I heard scattered reports of Tuppence, nothing too certain but bits and pieces picked up here and there. I left the main road and took a road that was not main at all, and only the engineering marvel that was the Land Rover enabled me to keep on going.
Until at last one fine day I emerged in a clearing and suddenly found the Land Rover utterly surrounded by armed men. They were not in uniforms, so I knew they were not government soldiers and guessed that I had found some bandits.
I spoke to them in Siamese; I spoke to them in Khmer. They did not answer. And the next thing I knew I had been stripped naked, divested of clothing and socks and shoes and money belt, and tucked unceremoniously into that horrible bamboo cage.
Now, according to the only bandit who had deigned to talk to me, they were finally ready to kill me.
The forest began to come awake about half an hour before sunrise. The sky turned from black to gray, and early birds set off in full-throated pursuit of early worms. I crouched in my bamboo home and waited for the bandit camp to wake up. I was beset by the sort of nervous impatience of a toothache victim in a dentist’s waiting room, anxious to relieve one pain but a little apprehensive of a greater agony.
They planned to sever my head from my body. I wondered if my head would talk to them after it had been removed – there were cases like that on record, a sort of switch on decapitated chickens racing around barnyards. I seemed to recall that a saint had done something of the sort, blessing those who had effected his martyrdom. I did not expect to bless anyone.
The sun rose, and the little camp came awake. I wondered if Dhang had been able to carry out the final tasks I had assigned to him. I had not seen him in over an hour. He had performed well enough as far as I knew, managing to fetch things from the Land Rover. I now shared my cage with a jar of acid from the car’s battery, the insect-killing jar, and a short black bayonet liberated from a sleeping guerrilla. I would have preferred one of their machine pistols, but Dhang had not been able to get one for me; I don’t think it would have fit through the bottom of the cage, anyway. I looked at the bayonet, the killing jar, the acid. Then I closed my eyes. One had to work with the materials at hand, but it certainly would have helped to have some more impressive materials available.
A voice rose above the hubbub of the camp and began issuing commands. I watched through the side of the cage as a barefoot young man climbed furiously up the tree from which my cage was suspended. He walked up the trunk as easily as if it had been lying extended upon the ground, then swung out upon the branch. His weight bowed the branch, and the cage dipped toward the ground. Guerrillas moved to surround it. The Thai up in the tree cut the rope, and ten pairs of hands gripped the cage and lowered it gently to the ground.
Another command. Hands unhooked the top of the cage and lifted it up and off. I scooped up the bayonet, the killing jar, and the acid. I got to my feet for the first time since I had first been placed in that unholy prison. My captors gathered around, peering at me over the sides of the cage. They seemed astonished that I had any possessions with me, and one, evidently the commander, demanded to know what these things were that I held.
I scanned the crowd, looking for Dhang. Some twenty guerrillas were clustered close around me, with about as many lounging in the circle of ramshackle huts. Most of them wore panungs, simple pieces of drab cloth wrapped around their small bodies, but here and there I could see various articles of my own clothing.
“What have you? How did you get those things?”
“It is a magic trick,” I said. “I am a worker of magic and would provide you with entertainment.”
Some of the younger guerrillas began to chatter excitedly. The camp wasn’t exactly a major draw on the Orpheum Circuit, and entertainment of any sort was a rare treat. They didn’t even get to watch the touring USO shows.
But the leader wasn’t having any. “A bayonet,” he said. “Where did you get that?”
“By a magic entreaty to my gods.”
“Give me the bayonet.”
If they had only left me my clothes, I could have hidden the bayonet in a trouser leg or something. I looked at him and at the bayonet and wanted to give it to him between the eyes. I glanced past the bunch of guerrillas clustered around me and caught sight of Dhang hovering beside one of the huts. He smiled tentatively and made a sign with his hand to indicate that everything was all right. I was glad he thought so. I nodded briefly to him and handed the bayonet to the chieftain.
Well, I was doing beautifully, I thought. So far I had managed to give up my chief weapon.
“Come out of the cage.”
I couldn’t climb over the four-foot cage side without spilling the acid. I gave the killing jar to one of the guerrillas and the jar of acid to another, asked them to hold my magic goods for a moment, and then vaulted the side of the cage. I reclaimed the two jars and began babbling about my prowess as a conjurer and sorcerer. The chief remained unimpressed, but I was earning points with the younger element.
In the center of the camp a broad section of tree trunk rested upon the ground. The top of it was scarred with ax marks and stained with blood. Beside it stood a fat man stripped to the waist, with a massive ax in his hand.
“Go that way,” the chief said, pointing at the man, the axe, the chopping block.
“But the magic-”
The guerrillas moved aside to open a path for me. I walked down it very slowly toward the appointed place of execution. I wondered if Dhang had obtained enough gasoline from the Land Rover. It was impossible for me to teach him how to siphon it, so I had explained how to locate the gas tank from below and told him to puncture it with a bayonet and drain the gasoline from it. He was bright enough, but mechanical tasks were a bit of a puzzle for him, and gasoline was an unknown element. By now it might all have evaporated. And even if it hadn’t, he might not put it to the proper use.
And even if he did, it might not work…
“Sacred Leader,” I intoned. I bowed my head, paused at the execution site. “Sacred Leader, through a grave misunderstanding you have determined to put me to death. I beg one last request to entertain you with magical visions. If my entertainment does not please you, then I will go willingly to my death.”
“It is an imperialist trick.”
“But will you not observe it, O Leader?”
He truly was interested in nothing but seeing my head say good-bye to my body, but the rest of the group pressured him into it. He stepped back, slapped at the machine pistol on his hip, spat at the ground, sighed, and ordered me to get this foolishness over with as quickly as possible. I knelt by the side of the chopping block and unscrewed the cover of the cyanide jar. I took a deep breath.
“Come close,” I commanded. “Gather around and breathe deeply of the perfumes of life.”
They gathered around. I let them come as close as they could, and I took a deep breath of my own and held it, and then I poured the cyanide crystals into the jar of battery acid.
I held my breath.
And at that happy moment, just as a dozen of them breathed deeply of the sweet perfume of bitter almonds, Dhang picked up his cue. All at once half a dozen huts burst into flame as the gasoline did its work. Blue-faced guerrillas dropped around me, their lungs filled with cyanide gas. All around the encampment screams burst forth as men fled the burning huts. The chieftain spun around to look at the huts, turned again to look at his men falling like flies. He grabbed at his pistol. I kicked him in the stomach and chopped at the side of his neck and took the pistol away from him.
Across the way a young guerrilla fired wildly at me with a rifle. I saw Dhang loop the butterfly net around his head and knock him off balance. Another man, cursing hysterically, approached Dhang with a machete. I cut him down with a burst from the machine pistol, then spun around to spray a burst of shots at another batch of little men. The pistol was a jerry-built affair; after I’d fired the second burst, it was too hot to hold on to. I threw it aside and snatched up a machete. The fat man, the executioner, came at me with his axe. He swung and missed, and I flailed at him with the machete. It sliced halfway through his throat.
It’s hard to say just what happened after that. Dhang was off to one side, taking potshots at his erstwhile comrades with the rifle. I was in the middle of everything, swinging the machete at anyone who got particularly close to me. Around us the fire had spread to all of the huts, encircling the camp in a solid perimeter of fire. Evidently one of the huts was used to store explosives, and when the fire reached it, everything went off at once. That did it, as far as the remaining guerrillas were concerned. I guess they had had enough of magic, especially the sort of sorcery that made smells that put men to sleep and caused huts to explode with the force of an earthquake. They scattered like dandelion seeds in a hurricane, racing through the circle of fire and out into the comparative safety of the jungle.
I went to Dhang. He clapped his hands jubilantly and swung into a mad dance of triumph. “We have destroyed them,” he shouted. “Like a thunderbolt from the heavens we have destroyed them, and I shall have a woman. And how the flames shot from the huts! And how the magic gases ate at their vitals! And how the hut was torn by explosions! And how they ran in terror!”
“We’d better get out of here,” I said.
“How they ran! How they screamed!”
“I’ll need some clothing. Shoes, anyway. And I can wrap up in a panung, I suppose.” I didn’t especially want to strip corpses to get my own clothes back. I took a panung from one of the cyanosed guerrillas and wrapped it around my body, tucking the ends into place. I did manage to find a pair of my own shoes and put them on. They were not particularly comfortable without socks, but it was better than hobbling barefoot through the jungle.
“We will go to the south now?”
“No,” I told Dhang. “To the north.”
“The north? But more bandits wait in the north. Why shall we go to the north?”
“There is a woman there, and-”
“Ah, that is different,” he said. “That is good, that is wonderful. If there is a woman there, then that is where we shall go. Of course we will take the rubber-footed buffalo of iron.”
“I’m afraid not.”
He looked at me. “No? We leave it here?”
“I think it’s dead.”
“I killed it? It died when I cut open its stomach?”
The Land Rover had a hole in its gas tank, and its battery was gone. “It is dead,” I agreed.
“I did not wish to kill it.”
“It was necessary.”
“I regret it,” he said. “It is one thing to kill men, but to slaughter such a useful creature-”
“Let’s have a look at it,” I said. “Perhaps we can eat its flesh and make robes of its hide.”
“I do not understand.”
“Let’s have a look at the car. Perhaps we can salvage something.”
I turned. “Not Yevan,” I said, patiently. “Evan.” Siamese has no words beginning with open vowel sounds, and Dhang had so far prefaced my name with several consonants. “Evan,” I repeated slowly so that he could watch the way my mouth worked. “Evan.”