The Blond Spiders/Chapter 1

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I

Nine little pussyfooters sitting on a knoll!
Singing songs of hate!
One drank to —— with Vol!
Then there were eight!”

IN THE hot, twittering East African heat even the raucous birds and a shrilling cricket stopped politely to listen to the strange song of the white man. The vocalist, lying beneath a giant Mbuli tree, sighed contentedly and began anew:

Eight little pussyfooters staggering down the street!
Chanting psalms to Heaven!
One swigged synthetic gin!
Then there were seven!”

“Aw, quit it, Tony! You give a man the willies!” bawled a voice from within a green tent.

“Huh!” sneered another man, squatting under the flap cleaning a rifle. “Mr. Westlake oughta bin the big noise in the Metropolitan an’ he’d ha’ pulled down more (illegible text) men than ever he will hunting elephants I’ll tell the world!”

“You’re a nice guy, Alick,” retorted Tony, leaning on his elbow, “but you lack culture. You should have taken a course with a correspondence school before you left and then you might have appreciated me. Anyway I’m going pot-hunting and try my hand at soothing the savage breast.”

He rose to his feet, shotgun in hand, a lithe figure in khaki shirt and shorts. Although he was slender of build the depth of his chest and the set of his shoulders spoke of power.

“Watch your step then! That Aussie, Plessons, might take you for a hyena with the colic!” sang out Alick with a laugh that contained a distinct trace of malice.

“I should worry!” returned Tony cheerfully; and with his Tirai hat on the back of his blond head he strolled off with a slight limp into the bush, caroling defiantly:

Seven little pussyfooters dancing round a cask!
Proud of playing tricks!
One flashed a pocket flask!
Then there were six!”

“We should worry!” snarled the rifle cleaner. “That bird makes me want to (illegible text)ails!”

“Look here, Phil Sawyer,” snapped Alick out of a thin-lipped mouth fringed with a Charlie Chaplin mustache after the British subaltern style. “Cut out that stuff. I’ve told you before. Remember you’re a servant with this outfit—supposed to be anyway.”

“Whatcher want to get sore about?” growled the other sullenly. “That darned Auzzie guide ain’t here. Hazing a feller ain’t slugging him. ’Sides, tomorrow’s the twenty-seventh, ain’t it? He can’t slip one over by then. There’s a mint o’ ways to do the job, and then we kin beat it for the bright lights. This ain’t no sort of life for a feller.”

“Quit it, I said,” ordered Alick.

“Aw, what’s eatin’ you, Alick? Can’t I razz the bird as well as you?”

“No. Keep your trap shut, Dutchy. Get me?”

As Phil, alias “Dutchy,” dropped his [brownish?]-yellow eyes to his job he seemed (illegible text)nce, and his grin was changed to a scowl as he bit back some retort.

Alick emerged fully from the tent and stood staring around the camp speculatively. To the left, within a zareba of branches erected by the porters, was a cluster of natives squatting around the cook fire, all in the dappled shade of the afternoon sun through the light timber.

Alick Bodiker was a tallish man built on the clothes-rack model. The blue eyes beneath the tow-colored hair were too wide apart and almost as expressionless as pieces of glass. As he turned toward Phil he regarded the other’s bullet head with a sly smile. Then he went over and sat beside him.

“’Sright, Phil,” said he in a conciliating tone, “but you’re too quick on the direct-action stuff. If you get him too sore maybe he’ll get a kind of a grouch and spill his troubles to Plessons; ’nough maybe to give the Aussie a hunch—afterwards. All he knows now is that he’s guiding us on an elephant hunt. Get me?”

“Sure I get you,” said Phil Sawyer, who was constructed on the motor-truck principle and who looked, and was, hard boiled. “But don’t Plessons ante up too?”

“He sure don’t.” Bodiker glanced across at the natives, smiling slyly. “He makes the hand high, boy! Good enough anyway for the pot with nobody who dare call! Listen here——” and he continued talking in a low tone for some time. “And that’s that!” he concluded. “Hello, here he is! But what in ——’s he got?”

Entering the zareba was a stocky man with a grizzled beard who resembled an old and sagacious Airedale. This was their guide, Plessons. He was trailing a rifle in one hand and on the other arm supported a curious-looking object which at first was difficult to recognize as a white man; but white he was or had been, by the dirty gray beard. Aiding him on the far side was a tall negro emaciated almost to a skeleton.

——! Here’s Santy Claus comin’” muttered Sawyer as the group approached.

The old man was covered with clothes in tatters and a felt hat that flopped over his face. The native was nude save for a filthy loin cloth and a knife stuck in the girdle.

“What have you got there, Plessons?” demanded Bodiker.

“Dunno yet, Mr. Bodiker,” returned the Australian. “He’s abaht all in. This black fella spotted me and come a-runnin’. But he can’t tell me nothin’ neither.”

“Can’t tell you! Thought you spoke the lingo?”

“So I does, but the black boy can’t speak. He’s had his tongue slit.”

“Tongue slit!” echoed Bodiker. “Who did it?”

“He’s a-goin’ ter write the story as soon as ever he gets to the typewriter,” returned Plessons somberly. “’Ere, hold up!” For the old man had slumped to the ground as the negro let go his arm. “Hey, Wandie! Tanuka!” he called to a couple of native servants.

——!” said Sawyer booting the prone man in the ribs. “He’s a stiff un all right!”

“He’d dance a jig if you’d kiss him,” snapped the Australian, darting an ugly look at Sawyer. “Here,” he continued to the boys, “carry him on to my bed; and, Tanuka, get some hot water. Upesi!

“What’re you trying to give us?” began Sawyer, shooting his chin.

But Plessons, ignoring him, had knelt down by the old man and taken off his hat.

“My God!” muttered Bodiker.

Then, stooping, he stared hard at the fellow’s face. The pupils of the eyes were inverted, and the sun-tanned skin, filthy with sweat and dirt, sagged upon the bony features and prominent nose. From the build of the frame he must have been a powerful man in health.

“Gosh, he looks mighty bad, doesn’t he?” remarked Bodiker, rising with a curious smile on his lips. “I’ll bet he never comes to.” Then quickly: “He hasn’t been able to say anything yet, has he, Plessons?”

“Yus, rarver. Didn’t I tell yer, Mr. Bodiker?” Bodiker stared, apparently anxious. “Sung us ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star!’ Don’t he look it? Here, I wonder what this is naow?”

He indicated a swelling beneath the left eye which resembled a pustule.

“And here’s another —— lumme, he’s as full of ’em as a donkey’s full of ticks!”

“Plague?” queried Bodiker, moving backward accompanied by Sawyer.

“Plague me eye!” grumbled Plessons.

He rose as two natives came and, picking up the inert body, made for the bell tent.

“Say!” exclaimed Sawyer. “None of that! I ain’t goin’ to sleep in the tent wit’ that stiff. Maybe he’s got some kind of a plague like you said. Seen them guys in the Lazar——

“Sleep in the ruddy bush then!” snapped Plessons over his shoulder.

“’S ’nough!” whispered Bodiker as Sawyer started truculently after them. “That isn’t the plague, man. Can’t be in the middle of Africa.”

As Sawyer hesitated, grumbling, came a hail from Tony Westlake reentering the zareba.

“Out of luck, Alick!” he called. “But say, who’s Plessons got there? Saw him coming in.”

Bodiker explained briefly, and they both followed across to the bell tent, where Plessons had already stripped the old man. His body was in a pitiable state; more emaciated than his companion the negro, and literally covered as closely as the measles with angry-looking pustules, some suppurating and emitting a horrible stench.

“Poor ——!” said Tony sympathetically. “I wonder who he is and how on earth he got in this mess.”

“Maybe he had his safari cut up,” suggested Plessons, “and he’s bin wanderin’ abaht with no food but berries and such like.”

“Think he’ll come round?”

“Dunno. Got a —— of a temperature. Maybe it’s just fever. Ain’t blackwater anyhow. And them sores ain’t veld sores. Dunno what they are. The black fella’s got a lot too. Here, ol' man, have a drop o’ this?”

With some difficulty Plessons forced some brandy through the patient’s teeth.

“Oh, he’s a goner,” said Bodiker, watching him intently.

“Oh, I’ve seen fellows looking worse than that pull through,” returned Tony. “There, look!”

At Plessons’ second attempt the eyelids fluttered and followed a faint choking cough as the raw spirit stung the throat.

“That’s the boy!” exclaimed Plessons and fell to massaging over the heart with hot water, soap and permanganate.

Without remark Tony walked out and across to his own tent and presently came back with a small bottle of iodine; after dabbing some on the skinny forearm he stuck in a hypodermic needle.

“If he’s got fever that should bring down the temperature a bit,” he remarked.

——, wish I’d thought of the needle,” muttered Bodiker as if to himself and, bending low, intently watched the face of the sick man, who indubitably was breathing regularly but faintly.

“You’d better go and ’ave chakula, Mr. Westlaike,” said Plessons. “I’ll look arter him, and if he comes to I’ll give yer a shout.”

“That’s a good idea,” assented Tony. “But say, where’s the nigger you brought in with him?”

“Told Tanuka ter give him some grub. Rummy go,” Plessons added. “Fella’s a Swahili—coast man, y’know, Mr. Westlaike. Must ha’ bin his servnt.”

“Well, I’ll have a look at him. Coming, Alick?”

“What’s the good?” said Bodiker sourly. “He’s dumb.”

Tony glanced at his partner, whose eyes were glued to the sick man’s face with a sharply inquiring expression as he went out.

The mutilated negro he found squatting on his hunkers in the bright moonlight by the camp-fire, the kitchen boys and porters staring at him half inquisitively, half superstitiously. The pustules on his face and body did not seem so far advanced as those of his white master’s.

Habari gani? How’s things?” said Tony in the little Kiswahili he’d already picked up.

But neither the negro’s head nor his eyes moved in the slightest.

Shenzie (savages) cut him ear,” explained Wandie, his personal boy, who spoke a little English.

“Good God, the swine!” ejaculated Tony and, bending, looked into the negro’s face.

Immediately the latter’s eyes gleamed, and he nodded his head as if approvingly, making an inarticulate noise, horrible to hear.

TONY returned to the camp table set beneath the big Mbuli tree where, lolling in a camp chair as if he owned the expedition, was Sawyer. Tony sat down and poured out a glass of whisky from the bottle placed on the table every evening just at sundown. Sawyer tentatively moved an empty glass in front of him, made a noise in his throat and said—

“Ain’t that big bum gone yet?”

“No. I think he’ll pull round,” answered Tony, lighting a cigaret.

“Kin I have a shot, Mr. Westlake?” Sawyer asked.

“Sure,” said Tony, pushing the bottle over to him and, noting the wetness of the empty glass, smiled slightly.

“Real stuff that!” stated Sawyer, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Feller needs a shot o’ hooch here, I guess.” A pause. “Say, Mr. Westlake!”

“Well?”

“You ain’t mad at me, are yer? Didn’t think I was gettin’ kind o’ fresh nor nothin’?”

“Oh, that’s all right, Sawyer,” replied Tony, giving the man one of his good-natured smiles. “A few months of this country’s liable to get anybody’s nerves on edge.”

“It sure is!” agreed Sawyer heartily. “Didn’t mean nothin’, Mr. Westlake.”

“Forget it. Hullo!” as a hail came from the bell tent.

He rose and hurried over. Sawyer followed him and stood silently at the back of the tent. Bodiker was standing at the head of the cot with a scowl on his face. The sick man’s eyes were open and staring bewilderedly up at Plessons by the light of the hurricane lantern slung to the pole.

“That’s all right, ol’ cock!” Plessons was saying cheerily. “We found yer with a black fella. Don’t you worry. We’ll fix yer.”

The feverish eyes wandered around to Tony and seemed disappointed. They closed momentarily as if in an effort at recollection.

“Don’t—understand,” he whispered faintly. “Where are the others?”

“What others? Your Swahili?” from Plessons.

“No—the men—who found us. You’re not——

“Yes, yes,” urged Tony. “This man here found you.”

“No—no,” insisted the other peevishly. Then with a convulsive start and fright in his eyes—

“Where is it?”

“What?”

“The sack! The sack!”

“You hadn’t any sack. Had he, Plessons?”

“No; nothin’.”

“Where did you come from?” persisted Tony as the man stared as if in blank dismay.

“Why—I told you. Oh, God, where are they?”

“Who?”

Seemingly torn with mental anguish, the man tried to raise himself, but merely succeeded in twisting a little to one side. Then he caught a glimpse of Bodiker’s face staring down at him. Instantly Bodiker stood back. “See if another shot will do him good,” said he in a low voice and strode rapidly from the tent.

“That man—that man,” mumbled the old fellow frantically and strove again to rise.

“No, no; lie quietly,” urged Tony persuasively. “You’re mistaken. He can’t be any of the men. He’s been with us all the time.”

“Yes,” the old man insisted. “But—where are they?

His eyes wandered piteously from one to the other.

“Where are what?”

“The sack—the stones—the letters?”

“He’s wandering I think,” whispered Tony. “Better try to get him to sleep a bit.”

The old fellow lay quiet, striving hard to control his mind. Then suddenly, as if summoning all his will power for a supreme effort, he struggled half up in bed and cried out clearly:

“They’ll never get the letters—nor the stones—and without they can’t know how to find them. They ——

The sudden entry of Bodiker startled him. He stared wildly and muttered unintelligibly. Then his supporting skeleton arm collapsed and he fell back on the pillow gasping.

They saw his lips moving and bent to listen. Tony caught an agonized, “Too late!” and the body went limp and the light out of the eyes.

“He’s gone!” whispered Plessons.

“What did he say?” demanded Bodiker, and his voice was anxious. “Get any sense out of him?”

“No,” responded Tony. “Died before we could get what he was trying to say.”

Bodiker muttered something and queried, “Sure he’s dead?” peering doubtfully into the glazing eyes. “Better give him another shot—maybe bring him round,” he hastened to add.

“Ain’t no use,” said Plessons, “unless Peter’ll give him one!”

Bodiker still stared doubtfully. Then after touching the eyeballs he seemed satisfied.

“Phew!” he sighed, wiping the gouts of sweat from his brow. “Guess he won’t need—quinin after all!”