Chapter VII: A Strange Ally
Evan rushed out from the interior of the house, rifle in hand.
“What’s up? The natives?”
“We’ve got the gorilla, I think,” said Arthur quietly.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a flash light. The three of us started down the steps and approached the fallen figure cautiously. As we drew near, we could hear it moaning. The moans were curiously human. I glanced up at the sky. The last wisp of the cloud was just passing before the face of the moon, and when I looked down again, the figure was outlined in the pitiless glare of the moonlight.
Evan uttered an exclamation. The moaning figure was not that of the gorilla. It was a man, a black man, in the monkey skin of a juju priest, with all the amulets and charms of his calling strung about him. Evan started forward and shot out a string of questions in the local dialect. I could not catch a word, but Evan’s voice was stern and angry. The moaning witch doctor spoke feebly, his voice growing weaker and weaker, and his words interrupted by gasps of pain. At last he choked and coughed weakly and was still.
Evan turned to us in a towering passion.
“Those damned natives are going to try to rush us at dawn! The witch doctor came to put a spell on us so they’d succeed. Oh, when I get at the black animals----”
He burst out into a string of profanity. The slave owner in him had come uppermost, and the news that his blacks were going to attack us aroused his anger at their presumption more than his fear that they might succeed. He stirred the dead figure with his foot.
“They dare to threaten me!” he rasped. “I’ll shoot one man in every four of them! I’ll whip the rest until they can’t stand. I’ll----”
My old dislike of the man returned, I could not doubt his courage, but I had never been particularly fond of the servaçal system and had their effort not imperiled the lives of the four of us, I would have had the best of wishes for the natives in their attempt to liberate themselves.
“We’d better decide how we’re going to stand them off before we decide how we’re going to punish them,” I remarked. “There are three of us. There are at least six hundred of them.”
Arthur suddenly turned with a start.
“Alicia’s in the casa,” he said sharply, “and the beast may come back.”
He started for the house on a run. We heard his voice as he called to Alicia and heard her answer. Evan and I followed more slowly, discussing methods of protecting ourselves against the coming attack.
“There’s one thing,” I observed thoughtfully, “with the bush about the clearing full of natives, the gorilla will either keep a safe distance away--as is most likely--or else will have to fight his way through to get to us.”
“Perhaps,” said Evan gloomily, his voice still full of anger toward the blacks. “We’ll worry about him when we have to. The important thing is the siege we’ll have to stand. If we can stop the first rush, I think we’ll be all right.”
“We’re all right for ammunition?” I asked.
He nodded. “I could outfit a small army from my gun chest and I’ve ammunition to last a year.”
We mounted the steps of the casa.
Alicia greeted us with a white face. “I can shoot,” she told us both bravely, “and I shan’t mind shooting at these people.”
“You shall shoot,” said Evan grimly, “if they get a foothold in the house. Otherwise there’s no need. You know enough not to be taken alive.”
“I know,” said Alicia quietly.
The last I saw of her for an hour or more, she was going through Evan’s assortment of firearms, picking out a light rifle for her own use and another for Mrs. Braymore. She already had a small-caliber automatic pistol hidden in her bosom.
For an hour or more we worked, moving the bundles Evan pointed out in the storeroom to form a breastwork behind which the women would be safe from stray shots. We tore up a section or so of flooring, too, so we could fire down in case any of the blacks found a refuge from our weapons beneath the house. Bars nailed across the openings at once provided us with assurance that they could not climb up, and that we would not accidentally fall through. We brought supplies of food and water where they would be close at hand.
For close quarters, we were depending on repeating shotguns loaded with buckshot. Three of us with those weapons should be able to stop almost any number of blacks. These lay close beside us. We had our rifles and our pistols in addition.
The drums were beating madly now. The high-pitched ululation that was the blended note of all the frantic yelling came clearly to our ears. When we had finished our preparations I went outside to listen. I instantly realized that the drums were nearer, much nearer. The dogs were excited and restless.
“We’d better get the dogs up from the ground,” I suggested. “They’ll only be killed.”
Evan went silently down and unleashed them. They were growling and bristling, particularly those near the back. They seemed to realize the imminence of danger.
I looked at my watch. It lacked two hours of dawn. The drums were growing louder and louder, and the yelling more distinct and defiant. From three sides the drums closed in on us, and from three sides choruses of high-pitched yells informed us of the hatred of the blacks for their masters. Evan interpreted as he caught some of the words.
“They say the juju has declared we are to be killed,” he announced with a faint smile. “We are to be slaughtered and our flesh boiled down until the fat can be collected, when it will be used to light fires. Pigs will feed upon us, and our bones will be scattered among the juju priests of a thousand villages to tell them to rise and slay all white men.”
The drums came up to the very edge of the clearing, and their thunderous voices boomed with a full-throated bellow across the open space in a deafening volume of sound. In the moonlight, we became conscious of darker bodies moving among the bush. Evan sighted from an open window and with compressed lips fired. There was a mocking yell.
“They say our guns have been bewitched so we cannot harm them,” he informed us a second later. “Give me a shotgun.”
The load of buckshot gave better results. Two or three shrieks of pain announced its arrival. Then the drums boomed forth more loudly. Evan fired again and again. There was a yell of rage at the third shot, when the resonant voice of the huge drum became muted and a mere shadow of itself.
“I was trying for the drum,” he remarked. “They were brought from a thousand miles inland, and there’s no way to tell what price was paid for that one.”
The two other drums hastily shifted their positions, and recommenced their devil’s tattoo. Emboldened by the fury of sound, one or two of the more daring spirits ventured to advance a little way out in the clearing to howl maledictions upon us.
Arthur’s rifle cracked spitefully, and mine followed. Two bold spirits ceased to yell.
From time to time, as we saw an opportunity and a target in the moonlight, we shot vengefully into the bush, and several times cries of different timbre from the hysterical yelling of the blacks followed our shots. Once or twice, too, I had that curious feeling of certitude that follows some shots, when one is confident he has hit his mark, though no cry came to assure me.
Evan fired again and again with his heavy shotgun, almost every deep explosion being followed by a cry. The range was hardly more than a hundred yards, and the buckshot carried that distance easily. Spreading as it did, it had a daunting effect.
Our object in taking the initiative was solely that of dampening the blacks’ enthusiasm. Allowed to cheer themselves with yells, they would make a rush that would be formidable in the extreme, but if we began to inflict losses before their attack began, the edge of their determination would be taken off. They would no longer believe in the efficacy of their juju to compass our destruction, and we would have a fraction of that psychological superiority that the white man must possess in order to handle natives, the complete possession of which enables a single fever-ridden white man to cow and rule ten thousand blacks.
Evan made a tour of the house, to make sure that the natives were equally reluctant to advance on all sides. We heard him fire twice back there, and painful yells followed each shot. He rejoined us.
“I’m going to take the rear,” he said briefly. “They’re in the bush all around. I’ll hold them off easily. They’ll make their main rush from this side, so you two stay together.”