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Chapter 7 The Man-Eater by Edgar Rice Burroughs

When daylight broke upon the village from which Virginia had escaped it found Taylor and Kelley, shaken but sobered, preparing to set out in search of Virginia. In the jungle outside the palisade they had buried the torn remnants of what had once been Gootch, and then they gathered their men together and set forth upon the trail of the girl.

Spreading out in a great circle, two or three together, they beat the jungle in all directions. Chance led the two whites with a handful of men toward the west, and a shred of torn khaki clinging to a thorn bush put one of the natives upon her trail. After that it was easy and the party made rapid progress in the wake of the fleeing girl.

And to the west another camp was astir. Breakfast was served and disposed of, and Dick Gordon, humming "It's nice to get up in the morning," shouldered a light sporting rifle, and with his gun bearer at his heels with his express set out along the coastal trail of his safari.

The day was beautiful; Gordon was happy. Broadway held more pitfalls than the jungle. His was but a happy, care-free jaunt to the coast. He was already commencing to feel sorry that his quest was over and his outing past its zenith. Back to the humdrum of civilization! He shrugged disgustedly. Not an untoward occurrence upon the entire trip. The monotony of New York had followed him into the wilds of Africa. He had been born, evidently, to the commonplace. Adventure shunned him.

And then, directly ahead and so close that it sounded shrill upon his ears, rose the scream of a terrified woman. Gordon leaped forward at a rapid run. In a dozen paces he broke from the jungle into a small clearing to a sight which surprised him no less than would the presence of a Numidian lion loose upon Fifth Avenue.

He saw first a dishevelled white girl clothed in torn khaki, her hair loosened and fallen about her shoulders. In her hand was a broken branch and snarling about her was a huge hyena, closing in ready to charge.

Before either the girl or the beast realized that a new factor had been precipitated into their encounter, Gordon had thrown his rifle to his shoulder and fired just as the hyena charged. With a yelp of agony the hideous creature tumbled over and over almost to the girl's feet, and as it came to rest two more bullets pinged into its carcass, finishing it forever.

Gordon had run forward, stopping only momentarily to fire, and an instant after his last shot he stood before the girl looking down at her with astonishment and incredulity written large upon his countenance. She looked up at him in equal astonishment. He saw her reel, and dropping his rifle, steadied her with his arm.

"In the name of all that is holy," he said, "who are you, and what are you doing here alone in the jungle?"

"You are Mr. Gordon?"

He nodded. "Yes, my name is Gordon; but how the—how in the world did you know that and who are you?"

"I am Virginia Scott," she replied. She was still trembling and unstrung. It was with difficulty that she composed herself sufficiently to answer him coherently.

Gordon's eyes went wide at the disclosure of her identity.

"Miss Scott!" he exclaimed.

"What brought you here? Didn't your mother get my letter telling her that I would bring her the papers from the old mission?"

"Yes," she explained, "but another saw your letter first—Scott Taylor, my mother's cousin, and he set out after you to—to—oh, it is terrible, Mr. Gordon—he has followed you to kill you."

"He was the other heir?" Virginia nodded.

"And you have taken these frightful chances to warn me?" he asked.

"There was no other way," she replied.

He questioned her further, and bit by bit wrung from her the whole terrible story of the ordeals through which she had passed.

"And she has done all this for the sake of a stranger," he thought. "What a girl!"

He had been watching her closely as she talked, and he found it difficult to take his eyes from her face. It was a very beautiful face.

Even the grime and the dirt and the scratches could not conceal that fact.

"You have done a very wonderful thing, Miss Scott," he said. "A very brave, and wonderful, and foolish thing. I thank God that I found you in time. I shudder to think what your fate would have been had chance not led us together at the right moment."

As they talked another party came to the edge of the clearing upon its eastern verge—came and halted at the sight disclosed before their eyes. It was Taylor, Kelley and their blacks. They had heard the shot and hurried forward, but cautiously; as they were sure that Virginia was not armed.

When Taylor saw the girl and Gordon together he saw the end of all his plans—unless—. His eyes narrowed as the suggestion forced itself upon him. Here were these two who stood alone between him and fortune. Two shots would put them from his path forever. Should either ever reach civilization again Scott Taylor would become an outcast. The story of his villainy would make him a marked man in the haunts he best loved. Never again could he return to Broadway.

Gordon's back was toward him. The girl's eyes were hidden from him by the man's broad shoulders. Taylor stepped from behind the tree that had concealed him. He took careful aim at his first victim—the man.

And at that moment Gordon shifted his position, and Virginia's horrified eyes took in the menace at his back.

It was too late to warn him.

There was but a single chance to save him. There was no sign in her expression that she had discovered Taylor. He was readjusting his aim to the changed position of his target, and he was taking his time about it, too, for he could not afford to bungle or miss.

At Gordon's belt swung his revolver. Virginia was so close she could touch him by crooking an elbow. She did not have to take a step closer, and it was the work of but a second to whip the revolver from its holster, swing it up on Scott Taylor and pull the trigger. At the report Gordon wheeled in surprise toward the direction the girl had fired. He saw a white man drop a rifle and stagger out of sight behind a tree, and then the girl grasped him by the arm and drew him behind the tree beneath the branches of which they had met.

"It was Taylor," she whispered.

"He had levelled his rifle at you. He would have shot you in the back, the cur."

"I thought," said Dick Gordon in a wondering voice, "that I owed you about all that a man could owe to a fellow-being; but now you have still further added to my debt."

"You owe me nothing; the obligation is still all upon the side of my mother and myself," replied Virginia. "But if you want to add a thousand-fold to that obligation I can tell you how you can do it."

"How?" asked Gordon eagerly.

"By getting me and yourself out of this hideous country and back to America as quickly as it can be done."

"Good," cried Gordon. "We'll start in just a minute, but first I'm going after that human mephitis and put him where he won't shoot any more at a man's back or bother women," and calling to his men, who were now coming up, he started across the clearing in pursuit of Taylor.

That worthy, however, eluded them. Wounded in the forearm, he had scurried into the jungle, half supported, half dragged by Kelley, who, while feeling no loyalty toward his leader, shrank with terror from the thought of being left alone to the mercies of the blacks in the center of Africa. The reward he had about given up with the sight of Gordon and the girl together, for with Gootch dead and Taylor wounded, it seemed practically hopeless to expect to prevent Gordon and Virginia returning to America. Kelley knew that he couldn't do it alone, nor would he try. He could knife a man in the back with ease, but a look at Gordon had assured him that it would not be profitable employment to attempt to get near enough to that athletic and competent looking young man to reach him with a knife. No, Kelley was through, in so far as further attempts at crime in his present surroundings were concerned.

"Get 'em back in the good ol' U.S.," he urged Taylor, "an' I'll agree to help you; but Africa—never again!" and he raised his right hand solemnly above his head.

Taylor smiled ironically. "Yes! Get 'em back in the good old U.S.," he mimicked. "They'll go back of themselves fast enough, you boob, without any help from us, and they'll make little old U.S. so damned hot that it won't hold us. If that cat hadn't pinked me I'd stop 'em before ever they reached the coast, but," and he winced with pain, "I'm all in for a while; but by God, I'll follow them to the States and get them there; there can't anybody put anything over on me like this. They can't rob me of what's mine by right even if it isn't mine by law, and I'll show 'em."

Virginia was for giving the native village of her adventures a wide berth, but Gordon assured her that they must pass it on the trail to the coast, and that he was rather anxious to do so and interview the chief. The tone of voice in which he stated his determination filled Virginia with alarm and also made him promise that he would do nothing to arouse the wrath of the village.

But pass the village they did, and much to their surprise the first people they saw emerging from the gates to meet them were several white men. They proved to be a party of wild animal collectors coming down from an excursion toward the north.

In sturdy cages they bore several young lions, a few leopards, hyenas and other specimens of the fauna of the district through which they had passed. Now they were on their way to the coast, but the stories they had heard of the wonderful black maned lion that had terrorized the village and killed a white man there the night before had determined them to stop long enough to attempt to capture the splendid beast.

Gordon and Virginia tarried with them but a few minutes, then continued their way to the coast, which they reached without incident after what was, to Gordon at least, the pleasantest journey of his life.

Had it not been for the anxiety which he knew the girl's mother must be suffering on account of her mad escapade he would have found means to prolong the journey many days.

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