NEXT Part 5
Tuesday, 14 May 2013
In the depths of swamp and jungle in Unknown Africa, CAPTAIN JUSTICE and his Comrades are prepared for everything but—Cannibals, black and hungry ones at that!
By MURRAY ROBERTS
[Part 4 of 12] [Part 1 here]
The Modern Boy magazine 28 July 1934, No. 338, Vol. 13. Contributed by Keith Hoyt; digitized by Doug Frizzle, May 2013.
Midge Gets a Bite!
“STEADY, Len! Haul the wind another point—so! Good enough—make fast!"
Looking back over one partly bare brown shoulder with eyes red-rimmed and swollen by the heat, studying the little catspaws of wind that ruffled the oily surface of the water, Captain Justice issued the orders in his customary quiet, firm manner.
And as Len Connor obediently hauled on the starboard sheet and altered the set of the tiny improvised sail, the castaways' raft swung sluggishly on to its new course.
A strange craft it was that bore the famous Gentleman Adventurer and his four comrades across the glossy bosom of that wide, unnamed African rive r, winding through swamps and jungles in the shadow of gigantic mountains. A clumsy, crazy affair, but the best the luckless adventurers could contrive with the few materials and the one single-bladed knife they possessed between them.
Eight rotting logs, partially hollowed out by destructive white ants, formed the hull of the raft, and these had been deftly and strongly lashed together by cords cut from the parachutes under which Justice & Co. had made their forced descent into the wilderness. The small lug-sail, set on a stumpy "mast," had been fashioned out of parachute fabric.
Leafy branches, jammed end-on into the crevices between the logs and interlaced with tough, rubbery vines, acted as a picturesque and highly necessary awning against the rays of the afternoon sun.
The raft looked like a floating patch of vegetation detached from some larger mass, and liable to become waterlogged at any moment.
But under Justice's guidance the cumbersome craft continued to bear them away from the jungle deathtrap into—what? None of them knew exactly. The five comrades could only hope for the best.
On the south bank of the river, half a mile away, stretches of green-black swamp steamed in the heat—the home of crocodiles, mosquitoes, and twisted mangroves. And beyond bulked the dense masses of the jungle, dark, mysterious, deadly. Over twenty-four hours Justice & Co.had spent amid the stifling, fever-haunted glades, and the experience still lay heavy upon them, like the memory of a bad dream.
But now that evil region lay behind them. For every second on the river was bringing the castaways nearer to the north bank, above which towered the unknown mountains. Save for a narrow fringe of trees and grasses skirting their base, these colossal heights rose sheer and majestic from the water, banking upwards in superb array until the fanged summits were lost in the heat-haze that dimmed the tropic sky.
Huge and formidable though the ramparts appeared, Captain Justice & Co. nevertheless regarded them as a sort of Promised Land, after the ghastly confinement and lurking perils of the bush. Fierce animals and fiercer tribes might dwell among the mountains, but up there they would at least stand some chance of sighting danger before it overtook them; of finding clear, pure water, and breathing air uncontaminated by germs of malaria and other dread diseases. Already the gentle breezes wafting down from the heights fanned .their streaming faces and limbs, and set the raft slop-slopping along at a faster gait.
Captain Justice, leaving Len in charge of navigation, stared hopefully up at the mountain-wall. Not long now, he mused, switching his gaze to the low-lying banks. He sighed wearily; then, his glance falling on his legs and feet, he scowled.
His scarecrow appearance, and, worse still, the knowledge that he could do little as yet to improve it, filled him with disgust.
Gone now was the once-immaculate man who made a fetish of spruceness and cleanliness. Justice's pointed beard was bristly and unkempt, scratches and cuts scored his sinewy back and shoulders where they showed through the remnants of his pyjama-jacket, while torn, mud-caked pyjama-trousers arid shooting boots were all that covered his nether limbs. Nor were his comrades in any better plight.
Without food, water, or any equipment, the five had been cast adrift by a pitiless enemy from an aeroplane, in their pyjamas and without weapons, to float down on parachutes. Thus they were marooned in this unexplored jungle—doomed to death by starvation, fever, or wild beasts, and all to satisfy a madman's craze for vengeance!
Xavier Kuponos, the renegade Greek gun-runner and slaver, was the fiend who had designed this ghastly plan of revenge, carrying it out with diabolical thoroughness and cunning. The castaways were lost; buried so deeply in this unmapped stretch of the African wilds that not even Justice could do more than guess at their present position.
ALL five had long abandoned hope of rescue by their loyal followers in the great airship Flying Cloud. Only their own toughness, nerve, and resource had enabled them to survive and keep their peckers up so far.
On the other side of the raft huddled Professor Flaznagel, the world-famous scientist and inventor, patiently plaiting wide, floppy hats out of the heap of rushes beside him. From conducting delicate and astounding experiments in his marvellously equipped workshops to hat-making on a wild African jungle-river was a far cry for such a genius. Yet the gallant old scientist, worn out and still feeling the effects of his gruelling parachute jump into the jungle, stuck to his task with characteristic skill and determination.
He, too, wore the remains of a silk pyjama-suit. His feet were encased in sandals made of parachute harness, and a soiled bandage covered his shaggy mane of white hair.
Next to him, in the centre of the raft, squatted the genial, bald-headed Irish heavy-weight, Dr. O'Mally, Justice's second-in-command, puffing in the heat, but keeping a watchful eye on young Midge. And that chirpy, red-haired youngster, hungry and optimistic as ever, was fishing!
Midge's line was a length of parachute cord. His hook consisted of a big thorn, and for bait he was using a piece of very dead and very smelly lizard.
Turning a deaf ear to Len's chaff and O'Mally's advice, Midge had been endeavouring to catch a meal for the past half-hour—without success.
Suddenly, as Justice passed another quiet-spoken order to Len, the words were drowned by a triumphant howl.
"A bite! Gotcher!" yelled Midge, rising excitedly to his knees as a scaly form flashed green, gold, and silver on the surface of the river. Eagerly he hauled in his line, his pinched, freckled face aglow with enthusiasm. Len and O'Mally greeted the event with derisive cheers.
But the diminutive youngster's luck was still out.
Right against the raft there came a violent swirl in the water. A hideous snout appeared, and there came the clash of savage jaws and an ugly grunt as another fisherman snapped at the prize. Next moment the line broke. Midge promptly fell over backwards, performing a complete somersault before finishing up with both feet in O'Mally's face.
"Och, misery and murder!" bellowed the startled Irishman, shoving him off vigorously. "Away with ye, ye clumsy little pest! Sure, you've flattened my nose entirely!"
"Blow your silly nose!" snorted the pugnacious and exasperated Midge, glaring around for the marauder that had robbed him. "Sufferin' cats, did you see that? A real whopper—the biggest fish I've ever hooked! What snaffled it? What blinkin' bandit grabbed my fish?"
"One of the gentry who own all the fishing rights in this river," Len replied dryly, jerking a significant thumb towards the crocodile swamps. "Never mind. Have another shot, and yank the next one out quicker."
"I'll bet there won't be any next one!" grunted Midge, though he hastily threw over a second line, freshly baited. Moodily he watched the hook sink. Ten seconds later a tremendous tug on the line wiped the boy's scowl away as by magic.
" 'Nother bite!" he yelled. "Quick, everyone—shout like mad! Jump in the river, doc, and scare the crocs away! By thunder, I'll land this one!"
Which the youthful fisherman did. Wasting no time in "playing" his catch, Midge lay back on his line, and, with O'Mally's help, unscientifically but successfully yanked a second monster from the river—a rainbow-coloured beauty, with crimson-spotted gills and lashing tail. For several moments it flapped and twisted all over the craft before Justice ended its struggles with a well-aimed jab.
Jubilantly Midge thumbed his nose in the direction of the swamps.
"Bats! Stung you that time!" he crowed.
As the youngster stooped to pick up his prey, Dr. O'Mally collared it, neatly sliced it open, and made a brief examination before passing the fish over to Flaznagel. The latter, after inspecting it, frowned and shrugged. Next instant Midge nearly exploded with wrath as his hard-won prize was tossed back into the water!
"Hey! What the—why the——My fish!" he howled, staring blankly at the ripples.
"Poisonous as strychnine!" grunted O'Mally; and that, for Midge, was the last straw. Clutching at his fiery locks, the boy stamped about till the raft rocked again.
"Weepin' willows, what a country!" he spluttered. "Suffering cats, if only I had my hands on the swab who dumped us down here! If Mister Botten Kuponos was here I'd bait my blinkin' hooks with him! Moaning moggies, I'd—"
Captain Justice, turning from another survey of the north bank, interrupted the raging Midge with a quick but soothing gesture.
"Never mind the fish, lad—we'll be hunting better food soon. And never mind Xavier Kuponos, either, for we'll get even with that skunk one day!" he added, with a sudden, fierce glint in his eyes. "Meanwhile, here's a good spot to land at last."
Justice rose, one arm outstretched.
"Haul up again, Len!" he commanded cheerily. "Now, lads, out poles, and stand by to get ashore!"
A Sinister Sentinel!
THE castaways jumped to their feet, Midge, O'Mally, and Justice himself snatching up the long and fairly straight saplings which the captain had laboriously hacked off and sharpened at one end.
These they plied vigorously while Len tended the sail, driving the butts deep into the soft river-bed as the water shoaled. Thus propelled, the raft swung about, and began gurgling and clucking its tardy way into the mouth of a V-shaped inlet that cut back shore-wards between banks of reed-crowned mud.
"Let go the sheets, Len! Keep your eyes open, everyone!" snapped Justice presently, as the heavily laden craft fouled a submerged snag. Weeds rustled the side, a swarm of whining insects whirled into the air. "Shove, O'Mally—now your side, Midge! Good man! E-easy, all!"
To the last strenuous thrust of the punt-poles the raft eased itself over a small mud-bar and drifted on slowly of its own accord. The crew, leaning on their staves, wiped the sweat from their eyes, the better to study the landfall ahead.
A shelf of noisome mud, sun-baked on top but treacherously soft underneath, divided the shoal-water from the bank. As the raft approached, slimy, iridescent river-snakes wriggled out of sight, and a small flock of flamingoes rose leisurely from the weeds on rose-tinted wings, trailing their dangling legs behind them.
Midge watched them hungrily, a pensive look crossing his face as he saw the great birds settle again not far away, until the sudden jar as the raft barged into the mud turned his thoughts to more immediate problems.
Beyond the oozy margin the bank of the river rose steeply. But in Midge's judgment at least there was no need to jump from the raft and risk a fall back into the mire. For close to the brink the willowy trees grew thickly, and, as usual, their drooping branches were festooned by vines that dangled into the water like brightly twisted ropes.
"Yo-heave-ho! Here's where we do a grand trapeze act and swing ourselves safely ashore!" remarked the youngster, and he reached out with his pole to hook one of the pliant creepers nearer.
A split second later—swish!
With terrific force something whistled past his red head! A frantic hand jerked him backwards, and Captain Justice's voice rang out, sharp with loathing and alarm.
"Look out! Duck—lie flat!"
Midge's blood froze as though liquid ice had been injected into his veins. Even as he fell prostrate, he caught a glimpse of a vicious triangular head darting through the air at the end of a long, supple, spotted body. Again Justice's stave lashed out, the shrill whistle of the stroke ending in a soggy thwack, and Len, whipping up Midge's pole, hastened to his leader's aid.
Desperately the pair struck and struck again at the writhing python, slashing into it with blows that would have cracked a man's skull. But all the effect they had was to make the battered serpent recoil on to its branch. Sluggishly it hauled itself higher into the trees until only the rustle of leaves marked its sinuous passage.
Satisfied that the terrible foe had been beaten off, Captain Justice sank down on the raft, exhausted by the heat and the mad activity of the last awful seconds.
Midge was almost overcome by the narrowness of his escape. So perfect was the python's protective colouring, and so guilefully had it camouflaged itself into a limp, hanging vine, that he had actually flicked it with his pole, arousing the fearful reptile to fury.
Trembling, the boy sat back, feebly patting himself all over.
Professor Flaznagel, whose curiosity no shock could subdue for long, hitched up his big horn-rimmed spectacles and blinked rapidly at the tree-tops.
"A half-grown but remarkably dangerous member of the family Python sebae," he announced. "H'm! I would most emphatically advise you to select some less harmful apparatus for your—er—trapeze act next time, you foolish and impulsive youth!"
"Lucky for you that the brute was feeling pretty torpid after a recent meal, my lad!" Justice added breathlessly. "Those beggars strike with the speed of light when they're in proper fighting trim. Are you hurt at all?"
"Hurt! Jumping jamjars, of course not!" Midge's outraged squeak was proof that he was more frightened than damaged. "Suffering cats, what a country!" he repeated feverishly. "For Pete"s sake let's get ashore—only you go first, Fatty O'Mally!"
"Faith, and so I will, ye windy worm!" retorted the valiant doctor.
Gathering himself together O'Mally gained the bank by a mighty leap, and, clinging to the swaying creepers, drew himself up to the brink. Thence he thrust back his staff to help Professor Flaznagel ashore, and Midge, after sundry nervous glances all round, followed. But Len, in response to a word from Captain Justice, remained behind.
To the surprise of the three on land, their comrades began to pole the raft out into the stream again.
"Begorrah! What's the game, Justice?" exclaimed O'Mally, knitting his brows. For answer Justice smiled and held out both hands.
In one, he swung a leather sling, which he had fashioned out of the remnants of the parachute harness in the intervals of conning the raft across the river. And in the other he hefted one of the half-dozen stones he had found on the south bank. At the same time, the captain jerked his head downstream in the direction of the flamingoes and uttered the one magic word:
Justice muttered an order to Len to punt away, then laid himself flat beneath the awning of branches. Len's lusty drives sent the raft bobbing out of the inlet again. But as soon as the craft began to drift downstream in the grip of the slow current, he, too, ducked out of sight.
"What the dickens—"
On shore, O'Mally and Flaznagel exchanged puzzled glances, frowning uneasily, until Midge, peering through the network of vines, gave a sudden gleeful chuckle.
"I've got it!" he exclaimed. "The skipper's going bird-nesting! Whoopee! Eggs for tea—and maybe a fine fat flaming-hoho into the bargain! Look!"
Amid the rushes and weeds on a larger bank lower down the flamingoes' nests jutted up like small conical hillocks of mud, each with a hen-bird fussing around it. Shrill squawks sounded from the males as the raft slipped towards them, but so well had Justice and Len concealed themselves behind the leafy branches that the gawky, stork-like creatures obviously suspected no danger from human foes. Although they craned their long necks, snapping heavy curved beaks menacingly at the lumbering craft, none made any attempt to fly,
":Ready with your pole, Len!"
Captain Justice sprang up with a swiftness that made even his comrades start. His right arm whirled back in a wide, smooth arc. Simultaneously a deafening outcry echoed across the river, and a vivid flash of crimson plumage dazzled the eye. With a crashing and a flapping of brilliant wings, the panicky flock soared aloft—all save one!
"Got him! Good shooting. Skipper!"
Exultantly, Midge's piercing yell rang out as one of the birds dropped floundering in the water, brought down by Justice's deftly slung missile. Another moment and Len had dispatched the quarry with a blow of his stave, while Justice, dropping his sling, poled the raft right into the bank.
At the cost of much labour and some risk, he waded gingerly through the reeds, helping himself to an egg from each of the nearest clump of nests. That done, and with the booty safe aboard, the hunters punted triumphantly back into the inlet, where willing hands helped them ashore.
Captain Justice's face wore its old quizzical smile as he contemplated the "bag." "Not very sporting, I'm afraid—potting at sitting birds!" he said. "Still, hungry castaways can't be too particular, so—"
“Blow being sporting!" interrupted Midge, busily gathering dry sticks together. "Quick, professor, gimme your giglamps to start a fire with, and Len, dip those dried gourds into the water, will you? I don't know what boiled flamingo eggs taste like, but I jolly soon will."
To Midge's intense dismay, Captain Justice speedily put a stop to the youngster's preparations for an immediate meal.
"Sorry, lad, you'll have to tighten your belt a little longer. We've got our supper, and that's all I wanted from this infernal river," Justice said quietly, slinging the flamingo over O'Mally's brawny shoulder and dividing the eggs between himself and the others. "We'll eat when we're on higher and healthier ground, so the sooner we start our climb the better. Come along—march!"
So saying, the intrepid adventurer took the lead, his comrades bunching close at his heels, ever on the alert for danger. River and jungle were behind them. And although each was uncomfortably aware that vigilant eyes, human and animal, might well be watching them from the heights, the courageous party tramped on—en route for the mountains at last!
"LISTEN! Stop a second, captain—there's something mysterious on here! Hark! What's that noise?"
Len gasped out that startled question some two hours later—two of the longest, most gruelling hours Justice & Co. had ever endured.
For most of that period the castaways had been climbing—scrambling, crawling, clawing their way over hot granite boulders, and slipping painfully on beds of loose stones that rattled down in miniature avalanches behind them.
After some hesitation, Justice had decided to invade the mountains by way of a long, low spur, whose jagged crest still loomed up about a hundred feet above them. But though the slopes had not looked too steep and difficult from the river-bank, they had flattered only to deceive.
The heat, too, thrown back from sun-baked rocks, was terrific, while every so often the climbers were balked by clumps of parched and stunted thorns, bristling with strong, cruel spikes, the perching-place of gorgeous butterflies and venomous winged insects.
Progress had proved heart-breakingly slow, and was rendered slower still by the frequent long rests imposed upon the heroic five by giddiness and hunger. Elbows, shins, and knees were skinned raw by constant falls, muscles ached dully, the soles of their feet felt as though they had been roasted over slow fires.
The unbroken silence, the ever-present spectacle of vast, impregnable cliffs above them, and that ghastly feeling, from which only veteran mountaineers are free, that the whole stupendous pile might topple over and crash down upon them at any moment, tortured their already lacerated nerves.
Midge, for one, felt as he imagined an ant must feel just before a massive foot smashes down to crush it out of existence.
Yet, with uncomplaining fortitude, the youngster and his companions had followed their leader, taking turns to assist Professor Flaznagel over the rougher places and steeper ledges. For Captain Justice had spotted a definite objective.
Far above them, at a point where the ragged spur ran out from the parent mountain, the mouth of a cave showed like a small black patch against the red-brown mass.
The climbers were making their way hopefully towards this likely camping-site when Len Connor uttered his warning.
Halting suddenly, Captain Justice's young wireless operator raised a hand, tilting his head back sharply. The others also listened, and gradually puzzled frowns deepened on their faces.
"Bedad, that's queer!"
O'Mally cupped a hand to his ear as he, too, heard the sound that had brought Len to a standstill.
Faint and elusive, a strange, vibrant booming quivered on the air, quickening at times to a staccato beat, then blurring once more into a monotonous rumble, haunting and curiously sinister! In vain the comrades strained their ears, trying to discover whence the eerie muttering came; but the slumbrous echoes among the crags baffled their efforts. Now the sound seemed to float from somewhere in the very heart of the rock, close at hand, then from different directions at once.
Midge shivered, suddenly filled with vague misgivings. O'Mally thrust out his under lip, cocking a dubious eye at the evening sky.
"Thunder, d'ye think?" he asked. "Faith, that coppery haze up above looks plaguey threatening, now I come to look at it! Yon rumbling might be—"
"Drums!" Captain Justice exclaimed, almost to himself. But his comrades heard plainly enough, and the effect of that word was electric.
"Drums?" Len stiffened, his eyes raking the boulder-strewn slopes, "By gosh, if I didn't think so myself, only it seemed cock-eyed! You're right, though, skipper—signal-drums or war-drums! And any sort of drums out here mean—"
"Natives!" said Justice, in the same tense voice.
There on the naked rock the castaways looked at each other soberly.
Natives! Ever since the jungle had engulfed them, all had wondered uneasily if this back-o'-beyond was inhabited by human beings. And now—now their questions were answered!
BEYOND all shadow of doubt, the distant muttering they could hear issued from native drums, beaten by sticks or human fingers. The longer they listened the more menacing that ominous rumbling sounded.
"Natives, sure enough!" Captain Justice broke a strained pause that had threatened to become endless. "And," he added grimly, "whatever natives we find in this wilderness will prove hostile to white men. Kuponos warned us of that—the hound! Now, the question is, are they drumming out news of our arrival or—"
The celebrated gentleman adventurer broke off. There was no need to complete the sentence. The others understood.
"That's a question we can't answer yet," Justice went on calmly. "Hurry, now, lads. Up to the top of this spur and on to the cave as fast as you like! Whether there's a tribe after us or not, I want to get under cover."
“And how!" murmured Midge, as he lurched to his feet.
Fighting against exhaustion and the pangs of hunger, the weary little party carried on, spurred to greater efforts by their discovery. The ugly, mysterious drumming followed them still, but though they half expected such a calamity, no yelling enemies swarmed out of hiding to attack them.
They toiled up the last hundred feet of that grilling climb. Then, motioning his friends to remain quiet, Justice crawled on alone over the crest of the spur.
Suddenly, after one swift glance ahead, the captain froze. In a flash his muscles relaxed, his head dropped. Face downwards he sprawled, motionless as the rocks around him.
For the next few seconds that dragged like eternity the adventurer lay prone, anxiously watched by the dumbfounded four below. Then, very slowly and cautiously, Justice raised his head again, propping his chin on the back of one lean hand.
Right before him, on the inner flank of the spur, the rock-face slanted down to a narrow ledge, about ten feet below the ridge on which he lay. A mere shelf it was, ending in a tip-tilted brink above an abyss. One end of it ran into the mouth of a snarling ravine, while the other gave out on to a gorgeous mountain glen, carpeted by green grasses and gemlike flowers, walled in by frowning buttresses of rock.
Justice could not gauge the extent of this smiling valley; nor did he waste time in trying. After that first sharp, all-embracing glance, his eyes flashed back to the ledge—and remained there, fixed and wary!
Out of the ravine, racing for dear life, with head flung back, darted a giant native—one of the most magnificent specimens of humanity Justice had ever clapped eyes on.
Close behind him, running mute but with glittering throwing-spears poised over their massive black shoulders, followed three hunters, straining every nerve as they tore out on to the dizzy ledge.
It was a dramatic scene; an evil yet thrilling cameo of life in those gaunt mountains. And Justice had seen it in the nick of time!
His finger-nails dug deeply into the palms of his hands, and a suffocating feeling of excitement, repugnance, and alarm surged through him as he watched. No sound broke the stillness, save the soft patter of flying-bare feet on the rock, and, once, a sharp indrawn breath as the runaway gathered himself for another dashing spurt.
Agile, sure-footed, hunters and hunted sped silently across the sheer scarp, with Justice, an unseen spectator, holding his breath till his lungs filled to bursting-point.
Fully six-feet-six in height the fugitive stood—lithe, slim-waisted, graceful as a deer. His head, crowned by black kinky hair, was small and well shaped, his features clear, bold, and scornful.
The westering sun cast a glossy sheen over his smooth, golden-brown skin, beneath which the elastic muscles swelled and rippled as he ran. A tawny leopard's skin, secured by a copper clasp, revealed rather than hid his superb breadth of shoulder and depth of chest.
Onwards and upwards he tore, his long, raking stride making light of the slope. Yet, fast as he was, his three determined pursuers, hideous as their quarry was handsome, stuck to him grimly, never faltering for an instant.
Squat, brawny negroes they were, naked save for beaded loin-cloths, and each as black as the ace of spades. Their short but tremendously powerful legs ate up the track, their flattened, rage-distorted faces looked worse than those of fiends seen in a dreadful nightmare.
The Battle of the Ledge!
NOT a sound escaped from the hunters' lips as, with eyeballs rolling, woolly hair bristling, the grisly trio raced along the lofty trail like wolves to the kill. Fresher and stronger than the fugitive, they cut down his lead gradually, relentlessly.
A gasp escaped Captain Justice, fetching his comrades swiftly but cautiously up on to the crest beside him. Even as they reached his side the golden giant stumbled beneath them, and the leading black hurled his javelin, uttering a blood-curdling howl at the same instant.
The hunt ended there and then!
Flung with terrific force and skill, the weapon streaked through the air, straight to the mark. It struck the runner fairly behind the left shoulder, and the slender blade, piercing him through, jutted out redly between the muscles of his arching breast.
Staggered by the impact, the stalwart native reeled on to the very brink of the ledge, where, for a sickening moment, he swayed groggily.
Then, recovering, he turned savagely at bay, swinging back his own short, three-pointed spear as the screaming blacks rushed him.
And forthwith Captain Justice & Co. cleared for action with a roar!
It was no part of the castaways' programme to butt into tribal vendettas! Their plan had been to sneak through the mountains as unobtrusively as possible. But three black devils hounding a wounded man was more than they could stand.
Almost unconsciously, Justice snatched up a loose rock, half as big as his head. Once having got it in his hand, however, the captain slammed it down with deliberate accuracy and vim!
Crack! Full on the forehead of the foremost black thudded the missile, and without so much as a groan the savage threw up his hands, lurched over the edge of the shelf, and went whirling down into space. It was as if a bombshell had burst! His fellows checked, recoiled, stared frantically upwards.
Strangled yells broke from their throats at sight of the five ragged whites glaring down at them from the crest. Their thick lips parted in a grimace of fear, displaying betel-reddened teeth, filed to dagger-points.
"Cannibals!" snapped Justice; and the sound of his voice startled the two blacks into a fresh paroxysm of terror.
So silently and unexpectedly had Justice & Co. entered the fight that the superstitious blacks clearly regarded them as apparitions—evil ogres sprung from the rock. Nor did they have much chance to recover from the numbing shock.
Forgetful of their quarry, the stricken pair cringed back, thrown into helpless panic. And suddenly, swift as thought, a long arm flicked lout, an iron-pronged trident struck home—and the battle of the ledge was over!
Pierced to the heart, the nearer black toppled backwards to join his leader in the chasm below, while the survivor fled screaming, with stones flung by O'Mally and Len singing past his ears.
Suddenly, as the clatter of metal and the thump of a heavy fall sounded below. Justice and Midge went shinning down on to the ledge at breakneck speed.
Justice cried out to O'Mally to follow, the instant his feet touched solid rock again. For now that the danger had passed the golden-brown giant, weakened by pursuit and loss of blood, had collapsed.
Sprawled out, the handsome native lay across the ledge, with the spear-shaft sticking up out of his back and one leg doubled under him. He stirred slightly, fumbling weakly for his curious weapon when the rescuers bent over him. But Justice, with a quick gesture, gently pressed his arm down and raised the limp, black head.
Two dark brown eyes stared defiantly into the adventurer's, and the trident rattled again as the wounded warrior shuddered and tensed his muscles suspiciously. But, after a piercing scrutiny of Justice's face, he seemed to realise that the mysterious strangers around him were friends.
His breast heaved in a deep sigh, and he relaxed heavily into the captain's arms.
Dr. O'Mally climbed down, crimson with exertion. He shoved Midge aside, then bent to make a careful examination of the giant's grievous wounds. Wonderingly the man looked on while the Irishman unfastened his leopard skin and stooped closer still. There was an expression of mingled wrath and relief on O'Mally's rubicund countenance when, after several long minutes, he raised his head again.
"Glory be, it is not poison as I feared!" he announced, flicking the spearhead contemptuously. "The poor fellow's mighty lucky in a way, for this skewer has drilled him cleanly through the muscles without touching an artery.
"All the same, 'tis a plaguey hurt those black imps o' Satan have done the fine lad—though he looks healthy and strong enough to get over anything! Och, now, if only I had my first-aid case—"
"Well, you haven't! We have nothing, and must do our best with that!" snapped Professor Flaznagel bitterly.
Captain Justice stood up, clinging with one hand to the wall. He cast a keen, sweeping glance towards the ravine, and ordered Len up to the crest again to keep a good look-out in case any more of the blacks appeared. Then he exchanged a significant look with Dr. O'Mally, who nodded.
"I fear this is goin' to hurt ye, me brave bucko!" he muttered, raising the native carefully into a sitting position. "But sure, we must have this spear out quick, so ye'll just have to grin and bear it. Right, Justice—now!"
Midge, who had been quietly studying the superbly built stoic, clenched his fists hard as the rough surgical operation began without instruments or anaesthetic. But, coolly and deftly, Justice and O'Mally went to work, while the giant sat perfectly quiet, with eyes gazing into nothingness.
Dr. O'Mally pinned his supple wrists, and suddenly Justice drove the spear in deeper from behind. Then, exerting the full strength of his steel-fingered hands, he snapped the shaft with a sharp, dexterous wrench.
Whereupon, O'Mally, wrapping his rush hat round the blade, tugged, strained, and panted till he toppled backwards—and the rest of the broken weapon pulled clear!
Midge had had to turn his head away. But though the torture must have been excruciating, never once did the golden-brown Hercules groan or stir. Patient, seemingly indifferent to pain, he endured it with a hardihood amazing as it was heroic.
Only the slight stiffening of his lips and a greyish pallor under his cheekbones betrayed the agony he suffered. Impulsively, Midge wheeled and gripped the man's huge right hand when at last the spear had been extracted.
"Suffering cats, old hoss!" gasped the youthful hero-worshipper. "I don't know who you are, or where you come from, but you're a blinkin' Trojan! Golly, if that had been Me—"
"Ye'd have yelled blue murder—and so would I!" grunted O'Mally. "But hold your whisht now, there's more to be done. Nay, Justice, 'tis no use plugging the wounds yet, for they'll have dirt in 'em, like as not. We must strap him up tight to stop the blood, then carry him along till we find water to wash 'em."
Doffing his capacious pyjama coat, the doctor ripped off a wide strip, the native watching him with softly glowing eyes. At last, with his shoulder tautly bandaged, he was assisted up by Justice and O'Mally, and, for the first time, a faint smile flickered across his proud, impassive face. His sound hand twitched slightly. He smiled again as Midge, interpreting the gesture aright, eagerly passed over the trident.
So tall was the native that he overtopped even the lanky professor by a good three inches as he stood upright, leaning on his pronged spear. Justice & Co. regarded him with frank admiration, marvelling at his splendid physique and pluck.
Who was he, and from what unknown race had he sprung? they wondered—Professor Flaznagel most of all! There was no trace of the negro about him, either in nose, lips, or cheekbones. His features were clear-cut and regular, handsome as a god's!
"By th' powers, there's enough of ye, my friend!" O'Mally said softly, gazing up at the strapping warrior. "And, faith, ye must be as strong as a lion even to stand up after what ye've been through! But, come, ye need water now, and plenty of it. Justice, we might find a stream in yonder valley, so—"
That was as far as the doctor got. His words ended in a grunt of perplexity.
For suddenly the giant shook himself like a dog, and seemed to grow taller still. Fresh life and vigour flowed back into his body, as though by a deliberate effort of will power he had tapped some untouched reservoir of strength and stamina within him.
His chest arched itself again, the brown eyes glinted, and gravely he stared down at the bandage, flexing the corded muscles of his forearm. And what followed left Justice & Co. petrified with astonishment!
Evidently recognising Captain Justice as the castaways' leader, the warrior suddenly reached out and grasped his hand. Then, with simple dignity, he bowed and laid it upon his own black head. A brief sentence, uttered in a deep, sonorous voice, boomed out on the evening air.
And with that the mighty stranger went!
In one long, lithe stride he backed away, bent his head again, then turned and began stumbling off towards the valley, his left arm pressed close to his side, his right hand twirling the trident. Justice & Co. made not the slightest attempt to stop him. Utterly bewildered by such an action on the part of a badly wounded man, they simply stood and gaped.
"Hi! Ye daft madman, come back!" roared O'Mally at last, finding his tongue after a struggle. "Your wounds, man—ye'll open 'em! Och, burn it, never have I had a patient run away from me so fast before! Come back, ye big spalpeen, come back!"
But the injured warrior paid no heed. Staggering now and then, he ran on down the sloping ledge, not stopping until he had gained the steep entrance to the valley, where he turned to face the comrades once more. For a moment he stood gazing back at them steadfastly, a statue of bronze in the level sun-rays. His trident swung up in a farewell salute, then, suddenly, he was gone—vanishing as though the ground had opened and swallowed him!
Len Connor, perched up on the ridge, let out a long, gusty sigh.
"Well! If that don't beat it!" he exclaimed shakily. "Talk about a giddy land o' mystery! I've often heard that natives can stand more punishment than we can, but for triple-distilled strength and grit, that fellow's got 'em all licked! Who on earth can he be?"
"A scout, possibly—or a lone hunter," Justice hazarded slowly. "And those black fiends are his tribal enemies, I'll bet. By James, though, the whole affair is a mystery—like those confounded drums!" The captain listened for a second or so to the distant throbbing, and shook his head worriedly.
"As for us, lads," he added grimly, "we seem to have made a friend, but I'm afraid we've made enemies, too, seeing that one of the beggars got away! I'm glad we butted in in time to save that hero, but unless we keep our eyes peeled, we stand a fine chance now of having his pretty playmates with the sharpened teeth round our necks!"
Midge sniffed. Now that all the excitement was over as far as he was concerned, the freckled grub-enthusiast's thoughts had returned to their usual channel.
"Blow the black blighters!" he growled. "All I know is that there's a fat flaming-yoyo up beside Len, and some hefty eggs that are probably sun-baked by now. So, if those plug-uglies want me, my address will be care of that cave up there, and all I hope is they don't start any rough stuff till I've fed. And that won't be till morning now, 'cos the sun's going, so we can't start a fire! Oh, what a country!"
Dr. O'Mally smote him a buffet that made the lad's teeth rattle.
"Cheer up, misery!" he cried encouragingly. "Begorrah, we've come so far, and since we're not dead yet we'll go farther, black cannibals or not! Hoist your slacks, professor! I'll give ye a bunk up!"
And so the comrades wearily resumed their laborious climb to shelter—lost, practically defenceless, and with the sure knowledge that savage foes, as well as one possible friend, knew of their presence in the wild mountains. It was a prospect that tested the courage of Justice & Co. to the full!
NEXT Part 5
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.