Nearby, Jerrold Baine leaned against the door of a muddy touring car in conversation with the two girls who occupied the back seat.
“How you feeling, Naomi?” he inquired.
“Touch of fever again?”
“Nothing but since we left Jinja. I wish I was back in Hollywood; but I won’t ever see Hollywood again. I’m going to die here.”
“Aw, shucks! You’re just blue. You’ll be all right.”
“She had a dream last night,” said the other girl. “Naomi believes in dreams.”
“Shut up,” snapped Miss Madison.
“You seem to keep pretty, fit, Rhonda,” remarked Baine.
Rhonda Terry nodded. “I guess I’m just lucky.”
“You’d better touch wood;” advised the Madison; then she added, “Rhonda’s physical, purely physical. No one knows what we artistes suffer, with our high-strung, complex, nervous organizations.”
“Better be a happy cow than a miserable artiste,” laughed Rhonda.
“Beside that, Rhonda gets all the breaks,” complained Naomi. “Yesterday they shoot the first scene in which I appear, and where was I? Flat on my back with an attack of fever, and Rhonda has to double for me—even in the close-ups.”
“It’s a good thing you look so much alike,” said Baine. “Why, knowing you both as well as I do, I can scarcely tell, you apart.”
“That’s the trouble,” grumbled Naomi. “Peaple’ll see her and think it’s me.”
“Well, what of it?” demanded Rhonda. “You’ll get the credit.”
“Credit!” exclaimed Naomi. “Why, my dear, it will ruin my reputation. You are a sweet girl and all that, Rhonda; but remember, I am. Naomi Madison. My public expects superb acting. They will be disappointed, and they will blame me.”
Rhonda laughed good-naturedly: “I’ll do my best not to entirely ruin your reputation, Naomi,” she promised.
“Oh, it isn’t your fault,” exclaimed the other. “I don’t blame you. One is born with the divine afflatus, or one is not. That is all there is to it. It is no more your fault that you can’t act than it is the fault of that sheik over there that he was not born a white man.”
“What a disillusionment that sheik was!” exclaimed Rhonda.
“How so?” asked Baine.
“When I was a little girl I saw Rudolph Valentino on the screen; and, ah, brothers, sheiks was sheiks in them days!”
“This bird sure doesn’t look much like Valentino,” agreed Baine.
“Imagine being carried off into the desert by that bunch of whiskers and dirt! And here I’ve just been waiting , all these years to be carried off.”
“I’ll speak to Bill about it,” said Baine.
The girl sniffed. “Bill West’s a good cameraman, but he’s no sheik. He’s just about as romantic as his camera.”
“He’s a swell guy,” insisted Baine.
“Of course he is; I’m crazy about him: He’d make a great brother.”
“How much longer we got to sit here?” demanded Naomi, peevishly.
“Until they get the generator truck and twenty-two other trucks through that mud hole.”
“I don’t see why we can’t go on. I don’t see why we have to sit here and fight flies and bugs.”
“We might as well fight ’em here as somewhere else,” said Rhonda.
“Ormam’s afraid to separate the safari,” explained Baine. This is a bad piece of country. He was warned against bringing the company here. The natives never have been completely subdued, and they’ve been acting up lately.”
They were silent for a while, brushing away insects and watching the heavy truck being dragged slowly up the muddy bank. The ponies of the Arabs stood switching their tails and biting at the stinging pests that constantly annoyed them.
Sheykh Ab el-Ghrennem spoke to one at his side, a swarthy man with evil eyes. “Which of the benat, Atewy, is she who holds the secret of the valley of diamonds?”
“Billah!” exclaimed Atewy, spitting. “They are as alike as two pieces of jella. I cannot be sure which is which.”
“But one of them hath the paper? You are sure?”
The old Nasrany, who is the father of one of them, had it; but she took it from him. The young man leaning against that invention of Sheytan, talking to them now, plotted to take the life of the old man that he might steal the paper; but the girl, his daughter, learned of the plot and took the paper herself. The old man and the young man both believe that the paper is lost.”
“But the bint talks to the young man who would have killed her father,” said the sheykh. She seems friendly with him. I do not understand these Christian dogs.”
“Nor I,” admitted Atewy. “They are all mad. They quarrel and fight, and then immediately they sit down together, laughing and talking. They do things in great secrecy while every one is looking on. I saw the bint take the paper while the young man was looking on, and yet he seems to know nothing of it. He went soon after to her father and asked to see it. It was then the old man searched for it could not find it. He said that it was lost, and he was heartbroken.”
“It is all very strange,” murmured Sheykh Ab el-Ghrennem. “Are you sure that you understand their accursed tongue and know that which they say, Atewy?”
“Did I not work for more than a year with a mad old Nasrany who dug in the sands at Kheybar? If he found only a piece of a broken pot he would be happy all the rest of the day. From him I learned the language of el-Engleys.”
“Wellah!” sighed the sheykh. “It must be a great treasure indeed, greater than those of Howwara and Geryeh combined; or they would not have brought so many carriages to transport it.” He gazed with brooding eyes at the many trucks parked upon the opposite bank of the stream waiting to cross.
“When shall I take the bint who hath the paper?” demanded Atewy after a moment’s silence.
“Let us bide our time,” replied the sheykh. “There be no hurry, since they be leading us always nearer to the treasure and feeding us well into the bargain. The Nasrany are fools. They thought to fool the Bedauwy with their picture taking as they fooled el-Engleys, but we are brighter than they. We know the picture making is only a blind to hide the real purpose of their safari.”
Sweating, mud-covered, Mr. Thomas Orman stood near the line of natives straining on the ropes attached to a heavy truck. In one hand he carried a long whip. At his elbow stood a bearer, but in lieu of a rifle he carried a bottle of Scotch.
By nature Orman was neither a harsh nor cruel taskmaster. Ordinarily, both his inclinations and his judgment would have warned him against using the lash. The sullen silence of the natives which should have counselled him to forbearance only irritated him still further.
He was three months out of Hollywood and already almost two months behind schedule, with the probability staring him in the face that it would be another month before they could reach the location where the major part of the picture could be shot. His leading woman had a touch of fever that might easily develop into something that would keep her out of the picture entirely. He had already been down twice with fever, and that had had its effects upon his disposition. It seemed to him that everything had gone wrong, that everything had conspired against him. And now these damn savages, as he thought of them, were lying down on the job.
“Lay into, it, you lazy bums!” he yelled, and the long lash reached out and wrapped around the shoulders of a native.
A young man in khaki shirt and shorts turned away in disgust and walked toward the car where Baine was talking to the two girls. He paused in the shade of a tree, and, removing his sun helmet, wiped the perspiration from his forehead and the inside of the hat band; then he moved on again and joined them.
Baine moved over to make room for him by the rear door of the car. “You look sore, Bill,” he remarked.
West swore softly. “Orman’s gone nuts. If he doesn’t throw that whip away and leave the booze alone we’re headed for a lot of grief.”
“It’s in the air;” said Rhonda. “The men don’t laugh and sing the way they used to.”
“I saw Kwamudi looking at him a few minutes ago,” continued West. “There was hate in his eyes all right, and there was something worse.”
“Oh, well,” said Baine, “you got to treat those workmen rough; and as for Kwamudi, Tom can tie a can to him and appoint some one else headman.”
“Those slave driving days are over, Baine; and the natives know it. Orman’ll get in plenty of trouble for this if the men report it, and don’t fool yourself about Kwamudi. He’s no ordinary headman; he’s a big chief in his own country, and most of our gang are from his own tribe. If he says quit, they’ll quit; and don’t you forget it. We’d be in a pretty mess if those fellows quit on us.”
“Well, what are we goin’ to do about it? Tom ain’t asking our advice that I’ve ever noticed.”
“You could do something, Naomi,” said West, turning to the girl.
“Who, me? What could I do?”
“Well, Tom likes you a lot. He’d listen to you.”
“Oh, nerts! It’s his own funeral. I got troubles of my own.”
“It may be your funeral, too,” said West.
“Blah!” said the girl: “All I want to do is get out of here. How much longer I got to sit here and fight flies? Say, where’s Stanley? I haven’t seen him all day.”
“The Lion Man is probably asleep in the back of his car,” suggested Baine. “Say, have you heard what Old Man Marcus calls him?”
“What does he call him?” demanded Naomi.
“Aw, you’re all sore at him,” snapped Naomi, “because he steps right into a starring part while you poor dubs have been working all your lives and are still doin’ bits. Mr. Obroski is a real artiste.”
“Say, were going to start!” cried Rhonda. “There’s the signal.”
At last the long motorcade was under way. In the leading cars was a portion of the armed guards, the askaris; and another detachment brought up the rear. To the running boards of a number of the trucks clung some of the workgang, but most of them followed the last truck afoot. Pat O’Grady, the assistant director, was in charge of these.
O’Grady carried no long whip. He whistled a great deal, always the same tune; and he joshed his charges unmercifully, wholly ignoring the fact that they understood nothing that he said. But they reacted to his manner and his smile, and slowly their tenseness relaxed. Their sullen siIlnce broke a little, and they talked among themselves. But still they did not sing, and there was no laughter.
“It would be better,” remarked Major White, walking at O’Grady’s side, “if you were in full charge of these men at all times. Mr. Orman is temperamentally unsuited to handle them.”
O’Grady shrugged. “Well, what is there to do about it?”
“He won’t listen to me,” said the major. “He resents every suggestion that I make. I might as well have remained in Hollywood”
“I don’t know what’s got into Tom. He’s a mighty good sort: I never saw him like this before.” O’Grady shook his head.
“Well, for one thing there’s too much Scotch got into him,” observed White.
“I think it’s the fever and the worry.” The assistant director was loyal to his chief.
“Whatever it is we’re in for a bad mess if there isn’t a change,” the Englishman prophesied. His manner was serious, and it was evident that he was worried.
“Perhaps you’re—” O’Grady started to reply, but his words were interrupted by a sudden rattle of rifle fire coming, apparently, from the direction of the head of the column.
“My lord! What now?” exclaimed White, as, leaving O’Grady, he hurried toward the sound of the firing.