“TIRED?” asked Wood. Gonfala shook her head. “Not a bit.”
“You’re doing pretty well for a girl who never had to do anything more strenuous than sit on a throne,” laughed van Eyk.
“You’d be surprised. I can probably out-run and out-last either of you. You see I used to hunt with the Kaji. Mafka insisted on it—lots of exercise. He was a great believer in exercise for every one but Mafka.”
“I’m glad,” said Wood, “for we’ve got two long marches between this camp and railhead. I’ll be glad when it’s over. To tell you the truth, I’m fed up on Africa. I hope I never see it again.”
“I don’t blame you, Stanlee; you came near staying here a long time.”
“Yes; eternity is rather a long time.” Wood grimaced. “It’s hard to realize, even now, that we escaped.”
“It’s incredible,” agreed Gonfala. “We’re the first persons ever to escape from Mafka; and he’d been there, oh, no one knows how long—the Kaji said always. They believed that he created the world.”
The three were camped at the end of a day’s march on their way out toward civilization. They had a dependable, well equipped safari furnished by Tarzan. The men planned on devoting one day to hunting, as they were in excellent game country; then they would cover the two long marches to railhead. The delay for hunting was Wood’s concession to van Eyk, an indefatigable Nimrod, who had obtained permission from the Lord of the Jungle to take out a few trophies for his collection.
As night fell, the light of their beast fire cast dancing shadows through the camp and shone far out into the night, both attracting and repelling the great carnivores upon whose domain they trespassed; for this was lion country. It attracted also other eyes a mile or more to the north.
“I wonder what that might be,” said Spike.
“A fire,” growled Troll; “what you think it was—a iceberg?”
“Funny, ain’t you?”
“Not as funny as a bloke what runs off an leaves three million puns worth o’ emerald with a bunch of cannibals.”
“Fer cripe’s sake quit chewin’ about that; I didn’t leave it any more ’n you did. What I mean is, there must be men over by that fire; I wonders who they might be.”
“Or white hunters.”
“What difference does it make?” asked Troll.
“They might put us on the right trail.”
“An’ tell that Clayton bloke where we are? You’re balmy.”
“How do you know he’s around here? Maybe they never even heard of him.”
“He’s everywhere. Everybody’s heard of him. He said he’d know it if we double-crossed Stanley. After I seen what he done in the Kaji country, I wouldn’t put nothin’ past him—he’s omnivorous.”
“Whatever that means.”
“Well, just the same, I think we’d ourghter find out who made that fire. If they’re one thing, we’d better light out of here; if they’re the other, we can ask ’em to set us on the right trail.”
“Maybe you said something intelligent at last. It wouldn’t do no harm to go have a look-see.”
“That fire may be a long ways off, and—”
“This is lion country.”
“Sure I’m scared. So are you, unless you’re a bigger fool than I think. Nobody but a fool wouldn’t be scared in lion country at night without a gun.”
“We’ll take a couple of the smokes with us. They say lions like dark meat.”
“All right; let’s get goin’.”
Guided by the fire, the four men approached the Wood—van Eyke camp; and after reconnoitering made their way to the concealment of a clump of bushes where they could see and not be seen.
“Cripes!” whispered Spike. “Look who’s there!”
“Gonfala!” breathed Troll.
“An’ Wood an’ van Eyk.”
“T’ell with them! If we only had the girl!”
“Wot do we want of her?”
“You get less brains every minute. Wot do we want of ’er! If we had her we could make the diamond do its stuff just like Mafka did—just like Clayton did. We’d be safe; nothin’ nor nobody couldn’t hurt us.”
“Well, we ain’t got her.”
“Shut up! Listen to wot they’re sayin’.”
The voices of the three whites by the campfire came clearly to Troll and Spike. Van Eyk was making plans for the morrow’s hunt.
“I really think Gonfala ought to stay in camp and rest; but as long as she insists on coming along, you and she can go together. If there were three men, now, we could spread out farther and cover more ground.”
“I can do whatever a man can do,” insisted Gonfala. “You can assume that you have three men.”
“Don’t be foolish, Stanlee. I am not as the women you have known in your civilized countries. From what you have told me, I shall be as helpless and afraid there as they would be here; but here I am not afraid. So I hunt tomorrow as the third man, and now I am going to bed. Good night, Stanlee. Good night, Bob.”
“Well, I guess that settles it,” remarked Wood, with a wry smile; “but when I get you back in God’s country you’ll have to mind me. Good night.”
“Perhaps,” said Gonfala.
The chill of night still hung like a vapor below the new sun as the three hunters set out from their camp for the day’s sport, and although the hunt had been van Eyk’s idea primarily, each of the others was keen to bag a lion. Over their breakfast coffee they had laid wagers as to which would be the lucky one to bring down the first trophy, with the result that not a little friendly rivalry had been engendered. That each might, seemed entirely possible; as the night had been filled with the continual roaring of the great carnivores.
Shortly after leaving camp the three separated, van Eyk keeping straight ahead toward the east, Wood diverging toward the south, and Gonfala to the north; each was accompanied by a gunbearer; and some of the members of the safari followed along after van Eyk and Wood, either believing that one of the men would be more likely to get a lion than would the girl, or, perhaps, feeling safer behind the guns of the men.
From behind an outcropping of rock at the summit of a low hill northwest of the Wood—van Eyk camp Spike and Troll watched their departure; while below them, concealed from sight, the six men of their safari waited. The two whites watched Gonfala and her gunbearer approaching across the open plain. The direction that she was taking suggested that she would pass a little to the east of them, but that she would then still be in sight of van Eyk and possibly Wood also.
The latter was not at all happy about the arrangements for the day; he did not like the idea of Gonfala going out on her own after lion with only a gunbearer, but the girl had overridden his every objection. He had insisted, however, upon sending as gunbearer a man of known courage who was also a good shot; and him he had instructed to be always ready with the second rifle in the event that Gonfala got into a tight place and, regardless of custom, to shoot a charging lion himself.
While Gonfala had had little previous experience of firearms prior to a few weeks ago, it gave him some consolation to reflect that she had, even in that short time, developed into an excellent shot; and insofar as her nerve was concerned he had no cause for anxiety. What he could not have known, of course, was the far greater menace of the two men who watched her from their rocky concealment upon the hilltop.
Gonfala passed the hill beneath the eyes of Spike and Troll and then crossed a low rise that was a continuation of the hill running down into the plain, and from then on she was hidden from the sight of either van Eyk or Wood. The country she now entered was broken by gullies and outcroppings of rock, by low bushes and occasional trees; so that it was comparatively easy for Spike and Troll to follow her without danger of being discovered; and this they did, keeping well to the rear of her and catching only an occasional glimpse of her during the ensuing hour.
Quite unsuspecting the fact that eight men followed upon her trail, Gonfala continued her seemingly fruitless search for lion, bearing constantly a little to the west because of a range of low hills that lay to the right of her and thus constantly increasing the distance between herself and her two companions. She had about come to the conclusion that the lions had all left the country when she heard, faint and far toward the east, the report of two rifle shots.
“Some one else had the luck,” she said to her gunbearer; “I guess we came in the wrong direction.”
“No, Memsahib,” he whispered, pointing; “look! Simba!”
She looked quickly in the direction he indicated; and there among the grasses beneath a tree she saw the head of a lion, the yellow-green eyes gazing unblinkingly at her. The beast was about a hundred yards distant; he was lying down, and as only his head was visible he offered a poor target. A frontal shot, she knew, would only tend to infuriate him and precipitate a charge.
“Pay no attention to him,” she whispered; “we’ll try to get closer and to one side.”
She moved forward then, not directly toward the lion but as though to pass a little to the right of him; and always his eyes followed them, but neither she nor the gunbearer gave any indication that they were aware of his presence. When she had approached to within about fifty yards she stopped and faced him, but he only lay quietly regarding her. But when she took a few steps straight toward him, he bared his great fangs and growled.
Topping a rise behind her, Spike took in the situation at a glance. He motioned to his men to halt, and beckoned Troll to his side. Together they watched the tense scene below them.
“I wish he’d get up,” said Gonfala.
The gunbearer picked up a stone and hurled it at the lion. The result was immediate and electrical. With an angry roar the lion leaped to its feet and charged.
Gonfala dropped to one knee and fired. The lion leaped high into the air, its angry roars shattering the silence. It was hit, but it was not stopped; for although it rolled over on its back it was up again in an instant and bearing down on them at terrific speed. Gonfala fired again and missed. Then the gunbearer took aim and pressed the trigger of his gun. There was only a futile click. The cartridge misfired. The lion was almost upon Gonfala when the gunbearer, unnerved by the failure of his gun, turned and fled. Unwittingly he had saved Gonfala’s life, for at sight of the man in flight the lion, already rising over Gonfala, followed a natural instinct that has saved the life of many a hunter and pursued the fleeing man. Gonfala fired again, and again scored a hit; but it did not stop the infuriated beast as it rose upon its hind feet and seized the gunbearer, the great fangs closing upon his head until they met in the center of his brain.
The girl was aghast as she stood helplessly by while the huge cat mauled its victim for a moment; then it sagged upon the body of the man and died.
“That,” said Troll, “is wot I call a bit o’ luck. We not only gets the girl, but we gets two guns.”
“And no witness,” added Spike. “Come on!” He motioned the others to follow him, and started down the declivity toward Gonfala.
She saw them almost immediately and for a moment thought her companions were coming, but presently she recognized them. She knew that they were bad men who had stolen the great diamond and the emerald, but she had no reason to believe that she was in any danger from them.
They came up to her smiling and friendly. “You sure had a narrow squeak,” said Spike. “We seen it from the top of that rise, but we couldn’t have done nothing to help you even if we’d had guns—we was too far away.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“We was tryin’ to find our way to railhead,” explained Spike. “We been lost fer weeks.”
Troll was recovering the gun and ammunition from the dead gunbearer, and Spike was eyeing the splendid rifle that Gonfala carried.
“We’re on our way to railhead,” she explained. “You can come back to camp with me and go on to railhead with us.”
“Won’t that be nice!” exclaimed Spike. “Say, that’s a fine gun you got there. Lemme see it a minute.” Thoughtlessly, she handed the weapon over to him; then she stepped over to the body of the dead gunbearer.
“He’s quite dead,” she said. “It’s too bad. Your men can carry him back to camp.”
“We ain’t goin’ back to your camp,” said Spike.
“Oh,” she exclaimed. “Well, what am I to do? I can’t take him back alone.”
“You ain’t goin’ back neither.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just wot I says: You ain’t goin’ back to your camp. You’re comin’ with us.”
“Oh, no I’m not.”
“Listen, Gonfala,” said Spike. “We don’t want no trouble with you. We don’t want to hurt you none; so you might as well come along peaceful like. We need you.”
“What for?” Her voice was brave, but her heart sank within her.
“We got the Gonfal, but we can’t make it work without you.”
“Yes, work. We’re goin’ to set ourselves up like Mafka did and be kings—just as soon as we find a piece o’ country we like. We’ll live like kings, too, off the fat of the land. You can be queen—have everything you want. Maybe, even, I’ll marry you.” He grinned.
“The hell you will,” snapped Troll. “She belongs to me as much as she does to you.”
Gonfala cringed. “I belong to neither of you. You are both fools. If you take me away, you will be followed and killed; or, at the least, both I and the Gonfal will be taken from you. If you have any sense you will let me go; then you can take the Gonfal to Europe. They tell me that there the money that it would bring would buy you anything that you wanted all the rest of your lives.”
“A fat chance we’d have gettin’ rid o’ that rock in Europe,” said Troll. “No, sister, we got it all figgered out. You’re comin’ with us, an’ that’s that.”