“That was some pretty freaky screeching.” commented Emerson as Jane’s partner swung down from above.
It’s just this thing I do.” the man replied. “It’s quite effective in keeping most beasts away when I’m out foraging.”
Doctor John Clayton was nothing like what they expected. An academic as they were soon to learn (no doubt actively trying to sabotage the vested interests of foreign wealthy landowners) with an unparalleled expertise in the field of ethnobotanicals. He had come to the jungle on a sabbatical over a decade ago and never left.
He was dressed in homespun fabrics that had been tied in knots before being brightly dyed; around his neck hung a dozen hand-beaded necklaces. His arms, which were bare of sleeve, were covered in vibrant tattoos, all seemingly symbolic though the meaning was unclear. While his salt and pepper hair was longish, it was not over the top or unkempt. The same might not be said of his beard which trod the line between sage and wild.
At first Dr. John, as he liked to be called, seemed suspicious of the New Babbagers, guarding his words carefully. “You’ll have to forgive my caution,” he said as he gradually started to warm to Emerson’s diplomacy, “but there have been some tensions recently between my people, the Mangani,” he indicated the many great apes accompanying them as they followed him to the tree house he shared with Jane. “And the rather controlling nature of the new tyrannical regime. It appears bent on unifying the many disparate and mutually antagonistic groups this island contains in an effort to forge a single strong nation.”
“That actually sounds like it could be a good idea.” said Emerson. “But I see where you are coming from. You’ve got it pretty sweet out here I’ll admit. You grow all your own requirements I assume.”
“And what I don’t the jungle provides.” Dr. John paused and scratched his beard contemplatively.
“It would be a shame for any government to throw some limitations on that.” said Emerson.
“Jane and I are completely self-sufficient. This over-controlling government is exactly what I came here to avoid. If you are considering an attempt to overthrow this upstart leader of theirs and returning this land to the balanced anarchy we all desire then count me in.”
“It seems we are headed in that direction and it would appear we are to be unlikely allies.” observed Lapis, his hand unconsciously moving to his sword as he spoke. “What do you know of this new regime?” He asked.
Dr. John regarded Lapis for a moment, “Unlikely allies indeed.” he said before providing what information he could. “Beyond my own little tribe I try not to concern myself with politics. I know that their leader is young, still a boy really… some sort of prodigy. He rules his armies with a mathematical precision and I have heard he accepts no margin for error.” It was evident by his tone that Dr. John had nothing but great distaste for politics. “This young one will not go down without a fight.”
“If it comes to that.” said Lapis.
“If ART Hoo gets back in time it might not need be a bloody coup.” said Emerson.
Everyone waited for him to expand or explain on that last comment – but he didn’t.
Captain Maynard had not made the inland trip opting to stay on the river aboard the Indiscretion. The rest of the crew arrived at the tree house where it was agreed they would spend the night in the company of Dr. John and Jane.
The tree house was spectacular. A split level affair with a front deck endowed with an unparalleled view atop the jungle canopy. A suspended stairway led from the jungle floor to the upper level estate of Doctor John and his scientist wife Jane.
Upon entering the tree house the group noted two large simians sitting at the dinner table smoking a hookah. Kerchak, who had stayed with them all this time, gave the two apes a look which at first seemed a stern admonishment until he sat down and joined them.
“Lapis, why couldn’t you have been a little nicer to that ape?” said Emerson.
“That better not be mine!” Dr. John warned and for a moment it was hard to tell if he were joking or if he might not be seriously peeved. But when he sat down to join them it seemed more like he had been joking.
“Kerchak!” called Dr. John. “Fetch us some bowls of gumbo, and some for yourself as well.
“Dr. John’s gumbo is fantastic.” winked Jane from the doorway. Then her tone changed decisively she turned to her husband. “And you! Get your own gumbo. You have no right to treat Kerchak as a servant.
He laughed as if it was a big joke even as he moved to fetch his own bowl of gumbo.
It was just after dawn the following day when Emerson Lighthouse wandered out onto the deck of the tree house to find Gadget enjoying the sounds of the rain-forest changing over from the night shift to the day shift. From their vantage they could see the river sparkling in the morning sun.
“What’s up kid?”
“Morning Sir Sir. Tryin’ to enjoy a cigarette is all but I left the lid off my tin and now my ‘backy’s all dried up. It burns up too fast and all uneven like.”
“It’s a common enough problem.” said Emerson as he casually selected an orange from the large bowl of fruit Jane and Dr. John had set out for their guests. A short way off a large flock of birds took to the air, their screeching caws flying on ahead of them to announce some sort of distress from below.
“Here you go son.” said Emerson, handing Gadget a piece of orange peel as he sat down beside the boy. “Put this in your tin of leaf and leave it sealed tight for a few hours. By this afternoon it will be fluffy and moist and as good as new. Just make sure you throw away the orange peel or it might get moldy.”
“Cor, thanks Sir Sir.” Gadget smiled as he sealed up the orange peel in his tin of tobacco. “You know something… you’re going to make a real good dad some day.”
“Won’t I though?” acknowledged Emerson. “Hey, want some mushrooms?” he offered the boy, pulling a handful of the lint covered fungi from his vest pocket. “I picked the lock on Dr. John’s medicine cabinet last night. He’s got a lot of great stuff in there.”
“I don’t really likes mushrooms too much, not unless they’re in a soup with lots of cream.”
Emerson nodded silently by way of a response, noting with increased curiosity the strange way the jungle canopy all around them had started to shake. It was almost as if the foliage were being blown by a strange random wind though the air was still. A frenzy of birds… perhaps thousands of them now… screeched their avian warnings overhead as they made a direct flight towards the river.
Suddenly the source of the canopy’s agitation became apparent. Emerson and Gadget watched as below all manner of animal could be discerned charging in a mad panic to the river. Behind them, through the breaks in the canopy they noticed a glistening black mass moving across the ground spreading like a flood of molasses. All the more horrifying, the shimmering black appeared to be rising slowly up into the trees.
“That don’t look too good!” said Gadget.
Dr. John, hearing the commotion below, ran out on the deck and stood beside Emerson and Gadget. On his face was a grave look of concern. He called out with more than just a hint of alarm, “Jane! Army ants marching!”
Inside they heard Jane immediately spring into action, grabbing things off shelves and stuffing a rucksack.
Turning to Emerson and Gadget he said, “We must flee immediately.”
Moments later, the group had gathered together on the deck to get instructions on how to ride Dr. John’s emergency escape system. In one hand he held a vine, in the other he gestured using the same sign language employed by the apes… something so natural for him after so long that he did it with out even conscious awareness..
“There is no option but to evacuate immediately.” Dr. John explained. “The army ants of this jungle are relentless, consuming all living flesh in their path. I once saw them reduce a horse from a robust beast to blood-stained bones in less than six minutes. These are not normal ants. They are an elemental force. Each is as large as my thumb. I assure you all it would be a most unpleasant experience to fall amidst that horde.”
He then raised up the vine above his head and said, “It is a sixteen-vine sequence of swings to the river. The problem is there are only three sets of vines ready for transport and there are six of us.” he paused. “So we need to pair up. Jane will come with me.”
“Miss Ginsburg, would you care to swing with me?” asked Emerson with a snicker.
Junie looked at Emerson carefully. “Have you been eating those mushrooms?” she asked.
“I haven’t had time to eat more than a few.” he replied.
“Don’t forget to hang on tight Miss Missus.” called Gadget excitedly from atop Lapis’s shoulders.
With a single shot from her Smith and Wesson Junie obliterated the first of the ants to climb up over the rail. “What are we waiting for Mr. Lighthouse.” she said throwing an arm around his shoulder.
“Right!” called Dr. John. “Follow me to the river.”
With a yodeling howl impossible to reproduce, he leaped from the deck and soared deep into the jungle.
“About three days journey from here the river turns sharply, twice, creating a U-shape. The land between the two arms of the U is known as The Black Keys because of some unique jutting rock formations.” explained Dr. John aboard the Indiscretion later that afternoon. Captain Maynard, having noticed the exodus of animals, immediately sensed danger and had the boat ready for an emergency departure even before the party had emerged from the jungle swinging on vines.
Dr. John continued. “From the near arm of the ‘U’, leave your craft and cut straight across the land until you come to the River Dharma once more. By this route you stand a chance of surprising the government forces which are based on the far arm at the base of a towering rock spire known as The Black Keys Rock. But be warned, The Black Keys is a most inhospitable land indeed with all manner of horror between the two arms of the river.” Dr. John paused and added with great sincerity and a tinge of regret, “I wish I could accompany you further but Jane and I must remain here to help reestablish my tribe after the ants have run their course.”
The next morning, after the threat from the ants had passed, the crew waved goodbye to King John and Lady Jane as the Indiscretion pulled away from shore and they continued their journey up the river.