Saturday, 8 November 2014
The Castaway Five
Fearlessly exposing himself to the arrows that zipped through the air from the pursuing canoes, Justice stepped over the wounded paddler and prepared to take his place.
The Castaway Five! -Part 6 of 12
From The Modern Boy magazine, 11 August 1934, No. 340, Vol. 14. Digitized Nov. 2014 by Doug Frizzle
Hopelessly stranded in Unknown Africa, the fate of CAPTAIN JUSTICE and his Comrades is swaying in the balance between merciless Cannibals and their tribal enemies the Golden-Brown Giants!
WITH a prodigious snort, Dr. O’Mally awoke from uneasy slumber. The jovial, corpulent Irish comrade of the famous Gentleman Adventurer, Captain Justice, started convulsively, shivered, opened his eyes, and immediately closed them again.
How long he had been asleep he had no means of telling. Neither could he remember where he was yet, nor how he had come to doze off. But in the background of his mind hovered a dark cloud of horror. With it came the feeling that he ought to be up and doing — that danger threatened somewhere, demanding instant action on his part.
What this danger was, however, and exactly what he had to do about it, he could not figure out. And he was too utterly whacked to stir a muscle just then, anyway. But presently, as the rustle of water and a smooth rocking motion penetrated to his consciousness, his hazy wits cleared. Memory returned in a flash.
Then Dr. O’Mally’s smarting eyes popped open again, and he groaned. “Begob, ’twas all a dream, then!” he muttered disgustedly in his rich brogue. “’Tis meself that’s been dreaming we were all safely back at home, fishing, with that plaguey young imp, Midge, doing his best to tilt the boat over! And now here we still are—lost—cast away in the hottest spot of unknown Africa by that Greek blayguard, Xavier Kuponos, without weapons and in our pyjamas, being canoed down some benighted jungle river by a lot o’ gigantic heathens with golden-brown skins. Ochone!”
And the doctor was not sure whether the stalwart golden-brown natives, in whose canoe he lay, regarded him and his comrades as guests or prisoners!
“’Tis these same heathens,” he murmured, “who saved us from bein’ boiled alive and eaten by those cannibal blacks! So, I suppose, whether we’re friends or captives, we must give thanks for small mercies to these Golden Giants, as Midge calls ’em—and I hope the next meal those black cannibals eat chokes ’em!”
Overhead, enormous trees arched their branches across the river, softening the glare from the sky, so that the long, slender canoe glided onwards through pleasant green twilight. Through gaps in the foliage, tremendous mountain peaks were visible.
A score of brawny warriors plied their paddles in smooth, easy sweeps. And when O’Mally raised himself a little higher, he could just see the mighty chest and bandaged shoulder of the young Hercules whom he and Justice had rescued, wounded and sore beset, from the cannibal blacks on the first evening they had entered the mountains. Motionless as a figure of bronze, he sat with his strong right arm controlling the steering paddle, his handsome head tilted slightly backwards.
“And where are we now?” demanded O’Mally. But for some reason not even his comrades paid the least heed to his questions, or noticed that he was awake.
Close beside him, stretched out on a native mat, sprawled the lanky, dishevelled figure of Professor Flaznagel, the world-renowned scientist and inventor—now, alas, the weakest and most helpless of the castaway five. The old scientist lay perfectly still, with his mane of white, unkempt hair partially covering his cadaverous features. He looked completely worn out.
Captain Justice, alert and untiring as ever, sat rigidly upright, his lean, tanned face set in an impassive mask as he gazed steadily aft. Len Connor, chin in hand and heavy eyes half-closed, was also staring silently in the same direction. Farther up, O'Mally spotted the slim shoulders and fiery head of young Midge poking out over the gunwale. Levering himself up with a groan, the doctor yawned and gingerly massaged his aching limbs.
“Where are we?” he repeated, shooting an anxious glance at the professor, before turning to Justice and Len. “How much longer is this river trip going to last? Bedad, I was hoping to wake up and find me- self within reach of a bed and some grub by now! But what’s the matter wid ye all? Why are ye sitting there like a lot of stuffed dummies, ye spalpeens? Answer me!”
Still the giant paddlers swung to and fro like golden robots, and still Justice, Len, and Midge continued to stare downstream, entirely oblivious to the doctor’s presence. Filled with new alarm, O’Mally heaved himself up on to his knees— and a startled yell broke from him next instant as a long-drawn, vicious whistle shrilled in his ear and a sharp spurt of air fanned his cheek. There was a little plop! in the water behind him.
Justice's hand clawed at O’Mally’s shoulder, and the doctor ducked— hastily!
“That,” said Midge, to O’Mally’s increased alarm and fury, “was an arrow, old cock! And if you hadn’t been snoring like a water-buffalo for the last hour, you’d know where it came from! The blighted blacks are after you again, so keep your silly fat head down!”
DOWN-RIVER, speeding along in pursuit less than two hundred yards away, three more canoes were sliding across the glassy surface of the water, each with a lace of foam beneath its high, curved prow. And even in that dim light and at that distance, O’Mally could plainly discern the evil black faces of the paddlers.
The brute savages were straining every nerve—every shred of power in their powerful bodies—to come to grips with the fugitives.
O’Mally expelled his pent-up breath in a rattling sigh. More arrows, fired by black snipers kneeling in the bows of the canoes, came whistling through the air, followed by the vibrant twang of bowstrings. But the range was too great for accurate shooting, and the shafts skimmed harmlessly into the water.
“The beggars suddenly pounced on us about an hour back!” It was Captain Justice who answered the Irishman’s fierce look of inquiry. “Came sliding out of a creek and nearly had us. They must have heard how our friends here licked that cannibal crowd in that infernal gulch, so they had a shot at cutting us off. I don’t know what’s happened to the rest of the giants— either they’re still fighting in the gulch or making their way home across country. We’re still only about five miles away from the battlefield.”
Suddenly a fresh flight of arrows streaked from the cannibal canoes, and one of the giant paddlers uttered a hoarse grunt and slumped to the bottom of the canoe. He lay there writhing, striving to get at the shaft that had pierced him below the shoulder. For a second, the other paddlers lost their rhythmic swing, but picked it up again in response to the steersman’s short sharp command. The canoe skimmed on.
“Help this fellow, doc—bear a hand, you lads! Lively now!”
So saying, Captain Justice stepped over the wounded paddler, fearlessly exposing himself to the arrows that zipped and whined through the air in a steady stream. One skewered the rush-hat he wore, knocking it off, but he snatched it up again, waving it contemptuously. Then, as O’Mally and Len hauled the fallen warrior clear, Justice grabbed the man’s heavy paddle, driving it skilfully into the water.
For the first time the natives around him broke silence in a deep grunt of approval. Hard brown eyes were turned upon the captain, as if to size up his prowess as a paddler, and then, satisfied, the giants concentrated on their own task once more. No one could teach Captain Justice anything about watermanship. He filled the gap in the crew like the sailor and handyman he was.
Unable to watch the pursuing craft now, he strained his eyes forward, half expecting to see signs of a village or reinforcements. He saw none. Roughly half a mile ahead, the river forked into two channels, one, the wider, branching to the right, the other, much narrower, taking a sharp curve to the left. In the V of the fork squatted a low-lying island, crowned by rushes and rippling reeds. But no trace of decent cover or of human aid could he spy.
Yet the giants in the canoe remained unperturbed. Not by a fraction did they increase their speed, though by now the deadly barbs from the cannibal craft were singing past them, faster and closer. Once the tall steersman altered course, zigzagging towards the mouth of the narrower fork. But that was the only attempt he made to avoid the hail of shafts as the island came nearer and the blacks crept closer up.
Very soon the terrible hunters had crept up to within a hundred yards. They were gaining hand over hand! Their canoes seemed to shoot across the river at terrific speed, like black sea-hawks swooping on their prey. Justice set his teeth hard.
Thud! An arrow plunked quivering into the gunwale beside him, others shrilled alongside. Only the steersman’s skill saved the giants from being riddled, and then, as the fugitives swept past the island, the narrowness of the channel put an end to swerving and dodging.
Suddenly the pursuing fiends flung back their heads, opening their ugly mouths wide, and, high-pitched, shrill, and bloodcurdling, the triumphant war-cry rang out; and at that the giant fugitives spurted. But they had left it late! All around them the air became full of hissing sounds, of sharp, venomous whistles.
Len Connor stiffened, staring blankly at the arrow that had drilled the loose sleeve of his pyjama jacket. Dazedly he looked back and saw that the cannibal canoes had bunched together, converging into the mouth of the channel. The race for life was nearly over now—another point-blank volley must mean disaster. The giants spurted once more; their enemies held them.
Then, with all the ferocity of wild beasts, the blacks yelled again, and the veil was answered!
Into the Lair of the Giants !
JUSTICE & CO., already shaken by the merciless pursuit, reeled under the crowning shock of that answering yell. Simultaneously, the low, reedy, apparently deserted island seemed to erupt out of the water!
Reeds and rushes thrashed and crackled as brawny, golden-brown warriors sprang headlong from cover with shouts of savage glee. Not for nothing had the fugitive paddlers dawdled on their retreat—deliberately luring their pursuers on! It was an ambush—and the blacks were trapped!
Frantically the cannibal steersmen strove to turn their craft aside, while the desperate paddlers reached for their weapons, only to crumple in heaps under the storm of arrows from the island. From their superior vantage-ground, the giant bowmen, burning with tribal enmity and eagerness to pay off old scores, could shoot straight down into the hostile canoes.
Captain Justice stopped paddling. He could not have moved a finger just then to save his life, though his fellow paddlers, their cool, courageous work accomplished, plugged onwards, laughing and whooping. Professor Flaznagel, aroused by the fearful din, scrambled up, blinking. Midge, O’Mally, and Len sat tight, fascinated by the mad melee raging behind.
Goaded to frenzy, fighting with the courage of cornered wolves, the blacks were attempting to hit back now—to force their way out of the trap. But the snare had been too well laid. Hoarse cries, cheers and screeches, the thrumming twang of bowstrings mingled in pandemonium as the golden-brown giants shot and shot again. Their cannibal foes paid the penalty of rashness.
Jammed in the channel, they could neither fight nor flee. One of their canoes struck a mudbank, the second, out of control, rammed the third.
Both sank in a few seconds; and a party of giants, poising their heavy tridents, sprang into the shallows to grapple with swimming survivors. The finish was in sight, but Justice & Co. did not see it!
For suddenly, as if the paddlers had decided that they had wasted enough time on the journey home, round another curve in the river they swept at a speed that took the comrades’ breath away. Then, like a curtain, the dense foliage of trees dropped down, blotting out the wild scrimmage below the island.
“Phew-w! What a dust-up!” Wiping the sweat from his brow with a trembling hand, Len carefully drew out the short thick arrow that had so nearly pierced his arm. Midge, his eyes bulging, grinned feebly at the paddlers. To his surprise, some of them grinned back amiably.
"Weepin’ willow's, these fellows are smart! Number one fighting-men, and no blinkin’ error!” muttered Midge admiringly. “Talk about leading the blackies up the garden and then flattening them out under the roller! Not one of us guessed their game! But how did those other heavyweights come to be on that island? How was the blessed ambush arranged, anyway? That’s what licks me!”
“And me!” grunted O’Mally, mopping his glistening pate, and listening to the fast-dying sounds of battle beyond the screen of trees. “Maybe we’re on the fringe of the giants’ country now, and that crowd on the island are an outpost. Or perhaps they have sentries watching the river from up yonder,” he added, jerking a thumb towards the mountain-slopes that rose above the trees. “Still, no matter how ’twas done, they made a job of it; and faith, I’ll bet those cannibals don’t plague us any more!”
“How’s it going, captain?” asked Len, bestirring his weary self with an effort. “Can I take over for a spell?” Captain Justice smiled grimly, but shook his head. Strong as he was, he had his work cut out now to keep time with the native paddlers, who were sending the canoe sheering through the water in mighty drives. It was clear now that they considered themselves safe from danger of further attack, for they sang as they paddled.
Soon the trees on the banks began to thin out, and stretches of bare brown rock made their appearance as the canoe glided deeper into the lonely heart of the mountains. From afar the booming echoes of a waterfall quivered on the still air, and once the hoarse blare of a horn floated down from the heights. The castaways grew more and more silent, watchful. The element of doubt tormented them constantly. Where were they going, and what fate awaited them? Were these huge, golden-brown men friends or captors?
True, the steersman, the leader of the canoe party, owed them his life, and his manner so far had betrayed nothing but gratitude and kindness. But how would the rulers of his tribe receive five helpless strangers—white strangers at that?
"Old Gold Flake up behind looks a mighty big fellah to me, but he may be just a small potato at home,” murmured Midge. “He seems all right, but what about his bosses? Supposing they don’t like the look of us, or want to make us the star turn in some sacrifice stunt? Br-rr!”
Any hopes the castaways might have entertained of memorising their route were doomed almost from the start. Even Captain Justice, still gallantly plying his paddle, couldn’t do it. For the stream twisted, turned, and doubled back more erratically than ever, and the fading light dimmed what few landmarks there were.
On both banks the rocks rose steeper as every mile went by. Trees gave way entirely to stunted thorns, and the horns of unseen sentries blared more frequently. They came, eventually, after a spell of paddling that seemed endless, to a stretch of brawling rapids. Gingerly the giants skirted foam-lashed reefs and snags before shooting their canoe into a dark and narrow gorge.
Blackness descended instantly, and the roar of the waterfall filled the gloom with muffled thunder. As he peered upwards into inky nothingness, Midge’s heart sank. He shuddered; shrank closer to his comrades, so overcome by the forbidding aspect of the gorge, the darkness, and the deafening echoes, that for once he addressed Dr. O'Mally with respect.
“Gosh, I don’t like this, doc!” He had to shout to make himself heard. “Sufferin’ snakes, I wish I knew what was going to happen! What a country! Wish we could see. Wish I had some grub—Ouch!”
Out of the darkness O’Mally’s hand pounced, closing tightly over the boy’s mouth. "
“Och, cease your wishing! Look ahead!” bawled the Irishman; and as Midge twisted about the canoe sped from darkness into twilight once more.
It rounded a shadowy buttress, sailed on into a rock-bound pool, whose waves ran like molten fire in the last fleeting rays of the sun. The stunning crash of the falls burst upon the castaways in all its majestic fury. And then, with startling suddenness, the natives backed water and shipped their paddles.
Gracefully, noiselessly, the canoe swerved inshore. It floated to the edge of the pool, and there rocked gently against a half-submerged ledge. The river trip into the mountains was over!
Captain Justice let go his own paddle. He slumped forward, shoulders heaving painfully as he struggled for breath. Giddy with hunger, suffering from the aftereffects of the cannibals’ cruelty, the last few strenuous miles had tested his stamina severely. All he cared about at the moment was the blessed fact that he no longer had to swing a wooden blade.
The rest of the castaways sat spellbound, gazing in awed silence at the magnificent spectacle before them.
The pool, as near as they could tell in the tricky light, measured something like two hundred yards across, split by a snarling reef that jutted above the surface, acting as a breakwater against the boiling waves flung up by the falls. Flying spray drenched them, forming a shimmering rainbow mist, through which the solid cascade crashed in its sheer drop from the cliffs above.
Beyond the basin the river bubbled on into the neck of a shadowy valley, but that spouting cataract barred the way more effectually than a stone dam. No craft ever built could have entered the seething maelstrom and lived. Speech was impossible. The castaways could only stare and point. The incessant roar pounded their eardrums almost beyond endurance.
BUT their giant companions gave them little time for sightseeing.
Lithe as cats, half the men sprang overboard, splashing ankle-deep on the ledge. The canoe was drawn closer and made fast; then the wounded paddler stepped out unaided, stolidly indifferent to pain. Two of his comrades seized and hoisted him at once, however, and slowly the man began to climb.
Justice & Co. jerked up their heads in alarm. For the first time they spotted the ladder that dangled against the face of the cliff.
It was constructed simply of leather thongs, greased and tightly plaited— as frail and precarious a means of ascent as they had ever set eyes on. Yet, without a tremor, the native clambered up, and two more scrambled after him. Then suddenly the castaways became aware that the other giants were beckoning to them, motioning them to follow.
Professor Flaznagel blinked and swallowed hard.
“Preposterous!” he ejaculated stiffly. “My dear friends, I have no wish to delay you, but really I cannot possibly consent to trust myself to that—that—”
But his long-winded protests were lost, drowned by the waterfall. Nor did the giants waste precious seconds of daylight by arguing. Quick as thought two of them slung the old man ashore, where another caught him, and Professor Flaznagel went up that ladder slung like a sack of wheat across a pair of iron-hard shoulders.
And Midge followed. Then Len was tossed overboard, caught, and whirled aloft. Captain Justice, his pride aroused, brushed aside the hands extended towards him, and, groggy as he was, shinned up the ladder of his own accord. O’Mally, the last man, grinned mirthlessly.
“Nay, I’ll tackle it myself, too!” he grunted, heaving himself out on to the ledge. “Sure, ye’re bonny lads, but not even you could hoist my generous proportions up yon cliff ! Begorrah, since I’ve got to go, I’d rather break my own neck without your aid.”
The stout Irishman clutched at the slippery rungs, and began to climb laboriously, prodded upwards by impatient fists from below. Up and up into darkness the castaways went, while the spray from the falls lashed them like hail, and the ladder swayed and sagged till each thought that every second would prove his last.
Captain Justice’s sea-training, however, stood him in good stead, as did O’Mally's ponderous strength and bulldog courage. But Midge, clinging like a limpet to his bearer's shoulders, simply shut his eyes and hoped for the best.
Half-way up, Professor Flaznagel was seized by a fit of nerves that led him nearly to throttling the man who carried him. For long-drawn seconds the procession was held up—while two of its members, at least, trembled on the brink of eternity, until the native succeeded in wrenching the old scientist’s bony fingers from around his throat.
He shouted in the professor’s ear an angry warning that fortunately brought Flaznagel back to his senses once more. All safe, the soaked and breathless five reached the top at last —to find themselves confronted by another and still more dangerous climb!
One glance was enough for Midge, who groaned aloud. For the flattened crest of the enormous cliff above the pool was split in two by a thirty-foot ravine, through which the torrent rushed and foamed before hurtling out into space. And a natural bridge of rock, dim and rugged, curving high above the channel, formed the sole means of crossing to the farther bank.
“Moanin’ moggies, what do they take us for—acrobats or monkeys?" spluttered the exhausted youngster.
“We can’t tackle that—we—Ow, Jemima!”
Midge was given no option! Suddenly, flaring torches flamed through the darkness on the other side of the “bridge," and the wounded paddler and his escort skipped across lightly and fearlessly. The next, Midge found himself bobbing helplessly on his bearer’s back, staring down glassy-eyed at the roaring black water that sluiced between its banks at a speed that froze his blood.
Clouds of spume slashed across the slippery footway, which at its widest was scarcely three feet across. But the sinewy natives went over as confidently as though they walked on smooth, broad concrete.
Again willing hands were offered to Captain Justice, but again he shook his head and went forward unfalteringly. The steersman’s sombre face broke into a sudden smile of admiration. He reached out, laying a friendly arm across the indomitable adventurer’s shoulders.
Thus encouraged, Justice set foot on the bridge; then, sinking to his knees, he inched his way over doggedly, keeping his eyes glued to the torches ahead. O’Mally, puffing hard, resolutely copied his leader’s example; and Len, gritting his teeth, wriggled out of the great arms that held him, and went on alone.
But, alas!—though the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak. Len had suffered worse treatment than any at the hands of the cannibals, and that gruelling crossing proved the last straw.
Half-blinded by the spray, the battered youngster hesitated a moment out there on the very crown of the bridge. An involuntary glance downwards made his head spin. And suddenly, fingers, arms, and legs went slack. Too horrified even to cry out, he keeled over slowly, fighting in vain against the vertigo that gripped him.
In the nick of time, hands of steel darted down and caught him. And for Len Connor, the rest of that crossing became a nightmarish blur.
More dead than alive, he opened his eyes again when at last his rescuers dumped him on solid rock. Captain Justice and O’Mally came hobbling towards him, and behind them clustered a group of strapping warriors.
Their smooth, hard limbs shone in the glare of the torches that shed a ruby light over their aquiline features and the heads of the three-pronged spears they held. In silence these statuesque Goliaths stared down at the white strangers, until into the midst of the band strode the leader of the canoemen.
With his coming, Captain Justice breathed a sigh of relief. Certain dark misgivings that had been rankling within him fled at once. This friendly giant was no ordinary native. He was a personage in the tribe, as was made abundantly clear by the welcome he received.
To the sound of that stentorian hail, the warriors stiffened, tossing up their tridents. That done, they sprang into double column behind him, while someone helped Len to his feet. Once more Midge was swung up on to a broad shoulder. Flanked by marching men, Captain Justice & Co. were led down a short, steep track—into the lofty lair of the giants at last.
Bedlam Breaks Loose!
“GUMMY! Hail, hail, the gang’s all here! Welcome to our city!”
As the party emerged from the mouth of the track, Midge shot one quick glance around him, and his irrepressible nature overcame discretion. Exclamations of excitement burst from him before he could stifle them. And a murmur of deep voices, like the sound of a rising wind, rumbled through the gloom as the lad’s shrill voice rang out.
“Arrah, close your mouth, ye babblin’ baboon!” O’Mally hissed fiercely; and Midge, startled by the commotion he had caused, subsided. He kept a very firm check on his tongue after that.
Outside the radius of the torchlight, darkness covered the scene like a shroud of black velvet. The moon had not yet risen, the tropic stars hung cold and lustreless above the gaunt mountain-tops. Dimly Justice & Co. made out the long lines of tribesmen, who had gathered to stare at the white strangers: tall, rigid figures, standing motionless against the darker background of high-peaked huts. Massed shoulder to shoulder, they formed a wide lane, watching the castaways intently, but making no sound or stir.
At the end of the lane, a ring of glowing copper braziers warmly illuminated an expanse of bare, well-trodden earth; and within this enclosure a file of guards were drawn up in line. Men of tremendous girth and stature they were the biggest Justice & Co. had yet seen, and their height was increased by the chaplets of eagle feathers that crowned their heads.
Each man bore a six-foot trident, and short, broad-bladed swords gleamed at their hips. As the castaways and their escort entered the circle of light, the sentinels fell back with the same crashing salute for the handsome leader:
And a moment later, with a suddenness that made Justice & Co. recoil a step, the ear-splitting blare of horns bawled through the night.
Thrice the hoarse fanfare awoke the echoes; and a hush, all the deeper by contrast, followed. The giants—soldiers, paddlers, and villagers—stood mute with heads bowed, and for several minutes the solemn stillness reigned.
Then out of the great hut that loomed up blackly at the back of the lighted enclosure, emerged a bowed but impressive figure, superbly clad in a robe of leopard skins.
Slowly, but with all the dignity that seemed characteristic of these strange people, the newcomer advanced into the red glow; and Justice & Co., rightly guessing that they were in the presence of the giants' ruler, eyed him with interest—and anxiety.
He was an old man, his black hair, under its crown of feathers, was sprinkled with white, and the hand that grasped a tall staff trembled with age. His once-masterful face looked lined and haggard in the brazier-light, his lips sagged inwards over toothless gums.
But there was a glint of vigour in his sunken eyes, and the firmness of his chin and nostrils showed that here was a man accustomed to rule and to be obeyed.
To the castaways, at first, he paid no heed. His regard was all for the splendid warrior-steersman, Buktu, who had brought them there. He halted at length, with a little gesture of welcome, and as the young man strode forward and threw himself on his knees, the ancient chief raised him again, smiling faintly as he murmured something in a surprisingly strong voice.
"Told you old Buckie, or whatever they call him, is a heap big guy here!” whispered Midge. “Gosh, p'r’aps he’s the old 'un’s son or—”
"Quiet!” snapped Captain Justice, bracing his shoulders back. For now the old chief of the giants was coming straight towards him, peering steadily at the dishevelled five. There was scarcely a sound. The distant drumming of the waterfall seemed to intensify rather than disturb the hush.
At the chief’s shoulder stood Buktu, whispering eagerly in the veteran’s ear. From the way he touched his bandaged shoulder, then pointed to Justice and O’Mally, to whom he chiefly owed deliverance from the cannibal blacks, it was plain that he was recounting the whole grim story.
Several times the old man nodded, but not the least flicker of emotion showed on his pinched face as he studied the castaways closely.
The comrades’ nerves grew taut, but still the old man made no sign. Buktu’s whispers sounded more emphatic than ever, and twice he flung out his hands pleadingly—without result.
Justice & Co. knew for certain then that their fate depended solely on the whim of that leopard-robed ruler of savages!
“Snakes and ladders! What the blue Peter’s up now?” yelled Midge, as suddenly another riotous din burst forth, snapping the tension.
From somewhere in the darkness behind the chief’s hut the raucous horns blared out again.
Instantly the aged ruler raised his head and clasped his staff a little tighter, while the young warrior whirled, lips drawn back in a snarl. There sounded the scamper of bare feet, then a wild, caterwauling yowl.
Into the circle of braziers dashed a score of weirdly garbed scarecrows, led by as burly and ugly a native as Justice & Co. had seen since they escaped from the blacks.
The man was as tall as the bodyguards, but broader and thicker-set. Bars and whorls of red and yellow pigment, splashed across his sneering face and immense chest, added to his horrific appearance, and round his muscular waist swished a kilt of monkey-tails slung from a metal sword-belt.
Instead of the customary trident, he wielded a triple-thonged whip of rhinoceros hide, which he whirled above his head till it whistled. Necklaces of cowrie-shells and leopards’ teeth clicked and clashed about his bull neck. Broad bands and wristlets of polished copper adorned his tremendous arms.
"My hat!” gasped Len, as the hideous figure danced fantastically across the enclosure. With another roar, the newcomer brought his gibbering followers to a standstill, then, chest thrown out and whip swishing ominously, he strutted across to the chief. His feathered head bobbed forward in perfunctory salute, and, swinging away as the ancient waved his staff, he stared loweringly at the disdainful Buktu.
The latter, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword, returned the menacing glare with interest. Captain Justice flicked a swift, calculating glance round the circle—and whistled softly at what he saw.
Here was rivalry; enmity, raw and deadly!
The newcomer’s henchmen were crouching down, their hands spread across their knees, their painted eyes staring insolently at all and sundry. Facing them, Buktu’s paddlers and fellow-warriors had flexed their muscles, quivering like hounds on the leash. Only the old chief remained aloof, watching both parties from under down-drawn brows.
“Witch-doctor! Tribal sorcerer, or something!” whispered Justice, sliding the words from the corner of his mouth as the man with the whip glowered at him with cruel beady eyes. “On your toes, lads! This beggar’s out for trouble—and Buktu’s friends are itching to give him some! ”
Justice was right! Turning suddenly from his malevolent inspection of the castaways, the witch-doctor burst into a furious chatter, pointing to them constantly, then thumping his barrel-like chest. In reply, the old chief shrugged and motioned with his staff towards the rigid warriors, whereupon the witch-doctor and his satellites raved in a paroxysm of rage. Justice & Co. felt as though they were in a powder magazine, only waiting for a spark to cause an explosion. And, next instant, the roaring giant supplied that spark!
Haughtily thrusting his young rival aside, he stalked up to the castaways, his piercing eyes raking them from head to toe. Justice met the man’s stare coolly. O’Mally clenched his big fists, and Professor Flaznagel blinked up at him curiously. To none of them did he offer any violence, however, until he came to Midge. And then, after a grunt of astonishment at the boy’s small size, he gave a guffaw, twined his fingers in Midge’s red locks, and twisted the lad’s head back with a jerk.
The man was too vast, too heavily padded with muscle to be hurt by any punch Midge could deliver. But his shins offered a splendid target! Good and hard Midge hacked them, and pain gave him strength. With all his force, the plucky youngster let drive.
Crack! The witch-doctor howled under the agony that darted up his shinbone. He released Midge’s hair and staggered back, roaring like a wounded bull. And as he hopped around on one leg, the reckless and infuriated Midge lowered his fiery head, charged in, and rammed his aggressor solidly in the short ribs.
Then bedlam broke loose in the giants’ village.
Forty huge men had been waiting only for a bare chance to start a faction fight, and Midge’s action, the humiliation of the witch-doctor, detonated the charge. In the twinkling of an eye Justice & Co. were the storm-centre of a fierce melee as the rivals flung themselves at each other’s throats.
Plunging men knocked them aside, hurled them this way and that, while weapons clashed, shouts and thudding blows resounded, and dust arose in clouds. Yelling like maniacs, the sorcerer’s henchmen strove to capture the castaways, only to be rolled back by the rush of Buktu and his friends.
At the first sign of trouble the ranks of the guards had broken, and now they were behind Buktu, backing up the warriors and paddlers, their tridents flashing in the red light of the braziers as they drove into the fanatical followers of the witch-doctor.
Within a minute it was impossible to distinguish one side from the other. Only the huge form of the witch-doctor himself, holding his own against three of Buktu’s men, stood out from the melee.
“LOOK out—behind you, captain!” A sudden shout from O’Mally caused Justice to spin on his heel. Behind him, a savage grill on his painted face, towered one of the followers of the witch-doctor, who had slipped from the fight unnoticed and made a detour to come up behind the castaways.
With a shout the man leapt forward, reaching out to grasp Justice. But he never got there. Quick as thought, another figure leapt between Justice and his attacker. His raised trident crashed down, was raised and thrust again, and then he had hurled himself back into the battle, leaving his adversary to crawl painfully to safety.
And still the pack of hard-breathing men surged backwards and forwards before Justice & Co. as the tide of battle ebbed and flowed. So far, the fight had not actually involved the castaways, but now, suddenly, they found themselves in the middle of it, and in danger of being parted.
Justice drove a fist into one painted face, but in another moment vice-like hands collared and dragged him back. With his comrades he was hustled, shoved, and pulled through a seething mob of villagers, and all five were unceremoniously bundled into a dark hut, whilst the victorious paddlers and guards fought a savage rearguard action against the witchdoctor’s men.
Then suddenly the horns brayed forth again—and the riot ceased even quicker that it had broken out. Scarcely had the echoes died away when a tense stillness descended upon the strange and quarrelsome tribe.
Midge gulped, clawing the dust from his eyes, filling his lungs with warm, stale air.
“Sounds as though the old ’un’s called time!” he chuckled groggily, and promptly collapsed, face downwards, upon a soft pile of skins.
For what seemed an age, Justice & Co. sprawled in the hut, gasping for breath, wondering what was to happen next, and listening to the tramp of feet, the occasional clink of a spear, and wrathful growls as the rioters dispersed. The flashes of a torch shone through the rush curtain over the doorway at last, and Justice sat up alertly.
Warily he scrambled to his feet as the fighting leader of the paddlers and two of his stalwarts entered.
Their visit was obviously peaceful. To Justice’s amazement, broad smiles lighted up their clear-cut faces; they chuckled deeply, like men well pleased with themselves and the castaways. Moreover, their brawny captain petrified Midge by suddenly stepping across and patting the lad gently on the shoulder. And—they had brought food!
A large stew-pot that gave forth a fragrant aroma was planted on the floor beside earthenware bowls containing mealie-porridge, topped by the succulent shoots of bamboo. A bunch of bananas, horns of goat’s milk, some fruit that looked like large yellow plums, and a skin bag of water followed, and the giants invited their “guests" to fall to.
Buktu chuckled as the castaways eagerly obeyed; then, pausing only to lay a warning finger across their lips, the three vanished into the darkness without a sound.
“Grub!” sighed Midge. But Captain Justice, bidding hunger wait a while longer, rose and tiptoed to the door.
Outside, through chinks in the curtain, he saw a line of tall men leaning vigilantly on their spears. Sentries—guards! Yet somehow, the shrewd adventurer felt sure they had not been stationed there to prevent the white strangers from attempting to escape. Rather, their duty was to protect them from any further attack on the part of the dangerous witchdoctor and his fanatical crew.
Perplexed, his mind in a whirl, Justice turned and dropped down among his busy companions. He shook his head wearily as Len, pushing the stew-pot nearer, asked a question.
“What do I think of things, lad?” Justice repeated. “By James, I think we’re in a nasty fix! This tall fellow, Buktu, is on our side right enough—he’s as pleased as punch with you, Midge, for booting that painted swab and giving him the chance to start a rough house. But the witch-doctor —ugh!
“That brute wants to have his own way with us. And as far as I can see, the old chief hasn't made up his mind whether to let us live because we rescued Buktu, or hand us over to the witch-doctor for sacrifice! So, my lads, I’m afraid we’re between two fires—and the only thing to do is to watch your step! What do you say, Midge, you red-haired young hero?”
“More grub!” said Midge, and that closed the moody discussion. As soon as the meal was ended, full fed and whacked to the wide, Captain Justice & Co. sank one by one into oblivion. In the midst of the giants, with their fate still in the balance, they slept the sleep of utter exhaustion.
The old witch-doctor gives ’em another look-up when they awaken—and you're due for some more Startling THRILLS Next Week!
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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.