Chasing the Slarg by Kevin Bennett
Chasing the Slarg
(A Love Story…kinda.)
by Kevin Bennett
— Quest Conception—
A gentleman keeps his mustache well groomed and thick. It is one of the birthright marks of civilization—for not all men can grow hair in the mustache zone with success. For some there is an unwanted cleft bald of whiskers that stretches right down the middle. For others there simply isn’t enough hair. Then there are those who can grow the glorious ‘stache, but who, for reasons of societal pressure or outright fear, have never let their lips grow free. But a gentleman is born with whiskers in all the right spots, and the ‘stache practically curls itself. I don’t even have to use product on mine—the hair has a natural spring at the ends as though it were somehow cognizant.
I enjoy gentlemen’s activities—hunting big game, for one. Or perhaps I should say especially. I especially enjoy the hunt—man against the elements; wit against instinct. Mankind is king over all the beasts, and it positively gives one life to realize this—to stare down a charging lion and step aside in the final seconds, blasting it into the netherworld as it snarls, whimpers, chokes and is no more. When was the last time you winged a grizzly and trailed him sixty miles across the Canadian wilds? Sleeping under canvas, traveling on horseback, living from the land and no society to bog you down. One must escape civilization to appreciate civilization—but at the same time, you grow to hate it. It’s like every woman you ever loved: you want to strangle her, but you love her more than life itself. And she probably feels exactly the same about you. You can’t live without her, but the two of you are so on edge you’ll quarrel over the weather. That is the gentleman’s plight in the civilized world: to be forever resentful of petty “bureaucracy”; a word which sounds so tame but is really the Devil’s greatest triumph—and yet, at the same time, to fight against anyone who would besmirch the petty bureaucratic precepts of home, wherever that is, and threaten your way of life.
I balance this dichotomy by escaping as regularly as I can.
I have been able, gentleman that I am, to finance numerous expeditions into the deepest, darkest jungles; across the most frozen wastelands—through mountains, forests, deserts and dairy farms (hunting bobcats)—I’ve seen most the world! And I’ve stalked all the beasts of all the wilds I know. Now, at the age of thirty-nine, I feel jaded toward that same wild. I remember staring glumly from the bridge of Queen Edith, a pleasure yacht with a full crew that has been mine since twenty years previous, when I became a man—not yet the gentle kind—in 1889. From the tip of Sri Lanka facing south, the Indian Ocean is a vast, endless field of roiling blue, with no end in sight. I was daydreaming—daydreaming of hunting the infinitude of vicious beasts that live beneath the waves; harpooning a sperm whale or fencing a swordfish, maybe wrestling a great white for dessert. What a tale that would be! Phillip K. Rendeck IV, shark-fighter! I began to wonder about a number of German inventions I had read periodicals on; devices that forced air into large metal suits of armor that surrounded a man, allowing him to breathe as he walked like some otherworldly interloper among the myriad fish on the ocean floor—
“Captain Rendeck! Is that you up there?”
The rough and accented baritone of a Georgia native nearly startled me over the railing. I squinted—there was a stocky man, dark hair and eyes, long, black whiskers—“Marcus Braun! God bless me, what brings you to this corner of the world?”
“I was soused and vomited in the Taj-Mahal!” He yelled.
“Just kidding! I’m on business for the Old Man, buying goods and showing my cousin the ropes. Look, I’m too fond of tobacco to conduct this interview via shout! Will you join me for a drink?”
“Why don’t you come aboard and see what kind of burgundy the Rendeck fortune can buy? Wait a moment and I’ll let out the gangplank. Misha! Davai! Davai!”
Misha appeared from nowhere, as he does, and quickly saw to the business of lowering the gangplank. My crew is Russian—so is the Queen Edith, technically; my father won the ship at a dock in Saint Petersburg, and he has never given me the full details surrounding that particular card game, but I know it also had a great deal to do with my mother, who is Russian. Soon as Dad got the ship stateside he changed the name. Bolshoy Yekaterina sounds either like some kind of entree or a nasty illness. Not that I like Queen Edith any better; but Dad named the boat after his own mother, and even though he gave it to me, I wasn’t about to start that fight.
Marcus Braun jogged up the gangplank and we embraced briefly before I led him into my study, where I poured us each a fat snifter of the burgundy I mentioned and we drank each other’s health. Our talk meandered over familiar territory and through the regular pleasantries of easy conversation between old friends. Braun was in Sri Lanka on business involving trade between his family’s company and the British Empire as it existed in India—also something to do with a younger cousin. When he asked me the same question, I pointed to the creature that had just come from the taxidermist and now stood brooding over my desk. It was a smallish bear with a white horseshoe-shaped marking on its chest, and the taxidermist had done an excellent job making it look fierce. “A sloth bear,” I said. “Not the most engaging hunt I’ve been on, but I’ve killed enough elephants, leopards and jackals in India—and the locals weren’t aware of anything more vicious around these parts.”
“An ugly brute,” Braun commented.
“Yes, but easygoing enough. To tell the truth, Braun, I’m getting tired of the hunt—there’s no challenge anymore.”
“Slain all the dragons have ya?”
“You know where there’s a live dragon?”
“Of course not. I’d have killed it. I do, however, know of something you may never have heard of.”
He smiled and played with his goatee. A mustache is the mark of a civilized man. I don’t know what the black conglomeration of braids and funk under Braun’s chin represented, but high society certainly had no say in the matter. The cursed thing was a foot if it was an inch, and thick as your wrist. It covered the bottom of his chin, though the rest of his face was clean-shaven. He licked his lips and said: “What kind of hunting have you done in the Indonesia/New Guinea region?”
“I have a few stuffed Orangutans at the manor…really, there isn’t much—besides the orange monkeys—that is more dangerous than the brutes of the Ozzie badlands.”
“What do you know, Braun? Don’t play coy with me. Spit it out, man!”
“Well the fact is—er…let me put it this way: I have a cousin, a waif of a thing too pale for her own good, but getting color in these climes. I left her at the Inn, just now. Anyway, in Papua New Guinea right across the gulf from Port Moresby, about ten miles up the coast from the mainland portion of the city of Daru, there is a certain merchant who trades in rare goods that, for Braun Trade, would be lucrative acquisitions. I have been at port this morning dickering over passage in that general direction for both myself and my cousin, but meeting you today—I’m sure this merchant of mine has information that would interest you. Among some of the rare goods I’ve seen is an item you are sure to be interested in: a taxidermied Thylacene.”
I blinked at him very slowly, then laughed out loud: “Oh, balderdash and fiddle-faddle! Everyone knows the Thylacene wolf-tiger is simply a crude hoax.”
“Oh, but this wasn’t just any stuffed Thylacene, my friend.”
“Do tell,” I chuckled.
“This, my good friend, was a winged thylacene. And a right massive brute. Not a wolf-sized dog-tiger, like you’ve heard of in the wilds of Oz. You seem familiar with the beasts? A wolf and a tiger had a cub, which grew up to have a tiger-wolf face and the striped markings of one of the big cats across either flank. Vicious creatures. Teeth that can rend solid metal, a screaming roar that would pierce your heart, my friend; if you were to hear it. But mere infants in comparison to the leathery-winged monstrosity of that merchant’s venue—”
“Braun, you’ve been taken by another hoax—it’s simply a case of competent taxidermy and resources in excess of what one expects, given said merchant’s appearance. That’s the best way, you know. People expect to see certain things—if you can meet their expectations, your deception is never questioned.”
“I felt the wings, Rendeck. They weren’t fabricated. Like those of a bat, but larger than a hundred of the meanest bats you ever saw! Tell me what creature he borrowed from, for this hoax? Those wings were not canvas, they were certainly not rubber, or any kind of metal I’ve ever heard of. What were they?”
“Perhaps he sewed the wings of a hundred bats together?”
“They were seamless.”
“So you’ve seen this…beast, then?”
“I’m not the only one! Oh, it resembles the Thylacene, alright; but I wouldn’t call them relatives. This monster is twice the size, in the body, and its legs are all short—clawed feet on the bottom, very similar to a bat, I suppose. The forepaws have what I can only call thumbs, though certainly not the thumbs of a man. The face—vicious. A wicked dog, a wicked cat, their lovechild and a bear. If the Winged Thylacene doesn’t exist, then what I saw in that shop was some demon from the netherworld, conjured by the proprietor to lure traders like me. But that wouldn’t explain the legends of the villagers—you see the Winged Thylacenes eat meat, Rendeck. Man meat—and I’m not being basely sensual to make some mirthless entendre, here. A man is walking on a hillside, slow, tired—the Winged Thylacene swoops down and grabs him with stubby hind claws, and flies him away to a cave in the jungles, or some vile burrow or nest, and he is never seen or heard from again!”
I admit, I had become intrigued. I tried not to let it show, but the burgundy was straining my facade. “And you’re…headed that way to buy this taxidermied beast?”
Braun had just finished lighting an ornate wooden pipe: “Of course not; there are some excellent Chinese goods that would cost our company thrice what this gentleman is offering. On my visit last year, I purchased a number of samples, and they appear to be the legitimate article. Also, there are a few Nippon items—swords and things of that ilk—and a number of exotic foodstuffs from the islands themselves.”
“Hm. I see,” my finger twirled my left mustache absently. “Of course I couldn’t let you and your…cousin…travel entirely free of charge. I have a crew, and we’ll need to take on extra rations—”
“You’ll have a percentage of our profits on our successful return to the states.”
I blew air through my lips, then a thought struck me: “Well, in the worst case, we have an exciting trek through the jungle; perhaps I’ll bag another Orangutan? You will, I trust, be accompanying me on the hunt…?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Rendeck!”
“Fine then.” I checked a timepiece by the sloth bear. “It’s a quarter to twelve—the sky was red last night and my crew has been sleeping off a hangover collectively. (They want booze more than money, these Russians.) I see no reason we shouldn’t be able to weigh anchor by, oh, two o’clock?”
“I’ll fetch Michelle,” Braun said. I walked him to the gangplank and then roused the crew. By the time they were done swearing, groaning and taking their morning Vodkas, I had commissioned two of them to purchase extra supplies for our extra passengers, and I saw Marcus and his cousin Michelle walking down the dock toward us, followed by seven sweating Indians laboring under a trunk that was undoubtedly the woman’s.
Braun hadn’t been kidding when he said she was pale…what he had failed to mention, however, was that, somehow, despite being a Braun from Georgia, the girl was absolutely beautiful. Even through the sweat and faux-elegance she affected—quite unnecessary in a Sri Lankan summer; I went shirtless and wore short trousers, most the time—I could see that here was a lady. Red hair, green eyes, and curves where you’d expect them to be—and in no small proportion. The woman was voluptuous, to be sure. I’d say late twenties. If she didn’t watch it, she’d descend into shrill obesity in about ten years; but right then, I must say Michelle looked quite good.
As soon as she boarded I heard the crew betting in Russian growls over how long she’d keep that Victorian costume she wore. When the thermometer consistently tops 100 degrees, you’ve got to strip down. It was a wonder to me she was yet bold enough to endure such clothing—the trip to Sri Lanka is by no means short or lacking in discomfort; and our voyage to New Guinea would certainly be a few months. From where we were on the tip of Sri Lanka, I estimated the distance to New Guinea at just over four thousand miles. I’d take us there as straight as I could; though the waters could be treacherous around the islands. I knew where most the reefs were, and where to be to keep clear of them.
I found Misha and made a bet of my own, and by the time I was finished, the hunch-backed Indians that had lugged Michelle Braun’s trunk limped away, and within the hour we were under way.
— The Commodore—
When not in dress fatigues, the Commodore wore plaid. A plaid shirt, plaid trousers, and plaid boots. I have no idea why—it was a terrible orange and brown, and made him stick out like a sore thumb among the nearly naked black New Guineans and equally de-robed Westerners that made up most of the port. Also, the clothing looked terribly uncomfortable in the tropical heat. I had forgotten these coasts were much warmer than those of Sri Lanka.
You didn’t ever make remarks regarding the plaid to the Commodore. Not if you wanted to stay in his good graces—and we surely did. He was a traditional man from Oz, with a dirty wit, thick accent, and a firm love of any booze-bearing beverage. I haven’t met an Australian yet I could out-drink; I gave up trying years ago. If I had more Irish friends, I might set up a betting pool against one of them and an Ozzie—specifically the Commodore.
Marcus Braun was an acquaintance of the Commodore, which is why we came into port at a small town across from the island of Daru near the Indonesian border. Also, the shallows are quite treacherous in the waters south of New Guinea. We had great difficulty fighting the currents off the northwestern coasts of Australia on our approach. They were against us the whole way, and I’m certain our trip was extended several weeks longer than it should have been.
Which reminds me: it took less than a week for Michelle Braun to diminish her Victorian glamour to something more seaworthy; I won the bet against Misha. But I lost the war. I had not taken into account the mental effect this would have on Michelle. It was like with the removal of each layer of clothing, she lost some measure of propriety, until by the time we made port in Daru, she was as bawdy and drunken as the Russians. Not that Marcus and I were any better—you’ve got to pass the time at sea somehow.
I couldn’t say I entirely disliked the change in Michelle—she wore one of Marcus’ undershirts tied in a knot at the waist, exposing milky midriff that quickly bronzed during our voyage. Most of the trip found her barefoot, and a skirt that sashayed around her calves was all she wore below the waist—I knew this last because on one occasion she drunkenly climbed the rigging chasing one or another of my crew over some trifling offense, and failed to heed the gawking onlookers below. Marcus caught me all agape and treated me to a fresh sandwich of the knuckle persuasion.
What I wasn’t pleased with was her new infatuation with the Commodore. Especially in all that ridiculous plaid. We had been in port a week, getting our landlegs back and going about town purchasing this and that for our expedition—and the entire time, Michelle hung on the Commodore’s arm like it was her lifeline. Now we puttered along at a pace comparable to a trotting horse, headed a little ways up the coast in one of those new horseless carriages. It was an open-topped affair with a fat trunk that, admittedly, carried much of our gear. The Commodore took great pride in the machine, with its growling engine and squeaking gears. Michelle also seemed very impressed—Marcus and I were in the back while she sat shotgun beside the plaid demon at the wheel: “What makes it go?” She asked.
“Petrol, mostly. Gellons o’ the stuff. Every bit as ‘spensive as that burgundy o’ Redneck’s you tole me abat.”
“That’s ‘Rendeck’,” I put in.
“Redneck, Rendeck—it’s’a same lettehs, mate.”
“Commodore Gibson,” Marcus spoke up, “How has business been at Lankey’s since I visited you last?”
“Boomin’,” he replied over his shoulder. “Kid knows how t’get the word out.”
“Has he encountered any more Winged Thylacenes?” I asked.
“Kor? Well, Ah don’t know if he’s stuffed another of ’em, but they’re cert’nly still abat. Y’hear em at night in the highlands, yellin’ fer a sheila er dinner er maybe even both—’Kor! Kor!’ they say. Cuts right through yeh bones.”
“They call it a ‘Kor’?”
“Among other things,” Marcus threw in. “Night-demon, Ropen—Slarg is the term Lankey uses.”
“Oooh…slarg,” Michelle said. “That sounds like a terrible monster! The slarg.”
“Ah’ll show yeh a terrible monster, love,” said the Commodore.
“Your wardrobe’s a monster,” I muttered.
“Phillip! There’s no need to be rude.” Michelle’s eyes were abruptly on fire.
“You just remember who’s going to bag this thing and bring it home, Miss Braun.” I twirled my left mustache with acrimony.
Marcus nudged me. “I wouldn’t be too cocky about it. The one at Lankey’s shop is the only trophy I ever heard of.”
“We’ll see about that,” I said.
“He’s a crefty devil, the kor is. A mean-spirited creacheh o’ the dark. A scavengeh. Like the biggest, wickedest buzzehd you evah sawr, but a dingo’s ‘ead, a bat’s wings, and a tigeh’s eyes.”
“I take it you know just where to find one, Commodore Gibson?”
“Well, Ah’ve led a few expeditions up the middle, if yeh know what Ah mean.” He nudged Michelle.
“Not the first sheila’s said that, love,” entendred the Commodore.
I cleared my throat: “Perhaps, for a small fee, you’d be willing to accompany us on our expedition?”
“Fee? What, you er me, mate?”
“I’d cover the expenses, of course,” I replied.
“Is ‘at so?”
“That is so.”
Michelle squealed. “Oh, please come along, Commodore! Please please come along!”
Marcus piped up: “I don’t know what you’re getting so excited about, my dear cousin. You’re staying with the ship. It was my plan to have the Commodore drive you back into town once Rendeck and I finished at Lankey’s—”
“Yes, but if Commodore Gibson is coming with us, then there will be nobody to take me back, will there Marky?”
Marcus blew air through his lips and gave his goatee a tug. “Lankey can give you an escort.”
“But I want to come! Look at all that jungle out there! All that green green jungle! I want to be in it, I want to see what it’s like—”
I had to cut her off: “Michelle, it looks beautiful, but it’s very dangerous—you must understand it’s no place for a lady—”
“And the crow’s nest on your Queen Edith is?”
I had a brief flashback of her climbing the rigging and had to shake my head to remember the present: “Look, believe it or not, that’s a lot less dangerous than any rainforest. There’re spiders as big as your head in there that’ll kill you with one bite, snakes thick as a man and mean as a German—”
“Oh, Phillip! Don’t try and scare me! I’ve got you, and Marcus, and the Commodore to protect me—isn’t that right?”
Marcus and I shared a look.
“Yeh sure abat thet, pretty miss? If we get too close to thet kor…”
“Oh, silly, there’s no such thing as a kor; you think I’m so gullible I can’t tell a tall-tale when I hear one?” She pushed the Commodore’s shoulder in a jocular way.
“Michelle,” I said. “You do know we plan on traveling more than three hundred miles inland? This isn’t just an afternoon jaunt in the countryside; we’re not going to be near civilization for a month at least. If we can make fifty miles a day, that’s at least six days travel before we even begin hunting. And back out it’ll be the same situation. Assuming I find my Winged Thylacene the second we hit the mountains, we’re looking at a trip that will, at the very least, be twelve days—”
“You men. You think because I’m beautiful that I’m delicate. I can handle twelve days! I can handle a year! When else in my life will I ever find an adventure like this? You tell me that!”
Marcus exhaled heavily through his nose. “We tried to warn you.”
“Ah ken keep an eye on the Sheila, gents. Yeh ken count on me. Ah’ve got a month free, yet, before Ah retuhn to duty. Ah think a kor hunt’s just the thing.”
“It’s settled then!” And she turned back around with a smug look on her face, at once continuing conversation with the Commodore.
I caught Marcus’ eye, nearly choked as the horseless carriage hit a bump, then said under my breath: “You okay with that, Braun?”
He scratched an eyebrow. “You’ve only lived with her four months. I’ve known this kid since before I could grow a beard. I know what happens when she gets an idea in her head. Uncle Silas wouldn’t be too pleased, I don’t think; but I’d rather not deal with her pouting until we get back to Georgia next year.”
“Well, she’s not my family,” I shrugged. “Of course, she’s not hard on the eyes, either—”
“Oh, I don’t want to hear it!” Marcus made to smack me, but I ducked out of the way, chuckling.
We spent the remainder of the trip to Lankey’s staring at the deep greens of the New Guinea rainforest, contrasted by tropical blues that cradled the seas between there and Australia. The clouds were all white, the sky was bluer than the sea, and the sun was golden bright. Mountains to the north and the west rose deep into numerous cumulonimbi, and I kept catching glimpses of furry wildlife in the trees—little monkeys and flying squirrels, I found out later. Birds were everywhere, riding air currents that distributed a tropical smell mixed with that of the sea. The heat was intense, and I was glad the Commodore kept a number of canteens in his horseless carriage.
We nearly made the trip to Lankey’s without incident, when suddenly the Commodore began to swear in one of the many New Guinean dialects he spoke and reached for a pistol he kept between the front seats. I leaned forward to see what he was cussing at, and saw about two dozen brightly-dressed natives half a mile down the road, aiming bows our way and making threatening gestures. “Dem aborigines. Down, love. Gents: guns undeh yeh seats, I suggest yeh use ’em.”
I had forgotten the tribes who fought over land and women between ports and peppered the mountains like violent spices. Now memories flashed at me rapid-fire, and everything came back crystal clear.
“ ‘ang on t’ somethin’!” The Commodore smashed his foot on the accelerator pedal—I later learned that is what mitigated the carriage’s speed—and we started moving at a horse’s gallop rather than a trot. The Commodore screamed back at the natives and stood in his seat, one hand on the flimsy wheel, the other aiming his pistol over the windshield: “Take that yeh fletheads!” He yelled, and began to plug away.
Three or four of the natives let fly their arrows, but the windshield—half an inch of glass—stopped most of them and the rest missed. One brave fellow with a loincloth and two feet of vertical hair stood in the middle of the path and screamed at us. I nearly plugged him, but the buggy hit a bump and my shot only kicked up dust near his feet—he got the message and split.
The rest of the tribe had moved to the sides of the road. The Commodore yelled: “They gonna try an’ spear us. Don’ let ’em get the chance!”
We obeyed and shot at them. I heard Marcus whoop a few times as one of the natives screamed like a banshee and pitched headlong into the road. And then we were upon them. They didn’t seem to care that our vehicle was heavy and occupied—first they threw spears at us, one of which took off my sun hat—then they began jumping at the vehicle, yelling in their strange dialect and trying to pull us out. Of course we were going too fast for most of them to get a good hand or foothold, but one wiry fellow did manage to jump on the trunk at the back and curse us in broken English: “We gonna eatcha bebies, devil-dogs!”
I shot him in the knee. He yelped, pitched over and smacked into a tree not unlike the palms you see in Florida. When I turned back around, the Commodore was passing a flask to Marcus, saying: “Nothin’ better’n a drink er three after a good gun fight. Yeh gotta watch them natives. Crefty. Always at war with ’emselves, holding up trevelehs for wippons, money, women—you name it. Imps with guns, near enough.”
Michelle sat up cautiously, voice a-tremble: “They’re people, Commodore.”
“We’ll see if yeh feel ‘at way once we get started into the ‘igh country,” replied the Commodore. “Or are yeh still so eagah?”
“It will take a little more than those opportunistic bugaboos to frighten me away, Commodore Gibson,” Michelle replied loftily.
We came up over another hill presently, and before us stretched Lankey’s mercantile operation—a series of several dozen thatched huts surrounded by a variety of livestock in large numbers. Cattle, oxen, mules, horses, goats, sheep, pigs—Lankey even had kangaroos shipped from Australia in one pen; I saw two of the bulls boxing each other in a way that almost looked civilized.
Surrounding the mercantile operation were a large number of aborigines—or natives; I confess, I’m not too clear on the distinction—in modern dress, holding repeater rifles with long bayonets on the end, swords strapped to their sides. About half a mile from Lankey’s operation, two of these gentlemen halted us on the road. Commodore Gibson clicked, grunted, and gestured at one of them in the local dialect. At length the native began chuckling quite amiably; about the time the Commodore nodded his head at Michelle. He even shared the joke with a few other sentries, who also chuckled. Still smiling snow-white teeth, the dark gentleman waved us through and we puttered down the path to a hut in the very middle of the others.
“What did you say that made him laugh, Commodore Gibson?”
“Ah wouldn’t worry too much abat thet, love.”
“What did you say!”
“Well, they asked if we hed eny smuggled goods, and Ah told ’em you might be smugglin’ coconuts, but othehwise—”
“Commodore!” She was about to hit him, but he honked his horn several times on our approach and startled her.
A young man wearing short trousers, a Godly beard, and a deep violet vest that looked Chinese came to meet us, smiling like we were fawns and he a lion. “Commodore Gibson! And mistuh Braun! And a busty lady! And dat gentleman in de back!”
“ ‘allow, Lankey!” Called the Commodore.
“It’s been too long,” threw in Marcus.
“Heh-hah!” Lankey heh-hahed. “It has been much much much too long, my rich friends! Come inside, come inside!”
— Lankey’s Operation—
Skulls, daggers, pickled pigs feet, tropical preserves, doublets, brightly-colored sashes, spears, livestock feed, tobacco pipes, stuffed animals, herbs, spices, alcohol, fruits, vegetables—none of these things were in the first hut we entered. It was an office as modern as anything I’d ever seen. The purple-vested young proprietor sat behind a fat mahogany desk in the middle, discussing things in one of the native languages with the Commodore, who would translate for Braun. Lankey clearly spoke some English, but his command was stilted.
There were several filing cabinets in the hut, a large window directly opposite the desk, and the chair in which Lankey sat was high-backed and luxurious. Lankey did live up to his name, I must admit—his limbs were long, like his face, and his torso was skinny. But he had keen eyes, and it was clear he was a clever businessman.
Braun, Lankey and the Commodore continued to dicker about this that and the other thing. Michelle and I slipped into one of the huts that housed the various wares Lankey traded in—that is where I saw the lengthy list I abbreviated earlier. And one thing I hadn’t included: guns. All kinds of guns—shotguns, pistols, rifles, repeater-rifles—there was a rusted Gatling gun; where had Lankey acquired that?—cannons. Cannons! And swords, I suppose. And machetes. And spears. And bows, and arrows, and ammunition, and various forms of armor; some primitive, some modern, some Chinese—maybe one of the imports Braun was dickering about in the other room. In fact, reflecting on it, I have seldom seen a general store stateside as well stocked as Lankey’s mercantile operation—which is quite a surprise; especially in a place like New Guinea. Most of the shops and bars had some modicum of modernity, but were unable to progress much farther than said modicum. Lankey hadn’t gone for a modern “look”, but his inventory was as cutting edge as they come.
Michelle spotted the shrunken heads first. “How do you suppose they make these?” She asked, bending over them with a pinched expression. “They can’t be real…”
“Oh, they’re real, Miss Braun. All too real.”
“But…I mean they’re so tiny…”
“They make a slit up the skin on the back of the head and remove the skull, then they—”
“Nevermind nevermind! I don’t want to hear it!”
I chuckled. “You asked, my dear.”
“And that man—that Lankey…he…he sells these?”
“The heads are supposed to house mystical spirits. He buys the heads from tribes that trade for guns in order to kill other tribes more efficiently. In turn, tribes that do not wish to do the work themselves—but do wish the reputation that comes with creating and brandishing shrunken heads—buy them from Lankey, and avoid bloodshed through reputation. It doesn’t exactly make things more peaceable, but I’m sure it cuts down the violence to some degree.”
“How do you know all this? I thought Marcus was the one involved in trade…”
“You forget I’ve been to New Guinea before, my dear. A long time ago…oh, say six, seven years.” I picked up a rifle and began to examine it. “Hello,” I muttered. “How’d he get hold of you?”
“Phillip, let’s leave this hut…I feel like those little heads are staring at me!”
“Maybe they are,” I smirked.
“Don’t you talk like that!”
“Alright, alright.” We left that hut and, under the watchful gaze of the sentries that stood guard around Lankey’s operation, began to explore the others. Each seemed to have a theme; I guess the first one we had been in was “war”. Some were geared at females, I expect, selling all manner of cloth. One was wigs and nothing else—and male wigs at that, which puzzled me. We didn’t linger long there. Etcetera and so forth—you get the idea. In that valley, the bottom of which was dominated by Lankey, there were about forty little huts, all chock-full of wares.
We approached the last one, and a kind of premonition froze me. I can’t describe the feeling perfectly—a hand of invisible force reached out from the hut and squeezed me for a full ten seconds…then it was gone. I shook my head.
“Yes, fine,” I said. We entered the thatch construction—larger and much more roomy than the others—and saw a variety of dead, stuffed beasts. I paid them no mind. I’d seen a stuffed animal before. What caught my attention was the creature in the center.
Michelle gasped and said something in a surprised tone I didn’t hear; but I suspected she was reconsidering the statement she’d made about the Winged Thylacene being a hoax.
It was every bit as grandiose as Braun made it out to be. A wicked looking creature with a twenty-foot wingspan. I felt the wings—they seemed real enough to me. Leathery, but not leather. Almost reptilian. The torso was furred in short, bristly hairs—like a nasty coyote, or some kind of goat. Short, stubby legs at the back with long, pointy claws. Five claws to a foot—they were gripping a stuffed pig the size of a small child. The front claws were at the ends of the wings, and just as sharp. It had a furry chest that was broad and deep—probably for making those piercing cries the Commodore had been going on about. And the head—like a big cat and some wicked canine had been melded together. There was a certain unreality to it—the emerald eyes were definitely feline, as were the ears; but the snout, the teeth; they were most definitely that of a dog. I looked closely but could see no seam. The head looked like it could be some clever forgery, I will admit…but I could find no evidence to support my suspicion. The teeth were barred in a permanent snarl, and the creature hung suspended from a trestle that also supported the roof, to some degree. There were no trestles like that in any of the other huts; it looked as though this had been constructed for the express purpose of levitating the Winged Thylacene—
“LOOK OUT WHITE MAN!”
I yelped and ducked, the curl frightened right out of my mustache. I heard Michelle scream and bump into something behind me. Then I heard deep laughter, and turned to see Lankey holding his stomach and making no effort to hide what he’d done. I shook my head, trying not to blush: “You got me good, there, Mr. Lankey.”
“You de man who gonna hunt de slarg?” He pointed at the creature.
“I de—yeah, I’m the man.”
“Heh-hah! He a dangerous critter, dat slarg. You don’ be cocky, now. He eatchoo up! I have a brudda, he get shot in de leg. Took short way over de mountains in de afta’noon. Not move too fast, tired—he make it just outside de village, when de slarg see him. Fly down, pick him up—he scream scream scream, but everybody frozen. I come out, I shoot at de devil. I hit him in de wing—you see?” He pointed at the stuffed monster. There was a slit in one of the wings that had been sewn together. I wouldn’t have noticed if he didn’t point it out. Lankey turned back: “Dat is where I get him. He fall down, angry—de fall kill my brudda. I catch de slarg, I stab him troo de hart. He scream at me! Kor! Kor Kor! But it no matter. He dead—he know it. Strong bastid. You see here? And here?” He pointed to a number of scars on his dark and skinny body. “He slash me when he die—you see here?” The back of his calf looked like hamburger. “He get my leg in his teeth. I stab my finger in his eye! He scream at me! But he dead. He know he dead. Heh-ha-hah!
“Whatchoo gonna do, pale man, you get de flame. You get de big big fire in de mountains in de night—he don’ come to da fire, he come aroun de fire. De slarg, he look for de wounded. He clean de battlefield. Dat is why, when you kill de enemy, you chop him into pieces—so de slarg, he don have to go aftuh no busted man who not yet dead. Heh-hah!”
I wasn’t frightened, don’t get me wrong; but I was very much drawn into Lankey’s story, so much so that when Braun stuck his head in and yelled: “Rendeck, Michelle!” I jumped again, and so did she.
Braun was still talking: “Are you two—oh! There you are.” He smiled at Lankey, turned to me: “You should pick up anything you’re gonna need for the trip.”
“Of course,” I said. “The plan is to get at least twenty miles inland before dark.”
“Oh, we’ll beat that number—we’ve got good horses.” Braun jiggled the reigns in his hand.
“…horses?” Michelle asked.
“You didn’t think we’d drive the whole way?”
I broke in: “There’d be no way to. The roads don’t go that far inland; and we’ll be keeping away from most of them anyway—to avoid the tribesmen, you understand. You can still head back to the Queen Edith; I’m sure Lankey could send some boys to make sure the locals don’t get too fresh on the way—”
“No! No, I’ll…I’ll come along.”
“Lankey didn’t scare you out of it?” Braun looked surprised. “Lankey, after that tip I gave you!”
“I do my best, mistuh Braun. You shoulda seen how de Captain jump, Heh-hah!”
I stared at Braun: “You put him up to that? That was a good idea, Marcus.”
“Oooh!” Michelle oohed, and walked past Marcus, making one of the horses whose reigns he held snort.
“I’ve got a few more guns I’d like to look at; the rest of my gear’s in the Commodore’s trunk. Oh—I meant to ask him, I assumed he’d know anyway, but I wanted to be sure: he does know where most the tribes are, so we can keep clear of any civil skirmishes?”
I turned to Lankey: “That’s a fine creature, sir. I intend to have one myself.”
“You do whachoo gotta, white boy! Heh-hah!” And he made his exit, stage left.
I took one last round of the huts, picked up what I thought we’d need, and within the hour we were on the horses, headed toward the spiny mountains and the climes of the Winged Thylacene.
— Into the Wild—
Three days’ travel were quite uneventful. It was hot and muggy, but riding our horses at a slow trot induced a pleasant breeze. We had some difficulty on the second day, crossing a very large river. The Commodore knew where it was thinnest, however, and I only got wet up to my ankles while the horses took a long drink. Michelle fell into the river, but before any of us could jump out of our saddles like the gentlemen we were, she caught her stirrup and swung herself back onto the horse. The wet cloth did pleasant things to her anatomy, but a gentleman doesn’t write that kind of detail—though I did find myself twirling my mustache.
We stuck mainly to game trails and whatever open areas we could find. The Commodore always had his pistol at the ready, and Braun and I usually had one of the repeater rifles across the saddle. Michelle had purchased a rifle as well, but admitted she had never fired one before. She rode in the middle, the Commodore at the fore, and Braun and I flanking her on either side.
A rainforest is very thick—without a guide as adept as the Commodore, I doubt we would have made it thirty miles from the coast. Ours was flat for a number of miles until the foothills began to incline the landscape. There where spots where it was uncommon cool and humid, entire regions where the foliage was just too thick to allow sunlight to penetrate. There were other areas like a sauna. It is always wet, in a rainforest; there are always birds crying, frogs croaking, bugs chirping—it is a place teeming with life. The air is thick and full of strange smells, pleasant and unpleasant. Death mixed with flowery perfume, tangy fruit and musty leaves.
Toward the end of the fourth day, we began to really notice the incline, and that night we pitched our camp beside a wide brook on a hill at the foot of the mountains. There had been some type of fire there recently—the ever-conquering jungle was reclaiming the deadened land, but hadn’t yet succeeded. The fire was likely quite recent. When we had the tents pitched, the day’s afternoon shower had begun. Michelle was looking concernedly at the sky, and I heard her say to the Commodore: “Do you think it was some kind of lightning, that caused the fire?”
The Commodore laughed: “God bless yeh, no, love. This was a village—some tribe hed a conflict with anotheh, and the strongeh tribe razed the weakeh to the ground.”
“That…that really is terrible.”
“Native custom, love. The tribes’ve been in a state o’ perpetu’l war since before European man knew there were even islands out this way.”
“I wonder, Commodore,” Marcus interrupted, “if that is quite accurate.”
“Look here,” he walked from the fire he’d been building to the center of the razed clearing. “You can see where the blaze began—but wouldn’t you expect to see human remains? I don’t just mean bones and corpses; I mean piles of ash where the huts were, maybe some footprints, shafts of arrows, bloody soil, signs of a struggle…”
I had been gutting a cassowary too tame to realize the danger we represented until a bullet turned out the lights. I wiped my hands on my trousers, stood, examined the spot Marcus seemed to think was ground zero. I scratched my head: “I think Mr. Braun may have a point, Commodore.”
“Huh,” said the Commodore, and fished out a pipe. He was fond of a certain type of herb the locals were always smoking which he mixed with tobacco—I expect this herb was to blame for his irreconcilable plaid. Commodore Gibson struck a match, lit the pipe, crouched down. “Dem strange,” he muttered. “But I don’t s’pose it mattehs too much now?”
“No, I guess not,” I said. “Marcus, why don’t you get that fire going. Michelle, would you be so kind as to gather some water for Mr. Braun to boil?” (This to make it pure—I learned the trick from one of the Russians on my crew.)
“I’m on it, Phil,” she replied.
I thought of some vulgar responses that made my mustache twitch until I realized how ungentlemanly they were and thought of other things.
We were high enough to see more of the sunset than we had been able to before; it glinted over the moist forest canopy like a photographic negative of the night sky. After a long jaw, we went to bed. I didn’t even suspect it was the last peaceful moments we would have in New Guinea.
— Night of the Hive—
My tent was between Michelle’s and the Commodore’s; Braun’s was behind mine. I was dreaming some rare-bit trip about getting involved in an arranged marriage with a levitating Chinese girl, when suddenly she grabbed my shoulders and started shaking me like I punched her mother, whisper-shouting: “Phillip! Wake up Phillip! You useless ape! WAKE UP!”
Then her face disappeared like smoke, leaving only a silhouette; and I realized it was Michelle, and I said: “Unnnh, huh?”
Michelle snuggled up next to me like a cat: “Can you hear it? Do you hear the hissing?”
I blinked and strained. There were crickets somewhere, and—
Hssssssssssssssssss! Hiiisssssssssssss! Hiiiiiiisssssssssss!
“What the devil is that?” I muttered.
“Is it a really big snake?”
I shook my head, then realized she couldn’t tell what I was doing in the dark: “No, they don’t make any sound unless they’re rattlers or attacking, and…well, I don’t know what that noise is, miss Braun, but it isn’t a snake. Perhaps I should investigate—”
“Don’t you leave me!”
I was flattered and glad she couldn’t see me blush at her intimate frightened embrace. “Why didn’t you go to the Commodore?” I said before I could stop myself.
“He was too drunk or lit or whatever it is he does at night.”
“Too bad for him,” I muttered, then: “look, we won’t figure out what it is here. Over there, by your foot, hand me that pistol. I’ll see what I can see.”
She complied and I gingerly left the tent.
Have you ever been in a forest in the dark of night? For a first timer it’ll scare the crimson bejesus right out of you, and who knows if you’ll get it back? I’d slept alone in the woods a thousand times, and I still got frightened every now and again. In the dark of night, you can’t tell whether the cracking, creaking sounds are wicked or benign. The phenomenon is doubled in a rainforest. From wildcat growls to screeching birds and massive fruit bats rustling in the trees, the woods are alive.
And it is utterly dark. There was some slight moonlight, just enough that, after a few moments, my eyes began to adjust. I blinked, saw the clearing—everything looked normal.
The hissing, though. It grew louder and louder. I could see the horses where they had settled toward the middle of the clearing—they seemed to sleep peacefully enough—
Of a sudden one of them leapt into the air and whinnied like the devil gave a tickle. The equine shriek surprised me enough I stumbled into the tent and fairly landed on Michelle, who screamed and pushed me away. “It’s okay, it’s okay! The horse just startled me!” I whisper-shouted.
We had awoken Marcus; I heard him groan behind us. But the Commodore was still out cold.
I turned back around, grabbed some firewood from what remained of the fire, which had cooled to one or two glowing embers. I poured a little a bit of grain alcohol on the one end, got a torch going, and turned back to the center of the clearing—
Another of the horses screamed. I heard hooves beating restlessly at the burnt soil of the clearing. I brought the torch closer and what I saw fairly shocked the life out of me.
The first horse—Michelle’s white mare—was writhing on the ground in a kind of seizure, frothing at the mouth, legs beating at the air. It was covered in little darting shapes about half the size of a human hand, more and more covering it every second; they were all over the creature, practically blanketing it—and I noticed the horse had become swollen anywhere there weren’t the shapes, and even in the dancing firelight of my torch, I saw its flesh was becoming discolored and rotten, puss and blood oozing through the short hair on its writhing flanks.
I turned the torch on the other horse I had heard scream—Braun’s. It had run into the trees as far as its bridle would allow it, and the other two were shuffling and snorting nervously at its sides. I saw that it seemed to limp slightly.
I moved closer to the horse that was dying, being quite literally eaten alive by something—
I was about twenty feet from the absolute center of the burnt clearing when I finally figured out what was going on. Pouring from a hole in the earth—ground zero of the clearing, where the fire must have started—were hundreds upon hundreds of spiders. Hairy, skinny, dark and multi-limbed monstrosities whose legs crackled against one another, forming that effervescing hissssssssss! which had awoken Michelle, came scurrying out of a crevasse or burrow none of us had noticed in the day. They trickled like an arachnid brook straight to and over the felled horse, feeding on it like some plump turkey; I could hardly see the poor animal anymore.
I felt a tingle zip up my spine and my mustache flexed horizontal.
“What is it, Phillip?” Michelle whisper-shouted.
I began to back away slowly, toward the horses: “Get your cousin and the Commodore, we need to find somewhere else to camp,” I said
“Why? What is it?”
“Sweetheart, you don’t want to know—just wake up the Commodore a—”
The horse under the spiders made one last screech and stumbled to its feet, shrieking in pain. I saw it tremble, and then its head separated from its body and bounced on the charred ground.
“God bless America!” I heard Marcus yell. He had stumbled out of his tent when he heard the commotion, apparently.
I turned: “We should probably get away from here,” I said. I jogged to the remaining three horses, untied them from the tree at the edge of the clearing and led them around back of the tents.
“Rendeck, we don’t want to travel at night—”
“We don’t want to stay put either, I don’t think.”
“It’s just a couple harmless bugs! Here,” he came over and grabbed my torch, threw it in the pile of spiders.
A shriek leapt from the arachnids and assaulted our ears, lasting about half a minute until the volume of spiders overcame the heat of the torch, and darkness reigned again.
A clump of darkness thicker than the rest began to move our way like mud on a hillside—apparently they weren’t too dumb to figure out which direction the attack had come from.
I stumbled back, Michelle screamed to match the spider’s pitch, and finally the Commodore struggled out of his tent in plaid pajamas, falling and taking the flimsy shelter down with him. “Crikey! Wha’s goin’ on out ‘ere?”
I was yelling at Marcus: “Those spiders are not harmless! Look what they did to Michelle’s horse!”
“I can’t see—”
“They practically ate it alive! We gotta get—”
“ ‘old on a sec’, fellas. Yeh sed spidehs ate an ‘orse?”
“Grab your gear, Commodore,” I replied.
I heard Michelle stifling sobs and rustling around in the tent behind as quickly as she could.
“No time feh that, mates! Get any guns yeh can and get on the ‘orses, c’mon—!”
“What do you know about this?” Marcus demanded.
“Hive spidehs. I only evah heard stories. Those are drones; the queen’s comin’. She’s your size, mate—ahhh-ah-AHH!!” Commodore Gibson yelped and danced suddenly, a gunshot went off. For a split second the entire clearing was illuminated in brightest light: like a pool, spreading in all directions, came the spiders. Spiders on spiders, tripping and falling over each other as they made exodus from the hole in the ground. There was a mound of them a little to the left—that was the remainder of the horse; they were going over it like land piranha.
“Little wankeh nea’ly bit me!” Ejaculated the Commodore, brushing at his leg once more before jumping into plaid trousers and trotting in a drunken amble our direction. He had a bottle in one hand, a rifle in the other, and his bent sun hat dangled behind his head on a strap.
I dove into the tent and grabbed Michelle by the arm: “Don’t worry about the stuff, there’s no time—”
“But—but all our things, and we’ve got to saddle the horses—”
“We’ll make do or be dead, c’mon!” I dragged her out seconds before I heard the scratchy sound of infinite angry arachnids tearing our tent. Marcus was on his horse, which was frothing at the mouth and incensed at not being able to gallop out of there immediately.
I helped Michelle onto the back of mine, then jumped up myself.
“There’s no saddle, Phillip!”
“Don’t worry about the saddle. We can come back for it in the morning; I doubt spiders have a taste for leather. Grab me tight—tight! Squeeze the horse with your knees, there you go—”
“Cut the chatteh, yanks! Follow me-e-eee!” The Commodore nearly fell from his horse as he yelled this, pointing his gun forward like a sword and gripping the animal’s flank with his knees to prevent a tumble.
Our horses whinnied and followed the Commodore’s. I turned back and fired a shot or two at the expanding circumference of spiders in spite, seeing little disturbances where the nasty creatures were become airborne and fell back among their onrushing peers. The hissing behind gradually subsided as we accumulated distance, and soon enough we found another clearing and the Commodore slowed to a stop. Wind had begun to shake the trees, by this time, and I seemed to remember seeing a mackerel sky before sunset…a storm on its way?
Marcus cleared his throat: “Alright, folks, we sleep here, with the horses tonight. We’ll go back for the things we couldn’t grab in the morning.”
“Suits me,” I said.
“We sleep…with the horses?” Michelle sounded dubious.
“They’ll notice danger, if there is any—ah, what’s…what’s this? Nasty! Ahgh!” A sticky, filmy, invisible substance had caught my arm. Like very fine but very strong hair.
“Rebid Joey inna billabong,” grunted the Commodore. “It’s web!”
“You feel it too?”
“EEE!” Michelle described our general opinion.
I looked behind—it was almost like a cloud. Visible in the night, no less. For a moment I thought it was that storm, coming on the wind; but I realized there was something…off about it…
More and more thread came on the breeze, doubtless with those marauding hive spiders attached to the high ends.
“Crikey,” cursed the Commodore. “It rains, it pours, it’s neveh easy. Looks like we don’t sleep tonight. C’mon, up the mountain, hyah!” He slapped his horse, leaning over its neck, doing his best to direct the animal.
It is a very dangerous thing to gallop in a rainforest in the dead of night; but the Commodore knew trails and pathways that I certainly had no inkling of. Marcus took off after him and I followed Marcus. I could feel Michelle burying her face into my shirt and trying not to sob. Her nails dug into my stomach. “It’s alright,” I said over my shoulder. “I’m here, sweetheart, we’ll be okay.”
“I’m—I’m sorry—!” I heard her cut herself off, a sob jumping out of her throat.
“Don’t wor—duck!—sorry about that, low-hanging branch. Don’t worry about it.”
“Phillip! Can you hear that?” She sounded suddenly alert.
“That…that beat! Drums—I think I hear drums. They’re getting louder!”
I was about to say I hadn’t noticed them at all when I, too, heard the deep reverberations. I leaned into the horse and urged it forward.
Marcus was just ahead of us. I saw him point toward the trees and say: “Commodore, do you see that glow?”
“Yeh, it’s Lake Murray. There’s a coupleh dozen tribes ’round ‘ere.”
“Do we really want to tangle with tribesmen—”
Michelle screamed like Satan copped a feel and one of her hands disappeared from around my waste: “Getitoff getitoff getitoff getitoff!”
I turned around as best I could. One of the spiders—a fat one the size of my fist—had landed on her shoulder and was running down her arm. I flicked it away with my left hand: “Did it bite you?”
“Oh Phillip! N-No…no it didn’t…”
“Just relax, then. You’re okay.”
“I told you you shoulda stayed at the boat, Michelle.” Braun grated.
Michelle’s mood put her in no condition to retaliate. She was gripping me tightly again.
Under thick and viney trees, we came over a rise, and there was a massive bonfire crackling in the middle of a large open area that had been cleared of jungle. I could see huts off in the distance, because there were torches illuminating them; but in the clearing were no structures, only the fire. And then I squinted and saw man-shapes dancing with the shadows of the flame as it cast itself out over the massive lake and back into the trees; and then I saw spears flying over and through the licking tendrils of fire, and I heard deep-voiced growls and screams—
“Gibson! It’s a damned war!” I yelled.
“They’ll peace-up in a minute, Ah’ll wageh,” He then called out loudly in a native dialect: “BOOLA-MONG BIDA SIMPLEH NOWSDA MONGA BEAN!”
“The hell did you just say?” Marcus sounded indignant.
“BOOLA-MONG BIDA SIMPLEH! MONGA BEAN! MONGA BEAN!”
“Oh, now I see.”
The deep-voiced yells tapered off with the drums, and I heard a baritone carry over the trees, yelling something that sounded like “konga ribasomes?” with a vibrato.
The Commodore pulled his horse into the clearing, bellowed out: “SHUGGA SHUGGA! SHUGGA SHUGGA!”
A dark chieftain with bony teeth in a necklace, wood piercing the septum between nostrils, massive earrings and a scant loincloth walked from the crowd gathered on one side of the bonfire beach. Another man whose hair was a mane, but who wore patched up trousers he’d bartered from somewhere in lieu of a loincloth, approached from the other side. They stood with the Commodore between them. We guided our horses into the clearing slowly, keeping our distance.
The Commodore was in a heated discussion: “Shimbaba holiphat, monga bean enduh corly nob—”
“Sidda sidda—hop yucka?” Asked the chieftain in trousers, cutting off the Commodore and proceeding to ignore him completely.
“Nimbo nimbo choka!” Replied Loincloth.
“Simbaka no haka, cheet!”
“Hula simbul twonga?”
They were getting agitated now. Loincloth said: “Yimba thinga majiga!”
“Whatcha mak all eet!” Trousers countered.
At this, Loincloth screamed and leapt at Trousers, who, equally incensed, jumped at Loincloth. They came together right in front of the Commodore’s horse and started rolling around, yelling cussing biting hitting and screaming at one another in a match to rival a couple rabid mountain lions in a closed room. I heard the drums start up again, and whoops and yells came from the respective tribes these fellows must have represented. The Commodore, meanwhile, had been trying to dissuade the men throughout the discussion, finally giving up when they fell to fighting again. He took the repeater rifle and fired into the air, twice.
Everybody screamed for a second, until the Commodore’s words registered and the beach became silent.
“Monga bean, counta-ropa! Monga bean!” Yelled the Commodore—he seemed so remarkably sober, of a sudden. As if in punctuation to his words, streamers of silk began to lazily fall from the sky, and I could hear the soft impact of landing spiders. “Monga bean?”
“Chu-wop simba molla bolla!” Yelled Trousers, getting up from the mud.
“Nenga, nenga. Moitey slumbed, unda monga bean co-TUSH!” Replied the Commodore seriously.
“Ahhhhhhhhh!” Said Loincloth with emotion that was either anger, fear, or some combination of the two. He was suddenly headed for his tribe in a hurry. He grabbed a young man from the group and dragged him back to the center of the clearing. “Hounda monta monga bean inda bolla shunga, ah?”
The young man could hardly grow a beard, much less speak without his voice cracking: “S-senda colap unda furma, monga bean! Senda colap!”
Loincloth wiped at something on his face, then looked at the sky and barred his teeth, then turned back to the young man and slapped him, screaming: “SUMBA CHUMBA WUMBA FUNK!”
A collective gasp reverberated across the beach/battlefield, and suddenly everybody was running; men, women, children—but not Trousers. He took a second to grab a handful of dirt, throw it on the fire, then turn and hiss at the other aborigines. Ritual completed, he turned and disappeared into the night. I thought both tribes were about to leave the beach for good, but I was entirely incorrect. They were running to retrieve torches and spears from their neighboring villages, then about-facing and sprinting back the way we had come, shouting a war-cry with their respective leaders at the fore. Whatever skirmish we had been witness to was all but forgotten; or at least put on indefinite sabbatical.
It was then that Marcus Braun’s horse whinnied sickeningly and its legs went out from under it. Marcus jumped clear at the last second.
The horse cried again and seemed to favor its front-left hoof. “What’s wrong, boy?” Braun asked, crouching down.
There was a massive discolored patch just over the knee. I pulled my horse closer—Michelle was still alive behind me; but she hadn’t been saying much, just holding on and trying not to shake. “He got bit,” I said.
“I see that,” Marcus replied, examining the wound.
“Ah wouldn’t worry too much abat it,” the Commodore broke in, wheeling his animal to come beside us.
“Not too serious?” I asked.
“No, very serious. It’s just beyond yeh ability to help. Those spidehs kill with a single bite, or so the villagehs seem to think. ‘Monga Bean’ means abat the same as ‘one hour’. It’s the tehm they use fer the spidehs.”
Michelle gasped behind and just about squeezed the wind out of me. I said to the Commodore: “That’s what all that yelling was about?”
“Eh, some of it. Those two were the village chiefs, I’m sure yeh figeh’d thet out. They were ectually in a tussle oveh some offense one committed against the otheh’s sisteh. All decades in the past—Ah’ve come up here often enough to know: it’s not really thet the tribes hate each otheh so much, it’s thet they don’t have Cricket. These little ‘wars’ are their weekly sportin’ event, so to speak. Anyway: what they were goin’ on abat were the spidehs. Apparently they torched the place night before last, tryin’ to get to the queen. Little bastids have been poachin’ villagehs afteh sundown fer a few months, now; causing skirmishes not so congenial as the one we sawr tonight—each tribe blames the otheh, yeh undehstend. When I told the boys thet the spidehs were out, and coming this way, it made ’em a little upset, and undehstendably so. Seems these tribes—and a few othehs arand this lake—declah’d war on the spidehs a long time ago. And thet’s why they all ran off: to bring the bettle to the enemy. I was gonna ask ’em if we might barteh lodgin’ here fer the night, but they were too excited fer me to get that much in.”
I could smell smoke now, I realized. Robust, acrid smoke. And I noticed that the air was slowly becoming thick with it.
The thread was falling faster and faster, and I heard a variety of sounds behind. I turned my horse around—flames were licking above the forest. “Sure burns easy, for being so wet,” I commented.
“I wonder if those savages realize the wind is blowing up the mountain toward the lake,” Braun said, then: “Commodore, I can see my horse is about finished. If you would be so kind as to let me on the back of yours?”
The Commodore turned, swore under his breath. “Alright, mate. C’mon…”
I felt Michelle loosen her grip. She said to me: “What do we do now?”
“Well…I figure we find somewhere to sleep, and then think about it with our heads on straight in the morning.”
“But our clothes, our things—”
“Are pro’lly on fire, now,” huffed the Commodore, and took a heavy drink from his bottle.
“Yes, that’s very comforting,” I replied. “But supplies or no, I’m not going home without a Winged Thylacene. I’ve survived in the wilderness with nothing but a knife and tenacity. I’ve got a gun now, and a number of other things—”
“HUMBANTA FEEEEN!” I heard a voice cry. The Commodore and I turned our horses at the same time, while the cousins Braun behind us craned necks over our shoulders to see what was going on.
It looked like a candle in the distance, slowly growing larger, larger, larger—
And then Loincloth shot past, hair on fire, screaming at the top of his lungs, absolutely covered in spiders. He kept screaming until he hit the water, and we heard a number of thrashing splashes, and then an eerie silence. I looked at the Commodore. He looked at me, we turned back to the forest.
Orange light flickered in the distance—the smoke was thicker and stronger. We began to hear staccato screams and unintelligible expletives echoing through the darkness. And then, I swear, I heard a tree come crashing down. Now birds were yelling and cursing at those wild imbeciles who had besmirched their nightly haunts, and a mad variety of creatures began to rush from the underbrush. Little cassowary pigs, lizards, a thing like a cat but with a nose much too long. I saw a panther come padding out. It hissed at my horse and I pulled back on the reigns, but the animal was in no hunting mood.
Then I saw—much to my chagrin—that a lot of these creatures had little dark spots on them, little clumps, little spiders.
Then the ground seemed to shake for just an instant, and I heard a hiss like the grand-daddy of ‘em all echo through the night.
“Ph-Phillip, I think we should get out of here,” Michelle said.
Marcus spoke up: “Michelle ain’t whistling Dixie. Commodore?”
That’s when a high-pitched raspy squeal shook the world, and the ground trembled once more.
“Marcus, why don’t you explain it to him while we ride?” I said, and wheeled my horse around, running him up the coast of the lake’s beach. It was broad and flat in this area, but I knew the going wouldn’t be so easy as we continued. I was going to tell Michelle to hold on tight, but I didn’t have to: she grabbed me automatically.
The bonfire gave light several hundred yards beyond the clearing, but it diminished soon. I stopped at the westernmost village and took a torch from an empty mud-and-thatch hut, using it to light our way. It was a thick torch, burning slow and bright.
As we continued forward, the beach dissipated until foliage came right up to the water, and there was no path to follow.
“Crikey, looka thet!” Said the Commodore. I turned my horse.
Half the world was on fire, and the stream of animals beating it out of the forest was getting larger and larger. I saw some of the villagers stumbling away, but there weren’t many.
On the shore of the lake were several dozen creatures. Some stumbled around drunkenly; most lay still. I knew, were I to look closer, that I would find spiders all over them, biting them, sucking out their innards.
“We should move to higher ground,” Braun said.
“Marcus is right,” Michelle threw in from behind. “We need… shelter… safety… out of the jungle, please, out of the jungle—”
“Keep yeh chin up, love,” the Commodore said, then turned his horse to me: “If we follow along the wateh, the forest recedes a bit, there’re meadows, some caves. We’ll heftuh go on foot, though. Too dangerous to ride at night, and we’ve gotta go halfway ’round the lake.”
“I guess we’ll do what we have to,” I said. “Everybody got a gun? Michelle, did you get a gun?”
“No…I left it in the tent.”
“Alright,” and I swung down, helping Michelle. Again she stayed in the middle, the Commodore took the front—and the torch—and Marcus and I led the horses at the rear.
Commodore Gibson had produced a machete from somewhere; he must’ve worn it strapped across his back, and I hadn’t noticed in our hasty flight from the spiders. Which brought a question to mind: “So you said you’d heard of hive spiders before, Commodore?”
“Eh? Oh, yeh. Thought it was tall tales. Or per’aps I misundehstood the word for ‘ant’.”
“What did you hear?”
“Thet they lived in groups and set up shop in the deepest, darkest parts o’ the jungle, and you’d betteh not get caught in a web, because you’d neveh get away.”
“And you thought those might be ants?”
“I neveh said I was sobeh et the time, mate—”
“HIMBALLAK CHICKA BRITSK!” Yelled a voice in the dark.
“CHICKA BRITSK!” It said again, more insistent this time.
Somewhere in the woods someone was threatening us. “Commodore, what did he say?” I asked.
“I dunno, neveh heard thet dialect before—”
“CHICKA BRITSK!” A spear hit a tree between me and the Commodore.
Marcus Braun turned and fired in the direction the spear came, flashbulbing the night. I saw shapes in the distance, heard a scream or two. The horses whinnied, spears started to fly at us—
“Phillip!” Michelle yelled.
I fired into the darkness, grabbed her around the waist, threw her up over the back of my horse, climbed on myself. She was in the front this time; a spear zipped past close enough it gashed my arm—
“GET OUT OF HERE MATES!” The Commodore yelled. Now he had a pistol and a repeater rifle—where had the handgun come from? And he couldn’t have but ten rounds left between the two, I was sure of it; but he didn’t seem to care.
I slapped my horse on the rump and it started to move: “Hold on tight—”
But I didn’t have to say it. We were both gripping the animal’s neck with all our strength as it ran into the darkness. There was no way to direct the beast, and neither of us tried. The idea was to escape, and that we would do.
I don’t know how long the animal ran, only that by the time it was finished, the others were nowhere to be seen, and it was me and Michelle and the horse, alone in the dark.
The good news was: we had discovered a clearing.
— The Separation—
“I’ll build a fire,” and I did, Michelle by my side the whole time, holding my gun and looking around fearfully. The horse had lain down and watched us placidly.
It took me a good fifteen minutes to get one going—quite impressive in a climate so moist. The air where we were was noticeably dryer, that was for sure. I knew we were in the low mountains, yet; thankfully the horse hadn’t taken us backwards.
“I’m worried about Marcus,” Michelle said. It was half a sob. “And…t-the Commodore…” That one was a full sob.
I put my arm around her, pulled her close and ran my hand gently over her matted orange hair. “Don’t worry so much; if I know Marcus, he’ll figure something out. And the Commodore isn’t helpless.”
“But what if that tribe—and those shrunken heads—oh, Phillip!”
“I said don’t worry about it so much, sweetheart. There’s nothing we can do where we’re at right now but look after our own skins. These things…they pan out, you know?”
She sniffed. “Yeah…?”
“It’s just…just life. All part of the hunt. Don’t think I’m happy—we’ll have to scratch this expedition, and I didn’t get within spitting distance of the Winged Thylacene.”
An animal cried in the night, as if in punctuation. It scared the horse, who stood up and began snorting, eyes looking around wildly.
“Shutup, you!” I yelled at the faceless creature of the night.
Michelle managed a giggle.
“See? Just don’t think too much about it, worry about the here and the now, and how we’re going to get back. You’ve got me. I’ve had to go it alone in the jungle before. I’ll get us back safe.” Even as I said it I was feeling in the pockets of my trousers, taking inventory. I had twelve cartridges for the repeater rifle, a fold-out knife, a pistol with another four shots, a Pist-O-Liter—which I had used to get the fire going—some mashed up cigarettes, a small flask of burgundy, and the shirt on my back.
“What’re you doing?” Michelle asked.
“Just seeing what I’ve got to work with.”
“Oh,” she said. And leaned into me, staring at the flames.
Whatever that animal was screamed again; a high-pitched, echoing sound, like an eagle but not quite. The horse snorted and stamped his hooves. “Settle, boy,” I said over my shoulder. “Just settle down.”
A half hour went by, I fed the fire with bits of grass and wood that I could find. In the distance, I saw the glowing eyes of a number of nocturnal menaces, but they stayed just beyond the firelight and came no closer.
I yawned and said something to Michelle. She didn’t respond, so I looked down and realized that somewhere along the line, the poor girl had fallen asleep. I felt uncommonly soft, then—for a gentleman. I think my mustache even lost its curl. I had an internal laugh at myself as I pictured the ends of it drooping, then I sighed, and very carefully laid Michelle down, giving her my shirt as a pillow. I had to take a leak something horrible, and I figured it wouldn’t be an appropriate thing to do right there.
I walked a few yards away, unbuttoned my trousers, and thought. The truth was, I’d never been in a situation quite like this before. The hunting party had never been disbanded as such before the hunt began. I was at a bit of a loss, and frightened at least as much as Michelle was for Marcus and the Commodore. But the words I had given her were true: I had no idea how to help them, and crying about it certainly wouldn’t do us any good.
That infernal creature yelled again, the night eagle or whatever it was. I mumbled at it to shut up, even as something tickled the back of my mind. It seemed I’d heard that cry somewhere before, or something like it. There was an inkling—on the tip of my tongue, at the edge of memory…I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
A breeze kicked up, I heard it whooshing through the trees—
Abruptly the horse screamed and I heard it galloping away. Our mode of travel! I yelled and turned around, hastily buttoning my fly—
Shadows eclipsed the fire. I saw a massive, massive silhouette, outlined by flame, dark as the night. It had swooped down on Michelle.
It took me half a second to realize what I was seeing, and when I did it all came to me in a flash: Lankey had said they liked fires, and that they liked the wounded, and what was that lying there like a tray at a buffet but the unconscious Michelle?
“GET BACK!” I screamed, and I had my pistol out and I shot at the beast—the legendary Winged Thylacene, coming to me before I even had a chance to stalk it! To hunt it! To kill it!
It screamed that high-pitched eagle’s cry again: “KOR! KOR KOR!” And it was airborne, Michelle dangling by an ankle in one gnarled and black claw. She came awake, then; and my, could she scream. I’ve never heard a sound quite like it. I took aim at the creature, got a bead on it’s wing—
“I wing him, he fall down and my brudda die in de fall…”
“Damnit, Lankey!” I swore under my breath, and the Slarg disappeared into the darkness with Michelle, leaving me alone in a field in the middle of the night in the middle of the New Guinea rainforest, two hundred miles from the coast and Queen Edith, all by myself.
— Leap of Faith—
I jogged after the flying beast until I came to the edge of the clearing, but I’d already lost sight of it. I followed on a ridge between trees for a little while, chasing the screams—
But soon they, too, faded away into the night.
I cursed and swore and fairly panicked for the first time I can remember.
Then I went back to the fire, and I sat, and I thought. There wasn’t a lot I could do, here. I had no way of signaling Braun or the Commodore, and for all intents and purposes, they were probably dead. I was on my own.
I heard the whip-crack cry of the slarg again. “KOR! KOR KOR KOR! KOR!”
“Shut UP!” I screamed, following the exclamation point with several shades of profanity a gentleman wouldn’t commit to writing.
But I am a gentleman. And my mind, it works fast. I realized, if I could still hear it, then the slarg could likely still see me, and the bonfire. And an idea came.
The creature had struck when I was away from Michelle for only a minute or two—it doesn’t take that long to drain your lizard. Perhaps…perhaps it was clever?
I began to limp, and to make gibberish noises, and to move slower and slower; and finally I let myself fall in the deep grasses, splayed out like a corpse. I had my repeater rifle beneath me, and I had retrieved my shirt from where it had acted as Michelle’s pillow. I patted myself down, making sure I had everything else, then waited.
I don’t know if ten minutes or three hours went by. I seem to have nodded off in the middle somewhere—
But I felt wind on my neck and came awake instantly, gripping the gun. Sharp needles closed around my foot, and the ground suddenly retreated. I began to struggle, but the beast only pecked at me. It…pecked at me. Somehow…somehow I didn’t imagine that was the behavior a Winged Thylacene ought to have—wouldn’t it bite at me?
The creature had me upside down. From my vantage I could see for miles—out to the coast, I expect. I couldn’t tell. That blaze the villagers had nurtured in order to murder the spiders was still going strong; an ever-expanding circle of rouge and yellow, maybe three miles behind us.
I would have shot the creature right then and there; bagged my prize—but I had to find Michelle, and it was my plan to let the beast lead me to it’s cave, if indeed I had encountered the same slarg. Also, I wondered how well the thing could crash-land if I fired at it point-blank.
Then I heard shouts, loud shouts, and gunshots, and I managed to twist myself around—
There came the Commodore, out of the forest, Marcus saddled backward on the horse and strapped against him with a belt. Fire was following them from the wood, it seemed; and I realized that Marcus was shooting at a pursuing tribe, and the Commodore was whipping the horse faster and faster, trying to escape. His horse must have followed the trail of mine.
I was in a daze. It took me a minute to even realize what was going on, then I did, and I screamed, and I yelled: “COMMODORE! MARCUS! COMMODORE!” I fired one round into the ground—because I was upside-down, of course. I’m not sure if they heard me or not, but I think they did. I saw the Commodore steering the horse my direction—
But apparently my shot had frigthtened the slarg, because it screeched and wheeled around, and the welcome sight of my companions was replaced with darkness. They were gone in the night, so far away, so far away…
And the monster stole me to its lair.
— Realm of the Slarg—
It got cold fast; that’s how I knew we were very high indeed. The fire had dwindled to a speck, and then I lost it, and there were only stars eclipsed by the oscillating dark shadow that held me. It would snap at me on occasion, when the winds allowed it to. I usually knocked its head away with my gun—it felt skinnier than I expected. In my mind I saw a heavily muscled neck and a squat face and skull; but my gun told a different story. A head no wider than my leg, perhaps. Narrow—and there was a ridge on the back of the skull. Or a protuberance of some type—my gun was caught on it several times.
Light, coming from somewhere—I twisted around. Was it dawn? How long had we fled the spiders? How long had I waited as bait for Michelle?
But all I saw was darkness—
There was another bright flash, and I realized there was no sunrise on approach, lightning was chasing us.
I heard the creature KOR!, and realized it was cursing the approaching storm. I twisted around to get a better look at my captor, but still could not.
I did, however, see a number of dark holes against a craggy mountainside, and realized it was the caves that were our destination. The slarg didn’t flap its wings much; it tended to glide, doubtless riding the thick hot air that came from the forest in heated currents.
A tendril of blue zipped by us not a hundred yards away, the sound shockwave putting a little English on the slarg’s spin. It recovered itself quickly, and I got over the shock of the thunder—but not of that glimpse I had been given of the creature gripping me.
But no, it had been a trick of the night—it couldn’t be that different! There wasn’t some other beast flapping around New Guinea entirely different from the kor, but making the same noises!
I couldn’t think much more on it. Rock was rushing at us fast, of a sudden. I put my hands up to ward off an impact, but needn’t have bothered: abruptly I was spinning through the air like a man-shaped wheel; I barely kept hold of my gun. With a sudden crash I impacted a pile of old and fresh bones. The fall hurt, but not as much as I expected—perhaps because adrenaline had replaced my blood, by this time. I coughed and jumped to my feet: “Michelle? You in here?”
There was no answer—
“Boola Maka-rayna?” Somebody cried. Whoever it was, he didn’t sound healthy.
I went toward the voice, but couldn’t see anything in the darkness. “Who’s there?”
“Imbad! Imbad!” Sobbed the voice, then began to cough.
I heard a screech, then, as of nails on a chalkboard, and something rustling through the bones, and then I heard the voice scream and scream and scream. It made chills sprint my spine and my mustache do the hokey shuffle as goosepimples played with all the whiskers I’ve got.
The man was rasping, ranting and weeping now, and his cries reached a crescendo—
Then there was a sickening wet CRUNCH!, and I heard nothing more.
I had my gun at the ready, I made my way over the bones, fished out my lighter—
Pink. They were pink as those neon lights you see in New York and London, in the fashionable rich districts. Almost glowing. The size of a large dog, but terribly skinny; wings not fully developed, bones stretched taught against their bright bright skin. They had no fur on their bodies, and though the claws and wings were the same as the creature I remembered seeing in Lankey’s shop, I knew the body and face were entirely different. For one thing, it wasn’t a cat/wolf/bear; it was a long, skinny bird’s head devoid of feathers with a lengthy beak filled with serrated edges several inches long. A bony flap—likely cartilage—stretched from the backs of their heads, and they each had a tail, a little, pink, nasty tail that was always erect and flat like an eel. Probably an aerial rudder, I reflected.
Whatever they were, though—they weren’t Winged Thylacenes…
They were Pterosaurs.
I didn’t have a long time to think about all the implications stemming from this new bit of knowledge. It only took seconds for the infant slargs—or pterodactyls, or whatever they were—to notice me holding a flickering lighter in their faces. They turned from their ghastly meal—an injured native, it turned out; now dead—and hissed at me. Their cries of “Kor! Kor Kor!” weren’t yet matured, but instead were very high-pitched, like the song of an infant avian contrasted against that of an adult bird. But they were much faster than a helpless nest-bound fowl. Four of them, chowing down on aborigine tartare, suddenly looked at me with wicked little black eyes and jumped, covering the eight feet between us with awkward little flaps.
I didn’t hesitate. I took a bead on the nearest one and blew its head to kingdom come with an expletive that wasn’t gentlemanly, but made my ‘stache twitch in approval. This is when I realized—belated, I know—that we were in a cave; as the sound of the gun was so overpowering loud I thought I’d never hear the same again. But this was a bit of luck for me, as the remaining infant pterodactyls smacked into each other, the ground, and then ran around rather comically squawking and hissing, utterly bamboozled by the sound of my rifle. I took inventory of my remaining cartridges—I’d fired at the mother/father beast that had nabbed Michelle earlier, taken a shot at the ground when I saw the Commodore and Marcus Braun, and just now I’d ended one of the little pink devils with maximum prejudice. I should have nine shots—huh. Only eight, and four for the pistol. Had I missed one somewhere?
Either way it was twelve total, and all I had besides was the foldout knife. Well, I armed myself with it and jumped over the bones deeper into the monster’s lair. “MICHELLE!” I yelled. “MICHELLE!!!”
No answer but my own echoing voice. Well, I’d have to check—maybe she was unconscious. I ran to the dead native; the three infant slargs—pterodactyls—were still hopping and yipping around in confusion, I’d really deafened them. One of them waddled toward me and I kicked it in the face, feeling the CRUNCH! of hollow skeleton and grinning in satisfaction. Grabbing at cloth around the dead man’s shoulders, I constructed a crude torch by wrapping it around a bone that looked bleached, then lighting it. The fire frightened the baby pterosaurs sufficiently that they backed away from me—and there was a flash of blue!
I looked behind, heard rain pitter-patter at the mouth of the cave as the BOOM! came belatedly.
Deeper into darkness, back back back—when the infants came too close I shooed them away with the torch. It was clear to me now why these winged demons only took the wounded: they were teaching their progeny to fend for themselves in the great big world; they wanted the infants to learn to kill. And mankind had the steepest learning curve. Or something. It made sense at the time, anyhow.
The cave reached a dead-end another thirty feet back and I swore, turning around and running back where the infant slargs were.
There was another flash of lightning, another belated boom; then several flashes came rapid-fire, creating an effect that seemed to slow time for an instant. The mouth of the cave was empty, it was clear—then a massive black shape blocked the entire entrance, and I quickly doffed the torch.
I realized, then, that whatever monster Lankey had captured had been either sickly or young. Because the beast ahead was the size of a giraffe—I know; I’ve killed a few. It stood at least twenty feet tall, and had wings that probably spanned more than thirty, though they were tucked in as it waddled into the cave and threw, with its left claw, another injured human toward the bone-pile at the center.
“YEH WICKED PILE O’ BLOODY FILF!”
“COME BACK AN’ FIGHT! YAH!”
BANG BANG BANG—
“KORRRR!” Cried the flying lizard. It had been either hit or grazed by the shots, and had so flapped out of the cave. Now it came back to protect its young with a vengeance, screaming, all teeth, waddling with a purpose and black as the night. I guess they quit being pink when maturity came.
I heard the newcomer scramble madly over the bones, yelling: “REDNECK! MICHELLE! IF EITHER OF YOU ARE IN HERE—”
I answered with my gun, waiting until the creature passed right near me, then sending a bullet through its man-sized head at point-blank range, my barrel touching its chin and firing the second I felt my gun hit resistance.
There was a hissing shriek, and then I realized my error. Creatures don’t just die, even if you put a bullet right through the brain. There’s blood pumping and electrical signals that contort the nervous system. The long and short of it is: when you kill an animal suddenly like that, it’ll usually flop around like a fish out of water, grunting and hissing and generally making a fool of itself in the death-throes.
The thing was, this pterodactyl/slarg was the size of a giraffe, and its greater extremities filled most the cavern. One of its massive wings caught me and tossed me like a kitten clear out of the cave. I was airborne for a count of three, then realized there was a sheer drop below me, and I was about to be a pile of dead however many God-awful thousands of feet below. I dropped the gun, heard it clatter in the mouth of the cave, and scrabbled like mad against the edge of the cliff-face, barely managing to catch a hold on the slippery limestone or granite or whatever it is that makes up craggy mountain caves. My legs hung free over a drop that yawned I don’t know how far. I felt myself slipping, falling, screaming—
The Commodore caught my hand a second before I would have been history, and he hauled me up one-armed and stood me on the edge of the cliff. “Close call, Redneck,” he said. “Here,” and handed me a bottle.
I took it and swallowed three or four massive gulps of fiery liquor that went down smoother than water from an icebox. “It’s ‘Rendeck’, and thanks,” I said. Then: “Wait a minute; how the hell did you get up here?”
“Same way you did, Ah ‘spect. Played ‘possum an’ got picked up.”
“Sent him back to the coast with me ‘orse. Told ‘im Ah’d ‘andle this—but it’s a good thing yeh still cognizant; Ah’da bought it, if not for you.”
“Well, same here,” I said.
“We’re even. Now, let’s find Michelle.”
“Crikey, Ah dunno. Ah ‘spect she’s in one o’ these caves, though.”
God decided to be expository for a moment by illuminating the scene with several
staccato flashes that were fireworks in the sky. By the light of the lightning I realized our cave was only one of many, stretching up the side of a craggy peak like some massive beehive.
“Oh,” I said.
“Well, we’d betteh get stahted,” said the Commodore.
And we did.
The situation in the other caves was much the same as that of the one our captor brought us to: bones, babies, and wounded animals/aborigines. We didn’t find any men froggy enough to come with us; the few that were alive could hardly move. I did ‘em a favor by slapping around the wicked little pterosaurs that fed on their dying remains, but there wasn’t much else I could do. I put the fear of God and man in those little brutes, though, I’ll tell you that right now.
It was a bother having to make a new torch with each cave; the storm outside kept putting the one I held out. But eventually dawn decided to help us out a little—it chased away the clouds and sunshine came right at us, which told me the caves faced due east.
We searched each cave-mouth thoroughly. Michelle wasn’t in most of them, and luckily none went deep into the mountain. It was almost as if the massive pterodactyls were responsible for the caves themselves. Which, considering the massive, flat, bony beaks at the front of their heads, could totally be the case. If a woodpecker can drill a tree, I suppose a pterodactyl can chisel a cliff.
Some of the ledges outside the caverns were rather scant, and once or twice the Commodore and I had to improvise ropes from scraps of cloth and flotsam left in the caves. We didn’t encounter too many adults; when we did, fire and bullets either scared them off or flabbergasted them enough to keep their distance.
We had been at the search for about two hours, when finally I heard the commodore yell something at me, and I ran into the darkness of a cave mouth—
She was dead.
Actually, she wasn’t dead. I just thought she was—had you going, didn’t I? Michelle was covered head-to-foot in blood, and there was a tribesman that was mostly an empty carcass, gutted down the middle, to her side. The infant pterosaurs really favored the meat of internal organs, I suppose. In any event, they had made no effort at cleanliness as they consumed their mom-brought meals, and had dripped and spread blood all over the place. Add to that the sweat and wet of an already stormy night, plus a healthy faint at the magnitude of a situation such as Michelle’s, and it was easy to see why she looked like a corpse.
But none of these details impressed themselves on me immediately, besides her lifeless and still form amidst the bones and corpses. I screamed, I’ll admit, and went into a bit of a berserker rage, ending three infant pterosaurs with nothing but my hands and chutzpah. Vicious and savage, I know. Very ungentlemanly. Later, the Commodore told me my mustache lost its shape in the rampage.
At the time, I didn’t care. It was, however, the Commodore who caught me about the tenth time I battered the corpse of an infant slarg with my mud-soaked boot. “Mate, it’s dead. And she ain’t, look.”
“Michelle—what? Not…not dead?”
“Naw, mate. Unconscious, but not dead. Look. She’s breathin’.”
I crouched down, held our newest torch close—yes, there was a rise and fall to her breast. She was alive! “Thank you God!” I cried.
“Yeh, thet’s it,” said the Commodore. “Now the next question is: how in the wide world do we get outta’ here?”
That’s when Momma slarg flapped into the cave. And immediately knew something was rotten in the state of Denmark.
She hissed and KORRRR!’d with a hatefulness that made my blood run cold. I raised my gun—
“Careful, mate, I got an idea,” said the Commodore.
“Well spit it out!”
The rope we had made to aide our transit between caves was in Commodore Gibson’s hands. About twenty feet of the improvised stuff—made from cloth and rags and what have you. Not terribly strong, but strong enough. “Distract the mum,” he said.
“You ‘eard me,” and he began tying knots in it.
“Sort somethin’ out!”
The pterosaur hissed and hopped my way, swinging its wing in a wide arc and biting at me. I ducked and rolled, foldout knife in hand. I stabbed one of its feet and it screamed, turning on me in the early-morning sunshine.
The slarg’s size worked against it, however. It was too large to maneuver in its burrow like I could. I ran around the other side, stabbing and slashing as I went. It caught me with its right wing and flung me against the wall, holding me there and about to impale me with its beak, but I slashed one of its claws clean off and it howled in rage.
“GOT IT, MATE!” Yelled the commodore.
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I rolled and ran back his direction.
“Grab the Sheila,” he said, then swung the rope around his head like a cowboy and noosed the monster.
“Been to the Old West when I wasn’t looking?” I asked.
“Crikey, Austraila invented roping!” Replied the Commodore with a laugh, then pulled at the rope, yanking the beast’s head toward the ground.
Of course, it was much stronger than the Commodore was.
I had Michelle in my arms. “What now?”
“Eh—” He was abruptly swung into a wall, and it winded him. This wasn’t quite enough to quit the Commodore, though. He yanked hard on the rope and the beast’s head brushed the floor. Coughing, the Commodore yelled: “Get on it’s back, mate! Hold it down!”
“Get on it’s back!”
I didn’t let myself think about it. I put down Michelle, ran around behind, leapt and landed full-bodied across the creature’s back. It screamed at me, but I wrapped my arms around its neck and held on for dear life.
“Now tie yehself onto ‘im with the rope!” Yelled the Commodore.
“You ‘eard me!” And he let go the rope.
I did as he commanded, as best I could. The slarg tried to bite me off its shoulders, but couldn’t quite reach. I still had the foldout knife in my left hand; if it got too close I’d cut the bastard. Well, it was probably just a mother, I suppose, so I guess bastard isn’t exactly the right term. Anyway that’s all irrelevant: I managed to get the rope wrapped and knotted around myself. “NOW WHAT?” I yelled.
But the commodore was nowhere in sight—
Then I realized he’d picked up Michelle over his shoulder—still unconscious, hanging like a sack of potatoes—ran around behind me, and jumped several feet into the air. He came down hard on the creature’s back and it screamed and whoofed. I think he knocked the wind out of it. “Backatcha, kor!” He said, chuckling. Then he put Michelle between me and him. We were just behind the creature’s head, between neck and shoulder-blades. “Rope me in, mate!” He said.
I had to untie my own knots and get him and Michelle in, but I managed it; despite the creature’s bucking.
I had two shots left in the pistol at my side; I’d abandoned the rifle several caves ago. “We’re flying back, I take it?”
“Amen, mate,” said the Commodore.
“Okay then.” I fired into the cave, flinching at the loud sound.
This had the desired effect: it scared the bejesus out of the pterosaur and the creature back-pedaled as fast as it could, all emotion from the loss of its progeny forgotten. It plummeted backward out of the cave, headed down the cliff-face, turning slowly, wings expanding in an exaggerated field of syrup time, slowed by adrenaline coursing through me so fast and hard I couldn’t hear my own blood-curdling scream.
The Commodore’s arms gripped me around the waist, and I could feel Michelle’s unconscious body pressed firmly between us. I gripped the beast’s neck as tight as I could with my left hand. My right held the knife and the rope.
I don’t know how many thousands of feet swept past us; but I did see the ground coming up very fast, covered in green, and I had just time enough to doubt the Commodore’s flawless planning and begin to think I was about to meet Jesus and he wasn’t going to be too happy with my life’s conduct. Then the creature widened its wings, turned its head, and flattened out into a glide hardly six feet above jungle that retreated down the mountainside in a tight slope.
“WHOO-HOO-HA-HA!” Yelled the Commodore, then I felt one of his hands go away, heard him whoop again, and he was nudging me with his bottle: “ ‘Ave a drink, mate?”
“I’m a little busy at currrrrrRRRRAAAAHHH!” The pterosaur turned steeply to its left, brought its wings in, and the entire world spun. I heard the major curse and saw the bottle spinning slowly end-over-end toward the forest canopy so close below as time took another raincheck and left us in slow motion. The brute was trying to shake us off! Understandable, I suppose; we had murdered its children, commandeered its person, and sat heavily on its back, drinking and carrying on. Still, I felt affronted. I had the foldout knife in my left hand, yet, and decided it was time to use it. I slashed deep into the pterosaur’s neck. It KORR’d loud, and the world quit spinning.
“BLARRGH!” said the Commodore, followed by: “Crikey, dem thing’s got my ‘ead spinnin’—”
“I think…I think I can just—NO! Take that!” I cut the other side of the creature’s neck, and it righted again. It had been turning the other way, about to pull its wings in and do another tight spin aimed at bucking us off. Now it headed over the trees, cawing and flapping and generally unhappy.
I heard a loud scream behind, and looked over my shoulder—
Another pterosaur was coming in quick, claws outstretched, fire in its eyes. I think it was the mate of our mount, I’m not sure; but it was obvious our Kor had called for help, and here was another to the rescue.
“God bless America,” I yelped, slashing at the creature’s neck as swift as I could.
This made it flinch, and it banked just as the other would have grabbed me in its claws and tossed me to the trees.
Which was unfortunate for the would-be rescuer, as it screwed up the creature’s approach and made it smack into a tree, kicking up a thousand leaves and a flock of birds.
No more attackers came.
“Good thinkin’, mate,” mumbled the Commodore behind. He sounded a little sick.
“Yeah,” I said, eyes forward, muscles straining, sweat dripping into my eyes from the harsh morning sun.
And onward we flew.
I managed to train the creature, however crudely. If it turned too much to the left
or right, it got a sharp cut. If it tried to shake us, I cut it. If it got too close to the trees, I cut it. If it got too high, I stabbed until it dropped again. The beast was losing a lot of blood, soon enough; but it was my slarg, and I’d bring it in dead or alive.
We continued thus for about half an hour, then Michelle stirred behind me, moaned, yelped, and suddenly gripped me like tomorrow would never come—which, to be fair, may have been the case. “PHILLIPWHEREAREWE—AAAAAAHHH!”
“It’s exactly what it looks like!” I called over my shoulder. “Don’t look down!”
“I can’t not look down—! Who’s that behind me, Commodore?”
“Oy, love,” he said.
“Ah sent ‘im back to the coast,” said the Commodore.
“Where are we?”
“Almost to the coast!” I said. For I could see it now—and there, probably two miles ahead, was our little town; the one where my Queen Edith was moored.
It took some clever maneuvering to get the beast angled right and convince it to land—it wanted a tree, but I made it aim for a clearing just out of town, scaring the reason out of about fifteen locals working a sugar field.
The slarg/pterosaur came in fast, tried to pull up short and shake us off, succeeding as the Commodore grabbed Michelle around the waist, cut his line with the machete he still carried, and jumped.
I gripped the improvised reigns I had tied around the creature’s neck: “Not today, sweetheart,” I said, pulled out my pistol and put one right through the back of its head.
It writhed crashed, rolled, convulsed, seized up, and fell lifeless to the field, twitching and bleeding and dead.
I crawled coughing from the wreckage, shook my head, and stood from the beast, staggering and trembling, wiping sweat from my forehead and cleaning my hands on what remained of my shirt.
I stumbled over to Michelle and the Commodore: “How was your flight?” I asked.
Michelle, she hugged me tight, and surprised me with a kiss on the mouth which wasn’t in the least shy. “The Commodore said you came for me,” she said. “And that he came for you.”
“Well, I’m not kissing the Commodore,” I said.
The Commodore laughed at this until we both joined in, and then fell to the empty field in utter hysteria while the awestruck locals looked on.
— Epilogue Stuff—
Marcus Braun made it to town several days after we did, and from his appearance had a much rougher return journey than we, as startling as that may sound. He was dumbfounded to find us, but quite happy.
We found a good taxidermist for the beast, and had them do it up righteous. It looked downright beautiful when all was said and done.
I got the word out via telegram about what I’d accomplished and captured; we sojourned in New Guinea a good four months, after that; living high on the hog and avoiding the jungle like it was a puff-adder and we a shrill old woman.
A number of well-to-do figures came from mainland Australia, and there were even a few that caught steamers out our direction just to see this magnificent beast. But in the end, they decried it as a hoax, saying things like: “Yes, but the pterosaur went extinct several million years ago, old son. You couldn’t fool us so easily.”
“But this one isn’t extinct—if you like, I can show you his home!”
“I’m sure you could, old boy. A cave doctored up with every convincing extravagance you can muster, no doubt. And utterly real, to the untrained eye. But I know a hoax when I see one. First-rate work, but this creature would stand in the face of all modern science! It would tear the theories on which we’ve built so much to rubble, and that is surely intolerable.”
“Perhaps some new theories are in order?” I suggested.
The gentleman laughed at me.
Most of my conversations with “learned” individuals were very similar to that one—which I’ve scrapped together from the great number of arguments and debates my “New Guinea Slarg” generated.
Lankey showed up and admired it at one point, I remember it was a Tuesday. He came up to me and laughed, and slapped me on the back, and said: “You got you de slarg, white boy. Heh-hah! Goodness gracious, he a big one.”
“She, actually—though I guess it doesn’t matter. Lord knows I’ve called it a ‘he’ often enough.”
“How you know dis one a ‘she’?”
“I was in its cave,” I replied, running a hand over my hair.
“Is dat right!” Lankey whistled low.
A thought struck me: “Say, Lankey; what’s up with the one you’ve got in your shops? It doesn’t look the least bit like mine.”
“Heh-hah! You been talkin’ to de big-wig white boys?”
“What dey say?”
“They say I’m putting on a hoax.” I was unable to keep the resentment from my voice.
“Heh-hah! You see? You show dem de trut’, dey no know what to do.”
“So you’re telling me that you…doctored yours up, to make it more believable?”
“You quick one, white-boy, Heh-hah! Dat’s right.”
“So you make it a hoax, and they take you seriously…but you tell the truth, and they call it a hoax?”
“Bull’s eye, Mistuh Rendeck. Bull’s eye.”
We discussed other things for a while after that, nothing worth recording here.
In the end, we left New Zealand with a trophy the commercial world calls a hoax, though I have submitted here the events as they happened; unbelievable though they may be. I can’t say I’m terribly incensed, however. The kor, or slarg, or pterosaur—whatever you call it. It may not exactly be a dragon, though it was close enough for my tastes.
Marcus paid me a percentage of the potential profit garnered from his dickering with Lankey, and Michelle and I were married. I said this was a love story, didn’t I? Well, not exactly. Michelle and I, you understand, we didn’t have the greatest romance in the world, though there were steamy moments. It was quite average, to be honest. Really, what I meant when I called this memoir a love story was a relationship that I have had with the hunt all my life. That is my one true romance, and this was our divorce. Or perhaps our climax—yes, I like that better. Our glorious end. For after the slarg, I had no more desire to hunt and kill wild beasts. How could I? I’d scaled the mountain, and there were none higher. I still enjoy gentlemanly activities, but I no longer feel a need to conquer the beasts. I wonder that I did in the first place—after all, it’s a bit of an unfair fight, isn’t it? A man, who has his mind and faculties, against a beast that wants nothing more than to eat, mate, and be left alone. I admit I feel ashamed at myself for my killings, in retrospect. What purpose did they really serve, except to validate my own itching sense of unfulfilment?
In any event, this episode marked an end to my sporting days, and the beginning of my life with Michelle. You may be wondering, at this point, what happened to the Commodore?
I’ve saved that for last.
Seems he really enjoyed that crazy flight from the mountains to the mainland, nausea or no, and spent the remainder of his days chasing the slargs on their home turf. There was an expedition composed of himself and some dozen Aussies previously employed in the protection of that wild southern continent. It left for the New Guinea mountains on an expedition in 1914, five years after our own and several years before the breakout of that great war which changed the world. No one has heard from Commodore Gibson since, which is a great tragedy. I like to imagine him drinking a bottle of stout liquor and riding the neck of a screeching beast, banking and spinning and accelerating and climbing and soaring through the clear blue tropical skies.
It is a pity, though. I never did find out why he wore so much plaid.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Kevin Bennett 2016