Bill West was the first to suspect what had happened. He looked wonderingly about for a moment and then started, almost at a run, for the crude shelters thrown up by the blacks the previous evening.
He called aloud to Kwamndi and several others whose names he knew, but there was no response. He looked into shelter after shelter, and always the results were the same. Then he hurried over to Orman’s tent. The director was just coming out as West ran up. O’Grady was directly behind him.
“What’s the matter with breakfast?” demanded the latter. “I don’t see a sign of the cooks.”
“And you won’t,” said West; “they’ve gone, ducked, vamoosed. If you want breakfast, you’ll cook it yourself.”
“What do you mean gone, Bill?” asked Orman.
“The whole kit and kaboodle of ’em have run out on us,” explained the cameraman. “There’s not a smoke in camp. Even the askaris have beat it. The camp’s unguarded, and God only knows how long it has been.”
“Gone!” Orman’s inflection registered incredulity. “But they couldn’t! Where have they gone?”
“Search me,” replied West. “They’ve taken a lot of our supplies with ’em too. From what little I saw I guess they outfitted themselves to the queen’s taste. I noticed a couple of trucks that looked like they’d been rifled.”
Orman swore softly beneath his breath; but he squared his shoulders, and the haggard, hang-dog expression he had worn vanished from his face. O’Grady had been looking at him with a worried furrow in his brow; now he gave a sigh of relief and grinned—the Chief was himself again.
“Rout every one out,” Orman directed. “Have the drivers check their loads. You attend to that, Bill, while Pat posts a guard around the camp. I see old el Gran’ma’am and his bunch are still with us. You better put them on guard duty, Pat: Then round up every one else at the mess tables for a palaver.”
While his orders were being carried out Orman walked about the camp making a hurried survey. His brain was clear. Even the effects of a sleepless night seemed to have been erased by this sudden emergency call upon his resources. He no longer wasted his nervous energy upon vain regrets, though he was still fully conscious of the fact that this serious predicament was of his own making.
When he approached the mess table five minutes later the entire company was assembled there talking excitedly about the defection of the, blacks and offering various prophecies as to the future, none of which were particularly roseate.
Orman overheard one remark. “It took a case of Scotch to get us into this mess, but Scotch won’t ever get us out of it.”
“You all know what has happened,” Orman commenced; “and I guess you all know why it happened, but recriminations won’t help matters. Our situation really isn’t so hopeless: We have men, provisions, arms, and transportation. Because the porters deserted us doesn’t mean that we’ve got to sit down here and kiss ourselves good-bye.
“Nor is there any use in turning around now and going back—the shortest way out of the Bansuto country is straight ahead: When we get out of it we can recruit more blacks from friendly tribes and go ahead with the picture.
“In the meantime every one has got to work and work hard. We have got to do the work the blacks did before—make camp, strike camp, unload and load, cook, cut trail, drag trucks through mud holes, stand guard on the march and in camp: That part and trail cutting will be dangerous, but every one will have to take his turn at it—every one except the girls and the cooks; they’re the most important members of the safari.” A hint of one of Orman’s old smiles touched his lips and eyes.
“Now,” he continued, “The first thing to do is eat. Who can cook?”
“I can like nobody’s business,” said Rhonda Terry.
“I’ll vouch for that,” said Marcus. “I’ve eaten a chicken dinner with all the trimmings at Rhonda’s apartment.”
“I can cook,” spoke up a male voice.
Every one turned to see who had spoken; he was the only man that had volunteered for the only safe assignment.
“When did you learn to cook, Obroski?” demanded Noice. “I went camping with you once; and you couldn’t even build a fire, let alone cook on one after some one else had built it.”
Obroski flushed. “Well; some one’s got to help Rhonda,” he said lamely, “and no one else offered to.”
“Jimmy, here, can cook,” offered an electrician. “He used to be assistant chef in a cafeteria in L.A.”
“I don’t want to cook,” said Jimmy. “I don’t want no cinch job. I served in the Marines in Nicaragua. Gimme a gun, and let me do guard duty.”
“Who else can cook?” demanded Orman. “We need three.”
“Shorty can cook,” said a voice from the rear. “He used to run a hot-dog stand on Ventura Boulevard.”
“O.K.!” said Orman. “Miss Terry is chief cook; Jimmy and Shorty will help her; Pat will detail three more for K.P. every day. Now get busy. While the cooks are rustling some grub the rest of you strike the tents and load the trucks.”
“Oh, Tom,” said Naomi Madison at his elbow, “my personal boy has run away with the others: I wish you would detail one of the men to take his place.”
Orman wheeled and looked at her in astonishment. “I’d forgotten all about you, Naomi. I’m glad you reminded me. If you can’t cook, and I don’t suppose you can, you’ll peel spuds, wait on the tables, and help wash dishes.”
For a moment the Madison looked aghast; then she smiled icily. “I suppose you think you are funny,” She said, “but really this is no time for joking.”
“I’m not joking, Naomi.” His tone was serious, his face unsmiling.
“Do you mean to say that you expect me, Naomi Madison, to peel potatoes, wait on tables, and wash dishes! Don’t be ridiculous—I shall do nothing of the kind.”
“Be yourself, Naomi! Before Milt Smith discovered you you were slinging hash in a joint on Main Street; and you’ll do it again here, or you won’t eat.” He turned and walked away.
During breakfast Naomi Madison sat in haughty aloofness in the back seat of an automobile. She did not wait on table, not did she eat.
Americans and Arabs formed the advance and rear guards when the safari finally got under way; but the crew that cut trait was wholly American—the Arabs would fight, but they would not work; that was beneath their dignity.
Not until the last kitchen utensil was washed, packed, and loaded did Rhonda Terry go to the car in which she and Naomi Madison rode. She was flushed and a little tired as she entered the car.
Naomi eyed her with compressed lips. “You’re a fool, Rhonda,” she snapped. “You shouldn’t have lowered yourself by doing that menial work. We were not employed to be scullery maids.”
Rhonda nodded toward the head of the column. “There probably isn’t anything in those boys’ contracts about chopping down trees or fighting cannibals.” She took a paper-wrapped parcel from her bag. “I brought you some sandwiches. I thought you might be hungry.”
The Madison ate in silence, and for a long time thereafter she seemed to be immersed in thought.
The column moved slowly. The axe men were not accustomed to the sort of work they were doing, and in the heat of the equatorial forest they tired quickly. The trail opened with exasperating slowness as though the forest begrudged every foot of progress that they made.
Orman worked with his men, wielding an axe when trees were to be felled, marching with the advance guard when the trail was opened.
“Tough goin’,” remarked Bill West, leaning his axe handle against his hip and wiping the perspiration from his eyes.
“This isn’t the toughest part of it,” replied Orman.
“Since the guides scrammed we don’t know where we, goin’.”
West whistled. “I hadn’t thought of that”
As they trudged on an opening in the forest appeared ahead of them shortly after noon. It was almost treeless and covered with a thick growth of tall grass higher than a man’s head.
“That certainly looks good,” remarked Qrman. “We ought to make a little time for a few minutes.”
The leading truck forged into the open, flattening the grass beneath its great tires.
“Hop aboard the trucks!” Orman shouted to the advance guard and the axe men. “Those beggars won’t bother us here; there are no trees to hide them.”
Out into the open moved the long column of cars. A sense of relief from the oppressive closeness of the forest animated the entire company.
And then, as the rearmost truck bumped into the clearing, a shower of arrows whirred from the tall grasses all along the line. Savage war cries filled the air; and for the first time the Bansutos showed themselves, as their spearmen rushed forward with screams of hate and blood lust.
A driver near the head of the column toppled from his seat with an arrow through his heart. His truck veered to the left and went careening off into the midst of the savages.
Rifles, cracked, men shouted and cursed, the wounded screamed. The column stopped, that every man might use his rifle. Naami Madison slipped to the floor of the car. Rhonda drew her revolver and fired into the faces of the onrushing blacks. A dozen men hurried to the defense of the car that carried the two girls.
Some one shouted, “Look out! They’re on the other side too.” Rifles were turned in the direction of the new threat. The fire was continuous and deadly. The Bansutos, almost upon them, wavered and fell back. A fusillade of shots followed them as they disappeared into the dense grass, followed and found many of them.
It was soon over; perhaps the whole affair had not lasted two minutes: But it had wrought havoc with the company. A dozen men were dead or, dying; a truck was wrecked, the morale of the little force was shattered.
Orman turned the command of the advance guard over to West and hurried back down the line to check up on casualties. O’Grady was running forward to meet him.
“We d better get out of here, Tom,” he cried; “those devils may fire the grass.”
Orman paled. He had not thought of that. “Load the dead and wounded onto the nearest cars, and get going!” he ordered. “We’ll have to check up later.”
The relief that the party had felt when they entered the grassy clearing was only equalled by that which they experienced when they left it to pull into the dense, soggy forest where the menace of fire, at least, was reduced to a minimum.
Then O’Grady went along the line with his roster of the company checking the living and the dead. The bodies of Noice, Baine, seven other Americans and three Arabs were on the trucks.
“Obroski!” shouted O’Grady. “Obroski! Has any one seen Obroski?”
“Bless my soul!” exclaimed Gordon Z. Marcus. “I saw him. I remember now. When those devils came up on our left, he jumped out of the other side of the car and ran off into that tall grass.”
Orman started back toward the rear of the column. “Where you goin’, Tom?” demanded West.
“To look for Obroski.”
“You can’t go alone. I’ll go with you.”
Half a dozen others accompanied them, but though they searched for the better part of an hour they found no sign of Obroski either dead or alive.
Silent, sad, and gloomy, the company found a poor camping site late in the afternoon. When they spoke, they spoke in subdued tones, and there was no joking or laughing. Glumly they sat at table when supper was announced, and few appeared to notice and none commented upon the fact that the famous Naomi Madison waited on them.