“God!” he muttered to himself. “There is only one chance in a thousand that I can reach the coast alone, but this,” and he pressed his hand over the bag of diamonds that lay within his shirt—“but this, this is worth every effort, even to the sacrifice of life—the fortune of a thousand kings—my God, what could I not do with it in London, and Paris, and New York!”
Stealthily he slunk from the village, and presently the verdure of the jungle beyond closed about Carl Kraski, the Russian, as he disappeared forever from the lives of his companions.
Bluber was the first to discover the absence of Kraski, for although there was no love between the two, they had been thrown together owing to the friendship of Peebles and Throck.
“Have you seen Carl this morning?” he asked Peebles as the three men gathered around the pot containing the unsavory stew that had been brought to them for their breakfast.
“No,” said Peebles. “He must be asleep yet.”
“He is not in the hut,” replied Bluber. “He vas not dere ven I woke up.”
“He can take care of himself,” growled Throck, resuming his breakfast. “You’ll likely find him with some of the ladies,” and he grinned in appreciation of his little joke on Kraski’s well-known weakness.
They had finished their breakfast and were attempting to communicate with some of the warriors, in an effort to learn when the chief proposed that they should set forth for the coast, and still Kraski had not made an appearance. By this time Bluber was considerably concerned, not at all for Kraski’s safety, but for his own, since, if something could happen to Kraski in this friendly village in the still watches of the night, a similar fate might overtake him, and when he made this suggestion to the others it gave them food for thought, too, so that there were three rather apprehensive men who sought an audience with the chief.
By means of signs and pidgin English, and distorted native dialect, a word or two of which each of the three understood, they managed to convey to the chief the information that Kraski had disappeared, and that they wanted to know what had become of him.
The chief was, of course, as much puzzled as they, and immediately instituted a thorough search of the village, with the result that it was soon found that Kraski was not within the palisade, and shortly afterward footprints were discovered leading through the village gateway into the jungle.
“Mein Gott!” exclaimed Bluber, “he vent out dere, und he vent alone, in der middle of der night. He must have been crazy.”
“Gord!” cried Trock, “what did he want to do that for?”
“You ain’t missed nothin’, have you?” asked Peebles of the other two. “’E might ’ave stolen somethin’.”
“Oi! Oi! Vot have ve got to steal?” cried Bluber. “Our guns, our ammunition—dey are here beside us. He did not take them. Beside dose ve have nothing of value except my tventy guinea suit.”
“But what did ’e do it for?” demanded Peebles.
“’E must ’ave been walkin’ in ’is bloomin’ sleep,” said Throck. And that was as near to an explanation of Kraski’s mysterious disappearance as the three could reach. An hour later they set out toward the coast under the protection of a company of the chief’s warriors.
Kraski, his rifle slung over his shoulder, moved doggedly along the jungle trail, a heavy automatic pistol grasped in his right hand. His ears constandy strained for the first intimation of pursuit as well as for whatever other dangers lurk before or upon either side. Alone in the mysterious jungle he was experiencing a nightmare of terror, and with each mile that he traveled the value of the diamonds became less and less by comparison with the frightful ordeal that realized he must pass through before he could hope to reach the coast.
Once Histah, the snake, swinging from a hung branch across the trail, barred his way, and the man dared not fire at him for fear of attracting the attention of possible pursuers to his position. He was forced, therefore, to make a detour through the tangled mass of underbrush which grew closely upon either side of the narrow trail. When he reached it again, beyond the snake, his clothing was more torn and tattered than before and his flesh was scratched and cut and bleeding from the innumerable thorns past which he had been compelled to force his way. He was soaked with perspiration and panting from exhaustion and his clothing was filled with ants whose vicious attacks upon his flesh rendered him half mad with pain.
Once again in the clear he tore his clothing from him and sought frantically to rid himself of the torturing pests.
So thick were the myriad ants upon his clothing that he dared not attempt to reclaim it. Only the sack of diamonds, his ammunition and his weapons did he snatch from the ravening horde whose numbers were rapidly increasing, apparently by the millions, as they sought to again lay hold upon him and devour him.
Shaking the bulk of the ants from the articles he had retrieved, Kraski dashed madly along the trail as naked as the day he was born, and when, hour later, stumbling and at last falling exhausted, he lay panting upon the damp jungle earth, he realized the utter futility of his mad attempt to reach the coast alone, even more fully than he ever could have under any other circumstances, since there is nothing that so paralyzes the courage and self-confidence of a civilized man as to be deprived of his clothing.
However scant the protection that might have been afforded by the torn and tattered garments he discarded, he could not have felt more helpless had he lost his weapons and ammunition instead, for, to such an extent are we the creatures of habit and environment. It was, therefore, a terrified Kraski, already foredoomed to failure, who crawled fearfully along the jungle trail.
That night, hungry and cold, he slept in the crotch of a great tree while the hunting carnivore roared, and coughed, and growled through the blackness of the jungle about him. Shivering with terror he started momentarily to fearful wakefulness, and when, from exhaustion, he would doze again it was not to rest but to dream of horrors that a sudden roar would merge into reality. Thus the long hours of a frightful night dragged out their tedious length, until it seemed that dawn would never come. But come it did, and once again he took up his stumbling way toward the west.
Reduced by fear and fatigue and pain to a state bordering upon half consciousness, he blundered on, with each passing hour becoming perceptibly weaker, for he had been without food or water since he had deserted his companions more than thirty hours before.
Noon was approaching. Kraski was moving but slowly now with frequent rests, and it was during one of these that there came to his numbed sensibilities an insistent suggestion of the voices of human beings not far distant. Quickly he shook himself and attempted to concentrate his waning faculties. He listened intently, and presently with a renewal of strength he arose to his feet.
There was no doubt about it. He heard voices but a short distance away and they sounded not like the tones of natives, but rather those of Europeans. Yet he was still careful, and so he crawled cautiously forward, until at a turning of the trail he saw before him a clearing dotted with trees which bordered the banks of a muddy stream. Near the edge of the river was a small hut thatched with grasses and surrounded by a rude palisade and further protected by an outer boma of thorn bushes.
It was from the direction of the hut that the voices were coming, and now he clearly discerned a woman’s voice raised in protest and in anger, and replying to it the deep voice of a man.
Slowly the eyes of Carl Kraski went wide in incredulity, not unmixed with terror, for the tones of the voice of the man he heard were the tones of the dead Esteban Miranda, and the voice of the woman was that of the missing Flora Hawkes, whom he had long since given up as dead also. But Carl Kraski was no great believer in the supernatural. Disembodied spirits need no huts or palisades, or bomas of thorns. The owners of those voices were as live—as material—as he.
He started forward toward the hut, his hatred of Esteban and his jealousy almost forgotten in the relief he felt in the realization that he was to again have the companionship of creatures of his own kind. He had moved, however, but a few steps from the edge of the jungle when the woman’s voice came again to his ear, and with it the sudden realization of his nakedness. He paused in thought, looking about him, and presently he was busily engaged gathering the long, broadleaved jungle grasses, from which he fabricated a rude but serviceable skirt, which he fastened about his waist with a twisted rope of the same material. Then with a feeling of renewed confidence he moved forward toward the hut. Fearing that they might not recognize him at first, and, taking him for an enemy, attack him, Kraski, before he reached the entrance to the palisade, called Esteban by name. Immediately the Spaniard came from the hut, followed by the girl. Had Kraski not heard his voice and recognized him by it, he would have thought him Tarzan of the Apes, so close was the remarkable resemblance.
For a moment the two stood looking at the strange apparition before them.
“Don’t you know me?” asked Kraski. “I am Carl—Carl Kraski. You know me, Flora.”
“Carl!” exclaimed the girl, and started to leap forward, but Esteban grasped her by the wrist and held her back.
“What are you doing here, Kraski?” asked the Spaniard in a surly tone.
“I am trying to make my way to the coast,” replied the Russian. “I am nearly dead from starvation and exposure.”
“The way to the coast is there,” said the Spaniard, and pointed down the trail toward the west. “Keep moving, Kraski, it is not healthy for you here.”
“You mean to say that you will send me on without food or water?” demanded the Russian.
“There is water,” said Esteban, pointing at the river, “and the jungle is full of food for one with sufficient courage and intelligence to gather it.”
“You cannot send him away,” cried the girl. “I did not think it possible that even you could be so cruel,” and then, turning to the Russian, “O Carl,” she cried “do not go. Save me! Save me from this beast!”
“Then stand aside,” cried Kraski, and as the girl wrenched herself free from the grasp of Miranda the Russian leveled his automatic and fired point-blank at the Spaniard. The bullet missed its target; the empty shell jammed in the breach and as Kraski pulled the trigger again with no result he glanced at his weapon and, discovering its uselessness, hurled it from him with an oath. As he strove frantically to bring his rifle into action Esteban threw back his spear hand with the short, heavy spear that he had learned by now so well to use, and before the other could press the trigger of his rifle the barbed shaft tore through his chest and heart. Without a sound Carl Kraski sank dead at the foot of his enemy and his rival, while the woman both had loved, each in his own selfish or brutal way, sank sobbing to the ground in the last and deepest depths of despair.
Seeing that the other was dead, Esteban stepped forward and wrenched his spear from Kraski’s body and also relieved his dead enemy of his ammunition and weapons. As he did so his eyes fell upon a little bag made of skins which Kraski had fastened to his waist by the grass rope he had recently fashioned to uphold his primitive skirt.
The Spaniard felt of the bag and tried to figure out the nature of its contents, coming to the conclusion that it was ammunition, but he did not examine it closely until he had carried the dead man’s weapons into his hut, where he had also taken the girl, who crouched in a corner, sobbing.
“Poor Carl! Poor Carl!” she moaned, and then to the man facing her: “You beast!”
“Yes,” he cried, with a laugh, “I am a beast. I am Tarzan of the Apes, and that dirty Russian dared to call me Esteban. I am Tarzan! I am Tarzan of the Apes!” he repeated in a loud scream. “Who dares call me otherwise dies. I will show them. I will show them,” he mumbled.
The girl looked at him with wide and flaming eyes and shuddered.
“Mad,” she muttered. “Mad! My God—alone in the jungle with a maniac!” And, in truth, in one respect was Esteban Miranda mad—mad with the madness of the artist who lives the part he plays. And for so long, now, had Esteban Miranda played the part, and so really proficient had he become in his interpretation of the noble character, that he believed himself Tarzan, and in outward appearance he might have deceived the ape-man’s best friend. But within that godlike form was the heart of a cur and the soul of a craven.
“He would have stolen Tarzan’s mate,” muttered Esteban. “Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle! Did you see how I slew him, with a single shaft? You could love a weakling, could you, when you could have the love of the great Tarzan!”
“I loathe you,” said the girl. “You are indeed a beast. You are lower than the beasts.”
“You are mine, though,” said the Spaniard, “and you shall never be another’s—first I would kill you—but let us see what the Russian had in his little bag of hides, it feels like ammunition enough to kill a regiment,” and he untied the thongs that held the mouth of the bag closed and let some of the contents spill out upon the floor of the hut. As the sparkling stones rolled scintillant before their astonished eyes, the girl gasped in incredulity.
“Holy Mary!” exclaimed the Spaniard, “they are diamonds.”
“Hundreds of them,” murmured the girl.
“Where could he have gotten them?”
“I do not know and I do not care,” said Esteban. “They are mine. They are all mine—I am rich, Flora. I am rich, and if you are a good girl you shall share my wealth with me.”
Flora Hawkes’s eyes narrowed. Awakened within her breast was the always-present greed that dominated her being, and beside it, and equally as powerful now to dominate her, her hatred for the Spaniard. Could he have known it, possession of those gleaming baubles had crystallized at last in the mind of the woman a determination she had long fostered to slay the Spaniard while he slept. Heretofore she had been afraid of being left alone in the jungle, but now the desire to possess this great wealth overcame her terror.
Tarzan, ranging the jungle, picked up the trail of the various bands of west coast boys and the fleeing slaves of the dead Arabs, and overhauling each in turn he prosecuted his search for Luvini, awing the blacks into truthfulness and leaving them in a state of terror when he departed. Each and every one, they told him the same story. There was none who had seen Luvini since the night of the battle and the fire, and each was positive that he must have escaped with some other band.
So thoroughly occupied had the ape-man’s mind been during the past few days with his sorrow and his search that lesser considerations had gone neglected, with the result that he had not noted that the bag containing the diamonds was missing. In fact, he had practically forgotten the diamonds when, by the merest vagary of chance his mind happened to revert to them, and then it was that he suddenly realized that they were missing, but when he had lost them, or the circumstances surrounding the loss, he could not recall.
“Those rascally Europeans,” he muttered to Jad-bal-ja, “they must have taken them,” and suddenly with the thought the scarlet scar flamed brilliantly upon his forehead, as just anger welled within him against the perfidy and ingratitude of the men he had succored. “Come,” he said to Jad-bal-ja, “as we search for Luvini we shall search for these others also.” And so it was that Peebles and Throck and Bluber had traveled but a short distance toward the coast when, during a noon-day halt, they were surprised to see the figure of the ape-man moving majestically toward them while, at his side, paced the great, black-maned lion.
Tarzan made no acknowledgment of their exuberant greeting, but came forward in silence to stand at last with folded arms before them. There was a grim, accusing expression upon his countenance that brought the chill of fear to Bluber’s cowardly heart, and blanched the faces of the two hardened English pugs.
“What is it?” they chorused. “What is wrong? What has happened?”
“I have come for the bag of stones you took from me,” said Tarzan simply.
Each of the three eyed his companion suspiciously.
“I do not understand vot you mean, Mr. Tarzan,” purred Bluber, rubbing his palms together. “I am sure dere is some mistake, unless—“he cast a furtive and suspicious glance in the direction of Peebles and Throck.
“I don’t know nothin’ about no bag of stones,” said Peebles, “but I will say as ’ow you can’t trust no Jew.”
“I don’t trust any of you,” said Tarzan. “I will give you five seconds to hand over the hag of stones, and if you don’t produce it in that time I shall have you thoroughly searched.”
“Sure,” cried Bluber, “search me, search me, by all means. Vy, Mr. Tarzan, I vouldn’t take notting from you for notting.”
“There’s something wrong here,” growled Throck. “I ain’t got nothin’ of yours and I’m sure these two haven’t neither.”
“Where is the other?” asked Tarzan.
“Oh, Kraski? He disappeared the same night you brought us to that village. We hain’t seen him since—that’s it; I got it now—we wondered why he left, and now I see it as plain as the face on me nose. It was him that stole that bag of stones. That’s what he done. We’ve been tryin’ to figure out ever since he left what he stole, and now I see it plain enough.”
“Sure,” exclaimed Peebles. “That’s it, and ’ere we are, ’n that’s that.”
“Ve might have knowed it, ve might have knowed it,” agreed Bluber.
“But nevertheless I’m going to have you all searched,” said Tarzan, and when the head-man came and Tarzan had explained what he desired, the three whites were quickly stripped and searched. Even their few belongings were thoroughly gone through, but no bag of stones was revealed.
Without a word Tarzan turned back toward the jungle, and in another moment the blacks and the three Europeans saw the leafy sea of foliage swallow the ape-man and the golden lion.
“Gord help Kraski!” exclaimed Peebles.
“Wot do yer suppose he wants with a bag o’ stones?” inquired Throck. “’E must be a bit balmy, I’ll say.”
“Balmy nudding,” exclaimed Bluber. “Dere is but vun kind of stones in Africa vot Kraski would steal and run off into der jungle alone mit—diamonds.”
Peebles and Throck opened their eyes in surprise. “The damned Russian!” exclaimed the former. “He double-crossed us, that’s what e’ did.”
“He likely as not saved our lives, says hi,” said Throck. “If this ape feller had found Kraski and the diamonds with us we’d of all suffered alike—you couldn’t ’a’ made ’im believe we didn’t ’ave a ’and in it. And Kraski wouldn’t ’a’ done nothin’ to help us out.”
“I ’opes ’e catches the beggar!” exclaimed Peebles, fervently.
They were startled into silence a moment later by the sight of Tarzan returning to the camp, but he paid no attention to the whites, going instead directly to the head-man, with whom he conferred for several minutes. Then, once more, he turned and left.
Acting on information gained from the head-man, Tarzan struck off through the jungle in the general direction of the village where he had left the four whites in charge of the chief, and from which Kraski had later escaped alone. He moved rapidly, leaving Jad-bal-ja to follow behind, covering the distance to the village in a comparatively short time, since he moved almost in an air line through the trees, where there was no matted undergrowth to impede his progress.
Outside the village gate he took up Kraski’s spoor, now almost obliterated, it is true, but still legible to the keen perceptive faculties of the ape-man. This he followed swiftly, since Kraski had hung tenaciously to the open trail that wound in a general westward direction.
The sun had dropped almost to the western tree-tops, when Tarzan came suddenly upon a clearing beside a sluggish stream, near the banks of which stood a small, rude hut, surrounded by a palisade and a thorn boma.
The ape-man paused and listened, sniffing the air with his sensitive nostrils, and then on noiseless feet he crossed the clearing toward the hut. In the grass outside the palisade lay the dead body of a white man, and a single glance told the ape-man that it was the fugitive whom he sought. Instantly he realized the futility of searching the corpse for the bag of diamonds, since it was a foregone conclusion that they were now in the possession of whoever had slain the Russian. A perfunctory examination revealed the fact that he was right in so far as the absence of the diamonds was concerned.
Both inside the hut and outside the palisade were indications of the recent presence of a man and woman, the spoor of the former tallying with that of the creature who had killed Gobu, the great ape, and hunted Bara, the deer, upon the preserves of the ape-man. But the woman—who was she? It was evident that she had been walking upon sore, tired feet, and that in lieu of shoes she wore bandages of cloth.
Tarzan followed the spoor of the man and the woman where it led from the hut into the jungle.
As it progressed it became apparent that the woman had been lagging behind, and that she had commenced to limp more and more painfully. Her progress was very slow, and Tarzan could see that the man had not waited for her, but that he had been, in some places, a considerable distance ahead of her.
And so it was that Esteban had forged far ahead of Flora Hawkes, whose bruised and bleeding feet would scarce support her.
“Wait for me, Esteban,” she had pleaded. “Do not desert me. Do not leave me alone here in this terrible jungle.”
“Then keep up with me,” growled the Spaniard. “Do you think that with this fortune in my possession I am going to wait here forever in the middle of the jungle for someone to come and take it away from me? No, I am going on to the coast as fast as I can. If you can keep up, well and good. If you cannot, that is your own lookout.”
“But you could not desert me. Even you, Esteban, could not be such a beast after all that you have forced me to do for you.”
The Spaniard laughed. “You are nothing more to me,” he said, “than an old glove. With this,” and he held the sack of diamonds before him, “I can purchase the finest gloves in the capitals of the world—new gloves,” and he laughed grimly at his little joke.
“Esteban, Esteban,” she cned, “come back; come back. I can go no farther. Do not leave me. Please come back and save me.” But he only laughed at her, and as a turn of the trail shut him from her sight, she sank helpless and exhausted to the ground.