She struggled violently to free herself from the grasp of the man in front of whom she rode; but the fellow was far too powerful; and, though she was difficult to hold, at no time was there the slightest likelihood that she might escape. Her efforts, however, angered him and at last he struck her, bringing to the girl a realization of the futility of pitting her puny strength against his. She must wait, then, until she could accomplish by stealth what she could not effect by force.
The village of the raiders lay but a short distance from the point at which she had been captured, and but a few minutes had elapsed since that event when they rode up to its gates and into the central compound.
The shouts that greeted the arrival of a new and beautiful prisoner brought Capietro and Stabutch to the doorway of their hut.
“Now what have the black devils brought in?” exclaimed Capietro.
“It looks like a young woman,” said Stabutch.
“It is,” cried Capietro, as the shiftas approached the hut with their prisoner. “We shall have company, eh, Stabutch? Who have you there, my children?” he demanded of the three who were accompanying Jezebel.
“The price of a chief’s ransom, perhaps,” replied one of the blacks.
“Where did you find her?”
“Above the village a short distance, when we were returning from scouting. A man was with her. The man who escaped with the help of the ape-man.”
“Where is he! Why did you not bring him, also?” demanded Capietro.
“He fought us, and we were forced to kill him.”
“You have done well,” said Capietro. “She is worth two of him—in many ways. Come girl, hold up your head, let us have a look at that pretty face. Come, you need not fear anything—if you are a good girl you will find Dommic Capietro a good fellow.”
“Perhaps she does not understand Italian,” suggested Stabutch.
“You are right, my friend; I shall speak to her in English.”
Jezebel had looked up at Stabutch when she heard him speak a language she understood. Perhaps this man would be a friend, she thought; but when she saw his face her heart sank.
“What a beauty!” ejaculated the Russian.
“You have fallen in love with her quickly, my friend,” commented Capietro. “Do you want to buy her?”
“How much do you want for her?”
“Friends should not bargain,” said the Italian. “Wait, I have it! Come, girl,” and he took Jezebel by the arm and led her into the hut, where Stabutch followed them.
“Why was I brought here?” asked Jezebel. “I have not harmed you. Let me go back to Danny; he is hurt.”
“He is dead,” said Capietro; “but don’t you grieve, little one. You now have two friends in place of the one you have lost. Soon you will forget him; it is easy for a woman to forget.”
“I shall never forget him,” cried Jezebel. “I want to go back to him—perhaps he is not dead.” Then she broke down and cried.
Stabutch stood eyeing the girl hungrily. Her youth and her beauty aroused a devil within him, and he made a mental vow that he would possess her. “Do not cry,” he said, kindly. “I am your friend. Everything will be all right.”
The new tone in his voice gave hope to Jezebel, and she looked up at him gratefully. “If you are my friend,” she said, “take me away from here and back to Danny.”
“After a while,” replied Stabutch, and then to Capietro, “How much?”
“I shall not sell her to my good friend,” replied the Italian. “Let us have a drink, and then I shall explain my plan.”
The two drank from a bottle standing on the earth floor of the hut. “Sit down,” said Capietro, waving Jezebel to a seat on the dirty rug. Then he searched for a moment in his duffle bag and brought out a deck of soiled and grimy cards. “Be seated, my friend,” he said to Stabutch. “Let us have another drink, and then you shall hear my plan.”
Stabutch drank from the bottle and wiped his lips with the back of his band. “Well,” he said, “what is it?”
“We shall play for her,” exclaimed the Italian, shuming the deck, “and whoever wins, keeps her.”
“Let us drink to that,” said Stabutch. “Five games, eh, and the first to win three takes her?”
“Another drink to seal the bargain!” exclaimed the Italian. “The best three out of five!”
Stabutch won the first game, while Jezebel sat looking on in ignorance of the purpose of the bits of pasteboard, and only knowing that in some way they were to decide her fate. She hoped the younger man would win, but only because he had said that he was her friend. Perhaps she could persuade him to take her back to Danny. She wondered what kind of water was in the bottle from which they drank, for she noticed that it wrought a change in them. They talked much louder now and shouted strange words when the little cards were thrown upon the rug, and then one would appear very angry while the other always laughed immoderately. Also they swayed and lurched in a peculiar manner that she had not noticed before they had drunk so much of the water from the bottle.
Capietro won the second game and the third. Stabutch was furious, but now he became very quiet. He exerted all his powers of concentration upon the game, and he seemed almost sober as the cards were dealt for the fourth game.
“She is as good as mine!” cried Capietro, as he looked at his hand.
“She will never be yours,” growled the Russian.
“What do you mean?”
“I shall win the next two games.”
The Italian laughed loudly. “That is good!” he cried. “We should drink to that.” He raised the bottle to his lips and then passed it to Stabutch.
“I do not want a drink,” said the Russian, in a surly tone, pushing the bottle aside.
“Ah, ha! My friend is getting nervous. He is afraid he is going to lose and so he will not drink. Sapristi! It is all the same to me. I get the brandy and the girl, too.”
“Play!” snapped Stabutch.
“You are in a hurry to lose,” taunted Capietro.
“To win,” corrected Stabutch, and he did.
Now it was the Italian’s turn to curse and rage at luck, and once again the cards were dealt and the players picked up their hands.
“It is the last game,” said Stabutch.
“We have each won two,” replied Capietro. “Let us drink to the winner—although I dislike proposing a toast to myself,” and he laughed again, but this time there was an ugly note in his laughter.
In silence, now, they resumed their play. One by one the little pasteboards fell upon the rug. The girl looked on in wondering silence. There was a tenseness in the situation that she felt, without understanding. Poor little Jezebel, she understood so little!
Suddenly, with a triumphant oath, Capietro sprang to his feet. “I win!” he cried. “Come, friend, drink with me to my good fortune.”
Sullenly the Russian drank, a very long draught this time. There was a sinister gleam in his eye as he handed the bottle back to Capietro. Leon Stabutch was a poor loser.
The Italian emptied the bottle and flung it to the ground. Then he turned toward Jezebel and stooping lifted her to her feet. “Come, my dear,” he said, his coarse voice thick from drink, “Give me a kiss.”
Jezebel drew back, but the Italian jerked her roughly to him and tried to draw her lips to his.
“Leave the girl alone,” growled Stabutch. “Can’t you see she is afraid of you?”
“What did I win her for?” demanded Capietro. “To leave her alone? Mind your own business.”
“I’ll make it my business,” said Stabutch. “Take your hands off her.” He stepped forward and laid a hand on Jezebel’s arm. “She is mine by rights anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“You cheated. I caught you at it in the last game.”
“You lie!” shouted Capietro and simultaneously he struck at Stabutch. The Russian dodged the blow and closed with the other.
Both were drunk and none too steady. It required much of their attention to keep from falling down. But as they wrestled about the interior of the hut a few blows were struck—enough to arouse their rage to fury and partially to sober them. Then the duel became deadly, as each sought the throat of the other.
Jezebel, wide eyed and terrified, had difficulty in keeping out of their way as they fought to and fro across the floor of the hut; and so centered was the attention of the two men upon one another that the girl might have escaped had she not been more afraid of the black men without than of the whites within.
Several times Stabutch released his hold with his right hand and sought for something beneath his coat and at last he found it—a slim dagger. Capietro did not see it.
They were standing in the center of the hut now, their arms locked about one another, and resting thus as though by mutual consent. They were panting heavily from their exertions, and neither seemed to have gained any material advantage.
Slowly the Russian’s right hand crept up the back of his adversary. Jezebel saw, but only her eyes reflected her horror. Though she had seen many people killed she yet had a horror of killing. She saw the Russian feel for a spot on the other’s back with the point of his thumb. Then she saw him turn his hand and place the dagger point where his thumb had been.
There was a smile upon Stabutch’s face as he drove the blade home. Capietro stiffened, screamed, and died. As the body slumped to the ground and rolled over on its back the murderer stood over the corpse of his victim, a smile upon his lips, and his eyes upon the girl.
But suddenly the smile died as a new thought came to the cunning mind of the slayer and his eyes snapped from the face of Jezebel to the doorway of the hut, where a filthy blanket answered the purpose of a door.
He had forgotten the horde of cut-throats who had called this thing upon the floor their chief! But now he recalled them and his soul was filled with terror. He did not need to ask himself what his fate would be when they discovered his crime.
“You have murdered him!” cried the girl suddenly, a note of horror in her voice.
“Be quiet!” snapped Stabutch. “Do you want to die? They will kill us when they discover this.”
“I did not do it,” protested Jezebel.
“They will kill you just the same—afterwards. They are beasts.”
Suddenly he stooped, seized the corpse by the ankles and, dragging it to the far end of the hut, he covered it with rugs and clothing.
“Now keep quiet until I come back,” he said to Jezebel. “If you give an alarm I’ll kill you myself before they have a chance to.”
He rummaged in a dark corner of the but and brought forth a revolver with its holster and belt, which he buckled about his hips, and a rifle which he leaned beside the doorway.
“When I return be ready to come with me,” he snapped, and raising the rug that covered the doorway, he stepped out into the village.
Quickly he made his way to where the ponies of the band were tethered. Here were several of the blacks loitering near the animals.
“Where is the headman?” he asked, but none of them understood English. He tried to tell them by means of signs, to saddle two horses, but they only shook their heads. If they understood him, as they doubtless did, they refused to take orders from him.
At this juncture the headman, attracted from a nearby but, approached. He understood a little pidgin English, and Stabutch had no difficulty in making him understand that he wanted two horses saddled; but the headman wanted to know more. Did the chief want them?
“Yes, he wants them,” replied Stabutch. “He sent me to get them. The chief is sick. Drink too much.” Stabutch laughed and the headman seemed to understand.
“Who go with you?” asked the headman.
Stabutch hesitated. Well, he might as well tell him—everyone would see the girl ride out with him anyway. “The girl,” he said.
The headman’s eyes narrowed. “The Chief say?” he asked. “Yes. The girl thinks the white man not dead. The Chief send me to look for him.”
“You take men?”
“No. Man come back with us if girl say so. Be afraid of black men. No come.”
The other nodded understandingly and ordered two horses saddled and bridled. “Him dead,” he offered.
Stabutch shrugged. “We see,” he replied, as he led the two animals toward the hut where Jezebel awaited him.
The headman accompanied him, and Stabutch was in terror. What if the man insisted on entering the hut to see his chief? Stabutch loosened the revolver in its holster. Now his greatest fear was that the shot might attract others to the hut. That would never do. He must find some other way. He stopped and the headman halted with him.
“Do not come to the hut yet,” said Stabutch.
“Why?” asked the headman.
“The girl is afraid. If she sees you she will think we are deceiving her, and she may refuse to show me where the man is. We promised her that no black man would come.”
The headman hesitated. Then he shrugged and turned back. “All right,” he said.
“And tell them to leave the gates open till we have gone,” called Stabutch.
At the hut door he called to the girl. “All ready,” he said, “and hand me my rifle when you come out;” but she did not know what a rifle was and he had to step in and get it himself.
Jezebel looked at the horses with dismay.
At the thought of riding one of these strange beasts alone she was terrified. “I cannot do it,” she told Stabutch.
“You will have to—or die,” he whispered. “I’ll lead the one you ride. Here, hurry.”
He lifted her into the saddle and showed her how to use the stirrups and hold the reins. Then he put a rope about the neck of her horse; and, mounting his own, he led hers out through the village gateway while half a hundred murderers watched them depart.
As they turned upward toward the higher hills the setting sun projected their shadows far ahead, and presently night descended upon them and hid their sudden change of direction from any watchers there may have been at the village gates.