Fortunately he had been able to keep the camp well supplied with fresh meat, and the natives, therefore, reasonably contented; but he knew that they longed to return to their own village now that they could not see any likelihood of profiting by their connection with these two poverty-stricken white men.
Such thoughts were occupying his mind late one afternoon upon his return from a successful hunt for meat when his reveries were interrupted by the shouts of his boys. Glancing up, he saw two of the men who had accompanied Old Timer entering the camp. Leaping to his feet, he went forward to meet them, expecting to see his friend and the third following closely behind them; but when he was close enough to see the expressions upon their faces he realized that something was amiss.
“Where are your bwana and Andereya?” he demanded.
“They are both dead,” replied one of the returning natives.
“Dead!” ejaculated The Kid. It seemed to him that the bottom had suddenly dropped from his world. Old Timer dead! It was unthinkable. Until now he had scarcely realized how much he had depended upon the older man for guidance and support, nor to what extent this friendship had become a part of him. “How did it happen?” he inquired dully. “Was it an elephant?”
“The Leopard men, Bwana,” explained the native who had made the announcement.
“The Leopard Men! Tell me how it happened.”
With attention to minute details and with much circumlocution the two boys told all they knew; and when at last they had finished, The Kid saw a suggestion of a ray of hope. They had not actually seen Old Timer killed. He might still be a prisoner in the village of Gato Mgungu.
“He said that if he had not returned to us by the time the shadow of the forest had left the palisade in the morning we should know that he was dead,” insisted a native.
The youth mentally surveyed his resources: five discontented natives and himself—six men to march upon the stronghold of the Leopard Men and demand an accounting of them. And five of these men held the Leopard Men in such awe that he knew that they would not accompany him. He raised his eyes suddenly to the waiting natives. “Be ready to march when the sun rises tomorrow,” he snapped.
There was a moment’s hesitation. “Where do we march?” demanded one, suspiciously.
“Where I lead you,” he replied, shortly; then he returned to his tent, his mind occupied with plans for the future and with the tragic story that the two boys had narrated.
He wondered who the girl might be. What was Old Timer doing pursuing a white woman? Had he gone crazy, or had he forgotten that he hated all white women? Of course, he reflected, there was nothing else that his friend might have done. The girl had been in danger, and that of course would have been enough to have sent Old Timer on the trail of her abductors; but how had he become involved with her in the first place? The boys had not been explicit upon this point. He saw them now, talking with their fellows. All of them appeared excited. Presently they started across the camp toward his tent.
“Well, what is it now?” he asked as they stopped before him.
“If you are going to the village of the Leopard Men, Bwana,” announced the spokesman, “we will not follow you. We are few, and they would kill us all and eat us.”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed The Kid. “They will do nothing of the sort. They would not dare.”
“That is what the old bwana said,” replied the spokesman, “but he did not return to us. He is dead.”
“I do not believe that he is dead,” retorted The Kid. “We are going to find out.”
“You, perhaps, but not we,” rejoined the man.
The Kid saw that he could not shake them in their decision. The outlook appeared gloomy, but he was determined to go if he had to go alone. Yet what could he accomplish without them? A plan occurred to him.
“Will you go part way with me?” he asked.
“To the village of Bobolo. I may be able to get help from him.”
For a moment the natives argued among themselves in low voices; then their spokesman turned again to the white man. “We will go as far as the village of Bobolo,” he said.
“But no farther,” added another.
He knew enough of the Betetes to know that he might have difficulty in entering their village. They were a savage, warlike race of Pygmies and even reputed to be cannibals. The trails to their village were well guarded, and the first challenge might be a poisoned spear. Yet, though he knew these things to be true, the idea of abandoning his search for the girl because of them did not occur to him. He did not hesitate in reaching a decision, but the very fact that she was there hastened it instead.
Dark soon overtook him, but he stopped only because he could not see to go on. At the first break of dawn he was away again. The forest was dense and gloomy. He could not see the sun, and he was haunted by the conviction that he was on the wrong trail. It must have been about mid-afternoon when he came to a sudden halt, baffled. He had recognized his own footprints in the trail ahead of him; he had walked in a great circle.
Absolutely at a loss as to which direction to take, he struck out blindly along a narrow, winding trail that intercepted the one he had been traversing at the point at which he had made his harrowing discovery. Where the trail led or in what direction he could not know, nor even whether it led back toward the river or farther inland: but he must be moving, he must go on.
Now he examined carefully every trail that crossed or branched from the one he was following. The trails, some of them at least, were well-worn; the ground was damp; the spoor of animals was often plain before his eyes. But he saw nothing that might afford him a clue until shortly before dark; then careful scrutiny of an intersecting trail revealed the tiny footprint of a pygmy. Old Timer was elated. It was the first sense of elation that he had experienced during all that long, dreary day. He had come to hate the forest. Its sunless gloom oppressed him. It had assumed for him the menacing personality of a powerful, remorseless enemy that sought not only to thwart his plans but to lure him to his death. He longed to defeat it—to show it that he was more cunning, if less powerful than it.
He hastened along the new trail, but darkness overtook him before he learned whether or not it led to his goal. Yet now he did not stop as he had the previous night. So long had the forest defeated and mocked him that perhaps he was a little mad. Something seemed to be calling to him out of the blackness ahead. Was it a woman’s voice? He knew better, yet he listened intently as he groped his way through the darkness.
Presently his tensely listening ears were rewarded by a sound. It was not the voice of a woman calling to him, but it was still the sound of human voices. Muffled and indistinct, it came to him out of that black void ahead. His heart beat a little faster; he moved more cautiously.
When he came at last within sight of a village he could see nothing beyond the palisade other than the firelight playing upon the foliage of overspreading trees and upon the thatched roofs of huts, but he knew that it was the village of the little men. There, behind that palisade, was the girl he sought. He wanted to cry aloud, shouting words of encouragement to her. He wanted her to know that he was near her, that he had come to save her; but he made no sound.
Cautiously he crept nearer. There was no sign of sentry. The little men do not need sentries in the dark forest at night, for few are the human enemies that dare invite the dangers of the nocturnal jungle. The forest was their protection by night.
The poles that had been stuck in the ground to form the palisade were loosely bound together by lianas; there were spaces between them through which he glimpsed the firelight. Old Timer moved cautiously forward until he stood close against the palisade beside a gate and, placing an eye to one of the apertures, looked into the village of Rebega. What he saw was not particularly interesting: a group of natives gathered before a central hut which he assumed to be the hut of the chief. They appeared to be arguing about something, and some of the men were dancing. He could see their heads bobbing above those of the natives who shut off his view.
Old Timer was not interested in what the little men were doing. At least he thought he was not. He was interested only in the girl, and he searched the village for some evidence of her presence there, though he was not surprised that he did not see her. Undoubtedly she was a prisoner in one of the huts. Had he known the truth he would have been far more interested in the activities of that little group of pygmies, the bodies of some of which hid from his sight the bound girl at its center.
Old Timer examined the gate and discovered that it was crudely secured with a fiber rope. From his breeches’ pocket he took the pocket knife that the Leopard Men had overlooked and began cutting the fastening, congratulating himself upon the fact that the villagers were occupied to such an extent with something over by the chief’s hut that he could complete his work without fear of detection.
He planned only to prepare a way into the village, when he undertook his search for the girl after the natives had retired to their huts for the night, and a way out when he had found her. For some unaccountable reason his spirits were high; success seemed assured. Already he was anticipating his reunion with the girl; then there was a little break in the circle of natives standing between him and the center of the group, and through that break he saw a sight that turned him suddenly cold with dread.
It was the girl, bound hand and foot, and a savage-faced devil-woman wielding a large knife. As Old Timer saw the hideous tableau revealed for a moment to his horrified gaze, the woman seized the girl by the hair and forced her head back, the knife flashed in the light of the cooking fires that had been prepared against the coming feast, and Old Timer, unarmed save for a small knife, burst through the gates and ran toward the scene of impending murder.
A cry of remonstrance burst from his lips that sounded in the ears of the astonished pygmies like the war cry of attacking natives, and at the same instant an arrow passed through the body of Wlala from behind, transfixing her heart. Old Timer’s eyes were on the executioner at the moment, and he saw the arrow, as did many of the pygmies; but like them he had no idea from whence it had come—whether from friend or foe.
For a moment the little men stood in stupid astonishment, but the white man realized that their inactivity would be brief when they discovered that they had only a lone and unarmed man to deal with; it was then that there flashed to his fertile brain a forlorn hope.
Half turning, he shouted back toward the open gate, “Surround the village! Let no one escape, but do not kill unless they kill me.” He spoke in a dialect that he knew they would understand, the language of the people of Bobolo’s tribe; and then to the villagers, “Stand aside! Let me take the white woman, and you will not be harmed.” But he did not wait for permission.
Leaping to the girl’s side, he raised her in his arms; and then it was that Rebega seemed to awaken from his stupor. He saw only one man. Perhaps there were others outside his village, but did he not have warriors who could fight? “Kill the white man!” he shouted, leaping forward.
A second arrow passed through the body of Rebega; and as he sank to the ground, three more, shot in rapid succession, brought down three warriors who had sprung forward to do his bidding. Instantly terror filled the breasts of the remaining pygmies, sending them scurrying to the greater security of their huts.
Throwing the girl across his shoulder, Old Timer bolted for the open gate and disappeared in the forest. He heard a rending and a crash behind him, but he did not know what had happened, nor did he seek to ascertain.