Monday, 10 November 2014
The Painted Ogre
Part 7 0f 12
Part 1 of The Castaways
From The Modern Boy magazine, 18 August 1934, No. 341, Vol. 14. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, November 2014.
In unexplored mountain-regions of
Africa, hemmed in between
cannibals, and tribesmen on the brink of civil war, CAPTAIN JUSTICE & CO.
face up to fiendish Black Magic—and produce some White Magic of their own!
The Sleepers Awake!
CAPTAIN JUSTICE stirred uneasily on his bed of animal skins.
Suddenly his lean figure grew taut, as strong brown fingers that were tugging impatiently at his shoulder succeeded at last in jerking him out of his abyss of slumber.
His own hand slid mechanically towards his belt—but the movement was as fruitless as it was instinctive. No weapon hung there; he had not even a belt. As the realisation of these facts burst upon his sleep-clouded wits, Justice sat up with a jerk.
A dull red flush of anger darkened his tanned cheeks. Sunlight was streaming in on him through the rush curtain that overhung the door of the mud-and-wattle hut in which he lay.
And beside him crouched a handsome young giant, whose firm hand still rested on the captain’s shoulder—a splendid specimen of manhood—a picture of strength and physical grace, for all that the young giant’s broad left shoulder was swathed in a coarse bandage of tapa cloth. From his right, secured by a copper clasp, a leopard skin flowed down across his tremendous chest, and the three tall eagle plumes thrust through his kinky black locks rustled as he nodded his head in greeting. The sharply defined lines of his face betrayed a fierce, proud, and warlike nature. But the smile that hovered about his chiselled lips was friendly.
“Buktu!” Captain Justice spoke softly. And at the sound of his name on the white man’s tongue the young warrior’s smile broadened into one of pleasure and surprise. Patting the captain’s shoulder, he nodded vigorously and rose to his full height—six feet six of brawn and rippling muscle! Then his sinewy hands moved in a few brief gestures that easily overcame the barriers of speech.
“Want us to get up, eh?” Justice said. “Well, we seem to have slept long enough—though, by James, we needed it, after all we went through yesterday! All right Buktu, old son, I'll rouse the others!”
The tall warrior strode to the door, holding the curtain aside long enough to give Justice a glimpse of other golden-brown stalwarts leaning on their peculiar three-pronged spears outside. Then he vanished, and Captain Justice turned his head to gaze down at his sleeping comrades.
All four sprawled on soft beds of skins, breathing peacefully. Not one had stirred a finger since falling to sleep after a much-needed meal the previous evening.
With his long white beard straggling down on to his narrow chest, his large horn-rimmed spectacles perched askew on his prominent nose, Professor Flaznagel, the wor1d-famous scientist and inventor, lay flat on his back.
Beside him, Len Connor slumbered soundly with face pillowed on his arms. Next to him huddled the red-haired, freckled, and diminutive Midge. Dr. O’Mally, the corpulent Irishman, lay with his bald head lolling over the edge of his bed, and weird rumbling sounds issued from his wide-open mouth at every deep breath he drew.
A motley crew of scarecrows Justice and his companions looked, in their tattered remnants of pyjama suits! Flaznagel's home-made sandals had been frayed to pieces, and the shooting-boots which the others wore were in scarcely better plight. Their cheeks looked pinched and sunken; O’Mally’s heavy jowl was covered with a stubbly beard, four days old; and the innumerable weals and scratches on their bodies showed through the holes in their garments. And yet they were lucky to be alive!
Justice glanced distastefully down at his own torn and muddy self.
“By James, I’d give all I possess just now for a bath, a razor, and a clean white suit! And after that.” he added, “I’d borrow all I could just to pay for the privilege of five minutes alone with Xavier Kuponos, the hound who worked this stunt on us! By thunder, I’d teach him to dump five white men into the worst spot in unknown
Africa, in their pyjamas, without food, gear,
or a single weapon between ’em! I’d make that Greek renegade wish he'd never been
born. And I’ll do it yet!”
Then Justice picked up a large skin bag containing water, swished it round once or twice, and began the task of waking his friends. Swoosh!
The stream of tepid liquid soused down on Midge’s face and neck, rousing him violently from the land o’ dreams. Len gasped and started up under the same treatment, while O’Mally let out a spluttering roar, whirled his massive fists in all directions, and sat up snorting like an enraged bull.
FLAZNAGEL was the only one whom Justice awakened with some care. The old scientist’s health was not good enough to warrant such drastic methods.
“Come on—show a leg, you lubbers! Daylight’s burning!” chuckled Justice. And with many a groan, growl, and glare, his followers struggled up into wakefulness.
“Sufferin’ cats, have a heart, skipper!” Midge reproved him, yawning, shaking water from his fiery locks and gazing owlishly round the hut. “Still among the giddy giants, are we? Dash it! I was just having a wonderful dream of grub and—”
“Och, stow it, ye insect!” O’Mally snorted. He licked his lips, grimaced, and darted an injured look at his leader. “Faith, Justice, ’tis a rotten knocker-up ye are, an' that water tastes pretty rotten, too! Phaugh! What’s the matter with the Stuff? It tasted all right last night—though sure I’d have lapped up ditch-water then and enjoyed it! But now—oof!”
Justice laughed, for now that he glanced at it, the stale water from the skin bag did look somewhat brown and off colour.
“Sorry to rouse you all so suddenly!” he retorted. “Friend Buktu has just been in, and he wants us all on parade for something. Furthermore, it’s afternoon now, judging by the sun, so we’ve slept something like eighteen hours—not bad!”
“Not enough, you mean!” grunted Midge, though he rose promptly enough. Having cast a sorrowful eye at the uneatable remains of last night’s meal, he made a move towards the door.
Captain Justice, however, checked him.
“Just a second, lad! I’ve something to say to you all before we go out,” began the castaways’ leader in a voice that, quiet and controlled though it was, made the rest look at him sharply. “I suppose that you all remember exactly what happened last night when we were brought into this village? If you don’t, or if you’re still hazy on some of the details, I’ll just make our position perfectly clear before we go outside.
“My lads, we’re in a thoroughly awkward fix. Caught between two fires describes it mildly. It’s pretty clear that these big fellows have never hit across white men before, and I'm still not sure whether we’re captives, guests, or candidates for sacrifice.” Justice drew a deep breath. “But what I do know is this: There are two rival factions among the giants, and they like each other about as much as we like Xavier Kuponos. And we’re the latest bone of contention between them.
“On one hand, there are Buktu and his fellow-warriors. On the other, that ghastly painted witch-doctor and his fanatics. Buktu, we know, is our friend. The witch-doctor isn’t—and that’s why Buktu’s friends have been guarding this hut ever since! As for the old chief of the tribe, it seems to me a toss-up whether he spares us or hands us over to the witch-doctor. Buktu is either the old man’s son or a great favourite, but the witchdoctor’s a big man in the tribe, too.
“That witch-doctor wants us for sacrifice—and the brute won’t be happy till he gets us. Against that, we want to get back to some outpost of civilisation, where we can get in touch with our friends, and, later on, set about wringing Xavier Kuponos’ neck! So, until we’ve sized up the lie of the land, my sons—watch your step! Understand?”
“We understand, captain!” replied four voices as one, and Justice cocked his bearded chin at its customary aggressive angle.
“Right! Then come on out, and let’s have our first look at the giants' headquarters by daylight.”
Captain Justice swept the rush-curtain aside, and stepped warily out into the open, his comrades close on his heels.
The hour was even later than the captain had thought, for already the sun hung low in the skies. Yet its rays still had power to dazzle their eyes, so that for the first minute or two men and objects around them were shrouded in a green-blue haze. Presently, as they grew accustomed to the light, the castaways edged back into the shadow of the hut and gazed about them with eager interest.
Grouped before them in a motionless half-circle stood Buktu and his guards, all wearing leopard-skins and headdresses of eagle plumes. The giants uttered no sound. Their faces remained impassive.
Above and behind the ring of warriors bulked the huge thatched hut which Justice & Co. now knew to be the palace of the old chief. Farther on, drawn up in two irregular lines that flanked the broad village “street,” straggled the smaller huts of the tribesmen, who packed the doorways, their faces all turned towards the five strangers.
Flaznagel Strikes Oil!
THE village itself was built down in the shelter of a shelving hollow, shaped rather like an enormous horseshoe that had been flung down among the feet of the mountains.
To the east and north it was walled in by rugged cliffs. But the western boundary was protected only by a long low rampart of stone, overlooking a gently-sloping hillside that ran down to the bank of the foaming river.
Heavily-armed sentries patrolled this parapet, their eyes rarely shifting from the miles of broken country beyond the river; while the guardsmen’s huts, of which the castaways’ was one, had been built in clusters of three along its whole length. It was from this quarter, obviously, that the giants had most reason to fear attack from their terrible tribal foes, the black cannibals.
But to Justice & Co. the strangest features of the landscape lay at the southern end of the village. There, some two hundred rough, boulder-strewn yards from where the castaways stood, the hollow was blocked in by a massive hill of dull, porous-looking rock. And its gnarled face was pitted by the black mouths of caves and scores of ragged blowholes through which poured thin streamers of pale yellow fumes.
Curling and writhing upwards, some in sluggish swirls, others in short, sharp puffs, these jets united in a shimmering cloud above the crest of the hill. The breeze, blowing softly from that direction, brought with it such a peculiar acrid and disagreeable tang that Professor Flaznagel arched his eyebrows in quick surprise.
His scientific instincts, never dormant for long, were aroused in a flash.
Sulphur!” he exclaimed,
sniffing gingerly and peering with shortsighted eyes at the queer “burning”
hill. “Sulphur-fumes escaping through vents. Good gracious, Justice, the
interior of that hill must be one great sulphur-deposit! The wind must have
shifted, for I certainly did not smell that odour last night! Really, my
friends, this is a most interesting and valuable discovery!”
“Says thou!” interrupted Midge, grinning suddenly and jerking a thumb sideways. “You can keep the sulphur, Whiskers—it niffs too much. Here’s the most interesting and valuable discovery so far—this blinkin’ stream!”
Less than a score of paces to their left were the greasy waters of a rivulet that twined its length round the village like some torpid snake. Only a few feet wide, it ran out from beneath a natural culvert at the base of the eastern cliffs, and after twisting itself in serpentine coils behind the villagers’ huts it went on between huge boulders and finally disappeared—straight into the black maw of a colossal cave that yawned at the foot of the sulphur hill. Large patches of oily scum floating on its surface gave it the unwholesome appearance of a sewage-ditch. Nevertheless, the dirt-grimed castaways regarded the flowing water hopefully.
“Ah!” exclaimed Midge suddenly, “I haven’t had a decent bath or a swim for days, so here goes for a plunge. Excuse me, Buck! Back in half an hour!” the chirpy youth added, and was away before anyone could stop him.
Captain Justice and the others came after him, hot-foot. Instantly there was a startled shout from the onlookers in the village. With dark frowns on their faces, Buktu and his guards dashed forward as the castaways nipped round behind their hut.
By that time, however, Justice & Co. had taken advantage of cover to kick off their boots and doff their pyjama jackets, and, as the alarmed warriors suddenly tumbled to the strangers’ intentions, they halted in their rush to round them up. Clean-living men themselves, they clearly approved of the castaways’ desire for a bathe. Next moment, deep chuckles broke from them all as Justice, Midge, O’Mally, and Len took the water in a flying leap.
Only Professor Flaznagel held back. With him, curiosity always came before bodily comfort. The professor was far more interested in the greasy puddles that mottled the surface of the brook than in the enjoyment of a bathe. Thus, slowly and carefully, he lowered his lank, pyjama-clad form into the water and began wading upstream.
Then, with great care, he skimmed a hand across the top of a large shiny patch, peered closely at his dripping fingers, and finally touched one with the tip of his tongue. A moment later, with a vigour that sent the water swirling around him, he swung on Captain Justice.
“Oil! I knew it—I knew it! Gracious, Justice, look at this!”
Brandishing his hand excitedly, Flaznagel plunged forward and thrust it under the captain's nose, his every movement watched by keen eyes on the bank.
“Oil! Crude petroleum!” he cried shrilly. “I suspected its presence after tasting the stale water in that skin-bag—though, of course, the people here cannot possibly use this stream for drinking purposes. They must draw their water from a well or some other source that is not so heavily permeated with oil as this, otherwise their health would pay the penalty. Look, Justice!”
Smiling at his old friend’s enthusiasm, Justice raised a wet hand. The water drained from it at once, leaving tiny globules of some glistening brown liquid on the skin. He applied his tongue to one—and pulled a wry face.
“Oil it is!” he declared, staring curiously at the eastern cliffs whence the stream issued forth. “H’m, must be some rich beds of oil-sand or shale somewhere deeper in these mountains, and the stream taps them. Reminds me of the creeks in the
Texas oil country. Quite
a discovery, professor—that and the sulphur! I wonder if the giants know how to
make use of either?” .
“Certainly not of the oil!” Flaznagel stated positively. “I observed last night that they used torches for illumination, and charcoal for heat.” He rubbed his bony hands together delightedly.
“Justice, I trust you appreciate the full value of these discoveries?” he cried. “We have undoubtedly stumbled into a region whose hidden mineral wealth is colossal—amazing! I am almost grateful to that miscreant, Kuponos, for this! And the moment I feel strong enough I shall certainly carry out a thorough exploration of these mountains—particularly those cliffs yonder and this sulphur-bedded hill!” he added, with a complete and characteristic disregard of the fact that at least two hundred brawny natives could put an immediate stop to any such prospecting trips if they felt like it!
Little obstacles like that never entered Professor Flaznagel’s head. But Justice smiled dryly.
“I’d wait and get permission first,” was the advice he gave. “Come, professor, just enjoy your bathe! Our friends on the bank are looking at you pretty hard.”
“And so I should think!” said Midge severely, ever ready to have a dig at Flaznagel. “Fancy going scats over some floating oil! They’ll think you’re trying to put some trick across them—and only the blighted witchdoctor’s allowed to do that, I guess! Wonder if the big stiff is watching us just now, by the way? I’ll bet he is, blow him!”
Thoroughly refreshed by their long-overdue bath, the castaways scrambled out on to the bank at last, and began hastily pulling their clothes over wet limbs and bodies. Professor Flaznagel, striding straight back into the hut, reappeared immediately with one of the earthenware pots that had contained mealie-porridge the night before, and carefully filled it with crude oil skimmed from the brook.
Never once did he glance at the curious guards—indeed, it is doubtful if the absent-minded old scientist was aware of their presence now. For their part, Buktu and his friends allowed him to come and go in good-humoured silence, while they watched the actions of Justice & Co. with amusement and interest.
Dressed and feeling like a new man, Dr. O’Mally stretched himself luxuriously, then stroked his unshaven chin.
“Bedad, if that wasn't the best bath I've ever had!” he chuckled, seating himself on a sunlit rock. “All I could wish for now, Justice, is my shaving tackle and—Begorrah! Och, now, will ye look at this?”
Uttering an exclamation of amazement, the doctor broke off, and stared, wide-eyed, as one of the young warriors stalked forward bearing a squat bowl of greasy paste. Gravely he pointed to the contents, then to O’Mally’s chin. Next moment, after a hesitating glance at Buktu, he also handed over a small two-edged blade.
“Sure, 'tis mind-readers ye are!” the doctor chuckled to Buktu and company. “An’ faith, I can see now that ye’re gentlemen who like to shave now an’ then—not go about with whiskers down to your knees like some I could mention!” he added, with a wink at the absorbed professor. “Look, Flaznagel! Another grand discovery, though it may not interest you! And I must say, Justice, ’tis fearsome-looking shaving-soap, is it not?”
It was—for the paste was not only oily and sticky, but rancid. Justice and O’Mally, however, smeared it on thickly, while Professor Flaznagel ambled over to investigate the stuff.
“H’m, yes, animal lard, mixed with some vegetable dye,” he announced. “It will probably irritate your skin considerably, Justice, so pray be careful. My dear friends,”—he blinked benevolently at the sombrely-smiling guards—“I could quite easily show you a method of improving this compound, and— er—h’mmm! Yes, quite so!”
Suddenly realising, both from the blank expressions of the warriors and the stifled mirth of his comrades, that the little lecture on soap making was as Greek to Buktu and his men, the professor tugged nervously at his beard and returned to his task of analysing the crude oil he had obtained from the brook.
Midge, full of beans now that he felt clean once more, rose from the bank to cast a wistful eye upon the village.
“Gummy!” he exclaimed. “Do I see cooking-pots yonder? Wonder when we eat? I suppose, being natives, our pals don’t feed till nearly sundown. I wish——”
But what Midge was about to wish just then, no one ever knew.
For suddenly something shrilled past his ear with a sharp, vicious whistle. And a split-second later, shooting forward like a striking snake, Buktu sprang at the boy and shoved him head-first into the oily water.
Splash! With such dynamic speed and energy did Buktu move that the alarming assault, swift as it was unexpected, was all over before anyone else could stir a muscle. One instant Midge was on the bank, the next he was floundering and gasping in the brook. Justice, his face flushed with wrath, made as if to hurl himself at the young giant. In the nick of time, however, Buktu’s imperious gesture checked him.
Snarling fiercely, the warrior pointed past Justice's shoulder, and the captain, spinning on his heel, stiffened at what he saw. In the side of the nearest hut quivered a long, slender arrow. And that arrow, as Justice saw the moment he turned again, had been fired from somewhere on the “burning hill.”
“Those infernal caves are inhabited!” he gasped, flinging himself flat. “Keep down, Midge! Stay where you are! By James, some beggar’s sniped you—and there he is!"
Fire and Smoke!
THE captain’s voice rose to a shout as suddenly he glimpsed a hideously-painted face peering out from the great cave into which the stream vanished. Other faces, just as ghoulish, thrust out from several smaller caves higher up.
The treacherous attack on Midge had failed by a hairsbreadth, and the baffled attackers took no pains to hide their mortification. Their evil mutterings swelled out, rising to a shriek of fear and rage as Buktu and his men launched their vengeful counterattack with a roar.
Maddened by the attempted assassination of young Midge, the stalwart fighting-men, sworn foes of the painted witch-doctor and all his satellites, vaulted the stream in a body. Tridents clinked and grated, upraised arms gleamed in the light of the sinking sun. Justice & Co. held their breath, watching tensely while the infuriated band dodged and swerved round the boulders, drawing ever nearer to their enemies. And then, again with a suddenness that staggered the castaways, the wily witch-doctor hit back!
In the twinkling of an eye, the darkness under the cave-mouth was shattered, rent asunder by blinding flashes of fire. Blue-green flames darted from the cavern, then everything was blotted out by dense smoke that belched forth into the open, rolling ominously upon the petrified warriors. The stifling, throat-gripping stench of sulphur filled the air. Buktu and his fellow-braves fled!
Gasping, coughing, shielding their eyes, the entire band came pelting back, scrambling blindly over the rocks, splashing through the river. It was a complete rout; cunning allied to superstition, had triumphed over sinew and brawn. Pell-mell the warriors retreated before the suffocating cloud, and Buktu paused only to hoist Midge from the water. Then he and his friends ran on—and Justice & Co. ran with them.
The warriors themselves saw to that! Even in their panic they refused to abandon Buktu’s white rescuers to the tender mercies of the witch-doctor’s crew. Professor Flaznagel, hugging his precious pot of crude petroleum, was swept along by the rush, together with O’Mally, who still clutched the native razor in one hand and the bowl of soap in the other. Justice and Len stumbled on behind them, pushed and prodded by impatient hands. And uproar raged ahead.
There was no time to argue, to protest, to make any effort to rally the terrified men. The swiftness with which the sorcerer had turned the tables took even Justice’s breath away. In one masterly stroke, launched at the psychological moment, the witch-doctor had changed brave men into shouting cravens—had turned what had been a resolute charge into frenzied retreat.
Buktu and his warriors might be first-class fighting-men against foes they could see or feel. But at heart they were savages, easy meat for any clever exponent of mumbo-jumbo who came along!
Down the village street poured the fugitives, nor did they pause until they reached the last group of guard-huts under the rampart. Then, with the desperate air of men whose backs are hopelessly to the wall, they checked their headlong flight. Without ceremony, Justice &
hustled down behind a small cooking fire. Breathless, flustered, and more than
a little scornful of their hefty but shivering escorts, the castaways crouched
down in the midst of badly scared men.
“By the black banshees of Bally-moyle! What the purple pig does all this mean?”
Dr. O’Mally was the first to give tongue as he struggled to his knees, glowering back at the sulphur hill.
By this time the evil-smelling cloud had thinned out and the breeze was wafting the fumes across the village. All the hut doors were closed and the street deserted, while the wailing of women and children showed that Buktu’s guards were not the only ones to be smitten by fear of the witch-doctor.
Yet, although Justice & Co. strained their eyes, they could see no signs of that malignant spell-binder or his followers. The distant cave-mouths were empty again. The hill seemed completely deserted.
“My hat!” Justice panted. “Fancy that confounded ash dump being inhabited! I never even suspected it until that swab let drive at young Midge! I thought—”
“But what’s it all mean?” O’Mally repeated plaintively. “What the plague caused all that fire and smoke?”
Professor Flaznagel frowned.
“Trickery!” he exclaimed. “Mere trickery on the part of a charlatan to instil fear into ignorant and superstitious minds! O’Mally, surely you must know that that outbreak was caused simply by a large quantity of burning sulphur, nothing more! Ridiculous! There was little enough to be afraid of—certainly no reason why I should have been so violently disturbed in my examination of the contents of this jar.”
“Wasn’t there?” Midge grinned shakily, and glanced at the tense ring of warriors who were gripping their tridents so tightly that their knuckles gleamed under the skin. “Well, just have a dekko at Buck & Co. Sufferin’ snakes, they’re scared blue! Hi, Buck, pull yourself to pieces, old boss! I’m ashamed of you, bolting like—”
“Stow it, my lad!” Justice snapped suddenly. “These men aren’t cowards, as we should know! By James, there’s something more in this than meets the eye!”
As if he understood the words, Buktu turned at the sound of the captain’s voice, and looked at him squarely. The great warrior’s expression was one of mingled shame and defiance. But his eyes said plainly:
“It is true we are afraid. But we have more to be afraid of than strangers can know!”
And Justice, for all his nerve, felt a little chill trickle down his spine.
“This business isn’t over yet,” he whispered. “It looks to me as though Buktu’s men have bitten off a lot more than they can chew this trip. That artful scoundrel of a witch-doctor has sprung a new trick on ’em, or something—one that’s shocked the daylight clean out of them. Jingo, I’ve never seen a bunch of fine men collapse so quickly. And now they’re squirming on tenterhooks, wondering what his next move will be.
“I’ve an idea, too, that the next move will come when darkness falls,” he went on quietly. “Anyway, these fellows are keeping a pretty anxious watch on the sun for some reason, so look out!”
It was a shrewd remark on Justice’s part—for ever and anon, the warriors dragged their eyes from the enemy hill and squinted uneasily at the sun, now touching the crests of the western hills. All sounds had died away; a stillness, like the heart-throbbing silence that ushers in a storm, lay heavily over the village. Shadows deepened. The crouching men stirred restlessly. But still nothing happened.
With an abruptness that caused jangled nerves to jump and quiver, Professor Flaznagel came out of a deep reverie and spoke. His eyes, under white bushy brows, held a peculiar gleam in their depths, and Justice started again as a sharp chuckle broke from the old scientist’s lips.
“What’s biting you, Whiskers?” Midge asked, but the professor disdained to explain. Instead, he increased his comrades’ mystification by quietly taking the bowl of grease from O’Mally’s side and placing it between his knees.
“Darkness!” he repeated, but would say no more. The nerve-racking wait continued until darkness concealed the mountains.
And still silence muffled the village of the giants—until with appalling suddenness came the wild blare of horns swelling out stridently from the burning hill!
The witch-doctor and his retinue were coming!
To the sound of a second fanfare, scores of torches flared redly against the blackness of the hill, rising and falling as the bearers pressed forward. Captain Justice rose, with chin outthrust and lips compressed to a bitter line, and Professor Flaznagel hunched his skinny shoulders closer. As for Buktu and his guards, they, too, rose to their feet. But they rose slowly, silently, like men prepared to fight to the last gasp, knowing that the odds were heavily against them.
Across the boulder-strewn space, over the brook and through the village street, the eerie procession wended its way, its progress plainly visible in the ruddy glare of the torches. No harm was done to the villagers cowering behind barred doors. Buktu’s men alone were the quarry.
Neither did Justice & Co. witness any attempt at interference on the part of the old chief, whose great hut lay in darkness. That ancient ruler, it seemed, was allowing matters to take their course—caring little, apparently, that civil war was about to rip the tribe asunder.
“Stand by!” Captain Justice jerked out the order as the witchdoctor’s troupe emerged from between the lines of dwellings, coming to a halt thirty paces from the squad of hard-breathing guards. There were, the captain saw, far more of the grotesquely garbed and painted fiends now than he had counted last night. And though physically these human tigers were of the same mighty breed as Buktu’s henchmen, there the resemblance between the rival factions ended.
The faces of the witch-doctor’s crew were of a baser type—lacking the handsomeness, the manly simplicity, and grave good-humour of the fighting-men. Their eyes glittered wolfishly, there was something brutish about their movements, their loose-lipped mouths, and the way they gibbered and growled one to the other. Clearly the witch-doctor ruled over his own distinct clan. A tribe within a tribe—savage fanatics who lived their own lives in the sulphur-ridden depths of their own sinister hill!
“Watch ’em!” Captain Justice spoke again, edging forward a little to cover Midge as the witch-doctor himself suddenly strode from the swaying ranks. Once more the castaways found themselves repelled by the very sight of that ponderous bull of a man—the painted ogre who had twice come within an ace of killing Midge!
The Human Torch!
WITH head arrogantly flung back, the sorcerer swaggered on, his kilt of monkeys’ tails swishing about his muscular loins, the necklaces of cowrie-shells and leopards’ teeth jingling and glimmering on his breast. But now, in place of the whip he had wielded the previous night, he gripped something that looked like a long stout tube of horn.
In husky sentences the barbarian shouted a demand, pointing contemptuously to Justice & Co. And although Buktu spat back a dogged refusal, he and his companions flinched badly next moment, as flame and smoke spurted magically from the black object in their enemy’s hand.
“More bunkum!” yelled Midge, thrusting forward to thumb his nose derisively at the magician. “Bats! That’s only a horn full of burning sulphur, with a hinged flap over the top. Look, skipper, watch the big baboon’s right thumb! Come on. Buck! He’s nothing but a tingle-tangle conjurer!”
Of little avail, however, were the plucky lad’s words and actions.
Again Buktu’s men grunted and recoiled as another jet of flame and smoke spurted from the witchdoctor's hand, and his satellites screamed with evil mirth. Justice’s heart, sank. The men around him were half-beaten already, bravely though they strove to conceal it. Out of the corner of his eye, the captain saw Flaznagel suddenly snatch a burning stick from the dying fire, but he had no time to wonder what the professor was up to. For now the painted fiends were on the move again.
Flourishing their blazing torches, the dreadful band advanced, slowly at first, spreading out to surround Justice & Co. and their quaking defenders. Justice gritted his teeth, snatching fiercely at a weakly held trident. Buktu suddenly roared out his war-cry.
At the last moment the young warrior strove to stiffen his men. But his shouts were drowned by the triumphant screeches of the enemy. Hooting and yelling, the witchdoctor’s fanatics bunched together, flung up their spears, and came storming tempestuously to the attack.
At that nightmare moment, Professor Flaznagel plunged into the fight with both hands!
Exactly what the old scientist did, not one of his comrades saw.
But suddenly flashes of pale fire sprang up in their midst—and, as they recoiled with gasps of alarm, Professor Flaznagel stumbled hastily, awkwardly, through the gap. Out into the open he ran, squarely in the path of the charging demons.
Then, without word or cry, the old hero made a bee-line for the gigantic sorcerer—with flames writhing and sputtering from his bare hands.
“Professor! Come back! Oh, great Scott!”
Justice, livid to the lips, plunged after him, but was too late. The professor had the bit between his teeth. From wrists to finger-tips his hands were alight, the blazing streamers darting and fluttering as he waved his arms on high. It was stupendous—magnificent! And it worked.
Themselves ridden by superstition, the witch-doctor’s satellites lost their nerve as completely as Buktu and his men had done earlier on.
One glance was enough—one shocked, terrified glance at that tall spectral figure bearing down on them, with long white hair flapping wildly—with beard bristling and flame-wrapped fingers sweeping through the air in fiery arcs! The yelling ceased, and in its stead rose a shuddering moan of awful fear. Then weapons crashed to the ground, torches were snuffed out or flung away, and the crazy retreat began.
All on his own, Professor Flaznagel panicked the maddened crew. All on his own he made a clumsy spring at the witch-doctor, and only missed by a fraction.
The sorcerer reeled back under the onslaught, with horror glazing his goggling eyes. Then he turned to flee, whimpering like a beaten cur. As he did so, the flames that licked at Flaznagel’s fingers died out as swiftly as they had been born. With a shout of pain, the old scientist clapped his hands under his armpits and broke into a weird dance by the light of the fallen torches.
Simultaneously—before the paint-daubed fugitives could recover from the shock—Captain Justice rammed the advantage home.
It was one of those stormy moments when a born leader comes into his own—be his skin white, brown, or yellow. The crisis produced the man, and that man was Captain Justice! He let out a shout that rang high above the din, and raced forward, waving the warriors on to pursuit. And Buktu and his men followed him like roaring lions.
Released from the bonds of fear, savagely eager to wipe out the disgrace they had suffered, the stalwart squad sprang to life again, thundering out their war-cry as they swarmed after their new leader. Justice had barely time to shout: “Look after Flaznagel, boys!” and then he had to spurt to avoid being bowled over. Shoulder to shoulder, Buktu’s spearmen swept down the village street—and no one said them nay.
There was no opposition. The witch-doctors were on the run—beaten by Professor Flaznagel! Out of the village, back across the brook and to the foot of the burning hill, their rivals hunted them, without pause or mercy. Only Captain Justice’s vehement gestures at last prevented the vengeful warriors from flinging themselves recklessly up into the black caves.
Meanwhile Midge, O’Mally, and Len were attending joyously to Professor Flaznagel.
Raw burns disfigured the old man’s wrists, but, to the amazement of his comrades, neither his hands nor fingers had suffered harm. When pressed for explanations, he merely shrugged.
“It was nothing—perfectly simple!” he announced snappishly. “But since trickery seemed to be the order of the day here, I thought it high time to indulge in a trick of my own. I would, however, advise you not to attempt it yourselves. It could be a highly dangerous trick when practised by one less skilful than myself!”
Midge glared at him speechlessly.
“You—you stuck-up, frabjous, gorgeous old hero!” the youngster exploded at last. "Moanin’ moggies, you barge straight into that mob of man-eaters, you give them the jumping jitters, and then you say it was nothing! What did you do, dash it? That’s what we want to know!”
Professor Flaznagel shrugged again impatiently. But a sly twinkle lurked in his eyes. “Why, I merely smeared my hands with a thick protective layer of grease,” he explained. “Then I ran the crude oil over them and applied a burning stick. In short, I introduced our fire-eating friends to another experiment in combustion. The resultant flames, of course, did not live long. But they lived long enough, don't you think?”
Dr. O’Mally appeared to be trembling on the verge of apoplexy.
“They—they—by the Harp of Erin, they did that!” he spluttered delightedly, and caught the professor in a bear-like hug. “Flaznagel, ’tis a broth of a boy and a cunning old serpent ye are, entirely!”
“Cunning isn’t the word for it!” exclaimed Midge admiringly. “You’re a giddy marvel, professor! You’re an absolutely first-class magician—at least, you would be,” he hastily amended, “if you could do one thing.”
“I do not claim to be a magician, boy,” retorted Professor Flaznagel loftily. “I am a scientist. Do not class me with those ignorant witchdoctors merely because I have made use of the natural resources to hand to teach those fools that they are not the only ones who can produce fiery phenomena.
“ What I did was merely child’s play—the sort of thing any small boy should be able to do.”
"All right—all right!” said Midge. “Don’t get ratty about it. Anybody would think I’d been sneering about what you did, instead of praising it. Never knew such a chap as you, professor, for going off the deep end at the wrong moment.”
“Say no more, my boy,” said Professor Flaznagel, laying a kindly hand on Midge’s shoulder. “It was just a moment’s irritation on my part at the thought that in your eyes my claim to greatness lay in being able to perform a simple trick and scare a few ignorant savages.
“Come,” he added, “tell me what it was you had in mind when you spoke of my doing something to establish myself as a first-class magician in your eyes.”
“For two pins I wouldn’t tell you,” grinned Midge. “But there, none of us have got two pins, so here goes. If you can produce a meal as easily as you produced that fire and scared those blinkin’ witch-doctors stiff, you’ll have Maskelyne and Devant and all those other mystery johnnies licked into a cocked hat! What about it? Can you produce a slap-up feed from your old grass hat?”
For a moment the professor gazed at Midge in dumbfounded astonishment; then his cheeks flushed, and it seemed as if he was about to give the hungry youngster a lashing with his tongue. But before the old scientist could speak, Dr. O’Mally broke in.
“Bcgorrah!” he exclaimed. “Will nothing ever keep your thoughts off your stomach, ye greedy spalpeen? Never did I know such a boy. Instead of being thankful that others have thoughts above food and save ye from unknown dangers, all ye can think about is eating, bad cess to ye!”
“Oh, stow it, Fatty!” growled Midge. “Seems to me you must all have lost your sense of humour, together with your other possessions, when that blighter Kuponos dumped us into this benighted spot!
“Gummy,” he added, his fists clenching and his face flushing, “if I’m going to have you and the professor down on me like a ton of bricks every time I try to be humorous, that’s another score I’ll have to settle with that blinkin’ Greek!”
“Huh!” grunted O’Mally “First time I’ve ever known you joke about food!”
“Joke! ’Course it was a joke!” snorted Midge. “D’ye think I’d be well-nigh starving at this moment if old Whiskers could conjure up a meal whenever he wanted to?
“Thank goodness here’s the captain coming back!” he went on, his face brightening. “Now this business is settled, perhaps we shall really be able to get something to eat!”
Panting, soaked with perspiration, but jauntily erect, Captain Justice appeared, with Buktu and a dozen beaming giants at his heels. The latter fell back at sight of Flaznagel, and stood watching him with respectful awe. But Justice, his face lighting up, grasped the old professor by the shoulders, shaking him affectionately.
“A wonderful deed, Flaznagel—the bravest I’ve ever seen!” he cried, with a ring in his voice that made his friend smile placidly. “The rumpus is over now! Those ghouls have dived back into their lairs, and Buktu's posted a strong guard along the brook. We’ll have no more trouble this night—thanks to you! But now, listen, professor! You’ve done even better work than you know!”
With a quick gesture. Justice gathered his comrades closer about him.
“After this, we’re Number One fellahs with the fighting-men of this village!” he said quietly. “They’ve tumbled to it at last that we’re not quite the helpless castaways they thought. They like us; they think you’re a more powerful fetish-man than that big swab, professor, and—well, you saw how they followed me in that charge! And now I’ll tell you something else.
“Sooner or later we’re going to fight our way out of this wilderness, back to civilisation, and Buktu and his squad will be our guides and escorts! They don’t know it yet, but, believe me, that’s what we’ve got to aim for! In fact—”
Justice suddenly flung back his head, and Buktu’s men stiffened as his laughter rang out, confident and carefree.
“We came into this tribe with nothing,” he cried, “but before we’re finished, by James, we’ll be leaders of the giants! And now, come on and get some food and rest somewhere! My lads, Xavier Kuponos hasn’t heard the last of us by a jolly long way!”
Next week an astounding discovery helps the Comrades on to further unexpected triumphs—and Justice starts to make himself absolute Boss of the Giants!
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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.