Monday, February 16, 2009

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle: Killers Kraal

SHE FROWNED over the saying. There were many words in Swahili speech that had no meaning for her, because the Abama dialect had no words to match them. "What is 'grace'?" she asked.
He was silent, balancing an answer in his mind. "It is ze minga," he decided. "A thing given, as when the Abama sacrifice for rain, and the rain comes."
"So? But I have given you nothing."
He gave her a long, steady look, then: "I think so. I am thinking of a certain night in the garden of Sleman bin Ali.
"I gave you a knife wound also!" she reminded him sharply. But under his steady gaze she felt the blood rise to her head and pulse in her ears. To hide her confusion she got to her feet, and as she did so a deep-toned voice shouted her name. She turned quickly to see Ekoti come running across the clearing, the tails of his leopard-skin kroos whipping about his black, muscular legs. He came to a stand before her, his great chest heaving as he fetched his breath. As Rick got to his feet the young chief's keen eyes came to focus on him. Stern disapproval was written on his face, and his greeting was coldly formal:
"I know you, Bwana!"
"I know you, Chieftain!" Rick returned.
"I did not think to find you still here," Ekoti said, but looked to Sheena for an answer.
"Kalundas attacked his camp," the Jungle Queen told him. "He was wounded in the fight and could not trek."
"Ah—so!" Ekot looked relieved, then: "I sent Leta to your dwelling place in the forest. She could not find you, and when she came back she said she was sure that the young Bwana had taken—"
"Your wives chatter like parrots!" the Jungle Queen, interposed sharply. "And if you wanted me why are your drums silent?"
Ekoti's eyes became uneasy. He looked up at the sky and then down at the ground. "I came to speak of this thing," he said at last. "Our drums are silent because the witchdoctors say that no drum must talk after sundown now."
"What witchdoctors? Who dares to silence my drums?" Sheena was furious, and Ekoti looked as if he expected the earth to open and swallow him.
"All the witchdoctors say so, Sheena," he rumbled. "Surely you have heard the drum?"
"I have heard it. What more?"
Ekoti looked grave. "There is much more and it is all bad, Sheena. When the drum first spoke the witchdoctors went to a secret meeting place, and when they came to their villages they told the people that the drum was the ghost-voice of Yamo Galagi. It was a great magic, they said, and that all the young warriors must make ready to trek into the Kalunda country."
"So? But you did not let the young men go, Ekoti?"
The chief took his time about answering, and that the worst had yet to come was made plain by his hesitation and the way he shifted from one foot to the other. "I tried to stop them," he said at last. "I called the Elders to council, and it was made taboo for any man to go more than a day's trek beyond his village. But the call of the drum was stronger than our taboo. When it spoke again a few young men stole away when all were sleeping. On the next night a few more. And so it has been every night. Aie truly, it was as if a ghost walked into the villages, touched each man on the shoulder as he lay on his bed, and said: 'Follow me!' Soon there will be no young men left to hunt and watch our cattle, and I have come to ask you what I should do about this thing."
"The witchdoctors lie!" the Jungle Queen flashed at him. "It cannot be the Galagi's drum. It was buried with him and no man knows where."
"It may be that they speak the truth, Sheena." Rick, who had been listening with keen attention, held out his hand.
"So!" she said caustically. "The white Bwana believes in ghosts also!"
"Let me see that knife again," he said quietly. She gave it to him, and he examined the ivory haft with a frown between his eyes. Then he nodded his head with a grunt of satisfaction and said: "Now I know the meaning of these carvings. They tell a story of bygone days. Listen—"
And then be gave her a full account of all he had learned of the Abamas at Benguela. At first Sheena could not understand how he could know so much about her people, never having lived among them. But as he got deeper into the story she was remembering certain things Ebid Ela had told her, so long ago that she had forgotten them until this moment. And once Ekoti, his eyes big with wonderment, broke in: "True, true I have heard the old ones speak of such days. It is said—"
Sheena silenced him with a quick gesture and Rick went on: "See, the carvings tell the story of Yamo Galagi's visit to the Portuguese king. It may be that the man who dropped it got it in trade," he concluded. "But I do not think so. No, the drum calls the Abama warriors to Massumba, I think."
Sheena was silent for a moment, turning it all over in her mind. Her keen brain was quick to grasp the significance of what Rick had told her.
"If this be so," she summed up. "the drum speaks of much evil that is brewing at Massumba. It must be silenced, Ekoti," she added, turning to the chief.
Ekoti looked down at his feet; then: "The Abamas will not help you, Sheena. The witchdoctors have frightened them, and I fear—"
"Have I asked for their help, Ekoti? If you are not afraid of ghosts, we two will go to Massumba—"
"We three," Rick put in quietly. And she turned to look him up and down with an amused smile.
"It will be a hard trek for you," she told him. "There will be no servants to carry Bwana's tent, to fetch his water and to cook his food." She saw a muscle tighten in his jaw; but in a moment his slow smile had relaxed the tension, and he said:
"Anywhere you go, I can follow."
Now, it flashed into her mind that, with the Abamas worked up, excited by the fetish-call of the big drum, she would not be able to get porters to take him to the coast. And there was a meaner thought—it might be well for him to learn that to trek with a safari was one thing, and to trek with Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, quite another thing. Truly, such a trek would put an end, once and for all, to any notion he might have of living in the jungle with her. She laughed softly and said:
"So be it, Bwana. Follow me, then!" She picked up her bow and quiver, gave him a dazzling smile, and then sped across the clearing without a backward glance.
Rick's lips rounded to an oath, and he would have started to run after her had not Ekoti caught his arm.
"You could not catch her, Bwana," the chief told him. "No man could. Always she will be in the trees ahead of. us. You and I, we will follow on the ground, as real people must."
Rick looked up the game trail, into the misty green of which Sheena had already vanished, rubbing the nape of his neck with his hand. He muttered something under his breath which would have made the Jungle Queen's ears burn had she heard it, then he turned to Ekoti and said gravely:
"It will be good to trek with the chief of the Abamas."
"It will be good to trek with the slayer of the Bearded One," Ekoti returned with a flash of white teeth. Then he looked down at Rick's empty holster and asked: "But where is the Father-of-Six?"
"Must be around somewhere," said Rick and started. to look around the clearing for his Colt. Ekoti soon spotted it, gleaming in the the grass where it had been knocked from Rick's hand. He picked it up and gave it to Rick.
"If I had such a gun, and could shoot as quickly and as straight as you do, I would fear no man," he said.
"There is such another in my tent," Rick told him. "When I was at the coast I thought of my friend Ekoti, and I bought the gun for him. I will teach him to shoot with it."
"Truly?" the young chief's eyes bulged.
"Truly," said Rick, and went to his tent to get the gun. But when he came back the Abama chief's face was set in stern lines. He said:
"There is a thing in my mind, Bwana. It will be good to speak of it before I take your gift I know what is in your heart. Sheena's skin is white, your skin is white. It would be good for you to mate with her, you think. It may be so. But I tell you now that if you try to take her to the coast with you this spear will drink your blood!"
For a time black and white, both perfect specimens of their race, looked deeply each into the other's eyes. Rick said:
"The Abama chief speaks plainly as a warrior should. I will speak as plainly. I will take Sheena to the coast with me, but only when she asks me to do so. Meanwhile, I wish to be your friend. Freely, I give you this gun, and I will teach you to shoot with it, even though the first bullet you fire finds my heart."
"Aie!" exclaimed the chief and his dark eyes came alight with a gleam of appreciation. "You are a man, Bwana, a fit mate for Sheena!" Then he added with a deep chuckle, "But if you wait for her to do the asking, as you say you will, I think we will be friends for a long time. Oh yes, we will be too old to fight then!"
"Maybe you're not far out at that!" Rick muttered with a wry grin, and then went to make up his pack.

FROM a projecting point of rock which dominated a broad expanse of tumbled uplands that had known the rack and twist of volcanic convulsion, Sheena watched Rick and Ekoti weaving their way between huge boulders and clumps of thorny mimosa bush. They were deep in the Kalunda country now, but far off still the head of the Buffalo Mountain stood against the sky in lines of vapory blue. In the middle distance there were strange formations of crumbling sandstone, banded with the spectral white of quartz, queer piles designed by the gods in sardonic mood. To the north there was a great fault through which the river wiggled, its banks lined with thickets of thorny bamboo more inpenetrable than any barbed-wire entanglement. Beyond rose the banks of the ever-green jungle, tall resin trees linked by fantastic creepers or spiky rattans.
Only once before had Sheena ventured into this country. In this valley, she knew, lived the dwarf-people, the Kobi, wooly-haired and entirely naked. But they were meat-eaters, man-eaters, who hunted with tiny, poison-tipped arrows. She judged that the young men of the Abama clans, treking for Massumba would swing wide of this stretch of jungle on that account, and this meant that, by following the river, she could be at Massumba at least two marches ahead of them. But it would be necessary for Rick and Ekoti to camp here and build a light raft.
With this settled in her mind, the Jungle Queen's attention was drawn to Rick's battered topee bobbing above a patch of bush, and her eyes were clouded by a troubled look. Though, for the past two days, she had set a hard pace, her attempt to discourage him seemed to hold forth little hope of success. On the contrary, he had clung to her heels with the tenacity of a cheetah on the trail of a wounded buck, showing powers of endurance and a jungle-craft not inferior to her own. His persistence annoyed her, and yet she was not insensible to the high tribute this determined pursuit paid to her womanhood, nor to the faint stirring of pleasure that came with the thought.
"It was cruel to taunt him, little one," she murmured to Chim as he bounded to the rock beside her. "And it was foolish, because I cannot send him back alone now."
As the pair came into plain view she waved to them, indicating the trail she would take down to the river, and then made her way steeply through the pale green of the stunted mimosa. Following a game trail she came to an open sandy patch, glistening with mica in the sun. Here the river rippled over a pebbly bed and curved into the bank to form a large water-hole. Bamboo grew everywhere, their white-ringed, green stems protected by great shields of bark around the base. They arched gracefully over the pool, their leaves quivering in the air and veiling the light. Two elephants stood on the far side, a mother and her calf, flapping their ears and waving trunks and tails to keep off the flies. Here and there great, solid marula trees rose above the tangled mass of greenery. and some of their trunks, at her own height above the ground, were all scratched and furrowed with cruel rents; for these were the trees used by the big jungle cats to stretch their paws and to sharpen their merciless claws after their long sleep through the heat of the day.
The elephants went rumbling into the forest as soon as they got her wind, and black monkeys went running up the opposite bank with their tails straight up in the air as Chim came bounding into the glade, grimacing ferociously and snarling a challenge to all.
"Quiet, little one!" she chided. "You are very brave, I know. But it is bad to frighten such little folk."
She had a fire started, and the shadows were deepening when Rick and Ekoti came into the glade. Rick's face under his black beard, she noted as he eame down the steep bank, was blotchy and swollen with mosquito bites. His knees, exposed by his shorts, were like lumps of raw meat where he had scratched them. His shirt was torn and showed many scars, some fresh and bleeding, where the hook thorns had cruelly torn his flesh. She was conscious of a sudden twinge of remorse. What had made her treat him so badly? Truly, she must he posseseed by Nakoloshi, as the Abamas called the mischievous spirit who crept into the beds of their women and turned them into shrews overnight.
He rested his rifle against a tree, unslung his heavy pack, and turned to face her. Impulsive words, warm and full of contrition shaped themselves in her mind—and there it was again, that slow smile, tormenting, always challenging, always hinting at things that were best forgotten. She swallowed the words with a gulp of air, and merely nodded her head in return to his greeting.
Ekoti was moving down to the water hole to drink. She turned to speak to him, and just as he dropped to his knees she saw what had looked like a black stick suddenly coil and transform itself into hissing death. Even as her warning cry rang out the snake struck and plopped back.
Rick's Colt roared as Ekoti jumped to his feet. The heavy bullet slapped into the snake's coils, but did not kill it. Ekoti's eyes rolled, following the serpent's swift, slithering retreat into the bush, and then he looked down at his leg, and when he lifted his head to look at Sheena his face was that of a man doomed. There was a pleading look in his eyes, and she knew that he was thinking that she had the power, the magic to heal. She stared at him dumbly, her mind refusing to accept what she had seen. It could not happen—not to Ekoti who had been her playmate, her friend for as far back as she could remember. A queer sound came from her constricted throat. And then the Abama chief remembered his manhood. His back stiffened and his jaw snapped shut. Then he said:
"It is good for a warrior to die of a spear thrust. But it does not matter when or how he dies if he dies well." Then he moved to a tree and sat with his back to it, to await the inevitable with the calm dignity and fatalism of his breed.
With a cry of anguish on her lips Sheena snatched up a burning brand, ran across to him, and dropped to her knees. But before she could apply her lips to the two deadly little punctures in Ekoti's leg Rick's hand forced her head back. Anger welled up in her, and she would have struck at him, but he thrust the haft of a knife into her hand and said coolly:
"Heat the blade until it is red."
Then she saw that while she had been standing, helpless, he had unstrapped his pack, and that the box of medicine he always carried was open on the ground beside him. And then she remembered that it was his skill that had saved Aku, Ekoti's uncle, from a gunshot wound.
"Save him," she cried impulsively, "and then ask what you want of me!"
Rick nodded his head absently while he tightened a tourniquet above the affected part. That was a sheep-killer, one of the colubrines, he was thinking. Poison affecting the nerve centers and giving rise to paralysis. Antidote? Antitoxin and adrenalin to stimulate heart action and prevent collapse. Incise to promote bleeding, cauterize—yes it was all clear in his mind. One hundred percent effective in most cases. Further proof of the value of that course he'd taken at Benguela. Damn it, if he had to choose between a loaded rifle and a hypodermic loaded with antitoxin, it would be the hypodermic every time! The minor terrors of the jungle were the most deadly, a man never got a chance to draw a bead on them. Now, a little anesthetic—
While he worked Sheena watched his every move with keen concentration in her blue eyes. Ekoti braced himself as the red-hot knife blade came down on his flesh, and then his jaw sagged open, and he gasped:
"Bwana, my leg is already dead! I feel no more than the prick of a thorn."
"Soon you will wish you did not have a leg, warrior," Rick told him as he finished. "But when it starts to hurt I will make it sleep again."
"Truly, all white people are magicians!" said Ekoti, his voice dropping to the deep tones of absolute conviction.
Sheena followed Rick. to the fire. She watched him carefully cleanse his instruments, and refill the hypodermic from one of the many little bottles in his leather case.
"He will live?" she asked suddenly.
"Never doubt it," he assured her, and sat on his heels to strap his case. "His leg will swell, but in two days he will be able to walk."
There was a long pause, and then she asked almost inaudibly: "What do you want of me?"
Rick looked up at her, and his eyes clung to her surperb figure. Slow and easy—remember? He cautioned himself, and became absorbed in the lashings of his pack. He put his knee to it and jerked the straps tight before he answered: "Nothing—nothing at all."
"So?" murmured the Jungle Queen, and fell silent, a frown on her face.
Night came and the stars burned through the leafy roof overhead. Under his tree Ekoti was sleeping soundly, and Rick was flung out on the ground beside him. The Jungle Queen was more used to spending her nights in the trees, and she felt strangely uneasy, sitting over the fire, listening to the lascivious gruntings and snortings that came out of the forest. In the aisles, between the trees the fireflies wove fantastic patterns until the moon rose and dimmed their dancing, and spread a gauze of silver over the sandy glade. The shadows were in rhythm with the swaying bamboos, and the noise of the river was as insinuating as sleep, shutting out all other sounds. Sheena's golden head sank down to her arms folded across her knees.
She awoke with a start, every sense instantly alert. From the branches of a nearby tree came soft, persistent clucking sounds, and she knew that Chim had seen or sensed some danger. With the fluid, noiseless ease of an animal she rose and began to circle the fire; and like an animal she stood without moving at all, sniffing at the wind. Above the gurgling of the river she could hear no sound; but, borne on a sudden puff of wind, the unctuous scent of sweating bodies was very strong, and she had a fleeting mental picture of little men moving through the darkness all around her.
Her first impulse was to spring for the nearest branch. At any other time she would have been out of danger in an instant high in the protecting arms of the trees. But Instead she hesitated, then moved swiftly to Rick's side. He awoke at the first touch of her, hand, and she whispered:
"The Kobi attack us. Do not stand up. Crawl down to the river. We can cross before they rush upon us."
Rick rolled over onto his belly with a low word of assent. She stepped over his prone body, and just as she bent to touch Ekoti's shoulder a man dropped on her back from out of a tree. The sudden, overwhelming weight of him flattened her out on the ground, and the impact of his bony knee in the small of her back drove the air from her lungs in a gasping cry. Rick's gun exploded close to her ear, and for a moment she was utterly without strength.
She caught her breath in a painful gasp, and then her lithe body writhed and twisted as if in a convulsion, and like a jungle cat she fought with tooth and claw.
The man was on his knees, straddling her body, trying to pin her arms down. He was grunting with exertion, and he was very strong. No dwarf-man. She arched her back, lifting him, and then with a quick twist broke his grip upon her wrists.
He yelped and jerked his body backwards as her crooked fingers raked his face, and in the next moment he was on his back. Instantly steel flashed in the Jungle Queen's hand, and he died without a cry as her knife was driven downward under his left armpit.
She was on her feet in a flash. The glade was full of shouts, and moonbeams winked on brandished weapons. Shadowy figures, locked in combat swayed through a pool of moonlight, Rick was fighting there. And then she saw Ekoti, standing with his back to a tree, beating off the attack of four men with his long, leaf-bladed spear. He saw her and roared out the Abama war cry. She bounded toward him, but even as her knife flashed up in a deadly arc a thrown war-club struck her on the base of the skull. She fell, rolled over onto her back, saw a patch of starlit sky whirl and become a dazzling wheel of light, and nothing more.

To Be Continued...

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