“My namesake, let us go to the hunt together.” He spoke as one might who addresses a familiar but highly revered friend. “Bring the animals near to me and ward off from me all danger. Give me meat today, oh, hunter!”
The trail that Orando followed as he set forth alone to hunt was for a couple of miles the same that led to Kibbu village. It was an old, familiar trail; but the storm of the preceding night had wrought such havoc with it that in many places it was as unrecognizable as it was impassable. Several times fallen trees forced him to make detours into the heavy underbrush that often bordered the trail upon each side. It was upon such an occasion that his attention was caught by the sight of a human leg protruding from beneath the foliage of a newly uprooted tree.
Orando halted in his tracks and drew back. There was a movement of the foliage where the man lay. The warrior poised his light hunting spear, yet at the same time he was ready for instant flight. He had recognized the bronzed flesh as that of a white man, and Orando, the son of Lobongo, the chief, knew no white man as friend. Again the foliage moved, and the head of a diminutive monkey was thrust through the tangled verdure.
As its frightened eyes discovered the man the little creature voiced a scream of fright and disappeared beneath the foliage of the fallen tree, only to reappear again a moment later upon the opposite side where it climbed up into the branches of a jungle giant that had successfully withstood the onslaughts of the storm. Here, far above the ground, in fancied security, the small one perched upon a swaying limb and loosed the vials of its wrath upon Orando.
But the hunter accorded it no further attention. Today he was not hunting little monkeys, and for the moment his interest was focused upon the suggestion of tragedy contained in that single, bronzed leg. Creeping cautiously forward, Orando stooped to look beneath the great mass of limbs and leaves that concealed the rest of the body from his view, for he must satisfy his curiosity.
He saw a giant white man, naked but for a loin cloth of leopard skin, pinned to the ground by one of the branches of the fallen tree. From the face turned toward him two grey eyes surveyed him; the man was not dead.
Orando had seen but few white men; and those that he had seen had worn strange, distinctive apparel. They had carried weapons that vomited smoke, and flame, and metal. This one was clothed as any native warrior might have been, nor was there visible any of those weapons that Orando hated and feared.
Nevertheless the stranger was white and, therefore, an enemy. It was possible that he might extricate himself from his predicament and, if he did, become a menace to the village of Tumbai. Naturally, therefore, there was but one thing for a warrior and the son of a chief to do. Orando fitted an arrow to his bow. The killing of this man meant no more to him than would have the killing of the little monkey.
“Come around to the other side,” said the stranger; “your arrow cannot reach my heart from that position.”
Orando dropped the point of his missile and surveyed the speaker in surprise, which was engendered, not so much by the nature of his command, as by the fact that he had spoken in the dialect of Orando’s own people.
“You need not fear me,” continued the man, noticing Orando’s hesitation; “I am held fast by this branch and cannot harm you.”
What sort of man was this? Had he no fear of death? Most men would have begged for their lives. Perhaps this one sought death.
“Are you badly injured?” demanded Orando.
“I think not. I feel no pain.”
“Then why do you wish to die?”
“I do not wish to die.”
“But you told me to come around and shoot you in the heart. Why did you say that if you do not wish to die?”
“I know that you are going to kill me. I asked you, to make sure that your first arrow enters my heart. Why should I suffer pain needlessly?”
“And you are not afraid to die?”
“I do not know what you mean.”
“You do not know what fear is?”
“I know the word, but what has it to do with death? All things die. Were you to tell me that I must live forever, then I might feel fear.”
“How is it that you speak the language of the Utengas?” demanded Orando.
The man shook his head. “I do not know.”
“Who are you?” Orando’s perplexity was gradually becoming tinged with awe.
“I do not know,” replied the stranger.
“From what country do you come?”
Again the man shook his head. “I do not know.”
“What will you do if I release you?”
“And do not kill me?” queried the white.
“No, not kill you.”
The man shrugged. “What is there to do? I shall hunt for food because I am hungry. Then I shall find a place to lie up and sleep.”
“You will not kill me?”
“Why should I? If you do not try to kill me I shall not try to kill you.”
The warrior wormed his way through the tangled branches of the fallen tree to the side of the pinioned white man, where he found that a single branch resting across the latter’s body prevented the prisoner from getting his arms, equipped with giant muscles, into any position where he might use them effectively for his release. It proved, however, a comparatively easy matter for Orando to raise the limb the few inches necessary to permit the stranger to worm his body from beneath it, and a moment later the two men faced one another beside the fallen tree while a little monkey chattered and grimaced from the safety of the foliage above them.
Orando felt some doubt as to the wisdom of his rash act. He could not satisfactorily explain what had prompted him to such humane treatment of a stranger, yet despite his doubts something seemed to assure him that he had acted wisely. However, he held his spear in readiness and watched the white giant before him with a cautious eye.
From beneath the tree that had held him prisoner the man recovered his weapons, a bow and spear. Over one shoulder hung a quiver of arrows; across the other was coiled a long, fiber rope. A knife swung in a sheath at his hip. His belongings recovered, he turned to Orando.
“Now, we hunt,” agreed Orando.
“I know where the pigs feed in the morning and where they lie up in the heat of the day,” said Orando.
As they spoke Orando had been appraising the stranger. He noted the clean-cut features, the magnificent physique. The flowing muscles that rolled beneath a skin sun-tanned almost to the hue of his own impressed him by their suggestion of agility and speed combined with great strength. A shock of black hair partially framed a face of rugged, masculine beauty from which two steady, grey eyes surveyed the world fearlessly. Over the left temple was a raw gash (legacy of the storm’s fury) from which blood had flowed, and dried in the man’s hair and upon his cheek. In moments of silence his brows were often drawn together in thought, and there was a puzzled expression in his eyes. At such times he impressed Orando as one who sought to recall something he had forgotten; but what it was, the man did not divulge.
Orando led the way along the trail that still ran in the direction of Kibbu village. Behind him came his strange companion upon feet so silent that the native occasionally cast a backward glance to assure himself that the white man had not deserted him. Close above them the little monkey swung through the trees, chattering and jabbering.
Presently Orando heard another voice directly behind him that sounded like another monkey speaking in lower tones than those of the little fellow above them. He turned his head to see where the other monkey, sounding so close, could be. To his astonishment he saw that the sounds issued from the throat of the man behind him. Orando laughed aloud. Never before had he seen a man who could mimic the chattering of monkeys so perfectly. Here, indeed, was an accomplished entertainer.
But Orando’s hilarity was short-lived. It died when he saw the little monkey leap nimbly from an over-hanging branch to the shoulder of the white man and heard the two chattering to one another, obviously carrying on a conversation.
What sort of man was this, who knew no fear, who could speak the language of the monkeys, who did not know who he was, nor where he came from? This question, which he could not answer, suggested another equally unanswerable, the mere consideration of which induced within Orando qualms of uneasiness. Was this creature a mortal man at all?
This world into which Orando had been born was peopled by many creatures, not the least important and powerful of which were those that no man ever saw, but which exercised the greatest influence upon those one might see. There were demons so numerous that one might not count them all, and the spirits of the dead who more often than not were directed by demons whose purposes, always malign, they carried out. These demons and sometimes the spirits of the dead occasionally took possession of the body of a living creature, controlling its thoughts, its actions and its speech. Why, right in the river that flowed past the village of Tumbai dwelt a demon to which the villagers had made offerings of food for many years. It had assumed the likeness of a crocodile, but it had deceived no one; least of all the old witch-doctor who had recognized it immediately for what it was after the chief had threatened him with death when his charms had failed to frighten it away or his amulets to save villagers from its voracious jaws. It was easy, therefore, for Orando to harbor suspicions concerning the creature moving noiselessly at his heels.
A feeling of uneasiness pervaded the son of the chief. This was somewhat mitigated by the consciousness that he had treated the creature in a friendly way and, perhaps, earned its approbation. How fortunate it was that he had reconsidered his first intention of loosing an arrow into its body! That would have been fatal; not for the creature but for Orando. It was quite obvious now why the stranger had not feared death, knowing that, being a demon, it could not die. Slowly it was all becoming quite clear to the black hunter, but he did not know whether to be elated or terrified. To be the associate of a demon might be a distinction, but it also had its distressing aspects. One never knew what a demon might be contemplating, though it was reasonably certain to be nothing good.
Orando’s further speculations along this line were rudely interrupted by a sight that met his horrified gaze at a turning of the trail. Before his eyes lay the dead and mutilated body of a warrior. The hunter required no second glance to recognize in the upturned face the features of his friend and comrade, Nyamwegi. But how had he come to his death?
The stranger came and stood at Orando’s side, the little monkey perched upon his shoulder. He stooped and examined the body of Nyamwegi, turning the corpse over upon its face, revealing the cruel marks of steel claws.
“The Leopard Men,” he remarked briefly and without emotion, as one might utter the most ordinary commonplace.
But Orando was bursting with emotion. Immediately when he had seen the body of his friend he had thought of the Leopard Men, though he had scarcely dared to acknowledge his own thought, so fraught with terror was the very suggestion. Deeply implanted in his mind was fear of this dread secret society, the weird cannibalistic rites which seemed doubly horrible because they could only be guessed at, no man outside their order ever having witnessed them and lived.
He saw the characteristic mutilation of the corpse, the parts cut away for the cannibalistic orgy, of which they would be the pièce de résistance. Orando saw and shuddered; but, though he shuddered, in his heart was more of rage than of fear. Nyamwegi had been his friend. From infancy they had grown to manhood together. Orando’s soul cried out for vengeance against the fiends who had perpetrated this vile outrage, but what could one man do alone against many? The maze of footsteps in the soft earth about the corpse indicated that Nyamwegi had been overcome by numbers.
The stranger, leaning on his spear, had been silently watching the warrior, noting the signs of grief and rage reflected in the mobile features.
“You knew him?” he asked.
“He was my friend.”
The stranger made no comment, but turned and followed a trail that ran toward the south. Orando hesitated. Perhaps the demon was leaving him. Well, in a way that would be a relief; but, after all, he had not been a bad demon, and certainly there was something about him that inspired confidence and a sense of security. Then, too, it was something to be able to fraternize with a demon and, perhaps, to show him off in the village. Orando followed.
“Where are you going?” he called after the retreating figure of the giant white.
“To punish those who killed your friend.”
“But they are many,” remonstrated Orando. “They will kill us.”
“They are four,” replied the stranger. “I kill.”
“How do you know there are but four?” demanded the black.
The other pointed to the trail at his feet. “One is old and limps,” he said; “one is tall and thin; the other two are young warriors. They step lightly, although one of them is a large man.
“You have seen them?”
“I have seen their spoor; that is enough.”
Orando was impressed. Here, indeed, was a tracker of the first order; but perhaps he possessed something of a higher order than human skill. The thought thrilled Orando; but if it caused him a little fear, too, he no longer hesitated. He had cast his lot, and he would not turn back now.
“At least we can see where they go,” he said. “We can follow them to their village, and afterward we can return to Tumbai, where my father, the chief, lives. He will send runners through the Watenga country; and the war drums will boom, summoning the Utenga warriors. Then will we go and make war upon the village of the Leopard Men, that Nyamwegi may be avenged in blood.”
The stranger only grunted and trotted on. Sometimes Orando, who was rated a good tracker by his fellows, saw no spoor at all; but the white demon never paused, never hesitated. The warrior marvelled and his admiration grew; likewise his awe. He had leisure to think now, and the more he thought the more convinced he was that this was no mortal who guided him through the jungle upon the trail of the Leopard Men. If it were, indeed, a demon, then it was a most remarkable demon, for by no word or sign had it indicated any malign purpose. It was then, engendered by this line of reasoning, that a new and brilliant thought illuminated the mind of Orando like a bright light bursting suddenly through darkness. This creature, being nothing mortal, must be the protecting spirit of that departed ancestor for whom Orando had been named—his muzimo!
Instantly all fear left the warrior. Here was a friend and a protector. Here was the very namesake whose aid he had invoked before setting out upon the hunt, he whom he had propitiated with a handful of meal. Suddenly Orando regretted that the offering had not been larger. A handful of meal seemed quite inadequate to appease the hunger of the powerful creature trotting tirelessly ahead of him, but perhaps muzimos required less food than mortals. That seemed quite reasonable, since they were but spirits. Yet Orando distinctly recalled that before he had released the creature from beneath the tree it had stated that it wished to hunt for food as it was hungry. Oh, well, perhaps there were many things concerning muzimos that Orando did not know; so why trouble his head about details? It was enough that this must be his muzimo. He wondered if the little monkey perched upon his muzimo’s shoulder was also a spirit. Perhaps it was Nyamwegi’s ghost. Were not the two very friendly, as he and Nyamwegi had been throughout their lives? The thought appealed to Orando, and henceforth he thought of the little monkey as Nyamwegi. Now it occurred to him to test his theory concerning the white giant.
“Muzimo!” he called.
The stranger turned his head and looked about. “Why did you call ‘muzimo’?” he demanded.
“I was calling you, Muzimo,” replied Orando.
“Is that what you call me?”
“What do you want?”
Now Orando was convinced that he had made no mistake. What a fortunate man he was! How his fellows would envy him!
“Why did you call to me?” insisted the other.
“Do you think we are close to the Leopard Men, Muzimo?” inquired Orando, for want of any better question to ask.
“We are gaining on them, but the wind is in the wrong direction. I do not like to track with the wind at my back, for then Usha can run ahead and tell those I am tracking that I am on their trail.”
“What can we do about it?” demanded Orando. “The wind will not change for me, but perhaps you can make it blow in a different direction.”
“No,” replied the other, “but I can fool Usha, the wind. That I often do. When I am hunting up wind I can remain on the ground in safety, for then Usha can only carry tales to those behind me, for whom I care nothing; but when I hunt down wind I travel through the trees, and Usha carries my scent spoor above the head of my quarry. Or sometimes I move swiftly and circle the hunted one, and then Usha comes down to my nostrils and tells me where it is. Come!” The stranger swung lightly to the low-hanging branch of a great tree.
“Wait!” cried Orando. “I cannot travel through the trees.”
“Go upon the ground, then. I will go ahead through the trees and find the Leopard Men.”
Orando would have argued the wisdom of this plan; but the white disappeared amidst the foliage, the little monkey clinging tightly to its perch upon his shoulder.
“That,” thought Orando, “is the last that I shall see of my muzimo. When I tell this in the village they will not believe me. They will say that Orando is a great liar.”
Plain before him now lay the trail of the Leopard Men. It would be easy to follow; but, again, what could one man hope to accomplish against four, other than his own death? Yet Orando did not think of turning back. Perhaps he could not, alone, wreak his vengeance upon the slayers of Nyamwegi; but he could, at least, track them to their village, and later lead the warriors of Lobongo, the chief, his father, in battle against it.
The warrior moved tirelessly in a rhythmic trot that consumed the miles with stubborn certainty, relieving the monotony by reviewing the adventures of the morning. Thoughts of his muzimo occupied his mind almost to the exclusion of other subjects. Such an adventure was without parallel in the experience of Orando, and he enjoyed dwelling upon every phase of it. He recalled, almost with the pride of personal possession, the prowess of this other self of his from the spirit world. Its every mannerism and expression was photographed indelibly upon his memory; but that which impressed him most was an indefinable something in the steel-grey eyes, a haunting yearning that suggested a constant effort to recall an illusive memory.
What was his muzimo trying to recall? Perhaps it was the details of his earthly existence. Perchance he sought to conjure once again the reactions off the flesh to worldy stimuli. Doubtless he regretted his spirit state and longed to live again—to live and fight and love.
With such thoughts as their accompaniment the miles retreated beneath his pounding feet. With such thoughts his mind was occupied to the exclusion of matters which should have concerned him more. For instance, he did not note how fresh the spoor of his quarry had become. In puddles left by the rain of the previous night and roiled by the passage of feet the mud had not yet settled when Orando passed; in places the earth at the edges of footprints was still falling back into the depressions; but these things Orando failed to note, though he was accounted a good tracker. It is well that a man should keep his mind concentrated upon a single thing at a time unless he has a far more elastic mind than Orando. One may not dream too long in the savage jungle.
When Orando came suddenly into a small, natural clearing he failed to notice a slight movement of the surrounding jungle foliage. Had he, he would have gone more cautiously; and doubtless his jungle-craft would have suggested the truth, even though he could not have seen the four pairs of greedy, malevolent eyes that watched him from behind the concealing verdure; but when he reached the center of the clearing he saw all that he should have guessed before, as, with savage cries, four hideously caparisoned warriors leaped into the open and sprang toward him.
Never before had Orando, the son of Lobongo, seen one of the feared and hated members of the dread society of Leopard Men; but as his eyes fell upon these four there was no room for doubt as to their identity. And then they closed upon him.