“Do not go on, Bwana,” urged one of the natives. “It is the village of the Leopard Men.”
“It is the village of old Gato Mgungu,” retorted Old Timer. “I have traded with him in the past.”
“Then you came with many followers and with guns; then Gato Mgungu was a trader. Today you come with only two boys; today you will find that old Gato Mgungu is a Leopard Man.”
“Bosh!” exclaimed the white man. “He would not dare harm a white.”
“You do not know them,” insisted the black. “They would kill their own mothers for flesh if there was no one to see them do it.”
“Every sign that we have seen indicates that the girl was brought here,” argued Old Timer. “Leopard Men or no Leopard Men, I am going into the village.”
“I do not wish to die,” said the Negro.
“Nor do I,” agreed his fellow.
“Then wait for me in the forest. Wait until the shadow of the forest has left the palisade in the morning. If I have not returned then, go back to the camp where the young bwana waits and tell him that I am dead.”
The natives shook their heads. “Do not go, Bwana. The white woman was not your wife, neither was she your mother nor your sister. Why should you die for a woman who was nothing to you?”
Old Timer shook his head. “You would not understand.” He wondered if he himself understood. Vaguely he realized that the force that was driving him on was not governed by reason; back of it was something inherent, bred into his fiber through countless generations of his kind. Its name was duty. If there was another more powerful force actuating him he was not conscious of it. Perhaps there was no other. There were lesser forces, though, and one of them was anger and another, desire for revenge. But two days of tracking through the jungle had cooled these to the point where he would no longer have risked his life to gratify them. It was the less obvious but more powerful urge that drove him on.
“Perhaps I shall return in a few minutes,” he said, “but if not, then until tomorrow morning!” He shook their hands in parting.
“Good luck, Bwana!”
“May the good spirits watch over you, Bwana!”
He strode confidently along the path that skirted the manioc field toward the gates set in the palisade. Savage eyes watched his approach. Behind him the eyes of his servitors filled with tears. Inside the palisade a warrior ran to the hut of Gato Mgungu.
“A white man is coming,” he reported. “He is alone.”
“Let him enter, and bring him to me,” ordered the chief.
As Old Timer came close to the gates one of them swung open. He saw a few warriors surveying him more or less apathetically. There was nothing in their demeanor to suggest antagonism, neither was their greeting in any way friendly. Their manner was wholly perfunctory. He made the sign of peace, which they ignored; but that did not trouble him. He was not concerned with the attitude of warriors, only with that of Gato Mgungu, the chief. As he was, so would they be.
“I have come to visit my friend, Gato Mgungu,” he announced.
“He is waiting for you,” replied the warrior who had taken word of his coming to the chief. “Come with me.”
Old Timer noted the great number of warriors in the village. Among them he saw wounded men and knew that there had been a battle. He hoped that they had been victorious. Gato Mgungu would be in better humor were such the case. The scowling, unfriendly glances of the villagers did not escape him as he followed his guide toward the hut of the chief. On the whole, the atmosphere of the village was far from reassuring; but he had gone too far to turn back, even had he been of a mind to do so.
Gato Mgungu received him with a surly nod. He was sitting on a stool in front of his hut surrounded by a number of his principal followers. There was no answering smile or pleasant word to Old Timer’s friendly greeting. The aspect of the situation appeared far from roseate.
“What are you doing here?” demanded Gato Mgungu.
The smile had faded from the white man’s face. He knew that this was no time for soft words. There was danger in the very air. He sensed it without knowing the reason for it; and he knew that a bold front, alone, might release him from a serious situation.
“I have come for the white girl,” he said.
Gato Mgungu’s eyes shifted. “What white girl?” he demanded.
“Do not lie to me with questions,”’ snapped Old Timer. “The white girl is here. For two days I have followed those who stole her from my camp. Give her to me. I wish to return to my people who wait for me in the forest.”
“There is no white girl in my village,” growled Gato Mgungu, “nor do I take orders from white men. I am Gato Mgungu, the chief. I give orders.”
“You’ll take orders from me, you old scoundrel,” threatened the other, “or I’ll have a force down on your village that’ll wipe it off the map.”
Gato Mgungu sneered. “I know you, white man. There are two of you and six natives in your safari. You have few guns. You are poor. You steal ivory. You do not dare go where the white rulers are. They would put you in jail. You come with big words, but big words do not frighten Gato Mgungu; and now you are my prisoner.”
“Well, what of it?” demanded Old Timer. “What do you think you’re going to do with me?”
“Kill you,” replied Gato Mgungu.
The white man laughed. “No you won’t; not if you know what’s good for you. The government would burn your village and hang you when they found it out.”
“They will not find it out,” retorted the chief. “Take him away. See that he does not escape.”
Old Timer looked quickly around at the evil, scowling faces surrounding him. It was then that he recognized the chief, Bobolo, with whom he had long been upon good terms. Two warriors laid heavy hands upon him to drag him away. “Wait!” he exclaimed, thrusting them aside. “Let me speak to Bobolo. He certainly has sense enough to stop this foolishness.”
“Take him away!” shouted Gato Mgungu.
Again the warriors seized him, and as Bobolo made no move to intercede in his behalf the white man accompanied his guard without further demonstration. After disarming him they took him to a small hut, filthy beyond description, and, tying him securely, left him under guard of a single sentry who squatted on the ground outside the low doorway; but they neglected to remove the pocket knife from a pocket in his breeches.
Old Timer was very uncomfortable. His bonds hurt his wrists and ankles. The dirt floor of the hut was uneven and hard. The place was alive with crawling, biting things. It was putrid with foul stenches. In addition to these physical discomforts the outlook was mentally distressing. He began to question the wisdom of his quixotic venture and to upbraid himself for not listening to the councel of his two followers.
But presently thoughts of the girl and the horrid situation in which she must be, if she still lived, convinced him that even though he had failed he could not have done otherwise than he had. He recalled to his mind a vivid picture of her as he had last seen her, he recounted her perfections of face and figure, and he knew that if chance permitted him to escape from the village of Gato Mgungu he would face even greater perils to effect her rescue.
His mind was still occupied with thoughts of her when he heard someone in conversation with his guard, and a moment later a figure entered the hut. It was now night; the only light was that reflected from the cooking fires burning about the village and a few torches set in the ground before the hut of the chief. The interior of his prison was in almost total darkness. The features of his visitor were quite invisible. He wondered if he might be the executioner, come to inflict the death penalty pronounced by the chief; but at the first words he recognized the voice of Bobolo.
“Perhaps I can help you,” said his visitor. “You would like to get out of here?”
“Of course. Old Mgungu must have gone crazy. What’s the matter with the old fool, anyway?”
“He does not like white men. I am their friend. I will help you.”
“Good for you, Bobolo,” exclaimed Old Timer. “You’ll never regret it.”
“It cannot be done for nothing,” suggested Bobolo.
“Name your price.”
“It is not my price,” the black hastened to assure him; “it is what I shall have to pay to others.”
“Well, how much?”
“Ten tusks of ivory.”
Old Timer whistled. “Wouldn’t you like a steam yacht and a Rolls Royce, too?”
“Yes,” agreed Bobolo, willing to accept anything whether or not he knew what it was.
“Well, you don’t get them; and, furthermore, ten tusks are too many.”
Bobolo shrugged. “You know best, white man, what your life is worth.” He arose to go.
“Wait!” exclaimed Old Timer. “You know it is hard to get any ivory these days.”
“I should have asked for a hundred tusks; but you are a friend, and so I asked only ten.”
“Get me out of here and I will bring the tusks to you when I get them. It may take time, but I will bring them.”
Bobolo shook his head. “I must have the tusks first. Send word to your white friend to send me the tusks; then you will be freed.”
“How can I send word to him? My men are not here.”
“I will send a messenger.”
“All right, you old horse-thief,” consented the white. “Untie my wrists and I’ll write a note to him.”
“That will not do. I would not know what the paper that talks said. It might say things that would bring trouble to Bobolo.”
“You’re darn right it would,” soliloquized Old Timer. “If I could get the notebook and pencil out of my pocket The Kid would get a message that would land you in jail and hang Gato Mgungu into the bargain.” But aloud he said, “How will he know that the message is from me?”
“Send something by the messenger that he will know is yours. You are wearing a ring. I saw it today.”
“How do I know you will send the right message?” demurred Old Timer. “You might demand a hundred tusks.”
“I am your friend. I am very honest. Also, there is no other way. Shall I take the ring?”
“Very well; take it.”
The Negro stepped behind Old Timer and removed the ring from his finger. “When the ivory comes you will be set free,” he said as he stooped, and passed out of the hut.
“I don’t take any stock in the old fraud,” thought the white man, “but a drowning man clutches at a straw.”
Bobolo grinned as he examined the ring by the light of a fire. “I am a bright man,” he muttered to himself. “I shall have a ring as well as the ivory.” As for freeing Old Timer, that was beyond his power; nor had he any intention of even attempting it. He was well contented with himself when he joined the other chiefs who were sitting in council with Gato Mgungu.
They were discussing, among other things, the method of dispatching the white prisoner. Some wished to have him slain and butchered in the village that they might not have to divide the flesh with the priests and the Leopard God at the temple. Others insisted that he be taken forthwith to the high priest that his flesh might be utilized in the ceremonies accompanying the induction of the new white high priestess. There was a great deal of oratory, most of which was in apropos; but that is ever the way of men in conferences. Black or white they like to hear their own voices.
Gato Mgungu was in the midst of a description of heroic acts that he had performed in a battle that had been fought twenty years previously when he was silenced by a terrifying interruption. There was a rustling of the leaves in the tree that overhung his hut; a heavy object hurtled down into the center of the circle formed by the squatting councilors, and as one man they leaped to their feet in consternation. Expressions of surprise, awe, or terror were registered upon every countenance. They turned affrighted glances upward into the tree, but nothing was visible there among the dark shadows; then they looked down at the thing lying at their feet. It was the corpse of a man, its wrists and ankles bound, its throat cut from ear to ear.
“It is Lupingu, the Utenga,” whispered Gato Mgungu. “He brought me word of the coming of the son of Lobongo and his warriors.”
“It is an ill omen,” whispered one.
“They have punished the traitor,” said another.
“But who could have carried him into the tree and thrown him down upon us?” demanded Bobolo.
“He spoke today of one who claimed to be the muzimo of Orando,” explained Gato Mgungu, “a huge white man whose powers were greater than the powers of Sobito, the witch-doctor of Tumbai.”
“We have heard of him from another,” interjected a chief.
“And he spoke of another,” continued Gato Mgungu, “that is the spirit of Nyamwegi of Kibbu, who was killed by children of the Leopard God. This one has taken the form of a little monkey.”
“Perhaps it was the muzimo that brought Lupingu here,” suggested Bobolo. “It is a warning. Let us take the white man to the high priest to do with as he sees fit. If he kills him the fault will not be ours.”
“Those are the words of a wise man.” The speaker was one who owed a debt to Bobolo.
“It is dark,” another reminded them; “perhaps we had better wait until morning.”
“Now is the time,” said Gato Mgungu. “If the muzimo is white and is angry because we have made this white man prisoner, he will hang around the village as long as we keep the other here. We will take him to the temple. The high priest and the Leopard God are stronger than any muzimo.”
Hidden amidst the foliage of a tree Muzimo watched the natives in the palisaded village below. The Spirit of Nyamwegi, bored by the sight, disgusted with all this wandering about by night, had fallen asleep in his arms. Muzimo saw the warriors arming and forming under the commands of their chiefs. The white prisoner was dragged from the hut in which he had been imprisoned, the bonds were removed from his ankles, and he was hustled under guard toward the gateway through which the warriors were now debouching upon the river front. Here they launched a flotilla of small canoes (some thirty of them) each with a capacity of about ten men, for there were almost three hundred warriors of the Leopard God in the party, only a few having been left in the village to act as a guard. The large war canoes, seating fifty men, were left behind, bottom up, upon the shore.
As the last canoe with its load of painted savages drifted down the dark current, Muzimo and The Spirit of Nyamwegi dropped from the tree that had concealed them and followed along the shore. An excellent trail paralleled the river; and along this Muzimo trotted, keeping the canoes always within hearing.
The Spirit of Nyamwegi, aroused from sound sleep to follow many more of the hated Gomangani than he could count, was frightened and excited. “Let us turn back,” he begged. “Why must we follow all these Gomangani who will kill us if they catch us, when we might be sleeping safely far away in a nice large tree?”
“They are the enemies of Orando,” explained Muzimo. “We follow to see where they are going and what they are going to do.”
“I do not care where they are going or what they are going to do,” whimpered The Spirit of Nyamwegi; “I am sleepy. If we go on, Sheeta will get us or Sabor or Numa; if not they, then the Gomangani. Let us go back.”
“No,” replied the white giant. “I am a muzimo. Muzimos must know everything. Therefore I must go about by night as well as by day watching the enemies of Orando. If you do not wish to come with me climb a tree and sleep.”
The Spirit of Nyamwegi was afraid to go on with Muzimo, but he was more afraid to remain alone in this strange forest; so he said nothing more about the matter as Muzimo trotted along the dark trail beside the dark, mysterious river.
They had covered about two miles when Muzimo became aware that the canoes had stopped, and a moment later he came to the bank of a small affluent of the larger stream. Into this the canoes were moving slowly in single file. He watched them, counting, until the last had entered the sluggish stream and disappeared in the darkness of the overhanging verdure; then, finding no trail, he took to the trees, following the canoes by the sound of the dipping paddles beneath him.
It chanced that Old Timer was in a canoe commanded by Bobolo, and he took advantage of the opportunity to ask the chief whither they were taking him and why; but Bobolo cautioned him to silence, whispering that at present no one must know of his friendship for the prisoner. “Where you are going you will be safer; your enemies will not be able to find you,” was the most that he would say.
“Nor my friends either,” suggested Old Timer; but to that Bobolo made no answer.
The surface of the stream beneath the trees, which prevented even the faint light of a moonless sky from reaching it, was shrouded in utter darkness. Old Timer could not see the man next to him, nor his hand before his face. How the paddlers guided their craft along this narrow, tortuous river appeared little less than a miracle to him, yet they moved steadily and surely toward their destination. He wondered what that destination might be. There seemed something mysterious and uncanny in the whole affair. The river itself was mysterious. The unwonted silence of the warriors accentuated the uncanniness of the situation. Everything combined to suggest to his imagination a company of dead men paddling up a river of death, three hundred Charons escorting his dead soul to Hell. It was not a pleasant thought; he sought to thrust it from his mind, but there was none more pleasant to replace it. It seemed to Old Timer that his fortunes never before had been at such low ebb.
“At least,” he soliloquized, “I have the satisfaction of knowing that things could get no worse.”
One thought which recurred persistently caused him the most concern. It was of the girl and her fate. While he was not convinced that she had not been in the village while he was captive there, he felt that such had not been the case. He realized that his judgment was based more upon intuition than reason, but the presentiment was so strong that it verged upon conviction. Being positive that she had been brought to the village only a short time before his arrival, he sought to formulate some reasonable conjecture as to the disposition the savages had made of her. He doubted that they had killed her as yet. Knowing, as he did, that they were cannibals, he was positive that the killing of the girl, if they intended to kill her, would be reserved for a spectacular ceremony and followed by a dance and an orgy. There had not been time for such a celebration since she had been brought to the village; therefore it seemed probable that she had preceded him up this mysterious river of darkness.
He hoped that this last conjecture might prove correct, not only because of the opportunity it would afford to rescue her from her predicament (provided that lay within his power) but because it would bring him near her once more where, perchance, he might see or even touch her. Absence had but resulted in stimulating his mad infatuation for her. Mere contemplation of her charms aroused to fever heat his longing for her, redoubled his anger against the savages who had abducted her.
His mind was thus occupied by these complex emotions when his attention was attracted by a light just ahead upon the right bank of the stream. At first he saw only the light, but presently he perceived human figures dimly illuminated by its rays and behind it the outlines of a large structure. The number of the figures increased rapidly and more lights appeared. He saw that the former were the crews of the canoes which had preceded his and the latter torches borne by people coming from the structure, which he now saw was a large building.
Presently his own canoe pulled in to the bank, and he was hustled ashore. Here, among the warriors who had come from the village, were savages clothed in the distinctive apparel of the Leopard Men. It was these who had emerged from the building, carrying torches. A few of them wore hideous masks. They were the priests of the Leopard God.
Slowly there was dawning upon the consciousness of the white man the realization that he had been brought to that mysterious temple of the Leopard Men of which he had heard frightened, whispered stories from the lips of terrified natives upon more than a single occasion, and which he had come to consider more fabulous than real. The reality of it, however, was impressed upon him with overpowering certainty when he was dragged through the portals of the building into its barbaric interior.
Lighted by many torches, the scene was one to be indelibly impressed upon the memory of a beholder. Already the great chamber was nearly filled with the warriors from the village of Gato Mgungu. They were milling about several large piles of leopard skins presided over by masked priests who were issuing these ceremonial costumes to them. Gradually the picture changed as the warriors donned the garb of their savage order, until the white man saw about him only the black and yellow hides of the carnivores; the curved, cruel, steel talons; and the black faces, hideously painted, partially hidden by the leopard head helmets.
The wavering torchlight played upon carved and painted idols; it glanced from naked human skulls, from gaudy shields and grotesque masks hung upon the huge pillars that supported the roof of the building. It lighted, more brilliantly than elsewhere, a raised dais at the far end of the chamber, where stood the high priest upon a smaller platform at the back of the dais. Below and around him were grouped a number of lesser priests; while chained to a heavy post near him was a large leopard, bristling and growling at the massed humanity beneath him, a devil-faced leopard that seemed to the imagination of the white man to personify the savage bestiality of the cult it symbolized.
The man’s eyes ranged the room in search of the girl, but she was nowhere to be seen. He shuddered at the thought that she might be hidden somewhere in this frightful place, and would have risked everything to learn, had his guards given him the slightest opportunity. If she were here her case was hopeless, as hopeless as he now realized his own to be; for since he had become convinced that he had been brought to the temple of the Leopard Men, allowed to look upon their holy of holies, to view their most secret rites, he had known that no power on earth could save him; and that the protestations and promises of Bobolo had been false, for no one other than a Leopard Man could look upon these things and live.
Gato Mgungu, Bobolo, and the other chiefs had taken their places in front of the common warriors at the foot of the dais. Gato Mgungu had spoken to the high priest, and now at a word from the latter his guards dragged Old Timer forward and stood with him at the right of the dais. Three hundred pairs of evil eyes, filled with hatred, glared at him—savage eyes, hungry eyes.
The high priest turned toward the snarling, mouthing leopard. “Leopard God,” he cried in a high, shrill voice, “the children of the Leopard God have captured an enemy of his people. They have brought him here to the great temple. What is the will of the Leopard God?”
There was a moment’s silence during which all eyes were fixed upon the high priest and the leopard. Then a weird thing happened, a thing that turned the skin of the white man cold and stiffened the hairs upon his scalp. From the snarling mouth of the leopard came human speech. It was incredible, yet with his own ears he heard it.
“Let him die that the children of the Leopard God may be fed!” The voice was low and husky and merged with bestial growls. “But first bring forth the new high priestess of the temple that my children may look upon her whom my brother commanded Lulimi to bring from a far country.”
Lulimi, who by virtue of his high priestly rank stood nearest to the throne of the high priest, swelled visibly with pride. This was the big moment for which he had waited. All eyes were upon him. He trod a few steps of a savage dance, leaped high into the air, and voiced a hideous cry that echoed through the lofty rafters far above. The lay brothers were impressed; they would not soon forget Lulimi. But instantly their attention was distracted from Lulimi to the doorway at the rear of the dais. In it stood a girl, naked but for a few ornaments. She stepped out upon the dais, to be followed immediately by eleven similarly garbed priestesses. Then there was a pause.
Old Timer wondered which of these was the new high priestess. There was little difference between them other than varying degrees of age and ugliness. Their yellow teeth were filed to sharp points; the septa of their noses were pierced, and through these holes were inserted ivory skewers; the lobes of their ears were stretched to their shoulders by heavy ornaments of copper, iron, brass, and ivory; their faces were painted a ghoulish blue and white.
Now the Leopard God spoke again. “Fetch the high priestess!” he commanded, and with three hundred others Old Timer centered his gaze again upon the aperture at the back of the dais. A figure, dimly seen, approached out of the darkness of the chamber beyond until it stood in the doorway, the flare of the torches playing upon it.
The white man stifled a cry of astonishment and horror. The figure was that of the girl whom he sought.