The Lad and the Lion

Chapter Twenty

Edgar Rice Burroughs

TO THE SOUTH rode the galloploping horseman until well out of sight of the douar. Then he turned abruptly to the west; and ever to his trail clung the tireless runner, lithe, agile, and swift.

Pig! Dog! Nameless vagabond! Nasrâny! All these appellations of reproach and shame surged through the memory of Azîz as he followed along the well-marked spoor.

Was it thus that he appeared in the eyes of Nakhla? Surely it must be, for all others looked down upon him. Indeed he must be the lowest of Allah’s creatures. Well, what he was, he was. He could not help nor alter it. But if Nakhla looked down upon him why should he exert himself to rescue her from her abductors? He asked himself the question, realizing even as he put it that there was no need for it. His great love for the daughter of Ali-Es-Hadji was answer sufficient.

It was well toward noon that the trail led into a desolate and rocky gorge—granite bound, gloomy, and forbidding. In the depth of the narrow canyon Azîz went more slowly for there were many turns here, with rocky shoulders about which the spoor led. At any time he might round one of these obstacles and come full upon those he sought—it was the training of the wild beast that made him prefer to sneak stealthily along the spoor rather than to rush headlong—not through fear of personal danger, but lest the quarry, detecting him, might escape.

Azîz had advanced no great distance along the rocky defile when the report of a rifle shattered the sepulchral silence of the gorge, reverberating between its granite walls with a tumult that was appalling by contrast with the preceding quiet. Almost immediately this single shot was followed by another and another, until the sharp staccato of individual shots blended into the tattling legato of an almost continuous fusillade.

The lion-man, swiftly yet warily, pushed ahead until the rounding of a granite buttress disclosed to his view a widening of the canyon—a little flat amphitheater strewn with great boulders, and in the center of which was a small camp close beside a little well.

Half a dozen Arabs, evidently the owners of the camp, were firing from the cover of as many boulders upon an advancing troop of some twenty ill-favored tribesmen, who ran swiftly from the safety of one huge granite shelter to another as they crept closer and closer upon their intended victims.

That the attackers were of one of those roving bands of outlawed marauders which harass their more respectable brethren of the Sahara, Azîz guessed from his own experience with a similar gang at the time of his first meeting with Nakhla. Of the identity of the attacked he was not left long in doubt, for now, pressed closely by their enemies, they leaped to the backs of their snorting horses; amid a final volley of singing bullets and a rattle of stampeding hoofs, they galloped down the gorge, passing so close to the hidden lion-man that he easily recognized not only the messenger who had ridden into the douar of Ali-Es-Hadji that morning, but another as well—the solitary horseman who had brought him that last, blighting message from his Nakhla.

Instantly Azîz guessed that these were the men he sought—the scoundrels who had stolen Ali-Es-Hadji’s daughter from her father’s douar the night before; but first he wanted Nakhla—she must be rescued before ever he might indulge himself in the pleasure of revenge. His keen eyes searched the gorge ahead—nowhere was there sign of the presence of Nakhla. Where could she be? What fate had befallen her?

Beneath the boulder which hid Azîz from the galloping Arabs was a hole of sufficient depth to conceal him from anyone approaching from down the canyon. Into this the lion-man crept, so that when the marauders returning from the pursuit of the six who had escaped them passed this shelter they did not see him. Then he came stealthily out and followed them.

.     .     .     .     .

Neither threats nor pleas had availed Nakhla to release her from the clutches of Ben Saada. He had made but a single promise—that she should be safe until the messenger he had dispatched to her father had returned with the answer of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji. If the old man acceded to Ben Saada’s demands they would at once return to the douar where the marriage ceremony might be regularly carried out after the custom of their tribe; but if he did not—Ben Saada shrugged his shoulders as though to say it was immaterial to him what the old sheik’s answer might be—he should have Nakhla in any event.

At last they came into the little gorge far off the beaten track of the caravan trails where Ben Saada felt that he might safely hide pending the return of his messenger. As they built their fires and drew water from the tiny well in the cold hours of the waning night, none was aware of the presence of another party of campers some fifty yards above them, for the boulder-strewn ground might, have hid an army from the casual glances of a few unsuspecting newcomers; but there were others there that night within the gorge, nor were they ignorant of the presence of the six Arab warriors and the girl. Keen eyes had seen their coming long after keen ears had been warned by the footsteps of their horses while still far down the canyon.

Ben Saada and his little company lay down to sleep after the leader had dispatched his message to Ali-Es-Hadji. A single sleepy sentry stood upon watch, more to prevent the escape of the girl than because of any fear they entertained of the presence of enemies; and all the while the fierce eyes of the savage marauders followed every move within the camp of the newcomers.

Nakhla lay with closed eyes, feigning the regular breathing of deep slumber, though never in her life had she been so thoroughly awake. In her mind was the resolve to make a desperate break for liberty. There was no need to wait the return of the messenger—whatever the reply of her father, her fate was sealed unless she might find the means to win once more to the protection of her sire before Ben Saada should carry out his design upon her.

Below her stood the sentry. All but one of the other members of the party were stretched upon the ground between her and the direction she would have to take to return directly to her father’s douar. To pass them all would be impossible, unless the sentry should sleep; but though Nakhla lay long waiting for slumber to overtake him, her eyes open now that the regular breathing of the men lying nearest her proclaimed that they slept, she discovered no indications that he ever would diminish his watchfulness, though for the most part he kept his gaze directed down the gorge, away from her.

Realizing at last that escape in this direction would be little short of impossible and that unless she acted quickly the coming dawn would preclude any attempt whatsoever, Nakhla at last determined upon the forlorn hope of making her way up the dark, forbidding gorge until she could find a place where she might scale its western wall and make her way back to the desert and the douar toward the north.

The distant roaring of lions sent both a tremor of nervous terror through the girl and a sudden longing for the happy days that she had spent with her Azîz, and his great brother, el adrea. The thought of the man brought also a quick tightening of the lips and a clenching of the slim, brown hands—jealousy, green-eyed and blighting, clutched her fast-beating heart. She saw as plainly as though they stood before her now, the handsome, khaki-clad white man sitting his horse beside the laughing girl of his own color—ah, that was the misery of it—a girl of his own color. For the first time in her life Nakhla hated the beautiful bronze of her own smooth skin.

But now there was no time for such thoughts or such repining. The dangerous business of the minute must be done now or never. Cautiously the girl slipped from the rug that covered her. The sentry still stood like a graven image, his face turned toward the north. Upon her hands and knees Nakhla crept around the form of the single sleeper who lay a few yards above her. The man moved, throwing an arm above his head; and the girl halted, frozen to terrified silence. Then he breathed again with the quiet regularity of deep slumber.

On she went. Now she was beyond them all. A great boulder loomed dark before her. Behind it she would rest for a moment and quiet her shaken nerves. As she moved, a score of eyes watched her from up the canyon. They saw her come in safety to the great boulder and hide there for a moment. They saw her resume her stealthy way upward directly toward them.

When Nakhla resumed her flight after a momentary pause behind the first boulder she came to her feet, for now she could keep the great rock between herself and Ben Saada’s camp. She moved more swiftly now but still taking advantage of every cover, running quickly from behind one huge granite fragment to the screening safety of the next.

Thus she made her way for fifty yards, when, coming about the shoulder of another shelter, she ran straight into the arms of a man who closed with her, clapping a great hand over her mouth. A moment later she was surrounded by others of her own race.

Grimly they warned her to silence, leading her far up the canyon to where were others holding horses as though ready for instant flight. Here she remained under a strong guard, and with the rising of the sun she saw from the appearance of her captors that she had at last fallen into the hands of such a band of marauders as her Azîz had preserved her from upon that first day of their friendship.

She could not guess the purpose of the long wait under the hot sun, and to all her questions her guards returned only sullen scowls. It was about noon that she heard a rattle of musketry far down the gorge, the sound of firing diminished in the distance as the combatants moved down the tight little canyon.

Half an hour later the main body of the marauders returned hot and dusty. They were very angry—their prey had escaped them. Their leader had guessed from what Nakhla had told him that Ben Saada’s messenger had gone forth to demand ransom for the girl and it was with the hope of securing this should the man have been successful in obtaining it that they had waited and watched in the gorge for the return of the messenger.

Now they were wroth indeed, and black and ugly were the looks they cast upon the girl, as though it was she who had caused them to lose the ransom money they had hoped to obtain. She heard them arguing among themselves with occasional glances in her direction which indicated quite plainly the subject of their debate.

It was evident that some stood out for one plan while others adhered tenaciously to another; but at last a tall, brutal-looking fellow who seemed to be the leader decided the matter peremptorily, and with a few orders to his followers rose from the council, coming over to where Nakhla sat with her back to a large boulder.

“Get up,” he said, gruffly. “You will ride behind Mohammed,” and he nodded toward the sentry.

“Where are you taking me?” asked Nakhla.

“Where you will fetch a good price,” and he nodded toward the south.

Nakhla understood. “Why not go at once to Ali-Es-Hadji,” she said, “and have thy foul heart cut out, for sooner or later the sheik, my father, will find you and avenge his daughter.”

The man grinned. “Ali-Es-Hadji will ride far before he comes upon Sidi-El-Seghir,” he replied. “I know the old wolf well enough to keep far from his country after robbing him of his whelp.”

“All Africa will hold no corner far enough from his wrath that you may escape it,” said Nakhla. Sidi-El-Seghir scowled. He was much of the same opinion himself, but he cared not to hear his fears voiced by another.

“Then,” continued Nakhla, “there are the French. The Sultan has given them permission to build a fort by the caravan route close to the sea. Already they have made friends with Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji. He will go to them, and they will help him find you—the arm of the white man is long, Sidi-El-Seghir. They will surely get you before you can dispose of me.”

“Then,” said Sidi-El-Seghir, “we must waste no time here. Come,” and turning to his followers he issued such commands as were necessary to set the band of ruffians upon their way, Nakhla riding behind Mohammed’s saddle.

Straight up the narrow gorge they filed, passing out of it by a steep and rocky path to a rough upland country across which traveling was arduous and slow; and behind them moved a beast of prey, taking advantage of every cover, his fierce eyes fixed upon the girl who rode among her captors.

In his haste Sidi-El-Seghir mistook the way, so that late afternoon found him and his party in a little cul-de-sac in the mountains, from which there was no way out other than that which required the retracing of their steps for a matter of a two-hour march or more.

It was getting late; and so the marauder decided to camp where he was for the night, for here at least was water, whereas, should he go back to take up the right trail at the point at which they had left it, they should have to make a dry camp that night.

Above them, prowling along the rim of the encircling cliffs, moved the beast that had stalked them all afternoon. He saw Sidi-El-Seghir place a guard at the narrow mouth of the little, rocky pocket in which the marauders were preparing camp. He could not pass in that way without being detected, for the entrance was scarce three feet wide, passing between the narrow walls where they almost came together; and directly in the narrowest part the sentry was posted.

But over the precipitous edge there might be a way, and it was in search of such that the beast prowled back and forth until long after dusk had fallen. In the gathering shadows he twice essayed the descent, but in each instance found insufficient foothold to permit him to reach the bottom in safety. Each time he carefully retraced his steps to the summit to renew the attempt at another point.

Below, in the camp, the Arabs ate—a few handfuls of dried dates, following a scanty ration of beans cooked above a tiny sagebrush fire. For half an hour thereafter they kept the fire burning while they smoked and talked; then, rolling themselves up in their rugs, they stretched out about the glowing embers of the dying blaze to sleep.

Nakhla lay a little apart from her captors turning over in her active mind a score of possibilities for escape or rescue. She knew that Ali-Es-Hadji would lose no time in taking up the pursuit of her abductors, but whether he would be able to follow their spoor over the rough and rocky trail that they had followed for so considerable a part of the flight she doubted.

Into her thoughts, too, came the memory of the tall and handsome brother of el adrea. Now, perhaps, he was sitting at the feet of the French girl, even as he had sat at her feet, stroking the white hand of the stranger. Nakhla’s breast rose and fell in riotous jealousy and hate.

“The Nasrâny!” she muttered. “I hate him!” and then out of the darkness, close behind her she heard the low purring of a lion.

Startled, Nakhla came to her elbow. Her lips had formed a cry of warning to the Arabs, when, whispered in a scare audible breath from the point in the darkness upon which her terrified eyes were riveted, there issued a low: “Nakhla!”

The Nasrâny! I hate him. The words that she formed inaudibly a moment before came rushing back from her memory. She needed no confirming proof of sight to know that it was he—the Nasrâny.

A moment later he was beside her. The Arabs, deep in slumber, were insensible to the silent tread of the lion-man. The sentry was too far away to have heard even a much noisier approach.

“Come!” he said, and taking her by the hand led softly toward the overhanging cliff upon the west side of the basin.

As they left, Sidi-El-Seghir stirred in his sleep. Some presentiment of wrong awakened him. He sat up, rubbing his eyes and peering about him through the darkness. There was no sound. All seemed quite as it should be. He was about to settle down once more, when the insistence of the apprehension that something was afoot that boded him ill altered his intention. It would do no harm to have a look at the prisoner.

Rising, Sidi-El-Seghir strode to the spot where Nakhla had placed the dirty rug they had loaned her. She was gone! Instantly the marauder’s voice rang out upon the silence of the wilderness. His men sprang to their feet.

“The girl!” he cried. “She has gone! Make a light and search for her.”

Then he ran to where the sentry stood. She could not have passed him, the fellow swore by Allah and His prophet.

“She must then be still within the basin,” said Sidi-El-Seghir, “unless, dog, thou hast slept,” but the sentry insisted that he had not closed an eye, and so the leader and his motley crew of ruffians set to work over every inch of the small cul-de-sac.

Near the westward cliff Azîz was searching for the meager foothold that had given him ingress to the basin from that side. With one hand he grasped the hand of Nakhla, and with the other groped about the cliff’s steep face, peering through the darkness for the way he had come. Neither had spoken—the enemy were too close at hand. They could now hear the voice of Sidi-El-Seghir raised angrily.

Gradually the darkness of the pit-like place was lifting before the moon which slowly rose above the eastern wall. The Arab leader had sage brush piled upon the embers of the dying fire to light up the surroundings in the hope that the whereabouts of the girl might be revealed. Already the flames were leaping higher and higher, but it was the moon the fugitives need fear the most.

A dozen times Azîz attempted to scale the steep cliff, only to be baffled by some overhanging crag ere he had gained a score of upward feet. Now the Arabs were spreading out over the entire area of the basin. In the growing light of the fire, Azîz and Nakhla could see them, and then the moon topped the eastern barrier flooding the face of the westward cliff in its soft light.

Clear cut and distinct against the bare rock the figures of the man and the maid stood cut as though a searchlight had been turned upon them. Instantly there was a shout of savage relief from the marauders, as they raced toward the two.

Azîz had left his musket, bandoleer, pistol and knife at the cliff top. Naked but for his loin cloth he had made the descent, for he could not risk the chance alarm of an accouterment scraping upon the rocky wall.

Now, as the Arabs charged, the lion-man crouched. For all the world he looked to the girl at his side like a lion at bay. His eyes flamed, his head was flattened, his fine, strong 1ips were slightly upcurved to expose the fighting fangs, and from his deep throat rumbled the angry challenge of el adrea.

Before his menacing attitude and hideous growls the armed men halted looking wonderingly at him and at one another.

“It is the same,” cried Sidi-El-Seghir, “that attacked us with el adrea when Kaliphe would have taken this same girl and was killed by this beast-man.”

“Allah!” exclaimed another. “It is no man—it is a devil. Let us hasten away.”

But Sidi-El-Seghir had gone too far now to be thwarted by either man or devil, and so with leveled musket he advanced upon the naked man, calling to his companions to do likewise.

With a score of firearms aimed directly at them, Nakhla realized that all thoughts of escape or even resistance must be foregone. She did not wish to see her would-be rescuer slain as the sole reward for having championed her. She laid a cool hand upon his shoulder.

“There is no use,” she said. “Let us give ourselves up now, and await another opportunity.”

But scarce had she voiced the plea when Azîz sprang for the nearest Arab. The fellow’s matchlock missed fire, and then he was down beneath rending fangs. His companions dared not fire for fear of hitting him, but they clubbed their guns and a moment later it was an insensible lion-man that lay securely bound beside the fire. At his head sat Nakhla bathing the wound upon his forehead.

The Lad and the Lion - Contents    |     Chapter Twenty-One

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