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Chapter 10 The Man-Eater by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Washington Scott, in the act of dressing for the return of his mistress, heard strange sounds that filtered upward from the first floor to his room upon the third. Seizing his lamp he made his way slowly downward upon his old and shaky legs. He was in the act of turning the knob of the door at the foot of the stairway that opened into the second floor balcony when he heard footsteps rushing frantically past.

Cautiously he opened the door and peered out in time to see a man dodge into Gordon's room and close the door. So quickly had the figure disappeared that the old butler had not recognized the intruder, but he was sure that it was not Mr. Gordon.

He would investigate. Stumping laboriously into the hall, he turned in the direction of Gordon's room. He was just opposite the old fashioned wardrobe built into the wall near Gordon's door when the rush of strange footfalls ascending the stairway caused him to turn his eyes in that direction.

"Gord a-mighty," shrieked the old man, as his eyes fell upon the hideous visage of the wide-jawed carnivore.

It was too late to retreat to the stairway down which he had just come. He had heard the lock turn in Gordon's door. There was only the old-fashioned cupboard in the wall beside him. Not in fifty years had Washington Scott moved with such celerity as he evinced in the next quarter second. With a wrench he tore the door open—like a youthful hurdler he vaulted into the dark closet, slamming the door to after him. Within was a crash of broken flooring and then silence.

The lion rushed past the old man's hiding place without even pausing to investigate. He was after bigger game than a decrepit old darky.

As Taylor dashed into his room, Gordon, awakened by the noise, sprang from his bed. Taylor, knowing that the time for stealth was past and that the whole house would be aroused in an instant, drew his revolver from the side pocket of his coat and fired point blank at Gordon as the latter rose in his bed. The bullet passed through Gordon's pajama coat and pinged into the wall behind him.

Then Taylor, with a mental "nine more," pulled the trigger again.

There was no responding report and Gordon was upon him. Frantically Taylor pressed the weapon to his victim's body and pulled the trigger—futilely. In returning the clip to the automatic when it had fallen to the ground from his nervous fingers earlier in the evening he had reversed it, so that the cartridges were pointed to the rear, jamming the mechanism after the first shot had exploded the cartridge already in the chamber.

Once in Gordon's grasp, Taylor realized how hopelessly he was outclassed. The clean life of his antagonist found Taylor helpless in the other's power. Yet the man fought on desperately, for he knew that a long prison term awaited him should he be made captive now.

Around and around the room the two men struggled. Taylor beat madly at Gordon's face, but the latter sought the other's throat, striking only occasionally, and then only when a blow could be well delivered and effective.

In the hall beyond the lion had halted before the door to sniff and listen. From within came the sounds of combat and the scent of friend and foe. The great beast opened his wide jaws and roared out a thunderous challenge—a challenge that sent Washington Scott cowering in terror to the furthermost recesses of the little closet and brought Gordon to a momentary pause of wonder in the battle he was waging for his life in the guest chamber of the Scott mansion.

But Richard Gordon had no time to give then to an investigation of the terrifying roar just without his room. He wondered, but he fought on, slowly but surely overcoming the weakening Taylor.

The lion pushed against the door with his forepaw. It did not open. He clawed at the panels, madly, thunderously. No frail wood could long withstand that mighty force. Splinters were torn away. The two men within the room heard, and one was terrified and the other wondering.

Gordon was pushing Taylor back against a table, further and further, when the latter, in a sudden and momentary burst of energy, struggled up and fought his conqueror back a step or two.

Beneath their feet lay a rug, rumpled and twisted as they had passed back and forth across it. Gordon's feet caught in it as Taylor surged against him, and he fell heavily backward, striking his head against the edge of a chair.

Taylor could scarce credit the good fortune that had saved him at the eleventh hour. Gordon lay unconscious beneath him. The lion was battering the door to pieces just beyond. Behind him was an open window leading onto the roof of the veranda. Taylor half started to make a break for escape from the lion when the object of his mission rushed to his mind.

He had risked too much to abandon all now when success, such as it was, lay in his grasp. Hastily he sprang to his feet and ran to the chair where Gordon's clothes lay. As he snatched up a garment and began to run hastily through it a panel crashed in beneath the lion's powerful blows and Taylor saw the gleaming, yellow eyes glaring at him through the aperture.

With a gasp of terror the man ran his hand inside the coat, his fingers came in contact with a long manila envelope, and he knew that he had won. Stuffing the prize into his own pocket, he turned and scrambled through the window to the roof of the veranda, ran to the edge and lying upon his stomach lowered himself quickly until he hung by his hands. Then he let go and dropped to a soft landing in a clump of bushes beneath.

Almost simultaneously the last of the door fell in beneath Ben's battering, and the lion sprang into the room. For just an instant he lowered his muzzle to the face of the prostrate Gordon, sniffed, whined, and then caught Taylor's spoor and followed it through the window onto the roof.

Gordon, but momentarily stunned, sat up just in time to see the hindquarters of the lion disappearing through the window. Leaping to his feet he followed and looked out. He saw the great beast approach the spot where Taylor had dropped to the ground. For a moment the lion stood there measuring the distance—it was too great a leap for so heavy a beast except as a last resort.

Turning quickly away, the animal trotted to the far end of the roof. Below this there was a low shed and a moment later the carnivore was slinking through the shrubbery of the Scott grounds hot upon the trail of the fleeing Taylor.

Gordon, convinced that the lion had followed Taylor, though filled with wonder not only that a savage, jungle beast should be roaming at large in peaceful Virginia, but as well that the brute should have passed him by without harming him, ran from his room, calling the servants.

The old butler, hearing his voice, answered him in trembling tones from his hiding place.

"Mistah Go'don!" he cried.

"Where is he? Am he went?"

Gordon paused. The voice came apparently from the closet beside him.

"Where are you?" he asked.

"Ah's heah—in dese heah clos'es hamper. Ah's stuck fast. If he am went please come an' hep me outen heah."

"He's 'went' all right," replied Gordon, opening the door of the closet, to find that Washington had broken through the bottom and was so tightly wedged that it required the combined efforts of them both to liberate him. Other house servants were timorously creeping down the stairs by this time, but when they found that a wild beast was prowling somewhere about, most of them promptly retreated to their rooms, where they fell to praying. A few remained to follow Gordon back to his room. A sudden fear had crept over the young man.

Taylor could have followed him for but one purpose. Had he been successful, after all, in his quest?

Gordon found his coat lying on the floor, and a hasty examination revealed the fact that the precious document had been removed from it. Snatching an old fashioned muzzle loader from one of the servants, Gordon hastened down the stairs and out onto the lawn. A sullen roar down in the direction of the negroes' quarters guided him in the direction the lion had taken, and which was, Gordon felt sure, the same as that in which Taylor had fled.

The moment that Taylor had extricated himself from the bushes he ran around to the front of the house and down past the negroes' shacks, passing out onto the turnpike below them and following that in the direction of Scottsville. He did not know that the lion had followed him, imagining that the beast had remained to maul and possibly to devour Gordon. The thought, while it induced a shudder, was far from unwelcome, since it compassed the elimination of Gordon, and so, as far as Taylor knew, the only witness to his presence in the Scott home.

Behind him a silent shadow moved along his trail. In long, undulating strides the great cat stalked its prey. Taylor had passed behind the cabins of the negroes, for several of the blacks were still sitting before their doorsteps strumming on their instruments or gossiping among themselves; but the lion had caught a glimpse of the quarry, and so no longer must follow a scent. He had seen Taylor vault the fence into the turnpike, and without increasing his gait he moved straight toward him. His way led past the darkies. They had been discussing the strange sounds that had come from the big house.

Broken and muffled from having issued from the interior of the house, Ben's single roar had come down to them, half drowned by the nearer noise of their banjos. One had thought that it might have been the wail of a sick cow, another had attributed it to "Marse Jefferson Scott's ghos'."

"It soun' to me like one a dem lines Ah done seen at de cucus las' fall," ventured a tall, lanky black.

"Wow!" exclaimed a woman.

"Don' you talk no lines aroun' heah or Ah cain't sleep a wink tonight for thinkin' 'bout 'em."

"Sho, honey," exclaimed the first speaker. "Yo don' need worry none 'bout no lines whiles Ah'm 'roun'. Ah eats 'em alive, Ah does. Dey ain' nuffing to be afeared of. Why, Ah seen a white man go right in a cage wif ten of 'em, an' he takes a big whip an' he lashes dem lines jes same 's if dey was mules. Jes laik dis," and the darkey seized his banjo by the neck and struck out ferociously at imaginary lions.

Swinging around to chastise one directly behind him, his eyes fell upon the huge head and glittering eyes of Ben, just protruding from about the corner of the cabin a few paces away. For one brief, horrified, instant the black man stood petrified with terror. His mouth flew agape, his eyes started from his head, and then, with a blood curdling shriek, he dove head foremost for the doorway of the cabin.

The sudden cessation of his valiant lion taming had attracted the attention of the others to the direction his eyes had taken. They, too, saw Ben but an instant after their fellow had discovered him.

Their screams mingled with his, as did their arms and legs and bodies, as the half dozen negroes launched themselves simultaneously for the same small doorway.

Scrambling, clawing, screaming, fighting, they battled for the safety of the interior until they became so tightly wedged in the narrow aperture that they could make no further progress.

Ben, surprised into a sudden stop at the first sight of them, now approached majestically, for his way led by their threshhold. He paused a moment to sniff at the wildly kicking legs of the tangled mass. The discord of their fear-laden voices must have grated upon his nerves, for, with his mouth close to them, he gave vent to a single, mighty roar, and then passed on.

The blacks, paralysed by terror, became rigid and silent as death; nor did they move again until long after the great beast had passed out of sight.

Along the road from Scottsville purred the big Scott car, bearing Mrs. Scott and Virginia from the station to The Oaks. A quarter of a mile below the negroes' quarters the car came to a stop.

"What's the matter, Jackson?" asked Virginia.

"Ah dunno, Miss," replied the chauffeur, getting down from his seat and raising one side of the bonnet.

For a moment he fussed about between the engine and the control board, trying first the starter and then the horn.

"Ah guess we-all blowed a fuse," he announced presently.

"Have you others, or must we walk the rest of the way?" inquired Mrs. Scott.

"Oh, yasam, Ah got some right yere," and he raised the cushion from the driver's seat and thrust his hand into the box beneath. For a moment he fumbled about in search of an extra fuse plug.

"Who's that coming down the road?" asked Virginia.

Mrs. Scott and the chauffeur both looked up. They saw a man, running now, directly in the middle of the road and coming in the direction of the machine. An instant later, another figure bounded into sight behind the man. Mechanically the chauffeur, while he watched the approaching man, had clipped the new fuse into place—the car was ready to run again, but at sight of the lion the black lost his head completely, uttered a wild yell of dismay, and bolted for the opposite side of the road, vaulted the fence and disappeared.

Mrs. Scott and her daughter sat as though turned to stone as they watched the frantic efforts of the man to outdistance the grim beast now rapidly closing up to him.

Directly in the full glare of the headlights, not a dozen paces from the car, the lion overtook his prey. With a savage roar and a mighty leap he sprang full upon Taylor's back, hurling him to the ground.

Virginia Scott gasped in dismay. In the man's hand was a revolver, and as he fell he rolled upon his back and, placing the muzzle against the lion's breast, pulled the trigger; but again the jammed weapon failed to work, which was as well, for it would have but inflamed the rage of the maddened beast without incapacitating him.

For an instant the lion stood over his fallen enemy. He raised his head, glaring straight into the brilliant lights of the automobile. Fascinated with the horror of it, the two women watched. They saw Taylor struggling futilely now beneath the huge paw that rested upon his breast. The man's nerve was gone, he whimpered and screamed like a terrified puppy.

"God!" whispered Virginia. "It's Scott!"

Her mother but shuddered and drew closer to her.

Aggravated by the struggles and the noise of his prey, Ben lowered his head. His distended jaws were close to Taylor's face, his yellow eyes glared into the fear-mad orbs of the man, from his deep chest there rumbled a thunderous roar, then his jaws closed like a huge steel trap, and Scott Taylor ceased to be.

Mrs. Scott gave a short, involuntary scream and buried her face in her hands. Attracted by the sound, the lion raised his dripping jaws and again eyed the glaring light. Beyond them he could see nothing; but from beyond them had come the sound of a human cry.

Virginia watched the beast intently. Should she and her mother leave the machine and attempt to escape, or were they safer where they were? The lion could easily track them should he care to do so after they had left the car. On the other hand, the strange and unusual vehicle might be sufficient safeguard in itself to keep off a nervous jungle beast.

While she was pondering these questions Ben continued to gaze steadily toward them. Finally he lowered his head to his prey once more, sniffed at it a moment, then seized the body by the shoulder and dragged it a few paces to one side of the road. Here the lion was out of the direct glare of the headlights. Again he looked toward the car. Now he could see it. He cocked his head upon one side and rumbled in his throat. He did not like the looks of this strange thing. What was it? He would investigate.

Abandoning Taylor's body, he paced slowly forward toward the car. Mrs. Scott shrank closer to Virginia, too terrified by this time to scream. The girl kept her wits, but still was at a loss as to what move to make or as to whether she could make any that would be better than remaining rigidly quiet under the lion's investigation.

The beast was beside the car now. Leisurely, he placed a forepaw on the running board and raised himself until his giant head topped the side of the tonneau. Slowly he intruded his wrinkled muzzle until his nose brushed Virginia's skirt.

Mrs. Scott could bear the strain no longer. With a low moan she fainted. Now there was no escape for Virginia. The girl steeled herself to meet the end bravely.

The great cat was sniffing at her skirt and growling hideously.

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