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THOMAS CHARLES BRIDGES
(WRITING AS T.C. BRIDGES)

MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON

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Published by F. Warne & Co., London & New York, 1935

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Version Date: 2019-02-07
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Cover of "Mountains of the Moon," F. Warne & Co., London & New York, 1935


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Title page of "Mountains of the Moon," F. Warne & Co., London & New York, 1935


TABLE OF CONTENTS



Frontispiece.

Illustration

He gave a roar of anger, then up shot his broad-bladed spear.


I. — HOW BART HID THE HARE

JIM WITHERS pulled up short and stood listening.

"Hear that, Bart?" he asked.

Bart Bryson, who had hardly said a word since Jim joined him at the head of the lane, looked vaguely at the younger boy.

"Hear what?" he asked.

Jim stared hard at his friend.

"What's the matter with you, Bart? I never saw you like this before. What's wrong?"

"Everything," Bart answered. Then all of a sudden he seemed to wake up. His sturdy figure straightened, his grey eyes became alive. "Yes, I hear it," he said sharply, and the words were barely out of his mouth before a hare springing through a gap in the hedge on the right landed in the lane.

The little creature was covered with mud, she was almost exhausted, and her large, liquid eyes were full of fear. Instead of bolting away at sight of the two boys she came straight towards them, and cowered at their feet.

"Well, I never!" began Jim.

But it was Bart who stooped like a flash and picked up the hare. Only just in time, for next instant two greyhounds burst through the hedge and stopped, evidently wondering what had become of their quarry. Greyhounds are gaze hounds. They hunt by sight and not, like foxhounds, by scent, and as Bart had already hidden the hare under the skirt of his loose jacket, the dogs were puzzled.

"Well, I'm blessed!" exclaimed Jim. "I never saw anything like that before."

"You'll see something else pretty soon," said Bart. "This sounds like the chap who owns the dogs."

Sure enough, someone came crashing through the hedge and leapt down into the muddy lane. He was a tall boy, taller than Bart and probably a year older, and would have been quite good looking had it not been for his conceited expression. His hair was black as ink, he had very dark eyes, and his skin was darker than that of an average Englishman. Behind him was a stubby little fellow who looked like a groom or kennel boy. The new arrival glanced at his dogs, then turned to Bart.

"Where's that hare?" he demanded. All of a sudden he spotted what Bart was holding so carefully under his coat. "You mean to say you've picked it up!" he exclaimed! "Of all the cheek! Put it down at once."

Bart had quite lost his dull look. His face was slightly flushed, and his lips were very firm.

"I haven't the least intention of putting it down," he answered, "at least not till you and your dogs have gone back where you belong."

The other looked as if he could not believe his ears. His face flushed darkly.

"You cheeky young cub!" he cried. "Drop that hare this minute, or take the consequences."

The little groom man slipped up close to Bart.

"Let him have it, sir," he whispered urgently. "He's Mr. Jet Norcross, and a terror when he's upset."

Bart smiled. "He's going to be very badly upset if he doesn't keep his temper and clear out," he remarked. "Jim, take the hare and keep those dogs off it."

As Jim took the hare from Bart one of the dogs bounded forward and snapped at it, but Jim gave the beast a cut with his ash- plant which sent it snarling back.

"You dare hit my dog!" shouted Master Jet and sprang at Jim.

But Bart stepped quickly between and deftly thrusting out a foot tripped Jet who came down heavily on hands and knees in the mud.

He was up in a flash, and rushed at Bart, hitting wildly. Instead of dodging, Bart bent right down, caught the other round the knees, then hoisted with all his might. The natural result was that Jet left the ground, flew like a rocket over Bart's shoulder, and landed with a crash in the hedge at the side of the lane. The bushes saved him from being really hurt, but as it happened he struck a particularly thorny patch, and stuck fast.

Jim grinned broadly, Bart looked on calmly, but as for the little man he turned white and shaky.

"Run afore he gets out, sir," he begged of Bart. "He'll jest about kill you when he gets free."

Bart's answer was to take Jet by the legs and drag him out. The moment he was clear Jet rounded on Bart like a tiger. The thorns had not improved his smart tweeds, and he had a long bleeding scratch down one cheek, but to do him justice he was still full of fight, and he rushed at Bart again, hitting out with both hands. This time Bart stood his ground, and fending off the windmill blows awaited his chance, then sent in one straight left. His fist caught Jet on the point of the chin, and Jet sat down in the mud and this time stayed there.

"Sorry," said Bart quietly, "but you would have it."

Jet sat in the road and glared. He was too shaken to do much else. Bart turned to the little man.

"He'll be all right in a minute," he said; "then you can take him home. Come on, Jim."

"Rum bird that!" observed Jim as they went away.

"Bit of a spoilt beauty," agreed Bart. Then his pleasant face hardened. "But it was a rotten business hunting a hare like that, especially a doe. The chances are she's got young 'uns up on the down. I vote we go up there and turn her loose."

"We'd better be sharp about it," said Jim softly, "for here's more trouble if I'm not mistaken."

Bart looked up. "This old boy on horseback, you mean," he answered. "It does look rather as if he was waiting for us."

The old boy, as Bart had called him, was a thin-faced, yet very dignified old gentleman mounted on a quiet cob, and it occurred to Bart that he had probably seen the whole business. And so he had, for as the boys came alongside he spoke.

"May I ask your name?" he said to Bart.

"I am Bart Bryson, sir," replied Bart.

"Son of the explorer?"

"Yes, sir."

The other nodded. "My name is Clinton. I am uncle of that youngster whom you left sitting in the lane." He paused and looked hard at Bart. "Will you come up to Morden with me?" he asked.

Bart did not hesitate. "Very good, sir," he answered quietly, and turned to Jim "Take the hare up on the down, Jim, and turn her loose. And you might tell Dad that I am paying Mr. Clinton a visit."

Mr. Clinton did not say a word as he led the way to the iron gates of a drive and through them into a small park and so to a fine old house standing among splendid trees. At the door a groom came and took his horse, and Bart followed his leader up the steps into a fine hall with polished parquet floor and great stained-glass windows. They went through this into a small cosy room with a log fire burning in an open grate, and bookcases reaching almost to the ceiling.

"Sit down," said Mr. Clinton, and Bart obeyed, wondering what was going to happen, and not feeling very happy.

Mr. Clinton took the chair opposite, and sat looking at Bart for so long as to make him quite uncomfortable.

"So you thrashed Jet?" he said at last.

"I had to," said Bart simply.

"Oh, don't think I am complaining! I am very glad you did beat him. Do you think you could do it again?"

Bart gasped. He had quite thought he was in for trouble, and this answer of Mr. Clinton's was so surprising he could hardly believe his senses. Mr. Clinton smiled, and it was such a nice smile that Bart began to feel better.

"I really mean it," said his host. "I want to know if you could thrash Jet again."

Bart laughed. "Why, of course I could, sir. He doesn't know the first thing about boxing."

"Will you come and live here and do it then?" asked the other.

"No, sir," said Bart promptly. "Of course I won't."

Mr. Clinton nodded. "I thought you'd say that, and of course I didn't quite mean it. Bart, listen. Jet Norcross is my sister's son; she married a man who was half Spanish, and they lived in South America. Jet's father died when he was only six, and his mother spoilt him badly. She was very well off, and there was a big house with lots of servants and every luxury.

"She died last year and left the boy to me, and frankly I cannot do anything with him. I sent him to school, but he lost his temper and struck a master and was back on my hands in a month. Then I got a tutor for him, and the tutor stayed three days and left with a black eye and fifty pounds compensation money in his pocket. Jet runs wild, and no one has the least control over him. With that blazing Spanish temper of his, he will get into dreadful trouble one of these days, and I am at my wits' ends. When I saw you hammer him just now I thought that I had at last found someone who could handle him. What do you say, Bryson?"

Bart shook his head. "I'm sorry, sir, but it's a bit out of my line."

"Wait!" said Mr. Clinton. "Don't make up your mind in a hurry. Jet comes in for a very large fortune when he is twenty-one, and I too am a rich man. I may say that money is no object, and that I should be prepared to pay you very well if you would come and live here with him and act as bear-leader."

"It wouldn't be a bit of good, sir. If you'd take advice from a youngster like me the only thing would be to send him abroad—into the wilds, I mean."

"Then take him into the wilds. Who better than you, for I believe you have already been in Africa with your father?"

Bart hesitated, and the other saw it.

"Remember, money is no object," he urged.

"Do you really mean that, sir? Would you go as high as £2,000?"

Mr. Clinton looked surprised for a moment.

"That's a large sum, but yes, I would."

"May I explain, sir?"

"Do," said Mr. Clinton cordially.

"It's this way, sir. My father has had bad news. His partner, Mr. Mark Murdoch, has disappeared."

"Disappeared?"

"Yes, in Africa. He and all his boys—carriers, you know—were on their way to a place where Mr. Murdoch had heard of a quantity of ivory, but they never reached it, and Dad believes that they have been taken prisoners by a tribe up in the hills."

"What hills?"

"Ruwenzori, sir."

"I know. Just north of the Equator. Yes, there's some bad country there—and bad niggers."

"You know it, Mr. Clinton?"

"No, but I have been in Uganda, and I know something of Africa." He paused and gazed at Bart. "Do you mean that you want to take Jet out there?" he asked.

Bart hesitated. "I know it's rather a large order, sir, but after what you said, it seemed—well—a sort of chance."

"Is your father going?"

"He's mad to go, but can't afford it. He had put up every penny, he had to pay for the expedition, and now I don't think he has enough left for our fares to Mombasa, let alone the expense of carriers and an expedition up country."

Mr. Clinton did not answer, and Bart went on quickly: "But of course it's absurd to think of your putting up so much money, sir. It was only—"

The other cut him short. "Not at all, Bryson. £2,000 would be a cheap price to make a man of my nephew, and I would pay it gladly. And if you could not do it in Africa you could not do it anywhere. I was thinking of the one hitch in the matter."

"What's that, sir?"

"Getting Jet to go. I can't force him to accompany you."

"Ask him, sir, and if you don't succeed, I'll have a try."

Mr. Clinton looked doubtful. "I'm afraid he will turn it down, Bryson, but I will do my best. No, don't go yet. You must have some tea first."


II. — JET TRIES TRICKERY

BART reached Morden sharp at ten the next morning and found Mr. Clinton waiting for him.

"What luck, sir?" he asked.

"I hardly know, Bryson. At any rate Jet has promised he would see you. Have you said anything to your father?"

"Not a word, sir. It would be such a terrible disappointment to him if it didn't come off."

"Quite so. I think you were wise. Ah, here is Jet."

Young Norcross came across the hall. He was wearing riding breeches and gaiters and looked so big and powerful that Bart rather wondered how he had come to throw him so easily the day before.

"Hullo!" said Jet. "Your name's Bryson, isn't it. Uncle says you've got some stunt on that I'm to hear about. I'm game to talk it over. Come on."

He was civil as pie, but Bart caught a queer glimmer in his dark eyes and wondered what was working in his mind. Bart had not knocked about Africa for nothing. He knew men better perhaps than any boy of his age in England, yet whatever suspicions he had, he was not going to show them.

"Right," he said, and went with Jet.

Outside the front door, Jet spoke again.

"Do you ride?" he asked.

"I have ridden," Bart answered.

"Good business!" Jet's tone was quite friendly, but all the same Bart sensed trouble. "I've got a mount for you, and we'll just go for a tootle round, and you can tell me all about this game."

He led the way to the stable yard where two grooms were holding two saddled horses. One was a nice-looking bay, the other a blaze-faced chestnut.

"That's my tat," said Jet pointing to the bay. "The other's for you. Pedro he's called. Fine beast, ain't he?"

Bart looked at the horse. He was standing quietly enough, but his ears were laid back, and his eyes showed a deal too much white to be healthy. It did not take Bart five seconds to realise that the beast was vicious.

"Like him?" asked Jet.

"Not a bit," replied Bart.

Jet grinned. "He is a bit of a handful," he admitted. "But see here, Bryson, I'm not going off on a trip with any chap who can't handle a horse. If you ride Pedro and stick on for five minutes I'll come to Africa with you. If you can't it's a washout. Now what about it?"

Bart did not hesitate. The stake was too big.

"I'll take you on," he said promptly.

Jet grinned again, showing all his very white teeth, as he watched Bart go up to the chestnut.

"Can you ride, sir?" asked the groom in an anxious whisper. "This here horse is a proper terror."

"I can stick on a bit anyhow," Bart answered. "Has he any special tricks?"

"Bolting, sir. He bucks a bit too, but it's bolting you got to watch for. Hold him well on the curb for his mouth's like iron."

"Thanks," said Bart as he swung into the saddle. He felt the horse's quarters heave upwards. "Now for it!" he said to himself.

Up went Pedro, head down, back arched, tail tucked tight between his legs—up, then down again with all four feet close together, giving Bart a jar that made his teeth rattle. Up again, and down again until Bart felt as if his bones were coming unstuck. Bart had not been boasting when he had told the groom that he could stick on, and both the men watched him as he sat well back, his knees tight against the saddle, clinging with his heels to the mad brute's sides.

Six times Pedro bucked, then finding he could not get rid of his rider in this fashion changed his tactics, and swinging like a flash made a bolt for his stable.

"Hold him, sir," roared the groom.

But Bart had already tightened his grip on the reins and using all his strength managed to pull the horse's head round. Pedro reared, but Bart snatching off his cap struck him with it over the head. He squealed with rage but came down and started kicking like a crazy thing. His heels missed Jet's horse by a matter of inches, and Jet quickly pulled round.

"Come on," he said, and led the way out of the yard.

Pedro followed in a series of wild bounds, but this was nothing after his bucking, and Bart's spirits rose. He felt he was past the worst of it. Quite three minutes must have passed, and if he could stay on for two more he had won the day.

Jet glanced at him as he came alongside, and Bart fancied there was a scared look in his queer dark eyes.

"You ain't doing so badly," he said with a half sneer, "but the five minutes are not up yet."

He kicked his bay as he spoke, and the creature sprang forward down the drive. Instantly Pedro made a bound which almost unseated Bart, then with a sudden snatch caught the bit between his powerful teeth and was away. He passed Jet's mount like a flash and went straight down the drive, scattering the gravel under his iron-shod hoofs.

With his feet firm in the stirrups, Bart leaned back, throwing every ounce of strength in his body into an effort to stop the mad brute. He might as well have tried to stop a locomotive, for Pedro had the bit hard gripped between his teeth.

"Nothing for it but to sit tight," said Bart to himself. "I only hope we don't meet anything."

A gardener saw the great horse racing down the drive and pluckily ran forward shouting. But before he could reach him, Pedro was past and the next moment had swept out of the gate into the road, where he swerved and went straight down it.

A car was coming up, and the driver hastily turned into the side of the road and clapped on his brakes. As Pedro tore past Bart had just time to see that it was his father at the wheel, and to catch the look of horror on his face.

"All right, Dad!" he yelled. "Don't worry."

But whether his father heard or not he could not say. Pedro swung round a curve, and here was fresh trouble: a huge lorry lumbering up the centre of the road. The only chance to pass in safety was to get Pedro on the footpath, and leaning forward Bart took hold of the near rein and pulled with all his might.

The result was startling. Pedro swung sharp to the left, and the gaping lorry-man had a vision of the great horse and his rider poised in mid air over the hedge. The unexpected leap lost Bart one of his stirrups, but clutching the horse's mane, he managed somehow to stay in the saddle, and as Pedro raced across a wide pasture he caught his stirrup again. Bart's eyes were shining with excitement.

"I've won," he cried aloud. "The five minutes must be up. Steady now, Pedro!"

But the chestnut was still fresh as paint, and Bart's light weight nothing to his mighty muscles. He rushed on at the same tremendous speed. It seemed only a moment before they reached the far side of the field. The hedge was big, but Pedro did not hesitate. This time Bart was ready, and he actually enjoyed Pedro's sailing leap. The horse landed safely and galloped on.

The field was plough, and Bart hoped the heavy going would tire his mad mount, but not a bit of it. Pedro did not check for a moment, and took a third hedge with the same effortless ease. The ground fell away in a long slope, and the horse went faster than ever. Bart knew that the river Ravy ran through the bottom of the valley. He could see its sunlit surface gleaming among the trees in the distance.

"That ought to stop him if anything will," said Bart to himself.

There was another hedge in front, a low one this time. It was not until he reached it that Bart realised what was beyond, and then it was too late to do anything, for as Pedro jumped Bart saw beneath him a long, steep, grassy bank dropping to the railway which ran at the bottom of the cutting. It looked all odds that Pedro would land on his head and roll all the way down smashing the life out of Bart as he went.

But the horse was clever as a cat, and somehow saved both himself and his rider. He came down with all four feet bunched together and slid down the bank on his haunches. Bart hoped to check him at the bottom, but the horse, badly frightened by his adventure, no sooner felt firm ground under his feet than he darted off as hard as ever. There was only a single line of rails, and Pedro raced along between them. Bart could do nothing except pray they would not meet a train. Next instant a distant whistle reached his ears.

The sound came from behind him, and Bart glancing back saw smoke barely half a mile away. He looked at the banks on either side, but they were far too steep to climb. His only hope was to get clear of the cutting before the train caught them, and he drove his heels in and beat Pedro's flanks with his hat and shouted to him to go faster.

Pedro seemed almost to fly, but even so the train gained. The cutting walls grew higher, and all of a sudden Bart realised that the cutting ended in the black mouth of a tunnel. His blood ran cold at the sight, but he had no choice.

"Let's pray it's not a long one," was his thought, as he and his horse shot into the gloom.

The whistle came again, closer, louder. The driver was whistling for the tunnel, and Bart heard the roar and hammer of the wheels on the rails.

A false step, a stumble, and nothing could save him. Seconds seemed like hours. Would the tunnel never end? Bart did not dare to look back, but he knew the train could not be more than fifty yards behind him. Then a pale glimmer showed ahead, and light gleamed on the dripping brickwork of the tunnel walls. A moment later a pointsman at work near the mouth saw the horse and rider dash out of the dark arch, with the train almost at their heels.

The line beyond the tunnel was cut in the face of a steep bank dropping to the Ravy. On the left the hill rose sharply; to the right was a drop of five or six feet down to the swirling eddies of the stream.

Bart saw one chance only and took it. Seizing the off rein, he jerked it with all his remaining strength, and with one tremendous bound Pedro left the line. As the train roared by the startled passengers saw a great chestnut horse with a boy on his back sail through the air and vanish with a tremendous splash in the rushing waters of the river. Then before they were out of sight of the spot those who had their heads out of the windows saw horse and rider rise again, the boy clinging to the horse's mane, the horse swimming strongly for the far bank.

Pedro swam almost as well as he galloped. He reached the far side, and as he did so Bart slipped off, got hold of a bush, and hauled himself out. Pedro took longer to struggle up the steep clay bank so that when he reached the top Bart was waiting for him and caught him by the bridle. The icy plunge had cooled the terror, and he stood quiet as a sheep while Bart hoisted himself into the saddle.

"Get on home," said Bart, giving him a dig in the ribs, and the chestnut cantered off like a lady's hack.

The pair had hardly reached the road before Bart saw one of the Morden grooms riding towards him at a gallop.

"My word, but I'm glad to see you, sir," gasped the man as he pulled up. "Mr. Clinton, he's in a terrible way. But for any sake, where've you been, sir—in the river?"

"There, among other places," smiled Bart. "Where's Mr. Norcross?"

"Somewheres out looking for you. Why, here he comes!"

Jet came riding hard up a side lane. There was not much colour in his face, and he had lost all his usual uppishness.

"By Jove, I'm glad to see you, Bryson," he exclaimed, and there was no doubt he really meant it. "I don't mind telling you I got a nasty turn when I saw you go down the embankment on to the line."

"Oh, you saw that, did you?" replied Bart. "Then you know I stayed on for full five minutes."

"You did that all right. By gum, but you can ride!" he added, with a sort of unwilling admiration. "But you're soaked, and so's the gee. What happened?"

Bart told him as they rode back. As they came up to the house Bart saw his father with Mr. Clinton in the porch. Mr. Bryson, a lean, hard-bitten man of forty, came striding down the steps.

"What fool's game have you been playing, Bart?" he demanded sharply. "Haven't I enough troubles on my hands without your adding to them?"

Bart was so dismayed that he could not answer, but Mr. Clinton came to his rescue.

"Don't blame your son, Mr. Bryson. If I am not much mistaken, the whole business is the fault of my nephew. Jet, was it you who put young Bryson up on Pedro?"

Jet scowled. "I wanted to see if he could ride," he answered sulkily.

"I suppose you never considered the chances of his breaking his neck," said Mr. Bryson sharply.

"He needn't have ridden the horse if he didn't want to," retorted Jet.

Bart cut in quickly. "Dad, I had a jolly good reason for riding that horse, and anyhow neither of us is any the worse. Please don't say anything more about it—at least until we get home."

Mr. Bryson gave his son a quick, sharp look, and saw at once that there was something more behind all this than he understood.

"Right," he said curtly. "And now you'd best come home with me at once and change."

"He is not going to drive home in those wet things," said Mr. Clinton. "Jet, you can give him a change."

"Oh, I can find him some duds!" said Jet carelessly. "Come on, Bryson."

He led the way up to a luxurious bathroom, and came back in a minute with an armful of clothes.

"Here you are," he said.

"Wait a minute," said Bart. "Does what you said go?"

Jet flung up his head. "Of course it does. Do you think a gentleman breaks his word?"

"A gentleman doesn't," returned Bart drily, as he stripped off his soaking shirt.

Jet flushed darkly. "What do you mean by that, you young cub?"

"Just what I said," replied Bart. "But since you're sticking to your promise there's no need to get excited."

Jet stood looking at Bart, and his expression was not pleasant.

"See here, Bryson, I've let myself in for this trip with you, but don't fancy because I'm coming that you're going to boss me."

Bart laughed. "My good ass, I haven't a notion of doing anything of the kind. The boss of the show is my Dad, and you and I have both got to take his orders."

Jet scowled. "I don't take orders from anyone," he said angrily. "I'm my own boss."

"That's just where you're all wrong," laughed Bart.

"What do you mean?"

"Why, that no fellow is his own boss until he can keep his temper," returned Bart.

Jet bit his lip. "I've a jolly good mind to paste you one for that," he exclaimed.

Bart laughed again. "I wouldn't if I were you. You don't know the first thing about boxing, and you'd only get a real hammering. But what's the use of quarrelling? You and I have got to be together for quite a time, and it'll be a lot jollier if we make up our minds to get on decently. What do you say? Will you shake on it?"

Jet looked oddly at Bart for a moment. Then he smiled crookedly.

"Perhaps you're right," he said, and took the offered hand.

Half an hour later Bart and his father drove away from Morden. Jet and Bickell, the odd little man who acted as his body servant, watched them go. Bickell ventured a question.

"Be you really going with them, sir?"

Jet laughed. "Yes, I'm going," he said.

"To Afriky, sir?"

"Yes, to Africa. Like to come, Bickell?"

"What, me, sir? All among them swamps and niggers and lions. Not if I knows it." He paused. "And you won't like it either, sir."

Jet laughed again. "One can always come home," he said. His lips tightened. "I shan't go a yard further than I feel like going, Bickell, but you can keep your mouth shut about that."


III. — A MIDNIGHT ADVENTURE

LANTERN in hand, Bart Bryson thrust his head into the tent where Jet Norcross was sleeping.

"Jet—I say, Jet!"

The other stirred; his heavy eyelids rose.

"What's the matter?" he demanded drowsily. "Can't you let a fellow sleep?"

"Sleep!" repeated Bart. "It's a trance you must have been in. Mean to say you haven't heard the row?"

"Haven't heard a thing. I tell you I was asleep."

"You'd best wake up then. The river's rising like a tide. It'll be over this bank in less than half an hour. We're shifting to higher ground the other side. Most of 'em are gone already."

Jet sat up, thrust his mosquito net aside, and flung his legs over the side of the cot.

"What a beast of a country!" he said bitterly. "Can't even get a night's sleep. Last night the hyenas kept me awake till dawn, and the night before that brute of a lion roused us all. I'm fed up."

"Better be fed up than drowned," replied Bart. "You'd best hurry, Jet, for the river's alive with crocs, and they'll be out over the bank in a precious short time. Besides the stream's getting stronger every minute, and we shall have our work cut out to cross. Here—Forty and I will shove your things together while you dress. Come on, Forty."

An immense negro stepped out of the gloom into the circle of light. He had a flat nose, a huge mouth, and his face was black as a coal. Yet in spite of his ugliness Forty, a Kroo boy from the coast, was the best servant that Mr. Bryson had ever had, a simple, faithful soul, with the heart of a lion and muscles of steel. His huge, capable hands had packed all Jet's belongings before that sulky gentleman had finished dressing; then he and Bart folded up the tent, and the three, heavily laden, made their way cautiously down the river bank.

Out in the hot blackness the river sucked and swirled with strange noises as the flood, caused by some fierce storm a hundred miles away up in the hills, rose swiftly, and then the deep gong-like bellow of a bull crocodile split the night.

"Here we are," said Bart as he got hold of a rope and pulled up a canoe. "Slip the things in, Forty. Go easy, Jet. There are too many snakes along the bank to be healthy."

"Where are all the others?" demanded Jet.

"Gone across. It's about a mile upstream."

They got in, Bart and Forty took the paddles, and they pushed out.

"She run berra quick," said Forty as he dug in his paddle.

"It's filthily dark," growled Jet.

"Yes, I hope they'll show us a light," said Bart. "Pity we couldn't have waited an hour. The moon will be up then."

A crash, and a shower of warm spray flew over them.

"What's that?" cried Jet in alarm.

"A croc," Bart told him. "Paddle, Forty. We'll be all right once we're away from the bank."

A moment later the dim outline of the black forest trees on the bank had faded, and the rough dug-out was driving against the full force of the flood. Its silent power was terrific, and now and then huge logs and trees torn from the broken banks loomed up. Bart knew that if one hit their canoe it meant disaster, but he said nothing.

On they drove. They could see nothing except the water that glimmered darkly around them; they could not tell what progress they were making or whether they were making any progress at all.

"These mosquitoes are simply awful," grumbled Jet.

Bart's lip curled, but he made no answer. He had a notion there would be something worse than mosquitoes to put up with before long. Forty spoke.

"Whar dat light, baas? I no see him."

"I don't expect they've had time to light a fire yet," Bart told him. "But we must be near the other side."

"I see dem trees," said Forty.

As he spoke the canoe was caught in a whirlpool which spun her round in spite of Forty's efforts. For a moment it was touch and go; then they were shot clear to find themselves close under a bank crowned with tall trees.

"Let's land," said Jet sharply. "If we get caught in another of those beastly spins we shall all be drowned."

"I tink him right, baas," said Forty. "We stop here till moon him rise."

"Right," said Bart. "Jet, hold the lantern so as we can see to land."

The light of the lantern was reflected from a pair of narrow green eyes set close together. Forty struck with his paddle, and six feet of deadly green mamba writhed with broken back. Forty shovelled the poisonous brute into the water and stepped ashore.

"Water, him still rise," he said. "We make tie dem canoe pretty strong."

They tied her with a long rope to a tree well up the bank, then taking their guns, mosquito nets, and blankets, went cautiously up the slope. Came a crash in the bushes, and a beast ugly as a bad dream rushed across in front, its red eyes and long white tusks gleaming in the lantern light.

"What's that?" cried Jet.

"Only a wart-hog," said Bart. Then as the light showed more shadows in the bush beyond he stopped. "Forty, this place is full of beasts."

"I tink dem drove here by de ribber, baas," said Forty.

A shattering roar crashed through the gloom. "A lion!" gasped Jet, cocking his rifle.

Bart pulled up. "It's a lion all right, and there are buffalo close by. What are we going to do, Forty?"

"Climb dem tree," Forty remarked briefly. "Den we be safe."

It was not a particularly pleasant suggestion, but for once Jet made no objection. They chose a huge mapoli, a tree not unlike an English elm, and swung themselves up. Thirty feet above the ground they found a thick limb running straight out on which they could all sit with some comfort.

Beneath in the gloom they could hear the sound of many moving things, uneasy stampings, now and then a muffled bellow. But they could see nothing. Above them, too, were rustlings which told of monkeys in the higher branches. The mosquitoes were cruel, but they wrapped their nets around their heads, and this saved them.

At last the moon rose above the trees. It looked double its usual size and was the colour of copper. Its light fell upon banks of white mist which drifted over endless stretches of swirling water. Forty looked all round, then turned to Bart.

"I tink dem ribber, he go round behind us, baas," he remarked.

Bart whistled softly. "You mean we're on an island?" He looked again. "You're right, Forty, and it won't even be an island very long. The water's coming up so fast it will be all over it before morning."

Jet who had been nodding roused.

"Then for goodness' sake let's get off the beastly place," he snapped.

"Nothing doing, I'm afraid, Jet," Bart answered. "Look down."

Jet looked down. A multitude of eyes shone luminous in the darkness around the foot of their tree. Jet shivered.

"Nice mess you've got us into," he said angrily.

Bubbling and gurgling the flood crept up, and as the land space lessened the beasts crowded closer. The moon was high now, and looking down the refugees could see great hairy buffalo, antelope with long straight horns, bearded hartebeest and many other creatures crowded in a surging mass. Around and among them prowled two lions. The strange thing was that the lions made no attempt to attack the other creatures, but now and then growled and at intervals roared terribly. From a tree near by a leopard coughed and snarled, while always overhead the branches rustled where a multitude of monkeys moved restlessly.

Pungent scents rose from the packed mass below. There was a reek of civet, mixed with the odour of crushed acacia and other plants. The terrible part of it was the agonized screams which rose now and then as some unfortunate animal was seized by a crocodile and dragged struggling beneath the yellow swirls of the ever rising flood. The river was full of the hideous brutes gathered to their terrible feast, and the moonlight showed their scaly forms floating like logs all around the ever lessening island.

"Looks like a second edition of Noah's flood," said Bart at last.

Jet smacked viciously at a mosquito.

"And it's your fault, you idiot!" he snapped. "If you'd only roused me earlier we could have gone with the rest."

Bart laughed. "You are the limit, Jet. It was jolly lucky for you that I remembered you at all."

"That was your job, wasn't it?" returned Jet sourly. "You brought me out to this horrible country."

"What him mean, baas—horrible country?" asked Forty. "I tink dem country him lib in much more horribler dan dis. I go dere one time wid big ship, and dere ain't no sun, no warm in de air. All de people dey wears macletoshes and umblebrellas. Ugh, dat's de horriblest country!"

In spite of his extremely uncomfortable and rather dangerous position Bart laughed again.

"At any rate there are no lions there, Forty, except in cages," he said. "And we don't have floods like this."

Jet was not at all amused. "Are we going to get out of this alive?" he demanded.

"Oh, I have hopes!" Bart told him. "But I'm afraid we'll have to wait till daylight. There's rather too much of a menagerie below there to risk going down for the present."

Bart spoke lightly, but he did not feel as cheerful as he pretended to be. The water rose and rose, and there was no saying when the crest of the flood would pass. And even as he looked down at the strange congregation of beasts below, there came a rending roar and a great tree, its roots sapped by the swirling waters, fell over into the flood. Screams that were almost human arose as its terrified occupants, monkeys and baboons, found themselves dropping into the jaws of the terrible crocodiles, but luckily for them the tree swam high above the flooded river and most of the poor creatures seemed to be still safe in the branches.

"Is that what's going to happen to us?" asked Jet harshly.

Bart grew a little impatient. "You're a cheerful sort of johnny for a job like this," he retorted. "Do buck up, man! You might remember that you're getting a sight that precious few people have ever seen."

"Personally I prefer the Zoo," sneered Jet, and Bart, seeing it was hopeless, remained silent.

Time passed, and still the flood rose, though more slowly. The buffalo were grouped around the tree which, big as it was, shook under the pushing of their ton-weight bodies. Now and then one of them would lower its head and drive furiously at something creeping, half seen, over the soggy ground.

"Dem crocs, dey try get dem buffalo," muttered Forty.

"Strikes me the buffalo are getting them," replied Bart grimly as he saw a scaly length writhing, with its pale lower side uppermost. "Brutes! If I had the cartridges I'd shoot 'em."

But cartridges are precious in Central Africa, and not to be wasted on crocodiles. Bart leaned back against the trunk of the tree. He was deadly sleepy but dared not doze off for fear of falling. He found some chocolate in his pocket and divided it. The lantern burned out, and the only light was that of the moon.

"Water, him fall," said Forty at last, and Bart seeing he was right gave a sigh of relief.

He could see the canoe riding safely at the end of her rope, and hoped that, when dawn came, they would be able to get off in safety. But he was troubled about his father, for he knew he would be desperately anxious. He hoped that he and the native "boys" were safe on high ground, but it was impossible to say where they were.

Jet said never a word, but by this time Bart was accustomed to his sulky fits. He had had plenty of experience of them during the six weeks that they had been travelling up from the coast.

The night seemed endless, but at last a greyness crept up from the East, and Bart's spirits rose as he realised the dawn was at hand. As the light increased it showed the huge flood rolling past yellow with mud and carrying with it trees, dead animals, all sorts of rubbish. And though the water was falling the rising ground on which their tree stood was still an island so that the creatures penned there could not get away. Bart looked down at the huge hairy backs of the buffaloes, beasts more dangerous to the hunter than the lion himself.

"How the mischief are we going to get out of this, Forty?" he asked.

Forty looked doubtful. "I tink we wait, baas."

The sun rose, a great ball of splendour making the wide waters shine like gold, and out in the very centre of the vast expanse Bart saw a canoe.

"Hullo!" he said sharply. "They're looking for us."

Forty gazed at the canoe, shading his eyes with his great hand from the glare. He shook his head.

"Dat ain't none ob our boys, baas. Dat stranger boy. And him hurt so he no can paddle."

"By gum, you're right, Forty! A broken arm, by the look of him. And see, he's spotted us. He's signalling. We've got to save him."

Jet woke up. "Don't be silly. How can you save him? Why, we can't get out ourselves, with all those brutes waiting for us below."

"You stay here, Jet. Forty and I will tackle the job."

"Stay here alone!" Jet's voice rose to a shriek. "You're crazy. You jolly well stay where you are."

But Bart had swung himself to a lower branch, and Forty was following. Jet grabbed at Bart, missed him, and nearly fell out of the tree. He scrambled back raving with fury. Bart looked up.

"Keep quiet, you idiot! You'll start these beasts up if you make such a row."

He and Forty dropped quietly to the ground. They had their guns ready, but the buffalo made no motion to attack. The great beasts were sullen but frightened. The lions were not visible. All the same it was an ugly minute until the pair reached the canoe which, thanks to the long rope, had floated safely.

By the time they got afloat the other canoe was opposite, and they had the current to help them in chasing her. Now that there was light, it was easy to avoid the floating logs and spinning whirlpools, and in a very few minutes they were alongside.

Forty leaned over and picked the other out of his canoe as easily as if he had been a baby. The poor creature was little more than skin and bone. Then leaving the other canoe to drift where it would, they started back. The native talked eagerly, but in his own language, and Forty between strokes translated.

"Him name Imbono," he explained. "Him say him looking for Baas Bryson."

"You don't mean he has news of Mr. Murdoch?" cried Bart.

"Dat's it, baas. Him come from Baas Murdoch. But it berry bad news."


IV. — A MESSAGE FROM THE MOUNTAINS

BART drew his breath quickly.

"Bad news? Tell me, quick."

With a tremendous stroke of his paddle Forty sent the canoe clear of a sucking eddy.

"Him say, baas, dat Kasoro, him got Baas Murdoch."

"Who is Kasoro?"

"Him big Chief. Berry bad man. Him lib in dem hills." He nodded in an easterly direction.

"The Mountains of the Moon," said Bart sharply. "Are the prisoners alive?"

"Dey lib, but dey in tight hole. Dey work for Kasoro, and he no let dem go."

Bart frowned. "If they're in the same state as this poor beggar it's a bad job," he said. "See here, Forty. We must get the news to Dad as quickly as we can. This chap wants food and medicine, and it's no use taking him to the island."

"Dat's true, baas. We go right up him ribber, and find Baas Bryson."

"But we can't leave Baas Norcross in the tree."

"Me tink do him good," returned Forty with a twinkle in his small eyes.

Bart looked doubtful, but just then the crack of a signal shot came ringing across the flood, and another canoe came into sight. Bart gave a shout.

"That's one of ours anyhow, Forty," and Forty nodded.

"Sure ting, dat one ob ours."

The canoe, a big one with four natives paddling and Mr. Bryson himself in the stern, came quickly to meet them, and Mr. Bryson's face showed how glad he was to see his son. Bart explained quickly what had happened, and the other nodded.

"Yes, it was the only thing you could do," he said briefly. "Where's Norcross?" Bart pointed.

"Right. You and Forty take the boy you've picked up to the camp. You'll see the smoke. I'll fetch Norcross. Take care of that nigger. He's our only chance of finding Murdoch."

He gave fresh orders to his boys, and his big canoe drove towards the island, while Bart and Forty struggled upstream against the tremendous weight of the current. They were both thankful when they caught sight of a plume of grey smoke rising among the trees on the left bank, and they came ashore to find camp pitched under a great banyan on high, dry ground, and a rich smell of cooking in the still, morning air.

Imbono, the rescued boy, was so nearly done that Forty had to carry him up to the camp. But a platter of hot meal porridge with sugar and condensed milk made all the difference, and by the time that Mr. Bryson got back with Jet, Imbono was sitting up and looking wonderfully better.

The man's arm was not broken, but his wrist was badly strained and swollen. Mr. Bryson tied it up, and Imbono's eyes shone with gratitude. Then he began to talk, and since Mr. Bryson understood his dialect there was no need for an interpreter. When he had finished Mr. Bryson explained things to the others.

"I've heard of this Kasoro," he said. "He's a pretty bad egg by all accounts, and head of a very tough crowd. They managed to surround Murdoch's party by night and took the lot as prisoners to their village somewhere up in the hills to the west of Ruwenzori where Kasoro is holding them for ransom. It seems he sent this fellow Imbono down country to meet us and tell us what ransom he demands."

Jet broke in rudely. "I never heard such rot. How could he possibly know we were coming? They don't run to telegraphs in the bush, do they?" he added with a sneer.

"Exactly what they do have, Norcross," replied Mr. Bryson quietly. "News can cross the whole of this continent in a few hours."

Jet looked so surprised that Bart almost laughed.

"It's true, Jet," he said. "They do it with drums. They've got a regular Morse code, and news travels almost as quickly here as in England. I wouldn't wonder if Kasoro knows just where we are, and what we're after, and how many there are of us."

"Then it's worse than I thought," growled Jet. "Next thing, I suppose, this beggar Kasoro will be scooping us in."

"You need not worry your head on that score," Mr. Bryson told him. "Hill men don't come out of the hills any more than river men go into the mountains. In fact, all African natives stick pretty closely to their own territory. We're safe enough from Kasoro for some time to come."

"In that case I'll get some breakfast," said Jet. "And then I'm going to have a jolly good sleep. I'm nearly dead after spending the night perched in that beastly tree."

Mr. Bryson watched him go. "You don't seem to be making much progress in that direction, Bart," he said drily.

"Not a lot, Dad," allowed Bart, "but never mind Jet. I want to hear what sort of ransom this fellow Kasoro is after."

"One we can never pay him," returned his father curtly. "He demands twenty rifles, twenty boxes of cartridges, and ten cases of gin."

Bart's face fell. "No, of course not," he agreed. "Then what are we going to do, Dad? We've got to get Mr. Murdoch out somehow."

"Of course. I must think it over. Meantime you'd best follow Norcross's example. Get some breakfast and some sleep. We can't shift from here until the flood has run down."

Bart did not know how tired he was until he stretched himself on the cot which Forty had made ready for him. He was asleep in a minute and did not rouse until late in the afternoon. Then he found the rest of the camp awake and very cheerful. They had all been travelling hard since they left the river steamer at Pindi, and a good rest was just what they had needed. He himself felt wonderfully fresh and also very hungry, and he went towards the fire from which came a savoury smell of grilling antelope steak. He, his father, and Jet sat down to an excellent supper, and the native boys too rejoiced in plenty of fresh meat.

Jet was more cheerful than usual.

"I suppose we'll be going back now," he remarked.

Bart stared. "What on earth do you mean, Jet?"

"Just what I say," replied Jet. "Forty tells me that this chap Kasoro is much too strong for us to attack, and that it's against the law to give him the rifles and gin he wants, so what else is there to do except go back?"

"And leave Mr. Murdoch to slave on Kasoro's yam plantation? Is that your idea?" asked Bart softly.

"It's rotten for him of course," agreed Jet, "but we can't do any good by helping him dig yams, can we?"

"We're not going to do that, Jet. We're going to get him out."

"You mean you're going on!" cried Jet.

"Of course we are going on. You didn't think we'd sneak back home with our tails between our legs, did you?"

"You're mad," retorted Jet, and turned to Bart's father. "Tell him he doesn't know what he's talking about, Mr. Bryson."

"I can't do that, Norcross," said Mr. Bryson, "for of course Bart is perfectly right. We are going on towards the hills as soon as the flood runs down."

Jet's face went angry red. "If you think I'm going to dig yams for a nigger king, Mr. Bryson, all I can say is you're quite wrong. I'm going home."

Mr. Bryson was quite unmoved. "Very well, Norcross. We can spare a canoe, and it shall be made ready for you. But I regret I cannot spare a man, so I am afraid that you will have to make the journey alone. But no doubt you will manage your own camping and cooking."

Jet sprang to his feet. "Me travel alone! You're crazy. I'm not going to do anything of the sort."

"Then perhaps you had better come with us," said Mr. Bryson quietly. "You need not be afraid. I shall not ask you to do any fighting."

Jet stood glaring at the other two for some seconds, then suddenly swung away and stalked off to his own tent. Mr. Bryson shook his head.

"We are earning our money, Bart," he remarked.

In spite of his nap during the day Bart was quite ready for another good sleep, and since the water was running down fast and they were to start at dawn he turned in fairly early. It was still dark or rather moonlight when Forty shook him awake.

"Berry bad news, baas," announced the big nigger. "Dem white boy him gone."

Bart shot to his feet. "Baas Norcross gone, Forty?"

"Couldn't be no one else, baas," said Forty soberly.

"How?"

"In a canoe, baas."

"My word, I never thought he had the pluck," said Bart as he pulled on his shoes.

"I never dreamed he'd go off alone like that."

"Him nebber go alone. Him took dat Sam boy."

"Sam—that no-count boy from Kafui?"

"Dat's him, baas. And dey took a canoe and went down dem ribber."

"Does Dad know?"

"He know, baas. I told him first. Here be him."

Mr. Bryson came into the tent.

"This is a nice business, Bart," he said bitterly. "And just when we were hoping to get off."

"It's pretty bad," agreed Bart. "But you leave it to me and Forty, Dad. We'll catch him pretty quickly and follow you."

Mr. Bryson shook his head. "They have at least six hours start. From what I can make out, Norcross left as soon as we were asleep. And you can bet he hasn't wasted any time. They're thirty miles from here this minute."

Bart whistled softly. "That's bad. And they can both paddle a bit if they're pushed. I suppose he bought that boy Sam."

"Bribed him without a doubt," said his father frowning. "'Pon my word, Bart, I'm half inclined to let him go."

Bart shook his head. "Can't do that, Dad. I took the contract to look after him."

"That's a fact," agreed his father, "but it's poor Murdoch I'm thinking of."

"I know." Bart was dressing rapidly as he spoke. "But you can trust the job to Forty and me. You go on to the head of the river, camp there, and get what news you can. We'll paddle all day if we have to and drop on Jet in his camp to-night. We ought to catch you up in—say—four days from now."

"I suppose it's the only thing to do," said the other with a sigh. "All I can say is this: If that fellow tries anything of this kind a second time I'll take a stick to him. Yes, big as he is, I'll beat him."

Bart's eyes twinkled. "I'm afraid that wouldn't work, Dad. It would only make him more sulky. What he wants is a real rough time. Hard work and not too much grub."

"He will get that before we're finished," said Mr. Bryson. "He will get that and more if I'm not much mistaken. Well, push along, my lad. I'll look for you when I see you."

Five minutes later Bart, having swallowed a cup of hot coffee, was paddling downstream with Forty in a small canoe, and when the sun rose the pair were already miles from the camp. Bart was tough as leather, while as for Forty his great muscles were like steel, and he did not seem to know the meaning of fatigue. Hour after hour the paddles rose and fell, and the canoe sped on down the yellow flood between lines of lush green bush. At noon they landed on a sand spit and ate and rested for an hour, then went on again. When dusk came Bart reckoned that they had covered nearly fifty miles.

"We can't be far behind them now," he said to Forty.

"No, baas, not if dey go straight."

"What!" exclaimed Bart anxiously. "You think they would have the sense to hide and dodge us?"

"Sam, him pretty clebber nigger," said Forty. "Him not like berry hard work. I tink him most like hide."

"Why the mischief didn't you say so before?" asked Bart sharply.

"'Cos dere ain't no good place to hide yet, baas," replied Forty calmly. "We come to dat place pretty soon now."

Forty knew the river from its source to its mouth in the giant Niger, and Bart felt easier in his mind. They paddled on through the deepening gloom until, just before it became quite dark, Forty pointed to a creek mouth on the right.

"Dere am de creek, baas," he said.

"But how do you know they have turned up it?"

"I not know, but we find out pretty soon."

"How?"

"Lumbwa's kraal, him be little way up. Him tell us."

"But suppose they are not there?"

"Den we go on," said Forty simply.

It did not take much thought on Bart's part to be certain that Forty's plan was the best. The odds were strong that a boy like this Sam would make for a native village to spend the night in preference to making a lonely camp on the bank where lions or leopards might attack them. Besides, he would be saved all the trouble of cooking, and this would certainly appeal to such a lazy chap and one already tired by a long day's work.

"What sort of man is Lumbwa? Bart asked Forty as they headed for the creek.

"Him pretty good man," allowed Forty, and Bart, feeling more satisfied about Jet's safety, paddled on.

The creek, though narrow compared with the river, was quite fifty yards wide, and the water was deep and open with high banks, so in spite of the darkness they got on at a good pace, and after half an hour's paddling saw lights ahead.

"Dat him kraal," said Forty briefly.

The lights grew stronger, and Bart stopped paddling.

"I say, Forty, they've got some thundering big fires in the village," he said in a puzzled voice. "What does it mean?"

"I tink him mebbe lions," said Forty.

Lions were not particularly plentiful in this country, but there was always the chance that a wandering band of the beasts might have attacked the cattle belonging to the tribe, and this seemed to be the only possible explanation of the huge fires which flung a lurid glow far across the water and made the dark tree trunks stand out like black bars against the crimson flames. As they came nearer they saw that the place was surrounded by a huge hedge of piled up thorns.

"Dem lions pretty bad, baas," remarked Forty. "Dey nebber had boma like dat last time I come here."

But Bart was not listening. He pointed eagerly to the canoes drawn up on the sloping bank below the village.

"They're here, Forty," he said sharply. "There's our canoe."

"Dat right, baas," replied Forty. "Dat Baas Jet's canoe all right." He grinned.

"I 'spect he be mighty cross because you found him."

Bart's lips tightened. "I don't care how cross he is. He's coming back with us to-morrow."

They ran the canoe on the beach and stepped out. As they did so there came a yell of terror from somewhere above, then a gun roared—both barrels—and they heard the shot rattle among the tree trunks.

At sound of the shots Bart pulled up short, but Forty walked quietly on.

"Dey no shooting at us, baas. Mebbe dey fighting dem lions."

"There's something up anyhow," said Bart uneasily as he thrust cartridges into the breech of his rifle. "Where are they all? There's not a soul in sight."

"I 'spect dey in dem houses," replied Forty.

The street was deserted, and it was quite clear that something odd was afoot, for as a rule every soul in the place would have been down at the water's edge to stare at newcomers, more especially at a white man. Bart stopped again.

"Here's Jet!" he said sharply, and as he spoke Jet Norcross, gun in hand, with Sam behind him, came into the street, followed by a crowd of natives carrying spears.

"It's all rot," Jet was saying angrily. "Nothing but a false alarm. Tell 'em, Sam, and tell 'em I'm jolly well going back to bed."

And then he saw Bart, and he too stopped short and stared—glared would be a better word.

"W-what are you doing here?" he stammered. Then he grew angry. "If you think I'm coming back with you you're all washed up."

"I don't think," said Bart. "I know. We're going up river again in the morning."

Jet's dark eyes flashed, and he strode up to Bart in threatening fashion. Bart stood quite still.

"Jet," he said quietly, "if you start a row here these natives will join in, and the chances are we shall both be scuppered. Let's go into your hut and talk it over."

Jet hesitated, but something in Bart's manner made it plain that he was speaking the truth.

"All right," he said with a scowl. "Here's my hut."

"You'll have to wait a few minutes," said Bart, "until I have made my salaams to the Chief. It's considered the worst of bad manners in these parts to speak to anyone in a village until you have greeted the Chief and asked his permission to remain."

"Lumbwa, him lib in dis house," said Forty in Bart's ear. Then in a lower tone. "It all right, baas. I watch dem white boy."

Bart went straight into the large hut which Forty had pointed out. It was built like an enormous beehive, and in the centre was a small, clear fire which gave light enough for Bart to see an immensely stout black man squatting on a skin kaross on the other side. Behind him crouched a couple of women.

"I see you, Chief," said Bart, using the ordinary greeting, and then it occurred to him that probably Lumbwa did not know a word of English. To his great relief, the fat man understood.

"How do you do?" he answered politely, and signed to Bart to sit down. "You come find other white boy?"

"Yes," said Bart. "He got lost, so I came to take him back to camp."

"I mighty glad you come," said Lumbwa in surprisingly good English. "Now you help me kill this thing what eating all my people's cattle."

"A lion?" asked Bart politely.

"It no lion. My people no afraid of lions. This thing worse than all lions in the bush." He lowered his voice and looked round cautiously. "This be chimiset."

He shook like a great jelly, and Bart saw the two women shiver at the dreaded word. It was one that he himself had not heard, yet he knew that he must not betray his ignorance.

"That is bad," he said gravely. "But surely you are safe enough, for I see you have a fine thorn hedge all around the kraal."

"Chimiset, he no care for hedge," replied Lumbwa quickly. "He come through easy as you come through that door. He come through wall of hut; he come through anything. I show you."

He struggled to his feet, and ordering a man on guard outside to bring a torch, led the way towards the zareba surrounding the village. It was the finest thing of its kind that Bart had ever seen, six feet high and more than that through. A palisade of poles held it in position, and the thorns were packed in such fashion that it did not look as if any living thing could penetrate it. Certainly no lion would tackle such a barrier.

Yet at the bottom of it was a hole, a tunnel burrowed right through the mass of thorns, and the red torchlight showed marks of enormous claws which Bart saw were far bigger than anything a lion could have owned.

"He come through two nights ago and lake a girl," Lumbwa said. "He take her right away. We never see her again."

Bart began to realise that he was up against something very much out of the common. He had heard from his father tales of strange and unknown animals in the African wilds—of the ngoloko, the man ape of the Isarsu Hills, of the nunda, the huge grey cat, big as a tiger, that haunts the forests of Portuguese East Africa, and the irizima, the mystery beast of the Congo swamps. And he himself had seen enough of Africa to know that some of these monsters might really exist, for after all the okapi and the bongo and the pigmy elephant have only recently been discovered.

"He must be very big," he ventured.

"He is bigger than a lion and his mouth is red like coals of fire," said Lumbwa impressively. "He a devil and fear nothing. White boy, kill him with your rifle, and all that Lumbwa has is yours."

Bart of course was anxious to get away as soon as possible, but it came to him that the friendship of this Chief might be very useful in the big adventure that was before him.

"I will try, Chief," he answered, "but first I must sleep, for since morning I have paddled for twelve hours, and my eyes fail for weariness. Tell me, at what time does the monster come?"

"In the dark hour before dawn. Nine times he come, and four oxen he took and three of my people."

"Then rouse me two hours before dawn, Chief. Meantime give me food and a place to rest."

"It is done," said Lumbwa, and done it very soon was.

Bart was led to an empty hut where the best the village could provide was set before him and a bed made for him of boughs and skins. Bart ate fish that was quite good, refused stew which he felt sure was made of monkey, and ended up with some capital bananas.

"And now I've got to go and see Jet," he yawned. "What a nuisance the chap is! And I'm so sleepy."

Just then Forty came in.

"Him white boy, him sleep," he remarked.

"And a jolly good job too," said Bart. "Keep an eye on him, Forty."

"I do better dan dat," replied the big nigger with a twinkle in his eyes. "I hide him canoe. Now you sleep, baas. Mebbe dat ting no come to-night."

"I hope to goodness it won't," Bart answered fervently, and dropping on the bed was asleep in a minute.


V. — FACE TO FACE WITH THE MONSTER

BART woke to a noise like nothing on earth—shrieks and yells, beating of drums—a most awful racket. Forty came bounding in.

"Him come, baas."

"I knew it would," said Bart crossly, as he jumped up and pulled on his boots. "What is it, Forty?"

"I tink him all same nandi bear."

Bart whistled. "I've heard of that all right," he said softly, as he picked up his rifle. "Where's Jet, Forty?"

"I tink him asleep," said Forty as he followed. "We no want him anyhow."

The moon was high in the sky, and its white light shone on the bare clay of the one wide street and the little beehive-shaped huts on either side. It shone on the black shiny skins of men running towards the landward side of the thorn fence, and it showed Bart the portly figure of Lumbwa who, armed with an ancient matchlock, marched heavily after them.

"Good stuff!" said Bart to himself. "The old lad's got pluck." He ran after him. "Is it the chimiset, Chief?" he asked.

"It be chimiset," panted Lumbwa. "We kill him this time."

"I'm sure I hope we do," said Bart to himself, but he had his doubts.

At the upper end of the village all was excitement. The men were jabbering and shouting, but Lumbwa got hold of one and questioned him.

"He come another way this time," he explained to Bart. "He try to get into hut, but this man see him and throw fire at him, and he go out again. I show you."

Sure enough, the beast, whatever it was, had driven another hole clean through the thorn zareba and gone straight up to one of the huts. Bart saw where it had started to break through the thick, sun-hardened clay with which the wall was daubed. The man who had seen it and thrown the torch was ashy with fright. But the fire, which seemed to be the only thing the chimiset feared, had driven it off.

Bart pulled himself together and told Lumbwa to gather his men and order them to follow. They were to bring torches and drums. All were very badly frightened, but they obeyed their Chief's orders. Bart, with Forty on one side, Lumbwa on the other, led the way. Bart had his repeating rifle, Forty carried a gun. The gateway, blocked at night with thorns, was opened, and they went out into the bush.

Outside they came upon the tracks of the monster. The huge footprints were nearly four times the size of those made by a lion and showed the marks of three great clawed toes. Bart had never dreamed of such a terrifying spoor, and even Forty was not happy.

"I tink him debbil beast, baas," he said in a low voice, and Bart felt inclined to agree.

There was not much underbrush near the village, and in the sandy soil the tracks were plain as print. They led south towards a low kopje or mound standing above the river and about a mile from the village. The kopje was covered with thick bush, into which the tracks passed and disappeared.

Bart had once seen a hunter go into palm scrub after a wounded lion, but he himself had no idea of going into the place after the chimiset. The scrub was thick as a hedge, and it was impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. He pulled up.

Suddenly a mongrel dog belonging to Lumbwa darted forward and ran into the scrub. A moment later came the most appalling cry that Bart had ever heard. It was not a roar, but a howl. Bart had heard a rogue elephant trumpet, and that was pretty bad, but it was music compared with this noise which echoed in horrifying fashion through the moonlit bush. Immediately afterwards came one sharp yelp, then a thudding crash as some monstrous form forced its way through the undergrowth.

The men fell back, and it looked as if they were all going to bolt, but old Lumbwa shouted at them, and they stood.

"I tink dis one debbil place," growled Forty. "What we do now?"

Cold chills were coursing down Bart's spine. He heartily agreed with Forty, and felt just as much like running away as any of the natives, but he knew he had to keep his end up, and for a second time managed to pull himself together.

"There's only one thing to do," he said firmly. "We must fire the bush and shoot the thing as it comes out."

"Suppose him come out wrong side?" suggested Forty, and Bart at once saw the sense of the suggestion. He and Forty were the only ones who had guns, for you could hardly count Lumbwa's ancient matchlock.

Lumbwa spoke up. "Wind, he blow to river, he come out that side."

There was not much wind, but as Lumbwa said it was blowing towards the river, so Bart and Forty went round the little hill to the far side. Here Bart found a narrow open space between the thick bush and a low bluff some ten feet high which dropped sheer into the dark, still water.

"We're bound to see him if he comes out here," Bart said. "Give them a shout, Forty."

Forty shouted, and a moment later there came the crackling sound of fire among green leaves: snaps like pistol shots followed by leaping tongues of flame. Then drums were beaten furiously, and there was a chorus of shouts and yells.

"That ought to do the trick," said Bart, and Forty nodded.

There was a very grim expression on the face of the big negro, and Bart wondered if the man was as scared as he was himself. That howl had shaken him up badly—that and the gigantic size of the spoor of the mysterious beast.

The flames rose higher, and great clouds of smoke reddened with the fire beneath rose above the blunt head of the kopje. The drums thundered, and the natives yelled hoarsely. The din was terrific, and Bart felt that no wild thing—not even such a thing as the chimiset—could stand it for very long.

"Him come," said Forty suddenly, and pointed.

Less than fifty yards away the thick brush parted, and out of it the monster pushed its way. In the crimson glow it loomed gigantic, and its appearance was so terrible that for a moment Bart was utterly unable to move.

The chimiset stood little higher than a lion, but its length and bulk were horrifying. Its shape was anything but lion- like, more resembling that of a monstrous hyena, and it was covered all over with coarse hair of a dirty ash colour. Its head was huge, with jaws which looked capable of snapping a man's body in two, and its eyes shone red as burning coals. For a few seconds it stood quite still, swinging its great head from side to side; then it saw Bart and with a blood-curdling snarl turned and came straight at him.

"Shoot, baas! Shoot!" cried Forty, and Bart, flinging his rifle to his shoulder, fired twice in rapid succession.

Both bullets struck the chimiset. He heard them thud home. But for all the effect they had they might have been pellets from a pop gun. The monster came on.

Bart fired and fired, but still the monster came on, and he had a horrible feeling that I was quite useless, and that nothing short of a machine-gun would stop it. The evil glare in its eyes paralysed him, the foul carrion reek of the creature poisoned the air, and he felt as if he were in the grip of some horrible nightmare.

The beast was almost upon him, and penned as he was between the thick brush and the sheer bluff, there was no way of avoiding it. Aiming straight between the wide-open slavering jaws, he pulled the trigger for the last time, but only a click answered. The magazine was empty.

A huge hand caught him by the shoulder and thrust him aside into the thorny bush, and Forty's double-barrelled gun flashed and roared. At such close range the charges of shot drove home like bullets. They smashed into the chimiset's head, blinding it completely. Bart saw the creature rear up on its hind legs, and again it howled in the same blood-curdling fashion as when it had killed the dog.

For a moment it towered above them, its mighty bulk dwarfing even the great negro. Forty was feverishly reloading, but there was no need, for suddenly the beast swayed over sideways, and rolling over the edge of the bluff fell with a mighty splash into the deep, dark water beneath.

Bart scrambled up. His throat was dry, and his knees were weak. Forty looked at him solemnly.

"Chimiset, him done," he remarked.

Bart said nothing—merely thrust out his hand, and as Forty took it a broad grin split his black face.

"What was it?"came a sharp, high-pitched voice from behind, and there stood Jet looking very white and shaken, but carrying his rifle.

Bart smiled. "That was your false alarm, Jet."

"Ugh, I never knew such things lived."

"Him don't lib," observed Forty. "Him bery much die."

Jet shivered. "I saw it all," he said in a low voice. "But I couldn't shoot for fear of hitting you. I—I was scared stiff," he confessed.

"And so was I, Jet," agreed Bart. "And you're quite right about not knowing that such things lived, for this is the first chimiset that any white people have killed."

"What do you call it—chimiset?"

"Yes, or nandi bear, but it's really some sort of giant hyena."

"Him Lumbwa come," Forty interrupted. "I tink him pretty pleased."

Lumbwa was pretty pleased. The stout Chief was fairly beaming with joy and relief.

"White boy, I say I mighty glad you come. Now I more glad than before. Now because you so brave and kill chimiset Lumbwa's people all safe. I tell you all I have is yours. I want you ask something so you know Lumbwa keep his word."

"All right, Chief, I'm going to ask something at once," said Bart. "I want your men to get hold of the dead beast. I'd like his skin or at any rate his head."

Lumbwa stepped over to the edge of the bluff and raised the torch he carried so that its smoky flame flung a red glare across the black river. He shook his great head.

"It no good, white boy," he said. "You look."

And Bart looking saw that it was indeed no good, for the dark water was alive with crocodiles which were tearing savagely with their huge curved teeth at the remains of the chimiset.

"Brutes!" snapped Jet as he raised his rifle and fired at the biggest of them. "Did you ever hear such rotten luck? To kill a thing like that and not be able to get even a hair of it!"

"Never mind," said Bart. "It's dead anyhow, and that's the great thing. Now let's get back. I expect we can all do with a bit more sleep."

The return to the village was a triumphal procession, and when they reached the place and the women learned that their terrible enemy was really dead they went mad with joy.

"Dem make worse row dan chimiset," remarked Forty, and Bart had to explain to Lumbwa that he wanted a little more sleep before he could get them to keep quiet.

The sun was high in the sky before he turned out in the morning. Forty brought him cool water from the river and poured it over him, and after he had had a good breakfast he felt fit and fresh.

"Now I must go and have a talk with Lumbwa," he told Forty.

"No need you go; him come to see you, baas," Forty answered, and sure enough here was the fat Chief himself at the door of the hut. "Him bring you presents," added Forty in a lower voice. "You take 'em, baas, or he be sorry."

Lumbwa's presents were a very fine leopard skin, two quills of gold dust worth perhaps a couple of pounds each, and two large and shiny emeralds. These Bart spotted at once to be nothing but green glass, but he accepted them with many thanks; then he got Lumbwa to sit down, and began to tell him of his troubles. The Chief shook his great head.

"Kasoro, he very bad man," he said. "He robber. He kill you all if you go fight him."

"I'm sure he would if he got the chance, Chief," Bart answered. "But we don't want to fight. All we want is to get our friends away from him."

"That very hard. I no think can do," replied the Chief, looking very solemn. Suddenly his face cleared. "I know how I help. I send Aruki along you."

"Does he know the lie of the land?" asked Bart eagerly.

"He no lie. He good man," answered Lumbwa rather sharply.

"I didn't mean that," Bart explained. "I meant, does Aruki know the way to Kasoro's kraal and how we can get near it without being seen?"

Lumbwa nodded. "He know it all. He slave to Kasoro one time."

"That's topping," exclaimed Bart. "We shall be very grateful if you will let him come with us, and we will pay him well."

"You no pay. I pay," said Lumbwa, and Bart thought it best to let it go at that. Lumbwa rose heavily to his feet. "I send him you," he promised as he went away, and a few minutes later Aruki arrived.

He was a wizened little brown man whose back still showed scars of old beatings. But his eyes were bright as a robin's, and he walked lightly as a cat. Bart took to him at once, and so did Forty.

Aruki was not only willing to go with Bart, but eager. Bart saw that he was a wanderer by nature, and that he was bored by living in this lonely village. He had knocked about a lot in the course of a longish life, had acted as porter in several big safaris, and spoke good English.

"I like see him Kasoro's head cut off," he said briskly. "Him very bad man. Him beat me bad till I run away. I show you way."

"Then the sooner we get off the better," said Bart.

Aruki's bright eyes shone. "I ready this minute," he said. "I lib for canoe." He was off like a shot, and Bart turned to Forty. "The next job will be to get Baas Norcross," he said.

Forty winked. "Him come all right, baas. Him got to come."

"Why?" asked Bart.

"No oder ting for him to do. Dat nigger Sam, him gone."

"Sam gone! Where?"

Forty grinned broadly. "You no ask so many questions, baas. I say dat white boy, him come, so you no worry."

Sure enough, Forty was right, and Jet, when he found that his only choice was between staying in Lumbwa's kraal or going back with Bart, chose the latter. But he glared at Bart and would not speak, and Bart felt sure there was fresh trouble brewing.

Not that Bart cared much, for he was so delighted to have got hold of Aruki. Bart was really sorry to part from Lumbwa, and it was quite plain that the stout Chief was equally sorry to lose Bart. He came down to the landing to see the canoe off.

"You come see me again," were his last words. "I not forget you, never."

It was past ten before they got off, but Bart did not mind for in any case they could not do the journey upstream in one day, and with four paddlers the work would not be nearly so hard as it had been on their rapid journey down. Aruki proved to be a capital paddler, and the more Bart saw of him the better he liked him. The little man was much more intelligent than the negroes with whom he had been living, and keen as a ferret.

"I tink him good man," said Forty aside to Bart, and Bart knew that he could not give higher praise.

The flood had run down, and that night they found good camping ground on a high bank. There was no need to hunt, for Lumbwa had filled the canoe with yams, bananas, and fish. So they supped in comfort, slept well, and by dint of starting early reached the camp before sunset.

Mr. Bryson never said much, but this time Bart did get a word of praise.

"Good lad, I knew I could depend on you," said his father, and Bart was as pleased as if he had been given a medal. "And who is this?" asked Mr. Bryson, looking at Aruki.

"The man who is going to show us the way to Kasoro's place, Dad. He's been a slave there himself, and he won't be sorry to get a bit of his own back."

"This is luck indeed," said Mr. Bryson warmly. "Bring him into my tent, and we will talk it out."

Aruki had not boasted when he had said he knew Kasoro's stronghold. He explained that the kraal stood near the head of a valley running up into the Mountains of the Moon. On three sides it was protected by cliffs and in front by a strong stockade.

"No good fight up that way," said Aruki. "Kasoro, he kill you all before you come near."

Mr. Bryson frowned. "Then what the mischief are we to do? Isn't there any way of getting round up the hill above the kraal?"

"Dere one way, baas," replied Aruki, and his wizened little face turned suddenly grave while his voice took quite a new tone. "But it no very nice way."

"I don't care if it's a tight rope," said Mr. Bryson, "so long as we can use it."

A shadow of a smile crossed Aruki's face. "It worse dan tight rope, baas. It tagati."

"Tagati" means bewitched, but Mr. Bryson did not laugh. He knew too much of Africa and of the queer things that happen in the heart of the Dark Continent.

"Tagati," he repeated. "Then would you refuse to go there, Aruki?"

"I no go alone," replied the little brown man, "but I no so scared if white baas go too."

"Good man," said Bart's father. "But we must keep any word of this from our boys. You will be careful not to say anything, Aruki?"

"I be careful," promised Aruki, "but I tink dey find out all right soon as we get dere. It very bad place," he added gravely.

Mr. Bryson began to question him, at the same time making rough sketches on a sheet of paper. An hour later, when the indaba (talk) was finished, Bart felt he knew almost as much about the place as if he had actually been there.

They moved next morning and after two days' paddling left the river and made across country for the blue heights which towered across the eastern sky. For a while they travelled along the deeply worn path which led to Kasoro's stronghold, then left it and took a faint trail to the left of the main track. Aruki explained that this would lead them up into the hills some miles to the north of Kasoro's kraal.

Jet was suspicious. "I thought you told me these niggers had a sort of wireless," he said to Bart. "If they have, Kasoro has only to wait until we get into some tight place and then jump on us."

"He might if he knew," Bart answered, "but the chances are that he won't know. Aruki says that he has practically cleared the whole country for thirty miles around his kraal, which means that there are not many left to send him news."

"Silly ass!" sneered Jet. "But see here, Bart. What's your father going to do when we get up into these beastly hills?"

Bart shook his head. "I don't know any more than you, Jet. But you can be jolly sure he's got a plan all right."

Jet frowned angrily. "Some plan that will end in the lot of us getting scuppered," he grumbled.

"Don't worry," said Bart drily. "If anything goes wrong Aruki has orders to look after you."

Jet glared. "Do you think I'm scared?" he demanded.

Bart looked at him. "I am," he said simply, and the answer surprised Jet so much that he shut up.

The path began to rise, and the peaks seemed to grow higher with every hour's marching. Range rose above range until the tops soared like white sugar cones into the blue. The going was very bad, but one thing made up for a lot of discomfort. The air grew much cooler, and on the third night from the river the boys were actually glad of their blankets.

"Four thousand feet up," said Mr. Bryson looking at his barometer. "Must be getting near now."

"We be there to-morrow," said Aruki confidently. "Me show you Kasoro him kraal."

They broke camp at dawn and two hours later were climbing a hill side so steep that the porters panted under their loads. The trees changed to coarse brushwood; huge boulders barred their way. In some places they had to climb on hands and knees. Bart noticed that the boys were very silent and seemed frightened. He remembered what Aruki had said about the place being bewitched. He hoped they would not panic. Aruki turned and raised his hand.

"Dem boys, dey stop here," he said. "White baas come see."

"Forty, you look after the boys," whispered Mr. Bryson.

He and Bart and Jet went forward. Jet was scowling but was ashamed to be left behind. Araki was shivering.

"Dis bad place," he said in a low voice. "I no go alone."

The bush stopped suddenly, and they found themselves on bare rock sloping upwards to a sort of knife edge which looked like the rim of a great crater. A little way below the edge a black cave mouth yawned, and it was towards this that Aruki led them.

"You go soft," he whispered.

They followed him into the cave which Bart saw was not so much a cave as a tunnel. Something crunched under his boots, and he got a nasty shock when he saw the floor of the place was littered with bleached bones. The light grew stronger, and he saw Aruki drop on hands and knees and crawl forward. He did the same. Aruki stopped, and so did Bart. He had to, for another step would have sent him toppling down over hundreds of feet of terraced precipice into terrific depths below.

"Dere him Kasoro kraal," remarked Aruki.

"That's it, Bart," said his father softly, "and what a fortress!"

Bart did not answer, for his eyes were fixed upon a town of beehive huts lying in the fiat bed of the valley below. In front these were protected by a deep ditch and a great stockade, and beyond the stockade were fields in which men were working. Bart craned forward, and Aruki caught him by the arm.

"You no look too far," he warned him. "Kasoro, him see you."

Bart paid no attention. "Dad!" he said sharply. "Dad, who's that—the white man, I mean, with the hoe?"

Mr. Bryson's lips tightened. "I see," he said in a low voice. "Yes, it's Murdoch."


VI. — THE SKELETONS' SHELF

"YOU come back," said Aruki urgently. "I no want Kasoro see us."

"He's right, Bart," said Mr. Bryson, as he drew back. "If those fellows below spotted us any chance of rescuing Murdoch would be finished."

Bart looked at his father, and shook his head.

"What earthly chance have we of getting him out of that?" he demanded. "We can't get down there without wings, and even if we did we should be mopped up in two twos by Kasoro's fighting men."

It was Aruki who answered.

"We get down all right. You no see dem way, but he go all way down. Dem folk, dey call him witch road."

"Aruki has told me about it, Bart," explained Mr. Bryson. "There is a narrow path cut into the cliff, which ends in the cave."

Bart whistled softly. "You don't mean to say those niggers cut it, Dad?"

"Of course not. It's enormously old—cut by the forgotten people who once held empire over all this country. Africa is full of the remains of their engineering works. But these people still use the path. Witch road, Aruki calls it, but the proper translation is the Skeletons' Shelf."

Bart shivered a little. "That explains those bones in the tunnel."

"Exactly," said his father. "The path is used by the witch doctors, and by them only, but even they only come up at the time of full moon. The bones are put there to scare others off. That is why Aruki calls the place tagati."

Bart nodded. "I see now, Dad. But if we can get down all right why didn't Mr. Murdoch escape this way?"

"Because at night he and the other slaves are kept in the slave pits."

"Slave pits?" repeated Bart.

"Yes. Deep holes in the rock, shaped like bottles, so that without help and ropes no one can get out. Aruki knows where these pits lie and will guide us to them."

"But aren't they guarded by night?"

"No. Kasoro knows that his prisoners can't possibly get out of the pits, so no guard is set."

Bart's eyes brightened. "I begin to see daylight. But there's the risk that we may get spotted as we pass the kraal."

"That's the big risk," agreed Mr. Bryson. "But it's one we have to take."

"I'm game," said Bart quickly. "When do we go?"

"About midnight. We must get there and back before the moon rises."

Bart nodded. "Right you are, Dad," he answered quietly, but all the same he felt cold chills crawling down his back at the thought of creeping down that cliff face in the darkness of midnight. "Who's going?" he asked.

"That's the question. We three of course, but we ought to have Forty as well. The question is, dare we leave Jet Norcross in charge of the boys?"

Bart thought a moment. "Yes," he said, "but leave it to me to tell him."

They went back through the gloomy tunnel with its floor of brittle bones and found Forty waiting for them.

"Dem niggers dey proper scared," said the big man. "Me scared too," he confessed. "Dis place bad place."

Bart looked round at the bare mountain side lying naked under the blinding glare of the African sun. To the east the hills stretched away crest after crest towards the snow-capped summits on the sky-line. Seamed with deep crevasses, littered with monstrous and fantastically shaped boulders, they were extraordinarily grim and desolate, and nothing grew except patches of ugly grey lichen. High in the blue above soared one huge vulture, but otherwise there was not a sign of life. Yes, Forty was right, for in spite of the bright sun and the wonderful view there was something distinctly evil about the huge and desolate ridge.

"It is a queer place," he admitted, "but don't worry, Forty. We shan't be here long. To-night we go down into the valley and get Mr. Murdoch, and to-morrow we go back."

"How you get Baas Murdoch?" asked Forty.

Bart explained, and the big negro listened keenly.

"Me go wid you?" he asked, when Bart had finished.

Bart looked round to make sure no one was listening.

"Yes," he said, "if you think we can leave the boys with Baas Norcross."

Forty pursed up his thick lips.

"Me tink all right. No good dem run away, for dey not know where dey run to."

"Just what I thought," agreed Bart. "Then I'll talk to Baas Norcross, and you be ready at midnight."

Camp had been pitched at the edge of the brush. The boys were eating cold food, for strict orders had been given that no fires were to be lighted. All depended on keeping Kasoro ignorant of their arrival. Bart noticed that the boys were very silent and knew it meant they were frightened. One tent had been put up, and in it Bart found Jet lying on his cot, eating large ripe bananas. He looked up with a frown.

"I'm not going any further to-day, so you needn't think it," he said crossly.

Bart looked doubtful. "We don't want to move, Jet," he said, "but the trouble is these boys think this place is bewitched, and the danger is they may stampede."

"Rot!" returned Jet scornfully.

"It will be rotten for all of us if they do," agreed Bart smoothly. "But if you will take a turn at watching them I expect it will be all right."

"You bet it will be all right," boasted Jet. "When do you want me to stand guard? I can't now. I'm played out."

"No, not now," replied Bart. "From midnight for a few hours."

Jet looked startled. "In the middle of the night!" he said sharply. "Why can't Forty do the job?"

"Because he won't be here," Bart explained. "He and Dad and I are going down into the valley to fetch Murdoch. We want you to take charge while we are away."

Jet dropped his banana and sat up with a jerk.

"You mean you're going to leave me all alone up here while you go and get wiped out by those niggers down below?"

"You won't be alone, Jet. You'll have the boys. If anything happens to us you'll be all right."

"I shan't," growled Jet. "Those niggers will come up here and scupper the lot of us."

Bart laughed. "They won't. Not one of Kasoro's fighting men dare come up here because they all believe the ridge is haunted. You'll be perfectly safe. Come now, Jet, be decent and give us a hand."

Jet sat frowning, and Bart feared he would refuse, but presently he looked up.

"All right," he said gruffly. "I'll do it."

The night air was chill and deathly still when the four made their way into the tunnel. Mr. Bryson flashed a light which showed a hole in one side of the tunnel wall and rough steps leading downwards. By the light of the torch they picked their way down these until a breath of cool air warned them to douse the light.

Then they found themselves standing on a narrow ledge cut in the living rock with the stars twinkling coldly overhead, and vast depths of blackness beneath. Down in that blackness glowed half a dozen ruddy points, the smouldering remains of village cooking fires.

"I go first," whispered Aruki. "Baas Bryson come next. Forty he last. And please you make no noise, for dem witch doctors dey got berry long ears."

He started, and they followed. Bart held one hand against the rock wall to the left and kept step with his father just in front of him. Though there was no moon it was not really dark, for the stars were brilliant. No one spoke, there was no sound except the faint shuffling of their boots as they went down—down—down. At regular intervals the path turned on itself, going down the cliff face in a series of huge zig- zags. Its surface, worn by generations of feet, was smooth as glass and almost as slippery. The blessing was that there were no loose stones, and the ghosts said to haunt this cliff could hardly have been quieter than the four who now descended it.

The journey seemed endless, but it ended at last, and Bart sighed with relief as he felt level ground under his feet. From above Bart had seen that the kraal was built well away from the cliff, no doubt for fear of rocks falling from above. Even so, the nearest huts were no more than a hundred yards away, and his heart thumped as he thought how little it would take to bring a horde of yelling savages upon them. A dog might hear them or one of the guards who no doubt stood outside Kasoro's hut. Or a witch doctor—Bart knew they sometimes prowled at night. If he had walked carefully on the shelf now he hardly dared to breathe.

Aruki led them close under the foot of the cliff, and they had to pick their way among a mass of fallen boulders. Once a dog barked, and all four dropped among the rocks and lay still as mice until the barking stopped. Then they went on again, and Bart sighed with relief when they were past the danger zone and on the far side of the kraal.

A fresh sound brought them all up short—a thud which sounded like a sack of grain falling from a height, and Bart’s heart gave a great jump as he saw a thick, heavy figure looming dimly on top of a boulder only a few yards away. He raised his rifle, but Forty caught his arm.

"He no hurt you. He babyan."

A baboon! Bart almost laughed as he realised how he had been fooled. The creature which had come down from the rocks above to raid the mealy fields mopped and mowed, then suddenly leapt away and vanished among the stones.

A dark line loomed up ahead. It was the stockade which ran clean across the valley from cliff to cliff. There was only one way of getting through, which was to cut a gap. Forty had brought a saw and after oiling the teeth started sawing through one of the big posts. The fence was of thorns almost as thick as that around Lumbwa's kraal, and it was a long and difficult business to pull them out and make a hole big enough to creep through. When it was done they found a six-foot ditch on the far side.

"No wonder Kasoro doesn't bother about guards," whispered Bart to Forty.

Mr. Bryson spoke. "How much further, Aruki?" he asked anxiously. "We've got to hurry. The moon will be up in an hour."

"Dem holes no berry far," Aruki answered, as he led the way through a field of tall kaffir corn.

Beyond it they came to a well-worn path which ran to the left and brought them close under the foot of the mighty cliff. Hard rock rang under their feet, and Aruki stopped, and pointed.

"I see," said Mr. Bryson in a whisper, and straining his eyes through the gloom Bart saw a dark patch which looked like the mouth of a well.

"I tink him white baas in dis one," whispered Aruki. "You speak him."

Mr. Bryson crept up to the edge of the pit.

"Murdoch, are you there?"

No answer. All was so still that Bart could hear his own heart beating.

"Murdoch! Murdoch!" repeated Mr. Bryson.

A hoarse voice came from below.

"Bryson! No, it can't be. I'm dreaming again."

"You're not dreaming. It's Bryson all right."

There came a gasp, the sound of someone moving in the blackness.

"Oh, I can't believe it!" Murdoch muttered hoarsely.

"Then believe this," said Mr. Bryson as he dropped a coil of rope.

It tightened.

"Then, it's true," said Murdoch, his voice shaking with excitement. "Wait a moment. There are four of us here. Three of my boys—all that are left." He paused, then spoke again. "I'll send them up first. Pull!"

One by one three gaunt natives were hauled up, then at last Murdoch himself. Murdoch was a tall man and had been known all over Central Africa for his great strength. Now, dark as it was, Bart could see he was merely a skeleton draped in rags. Mr. Bryson grasped his hand.

"My dear old chap!" he said softly.

"How did you do it?" asked Murdoch.

"That can wait. I'll tell you later. Now we have to get back and up the Shelf. Drink this."

He gave Murdoch a flask of hot coffee, and Forty meanwhile fed the three boys who were almost as thin and hungry as their master. Aruki was impatient.

"Moon, him come soon," he said. "Better we go quick, Baas Bryson."

"He's right," said Mr. Bryson. "Are you fit, Murdoch?"

"Fit to get out of this, anyhow," replied the tall Scotsman. "But I'll be a long sight fitter when I find myself safe on the Shelf."

Like ghosts, the party flitted away through the gloom. They passed safely through the gap in the stockade, and went softly among the fallen rocks beyond. There were no more baboons, and the village was quiet as a graveyard.

Bart's spirits rose, for so far they had done wonderfully, and now it really seemed as if success was in sight. True, they had the worst bit in front of them, but since they had passed it safely on the way down there seemed no reason why they should not do so again.

Aruki led them close under the cliffs where the fallen boulders gave good cover, and they went slowly and cautiously so as not to risk even a footfall being heard. The moon was nearly up, but the huge mountain mass to the east hid its light, and the Shelf would remain in the shadow for nearly another hour. Forty put his mouth close to Bart's ear.

"We fool dem Kasoro, baas," he chuckled softly. "Me like see him face when he find dem hole empty in de morning."

Before Bart could answer a dull, heavy boom shook the quiet air and was almost instantly followed by a second. Instinctively the whole party pulled up short and stood listening as the echoes crashed away across the face of the precipices.

"A gun!" said Murdoch hoarsely.

"From the top of the cliff, too," added Mr. Bryson in a curt whisper.

"It's that idiot, Jet," snapped Bart. "Come on. Hurry!"

They all broke into a ran, but already the village buzzed like a disturbed beehive. Murdoch's three men made a mad rush forward to reach the bottom of the Shelf, but Mr. Bryson stopped them.

"Go quietly," he ordered in their own language. "Kasoro's men haven't seen us," he explained quickly to the others. "They don't know where those shots came from because of the echoes. The chances are they won't dream of anyone coming down the Shelf."

"Baas, him right," put in Forty. "We not let dem know where we be till we hab to."

"I get you," said Murdoch briefly. "If we go quietly we may be half way up before they get wise."

Bending double and dodging among the rocks, the party gained the lower end of the Shelf and started up. Mr. Bryson made Murdoch and his men go first.

"You set the pace," he whispered, "but remember you've a precious long way to go before you reach the top."

"If we ever do reach the top," thought Bart, but he did not say it aloud, and he followed the others as they started up the steep, narrow Shelf.

"Baas Jet, him sure woke up dem village," remarked Forty in Bart's ear, "but Baas Bryson him right. Dem niggers dey not know where de noise come from."

"It won't be long before they do," Bart answered. "They're bound to spot us on the Shelf. See, they've got torches already."

"Dey not see us berry easy," Forty assured him. "Me tink we get long way befoah dem fellers see us."

"I'm sure I hope we do, for they can travel twice as fast as we. Baas Murdoch is pretty near done."

"We be all right, baas," said Forty, and Bart wondered at the confidence of the big negro.

There did not seem to him much ground for it, with scores of savage fighting men below, thirsting for their blood. A huge fire had been lighted in the centre of the kraal, and by its red glare Bart saw men running to and fro, all of them armed with big, stabbing spears.

"Dem niggers going to dem pits," said Forty. "Dey not come arter us."

He was right, for a big party were rushing off towards the stockade, and Bart's spirits went up with a jump as he realised that Kasoro's people must be thinking that the attack was coming from that direction. They would never dream that anyone knew how to find the hidden entrance to the Shelf. Sooner or later of course they would discover the escape of their prisoners, and guess what had really happened, but meanwhile every step was taking him and the others nearer to safety.

Murdoch was doing well, keeping up a good steady pace, and Bart had begun to think that Forty was right and that they were going to make an easy escape out of what might have been a very nasty mess when a hideous yell rang out from below, a high- pitched shriek that rang and echoed all along the cliff face. Bart half stopped.

"W-what was that?" he stammered.

"Dat debbil doctor," replied Forty briefly. "Him find our spoor, so now we run."

It was all very well to talk of running, but there was not much running left in Murdoch and his three poor half-starved fellows. Bart heard the thud of scores of bare feet on hard earth as Kasoro's men came pouring out in answer to the witch-doctor's cry, but they pulled up short at the bottom of the cliff.

"Dem scared," said Forty, "but debbil doctor him soon bring dem along."

The moon was now up, and though it was hidden by the tall mountains there was light enough to see the crowd of dark figures at the bottom of the Shelf. The witch-doctor ran forward; he called to his men in a harsh, high-pitched voice, and the next moment the whole pack came racing up the Shelf like hunting dogs on the track of buck.

"Pity dere ain't no rocks to roll on dem fellers," said Forty.

"Don't worry about rocks," said Mr. Bryson curtly. "Push on."

They pushed on, but though they had a long start the tall active savages gained fast. They raced along the narrow slippery Shelf as if it were level ground, and Bart saw that they must overtake the fugitive party long before the lofty summit of the cliff was reached.

Murdoch's men were panting. One was staggering, and Forty passed forward to help him on. If the man slipped nothing could save him from going right to the bottom. Bart grew more and more uneasy, but his father and Murdoch showed no signs of fear and kept on steadily.

"Dad," said Bart at last, "those beggars will be on us in another two minutes."

His father looked round. "They are getting pretty close," he allowed. "We must stop them. Bart, you pass me. The rest of you go on." As he spoke he stepped cautiously back past Bart, and Bart saw him take something from his pocket, and lay it on the ledge close under the cliff. "Get on, Bart," he said.

The black men, seeing that the fugitives had stopped, raised a hoarse shout, and came on faster than ever. Bart hesitated and began to unsling his rifle.

"Get on," said his father again, and Bart knew better than to disobey.

As he turned he heard a match struck, then a slight hissing sound. He began to run or came as near running as he dared on such a treacherous surface, and as he started heard his father follow. A moment later the night was split by a deep roar of sound, a brilliant flash lit the cliff face, and as the darkness shut down again there followed a heavy rumbling.

"And that's that," remarked Mr. Bryson quietly as he caught his son up. "That's the end of the Skeleton's Shelf."

"Dynamite?" panted Bart.

"Dynamite," repeated his father. "Better than bullets, eh, Bart? I might have done it sooner, but I wanted to break the Shelf in a place where the damage would be worst, and I marked this spot on the way down." He raised his voice. "All right, Murdoch. Take it easy. There'll be no more chasing to-night."

Below, Kasoro's men howled with fury, and some flung their spears desperately after the white men.

"Dem fellers mad as waspses," remarked Forty with a chuckle. "All same me mighty glad dey ain't got no guns."

"I'm surprised they haven't," said Bart. "Didn't they get yours, Mr. Murdoch?"

"Yes, but Kasoro used up all the cartridges long ago, so we're safe enough for the present."

Safe for the present, but surely they were safe altogether, Bart thought. And with Jet's uncle paying all the expenses of the expedition, surely they were on velvet. Now, if he could only tame Jet and make a decent chap of him! And while he was still considering how best to do this he found himself at the top of the Shelf.

At the head of the steps Mr. Bryson stopped.

"Better block this, Murdoch," he said. "There's just the chance those niggers might bridge the gap I blew in the path and follow us."

"A slim chance," said Murdoch, "but we will do it and be on the safe side."

There was plenty of loose rock, and with all hands working the job took but a few minutes.

"And now for Master Jet," said Mr. Bryson with a grim edge to his voice.

Outside the tunnel the moon shone bright, and Jet, carrying a gun, came up across the bare rock to meet them.

"I say, I'm jolly glad to see you," he exclaimed, and for once there was no doubt he meant what he said.

Mr. Bryson answered harshly. "Your shots didn't do anything to help us, Norcross. They brought the whole bunch of Kasoro's fighting men on top of us."

"I couldn't help it," said Jet quickly. "A leopard jumped right in on top of us, and I had to shoot in a hurry. I got him all right," he added proudly.

Mr. Bryson's expression changed. "So that was it. Yes, without a fire a leopard might attack. All right, Norcross, I'm glad you got him. Let me introduce you to Mr. Murdoch."

The two shook hands, and Bart saw Murdoch dart an interested glance at the youngster in his over smart clothes. Bart wore a flannel shirt and shorts and soft-soled shoes, but Jet still stuck to breeches and gaiters, a silk shirt and English boots. They went on down towards the camp.

"Now we'll have a fire and hot supper and a good sleep," said Mr. Bryson.

Murdoch shook his head. "A fire and supper all right, Bryson, but three hours' sleep is all we can take. We must march at dawn."

"Why?" demanded Mr. Bryson, plainly surprised.

Murdoch laughed. "You don't think Kasoro is going to take this lying down, do you?"

"But what can he do? We've smashed his only way of reaching us."

"I'll tell you what he is doing. There are at least a couple of hundred fighting men starting after us this minute."

"But they can't reach us. They will have to go all the way down the valley, and that means a fifty mile march before they can get here."

"Not fifty," said Murdoch. "Not much more than thirty, and they are all trained men, fit to travel seven to eight miles an hour. It's three now, and they'll be here by seven."

A look of dismay crossed Mr. Bryson's face.

"Three hours' sleep," he repeated. "That's not much use to you or your boys, Murdoch."

"Don't worry about us, Bryson. Marching is easier than hoeing in those mealy fields. Just to know we're not slaves any longer is worth a week's sleep. But don't waste time, talking. Let's have a bite of food and make the most of our three hours."

Hot coffee was ready. Murdoch stirred half a can of tinned milk into his and vowed he had never tasted anything so good. Then he rolled himself in a blanket, lay down, and was asleep in a minute.

Jet turned to Bart. "Have we got to be up at daylight again?" he demanded sourly.

"Yes, if we want to save our skins," Bart told him.

"But I've been up all night already, looking after these niggers," grumbled Jet.

"And the rest of us have been up all night hunted by niggers," returned Bart. "Don't grouse, Jet. This will be the last of it, and after to-morrow we'll be able to take it easy. Now you'd better get a snooze while you can."

"Serves me right for being fool enough to come to this beastly country," growled Jet as he went off to his tent, and Bart sighed.

"Afraid he's a long way still from being cured," he said as he lay down.

It seemed to him that he had hardly closed his eyes before someone was shaking him awake.

"Sun, him rise," said the faithful Forty. "We go pretty quick."

Bart shivered in the raw air of dawn, for it was chilly at this height. Since there was no water for washing he had to dispense with that, and he set at once to packing his kit. He was stiff and sore from the work of the night and did not feel too happy at the thought of the stiff day that was before them. He knew they would have to march hard and fast to get ahead of Kasoro's fighting men, but he thought that, once ahead of them, the latter would be too done with their long night march to chase very far.

By the time he had got his kit together breakfast was ready. There was no time for much cooking, but the coffee was warming, and there was plenty of cold venison and bread left over from the previous day. Bart was tucking in when Aruki came up in his usual noiseless fashion and whispered to Mr. Bryson. Mr. Bryson jumped up.

"What! In sight! Impossible."

"It true, baas," replied Aruki gravely. "I see dem men plain, and dey run fast."

"How many?"

"Eber so many, baas. Dey eat us up quick if we wait for dem."

Mr. Bryson turned to Murdoch. "Murdoch, Aruki has been up to the top of the Shelf, and has seen Kasoro's men in the pass below us. We are cut off already."

Murdoch whistled softly. "I never thought they could do it in the time. Well, what's to be done, Bryson—fight or run?"

"There's no choice, Murdoch. We are cut off already. I suppose we must try and hold them off, though that's a slim chance. Only you and I, Bart, Aruki, and Forty can shoot at all. Norcross is no use, and as for the boys they'll simply run like rabbits. What can five of us do against a couple of hundred big buck niggers?"

Murdoch considered a moment. "No, we shouldn't have a dog's chance in a scrap. We shall have to run."

"And where do you propose that we should run?" asked Mr. Bryson drily.

Murdoch pointed to the east where the towering peaks glistened white against the sunrise.

"We can't go west down the pass; we can't go down the Shelf even if we wanted to. That's our only line, Bryson."

Mr. Bryson shrugged. "Madness, Murdoch! It's only a question whether we should freeze or starve first."

"How much food have you?" asked Murdoch.

"Enough for three days. I left our main supplies with our canoes at the river, and brought just enough to get us here and back."

Aruki broke in anxiously. "Baas, you no talk so much, or dem fellers chop us for sure."

Mr. Bryson laughed. "Aruki has more sense than either of us, Murdoch. What you say goes. After all, it's better to trust to the mountains than the tender mercies of Kasoro. Let us be off."

Bart jumped up. As he did so Jet came striding up, looking very cross.

"You don't mean to say you've finished breakfast already? What have you left for me?"

"There's plenty of food, Norcross," said Mr. Bryson, "but I'm afraid you'll have to eat it as you go. Kasoro's men are already in the pass below us."

Jet's face was a picture of dismay. "In the pass!" he repeated. "Then where the dickens are we going?"

"Across the hills," replied Mr. Bryson, pointing.

"Up there!" Jet's voice was a scream. "Up into those beastly snow peaks! I can't and won't."

"Then," said Mr. Bryson, "you'll stay here and be chopped, or if you're lucky be taken as a slave on Kasoro's mealy fields. And I tell you straight that none of us will lift a finger to rescue you."

Jet's temper went west. "Of all the muddling idiots I ever met you people are the limit!" he sneered. "If you'd only had the sense to chuck your dynamite on top of those niggers instead of blowing up the path—"

He did not get any further, for Murdoch boiled over, and stepping forward caught Jet a clip on the side of the head that sent him staggering.

"And there's another waiting for ye if ye open your impudent mouth again," said the tall Scot.

Jet was no coward, and he turned on Murdoch like a tiger. But Mr. Bryson stepped between.

"You'll settle this some other time," he said curtly. "Now you'll march."

Jet glared at Mr. Bryson, but his eyes fell. He turned away and muttering under his breath started up the hill.


VII. — HUMAN HOUNDS

FOR about the twentieth time Bart turned and looked back down the enormous slope. Far in the distance a column of black dots looking no larger than mice moved slowly onwards.

"Dem no stop yet," remarked Forty, who paused beside him. "Me tell you, dat Kasoro, him pretty bad man."

Bart glanced at the boys strung out along the bare rock and limping under their loads. He looked at Jet Norcross who was hobbling along in sore-footed agony, and at Murdoch still plucky as ever, but clearly nearly beat. "Some one will have to stop pretty soon," he remarked, with a wry grin.

Forty shook his woolly black head.

"No stop till find water," he said gravely.

"Water," repeated Bart with a touch of scorn as he glanced down at the bone-dry baking rock, then up at the blazing blue sky overhead.

"Water no very far away, baas," said Forty confidently. "Me smell um."

Bart's eyes widened, but he knew too much of the strange powers of the African native to laugh at the idea, and after shifting his rifle to the other shoulder he toiled on again. Fit as he was, every step was torture, and he did not like to think what Murdoch or even the wretched Jet was suffering. Jet for once was speechless, his lips were cracked and blackened, and he reeled as he walked. Nothing but the stark fear of being "chopped" by Kasoro's men kept him going.

The great mountains stretched endlessly ahead, and the sight of its tall peaks white with snow against the remote sky only added to their torture. They had had to bolt in such a hurry that the men had had no chance to refill the water bottles, and they had been marching half a day in the blazing heat without a drop to moisten their parched lips.

"Me smell um water," said Forty again, and all of a sudden the leading men stopped short, and Bart heard them give a hoarse cry.

He ran forward and found himself standing on the summit of a ridge. Beneath was a tremendous drop into a valley at the bottom of which ran a rill of water bordered on either side by a band of vegetation startlingly green against the brown rock.

"That's a good sight, lad," said Bart's father, as he started down the slope.

It was a blessed change to go down hill instead of up, and worn out as they all were the sight of water gave them fresh energy. They went down the steep slope at a wonderful speed. At first Bart had thought the stream was just a tiny rivulet, but he had been deceived by the intense clearness of the mountain air. The distance was much greater than he had fancied, and the rill kept on growing bigger and bigger until before they reached it all saw that it was a real river. A difficult sort of river too, for though it was not more than thirty feet wide it was very deep, and the current ran like a mill race.

At first no one worried about that; they were all too mad for a drink, and they flung themselves down and dipped up the water with their hands. It was clear and almost as cold as ice. Jet drank so much that he got a bad pain and lay doubled up groaning. The rest did not pay much attention, for they were all looking at a long line of black figures which had just come into sight over the top of the ridge. Mr. Bryson frowned.

"They'll be on us in less than a quarter of an hour," he remarked. "Has anyone got any ideas for crossing this water?"

"I'll swim and carry a rope," said the plucky Murdoch.

"You'd be swept down like a chip," retorted Mr. Bryson. "Besides, the water's so cold you'd be helpless before you'd taken two strokes."

Bart looked round for anything in the shape of a log that might help to float one of them across, but nothing bigger than bushes grew along the banks. He looked back at Kasoro's men coming slowly but steadily down the hill, and he looked at the clear green water sluicing down from some distant glacier.

"We're certainly up against it," he said and just then his glance rested on a large round stone and a bright idea flashed into his mind. "Who's got the rope?" he cried.

One of the carriers had a length of rope, and Bart took it.

"Rope no good, baas," said Forty. "You want him man oder side."

"But since there isn't a man the other side I'm hoping to make a bush do the job," replied Bart, as he fastened the stone to one end of the rope, and taking the coil in both hands slung the stone across. It fell in a bush, and Bart set to pulling but the moment he put on strain the stone came loose. He drew it back and tried again.

"Me try um," said Forty, and he made a tremendous heave.

The stone dropped far on the other side of the torrent and stuck firmly between two rocks, and all Forty's strength could not move it. The near end was made fast to another rock, and one by one the boys were sent across, each with his load. Then the others followed, and the last was safely over and the rope drawn back before the first of Kasoro's men reached the far bank.

"I only hope they've got no rope," said Murdoch, glancing back.

"Dem fellers got no rope," replied Forty. "But dey come across all same. Kasoro, him chop dem if dey no come."

"You're a bit of a Job's comforter, Forty," remarked Mr. Bryson. "But surely they can't come much further. They have been marching hard for more than twelve hours. Flesh and blood can't stand it."

"Forty's right," said Murdoch. "They're coming."

So they were. Holding hands, a dozen tall men waded into the rushing stream. They were swept off their feet, and one torn from the others went under and vanished, but the rest tried again. Two went down this time, but the rest formed up afresh. The sight made Bart shudder.

"Come on," he said sharply. "They're not men, but machines."

It was all very well to say come on, but the hill side was terrifically steep, and it was becoming clear that the whole party were nearly done. Presently one of the boys dropped, and in a moment all the others did the same.

Mr. Bryson looked back. Kasoro's men had at last crossed the river, but the effort had almost finished them, and they were coming up the hill at a mere crawl.

"We can give our chaps five minutes," he said to Murdoch.

"We've got to," said Murdoch grimly, as he sat down heavily on a rock. "I say, Bryson, where is this to end?"

"I wish I knew," was all that Mr. Bryson could reply.

Bart too wished he knew. He had felt so certain that the river would stop Kasoro's men, but now it seemed as if nothing short of death could prevent these human hounds from holding on the scent of their quarry. It was all that he and his father and Murdoch could do to get the boys up again, and as for Jet nothing but sheer terror kept him on his legs. Forty was the best of the lot, and the wiry little Aruki was still going strong. But Bart knew that, for his own part, another mile would see his finish.

It would not have been so bad if they had had any refuge or hiding place to aim at, but there was nothing of the sort. The hill ahead seemed to end in a sheer precipice, and when they reached that, there would be nothing to do except put their backs against the wall and die fighting. Bart pointed this out to Forty, but the plucky fellow refused to be discouraged.

"We climb up and roll rocks on dem niggers," he answered.

"Bart," said Mr. Bryson, coming alongside, "it looks as if there was a gap in the cliff over to the left. I can't be certain, but I'm going on to see. You and Murdoch keep the boys moving."

"Bit of luck if your Dad's right," said Murdoch. "I'd do a lot to get away from those niggers, but I draw the line at climbing any more cliffs."

"Queer how keen Kasoro is to get hold of us," said Bart.

"You wouldn't say so if you knew him," replied Murdoch, and something in his voice made Bart shiver in spite of the heat. "And it isn't only losing us; it's busting up his sacred Shelf. That means the witch-doctors have told him that he's got to get us, or something nasty will happen to him."

"Something has happened to Dad," said Bart quickly. "He's waving like mad."

"Found a path, I expect," said Murdoch.

So he had, for when the rest of the party struggled to the spot they found themselves at the entrance to a narrow gorge which wound away in to the heart of the cliff.

"This is luck," said Bart.

"It's better than the cliff," replied his father, "but I would not say too much about luck until we see where it leads. For all we know, it may be a blind alley."

"We've got to chance that," said Murdoch calmly.

The floor of the ravine was fairly level, though littered with rocks, and the sides so high and steep that they cut off the glare of the sun. But the defile was so winding that it was never possible to see more than a hundred yards ahead. In spite of the shade and the easy going, the pace was slower than ever, and Bart kept looking round nervously, each minute expecting to see Kasoro's black warriors appear around the last curve.

The canyon widened a little, and the ground began to slope downwards. Stunted trees were seen growing in clefts along the sides.

"We're all right," vowed Murdoch, and just then little Aruki who was leading pulled up short with a sharp cry.

"What's the matter?" demanded Bart.

"Him big hole," said Aruki. "No can cross."

"Hole," repeated Bart in dismay as he limped forward, only to find himself on the edge of a chasm which cleft the floor of the ravine from cliff to cliff and went down into unknown depths of blackness.

Murdoch looked at it. "Not more than fifteen feet wide. A year ago I could have jumped it."

"Well, you can't now," said Mr. Bryson briefly.

In the silence that followed the boys dropped to the ground and lay quite still. Jet too flopped down and began taking off his boots.

"What are you doing that for?" asked Bart.

"Because they hurt," snarled Jet. "And because we can't walk any more, whatever happens."

"He's about right there," said Murdoch with a brief chuckle.

"We had better pile up some rocks," calmly suggested Mr. Bryson, and set to work at once.

Bart helped. He knew quite well that it was only a forlorn hope. If they had some sort of defence in front of them they might hold off Kasoro's men for a time, but in the end they were bound to be overwhelmed. Suddenly Forty came striding up to Mr. Bryson.

"Baas, you no move dem stones. You help move dem tree."

"What on earth are you talking about, Forty?"

"Dem tree, baas," replied Forty, pointing to a stunted tree that grew in a cleft in the side of the ravine. "Him make 'cross dem pit."

Bart was the first to see what Forty was driving at.

"He's right, Dad. The trunk is long enough to make a bridge. Quickly! Where's the axe?"

But Forty already had the axe and was scrambling up to the tree.

"It may work if we can do it in time," said Mr. Bryson. "Murdoch, go back a bit, and if you see Kasoro's men fire a shot."

Murdoch nodded, and as he went Forty's axe began to thud on the tree. The trunk was tough, but luckily the axe was sharp, and great chips flew at every stroke. Bart marvelled at the strength in the great man's arms.

The tree top swayed; another couple of blows, and it crashed down into the pass. Forty leapt after it, and set to lopping away its bushy top. This left a trunk twenty feet long but barely a foot through. Bart and his father and Aruki took one end, Forty alone the other, and they carried it to the edge of the chasm. The boys, seeing what was afoot, struggled up and helped to upend the log. Then they dropped it.

"Hurray!" cried Bart, as he saw it fall straight and true across the rift.

"Over you go, boys," Mr. Bryson ordered, and the bare-footed boys picked up their loads and scuffled across. "Now you, Norcross!"

Jet looked at the log and went white as a sheet.

"I—I can't," he stammered. "I—it—it makes me giddy to look at it."

A heavy report crashed down the gorge, and Murdoch came back with his smoking rifle in his hand.

"They're on us!" he shouted.

"Get on, Dad," said Bart to his father, and after an instant's pause Mr. Bryson footed it across.

"Hurry, you chaps!" said Murdoch.

"Jet's scared," said Bart with a sneer, and stepping up to the other slapped him hard across the cheek.

Jet gave a roar of rage and sprang at Bart, but Bart dodging away, bolted across the log. Jet dashed after him to be caught on the other side in the strong arms of Mr. Bryson.

"Well done, Norcross!" he said approvingly. "No, don't try to kill Bart. It was the only way he could get you over."

Murdoch came quickly across. Kasoro's black warriors were almost up, and Forty and Mr. Bryson had only just time to drag the log away and let it fall thundering into the depths. Kasoro's men, realising that their prey had at last escaped, stopped short, but one came forward alone: a huge man, ugly as an evil dream, with his small blood-shot eyes and white teeth filed to sharp points.

"It's Kasoro himself," whispered Murdoch. "Let's hear what he has to say."

The Chief came boldly up to the far side of the gorge and glared at the white men. Then he spoke in a fierce, hissing voice.

"What does he say, Murdoch?" asked Mr. Bryson.

Murdoch frowned. "He says, 'Go on. You have escaped me this time, but that does not matter. You cannot escape the Forest of Devils, and they will get you if I don't.'"

Mr. Bryson's tired eyes twinkled. "And what are you going to tell him, Murdoch?"

"Just wait and see," said Murdoch, and then the tall Scot, facing the big savage across the deep ravine, began to talk. He did not raise his voice, but spoke very slowly and distinctly in Kasoro's own language, and the effect on that gentleman was startling. His eyes glared, his face went a sort of nasty ash colour, he gave a roar of anger, then up shot his great broad- bladed spear.

But Mr. Bryson was watching, and quick as Kasoro was he was quicker. His rifle crashed, and the heavy bullet struck the handle of the spear with a force that knocked it spinning out of Kasoro's hand, and at the same time gave his arm a jar that almost paralysed it.

For a second or two the great black brute stood staring at the two white men, while his lips worked, but no sound came from them; then he swung round and leapt away.

"I wish, you'd tell me what you said to him, Murdoch," remarked Mr. Bryson.

Murdoch grinned. "Oh, among other things that the devils in the forest were gentlemen compared with him. That annoyed him quite a lot. Then I told him that we had smashed up his Sacred Shelf and finished his luck, and that scared him. But what put the hat on it was when I said that my chief reason for escaping was that he was so ugly it gave me a pain to look at him."

In spite of their utter weariness, Mr. Bryson and Bart both burst out laughing.

"You certainly made the most of your opportunity, Murdoch," chuckled Mr. Bryson. "It's just as well we are not going to meet Master Kasoro again."

All the fun faded out of Murdoch's face.

"Yes," he said quietly, "but how the mischief are we going to get back without passing his kraal? I don't know of any other way, for we certainly can't climb those"—pointing to the huge snow mountains which barred the way to the east.

Mr. Bryson shrugged. "Sufficient unto the day—" he quoted. "I'd rather climb those mountains than go within fifty miles of Kasoro, for if that gentleman ever gets his hands on us again there won't be any question of ransom."

Bart shuddered slightly, for he knew enough about African natives to be certain his father was right. At all costs they must find some way round. He decided to change the subject.

"At any rate we're all right for the night," he said. "Hadn't we better camp? We shall feel more like making plans in the morning."

"That's the brightest remark you've made to-day, Bart," said Murdoch. "I see Norcross hasn't waited for orders. He's asleep already."

He pointed to Jet who had simply dropped flat on the ground and lay dead asleep. Though Bart had no reason to like Jet, he was sorry for him, and getting a blanket from one of the boys he laid it on the ground and rolled Jet on to it. Jet was so utterly done that even this did not wake him.

Forty and Aruki collected wood and made a fire, and Bart helped to brew hot coffee which was wonderfully refreshing.

"Are we safe here?" asked Mr. Bryson doubtfully.

"We're all right," said Murdoch. "The niggers can't cross that gorge without a bridge."

"Suppose they make one? Kasoro wouldn't stick at much to get us."

Murdoch nodded. "Yes, we shall have to set a guard."

Forty spoke. "Me take him guard two hour." He held up two fingers. "Aruki, him watch two hour, den Baas Bryson."

"You're a brick, Forty," said Murdoch. "Your suggestion is approved."

Forty grinned broadly, picked up his gun, and sat himself on a rock. As for the rest they hardly waited to spread their blankets. In five minutes they were all dead asleep. Bart was roused by his father at four in the morning.

"Your turn now, Bart. All quiet up to date."

Bart got up and stretched. He was sore all over, but six hours' sleep had done him a power of good, and he was his own man again. He took up his post, and his father lay down.

At this height there were no mosquitoes, and the canyon was silent as a vault. The moon was up, but the deep defile lay in dark shadow. Bart kept a close watch on the far side of the gorge, but could not hear or see anything of their enemies. Time passed slowly, but at last a rosy glow shone on the tall snow peaks to the east. The light strengthened, and Bart was just about to get up and start up the fire for breakfast when a curious sound came throbbing through the dawn. It was very far away, but there was no mistaking it for anything but the beat of a drum. Bart shivered in the morning chill, and sat listening until the uncanny sound died away.

As he rebuilt the fire Murdoch woke and Bart told him of the drums.

"Some of the beggars are laying for us ahead," he remarked glumly.

Murdoch frowned a little.

"It does sound like it, Bart, but it don't quite fit, for Aruki says there are no natives on the mountains."

"Anyhow, I heard drums," declared Bart.

Murdoch shrugged. "Don't say anything about it to the rest. It's no use worrying them."

Bart nodded. "I'll keep mum. Things are bad enough as it is."

"They are a bit awkward," allowed Murdoch, "and the worst is that we are in absolutely unknown country. Not even Aruki knows whether there's any way out to the north."

"Dad wants to go east," said Bart.

"We can't," said Murdoch curtly. "Even you and I couldn't climb those mountains, and as for the boys they'd simply curl up and die. The range runs to fifteen thousand feet or more, and is one huge mass of cliffs and glaciers. Our only hope is to find a way out to the north."

"The sooner the better," said Bart, "for we're precious short of grub."

"You're right, Bart," said Mr. Bryson, as he came into the ring of firelight. "We shall have to go on rations, and push on at once. I should like to have given the boys a day's rest, but simply dare not do it."

An hour later all was ready for the start—all except Jet who savagely vowed that he could not get his boots on. Bart looked at Jet's feet and found them badly blistered. The good Forty came to the rescue.

"Me make him boots," he said, and getting some strips of leather from one of the packs he first greased the blisters, then bound the strips round Jet's feet.

Jet did not give him so much as a thank you. He still vowed he could not walk, and Murdoch at last got angry. "All right, Norcross," he said curtly. "Then stay where you are. Come on, the rest of you."

When Jet saw that it was a case of walking or staying he walked, but he was not pleased, and the odd thing was that he seemed to think it was all Bart's fault.

"It was you who let me in for this," he vowed as he limped alongside. "Just wait till we get out, that's all."

Bart only smiled, but Forty who had overheard was annoyed.

"Most like we nebber get out," he told Jet. "Den what you do?"

The ravine grew narrower; it wound away to the north; then, just as Bart had pretty well made up his mind that it was going to end up in an unscalable cliff, it dipped sharply, and the party walked out into the open once more. To the right the cliffs curved eastwards, towering against the blazing blue sky, but to the left the ground dropped away into another great valley.

A valley very different from the last, for it was one mighty forest which ran far up the opposite slope until it changed to low bush then to bare turf, and in the end to huge terraces of bare rock which climbed up and up towards the giant crests of the Mountains of the Moon.

"In Africa always something new," quoted Mr. Bryson, as he gazed at the magnificent scene. "Well, Murdoch, what do we do?"

Murdoch did not hesitate. "Go north, Bryson, for the valley slopes that way. We shall find a stream at the bottom, and if we follow that it will take us back to lower ground."

"Hobson's choice," said Mr. Bryson with a smile. "We certainly can't go south or east. All the same I don't like the look of this bush, for it is terribly thick. What about keeping close under the cliff to the left?"

"No water," said Murdoch briefly. "We must make for the river."

They made for the river, but it was shocking bad travelling. Most of the African bush is full of native paths, but here there were no paths except game trails, while the undergrowth was so thick that often they had to chop their way through it. It was past midday before they reached the bottom, but there was the stream just as Murdoch had prophesied, as clear and cool as a Scottish mountain burn, and—like a burn—swarming with fish.

In two minutes Bart had got hook and line out and cut a long, thin cane for a rod. Forty found some white grubs under the bark of a dead tree, and in another couple of minutes Bart was pulling out fish as fast as he could bait. They were a sort of snow trout, small but very good eating, and all the party enjoyed their best meal for two days. Mr. Bryson was very pleased.

"We shan't starve at any rate. Murdoch, what do you say to camping here until to-morrow, giving the boys a rest, and catching enough fish for a couple of days?"

"Just what I was going to suggest," said Murdoch. "I could do with forty winks this afternoon."

"And I'll fish," said Bart. "Jet, would you like to take the rod for a bit?"

"No," said Jet rudely. "I'm going to sleep."

He lay down, and Bart went on fishing, while Forty found fresh bait. Bart noticed that the boys sat close together by the fire. He pointed this out to Forty.

"Dem niggers scared," said Forty briefly.

"Why?"

"Dem say debbil men lib here."

Forty looked mysterious. "Dey tell dem debbil men lib in trees."

"What rot!" laughed Bart, as he pulled a flapping half-pounder out of the pool, killed it, and added it to the pile on the bank.

In two hours he had as many fish as they wanted; then feeling very tired he slung his hammock and got into it. He was asleep in a minute, and when he woke the sun was setting, and the glade in which they were camped lay in a sort of green dusk. Forty was busy at the fire, grilling fish and making coffee. Murdoch and Mr. Bryson were still asleep. Bart slipped out of his hammock and went across to Forty.

"Where is Baas Norcross?" he asked.

"Him go off wid him gun," was the answer.

"Gone off!" exclaimed Bart. "You let him go off in the bush, Forty?"

"No good me talk him," answered Forty sulkily. "Him say dirty nigger."

"But he'll be lost. How long ago did he leave? Which way did he go?"

"Him no go long. Him go up dat way—"pointing upstream.

Bart hurried after him. The tracks of Jet's bandaged feet were plain in the soft ground, and he had no difficulty in following them. Bart was very uneasy, for he and Murdoch had noticed leopard spoor on their way down the hill, and the leopard is the most dangerous of all the cat tribe—much more so than the lion. Apart from this danger Jet was such a fool about the bush that he was quite likely to get lost, and Bart was very sure that this was no place to get lost or to spend the night away from the camp fire.

The tracks led along the bank of the stream. The light was failing fast, for they were so near the Equator that there was hardly any twilight. Less than half an hour after the sun is down it is pitch dark. A few hundred yards above the camp Bart came to a grove of enormous trees. They towered up to an immense height out of the black sticky soil, and the foliage was so thick that there was hardly any undergrowth. The ground here was flat, and the stream ran sluggishly between high banks. It was a strangely gloomy spot, and Bart felt an unpleasant shiver run down his spine. He hesitated about going on, for he had a queer feeling that danger lurked near.

Then all of a sudden he saw Jet. Jet was standing some fifty paces away at the foot of one of the huge trees and staring fixedly up into it. Bart wondered what he was doing and was just going to call to him when Jet raised his rifle to his shoulder and took deliberate aim at something in the tree which Bart could not see.

"A leopard," said Bart to himself, and began to steal forward. He did not dare to shout for fear of spoiling Jet's aim.

Jet's finger tightened on the trigger, and in the gloom a flash of flame darted from the muzzle of the rifle. As the sharp report crashed away among the tree trunks there followed the most appalling roar: a roar utterly unlike that of a leopard—unlike anything Bart had ever heard, and full of demoniacal fury. Branches rattled and swung, and Jet, uttering a cry of terror, dropped his rifle, turned, and ran for dear life. Next instant a monstrous form dropped heavily to the ground on the very spot where Jet had stood the moment before.

At first Bart thought it was a huge hairy man, and there flashed through his mind what the boys had said about "debbils what lib in trees." But as the monster dropped on all fours and came after Jet at a sort of clumsy gallop Bart knew better. This was a gorilla, greatest and most powerful of apes, and also the most dangerous when molested.

Clumsy as it looked, it ran far faster than Jet, and Bart knew that the only chance of saving Jet's life was to shoot the gorilla dead.

It was not until he raised his weapon to his shoulder that he realised that in his hurry he had picked up Forty's double- barrelled gun instead of his own rifle. The charges of shot with which it was loaded would have about as much effect on the gorilla as a pea from a pea-shooter.

He had about two seconds in which to make up his mind what to do. He did not take more than one. Dropping his gun, he ran straight at Jet, seized him round the waist, and flung himself and Jet both right over the high bank into the river below.

Jet had not time to yell before the water closed over his head. It was very cold and about six feet deep, and both went to the bottom together. Jet had not even seen Bart, and thought the gorilla had got him. Mad with fright and half drowned, he struggled so furiously that Bart could not hold him. He was forced to let go, and he and Jet both came up together.

Bart's first thought as he got his head up was the gorilla, but he could see nothing of the beast. And while he was looking up a fist suddenly caught him an awful smack on the jaw, and Jet shouted furiously:

"You beast, I'll teach you to treat me like that."

Bart was so amazed that all he could do was to strike out and try to get away, out of Jet's reach, but Jet swam after him. Jet's face was white with anger, and his eyes glittered dangerously. He was in a terrible passion.

All of a sudden there came a crashing report from the bank above, followed by such a fiendish roar that even Jet stopped short, and grasping a root which stuck out from the bank hung there, breathing hard.

"What's that?" he gasped.

Bart did not answer. He was too angry and disgusted. He swam hard down to the end of the pool, and as soon as he was in his depth clambered cautiously up and peered over the rim of the bank. The first thing he saw was the gorilla writhing on the ground. What had happened to it he could not imagine, but it was evidently terribly hurt.

Then someone came running from the direction of the camp. It was Murdoch carrying a rifle. One shot ended the struggles of the gorilla; then Murdoch saw Bart and striding across gave him a hand.

"Where's Norcross?" he asked anxiously.

"Down there," said Bart shortly, pointing to the water.

"Is he hurt?"

"No."

"But you are. Your face is bleeding."

"I got that for trying to save Jet," said Bart curtly.

Murdoch looked hard at Bart, for he had never seen him so upset.

"What happened?" he asked, and Bart told him.

Murdoch grunted. "That fellow is the limit," he remarked. "But never mind him, Bart. What I want to know is how you finished the gorilla."

"I don't know," said Bart. "I thought you or someone had shot him."

Murdoch went up to the dead beast, and his eyes widened.

"He shot himself, Bart," he said.

"Shot himself!" repeated Bart in amazement.

"Yes, picked up your gun because it was the only thing he could see to vent his rage on, started twisting it up, somehow pulled the trigger, and—well, look at it!"

He held up the gun, and Bart saw that the strong steel barrels were twisted like corkscrews. This had been done before the triggers fell and the result was that both barrels had exploded with awful results to the wretched gorilla. Bart gasped.

"I couldn't have believed anything was so fearfully strong," he said, as he examined the broken weapon.

"Did the gorilla do that?" came Jet's voice in unusually subdued accents.

He had climbed out of the river and was standing, dripping, by the other two. Murdoch turned on him.

"Yes," he said bitterly. "And that's what he'd have done to you, Norcross, if Bart hadn't had the pluck and presence of mind to do what he did. And by way of reward, you plug him in the jaw. You ought to be darned well ashamed of yourself."

"I—I didn't understand," faltered Jet. "I'm sorry."

"And so you ought to be," snorted Murdoch. "Come on, Bart. You'll want a change and ten grains of quinine after that ducking."

The carriers were tremendously impressed by the killing of the gorilla. Everyone of them went out to look at the dead monster, and they chattered away over their fire that night.

"Bucked 'em up no end, Bart," said Murdoch. "They're more scared of these big apes than they are of lions or even leopards, and the mere fact that you've killed one has done 'em heaps of good. Ain't I right, Forty?"

"Dat's right, baas," said the big nigger. "Dey tink it change de luck."

"I'm sure I hope it has," laughed Murdoch. "We need a change."

Apparently it had, for next day they reached open country with coarse grass and patches of bush, and suddenly Aruki who was leading pulled up and pointed to tracks.

"M'boga!" he said sharply.

Murdoch snatched his rifle from a boy and hurried forward. The tracks disappeared in a patch of scrub, and suddenly a black mass showed through it. Murdoch fired, and a huge beast came plunging out and fell in a heap almost at his feet. It was a great bull buffalo weighing a ton or more, and the boys fell on it like hungry wolves, skinned it, and cut it up.

That night they ate till they could eat no more, and for the next two days no one went hungry. But meat will not keep in African heat, and at the end of the third day food was shorter than ever, and they were in desert country where the only live things seemed to be snakes and lizards.

"Never mind," said Mr. Bryson. "If we can stick it out for another day we shall be at our old camp. Then there'll be plenty to eat."

The next day was hotter than ever, and it is hard work marching on an empty stomach. But towards evening Bart saw a hill that he recognised and pointed it out to Murdoch.

"That's good," exclaimed the tall Scot. "My word, but we'll have a feed to-night!"

Weary as they were, they all hurried forward, their minds full of a real supper with biscuits and tinned stuff and hot coffee.

It was quite dark when they reached the camp, only to find an empty space. No tents, no boys, no food! The white men were too dismayed to speak. It was Forty who voiced their feelings.

"Dem dirty niggers, dey run away," he growled. "But dey'll suah be sorry when I catches dem."


VIII. — THE ROGUE

IT was all very well to talk of catching the runaway boys; the question was how to do it. The boys had taken the canoes and goodness knew where they were by now. That night over a meal made up of scraps of very high meat a council was held, and it was decided that the only chance was to make for Lumbwa's kraal.

"No use following the river," said Mr. Bryson. "We must cut across country. We shall surely find game enough to keep us alive, and Lumbwa will give us canoes to chase those miserable boys."

So it was decided, and the next morning they tightened their belts and went on, taking a compass course across strange and very barren country. The further they got the worse it looked. It was flat covered with stones, with here and there a patch of grass dried and burnt. Towards midday they saw a small herd of roan antelope, but there was no cover, and the creatures went right away. Just before dusk Murdoch managed to kill a pauw, a kind of bustard. They shared it out evenly, but it was only just enough for a few mouthfuls apiece, and that night they were too hungry to sleep.

Next morning Bart saw by his father's face that matters were pretty bad. Mr. Bryson thought they had better get back to the river where they might at any rate get some fish, but Murdoch pointed ahead to a line of low hills.

"Game there, Bryson," he said. "And not as far as the river."

Mr. Bryson considered a while, then nodded.

"You ought to know, Murdoch. Come on."

The heat was terrible as they tramped towards those hills, and before they reached them Murdoch collapsed. Hard marching and starvation on top of the terrible hardships he had gone through when a slave to Kasoro had been too much for him. Mr. Bryson laid him down under a scrubby acacia and spoke to Bart.

"Go on, Bart, and see if you can find game. Forty and I will look after Murdoch."

"All right, Dad," said Bart, and went on.

To his surprise Jet came too. Jet had hardened a lot in the past week and now looked fitter than any of them. But if his muscles had improved that was more than could be said for his temper, and he still seemed to hold the same grudge against Bart.

The hills were only a mile or so away, but Africa is full of surprises, and all of a sudden Bart and Jet found themselves on the edge of a deep gorge which cut them off from the hills beyond. Jet was furious.

"This country's always playing some beastly joke on one," he growled. "How the mischief are we going to get to those hills?"

Bart caught him by the arm. "Shut up. The game is not in the hills; it's down there. I saw something move."

"Are you going down?"

"Of course. Wait here if you're scared."

Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, Bart went over the edge. It was steep, but the rocks were broken, and Bart was too hungry to think of danger. As he swung from ledge to ledge he looked up and saw Jet following.

The flat bottom of the ravine was covered with thick bush. There was a small stream in the centre, and the bush was full of game trails. Bart signed to Jet to go silently and crept forward. Something stirred; he saw a dark object bolting across the trail, flung up his rifle and fired.

"You got him," cried Jet, and both ran forward to find a huge hairy beast resembling an immense pig, but with a head twice as big as any pig, and huge tusks, lying stone dead in the grass.

"A wart-hog!" said Bart. "My word, what luck!"

"Roast pork!" remarked Jet, smacking his lips. "What do we do now?"

"Cut up the carcass and hang it out of reach of hyenas," answered Bart, taking out his knife.

"How the dickens are we going to get back up that beastly cliff?" grumbled Jet, when they had finished.

"We must find a better place," Bart answered.

"Let's have a drink first," said Jet. "I'm dry as a bone."

Bart nodded, and they went across to the brook. They were kneeling down drinking the clear, cool water when the silence was broken by a shriek like that of a steam whistle, and the bush crashed under the charge of some monstrous beast.

"What's that?" cried Jet, springing up.

"An elephant," said Bart swiftly, as he snatched up his rifle. "A rogue, by the sound of him."

"There he is!" gasped Jet, as a vast grey bulk bore down on them.

The giant stood twelve feet at the shoulder, his trunk was held high in air, and his little pig-like eyes glowed like red fire. Bart waited till the terror was within twenty yards, then fired. As the bullet thudded home, the elephant came to its knees with a crash that shook the ground. Bart tried to fire again, but the last cartridge had jammed so that he could not force a fresh one into the breech, and Jet had no rifle.

"He's getting up again," cried Jet, in horrified tones.

It was true. The elephant was struggling up, and Bart knew that they must run. A precious slim chance, but the only one.

"Come," he snapped, and splashing through the stream the two tore away through the bush with the elephant hard at their heels.

If the great beast had been angry before he was now insane with rage, and he smashed through the thick bush like a runaway steam roller. Trees thick as a man's body went down like straws; it was like a whirlwind raging through the forest.

"Can't we climb a tree?" panted Jet, as he raced alongside Bart.

"None big enough. Besides no time. Find a hole in the rocks. That's our only chance," Bart answered.

The far cliff towered before them, steep as a wall, and the ground at its base was littered with great rocks fallen from above. In and out among these rocks the two plunged and twisted. The rocks checked the elephant but did not stop him. He meant to have them. Bart's breath was whistling in his throat, great drops of sweat nearly blinded him, there was a nasty singing in his ears. He had done more than Jet in the past days and was half starved into the bargain. He knew he could not go much further.

Suddenly he caught sight of a dark patch in the cliff side. It was a hole in the rock face, but he could not tell whether it was a mere hollow or a cave. He pointed to it.

"In there!" he cried, and Jet simply flung himself into it.

As Bart followed he put his left foot on a loose stone and came down. He felt the elephant's trunk whistle past his head as he fell, but the great creature was going too fast to stop and Bart managed to roll over and tumble in after Jet.

It was a cave, and somehow Bart picked himself up and struggled a score of paces into it, then dropped again almost fainting with pain, while the elephant stamped and trumpeted madly outside.

"And now we're worse off than ever," Jet complained bitterly.

"You're alive anyhow," retorted Bart.

"What's the good of that? We can't get away with that crazy brute outside. We shall simply stick here and starve."

Bart did not answer, and Jet at last looked at him.

"What's the matter with you?" he demanded.

"Sprained my ankle," said Bart faintly, but presently he pulled himself together and looked round. "Jet," he said, "this is a big cave, and there may be some other way out. Have you got matches?"

"Yes."

"Well, go in further and see if you can find a way out. Or you may find a passage that takes you to the top of the cliff, and then you can cross the valley higher up. If you can get out, tell my father. He will know what to do."

"What about that infernal elephant?"

"You needn't worry about him. He'll stay where he is for a week."

Jet sat frowning, and Bart wondered what he was thinking in that queer mind of his. At last he got up.

"All right," he said grudgingly. "I'll try."

Bart saw Jet pass out of sight into the gloom of the tunnel, saw a match struck, and watched until that too disappeared. Then he took off his boot and sock and began to rub his damaged ankle. It was swelling already and throbbed badly.

Outside the evil-tempered rogue kept watch. Sometimes it knelt down and tried to force itself into the cave. Its trunk waved like a snake in the gloom. But Bart did not move for he was certain the brute could not reach him. If he had been half as certain that Jet would find some way out he would have felt happier, but he knew that the chances were all against this. And even if Jet did find a way there was no saying what he would do next, for Bart knew too well how intensely Jet disliked him.

A long time passed, but Jet did not come back. Bart had a fright when he thought that perhaps Jet had fallen down a pit or run out of matches and got lost. He tried to put such ideas out of his head, and watched the elephant again. The creature stuck to its post and looked as if it would do so till doomsday.

Bart ached, he was so hungry. He kept on thinking of all that splendid pork hung up in the shade and the idea of a roast loin made his mouth water. At last he dropped asleep to wake with a horrid start, wondering where he was. The first thing he noticed was that the sun was off the front of the cave, so he knew it must be late in the afternoon, the next that the elephant had gone. He crawled forward on hands and knees, found a stone, and flung it out.

Instantly a frightful trumpeting woke the echoes and the ground trembled as the monster charged back.

"My word, but I'm glad it was the stone and not me," breathed Bart, as he shrank back out of reach of that fishing trunk.

He picked up another stone and threw it hard at the elephant, and if the noise had been bad before it was now enough to waken the dead.

"If only my rifle would work!" said Bart. But the mechanism was hopelessly jammed, and he had no tools to put it right. And just then to his utter amazement the elephant wheeled round and trumpeting worse than ever charged straight away towards the river.

Crack! Crack! came two rifle shots in quick succession, and at the second the mad beast stopped short. Another sharp report, the huge carcass shivered all over, then all the strength went out of it, and it collapsed in a grey heap on the ground.

"Bart! Bart!"

It was his father's voice and as Bart answered Mr. Bryson came running, carrying his still smoking rifle, with Forty close behind him.

"Jet—did Jet find you?" was Bart's first question.

"Yes. He reached us about half an hour ago—absolutely played out. Had to give him the last of our brandy to save him from fainting. But you're hurt, Bart."

"Only a sprained ankle, Dad. And I've got a wart-hog."

"Never mind the wart-hog. Here's meat to feed an army. Bart, you and I will start cutting up the elephant, and Forty shall go back for the others. They'll have to carry Murdoch and Norcross, but they'll do that fast enough, when they hear what's waiting for them."

"I'll see dey does it, baas," said Forty with a grin, as he turned and strode away.

It was not quite dark when the rest of the party arrived to find a big fire burning and enough meat cooked to satisfy even the ravenous appetites of the boys. The tongue and best parts were saved for the white members of the party, and very little was said until all had eaten their fill. Afterwards Bart got Jet aside.

"How did you manage it, Jet?" he asked.

"Found a way up to the top of the cliff. Had to walk a filthy long way to get across the valley."

"Jolly good of you, Jet," said Bart cordially.

"I didn't do it for you, so you needn't think it," retorted Jet so harshly that Bart shut up.

"It's no use," he said to himself sadly. "I may as well chuck trying to make friends with him."

His father called to him.

"Bart, we shall camp here until we are rested and have jerked enough meat to take us through to Lumbwa's."

"That'll suit me fine, Dad," agreed Bart.

It was three days before Murdoch and Bart were fit to travel, and even then Bart's ankle was still weak. But by that time the party had meat for a week, so they could afford to take it easy. Five days' marching brought them to Lumbwa's kraal on the river, and the fat old Chief was delighted to see them.

"I not forget how you kill chimiset," he told Bart. "But how come you walking on foot? Why you have no boats?"

Bart explained, and Lumbwa chuckled when he heard how they had got the better of Kasoro. But he had heard nothing of their boys or their boats.

"Most like they go right down big river," he said gravely. "You no never see them again."

"I'm afraid you're right, Chief," said Murdoch. "Now how are we to get to the coast?"

"I give you two, three canoe," said Lumbwa readily.

"That's uncommon kind of you, but we want a big boat, and stores. You see we have no coffee, tea, sugar, tinned stuff."

Lumbwa shook his head. "I give you mealies, yams, but no have big boat or coffee."

Murdoch turned to Mr. Bryson.

"There's an Arab town at the head of the river—place called Bina. We could buy stuff there."

"Yes, if we had the money," said Mr. Bryson.

"That's the rub," agreed Murdoch ruefully. "Tell you what, Bryson," he went on after a pause. "We'd better stay here for a week or so, shoot some buck, and dry the meat, then take the canoes the Chief has offered and do our best to get out to the coast."

Mr. Bryson shrugged. "It's about all we can do, but it's a big journey and a big risk, and frankly I don't like it. We might do without the stores, but we are short of quinine, and that's the biggest risk of all."

Even though there was no coffee or sugar Bart had never eaten a better supper than that night in the big hut. Baked yams, fresh bananas, and, above all, fresh milk were a wonderful change after days on straight meat. Even Jet thawed a bit.

"What's the trouble about the grub?" he asked Bart. "Can't we take a canoe full of these potatoes and bananas?"

"They wouldn't last us half way," Bart explained.

"Then why don't you buy stuff at this place, Bina? I've got plenty of money."

"But not about you, Jet," Bart replied.

"Yes, I've six five-pound notes."

"No good, I'm afraid," said Bart ruefully. "These fellows want gold or skins or ivory."

"Silly asses!" growled Jet, and sat silent, frowning in the queer way he had. At last he got up. "I'm going to turn in," he announced, and in five minutes he was sound asleep on a skin kaross in a corner of the hut.

Murdoch grinned. "Your friend's learning," he said to Bart.

"Learning?" repeated Bart in surprise.

"Yes, he's given up worrying about pyjamas and mosquito nets. And I'm dashed if he hasn't stood the journey better than any of us."

"Yes, he's better in some ways," agreed Bart. Then he sighed. "But I can't seem to get under the skin of him, Murdoch. He still hates me for making him come on this trip."

"Don't worry, Bart," said Murdoch kindly. "You've done your best. All of us can swear to that."

All next day the party rested. They did not feel like anything else. Oddly enough, the only one who seemed to have any energy was Jet who went down to the river and looked at the canoes, and Bart saw him talking to some of the men, and afterwards to Aruki.

"What do you think of the canoes?" Bart asked when Jet came in.

Jet shot him a queer, suspicious look.

"Rotten," he said and turned away.

Even then Bart did not suspect anything, and he got the worst kind of shock when Forty came to him early the next morning and told him that Jet had cleared out with the best canoe and six of Lumbwa's men.

"Aruki, him go too," he added.

"The only canoe that was big enough for us," said Mr. Bryson grimly. "But how the dickens did the fellow persuade those boys to go with him?"

"He had a stack of five-pound notes," Bart told him. "He's humbugged them all right," he added bitterly.

"No use worrying," said his father. "We must just build another canoe. Lumbwa will help."

"It's all very well to say don't worry," replied Bart, "but what's his uncle going to say if Jet doesn't get back?"

"He won't break his heart," replied Mr. Bryson drily. "Listen, Bart. You have done all that one boy can do for another, and that's the end of it. Now let us see Lumbwa about building a new boat."

But it was not the end of it, for Bart could not keep his mind off Jet. He kept on thinking of things he might have done, yet had not done. When they started he had felt so sure that the trip would make a man of Jet, and the only result had been to sour him completely. He was bitterly disappointed.

Lumbwa was quite willing to help in building a boat, but it was bound to be a long job. First a suitable tree had to be found; then it had to be cut down and the huge log hollowed and shaped. African canoes are all dug-outs—that is, they are hollowed out of one great trunk. The worst of it was that they had no proper tools. African natives do not use saws. They cut a tree with an axe and hollow it with an adze and fire.

"It's going to take the best part of a month," said Murdoch that night. "Bryson, this has been a rotten trip for you. I was hoping that we should have had a chance to look for that Valley of Bones, but as it is we shall go home broke."

"Don't talk nonsense," replied Mr. Bryson. "We took this trip to rescue you from Kasoro."

"You've done that all right," replied Murdoch. "And I'm jolly grateful. But the rest hasn't been so good. Bart's very upset about this fellow, Norcross. Thinks he hasn't done his duty by him, and, as I said, we're going home broke."

"Bart's done all a boy could do," returned his father.

"I should just about think he had. It's not his fault if the fellow is hopeless. But I'm wondering what the uncle will say if his nephew fails to turn up."

"Don't croak," said Mr. Bryson impatiently. "Let's turn in. We have another day ahead of us."

They had several hard days and hot ones too. And it is not easy for white men to work on native food, even if there is plenty of it. They were out of salt and sugar and coffee, and almost out of quinine. Quinine is the only thing that saves one from fever in Africa, and most people take a small dose every day. On the sixth day Murdoch went down with a sharp attack of malaria, and it took all the remaining stock of quinine to pull him round. That night Mr. Bryson talked to Bart.

"I'm not going to risk the journey to the coast without quinine, Bart. You and Forty must go up the river to Bina and get some. I have five pounds in gold—literally, all the money I have left in the world. I was saving it for small expenses on our way home. But quinine—"

"I understand, Dad," Bart cut in. "We'll start first thing in the morning."

It was raining hard the next morning when Bart and Forty got down to the landing.

"Dem flood come, baas," remarked Forty gloomily.

Bart looked at the river which was already rising, and at the wretched little canoe in which they had to do the journey, and did not feel happy. But he was not going to show it.

"Can't be helped, Forty. We must have that quinine."

He got into the canoe, and was picking up his paddle when he heard a startled exclamation from Forty.

"Dem canoe come, baas. Baas Jet come."

"You're crazy," retorted Bart.

"Me no crazy. You look," said Forty in an injured tone, and Bart, turning, could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the big canoe coming swirling upstream driven by its six paddlers and with Jet seated in the stern.

The canoe drew to the landing, and Jet stood up.

"Where are you off to?" he asked Bart in a casual tone.

But Bart was too amazed to speak.

"Can't you hear me?" asked Jet. "Where are you going."

"To—to Bina," stammered Bart.

"Then you'd better take this canoe," said Jet coolly. "There's a flood coming. Besides, you'll be able to bring more stuff."

"But I—we can't afford to buy it," Bart answered.

"You can buy it with this," said Jet, as he stooped and lifted a huge curved object nearly as long as himself.

"Ivory!" gasped Bart.

"Yes. I've only got six tusks. All we could carry. But there's plenty more where these came from."

Bart simply stared. Suddenly Jet laughed, and it was the first time Bart had ever heard him really laugh.

"Got a bit of my own back at last, Bart," he said. "I suppose you all thought I'd cleared out."

"We did," replied Bart soberly.

"Well, I don't blame you after what I did on the way up. But I've learnt a bit more than you reckoned in the past fortnight, and I've been laying to get square with you for saving me from that brute of a gorilla."

Bart stepped nearer. A queer feeling of happiness flooded through him, making him quite forget the ivory.

"My dear Jet, what an ass I've been!" he said.

"Not you," replied Jet, with a grin that was positively friendly. "I set out to fool you, and I'm a pretty good actor when I try."

"You certainly fooled me," said Bart, "and even now I haven't a notion how or where you got the ivory."

"It was that day the rogue tackled us. When I went up that cave I struck right through the cliff and came out into a whacking great pit. A sort of crater with an opening into it on the far side. The floor was simply covered with skeletons of elephants gleaming in the sun. I tell you it gave me creeps. But I'd heard Murdoch talk of his Valley of Bones, and I knew I'd found it."

"Why didn't you tell us?" asked Bart breathlessly.

"Because I jolly well knew we'd got to carry meat, not ivory," Jet answered. "So I lay low until I had my chance, and when we got here I swore Aruki to silence, and we just went and fetched a few tusks. Aruki thinks these are worth fifty quid apiece, and I believe there are about a thousand more in the valley."

Bart drew a long breath.

"These are worth at least eighty pounds apiece. You'll be a very rich man, Jet."

"Me!" retorted Jet. "I'm rich already. They're yours, Bart—yours and Murdoch's." He chuckled again. "I told you I'd get square."


IX. — THE LAST ADVENTURE

BART lay in his hammock, which was slung under the branches of a giant baobab. The evening sun still held great heat, but a slight breeze was moving and here, in the thick shade of the immense tree, Bart enjoyed a pleasant coolness.

He enjoyed it all the more because he was tired. Ever since early dawn he and Forty had been paddling up the river. They two had volunteered to go straight back to the Valley of Bones and collect the tusks ready for shipment. Bart's father and Murdoch had to gather stores and carriers for the expedition, a job which would take at least a fortnight.

Bart was happier than he had been for many a long week, and it was not only the prospect of riches from the great store of ivory which cheered him. It was the knowledge that, at long last, Jet Norcross had come round. That was a triumph of which any one might be proud, and Bart was proud. He knew too how intensely pleased Mr. Clinton would be. The change in Jet was amazing. He no longer had any wish to rush off home. He had told them all that he meant to come back with them and see them clean up the ivory. Africa had at last got under his skin, and Bart rather doubted if he would ever be content to settle down quietly in England.

Bart was all alone. Late in the afternoon he and Forty had had an accident. They had run the canoe on a snag and upset her and lost all their provisions and—what was worse—his rifle and Forty's gun. Luckily they were less than one day up the river, and Forty had volunteered to go back and fetch another canoe and fresh stores. That would take him twenty-four hours, but alone he could travel faster than Bart, so it had been decided that Bart should camp where he was and wait. He had enough coffee, mealies, and bananas salved from the wreck to keep him from going hungry. He had also plenty of matches in a watertight case and an iron pot.

Suddenly Bart stiffened. His trained ear had caught a new sound in the forest. He sat up and looked round. Next minute a figure emerged from the bush a hundred yards away and came staggering towards him. Bart jumped up and hurried to meet the other. The stranger was a white man, or had once been white. Now he was so gaunt and worn, so grimy and tattered that he resembled a skeleton hung with rags. His sunken eyes, blazing with fever, fell on Bart.

"Thank Heaven—an Englishman!" he muttered hoarsely, and Bart caught him as he collapsed.

Bart lifted him and carried him into the shade where he quickly made a bed of grass and laid him on it. By this time the stranger was quite insensible and breathing thickly. Bart set to work to heat water.

There was no sleep for Bart that night. All through the long dark hours he fought for the life of the wanderer who tossed and moaned in delirium. Luckily Bart had quinine in his pocket, and the doses he administered gradually subdued the fierce fever that burned in the sick man's veins. The poor fellow was simply skin and bone.

He was almost starved to death. For the life of him Bart could not imagine how he came to be in such a state. In any case he was very much surprised to see a white man in this country.

The twisted branches of the great baobab were black against the grey dawn sky when at last the poor fellow's tossings ceased. The flush of fever died from his cheeks, and his eyes opened and fixed wonderingly on the face of the boy bending over him.

"Better?" asked Bart gently.

The other smiled faintly.

"I shall never be better," he answered. "I am dying."

Bart knew it, yet tried to cheer him. The other did not seem to hear. He was listening but not to Bart's voice.

"Do you hear anything?" he asked in a tense whisper. "Is anyone coming?"

"No. Are you expecting someone?"

The sick man shuddered.

"Yes. All I hope is he does not get here before I die."

"Don't worry," Bart said. "No one shall come near you unless you wish it."

"You don't know Ben Ali," answered the other, shivering again. He paused and stared up at Bart with a look in which horror and hope were strangely mingled.

"You are only a boy," he went on. "You can't tackle a man like Ben Ali."

"I am only a boy," Bart agreed, "but I have friends not far away. One may be here by this evening."

The man shook his head.

"I fear it will be too late. Yet, if only he comes in time, it will be a fortune for him and for you."

He saw the doubt in Bart's eyes.

"You think I'm crazy. I'm not. I may have been, but now I am quite sane again."

His voice died away; he closed his eyes. Bart feared he was dying. He gave him a sip of coffee, and the man revived a little.

"Listen," he said. "I haven't much time left. You've been kind, and anyhow I'd rather anyone had the treasure than that fiend, Ben Ali. You have heard of The Bucket of Diamonds?"

"Lobengula's, you mean. Who hasn't? But Lobengula lived a thousand miles south of this."

"True, but after he died the diamonds were stolen and divided between three men. One was Hola who fled north. He was chased and hid the stones. I had the secret from Zinti, his son, whom I saved from drowning in Lake Bangweolo. He too is dead, and I am heir to his secret." As he spoke his fingers were fumbling feebly in the left side of his tattered jacket. "Get it out," he said hoarsely, and Bart, putting his hand into the pocket, drew out a yellowed envelope.

"That's it—the map. You can't miss it. It—it's yours if you give me your word to—to—"

His voice died away, and again Bart believed that he was passing. Yet his will was stronger than death. He swallowed another drop of the hot coffee and after a few moments spoke again.

"Listen! Ben Ali knows. It was he sank my canoe—nearly drowned me. A croc got my boy, but I swam ashore. But Ben Ali knows. He is after me. Swear—swear that he shall not have that map."

There was no mistaking the deadly earnestness of the dying man. True or false, he at any rate believed his own story.

"It's no use swearing," said Bart, "but I'll do my best. I give you my word on that."

The dying man looked up, and for a few seconds his eyes were fixed on Bart's.

"Yes," he said at last. "You're all right. You'll keep it. Dying men know." He paused for breath. "But be careful—for any sake be careful. Ben Ali is a devil in human shape. A brute—cruel—pitiless. You—you must hurry."

His voice died; he drew one long laboured breath; then his eyes closed—for the last time. Bart covered his face with a handkerchief and turned to the fire. He was shivering in the chill mist of dawn.

Stirring the fire into a blaze, he took the map from the envelope and examined it closely. It was roughly done in ink on a half sheet of notepaper, yet it was quite clear and distinct, and Bart, knowing the country as he did, had no difficulty in identifying the spot. It was within ten miles of the kloof where he and Jet had been chased by the mad elephant.

"Diamonds," he said aloud and shivered again but not with cold.

It was the fierce excitement of the treasure-seeker that was gripping him. He knew the story. Every Kaffir in the kraals who went to work in the mines had to smuggle out a diamond for the benefit of his Chief. Lobengula had actually told Cecil Rhodes that this was the case. And he had had never parted with them. If it seemed strange that this man, Hola, had brought them so far north it was, after all, no stranger than other things which are always happening in Africa.

Diamonds! They were much easier to carry than tusks of ivory and even more valuable. Besides, he had promised the dead man that Ben Ali should not have them. His thoughts turned to Ben Ali. An Arab, no doubt. Probably a slave trader. Bart knew what utter brutes some of these men were, and he remembered what the dead prospector had said about the need for haste. He began to feel uncomfortable. He had no weapon, no stores or canoe. He could not move until Forty came back, and Forty could not possibly arrive before night. Probably he would not come till next morning.

Bart had some of his father's quality of quick decision. He decided that he would trek downstream and meet Forty on the way up. He knew of a spot, some ten miles back, where the river narrowed and where he could stop Forty's canoe. He got up, thrust the map into his pocket, and prepared to start.

Then it came to him that he could not possibly leave the body where it lay. The least he owed to this poor chap was decent burial. He took up a piece of dead wood, trimmed the end with his knife into a flat shape, and set to digging in the soft loam. He would be all right for an hour or so. Wherever Ben Ali was, he would hardly be out of his blankets yet, and then he would breakfast before starting.

That was where Bart was wrong. He had not finished scooping out the shallow grave when a rustle made him stiffen, and turning quickly he saw a tall man standing behind him with a rifle in his large sinewy hands. Bart gazed at the cruelest face on which he had ever set eyes. It was long, narrow, bearded, with beaky nose and eyes like pieces of agate. Instinctively Bart knew that he might as well appeal to a leopard for kindness as to this Arab brute. A spasm of something like terror seized him, but Bart had never shown the white feather. He was not going to begin now.

"You are Ben Ali," he remarked quietly.

"I am Ben Ali," replied the other in good English. "You will raise your hands above your head. Thank you," he added as Bart obeyed.

He stepped forward and ran his hand over Bart's clothes to make sure he had no hidden weapon.

"And now," he went on, "I will thank you to hand over a certain map which you have taken from the body of my poor friend there."

"Friend!" Bart could not help the scornful word.

An ugly gleam flashed in the Arab's deep-set eyes.

"Quickly, please," he said, and, though he did not raise his voice, there was deadly menace in his tone.

Bart bit his lip. He was boiling inwardly, but now Ben Ali's rifle was pointed straight at his chest, and he knew the man would have as little scruple in killing him as in shooting a bush buck. With a shrug he took out the envelope and handed it to the Arab.

"Is the map in that?"

"It is."

"Take it, Luli," ordered Ben Ali, and before Bart had realised that there was a second man on the scene a pair of powerful arms gripped him from behind.

"Neat—very neat!" observed Ben Ali. "Keep quiet," he said to Bart. "Keep very quiet or you will leave this world more quickly than you came into it. You have the rope, Luli. Make him fast."

Luli, a huge M'senga cannibal with scarred face and filed teeth, proceeded to tie Bart to the stem of the banyan. The smell of the man nearly made Bart sick. Meanwhile Ben Ali was examining the map, and Bart saw a flicker of satisfaction in the Arab's hard eyes. Ben Ali nodded.

"We have been a long time getting it, but it is here at last," he remarked. "As for you," he turned to Bart, "you know too much."

Bart remained silent. It was useless to make any appeal to these two brutes. In any case it did not suit his ideas that an English boy should plead for mercy from an Arab.

"We will pick you up on our way back—what is left of you," continued Ben Ali, with a faint smile. "Come, Luli," he ordered and, swinging round, tramped off towards the river which gleamed through the screen of foliage.

Luli followed, and Bart heard the two get into their canoe. There came a splash of paddles, then sound died, and he was alone.

Bart's first feeling was one of relief that he had been left alive, but this was quickly followed by a fury of anger that he had allowed himself to be trapped by these two scoundrels. He set himself to struggle with his ropes, but it did not take him long to learn this was hopeless. Luli had done his job too well. He gave it up and sat still, the sweat streaming into his eyes and the flies buzzing maddeningly about his head. His one hope now was Forty, but, if Forty had not started back at once, he would not reach this spot for another twenty-four hours, and that—Bart knew—would be too late. This was leopard country. Besides, even hyenas will attack helpless humans.

A horrible death was before him. He shut his eyes and strove with all his might to face it bravely.

The shadows shortened; a bar of sunlight hot as a ray from an open blast furnace struck across his body. Bart had had nothing to drink for many hours, he was already thirsty, and soon his thirst became an agony. The pain became intolerable, and presently a merciful unconsciousness lapped him.

● ● ● ● ●

Bart opened his eyes with the blessed relief of cool water in his throat and a well known voice in his ears.

"No, Marse Bart, yo' ain't dead. But yo' mighty near it when ole Forty find yo'. Now yo' tell Forty how yo' get like dis and Forty just nacherally kill dem debbils."

"Give me some more water," said Bart hoarsely; "then I'll tell you. But I'm going to help in that killing." He drew a long breath. "Forty, you saved my life by getting back here before dark."

"What yo' tink?" Forty was quite indignant. "Tink I leab yo' heah all night widout a gun?"

He gave Bart coffee, not water, for he had already lit a fire; then Bart told what had happened. Forty listened in silence except for an occasional angry mutter.

"I know dat Ben Ali," he burst out when Bart had finished. "Him debbil, not man. Now I make yo' some soup, den yo' sleep. To-morrow we go catch dem debbils."

"Dem debbils," had twenty-four hours' start, and Bart was more than doubtful whether he could catch them before they found the diamonds. But he vowed to himself that he would follow them across Africa, if need be, rather than let them get away with the loot. He finished every drop of the soup, he slept like the dead, and at dawn the next morning he and Forty started up the river. There was just one thing in his favour. He had memorised the map, and he knew the country almost up to the hiding place. There would be no time lost in searching for the way.

The four days that followed were stretches of savage toil varied only by hurried meals and short snatches of sleep. On the fifth day the pair landed, hid their canoe, and started inland.

As they climbed the steep bank of the river, Bart paused and stared at deep footprints in the soft clay. There was a gleam of triumph in his sunken eyes. The spoor was that of Ben Ali and Luli, and it was not many hours old.

If the rush up the river had been killing, the chase through the bush was worse. Fired with a fever of impatience, Bart drove forward with remorseless haste. Hooked thorns tore his clothes and blood-stained the rags that remained. Once a rhinoceros charged them, smashing through the palm scrub like a mad steam- roller. Bart and Forty flung themselves behind the trunk of a tree, and the great blind brute passed, raging, cyclone-like, through the forest.

Towards afternoon the ground began to rise, and a saddle- shaped hill with two blunt peaks rose above the dark line of towering trees. Bart's pulses hammered. This was the spot marked upon the plan—the site of the black Chief's hiding place. And he was gaining fast on the Arab. The tracks before him were not two hours old. Was it possible that he might catch them—that fortune might after all be his?

Quickly and yet more quickly he strode forward, till both he and Forty were nigh to dropping with heat and fatigue. Bart's eyes were on the ground. He never noticed the blackness gathering overhead; he saw no sign of the coming storm till, with a whistling roar, the tornado smote the forest, and instantly all was a mad turmoil of lashing rain, of blinding lightning, and of great trees tumbling like ninepins under the terrific blast.

Even then Bart would not give in. It was not until the darkness became so intense that he could no longer see the track that he had to confess himself beaten. With a groan, he dropped under the curving roots of a gigantic wild fig-tree, and lay still.

For hours the storm raged, and when at last it passed night had fallen. There was no possibility of lighting a fire. Wrapped each in a soaking blanket, he and Forty crouched and shiveringly waited for the dawn.

When at last it came, the two ate their last morsel of food, and Bart led the way forward. But no longer with the dash of the previous day. Every bone and muscle in his body was aching. Stumbling upwards along the hot and stony kloof, Bart saw that it narrowed steadily till, at the end, it pinched out altogether in the deep shadow of a huge, projecting rock. Beneath the rock was a dark oval space.

"The cave!" he said hoarsely, yet did not quicken his pace.

He had seen nothing of Ben Ali or his accomplice on the way, so it was obvious they had come and gone. He himself hardly knew why he still pressed on towards the empty goal.

Reaching the cave mouth, he paused. The passage led straight inwards for a few yards, then narrowed and dipped sharply. But Bart's gaze was not bent forward; his eyes were fixed upon the ground, and on his face was a look of wonder. Coarse sand covered the floor of the passage, and plain as printed letters on the sand were two pairs of footsteps going forward into the darkness, but none returning.

For quite a minute he gazed at them, then turned to Forty and silently pointed them out. Forty stared.

"Muti," he muttered. "Bad magic."

What did it mean? Were the ruffians then still in the cave? Signing to Forty to remain where he was, Bart went forward. Where the passage narrowed, he found that it had been sealed with a large slab of stone, which now was rolled aside. He paused again, and listened. The silence was absolute. Not even the beat of an insect's wing was audible in this shadowed retreat.

His eyes becoming accustomed to the gloom, he realised presently that he stood on the edge of a sort of pit, a hollow of considerable depth, down into which led a flight of rude steps carved in the solid rock. He again listened intently, but the silence was absolute, as before. There was something ominous about it, and the idea came to him that possibly the two thieves were lurking down below, waiting for him.

And now the feeling that there was, after all, a chance of securing the treasure steadied him and made him cautious. He went back to the mouth of the cave and directed Forty to cut a large bunch of dry, scrubby bush which grew a little way down the kloof.

When this was brought, he made two bundles of it, tying each firmly. Carrying these, he went back into the cave, and creeping closer to the rim of the pit, lay flat while he lighted one. The resinous stuff burnt up with a fierce crackle, throwing a red, hot glare on the domed roof overhead. At once Bart flung it over, and it fell blazing into the pit.

This is what he saw: in the centre of the pit an oblong hole in the rock, covered with a flat slab; across this slab Ben Ali on his face, very still; behind him, flat on his back, Luli. Luli's face was hideously twisted. Bart drew a long breath. He licked his dry lips.

"Dead!" he said at last. "Both dead! But what killed them? Bad air? No; for if the air was bad the torch would not burn."

His gaze roved over the rough stone floor, which was littered with fragments of rock fallen from above. The fire was burning down, and the flames jumped and flickered, making the shadows dance among the tumbled rocks. And in a dark space close under one of these rocks glowed two sparks like living topazes.

Bart's hand shook as he struck a fresh match, and, lighting the second bundle, cast it as far as he could in the direction of those two gleaming gems. There followed a sharp hiss, and, with a quick rustle of dry coils, a small black-and-white snake wriggled rapidly away into a hollow under the pit wall.

A cold sweat broke out on Bart's forehead. The mystery was solved. This was the African cobra, whose bite is almost instant death.

It was a minute or more before he could gather strength to clamber to his feet. But when he did so he did not waste another moment. Hurrying out, he told Forty; then together they set to cutting great armfuls of the brush, and carrying them into the cave.

It was nearly night before they had finished his preparations. By this time a thick layer of brush flung in from above lined the whole circle of the pit floor, and was piled a yard high against the walls.

When all was ready, Bart fired a small bundle, and dropped it down. The brush caught instantly and burnt like tinder. The crackle and roar were terrific, and the whole gloomy place glowed with heat.

"That sees their finish," said Bart, as he stood and watched the fierce blaze. "No living thing can survive down there."

When at last the fire died down the heat was still too great to descend into the pit. Bart and his big black friend sat at the mouth of the cave and ate while they waited. They had plenty of food for Ben Ali's own sack of provisions had been found lying in the kloof where the two plunderers had flung it down in their rush for the cave.

When Bart returned a hot blast still beat up from the smouldering ash. But he could wait no longer, and a minute later he and Forty together put their weight on a stout stake which they had forced under the stone covering the tomb.

The stiff wood bent under the strain, but slowly the slab lifted until at last it toppled over and fell with a crash on the floor of the pit. Gasping with exertion, Bart straightened himself and picking up a fresh torch, lit it and held it over the opening.

The hole was not more than two feet deep, and in it lay stretched at full length the mummified body of a black man. Beside it was a bag; a bag as large as a child's head, and made of buckskin, shrivelled with years to a substance as hard as wood.

As Bart lifted it, the rotten leather burst and out rattled a shower of dull crystals. For several seconds he stared breathless at the riches strewn around the remains of the dead man who had stolen the stones. Then he turned to Forty.

"The job's done," he said. "What about a spot of sleep?"

Forty yawned prodigiously.

"Baas," he said, "dat's de best ting you said since we started."


THE END