Pulp Heroes: KI-GOR - TIGRESS OF T'WANBI, Chapter 1

NovelTIGRESS OF T'WANBI

Chapter 1
THERE was no sound except the monotonous dreeing of insects. Birds and beasts alike were sunk in torpor under the baking heat of the brassy, noonday sun. But far down on the jungle floor, protected from the fierce glare by layers of leafy canopy, Ki-Gor, White Lord of the jungle, strode along a tiny trail.

On his powerful shoulders was balanced a freshly killed antelope that would weigh not an ounce less than two hundred pounds. But Ki-Gor padded swiftly along with it as if it weighed no more than a jungle fowl. Indeed, so rapid was his pace that his friend, little Ngesso the Pygmy, traveling the tree-route above him, was hard put to it to keep up.


Ordinarily, Ki-Gor would not have carried off the entire carcass of such a big buck. One quarter, or even a few good steaks would be all that he and his mate, the beautiful red-haired Helene, could consume before the meat spoiled. But because Ngeeso had been near when he felled this buck, and had looked so longingly at the plump legs and fat ribs, Ki-Gor had decided to take the whole beast along so that Ngeeso's people could have a feast.

In the remote, secluded glen which was Ki-Gor's home, his only human neighbors were the Pygmies. And from old, wrinkled-face Ngeeso, the Chief, down to the tiniest solemn child, they were devoted to Ki-Gor and Helene. The jungle man and his mate reciprocated this affection by just such gestures as killing fresh meat for the tiny forest denizens.

Now, as Ki-Gor strode tirelessly along, the drone of the insects took on a deeper undertone. That would be the waterfall, and Ki-Gor knew he was not far from home, that lovely sanctuary on the island in the rapids below the falls. Helene would not be expecting him home so soon. Unconsciously, Ki-Gor's steps hastened a little. They always did when Ki-Gor got close to home. For, of all the things in heaven and on earth, nothing counted for so much as a single red hair on the head of his beautiful mate.

"Hai!" squeaked Ngeeso, considerably to the rear. "Art thou carrying the antelope, O Big Brother-or it thee?"

"What's the matter, Little One?" Ki-Gor laughed, stopping and turning around. "Art thou getting too old and decrepit to keep up a normal pace any more?"

"A normal pace!" Ngeeso raged. "Aye, I can keep up a normal pace-even when the trees grow far apart in spots as they do along here. But I never was able to keep up with one who lunges along the ground like a charging leopard!"

The little man swung himself to a bough above Ki-Gor, his tiny bow and quiver flapping against his wrinkled torso. There he sat for a moment puffing and blowing indignantly, while Ki-Gor laughed up at him. Then, Ngeeso's beady little eyes, scanning the forest restlessly suddenly fixed themselves on a spot ahead on the trail.

"Speaking of leopards," Ngeeso said in a voice suddenly lowered, "unless my eyes mistaken me there is one not far away."

The laughter disappeared from Ki-Gor's bronzed face, and he watched Ngeeso's seamed face.

"Where, Little Brother?" he murmured, "in front of us?"

"Aye," Ngeeso muttered, "and it's as well I saw him. He is at some distance. The leaves are thin between us-else I had not seen him at all. I think-" the little man craned his neck-"I think he is stretched out on a bough directly over the trail."

"Aha," Ki-Gor murmured, "that is not too good."

He shifted the buck on his shoulders and prepared to drop it on the ground, but Ngeeso spoke.

"Nay, Big Brother, leave him to me. It is a long bowshot but-" he plucked a tiny arrow from the quiver--"I think I can reach him."

"As thou say," Ki-Gor shrugged. "Thy bow hand is still steady, but-"

"Oh, I will not miss him," Ngeeso said confidently, "as long as I can reach him. These arrows of ours have only to pierce the fur and make the veriest scratch. It will take a little while for the poison to travel through the veins. But when it does-no one will be troubled by that leopard any more."

"Those are dangerous things, those arrows of yours," Ki-Gor observed humorously. "I hope thou wilt always be quite sure of what thou shoot at. For instance, I wear a breechclout of leopard skin. It would be most awkward, O Little One, if one fine day thou shot me by mistake thinking I was a leopard."

Ngeeso giggled as he raised the bow.

"Thou are forever joking, Big Brother, and mocking me. Be still now, for a moment while I take aim. This is no easy, shot."

He squinted along the tiny arrow, then suddenly lowered the bow again to giggle.

"Imagine," he snorted, "mistaking thee for a leopard!"

Once again, he aimed the arrow, his beady eyes narrowing to deadly slits. It was a difficult shot only because of the distance involved. The little patch of spotted fur which he saw through the light screen of leaves did not budge. It was a motionless target. The brown claw which was his right hand drew the bowstring back steadily. Back, back it went until the bow was bent almost double.

Then two fingers of the claw flew open. There was a little ping! The tiny arrow flittered away through the air, carrying on its tip enough poison to kill an elephant if it struck an unprotected spot-the eye, for instance or the inside of a--nostril.

Ngeeso leaned forward from the bough following the flight of the little arrow. His mouth and eyes were wide open. Seconds went by, then the Pygmy gave a squeak of triumph.

"Got him!" he exclaimed. "A little high on the back, but I wanted to be sure the arrow wouldn't fall short-"

Suddenly, the Pygmy's voice died away with a little groan.

"Why-what's the matter, Little One?" Ki-Gor demanded.

Ngeeso's eyes were bulging with horror.

"Aie, me!" he whispered, and began beating his breast slowly. "Ai! Big Brother, what have I done!"

"What, what?" Ki-Gor cried fiercely in sudden alarm.

"It-it is no leopard!" Ngeeso sobbed, "I see I see-white flesh!"

Just then there came a piercing scream from down the trail, and another-and still another.

"Ki-Gor! Ki-Gor! KI-GOR!"

It was Helene's voice.

For a second, Ki-Gor was numb. Then horror began to roll up and down his back in great ripples. Helene wore leopard skin, too.

"Thou murderous little monkey-" he bellowed, in a strangled voice. He flung the antelope from his shoulders and pounded up the trail, moaning.

To Ki-Gor every step seemed an eternity. Actually, it was scarcely six seconds before he was standing under a tall baobab tree looking upward.

Helene was stretched out on a bough twenty feet over the trail, staring down with bloodless face, her fingers clutching the bark of the limb spasmodically.

"Oh, Ki-Gor!" she moaned, "thank heavens you were near! One of the Pygmies shot a poisoned arrow at me. I'm sure it was a mistake-"

"Where did it hit?" Ki-Gor demanded, tensely.

"The small of my back," Helene replied. "Hit the leopard fur a half inch away from my own skin."

"Did it go through?" Ki-Gor hardly dared listen for answer.

"I-I don't know," Helene stammered. "I felt a slight bump. Then I looked back over my shoulder and saw the arrow..."

"Don't move a muscle," Ki-Gor commanded, and started up the tangle of vines that coursed twistingly up the huge tree trunk.

His mind was numb, and his hands and feet worked purely automatically to hoist him up to the bough on which Helene was outstretched. It could not be! He told himself, it must not be! The arrow must not have penetrated the leopard skin! The veriest scratch, Ngeeso had said, and it would take but a little while for the poison to go through the veins.

Ki-Gor hauled himself up to the bough and crept out toward the prone body of his mate. Another wave of horror swept over him as he saw the arrow. The tiny, deadly shaft, hardly a foot long, was slanting into the back of Helene's abbreviated leopard skin garment at the small of her back. A half inch to the right, and it would have penetrated Helene's own fair skin. But chance-or Ngeeso's fine shooting-had sent it into the leopard skin.

It was that fact that enabled Ki-Gor to get a grip on himself. It remained to be seen whether the point had gone through and scratched Helene's skin beneath. While there was a chance that it had not-there was hope. Ki-Gor bent over his mate's still form.

"Keep perfectly still," he said gently, and calmly. His right hand went down to the edge of the leopard skin garment just above the arrow. Slowly, ever so slowly, he drew the leopard skin up and away from Helene's tanned skin.

A thrill of joy went through Ki-Gor as he perceived that the leopard skin lifted away without resistance. Warily, though, his left hand went to the feathered butt of the arrow and drew it out of the leopard skin. Then he lifted the garment higher-and now his hands began to tremble a little-and peered at, Helene's skin underneath. Long and carefully, his keen eyes searched the smooth velvety surface. Then he took a deep breath and dropped the leopard skin back into place.

The arrow had not so much as touched Helene's skin.

Thanks to the angle at which it had struck, it had not penetrated the leopard skin. Ki-Gor's head began to swim a little. He quickly dropped the deadly little arrow to the ground, and moved backward carefully along the bough.

"It is O right, Helene," he said and his voice was trembling a little. "It, is all right. The poison didn't touch you-there is no danger."

"Oh!" Helene gasped. "Oh, thank heaven!"

She turned her head and looked back over her shoulder with a wan smile. But the smile began to broaden immediately, the blue eyes twinkling.

"Why, Ki-Gor!" she chuckled. "Your face is positively gray! Oh! and look behind you-behind your right shoulder."

Ki-Gor quickly twisted his head around. On the branch just above him sat Ngeeso. His seamed little face was set in agonized lines, and his right hand clutched one of his own arrows half way down the shaft. The poisoned tip was a scant inch away from Ngeeso's own leathery neck.

"What did thine eyes see, Big Brother?" the Pygmy said quaveringly. "Did the tip . . .?"

"The tip did not touch her, Little One," Ki-Gor interrupted quickly. "Put down that arrow!"

"Art thou positive, O Big Brother?" Ngeeso persisted. "Because if I caused the death of thy mate-even unwittingly-then must Ngeeso decently die as soon as possible."

"Nay, nay, Little Friend, no harm has been done."

"Ai-ee!" Ngeeso wailed, moving the arrow down from his neck, but still holding it in his hand. "But suppose-suppose-"

"Forget it!" Ki-Gor commanded, and quoted a Pygmy proverb. "If the arrow fail to hit the bird, it is as if it had never been fired."

"Ai-ee!" Ngeeso moaned disconsolately, "Thou art too kind, Big Brother. I cannot bear it!"

It took Helene and Ki-Gor at least ten minutes to persuade Ngeeso that he should not punish himself for the accident which came so near to having fatal consequences. But at the end of those ten minutes Ngeeso finally replaced the arrow in his quiver, and both Ki-Gor's and Helene's nerves had returned to normal.

"You know," Helene said, as the trio resumed the journey toward the island home, "we really ought to know some sort of antidote to whatever poison they use on those arrows."

"Yes, we should," Ki-Gor agreed grimly. "But there isn't any that I know of. Or that the Little People know of either."

"Why that's terrible!" Helene observed. "Suppose one of them accidentally scratched himself..."

"That has happened," Ki-Gor said. "And when it did-there was no hope. The little man died."

Helene shivered.

"That's why I nearly went crazy," Ki-Gor said simply.

"Well, that's not right," Helene declared. "Somewhere there must be an antidote. I suppose they get the poison from a plant, don't they?"

"Yes," Ki-Gor said, "I know the plant."

"You do?" Helene said thoughtfully. "You know-there is someone who, I'll bet would know the antidote. He was a great herb doctor-that Hindu doctor that helped you escape from the slave traders."

"Hurree Das," Ki-Gor murmured. "Yes, he might. He knew a great deal about all kinds of plants. Yes, Hurree Das might know."

"Why don't we make a trip sometime up north and visit him?" Helene suggested.

"All right," Ki-Gor said. "The next time we go up to see Tembu George. Hurree Das is about a week's journey northwest of George. We will do it. But not for several weeks."

Ki-Gor did not know it then, but he and Helene were destined to be traveling northward much sooner than several weeks from then. Destiny was, in fact, awaiting them just a hundred yards up the trail, in the person of a tall, uneasy Karamzili youth.

The Karamzili had a right to be uneasy. He was crouching, eyes rolling, under the great tree which supported one end of the rope bridge to the island. And above him in the tree, a half dozen of Ngeeso's Pygmies had arrows trained on him.

"Hai, Bwana Ki-Gor!" the youth cried breathlessly as the jungle man and his mate came into view. "Tell the Little People I come as a friend! They have threatened me with the poisoned death in their little arrows for too long. We Karamzili are brave-but that is a horrible death."

"Calm your fears," Ki-Gor said. "They will not shoot until you do something unfriendly. Why did you come here?"

"I bring a message, O Bwana Ki-Gor," the young black said. "And urgent message from Dingazi, King of the Karamzili, Protector of the Race, Emperor of the World."

"Dingazi!" Ki-Gor exclaimed in astonishment. "Dingazi sends me a message!"

"Aye, that he does!" the youth cried. "The great King is troubled by things that are happening in Karamzililand. He desires your advice. He begs you to make the journey to Dutawayo as fast as you can come!"

Ki-Gor stared at the messenger. Dingazi was a tremendously powerful potentate. He ruled over a large territory with a population of not less than four million souls. He had a magnificent army of nearly thirty thousand men, welldisciplined and drilled in Zulu tactics. What possible trouble could Dingazi be in that he should call upon Ki-Gor to help him out?

Yet, if Dingazi were in some trouble and needed Ki-Gor's help, Ki-Gor could not refuse it. It was not too many months before that Dingazi bad, almost single-handed, dared his own subjects' hysterical blood-lust to protect the lives of Ki-Gor, Helene and Tembu George-all of whom were then at Dingazi's court.

"What is the trouble?" Ki-Gor bluntly asked the messenger.

"I do not know," the youth said. "I am but a messenger. There are rumors about invaders from the north."

"Invaders?" Ki-Gor said incredulously. "Who dares to invade Karamzililand? Not the Masai-for they are friendly, and are connected by marriage. Who else is there to dare the might of Dingazi's impis?"

"I don't rightly know," the youth confessed. "But it is said that there is some sort of mighty ju-ju being performed. The rumors say our border guards are slain before they could see the enemy. They say also that the subject tribes in the north are rising."

"I can't believe it," Ki-Gor said slowly.

"Why does not Tembu George and the Masai come to Dingazi's aid?"

"Maybe he has sent for them," the messenger suggested. "I only know that Dingazi sent me to bid you hasten to him."

"Very well, then," Ki-Gor said, with decision. "We will come." He turned to the Pygmies in the tree. "Hai, Little Brothers, have you seen aught of the great gray elephant? Is he hereabouts?"

"Aye, Big Brother," the Pygmies chorused, "that he is-just above the falls stuffing himself with the lush grass beside the water."

"It is good," he said and turned to his mate. "I will go after Marmo. Will you go across and collect my war-gear and some food? The Little Ones will help you bring them back over the bridge. We will start for Karamzililand as soon as I come back with Marmo."

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