Chapter XVIII. News of the Red Pygmies
 

Seldom had it been the lot of Tom and his companions to take part in such a novel hunting scene as that in which they were now participating. With the airship moving quickly about, darting here and there under the guidance of the young inventor, the erratic movements hither and thither of the buffaloes could be followed exactly. Wherever the mass of the herd went the airship hovered over them.

"Want any help, Tom?" called Ned, who was firing as fast as his gun could be worked.

"I guess not," answered the steersman of the Black Hawk, who was dividing his attention between managing the craft and firing his electric rifle.

The others, too, were kept busy with their weapons, shooting down on the infuriated animals. It seemed like a needless slaughter, but it was not. Had it not been for the white men, the native village, which consisted of only frail huts, would have been completely wiped out by the animals. As it was they were kept "milling" about in a circle in an open space, just as stampeded cattle on the western ranges are kept from getting away, by being forced round and round.

Not a native was in sight, all being hidden away in the jungle or dense grass. The white hunters in their airship had matters to themselves.

At last the firing proved even too much for the buffaloes which, as we have said, are among the most dreaded of African beasts. With bellows of fear, the leading bulls of the herd unable to find the enemy above their heads, darted of into the forest the way they had come.

"There they go!" yelled Mr. Durban.

"Yes, and I'm glad to see the last of them," added Mr. Anderson, with a breath of relief.

"Score another victory for the electric rifle," exclaimed Ned.

"Oh, you did as much execution as I did," declared the inventor of the weapon.

"Bless my ramrod!" cried Mr. Damon. "I never shot so much in all my life before."

"Yes, there is enough food to last the natives for a week," observed Mr. Durban, as Tom adjusted the deflecting rudder to send the airship down.

"It won't last much longer at the rate they eat," spoke the young inventor with a laugh. "I never saw such fellows for appetites! They seem to eat in their sleep."

There were many dead buffaloes, but there was no fear that the meat, which was much prized by the Africans, would be wasted. Already the natives were coming from their hiding places, knowing that the danger was over. Once more they sang the praises of the mighty white hunters, and the magical air craft in which they moved about.

With the elephants previously killed, the buffaloes provided material for a great feast, preparations for which were at once gotten under way, in spite of the fact that the blacks had hardly stopped eating since the big hunt began. But it was about all they had to do.

Some of the buffaloes were very large, and there were a number of pairs of fine horns. Tom and Ned had some of the blacks cut them off for trophies, and they were stored in the airship together with the ivory.

Becoming rather tired of seeing so much feasting, our friends bade the Africans farewell the next day, and once more resumed their quest. They navigated through the air for another week, stopping at several villages, and scanning the jungles and plains by means of powerful telescopes, for a sight of the red pygmies. They also asked for news of the sacking of the missionary settlement, but, beyond meager facts, could learn nothing.

"Well, we've got to keep on, that's all," decided Mr. Durban. "We may find them most unexpectedly."

"I'm sorry if I have taken you away from your work of gathering ivory," spoke Mr. Anderson. "Perhaps you had better let me go, and I'll see if I can't organize a band of friendly blacks, and search for the red dwarfs myself."

"Not much!" exclaimed Tom warmly. "I said we'd help rescue those missionaries, and we'll do it, too!"

"Of course," declared the old elephant hunter. "We have quite a lot of ivory and, while we need more to make it pay well, we can look for it after we rescue the missionaries as well as before. Perhaps there will be a lot of elephants in the pygmies' land."

"I was only thinking that we can't go on forever in the airship." said Mr. Anderson. "You'll have to go back to civilization soon, won't you, Tom, to get gasolene?"

"No, we have enough for at least a month," answered the young inventor. "I took aboard an unusually large supply when we started."

"What would happen if we ran out of it in the jungle?" asked Ned. "Bless my pocketbook! What an unpleasant question!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "You are almost as cheerful, Ned, as was my friend Mr. Parker, the gloomy scientist, who was always predicting dire happenings."

"Well, I was only wondering," said Ned, who was a little abashed by the manner in which his inquiry was received.

"Oh, it would be all right," declared Tom. "We would simply become a balloon, and in time the wind would blow us to some white settlement. There is plenty of material for making the lifting gas."

This was reassuring, and, somewhat easier in mind, Ned took his place in the observation tower which looked down on the jungle over which they were passing.

It was a dense forest. At times there could be seen, in the little clearings, animals darting along. There were numbers of monkeys, an occasional herd of buffaloes were observed, sometimes a solitary stray elephant was noted, and as for birds, there were thousands of them. It was like living over a circus, Ned declared.

They had descended one day just outside a large native village to make inquiries about elephants and the red pygmies. Of the big beasts no signs had been seen in several months, the hunters of the tribe told Mr. Durban. And concerning the red pygmies, the blacks seemed indisposed to talk.

Tom and the others could not understand this, until a witch-doctor, whom the elephant hunter had met some time ago, when he was on a previous expedition, told him that the tribe had a superstitious fear of speaking of the little men.

"They may be around us--in the forest or jungle at any minute," the witch-doctor said. "We never speak of them."

"Say, do you suppose that can be a clew?" asked Tom eagerly. "They may be nearer at hand than we think."

"It's possible." admitted the hunter. "Suppose we stay here for a few days, and I'll see if I can't get some of the natives to go off scouting in the woods, and locate them, or at least put us on the trail of the red dwarfs."

This was considered good advice, and it was decided to adopt it. Accordingly the airship was put in a safe place, and our friends prepared to spend a week, if necessary, in the native village. Their presence with the wonderful craft was a source of wonder, and by means of some trinkets judiciously given to the native king, and also to his head subjects, and to the witch-doctors (who were a power in the land), the good opinion of the tribe was won. Then, by promising rewards to some of the bolder hunters, Mr. Durban finally succeeded in getting them to go off scouting in the jungle for a clew to the red pygmies.

"Now we'll have to wait," said Mr. Anderson, "and I hope we get good news."

Our friends spent their time observing some of the curious customs of the natives, and in witnessing some odd dances gotten up in their honor. They also went hunting, and got plenty of game, for which their hosts were duly grateful. Tom did some night stalking and found his illuminating bullets a great success.

One hot afternoon Tom and Mr. Damon strolled off a little way into the jungle, Tom with his electric weapon, in case he saw any game. But no animals save a few big monkeys where to be seen, and the young inventor scorned to kill them. It seemed too much like firing at a human being he said, though the natives stated that some of the baboons and apes were fierce, and would attack one on the slightest provocation.

"I believe I'll sit down here and rest," said Tom, after a mile's tramp, as he came to a little clearing in the woods.

"Very well, I'll go on," decided Mr. Damon. "Mr. Durban said there were sometimes rare orchids in these jungles, and I am very fond of those odd flowers. I'm going to see if I can get any."

He disappeared behind a fringe of moss-grown trees, and Tom sat down, with his rifle across his knees. He was thinking of many things, but chiefly of what yet lay before them--the discovery of the red dwarfs and the possible rescue of the missionaries.

He might have been thus day-dreaming for perhaps a half hour, when he suddenly heard great commotion in the jungle, in the direction in which Mr. Damon had vanished. It sounded as though some one was running rapidly. Then came the report of the odd man's gun.

"He's seen some game!" exclaimed Tom, jumping up, and preparing to follow his friend. But he did not have the chance. An instant later Mr. Damon burst through the bushes with every appearance of fright, his gun held above his head with one hand, and his pith helmet swaying to and fro in the other.

"They're coming!" he cried to Tom.

"Who, the red pygmies?"

"No, but a couple of rhinoceroses are after me. I wounded one, and he and his mate are right behind. Don't let them catch me, Tom!"

Mr. Damon was very much alarmed, and there was good occasion for it, as Tom saw a moment later, for two fierce rhinoceroses burst out of the jungle almost on the heels of the fleeing man.

Thought was not quicker than Tom Swift. He raised his deadly rifle, and pressed the button. A charge of wireless electricity shot toward the foremost animal, and it was dropped in its tracks. The other came on woofing and snorting with rage. It was the one Mr. Damon had slightly wounded.

"Come on!" yelled the young inventor, for his friend was in front of the beast, and in range with the rifle. "Jump to one side, Mr. Damon."

Mr. Damon tried, but his foot slipped, and there was no need for jumping. He fell and rolled over. The rhinoceros swerved toward him, with the probable intention of goring the prostrate man with the formidable horn, but it had no chance. Once more the young inventor fired, this time with a heavier charge, and the animal instantly toppled over dead.

"Are you hurt?" asked Tom anxiously, as he ran to his friend. Mr. Damon got up slowly. He felt all over himself, and then answered:

"No, Tom, I guess I'm not hurt, except in my dignity. Never again will I fire at a sleeping rhinoceros unless you are with me. I had a narrow escape," and he shook Tom's hand heartily.

"Did you see any orchids?" asked the lad with a smile.

"No, those beasts didn't give me a chance! Bless my tape measure! but they're big fellows!"

Indeed they were fine specimens, and there was the usual rejoicing among the natives when they brought in the great bodies, pulling them to the village with ropes made of vines.

After this Mr. Damon was careful not to go into the jungle alone, nor, in fact, did any of our friends so venture. Mr. Durban said it was not safe.

They remained a full week in the native village, and received no news. In fact, all but one of the hunters came back to report that there was no sign of the red pygmies in that neighborhood.

"Well, I guess we might as well move on, and see what we can do ourselves," said Mr. Durban.

"Let's wait until the last hunter comes back," suggested Tom. "He may bring word."

"Some of his friends think he'll never come back," remarked Mr. Anderson.

"Why not?" asked Ned.

"They think he has been killed by some wild beast."

But this fear was ungrounded. It was on the second day after the killing of the rhinoceroses that, as Tom was tinkering away in the engine-room of the airship, and thinking that perhaps they had better get under way, that a loud shouting was heard among the natives.

"I wonder what's up now?" mused the young inventor as he went outside. He saw Mr. Durban and Mr. Anderson running toward the ship. Behind them was a throng of blacks, led by a weary man whom Tom recognized as the missing hunter. The lad's heart beat high with hope. Did the African bring news?

On came Mr. Durban, waving his hands to Tom.

"We've located 'em!" he shouted.

"Not the red pygmies?" asked Tom eagerly.

"Yes; this hunter has news of them. He has been to the border of their country, and narrowly escaped capture. Then he was attacked by a lion, and slightly wounded. But, Tom, now we can get on the trail!"

"Good!" cried the young inventor. "That's fine news!" and he rejoiced that once more there would be activity, for he was tired of remaining in the African camp, and then, too, he wanted to proceed to the rescue. Already it might be too late to save the unfortunate missionaries.