An eerie tale of savage cunning and a white man whose head was worth his weight in gold
I DIDN'T know this Lane chap at all well, mind you, and in spite of that I found myself saddled with the man for the entire week-end. He was a bit of a power in the mining world, and was negotiating with my firm over some South American property that we wanted. It just happened that I was the only one in the office with an unbooked holiday, so it fell to my lot to entertain our important guest.
Despite my misgiving, it had not been too bad a time at all up to Sunday. We went up to my place on Marble Lake, and 1 was surprised to find how easy it actually was to entertain the man. 1 lis tastes, surprisingly enough, were quite simple, and he preferred a quiet talk to a round of night sjiots. He'd seen quite enough of that sort of thing in his time, he said, and it no longer held much attraction.
He was a little, red-faced, baldheaded chap with faintly shifty eyes of a pale blue color. Somehow he didn’t fill my conception of a prospector or mining man at all. But I soon found that he knew his business through and through, and that he had been just about everywhere in his time.
The Yukon, Australia, New Guinea, South Africa, Peru he knew them all. But it was when he talked of some of the things lie had done and seen that I began to understand why he had grown from prospector to millionaire.
For there was a streak of hard ruthlessness behind those pale eyes, and 1 sensed vaguely that he was not the sort whose conscience ever prevents his hands from closing on anything he really wants. I could not help speculating on how many men there were in the world who would welcome the opportunity of slipping a knife between his well-fatted ribs.
But beyond this aura of fascination the man and I had little enough in common, and by Sunday evening the talk was getting a bit thin. It was while Lane was speaking of his exjx'riences in New Guinea that 1 thought suddenly of Ross Morgan.
MORGAN had taken the cottage next to mine and was living there, writing a book and a series of articles on New' Guinea. I often dropped in on him for a chat and to help out a bit with his work. He’d left New Guinea less than a year before, after sjxmding the greater part of his life there, and I had found him an intensely interesting ¡XTson. If occurred to me that he and Dine ought to have quite a lot in common.
So we went next door. Morgan let us in and led the way into his workroom. The first thing he did w-as to go to his desk and throw a cloth over some object that was lying on it. I wondered vaguely about that, but paid no particular attention because 1 was watching Lane.
The man was looking slowly around the room, and his nostrils dilated at some of the ixlors. He rubbed his hands together and there was a sparkle in his eyes that I had not seen before. I figured that I had the deal tied up cold for our office.
"This surely takes one back," Lane said. “Lordy, but it does !” He fingered an axe-head of polished dark-green stone ground to a razor sharpness. “Many a one of these I’ve had chucked at me." he reminisced. “That’s where this scar came from.”
I’d wondered about the scar that disfigured his left hand and seemed to run well up his wrist. Now I knew.
“And you’ve got arrows and sjx*ars too. I remember seeing a chap kill«! with an arrow like that once.”
He pointed to a diabolical shaft with a bone tip and some fifteen inches of bristling jxircupine-quill barbs.
"It went clean through his leg up above his knee and there was no pulling it out. Only thing was to cut off the leg. We tried to do that and didn’t have the equipment or knowledge. We got the leg off all right, but the chap bled to death. Nasty business."
"Been out there lately?” Morgan asked interestedly. I had been right about him and Lane taking to each other. They were old cronies already.
Lane shook lus head. "Nearly twenty years since 1 was there the last time. It’s where I got mv start though.” "Careful.” Morgan warned, as Dine picked up a needlepointed dirk made from the femur of a cassowary. “That one’s poisoned.” He pointed to the dark smear on the blade. Lane grimaced and set the knife back hastily.
"Nasty stuff,” he muttered. His eyes roved the room. "Bring any heads back with you?”
Morgan seemed not to hear the question. “I’ve seen the last of the place too," he said. “Made my last trip up the fly, seen my last bushman. And I’m not sorry. I’ve wasted the best jiart of my life up there, and it’s no place for a white man. You were wise to get out as soon as you could. There was a time when I should have done the same. I made a fortune there once, and lost it and my luck together. I was with my half-brother then. Like to hear about it?” We said that we would.
Morgan sat on the edge of the table and toyed with the needle-pointed dirk. It made me nervous. One prick from a thing like that . But he only chuckled when I told him. for heaven’s sake, to be careful.
ABOUT the only thing you’ll get from this story,” he ■ said, “is an idea of how easy it is to misjudge a man you trust when there’s money concerned. I’d have trusted
this half-brother of mine with everything I had in the world. In fact, that’s what I did.
“We were trading up Everill Junction way at the time. Not strictly legal, of course, but w'hat trading was in those days? We sold a lot of rum and the like. Got gold for it. Were simply minting money.
“You had to be on the watch every second up there. You know how it was?” he appealed to Lane, who nodded. “The natives were crazy for heads, especially white heads, and in particular they wanted my half-brother’s head.
“It was unicjue, you know. He always wore muttonchop whiskers, and the blacks had never seen anything like them before. They were fascinated. They tried some rare tricks on us at one time and another, but we were quick with our guns and not easy to fool. But we were earning that gold, all right.
"Well, one day we found that our trade goods were beginning to run low, and the question arose of whether we should quit then or get more stuff and carry on with the business. Of course, being humanly greedy, we decided in the end to get more goods. Somehow no one ever seems to have enough gold, and Benny and I were no exceptions. However, we needed more trade stuff, and that meant that one of us had to go downriver and buy it. We tossed, and 1 was the one to go.
"If it liad been anyone but Benny, I wouldn’t have taken the chance. But he was different, being my half-brother and all. I simply couldn’t have cheated him, and I assumed he felt the same way. Which was just where I made my mistake.
“Because I came back with the trade stuff, to find our trading station burned to the ground and no sign of Benny anywhere. At first, naturally, I thought the blacks had got him. But there wasn’t any evidence of a fight. No empty cartridges, I mean, or broken arrows or anything like that. And the bushman never lived who was smart enough to surprise Benny.
“There was just the one answer. Our second canoe was gone. We kept it hidden in a tunnel we’d dug from the river to the bungalow. It was loaded with gold and food, and nobcxly but Benny and I knew about it. So it was pretty obvious what had happened. Benny had skipped, and I knew I’d never see him again.
“And I didn’t. My luck went with him somehow. I never managed to get another trading station going, and I never found an ounce of gold in all my prospecting. I stayed in New Guinea because I never got enough money to get away. I had all sorts of jobs but no luck, and it sort of soured and made me bitter losing everything that makes life worth while that way.
JOHN F. CLYMER
“I’ve spent more than twenty years out there, and this last job of mine with the Geographic people was the first that paid enough for me to get out. Now I’m out I'm sure I’ll never go back. Never! But on this last trip of mine I learned one-
Lane suddenly slapped his fat thigh with a crack that made me jump.
"Benny Croft, that's the name!” he exploded.
Morgan stared at him. “That was his name, all right. You know him?” His eyes got unpleasantly narrow.
“That’s a story, too,” Lane said. “It sort of fits in with yours and explains it, and shows you how easy it is to misjudge a man. You’ve spent twenty years hating a man on what seemed perfectly good grounds. You’ve let your whole life be warped. And all the time you’ve been wrong. Just you listen.
“Maybe a lot of men wouldn’t tell this story because they don’t show up any too well in it. but I don’t mind that. I’ve made my mark in the world and the past’s past. I've always paid my debts and made up for any meanness I did. All except one anyway, and that one’s been under my skin a long time now and I'll be glad to get it off my chest. Now you listen to me and don’t interrupt.”
Lane settled himself more comfortably in his chair. Morgan sat very still, staring at him. For the first time in my life, I knew what writers meant when they said that a man’s eyes smoldered.
1 I 'WENTY years ago,” Lane began. “I was prospecting in New Guinea and having no luck at all. In fact I was just about on my uppers. Somehow I managed to rake together one last small stake and strike out up the Fly River. I had the idea of trying the Lake Murray country,
and that was a mighty desperate chance. Not many men ever came back from there.
“I got up to Everill Junction and went on upriver. And then I lost my outfit. A thing like that happens so fast that you never can quite describe it. but there was a half-floating log I didn't see. I had a heavy load in the canoe, and it went over when I hit the log.
“I managed to tow the dugout ashore, and then I sat down on the bank and cried like a baby. You see, that was my last chance. Everything I owned or could borrow or beg was gone. There I was without fcxxl or weapons in what was probably the most savage place in the world. And worse than that, my last hope of making a living was gone.
“I don’t remember how long I sat there, but when I did start again I went on upriver. Not back toward Everill Junction, mind you, but forward, straight into the black heart of New Guinea. You’d call that madness, now wouldn’t you? And I guess it was. But it was the sort of madness that often pulls the bacon out of the fire. I suppose most successful men go crazy that way some time or other in their lives.
“Well, anyway. I went on. No food, remember. No weapons. No hope. I just went ahead. Probably I expected to die. I don’t remember now. I seemed to know, though, that going ahead was the only thing to do.
“It was afternoon of the second day when I came to the trading post. It was jxrched on the rim of the river bank in a sort of natural glade. There were two buildings. A bungalow of sorts, and a long, nipa-thatched trade building. 1 couldn’t believe 1 wasn’t seeing things.
“A trading post up here! I’d never even heard of one. And what in heaven’s name did the blacks up here possess that was worth trading for?
“1 soon found out. It was gold. Gold in chunks, and gold dust in hollow bamboo sticks plugged with wooden coiks. Mo” gold than I’d ever SITII. I tell you it fair made my fingers itch.
“The chap running the post was a big beefy fellow, with a face SÍ) red and polished that it looked as though it had been carved out of mahogany. He wore those old-fashioned whiskers too. Muttonchop they were calk'd. They were a sort of red-gold in color, and I never saw a man so vain of anything as he was of those chunks of hair. A solid hour or more every day he spent in brushing ’em and combing ’em and doping ’em with some sort of smelly, shiny stuff he had, until they gleamed like so much ship’s brass.”
Lane looked at Morgan then. “That sound like Benny Croft?” he asked.
The other only nodded. “Go on,” he said in a harsh voice.
Lane nodded. “Whiskers like that were a mighty dangerous thing to wear in that country,” he said. “The natives were mad over them. They’d come into the store and buy things they didn’t want just to get a look at Benny’s muttonchops. They’d have given anything in the world for tiis head. Worth its weight in gold to them, it was.
“Worth a lot more than that, in fact. You remember the old devil-devil doctor with the withered leg?” he asked Morgan, who nodded.
“Well,” and Lane licked his thin lips, “once he offered me the weight of Benny’s whole body in gold if I would kill the man and give his head to him. And Benny wasn’t any lightweight. Yes, sir, they wanted that head pretty badly.
“Well, to get back to my story. Benny took me in and gave me something to eat. Then he gave me a job. Said he was all alone, and it was getting on his nerves. He never mentioned having a partner though. I’m sure of that. In fact. 1 got the idea that he was playing a lone hand and it was beginning to ware him. I took tlu* job.
“It was enough to scare anybody,” Lane reflected. “And I didn’t think any the less of him for feeling like he did. There he was all by himself in the middle of a bunch of savage blacks who were just aching to get their claws on the most precious head they’d ever seen. I suppose it was just a question of time while they got the matter of ownership settled, before they’d have a real shot at getting it. Mass attack maybe, or some cunning trick. It must have been quite a strain.
"Benny was no fool. He knew what was in the air all right, and it got so that he hardly dared sleep for fear that one of the bushmen would manage to sneak into the bungalow and get him. And he was never sure about his fcxxl. There had been jxiison in it twice, and it was only luck that he’d discovered it. Because you don’t go kx>king for jxason in fresh cocoanuts.
“When he was trading with the blacks, he could never be sure but that they’d try to jump him. Of course he only let one of them in at a time, but even so he had to keep on the watch every second. And that sort of tiling gets to be mighty wearing on a man.
“So he was about all in when I happened along. I tell you he was glad to see me! He offered me a job like a shot, and I tcxik it even faster. The jiay was the highest I’d ever heard of. An ounce of gold every day.
T’l) BEEN on the job less than a week when things began
to happen. First of all, Benny and I liad a fight. Mostly nerves, of course, but it was really my fault. Benny caught me snooping about trying to locate the place where he’d cached all his gold.
“He didn’t like that. We had words, and then he knocked me down and I got up and he gave me a beating. I wasn’t any match for him at all. I didn’t like it much, but it was my own fault, and I deserved it. However, you've got to remember that I was as ¡xx>r as a church mouse at the time, and the sight of gold fair drove me crazy, and I'd have done just about anything in the world for it. Most men would be the same.
“Then it was maybe a day or two after that when the old devil-devil doctor came and offered me Benny's weight in gold if I’d get him that head with the muttonchop whiskers. He fair licked his lips when he spoke of it.
“Naturally I kicked him out. Benny and I might have our differences, but after all we were both white men and we had to stick by each other. The mistake I made though was in treating the devil-devil man the way I did. I should have bargained with him, kept him dangling, because what we needed most was a margin of time. Because by now we were both scared and could just feel tilings seething up to a boil, and we’d decided to clear out.
“It took time to arrange that. There was all the gold to get ¡lacked and loaded in the big canoe. There were our outfits to be got together. And there was the almost impossible job of doing all this without letting the bushmen get any wind of what we were doing. Because if they got one inkling of our plans, they’d be down on us like a thousand of brick. I tell you, we had a problem on our hands.
“However, we managed it. and got the canoe loaded and ready to light out at a second’s notice. And then we didn’t go. Scared and all as he was, Benny was even more greedy. He was like most men when it came to gold. He wasn’t content with what he had and ready to let well enough alone. Not him. He kept wanting just a bit more, and a bit more after that. So we stayed on, risking our skins just to get a little more gold dust.
“Me, I didn’t like it one bit. I knew the blacks pretty well and I could tell there was some deviltry in the air, and it had me worried. I wanted to slip away while the going was gixxl, but I couldn’t make Benny see things my way.
“I was pretty sick about it all. To be perfectly honest, I was scared green. The idea of those bushmen getting their hands on me took out all the starch. I’d seen some of their work in the past, and the idea of the same tiling happening to me made me want to vomit.
“I began to hate Benny worse than poison. I told him lie was deliberately throwing away our lives. I cursed and raved, and lie laughed at me. The longer we went without anything happening the more cocksure lie got, while it was just the opposite with me.
“He said the bungalow was strong enough to stand a siege, and that we had plenty of guns and ammunition and a lot of half-sticks of dynamite with short fuses like the blackbirders used. He thought that was enough.
“But he didn’t know the blacks the way I did, see? It wasn’t a rush that bothered me. It was one of the cunning tricks those devils know so well how to use. There are things happen out there you can’t explain for all your modern science. They come at you like a knife in the dark when you can’t see to guard. Benny didn’t believe in such stuff, he said. And he’d laugh and sit down to comb his whiskers and brush ’em while he examined his face in an old mirror. He was surely mighty proud of those muttonchops, and it fair made me boil when he did that. But he’d just laugh at me when I blew up. He laughed on the other side of his face before long though.
VJL 7 E WERE asleep when it happened.
* * We slept in the same room, but one of us always stayed awake on watch. I was sleeping this night, and Benny was watching. Or should have been. Me, I was having a bad dream, the way I did pretty nearly every time 1 fell asleep then. And all at once I was jerked right up out of my dream by the most fearful scream I ever heard. I tell you it fair made my hair bristle, and the shivers go up and down my spine like waves of ice. I jumped right up in bed, and the cold sweat came bursting out all over me.
“I didn’t hear the scream again, but there was a sort of groaning noise over by Benny’s bed, and every once in a while I’d hear a queer, flopping sort of sound like the noise a fish makes jumping on the bottom of a boat after it’s been caught. Then the groaning again and Benny’s voice trying to say something in a funny, strangled sort of way.
“I started to get out of bed. It was pitch black in the bungalow, except right near me where the moon came through a barred window and made a bright pattern on the floor. And in the middle of that square of light I saw a snake !
“I knew right off what had happenedI’d seen snakes like that before. The devil-devil doctors catch and train them, and they wear the tilings in their bushy hair where they’re out of sight and can be carried around for days. There isn’t a more poisonous snake in the world.
“And the things those blacks teach their snakes to do you’d never believe. One of the tricks is to follow and bite a certain person. The snake will get the man he’s set on, even if the fellow is sleeping in the middle of an army. You don’t believe that, eh? Well, it’s so just the same. These devil-devil doctors tease the snake for days with a bit of something that the chosen victim has worn next his skin a belt or shirt or sock will do. The snake never forgets that smell, and bites automatically when it meets the owner. It’s really not so hard to understand.
“Well, when I saw that snake on the floor of the bungalow and heard Benny groaning, I knew right off what had happened and it made me crazy mad. I grabbed the shotgun 1 kept handy to the bed, and I let Mr. Snake have both barrels. I blew it to ribbons.
“Then I jammed fresh shells into the gun and tore out of the bungalow in'search of the old devil-devil doctor who owned the reptile. I knew he’d be somewhere near, and I intended to give him the same dose I’d given his pet. But it was like hunting a shadow, and I never even saw a sign of the man.
“I can’t understand yet how I escaped being killed, for I must have been a per ft ct target, rampaging around in the moonlight the way 1 was doing. I guess it was the knowledge of that which finally ctxiled me down st> that I went back indoors. 1 barred the door after me and lit a lamp. My hands were all slippery with icy sweat and I could feel myself shaking all over.
“It took me a long time to get up enough nerve to look at Benny. I knew what he would be like and I didn’t want tf> face it. and my stomach churned at the knowledge that Í had to. I managed it at last though and went over to where I’d heard him flopping and groaning.
HE WAS quiet enough now. And very unpleasantly dead. The poison had made him swell, and he lay on his back with his eyes wide open and a sort of purple froth drying on his lips. You could hardly recognize him except for the muttonchop whiskers shining in the lamplight like burnished gold. I almost cried when I saw them.
“Funny thing is that I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going to cheat that devil-devil doctor if it was the last act of my life. That snake stunt had me really worked up, I tell you.
“So 1 dragged Benny over to the centre of the room. Then I gathered together a lot of old boxes and dried thatchings and such like, and made a big bed of it. I laid Benny on top.
“After that I soaked the whole business with kerosene. Poured it all over the room, slopped it about everywhere until it lay in pcx>ls on the floor.
“I went to the beginning of the passage where the canoe was, and at the door I touched a match to a twist of straw I had in my hand. When it was burning well I tossed it back into the room. The whole place just exploded into a sea of flame. You never saw such a fire.
“Well, I got to the canoe and paddled away from shore. Once out on the river and clear of the light from the burning, I turned and looked back. The fire was going full blast. You could hear it roaring, and it kept getting bigger and bigger until the flames were leaping higher than the treetops. Anyway, I told myself, that devildevil doctor will never get Benny’s head now ! I tell you I got a lot of satisfaction out of that thought.
“Well, that’s about all there is. The gold in the canoe gave me my start, and since then things have rolled my way. Whatever I touched turned to gold. I made a million as easy as rolling off a log.
“There was one thing bothered me a lot for years. Still does, in fact. And that was the thought that maybe Benny had a family. A wife and kids maybe, or old mother, or someone like that. They might be starving. And I’d be to blame if they were.
“When I got up in the world a bit, I had enquiries made. Nothing ever came of them. Nobody seemed to know whether Benny had any relations or not. My detectives couldn’t find out a thing ”
Lane turned to Morgan. “And now I stumble on you by accident—his halfbrother and partner. It’s like a bolt out of the blue. All that gold really belonged to you. Suppose we call it a loan, eh? I’ll write you a cheque for what it was worth plus interest for all this time. I want to do that. It’ll ease my conscience for the first time in years.”
I LOOKED at Morgan. He was glaring at the other man, his grey eyes glittering queerly and his whole face twisting. His hand was tightened about the bone dirk until the knuckles shone like polished ivory.
“I found this in a devil-devil house my last trip up the Fly,” he said abruptly, and whipped the cloth off the round object on the table that he had covered when we came in. I heard Lane make a funny moaning sound.
I stared at the head on the table. It was unmistakably a white man’s head. And there were muttonchop whiskers on the dried cheeks. They shone like burnished gold. Morgan turned the gruesome thing around and there, plain to our eyes, was a round bullet hole in the back of the skull.
“You devil!” Morgan cried in a high, unnatural voice. “You’ve been telling us a pack of lies. What you really did was take the offer that devil-devil doctor made you. You shot Benny and sold his head for gold. You lying Judas!”
And before I could grasp the whole significance of the thing or raise a finger to stop him. he was on his feet. I saw the bone dirk flash in the light, then plunge with fearful force into I-a ne’s chest.
And Morgan, crouched over the body of the man whose treachery had cheated him out of everything he most desired of life, burst into peal upon peal of mirthless, maniac laughter.