By JAMES ANSON BUCK
Fierce and unswerving was the Jungle's allegiance to the wing-footed white goddess—all
but Yamo Galagi, famed earth-shaker of the ancient Kalundas, who bowed to no law but
his own insidious ju ju.
On the top of the hill she unslung her bow and quiver, looking around for a place to rest. She selected a spot where a mimosa grew out of a grassy cleft and, with feline grace, stretched out flat on her belly in the black pool of its shadow. With her chin cupped in her hand she looked toward the first bend in the river.
The jungle was the same, standing dark and endless across the river. The river was the same, sweeping its mass of reddish waters westward toward Sao Vincente and its final tryst with the Father-of-all-Rivers, as her people, the Abamas, called the Congo. Beyond the green expanse of the jungle Tula Mbogo, the Buffalo Mountain, lifted its horned peaks, and a cushion of white clouds made of it a seat for a lazy god. Truly, the jungle and the river were as they must have been for a thousand years. Only people changed, outwardly and inwardly, and these subtle changes made them see things differently, even act foolishly.
It must be so. If it were otherwise she would not be here, daydreaming beside the river. Why, when the drums had told her that Rick Thorne was on the river, had she come so far to meet him? Why had she not remained in her forest sanctuary and sent Ekoti, the Abama chief, to turn him back? Such had been her first impulse but she had not obeyed it. Why not?
Frowning, she communed with herself and soon found an answer less disturbing in its implications. She was here because she knew that he would not turn back at Ekoti's bidding. He was a reckless fool. He might even venture to set foot on the forbidden trail to her sanctuary, and pursue his folly to his death. Oh yes, it was because she felt sorry for him. It was a great pity that one so young and brave should waste his manhood in searching and straining for fruit beyond his reach. Somehow he had to be made to understand that, thought her skin was white, she belonged to the jungle and the Abamas; while he belonged to the mysterious world of white men which she had never seen, and had no wish to see. He must be made to understand that she was not for him. Her kiss was the kiss of death for any man who dared to defy the strong taboo of her foster-mother, Ebid Ela—a taboo made inviolate by a bristling boma of Abama spears.
So, here she was, listening to the drums—a pulsing now near and now far, but always articulate, incredibly accurate. But nothing now, just the gossip of the jungle. She let her mind idle. Her mood changed again, and her thoughts became less definite and merged with the blue haze. Across her line of vision birds flew with tails like a burst of flame; others, over-balanced by huge red beaks, flapped awkwardly from tree to tree. A tall, grey heron stood in the shallows and, when gorged, rose heavily to light on a bough above her head—only to rise again with a squawk of panic as Chim, her pet ape, sleeping on the bough, suddenly awoke to scold the intruder.
As the blue-toned view faded, and the sun melted into the clouds and brought them to a glow, the distance became more intimate, more revealing. She was vaguely aware of the tension building up within her.
It stirred up memories of her last meeting with Rick and suddenly she was re-living it all again, every work, every gesture as if it had happened yesterday. And with the vision came poignant yearnings which half expressed themselves to her awareness, and then were overwhelmed by the strong excitement which had been the core and magic of that hour.
And suddenly she was afraid. For her there was danger in this meeting. He would not listen to her. No! He would look at her with that disconcerting gleam in his eyes. He would smile that slow slow smile, and he would dare—. She would not stay! She would send Ekoti. She sprang to her feet.
And just then the booming notes of a drum broke the silence—"Boom-tack-tack-boom! Tack-tack-boom-tack—"
"Boom-tack-boom-tack-boom-tack—" The indecipherable message came from everywhere at once—far off, diffused, a rippling cascade of sound seeming to spill out of the clouds immediately above her head, and yet each note distinct.
And then silence, with not a twig or a leaf in motion. For at sundown the wind dies and a moment of absolute quiet comes to the jungle. The reed-buck stands spellbound beside a pool. The cruel claws of the leopard are sheathed, its spring arrested as if by magic. The song of the birds is hushed, and the melody of running water swells like an organ in fortissimo, and a paen rises to the high mountain-seats of pagan gods.
No village drum answered the mysterious call. It was as if the booming notes had filled the jungle with evil tidings, shocking all to awful silence. The effect of all this was so strong that the Jungle Queen stood utterly motionless, her gaze fixed upon the Buffalo Mountain, her sudden impulse to flight forgotten.
Slowly the sky lost its blood-red glow. A thunder-mutter rolled behind the mountains. A cool breeze came sliding down their slopes, and the tall reeds along the river banks whispered and quivered in sudden trepidation.. And it seemed to Sheena, as the area of shadows deepened, that the mountains became phantom shapes whose aspect took on something of aloof secretiveness, and something of menace.
A whimper from Chim broke the spell. She looked up and spoke softly to him, as was her habit:
"So, you do not like this strange voice in the jungle, little one?" Chim grimaced at her, and swung to a higher branch. But she clapped her hands, calling him down. "Come!" she called. "We must cross the river before dark."
A short distance below the krantz the river entered a gorge, roared for a mile between rocky pinnacles, and came out to spill, feather-white, over steep terraces of rock. A native tie-tie bridge, as delicate-looking as a spider's web, spanned the gorge at its narrowest point. Sheena knew that Rick would camp below the rapids. Also she knew that he would abandon his heavy dugout there and push on to the first Abama village above the gorge to trade for another canoe. It occured to her that she could block his further progress into Abama country by simply telling the villagers not to trade with him. And the more she thought of this new idea the better she liked it. She could avoid meeting him face to face, and yet, if he attempted to force a path through the jungle on foot, she could put all manner of obstacles in his way. Truly, she thought with an amused smile, such a trek would test the strength of his desire. Oh yes, he would soon come to cursing the day that he had set eyes upon Sheena, Golden Goddess of all the Jungles.
As sure footed as an ape she started across the lagging bridge. She was swaying fifty feet above the rapids, when, faintly above the roar of the water, she heard a shot, then another, and another. The echos were still bouncing from one side of the gorge to the other, when she reached the opposite shore, and went flashing down the steep trail like a golden streak.
Around the first limit of sight she saw the peak of a tent, gleaming white amid the low bush of a small clearing. Without pausing in her stride she leaped for the low branch of a tree. Then, with the effortless ease of a monkey, she went through the close-packed foliage which surrounded the clearing, sometimes leaping from the branch of one tree to another, sometimes swinging through the air on vines as thick as her wrist and as tough as a wire cable. She heard shouts as she came to stand on the gnarled limb of an ajap tree. Her lofty perch gave her a clear view of the camp, and her eyes took in the scene below in one swift, all-inclusive glance.
Rick Thorne was fighting for his life, beating off the attack of a half-dozen natives who kept circling around him and rushing at him, now one, now another, to thrust with a spear, or to strike with a heavy knobkerry. He was armed only with a club, which he evidently had wrested from one of his attackers, and he was fighting with the last-ditch ferocity of a wounded leopard. But they were slowly forcing him back to the high river bank. There were three tents in the clearing, but none of his servants were there to help him. Soon he would be driven over the bank to plunge to his death on the rocks below.
The Jungle Queen unslung her bow. But even as she notched the arrow she saw Rick go down under a terrific blow from a club that smashed through his pith-helmet with a dull, sickening sound. The striker, a squat, powerful-looking fellow with a queer headdress of turcan feathers, uttered a yell of triumph, and whirled his club around his head to strike again. And then Sheena's bow twanged, and the strange warrior fell across Rick's body with the arrow between his shoulders up to the feather. His companions, yelping and rushing in for the kill like wild dogs of the veldt, were suddenly silent and motionless, like wooden men holding weapons poised to strike. There was a moment of gaping wonderment, then the deadly twang of the bow again, and another of their number gasped, clutched at the shaft in his breast, staggered back and fell over the bank with a long-drawn shriek.
For a short time the others stood, half crouched, looking around with their mouths agape, their eyes roiling like white balls in their sockets. They could see no enemy; and, as winged death out of nowhere struck a third man, they made a frantic rush for the cover of the bush.
Wise in the ways of the forest people, Sheena did not come down at once. Long ago she had learned that when danger stalks in the jungle no creature is ever caught off guard twice. She waited until she saw a dugout shoot out from the river bank and go lurching dangerously downstream to the uneven paddle strokes of its panic-stricken occupants. Then she dropped to the ground and ran across the clearing to Rick. She dragged the dead native from his back with an amazing display of strength, then rolled Rick over and fell to her knees beside him.Forward to Chapter II