The Blond Spiders/Chapter 3

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III

TONY had gone to his tent boiling with anger; more furious now that the safety valve in the shape of his sense of obligation to Bodiker had blown off. Although he didn’t know it he was as mad as any carnivore long deprived of its prey; the lust for murder which dwells in all of us had been quickened; and he had tasted of power, power to give this loud bully the lesson he deserved.

Immediately, mouthing excuses, had come Bodiker whom he consigned to the customary place. Ardently he desired to tell Bodiker that he refused to continue the agreements, but short of walking out of camp—and not even his clothes nor rifle belonged to him—he could not say a word.

At last, exasperated by Bodiker’s abject excuses, he turned his head and said sharply:

“Oh, for ——’s sake, shut up, Bodiker! It’s your own fault. You’ve been egging on the man the whole time. Now what have you got against me?”

“Nothing, old man,” whined Bodiker. “Why, that’s just ridiculous! Wish I’d never brought that —— yegg, but he’s been—been with me a long time. Tried him out, and know I can depend on him.”

“You surely can!”

“Yes, I know; but he’s never been like that before. He was mad drunk. It was my fault to let him have so much liquor, but it was your birthday and——

“Oh, shut up! You make me tired. There’s something else behind this, Alick. What is it? You’ve been picking on me ever since we left the railhead.”

“I haven’t, old man, I swear. Maybe I was a bit liverish with this —— climate and——

“Oh, quit it! But one thing. Get this: If he starts anything again I’ll finish what I began. Good night!”

Naturally Tony couldn’t sleep. He lay quietly, trying to calm his mind and sum up the situation rationally. His suspicions of some ulterior motive faded; after all perhaps Bodiker was right; Sawyer’s was a case of fighting drunk, and Sawyer had picked on him merely because the bruiser had never liked him—and Tony reciprocated thoroughly.

Just as he was dropping off he heard Bodiker call him; but, not desiring any more futile discussion, he did not reply. Bodiker rose quietly and slipped out of the tent. Tony heard him softly calling Plessons, who did not answer, and then in a lower whisper—

“Phil! Say, Phil!”

In the twittering silence he heard the creak of the cot under Sawyer’s clumsy movements; and, gliding out of bed, he peeped through the tent flap. In the bright moonlight he saw the two men walk off into the bush. An impulse urged him to follow.

—— if I’ll spy!” he muttered characteristically and went back to bed.

Next morning as soon as he emerged Sawyer came shambling across. Tony ignored him, walking up to the camp-fire for coffee. But the man followed and came up with a grin.

“Say, Mr. Westlake,” said he, “I wants to ax yer pardon. I was soused last night. Bugs. That’s straight. And yer give me what I was asking for. Ye’re a man, you are. Put it there, will yer?”

Tony looked at him. He wasn’t fooled in the least. Yet as the fellow apologized what could he do? Perfunctorily he shook hands.

“That’s all right, Sawyer. But see here, I should advise you to leave the booze alone.”

“I ain’t going to touch another drop o’ hooch on the —— trip! I tol’ Al—Mr. Bodiker. Didn’t I, boss?”

“Yes, he’s all right,” concurred Bodiker. “Phil’s a bit of a rough diamond, but his heart’s in the right place.”

“Diamond!” mused Tony as he squatted down. “Wonder if that’s what he blew up over? Probably.”

“Say, Tony,” said Bodiker in a casual way a little later, “we’ve—I’ve decided that if that dumb guy’s going to pull that stuff it would be better if we pretended to fall for it. You and Plessons go on and we’ll loiter along the trail behind. As soon as you strike anything you can send a message by one of the boys and say what seems good. Do you mind?”

“All right,” said Tony curtly.

He had spotted the “we” as well as a quick glance between the two of them.

“There is something on,” he said to himself, “but what the —— can it be?”

So it was arranged. Tony and Plessons were to take the green tent as it was lighter. By a little after eight they were under weigh with the agreement that Bodiker and Sawyer were to trek the next morning so that they would always, water permitting, be a short trek behind.

Tony hadn’t realized the relief it would be to get out of that atmosphere of subterranean, nagging antagonism; even forgot after the first hour to speculate on what the real motives were; content to put it all down to the simple .fact that both men were towners pining for the bright fights. Lifting up his voice, he again began to howl his naturally cheerful soul to the winds of Africa; and Plessons grinned, for he was a wise old bird.

When they were halted at noon to give the porters a rest during the heat the Australian commented suddenly:

“What I like abaht them blokes is they’re good maites. Maybe kinder funny nah and then, but they’d stick to yer through thick and thin.”

“D’you think they would!” exclaimed Tony, and was surprized at the unconscious thought revealed.

“Nah, Mr. Westlaike, yer oughter know I’m a bloke what allus says what he means.”

Tony caught the twinkle in the sharp eyes buried in the thatches of the eyebrows and laughed.

“Oh I don’t think that——

He recalled Bodiker’s face when Sawyer got rough.

“Well, anyway they wouldn’t try to put it over a pal,” conceded Plessons.

“Just what d’you mean by that, Plessons?” demanded Tony.

“I dunno meself, gov’nor. ’Struth I don’t. Wish I did!”

“Well, what made you say that?”

“Them two went orf last night to have a little shauri on their own.”

“Yes, I know. I saw them go. Bodiker was trying to get Sawyer to behave himself, and I think that’s why he apologized this morning.”

“Was you bottle or breast fed, Mr. Westlaike?”

“Bottle or breast! What on earth——

“Kinder fort you’d remember, as it couldn’t have been so long ago.” Tony looked at him inquiringly and then laughed. “Yer see, I’m a curious bloke, I am; and last night I kinder wondered what them two was up to, so I does a bit of black-fella business.”

“Trailed ’em?”

“Yus. The bruiser bloke wus grousing something awful for what you’d done to him last night. But t’other bloke he choked him orf saying as how he’d pretty nigh busted the gaime. Says as if anything happened naow they’d say as he done it ’cos that —— —— that’s me, gov’nor—would have seen it, and that the big cove ain’t got no more brains than a turtle. ‘And ’sides,’ says he, ‘they ain’t got the di’monds yet.’ Then the big fella says as that’s right, and they goes on talking quieter so’s I couldn’t hear no more what they says.”

Tony gazed very thoughtfully at Plessons.

“But I can’t see what advantage they would gain if—as that apparently infers—they could get rid of me.”

“Well, I dunno, gov’nor. That’s what they said. If we’d had the di’monds a baiby could see what they was arter.”

Although several times Plessons and Tony tried out the mutilated Swahili they utterly failed to get any further inkling of what he meant by the circle and the pebbles—except that he always chose pebbles when available, which seemed to bear out the diamond hypothesis.

TWO days passed during which Tony naturally pondered on Plessons’ account of the Bodiker-Sawyer conference; but the more the anger and irritation caused by the episode died away the less he attached any serious significance. After all what had they said? Merely that if Sawyer in his mad drunkenness had killed Tony he could not escape because Plessons would have seen the deed—implying, it was true, that Bodiker would have been willing to keep his mouth shut.

That afternoon just as they broke out of the timber the dumb man suddenly evinced great excitement, mouthing and pointing over a rolling country of scrub to the southwest toward what appeared to be a long low range of hills forest-covered; then, drawing the same circle he began throwing in twigs as there were no pebbles. This action seemed to indicate that the diamond field—if that was what he had meant—was not far away.

To the west, black against the setting sun, were jagged, volcanic peaks marking the approximate line of the vast cleavage through Africa caused by some remote upheaval of the earth’s crust. There were no signs of native villages, but with the spoor of game the country was crisscrossed. Directly for the long low range the dumb guide led them, frequently uttering excited noises.

On the following day, veering a bit to the east for water, they came in the scrub upon vulture- and jackal-picked skeletons and fifty yards farther on entered a clearing covered with charred stumps of huts, among which were many more skeletons and scattered spears and arrowheads.

“Must have had a raid and been wiped out,” opined Tony.

“Ain’t no raid, gov’nor,” said Plessons, who had been poking about. “See them bangles? Women and kids! Natives don’t wipe aht women; they taike ’em as slaves and mostly all the warriors captured alive. No; white men done that.”

“But this is British territory according to the mandate!”

“Yus; but the Belgian frontier ain’t far away. And see here, gov’nor!” The Australian stooped to pick up an empty cartridge case. “See, Mauser sure as gum-tree's grow!”

Boche! But the British and others use Mauser sporting guns. Anyway there can’t be any boches here now. They haven’t got a square yard left in all Africa.”

“I dunno,” said Plessons. “Maybe they’re German tourists!”

Farther on near the water was the site of an old camp with the marks of a tent, not more, according to Plessons, than a week old—if that.

“Good ——!” exclaimed Tony, recalling what they had considered the dying man’s delirium. Maybe he wasn’t raving after all and these were the fellows who apparently took his sack of stones and letters. Don’t you remember, he insisted that we weren’t the men who had rescued him?”

“Yus,” answered Plessons; “but if these were the blokes they don’t look as if they’d have stuck at putting him out.”

“No, but he may have escaped. Pity the poor old fellow didn’t live long enough to give us the real story. And say, maybe it was these people who mutilated this poor —— here?”

“No, gov’nor, the coves what done this wouldn’t have bothered about that; they’d have just have put him out. That’s native, that is. Keep his marf shut and get the work out of him.”

They camped there that night. Over the camp-fire talk Tony suddenly interrupted wild speculations on the mystery of the old man and the white camp.

“Say,” he said, “I’ve got a hunch. If these whites had a tent they, or he, must have had quite a bunch of porters. They should have left something of a trail.”

With the rising of the sun they were on the job. Even if the trail was a week old the spoor was fairly easy to read. There had been two whites, one a big heavy man by his boots. They had evidently continued to the northeast; but their back trail came directly from the hills.

Thirty-six hours later they came upon another old camp, where a little of the veil of mystery was lifted. Mouthing his ghastly noises excitedly, the dumb guide began by touching Tony as he pointed to ward the forest-clad hills and holding up one finger; then, tapping his chest, he indicated five.

“One white and five natives,” interpreted Tony. “Get that, Plessons?”

The man touched his ears and his mouth and again lifted five fingers.

“Good ——, four others deaf and dumb!”

Then the Swahili imitated a man asleep, sudden horror, and put his hands up. After that, dragging Tony with him, he went to the tent site and pantomimed one white within and five natives lying outside all bound. Pointing to the sun and making a gesture of disappearing, he lay down, glided to the tent site on his belly and went through the motions of cutting bonds and crawling away.

Then he rose and pointed to Tony and Plessons. There proceeded a horrible gust of uncouth noises, evidently registering anger, and he began to cast about in the adjacent scrub like a setter.

The two whites followed until he literally started to bellow. When they reached him no explanation was necessary. Four skeletons lay bleaching in the sun.

“Guess that’s plainer than a movie,” said Tony. “These fellows must have captured them; he cut the old man loose in the night and they escaped and the other four were shot. But that doesn’t in the least explain why.”

“I dunno, gov’nor, neither. Looks as if they’d escaped from somewhere and them blokes was on their trail, don’t it? Maybe the old un was a pard making off with the loot. But why was the five black fellas deaf and dumb? Rummy go, I calls it.”

While they were talking the Swahili had been watching them with the agonized expression of an intelligent dog trying to understand his master. Evidently he couldn’t lip-read English spoken rapidly. As soon as they glanced at him he gesticulated energetically, pointing to the southwest. They nodded, and he seemed calmer.

That night a heavy rainstorm passed, washing out the spoor, and the man developed a high fever, growing rapidly delirious. Examining him, Tony noticed that the pustules were more inflamed and were suppurating as the old man’s had. Despite a powerful dose of quinin the man was quite weak. Although he made game efforts to struggle along, by noon he collapsed.

As he was more valuable than the camp cots and the tent these were abandoned for Bodiker to pick up, and the two porters helped the sick man. They got him to another old camp, but he was undoubtedly worse; even his ungodly throat noises were feeble.

There seemed nothing for it but to camp until the man was better unless they jettisoned more stuff, for two porters couldn’t possibly carry him, emaciated though he was, for the whole day. After food Tony had another look at him. He was raving, and his temperature was 107 Fahrenheit.

“Out of luck,” said Tony. “He’s almost as good as gone, but I’ll give him a subcutaneous injection which may pull him through.”

He went to his medicine chest and to his astonishment found that the hypodermic syringe was already charged.

“That’s queer,” he muttered, and then recollected that Bodiker had prepared a shot for the old man who had died before it had been administered. Careless swine, he thought, to forget to empty it. Doesn’t matter; it’s only a few days old.

After sterilizing the needle he rolled the dry-skinned, groaning wretch over and gave him the shot, remarking:

“If we can pull down the temperature a couple of points he may pull through yet.”

But as they stood watching, the man moaned heavily and straightened out; then a rigor shook the body; another passed; the muscles stiffened and the eyeballs became rigid.

“Good God!” exclaimed Tony, bending over him. “The fellow’s dead!”