THE LORD of the Jungle rose from a crude, leaf-covered platform constructed in the crotch of two branches of a mighty patriarch of the jungle. He stretched luxuriously. The slanting rays of the morning sun mottled his bronze body through the leafy canopy that stretched interminably above him.
Little Nkima stirred and awoke. With a scream, he leaped to the shoulder of the ape-man and encircled his neck with his hairy arms.
“Sheeta!” screamed the monkey. “He was about to spring on little Nkima.”
The ape-man smiled. “Nkima has been seeing things in his sleep,” he said.
The monkey looked about him among the branches of the trees and down at the ground below. Then, seeing that no danger threatened, he commenced to dance and chatter; but presently the ape-man silenced him and listened.
“Sheeta comes,” he said. “He is coming up wind toward us. We cannot smell him but if Manu had the ears of Tar-zan, he could hear him.”
The monkey cocked an ear down wind and listened. “Little Nkima hears him,” he said. “He comes slowly.” Presently the sinuous, tawny body of the panther forced its way through the brush and came into view below them.
“Sheeta is not hunting,” said Tarzan. “He has fed and he is not hungry.” And thus reassured, Nkima commenced to hurl invectives at the savage beast below them. The great cat paused and looked up, and when he saw Tarzan and Nkima he bared his fangs in an angry snarl. But he started on again, for he had no business with them.
Feeling secure in the protection of Tarzan, little Nkima waxed belligerent, as he always did under similar circumstances when the possibility of danger seemed remote. He hurled at his hereditary enemy every jungle epithet that he could put his tongue to, but as these seemed to make no impression upon Sheeta he leaped from Tarzan’s shoulder to a trailing vine that bore a soft, ill-smelling fruit, and gathering one of these he hurled it at the panther.
By accident, his aim proved true; and the missile struck Sheeta on the back of the head.
With an angry snarl, the beast wheeled about and started toward the tree that harbored his annoyer. Screaming with terror, little Nkima fled upwards to the safety of the smaller branches that would not bear the weight of the great cat.
The ape-man grinned up after the fleeing monkey and then glanced down at the angry panther. A low, growling “Kreeg-ah” rumbled from his throat, and the other beast below returned an answering growl. Then it turned and slunk away into the jungle, rumbling in its throat.
The ape-man was returning leisurely from an excursion into a remote district of the great forest, far from his own haunts.
He had heard strange rumors, and he had gone to investigate them. From deep in the interior, on the borders of a tractless waste that few men had entered and from which some had never returned alive, had come a strange and mysterious story since so long before the memory of living man that the facts had become interwoven with the legends and the folklore of the tribes inhabiting this borderland to such an extent that they had come to be accepted as something inevitable and inescapable; but recently the disappearance of young girls had increased to an alarming extent and had occurred in tribes far removed from the mysterious country.
But when Tarzan investigated and sought to solve the mystery, he was balked by the fear and superstition of the natives. So fearful were they of the malign, mysterious power that snatched their young girls from them, that they would give Tarzan no information or assist him in any way to aid them; and so, disgusted, he had left them to their fate.
After all, why should the ape-man concern himself? Life to the jungle-bred is a commodity of little value. It is given and taken casually as a matter of course. One loves or kills as naturally as one sleeps or dreams. Yet the mystery of the thing intrigued him.
Young girls, always between the ages of fourteen and twenty, vanished as in thin air. No trace of them ever was seen again. Their fate remained an unsolved mystery.
But by now Tarzan had relegated the matter to the background of his thoughts, for his active mind could not long concern itself with a problem that did not closely concern him and which at any event seemed impossible of solution.
He swung easily through the trees, his alert senses conscious of all that transpired within their range. Since Sheeta had passed up wind, he had known by the decreasing volume of the great cat’s spoor that the distance between them was constantly increasing—proof that Sheeta was not stalking him. From far away, muted by the distance, sounded the roar of Numa, the lion; and deeper in the forest Tantor, the elephant, trumpeted.
The morning air, the sounds and smells of his beloved jungle, filled the ape-man with exhilaration. Had he been the creature of another environment, he might have whistled or sung or whooped aloud like a cowboy in sheer exuberance of spirit; but the jungle-bred are not thus. They veil their emotions; and they move noiselessly always, for thus do they extend the span of their precarious lives.
Scampering sometimes at his side, sometimes far above him, little Nkima travelled many times the distance of his master, wasting much energy; as, safe in the protection of his benefactor, he insulted all living things that came his way.
But presently he saw his master stop and sniff the air and listen, and then little Nkima dropped silently to a great bronzed shoulder.
“Men,” said Tarzan.
The little monkey sniffed the air. “Nkima smells nothing,” he said.
“Neither does Tarzan,” replied the ape-man, “but he hears them. What is wrong with the ears of little Nkima? Are they growing old?”
“Now Nkima hears them. Tarmangani?” he asked.
“No,” replied Tarzan, “Tarmangani make different sounds—the squeeking of leather, the rattle of too much equipment. These are Gomangani; they move softly.”
“We shall kill them,” said Nkima.
The ape-man smiled. “It is well for the peace of the jungle that you have not the strength of Bolgani, the gorilla; but perhaps if you had, you would not be so blood-thirsty.”
“Ugh, Bolgani,” sneered Nkima, contemptuously. “He hides in the thickets and runs away at the first sound that he hears.”
The ape-man changed his direction to the right and made a great circle through the trees until presently he reached a point where Usha, the wind, could carry the scent spoor of the strangers to him.
“Gomangani,” he said.
“Many Gomangani,” exclaimed Nkima, excitedly. “They are as the leaves upon the trees. Let us go away. They will kill little Nkima and eat him.”
“There are not so many,” replied Tarzan, “no more than the fingers upon my two hands, a hunting party, perhaps. We will go closer.”
Moving up on the blacks from behind, the ape-man rapidly closed up the distance between them. The scent spoor grew stronger in his nostrils.
“They are friends,” he said. “They are Waziri.”
The two jungle creatures moved on in silence then, until they overhauled a file of black warriors who moved silently along the jungle trail. Then Tarzan spoke to them in their own tongue.
“Muviro,” he said, “what brings my children so far from their own country?”
The blacks halted and wheeled about, gazing up into the trees from which the voice had seemed to come. They saw nothing, but they knew the voice.
“Oh, Bwana, it is well that you have come,” said Muviro. “Your children need you.”
Tarzan dropped to the trail among them. “Has harm befallen any of my people?” he asked, as the blacks clustered about him.
“Buira, my daughter, has disappeared,” said Muviro. “She went alone toward the river, and that is the last that was ever seen of her.”
“Perhaps Gimla, the crocodile—” Tarzan commenced to suggest.
“No, it was not Gimla. There were other women at the river. Buira never reached the river. We have heard stories, Bwana, that fill us with terror for our girls. There is evil, there is mystery in it, Bwana. We have heard of the Kavuru. Perhaps it is they; we go to search for them.”
“Their country lies far away,” said Tarzan. “I have just come from a place that is supposed to be near it, but the people there are all cowards. They were afraid to tell me where I might find the Kavuru, even though their girls have been stolen by these people for so long that no man can remember when it began.”
“Muviro will find them,” said the black, doggedly. “Buira was a good daughter. She was not as other girls. I will find those who stole her, and kill them.”
“And Tarzan of the Apes will help you,” said the ape-man. “Have you found the trail of the thieves?”
“There is no trail,” replied Muviro. “That is why we know it was the Kavuru; they leave no trail.”
“Many of us think that they are demons,” said another warrior.
“Men or demons, I shall find them and kill them,” replied Muviro.
“From all that I could learn,” said Tarzan, “these Bukena live nearest to the Kavuru. They have lost the most girls. That is the reason it is thought that they live nearest to the Kavuru, but they would not help me. They were afraid. However, we will go first to the kraals of the Bukena. I can travel faster; so I will go ahead. In four marches, perhaps three if nothing detains you, you should be there. In the meantime, it may be that Tarzan will have learned more.”
“Now that the big Bwana is with me, my mind is happy again,” said Muviro, “for I know that Buira will be found and returned to me, and that those who took her will be punished.”
Tarzan glanced up at the skies and sniffed the air. “A bad storm is coming, Muviro,” he said. “It is coming from where Kudu, the sun, beds down at night; you will have to trek directly into it, and it will hold you back.”
“But it will not stop us, Bwana.”
“No,” replied Tarzan. “It takes more than Usha, the wind, and Ara, the lightning, to stop the Waziri.
“Already Usha is drawing his veil of clouds across the face of Kudu, hiding him from his people.”
Torn and ragged clouds scudded across the sky; and in the distance, far to the West, thunder reverberated. The ape-man remained with his head thrown back, watching the impressive spectacle of the gathering storm.
“It will be a bad storm,” he said, musingly. “See how frightened the clouds are. Like a great herd of buffaloes, they stampede in terror, fearful of the roars of the thunder god that pursues them.”
The wind now was whipping the topmost branches of the trees. The thunder grew nearer and increased in violence. As the clouds sank thicker across the sky, gloomy darkness settled upon the jungle. Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed terrifically, and then the rain fell. It came in solid sheets, bending the trees beneath its weight; and over all Usha screamed like a lost soul.
The eleven men squatted with shoulders hunched against the beating rain, waiting for the first fury of the storm to spend itself.
For half an hour they sat there, and still the storm raged unabated. Suddenly the ape-man cocked an attentive ear upward, and a moment later several of the blacks raised their eyes to the heavens.
“What is it, Bwana?” asked one, fearfully. “What is it in the sky that moans and whines?”
“It sounds very much like an aeroplane,” replied Tarzan, “but what an aeroplane would be doing here, I cannot understand.”