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- The Boy Aviators in Africa - 20/35 -
But the lieutenant of Muley-Hassan apparently was satisfied, for after a few minutes' scrutiny he turned to go Billy could hear his feet scrape as he swung around.
At almost the same instant the night was filled with savage cries and the camp was thrown into confusion by an onrush of wild figures before whose spears the half-awakened Arabs were slaughtered like sheep.
Not realizing in the least what was happening, Billy yet conjectured that the Arabs were just then too busy to pay any attention to himself and Lathrop. With two slashes of the stolen scimitar he severed Lathrop's bonds and dragging him to his feet dived into the forest.
As they entered its recesses a fleeing Arab, still clutching his rifle, dashed by them and an instant later fell dead. He had been speared through the back.
Billy, with a quick inspiration, seized the dead man's long rifle and his ammunition pouch and, followed by the bewildered Lathrop, plowed desperately forward into the screen of the jungle.
Behind them they heard cries for mercy and fierce shouts from the attacking savages. At first the cries and imprecations of the slave-traders predominated and then, by the altered sounds that came from the scene of the fighting and the crashing of the Arabs' volleys, the boys realized that the tide of battle had changed and that the Arabs were driving back the attacking force.
"What do you suppose happened, Billy?" asked Lathrop, only half awake, as the boys, with the fleetness and endurance that desperate need lends, plunged deeper and deeper into the forest.
"Why, that some cannibal tribe that Muley-Hassan pillaged for slaves at some time has trailed him and attacked him," hazarded the reporter.
How near he came to the truth our readers know. The band that had made the midnight attack was the same that had painstakingly trailed Muley-Hassan since he destroyed the boys' camp on the river bank.
"But the Arabs have beaten them off?" queried Lathrop.
"Evidently," replied Billy, as the volleys died out and victorious Arab shouts were beard. "Hark at that! It's really too bad. I'd like to have seen old Muley and his precious band driven into the river. But if they have driven off the savages they'll be thinking about chasing us."
As he spoke there came a low, growling sound that seemed to proceed from some distance, but nevertheless filled the air. It rumbled and rolled above them like--
"Thunder!" exclaimed both boys in the same breath.
"We've got to find shelter of some kind, quick," exclaimed Billy; "these tropical storms are unlike our little disturbances, and if we get caught among these trees in one, of them we stand a good chance of being killed. It looks like we've jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire."
Without the least idea in which direction they were proceeding, the two chums struggled bravely on, Billy encouraging the flagging Lathrop from time to time with a joke, though these latter were, as Billy admitted to himself:
At length, just as dawn was beginning to break, they found themselves facing a steepish cliff of rough rocks.
"Well, here's where we turn back," remarked Billy, bitterly discouraged nevertheless.
If they were lost in this equatorial forest, what chance did they stand of ever seeing their home and friends again?
As for Lathrop he sat down on a rock overgrown with a kind of monstrous lichen and gave way to tears. But not for long. Lathrop was a plucky enough lad, and as Billy truthfully remarked:
"We are going to have enough water before long without our turning on the weeps."
So Lathrop braced up and the boys looked about them. To their intense joy they soon spied in the rocks, a short distance from where they then were, a dark hole partly overgrown by creepers, which was evidently the entrance to a cavern. At the same instant there began a mighty pattering on the leaves of the dense tropic growth all about them, and a louder growl of thunder announced that the storm that had been heralded a few hours before was about to break.
"Well, me for that African Waldorf-Astoria," cried Billy, grasping his rifle and making a dive for the hole. Lathrop followed him and as soon as they were inside the cave he lit a match from his waterproof box.
"Looks to me like there might be snakes in here," he whispered, awed by the darkness and silence of the place.
"Rats," laughed Billy, although he himself felt by no means sure that at any moment some scaly monster might not descend from the roof; "but I'll tell you what we'll do. Light a fire."
"How are we to get wood?" asked the practical Lathrop.
"There's plenty of it right at the mouth of the cave. I'll get a few armfuls and in a minute we'll have things snug."
The young reporter hastened to the cave mouth and in a few trips had gathered up several huge armfuls of wood-drift of all kinds from under the great trees all about. He was just re-entering the cave when there came a flash of blinding light so brilliant that it seemed as if the sky itself had split wide open. A bluish glare enveloped the forest and the lightning flash was instantly followed by a crash of thunder that shook the ground under the boys' feet.
"Well, they don't do things by halves in this country," remarked Billy as he re-entered the cave after a second of being temporarily stunned by the terrific flash.
It didn't take the boys long to have their wood in a blaze and as the smoke did not, as they had feared, fill the cavern, they assumed that there must be some opening above through which it escaped. This fact they verified shortly when, after the storm had been waxing in fury for half-an-hour, a perfect torrent of water came tumbling in from the rear of the rocky cavern.
"Hark!" exclaimed Billy as the boys busied themselves trying to scrape out a water-course that would divert the flood from their fire. From far in the rear of the cave came a plaintive sound of "Mi-ou, Mi-ou."
"Cats!" cried Lathrop.
"Cats nothing," was Billy's scornful reply; "here, let's have a look."
He seized a blazing brand out of the fire and hastened to the place from which the sounds emanated.
"Come here, quick, Lathrop," he cried. The younger lad scurried back and found Billy bending over a roughly constructed nest or bed. On it lay four tiny, fuzzy yellow things. They were "meowing" at the tops of their voices as the torrent of water that had annoyed the boys dripped into their snug nesting-place. At the same instant the boys became aware of a sickening odor of decaying flesh.
"Come on! we've got to get out of here quick as quick as we can," exclaimed Billy as they hastened towards the fresh air.
"Why, what is it, Billy?" asked Lathrop.
"I don't know; but I think that those are lion cubs--they look like the ones I've seen in the Bronx Zoo," was the young reporter's reply, "and if they are, this is no place for us. Come on--the storm is letting up. Let's get out quick before the old ones get back."
The storm, with the suddenness with which these furious tropical disturbances arise and vanish, had indeed gone and the sun was shining down once more on the drenched jungle, which glittered with diamond like spangles as the rays struck the dripping fronds and branches. But the boys had no eyes for the scene about them, beautiful as it was, for as they emerged from the cave a low growl greeted them.
Crouched on the ground--her tail lashing the earth like a cat's when it is about to spring--was a huge tawny lioness--her cruel green eyes fixed full upon them.
THE FLYING MEN
For a breath the boys stood petrified and then Billy hastily slipped a cartridge into the rifle he had taken from the dead slave-trader. But even as he did so the lioness curved her lithe body, as if her backbone had been a steel spring, and launched her great form through the air.
That minute would have been Billy's last--for in his excitement he pulled the trigger before he had brought the rifle to his shoulder and the bullet whistled harmlessly into the air--but for a strange thing that now occurred.
While the tawny brute was in mid-spring, her cruel claws outspread to maul the unhappy reporter, a great spear whizzed straight at her and buried itself in her heart just behind the left shoulder. With a howl of pain the brute fell short in her spring and, before she could make another attack, Billy had reloaded and sent a bullet crashing between her eyes. As the lioness rolled over dead, the tall form of a. savage sprung out of the jungle and stood for a second gazing at the boys, as much astonished, it seemed, at them as
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