Never until the past few days had Obroski been confronted by an emergency that might test his courage, and so all his life he had been wondering if his courage would measure up to what was expected of it when the emergency developed.
He had given the matter far more thought than does the man of ordinary physique because he knew that so much more was expected of him than of the ordinary man. It had become an obsession together with the fear that he might not live up to the expectations of his admirers. And finally he became afraid—afraid of being afraid.
It is a failing of nearly all large men to be keenly affected by ridicule. It was the fear of ridicule, should he show fear, rather than fear of physical suffering, that Obroski shrank from, though perhaps he did not realize this. It was a psyche far too complex for easy analysis.
But the results were disastrous. They induced a subconscious urge to avoid danger rather than risk showing fear and thus inducing ridicule.
And when the first shower of arrows fell among the ears of the safari Obroski leaped from the opposite side of the automobile in which he was riding and disappeared among the tall grasses that hemmed them in on both sides. His reaction to danger had been entirely spontaneous—a thing beyond his will.
As he pushed blindly forward he was as unthinking as a terrified animal bent only upon escape: But he had covered only a few yards when he ran directly into the arms of a giant black warrior.
Here indeed was an emergency: The black was as surprised as Obroski. He probably thought that all the whites were charging to the attack; he was terrified. He wanted to flee, but the white was too close; so he leaped for him, calling loudly to his fellows as he did so.
It was too late for Obroski to escape the clutching fingers of the black. If he didn’t do something the man would kill him! If he could get rid of the fellow he could run back to the safari. He must get rid of him!
The black had seized him by the clothes, and now Obroski saw, a knife in the fellow’s free hand. Death stared him in the face! Heretofore Obroski’s dangers had always, been more or less imaginary; now he was faced with a stark reality.
Terror galvanized his mind and his giant muscles into instant action. He seized the black and lifted him above his head; then he hurled him heavily to the ground.
The black, fearful of his life, started to rise; and Obroski, equally fearful of his own, lifted him again high overhead and again cast him down. As he did so a half dozen blacks closed upon him from the tall surrounding grasses and bore him to the earth.
His mind half numb with terror, Obroski fought like a cornered rat. The blacks were no match for his great muscles. He seized them and tossed them aside; then he turned to run. But the black he had first hurled to the ground reached out and seized him by an ankle, tripping him; then the others were upon him again and more came to their assistance. They held him by force of numbers and bound his hands behind him.
In all his life Stanley Obroski had never fought before. A good disposition and his strange complex had prevented him from seeking trouble, and his great size and strength had deterred others from picking quarrels with him. He had never realized his own strength; and now, his mental faculties cloyed by terror, he only partly appreciated it. All that he could think of was that they had bound his hands and he was helpless; that they would kill him.
At last they dragged him to his feet. Why they did not kill him he could not guess—then. They seemed a little awed by his great size and strength. They jabbered much among themselves as they led him away toward the forest.
Obroski heard the savage war cries of the main body as it attacked the safari and the crack of rifles that told that his fellows were putting up a spirited defense. A few bullets whirred close, and one of his captors lunged forward with a slug in his heart.
They took him into the forest and along a winding trail where presently they were overtaken by other members of the tribe, and with the arrival of each new contingent he was surrounded by jabbering savages who punched him and poked him, feeling of his great muscles, comparing his height with theirs.
Bloodshot eyes glared from hideous, painted faces—glared in hatred that required no knowledge of their language to interpret. Some threatened him with spears and knives, but the party that had captured him preserved him from these.
Stanley Obroski was so terrified that he walked as one in a trance, giving no outward sign of any emotion; but the blacks thought that his manner was indicative of the indifference of great bravery.
At last a very large warrior overtook them. He was resplendent in paint and feathers, in many necklaces and armlets and anklets. He bore an ornate shield, and his spear and his bow and the quiver for his arrows were more gorgeously decorated than those of his fellows.
But it was his commanding presence and his air of authority more than these that led Obroski to infer that he was a chief. As he listened to the words of those who had made the capture, he examined the prisoner with savage disdain; then he spoke commandingly to those about him and strode on. The others followed, and afterward none threatened to harm the white man.
All afternoon they marched, deeper and deeper into the gloomy forest. The cords about Obroski’s wrists cut into the flesh and hurt him; another cord about his neck, by which a savage led him, was far too tight for comfort; and when the savage jerked it, as he occasionally did, Obroski was half choked.
He was very miserable, but he was so numb with terror, that he made no outcry nor any complaint. Perhaps he felt that it would be useless, and that the less he caused them annoyance or called attention to himself the better off he would be.
The result of this strategy, if such it were, he could not have guessed; for he could not understand their words when they spoke among themselves of the bravery of the white man who showed no fear.
During the long march his thoughts were often of the members of the company he had deserted. He wondered how they had fared in the fight and if any had been killed. He knew that many of the men had held him in contempt before. What would they think of him now! Marcus must have seen him run away at the first threat of danger. Obroski winced, the old terrifying fear of ridicule swept over him; but it was nothing compared to the acute terror he suffered as he shot quick glances about him at the savage faces of his captors and recalled the stories he had heard of torture and death at the hands of such as these.
He heard shouting ahead, and a moment later the trait debouched onto a clearing in the center of which was a palisaded village of conical, straw-thatched huts. It was late in the afternoon, and Obroski knew that they must have covered considerable distance since his capture. He wondered, in the event that he escaped or they released him, if he could find his way back to the trail of the safari. He had his doubts.
As they entered the village, women and children pressed forward to see him. They shouted at him. From the expressions of the faces of many of the women he judged that they were reviling and cursing him. A few struck or clawed at him. The children threw stones and refuse at him.
The warriors guarding him beat his assailants off, as they conducted him down the single street of the village to a hut near the far end. Here they motioned him to enter; but the doorway was so low that one might only pass through it on hands and knees, and as his hands were fastened behind his back that was out of the question for him. So they threw him down and dragged him in. Then they bound his ankles and left him.
The interior of the hut was dark, but as his eyes became accustomed to the change from daylight he was able to see his surroundings dimly. It was then that he became aware that he was not alone in the hut. Within the range of his vision he saw three figures, evidently men. One was stretched out upon the packed earth floor, the other two sat hunched forward over their updrawn knees. He felt the eyes of the latter upon him. He wondered what they were doing there—if they, too, were prisoners.
Presently one of them spoke. “How the Bansuto get you, Bwana Simba?” It was the name the natives of the safari had given him because of the part that he was to take in the picture, that of the Lion Man.
“Who the devil are you?” demanded Obroski.
“Kwamudi,” replied the speaker.
“Kwamudi! Well, it didn’t do you much good to run away—” He almost added “either” but stopped himself in time. “They attacked the safari shortly after noon. I was taken prisoner then. How did they get you?”
“Early this morning. I had followed my people, trying to get them to return to the safari.” Obroski guessed that Kwamudi was lying. “We ran into a party of warriors coming from a distant village to join the main tribe. They killed many of my people. Some escaped. They took some prisoners. Of these they killed all but Kwamudi and these two. They brought us here.”
“What are they going to do with you? Why didn’t they kill you when they killed the others?”
“They not kill you, they not kill Kwamudi, they not kill these others—yet—all for same reason. Kill by and by.”
“Why? What do they want to kill us for?”
“Eh? You don’t mean to say they’re cannibals!”
“Not like some. Bansuto not eat men all time; not eat all men. Only chiefs, brave men, strong men: Eat brave men, make them brave; eat strong men, make them strong; eat chiefs, make them wise.”
“How horrible!” muttered Obroski. “But they can’t eat me—I am not a chief—I am not brave—I am a coward,” he mumbled.
“Uh, nothing. When do you suppose they’ll do it? Right away?”
Kwamudi shook his head. “Maybe. Maybe not for long time. Witch doctor make medicine, talk to spirits, talk to moon. They tell him when. Maybe soon, maybe long time.”
“And will they keep us tied up this way until they kill us? It’s mighty uncomfortable. But then you aren’t tied, are you?”
“Yes, Kwamudi tied—hands and feet. That why he lean forward across his knees.”
“Can you talk their language, Kwamudi?”
“Ask them to free our hands, and our feet too if they will.”
“No good. Waste talk.”
“Listen, Kwamudi! They want us to be strong when eat us, don’t they?”
“Very well; then get hold of the chief and tell him that if he keeps us tied up like this we’ll get weak. He’s certainly got brains enough to know that that’s true. He’s got plenty of warriors to guard us, and I don’t see how we could get out of this village anyhow—not with all those harpies and brats hanging around.”
Kwamudi understood enough of what the white man had said to get the main idea: “First time I get a chance, I tell him,” he said.
Darkness fell. The light front the cooking fire was visible through the low doorway of the prison hut. Women were screaming and wailing for the warriors who had fallen in battle that day. Many had painted their bodies from head to feet with ashes, rendering them even more hideous than nature had fashioned them. Others laughed and gossiped.
Obroski was thirsty and hungry, but they brought him neither water nor food. The hours dragged on. The warriors commenced to dance in celebration of their victory. Tom-toms boomed dismally through the night. The wails of the mourners, the screams and war cries of the dancers rose and fell in savage consonance with the savage scene, adding to the depression of the prisoners.
“This is no way to treat people you’re going to eat,” grumbled Obroski. “You ought to get ’em fat, not starve ’em thin.”
“Bansuto do not care about our fat,” observed Kwamudi.
“They eat our hearts, the palms of our hands, the soles of our feet. They eat the muscles from your arms and legs. They eat my brains.”
“You’re not very cheering and you’re not very complimentary,” said Obroski with a wry smile. “But at that there isn’t much to choose between our brains, for they’ve ended up by getting us both into the same hole.”