The Lad and the Lion

Chapter Ten

Edgar Rice Burroughs

IT WAS the sudden rumbling growls of the lad and the lion that first attracted the attention of the marauders, all intent upon the struggle of their chief with the beautiful prisoner.

Turning, they beheld a sight that filled them with fear and consternation. There is little else on earth that an Arab fears as he fears a lion; and the sight of the prodigious proportions of the beast that was charging upon them was enough in itself to fill them with panic; but the presence of the naked white man, his face fierce with rage and hideous growls and roars bursting from his lips, was the last straw. Turning in very direction they sought their horses and escape; but several of the mounts, terrified at the roaring of the two beasts, had bolted up the canyon, and now three of the marauders, with their chief, found themselves at the mercy of the enemy.

The fellow who had grappled with Nakhla was so prostrated by fear that he still stood as one paralyzed, his fingers clutching the girl’s arms, his head turned toward the charging demons, his eyes wide with terror.

It was toward him that the youth leaped. To the lion he assigned the others—how, who may know? but as effectually as though the two owned a common language as good as yours and mine.

Nakhla, her level gaze full upon the youth, waited the outcome of his attack; and now the marauder, suddenly freed from the grip of his benumbing fright, released her and turned to meet the lad. There was no time to draw the long pistol from his belt, nor the keen knife—it was with naked hands alone that he must meet his unarmed foeman.

The lad, knowing no other method of attack than that which he had learned from the fierce carnivore, leaped straight for the Arab’s throat, the weight of his body hurling the marauder to the ground. Rolling about among the bushes and the rocks the two battled with all the virgin ferocity of the primeval, for the son of the desert has advanced but little in the scale of humanity—he is the same today as he was when the first remote historian recorded his existence—and the lad was truly primal, as much so as the great cat he emulated.

Nakhla watched the battle with the keenest interest. A birthright of the daughters of the sun-stricken Sahara is an overwhelming admiration for physical supremacy in man, nor had this daughter of a sheik been denied a tithe or tittle of her dower. So engrossed was she in watching the strong, cat-like movements of the strange youth that she quite forgot to take advantage of the preoccupation of her enemies to escape. She saw that the lion had crushed with a single blow the head of one of the marauders and that after pursuing and dispatching another he had turned to the third, who was racing for his life toward some small trees that grew in the bottom of the canyon.

The fellow had had a good start; but the lion was covering the ground between them in huge bounds, his tail straight out behind, his jaws grinning wide, and savage roars thundering from his great lungs. It was a most impressive sight; but—after the marauders, what? The girl could not repress an involuntary shudder.

The man was within a few paces of the tree and safety, when, with a final mighty leap the lion sprang full upon his back. The two rolled over and over to the very foot of the tree that the man had hoped to reach. Then the lion came to his feet. He was standing, his back toward the girl, his legs wide apart straddling his victim, his head down close to the head of the man. Nakhla saw a slight movement of the massive head as the jaws closed. She heard the crunching of bone. There was a sudden shaking of the whole mighty frame, as of a terrier’s when it shakes a rat; then el adrea raised his dripping mouth to the heavens and gave voice to the thundering challenge that makes the earth tremble—the king of beasts had made his kill.

So absorbed had the girl been for the moment in the flight of the marauder and the lion’s pursuit that she had neglected the more important struggle going on so close to her; but now her attention was suddenly recalled to it by the sound of another mighty roar close behind her.

Another lion! She turned with startled alacrity to face this new menace; but there was no lion. Instead, she saw the youth standing over the body of the dead marauder chief, and raising his voice to the heavens even as did his savage companion.

Then it was that Nakhla realized the precious moments she had thrown away, and what the neglect must cost her. The youth was looking straight at her. In another moment he would leap upon her as he had upon the marauder, and she should feel those strong white teeth at her throat. Then she saw his glance go past her, quickly, and she turned to see what had attracted his attention. She saw, and her knees went weak with the sight of it. Not a dozen paces from her the great lion was trotting toward her, his head and chin outstretched and flattened low, his yellow-green eyes two menacing slits of cunning.

Instinctively Nakhla shrank toward the youth. He was of human form—a man. Where else might intuition guide her for succor? It was the last scruple that was needed to tip the scales upon the side of humanity—the appeal of the woman for protection. Mute though it was it awoke a sleeping chord within the youth’s broad breast—a chord that set his whole being vibrating in response.

With a quick, cat-like movement he stepped to her side, between her and the lion, and placing an arm about her called el adrea to his feet. What passed between the savage two the girl could not guess; but a moment later the lord of the wilderness rubbed his giant head against her knees; and then she felt the rasp of his rough tongue upon her hand, before he dropped, purring and contented, at her feet to lick the blood from his outstretched paws.

Nakhla turned, wide-eyed and wondering, to look up into the eyes of the youth. She found him gazing down upon her in equal wonder, and as their eyes met he smiled—such a gentle, manly, honest smile that won her confidence as no empty words might have done. She smiled back into his handsome face. His arm was still about her, nor did it seem strange to her that it should be so. A moment ago she had looked upon this man with feelings of terror, now it seemed that in all the world there was no other with whom she might be half so safe.

She tried to express the gratitude she felt for her rescue from the marauders, but it was soon evident to her that he understood no word of her language. His face took on a trouble expression as she talked, for he realized that she was attempting to communicate with him, though never before had he realized the possible existence of a spoken language.

Suddenly a new thought filled him with hope. He recalled the meager sign language that the old man of the derelict had taught him. Immediately his fingers commenced to fly before the girl’s face; but to his disappointment he saw only as blank a look of incomprehension as her attempts at communication had brought to his own countenance. He gave up in despair.

Nakhla was at her wits end to find a way to explain to him that she wished to return to the safety of her father’s douar. At last she tried taking him by the hand and leading him in the direction she wished to go, at the same time pointing up the canyon.

Finally he seemed to comprehend—the expression upon his face indicated it; but first he evidently had other matters to attend to. The sight of the dead marauders and the girl, all clothed as he had seen that the few others of his kind he had met always were had again aroused within him the desire for raiment.

He approached the body of the marauder chieftain, and after considerable study succeeded in removing the clothing; but his attempts to transfer it to his own person would have ended in failure had not Nakhla come to his rescue. With the aid of her nimble fingers the youth was soon clothed in the rags of the marauder. The belt and pistol as well as the long knife he appropriated, too, though he had no idea of the use of the firearm and but little as to that of the knife. However, his kind were thus equipped; and so it was his pride to be similarly dressed.

During the tedious ceremony of clothing his companion, the lion lay watching the proceeding with half-closed eyes. Whether he felt any misgivings of this first step of his friend in the direction of another life may not be known; but at least outwardly he ignored it nor ever did it change his attitude toward his young lord.

When the youth stood at last fully clothed he pointed up the canyon as the girl had pointed, and taking her by the hand led her in the direction she desired to go. The lion rose, yawning widely, and accompanied them, walking by Nakhla’s side, so that she was between her two mighty protectors. She could not cease to wonder at the strange adventure that found her walking unafraid with the black mane of a great lion brushing her side.

When they had come to the steep ascent that leads over the hills at the canyon’s end, the youth reached over and taking her left hand laid it upon the lion’s mane, indicating to her that she should grasp it. At first she feared to do so; but the youth insisted, and presently she found herself clinging to the great beast and being drawn up the difficult ascent by him upon one side and the youth upon the other.

At the top, all breathless, they halted, and the girl and the man looked at one another and laughed. Nakhla was happy—she could not remember ever before having been so happy as she was that moment, standing there in the glare of the African sun looking out across the burning sands in the direction of the far douar of her tribe—close against her left side pressing the hot, fierce body of a lion, and upon the other a tall young white man whose fingers pressed her own slender brown ones in a clasp that seemed unwilling ever to release her. And furthest that moment from her mind was any thought of fear; though another emotion, all unknown to her, was knocking for admission there and to the unwon citadel of her virgin heart.

The youth, too, was happy. Happy with a great joy that surged through him—starting, to his wonderment, from the left hand that pressed the right hand of his lovely companion, and tingling on through every fibre of his being. So great was his happiness that he could not contain it—it must find vent in some form of physical expression. An ordinary man might have sung or shouted; but the youth was no ordinary man. Instead of singing he raised his face to the wide, wide world and from his deep lungs there bellowed forth the roar of the lion who seeks his mate, and still the girl was unafraid. Upon her left the other savage beast raised his mighty voice in a similar thundering paean, and presently from afar off came the answering roar of a lioness.

A sudden, involuntary sigh burst from Nakhla’s lips. Her fingers pressed those of the youth more closely. Her lithe young body leaned nearer to his; and as she raised her brown eyes to his grey, there was a puzzled, wondering question in them—an expression half of fear and half of hope. The lad, for with all his giant stature he was still but a lad, looked down into the eyes of the girl; and each read there in the other’s that age-old, wordless poem whose infinite beauty and meaning neither as yet understood.

They only knew that they were happy, and that it was good to be alive and together and that the world was a very wonderful place. And then in silence, and hand in hand, with the great beast of prey beside them, they walked down into the desert setting their faces toward the east and the douar of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji, for by now the youth understood their destination and that he was taking the girl back to her people.

It was quite dark by the time they came close to the tents. Here they halted a hundred yards from the douar. The girl tried gently to lead the man on with her to her father’s tent that the old sheik might thank him who had saved her from a fate worse than death; but the youth was timid with the timidity of the wild thing in the face of the habitations of men. That he was not afraid the girl knew. Instinctively she guessed the truth; and then she commenced to wonder if he would let her go to her people, for she had not been ignorant entirely of the meaning of the pressure upon her hand or the light in the eyes of her companion. She was as pure as he, but her life among human beings had resulted in a certain sophistication that was still unknown to the lad.

When she tried to say goodbye to him he seemed to understand; and he let her go, for in his heart he knew that he should see her again; and in her eyes, even in the moonlight, he read the wish that it should be so. And so, with a pressure of the hands, she left him standing there under the brilliant moon upon the yellow sands, the great lion at his side, and about the lion’s neck one of his strong, tanned arms showing beneath the back flung burnoose of the dead marauder chieftain.

At the edge of the tents she flung a backward, longing glance, to see the two silent figures still standing as she had left them—the lad and the lion, into whose lives had come a new power, greater than any with which they had ever coped—greater than their lifelong friendship—more potent than the mighty thews of steel that rolled so softly beneath their savage skins.

The girl raised her hand above her head and waved a farewell to the man. He answered her in kind, his heart leaping at the sight of her. And then she was gone within the tents of her people.

From far out across the moon-bathed sands came, faintly, the roar of a lioness. The beast beneath the man’s hand thrilled and trembled; and then from his fierce throat broke an answering roar.

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