"What's that?" exclaimed Joe.
"It's my rifle, I know the ring of her!" said Kennedy.
"Yes; danger for us!"
"For him, too, perhaps."
"Let's be off!"
And the hunters, having gathered up the product of their expedition, rapidly made their way back along the path that they had marked by breaking boughs and bushes when they came. The density of the underbrush prevented their seeing the balloon, although they could not be far from it.
A second shot was heard.
"We must hurry!" said Joe.
"There! a third report!"
"Why, it sounds to me as if he was defending himself against something."
"Let us make haste!"
They now began to run at the top of their speed. When they reached the outskirts of the forest, they, at first glance, saw the balloon in its place and the doctor in the car.
"What's the matter?" shouted Kennedy.
"Good God!" suddenly exclaimed Joe.
"What do you see?"
"Down there! look! a crowd of blacks surrounding the balloon!"
And, in fact, there, two miles from where they were, they saw some thirty wild natives close together, yelling, gesticulating, and cutting all kinds of antics at the foot of the sycamore. Some, climbing into the tree itself, were making their way to the topmost branches. The danger seemed pressing.
"My master is lost!" cried Joe.
"Come! a little more coolness, Joe, and let us see how we stand. We hold the lives of four of those villains in our hands. Forward, then!"
They had made a mile with headlong speed, when another report was heard from the car. The shot had, evidently, told upon a huge black demon, who had been hoisting himself up by the anchor-rope. A lifeless body fell from bough to bough, and hung about twenty feet from the ground, its arms and legs swaying to and fro in the air.
"Ha!" said Joe, halting, "what does that fellow hold by?"
"No matter what!" said Kennedy; "let us run! let us run!"
"Ah! Mr. Kennedy," said Joe, again, in a roar of laughter, "by his tail! by his tail! it's an ape! They're all apes!"
"Well, they're worse than men!" said Kennedy, as he dashed into the midst of the howling crowd.
It was, indeed, a troop of very formidable baboons of the dog-faced species. These creatures are brutal, ferocious, and horrible to look upon, with their dog-like muzzles and savage expression. However, a few shots scattered them, and the chattering horde scampered off, leaving several of their number on the ground.
In a moment Kennedy was on the ladder, and Joe, clambering up the branches, detached the anchor; the car then dipped to where he was, and he got into it without difficulty. A few minutes later, the Victoria slowly ascended and soared away to the eastward, wafted by a moderate wind.
"That was an attack for you!" said Joe.
"We thought you were surrounded by natives."
"Well, fortunately, they were only apes," said the doctor.
"At a distance there's no great difference," remarked Kennedy.
"Nor close at hand, either," added Joe.
"Well, however that may be," resumed Ferguson, "this attack of apes might have had the most serious consequences. Had the anchor yielded to their repeated efforts, who knows whither the wind would have carried me?"
"What did I tell you, Mr. Kennedy?"
"You were right, Joe; but, even right as you may have been, you were, at that moment, preparing some antelope-steaks, the very sight of which gave me a monstrous appetite."
"I believe you!" said the doctor; "the flesh of the antelope is exquisite."
"You may judge of that yourself, now, sir, for supper's ready."
"Upon my word as a sportsman, those venison-steaks have a gamy flavor that's not to be sneezed at, I tell you."
"Good!" said Joe, with his mouth full, "I could live on antelope all the days of my life; and all the better with a glass of grog to wash it down."
So saying, the good fellow went to work to prepare a jorum of that fragrant beverage, and all hands tasted it with satisfaction.
"Every thing has gone well thus far," said he.
"Very well indeed!" assented Kennedy.