TRUTH IS STRANGER than fiction.
If this tale should seem in part incredible, please bear this axiom in mind. It had its beginning more than twenty years ago, unless one wishes to go further back to the first amoeba or even beyond that to the cosmos shattering clash of two forgotten suns; but we shall confine our story, other than by occasional reference, to the stage, the actors, and the business of the present time.
The searing sun rays scorch down upon a shriveled plain a scant five degrees north of the equator. A man, clothed in torn shirt and trousers upon which dried blood has caked and turned a rusty brown, staggers and falls to lie inert.
A great lion looks down upon the scene from the summit of a distant rocky ledge where a few tenacious bushes cling to give shade to the lair of the king; for this is Africa.
Ska, the vulture, wheels and circles in the blue, sky-writing anticipation far above the body of the fallen man.
Not far to the south, at the edge of the dry plain, another man swings easily toward the north. No sign of fatigue or exhaustion here. The bronze skin glows with health, full muscles glide beneath it. The free gait, the noiseless tread might be those of Sheeta, the panther; but there is no slinking here. It is the carriage of one who knows neither doubt nor fear, of a lord in his own domain.
He is encumbered by but a single garment, a loincloth of doe-skin. A coil of grass rope is looped over one shoulder, behind the other hangs a quiver of arrows; a scabbarded knife swings at his hip; a bow and a short spear complete his equipment. A shock of black hair falls in disorder above serene, grey eyes, eyes that can reflect the light of a summer sea or the flashing steel of a rapier.
The Lord of the Jungle is abroad.
He is far to the north of his ancient haunts, yet this is no unfamiliar terrain. He has been here many times before. He knows where water may be had for the digging. He knows where the nearest water hole lies where he can make a kill and fill his belly.
He has come north at the behest of an emperor to investigate a rumor that a European power is attempting to cause the defection of a native chief by means of bribery. War and rumors of war are in the air, but of this tale such things are not a part-we hope. However, we are no prophet. We are merely a chronicler of events as they transpire. We follow the activities of our characters to the bitter end, even to war; but we hope for the best. However, only time can tell.
As Tarzan swung with easy strides out across the plain, no sound escaped his keen ears; no moving thing, his eyes; no scent, borne upon the soft bosom of Usha the wind, went unidentified. Far in the distance he saw Numa the lion standing upon his rocky ledge; he saw Ska the vulture circling above something that Tarzan could not see. In all that he saw or heard or smelled he read a story; for to him this savage world was an open book, sometimes a thrilling, always an interesting narrative of love, of hate, of life, of death.
Where you or I might occasionally pick out a letter or a word, Tarzan of the Apes grasped the entire text and countless implications that we might never guess.
Presently, ahead of him, he saw something white shining in the sunlight-a human skull; and as he came closer his eyes picked out the skeleton of a man, the bones only slightly disarranged. From among them grew a low desert shrub proclaiming that the skeleton had lain there for a long time.
Tarzan paused to investigate, for to him in his world nothing is too trivial to pass by without question. He saw that the skeleton was that of a Negro and that it had lain, there for a long time, years probably; which was entirely possible in this hot, dry plain. He could not tell how the man had come to his death, but he guessed that it might have been from thirst.
Then he saw something lying by the bones of a hand, something half buried by shifting soil; and he stopped and picked it up, drawing it carefully out of the earth. It was a split stick of hardwood in the split end of which was wedged a thin parcel of oiled silk.
The silk was stained and brittle and dry. It seemed that it might crumble to his touch, but that was only the outer layer. As he carefully unwrapped it, he found the inner layers better preserved. Inside the silk wrapper he found what he had expected—a letter.
It was written in English in a small, extremely legible hand. Tarzan read it with interest, interest that was perhaps stimulated by the date at the top of the sheet. Twenty years had elapsed since that letter had been written. For twenty years it had lain here beside the skeleton of its bearer in mute testimony to the loneliness of this barren plain.
Tarzan read it:
To Whom This May Come: I am dispatching this without much hope that it will even get out of this damnable country, still less that it will reach any white man; but if it does, please contact the nearest Resident Commissioner or any other authority that can get help to us quickly.
My wife and I were exploring north of Lake Rudolph. We came too far. It was the old story. Our boys became frightened by rumors of a fierce tribe inhabiting the country in which we were. They deserted us.
Where the Mafa River empties into the Neubari we turned up the gorge of the former as though drawn by some supernatural power, and were captured by the wild women of Kaji, when we reached the plateau. A year later our daughter was born and my wife died—the she-devils of Kaji killed her because she did not bear a son. They want white men. That is why they have not killed me and a dozen other white men captives.
The Kaji country lies on a high plateau above the falls of the Mafa. It is almost inaccessible, but can be reached by following the gorge of the Mafa from the Neubari.
It will require a strong expedition of white men to rescue me and my little daughter, as I doubt that blacks can be induced to enter the country. These Kaji women fight like devils, and they have strange, occult powers of some nature. I have seen things here that—well, things that just can’t be but are.
No native tribes will live near this mysterious, ill-omened country; so, little is known of the Kaji; but rumors of their terrifying practices have become part of the folklore of their nearest neighbors, and it is the hushed recital of these that frightens the bearers of any safari that comes within the sphere of their baneful influence.
The white men may never know the cause of it, for the blacks fear to tell them, thinking that the black magic of the Kaji will reach out and destroy them; but the result is always the same—if the safari approaches too close to Kaji, the blacks all desert.
Then that happens which happened to my wife and me—the whites are lured by some mysterious means to the plateau and made prisoners.
Perhaps even a large force might be overcome, for the whites would not be contending against natural forces; but if they succeeded, the reward might be very great. It is the hope of this reward that I hold out against the dangers involved.
The Kaji own an enormous diamond. Where it came from, where it was mined, I have been unable to ascertain; but I suspect that it came from the soil of their own country.
I have seen and handled the Cullinan diamond, which weighed over three thousand carats; and I am certain that the diamond of Kaji weighs fully six thousand. Just what its value may be I do not know, but using the value of the Brazilian stone, Star of the South, as a measure, it must be worth close to £2,000,000—a reward well worth some risk.
It is impossible for me to know whether I shall ever get this letter out of Kaji, but I have hopes of doing so by bribing one of their black slaves who occasionally leave the plateau to spy in the lowlands.
God grant this be delivered in time.
Tarzan of the Apes read the letter through twice. Mountford! Almost ever since he could remember, it seemed, the mysterious disappearance of Lord and Lady Mountford had been recalled to the minds of men by rumors that they still lived, until they had become a legend of the wilderness.
No one really believed that they lived, yet at intervals some wanderer from the interior would revive the rumor with more or less circumstantial evidence. He had had the story from the chieftain of a remote tribe, or perhaps from the lips of a dying white man; but there never came any definite clew as to the exact whereabouts of the Mountfords—they had been reported from a score of places all the way from the Soudan to Rhodesia.
And now at last the truth had come, but too late. Lady Mountford had been dead for twenty years, and it was quite improbable that her husband still lived. The child must, of course, have died or been killed by the Kaji. It could scarcely have survived among those savage people through infancy.
To the jungle bred ape-man death was a commonplace phenomenon of existence and far less remarkable than many other manifestations of nature, for it came eventually to all living things; so the possibility of the death of the man and the child induced no reaction of sorrow or regret. It simply meant nothing to him whatsoever. He would deliver the letter to the English authorities at the first opportunity, and that would be all that there would be to it. Or so Tarzan thought. He continued his way, putting the matter from his mind. He was more interested in the maneuvers of Ska the vulture, for they indicated that Ska was circling about some creature not yet dead and which, because of its size or nature, he hesitated to attack.
As Tarzan approached the spot above which Ska wheeled on static wings he saw Numa the lion drop from the ledge upon which he had been standing and move cautiously toward the thing that had aroused the man’s curiosity. Though the latter was in plain sight, Numa seemingly ignored his presence; nor did Tarzan alter his course because of the lion. If neither changed his pace or his direction they would meet close to the thing above which Ska hovered.
As the ape-man came nearer the object of his interest he saw the body of a man lying in a little natural depression of the ground—the body of a white man.
To the right of it, a hundred yards away, was Numa. Presently the man stirred. He was not dead. He raised his head and saw the lion; then he struggled to rise, but he was very weak and could only manage to raise himself to one knee. Behind him was Tarzan, whom he did not see.
As the man half rose, the lion growled. It was only a warning in which there was no immediate menace. Tarzan recognized it as such. He knew that Numa had been attracted by curiosity and not by hunger. His belly was full.
But the man did not know these things. He thought it was the end, for he was unarmed and helpless; and the great carnivore, the king of beasts, was almost upon him.
Then he heard another low growl behind him and, turning his eyes quickly in that direction, saw an almost naked man coming toward him. For an instant he did not understand, for he saw no other beast; then he heard the growl again and saw that it came from the throat of the bronzed giant approaching him.
Numa heard the growl too and paused. He shook his head and snarled. Tarzan did not pause; he continued on toward the man. There was no sanctuary should the lion attack no tree to offer the safety of its branches; there were only Tarzan’s weapons and his great strength and his skill; but greatest of all was his conviction that Numa would not attack.
The Lord of the Jungle well knew the art of bluff and its value. Suddenly he raised his head and voiced the hideous warning-cry of the bull ape. The man shuddered as he heard the bestial cry issue from the lips of a human being. Numa, with a parting growl, turned and stalked away.
Tarzan came and stood over the man. “Are you hurt?” he demanded, “or weak from hunger and thirst?”
The voice of a beast coming from the lips of this strange white giant had been no more disconcerting to the man than now to hear him speak in English. He did not know whether to be afraid or not. He glanced hurriedly in the direction of the lion and saw it moving off in the direction from which it had come, and he was filled with a new awe of this creature who could frighten the king of beasts from its prey.
“Well,” demanded the ape-man, “do you understand English?”
“Yes,” replied the other; “I am an American. I am not hurt. I have been without food for several days. I have had no water today.”
Tarzan stooped and lifted the man to a shoulder. “We will find water and food,” he said, “and then you may tell me what you are doing alone in this country.”