From the West came Lafayette Smith and ‘Gunner’ Patrick; from the South, an English big game hunter, Lord Passmore; from the East, Leon Stabutch.
The Russian had been having trouble with his men. They had enlisted with enthusiasm, but their eagerness to proceed had waned as they penetrated more deeply into strange and unknown country. Recently they had talked with men of a village beside which they had camped, and these men had told them terrifying tales of the great band of shiftas, led by a white man, that was terrorizing the country toward which they were marching, killing and raping as they collected slaves to be sold in the north.
Stabutch had halted for the noonday rest upon the southern slopes of the foothills of the Ghenzis. To the north rose the lofty peaks of the main range; to the south, below them, they could see forest and jungle stretching away into the distance; about them were rolling hills, sparsely timbered, and between the hills and the forest an open, grassy plain where herds of antelope and zebra could be seen grazing.
The Russian called his headman to him. “What’s the matter with those fellows?” he asked, nodding toward the porters, who were gathered, squatting, in a circle, jabbering in low voices.
“They are afraid, Bwana,” replied the black.
“Afraid of what?” demanded Stabutch, though he well knew.
“Afraid of the shiftas, Bwana. Three more deserted last night.”
“We didn’t need them anyway,” snapped Stabutch; “the loads are getting lighter.”
“More will run away,” said the headman. “They are all afraid.”
“They had better be afraid of me,” blustered Stabutch. “If any more men desert I’ll—I’ll—”
“They are not afraid of you, Bwana,” the headman told him, candidly. “They are afraid of the shiftas and the white man who is their chief. They do not want to be sold into slavery, far from their own country.”
“Don’t tell me you believe in that cock-and-bull story, you black rascal,” snapped Stabutch. “It’s just an excuse to turn back. They want to get home so they can loaf, the lazy dogs. And I guess you’re as bad as the rest of them. Who said you were a headman, anyway? If you were worth a kopeck you’d straighten those fellows out in no time; and we wouldn’t have any more talk about turning back, nor any more desertions, either.”
“Yes, Bwana,” replied the black; but what he thought was his own business.
“Now, listen to me,” growled Stabutch, but that to which he would have had the headman listen was never voiced.
The interruption came from one of the porters, who leaped suddenly to his feet, voicing a low cry of warning pregnant with terror. “Look!” he cried, pointing toward the west. “The shiftas!”
Silhouetted against the sky, a group of mounted men had reined in their horses upon the summit of a low hill a mile away. The distance was too great to permit the excited watchers in the Russian’s camp to distinguish details, but the very presence of a body of horsemen was all the assurance that the blacks needed to convince them that it was composed of members of the shifta band of which they had heard terrifying rumors that had filled their simple breasts with steadily increasing dread during the past several days. The white robes fluttering in the breeze at the summit of the distant hill, the barrels of rifles and the shafts of spears that, even at a distance, were sufficiently suggestive of their true nature to permit of no doubt, but served to definitely crystallize the conjectures of the members of Stabutch’s safari and augment their panic.
They were standing now, every eye turned toward the menace of that bristling hill top. Suddenly one of the men ran toward the loads that had been discarded during the noonday halt, calling something back over his shoulder to his fellows. Instantly there was a break for the loads.
“What are they doing?” cried Stabutch. “Stop them!”
The headman and the askaris ran quickly toward the porters, many of whom already had shouldered their loads and were starting on the back trail. The headman sought to stop them, but one, a great, burly fellow, felled him with a single blow. Then another, glancing back toward the west, voiced a shrill cry of terror. “Look!” he cried. “They come!”
Those who heard him turned to see the horsemen, their robes fluttering backward in the breeze, reining down the hillside toward them at a gallop.
It was enough. As one man, porters, askaris, and the headman, they turned and fled. Those who had shouldered loads threw them to the ground lest their weight retard the runner’s speed.
Stabutch was alone. For an instant he hesitated on the verge of flight, but almost immediately he realized the futility of attempted escape.
With loud yells the horsemen were bearing down upon his camp; and presently, seeing him standing there alone, they drew rein before him. Hard faced, villainous appearing, they presented such an appearance of evil as might have caused the stoutest heart to quail.
Their leader was addressing Stabutch in a strange tongue, but his attitude was so definitely menacing that the Russian had little need of knowledge of the other’s language to interpret the threat reflected in the speaker’s tones and scowling face; but he dissembled his fears and met the men with a cool equanimity that impressed them with the thought that the stranger must be sure of his power. Perhaps he was but the advance guard of a larger body of white men!
The shiftas looked about them uneasily as this thought was voiced by one of their number, for they well knew the temper and the arms of white men and feared both. Yet, notwithstanding their doubts, they could still appreciate the booty of the camp, as they cast covetous and appraising eyes upon the abandoned loads of the departed porters, most of whom were still in view as they scurried toward the jungle.
Failing to make himself understood by the white man, the leader of the shiftas fell into a heated argument with several of his henchmen and when one, sitting, stirrup to stirrup, beside him, raised his rifle and aimed it at Stabutch the leader struck the weapon up and berated his fellow angrily. Then he issued several orders, with the result that, while two of the band remained to guard Stabutch, the others dismounted and loaded the packs on several of the horses.
A half hour later the shiftas rode back in the direction from which they had come, taking with them all of the Russian’s belongings and him, also, disarmed and a prisoner.
And, as they rode away, keen grey eyes watched them from the concealing verdure of the jungle—eyes that had been watching every turn of events in the camp of the Russian since Stabutch had called the halt for the disastrous noonday rest.
Though the distance from the jungle to the camp was considerable, nothing had escaped the keen eyes of the watcher reclining at ease in the fork of a great tree just at the edge of the plain. What his mental reactions to the happenings he had witnessed none might have guessed by any changing expression upon his stern, emotionless countenance.
He watched the retreating figures of the shiftas until they had disappeared from view, and then he sprang lightly to his feet and swung off through the jungle in the opposite direction—in the direction taken by the fleeing members of Stabutch’s safari.
Goloba, the headman, trod fearfully the gloomy trails of the jungle; and with him were a considerable number of the other members of Stabutch’s safari, all equally fearful lest the shiftas pursue them.
The first panic of their terror had abated; and as the minutes sped, with no sign of pursuit, they took greater heart, though there grew in the breast of Goloba another fear to replace that which was fading—it was the fear of the trusted lieutenant who has deserted his bwana. It was something that Goloba would have to explain one day, and even now he was formulating his excuse.
“They rode upon us, firing their rifles,” he said. “There were many of them—at least a hundred.” No one disputed him. “We fought bravely in defense of the Bwana, but we were few and could not repulse them.” He paused and looked at those walking near him. He saw that they nodded their heads in assent. “And then I saw the Bwana fall and so, to escape being taken and sold into slavery, we ran away.”
“Yes,” said one walking at his side, “it is all as Goloba has said. I myself—” but he got no further. The figure of a bronzed white man, naked but for a loin cloth, dropped from the foliage of the trees into the trail a dozen paces ahead of them. As one man they halted, surprise and fear writ large upon their faces.
“Which is the headman?” demanded the stranger in their own dialect, and every eye turned upon Goloba.
“I am,” replied the black leader.
“Why did you desert your bwana?”
Goloba was about to reply when the thought occurred to him that here was only a single, primitively armed white without companions, without a safari—a poor creature, indeed, in the jungle-lower than the meanest black.
“Who are you, to question Goloba, the headman?” he demanded, sneeringly. “Get out of my way,” and he started forward along the trail toward the stranger.
But the white man did not move. He merely spoke, in low, even tones. “Goloba should know better,” he said, “than to speak thus to any white man.”
The black hesitated. He was not quite sure of himself, but yet he ventured to hold his ground. “Great bwanas do not go naked and alone through the forests, like the low Bagesu. Where is your safari?”
“Tarzan of the Apes needs no safari,” replied the white man.
Goloba was stunned. He had never seen Tarzan of the Apes, for he came from a country far from Tarzan’s stamping ground, but he had heard tales of the great bwana—tales that had lost nothing in the telling.
“You are Tarzan?” he asked.
The white man nodded, and Goloba sank, fearfully, to his knees. “Have mercy, great bwana!” he begged. “Goloba did not know.”
“Now, answer my question,” said Tarzan. “Why did you desert your bwana?”
“We were attacked by a band of shiftas,” replied Goloba. “They rode upon us, firing their rifles. There were at least a hundred of them. We fought bravely—”
“Stop!” commanded Tarzan. “I saw all that transpired. No shots were fired. You ran away before you knew whether the horsemen were enemies or friends. Speak now, but speak true words.”
“We knew that they were enemies,” said Goloba, “for we had been warned by villagers, near whom we had camped, that these shiftas would attack us and sell into slavery all whom they captured.”
“What more did the villagers tell you?” asked the ape-man.
“That the shiftas are led by a white man.”
“That is what I wished to know,” said Tarzan.
“And now may Goloba and his people go?” asked the black. “We fear that the shiftas may be pursuing us.”
“They are not,” Tarzan assured him. “I saw them ride away toward the west, taking your bwana with them. It is of him I would know more. Who is he? What does he here?”
“He is from a country far in the north,” replied Goloba. “He called it Russa.”
“Yes,” said Tarzan. “I know the country. Why did he come here?”
“I do not know,” replied Goloba. “It was not to hunt. He did not hunt, except for food.”
“Did he speak ever of Tarzan?” demanded the ape-man.
“Yes,” replied Goloba. “Often he asked about Tarzan. At every village he asked when they had seen Tarzan and where he was; but none knew.”
“That is all,!” said the ape-man. “You may go.”