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Rated: 18+ · Novella · Steampunk · #2186513
The third story in the Beyond the Rails series
         She woke in darkness, eyes burning. There was no hint of a coming dawn. Something had awakened her, and she couldn’t say what, an odd cry, perhaps. The artifact of a dream. Now she had to pee. She tried to suppress it, but it was too necessary. She would have to go out and attend to it.
         She rose from her straw-filled bedding and looked out the small window above her bed, a window small enough to keep the larger predators out. The watch-fires around the stockade were lit and tended, and she could see one of the young men leaning on his spear far down the fence. Satisfied that the village was safe from wild animals, she wrapped her skirt around her narrow waist and slipped outside to use the clay pot reserved for nighttime needs.
         Finishing up, she replaced the lid and walked back around to the front of her house. She pulled back the curtain that covered the doorway, and as she did, a sudden sound, a scrape, spun her around to see whether she might be the target of a leopard or a jackal. What she saw instead was her neighbor, Rahidi, a respected man of the village, lit clearly yet surrealistically by the nearby watch fire. Clothed only in a loincloth with fur anklets and bracers, and a strange headdress with small cattle horns protruding from the sides, his body was painted with symbols she didn't recognize. The stark black-and-white patterns on his face she knew well; they were painted on the warrior to invoke the speed and strength of pundamilia, the zebra. This paint had only been worn for ceremonies in her short lifetime, as there had been no formal wars with other tribes since she had been an infant.
         The last thing she noted before he looked in her direction was a dark substance covering his hands and forearms all the way up to his elbows. His face twisted in the grip of a violent emotion as he saw her. She read surprise, fear, uncertainty, and finally hate chasing each other across his face in the course of a second before he pulled back the curtain and darted into his hut.
         She had been half-asleep when she reached her door. Now, as she lay back down in the darkness, she was wide awake, her young mind trying to make sense of what she had just seen and heard. At the tender age of nine summers, she hadn't near the experience to figure it out.

*           *           *


         It was August, the dead of winter, for what that was worth here, one degree off the equator. All that really mattered to the business of moving cargo with an airship was that the Season of Long Rain was over, and the predominant weather would be overcast until the Short Rains came in November. The main issue for Patience Hobbs, as she sat on the engineering control console, feet propped on the big wooden wheel of the airship Kestrel, was that here over the western highlands, the temperature was pleasant during the day, and positively cool at night.
         Quite a different story down at the coast, Hobbs thought, where the temperature hovered close to ninety degrees all the year round, and a person’s clothes were always wet and clung like a second skin. Yes, she’d take life in the temperate wilderness over that every day of the year.
         “Here, what’s all this, then?” Captain Monroe asked, stepping through the door into the cramped pilot house. Hobbs had removed her right boot and sock, and was dabbing iodine onto the corner of her big toenail.
         “Oh, I pulled a hangnail last night. You wouldn’t want me to catch gangrene, would you?”
         “No, God forbid,” Monroe said absently as he scanned the readout of their engineering plant. “Wouldn’t want you to startle us all by exhibiting any professional bearing, either.”
         “Why?” she asked, bunching up her sock and pulling it back on. “We aren’t carrying passengers, and you lot already know I’m a slob. Anyway, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen if you paid a girl enough to get a decent pedicure now and then.”
         “We have a doctor aboard now,” he said. “We need to raise the level of decorum around this boat. And, in case you’ve forgotten, your pay is down because you voted to take the doctor on as crew. You knew full well he’d be given a full share of the profits, so it’s a bit late to start whining now.”
         “I never whine!”
         “A rose by any other name . . . Sing out when you have Nakuru in sight.”
         “What am I, a lookout now? I'll be needing another share, then!”
         Monroe laughed, and tousled her hair as he stepped back out on deck.
         “Nakuru’s been in sight for nearly a half-hour,” she called through the open windows at the front of the pilot house. “If you look over the bow, you'll see that I’d be flying us right down Main Street, except that the wind’s up a little, so I’ll have to swing round to bring us in into it. I’ll be starting my descent shortly, if that’s to your liking, Nahodha.”
         “I say, you’re in a mood this morning!”
         “I hurt myself,” she said with a pout. “That always puts me in a mood.”
         “Yes, well, you just put us down in the middle of the square, and I’ll put up with the rest of it.”

*           *           *


         They didn't need to be tied up and on the ground to see that something was amiss. It was obvious from the knots of people standing around in groups near houses, the three nuns of the mission school wringing their hands or praying their rosaries outside the chapel, and the priest standing by the mooring post, watching them descend. Airships didn't darken the Kenyan skies the way they did in some of the major cities of Europe and America, but they were common enough that whole villages weren't likely to drop what they were doing to watch one arrive.
         The Jacob’s ladder was rigged, and at thirty feet, it was dropped over the side, the anchor was released, and Smith went down to make them fast. As soon as they were tied up, Monroe joined him on the ground, where he was met by the priest, not the Monsignor, Father Isaiah, but the Rector, Father Franklin.
         “It’s a catastrophe,” Franklin moaned by way of a greeting, “an utter catastrophe. A dog shouldn’t be killed that way.”
         “Slow down, Father,” Monroe told the young man as Smith came to join them. “Who’s been killed?”
         “Father Isaiah! It’s horrible, horrible!”
         “You’ll have to get hold of yourself if we’re to make any headway,” Monroe said more sternly. “Now, kindly collect your wits, and tell me what's happened to Father Isaiah.”
         The man took a deep breath and studied his shoes for a moment, before looking up and beginning again.
         “I awoke this morning somewhat late, because the church bell wasn’t rung for morning mass, as is usual.”
         He began moving slowly toward the chapel, drawing Monroe and Smith with him.
         “Father Isaiah usually rings the bell, and then can be seen gathering water, sweeping the steps, he’s really quite active for a man of his age. Was . . . quite active.”
         “Yes. Go on.”
         “Well, the first place I went to look was in the chapel, and that is indeed where he was. He was lashed on his back to the altar. His robes were cut or torn open, and the large crucifix from the altar was snapped off, leaving a jagged point, which had been thrust through his chest. There was so much blood, and I tell you Captain, the look on his face was one of such horror, that I must believe it is the chief expression worn in hell itself.”
         “Good Lord!”
         “The Lord had nothing to do with this, I assure you.” Father Franklin pushed open the door to the chapel and led them into the gloomy interior. “The Lord has removed his light from this place, as is fitting, given the circumstances.”
         They walked to the altar, slowly and with reverence. The old priest had been unbound, the crucifix removed from his chest, and his holy robes closed over his wound. His face, though relaxed in death, would wear that expression of ultimate terror for eternity. Monroe opened his robe and looked at the ragged wound.
         “Father,” he said to Franklin, “Isaiah was wearing his robes, he was killed with the crucifix, but this is important, was there anything on or near the body that didn’t belong here?”
         “What do you mean?”
         “Something that wasn’t part of the chapel. Something the killer may have left behind.”
         “Like what?”
         “Anything at all that might provide some clue to the killer’s identity.”
         “Identity? We know their identity. He was killed by these heathens, tools of Satan who resent the Word of the Lord being brought to this, this hotbed of blasphemy!”
         “I say, that’s a little harsh. Aren't most of the villagers here your parishioners? Do their children not take instruction from the nuns?”
         “Deception, Captain. Don’t tell me you aren’t familiar with it. Satan is a sly and devious foe. Who do you think killed him? Me? The sisters?”
         “Of course not, Father, but the whole village didn’t do this. This is work of one man, or at most, two or three. Will you condemn them all for the sake of one sinner?”
         “The bargain of Abraham,” Franklin muttered.
         “How’s that?”
         “I have to get some air,” said Franklin, starting back toward the door. “When the Lord was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for the wickedness of their people, Abraham got Him to agree to spare the cities if he could find one righteous man who dwelt therein.”
         “Well, there you are, then.”
         “He couldn’t find one,” Franklin said as he stepped out into the daylight.
         “What we have to find here is one evil man, the one who killed this priest, and his accomplices, if he had any.”
         “Jambo, Davy,” came a small voice from behind as they started away from the chapel.
         “Jambo, Yamile,” Smith replied, turning to see a young girl of nine summers clad in a shapeless caftan. He produced a peppermint candy, brought for the purpose, from his shirt pocket, and handed it to her. Instead of eagerly popping it into her mouth as she usually did, she just stared at it.
         “What’s wrong, Princess?” Smith asked, kneeling in front of her.
         “I saw something,” she said quietly.
         “How does this child know your crewman, Captain?”
         “He’s an American cowboy, and his name is David. She thinks he’s Davy Crockett.”
         “What did you see?” Smith asked her very gently.
         “My neighbor-man, Rahidi. I woke in the night, and he came with blood on his hands and the paint of a warrior, and he went into his house. He looked at me. He knows I saw him.”
         “You hear that, Cap’n?” Smith asked. “We gotta get her outta here.”
         “Preposterous,” Franklin said. “Why, Rahidi is a pillar of the community. He’d be the last man to suspect in this outrage.”
         “Yamile?”
         “I saw him.”
         “We have to take her and her family down to Mombasa, Cap’n. The fella that butchered that priest ain’t gonna chance havin’ this kid bring a posse down on him.”
         “It won’t do, David. You know these people won’t fly, even to save their own lives. Flying is reserved for the Gods, and the Gods will punish any mortal who dares to do so.”
         “Yeah, yeah, I know all that. They’ll just have to get past it.”
         “They won’t, and you know it.”
         “Then I’ll stay here with them. Just ‘til all this blows over, you know.”
         “Out of the question. I can’t manage without a deckhand.”
         “I don't do nothin’ complicated. Put Ellsworth on it. It’ll just be down to Mombasa and back.”
         “The doctor can't coil a rope without somebody holding his hand. But you, Father, you don’t object to flying?”
         “No.”
         “Then we can take you and your nuns out with us. No sense giving them another priest to practice on. All of you get your things ready, and we’ll take you out as soon as we get your delivery unloaded.”
         “This is my church now, Captain. I cannot leave it until I am properly relieved.”
         “Your nuns, then. No sense in them being subjected to all this.”
         “Yes, you’re right, of course. I’ll tell them at once.”
         “Cap’n,” Smith said, “if you won't let me stay here until you get back, then I guess I’ll have to quit.”
         “I say, David—”
         “Ain’t discussin’ it. I’ll just go get my gear.”
         “You know, Captain, if you could see your way clear, Mr. Smith could be quite instrumental in laying this whole matter to rest.”
         “Laying it to rest? Father, Mr. Smith came of age in the American Civil War, and grew to manhood in the west, rubbing elbows with the likes of Wyatt Earp and Jesse James. He’ll lay it to rest, all right, along with half the population of this village, if it comes to that. Is that what you want?”
         “Mr. Smith will not be the first man who took up arms in defense of the Lord’s works, and I’m sure he won't be the last. Even Jesus scourged the temple.”
         “All right, then, David. You can stay until we get back from Mombasa. That should be tomorrow evening. You’ll have to decide then what you’re going to do. Now, let’s get the mission’s order unloaded.”
         “Aye, Cap’n. I’ll just get my stuff.”

*           *           *


         Smith had stood beside the young Father Franklin, watching the Kestrel lift straight out of the center compound and make the sweeping turn to head for Nairobi, reflected briefly on the odd, square-shaped lake at the southwest edge of town. It was a strange feeling, watching his only link with civilization, such as it was, fly off toward the horizon, and he watched until she was little more than a dark speck against the sunset.
         “Mister Smith,” Father Franklin said quietly, “it will be getting dark soon. We’d best decide where you're going to be sleeping tonight.”
         “I don’t figure to do much sleeping tonight, Padre. I’ll most likely set up an ambuscade in Yamile’s house.”
         “I’m afraid that’s out of the question. To have a strange man, an outsider, sleeping in the home of a married couple would cause them a scandal they could never overcome. Perhaps the acolyte’s room? It’s Spartan, but comfortable enough.”
         “Can I see Yamile’s house from there?”
         “No.”
         “Then that’s out.” He examined the church’s exterior, and located a tiny window that opened on Yamile’s home. “What’s in there?”
         “Just a small storeroom for the icons and such.”
         “Then that’s where I’ll be.”
         “That doesn’t sound very comfortable. None of the clergy’s quarters are what you would call luxurious, but the storeroom, well . . .”
         “It’s all right, Padre, it will help me stay awake.”
         “You may not retain that opinion when you’ve seen the accommodations. But come, let us at least find a worthy supper for the man who would protect God’s work.”

*           *           *


         Smith and the young priest had shared a hearty, if simple, repast, and after bidding him good night, Smith had cleared a darkened corner from where he could see the front of Yamile’s house by craning his neck. He didn’t put a lot of effort into getting comfortable, as the point was to stay awake, but he invested considerable thought into being concealed in the darkest shadows he could find. Anyone coming to pay this particular priest a visit would be greeted by the twin barrels of a sawed-off ten-gauge loaded with buck and ball; there wouldn't be much left after that greeting, and after what the mysterious killers had done to old Father Isaiah, Smith’s only prayer was that they would give him an excuse. He drifted in and out of sleep, taking frequent cat naps, but never settling deep. The sounds of predators out on the veldt kept him snapping back to full alertness; though he had been in the country for several years, he was used to sleeping aboard the Kestrel, and he found that being down on the ground had an attenuating effect. Coupled with that, his own tension kept him at the upper edge of sleep even at his lowest dips.
         So, when he heard an unfamiliar sound among all the background sounds of the wee hours, he came quickly alert, and picked up the shotgun. He came onto his haunches and waited for the sound to repeat itself, and fade into the rest of the night calls. But the next time he heard it, it had grown into the full-throated scream of a woman in terror, a scream that was cut short with sudden finality.
         “Jesus!” he snarled, lurching to his feet and trotting on protesting knees to the door to the compound at the end of the hall. He booted it open, shotgun at the ready, and looked around at the nyumbani, the mud and stick houses the villagers had built around the central square. Still uncertain where it had come from, he moved cautiously into the square, straining his eyes to try to pierce the darkness. At last, there came the sound of breaking crockery, and he knew before he turned that it had come from Yamile’s house.
         He sprinted to the doorway, eased the curtain that served as a door back from the frame, and peered into the even deeper darkness inside. He might as well have been utterly blind. Steeling himself, holding the shotgun close in preparation to meet any attack with a half-pound spray of hot lead, he stepped inside. No attack came, and he felt around until he found what most of these houses had just inside the door, a wall niche with a candle and a handful of wooden matches. Holding the shotgun like a pistol, he lit a match with his left hand and got the candle going.
         The first thing the dim, flickering light showed him was Yamile’s mother, Penha, lying on her back amid the pieces of some broken pottery. She was breathing, but if Smith needed any further indication that something was badly amiss here, she was it.
         “Yamile.” Smith dared to call, none too loudly.
         No answer came, but he heard what might have been a grunt from a back room, then the sound of another pot breaking.
         “Yamile!”
         Smith dashed to the next room to see the curtain over the window swinging much more than the still air could account for. Looking out into the Stygian darkness, he thought he could see a hunched-over form climbing the stockade. Moving the shotgun to his left hand, he drew his Colt Peacemaker, the classic cowboy pistol of the American west, and leveled it at the fugitive as the figure dropped to the other side of the fence. Smith couldn’t see clearly, and didn’t actually know who or what the fleeing figure was, or what it might be carrying, and so decided not to fire.
         He turned back into the room, intending to use the door to give chase, to find himself face-to-face with a black African face painted with an array of light-colored symbols. He had no time to study the details, as at the moment he turned, the African blew a handful of fine powder into his face.
         It burned his eyes like pepper, and forced him to cough, which of course caused him to breathe in sharply, taking in a lungful. His lungs began to burn, and he grew dizzy, staggering to one side and crashing heavily into the wall. The hand holding the shotgun began to tremble like a man afflicted with St. Vitus’ Dance, and suddenly the African was nowhere to be seen. He got through the door into the main room, he thought, as the tremors spread to his right arm, and his knees began to go weak. The candle should be in here, but the room was pitch black. He dropped the shotgun from his useless left hand, and rubbed the back of it across his eyes to no effect. He was about to fire his pistol in hopes of a lucky hit on the unseen African while he still had control of his right hand, but just before he pulled the trigger, Father Franklin’s voice came from in front of him and to his left in a strange, layered, echoing tone.
         “Mister Smith?”
         He wanted to warn the priest of the imminent danger he was in, but all that came out of his mouth was a stranger’s voice saying, “Gwahhh! Goyah!”
         Then the pistol fell from his hand, arriving at the dirt floor only a second before his head.

*           *           *


         Kestrel lost altitude smoothly, coming in under Patience Hobbs’ practiced hand across the odd, trapezoidal lake on whose northern shore nestled the village of Nakuru. It was barely after noon, and the sun was almost straight above the gas bag. This was the way Hobbs liked to approach this particular village, with no glare off the water to dazzle her eyes and complicate her approach.
         “You think David will be glad to see us?” she asked Captain Monroe, who stood in the pilot house door ready to assist young Doctor Ellsworth, whose many talents certainly did not include those required of an airship deck hand.
         “If he’s awake. He probably spent the night telling Wild West stories to the children around the campfire.”
         “What do you think he did in America, Captain?”
         “God alone knows. If you’re to believe half his stories, he was an Indian-fighting train robber who helped the U.S. Marshals track himself into a dead end canyon where only a mountain goat could get out, and stood beside them laughing while they scratched their heads and shrugged.”
         “Sounds right. My money’s on the train robbing bit.”
         “Really, what leads you to that conclusion?”
         “Well, he lacks the niceties of a formal education, and yet look how at home he is aboard a big machine. This one, specifically.”
         “Interesting. Of course, this isn’t a train.”
         “Tis difficult to be an airship robber, unless one is able to sprout wings and fly.”
         “A stunt I wouldn’t put past our American friend.”
         “Tosh! He’d have surely bragged about it by now if he had.”
         Nicholas Ellsworth, botanist-turned-deck hand, stood in the bows with the captain’s binoculars, studying the village as they approached, listening to Hobbs and the captain discuss the mysterious background of one David Smith.
         “This is bloody odd,” he said as their conversation paused.
         “Don't worry, Doctor,” Hobbs told him. “I’ll put you right down in the grass. You won’t even need the ladder.”
         “Not I’ll object to that, but that isn’t what I mean. That priest is waiting for us on the common, along with a lot of somber-looking natives, but there’s no sign of Mr. Smith at all.”
         “You called it, Captain,” Hobbs said. “Passed out on the altar, no doubt.”
         “Let me see those,” Monroe said, taking the binoculars from Ellsworth, and studying the waiting crowd. “I don't like it. Smith or no Smith, those people are acting like someone just died. Straight in, Patty. Mind the airscrews, they aren’t leaving us much room down there.”
         “Aye, Captain.”
         Hobbs brought the Kestrel in right over the heads of the gathered villagers, holding her rock-steady as Monroe went down the ladder to attach the anchor cable to the village’s mooring post. Franklin approached him at once as Hobbs killed the propellers and Ellsworth retracted the anchor cable, drawing the tethered ship down to nearly ground level. Monroe found himself the center of a crowd before he even turned away from the post.
         “Ninyi watu umeleta roho mbaya juu yetu,” Ajabu, the headman, a strapping African in his prime barked at him.
         “Please, Ajabu,” Father Franklin said, obviously trying to contain a dangerous situation, “all your concerns will be addressed. Captain Monroe has ever been your friend.”
         Monroe couldn't help but notice Franklin’s pallor and sunken eyes.
         “Hawa watu si kuwakaribisha hapa!”
         “Jambo,
Father,” Monroe greeted the priest. “What’s going on here? Where’s David?”
         “I fear there has been another incident,” the priest told him. “The home of the young girl, Yamile, was attacked last night.”
         “What? She was right, then. Where’s David?”
         “We don’t exactly know that, Captain.”
         “What do you mean, you don’t know?”
         “They took him.”
         “What do you mean, they took him?”
         “From the beginning, Captain, shall we? I simply must sit down first, though.”
         Franklin leaned on Monroe’s arm as they walked the short distance to the mission schoolhouse, and sat down on a bench outside. Ajabu and a crowd of villagers followed and stayed around them.
         "David wanted to sleep in Yamile’s house, but the local taboos obviously wouldn’t allow that, so he made up a makeshift bed in the church storeroom from where he could see her house."
         “That sounds like David.”
         “Quite. Well, they attacked Yamile’s family just as he feared. I suppose that pretty well confirms what Yamile said from the beginning, that Rahidi was somehow involved in the attack on Father Isaiah.”
         “A witness that couldn’t be left to tell her tale.”
         “I suspect so. Anyway, Yamile’s mother screamed in the night, and David went to investigate. In the darkness of the house, he was overcome by a potion, a powder, blown into his face, as was I, and Yamile’s mother.”
         “Sumu poda,” Ajabu said, and several in the crowd gasped at the mention of the words.
         “Sumu poda?” Monroe repeated.
         “A form of bush magic used by assassins and kidnappers. It’s a closely guarded secret formula made mostly, I presume, from plants of various types. They’re ground into a fine powder, dried, and when it’s inhaled, the victim becomes completely helpless. I can attest to the effectiveness, Captain. No one who gets a lung full of that powder is going to do anything meaningful for some time afterward.”
         “Plant material, is it? Doctor,” he shouted up to the Kestrel, where Ellsworth and Hobbs leaned on the rail watching the proceedings, “I have a job for you. Bring your collection kit.”
         “Collection kit?” Franklin asked. “What is he going to collect?”
         “Doctor Ellsworth is a botanist, fresh from Cambridge. A wizard, really. I’ve seen him identify a fungus by looking at a spore through a microscope. If he can find a sample of this sumu poda, it won’t be a secret for much longer.”
         “He can probably get some off the nightshirt I was wearing. It’s on my bed. Ajabu had it taken off of me. Perhaps he knew what it was.”
         “Excellent. We’ll get the doctor to work on that. Now, what happened to David?”
         “I think he had already been sprayed when I saw him. He was staggering, and his hands were trembling. He didn’t have much time left before he fell unconscious. Then I was hit myself. I took a fairly large dose, and lapsed into hallucinations right away. By the time I recovered, your crewman, the girl, Yamile, and her father were all gone, taken by the attackers, whether they were dead or alive. There is apparently a trail made by several men to and over the stockade behind the girl’s house, and it heads out onto the savannah.”
         “What’s out there? Where could they have taken them?”
         “There is nothing,” Ajabu answered. “Nothing but lion, hyena, leopard, jackal. Perhaps they left the bodies to be consumed.”
         “That’s not acceptable.”
         “It is not for you to say what is acceptable. You caused this. There were no attacks before white men came to teach our children false ways. Now, because you left a white warrior in our village, the attacks have spilled over onto our people. You are not welcome here. When you load all your white men on your skyship and go, our lives will return to safety.”
         “What do you know, Ajabu?” Monroe asked.
         Ajabu only glared at him.
         “Where is Rahidi?”
         “Rahidi is missing as well.”
         “Maybe he’s missing, but Yamile accused him, and now she’s missing, along with her father, and the man I left here to protect her. Maybe Rahidi has a lair out there where he takes his victims. Maybe they’re all out there right now.”
         “Liar! You will leave our village! You will take this shaman with you, and never return. You have no welcome here.”
         “What I’m going to do, Ajabu, is fly out in the direction of the trail, and look for our missing man. Not to mention Yamile and her father. While we’re doing that, Father Franklin is going to get his things ready, and we will leave for Mombasa tonight.”
         “I say!”
         “You heard the headman, Father. You aren’t safe here. Nor welcome. We’re going to come back here and find our missing friend, who was under your protection, Ajabu, as the headman of this village. If you interfere with us, I will bring the white Queen’s soldiers to help us look for him. Redcoats, Ajabu, do you understand? They’ll dismantle this place stick by stick if need be. They don’t say please when you abduct a subject of the Crown.”
         “Captain,” Ellsworth said, shouldering his way through the crowd, a large khaki bag slung over his shoulder, “what do you need me to do?”
         “Father Franklin will show you his nightshirt. It has a powder on it that I want you to sample and identify. Be careful not to breathe any of it, it’s quite dangerous.”
         “Very good, sir. Father, if you’d be so kind?”
         “Patty, get ready to fly. We’re going to head out east, and see whether we can follow a trail.”
         “Aye, Captain.”
         “You see, Ajabu, we’re leaving. But we will have our friend.”
         “Your friend is already dead, as are the girl and her father.”
         “Then we’ll take his body.”
         “You will only bring the wrath of roho wavunaji down on all of us!”
         With that, Ajabu turned and stalked away. With nothing left to see, the crowd of villagers began to disperse, leaving Monroe to wonder just who in hell these spirit reapers might be.

*           *           *


         Consciousness returned slowly, and brought with it a dull ache in the head, a tingling in the extremities. He perceived that he lay on his back, and the first attempts to change the position of his limbs told him with certainty that he was bound. He eased his eyes open, to hide the fact that he was awake, but gave a start when he saw the face of a leopard staring into his face from six inches away.
         “Ah, good, you are awake,” a rich voice with the throaty African accent said as its owner removed the mask and stepped back to place it on a pedestal. “I was concerned that the hunters may have used too much sumu poda on you. You cannot feel pain when you are asleep, after all.”
         “Who are you?” Smith asked the man.
         “The question, white-face, is, who are you?”
         “I’m David Smith, a crewman on the Kestrel. My captain’ll be looking for me, and when he finds me, he ain’t gonna be happy!”
         “Your captain can look for you until the heavens fall from the mountaintops. He is not going to find you. No one is going to find you. As for your name, I do not care whether you even have a name. You are a filthy European. You come here with greed in your hearts, and the belief that because we are not white like you, that you can steal our land, our treasures, our very people for whatever reason may suit you. We are the roho wavunaji. Our lives are dedicated to showing you that you are wrong.”
         “I am no European,” Smith told him.
         “No, white-face? Then, what are you. Educate this ignorant wog, I implore you.”
         “I’m an American, from Kansas City, Missouri.”
         “An American? I don't think so, white-face. I met an American once in Nairobi. He had copper skin, and a noble bearing. No, you may have been born in America, but you are the son of a European. Your fathers conquered the Americans, and now you think to conquer the Africans, but we will not be so easy.”
         “I’m not tryin’ to conquer anybody,” Smith said. “I just serve on an airship.”
         “An airship!” The man became animated by that revelation. “In your arrogance, you abrogate to yourself the right to fly, that is reserved only to the Gods themselves, and then you tell me you do not come to conquer? You claim to be a God by your actions!”
         “Look, all we do is carry cargo around the Territory.”
         “Cargo that benefits the thieves. Kenya is not your territory, it is our land, the land of our ancestors, and the land of our Gods. Whether you are a thief, or you support the thieves, is a difference that makes no difference. Look at this face.” The man leaned in close to him. “It is a black face. This face belongs here. Yours does not, and my order has made it our business to rid our great land of your white faces forever.”
         “Your order?”
         “The roho wavunaji.”
         “The spirit reapers?”
         “You have learned our language well, white-face. But do not worry. We will not reap your spirit. We do not believe you Europeans have spirits inside you, only greed. There is a large troop of fisi that patrols this plateau. Do you know the fisi?”
         “Hyena.”
         “Good, white-face. When they come around, we will cut off your arms, and throw them and you outside. The smell of blood makes them mad with hunger, much like Europeans become mad with greed when they smell someone else’s treasure. They eat everything. They digest everything. Your captain will not even find your bones in their kinyesi. Spirit reaping is reserved for those Africans who aid you in the rape of our land. Those we punish by extracting their spirits, their souls, in your perception, and imprisoning them forever in these vessels.”
         He stepped away and swept his arm in a wide arc, drawing Smith’s attention to several rows of ornate urns lined up on shelves cut into the wall.
         “Once in our hands, they can be tormented for all of time, and believe me, they are.”
         “You can’t hope to get away with this!”
         “White-face, we have been getting away with it for many seasons. This room is the chamber of spirits for the Nyahururu Plateau. There are rooms like this from Lodwar to M’sambweni, and countless more in Tanganyika. Don’t bother to threaten me with your soldiers,” he added, holding up his hand as Smith started to do just that. “The roho wavunaji did not begin with me, and they will not end with my death. Every time you kill one of us, two more rise to take his place. The only way you can win here is to leave. The alternative is to die. As you shall soon do. And make no mistake, white-face, when the fisi find you, your screams will be heard by your white brothers and their foreign lackeys in Mombasa. Then let them tremble in fear.”

*           *           *


         Dusk was purpling the sky when Hobbs angled down to approach the aerodrome in Nairobi. It was a simple landing in the still of a beautiful evening, and in a matter of moments, Kestrel was being tied up fore and aft at one of the docks.
         “Better get your gear, Father,” Monroe said. “This is your stop.”
         “But, this isn’t Mombasa,” the confused priest replied.
         “Quite right, Father. This is Nairobi.”
         “But you said we were going to Mombasa.”
         “I can only hope Ajabu was as ready to believe that as you were.”
         “For what reason?”
         “So that we can get back to Nakuru unexpected. The Royal Aero Service taught me that nothing beats a good surprise when it comes to gaining an advantage over an enemy.”
         “Do you have enemies in Nakuru, Captain?”
         “I suspect I might, Father. I left a crewman there, and he hasn’t been seen since. Not only that, but the headman there seems rather disinclined to help me find him. In twelve years as an officer of the Crown, and four more here, I’ve never lost a man. I don't intend to begin that habit on a ridiculous operation like this. I’ll have my man, Father, by whatever means necessary.”
         Franklin looked at him for a moment as if he had never seen him before.
         “May God have mercy on you, my son,” he said finally.

*           *           *


         Two hours later, in full darkness, Kestrel flew past the village of Nakuru toward the east, cruising slowly, looking for light sources on the far side of the little settlement. There were none to be seen.
         “All right, Patience,” Monroe asked his pilot, “do you think you can hold her steady over the village square?”
         “You have to ask?”
         “It seemed prudent. Put us overhead, then. Gunther, arm up, make sure the boiler's stoked, and join me on the foc’sle. Doctor, come with me. I have a special job for you.”
         It wasn’t much longer before Kestrel was hanging motionless and silent above Nakuru like some great night-hunting bird. Monroe and Brown, both heavily armed, gently lowered the Jacob’s ladder, as opposed to their usual style of simply chucking it over the side, and climbed quietly to the ground. Keeping carefully to the shadows, they verified that, aided by the pitch black night, they had not been noticed by the sentries, a fact which made Hobbs’ piloting skills seem all the more mystical. Semi-concealed on the fringe of the square, Monroe gave a signal to Ellsworth.
         Kestrel’s fowler boomed loudly with the explosion of an empty charge. Ellsworth began his reload, this time with BB-size bird shot, as one by one, bleary-eyed people started coming out of their houses looking for the source of the explosion. When Monroe reckoned that about a third of the inhabitants were out of their houses, he drew his Le Mat, and fired a round into the air. The sentries moved in quickly to surround them, and presently, Ajabu appeared among the gathering people, and made his way directly up to them.
         “What is the meaning of this, Bwana Monroe? You were told that you were no longer welcome here.” Ajabu was armed with a short stabbing spear, and didn’t look in the least bit happy.
         Monroe, for his part, was no happier.
         "And I told you that someone in this village took my friend, or his body, and that I would be back to find him. Someone here knows something about where my crew member is, and as the village headman, you, Ajabu, are responsible.” He turned to address the assembling crowd. “How about it? You all knew Bwana David. Many of you called him friend. Does anyone want to tell us what happened to him?”
         He waited a few moments while the villagers muttered among themselves, then, when no answer was forthcoming, he walked across the square to the nearest watch fire, and pulled out a branch.
         “I’m going to count to ten. Kumi, understand? If no one tells me what has happened to Bwana David, I’m going to burn Rahidi’s house, and everything that’s in it.” As he started toward Rahidi’s hut, he said, “Ajabu, yours will be next. Moja... Umbili . . .”
         “Never was Bwana Monroe known for cruelty,” Ajabu said. “What has happened to you?”
         “If someone takes one of your people, Ajabu, another tribe, raiders, white men, or animals, you find him, do you not? And punish those who took him? This is why your people accept you as a leader, you take care of them.”
         “It is as you say.”
         “Quite so. I am the leader of my little tribe. One of our members has been taken. He was taken here, in your village. Someone here knows what happened to him, and I will burn this place down to bare dirt if that someone does not come forward. Tatu . . .”
         He started toward Rahidi’s house once more.
         “Wait,” Ajabu said. Turning to his people, he addressed them in Swahili. “Go back to your homes. Bwana Monroe may be angry, but he will not burn people alive.”
         People looked uncertainly at each other, then, one by one, started to drift away from the gathering. Ajabu stepped closer to Monroe to speak confidentially.
         “Listen to me carefully,” he said, “for what I am about to tell you makes my life forfeit should anyone hear.”
         “I’m listening.”
         “Your steel carriage has brought the white man’s way to Mombasa and Nairobi. Those ways have begun to spread with your plantations, but out here, this is the real Africa, the way it has been since time began. There are those who do not welcome the steel carriage, and the white man’s ways, and they are active here.”
         “And you know who they are?”
         “Only in generalities. There is a society throughout all of old what you call Kenya, and beyond. Its headmen are powerful shaman and m’ganga, you understand?”
         “Witch doctors?”
         “In a form. Magic users. They materialize from thin air, seize whoever they want, and disappear with them. Their victims are never seen again. The so-called crime of their victims is always the same. It is helping the white man, or being a white man. That is what we know, and I will be the next victim if these people should discover that I have told you even this much, and do not doubt that they will discover it. If you must burn our homes for the crimes of others, then burn them. No one here knows more than that.”
         “Captain,” Hobbs called down from the Kestrel, “someone just slipped over the stockade, and made a bee-line to the northeast. Anyone interested in a rabbit hunt?”

*           *           *


         Smith laid on the slab, his chafed wrist bloody from the constant pulling and sawing at the rope. Mistakes had been made in the binding of this unfamiliar European. The first had been made years ago, maybe centuries. The iron rings set into the sides of the slab weren’t smooth, round rings, but iron bars hammered into circles and attached with short lengths of chain. Both, the one on his left especially, had many rough spots along the edges, and in at least one place a sharp-edged barb. The second was his binding itself, a fibrous rope being used instead of much tougher animal hide cords that would be far more resistant to being cut by that barb. Third was his captors’ failure to post a guard, giving him all the time he needed to pull the rope on his left wrist back and forth, back and forth, the back of his wrist worn bloody by the rough fibers, until the rope parted, and his hand came free. He would have been able to accomplish little with one hand untied, but their fourth mistake had been their careless search. Oh, they had taken his gunbelt, his jackknife, even his pocket watch, but they had overlooked his plain tin crucifix. That free hand grasped the lower arm of the cross, and pulled the half-inch blade free from the top. In a matter of seconds, he had freed himself, and was crouched inside the door, listening for sounds in the corridor outside.
         Hearing the flap-flap of leather sandals coming along the corridor, he quickly climbed back onto the slab and laid down on his back, grabbing one of the Mason jar-sized urns as he did. His spine shrieked in agony as he stretched it back into the position it had been in all night, but for Smith, who had once been a captive of Apaches, willing the pain to subside was not insurmountable. The man who came in was not the one who had worn the leopard mask, but a simple soldier of the movement. He gave a cursory glance to Smith, and turned to the wall shelves, looking for the proper urn to select.
         Smith, who could well imagine who that urn was destined for, reached down with his right hand and flipped the binding ring, letting it clink against the stone, and raised his right hand, demonstrating its freedom. The soldier turned, and seeing Smith seemingly in the process of freeing himself, dropped his n’dogo m’kuki, the short fighting spear used for close combat by the peoples of the coast, and rushed to secure what he thought was his only free arm. As he grabbed Smith’s right wrist in both his hands, Smith swung the urn he held concealed in his left behind the slab. It shattered against the man’s forehead, just above his right eye, and he fell back with a cry of surprise as a cloud of fine white sand exploded from the fragments.
         As Smith fought to make his aching body roll off the slab and prepare for a fight, the sand seemed to arrange itself into a golden spiral. It darted through the air like a snake, wrapped once around the man's neck, then flowed into his ear. The man began to scream, then threw himself onto the ground and thrashed like a fish pulled from the water. As his screams and his thrashing died away, the stream of sand came flowing from his other ear, now a rich crimson color, and again in the manner of a snake, erected itself in the air and seemed to examine Smith, who stood rooted in horror, with no idea what he should or shouldn’t do. After a few seconds, the snake of sand made a decision, and simply lost its cohesion and fell to the ground as a cloud of fine particles.
         Smith waited for long seconds, heart pounding, to see what might happen next, but when nothing further did, he reached slowly down and brushed his hand across the dirt floor where the dust had fallen. There was no response, and he began the process of convincing himself that the blow with the urn had killed the man, and that the rest of what he had seen had been the residual result of the hallucinogenic powder working its way out of his system. When his heart slowed to a near-normal rate, and his hands lost most of their trembling, he picked up the man’s spear and stepped cautiously into the hall.

*           *           *


         Kestrel kited along at five hundred feet, Hobbs fighting her natural inclination to turn her nose into the wind that pushed her along at the perfect pace for Monroe and Ellsworth to watch the fleeing figure from the bow. The man’s dark skin and clothing stood out like a moving shadow against the light colored soil of the open plateau.
         “Captain,” Ellsworth said as they leaned on the rail watching the man, Monroe with his binoculars, “I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Now that I’m part of your crew, and all.”
         “By all means, what would you like to know?”
         “Why is our gondola a boat? Do we make water landings?”
         “Not any more. But, look where we are.”
         “I don’t understand.”
         “If we were in London, and filthy rich, we could spend a quarter-million pounds to buy one of those fancy new airships from Dr. Zeppelin, perhaps, or those French brothers. If we then brought that ship down here, we could own the freight market for a few months, but the first time a problem came up, as they inevitably do, these people down here would be baffled by the modern alloys and construction techniques used back home. They could no more do routine maintenance on a Zeppelin than you could perform surgery on a hippopotamus. But if you can get hold of a non-rigid gasbag, and hang an old boat hull under it, why, Mombasa’s full of little dockyards that do routine work on just this sort of craft. You’d be laughed out of England if you flew this thing up there, but here in Kenya,” Monroe patted the railing, “my little patchwork blimp is the queen of the sky.”
         “Makes perfect sense when you— Wait a moment, look at this.”
         “This” was the man they were following running into a copse of trees on his line of flight.
         “I say,” Monroe said, “that’s a bit of a complication. Patience, come down a bit, and circle those trees ahead. We don't want to miss the beggar when he comes out of there.”
         “Aye, Captain,” she replied, and they immediately heard the electric hum of the motors and the rushing sound of air through the propellers as she began to power them toward a lower altitude.
         “Look sharp, Doctor. It wouldn’t take much for him to slip out of there unnoticed.”
         “Does he even know we followed him? We’re dead silent with the engines off.”
         “No, we aren’t. The rigging always creaks, and that can carry for miles on a still night. In any case, we have to give him credit for a bit of intelligence.”
         “Yes, I suppose so.”
         At the lower altitude, Hobbs passed over the tiny wood, turned into the wind, and held Kestrel in place overlooking the side opposite that the man had entered. The minutes dragged on while they waited for the man to emerge. He didn't.
         “He can’t stay in there indefinitely,” Ellsworth said.
         “Why not?”
         “He left the village like a man on a mission. He didn’t act like someone who had the luxury of time to wait us out.”
         “He didn’t, did he? Patience, circle the woods slowly, and stop back here again.”
         “Yes, sir.”
         Kestrel began the ordered slow circle, Ellsworth and Monroe straining their eyes for any sign of their quarry. Nothing. Hobbs brought them back to their original position and hung there motionless.
         “Uncanny, how she does that,” Ellsworth said.
         “Indeed. I’ve flown in many ships with many pilots. I’ve even been one in my younger days. I’ve known some maybe more clever, I’ve known some who were better chart people, but I’ve never known one who can make the ship behave like it’s an extension of their own body like she does.”
         “Why, thank you, Captain,” Hobbs called from the pilot house.
         “Damn her ears!” Monroe said with a smile. “I’ll never hear the end of this.”
         They continued to hang suspended until a half hour had wound off the chronometer. Monroe leaned back against the pilot house and pushed his hair back, thinking. Finally, he made up his mind.
         “Patience, bring us over the center of the wood.”
         “Aye, sir.”
         “He’s either slipped away and is long gone, or he’s down there waiting for us to give up. Doctor, how do you feel about sliding down a rope into the canopy?”
         “I think I’d prefer to soul-kiss one of these crocodiles!”
         “I don’t blame you. All right, then, go to the motor room and have Gunther show you how to keep the boiler stoked. I’ll go get the climbing gear ready.”

*           *           *


         Ten minutes later, Gunther Brown, with the aid of a wide belt with metal rings, slid into the top of the trees, and passed into the darkness below. He was followed a moment later by Monroe. They unbuckled their belts which slipped away into the darkness above, pulled up to the ship by Ellsworth.
         The two men crouched in the darkness, letting their eyes adjust as best they could to the Stygian gloom beneath the trees. They heard not a sound while they waited, other than the chirps and clicks of insects, and the occasional cry of a larger animal out on the veldt. Finally, Monroe motioned Brown to move up to their forward quadrant, which he did as Monroe covered him. Finding a spot with a good view, Brown stopped and covered Monroe as he moved up. They continued to quarter the wood in this fashion until they came upon a small stone structure, the ruin of something ancient, and much larger. Deciding to risk a light, Monroe lit his lantern, and cast it around to find something that must have been old when the Vikings were raiding the Scottish coast, just a flat floor of once-fitted stones, and the stub of a corner of what may have once been a building. Set into the flat floor was a rusted iron ring, possibly a means to lift the stone, but more importantly, a piece that should have rotted to dust centuries before. Someone had gone to considerable effort to keep this place active.
         “Gunther, see if you can lift this.”
         The big Prussian leaned his rifle on the corner, took the ring in both hands, and put his back into it. The block moved a fractional amount, and then stopped. He rested for a moment, set himself more firmly, and lifted again with the same result.
         “Zis is locked from ze inside, Kapitan. I cannot budge it.”
         “Hmm. I wonder . . . Doctor, are you up there?” Monroe called, his voice sounding like sudden thunder in the blanketing silence.
         “We are, Captain,” Ellsworth answered from above.
         Monroe unlatched the top of the lantern and swung it back.
         “Find our light, and drop the anchor.”
         “Yes, sir.”
         They heard the motors whine to life and the propellers cutting the air like a pack of cards being riffled, and shortly, Ellsworth called, “Look out below!” and the anchor came dropping through the trees. Monroe took it in hand, and hooked it through the stone’s ring.
         “All right, have Patience take it up about ten feet.”
         “Aye, sir.”
         There was a brief hesitation, then the line went taut, vibrated violently, and with a series of sharp cracks, the stone came out of its frame, trailing the remains of a wooden locking bar.
         “Okay, ease it down!”
         Having swung twenty feet to the side, the block dropped back to the ground and the line went slack. Monroe unhooked the anchor.
         “All right, you’re free. Haul it up.”
         “Kapitan, zere is a passage down here!”
         “You’ve pulled the cover off a trap door, Doctor,” Monroe called up. “We’re going in for a look. Hang about here until we get back.”
         “Unless you don’t. You lot be careful down there!”
         “Thank you for the timely advice, Doctor Ellsworth. Gunther, how does it look?”
         “Dark.”
         “Well, that’s what we have this lantern for, I suppose.”

*           *           *


         He could hear drums coming from up ahead, and something else, voices perhaps, unified in chanting. Something was happening, or soon would be, and the only subject he could think of that that something might apply to was a nine-year old girl named Yamile. He had no idea what he could do alone against a temple full of cultists, but he was an experienced Indian-fighter; maybe he could show them a trick they didn't know.
         Yes, it was definitely chanting, and it was definitely coming from directly ahead. He kept up a steady pace, only careful enough to surprise any sentry he might encounter; the main body was making so much noise, he could have driven a buckboard up behind them without discovery. He came to a wooden rack set back in an alcove. It contained jars and baskets, various tools, a couple of coils of rope, but nothing he recognized as flammable or explosive, the sort of thing he could use as weapon or distraction. That was too bad, but he couldn’t take time to lament the fact. A friend of his was about to die, and he wouldn’t let her down again.
         The passage drifted to the right ahead, and a dim light shone from around the corner. The drums and chants were so loud now that he could have bellowed a drinking song and no one would have noticed. The time was upon him.
         He eased his way around the curve until a square opening came into view as the passage ended. Flickering yellow light, as of many fires and torches, silhouetted the opening. He crept to the edge and looked through.
         He was some twenty-five feet above the sloping floor of a circular chamber with thirty or more chanting cultists repeatedly prostrating themselves on the floor, another half dozen drummers pounding a machine gun rhythm on huge bass n’goma drums. At the focal point of the room, an X-shaped wooden frame held the rapt attention of all within, and strapped securely to the frame was Yamile, tears running down her terrified face. Smith’s new acquaintance in the leopard mask danced before her, waving an elaborately decorated gourd on a stick. Something would happen soon, and he needed a plan.
         He had a three-foot spear, and his hard leather boots. All he could see in the room were almost two-score cultists. What could he do? Think. Think!
         Standing at regular intervals around the room were tall, narrow stone totems, separated by evenly spaced openings near the ceiling. This tunnel he was in must serve double duty as ventilation, he realized, and if those tall, narrow statues weren't solidly attached to the floor . . .
         Crawling back from the opening, he fairly sprinted back to the alcove, examined the two coils of rope, and chose the longer. One end became a lariat as he fast-walked back to the amphitheater, and he crouched inside the opening, far enough back not to catch the light as he set the rope twirling above his head. The rope would have caught the eye of any casual observer as it arced across the room to settle over the head of one of the far statues, but these people, focused as they were upon their ceremony, were as oblivious to the rope as the statues themselves.
         Cinching up the noose, Smith curled the free end around his waist and began to pull. The statue rocked slightly. No one in the room noticed, their frenzy building to a climax. Leopard man held the wand before the sobbing Yamile’s face, twisting it in the air. Smith squeezed his eyes shut, then held them in a permanent squint, for some trick of the light made it seem as if a golden glow was moving out of her nose and mouth, and into the gourd. Smith was rapidly becoming as frantic as the chanters. He let the statue rock back onto its base, then rocked it forward again. The chanting became faster. The statue rocked back. The drums increased their tempo. Smith heaved on the line again.
         This time, the statue reached its tipping point, and seemed to hang in defiance of gravity for an interminable moment before it continued on over to fall into the midst of the assembled throng. They jumped from their crouches, those who hadn’t been crushed by the monolith or struck by flying shards of stone, looking around in a panic for more falling statues. Smith slid out of the hole, hung for an instant by his fingers, and dropped in a crouch into the room. Springing to his feet, he headed for the altar.
         A cultist moved to intercept him, and Smith swung the spear, the sharp edge of its metal point slashing the man’s chest as he spun away with a cry. Another recovered and moved on him, only to be stabbed in the abdomen. He reached the altar, feet from Yamile, only to have leopard man leap between them, holding a stone-bladed executioner’s axe he had snatched from the alcove to the side. The man roared like a striking cat as he raised the axe to swing.
         Too close to thrust the spear, Smith put everything he had into a left cross to the jaw. Leopard man staggered to the side, off balance from the axe he held high, and Smith missed with a thrust as he let his momentum carry him onto the floor among his followers.
         Knowing he had no time for distractions, he turned to Yamile and sliced the bonds from her ankles and wrists with the spear point.
         “Run,” he shouted, pushing her away as she tried to hug him, and turned his attention to the cultists.
         “Kill them!” leopard man was shouting, rallying his minions with frightening rapidity. “Kuwaua!”
         The first man collected himself, and charged toward Smith, roaring in his fanatical blood lust. Smith threw the spear from ten feet away, sinking it deep into the man's chest. As he fell back into his comrades, Smith snatched up a wooden pole from a group near the altar, and backed into the doorway Yamile had fled through, setting himself to trade his life for enough time to allow the child to escape. Leopard man got his people organized, distributed what makeshift weapons were available in the room, and they started forward. Smith stood in the doorway, pole held at the high port, as a quarterstaff. He wasn’t experienced with this weapon, but experience wasn’t an issue for him just now; he expected to die, and his final mission in life was to hold this portal for as long as it was humanly possible.
         Organized into a mob with a leader now, they came, still over twenty strong. Smith swung the pole, hit the side of a face, thrust it into an abdomen. A club swung in at his head, and he blocked with his shoulder, taking a staggering blow, but driving the end of the pole into the club-wielder’s face for his trouble. The short spear had been recovered from his victim, and that deadly item thrust repeatedly at him from his left. To his immediate front, leopard man stood behind the front rank of cultists, holding the ceremonial axe, waiting for an opening.
         He took another partially deflected blow on the shoulder, and backed into the passage. He couldn't maneuver the pole freely in the confined space, but neither could his attackers come at him from every direction. He angled the pole to fill the tunnel side to side as leopard man barked an order, and they all charged him at once. He swept the pole across the passage, connecting with random members of the pressing crowd, kicking the face of a man who tried to dive under its swings, but taking hits, too many, too quickly. He was being pushed back by the physical press of bodies, and he dug in to try to hold his ground, pushing hopelessly against five-deep ranks of men all pushing against him as hard as he was.
         He was kicked in the stomach below the pole, the man barely missing a groin strike, and as he lurched forward, a club struck the side of his face, stunning him and dropping him to his knees. He scrunched his shoulders together, bracing himself for the searing pain of the killing blow to his head, but instead, there came a thunderous blast that reverberated through his chest, then two more in quick succession, followed by the chaotic babble of a panicked crowd. He looked up to see the cultists backing out of the tunnel, shaking their heads, shouting in Swahili, knocking each other down to get away from him. Then Gunther stepped up in front of him, firing his .41 caliber Volcanic pistol above their heads. Monroe stepped up beside him, putting his arm around his shoulders to drag him to his feet. As he came up, he pulled Monroe’s Le Mat revolver from its holster, picked his target, and fired low. Leopard man spun ninety degrees, and crashed to the floor, a neat hole in the back of his right calf. When another cultist turned to help him, Smith leveled the pistol at his face, and gave a tight shake of his head. The man hesitated for a moment, then turned and fled out the far tunnel.
         “Great God Almighty,” Smith said reverently. “I never been so glad to see two mugs in my life! Did you see the girl?”
         “Right there,” Monroe said, indicating the tunnel, and Yamile came running out, almost knocking Smith down as she buried her face in his chest and hugged him as tightly as a hungry python. At length, he moved her back and looked her up and down.
         “Are you all right, child?”
         “You saved me, Davy,” Yamile said, nodding her head. “Did you see my father? Is he alive?”
         “We haven’t seen him,” Monroe answered, “but your mother’s all right. She’s back at the village waiting for you.”
         “How about you, scum?” Smith asked, walking over to leopard man and kicking his wounded leg. “Have you seen her father?”
         “He is a lackey of the white-faces. He will pay the price of all traitors.”
         “Ain’t what I asked,” Smith said, kicking his wound again.
         Leopard man spat on his shirt.
         “This is Rahidi,” Yamile said. “I told them he was a killer. No one would listen.”
         “Your father is the killer,” leopard man said, “killing his people by giving their country to the white-faces.”
         “Shut up,” Smith said, feigning another kick, and feeling the satisfaction as he flinched away. “Guess he’s only a killer when he’s got somebody tied to a frame. Where’s her father, Rahidi?”
         “You will never find him. He will die here.”
         “Should I assume that you two bein’ down here means that Kestrel’s up top somewhere?”
         “Should be hanging right where I left her,” Monroe said.
         “Then let’s haul this miserable bastard up there. I want to introduce him to the fine old American tradition of the necktie party.”
         “There are laws here, David. I can’t let you lynch a prisoner.”
         “I’m not gonna lynch him. I’m not gonna do anything to him that I don’t do myself every day of my life. On your feet, scum!”

*           *           *


         After the closed-in darkness of the tunnels, even the filtered sunlight under the trees seemed harsh and glaring. Monroe had finally put a rudimentary binding on Rahidi’s wound, and lent his arm as the man hobbled with them to the surface. He had remained defiant as Smith had asked him a series of questions about everything from the greater organization of the cult to the fate of Yamile’s father. Now they stood in an open clearing below the Kestrel, all but Rahidi, who had sat down on the ground to massage his aching leg.
         “You didn’t seriously expect him to talk, did you?” Monroe asked.
         “Still do,” Smith replied.
         “We aren’t officials, David. It isn’t up to us to interrogate prisoners.”
         “You don’t get it, do you, Cap’n? That girl’s father is down that rat hole somewhere, and I ain’t leavin’ til I find him.”
         “You will spend your life here, then, white-face,” Rahidi assured him.
         “Think so?”
         He walked to the lightning-blasted skeleton of a tree where Kestrel's anchor was hooked around a branch, and took hold of the cable just above the shank.
         “Hey, Doc,” he called up, “gimme some slack on the anchor.”
         After a moment, the cable slacked off, and Smith pulled it loose and walked up behind Rahidi with the large grapnel in his hand. Without a word, he hooked one of the tines into the cultist’s belt.
         “Okay, Doc, take in about twenty feet!”
         The defiant expression on Rahidi’s face changed to one of panicked terror as he was dragged backward across the ground, then lifted about ten feet into the air, where he hung face down, draped over his belt, swinging in a wide arc over the ground.
         “Ready to talk?” Smith asked.
         “I cannot betray the brotherhood!” Rahidi stammered. “They will come for me if I do.”
         “Another twenty feet, Doc.”
         Smith waited while Rahidi rose to a height from which a fall probably wouldn’t kill him, but it certainly wouldn’t be pleasant. Monroe watched uneasily, but didn’t interfere.
         “Where’s her father?”
         “Na miungu, I cannot!”
         “Suit yourself. You know, that balloon can go a couple of miles straight up. I hope you’re ready to go aviatin’. Patty, you ready to climb?”
         “Yes, David,” came her call from the rail. “Captain, any instructions?”
         “I don’t like this,” Monroe said to Smith.
         “So you’re gonna put this jackal above that girl’s father? He’s never been this far off the ground in his life. The height’ll break him, you watch.”
         “All right, Patience,” Monroe called up, “do what David asks for now.”
         “Aye, Captain. So, what do you ask, David?”
         “Take her up about a hundred feet. We’ll see how our friend here likes the view.”
         Hobbs disappeared into the pilot house, and Kestrel began to slowly rise as Rahidi began to hyperventilate.
         “Better try to control your breathing,” Smith called to him. “That’s not a place you want to get dizzy.”
         “Let me down! By the Gods, let me down! I'll tell you everything!”
         “Okay, Patty, hold her steady right there. First you talk, and if what you say sounds true, then we let you down.”
         “Her father is in the lower cells.”
         “That don’t tell me nothin’.”
         “Go to the altar room where you found the girl. Behind the altar is a carving with a glass eye in the center. Push the eye in, and a door will open. He is there. Now, let me down. By the Gods, I have told you everything!”
         “We’ll see. Bring him down, Patience. Listen, dog, if he ain’t there, or you been cuttin’ on him, we’re gonna talk again, and I ain’t gonna be this nice next time!”
         “He is there, I promise! He will need water, but we do not harm those who are to be sacrificed.”
         “You better hope you’re right.”
         “That’s enough, David. Gunther, unhook our guest here, and get him aboard.”
         “What? I cannot fly! Only the Gods are allowed to fly! I will be condemned to the lower torments for eternity!”
         “You should’a thought of that before you started murderin’ little girls. Now, get your ass up that ladder, or we’ll haul you back hangin’ from the anchor!”
         Hobbs had brought Kestrel down to where the keel was kissing the grass, and as Gunther prodded Rahidi toward the Jacob’s ladder, Yamile took Smith's hand and looked at him with trembling chin.
         “Will you make me fly, as well?”
         “No, Princess, nobody’s gonna make you do anything.”
         “Do you have a plan, David?” Monroe asked.
         “Yeah, Cap’n, I do. With your permission, of course.”
         “Of course.”
         “If you’d loan me your pistol, I can walk Yamile back to the village, round up some warriors, and come back here and put the torch to this rat’s nest. And rescue her father, of course.”
         “Yes. While we do what?”
         “Haul that sack of crap down to Nairobi, and put the garrison onto what’s goin’ on right under their noses. They might be very interested in this kill all the white men business.”
         “Yes, I suppose they might. All right, then,” Monroe said, unbuckling his gunbelt, “we’ll be back for you tonight. You be careful, you understand? I shudder at the thought of training Ellsworth to do your job.”
         “Don’t worry, Cap’n. You know me, the soul of caution!”

*           *           *


         Kestrel sailed in over the bustling railroad camp at Nairobi in the early afternoon, and made an uneventful landing with the help of the aerodrome crew. They had no difficulty at all in getting Rahidi off the ship, as he was only too eager to feel solid ground beneath his feet again. Monroe again lent his arm as they marched him up the dusty street to the Arab-style building on which the Union Jack flew above the door.
         “Afternoon, gentl’men. Ma’am,” the sentry greeted them. “State your business, please.”
         “Good afternoon, son,” Monroe replied. “Is the major in?”
         “Aye, sir, he is. Just see the sergeant at the duty desk. He’ll see you in.”
         “Thank you.”
         After a bit more protocol, they left Rahidi in the sergeant’s custody, and were ushered into a sumptuously furnished office occupied by a stout little walrus of a man with bushy red hair and a spectacular set of muttonchops, dressed in an immaculate colonial army uniform. He sat back in a swivel chair more akin to a throne than a piece of office furniture as they entered.
         “Well, I’ve not seen you bloody pirates in a while,” he greeted them. “Not long enough of a while, mind you. Still trying to salvage your reputation, Monroe?”
         “That’s Captain Monroe.”
         “In your dreams! I see you haven’t found a reputable employer yet, Miss Hobbs. And, what’s this, an apprentice pirate, is it?”
         “This is Doctor Nicholas Ellsworth.”
         “Doctor?”
         “Fresh from Cambridge, sir.”
         “Well, son, you need to be a bit more discriminating about who you take up with. Just because he keeps a pretty face on his crew doesn't mean he’s one of the heroes.”
         “Doctor, this is Major Ulysses Cole. It’s easy to see how highly the crown regards him, given that they keep him hidden out here in the anus of the empire.”
         “All right, that’s enough pleasantries. What momentous event is causing you to befoul my air this afternoon?”
         “Well, we’ve just been up to Nakuru, where we blundered into the operation of a secret society bent on driving the white man out of Africa.”
         “That’s not unusual. Half these bloody wogs can’t stand us, and the other half just want to use us to kill the first half.”
         “They kidnapped one of my crew and a couple of villagers, and took them to a secret lair for sacrifice.”
         “Who’d they get, that kraut that ships with you?”
         “No, the American. Got more than they bargained for with that one. He got away, and was in the process of taking on the whole cult when we found him.”
         “Indeed? Where is he, then?”
         “We left him at Nakuru. He’s taking some warriors back to look for a prisoner they had.”
         “Sounds like you have it under control. Why aren’t you up there with him?”
         “We’ve brought you a prisoner of our own. The high priest, or something close to it. Thought you might like to talk to him, and perhaps send a few men up there to look into it. This fellow claims this society has tentacles all over Africa.”
         “I see. Well, I suppose I can send a lieutenant and a few men to look around. When are you leaving?”
         “Oh, you want them to ride with us?”
         “You’re going up there anyway, right? To collect your man?”
         “Yes, but I was going to look for a cargo first. Of course, if you want to pay a stipend, we can be airborne right after lunch.”
         “A stipend? But, you’re going anyway!”
         “Our ship doesn’t fly by magic, Major. We’re low on the acid we need to generate hydrogen, and that doesn’t come cheap.”
         “It doesn’t now, does it? How much coin of the realm were you thinking of liberating from me, then, Monroe?”
         “It’s a pound a canister, on average.”
         “A pound, then.” Cole reached to a pigeonhole on the wall behind him for a voucher form.
         “That isn’t our only expense, Major. There’s coal for the boiler, food, water. Everything we need in order to fly costs money, money we make by renting the use of our ship. I’m not even including profit for a job in service to the Crown.”
         “No, I can’t imagine you would, given your history with Her Majesty. So, how much are we talking about to keep your little privateer airborne for another trip?”
         “I should think five pounds should cover it.”
         “And I should think three.”
         “Split the difference?”
         “All right, four pounds it is.” Cole reached for a pen. “You see, Doctor? Pirates.”
         He filled in the figure of four pounds, and signed the voucher.
         “All right, Monroe, get ready to fly. I’ll be sending a lieutenant and three enlisted. Does that suit you?”
         “Eminently. We’ll meet your men at the ship in, say, two hours?”
         “Two hours it shall be. And no tricks, Monroe. That voucher pays for passage there and back, and if you pull any shenanigans, I’ll see you in irons.”
         “No tricks, Major. My word on it.”
         “Oh, well, that puts my mind at ease, then! All right, off with you. We all have work to do.”

*           *           *


         The three of them walked down the dirt road, Monroe on Ellsworth’s right, Hobbs on his left.
         “Do you think we could eat at Shanee’s?” Hobbs asked.
         “Oh, I don’t know. She wants so much for her food.”
         “And for good reason. The sauce she makes for her antelope cutlets is to swoon over. Anyway, perhaps if we can spirit some away, the good Doctor here can analyze it, and recreate her recipe.”
         “And that would be an event she would surely go to war over!”
         The trio shared a laugh over this, Hobbs surprising Ellsworth by resting her forearm on his shoulder as they walked. He made no attempt to remove it.
         “So, Captain,” he asked, “is this what I can expect life to be like from now on?”
         “How’s that?”
         “I came here to study plants. Within a month, I’m attacked by natives, I’m a down on my luck airship crewman, I’m involved in agricultural warfare, espionage with the Prussians, shooting it out with a secret society, and God knows what all. I suppose I was just wondering if you had any idea what might be on tap for tomorrow.”
         “Welcome to Africa, my young friend, where nothing, but nothing is what it first appears to be.”
         “Nothing?”
         “Simply look to your left for confirmation of that.”
         Ellsworth turned to find himself looking into Hobbs' big blue eyes. Her wink was so quick he might have imagined it, except that it was immediately followed by that wickedly mischievous smile of hers . . .
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