Today she had hunted. A small boar had fallen to her rifle. At the sound of the shot, coming faintly to his ears, a white man had halted, scowling. His three companions jabbered excitedly.
With difficulty the girl had removed the viscera of the boar, thus reducing its weight sufficiently so that she could drag it to her camp; but it had been an ordeal that had taxed her strength and endurance to their limits. The meat was too precious, however, to be wasted; and she had struggled for hours, stopping often to rest, until at last, exhausted, she had sunk beside her prize before the entrance to her tent.
It was not encouraging to consider the vast amount of labor that still confronted her before the meat would be safe for future use. There was the butchering. The mere thought of it appalled her. She had never seen an animal butchered until after she had set out upon this disastrous safari. In all her life she had never even so much as cut a piece of raw meat. Her preparation, therefore, was most inadequate; but necessity overcomes obstacles, as it mothers inventions. She knew that the boar must be butchered, and the flesh cut into strips and that these strips must be smoked. Even then they would not keep long, but she knew no better way.
With her limited knowledge of practical matters, with the means at hand, she must put up the best fight for life of which she was capable. She was weak and inexperienced and afraid; but none the less it was a courageous heart that beat beneath her once chic but now soiled and disreputable flannel shirt. She was without hope, yet she would not give up.
Wearily, she had commenced to skin the boar, when a movement at the edge of the clearing in which her camp had been pitched attracted her attention. As she looked up she saw four men standing silently, regarding her. One was a white man. The other three were natives. As she sprang to her feet hope welled so strongly within her that she reeled slightly with dizziness; but instantly she regained control of herself and surveyed the four, who were now advancing, the white man in the lead, then, when closer scrutiny was possible, hope waned. Never in her life had she seen so disreputable appearing a white man. His filthy clothing was a motley of rags and patches; his face was unshaven; his hat was a nondescript wreck that might only be distinguished as a hat by the fact that it surmounted his head; his face was stern and forbidding. His eyes wandered suspiciously about her camp; and when he halted a few paces from her, scowling, there was no greeting on his lips.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “What are you doing here?”
His tone and words antagonized her. Never before had any white man addressed her in so cavalier a manner. In a proud and spirited girl the reaction was inevitable. Her chin went up; she eyed him coldly; the suggestion of a supercilious sneer curved her short upper lip; her eyes evaluated him disdainfully from his run-down boots to the battered thing that covered his dishevelled hair. Had his manner and address been different she might have been afraid of him, but now for the moment at least she was too angry to be afraid.
“I cannot conceive that either matter concerns you,” she said, and turned her back on him.
The scowl deepened on the man’s face, and angry words leaped to his tongue; but he controlled himself, regarding her silently. Had he not already seen her face he would have guessed from the lines of her haughty little back that she was young. Having seen her face he knew that she was beautiful. She was dirty, hot, perspiring, and covered with blood; but she was still beautiful. How beautiful she must be when properly garbed and groomed he dared not even imagine. He had noticed her blue-grey eyes and long lashes; they alone would have made any face beautiful. Now he was appraising her hair, confined in a loose knot at the nape of her neck; it had that peculiar quality of blondness that is described, today, as platinum.
It had been two years since Old Timer had seen a white woman. Perhaps if this one had been old and scrawny, or had buckteeth and a squint, he might have regarded her with less disapprobation and addressed her more courteously. But the moment that his eyes had beheld her, her beauty had recalled all the anguish and misery that another beautiful girl had caused him, arousing within him the hatred of women that he had nursed and cherished for two long years.
He stood in silence for a moment; and he was glad that he had; for it permitted him to quell the angry, bitter words that he might otherwise have spoken. It was not that he liked women any better, but that he realized and admired the courageousness of her reply.
“It may not be any of my business,” he said presently, “but perhaps I shall have to make it so. It is rather unusual to see a white woman alone in this country. You are alone?” There was a faint note of concern in the tone of his question.
“I was quite alone,” she snapped, “and I should prefer being so again.”
“You mean that you are without porters or white companions?”
As her back was toward him she did not see the expression of relief that crossed his face at her admission. Had she, she might have felt greater concern for her safety, though his relief had no bearing upon her welfare; his anxiety as to the presence of white men was simply that of the elephant poacher.
“And you have no means of transportation?” he queried.
“You certainly did not come this far into the interior alone. What became of the other members of your party?”
“They deserted me.”
“But your white companions—what of them?”
“I had none.” She had faced him by now, but her attitude was still unfriendly.
“You came into the interior without any white men?” There was skepticism in his tone.
“When did your men desert you?”
“Three days ago.”
“What do you intend doing? You can’t stay here alone, and I don’t see how you can expect to go on without porters.”
“I have stayed here three days alone; I can continue to do so until—”
“I don’t know.”
“Look here,” he demanded; “what in the world are you doing here, anyway?”
A sudden hope seemed to flash to her brain. “I am looking for a man,” she said. “Perhaps you have heard of him; perhaps you know where he is.” Her voice was vibrant with eagerness.
“What’s his name?” asked Old Timer.
“Jerry Jerome.” She looked up into his face hopefully.
He shook his head. “Never heard of him.”
The hope in her eyes died out, suffused by the faintest suggestion of tears. Old Timer saw the moisture in her eyes, and it annoyed him. Why did women always have to cry? He steeled his heart against the weakness that was sympathy and spoke brusquely. “What do you think you’re going to do with that meat?” he demanded.
Her eyes widened in surprise. There were no tears in them now, but a glint of anger. “You are impossible. I wish you would get out of my camp and leave me alone.”
“I shall do nothing of the kind,” he replied. Then he spoke rapidly to his three followers in their native dialect, whereupon the three advanced and took possession of the carcass of the boar.
The girl looked on in angry surprise. She recalled the heartbreaking labor of dragging the carcass to camp. Now it was being taken from her. The thought enraged her. She drew her revolver from its holster. “Tell them to leave that alone,” she cried, “or I’ll shoot them. It’s mine.”
“They’re only going to butcher it for you,” explained Old Timer. “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? Or were you going to frame it?”
His sarcasm nettled her, but she realized that she had misunderstood their purpose. “Why didn’t you say so?” she demanded. “I was going to smoke it. I may not always be able to get food easily.”
“You won’t have to,” he told her; “we’ll look after that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that as soon as I’m through here you’re going back to my camp with me. It ain’t my fault that you’re here; and you’re a damn useless nuisance, like all other women; but I couldn’t leave a white rat here alone in the jungle, much less a white woman.”
“What if I don’t care to go with you?” she inquired haughtily.
“I don’t give a damn what you think about it,” he snapped; “you’re going with me. If you had any brains you’d be grateful. It’s too much to expect you to have a heart. You’re like all the rest—selfish, inconsiderate, ungrateful.”
“Anything else?” she inquired.
“Yes. Cold, calculating hard.”
“You do not think much of women, do you?”
“You are quite discerning.”
“And just what do you propose doing with me when we get to your camp?” she asked.
“If we can scrape up a new safari for you I’ll get you out of Africa as quickly as I can,” he replied.
“But I do not wish to get out of Africa. You have no right to dictate to me. I came here for a purpose, and I shall not leave until that purpose is fulfilled.”
“If you came here to find that Jerome fellow it is my duty to a fellow man to chase you out before you can find him.”
Her level gaze rested upon him for several moments before she replied. She had never before seen a man like this. Such candor was unnatural. She decided that he was mentally unbalanced; and having heard that the insane should be humored, lest they become violent, she determined to alter her attitude toward him.
“Perhaps you are right,” she admitted. “I will go with you.”
“That’s better,” he commented. “Now that that’s settled let’s have everything else clear. We’re starting back to my camp as soon as I get through with my business here. That may be tomorrow or next day. You’re coming along. One of my boys will look after you—cooking and all that sort of stuff. But I don’t want to be bothered with any women. You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone. I don’t even want to talk to you.”
“That will be mutually agreeable,” she assured him, not without some asperity. Since she was a woman and had been for as long as she could recall the object of masculine adulation, such a speech, even from the lips of a disreputable ragamuffin whose sanity she questioned, could not but induce a certain pique.
“One more thing,” he added. “My camp is in Chief Bobolo’s country. If anything happens to me have my boys take you back there to my camp. My partner will look after you. Just tell him that I promised to get you back to the coast.” He left her then, and busied himself with the simple preparation of his modest camp, calling one of the men from the butchering to pitch his small tent and prepare his evening meal, for it was late in the afternoon. Another of the boys was detailed to serve the girl.
From her tent that evening she could see him sprawled before a fire, smoking his pipe. From a distance she gazed at him contemptuously, convinced that he was the most disagreeable person she had ever encountered, yet forced to admit that his presence gave her a feeling of security she had not enjoyed since she had entered Africa. She concluded that even a crazy white man was better than none. But was he crazy? He seemed quite normal and sane in all respects other than his churlish attitude toward her. Perhaps he was just an ill-bred boor with some fancied grievance against women. Be that as it might he was an enigma, and unsolved enigmas have a way of occupying one’s thoughts. So, notwithstanding her contempt for him, he filled her reveries quite to the exclusion of all else until sleep claimed her.
Doubtless she would have been surprised to know that similarly the man’s mind was occupied with thoughts of her, thoughts that hung on with bulldog tenacity despite his every effort to shake them loose. In the smoke of his pipe he saw her, unquestionably beautiful beyond comparison. He saw the long lashes shading the depths of her blue-grey eyes; her lips, curved deliciously; the alluring sheen of her wavy blond hair; the perfection of her girlish figure.
“Damn!” muttered Old Timer. “Why in hell did I have to run into her?”
The following morning he left camp early, taking two of the boys with him; leaving the third, armed with an old rifle, to protect the girl and attend to her wants. She was already up when he departed, but he did not look in her direction as he strode out of camp, though she furtively watched him go, feeding her contempt on a final disparaging appraisement of his rags and tatters.
“Unspeakable boor!” she whispered venomously as a partial outlet for her pent up hatred of the man.
Old Timer had a long, hard day. No sign of elephant rewarded his search, nor did he contact a single native from whom he might obtain information as to the whereabouts of the great herd that rumor and hope had located in this vicinity.
Not only was the day one of physical hardship, but it had been mentally trying as well. He had been disappointed in not locating the ivory they needed so sorely, but this had been the least of his mental perturbation. He had been haunted by thoughts of the girl. All day he had tried to rid his mind of recollection of that lovely face and the contours of her perfect body, but they persisted in haunting him. At first they had aroused other memories, painful memories of another girl. But gradually the vision of that other girl had faded until only the blue-grey eyes and blond hair of the girl in the lonely camp persisted in his thoughts.
When he turned back toward camp at the end of his fruitless search for elephant signs a new determination filled him with disquieting thoughts and spurred him rapidly upon the back-trail. It had been two years since he had seen a white woman, and then Fate had thrown this lovely creature across his path. What had women ever done for him? “Made a bum of me,” he soliloquized; “ruined my life. This girl would have been lost but for me. She owes me something. All women owe me something for what one woman did to me. This girl is going to pay the debt.
“God, but she’s beautiful! And she belongs to me. I found her, and I am going to keep her until I am tired of her. Then I’ll throw her over the way I was thrown over. See how the woman will like it! Gad, what lips! Tonight they will be mine. She’ll be all mine, and I’ll make her like it. It’s only fair. I’ve got something coming to me in this world. I’m entitled to a little happiness; and, by God, I’m owing to have it.”
The great sun hung low in the west as the man came in sight of the clearing. The tent of the girl was the first thing that greeted his eyes. The soiled canvas suggested an intimacy that was provocative; it had sheltered and protected her; it had shared the most intimate secrets of her alluring charm. Like all inanimate objects that have been closely associated with an individual the tent reflected something of the personality of the girl. The mere sight of it stirred the man deeply. His passions, aroused by hours of anticipation, surged through his head like wine. He quickened his pace in his eagerness to take the girl in his arms.
Then he saw an object lying just beyond her tent that turned him cold with apprehension. Springing forward at a run, closely followed by his two retainers, he came to a halt beside the grisly thing that had attracted his horrified attention and turned the hot wave of his desire to cold dread. It was the dead and horribly mutilated body of the native he had left to guard the girl. Cruel talons had lacerated the flesh with deep wounds that might have been inflicted by one of the great carnivores, but the further mutilation of the corpse had been the work of man.
Stooping over the body of their fellow the two Negroes muttered angrily in their native tongue; then one of them turned to Old Timer. “The Leopard Men, Bwana,” he said.
Fearfully, the white man approached the tent of the girl, dreading what he might find there, dreading even more that he might find nothing. As he threw aside the flap and looked in, his worst fears were realized; the girl was not there. His first impulse was to call aloud to her as though she might be somewhere near in the forest; but as he turned to do so he suddenly realized that he did not know her name, and in the brief pause that this realization gave him the futility of the act was borne in upon him. If she still lived she was far away by now in the clutches of the fiends who had slain her protector.
A sudden wave of rage overwhelmed the white man, his hot desire for the girl transmuted to almost maniacal anger toward her abductors. He forgot that he himself would have wronged her. Perhaps he thought only of his own frustrated hopes; but he believed that he was thinking only of the girl’s helplessness, of the hideousness of her situation. Ideas of rescue and vengeance filled his whole being, banishing the fatigue of the long, arduous day.
It was already late in the afternoon, but he determined upon immediate pursuit. Following his orders the two hastily buried their dead comrade, made up two packs with such provisions and camp necessities as the marauders had not filched, and with the sun but an hour high followed their mad master upon the fresh trail of the Leopard Men.