Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle: Killer's Krall Part 1

SHEENA dropped from the branches of a gigantic, spreading baobab and started to climb the rocky krantz, leaping lightly from boulder to boulder. She was so well balanced that she appeared to flow, without particularized motion, in whatever direction her energy proposed; and she moved with incredible swiftness, her bronzed limbs flashing in the sun, her golden hair streaming behind.
On the top of the hill she unslung her bow and quiver, looking around for a place to rest. She selected a spot where a mimosa grew out of a grassy cleft and, with feline grace, stretched out flat on her belly in the black pool of its shadow. With her chin cupped in her hand she looked toward the first bend in the river.
The jungle was the same, standing dark and endless across the river. The river was the same, sweeping its mass of reddish waters westward toward Sao Vincente and its final tryst with the Father-of-all-Rivers, as her people, the Abamas, called the Congo. Beyond the green expanse of the jungle Tula Mbogo, the Buffalo Mountain, lifted its horned peaks, and a cushion of white clouds made of it a seat for a lazy god. Truly, the jungle and the river were as they must have been for a thousand years. Only people changed, outwardly and inwardly, and these subtle changes made them see things differently, even act foolishly.
It must be so. If it were otherwise she would not be here, daydreaming beside the river. Why, when the drums had told her that Rick Thorne was on the river, had she come so far to meet him? Why had she not remained in her forest sanctuary and sent Ekoti, the Abama chief, to turn him back? Such had been her first impulse but she had not obeyed it. Why not?
Frowning, she communed with herself and soon found an answer less disturbing in its implications. She was here because she knew that he would not turn back at Ekoti's bidding. He was a reckless fool. He might even venture to set foot on the forbidden trail to her sanctuary, and pursue his folly to his death. Oh yes, it was because she felt sorry for him. It was a great pity that one so young and brave should waste his manhood in searching and straining for fruit beyond his reach. Somehow he had to be made to understand that, thought her skin was white, she belonged to the jungle and the Abamas; while he belonged to the mysterious world of white men which she had never seen, and had no wish to see. He must be made to understand that she was not for him. Her kiss was the kiss of death for any man who dared to defy the strong taboo of her foster-mother, Ebid Ela—a taboo made inviolate by a bristling boma of Abama spears.
So, here she was, listening to the drums—a pulsing now near and now far, but always articulate, incredibly accurate. But nothing now, just the gossip of the jungle. She let her mind idle. Her mood changed again, and her thoughts became less definite and merged with the blue haze. Across her line of vision birds flew with tails like a burst of flame; others, over-balanced by huge red beaks, flapped awkwardly from tree to tree. A tall, grey heron stood in the shallows and, when gorged, rose heavily to light on a bough above her head—only to rise again with a squawk of panic as Chim, her pet ape, sleeping on the bough, suddenly awoke to scold the intruder.
As the blue-toned view faded, and the sun melted into the clouds and brought them to a glow, the distance became more intimate, more revealing. She was vaguely aware of the tension building up within her.
It stirred up memories of her last meeting with Rick and suddenly she was re-living it all again, every work, every gesture as if it had happened yesterday. And with the vision came poignant yearnings which half expressed themselves to her awareness, and then were overwhelmed by the strong excitement which had been the core and magic of that hour.
And suddenly she was afraid. For her there was danger in this meeting. He would not listen to her. No! He would look at her with that disconcerting gleam in his eyes. He would smile that slow slow smile, and he would dare—. She would not stay! She would send Ekoti. She sprang to her feet.
And just then the booming notes of a drum broke the silence—"Boom-tack-tack-boom! Tack-tack-boom-tack—"
The Jungle Queen stood tense, listening, her expression changing rapidly from concentrated interest to annoyance, and finally to settle into one of profound puzzlement. She never failed to locate a drum by its tone, but the voice of this one was as elusive as the code was strange to her ears.
"Boom-tack-boom-tack-boom-tack—" The indecipherable message came from everywhere at once—far off, diffused, a rippling cascade of sound seeming to spill out of the clouds immediately above her head, and yet each note distinct.
And then silence, with not a twig or a leaf in motion. For at sundown the wind dies and a moment of absolute quiet comes to the jungle. The reed-buck stands spellbound beside a pool. The cruel claws of the leopard are sheathed, its spring arrested as if by magic. The song of the birds is hushed, and the melody of running water swells like an organ in fortissimo, and a paen rises to the high mountain-seats of pagan gods.
No village drum answered the mysterious call. It was as if the booming notes had filled the jungle with evil tidings, shocking all to awful silence. The effect of all this was so strong that the Jungle Queen stood utterly motionless, her gaze fixed upon the Buffalo Mountain, her sudden impulse to flight forgotten.
Slowly the sky lost its blood-red glow. A thunder-mutter rolled behind the mountains. A cool breeze came sliding down their slopes, and the tall reeds along the river banks whispered and quivered in sudden trepidation.. And it seemed to Sheena, as the area of shadows deepened, that the mountains became phantom shapes whose aspect took on something of aloof secretiveness, and something of menace.
A whimper from Chim broke the spell. She looked up and spoke softly to him, as was her habit:
"So, you do not like this strange voice in the jungle, little one?" Chim grimaced at her, and swung to a higher branch. But she clapped her hands, calling him down. "Come!" she called. "We must cross the river before dark."
A short distance below the krantz the river entered a gorge, roared for a mile between rocky pinnacles, and came out to spill, feather-white, over steep terraces of rock. A native tie-tie bridge, as delicate-looking as a spider's web, spanned the gorge at its narrowest point. Sheena knew that Rick would camp below the rapids. Also she knew that he would abandon his heavy dugout there and push on to the first Abama village above the gorge to trade for another canoe. It occured to her that she could block his further progress into Abama country by simply telling the villagers not to trade with him. And the more she thought of this new idea the better she liked it. She could avoid meeting him face to face, and yet, if he attempted to force a path through the jungle on foot, she could put all manner of obstacles in his way. Truly, she thought with an amused smile, such a trek would test the strength of his desire. Oh yes, he would soon come to cursing the day that he had set eyes upon Sheena, Golden Goddess of all the Jungles.
As sure footed as an ape she started across the lagging bridge. She was swaying fifty feet above the rapids, when, faintly above the roar of the water, she heard a shot, then another, and another. The echos were still bouncing from one side of the gorge to the other, when she reached the opposite shore, and went flashing down the steep trail like a golden streak.
Around the first limit of sight she saw the peak of a tent, gleaming white amid the low bush of a small clearing. Without pausing in her stride she leaped for the low branch of a tree. Then, with the effortless ease of a monkey, she went through the close-packed foliage which surrounded the clearing, sometimes leaping from the branch of one tree to another, sometimes swinging through the air on vines as thick as her wrist and as tough as a wire cable. She heard shouts as she came to stand on the gnarled limb of an ajap tree. Her lofty perch gave her a clear view of the camp, and her eyes took in the scene below in one swift, all-inclusive glance.
Rick Thorne was fighting for his life, beating off the attack of a half-dozen natives who kept circling around him and rushing at him, now one, now another, to thrust with a spear, or to strike with a heavy knobkerry. He was armed only with a club, which he evidently had wrested from one of his attackers, and he was fighting with the last-ditch ferocity of a wounded leopard. But they were slowly forcing him back to the high river bank. There were three tents in the clearing, but none of his servants were there to help him. Soon he would be driven over the bank to plunge to his death on the rocks below.
The Jungle Queen unslung her bow. But even as she notched the arrow she saw Rick go down under a terrific blow from a club that smashed through his pith-helmet with a dull, sickening sound. The striker, a squat, powerful-looking fellow with a queer headdress of turcan feathers, uttered a yell of triumph, and whirled his club around his head to strike again. And then Sheena's bow twanged, and the strange warrior fell across Rick's body with the arrow between his shoulders up to the feather. His companions, yelping and rushing in for the kill like wild dogs of the veldt, were suddenly silent and motionless, like wooden men holding weapons poised to strike. There was a moment of gaping wonderment, then the deadly twang of the bow again, and another of their number gasped, clutched at the shaft in his breast, staggered back and fell over the bank with a long-drawn shriek.
For a short time the others stood, half crouched, looking around with their mouths agape, their eyes roiling like white balls in their sockets. They could see no enemy; and, as winged death out of nowhere struck a third man, they made a frantic rush for the cover of the bush.
Wise in the ways of the forest people, Sheena did not come down at once. Long ago she had learned that when danger stalks in the jungle no creature is ever caught off guard twice. She waited until she saw a dugout shoot out from the river bank and go lurching dangerously downstream to the uneven paddle strokes of its panic-stricken occupants. Then she dropped to the ground and ran across the clearing to Rick. She dragged the dead native from his back with an amazing display of strength, then rolled Rick over and fell to her knees beside him.


IS DARK curls were matted with blood, his breathing so faint that at first she was sure that he could not live for more than a few minutes. But when she put her ear to his breast and heard the strong beat of his heart, she knew that his helmet had absorbed the shock of the blow, and that his skull was not broken. She deemed it safe to move him, and soon had him under the mosquito netting on his canvas cot.
Leaving Chim to watch Rick she went to gather the leaves of the baobab, the root of the mebila and other herbs. Back in the camp, she made a paste of these as Ebid Ela had taught her to do, omitting only the incantations the old woman had been wont to mutter over her bubbling pots. Rick did not open his eyes as she cleansed and poulticed his wound. When she had finished it was dark, and she went out to look around the deserted camp.
The half-cooked food in the pots, and the fact that everything had been left behind, told her that Rick's servants had left in a great hurry, probably at the first sight of trouble; and, since they were sure to be men from one of the coast villages, that did not surprise her. She shared the Abamas' contempt for the cowardly coast people. Uppermost in her mind was the question: Who were these warriors who had dared to attack a safari on her side of the Kwango? Whence had they come? Certainly they were not neighbors of the Abamas. They had looked like Kalundas, a once powerful people who lived beyond the mountains, but whose stock was now debased by cross-breeding with the dwarf-people who ranged the jungles between the Kwango and the Buffalo Mountain. But she could not be sure of this, because only once had she ventured into the Kalunda and seen one of their villages, and that from a great distance. Their huts, she remembered, were not placed in a circle as was the style among the Bantu-speaking people, but in long, straight aisles, and it was said that they were maneaters, sometimes even eating their own dead. For this reason the Abamas would have nothing to do with them.
A snarl and a sudden flurry of sound out in the bush sent a tingle down her spine. Jackals, with the smell of the dead in their nostrils. She did not want them howling around the camp all night, and went to roll the bodies over the bank and into the river. She was moving back to Rick's tent when her eye was caught by the glint of steel amid the grass. She bent to pick up a knife which evidently had been dropped by one of the men who had attacked the camp. The blade was double-edged, curved, and twice the span of her hand in length. It had an ivory handle, most cunningly carved, and she took it over to the fire to examine it more closely.
Figures were carved on the handle, men dressed like Rick, but with funny, thin legs. And there was a strange, prancing buck, with a beard like a goat and a single horn sticking straight out from between its eyes. And something that looked like a canoe with tall trees growing out of it—strange trees, becatise all the branches grew across the trunks without a twist or a downward bend. She thought it was strange that one who could carve men with such skill should make such a poor likeness of a tree. Any child could do better. But it was a good knife.
She was sliding it into the band of leopard skin about her waist when Rick called her by name. But when she ran into the tent and bent over him, he did not know her. He kept shouting her name, and then tried to get up, and it took all her strength to hold him down. She spoke softly to him. Her voice seemed to reach into the darkened chambers of his mind; for he ceased to struggle and lay quiet again.
She did not know what else she could do to help him, and she rose and looked down on his handsome face with troubled eyes. Her foster-mother would have said that he was possessed of a devil, and she would have made a magic to cast it out. But long ago something deep in Sheena's nature had rebelled against the darker practices of her people. She had faith in their simple remedies, because she had seen them heal; but she had no faith in witchcraft, because too often she had seen it fail. And besides, Ebid Ela had taught her many a fraudulent trick.
On the following day at sundown, as before, she heard the drum again; but she was too concerned over Rick to be more than vaguely aware of it. It spoke again on the third day, and again the Abama villages gave ear in silence. No answering call, no clue to the message the great drum cried out to the rim of the horizon. And it flashed into her mind that the drummer must be using some fetish-code, known only to the witchdoctors.
Minutes later when she went into the tent it was to look deeply into the gray eyes of Rick. They were very bright, and it was not only the effects of his fever that made them so; for he lifted himself on his elbow, and the slow smile came to his lips.
"It's been a long trek—mbali sana, sana!" he said in Swahili. "But I did fight my way through all those black devils. I did get through to you."
"Truly," she said softly. "It was a hard fight, and now you must rest."
He passed his hand over his eyes. "A little dizzy yet," he muttered; then: "You did not send your Abamas against me, Sheena?"
"No—no!" She was startled into a too vehement denial.
"Ah" His eyes probed her. "But you knew I was coming, the drums would tell you that You came to meet me, Sheena!"
"I have not said so! And you must go back to the coast when you are well again."
He made as if to rise, then fell back with a sharp intake of breath. In a moment she was on her knees beside him. "Be still! Be still!" she pleaded. His hand wound her hair into a golden twist, and drew her lips down to his. His weakness was his strength. She dared not pull away for fear of hurting him, and it was neither unpleasant, nor dangerous to yield just for a moment when there was no strength in him.
"I came a long way for this," he said at last, and sank back on his pillow. She stayed with him until he fell asleep, a smile still on his lips, his breathing deep and regular.
On the following morning he ate all that she gave him, and begged for more. When he had eaten enough for two men he sat up on the cot, pressing his head between the palms of his hands.
"No pain," he announced with a grin. "Good solid bone clean through."
"You remember what happened now?"
He was silent for a moment, frowning slightly; then: "Yes," he said. "My boys, six Lobitos, were cooking the evening meal. I was on this cot, and a drum—a big drum—was talking somewhere back in the jungle. I was nearly asleep, and it was some time later when I became aware of the quiet. The boys were not jabbering as usual. I went out, and there was not a man in sight. I shouted. Got no answer, and so I fired a few shots into the air. And then those fellows jumped me from behind. My gun was knocked from my hand, and they were all around me. The next thing I remember is seeing you, and I thought—"
"They were Kalundas, I think," she interposed. "One of them left this behind him." She drew the knife from her waist band and handed it to him with an unflattering comment on the artist's ability to carve trees.
"They are not trees," he said, after turning the ivory handle in his hand for some time. "It is a very big canoe, perhaps big enough to hold all the warriors Ekoti could muster. And from these poles many dotis of cloth were hung so that when the wind was blowing it would move through the water. See, one of the men wears a crown, and this buck is called "unicorn" in the speech of my people.
And it tells us that this ivory was not carved by a Bantu craftsman. The knife is old, three times as old as I am, I think."
"Then the man must have traded for it at the coast," she said with quick comprehension," and it can tell us nothing about them."
"True," he agreed. Then he leaned toward her and asked: "What brought you here, so far from Ekoti's village, Sheena?"
She saw the tell-tale gleam in his eyes, and quickly stepped out of his reach. "I came," she told him coldly. "That is enough for you to know. And as I have said, you must go back to the coast."
"I like it here," he said.
The Jungle Queen was not used to defiance, and she sensed that there was much of that behind his slow smile, and a hint at something else, too. Doubtless, he was remembering the moment when she had yielded to his weakness—thinking, perhaps, that the weakness was hers, and that he could have his way with her again.
"There must be an end to this folly," she said angrily. "If you will not go willingly, then Ekoti will take you down river. I have spoken!" And with that, she left him.
Rick let her go without a word of protest. He was a wiser man than when he had first come up the Kwango, nearly eight months ago. And most of that time he'd spent searching the old records at Benguela in a vain attempt to lift the veil of mystery which shrouded this lovely girl whose intelligence was of the highest order, but whose knowledge of the world outside her jungles would scarcely equal that of a five-year-old white child. But, though his researches had yielded no clue as to Sheena's identity, he had uncovered much concerning the Abamas that had given him food for thought.
According to record, the Abamas had fled the terrors of Chaka's bloody rule nearly seventy years ago, and had trekked north under the leadership of Yamo Galagi. Unlike the Zulu, Dingaan, Moselekatse and other generals, this chief was accustomed to lead his impis in person, and his march along the higher reaches of the Zambesi had been an Odyssey of battles, privations and sudden changes of fortune. Nevertheless, he had finally succeeded in overcoming all opposition, and the capture of countless herds of cattle had enabled his people to resume their pastoral life on the lush veldt between the watershed of the Zambesi and the Congo.
Then, Yamo Galagi, a born leader of men and one of the strongest personalities in African history, turned his attention to the organization of his kingdom, and ultimately pushed its boundaries across the north-flowing tributaries of the Congo as far as the Cuanza.
His government had been despotic, ruthless and cruel, but strong and efficient. From his capital, Massumba, the Great Encampment, his caravans had worked their way down to the Portuguese port of Benguela. At the height of his power he had commanded no less than three thousand warriors armed with flint-lock muskets, and three times as many bowmen. Once he had visited the court of the Portuguese king at Lisbon; and, thereafter, the chronicles styled him, Dom Joao da Silva, Count of Lunda. But some obscure quarrel had brought the black nobleman to rebellion against his overlord. He swore that he would drive the Portuguese into the sea, and he might well have succeeded had not a bullet put an end to his bloody career before the wall of Sao Salvador.
Upon the death of its strong man the Lunda kingdom, essentially feudal in character, had quickly broken up into warring fractions. But Yamo Galagi had inaugurated a Golden Age, and the Bantu had not forgotten him. His name lived in tradition and fable. He was a truly admirable man, they said. A man So brave and of such infallible cruelty that a command beaten out on his great drum was speedily fulfilled. But the drum spoke no more now—for who should beat the drum of so great a man? Surely his hand would shrivel and become the hand of a dead man. And at the voice of the drum so many would remember and grieve. Or, perchance, their hearts would grow strong again, for did not the Old Ones whisper among themselves that when the drum was heard again it would be the ghost-voice of the Galagi calling his warriors to battle and the Bantu to greatness?
And to this day Portuguese governors kept their ears tuned to such talk. More than one of them had spent much treasure and not a little blood in vain attempts to get possession of Yamo Galagi's drum. Ever present in their minds was the fear that some aspiring chieftain, less superstitious than his fellows, might unearth the fabulous drum, or a working facsimile thereof, and fill the jungles with its seditious clamor.
And there was a feature of the constitution of the old, Lunda kingdom that held peculiar interest for Rick. It was the queen-consort, the Mateyenda. The odd part about this female ruler was that she was not the king's wife, but a member of the royal line possessing her own court and her own income. Moreover she had the power of deciding the election of a new Galagi, as the petty chiefs who now held all that was left of the Lunda kingdom were now called. It appeared that she was allowed to marry, but her husbands were called "wives", and, generally speaking, had no influence at all. Thus the kingdom had had two heads in existence at one time which had been neither mutually exclusive, nor in mutual hostility.
From what Sheena had told him of her past, Rick reasoned that Ebid Ela had at one time been Mateyenda of the Lunda kingdom, and that the old woman had bequeathed her high office to the white foster-child she had cared for from infancy. This would account for the extraordinary influence Sheena had over the Abama clans.
Thinking about it all, Rick had come to a better understanding of what he was up against in the lovely person of Sheena. But it had not had the effect of cooling his ardour, or of weakening his determination to take the girl back to the coast with him someday. He was merely willing to coneede that it would take longer than he had anticipated when the idea had first occured to him. Though usually he walked where the angels feared to tread he could be as timid as a dik-dik when caution was indicated, and he had lived among Africans long enough to know that it was wise to speak softly in the presence of their gods.
"Take it slow and easy, young feller, he counseled himself. "She is as wild as a cage full of cheetahs, and twice as dangerous. Just let her get used to seeing you around. It might take ten years but it'll be worth it."
There was no fresh meat in the camp, and before sunrise Sheena was ghosting along the game trails that threaded the forest, and by sunup she was hack in the camp with a fat bush-buck. The morning air was bland with the odor of roasting meat when Rick came out of the tent to sit on his heels on the other side of the fire. She gave him a sidelong look and asked:
"Your head is better now?"
"As good as new. And now it Is in my heart to say—"
"What is in your heart does not trouble me," she checked him quickly. "What is in your head does. Tomorrow I leave this place. When do you start downriver?"
"Too much for one man to carry," he said. "I have no porters."
"I have not forgotten that when a white Bwana treks he must have his servants to cut a path for him," she said with gentle derison. "You will have porters, never doubt it. And they will see to it that their Bwana does not mistake his direction."
"Sheena must he obeyed," he said with a faint smile. And she gave him a sharp look. Quiet submission was not what she had expected. It was not in his nature, and she felt uneasy. Then it flashed into her mind that he might not be as well as he said he was. She smiled and said:
"You would do well to rest here until the moon changes."
"Six day's grace, eh?" said he.
To Be Continued...

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