Mr. Hume and the chief stood silently inspecting the hard ground, then they walked on a few yards. The same thoughts seemed to come to each, as the boys judged from their actions; for from the ground their eyes ranged over the land, then were turned skywards. Muata pointed a finger at a ringed crow flying with bent head.
"They killed," said Mr. Hume.
"Oh!! They killed."
"You see," said the hunter to the two boys, "the pair crouched here; these circular marks in the sand were made by the swing of the tails. They sighted game. One of them—the lioness, no doubt—worked round to drive the game towards the lion."
"It is a guess," said Compton. "Perhaps the lion stopped because of his hurt."
"No; the bleeding has stopped. They not only sighted game, but the lioness drove it from the river-bed towards the lion, and the lion brought it down."
"Oh, come," said Compton. "How can you tell that?"
"From the spoor"—laconically. "He sprang twice—here, where he alighted the first time; and the second spring landed him on to the neck of an antelope powerful enough to struggle on into that thicket of reeds. There the two of them pulled it down."
"And there he is!" shouted Venning.
He pointed to the right of the reeds, and there was a great yellowish beast walking away at a slow walk, with its head sunk.
"The lioness," said the hunter. "Venning, keep by me, but a little behind. Compton, when I whistle, fire into the reeds."
Compton nodded his head, and the two went off, while Muata sat down as a spectator.
Mr. Hume walked steadily up to within fifty paces of the reeds on the upper side, then whistled. Immediately Compton fired.
The lion was there. He signified his presence by a low growl, but he did not move. Compton fired again, and this time the reeds shook, and a great shaggy head appeared, with its yellow eyes fixed on the boy. Mr. Hume made a slight noise, and the great head turned at once in his direction. For a moment the lion exchanged glances, then with a growl he turned into the reeds to reappear further on, going slowly in the direction of the lioness.
"It is your shot, Godfrey; take him just behind the shoulder."
Venning's heart was thumping against his ribs; but he steadied himself for the shot, and fired. The lion sprang forward, snarling, and faced about towards his enemies. Then up went his tail, and with a savage growl he charged straight down to within about thirty feet, when he stood for a moment, as is the way of the charging lion if his enemy stands fast. The pause was enough; and before the huge muscles of the flanks and backs could be set in motion to hurl the great body forward, a bullet, crashing into his breast, laid him out helpless in the throes of death.
"Your first lion, Godfrey."
"But you killed him," said Venning, pulling himself together with a great effort; for he had been through a very severe ordeal.
"The first hit counts. See here, your bullet last night struck him above the elbow, just missing the bone, and your second shot hit him low down in the ribs."
"My word," said Compton, as he came up, his eyes blazing with excitement, "it was grand to see that charge. Yes, and to see how you two stood. My heart was in my mouth."
"It's a simple shot," said the hunter. "All you have to do is to keep perfectly cool and wait for the lion to come to his stand."
"Very easy," muttered Compton, with a grimace, as he looked at the white fangs and the cruel-looking claws, finishing off that mighty weapon the lion's forearm, capable of battering in a man's head at one blow.
The chief stood looking from the lion to the hunter. "Ye be brothers," he said, "ye two; both great men of the hunt; chiefs by your own right wherever you go."
"When I was young," said Mr. Hume, "I shot lions for the pride of the victory; but long since I gave that up, and only when a lion seeks me have I gone out to kill him."
"Ye be brothers," said the chief. "The great one stands alone, for he is merciful in his strength. The spotted one kills for the love of killing. He will kill, if the chance comes, many times more than he can eat. The warrior will slay of his enemies all his spear can reach. The great one eats and is satisfied. The rest may live till he be hungry. I know, for I have met him face to face in the path. I say to him, '''Inkose' (chief), the path is yours.' I have stood aside, and the 'inkose' has gone on his way in peace.'
"If you carried a rifle, chief, it might be otherwise. Take the claws, Venning; we cannot find room for the skin."
The claws were cut off, and they returned to the camp for breakfast.
A NIGHT IN THE REEDS
It was good to sit around the glowing embers where the buffalo-steak sizzled and threw out an odour that made their mouths water, good to sip the hot coffee and to look out upon the great wilderness rising up to the distant watershed of the lower bank of the Congo. From the cliff above starlings flew out to seek their feeding-haunts where the big game fed; and there was a familiar visitor near them in the black and drab stone-chat, whose scolding chirp they had so often heard in England among the gorse and bramble. The metallic cry of guinea-fowl down by the little river had a farm-yard ring; but the chatter of parrots flying overhead was still new, and so with many other calls, so that they sat munching in silence, with eyes and ears too much engaged for speech, even if the buffalo-steak had not given their mouths other occupation. They saw the vultures speeding from out the uttermost reach of the blue vault to feed upon the carcass of the dead monarch, the whereabouts of the feast having been detected from their distant haunts by a keenness of sight which for swiftness outdoes wireless telegraphy. They swept on like frigates of the sky, heads thrust down, and the vast wings seeming to bear them on without beat or motion.
After breakfast the two boys left the camp for a little hunt on their own account, while Mr. Hume remained to help the chief cure the buffalo hide. They struck out down the river, passed the reeds out of which the lion had sprung, saw the cluster of vultures standing round the body of the lion, and then they saw a troop of antelope grazing in a patch of mimosas. After a careful stalk, Compton fired, and the herd dashed off together, with the exception of one, which took its own course at a slower gait.
"You hit him, Dick."
"Yes; and we'll get him. You go to the left, and I'll keep him away from the river."
The two dashed off, each on his own line, and for several minutes the stricken animal led them through fairly open country, with every promise of a speedy run, for it was evidently hard hit. Then, taking advantage of an old watercourse, it turned to the right, and when Compton recovered the track he had lost touch with Venning. He gave a "coo-ee," and then getting a view of the antelope making down to the water, he turned it with another shot, and sprinted to overtake it. Yard by yard he gained in this final burst, and shifted his rifle to his left hand in order to have his right free to use the hunting-knife. Another effort and he was almost within touch; but the buck also had a reserve of power, and, gathering its quarters, it made a couple of bounds, which carried it into the shelter of a thin sprinkling of reeds. Compton responded, and in a few strides was so near that he flung himself forward in an effort to get astride the animal's back. The buck slipped forward, letting him down, and, when he rose he saw the white tail whisking round a corner in the reeds. On he dashed down a narrow path, which twisted and turned so sharply that he could only see a few yards ahead; but he was never in fault, as when he could not see the game he could hear it plainly, so he never slackened. The chase went on always with the prospect of success tantalizingly before him, until at last he was at fault in a little clearing where the reeds had been beaten down, and from which there branched several lanes. He stopped to listen, but the buck had stopped too. Then he searched for the blood-trail, and, finding it, set off once more, and this time, after another chase lasting about ten minutes, the buck was overtaken and despatched. Then he threw himself on his back and panted for breath. When he had recovered he sat up and wondered, for his hands and bare arms were bleeding from a number of cuts that began to smart most painfully. The sharp saw-like edges of the reeds bad cut into his flesh, and in the excitement he had not noticed the injuries. Thanks, however, to the regulations enforced by Mr. Hume, he carried in the pouches of his belt a little store of quinine, vaseline, and meat lozenges. He rubbed the vaseline on the cuts, mopped his face, and felt all right. Then he put his hand to his mouth and gave a "coo-ee." The call was strangled in the reeds. He called again, fired off his gun, and waited, but he could hear nothing but a soft whispering. The reeds reached above his head, and he could see nothing but the matted stems around him and the blue sky overhead. He gave a grunt of impatience, lifted the buck, hoisted the body on his shoulder, brought the fore legs round on one side, the hind legs on the other side, and secured them before him with his handkerchief. Then he stooped for his rifle, and plunged into a path with the object of tramping straight through to the outer edge, when he would get his bearings for the camp.
This was more easily intended than carried out; for the reeds closed in so as to hamper his movements, and in a short time the path ran into other tracks, which doubled here and there without any decided direction, and led him into little dens. In one of these there was the bleached skull of a buffalo, and he sat down on this to consider.
He got the direction of the sun from the shadows, made a rough guess at the points of the compass, and then started off again, picking out a path that seemed wider than the others, and which led in the right way. After steady tramping, he found himself back at the very spot where he had killed the antelope. It was a nasty shock, but, in no way dismayed, he tried to pick up his old spoor, and after a patient search he hit it off, and went on with a little laugh. He hesitated when he entered another little open space, but finally kept on in the same direction, and finding the way easier, stepped out confidently, although the weight of the buck was beginning to tell, combined with the closeness of the air in these long aisles. At last the reeds thinned, and he stepped out into the open. He slipped the legs of the buck over his head to stretch himself, and then a little cry of disgust broke from his lips, for the place he had come to was not the outskirts of the reeds at all, but merely an open space, larger than any he had met before, with a little grass mound in the centre. Mounting this, he could see a run of trees in the distance, and in between a sea of green leaves, giving back myriad points of light under the rays of the sun. Queer soft noises came out of the white rows of reeds all around, and from the vast expanse a continual murmur that was something like the moaning of the wind in the pines.
He fired his gun off and listened. A faint far-off answer he thought he heard; but when he fired again he could detect no sound but the whispering murmur. He cut a couple of stout reeds, fitted one into the other, tied his handkerchief to the top, and planted the pole on the mound. Then he placed the buck at the foot of the pole, covered it with an armful of reeds, took a long look around, and started off once more. He was resolved to keep straight on, path or no path, but after a tussle with the serried ranks of reeds, with their razor- like leaves, he soon gave up that idea as hopeless, and took again to the paths—going very slowly, and taking his direction at intervals. But, try as he would, there were the kinks and twists in the paths which turned him out of his course. The endless game- tracks formed a worse snare than any he had been in of human contrivance; and at places, moreover, the ground was boggy, catching hold of his feet, and exhausting him by the heavy going. Several times animals broke cover and crashed away unseen. At one spot in the ooze he saw the form of a huge crocodile, and at another place the menacing head of a python was reared above the tops of the reeds, with his forked tongue flickering about the blunt nose. These sights, and the sudden snorts from unseen beasts, bred in him a growing feeling of uneasiness, which in turn weakened his powers of reasoning, so that he blundered hither and thither in a sort of reckless fury, until he went flat, face downwards, in black mud, that gripped him at every point. If he had struggled he would have been hopelessly bogged, but luckily he recovered his wits, and set himself slowly to extricate himself. His left foot was in up to the knee, and his left arm was sinking each moment, when he steadied himself and drew his knife. Beaching out, he cut a swathe of reeds, drew them towards him with the knife-blade, packed them under his chin and breast, then rolled over on to this firmer support, after a strong and steady pull. Repeating the performance, he managed to get one knee on to a bedding of reeds, then with one violent effort freed himself and reached hard ground.
This incident shook him up so, that coming, after another effort, to the open where he had left the buck, he gave up the struggle, seeing that he must think of some other plan if he wished to get alive out of this prison.
First he rested until his strength came back, then he cleaned his mud-covered rifle, and scraped the black ooze off his clothes with the knife. Then he heard a murmur in the reeds—a snap, then a rustle; a long pause, then a rustling again. He stood up with rifle ready, and he saw a reed shake about ten yards away, then heard it snap. He shouted, and the rustling ceased, to break out after an interval on the other side. Again it was resumed in the front, and in a little while it seemed to him that the reeds were alive with the stealthy rustlings of beasts and reptiles, all moving towards him. A reed bent again a little way off, and he fired in the direction. There was a crash and a growl, followed by a peculiar moaning from the opposite side. From somewhere deep in the sea of green there came the hoarse bellow of a bull crocodile. Nothing now could have induced him to enter that bewildering labyrinth again, and he looked about with a shudder, for the day was sinking to its close, and the night would soon be upon him. There was only one thing that could protect him in the night, and that was fire. With a feverish energy, regardless now of the rustlings about his little island, he began to cut the tallest of the reeds that were hard and sapless, and these he banked in six heaps round the base of the mound; and when the task was done he reared a bigger pile in the centre as a reserve.
Then the black of the night swept over the reeds quick almost as the shadow of a cloud, and with the dark came a sad rustling, as of a thousand whisperings. It was still and not still. Up in the sky was the quietness of a still night, the stars watching and brooding over the silence; but down below, in and out of the miles and miles of avenues, stretching every way through the millions of smooth gleaming stems, came a whispering as if creatures were moving tip- toe, moving up nearer and nearer, treading carefully, watching and listening. An owl brushed like a shadow overhead, and his loud "whoo-whoo" floated away in sadness and sorrow.
He sat with his back to the reserve heap of reeds, and waited with his rifle over his knees for the signal to fire his first pile. There was as yet no clear meaning in those mysterious whisperings. What he listened for was a sound that he could interpret, and it came very soon in the grunt of a leopard, harsh and grating. The reeds rustled just before him, and then there came a sound, regular and strange—a thump and a swish, then a thump and a swish. Creeping forward, he put a match to the heap, then went back; and as the red flame crackled through the hard shining stems, he saw a dark form crouching beyond, the green eyes blinking in the reflection, and the tufted tail nervously jerking from side to side. It was that made the strange noise. As the flame grew, the leopard sprang up and turned away, stopping for a long stare over its shoulder.
Light fragments from the burning pile floated high up like fire- flies, and far over the white sea of leaves shone the reflection. Others saw it from the far outer edge, and through the night came the report of a gun, and then faintly the echo of a "coo-ee." He shouted back hoarsely, and though he knew his friends could not possibly force the way to him through that barrier, impenetrable except by the devious game-tracks, he was greatly cheered.
His mind was taken off his loneliness for a time, and he suddenly found that he was fearfully hungry. So with his handy knife he stripped the skin from a hind leg of the antelope, cut off a fine steak, and scraping out a layer of glowing embers, placed the meat on. With the cooking and eating of his supper the time went cheerfully; but meantime the flame had died out, and something alighted with a thud just behind. He whipped round, but could see nothing, and moved to the fire to kick some of the live coals to the next heap. In that instant the antelope was seized and carried off in a couple of bounds just inside the reeds, for he heard plainly the tearing of the flesh, the snarls, the growling, and the crunching of bones. He crouched near the fire, for it was not pleasant to think of that stealthy approach and that bold foray, and wondered whether the buck would satisfy the pair of fierce creatures. The fire flared up, crackled fiercely, sending up, as before, its fiery messengers into the air, then gradually died down to a glowing heap; and the leopards were still at their meal, purring now, a monstrous cat-like purr. There was comfort in it, however, for it seemed to him to tell of hunger satisfied, and by- and-by they indeed went off, grunting to each other. Then there came a long spell of silence. He gathered the unburnt fragments that fringed the two heaps of embers and piled them on one of the heaps. They blazed up, and by the light he rearranged the other stacks of fuel. He realized that he could easily be struck down by a leopard if he ventured away from a fire, and he hit on the idea of building his fires in the shape of a cross, one at the top, one at the bottom, one on each side, and space inside for him to lie down. Inside he made a bed of reeds, from which he could draw supplies as they were needed. He fired the top pile, and then, after a long wait, the bottom one, and when that had burnt down to embers, and the night was far advanced, he stretched himself out, protected by four smouldering heaps of ash, that glowed like four red eyes in the dark.
He looked up at the stars for a long time as he rested in his lonely camping-ground, and then dropped into an uneasy sleep. Something awoke him very soon, and his eyes opened on the dark vault above. A booming noise reached him. It was the grunt of a lion this time, but far off—a deep monotonous sound made by the lion on the trot, with his mouth near the ground. It was very far off, and with a sigh of relief he closed his eyes. And then he heard the sound again, and knew it was not the lion that had awakened him. He rose on his elbow and peered about, but the darkness came right up to the ash-heaps, looking white now instead of red. He placed a handful of dry reeds on the nearest heap and blew. There was a glow, a flicker, and then a flare. In the reflection he saw dimly a patch of white, then another patch next it. This roused him, so that he set all the four fires going again, and, with his rifle ready, he stood up to see what manner of visitors these were with the white marks.
He had heard slight noises as he fed the fires, and now the reeds rustled, but he could see no living form. Sitting down, he laid a few handfuls of reeds ready to each fire, then waited with shaken nerves, for there was something mysterious about this visitation. The fires flared up and sunk back to red embers, and yet there was no sign. The embers took on a covering of grey ash, then the rustling began anew, and the white objects reappeared. He turned his head, and saw that they stretched right round! What the dickens were they? He strained his sight, and, at first indistinctly and then clearly, he saw the gleam of eyes above each white patch. Softly he laid a few reeds on the embers, and as they crackled he saw one of the white objects move. As the flame mounted up, he made out an animal with round ears and brindled hide, staring nervously at the fire. It was a wild-dog! Only a dog, and with a "shoo!" he thought to scare the creature off. The yellow eyes went from the fire to his face, a red tongue slithered out over the black nose, and the dog sat down again. All round were the white breasts of the pack, as they sat in silence and stared. He searched about for a missile, found an empty cartridge, and threw it. A dog leapt up and sniffed. The circle seemed to close in.
He shouted at them, and they gave back a yelp, but never stirred.
"All right," he said grimly, then aimed at a white breast and fired. The pack scattered into the reeds; there was a beating and kicking noise, followed by a wild rush, a savage snarling and snapping of teeth. Dog was eating dog; and, with a feeling of disgust and contempt, he prepared himself to rest. A little later the white circle was complete again, and the silent inspection was continued. This got on his nerves, and, springing over the fire with his rifle clubbed, he gave two sweeping blows. The dogs slipped away from his front, only to reappear with threatening growls on his flank. He leapt back to safety and fired; but the light was bad, and he missed. Piling on a few more reeds, he emptied his magazine rapidly, facing all parts of the circle, and making some hits, as he judged from the howling that went up.
"There!" he shouted savagely, "will that satisfy you?" The pack fell upon the wounded, and was back again into position, coming closer and closer as the fires died down.
Then he remembered the stories he had heard of the persistence of the wild-dogs—how they would drive off even a lion from his prey— and he fell to counting his cartridges. There were only five left. He counted the dogs. There were more than fifteen, as far as he could reckon; and if he reduced them to ten, he could not hope to withstand the final rush of ten big-jawed and active animals. Even if he could keep them off in that open space, he could not stay there another day; and if they tackled him in the reeds, he would have no chance. He began to rack his brain for a scheme; but while he thought, the circle closed in until quite plainly he could distinguish the staring eyes all centered upon him. He piled on more fuel, and as the flames sprang up they fell back. As the flames died down, they advanced as by a given signal. He kept on adding to the fires until his fingers, groping for fresh reeds, found none, and the sweat broke out on his forehead. In one hour at least there would not be light enough from the smouldering heaps for him to see a mark, and then—something had to be done!
No doubt the watchful eyes saw the sign of fear in his face. At once the circle closed in, and this time he could see that several of the dogs were not sitting, but standing, as if ready for the final spring. He fingered a cartridge, then suddenly flung it into the topmost heap of glowing ash. The eyes of the pack followed the missile, and for a second each dog looked at the heap. As they looked there was a report, and a mass of live embers was scattered high and wide, over them, over the opening, into the fringe of reeds. With wild yelps of fear and pain the pack broke, and Compton groveled on the ground with his hands before his face, for he had flattened himself just in time to escape being blinded by the burning dust, some of which, however, did get into his eyes. A little fly in the eye, as many a cyclist has found to his cost, is enough to engage the entire attention for five minutes, but a handful of ash gives more anguish to the square inch; and when Compton succeeded in opening his inflamed vision upon the scene, a transformation had happened in the writhing interval. The air was full of a sharp crackling and little explosions, and the first thing he saw was a slender tongue of flame running up a tall reed, and quivering for a moment high above. Other flames ran in and out among the withered white sheaths that had dropped off, and mounted up the smooth stems, and then there came a wandering puff of wind, which rustled over the bending tops and fanned the little serpent-tongues of fire into one devouring flame.
He had no wish to be roasted. Once more using his knife to cut down a sheaf of stems, he made a flail of these, and beat out the fire to windward. And as he worked on the one side of the little clearing the fire grew on the other side, and then raced along, leaving behind in the blackened area many separate fires, where masses of reeds had been beaten down. And the smoke went up in a growing cloud that blotted out the sky—went up and fortunately rolled away towards the great river under the sufficient strength of the wind; otherwise he would have been suffocated. The cracking of the reeds was like rifle-fire breaking through the roar of the flames, and now and again the crashing of animals on the stampede could be heard. He looked out upon his work with awe, stood and gazed spellbound, wondering if such a sea of flame could ever be stopped, fearing that it would spread out into the bush beyond, and run up into the forest and devour every tree until stopped by the mighty river itself. As he looked, he heard some creature before him writhing in the blackened track of the fire, and presently he made it out—a great crocodile convulsively lashing its powerful tail. Going near with cautious steps, he put it out of its misery with a ball under the forearm; then he went on over the scorched ground very slowly, for the burnt reeds were like sharp stakes to the feet. And as he followed, the fire died out before him, and began to eat its way right and left, working back through the reeds against the wind. Then he heard the report of a gun, and as he stepped from the burnt area on to the short grass that had offered no fuel for the fire, something came springing around him, and before he could pull trigger it was off with a yelp into the darkness under the canopy of smoke. "Coo-ee—coo-ee! Compton—ahoy! Compton!"
Compton croaked and hobbled on.
Then the creature yelped about him again, and his friends were shaking him by the hands.
"You know," he said with a croak, "I didn't mean to set fire to the place."
"Thank God, my boy, you did," said Mr. Hume, fervently. Then he lifted the boy up in his arms.
"I can walk," said Compton; and, to prove it, his head rolled helplessly on his shoulder.
Mr. Hume strode off to the river, and washed the layer of soot off the blackened face, laved the red eyes, and moistened the cracked lips and parched tongue. Then he gave the boy a soothing drink, rubbed oil on his feet and face; rolled him in a blanket, and carried him up to the camping-ground under the precipice.
In the morning they packed up and made their way upstream to the place where they had left the sections of the Okapi, for such a banner of smoke as was still mounting from the smouldering reeds was bound to attract inspection from the natives. They found the hiding-place undisturbed, and, after putting the boat together, went on down to the Congo. Slipping out upon the great river in the dusk, they went on slowly for several miles, tied up till the early dawn, and spread the little sail to the morning breeze. The boat had a singular appearance, for strips of biltong were suspended from the awning, not having been quite cured, and the buffalo-hide was hanging over the side, in soak, to soften it for the final treatment that would take the hair off and leave it soft and pliant.
Compton was allowed a day off, and slept the sleep of the tired; but the others were all occupied—one keeping watch, another steering, and the third cleaning up. The jackal, like Compton, was unemployed, and curled itself up by his feet, opening one eye occasionally to see that all was shipshape. Through the morning they went, and into the afternoon; then Venning, who was outlook-man, gave tongue—
"A sail—a sail!"
"Where—away?" yelled Compton, waking up.
"On the port bow, hull down, paddle showing."
"Then it's a canoe, you duffer, not a sail."
"A canoe it is, sir; single-handed, and bearing right down upon us. Shall we speak her?"
"Luff—luff! and we'll pour a broadside into her lee scuppers," said Compton, ferociously.
"She's signalling," returned Venning; "distress signal, I think."
Mr. Hume went forward and took a look through his glasses. A solitary canoe was certainly in view, with a single boatman aboard, who was frantically waving his paddle. Then he swept the shore for signs of life.
"There are some people squatting just by that tall palm," he muttered. "Have a look, Venning."
Venning made out several persons at the spot. "They can't do us any harm," he said, and brought the glasses to bear on the canoe. "The chap appears to be in a stew about something, from the way he glances over his shoulder."
They sailed down towards the lonely paddler, who was soon alongside —thanks to an extraordinary agility. He appeared to be greatly pleased at the meeting, grinned continuously, and at once prepared to get aboard the Okapi.
Mr. Hume, however, kept him off with a "not so fast" and a hand against his breast.
"Talk to him, Muata. Ask him what he wants, who he is, and all the rest."
Muata stepped into the canoe, caught up the paddle, and sat down to palaver. A line was made fast to the canoe, and it drifted astern of the Okapi, which kept on her course.
The canoe-man's grin faded away, and his eyes rolled as Muata ordered him to sit. He seemed to be a river tribesman, with only a loin-cloth on.
"Don't eat him, chief," sang out Compton; for Muata had a very ugly look on his face as he eyed the stranger.
The man himself seemed to think there was cause for this plea on his behalf, for, to the amazement of all, he responded in broken English—
"Oh yeh-es, he eatee me. Poah black man come to white master for heiup, not to wild black man."
"By Jove, he talks English! Let the poor beggar come aboard, sir."
"He's all right where he is," said Mr. Hume.
The man did not think so, and began hauling on the rope, when Mr. Hume drew his knife and made as if he would cut the canoe loose. He ceased from pulling, and, after a despairing look, crouched down.
"We will talk," said Muata, courteously, poising the paddle in his hand. "How is your venerable mother?"
"She has a wonderful dish of fish and manioc for her son's guests. You will do her the favour to eat of that dish," said the stranger, humbly.
"And is your venerable mother's kraal up the river?"
"A sun's march distant, by a garden of bananas. Also there is a fat goat."
"And what does her excellent son so far from the village?"
"There were tales of bad men," said the stranger, plucking up spirit, "and these tales drew me away, for the price offered for their capture was great, and my fetish told me where they were hid."
"And the little son was greedy? He kept this word of his fetish from the honourable ears of his mother, so that he would have the price to himself, eh?"
"Truly a great chief," murmured the boatman, with reverence. "It was as you say."
"And it fell out that, when you came to the place where the boatmen were hid, they were on their guard, so that you fled?"
"O great chief, it was even so. I fled in a canoe."
"And seeing this our canoe of shining metal, you found courage to leave the reeds wherein you hid to come to us for help?"
"Oh, wonderful!" said the canoe-man, turning up his eyes. "When these eyes saw your shining canoe, they were gladdened, for I said, 'Here come helpers.'"
"And you will take us to where these men are hidden, so that we may share the price that is on their heads?"
The man grinned. "You can have all the prize—all," he said, "and after we will go to my venerable mother, and eat fish and goats' meat."
Muata smiled gently. "All the price?"
"Did I say all?" said the man, with a swift look at the chief. "I did wrong to my people—a portion to them and a portion to me."
"That is fair," said Muata.
"Oh, good words. See, I beat my mouth for the ill word I spoke;" and he struck his mouth. "But see, O chief, we move on, and the bad men will see us going, and make a plan to escape."
"Let it be so. If they see us they will see we are passing on, and be comforted. And who will pay the price that is set on their heads?"
"They have the price with them," said the man, with a cunning look, "in ivory, in palm-oil, and in many things they have robbed from the villages."
"And what avails them, all those things—which are heavy things—if they have no canoes to carry them in to the traders?"
"Did I say they had no canoes? A great fleet they have waiting in hiding, till all the band come together from the hiding, waiting on the other shore. It was because I saw the fleet of canoes on the river, crossing to the far side, that I hoped to surprise the few who were left."
"And when may those canoes return?"
"The men collect their goods for the going; the time must be short before they leave."
"And where do the others lie hid?"
"By the great palm-tree, over there."
"Where there were men sitting watching? It was because they had no canoes that they did not follow you? Shall I tell you what was in my thought? This, that you and they were friends, and that you were the bait to draw us into the trap."
The man grinned nervously, and glanced at the water. "Would a little man trust himself in the power of such great chiefs, if his heart was crooked. I came for help, but if it pleases you to continue to the village, and to leave these bad men, it will please me also."
"And if we attack these men," asked Muata, after a pause, "what plan have you made for us?"
The boatman was relieved. His eyes brightened again. "See, we would land beyond that point ahead, and in the dark steal upon the robbers."
"We are too few," said Muata, after turning the matter over. "Now, if you could bring some of your friends to help, it might be done."
"I am alone, and you are great warriors. Your name has gone abroad."
"How? You know us, then?"
"All white men are the same in battle," said the other, quickly.
"Think over my words—that some men are wanted. There must be men to guard our canoe, others to watch for the return of the robbers from across the river. You must get men, otherwise we do nothing."
The canoe-man pondered, then he clapped his hand over his mouth.
"Yoh! The fear of death confused me, and drove from my thought that my brother is near with warriors protecting the gardens."
"Good, then. Go to your brother. Bring him and his warriors to the point you spoke of, light a fire there to guide us, and in the dark we will join you."
Muata hauled on the rope, boarded the Okapi, and set the canoe adrift.
"Do as I have said—gather the men quickly, light a fire, guide us to the hiding-place, and in the morning we will share the riches. Hurry!"
"And is that the word of the white chief also?" asked the man, suspiciously.
"Did not the white chief leave this palaver to me? Go! for there is no time to waste."
The paddle flashed as the man sped for the shore near the point he had referred to, which was several miles above the spot where he had been taken in tow.
"Well?" said Mr. Hume, glancing at the chief, "He goes to collect men to meet us this night."
"Wow! There are bad men—robbers—to be attacked, and much ivory to be taken."
"We want no ivory, nor quarrels either."
"But I gave my word we would help him. It is a good thing to fall upon robbers."
"If there is to be a shindy, I'm in for it," said Compton.
"Who are the robbers?"
Muata laughed, and snapped his fingers. "You saw the man in the canoe?"
Mr. Hume nodded, and looked after the paddler with knit brows.
"And you?"—to Compton.
"I have eyes, chief."
"I saw him first," said Venning.
"And he was a stranger?"
Muata laughed. "White men know many things, but not all. Haw! Who are those to be eaten up?" He touched his naked breast, and then pointed at each in turn.
"They would attack us," roared Mr. Hume.
The chief nodded. "Now you know who that stranger was who came with his long story."
"One black chap is like another," muttered Compton.
"Who was he?" asked Mr. Hume.
"The servant of the white chiefs who bound me."
"The Zanzibari boy!" exclaimed Venning. "My Jenkins!"
"Why didn't you knock the beggar overboard?" said Compton. "What cheek!"
"Does he know you recognized him?" said Mr. Hume.
"The dog was afraid; but at the last he went away, thinking he led Muata by a rope, as he would lead a goat. Had Hassan, the wolf, tried to blind Muata so, then——" The chief touched the hilt of his knife.
"Let us hear the story."
Muata repeated the whole conversation with much byplay, even imitating the tones, the nervousness, and the sly glances of the Zanzibar spy, for nothing had escaped his keen glance.
"And those men whose presence he suddenly remembered, and who are to meet us to-night, will be Hassan's slave-robbers, too?"
"Ow aye," said Muata, with a ferocious gleam in his eyes.
"So, then, they have been waiting for us?"
"On both sides of the river they have been waiting;" and the chief looked out over the brown flood towards the north bank.
"It was well you talked to the man, for he was skillfully disguised, even to me, who am no child in these matters."
"Muata is old in cunning," said the chief, quietly. "If he were not wise, he would not be dreaded by the Wolf."
"I never recognized the beggar," said Venning, "and even now I cannot recall a feature that was like the Zanzibar! How did you discover him, Muata?"
"Wow! He wore nothing in his ears, there were no marks on his body, he had rubbed the dark juice of the chewing-leaf over his skin, and there was a lie on his tongue, and in his eyes. Ho!—white men, this is my word, that we fall on them to-night." The chief picked up a Ghoorka knife. "This is my weapon."
"We are not man-hunters," said Mr. Hume. "We will, however, hang about till evening, so that they may think we have no suspicions, and then in the dusk we will push on."
"Wow!" said the chief. "My plan would be to land above, to creep down and take them unprepared."
"And the canoes from the other side would steal across and cut you off. No; we will leave them."
"The canoes from the other side," said Compton, starting up. "I rather think I saw one shoot into that island—the big one with the palm-tree in the centre."
"All right," said the hunter, quickly. "Don't look that way; take in the sail. If they are there, we don't want to draw their attack now. Get out the sculls, Venning, and keep her towards the sandbank ahead. Just keep her moving."
The sail rattled down, and the Okapi lazily moved nearer the shore, leaving about a mile of water between her and the island, towards which Mr. Hume, lying flat, was directing his glasses. The others were looking ostentatiously shorewards.
"You are right, Compton; canoes are gathering under that island."
"Congela," said the chief, "there is a man watching us from the land."
"Signal to him," said Mr. Hume. "You see, what we want is to keep those canoes where they are till night; and they probably won't move till they have a signal from their friends ashore."
Muata called out, and a man who was skulking behind a bush stepped out.
"Why do you watch, my friend?"
"O chiefs," shouted the man, "all goes well. The men will be here at nightfall, and the fire will be lit to guide you."
"It is good," said Muata. "We will wait."
The man stood for some time watching, then went into the bush, and the crew of the Okapi, to divert suspicion, got out fishing-lines and fished; but all the time Mr. Hume, lying under the awning, watched the distant island, which shielded an unknown number of their watchful foes.
"Woo!" said Muata, "the great one was right; and Muata is still a boy. Haw! Truly, if we had landed, our journey would have ended here."
"Suppose the canoes dash out before dark?" said Venning.
"Then we will make a run for it."
It was a long, long afternoon. Anxiously they waited for the sun to set, and the boys marked the slow creeping of the shadows over the river thrown by the ridge on the south bank, and anxiously Mr. Hume watched the island and the broad sweep ahead—for the danger was ahead. If the enemy had taken precautions to send a portion of the fleet up-river, they stood a chance of being intercepted.
At last the hour had come. The sky was turning grey, the shadows reached right across, and the evening wind was rustling the leaves. The Okapi began to move. She crept away from the shore, and then turned again with her bows to the bank. So she waited a few minutes while the darkness deepened, then, as a flame broke out on land, the sail was run up; she came round once more with her bows up-stream, and slipped along. Looking back, they saw the fire spring up at the appointed landing-place, and, listening intently, they caught the crackling of the burning wood.
"They move," said Muata.
The others bent their heads, and presently they too heard the sound that had reached the keener sense of the warrior—a rhythmical beat and hum made by many paddles as the man-hunters, who had hidden behind the island, were dashing forward in hot haste to catch the Okapi, which they expected would be landing its crew. But the Okapi slipped on, and had a very good lead when Hassan and his slave- hunters set up a terrific outcry on finding that once more they had been tricked. They made right across in a long beat for the north bank, then working the screw in turns, with the great lamp at the bows to scare off the hippos, they made good progress till sunrise. For five days thereafter they kept steadily on their way, meeting with no adventure, and keeping out in mid-river to avoid the attention of the villagers. When, at intervals, they did land to buy goats'-milk, bananas, and manioc, they took precautions to approach clearings where there were only a few huts.
On the fifth day they turned from the mighty Congo into a tributary that threaded the dark mysterious forest, whose depths had never been trodden yet by white men, whose dark retreats and sombre avenues, into which no ray of sunlight struggled, were the haunt of the gorilla, of pigmies, and of cannibals, dreaded most of all. After the broad Congo this was a mere thread, no more than a few hundred yards across, a gloomy opening in the gloomy woods that marched right down to its shores; that sent out huge branches in a leafy roof over the water near the banks, making dark retreats, in which lurked watchful crocodiles. The stir and bustle of the great river found no echo in this silent byway. Nowhere was there any trace of man. The forest seemed impenetrable, beyond all his puny efforts to make a footing.
There seemed no room enough for a man to set his foot, so close was the foliage from the ground to the topmost bough of the tallest tree. Mile after mile they went on, without a sign of life, then from the shore an arrow whistled, pierced the awning, and rang on the metal deck.
Compton put the wheel over, and the Okapi slid away from that dangerous screen. Then they slowed up and looked, but there was no sound and no sign from the hidden enemy. Doubtless, fierce eyes were glaring out upon them, but they could see nothing, and with a long uneasy look all around they kept on for a mile or so, when they came upon a clearing that spoke of man. It spoke of man, but there was nothing living in the few acres that had been hewn out of the woods. A ring of black embers showed where huts had stood, a dug-out canoe lay half in, half out the waters, a broken clay pot, a rusty hoe, and a litter of bones were gathered forlornly in one spot, and a strip of cloth fluttered from a scarred post. They ran the Okapi in, and Muata, with his jackal, leapt ashore to decipher what this writing in the forest meant. The jackal showed none of the delight that a dog would have shown under similar conditions, but at once vanished into the wood, with his nose to the ground, bent on the serious business of life—that of nosing out the enemy, while his master, with his favourite Ghoorka knife in his hand, rapidly inspected the ground.
Instinctively they all felt the need for caution. The boys had the edge taken off their rash ardour long before, but that sinister warning from the forest in the shape of the arrow had driven home again the lesson that it was necessary to be always on guard.
The forest, in its silence and in its gloom, was menacing. They glanced up the river. It stretched away like an avenue cut out of a solid mass of vegetation, and all the length to the spot where the banks seemed to run together, as if the river had ended, there was no sign of living thing.
Suddenly an animal darted across the clearing and crouched behind Muata. It was the jackal, the hair on its neck erect, and its body quivering with fear, or excitement. Then a branch snapped with a startling report, there was a violent shaking of leaves, a short bark-like roar, and then a noise of shaking gradually decreasing.
Muata had fallen back to the river's brink at the roar, but now he turned his attention once more to the clearing.
"What was that?"
"Man-monkey," he said quietly.
"Gorilla! By Jove!" and the boys stared into the forest, and then at each other. "Perhaps he's gone to call up the others. Will he come back, Muata?"
"Not he," said Mr. Hume. "He's just about as frightened as we were. What are the signs, Muata?"
"Wow! Bad—bad signs. These be the bones of men;" and he turned over the ashes with his foot. "They were few who made a home here, and the man-eaters marked them for their own. In the night they fell on the village, killed the men, and rested here while they feasted— rested till the last was eaten; then with the women and the children they went back. That much the signs tell me."
"Does he mean," asked Venning, in horror, "that they were cannibals?"
Mr. Hume nodded his head.
"The brutes," muttered Compton, turning white.
"I don't wonder," said Venning, in a whisper. "This place is enough to breed any horror."
"It will be safe to land," said the chief, quietly.
"But what of the arrow?"
"That was not shot by a man-eater. It was the arrow of a river-man; maybe the same man loosened it as tied the fetish cloth to the pole, for one has been here since the man-eaters left."
He put two fingers in his mouth and produced a shrill whistle.
There was no answer; and after a time they all landed to stretch their legs, but the associations of the place, with those grim remains of the cannibal feast, were too terrible, and they did not stay long. As the Okapi resumed her voyage up the sombre defile, a faint whistle sounded on the opposite bank. Muata replied in the same fashion, and called out.
Back from the shadows came a quavering answer. Muata called again, and out from under the roof of leaves, formed by the overhanging branches, shot a tiny craft, with two men in her. The Okapi slowed down, and the little canoe, with many a halt, timidly drew near till the occupants could be clearly seen. One—he who wielded the paddle —was a young man, black as soot, with a shaggy head of frizzled wool, and wild, suspicious eyes. The other, who appeared to be urging the other to more speed, was an old man, whose head was covered by an Arab fez.
"Peace be with you," said Mr. Hume, in Arab.
"And with you, also," replied the old man, in a thin voice. "Haste, my son!"—this to the paddler. "They are white men, such as I have spoken of."
The canoe gradually drew near, and the old man held out a shaking hand to be helped on board the larger boat; but the wild man remained in his dug-out. The old man told his story slowly in a strange dialect understood by Muata, and the purport of it was that the cannibals had surprised the village at dawn, killed all the men with the exception of themselves, and had gone off with the women.
It was a familiar story to Muata, and he related it coldly; but his indifference did not last very long. It was plain that the old man was not of the same race as his companion, and when the two had eaten, Compton asked the old chap how he came to wear a fez and speak Arabic.
"It is the speech of my fathers, effendi," he said, turning his smoke-bleared eyes on the young face.
"And how came it that an Arab was dwelling with the river-people?" asked Muata. "Sooner would I have looked for an old wolf living at peace with the goats."
The Arab withdrew his gaze from Compton and fastened it on the otter outlined on the chiefs breast. With a skinny finger he pointed at the chief.
"Allah is great," he said. "This is his work; and you will follow on the track of the man-eaters."
"Save your speech, old man, for we work not for river-people; and you forget the arrow that was loosed at us."
"This one loosed it in rage at the loss of his wife, mistaking you for wolves; but, even so, it was as Allah willed, for the arrow warned you of our presence."
"You speak in circles, my friend," said Compton. "Show us the finger of Allah in this matter?"
"This," said the old man, solemnly, placing his finger on Muata's breast, "is he they call the River Wolf, the son of the wise woman, the warrior who will follow the track of the man-eaters."
"What know ye of the wise woman?" demanded the chief.
"We talked together, she and I, at the village that is burnt, of the days when Muata was a babe in her arms, when these limbs of mine were strong to do service for a white man, whose voice was the voice of the young effendi."
"And where now is the wise woman, old man?"
"It is four days since the cannibals left. Tell me where they would be, O warrior, for the forest is your hunting-ground."
Muata lowered his eyelids, and took the news of his mother's capture by the cannibals in silence; but Compton was burning with excitement at the reference to the white man.
"What white man was that you spoke of? I look for such a one."
"Men search not for the dead, effendi."
"But for signs of the dead—for the place of his burial, for the book he wrote, for the things he left."
The old man nodded. "Allah is great. Is it not as I said; you have been guided hither?"
"But tell me of the white man," said Compton, impatiently.
"We two, the wise woman and I, talked of the white man; and she knows all. See, I am old, and the past is like a mist, through which old memories pass quickly like shadows; but the wise woman can blow the mist away. Find her, and you will learn all of my white man."
More than this the old man could not say, and presently he fell asleep; but from the wild man Muata learnt that his mother had indeed been at the village.
"And you will want to leave us, chief?" said Mr. Hume, when the story had been straightened out.
"Ow aye. Shall a son leave the mother who bore him through the dangers of the wood? I will follow;" and his eyes lingered on the Ghoorka knife.
"The knife you can take, chief, and food; but we will miss you. Put him up some biltong, Venning."
"Put up some for me too," said Compton, peremptorily.
Mr. Hume raised his brows.
"I mean it so, sir. You will remember that my great hope was to find some trace of my father; and who can this white man be if he is not my father? Will you take me with you, chief?"
The chief shook his head. "This river-man and I go together on the trail."
Compton stormed and begged; but the chief remained silent, with his eyes on Mr. Hume.
"What's all the fuss about?" put in Venning. "We have come here to explore and hunt, not to crawl for ever up a river. What is to prevent us all from following on the track of the cannibals?"
"If Compton had made that suggestion," said Mr. Hume, "we could at least have considered it calmly in the interest of the whole party; but he has thought only of himself."
"I am awfully sorry," said Compton, firing up. "I did not think."
"No," said the hunter, drily; "otherwise you would have known that I would not permit you to leave us."
"Of course I could not break up the party," said Compton, eagerly; "but you will think over Venning's proposal, won't you, sir? We have come to explore the forest. Let us begin now when we have such a good reason."
"Do you hear, Muata; the young men say that we should all follow on the trail?"
"It is my quarrel," said the chief, not jumping at the offer.
Mr. Hume smoked in silence.
"Yet the man-eaters are strong," Muata said presently.
"They have also guns given by the man-stealers. The great one and the young lions would be worth many men; but the forest is dark, the way is hard, and not fit for white men."
Mr. Hume grunted.
"When Muata goes on the war-path, he fights his own way, on his own plan. On the war-path Muata is chief."
The hunter turned his calm eyes on the wild river-man.
"Chief of one."
"Of one or none, it does not matter, great one; since to be chief is to do what is best."
"Your plans are your own. Consider. If we go, we will do nothing to spoil those plans; but, in the end, if you want help to rescue the wise woman—your mother—then we will be ready to help you."
"It is a good word; but consider also, great one, that those who walk the forest must know the forest, and those who know the forest must lead, lest there be divided counsels, and wanderings that lead nowhere but to death."
"Am I, then, a boy at this work?"
"Wow! That was not my thought; but the lion hunts in the open land, the tiger in the bush. If the lion roared in the forest, see, the evil ones would hear and prepare a trap for him."
"Well, chief, hear this. In all things I will take your advice. If it is good, we will follow it; if bad, you can go your own way."
"It is well," said the chief, slowly. "I and this man will follow on the trail to find whither it leads. Tomorrow we will return, and if the great one is then of the same mind, we will start."
"Good. In the mean time we will find a place where we can leave the boat, with such things as we do not need."
Muata glanced at the old Arab, then said softly, "When you have found your hiding-place, see that ye three only know of it." He nodded his head. "I would trust no man with the secret. I should not like to know of it myself, for the things you have would make one of us rich."
With a little packet of food, his Ghoorka knife, and his jackal, Muata entered the dug-out, and landed again on the clearing. They waved their hands to him, and then turned their attention to the old Arab, who was sipping a cup of coffee with every sign of satisfaction.
"Old man, we go soon on the trail of the cannibals into the forest where you could not follow. What shall we do with you?"
"As Allah wills," was the resigned reply.
"Think. Is there any village where you would be safe until we return?"
"Few who enter the forest ever return. A day's journey in a canoe there is a path in the wood that leads to a village. If I could reach the path, it would do; but——"
The Okapi straightway continued up the dark river, through the silence of the sombre woods, and the old man drank his coffee, and then gave himself up to the pleasure of tobacco, with his dull eyes fixed on Compton.
In the afternoon he pointed to a palm-tree. "There is a path," he said.
"Is there anything you would like?" asked Compton.
"Coffee is good, and tobacco is a great comforter."
They made him up a packet of these luxuries, and added a blanket.
"Allah is good," he muttered.
"After we have recovered the wise woman, maybe we will search you out, for we look, then, for the Garden of Rest."
"Ay, so he called it. The Garden of Rest, and the gates thereof. Ay, I would see the place again."
"You know it?" Compton said eagerly. "Then you must have known my father."
"A white man I knew, effendi. The good white man, many years ago; and my old eyes told me that you were of his blood. If the forest gives you up, search for this path and follow it; and if I be alive, I would go to that place in the clouds. Allah be with you."
"And with you."
The Okapi was driven into the bank, and the old man stepped ashore.
"See that you keep your counsel, my friend," Said Mr. Hume. "We want no prowlers about our camp."
They turned the Okapi down-stream again, and considered where they should hide her, for that was a thing to be done with the utmost care. It was, however, very difficult to decide; for in the screen of the wood, all along the banks, every spot seemed the same, and there were many reasons against tying up in some dark retreat and leaving the precious craft to its fate, at the mercy of the rising or falling water, and at the risk of discovery by prowling fishermen.
"We must get her aground," said Mr. Hume; and they poked into the banks here and there in search of a likely landing, ultimately finding a spot where a huge tree had fallen bodily into the river, dragging away with its roots a mass of earth. They marked the place, and returned to the clearing to camp for the night. By the light of a fire and of the lamps they went through the stores, and made up five packages, one for each man to carry. Sheets of oiled canvas were left out, rubber boots, and oilskin coverings for their hats and shoulders. In the morning Compton was left behind in the clearing in charge of the packages, while the other two took the Okapi down to her berth, which was about half a mile down on the same side. They drove the boat into the little natural dock, then with their Ghoorka knives cleared a little place in the forest, and next, with a small pioneer spade, dug a trench in the soft mould more than large enough to hold the boat. Then a foundation was laid of saplings; the walls were also lined with tough wood, and the Okapi, lightened of her cargo and steel deck, was bodily dragged up, and, after a long effort, safely lowered into the dry dock. Everything was made trim, a layer of branches placed over all, then the leaf-mould restored, and all leveled down. Working unceasingly, the job took them till well on into the afternoon, when they rested a while; then, with their knives in hand, set off to work their way back to the clearing. All they had to do was to follow the river. It was simple enough in theory, but in practice it was a tough job, as they had to struggle every foot of the way, squirming and crawling. When they heard Compton's hail they had come to the conclusion that the forest was a trap, its mysteries a delusion, and its general qualities altogether disgusting.
"You have been a time!" shouted Compton, as the two, hot, red-faced, and tattered, stepped out and straightened themselves up with hands to the small of the back.
"I'm as hungry as three, and have been under a terrific strain to keep from eating the finest and fattest baked 'possum you ever saw. Come on."
"'Possum?" said Venning, hurrying forward. "There are no 'possums in Africa."
"Well, it's something."
"Sit down—sit down, and we'll find out what it is afterwards."
They sat down with sighs of relief, and the "'possum" disappeared without a word being spoken.
"Beggar was eating earth-nuts over there, and I bowled him over with a stick. See, there's his skin—long tail and sharp face."
"Monkey," said Mr. Hume.
"Prehensile tail," muttered Venning, examining that appendage. "Anyway, it was good. See anything more?"
"Lots. One crocodile, and about one million ants and insect things. Finished your job?"
"We buried the boat on the bank, and you youngsters had better be at great pains to take your bearings, in case anything happens; and for a sign we'll lash that pole and its bit of rag to the top of a tree. Up you go, Venning, and make it fast."
The pole with its dirty flag was lashed to a tall tree, and then they waited for Muata. The jackal was the first to make its appearance, but the chief was not long after, and the river-man, a few minutes later, looking quite exhausted. The chief first ate, then he washed, then at last he condescended to take notice of things, and then to give particulars. He had followed the trail of the cannibals. It led straight into the forest. They could follow in the morning.
With the morning came a heavy white mist that made travelling impossible, and all they could do was to wait in the mugginess until, through a window in the sluggish clouds which hung low overhead, the sun shot its rays and sucked up the moisture. Then they started, and a minute later they were in the silence and the gloom of the most tremendous extent of unbroken wood on the face of the earth—a Sahara of leaves, stretching away to the east for five hundred miles, and reaching over the same extent north and south. Trackless, the forest was, to any one not acquainted with its secrets; but there were paths through it, and the villagers had made their own approaches to the main system of thoroughfares, so that the going was not difficult, especially as the direction up to a certain distance had been decided upon by the previous day's tracking.
They had, however, to walk in single file, with much care to their steps, for the obstacles were ceaseless in the way of trailing vines, saplings, and fallen trees. The narrow and tortuous avenue they threaded was gloomy in the extreme, affording scarcely any glimpse of the sky, and opening out no vistas between the serried ranks of steins, each clothed in a covering of velvet moss, and all looped together by the parasitical vines, whose boles were often as thick as cables.
As they plunged deeper into the woods over a yielding surface of leaf-mould, which sent up a warm smell, the silence was as the silence of a huge cavern, into which is borne the hollow rumbling of the waves, the sound in place of that being the continual murmur of the sea of leaves moved by a breeze ever so slight, so soft that no chance breath of it found its way below.
Yet the place was not really silent, and by-and-by, as their ears grew attuned to the new surroundings, the boys detected the sounds made by living things large and small, far and near—sounds which seemed a part of the silence, because they were all soft and a little mysterious, with a pause in between, as if the insect or creature which made them was listening to find if any enemy had heard him. They were little detached sounds, as if an insect would start out to sing its song, and then suddenly think better of it; and even when some large animal made its presence known by the snapping of a branch, or a sudden scurry in the undergrowth, the noise ceased almost as soon as it began.
"It gives me the creeps," muttered Venning, after a long silence.
"That's just it," said Compton; "everything appears to be creeping."
"Even the trees. They seem to watch and whisper and wait, and the news of our coming has been carried right away for miles. Shouldn't wonder if the trees were to close in and shut us up."
"Oh, come, now; that's a bit too fanciful."
They shifted their loads to relieve aching shoulders, and kept on through the unending avenues in another long spell of silence.
"Reminds me of the reeds again," said Compton; "only this is worse."
"By Jenkins! just imagine the blaze and the scorch if this forest caught afire like your reeds."
"Couldn't—too damp. We've been tramping for two hours, and I have not seen a bird, or an animal, or a reptile; nothing but snails and ants. Don't see where the game comes in."
"We're not after game; we're after cannibals."
"By Jove! yes, I suppose we are—that is, if they are cannibals. I thought the species had died out."
"It will be a long time before cannibalism dies out," said Mr. Hume, who was bringing up the rear, "particularly in those parts where the people find a difficulty in getting flesh-food; but, at the same time, scarcity of flesh-food does not always turn a tribe to cannibalism. What does happen is this—that people who live in a poor district become small In the Kalihari you find the bushmen, in the forest you find the pigmies."
"Then the forest is poor in animals?"
"It has its types, but I should say they must be very few. You see, animals want sun, And where would they find it here? No! what animals haunt the forest will not be found on the ground."
"I see," said Compton, with a grin; "they fly."
"I know," interposed Venning, triumphantly; "they live in the tree- tops."
Compton looked up at the matted roof of leaves and branches.
"Well, all I hope is that a tall giraffe will not fall through on top of me."
"There is one thing that should give you comfort," said Venning, solemnly.
"What is that?"
"It would be the giraffe who would suffer."
"Wait till I have got rid of these parcels, young 'un," said Compton. "Are you getting tired?"
"Well, I am," said Venning—"tired and stuffy."
"Glad to be back on the boat again—eh? Well, if it's any comfort to you, I'm tired too. Haven't got my land-legs yet."
Mr. Hume cried a halt, to their great content, and though there were some hours yet to evening, he set them to work to make the camp. The work was the same they undertook each evening they were in the forest. First they cleared a circle about twenty feet in diameter, with an outer ring of large trees, and, using the trunks as posts, built a fence with the saplings and young trees. A hole was dug in the soft ground for the fireplace, and another fence built round to screen the glare of the fire. Next their waterproof sheets were arranged, the sheet of canvas stretched overhead, and, when all was shipshape, the three white members of the party went through a course of massage, which prepared them for the one good meal of the day. Then they overhauled their clothing, repaired any tears, oiled the rifles, and entered up the log-books. There was always something to do, and according to the man-of-war discipline observed, every man had to do his share of work—a rule which gave the mind employment, and kept it from dwelling on the monotony and the depressing silence of the woods. While the camp was springing into existence out of the tangled woods, the jackal kept guard, circling at a distance, like a well-trained collie herding a flock of sheep.
The first night was a repetition of many others. When the night came down, as it did long before darkness set in on the wide river, where the afterglow was reflected from the waters, it was black beyond thought, so black that a few yards from the fire the sharpest pair of eyes could not see a hand held a foot away. And with the darkness came a sense of mystery, a hollow murmur as of the surf heard a long way off, which intensified the brooding stillness; and at times the groaning of the trees.
"What noise is that?" asked Venning, hearing the sound.
"The trees talk," said Muata, gravely.
"Eh? The trees talk! Wonderful!" muttered Compton, sarcastically; but, nevertheless, he listened with open mouth and staring eyes.
"What do they say, chief?"
"The young ones ask for room; they shove and push to reach up into the air, to feel the touch of the rain, to enjoy the warmth of the sun."
"And the big trees?"
"They cry out against the young, who come thrusting their branches up from below, who crowd in upon the old people."
"And the squeaking noise?"
"That is made by one branch rubbing against another. Wow! It is nothing. Hear them talk when a wind is blowing; then it is as if all the great ones were gathered together roaring to the four comers, with the voice of the storm booming from the skies, and the bellowing of a great herd of bulls, and in between the cries of women in fear and the screaming of tigers. Mawoh! It is then a man would hide in a hole. Now it is quiet; they but whisper among themselves half asleep, but in the morning they will stretch their limbs."
"Of course," said Compton, "and yawn!"
"How will a tree grow if it does not stretch? It bends this way and that, to loosen the bark, to make its body and its arms supple and tough, so that it can bend to the blast and yet spring back straight again. Tell me what would happen if the young tree were bark-bound. It would die—as these old ones die smothered by the creeping arms around them. Ow aye, they stretch in the morning and grow."
So they talked in the night, and listened to the strange sounds that came mysteriously out of the brooding silence.
The next day they came to the end of the trail that Muata had followed with the river-man; but the scent was still on the ground, and for a mile or so the jackal led the way, slinking along like a shadow with his nose down and his bushy tail drooping. Then he stopped, and, after a look up into the face of his master, stretched himself out, as much as to say his part was over.
"They have gained on us," said Mr. Hume.
"They rose early and travelled fast," said Muata. "The scent is cold, but there is the trail marked on the tree;" and he pointed to a slight cut in the bark, from which had oozed a thick juice, now caked hard.
"Some one pierced the bark."
"It is the sign of the wise woman, and she made it, maybe, with a wire from her armlets."
They went on more slowly, guided only by the faint cuts at intervals on tree-trunks, all of which "bled," giving out a milky sap; and then again the sign failed. About them were the trees in endless columns, overhead was the roof of leaves, and on the ground was a tangle of undergrowth and decaying vegetation, that gave out a moist earthy smell, which set the lungs labouring for oxygen. The boys were uncomfortable. Their skins were clammy, their eyes were heavy, and their limbs languid. Mr. Hume was glad to sit down, and even Muata showed the effect of the muggy atmosphere in a dulling of his skin. The river-man, sullen and silent, was alone apparently unaffected; but they did not reckon him one of the party, for no one of them had broken through his apathy.
Muata began patiently to make casts in that labyrinth that seemed to hold no living thing but themselves, and as he went slowly through the undergrowth, the boys went off to sleep, from which they awoke, heavy and unrefreshed, at the cry to "fall in."
The trail had been recovered fifty yards further on, the intervening ground having been covered apparently by the cannibals without leaving a sign. Venning blundered on a little way before he discovered that he had left his bundle behind.
"I'll wait for you," said Compton, sitting down on a tree-stump, while Mr. Hume, who had left his position in the rear to consult with Muata, had his back turned.
Venning recovered his bundle, and turned to retrace his steps, but for the time his heavy eyes were no longer faithful guides, and, instead of taking the right direction, he entered a likely looking opening through the trees to the left and hurried on. When he had covered a distance that should have brought him to Compton, he stopped.
"Halloa! halloa!" he cried.
There was no answer.
"Compton! I say, no larks. Where are you?"
A little in advance he heard the rustle of leaves, and went on quickly. When he reached the place where the sound came from there was nothing there, and he gathered his wits together. With a little laugh at his carelessness, he began to retrace his steps, but there was a problem to be dealt with at every step, for he could see nothing familiar. In that multitude of trees, planted so close together, each tree seemed alike. He put his hand to his mouth and uttered a long "coo-ee." The call seemed to be shut in, sounding in his ears very weak and quavering.
"Coo-ee!"—and again "coo-ee!" Ah, that was an answer; and with a glad shout he set off in the direction whence came an answer to his call, forced his way through the undergrowth, tripped and fell over a dead branch with a thud that made his head throb so that he was glad to sit back with closed eyes.
When he opened them again he heard a rustling of the leaves, and moved his lips to call out. "Compton!"
There was unmistakably the sound of some one jumping aside as if startled.
"Over here!" said Venning; and then he closed his eyes again with a feeling of languor. Compton, in the meanwhile growing impatient, walked a few steps in the direction his chum had taken. The rest of the party had moved on, thinking, no doubt, he was following, and he knew that neither he nor Venning could pick up the spoor if they lost touch. He peered through the scrub for some time without seeing any one, and then he heard a low cry—a strangled sort of cry, as if Venning were calling in a very feeble voice. Unshipping his Lee- Metford carbine from the loop, by which it hung at his side, he dashed forward, fully expecting to find his friend in the hands of man or beast.
But at the last stopping-place there was no sign of his friend; and, with head bent, he listened for some sound, his mouth firmly set, and his dark eyes glancing from under his well-marked, brows.
He could hear the beating of his heart, and the innumerable creeping sounds that seemed to have no origin. He was about to shout, when again he heard a thin cry, and, suppressing the shout, he began to advance cautiously from tree to tree, planting his steps carefully. In the soft mould he saw now the footmarks left by Venning as he had hurried, the print of his heel at one spot, a little further on a broken branch, and next, some dislodged moss from a huge tree. He peered round this, examining the ground ahead, then stepped out into a little clearing, across which Venning had walked. He started as he looked down, then threw up his gun, with a quick glance round, for on the ground, side by side with the footprints, were the pugs of a lion or leopard.
Venning was in danger, then! With an involuntary action he pressed his hat down firmly on his head, then moved forward, swiftly and silently, to another tree beyond. Looking round this, he saw at once through the twining tendrils the form of an animal, moving slowly, with flattened ears and twitching tail.
This did not surprise him, for he was prepared by the spoor; but what surprised him was to see that the brute was advancing towards him—not retreating. For a moment he felt sick at the thought that he was too late, that his friend had been already attacked, and that the beast had left Venning for the new-comer.
The brute was unmistakably stalking some one. Its body was stretched out, the forearms reaching out in long stealthy strides, the round head sunk low, with a fixed snarl that bared the white teeth. A leopard it was in form, but without the black rosettes on a grey ground, the colour being of a uniform yellow along the sides, with black markings down the muscular shoulders, and a streak of white from the throat under the belly. The eyes were large, and of a greenish hue. They were fixed in a steadfast stare on some spot to the left. Compton glanced in that direction, and, to his joy, he saw Venning, alive, seated with his chin on his breast, and his back to a fallen stump. As Compton looked, the boy's eyes opened, and his head turned as if he had heard some noise.
Compton's distress left him. A feeling of great thankfulness swept over him when he saw that he was not too late, that his friend lived; and with firm nerves he stepped clear of the tree to shoot. The movement caught the notice of the leopard. It had crouched down as Venning turned, but now it lifted its round head to view the new- comer. With a low growl it made a sudden leap forward, covering an incredible distance, which brought it nearer to Compton, and as it gathered itself together he fired, then sprang aside. There was a rush through the air, a thud, and a tearing noise. There, almost within reach of him, with the blood running over its face from a scalp-wound, and its fore-paws tearing the moss from a tree, was the leopard; and, swift as thought, Compton fired from his hip at the shoulder. The leopard rolled over, growling, then tried to drag itself by its powerful paws towards Compton, its mouth wide open. He fired again, into the gaping jaws, the muscles relaxed, the beast fell, and he ran towards Venning.
"Are you all right, old chap?"
Venning held on to his friend's arm, and as they stood, the leopard screamed.
"He is quite done, old fellow. Come and see."
Venning went forward quietly, as if still in a daze, and they looked down on the leopard, struggling in the death-throes. It raised its torn head, and again the scream rang out from its red jaws—a terrible cry, and out of the forest came the answer, shrill and fearsome. With a low growl the leopard fell forward, dead; but they could hear an animal advancing rapidly, with fierce grunts; though from what direction it was impossible to tell.
"It must be the mate," said Compton, with an anxious look at Venning. "How do you feel?"
"I'm all right now;" and he passed his hand over his forehead. "I can help you this time. If it is the mate, it will go first to its dead."
"Then we'd better crouch down by that tree."
They knelt side by side a little way off, with their rifles ready; but, though the noise made by the advancing animal grew louder, they could see no movement whatever.
Then an extraordinary thing occurred. A bough above shook heavily, and a large flattened body shot down from one branch to another, tail, neck, and legs at the full stretch, alighting easily on the rounded branch. It paused for a moment, then flew right across from one tree to another, a distance of about thirty feet, when again it gathered itself together for another flying leap to the ground, alighting with singular ease within a few paces of the spot where the dead leopard was lying.
With outstretched neck and twitching nose, it stepped to its mate, sniffed, then threw its head up with bristling hair and emitted a terrible scream of rage, ending in a harsh cough.
As Compton pressed the trigger it bounded aside, as if it had seen him, and an instant later had reached the trunk of a tree.
"Where is it?"
"Went up that tree," said Venning, rising and stretching his neck.
"You take that side, I this."
They moved slowly, finger on trigger and eyes swiftly scanning the branches, but they made the circuit of the tree without a glimpse of the yellow and black body that had so swiftly come and gone.
"Where the dickens has it gone?"
"Maybe into a hole up there."
They stood staring up in bewilderment, but there was not a movement anywhere, and presently they wandered around examining the trees near. The beast had vanished as completely as if it had been no bigger than a fly.
"Well," said Compton, with a short laugh, "I'm going to take the skin off the dead one, before it disappears too."
They set to work stripping the skin off the muscular body, stopping often to listen and glance around. The work, however, was completed in peace, and then, suddenly remembering their position, they hastened to retrace their steps. Slowly they hit off the trail, and finally arrived as far as the place where Venning had first missed his bundle.
"It's after us, Dick!"—in a whisper.
"Up among the branches. I saw it spring across as I looked back."
They looked up into the trees, and then at the dark shadows before them, for the afternoon was slipping away.
"I don't like it. The beggar may spring on us at any moment."
"Or it may wait bill it is too dark for us to see."
"Yes, by Jove!"
"It is bad; but I am afraid we do not know the worst."
"What do you mean?"
"Mr. Hume must have missed us a long time back; and he would have come after us if——"
"I see," said Compton, gravely. "You think that something has happened to them?"
Venning nodded. "It's all my fault, Dick."
Compton was glancing up into the trees. "We must dispose of that brute first. But how?"
"I have an idea," said Venning, after a long pause. "One of us will go on. Animals can't count. Seeing one of us moving, he may show himself to the other, who remains hidden."
"Good. I will go on;" and at once Compton, taking the more dangerous post, advanced slowly, leaving Venning standing against a tree.
A few moments later the watcher saw a dark form flitting through the branches high up, without, however, offering a ghost of a mark, and there was nothing left for him but to follow Compton and explain.
"And I suppose it's watching us now?" said the latter, gloomily. "Any good to climb up a tree?"
"I should think not. Why, it's at home up there. You can see that from the length of the claws, and the length of the tail, which acts as a steerer, a balancing-pole, and a brake. You see when it brings the tail down—-?"
"No, I don't; but I do see that we are in a fix, and that the others must be in a worse position."
"I cannot imagine Mr. Hume being caught in a trap, especially when he has the jackal."
"And the black chap!"
"By Jove! suppose that fellow has proved treacherous;" and the two turned this unpleasant thought over in their minds until a light sound attracted their notice. Looking up, they caught the glare of fierce green eyes.
"We've got him now!" yelled Compton. "Round that side."
Venning dashed round the tree, and three shots were fired in rapid succession at a vanishing object.
"By gum, yes; and if we go on playing hide-and-seek any longer, we'll be missing ourselves. We've got to build a camp at once. That's the place, between those three trees. I'll cut, and you build."
Compton, rolling up his sleeves, cut down saplings, and Venning built a low roof, using the long tendrils of the creepers to bind it. Then the spaces in between the trunks were filled in, and large chunks of tinder were cut out of a fallen tree and placed at the entrance, a fire of dry wood being made in a hole inside. There was enough water in their flasks for a "billy" of tea, and by the time they had finished their meal the darkness was on them. No sooner had they settled down to watch than their foe was down, sniffing out the position, and they were thankful they had acted in time. They beard it at the back first, then overhead, and next at the side, its presence indicated by low growls. Then it was in the front, and Compton fired at a momentary gleam of two luminous spots. It bounded right on the roof, which shook to its weight, then clawed up a tree, detaching fragments of moss, and again leapt to the ground, emitting this time a ferocious roar. It seemed as if its long patience were exhausted, and that it was lashing itself into a fury, for it was here and there with lightning quickness, striking blows at the fence, and at times seizing a branch in its teeth, but so quick that they could not move their weapons smartly enough to cover the point of attack.
It was nervous work for the watchers. Every moment they expected to find themselves under the claws and teeth of the maddened beast, with the odds all against them, for in such a small enclosure they would be helpless. It was bad enough when the brute was emitting his terrible roars and screams, but the spells of silence were worse.
In one of these spells Venning felt for the raw skin of the slaughtered leopard, and threw it out into the darkness. There were stealthy footsteps, the noise of sniffing, followed by the sound of an animal rolling on the ground, and they fired together. With a snarl the leopard bounded right to the very mouth of the opening, knocking over the smouldering tinder and sending out a shower of sparks. Venning fired. Compton lunged forward with his big knife, and the leopard leapt aside.
"Hit him that time, I bet," muttered Venning, who was shaking with excitement.
Then followed a weary time of waiting in complete silence, broken only by the soft melancholy murmur of the forest. They refilled the magazines of their carbines, built up the tinder fire, and stretched their ears to catch the first warning note of danger. Then the whisperings swarmed in upon them. A creak of a branch, the turn of a leaf, the scraping of creeping insects, the whizzing of moths, and the murmur of the forest, all seemed to them the whisperings of stealthy foes. Every now and again they moistened their lips, which dried after the repeated spells during which they held their breath, while intently listening for the footfalls of the enemy.
Then, with a feeling of relief, they heard an unmistakable wouf! That, at least, was a tangible sound—the sound of a startled animal.
Presently they heard its footsteps, as it came cautiously forward, a little way at a time. Once more the fingers coiled round the triggers, and the barrels were raised.
Then came a yelp, this time of fear, followed by the leopard's terrible scream. Some animal darted by the opening, so close that they could see the gleam of its eyes as it glanced in upon them, and after it with a bound went a larger form. They listened to the dwindling noise of the chase, and Compton stirred up the fire.
"What's up now, eh?"
"It," said Venning, referring to the leopard, "is after something, don't you think?"
"I hope to goodness it will have a good run, then."
But even as he spoke the sound of the chase grew; the smaller animal flashed by again with the savage pursuer at its heels, flew round the trees, and leapt inside—leapt in and pressed itself down behind the two of them. With a snarl, the leopard stopped before the smouldering logs, and then sprang on to the roof, at which it struck two or three tremendous blows before bounding off again.
"Where's my knife?" yelled Compton.
Venning felt a warm tongue on his hand, and drew it away with a cry, as if he had been stung.
"Use your knife, man. I'm blinded."
"All right," gasped Venning.
"Feel for it first, or you'll be hitting me. Quick! I say."
"What is it?" cried Venning, alarmed at the sudden change in Compton's tones from rage to alarm.
"Something's pulling me. It's got its arm through the side."
There was a sudden fierce yap and a snapping of jaws. Compton's shirt gave way with a tear, and outside in the dark the leopard screamed. Inside the cry was answered by the howl of a jackal.
"It's our jackal," shouted Venning.
"Here;" and Venning laughed hysterically. "Poor old chap!" then, "Good old jacky!"
"Nonsense!" said Compton; but his band groped out in the dark, and when he felt the rough tongue, he joined in the laugh. They were as pleased as if Mr. Hums or Muata had returned.
"Did the brute really hook you?"
"Forced his paw through," said Compton, shuddering, "but the jackal bit him."
The jackal's tail thumped the ground, then they felt it stiffen, and were again on the alert. Venning ran his fingers lightly along the jackal's back till he reached the nose, which was pointing straight up. Without a moment's delay he raised his rifle and fired.
At the same moment the saplings forming the roof snapped and fell in upon them with an added weight, which knocked them flat. They were dimly conscious of a tremendous struggle, but when they had crawled out of the litter, they were thankful to find that each was still alive. After the first hurried words, they faced the darkness apprehensively, for their shelter was gone, and their rifles were under the branches.
"Quick!" said Compton, "help pull the branches away."
Guided by the tinder, they felt for the branches and pulled, but let go at once and fell back, for a fierce growl greeted them almost in their faces.
"By Jove!" muttered Compton, "it's all over now. Don't run; let us stick together."
"I'm not running," said Venning. "We've got our sheath-knives."
They drew their knives, and, holding each other by the disengaged hand, fell back step by step, till they found the support of a tree- trunk, when they waited for the attack. From time to time the low growls gave warning of the enemy's close presence, and to them each sound was as a death-knell; for what were their knives against a foe so powerful, who had, too, the advantage of sight?
For perhaps two hours of awful suspense they stood, and then Compton lost patience.
"I can't stand this," he said. "That brute's playing with us, and I'm going to finish it."
"Wait; when the morning comes we can see."
"Will it ever come? No."
Compton struck a match, cradled it in his hand till it caught, then, with his face showing rigid by the reflection, he moved forward. Venning went too, shoulder to shoulder. Each held his knife, point up, every muscle on the strain. A snarl greeted each step, and presently they saw two glowing spots before the match went out. Another match was struck by a steady hand, and this time the spots blazed out from the blackness.
Venning felt for his log-book, tore out a sheet, screwed it up, lit it, and held the flame up.
There, less than six feet away, was the leopard, its mouth open, the gleaming fangs showing their full length—a sight so forbidding that he dropped the paper and sprang back.
"Light another," said Compton, steadily.
This was done. He went down on his knees, reached out, seized the butt of a rifle, and drew it forth. A second later a bullet crashed into the brain of the leopard, and then, worn out by the strain they had been under so long, they sat with their backs to the trees.
"I'm going to sleep," said Compton.
"I wonder what's become of the jackal?" muttered Venning, drawing up his knees with a sigh of relief.
"Don't know, and don't care, for he's better off than we are. Good night."
"Good night, old chap; and it was awfully good of you to turn back."
Snore! Venning yawned, and in five minutes they were both asleep in the forest, without so much as a twig to cover them. But they were not altogether unprotected, for when they rubbed the sleep out of their eyes in the morning, they found the jackal curled up at their feet, with one ear cocked and one eye open. But a very different jackal he was from the graceful animal they knew so well. His body was distended to enormous proportions, and it was clear how his absence was to be accounted for. While they had stood in the dark, expecting every moment to be pounced upon, he had been gorging on the dead leopard. They now looked at their foe of the night, and found why it was that it had left them uninjured. There were three wounds on the body—the bullet-hole in the forehead, a fleshy wound on the hind leg, and a hit on the spine, which had disabled it just as it was in the act of springing down upon the roof.
"It's your bag," said Compton. "To think that we stood shivering and shaking for two mortal hours, while all the time the beggar was helpless!"
Venning did not echo the complaint; he was too much occupied examining his prize, and taking exact measurements with a tape, which he entered in his log' book, together with a description of the markings.
"It's a new species," he said, with the pride of an explorer who discovers a new mountain. "I will call it a tree-lion—leo arboriensis Venningii—that is, if you don't wish it called after you."
"Call it anything you like, old fellow; but I should say it was just an ordinary leopard."
"You never saw a leopard with those markings."
"And no one ever saw a climbing lion."
"It has adapted itself to changed conditions. The markings match the colouring of the branches, and there has been a change in the formation of the claws"—holding up a huge paw—"while the forearm is a little curved, and the skin between the elbow and the body bears a resemblance in its growth to that found on the so-called 'flying-squirrel.'"
"It's a tough customer, whatever it is, and I hope that it is the last of its kind. Do you know that we have no more water?"
"I shall examine the contents of the stomach, and I fully expect to find that its usual prey is the monkey."
"It had a great hankering for white man, at any rate. Did you hear me say there was no water?"
"Its hind legs are very much longer than the fore legs—another proof of an arboreal existence. It's a most important find. I wish Mr. Hume were here."
"So do I," said Compton, heartily, stirring the jackal with his foot.
That sagacious animal rose slowly, stretched itself, one leg at a time, sniffed at the dead leopard, or tree-lion, whatever it was, and then curled itself up again.
"Coo-ee—coo-ee!" came out of the woods.
"Coo-ee!" replied Compton, to the glad sound. "Coo-ee!" and he fired off his gun.
Muata's shrill whistle pierced through the files of trees, and the jackal slunk away.
"Hurrah!" yelled Compton, taking off his cap. "Hurrah! Here we are— all safe!"
"All safe, thank God;" and Mr. Hume hurried forward, with his eyes beaming. "Thank God."
"It is as I thought. Here is the hind leg of a monkey, with some of the hair still attached;" and Venning held up a disgusting-looking object.
Mr. Hume looked at the dead animal, the broken hut, and back at Compton.
"We shot it last night, and its mate in the afternoon."
Then he pulled Venning to his feet and shook him. "Believe he's gone off his head."
"I've not," said Venning; and he held out a blood-stained hand to Mr. Hume, who took it with a great happy laugh. "Have you seen a beast like that before, Muata?"
"Any one would think," said Compton, "that nothing had happened— that we had not been lost, and that he had not brought us into this mess."
"Steady," said Mr. Hume, with a smile.
"Dick is right, sir. If it had not been for him, I should have been dead. I am a little bit excited now; but I will tell you all soon. Well, Muata?"
"Wow!" exclaimed the chief, who had been talking with the river-man. "One of these I have seen, and he also. It was a great thing to kill two; of all things that walk they are the fiercest."