JAMES CLIFTON PETERS
A DRY, crackling heat hung over the vast plain. The sun burned down blank and soulless from an empty sky.
Water holes dried. The waters of the lake sank lower and lower until its lagoons and shallows were wide muddy reaches whose sulphuric exhalations were carried across the veldt by the burning wind.
Each day found fresh carcasses of animals dead from exhaustion, carcasses with long muddy tongues protruding as though to the very last moment the wretched beasts had hoped to suck in moisture. The vultures grew fat as Christmas turkeys. Because the haunches of their victims were lean, the lions and leopards killed twice or thrice in a night. And the weeks went by. and the months went by, and still no cloud appeared in the blinding heaven, no rain fell on the parched earth.
In those arid months Roger Kirk worked like a man possessed. Fourteen, sixteen, often eighteen hours each day he was in the saddle. There was so much to be done now that the drought, with famine and pestilence in its train, had come riding on iron hoofs across the great farm he had carved from the African wilderness.
The crops never came up. Often Roger saw troops of starving natives moving along the old caravan road, wandering aimlessly under the burning sun in long antlike lines —tall men, women with milkless breasts, little wrinkled children, all of them weak and dazed with suffering.
On the farm, stealing of every kind increased. The outlying sheep camps were raided, even the home yards suffered. Roger Kirk grew to suspect even his own Bakuyu herders. The only man on whom he could absolutely depend was Lloyd Adams, his foreman.
TT WAS in one of the low saloons that dot the back streets of Nairobi, frequented by the rougher element of the colony which does not care for the more decorous appearance of the Norfolk Hotel, that he first had met Adams.
The man was sitting at a table in a quiet corner when Roger came in. He was the sort of person that attracts instant attention. A man who was like a block of hewn granite. A great shock of golden hair sprawled on his head, a golden beard covered his face. His blue eyes were like agates, a polished surface giving no hint of the thoughts passing through the brain behind them. In age about thirty-five or -six.
The fight started abruptly, inexplicably, as such things do begin. A hulking, half-drunken Dutchman tripped over Roger’s outstretched legs and turned on him with a volley of guttural oaths. Kirk had a redhead’s temper. Though he was a good forty pounds lighter than the other man, he was on his feet like a cat, driving his fist into the giant’s face.
The Dutchman crashed heavily to the sawdust-covered floor.
A mutter of anger ran through his companions sitting at a neighboring table. They surged to their feet and bore down on Roger. He was overwhelmed as by a flood. A torrent of blows beat him to the floor, where heavy boots smashed into his ribs. Through the tangle of legs Roger caught a sudden glimpse of Lloyd Adams.
The golden man had towered to his feet. Very deliberately he came to the group of ponderous Dutchmen. His big hands closed on two necks. Effortlessly he hurled the men across the room. Man after man he seized and tossed aside as though they were babies. Only once did he strike a blow. That was when an enraged Dutchman snatched up a bottle and crept stealthily behind him. Roger yelled a warning. The golden man whirled, dodged the descending bottle. His left arm moved too quickly for the eye to follow. But the Dutchman crumpled to the floor, his face a shattered mask, cries of pain coming from his mangled lips. Frightened, his companions drew back. The golden man stooped and lifted Roger in his arms. With never a glance back, he strode out of the saloon.
Outside the door he set his burden on the ground. "Feeling all right?” he asked.
"A bit groggy,” Roger confessed.
“I don’t wonder. A nasty business, being ganged.”
“It’s lucky for me you took a hand.” Roger said. “I’d have been pretty badly smashed up if you hadn’t.”
The other man nodded. “Probably,” he agreed. “Well, I must be getting along.”
Roger grasped his arm. “Wait a bit,” he said. “I can’t let you run off like this. Where are you stopping?”
"The Norfolk. For today. Tomorrow I’ll be broke.”
Roger whistled. “Want a job?” he asked.
“No. A genuine job. Plenty of hard work.” He explained: “I’ve a farm out on the veldt. Sheep and grain and so forth. Native labor. I need a good foreman.”
“Any fever?” the golden man asked.
"Hm. Animals? Big game, I mean. Lions and so forth.
Any of them?”
"No, buffalo. Plenty of cats, though. A few elephants and rhinos. But there’s plenty of buck. Some real good hunting.”
“Not interested in buck. The big game is all that attracts me. You see—I came to Africa to be killed.”
“You'll take the job then?” Roger asked after a long moment of silence; and the golden man nodded indifferently.
All that, Roger thought as he stumbled wearily into the small stone house that was his home, had happened three years before. In Lloyd Adams he had found a priceless jewel of a foreman. No task was too difficult or too tedious for him to undertake. And. although he was a spendthrift of health, nothing seemed able to rust the iron of his body. Recklessly he would enter a thick stand of reeds in pursuit of a wounded lion; equally reckless, he would go into a smallpox-infected native village and care for the sick and dying. His fame spread over weary miles of veldt and jungle, and the natives came from afar to see the great golden bicana.
Then came the drought !
Work doubled, trebled, quadrupled. Days grew too short for the men to accomplish all that must be done in them. Roger Kirk grew unutterably weary. Every fibre of his body cried out for long hours of dreamy ease in some cool, shaded spot never touched by the blistering air of a waterless and sun-flayed world.
Lloyd Adams grew weary, too. But his body showed no sign of fatigue. He did not grow lean and stringy, his face
A dramatic story of the African veldt, of the witch doctor who sought vengeance, of the woman who wouldn't admit defeat and the man who couldn't forget
remained full, with no dark pouches beneath the eyes. He went about his work as always, moving like some insensate machine. Only he grew more and more reckless of his life and, more and more, he turned to whisky as a relief from the unending strain.
SAVE for the two black servants, Roger found no one in the house. Late though the hour was, Adams had not yet returned. Roger wondered at the man’s magnificent vitality that allowed him to take every liberty with the African climate, to violate its every taboo, and yet emerge unscathed and capable of doing the work of three ordinary men. Wearily he gave orders that dinner should be served.
It was close to an hour before Adams came in. Roger, seated in a corner and smoking his pipe, saw the man’s vast bulk fill the door.
“Hullo,” he said. “You’re late. I’ll have the boys serve your dinner right away. I’ve had mine.”
Adams nodded and beat the red dust from his clothing.
“I want a drink,” he said. “My throat is drier than the veldt.” He poured himself a stiff drink and downed it at a gulp. “There’s been another lot of sheep stolen,” he announced.
“Where from?” Roger demanded.
“Number three camp. Ten ewes gone.”
Roger drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. Adams, after a moment, got up and poured himself a second
“I'll lay you ten to one,” Roger said abruptly, “that the thief is that witch doctor who lives in the gully beyond the river.”
"Probably,” the other man agreed. “But there’s no proving it.”
“I can chase him out of the country though,” Roger declared violently. “I’ll bum his hut, give him a taste of kiboko if I have to.”
Adams shook his head. "They’re tricky devils, these
witch doctors. No telling what he might do. Better not start anything."
“I’m going to stop this thieving,” Roger declared obstinately.
“Oh, well.” Adams shrugged his great shoulders and swallowed the last of his drink. “Go ahead and try it. Here comes my dinner.”
He ate marvellously little, Roger thought, for one with so great a body. His dinner finished, he again took possession of the bottle and poured his third drink of the evening.
“You’ll kill yourself,” Roger said abruptly. “No man can drink the way you do and work the way you do and continue to live. Not in Africa. I wish you would quit the stuff.”
“I’ve been in this accursed country for three years,” Adams answered snappishly. “I’ve tried dangerous wild beasts. I’ve invited fever and smallpox. I can’t be killed, it seems; can’t even be badly hurt. Now I’ll see what whisky and the sun can do.”
“Good lord, man!” Roger demanded incredulously. “Do you mean to say you’ve been deliberately courting death these three years?”
“And three before them. Better if I were dead. Better for me, better for several people.”
He poured more whisky into his glass. Roger Kirk watched him anxiously. He had seen other men reach this state. Usually, then, there was an accident while cleaning a gun.
The night outside grew heavy and oppressive; hot, stifling.
“I’ve been an awful rotter,” Adams continued in a flat voice. Black depression fell about him like a cloak. “Tell me, what good thing can anyone say about a man who marries a wonderful girl and promptly starts in to make a mess of her life and his own by continual drinking, and by acting the fool generally?”
Roger did not answer. Nervously he wiped the cold sweat from his hands.
Adams nodded gloomily. “Nothing, eh,” he muttered. “Well, I’ve done all that and more. I won’t try to explain my actions, can’t explain them, perhaps. The only important thing is that I behaved like a beast.”
He stopped and filled his glass once more. The night was like a vast bowl of heated iron pressing down upon the two men. The distant thunder of a lion’s roar came rumbling across the black veldt.
MY WIFE was a Catholic,” Adams continued. “And, of course, she couldn't divorce me. She never complained, but she must have been awfully sick of me. Then she had a baby, a boy. Even that didn't make me brace up. Then the thing happened that sent me off the deep end. I learned that a chap called Marsh was interested in my wife. He was a retired West Indian doctor some fifty odd years of age, an authority on tropical diseases and an awfully decent sort. A thousand times better than I. Well, I investigated the stories and found them true. This Marsh was spending a lot of his time with my wife and she •—well, she must have welcomed any change from me.
“Mind you, she did nothing wrong. Neither she nor Marsh was that sort. But I’m no fool. I could see that she liked the man, loved him probably. I was the only barrier between them. Apparently there must have been a spark of
decency left in me, for I tried to commit suicide by going out into the Channel in a catboat and jumping overboard. But a tramp steamer came out of the dusk and picked me up. I signed on as a member of the crew and stayed with the ship as far as Bombay, then jumped.
“For a year I wandered about in Northern India and Turkestan. One day I met a chap on a houseboat on the River Jhelum in Kashmir. I didn’t care much for him, but he was company. An awful boaster, though. We were looking over some illustrated papers he had when I saw a photograph of Marsh and Helen. This chap seemed to know them well. He told me all the London gossip. How Helen’s husband had been a cad and a rotter, how he was drowned in the Channel. A good thing, he said, since it had given Helen her freedom to marry Marsh. I asked him if they were married, and he replied that so far as he knew they were, since the wedding had been set for a date a week after he had sailed for India.
“Well, that settled it. I could see that the only decent thing left for me was to die. But I couldn’t bring myself to try suicide again. Instead, I courted danger and death. I tried tiger hunting and pearl diving. I tried banditry in Mongolia and a revolution in Central America. I lived through everything. Then I came to Africa, sure that here death would overtake me at last. It hasn’t. I’ve given it every opportunity and I am still alive. And I should be dead. Helen’s happiness depends on that. I have no right to go on living.”
His voice trailed off into silence. Roger stirred restlessly.
“I don’t see the need for your death,” he protested. “Your wife will never know that you are alive. What possible difference can your unknown death in some forgotten comer of the world make to her now?”
"What if someone who knows me should stumble on me here; if the news came to her ears? Man, it would kill her! She would be compelled to leave the man she regards as her husband, the man she really loves. Why, she may even have children by him now. Her whole life would be ruined. God knows I’ve hurt her enough already without adding that to the list.”
He came slowly upright, a black shadow against the black night.
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Continued from page 9
“Once I’ve seen you through this cursed drought,” he said, “then—” He stopped abruptly. “I’m going to tum in,” he muttered. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Roger answered.
At the door Adams whirled suddenly.
“The devil of the whole business, Roger,” he shot out, “is that I still love Helen! I think—I know—that I could make her happy now. And I’d like to see—my son.”
Abruptly he pushed through the door and disappeared. Roger heard the groan of springs as the golden man threw himself on his cot.
'""THE next morning found Roger Kirk •*riding his pony along the track made by the bullock wagons when they hauled timber from the forest. In a dark gully a few hundred yards beyond the shrunken river, he came to the habitation of the witch doctor. He knocked at the low door. There was no answer. He beat with his whip on the door and shouted loudly. Still there was no answer. Exasperated, he took from his pocket a box of matches and set fire to the thatch.
He had no fear of the fire spreading, as the glade was naked of grass. Complacently he watched the smoke curl upward into the hot air. Suddenly he realized that a man was standing at his side. He looked at the middle-aged Mkuyu in silence. There was a quiet dignity in the man’s demeanor and a hint of unlimited power. Somehow his bearing made Roger feel that he was behaving rather badly. He began to bluster, trying to cover up his feeling of being in the wrong.
“What the devil are you doing in my forest?” he demanded.
Quietly the native answered :
“I live here. But if the bwana wishes me to leave, I will do so at once. Only give me time to collect my sheep and goats.”
“Your sheep!” Roger shouted in sudden anger. “You black thief. My sheep. My goats. You’ve stolen them all from me. You’ll get out of here right now !”
In a gust of fury, he drove the man down the narrow path.
At the shamba of his native workers, he left him and rode a few yards to inspect a herd of sheep and goats in the boma there. Behind him he heard low, chuckling laughter. Whirling abruptly, he discovered the witch doctor making the “fig” at him, pointing at him with homed finger and thumb.
Turning his pony, he rode after the man, lashing at him with his rhinoceros-hide whip. Twisting and dodging, the witch doctor fled frantically until cornered in the angle of two high rocks. Then, under the blows that cut into his flesh, he fell face down upon the ground and cowered there, writhing and filling the air with shrill yells of pain. When Roger at last gave over flogging him, the fellow stumbled to his feet and limped around a comer of the rock.
All that day an unaccountable depression, an oppressive sense of loneliness dogged Roger’s every footstep. Night came and he returned to the stone house. A sultry wind was sweeping across the Rift Valley, rattling the wooden shutters, shrieking about the four comers of the house. It was no pleasant thing, Roger reflected, to remember that he might well have an enemy abroad ; an enemy lurking somewhere out there in the gusty darkness.
Lloyd Adams came in, ate his dinner and drank a half-bottle of whisky. Neither man was in a mood for talk. There was a brief interchange of the day’s happenings, a few plans for the morrow’s work. Nothing more. Both went early to bed. Roger Kirk, for the first time in years, bolted the door of his room and slept with a loaded revolver under his pillow.
All that night his sleep was troubled and uneasy, yet nothing happened. Only, toward dawn, he awoke to hear weird, lunatic laughter. Long and loud, whining and wailing: yet somehow sinister and menacing, the appalling utterance rode over
the silence of the night. Thrice he heard it, then silence; the utter, profound stillness of a world crouching, terrified and trembling, before a sinister force with which it knows itself unable to cope.
The day, when at last it came, was even hotter than all those which had gone before it. A burning wind poured over the land like a great river flowing endlessly to the sea. With it came the bitter tang of smoke from bush fires and the hot scent of parched dust. The veldt was like a great mirror from which light and heat rebounded in a blinding torrent. Everywhere was that sense of utter, parched dryness.
Work was a vast weariness that day. His lungs gasping in the hot, jaded air, his mouth and tongue dry and gritty with dust, his head throbbing as though bound by an ever tightening loop of steel wire, Roger Kirk rode over his farm. Late afternoon found him on the crest of a ridge overlooking the stone house. Lloyd Adams joined him
“You’ve got visitors,” he announced.
A7TSIT0RS! Good Lord! What idiots are V out here at this season?”
“One of the boys came out to find me. Said that Tom Cullen had brought a safari to the house and wanted to see you.”
“Hm. Who’s with him?”
“A man, a woman, and—a little boy.” Roger shot a quick glance at the golden man. An impossible theory flashed across his mind. Adams caught the look and nodded. “It might be,” he said slowly.
“Rot,” Roger burst out. “That’s silly. It couldn't be—them.”
Adams shrugged his shoulders. “Why not?” he asked.
“The thing’s impossible. Come down and
“After dark,” the other man answered. “I’m taking no chances.”
Riding down the face of the ridge, Roger wondered whether there might not be some thing in the other man’s suspicions. After all, Tom Cullen would scarcely have brought a safari into this drought-stricken territory without the press of some very strong reason. Therefore his client must have specified this particular spot. But why, why?
At the water hole behind the stone house he found a camp. Tom Cullen hailed him as he rode up.
“Hi, Roger. Visitors for you.”
Roger swung off his horse.
“A poor time to come into this section, Tom. No game any more. Water holes and rivers all dry. It’s an empty land.”
Cullen shook his head, a little puzzled. “Not hunting this trip, Roger. A queer business all around. Who ever heard of a kid of eight on safari? And a man past his prime. And a woman, a real beauty. They’re here to see you. I hope you have a clear conscience.”
“Clear enough. But look here, Tom. I’m in no condition to meet people just now. I’ve been in the saddle all day and I’m filthy with dust. Suppose you bring your party to the house for dinner. I’ll get a bath and a shave and some fresh clothes. You come along about an hour after sundown.” “Good enough,” Cullen assented. “And, Roger, will Adams be there?”
“Couldn’t say, I'm sure. He’s been working late these nights.”
Cullen nodded. “Well, I just thought I’d mention that the man and woman have been discussing him. Asking questions and all that.”
“What do you mean?” Roger snapped.
“Well, I gather that they’re looking for Adams. They call him Paul, though. The woman keeps asking the man if he is sure that Paul is at your farm. And the man answers that he has been ransacking the earth for six years, hunting everywhere, following cold trails and hot until he is absolutely certain. He knows that the man they want is at your farm. I thought you ought to know about it.”
Roger’s brows drew together in a frown.
“Thanks, Tom,” he said. “Glad you told me. See you in two hours.”
With the coming on of night, the wind increased in volume. It swept through the blackness in a wild torrent. The wooden shutters clashed and banged, the wattle trees outside the house thrashed backward and forward.
When Tom Cullen led his party into the room, Roger was waiting for them. He glanced keenly at the three.
The man, he saw, was tall and slim. Sixty odd, he decided. Bronzed by the sun, and with a grizzled mustache and iron-grey hair. A good sort of chap to have for a friend. By the same token, a bad enemy.
The woman was undeniably beautiful. Somewhere near her early thirties. Black hair and a wide, generous mouth. Dark eyes. Something about her that suggested empty years of pain and sorrow. Only a subtle hint, but it was there. A band of gold on a finger of her left hand.
The boy. Roger started as his glance fell upon him. Instantly he knew that the impossible had come to pass. For he was looking at a miniature Lloyd Adams. The same golden hair and ice-cold blue eyes, eyes like polished agates. The same build and the promise of an equally mighty stature.
Tom Cullen introduced his guests: “Mrs. Arden and her son, Paul. Mr. Marsh.”
ABSENTLY Roger acknowledged the 4*introduction. But his mind was afar off, grappling with the queer threads of destiny that fate had drawn together in this isolated African farm. Arden. Her name was Arden. And the grey-mustached man was called Marsh. He was not her husband. Then who could he be? Adams believed that his wife was married to this man. Apparently he was mistaken. The explanation came to Roger. The boasting chap on the Kashmir houseboat, of course. The fellow had evidently been talking big, trying to be impressive. And Adams had believed him. Well, that was that. But what had brought these three here? Why had they followed Adams across half a world? Puzzled, he shook his head.
“Dinner will be ready in just a minute,” he said mechanically.
Helen Arden glanced about the room. Roger guessed that she was looking for the huge bulk and golden head of Lloyd Adams.
“My foreman has been detained,” he said. “I couldn’t say when he will be in.”
The woman started and flashed a quick glance at him.
“It is a wild night to be out,” she said, with a little shiver. Roger was certain that he had never heard a more lovely voice.
“I think dinner is ready,” he muttered.
Silently they seated themselves. Outside the wind roared louder, the shutters clattered noisily. Roger wondered if Adams was peering in one of the windows, his hungry eyes devouring this womán who was his wife. He wondered if the witch doctor was lurking somewhere in that gusty blackness.
One of the white-clad negro boys brought in a silver soup tureen and placed it on the table. Roger lifted the cover.
There came a sudden, piercing scream from Helen Arden. Startled cries burst from the three men. A loud, angry hissing rose above every other sound.
From the tureen came, wriggling and angry, a long, black snake, of the most poisonous kind. Straight across the table it darted, and coiled into a deadly spring. The narrow, venomous head swayed menacingly within a foot of the white face of little Paul Arden.
Frozen with horror, the four adults stared at the awful death that was poised so close to the child. Roger heard Helen speaking in a dry whisper:
“Don’t move, Paul. Don’t move !”
“Oh, God!” she cried suddenly, and
moved to throw herself between her child and the death that was almost caressing his cheek. Roger caught her arm in an iron
^'“Don’t,” he muttered hoarsely. “You’d only make it strike.”
The glass in the window behind them burst suddenly inward and tinkled to the carpet. Through the opening a man dived headlong; a great golden man whose face was like a mask of death. A cry burst from Helen Arden’s white lips:
“Paul!” was all she said, but there was that in her voice which a man would give many years of his life to hear.
Lloyd Adams looked once at the whitefaced woman. For the first time, his blueagate eyes had lost their cold gleam. They were filled to overflowing with a thousand things his tongue could never had said; things that no one perhaps save Helen Arden might understand. That second lasted an eternity. Then he turned toward the table where, amid the gleaming silver and white linen, an evil black rope was swaying, swaying; its fangs only a few inches distant from the colorless face of the golden-haired boy.
Straight to the table he walked and stretched out a massive arm. His fingers closed about the snake’s thick body. In one vivid flash, Roger had leaped to the boy’s side and snatched him away from the table. The gasping sound of released breath ran over the room. Helen swooped down and gathered the boy out of Roger’s arms. But her eyes were intent on the figure of the great golden man.
The black snake was in a fury of struggle. Its long body whipped to and fro, coiling about Adams’ arm, uncoiling, doubling, knotting itself in a frenzy of rage. Its head lashed in impossible contortions; the piercing sound of its hissing filled the room. Once Roger saw its long fangs shear into the flesh of the golden man’s wrist.
Somehow Adams drew his revolver. Three shots crashed out; the reports thundering in the constricted space of the room. Its head blown to bits, the snake hung from his hand like a limp whiplash. Walking steadily, Adams crossed the room and threw open the door. With never a backward glance, he walked into the roaring darkness of the night.
“It bit him,” Helen whispered, her lips bloodless and trembling.
“What?” The grey-mustached man was at her side in an instant. “Bit him ! Quick, Kirk, we can save him yet. I have a snakebite kit.”
Roger Kirk made a dash for the door. Outside, three more shots sounded. Then a single scream, wailing, terrible, broken off short by death.
A few yards from the door he found Adams. The golden man was lying on the ground, his eyes staring upward at the sky.
“I got him, Roger,” he said. “The witch
doctor. And his snake got me. Better so, perhaps.”
THEN the others were all around him.
Roger caught a quick glimpse of Helen dropping to her knees and gathering the heavy golden head into her lap. Cullen held a lantern in his hand. The light gathered in a yellow pool on Adams’ arm. The grey-mustached man was working at the wrist with swift dexterity. Steel glittered in the light.
Suddenly silence fell over the world. The wind ceased to blow, trees and shrubs no longer rattled. Glancing upward, Roger saw that a great mat of low-hanging clouds had covered the sky. In the silence he heard Helen’s voice;
“Paul,” she was crying, a fierce intensity in her tone. “Paul! You’ve got to live, do you hear? You must. Your son needs you. I need you, Paul. Oh, so much, so much. I never believed you were dead. I’ve never loved anyone else. I know you thought I loved David Marsh. But I didn’t. Paul, he is my uncle. You never gave me the opportunity of explaining that to you. He came to England to help me in my trouble. When you disappeared he began to search the world over for you. And, as soon as he had traced you here, he brought us to you. Until then I just waited. All these years I’ve been waiting for you to find yourself. Like Solveig, Paul. You always said I was like Solveig. You’ll live, won’t you? You must, you must !”
The heavy, golden head turned wearily; the blue eyes, that were no longer like hard, shining agates, stared up at the woman’s face.
“Yes,” he said slowly, his voice laden with effort. “If you need me, Helen—I’ll live. I—need you, too.”
The eyes closed again. Abruptly the greymustached man stood up. His deft hands clapped sharply together.
“Yes,” he said. “He’ll live. Death is beaten this time.”
All about them the silence deepened through unutterable intensifications. The world shuddered in the pain of birth. Lightning stabbed poignardlike through the air, and thunder ripped the shattered gloom. The first raindrops fell, round and silver and cool. And then, in a blinding silver curtain, the rain swept down. It came in tossing, swaying sheets that unwound endlessly from some invisible spool. It came with a roar like fire, cascading in white plumes from the house, hammering upon the parched trees and earth that drank greedily of its sweetness and expanded and relaxed. It was ecstasy itself.
Lloyd Adams opened his eyes.
“Dear God, it’s raining,” he said, and his eyes went to his wife’s face, all glistening with tears and rain. His arms reached hungrily toward her.
The long drought had broken.