FICTION

Solomon’s Half-Way House

TALBOT MUNDY October 1 1934
FICTION

Solomon’s Half-Way House

TALBOT MUNDY October 1 1934

Solomon’s Half-Way House

TALBOT MUNDY

FICTION

CONCLUSION

LEAD ON," said Hanno.

But Miguel demurred: “Car-rr-amba, senhor,

Dumaurier is no longer my friend! He would rather shoot me than you. I should ride last. What say

you?”

Girdlestone promptly took the lead—half-seeing; he had smashed one lens of his spectacles. He didn’t know the way. He looked exactly what he was—a rather prematurely ageing scholar, fit to take charge of a summer vacation camp. But he was a strangely gallant figure, upright, moonlit, on a mule that had already sensed his inexperience. He was having hard work to manage reins and rifle.

Hanno knew the way well enough. But Miguel knew it better and was a much better judge of what the mules could do.

“I had begun to think you were a man,” said Hanno. Miguel shrugged, swore, seemed to hesitate, then suddenly rode forward. In another moment Girdlestone was last. Night thudded to the steady ambling hoofbeat of three mules that knew there was work to be done. They thumped along a sandy uphill trail into gloom that deepened as the flanking hills grew higher and as clouds began banking below the moon. Girdlestone shouted from the rear:

“What chance of rain?”

Miguel answered over-shoulder:

“Never! No rain yet for a month. If there is justice in heaven, let it not rain !”

But Charles Dumaurier’s favorite boast—“the devil serves me”—seemed more accurate than the almanac. First

came rain and then the wind—hail—thunder— blasts from the Libombas screaming through the gaps all ways at once. No shelter until lightning revealed an overhanging granite rock, blackened by the bivouac fires of generations. Miguel rode beneath it and drew rein until the steaming mules were nose to nose.

"Let us wait here until daylight.”

“Are you out for your health?” asked Hanno. “Senhor, no less than you am I chivalrous. Nor am I superstitious—heaven forbid it! But this is not yet the season for rain. This is a warning to prevent our going forward.”

Hanno interrupted: "See here. Use your

brains. Dumaurier will count on this to stop us. So he may ease up a bit, to save himself if not his mule. He has had no rest lately, remember.” Girdlestone agreed. Llis teeth were chattering. “We’ll catch our death of chill here. Let’s go.” A flash of lightning revealed the wet track— the terror in Miguel’s eyes, the flint in Girdlestone’s. The leathery old prof, was lost, limp, bewildered, but he’d die before he’d quit. Hanno wheeled his mule into the rain and rode on. They followed, splashing behind him. The mules began to put some stingo into it to get the sooner to the

journey’s end. They were Dumaurier’s mules; they knew the distance to the stable.

On, then, in the drenching dark, by bridle-paths that seemed to hang, when the lightning flashed, between roaring chaos and the blue-black home of Thunder. Streams crashed upon unseen shelves of rock and tumbled in roaring tumult amid boulders, rolling them until the cannonade of rock on rock outbid the storm. It was up to the mules and their homing sense. The haunting dread in Hanno’s mind was Dumaurier’s mule, that would also be yearning for cracked com in a warm, dry shed.

A nightmare ride—worse than a storm at sea. What could Hanno imagine? Doris? How imagine her? He only knew her as a quietly unobtrusive girl with grey eyes who had spent a night and a day as his guest; whose company he liked because she hadn’t any affectations. She had been so natural and companionable that he hardly remembered what he said to her or what she said to him, except for their talk about Girdlestone. He tried to remember Dumaurier’s place—it was almost a village—and imagine where she might be. He couldn't imagine. But he could imagine too easily Charles Dumaurier, somewhere ahead in the rain. What chance had Doris Girdlestone against a bully so contemptuous of manhood as to leave his brothers in the lurch to save his own neck? He might mean to carry her off as a hostage. He might not. Part Mauritius-French, part negro, part Portuguese, a trace of back-street English, murderer—perhaps a maniac !

Ride, ride, ride—with wrinkled khaki chafing raw skin, counting hoofbeats, measuring the ill-remembered miles— counting again and again his unused ammunition—staring

ahead, to miss ho glimpse of the trail through driving rain when lightning flashed it into view. He wondered how Girdlestone felt. His fault. His daughter. He could hardly be enjoying himself. He could hear Miguel snorting as loud as his mule, but no sound from the prof, except the splash of his animal’s hoofs now and then where the water lay deep. Kill him? Maybe. Pity. Not a bad sort the prof, after all. Kill Miguel? Serve him right. But a tough guy, Miguel—hard-bitten and hard to kill—good sense, cowardice and cynicism all mixed. Not a bad sort, in his own way.

A bad night. Hungry. Bones, nerves, muscles, eyes, all aching. But daylight at last and the end of the storm. Sunrise, turning swamps below to southward into opal splendor. Mules’ ears up again at last, set forward. Girdlestone—he hardly dared to look—bolt upright, grim as death, eyes straight ahead of him, his long lips tight, his rifle across his knees and reins loose on the mule’s neck. All in—an automaton; his strength of will had burned all the strength of his body. He was no more good.

Miguel? Wet, fat, sullen—Portuguesy—head between his shoulders—sodden black hat drooping over his ears. Saving himself. Sulky. No spurt left in him, no humor, no enthusiasm—no fear, either. Murderous. Probably dependable, at something less than half-speed.

The smell of wet earth, even stronger than the smell of wet mules—mist steaming upward—and at last a glimpse of Dumaurier’s gap, in a notch of the range of hills ahead. If he was home he could see them coming. His nest was well placed; he could view every yard of the trail for ten miles; he could set an ambush in any one of a hundred clumps of low scrub. The trail dipped downward for a mile, then upward—

Suddenly he saw him !

Was his mule lame? He was down in the dip. He seemed stuck in the stream that crossed the trail—no—perhaps letting the mule drink—out—on—slowly—the mule was walking.

“If his mule has drunk too much—” said Miguel.

No one else spoke. Girdlestone seemed asleep. He wasn’t, but he didn’t react; his nerves had quit. Hanno bullied his tired mule to a faster stride and Miguel kept pace, but Girdlestone lagged in the rear.

It was a funeral pace, a snail’s pace. Hanno tried to ride like Tod Sloan, but the mule wouldn’t respond. Then Dumaurier saw them.

pOR A MOMENT he looked like putting up a fight, right

there where he was. No. He rode on. He was having trouble with his mule. Hanno, his eyes strained from staring through the night, couldn’t make out what was happening. Miguel gained, stride by stride, until his mule’s nose was at Hanno’s knee.

“He rode too hard,” said Miguel. “His mule is half-dead. Quick now, and we overtake him !”

Miguel was heavier than Hanno, but he knew how to get that last ounce out of a spent mule. It was like a cavalry charge—a real one, not a painting—men and animals

too foundered to think speed, too numb to feel, too nerveless to do more than strain and strain, carried along by each other’s half-conscious nightmare rivalry. Miguel led by a yard until they staggered through the watercourse and began to breast the rise.

Then Dumaurier’s mule fell. He shot it—no one knew why; it looked like the rage of a cornered maniac. He put three shots into it. He shot it after it was dead. Then—at a range that was proof conclusive he had lost all judgment— he fired three shots at Miguel and Hanno. Then he ran— to the right-—the wrong side of a dyke in the flank of the rise—in full view.

A man could have walked almost as fast as the mules were going. Miguel tried a pot-shot from the saddle—you could see where his bullet knocked a lump of rock from the dyke fifteen or twenty feet away from the scrambling target. What was Dumaurier doing? Scrambling like a madman, pulling away stones. Building a wall to fight behind? Not likely; there were scores of good chances to take cover.

Suddenly the mules quit. They refused to pass the dead mule. Girdlestone was jog-jog-jogging down the trail, best part of half-a-mile away; he hadn't reached the stream yet. Hanno rolled out of the saddle and reeled. His legs wouldn’t function. He had to waste about a minute exercising them. As for his arms—he knew he couldn’t shoot straight—no use kidding himself—go close—shoot at short range where he couldn’t miss—perhaps his arms would steady up a bit when he used them for something else than holding reins and rifle hour after hour. A bullet from Dumaurier whined so wide that the odds of fatigue seemed pretty evenly divided. Miguel threw up the sponge:

“I can’t walk!”

Hanno led him; shoved him up on to a rise at the side of the track.

‘‘Lie there. Blaze away when you see him—and try not to hit me!”

Nothing for it but to follow Dumaurier’s course up the flank of the dyke. Not so difficult after a minute or two. Down near the trail it was as rough as the devil—all loose rock, but after fifty or sixty feet there was a regular groove of smooth rock, almost like a gutter, washed clean by the rain. But no cover—and no sign of Dumaurier.

However, Miguel’s rifle spat—three times. Better hurry. Take a chance on being hit by Miguel. Dumaurier couldn’t fire two ways at once.

‘‘Can I shoot straight when I see him? Go close! Go close!”

Sudden then, so sudden it was paralyzing. Tumbled rock to right and left, a stink of animals, a dark hole—one shot from Miguel, chipping the rock three feet away—then the flash of Dumaurier’s rifle—flash, din, stink of powder—still alive, anyhow !—forward, down into a dark hole—headlong. Hanno jumped, in an instinctive effort to fall spread-eagled. He kicked something. Someone grabbed his leg. He fell on his shoulder-blades on soft dirt, and the jolt did him good but he lost his rifle. He could see daylight through the hole —saw Dumaurier—no rifle, either—he had kicked him in the eye.

They grappled. He didn’t remember his pistol until Dumaurier tried to get it. He couldn’t see. They gasired in each other’s faces. He couldn’t get his arm free. He fired with the pistol jammed against Dumaurier’s torso somewhere, then crawled clear and sat with his back to a wall. He sat still for a long time—an eternity—perhaps four— five minutes.

MIGUEL and Girdlestone were in a sort of dumb conference, staring at each other across a mule that was too tired to move away and let Girdlestone collapse. Hanno tapped his pistol to explain what had happened. Then he got the flask out of Girdlestone’s haversack and made him drink some whisky.

Miguel pointed back along the trail. Away in the distance were three men on muleback, vague against the skyline, visible only because they moved. Cuyaga was coming. A new emotion, unexplainable and irrational, seized all three and yet no two of them alike. Miguel spoke:

“So Charles Dumaurier is dead? I will wait here. I will tell Cuyaga.” He was in no danger, with no Charles Dumaurier alive to betray confidences. He didn’t propose to exert himself or to run risks for nothing. The girl was Girdlestone’s—or Hanno’s—anyhow, not Miguel’s. Miguel took the flask from Girdlestone and helped himself.

Girdlestone grinned. Fatigue and whisky had released whatever it was that underlay stubbornness. There was a kind of cunning on his strained face. His broken spectacles magnified one eye; the other stared dull through a glassless rim. He stared at Miguel.

“You know—what?” he demanded. It hurt him to speak. But it hurt him more to think Miguel knew where to look for the treasure. He hated to leave Miguel alone.

“Stay here, both of you,” said Hanno. “Mules are all in. So are you. You can’t walk.”

He turned and left them. Weariness had stripped him, too, down to essentials. A lone-handed man. No dramatics for him, no audience; none but himself, and above all not Girdlestone. Why? He couldn’t have answered; didn’t ask himself. He walked on. Thank goodness, his feet weren’t

sore. He was bruised all over and bleeding somewhere—or perhaps the blood was Dumaurier’s. He tucked the rifle under his arm, washed his hands on the wet leaves that overhung the trail and wiped them on his pants. He wished he had something to smoke. His pipe was broken. His matches and his one packet of cigarettes were all pulp from the rain. He didn’t once glance backward. Treasure? Let ’em have it

HE ARRIVED in the gap and stood still. It was like a dream. He rubbed his eyes on the back of his hand and stared. Dumaurier’s house wasn’t there. Had he gone blind or something? Stables, yes. Huts, yes—some of them. Sheds, yes. Wagons, cattle kraal, some goats, a cur dog. Half a dozen snuff-and-butter-colored brats, all staring and ready to run. But no house. It was nearly a minute before he realized the house had burned down. It was a tangle of blackened iron and charred wood. Last night’s rain had put the fire out. Nine-tenths of the ruin had fallen through the burned floor to the cellar. Seven of thirteen thatched huts —“separate apartments” as Dumaurier called them, in which he kept his black waves—had burned, too. The six unbumed ones were beyond the ruin.

Lightning? Not likely. It must have burned before the rain came. Arson? Was that why Dumaurier bolted homeward? If so, how had he received the news? By native runner? Too late to ask Dumaurier !

Not a human being in sight, except those bare-bellied brats. Not a word of English, open-mouthed, pop-eyed, stupid—might as well question the dog. One of the brats ran to a hut on the far side—big hut, bigger than the others. Hanno followed. The kid vanished. So did all the other kids.

“Better watch out for Dumaurier’s Nubians; they’re killers.”

But he walked across the open with his rifle in the crook of his arm, cold-eyed, steady. His hands weren’t shaking

now. Nothing shook. Nothing wavered. If he had come too late, it was not too late for vengeance, although he didn't think of it as vengeance. He would know. He would act.

The hut was the middle one—oval, low-eaved. A woman —fat, with a broken nose; he recognized her—stuck her head out through the low door, slammed the door shut and shot the bolt. He tried to kick the door down, but he couldn't. He took a sharp stick and began to dig at the dry mud wall. The door opened. He shoved his rifle through, and followed that—a fool trick; someone could have grabbed the rifle, but nobody did. He had to duck low to go in. It was very dark in there. Full of women—he could hear them. They smelt like mice. He saw eyes, shapes— eight; no, nine women—and a heap of sacking. The sacking moved. He stepped toward it; sensed or imagined something, and ducked quick. A hatchet missed him. A woman crawled into the darkest corner. The sacking writhed.

He fired a pistol shot into the thatch. They understood that. Silence—breathless.

“Pull those sacks off!” he commanded.

One of them understood that. She pulled the sacks off one by one, using one hand, groping beneath with the other. Hanno took a step toward her, so she went to work like a terrier in hay, with both hands. There were fifty or sixty sacks. They stank of stables.

T30UND, GAGGED, tied to a crowbar driven deep into " the earth floor. He pulled out his knife and cut her

“Hurt?”

“No. Where’s father?”

“Half a mile away. He’s all right.”

He led her outside, limping because the leather reim had bitten deep into her ankle. Her eyes were valiant. The gag had pressed her lips white. A woman slammed the hut

door behind them and shot the stinkwood bar into its notch in the post.

"Can you walk?”

"Yes.”

Silence. Not a word atout herself. Swell girl. She was in pain, too. When they came to the gap she had to stop and chafe her ankle. She sat on the rock where Dumaurier used to sit with his spyglass to see who was coming. There were those brats again. They stared, expecting something. There was lots of cover for a rifleman. The women’s huts were hardly beyond pistol range. Hanno stood and faced the compound with his rifle ready. j

“Charles Dumaurier?” she asked.

"Dead.” He didn’t look at her.

“Did you kill him?”

"Did you think I’d kiss him?”

He turned and looked down the trail. He could count six mules where he had left three, this side of the dead one. Where was Cuyaga? Miguel? Girdlestone? Strange customer, Cuyaga; you’d have thought he’d ride on. Treasure? Maybe. Come to think of it, Dumaurier had acted like a maniac, unless—maybe that hole was the cache he had said was Solomon’s.

HE DIDN’T WANT to talk. He felt too good, and he wanted her to feel good, too. The sun was ’way up and the mist was going. Earth smelled good, looked good. Away in the distance he could see the Limpopo River, blue between green banks, winding seaward. In his mind’s eye he could see his little ketch at anchor. The sea was waiting for him. However, when he saw she could walk without too much distress, he asked a question, taking care to grin, so that she’d tegin to recover humor even if she couldn’t feel it yet.

“Who tied you?”

“The women. When we got here Dumaurier pulled the sack off my head, and gave me some food. I felt better. Then one of Dumaurier's brothers tried to kiss me, and there was a light. Charles Dumaurier knocked him down. I thought he’d killed him. But he got up, and went out of the house spitting blood. 1 heard him gallop away. After that they locked me in a bedroom, and I was glad to lie down. But I heard Charles and his brothers ride away. I fell asleep. When I woke up it was getting dark, but I felt fit for anything, so 1 knelt on the cot and looked through the window, thinking of escape. I could see the young Dumaurier that Charles had knocked down.

He was talking to the two Nubians. They were quite near, but of course I couldn't understand a word, except when the Nubians couldn't understand him either and he used a little English; but when he did that he dropped his voice. I thought I understood him to say Charles was done for, or as gocxi as done for. He may not have said that. He came into the house and I heard him break a door down. Perhaps he took money ; I don’t know. He took something. I know he drank, and 1 know he gave some to the Nubians. Then he rode off. It was dark. I had no lamp. I heard the Nubians drinking in the other room. I was scared.”

“Better talk about something else then.” “No, I'm all right now. The black women came in, lots of them, and began to quarrel with the Nubians. I broke the cot and took a piece of it to break out the iron windowbars—they were only set in a wooden frame. But the Nubians smashed the door and came in. There was an awful fight. The Nubians had left their guns in the other room and one of the women ran off with them. All the other women tried to keep the Nubians from dragging me out of the house. They fought like tigers, and I tried to escape, but two women held me—they had hands like vises; I couldn’t break their hold. One of the Nubians broke loose and found a full am of kerosene. He swished it all over the floor of the big room, and then set fire to it with the table lamp.

“We had to run. The house burned like tinder, and the sparks fired the roofs of the huts. The Nubians still tried to carry me off, and I kept trying to escape, although I don’t know what I’d have done if 1 had escaped. At last one of the women hit a

Nubian with an axe, from behind, and the other one dragged him away. I don’t know where they went. The women tied me hand and loot, and buried me under a heap of sacks, and I don’t know what happened after that, except that there was a thunderstorm, until about fifteen minutes before you came, when they pulled off the sacking and gagged me, and then heaped on more sacking.”

“Well, it’s all over,” said Hanno. "There’s nothing so good as the fine weather after a

HIS EYES were on the skyline. She was looking at him. He knew it. After about a minute she switched her thought to the other track again:

“Are those black women Dumaurier’s wives?”

“His wddows.”

“Then I think my guess was right. I believe they were trying to save me for Charles Dumaurier.”

“Sure. Good dogs, guarding the master's loot. Do you play hunches?” His eyes were again on the skyline. ‘T’ve a hot one. There’s a showdowm coming. Pretend you know more than you do. But say nothing.” “Very well.”

She was looking at him again, and again he knew it, although he stared ahead. The wind came straight along the trail toward them. There was a noise like machine-gun firing in the distance. There were small objects moving toward them—not mules; too low, too swift. Motor cycles.

The six mules were grazing. Miguel, arm in arm with Girdlestone, came staggering down the track at the side of the dyke. Girdlestone fell where the going was rough, near the bottom. He was drunk. Not very drunk, but incapable. He had no restraint now—nothing left but the ten-year-old toy that had read books and promised himself to become a great explorer. No manners left. He leered at Doris. Miguel dragged him to his feet.

“Well, so there you are. ’Shamed of yourself, I daresay—all the trouble you’ve been. See this? See it? Who said I was looney? Eh? Who’s looney?”

He produced his handkerchief, unknotted it. It was full of finely crushed quartz.

“Gold! Shipping ore! Refractory—they couldn’t extract it. So they carried it on slaves’ heads to the Limpopo, to be shipped home and treated. This was half-way house.”

"That cave is full of this,” said Miguel. "Charles was afraid to ship it, for fear the Government would find out.”

"Skeletons!” said Girdlestone. “Lots. Skulls all broken. Slaves killed—stop ’em talking. What do I care!” He flung the crushed quartz at Miguel. "I’ve found what he called his plaque. It’s genuine. PreMishnaic Hebrew! Idiot—he never pried it loose. More than a hundred others underneath it. Priceless. Ha ha!” He pulled out a big stiff envelope. “Agreement with the Portuguese in Liston—certified by U. S. consul-general. They get the bullion—ail theirs. I get what’s worth having. Ha ha!”

I le shook the envelope at Doris. “Who said I was looney?”

CUYAGA had been standing near the mouth of the hole, shading his eyes with his hand. He stared until two motor cycles crackled to a standstill near the dead mule. Down at the stream w'ere four more motor cycles, one with a side-car having hard work to get through. Away behind, uphill, was what looked like a motor ambulance. Cuyaga came down on the run. Nobody spoke. Two Portuguese soldiers, lolling at ease beside their motor cycles, sprang to attention and saluted Cuyaga. He stared at Hanno.

"The commandant,” he said. “From Chai-Chai.” He beckoned Hanno aside, stared hard and spoke swiftly: “I have

taken possession in the name of the Republic

of Portugal. He”—he glanced at Girdlestone

—"has authority, given in Liston. I was.

sent from Liston io investigate.” He tapped

his breast. "I have authority that I must

Continued on page 32

Continued from page 20—Starts on page 18

show to the commandant—now', before he— take care that he doesn’t investigate you! You understand me? Excuse me a moment.” He strode away to meet the side-car coming

Miguel walked up, green-grey.

“Senhor, you and I must stick together. Cuyaga lingered to search the Dumauriers’ pockets. This is the commandant. To shut my mouth, and perhaps yours also, he will arrest us both for having burned the postoffice. Cuyaga is betraying us now !”

“Not he,” said Hanno. “Watch Cuyaga. He’s a man, if I know one.”

They watched Cuyaga. He and the commandant stood alone, out of earshot of tire soldiers. The commandant’s shoulders and arms were working, but Cuyaga stood quite still. It was worth watching. Suddenly the commandant stiffened. Cuyaga saluted him; he walked to his side-car, got in, gave a command, a horn tooted a signal. The two near the dead mule started their engines and rode forward. In another moment the commandant in his side-car whizzed past, looking straight ahead and seeing nothing. Cuyaga came leisurely uphill. Girdlestone W’as laying down the law' to Doris; he sounded half-crazy, but it was only whisky on a tired brain. She w-as pretending to listen, but watching Hanno.

Cuyaga approached Hanno, smiling.

“He has gone,” he said, “to wipe out all the rest of the Dumauriers or — or be investigated. There are twenty more men on the way, but he came in a hurry to settle my hash, if that is the right phrase. My American is rusty. He will settle yours unless you step lively. He has had a close call. He may try to save his self-esteem by setting his teeth into someone else. And you burned the office at Pearson’s Place. So clear out.”

“Girdlestone?”

“The Girdlestones are all right. He has official documents. Girdlestone is mentioned in my letter of authority. But you—get to

“I have to go to Lourenço Marques for clearance papers first.”

“Do you see that ambulance? I will send you in that as far as the ford. Take the rowboat from there to Chai-Chai, weigh your anchor, and go! There’s no telegraph wire between here and Lourenço Maiques. Get your clearance papers and put out to sea without wasting a minute.”

Cuyaga was looking at Doris. Anticipation was in his eyes. Hanno went up and interrupted Girdlestone.

“I’m going. Cuyaga says you’re safe enough.”

“Going? Alone?”

Hanno looked straight at Doris. There w’as a second’s silence.

“No, not alone,” he answered.

Girdlestone seemed dazed. “Going w'here?”

"Lourenço Marques for papers. Then Reunion, Mauritius, Zanzibar, Seychelles, Socotra—and all islands east. Doris will probably write to you from—”

“Zanzibar,” said Doris.

“Well, I’ll be darned!” said Girdlestone.

Cuyaga grinned and shook his fist.

“Trust you, Hanno, to steal the only girl in sight ! I congratulate her. You annoy me. Get going. Shake hands.”

Miguel sighed.

“Romance?” he said. “Romance? I never even guessed it! Senhorasenhor—Miguel Braganza’s felicitations!” He bowed with a dancing-master motion of the right foot, making a perfect Old World gesture with his broad-brimmed, battered black hat.

The End