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Chapter 5 The Man-Eater by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Swinging along at the head of his safari, Dick Gordon puffed upon his blackened briar and hummed a gay tune of the roof gardens. The black boys at his heels laughed and chattered and sang. They were a merry party, for Gordon had a way with him that kept men singing at their work until they forgot that it was work. He could get more miles out of a safari than many a hardened and hard, old explorer, for he treated his boys like children, humoring or punishing as seemed best, but never permitting an injustice, never nursing an irritation, and never letting them forget that he was master. From headman to meanest porter they loved him, respected him, each thought that he would wade through blood for the big, singing bwana; but they were soon to find that it was easier to think than to wade when the chances were even that the blood might be their own.

They were nearing a native village where beer flowed like water, and Gordon, having had one previous experience of that place and the effects that it had upon his men for two consecutive marches, had decided to camp short of the village and pass it on the fly next morning.

They had come almost to the spot he had selected for their camp, when the roar of a lion, almost at his feet, brought Gordon to a sudden stop at the verge of a pit cunningly hid in the trail. A hole a few paces further on showed where the lion had disappeared and why he was roaring thus up out of the bowels of the earth.

Gordon approached and peered into the excavation. There below him crouched a huge, black maned lion. At Gordon's elbow was his gun bearer. To turn and grasp the ready rifle was the work of but a moment, but when he had raised the weapon to his shoulder and levelled it upon the beast below him something brought him to a sudden stop. His men were gathered about the pit now throwing taunts and insults at the beast.

"Poor devil," thought Gordon. "It's a shame to pot you like this without a chance for your life—" He paused and then—"I'm damned if I'll do it."

Young Mr. Gordon was, as you may have guessed, a creature of impulse. He was wont to act first and think later, which is a mighty fine way to do the right thing if one is inherently right at heart, and doesn't chance to be laboring under the insidious toxin of anger. Then, too, Dick Gordon loved animals, and particularly he loved the great fierce cats of the jungle. To him there was no more inspiring sight than that of a mighty lion, and as he looked at the one below him, even in the dim light of the pit, he realized that never before had his eyes rested upon so magnificent a creature as this great, black-maned prisoner. He lowered his rifle and turned toward his headman.

"Let's have a little fun," he said.

"It's not sport to shoot a lion in a pit. I never have, and I never shall. We'll let this old boy out where he'll have a run for his money and then I can take a little pride in his skin when I get it home."

The headman grinned. He was something of a sport himself, but not when it came to lions.

"How you get him out, bwana?" he asked.

Gordon examined the pit. Its roof was constructed of several stout saplings crossed with lesser branches and brush. To drag a couple of the larger logs until their ends dropped into the pit would be the work of but a moment, then the lion could clamber out if he were not injured, and there was nothing in his appearance or manner to indicate that he was not entirely whole.

Gordon explained his plan to the headman and gave his orders for the porters to lay aside their loads and drag the poles far enough to let their ends drop into the pit. The men grinned and shrugged, and looked for handy trees, for they knew that a maddened lion is lightning unchained. Gingerly they laid hold of the saplings and commenced to haul upon them, but when the ends had come to the pit's verge and were about to drop down and liberate the lion they paused, still grinning, though sheepishly, and begged to be excused, as it were. The headman explained to Gordon that the lion would be sure to get one of the men at least and he thought that it would be a useless waste of life when they already had the lion safely imprisoned and nothing gained by liberating him.

Gordon shrugged good-naturedly. "You Li'le A'thas can take to the trees," he said, "and hurry up about it. I'm going to let loose this man-eating son of Belial," and he grasped the end of one of the logs and proceeded to pull.

The blacks, seeing his act, tarried not for even a free translation of his words, but scampered to right and left, clambering to the safety of the lower branches with the agility of monkeys. Only Gordon's gun bearer remained at his post. The young man, seeing him, directed the boy to place his rifle a few paces to his right where he could take it up and fire should it be necessary.

"Lean it against that tree over there," he directed. "After I drop the logs down I can reach it before the lion can climb out, if he is inclined to be nasty instead of grateful."

The boy, glad enough to be relieved of his duty, though he would have remained at his post in the face of a dozen lions had Gordon not dismissed him, did as he was bid, himself taking refuge in the tree at the base of which he leaned the rifle, cocked and ready to his master's hand.

Gordon measured the distance between the pit and the tree with his eyes, and calculated that even though the lion charged after climbing from his prison it would take him a moment or two to reach level ground and with that advantage Gordon could easily reach his rifle and bring the beast down before it was upon him.

The element of risk in the adventure appealed to the young New Yorker. He would be pitting his own skill and prowess against the skill and prowess of the lion. The animal would have an almost even break with him, for if Gordon failed to stop him with his first shot the victory would be to the great cat. This was sport! Gordon felt a thrill of excitement tingling along his nerves as he drew slowly upon the end of one of the logs.

Below him the lion stood motionless glaring up into his face, and uttering occasional low growls. As he worked Gordon glanced often at the great beast, admiring his splendid stature, his great mane and his massive head. The lion was wondering if this creature was one of those who had slain his mate. What was he doing? Why was he pulling the cover from his prison? Why had the loud noise and the acrid odor that accompanied these white skinned humans not yet assailed his ears and nostrils? The lion was puzzled. He cocked his head upon one side, watching intently—so intently that he forgot to growl.

Gordon dragged the end of one of the logs until it just hung upon the rim of the pit, then he drew its fellow to the same position. A single, quick, heavy pull upon the two together should precipitate the ends into the bottom of the trap.

Dick Gordon glanced behind him once more that he might finally fix in his mind the exact location of his rifle, then he surged back with a firm grip upon the logs, the dirt at the opposite end of the pit crumbled from the edge and the two logs dropped their further extremities side by side to the bottom.

At the same instant Gordon turned and ran for his rifle. The lion leaped nimbly to one side to avoid the falling logs, instantly grasped their significance to him and with an agile leap was upon them and at the edge of the pit by the time Gordon had covered half the distance to the tree where his gun leaned, ready to his hand.

Seeing the man fleeing the lion gave a single terrific roar and burst into the full speed of the charge. The natives in the trees screamed loudly to Gordon, the man turned his head, thinking the lion must be already upon him, and in the little instant that his eyes were taken from his path, his foot caught in the protruding root of a creeper and he was down.

But for this he might have reached his weapon and put in one good shot. Even now he had to scramble to his feet and race on; but even as he half rose a great body struck him from behind and hurled him back to earth—a great, tawny, hairy body that towered above him grim and terrible.

A thousand thoughts raced through Dick Gordon's mind in the brief instant the lion stood over him. He thought of his revolver and his knife in their holsters at his side—as a last resort he would use them. He had heard of men being in positions similar to his own and escaping unharmed—of the lions leaving them for some unaccountable reason without inflicting even a scratch upon them. Gordon determined to wait until the lion took the offensive. He lay very quietly, just as he had fallen, half upon his side.

One great forepaw was opposite his face, for the lion straddled him. Gordon even noted the ugly, jagged scar upon the inside of the forearm. The boys in the trees were shouting and hurling branches at the huge beast. The animal paid no more attention to them than as though they had been so many little monkeys. He lowered his mighty head and sniffed the body of his prey.

Gordon could feel the muzzle touching his back lightly, and the hot breath upon his neck and cheek. The lion puzzled. This was not one of those whom he sought. For several minutes that seemed an eternity to Gordon the beast stood above him.

What was he thinking? Could it be that he was searching through his savage brain for an explanation of the man's act in releasing him from captivity? Who may say? But this we do know, that with one great paw he turned Gordon over on his back, sniffed him from head to foot, looked straight into his face for a full minute and then turned and stalked majestically down the trail, leaving unharmed the puny creature whose career one closing of those mighty jaws would have terminated forever.

Scarce believing that he could credit his own senses, Gordon rose slowly to his feet and gazed after the lion. Behind him his boy slid from the tree, and, seizing Gordon's rifle, ran forward and thrust it into the man's hand. Thus awakened from the stupor of the shock he had received, Gordon mechanically threw the weapon to the hollow of his shoulder. Quickly the sights covered a spot in the middle of the beast's back just behind the shoulders, the trigger finger pressed slowly back. The blacks, all silent now, awaited in breathless expectancy the shot that was never fired.

For a moment Gordon stood thus like a statue. Then, with an impatient shake of his head he lowered the weapon.

"I can't do it," he muttered. "The beast could have killed me but didn't. If I killed him now I'd be less than a beast. I wonder why he left us? Could it have been gratitude? Shucks. Gratitude nothing! He wasn't hungry, or else the boys frightened him away," and at the latter thought Gordon could not repress a grin as he recalled the great carnivore's apparent utter contempt for the yelling natives.

And as he stood watching the leisurely departure of the king until he was hidden by a turn in the trail the belief that it might have been gratitude insisted upon intruding itself upon his thoughts.

"Anyway," he said half aloud, "it'll make a pretty story, even if it's not the true explanation."

His boys had all descended from their trees by this time and were grouped about him, chattering to one another, and loudly expatiating upon the wondrous feats of bravery they would have performed—"if—" Gordon broke in upon their afterclap.

"Come!" he said. "Take up your packs. We ought to be near the stream that passes beside the beer village—we'll make camp as soon as we strike it."

A half hour later they found a suitable spot for their camp, and Gordon, protected by a mosquito net, stretched himself in his hammock to enjoy the luxuries of a pipe and a book before the evening meal should be prepared.

Exhausted from her struggles to free herself from her bonds, Virginia lay in dumb misery listening to the sounds of revel without. The blacks were dancing now. Their hideous yells reverberated through the forest. The dancing light from the great fire they had built to illuminate the scene of their orgy rose and fell fitfully across the open entrance of the hut in which the girl lay.

Her own men would be joining in the mad revel, she well knew. No use to appeal to them. Already they had shown the calibre of their loyalty. Only the headman had remained at all staunch in his fealty to her and he was a weak vessel even when sober.

Now that he was drunk, as he doubtless was, she could not appeal to him with any hope of a response.

Now and again she heard the voices of the white men, maudlin from drink. She shuddered as she contemplated their return to the hut. Again she struggled vainly with her bonds. Hope was well nigh extinguished, for what hope could there be for her among these wild savages, and cruel, relentless whites?

As the blacks danced and the whites drank with them, another creature than Virginia Scott heard the Bacchanalian noises of their drunken revel. A great, black-maned lion, grim and silent, prowled about the palisade, sniffing and listening.

Now and again he would halt, with his head cocked upon one side and his ears up-pricked. Then he would resume his tireless pacing. Round and round the outside of the enclosure he paced his stealthy beat.

Occasionally a low, a very low moan, escaped his lips—a weird, blood-freezing moan that, happily for the peace of mind of the revelers, was drowned by their own hideous noises. What were his intentions? That he seemed searching for something or someone was evident. Once or twice he paused and lifting his head measured the distance to the top of the palisade. To the very gates had he followed the spoor of the white men who had slain his mate. For them he had come. Were they within? He could not catch their scent; but though he had circled the palisaded village several times his sensitive nostrils had discovered no spoor fresher than that which ended at the village gates. His brute sense told him that they must be within. Why did he hesitate? He was no coward; but neither was he any fool. He knew the powers and the purpose of guns and spears, and he knew too that once within the palisade with the man-people, while all were awake, he might be killed before he had accomplished the revenge upon which he was bent, and so he bided his time—a fierce and terrible thing, padding noiselessly through the black night just beyond the palisade.

The night wore slowly on. Less and less became the sounds of revelry as one by one the blacks succumbed to the influence of their native beer and the white man's whiskey. Presently Taylor rose unsteadily and made his way toward his hut, staggering little, for it was his boast that he could carry his load like a gentleman.

Virginia, wide eyed and sleepless, saw him approaching. In the extremity of her fear she rolled to the far side of the hut to lie there silent and motionless in the hope that he had forgotten her presence and would not notice her. Taylor sober might be appealed to in the morning.

There must be a fibre of chivalry somewhere in the soul of any man in whose veins flowed the honored blood of the Scotts; but Taylor drunk would be adamant to any influence of his passions.

From the darkness of her corner Virginia saw how slightly he staggered and her hope renewed. He might not be so badly intoxicated as she had feared; but as he lurched through the low doorway her heart sank, for he called her name aloud in a thick voice that belied the steadiness of his carriage.

She did not reply, and he crossed the hut, stooping and feeling for her with his hands. Presently he touched her, and an "ah!" of satisfaction broke from his lips.

"'Lo, sweetie," he mumbled. Virginia did not answer, feigning sleep instead. He grasped her by the shoulder and shook her.

"Wake up, kid!" he shouted. "I'll show you I'm not shush a bad sort. 'S crooks out there wanted me to croak you; but I'm a gelmun; I won't croak you; if you treat me right."

He dragged her to a sitting posture and put his arms about her.

She could not push him away or fight him off, for her arms were pinioned behind her.

"Scott!" she cried. "Think what you are doing! I'm your own cousin."

"Firsh cousin once removed," he corrected.

"Please, Scott!" she pleaded.

"Please leave me alone." For reply he kissed her.

"You beast!" she cried.

"No beast," he assured her. "To show what a good fellow I am I'm goin' to take these ropes off you," and he commenced to fumble with the knots.

Virginia saw a ray of hope now in his drunkenness. Sober, his reason would have warned him against releasing her; but drunk he had all the foolish assurance of drunkenness. The knots baffling him, he drew his hunting knife and cut the cords.

"Now," he said, "you can show me how mush you love me," and again he seized her and strained her to him. At his hip swung a revolver.

Virginia had coveted it from the first. Now it was the work of but a moment to snatch it from its holster and press it against the man's stomach.

"Take your hands off me," she said, "or I'll pull the trigger," and she poked the muzzle against his ribs.

Taylor knew in an instant what she had accomplished and it sobered him. Slowly his hand crept down to seize hers where it held the weapon close against him.

"Put up your hands," she warned him, "and put them up quickly. I shall take no chances, Scott, and I give you my word that I'd breathe freer if you were dead."

The man raised his hands above his head and Virginia sprang to her feet.

"Now stay where you are," she commanded. "Don't come out of this hut before morning. If you do, or make any attempt to stay or recapture me, I shall certainly make it my sole point in life to kill you before I am retaken."

Slowly she backed across the floor toward the doorway. She would arouse her men and at the point of Scott's revolver force them to accompany her from the village. She was desperate, for she knew that worse than death was the best that she could hope for from Scott Taylor.

It was with a sigh of relief that she passed the low portal and found herself in the pure air of the moon-bathed tropical night. A prayer of thanksgiving was on her lips; but it was never breathed, for scarce had she emerged from the interior of the hut than she was roughly seized from behind and the revolver wrenched from her grasp.

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