THE TRAIL'S END
Soon they came upon the trail of Flatfoot in the glade by the three great trees; they had not searched for it sooner, for the old man knew that it would start from that point upon its quest for the girl.
The tracks circled the glade a dozen times in widening laps until at last, at the point where Flatfoot must have picked up the spoor of Nadara, they broke suddenly away into the underbrush.
Once the way was plain Waldo bid the old man be of good heart, for he would surely bring his daughter back to him unharmed if the thing lay in the power of man. Then he hurried off upon the new-made trail that lay as plain and readable before him as had the printed page of his former life; but never had he bent with such keen interest to the reading of his favorite author as he did to this absorbing drama written in the turned leaves, the scattered twigs, and the soft mud of a primeval forest by the feet of a savage man and a savage maid.
Toward mid-afternoon Waldo became aware that he was much weaker from the effects of his battle with Korth than he had supposed. He had lost much blood from his wounds, and the exertion of following the trail at a swift pace had reopened some of the worse ones, so that now, as he ran, he was leaving a little trail of blood behind him.
The discovery made him almost frantic, for it seemed to presage failure. His condition would handicap him in the race after the two along whose track he pursued so that it would be a miracle were he to reach Flatfoot before the brute overtook Nadara.
And if he did overtake him in time--what then? Would he be physically able to cope with the brawny monster? He feared that he would not, but that he kept doggedly to the grueling chase augured well for the new manhood that had been so recently born within him.
On and on he stumbled, until at dusk he slipped and fell exhausted to the earth. Twice he struggled to his feet in an attempt to go on, but he was forced to give in, lying where he was until morning.
Slightly refreshed, he ate of the roots and fruit which abounded in the forest, taking up the chase again, but this time more slowly.
He was now convinced that the way led back along the same trail which he had followed into the country, and when he reached the point at which he had first met Korth on the previous day he cut across the little space which intervened between the cave man's tracks and the point at which he had stood before he went down over the divide into the jungle toward the river and the ford.
A moment later he was rewarded by the sight of Nadara's dainty footprints as well as those of Flatfoot leading away along his old trail. The act had saved him several miles of needless tracking. All that day he followed as rapidly as his weakened condition weald permit, but his best efforts seemed dismally snail-like. Along the way he bowled over a couple of large rodents, which he ate raw, for he had long since learned the desirability of a meat diet for one undergoing severe physical exertion, and had conquered his natural aversion for the uncooked flesh. He even had come to relish it, though often as he dined thus upon meat a broad grin illumined his countenance at the thought of the horror with which his mother and his Boston friends would view such a hideous performance.
As he continued trailing the two he was at first surprised to discover the fidelity with which Nadara had clung to his old trail, and because of this fact he often was able to save miles at a time by taking cross-cuts where, on his way in, he had made wide detours. But at last, on the third day, when he attempted this at a place which would have saved him fully ten miles, he was dismayed by the discovery that he could not again pick up either Nadara's trail or that of the cave man. Even his own old trail was entirely obliterated.
It was this fact which caused him the greatest concern, for it meant that if Nadara really had been following it she must now be wandering rather aimlessly, possibly in an attempt to again locate it. In which event her speed would be materially reduced, and the probability of her capture by Flatfoot much enhanced.
It was possible, too, that the beast already had overtaken her--this, in fact, might be the true cause of the cessation of the pursuit along the way which it had proceeded up to this point. The thought sent Waldo back along his former route, which he was able to follow by recollection, though the spoor was seldom visible.
He came upon no sign of those he sought that day, but the next morning he found the point at which Nadara had lost his old trail upon a rocky ridge. The girl evidently assumed that it would lead into the valley below where she might pick it up again in the soft earth, and so her footprints led down a shelving bluff, while plain above them showed the huge imprints of Flatfoot.
Up to this point at least he had not caught up with her. Waldo breathed a sigh of relief at the discovery. The trail was at least two days old, for Nadara and Flatfoot had traveled much more rapidly than the wounded man who haunted their footsteps like a grim shadow.
About noon Waldo came to a little stream at which both those who preceded him had evidently stopped to drink--he could see where they had knelt in the soft grass at the water's edge.
As Waldo stopped to quench his own thirst his eyes rested for an instant upon the farther bank, which at that point was little more than ten feet from him. He saw that the opposite shore was less grassy, and that it sloped down to the water, forming a muddy beach partially submerged.
But what riveted his attention were several deep imprints in the mud.
He could not be certain, of course, at that distance, but he was sure enough that he had recognized them to cause him to leap to his feet, forgetful of his thirst, and plunge through the stream for a closer inspection.
As he bent to examine the spoor at close range he could scarce repress a cry of exultation--they had been made by the hands and knees of Nadara as she had stooped to drink at the very spot not twenty-four hours before.
She .must have circled back toward the brook for some reason; but by far the greatest cause for rejoicing was the fact that Nadara's trail alone was there. Flatfoot had not yet come upon her, and Waldo now was between them.
The knowledge that he might yet be in time, and that he was gaining sufficiently in strength to make it reasonably certain that he could overhaul the girl eventually, filled Waldo with renewed vigor. He hastened along Nadara's trail now with something of the energy that had been his directly before his battle with Korth. His wounds had ceased bleeding, and for several days he had eaten well, and by night slept soundly, for he had reasoned that only by conserving his energy and fortifying himself in every way possible could he succor the girl.
That night he slept in a little thicket which had evidently harbored Nadara the night before.
The following day the way lay across a rolling country, cut by numerous deep ravines and lofty divides. That the pace was telling on the girl Waldo could read in the telltale spoor that revealed her lagging footsteps. Upon each eminence the man halted to strain his eyes ahead for a sight of her.
About noon he discerned far ahead a shimmering line which he knew must be the sea. Surely his long pursuit must end there. As he was about to plunge on again along Nadara's trail something drew his eyes toward the rear, and there upon another hilltop a mile or two behind he saw the stocky figure of a half-naked man--it was Flatfoot.
The cave man must have seen Waldo at the same instant, for, with a menacing wave of his huge fist, he increased his gait to a run, an instant later disappearing into the ravine which lay at the bottom of the hill upon which he had come into view. Waldo was undecided whether to wait for the encounter where he was or hasten on in an effort to overtake Nadara, that she might not escape him entirely. He knew that he stood a good chance of being killed in the conflict, and he also knew that were he victorious it might easily be at such a terrible price that he would be physically incapable of continuing his search for the girl for many days.
As he meditated his eyes wandered back and forth across the landscape before him searching for Nadara. To his right lay, at a little distance, a level plain which stretched to the foot of low-lying cliffs at the valley's southern rim, some three or four miles distant. In this direction his view was almost unobstructed, but it was not in the direction of the girl's flight, so that it was but by accident that Waldo's eyes swept casually across the peaceful scene which would, at another time, have chained his attention with its quiet and alluring beauty.
It was as he swept a backward glance in the direction of Flatfoot that his eye was arrested by the hint of something far out across the valley, a little behind his own position.
To the Waldo of a few months previous it would not have been visible, but the new woodcraft of the man scented the abnormal in the vague suggestion of movement out among the long-waving grasses of the plain.
And now, with every sense alert and riveted upon the spot, he was quick to perceive that it was an animal moving slowly toward the cliffs at the upper end of the valley. Presently a little rise of ground, less thickly grassed, brought the creature into full view for an instant; but in that instant Waldo saw that the thing he watched was a woman.
As he turned to hurry after her he saw Flatfoot top another hill a half mile nearer than he had before been, and as the cave man came into view he turned his eyes in the direction that Waldo had been looking. A second later and he had abandoned the pursuit of Waldo and was running rapidly toward the woman.
Nadara had apparently circled back once more, this time from the sea, and coming up the valley had passed Waldo and come opposite Flatfoot before either of them had discovered her.
The young man gave a little cry of alarm as he realized that the cave man was nearer to the girl than he--by a good half mile, he judged, and so he put every ounce of his speed into the wild dash he made down the hill into a gully which led out upon the valley.
On and on he raced unable to see either Flatfoot or Nadara; hoping, ever hoping, that he would be the first to win to her side; for Nadara had told him of the atrocities that such a creature as Flatfoot might perpetrate upon a woman rather than permit her to escape him or fall into the hands of another.
Nadara, being up wind, caught neither the scent nor noise of the two who were racing madly toward her. The first knowledge she had that she was not alone in the valley was the sight of Flatfoot as he broke suddenly through a clump of tall grass not fifty paces from her.
She gave a little scream and started to run; but she was very tired from the days of unremitting flight which had so sorely taxed her endurance, and thus it was no wonder that she slipped and fell before she had taken a dozen steps.
Scarcely had she gained her feet when Flatfoot was upon her, one hand grasping her by the arm.
"Come with me in peace or I will kill you!" he cried.
"Kill me, then," retorted the despairing girl, "for I shall never come with you; first will I kill myself."
Flatfoot did not wish to kill her, nor did he wish her to escape, as she would be very likely to do should he be interrupted by the fellow who must even now be quite close to them. Possibly if he could keep the girl quiet they might hide in the grass until their pursuer had gone by, and so Flatfoot, acting upon the idea, clapped a rough hand over Nadara's mouth and dragged her back along the trail he had just made.
The girl struggled--striking and clawing at the hairy brute that pulled her along at his side--but she was as helpless in his clutches as if she had been a day-old babe.
She did not know that help was so close at hand, or she would have found the means to free her mouth and cry out once at least. As it was, she wondered that Flatfoot should attempt to silence her in this way if there were none to hear her screams.
For days she had known that the cave man was on her trail, for once in doubling back upon herself she had passed but a short distance from a ridge she had traversed the preceding day, and had seen the man's squat figure and recognized his awkward, shuffling trot.
It was this knowledge that had turned her away from the old village toward which she had been traveling since she lost Thandar's trail, and sent her in search of a new country, in which she might lose herself from Flatfoot.
As the man dragged her roughly on through the grass Nadara racked her brain for some means of escape, or a way to end her misery before the beast could have his way with her. But there came no ray of hope to her poor, unhappy heart.
If Thandar were but there! He would save her, even if it were but to desert her the next instant. But did she wish to be saved again by him? Now that she pondered the idea she was quite sure that she would rather die than see him again, for had he not twice run away from her?
In her misery she put this interpretation upon the remarkable disappearance of Thandar after his battle with Korth--he had waited until she was out of sight and then he had risen and fled for fear she might return and discover him. She wondered why he should dislike her so much.
She was quite sure that she had been very good to him, and had tried not to annoy him while they were together. Maybe he looked down upon her, for surely he was of a superior race; of that she was quite positive.
And so Nadara was very miserable and unhappy and hopeless as the brutal Flatfoot dragged her far into the tall jungle-grass. Presently she noticed that the cave man repeatedly cast glances toward the rear.
What could he expect from that direction, or from any direction whatever, so far as that was concerned? Were they not days and days from their own people, in a land where there seemed no men at all?
Flatfoot heard no sign of pursuit. He was growing more confident. The stranger had lost their trail. The cave man moved less rapidly, and as he went he looked now for a burrow into which he might crawl with the maiden. Then there would be no further danger whatever.
Tomorrow Flatfoot would come out and find the fellow and kill him, but now he had pleasanter work in view, nor did he wish to be disturbed.
And at that very moment he caught a stealthy movement in the grasses a few yards to his right. Waldo had come upon the spot at which Flatfoot had overtaken Nadara but a few moments after the brute had dragged her away, and on the instant had sought a higher piece of ground from which he could overlook the tall grass. Nor had he been long in finding a spot that, coupled with his six feet two, brought his eyes above the level of the surrounding jungle. There he watched for a little until he discerned a movement of the grasstops at a little distance from him. After that it was but a matter of trailing.
When Flatfoot saw what he took to be his enemy he threw Nadara across his shoulder and started on a run in the opposite direction--at right angles to the way he had been going. The ruse proved good, for when Waldo came to the point at which he had figured his path would cross the cave man's he found no sign of the latter, and in searching about to locate the trail lost many minutes of valuable time. But at last he came upon that which he sought, and with redoubled speed set out at a rapid run through the tall grasses.
He had proceeded but a short distance when the trail broke suddenly into the open, close by the base of the cliffs that he had seen from the hill that had given him his fleeting glimpse of Nadara.
Ahead of him he saw the two he sought--Nadara across the burly shoulders of Flatfoot--and the cave man was making for the caves that dotted the face of the cliff. Were he to reach these he might defend one of them against a single antagonist indefinitely.