As Rhonda Terry gained consciousness the first thing that she saw as she opened her eyes was the figure of the lion standing with its back toward her, and instantly she recalled all that had transpired. She tried to find Naomi without moving her head, for she did not wish to attract the attention of the lion; but she could see nothing of the Madison.
The lion sniffed at his kill; then he turned and looked about. His eyes fell on the girl, and a low growl rumbled in his throat. Rhonda froze in terror. She wanted to close her eyes to shut out the hideous snarling face, but she feared that even this slight movement would bring the beast upon her. She recalled having heard that if animals thought a person dead they would not molest the body. It also occurred to her that this might not hold true in respect to meat eaters.
So terrified was she that it was with the utmost difficulty that she curbed an urge to leap to her feet and run, although she knew that such an act would prove instantly fatal. The great cat could have overtaken her with a single bound.
The lion wheeled slowly about and approached her, and all the while that low growl rumbled in his throat. He came close and sniffed at her body. She felt his hot breath against her face, and its odor sickened her.
The beast seemed nervous and uncertain. Suddenly he lowered his face close to hers and growled ferociously, his, eyes blazed into hers. She thought that the end had come. The brute raised a paw and seized her shoulder. He turned her over on her face. She heard him sniffing and growling above her. For what seemed an eternity to the frightened girl he stood there; then she realized that he had walked away.
From her one unobseured eye she watched him after a brief instant that she had become very dizzy and almost swooned. He returned to the body of the horse and worried it for a moment; then he seized it and dragged it toward the bushes from which he had leaped to the attack.
The girl marvelled at the mighty strength of the beast, as it dragged the carcass without seeming effort and disappeared in the thicket. Now she commenced to wonder if she had been miraculously spared or if the lion, having hidden the body of the horse, would return for her.
She raised her head a little and looked around. About twenty feet away grew a small tree. She lay between it and the thicket where she could hear the lion growling.
Cautiously she commenced to drag her body toward the tree, glancing constantly behind in the direction of the thicket. Inch by inch, foot by foot she made her slow way. Five feet, ten, fifteen! She glanced back and saw the lion’s head and forequarters emerge from the brush.
No longer was there place for stealth. Leaping to her feet she raced for the tree. Behind, she heard the angry roar of the lion as it charged.
She sprang for a low branch and scrambled upward. Terror gave her an agility and a strength far beyond her normal powers. As she climbed frantically upward among the branches she felt the tree tremble to the impact of the lion’s body as it hurtled against the bole, and the raking talons of one great paw swept just beneath her foot.
Rhonda Terry did not stop climbing until she had reached a point beyond which she dared not go; then, clinging to the now slender stem, she looked down.
The lion stood glaring up at her. For a few minutes he paced about the tree; and then, with an angry growl, he strode majestically back to his thicket.
It was not until then that the girl descended to a more secure and comfortable perch, where she sat trembling for a long time as she sought to compose herself.
She had escaped the lion, at least temporarily; but what lay in the future far her? Alone, unarmed, lost in a savage wilderness, upon what thin thread could she hang even the slightest vestige of a hope!
She wondered what had become of Naomi. She almost wished that they had never attempted to escape from the Arabs. If Tom Orman and Bill West and the others were looking for them they might have had a chance to find them had they remained the captives of old Sheykh Ab el-Ghrennem, but now how could any one ever find them?
From her tree sanctuary she could see quite a distance in all directions. A tree-dotted plain extended northwest toward a range of mountains. Close to the northeast of her rose the volcanic, cone-shaped hill that she had been pointing out to Naomi when the lion charged.
All these landmarks, following so closely the description on the map, intrigued her curiosity and started her to wondering and dreaming about the valley of diamonds. Suddenly she recalled something that Atewy had told her—that the falls at the foot of the valley of diamonds must be the Omwamwi Falls toward which the safari had been moving.
If that were true she would stand a better chance of rejoining the company were she to make her way to the falls and await them there than to return to the forest where she was certain to become lost.
She found it a little amusing that she should suddenly be pinning her faith to a property map, but her situation was such that she must grasp at any straw.
The mountains did not seem very far away, but she knew that distances were usually deceiving. She thought that she might reach them in a day, and believed that she might hold out without food or water until she reached the river that she prayed might be there.
Every minute was precious now, but she could not start while the lion lay up in the nearby thicket. She could hear him growling as he tore at the carcass of the horse.
An hour passed, and then she saw the lion emerge from his lair. He did not even glance toward her, but moved off in a southerly direction toward the river that she and Naomi had crossed a few hours before.
The girl watched the beast until it disappeared in the brush that grew near the river; then she slipped from the tree and started toward the northwest and the mountains.
The day was still young, the terrain not too difficult, and Rhonda felt comparatively fresh and strong despite her night ride and the harrowing experiences of the last few hours—a combination of circumstances that buoyed her with hope.
The plain was dotted with trees, and the girl directed her steps so that she might at all times be as near as possible to one of these. Sometimes this required a zigzag course that lengthened the distance, but after her experience with the lion she did not dare be far from sanctuary at any time.
She turned, often to look back in the direction she had come, lest the lion follow and surprise her. As the hours passed the sun shone down hotter and hotter. Rhonda commenced to suffer from hunger and thirst; her steps were dragging; her feet seemed weighted with lead. More and more often she stopped beneath the shade of a tree to rest. The mountains seemed as far away as ever. Doubts assailed her.
A shadow moved across the ground before her. She looked up. Circling above was a vulture. She shuddered. “I wonder if he only hopes,” she said aloud, “or if he knows.”
But she kept doggedly on. She would not give up—not until she dropped in her tracks. She wondered how long it would be before that happened.
Once as she was approaching a large black rock that lay across her path it moved and stood up, and she saw that it was a rhinoceros. The beast ran around foolishly for a moment, its nose in the air; then it charged. Rhonda clambered into a tree, and the great beast tore by like a steam locomotive gone must.
As it raced off with its silly little tail in air the girl smiled. She realized that she had forgotten her exhaustion under the stress of emergency, as bedridden cripples sometimes forget their affliction when the house catches fire.
The adventure renewed her belief in her ability to reach the river, and she moved on again in a more hopeful frame of mind. But as hot and dusty hour followed hot and dusty hour and the pangs of thirst assailed her with increasing violence, her courage faltered again in the face of the weariness that seemed to penetrate to the very marrow of her bones.
For a long time she had been walking in a depression of the rolling plain, her view circumscribed by the higher ground around her. The day was drawing to a close. Her lengthening, shadow fell away behind her. The low sun was in her eyes.
She wanted to sit down and rest, but she was afraid that she would never get up again. More than that, she wanted to see what lay beyond the next rise in the ground, it is always the next summit that lures the traveller on even though experience may have taught him that he need expect nothing more than another rise of ground farther on.
The climb ahead of her was steeper than she had anticipated, and it required all her strength and courage to reach the top of what she guessed might have been an ancient river bank or, perhaps, a lateral moraine; but the view that was revealed rewarded her for the great effort.
Below her was a fringe of wood through which she could see a broad river, and to her right the mountains seemed very close now.
Forgetful of lurking beast or savage man, the thirst tortured girl hurried down toward the tempting water of the river. As she neared the bank she saw a dozen great forms floating on the surface of the water. A huge head was raised with wide distended jaws revealing a cavernous maw, but Rhonda did not pause. She rushed to the bank of the river and threw herself face down and drank while the hippopotamuses, snorting and grunting, viewed her with disapproval.
That night she slept in a tree, dozing fitfully and awakening to every sudden jungle noise. From the plain came the roar of the hunting lions. Below her a great herd of hippoatamuses came out of the river to feed on land, their grunting and snorting dispelling all thoughts of sleep. In the distance she heard the yelp of the jackal and the weird cry of the hyena, and there were other strange and terrifying noises that she could not classify. It was not a pleasant night.
Morning found her weak from loss of sleep, fatigue, and hunger. She knew that she must get food, but she did not know how to get it. She thought that perhaps the safari had reached the falls by now, and she determined to go up river in search of the falls in the hope that she might find her people—a vague hope in the realization of which she had little faith.
She discovered a fairly good game trail paralleling the river, and this she followed up stream. As she stumbled on she became conscious of an insistent, muffled roaring in the distance. It grew louder as she advanced, and she guessed that she was approaching the falls.
Toward noon she reached them—an imposing sight much of the grandeur of which was lost on her fatigue-benumbed sensibilities. The great river poured over the rim of a mighty escarpment that towered far above her. A smother of white water and spume filled the gorge at the foot of the falls. The thunderous roar of the falling water was deafening.
Slowly, the grandeur and the solitude of the scene, gripped her. She felt as might one who stood: alone, the sole inhabitant of a world, and looked upon an eternal scene that no human eye had ever scanned before.
But she was not alone. Far up, near the top of the escarpment, on a narrow ledge a shaggy creature looked down upon her from beneath beetling brows. It nudged another like it and pointed.
For a while the two watched the girl; then they started down the escarpment. Like flies they clung to the dizzy cliff, and when the ledge ended they, swung to sturdy trees that clung to the rocky face of the great wall.
Down, down they came, two great first-men, shaggy, powerful, menacing. They dropped quickly, and always they sought to hide their approach from the eyes of the girl.
The great falls, the noise, the boiling river left Rhonda Terry stunned and helpless. There was no sign of her people, and if they were camped on the opposite side of the river she felt that they might as well be in another, world, so impassable seemed the barrier that confronted her.
She felt very small and alone and tired. With a sigh she sat down on a rounded boulder and leaned against another piled behind it. All her remaining strength seemed to have gone from her. She closed her eyes wearily, and two tears rolled down her cheeks. Perhaps she dozed, but she was startled into wakefulness by a voice speaking near her. At first she thought she was dreaming and did not open her eyes.
“She is alone,” the voice said. “We will take her to God—he will be pleased.”
It was an English voice, or at least the accent was English; but the tones were gruff and deep and guttural. The strange words convinced her she was dreaming. She opened her eyes, and shrank back with a little scream of terror. Standing close to her were two gorillas, or such she thought them to be until one of them opened its mouth and spoke.
“Come with us,” it said; “we are going to take you to God;” then it reached out a mighty, hairy hand and seized her.