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Chapter 4 The Man-Eater by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Far to the west Richard Gordon had penetrated the jungle to the site of the ruined mission. He had scraped around the woods which overgrew the razed walls of the bungalow, and at last he had come upon the flagging of the old hearth.

Stone after stone he pried from its place until beneath one he at last came upon a tiny vault, and a moment later his groping fingers touched a rusted tin box that crumpled beneath them. Feeling carefully amid the debris, Gordon finally withdrew a long manila envelope which had withstood the ravages of time. It was still sealed, nor did he break it open, for it was all the box contained other than a few loose pieces of jewelry and therefore must contain the paper he sought.

Dick Gordon was elated by the success of his adventure. He had feared that even the old hearth might have disappeared and the paper with it, for he had no means of knowing how complete had been the Wakandas' demolition of the mission, as upon his former visit he had seen no sign of the old chimney and fireplace.

Early the following morning he set out upon the return journey toward the coast, confident that no further obstacles other than those ordinary to African travel lay between him and the delivery of the packet safely into the hands of Mrs. Scott.

How could he guess that to the east of him three American crooks, bent upon nothing less than his death, barred his way to the coast. That they were making short marches and slow ones was of little moment to the three. They soon had tired of the hardships of African travel, and finally gave up the hope of overtaking Gordon before he reached the mission. To waylay him upon his return would answer their purpose quite as well, and so when they came at last to a village through which Gordon must pass upon his return to the coast it required little discussion of the question to decide them to await him there.

In view of generous gifts the native chief welcomed them to his hospitality. He set aside a commodious hut for the three whites. They unstoppered numerous bottles of Irish whiskey and the blacks brewed their native beer. The visit was a long-drawn Bacchanalian revel which the whites found more to their tastes than long, tiresome marches and the vicissitudes of ever changing camps.

But one day the peace of the community was rudely startled. A lion seized upon an unwary woman working in a little patch of cultivated ground outside the village. Her screams brought out the warriors and the whites; but the lion dragged his prey into the jungle, her screaming ceased, nor was she ever seen again.

The natives were terrified. They besought the whites to help them—to go forth with their guns and slay the man-eater; but though they hunted for two days no trace of the marauder could they find. Then the blacks dug a pit and baited it with a live goat, and lest the lion escape even this they set a watch upon the pit that the whites might be called when the lion approached.

Nor did they have long to wait. Scarce had they secreted themselves when a huge lion stepped majestically from the brush. Raising his massive head he sniffed the air. His lower jaw rose and fell. The slaver drivelled from his jowls. Deep in his throat rumbled a low thunder, and presently at his side appeared a sleek lioness.

For a moment they stood thus, their yellow eyes sometimes boring straight ahead as though to pierce the thickets behind which the trembling natives crouched, or again moving slowly up and down the trail.

Presently the lion's head went up in a quick movement of arrested attention. Instantly he froze to rigid immobility. His sensitive nostrils dilated and contracted, the tip of his tail moved. Aside from these he might have been chiselled from living gold, so magnificent he was.

Up wind, in a little clearing, two antelope browsed. Now and again the graceful male raised his horned head to sniff the air; his great wondering eyes scanning the surrounding jungle. Then he would lower his muzzle again and resume his feeding, yet ears and nose were always upon the alert.

The Judas breeze, kissing the soft coats of the antelope as it passed, bore down to the nostrils of the lions the evidence of the near presence of flesh—of tender, juicy, succulent, red flesh. The king turned his royal head once toward his consort. A sound that was half sigh breathed from his great throat. Was it a message—a command? Who may say? The lioness settled herself into a comfortable position in the long grass and her lord moved silently away, up wind toward the unconscious antelope.

A moment later an excited native detached himself from the watchers and sped away toward the village to notify the whites that the lions had come. Taylor, Kelley and Gootch caught up their rifles and followed the guide back toward the pit. At their heels was half the male population of the village, armed with short, heavy spears; but the chief, who had hunted lions with white men many times before, sent them all back with the exception of three who carried the whites' extra guns. There had been enough before to have frightened all the lions out of the country.

Even so, the white men themselves, clumsy in this unaccustomed work, made noise enough to bring the lioness to her feet as they crawled into the bushes besides the watchers. When finally they saw her she was standing head on gazing nervously toward their hiding place. It was evident that she was uneasy, and the old chief knew that in an instant she would bolt.

What had held her so long in the face of the noise of the awkward white men he could not guess.

"Shoot!" he whispered. "Quick!"

Already the lioness was wheeling to depart when the three rifles spoke. Only one bullet struck the target, but that one was enough to transform the timid jungle creature into a mad engine of rage and destruction. Turning like a cat and growling horribly, the lioness charged without an instant's warning straight down upon the cover that hid her foes.

It was the first time in their lives that any one of the white men had seen a charging lioness, and it was too much for the dope shattered nerves of Kelley and Gootch. Flinging away their rifles, they turned and ran like scared rabbits, their gun bearers and watchers near them surprised into panic at the unwonted sight of terror-struck white men emulating their example.

Only Taylor, his gun bearer and the chief held their ground. Taylor was frightened—few men are not in the face of a charging lion, especially if it be their first; but the blood of the Scotts flowed in his veins, and whatever else he might be, he was not a physical coward.

In the moment that ensued he took careful aim and fired again, and this time the lioness stopped—dead.

Taylor drew a deep sigh of relief.

Great beads of perspiration stood upon his forehead. He wiped them away, and as he attempted to arise he noticed that his knees were weak and trembling. It wouldn't do for the chief to see that, so he sat down again and rolled a cigarette.

By the time the frightened ones had been recalled he was able to control his muscles. Gootch and Kelley came with their tails between their legs, like whipped curs.

"You guys missed your call," laughed Taylor. "You ought to have been lion tamers."

The twain grinned sheepishly.

"I'll see that hell-cat face in my dreams for the rest of my natural life," said Kelley.

Gootch shrugged with a shudder.

"Me for Broadway and the Tammany tiger—it doesn't make such awful faces," he said.

"Well, let's go back to the village and have a drink on my first lion," suggested Taylor, and the three departed, leaving the natives to rig a sling and carry the body of the lioness in.

When the lion left his mate he made his way stealthily in the direction of his quarry. Now and again he stopped to raise his head and sniff the air, or with up-pricked ears to listen.

Ahead of him, the buck, uneasy, though he had as yet located no enemy, moved slowly off, followed by his doe. Craftily the lion trailed them by scent. Presently he came within sight of them but they were on the move, and the ground was not such as to favor a charge. So he stalked them—cautiously, warily, silently—the personification of majesty, of power, of stealth. He stalked them for a long time, until they halted again to browse upon the edge of a little plain, and then his majesty, wearied and impatient, ventured a charge from too great a distance.

Like a bolt he broke from the concealing jungle. With a speed that is only a lion's when it charges he sped toward them—and still all unconscious they fed on. It was the doe who first looked up, and then two streaks of bay brown fled before the tawny, yellow flash. It was soon over.

A dozen or more bounds convinced the great cat that he had lost, and with an angry roar he halted to glare for a moment after his disappearing feast, and then to turn, still rumbling, back into the forest toward his mate.

He came, shortly, to the spot where he had left his mate, but she was not there. He called to her, but she did not answer. Then he sniffed about. The scent of man was still heavy in the air, and the acrid odor of powder clung to the grasses and the branches, and—what was that, blood? The smell of blood? The lion crossed and recrossed the trail. He walked about sniffing, and at last he came upon the spot where his mate had died. A great roar broke from his mighty lungs. He smelled about the trampled grasses. Blacks! And what is this, the scent spoor of whites? The blacks were familiar denizens of the jungle. He thought little of them one way or another. Sometimes he ate them for they were stupid creatures easily overcome: but the whites! He had had experience of them before—of them and their acrid smoke and their painful bullets. His forearm had been creased by one and the scar still plainly showed.

The whites! How he hated them! Down went his nose to the trail. Which way had they gone? He would follow and avenge. Straight along the crooked jungle pathway led the spoor. Rumbling in his throat the lion followed, all engrossed in hate and rage, so that he did not see the trap until it was too late. Suddenly there was a giving of the trail beneath his feet, with a snapping of small branches.

He clawed and tried to leap to safety, but in vain. The earth sank from beneath him, and snarling and beating with his armed feet he dropped into the blackness of the pit that had been dug for him. Nor, for all his great strength and cunning could he escape.

It was mid-afternoon, following a long march, that Virginia and her safari came upon a village where the headman had told her they would be well received and could doubtless trade for fowl and goats and vegetables. The prospect was alluring, for during the past week her hunters had been vouchsafed the poorest luck. Goat and chicken would taste good. Virginia's mouth watered. The mouths of her boys watered too; but not so much for goat and chickens as for the native beer for which this village was justly famous.

The chief was away when the visitors arrived, but his wife and son did honors in his stead. They, as well as the balance of the villagers, evinced the greatest curiosity. But few of them had ever seen a white woman before, and they clustered about her, feeling her flesh and garments, laughing uproariously at each new discovery, but according her every mark of friendship. At last, with difficulty, Virginia succeeded in arranging through her headman for a hut to which she might retire; but even here the women and children followed her, squatting about watching her every move. The interior of the hut was filthy, and the girl had been in it but a short time when she decided to summon her headman and have her tent and camp pitched outside the village.

When she went to find him, for she could not make any of the women understand her wants, she discovered him, with others of her safari, indulging freely in beer. Already they had consumed large quantities, and, with an unlimited supply in view, were loath to leave the immediate vicinity of the brew for the sake of pitching camps for her or for anyone else.

As she stood arguing with them through the headman she was suddenly aware of the approach of newcomers from the jungle. A little party of men were entering the village gates, and her heart gave a great leap of joy as she saw a white man among them. She had started forward impulsively toward him, half believing that it might be Richard Gordon, when she saw two other whites behind him, and recognized one of them immediately as Taylor. Her heart sank as she realized the predicament in which she had unwittingly placed herself. Taylor, seeing her here, would not need to be told to know what had brought her, and now, just when she most needed the loyalty of her boys, they were on the high road to inebriation.

She turned toward them quickly, however, placing herself behind them, out of sight of the advancing whites.

"Quick!" she whispered to the headman. "You must get the boys together at once. We will continue the march. Those men who have just entered the village are my enemies. Tell the boys of the safari to get their guns—we may need them; but I must get out of this village at once."

The headman transmitted her commands to the porters and the safari, but they elicited only grumbling murmurs at first, and, when she urged her authority upon them, they openly refused to move from where they were. They said that they had marched far that day—they could go no further—they would not go further, and one who had consumed more beer than his fellows announced that he would take no more orders from a woman. And just then Scott Taylor came abreast the party and when his eyes fell upon Virginia Scott they went wide in incredulity and wonder.

"Virginia!" he exclaimed.

"Where did you come from? What on earth are you doing here?" And then as though he had guessed the answer his eyes narrowed and a lowering scowl clouded his face. "You've been following me, have you? Spying on me, eh? You think you can put one over on me, do you? Well, you've got another think coming, young lady."

Virginia Scott looked coldly at the speaker, utter contempt in the curve of her lip and the expression of her level eyes.

"Yes, I followed you, Scott," she replied. "I know you all too well, you see, not to have guessed something of the ulterior motive which prompted you to come to Africa immediately upon the heels of Mr. Gordon. We found his letter to mother, you see, in your coat pocket, the coat that you accidentally dropped behind your bed before you left. If you will take my advice, Scott, you will take yourself and your precious friends here back to the coast and out of Africa as fast as you can go."

Taylor had been thinking rapidly as the girl spoke, yet he was at a loss what step to take next. If she knew that he had followed Gordon to Africa then her mother knew it too, and whatever harm might befall Gordon here would be laid at his door even though he found the means to quiet Virginia. The means to quiet Virginia! The thought kept running through his head over and over again. The means to quiet Virginia!

He gave his head a little shake as he let his eyes rest on the girl's face again. She was very beautiful—even more beautiful in her khaki and tan than she had been in the soft summer dresses and clear white complexion of the Virginia days.

"Will you take that chance and go?" she asked presently. "I promise that I will say no word of this that will harm you. Each of us is half Scott—I would not willingly harm my own blood, nor will I see you penniless when the estate comes into my hands."

The mention of the estate brought Taylor up with a start. It also brought a gleam into the eyes of Kelley and Gootch, who had been interested listeners to the conversation. Kelley leaned toward Taylor.

"If you go back, Kid," he asked, "who's goin' to pay me an' Bill the hundred thou apiece?"

"I'm not going back, you fool," snapped Taylor. "I've come too damned far to go back now."

"What are you going to do, Scott?" Virginia asked the question in an even voice. She well knew the moment was fraught with hideous possibilities for her.

"The first thing I'm going to do," growled Taylor, "is to put you where you can be watched, and where you won't get another chance to go and blab all you know or think to Mr. Buttinski Gordon."

He stepped quickly to the girl's side as he spoke, and, though she reached for her revolver his hand was too quick for her and the weapon was wrenched from her grasp before she could use it, as use it, she most certainly should, had she the opportunity. Taylor seized her wrist and he stood there holding her, scowling down into her face. Virginia returned the scowl, and spoke a single word, loud enough for the other whites to hear.

"Coward!" That single word was filled with loathing and contempt supreme. It stung the man as would no torrent of invective. It stung and roused all the brute within him.

With an oath he jerked the girl roughly after him as he turned and crossed the village street. Straight toward the hut occupied by himself and his two associates he dragged her, and at his heels came Kelley and Gootch.

"Get a rope," snapped Taylor when they were inside. "We'll truss this vixen until we can plan what's best for her. And anyway we haven't had that drink yet on my first lion."

Gootch found a rope and together the three men bound the girl securely. Then they went out of the hut, taking a bottle of whiskey with them.

After they had left Virginia exerted every effort to free herself of her bonds; but strain as she would she could not slip them an inch. The afternoon wore on. She could hear loud talk and laughter of the drinking whites and blacks, and she trembled as she thought what the return of those three, flushed with drink, might mean to her.

And night fell and still she lay a prey to grim terror and the physical tortures of her bonds and the unclean mats upon which they had thrown her.

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