Sunday, 16 November 2014
Prisoners of the Witch-Doctor
Part 9 of 12 of Castaways; Captain Justice in Unexplored
To Part 1
From The Modern Boy magazine, 8 September 1934, No.344, Vol. 14
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, November 2014 for Stillwoods.Blogspot.Com
Giants at War!
“OH, bcgorralt! By St. Pathrick, ’tis the very worst day of my life! Justice, is there any way we can rescue young Midge and Len Connor from that blackguard of a witch-doctor?”
Too horrified to bottle-up his harrowing distress, Dr. O’Mally gasped out the question. But for the moment Captain Justice did not reply.
Breathing hard after a breakneck scramble down the eastern cliffs, the famous gentleman adventurer stumbled on through the turmoil and torchlit darkness that filled the village of giants. Justice and his four companions had wandered there since, weaponless, and clad only in their pyjamas, they had been dumped from an aeroplane into this part of unexplored
by a scoundrelly Greek named Kuponos.
Everywhere, golden-brown goliaths were rushing about, armed with bows or heavy tridents, while the night resounded to shouts and yells, and the hoarse blaring of horns. Arrows zipped ceaselessly through the air, threatening death every second.
It was a strange and terribly dangerous position in which the white castaways found themselves. All Justice wanted just then was to get under cover and there cudgel his wits as he had never done before. Collaring O’Mally and Professor Flaznagel by the shoulders, he hustled them neck and crop into the shelter of a deserted hut.
“Now take it easy!” he panted. “Get your wind back first. By James, we’re in too tight a corner to go at it like a bull at a gate!”
“But—but Midge! And Len!” wailed O’Mally, his fat face drawn with anxiety. “We can’t stay here! We must do something to save ’em! Faith, the poor lads may have been killed!”
Professor Flaznagel, in scarcely better plight than the stout Irishman, clawed nervously at his straggly white beard.
“I maintain,” he said, in a quavery voice, “that that human fiend is not the type to mete out a swift and merciful death to any victims who fall into his hands! Confound it, it is barely half an hour since Midge and Connor were captured! There may still be a chance of saving them if—”
“If we act promptly!” snapped Justice. ‘'Pull yourself together, O’Mally! I’ve told you we’re going to get the boys back. And, by James, we’ll get the hound who stole them, too!”
Cold wrath glinted in Justice’s steel-grey eyes as he spoke. His lean face, bedewed with sweat, was granite-hard.
"It’s civil war among the giants now—a straight scrap between our friend Buktu and his comrades of the warrior-caste, and that witch-doctor snake with his mob of painted demons!” he snapped. “What caused the feud in the first place, we don’t know or care. Probably the witch-doctor became a bit too keen on human sacrifices or some such brutality for Buktu’s liking. Anyway, it’s clear enough that the two factions have been at loggerheads for some time and our coming here has brought matters to a head. Twice that demon has tried to capture some of us. This time he’s succeeded.
“ But I don’t give two hoots for their tribal squabbles!” he snarled. "By James, no vile savage can monkey about with my friends and get away with it! So now dry up, O'Mally. I want to think!”
Motionless, absorbed in plans of vengeance, the captain stood beside the hut; studying every detail of the witch-doctor’s domain, weighing up all the possibilities of getting inside that grisly lair.
Gaunt and rugged, a gnarled mound of porous rock pitted with blow-holes through which the fumes of sulphur everlastingly streamed, the witch-doctor’s lair loomed black against the stars. An oil-laden stream that wound through the village flowed sluggishly into the heart of the ugly mass, entering it by way of a huge cave that yawned at its base. A boulder-strewn valley, some two hundred yards long, separated the hill from the village, and across this bands of furious warriors were trying to creep through the rocks and conic to grips with their foes.
JUSTICE scowled. His allies, brave as they were, could make little headway against the steady fire down from the dark heights. More warriors were striving to force their way in from the other side of the hill. But they, too, were expending life and energy in vain.
“Useless! They haven’t a chance of breaking through, armed only with spears and bows,” the captain gritted, and took stock of his own weapons.
Which did not take long. He had only one—the flare-pistol that had belonged to an Italian flyer who had crashed months ago, all alone, in this back o’ beyond. The discovery of the wrecked plane on the top of the cliffs had astonished Justice & Co. It had also led indirectly to the capture of Midge and Len by their terrible foes.
With the pistol, Justice still had seven flares left. Also a box of shotgun cartridges, but no shotgun. His teeth met with a sharp click. What chance had he of assaulting such an impregnable fortress with that slender store of ammunition?
“It’s strategy we need now, not brute force,” he muttered. And then, as a sudden inspiration came, he wheeled on the startled professor.
“That incendiary liquid you’ve invented, Flaznagel,” he jerked. “The stuff you set alight to-day, scaring the stuffing out of Buktu’s men—what is it, again?”
“A concoction of sulphur and naphtha, distilled from the crude petroleum skimmed from the stream,” explained Flaznagel. “I simply powdered the—”
“Gosh! Never mind the process!” Justice cut in sharply. “All I know is that the stuff is more inflammable than petrol, and that it terrified these big fellows. Tell me quickly—have you brewed much of it? You have? Good! Then I want it all, now! Hurry!”
Puzzled but obedient, Flaznagel rose, and swiftly, hugging cover all the way, the three adventurers hurried to the native guard-hut which the old inventor had appropriated. Within stood a collection of earthenware jars, pots, and other cooking utensils, all commandeered in the same high-handed manner. The Wizard of Science lifted the covers off two large jars, revealing a quantity of pale amber liquid that gave forth acrid, suffocating fumes.
Justice’s face wore a fierce smile as he stared at the dangerous stuff, and he astonished his comrades by shooing them out into the clamorous night once more.
“Fine! Well done, professor! There’s enough there to help scupper every demon in the hill yonder!” he exclaimed. “Now all we want is a canoe!”
Flaznagel and O’Mally gaped at him, thunderstruck.
“A—a what did ye say? Begorrah, have ye gone crazy, Justice?”
“Not at all! But that witch-doctor soon will be—crazy with fright!” Justice snapped grimly. “I tell you I want a canoe—and there are plenty tied up to the river-bank below us. Lively now! Come on, help me haul one up here, and I’ll explain the plan as we—”
But before Justice could outline the daring scheme that had occurred to him, his words were lost in a sudden increase of noise from the village.
Suddenly the yelling and shouting were swamped, blotted out by such a rousing, tremendous fanfare of horns that the castaways rocked back on their heels, dazed and deafened by the ear-splitting din.
What that nerve-shattering interruption meant, Justice & Co. could not guess. They shrank back against the hut, waiting and watching.
Again the discordant instruments brayed hoarsely, swelling out in harsh waves of sound from the torchlit compound in front of the chief’s hut. And—as by magic—all fighting ceased at once.
Both the warring factions obeyed that peremptory summons in a flash. A truce had been called—one that neither side cared to ignore. No more arrows whistled down from the witchdoctor’s lair. The demoniac shrieks and yells gave place to utter stillness.
And that silence, eerie as it was inexplicable to the white men, lasted until:
“By the powers!” breathed O’Mally suddenly. “Look—look, Justice! Bedad, if the old chief himself isn’t buttin’ in at last!” and he raised a shaking hand, pointing across the village.
It was true! Out of the great hut, pacing slowly towards the sulphur-crowned hill, came a small procession of heavily armed bodyguards and older men in long loose gowns. At their head, the oldest yet most impressive of them all, shuffled the Lord of the Giants.
So bowed and shrivelled was the venerable chief that he seemed scarce able to support the weight of his flowing leopard-skin robe. But in his sunken eyes a fiery sparkle of authority glittered, as Justice saw when the torchlight played on the old man’s haggard face. His mouth was compressed to a thin, tight gash beneath a hooked and masterful nose. The sharp tap, tap of his staff on hard ground was the only sound to break the hush.
Fight to the Finish!
REACHING the stream at last the chief halted, with his guards around him. His once-powerful frame stiffened, his back grew straighter. A strangely dominating figure he made, standing there in a pool of ruby light. Slowly he raised his left arm, beckoning imperiously to the defenders of the hill.
Then suddenly his voice rang out, deep and surprisingly strong for one of his years. At first his speech sounded crisp and cold; the speech of a ruler who issues orders and expects immediate obedience. But when no reply, either by word or act, issued from the silent hill, his tones changed swiftly to a menacing snarl.
It was a dramatic scene that Justice watched—an entirely unexpected break in the hostilities. But still the meaning of it all was obscure. Though the chieftain’s talk was Dutch to him, there was something in the patriarch’s forbidding manner and tone that sent an odd thrill through the captain’s heart. And gradually, very gradually, a faint hope stirred within him.
Could it be possible that the incensed chief was demanding the instant release of Midge and Len? The old ruler, if Justice knew anything about natives, looked upon himself as the one master of life and death in that tribe, and such a ruler would react pretty strenuously to any interference with his royal rights! A council of war had been held in the great hut, that was clear enough. Had the witch-doctor, by his turbulence, cruelty, and arrogance, roused his chieftain to action at last?
“By James, I believe the old buffer’s decided to back us up after all!”
Justice’s face was twitching with excitement. Unable to endure the suspense any longer, he nodded abruptly to his comrades and began to sidle forward. But any hopes he entertained of getting closer and trying to read the old chief’s intentions from his expression were speedily dashed. For as he moved, tall Buktu, the warrior-captain, seemed to spring from nowhere and gripped him by the shoulder.
And Buktu obviously was a man torn by strong emotions.
Bitter fury against the sorcerer who had outwitted him, and grief at the loss of the white boys, which he clearly regarded as a blot on his own honour, showed starkly in the Giant’s hotly glowing eyes. That he had been in the thick of the fighting was obvious, too. His muscular body glistened with oily water from the stream. Blood was welling from a ragged furrow across his breast.
And equally plain was it that the bronzed giant had some news for the white men—some message which he tried to convey to them with all his strength and intelligence.
Thus, while the chief continued to shout wrathfully at the still-silent hill, Buktu’s expressive eyes, hands, and shoulders were busy, striving to overcome the barrier of language. He pointed to his chief and to the hill; he whispered vehemently and stamped about, beating his wounded chest when the adventurers only stared and shook their heads uncomprehendingly. In the end, a last effort to drive his meaning home, he whipped out his heavy sword.
Then, with the point, he drew in the dust a crude but perfectly recognisable sketch of five white men in curious garb standing together, of whom one was very short and stocky, and another tall and straight. Justice Sc Co: tumbled to it at last.
St. Patrick be praised!”
O’Mally nearly broke down with relief and hope then, as he pumped away at Buktu’s hand.
“Sure, I’ve got it, Justice—all five of us are to be together again!” he crowed. “It must mean that Midge and Len are still alive! That darling old scarecrow yonder is orderin’ the scouts to send ’em back at once, bless his ugly old mug! Wirroo!”
“Wait! Haul your wind a moment, doc!”
Justice, delighted as he was to find that his optimism had not proved groundless, nevertheless held up a warning hand.
“We’d better wait till the boys are out of trouble before waving any banners!” he said quietly. “You’re right—the old chief seems to be doing his best to get them back. But, even so, he himself may slaughter the whole lot of us afterwards for being the cause of so much trouble! And in. any case those mutinous clogs on the hill don’t answer. Ha! Now what the dickens is going to happen?”
The captain broke off sharply. He went forward a stride or two, and some instinct made him reach quickly for the flare-pistol tucked into the waistcord of his ragged pyjamas. Still no reply came from the rebellious fanatics—nor were there any signs of Midge and Len. And the Lord of the Giants had suddenly lost all patience.
Goaded into a white-hot passion by the disobedience of the witch-doctor and his crew, the old chief shook his staff viciously at the hill. Then he wheeled, shouting an order. Instantly his guards doubled back, returning with rough-hewn planks which they laid across the stream. Out of the corner of his eye, Justice saw Buktu make a quick gesture of warning and protest.
“Great Scott! The old gamecock’s risking something now!” the captain muttered uneasily, and with that he broke into a run. Buktu sprinted beside him. Before either could interfere, however, the leopard-robed old chief brandished his staff, growling like some thwarted old bear.
Then, all alone, royally confident that no man there dare harm him, the lord of the tribe, he stalked threateningly towards the rebel domain, and simultaneously the witch-doctor’s answer whistled venomously through the air.
“Oh, great heavens! The cowardly scum!” Justice shouted, leaping forward. He and Buktu raced for the bridge together—in vain. They were too late! The damage was done!
From what part of the dark hill that fatal arrow was fired none could tell, but a gleaming shaft zipped into the blaze of torchlight, speeding straight to the mark. Helplessly the gallant old chief threw up his arms, reeling' back on the edge of the planks as the captain and Buktu dashed to his aid. Then, dropping his staff, lie buckled at waist and knees, and fell.
And the new-found hopes of Justice & Co. fell with him.
The witch-doctor had answered; the truce was over. For what seemed an age then a stunned silence reigned—an anguished pause, during which white men and brown stood rooted to the ground. Half incredulously they stared at the empty “bridge,” at ripples spreading sluggishly across the stream. And then:
"Come on! Give it to ’em, lads— hot and strong!” Justice yelled.
Swift as light the pistol in Justice’s hand jerked up. A hissing flare tore through the air, struck the hillside, and exploded in a crimson blaze. Shrieks of pain went up, and in the glare painted figures were revealed, writhing on the slopes or scampering pell-mell to cover. At the same time such a mighty roar of wrath arose as seemed to shake the skies.
For both sides, then, it was a fight to the finish. The cowardly assassination of the old chief did it. The witch-doctor’s men, their backs to the wall, rallied desperately. Buktu and his fighting-men went crazy.
Burning to get their hands on the foe, guards and warriors charged shoulder to shoulder across the stream, only to be met at once by a storm of arrows from their foes. Men stumbled, went down in heaps, or ducked involuntarily under a withering fire that lasted until Justice fired another flare into the hill. Again the crimson blaze burst, creating havoc and confusion among the fanatics. Then, and only then, were Buktu and the valiant O’Mally able to plunge into the water on a grim errand of mercy.
“Hurry! Get him behind the hut!” snapped Justice, and raised his gun again as Giant and Irishman scrambled out with their limp burden, the old chief. To cover the retreat he fired a third flare, while all along the bank of the stream bowstrings twanged and thrummed. Ten seconds later O’Mally and Buktu were safe under shelter. Gently they laid the old man down as Justice came sprinting back.
“O’Mally! Is he—”
“Ay! The treacherous jackals got him through the heart!” he muttered. “The poor brave, crazy old fellah, bedad, he took on too big a contract that time! Justice, that witch-doctor is going all out to make himself master o’ the tribe this night, I’m thinking. And Midge and Len are still prisoners!”
“But not for long!” Justice’s voice was like a steel blade that pricked the others to action once more. O’Mally nodded, thrusting out his heavy jaw. Buktu, crouching silently beside his dead chief, suddenly grasped the captain’s hand in a grip of understanding loyalty, and faith.
Justice returned the grip with interest. Then he glanced at the wild scene ahead, where the warriors were still striving doggedly but fruitlessly to carry the hill by assault.
“We'll get ’em all right, Buktu! We'll get our boys back, then wipe out that gang of traitors for good!” he rasped. “But we’ll do it our way now, and without wasting any more precious time. Your chief is dead, your men can’t make headway, so it’s up to us to carry on with our plan of attack. Where’s Flaznagel?”
“Here, Justice!” The professor spoke from the darkness behind the hut, and Justice strode across to him immediately.
For several minutes he whispered in his friend’s ear, outlining a plan that made Flaznagel purse his lips and shake his head protestingly. But Justice, in his present mood, was like dynamite. He blew the old scientist’s objections away in a single speech.
“Professor, you’ll do as I say, please, and do your best! Hurry, man! There are lives at stake!” he snapped. And Flaznagel, after blinking his eyes rapidly, gave an apologetic grunt and scurried off down the line of huts.
“Now, O’Mally!” Justice wheeled on the hard-breathing Irishman and pointed towards the hill. “There’s only one way into that dump, and that’s along the stream and into that thundering great cave yonder. So I want a canoe, and this time I’ll get it. Come on!”
And, ducking his bald head, the stout Irishman ran, his eyes glued to Justice’s dim, wiry figure. Behind them Buktu hesitated, looked towards the firing-line, and raised his spear in a last salute to his old chieftain.
And then, because to him Captain Justice was the most inspiring leader he had ever known, the great warrior growled an order to two of the guards and dashed away, following the white men to the village parapet.
In the act of clambering over the natural rock-ribbed barrier that guarded the western flank of the village, Captain Justice smiled keenly as the three huge and tawny men loomed up behind him. There was little danger now. All the firing from the hill was concentrated on the stream and the boulders beyond. Together the five slipped over the parapet, running cautiously down the outer slope to the edge of the river below.
TEN minutes later they were back again, with Buktu’s men carrying a light and slender fishing canoe between them. The captain led them right through the village to a point where the oily stream flowed out from the foot of the eastern cliffs.
Dr. O’Mally started and raised his eyebrows as he saw the professor there already. And the old scientist, squatting alone in the semi-gloom, was mighty busy.
At his elbow stood the two jars that contained the highly inflammable liquid he had concocted. With Midge’s old knife he was methodically slicing open the shot-gun cartridges, and dribbling the black powder into another smaller jar.
“Bejabbers! An’ what game is this?” began O’Mally, only to be interrupted briskly by Justice.
“Good work, professor! Everything shipshape?”
“I am carrying out your instructions, Justice,” replied Flaznagel calmly. “If that is what you mean.”
“It is!” Justice chuckled shortly, and touched O’Mally’s arm. “All right, doc—just a little surprise for our friends yonder. A fireship! Now give me a hand here!”
They took the canoe from the native bearers and laid it on the water, O'Mally steadying it against the bank. Then, watched by three pairs of dark brown apprehensive eyes, the jars were placed carefully in the bows, and their weight balanced by stones and small chunks of rock in the stern. Then, whilst Justice and O’Mally held on to the gunwale, Professor Flaznagel stepped gingerly into the canoe, the smaller jar cuddled under one arm.
Along the bottom of the craft he then laid a thin trail of gunpowder, heaping up what was left in a small mound between the jars. His work finished, O'Mally helped him ashore. And Captain Justice, making a sudden dash towards the hut, returned speedily with a torch spluttering and smoking in his hand.
The famous gentleman adventurer was smiling now. It was a fighting grin, too—one that went straight to the hearts of the native warriors.
“We’re ready!” Justice spoke quietly. “So now listen, doc—orders for battle! As I said before, there’s only one quick road into the hill, and that’s along the stream and into the cave. But first we’ve got to panic the infernal defenders—scatter them, and give Buktu’s mob a chance to ram their charge home without being shot down before reaching the cave!
“And that’s what we’re going to do—or rather, I am. I’m a fireship, a battering-ram, and a bombshell—all rolled into one!” Justice laughed harshly. “And your job is to wait with the warriors and then charge! Burst your way in for the sake of Midge and Connor the instant you see the opening! Understand?”
“I—I—yes!” O’Mally nodded dubiously and licked his lips as if meditating some further remark. But Captain Justice waited for no more.
Deftly he wedged his torch upright between the stones in the stern of the canoe, then gave the craft a shove-off. It was built to carry two Giant fishermen, and so, making light of its present cargo, it glided away, bobbing slightly as the sluggish current took charge. Justice let it go. Then coolly he dropped into the water, pausing for a last word before setting forth on one of the most audacious ventures of his career.
“Now, don’t forget, O'Mally!” he cried. “The moment the balloon goes up—charge for the cave! And remember this! Those beggars can't escape once we’re in, because there’s another band of Giants besieging the other side of the hill. So smash your way into that dump somehow, then keep on smashing. Good luck!”
"But, Justice—” The Irishman found his tongue at last. “By the beard o’ St. Patrick, ye can’t take that canoe right up to the cave- mouth alone! Man, ye’ll be under fire the whole way! Those demons will shoot—”
“Good!—Then we’ll give ’em enough light to shoot by!”
That was all. O’Mally fell back, silenced by that typically calm reply. And Captain Justice, kicking off from the bank, turned in the water and struck out after the swaying “fireship.”
“Oh, bedad! Hasn’t that beggar any nerves at all? Faith, I’ve seen Justice do some desperate deeds, but this—”
Dr. O'Mally gulped. Dismay, anxiety, and admiration struggled for expression on his big face as he watched Justice catch up with the canoe and send it on faster with a lusty shove.
Then, because he was in charge of the “shore-gang” now, the doctor snapped his fingers and began running cautiously along the bank, with Flaznagel, Buktu, and the others at his heels.
Silently the canoe glided along the winding stream, propelled partly by the current, partly by Justice’s arms and shoulders. Its progress became a series of jerky spurts; once or twice it struck the bank on a bend, but each time the lone swimmer thrust it clear, and on it sailed, with the torch fluttering redly above the stern. The warriors among the boulders stopped shooting, uttering guttural grunts of amazement as the craft with its dangerous load lobbed past them.
But if Buktu’s men were astonished, that was nothing to the consternation and alarm that seized their foes as the canoe turned into the straight stretch at last, and headed directly for the cave-mouth. Captain Justice had to swim mighty close to the vessel then. From above him, and from both flanks, streaked whistling arrows, accompanied by yells of rage. Faced by this strange new menace, the defenders of the hill shot fast.
Whee-ee! Plunk! Feathered shafts hissed through the air, thudding into the thin sides of the canoe, skimming into or across the water. But Justice, swimming slowly against the protecting stern, smiled coldly and carried on. Nearer—nearer!
He could see right into the yawning cave-mouth now—and, better still, he could see frantic figures skipping down the rocks or swarming out of the dimly lit tunnel beyond, gathering at the entrance to greet him with point-blank volleys. That was all he wanted. As an arrow whipped past his partially exposed shoulders, he ducked a little, gave the canoe another shove, and grinned again.
“The reception committee!” he jeered, risking his life to take a good long look at the crowd of yelling fiends manning the cave-mouth.
“All right! Stay there, my hearties, and enjoy the fireworks! The more the merrier! Ha!”
Hastily Justice swerved behind the stern again, as a bunch of hideously painted figures suddenly darted from cover, making for the water’s edge with upraised spears. But he need not have worried. Buktu’s archers were right on their toes now! Suddenly, to the long-drawn whee-ee-ee! of arrows, the band of fanatics crumpled in their tracks, while a second storm of shafts drove their comrades back from the cave-mouth in disorder.
Fast and furious then grew the fire from the village, covering Justice’s advance, sending the defenders cowering into their holes. The canoe crept on; the alarm spread. And at long last the iron-nerved captain braced himself for the final effort—the critical move in his breathless attempt to save Midge and Len.
Coolly he reached up, braving death as he gripped the gunwale of the canoe. Coolly he drew in a long, deep breath, filling his lungs to bursting point. Then, swiftly, strongly, he heaved himself out of the water.
One lightning sweep of his free hand sent the blazing torch flying on to the gunpowder-strewn bottom of the canoe. But before it landed, Captain Justice was back in the water again, diving down to the bed of the stream for dear life!
Victims for Sacrifice!
LEN CONNOR sighed wearily and groaned. He could stifle the painful outburst no longer. For a brief moment pride and pluck forsook him, and the low groan of anguish forced itself from his parched lips. His head drooped.
As if ashamed of betraying such weakness, the stout-hearted youngster gritted his teeth next instant, and, spurred by desperation, strained at the rawhide bonds that cut into his wrists. But the. struggle was as futile as it was feeble, for Len was nearly all-in. His brain reeled under the excruciating stabs of pain that tortured every inch of him.
He hung limply between the sloping arms of a triangular wooden frame. His wrists were tied to the apex of the triangle, and in this plight his merciless captors had left him to dangle, with unbound feet barely touching the rocky ground. And that had been over an hour ago—though it seemed more like a hundred years!
Now, as he swayed slackly in his bonds, his arms felt as if they were being drawn from their sockets. Try as he would, he could not get sufficient purchase with his feet to ease the strain on his wrists. He groaned again, and turned bleary eyes on the dark stream flowing past him, not twenty feet away. But the sight and sound of the gurgling water only added to his torments, for his tongue was swollen, his throat drier than a lime-kiln.
“Cheese it, you ass! Don’t struggle!”
Faintly, as from a distance, the familiar voice came to him, hoarse and jerky. But the warning sank in. Len turned his head the other way, fighting to summon up a gallant grin. Close beside him, suspended from a smaller triangle, hung young Midge, sweat streaming down his white face.
"No use struggling!” repeated the diminutive, red-haired youngster, licking his lips. "Only hurts you and makes these painted sons o’ mud laugh. Cheer up, old boss—looks as if they’re waitin’ to—to make themselves bosses of the Giants first before polishin’ us off! Victims for sacrifice—that’s us! Only they’re all makin’ one big bloomer!”
Attacked by a spasm of nausea, Midge reeled, sagging towards one of the supports. But he shook off the dizziness somehow, and snorted, blowing back the damp forelock that flopped over his eyes.
Groggily Len lifted his heavy head again and gazed at the witch-doctor’s lair.
Of its exact or even approximate dimensions, neither Len nor Midge had the foggiest idea. It was too gloomy, too immense; so lofty and expansive as to dwarf the stalwart defenders and muffle their incessant yells. At some time in ages past an earthquake had scooped this mighty amphitheatre out of the solid heart of the rock.
Parts of it were uninhabitable. For there, between massive boulders, deep fissures criss-crossed the ground, and from these issued evil-smelling fumes of sulphur, curling slowly up out of the bed-rock. Darkness, velvety-black, shrouded the nethermost regions. The stream cut the cave roughly in two, before plunging, with a noise as of distant thunder, into a bottomless sink.
High up in the gnarled, sloping walls gaped the mouths of smaller caves, and in and out of these men crawled like bees in a monstrous hive.
It was a dungeon of haunting gloom and terror—citadel and
combined, for to Nature’s handiwork generations of savage priests had added
their own. There were gruesome idols and altars everywhere. The largest, most
hideous of all, half man, half brute, loomed high above thc heads of the
luckless youngsters, seeming to grin down upon them out of the dimness with its
Beneath it, on a grotesquely carved throne, set between the outstretched paws of the idol, tlic Giants’ witchdoctor sat in state.
Chin in hand, elbow propped on a stout, bare thigh, he sat motionless as the carven monster above him. The glow from a ring of torches and braziers cast a reddish sheen over his powerful shoulders and face, heightening the man’s terrifying aspect. One mighty hand was clenched tightly on the stock of the rhinoceros-hide whip that lay across his knees. Only his small, unwinking eyes moved, taking in all that happened as he squatted there, a menacing lord of the underworld.
Now and then, other men—lieutenants or councillors, apparently—came towards the leader, dropping on their knees before him. They spoke. Their chief answered them briefly in a deep, cold voice, and dismissed them with a gesture. But though the captives watched closely, neither word nor action gave them any clue as to what was going on outside.
At last one man, evidently the bearer of ill news, was rewarded with a sudden vicious stroke of the whip that sent him running, howling as he fled. Midge and Len perked up a little at that—the more so as the clamour at the cave-mouth increased at the same moment. Something was up! Then, with a snarl that showed all his betel-reddened teeth, the witch-doctor turned his head slowly, raking the lads with a look that made them shiver.
“Gummy, what’s this mean?”
Midge, never subdued for long, recovered his nerve quickly and returned the threatening glare with one of defiance.
“Sufferin' cats, Len—looks as if the Big Baboon heard something then that he didn’t like!” the exhausted youngster gasped. “Yes, by ginger, that last messenger gave him a shock. He’s got the wind up. He—”
“Listen, you ass!”
LEN, whose mind was growing hazy with pain, pulled himself together by sheer will-power and raised his head. Gosh, how tired he was! And how his arms and stomach muscles ached with the intolerable strain!
“Listen!” he repeated urgently. “Something is happening outside! Or am I imagining things? No, by thunder, I can hear it! The noise outside—it’s getting louder, Midge! And coming nearer! Oh, my hat, listen!”
Len’s words grew more coherent. Again his head jerked up more alertly. Two spots of colour, born of sudden excitement, burned on his pallid cheeks. His eyes held a wild gleam as he glanced at his quivering chum.
“It’s a raid!” he shouted. “Midge —Midge, old son, stand by! A charge —the big attack, and —Gosh, look at the brutes now—look at that hog on the throne!”
With hearts pounding against their ribs, the youthful prisoners strove to ease themselves in their bonds, craning their necks as, for some reason, the denizens of the cave were swept by a violent wave of panic and dismay. Painted figures were racing towards the cave mouth from all parts, horns began blowing, summoning reinforcements down from the heights.
Soon a whole mob of archers were jammed together on both banks of the stream, firing rapidly, and a few moments later they fell back with screams and groans under a storm of arrows that drove in suddenly from the outside. Their gigantic chief leant from his throne, and rushed forward to rally the shaken men with thunderous roars and strokes of his terrible whip. As for Midge and Len, they dangled in the triangles, almost suffocating with anxiety.
WHAT was happening? What was the meaning of this new and frantic uproar?
Faster and straighter the arrows of the giant warriors drove through the opening, hurling the stricken enemy back. The entrance, for a fatal moment, was left unguarded. Even the raging witch-doctor dived for shelter. And in that moment Len Connor uttered a gasp!
For something—some black and oddly sinister shape—came gliding into the cave-mouth.
A long, slender canoe it was, with a blazing torch fluttering in the stern. Len watched it, spellbound. On it came, steadily, silently, until suddenly the torch seemed to leap up of its own accord and fall to the bottom of the craft. And then—
Len shut his eyes tight. Midge wilted. The terrific concussion scattered his wits. Vivid flashes of light, of blue and crimson flame lit up the entrance, a smashing roar, heavy yet vibrant, seemed to shake the ground. Echoes like the thunder of guns filled the mammoth cave, and then left behind a stunned silence. Then a wounded man cried out in a thin, high wail, and Len, opening his eyes as the tension snapped, cheered hoarsely.
The canoe, Justice’s “fireship,” had vanished—blown to splinters by the explosion of its deadly cargo. And the ranks of the witch-doctor’s fanatics were shattered, too. Men, scalded by flying oil or struck by whizzing fragments of rock, lay on the banks or in the water; others were staggering about aimlessly, helplessly. A delirium of terror seized the survivors, who scattered like fear-crazed sheep.
And then, at the height of the hopeless panic, Captain Justice, O’Mally, Buktu, and his herculean warriors rushed the cave.
Into their enemies’ lair they charged, tridents glittering, broadswords rising and falling like flails. As in a dream, Len and Midge saw their captain’s dark, hawk-like face in the van; saw the burly, baldheaded O'Mally laying about him lustily with the shaft of a broken spear. From the cowed and demoralised defenders rose a long wail of terror—from the triumphant attackers a war-cry that swelled up to the heights. Then the work of vengeance began!
For a minute or so the towering witch-doctor fought like a gorilla to stem the tide, only to be hurled back with the rest. Captain Justice struck at him, and, missing, fell to his knees. The witch-doctor snarled, whirled about, and made a dash straight for Len and Midge, swinging his whip as he came.
That he meant to take instant revenge on his prisoners was plain! Not even Midge for all his hardihood, could face up to the howling madman then. Involuntarily the youngster quailed as the maniac whooped, heaving up his weapon for a slashing stroke. But that blow never fell.
It was checked—parried in midair. And:—"Buktu!” wheezed Len.
Buktu seemed to spring out of the very ground behind the witch-doctor. Laughing terribly, he yanked his bitter rival round by the hair, and for a tense moment the fighting giants glared deep into each other’s blazing eyes. Then Buktu laughed again, and his sword-arm shot out, straight from the shoulder.
That was the end!
Ten minutes later, in a half-fainting condition, Midge and Len were borne away triumphantly out of the dreadful cave, back to the joyful village. With them went Captain Justice and O’Mally, weary, dripping wet, but exultant!
With the downfall of the Witch-doctor, the Road to Freedom is opening up for Justice and his Comrades. But it's a hard road to travel, as they discover in Next Saturday's Thriller!
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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.