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Robert Fester

Robert Fester, known as "Histah" at ERBList, gives us a terrific little tale of the ape-man as he occassionaly appeared to the primitives of Edgar Rice Burroughs' fictional Africa!

Death hung in looping sinuous coils from the lower branches of the vine-festooned tree. Histah the snake it was who waited on a low leafy bough that overhung an often frequented game trail below. Histah knew that down this trail often passed Horta the boar, Bara the deer and many other jungle creatures whose kind had in the past furnished his sustenance. Perfectly camouflaged, the great gray and green python lay motionless with the infinite patience of his ancient species. Only the flicking forked tongue gave evidence of his terrible presence.

Histah did not have to wait long. Fleeing for its life on the trail below came Wappi the antelope. Histah, cautious with the wisdom of many years, did not strike as Wappi passed below. What caused Wappi to flee in such haste? Ah! Just behind the antelope came a man.

Tall, lean-limbed and spare as befits one whose daily sustenance comes from the chase, the dark sheen of the man's black skin was accentuated by the white ostrich plume that danced above his head as he ran. From each elongated earlobe bounced a shiny brass hoop while from his nose dangled a small silver fetish. A tan lion-skin wrap around the man's waist completed his savage ensemble. Thus clad, M'tomba the Uwulu presented the very symbol of savage prowess and grace.

M'tomba carried a heavy iron-tipped hunting spear in his right hand; as he passed beneath Histah, he cast his weapon. The cruel missile struck Wappi in mid leap and dropped him twitching to the sward. But even as the hunter cried out in triumph, a nightmare avalanche of glistening scales and crushing coils fell upon him. Thus it is in the benighted jungles of equatorial Africa where hunter becomes prey in the blinking of an eye.

Never had M'tomba seen such a huge snake! Longer than three tall men, the hissing python was a monster out of man's darkest primordial nightmares. This was kavanunu the python! M'tomba barely managed to grasp the snake just below its head as Histah threw his deadly coils around him. Then the primordial struggle for survival began as Histah sought to seize the head of the Uwulu hunter, while M'tomba struggled to avoid that awful event. Although M'tomba's eyes goggled in terror and his breath came in ragged gasps, yet he clutched that awful head.

Each time M'tomba breathed, Histah tightened his crushing coils. In this way Histah suffocates his prey, a fact too well known to the Uwulu hunter. All the while Histah sought M'tomba's head and against this fatal inevitability, M'tomba continued to fight with every fiber of his being. In this final desperate moment, M'tomba gasped a prayer to Ptah, demi-god of the forest, for it was Ptah, god of the forest, whom the Uwulu warrior's fetish reverenced.

No great distance away, high in an ancient gnarled tree another mighty jungle hunter reclined on a gently swaying bough. In Uziri-land the afternoon is typically hot and humid and so it was that the bronze jungle god especially enjoyed the gentle caress of Ushu the wind as she whispered softly through the middle terraces of the primordial forest.

Not often these days did Elmo of the Apes enjoy such serenity. The Greystoke estate is considerable and its management represents a full-time vocation. But on this particular occasion, all the forage crops were in and the Waziri herdsmen needed no assistance in their natural rounds and habits. There were no guests to entertain, and Elmo's wife Jane, accompanied by their son Jack, him known to the Mangani as Korak the Killer, were away together in Nairobi visiting old friends. For once, Elmo's time was again his own. The ape man had wasted little time in retreating into the jungle he so dearly loved.

To those of the so-called civilized countries of the west, the equatorial jungle is a green nightmare of impenetrable foliage, rending fangs and claws and crushing coils; of poisonous barbs and stings. But to Elmo the same jungle brought back memories of his boyhood: of Kala his ape mother, of old Terkoz and Kerchak, and a thousand other scenes from his astonishing past. This to him was home. Armed only with bow, rope, and the hunting knife of his father, Elmo had wandered first south and then west with no particular destination or agenda, simply enjoying the natural state of his youth.

Thus it was that Elmo of the apes, known in England as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, Peer of the Realm, lay naked except for a leopard skin loin cloth, without a care in the world, napping high up in a great jungle tree. Elmo was not pleased when a troop of monkeys scampered past screaming and crying out in alarm. Something had greatly frightened Manu, and Elmo, ever wary, was at once alert.

"Why does Manu disturb the rest of Elmo?" the ape man called out to several young monkeys as they scampered past.

"Flee for your life!" one screamed back over his shoulder. "Flee, Elmo!"

"Fly! Hurry!" others chorused.

"What is this about?" Elmo called to an old graybeard whose advanced years and lack of stamina left him in the wake of the howling troop that now disappeared into the forest depths still chattering and scolding.

"Histah!" cried the old monkey. "Histah the snake is killing a gomangani and when he is done, he will come to eat us all!"

"Do not be afraid," Elmo reassured the graybeard. "Whether or not Histah has killed the gomangani, you know well that Histah is slow and cannot hope to catch Manu when he flees through the trees."

A European observer would have heard only growls and grunts, for such is the primitive nature of the language of the Mangani, the great anthropoid apes and their various cousins. For little Manu the monkey and Elmo of the apes, it sufficed.

Old Manu finally caught his breath, then quickly scrambled upward, screaming and scolding. The terror of Histah was too deeply bred into the small breast of Manu for reason to prevail.

"Flee, Elmo! Histah will soon be upon you!" cried Manu as he fled.

Although Elmo had traveled a considerable distance from his estates on this sojourn, it was possible that the gomangani in peril might be one of his Waziri retainers. And even if such was not the case, Elmo would not willingly see any man fall prey to Histah the snake.

Elmo set off at once to the west in the direction from which the monkeys had come. When Elmo of the apes hurries, he flies through the trees with such speed and agility that even Manu the monkey, fleetest of all arboreal creatures, is envious; and since the event was no great distance away, it was but a very short time later that the ape man swung down to the very limb upon which Histah had coiled. Below him unfolded the nightmare scene.

A giant python reticulated about the body of a black warrior. Only the man's head protruded from the crushing coils. Even so, he somehow gripped with weakening fingers the snake's neck, thus preventing it from seizing his head in its jaws. Then glazing brown eyes found the gray eyes of the ape man overhead.

M'tomba was awe-struck. Was this Ptah? Had the deity truly come to his aid? M'tomba's lips moved but no sound came. Histah had taken almost all of his wind. M'tomba fought the blackness that threatened to overwhelm his senses.

That the grisly end was near was obvious to Elmo. A civilized man would have rationalized that nothing could be done in this dire circumstance. Fortunately for M'tomba, Elmo was not a civilized man.

The Apeman hurled himself onto Histah who hissed his rage at this intrusion. Elmo at once seized the snake with his left hand just as the faltering fingers of the Uwulu slipped loose. The mighty thews that had overcome Bolgani, Sheetah and Numa drove the hunting knife of the previous Lord Greystoke into the python again and again.

Infuriated, Histah sought to cast his uppermost coils around Elmo, thus giving a moment's surcease to M'tomba. Wheezing audibly and nearly suffocated, he gulped precious life-giving oxygen into his nearly crushed lungs as Histah managed to ensnare Elmo's right leg.

A second great green coil looped around Elmo's muscular waist. The ape man knew that he must act quickly, for if Histah's coils pinned his arms, all would be lost. Overhead Kudu the sun burned like a demon's fiery eye as the grim combat continued. The ape man sought to mortally wound the mighty snake while it in its turn sought to crush him in its relentless coils. The bloody knife rose and fell; the mighty coils squeezed and tightened.

M'tomba watched in awe as the two fearsome jungle creatures battled to the death. At last the blade of Elmo grated against the snake's spine just below Histah's head. Histah jerked wildly but in vain. Exerting himself to the utmost, Elmo pressed forward the knife with all of his terrible strength. It sliced through Histah's spinal cord and deep into the flesh beyond, beheading the dying python.

In his final paroxysm of death, Histah hurled Elmo free of his coils. The ape man gasped and coughed but at last caught his wind. It had been a very close thing. Elmo dragged the nearly insensate Uwulu further from the thrashing coils of the sundered snake. He gently propped M'tomba against a tree. The hunter stared at his rescuer in open-mouthed awe and terror. One does not easily abide the presence of his god.

"Are you all right?" Elmo asked in Swahili. "What is your name?"

M'tomba shook his head in ignorance. Elmo repeated the question, first in Bantu and then Waziri. The trembling black man shook his head. Now the ape man tried the trade dialect used in commerce by most west coast people.

M'tomba smiled and nodded to indicate that he understood.

Histah's erstwhile victim then prostrated himself before "Ptah" and stammered out his thanks.

"I owe you my life, oh mighty Ptah," M'tomba whispered. "From this moment forward, I am your slave."

Elmo pointed to the now still body of Wappi.

"I am hungry," Elmo said, for indeed he had not eaten all day.

M'tomba nodded, smiled, and gestured grandly for the ape man to take what he wished.

"Anything I have is yours, Almighty One," M'tomba replied reverently in broken trade dialect. Elmo could barely understand the man. This suggested that he was from some remote tribe of the interior which had but limited contact with western traders.

"Thank you," Elmo answered. "Are you sure you are all right?"

"Yes, Venerated One!" M'tomba stammered, prostrating himself face down in the trail. His ribs hurt mightily but this was nothing considering the staggering events which had just unfolded before his unbelieving eyes.

Elmo sliced off a rear haunch of Wappi, then reassuring himself that M'tomba was fit to look after himself, leaped upward to disappear into the trees overhead. As he scrambled up into the middle terraces to eat, he could but wonder at the man he had rescued. Never before had any beneficiary of his good offices seemed so overwhelmingly grateful.

Elmo paid little attention to the fact that the man had called him "Ptah". M'tomba had pronounced "Ptah" as "Tah" which could have easily have been the man's crude attempt to pronounce Elmo's name which was certainly not unknown in the region.

For his part, there was no doubt whatever in the mind of M'tomba the Uwulu that his life had been saved by no less a personage than Ptah the demi-god himself. There was also little doubt that when he told others his story, he would be ridiculed and denounced as a fabricator and liar. First he quickly dressed the carcass of Wappi and wrapped the meat in the hide. Then he soon fashioned a second bundle which he wrapped in banana leaves.

That night the village of M'boru, Chief of the Uwulu, pulsed to the throbbing beat of deep-pitched drums wrought of lion skins tightly stretched across hollow logs. Overhead Goro the moon hung like an orange Chinese lantern brightly illuminating the scene below.

In the center of the village a large bonfire burned brightly. Around this cavorted and pranced a dozen hunters who had brought back meat to the kraal of M'boru. One by one, the tall ebon warriors stamped out the stories of their hunts, in no wise neglecting their own valor and prowess in the telling. The onlookers cheered and jeered as the mood struck them, much as would a New York audience on opening night of a Broadway play.

Ch'koro, son of M'boru, danced like a man possessed. The grotesque shadows cast against the log palisade wall seemed to have life of their own. Tall and panther-lithe, Ch'koro's sweating skin glistened in the flickering firelight as he expressed through his movements how he had slain a zebra mare, and then stood off a leopard that had sought to drive him from the kill.

Very impressed were the unmarried young women of the kraal because not only was Ch'koro brave and resourceful, many found the son of M'boru the chief pleasing to the eye. Before one maiden in particular did Ch'koro strut and posture. This was Anjinou, the most comely maiden in all Uwulu country. Beautiful raven-wing hair fell to her shapely shoulders, and from beneath long fluttering lashes, doe-like brown eyes regarded the young man.

Several young men smiled wryly. No doubt Ch'koro had slain the zebra; there lay the meat wrapped in its black and white striped hide as proof. But many were skeptical as to whether or not a leopard might have played any part in the matter.

Those who followed danced their hunt stories to greater or lesser jeers or cheers until at last only M'tomba remained. As M'tomba danced, the dandies among the onlookers snickered for it was well known that he had slain only an antelope, a haunch of which he had already devoured himself.

Unheeding, M'tomba danced on. His dramatic movements showed the spearing of Wappi. First he lifted the head of Wappi and danced around the fire mimicking the antelope so well that it seemed as if kudu himself had joined in the celebration. Then followed the assault by the python and his own near death. Finally with eloquent gestures and not losing the beat of the drums, M'tomba related how in his hour of need, he had prayed to Ptah the All-seeing, and how that mighty god had descended from heaven to slay the snake and rescue him. When he proffered the haunch to Ptah, several spectators snickered aloud.

Foremost among these was Ch'koro, son of M'boru who laughed openly. The old chief glared at his rude son but said nothing. What could he say when he himself thought the story nothing but a tall tale? M'tomba continued to dance. Sweating, gleaming in the firelight, he danced over to a pile of things he had set aside as props.

Now M'tomba danced over to his props and lifted a large bundle of banana leaves. With slow, undulating movements, he took on the persona of a mighty python, nor did any in attendance fail to understand as M'tomba writhed slowly from side to side, his tongue flicking in and out of his mouth in snake fashion. Then he jerked violently from side to side with his mouth open, still in perfect time to the throbbing drums, now showing the snake's death throes.

Few noticed that as M'tomba danced, he surreptitiously edged closer to Ch'koro. Kneeling, M'tomba placed his bundle at the feet of the chieftain's son.

Scoffing, Ch'koro pulled aside the banana leaves and stared into glazed yellow reptilian eyes. Ch'koro fell back as if struck. The python‘s severed head was as big as a goat's! Scarcely able to conceive the length such a head indicated, Ch'koro reeled back from the reeking trophy, shaking as if taken by a fever.

Now M'tomba took up Histah's head and slowly danced around the circle. Each he passed drew back a space as all stared in open-mouthed amazement at the snake's hideous head. Old Mavutu the witch doctor shook his protective fetishes as M'tomba passed. How had M'tomba accomplished such a thing if not for Ptah? The thing passed the witch doctor's understanding, but ever ready to turn any occurrence to his advantage, Mavutu leaped into the firelight behind M'tomba.

Muvutu's wrinkled old face was framed by a head-dress of yellow feathers; Around his waist he wore a leopard-skin loin wrap with the tail still attached. His face was painted blue and white. As Mavutu danced, he shook his painted tortoise shell rattles fiercely.

"Great Ptah himself has spoken to me!" the witch doctor cried. "Ptah has shown great favor to M'tomba, son of M'epe. Ptah has demonstrated his love for us his children by slaying kavanunu! Let us celebrate our good fortune! Bring forth meat and beer! Tonight we celebrate our great good fortune! Come dance to the glory of Ptah!"

A scowl darkened the face of Ch'koro as Anjisou, skipped out to dance beside M'tomba, across whose face spread a wide grin he could not conceal.

Overhead, Goro the moon looked down on the happy celebration below. Goro's bright face also illuminated another who lay in the crotch of a tree a few miles to the west listening to the drums. Well-fed and safely ensconced above the numerous terrors that stalked the benighted jungle floor below, Elmo enjoyed the primal rhythm that filled the jungle night. Meanwhile back in the village of M'boru , the happy celebrants worshiped their jungle god.