Table of content

Chapter 6 The Man-Eater by Edgar Rice Burroughs

As Virginia turned to struggle with her captors she saw that they were Taylor's two accomplices, and now Taylor, released from the menace of the revolver, rushed from the hut to the assistance of his fellows. It required the combined strength of the three to subdue the girl, who was fighting with the strength of desperation for life, and more than life.

But at last they overcame her and dragged her back into the hut. Here they shoved her to the far side, and, panting from their exertions, stood glowering at her. Taylor was wiping blood from his hand. Virginia Scott, in the extremity of her need, had been transformed in the moment of battle to a primordial she-thing, and as her first human ancestor might have done, had fought with tooth and nails against her assailants. Kelley, too, had felt her strong, white teeth sink into his flesh and Gootch bore a long scratch from temple to chin.

"The — —," exclaimed the latter. "We'd orter of croaked her in the first place."

Taylor was eyeing the girl through narrowed lids. All the beast that was in him shone from his evil eyes. He turned and whispered quickly to Kelley and Gootch.

"Are we in on it?" asked the former.

Taylor nodded. "I don't care," he said.

"And then we give her the k. o. and put her away behin' the hut," supplemented Gootch. "The groun' 's soft an' the diggin'll be easy."

"I told you that's wot you'd orter of done in the first place," grumbled Kelley. "It'll leave you the only heir an' there won't be nobody to squeal about Gordon w'en he don't show up no more."

"Go to it," growled Taylor; "there can't be any cat bite me up without paying for it."

The two crooks advanced toward the girl and seized her. Taylor waited to one side. Slowly they forced her to the floor of the hut and held her there, though she fought with all the strength remaining to her.

And outside the palisade the black maned prowler sniffed and listened. Now a little, vagrant breeze eddied through the stagnant night. It swirled across the village compound, and it bore upon its wings to the nostrils of the carnivore the fresh scent of the white men. With a low growl the great beast crouched and sprang. Lightly as a feather he topped the palisade and dropped noiselessly within.

For a moment he stood motionless, peering about. There was no one in sight. With long, easy strides, his supple muscles rolling in the moonlight beneath his smooth hide, the destroyer crossed to the nearest hut and sniffed at the chinks in the thatched wall. Then he moved to another and another, searching for the prey he wanted. And all unconscious of this grisly presence the blacks within slept on in blissful ignorance of the hideous menace roaming at will through their village.

In the white man's hut the three brutes struggled with the battling girl. Their victory was not to be the easy thing they had bargained on, and as they fought to subdue her their positions changed from time to time. Once she caught Gootch's thumb between her teeth, nor released her hold until she had almost severed it from his hand.

Cursing and moaning, the crook withdrew from the battle for a moment to sit with his back toward the door nursing his hurt. Kelley and Taylor were still endeavoring to overpower their quarry without killing her. Their faces were toward the door. Suddenly Virginia felt their grasps relax and saw their eyes, wide in horror, directed across her shoulder.

She turned to discover what had so quickly diverted their attention from her, and she gasped at the sight that met her eyes. Framed in the doorway was the massive head of a huge lion. Gootch had not seen the beast. He was rolling to and fro drunkenly, holding on to his injured thumb.

Without a word Taylor and Kelley turned and commenced clawing frantically at the frail thatching of the hut's rear wall. In a moment they had torn an opening large enough to permit their bodies to pass through, and were gone into the night beyond. At the same instant the lion gave voice to a terrific roar, and Virginia dodged through the rent that Taylor and Kelley had made and sprawled to the ground outside. She saw the two scoundrels fleeing toward the right, and instinctively she turned toward the left. She had taken but a few steps when there fell upon her ears the most bloodcurdling scream of mortal agony and terror that ever had smote upon them in her life. She had not imagined that the human voice could compass such freezing fear as that which shrieked out its high pitched wail upon the silent jungle night.

The cry compelled her to turn her head back in the direction of the hut she had quitted, and there, in the full light of the equatorial moon, she witnessed that which will be seared upon her memory to her dying day.

She saw Gootch, half through the opening that had given escape to Kelley, Taylor and herself, clutching frantically at the turf at the sides of the torn hut wall. His features were distorted by agony and horror supreme.

He shrieked aloud to the friends who had deserted him and to the God that he long since had deserted, and ever, slowly and horribly, he was being drawn back into the interior of the hut by an unseen power. All too well Virginia guessed the giant force, the hideous bestial force, that was dragging the terrified man backward to his doom within the dark interior of the hut; yet, fascinated, she could but stand and watch the grim and terrible tragedy.

Slowly the body disappeared, and then the shoulders. Only the head was left and the hands, the latter still clutching futilely for a hold upon the frail wall. The face white and distorted by fear and suffering.

And then the head was drawn back out of sight, the hands gave up the last hold; there was a frightful wail from within the gloomy interior, a wail which mingled with a savage, thunderous roar—and then silence.

The cries of Gootch aroused the natives. Warriors were pouring from every hut—the whole village was aroused. Virginia turned and resumed her flight. Straight toward the gates she ran. To unbar them was the work of but a moment. Beyond was the terrible jungle; the grim, cruel, mysterious jungle; but behind was a fate more terrible than any the jungle could offer. Without another backward glance the girl pushed the portals wide and scurried into the darkness of the forbidding forest.

The blacks, attracted to the hut occupied by the white men by Gootch's screams, waited a few paces from the entrance and shouted to their guests to ascertain the cause of the commotion. The lion within, warned by their voices, turned from his prey and stuck his great head out through the doorway. At sight of him the blacks howled in mingled terror and defiance. They waved their spears and shouted, hoping to frighten the beast from his hiding place.

Annoyed and rendered nervous by their din, the carnivore roared back his challenge, and amid a shower of hurtling spears dashed from the hut. For a moment he stood bewildered while the blacks retreated, and then he turned and trotted toward the palisade. Seeing him retreat the natives gathered courage and pursued. He skirted close in the shadow of the wall for a short distance, coming presently upon the gates which Virginia had left open.

There he paused for an instant to turn a snarling face toward his pursuers, a face which brought them to a sudden halt, and then, wheeling, darted through the gateway and was gone.

Stumbling through the jungle night, Virginia Scott was occupied by but a single thought—to place as much distance between herself and Scott Taylor as she could. In what direction she was going, to what nameless fate she did not consider. For the first half hour hers was the flight of panic—unreasoning, mad, hysterical. And surely she had been through enough that day to shake steadier nerves and more experienced heads than hers.

Thorns and underbrush clutched at her short skirt and khaki jacket, tearing them; scratched her hands, her arms and face; tangled themselves between her feet and tripped her. Again and again she fell, only to scramble to her feet once more and plunge on deeper and deeper into the unknown. The myriad jungle noises fell for a time on deaf ears—the movement of padded feet, the brush of bodies against vine and bush, the fluttering of weird wings registered not at all upon her fear-numbed brain.

And then, above all other sounds, broke one that blasted its way to her perceptive faculties. Thunderous, ominous, earth-shaking, terrible, it shattered her preoccupation and awoke her to a sense of the nearness of other dangers than that from which she was fleeing.

It was the roar of a lion. To her tense nerves it sounded close behind her. The girl paused, stark and rigid, listening. She stood with her clenched hands tight against her bosom. Her breath came in little gasps. She could feel her heart beating against her ribs—she could hear it; above all the noises of the jungle it sounded like a traitorous tattoo, beating out a call to the prowlers of the night, guiding them to their prey.

For a moment she stood thus, until out of the blackness from which she had come she thought she heard the stealthy pad of great feet. With a shudder and a little gasp she turned to flee from this new menace. On she stumbled, bruised, bleeding, hopeless. For how long she could not know. Time had ceased to exist in the meanwhile, and man made units of seconds, minutes, or hours—each heart beat measured an eternity. She had been fleeing thus through the blackness of tortured terror since time began—she would continue thus to flee, hopeless, until the last trump, and then the thing behind her would spring, frightful talons would fasten themselves in her soft flesh, giant fangs would sink deep in neck or shoulder. It would be the end. The end! The thought brought her to a sudden stop. The end! It was inevitable. Why flee the inevitable?

She leaned against the bole of a tree, panting like a winded doe that, after a brave battle for liberty, finds itself spent and awaits resignedly the coming of the hounds.

She waited, listening for sounds of the coming of the beast of prey she felt sure was upon her trail. She listened, but she heard no sound to indicate that the beast was close at hand. However, she did not attempt to delude herself into a feeling of false security. She well knew the uncanny soundlessness of the passing of the giant cats when they chose silence.

But what was that? A body, black against the blackness of the jungle, had moved among the trees to her right. She strained her eyes in the direction of the shadowy form. Yes!

There it was, and another and another. Suddenly two spots of fire glowed dimly from the point upon which her gaze was concentrated. Close beside them appeared two other spots.

Virginia shrank back against the tree, horrified. A little prayer rose from her silent lips. God! They were coming closer. Stealthily, noiselessly, they were creeping upon her. The rough bark of the tree behind her gave to the frenzied force of her clutching fingers. A piece broke off, coming away in her hand. Such a little thing may sometimes prove the most momentous of a lifetime. To Virginia it brought a lightning train of thoughts that opened an avenue of hope in her hopeless breast. The tree!

Why had she not thought of it before? They were coming closer now—would there be time? She turned and measured the girth of the bole with her arms. It was not a large tree—in that lay still greater hope. A sudden snarling broke from the things creeping upon her, and at the same instant she leaped as high as she could, embraced the stem of the tree and scrambled rapidly aloft.

There was a rush below her, a chorus of angry growls, and something brushed her foot. She heard the click of jaws snapping together below her, and then she drew herself to the comparative safety of a lower limb.

With reaction came a faintness and a giddy dizziness that threatened to plunge her from her sanctuary, but she clung desperately, and after a moment gained control of herself. Then, painfully and wearily, she crawled a little higher among the branches until she found a spot where she could recline in greater safety and comfort.

Here she lay sleepless through the balance of the night—a few hours which seemed endless to her—while the jungle surged back and forth below, around, and above her, and the jungle noises, fearsome and uncanny, rose and fell, a devil's discord jangling on raw nerves.

Through those long hours Virginia sought, by planning, some ray of hope for the future, but each essay in this direction brought her to a dead stop against the black wall of fact. She was alone, unarmed, and lost in the jungle. She was surrounded by savage beasts and savage men by any one of which she would be considered natural prey.

To retrace the long journey from the coast, even though she knew the trail, would be impossible, and equally impossible would be the task of going ahead in search of Richard Gordon, whom she knew to be somewhere to the west of her. The more she weighed her chances for existence against the forces of destruction pitted against her, the more hopeless appeared her situation. Even the coming dawn, ordinarily a time of renewing hope, brought no added buoyancy to her jaded spirits—only a dogged determination to fight on to the inevitable end, and then to die bravely with a consciousness of having fought a good fight, as became a granddaughter of Jefferson Scott.

As daylight dispelled the darkness about her and objects that had assumed grotesque and menacing proportions by night receded and shrank to the common places of day Virginia's eyes sought the ground below for a glimpse of the creatures whose menace had driven her to the safety of branches before; but, search as she would, she could discover no sign of dangerous beast, and at last, realizing that she could not remain in the tree forever, she dropped to the ground and resumed her flight. Noting the direction of the sun she turned her face toward the west, deciding at least that her only hope of salvation lay in Richard Gordon and influenced equally, too, by the obligation she felt strong upon her to find and warn him of the menace which lay in wait upon his homeward trail.

That she would find him she had little hope; but at least she would have the poor satisfaction of clinging to duty to the last, however futile her attempt to fulfill that duty.

She had not gone a great distance when she became aware of the uncanny sensation that she was being followed. Turning, she looked back into the jungle behind her; but saw nothing. Yet again, the moment she had resumed her way, she could have sworn that she heard something moving through the vegetation at her heels. How long this continued she could not have told; but at length it so preyed upon her nerves that she was once more reduced to a state of panicky terror equal to that which had claimed her the preceding night.

If she could have seen the thing that dogged her footsteps, even to know that it was some fierce and terrible creature of destruction, her nervous suffering would have been less; but to feel its eyes upon her and yet not to see it, to hear its padded footsteps and to see twigs disturbed was horrible.

A dozen times she was on the point of clambering into a tree; but hunger and thirst which had already assailed her told her in no uncertain terms that there must be no tarrying except in the last extreme of danger.

While she had strength she must go on and on, for if she did not find food and drink she soon would have no strength to go.

Twenty times she must have turned to search out the prowler that stalked her, yet she had had no slightest glimpse of him, when she broke, quite unexpectedly, into a small clearing. Straight across this she made her way, and toward the center turned again to cast a nervous glance rearward, and then she saw the thing upon her track—a mangy, hideous hyena.

Virginia knew that men looked down upon this repulsive beast, calling him a harmless coward; but she knew too many a man had fallen prey to the enormous strength and ferocity of these same creatures. She knew their cunning and their cruelty, and that, like all other hunted beasts they were as perfectly aware when man was unarmed as was man himself.

She had heard tales of their courage too; of their attacking lions and dragging his kill from beneath the very nose of the king of beasts. And so she did not deceive herself, as have others to their sorrow, as to the cowardice or the harmlessness of this, nature's most loathsome creature. Fifty yards ahead was a low tree growing solitary in the clearing. She quickened her pace, and turning her head, saw, to her horror, that the hyena had broken into a trot and was coming straight for her. Even so, she could reach the tree; she was quite near it now. The hyena was not charging, just trotting slowly toward her. Evidently he was too sure of his prey to feel any necessity for exerting himself.

Virginia reached the tree in ample time to climb to safety, and it was with a little prayer of relief that she looked up for a hand hold upon a lower branch—a prayer that froze upon her lips and turned to a scream of horror, startled from overwrought nerves, as she saw a great snake coiled in the branches above her head.

Table of content