The question was of less importance than the fact that she was here or the other still more important fact that he must save her. Dropping to the ground, he scaled the palisade and crept through the village from the rear, keeping well in the shadow of the huts; while little Nkima remained behind in the tree that the ape-man had quitted, his courage having carried him as far as it could.
When the pygmies had cleared a space for their village they had left a few trees within the enclosure to afford them shade, and one of these grew in front of the hut of Rebega. To this tree Tarzan made his way, keeping the bole of it between him and the natives assembled about the fires; and into its branches he swung just in time to see Wlala seize the girl by the hair and lift her blade to slash the fair throat.
There was no time for thought, barely time for action. The muscles of the ape-man responded almost automatically to the stimulus of necessity. To fit an arrow to his bow and to loose the shaft required but the fraction of a split second. Simultaneously he heard the noise at the gate, saw the white man running forward, heard him yell. Even had he not recognized him, he would have known instinctively that he was here for but one purpose—the rescue of the girl. And when he heard Rebega’s command, knowing the danger that the white man faced, he shot the additional arrows that brought down those most closely menacing him and frightened the rest of the pygmies away for the short time that was necessary to permit the removal of the captive from the village.
Tarzan of the Apes had no quarrel with the little men. He had accomplished that for which he had come and was ready to depart, but as he turned to descend from the tree there was a rending of wood, and the limb upon which he was standing broke suddenly from the stem of the tree and crashed to the ground beneath, carrying the ape-man with it.
The fall stunned him momentarily, and when he regained consciousness he found his body overrun by pygmy warriors who were just completing the act of trussing his arms and legs securely. Not knowing that they had completed their job, nor how well they had done it, the ape-man surged heavily upon his bonds, the effort sending the pygmies in all directions; but the cords held and the Lord of the Jungle knew that he was the captive of as cruel and merciless a people as the forests of the great river basin concealed.
The Betetes were still nervous and fearful. They had refastened the gates that Old Timer had opened, and a force of warriors was guarding this entrance as well as the one at the opposite end of the village. Poison-tipped spears and arrows were in readiness for any enemy who might approach, but the whole village was in a state of nervous terror bordering upon panic. Their chief was dead; the white girl whom they had been about to devour was gone; a gigantic white man had dropped from the heavens into their village and was now their prisoner. All these things had happened within a few seconds; it was little wonder that they were nervous.
As to their new captive there was a difference of opinion. Some thought that he should be slain at once, lest he escape. Others, impressed by the mysterious manner of his entrance into the village, were inclined to wait, being fearful because of their ignorance of his origin, which might easily be supernatural.
The possible danger of an attack by an enemy beyond their gates finally was a reprieve for the ape-man, for the simple reason that they dared not distract their attention from the defense of the village to indulge in an orgy of eating. Tomorrow night would answer even better, their leaders argued; and so a score of them half carried, half dragged the great body of their prisoner into an unoccupied hut, two of their number remaining outside the entrance on guard.
Swaying upon the topmost branch of a tree, Nkima hugged himself in grief and terror, but principally terror; for in many respects he was not greatly unlike the rest of us who, with Nkima, have descended from a common ancestor. His own troubles affected him more than the troubles of another, even though that other was a loved one.
This seemed a cruel world indeed to little Nkima. He was never long out of one trouble before another had him in its grip, though more often than not the troubles were of his own making. This time however, he had been behaving perfectly (largely through the fact that he was terror-stricken in this strange forest); he had not insulted a single creature all day nor thrown missiles at one; yet here he was alone in the dark, the scent of Sheeta strong in his nostrils, and Tarzan a prisoner in the hands of the little Gomangani.
He wished that Muviro and the other Waziri were here, or Jad-bal-ja, the Golden Lion. Either of these would come to the rescue of Tarzan and save him, too; but they were far away. So far away were they that Nkima had long since given up hope of seeing any of them again. He wanted to go into the village of the little Gomangani that he might be near his master, but he dared not. He could only crouch in the tree and wait for Sheeta or Kudu. If Sheeta came first, as he fully expected him to do, that would be the last of little Nkima. But perhaps Kudu, the sun, would come first, in which event there would be another day of comparative safety before hideous night settled down again upon an unhappy world.
As his thoughts dwelt upon such lugubrious prophecies, there rose from the village below him the uncanny notes of a weird cry. The natives in the village were startled and terrified, because they only half guessed what it was. They had heard it before occasionally all during their lives, sounding mysterious and awe-inspiring from the dark distances of the jungle; but they had never heard it so close to them before. It sounded almost in the village. They had scarcely had time to think these thoughts when they learned that the terrible cry had been voiced from one of their own huts.
Two terrified warriors apprised them of this, the two warriors who had been placed on guard over their giant captive. Wide-eyed and breathless, they fled from their post of duty. “It is no man that we have captured,” cried one of them, “but a demon. He has changed himself into a great ape. Did you not hear him?”
The other natives were equally frightened. They had no chief, no one to give orders, no one to whom they might look for advice and protection in an emergency of this nature. “Did you see him?” inquired one of the sentries. “What does he look like?”
“We did not see him, but we heard him.”
“If you did not see him, how do you know that he has changed himself into a great ape?”
“Did I not say that I heard him?” demanded a sentry. “When the lion roars, do you have to go out into the forest to look at him to know that he is a lion?”
The skeptic scratched his head. Here was logic irrefutable. However, he felt that he must have the last word. “If you had looked, you would have known for sure,” he said. “Had I been on guard I should have looked in the hut. I should not have run away like an old woman.”
“Go and look, then,” cried one of the sentries. The skeptic was silenced.
Nkima heard the weird cry from the village of the little men. It thrilled him, too, but it did not frighten him. He listened intently, but no sound broke the silence of the great forest. He became uneasy. He wished to raise his voice, too, but he dared not, knowing that Sheeta would hear. He wished to go to the side of his master, but fear was stronger than love. All he could do was wait and shiver; he did not dare whimper for fear of Sheeta.
Five minutes passed—five minutes during which the Betetes did a maximum of talking and a minimum of thinking. However, a few of them had almost succeeded in screwing up their courage to a point that would permit them to investigate the hut in which the captive was immured, when again the weird cry shattered the silence of the night; whereupon the investigation was delayed by common consent.
Now, faintly from afar sounded the roar of a lion; and a moment later out of the dim distance came an eerie cry that seemed a counterpart of that which had issued from the hut. After that, silence fell again upon the forest, but only for a short time. Now the wives of Rebega and the wives of the warriors who had been killed commenced their lamentations. They moaned and howled and smeared themselves with ashes.
An hour passed, during which the warriors held a council and chose a temporary chief. It was Nyalwa, who was known as a brave warrior. The little men felt better now; there was a recrudescence of courage. Nyalwa perceived this and realized that he should take advantage of it while it was hot. He also felt that, being chief, he should do something important.
“Let us go and kill the white man,” he said. “We shall be safer when he is dead.”
“And our bellies will be fuller,” remarked a warrior. “Mine is very empty now.”
“But what if he is not a man but a demon?” demanded another.
This started a controversy that lasted another hour, but at last it was decided that several of them should go to the hut and kill the prisoner; then more time was consumed deciding who should go. And during this time little Nkima had experienced an accession of courage. He had been watching the village all the time; and he had seen that no one approached the hut in which Tarzan was confined and that none of the natives were in that part of the village, all of them being congregated in the open space before the hut of the dead Rebega.
Fearfully Nkima descended from the tree and scampered to the palisade, which he scaled at the far end of the village where there were no little men, even those who had been guarding the rear gate having deserted it at the first cry of the prisoner. It took him but a moment to reach the hut in which Tarzan lay. At the entrance he stopped and peered into the dark interior, but he could see nothing. Again he grew very much afraid.
“It is little Nkima,” he said. “Sheeta was there in the forest waiting for me. He tried to stop me, but I was not afraid. I have come to help Tarzan.”
The darkness hid the smile that curved the lips of the apeman. He knew his Nkima—knew that if Sheeta had been within a mile of him he would not have moved from the safety of the slenderest high-flung branch to which no Sheeta could pursue him. But he merely said, “Nkima is very brave.”
The little monkey entered the hut and leaped to the broad chest of the ape-man. “I have come to gnaw the cords that hold you,” he announced.
“That you cannot do,” replied Tarzan; “otherwise I should have called you long ago.”
“Why can I not?” demanded Nkima. “My teeth are very sharp.”
“After the little men bound me with rope,” explained Tarzan, “they twisted copper wire about my wrists and ankles. Nkima cannot gnaw through copper wire.”
“I can gnaw through the cords,” insisted Nkima, “and then I can take the wire off with my fingers.”
“You can try,” replied Tarzan, “but I think that you cannot do it.”
Nyalwa had at last succeeded in finding five warriors who would accompany him to the hut and kill the prisoner. He regretted that he had suggested the plan, for he had found it necessary, as candidate for permanent chieftainship, to volunteer to head the party.
As they crept slowly toward the hut, Tarzan raised his head. “They come!” his whispered to Nkima. “Go out and meet them. Hurry!”
Nkima crept cautiously through the doorway. The sight that first met his eyes was of six warriors creeping stealthily toward him. “They come!” he screamed to Tarzan. “The little Gomangani come!” And then he fled precipitately.
The Betetes saw him and were astonished. They were also not a little fearful. “The demon has changed himself into a little monkey and escaped,” cried a warrior.
Nyalwa hoped so, but it seemed almost too good to be true; however, he grasped at the suggestion. “Then we may go back,” he said. “If he has gone we cannot kill him.”
“We should look into the hut,” urged a warrior who had hoped to be chief and who would have been glad to demonstrate that he was braver than Nyalwa.
“We can look into it in the morning when it is light,” argued Nyalwa; “it is very dark now. We could see nothing.”
“I will go and get a brand from the fire,” said the warrior, “and then if Nyalwa is afraid I will go into the hut. I am not afraid.”
“I am not afraid,” cried Nyalwa. “I will go in without any light.” But he had no more than said it than he regretted it. Why was he always saying things first and thinking afterward?
“Then why do you stand still?” demanded the warrior. “You cannot get into the hut by standing still.”
“I am not standing still,” remonstrated Nyalwa, creeping forward very slowly.
While they argued, Nkima scaled the palisade and fled into the dark forest. He was very much afraid, but he felt better when he had reached the smaller branches of the trees, far above the ground. He did not pause here, however, but swung on through the darkness, for there was a fixed purpose in the mind of little Nkima. Even his fear of Sheeta was submerged in the excitation of his mission.
Nyalwa crept to the doorway of the hut and peered in. He could see nothing. Prodding ahead of him with his spear he stepped inside. The five warriors crowded to the entrance behind him. Suddenly there burst upon Nyalwa’s startled ears the same weird cry that had so terrified them all before. Nyalwa wheeled and bolted for the open air, but the five barred his exit. He collided with them and tried to claw his way over or through them. He was terrified, but it was a question as to whether he was any more terrified than the five. They had not barred his way intentionally, but only because they had not moved as quickly as he. Now they rolled out upon the ground and, scrambling to their feet, bolted for the opposite end of the village.
“He is still there,” announced Nyalwa after he had regained his breath. “That was what I went into the hut to learn. I have done what I said I would.”
“We were going to kill him,” said the warrior who would be chief. “Why did you not kill him? You were in there with him and you had your spear. He was bound and helpless. If you had let me go in, I would have killed him.”
“Go in and kill him then,” growled Nyalwa, disgusted.
“I have a better way,” announced another warrior.
“What is it?” demanded Nyalwa, ready to jump at any suggestion.
“Let us all go and surround the hut; then when you give the word we will hurl our spears through the walls. In this way we shall be sure to kill the white man.”
“That is just what I was going to suggest,” stated Nyalwa. “We will all go; follow me!”
The little men crept again stealthily toward the hut. Their numbers gave them courage. At last they had surrounded it and were waiting the signal from Nyalwa. The spears with their poisoned tips were poised. The life of the apeman hung in the balance, when a chorus of angry growls just beyond the palisade stilled the word of command on the lips of Nyalwa.
“What is that?” he cried.
The little men glanced toward the palisade and saw dark forms surmounting it. “The demons are coming!” shrieked one.
“It is the hairy men of the forest,” cried another.
Huge, dark forms scaled the palisade and dropped into the village. The Betetes dropped back, hurling their spears. A little monkey perched upon the roof of a hut screamed and chattered. “This way!” he cried. “This way, Zu-tho! Here is Tarzan of the Apes in this nest of the Gomangani.”
A huge, hulking form with great shoulders and long arms rolled toward the hut. Behind him were half a dozen enormous bulls. The Betetes had fallen back to the front of Rebega’s hut.
“Here!” called Tarzan. “Tarzan is here, Zu-tho!”
The great ape stooped and peered into the dark interior of the hut. His enormous frame was too large for the small doorway. With his great hands he seized the hut by its door posts and tore it from the ground, tipping it over upon its back, as little Nkima leaped, screaming, to the roof of an adjacent hut.
“Carry me out into the forest,” directed the ape-man.
Zu-tho lifted the white man in his arms and carried him to the palisade, while the pygmies huddled behind the hut of Rebega, not knowing what was transpiring in that other part of their village. The other bulls followed, growling angrily. They did not like the scent of the man-things. They wished to get away. As they had come, they departed; and a moment later the dark shadows of the jungle engulfed them.