The girl looked quickly about upon the sleeping camp. No one stirred. She beckoned the trembling Naomi to follow her and stepped quickly to where some horse trappings lay upon the ground. She handed a saddle and bridle to the Madison and took others for herself.
Half dragging, half carrying their burdens they crept to the tethered ponies. Here, the Madison was almost helpless; and Rhonda had to saddle and bridle both animals, giving thanks for the curiosity that had prompted her days before to examine the Arab tack and learn the method of its adjustment.
Naomi mounted, and Rhonda passed the bridle reins of her own pony to her companion. “Hold him,” she whispered, “and hold him tight.”
She went quickly then to the other ponies, turning them loose one after another. Often she glanced toward the sleeping men. If one of them should awaken, they would be recaptured. But if she could carry out her plan they would be safe from pursuit. She felt that it was worth the risk.
Finally the last pony was loose. Already, cognizant of their freedom, some of them had commenced to move about. Herein had lain one of the principal dangers of the girl’s plan, for free horses moving about a camp must quickly awaken such horsemen as the Beduins.
She ran quickly to her own pony and mounted. “We are going to try to drive them ahead of us for a little way,” she whispered. “If we can do that we shall be safe—as far as Arabs are concerned.”
As quietly as they could, the girls reined their ponies behind the loose stock and urged them away from camp. It seemed incredible to Rhonda that the noise did not awaken the Arabs.
The ponies had been tethered upon the north side of the camp, and so it was toward the north that they drove them. This was not the direction in which their own safari lay, but Rhonda planned to circle back around the Arabs after she had succeeded in driving off their mounts.
Slowly the unwilling ponies moved toward the black shadows of the forest beyond the little opening in which the camp had been pitched—a hundred feet, two hundred, three hundred. They were almost at the edge of the forest when a cry arose from behind them. Then the angry voices of many men came to them in a babel of strange words and stranger Arab oaths.
It was a bright, starlit night. Rhonda knew that the Arabs could see them. She turned in her saddle and saw them running swiftly in pursuit. With a cowboy yell and a kick of her heels she urged her pony onto the heels of those ahead. Startled, they broke into a trot.
“Yell, Naomi!” cried the girl. “Do anything to frighten them and make them run.”
The Madison did her best, and the yells of the running men approaching added to the nervousness of the ponies. Then one of the Arabs fired his musket; and as the bullet whistled above their heads the ponies broke into a run, and, followed by the two girls, disappeared into the forest.
The leading pony had either seen or stumbled upon a trail, and down this they galloped. Every step was fraught with danger for the two fugitives. A low hanging branch or a misstep by one of their mounts would spell disaster, yet neither sought to slacken the speed. Perhaps they both felt that anything would be preferable to falling again into the hands of old Ab el-Ghrennem.
It was not until the voices of the men behind them were lost in the distance that Rhonda reined her pony to a walk. “Well, we made it!” she cried exultantly. “I’ll bet old Apple Gran’ma’am is chewing his whiskers. How do you feel, tired?”
The Madison made no reply; then Rhonda heard her sobbing. “What’s the matter?” she demanded. “You haven’t been hurt, have you?” Her tone was worried and solicitous. “I—I’m—so frightened. Oh, I—never was so frightened in all my life,” sobbed the Madison.
“Oh, buck up, Naomi; neither was I; but weeping and wailing and gnashing our teeth won’t do us any good. We got away from them, and a few hours ago that seemed impossible. Now all we have to do is ride back to the safari, and the chances are we’ll meet some of the boys looking for us.”
“I’ll never see any of them again. I’ve known all along that I’d die in this awful country,” and she commenced to sob again hysterically.
Rhonda reined close to her side and put an arm around her. “It is terrible, dear,” she said; “but we’ll pull through. I’ll get you out of this, and some day we’ll lie in the sand at Malibu again and laugh about it.”
For a time neither of them spoke. The ponies moved on through the dark forest at a walk. Ahead of them the loose animals followed the trail that human eyes could not see. Occasionally one of them would pause, snorting, sensing something that the girls could neither see nor hear; then Rhonda would urge them on again, and so the long hours dragged out toward a new day.
After a long silence, Naomi spoke. “Rhonda,” she said, “I don’t see how you can be so decent to me. I used to treat you so rotten. I acted like a dirty little cat. I can see it now. The last few days have done something to me—opened my eyes, I guess. Don’t say anything—I just want you to know that’s all.”
“I understand,” said Rhonda softly. “It’s Hollywood—we all try to be something we’re not, and most of us succeed only in being something we ought not to be.”
Ahead of them the trail suddenly widened, and the loose horses came to a stop. Rhonda tried to urge them on, but they only milled about and would not advance.
“I wonder what’s wrong,” she said and urged her pony forward to find a river barring their path. It was not a very large river; and she decided to drive the ponies into it, but they would not go.
“What are we to do?” asked Naomi.
“We can’t stay here,” replied Rhonda. “We’ve got to keep on going for a while. If we turn back now we’ll run into the sheiks.”
“But we can’t cross this river.”
“I don’t know about that. There must be a ford here—this trail runs right to the river, right into it. You can see how it’s worn down the bank right into the water. I’m going to try it.”
“Oh, Rhonda, well drown!”
“They say it’s an easy death. Come on!” She urged her pony down the bank into the water. “I hate to leave these other ponies,” she said. “The sheiks’ll find them and follow us, but if we can’t drive them across there’s nothing else to be done.”
Her pony balked a little at the edge of the water, but at last he stepped in, snorting. “Keep close to me, Naomi. I have an idea two horses will cross better together than one alone. If we get into deep water try to keep your horse’s head pointed toward the opposite bank.”
Gingerly the two ponies waded out into the stream. It was neither deep nor swift, and they soon gained confidence. On the bank behind them the other ponies gathered, nickering to their companions.
As they approached the opposite shore Ronda heard a splashing in the water behind her. Turning her head, she saw the loose ponies following them across; and she laughed. “Now I’ve learned something,” she said. “Here we’ve been driving them all night, and if we’d left ’em alone they’d have followed us.”
Dawn broke shortly after they had made the crossing, and the light of the new day revealed an open country dotted with trees and clumps of brush. In the northwest loomed a range of mountains. It was very different country from any they had seen for a long time.
“How lovely!” exclaimed Rhonda.
“Anything would be lovely after that forest,” replied Naomi. “I got so that I hated it.”
Suddenly Rhonda drew rein and pointed. “Do you see what I see?” she demanded.
“Do you realize that we have just crossed a river out of a forest and come into open country and that there is a ‘barren, cone-shaped hill—volcanic’?”
“You don’t mean—!”
“The map! And there, to the northwest, are the mountains. If it’s a mere coincidence it’s a mighty uncanny one.”
Naomi was about to reply when both their ponies halted, trembling. With dilated nostrils and up-pricked ears they stared at a patch of brush close upon their right and just ahead. Both girls looked in the same direction.
Suddenly a tawny figure broke from the brush with a terrific roar. The ponies turned and bolted. Rhonda’s was to the right of Naomi’s and half a neck in advance. The lion was coming from Rhonda’s side. Both ponies were uncontrollable. The loose horses were bolting like frightened antelopes.
Naomi, fascinated, kept her eyes upon the lion. It moved with incredible speed. She saw it leap and seize the rump of Rhonda’s pony with fangs and talons. Its hindquarters swung down under the pony’s belly. The frightened creature kicked and lunged, hurling Rhonda from the saddle; and then the lion dragged it down before the eyes of the terrified Madison.
Naomi’s pony carried her from the frightful scene. Once she looked back. She saw the lion standing with its forepaws on the carcass of the pony. Only a few feet away Rhonda’s body lay motionless.
The frightened ponies raced back along the trail they had come. Naomi was utterly powerless to check or guide the terrified creature that carried her swiftly in the wake of its fellows. The distance they had covered in the last hour was traversed in minutes as the frightened animals drew new terror from the galloping hoofs of their comrades.
The river that they had feared to cross before did not check them now. Lunging across, they threw water high in air, waking the echoes of the forest with their splashing.
Heartsick, terrified, hopeless, the girl clung to her mount; but for once in her life the thoughts of the Madison were not of herself. The memory of that still figure lying close to the dread carnivore crowded thoughts of self from her mind—her terror and her hopelessness and her heartsickness were for Rhonda Terry.