The events of the previous night appeared as a dream, but when he sat up and discovered the figures of the sleeping girls a short distance from him his mind was jerked rudely back into the world of realities. His heart sank. How was he to acquit himself creditably of such a responsibility? Frankly, he did not know.
He had no doubt but that he could find the fissure and lead his charges to the outer world, but how much better off would they be then? He had no idea now, and he realized that he never had, where his camp lay. Then there was the possibility of meeting the lion again in the fissure, and if they did not there was still the question of sustenance. What were they going to use for food, and how were they going to get it?
The thought of food awoke a gnawing hunger within him. He arose and walked to the shore of the lake where he lay on his belly and filled himself with water. When he stood up the girls were sitting up looking at him.
“Good morning,” he greeted them. “I was just having breakfast. Will you join me?”
They returned his salutation as they arose and came toward him. Lady Barbara was smiling. “Thank the lord, you have a sense of humor,” she said. “I think we are going to need a lot of it before we get out of this.”
“I would much prefer ham and eggs,” he replied ruefully.
“Now I know you’re an American,” she said.
“I suppose you are thinking of tea and marmalade,” he rejoined.
“I am trying not to think of food at all,” she replied.
“Have some lake,” he suggested. “You have no idea how satisfying it is if you take enough of it.”
After the girls had drunk the three set off again, led by Smith, in search of the opening to the fissure. “I know just where it is,” he had assured them the night before, and even now he thought that he would have little difficulty in finding it, but when they approached the base of the cliff at the point where he had expected to find it it was not there.
Along the foot of the beetling escarpment he searched, almost frantically now, but there was no sign of the opening through which he had crawled into the valley of the land of Midian. Finally, crushed, he faced Lady Barbara. “I cannot find it,” he admitted, and there was a quality of hopelessness in his voice that touched her.
“Never mind,” she said. “It must be somewhere. We shall just have to keep searching until we find it.”
“But it’s so hard on you young ladies,” he said. “It must be a bitter disappointment to you. You don’t know how it makes me feel to realize that, with no one to depend on but me, I have failed you so miserably.”
“Don’t take it that way, please,” she begged. “Anyone might have lost his bearings in this hole. These cliffs scarcely change their appearance in miles.”
“It’s kind of you to say that, but I cannot help but feel guilty. Yet I know the opening cannot be far from here. I came in on the west side of the valley, and that is where we are now. Yes, I am sure I must find it eventually; but there is no need for all of us to search. You and Jezebel sit down here and wait while I look for it.”
“I think we should remain together,” suggested Jezebel.
“By all means,” agreed Lady Barbara.
“As you wish,” said Smith. “We will search toward the north as far as it is possible that the opening can lie. If we don’t find it we can come back here and search toward the south.”
As they moved along the base of the cliff in a northerly direction Smith became more and more convinced that he was about to discover the entrance to the fissure. He thought that he discerned something familiar in the outlook across the valley from this location, but still no opening revealed itself after they had gone a considerable distance.
Presently, as they climbed the rise and gained the summit of one of the numerous low ridges that ran, buttress-like, from the face of the cliff down into the valley, he halted in discouragement.
“What is it?” asked Jezebel.
“That forest,” he replied. “There was no forest in sight of the opening.”
Before them spread an open forest of small trees that grew almost to the foot of the cliffs and stretched downward to the shore of the lake, forming a landscape of exceptional beauty in its park-like aspect. But Lafayette Smith saw no beauty there—he saw only another proof of his inefficiency and ignorance.
“You came through no forest on your way from the cliffs to the village?” demanded Lady Barbara.
He shook his head. “We’ve got to walk all the way back now,” he said, “and search in the other direction. It is most disheartening. I wonder if you can forgive me.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Lady Barbara. “One might think that you were a Cook’s Tour courier who had got lost during a personally conducted tour of the art galleries of Paris and expected to lose his job in consequence.”
“I feel worse than that,” Smith admitted with a laugh, “and I imagine that’s saying a lot.”
“Look!” exclaimed Lady Barbara. “There are animals of some sort down there in the forest. Don’t you see them?”
“Oh, yes,” cried Jezebel, “I see them.”
“What are they?” asked Smith. “They look like deer.”
“They are goats,” said Jezebel. “The North Midians have goats. They roam over this end of the valley.”
“They look like something to eat, to me,” said Lady Barbara. “Let’s go down and get one of them.”
“They will probably not let us catch them,” suggested Lafayette.
“You’ve a pistol,” the English girl reminded him.
“That’s a fact,” he agreed. “I can shoot one.”
“Maybe,” qualified Lady Barbara.
“I’d better go down alone,” said Smith. “Three of us together might frighten them.”
“You’ll have to be mighty careful or you’ll frighten them yourself,” warned Lady Barbara. “Have you ever stalked game?”
“No,” admitted the American, “I never have.”
Lady Barbara moistened a finger and held it up. “The wind is right,” she announced. “So all you have to do is keep out of sight and make no noise.”
“How am I going to keep out of sight?” demanded Smith.
“You’ll have to crawl down to them, taking advantage of trees, rocks and bushes—anything that will conceal you. Crawl forward a few feet and then stop, if they show any sign of nervousness, until they appear unconcerned again.”
“That will take a long time,” said Smith.
“It may be a long time before we find anything else to eat,” she reminded him, “and nothing we do find is going to walk up to us and lie down and die at our feet.”
“I suppose you are right,” assented Smith. “Here goes! Pray for me.” He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled slowly forward over the rough ground in the direction of the forest and the goats. After a few yards he turned and whispered: “This is going to be tough on the knees.”
“Not half as hard as it’s going to be on our stomachs if you don’t succeed,” replied Lady Barbara.
Smith made a wry face and resumed his crawling while the two girls, lying flat now to conceal themselves from the quarry, watched his progress.
“He’s not doing half badly,” commented Lady Barbara after several minutes of silent watching.
“How beautiful he is,” sighed Jezebel.
“Just at present the most beautiful things in the landscape are those goats,” said Lady Barbara. “If he gets close enough for a shot and misses I shall die—and I know he will miss.”
“He didn’t miss Lamech last night,” Jezebel reminded her. “He must have been aiming at someone else,” commented Lady Barbara shortly.
Lafayette Smith crawled on apace. With numerous halts, as advised by Lady Barbara, he drew slowly nearer his unsuspecting quarry. The minutes seemed hours. Pounding constantly upon his brain was the consciousness that he must not fail, though not for the reason that One might naturally assume. The failure to procure food seemed a less dreadful consequence than the contempt of Lady Barbara Collis.
Now, at last, he was quite close to the nearest of the herd. Just a few more yards and he was positive that he could not miss. A low bush, growing just ahead of him, concealed his approach from the eyes of his victim. Lafayette Smith reached the bush and paused behind it. A little farther ahead he discovered another shrub still closer to the goat, a thin nanny with a large udder. She did not look very appetizing, but beneath that unprepossessing exterior Lafayette Smith knew there must be hidden juicy steaks and cutlets. He crawled on. His knees were raw and his neck ached from the unnatural position his unfamiliar method of locomotion had compelled it to assume.
He passed the bush behind which he had paused, failing to see the kid lying hidden upon its opposite side-hidden by a solicitous mamma while she fed. The kid saw Lafayette but it did not move. It would not move until its mother called it, unless actually touched by something, or terrified beyond the limit of its self control.
It watched Lafayette crawling toward the next bush upon his itinerary—the next and last. What it thought is unrecorded, but it is doubtful that it was impressed by Lafayette’s beauty.
Now the man had reached the concealment of the last bush, unseen by any other eyes than those of the kid. He drew his pistol cautiously, lest the slightest noise alarm his potential dinner. Raising himself slightly until his eyes were above the level of the bush he took careful aim. The goat was so close that a miss appeared such a remote contingency as to be of negligible consideration.
Lafayette already felt the stirring warmth of pride with which he would toss the carcass of his kill at the feet of Lady Barbara and Jezebel. Then he jerked the trigger.
Nanny leaped straight up into the air, and when she hit the ground again she was already streaking north in company with the balance of the herd. Lafayette Smith had missed again.
He had scarcely time to realize the astounding and humiliating fact as he rose to his feet when something struck him suddenly and heavily from behind—a blow that bent his knees beneath him and brought him heavily to earth in a sitting posture. No, not to earth. He was sitting on something soft that wriggled and squirmed. His startled eyes, glancing down, saw the head of a kid protruding from between his legs—little Capra hircus had been terrified beyond the limit of his self-control.
“Missed!” cried Lady Barbara Collis. “How could he!” Tears of disappointment welled to her eyes.
Eshbaal, hunting his goats at the northern fringe of the forest cocked his ears and listened. That unfamiliar sound! And so near. From far across the valley, toward the village of the South Midians, Eshbaal had heard a similar sound, though faintly from afar, the night before. Four times it had broken the silence of the valley and no more. Eshbaal had heard it and so had his fellows in the village of Ehja, the son of Noah.
Lafayette Smith seized the kid before it could wriggle free, and despite its struggles he slung it across his shoulder and started back toward the waiting girls.
“He didn’t miss it!” exclaimed Jezebel. “I knew he wouldn’t,” and she went down to meet him, with Lady Barbara, perplexed, following in her wake.
“Splendid!” cried the English girl as they came closer. “You really did shoot one, didn’t you? I was sure you missed.”
“I did miss,” admitted Lafayette ruefully.
“But how did you get it?”
“If I must admit it,” explained the man, “I sat on it. As a matter of fact it got me.”
“Well, anyway, you have it,” she said.
“And it will be a whole lot better eating than the one I missed,” he assured them. “That one was terribly thin and very old.”
“How cute it is,” said Jezebel.
“Don’t,” cried Lady Barbara. “We mustn’t think of that. Just remember that we are starving.”
“Where shall we eat it?” asked Smith.
“Right here,” replied the English girl. “There is plenty of deadwood around these trees. Have you matches?”
“Yes. Now you two look the other way while I do my duty. I wish I’d hit the old one now. This is like murdering a baby.”
Upon the opposite side of the forest Eshbaal was once again experiencing surprise, for suddenly the goats for which he had been searching came stampeding toward him.
“The strange noise frightened them,” soliloquized Eshbaal. “Perhaps it is a miracle. The goats for which I have searched all day have been made to return unto me.”
As they dashed past, the trained eye of the shepherd took note of them. There were not many goats in the bunch that had strayed, so he had no difficulty in counting them. A kid was missing. Being a shepherd there was nothing for Eshbaal to do but set forth in search of the missing one. He advanced cautiously, alert because of the noise he had heard.
Eshbaal was a short, stocky man with blue eyes and a wealth of blond hair and beard. His features were regular and handsome in a primitive, savage way. His single garment, fashioned from a goat skin, left his right arm entirely free, nor did it impede his legs, since it fell not to his knees. He carried a club and a rude knife.
Lady Barbara took charge of the culinary activities after Lafayette had butchered the kid and admitted that, beyond hard boiling eggs, his knowledge of cooking was too sketchy to warrant serious mention. “And anyway,” he said, “we haven’t any eggs.”
Following the directions of the English girl, Smith cut a number of chops from the carcass; and these the three grilled on pointed sticks that Lady Barbara had had him cut from a nearby tree.
“How long will it take to cook them?” demanded Smith. “I could eat mine raw. I could eat the whole kid raw, for that matter, in one sitting and have room left for the old nanny I missed.”
“We’ll eat only enough to keep us going,” said Lady Barbara; “then we’ll wrap the rest in the skin and take it with us. If we’re careful, this should keep us alive for three or four days.”
“Of course you’re right,” admitted Lafayette. “You always are.”
“You can have a big meal this time,” she told him, “because you’ve been longer without food than we.”
“You have had nothing for a long time, Barbara,” said Jezebel. “I am the one who needs the least.”
“We all need it now,” said Lafayette. “Let’s have a good meal this time, get back our strength, and then ration the balance so that it will last several days. Maybe I will sit on something else before this is gone.”
They all laughed; and presently the chops were done, and the three fell to upon them. “Like starving Armenians,” was the simile Smith suggested.
Occupied with the delightful business of appeasing wolfish hunger, none of them saw Eshbaal halt behind a tree and observe them. Jezebel he recognized for what she was, and a sudden fire lighted his blue eyes. The others were enigmas to him—especially their strange apparel.
Of one thing Eshbaal was convinced. He had found his lost kid and there was wrath in his heart. For just a moment he watched the three; then he glided back into the forest until he was out of their sight, when he broke into a run.
The meal finished, Smith wrapped the remainder of the carcass in the skin of the kid; and the three again took up their search for the fissure.
An hour passed and then another. Still their efforts were not crowned with success. They saw no opening in the stern, forbidding face of the escarpment, nor did they see the slinking figures creeping steadily nearer and nearer—a score of stocky, yellow haired men led by Eshbaal, the Shepherd.
“We must have passed it,” said Smith at last. “It just cannot be this far south,” yet only a hundred yards farther on lay the illusive opening into the great fissure.
“We shall have to hunt for some other way out of the valley then,” said Lady Barbara. “There is a place farther south that Jezebel and I used to see from the mouth of our cave where the cliff looked as though it might be scaled.”
“Let’s have a try at it then,” said Smith. “Say, look there!” he pointed toward the north.
“What is it? Where?” demanded Jezebel.
“I thought I saw a man’s head behind that rock,” said Smith. “Yes, there he is again. Lord, look at ‘em. They’re all around.”
Eshbaal and his fellows, realizing that they were discovered, came into the open, advancing slowly toward the three.
“The men of North Midian!” exclaimed Jezebel. “Are they not beautiful!”
“What shall we do?” demanded Lady Barbara. “We must not let them take us.”
“We’ll see what they want,” said Smith. “They may not be unfriendly. Anyway, we couldn’t escape them by running. They would overtake us in no time. Get behind me, and if they show any signs of attacking I’ll shoot a few of them.”
“Perhaps you had better go out and sit on them,” suggested Lady Barbara, wearily.
“I am sorry,” said Smith, “that my marksmanship is so poor; but, unfortunately perhaps, it never occurred to my parents to train me in the gentle art of murder. I realize now that they erred and that my education has been sadly neglected. I am only a school teacher, and in teaching the young intellect to shoot I have failed to learn to do so myself.”
“I didn’t intend to be nasty,” said Lady Barbara, who detected in the irony of the man’s reply a suggestion of wounded pride. “Please forgive me.”
The North Midians were advancing cautiously, halting occasionally for brief, whispered conferences. Presently one of them spoke, addressing the three. “Who are you?” he demanded. “What do you in the land of Midian?”
“Can you understand him?” asked Smith, over his shoulder.
“Yes,” replied both girls simultaneously.
“He speaks the same language as Jezebel’s people,” explained Lady Barbara. “He wants to know who we are and what we are doing here.”
“You talk to him, Lady Barbara,” said Smith.
The English girl stepped forward. “We are strangers in Midian,” she said. “We are lost. All we wish is to get out of your country.”
“There is no way out of Midian,” replied the man. “You have killed a kid belonging to Eshbaal. For that you must be punished. You must come with us.”
“We were starving,” explained Lady Barbara. “If we could pay for the kid we would gladly do so. Let us go in peace.”
The Midians held another whispered conference, after which their spokesman addressed the three again. “You must come with us,” he said, “the women at least if the man will go away we will not harm you, we do not want him; we want the women.”
“What did he say?” demanded Smith, and when Lady Barbara had interpreted he shook his bead. “Tell them no,” he directed. “Also tell them that if they molest us I shall have to kill them.”
When the girl delivered this ultimatum to the Midians they laughed. “What can one man do against twenty?” demanded their leader, then he advanced followed by his retainers. They were brandishing their clubs now, and some of them raised their voices in a savage war cry.
“You will have to shoot,” said Lady Barbara. “There are at least twenty. You cannot miss them all.”
“You flatter me,” said Smith, as he raised his .32 and levelled it at the advancing Midians.
“Go back!” shouted Jezebel, “or you will be killed,” but the attackers only came forward the faster.
Then Smith fired. At the sharp crack of the pistol the Midians halted, surprised; but no one fell. Instead, the leader hurled his club, quickly and accurately, just as Smith was about to fire again. He dodged; but the missile struck his pistol hand a glancing blow, sending the weapon flying—then the North Midians were upon them.