Chapter XVI. Seeking the Missionaries
 

"Here! Come back!" yelled Mr. Damon and Mr. Anderson, in the same breath, while the old elephant hunter cried out: "Don't you know you're risking your life, Tom to go off in the dark, to trail a lion?"

"I can't stand it to let the native be carried off!" Tom shouted back.

"But you can't see in the dark," objected Mr. Anderson. He had probably forgotten the peculiar property of the electric rifle. Tom kept on, and the others slowly followed.

The natives had at once ceased their merrymaking at the roaring of the lions, and now all were gathered close about the campfires, on which more wood had been piled, to drive away the fearsome brutes.

"There must be a lot of them," observed Mr. Durban, as menacing growls and roars came from the jungle, along the edge of which Tom and the others were walking just then. "There are so many of the brutes that they are bold, and they must be hungry, too. They came close to our fire, because it wasn't so bright as the other blazes, and that native must have wandered off into the forest. Well, I guess it's all up with him."

"He's screaming yet," observed Ned.

Indeed, above the rumbling roars of the lions, and the crackling of the campfires, could be heard the moaning cries of the unfortunate black.

"He's right close here!" suddenly called Tom. "He's skirting the jungle. I think I can get him!"

"Don't take any risks!" called Mr. Durban, who had caught up his own rifle, that was now in working order again.

Tom Swift was not in sight. He had now penetrated into the jungle-- into the black forest where stalked the savage lions, intent on getting other prey. Mr. Durban and Mr. Anderson vainly tried to pierce the darkness to see something at which to shoot. Ned Newton had eagerly started to follow his chum, but could not discern where Tom was. A nameless fear clutched at the lad's heart. Mr. Damon was softly blessing everything of which he could think.

Once more came that pitiful cry from the native, who was, as they afterward learned, being dragged along by the lion, who had grabbed him by the shoulder.

Suddenly in the dense jungle there shone a purple-bluish light. It illuminated the scene like some great sky-rocket for an instant, and in that brief time Ned and the others caught sight of a great, tawny form, bounding along. It was a lion, with head held high, dragging along a helpless black man.

A second later, and before the intense glare had died away, the watchers saw the lion gently sink down, as though weary. He stopped short in his tracks, his head rolled back, the jaws relaxed and the native, who was unconscious now, toppled to one side.

"Tom's killed him with the electric rifle!" cried Mr. Durban.

"Bless my incandescent lamp! so he has," agreed Mr. Damon. "Bless my dynamo! but that's a wonderful gun, it's as powerful as a thunderbolt, or as gentle as a summer shower."

Mr. Durban seeing that the lion was dead, in that brief glance he had had of the brute, called to some of the natives to come and get their tribesman. They came, timidly enough at first, carrying many torches, but when they understood that the lion was dead, they advanced more boldly. They carried the wounded black to a hut, where they applied their simple but effective remedies for the cruel bite in his shoulder.

After Tom had shot several other of the illuminated charges into the jungle, to see if he could discover any more lions, but failed to do so, he and his friends returned to the anchored airship, amid the murmured thanks of the Africans.

Bright fires were kept blazing all the rest of the night, but, though lions could be heard roaring in the jungle, and though they approached alarmingly close to the place where our friends were encamped, none of the savage brutes ventured within the clearing.

With the valuable store of ivory aboard the Black Hawk, which was now completely repaired, an early start was made the next morning. The Africans besought Tom and his companions to remain, for it was not often they could have the services of white men in slaying elephants and lions.

"But, we've got to get on the trail," decided Tom, when the natives had brought great stores of food, and such simple presents as they possessed, to induce the travelers to remain.

"Every hour may add to the danger of the missionaries in the hands of the red pygmies."

"Yes," said Mr. Anderson gravely, "it is our duty to save them."

And so the airship mounted into the air, our friends waving farewells to the simple-hearted blacks, who did a sort of farewell war-dance in their honor, shouting their praises aloud, and beating the drums and tom-toms, so that the echoes followed for some time after the Black Hawk had begun to mount upward toward the sky.

The craft was in excellent shape, due to the overhauling Tom had given it while making the repairs. With the propellers beating the air, and the rudder set to hold them about two thousand feet high, the travelers moved rapidly over clearings, forests and jungles.

It was agreed that now, when they had made such a good start in collecting ivory, that they would spend the next few days in trying to get on the trail of the red pygmies. It might seem a simple matter, after knowing the approximate location of the land of these fierce little natives, to have proceeded directly to it. But Africa is an immense continent, and even in an airship comparatively little of the interior can be seen at a time.

Besides, the red pygmies had a habit of moving from place to place, and they were so small, and so wild, capable of living in very tiny huts or caves, and so primitive, not building regular villages as the other Africans do, that as Ned said, they were as hard to locate as the proverbial flea.

Our friends had a general idea of where to look for them, but on nearing that land, and making inquiries of several friendly tribes, they learned that the red pygmies had suddenly disappeared from their usual haunts.

"I guess they heard that we were after them," said Tom, with a grim smile one day, as he sent the airship down toward the earth, for they were over a great plain, and several native villages could he seen dotted on its surface.

"More likely they are in hiding because they have as captives two white persons," said Mr. Anderson. "They are fierce and fearless, but, nevertheless, they have, in times past, felt the vengeance of the white man, and perhaps they dread that now."

They made a descent, and spent several days making inquiries from the friendly blacks about the race of little men. But scarcely anything was learned. Some of the negro tribes admitted having heard of the red pygmies, and others, with superstitious incantations and imprecations, said they had never heard of them.

One tribe of very large negroes had heard a rumor to the effect that the band of the pygmies was several days' journey from their village, across the mountains, and when Tom sent his airship there, the searchers only found an impenetrable jungle, filled with lions and other wild beasts, but not a sign of the pygmies, and with no elephants to reward their search.

"But we're not going to give up," declared Tom, and the others agreed with him. Forward went the Black Hawk in the search for the imprisoned ones, but, as the days passed, and no news was had, it seemed to grow more and more hopeless.

"I'm afraid if we do find them now," remarked Mr. Anderson at length, "that we'll only recover the bodies of the missionaries."

"Then we'll avenge them," said Tom quietly.

They had stopped at another native village to make inquiries, but without result, and were about to start off again that night when a runner came in to announce that a herd of big elephants was feeding not many miles away.

"Well, we'll stay over a day or so, and get some more ivory," decided Mr. Durban and that night they got ready for what was to prove a big hunt.