The crowd upon the wall, becoming alive to the real situation, began to scream in indignant excitement which quickly communicated itself to the less savage beasts. These set up a terrible roaring, and ran about, keeping for the most part to the shadows, while Japhet and his burden made slow but steady progress toward the ladder.
Then from the gloom beneath the hind-quarters of the sphinx rose a sound of rapid firing, and presently Orme and Quick emerged into the moonlight, followed by a number of angry lions that advanced in short rushes. Evidently the pair had kept their heads, and were acting on a plan.
One of them emptied his rifle at the pursuing beasts, while the other ran back a few paces, thrusting in a fresh clip of cartridges as he went. Then he began to fire, and his companion in turn retreated behind him. In this way they knocked over a number of lions, for the range was too short for them to miss often, and the expanding bullets did their work very well, paralyzing even when they did not kill. I also opened fire over their heads, and, although in that uncertain light the majority of my shots did no damage, the others disposed of several animals which I saw were becoming dangerous.
So things went on until all four, that is, Japhet with Higgs upon his back, and Orme and Quick, were within twenty paces of the ladder, although separated from each other by perhaps half the length of a cricket pitch. We thought that they were safe, and shouted in our joy, while the hundreds of spectators on the wall who fortunately dared not descend into the den because of the lions, which are undiscriminating beasts, yelled with rage at the imminent rescue of the sacrifice.
Then of a sudden the position changed. From every quarter fresh lions seemed to arrive, ringing the men round and clearly bent on slaughter, although the shouting and the sound of firearms, which they had never heard before, frightened them and made them cautious.
A half-grown cub rushed in and knocked over Japhet and Higgs. I fired and hit it in the flank. It bit savagely at its wound, then sprang on to the prostrate pair, and stood over them growling, but in such pain that it forgot to kill them. The ring of beasts closed in—we could see their yellow eyes glowing in the gloom. Orme and Quick might have got through by the help of their rifles, but they could not leave the others. The dreadful climax seemed at hand.
“Follow me,” said Maqueda, who all this while had watched panting at my side, and rose to run to the ladder. I thrust her back.
“Nay,” I shouted. “Follow me, Abati! Shall a woman lead you?”
Of how I descended that ladder I have no recollection, nor do I in the least know how the Mountaineers came after me, but I think that the most of them rolled and scrambled down the thirty feet of rock. At least, to their honour be it said, they did come, yelling like demons and waving long knives in their hands.