THE pick-point struck stone with a force that jarred Sandy's stout arms and a sound that brought Jack Singleton running.
"Ay," said Sandy in his slow, deliberate way, "it's the casing at last."
He raised the pick and struck again higher up the slope and after two or three blows found a joint and began to lever out the stone. The muscles on his powerful arms rolled in cords; sweat poured down his freckled face; then with a crunch a great flat slab came up and fell over, revealing the mouth of a small cave or rather chamber cut in the solid rock.
"It's the temple," cried Jack, and was plunging in when Sandy's big hand closed on his arm.
"Wait; maybe the air's bad."
He struck a match, picked some dry grass, lit it, and flung it into the place. It blazed up, revealing a sort of vault, about twenty feet long, and six feet high and wide. At the far end was a shelf cut like the rest in the living rock, and on it a small object which reflected the blaze with a dull greenish radiance. Jack tore himself loose and dashed in.
"The God! The Green God!" he cried, in delight. "What did I tell you, Sandy?" He snatched the thing from its shelf and carried it to the entrance. "Pure gold!" Jack went on. "Feel the weight of it, Sandy."
"It's no very large," said Sandy slowly, as he stared at the image. "And it's ugly as sin."
He was right. The image was quite small—only about nine inches long—and it certainly was ugly. It had the blunt nose of the negro, a huge thick-lipped mouth, and a pair of deep- set, angry eyes. Jack laughed.
"You would crab it of course, you crusty old Scotsman!" he retorted. "But, even if it is small, here's enough gold to pay for our trip and a bit over. And probably it's worth ever so much more than its weight in bullion. Look what a queer colour it is. The British Museum or some collector would give us a heap of money for it."
"Ay, ye may be right," said Sandy peaceably. "And noo maybe ye'll be ready to go home again."
"Any time you say," replied Jack. "I expect dad's waiting for me at Livingstone by this time. Give me one day for shooting some meat; then we'll back trek as soon and as fast as you like."
"So you was found someding," came in a slow heavy voice with a thick accent, and both boys turned quickly to see Voorg standing by them, staring at the gold god with his pale china-blue eyes which looked so odd in his large, flat, brown face.
Voorg was a back-veld Boer whom they had hired as guide to take them on this trip to the ruins of Kawende in Northern Rhodesia. He knew the country north of the Zambesi and was an excellent guide and hunter, yet neither of them cared for the fellow, who seemed a stupid, heavy sort of lout. Jack bit his lip with annoyance. He had not meant Voorg to see this find, but now it was too late to deny it, and he had to make the best of it.
"Yes," he said, "it's an interesting little image, but there isn't much gold in it. Ugly, too, isn't it?"
"But nod so ugly as dat," replied Voorg, pointing as he spoke to the mass of ruins which crowned the low hill at the base of which they were standing.
Jack looked up quickly, and in spite of the blazing heat of the tropical sun a chill coursed down his spine. For the face that peered out at them over a broken mass of masonry was so utterly hideous and evil that it made the gold god look like an angel by comparison.
Imagine a death's head with the bones covered with black parchment, a face that looked like that of a long dead mummy except for the eyes. But the eyes glared like polished jet and were full of an evil fire. They were terribly alive. The head was crowned with ragged wisps of white wool, and the neck skinny as that of a vulture and decorated with a necklace of human finger- bones. That was what Jack saw, and Sandy saw it too, for even his ruddy face paled a little.
"What a brute!" gasped Jack. "What is it, Voorg?"
"Id was der Witch Doctor," stated Voorg.
"The one they call M'Kana?" asked Jack, still gazing at the terrifying face.
"That's the chap," said Sandy. "Ah, he's gone, and a michty gude job too! He fair gave me the creeps."
"He didn't look pleased," said Jack thoughtfully.
"I wouldna think he was ever onything else but cross," said Sandy dryly.
"Likely, he was born that way."
"Will he make trouble?" Jack asked of Voorg.
"He was made it already," answered the Dutchman. "All der boys except Chofa was gone. Dot was what I come to tell you."
Jack gave a low whistle of dismay.
"That leaves us properly in the soup, Sandy. We must get them back before we can travel. We must have carriers. What can we do, Voorg?"
"We get der meat," said Voorg. "Der vas buck by der river. Den der boys come back."
Jack glanced up at the sun. They had started digging at dawn, and it was still early in the day.
"All right," he said. "We'll go back to camp and get some food; then we'll go out after those buck."
He slipped the image into the big inner pocket of his khaki jacket, and the three walked back to their camp which lay on the high north bank of the Zambesi. Sure enough, the camp was deserted, and only Chofa came forward to greet them. He was a Mashona, a fine type of his race, a man with plenty of sense and devoted to the boys.
Jack had a short talk with him, and Chofa confirmed what Voorg had said. The Witch Doctor had visited the camp just after Jack and Sandy had left, and the native boys had run as if they had seen a fiend. Chofa believed they were hiding out in the scrub, and he agreed that a big feed of meat might tempt them back. He had breakfast ready, so they wasted no time, but sat down at once to coffee, grilled venison, and flat cakes of maize meal. Afterwards Jack went into his tent to get his rifle and cartridges, and presently Sandy followed.
"I'll be mending yon canoe," he said. "It's leaking bad, but Chofa and I will fix it by the time ye come back."
"That'll be good," said Jack. "And see here, Sandy, I don't want to carry that gold thing about with me, for, small as it is, it's heavy. So I've buried it under the floor of the tent."
"Ay, that'll do fine," said Sandy, who never wasted words. "Ye'll be back by supper?"
"Earlier than that. Voorg says the buck are not far off. I only hope he's right about the meat bringing the boys back. We shall be properly in the soup if we can't get them."
"We'll manage some way," said Sandy, and Jack, shouldering his rifle, left the tent and went off with Voorg.
A minute or two later Sandy and Chofa went down the bank to the river's edge, pulled up the leaky canoe, and set to work on it. It was a bigger job than they had reckoned, and they saw that it would take some hours. Later in the morning they heard a couple of shots in the distance.
"Young boss got buck," said Chofa showing his white teeth in a broad grin.
"Ay," said Sandy briefly, and went on with the work.
It was about three when they finished, but when they got back to the camp there was no sign of Jack or the guide. Sandy had some food and afterwards walked out a little way, listening. He heard nothing and came back. Although there was no sign of it on his stolid face, he was beginning to be a little uneasy. An hour passed, and he spoke to Chofa, who was busy peeling some yams.
"I'm thinking they ought to be back," he said.
Chofa jumped up.
"I go look for dem, boss," he said.
Sandy thought a moment. He was wondering if the camp should be left.
"Ay, ye'd better go," he said after a short pause, and presently they both started out.
Sandy kept fairly close to the river, but Chofa worked inland through the bush. Sandy went in the direction in which he had heard the shots, but could find no sign of Jack or the Dutchman. As time went on he began to grow really troubled. Then it occurred to him that perhaps Jack had made a round and come back to the camp from the other side, and turning he hurried back. It was near sunset when he reached the camp again.
"Jack!" he called, but there was no reply.
He strode to the tent, but all was silent. He looked inside, but nothing had been disturbed, so far as he could see. Sandy was a stiff young Scot, not the sort to give way to panic, but now he was scared and knew it. That brute of a Witch Doctor—this must be his doing.
He stood quite still, racking his brains for what was best to do, but utterly at a loss. He did not know where to look for M'Kana, or he would have gone after him at once. And just then Chofa came out of the bush running, and Sandy saw in an instant that the native had news—not good news either, by the look on his ebony face, and Sandy felt his heart sink a peg lower.
"What's the matter?" he asked curtly.
"Dat Dutchman, him go die," was Chofa's answer.
Sandy stared—you might say glared.
"Ye are crazy, Chofa."
"Me not crazy, boss. I tell you true. Voorg, him dead."
Sandy felt a queer sickness coming over him, but he kept a stiff upper lip.
"Where? How?" he demanded.
"I find him body ober dere." Chofa pointed back into the bush. "Some one come up quiet behind him and—" He raised his hands and made a motion of bringing a club down on a man's head.
"He's dead. Ye are sure he's dead?" asked Sandy.
"I berry sure, boss. No man lib when head broke like dat."
Sandy stood grimly silent, but he was thinking hard.
"Who did it?" he asked at last.
Chofa lowered his voice.
"Him, M'Kana. He kill him for suah."
"But what for?"
"M'Kana, him look for gold god," was the man's answer.
Sandy's eyes widened.
"But Voorg hadna got it," he answered sharply.
"I tink him hab got it," said Chofa.
"I'll see," said Sandy, and hurried to the tent which he shared with Jack.
The earth floor looked smooth enough at the spot where Jack had buried the god, but, when Sandy seized a shovel and dug, he found nothing. He dropped the shovel and came out, and now there was sheer dismay in his heart.
"Ye are right," he said to Chofa. "It's gone. But how did Voorg ken where it was?"
"I tink him watch. I watch him watch."
Sandy considered a moment.
"Then he'll ha' come back for it whiles we were busy over the boat."
Chofa shook his head.
"I no tink dat, boss. I tink him come while we look for Boss Jack."
Again Sandy was silent for a little, thinking hard, and again he came to the point with his usual certainty.
"Then yon Voorg must ha' got rid of Jack before he came back to the camp." He looked straight at Chofa. "Do ye think he has killed him?"
"I do not know," said Chofa, who was evidently much troubled. "But Voorg suah must hab got 'way from Boss Jack befoah he came back to camp."
Once more Sandy thought things out. With his cautious Scottish nature, he never acted until he had his plan clear before him.
"We maun find Jack, Chofa. We maun find him dead or alive, and we maun do it quick, for there's no much licht left."
"Suah ting, we find him," said the boy earnestly. "And yo' take gun, boss, for dat M'Kana, him berry bad man."
Sandy waited only long enough to get his rifle, some cartridges, and the little pocket flask of brandy which they kept for emergencies. Then he was ready, and the two went away through the red glow of the African sunset in the direction in which Jack and the Dutchman had gone. At the edge of the clearing Chofa stooped and examined the tracks. Chofa was a fine hunter and could follow spoor with any one. Presently he was off at a sharp pace, taking almost exactly the same direction as that in which Sandy had gone a couple of hours earlier.
It was marvellous to Sandy how the native followed the trail through the thick bush and in the fast-failing light. Sandy himself could see no marks at all where to Chofa they seemed plain as large print. All he could do was simply to follow the other. He was dreadfully uneasy, for the thought kept thrusting itself into his mind that Voorg had treacherously killed Jack. He knew now that he had never trusted the Dutchman, and he blamed himself bitterly for not warning Jack.
If Jack was dead—but Sandy could not bring himself to think of such a disaster. In his quiet, undemonstrative way he simply adored the dark, bright-eyed youngster who was his chum, and he was almost equally fond of Jack's father, a mining engineer, who had been up to Broken Hill on business while the two boys made their expedition to the ruined city of Kawende.
The daylight failed fast, but luckily a great moon was already in the sky, and its silver light was sufficient to allow Chofa to follow the trail, though now he went more slowly than before. The night life of the forest was beginning to wake, frogs croaked in deafening chorus, and in the distance there were strange cries, while in the bush itself mysterious rustlings proved that wild things were on the prowl, seeking their evening meal.
At last in a little open space Chofa stopped and, bent double, carefully examined the ground.
"Dis whar Boss Jack kill buck," he informed his companion. "You smell blood?"
Sandy shook his head.
"I canna smell it, but I'll tak' your word for it, Chofa."
"Here buck drop," Chofa explained, pointing to a spot where the grass was flattened. "I tink we find whar dey hang him up." He moved to the nearest tree, looked at it and several other trees, then turned to Sandy with a puzzled look. "Dey no hang him up. I not know what dey do."
"There'll be a trail somewhere," said Sandy. "Canna ye find it?"
Chofa went nosing around in a wide circle. At last he stopped again.
"I find him. Some one done drag dat buck all along ground. I tink him trail pretty easy follow now."
"Then get along wi' it," said Sandy sharply.
It was not, however, so easy as Chofa had expected, for the trail took them into bush so thick that the moonlight was cut off, and they had to grope their way as best they could. Sometimes they had to stop and use the small flashlight which Sandy had luckily brought with him. At last they found themselves in a narrow, but perfectly distinct path.
"A game trail," said Sandy, as he saw the prints of the feet of many animals in the soft ground of the path. "But what wad they be doing here?"
Chofa did not answer, and as Sandy flashed the torch he saw the native frowning in puzzled fashion. At last Chofa spoke.
"Boss, I tink first two men come down dis path, den one man."
Sandy looked equally puzzled.
"I dinna ken nae mair than you what they were playing at," he growled.
Chofa spent another minute or so examining the path; then he straightened up.
"I know now, boss; dat Voorg, he lead Marse Jack down dis path, and den he leab him some place. Den he come back and get de buck and drag him down here."
Sandy looked more puzzled than ever, and very worried too.
"But where did yon dirty Dutchman leave Jack? That's what I'm wanting to ken."
"I not know, boss," said Chofa, but he spoke with a curious uncertainty.
"We'll no waste time in finding oot," vowed Sandy. "Come ye on, Chofa."
They went on down the narrow trail between walls of brush so thick that it was like a quickset hedge. Sandy held his rifle ready. He knew enough of the African bush to be aware that in a place like this there was no saying what they might meet. And whatever it was there would be no getting out of its way. Straight shooting was all that would save their lives.
The ground dipped and became soft so that they sank ankle deep in sticky mire. It was intensely dark here under the arch of great trees which towered a hundred feet overhead. They crossed a tiny stream, and the path rose again and widened a little. Ahead Sandy saw the moon shining on an open space. He quickened his pace, for he had a feeling that at last they were coming to the end of the long trail. And then just as he was almost on the edge of this open space the smaller sounds of night life in the forest were drowned by a thunderous roar. Chofa caught Sandy by the arm.
"Lion come, boss," he whispered.
He was badly scared, and Sandy, knowing him to be a brave man, stopped short and waited. Close by was an opening in the bush, a little bay, and into this Chofa drew Sandy.
"Him lion angry," he whispered.
At that moment the great brute roared again, and the deep sound rolled like thunder through the sleeping bush. It seemed to shake the very ground, and even Sandy's stout heart quailed. He had heard lions before but had never met one. He stood quite still, gazing out into the open space which lay bright as day in the silver moonlight. He could plainly see a steep hill rising above the trees on the far side, but, look as carefully as he might, could see nothing of the lion. Yet from the roar he knew the great beast must be terribly close. Once more he wondered where Jack was.
The minutes dragged on, each seeming like an hour, and then at last Chofa touched Sandy's arm and pointed, and Sandy saw the bushes opposite part and a great animal emerge into the open. It was the lion sneaking along with belly close to the ground.
Sandy flung his rifle to his shoulder, but quick as he was the lion was out of sight before he could fire. It had sunk down into the tall grass which covered the open space. Chofa put his lips close to Sandy's ear.
"Yo' no shoot till yo' see him plain," he warned. "If yo' no kill him dead he kill us."
Sandy knew this was true and waited. It seemed to him that the lion was stalking something, but what it was he could not imagine, for there was nothing visible in the open glade. The horrid thought came to Sandy that perhaps Jack's dead body lay there in the grass and that this was the object of the great beast of prey. Once or twice Sandy saw the grass wave, and each time he raised his rifle, but only to drop it again as he realised that it was impossible to get a clear shot at the monster.
As he scanned the surface of the glade he became aware that there was an open space in the centre, a slight hollow, it seemed to him. At any rate the grass was not so thick there. It was towards this point that the lion was moving, but the huge brute was going very slowly and carefully—almost as if he suspected a trap.
"Canna ye tell what yon brute's after?" Sandy whispered at last to the native.
"I not know, boss," replied Chofa, shaking his head.
Sandy saw that the man was puzzled and upset. As for himself, his patience was wearing thin, and he had an almost irresistible impulse to end the suspense by walking straight forward and taking his chance of a close range shot at the lion. He said as much to Chofa, but the man begged him earnestly not to take the risk.
"Him jump when he see you, boss. You not hab chance if he jump."
Sandy knew this was true—that the lion would come straight for him the moment he moved and that there was not one chance in a thousand of stopping him with a single bullet.
Again the tall grass waved, and Sandy saw that the lion was quite close to the open space. Another minute and the long, sinuous, dark shape appeared in the opening and crouched there. Once more Sandy raised his rifle, but he could not see the beast's head at all. The only part of the animal he could see was the hump of its shoulders, and unless he was lucky enough to smash its spine with his first shot he knew he would only wound and madden it. It seemed to him that the lion was watching something, but what that something was he could not imagine. The last of his patience was ebbing. He whispered to Chofa:
"I'm going to shoot."
His finger was actually tightening on the trigger when Chofa spoke swiftly.
"You no shoot, boss. Him man come."
He pointed, and to Sandy's utter amazement a figure appeared from the bush on the right of the glade. Its legs were hidden by the tall grass, but it did not need Chofa's excited whisper of: "Him, M'Kana," to warn him that this was the Witch Doctor.
M'Kana was making straight for the bare spot where the lion crouched, and Sandy realised with a horrid shock that he was unaware of the lion's nearness.
"I'll have to shoot," he whispered to Chofa. "If I dinna do it the lion will get the nigger."
Chofa caught him by the arm.
"You no shoot," he muttered urgently. "Dat nigger kill Voorg. Him murderer. Please, you no shoot."
Sandy was furious.
"Let go, you fool!" he snarled, in such a voice that Chofa let go in a fright.
Once more Sandy raised his rifle, but now it was too late. The lion had heard the soft approach of the Witch Doctor, and rising to its full height had leaped. Sandy fired, but the man who can shoot a leaping lion by moonlight is yet to be found. The bullet passed away towards the distant hills, and the report was followed by a scream, a yell of agony and terror that echoed horribly through the glade. Then silence fell save for a fierce crunching and worrying.
Sandy dashed forward and as he ran pushed a fresh cartridge into the breech. In spite of his excitement his hands were steady enough. Straight he ran through the tall grass, and Chofa, spear in hand, followed. Sandy came up behind the lion which was crouching over its prey. It heard him; he saw it lift its massive head, its jaws dripping horribly. He stopped short, took careful aim, and pulled the trigger.
Up came the lion with a coughing roar, and Chofa bravely leaped in front of his young master, spear ready. There was no need. In the middle of its leap the huge brute collapsed and fell struggling in the grass. Quite coolly Sandy loaded again, stepped up, and put a second bullet through its brain. The great beast quivered and lay still.
"Well done, Sandy!" came a hoarse voice, apparently from the bowels of the earth.
"Jack!" yelled Sandy, and turning rushed in the direction of the voice.
"Steady on, old man! Don't fall in, or you'll be in the same pickle as me," cried Jack, and Sandy found himself on the edge of a great pit, ten or twelve feet deep, from the bottom of which Jack looked up.
"How did ye get there?" demanded Sandy.
"Help me out and give me a drink; then I'll tell you," said Jack hoarsely.
They got him out and fetched water for him, and then he explained. Voorg and he had killed a small buck. Voorg had then suggested that they had better get another and led him on into this game trail and so to the glade. He had shown him the hole, explaining that it was a game-pit dug by the natives, then while Jack was looking into it had suddenly given him a push. The fall half stunned Jack, and when he came to, Voorg was gone.
"The swine!" growled Sandy.
"Him worse dan dat, boss," put in Chofa. "Him fetch buck and make blood trail so lion come."
Jack gasped. "He ought to be hanged," he said angrily.
"Dinna fash yerself. He's dead," said Sandy curtly, and told how the Dutchman had come to his end.
"But what did he do it for?" questioned Jack.
"So that he could steal the god," said Sandy. "He came back to camp and dug it up, but M'Kana got it awa' from him." He turned to Chofa. "See if it's on yon body," he ordered.
Chofa went but came back after a little, empty-handed.
"It no there, boss."
"That's a sair bad job," growled Sandy. "I doot we'll find it noo."
"We'd best get back to camp," said Jack. "We'll have no trouble with those boys now M'Kana's finished."
"Ye take it mighty lightly," grumbled Sandy. "Yon image would ha' paid for all our trip and left a bit over."
Jack laughed and pulled something from his pocket which gleamed with green fire in the moonlight. He handed it to Sandy who gazed at it in amazement.
"For ony sake, what's this?" he demanded.
"An emerald," replied Jack. "The biggest I ever saw."
"And where did ye get it—in the pit?"
"No, you juggins! Out of the god. The gold image was just the case in which this was hidden, and luckily I found the trick of it before I buried the god this morning. So I took it out and slipped it in my pocket. And—that's that."
Sandy held the gleaming jewel up in the moonlight.
"And what's it worth?" he asked, in an awed voice.
Jack laughed out loud.
"Now isn't that what a canny Scot would ask? Say ten thousand, and you'll be on the right side."
"Ten thousand!" breathed Sandy. "Ay," he said, "there'll be a bit over all right!"