Bull Darrow had been in Africa most of his adult life. He wasn't the sort of person who cared for any type of labor except beating up on people, which he was good at. It was easy work and there were plenty of people willing to employ him for it, too. He wasn't big by some standards '-- he was only an inch or so above average height -- but he was built broad in the shoulders, and had the muscles of a wrestler. He wasn't particularly lean in the stomach but there wasn't any flab in that part of him, either. He mostly worked as a bouncer in cheap gin mills and occasionally found work as a part time body guard for one of the town's less important gangsters. He was strictly small time.
He knew it, too. Why it should be, he never understood, and he never felt it was entirely fair. Was he resented in Johannesburg because he was a foreigner '-- because he had been born in Chicago? Had someone said something behind his back to queer him with the upper class gang leaders, just because of that? He seldom worried that there might be rumors he couldn't be entirely trusted to keep his mouth shut if the police put the screws to him, but so what? On occasion he had turned in a bigger fish than he was, to squirm out of a small-time rap, but what was wrong with that? He was pretty sure the guys he'd turned in would have double-crossed him, if it had come to that. So he had a policy. Whenever the cops got close to him there was always someone he had the goods on '-- someone just a rung or two above him on the ladder. The cops were always willing to strike a deal for a bigger collar, even these Transvaal policemen with their accent Darrow couldn't figure out. Was it more English or more Australian?
Only his most recent effort to sell someone down the road to keep his own safety backfired. The cop he'd squealed to must have been receiving his payoffs directly. A shotgun blast into his own hut barely missed Darrow and he had to take off before there was another, more carefully planned, attempt.
Now he was miles from Johannesburg, in jungle he was unfamiliar with, relying on a hand-drawn map he'd bought off a drunk who said he was a white hunter and knew this territory perfectly. Darrow had come to realize the map was just short of totally unreliable. By now he was far enough away from the city to know he wasn't being followed any more. But he knew he couldn't go back, either.
There wasn't time to grab a rifle on his way out of town, and he hadn't been lucky enough to steal one in the weeks that had followed since. He had an automatic pistol in a holster that hung from his belt, and two loaded clips. He was too far into the brush now to be sure of finding a rifle to steal.
He wasn't finding much game where he was and knew better than to take a shot at anything unless he was absolutely sure of his aim. It was better to skip a day eating than to waste a bullet. He hoped to find a hunter's camp and beg the man's hospitality until he could get behind his back for a good shot.
The map that had been drawn for him wasn't very accurate but it had lot information. Part of it was shaded off and marked "Taboo."
He was in a hurry when the old "trapper" handed him the map, and he hadn't really thought about what "Taboo" might mean until later. Generally, it meant territory held by an unfriendly tribe. Sometimes it was just superstitious rubbish.
He began to think about it as the jungle grew thicker and the number of his bullets grew smaller. As unreliable as the map certainly was, he believed the taboo region edged toward a river that led north and turned toward the coast a few miles on. If he could steal someone's boat, or even a native canoe, he could travel much faster. It seemed to him it was worth the risk.
He had only a little biltong and no other food in his kit, which forced him to live off the land. As low on ammunition as he was, and on the run to boot, he had small opportunity to catch game. He encountered only one trading post and a mere handful of native villages, and celebrated those events by stealing as much food as he could. It was little enough, but it kept him from starving.
That he would have to go through several miles of jungle about which he had no information was worth considering. But it was dangerous to follow the trail he was following, too. Even though the trail was but poorly developed, it could still be seen and followed by others on the theory that since it was the only trail in this part of the country, he had likely followed it. He needed to find another way.
So Bull Darrow broke away from the trail and headed off into the thicker foliage of the taboo country, certain it was the only way to escape those who were after him.
The jungle grew hotter, the air heavier. The tree trunks became thicker and were not so close together, but the bushes and weeds that grew around them made it hard to follow a straight path. Still, Darrow trudged on.
He had a compass but he began to wonder if he was managing to stick to a straight path. He began to worry about his dwindling ammunition. He sharpened a stick and tried using it as a spear against small game. On the second day of trying, he managed to kill a rabbit and was vary proud of himself. He found a clearing and built himself a fire and enjoyed the first good meal he'd had in several days.
He was beginning to think he might be lost. He knew he had gone farther into the jungle than he intended too. He suspected his compass was not as reliable as it should be. Could there be iron deposits nearby that pulled the needle off course?
If that were true, then he might just be in real trouble.
He had a moment of near terror as that sank in. Then he asked himself what difference did it make? He was certainly in trouble if he tried to go back where he came from. There were people back there who would kill him on sight. His only chance was to make his way to some sort of settlement where there were white people. White people had things of value. They had rifles. They had money. In this part of the world some of them even had diamonds.
The thought encouraged him. He was no longer really close to the mining region. But this country was traveled by plenty of people who carried diamonds: adventurers who had come into possession of the stones by means that were at least questionable, for example, and actual and unremitting thieves. Smugglers. Even people who had come by their diamonds legitimately, but wanted to get past the authorities and find their way to less official and more generous diamond buyers.
It wouldn't take too much luck to find someone, surely. And who knows what there might be in such a man's pockets.
Yet still the jungle grew thicker and more entangled and he began to wonder just where he actually was. He no longer relied on the map at all. It had no value.
He made his way through the jungle not too alarmed yet. All he really needed was a break.
Still, there was no sign of people. No indication there was another human within a hundred miles.
Abruptly, the jungle thinned out and the path ahead of him opened out into a clearing.
As he walked into the clearing he saw a thick tree directly in front of him on the far side.
And on a high limb of the tree, he saw a white woman.
She stood tall on the tree limb and the legs that supported her were strong and shapely. She wore animal skins over her breasts and around her loins, and Darrow thought that it was not through any sense of modesty but something she had been taught when very young. She had even fashioned slippers to wear on her feet. Of course slippers might be practical in this land. A knife hung in a scabbard worn on a belt that seemed to be made from good leather by a skilled, not to mention civilized craftsman. Her hair was black. It hung past her shoulders. In the short look he had he could not be sure, but he thought she wore a comb of some sort to hold her hair back from her face.
Her face was strong and beautiful, and her body, so much exposed, was slender and attractive. She could not be more than twenty, and possibly as young as 17. He was not close enough to tell the color of her eyes, nor did she give him time to study her.
His first instinct was to draw his gun and shoot her. But he quickly realized she would be of greater value alive. All he had to do was get close enough to put his hands on her. He wasn't that far from the coastal slave marts '-- if he could find the coast '-- and a white woman would draw a pretty penny from the more alert dealers. They would pay in British pounds or sometimes even American dollars.
As if she guessed his intent, she twisted around, grabbed the tree trunk and pivoted herself to the other side. He broke into a run across the clearing.
He heard but did not see her drop from the tree. When he reached it and tried to find her among the thick growth beyond, he thought he saw movement several yards ahead.
He could not be sure. She was gone.
He made camp. There were plenty of fruit-bearing trees close by, and a couple of plants he recognized as yielding edible tubers if you just dug them up. He was hungry for meat. It had been several days since he had managed to kill anything he could find meat on. He began to wonder where the woman lived. Just how primitive was she? Did she live in a cave, or did she have a hut? Were there others like her? Well, this didn't seem the sort of country you could easily find a cave in. Likely she lived in a tree.
He became aware he was sitting close to a tree. He looked up, nervously. A thick, sturdy tree limb was almost directly above him, the sort of thing large snakes liked to crawl out on so they could drop on unsuspecting prey. It was certainly wide enough that an agile human '-- one used to moving about in trees like bloody Tarzan '-- might walk out on it '-- not even moving it, mind you, or making a sound '-- and then drop down on somebody like a snake or a leopard. He got up and walked around the tree carefully, his almost empty gun in hand, as he looked for signs of a young, savage girl in animal skins. He didn't see her.
But then would he have seen her, presumably, her being jungle bred, unless she wanted him to see her? That raised the question of just how intelligent and jungle savvy she really was.
Fact of the matter was, too damned many questions were being raised.
But some of them had to be considered and he started mulling over the big one. Just who was this jungle girl, and how in blazes did she come to be here?
In his time Bull Darrow had heard a lot of stories about the jungle, most of them stories meant to scare tourists and green horns. But a few of them were told seriously among the hunters and smugglers to each other. After a time he remembered one that might even be pertinent.
It was about treasure hunters, of course. A man and woman, husband and wife, come to this jungle with a treasure map. They said it was a map drawn by a relative, an uncle of hers who used to hunt here and who said he had found a treasure. He'd been chased out by natives and injured by a spear. His health and his situation with the local authorities had made it impossible to go back in the jungle, so he was forced to return to Australia, where he had died. But not before telling his niece and her husband the story and drawing them a map.
He wanted to come back with them, police or no police, but he didn't live to do so. So they had come here with his map and his story and eventually went into the jungle, never to be seen again.
A few years after that you began to hear stories about a white girl who lived back in the taboo country. Some hunters who'd gotten close enough to see her good and even hear her, said she was definitely no native kid. No one claimed to have had a conversation with her, but a couple said they'd got close enough to hear her speak. They'd claimed to have heard her call herself "Irene" or "Ireny." Irene was a civilized name, wasn't it?
So she probably was the daughter of civilized people, and the only couple who'd been in this region at the proper time was the man and woman with the treasure map.
Was there anything to that?
What if the goddess was their kid?
Talk about explaining a lot.
He began to realize this was no savage but the daughter of parents who'd grown up in a civilized country. He wondered if there were any relatives back in Australia and if they had money. Could they afford to pay good money if he brought her out of the jungle and returned her to her own people?
He quickly dismissed that idea. For one thing, he had no idea if they existed, or how to find them if they actually did. Plus he could have to get out of Africa with her, and that might be hard, what with the police hunting for him and all.
No, the quickest and surest way of making money with this jungle girl was simply to trap her and force her to go with him to some men he knew who were in the slave business. They'd take her off his hands and pay good money for her. Nothing like the kind of money they would make when they resold her, but he couldn't do anything about that. He'd have to take what he could get and be happy with letting the others get rich. They'd certainly give him enough money to get out of Africa.
He slept that night under the shelter of the big tree branch and did not wake up until what was probably a couple of hours after sunup.
She was on the branch above him, peering down at him, her knife in her right hand.
She was no more than eight or nine feet above him. He could see her face clearly, and she was even more beautiful than he had thought her to be. But there was nothing lovely in the way she looked at him. He thought she was about to jump down and drive the knife into his chest and, not taking any time to aim, he lifted the gun that was lying beside him and fired right up at her.
The bullet smashed into the limb not far from her feet and sent splinters leaping up.
She jumped back out of sight and he could tell from the way the limb shook and the leaves rustled, that she was running back toward the trunk of the tree. He stepped aside so he could see her and started to fire after her, then caught himself with the realization that this was his last bullet. He ran to the tree trunk.
He got there in time to see her leap from that tree to another and vanish into the heavy foliage. Again he had to force down the urge to fire his gun.
The jungle was thick and the trees were not particularly tall. There were no vines to swing on and swinging on jungle vines was just a good way to cover yourself with ants, anyway. The girl was running along the branches of trees and jumping to another tree whenever one was close enough.
The heavy leafage made it hard to keep her in tight, even though there wasn't much distance between Darrow and her. But she was moving so fast she made the leaves shake and the sight and sound of that made it easy for him to follow her. The foliage overhead prevented much sunlight from reaching the ground and growing much cover. The ground was rough but there was a decided lack of bushes and grass and he found he could keep up with her. It was actually easier for him to move than she.
The problem was that she was up in the trees. If he reached the tree she was on and tried to climb it, it would give her time to jump to another tree. He knew if he tried that, he'd break his neck. While he was forced to take the time to climb back down and run again over the ground searching for her, she would disappear from his view and find a place to hide. .She had been born in this jungle, had grown up here, and was totally at home.
But she was an ignorant savage, wasn't she? She had no weapons but her own body and such rocks and sticks as she could find lying on the ground. Dattow has a gun, and even though he had only one bullet, it was a bullet. Of he fired it into her it would tear a hole through her and spill her blood out into as scarlet lake on the black ground and all her strength would pour out with her blood.
She was an orphan, raised in an environment that offered her nothing except a constant war just to stay alive. She knew nothing, not even how to talk. She had no idea how to deal with other humans, especially humans like Bull Darrow. Talk about your babes in the woods. That's literally who she was. And she was certainly worth enough money, once he had her in his grasp, to get him away from Africa and safely in some more civilized port of call where real opportunity abounded.
And she ought to be grateful to him, in the long run. Right now, what did she have? Nothing, that's what, except freedom. And what was freedom? In her case it was a constant war to stay alive, a battle against nature that nature would ultimately win. She'd know a life of privation and danger. Selling her to some slaver would be a blessing. She'd be fed; she'd have a lot better wardrobe than a couple pieces of animal skin. How the hell long could you expect a girl to live out here? Another year before she ran into an animal driven by hunger to more desperation than her? Six months before some tribe of cannibals or headhunters would find out about her? Or she fell from a tree and broke her back? Or was struck down by malaria, with no quinine or even knowing that anything like quinine existed. She would die if he didn't trap her and take her back to civilization, even if he had to take her back in ropes and sell her to slavers.
Some day she would thank him, she would.
Of course she didn't know that just yet, he mused. The thing right now is to trap her and make sure she can't get away. Not till he made enough money to cover his own getaway, at least.
He realized she was gaining distance. Sudden panic seized him and, not even thinking, he reached down and closed his hand on something -- a rock, half the size of his fist. He straightened up, drawing back his hand and hurled the rock at her.
It struck the side of her head. She buckled. He feet stumbled on the tree limb and she faltered. Her legs were slipping out from under her. She fell.
He laughed. He threw up his arms with the sheer joy of triumph and rushed toward the brush she had fallen into. He stuck out his arm holding the gun so that when she turned and looked up the first thing she would see was the barrel. The last thing she would see, also.
"I got you now," he yelled. "You're mine, jungle girl. You'll never get away from me. Not from old Bull Darrow."
Only there was no one in the brush.
He could see the place where her weight had crushed the weeds and formed a hole in the brush, and the trail she had made, crawling swiftly away. He was so surprised he could only say, "What the hell."
And then he had an even bigger surprise.
He only saw her from the corner of his eye. She leaped in from his right side. Something slammed into him, like her entire weight, rocking him as if he'd been hit by exploding dynamite.
But it was not her. It was simply the blade of her knife, entering his side below his ribs with the impact of a baseball bat. Anger welled up in him that he could let this girl, this 17 year old girl do that to him. He made the effort to slash with his knife. She was in arm's reach now and if he slashed, he could take her head off. But he couldn't slash.
And, unbelievably, he was falling to the ground and his attempts to stop himself were not working.
It was impossible. It couldn't be. He was lying face up on the ground and she dropped astraddle him, a knee on either side and he couldn't move his arms. He couldn't push his body upward and throw her off. He heard an animal noise and couldn't figure it out until he saw her face, contorted over him. She was laughing. She was laughing at Bull Darrow.
No one laughs at Bull Darrow, he tried to shout. No one!
But laugh she did, and there was nothing he could do about it, not even shout at her to stop.
Her arm pumped up and down, up and down, plunging her knife into him over and over. He felt only numbness.
Blood sprayed over her like something out of a fire hose, painting her a garish, clownish red.
He just lay there. The strength was now gone from him. The will was gone. Bull Darrow just lay there and let her arm drive the blade of that knife into him, over and over; over and over.
After awhile, with blood running in rivulets down her sweating body, she stopped.
Breathing heavily with both exhaustion and triumph, she cut a chunk of flesh from his body and began to eat.