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Black Idols

Even a White Unbeliever Must Not Tread the Sacred Trail


• • CHARLES DEZNEY, elephant hunter, stuck his head out of the covered bamboo litter and barked a single command in pidjin—"Halt!"

Obediently, twenty strutting blacks dropped their loads and craned their necks for sight of him. They stirred restlessly, apprehensive at this unexpected stop in the heart of the Ivory Coast jungle. Then a whispered word was tossed from mouth to mouth to leave them muttering and incredulous.

Thick-lipped and belligerent, Dezney stepped from the litter and faced Tao, the headman.

"Listen here," rasped the elephant hunter, head stuck forward from his deep shoulders. "What I want to do, I do, see? And no damn savage is going to stop me."

Tao grinned and shrugged the gold epaulettes on the crimson theatrical coat that was his only dress. "Bwana, you do not understand. These trails, they are the sacred paths of the Yafoubas."

"Sacred?" sneered Dezney. "To what?"

Tao flashed his filed, white teeth. "Who knows?" he replied evasively. "Perhaps the abode of a great nia, a powerful spirit."

"Your black spooks don't scare me."

"But Bwana, it is taboo. Death and destruction would follow the feet that trod a sacred path."

Bull-like and obstinate, Dezney stared at the thin matting of raffia grass that barred the forbidden way.

"That bunk may go for you, but it don't work with me. Find another reason."

"It is truth," said Tao softly. "Bwana, you must not."

"You heard me," bellowed Dezney, curling his thick, puffed lips. "Get out of my way!"

• • THE headman backed up a step, then his eyes caught the bright red of his coat, and recalled him to his dignity. Pride held him stiff and resisting.

"Out of my way!" thundered Dezney for the second time. Tao shifted uneasily, black lips muttering to the power in the little leather gigris around his neck.

The porters huddled together, watching this big ox of a white man, wide in the chest and thick in the neck. His square jaw was hard, and the knife scar across his cheek was like white hot iron in the black stubble of his face.

For a long moment he glowered. In one hand he brandished a short, heavy cane; his other was planted on the butt of a big-calibered revolver. Suddenly one arm doubled back, the cane coiled like a whip, and Tao rolled over on the ground, writhing and clutching a shattered shoulder. He sprawled there, beseeching terror gleaming from his whitish eyes.

Dezney stumped up to the grass barrier swinging in a light breeze. Cane raised high, he hesitated, sensing vaguely the folly of his act. Then his teeth shut with a grinding noise. What he'd started, he'd finish; no damned natives could stop him.

With a vicious hack, he lunged at the frail curtain. It came fluttering down like a discarded dress. Deliberately he set one boot heel on the raffia and strode down the trail.

Dezney walked like a somnambulist, impelled by some inner force he could not throw off. Twenty naked blacks riveted their glances on his broad back. He could feel the concentration of their eyes, like a steel bit boring through his skull. It sent a shiver up his spine, and he trembled. He wanted to look behind. If the beggars started any spear throwing, he needed time to draw. Each faint rustle sounded like the swish of a hurled spear, and he flexed his big muscles in the effort of control.

• • "DAMNED BUNK," he muttered in a harsh, explosive guttural.

The twisting path was well worn underfoot, and the feel of the hard earth gave him a new sense of power. An ordinary trail, this, made by the feet of many men. Tao and the raffia curtain seemed far away, incidents of another world.

With an abrupt glare of sunlight, Dezney reached a clearing. He crossed it to an irregular bamboo stockade. Entering through a narrow opening, he found himself in a broad courtyard with a long, low thatch building ranged at the back. A figure, crouching in one corner, leaped up. Its long, matted hair was knotted with bones and ivory sticks that clacked together dully. It was naked save for a feathered loin cloth. Half-man, half-ape, it gave a shrill, savage yell and dashed toward the bamboo paling. Midway, it stopped and turned, staring at the white-skinned apparition. Then, in sudden fear, it pivoted and ran madly inside the house.

• • AS IT disappeared, an old man emerged from the doorway. His tall, shriveled body was incased in a striped robe from which thin arms protruded. They waved a large antelope horn, spilling a trickle of gray powder on the threshold.

"Hello," called Dezney in the Bambara dialect. "I came to have a look."

The old priest answered in a strange tongue. He intoned his words slowly, with dignity, but Dezney interrupted in the middle.

"Don't understand," he shouted. "It's all bunk anyhow—you and that gorilla and the whole house." He spat on the ground to emphasize his words.

The old man dropped the horn and drew himself erect. When he spoke again, his voice was harsh with hatred, and his words were a smoldering menace.

"You shut up," sneered the big elephant hunter. "I'm going inside, see? Me—in." He pointed, and the priest threw back his withered shoulders and shook his head.

"I came this far—think an old bearded fool will stop me now?"

Dezney advanced. At last the priest understood that neither magic nor commands nor entreaties availed. He reached behind for a spear. His shriveled muscles tightened in the set he had not practiced since youth. A leaping exultation of strength warmed his old veins as he prepared to defend the sacred precincts. Then, with the spear poised, a sharp blow whacked his chest and spun him back. He dropped his heavy weapon. A feeble cough brought a gush of blood to his lips, and he tottered in a heap.

• • DEZNEY holstered his smoking gun. The toe of his boot poked the dead priest, and he bent low to enter the doorway.

"Tried to kill me," he muttered. "Well, I got him first, in a fair fight!"

The house was bare. A half-dozen mats were ranged at one end, and a scattering of spear and masks lined the walls. The ape-man cowered in a corner, shivering and clicking the bones tied in its hair.

Dezney shot a glance of withering scorn and turned his back.

"Nothing sacred about this," he told himself. "A hell of a lot Tao knows."

so he casually lit a cigarette, tossed the match on the ground, and proceeded back.

But at the main trail, there was no one. His outfit littered the ground—tent, rifles, tin trunks loaded with gifts, mosquito netting, food—all was there. But the score of black boys had vanished.

"Probably got scared and ran away—be here as soon as they hear my voice." At the top of his lungs he shouted, "Hay, Tao. Come on back. No glas—no devils—everything's all right."

His voice filled the trail and echoed faint. There was no answering shout—nothing but the subdued buzz of the jungle.

"Voice don't carry," he mumbled after a time. "Got to make more noise."

He stamped over to an elephant drum and beat a long roll on the taut hides. The sound swelled and bellied out, sifted through the trees and the tunnel-like trail, then receded and left—silence. A heavy, menacing, deep silence that teemed with skulking life.

Dezney stood there, a drumstick in each hand, and listened to the wind play tricks through the branches. Twenty black boys—they might be ten feet away—or ten miles. Even Dezney's thick senses felt it.

He looked impotently at his heavy muscled arms and his strong, gnarled fingers. A white man's strength pitted against the jungle. An alien, feeble, stupid thing against a ponderous, silent force. A ludicrous man-animal against a lush green growth that screened all manner of enemies—fever and lions and snakes and hordes of maddening, stinging insects. Death lurked everywhere, invisible, ready to strike.

Dezney dropped the drumsticks with a shudder and stalked to the forbidden path. Imbedded in a bower at one side stood the black wooden image of a god, all face and ears above a short stump of a body. With an angry swing of his arm, he knocked it from its perch. It pinwheeled to the ground and lay there, propped on one immense ear.

Seized with a nameless dread, Dezney stooped to pick it up. But with his hand almost touching it, he straightened and gave it a hard kick. "Damned idol," he exclaimed. "I'll lick you yet!" He sat down near his baggage, fuming and fretting like a caged beast.

• • BOOM! A deep, vibrant drumbeat rolled from the distant hills and swept the breadth of the jungle. Like the sweeping passage of a prehistoric god, like the relentless approach of a deadly tornado, like the menace of a distant cannon, that single sonorous bass thundered over the tree tops and reverberated in the far away valleys.

The elephant hunter leapt up. He knew the sound of those war drums—great, barrel-shaped things, ten feet high. They stood in the center of every village and flashed their message of war and destruction while shrieking, painted savages danced around them for hours before setting out on the war path.

"Wonder if that's on account of me," muttered Dezney. "They couldn't know so soon."

Boom-boom-b-boom! The rhythm came irregularly, pounding out the strange code of Africa.

Dezney strode over to the only weapon he knew— his guns. Carefully he made his selection—a smooth- barreled Lebel. He was caressing the trigger when some sixth sense warned him, and he ducked sharply. A long, thin shaft hurtled through the air and grazed his shoulder. He jerked up the rifle and fired from the hip at a rustling in the thick brush. He snapped back the bolt and pulled the trigger again. A branch cracked behind him and he whirled, gun leveled.

Boom-boom! The distant peal set the handle of the spear quivering, as if in warning. Dezney crouched on all fours, pivoting slowly and waiting for the attack. But after a time he climbed to his feet. It must have been one of his own porters, he reflected, who had heard the message of the drums and thought to gain glory by killing Dezney before the arrival of the local tribes.

Frowning, he shouldered his gun and set out on the well-defined trail. It would probably lead to a village where he hoped to buy protection.

He marched at a quick, determined pace. He sweated profusely, but the sound of the drums spurred him on.

It was late afternoon when they ceased abruptly, with a breathtaking unreality. For minutes afterward their echo throbbed in his humming ears. Only gradually did silence dawn on his senses, and then as something unnatural, interspersed with moments when the drums still beat in his temples and clouded out the hundred vague noises of the jungle.

Toward dusk, the path mushroomed into a clearing. It was the village of Mon-Po, close hemmed by the forest, as if the site had been punched out with a rubber stamp. But the cluster of peaked, thatched roofs rising from circular walls of mud was deserted of men.

• • WONDERING, DENZEY walked past the empty huts to a bared space in the center. A short, wiry white man dressed in shorts and an old shirt was seated on a mat, calmly smoking. At the crunch of Dezney's step, the little man jerked up his head and spoke.

"Decided to come, did you?"

"Who're you?" demanded the big elephant hunter.

"I'm Blaine."

Dezney stared. He had heard of this little scientist hidden away in the jungle, studying the native tribes.

"What's the meaning of all this?" blustered the burly man. "My porters ran away from me on the trail. Now I come here and find the village deserted. What's the idea?"

Blaine shot to his feet. Fiery, bristling like a polecat, he bit off his angry words. "You ought to be shot. First you desecrate everything the natives hold sacred, then you march in with the blood of a cold murder on your hands and have the nerve to ask what's wrong."

"How do you know?"

"Drums. They signaled the whole story. You violated a temple sacred to the fetich Omoko, and the strongest warrior in the country's after you. He'd wipe out any village that gave you sanctuary. That's why this place is deserted—people crossed the river and took all the boats with them. They think you're a gla, and the village will be taboo until the devil's driven out."

"Listen, Blaine. You got the story all wrong. I just wanted to see what was at the end of one of those paths. I found a little house, with a crazy man and an old priest that wanted to spear me. I had to shoot him, that's all."

"Like hell!" exploded Blaine. "You march through their country, pay a few cents a day for your porters, and think you own the place."

"You don't believe in their superstitious stuff, do you?"

"I respect it, and that's what you've got to learn, too."

"Bunch of savages," said Dezney contemptuously. "You're white, and you've got to help."

"I'm sick of that white man stuff," snorted little Blaine, black eyes flashing.

"Why'd you stay here, then?"

"Because I'm a damn fool—wanted to give you a break."

"You mean the two of us, shoot it out together?"

"No—get that out of your head. I'm not starting any wars to save your worthless hide. I'm giving you a chance to expiate."

"I don't get you."

"Wamba's here—the village sorceress. You go to her, tell her you're sorry and you'll do whatever the rites of Omoko demand."

"Me—do that? You're crazy!"

"All right, then. I'm through!"

• • LITTLE Blaine swung on his heel and started to pace off. But at the edge of the first hut he stopped, biting down his annoyance. Dezney was helpless against the vengeance of the natives, and Blaine's instinct sided him with the underdog. Besides, Dezney's murder would mean a punitive expedition against the Yafouba tribes, and destroy all the good will Blaine was laboriously building up. Above all things, the little scientist wished to avert needless bloodshed.

"Listen," he flung over a shoulder. "Gilbert's the French administrator for the district. I know him well. He'll hear the war drums and send a party to investigate. Ought to reach here some time tomorrow. If you can hold off till then—"

"Sure," said Dezney eagerly. "I knew you wouldn't turn me down. A white man's a white man, after all."

"You don't understand," snapped Blaine. "I don't give a damn whether you get out of this alive or not. But if I don't untangle the mess, it means a war between French and natives."

"I'm not scared," rasped the elephant hunter, throwing back his massive shoulders. "A white man with a gun's worth twenty of 'em."

Blaine turned slowly and approached the big man.

"You don't know Gedeo, the Flame. He's as big as you are, without the hog fat. Carries a sword in one hand, and a great club in the other."

"Won't do him any good against a rifle," mumbled Dezney.

"Fifty naked warriors behind him," continued Blaine. "They march in single file, with Gedeo at the head, like a long snake. Dull red clay smeared over their bodies, and faces black with charcoal. Gedeo first, with a big panther skin over his shoulders—the others bent forward, naked bodies touching, spears lowered. I've seen 'em—you could be three feet away, and not hear 'em in the dark. They'll surround the village, and come from all sides at once. The first you'll know will be the yelling and shrieking. If you're lucky you might shoot one—maybe two. But you haven't a chance. They're on the trail now, sneaking through the forest. They might be twenty feet away, listening to my voice right now."

"Let's go back trail, and hide."

Blaine laughed dully. "A white man can't hide at night. This is lion and panther country. And if you so much as moved, Gedeo would hear. He's part of the jungle—he belongs to it. I'd rather face a spear barehanded than spend the night in the forest."

"Let's push ahead, then."

"Can't. The trail crosses the river, and all the boats are on the other side."

"We'll swim it."

"Crocodiles," clipped Blaine. "Like 'em?"

Dezney dropped his eyes to the shiny barrel of his rifle, and rubbed a hand up and down its length. The African night was falling, casting blurred, stealthy shadows on the rude huts. A branch cracked suddenly, and Dezney jumped with a quick gasp.

"What's left?" he asked huskily.

"Wamba, and her magic."

"Superstition—madness." But Dezney's voice was a thin cackle that cracked in the middle of his next words. "Let's—try it."

• • IN SILENCE, Blaine led the way to a hut set apart at the border of the village. A fire glowed through the open doorway, and in its dim light a woman was kneeling. She was slim and young. Her long arms drooped, and her head was bent far forward over her bosom.

"He has come," she said in Yafouba, without looking at the two white men.

"He is here to expiate to Omoko," replied Blaine in the same dialect.

Wamba's hand reached out for a trussed, squawking thing, and a machete blade flashed. Then she smeared her hand in the blood of the dead fowl, and rose. She rubbed it across Blaine's forehead, then approached Dezney. He blanched, and his thick body rocked back as if from the touch of a loathsome object.

"The gla," she intoned. "The gla is in him. It must be driven from the village."

She rose to her knees and placed a calabash bowl over the glowing embers. Doubled far over in the attitude of a suppliant, she dilated her nostrils and inhaled deeply of the whitish fumes that began to mount and envelop a small iron sword suspended from the roof.

"What's it all about?" demanded Dezney.

"The sword—if it moves, there's a message. It will tell how to drive out the devil."

Dezney growled, and watched the sword, dangling point downward. It hung motionless while Wamba's head was lowered in the curling smoke. Presently, still kneeling, she straightened her lithe body, and flung her head far back until her wide eyes were riveted on the sword.

• • SLOWLY, hesitantly, as if fastened by an invisible wire, it quivered and swayed towards her. She rocked her head. Like a snake dancing to the rhythmic hands of a charmer, the sword followed the undulations of her forehead. Suddenly her mouth fell open and her face held stationary. The weapon seemed to stagger, then began to rotate. Three times it twirled, until the frayed string snapped and the blade dropped dully. It struck Dezney on the shoulder and clattered to the floor.

Dezney tottered back and clapped a hand to his throat. His color ebbed and his face twisted into a contortion of pain. For a moment he choked, and the pupils of his eyes narrowed to a pair of dark pinpoints. With an effort, a long hiss escaped him, His whole frame shook, he clenched his fists, and his terror-stricken eyes dropped to the nicked iron sword. Then he grew taut, jerked erect, and laughed shortly.

"Hell," he snapped. "What kind of bunk—" he broke off. "Look at Wamba—she's fainted!"

"It means death," said Blaine slowly, leading the way outside.

He halted again at the cleared space in the center of the village. Dezney followed and squatted opposite, massive as a great baboon. For the first time since he had defied Tao and Omoko's tabooed trail, he had lost confidence in his own power. Watching the sharp- chinned little scientist, the elephant hunter wondered whether he were not fighting some force that the bullets of his rifle could never touch.

• • HIS train of thought was interrupted by a low chuckle. Blaine was hugging his knees, and smiling faintly.

"I've got it," he purred. "I've got it."


"How to get out of the mess. Listen to this." And Blaine unfolded his scheme.

"It's crazy," cried Dezney when the little scientist had finished.

"Sure, but how about it?"

"Haven't a chance—can't even fight your way out."

"Can't anyhow. We'll turn their own weapons against them."

"Ever tried it before?"

"No—there has to be a first time."

"One misstep, and we're through."

"Sure, are you game?"

The scientist's eyes were dancing with excitement. Dezney read in them the fire and power of a will that he lacked himself. Under the spell of little Blaine, the elephant hunter's pride and scorn at last dropped aside.

"I haven't the nerve," he said bluntly. "Me for a gun."

Blaine set about his preparations almost gleefully. He lit a torch of split cane and planted it outside a hut. Then he and Dezney retired inside. They waited there, grim faced and nervous, for the attack from the dark.

It came with a devastating suddenness. A shrill whistle, and the army of savages leapt from the forest edge and whirled toward the clearing. Howling, leaping, yelling, with a flash of spears and a swirl of painted bodies, they swept to the torch flaring in the circle of thatched huts.

Dezney broke at the sound. With a shout, he burst raging through the low door.

"I'll kill 'em," he cried. "Them and their damn black idols! I'll kill 'em all!"

His automatic belched once, and a shriek of agony rose above the wild fierceness of the onslaught. He grasped his rifle like a club and flayed the empty air about him. Then a long spear cleaved the air, and a sharp point tore through Dezney's neck, pinning him to the thatch.

The war party grimaced and capered, then suddenly turned tail and huddled against the mud walls. Gedeo dropped the club he was flourishing and scurried through the door of a hut. Tao tripped over an iron pot and went sprawling, only to pick himself up and dive frantically for shelter.

One shapeless hand holding high the flaming torch, a horrible devil-figure stalked forth. An immense mask hooded the head and shoulders, reaching to the wide grass skirt. The hands and arms were sewn in a bag of cloth. Only the feet, dark with blood and ashes and colored clay, were bare.

The hideous face was clear in the light of the torch. A gigantic mouth stretched from ear to ear, and the nose, wide and flared, was a greenish mass that covered half the face. Panther teeth, tied in the hair, clicked against shells and wooden chips.

"The Gla—the devil!" cried someone. "Look, he is leaving the village, now that the white man is dead!"

• • IN TRUTH, the masked figure was heading for the forest. It charged everything in its way, but the warriors, fearful of the curse of its touch, dashed aside. One or two of the hardier cast stones at it, and once it stumbled as if hurt, but recovered and vanished into the jungle, swirling in a mad death dance.

It was thus, whirling like a dervish, that Blaine came on a party of soldiers led by a white man. The native infantry broke at the sight, but Gilbert walked up and saw the two baggy appendages reach for the headdress to throw it off.

"Blaine!" he exclaimed, astounded at the sweating white man. "What's the idea?"

"What I want to know," puffed Blaine, "is what the hell these devil-dancers do for ventilation. Where you bound for?"

"The war drums," answered Gilbert. "Been marching all night."

"Then you can go back, and take me along. This Dezney fellow blundered down a sacred path and killed a priest. Old Gedeo got sore and wanted to avenge his fetich."


"Well, Dezney ran away, and tried to swim the Kavally. That's all."

"Couldn't he swim?"

"Not with crocodiles," replied Blaine dryly.

And thus it went down in the official reports.