THEY had reached the first of the scattered outer sentinels of the forest of slender palms. Dimly beyond it, by grace of the tropic star brilliance, they could see the looming mass which they must penetrate to reach the aeroplane.
So far they had met with nothing alarming. Everywhere, in and out, giant fireflies danced in a mystic saraband, very beautiful to behold, but also quite confusing to the eye. They had not yet used their torches, fearing to attract more of the terrible flying monsters, of which they had already seen quite enough to satisfy any morbid curiosity they might have felt.
“Here,” whispered the prince, although he could almost have shouted without fear of being overheard above the general uproar, “we must awaken Miss Weston.”
Jones saw his dark form bending over at the foot of the slender tree, and knew that he had laid his burden down.
“Shall I light up?” inquired Jones in an equally low tone, and speaking close to his companion’s ear.
“On no account. Not yet, that is. Will you hold up her head, please? That is right. Now — this liquor would well-nigh rouse life in the dusty veins of an Egyptian mummy.”
“If it’s the same you gave me, you’re right. Look out — there’s something behind you — look out, I say!”
Over Sergius’ shoulder he had caught a glimpse of two green eyes glaring, balls of fire set in the black velvet of night. Sergius, with the swiftness of a prestidigitateur, replaced the stopper in the small flask he had been holding to Miss Weston’s lips, reached with unerring grasp for one of the rifles laid across Jones’ lap, rose from knees to feet in the same motion and laughed softly and lowered the weapon. Stooping, he picked up a small stone and flung it straight at the glaring eyes. There was a startled snarl, a fiendish yell, and the eyes vanished, accompanied by a scuffling and crashing in the underbrush.
“A hyena,” commented Sergius, resuming his interrupted task with unruffled composure. “No use wasting a shot on that sort of vermin.”
“Good Heavens, man, have you the eyes of a cat? How could you tell what it was?”
“Oh, I can see better than most in the dark, I will admit. I should never have suggested this venture if it were not so. Now — ah, she is awakening.”
There was a cough, a little, strangled gasp, and Miss Weston sat up very suddenly. Unlike more ordinary people, she did not exclaim “Where am I?” although the query would certainly have been excusable, but seemed to spring instantly to full consciousness and knowledge of the situation.
Without a moment’s hesitation she reached up in the darkness and delivered a slap in Sergius’ general direction which would have been splendidly effective had he not sprung back with the same speed he had shown in dealing with the hyena. A second later she was on her feet, panting and sobbing, but not, Jones feared, with panic.
“Oh, you did it — you did it! You cowards! You left them there and carried me away when I was helpless. Oh — if I live till morning you shall be punished for this. You shall, I say!”
Gently, but with irresistible strength, Sergius took her small hands in one of his, and placed the other over her mouth.
“Be silent,” he said softly and sternly. “You must not endanger your own life because of your anger against me. Paul and the rest are, a thousand times more secure at this moment than we, unless you control yourself and use your splendid vigor and determination to a better purpose than recrimination. If I release my hold, will you come with us quietly and softly?”
A miracle occurred, for Miss Weston yielded — on that one point, at least. She must have nodded her head, although Jones could not see the motion in the darkness, for Sergius released her and stepped back.
“Do not imagine that you have greater concern for my brother than I, Miss Weston. We placed them all in safety, barricaded the entrance, and built a fire which will burn until morning. And now, you will please keep between Mr. Jones and myself. If we run, you must run also; and if we should crouch suddenly down, you must do likewise. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” came the answer in a tone of suppressed rebellion.
“Very well. Will you give me one of those torches, Roland? You have your rifle ready and cocked?”
“Yes — but I’m a darned bad shot.”
The nihilist sighed. “One cannot expect everything,” he said. “If I tell you to shoot, aim between the eyes — you are likely to see them; at any rate. And now, forward!”
Two long, white beams sprang into being, and by the shifting rays Mr. Jones saw the narrow, trodden trail from which they had emerged in the afternoon. More than ever he marveled at Sergius’ almost supernatural abilities. How had he managed to strike that one single place where they had a bare chance of entering the jungle successfully?
The Russian led the way, followed by Miss Weston, and Jones brought up the rear. And now they had entered the very center of pandemonium itself. Roars, shrieks, grunts, bellows rent the air upon every side.
“Don’t be frightened!” Sergius called back over his shoulder. “These torches will keep most of the brutes off — but, good God, not this one!”
Jones caught, a glimpse of a mighty bulk rearing itself high over the head of their leader; there were three sharp, rapid reports; then the thing, whatever it was, with a terrific snarl of rage, had lurched forward and downward upon the unfortunate nihilist. Miss Weston, with remarkable presence of mind, had turned, run back to Jones’s side, and then turned again to face this midnight terror, without a scream or act which could have impeded her sole remaining guardian.
He, staring with horror down his little, wavering beam of light, saw only a monstrous black head with snarling, savage jaws and two red eyes that glared like coals of fire.
“Shoot him — shoot him!” It was Miss Weston’s voice, and she was shaking his arm viciously. “Shoot him — or give me that rifle!”
“Between the eyes!” gasped Jones.
“You’re likely to see them!”
He had no idea of what he was saying, or that he had spoken. Then, as he stood there, shaking in every limb, he suddenly reached the extremity of terror, and passed beyond it into that unnatural coolness and calm which is so efficient and, sometimes, so hard to reach. The trembling palsy passed, and every nerve and muscle tautened to abnormal firmness. From numbed quiescence his brain leaped to lightning action.
He knew what he, “a darned bad shot,” must do if he would save the friend who lay invisible somewhere under that dreadful head.
With a sure swiftness of which none of his acquaintances would have deemed Jones capable, he handed the electric torch to the girl, darted forward to within ten feet of the monster, raised his rifle and fired, aiming at the center of the forehead, and pumping one cartridge after another into place as fast as he could work the lever.
Undoubtedly the fact that the brute had paused at all in its attack was due to the dazzling effect of the electric torch, and if it had not been for an unusual piece of luck Jones would probably never have lived to marvel at his own feat. For at the first report the light-blinded brute snarled again, started to lift itself, failed, drooped, and sank slowly down upon the path. Jones, however, emptied his magazine before he realized that he had actually killed the creature with that first fortunate bullet.
Then he called back to the girl: “Come quick, Miss Weston; we’ve got to pull it off from Sergius!”
She ran up, still bearing the light, and the two looked down in consternation at the mighty bulk which lay like a monstrous black tombstone over the body of Sergius Petrofsky. It was a great, hairless mountain of flesh, The dropped head looked like the face of some gargoyle carven in unpolished ebony. Its fore legs were invisible, doubled under the body. Move it? They might as well have tried to move an elephant.
Nevertheless, catching hold of the upstanding, rounded ears, they tugged and heaved with all their might, but could only succeed in shifting the head a little to one side.
“Sergius! Sergius!” cried Miss Weston, dropping suddenly in a little heap of pathos beside that mountain of brute flesh.
She was answered by a moan. To their amazement, it did not come from beneath the monster, but from some little distance to one side of the path. Yet it was certainly a human moan, for it was followed by a voice: “Over here. I’m — I’m coming.”
Miss Weston sprang to her feet and accompanied Jones in a wild rush toward the voice. There, sprawled out among the flowering, tangled vines, they found the nihilist himself; and as the circle of light struck his face, he sat and stared back at them with an amazement equal to their own.
“What — what hit me?” he gasped.
Jones laughed aloud in his relief. “It did. How in the name of all the saints did you get here?”
Sergius passed a bewildered hand over his head. “I— I begin to remember. Something seemed to come right up out of the ground. I— I fired at it — and then — and then — ”
“It must have struck you with its paw and knocked you clear away from the path,” interrupted Miss Weston in a calm, indifferent voice. Jones glanced at her in astonishment. Was this the girl who had been sobbing out the name of Sergius a few minutes before? “If you are hurt, you had better get up and go on with us — although I would suggest that you let Mr. Jones take the lead, as he seems much the better shot.”
Jones helped his friend to rise, and as he did so Sergius laughed without a trace of annoyance. “If you actually killed that brute, my friend, Miss Weston is right. Did you kill it?”
“I must have, because it’s certainly dead, although I can hardly believe it myself. What on earth is the thing, Sergius?”
They had recovered the narrow path and stood beside the black hulk which blocked it entirely, overlapping on both sides into the underbrush.
Sergius examined the huge head with interest. “I never saw anything exactly like it before. Where did you hit it?”
“Between the eyes. You remember you told me to fire between the eyes, so I did. I fired about ten cartridges into it, but I think it died at the first shot.”
The nihilist looked up at him with a curious expression. “It did? That’s rather odd. The beast has a frontal bone as thick as a rhinoceros’, if I am any judge. No; here are three bullets embedded in the bone, but not a sign of a hole. Ah, that was it, eh? My friend, by very well-deserved good luck your first bullet did not strike the forehead at all, but penetrated this left eye and went straight into the brain.”
“Great Scot!” exclaimed the American. “And I was about ten feet away! It’s a good thing the brute has a head as big as a barn-door, or I’d have missed it entirely.”
Sergius smiled. “Nevertheless, you deserve great congratulations. If your first bullet had not gone a few inches astray, we should perhaps none of us be alive at this moment. But what a strange brute it is! I should say it was a monstrous bear, from the shape of the head, if it were not so hairless. I wonder, now, if this is the creature that pulled up the death cabbages there by the plane?”
“Prince Sergius,” again interrupted Miss Weston, with a slightly impatient note in her voice, “would it not be better to come back in daylight to continue your zoological researches? If this creature has a mate, and it should come this way, Mr. Jones might not be able to kill the second one.”
“And you are quite sure, after what has happened, that as a protector I am an entire failure, eh? Well, perhaps you are justified, but still I had better continue to lead the way. What do you think, Roland Jones?”
“Don’t be absurd. I’m a rank, bungling amateur, and you both know it. Shall we climb over this thing, or go around it?”
“The underbrush is thick here — and there might be snakes, though we have seen none. I think we had better use your victim as a causeway.”
The two men helped Miss Weston up to the gigantic shoulders, and they walked the length of the huge creature, more and more amazed at its bulk. From nose to hind quarters it must have measured a full fifteen feet, and in his heart Jones wished that he might have transported the head to his rooms in New York. How he could have gloated over the surprise of a friend of his who was a big game-hunter and very proud of certain rhino-heads and lion-skins, trophies of African expeditions.
He reloaded his rifle carefully and resumed his position as rear-guard with a new confidence in its powers which took no heed to the fact that only by a lucky accident had his shot struck a vulnerable spot.
Many times as they marched silently ahead, the underbrush by the wayside swayed and bent, crackling, to the passage of animals of which they caught not even a glimpse. Once a lynxlike beast as big as a large panther dropped silently into the middle of the path ahead of them, glared for a second into the bull’s-eye of Sergius, and with another spring was gone before he could fire at it.
This incident, however, encouraged the three, for it seemed as if most of the jungle inhabitants shunned the blinding electric lights as they would have shunned a campfires.
And at length there came to their nostrils a whiff of noxious odor which told the two men that they had successfully passed the first barriers to their escape. Vile smell though it was, it came welcome enough just then, for it was the odor of the fungi that grew about the roots of the death cabbages.
Jones realized with pleasure that they had passed the great spider’s trap without even being aware of it. He had subconsciously dreaded more than anything also going past that dark incline, at the foot of which waited the thing of long, black, shining legs and protuberant eyes.
But as the full force of the stench enveloped them, Miss Weston stopped dead, so that Jones almost collided with her in the narrow path.
“Stop — I can’t go on into this — this horrible vapor!” she called after Sergius. He heard, for he turned back immediately and returned to where they stood.
“What is the matter?” he asked a trifle impatiently.
“This dreadful smell. I can’t — ”
“Miss Weston, a smell won’t kill anybody. At least, this one will not. Mr. Jones and myself were in the midst of it for nearly an hour, and we were not harmed.”
“But — ”
“Do you wish to be left here, then?”
The question was brutal, but it served its purpose. A moment the girl was silent; then she threw back her shoulders and smiled contemptuously. “I presume you would not hesitate to do that, either. No, I will not oblige you by relieving you of my hampering company. I can certainly face anything that you can.”
Sergius looked at her with plain admiration on his face.
“Believe me, Miss Weston, this charnel odor is no worse than that of the battle-fields to which you were going. I have been there, also. Will you take my arm now? For we must walk through a very disagreeable place.”
“No, thank you!” she — well, she snapped, although it isn’t a nice thing to say of a heroine. “I am sure Mr. Jones will offer all the help I may need.”
“Very well.” The prince shrugged, and without more ado they passed from the forest of slender palms into the safe way, broken, perhaps, by the very creature which they had encountered and ungratefully slain that night.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13