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Chapter 11 The Man-Eater by Edgar Rice Burroughs

With the old musket in his hands Richard Gordon ran rapidly toward the negroes' quarters, from whence he had heard the lion's roar. Here he found the terrified blacks still fast in the doorway, making no move to extricate themselves. He shouted to them, asking which way the lion had gone. Hearing a white man's voice, the pile disentangled itself and presently one was sufficiently recovered from his terror to inform Gordon that they did not know which way the lion had gone, for the simple reason that, all having their eyes shut, they had not known that he had departed at all until they had heard Gordon's voice.

But from the window of an adjoining cabin, a frightened, nightcapped head was thrust timorously, and a trembling voice issuing from shaking lips vouchsafed the information that their owner had seen the lion leap the fence into the turnpike and disappear in the direction of town.

Without waiting to listen to the harrowing details which now broke from a half dozen pairs of lips, Gordon ran to the fence, vaulted it and started down the road at a rapid trot. He had gone but a short distance when the lion's roar again sounded, this time straight ahead and at no great distance.

The man, bent solely on overtaking Taylor and wresting the manila envelope from him, went warily now that he might avoid the lion, for he was too experienced a big game hunter to place any reliance on the archaic weapon he carried. It would do to bring Taylor to a stand, but for the lion it was scarce adequate, though in the day of its prime men had hunted the king of beasts with its counterpart—and some of them had returned to narrate their exploits.

A turn in the road revealed the headlights of an automobile and set Gordon to wondering. A little closer and he saw a crumpled something lying at the side of the road. Gordon crept to the shadow of the bushes that lined the fence. The moon was bright, the shadows dense. He moved cautiously forward. The thing by the roadside was the body of a man. It must be Taylor's. But where was the lion?

Then he saw him, standing with his forefeet upon the running board of the machine and his head thrust inside the car. A sudden whimpering from the other side of the bushes where he crouched attracted Gordon's attention. It sounded like a man crying.

"Who is that?" whispered the young New Yorker.

"Oh, Lawd!" exclaimed a voice from beyond the foliage. "Is dat you, Mistah Go'don? Has de line aten 'em all up?"

"Eaten whom?" cried Gordon, half recognizing the voice of the Scott chauffeur.

"Mis' Scott and Miss Virginia—deyse in de car, an' he's eaten one of 'em up."

With a cry that was half curse and half moan Dick Gordon sprang to his feet and without further attempt at stealth, bounded toward the automobile. As he ran he shouted aloud to attract the lion's attention. The beast withdrew his head from the tonneau and eyed the intruder.

Gordon halted a dozen paces from him, still calling aloud in the hope of inducing the beast to leave the machine and come toward him.

With dignity the king of beasts lowered his forepaws to the ground and turned about to face the man.

"Are you there, Virginia," cried Gordon. "Are you unhurt?"

"I'm here," she replied. "He has not touched us yet; but you! Oh, Dick, be careful or he'll get you as he did Scott."

"Dick!" She had never used his first name before, and even now in the midst of danger—in the face of death—his heart leaped in glad response to the love and solicitude in her dear voice.

"Can you drive?" he cried.

"Yes, I can drive," she replied.

"Then climb over and drive," he commanded. "Drive anywhere, as fast as you can, but, for the love of heaven, get out of here."

"But you?"

"Never mind me, I'm armed," and he raised the futile old relic of Revolutionary days to his shoulder.

The girl, realizing that her mother's safety lay in her hands and that neither could help Gordon, clambered over into the driver's seat and started the engine. With the whir of the starter Ben wheeled about with a low snarl, but in the instant the girl drew the speed lever back into low, pressed down on the accelerator, let in the clutch, and the car shot forward.

Still the lion seemed in doubt. He took a few steps toward the car, which he could easily reach in a single bound. He paid no attention now to Gordon, and the latter, fearing that the beast might spring upon the passing car, burned his bridges behind him and did the one thing that occurred to him to divert the brute's attention.

In the few moments that he had watched the animal he had become half convinced that the lion was his former friend of the jungle and the steamer. He could not be sure, but the magnificent proportions and the massive head were the same.

Even so he could scarce hope that the savage beast, maddened by the taste of human blood and rendered nervous by all through which it had passed during the brief interval since it had entered the Scott home, would recall him or its former friendliness toward him.

But this was all apart from the main issue—the saving of Virginia and her mother from those rending fangs. The man had held his musket leveled for a moment on the lion's shoulder, and then, with an exclamation of disgust, had tossed it aside. He would pit all against the chance that the lion was Ben, and so, shouting loudly, he ran straight for the grim beast.

Glancing behind him the lion saw the man approaching rapidly. He paused, and the car, shooting into second and high, sped beyond his reach. Then the lion turned to face Gordon, and Gordon, seeing that the occupants of the car were beyond harm, halted in his tracks.

For seconds that seemed hours to the man the two stood facing each other. It was the lion who moved first. He advanced slowly and deliberately.

The moonlight flooded him. Gordon's eyes dropped to the great forearm, searching for the jagged scar that might at least give him some faint hope. Nor did he look in vain, for there, plain in the moonlight was the serrated mark that told him that the beast was Ben.

Almost simultaneously with his discovery came a loud hail from the field below the road. The lion halted at the sound and both he and Gordon turned their eyes in the direction of the voice. They saw three men, armed with rifles. They were the circus owner and the two keepers. "Stand where you are," shouted the owner. "That beast is a devil. Don't move and we can get him before he charges."

At the same instant the three raised their guns and took aim at the splendid statue standing rigid in the moonlight.

It has been said that Mr. Richard Gordon was a creature of impulse, nor did his next act belie his reputation. Twice, Ben, King of Beasts, had spared his life. Tonight he had captured and punished the scoundrel, who would have killed Gordon but for the timely appearance of the lion. The man's debt to the beast was one that Richard Gordon could not, in honor, ignore.

With a cry of "Don't shoot!" he leaped toward the lion, placing himself between the animal and the rifles. He was so close that he could touch the tawny shoulder. Ben lowered his head and sniffed Gordon's clothing. A little whine escaped the savage lips. Gordon put forth his hand and laid it on the shaggy mane and the lion pressed close against the side, rubbing his head along the man's leg.

The astonished owner and keepers lowered their rifles and approached a trifle nearer, though still keeping a safe distance.

"For the love o' Mike," exclaimed one of them. "Whadya know about that!"

"Who in the name of Phineas T. Barnum are you, anyway?" asked the owner.

"I'm a friend of Ben's," Gordon laughed back, and then, briefly, he told them of his past acquaintance with the animal.

"Want to sell him?" he asked finally.

"He's a very valuable animal," commented the owner, shrewdly, sensing a profitable deal, but Gordon interrupted him.

"All right," he said. "I'll just let him go and you can come and get your valuable animal."

The owner laughed. "You got me, I guess," he said. "What'll you give me for him?"

"Just what you paid for him, plus transportation charges to the New York Zoo—I'm going to present him to the city."

"It's a go," said the owner. "We couldn't never take him alive without your help."

"Throw me your ropes," commanded Gordon. "I'll put them on him and then we'll lead him up the road to the house of a friend of mine until you can get his cage over here."

Without difficulty he adjusted two ropes about Ben's neck, tossed an end of each to a keeper, patted the lion on the head, and turned his attention to the body of Taylor beside the road. His first thought was of the manila envelope and this he quickly found and transferred to his own pocket. Then he sought for signs of life, but a careful examination revealed the fact that Taylor was dead.

"Come along," he said, and taking his place at Ben's shoulder he led the way up the road to the Scott lawn.

At sight of the lion entering the grounds the servants who were gathered about the veranda steps fled to the interior of the house, leaving Mrs. Scott and Virginia alone. The girl saw with relief that Gordon was unharmed and that the lion had been secured, and running down the steps she hastened forward to meet the young man.

Taking both hands in hers as he stepped forward from the lion, she tried to thank him, but her voice choked and the words would not come. He pressed her hands tightly in his and led her onto the veranda, where Mrs. Scott awaited them.

"At last," he said, and handed her the manila envelope. She took it in nervous fingers as she thanked him for all that he had risked and done for her and here she mechanically tore the wrapper open. In the brilliant moonlight even fine print might easily have been read, and as she withdrew the contents of the envelope she gave a little exclamation of surprise as her eyes fell upon the sheaf of papers within.

"Why, what are these?" she exclaimed, running quickly through them.

Gordon and Virginia stepped to her side.

"Let us go into the library," said Mrs. Scott. "I do not find the marriage certificate here."

Together the three stepped into the house. Outside the keepers, each having taken a turn about a tree with his rope, waited for the return of the owner, who had gone back to the wreck for a team of horses and a wheeled cage for Ben. The lion, nervous now that Gordon had left him, growled continuously.

Inside, Virginia, Mrs. Scott and Gordon leaned over the long library table, upon which were spread the contents of the manila envelope, under the strong light of a reading lamp. Carefully Gordon examined each paper.

"Why these are stock certificates of considerable value," he said. "There is no marriage certificate here. But our quest was not entirely in vain. These certificates, probably of no great value when they were purchased years ago, now represent a fortune. There are several industrials alone that are worth today more than a hundred times what they must have sold for when these were issued. They are in your father's name, Mrs. Scott."

"Yes, but the marriage certificate," responded the older woman. "What can have become of it? I so wanted it, after the unjust accusation of Scott Taylor."

Gordon shook his head.

"It is a mystery," he said. "I brought every article that remained in the strong box beneath the hearth. There was no evidence that another had been there before us—had there been, he would have removed these also, and the few pieces of jewelry that were hidden there."

"Well," said Mrs. Scott, with a sigh, "of course now it is just a sentiment, I suppose, for whether Virginia is allowed the property of her grandfather or not she will be independently wealthy in possession of these stocks alone."

Just then a startled cry resounded through the house. It came from the music room behind them, and as they turned in that direction they beheld Washington Scott, ashy blue from fright, rush trembling into the library from the music room.

"Oh, Lordy, Miss Ruth!" he cried. "Dere's a daid man in de music room—wif his face all chawed off'n him. Oh, Lordy!"

Gordon stepped quickly to the door of the music room, and there on the floor revealed by the light from the library lamp that filtered into the room, lay a sight that caused him to turn and warn back Virginia, who was following close upon his heels.

"Ben has been here ahead of us," he explained. "This must be one of Taylor's companions—Kelley probably, though his face is not recognizable now. Washington," he continued, turning to the shaking black, "bring me a sheet—I'll cover this—and then you might telephone to town for the Coroner and an undertaker."

When Washington had fulfilled his missions he clung closely about the family, evidently terrified at the thought of going to other parts of the house for fear he might stumble upon others of Ben's victims.

"Let's go upstairs and see where he broke down the door of your room, Dick," suggested Virginia, and together, Washington bringing up the rear, they all filed up the stairway.

The splintered door filled the two women with amazement, so complete had been its destruction, and then Washington, wishing to share some of the glory of the adventure, called their attention to his hiding place.

"Ah done broke through de bottom," he giggled nervously. Virginia, taking a lamp from the old servant's hand, peered into the cupboard.

"Why, there's quite an opening beneath this," she remarked, and reflecting the lamp's rays downward with her palm she looked into the black hole beneath the splintered flooring. A moment later she had thrust her hand and arm deep into the aperture, and when she withdrew them she held a shiny, black box.

"What do you suppose this is doing here?" she asked.

"It must have been a secret hiding place of your grandfather's for valuables," suggested her mother.

"Let's have a look at the contents then," cried the girl, but the box would not open to her efforts.

She handed it to Gordon.

"See if you can open it," she said.

Gordon examined it for a moment.

"It's locked—we'll have to pry it open," he said. "Get a screw driver, please, Washington, and we'll go down to the library again and investigate Miss Virginia's find."

By the time Washington had located a screw driver the others had gathered once more about the library table, the little black box the center of attraction. With the tool Gordon quickly pried the lid open, disclosing a number of papers within. These he handed immediately to Mrs. Scott, who ran through them quickly. "Why, here's your grandfather's missing will, Virginia," she cried, handing a legal appearing document to the girl.

"Sure enough," exclaimed the latter, glancing through it. "And it is just as Judge Sperry said, he has left everything to me, with the exception of the income from certain property which is to be yours, mother, during the balance of your life."

"What is in that manila envelope?" asked Gordon. "It bears a startling resemblance to one that I carried from Central Africa to Central Virginia."

Virginia picked up the envelope in question and opened it. Her voice rounded into a little "Oh!" of delighted surprise.

"Why, mother!" she cried. "Here it is right here. Here it has been all the time, right under our noses, and we never knew it and sent Dick almost to his death looking for it in Africa," and she handed the much sought for and elusive marriage certificate to her mother.

A hand long dead had placed it in that envelope, and in the hurry of Robert Gordon's departure from the mission had mistaken the manila envelope containing it for another identically like it which held the valuable stock certificates that Reverend Sangamon Morton had wished to send to his son-in-law's father for safe-keeping.

"My mission was not entirely fruitless, however," remarked Gordon, gazing smilingly into Virginia's eyes.

"Indeed it was not," cried Mrs. Scott, not catching the double meaning of his words. "Had it not been for you Ben would have died in the pit the natives dug for him. Washington would not have had to clamber into the cupboard to escape him, and the secret of the false bottom and the little box might have gone undiscovered for generations. In reality it is to you we owe the finding of the stock certificates—and, candidly I am most interested in the marriage certificate; but then I am a sentimental old woman," and she laughed gently.

"I too am interested in a marriage certificate," remarked Gordon, and again he looked into Virginia's eyes, and again she looked away.

A few minutes later the young people strolled out onto the lawn together to have a look at Ben. The great lion whined a delighted welcome as he caught sight of Gordon. The girl he permitted to approach him, too. On either side of the massive head the two stood, their fingers twined in the black mane. Across the savage head their eyes met, and held.

"I love you," said Mr. Richard Gordon, for the keepers were drowsing at their posts.

Virginia cast a quick glance in their direction. Neither was looking. She leaned forward toward the man, and their lips met above the fierce and loyal head of Ben, King of Beasts.

And if you do not believe their story, just go to the Zoo the next time you are in New York, and look for a great, black maned lion with a scar upon one of his mighty forearms.


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