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ERB’S BIBLE BLUES:
A Commentary By
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
If you recall, Leon Stabutch, under orders from Stalin to kill the Lord of the Jungle, ran into trouble when his safari deserted him when shifta raiders attacked his camp, taking him and his belongings captive. He is being taken to face the white leader of these shiftas, who is still a mystery at this time. So, without further adieu, let us sneak a look at his adventure.
Chapter Seven: The Slave Raider
Leon Stabutch mounted behind one of his captors, riding to an unknown fate, was warrantably perturbed. He had been close to death at the hands of one of the band already, and from their appearance and their attitude toward him it was not difficult for him to imagine that they would require but the slightest pretext to destroy him.
What their intentions might be was highly problematical, though he could conceive of but one motive which might inspire such as they to preserve him. But if ransom were their aim he could not conjecture any method by which these semi-savages might contact with his friends or superiors in Russia. He was forced to admit that his prospects appeared most discouraging.
The shiftas were forced to move slowly because of the packs some of their horses were carrying since the looting of the Russian’s camp. Nor could they have ridden much more rapidly, under any circumstances, on the trail that they entered shortly following their capture of Stabutch.
Entering a narrow, rocky canyon the trail wound steeply upward to debouch at last upon a small, level mesa, at the upper end of which Stabutch saw what, at a distance, appeared to be a palisaded village nestling close beneath a rocky cliff that bounded the mesa in that direction.
This evidently was the destination of his captors, who were doubtless members of the very band the mere rumor of which had filled his men with terror. Stabutch was only sorry that the balance of the story, postulating the existence of a white leader, was evidently erroneous, since he would have anticipated less difficulty in arranging the terms and collection of a ransom with a European than with these ignorant savages.
As they neared the village Stabutch discovered that their approach had been made beneath the scrutiny of lookouts posted behind the palisade, whose head and shoulders were now plainly visible above the crude though substantial rampart.
And presently these sentries were shouting greetings and queries to the members of the returning band as the village gate swung slowly open and the savage horsemen entered the enclosure with their captive, who was soon the center of a throng of men, women, and children, curious and questioning – a savage throng of surly blacks.
Although there was nothing actively menacing in the attitude of the savages there was a definite unfriendliness in their demeanor that cast a further gloom of apprehension upon the already depressed spirits of the Russian; and as the cavalcade entered the central compound, about which the huts were grouped, he experienced a sensation of utter hopelessness.
It was at this moment that he saw a short, bearded white man emerge from one of the squalid dwellings; and instantly, the depression that had seized him was, partially at least, relieved.
The shiftas were dismounting, and now he was roughly dragged from the animal which had borne him from his camp and pushed unceremoniously toward the white man, who stood before the doorway from whence he had appeared surveying the prisoner sullenly, while he listened to the report of the leader of the returning band.
There was no smile upon the face of the bearded man as he addressed Stabutch after the black shifta had completed his report. The Russian recognized that the language employed by the stranger was Italian, a tongue which he could neither speak nor understand, and this he explained in Russian; but the bearded one only shrugged and shook his head. Then Stabutch tried English.
“That is better,” said the other brokenly. “I understand English a little. Who are you? What was the language you first spoke to me? From what country do you come?”
“I am a scientist,” replied Stabutch. “I spoke to you in Russian.”
“Is Russia your country?”
The man eyed him intently for some time, as though attempting to read the innermost secrets of his mind, before he spoke again. Stabutch noticed the squat, powerful build of the stranger, the cruel lips, only partially concealed by the heavy, black beard, and the hard, crafty eyes, and guessed that he might have fared as well at the hands of the blacks.
“You say that you are a Russian,” said the man. “Red or White?”
Stabutch wished that he might know how to answer this question. He was aware that the Red Russians were not well beloved by all peoples; and that the majority of Italians were trained to hate them, and yet there was something in the personality of this stranger that suggested that he might be more favorably inclined to a Red than to a White Russian. Furthermore, to admit that he was a Red might assure the other that a ransom could be obtained more surely than from a White, whose organization was admittedly weak and poverty stricken. For these reasons Stabutch decided to tell the truth.
“I am a Red,” he said.
The other considered him intently and in silence for a moment; then he made a gesture that would have passed unnoticed by any but a Red Communist. Leon Stabutch breathed an inaudible sigh of relief, but his facial expression gave no indication of recognition of this secret sign as he answered it in accordance with the ritual of his organization, while the other watched him closely.
I imagine this secret sign was something like the raised right fist of Communism, in contrast to the raised left fist of Anarchism. Whatever, ERB liked keeping this one close to his chest.
“Your name, comrade,” inquired the bearded one in an altered tone.
“Leon Stabutch,” replied the Russian; “and yours, comrade?”
“Dominic Capietro. Come, we will talk inside. I have a bottle there wherewith we may toast the cause and become better acquainted.”
“Lead on, comrade,” said Stabutch; “I feel the need of something to quiet my nerves. I have had a bad few hours.”
“I apologize for the inconvenience to which my men have put you,” replied Capietro, leading the way into the hut; “but all shall be made right again. Be seated. As you see, I lead the simple life; but what imperial throne may compare in grandeur with the bosom of Mother Earth!”
“None, comrade,” agreed Stabutch, noting the entire absence of chairs, or even stools, that the other’s speech had already suggested and condoned. “Especially,” he added, “when enjoyed beneath a friendly roof.”
Capietro rummaged in an old duffle bag and at last withdrew a bottle which he uncorked and handed to Stabutch. “Golden goblets are for royal tyrants, Comrade Stabutch,” he declaimed, “but not for such as we, eh?”
Stabutch raised the bottle to his lips and took a draught of the fiery liquid, and as it burned its way to his stomach and the fumes rose to his head the last of his fears and doubts vanished. “Tell me now.” he said, as he passed the bottle back to his host, “why was I seized, who you are, and what is to become of me?”
“My headman told me that he found you alone, deserted by your safari, and not knowing whether you were friend or enemy, he brought you here to me. You are lucky, comrade, that Dongo chanced to be in charge of the scouting party today. Another might have killed you first and inquired later. They are a pack of murderers and thieves, these good men of mine. They have been oppressed by cruel masters, they have felt the heel of the tyrant upon their necks, and their hands are against all men. You cannot blame them.
“But they are good men. They serve me well. They are the man power, I am the brains; and we divide the profits of our operation equally – half to the man power, half to the brains,” and Capietro grinned.
“And your operations?” asked Stabutch.
Capietro scowled; then his face cleared. “You are a comrade, but let me tell you that it is not always safe to be inquisitive.”
Stabutch shrugged. “Tell me nothing,” he said. “I do not care. It is none of my business.”
“Good,” exclaimed the Italian, “and why you are here in Africa is none of my business, unless you care to tell me. Let us drink again.”
That’s World Communism for you: sponsoring more criminal activity in the name of the cause because the ends justify the means, or some other claptrap. It is the ultimate criminal conspiracy.
While the conversation that ensued, punctuated by numerous drinks, carefully eschewed personalities, the question of the other’s occupation was uppermost in the mind of each; and as the natural effects of the liquor tended to disarm their suspicions and urge confidence it also stimulated the curiosity of the two, each of whom was now mellow and genial in his cups.
It was Capietro who broke first beneath the strain of an overpowering curiosity. They were sitting side by side upon a disreputably filthy rug, two empty and a newly opened one before them. “Comrade,” he cried, throwing an arm about the shoulders of the Russian affectionally, “I like you. Dominic Capietro does not like many men. This is his motto: Like few men and love all women,” whereat he laughed loudly.
“Let’s drink to that,” suggested Stabutch, joining in the laugher. “‘Like few men and love all women.’ That is the idea!”
“I knew the minute I saw you that you were a man after my own heart, comrade,” continued Capietro, “and why should there be secrets between comrades?”
“Certainly, why?” agreed Stabutch.
“So I shall tell you why I am here with this filthy band of thieving cutthroats. I was a soldier in the Italian Army. My regiment was stationed in Eritrea. I was fomenting discord and mutiny, as a good Communist should, when some dog of a Fascist reported me to the commanding officer. I was arrested. Doubtless, I should have been shot, but I escaped and made my way to Abyssinia, where Italians are none too well liked; but when it was known that I was a deserter I was treated well.
“Afer a while I obtained employment with a powerful ras to train his soldiers along European lines. There I became proficient in Amharic, the official language of the country, and also learned to speak that of the Gallas, who constituted the bulk of the population of the principality of the ras for whom I worked. Naturally, being averse to any form of monarchistic government, I commenced to once instill the glorious ideals of Communism into the breasts of the retainers of the old ras; but once again I was frustrated by an informer, and only by chance did I escape with my life.
“This time, however, I succeeded in enticing a number of men to accompany me. We stole horses and weapons from the ras and rode south where we joined a band of shiftas, or rather, absorbed them.
“This organized body of raiders and thieves made an excellent force with which to levy tribute upon chance travellers and caravans, but the returns were small and so we drifted down into this remote country of the Ghenzi where we can ply a lucrative trade in black ivory.”
“Black ivory? I never knew there was such a thing.”
Capietro laughed. “Two legged ivory,” he explained.
Stabutch whistled. “Oh,” he said. “I think I understand. You are a slave trader; but where is any market for slaves, other than the wage slaves of capitalistic countries?”
“You would be surprised, comrade. There are still many markets, including the mandates and protectorates of several highly civilized signatories to world court conventions aimed at the abolition of human slavery. Yes, I am a slave raider – rather a remarkable vocation for a university graduate and the former editor of a successful newspaper.”
“And you prefer this?”
“I have no alternative, and I must live. At least I think I must live – a most common form of rationalization. You see, my newspaper was anti-Fascist. And now, comrade, about yourself – what ‘scientific’ research is the Soviet government undertaking in Africa?”
“Let us call it anthropology,” replied Stabutch. “I am looking for a man.”
“There are many men in Africa and much nearer the coast than the Ghenzi country. You have travelled far inland looking for a man.”
“The man I look for I expected to find somewhere south of the Ghenzies,” replied Stabutch.
“Perhaps I can aid you. I know many men, at least by name and reputation, in this part of the world,” suggested the Italian.
Stabutch, had he been entirely sober, would have hesitated to give this information to a total stranger, but alcohol induces thoughtless confidences. “I search an Englishman known as Tarzan of the Apes,” he explained.
Capietro’s eyes narrowed. “A friend of yours?” he asked.
“I know of no one I would rather see,” replied Stabutch.
“You say he is here in the Ghenzi country?”
“I do not know. None of the natives I have questioned knew his whereabouts.”
“His country is far south of the Ghenzies,” said Capietro.
“Ah, you know of him, then?”
“Yes. Who does not? But what business have you with Tarzan of the Apes?”
“I have come from Moscow to kill him,” blurted Stabutch, and in the same instant regretted his rash admission.
Capietro relaxed. “I am relieved,” he said.
“Why?” demanded the Russian.
“I feared he was a friend of yours,” explained the Italian. “In which case we could not be friends; but if you have come to kill him you shall have nothing but my best wishes and heartiest support.”
Stabutch’s relief was almost a thing of substance, so considerable and genuine was it. “You, too, have a grievance against him?” he asked.
“He is a constant threat against my little operation in black ivory,” replied Capietro. “I should feel much safer if he were out of the way.”
“Then perhaps you help me, comrade?” inquired Stabutch eagerly.
“I have lost no ape-man,” replied Capietro, “and if he leaves me alone I shall never look for him. That adventure, comrade, you will not have to share with me.”
“But you have taken away my means of carrying out my plans. I cannot seek Tarzan without a safari,” complained Stabutch.
“That is right,” admitted the raider; “but perhaps the mistake of my men may be rectified. Your equipment and goods are safe. They will be returned to you, and, as for men, who better could find them for you than Dominic Capietro, who deals in men?”
On that note we leave Capietro’s camp of cutthroats and return to the safari of Lord Passmore and his hunt for big game.
The safari of Lord Passmore moved northward, skirting the western foothills of the Ghenzi Mountains. His stalwart porters marched almost with the precision of trained soldiers, at least in that proper distances were sustained and there were no stragglers. A hundred yards in advance were three askaris and behind these came Lord Passmore, his gun bearer, and his headman. At the head and rear of the column of porters was a detachment of askaris – well armed, efficient appearing men. The whole entourage suggested intelligent organization and experienced supervision. Evidence of willingly observed discipline was apparent, a discipline that seemed to be respected by all with the possible exception of Isaza, Lord Passmore’s “boy.” who was also his cook.
Isaza marched where his fancy dictated, laughing and joking with first one and then another of the members of the safari – the personification of good nature that pervaded the whole party and that was constantly manifested by the laughter and singing of the men. It was evident that Lord Passmore was an experienced African traveller and that he knew what treatment to accord his followers.
How different, indeed, this well ordered safari, from another that struggled up the steep slopes of the Ghenzies a few miles to the east. Here the column was strung out for fully a mile, the askaris straggling along among the porters, while the two white men whom they accompanied forged far ahead with a single boy and a gun bearer.
“Geeze,” remarked the “Gunner,” “you sure picked on a lousy racket! I could of stayed home and climbed up the front of the Sherman Hotel, if I had of wanted to climb, and always been within a spit of eats and drinks.”
“Oh, no you couldn’t,” said Lafayette Smith.
“Why not? Who’d a stopped me?”
“Your friends, the cops.”
“That’s right; but don’t call ‘em my friends – the lousy bums. But wherein ‘ell do you think you’re going.”
“I think I perceive in this mountain range evidences of upthrust by horizontal compression,” replied Lafayette Smith, “and I wish to examine the surface indications more closely than it is possible to do from a distance. Therefore, we must go to the mountains, since they will not come to us.”
“And what does it get you?” demanded “Gunner” Patrick. “Not a buck. It’s a bum racket.”
Lafayette Smith laughed good naturedly. They were crossing a meadowland through which a mountain stream wound. Surrounding it was a forest. “This would make a good camp,” he said, “from which to work for a few days. You can hunt, and I’ll have a look at the formations in the vicinity. Then we’ll move on.”
“It’s jake with me,” replied the “Gunner.” “I’m fed up on climbing.”
“Suppose that you remain with the safari and get camp made,” suggested Smith. “I’ll go up a little farther with my boy and see what I can see. It’s early yet.”
“Oke,” assented the “Gunner.” “I’ll park the mob up near them trees. Don’t get lost, and say, you better take my protection guy with you,” he added, nodding in the direction of his gun bearer.
“I’m not going to hunt,” replied Smith. “I won’t need him.”
“Then take my rod here.” The “Gunner” started to unbuckle his pistol belt. “You might need it.”
“Thanks, I have one,” replied Smith, tapping his .32.
“Geeze, you don’t call that thing a rod, do you?” demanded the “Gunner,” contemptuously.
“It’s all I need. I’m looking for rocks, not trouble. Come on, Obambi,” and he motioned his boy to follow him as he started up the slope toward the higher mountains.
“Geeze,” muttered the “Gunner,” “I seen pipies what ain’t as much of a nut as that guy; but,” he added, “he’s a regular guy at that. You can’t help likin’ him.” Then he turned his attention to the selection of a campsite.
How come in an ERB story do the parting of the ways between two individuals usually means that trouble is around the corner? I think we are experienced by now to recognize it coming.
Lafayette Smith entered the forest beyond the meadowland; and here the going became more difficult, for the ground rose rapidly; and the underbrush was thick. He fought his way upward, Obambi as his heels; and at last he reached a higher elevation, where the forest growth was much thinner because of the rocky nature of the ground and the absence of top soil. Here he paused to examine the formation, but only to move on again, this time at right angles to his original direction.
Thus, stopping occasionally to investigate, he moved erratically upward until he achieved the summit of a ridge from which he had a view of miles of rugged mountains in the distance. The canyon that lay before him, separating him from the next ridge, aroused his interest. The formation of the opposite wall, he decided, would bear closer investigation.
Obambi appeared exhausted. He was not. He was merely disgusted. To him the bwana was mad, quite mad. Upon no other premises could Obambi explain the senseless climbing, with an occasional pause to examine rocks. Obambi was positive that they might have discovered plenty of rocks at the foot of the mountains had they but searched for them. And then, too, this bwana did not hunt. He supposed all bwanas came to Africa to hunt. This one, being so different, must be mad.
Smith glanced at his boy. It was too bad, he thought, to make Obambi do all this climbing unnecessarily. Certainly there was no way in which the boy might assist him, while seeing him in a constant state of exhaustion reacted unfavorably on Smith. Better by far to be alone. He turned to the boy. “Go back to camp, Obambi,” he said. “I do not need you here.”
Obambi looked at him in surprise. Now he knew the bwana was very mad. However, it would be much more pleasant in camp than climbing about in these mountains. He rose to his feet. “The bwana does not need me?” he asked. “Perhaps he will need me.” Obambi’s conscience was already troubling him. He knew that he should not leave his bwana alone.
“No, I shan’t need you, Obambi,” Smith assured him. “You run along back to camp. I’ll come in pretty soon.”
“Yes, Bwana,” and Obambi turned back down the mountain side.
Lafayette Smith clambered down into the canyon, which was deeper than he had supposed, and then worked his way up the opposite side that proved to be even more precipitous than it had appeared from the summit of the ridge. However, he found so much to interest him that he considered it well worth the effort, and so deeply absorbed was he that he gave no heed to the passage of time.
It was not until he reached the top of the far side of the canyon that he noted the diminishing light that presaged the approach of night. Even then he was not greatly concerned; but he realized that it would be quite dark before he could hope to recross the canyon, and it occurred to him that by following up the ridge on which he stood he could reach the head of the canyon where it joined the ridge from which he had descended into it, thus saving him a long, arduous climb and shortening the time, if not the distance, back to camp.
As he trudged upward along the ridge, night fell; but still he kept on, though now he could only grope his way slowly, nor did it occur to him for several hours that he was hopelessly lost.
Well, what do you know, another cliff hanger! So, stay tuned for the further adventures of Lafayette Smith and “Gunner” Patrick. But first we must meet a tribe of baboons.
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