Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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THE big elephant danced in his rage. He charged in thunderous short rushes, wheeled and thundered back. He flung his trunk high and screamed brazen blasts of fury. He stamped the dust to a yellow smokescreen. He tore up tussocks of dry grass and thorn bush and lashed them to shreds against his own horny knees in a giant frenzy of destruction.
Two white men and two black stood frozen in their tracks and watched him. Nothing separated them but two hundred yards of open veldt scrub.
King, big-boned and lean, frowned at the awesome spectacle through dust-rimmed eyes. With an adroit motion he juggled a stem of grass across to the other corner of his mouth and grunted:
"Plenty mad, isn't he?"
"Terrific." The district commissioner whispered. "I hope to heaven he doesn't wind us."
King nibbled his grass, tight-lipped. "He may not wind us in this heavy air. But he'll sure as hell wind that native village we left dead behind us."
The district commissioner moved his head in slow inches, desperately careful to attract no attention to their precarious position, cautiously surveying the immediate landscape for its scanty trees.
A fleeting grin cracked the caked dust from around King's wide mouth.
"Elephant eyesight isn't that good," he said.
"I think," the commissioner hazarded, "we might make that mimosa tree in a mad altogether rush."
King flashed one quick eye at it.
"Easy," he agreed. "But the native village will still be right back of us. And this big boy is mad enough to be considerable catastrophe to the heathen."
"Terrific!" The commissioner murmured again. "I wonder what so infuriated him?"
The grin passed from King's face. Only the lean, brown hardness remained. Angry disgust was in his voice.
"I can see from right here what's made him mad. Wait till he swings around and I'll show you."
The commissioner hissed a sudden intake of breath. "By Jove, he's got it! Watch him! He'll be down on us. Good Lord!"
It was true. A wave of sultry air, pregnant with refuse, crept up behind them and rippled the grass tops away out toward the angry beast's orbit of rampage. Instantly it stood tense, its ears flared immensely forward, its trunk high in the upper stratum of odors above the dust.
"Good God!" the commissioner repeated. "Run for the tree!"
King swung his rifle sling from his shoulder. Quite coolly he looked down to his feet and shuffled his boot soles to see that he stood on no loose rubble. His eyes began to narrow down in cold alertness and he eased a cartridge from the magaaine into the chamber of his big Jeffries .475.
One of the black men, a huge fellow, decked out with knee and elbow garters of monkey hair in all the superb nakedness of a Masai Elmoran, took a horn receptacle from the lobe of his ear, tapped snuff from it upon his great spear blade and sniffed it in a splendid gesture of confidence in his master.
The elephant was striding in enormous uncertainty, ears like fans, trunk stiff before it, questing the vagrant airs with massively vengeful purpose. Even at that distance its snorts of expelled air came like a steam exhaust.
The commissioner became suddenly official.
"Kingi Bwana, there's no need to shoot that elephant. We can still make the tree in safety."
King sighted for a moment along his barrel to gauge the sun glimmer on his sights. He lowered the weapon.
"Go ahead, if you want to," he said. "And better jump. 'Cause when he comes he'll make it in fifteen seconds flat."
"Mister King!" The commissioner was officially formal. "I forbid you. You deliberately refused an elephant license when we started out. If you unnecessarily shoot this beast I shall be compelled to fine you the government penalty of a hundred pounds."
King grinned, his eyes warily fixed upon the gray mountain of rage.
"I believe you damn tape-bound officials would do just that thing," he said cheerfully. "All the same I'm going to shoot it. For two reasons. One is that stinking native village behind us."
"Good God!" That realization broke through the commissioner's agitation. "The women will all be in their huts at this hour too. Shoot it from the tree then."
As before, the grin soured on King's face.
"You know damn well nobody can shoot a charging elephant from up in a tree. Not dead. Head on is the only possible shot. This poor beast has suffered enough already. That's the second reason. I'm not going to let it carry away a lot of useless lead."
The other black man, a Hottentot as small and wizened as the Masai was huge, clucked a quick warning.
"Angalia, Bwana. He has picked the scent. He is coming."
The gray mountain screamed its rage once more and charged down straight for the little group of puny humans. King shuffled his feet again and stood, his mouth and eyes thin, parallel lines.
Fifteen seconds! But to the commissioner they hammered in the agonizing rhythm of his slow, crawling pulse. Incredible man, this King, taking a blood-chilling chance like this. All on account of some inexplicable sentiment about that murderously charging beast having suffered something or other.
The thunder of its feet vibrated on the ground. An avalanche of hurtling flesh and billowing dust, it rushed enormously nearer. All ears and reaching trunk and wicked little red eyes.
But the commissioner held his ground alongside of King.
"Shoot! For God's sake, why don't you shoot?" he heard a cracked voice reiterating; and vaguely he realized it was his own. And coolly King's voice:
"Fifty feet is plenty good."
The mountain loomed immensely above them. A scream like a locomotive warning blasted the air.
KING lifted his rifle to his shoulder, held it a second, and fired. Its roar cut the scream appallingly short. The elephant's fore legs stiffened to the full ton impact of the .475 bullet. The barrel feet plowed parallel deep furrows in the ground. Slowly, like huge brakes applied, they came to a stop. The gray bulk swayed, fell over on its side as a mountain falls.
Through the choking dust King was grinning tight-lipped at the commissioner. The commissioner was aware of his own voice again, high pitched and dry.
"Good God! Why didn't you shoot sooner? Lord, the thing was almost upon us! Is it out of sheer bravado that you do these things, Kingi Bwana?"
"Fifty feet," King repeated the rule. "There's a space no bigger than your open hand between the frontal bones to aim for."
He led the commissioner forward. "Look now." His voice was dark with anger. "See why he was so mad? Tearing around that way? He'd never have bothered us else. Poor brute."
At first the commissioner could notice nothing amiss. Then it came to him that the fallen beast had only one tusk. The other—where the other had been—was a mess of splintered ivory and a pulp of raw flesh.
"Good heavens! What a ghastly mess! How could a thing like that happen?" the commissioner wondered.
"It could happen," said King grimly, "only from a rifle bullet. From a bullet fired by a man who has skill enough and nerve enough to creep up close enough for a side head shot—and who could then be drunk enough to miss. So think that over. That's why I brought you all the way to this place when you said you wanted a big-game hunt. I wanted you to see what kind of thing was going on in the far ends of your district."
"But—but, dash it all, my dear fellow—" The district commissioner was bewildered—"how—who would be so lunatic as all that? Besides, no elephant licenses have been granted in this district. This is all under strict conservation."
King laughed harshly.
"Sure, it's under conservation; marked off on your maps and listed so in your office by an ex-Tommy clerk. You'd fine me a hundred pounds if I shot an elephant without a special permit or in defense of human life. A good ruling. The game needs it, and every decent white man is all for it. A nice piece of legislation—but do you know how many, many loads of first-grade scrivelloes and prime hard Mohammed Ali the Banyan trader shipped out of here last season? All new ivory too; no old buried stuff from some back-jungle chief's hoard."
District commissioners of East Africa are lords paramount over territories as large as many an American State and control the destinies of several hundred scattered white men and a few million blacks. They represent the might and majesty of empire. But the D.C. took the thrust at official routine functioning meekly. His half mutterings were defensive.
"Huge district—not very accessible outpost—some confusion since Patterson's death. And the new game warden was—"
King's incisive interruption shocked him out of his excuses for the unwieldiness of imperial administration.
"And what did Patterson die of? What did your office record say about that? Dysentery, they wrote it down, I suppose. And I'll bet they commented in a neat, round hand, 'inaccessibility to competent medical attention', and 'much to be regretted,' et cetera and what not."
King shoved his hands deep into his breeches pockets and stood wide-legged, frowning moodily into the far heat haze. His voice darkened with his face.
"Well, maybe it was. Dysentery is easy enough to get, God knows. Only that Patterson knew as much about dysentery as most of the medicos around here; knew it at first hand, like I do. And in the 'confusion' after his dying, two tons of ivory went out of here."
"Good God!" The D.C. stared at him, wide-eyed. "What frightful thing are you hinting at, Kingi Bwana? What do you know about Patterson's death? If any crime has been covered up you must—"
King flared out at him.
"Aa-ah! I'm not one of your damned policemen. None of all this is any of my business. I'm not even one of your people. Just a 'bally Yankee safari conductor', as more than one of your snooty colonists has tried to rub it in on me. I don't know a durn thing about it. I've never seen any of the crowd running this racket; they're too smart. I know only what you white rulers of the land laugh at—native talk, gossip around my camp-fires, chatter that comes to me just because I'm not one of you, because I don't high-hat my men. I've shown you what's going on. Now sic your new game-warden onto it."
The D.C.'s face clouded to match King's.
"Ah, the new game-warden—Young Ponsonby." He shook his head helplessly. "I wasn't at all keen on his appointment. But his people are very influential at home. A younger son, you know, something of a scapegrace. So they shipped him out; and—-I'm afraid he has never known what a real job means."
He shook his head again over the difficulties and entanglements of official expediency.
"Well—" King had no trace of sympathy with anything official—"that's your hard luck—and his. Or maybe it's all yours. Anyway, he isn't camping out along the lone water-holes, running his chance of getting 'dysentery'. He's playing polo at his headquarters station and dancing attendance on your civil surgeon's newly imported flapper niece. Aa-ah, blaa! What's the use?"
King blew his indignation from him windily through his high-bridged nose. Then he shrugged and grinned.
"That's more native gossip. You don't have to believe any of it. It's none of my affair. But I've shown you this much; and it's up to you to halloo your young scion of Milord Whoozis on to attending to the job his influential folks sent him out for. And you can tell him, as my best tip-off, that he's up against one wise and tough hombre that's the leader of this crowd. You don't know it yet, Commish Bwana, but I'm telling you, gang methods have arrived in your colony. This is a crowd that's out to scoop the cream of its filthy racket, and it's not only defenseless game they'll shoot on sight."
"Good Lord, Kingi Bwana, you talk in the most casual manner of the most desperate things! Why, if anything were to happen to young Ponsonby, relatives would rise upon their hind legs in the House of Lords and would demand an investigation into the whole process of government in this colony."
King remained callously unimpressed. For things to happen to foolish white men was their fate in Africa. Other white men would replace them.
"Probably be a good thing for us common herd in the colony if something would happen to him. Maybe you could put in a warden who'd protect the game. You'll need a man who knows the country, who's as clever as a leopard, and who has half the nerve in all Africa to buck this crowd."
The district commissioner took King by the arm.
"Kingi Bwana," he told him with rueful conviction, "you are a masterless man and a blasphemer of sacrosanct things. You talk to me in a way that some of my subordinates would give a month's pay to hear. Take me back to camp, and keep on talking. I need some help. But easy with your mechanical robot legs; my knees are still limp from watching that terrific brute charge down on us."
King fell into a long stride that doubled the commissioner's labored ones through the stiff bunch grass.
"Sure, I'll help you. I'll tell you all I know. Two tons of ivory the Banyan trader smuggled out in his last load. At a pound sterling per pound, London market, that stacks up into money enough to attract some brains into the racket. There's plenty of your ex-soldier land-bounty settlers who have brains and don't figure to ever make that money out of honest farming in their lifetimes. And maybe your office clerks have notes on some of them who they think won't stick at anything. Sort 'em over. Stick your shiny new game-warden on to sleuthing them down."
"I'll need more help than that, Kingi."
"I can give you some more, at that. From camp-fire gossip I figure there's some half-dozen of them in the game; and from tracks that I've seen I can tell you that this particular guy who's shooting around here treads his right foot pigeon-toed. But you don't have to worry about him. No man can go fooling around elephants with a bottle on his hip. An elephant will get him all right. No guessing about that. You don't have to worry about any of them; they're just shooters—maybe man-killers too, if they're interfered with. But you must concentrate on the big shot who's organized them. He's the man to get before your warden gets 'dysentery'."
The D.C. stared at King as at a man who speaks of horrific things without turning a hair. Which, as a matter of fact was exactly so. Like all white hunters, the griefs of government officials were no affair of King's; they drew fat salaries to compensate them against the hazards of pioneer living that the lone hunter man had to accept as a part of the mere matter of keeping alive.
"You talk casually, my Kingi, of apprehending miscreants whom it would be dangerous to approach and against whom it would be extremely difficult to prove anything."
"You make it difficult," King snorted in his disgust. "You minions of the law and order want proof that'll stand in one of your courts. Baloney! These guys are rustlers pure and simple. You've got to send your man out to round 'em up and treat 'em like rustlers."
The D.C. walked half a mile in silence. Then he said:
"Kingi Bwana, you've told me the kind of man I need for this job. I know just one such man. I appoint you chief game-warden of this district with all the salary and emoluments that go with the position."
KING stopped dead in his long stride.
"Me?" he crowed his derision. "You want me to shove my face into this gang racket? And write reports and keep mileage records and fill two pages of your office file with a long story every time somebody takes a shot at me? No sir-ree! Not me! I'm a free man. I'm contracted to you for another two weeks, and then I'm my own boss, and I don't have to write letters to anybody's office clerks and have 'em write back and ask why I didn't mention how come I fired away twenty-three cartridges 'stead of my allowance of twenty."
King spread his shoulders and breathed deeply, crinkling his nose to the sultry air.
"Nossir, Mister Commissioner. You can't appoint me any bloated government plutocrat with a dinky office in Malende. I'm a conductor of safari. 'To conduct Mr. G. Williamson and—or—his party,' my contract reads... 'to lead him to hunting grounds as detailed in permit... to protect him at all times from danger contingent to, or arising in connection with, sport,'... and so on and so on. I know your government contract form for white hunters by heart, if you don't. It's hard and tough enough on hunters; but you can't buy me into government servitude."
The D.C. trudged another quarter-mile, immersed in thought. Then:
"Two more weeks is it?" He smiled wickedly. "During which you must conduct me wherever I want to go; and, 'should client be unable, for any reason, to conclude the term of his contract, balance of term must be paid, as agreed; but the hunter shall hold himself at the disposal of client'—or words to that effect, You see, my insurgent Kingi, I happen to have read some of our official forms. Therefore—" the smile became diabolic—"you will conduct me to my headquarters and leave me there. You will then repair to Malende and take the new game-warden out in my place. And you will exert every care to protect him, etc. etc."
All the cocksure independence vanished from King's demeanor. He looked almost frightened.
"Aw now, Commish Bwana," he pleaded. "I don't want to sheep-herd this milk-and-white dude of yours around the thorn scrub. Why, gosh durn it, he hasn't even had time to get sunburned yet; and, from what I hear, he's steadier holding a tea cup than a rifle, and his blood is so blue there can't be any room left for red."
The D.C. was inexorable—and serious.
"You, my Kingi, are a masterless man who will never understand, nor appreciate, the needs—nor duties of colonial administration. The youngster must be broken in."
"But I'm telling you, Commish, this is a mighty unhealthy district for game-wardens during the next couple months. You'll be sending your son of your best old families to get well slaughtered."
"You, my Kingi, will exercise every precaution to protect him at all times, et cetera, et cetera, as your contract reads—and to the best of your ability too. I think it says."
"The hell with the needs of your colonial government," growled King. "You're out to get me murdered, keeping my contract."
"Yes, Kingi Bwana. My office is full of complaints against you from angry officials who clamor that you flout all constituted authority. But you keep your agreements. Two weeks with you will be very good for young Ponsonby. I shall write him a confidential order by runner."
MALENDE, therefore, saw a disgruntled Kingi Bwana and his wizened little Hottentot servant looking for Ponsonby while the compact safari camp waited in charge of the great Masai a mile or so outside of the settlement.
Ponsonby, if not in his quarters, would likely be in the club. It has been said that where as many as three Englishmen are there will be a club. In these outlying district stations in East Africa, which have perhaps not more than half a dozen official residents, but are nevertheless centers of a far-flung white settler population, there is always a club; a frame building consisting at least of a billiard room, a mixed bridge room and maybe one or two others, but principally of a wide veranda in which cold fizzy drinks can be served to tired white men in long cane chairs.
Ponsonby was there, a tall young man, impeccable in a tussore silk suit. He had a petulantly aristocratic face; not weak, but distinctly spoiled. King, dressed in a faded khaki shooting coat and shorts, efficient bush clothing, eyed him with distaste.
But Ponsonby was traditionally hospitable.
"Oh, Mister King, is it? What will you drink? I've been expecting you. The D.C. wrote me."
With a certain resentment he took a letter from his breast pocket and handed it to King. Couched in the farcial formality of colonial officialdom, it "had the honour to inform him" that he would consider himself under the orders of Mister King until further notice; and it "remained his obedient servant," the district commissioner.
King's thin grin came out. Good old D.C., making things easy that way. And, in a time of stress it seemed that he was not so afraid of influential relatives.
But King slowly tore the letter into little pieces and dropped them into an empty glass. He looked very steadily at Ponsonby.
"I don't work that way," he told him. "I don't like to take orders from any man; and I don't expect anybody else to like them. If a man can't work with me I'd just as soon not have him along."
Ponsonby's angry eyes lifted over his glass rim in a dawning surprise. This, coming from this hard-looking man, required time to assimilate. Embarrassed by a national incoherence under emotion, he mumbled vague sounds that resolved themselves into. "Umm, er, awf'ly decent. Ah—have a drink, what? And sit."
But King drove uncompromisingly to the point for which he had come.
"How soon d'you figure you could be ready to start?"
"Well, er—I was hoping to play against the Planters next week; but—"
"Yeh, I guessed somp'n like that. But how soon would you figure on getting down to your job?"
"Why, er—" Ponsonby's pink-and-white English complexion, untouched as yet by African sun, flushed. His petulant mouth bit down on his speech. "Damnitall, since you put it that way, I'd say any time you're ready."
King shook his head.
"I'm ready now. But I'll say tomorrow at dawn for you."
He was not making it any too easy. But he explained: "The D.C. tells me you'll be needing to cover as much ground as you can. So I've cut out porters and I'm figuring to travel by light truck. Cramped, but we can make it all right in this dry season, and I'll he able to show you at least a couple of the water-holes in two weeks' time. After that, if you're going to tackle the job, you'll have just six weeks to work.
"If you want to throw in with me you'll need your oldest clothes; and I'll have no room for an extra camp boy. You'll find mine more efficient in the bush anyhow. We'll not be picnicking."
White men in Africa become accustomed to their own servants. Some—the more sartorially inclined—grow to be quite helpless without the dark familiar spirit to whom they relegate their intimate personal needs, down even to the matter of pulling off their boots and stockings and finding their toothbrushes. And in the confusion of a safari camp—Good Lord!
It was unfortunate that at this strained moment another white man lurched up the shallow veranda steps. A broadly built, untidy looking man, scrubby-chinned; the very antithesis of Ponsonby's perfection. A hardy type of outlying settler. Dust, and a pistol strapped to his belt, showed that he had just come in from the bush, and his brusque shoving past King was evidence that the road had been long and conducive of liquid stimulant.
A rough and uncouth denizen for a club that sheltered a Ponsonby. But in little district clubs where white men are few membership rules must of necessity be broad. Ponsonby had a hot answer ready for King. But his British trait of keeping his personal affairs strictly personal choked it down to a short, "How do," to the stranger.
But the settler man seemed to have an alcoholic chip on his shoulder. Ponsonby's cool dressiness, in contrast with his own dusty workaday costume, aroused a latent class resentment. He stared red-eyed at the young man.
"Ho!" he said, and there was a nasty edge of insinuation in his Cockney twang. "The nice new gaime-warden a-settin' cushy to 'is tea with nothin' ter do."
Ponsonby remained seated, aristocratically calm.
"Attending strictly to my own business, thank you."
"Ow indeed. It's many o' the likes o' us would wish we 'ad such a heasy business."
The man's rudeness was quite uncalled for. But King could understand the antagonism of a hard-working planter, or whatever the man might be, to the easy security of an official. He stood impartially aside. This was none of his business; and it was an unexpected opportunity to observe how this foppish young man would react to insult.
Kaffa, the little Hottentot, who had been squatting, blanket-swathed in the broiling sun, stood, up and began to scratch himself with the sudden vehemence of an infested ape—with quite unnecessary vehemence. King knew that the cunning monkey's eyes missed nothing and he knew his habits well enough to understand that the little man wanted to attract attention to himself. He moved to the veranda rail to watch him.
The Hottentot postured and scratched grotesquely. Always down toward his right foot. His bright round eyes, instead of watching his own activities, flitted to his master's and then to the belligerent stranger.
King under lowered lids looked the man over. And then he got what he had missed in his absorption in the argument.
The man's right foot turned pigeon-toed.
King's eyelids flickered and went narrow. That track that he had seen around by the water-holes where the elephants drank had been pigeon-toed. Nothing very unusual in that; but that, too, had been the right foot. Still nothing very unusual. Any man who knew tracks knew that many people had that idiosyncrasy in one foot or the other.
Nothing very definite to go on—not by any means "evidence" of anything at all. But—
King watched the man. He still remained aloof. Coldly aloof. He was no nursemaid of pink-cheeked officials—not yet. The man was rough and powerfully built—maybe dangerous. If he should perhaps beat this game-warden so that he might not be able to travel with tomorrow's dawn it was still none of King's affair—might save him a great deal of bother.
But all his faculties were focused on the man, on his every action. Alcoholically quarrelsome—that would fit in with the unknown hunter. Unprovokedly belligerent against a youngster who, far from giving offense, had merely been polite—could it be for no other reason than that this was a game-warden, as had been Patterson, who died of—whatever it was?
So absorbed was King that he did not hear what the man said. But Ponsonby was slowly getting up. With nice care he set his glass down. Half turned from the man, he said in a politely conversational tone:
"You wouldn't want to repeat that, would you?"
Instantly the man did. A foolish word of little meaning; but one which the convention of the English public schools has ruled to be a fighting word.
Ponsonby walked up to the man, quite slowly, buttoned the lowest button of his silk jacket, and hit him squarely over the mouth.
Inexpertly, but with the well-bred heartiness of one going through a necessary ceremony, as much as to say:
"Now, come what may, we must fight."
The blow rocked the man back on his heels; more on account of its surprise than by its force. But it was sufficient to gash his lip.
It brought no ceremonious response from him; no gentlemanly squaring off for formal fisticuffs according to amateur rules. The likes of him had not been brought up in that school. Moreover he was just on the edge of being drunk, and in that condition he seemed to be a man of a demoniac temper.
WITH the first spurt of blood from his lip he screamed an incoherent noise and tugged at the pistol at his belt. Ponsonby stood paralyzed at so startling a reversal of everything proper.
But there was nothing new and unexpected in this sort of thing to King. He jumped like a great tawny cat, reaching for the man's pistol hand. His grip closed on it; and the maniac instantly turned, snarling, upon his interference.
He was burly and thick-muscled. But his own surprise was coming to him. He swung ferocious blows with his free left hand at King. The pistol, shoved high, fired through the veranda ceiling. The man, gibbering rage, pushed in breast to breast and tried to match his strength against King's to force the gun down. King let the man struggle, till, presently finding his opportunity, he dragged the imprisoned arm over his shoulder, slipping his hip under the other's body and heaving him cartwheeling over the low veranda rail. The gun remained in King's hand.
The man fell on his head in the dusty marigold bed that bordered the building front, where he rolled and sprawled ruinously.
Instantly in a gorilloid rush the Hottentot crouched over him.
"Do I slay him, Bwana?"
King shook his head. "We are in the presence of the serkali that rules such things by law; not in the bush."
The man struggled to his feet and wobbled round the angle of the house.
"A man," King commented after him "not hampered by any inhibitions Looks like he fills the bill. But we can't prove a thing on him. Nor he isn't smart enough to be the big shot. Anyway I'm glad I know what he looks like."
He swung round to Ponsonby.
"What," he asked him bluntly, "are you going to do about him?"
Ponsonby faced King as though rebutting in advance an accusation.
"I could turn him over to the sergeant constable for attempted felonious assault with a deadly weapon. But I won't. This is my private affair."
A thin gleam of approval came into King's eyes. Slowly he began to nod.
"Maybe," he ruminated half aloud. "Maybe, dammitall, you have the makin's."
Of which Ponsonby could understand much less than nothing.
"So then," King continued. "Let's get back to what we were talking about. My guess is that you were in half a mind to tell me to go to hell. And to help you make it up I'll tell you that, if my next guess isn't away off, this club member of yours is only a sample of what your job means."
Ponsonby's brows went up in well-bred disgust. To affect nonchalance was his hereditary creed.
"If my blighted relatives insist that I must live in a land where my club fellows are like this, I suppose I shall have to bally well learn to save my life for myself. And really—looking at your methods—I'm sure I couldn't find a better teacher. So let's let it stand for dawn tomorrow—and er—thanks, old man."
"It's funny stuff," said King, "but sometimes it has the makin's."
"What is? What has?" asked Ponsonby, mystified and wholly serious.
"Blue blood," said King. "But you won't understand. Like your chief says, I'll never understand the duties of colonial administration—something mixed up with a holy thing you Britishers have, called the service of empire. But I'll take your drink now, and sit. There's a plenty of more important things for you to understand about this business—like, for instance, keeping alive during your next few weeks. Patterson was a good man; but they got him."
It was a modest little safari that King had arranged for the breaking in of dude Ponsonby. Almost meager—and purposely so. This was no pleasure trip for millionaire sports who bought with their lavish money all the luxury of tent boys and cook boys and personal boys and canned delicacies and a moving-picture man.
King had clients like that too. They came and they got their trophies—or King got them for them—and they went home and told their tales of hardship and danger. Good people; gold mines necessary to the existence of licensed white hunters.
But this was a serious business of finding out whether a man might be fit for the job of protecting the game. King was at no time a nursemaid for incompetents. If his own time and effort must go into the thing, make or break must be the result.
So the outfit consisted of a simple ton-and-a-half truck. Most of the space was devoted to five gallon drums of gasoline and to necessary spare parts and supplies. The big Masai and the Hottentot clung where they could on top of the pile. With them, aloof and very superior, huddled a Nairobi native who rated himself as an auto mechanic and considered therefore that he should do no other work. But the other two knew better than that.
Ponsonby rode on the driver's seat beside King. King, a stubby pipe stuck into the corner of his mouth, maneuvered the car in and out between the spiny mimosa trees and around—or through—the dongas, steep-sided gullies left by the fury of last season's rain. His eyes scouted far ahead and, with a certitude quite incomprehensible to Ponsonby, picked out a route that never caught him in a blind alley of impassable thorn.
With a quick motion of his lips, he shifted his pipe, as if it might have been a cigar, to the other side of his mouth so as to speak to Ponsonby on his left.
"Your chief stuck me with this job because I showed him something. I'm going to show you something worse."
"Yes? What is it?" Ponsonby gasped between spasms of jolting as the truck climbed stiff grass tussocks and slammed down into the dusty hollows.
"You'll see." King bit angrily on his pipe. "We'll set up camp presently and then we'll have to walk a while. That polo outfit your oldest clothes?"
"Oh, quite. That is to say, my oldest sports clothes."
King smiled his anticipation. They left the car in the shade of an acacia grove. The mechanic's function was to act as watchman and to see to it that there would be sufficient dry fire-wood collected by the time the others came back.
The four of them set out on foot. The Masai, magnificently naked, led. Low thorn bush rasped against his legs, leaving dusty white scratches upon their rough hide. Then came King, in pigskin leggings and shorts, his own bare knees as horny as the Masai's. Behind him were Ponsonby and the Hottentot.
Fine dust swirled from the thorn scrub as the men's legs brushed through. It caked with the sweat that drenched their clothes. Down steep gully sides; along sandy bottoms where leopard tracks preceded them for aimless miles; up gravelly banks; more thorn scrub.
King's ears told him of Ponsonby's progress behind him. Not looking back, he remarked:
"Kinder tough on those shiny riding boots, isn't it?"
"Why, yes," Ponsonby panted. "But it's worse on my riding breeches."
"Uh-huh," grunted King. "Figured so."
Not till half a mile further did he look back. Ponsonby's shiny boots were furry with tiny nicks; the closely tailored breeches had shredded clear away; the knees were raw and bleeding.
"Holy gosh!" King surveyed the spectacle. "Hell, I didn't know those valuable things were that fragile. You should have yelped before this."
Ponsonby was grateful to stop. "I—er—well, the rest of you seemed to be getting along all right; and so—er, so I—"
King's grunted commendation was enigmatic to Ponsonby. "The blood comes redder'n I thought." From his frayed shooting-coat pocket he produced a pair of long strips of closely woven cloth. "I've seen this happen before," he said caustically, as expertly he wound them, puttee-wise, round Ponsonby's lacerated knees. "But durned if I've ever seen such frail and fancy pants. This'll slow you up some; but it's not far now."
A few minutes brought them to a litter of scattered bones; only the heavier ones intact, the rest—and amazingly thick ones at that—marred and cracked by the tremendous teeth of hyenas.
"ELEPHANT," said King shortly to Ponsonby's stare. "And worse than what I showed the D.C."
He pointed with his toe to a great flat plate of bone.
"Shoulder blade. D'you notice anything damnable about it?"
"Why, er—I suppose these are bullet holes."
"Yep." King's voice was throaty with anger. "And could you guess what kind of bullets would make a neat row of holes like that all in a line?"
"I should almost say—good God, you don't mean to tell me that was a machine-gun!"
"Right! You're damn right. And that shows you the filthy kind of crowd this is."
"Why, good Lord!" Ponsonby was genuinely shocked. "How foully unsportsmanlike! That's—By Jove, that's as bad as shooting a fox."
King flashed a look at him; but the man was staring in repugnance. King agreed with him dryly:
"Yeh, as bad as shooting a fox in your country. And the way I understand you view-halloo people look at it, that comes pretty near worse than shooting a man. Which it is, 'cause a man can shoot back. You've got the right idea, fella. Damned if I don't believe you've got the makin's."
He scowled moodily at the splintered bone.
"It takes guts and it takes skill to drop an elephant clean with a rifle. One of them, we know, has at least the guts. But the rest of the filthy gang cut loose with artillery. And—" he swung round to look squarely at Ponsonby—"it's a whole game-warden's job to stop 'em."
Ponsonby stared at him, pale and wide-eyed. He sucked in his lower lip and bit on it so that it went white. Then he nodded.
"If you'll help me."
King's grin broke slowly over his face.
"Well, I'm stuck with the chore for two weeks," he agreed. "Come on back to camp and I'll tell you what we're up against. I'm guessing a good deal; but here's how I lay it out."
With unsparing detail as they went along he outlined his theory.
"This gang, the way I figure it, aren't hunters, all but one of 'em. Not even farmers. Town riff-raff that survived the war and took their bonus in land grants—Colonial Empire that your government preached 'em. Well, they came out and went up against drought and locusts and tsetse fly, and they hadn't the experience nor the backbone to pull through."
"Yes. A lot of them came back, soured and sore, and went Red."
"Some of 'em stayed. Back-alley rats; misfits in the big open country. Then the game conservation department down at Nairobi decreed a rest period for this district. Complete prohibition except for certain over-stocked species. A durn good thing. Every decent white man conformed. Till now some smart gent has figured there's a quick clean-up in ivory and hides. He organized a gang, and they've already got some. But the next few weeks will be the cream."
"Why more than any other time?"
King scowled across the heat haze as at a mirage picture that curled his nostrils in disgust.
"The tail-end of the dry season. The smaller water-holes are drying up. Game will be concentrating around those that are left—places like Unduli Pan and Magimagi. Everything—elephants, rhino, antelope, everything there is in Africa all in one place; all thirsty; and, even when they're scared away, all bound to come back. With the first break of the rains, they'll scatter all over the landscape; but until then, the last six weeks, they're like tied hand and foot. That isn't hunting any more; it's murder. These swine aren't hunters. But the war taught 'em how to use a machine-gun. They'll clean the district like a stock-yard. Ivory, horns, hide, anything that has a commercial value."
King's picture was starkly repellent. The prospect of his share of the "duties of colonial administration" opened up more grimly before Ponsonby with each new thing that he learned about it. Still the tradition of his caste to make light of danger was uppermost. He contrived a wry smile.
"By Jove, that reminds me I've never been so dead for a drink. And d'you know, my people pulled strings and sent me out to this job because they said I was doing no good at home, and here would be nothing to do and plenty of sport."
King added the last inexorable detail.
"And there's nothing to stop 'em—except the game-warden."
Ponsonby walked on in silence. "And Kingi Bwana," he amended.
King's answering grin was twisted.
"Yeh—for two weeks. And a sweet chore I'm stuck with. Poor old Patterson is proof that this crowd isn't sticking over anything in their way. And there's a good half-dozen of 'em; maybe more." He strode on, scowling. "There's just one hope we've got. These are town crooks; cunning rats, but they don't know the bush. It'll be bush lore against machine-guns."
Ponsonby's question was a despairing cry for help.
"If you feel the way you do about the game why can't you stay for more than two weeks? The D.C. would pay—"
King's hand suddenly on his shoulder stopped him. The camp was in view, the truck showed through the trees, all quiet and undisturbed. But King was peering at it with alert suspicion. With silent pressure he guided Ponsonby behind a tree.
THE game-warden, with his new sense of the danger that surrounded his office, tingled to a sense of caution. His voice dropped to a whisper.
"What is it?"
"Funny," King muttered. "Something queer there."
"What is? I don't see anything."
"Look just to the left of the truck. That tall bird."
"That stork sort of a thing? What is funny about it?"
"That's a greater bustard. The best eating on the plains; but much too wily a bird to be so near the camp if there was anybody around. Camp is plumb deserted."
Ponsonby felt his pulse begin to pound.
"You think— What do you think might be the matter?"
King's deft shrug threw his rifle-sling from his shoulder as the weapon smacked neatly into his hands.
"Durned if I know. But I'm taking no chances in this game. You stay right here."
King's quick look called the great Masai and the Hottentot to follow him.
"We're going look see."
"But my dear chap. I can't hide away like this. This is my business and it's my duty to—"
"Duty be damned," King hissed at him, his eyes never off the distant camp. "You stay right here. My contract calls for me to protect you to the best of my ability and so on and thus next. It's your people made the rules. My reputation as a safari conductor can't afford to take risks."
Yet he was already on his cautious way forward, skirmishing from tree to grass tussock to further thorn shrub, the natives like dark shadows behind him. Abruptly they disappeared from view. Ponsonby was left enormously alone with the hot silence of the empty African veldt. A silence empty of all visible, yet full of things that moved, prowled, slunk, unseen.
Danger? Tragedy? Death? What? A silence that dragged on to slow aeons.
Then the far snap of a pistol shot. Ponsonby's tense nerves twanged like taut wire. He looked for an instant eruption of struggling figures, of more shots. But only the bird leaped convulsively high in the air with a flutter of wide wings. Then King's tall form moved beyond the car; shouts rang out. He saw the flash of the Masai's spear as he moved through a patch of sun.
Then presently a dark form came scurrying back through the bushes—the mechanic. All the forms merged into a group. The mechanic gesticulated excitedly.
When Ponsonby panted up King was tersely questioning the boy. He gibbered and gesticulated with white rolling eyes and outthrust liver-red lips.
"What did this white man look like? What did he say?"
"He was tall. Yet Bwana, not so tall. He was bearded. That is to say, bearded not more than four of five days. He was dressed like—like a white man. He demanded drink. He beat me near to death, Bwana. But I escaped and fled into the bush."
That was the only thing that was definite. A white man had come in a quarrelsome mood and, African-like, the boy had bolted into the bush.
King shrugged his helplessness. "There's Africa for you. Dumb, blind, panicky. Damnation! I wish it had been one of my own men. Kaffa would have outwitted him and Barounggo would have speared him."
"What—who do you think he was? What did he come for—and not stay?"
King barked a short laugh. "This is Africa. No white man's movements are secret. Particularly not yours just now—and mine. Still, if one of them had the nerve to come, why wouldn't he stay to make his play? A friendly visitor would have stayed." His eyes flickered suspiciously into the surrounding bush. "That crowd wouldn't hesitate to bushwhack us."
The Hottentot who had been scurrying around, questing like a dog, yelped his sudden find.
"Ha, Kaffa. Good apeling. What hast thou?" King hurried to him.
The little man was squatting over a patch of ground free of grass. With a skinny finger he pointed. Among the boot tracks in the dust were two within striding distance of each other—and one of them turned pigeon-toed!
King swore softly. On hands and knees he groveled with the Hottentot to find confirmatory trail. He went back to Ponsonby whistling tunelessly through his teeth, his eyes very narrow and hard.
"Trailed." He gave him the cold news. "Trailed from the moment we left Malende." And with grim meaning: "The game-warden is out on the job and the gang is losing no time. Still, what the devil was this play?"
The color ebbed from Ponsonby's heated face, but he said: "Quite complimentary, I'd call so much attention, what?"
"Your friend," King told him. "Pigeon Toe. He demanded drink. That about identifies him—though, damnitall, any man would do that after a hike through the bush."
That suggestion reminded Ponsonby of his own need that the excitement had temporarily driven from him. He reached to the rickety camp table upon which stood a sparklet syphon and a half full bottle of whisky.
"Aa-ah!" The ejaculation rasped from King's throat and he snatched the bottle. "Perhaps that's the answer."
Ponsonby raised his eyebrows. "What is? Dash it all, I never met anybody so full of surprises."
"You'll get your plenty," said King "before you get home—if you ever do. What I just said: to reach for a drink would be the first thing any man would do, coming in from a hike; and he wouldn't stop to investigate much." His own narrow eyes bored cold gray into Ponsonby's wide blue ones. "Maybe that's how Game Warden Patterson got his—dysentery."
"Good God!" This came close enough to home at last to jolt the nonchalance out of Ponsonby. His affectation of languid interest was charged with white-eyed horror. "Good God, you don't mean—"
King nodded slowly.
"Patterson never got whatever it was that he died of by accident. He knew too much about Africa to take chances with impure water or anything like that. I guess that was his whole trouble. He was on the job and he knew too much."
GENERATIONS of tradition ebbed back out of Ponsonby's past to steady him. He swallowed a few times and licked dry lips; but his voice, when it came was natural—not drawlingly humorous, but sober.
"That's a frightful suspicion to have against any man. They may be poaching and all that—beastly unsportsmanlike and so on. But this—Good Lord, this would be murder."
"Maybe, brother, maybe. But I'm taking no chances. I never take chances." King up-ended the bottle and let the liquor gurgle onto the thirsty ground.
"Don't do that!" Ponsonby reached for the bottle; but too late. "Ah, pshaw! Now we'll have no evidence. We may know who the man is—might even identify him with the tracks, with the native boy's identification in a court. But we have no proof of anything on which to convict him."
"Yeah?" King rasped his impatience. "You'd want to drag a man like that into a court, would you? Just like your chief. You people are so bred to law and order that you can't understand you're up against a crowd that'll stop at nothing. You're not safe in your tight little island now. You're in big country; hard country; and let me tell you there's some hard men in the outlying corners of it."
Ponsonby was willing to concede much to this man who seemed to know so exactly what he was about. But his tradition of lawfulness was as difficult to disturb as any other. He mumbled something to that effect.
"Listen." King seated himself on a camp chair and filled his pipe to help him reason patiently with tradition. "This is none of my affair. I'm in it for two weeks, and then there'll be nobody gladder than me to get out in a hurry. But if you want to live you've got to get this straight."
He flipped a grub-box key to the Hottentot and ordered him to bring a fresh bottle of whisky with an unbroken seal and some of the bottled soda that he carried against the contingency of finding a water-hole too befouled by animals for use. He lit his pipe and growled through the smoke.
"Listen. Take this much flat, without argument. Like I told the D.C., gang methods have arrived in your colony. Town rats with machine-guns organized to a racket for some quick money. The only one who seems to know the bush is this Pigeon Toe; for which you be good and mighty thankful."
Ponsonby was all agreement.
"Granted, my dear chap. I believe everything you say. So I must—we must arrest them and—"
"We must?" King blew derisive smoke. "You can't drag me into any official heroics. Listen some more. In my country we used to try to arrest our gangsters and bring them to the law. Our officers were shot down in their scores by gunmen whom they didn't know but knew them by their uniforms—just like this crowd whom we don't know, knows you—and me, durn it. Our gangs had a swell time; they came to pretty near run the country. You Europeans jeered at us about it. But we've learned. We're figuring at last our officers are more valuable than our gangsters, and at last we're giving 'em a free hand to take no chances. So we're getting the gangs. You want to arrest these rats and haul 'em to a law court. O.K., that's maybe your 'duty of colonial administration'. Me, I figure I'm more valuable than an ivory poacher. That's one reason why I'm getting out of this mess when my two weeks are up. So if you want to quit and go home, now that you know what it's all about, that'll release my contract; and nobody gladder."
The exposition of the situation was cold-blooded and unsparing. King watched Ponsonby shrewdly. Make or break. King's interest was in a warden competent to guard the game. Either this youngster would come through or break.
Ponsonby's eyes were hunted. They looked at King—not at the man; at the picture of his words; a hopeless picture of lone-handed inexperience against he could not quite visualize what, but something ruthless. He fingered his rifle nervously. His eyes wandered over the landscape, the vast trackless bush, miles upon miles of thorny shrubs—under any one of which a man's bones might lie and dessicate and never be found. His eyes came back to King. His lip was white under his teeth. His voice dry.
"Perhaps we—we would get something done before your two weeks are up."
King's slow smile crept up behind his eyes and slowly he nodded.
"Perhaps we could," he agreed this time. "If you don't plumb throw away your life on fool chances. And here's something that'll maybe help your conscience."
He pointed with his toe. His eyes that had followed Ponsonby's roving gaze had focused themselves warily on a far point in the bush. Narrow again; and alert as a leopard's, they watched something. His toe pointed to the smudge of moisture where he had emptied the bottle. An insect lay on its back amongst the sparse grass roots at its edge. Specks that were ants remained unwontedly still. Eyes less observant than King's would never have noticed them.
"Would you consider that sound evidence that somebody had been interested in doping the new game-warden's drink?"
Ponsonby stared, white-faced, as what had been suspicion became cold certainty.
"And if a man came skulking around the bush after that, would you consider it lawful evidence that he was the man, come to see how it worked?"
Ponsonby nodded, puzzled. "Any court would consider it highly circumstantial."
"And if he had a gun would you count it a good bet that he had no inhibitions about finishing what he started?" King's hand was stealing round behind his chair to where his rifle leaned.
"Why yes, I certainly—. King, what is this you're driving at?"
King rose softly to his feet and edged behind a tree, his rifle ready.
"Then you better take cover; 'cause there's somebody who fills the bill snooping round back of that tambuki grass belt."
PONSONBY found himself behind a tree—not through any conscious volition of his own. His pulse pounded in his head. The stark conditions of his job were piling home on him with a vengeance. He knew all the desperate emotions of the hunted.
"Have we permission, bwana?" The Masai, lying flat on the ground with the other natives below the bush screen, rolled fierce, eager eyes to his master.
King nodded. The Masai laughed softly and, bending low, ducked into the scrub. In a moment his great form was lost to view. Not a motion of bush tops showed his passage.
The Hottentot threw off his blanket. Beneath it was revealed his extraordinary shape, as naked and as muscular as a chimpanzee, armed with an immense Somali knife. He scuttled off in another direction, spreading out to get the marauder between them.
They were amazing to Ponsonby, these men, pitting their steel and sheer jungle craft against a firearm that lurked cautiously somewhere out in that grass belt.
He stared out at it from behind his tree with a tight prickly feeling of tragedy hanging imminent and inevitable. Whichever way it went, somebody would die. He had never seen violent death before.
The distant grass moved. Cautiously a rifle barrel emerged; then a head and shoulder. Tragedy was unfolding itself before his fascinated gaze. Which of those stalking men would it pick? He wanted to yell a warning.
And then his heart came up into his mouth. The rifle was pointing, not at some unseen thing in the bush, but in his own direction. Good God, at himself!
The primal instinct of self-preservation was older than any tradition of lawful process. He threw up his rifle and fired. Out in the tall grass a khaki-clad arm flung into view. The rifle flew from it. Both disappeared. A thin yellow haze of dust floated up.
Ponsonby's rifle remained at his shoulder, stiff and rigid. He stared out at the slowly settling dust, hypnotized by the suddenness of what he had done.
King's voice broke through the dizziness that buzzed in his head.
"Damned if he hasn't got the good makin's." Like a faraway picture, out of focus, there was King walking toward him.
"You've been learning somewhere or other to shoot off a rifle, feller."
"Why yes, I, er—I've done some—Have I killed him, d'you think?"
King was radiating good will. "If you haven't, the Masai will—unless Kaffa rounds him up first. But I think you've got one dumb bushwhacker out of the gang. Let's go see. But careful; he may be smart enough to play possum; though, by his clumsiness, I doubt it."
They found both the natives squatting over a huddled shape in a faded khaki uniform.
"It is not the crooked-footed one," the Hottentot announced. "But his gun is of the best kind and he had nine cartridges and a hunting-knife, not so good; but some good tobacco, and—"
King cut short the itemized list. "Yeh, I guessed it wouldn't be Pigeon Toe. He'd be too smart to be got so easy. This is some dumb gorilla who didn't know so much about the bush; just mean enough to be a killer. It's our luck the rest are like him. It's Pigeon Toe that's really dangerous; though even he isn't the big shot."
He turned to his two henchmen.
"Take up the trail and read the story of it swiftly before dark." To Ponsonby he said: "If we don't have to up and run for it, we'll let our good mechanic bury this. If we do have to, the hyenas will attend to the evidence of your lawlessness as efficiently as they did to Patterson."
Ponsonby stared at him. He was constantly finding cause to stare at King.
"You wouldn't run away from them?"
"If some half a dozen more like this gunman would be around somewhere? Would I durn well not! I've got no duty of administering your colony. I'm guiding you through the hoops; and I've never had a client killed on me yet."
He led the silent Ponsonby back to the camp. His heart was warming to this youngster whose aristocratic relatives thought he was coming to no good at home.
"Don't pull such a long face about it," he told him. "That was a nice piece of shooting you did there: fast and clean. That leaves one less gunman to get."
Ponsonby reverted to his despairing cry of a while earlier.
"Two weeks is a desperately short time. I'll be lost like a babe in the woods when you go. Dash it all, why can't you carry on if you're so keen about saving the game?"
King was more disposed to explanation of his actions than he had been.
"I told you one reason; I'm not hiring out as a policeman to buck this mob according to your law-book of rules. I'm too plain scared of them."
"Don't spoof." Ponsonby said. "This is serious."
"Well, I am too." King insisted doggedly. "But there's another reason. I'm tied up. Contracted to take Major Devanter of Malende on safari as soon as I'm through with this D.C. deal."
"I might have supposed you jolly well would be," said Ponsonby miserably. "I've heard it said that Kingi Bwana is a valuable man. But I didn't know that this Major Devanter was a sportsman."
In the emphasis upon the title there was a subtle censure of those ex-wartime officers who clung to their rank in civil life.
"He isn't," said King. "He's a rank tyro. But it seems he's wanted to for a long time; and he contracted me early this spring. I'd have preferred to take him some other time; but no other time would suit him."
"Con-demnit! Must he have you? He's an old-timer here. He ought to bally well know you wouldn't let him go round shooting the water-holes at this season."
"Guess perhaps he does know. But he doesn't want to shoot here. He wants to go way out Tadyeni way after sable antelope. A damnfool trip I think; but I can't let him down." King grinned mirthlessly. "It's one of your good governmental regulations that a white hunter breaking contract can have his license revoked and can be 'fined or otherwise disciplined at the discretion of the local administrative officer'. That would be you."
"He might release you." Ponsonby did not sound very hopeful.
"I can't ask him. He's made all his preparations months ahead, fixed his business for a holiday, got his licenses, bought outfit and all. That's the reason for your breach of contract ruling. Maybe you could persuade him—or maybe the D.C."
Ponsonby in turn grinned without mirth. Here was this King man, despite his stout insistence of not letting himself be dragged into an official conflict, actually suggesting possible ways and means.
"I wonder," he said. "Maybe the D.C. could. This beastly thing seems to be of sufficient importance for any decent white man to forego even a long-planned trip."
"Wire the D.C.," King decided quickly. "Send a runner with the message to Lembu. That's the nearest line. If he can't twist the sacred regulations to get around Devanter, you'll just have to bow to 'em humble and buck the racket on your own."
Ponsonby looked at King with the dull hopelessness of one upon whom judgment has been passed and whose hope of reprieve is slight. But he made his voice say:
"Be a jolly little party, I expect, while it lasts."
"That," King nodded sententiously, "is the compensation you must pay for the privilege of belonging in a great empire and having duties to impose the white man's peace upon the empty back bush. The gods of Africa don't make it easy for the white man. But I've managed to last. Keep your nerve, and maybe you will too. But you'll have to have help. You can apply to headquarters to have some constabulary assigned; and by the time the six weeks' slaughter is over the order will maybe go through. I'll have Barounggo round up some men for you—not servants; fighting men. Ha! Here come the two of 'em now. I bet you Kaffa has all the news like it'd been written in a picture book."
THE Hottentot screwed up his face and shut his eyes tight. In a singing monotone he began to recite the story, actually as though repeating the pictured word from memory.
"Bwana, there were two men, the crooked foot who came first to the camp and put the muavi root juice into the whisky bottle—"
"What's muavi? How does he know?"
"Sh-sh!" King hushed Ponsonby. "You mustn't break the reel of his moving picture."
"They came, Bwana, in a moto wagon with rubber wheels like Bwana's, but much lighter. Crooked Foot, having put the poison root in the drink, went back to the moto wagon and stood talking with that other one who was a fool. Then that other one took his gun and came back alone, as Bwana knows. But the crooked foot was too wise to come—for this other fool, the mechanic, has admitted that he told him this was the camp of the Bwana Kingi.
"So then the crooked foot, hearing the shot, came a little distance to learn what might be. But he feared to come close. At a little distance he stood in doubt for many minutes, resting his gun on the ground. Then fear overtook him and he went back to the moto wagon, running, and drove away; fast and far; for we followed a ways and came not up with him. That is all the story, Bwana."
"Hmh!" King grunted. "Just about as I figured him. Clever as a devil. But lacking just the guts to be an out and out gunman. We'll take after him in the morning with the car. If we have luck he may lead us to the gang's hangout; and then, with some good spearmen, bush fighters— But that brings us right back to your own crew. What sort of people have you available?"
"Outside of the office staff, who seem to be queer sort of babu blighters, I believe there are some six or seven native walinzi game-keeper johnnies whose real function is to watch out for petty native poaching and who bring in reports. But to tell you the truth, I—" Ponsonby reddened with an embarrassment that he had never known before—"I don't really know an awful lot about the thing."
"Fire them," said King. "I'll get you some fighters."
"But my dear fellow—" This much Ponsonby knew, as did every government employe from the moment of his arrival—"They are government servants, duly approved and appointed under the civil service regulations. They can't be dismissed without proper cause, charges drawn up and substantiated. They can put up a terrific howl; appeal right up to the governor of the colony, and what not."
"Fire 'em," King snapped. "The hell with regulations. Let 'em howl. Get your job done, and point to that while the clerks haggle over red tape."
Ponsonby was inspired to rebellion—he who would not conform to the straitly ruled conventions at home. King's impatience with governmental maneuverings was damningly logical.
"All right, dammit!" he said, "I will. I'll take on your men and let the rest howl at the governor's very gates."
King beamed upon him. An apt pupil. Distinctly a lad with the makin's. "Good for you. I'll have Barounggo pick up some of his own Elmorani, lion slayers." He called the big Masai to him.
"Listen well, Barounggo," he told him. "There is need to exercise thy little wit besides thy brawn. We must select quietly some eight or ten askaris, fighting men who are more than fools; for they must pretend to be walinzi, servants of the serkali, with no loud bragging and shaking of spears. Their pretence I shall judge when I see them. Their valor I leave to thy choosing."
The Masai swelled his great chest. "Bwana," he promised, "Myself I will put them to the test; and they that I shall bring—those who survive—will be warriors."
"Good. Tomorrow, as we travel, circulate amongst the villages."
King found time at last to fish out his pipe and blow luxurious smoke into the still evening air. He cupped his hands behind his head and grinned in review a good day's work well done.
"If we have any real luck tomorrow," he told Ponsonby, "the trail may lead us to the Big Shot who's organized the mob. He's low and smart enough to keep out of the shooting. If we can bring him in as clean as you got that bushwacking thug the rest'll be like running down jackals."
It seemed to Ponsonby that, for a man who consistently refused to embroil himself with this gang, King was taking an extraordinary amount of trouble. But he was learning to understand that this Kingi Bwana of the African bush country was a man quite extraordinarily different from the "set" that he knew. Somehow, he had never altogether admired that set; never whole-heartedly conformed to their narrow, caste-bound conventions. So they, outraged, had shipped him out to the colonies. Things were different in the colonies. Men were different—some of them. White men.
The morrow, however, brought one of the baffling disappointments of Africa. Pigeon Toe's car tracks wound through the tortuous scrub toward open plain country.
"Heading toward Magimagi," said King. "Likely they're operating around that water-hole."
'The plain unrolled itself endlessly westward. In the shimmery distances low clouds of dust hung. King frowned at them.
"Herds of various beasts moving toward the water. Damnation!"
"But we may be lucky," hazarded Ponsonby.
"Not today," King growled, "That's wildebeeste ahead of us. He'll have been smart enough to get ahead of them."
The queer-looking creatures stretched across the whole front, thousands of them, straggled out in an endless panorama of slow motion, feeding as they went. Their grunting barks merged into a dull drumming of sound. King drove his truck among them. The nearest barked hoarsely and stampeded madly for a few hundred yards; then stood and stared in bovine stupidity.
"The luck is theirs that they're just lion fodder," said King. "Worth nothing. Else imagine what a machine-gun would do amongst 'em. And it's they, poor dumb brutes, that save him."
Then Ponsonby understood. The car tracks that they followed came to the edge of the line of march; and there disappeared—trampled hopelessly into the dust by the myriad shuffling hoofs.
King spat in thoughtful disgust.
"Pah! As safe as covering his trail in water. He may be twenty miles ahead of 'em still; or he may have cut out any place and let yet other herds cover him. That man knows his bush. Thank Pete the rest are just killers."
AND that day's disappointment stretched out into the next, and the next. With the disappearing of that trail all trails disappeared. All the wild things of the open plain were closing on the remaining water-holes. Their tracks covered each other and other tracks covered those.
King made the long trek to the Magimagi slough—-circuitous on account of the deep, unbridged dongas that centered there. With the Hottentot he prowled the surrounding terrain, looking for signs of an encampment, listening for shooting. The Hottentot lifted his snub nose and sniffed the air for the faintest odor of lingering smoke. But only animal trails converged upon the pool.
They journeyed to other outlying water-holes. There they found the same peaceful conditions; virgin wilderness unsullied by sound or scent of man.
Ponsonby peered at scatterings of fresh bones.
"D'you think," a gruesome suspicion came to him, "they're using poison?"
King shook his head. "They'd be capable. But these are lion kills. Broken neck is a sure sign."
Three days to Unduli Pan, jungle country, spiny acacias, euphorbias, giant buttress-rooted figs; elephant country.
A wide belt around the pan, where sub-surface moisture lingered, was thick with scrub. Through the tangle, like dark tunnels, animal trails ran. A fringe of dense dead reed and a two hundred yard zone of cracked mud surrounded the slowly receding pool. A perfect open rifle range.
King hid the truck in a far-away bamboo grass and with Ponsonby cautiously sneaked up to the fringe to watch.
With the late afternoon drinking time the beasts came. Zebra first, as usual, impatient, kicking, biting, squealing; impala, leaping amazingly over each other, pretending they were not interested in the water; all the beeste and bok of Africa, cautious, on high-stepping feet, stampeding in wild flurries about nothing.
Later, with approaching dusk, came a general stampede in all directions: and then lithe, tawny forms, barely distinguishable against the baked brown clay.
Later again, with the beginning of darkness, there were vast shapes, incredibly silent, drifting like black shadows out of the shadow, the last of the light gleaming palely from their tusks.
The silence remained. Nothing disturbed them. No shattering fusilade. The African night closed sticky-warm and peaceful. Insects in solid masses drove the watchers from their hideout.
"Aren't we giddy lunatics," Ponsonby wanted to know, "to be going home through this jungle after dusk?"
"A leetle bit too early for lions to be hunting," King told him. "And they'll give plenty of warning, roaring the roof off of the landscape. That's part of their scheme—to scare the meat critters into blind stampede. You'll learn as we go."
And that was about the benefit that came out of their efforts. Ponsonby was learning Africa; learning how to travel, how to camp; to avoid the dangers of veldt and jungle. But to learn anything about the activities of the gang seemed to be impossible. And the anxious days were speeding alarmingly by.
"Durn funny," King growled. "They're hatching something particularly hellish. If we didn't know at first hand that a gun and poison squad was out for our hides, I'd swear this was all peaceful African back bush. The head that's running this is one smart and slimy hombre."
Barounggo, the Masai began to bring in his recruits. Brawny, straight-looking spearmen. King explained to them that great honor was being shown them; they were selected by the serkali, the government, on account of their bravery. The young bwana was the duly appointed lord of all the game in all this wide district, and he had come many days' journey to look for just such men. He invented a solemn ceremony for Ponsonby to accept them into service.
Full of pride and zeal, they scoured a wide range of country, scouted every water-hole, hunting for news of evildoers who slaughtered the game. But they drew only a baffling blank.
"Could it be," Ponsonby hoped wildly, "that they've decided the business doesn't pay after all, and have given it up?"
"It pays all right," growled King. "You saw how much ivory came to just one pool in one night. Elephants often don't drink for three or four days at a stretch when they have far to go. There'll be other herds for that pool alone. Nossir, they're laying low for some reason."
"Perhaps they're afraid of us—you, I mean. And if they're as well informed as you think, they know you are booked up to go away to this Tadyeni place in a few days."
"And they figure then you'll fold up and quit?"
King put the theory in the form of a double question. He pretended to be scowling reflectively into the far heat haze; but from the thin corners of his eyes he was watching.
Ponsonby's face was set. Only the flush of his growing sunburn hid the whiteness that lay below. His jaw muscles swelled as he bit on his teeth and got up to stalk back and forth. Two weeks of the perplexing chase were nearly over; and the picture before him loomed dark and desperately alone. King noted the hard bulges in what was left of his breeches pockets and knew that the fists, thrust deep in, were convulsively balled.
"I—I—" Ponsonby swallowed. "Dash it all!" he cried in a choked voice, "I can't. I can't throw up the sponge and quit. Not now. You've shown me the beastly thing that's going on and—and—Damn it!" He flared petulantly against the merciless exigencies of Fate. "Your blasted gods of Africa do make it awf'ly hard for a man who'd like to think of himself as white!"
King got up and laid his hand on Ponsonby's shoulder. That was all the comfort he had to offer.
"Yes, they're hard gods," he rumbled ruminatively. "But somehow they sometimes stand by the white men who learn their book of rules. The rules are difficult to understand sometimes. But the first one of them is nerve. Stick to your nerve, feller— You've got it. And they may give us a break yet."
He thumped Ponsonby heavily on the back.
"Buck up, youngster. I believe in luck, and you can buy luck from the gods with your nerve. I've pulled out of worse holes. Hell, maybe the D.C. has squared Devanter already. We'll trek and go see."
But luck remained stubbornly aloof. From Lembu, Ponsonby wired to the D.C., a last forlorn hope, to inquire what progress might have been made about obtaining a release from Major Devanter. But after a delay—obviously for a further effort—the reply came.
With a set resignation in his face, Ponsonby handed the yellow paper to King.
"The man is obdurate. I can do no more. Officially I can exert no pressure."
King's hard fist crushed the paper into a tight ball and he flung it into a corner. The major fellow must be a stiff egoist as well as no sportsman. Enforced association with him over a protracted safari into a far and barren district would not be pleasant.
But worse than his own unpleasantness: this Ponsonby; he was a good lad. A ne'er-do-well at home? King snorted. Pah! A no-good, his hidebound old relatives at home might well think him to be; but he was the right material for the big, open, new country. All he required was showing. And he deserved showing—he had all the makin's.
King grunted his disgust:
"Hell, the D.C. might have forced his hand. The durn book of rules set up by your fussy colonial government is harder to understand than the African gods. But, damn, I don't give up yet. If nothing else breaks first, I'll rush this Devanter down to Tadyeni, get him his durned sable, and come back before you know it. You stall around for a while, worry the gang all you can, keep 'em moving; and maybe I'll be back in time to give you a hand with 'em."
Ponsonby was astoundedly overjoyed.
"Really, old man? Would you do that? Why, I thought you wanted nothing to do with this business that you didn't have to. By Jove, that'd be awf'ly decent."
"Aw!" King was embarrassed by the sudden surge of hope and confidence in Ponsonby's face. "As a hunter I do my share in shooting some of the dumb beasts; so I guess it's kinder up to me to do something to give the rest a fair break."
King's willingness to cooperate was sufficient to arouse Ponsonby to a flash of his studied nonchalance.
"Righto, old top. All I'll have to do is stay alive for a few weeks more."
Disgruntled and morose, King trekked back to Malende to present himself before this flamboyant Major whom he already despised for an unsportsmanlike boor.
Boor? Boer, he should rather say. By his accent he placed the man as a South-African and by his name as of old Dutch Africander stock.
MAJOR DEVANTER was a big, broad man, not unhandsome. A short, fair beard failed to completely hide a steely mouth and strong chin. Intelligent eyes looked keenly from under straight brows. A man who knew his mind and had the courage of his own opinions. He was all cordiality. Like many a colonial of uncertain social position, he tried to cover his accent with an affection of Oxford.
"Ha, Mr. King. Awf'ly glad you showed up. I was almost thinkin' I'd have to relinquish you to the commissioner. He was frightfully persistent. Appealed to my sportsmanship and so on. But dash it all, old man, I may be an arrant duffer in the field, but when a fellow's been makin' ready all summer, that's comin' it a bit thick, what?"
King eyed him sourly. "Did he tell you why?"
"Why he wanted you? Oh—er, yes. Yes, of course. He wanted you take young Ponsonby out to—er, sort of show him the ropes. Some trouble or other with poachers, he said."
"And you couldn't see it, I suppose?" said King crisply.
"Of course I couldn't quite see giving up my trip," the major harped upon his defense, "just because a young government man needed breaking in. So I did the next best thing. I popped over to invite him to come along with us. But it seems he was pottering around somewhere. So left him a note."
There it was at last. The luck that he had been expecting. His grin that had been absent for so long seamed King's face. He thought quickly. This wouldn't be so bad at all. Three white men together, and those quite excellent native spearmen that Barounggo had collected; they ought to be able to make a very successful little campaign against this slimy gang, machine-guns and all. And this Major Devanter. Not such a bad sort after all. He made out a very good case for himself.
"So I think we ought to have quite a decent trip, what?" The major voiced King's own thought. "That is to say if you won't find two of us—tenderfeet, you call us, isn't it?—Two such rank tyros too much of a strain on your patience for such a long trip as Tadyeni."
King's grin vanished. Tadyeni was ten days' journey away from the elephant country.
"Oh! You still want to go to the Tadyeni plain?"
"Positively, my dear fellow. There and nowhere else. I must have giant sable antelope; and you yourself told me that Tadyeni is the only place you know. You see—" the major was confidential—"it's this way. My fiancee's father is curator of mammals in the museum down at Capetown; and I've promised him a habitat group of giant sable. In fact—" the Major laughed a little sheepishly—"the old man's consent is in a way contingent upon my supplyin' him with the specimens. That's why I'm undertakin' a thing of this sort for which I have really no aptitude. Quite out of my line. I'm anything but a hunter. I'm strictly a business man."
"Aa-ah!" The exclamation rasped from King; and that was his only comment. This was not so good. The other, that flash of hope, had been too good to be true. Luck didn't come that easily, not for him. He had always been one of those Fate-bedogged men who had to go out and make his luck.
This time it looked as though Fate were deliberately conspiring against him. Everything was going too perfectly wrong—tied up months ago for just this season by a man who could make no other time; who was willing, it seemed, to go well over half-way to concede a favor to the D.C.; but was bound by very legitimate personal considerations to go to a far outlying place to get certain specimens that could be found nowhere closer.
That was more than just bad luck. That was a deliberate plot of malignant Fate. The sort of thing that stern gods of a hard land sent along to test a man down to the very fiber of him.
King swore savagely at having to take orders from Fate, even temporarily. Well, he would have to revert to the earlier plan. Hurry this major off, get him his specimens, and hurry back.
"Very well," he told him. "I'll be ready to start with tomorrow's dawn. I'll have all supplies and men. You'll need only your personal clothes and your rifle. See you at sun-up. I've got some final arrangements to attend to now."
There was a vast amount of detailed instruction and advice he would have to give Ponsonby before he left. That lad, with all the spirit in the world,—but with all his inexperience—was up against a deadly proposition. And he wouldn't shirk it either. That tradition of duty and service to empire and such was damned inconvenient stuff. But the boy had guts.
It was luck—a little luck—that most of the gang were inexperienced too; just gun men. Pigeon Toe was the danger. If he could but avoid that poison snake.
Those good spearmen. They knew their bush, of course. The most intelligent one of them, appointed as a leader, might—ha! He had it! The grin was fleetingly evident— He would leave Barounggo with Ponsonby as chief of the native force. If it came to fighting, there was a wise and cunning fighter. But the Masai— The grin faded—Dammit, the Masai would likely be reckless fool enough to charge his men against a machine-gun.
Truly was Ponsonby up against a deadly proposition. So that discussion with Ponsonby ran through the night and into the first light of dawn.
King got up without enthusiasm.
"So there you have it. All that I can give you. Take the Masai's advice in everything but barging into danger. I've got to go on my own chore. Good luck. I'll be seeing you before you know it."
Ponsonby was pale. He had absorbed all that he could of advice. But he had no illusions.
"I hope so," he said, not at all hopefully.
KING stalked, scowling and swearing softly, back to his camp. Damn this duty and service stuff. Why couldn't the boy just lay low until he should get back from Tadyeni? He'd show him, by God, how to round up this murderous mob. But what use? If the youngster didn't have just those things he couldn't be worth bothering with—wouldn't have the right makin's.
King roused the Hottentot and told him to start up a fire for early coffee and a quick getaway. Then he went to see that the major would be up and ready. The sooner away, the sooner back.
But the getaway was not so soon. Fate—or maybe the dark gods of Africa that dealt out luck in recognition of courage—were indicating a small opening in their intricate game.
As King crossed the wide, wire-fenced Devanter compound to the whitewashed house in the center he saw something in the early light that stopped him as suddenly as though he had met a bullet.
A track on the ground clear-cut and sharp in the dew-laden dust. A track of a white man's boots—one of which turned pigeon-toed.
He stared at it as Robinson Crusoe must have done at the astounding track of a human foot. In the next second he recovered his poise and made a show of fumbling for his pipe. He filled it laboriously and lit it while his eyes from under the brim of his double terai hat scouted the ground for more tracks and squinted sideways at the windows.
They seemed to be dark and empty. But King's every nerve was tense with caution. Caution and a dawning suspicion of he did not know what yet. He made a gesture of impatience, as though he had forgotten something, and he turned and went back to the bustling camp.
"Kaffa," he called the Hottentot to him. "All thy cunning is needed and all thy wit. Feet have been to that house in the night. Come with me—it will be as though to carry the white man's bags—and whilst I am within, read me the story of those feet."
He strode back whistling, hammered loudly on the door, entered to the major's hearty, "Come on in, old man," and found him dressed and ready.
"Hullo, old fellow, Jambo sana. The best of good mornings." The major was full of enthusiasm. "Auspicious morning for my first safari, what? I'm all packed and locked up for a six weeks' holiday, and under your efficient supervision I hope I'll not find it too hard. But you won't find me weakening. I'll stick it out, by Jove, until the rainy season drives us in."
King contrived a smile and the conventional reassurance that was the requirement of all tenderfeet. But, "Until the rains!" His mind raced around the thought. Was it coincidence; or could there be some reason for that insistence?
The major busied himself with sundry final turnings of keys about the house. He made no objection to King's accompanying him through the various rooms. King had been half wondering whether there might be anybody else there. But everything was as it should be.
"There," said the major at last. "I fancy there's nothing left lying for even my native caretaker to steal. I sent my gear, rifles and everything, over to your camp last night; so we're all set. Just my duffel bag left! Did you bring a boy?"
King was glad for the chance to get away.
"I'll call him and take your stuff over and get it stowed."
"Right-o. I'll come over in five minutes."
The Hottentot shouldered the neatly packed duffel bag and stumped out, King at his heels.
"The feet," said Kaffa with positive assurance, "came to the house early in the night; for the dew is heavy on them. They went away again not two hours ago; for the dew is light upon their going. That is all the story of those feet. An innocent story. Yet, Bwana, it is in my belly that evil is here; for what dealing would such a man as Crooked Foot have for full six or seven hours with this white man who must go to Tadyeni which is the furthest of all places from here?"
The shrewd little man put his finger on the very thought that whirled through King's mind.
Tadyeni, ten days away. These exact six weeks; no other time would suit. Contracted months ahead. An unassailable reason for not acceding to the D.C.'s request for release.
Too perfectly wrong, King had cursed all these concurrent mischances when he had blamed them upon a malignant Fate. But to his now racing suspicions they all fell together just too perfectly right. King had little conceit; but he knew very well that he was the only man in the district of whom ivory poachers would be afraid. He was the only white hunter who ranged in the back country, and his sentiments about sportsmanship and game conservation were well known. These six weeks in Tadyeni would take him beautifully away.
And then minor confirmatory circumstances.
The quick readiness to oblige the D.C. and invite Ponsonby along—get him out of the way too—nice. And this insistence of the major's about being such a neophyte. Why should he be?— He was an old-timer in the land. If he were such a tyro as he pretended, how should he know to pick upon sable antelope that were found no nearer than ten days' hard journey distant? How did he pack a duffel bag so well? How know to send his gear over the night before? How be ready and have the house all locked against his absence? An amateur would be floundering and sunk with last-minute details.
Clever, devilishly clever, all of it. The whole plan and the working of it so far had been clever. This major man looked to be clever enough.
Vile suspicions to harbor against a man. But Pigeon Toe! What secret business could a decent man have with so vile a person as Pigeon Toe throughout seven hours of a last night?
That inescapable fact was reason enough for any sort of suspicions.
The major came striding from his house. Tall, self-possessed, dressed in exactly the appropriate clothes for safari—King noted that to add to his list—keen-eyed; a man who knew what he wanted and usually got it.
"All ready!" he cried heartily. "And, as you Yankees say, r'arin' to go."
King made a quick decision.
"Ponsonby just sent a boy down to say he'd be glad to accept your invitation and come along."
The major beamed. "Splendid! That's topping! Did he send a note? Where's the boy?"
King had to think fast. "I chased him back to tell Ponsonby to hurry up, and I'd be along to show him how to pack so he wouldn't keep us waiting all morning."
With that excuse he hurried away before the major should think of any other awkward questions.
PONSONBY was sitting exactly as King had left him. He had not moved. He sat gazing at the opposite wall as a man might in a death cell.
King burst in on him like a whirlwind.
"Quick, quick! Up! Get a move on! You're coming with us. Luck has busted wide open on us— At least, I think. What cars, trucks, anything, can you borrow or steal?"
"What—why—what on earth's happened?" Ponsonby was bewildered.
"You'll need transport for your crew—your spearmen. I have my light passenger flivver and the truck loaded to the limit with gear and two extra boys for the Devanter safari. We'll have to corral something for your army. I'll explain as we run."
Ponsonby's wits came to him quickly.
"There's a small government truck for the game department in Newton's hide go-down. But I don't know about petrol and—"
"Get it! Get everything you have! We'll pile the men in and I'll rustle up an extra few sacks of mealie corn. Jump! Unless I'm a suspicious fool the gods have given us a sign."
Within the hour a startled native driver sat at the wheel of the truck and listened wonderingly to King's instructions to drive a wide circuit through the empty bush round Malende settlement.
King wedged himself with Ponsonby beside him and watched the ground as they went. Presently he found it. He jumped down to examine the trail. He whooped.
"I'd have betted on it. Look. Tire tracks. Fresh—the dust hasn't blown over 'em yet. Somebody left Malende not two hours ago, heading westward."
"Who would be going westward?" Ponsonby wondered. "There's nothing there."
"Not a durn thing—" King was exultant—"except the water-holes and elephant country. It adds up. By golly it adds up. My guess is that Pigeon Toe took his instructions and is off to join the gang in their hide-out. We'll be gone today—they think—and they'll have a clear field. Come on, let's get to the major; he'll be aching to start."
"I hope to heaven your suspicions are correct," said Ponsonby dubiously. "You—we've got nothing to go on but some tracks. We could prove nothing against him."
"Don't backslide." King warned him quickly. "Don't revert to your processes of lawful procedure. We're dealing with people who're smart enough to play rings around your clumsy law. The gods of Africa are giving us a lead. We'll go with this major man out into the open places of Africa and follow their play. I'll find out soon enough whether he's as innocent as he looks, whether he's such a rank tyro in the bush as he claims."
The Major blinked surprise at the throng that huddled in Ponsonby's truck. King, watching him like a hawk, thought that he noted a flash of uneasiness. But the major laughed bluff cordiality.
"Awf'ly glad you could come, old thing. But my word, you do travel with quite an escort, don't you?"
King lied glibly for Ponsonby.
"He's tenderfoot enough to feel that he needs three tent-boys. The rest are department men, going to be dropped off at Zimwe."
"Well, glad I don't have to feed 'em," said the Major. "If we're all ready, gentlemen, let's go."
The three white men rode in the passenger car. The two trucks lumbered and pounded behind. The major was affable, full of anticipation for a good holiday. He talked gayly about the shooting to come—King wondered whether with just the teeniest bit too much familiarity. He joked. He asked amateurish questions about the bush—perhaps the teeniest bit too amateurish for so clever looking a man.
They halted for a sandwich lunch and a stretch; and the major had not a care in the world.
They halted again for the ceremony of scalding tea in the prevailing ninety degrees of temperature; and the major only perspired and mopped tenderly at his face that was beginning to feel the sun.
It was toward evening camp time that he hazarded the remark:
"I say, aren't you heading a bit over to the westward, old man? Isn't Tadyeni more south?"
King's further eyebrow flickered. But he explained shortly:
"N'gwent River. Three days ahead. The old ford washed out last rainy season. We have to work round by Lokri's Shamba."
"Oh, did it? I hadn't heard that!" the major exclaimed. "I thought—" He stopped abruptly.
"You wouldn't know about it," said King, "being a business man in Malende. It's only us back-bush trekkers who'd be interested."
The major remained thoughtful.
The next day's travel bore even more to the West. Close to the equator, where the sun jumps up and seems to hang in mid-sky for most of the day, it is easy for a rank tyro to lose sense of direction. But the major ventured upon an expostulation again.
"Bad country to the south," King grunted.
At the lunch hour he, who never misjudged the way, ran the car into a dead end of thorn tangle. He got out and shouted to the Hottentot in the far following truck to come and scout a way out.
Out of view, he lay comfortably on his back and focused his field glasses on the empty sky. He frowned and handed the glasses to the Hottentot. He had long ago taught the little man how to use them as an adjunct to his own extraordinary sight.
"Read me the specks in the high heaven, apeling."
The Hottentot grimaced as if with all the throes of acute pain as he went through the still difficult process of adjusting the glasses to the close set of his eyes. At last he settled down to steady scrutiny.
"Vultures," he announced. "Very high and not circling; traveling in the direction of Unduli Pan."
"Ha! The swine haven't lost a moment's time," King growled. "How far, little wise one, do you judge Unduli Pan?"
The Hottentot stood on one leg and thought—not reasoned; he groped, rather, for the directional inspiration that some bush dwellers can evoke.
"This half-day, bwana, and another half-day, going fast in the small moto wagon. A half day and a whole day, going in the big motos."
"Come with us in the small moto," King told him. "Bring the grub box."
He headed the car openly for Unduli Pan.
Even Ponsonby from the back seat noted the major's restiveness. He kept looking at King nervously and at last burst out:
"You're sure you're not losing time, I hope. 'Pon my word, it seems we're coming a long way out of the way."
"I know very exactly what I'm doing—now," King told him.
The Major digested that for half an hour. As he turned over its possible meanings in his mind his face changed. The affability passed from it. A scowl had the curious effect of drawing his eyes together. He looked like an angry and a violent-tempered man—and dangerous.
"I want tea." He barked at last. "Damn it, I'm having enough of this."
KING stopped the car. An alcohol stove and a tea kit were a vital part of the outfit. They all got out. The major stamped back and forth, his hands in his coat pockets, scowling in furious thought. Like something trapped—an angry beast in a cage.
Suddenly he stopped and snatched his hand out of his pocket, a thick, stubby-barreled revolver in it; and in his handling of that he was certainly no tyro. His carefully studied accent passed from him as his rage grew.
"Now then, my bumptious Mister Kingi Bwana, you'll tell me exactly what you're driving at."
King looked at the gun, the gun hand, up the steady arm to the eyes. No foolish plays with this man. He would shoot. "Perhaps you know," King said evenly. "You're so clever."
The major's mustache curled away from his teeth and revealed startlingly the reason why he affected the softening effect of it with his beard. While his face twitched with uncontrolled fury, his eyes set in that menacing anomaly, the cold blankness of a killer.
"Pretty damn smart yourself, aren't you?" His words came like shots. "Even fooled me for a while." He crouched slightly and his shoulders stiffened. His pistol arm tensed. King began edging over toward the car.
The major's teeth glared out again. "That's not so clever. You won't fool me again. I know where your gun is. But it's the right direction. Closer to Ponsonby there where I can see the two of you."
King stepped quickly over and stood beside Ponsonby. The major pivoted slowly to cover them both.
"That's better. And you needn't grin. Ponsonby doesn't wear a gun either. I was clever enough as far back as last night to look through your clothes."
"Yeah?" King showed his annoyance. "That's one I didn't give you credit for."
But the major was deadly.
"You don't bluff me out of anything, my smart lad. All I'm wondering is how to dispose of you fellows." His eyes flickered to the surrounding bush. "Those damn trucks will be coming on our track and—"
He bit off the words in venomous thought.
"Perhaps you're clever enough to make 'em believe a lion got us," said King.
Expression flashed into the deadly blank eyes. Doubt. No man would be so cool unless—
"Yep," King laughed at him. "You're not so well heeled as you figured. Let him feel the point, Kaffa. Don't move, Big Shot."
But the major jerked spasmodically as a half inch of Somali knife jabbed in exactly over his spine and pushed with steady pressure. Then he stiffened.
"Not quite clever enough," King grinned at him wide. "Better drop the gun, because I'm going to have to pay him not to kill you."
Mustache and beard snarled apart again but the hand that had been tensing on the gun-butt relaxed.
King walked forward and picked it up. He laughed sardonically.
"Yeh, I don't wear one of these things in this law-abiding colony of yours. A mistake. I should. That was very nicely done, good apeling. There will be a reward of tobacco and a blanket striped as the lightning."
He looked over to Ponsonby, jauntily and with a vast satisfaction.
"Learning more about your colony every day, eh? Now here's where you decide. Me, I'd recommend for you to take this gun and shoot this snake for a venomous thing that's organized the filthiest racket in Africa and collected a gang that use guns or poison or what have you. But I reckon you've still got your traditions, and maybe you want to take him alive."
Ponsonby looked at King, wondering, hesitant. He had grown to rely on him for every move. King grinned at him.
"I'm not 'conducting' you any longer. My contract ran out yesterday. You're on your own feet."
"Oh!" Ponsonby assimilated that thought. Then his mouth tightened in decision. "Well, I—I shall arrest him."
"O.K. Go ahead. Take him," said King unconcernedly.
It was beginning to seep into Ponsonby's understanding that King expected him personally to go through the motions of making the arrest.
"Yeh. One of your laws," King accused him. "I've been up against it before. And what a yawp a defense lawyer sharp put up when I pulled in a sacred British subject—me having no 'authority.' The D.C. had to take it to the Governor to iron it out. Y'see I'm not even hired by you. I'm in mutiny and rebellion against this snake. You read up your fat book of regulations some day. It'll give you a gripe when you're out alone in these backwoods and things are happening fast. Though of course—" King's tone passed from the cynical to the insinuating—"You, as an officer of the law, can call upon me and my man to assist you in the performance—and et cetera and so on."
"Oh," said Ponsonby again, "I see. Well, damme if I'll call on you—yet."
King's grin was benediction. "Go to it, feller. And you, Major Big Shot, if you try to pull anything particularly vile, I'll give you to the Hottentot as a present. Kinder unfair to cramp your style that way; but it's the decent man who's got inhibitions that's always got the handicap."
The major snarled hate at King. "Ho, a fight promoter, yes?"
King shook his head. "Nope. A trainer. I've got some good material here and I'm showing him the ropes. This isn't going to be a fight. You're heavier 'n him; but you've been being a smart business man while he's been going through a couple weeks of the stiffest kind of training.
AND it wasn't a fight. It was a scramble. Heave and punch. Knock down, roll over, squirm and punch again. Dust flew, clothes ripped, thorn bushes crackled, flattened and sprang up again. Neither man was a boxer. It was a test only of courage and stamina—plenty of both.
But finally Ponsonby sat on the major's back and held his arms twisted behind him. Torn, scratched up a good deal more. But on top.
King nodded. "Good. That is, not bad. Africa is a tough school, no?"
Then he explained. "You had to do this, youngster. Y'see, from the foolish kind of poke you gave Pigeon Toe in his face a while back, I guessed you'd never been in a fight before—back in your high-brow home. And you had to know you could lick a tough man. 'Cause we got some other tough people to go and lick. Now I'll show you how to tie him up."
He fished a piece of gun-cleaner drawstring from his pocket and tied the major's thumbs behind his back. Then with his hunting-knife he slit through the prisoner's shooting coat and shirt—two holes, wide apart, well up between the shoulders. He passed the twine through the holes.
"And that man," he hissed softly as he knotted it, "won't escape unless someone lets him. Y'see, a man has no strength to pull that way. He can sit and he can lie and he isn't tortured—damn him. I'm sorry at least once a week in this country I've got some inhibitions myself."
Far shouts back and forth and cursings of thorn twigs that reached in and raked the drivers' faces indicated that the trucks were coming up.
"Since they've caught up with us; and since we know now exactly what's what," said King, "maybe we'd better keep the army with us. Looks like we'll be needing 'em. And by the same token they ought to be told just what they're going up against. A machine-gun 's an awful shock to men who don't expect it."
He told the men briefly what sort of a situation be expected to find. Desperate men were to be captured—or at all events their crime must be made to cease. There would be wounds; probably death. Therefore now was the time to say whether they would carry on, or would Barounggo have to search for other men.
"But, bwana, what talk is this?" The Masai was enormously indignant. "What need to offer shame to these men? These be Elmorani. See their garters? Each man of them has slain his lion with shield and spear."
"All right! All right!" King mollified him. "That they would run from battle I did not think. But they should know that a fight is before them."
"No man will go away," the Masai took it upon himself to guarantee. "Mine own honor is at stake. Did I not bring them, having first tested each one? As witness this scar on my shoulder not yet healed. That tall fellow it was, he who grins; for I bet him a cow that he could not touch me. A slip it was, bwana. A mischance. Else he would never—"
"I take over thy bet, braggart," King laughed at him. "I will pay it. If that tall warrior pricked thee it was well earned."
The tall man lifted his spear in salute.
"Assanti sana, Bwana, m'kubwa, m'pagi. Thank you indeed, bwana, great chief, generous one. For such a chief a small matter of some fighting is a good thing."
"You do not fight for me." King told them. "You are servants of the serkali. And as such, those who may receive wounds, the serkali will care for them; those who may die, the serkali will care for their women in their villages. My own men I have made provision to care for. Therefore there is no need of anxiety for this fight."
The men tapped their spears against their shield rims, a crescendo rattle of warriors' applause to a chief.
"Yes," said Ponsonby, "I've heard it said around the club and other places that Kingi Bwana knows how to handle Africans."
"Something else for you to remember," King shelved the compliment.
"And who," Ponsonby half-whispered the question to himself, "in all this merry-go-round cares for the welfare of Kingi Bwana? Seems like there's nobody left."
"That," said King quickly, "is the compensation I must pay for the privilege of being a free man. And brother—" he spread his shoulders and breathed deeply of the dust-laden air—"It's worth it."
But time was speeding and here they stood talking.
"Come along! Come along!" King bustled into action. "We've got ground to cover. Dammit, I doubt we'll make it in two stop-overs now. If only we'd gone direct we'd have been there by now. But you had to have 'proof' on this clever big shot."
He motioned to a couple of brawny spearmen to pick him up.
"We'll feel sorta cleaner, I guess, if your prisoner rides in the baggage truck. And I hope to God he tries to escape. These Elmorani lads aren't handicapped by any inhibitions. Come ahead. Let's get going. We've got two of 'em. Only a few more to get."
"Dashed if I don't believe," said Ponsonby, as the car bucked over the mimosa roots, "that you're jolly well pepped about bucking this gun gang."
"Who, me?" King flouted the idea. "I'm not bucking any gang. You're the game-warden. I'm just bringing my client, Major Devanter, along to let him see how you run your job. 'Cause your law is going to let him off easy on all the 'evidence' you've got on him; and I figure it'll be good for him to know, then, what happens around the water-holes."
The thorn scrub country began to open up into the familiar rolling plain.
King examined the sky with his glasses and checked the direction of the microscopic specks with a pocket compass.
Yes, Unduli Pan was the scene of operations. He urged the drivers to speed. Later the Hottentot lifted his snub nose and announced:
"There is dead meat in the air."
"Good Lord! Can he really smell it?" Ponsonby wondered.
"I wouldn't bet one way or the other. Some of those fellows can pretty near outsmell a dog." King wasn't interested just now in ethnological theories. What he wanted to do was to reach the tree country before night, hide up the car, and creep down to a favorable position somewhere near the pool before daylight should come again and betray them.
"If luck holds—if these cars stand up to the punishment we're putting 'em through—we'll make it," he insisted almost prayerfully.
And luck held. The gods, rewarding those who obeyed their book of rules, gave it to them.
They laid up the trucks, left the mechanics as guards over the prisoner, crept through jungle paths headed by the Hottentot's animal sense of direction and night vision; and presently their own noses told them that in the jungle about them were dead things.
Ponsonby could hear King swearing while he fiercely enjoined silence upon the others.
"What I can't make out about all this," he told King, "is whether we're afraid of bumping into them, or they're afraid we may find 'em."
"I don't know who else is," said King, "but I am."
The next thing they knew they could feel a moist vapor on their faces from the surface of the little lake. In the tree fringe they bedded down to wait for morning.
"Elephants often drink at dawn," King whispered. "That'll maybe get the murderers to show their hand."
IT was a nerve-racking and gruesome wait. Warm eddying breezes brought whiffs of charnel odor from here and there. Out on the encircling mud belt and in sundry places in the jungle hyenas howled their raucous call and fought over foul food and gibbered the maniac wail that fools have called a laugh.
Dawn came. Everybody crouched expectantly. Soon something would happen. But what? Nobody knew. Attack or be attacked? Ponsonby found himself vaguely wishing that his own expression might be as fiercely expectant as those of the askaris. It came to him all of a sudden that here he was with these spearmen whom he had taken into service as native wardens, and he was not in any way expecting to arrest anybody.
"At any time now," King whispered to him, "a herd may come down to drink. Watch. Big as they are, you'll hardly hear 'em."
Ponsonby peered from amongst the leaves. The light grew stronger. Suddenly he stiffened. Across the mud slope some two hundred yards distant, he thought he saw a movement in the dry tops of the fringe of dead reed left by the receding water. He watched. It was a movement, an undulant waving. Something pushing cautiously through. Too small to be an elephant—that reed didn't grow high enough. The movement reached the edge of the reeds. The cause of it came out into view.
A man. He stood and surveyed the expanse of open mud bank up and down. Ponsonby's breath sucked sharply in.
He raised his rifle. He did not know why. Somewhere in the back of his mind was a realization that this was not self-defense, as it had been once before when he peered from cover and a man pointed a rifle at him. His hesitation almost lost him his life.
Pigeon Toe saw his motion. His rifle jerked up on the instant and fired.
It was only King's tremendous shove that sent him reeling and saved him.
"Durn fool!" King was abusing him. "I told you you couldn't get Pigeon Toe that easy. He's a hunter. Damn, I didn't spot him soon enough."
A startled squeal sounded in the jungle on the heels of the shot and behind the place where the man had stood. King gripped Ponsonby's arm.
"Baby elephant! They're coming!"
On the heels of that again two more shots rang muffled in the jungle and a short burst of machine-gun fire.
There followed a hell's pandemonium of hoarse giant screams, squeals, brazen trumpetings, and a crashing and thundering of vast bodies stampeding through everything in their path. A single furious trumpeting remained to split the air in short blasts, and short rushes crashed back and forth in the jungle.
King was swearing through clenched teeth.
"The swine! The filthy beasts! You heard 'em! Hell, I didn't like to believe it, in spite of the bones. But, damn 'em! They failed this time. Pigeon Toe's shot stopped the herd, and those dumb fools cut loose from poor position. But they hit one. The hellions! Not to drop him clean, blast 'em. Just to hurt him and make him sore."
Ponsonby was just as outraged as was King. His impulse was for immediate reprisal.
"Anyhow, that shows us where they are. Shall we up and go for 'em?"
King looked at the crouching men, fierce, eager.
"You're durn right, we'll—" But his habitual caution came back to him. "We'll have to be careful—can't rush a machine-gun. But we can cut across to that end before they get organized, and if they're dumb enough to stay in the jungle, we'll show 'em, by God, what jungle men can do."
"Well, I'm ready. Tell them."
"You tell 'em." King grinned maliciously at Ponsonby. "They're your men. I'm not going to get blamed for anything that your men may do in the heat of a fight. I'm just tagging along 'cause I'm scared to be caught by those devils alone."
"I can't tell 'em an awful lot in Swahili," said Ponsonby. "But damme, I can lead 'em."
"Good lad! The sooner, the better, then."
They pushed out from their cover and started to sprint, each man for himself, across an arc of the open mud slope, heading for the further fringe of jungle where the shooting had been.
The leading runner, a tall greyhound of a man, had barely gone fifty yards when a vicious crackle of another gun blasted out from the dark tunnel of an animal run to his left. His hands clawed out before him and his impetus carried him like a diver to land on his face and slide on the hard-baked mud.
The next runner came into the deadly zone, and eagerly racing a hand's breadth behind him, another.
The deadly crackle continued to spurt from the tunnel mouth. Both men pitched and slid on their faces. The spear of one of them stuck into the ground and slanted teetering. A bullet cut splinters from it; and the shaft bent over the hung.
The next leading man saved himself from the death zone by flinging himself sideway, from where he scrambled to his feet and followed the rest in a mad rush for the shelter of the jungle.
"Phe-ew! I'd never guessed that." Ponsonby was panting and furious. "How the devil could those rotters know we were hostile to them? They couldn't have understood that Pigeon Toe's shot was fired at humans at all."
"They didn't," King spat savagely. "This bunch was holed up to cut down anything that the other bunch missed. They took us as we came because I tell you they're letting nothing stop their business."
He addressed the remaining men, five of them, besides his own too.
"Warriors, this was a mischance that came upon us by reason of being over impetuous and rushing like foolish game beasts into the open. In the jungle path these men lie hidden. I know not how many. By stealth, then, they must—"
But the men, scowling and muttering, were already slipping through the tangle of bush and vine. There was nothing to do but follow them. King dropped on his belly and wormed into a low opening.
"You stay here," he hissed over his shoulder at Ponsonby. "This is jungle work."
But Ponsonby's face grinned close over his heel. "You're not 'conducting' me now. I'm on my own feet."
A short burst of fire crashed out a little to their right. King reached back and dragged Ponsonby up beside him.
"Damn-fool game-warden. So listen. That gives us their exact direction. Keep trees between as you go; or they'll likely cut you in half."
WITH enormous caution they crept forward. Nothing dared be brushed past. Twigs had to be carefully bent aside, dead leaves picked out of the way.
Another burst crashed out. The incredible clatter of bullets amongst leaves and twigs receded into the distance; then came back in crisp whispering echoes.
Again a spasmodic burst; and the shattering of twigs in another direction.
King's lips mouthed the barely whispered words:
"Nervous. Shooting blind at sounds."
Sounds apparently were everywhere; faint clicks and infinitesimal rustlings from every direction around the hidden gunmen, for frenzied bullets rattled away this way and that.
Chameleon-slow now. All the caution of that watchful creature stalking an insect—a poisonous, stinging insect. Even shooting blind, a machine-gun spray might cut a man in half.
Ponsonby's eye found itself before a camera-hole opening between twigs; and in that strained position he froze. He did not dare move. The machine-gun seemed to be looking right at him.
There they were. Three men crouching in a dim funnel that bored through the jungle. Two of them held rifles, the other squatted behind the deadly gun; nervous, fear in their evil eyes.
Typical gunmen, callous enough to pain and death in their own haunts, but bewildered now in unfamiliar ground. Fear of their own death twitched their faces.
The gun whirled on its swivel and menaced another point, jerked round to another, then spun back to Ponsonby.
His breath froze in him. He was not aware of having made a sound. He dared risk none by moving.
Sounds were everywhere. The machine-gunner's eyes flashed about him. The gun muzzle wavered with them.
Then Ponsonby saw him suddenly clutch at his shirt front. Just as though a wasp had blundered in and stung him. The trigger hand jerked away to join the clutch. From between his fingers a spear blade protruded.
All in one convulsive, astounding second there was the blade and suddenly red fingers clawing at it.
Then the great form of the Masai rose up out of the bushes behind him.
"Hau!" he shouted, full-throated, like the coughing roar of a lion in its spring.
One of the rifle men turned to meet him. He left his spear and hurled his dark bulk at the man, arms and legs asprawl. Together they went down.
The third man was swinging his rifle up, when another dark form jumped high above the struggling pair and arrived upon him, spear first.
Then a rush of leaping naked forms and the hissing "Ss-ghee" of the Elmorani, gruesomely indicative of spears passing through flesh. Then the Masai, tugging to retrieve his spear.
Ponsonby stood beside King, big-eyed and a little sick.
The Masai lifted his red blade in the salute that courtesy to one's master demands and reported.
"Three of them, Bwana. Against three of ours. We are even."
"Yet it is not enough," came a voice.
"We are ahead," said King. "One slain before and one captured."
"How many more are there in the other group?" Ponsonby asked.
"Durned if I know. I'd always figured six or seven all told—and Pigeon Toe. They won't be so easy. Do you know how to use one of these things?"
Ponsonby shook his head. "No. I missed the war. Don't you?"
"Hell, no. I'm a hunter, not a soldier." King stood with his thumbs hooked in his belt and teetered on his toes, frowning. "So the handicap is still against us. Well, waiting won't help. Andamani Wasikari. Come ahead, men—I mean, tell your men to come along. But this time I lead. This bunch will know who's looking for them."
Keeping careful cover, they worked round the rim of the jungle pool. Ponsonby, exerting all his faculties to emulate the silence of the others, was surprised when King held up his hands to stop everything.
"Over there, a little to your left. About fifty yards, I'd judge it. Listen."
Then Ponsonby got it too. A slow rustling of leaves thrust aside. A successive crackling of leathery, half-moist twigs as a huge foot sunk deeper into the jungle debris. A long, windy snuffle and a woosh of expelled air.
"Something else looking for 'em," said King grimly. "And a lot madder'n us and ten times as patient. People'll tell you a wounded buffalo is the most dangerous beast in Africa. But I'll bet on an elephant every time 'cause he's that much cleverer. A good ally."
"But Good Lord." Ponsonby whispered it. "Won't he charge down on us?"
"Sure. Like an army tank—if he winds us. But what wind there is is across. And their hearing isn't any too good, spite of their bat ears. A good man—like, say, a Kavinrondo hunter—can creep up to 'em and jab 'em with a spear. We'll just have to watch our wind."
The next thing, voices stopped them. An oath and a querulous complaint.
"Cawn't see a foot in this blawsted tangle. 'Ow the 'ell are we goin' ter shoot?"
And then: "You shut yer faice, Okey. If they tries ter do any stalkin' through this stuff we'll bloody well rip 'em wide open,"
They stood at the edge of a patch of elephant grass, stiff-stemmed canes that waved dusty plumes twenty feet in the air; dense, crowding out all other vegetation. No live thing could pass through that without betraying its course.
"Aa-ah!" King breathed. "Pigeon Toe's doing. Yeh, he knows his bush." He looked to left and right and he sucked in his lip.
"Yes, a crafty nest. A machine-gun spray would cut through that stuff like dead corn stalks.
To the right the cane patch bordered on the open circle of the lake. To the left the elephant snuffled and searched with vindictive patience.
The vagrant wind blew from the pool, quartering across the cane patch, passing on between them and the angry beast. To work around to the further side of the patch—even if that might prove to be of any use—would surely bring the man scent directly down wind to the brute. And then even an expert and cool-headed rifleman in that close jungle might not stop it; and any luckless spearmen in the way would be lost.
It seemed to be a checkmate; an endless game of wait for one side or the other to make a mis-move.
THE Hottentot scuttled from behind his sheltering tree to where King and Ponsonby stood. His eyes glittered with excitement. He looked like a monkey contemplating a fearful and irresistible mischief.
"Bwana," he whispered, "Heitsi Eibib himself has prepared this opportunity. If Bwana therefore permits—" He stopped to sniff the wind again, wetting his splay nostrils with his tongue and swinging his head to catch its exact direction.
"What's Heights-I-bib?" Ponsonby had to know.
"Hottentot nature god," King whispered shortly. "What is in thy head, Little Wise One?"
"See, bwana. Thus is the wind. There stalks the beast that they have wounded. It is in my head that I can draw him round to catch their scent."
King stared at him, and his own eyes began to shrink to thin slits as he contemplated the mad idea.
"By golly," he murmured, "I believe you could. Lord, what an ally! It will be a danger, Little One. Death will follow at thy very skin."
"A lesser danger, Bwana, than that devil-devil gun."
King's nod was reluctant. "Go then, bold apeling. And I myself will lay a stone for Heitsi Eibib with thee."
The Hottentot scuttled off. He whispered to the Masai and the other men. They edged down closer to King and Ponsonby. His agile form melted into the underbrush.
"By golly!" King felt for the wind. "If he does it, the brute will miss us by scant feet. If the wind shifts—" Mechanically he eased the breech of his rifle open to assure himself once over again that a cartridge was in the chamber.
A motionless minute passed. Another dragged itself on. Some small creature, encouraged by the silence, scuffled in the leaves. In the cane patch was a faint crackle of some man changing a cramped position. Ponsonby's mind groped with a Dantesque visualization of hurtling chaos and of the terrifying unsuspicion of the men within the cane patch—If the wind should not shift. Time crawled on.
The silence in the further jungle was startled by a loud whoosh, and a long steamy inhalation.
"Ha!" from King.
Followed a scrambling in the underbrush and a vast pushing aside of higher branches. A whoosh of expelled dust again—nearer.
A faster scrambling, and the crunch of huge feet. Right into the line of the wind over the cane patch! A quick succession of puffs from enormous bellows.
Then a blast of shattering brass—furious, vengefully triumphant. A bulk heaved itself to momentum with a vast crashing of twigs, branches, trees and the pounding of great feet.
Almost at spear's length an unseen tornado thundered past. It screamed brazen rage again. Then it was rushing through the cane.
Dry stems crackled like the gun. The gun crackled back. A short wild burst at blind destruction. Sharp shouts! Yells! A clank of trampled metal! An awful scream expelled with unhuman force! A further blind crashing through the cane and out to open silence beyond.
"Ulu-lu-lu-lu!" The Masai yelled. The rest of the spearmen took up their war cry and in a jostling pack dashed into the swath of destruction.
It came to King in a flash that they had arranged this concerted rush amongst themselves in order to forestall any restraint upon their vengeance for their fellows. He raced after them, into a pall of swirling dust that made fuzzy the outlines of twisted stems and broken reed. He stumbled to the central shambles in time only to hear the hissing accompaniment to spear thrusts and to see the heaving pile of dark limbs.
Outside somewhere the elephant trumpeted short angry blasts.
"Good Lord, he'll be back on us," Ponsonby warned.
King was tugging at struggling men.
"Kaffa!" He demanded. "Who has seen the Hottentot? Was he here?"
But it was from behind that the little man scrambled down the lane of shattered stems, as pleased with himself as a monkey that has performed a difficult trick.
"Ha, apeling!" King's concern was allayed. "Splendidly done! I have feared for thy foolish life. We shall speak of this later."
Again the elephant trumpeted from outside; querulous; further than before.
Ponsonby was trying to drag the men away, to urge them by signs to run for the shelter of the jungle. King had time to explain their carefree laughter.
"He's lost the scent. Don't you see, in this tangle he couldn't see what was underfoot. He just charged ahead like a runaway truck, and now he's the other side of the wind."
The taut anxiety of furious events was passing from his own face. "Well, this looks like a clean-up. I'm afraid your men haven't taken any prisoners. But—" He shrugged. "I don't know that you can altogether blame 'em for that."
The Masai came to report with a huge satisfaction. "Four of them, Bwana. One—he who screamed—the elephant trampled like a slug in his path. The gun also is broken. But the Crooked Foot is not here."
"Ss-so?" King's own growing satisfaction clouded. "Yes, he was the only one smart enough to know what was coming, and he ducked just in time. There's still a danger then."
"But his gun, bwana, is here." The Hottentot rose from his close investigation of everything. "See, bwana, the iron plate at the butt. The screw is missing. Such a mark was left by the gun when Crooked Foot stood in thought upon the day of his poisoning of the drink."
"Ha! Then it must have been nip and tuck for him. He must have squeezed into the cane, and in the general uproar he wormed out—on the side away from us. He can't have gotten far. Out, you men! Out of here and fan out in the further jungle! That man of all of them, must be captured. What of that angry elephant? There too, remains a danger."
"The elephant, Bwana," a man came back from the further lane of trampled cane, "has circled and has gone into the jungle again."
"The same side as we must hunt for Crooked Foot. The more need for care. Away! Away! Kaffa, see what trail may be found. The rest, fifty paces apart. Swift! Swift!"
KING pushed Ponsonby to the outer fringe that bordered the open belt of mud.
"Easier going for you."
Himself he took the next station, some fifty feet further into the jungle. Beyond him the men strung out; and the drive commenced.
Slow, of necessity; for Pigeon Toe would be clever enough to hide and double back. Zigzagging the men went. Every possible cover had to be probed.
Driven like game, the thought struck Ponsonby. Like the game he had so often driven to slaughter. Presently he was looking at great circular tracks in clay that led into a trampled lane through the brush. Even he could read those.
"Kingi, oh Kingi." He called softly. "Here's where it went in."
King's voice clucked impatience. "The same durn condition as before. It's somewhere in there, and the wind blowing across. If we cut its wind, we'll be charged. An elephant doesn't quit."
He passed the word on to the men. "Ears open for its presence, and pass immediate warning down."
"Aye, bwana," came a further voice. "But Crooked Foot, being before us, must cut the wind first."
"Ye-eh. That is so. That is so indeed. By golly, I believe we've got him between us and a deadline."
With inexorable thoroughness the drive continued. Everybody heard the explosive snort out of the jungle ahead. Everybody stopped; silent, alert.
Below the snort—between it and the pool—a stealthy scuffling sounded. Uncertain in its direction; a little forward, a little back. If that should be Pigeon Toe, he would know exactly what the snort indicated.
"And he's weaponless," muttered King.
From where the snort had come commenced a slow heaving of branches; questing snuffles and an advance down toward the scuffle.
Whatever it was that scuffled could not wait. Behind it were spears. Before it—well, a hope that if the vague wind should by good chance eddy for just a minute or so, it could pass through the zone of scent—and then the zone would stretch between it and the spears.
The scuffling pushed forward. The vast movement closed down upon it. The cautious jungle erupted furious sounds. A brass scream of rage; another scream of fear; rushing bodies; the rending of underbrush.
Ponsonby, out in the open, yelled with excitement.
"Halloo! For'ard away!"
Just as though he might have been out with the hounds and had seen the fox break cover. The next moment his joyous halloo changed to a strangled:
"Oh, my God!"
King pushed through to the outer fringe in time to see Pigeon Toe racing madly across the hard mud slope. Thundering enormously behind him, the elephant.
That was King's first view of it. Its shoulder, he saw in a flash, was gouted with blood that ran down and clotted over its flank. It limped on its nearer fore leg. But it gained horribly on the runner.
It was instinct for King to throw up his rifle. His sight moved to different points on the receding bulk. And then very deliberately he lowered his weapon.
"No," he said. "I can't stop it. A rear end shot like this. Only hurt it and make it madder."
Men broke from the bushes. They howled encouragement. It was easy to see where their sympathy lay.
King scowled, tight-eyed, at the grim race. With a grim sense of justice he said: "Let the gods of Africa decide. He's broken pretty near every rule in their book. Let 'em judge. If he can reach the water and swim under just a little ways the elephant will lose him. Then I'll shoot it for my damned inhibitions' sake and we'll make him a prisoner—if so happen there's no crocodiles. Let the gods decide."
And according to their dark wisdom they decided.
The man sprinted desperately, screeching terror as he ran. The vengeful beast rushed behind him like a pursuing engine. Twenty feet from the pool, when hope of safety for the man began to glimmer, the beast seemed to realize the fact too. It reached forward its trunk in a bunting sort of buffet. It seemed barely to touch the man; but it slung him the full twenty feet to the soft mud at the water's very edge.
For an instant he floundered desperately. Then a ponderous foot like a piston smashed down on him and drove him to its own knee depth into mud and spouting spray. Black bubbles gurgled up.
The beast screamed hoarse rage and disappointment at its sudden loss. Its trunk groped down into the thick ooze. It screamed rage again. Its feet kneaded the pulp beneath them ever deeper. Belly deep it stood in the black muck and trumpeted its blasts of unappeased fury.
"Come away," said King. "Under cover, all of us, before it sees us and comes. I don't want to have to shoot that good elephant."
In a long silence they walked to find their trucks. It was not till they had passed well away from the outlying odors of dead meat that King indulged in his characteristic stretch and deep inhalation of clean air and said very practically:
"Well, I guess that's that."
Ponsonby shook himself out of his thoughts. "Yes," he said. "I suppose so. I imagine that racket is quite thoroughly scotched. I have a great deal to thank you for, Kingi Bwana."
"Me?" King flouted the idea. "Hey, don't you try and blame any of your high-handed doings on me. You're the game-warden. They're your men. I've just been a spectator around here. And if you want my opinion, I'll tell you I think the game department has done a pretty thorough job. There's only two things I'm sorry for."
"What?" said Ponsonby quickly. "Because I want—I mean, even as a useless spectator, I shall continue to need your opinion."
"First thing I'm sorry is for you," said King with genuine pain. "For the reports you'll have to write to headquarters about all this. Letters, explanations, acres of 'em. And ex-soldier clerks'll write acres back and want sketch maps 'cause they've been taught that's the only way to understand anything."
Ponsonby's face clouded. "Yes, dash it all, I suppose they'll want report. But dammit, I have a lot to do here. I must trek around and get to know the district and place these men where they're needed and organize my lines of information and—Well, I'll send 'em their bally reports when I have time to get around to 'em."
King beamed upon him. "Brother," he said, "I think you've learned. The clerks'll throw hemorrhage fits in their swivel chairs. But I'll tell you what I'll do—save you some trouble. I've got no job here now; so I may as well go in. I'll see the D. C. and tell him the story; so he'll understand the thinnest of your reports."
Ponsonby was immensely relieved. "That would be splendid. Save no end of bother. And what's the second thing you're not satisfied about? If you must go, I'll need all the advice you can leave behind."
"Yeh, but you won't take it," said King. "I'm sorry as hell that nothing happened to the Big Shot."
And so King told the story to the D.C. And the D.C. said: "Kingi Bwana, I believe you would demoralize an archangel. The needs of Colonial Administration subsist upon a diet of reports and office files, which I cannot change and you cannot understand."
"Yeh, but I've learned something," said King. "Putting it simple, the duties of Colonial Administration mean getting your job done. And Commish Bwana, that lad may be no good at home, but I'm telling you, you've got a game-warden back there now."
Roy Glashan's Library
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