THE APE-MAN had listened patiently to Stanley Wood’s recital. How much he could believe of it, he did not know; for he did not know the man, and he had learned to suspect that every civilized man was a liar and a cheat until he had proved himself otherwise.
Yet he was favorably impressed by the man’s personality, and he had something of the wild beast’s instinctive knowledge of basic character—if it may be called that. Perhaps it is more an intuitive feeling of trust for some and distrust of others. That it is not infallible, Tarzan well knew; so he was cautious, always. And in that again the beast showed in him.
“And what do you propose doing now?” he asked.
Wood scratched his head in perplexity. “To be perfectly frank, I don’t know. I am confident that Mafka found out that I had escaped and that it was his magic that followed and brought me down. Perhaps Gonfala told him. She is a Jekyll and Hyde sort of person. In one personality she is all sweetness and tenderness, in another she is a fiend.
“As far as my future actions are concerned, I have a very definite premonition that I am not a free agent.”
“What do you mean?” demanded the ape-man.
“Since it commenced to get dark haven’t you felt an invisible presence near us, haven’t you sensed unseen eyes upon us, and heard things, and almost seen things? These are the manifestations of Mafka. We are in his power. Where he wills us to go, we’ll go; and you can lay to that.”
A shadow of a smile moved the lips of the Lord of the Jungle. “I have seen and heard and sensed many things since we stopped here, but none of them was Mafka. I have identified them all either through my ears or my nose. There is nothing to fear.”
“You do not know Mafka,” said Wood.
“I know Africa, and I know myself,” replied the ape-man, simply. There was no bravado in his tone, but absolute assurance. It impressed the American.
“You are a regular Tarzan,” he said.
The other shot a quick glance at him, appraising. He saw that the man spoke without knowledge of his identity, and he was satisfied. His mission required that he remain unknown, if possible. Otherwise, he might never gain the information he sought. He had felt safe from recognition, for he was unknown in this district.
“By the way,” continued Wood. “You have not told me your name. I have seen so many unbelievable things since I came into this country that not even the sight of an evidently highly civilized man wandering almost naked and alone in a wilderness surprised me as much as it otherwise might have. Of course, I don’t want to pry into your affairs, but naturally my curiosity is aroused. I wonder who you are and what you are doing here.” He stopped suddenly and looked intently at Tarzan. His eyes registered suspicion and a shadow of fear. “Say!” he exclaimed. “Did Mafka send you? Are you one of his—his creatures?”
The ape-man shook his head. “You are in a most unfortunate situation,” he said. “If I were not one of Mafka’s creatures, or if I were, my answer, quite conceivably, might be the same —I should deny it; so why answer you? You will have to find out for yourself, and in the meantime you will have to trust me or distrust me as seems wisest to you.”
Wood grinned. “I am up against it, ain’t I?” He shrugged. “Well, we’re both in the same boat. At least you don’t know any more about me than I do about you. I may have been giving you a cock-and-bull story. I admit it must sound fishy. But at least I told you my name. You haven’t told me that much about yourself yet. I don’t know what to call you.”
“My name is Clayton,” said the ape-man. He might also have said, John Clayton Lord Greystoke—Tarzan of the Apes; but he didn’t.
“I suppose you want to get out of this country,” said Tarzan, “and get help for your friends.”
“Yes, of course, but there isn’t a chance now.”
“Mafka—Mafka and Gonfala.”
“I can’t take you out at present,” said the ape-man, ignoring the implied obstacle. “You may come along to the Lake Tana country with me if you wish to. You’ll get a story there—a story that you must never write. You’ll have to give me your word as to that. My only alternative is to leave you here. You will have to decide.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Wood, “but neither of us will ever reach Lake Tana.” He paused and strained his eyes into the lowering dusk of the brief twilight. “There!” he said in a whisper. “It’s back; it’s watching us. Don’t you hear it? Can’t you feel it?” His voice was tense, his eyes slightly dilated.
“There is nothing,” said Tarzan. “Your nerves are upset.”
“You mean to tell me you don’t hear it—the moaning, the sighing?”
“I hear the wind, and I hear Sheeta the panther a long way off,” replied the ape-man.
“Yes, I hear those, too; but I hear something else. You must be deaf.”
Tarzan smiled. “Perhaps,” he said. “But go to sleep; you need rest. Tomorrow you will not hear things.”
“I tell you I hear it. I almost see it. Look! There, among those trees—just a shadow of something that has no substance.”
Tarzan shook his head. “Try to sleep,” he said. “I will watch.”
Wood closed his eyes. The presence of this quiet stranger gave him a feeling of security despite his conviction that something weird and horrible hovered there in the darkness —watching, always watching. With the dismal keening still ringing in his ears, he fell asleep.
For a long time Tarzan sat in thought. He heard nothing other than the usual night noises of the wilderness, yet he was sufficiently conversant with the mystery and the magic of black Africa to realize that Wood had heard something that he could not hear. The American was intelligent, sane, experienced. He did not seem the type to be carried away by imaginings or hysteria. It was just possible that he was under the spell of hypnotic suggestion—that Mafka could project his powers to great distances. This was rather borne out by the evidence that Tarzan had had presented to him within the past few hours: the death of Mountford’s messenger twenty years before, the striking down of Wood within a short distance of the same spot, the death of Mountford for no apparent good reason upon the very threshold of escape.
Mafka’s was indeed a sinister power, but it was a power that the ape-man did not fear. All too often had he been the object of the malign necromancy of potent witch-doctors to fear their magic. Like the beasts of the jungle, he was immune. For what reason he did not know. Perhaps it was because he was without fear; perhaps his psychology was more that of the beast than of man.
Dismissing the matter from his mind, he stretched and fell asleep.
The sun was half a hand-breadth above the horizon when Wood awoke. He was alone. The strange white man had disappeared.
Wood was not greatly surprised. There was no reason why this stranger should wait and be burdened by a man he did not know, but he felt that he might at least have waited until he was awake before deserting him and leaving him prey for the first lion or leopard that might chance to pick up his scent.
And then there was Mafka. The thought aroused questions in the mind of the American. Might not this fellow who called himself Clayton be a tool of the magician of the Kaji? The very fact that he denied that he had heard any strange sounds or sensed any unusual presence lent color to this suspicion. He must have heard; he must have sensed. Then why did he deny it?
But perhaps he was not Mafka’s spy. Perhaps he had fallen a victim to the sorcery of the old Devil. How easy it would have been for Mafka to lure him away. Everything seemed easy for Mafka. He could have lured him away to captivity or destruction, leaving Wood to die as Mafka intended—alone by starvation.
Wood had never seen Mafka. To him he should have been no more than a name; yet he was very real. The man even conjured an image of him that was as real and tangible as flesh and blood. He saw him as a very old and hideous black man, bent and wrinkled. He had filed, yellow teeth, and his eyes were close-set and blood-shot.
There! What was that? A noise in the trees! The thing was coming again!
Wood was a brave man, but things like these can get on the nerves of the bravest. It is one thing to face a known danger, another to be constantly haunted by an unseen thing —a horrible, invisible menace that one can’t grapple with.
The American leaped to his feet, facing the direction of the rustling among the foliage. “Come down!” he cried, “Come down, damn you, and fight like a man!”
From the concealing foliage a figure swung lightly to the ground. It was Tarzan. Across one shoulder he carried the carcass of a small buck.
He looked quickly about. “What’s the matter?” he demanded. “I don’t see anyone”; then a faint smile touched his lips. “Hearing things again?” he asked.
Wood grinned foolishly. “I guess it’s sort of got me,” he said.
“Well, forget it for a while,” counseled the ape-man. “We’ll eat presently; then you’ll feel better.”
“You killed that buck?” demanded Wood.
Tarzan looked surprised. “Why, yes.”
“You must have killed it with an arrow. That would take an ordinary man hours—stalk an antelope and get close enough to kill it with an arrow.”
“I didn’t use an arrow,” replied the ape-man.
“Then how did you kill him?”
“I killed him with my knife—less danger of losing an arrow.”
“And you brought him back through the trees on your shoulder! Say, that bird Tarzan has nothing on you. How did you ever come to live this way, Clayton? How did you learn to do these things?”
“That is a long story,” said Tarzan. “Our business now is to grill some of this meat and get on our way.”
After they had eaten, Tarzan told the other to carry some of the meat in his pockets. “You may need food before I can make another kill,” he said. “We’ll leave the rest for Dango and Ungo.”
“Dango and Ungo? Who are they?”
“The hyena and the jackal.”
“What language is that? I never heard them called that before, and I am a little bit familiar with a number of native dialects.”
“No natives speak that language,” replied the ape-man. “It is not spoken by men.”
“Who does speak it, then?” demanded Wood; but he got no reply, and he did not insist. There was something mysterious about him, and that in his mien and his manner of speech that discouraged inquisitiveness. Wood wondered if the man were not a little mad. He had heard of white men going primitive, living solitary lives like wild animals; and they were always a little bit demented. Yet his companion seemed sane enough. No, it was not that; yet undeniably the man was different from other men. He reminded Wood of a lion. Yes, that was it—he was the personification of the strength and majesty and the ferocity of the lion. It was controlled ferocity; but it was there—Wood felt it. And that, perhaps, was why he was a little afraid of him.
He followed in silence behind the bronzed white savage back up the valley of the Neubari, and as they drew closer to the country of the Kaji he felt the power of Mafka increasing, drawing him back into the coils of intrigue and sorcery that made life hideous in the land of the women who would be white. He wondered if Clayton felt it too.
They came at length to the junction of the Mafa and the Neubari. It was here, where the smaller stream emptied into the larger, that the trail to the Kaji country followed up the gorge of the Mafa. It was here that they would have to turn up the Mafa.
Tarzan was a few yards in advance of Wood. The latter watched him intently as he came to the well—marked forking of the trail to the right leading to the crossing of the Neubari and up the Mafa. Here, regardless of his previous intentions, he would have to turn toward Kaji. The power of Mafka would bend his will to that of the malign magician; but Tarzan did not turn—he continued upon his way, unperturbed, up the Neubari.
Could it be that Mafka was ignorant of their coming? Wood felt a sudden sense of elation. If one of them could pass, they could both pass. There was an excellent chance that they might elude Mafka entirely. If he could only get by—if he could get away somewhere and organize a large expedition, he might return and rescue Van Eyk, Spike, and Troll.
But could he get by? He thought of the invisible presence that seemed to have him under constant surveillance. Had that been only the fruit of an overwrought imagination, as Clayton had suggested?
He came then to the forking of the trails. He focused all his power of will upon his determination to follow Clayton up the Neubari—and his feet turned to the right toward the crossing that led up the Mafa.
He called to Clayton, a note of hopelessness in his voice. “It’s no go, old man,” he said. “I’ve got to go up the Mafa—Mafka’s got me. You go on—if you can.”
Tarzan turned back. “You really want to go with me?” he asked.
“Of course, but I can’t. I tried to pass this damnable trail, but I couldn’t. My feet just followed it.”
“Mafka makes strong medicine,” said the ape-man, “but I think we can beat him.”
“No,” said Wood, “you can’t beat him. No one can.”
“We’ll see,” said Tarzan, and lifting Wood from the ground he threw him across a broad shoulder and turned back to the Neubari trail.
“You don’t feel it?” demanded Wood. “You don’t feel any urge to go up the Mafa?”
“Only a strong curiosity to see these people—especially Mafka,” replied the ape-man.
“You’d never see him—no one does. They’re afraid someone will kill him, and so is he. He’s pretty well guarded all the time. If one of us could have killed him, most of the Kaji’s power would be gone. We’d all have had a chance to escape. There are about fifty white prisoners there. Some of them have been there a long time. We could have fought our way out, if it hadn’t been for Mafka; and some of us would have come through alive.”
But Tarzan did not yield to his curiosity. He moved on toward the North with an easy grace that belied the weight of the burden across his shoulder. He went in silence, his mind occupied by the strange story that the American had told him. How much of it he might believe, he did not know; but he was inclined to credit the American with believing it, thus admitting his own belief in the mysterious force that enslaved the other mentally as well as physically; for the man seemed straightforward and honest, impressing Tarzan with his dependability.
There was one phase of the story that seemed to lack any confirmation—the vaunted fighting ability of the Amazonian Kaji. Wood admitted that he had never seen them fight and that they captured their prisoners by the wiles of Mafka’s malign power. How, then, did he know that they were such redoubtable warriors? He put the question to the American.
Whom did they fight?
“There is another tribe farther to the East,” explained Wood, “across the divide beyond the headwaters of the Mafa. They are called Zuli. Once the Kaji and the Zuli were one tribe with two medicine-men, or witch-doctors, or whatever you might call them. One was Mafka, the other was a chap called Woora.
“Jealousy arose between the two, causing a schism. Members of the tribe took sides, and there was a battle. During the fracas, Woora swiped one of the holy fetishes and beat it, telling some of his followers where he was going and to join him when the fight was over. You see, like the people who cause civilized wars, he was not taking part in it personally.
“Well, it seems that this other fetish that he lifts is the complement of the great diamond, the Gonfal, of the Kaji. United, their power is supreme; but separated, that of each is greatly reduced. So the Kaji and the Zuli are often battling, each seeking to obtain possession of the fetish of the other.
“It was the stories of the raids and skirmishes and battles for these prizes, as told me by Gonfala and others of the Kaji, that gave me the hunch that these ladies are pretty mean warriors. Some of the yarns I’ve heard were sure tall; but the scars of old wounds on most of them sort of bear them out, as do the grisly trophies that hang from the outer walls of Gonfala’s palace—the shriveled heads of women, suspended by their long hair.
“An interesting feature of the story is the description of the fetish of the Zuli—a green stone as large as the Gonfal and as brilliant. It glistens like an emerald; but, holy cats! Think of an emerald weighing six thousand carats! That would be something worth battling for, and they don’t know the value of it.”
“Do you?” asked Tarzan
“Well, no, not exactly—perhaps twenty million dollars at a rough guess.”
“What would that mean to you—luxuries and power? The Kaji probably know little of luxuries; but, from what you have told me, power is everything to them; and they believe that this other fetish would give them unlimited power, just as you think that twenty million dollars would give you happiness.
“Probably you are both wrong; but the fact remains that they know quite as well the value of it as you, and at least it does less harm here than it would out in the world among men who would steal the pennies from the eyes of the dead!”
Wood smiled. This was the longest speech that his strange companion had vouchsafed. It suggested a philosophy of life that might make an uninhabited wilderness preferable to contacts of civilization in the eyes of this man.
For an hour Tarzan carried the American; then he lowered him to his feet. “Perhaps you can go it on your own now,” he said.
“I’ll try. Come on!”
Tarzan started again along the trail toward the North. Wood hesitated. In his eyes and the strained expression of his face was reflected the stupendous effort of his will. With a groan of anguish he turned and started briskly toward the South.
The ape-man wheeled and hastened after him. Wood glanced back and broke into a run. For an instant Tarzan hesitated. The fellow meant nothing to him; he was a burden. Why not let him go and be relieved of him? Then he recalled the terror in the man’s face and realized, also, the challenge that Mafka was hurling at the Lord of the Jungle.
Perhaps it was the latter that motivated him more strongly than aught else when he started in pursuit of the fleeing American.
Mafka’s power might be unquestionably great, but it could not lend sufficient speed to the feet of Stanley Wood to permit him to outdistance the ape-man. In a few moments Tarzan overhauled and seized him. Wood struggled weakly to escape at the same time that he was thanking Tarzan for saving him.
“It’s awful,” he groaned. “Don’t you suppose I can ever escape from the will of that old devil?”
Tarzan shrugged. “Perhaps not,” he said. “I have known ordinary witch-doctors to kill men after a period of many years at distances of hundreds of miles, and this Mafka is evidently no ordinary witch-doctor.”
That night they camped beside the Neubari, and in the morning when the ape-man awoke Stanley Wood had disappeared.