Chapter XIII. On an Elephant Trail

"Get ready with your guns, everybody!" cried the old elephant hunter, as he prepared to leave the cabin of the Black Hawk. "Tom Swift, don't forget your electric rifle. There'll be trouble soon!"

"Bless my cartridge belt!" gasped Mr. Damon. "Why? What will happen?"

"The natives," answered Mr. Durban. "They'll attack us sure as fate! See, already they're getting out their bows and arrows, and blowguns! They'll pierce the gas bag in a hundred places!"

"If they do, it will be a bad thing for us," muttered Tom. "We can't have that happen."

He followed the old elephant hunter outside, and Mr. Anderson, Ned Newton and Mr. Damon trailed after, each one with a gun, while Tom had his electric weapon. The airship rested on its wheels on some level ground, just in front of a large hut, surrounded by a number of smaller ones. All about were the natives, tall, gaunt black men, hideous in their savagery, wearing only the loin cloth, and with their kinky hair stuck full of sticks, bones and other odd objects they presented a curious sight.

Some of them were dancing about, brandishing their weapons--clubs spears, bows, and arrows, or the long, slender blowguns, consisting merely of a hollow reed. Women and children there were, too, also dancing and leaping about, howling at the tops of their voices. Above the unearthly din could be heard the noise of the drums and tom-toms, while, as the adventurers drew up in front of their airship, there came a sort of chant, and a line of natives, dressed fantastically in the skins of beasts, came filing out of the large hut.

"The witch-doctors!" exclaimed Tom, who had read of them in African travel books.

"Are they going to attack us?" cried Ned.

"Bless my hymn book! I hope not!" came from Mr. Damon. "We wouldn't have any chance at all in this horde of black men. I wish Eradicate Sampson and his mule Boomerang were here. Maybe he could talk their language, and tell them that we meant no harm."

"If there's any talking to be done, I guess our guns will have to do it," said Tom grimly.

"I can speak a little of their language," remarked Mr. Durban, "but what in the world are the beggars up to, anyhow? I supposed they'd send a volley of arrows at us, first shot, but they don't seem to be going to do that."

"No, they're dancing around us," said Tom.

"That's it!" exclaimed Mr. Anderson. "I have it! Why didn't I think of it before? The natives are welcoming us!"

"Welcoming us?" repeated Ned.

"Yes," went on the missionary seeker. "They are doing a dance in our honor, and they have even called out the witch-doctors to do us homage."

"That's right," agreed Mr. Durban, who was listening to the chanting of the natives dressed in animal skins. "They take us for spirits from another land, and are making us welcome here. Listen, I'll see if I can make out what else they are saying."

The character of the shouts and chants changed abruptly, and the dancing increased in fervor, even the children throwing themselves wildly about. The witch-doctors ran around like so many maniacs, and it looked as much like an American Indian war dance as anything else.

"I've got it!" shouted Mr. Durban, for he had to call loudly to be heard above the din. "They are asking us to make it rain. It seems there has been a dry spell here, and their own rain-makers and witch-doctors haven't been able to get a drop out of the sky. Now, they take it that we have come to help them. They think we are going to bring rain."

"And if we don't, what will happen?" asked Tom.

"Maybe they won't be quite so glad to see us," was the answer.

"Well, if they don't mean war, we might as well put up our weapons," suggested Mr. Anderson. "If they're going to be friendly, so much the better, and if it should happen to rain while we're here, they'd think we brought it, and we could have almost anything we wanted. Perhaps they have a store of ivory hidden away, Mr. Durban. Some of these tribes do."

"It's possible, but the chances for rain are very small. How long will we have to stay here, Tom Swift?" asked the elephant hunter anxiously.

"Well, perhaps I can get the motor mended in two or three days," answered the young inventor.

"Then we'll have to stay here in the meanwhile," decided Mr. Durban. "Well, we'll make the best of it. Ha, here comes the native king to do us honor," and, as he spoke there came toward the airship a veritable giant of a black man, wearing a leopard skin as a royal garment, while on his head was a much battered derby hat, probably purchased at a fabulous price from some trader. The king, if such he could be called, was accompanied by a number of attendants and witch-doctors. In front walked a small man, who, as it developed, was an interpreter. The little cavalcade advanced close to the airship, and came to a halt. The king made a low bow, either to the craft or to the elephant hunters drawn up in front of it. His attendants followed his example, and then the interpreter began to speak.

Mr. Durban listened intently, made a brief answer to the little man, and then the elephant hunter's face lighted up.

"It's all right," he said to Tom and the others. "The king takes us for wonderful spirits from another land. He welcomes us, says we can have whatever we want, and he begs us to make it rain. I have said we will do our best, and I have asked that some food be sent us. That's always the first thing to do. We'll be allowed to stay here in peace until Tom can mend the ship, and then we'll hit the air trail again."

The talk between Mr. Durban and the interpreter continued for some little time longer. Then the king went back to his hut, refusing, as Mr. Durban said, an invitation to come aboard and see how a modern airship was constructed. The natives, too, seemed anxious to give the craft a wide berth.

The excitement had quieted down now, and, in a short tine a crowd of native women came toward the airship, bearing, in baskets on their heads, food of various kinds. There were bananas, some wild fruits, yams, big gourds of goats' milk, some boiled and stewed flesh of young goats, nicely cooked, and other things, the nature of which could only be guessed at.

"Shall we eat this stuff, or stick to Mr. Damon's cooking?" asked Tom.

"Oh, you'll find this very good," explained Mr. Durban. "I've eaten native cookery before. Some of it is excellent and as this appears to be very good, Mr. Damon can have a vacation while we are here."

The old elephant hunter proved the correctness of his statement by beginning to eat, and soon all the travelers were partaking of the food left by the native women. They placed it down on the ground at a discreet distance from the airship, and hurriedly withdrew. But if the women and men were afraid, the children were not, and they were soon swarming about the ship, timidly touching the sides with their little black fingers, but not venturing on board.

Tom, with Ned and Mr. Damon to help him, began work on the motor right after dinner. He found the break to be worse than he had supposed, and knew that it would take at least four days to repair it.

Meanwhile the airship continued to be a source of wonder to the natives. They were always about it, save at night, but their admiration was a respectful one. The king was anxious for the rain- making incantations to begin, but Mr. Durban put him off.

"I don't want to deceive these simple natives," he said, "and for our own safety we can't pretend to make rain, and fail. As soon as we have a chance we'll slip away from here."

But an unexpected happening made a change in their plans. It was on, the afternoon of their third day in the native village, and Tom and his assistants were working hard at the motor. Suddenly there seemed to be great excitement in the vicinity of the king's hut. A native had rushed into the village from the jungle, evidently with some news, for presently the whole place was in a turmoil.

Once more the king and his attendants filed out toward the airship. Once more the interpreter talked to Mr. Durban, who listened eagerly.

"By Jove! here's our chance!" he cried to Tom, when the little man had finished.

"What is it?" asked the young inventor.

"A runner has just come in with news that a large herd of wild elephants is headed this way. The king is afraid the big beasts will trample down all their crops, as often occurs, and he begs us to go out and drive the animals away. It's just what we want. Come on, Tom, and all of you. The airship will be safe here, for the natives think that to meddle with it would mean death or enchantment for then. We'll get on our first elephant trail!"

The old hunter went into the cabin for his big game gun, while Tom hastened to get out his electric rifle. Now he would have a chance to try it on the powerful beasts which he had come to Africa to hunt.

Amid the excited and joyous shouts of the natives, the hunters filed out of the village, led by the dusky messenger who had brought the news of the elephants. And, as Tom and the others advanced, they could hear a distant trumpeting, and a crashing in the jungle that told of the near presence of the great animals.