Tarzan’s Quest

Chapter 20

Nkima Plays a Game

Edgar Rice Burroughs

TARZAN and the Waziri moved on in search of the village of the Kavuru. It was yet early in the morning; the dawn mists still defied the efforts of a low-swinging sun to dispel them. The spirits of the searchers were low, for they were many long marches from their homeland; and with each passing day a sense of the futility of their quest had been increasingly impressed upon them, for not once since they started had they seen any sign or clue to suggest that they were on the right track; only vague rumors based upon tribal legend had suggested the fate of Buira, the daughter of Muviro.

Several of the warriors felt that they were chasing a myth; and only great courage and loyalty kept them, uncomplaining, on the trail.

It was true that Tarzan had met Ydeni, the Kavuru, and that he had rescued Naika, the daughter of Gupingu, and heard her story; yet these things had occurred at such a remote distance from the land of the Waziri that even Muviro was commencing to doubt that it had been a Kavuru who had been responsible for the disappearance of Buira, for why should these strange men go so far afield when they could find young girls much closer to their mysterious village.

But upon this chill and misty morning, it was not the Waziri alone who were depressed and discouraged. Upon the trail behind them, a damp and bedraggled little monkey swung through the trees. In one hand he carried a stick in the end of which fluttered a bit of paper; that he still clung to it was a miracle, for Nkima was not particularly tenacious of purpose. Perhaps it had become a fixed idea, for the stick was often an encumbrance to him; yet it never occurred to him to discard it.

There was however another thought that was forming in his mind—it was the thought that he was very far from his own country, that he had lost Tarzan and could never find him again, and that he was very much afraid. It made him wish to turn around and start for home. He was almost upon the verge of turning about, when he recollected the grimacing visage of the disagreeable old male whom Nkima was certain thirsted for his life-blood somewhere upon the back trail; and then there were Sheeta, and Hista, the snake, and the bad gomangani. All these lay behind him; and until he encountered some of their like upon the trail he was following, his little mind so functioned that he could not anticipate their presence there—what little Nkima did not know did not bother him. And so he continued on his way into a land that seemed free from inhospitable monkeys and bloodthirsty beasts and men.

As the ascending sun warmed him, his spirits rose; and after he had discovered and robbed a bird’s nest, sucking the eggs, he felt equal to any adventure.

Then came the crowning moment of happiness. In the trail ahead of him, he saw a file of ten ebon warriors led by the giant white man who was his god. With a loud scream of joy that attracted the attention of the men below him, Nkima fairly flew through the trees to drop upon one of Tarzan’s broad shoulders.

“Where has Nkima been?” asked the ape-man. “Tarzan thought that at last Sheeta had caught him.”

“Little Nkima has been fighting with all the Manus in the forest,” replied the monkey. “They tried to stop little Nkima from coming through their trees, but he scratched them and bit them and hit them with a stick; then he chased them into the country where Kudu, the sun, lies down at night. That is where little Nkima has been; that is what he has been doing; that is why he has been away from Tarzan.”

The ape-man smiled. “Little Nkima is very brave,” he said, as he stroked the little head nestled in the hollow of his neck.

Tarzan noticed that Nkima still carried the message stick, and was surprised that his little friend should have been constant to one idea for so long a time; and then he noticed that the paper in the end of the stick was not the same as that which Nkima had taken away with him. The ape-man’s curiosity was aroused.

“What is that in the end of your stick, Nkima?” he asked. “Where did you get it? It is not the thing that Tarzan gave you. Let me see it.” And he reached for it.

Now Nkima had forgotten just why he had clung to the stick. He had forgotten that he had been mimicking the Waziri warrior who had carried the message to Tarzan. Also, he was very happy and wanted to play; so when Tarzan tried to take the paper from the end of the stick, Nkima saw therein a challenge and an invitation to a new game; and so he leaped nimbly from Tarzan’s shoulder and scampered away, waving the stick with its bit of fluttering paper above him.

The ape-man called to him to come back; but Nkima’s thoughts were wholly centered upon play; and he only climbed the higher, grimacing and chattering in great good humor, as he challenged the ape-man to catch him.

Perhaps if Tarzan had guessed the message that fluttered from the end of the cleft stick and all that it meant to him and one dear to him he would not have laughed so lightly and let Nkima go his way unrebuked, but he did not know. Upon such trivial things may hinge the lives and happiness of men.

Seeing that Tarzan did not pursue him, nor even pay any further attention to him, Nkima soon lost interest in the game and started to descend again to his master. But once more Fate intervened, this time in the form of a fledgling bird trying its wings for the first time in short, uncertain flights.

Little Nkima espied it, and forthwith forgot all else in the excitement of the chase. When the bird rested upon a twig he crept toward it; but when he would have seized it, it flew away just eluding his grasp. Again and again was this repeated, and as long as the bird remained in sight the excitement of the chase held Nkima enthralled.

Farther and farther north he followed the fledgling, bearing with him the message that would have meant so much to Tarzan of the Apes; but at length, in a flight much longer sustained than any it had previously attained, the bird disappeared; and that was the last that Nkima saw of it.

For no good reason he had pursued it, for thus his little monkey mind functioned. He had wasted his time, he had missed an opportunity to accomplish something worth while; and he had nothing to show for his pains. But then we have seen men do likewise. We have all chased chimeras.

For some time Nkima continued on toward the north, impelled by the rapidly fading vestiges of the urge that had been driving him; but presently he noticed the paper in the end of the stick that he had been carrying mechanically because he had been carrying it for so long. This recalled Tarzan to his mind and the fact that he was again alone in a strange land. He decided to return to the ape-man and the Waziri, but even as the determination was forming he heard something to the north of him that aroused his curiosity, demanding investigation. It was the voice of a human being.

Now, by nature Nkima is curious; and in addition Tarzan has trained him to investigate unusual occurrences; so it was not at all strange that he swung on through the trees in the direction of the voice that had attracted his attention, for the moment wholly absorbed in this new interest.

From a lofty height he at last looked down upon the objects of his interest, two Tarmangani, a he and a she. And when Nkima saw the he-Tarmangani he was glad that he was perching safely out of reach, for here was indeed a terrifying Tarmangani. Nkima had never before seen a white man like this one. He had seen the Gomangani, the black men, thus arrayed, but never a white man.

The fellow was large and powerful, with a fierce, evil face, the ferocity of which was surely not lessened by the straight piece of bone or ivory six or eight inches long that pierced the septum of his nose, nor by the feathers in his head dress, nor the paint on his face, the rings in his ears, and the necklace of human teeth lying against his massive chest.

Nkima noted all these things and more—the loin cloth of gorilla skin, the armlets, wristlets, and anklets, the fibre rope wound many times about the waist, the dagger, and the spear.

This was indeed a Tarmangani to avoid. He filled little Nkima with fear, but not so his companion. She was of a far different mold—small, dainty, and with no indications of barbaric ornamentation. Had Nkima been accustomed to making intelligent deductions from his perceptions he would have guessed immediately that the she was not of the same tribe, perhaps not of the same race as the man; but he could not have guessed that she was a French girl named Annette. No more could he know that the man was her captor, nor that he was a Kavuru. The mind of Nkima had its limitations.

However, his curiosity was once more aroused. For this reason and another, he followed them. The other reason presupposes imagination, a characteristic that little Nkima possessed, as must all creatures that know how to play; for play is often make-believe, and make-believe requires imagination of no mean order.

So now little Nkima pretended that he was stalking the two Tarmangani; he pretended that they were afraid of him and that presently he would leap upon them and destroy them. It was great fun for Nkima of whom almost nothing in the whole jungle was afraid, little Nkima who could destroy so few creatures in his teeming world, from whom nothing more important than a fledgling bird might seek to escape. It gave him a fleeting sense of superiority. There are men like that. Often one sees them strutting, clothed in a shred of tenuous, evanescent authority, play-acting at importance.

Pursuing this exciting game, he lost all sense of time, of which, at best, he had little or no conception. Presently night would come; and then he would know that time had passed, but while it was passing he gave it no thought.

The afternoon waned. The quarry passed out of the forest into an open plain at the foot of a tall mountain. The distance from the forest to the mountain was not great. Nkima could see across the plain, cut with little ravines, cluttered with huge boulders, to a village that lay at the foot of a perpendicular cliff.

A little river wound down toward the forest from the village, as though it rose in the village itself and flowed out beneath the gates of the lofty palisade. These things Nkima saw. He also saw the two he had been stalking cross the plain toward the village, but he did not follow them. After all a game is a game; there is no use carrying one too far.

He saw the gates open to admit the couple. He saw them close behind them. Then, for the first time, he realized that night was falling; and suddenly he became very lonely and afraid.

He thought of Tarzan and the safety of that bronzed shoulder; then he turned and scampered through the trees back into the south, clutching the forked stick tightly in his little fist, whimpering as he went.

Tarzan’s Quest - Contents    |     Chapter 21 - Only Two Left

Back    |    Words Home    |    Edgar Rice Burroughs Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback