Assuming that the Arabs had ridden in the stream bed for some distance either up or down before coming out on the other side, they had crossed and searched up and down the little river but without success. It did not occur to either of them that their quarry had come out upon the same side that they had entered, and so they did not search upon that side at all. Perhaps it was only natural that they should assume that when one entered a river it was for the purpose of crossing it.
The meager food supply that they had brought from camp was exhausted, and they had had little luck in finding game. A few monkeys and some rodents had fallen to their rifles, temporarily averting starvation; but the future looked none too bright. Eleven days had passed, and the had accomplished nothing.
“And the worst of this mess,” said Orman, “is that we’re lost: We’ve wandered so far from that stream where we lost the trail that we can’t find our back track.”
“I don’t want to find any back track,” said West. “Until I find Rhonda I’ll never turn back.”
“I’m afraid we’re too late to do ’em much good now; Bill.”
“We could take a few pot shots at those lousy Arabs!”
“Yes, I’d like to do that; but I got to think of the rest of the company. I got to get ’em out of this country. I thought we’d overtake el-Ghrennem the first day and be back in camp the next. I’ve sure made a mess of everything. Those two cases of Scotch will have cost close to a million dollars and God knows how many lives before any of the company sees Hollywood again.
“Think of it, Bill—Major White, Noice, Baine, Obroski, and seven others killed, to say nothing of the Arabs and blacks—and the girls gone. Sometimes I think I’ll go nuts just thinking about them.”
West said nothing. He had been thinking about it a great deal, and thinking too of the day when Orman must face the wives and sweethearts of those men back in Hollywood. No matter what Orman’s responsibility, West pitied him.
When Orman spoke again it was as though he had read the other’s mind. “If it wasn’t so damn yellow,” he said, “I’d bump myself off; it would be a lot easier than what I’ve got before me back home.”
As the two men talked they were walking slowly along a game trail that wandered out of one unknown into another. For long they had realized that they were hopelessly lost.
“I don’t know why we keep on,” remarked West: “We don’t know where we’re headed.”
“We won’t find out by sitting down; and maybe we’ll find something or some one if we keep going long enough.”
West glanced suddenly behind him. “I thought so,” he said in a low tone. “I thought I’d been hearing something.”
Orman’s gaze followed that of his companion. “Anyway we got a good reason now for not sitting down or turning back,” he said.
“He’s been following us for a long time,” observed West.
“I heard him quite a way back, now that I think of it.”
“I hope we’re not detaining him.”
“Why do you suppose he’s following us?” asked West.
“Perhaps he’s lonesome.”
“Now that you mention it, he does look hungry,” agreed Orman.
“This is a nasty place to be caught too. The trail’s so narrow and with this thick undergrowth on both sides we couldn’t get out of the way of a charge. And right here the trees are all too big to climb.”
“We might shoot him,” suggested Orman, “but I’m leary of these rifles. White said they were a little too light to stop big game, and if we don’t stop him it’ll be curtains for one of us”
“I’m a bum shot,” admitted West. “I probably wouldn’t even hit him.”
“Well, he isn’t coming any closer. Let’s keep on going and see what happens.”
The men continued along the trail, continually casting glances rearward. They held their rifles in readiness. Often, turns in the trail hid from their view momentarily the grim stalker following in their tracks.
“They look different out here, don’t they?” remarked West.
“Fiercer and sort of—inevitable, if you know what I mean—like death and taxes.”
“Especially death. And they take all the wind out of a superiority complex. Sometimes when I’ve been directing I’ve thought that trainers were a nuisance, but I’d sure like to see Charlie Gay step out of the underbrush and say, ‘Down, Slats!’”
“Say, do you know this fellow looks something like Slats—got the same mean eye?”
As they talked, the trail debouched into a small opening where there was little underbrush and the trees grew farther apart. They had advanced only a short distance into it when the stalking beast dogging their footsteps rounded the last turn in the trail and entered the clearing.
He paused a moment in the mouth of the trail, his tail twitching, his great jowls dripping saliva. With lowered head he surveyed them from yellow-green eyes, menacingly. Then he crouched and crept toward them.
“We’ve got to shoot, Bill,” said Orman; “he’s going to charge.”
The director shot first, his bullet creasing the lion’s scalp. West fired and missed. With a roar, the carnivore charged. The empty shell jammed in the breech of West’s rifle. Orman fired again when the lion was but a few paces from him; then he clubbed his rifle as the beast rose to seize him. A great paw sent the rifle hurtling aside, spinning Orman dizzily after it.
West stood paralyzed, his useless weapon clutched in his hands. He saw the lion wheel to spring upon Orman; then he saw something that left him stunned, aghast. He saw an almost naked man drop from the tree above them full upon the lion’s back.
A great arm encircled the beast’s neck as it reared and turned to rend this new assailant. Bronzed legs lacked quickly beneath its belly. A knife flashed as great muscles drove the blade into the carnivore’s side again and again. The lion hurled itself from side to side as it sought to shake the man from it. Its mighty roars thundered in the quiet glade, shaking the earth.
Orman, uninjured, had scrambled to his feet. Both men, spellbound, were watching this primitive battle of Titans. They heard the roars of the man mingle with those of the lion, and they felt their flesh creep.
Presently the lion leaped high in air, and when he crashed to earth he did not rise again. The man upon him leaped to his feet. For an instant he surveyed the carcass; then he placed a foot upon it, and raising his face toward the sky voiced a weird cry that sent cold shivers down the spines of the two Americans.
As the last notes of that inhuman scream reverberated through the forest, the stranger, without a glance at the two he had saved, leaped for an overhanging branch, drew himself up into the tree, and disappeared amidst the foliage above.
Orman, pale beneath his tan, turned toward West, “Did you see what I saw, Bill?” he asked, his voice shaking.
“I don’t know what you saw, but I know what I thought I saw—but I couldn’t have seen it.”
“Do you believe in ghosts, Bill?”
“I—I don’t know—you don’t think?”
“You know as well as I do that that couldn’t have been him; so it must have been his ghost.”
“But we never knew for sure that Obroski was dead, Tom,”
“We know it now.”