean with the long drawn toughness of a strenuous life, burned to mahogany brown and dressed in the shirt, breeches and high boots of the African outdoors. The other was slight, anything but strong, gray at the temples, dressed even in Kisumu—less than one degree from the equator—in the meticulous City of London business garb of one to whom correct clothing was synonymous with ordinary decency.
The Londoner waited to sign away money. But King hesitated, looking, narrow eyed, through checkbook, table and floor into the deep hidden possibilities of something he did not know. The abstract frown focused upon a concrete annoyance and deepened to a scowl. As he teetered thoughtfully on his long legs one of his new looking boots creaked ever so faintly. King threw his weight upon it and worked his ankle.
"Durned thing screeches like a Hottentot cartwheel. Anything in the whole wide veld could hear it a mile. And those noises are the devil to locate and oil out."
The squeak of the shoe was of more immediate importance than the checkbook. King's attention came back to the suggestive weave of the fountain pen top. His frown was one of discontent.
"I don't like your proposition, Mr. Smythe. I hate to jump off into what I don't know."
Smythe tried out his pen point on the edge of a check stub, shrugged slightly and smiled as one who knew his ground, saying—
"I have been told different about Kingi Bwana—quite a lot different."
A faint gleam came into King's eyes, and the frown lightened almost to a grin.
Smythe pushed his argument with calculated persuasion:
"I am a business man, Mr. King. My proposition is quite definite. I want you to go to a certain place and fetch me a report of conditions in that place. All I insist upon is secrecy. If your report proves what I hope it will prove, there will be money enough involved for business rivals to go to any lengths in order to get that information. Secrecy is therefore imperative."
The grin that had been struggling against King's frown split his face like a crack in hard wood. He looked down at the other man in slow amusement.
"In Africa, Mr. Hamilton Smythe, there are no secrets."
"This one is." Mr. Hamilton Smythe snapped out his conviction, as if annoyed at the other's obvious innuendo against his lack of business acumen. He continued persuasively, "And I don't mind telling you that if you make good on this thing, your future with my firm is assured." The gold banded fountain pen executed preliminary curlicues over the checkbook."Name your own figure, Mr. King."
King grunted. He had made his decision.
"I'm not looking for a future with anybody's firm, I don't care how assured it is—but I'm broke enough to deal with you. My terms are flat expenses and a fat bonus if I deliver the goods. Nothing if I fail. But I make one condition. I have a little obligation of my own to settle—a long standing promise to a friend. If your affair doesn't interfere with that, I'm your man."
This was a most cavalier manner of accepting a job in which so much money was involved that other people would go to any lengths to find out about it. But the financier was the more anxious of the two. He bit back his annoyance and shrugged agreement.
"All right. Your private affairs can not interfere with my project. I make a condition too—that you leave at once with my sealed instructions; and I take your promise that you will not open them until you are a week out on the Karamojo trail. Now—how soon, and how much?"
King made three long steps to the door.
"If I hustle I can get out of here by tomorrow night. And you don't want all Kisumu to know that I cashed a check of yours. I'll send you a boy, a Hottentot who looks like a dried monkey. His name is Kaffa. Give him a sealed bag containing cash. About five hundred sterling will be enough."
The door closed behind him and only the faint creak of that new boot advertised his every second stride down the passage.
Another door opened silently and a man entered. He and Smythe looked at each other questioningly. The newcomer was pleased.
"Well, you landed him."
The financier voiced exasperation.
"So it seems. But I'll tell you, Jim, if you hadn't been so insistent about recommending him as being about the only man in East Africa who could do it and who wouldn't doublecross us, I would have sent him packing. I never heard such independence; and what kind of arrangement is that! Nothing on paper, no contract; and I'm to give five hundred gold cash to some African boy. All on a loose say-so as he slid out of the door."
The other nodded.
"A square dealer is worth all of that, my business friend."
The financier snorted.
"Well, I suppose we've got to trust him. And in any case he couldn't develop it without finances, and he might as well come to us as to anybody. There's a certain safeguard in that."
The other man nodded again.
"All you've got to worry about now is whether anybody else has got on to your secret."
"Never." The financier was positive."Not a chance of that, I'm certain. This thing is a closed secret; the one man who found the key to it is dead."
The other laughed crookedly.
"There's a saying in Africa—" he began; but the financier cut him short, angrily.
"Yes, yes, I know it already. There are no secrets in Africa. But this one will prove the rule. I tell you nobody has ever been up into that country. It's unknown. The only surveys are aero maps."
The tall man nodded thoughtfully.
"I rather wish you had told him there was a chance of native trouble. Those people up there seem to be quite untrained to any knowledge of machine gun retribution for white man killing."
The financier was positive again.
"Not for a minute. He would have wanted to take a fighting party along; and that would immediately double or treble the chance of one of them selling out on us. If he is the man you say, he'll fight through. And why would I give him so much money if it isn't to pay for taking his chances? If he doesn't get through the secret will still be there, and we can try again with another party, being only five hundred pounds to the bad."
"He'll get through," the tall man said with assurance, "and you'll get your report, or your money back. He's a quixotic fool. He didn't even stipulate the size of his bonus, did he?"
And at that supreme lack of business acumen both men laughed.
THE following day for King had every right to be a considerably busy twelve hours. Just now his legs and his left arm formed a long tripod over the quite inadequate table in his stuffy hotel room, and he frowned over a map while he drew wandering, tentative lines upon its surface in a general northward direction.
The room was stuffy because Kisumu at that season on the equator was not the coolest place in Africa, and the Jew had insisted upon closing the window that opened on to the wide, screened veranda. King grumbled about the heat. But the Jew, who had been watching the progress of the wavering lines with the intentness of a discontented bird, shrugged his shoulders up to his ears while his heavy eyebrows disappeared into his tangle of hair.
"My good simple Kingi, I tell you again you are a child in matters of business. That Kingi Bwana should want to trek into the far middle of nowhere is nothing; all men know that he is loose footed and harebrained. But if a whisper should go abroad that Kingi Bwana and Yakoub ben Abrahm, the trader, were preparing a safari together—oho, that would be altogether another kind of a talk. Fifty people would prick up their ears; and ten of the worst of them would immediately get ready to trail behind."
"Well, it will be plenty trail," grunted King."A good six weeks of hard going."
The Jew's ears and brows disappeared again.
"Six weeks, yes, if this new silly thing that you have tangled yourself up with doesn't take us another six out of our way."
King was immediately apologetic.
"Gosh, Yakoub, old friend, I know you've been patient. I'm ashamed to take on the job. I've been promising you this trip for a couple of years now. But be reasonable. I told him I'd take up his proposition only if it didn't interfere with my long standing promise to you. And he wants me to go by Karamojo; that's pretty near halfway in our direction. And this thing pays half our safari expenses; and when we're both so flat broke that's more than a little reason, it seems to me."
It was the last item that reconciled Yakoub, though he threw out his hands in querulous complaint.
"Reasons, reasons, you have always reasons for all the profitless things that you do. Even if it is no better than that your friend, the commissioner, asks you to go and smooth over some silly native trouble for which the government pays you no money."
King was immediately serious.
"That's a long and a deep matter, friend Yakoub. It goes all the way into the white man's future in Africa; into the coming time when he can no longer hold the black millions by machine guns but only by the careful and consistent policy of the square deal. The white man's burden, my grouchy cynic. That's not a sentiment; it's a religion."
"Your religion, maybe; not mine." The Jew's brows disappeared and his nose came down over his lips in a smile of unalloyed satire."My religion, my dear Kingi, is business. And now that we are at last partners in a business, you and I, I tell you you will not need to worry about the future of the white man in Africa. If those little ingots are any indication and if your witch doctor can show you how to find this so mysterious place, there will be money enough for you to go home and buy that ranch in your wild and woolly Yankeeland. Money, I tell you—"
A crisp knocking low at the base of the door interrupted. King knew it to be the battered silver toe ring of his Hottentot, and he called—
The man came in, huddled even in that tropic temperature in a blanket of brilliant red and orange stripes. Swathed in all that cloth, he looked smaller than he really was, shrunken, a veritable ape with all the wisdom of the ages peering out of the bright black eyes in his wizened face.
"The talk was of much money," he said softly."It could be heard without the door."
He made a simple statement, implying nothing, suggesting nothing. But King looked accusingly at the Jew, and the Jew amazedly at the little Hottentot. He combed sensitive fingers through his beard and nodded in thoughtful appreciation.
"Yes, I was talking too loud. But how did that little devil know that we didn't want to be heard?"
"Much money is here," said the Hottentot. He produced a strong canvas bag, like those used by banks, from under his blanket and laid it on the table."Five hundred pieces of Inglesi gold."
King's only movement was that of his eyes, which flashed to the bag and its seal.
"And how, wickedest apeling, did you satisfy your curiosity so surely?" he asked quietly.
Under his master's accurate diagnosis of his motive, the Hottentot squirmed; but he twisted the myriad wrinkles of his face into an expression of sententious virtue.
"Bwana told me only to fetch a bag that would contain money. That other bwana who is rich made so much talk about giving the bag into my keeping that I knew it must be much money. How can a man take proper precaution about carrying much money if he does not know how much? So I took the bag to Abdul Huq, the Banyan money lender, who knows all things about all the moneys; and he, by the sound and feel, said it was gold, and by weighing the bag he knew the pieces would be five hundred."
The Jew nodded in Mephistophelian delight.
"A good lad, a smart lad. And I suppose there is no man in Africa but Kingi Bwana who has a servant who would not run away with all that money and become chief of his tribe. How is that miracle done, my Kingi? I, who handle money—alas, only sometimes—must know that recipe."
"The square deal," said King shortly; then to the Hottentot with severity, "And how, O most foolish apeling, did you think that the Banyan would not contrive to rob you of so much money?"
"Nay, bwana." The Hottentot was confident."Barounggo stood beside me like the father of death anxious to strike, and the Banyan trembled so that he with difficulty weighed the bag."
A grim little smile played about King's mouth. He could visualize that money lender under the shadow of his great Masai spearman.
"It was well done, O wise apeling. There will be tobacco for both. Tell Barounggo that we go out this night—secretly. Let all be ready."
"Nidio, bwana. All will be ready."
King turned again to the Jew, his eyes twinkling.
"The recipe works, my friend, eh? Even in Africa—sometimes. Come along to Koomer Ali's to lay in some trade goods; I guess your just being along won't stir up ten bad amen to follow us."
KING put on a heavy pith helmet and led the way to an oven-hot section of the town where the streets were narrow and dusty and the house fronts were whitewashed with lime. An odd mixture of half the races of the East moved listlessly in this African setting. Natives of India predominated; noisy, chattering Zanzibar Arabs, negroid of feature and truculent; Chinese, of course, and halfbreed brats who contrived somehow to survive, hatless, in the vertical sun rays.
The trade store of Koomer Ali the Banyan was a rambling half block of ground floor filled with a litter of all the gimcrackery that might delight any savage heart. For the discriminating buyer there were stocks of better goods. Like an old fashioned country store, it was a meeting place for half the upcountry outfitters of East Africa. Among the loungers a group of three were looking over trade goods with a carelessness so studious that King whispered to his companion:
"They quit talking the minute we passed under the window. It seems that Yakoub the trader can't go shopping without at least three of the worst men in British East sitting up and taking notice."
One of the men was an old-time Africander who had hunted and traded his way from the Cape to Cairo, doing anything and everything. A big, capable looking fellow he was; his name, Van Vliet, suggested Boer extraction. There was some story about his having skipped from the Rand on account of a shortage in the sluice box returns of one of the gold mines down there. But that story was whispered only when Van Vliet was somewhere else.
He had come up into East Africa and had disappeared after a time under suspicion of selling liquor to the natives. The local police had utterly failed to get any direct evidence, and the district commissioner had employed King to make the suspicion a certainty. It was then that the man had skipped. Now he was back again, cool and confident.
One of his companions was a refugee from Portuguese East Africa. King knew him too. Dago Lopez he was called, and he had a reputation for an ungovernable temper and a lightning skill at throwing a thin, heavy bladed knife—which was why he was not just now in Portuguese East. A fit companion for any desperate venture, if he could be controlled. And Van Vliet was quite competent to do that. The other man was a stranger—a thick, wide shouldered man with a battered face and the shapeless ears of a not very skilful pugilist.
The other loungers in the store conversed in low tones, pretending to be at ease. Not that Van Vliet was a brawler, a senseless trouble seeker; he was much too calm and collected for that. The condition was no more than a certain unease in the air, the sort of tension one might expect around some celebrated gang leader when any startling thing might happen at any moment.
But Van Vliet was in a good humor. His bold eyes roved over the room without any hostility; the corners of his mouth, just visible above a curly brown beard, worn untrimmed in Boer fashion, were turned up in a smile of mild contempt at the discomfort he knew he inspired.
King, immersed in a meticulous testing of trade cloths, paid no attention to the three who were the center of attention. To him it was more important to select a good grade of honest materials rather than the showy, shoddy kind for native trade.
Van Vliet laughed sardonically at a meticulousness so different from his own methods and raided his voice.
"Too much trouble, Yank. Altogether too much trouble. Take it from my experience; instead of so much fuss over quality like an old wife, give 'em lots of cheap color and a flask of square-face to close the deal."
The remark in itself was not particularly offensive; but it drew more than the intended rise from King.
"You know damn well I don't sell liquor to natives," he snapped. The emphasis was all on the I and the inference might be taken as anybody wished.
Van Vliet only laughed and shrugged noncommittally. His good humor, as he conceived it, held good. But his thickset companion took up the innuendo with a heat even more surprising than King's.
"Oho, what is this? A blinkin' missionary, what? A long nose? Mebbe yer'd like ter preach us a bit about niggers an' whisky?"
King gave him no more than a glance. His eyes were directed coldly and narrowly at Van Vliet while he ostensibly answered the other man's challenge:
"I'll preach you this much, my bucko. It's a pretty poor sort of white man who'll swindle a naked African over a piece of cloth; and it's a worse one who'll sell him liquor. And both of those mean a whole lot more than you'll ever understand."
Van Vliet only laughed in easy amusement. But the other man took the whole insult upon himself. He ripped out a short epithet of just two staccato syllables, snarled a broken toothed grin of confident pugnacity and commenced to sidle in, soft footed. Thin flanked and heavy shouldered, his wary poise and the quick, shifting little eyes in his battered face were evidence that he was no amateur at argument.
King moved only his feet; spread them a little farther apart and shuffled them gently to feel the floor under his boot soles. That was all.
The whole altercation was so sudden, arising out of nothing, that the storekeeper and the other men stood appalled.
Van Vliet's voice rose in unhurried warning—
"Look out, Johan, you can't take chances with Yankee King."
The man hesitated. The name conveyed an impression which he misunderstood.
"Oh. Oh, indeed. A Yankee gunfighter, yes?"
King stood very still. Only the elbow that had been leaning on the counter lifted clear; the other hand still held the cloth he had been examining.
The man clung to his delusion. It seemed to him that King was in a most unfavorable position to reach for a weapon. His own advantage was clear.
"Well, crummy—" he grinned wolfishly—"if he fights a gun, I'll oblige 'im."
His hand tugged at his hip pocket. The slowest gun-fighter in the world could have drawn and fired while the man still fumbled. But King never carried a weapon within the purlieus of any law-abiding British colonial town. His eyes gaged the distance between them, his legs gathered under him for a dive at the man's feet. And then in the same moment Van Vliet became an astonishing tornado of action.
"You blasted fool!"
His voice roared its fury while he was still in the midst of his leap. His hand closed over his henchman's fumbling fist. With one great wrench he tore fist and pocket and gun out all together. The same movement carried that arm over his shoulder; he slipped his hip under the man's body and whirled him cartwheeling off his feet to crash on the floor. The impetus of the flying body slid it to the very threshold of the door.
The whole extraordinary episode was over as suddenly as it had begun. Van Vliet stood smiling sardonically at the awestruck onlookers. He slipped the confiscated gun into his pocket and his smile broadened to a grin of pure bravado. He nodded curtly to King.
"I'll be seein' you, Yank," he said and swung out to the door."Come along, Lopez. Lug that fool out."
KING looked after the trio with amazement and a slow, dawning relief; but his expression was mostly of the former.
"Now what in thunder did all that mean?" he asked aloud. Then his astonishment culminated in a shout. For Yakoub, the peaceful trader, was quickly wrapping up a shiny little black automatic in a silk handkerchief and stowing it in an inside breast pocket.
"Shooting," said the Jew, "in these so lawful British towns is more dangerous than not shooting. Still, the need looked to be desperate."
King dropped a hand momentarily on his shoulder. Then he cackled a short laugh.
"For a would-be gunman, my good Yakoub, your holster arrangements are as bad as friend Johan's. I'll have to show you sometime." His mind went to the mystery of Van Vliet."Why, do you think, didn't he want trouble? I mean, why didn't he want trouble just then?" King cogitated the matter, narrow eyed."He's tried it himself before now. I wonder. He's nobody's fool, is Van Vliet. Used to work for the DeWet outfit down in the Rand. Three hard hombres, those. Wonder if they're peddling liquor back country again?" Eyes and mouth hardened."That'll mean hell breaking loose somewhere. By golly, I ought to crab that beastly game."
But Yakoub threw his arms round King.
"No, you don't. Not this time. You don't push your nose into other people's trouble. You belong to me, my imbecile Kingi. I have your promise. We have a business together. Money is our object, not white man's burdens."
King stood irresolute. Then he grinned down at Yakoub.
"Damn my old promise. But it's been on my chest too long. And—" he laughed a hard little laugh—"me too, I'll do anything for money these lean days. I'll make my promise good to you as straight and as fast as the trails between the water holes will let me—if there are any trails up there, or any water holes. Nobody I've ever met could tell me. You're starting on considerable safari tonight, friend Yakoub. Come along; there's plenty to do before we melt out of this burg."
SUCH a plenty there was to do that it was going to be a miracle of swift organization if they could get away by nightfall; almost as great a miracle as "melting out" of a small frontier town where a dozen astute people were furtively watching for a safari start.
Kaffa the Hottentot came and stood on one leg while he scratched the inside of his knee with the toes of the other foot. King knew by that hesitant attitude that something more than direct statement was on his mind.
"Bwana, there is a boy," began the Hottentot, looking all round the room with the faraway disinterest of a monkey trained to do an act, "a Basuto boy from Pemba's kraal near the Witwaters Rand. He is a big boy and strong and his name is Umfoli."
King knew that this was circumlocution. There was something behind all that preamble; and he knew that it would come out sometime. He only grunted disinterestedly.
"He is a very clever boy, bwana. He understands the Inglesi tongue; and his master, who knows no other tongue, pays him very much money therefore. Twice as much as my pay. If I knew the Inglesi I would be worth—"
King fixed the crafty little imp with a steady stare; and the imp quickly glossed over that line of suggestion with something of real interest.
"That boy is the servant of the evil white man who would have fought with a pistol in the shop of Koomer Ali the Banyan."
King grunted again.
"Hmh, it didn't take that one long to get abroad."
Yakoub nodded sagely.
"No secrets in Africa, my Kingi. Except—" he smiled with smug satisfaction—"the secret of our little business together."
"That boy—" the Hottentot looked directly at King for the first time—"that Umfoli heard his master talking with the other more evil white man. The talk was that the more evil one would come tomorrow to bwana to make an indaba about sharing in the business that bwana has with Yakoub Bwana."
"Adonai!" Yakoub jerked galvanically straight in his chair, his eyes staring, clawing at his beard.
A straight vertical cleft in King's forehead formed a T-square with his brows. His eyes looked through the Hottentot and beyond. He muttered questions half to himself, half for Yakoub to hear.
"Just how much does he know, I wonder? He's got his nerve, all right. I'll bet he's working a bluff on his guess that we're together. Hell, he can't know anything. We're going on the barest hint ourselves."
"Yes, bwana," said the Hottentot innocently, "he can not know anything. Even I do not know bwana's business."
Both King and Yakoub were moved out of their concern at this disclosure to shout with laughter at the cunning little Hottentot's betrayal in one breath of his perfect understanding of English as well as of his inordinate curiosity. Kaffa writhed in abashment and quickly covered up again.
"That boy, bwana, that Umfoli wanted to leave his master who is evil and desired to take service with bwana. And a boy who understands the Inglesi, as has been shown, is very useful."
"Has he any more information?" King wanted to know.
"Nay, bwana." The Hottentot screwed his face into a maze of disdainful wrinkles and clucked a noise of derision."He is but a Basuto. What knowledge he had is now mine. Only, since he knows the Inglesi—"
"Then chase him," snapped King.
"Yes, bwana." The Hottentot screwed his face into another pattern of wrinkles and chittered like a monkey that is being tickled."It was known to me that bwana would so order about a Basuto; so I had Barounggo beat him and hunt him from the door this hour gone. But, as has been shown, bwana, a servant who understands the Inglesi is most useful and—"
So then King knew what had been the basic motive underlying all this long story. Very gravely he reached for a scrap of paper and fished a pencil stub from his pocket.
"Tell Barounggo," he said as he scribbled, "to make ready for immediate departure with his men. And to you I will give a letter of recommendation, a very good letter, to take to that white man who has need of servants who understand the Inglesi."
The Hottentot's eyes became saucerlike as those of a nocturnal lemur, and he wailed the lost-soul noise of one and fled.
King turned back to Yakoub.
"That man had his nerve all right." He meant Van Vliet."We've surely got to melt out tonight."
So that night Kingi Bwana and Yakoub ben Abrahm the trader, the furtively watched pair, performed the miracle of melting out of Kisumu town on safari.
King's little ruse had the virtue of simplicity; and, since nobody had ever done it before, of novelty. No one had ever done it before because no one had ever had African servants who could be trusted to carry out a quite responsible job without the supervision of a white man. King and Yakoub alone, with only shotguns under their arms, strolled out with the sunset in the direction of the big western donga where guinea fowl might be found scratching in the slanting sun rays, or perhaps parrot pigeons in the umbrella acacia tops.
Nobody could go out on safari with shotguns and nothing else. So nobody followed the two pot hunters. King and Yakoub therefore trudged quietly on.
The slanting rays dropped horizontal, shooting mile-long sword blades of fire along the grass. They hung so for shimmering minutes, as if resting on the parched herbage, then they tilted suddenly, pale searchlight beams against the already graying East, and as suddenly were gone. Yellow grass, brown ant-hills and dusty green acacias absorbed the gray sky, drank it up and blended with it. They were all at once black shadows. Stars punched glittering holes in the black blanket above. The astonishing equatorial night was upon the two men.
They trudged quietly on. There would be no lions so close to Kisumu. Jackals and gaunt, striped hyenas were the largest beasts likely to be met. A leopard, possibly; but a leopard would probably be prowling closer to the hut fringe of the town, hoping to lure a frenzied dog just a little bit farther out than its more cautious fellows and snatch it before the rest could join the attack. The open veld was before the lone white men.
Fifteen miles farther on a ghostly tangle of orange glowed in the sky, resolving itself into the under side of acacia branches illumined by a fire as yet hidden in the tall grass.
King whistled the phwee-ee piu-piu-piu of the little banded plover. Immediately dark forms rose up in the glow. A tall shape strode toward them. Red light flickered on the outlines of a great naked figure and glinted from the blade of an immense spear.
"Jambo, bwana," boomed the figure."All is well?"
"Ha, Barounggo. It is well. And here? Everything all right? All the men?"
"Assuredly, bwana. How else would it be?"
The little Hottentot came running, querulous, complaining.
"Awo, bwana, it is late. We thought that a lion—that is to say, a leopard perhaps, or some ill spirit hunting by night had— All is ready, bwana. The tents are set and the coffee is waiting."
AFTER the toilsome night a lazy morning would have been excusable; and under his usual conditions of lone travel King might have been tempted to linger. For he had long ago reduced safari needs to the irreducible minimum. But on this trip he was tied down to the speed of his slowest man. He was up at an uncomfortably early hour to inspect by daylight his goods and gear and the men who had started out on safari without his personal supervision.
First the packs. Every one was opened and its contents laid out in a pile beside its canvas wrapping. Nothing was missing, and the mathematical nicety of the weight distribution was a tribute to the organizer. King only nodded, without saying a word. But Kaffa the Hottentot, who had been waiting for that nod like a dog watching for commendation of its trick, grinned all over his shrunken face.
Then the men. Barounggo marshaled them in line—ten of them. He himself stood, a great monument of ebony nakedness, not covered so much as ornamented with a short leopardskin loin-wrapping and with monkey hair garters at his knees and elbows and his single black ostrich plume nodding over his head. His long Masai spear stuck upright on its butt spike in front of him.
He dwarfed the other ten, though they were no collection of thin limbed porters. Shenzies they might have been by heredity and occupation, bearers of burdens upon their heads. But they stood forth now as spearmen—askaris.
They constituted King's careful precaution in jumping off into country he did not know; and in themselves they constituted a minor miracle of manipulation with native habit and tradition. Shenzies existed in plenty for safari portage; and askaris for the purpose of guarding those Shenzies; but it had been Barounggo's labor for weeks to select and train a little troop who, having been graduated to the dignity of shield and spear, would still condescend to carry burdens. The ten were Barounggo's pride and joy of achievement and he growled abuse at them accordingly.
"Baboon, is it thus that you hold spear with toes in place of fingers? And thou, Bushman. Shield in your jungle was doubtless a toy of woven grass; is oxhide too heavy for you? Hey, fellow, fourth in the line, roll not your eyes like the tree galago of the night. This is the bwana sana who inspects. His one word to me is death."
The troop shuffled their feet and tried not to look self-conscious. The big Masai watched King out of the corner of his eye. King nodded. The Masai swelled his great chest.
"It is well, fellows. Today you do not die." To King, with nonchalance, but loud enough for all to hear:
"Cattle they are, bwana. Spearmen all they claim to be from their youth up; yet the ghosts of my fathers have wept that I have the handling of such. Feet have they and no hands. Yet this alone may be said for them: They will not run away."
And at that excoriating analysis of them the ten men swelled their dark chests.
At his tent flap Yakoub stood, unkempt from his exhausted sleep, his hair twisted in horn-like spirals, his beard a tangle; a veritable satyr of the woods in benevolent mood.
"It is a miracle, my Kingi. This recipe of the square deal works wonders. No other white man in Africa has such servants. I am converted to your application of the white man's burden. I shall make it a rule from now on."
King only grunted.
"A means to an end," he lied to cover any show of sentiment."I'm working this way for money. Get a move on. We've got to cover ground today. The faster we get to Karamojo, the sooner we can get through with the Ham Smythe job and away to our own little secret out of which you promise me so much money. And the sooner we get to see the old Wizard of Elgon the better we'll know whether he can give us any dope about that unknown country up there."
Ground, accordingly, was covered. The porters, under Barounggo's driving and the shrewd implication that they were not merely beasts of burden but fighting men of strength and spirit, made marches that were astonishing for safari travel.
Yet King frowned when, during the second day, topping each low rise of ground, he brought his prism glasses to bear upon a haze of dust that persisted behind.
"There's a safari behind us," he told Yakoub shortly."Forty or fifty men, I should judge."
He had taught Kaffa the—to a native—quite difficult feat of looking through binoculars. The Hottentot screwed his face into agonized contortions behind the eye pieces, looking above the dust and around it rather than at it, then lowered the glasses and scratched his head for a moment.
"Safari," was his verdict."Middle big safari, for the dust is not great. White man safari, for the vultures are not many." He looked up to study King's expression.
King frowned and grunted dissatisfaction.
Another day went by, the miles fell behind; but still that persistent cloud of dust hung over the horizon, the safari just below vision, even from the low, rounded hilltops of the rolling country into which they were coming.
KING swore angrily.
"There's only one white man I know who can drive a safari of that size to keep up with the speed we're making."
He stopped and considered awhile. His face set like rough cement work. He told Yakoub:
"You go ahead as fast as you know how and make for the wizard's boma. Kaffa knows the way. Sit until I come. I'm going back to make sure about those people. I'm taking Barounggo. Kaffa, I expect the men to make as much distance as if Barounggo were behind them."
The Hottentot instantly threw out his chest in ape-like imitation of the great Masai and screamed frightful abuse at the porters. They grinned cavernously at him.
"Buffaloes," he screamed at them, "Cattle of the fields, move! Run with speed! Or, look, I borrow the spear from the Masai. In the spear is a magic. With it any man can drive cattle as does that great one."
At which Barounggo looked with the enormous indifference of a mastiff, and the men guffawed. But the Hottentot knew his own methods of handling porters.
"Listen, goat men, beetle eaters. The friend of bwana is the Old One, the Wise One of Elgon. Let me not have to tell him that bwana's cattle dawdled on the way, or he will make a witch-binding upon you that will be remembered by the grass monkeys who will be your descendants."
And at that the porters covered their mouths with their hands and took up their packs with alacrity.
King swung back on the trail to meet that persistent cloud of dust. He had determined on one very definite thing—this trip with Yakoub. He had promised it for more than a year. It was a secret between himself and the Jew, this thing Yakoub had found out—a hint, rather, of a venture that might develop into vast possibilities. And nobody was going to intrude into the secret for which his friend had lived in anxious and patient expectation for all the months during which King had been called to half a dozen profitless deals.
The Masai strode grimly behind, muttering some rhythmic recitation deep in his throat with a reiterated chorus of sghee, sszee, which in the ideophone of his people represented the stabbing and swishing of flung spears.
"What foolish daydream do you chant, old blood-letter?" King wanted to know.
"I sing my ghost song, bwana. They are fifty and we are two. Yet it will be a good fight while it lasts. Though I think that with my ten whom I have been training we might have made some headway against those Shenzies."
"So talks Kifaru, the rhinoceros who charges blindly at each new scent. Do you think that I am a fool as well as you? There will be no fighting. We come only to look."
"If bwana so orders. Yet that but means that the fighting will be later. I will train my ten with the heavy stabbing spear."
King only grunted and strode on. As the dust of the safari began to come nearer he was careful not to top any skylines over the low hills. And when the confused clamor of African porters on the march began to be heard he looked about him to select a tall anthill well covered with scrub.
The safari came slowly on, three white men in the lead, the porters straggling out for a quarter-mile behind with some twenty spear armed askaris among them.
"See, bwana," the Masai whispered, "that is no honest hunting safari with so many askaris. There will be fighting, as I have said. I smell trouble. Lumbwa dog eaters are they all—twenty men. Yet with my ten who are Wa-Kuafi we could make a slaughter."
"Shut up," King told him, and he trained his glasses on the group.
His guess had been right, of course. The white men were Van Vliet and his two ill favored companions. How they had found out anything was a mystery to King and a blow to his conceit; for he had been desperately careful. Yet there was no room for doubt that they were following his trail. But it was not the knowledge that these men were obviously hoping, as the Hottentot had reported, to share in his secret business that infuriated King. He swore through set teeth and his hand closed hard on his rifle breech as he recognized among the porter loads some twenty very familiar wooden cases.
"Squareface," he gritted."Damn 'em! Twenty cases of trouble for some poor naked fools!"
He would have liked to open fire at long range from his shelter and obliterate these three menaces to black men and white alike; and he cursed the inhibition that restrained him. He growled to Barounggo:
"We have seen enough. Come on. From now on we must travel with speed and secrecy."
The Masai's eyes were eager, and he spoke softly through pinched lips:
"A throwing spear, bwana; a light throwing spear balanced close to the blade will be a good weapon. I will make me such a spear. And those ten, I will train them also to the throwing spear. Only twenty askaris, and Lumbwa men at that; the rest are cattle. Look, bwana, thus shall the battle go."
"Peace, murderer," King told him."Here is not even cause for a fight."
But to Yakoub, when he caught up with him later, he said:
"You were right. Yakoub the trader and Kingi Bwana can't go out together without at least three of the hardest cases in Africa following on their trail. They mean to crash in on our secret, and they've come prepared to fight for it. That's what comes of having a reputation as a shrewd business man."
The Jew's eyebrows disappeared in his tangle of hair; his hands outflung, he nodded sour, smiling agreement almost as if more pleased at the implied tribute to his astuteness than troubled at the complication.
"And," he appended, "of Kingi Bwana's having a reputation for knowing how to discover the secrets of the land—even if he doesn't know how to profit by them. Never mind, let them follow. Who are they? Three bad characters. It is nothing. But Yakoub and Kingi together—the Jew and the Yankee—that is a combination. We shall outwit them."
"By golly, if we don't outwit them," said King, "we'll have to kill them off like the rats they are. Come ahead, let's go. Move. Speed. Get distance."
A THIN haze far away to the left began to assume wavering outlines that came and went as the mists drifted. Later in the day a pale gray cone hung in the sky, ghostly, standing upon a chill purple fog of nothing. A cool wind drifted down from it.
King broke away from the Karamojo trail and headed toward the mountain flank. In a sheltered valley at the foot of a long blue ridge nestled a thorn boma. Like the nucleus of a spider web, this isolated huddle of huts was the center of countless faint paths that came to it from all directions. But the most extraordinary feature of it that immediately arrested attention was its condition of dilapidation. Thorn bomas in the more accessible regions of East Africa are nowadays not intended for defense; their purpose is protection from wild animals. But it seemed here as if even the lions and hyenas knew that the home of Batete the Wise One was something to be treated with awe.
Fat cattle grazed around it. Naked herd boys gazed owlishly. The porter men clustered, wide eyed, at the gate. Barounggo, with immense disdain, but with spear gripped tight, prepared to follow his master within. But King knew the courtesies of calling upon wizards. He told his men to wait, and went in with Yakoub.
Inside the boma were several round, thatched huts; and in the center stood another decrepit thorn fence, hung all round with cattle skulls and colored rags and snake skins—all the regular appurtenances of sorcery.
Three low stools, each carved out of a single trunk, stood in front of the central hut in a patch of sun. Upon one of them sat a shrunken ancient. He might have been sixty years old, or eighty, or a hundred. His face had reached that condition of desiccation in which age could mark it no further. His limbs were wrapped in a monkey-skin cloak.
But he was no senile antique. He was alert, and waiting.
"Hau, jambo, Bwana Kingi," he called in a voice astonishingly strong for his appearance."Jambo sana. It is a long time since my eyes have been glad. See, the stools wait. And let your Shenzies enter. Potio is ready for them in the outer huts."
King had long ago given up wondering just how the old sorcerer gained his apparent foreknowledge of events. It might have been the blackest kind of magic, or it might have been no more than a system of native runners. Bush telegraph was a mystery recognized even by the government.
"Jambo, father of wisdom," King greeted the old man."My good fate has fallen on this day. You are well? Your house is well? Look, I bring a gift. In the nighttime the wind that comes from the ghost mountain is cold. This is a blanket from my own country. It is woven by hand and it will shed rain."
It was no cheap trade goods that King presented to the old man, but a gorgeous, lightning striped, genuine Indian blanket that he had long set aside for just this purpose.
The wizard's face remained an immobile net of furrows. Only the keen old eyes glowed. He dropped his ingrained habit of preternatural knowledge.
"There is no white man in the land but the bwana m'kubwa who would think of that. Sit, bwana; and this man, your friend, let him sit too. It is enough that he is your friend. The women shall bring maize beer and we shall talk."
THE talk wandered throughout all the little unimportances that are of import to the dwellers in the wilderness. Gossip of the road and of the town: of people's comings and goings and dyings, of the movements of game and of the mealie crop and of the next rain. King knew it was necessary and he went through with it. It was hours before he could bring in his inquiry about the country up north where he wanted to go.
The wizard became silent and thoughtful. Automatically, as if from habit, he drew an odd assortment of cowry shells and colored pebbles and bones from a pouch and threw them fanwise in the dust. With a lean finger he sorted them and traced lines between. Hesitantly he began to talk.
"So? It is up to the People of the Amulet that bwana would go? So indeed? That is bad. They are a far people and a hidden people. Few people are left hidden in this land. It is a pity that bwana knows about them."
The old man nodded his head stiffly many times, moving his pebbles and bones almost like chessmen as he cogitated. Decision was difficult. He looked up squarely into King's eyes.
"It is a pity. Yet—if it were any other white man in all the land I would weave a net of lies for his feet. But if Kingi Bwana wants to go, who am I to plant the weeds of difficulty in his path? He will rend a way through many mats of weeds and in the end he will get there. I will, therefore, tell him truth and bwana will see those people and will do the thing that he will know to be right."
The old man was talking no mumbo-jumbo of his craft now. This was a confusion of words with a meaning behind them. King sat silent, waiting. Yakoub clawed nervous fingers through his beard.
"This is the truth, bwana. Even I, Batete, whom men call wise, do not know that country. I know only that the people are the People of the Ancient Amulet. This is the magic of that amulet: That whosoever shall see it, it shall tear his heart in twain that he can not take it away with him. This too I know: The people beyond the Toposa, between them and the hidden people, are an evil people, strong and war-like. And this last thing I know. The road to the hidden people goes by the mountain country of the black Christians, very steep and difficult. He who does not know that the mountain is the road goes to the left, which looks as if it should be the road; and at the end of many days he loses himself in the swamps that guard the country on that side. That is all that I know."
The old man relapsed into silence.
In a low tone Yakoub addressed King:
"The black Christians. He must mean Abyssinia. And the Hidden People—that must be the strip of unclaimed territory along the Sudan-Abyssinian border that we hear about. But what is this amulet thing? Have you ever heard, any so queer story?"
King shrugged first a dubious negative and then nodded in slow reminiscence, reluctant to break the spell of hidden romance that had settled on them. He whispered only to Yakoub:
"Something once long ago; a fairy tale that might connect. But the place sounds like where I figured it would be. Those rivers must rise somewhere in that mountain country."
Suddenly the wizard spoke out of his muffling robe:
"Blood is on the trail of bwana. Much blood."
"So said Barounggo," murmured King."Tell me of that blood, wise one. What do you see for me?"
The wizard remained hunched under his blanket and moaned. His voice came painfully:
"I see only blood. White men will die." He twisted his body and appeared to strain himself to effort; then he relaxed."But my snake does not show me the faces of those men. Many black men will also die. There will be much blood."
He relapsed into stertorous breathing. King muttered to Yakoub:
"Cheerful, isn't he?" Then his teeth set hard and his jaw stuck out at an ugly angle and he grunted, "Well, if one of them is going to be me, there's going to be others too."
The wizard spoke again:
"Let bwana now go and let him send his men to me. Because bwana is my friend of old I will make a magic for those men that their hearts may not melt in that blood—the strong magic of the lion dance. Let bwana go and send his men to me."
King knew that this was dismissal; and he knew better than to try to stay and witness the spellbinding that the wizard would make over his men.
"This is a great thing that you do for me, wise one," he said in genuine appreciation; for he knew that such a witchcraft would be infinitely more efficacious than any exhortation or leadership or promise of reward."Wise one, I go. But make speed with the magic; for there is great need."
ANOTHER two days passed. No cloud of dust followed behind. But King was by no means satisfied. It didn't mean a thing, he grumbled. Van Vliet was nobody's fool; he was just hanging back a bit; he wasn't so easily scared off. And the old wizard with his gloomy talk about blood… King didn't believe any of this pretense at prophecy—or, at least, he said he didn't. But this was Africa. He had seen things and had heard things that required a lot better explaining away than just laughing them off as native hokum.
King shrugged savagely at his own gloominess. He could positively feel that something was about to happen after listening to that old man. But there to the left was the trail to Karamojo, and in his pocket the sealed letter which had become such an incubus. He told Yakoub to supervise the making of the boma and chose himself a flat rock where, with an expression of martyrdom, he sat down to break the seal.
And in that same place and position Yakoub found him when he came an hour later to call King into the finished boma for supper. King sat very still, gazing into distant nothingness through the dusk haze, whistling, as was his habit, thin disharmonies through his teeth.
Yakoub knew that sign. His face lost its customary expression of genial cynicism and he came quickly closer.
"Trouble?" he asked.
"Plenty," was King's answer.
"Well—" Yakoub shrugged—"fifty per cent of a partnership is for the purpose of sharing the profits; the other fifty is for sharing the worries. Tell me this so unpleasing secret."
King grinned wryly up at him.
"Yakoub, old friend, I'll tell you a truth that we both know; and we've both been so cocksure of our smartness that we've forgotten it. Listen to it again: There are no secrets in Africa!"
"You mean—our business? It is the same? This Mr. Smythe knows too?"
"All I wonder is how he got on to it. Gosh, I thought I had stumbled on to something new. I thought that this was really a dark one. Consider it again and tell me if I was a fool.
"I came out of Beni Shangul in Abyssinia—and that's full of gold; only old Shogh Ali won't let anybody work it without an army. I worked south amongst a lot of crawling little Atbara tributaries that haven't even got names. I fished a man half dead out of a mountain stream and, stripping him for first aid, I found those little ingots. And all hell and a bluff at torture wouldn't scare a peep out of him about who or where or what. And he had the guts to laugh when my bluff fell through.
"I tried to prospect it up. But that river ended in a hole in the ground; subterranean from somewhere higher up. I tried other streams; but the mountains were fierce, just about perpendicular. And where they fell away into the plain miles away west there was peat bog, morass and, lower down, swamp in the flat, empty desert, just like the witch doctor said. Hellish country. So I pretty near died getting across to the White Nile at Mongalla and I figured there must be a way in from the south."
"My friend," said Yakoub with serious conviction, "I will tell you this about gold. You were not overconfident; you had every right to think this was a new thing. But gold is a queer material. It is devilish and magnetic—but only in large quantities. A few gold pieces can not talk to one another. But where a man has a large accumulation of gold, other gold tells it telepathically: 'Look, I am here, in such and such a place. ' But usually the message comes only to my people. What right has this Mr. Smythe to know?"
King was able to muster a crooked laugh at this queer whimsy that had so much of cynical truth in it.
"Well, he knows all right. Only he doesn't know any more than general location; no more than I did till the old wizard gave us the straight dope."
The Jew quickly reviewed this new angle from his viewpoint of a business man. He grimaced sourly.
"I will tell you this also about gold, my Kingi. When you have none of it, a very little of it makes you its slave. You have taken this Mr. Smythe's money, five hundred paltry pounds of it, and now you are tied with a chain. But—" his alert mind considered the thing from the viewpoint of business; and, like the financier, he quoted the inexorable law of business—"after all, we can not develop our finds without capital; and if this Mr. Smythe has felt that the thing is so great, there will be enough money for us not to worry.
"Only this time, my simple friend, you will let me talk to the capital. You are a child, I think I must have told you, in matters of business. From now on I, who am your partner, look after your negotiations. You have nothing to worry; I will yet make you rich in spite of your foolishness. Your Mr. Financier Smythe knows no more than general location, hunh? Very well, we have a starting place from which to begin the discussion that we shall have, this Mr. Smythe the financier and Yakoub the Jew."
King got up from his dejected position and stretched his big shoulders till the sinews cracked.
"Friend Yakoub," he replied wholeheartedly, "you take a load off my chest. Let you do the negotiating and me do the easy work of just getting there. That's a good partnership. Let's go eat."
AN hour passed. The meal had been finished, the pipes lighted, and King laughed in carefree enjoyment of nothing at all. The night was warm; the food had been sufficient. They had reached the water hole before the evening-drinking game had polluted it. It had been a good day. King leaned his head back in his folded hands, stretched his legs to the top of a pile of duffle and blew smoke rings.
Behind in the shadows, their masters having eaten, the natives chattered over their potio of parched corn and fresh antelope meat and with African carelessness stole dry thorn sticks out of the boma for their crackling fire, leaving gaps that a leopard could easily crawl through. Everybody was contented.
Suddenly came the Hottentot's voice:
"Bwana! Men approach!"
King dropped his feet from the duffle pile and reached for his rifle which always stood ready to hand against the tent pole. But these men had approached very carefully indeed; and they knew how to approach—as they had to know—very thoroughly, taking the risk of the outside darkness.
"Just as you were, Yank. Take it easy and make no mistake."
Van Vliet stood framed in the opening of the boma, watching over his rifle. He had timed his arrival exactly, counting on the general relaxation after dinner and knowing that the last thorn bush would not be dragged into the boma gate until bedtime.
The man Johan and Dago Lopez sidled in past him. They were well rehearsed. Johan helped to cover the party with his rifle, and Lopez stepped forward and removed King's rifle out of reach. Then with business-like deliberation he searched both white men for guns.
"Alla right," he reported.
King had no inkling as to what might be the move. So he put a match to his pipe and waited.
Van Vliet came forward.
"We're goin' to talk, Yank," he said with a determination which showed he understood to the full that any talk between them would have to be forced.
King was uninterestedly resigned.
"Well, since you insist on being social, I'm listening. But why all the armed escort?"
Van Vliet grinned at him in enjoyment.
"I know you, don't I? All East Africa knows that your business is your business. An' d'you think I didn't spot those two klipspringer that winded you an' acted up that way? I sent a man over immediate, an' he picked up your trail exact where you'd been watchin' us."
"Oh, pshaw!" King laughed as if caught out in a game.
He put his feet up on the duffle pile before him and put another match to his pipe.
"I'll hand it to you, Van. I'd hoped you wouldn't notice them, or that you'd put it down to hyenas or something. But I might have known you'd be taking no chances. I always told Yakoub you were nobody's fool. What's on your mind?"
Van Vliet nodded in acknowledgment of what he knew to be his own worth.
"We're goin' to talk, Yank. An' you're jolly well goin' to listen."
"All right," said King, as if it were he who condescended."Make it snappy 'cause I don't like your friends."
"Damn your hide—" Johan lurched forward.
At the same time a sharp hiss of intaken breath came from Lopez. But Van Vliet's growl stopped both of them short.
"Easy there, you two. I'm runnin' this. An' you, Yank, you're not winnin' anythin' with insults. We haven't come for trouble; we want to arrange this thing nice an' friendly. So you just sit tight an' listen."
"I'm always friendly on the front side of a rifle," said King, blowing huge puffs of smoke into the night and watching all three men warily from behind its screen."Go ahead and say your piece."
Except for Van Vliet's careful watchfulness, the scene might have been a friendly visit of passing safaris. King at ease in a canvas chair tilted back, throat, nostrils, and cheekbones thrown into yellow relief by the lamp. Yakoub in another chair, passive, humped up like a brooding bird, only his bright black eyes taking in every move. Across the table in the paler outer circle of light, three men framed against the warm velvet blackness.
Only one unusual thing indicated tension. Just as insect noises, warned by a mysterious telepathy, fall silent when there is a jungle killing, the chatter of the natives out of the dark behind the tents had ceased.
Van Vliet put his proposition with commendable brevity.
"Fightin' won't pay any of us. We make you an offer to join up with your outfit an' split even."
"Ah-h-rgh!" Van Vliet's patience did not hold out well."We know what you're out for. An' you know I'm workin' for the DeWet company."
"Yeah, I know." King was exasperatingly supercilious. He knew that in any argument the one who lost temper first lost opportunity with it."But what interest have the DeWet people with us? They hired you and your two gangsters to peddle gin to the natives."
"Damn you, Yank! Easy there, you two. I'm boss here. Come off actin' innocent, you. I tell you we know. DeWets have been watchin' your boss, Ham Smythe, for weeks. Their London agents have reported every time he breathed an' batted an eye. They've been in this game long enough to know when somethin's movin' on the quiet."
King suddenly threw himself back in his camp chair and astounded everybody by shouting with laughter.
"DeWets! Oh, of course, the DeWet crowd would know. Do you hear that, Yakoub? DeWets have been watching him for weeks. Ho-ho-ho! He thought he had a secret—a secret in Africa, the poor fool. Land sakes, this is funny. And we thought you were interested in us; Yakoub and Kingi together. This is good for our conceit. So DeWet sniffed a rat in all the elaborate precaution and put a watch on Smythe. Ha-ha-ha, what a secret!"
And at that Yakoub, too, saw the irony of the situation and he crowed aloud with acrid laughter.
VAN VLIET regarded them both with dubious anger. Here was something that he did not understand, and the tension was beginning to wear on his nerves. Even more so on the others.
"Aw, he's makin' a monkey outer you," snarled Johan.
Lopez shifted suddenly like a black leopard in the dim outer fringe of the lamplight. His hand stole down to his boot top.
"What the hell you got to laugh at?" growled Van Vliet.
"Ho-ho," King chuckled exasperatingly."The joke, my dear Van—but I know you won't believe it—the joke is that Yakoub and I started out on this trip on a deal of our own. We've only just learned that Ham Smythe is in on it."
Van Vliet stood angrily suspicious. He could see no joke in that situation without understanding a great deal more about it. But Dago Lopez was quicker to attribute a foul explanation.
"Ha, you don' work for heem no more. You don' foola me. You doublecross heem an' you go for yourself."
"Why, you filthy—" King pushed his chair away and rose to his feet. It was an interpretation that had never entered his mind as possible, and the insidious foulness of it enraged him.
"Easy there!" Van Vliet's rifle pointed squarely at his chest."An' you drop that, Lopez. I told you there'd be no knife play, you fool."
Lopez glowered till Van Vliet's will dominated him. Then he shrugged and his teeth glinted white out of the darkness. He offered the olive branch to King on a basis of give and take among equals.
"Alla right. Then we onderstan' one the other. We doublacross DeWets an' we go weeth you. So we alla mek planty moch more. Hunh, Van? Joost lika we talk before. Ees good."
King was master of his indignation again. He was very deliberate. His move had brought him closer to his rifle. His words were chosen and distinct.
"Well, I'll tell you, Van Vliet, I might make a dicker with you—if I was drunk or doped. I'm not proud. I'm not ashamed of anything that creeps or crawls or stinks. But your partner, Lopez, there—"
"Morte de Deus!" Lopez screamed in ungovernable rage at the sudden twist of insult. The light glinted on a venomous arc as his hand flung back over his shoulder.
"Drop it!" shouted Van Vliet.
The agony of apprehension in his voice was astonishing. He jumped blindly for Lopez. But he was too late. Lopez's arm was already in the swing of his throw.
"Sszee!" shouted the voice of Barounggo the Masai from the farther darkness.
A thin shaft of yellow light swished past King's shoulder. Lopez's arm twisted spasmodically in its down swing; his knife spun high, turning glittering somersaults in the air and fell somewhere out of the light circle.
In that instant of confusion King made one enormous bound and snatched his rifle; and when in the next instant Van Vliet and Johan recovered their wits King had them covered.
"Ve-ery careful, you two," he warned them."In this bad light I'm apt to be jumpy. Take their guns, Yakoub. So. Now you can look to Lopez, you two."
Lopez's dim form was writhing in the shadow. He was snarling in furious pain and rage.
"There was no order to slay," said the voice of Barounggo, "so I but transfixed his arm. Hau, it was a good cast. A good spear, a light spear; swift as the snake of the night—"
His voice began to break into a rhythmic chant.
"Shut up," snapped King."Still, it was well done. Guard now those two white men. Here, Kaffa, bring the light and let's see how much damage was done to his arm."
Lopez was sitting up, gritting his teeth, his arm awkwardly stiff with a thin shaft protruding from his biceps, the narrow blade ten inches through on the other side.
"Hm, a nice clean hole," commented King coldly."Better than you deserve. A knife, Kaffa." He ripped the shirt sleeve.
"Now clench your teeth, Dago. This is going to hurt you more than it does me."
With a quick jerk he pulled the blade clear. Lopez yelped once. Then King said calmly—
The Hottentot was well experienced in the requirements of camp surgery; already he was there with a bowl and the iodine bottle and bandage.
The little operation was completed with methodical dispatch. Lopez stood sullenly muttering and holding his arm. King motioned him over to join the other two. Then very carefully and meticulously he lighted his pipe, making time to think. A half minute was sufficient.
HE turned to the three prisoners. He knew exactly what to do. His eyes smiling narrowly over the lantern were belied by the hard, incisive voice:
"The other way round again, eh? Now I'll tell you three crooks what you'll do. You knew enough to come here after dark. So you'll know enough to go. But I'm holding your guns—no sniping out of the night— No, don't yelp yet. I know well enough that taking a white man's gun from him in the African bush is murdering him.
"You'll find them in this place tomorrow, if nothing eats you up tonight. But that's your funeral that you brought on yourselves. My advice is that you climb a tree right quick—a good thorny one—and I hope to holy Pete it hurts you plenty. Or you can make a thorn boma, and that's another sweet job by firelight. Got matches? All right. Git."
He motioned with his rifle. The three men, looking at that thin smile shadowed in hard hewn lines by the lamp, knew that King would not relent, although they were receiving a vastly more generous deal than they would have given. But Van Vliet was a man not often thwarted. He held too hard a grip upon himself to fly into any sort of ungovernable rage; but there was cold venom in his voice as he pointed his last threat at King:
"It's you or me, Yank, from now on, and so I'm tellin' you. You can't leave me out of this deal, whatever it pans out. An' I'm not talking partners any more. You've had your chance. There's just one of us two is goin' to win."
The man was courageous enough, standing there covered by the rifle of the man whom he threatened. But he knew King as well as King knew him. He was perfectly assured that that rifle would not go off unless he were to make a direct physical attack. And he knew King much too well to make any such attempt as that.
King's face in the flickering lamplight was a mask of hard corners and thin slits. A bitterness soured the set grin; a bitterness caused by the knowledge of his own inhibitions which prevented him from removing with one clean shot what he knew to be a menace of treachery and trouble and bloodshed.
"All right, old-timer. You or me. There'll be a whole lot of people, black and white, a whole lot better off when you're through. And that goes for Dago Lopez and your gunman too. And let me tell you this again like I told you before: Yakoub and I, we're going on our deal alone. Now skip. Footsack. And I hope the lions get you before I do."
Sullenly the three men went from the boma. Their footsteps sounded awhile. Then the night swallowed them.
King was full of an exhilaration that was extraordinary in the face of a threat of death left by a man whom he knew to be infinitely cunning and dangerous and whose capabilities he was grudgingly forced to admit. He bustled about the final preparations for the night and his voice glowed with an astonishing satisfaction.
"All right. Get a move on there, everybody. Get that thorn tree pulled into the opening there. See that it's good and high. All fast for the night. Barounggo, let two men watch together by turns."
Yakoub stood thoughtful, troubled, while King went about, whistling in the greatest good humor, attending to the last little precautions and inspections for night in an open boma.
The muffled clatter of the delayed tin plates of supper died down. Uncouth yawning noises came from the natives behind the tents. The snap and crackle of sticks added to the all-night fire. A soft clapping of hands and a rhythmic stamp of feet betokened the Masai getting ready to chant the delayed song of his deed before his troop:
"Hau, it was a good cast. A fair cast, a clean cast. In the dark stood that one. Where is he?Ow, he is gone. A light spear, a swift spear. Whence did it come?Out of the dark it flew. True and straight. As a snake it stung." King knew that that would go on for an hour. All the details, all the action, even the impelling thought, would be given poetic expansion. He grunted to himself.
"Probably keep us all awake. But he deserves it. It was good."
Yakoub still stood thoughtful and troubled. King in his high spirits rallied him on his depression.
"I'm afraid," said Yakoub, "that those are three poisonous snakes allowed to go loose. Yet what could one do?"
"They are," said King cheerfully."And one can't do a thing. That's a rule of the outer places. The poor fool who has inhibitions always loses out against the other fellow who has none. We can't cut their throats, but they'd cut ours the first minute it suited them; and that's all to their advantage. But do you know what advantage we have gained out of this night?"
Yakoub shook his head dolefully.
"I see no advantage that makes you so cheerful. Only that your religion of the square deal applies to three clever and quite unprincipled enemies."
King laughed happily.
"Not so, my mournful friend. Consider. Twice now Van Vliet has interfered to save me from harm; both times to save my life. Is it because he loves me do you think? Or is it—tell me if I'm not right—is it because he doesn't have any hint of where this gold is. The DeWet people who hired him knew only that Smythe was on to some big secret. So they hired a hard, bad gang who knew safari work to follow whoever Smythe might hire, to wipe them out of competition and steal the secret. So that's all to our advantage."
"I see," said Yakoub."Our advantage is that we are followed by three ruffians who have no inhibitions and who have come prepared to steal the secret at any cost."
But King's cheerfulness was proof against misgivings.
"Not so, my doleful Yakoub. Our advantage is that none of them—not the three hard guys nor Smythe nor the DeWet company—know anything about the location of that secret. Only we. And that's a real secret this time. And that is to our very great advantage. You said yourself that we'd outwit them, or we'd have to—" King's face made three hard horizontal lines—"outfight them."
WITH the morning not a sign was to be seen of the night's visitors. Kaffa the Hottentot was already up and had made a circle of stones and oddments of lion claw ornaments and bits of skin that he had taken from the Shenzies. Inside of it he danced and genuflected and chattered with an intense solemnity.
"What, can you tell me, is that completely mad devil doing?" Yakoub asked of King.
But this was a new manifestation of his servant's many queernesses, even to King.
The Hottentot finished his incantation and stepped out of his witches' circle.
"I make invocation to Atto Happa, who in my country is the lord of all lions and leopards and beasts that slay," he explained.
"And what for?" King wanted to know.
"But that is plain, bwana," the Hottentot told him."Surely in order that the beasts, if they have not already slain those three, may yet do so before the sun becomes too hot for hunting."
"Hm, I hope your Atto Happa delivers the goods," King grunted."It would surely save a heap of trouble for a lot of people. Did you hide the rifles as I told you?"
The Hottentot screwed up his shoulders and leered like a distorted black gnome.
"Assuredly, bwana, did I hide them. First having stuffed all oily places with sand, I shoved them down an ant-bear hole as far as Barounggo's spear would reach. A father of the mission told me that the gods help men who help themselves; and thus have I done my share toward earning the favor of Atto Happa."
King considered the matter, frowning.
"Pretty drastic," he muttered."But Van Vliet won't overlook anything so likely as an ant-bear hole. I only hope there are plenty of them and that he'll dig them all before he comes to the right one. It'll win time for us; and time is what we'll need if we're going to shake him."
KING scoured the horizon for dust as the days passed. Dust there was, lots of it, rising slowly behind or eddying away to one side. But it was intermittent and traveled this way and that in slow, low-hanging drifts or in tumultuous spurts—animals grazing peacefully upwind or dashing in wild stampedes as some taint in the air alarmed them.
Dust there was, too, before them; once a quite heavy cloud. King inspected it anxiously through the glass; they were getting beyond the confines of the Toposa tribes where the natives were, as the witch doctor had said, strong and war-like.
"Wildebeeste," King announced with relief."I can see the tick birds. Probably zebra with them. It'll be good trail smudge."
He hurried the little safari along on a long slant to get in front of that grazing herd, and for half a day he held that position, letting the countless hoofs obliterate all other tracks.
Twice he was able to do that. In spite of grumbling among the porters he insisted upon making the nightly bomas far from water holes, carrying the minimum supply requisite for camp. Cooking fires were screened. No smoke was made by day.
These were days of hard and uncomfortable going. Not for a moment did King relax vigilance or permit himself to underestimate the ability and the persistence of the man who followed. But Yakoub, observing all these precautions that seemed to him sufficient to baffle a bloodhound, found it in himself to be more optimistic. The farther they went, the nearer must be their goal. To him it was irresistible to speculate upon that mysterious country of the Hidden People.
Who might they be? Why did the witch doctor so darkly insist that it was a pity that anybody should know about them?
King, with a certain hardness in his voice, was able to elucidate.
"Huh, that's an easy one. There's never been a savage race in the history of the world which hasn't claimed it was better off before the white man came. Which I'm not defending one way or the other. But that crowd behind us with twenty cases of trade gin is a pretty big argument."
The Jew, with his keen mind trained to balance the hazy profits of future prospects, could no more refrain from the fascinating game of computing from the eagerness of others the possibilities of vast fortune lying waiting for them, than could King from computing, by the movements of birds and game, the location and distance of the next water hole.
But King's guessing was concluded with each successive evening. Yakoub's was interminable. That mysterious amulet which would tear at one's heart strings—what could that queer thing be? What could so rend a heart because it could not be taken away, but some wonderful jewel? Surely a jewel. Sacred, of course, and its origin wrapped in legend and folk lore. That, too, would be fascinating. Yakoub had a hereditary veneration of ancient tradition.
And about doing the thing that was right—what could the old wizard have meant by that? What mysterious power could an amulet, however ancient, have to make practical men of the modern world—a Jew trader and a Yankee adventurer—do some enigmatic right thing?
Again King was able to elucidate. A little self-consciously he explained—
"That's really one of the biggest compliments I've ever had handed to me; and it's a direct intimation that the old principle of the square deal sometimes pays a dividend."
The Jew's eyebrows made an inquiry; his two hands were busy attending to the rifle that he had learned from King's example to carry himself. King elaborated on the details of his African diplomacy.
"The old witch doctor of Elgon earns his name of wise one. He knows that the square deal as the white man, or as the white man's well meaning government, may see it is not always the way the African sees it. My pull with him is that I've often consulted him about the queer native angle. So he didn't attempt to hold me up on information, but said that he'd lie to any other white man, only he'd tell me because he knew I'd do the right thing for those people; and, putting it that way, don't you see, the wise old bird knew he'd have me tied up under an obligation."
Yakoub nodded. He trudged a long distance, nodding in silence. At last he said, as if musing in understanding, oblivious of King's presence:
"Yes, it is so. We too, we know it. A few governments have from time to time tried to do the square deal for my people; but, alas, it has not been as we have seen it."
Those were exciting days, days—since all things are relative—of good going.
A pale purple haze began to show across the horizon to the northeast. King inspected it at long range with interest. Yakoub was immediately full of excitement; but King only shrugged with exasperating apathy.
"May be only mirage. We'll know more by tonight's camp."
With that night's camp the haze was no nearer. It remained a pale discoloration in the immeasurable distance. King got out his maps and, after a brief survey, announced:
"Yep, that's our mountain of wealth all right; look, there's nothing at all marked on the map, and I see that there's swamp country away to the left of the haze."
This was all quite enigmatic; for the map was truly a blank, marked across a large expanse in thin, wide spaced type. The haze was no more than a smudge of pale color, and as far as the eye could see to the west was nothing but parched brown grass and patches of mimosa scrub. Yakoub's shaggy eyebrows and his shoulders together put the question.
King pointed again, high up to the evening sky.
"Water birds going home to roost; look like ibis or spoonbills. And see, here's the Abyssinian plateau marked all along the East. The thing that isn't marked must be some sort of unexpected outcrop. That'll be the 'unclaimed territory' that so exercises the diplomats up in Adis Abbeba; and there will be our Hidden People. That'll put some extra pep into all our shoeleather, eh?"
KING grunted with disgust as a tall, nude figure stood suddenly in hard silhouette against the sky over a low rise. He had hoped—almost—to get through to the now visible goal without running into any of these people to whom the old wizard had given the reputation of being evil and war-like.
He knew better than to display any sign of hesitation. Ostentatiously he lighted his pipe.
"There'll be more somewhere," he muttered to Yakoub."Probably lying down in the grass. This one is only to distract our attention; he's too durned unsuspicious looking without even a spear in hand. Hold your ten men here, Barounggo. I'm going ahead to make indaba. "
Barounggo, his nostrils wide and twitching, eyes rolling white, head bent forward eagerly, dared to demur.
"They will not run, bwana. It is not fitting that a white lord speak with naked savages through his own mouth."
King nodded and signed to Kaffa to stay back. With the Masai he went forward. The tall, nude figure saw no more than a pitifully small safari of two white men with a couple of servants and ten porters. Therefore, as King approached, a score of spearmen sprang from the grass and stood barring the way, looking quite pleased with themselves over their unintelligent trick.
All of them were tall and quite naked. Straight limbs and mops of hair marked them as a tribe distinct from the potbellied and broad nosed Nilotic peoples. More of a Sudanese type, these. The Sudanese had ever been aggressive and troublesome. In itself their move was not hostile; but King knew well enough that natives so unafraid as to stop a white man meant no mere peaceable conversation.
With no people more than with Africans does "front" carry so much weight. King spent a deliberate minute looking them over; then he greeted—
Barounggo took the word from his mouth and relayed it.
"The bwana sana says jambo to you naked people."
A hesitant chorus of "jambo" came from the group.
"Tell them," said King, "that we desire to pass through this land."
The Masai relayed, not as asking a favor but as stating a fact. The men laughed. One of them, distinguished by an ivory ring above his left elbow, said boldly:
"The men of the village of Nabu of the Orugniro people own this land. They do not let strangers pass."
So there it was at last. Unfriendly and boldly unequivocal. King was torn between the two policies of front and the square deal. His ingrained principle won.
"Tell them I will give a gift for the meat we take in passing through the land. But we pass."
Barounggo passed on the word in his own way.
"Listen, naked monkeys of the grass. It is I, an Elmoran of the Masai, who speak. We give a gift, a small gift, to show that we make no war in passing through your empty land."
Throughout all East Africa the name of the Masai was synonymous with ferocity and slaughter. The Elmorani, the trained lion slayers, especially, were known as a super-fighting breed. And Barounggo, as he stood and offered his lordly insult, enormous, threatening, hair garters and ostrich plume flying in the wind, great spear flashing in the sun, looked fiercely belligerent enough to give anybody pause. The bold front was not without its effect. But the Masai was only one, and they twenty. The Nabu village headman, as he seemed to be, muttered with his fellows. Then insolently he compromised.
"The strangers' safari may pass. But the gift that we take will be a proper gift."
King did not like the word take. He nodded to Barounggo but said nothing. Barounggo flung up his hand as a signal to the waiting porters and said no word. The headman of Nabu village of the Orugniro people instantly accepted their silence for weakness, to which his African response was immediate belligerence.
"We will take," he enumerated, "for each man a piece of cloth to divide among his women, and for each man a gourd of salt and an iron cup to drink pombe spirit and five spearheads." And as King stood marveling at the man's rapacious insolence he added to the list, "And for each an iron spoon and his own length in red wire and—"
He hesitated for sheer lack of other things to imagine. What he had listed was already half a safari load. King put an abrupt end to his vain hopes by saying:
"So? Then we go through without any gift."
He stepped resolutely forward. The Nabu men yelped rage at their sudden disillusionment. Barounggo whistled a shrill siren note through his teeth. The Nabu headman shouted his fury and flung his arms around King, as being the less dangerous looking of the two, to hold him.
King hesitated not an instant. For all his principle of the square deal and his acceptance of the white man's burden theory, he knew that no white man could submit to manhandling by a native and continue to live in Africa. He jerked his right arm free—his left clung to his rifle—and hit his assailant with all the force of a short jolt full in the face.
The man dropped, half stunned. Blood in frightening quantity gushed from his smashed nose. Barounggo shouted his throaty fighting roar and whirled up his spear.
King swung his rifle to cover the rest of the men.
To the black man, trained to the idea of fighting only with weapons, there is always something awe-inspiring about the white man's unarmed fist; the force of a blow that can knock a man down and cover him with blood conveys suggestion of superhuman strength.
The Nabu men bunched together, startled, gaping at the one who howled on the ground. Some lifted their spears. The Masai's great weapon was already poised at ear level, full arm length, quivering, eager to hurl itself forward. They knew spearmen, these people. It was certain that the first man who moved would go down with that terrible blade sticking out a foot through his back.
They hesitated—just long enough.
AT the Masai's first signal the ten porters had dropped their loads and had quickly unrolled a long bundle of canvas. At his whistle they rushed forward, each man with shield and spear, shouting his best imitation of the Masai sghee sszee. Closer, they made an irregular half circle, crouching, dancing in on high-stepping toes, like the Elmorani lion killers. Behind them screamed the Hottentot, hurling abuse, and Yakoub with nervous rifle.
The defenseless little safari had suddenly transformed itself into a war party of armed askaris. The Nabu men stood inactive. One by one their raised spears sank. The stricken leader mumbled inarticulate agony through his fingers while blood ran appallingly over his hands.
King slung his rifle over his shoulder and put a match slowly to his pipe.
"So," he said, "we pass. Tell them that the gift we give them is a proper gift. We give them their lives. They do not die. They may take this man who thought he was a warrior and may go to their village, swiftly."
Barounggo planted his spear in the ground and swelled his chest. A speech was necessary to convey this message with the proper measure of obloquy and insult.
Sullenly the Nabu men helped their headman to his feet and withdrew. The last sign of them was a silhouette, as before, of the leader on the skyline, a tall figure who shook his spear and screamed.
Sheer front had won again. The porter-askaris strutted and bragged to one another how each one in detail had held his spear, how he had shouted, how ferociously scowled. It had been their first test as fighting men and they were confident and jubilant.
To Barounggo King said:
"It was well done. Their drilling was good. They shall receive, each man, a blanket."
But to Yakoub:
"I don't like that. That spear waving and screaming over the hill isn't healthy. Let's get out of here as fast as we can move; and let's hope their village is far."
Yakoub was full of the exhilaration of victory over what had been a bad and dangerous obstacle. He had a cheering thought to offer.
"At all events, if those other white men—if we have not outwitted our murderous friends—when they come they will find an angry enemy holding the road behind us."
To which King repeated his pessimistic formula:
"I don't know. Van Vliet is nobody's fool. Come along there. Let's go. Trek!"
THE next two days were the hardest going that Yakoub had ever conceived in a bad dream. Or, for that matter, quite the worst that those luckless porters had known. King drove them mercilessly. There were no revivifying little rest periods under the shade of a spreading acacia; no comforting lounges at an easy pace while the bwana stalked meat.
Meals were a meatless menu of parched corn as many times a day as any hurrying individual felt inclined to stuff a handful of it into his mouth.
Travel continued till well into the night, King and Barounggo deploying ahead, more for the purpose of giving confidence than with any real hope of spotting any crouching beast. Bomas, when finally scratched together, remained fireless, men in couples sitting awake with orders to report to King instantly every scuffling, snuffling noise from without—which they did every ten minutes, or each time that an insect stirred.
When Yakoub was exhausted, King, who was tireless steel, and Barounggo, who was cast iron, took him on either side and marched him along, stirred to effort by the cheering fact that the purple haze was changing to a closer blue and the blue to a patchy brown and green.
The porters grumbled, as is the prerogative and inalienable right of African porters. What was the need for all this fearful running away? Were they not fighting men as well as porters? They had chased away the people of this country once; would they not do it again? They could reason no further than that. This haste was without reason, they grumbled to one another. They required a rest; they were men, not cattle. They would rest, they exhorted each other. They would put their packs down and eat a meal. They would go no farther.
But they did none of these things. Kaffa the Hottentot, pattering in their rear, told them grim stories out of his imagination of the things that the Masai had done to other porters who had proven unworthy of their salt; and with infinite craft he added—
"But those were just Shenzi porters, not fighting men."
So the fighting men complained in bitter chorus, but they plodded on.
The patchy brown and green resolved itself into an enormous spur that jutted out from the main mountain wall and fell away in broad, steep terraces to the plain. There were no foothills; no gradual breaking up of the plain into hillocks and gullies that led to steeper hills beyond. Abrupt and solid the mass towered till the haze of its upper blue lost itself in the blue of the sky.
A wide ravine of gray terraces cut a gash into this formidable barrier and disappeared into black shadows high above. To the far right was the haze of the Abyssinian plateau. To the left the level plain that stretched on in the direction where the water birds flew.
"Looks like our road to the promised land all laid out sweet and pretty for us," said King."Once we get well into that gully I'll feel better. It's a safe rule that plains people won't go into the mountains at night."
So camp was made that night on a broad terrace where a little trickle of water flowed from the rock and was a nectar that could be appreciated only by people who had strained out through a cloth the countless crawling things of turbid water holes that thirsty game herds had never permitted to settle and clear up since the beginning of all time.
The great ravine continued interminably up the mountain flank, alternately easy and difficult going, as one scrambled up the rise of the ragged limestone terraces or walked along the flat. Green bushes began to appear in clumps in gladsome relief from the dusty thorn scrub of the plain. Euphorbia trees and wild figs, of course, meant monkeys.
A cooler air current began to drift down. Ferns clustered in moist places; presently orchids. Brilliant butterflies and startlingly brilliant birds flashed amid the greenery—all the joyous, teeming life of mountain country rising out of a burnt-up tropical plain.
To offset the country that improved so cheerfully with each hour, the going grew frightfully worse with each step. The sides of the ravine began to pinch in—craggy walls of sliding shale. The ascent was laborious—not scrambling any more, but climbing. Each V-shaped gash on the skyline, promising relief from high above, led only to more craggy ridges and other V-shaped gashes.
"How much farther?" Yakoub panted."Hours, will it be; or perhaps days? Does this lead some day to some place, or does it go on into the heart of a lost forever? If your little ingots did not promise so much in our promised land, I would just as soon die here."
King stopped to wipe the perspiration from his heavy pith hatband. The best that he could offer was:
"The main Abyssinian plateau is eight thousand feet up. This may be a part of it. Still, I'd say it was the road to nowhere, and I'd quit, except that the witch doctor told us. And look there! Evidently it was the road to someplace once upon a time."
Kaffa was behaving in a surprising manner. Like an inquisitive monkey he had been scrambling in the lead, poking into every hole and corner, turning over stones to flush shiny brown lizards, after which he darted with simian agility. These, split open and broiled on little sticks, were as great a delicacy to the Hottentot as are snails to a Frenchman.
Suddenly that impudent, godless little ape had thrown himself flat upon his face, knees doubled under him, head in the moist dirt, beating the ground with his hands and chattering a monosyllabic stream of prayer.
ALL that could be seen to occasion this performance was a mound of stones in the middle of the gully floor; an ancient cairn, moss grown and water worn, but distinguishable and obviously the work of human hands. King grinned.
"That's the only thing the little devil is afraid of. Heitsi Eibib, the Hottentot god of good luck and fertility and half a dozen other things, fought around and died a whole lot and was reincarnated again; and he is buried all over the landscape in inaccessible ravines under rock piles."
Yakoub nodded understandingly out of his knowledge of ancient things.
"Yes, yes, a very common belief. In Palestine in the hills overhanging Acre are such cairns. There is argument as to whether the Jews brought some heathen superstitions about the death of the Babylonian Baal out of the captivity or whether they are more recent."
The Hottentot assumed an incongruous command of the party. Very carefully he piloted the porters round the ancient cairn so that no profane foot should defile a single stone. When every man had passed safely he chose a smooth boulder and, crawling on his stomach, pushed it on to the pile.
"O Heitsi Eibib," he muttered, "give us fortune and plenty of cattle."
Barounggo, standing by in enormous solemnity, could understand that prayer; for the Masai, a herd-owning people, live, in curious anomaly to their bloodthirsty character, almost exclusively on dairy products.
He leaned over and with precise care spat upon the stone. At which the Hottentot, instead of becoming infuriated, clucked approval. He knew that such was the Masai equivalent of calling down the blessing of the high spirits.
After that he was full of enthusiasm and a strong confidence for anything that might come. When the road grew worse he scrambled ahead, calling loud encouragement to the porters, promising them all manner of good things—meat in plenty and corn, and milk to steep their corn and honey to sweeten it.
"Is that an omen?" Yakoub asked with less than his usual cynicism."The promised land flowing with milk and honey?"
And King, engrossed, swearing, in keeping his rifle sights from getting bumped, opined as he clung to a root with one hand and swung his leg up to a ledge—
"If it's true that all good things are hard to get, this country will sure have to be good."
The climb became worse. Sheer cliff with a thin waterfall tumbling down the center barred the way. But Kaffa, climbing like a baboon, found a foothold to ledges yet higher. The rest scrambled up with the help of a rope. The packs were hauled up.
Enormous ferns made wet screens across the way so that it was impossible to know where the gorge twisted; and one fought through a wall of matted greenery to find one's face close up against a wall of slick, lichen-grown sandstone.
The steep sides began to open out, to slope away, giving promise of ending, only to break up into other dark gorges that crawled tortuously up and forever up.
A single compensation was the climate. The dead, dry heat of the plain was left far below. A warm, wet wind filtered down the slope. Honest green foliage was there. Things lived.
CAMP was made high on the side of a cliff like a swallow's nest. And for that the compensation was no boma and no lions. King ordered the Hottentot:
"Open up pack No. 6. The wind of the night blows chill. Let each man receive the blanket that was promised."
Which comfort, artfully given at just the right time, was one that only naked men could properly appreciate.
The next steep, V-shaped gash in the far sky was really the last. Toiling through its boulder heaped bottom, they came suddenly through the last forest edge and there was no farther ridge.
The climbers saw before them a short half mile of treeless, wind blown, grassy slope. The last ridge through which they had come towered on to a jagged lipped crater from which, as if drawn with a pencil, a straight black wall of old lava cut across the green plain. Through the wall was a space where some last convulsion had obligingly split a gap; and beyond it nothing except white cloud against blue sky. This was over the top.
"Whew!" King mopped his brow and stood to survey the scene."Looks like we've arrived. And—" his nose wrinkled to the cool wind and sniffed luxuriously; he nodded this way and that—"this is good country. Look, there's goats, and there's fat tail sheep. There'll be a village through that split in the wall. I'll admit to the world these people are sure hidden. Let's go."
As they crossed the grass land a small white figure detached itself from a grazing herd and ran swiftly through the gap in the lava wall. King snapped his glasses up to cover the runner.
"Hm, clothed in pants and a shawl. Something like the Abyssinian costume. These are no savages. Wonder whether they keep hidden behind the point of a spear? Keep going; I'd just as soon meet them in that defile as out in the open. There's a lot of diplomacy behind a solid front and no way to wiggle around."
But no resistance met them in the narrow passage. Like a rough hewn coal mine cut it diagonaled through the black lava. A fall of immense blocks at the end obstructed the view. King was cautious about turning into that narrow outlet. It was just the place for a spear or a club to be waiting.
But no weapon was there. King poked his head around the corner. All that met him was a magnificent, breathtaking scene.
A wide green valley opened up before him and sloped away to lose itself in a velvet haze. A silver ribbon crept down its middle. Other little ribbons joined it from the hills on either hand. A jumble of round brown roofs straggled across the foreground. Terraced fields, square bordered by irrigation ditches, showed yellow under corn, rufous under grass, speckled white under cotton.
A prosperous scene of peace and plenty. But King stretched his long arm and pointed out to Yakoub, not the huts or the fields or the scattered flocks, but a dirty smudge that marred the far distant landscape.
"The slope is too gentle for a landslide there," he whispered.
"And so what?" Yakoub caught at his arm.
"Diggings." King uttered the magic word.
A group of white clad figures was coming from the collection of huts. A deputation they seemed to be, for no sun flashed from spear points.
"Looks like peace all right," said King."It's a sure rule. In good country you find good people, until somebody comes along and spoils them. Let's go on down."
The group of men, upon closer approach, were seen to be tall with dark, intelligent faces and keen black eyes; more Abyssinian in color and feature than African. And they greeted in Amharic:
"Thena-yisth-al-enye—may He give you health on my account."
Both King and Yakoub knew enough of that terribly involved language to understand and to know at the same time that these men spoke with a throatily aspirated accent. King, with apprehension, asked at once if they were Abyssinians; for a law of that country is that all minerals belong to the imperial government and may be mined only under jealously granted concessions that very often cost more to procure than ever comes out of the claim.
They lifted a leaden load from his mind by telling him that while they spoke a patois of Amharic, they were strangers. And that load was a gossamer thread compared with the weight that lifted itself as King and Yakoub simultaneously nudged each other and pointed with their eyes to circular disks of red-yellow metal engraved with crude characters that each man wore suspended by a string at his throat.
The deputation with grave courtesy invited King and his safari to accept the hospitality of their village.
They had never seen white men; but they had heard rumors of them now and then from bold young men who went over the difficult mountain trails to trade with Abyssinia. White men, the rumor ran, were very wise and had all sorts of new and wonderful knowledge. Would the white visitors be their guests?
King looked at Yakoub, and Yakoub looked at King. This was beginning to be a fairy story; it was too good to be true. Courtesy and kindliness like this in Africa? Verily a promised land after their labors.
AS they walked on down the rich valley both men had the same horrid thought, and it burst from both of them simultaneously. A hideous thought that was quite unthinkable. Imagine these people in the hands of that Van Vliet gang with their gin-trading tactics! It was such traders who had ruined all of Africa.
In the village they were shown into a round hut with a thatched roof. Young men brought water in earthen bowls and—miracle—soft cotton cloths for towels. Presently a meal would be ready for them and the father of the village would eat with them and would learn knowledge from the white men.
That, said King, speaking for his group, would suit them exactly. They wanted to see the chief, or the king or whoever might have the say-so about things, and they hoped then to come to some agreement about a trade.
But they had no chiefs, these people; no king. The head of the family with its dependents was the headman of his village and also its priest; and the headmen all gathered in council from time to time under the headman of the big village fifteen miles down the valley.
Yakoub nodded in perfect agreement and understanding. Here was the pure patriarchal system perfectly adapted to an isolated people who had developed the arts of peace in their favorable environment rather than the arts of war. Truly these were an exceptional people to find hidden in almost the last lone little strip of Africa that hadn't been gobbled up by contending European powers. It would be a pity if they should fall in with the rest of Africa.
Suddenly Yakoub grabbed King by the arm. Enlightenment had burst upon him.
"I know what he meant. I see it now. The Wizard—it was a pity that we knew about them—these people hidden from what the conqueror races call the benefits of civilization."
King nodded agreement. He knew that section of history as well as Yakoub. There was a routine schedule—first missionaries and hymn books, then traders and gin, a fight, then soldiers and guns; and presently another section of the map was colored the same as the nearest adjacent section. True, it would be a pity. Still, how was a country to be exploited without the influx of white man's methods, his machinery, his capital, his brains?
The discussion was still going on when a young man came to say that the meal was ready. With quickening interest they followed him. The attitude of the patriarch would indicate much as to what sort of trade arrangement might be made about whatever it was that came out of those diggings. The young man led the way to a hut that was quite a building, though composed of the same materials as all the rest—a large, round, thatched structure of adobe surrounded by a court paved with flat stones which in turn was surrounded by a circular adobe wall.
They were about to turn into the open gateway when the young man, with a suddenly shocked expression, told them that that was the Xjehaver-beth, the tribal prayer house. The patriarch's modest house was next to it and was no different from all the others.
The patriarch himself was a venerable old man, white bearded like a high priest of some ancient cult. He greeted his guests with grave dignity at his door and conducted them without any preliminary conversation through a short passage into the dim interior of his house. This room, like the outside, was circular and up through its center ran the single supporting pole of the whole roof structure. Doorways hung with white cotton cloth led into a series of cubicles between this inner and the outer wall.
Along an arc of the room wall was a built-in bench; before it, a curved plank table at which the members of the family already stood at their places—stalwart sons only, no women.
Both the guests realized that this meal was something in the nature of a ceremony; some sort of initiation before acceptance on a friendly basis. Silently they sat at the places given to them. Immediately two youths entered, one carrying a bowl of water, the other a towel.
The old man ceremoniously dipped his fingers, wiped them and muttered something in his beard. The youths came to Yakoub, who sat next. Abstractedly he went through the selfsame rite—dipped, wiped and muttered in his beard as of long familiarity.
Suddenly his eyes dilated. He looked round wildly, as if coming out of a dream. Then he gave a loud cry.
"But this is orthodox of my own people. The washing of hands. These people are—" He turned to the old man—"you are Falasha, the Strangers, of course. Why did I not guess it at once? 'Xjehaver-beth', the house of Jehovah. You are Jews!"
The old man smiled benignly and shook his head.
"Falasha we are, but we are alone. We have no people. A few of us there are in Abyssinia. From them we have also heard this rumor that there are more of our people in far countries. But that can not be. We are alone."
"But no. But listen! This is a miracle. Let me prove to you—how can I begin? Look, I know your rites and your ceremonies. I will tell you them all. I—"
The old man bowed to the torrent of excited speech. But he had to interrupt.
"First, you must break bread in my house. Afterward we can talk."
That was another rite; and Yakoub knew the ceremony of that one, too. Then his waves of words loosed themselves upon the wondering patriarch.
KING left them talking about things that he did not understand and went outside to weigh this new angle in his mind. He knew the story of the Abyssinian Falasha—one of the most stupendous and incredible dramas of all the world's nations. How a Hebrew scholar traveling in Abyssinia only a few years ago had suddenly came upon these "Strangers".
A few scattered groups of them, living among the Abyssinians, speaking their language, burnt by generations of sun and exposure to their color; but remaining rigidly exclusive units among themselves. Their ancient language was lost; only a few distorted words remained. They knew nothing about themselves, whence they had come or how; only that until the accession of the new emperor of the land they had been persecuted for the faith that they clung to with iron tenacity. Before that, a blank. But—this was the miracle—they had retained practically intact the forms and ceremonies of the religion they had brought with them, nobody could guess how many thousand years ago. And when the scholar told them the news of coreligionists all over the world they refused to believe the wonder.
Lack of communication in Abyssinia, absence of roads and appallingly difficult travel had delayed any serious investigation of them. The scholar had immediately dedicated his life to them and was engaged in collecting funds for their amelioration. And now here was this new outlying group, more isolated than any. The Hidden People.
King had heard theories. One savant traced in an ancient record hewn in stone that at the time of the captivity in Egypt a large band of Hebrews had escaped and fled up the Nile and eastward; the reigning Pharaoh had sent soldiers after them, none of whom ever came back. Another professor claimed that the caravans of Solomon came to Ethiopia to seek gold and took back the vast riches that went to the building of the great temple.
Ever since those ancient days the story of gold in Ethiopia had persisted. And that brought King right down to the immediate present. Gold there was in Abyssinia, plenty of it. The hereditary prince of the Beni Shangul district in those western mountains paid a colossal tribute in links of beaten gold. If there was gold in these lost hills, what would be the attitude of these hidden people toward its exploitation?
And the more King thought about that and about all the ramifications of the matter—his partner Yakoub included—the less he liked it. His thin smile puckered his eyes as he looked out across the prosperous, peaceful valley. Exploitation—a gold strike. What would those things mean? King fell to whistling his long, mournful discords. Then he shrugged his misgivings from his big shoulders and lighted his pipe.
When King wanted to know more about the diggings down the hillside, they were evasive. When he asked about the engraved disks that they all wore at their necks, they did not understand.
"The root of all evil," King murmured to himself."And they don't want it to attract any evil here. I wonder, I wonder. What did the old wizard of Elgon mean about doing the thing that is right?"
IT was not until evening that Yakoub came away from his conference with the patriarch, and at its conclusion they were both changed men. In the patriarch the change was easy to see and to tabulate. He went about as a man in a daze. Unbelievable things had been proven to him. A miracle in the shape of an untidy man had come from the almost legendary outside world and had blasted the traditions of generations. He was numb, he did not know yet whether from access of joy or from apprehension.
With Yakoub the emotion was not so easy to analyze. He was extraordinarily elated, at the same time vaguely troubled; full of zeal for what might be done with these people, and in the next moment apathetically hopeless against impending disaster. He himself did not know just what was in his mind.
The only definite information he had was that they were to go down the valley the next morning to the big village to be presented to the chief patriarch, the keeper of the amulet, who was learned in the ancient traditions and could adequately discuss these new wonders.
"Were you able to get anything out of the old man about the diggings?" asked King."They froze up on me like clams when I tried them."
But that was a question that Yakoub had found no opportunity to intrude into the whole afternoon of discussion.
The little journey down the valley was a delightful Springtime hike in the country after the recent toil and sweat and eternal vigilance of safari. Here everything was so peaceful and secure that Barounggo and the porters were left behind to rest and feast after their labors. Only the little Hottentot trotted behind his master and chattered his comments upon the good country through which they passed.
And good country it was. The same rich soil as in the main Abyssinian plateau, the same all-year-round climate; so that crops grew and ripened, not according to season but according to time of planting and irrigation. Here the ripened grain and the new green shoots could be seen alongside of each other in adjacent fields.
In a circumscribed area round each of the little villages men plowed with a crude contraption of sticks shod with iron, or harvested grain with sickles; women spun cotton yarn on whirling bobbins or click-clacked at hand looms. Everywhere the natives dropped their work and came to look at the white men who had superior knowledge about these things.
"Aie, aie. " Yakoub sighed."What these people need is development. A little leading by the hand and showing how; a better plow, a finer loom, a more efficient kiln. They have the material and the mind; all they need is teaching."
"Yep," agreed King."A little agricultural and mining machinery would make quite a place out of this valley."
"Yes. But, my dear Kingi—" Yakoub threw out protesting hands—"in time, of course, in time. They must advance slowly and with care. You would not want to see a sudden commercial development spring up among these people. You would not want, for instance—" and here the fear that had been gnawing at him came out and he groaned at the prospect—"if, for instance, those three ruffians should have followed us! You always said how clever is that man. If they should come and discover that there is gold—good God of my fathers forbid it!"
King nodded darkly. Such a contingency would indeed be a dire catastrophe to this fair valley. But still, he thought to himself, if gold existed in anything like the quantity that they—to say nothing of the big business concerns which were on the trail—had hoped, how was it to be developed without machinery, without capital?
THE big village came as a startling climax to the beautiful, hidden valley. The slope eased gently down to the surrounding terraced fields of green and russet and gold, to the irrigation dikes that glittered in the sun, to the brown clustered huts.
There was the immediate prosperous, busy foreground; and beyond it the world vanished. The silver ribbon of river reached the same place and there it, too, silently disappeared. It was a beautiful painted landscape; but the artist had suddenly died and had done no more than smudge in the neutral blue-gray background.
Their guide who had conducted them down the valley turned King and Yakoub over to a graybeard who greeted Yakoub with deference. It was astonishing how instinctively these people had accepted Yakoub in their minds as the leader of the expedition. The old man told him that the high patriarch had summoned the patriarchs of the other villages to a council which would confer far into the night over the astounding things they had heard and that in the morning the assembled sages would see the doctor of knowledge who had brought this great news and would discuss these important things further. In the meanwhile he was at their service.
"I want to go and see that," said King, pointing to the blank cessation of the landscape.
And it was just that. The whole valley fell away over an abrupt cliff. Far down, hundreds of sheer feet down, the treetops of a wide terrace looked like small green umbrellas. Beyond the terrace was another enormous leap into nothing. The flanking hills of the valley suddenly resolved themselves over this edge into mountains that tumbled away in a confusion of precipices, down and away to an indistinct aero map of brown plain.
The little river that passed quietly through the middle of the village took one immense, smooth, emerald leap over the edge, churned itself in midair into a splendid white plume, plunged through the green umbrella tops and disappeared. The lip of the next terrace was a waterless black wall.
"It goes into a hole in the ground," explained the old man.
"Ah," breathed King."That's the river I prospected up 'way down there in that hellish plain; the subterranean one."
As if to substantiate the fact, a man came running to King. His impetuous approach was in marked contrast to the grave, shy advance of the rest of these people. He embraced King's knees and, taking his hand in both his own, placed it upon his head. King looked at him sharply.
"Oho, so there is a way up somewhere," he deduced."And this is the rogue I couldn't scare into betraying it. Good lad. Is it well with you, wanderer? And have you any more of those little ingots?"
And that brought up the paramount question once more. King turned to Yakoub.
"Here, you've become the boss of the outfit; it's you who's the little tin godling. Ask about those diggings. Maybe they'll tell you something."
But the old man replied to that query with a staggering readiness that implied truth:
"Those diggings? Yes that is where we get a red earth that we melt with charcoal and it becomes iron for our plows and tools."
And to that story he clung. King would have pressed him for information about other workings. But Yakoub demurred irritably:
"What is the need of such an anxiety, my dear Kingi? Tomorrow after the conference, perhaps. Aie, aie, who knows? Who can tell what is the right thing?"
There was another weighty conference of doctrinarians. King was left out of it. These were matters beyond his ken. He was left to wander about at his own devices. Everywhere everybody was friendly and courteous. Whenever he stopped to watch some little activity or household chore he was asked in; he was offered milk and a cool drink made of honey and water flavored with a pungent herb.
And they asked questions—interminable questions. They wanted to know things. How did the white men do this? How did they make that? What was their custom of performing something else? Had they come to teach them their wisdom from far lands?
King nodded reflectively, very soberly.
"All chips off the same old block," he ruminated."Always want to learn something." He had met Falashas in Abyssinia. They were all the same. Knowledge was their thirst and their hunger.
A messenger came running. The other white man, the learned doctor, was out from the conference and summoned him.
"They're going to show us the amulet," Yakoub grunted.
He stood with shoulders humped up to his ears, arms hanging listlessly, eyes dully apathetic—a picture of extraordinary dejection rather than of the keyed-up excitement that might have been expected from so portentous a disclosure.
The chief patriarch, who stood with him, a benign old gentleman bearded up to his eyes and with his hair an unkempt replica of Yakoub's, only snowy white, scrutinized King with shrewd appraisal. He shrugged in acceptance of a course contrary to his judgment.
"Since you insist," he addressed Yakoub, "that you may do nothing without his sharing in it, and since you are a brother in our faith and stand surety for him, he may see this thing that has been hidden since the beginning of our people. Come, then, to the House of the Amulet."
THE house was a shock to King. He had been picturing a temple at the least—the most elaborate building that the community could produce, surrounded with pomp and ceremony, decorated with the best of the arts and crafts that the people had to offer and jealously guarded by a vested priesthood.
But the House of the Amulet turned out to be a windowless, round stone hut with thatched roof, very much like the rest of the domiciles. Its most outstanding difference was that it stood at the little river's brim closer to the lip of the precipice than any other. The high patriarch produced an enormous iron key from under his white robe and calmly prepared to unlock a not too sturdy door.
"Hm, pretty darn casual about their sacred amulet, aren't they?" King grunted.
The old man seemed to understand the sense rather than the words. He smiled in benevolent enjoyment of a surprise.
"Not sacred—only secret," he said, and pushed open the door.
And the surprise was a crushing disappointment. King had formed no idea of what this amulet might be. A symbolic figure perhaps, he had thought; some ancient thing of mystic design enshrouded in a golden casket. Or an idol of some sort. He had vaguely speculated before he had seen these people; but he knew now, of course, that they had no idols.
The only light came through the single door. King could see that the floor of the hut was paved with irregular stones and that—at the door at least—they had been worn smooth by the treading of countless bare feet. In the center of the hut, upon the bare stone floor, was a massive raised dais, also circular; a sort of altar it might have been, for the top was roughly flat.
But it was empty. Nothing stood upon the altar. No image, no object of veneration. Alone it stood there, solid, ponderous, uninspiring. And the hut, too, was empty; the walls cold, bare stone, devoid of the least attempt at decoration—no niches, no shrine, nothing. It began to come to King that this altar must be it; this thick circular mass must, for some curious reason, be the ancient amulet. And, yes, those fat round disks of gold that all the men wore at their necks were clearly replicas of this great lump of something; and the lump showed here and there faint traces of worn, square cut characters.
King's eyes were becoming accustomed to the interior dimness. He could see that light glinted off innumerable bright surfaces with sharp edges, apparently hacked out indiscriminately with a chisel. The thing seemed to be composed of a metal of some kind. There was no attempt at design.
Suddenly King cried out and leaped forward, then checked his leap in sudden awe.
"Almighty Pete!" His voice was hoarse.
The light glinted yellow from those sharp chisel cuts, the same as it did from those replica disks. Slowly King approached and ran his thumb along some of the shiny grooves. It was not possible—that whole solid mass. But there it stood, ponderous, huge, winking malignantly from its many facets.
Yakoub suddenly whooped, too, and plunged forward with a great cry. But his emotion was vastly different.
"Those marks—the characters! I can read them. God of my fathers, they are Hebrew!"
Crying, muttering, he pushed King fiercely to one side out of the light and knelt over the worn surface, peering, feeling with his fingers.
But the ancient surface had been cruelly hacked over. With vandal carelessness great slivers of the metal had been gouged out. A letter here and there was intact; fragments of others. Hebrew they were. Yakoub knew them. But any inscription that might have been had long ago been chiseled away.
The ancient patriarch stood by, stroking his long beard and smiling with benign understanding.
"A great weight of evil lies there, my brother, is it not so? Grief and sin and warfare, if men but knew."
"You don't know how this thing ever got here, I suppose?" asked King.
The old man shook his head.
"It has always been here. Our people have no knowledge of its coming. This is our secret. The Amulet of our good fortune, if we use it wisely. From time to time, when we have need, we cut pieces from it and melt it into small ingots, and our young men take these to trade over the mountains.
"Phe-ew!" King whistled through his teeth."There must be a couple of tons of it. What a miracle—what a story! Hebrew characters. Maybe Solomon's ancient miners. Maybe—who knows? And they've chiseled it away for fifty dollars' worth of trade a year. How many hundreds of years? Gosh! Yakoub, old man, I take it all back. Africa is full of secrets that only a wild romanticist would ever believe. What a piece of loot—if any one could ever get it away."
"But you can't, my dear Kingi." Yakoub was clawing at his sleeve and croaking in an agony of apprehension."We can not exploit this thing. Kingi, old friend, listen to me."
WITH thin slits of eyes and a twisted smile King harked back to the beginning of this quest.
"Wise old Wizard. He had the right dope. 'And the magic of that amulet is that whosoever shall see it, it shall tear his heart asunder that he can not take it away with him. ' He was right. It would need an expedition and an army."
Again the old patriarch seemed to sense his meaning.
"Look," he said, "how wise were these ancient people who fashioned this thing. As long as it is secret it is an amulet of fortune. As soon as the secret might be noised abroad it would become an amulet of evil and death and war."
That thought gripped Yakoub with a sudden terror. He moaned:
"He is right. How terribly right, conceive of a trader safari getting into this valley."
"And look again," the patriarch continued with religious fervor, "how wise were those ancient ones. If an enemy should come with force to bring evil upon us for the sake of this thing, my young men with strong bars would roll this evil to the edge—but a little distance—where the water goes down into the belly of the earth; and so would the evil be removed from the face of the earth and returned to the earth whence it came."
"Golly!" King was aghast at the prospect."What a crazy idea! What a colossal crime. Or—" he was darkly reflective—"would it, after all, be a crime for these people?"
That was a question that was going to be put to the test with a suddenness as starkly dramatic as the issue itself.
In the open air once more, King remained moodily, almost morosely, thoughtful. He sent long, coldly appraising glances up and down the flanking hills, and nodded affirmatively to his own thoughts. He told Yakoub:
"It's a likely enough place. Any of those rocky ridges might show a surface vein a foot wide. But it would take machinery." He harked back to a picture of ancient activity."Those old-timers, whoever they were, must have cracked out the ore with fire and wedges and broken it up with hammers by hand and just washed out as much as they could pick up with their fingernails. No mercury, no cyanide; they had nothing except patience. What a job it must have been to make that great lump. And what for?" He turned to his fascinating estimate again."A little mill, a four-stamp mill, could be dragged in somewhere, somehow—and there's water power."
But Yakoub clutched his arm again with an access of horror.
"But Kingi, my dear Kingi, a mill—you couldn't bring such a thing upon these people." An almost religious anguish worked in his face."Machinery, people, outsiders, a gold rush. Old friend, you can't do such a thing."
King's face was very hard as he visualized that picture. It was a long and a dark vision. He muttered scraps of words to himself.
"Wise old wizard. We'd see that amulet and we'd do the right thing, eh? Yakoub, you're a weak bellied and sentimental— Hey, look there. There's a commotion about something."
Voices were calling excitedly to one another. There was a running and a scurrying.
People huddled in groups. A woman's voice broke high in a thin wail. A man ran to them and almost dragged them to the house of the patriarch. A young man with his white robe tied about his loins was panting out news that appalled the old man. King's face immediately set hard with apprehension. He recognized the young man as a runner from the village at the upper end of the valley.
"Tell it over again," he ordered, "quick, and miss nothing."
The young man gasped out dire news with telegraphic brevity.
The great black man had sent him, he said, and had promised him death if he delayed. The great black man had been uneasy because of a trouble they had had with a naked people on the plain and he had posted a lookout on a high place to watch the road. And now an army of the naked people was coming up the mountain.
All thought of golden amulets and speculations as to their evil potency vanished.
"How far?" King snapped the important question at the runner.
They were yet very far, and the way was, as the white men knew, very difficult. The great black man was going terribly about preparing to give them war and was driving the young men of the village to hunt up their unaccustomed weapons.
The patriarch stretched tremulous hands out to King. It was noticeable how in his mind the leadership of things in this crisis had reverted to King. The patriarch spoke hesitantly, as one who had not gathered his wits from the disrupting shock of an unprecedented event.
"But what is to be done? It has never happened before. We have known those people from afar; there has never been any trouble. We have nothing that those naked people can use; nor have they anything that we require. Thus has there been no cause for war."
The old man unwittingly spoke a great basic truth about the bedrock cause of all wars. He did not blame the white men as being instrumental in attracting this catastrophe. He only wondered helplessly what cause should now have arisen.
Yakoub yammered at King's side.
"Aie, that this should now come! Kingi, we must—you must prevent this thing. This secret must be kept. It would mean ruin. Go, my friend. Go quickly. I will come as fast as I can. Do this thing for me."
King's face was all hard angles.
"I will," he grunted savagely."I've owed you this secret for two years. I'll keep it tight for you against those bandits." To the patriarch he said, "Gather your young men, as many as you have, with whatever weapons they have. Send them as swiftly as may be. I'll keep your valley inviolate somehow."
"Alas," the old man wailed, "our tools have always been better than our weapons, and so we have been prosperous." And there he spoke another great truth.
King turned impatiently from him to Yakoub.
"Bring the reenforcements as soon as you can get any sort of weapons into their hands." He took in a hole in his belt."I'm going to be up there in four hours or bust."
To the patriarch again:
"Old man, quit wailing and give me a herald or an officer, a deacon—somebody with authority to collect up the young men from the villages as I go. Let him run after me. I can't wait."
FOUR hours to traverse fifteen miles would seem to be a lot of time for a strong man. But fifteen miles over rough country, and uphill, is different from marathon running. And then there were those villages to be stirred up.
The little Hottentot trotted tirelessly behind, his keen mind busy with just one thing. Those naked people—was it reasonable that they should make a very troublesome war on account of a broken nose? Did they suddenly decide that the white men's little safari was worth looting? Or had they heard about gold? And if so, what use would they have for it and why had they never tried for it all these many years? None of these questions could be fitted with an answer.
"Something more is behind this, bwana," he insisted."Some new thing drives them. A magic gives them courage, for, as we know, they are not over-brave."
King only muttered:
"Hanged if I know. Anything can happen in Africa."
And he hurried on. His heart, which had been in his mouth as he drew nearer to the head of the valley, expecting to hear howls and yells and all the uproar of a savage battle, began to subside when he was able to discern the wall of black lava in the distance and the village below it not yet in flames. A decrepit ancient told him that the Great Black One was beyond at the head of the mountain pass, having threatened, bullied, and in some cases beaten, every man who was capable of carrying even a stick; and he had taken all of them with him. King hurried on, sick at heart.
The Masai met him in exactly the opposite frame of mind. His eyes showed rims of white round his dancing black pupils; he breathed enormously through wide nostrils; a corner of his lip fluttered at nervous intervals to show a flash of strong eyeteeth. He greeted King boisterously:
"Hau, bwana. That was a swift journey. And indeed I promised death to that runner, did he dawdle. Look, bwana, thus shall the battle go."
King stopped his eagerness.
"So snorts the buffalo. Tell me first swiftly how many are they and where?"
The Masai strode ahead to show. A couple of miles down the lower gorges a glimpse could be caught now and then of a naked figure scrambling over some bare spot. King watched them with moody intensity. The Hottentot was right. So troublesome a foray, requiring a vindictive persistence so foreign to African character, needed to be explained by something very much more compelling than a smashed nose.
"I have had a man counting all day," Barounggo told him."A hundred men they must be. Wah, it will be a good fight." He was eager to disclose his plan of battle. King knew that the great fierce fellow was steeped in experience; he was willing to listen.
"Thus shall the fight go, bwana. Here where the gorge is narrow and the sides steep I have gathered great stones high up. See, I have posted the men of this village on the flanks in hiding. They are willing, but of weapons they know nothing. When the word is given the stones shall roll and crush those naked ones. Those that break through, I and my ten shall charge upon with shield and spear and shall slaughter them."
King considered the matter frowningly. The great Masai had chosen about the only plan that held out any hope of success. Still, the odds were frightful.
"And what," he asked, "if, let us say, as many as fifty break through?"
"That, too, is foreseen, bwana." The Masai was ingeniously pleased at his own generalship."The men of this village, having rolled their stones, the half of them shall run swiftly to stand at our backs. If we prevail and drive these naked ones back, the remaining half shall roll more stones. If they prevail and we ten should fall, then—" the strategist paused with the instinctive dramatic sense of his people before he disclosed the single flaw in his strategy.
With meticulous care he fished a tiny horn from somewhere about his waistline; he drew a plug from its end and tapped out a pinch of snuff on to his spear blade; he sniffed it with keen appreciation and then continued:
"If we should fall, bwana, then the affair will be the affair of these people to settle. For us it will have been a good fight."
"Hm." King grunted his only comment to the plan with but a single flaw and went on down the ravine a little way to inspect the possibilities.
The situation was desperate enough, and the issue would depend entirely upon just one thing—how well the invaders would stand up under the combined effect of surprise and organized resistance. If well led—or well driven—their numerical superiority in spearmen was going to be a frightful advantage.
RETURNING from his inspection, King regarded the darkening sky with an anxiety that slowly lifted.
"They can't all of them reach this gorge before dark, and they won't fight at night. That will give us a chance for reenforcements, such as they are."
He made one alteration in the Masai's crudely ferocious plan. This heroic shield and spear stuff. He remembered that some great general, speaking of a similar berserk charge, had said, "It is magnificent; but it is not war." He ordered, therefore:
"Let men build here a barricade of stones in this narrow place; and immediately on either hand let a second relay of boulder rollers stand in readiness."
There followed a night of waiting as miserable as any King had ever known. Voices sounded far down the lower ravine—shouts and calls; fires winked derisive eyes. King kept anxiously awake, assuring himself that no stealthy attack was being planned. Barounggo, with grim gusto, held a strip of hide between teeth and big toe and stropped incessantly at his great spear blade. His ten porters—red eyed fighting men now—took example from him and followed suit. King made an opportunity to ask the Masai what he thought of their courage for the coming fight. Would they stand?
The big man laughed easily."Nay, bwana, did not the Wizard of Elgon make a magic for them, the great magic of the lion's teeth, that they might be brave? How can they then fail?"
Shortly before dawn Yakoub arrived. With him were something less than a hundred men from the lower villages, determined enough in demeanor, but woefully armed with a miscellaneous collection of agricultural tools. The best weapon was a heavy sort of cane knife. A few fish spears were there too, serviceable but hardly strong enough for war.
King marshaled the knifemen in a solid body to support Barounggo's askaris behind the barrier. The fish-spearmen he sent up the steep ravine sides to help the stone rollers. And then the patriarchs drove him to frenzy by calling their people to them en masse to spend the remaining hours in loud prayer and exhortation.
Almost with the first daylight a watcher on the ravine side called—
King and Barounggo shouted, ordered, pushed the men into the positions that had been assigned to them. King put Yakoub in charge on one flank of the ravine.
"Your job will be to see that none of your gang shows himself before I whistle the order to roll. Surprise is our advantage. And you'll act as a sharpshooter wherever you see need."
Barounggo had gone a little way down the ravine to see what might be seen of the advantage. He called now:
"Only one comes. He bears the crossed sticks of a herald."
King immediately climbed over the stone barricade and ordered a whole mob of his heterogeneous force to follow him and to stand massed in front of it as a screen. He beckoned to Yakoub and to the bearded elders to go forward with him to meet this herald.
"I guess they have a right to listen in," he muttered, "since it's on their ground."
The herald swaggered up the last slope of the ravine. A tall, burly fellow he was, as big as Barounggo, but with this difference: While the Masai was decked out in all his savage glory of garters at elbow and knee, leopardskin kilt with tail flying behind, black ostrich plume nodding above his head, this man was naked for war.
He came with a curious rolling gait, brave enough in the face of he knew not what. He strode up to the little group and guffawed in their faces. His eyes, rolling, bloodshot, traveled to the huddled mob in front of the barricade, and he guffawed enormously again.
King was glad enough to note his apparent scorn of the defensive force—so much greater would be the surprise.
But Barounggo took the scorn ill.
"Cease thy yawning, baboon," he growled ominously, "and speak thy message."
THE man stared at him with an exaggerated insolence. Then he tossed his head and mouthed his message. Magnificent physical specimen as he was, he seemed to have an impediment in his speech.
"My message is this," he mumbled, "and it is well that the ancient ones of the Hidden People hear."
And from that he rambled on into a grandiloquent and rather incoherent speech full of repetitions and vain boastings. So long was it and pointless at times that King wondered whether the whole thing were not a clever subterfuge to gain time. Only the man did not look to be that clever.
The gist of the long palaver was that the people of the Nabu villages of the Orugniro had a quarrel with the white men. Blood had been shed; only a little, it was true, but a little was enough. Now, therefore, let the Hidden People deliver up the white men and their servants and their goods to the men of Nabu; and there would be peace between the Hidden People and the men of Nabu and the friends and allies of the men of Nabu.
It was to the everlasting credit of the elders that they showed no hesitation. They flung up their hands and lifted their shoulders to their ears and told each other, rather than the insolent herald, that the thing was quite impossible; the white men had eaten their bread and were moreover—or the one of them at least—their brothers.
The Masai could never brook insolence from any of the many peoples whom he considered his inferiors. He looked hungrily at King. King nodded shortly. Barounggo took a single great stride forward and flashed his spear before the eyes of the herald. His voice rumbled from deep in his belly:
"The answer of the white lords to the naked grass apes of Nabu is this blade. Observe it well, fellow. It is the word of an Elmoran of the Masai that within this day's sun it strews thy bowels in the dust as a pack cord when the day's march is done. For such offal as make friendship and alliance with the monkey people of Nabu there is no answer."
The man gaped at this ferocious outburst with vacant wonder. Then he guffawed again and swung on his heel to go. Barounggo's great arm shot out and gripped him by the shoulder to twist him around. The man lurched unsteadily as he turned and almost fell.
And then King suddenly knew, and his heart went cold. That knowledge explained everything that had been a mystery before. It explained his rolling walk, his vacant laugh, his rambling speech; it was the foundation of his recklessness. It was Dutch courage. The man was drunk.
A drunken savage was no very formidable person. But what chilled King's blood was the knowledge that natives can not acquire that kind of intoxication on muddy mealie-beer, and that on the march they could not carry enough of the stuff to get drunk on at all.
"Oh, the clever, clever devil," he was forced to admire."Oh, the cunning beast! He won them over in spite of the trouble we left. He knew from the very start. 'A piece of cheap goods and a bottle of squareface'. Swine of hell!"
Yakoub was at his elbow. As yet he had not understood; but he was racked with apprehension.
"What—what is it, Kingi? What have you found?"
"Van Vliet is back of them," snapped King."That explains everything. Thirty loads of trade goods and gin. That was the price. A big drunk jamboree all together, and good friends all round. A strong alliance with twenty askaris and three rifles. He knows how to handle the African, all right."
Yakoub fell back, stunned. His mouth sagged open and his face twitched. For agonized seconds no sound came from him, though his beard's convulsive trembling showed how his throat worked. He clawed at King. Incoherent noises came. Then broken words:
"God of my fathers! Even this. Were not the naked ones enough? And now these three, of all the wicked men in Africa. The abomination of desolation. The end of all things." He dragged at King's arm, sobbing inarticulate things.
King pushed him off roughly.
"All right, all right. Get hold of yourself. We'll stop them. I promised you, didn't I?" His face was as grimly fierce as the Masai's. Through grinding teeth he muttered, "Him or me, huh? Well, here's the showdown."
He roared at Barounggo:
"Get your men lined up there. Throw that mob back over the stone barrier. Up the hill with your side, Yakoub. Hold your shots for white men only—and keep behind cover. Van Vliet is nobody's fool with a rifle at any range. Move, everybody, move."
Swiftly he told Barounggo what he knew to be his true surmise. The Masai understood it at once. He grinned wolfishly.
"Oho, so those naked ones have drunk the white men's bravery out of a bottle. Good. It will not last."
He looked critically at his men and his mob of reserves.
"Let bwana attend to those white men," he growled."Leave the others to me. It will be a fight. Hear their monkey clamor. They come."
King had a sudden inspiration. Quickly he imparted it to the Masai.
"Take your ten a little way down; fifty paces will be enough. So, when they see you they will halt and mass up. Then will I signal the stone rollers."
THE Masai grasped that strategy at once. Quickly he led his little force of spearmen and lined them across the ravine. Silent, their scowling black faces peering over their big oxhide shields, they were quite formidable enough to give pause to the first comers of the naked men. Their enemies stood and chattered. Some laughed; some shouted insults; some leaped in the air and flourished spears. It was quite apparent that all of them had been stimulated to fighting pitch by something more potent than mere words.
Others came up behind them and added their yells. They pushed from behind. More came. They filled the gully—fifty of them. More kept piling up behind. They needed just that little something to rush them to the charge.
Then King whistled.
A rattle like machine gun fire commenced on either hill. A snapping and cracking of branches that grew with appalling swiftness to the boom and crash of artillery, the thudding vibrations of which shook the ground.
The naked men huddled in momentary panic. The front and rear fringes could run; but the center was too close packed. Before the mass could disintegrate the avalanche was upon them. A great advance boulder crushed a red swathe through the mass of black bodies. Then the rest of the horrid carnage was blotted out by a cloud of flying dust and rubble out of which came shrieks and smashing thuds and more shrieks.
A small group of frightened men who had been in the front of the mob was left marooned before the hurtling dust cloud, looking back at the death they had escaped. With a roar Barounggo charged down on them. His spearmen followed splendidly. There was a fierce minute of flashing spears; and when the dust cloud began to settle the Nabu men saw over its top only the cowhide shields and the black faces of nine men. One sprawled on his back.
Coolly Barounggo picked up the fallen man's shield and spear.
"That one died like a man," he growled."Here are weapons for whosoever can use them."
He threw them behind him and, filled with the exhilaration of battle, prepared to charge down over the mangled mess before him at the scared mob beyond. King rushed down upon him and physically pushed him back.
"Back, fool, back! They are too many. Over the barrier. We don't catch them that way again. They will think twice—or their white allies will think for them."
No white men were seen as yet, but it was immediately evident that brains were behind the attack. More men appeared from lower down and massed beyond the rock barrage area. Wary caution was injected into the advance. The men came in short dashes like skirmishers, watching the ravine sides. More stones thundered down, but the damage to the active single runners was slight.
A white face appeared. It was Dago Lopez. He directed operations, ordering little groups of men when and how to run the barrage. He waved an arm and shouted with cool effrontery:
"You see we come after! Now you weesh you share your doublecross weeth us, no?"
King, looking over the top of the barricade, could have shot him down with both eyes shut.
But Lopez for some reason was without a rifle. Some accident must have happened to it—easily enough in any safari travel and particularly during the rocky ascent of the ravine. King felt himself to be held down by that cast iron code which drew an extraordinary distinction between those finely graded emotions, cold blood and hot. And Lopez, while he was in no way bound, knew that King was, and traded insolently on his knowledge.
King cursed his inhibition, as he always did, and promised himself release as soon as action should become sufficiently hot. There was no sign as yet of either Van Vliet or Johan. But King drew no comfort from that.
"Much too smart to take any risks in a rough and tumble spear fight," he grumbled to himself."He'll show up when he's good and ready. And it'll be in some desperately mean place."
Action came in a rush. Some forty men had run the barrage. Among them were some of the safari askaris. Yakoub on his bank moved his men back and sent rocks hurtling against them. Their position became unbearable. Yet they themselves were too few to attack that defended wall. One, barely missed by a rock, yelped and dashed back to the main body. The rest, in a wild demoralized rush, followed him.
Had they been naked Africans alone, that would probably have meant the beginning of a long sit-down-and-do-nothing till some orator should stir up sufficient courage for a renewed charge. But Lopez cunningly sent spearmen to scale the ravine banks and to drive back the stone rollers.
King groaned. A determined resistance on the slopes might have held off the invaders indefinitely. But he knew that these villagers with knives and sickles could never hold out against spearmen. At that stage he would have shot Lopez without compunction in order to eliminate the brain behind the maneuver. But Lopez most craftily was well concealed behind a rock and only his voice was in evidence.
Closer came the mob of invaders as the men on the ravine flanks were driven back. Close enough for a charge. One tall fellow, brave enough—or drunk enough—to be reckless, shouted his war cry and rushed in. In a howling wave the rest followed.
The barricade disappeared under a black confusion of arms and heads and spears, shouting, straining, stabbing. King sprang up the ravine bank to a flanking position from which he could command all of the wall. Wherever he saw a black shape apparently gaining a foothold on its top he used his rifle. The relay force whom he had stationed closer up the ravine sides rolled their rocks with horrid effect. That charge was breaking up in another shambles.
A shower of smaller stones and rubble clattered past King from above. A white clad body hurtled down and was lost in the black turmoil before the wall. A small avalanche of naked men rolled, scrambled and leaped upon King and swept him from his precarious footing.
The ball of humans, all clinging together like fighting bees, rolled down the slope and thudded full on to the end of the wall.
From the invaders came triumphant howls. The white man was down. The attack took on renewed impetus. King, blinded by dust, choked by a black stomach pressed into his face, could see nothing. He retained sense enough only to know the position in which he was. Struggling, clinging, he put all his effort into trying to roll the man mass over to his own side of the barricade. Somebody shrieked in piercing agony in his very ear. The mass lurched over. They bumped heavily. King did not know which side. He could only hope.
Hot blood gushed into his eyes. It filled his nostrils. The weight above him relaxed. He was dragged to his feet, but not instantly stabbed.
His hands found cloth—somebody's white cotton robe. He wiped his face clear in it. His rifle was somewhere under the stamping, milling feet. Cursing, he dived among straining legs, fighting, pushing. He found the gun and pushed himself up to the surface of the raging human sea. He cursed again; he could feel, rather than see, that his rifle breech was choked with dirt. That was bad. Time and at least a few inches of space would be required for cleaning it.
STANDING perilously on the top of the barricade, the Masai raged to stem the attack. Shield held low to protect his legs, ducking down, leaping high, he avoided with amazing skill the spears that thrust up at him, and he drove his blade down, shouting:
"Ssghee! That for thee, ape. Hau, a good stroke! Sszee. Eat spear, fool!"
Three of his men, roused to a frenzy of emulation, leaped up beside him.
"Ssghee!" they shouted."We, too, are men. Sszee! The song of our spears is death."
The attack was breaking up at the foot of the blood spattered wall. Lopez had seen King fall. He felt secure. He darted from his position behind his sheltering rock. If that terrible man on the wall could be stopped the attack might yet win over. Lopez ran up behind the struggling line, his knife poised over his shoulder; he was watching his chance.
The Masai shouted a greeting.
"Guard my feet, fellows," he growled down. And to Lopez, "Ah, the little dark one, the juggler of knives. Look, I give thee a mark."
With reckless bravado he swept his shield aside and exposed his full chest. Lopez snatched at the offer and hurled his knife with all his vicious force. Barounggo ducked as easily as he had ducked under a hundred whizzing spears.
"A poor throw," he taunted."A child's throw. But look, little dark one. A light spear! A spear balanced close to the blade! Thou knowest it already! I give it thee!"
Lopez squealed in terror and turned to bolt.
"Ssszee!" shouted the Masai with the delight of one who hunted a rabbit.
Lopez rushed on for several paces. Running, he bent lower, and yet lower; his arms spread out clutchingly; his knees sagged; his face slid in the gravel. And so he lay. The thin shaft stood yellow from the very middle of his khaki shirt.
"Hau, a good cast," said Barounggo solemnly.
Then he snatched his great stabbing spear again from behind his shield and drove down among the milling arms and faces at his feet.
And still there was no sign of the other two white men. The attack on the wall broke up. The defenders shrieked victory. But King called Barounggo to him and showed him an inevitable development. The spearmen on the hill had all but dislodged the village people and in a little while more would be in a position to climb down and attack the defenders of the wall from the rear. The way had been shown to them, and they had fighting intelligence enough to follow on even without a leader for awhile. And those two other white men must be showing up somewhere soon.
The barricade was a red splashed and tumbled boulder pile. On both sides of it lay contorted bodies and men who moved painfully and moaned—more, of course, on the attacking side. But there was a mob of howling spearmen, blood drunk now, quite numerous enough to make a holocaust of the poorly armed villagers. Retreat was imperative.
"To the lava wall," said King."How many of your ten have fallen? Choose quickly five others to take their place. We will hold this place while the rest run."
The lava wall could be scaled, of course. But it was rough and difficult. Men standing on its wide top, armed with heavy knives—or even clubs—would have an advantage over climbers.
The Masai had his little troop already filled out; and he added five more sturdy knifemen to their number. King told off bearers to carry the wounded back immediately and passed along instructions to the rest to be prepared to run when the signal was given.
The Nabu men were now divided into three groups. The main body massed a little way down the ravine, inactive for the present, howling rage and threats, lacking only the initiative of a leader; and the two smaller troops of skirmishers who climbed slowly along the steep ravine sides, driving down the stone rollers, shouting enthusiasm at their success.
King called Yakoub down to him. In quick sentences he gave him instructions:
"Give me your gun. Take mine, and for Pete's sake get all this dirt cleaned out. Take all these men and run like hell. Get them lined up along the lava ledge and beat into them it's their last chance. Away with you!"
KING was able to turn his attention to the ravine sides. He was in a fever of apprehension. On one side—the side where he had been—the spearmen had won to a flanking position; they awaited only another frontal attack before climbing lower. On the other side, a steeper slope, they were not so well advanced.
King was cold under the anxiety that Van Vliet and the other ruffian would show up at any minute with some ingeniously devilish plan of campaign that they must have been preparing while Lopez led the frontal attack. Only some heaven-sent accident had held them off this far; but that sort of luck could not continue indefinitely.
High up the ravine side a spearman shouted in glee. He had driven a wretched village youth to a ledge where he could retreat no farther; and now he prodded at him with his spear, trying to pin him to the cliff side. In clear view they stood; the white clad figure flattened against the sliding sandstone, the naked black one clinging spiderlike, stabbing upward.
King threw up the rifle he had taken from Yakoub and fired. With enormous deliberation the naked figure let go all his holds. His spear clattered down the slope. Slowly the man pushed off from the cliff backward. His legs buckled under his weight; his body toppled, sprawled through a swift fall, and crashed on through the bushes of the lower slope like one of the boulders that had preceded it.
Shrill yelps greeted this new angle of the fight. King turned his attention to the men who had won a flanking position. It was a sickening business, this picking off of men like flies from a wall; but it was desperately necessary in order to let the remaining defenders draw off.
A panic grew among the spearmen who had so hilariously hunted the villagers a moment ago. Some contrived to scramble to safety; and those King let go. Some in their desperate anxiety slipped and fell. Some found hiding places. Demoralization was established sufficiently to cover a retreat.
King and his little defending party raced for it. Behind them the Nabu men, inspirited by the flight and quite thoughtless as to its cause, came howling.
As the last man passed through the narrow gap in the lava wall Barounggo swelled his chest with a great laugh of confidence. He told King:
"Let these men go to help that herd on the top, and let bwana go to direct them without fear. This place will I hold alone against all who come."
King, racked with anxiety, grime caked, sticky with blood, could not but envy the man's supreme exhilaration in the sheer joy of fighting. He knew that that narrow passage was an easy place to defend; but he was much too inherently cautious to withdraw all other help, however badly the spears might be needed on the wall.
To Barounggo's disgust he posted five men before the exit. Behind them, at the head of their peaceful valley, old men lifted their hands to heaven and prayed. Some were engaged in helping wounded men who had been hurriedly deposited on the grass King, with ready rifle, waited. The Masai took his stand before the fallen lava block that made the last twist in the passage.
A clamor sounded in the runway, discordant and booming with refracted sound like an ill tuned loud speaker. The Masai laughed and tensed his great shoulders.
Caution is bred of well balanced thought. Africans, fighting, do not think. Urged only by the instinct of the chase, the Nabu men raced into the passage, jostling, shoving, giving tongue. A tall figure without a second's hesitation bounded round the last corner.
The Masai spear licked out and down. The man sprawled, clutching at his middle.
"One," shouted the Masai.
Another man coming saw the trap. He was unable to check himself; he bounded high in the air. The great spear reached him before his feet touched the ground.
"Two," shouted the Masai.
Shouting and frenziedly pushing men choked the turn of the passage. King saw that the position was well defended. He scrambled up to the top to see what went on there. Yakoub, with a great sob of relief, scuttled to him over the broken surface and gave him his rifle. King was equally relieved to feel it in his hands.
At the outer entrance to the passage, not twenty feet below, naked men pushed and milled like cattle at the entrance to a pen. Only a few essayed to climb the craggy wall. They fought bravely enough, these men, but with desperate stupidity. Under a clever leader they could still be dangerous.
"Three," came the voice of Barounggo, exulting at the passage end. And in the next instant, "Arwhoo-oo!" he yelled with surprise and pain.
From far away to the left, where the lava flow sloped from the old crater lip, came a little pop, an innocent little sound like a champagne cork. But it was a sound that King had heard under many thousands of conditions. Galvanically he jerked round to look.
On the slope of the crater, five hundred yards away, naked black figures moved. Among them—King's heart skipped and pounded—were two white ones.
The leader at last. Whatever had delayed Van Vliet's cunningly planned flanking party, here he was finally; and in time to be deadly dangerous.
"The passage!" came King's agonized shout."Barounggo is hit. To the passage, Yakoub."
But Barounggo's voice came up reassuringly:
"It is naught, bwana. A hole through my arm and shield. A little hole. I have had many such holes."
KING became suddenly very cool. A leader five hundred yards away was a long distance from his men. But King knew exactly how dangerous that leader could be even at five hundred yards. He threw himself flat behind a lava block and pushed his rifle over the top. He waited till his breath came unhurriedly and then pressed his trigger.
One of the white figures on the far hillside flung up his hands and fell forward. King could not distinguish which one it was. The other one immediately disappeared. Faint yells of astonishment came from the black ones.
"Watch that passage," King snapped at Yakoub without taking his eyes from the far hill."Make that fool Barounggo take cover. Shove his bunch into the passage and hold it. Stuff it with men, but hold it. And watch your wall."
He crawled forward to another sheltering block and waited.
Crash! Black splinters flew from it in front of his face, and another pop came from the hill. Then King knew the white figure that had dropped was the wrong one. Very cautiously he surveyed the terrain before him, gaging the lines of sight and cover. Then he moved forward again at an angle.
Those reenforcements from the hill must be stopped at all costs. They would stop only when the leader was stopped. King was not sure just where that leader lay hidden. There was no smoke from these high velocity cartridges to betray a position.
King watched like a hawk for a lizard. And as fast as a lizard a far figure scuttled from one rock to another. Too fast. King held his fire.
The thing became a duel at long range between two men, each of whom knew to the full the other's skill.
King called over his shoulder:
"How goes the passage? Don't show yourself."
Yakoub's voice came:
"We're holding them. They are not so anxious."
"Good," said King."Let the natives hold the wall. Van won't waste any shots on them."
At the same instant he fired. He had caught a far glimpse of what might have been a head. Van Vliet's body lurched up into the air and flopped down behind the same rock. The natives on the wall yelled excitement.
King moved never an inch from his shelter. He grinned sourly.
"Too damned suspiciously lucky, falling that way right back behind cover. I can afford to wait," he muttered.
He judged it advisable to change his position, and he did so, relaxing not a bit of his caution. And again he changed, gaining several yards this time.
Crash! Splinters spouted a fountain all round him. He grinned, very pleased with himself.
Long minutes passed. The shouts and yelps that had marked the fighting stilled. Within the passage was a deadlock. Along the wall both sides watched the duel between the two white men; and both knew that whichever white man won, his side would also win.
Crash! King's lava block jerked convulsively and opened in an irregular line down its middle like a split apple. A nervous man might have lost his head and jumped frantically for better cover, and so exposed himself. King lay still and grunted.
"He's in a hurry." And then, "Perfect. I'll chance it."
He knew that the chances were many millions to one against another bullet finding that same slit; he knew, too, that at that distance no man could distinguish such an opening and deliberately aim for it. And he could see through the gap. It was in fact a much better view than any quick ducking and withdrawal of one eye round the edge of a rock.
Critically King studied Van Vliet's position. Not so extra good. That boulder flattened down to the right. If he could work the tiniest bit more broadside… King studied his own ground. Tumbled blocks formed a tortuous, shallow trench. By rolling into it he would lose his own view; but the other man would not know that.
Flat on his belly, King wriggled along, fearful of showing even an inch of moving surface. Sharp edges tore his shirt and breeches. Protruding points scored his ribs. He gained fifty yards.
Crash! Far behind him this time. King grinned thinly.
Forty more yards. There was a narrow V between two boulders. A splendid vantage point, if the other man did not know. King reached it and, inch by slow inch, raised his eyes above the slot. He thought he could distinguish what might be a boot and a patch of brown breeches leg behind a grass tuft and some small rubble.
A desperately small mark to hit—but even splinters and flying gravel would hurt enough to make a man jump.
King whistled through his teeth and filled his magazine. With infinite caution again he inched his rifle through the opening. No bullet came smashing to him.
It was his luck—or his skill. All set. He held his breath and fired quickly twice. He saw gravel fly. Van Vliet jerked into view. Like lightning King fired a third time. Van Vliet jerked again and flopped down. But this time a whole arm and shoulder remained visible.
King stayed motionless. But there was no need to fear a clever trick. The distant spearmen showed that. With shrill ululations naked black figures appeared from behind rocks, scrub, out of holes and streamed away over the rise.
Behind King the situation broke up just as swiftly. That shot had hit not only a cold blooded and utterly ruthless scoundrel. It had touched the magic spring of panic.
A high pitched cry of dismay broke out among the Nabu men, and they turned and ran for the ravine gap. The packed mass in the passageway fought each other to get out of the trap. The Masai's roar boomed out of the tunnel and the fiercely exultant "sghee!" told that his spear was at work.
The farther opening belched scrambling, screaming men. In a naked black stampede they trailed out as the faster runners got ahead. Behind them bounded the Masai and three remaining askaris; and behind them again a white cloud of flowing cotton garments, shouting, stabbing, stumbling.
"Stop him," yelled King."Stop the crazy fool!"
It was one of those situations so common in any battle. The spearmen could have turned and, catching their pursuers in the open, cut them to pieces. But the leaders who had persuaded them to this war were gone. There was nobody to rally them.
One tall, heavily built fellow could not run as fast as most of the others. He lagged. Barounggo, running and roaring like a lion, overhauled him. In desperation the man turned to give battle. Barounggo yelled supreme joy.
"Oho, we meet! The herald, no less. This is my full day. What did I promise thee, naked one? Behold, this day's sun is not yet gone."
He threw away his shield and advanced upon the man, stepping high on his toes. Those behind him pulled up to watch, eyes rolling white, teeth showing, breath coming fast.
"Spear to spear, baboon," shouted Barounggo."An Elmoran of the Masai takes no advantage over an ape."
Furiously the big man lunged at him. Barounggo, never moving his feet, swayed only his body. The spearhead swished past his side. His own spear held like a bayonet, the Masai took one swift stride in and heaved up his shoulders. The great blade ripped the naked man from groin to chest. Clutching his awful wound, he sank to the ground, dead.
"Whau!" shouted the Masai."Such is the word of an Elmoran. A clean stroke, a swift stroke. So strikes the lion in his rage."
King came running.
"Shut up," he told the triumphant Masai."There will be a time for bragging."
He had changed his mind about the disadvantage of pursuit.
"After them now; chase them well down. Roll rocks on them—give them hell, so they will have a lesson and will never come back. Go, before the sun is lost."
THAT sun went down and the next one too. An awful mess had been cleaned up. Cuts and gashes innumerable had been stitched and plastered. Worse wounds were healing. Dead men had been buried. The valley smiled, as fair and peaceful as before the white men had brought war into it.
Yakoub conferred with King, timidly. He did not know just what to say or how to put his views and hopes before this man with whom he had gone through so much so closely and whom he had thought he understood.
"Kingi, old friend," he attempted, "we have been partners in this venture; we have agreed to share our findings. But, Kingi—you know, your own principle of the square deal; a noble principle, as I have come to learn. And what the wizard said about the right thing for the Hidden People—"
King cut him off bruskly. He knew just what the other was trying to say.
"Yes, yes, I know, I know. And a partnership is to share half the profits and half the worries. That's your principle, you told me. But I renege on that. They're your people. You found them. You can have the worry of them. And that's going to be plenty. I know what you want to do. They'll need leading by the hand; they'll need teaching and developing, slowly, carefully; they'll have to be protected from exploitation. Go ahead and develop them. Do the right thing by them, like the wizard said you would. I'll admit they're a good crowd; the best we've found in Africa. But don't drag me in on the chore."
Yakoub laid a sensitive hand on King's sleeve. His bird-like eyes were not so bright as they usually were. He wiped a ragged shirt sleeve across them to clear them.
"But—but, Kingi, the profits of our partnership that I have so boldly promised to you. This amulet—it is their secret. Nobody knows it now but ourselves. If it is developed it will—"
"Aw, shucks," King cut him short impatiently again."It's your secret. It was my promise to you. Go ahead and use it. Dig it out in little slivers and send it out and buy plows and looms and books and whatnot. But don't sick that worry on to me. I'm no missionary to develop deserving peoples. I'm just a wandering adventurer."
Yakoub's voice was tremulous.
"But, Kingi, you are in need of money."
King's voice was hard.
"I need just about one hundred and twenty-five ounces gouged out of that block, and then I'll be quits."
Yakoub peered a question through dim eyes. King was muttering figures to himself.
"The way exchange is running, I figure a hundred and twenty-five ounces will make around five hundred pounds sterling. That's Ham Smythe's money, and then I'm clear."
The dimness of Yakoub's eyes passed to his voice.
"Kingi, old friend, Kingi Bwana M'kubwa, that is the squarest deal—"
"Shush, shush." King would not let him finish."What would I do with that big lump of loot? I can't take it away with me. And the old wizard was all wrong. It doesn't break my heart worth a hoot. They're all wrong. Africa is chock full of secrets for me to go and find out. And I'll tell you one right now. No white man has ever been over those mountaintop trails into Abyssinia. Me, I'm going to go look-see tomorrow. There's no telling what I may turn up. Why—" his eyes narrowed and the eager, faraway look came into them—"Yakoub, I'll bet you there's gold in them thar hills. Why not quit all this and come along?"
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.