Dick nodded. “It sounds like something breathing over there,” he said.
“It is,” Doc’s voice trembled just a little. “I can see something over against that wall.”
Their eyes were becoming accustomed to the gloom of the interior and slowly things were taking form within. Dick strained his eyes in the direction of the sound. “I see it—there are two of them. Do you suppose they’re men, or—”
“Or what?” asked Doc.
“Lions, or something,” suggested Dick, weakly.
Doc felt in his pants’ pocket and brought out a knife, but his fingers were trembling so that he had difficulty in opening the blade. “It’s getting up!” he whispered.
They sat with their eyes rivetted upon the dark bulk that moved against the back wall of the hut. It seemed very large and entirely ominous, though as yet it had taken on no definite form that they might recognize.
“It—it’s comin’ toward us,” chattered Doc. “I wish it was a lion! I wouldn’t be as scairt if I knew it was a lion as I am not knowing what it is.”
“Gosh, it might be anything!”
“Here comes the other one,” announced Dick. “Say, I believe they’re men. I’m getting so I can see better in this old hole. Yes, they are men.”
“Then they must be prisoners, too,” said Doc.
“Just the same you better get your knife out, too,” said Dick. “I’ve had mine out—I was just going to tell you to get yours out.” They sat very still as the two forms crept toward them on all fours and presently they saw that one was a very large negro and the other either a very small one, or a child. “Tell ’em to keep away, or we’ll stick ’em with our knives,” said Doc. “They wouldn’t understand if we did tell ’em,” replied Dick, and then, in pidgin English that they could barely understand, one of the blacks announced that he spoke excellent English.
“Gee!” exclaimed Doc, with a sigh of relief, “I could almost kiss him.”
The boys asked questions that the black understood only with the greatest difficulty and equally arduous were their efforts to translate his replies; but, at least, they had found a medium of communication, however weak and uncertain, and they were slowly coming to a realization of the predicament in which their foolhardy venture into the jungle had placed them.
“What they going to do with us in here?” asked Dick.
“Make us fat,” explained the black.
“Make us fat? What for?” demanded Doc. “Gee, I’m too fat already.”
“Make us fat to eat,” explained the negro.
“Golly!” cried Dick. “They’re cannibals! Is that what he means?”
“Yes. Bad men. Cannibals.” The black shook his head.
The boys were silent for a long time. Their thoughts were far away—far across continents and oceans to distant homes, to mothers—to all the loving and beloved friends they were never to see again.
“And to think that no one will ever know what became of us,” said Dick, solemnly. “Golly! it’s awful, Doc.”
“It hasn’t happened yet, Dick,” replied his cousin; “and it’s up to us to see that it doesn’t happen. There must be some way to escape. Anyway we mustn’t give up—not until they begin to ask which is preferred, dark meat, or light.”
Dick grinned. “You bet we won’t give up, Doc, old boy. We’ll learn all we can from this fellow so that when the time comes we’ll have a better chance of making our getaway. The first thing to do is to try to learn the language. If we only knew what they were talking about, that might help us. And anyway, if we do escape, we’ll be better off if we know how to inquire our way.”
“Yes, we might meet a traffic cop.”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
Dick turned to the black squatting beside them. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Bulala,” replied the black, and then he explained that he had been a cook, or safari, for a white man who was hunting big game; but that something had gone wrong and he had run away to go back to his home, and had been captured by these people whom he described as the Bagalla tribe.
“Do you speak the same language as these Bagalla?” demanded Doc.
“We understand each other,” replied Bulala.
“Will you teach us your language?”
Bulala was greatly pleased with the idea, and set out at once upon the role of tutor and never in the world had a tutor such eager pupils, and never had Dick and Doc applied themselves so diligently to the acquisition of useful knowledge.
“Say,” said Doc, “this language is a cinch.”
“If you learn it as well as you did French,” said Dick, “you ought to be able to understand yourself in about a hundred years, even if nobody else can understand you.”
“Is that so?” demanded Doc. “Well, you’re not so good, yourself.”
As the boys’ eyes had become more and more accustomed to the dim light of the interior of the hut they had discovered the scant furnishings, the filth, and their fellow prisoners. Bulala was evidently a densely ignorant, but happy-natured, West Coast black, while the other, whom Bulala referred to as Ukundo, was a pygmy and, though a full grown man, came barely to the shoulders of the twins.
When Ukundo discovered that Bulala was attempting to teach the boys his language, he developed a great interest in the experiment and as he was much brighter than Bulala, it was more often his own dialect that the boys learned than that of the tribe to which Bulala had belonged.
As for the furnishings of the hut, they consisted of several filthy sleeping mats that must have been discarded by their original owners as absolutely impossible for human use, and when anything becomes too filthy for a native African, its condition must be beyond words.
Ukundo generously dragged two of them into place for the boys, but when they examined them, they both drew away. “If it weren’t for the guards outside, I’d lead mine out and tie it to a tree,” said Doc.
“Afraid it would run away?” asked Dick.
“No; I’d be afraid it would crawl back in here with us.”
At dusk some food was brought them—hideously repulsive, malodorous stuff that neither of the boys could touch to their lips, half starved though they were. But Bulala and Ukundo were not so particular, and gobbled down their own portions and the boys’ as well to the accompaniment of sounds that reminded Doc of feeding time at the hog house on his grandfather’s farm.
With the coming of night there came also the night noises of the village and the jungle. Through the aperture in the base of the hut, that served both as door and window, the boys saw fires twinkling in the village; snatches of conversation came to them and the sound of laughter. They saw figures moving about the fires, and caught glimpses of savage dancers, and heard the sound of tom-toms; but the heat from the blazing fires did not enter the cold, damp hut, nor did the laughter warm their hearts.
They crept close together for warmth and at last, fell asleep, hungry, cold and exhausted.