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Title: Kwa and the Beast Men Author: Perley Poore Sheehan * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0602261h.html Edition: 1 Language: English Character set encoding: Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)--8 bit Date first posted: June 2006 Date most recently updated: June 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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WHEN Kwa followed the leopard into the clearing and found the strange monster standing there his first instinct was to turn and run. Here was something that he didn't want to see, something that sent a chill of horror through his veins.
Animals he could understand and men he could understand. But the thing that stood before him now was neither. He recognized it at once. This was a Beast Man. Every now and then the Beast Men made their way into the Devil Bush-that great jungle that covered all this part of Equatorial Africa. Arid, as for that, the Devil Bush had come by its name honestly.
This was haunted jungle. It killed.
There were creatures in it that killed white men and black. Few had ever penetrated to the heart of it and lived to tell about it afterward.
That was why it was called the Devil Bush. It was fetish, greegree, taboo.
Kwa felt a gust of anger, and this drove away his fear.
The leopard had lured him here by a lie. The leopard had come to him with the story of a man lost in the woods.
This was no man.
The Beast Man stood about six feet tall, bulking huge. There was nothing about him to suggest the big ape-the chimpanzee or the gorilla. Head, neck and shoulders shining black-these suggested the goat or the bull rather than the ape. On the top of the low-browed head was a tangled thatch of wool through which emerged a pair of knob-like horns.
The head was low and thrust forward. There were widest eyes, gray, staring and wild. The arms and body were magnificent. They were like a statue of Hercules in oily black marble.
But, with an inner shiver Kwa let his eyes flick down. There was mudcaked wool on the thighs. The shanks were like those of an uncurried horse. The feet were cleft, enormous, split and splayed like those of a moose.
"Ho!" said Kwa. But he was ready to jump.
KWA himself stood there naked and white. He'd been disporting himself with hippos and elephants in a clear green river far over on the other side of the Devil Bush when the leopard had found he didn't even have his knife with him. He'd left the knife where he'd dropped it somewhere along the bank of the river. He hadn't even stopped to twist about him the girdle of vines he usually wore.
Since his return to Africa from his grandfather's home in Florida he'd let his hair grow. It hung now about his shoulders tawny and long. And there was a down on his face, almost as if he'd been actually a member of that Furry Tribe, the Not Yet Men, the Mu, who had reared him.
But his body gleamed smooth and white.
"Ho!" he said again. "I am Kwa, Kwa of the jungle!"
And now, for the first time, he was aware that others of his animal friends had followed him here.
It was as if that declaration of his had been taken up by a thousand voices. But all of them together made no more sound than a breeze.
"Yea, this is Kwa! Kwa the Golden One! Kwa of the jungle!"
THE stir of the breeze was like a vocal chorus, yet it would have been unintelligible and all but inaudible to ordinary ears. Not to the ears of Kwa. This was the sort of speech to which he'd listened ever since he could remember.
Sun-time, the heat of the day, he'd lain in cool shadows and listened to birds and beasts, all manner of things, talking as if in their sleep. A radio that was never silent-elephant whispers running the length and breadth of Africa, the twitter of birds and the minute notes of squirrels and monkeys no bigger than a gorilla's thumb.
But-mostly silence. In what the White World called silence, you could hear more voices and get more information than at any other time, It was a silence, so Kwa had learned, like that of the ether through which uncounted broadcasting stations send their unending programs.
At least some of the elephants must have followed him from the river. Bush-deer and buffalo, troops of mboyo-the shy wolf-dogs of the deeper jungles; leopards, of course.
He might have known that the leopard who had lured him here was tricking him. The only interest that a leopard could have had in a man-a real man-lost in the woods would be to kill him.
Leopards hated men-all men. And, often enough, Kwa had suspected that leopards had extended this hatred to include himself-he who drew no clear frontier between the peoples who were "men" and they that were "animals."
Leopards, unlike the other jungle tribes, appeared to be jealous of men. Leopards were brave. No animal was braver. But there was also always something ghostly about them-running after strange gods.
"A Beast Man!" came the chorus from the jungle. "Kwa! Kwa! Be on your guard! Kwa, Kwa, he will try to kill you!"
This was in the universal language of the jungle, which was almost a manner of thought rather than any articulate speech. It was a means of communication that all animals used, on and off, even when, as many of them did, they possessed a tribal speech of their own. It was the ancient speech, one that Kwa had used instinctively ever since his earliest childhood. But, since then, he'd learned most of the jungle calls as well.
Everywhere, to declare yourself, state, who you were and stand your ground, was in the nature of a challenge.
From the Man Beast there came a long-sustained and rumbling breath. It was something that at first Kwa couldn't understand except that this was an answer to his challenge.
Kwa, with every nerve and sinew on the trigger, flicked a look about him. He was amazed by the number of leopards he saw about him. Leopards were glinting everywhere in the foreground, running, belly-flat; pausing to stare; sliding and slinking. They gave an impression that the jungle-glade was surrounded by the coil of an enormous black and yellow snake-never still-with a hundred heads.
RECOLLECTION and some further measure of understanding came to Kwa. Of all the animals of the jungle the leopards were the only ones who'd ever been reported to have been on terms of intimacy with the Beast Men.
The Sapadi-meaning, "the Cloven Footed"-as all the Negroes of the Guinea Coast call the Beast Men. Time was when the Negroes had talked to the Utangani, the White Men, about the existence of Sapadi in Africa's great Equatorial forests. But the White Men had laughed, and so the Negroes no longer talked about the Sapadi except among themselves.
The Utangani were like that. They laughed at everything they couldn't see or understand-animals and men and trees that were aniemba, possessed by a spirit; the nibuiri, the ghosts of animals or men who roamed about in the dusk and dark; the power of the ougangas, the witchdoctors-not all of them, but some-to trap the souls of things, of men included, and keep them imprisoned in a box.
Kwa laughed at nothing he couldn't understand. The world was filled with such things-both the Great White World, which was his by inheritance through his parents; and the Great Black World, the world of the Devil Bush to which he'd been born and in which he'd been reared.
THERE came a momentary diversion.
Ancheri, a little bush-deer, no larger than a slight Italian greyhound, had leaped a fallen, mosscovered tree, and stood there in the clearing. Evidently it had been taken by panic and it stood there quivering, its soft eyes bright with alarm. At sight of it that revolving wheel of leopards had instantly stopped. But even quicker than the pause and hover of the leopards was the action of the Beast Men.
Maybe this was his final answer to that challenge of Kwa's-also a warning to those other jungle tribesmen he saw assembling. One of his great arms as if uncoiled and struck.
It was a movement faster, almost, than that of the jungle-eyes that followed him. On the instant, it seemed, he'd broken the ncheri's neck. He'd brought its throat to his mouth. He stood there drawing at the little creature's blood.
From where he stood Kwa sprang. "Hah!" he grunted.
And he'd struck the Cloven Footed with his fist.
IT WAS a blow that might have felled a man-a jab, something of an uppercut-with all the Force of that plunging rush behind it. But the Sapadi was merely shaken. It was surprise that had shaken him as much as the blow. He was a Beast Man, hence something of a god-god of the leopards. This white whelp of the Utangani had struck him. The Sapadi was about to get another shock. He'd dropped the body of the dead and bleeding deer to the ground between his splayed and cloven feet. The smell of blood and the spectacle of the raw red wound was too much for one of the leopards. In an instant, it had flashed in and seized the prey, had started off with it. Without delay, two other leopards came in. They were there with the flashing speed of hungry snakes.
There was a whine and the beginning of a fight.
Kwa was in the midst of the tangle at once, striking with his bare hands right and left.
Now Kwa heard something that the Sapadi said-and understood it, although it was in an inverted form of thought, like the secret language of some murderous lodge.
"Strike him I Tear him!"
Kwa saw a quick change in the leopards.
One of the brutes he seized by the neck and flung aside. At another that had dared face him with a yawning mouth he aimed a chopping blow that quelled it on the instant.
These were murderous moments-a scent of blood in the air from the slaughtered deer, a voice commanding the leopards to kill him. It was as if, suddenly, here in the Devil Bush, the Devil himself had appeared. There flashed through Kwa's mind even now old stories that he'd heard-long night, in the great Fire Cave of the Mu, when the people of the Furry Tribe sat about their sacred fire and the jungle tribes, from mice to elephants, from birds to pythons, gathered in the shadows to watch the mystery of fire and hear the stories of the world.
In all of these stories, the Devil came and came again-as wolf, as snake, as man,
Kwa backed from the bloody wreck of the little deer. He'd kicked the last leopard away. His eyes were on the Beast Man, ready for attack, ready for flight. He'd have little enough chance, he knew, unarmed against an enemy like this.
THERE were a hundred voices screaming warning. Then, from a corner of his eye, he saw an elephant plunge into the clearing from the green screen of the jungle. That was Golef, a young elephant bull, with whom he'd struck up a close friendship.
"Golef!" Kwa called. "No killing!"
"He would kill you from behind," came Golef's whisper.
Just as the Beast Man rushed at him, head down, Kwa sprang aside. He saw what had happened. He understood now those cries of warning. One of the largest leopards-an old man-eater, as Kwa could tell at a glance-had been creeping up on him from behind.
Golef, the elephant, had not only seen the danger in time. He'd acted on it. With a sweep of his trunk, he'd tripped the leopard and brushed it aside.
The leopard joined the others. They were bunched, but restless, circling among themselves. The eyes of all of them were on the Beast Man, then on Kwa. It was as if they were appraising two gods. One they would elect, one they would kill.
"Ho," cried Kwa. "I'm a Man!"
This wasn't a beast. Like most jungle speech it was merely the statement of a truth. But the truth conveyed the challenge.
From branch and ground-bush and from the green maze beyond the clearing-from all directions, from above and all around, it seemed-the voices were telling Kwa to be careful, to save himself, that this was a Sapadi who faced him, and that Sapadis were killers.
"Even as the Utangani!" came a rasping breath, and Kwa knew that he was hearing again the voice of the Beast Man.
Once more Kwa had a glint of fear. But the fear was not for himself precisely. It was fear that the situation would get out of hand. There was that taint of blood in the air. There'd been that revolt of the leopards. He knew that now should the situation escape from his hands he would be doubly lost. His life would not only forfeit but his hope-the hope that had become the purpose of his life-to restore the Great Truce among animals and men.
The leopards were whining a chorus to that statement of the Sapadi.
"Even as the Utangani! The Utangani kill!"
The Sapadi rushed him,
The rush of the Sapadi was like nothing that Kwa had ever seen before-swift, silent. It was like the charge of three animals in one. The hands and arms were snakes. The open mouth had become the mouth of a fighting leopard.
Kwa, jungle-trained, crouched and went far to one side.
As he did so, there was a roaring whisper that reached his brain.
"Kwa! Kwa! We'll fight for you!" These were the elephants and buffalo who spoke.
There came another rush of speech, mingled with it, but as clear as the voice of horns in an orchestra.
"Kwa! Kwa! We'll fight for you!"
NOW Kwa could scarcely believe the evidence of his brain. This last offer had reached him in the voices of lions; and lions were almost as rare in the Devil Bush as men themselves were.
Yet there were the lions-a dozen or more. Males, all of them. Kwa, with a rush of gratitude, knew that now, at any rate, the leopards would be held in check. Leopards were brave; they were cunning; they possessed, perhaps, certain forms of evil magic which lions either ignored or disdained. But in the presence of a lion no leopard dared assert itself.
All this, like the breaking up of light in a prism-instantaneous.
The Sapadi had rushed. Kwa had dodged. The voices had reached him. Kwa found time to stand straight and-raise both arms.
"No, no!" he shouted. "I am Kwa! Kwa fights! Kwa will slay this thing!"
He, could imagine the sort of slaughter that might begin should he himself be slain, The jungle now surrounding this fated battle-ground was packed with life. Grass-eaters and blood-drinkers were there together, birds and squirrels and snakes. An old man gorilla stood with his knuckles on the fallen tree and back of him were other gorillas. They stared at the leopards, stared at the lions. But it was at Kwa they stared the oftenest. On him the present truce depended.
There should be no killing in Kwa's presence. There should be no killing within sound of his voice. But Kwa himself could kill. Kwa came from the terrible race that killed even when it was without hunger.
Kwa and the Sapadi were advancing again. There was a great silence.
The Sapadi snorted and breathed with a rasping sound.
"I am Bele," he said; "god of the blood-drinkers. I am thirsty again. Tonight I and my brethren will drink the blood of this young white goat."
THERE'D come a sort of chorus to that statement of the Sapadi's. It came from the direction of the slinking, watchful leopards.
"Yo, yo! He is god of the blooddrinkers!"
But a lion coughed, and the sound struck silence even to the sort of silent speech that was running about.
Kwa thought. He thought in English. To him English had always been, in some sort, a sacred language. This, he never could forget, had been the language that the unknown golden-haired woman had used, his mother, she who had passed her life on to him.
Sometimes English sentences formed in his brain, even here in the depths of the Devil Bush, and it would curiously seem as if it was his mother-her "mbuiri," her soul that whispered to him.
"Use your brain! Look up!"
He looked up. And now, just as the Beast Man of the cloven feet made another lightning dash in his direction he jumped into the air instead of to one side, and seized the loop of a swinging rubber vine. Almost too late. The Sapadi had struck at him with clutching fingers and scored such a scratch down one of Kwa's legs as a leopard might have made.'
"He runs away," the leopards whined.
And Bele, the so-called god of the blood-drinkers, braked his charge and pivoted on his horned feet. With him, at any rate, there could be no side-stepping. Nor could he climb. Both of which thoughts came to Kwa in that swinging moment.
BUT he had no intention of running away, and those who knew him best divined that this was so.
"Ho," roared Bele. "He joins the other umkago!"
The "umkago" were a tribe of small red-headed monkeys. They were there in force, swarming overhead. The Beast Man had meant this as a taunt, and the leopards were ready to take it up. Monkeys and apes had always been a favorite food for leopards, perhaps because they were so much like the children of men; then, dogs, because these were the friends of man; then man himself.
But the lions also had taken to serpenting about, and in the sudden silence caused by their movement the forest tribes heard Kwa shrill out something in the very language of the umkago, the red-headed monkey pilgrims.
Then: "Wah!" Kwa shouted in the universal speech. "Wah! I am brother to them all!"
He stood in his loop of vine and started it to swing. For the first time now since he'd first stood in the presence of the Beast Man he began to feel an assurance of victory.
The feeling made him laugh aloud. It made him shout a song.
"Wah!" he laughed. "Come catch me, Bele. Come catch Kwa. Bele drinks the blood of a little deer. Bele now talks of drinking the blood of a Man!"
This was the turn of the treedwellers-birds and ribbon-snakes, monkeys and squirrels. Some of the squirrels were so small that they might have been taken for mice if it wasn't for their silken, never-quiet tails.
"Wah!" they chorused. "Kwa is the brother of us all! Come catch us, Bele! Come catch Kwa!"
Bele, at a momentary loss, charged over toward the leopards. They cowered at his approach and looked their reverence. Bele charged back-huge and black, shining-if not a god at least a devil to most of these other animals. Half man. Perhaps with the mbuiri of a man at his command to help him with his evil magic.
The buffalo showed signs of stampede. They rolled their eyes and snorted at those cleft feet of his feet almost like their own. Golef, the young elephant-bull, Kwa's particular friend, threw out his barns door ears and extended his trunk in a rigid slant-it was a fighting stance-but it took all his nerve and all his memory of his talks with Kwa to maintain it.
ONLY the lions and the old gorilla stood firm and apparently at ease, as if there was some ancient, settled wisdom back of them that couldn't be shaken even by a devil.
"Ho," Kwa. suddenly shouted. "I am Kwa-Kwa the Golden-and my mother came from the Golden West!"
The meaning of this was obscure to all who heard it-except to Golef, perhaps; but none who heard Kwa could believe other than that the battle was but now begun.
Down from the heights of the trees where the red-headed monkeys ran there came a length of tie-tie vine, soft and supple, strong as copper wire. There seemed to be no end of it. It was with vine like this that the big-game hunters of the Gaboon used to weave their elephant and buffalo-nets, back in the days before the White Man came to exchange powder and rum for slaves.
"Ho! Tie-tie vine!" Kwa chanted. "With tie-tie vine my mother's people conquered the Golden West!"
SUDDENLY, Bele, who'd again come to the side of the snaking leopards, caught one of them up in his powerful hands. There was a squirming spasm as the leopard let out a snarling scream of protest.
"Kill!" shrilled the Beast Man.
He'd turned and with one of those lightning-swift charges of his had hurled the leopard to where Kwa had been standing out of reach.
It was as if he'd hurled a living buzz-saw. The leopard caught and clung-cursing heaven and earth in the leopard tribal speech.
But Kwa was no longer there. Kwa had leaped. He'd landed on the ground. He hadn't lost a moment. He was coiling his tie-tie vine. Then there followed something that struck all those who saw it as a bit of beautiful and terrible magic.
A treble breath-a shrill whine swept the jungle. .
While the lightning-footed but slower witted Sapadi, Bele the Beast Man of the Cloven Feet, still gazed up to where he'd hurled his living missile, Kwa dashed in close, and as if lashed him with his slender vine.
It looked like suicide to those who watched him. But instantly their keen eyes saw that a noose had fallen over Bele's head and shoulders. Bele reacted to this as swiftly as if the vine had been red-hot iron. He jerked around and plunged at Kwa. As he did so, Kwa stepped aside and made another lashing movement at his feet.
Kwa gave a double-handed jerk and Bele fell.
Now, instead of retreating, as Kwa's friends hoped and expected, Kwa flung himself flat on Bele and started to throw loop after loop about his head and shoulders-four, five-while Bele in his confusion heaved and struggled like a harpooned whale.
All would have gone well for Kwa just then if it hadn't been for the leopard swinging on the vine just overhead.
Physically, the leopard could not have been more easy in the position in which it now found itself than if it had been safe in its own home den. But here was a chance to ease the ache in its pride-to rid itself of a little of its stored-up venom. It didn't dare attack openly either of these two fighting gods on the ground, but it could fall. Fall it did or pretended to; swinging under, dropping, turning in the air.
One of its hooked and scimitared paws caught in Kwa's bright mane and held.
KWA, struggling with all he had of both brain and muscle to bring his battle to a close, felt that dragging rake of pointed talons across his scalp, the swift suffocation of the leopard's fur as the big cat let its full weight down upon him.
In spite of himself, or to save his life, Kwa flung up a hand to shake himself free.
Swift as the reflex was, one of the lions had been swifter. It had reached the group on the ground with a single spring, it had struck with a massive paw. The leopard rolled.
It didn't rise again.
Almost as swift as the lion-he might have been as swift if it hadn't been for some order Kwa had given-Golef, the elephant, planted one of his feet on the leopard's head.
He held it there while the spotted fur quivered to a stillness. Then Golef raised his trunk and screamed.
"Ho!" was what he said. "While Kwa is occupied, the lions and we shall see that peace is kept!"
Swift moments, all of these. Things happening all at once. Life in the jungle like a river, flowing slowly, day after day, night after night, then taking some mighty jump into a cataract of action.
For Kwa, a brush with death, just now when the leopard clawed his head. Bele gouging with his own mouth of a fighting leopard had got a strand of the tie-tie in his mouth and snapped it. A hand and arms came free.
WITH his free hand he clapped a blow at the side of Kwa's head that staggered him-a curious blow, not with the fist, but with the hand half-open and the fingers rigid, a leopard blow.
The Beast Man fought like a leopard and with the strength of a bull.
Kwa, wavering, caught the hot blast of Bele's breath--breath smelling of blood and carrion. Kwa saw Bele's yellow fangs within an inch of his face.
Kwa flung his strength and concentrated purpose on that free hand of Bele's and forced it around. It was like trying to twist a live branch, big as his thigh, from a mulmberry tree.
Bele heaved and was on top of him. But Kwa had brought the free arm of Bele with him. Little by little, he was dragging the arm into the position where he wanted it to go.
MEANTIME Bele had worked his other hand partly free, and his fingers were merciless as they prodded and tore wherever they could reach Kwa's body. Kwa felt as if bush-pigs were tearing him up alive.
But he wouldn't let go of Bele's arm. He had the arm now against Bele's back and was pressing it up. The great hand of the Beast Man was now almost between his shoulder blades, and there Kwa held it-held it even when Bele once more surged and rolled.
Now Kwa came up and was no longer underneath. He gulped the air. He filled his eyes with one wide glance of all that lay about him. After all, he was Kwa, and Kwa had friends. For these friends he was fighting now. The thought somehow nerved him for the final effort, when he gave a sudden heave and knew that he had dislocated Bele's shoulder.
He didn't pause to rest on that much of a triumph.
Bele, with a dislocated shoulder, could still be as dangerous and as deadly as a gored rhino, as a wounded lion. That also was part of the jungle law-never to stop simply because of pain, simply because you thought you might be beaten. Pain that was merely the whip of the invisible master, to each man and beast his own "mbuiri," forcing him to go on until the mbuiri, the soul or the ghost, itself skips out.
In his own heart Kwa said, "God bless the umkago!" The little redheaded monkeys had thrown down enough tic-tie vine to tether six elephants.
Kwa noosed the dislocated arm and threw the same loop for a dozen turns about Bele's throat.
He noosed the second hand, then cast a hitch about one of Bele's hocks and drew the two together, This wasn't for the sake of torture. This was all for the sake of absolute mastery, absolute security.
Kwa got to his feet. There was a tremor in his knees. He was streaming with blood. He felt befouled. He raised his face and shook out his name of tawny hair. He felt as if he'd been scalped. He felt as if he had-a nest of hot coals in his thighs-there where Bele had prodded and torn at his flesh.
But all this would pass.
"Wah!" he cried. "You see me? I am Kwa."
THERE was a singing in the air. It was made up of a hundred-or a hundred thousand-voices. For there has never been a census of the jungle-world. There has never been even an attempt to chart the zones and the countries of jungle thought and speech, of common understandings.
The answer came:
"Wah! We see thee, brother! Thou art Kwa!"
That was the general run of the chorus, and there may have been even the voices of insects in it as well as the voices of birds and elephants, of lizards, snakes and pigs.
Kwa bent a knee and took a slow step, bringing his foot flat down to the trampled earth.
"There lies Bele," Kwa said; "bound and mastered."
The warm breeze of a thousand or ten thousand breaths repeated the affirmation.
Kwa took two steps, thinking deeply, inviting his mbuiri to express itself.
"Shall I kill him?" Kwa asked; but those who heard him knew that the question was not for them. There was a great silence. "Killing him would do no good," said Kwa. "We shall doctor him and let him go."
BELE himself meditated this strangest part of his adventure when he found himself free. It was early night. It was the night of a new moon-always a night of some solemnity in Black Africa-for animals as well as men.
The thing that impressed Bele most was that he'd been turned out free and sound on a new-moon night. The new moon must have had something to do with it. This moon liked him. It was his moon.
As a matter of fact, the strange white Thing he had fought had been worse hurt than he himself had been hurt. The Kwa Thing. Kwa, who spoke the speech of the Bush, This was no Utangani whelp. Nor yet was it an "Ovengua"-one of those powerful spirits that roam the Devil Bush. For an Ovengua would never have allowed itself to be taken in so simply by a leopard.
He'd said it. Kwa was a white ghost who happened to have taken on the shape of a man and who'd picked up something of Utangani-White man-magic.
But, in any case, white. Moon color. His blood would make strong medicine. He'd almost had it.
"O Moon!" said Bele in his thought.
And he didn't know it-it wouldn't have made any difference even if he had-but when he said this he was joining his voice to a chorus that went all up and down the coasts of West Africa this night-and far back into forests and grasslands, up dim rivers, out across the Kalahari desert where half-starved Bushmen also stared at the silver crescent and said, "O Moon!"
"O Moon!" said Bele. "Help me make to thee this White Sacrifice!"
BELE, the Cloven Footed, traveled smoothly and swiftly through the darkening jungle of the Devil Bush. A few leopards had caught up with him shortly after Kwa and his friends had turned him loose. But these Bele had driven away. He felt that a virtue had gone out of him by having been beaten and bound.
It wasn't good f or a Bush god to allow himself to be seen by his followers when his virtue was departed.
Especially when these followers were leopards. Leopards were keen; they, knew too much. Leopards had risen to a point where they were no longer afraid of fire. Leopards even had ideas of fetish. For example, leopards would often take the skull of a victim and put it up in a tree. When you asked them why they did this, they'd simply grin.
In spite of those great horned feet of his, Bele traveled as silently as any leopard could have traveled. As a matter of fact, he often ran with leopards. All the Beast Men did. The Beast Men. The Sapadi.
And they let the leopards do their killing for them, which the leopards were glad to do.
This reminded Bele of past banquets, and he began to take close notice of the air. It wasn't long before he scented something that whetted his already sharpened appetite.
The niaray were a bush-buffalo almost as dainty as certain of the deer.
And shortly, Bele, silent as a shadow, had the herd located. In less than a minute he'd made his kill-a monthold calf that had been sleeping close up against its mother's flank. Before the mother herself had discovered what had happened he was on his way again, taking the calf along. H-e was getting his virtue back. Neither he nor the calf had made a sound.
He sated himself as he traveled, then cast the drained body aside. The blood of a calf was sweet. It was nourishing. But there was no medicine in it.
There were many creatures in the Bush whose blood was medicine. Man came first, of course; and of men the whiter they were the stronger the medicine. But, after man, lions and the big apes-both troublesome and hard to kill. But there were those who believed that leopards, after all, were even better.
And, strangely enough, leopards were the standby of the Sapadi Lodge-a secret that not even the shrewdest leopard had ever learned. For the Sapadi were the gods of the leopards. And gods-so ran the old wisdom of Black Africa-of men as well as beasts-always fed on those who worshiped them.
Bele, in the dark, had pressed on through queer passages and ascending trails to a place somewhere on the steamy flanks of Sango Lobango, that huge and ragged, snow and jungle covered mountain of the Devil Bush whose native name meant the Father of Lies.
It might have been called that for a number of reasons. Sometimes it had been seen from some point, perhaps ninety or a hundred miles away-the fingers of its snow-peaks pointing to the sky. Yet no explorer had ever been able to find it. Or, if he had, he'd never, at any rate, returned.
First the Devil Bush, that vast and haunted jungle into which no West Coast native nor jungle Black could be bribed to go. Then, the broken flanks of Sango Lobango himself a chaos of pits and flinty needles, craters and caverns, hot streams and cold, all jungle clotted, as if in a stupendous hot-house, almost on up to the point where the snows began.
But all as simple as a village street to Bele.
He found a crooked corridor-jet dark to ordinary eyes-but where he saw plainly enough everything he might have cared to see. The floor of the corridor was a tepid stream that ran a smooth carpet of water over tilted slate. The jungle closed this in with a solidity like that of solid rock. There was, in fact, no telling, so far as appearances went, where the jungle left off and the solid rock began. .
For the river flowed from a jungle-smothered cave in the face of a cliff.
THIS was the entrance to the GreeGree Cave of the Beast Men. It was known to them as such. Yet they'd come to it but recently. And none of those who had now assembled there had ever seen it before. For the Sapadi hadn't used this particular Lodge Room for nearly a thousand years. They were like that. They appeared. They disappeared. They knew in ways that they never sought to question things that they couldn't understand.
Bele ran lightly in spite of his great weight. He came into a large chamber where there was a natural fire-pit, perhaps twenty feet in diameter and deep as a desert well.
This filled the place with a red glow which, once the eyes were accustomed to it, served the purpose of sight as well as sunlight might have done.
About the edge of the fire-pit were set a row of skulls-all sorts, human and nearly human, the skulls of lions and elephants. The warm air of the place had the small partly of an unclean butcher-shop.
Bele drew this air into his lungs a number of times as if gratefully, and exhaled it with a snorting sound.
THERE were snorts and loud breathing in shadowy corners.. and then soft clattering of hornshod feet as from here and there, the black shapes of other Sapadi began, to appear. Some were young and some were old.
There was one who was very old, and he spoke first.
"Two of the Spotted Believers came," he said, in the snorting, mooing, tribal speech of the Sapadi Lodge. "They told us you were thrown and bound."
"Where are they?" Bele asked. "We took their blood and threw them into the fire-pit."
"You did well."
"You see me here."
"But the white sacrifice I do not see."'
"He was surrounded by half the killers of Africa. He speaks their speech."
"White as a fish."
"His medicine must be strong. I need it."
"I'll get it for you."
"You said that when you left."
"I'll get it."
"Tonight. Now. I know where he sleeps. I hurt him badly. To bring him to you unspoiled I'll now take others with me."
And Bele began to look about him at the other members of the Lodge. They shifted about a little, their cloven feet scraping the stone of the floor. None of these others were as large and powerful as Bele was himself. Yet nearly so.
Even the old Sapadi, Bele's father, who'd frightened creatures of the Bush now for upward of a century, had a look of twisted power about him, like a gnarled tree.
The old Sapadi had two fresh leopard skins twisted about him which yielded a scent of fur and blood, and these he sniffed from time to time as medicine.
"Choose," the old man snorted. And Bele began to choose those who would accompany him.
THERE had always been, perhaps, more reason than white people might concede, for some of those strange beliefs that lived and held and proved themselves in this part of Black Africa. Take that belief in the "Ovengua," for example-the one to which Bele, the Beast Man, had referred in his own mind when thinking of Kwa.
The "Ovengua" were terrible, shadowy creatures-spirits, they were believed to be-that roamed the jungle at night, killing men and eating them, or sending them back to their villages at last crazy and frightfully disfigured.
There were witnesses enough to tell of having seen such things and escaped. They told these stories at night as they sat about the village fires and smoked and drank.
Africa liked to talk all night, or drum and dance. Perhaps there was some ancient wisdom in this, as well.
Bele and his Sapadi companions were like "Ovengua" now as they threaded their way through the black and steaming lark of the Sango Lobango bush. How could they see in the dark? How could any of the night prowlers of the Devil Bush see in the dark? The dark wasn't dark to them. It was just another sort of light. It was a light by which, they could see many things better than by sunlight. There were many things they could see in what the White Man calls the dark that would have been invisible by daylight-things that floated, things that crawled, other things that stood and peered.
The Night Side of Nature. Another world. A world that ordinary men dimly remember, perhaps, such times they're in the brush at night, when they look at the slim new moon, when they tell their ghost stories.
Bele had selected only the toughest and boldest of the Sapadi for this enterprise of his.
After the fight in the clearing where he'd been thrown and bound, one of the elephants had picked him up-at Kwa's request-and carried him off through the jungle to the southern slopes of Sango Lobango. While half the beasts of Africa, it seemed, trailed along to see the finish of the day. Kwa had ridden another elephant, where, for a time, an old gorilla had ridden at his side.
THIS man's medicine must be very strong.
And there, at the same warm medicine pool, Kwa himself had reset the dislocated shoulder. The pain of that was so great that Bele would have bitten Kwa just then, but gorillas and elephants had held him.
The shoulder had been laved in the warm waters of the pool. The pain had gone.
Kwa and a few-of his companions were to pass the night at this same pool, where Kwa would soak his wounds. Bele had heard Kwa say that by morning the wounds would be as good as healed.
Not even if they had been Ovengua, in fact as well as in the seeming, could Bele and his Sapadi band have been more silent, more cunning in the ways of darkness.
Wherever they passed they left, it seemed, a trail of silence and of an even greater darkness about them. There would be a great chorus of frogs and crickets-a surf of sound with regular waves; and across these waves every now and then a whoop or a whistle, a whine or a laugh, a bark or a clatter of beaks, that were like the traffic sounds of some invisible harbor.
Then, a sudden silence at the passing of the Sapadi-a silence that lingered-a silence that seemed, somehow, devoted to serious thinking.
Only the leopards kept the Sapadi company on their silent march. And even the leopards kept their distance-ghosting far out on the flanks like the Devil's own hunting dogs.
KWA slept without fire or cover. He lay at the side of the jungle pool that came down warm and medicinal from one of the ten thousand live craters of old Sango Lobango. Even Sango Lobango had its virtues, and not the least of these was that few insects loved the breath of it. The ants and the mosquitoes never came here, nor the gnats and buffalo flies. Anyway, since his return to Africa, Kwa had recalled all the things he'd ever learned while living with the Mu-there in the hidden Valley of the Mu, which Sango Lobango surrounded with its castellated cliffs. There was truce with many of the insects as there was with many of the beasts.
Some day, Kwa dreamed, he might try to explain these things to those who didn't understand. But, so far, there was too much that he didn't understand himself.
While he slept, his animal friends came and went.
They all had their appointments. There was an unceasing business of the jungle. And the difference between the business of the Utangani and the business of the Bush was this:
If you neglected your business in the White World you stood to lose some money. If you neglected your business in the World of the Bush you stood to lose your life.
TALL Golef, the young elephant bull, who'd rocked through half the night, dreaming yet awake, not far from where Kwa lay, now led his herd off into the night on elephant business and a company of TingaTinga-the great black swamp buffalo almost as powerful as elephants-as if casually drifted near.
But scarcely had this happened than a yearling of the buffalo herd set up a help-cry and at the same time a leopard-cry. It seemed impossible, but there it was-two leopards simultaneously had jumped to the yearling's back practically there in the middle of the herd.
The buffalo bulls closed round. The leopards were doomed.
Kwa was instantly awake to the alarm among the buffalo, but he had no more idea of rousing himself on this account than a city dweller would think of leaving his bed and running to help each time the firemen pass. Even half asleep, moreover, he followed perfectly all that passed-he was listening to that radio of the buffalos. He knew it when the bulls closed in and were about to kill the leopards.
Out of the dark, like a velvet, suffocating cloud, something had fallen upon him, checking his breath, checking all movement.
It was the scent that told him what had happened-the scent that came with his last gasp of breath-a scent that was charnel, bloodtainted, hot.
About throat and arms and legs and over his face there was a swift, enclosing pressure like the coils of a gigantic snake.
But these coils, he knew, were of Sapadi hands.
All this swift, silent, with the noiseless speed of a dream.
He was far away when his breath came back. He'd been choked so nearly dead that he'd had to keep his mbuiri and his body together by sheer will-power-the sort of will-, power that won't desert some men even when they're unconscious, standing beside them like a faithful dog.
Kwa never had been able to see in the dark as well as some of his jungle friends, but he could see well enough, after a fashion.
Six, seven of the Beast Men, possibly more.
HE'D said that it wouldn't do any good to kill Bele-back there today when he'd had Bele in his power. He'd made the declaration after the thought-dance. He wondered. This was Bele's answer.
They swept him along-half-carrying him at times, forcing him to run. But carried or afoot, he felt the clutch of one great hand in his hair and he knew that this was Bele's hand.
They'd come through a rocky corridor into a dimly lighted cave-a cave that smelled of slaughter-house and stable.
And here Bele shouted: "Lo, I bring you blood of the Moon Colored."
HE was king of the blooddrinkers-Kwa remembered Bele's vaunt. And there came to Kwa a memory of the spectacle when Bele had broken the little ncheri's neck, then stood there where all could see with that leopard mouth of his clamped to the victim's throat.
The thought and the memory ran like an overtone to what he saw, heard, scented.
He'd been brought-he didn't have to be told-to the secret place of the Beast Men. Not in the knowledge of any living thing-not in all the age old annals of the Mu-was there any record of one who'd ever entered such a place as a captive and escaped alive. The secrets of the Sapadi were as the secrets of Death itself.
There was a slippering clack of horny hoofs on stone. Dimly, then more clearly, he saw the gathering of the Sapadi Clan. The Beast Men. No young. No women, just men. No, neither animals nor men. Beast Men! There were forms of an ancient black magic in the world to make a carved idol shudder. So he'd been told-by the old men of the Furry Tribe, by old gorillas and elephants, by the old chimpanzee woman who'd cared for him once before when he'd lain wounded in the Devil Bush.
He would have none of this black magic. He wouldn't contribute to it even by his death. Not if he could help it.
An old Beast Man was peering into his face, fingering his throat.
At the same instant that Kwa felt an overwhelming spasm of reaction he also felt a slight loosening of that grip in his hair.
He screamed. He struck right and left. The old Sapadi in front of him he bowled over completely.
There was a power in the human voice-puny compared to a hundred other voices of the Bush; yet powerful. So his jungle friends had told him. Always something about a human voice to make the non-humans pause and reflect. Always a possibility of magic in it.
At that sudden scream of Kwa's a touch of panic must have caught the Beast Men. Just for an instant they were weak as water. But in that instant Kwa was out of their suffocating mob.
The walls of the cave took up his cry and magnified it. Kwa himself may have been caught in a gust of panic.
He ran. He was like a dead leaf caught up by a hurricane. The FirePit opened just in front of him. He flung himself into the air in a flying leap.
HE almost shriveled and dropped. He'd seen that happen to birds when they carelessly crossed some open vent in the Valley of the Mu.
But he was over.
He stumbled into a row of skulls. He came up armed. He didn't know what with, but there was a bone cudgel in his hand. The swift thought came to him that here was some earlier victim of the Beast Men now offering him aid, ready to exact the toll of vengeance after many years.
There was no time for consecutive thought. Just flashes-flashes of sight, judgment, action.
The Sapadi were now adding to that clamor he'd set up by that scream of his. For the moment it was as if the cavern had become a trap in which a hundred maddened cattle milled-snorts and bellows, a drum of cloven hoofs, the walls of the place sending all this back magnified.
A black shadow of a giant rushed toward Kwa and Kwa, with that jumping perception of his, read his intent before the enemy closed in. This hadn't been a direct attack. The Beast Man was trying to get between him and the Fire-Pit.
That was it.
They wanted to preserve him alive.
KWA feinted at a scurry to escape, then turned and nailed the black monster with his bone club. The Beast Man lost his balance, turned and clutched. For a moment his hand was scraping Kwa's arm-trying to save himself, trying to take Kwa along.
Kwa struck again-twice-and twice again.
He saw the Beast Man stagger, bellow, topple-Even while this was happening, there were others pressing in along the edge of the pit. There was a screech from the other side, piercing the general tumult with a broken shaft of sound. And that-Kwa somehow knew-was the voice of the old man who had fingered his throat.
Again he heard that inverted form of speech, the meaning of which rocked into his mind.
"Don't spill his blood! Fend him from the pit!"
He'd keep the pit at his back-Kwa resolved. Better a plunge into fire than to have a Minotaur at your throat. His back was so close to the great well of fire that he could feel the scorching waves of its heat pulse up his back, lift his hair.
But he clubbed at a pair of hands that reached for him along the stone at his feet. He shifted aside. Perhaps, if he could round the pit, he might risk a dash for the corridor by which he'd entered this place.
Still with his bone club in his right hand he reached for a buffalo skull with his left and flung this backhanded at those who pressed along the rim.
He saw one go, clutching-then a double scream. One Sapadi had dragged another over the rim.
A lull, sometimes, is a warning as much as a shout. He crouched a little and turned. He was just in time to see a black mass hurtle in his direction. One of the Sapadi had attempted to duplicate that initial leap of his.
He fell far short.
The gaping abyss of the Fire Pit was like the open mouth of some prehistoric serpent.
How many Sapadi were there? Where was Bele?
Kwa stumbled on a skull and fell. He fell on the skull and rolled. For a flaring second it seemed as if he were doomed to a plunge into that bottomless pool of flame whether he wanted to or not. But feet, legs, thighs-these writhed to save theme selves and save him, their master, with them.
And he curled round, with the curl of a scorched snake, just as two more enormous human paws slid toward his feet, along the floor. And now, at least one of those questions in his brain was answered.
HERE was Bele. These were the hands of Bele reaching toward him. That was Bele's face raised in the faint outer zone of light that shivered up from the pit.
Bele's voice reached him.
"Kwa! Kwa! You saved my life! Now I save yours!"
But Kwa, trained to read the silence back of words, read Bele's thought.
"Moon! Moon! Help me, Moon! I offer you this Moon Colored vow so soon as we have drained his blood!"
Kwa pulled himself around to his knees and bashed his bone club into Bele's temple. Bele, in a paroxysm, clutched Kwa's arm. The fingers held, even as Kwa, with a gust of dread, felt that Bele's life was gone, Kwa staggered to his feet. But as he rose, he dragged up the weight of Bele's dying clutch. The clutch tightened. It held like iron.
As he jerked backward, one of his feet slipped over the rim of the pit. Now all that saved him was the grip of the dead Beast Man.
So Bele, dead, had been forced to keep that lying promise of his, after all. Bele had saved his life. But for what?
NEW MOON night in the outside world; and in a thousand villages up and down the Guinea Coast of Africa the Black Men were daubing themselves with sacred chalk-white, blue, pink, in designs their fathers had taught them but which no one understood. From moon to moon the chalk lay before the main idol in the greegree house, and thus absorbed the qualities that made it powerful in the spirit world.
Not much drumming on a New. Moon Night. A time for silence, fear, meditation, magic dreams.
So in the Bush, among the animals.
Very close to each other, in some respects, were the animals and men of untouched Black Africa. Secretive. Occult. With ways of their own that simply were not "white man fashion."
Indifferent to death as few white men are. Cool in the fatal emergency. Perpetually attentive to things unseen.
There'd never been anything in the nature of a truce between the DingaDinga tribe-the swamp buffalo-and the Leopard People. But just as the Head Bull of the buffalo was about to rip the life from the second leopard that had attacked the yearling herder it was as if a question and answer had passed between them.
Leopard may have talked to Buffalo, Buffalo to Leopard-all in that unclocked speed with which so much transpires in the Bush.
The Head Bull backed away with a snort. What he might have said was: "You, a Leopard, follow a thing like Bele! When Bele and his sort have been killing Leopards for a thousand years!"
You don't have to describe the sky to see it. In a glance of an eye you see the thousand herds on the Nyasa plain. Jungle speech was something like that-direct, far reaching, limpid, meant for truth.
NEW Moon Night, and ever since the first glimmer of the slim crescent could be seen against the green of the sky, the leopards had been assembling more or less, as they always did, in the vicinity of the Fire Pit Lodge of the Beast Men.
No one will ever know how that breeze came up in the airless night. It wasn't the sort of breeze that sways the tree tops. But all through the Devil Bush-the hundreds of square miles of it-the jungle tribes, the furred and the feathered, the scaled and the armor-plated-lifted their heads and said: "The Leopards are talking!"
Old rhinos dozing as solid as rocks under the stars, hippos at pasture in the strong grass fringing the rivers, the wide-awake sentinels of monkey-towns, lesser cats, lions, elephants. All these heard that breeze of a Leopard broadcast.
How such things start, few ever know-another sort of Cosmic Ray, perhaps; blowing down from somewhere out of interstellar space, giving this fresh young world an old idea from a wiser place.
And suddenly the whole Devil Bush began to stir. It was a tradition that the great things of the Bush always happened on a New Moon Night. Sometimes it was one thing, sometimes another-sometimes the beginning of a plague that would sweep the plains, sometimes a great fright out of nowhere as if all around there was a great war raging that none could see nor hear.
But the jungle radio had already broadcast the story of that battle too day between Kwa and the Beast Man. Tonight there'd been a broadcast that the Beast Men were in conclave at their ancient lodge on the setting-sun side of Sango Lobango.
Then, this stupendous broadcast that the Leopards were on their way to destroy their old gods, accept the new.
Kwa was gone. The Beast Men had taken him. In their Lodge they were about to work that oldest of all magic. The Beast Men would take to themselves the virtues of Kwa--w Kwa the Golden-by a sacrifice of blood.
A great torment swept the Devil Bush. Rhinos plunged through the jungle-thudding and tearing their way. Elephants shadowed along the paths they knew. Leopards ran and paid no attention to the wild dogs, the shy bush wolves, the pigs, the apes and the monkeys. High above the bush there was a beating of wings-now and then the harsh cry of raven and heron.
There were creatures afoot or awing that had never been known before to have ventured out in the dark.
But the broadcast had proclaimed it. This would be a night of truce-the night of a Great Truce, such as Kwa had set up once or twice back in the Valley of the Mu. There would be a truce, this night for all things except the Beast Men, except for the devils who'd passed themselves off for gods.
The Bush for miles around the entrance to the Fire Pit Lodge was swarming with all the beasts of this part of Africa-and no animal afraid of another-as the leopards drove into the corridor of the shallow river, then into the rock entrance of the forbidden lodge room.
The leopards were like a river that flowed upstream-or more like some enormous serpent, with a thousand heads, glittering as if with greenfire stones, as the staring eyes of the wrapt and concentrated cats went by.
Suddenly, there swept over the straining, silent Devil Bush another broadcast; and what it said was:
It is over!
What was over and how? Not a frog sang, not a cricket chirped.
THEN, from far away in all this tremendous silence, there came the chant of what the Black Men called a "cooba iga," meaning, literally, a "wild chicken"-a jungle fowl, the crowing of a cock. And this meant that the sun was coming up.
That, at least, was something. The sun was coming up.
As the leopards swarmed into the cave, all in an instant, it seemed, they were everywhere. For, after all, the Leopards were the only wild Bush people who'd lost their fear of fire. In a way, they themselves were fetishes superior to the ordinary dreads of the Jungle folk.
Three of them had swarmed over the old man who was head of the Lodge. The Beast Men fell where they stood. Their power had gone out of them entirely.
And then, at last, the Leopards came to Kwa.
HE'D got the broadcast in some moment of inner silence even here in the cave. He'd known that the Leopards were coming. And, after that, the hand on no dead man could hold him.
He'd swung his bone club.
From beyond the Fire Pit someone had flung a skull that knocked him prostrate. He'd been fighting since.
"Ho," he managed to say, "into the pit with them!"
And the bodies of the Beast Men began to drop-by ones, by twos, by fours-into the purifying flames. For, by this time, other animals were crowding in.
They formed a great circle, and there, in the midst of them, around the edge of the Fire Pit, Kwa danced-solemnly, knees up-calling for some new message from his mbuiri-his heart, his soul.
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