MUCH time was devoted to archery even on the march. Corrie shamed the men. She was very quick and very accurate, and she drew a strong bow—the full length of a two foot, eight inch arrow until the feathers touched her right ear.
Clayton complimented her. Shrimp told Bubonovitch that it was a sissy sport anyway. Jerry secretly admired her prowess and was ashamed of himself for admiring it. He tried to concentrate on the girl in Oklahoma City and the Republican 4-F.
Corrie explained that she had belonged to an archery club for two years in Holland while there at school, and that she had kept up the practice after she returned to her father’s plantation. “If I were not good at it by this time, I should think myself very stupid.”
Eventually, even Shrimp commenced to brag about his marksmanship. They were all pretty good, and woe betide any game bird or animal that crossed their path. They had found a couple of dry caves in a limestone cliff, and Clayton had decided that they should remain there until some new clothing and footwear could be fashioned, for their shoes were practically gone and their clothing in shreds.
The Englishman had roughly cured a deer skin, and had fashioned an awl and needles from bamboo. With the same tough fiber used for their bows and arrows, Corrie was making crude sandals for them with these materials and tools.
She worked alone one morning while the men went out to hunt. Her thoughts ranged over the two years that had passed—years of sorrow, hardship, and danger. Years of pain and unshed tears and hate. She thought of her present situation—alone in the vastness of a mountain wilderness with four strange men, four foreigners. And she realized that she had never felt safer and that for the first time in two years she was happy.
She smiled when she thought of how terrified she had been when that almost naked brown man had carried her off into the forest. And how surprised she had been when she learned that he was a Royal Air Force colonel. She had liked him and Sergeant Bubonovitch from the very beginning. Her heart had warmed to the sergeant from the moment that he had shown her the pictures of his wife and baby. She had not liked “the little sergeant” nor Captain Lucas. They are both boors, she had thought; but the captain is the worse because he is an educated man and should know better than to behave toward me as he has.
That was what she had thought until lately, but since the day that she had helped him fletch his arrows he had been different. He still did not seek her company, but he did not avoid her as he had in the past. Bubonovitch had told her what a fine pilot he was and how his crew worshiped him. He cited several examples of Lucas’ courage, and they lost nothing in the telling. Crew members are that way if they like an officer.
So Corrie concluded that Lucas was a man’s man and possibly a woman hater. And she found the latter idea intriguing. It was also amusing. She smiled as she thought of how a woman hater must feel in such a situation—forced into close companionship with a woman day after day. And a young and pretty woman, she added mentally. For Corrie was eighteen, and she knew that she was even more than pretty—even in rags and with that horrid head of hair, mostly a rusty black, but blonde at the roots. She had no mirror, but she had seen her reflection in still pools of water. That always made her laugh. She laughed easily and often these days, for she was strangely happy.
She wondered if Captain Lucas would have disliked her if they had met under normal conditions—she with lovely gowns and her beautiful, golden hair becomingly arranged. Had she been given to self analysis, she would probably have wondered also why he was so much in her thoughts. Of course he was goodlooking in an extremely masculine way. She thought of him as old, and would have been surprised to have learned that he was only twenty-three. Responsibility and many hours of intense nervous strain had matured him rapidly. To hurl thirty tons of aluminum and steel and high explosives into the air and into battle, to feel that upon you alone depends the safety of a beautiful, half million dollars worth of plane and the lives of nine of your best friends is sufficient responsibility to bring lines of maturity to any face. They had left their mark on Jerry Lucas’s.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of voices. At first she assumed that the hunters were returning. Then, as the sounds came nearer, she recognized the intonation of native speech; and a moment later several Sumatrans appeared in the mouth of the cave. They were dirty, vicious looking men. There were ten of them. They took her away with them. From their conversation she soon learned why: The Japs had offered a reward for the capture of her and Sing Tai.
The sun was setting when the hunters returned to the cave. The brief equatorial twilight would soon be followed by darkness. The men missed the girl immediately and commenced to speculate on the explanation.
“She probably run out on us,” said Shrimp. “You can’t trust no dame.”
“Don’t be a damn fool,” snapped Lucas. Shrimp’s jaw dropped in surprise. He had been sure that the captain would agree with him. “Why should she run out on us?” demanded Lucas. “We offer her the only chance she has to escape the Japs. She probably went hunting.”
“What makes you think she has run away from us, Rosetti?” asked Clayton, who was examining the ground just outside of the cave entrance.
“I know skoits,” said Shrimp.
“I’d want better evidence than that,” said the Englishman.
“Well, she didn’t go hunting,” said Bubonovitch from the back of the cave.
“How do you know?” asked Lucas.
“Her bow and arrows are here.”
“No, she didn’t go hunting and she didn’t run away,” said Clayton. “She was taken away by force by a band of natives. There were about ten men in the band. They went that way.” He pointed.
“You got a crystal ball, Colonel?” asked Bubonovitch skeptically.
“I have something more dependable—two eyes and a nose. So have you men, but yours are no good. They have been dulled by generations of soft living, of having laws and police and soldiers to surround you with safeguards.”
“And how about you, Colonel?” asked Lucas banteringly.
“I have survived simply because my senses are as acute as those of my enemies—usually far more acute—and are combined with experience and intelligence to safeguard me where there are no laws, no police, no soldiers.”
“Like in London,” observed Bubonovitch. Clayton only smiled.
“What makes you sure she didn’t go with the natives willingly?” asked Jerry Lucas. “She might have had some good reason that we, of course, can’t know anything about. But I certainly don’t believe that she deserted us.”
“She was taken by force after a very brief struggle. The signs are plain on the ground. You can see here where she held back and was dragged along a few feet. Then her tracks disappear. They picked her up and carried her. The stink of natives clings to the grasses.”
“Well, what are we waiting for then?” demanded Lucas. “Let’s get going.”
“Sure,” said Shrimp. “Let’s get after the dirty so-and-sos. They can’t take—” He stopped suddenly, surprised by the strange reaction the abduction of the hated “dame” had wrought.
It had started to rain—a sudden tropical deluge. Clayton stepped into the shelter of the cave. “There is no use in starting now,” he said. “This rain will obliterate the scent spoor, and we couldn’t follow the visible spoor in the dark. They will have to lie up somewhere for the night. Natives don’t like to travel after dark on account of the big cats. So they won’t gain on us. We can leave immediately it is light enough in the morning for me to see the trail.”
“The poor kid,” said Jerry Lucas.
The moment that it was light enough to see, they were off to track down Corrie’s abductors. The Americans saw no sign of any spoor, but to the habituated eyes of the Englishman it ran clear and true. He saw where they had put Corrie down a short distance from the cave and made her walk.
It was midmorning when Clayton stopped and sniffed the breeze that blew gently from the direction from which they had come. “You’d better take to the trees,” he said to the others. “There’s a tiger coming down the trail behind us. He’s not very far away.”
Corrie’s abductors had camped at the edge of a mountain meadow as darkness approached. They built a fire to keep the great cats away, and huddled close to it, leaving one man on guard to tend it.
Tired, the girl slept for several hours. When she awoke, she saw that the fire was out and knew that the guard must have fallen asleep. She realized that now she might escape. She looked toward the dark, forbidding forest—just a solid blank of blackness. But in it lurked possible death. In the other direction, the direction in which these men were taking her, lay something worse than death. She balanced the certainty against the possibility and reached her decision quickly.
Silently she arose. The guard lay stretched beside the ashes of the dead fire. She passed around him and the others. A moment later she entered the forest. Though the trail was worn deep it was difficult to follow it in the darkness; and she made slow progress, often stumbling. But she went on, that she might put as much distance between herself and her captors as possible before daylight, being certain that they would follow her.
She was frightened. The forest was full of sound—stealthy, menacing sound. And any one of them might be the footsteps or the wings of Death. Yet she felt her way on, deeper and deeper into the impenetrable gloom until she heard a sound that turned her blood cold—the cough of a tiger. And then she heard it crashing through the undergrowth as though it had caught her scent or heard her.
She groped to the side of the trail, her hands outstretched. She prayed that she might find a tree she could scale. A hanging vine struck her in the face as she blundered into it. She seized it and started to climb. The crashing of the beast’s body through the tangle of shrubbery sounded closer. Corrie clawed her way upward. From below came a series of hideous growls as the tiger sprang. The impact of his body nearly tore the vine from her grasp, but terror and desperation lent her strength.
Once more the vine swayed violently as the beast sprang again, but now the girl knew that it could not reach her if the vine held. There lay the danger. Twice more the tiger sprang, but at last Corrie reached one of the lower branches—a leafy sanctuary at least from the great cats. But there were other menaces in the jungle that could range far above the ground. The most fearsome of these was the python.
The carnivore remained beneath the tree for some time. Occasionally it growled. At last the girl heard it move away. She considered descending and continuing her flight. She was sure that Clayton at least would search for her, but he could do nothing until daylight. She thought of Jerry Lucas. Even if he did not like her, he would probably help in the search for her—not because she was Corrie van der Meer, but because she was a woman. And of course Bubonovitch would come, and the little sergeant might be shamed into it.
She decided to wait until daylight. Sometimes Stripes hunted in the daytime, but most usually at night. And this was what the Malays called tiger weather—a dark, starless, misty night.
Eventually the long night ended, and Corrie clambered down into the trail and continued her interrupted flight. She moved swiftly now.