Chapter XV. Lions in the Night
 

Shouting, screaming, imploring their deities in general, and the white men in particular for protection, the band of frightened natives broke and ran through the jungle, caring little where they went so long as they escaped the awful terror of the pursuing herd of maddened elephants. Behind them came Tom Swift and the others, for it were folly to stop in the path of the infuriated brutes.

"Our only chance is to get on their flank and try to turn them!" yelled Mr. Durban. "We may beat them in getting to the clearing, for the trail is narrow. Run, everybody!"

No one needed his excited advice to cause them to hurry. They scudded along, Mr. Damon's cap falling off in his haste. But he did not stop to pick it up.

The hunters had one advantage. They were on a narrow but well- cleared trail through the jungle, which led from the village where they were encamped, to another, several miles away. This trail was too small for the elephants, and, indeed, had to be taken in single file by the travelers.

But it prevented the elephants making the same speed as did our friends, for the jungle, at this point, consisted of heavy trees, which halted the progress of even the strongest of the powerful beasts. True, they could force aside the frail underbrush and the small trees, but the others impeded their progress.

"We'll get there ahead of them!" cried Tom. "Have you got your rifle in working order yet, Mr. Durban?"

"No, something has broken, I fear. We'll have to depend on your electric gun, Tom. Have you many charges left?"

"A dozen or so. But Ned and the others have plenty of ammunition."

"Don't count--on--me!" panted Mr. Damon, who was well-nigh breathless from the run. "I--can't--aim--straight--any--more!"

"I'll give 'em a few more bullets!" declared Mr. Anderson.

The fleeing natives were now almost lost to sight, for they could travel through the jungle, ignoring the trail, at high speed. They were almost like snakes or animals in this respect. Their one thought was to get to their village, and, if possible, protect their huts and fields of grain from annihilation by the elephants.

Behind our friends, trumpeting, bellowing and crashing came the pachyderms. They seemed to be gaining, and Tom, looking back, saw one big brute emerge upon the trail, and follow that.

"I've got to stop him, or some of the others will do the same," thought the young inventor. He halted and fired quickly. The elephant seemed to melt away, and Tom with regret, saw a pair of fine tusks broken to bits. "I used too heavy a charge," he murmured, as he took up the retreat again.

In a few minutes the party of hunters, who were now playing more in the role of the hunted, came out into the open. They could hear the natives beating on their big hollow tree drums, and on tom-toms, while the witch-doctors and medicine men were chanting weird songs to drive the elephants away.

But the beasts came on. One by one they emerged from the jungle, until the herd was gathered together again in a compact mass. Then, under the leadership of some big bulls, they advanced. It seemed as if they knew what they were doing, and were determined to revenge themselves by trampling the natives' huts under their ponderous feet.

But Tom and the others were not idle. Taking a position off to one side, the young inventor began pouring a fusillade of the electric bullets into the mass of slate-colored bodies. Mr. Anderson was also firing, and Ned, who had gotten over some of his excitement, was also doing execution. Mr. Durban, after vainly trying to get his rifle to work, cast it aside. "Here! Let me take your gun!" he cried to Mr. Damon, who, panting from the run, was sitting beneath a tree.

"Bless my cartridge belt! Take it and welcome!" assented the eccentric man. It still had several shots in the magazine, and these the old hunter used with good effect.

At first it seemed as if the elephants could not be turned back. They kept on rushing toward the village, which was not far away, and Tom and the others followed at one side, as best they could, firing rapidly. The electric rifle did fearful execution.

Emboldened by the fear that all their possessions would be destroyed a body of the natives rushed out, right in front of the elephants, and beat tom-toms and drums, almost under their feet, at the same time singing wild songs.

"I'm afraid we can't stop them!" muttered Mr. Anderson. "We'd better hurry to the airship, and protect that, Tom."

But, almost as he spoke, the tide of battle turned. The elephants suddenly swung about, and began a retreat. They could not stand the hot fire of the four guns, including Tom's fearful weapon. With wild trumpetings they fled back into the jungle, leaving a number of their dead behind.

"A close call," murmured Tom, as he drew a breath of relief. Indeed this was true, for the tide had turned when the foremost elephants were not a hundred feet away from the first rows of native huts.

"I should say it was," agreed Ned Newton, wiping his face with his handkerchief. He, as well as the others, was an odd-looking sight. They were blackened by powder smoke, scratched by briars, and red from exertion.

"But we got more ivory in this hour than I could have secured in a week of ordinary hunting" declared Mr. Durban. "If this keeps up we won't have to get much more, except that I don't think any of the tusks to-day are large enough for the special purpose of my customer."

"The sooner we get enough ivory the quicker we can go to the rescue of the missionaries," said Mr. Anderson.

"That's so," remarked Tom. "We must not forget the red pygmies."

The natives were now dancing about, wild in delight at the prospect of unlimited eating, and also thankful for what the white men had done for them. Alone, the blacks would never have been able to stop the stampede. They were soon busy cutting up the elephants ready for a big feast, and runners were sent to tell neighboring tribes, in adjoining villages, of the delights awaiting them.

Mr. Durban gave instructions about saving the ivory tusks, and the valuable teeth, each pair worth about $1,000, were soon cut out and put away for our friends. Some had been lost by the excessive power of Tom's gun, but this could not be helped. It was necessary to stop the rush at any price.

There was soon a busy scene at the native village, and with the arrival of other tribesmen it seemed as if Bedlam had broken loose. The blacks chattered like so many children as they prepared for the feast.

"Do white men ever eat elephant meat?" asked Mr. Damon, as the adventurers were gathered about the airship.

"Indeed they do," declared Mr. Durban. "Baked elephant foot is a delicacy that few appreciate. I'll have the natives cook some for us."

He gave the necessary orders, and the travelers had to admit that it was worth coming far to get.

For the next few days and nights there was great feasting in that African village, and the praises of the white men, and power of Tom Swift's electric rifle, were sung loud and long.

Our friends had resumed work on repairing the airship, and the young inventor declared, one night, that they could proceed the next day.

They were seated around a small campfire, watching the dancing and antics of some natives who were at their usual work of eating meat. All about our friends were numerous blazes for the cooking of the feasts, and some were on the very edge of the jungle.

Suddenly, above the uncouth sounds of the merry-making, there was heard a deep vibration and roar, not unlike the distant rumble of thunder or the hum of a great steamer's whistle heard afar in the fog.

"What's that?" cried Ned.

"Lions," said Mr. Durban briefly. "They have been attracted by the smell of cooking."

At that moment, and instantly following a very loud roar, there was an agonized scream of pain and terror. It sounded directly in back of the airship.

"A lion!" cried Mr. Anderson. "One of the brutes has grabbed a native!"

Tom Swift caught up his rifle, and darted off toward the dark jungle.