"Battling" Barney Calhoun in
by "Doc" R.B. Danby
Chapter Seven - The Temple of the Bat-Men
Around them the thick, sultry jungle closed in, creeper-strangled branches reaching out for them like clawing hands of death, the sunlight intermittent as it tried to breach the roofs of the trees. The river was narrow enough in spots that Barney could hear the nerve-lashing scrape of branches against the hull as they moved up the tributary.
The pounding of jungle drums reverberated in the muggy air.
On deck stood the two Chinese sailors, rifles at the ready, eyeing the surrounding jungle.
"What's the point of the drums?" muttered Barney. "Surely everyone knows we're coming by now, eh?"
"The drums are to scare us away," answered Rashad, standing at his shoulder.
"Why? We're bringing their damn figurine back to 'em."
Rashad glanced at him, surprised. "You misunderstand. The drums are not those of the worshippers of the Bat-Men, but rather the work of local tribesmen -- head-hunters. They have no love for the Bat-Men, nor any who would truck with them."
"Great," muttered Barney ruefully. He glanced over as Arlene Wentworth entered the pilot house. She was dressed sensibly in a safari-style outfit of a shirt and khaki jodhpurs with knee high boots. A gun belt hugged her hips.
"It's so dark," she whispered.
"The river's narrow here, princess," Barney explained. "We're practically sailing through the jungle itself."
And after that, they fell silent, the heat and darkness, mixed with the pulse of drums, rendering all words pointless.
And then, at last, Seth Rashad leaned forward and, barely able to restrain an excited tremble in his voice, he said, "There."
Barney squinted...and his pulse skipped a beat.
Straddling the river was a massive, man-made arch, erected out of some weathered stone, who knew how many centuries before. Vines and creepers snaked across the stone facade, the jungle asserting its unchallenged dominion, creating an image of a giant spider's web stretched across the river. At the very apex of the arch was a sinister carving of a grotesque figure that appeared half-bat, half-man, just like the jade carving Arlene Wentworth had shown him for the first time a few days before. Barney resisted a shudder.
"Stay on your toes," he called in Mandarin to the two sailors. Though he had long since concluded the two men had another agenda, an agenda laid out for them by their true boss, Daimon Farnsworth, for the time being, everyone on board the Lucky Anne was united in a common goal. Survival.
Unconsciously opening the throttle a little, he sent the Lucky Anne hurrying, as if wanting to get it over with before he lost his nerve. The boat cruised determinedly through the gaping maw of the arch, momentarily plunged into night-like blackness, before emerging on the other side.
"My God," whispered Arlene.
The river widened here, almost like a small lagoon, then narrowed again as it disappeared into a hewed out channel beneath a huge temple that sprawled sullenly before them, blocking all further advancement up the river. Seen in the tropical twilight it was a grey, ugly structure, all of clashing, jagged out-crops and Cyclopean blocks. It rose up above them, three or four stories high, the empty chasms of high set windows like the hollow eyes of a mouldering skull. Here too the jungle encroached, sending snaking vines creeping over the ancient, unresisting stone.
But other than the building serving as mute testimony to there once having been a human architect, there was no sign of current inhabitation. Barney scowled as he saw dark logs in the scum-flecked water submerge with barely a ripple as they approached. "Crocodiles," he said grimly.
He swallowed and slowed the Lucky Anne, describing a gentle arc that sent lazy swells slapping against the mossy ramparts of the temple with a hollow, echoing finality. Crocs splashed angrily about them, the boat an unwelcome intruder upon their ancient, seeming primordial home.
"What are you doing?" asked Rashad.
Barney cut the engine and went to drop anchor. "I wanted to be facing out, in case we have to make a quick getaway."
Minutes later, all five of them had boarded the little boat Rashad had appropriated from the gambling den and were being ferried to the ancient temple. Crocodiles floated stilly about them, their soulless eyes watching them pass. For some reason, these crocs unnerved Barney more than had the one's near Lo Phat's gambling den. Though man-eaters, those previous crocs had had an air of domesticity to them, working as they were, and however unwittingly, for the warlord. But these crocs, lurking here in the dark interior of the jungle, they seemed cut from a whole other cloth. A more savage, more primordial cloth.
Barney unconsciously felt for the pistols he carried at each hip.
The muggy air was still, as though the jungle held its breath. There was no sound of bird or monkey -- even the drums had ceased. Only the drone of their engine sounded, and it seemed hollow and faint, swallowed by the jungle itself.
"The whole place looks...deserted," said Arlene after a moment.
Barney nodded, but said nothing. He cut the engine and let the boat drift toward the stone rampart, colliding with a gentle thump. He leapt out of the boat, onto the lowest stone, and secured the mooring line to a stone loop that had probably been old before the first Chinese migrated to this island 300 years before.
He held out a hand and helped Arlene off the boat. Then, leaving one of the Chinese sailors behind, Barney, Arlene, Rashad and the other sailor moved cautiously into the temple.
The hot air was even more oppressive inside than it had been out in the jungle, what little breeze there was being thwarted by the ancient stone walls. They traversed a wide chamber that looked as though it might cover at least half the lower floor. Light filtered in through upper windows, but it was a miserly light at best, painting the place in eerie shadows and uncertain shapes. Sheets of moss dangled from the ceiling.
"It's not what I expected," whispered Arlene. "What do you suppose these are for?"
Barney looked to where she stood by one wall. He peered more closely and saw that there were dark niches, maybe a foot high by half a foot wide, peppered all along the wall. "Alcoves," he said. "Maybe. For more statues." Though, if so, they had long since been looted. "Don't reach in to any one, princess. They'd make great little caves for spiders or snakes."
Arlene stepped quickly away from the wall.
Suddenly, from somewhere in the shadows, a weird chanting rose up, raising the hackles on the back of Barney's neck. He whirled, hands going to his pistols. Suddenly robed figures loomed from out of the surrounding darkness, though whether they had been lurking there all along, or whether there were secret passages, Barney could not say. In moments they were surrounded by twenty figures -- figures with faces shrouded by voluminous hoods, their chanting voices hollow and unearthly.
Barney resisted the urge to pull his guns. After all, they were here to make an exchange, not start a mini-war.
Arlene had shrunk to his side, and even the Chinese sailor had moved closer, his lips tight, only his eyes betraying a spark of fear as he clutched his rifle more tightly. Seth Rashad, alone of them all, seemed unperturbed.
Barney dragged the back of one hand across his sweat-beaded upper lip, warily eyeing the cultists. Finally, he spoke. "We've come to parlay," he yelled out over the din of their chanting.
Abruptly, the chanting stopped, and the silence was even more unnerving.
"We've come to parlay for the life of Edgar Wentworth, the English anthropologist you're holding captive." His fingers feeling numb and clumsy with nervousness, Barney held out the oil-skin enwrapped figurine. Slowly he unwrapped it and held up the grotesque jade idol for all to see. "We've brought it back. Now give us Wentworth."
One of the robed figures stepped forward and reached out. Reluctantly, Barney relinquished the object and watched as the robed figure moved over to another of his brethren, presumably the leader. The leader took the figure and looked it over, as if verifying that it was what it purported to be.
"Very good," intoned the leader, speaking in perfect English. "But you are misinformed. We are not holding Edgar Wentworth captive." And suddenly Barney realized that he wasn't just speaking English -- he was speaking it with a decidedly British accent. The leader of the cultists pulled back his hood to reveal white, thinning hair, and the pale features of a Caucasian. "I am Edgar Wentworth."
Barney stared, uncomprehending, unable to quite put all the pieces together.
"I came to this region to study the people. Initially, I was a heretic -- an unbeliever. In my arrogance, I appropriated this idol and sent it down river as part of my collection, for later research, intending to return to what you call civilization in due course. But then I became aware of the Truth, the Way. I learned more of this order, and, indeed, joined with it. To rectify my transgression, I sent word to my daughter that I needed the idol returned to me." Then the senior Wentworth's gaze fell upon his daughter. "For reasons known only to herself, she chose to misrepresent the situation. Fortunately, we had sent one of our number to the city, to safeguard the idol's return as best he could. You have done well, brother."
"Thank you, brother," answered Seth Rashad, stepping away from Barney and his group. "The journey was arduous, and the presence of unbelievers most disquieting. When I learned Mr. Calhoun would be hired, I attempted to frighten him off with an attack, then present myself as a boat captain to Miss Wentworth. When he proved unwilling to be frightened, I instead presented myself to him as an bookish expert."
Finally, Barney found his voice. He said, "Huh?"
And then something hit him on the back of his head. He whirled drunkenly, and lashed out, a mighty fist cracking across the jaw of a cultist who had struck him with a club. Lights flared before his eyes and something warm trickled down his scalp. The Chinese sailor started firing wildly. One of the cultists went down, clutching his heart.
Barney physically grabbed another robbed figure and, thews bulging, sent him flying into two more of his brethren. "Let's get out of here!" Then he looked around and realized that Arlene was pinned helpless between two cultists. Suddenly a scream caused him to turn in time to see the Chinese sailor pitching over, his skull caved in.
Barney reached for his pistols, when another blow to his head sent him plunging into darkness...
* * *
Abruptly he noticed there was something on his thigh, something moving. The tropics were inhabited by enough creepy crawly things, many poisonous, that he knew enough to resist the urge to flail about wildly until he knew just what it was he faced.
He raised his head and peered into the gloom. And his blood went cold.
On his leg was what looked almost like a miniature man, maybe eight inches high, with a grotesque, evil face and membranous wings under each arm.
The Bat-Men of the Yinga were no myth!
Previous Episode: Jungle Drums
Next Episode: Death on Wings
The Bat-Men of the Yinga River is copyright 2001 by the author.