Chapter XIX. An Appeal for Help

The African hunter's story was soon told. He had gone on farther than had any of his companions, and, being a bold and brave man, had penetrated into the very fastness of the jungle where few would dare to venture.

But even he had despaired of getting on the trail of the fierce little red men, until one afternoon, just at dusk he had heard voices in the forest. Crouching behind a fallen tree, he waited and saw passing by some of the pygmy hunters, armed with bows and arrows, and blowguns. They had been out after game. Cautiously the hunter followed them, until he located one of their odd villages, which consisted of little mud huts, poorly made.

The black hunter remained in the vicinity of the pygmies all that night, and was almost caught, for some wild dogs which hung around the village smelled him out, and attracted to him the attention of the dwarf savages. The hunter took to a tree, and so escaped. Then, carefully marking the trail, he came away in the morning. When near home, a lion had attacked him, but he speared the beast to death, after a hand-to-hand struggle in which his leg was torn.

"And do you think we can find the place?" asked Ned, when Mr. Durban had finished translating the hunter's story.

"I think so," was the reply.

"But is this the settlement where the missionaries are?" asked Tom anxiously.

"That is what we don't know," said Mr. Anderson. "The native scout could not learn that. But once we get on the trail of the dwarfs, I think we can easily find the particular tribe which has the captives."

"At any rate, we'll get started and do something," declared Tom, and the next day, after the African hunter had described, as well as he could, where the place was, the Black Hawk was sent up into the air, good-bys were called down, and once more the adventurers were under way.

It was decided that they had better proceed cautiously, and lower the airship, and anchor it, sometime before getting above the place where the pygmy village was.

"For they may see us, and, though they don't know what our craft is, they may take the alarm and hide deeper in the jungle with the prisoners, where we can't find them," said Tom.

His plan was adopted, and, while it had taken the native hunter several days to reach the borders of the dwarfs' land, those in the airship made the trip in one day. That is, they came as far toward it as they thought would be safe, and one night, having located a landmark which Mr. Durban said was on the border, the nose of the Black Hawk was pointed downward, and soon they were encamped in a little clearing in the midst of the dense jungle which was all about them.

With his electric rifle, Tom noiselessly killed some birds, very much like chicken, of which an excellent meal was made and then, as it became dark very early, and as nothing could be done, they lighted a campfire, and retired inside their craft to pass the night.

It must have been about midnight that Tom, who was a light sleeper at times, was awakened by some noise outside the window near which his stateroom was. He sat up and listened, putting out his hand to where his rifle stood in the corner near his bunk. The lad heard stealthy footsteps pattering about on the deck of the airship. There was a soft, shuffling sound, such as a lion or a tiger makes, when walking on bare boards. In spite of himself, Tom felt the hair on his head beginning to creep, and a shiver ran down his back.

"There's something out there!" he whispered. "I wonder if I'd better awaken the others? No, if it's a sneaking lion, I can manage to kill him, but--"

He paused as another suggestion came to him.

The red pygmies! They went barefoot! Perhaps they were swarming about the ship which they might have discovered in the darkness.

Tom Swift's heart beat rapidly. He got softly out of his bunk, and, with his rifle in hand made his way to the door opening on deck. On his way he gently awakened Ned and Mr. Durban, and whispered to them his fear.

"If the red pygmies are out there we'll need all our force," said the old elephant hunter. "Call Mr. Damon and Mr. Anderson, Ned, and tell them to bring their guns."

Soon they were all ready, fully armed. They listened intently. The airship was all in darkness, for lights drew a horde of insects. The campfire had died down. The soft footsteps could still be heard moving about the deck.

"That sounds like only one person or animal," whispered Ned.

"It does," agreed Tom. "Wait a minute, I'll fire an illuminating charge, and we can see what it is."

The others posted themselves at windows that gave a view of the deck. Tom poked his electric rifle out of a crack of the door, and shot forth into the darkness one of the blue illuminations. The deck of the craft was instantly lighted up brilliantly, and in the glare, crouched on the deck, could be seen a powerful black man, nearly naked, gazing at the hunters.

"A black!" gasped Tom, as the light died out. "Maybe it is one from the village we just left. What do you want? Who are you?" called the lad, forgetting that the Africans spoke only their own language. To the surprise of all, there came his reply in broken English:

"Me Tomba! Me go fo' help for Missy Illingway--fo' Massy Illingway. Me run away from little red men! Me Christian black man. Oh, if you be English, help Missy Illingway--she most die! Please help. Tomba go but Tomba be lost! Please help!"