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ERB’S WORKERS’ PARADISE:
TARZAN THE INVINCIBLE
A Commentary By
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
Well, we’re getting closer to the end. Tarzan is running out time to stop Zveri. Will his faithful Waziri have anything to do with his plans? That’s a good question. Let’s find out.
Chapter Sixteen: “Turn Back!”
The privations that Wayne Colt had endured had weakened him far more than he had realized, so that before his returning strength could bring renewed powers of resistance, he was stricken with fever.
The high priestess of the Flaming God, versed in the lore of ancient Opar, was conversant with the medicinal properties of many roots and herbs and, as well, with the mystic powers of incantation that drove demons from the bodies of the sick. By day she gathered and brewed, and at night she sat at the feet of her patient, intoning weird prayers, the origin of which reached back to countless ages to vanished temples, above which now rolled the waters of a mighty sea; and while she wrought with every artifice at her command to drive out the demon of sickness that possessed this man of an alien world, Jad-bal-ja, the golden lion, hunted for all three, and though at times he made his kill at a distance he never failed to carry the carcass of his prey back to the hidden lair where the woman nursed the man.
Days of burning fever, days of delirium, shot with periods of rationality, dragged their slow length. Often Colt’s mind was confused by a jumble of bizarre impressions, in which La might be Zora Drinov one moment, a ministering angel from heaven the next, and then a Red Cross nurse; but in whatever guise he found her it seemed always a pleasant one, and when she was absent, as she was sometimes forced to be, he was depressed and unhappy.
When, upon her knees at his feet, she prayed to the rising sun, or to the sun at its zenith, or to the setting sun, as was her wont, or when she chanted strange, weird songs in an unknown tongue, accompanying them with the mysterious gestures that were a part of the ritual, he was sure that the fever was worse and that he had become delirious again.
And so the days dragged on, and while Colt lay helpless, Zveri marched toward Italian Somaliland; and Tarzan, recovered from the shock of his wound followed the plain trail of the expedition, and from his shoulder little Nkima scolded and chattered through the day.
Behind him Tarzan had left a handful of terrified blacks in the camp of the conspirators. They had been lolling in the shade, following their breakfast, a week after the killing of Dorsky and the escape of his captive. Fear of the ape-man at liberty, that had so terrified them at first, no longer concerned them greatly. Psychologically akin to the brutes of the forest, they happily soon forgot their terrors; nor did they harass their minds by anticipating those which might assail them in the future, as it is the silly custom of civilized man to do.
And so it was that this morning a sight burst suddenly upon their astonished eyes found them entirely unprepared. They heard no noise, so silently go the beasts of the jungle, however large or heavy they may be; yet suddenly, in the clearing at the edge of the camp, appeared a great elephant, and upon his head sat the recent captive, whom they had been told was Tarzan of the Apes, and upon the man’s shoulder perched a little monkey. With exclamations of terror, the blacks leaped to their feet and dashed into the jungle upon the opposite side of the camp.
Tarzan leaped lightly to the ground and entered Dorsky’s tent. He had returned for a definite purpose; and his effort was crowned with success, for in the tent of the Russian he found his rope and his knife, which had been taken away from him at the time of his capture. For bow and arrows and a spear he had only to look to the shelters of the blacks; and having found what he wanted, he departed as silently as he had come.
Now the time had arrived when Tarzan must set out rapidly upon the trail of his enemy, leaving Tantor to the peaceful paths that he loved best.
“I go, Tantor,” he said. “Search out the forest where the young trees have the tenderest bark and watch well against the men-things, for they alone in all the world are the enemies of all living creatures.” He was off through the forest then, with little Nkima clinging tightly to his bronzed neck.
Plain lay the winding trail of Zveri’s army before the eyes of the ape-man, but he had no need to follow any trail. Long weeks before as he had kept vigil above their camp, he had heard the principals discussing their plans; and so he knew their objectives, and he knew, too, how rapidly they could march and, therefore, about where he might hope to overtake them. Unhampered by files of porters sweating under heavy loads, earthbound to no winding trails, Tarzan was able to travel many times faster than the expedition. He saw their trail only when his own chanced to cross it as he had a straight course for a point far in advance of the sweating column.
When he overtook the expedition night had fallen, and the tired men were in camp. They had eaten and were happy and many of the men were singing. To one who did not know the truth it might have appeared to be a military camp of French Colonial Troops; for there was a military precision about the arrangement of the fires, the temporary shelters, and the officer’s tents that would not have been undertaken by a hunting or scientific expedition, and, in addition, there were the uniformed sentries pacing their beats. All this was the work of Miguel Romero, to whose superior knowledge of military matters Zveri had been forced to defer in all matters of this nature, though with no diminution of the hatred which each felt for the other.
From his tree Tarzan watched the scene below, attempting to estimate as closely as possible the number of armed men that formed the fighting force that might constitute a definite menace to the peace of Africa, since among its members were represented many large and warlike tribes, who might easily be persuaded to follow this mad leader were success to crown his initial engagement. It was, however, to prevent this very thing that Tarzan of the Apes had interested himself in the activities of Peter Zveri; and here, before him, was another opportunity to undermine the Russian’s dream of empire while it was still only a dream and might be dissipated by trivial means; by the grim and terrible jungle methods of which Tarzan of the Apes was a past-master.
Tarzan fitted an arrow to his bow. Slowly his right hand drew back the feathered end of the shaft until the point rested almost upon his left thumb. His manner was marked by easy, effortless grace. He did not appear to be taking conscious aim; and yet when he released the shaft, it buried itself in the fleshy part of a sentry’s leg precisely as Tarzan of the Apes had intended it should.
With a yell of surprise and pain the black collapsed upon the ground, more frightened, however that hurt, and as his fellows gathered around him, Tarzan of the Apes melted away into the shadows of the jungle night.
Attracted by the cry of the wounded man, Zveri, Romero, and the other leaders of the expedition hastened from their tents and joined the throng of excited blacks that surrounded the victim of Tarzan’s campaign of terrorism.
“Who shot you?” demanded Zveri when he saw the arrow protruding from the sentry’s leg.
“I do not know,” replied the man.
“Have you an enemy in camp who might want to kill you?” asked Zveri.
“Even if he had,” said Romero, “he couldn’t have shot him with an arrow because no bows or arrows were brought with the expedition.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Zveri.
“So it must have been someone outside camp,” declared Romero.
With difficulty and to the accompaniment of the screams of their victim, Ivitch and Romero cut the arrow from the sentry’s leg, while Zveri and Kitembo discussed various conjectures as to the exact portent of the affair.
“We have evidently run into hostile natives,” said Zveri.
Kitembo shrugged non-committally. “Let me see the arrow.”
As the Mexican handed the missile to the black chief, the latter carried it close to a camp fire and examined it closely, while the white men gathered about him waiting for his findings.
At last Kitembo straightened up. The expression upon his face was serious. “This is bad,” he said, shaking his bullet head.
“What do you mean?” demanded Zveri.
“This arrow bears the mark of a warrior who was left behind in our base camp.”
“That is impossible,” cried Zveri.
Kitembo shrugged. “I know it,” he said, “but it is true.”
“With an arrow out of the air the Hindu was slain,” suggested a black headman, standing near Kitembo.
“Shut up, you fool,” snapped Romero, “or you’ll have the whole camp in a blue funk.”
“That’s right,” said Zveri. “We must hush this thing up.” He turned to the headman. “You and Kitembo,” he commanded, “must not repeat this to your men. Let us keep it to ourselves.” Both Kitembo and the headman agreed to guard the secret, but within half an hour every man in camp knew that the sentry had been shot with an arrow that had been left behind in the base camp, and immediately their minds were prepared for other things that lay ahead of them upon the long trail.
Tarzan’s Jungle Justice method of terrorizing superstitious people, thinking ahead several moves, was like a chess game where there were no time limits. The Covid Epidemic comes to mind when I consider long range conspiracies. I see through most conspiracy theories, so this one seems to stand out. as I watch a church pastor in Canada arrested and threatened with years in prison for not wearing a mask. And in the ex-English penal colony, Australia – which gave up their guns for some bizarre reason – people are getting arrested every day for ridiculous reasons involving the pandemic. So giving up your guns is a highway to totalitarianism. Tarzan could have told them that decades ago.
Now that I come to think about it, many of the Army and Marine soldiers in the South Pacific in World War Two displayed the kind of courage and heroism that Colt and Romero had demonstrated when faced with superior odds. According to an autograph book that ERB kept with him when he was a war correspondent in the South Pacific, the influence Tarzan had on the troops was monumental, insuring victory at the end.
The effect of the incident upon the minds of the black soldiers was apparent during the following day’s march. They were quieter and more thoughtful, and there was much low voiced conversation among them; but if they had given signs of nervousness during the day, it was nothing as compared with their state of mind after darkness fell upon their camp that night. The sentries evidenced their terror plainly by their listening attitudes and nervous attention to the sounds that came out of the blackness surrounding the camp. Most of them were brave men who would have faced a visible enemy with courage, but to a man they were convinced that they were confronted by the supernatural, against which they knew that neither rifle nor bravery might avail. They felt that ghostly eyes were watching them, and the result was as demoralizing as would an actual attack have been; in fact, far more so.
Yet they need not have been concerned themselves so greatly, as the cause of all their superstitious apprehension was moving rapidly through the jungle, miles away from them, and every instant the distance between him and them was increasing.
Another force, that might have caused them even greater anxiety had they been aware of it, lay still further away upon the trail that they must traverse to reach their destination.
Around tiny cooking fires squatted a hundred black warriors, whose white plumes nodded and trembled as they moved. Sentries guarded them; sentries who were unafraid, since these men had little fear of ghosts or demons. They wore their amulets in leather pouches that swung from cords about their necks and they prayed to strange gods, but deep in their hearts lay a growing contempt for both. They had learned from experience and from the advice of a wise leader to look for victories more to themselves and their weapons than to their god.
They were a cheerful, happy company, veterans of many an expedition and, like all veterans, took advantage of every opportunity for rest and relaxation, the value of both of which is enhanced by the maintenance of a cheerful frame of mind; and so there was much laughing and joking among them, and often both the cause and butt of this was a little monkey; now teasing, now caressing, and in return being himself teased or caressed. That there was a bond of deep affection between him and these clean-limbed black giants was constantly apparent. When they pulled his tail they never pulled it very hard, and when he turned upon them in apparent fury, his sharp teeth closing upon their fingers or arms, it was noticeable that he never drew blood. Their play was rough, for they were all rough and primitive creatures; but it was all playing, and it was based upon a foundation of mutual affection.
These men had just finished their evening meal, when a figure materializing as though out of thin air, dropped silently into their midst from the branches of a tree which overhung their camp.
Instantly a hundred warriors sprang to arms, and then, as quickly, they relaxed, as with shouts of “Bwana! Bwana!” they ran toward the bronzed giant standing silently in their midst.
As to an emperor or a god they went upon their knees before him, and those that were nearest him touched his hands and his feet in reverence; for to the Waziri Tarzan of the Apes, who was their king, was yet something more and of their own volition they worshipped him as their living god.
But if the warriors were glad to see him, little Nkima was frantic with joy. He scrambled quickly over the bodies of the kneeling blacks and leaped to Tarzan’s shoulder, where he clung about his neck, jabbering excitedly.
“You have done well, my chidren,” said the ape-man, “and little Nkima has done well. He bore my message to you, and I find you ready where I had planned that you should be.”
“We have kept always a day’s march ahead of the strangers, Bwana,” replied Muviro, “camping well off the trail that they might not discover our fresh camp sites and become suspicious.”
“They do not suspect your presence,” said Tarzan. “I listened above their camp last night, and they said nothing that would indicate that they dreamed that another party was preceding them along the trail.
“Where the dirt of the trail was soft a warrior, who marched at the rear of the column, brushed away the freshness of our spoor with a leafy bough,” explained Muviro.
“Tomorrow we shall wait here for them,” said the ape-man, “and tonight you shall listen to Tarzan while he explains the plans that you will follow.”
As Zveri’s column took up the march upon the following morning, after a night of rest that had passed without incident, the spirits of all had risen to an appreciable degree. The blacks had not forgotten the grim warning that had sped out of the night surrounding their previous camp, but they were of a race whose spirits soon rebound from depression.
The leaders of the expedition were encouraged by the knowledge that over a third of the distance to their goal had been covered. For various reasons they were anxious to complete this part of the plan. Zveri believed that upon its successful conclusion hinged his whole dream of empire. Ivitch, a natural born trouble-maker, was happy in the thought that the success of the expedition would cause untold annoyance to millions of people and perhaps, also, by the dream of his return of Russia as a hero; perhaps, a wealthy hero.
Romero and Mori wanted to have it over for entirely different reasons. They were thoroughly disgusted with the Russian. They had lost all confidence in the sincerity of Zveri, who, filled as he was with his own importance and delusions of future grandeur, talked too much, with the result that he had convinced Romero that he and all his kind were frauds, bent upon accomplishing their selfish ends with the assistance of their silly dupes and at the expense of the peace and prosperity of the world. It had not been difficult for Romero to convince Mori of the truth of his deductions, and now, thoroughly disillusioned, the two men continued on with the expedition because they believed that they could not successfully accomplish their intended desertion until the party was once more settled in the base camp.
The march had continued uninterruptedly for about an hour after camp had been broken, when one of Kitembo’s black scouts, leading the column, halted suddenly in his tracks.
“Look!” he said to Kitembo, who was just behind him.
The chief stepped to the warrior’s side, and there, before him in the trail, sticking upright in the earth, was an arrow.
“It is a warning,” said the warrior.
Gingerly, Kitembo plucked the arrow from the earth and examined it. He would have been glad to have kept the knowledge of his discovery to himself, although not a little shaken by what he had seen; but the warrior at his side had seen, too. “It is the same,” he said. “It is another of the arrows that were left behind in the base camp.”
When Zveri came abreast of them, Kitembo handed him the arrow. “It is the same,” he said to the Russian, “and it is a warning for us to turn back.”
“Pooh!” exclaimed Zveri contemptuously. “It is only an arrow sticking in the dirt and cannot stop a column of armed men. I did not think that you were a coward, too, Kitembo.”
The black scowled. “Nor do men with safety call me a coward,” he snapped; “but neither am I a fool, and better than you do I know the danger signals of the forest. We shall go on because we are brave men, but many will not come back. Also, your plans will fail.”
At this Zveri flew into one of his frequent rages; and though the men continued the march, they were in a sullen mood, and many were the ugly glances that were cast at Zveri and the lieutenants.
Shortly after noon the expedition halted for the noonday rest. They had been passing through a dense woods, gloomy and depressing; and there was neither song nor laughter; nor a great deal of conversation, as the men squatted together in little knots while they devoured the cold food that constituted their midday meal.
Suddenly, from somewhere far above, a voice floated down to them. Weird and uncanny. it spoke to them in a Bantu dialect that most of them could understand. “Turn back, children of Mulungu,” it cried. “Turn back before you die. Desert the white men before it is too late.”
That was all. The men crouched fearfully, looking up into the trees. It was Zveri who broke the silence. “What the hell was that?” he demanded. “What did it say?”
“It warned up to turn back,” said Kitembo.
“There will be no turning back,” snapped Zveri.
“I do not know about that,” replied Kitembo.
“I thought you wanted to be a king,” cried Zveri. “You’d make a hell of a king.”
For the moment Kitembo had forgotten the dazzling prize that Zveri had held before his eyes for months – to be the king of Kenya. That was worth risking much for.
“We will go on,” he said.
“You may have to use force,” said Zveri, “but stop at nothing. We must go on, no matter what happens,” and then he turned to his other lieutenants. “Romero, you and Mori go to the rear of the column and shoot every man who refuses to advance.”
The men had not as yet refused to go on, and when the order to march was given, they sullenly took their places in the column. For an hour they marched thus; and then, far ahead, came the weird cry that many of them had heard before at Opar, and a few minutes later a voice out of the distance called to them, “Desert the white men,” it said.
The blacks whispered among themselves, and it was evident that trouble was brewing; but Kitembo managed to persuade them to continue the march, a thing that Zveri never could have accomplished.
“I wish we could get that trouble-maker,” said Zveri to Zora Drinov, as the two walked together near the head of the column. “If he would only show himself once, so that we could get a shot at him; that’s all I want.”
Oh, that’s right, Zora was with the column. One wonders what will happen with her aboard. I’m glad that she found some new clothes to wear for the march – but wait a minute: was she in uniform?
“It is someone familiar with the workings of the native mind,” said the girl. “Probably a medicine man of some tribe through whose territory we are marching.”
“I hope it is nothing more than that,” replied Zveri. “I have no doubt that the man is a native, but I am afraid that he is acting on instructions from either the British or the Italians, who hope thus to disorganize and delay us until they can mobilize a force with which to attack us.”
“It has certainly shaken the morale of the men,” said Zora, “for I believe that they attribute all of the weird happenings from the mysterious death of Jafar to the present time, to the same agency, to which their superstitious minds naturally attributes a supernatural origin.”
“So much the worse for them, then,” said Zveri, “for they are going on whether they wish to or not; and when they find that attempted desertion means death, they will wake up to the fact that is not safe to trifle with Peter Zveri.”
“They are many, Peter,” the girl reminded him, “and we are few; in addition they are, thanks to you, well armed. It seems to me that you may have created a Frankenstein that will destroy us all in the end.”
“You are as bad as the blacks,” growled Zveri, “making a mountain out of a mole hill. Why if I –”
Behind the rear of the column and again apparently from the air above them sounded the warning voice. “Desert the whites.” Silence fell again upon the marching column, but the men moved on, exhorted by Kitembo and threatened by the revolvers of their white officers.
Presently the forest broke at the edge of a small plain, across which the trail led through buffalo grass that grew high above the heads of the marching men. They were well into this when, ahead of them, a rifle spoke, and then another and another, seemingly in a long line across their front.
Zveri ordered one of the blacks to rush Zora to the rear of the column into a position of safety, while he followed closely behind her, ostensibly searching for Romero and shouting words of encouragement to the men.
As yet no one had been hit; but the column had stopped, and the men were rapidly losing all semblance of formation.
“Quick, Romero,” shouted Zveri, “take command up in front. I will cover the rear with Mori and prevent desertions.”
The Mexican sprang past him and with the aid of Ivitch and some of the black chiefs he deployed one company in a long skirmish line, with which he advanced slowly; while Kitembo followed with half the rest of the expedition acting as a support, leaving Ivitch, Mori, and Zveri to organize a reserve from the remainder.
After the first widely scattered shots, the firing had ceased, to be followed by a silence even more ominous to the overwrought nerves of the black soldiers. The utter silence of the enemy, the lack of any sign of movement in the grasses ahead, coupled with the mysterious warnings which still rang in their ears, convinced the blacks that they faced no mortal foe.
“Turn back!” came mournfully from the grasses ahead. “This is the last warning. Death will follow disobedience.”
The line wavered, and to steady it Romero gave the command to fire. In response came a rattle of musketry out of the grasses ahead of them, and this time a dozen men went down, killed or wounded.
“Charge!” cried Romero, but instead the men wheeled about and broke for the rear and safety.
At sight of the advance line bearing down upon them, throwing away their rifles as they ran, the support turned and fled, carrying the reserve with it, and the whites were carried along in the mad rout.
In disgust, Romero fell back alone. He saw no enemy, for none pursued him, and this fact induced within him an uneasiness that the singing bullets had been unable to arouse. As he plodded on alone far in the rear of his companions, he began to share to some extent the feeling of unreasoning terror that had seized his black companions, or at least, if not to share it, to sympathize with them. It is one thing to face a foe that you can see, and quite another to be beset by an invisible enemy, of whose very appearance, even, one is ignorant.
Shortly after Romero re-entered the forest, he saw someone walking along the trail ahead of him; and presently, when he had an unobstructed view, he saw that it was Zora Drinov.
He called to her then, and she turned and waited for him.
“I was afraid that you had been killed, Comrade,” she said.
“I was born under a lucky star,” he replied. “Men were shot down on either side of me and behind me. Where is Zveri?”
Zora shrugged. “I do not know,” she answered.
“Perhaps he is trying to reorganized the reserve,” suggested Romero.
“Doubtless,” said the girl shortly.
“I hope he is fleet of foot then,” said the Mexican, lightly.
“Evidently he is,” replied Zora.
“You should not have been left alone like this,” said the man.
“I can take care of myself,” replied Zora.
“Perhaps,” he said, “but if you belonged to me –”
“I belong to no one, Comrade Romero,” she replied icily.
“Forgive me, Senorita,” he said. “I know that I merely chose an unfortunate way of trying to say that if the girl I loved were here she would not have been left alone in the forest, especially when I believe, as Zveri must believe, that we are being pursued by an enemy.”
“You do not like Comrade Zveri, do you, Romero?”
“Even to you, Senorita,” he replied, “I must admit, since you ask me, that I do not.”
“I know that he has antagonized many.”
“He has antagonized all – except you, Senorita.”
“Why should I be excepted?” she asked. “How do you know that he had not antagonized me also?”
“Not deeply, I am sure,” he said, “or else you would not have consented to become his wife.”
“And how do you know that I have?” she asked.
“Comrade Zveri boasts of it often,” replied Romero.
“Oh, he does?” nor did she make any other comment.
Well, we already know that they are not married because that was one of Zveri’s other failed plans. I mean, all of Zveri’s expeditions ended in failure. You would think the guy would throw in the towel and give up. But delusions of grandeur have been the ruin of many a poor boy. Okay then, one more chapter to wrap things up. See you at the mop up.
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