AS NIGHT FELL, Helen, lying bound in a filthy hut, heard the booming of drums in the village street outside. Eerie and menacing they sounded, mysterious, threatening. She felt that they were beating for her—a savage, insistent dirge, foretelling death. She wondered what form it would take, when it would come to her. She felt that she might almost welcome it as an escape from the terror that engulfed her. Presently, warriors came and jerked her roughly to her feet after removing the bonds that confined her ankles; then they dragged her out into the village street before the hut of Mpingu, the chief, and tied her to a stake, while around her milled screaming women and shouting warriors. In the glare of the cooking fires the whole scene seemed to the doomed girl the horrible phantasmagoria of some hideous nightmare from which she must awaken. It was all too fantastic to be real, but when a spear point pierced her flesh and warm blood flowed she knew she did not dream.
A well equipped safari lay in an ordered camp. Porters and askaris squatted around tiny cook fires; and before the central beast fire, two men who were not natives talked with Mbuli, the headman, while faintly from afar came the sullen sound of native drums.
“They are at it,” said Atan Thome. “Mbuli tells me this is cannibal country and that we had better get out quickly. Tomorrow we’ll make a long trek toward Ashair. The girl is lost. The drums may be for her.”
“Her blood is on your head, master,” said Lal Taask.
“Shut up,” snapped Thome. “She is a fool. She might have lived happily and enjoyed the fruits of The Father of Diamonds.”
Lal Taask shook his head. “The ways of women are beyond the comprehension of even thou, master. She was very young and very beautiful; she loved life; and you took it from her. I warned you, but you would not heed. Her blood is on your head.”
Atan Thome turned irritably away, but the drums followed him to his tent and would give him no rest.
“The drums!” said d’Arnot. “I do not like them; so often they spell death for some poor devil. The first time I heard them, I was tied to a stake; and a lot of painted devils were dancing around me pricking me with spears. They don’t quite kill you at first, they just torture you and let you live as long as possible so that you may suffer more, for your suffering is their pleasure.”
“But how did you escape?” asked Lavac.
“Tarzan came,” said d’Arnot.
“He has not returned,” said Magra. “I am afraid for him. Perhaps the drums are for him.”
“Do you suppose they could have gotten him?” asked Gregory.
“No such luck,” snarled Wolff. “The damn monkey has as many lives as a cat.”
D’Arnot turned angrily away; and Gregory, Lavac, and Magra followed him, leaving Wolff alone, listening to the beating of the distant drums.
The drums had carried their message to Tarzan. They told him of impending torture and sacrifice and death. The lives of strangers meant nothing to the ape-man, who, all his life, had lived with death. It was something that came to all creatures. He had no fear of it, he who feared nothing. To avoid it was a game that added zest to life. To pit his courage, his strength, his agility, his cunning against Death, and win—there was the satisfaction. Some day Death would win, but to that day Tarzan gave no thought. He could fight or he could run away; and in either event preserve his self-respect, for only, a fool throws his life away uselessly; and Tarzan had no respect for fools; but if the stake warranted it, he could lightly accept the gravest risks.
As he heard the drums against the new night, he thought less of their sinister portent than of the fact that they would guide him to a native village where, perhaps, he might obtain porters later. First, however, he must reconnoiter and investigate to learn the temper of the natives. If they were fierce and warlike, he must avoid their country, leading his little party around it; and the message of the drums suggested that this would be the case.
As the radio beam guides the flyer, the drums of the Buiroos guided Tarzan as he swung through the trees toward their village. He moved swiftly, anticipating a sport he had enjoyed many times in the course of his savage existence—that of frustrating the Gomangani in the exercise of weird rites of torture and death. The drums told him that a victim was to die, but that death had not as yet been meted out. Who the victim was, was of no importance to the ape-man. All that mattered was the sport of cheating the torturers of the final accomplishment of their aims. Perhaps he would arrive in time, perhaps not. Also, if he did arrive in time, he might fail to accomplish his design. It was these factors that lent interest to the savage game that Tarzan loved to play.
As Tarzan neared the village of Mpingu, the chief, Atan Thome and Lal Taask sat smoking beside the fire that burned brightly in their camp as a discourager of predatory felines.
“Curse those drums!” snapped Lal Taask. “They give me the creeps; they have my nerves on edge.”
“Tomorrow night we shall not hear them,” said Atan Thome, “for then we shall be a long way on the trail to Ashair—to Ashair and The Father of Diamonds.”
“Wolff will have difficulty catching up with us,” said Lal Taask, “and if we come back from Ashair by another route, he will never catch up with us.”
“You forget Magra,” said Thome.
“No,” replied Taask; “I do not forget Magra. She will find her way to Paris as the homing pigeon finds its cote. We shall see her there.”
“You underestimate Wolff’s cupidity,” said Thome. “He will come through for his half of the diamond. Never fear.”
“And get this!” Lal Taask touched his knife.
“You are psychic,” laughed Thome.
“Those drums!” growled Lal Taask.
“Those drums!” exclaimed Magra. “Did you ever hear anything so horribly insistent?”
“A radio fan’s nightmare,” said Gregory; “a boring broadcast that one can’t dial out.”
“I am so worried about Tarzan,” said Magra, “out there all alone in that awful forest.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about him,” d’Arnot reassured her; “he has spent his life in awful forests, and has a way of taking care of himself.”
Wolff grunted. “We don’t need him nohow. I can take you to Ashair. We’d be well rid of the monkey-man.”
“I’ve heard about all of that that I care to, Wolff,” said d’Arnot. “Tarzan is our only hope either of reaching Ashair or getting out of this country alive. You stick to your hunting job. Even at that you haven’t been doing so well. Tarzan has brought in all the meat we’ve had so far.”
“Listen!” exclaimed Lava. “The drums! They’ve stopped.”
The howling pack circled the helpless girl. Now and then a spear point touched her lightly, and involuntarily her flesh recoiled. Later the torture might be more excruciating, or some maddened savage, driven to frenzy by the excitement of the dance, might plunge his spear through her heart and with unintentional mercy deliver her from further suffering.
As Tarzan reached the edge of the clearing where lay the village of Mpingu, the chief, he dropped to the ground and ran swiftly toward the palisade. This side of the village was in darkness, and he knew that all the tribesmen would be gathered around the great fire that lighted the foliage of the trees that grew within the village. He would not be seen, and what slight noise he might make would be drowned by the throbbing of the drums.
With the agility of Sheeta, the panther, he scaled the palisade and dropped down into the shadow of the huts beyond; then he crept silently toward a great tree which overhung the hut of the chief and commanded a view of the main street of the village, where the fire burned and the dancers leaped and howled. Swinging up among the branches, he crossed to the other side of the tree and looked down upon the scene of savagery below. It was almost with a sense of shock that he recognized the victim at the stake. He saw the horde of armed warriors incited to frenzy by the drums, the dancing, the lust for human flesh. He fitted an arrow to his bow.
As one of the dancing savages, carried away by the excitement of the moment, paused before the girl and raised his short spear above his head to drive it through her heart a sudden hush fell upon the expectant assemblage; and Helen closed her eyes. The end had come! She breathed a silent prayer. The ominous hush was broken only by the increased madness of the drums; then came a scream of mortal agony.
The assurance of the savages vanished, as an arrow, mysteriously sped, pierced the heart of the executioner. It was then that the drums stopped.
At the scream of the stricken warrior, Helen opened her eyes. A man lay dead at her feet, and consternation was written on the faces of the savage Buiroos. She saw one, braver than the rest, creeping toward her with a long knife ready in his hand; then a weird and uncanny cry rang out from somewhere above her, as Tarzan of the Apes rose to his full height; and, raising his face to Goro, the Moon, voiced the hideous victory cry of the bull ape that had made a kill. Louder than the drums had been, it carried far out into the night.
“Yes,” said d’Arnot, “the drums have stopped—they have probably made the kill. Some poor thing has found relief from torture.”
“Oh, what if it were Tarzan!” cried Magra; and as she spoke an eerie scream and wafted faintly across the still African night.
“Man Dieu!” exlaimed Lavac.
“It is Tarzan who has made a kill,” said d’Arnot.
“By the beard of the prophet!” exclaimed Lal Taask. “What a hideous sound!”
“It is Africa, Lal Taask,” said Atan Thome, “and that was the victory cry of a bull ape. I have heard it before, on the Congo.”
“It was far away,” said Lal Taask.
“Still, it was too close for comfort,” replied Atan Thome. “We shall break camp very early in the morning.”
“But why should we fear apes?” demanded Lal Taask.
“It is not the apes I fear,” explained Atan Thome. “I said that that noise was the victory cry of a bull ape, but I am not so sure. I have been talking with Mbuli. Perhaps the man we thought was Brian Gregory was not Brian Gregory at all. I asked Mbuli if he ever heard of a white man called Tarzan. He said that he had; that some thought that he was a demon, and that all who did wrong, feared him. When he kills, Mbuli says, he gives the kill cry of the bull ape. If what we heard was not a bull ape, it was Tarzan; and that means that he is looking for us and is far too close for comfort.”
“I do not wish to see that man again,” said Lal Taask.
As the bloodcurdling cry crashed through the silence of the night, the warrior who had been creeping up on Helen straightened up and stepped back, frightened. The others, terror stricken, shrank from the menace of the fearsome sound; then Tarzan spoke.
“The demon of the forest comes for the white mem-sahib,” he said. “Beware!” And as he spoke he dropped to the ground near the stake, trusting, by the very boldness of his move, to overawe the savages for the few moments it would take to free Helen and escape; but he had reckoned without knowing of the courage of Chemungo, son of Mpingu, standing ready with his knife.
“Chemungo, son of Mpingu, is not afraid of the demon of the forest,” he shouted, as he sprang forward with upraised knife; and as the last of Helen’s bonds fell away, Tarzan slipped his own knife back into its sheath and turned to meet the chief’s son, the challenging “Kre-e-gah!” on his lips. With bare hands he faced the infuriated warrior.
As Chemungo closed with upraised knife hand ready to strike, Tarzan seized him by the right wrist and at the belly and swung him high above his head as lightly as though he had been a child. The knife dropped from Chemungo’s hand as the steel thews of the ape-man closed with viselike grip upon his wrist.
Helen Gregory, almost unable to believe her own senses, looked with astonishment upon this amazing man who dared face a whole cannibal village alone; and could see no hope but that two lives instead of one must now be sacrificed. It was a brave, a glorious gesture that Tarzan had made; but how pathetically futile!
“Open the gates!” he commanded the astounded throng, “or Chemungo, son of Mpingu, dies.”
The villagers hesitated. Some of the warriors grumbled. Would they obey, or would they charge?