"To the old camp?" I asked.
"No, to the brook.
It's among the trees there.
It can't be more than a couple of hundred yards.
But the beggar is certainly taking his time."
"I'll go and look after him," said I. I picked up my rifle and strolled in the direction of the brook, leaving my friends to lay out the scanty breakfast.
It may seem to you rash that even for so short a distance I should quit the shelter of our friendly thicket, but you will remember that we were many miles from Ape-town, that so far as we knew the creatures had not discovered our retreat, and that in any case with a rifle in my hands I had no fear of them.
I had not yet learned their cunning or their strength.
I could hear the murmur of our brook somewhere ahead of me, but there was a tangle of trees and brushwood between me and it.
I was making my way through this at a point which was just out of sight of my companions, when, under one of the trees, I noticed something red huddled among the bushes.
As I approached it, I was shocked to see that it was the dead body of the missing Indian.
He lay upon his side, his limbs drawn up, and his head screwed round at a most unnatural angle, so that he seemed to be looking straight over his own shoulder.
I gave a cry to warn my friends that something was amiss, and running forwards I stooped over the body.
Surely my guardian angel was very near me then, for some instinct of fear, or it may have been some faint rustle of leaves, made me glance upwards.
Out of the thick green foliage which hung low over my head, two long muscular arms covered with reddish hair were slowly descending.
Another instant and the great stealthy hands would have been round my throat.
I sprang backwards, but quick as I was, those hands were quicker still.
Through my sudden spring they missed a fatal grip, but one of them caught the back of my neck and the other one my face. I threw my hands up to protect my throat, and the next moment the huge paw had slid down my face and closed over them.
I was lifted lightly from the ground, and I felt an intolerable pressure forcing my head back and back until the strain upon the cervical spine was more than I could bear.
My senses swam, but I still tore at the hand and forced it out from my chin.
Looking up I saw a frightful face with cold inexorable light blue eyes looking down into mine. There was something hypnotic in those terrible eyes.
I could struggle no longer.
As the creature felt me grow limp in his grasp, two white canines gleamed for a moment at each side of the vile mouth, and the grip tightened still more upon my chin, forcing it always upwards and back.
A thin, oval-tinted mist formed before my eyes and little silvery bells tinkled in my ears.
Dully and far off I heard the crack of a rifle and was feebly aware of the shock as I was dropped to the earth, where I lay without sense or motion.
I awoke to find myself on my back upon the grass in our lair within the thicket.
Someone had brought the water from the brook, and Lord John was sprinkling my head with it, while Challenger and Summerlee were propping me up, with concern in their faces.
For a moment I had a glimpse of the human spirits behind their scientific masks.
It was really shock, rather than any injury, which had prostrated me, and in half-an-hour, in spite of aching head and stiff neck, I was sitting up and ready for anything.
"But you've had the escape of your life, young fellah my lad," said Lord Roxton.
"When I heard your cry and ran forward, and saw your head twisted half-off and your stohwassers kickin' in the air, I thought we were one short.
I missed the beast in my flurry, but he dropped you all right and was off like a streak.
I wish I had fifty men with rifles. I'd clear out the whole infernal gang of them and leave this country a bit cleaner than we found it."
It was clear now that the ape-men had in some way marked us down, and that we were watched on every side.
We had not so much to fear from them during the day, but they would be very likely to rush us by night; so the sooner we got away from their neighborhood the better.
On three sides of us was absolute forest, and there we might find ourselves in an ambush. But on the fourth side—that which sloped down in the direction of the lake—there was only low scrub, with scattered trees and occasional open glades.
It was, in fact, the route which I had myself taken in my solitary journey, and it led us straight for the Indian caves.
This then must for every reason be our road.
One great regret we had, and that was to leave our old camp behind us, not only for the sake of the stores which remained there, but even more because we were losing touch with Zambo, our link with the outside world.
However, we had a fair supply of cartridges and all our guns, so, for a time at least, we could look after ourselves, and we hoped soon to have a chance of returning and restoring our communications with our negro.
He had faithfully promised to stay where he was, and we had not a doubt that he would be as good as his word.
It was in the early afternoon that we started upon our journey.
The young chief walked at our head as our guide, but refused indignantly to carry any burden.
Behind him came the two surviving Indians with our scanty possessions upon their backs.
We four white men walked in the rear with rifles loaded and ready.
As we started there broke from the thick silent woods behind us a sudden great ululation of the ape-men, which may have been a cheer of triumph at our departure or a jeer of contempt at our flight.
Looking back we saw only the dense screen of trees, but that long-drawn yell told us how many of our enemies lurked among them.
We saw no sign of pursuit, however, and soon we had got into more open country and beyond their power.
As I tramped along, the rearmost of the four, I could not help smiling at the appearance of my three companions in front.