The giant trees stood an infinity into the sky, tops lost in the gray dark of swirling vapors. Great tendrils of fog crept ghostily, low past the trunks, to blot with their evil odor of sulphur and rot what visibility the faint light might have permitted. It was an atmosphere in which men unconsciously speak in whispers and look cautiously around each bend before venturing farther along the trail.
It's enough to make you wonder what about the planet made humans want to conquer it. A bunch of sweltering jungles with stupid wildlife and stinky fog? Ugh, the blues can keep it.
A bunch of native beaters spot da juju's tracks about two klicks out from the village, and "they added to it the usual blue exaggeration" that the beast was certainly wounded from the savage asskicking it inflicted upon the Great White Hunter the other day. So Cranston gets the join the party and hopefully find and put the thing down once and for all.
The expedition sets out, passing by a crashed "space liner" that the villagers have been looting for scrap metal, a site that the author curiously spends little time describing, and which Cranston similarly shows little interest in. The narration explains that the wrecked ship is "to be avoided since its dryness offered refuge to snakes." Snakes, guys. Let's keep our distance.
Cranston is still sick and shaken from his ordeal, scarred physically and mentally, and not at all acting like the confident generic big game hunter he should be.
His back was cringing away from the thing it had experienced and as the minutes went the feeling increased. At each or any instant he expected to have upon him once again the shock of attack, from behind, fraught with agony and terror. He tried to sweep it from him. He tried to reassure himself by inspecting low-hanging limbs under which they passed; but the memory was there. He told himself that if it did happen he would not scream. He would whirl and begin to shoot. He would smash the thing against a tree trunk and shatter it with flame and copper.
I guess flame guns use copper cartridges? Also, just how badly is Cranston wounded, herr author? There's not so much as a break in the paragraphs between Cranston going to bed with the lights on and the description of the foggy jungles, so we can only assume that it's the day after the attack. We're told that the wounds "burned," but they don't seem to be hampering our hero's ability to move, and he's not quietly sweating with the agony that every breath of air brings to his battered ribs. Saber-claws or not, that Beast didn't seem to do more than scratch the guy.
Ambu's worried about his boss, and comes over even though he's unsure how to comfort this big slab of vanilla, and can only make small talk over how hot it is. But then some of the other Venusians call out that they've found tracks in the mud in the middle of a clearing: two claw marks, two footprints, and two claw marks again. Cranston judges their depth and reasons that the monster can't weigh more than three hundred pounds. But something about the whole thing is off.
A prickle of knowing went up the back of Ginger's spine. These tracks were perfect. They had been placed in a spot where they would retain their impressions. And from here they led away into the trees; but to this place they did not exist.
Clever devil, isn't it? Also, what part of the spine is the back, the part facing outside a person or the part inside with the squishy bits?
Cranston orders some of the natives to "Get on the track of it," and I'm wondering why they need this guy. It's the blues who keep finding the juju's footprints and are now the ones working out which way it went, while Cranston just follows his guides. So I can't help but feel that all the Great White Hunter brings to the party is his gun. Maybe we could cut out the middleman and send the Venusians some weapons to defend themselves with - oh that's right, hostilities only ended a few decades ago. Wouldn't want to arm our colonial subjects, would we?
Bleh. Our hero has to really exert himself to keep up with the natives, and all the while he's brooding.
He told himself that the fever made him this way, but he had had fever before. Deep within he knew that the beast had a thing which belonged to Ginger, a thing which Ginger had never imagined would be stolen. And until he met that beast and killed that beast, he would not recover his own.
I Want My Courage Back, by Ginger Cranston. He does take some comfort that there's no low-hanging branches over this part of the jungle, the trees are thin enough for light to come through, and the ground is solid if concealed by "masses of rot." But just when Cranston is starting to feel better about the situation, there's a "swishing, swooping sound and a scream from Ambu!"
The poor bastard stepped in "a cunningly manufactured sling, not unlike a rabbit snare," and was yanked thirty feet up to smash his brains out against a tree trunk. Rest in peace, buddy; you had meaningful conversation with the protagonist for a page or two before getting offed halfway through the story. Cranston stares up at his henchman's body for a few moments before ordering him cut down "in a controlled voice," and then the sad little procession gets to return to the village in defeat, toting a corpse.
Now it's made clear that time is passing, that Cranston's face is growing more lined and hollow-eyed with each day, as he's able to feign less confidence when giving commands. Seven members of his hunting party are killed as we fast forward through the story, until one morning Cranston wakes up to find that the remaining five have fled. Worse, the villagers have lost all faith in the "great white hunter," and when Cranston orders the chief to provide him with trackers, the Venusian makes a big deal about inspecting a pegunt rooting through the muck, or a nearby tree.
"I said trackers!" said Ginger Cranston.
The chief scratched himself and began to sidle away, still without meeting the eyes of the white man.
Ginger struck out and the chief crumpled into a muddy, moaning pile.
"TRACKERS!" said Ginger.
The chief turned his face into the slime and whimpered.
The only good news is that Cranston has enough decency to be ashamed of himself after his outburst and returns to his tent. He realizes he's weeping, he can hear the chief in the mud still wailing, he doesn't recognize the person in the mirror and would smash it if he didn't feel so dreadfully tired, etc. He does work up enough energy to go back outside, apologize to the little chieftain and leave a bottle of an undefined liquid in the mud next to the Venusian, and then Cranston returns to his tent to stare at his muddy boots. At least until he freaks out at the slithering sound of his tent flap being moved by the wind.
And then Cranston goes all Hamlet on us for over a page.
He was nauseated and for seconds the feeling of claws digging into his back would not abate. He struggled with his pent sanity, sought nervously for the key of control which, more and more, was ever beyond the reach of mental fingers.
Though I don't remember Shakespeare writing about "mental fingers."
The scream died unvoiced, the gun slipped to the bunk and lay there with its muzzle like a fixed, accusing eye. Hypnotically, Ginger Cranston looked at that muzzle. It threw a twenty-millimeter slug and would tear half a head from a Mamodon bull; the bullet came out when the trigger was pressed, came out with a roar of savage flame, came out with oblivion as its command. Limply Ginger regarded it. He knew very little about death, he a hunter who should have known so much.
And yes, this stuff I'm quoting is all one big rambling paragraph.
Was death a quiet and untroubled sleep which went on forever or was death a passing to another existence? Would the wings of death carry something that was really Ginger Cranston out of this compound, away from these trees, this fog, this constant rain, this... this beast?
At the very least it might end this story a few pages early.
Cranston spends another half page contemplating suicide, wondering whether "Death was a final conclusion - or was it a beginning?" and having a sort of out-of-body experience as he dispassionately examines his life. When he finally snaps out of it, our hero has come to a decision, and buckles on his "flame pistol," grabs a knife, puts on his swamp mask, picks up his gun and loads a fresh magazine.
Yep, we're going devil hunting. Which is certainly more dramatic and dignified than juju hunting. Tune in next time for the final battle between man and vague, slimy juju-beast.
...You know, I don't think Cranston has so much as spared a thought for Ambu since the guy bought it. And reading ahead, the name doesn't appear at any point in the remainder of the story. Nice to know the loyal Venusian's death had such an impact on our hero. Hell, it's not even clear whether Ambu was counted among the seven dead members of Cranston's hunting party, if he was set apart from those nameless extras.
Back to Part 2