THE WILD MEN
Nadara did not regain consciousness until Stark had reached shore and was dragging her out upon the beach above the surf. For several minutes after she had opened her eyes she had difficulty in recalling the events that had immediately preceded Stark's attack upon her. She felt the life belt still about her, and as Stark stopped above her to remove it she knew that it was he though she could not distinguish his features.
What had happened? Slowly a realization f the man's bold act forced itself upon her--he had leaped overboard from the Priscilla and swam ashore with her rather than face the consequences of his brutal conduct toward her.
To the girl reared within the protective influences of civilization Nadara's position would have seemed hopeless; but Nadara knew naught of other protection than that afforded by her own quick wits and the agility of her swift young muscles. To her it would have seemed infinitely more appalling to have been confined within the narrow limits of the yacht with this man, for there all was strange and new. She still had half feared and mistrusted all aboard the Priscilla except Thandar's father and Captain Burlinghame; but would they have protected her from Stark? She did not know. Among her own people only a father, brother, or mate protected a woman from one who sought her against her will, and of these she had not upon the little vessel.
But now it was different. Intuitively she knew that upon a savage shore, however strange and unfamiliar it might be, she would have every advantage over the first office of the Priscilla. His life had been spent close to the haunts of civilization; he knew nothing of the woodcraft that was second nature to her; he might perish in a land of plenty through ignorance of where to search for food, and of what was edible and what was not. This much her early experience with Waldo Emerson had taught her. When their paths first had crossed Waldo had been as ignorant as a new-born babe in the craft of life primeval--Nadara had had to teach him everything.
Behind them Nadara heard the gentle sloughing of trees--the myriad noises of the teeming jungle night--and she smiled. It was inky black about them. Stark had removed the life belt and placed it beneath the girl's head. He though her still unconscious--perhaps dead. Now he was wringing the water from his clothes; his back toward her.
Nadara rose to her feet--noiseless as Nagoola. Like a shadow she melted into the blackness of the jungle that fringed the shore. Careful and alert, she picked her way withing the tangled mass for a few yards. At the bole of a large tree she halted, listening. Then she made a low, weird sound with her lips, listening again for a moment after. This she repeated thrice, and then, seemingly satisfied that no danger lurked above, she swung herself into the low-hanging branches, quickly ascending until she found a comfortable seat where she might rest in ease.
Down upon the beach Stark, having wrung the surplus water from his garments, turned to examine and revive the girl, if she still lived. Even in the darkness her form had been plainly visible against the yellow sand, but now she was not there. Stark was dumfounded. His eyes leaped quickly from one point to another, yet nowhere could they discover the girl. There was the beach, the sea and the jungle. Which had she chose for her flight? It did not take Stark long to guess, and immediately he turned his steps toward the shapeless, gloomy mass that marked the forest's edge.
As he approached he went more slowly. The thought of entering that forbidding wood sent cold shivers creeping through him. Could a mere girl have dared its nameless horrors? She must have, and with the decision came new resolution. What a girl had dared certainly he might dare. Again he strode briskly toward the jungle.
Just at its verge he heard a low, weird sound not a dozen paces within the black, hideous tangle. It was Nadara voicing the two notes which some ancient forbear of her tribe had discovered would wring an answering growl from Nagoola, and an uneasy hiss from that other arch enemy of man--the great, slimy serpent whose sinuous coils twined threateningly above them in the breaches of the trees. Only these Nadara feared--these and man. So, before entering a tree at night it was her custom to assure herself that neither Nagoola nor Coovra lurked in the branches of the tree she had chose for sanctuary. Stark beat a hast retreat, nor did he again venture from the beach during the balance of the long, dismal night.
When dawn broke it found Nadara much refreshed by the sleep she had enjoyed within the comparative safety of the great tree, and Stark haggard and exhausted by a sleepless night of terror and regret. He cursed himself, the girl and his bestial passion, and then as his thoughts conjured her lovely face and perfect figure before his mind's eye, he leaped to his feet and swung briskly toward the jungle. He would find her. All that he had sacrificed should not be in vain. He would find her and keep her. Together they would make a home upon this tropical shore. He would get everything out of life that there was to get.
He had taken but a few steps before he discovered, plain in the damp sand before him, the prints of Nadara's naked feet in a well defined trail leading toward the wood. With a smile of satisfaction and victory the man followed it into the maze of vegetation, dank and gloomy even beneath the warm light of the morning sun.
By chance he stumbled directly upon Nadara. She had descended from her tree to search for water. They saw each other simultaneously. The girl turned and fled farther into the forest. Close behind her came the man. For several hundred yards the chase led through the thick jungle which terminated abruptly at the edge of a narrow, rock-covered clearing beyond which loomed sheer, precipitous cliffs, rasing their lofty heads three hundred feet above the forest.
A half smile touched Stark's lips as he saw the barrier that nature had placed in the path of his quarry; but almost instantly it froze into an expression of horror as a slight noise to his right attracted his attention from the girl fleeing before him. For an instant he stood bewildered, then a quick glance toward the girl revealed her scaling the steep cliff with the agility of a monkey, and with a cry to attract her attention he leaped after her once more, but this time himself the quarry--the hunter become the hunted, for after him raced a score of painted savages, brandishing long, slim spears, or waving keen edged parangs.
Nadara had not needed Stark's warning cry to apprise her of the proximity of the wild men. She had seen them the instant that she cleared the jungle, and with the sight of them she knew that she need no longer harbor fear of the white man. In them, though, she saw a graver danger for herself, since they , doubtless, would have little difficulty in overhauling her in their own haunts, while she had not had much cause for worry as to her ability to elude the white man indefinitely.
Part way up the cliffs she paused to look back. Stark had reached the foot of the lowering escarpment a short distance ahead of his pursuers. He had chosen this route because of the each with which the girl had clambered up the rocky barrier, but he had reckoned without taking into consideration the lifetime of practice which lay back of Nadara's agility. From earliest infancy she had lived upon the face and within the caves of steep cliffs. Her first toddling, baby footsteps had been along the edge of narrow shelving ledges.
When the man reached the cliff, however, he found confronting him an apparently unscalable wall. He cast a frightened, appealing glance at the girl far above him. Twice he essayed to scramble out of reach of the advancing savages, whose tattooed faces, pendulous slit ears, and sharp filed, blackened teeth lent to them a more horrid aspect than even that imparted by their murderous weapons or warlike whoops and actions. Each time he slipped back, clutching frantically at rocky projects and such hardy vegetation as had found foothold in the crevices of the granite. His hand were torn and bleeding, his face scratched and his clothing rent. And now the savages were upon him. They had seen that he was unarmed. No need as yet for spear or parang--they would take him alive.
And the girl. They had watched her in amazement as she clambered swiftly up the steep ascent. With all their primitive accomplishments this was beyond even them. They were a forest people and a river people. They dwelt in thatched houses raised high upon long piles. They knew little or nothing of the arts of the cliff dwellers. To them the feat of this strange, white girl was little short of miraculous.
Nadara saw them seize roughly upon the terror-stricken Stark. She saw them bind his hands behind his back, and then she saw them turn their attention once more toward herself.
Three of the warriors attempted to scale the cliff after her. Slowly they ascended. She smiled at their manifest fear and their awkwardness--she need have no fear of these, they never could reach her. She permitted them to approach within a dozen feet of her and then, loosening a bit of the crumbling granite, she hurled it full at the head of the foremost. With a yell of pain and terror he toppled backward upon those below him, the three tumbling, screaming and pawing to the rocks at the base of the cliff.
None of them was killed, through all were badly bruised, and he who had received her missile bled profusely from a wound upon his forehead. Their fellows laughed at them--it was scant comfort they received for being bested by a girl. Then they withdrew a short distance, and squatting in a circle they commenced a lengthy palaver. Their repeated gestures in her direction convinced Nadara that she was the subject of their debate.
Presently one of their number arose and approached the foot of the cliff. There he harangued the girl for several minutes. When he was done he awaited, evidently for a reply from her; but as Nadara had not been able to understand a word of the fellow's language she could but shake her head.
The spokesman returned to his fellow and once again a length council was held. During it Nadara climbed farther aloft, that she might be out of range of the slender spears. Upon a narrow ledge she halted, gathering about her such loose bits of rock as she could dislodge from the face of the cliff--she would be prepared for a sudden onslaught, nor for a moment did she doubt the outcome of the battle. She felt that but for the lack of food and water she could hold this cliff face forever against innumerable savages--could they climb no better than these.
But the wild men did not again attempt to storm her citadel. Instead they leaped suddenly from their council, and without a glance toward her disappeared in the forest, taking their prisoner with them. Of our sight of the girl, they stationed two of their number just within the screening verdure to capture the girl should she descend. The others hastened parallel with the cliff until a sudden turn inland took them to a point from which they could again emerge into the clearing out of the sight of Nadara.
Here they took immediately to a well-worn path that led back and forth upward across the face of the cliff. Stark was dragged and prodded forward with them in their ascent. Sharp spears and the points of keen parangs urged him to haste. By the time the party reached the summit the white man was bleeding from a score of superficial wounds.
Now the part turned back along the top of the bluff in the direction from which they had come.
Nadara, unable to fathom their reason for having abandoned the attempt to capture here, was, however, no lulled into any feeling of false security. She knew the cliff was the safest place for her, and yet the pangs of thirst and hunger warned her that she must soon leave it to seek sustenance. She was about to descend to the jungle below in search of food and water, when the faintest of movements of earth sweeping creepers depending from a giant buttress tree below her and just within the verge of the forest arrested her acute attention. She knew that the movement had been caused by some animal beneath the tree, and finally, as she watched intently for a moment or two, she descried an Argus pheasant with which the war caps of the savages had been adorned.
Though she knew now that she was watched, she also knew that she could reach the top of the cliff and possibly find both food and drink, if it chanced to be near, before the savages could overtake her. Then she must depend upon her wits and her speed to regain the safety of the cliff ahead of them. That they would attempt to scale the barrier at the same point at which she climbed it she doubted, for she had seen that they were comparatively unaccustomed to this sort of going, and so she guessed that if they followed her upward at all it would be by means of some beaten trail of which they had knowledge.
And so Nadara scaled the heights, passing over and around obstacles that would have blanched the cheek of the hardiest mountain climber, with the ease and speed of the chamois. At the summit she found a open, park-like forest, and into this she plunged, running forward in quest of food and drink. A few familiar fruits and nuts assuaged the keenest pangs of hunger, but nowhere could she find water or signs of water.
She had traveled for almost a mile, directly inland from the coast, when she stumbled, purely by chance, upon a little spring hidden in a leafy bower. The cool, clear water refreshed her, imparting to her new life and energy. After drinking her fill she sought some means of carrying a little supply of the priceless liquid back to her cliff side refuge, but though she searched diligently she could discover no growing thing that might be transformed into a vessel.
There as nothing for it then other than to return, without the water, trusting to her wits to find the means of eluding the savages from time to time as it became necessary for her to quench her thirst. Later, she was sure, she should discover some form of gourd, or the bladder of an animal in which she could hoard a few precious drops.
Her woodcraft, combined with her almost uncanny sense of direction, led her directly back to the spot at which she had topped he cliff. There was no sign of the savages. She breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped to the edge of the forest, and then, all about her, from behind trees and bushes, rose the main body of the wild men. With shouts of savage glee they leaped upon her. There was no chance for flight--in every direction brutal faces and murderous weapons barred her way.
With greater consideration that she had looked forward to they signaled her to accompany them. Stark was with them. To him slight humanity was shown. If he lagged, a spear point, already red with his blood, urged him to greater speed; but to the girl no cruelty nor indignity was shown.
In single file, the prisoners in the center of the column, the party made its way inland. All day they marched, until Stark, unused to this form of exertion, staggered and fell a dozen times each mile.
Nadara could almost have found it in her heart to be sorry for him, had it not been for the fact that she realized all to keenly that but for his own bestial brutality neither of them need have been there to be subjected to the present torture, and to be tortured by anticipation of horrors to come.
To the girl it seemed that her fate must be a thousand fold more terrible than the mere death the man was to suffer, for that these degraded savages would let him live seemed beyond the pale of reason. She pray to the God of which her Thandar had taught her for a quick and merciful death, yet while she prayed she well knew that no such boon could be expected.
She compared her captors to Korth and Flatfoot, with Big Fist and Thurg, nor did she look for greater compassion in them than in the men she had known best.
Late in the afternoon it became evident that Stark could proceed no farther unless the savages carried him. That they had any intention of so doing was soon disproved. The first officer of the Priscilla had fallen for the twentieth time. A dozen vicious spear thrusts failed to bring him staggering and tottering, to his feet as in the past.
The chief of the party approached the fallen white, kicking him in the sides and face, and at last pricking him with the sharp point of his parang. Stark but lay an inert mass of suffering flesh, and groaned. The chief grew angry. He grasped the white man around the body and raised him to his feet, but the moment that he released him Stark fell to the earth once more.
At last the warrior could evidently control his rage no further. With a savage whoop he swung his parang aloft, bringing it down full upon the neck of the prostrate white. The head, grinning horribly, rolled to Nadara's feet. She looked at it, lying there staring up at her out of its black and sightless eyes, without the slightest trace of emotion.
Nadara, the cave girl, was accustomed to death in all its most horrible and sudden forms. She saw before her but the head of an enemy. It was nothing to her--Stark had only himself to thank.
The chief gathered the severed head into a bit of bark cloth, and fastening it to the end of his spear, signaled his followers to resume the journey.
On and on they went, farther into the interior, and with them went Nadara, borne to what nameless fate she could but guess.