“Unless what?” demanded Doc.
“We might not be on the right trail,” suggested the other. “We might be lost after all.”
“Gee, don’t say that, Dick. If we’re lost now, we’ll never find our way out. We’ll have to stay in this jungle until we—”
“Until we what?”
“I don’t like to say it.”
“You mean until we die?”
Doc nodded his head and the boys moved on in silence, each intent upon his own gloomy thoughts. Behind them, just out of sight, came the black warrior, Zopinga. Presently Doc stopped.
“Dick!” he cried. “Do you smell something?”
Dick sniffed the air. “Smells like smoke,” he said.
“It is smoke,” exclaimed Doc, “and I can smell food cooking, too.
“We’re saved, Dick! We’re saved! It’s the train! Come on!” and both boys broke into a run.
A hundred yards of brisk running brought them to a sudden stop. Before them lay a clearing in the forest at the trail’s end. In the centre of the clearing was a palisade of poles surrounding an enclosure. Above the top of the palisade they could see the cone-shaped roofs of grass-thatched huts and, through the open gates that faced them, they could see the huts themselves and half-naked black people moving about. Outside the palisade some women were hoeing in a little patch of cultivated ground.
Dick and Doc took one look at the scene before them before they faced one another in silent consternation. So different from what they had expected had been this outcome of their hopes that both boys were shocked into utter speechlessness for a moment. It was Doc, as usual, who first regained control of his tongue.
“We’re lost, after all,” he said. “What are we going to do?”
“Maybe they’re friendly natives,” suggested Dick.
“Maybe they’re cannibals,” suggested Doc.
“I don’t believe there are any cannibals any more,” said Dick.
“I don’t intend to take any chances on that. There may be.”
“Let’s sneak back the way we came then,” whispered Dick. “They haven’t seen us yet.”
Simultaneously the two boys turned to retrace their steps and there, blocking the trail they had just trod, stood a huge, black warrior scowling savagely at them. In his hand was a sharp spear.
“Golly!” exclaimed Dick.
“Gee!” ejaculated Doc. “What shall we do?”
“We ought to be nice to him,” said Dick.
“Good morning!” said Doc, politely, with a smile that was nothing if not strained. “Nice morning, isn’t it?”
Zopinga, who had stood silent thus far, now broke into a torrent of words, not one of which the boys understood. When he had ceased, he again stood immovable.
“Well,” remarked Dick, casually, “I guess we’d better be getting along back to the train. Come on, Doc,” and he started to move along the trail past Zopinga. Instantly the sharp point of the spear was at the pit of his stomach.
Dick stopped. Zopinga pointed toward the village with his left hand and prodded Dick with his spear.
“I guess he’s inviting us to lunch,” suggested Doc.
“Whatever he’s inviting us to do, I guess we’d better do it,” said Dick.
Reluctantly the two boys turned toward the village; behind them walked Zopinga, proudly herding his captives in the direction of the gates. At sight of them the women and children working in the fields clustered about, jabbering excitedly. The women were hideous creatures whose ears and lower lips were horribly disfigured, the lobes of the former having evidently been pierced during their youth to receive heavy ornaments which had stretched the flesh until the lower part of the ear touched the shoulder, while their teeth, like those of Zopinga, were filed to sharp points, though fortunately for the peace of mind of Dick and Doc, neither boy understood the significance of this.
Some of the children threw stones and sticks at the boys and each time a hit was scored, Zopinga and the women and all the children laughed uproariously. Encouraged and emboldened by this applause one of the older children, a particularly hideous boy, rushed at Doc from the rear and swung a blow at his head with a heavy stick. Dick, while attempting to ward off the missiles that were rained upon him, had fallen a few steps behind Doc, which proved a very fortunate circumstance for his cousin as the black boy would have cracked Doc’s skull if the blow had landed squarely upon its target.
Even as the little fiend was in the act of swinging the cudgel Dick leaped in front of him and seizing his wrist with his left hand dealt the youth a blow in the face with his right fist that sent him sprawling upon his back.
Doc turned just in time to witness Dick’s act, though he did not fully realize how close and how grave had been his peril, and the two boys instinctively drew together, back to back, for mutual protection, as each was confident that Dick’s attack upon the black youth would bring down the wrath of all the others upon them.
“Good old Dick!” whispered Doc.
“I suppose we’re in for it now,” said Dick, gloomily; “but I had to do it! He’d have killed you.”
“We couldn’t be in for anything worse than we were getting before,”
Doc reminded him. “Look at ’em now! I think it did ’em good.”
For an instant the blacks were so surprised that they forgot to throw anything at the boys; then they commenced to laugh and jeer at the discomfitted youth sitting on the ground nursing a bloody nose and while they were occupied by this new diversion, Zopinga herded the boys into the village and hurried them into the presence of a very fat negro who sat in conversation with several other warriors beneath the shade of a large tree.
“This guy must be the chief,” said Doc.
“I wish we could talk to him,” said Dick. “Maybe he’d send us back to the railroad, if we could explain that that was where we want to go.”
“I’ll try,” said Doc. “P’r’aps he may understand English. Say, Big Boy!” he cried, addressing the fat negro. “Do you savvy English?” The black looked up at Doc and addressed him in one of the innumerable Bantu dialects, but the American boy only shook his head. “Nothing doing along that line, Uncle Tom,” said Doc, with a sigh, and then, brightening: “Hey, Parley voo zong glaze?”
Notwithstanding the bumps and bruises that he was nursing Dick was unable to restrain his laughter. “What’s the matter?” demanded Doc. “What’s so funny?”
Doc grinned. “I must be improving,” he said. “No one ever recognized my French as French before.”
“Your friend there doesn’t recognize it even as speech. Why don’t you try making signs?”
“I never thought of that. Good old Dick! Every once in a while he shows a gleam of intelligence. Here goes! Watch me, Rain Cloud.” He waved his hand at the negro to attract attention; then he pointed off in the general direction that he thought the railroad lay, after which he said: “Choo! Choo!” several times. Then he pointed first at Dick and then at himself; walked around in a small circle looking bewilderedly from one direction to another.
Stopping in front of the black he pointed at him, then at Dick, then at himself and finally out through the forest toward an imaginary railway and again said: “Choo! Choo! Choo! Choo!”
The negro considered him a moment through red-rimmed, bleary eyes; then he turned toward his fellows, jerked a grimy thumb in the direction of Doc, tapped his forehead significantly with a forefinger and issued a few curt instructions to Zopinga, who stepped forward and pushed the boys roughly along the village street toward its far end.
“I guess he understood your sign language all right,” said Dick.
“What makes you think so?” demanded Doc.
“Why, he thinks you’re crazy—and he’s not far off.”
“Is that so?”
Zopinga halted before a grass hut shaped like a bee-hive, with a single opening about two and a half or three feet high, upon either side of which squatted a warrior armed as was their captor. Zopinga motioned for the boys to enter and as they dropped upon their hands and knees to crawl into the dark interior, he accelerated their speed with the sole of a calloused foot and sent them, one by one, into darkness that was only a bit less thick than the foul stench which pervaded the noisome den.