Rhonda demurred with a shake of her head. “You boys have had a tough day. All we’ve done is sit in an automobile. Sit down here and smoke and talk to us—we need cheering up. The four of us can take care of the dishes. Isn’t that right?” She turned toward Jimmy, Shorty, and Naomi.
“Sure!” said Jimmy and Shorty in unison.
Naomi nodded. “I’ve washed dishes till after midnight for a lot of Main Street bums many a time. I guess I can wash ’em for you bums, too,” she added with a laugh. “But for the love o’Mike, do as Rhonda said—sit down and talk to us, and say something funny. I’m nearly nuts.”
There was a moment’s awkward silence. They could have been only a little more surprised had they seen Queen Mary turn handsprings across Trafalgar Square.
Then Tom Orman laughed and slapped Naami on the back. “Atta girl!” he exclaimed.
Here was a new Madison; they were all sure that they were going to like her better than the old.
“I don’t mind sitting down,” admitted West. “And I don’t mind talking, but I’m damned if I can be funny—I can’t forget Clarence and Jerrold and the rest of them.”
“Poor Stanley,” said Rhonda. “He won’t even get a decent burial.”
“He don’t deserve one,” growled Jimmy, who had served with the Marines; “he deserted under fire.”
“Let’s not be too hard on him,” begged Rhonda. “No one is a coward because he wants to be. It’s something one can’t help. We ought to pity him,” Jimmy grumbled in dissent.
Bill West grunted. “Perhaps we would, if we were all stuck on him.”
Rhonda turned and eyed him coolly: “He may have had his faults,” she said, “but at least I never heard him say an unkind thing about any one.”
“He was never awake long enough,” said Jimmy contemptuously.
“I don’t know what I’m goin’ to do without him,” observed Orman. “There isn’t anybody in the company I can double for him.”
“You don’t think you’re going on with the picture after what’s happened, do you?” asked Naomi.
“That’s what we came over here for, and that’s what we’re goin’ to do if it takes a leg,” replied Orman.
“But you’ve lost your leading man and your heavy and your sound man and a lot more, and you haven’t any guides, and you haven’t any porters. If you think you can go on with a picture like that, you’re just plain cuckoo, Tom,”
“I never saw a good director who wasn’t cuckoo,” said Bill West.
Pat O’Grady stuck his head inside the tent. “The Chief here?” he asked. “Oh, there you are! Say, Tom, Atewy says old Ghrennem will stand all the guard with his men from 12 to 6 if we’ll take care of it from now to midnight. He wants to know if that’s all right with you. Atewy says the Arabs can do better together than workin’ with Americans that they can’t understand.”
“O.K.” replied Orman. “That’s sort of decent of ’em takin’ that shift. It’ll give our boys a chance to rest up before we above off in the morning, and God knows they need it. Tell ’em well call ’em at midnight.”
Exhausted by the physical and nervous strains of the day, those members of the company that were not on guard were soon asleep. For the latter it was a long stretch to midnight, a tour of duty rendered still more trying by the deadly monotony of the almost unbroken silence of the jungle. Only faintly from great distances came the usual sounds to which they had become accustomed. It was as though they had been abandoned by even the beasts of the forest. But at last midnight came, and O’Grady awoke the Arabs. Tired men stumbled through the darkness to their blankets, and within fifteen minutes every American in the camp was deep in the sleep of utter exhaustion.
Even the unwonted activity of the Arabs could not arouse them; though, to be sure, the swart sons of the desert moved as silently as the work they were engaged upon permitted—rather unusual work it seemed for those whose sole duty it was to guard the camp.
It was full daylight before an American stirred—several hours later than it was customary for the life of the camp to begin.
Gordon Z. Marcus was the first to be up, for old age is prone to awaken earlier than youth. He had dressed hurriedly, for he had noted the daylight and the silence of the camp. Even before he came into the open he sensed that something was amiss. He looked quickly about. The camp seemed deserted. The fires had died to smoldering embers. No sentry stood on guard.
Marcus hastened to the tent occupied by Orman and O’Grady, and without formality burst into the interior. “Mr. Orman! Mr. Orman!” he shouted.
Orman and O’Grady, startled out of deep sleep by the excited voice of the old character man, threw aside their mosquito bars and leaped from their cots.
“What’s wrong?” demanded Orman.
“The Arabs!” exclaimed Marcus. “They’ve, gone! Their tents, their horses, everything!”
Neither of the other men spoke as they quickly slipped into their clothes and stepped out into the open, Orman looked quickly about the camp.
“They must have been gone for hours,” he said; “the fires are out,” Then he shrugged. “Well have to get along without them, but that doesn’t mean that we got to stop eating. Where are the cooks? Wake the girls, Marcus, please, and, rout out Jimmy and Shorty.”
“I thought those fellows were getting mighty considerate all of a sudden when they offered to stand guard after midnight last night,” remarked O’Grady.
“I might have known there was something phoney about it,” growled Orman. “‘They played me for a sucker. I’m nothin’ but a damn boob.”
“Here comes Marcus again,” said O’Grady. “I wonder what’s eatin’ him now—he looks fussed.”
And Gordon Z. Marcus was fussed: Before he reached the two men he called aloud to them. “The girls aren’t there,” he shouted, “and their tent’s a mess.”
Orman turned and started on a run for the cook tent. “They’re probably getting breakfast,” he explained. But there was no one in the cook tent.
Every one was astir now; and a thorough search of the camp was made, but there was no sign of either Naomi Madison or Rhonda Terry. Bill West searched the same places again and again, unwilling to believe the abhorrent evidence of his own eyes: Orman was making a small pack of food, blankets, and ammunition.
“Why do you suppose they took them?” asked Marcus.
“For ransom, most likely,” suggested 0’Grady.
“I wish I was sure of that,” said Orman; “but there is still a safe market for girls in Africa and Asia.”
“I wonder why they tore everything to pieces so in the tent,” mused Marcus. “It looks like a cyclone had struck it.”
“There wasn’t any fight,” said O’Grady: “It would have waked some of us up if there had been.”
“The Arabs were probably looking for loot,” suggested Jimmy.
Bill West had been watching Orman. Now he too was making a pack. The director noticed it.
“What do you think you’re goin’ to do?” he asked.
“I’m goin’ with you,” replied West.
Orman shook his head. “Nothing doing! This is my funeral.”
West continued his preparations without reply.
“If you fellows are going out to look for the girls, I’m goin’ with you,” announced O’Grady.
“Same here,” said another.
The whole company volunteered.
“I’m goin’ alone,” announced Orman. “One man on foot can travel faster than this motorcade and faster than men on horseback who will have to stop and cut trail in places.”
“But what in hell can one man do after he catches up with those rats?” demanded O’Grady. “He’ll just get himself killed. He can’t fight ’em all.”
“I don’t intend to fight,” replied Qrman. “I got the girls into this mess by not using my head; I’m going to use it to get them out. Those Arabs will do anything for money, and I can offer them more for the girls than they can hope to get from any one else.”
O’Grady scratched his head. “I guess you’re right, Tom.”
“Sure I’m right. You are in charge of the outfit while I’m away. Get it to the Omwamwi Falls, and wait there for me. You’ll be able to hire natives there. Send a runner back to Jinja by the southern route with a message for the studio telling what’s happened and asking for orders if I don’t show up again in thirty days.”
“You’re not going without breakfast!” demanded Marcus.
“No, I’ll eat first,” replied Orman.
“How about grub?” shouted O’Grady.
“Comin’ right up!” yelled back Shorty from the cook tent.
Orman ate hurriedly, giving final instructions to O’Grady between mouthfuls. When he had finished he got up, shouldered his pack, and picked up his rifle.
“So long, boys!” he said.
They crowded up to shake his hand and wish him luck. Bill West was adjusting the straps of a pack that he had slung to his back. Orman eyed him.
“You can’t come, Bill,” he said. “This is my job.”
“I’m coming along,” replied West.
“I won’t let you.”
“You and who else?” demanded West, and then added in a voice that he tried hard to control, “Rhonda’s out there somewhere.”
The hard lines of grim stubbornness on Orman’s face softened. “Come on then,” he said; “I hadn’t thought of it that way, Bill.”
The two men crossed the camp and picked up the plain trail of the horsemen moving northward.