The Blond Spiders/Chapter 2

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II

OH, THAT bird’s a dumbbell—dead from the neck up!” said Sawyer.

“Lumme!” snorted Plessons. “You might just as well have bin without a tongue for all the sense you talk!”

The Australian began anew trying to get some information out of the mutilated survivor; but as the African natives, unlike the American Indians, have never developed a sign language, little progress was made. One attempt, accompanied by throat noises, was the running of the fingers over the ground, ending in a jerk which the whites took to mean some animal rushing to spring upon its prey; another and the most frequently repeated, was the drawing by means of a knife of a circle in the earth into which he placed pebbles—which were rare in that country—or twigs.

“The old man,” argued Tony, “talked about stones which might mean diamonds, and also about somebody who will never get them nor the letters and won’t ever know where they came from.”

“H-huh,” grunted Bodiker noncommittally.

“Somethin’ like it,” agreed Plessons.

“Well, maybe he was a prospector and was coming out with a bunch of diamonds. Perhaps he knew he’d never live to get out, or in case he shouldn’t, wrote to his people. That’s about as far as I can get. But as for the circle stuff that’s got me beat. What d’you think, Alick?”

“Guess you’re right, Tony,” assented Bodiker suavely. “But can’t you think up what the circle might mean?”

“Bull!” contributed Sawyer.

“Might mean the place where he got ’em,” put in Plessons. “A vlei or somethin’ like that.”

“What’s a vlei?” inquired Tony.

“Small valley where yer might find blue clay.”

“Well, he might have meant a round kind of flat between hills?”

“Sure that’s it!” agreed Bodiker. “You’ve got the brains of the outfit, Tony!”

The native, who, squatting before them, had been watching the lips and the expressions of the white men, made another noise and, touching Tony on the knee, pointed toward the southwest.

“By the ——, I believe he understands English,” exclaimed Tony, “from reading the lips!”

Right then the man nodded and made a strangled grunt.

“He does! Say—” Tony bent toward him, pronouncing the words slowly—“are they—diamonds?”

The man looked puzzled. Plessons repeated the words in Kiswahili, receiving an energetic nod of assent.

Sawyer grunted and leaned forward, his small eyes gleaming. But Bodiker frowned swiftly.

“How many days?” queried Tony.

The native held up six fingers.

“Lordy, quite close! Ask him if it’s—what you said it might be, Plessons.”

But this time the man shook his head and pointed to his circle.

“Oh, well, that doesn’t matter,” said Tony. “Ask him if he’ll take us there.”

The man, making a hideous noise, shook his head and nodded and, touching Tony, pointed toward where his master lay buried.

“What in ——’s he getting at?” snapped Bodiker.

“Beats me,” said Tony as Plessons began talking in Kiswahili. “Perhaps he means, though, that we must see to the old man’s share—his heirs I guess.”

“Oh, to —— wit’ that bird,” mumbled Sawyer unnoticed as Tony intently watched the conversation.

“Can’t maike aht what he’s arter,” reported Plessons. “Seems to s’y, ‘Yus’ and then, ‘No.’ ”

The man gave up making his gobbling noises and stared very shrewdly at each white in turn. After a prolonged regard he deliberately touched Tony and Plessons on their knees and nodded; then, indicating the other two, shook his head. The meaning was obvious; even Sawyer got it; yet Bodiker pretended he didn’t understand, murmuring—

“What does the fellow mean?”

“What’s he mean, the bonehead!” exclaimed Sawyer. “He’s all set to take them guys and not us! I should worry! I’ll soon fix him!”

That one of the deeper passions in the man’s makeup had been stirred was revealed by the wicked glitter in the eyes. But Bodiker laughed.

“Oh, you’ve got him all wrong, Sawyer,” said he smoothly. “He couldn’t have meant that, could he, Tony? Why, he’s never seen any of us before. All white men are alike to a nigger. D’you think he meant that, Tony?”

“Seems to,” admitted Tony reluctantly. “What d’you think, Plessons?”

“Very difficult to understand him,” returned the Australian. “Maybe the pore fella was just a-askin’ for some needle and thread to mend his trawsers.”

Sawyer snorted violently.

“Don’t try to be funny,” admonished Tony. “What d’you think he really means?”

The guide regarded the native and then looked slowly at Tony.

“It’s like this, Mr. Westlaike,” said he, regarding Tony all the time. “These here black fellas are rummy beggars. They kind o’ see things we can’t, and they has all sorts o’ rummy idees. Superstitions, y’ know. Maybe”—and his eyes twinkled—“he don’t taike a fancy ter Sawyer’s faice, or maybe he don’t taike ter Mr. Bodiker’s marf—and there yer are! Yer can’t do nohtin’ with him!”

“Huh!” exploded Sawyer savagely. “That bird’s got another think coming!”

“Tell him we’re partners,” said Tony, “and that we stick together.”

For answer the man pantomimed kicking a prostrate body. Sawyer swore and threatened to strike him.

“All right,” said Bodiker suavely. “That doesn’t matter. You two fellers can go ahead and grab the stuff and we’ll wait. Comes to the same thing in the end which of us two gets it; doesn’t it, Tony, old man? Say, you go right ahead and I’ll sit out this hand.”

“No,” said Tony, frowning at some secret implication. “I don’t like the idea. Besides, Alick, it’s your outfit.”

“Forget it,” said Bodiker.

“No, no,” insisted Tony obstinately as he rose. “The fellow who puts up the dough has the say-so.”

“But you and I are partners—fifty-fifty. Besides,” added Bodiker with a boisterous laugh, “if you go under I’ll get your share or if I die of boredom sitting around you’ll get mine. So what’s the odds?”

“Oh what’s the good of arguing?” retorted Tony. “I don’t like it; but whatever you say, Alick, goes.”

“Well, if we can’t get this fellow to be reasonable,” concluded Bodiker, smiling slyly, “you two go right ahead as I said, and we’ll wait.”

As Tony went off he told Plessons to take the man away, commenting—

“Maybe he’ll come to his senses tomorrow.”

“Say, Alick,” whispered Sawyer, husky with rage, “don’t let that sucker pull that stuff on yer! Gi’ me that nigger hobo and I’ll fix him good. He’ll come a-running when I’m through.”

“Shut your trap, you bonehead—and keep it shut,” admonished Bodiker sourly. Then he smiled slyly. “And iron out that mug of yours, Phil. Sit up and look pretty, —— you! Don’t you know it’s my friend’s birthday?”

“Holy ——, that’s right!” exclaimed Sawyer, and grinned.

ON ACCOUNT of the delay incident to burying the old man the trek had not been far that day. In the Congo, where they had picked up the Australian, a trader who had been in the old days a hunter and prospector and now acted as their guide and interpreter, they had been disgusted to find another prohibition—one against shooting elephants without an expensive license which took the gilt off the profits; then, on the advice of an American explorer, who had hinted that in a certain district which had at one time been—on the map—German territory, were elephants innumerable and no inquisitive whites, they had trekked south.

Tony, his usual sunny smile in shadow, had retired to his cot a bit peeved. The native’s apparent cantankerousness seemed to promise to force him under another obligation to his partner. The latter’s tendency—well, if not to jeer was to be generally unpleasant, a tendency which Tony noticed had been steadily increasing since they had left civilization and had begun to make the agreements he had accepted extremely irksome. But it was his own fault, he told himself, for he should have known from army experience that the most congenial of fellows in a city may turn out to be a poor buddy in the field.

After all, Tony reflected, he hadn’t known much of Bodiker, who was about ten years his senior. He had been a college friend of his elder brother Harold, who had always been a rolling stone and during the war had been reported murdered by bandits in the interior of China.

A few months after the Armistice Tony had emerged from a hospital with a game leg and saw clearly that there would be little use for him in the States with no knowledge of a job. He was an orphan. True, he had a wealthy uncle who refused to play the usual rôle, and the nephew wasn’t made of the stuff to go bumming on relatives. Anyway old Silas Gunner’s money was to go to a cousin, Jack Gunner, a city man of domestic inclinations.

As a stop-gap while his leg was mending Tony secured a billet with the Graves Commission, a job which made his soul sick. Then, just when the itching of his feet had become intolerable, Alick Bodiker blew into Paris announcing that he was sailing for East Africa on an elephant-hunting trip, swore that Tony was the very man he’d been praying for, and when Tony disclosed the state of his bankroll, offered to put up expenses on a basis of fifty-fifty. Tony demurred at such generous terms; but Bodiker, with the aid of genuine White Label, had nearly wept on the other’s shoulder, saying that Harold had done him a mighty good turn and that he was tickled to death to have a chance to repay it to Harold’s brother.

Later Bodiker had proposed that Tony insure himself; but the latter had replied, laughing, that that was merely waste of good money. Bodiker agreed and suggested that as it wasn’t likely an elephant would get them both, they’d better make their wills in each other’s favor.

“Then if I go under, boy, it won’t leave you stranded,” he had added with an affectionate pat on the shoulder.

Tony eventually had accepted, thinking that Bodiker was one of the whitest men he’d ever met. Coming out on the boat, he had been the best of sports and Sawyer—by whom Bodiker swore as a good skate and thoroughly trustworthy—had, as a servant, remained in the second class. Yet ever since leaving the railhead Bodiker had developed that nagging, jeering spirit—nothing in itself; but like a burr in the stocking day and night it began to get on his nerves. The feeling was intensified by the sense of obligation which hobbled any efficacious comebacks. More exasperating, too, was the fact that Sawyer followed his master’s lead.

Now as he lay musing Tony bitterly regretted the generous terms. The mutilated native’s arbitary choice would, he feared, despite Bodiker’s easy acceptance, aggravate the situation.

Tony was nobody’s fool; but, generous and good-natured to a fault, he was too apt, in spite of experience, to take a man as being as straight as himself until, as the law is supposed to do, he was proven otherwise. But what motive Bodiker had he could not guess; merely apparently the man’s temperament coming out at the contact with the primitive. However, a rational explanation of how a wound is caused doesn’t take much of the suffering away.

HIS dismal musings were disturbed by Wandie, his boy, calling him for the usual sundown peg, an institution carefully—even by Bodiker—limited ostensibly to one drink only. As Tony advanced to the table Bodiker called out boisterously:

“Come on, ol’ sourdough, and take a shot to waken you up!”

A second look, followed by a swift glance from the Australian, confirmed the suspicion that both Bodiker and Sawyer had taken more than the usual sundowner. Tony sat and drank his peg. Bodiker poured out for the other three, saying—

“We’ll just have another one on you, Tony!”

And he stood up with a sly smile followed by Sawyer, grinning.

“Come on, Plessons!” urged Bodiker; and to Tony’s amazement, but evidently for courtesy’s sake, Plessons obeyed. “Now, Anthony Gunner Westlake, here’s congratulations and a long life!”

“Long and as rich as a bootlegger’s!” said Sawyer, grinning widely.

“But—what—I don’t understand,” began Tony.

“Don’t you know the date?”

“Er—October, isn’t it?”

“Holy ——, he fergets his own date!” shouted Sawyer.

“The twenty-seventh!” reminded Bodiker. “Your birthday, man!”

“Oh, sure; that’s right,” agreed Tony, feeling a trifle embarrassed. “Thanks very much!”

They drank and sat down. Bodiker yelled for food. When the table was set Tanuka appeared with another bottle of whisky and two of champagne. Again Tony caught Plessons’ eye and had a hunch that if they drank something would get started. Yet what could he do? He wasn’t in command.

“Too hot to drink much, Alick,” he suggested quietly. “Let’s halve it?”

“Oh don’t give us that apple sauce!” laughed Bodiker.

“Sing yer pussyfoot song!” urged Sawyer insolently.

“Don’t feel in song tonight,” returned Tony amicably.

“Thank —— for great mercies!” sneered Bodiker.

Now to men unaccustomed to liquor a few drinks in an equatorial climate may have a rapid effect; already Sawyer’s eyes in the light of the hurricane lamp were slightly wild and his features tougher than usual. Bodiker showed too an unnecessary loudness of voice. And champagne and whisky do not mix well.

The swollen African moon crept over the forest edge, killing the lantern light to a mere yellow leaf. Afar rose an occasional irritable yapping of jackals. From the group of porters around the smoky cooking fires the hum of chatter blended with the nocturnal chant of the mosquitoes.

The meal passed without any rupture, due to the restraint of Tony, who was resolutely determined not to quarrel. But the gaseous wine on top of the whisky was working on Sawyer; he began to address even more openly insolent remarks, and Tony’s policy of ignoring him infuriated him the more. As the coffee was brought he interrupted Plessons, who was talking about the trail, a topic introduced purposely by Tony to sidetrack the dangerous subject of the dumb Swahili.

“Huh! Guess you think ye’re a wise guy, Tony?”

Tony was aware of the slightly bloodshot eyes boring into him and the aggressive hunch of the massive shoulders; he was conscious too that his own fingers were shaking with nervous irritation; but he smiled at Bodiker, who had quieted down and was being as amiable as he knew how to be, saying apropos of Plessons’ remark:

“I think Plessons is right, Alick. Anyway he knows——

“Bugs on the dood stuff, ain’t yer, Tony?” butted in Sawyer again.

“Quit it,” said Bodiker to him sharply.

“What’s eatin’ youse?” growled Sawyer, glaring at him.

“Now that’ll be all, Dutchy,” snapped Bodiker angrily, laying his fingers on the man’s arm.

“Lay off me, yer ——!” snarled Sawyer, jerking Bodiker’s hand away.

The glare in the man’s eyes was that of a killer, and Tony remarked in the moonlight that Bodiker’s face went the color of pale-green blotting paper; he knew that his man was getting out of hand; mad drunk.

Tony rose languidly, saying as if he had noticed nothing unusual:

“Well, guess I’ll hit the hay. Good——

“No, yer don’t! Sit down, you four-flusher!”

Tony went white this time, and his lips were trembling; but he controlled himself and finished quietly—

“Good night, fellows!”

“Yah!” yelled Sawyer like a Comanche war-whoop. “He’s a low-down —— yeller belly! Think we ain’t wise to youse? I’m givin' yer the low down. Huh! Youse and dat —— nigger fixin’ a frame-up to double-cross us on the di’monds and do the dirty on yer part——

“Quit it, Dutchy, you fool bonehead!” exclaimed Bodiker angrily.

“Don’t Dutchy me, yer —— crook! It’s him I’m after! I’ll——

Tony stopped, looking back, trembling from head to foot. As Bodiker, pallid of face, jumped to his feet, nervously putting out his hands, Sawyer gave a swift short-arm jolt and Bodiker went backward over the chair.

Streaming obscene abuse, Sawyer charged head half down, upsetting the table in his passage.

Tony’s jaw set, and the trembling left his limbs. He knew the man was murder-mad for some incomprehensible reason. Waiting, cold as marble now, until he was within striking distance, Tony dodged a wild swing and drove with his left.

Plunging sidewise, Sawyer went to earth and came up instantly, spluttering oaths. Tony danced backward, maneuvering to get the moon behind him.

The blow had sobered Sawyer, but had left him nonetheless murderous. Tony knew that in weight and power of taking punishment he hadn’t a chance. His advantages were a slightly longer reach and speed; and of the latter he must make the most, for one full punch with that freight wagon behind it and——

As he expected, Sawyer rushed, swinging wicked punches, contemptuously leaving himself wide open. Tony got home on the solar plexus and the ear, received a bad jolt on the heart and just avoided a clinch.

“Keep him orf! Don’t let ’im clinch!” he heard Plessons shouting, and, fearful that the guide was about to interfere, Tony yelled for him to keep out.

Sawyer came again. Tony dodged a hefty swing for the jaw and took it on the left shoulder. The blow swung him half around. Fortunately Sawyer was too clumsy to seize the advantage, and Tony as he came about smashed two full punches behind the ear and on the jaw which visibly rocked his man.

Then his game leg hindered his footwork. He was a fraction of a second late in breaking away; and Sawyer, plating a vicious corkscrew punch on the kidneys, grabbed him by the shirt, kicking his legs from under him.

In a flash Tony realized what kind of a scrapper he was up against; but he hadn’t learned trench fighting for nothing. He felt one powerful hand clutch his throat and the thumb of the other seeking his eyes.

Seizing Sawyer’s free hand he put out all his strength to force the wrist back over the man’s neck into an armlock and brought up his knee at the same time, registering a grunt and a relaxation of the grip on his throat.

Still Sawyer’s thumb and fingers were boring into his windpipe; the blood was roaring in his ears. Dragging desperately at the wrist, he used his knee again and again with effect, and succeeded, aided by each momentary slackening of resistance, in forcing the elbow over the nape of the neck.

Just as it seemed as if his lungs were bursting and his senses going he heard a hoarse shriek and the grip on his throat ceased as Sawyer threw his body sidewise to save his arm.

Sobbing for breath and half blind, Tony struggled to his feet, expecting a crashing blow which would finish him. Seeing a face like a white flower against the moon, he hurled his weight and failing strength into one punch.

To his utter surprize the great bulk sank.

Then he found himself, panting, standing over his opponent and heard Plessons saying—

“I do ’ope yer haven’t hurt the pore fella, gov’nor!”

“Say, Tony, ol’ man,” butted in Bodiker feverishly, “I’m awfully sorry! But he was drunk, you know, and——

“Oh, go to ——!” gasped Tony, and wheeling, walked unsteadily across to his tent.