“You can’t go back,” growled Orman. “You signed up for the whole trip. You tell ’em they got to stay; or, by George, I’ll—”
“We not sign up to go Bansuto country; we not sign up be killed. You go back, we come along. You, stay, we go back. We, go daylight.” He turned and walked away.
Orman started up angrily from his camp chair, seizing his ever ready whip; “I’ll teach you, you black ——!” he yelled.
White, who had been standing beside him, seized him by the shoulder. “Stop!” His voice was low but his tone peremptory: “You can’t do that! I haven’t interfered before, but now you’ve got to listen to me: The lives of all of us are at stake.”
“Don’t you interfere, you meddlin’ old fool,” snapped Orman. “This is my show, and I’ll run it my way.”
“You’d better go soak your head, Tom,” said O’Grady; “you’re full of hootch. The major’s right. We’re in a tight hole, and we won’t ever get out of it on Scotch.” He turned to the Englishman. “You handle things, Major. Don’t pay any attention to Tom; he’s drunk. Tomorrow he’ll be sorry—if he sobers up. We’re all back of you. Get us out of the mess if you can. How long would it take to get out of this Bansuto country if we kept an in the direction we want to go?”
Orman appeared stunned by this sudden defection of his assistant: It left him speechless.
White considered O’Grady’s question. “If we were not too greatly delayed by the trucks, we could make it in two days,” he decided finally.
“And how long would it take us to reach the location we’re headed for if we have to go back and go around the Bansuto country?” continued O’Grady.
“We couldn’t do it under two weeks,” replied the major. “We’d be lucky if we made it in that time. We’d have to go way to the south through a beastly rough country.”
“The studio’s put a lot of money into this already,” said O’Grady, “and we haven’t got much of anything to, show for it. We’d like to get onto location as quick as possible. Don’t you suppose you could persuade Kwamudi to go on? If we turn hack, we’ll have those beggars on our neck for a day at least. If we go ahead, it will only mean one extra day of them. Offer Kwamudi’s bunch extra pay if they’ll stick—it’ll be a whole lot cheaper for us than wastin’ another two weeks.”
“Will Mr. Orman authorize the bonus?” asked White.
“He’ll do whatever I tell him, or I’ll punch his fool head,” O’Grady assured him.
Orman had sunk back into his camp chair and was staring at the ground. He made no comment.
“Very well,” said White. “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll talk to Kwamudi over at my tent, if you’ll send one of the boys him.”
White walked over to his tent, and O’Grady sent a black boy to summon the headman; then he turned to Orman. “Go to bed, Tom,” he ordered, “and lay off that hootch.”
Without a word, Orman got up and went into his tent.
“You put the kibosh on him all right, Pat,” remarked Noice, with a grin. “How do you get away with it?”
O’Grady did not reply. His eyes were wandering over the camp, and there was a troubled expression on his usually smiling face. He noted the sir of constraint, the tenseness, as though all were waiting for something to happen, they knew not what.
He saw his messenger overhaul Kwamudi and the head-man turn back toward White’s tent. He saw the natives silently making their little cooking fires. They did not sing or laugh, and when they spoke they spoke in whispers.
The Arabs were squatting in the muk’aad of the sheykh’s beyt. They were a dour lot at best; and their appearance was little different tonight than ordinarily, yet he sensed a difference.
Even the whites spoke in lower tones than usual and there was less chaffing. And from all the groups constant glances were cast toward the surrounding forest.
Presently he saw Kwamudi leave White and return to his fellows; then O’Grady walked over to where the Englishman was sitting in a camp chair, puffing on a squat briar. “What luck?” he asked.
“The bonus got him,” replied White. “They will go on, but on one other condition.”
“What is that?”
“His men are not to be whipped.”
“That’s fair enough,” said O’Grady.
“But how are you going to prevent it?”
“For one thing, I’ll throw the whip away; for another, I’ll tell Orman we’ll all quit him if he doesn’t lay off. I can’t understand him; he never was like this before. I’ve worked with him a lot during the last five years.”
“Too much liquor,” said White; “it’s finally got him.”
“He’ll be all right when we get on location and get to work. He’s been worrying too much. Once we get through this Bansuto country everything’ll be jake.”
“We’re not through it yet, Pat. They’ll get some more of us tomorrow and some more the next day. I don’t know how the natives will stand it. It’s a bad business. We really ought to turn around and go back. It would be better to lose two weeks time than to lose everything, as we may easily do if the natives quit us. You know we couldn’t move through this country without them.”
“We’ll pull through somehow,” ‘O’Grady assured him. “We always do. Well, I’m goin’ to turn in. Good-night, Major.”
The brief equatorial twilight had ushered in the night. The moon had not risen. The forest was blotted out by a pall of darkness. The universe had shrunk to a few tiny earth fires surrounded by the huddled forms of men and, far above, a few stars.
Obroski paused in front of the girls’ tent and scratched on the flap. “Who is it?” demanded Naomi Madison from within.
“It’s me, Stanley.”
She bade him enter; and he came in to find her lying on her cot beneath a mosquito bar, a lantern burning on a box beside her.
“Well,” she said peevishly, “it’s a wonder any one came. I might lie here and die for all any one cares.”
“I’d have come sooner, but I thought of course, Orman was here.”
“He’s probably in his tent soused.”
“Yes, he is. When I found that out I came right over.”
“I shouldn’t think you’d be afraid of him. I shouldn’t think you’d be afraid of, anything.” She gazed admiringly on his splendid physique, his handsome face.
“Me afraid of that big stiff!” he scoffed. “I’m not afraid of anything, but you said yourself that we ought, not to let Orman know about—about you and me.”
“No,” she acquiesced thoughtfully, “that wouldn’t be so good. He’s got a nasty temper, and there’s lots of things a director can do if he gets sore.”
“In a picture like this he could get a guy killed and make it look like an accident,” said Obroski.
She nodded. “Yes. I saw it done once. The director and the leading man were both stuck on the same girl. The director had the wrong command given to a trained elephant”
Obroski looked uncomfortable. “Do you suppose there’s any chance of his coming over?”
“Not now. He’ll be dead to the world till morning.”
“Oh, she’s probably playing contract with Bill West and Baine and old man Marcus. She’d play contract and let me lie here and die all alone.”
“Is she all right?”
“What do you mean, all right?”
“She wouldn’t tell Orman about us—about my being over here would she?”
“No, she wouldn’t do that—she ain’t that kind.”
Obroski breathed a sigh of relief. “She knows about us, don’t she?”
“She ain’t very bright; but she ain’t a fool, either. The only trouble with Rhonda is, she’s got it in her head she can act since she doubled for me while I was down with the fever. Some one handed her some applesauce, and now she thinks she’s some pumpkins. She had the nerve to tell me that I’d get credit for what she did. Believe me, she won’t get past the cutting room when I get back to Hollywood—not if I know my groceries and Milt Smith.”
“There couldn’t anybody act like you, Naomi,” said Obroski. “Why, before I ever dreamed I’d be in pictures I used to go see everything you were in. I got an album full of your pictures I cut out of movie magazines and newspapers. And now to think that I’m playin’ in the same company with you, and that”—he lowered his voice—“you love me! You do love me, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then I don’t see why you have to act so sweet on Orman.”
“I got to be diplomatic—I got to think of my career.”
“Well, sometimes you act like you were in love with him,” he said, petulantly.
“That answer to a bootlegger’s dream! Say, if he wasn’t a big director I couldn’t see him with a hundred-inch telescope.”
In the far distance a wailing scream echoed through the blackness of the night, a lion rumbled forth a thunderous answer, the hideous, mocking voice of a hyena joined the chorus.
The girl shuddered. “God! I’d give a million dollars to be back in Hollywood.”
“They sound like lost souls out there in the night,” whispered Obroski.
“And they’re calling to us. They’re waiting for us. They know that we’ll come, and then they’ll get us.”
The flap of the tent moved, and Obroski jumped to his feet with a nervous start. The girl sat straight up on her cot, wide-eyed. The flap was pulled back, and Rhonda Terry stepped into the light of the lone lantern.
“Hello, there!” she exclaimed cheerily.
“I wish you’d scratch before you come in,” snapped Naomi: “You gave me a start.”
“If we have to camp this close to the black belt every night we’ll all be scratching.” She turned to Obroski: “Run along home now; it’s time all little Lion Men were in bed.”
“I was just going,” said Obroski. “I—”
“You’d better. I just saw Tom Orman reeling in this direction.”
Obroski paled. “Well, I’ll be running along,” he said hurriedly, while making a quick exit.
Naomi Madison looked distinctly worried. “Did you really see Tom out there?” she demanded.
“Sure. He was wallowing around like the Avalon in a heavy sea.”
“But they said he went to bed.”
“If he did, he took his bottle to bed with him.”
Orman’s voice came to them from outside. “Hey, you! Come back here!”
“Is that you, Mr: Orman?” Obroski’s voice quavered noticeably.
“Yes, it’s me: What you doin’ in the girls’ tent? Didn’t I give orders that none of you, guys was to go into that tent?”
“I was just lookin’ for Rhonda. I wanted to ask her something.”
“You’re a liar. Rhonda wasn’t there. I just saw her go in. You been in there with Naomi. I’ve got a good mind to bust your jaw.”
“Honestly, Mr. Orman, I was just in there a minute. When I found Rhonda wasn’t there I came right out.”
“You came right out after Rhonda went in, you dirty, sneakin’ skunk; and now you listen to me. You lay off Naomi. She’s my girl. If I ever find you monkeyin’ around her again I’ll kill you. Do you get that?”
Rhonda looked at Naomi: and winked. “Papa cross; papa spank,” she said.
“My God! he’ll kill me,” shuddered Naomi.
The flap of the tent was thrust violently aside, and Orman burst into the tent. Rhonda wheeled and faced him.
“What do you mean by coming into our tent?” she demanded: “Get out of here!”
Orman’s jaw dropped. He was not accustomed to being talked to like that, and it took him off his feet. He was as surprised as might be a pit bull slapped in the face by a rabbit. He stood swaying at the entrance for a moment, staring at Rhonda as though he had discovered a new species of animal.
“I just wanted to speak to Naomi,” he said. “I didn’t know you were here.”
“You can speak to Naomi in the morning. And you did know that I was here; I heard you tell Stanley.”
At the mention of Obroski’s name Orman’s anger welled up again. “That’s what I’m goin’ to talk to her about.” He took a step in the direction of Naomi’s cot. “Now look here, you dirty little tramp,” he yelled, “you can’t make a monkey of me: If I ever catch you playin’ around with that Polack again I’ll beat you into a pulp.”
Naomi shrank back, whimpering. “Don’t touch me! I didn’t do anything. You got it all wrong, Tom. He didn’t come here to see me; he came to see Rhonda. Don’t let him get me, Rhonda, for God’s sake, don’t let him get me.”
Orman hesitated and looked at Rhonda. “Is that on the level?” he asked.
“Sure,” she replied, “he came to see me. I asked him to come.”
“Then why didn’t he stay after you came in?” Orman thought he had her there.
“I saw you coming, and I told him to beat it.”
“Well, you got to cut it out,” snapped Orman. “There’s to be no more men in this tent—do your visiting outside.”
“That suits me,” said Rhonda. “Good-night.”
As Orman departed, the Madison sank back on her cot trembling. “Phew!” she whispered after she thought the man was out of hearing. “That was a close shave.” She did not thank Rhonda. Her selfish egotism accepted any service as her rightful due.
“Listen,” said the other girl. “I’m hired to double for you in pictures, not in your love affairs. After this, watch your step.”
Orman saw a light in the tent occupied by West end one of the other cameramen. He walked over to it and went in. West was undressing. ‘“Hello, Tom!” he said. “What brings you around? Anything wrong?”
“There ain’t now, but there was. I just run that dirty, Polack out of the girls’ tent. He was over there with Rhonda.”
West paled. “I don’t believe it.”
“You callin’ me a liar?” demanded Orman.
“Yes, you and any one else who says that.”
Orman shrugged. “Well, she told me so herself—said she asked him over and made him scram when she saw me coming: That stuffs got to stop, and I told her so. I told the Polack too—the damn pansy.” Then he lurched out and headed for his own tent.
Bill West lay awake until almost morning.