The Blond Spiders/Chapter 4

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IV

ON THE slope of the hills in the deep shadows of fairly dense timber sat Tony, Bodiker and Sawyer on the bales which the porters had just thrown down.

“Can’t understand it,” Bodiker was saying. “Quinin couldn’t have killed him. You must have shot it into him just as the death crisis came on. Well, it’s a pity he’s gone before showing us whatever he had to show—although to tell the truth I never thought there was much to it. We may as well get busy on the elephant stuff. Looks pretty good to me judging from what we saw coming up. What does Plessons say?”

“Yes, he thinks well of it,” returned Tony, “but from what we saw of the fellow before he went west, what the old man said, and the murdered four I told you about, we both think the thing’s worth investigating. Anyway Plessons went off at sun-up to scout around a bit”

“Waste of time,” opined Bodiker with some obstinacy. “We’d much better make a camp here and start after the elephants tomorrow.”

“All right, if you’re set on it,” deferred Tony. “Anyway we can always keep our eyes open while hunting.”

“Well, don’t get sore about it,” returned Bodiker with a touch of the old sour manner. “What d’you reckon you can make out of this circle and stone stuff?”

“I told you I am not sure of anything. Just a hunch, that’s all. Mighty curious anyway. Well, I’ll get my men to pitch the tents.”

As Tony rose to go over to the porters he caught on Sawyer’s face a sly grin which brought back all his old suspicions. But —— it, he muttered, what’s the motive?

As the death of the dumb guide had removed the alleged source of friction Tony had, as in duty bound, waited for his partner. Bodiker’s greetings had been something in the old suave manner and Sawyer’s so respectful that it was a bit overdone.

At Tony’s instructions the boys placed his own and Plessons’ cots in the old bell tent and Bodiker’s and Sawyer’s in the green tent, the more luxurious of the two. Both men went to it without comment.

Lunch passed off with spasmodic remarks between Bodiker and Tony; Sawyer wolfed his food as usual with scarcely a word. But a very strong sense of mutual embarrassment dwelt about them. Afterward Bodiker and his men retired to their tent apparently for a siesta. The former, stirring out about two, found Tony stretched under a tree cleaning his revolver, and began to grumble that Plessons seemed a mighty long time. When Tony remarked that it didn’t matter and that anyway he’d probably come back by moonlight Bodiker glanced at him quickly, muttered something to himself and sitting at the bole lighted a cigaret. He fidgeted about for some time, unusually nervous, and then suddenly said tentatively—

“Has he always struck you as straight, Tony?”

“Who?” demanded Tony, knowing very well to whom Bodiker referred.

“Plessons, of course,” with a frown.

“Yes—quite.”

“Huh! Don’t know so much. After all, we don’t know anything about him— I was thinking— Supposing there was something in this crazy diamond stuff of yours.”

“Well, what about it?”

“D’you think if he found it he—he’d be sure to report to us? Remember he’s on a salary. Don’t get a bean out of it.”

“Sure he would.”

“Huh! I’m not so sure, Tony. If he were a wise skate he’d keep his mouth shut and come back later. Shouldn’t blame him either.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t, eh?”

“Well, would you? He’s not a pal of ours, and he’s human. Don’t do to take any fool chances.”

“Oh, well, don’t get rattled,” retorted Tony, smiling at Bodiker. “You don’t believe in the yarn anyway. Hullo, here he is!”

Through the trees came Plessons alone. He swung right up to them and without greeting Bodiker said—

“I’ve fahnd it, Mr. Westlaike!”

“Found what!” exclaimed Bodiker excitedly.

“Fahnd a elephant, Mr. Bodiker, drinkin’ whisky and soda,” asserted Plessons gravely.

“Now don’t get fresh, Plessons,” began Bodiker.

“’Struth, it’s true! Why, he offered me one and I refused! Nah yer know it ain’t no lie!”

“Don’t rot,” said Tony, nearly laughing at Bodiker’s indignation.

“Well, gov’nor, it was that thing the pore dumb bloke was talking abaht.”

“What? The circle and the pebbles?”

“Yus. Come along and I’ll show yer. Just on the top of the hill.”

“Nonsense,” interposed Bodiker. “Who ever found diamonds on the top of a hill? Even I know better than that!”

“Who was talking abaht di’monds, mister?”

“What d’you mean then?”

“What Mr. Westlaike said. Come along. I’ll show yer. No extra charge.”

Plessons’ eyes twinkled vividly; he was evidently extremely pleased. Bodiker regarded him perplexedly and angrily.

“You’ve been drinking,” he snapped.

“I ain’t.”

“But there isn’t time,” objected Bodiker. “Tomorrow morning—if you’re serious.”

“Is there time to make it before sundown?” inquired Tony, and at a nod from Plessons: “Well, we can come back by moonlight. She rises about nine. Come on, Alick!”

Finally Bodiker consented but insisted upon taking a few porters and the smaller tent, arguing with a town man’s fear of discomfort that they might have to stop for the night.

Within two hours’ climb the timber gave abruptly to a wild moor, patches of heather and giant ferns among tumbled boulders. About two miles ahead, sprouting as abruptly as a hurdle, was a bamboo forest, and in the comparative open some five miles away was visible the raw summit of an extinct volcano.

As the going became harder Bodiker, seconded by his henchman, grumbled harping upon his unusual knowledge that diamonds didn’t grow on mountain tops. Owing to Bodiker’s persisting in taking a long rest in the shade of the bamboo, which appeared as impenetrable as the wall of China, and to the painfully slow process of wriggling through the dense canes, they emerged just in time to get a glimpse of a bare and rugged pile of rocks against the vermilion and orange glow of sunset.

While the boys were lighting a fire and pitching the tent in the dark, Bodiker grouched sourly that it was Plessons’ fault; he ought to have known this and known that. Immediately the master began the man followed suit. Tony ignored them; but when Plessons remarked that it was hardly worth while putting up the tent for a couple of hours the other two stared, and Sawyer growled—

“What’s that ye’re givin’ us?”

“Why, when the moon rises abaht nine we’re going on to see the pretty circus.”

“Where did yer get that stuff?”

“Who said we were?” supported Bodiker.

“I did,” replied Tony sharply. “There’s no sense in stopping here all night. We can return by moonlight.”

“Moonlight!” snorted Bodiker. “D’you think I’m going to take the trail at night? —— knows what we might meet, and it’s as dark as Tophet in the bamboo forest. Why, you’re crazy, Tony!”

“Well, we’re going.”

“Like —— yer are!” gritted Sawyer.

“I say, no,” suddenly announced Bodiker. “I’m the leader.”

“I’ll say they don’t, Phil!” contributed Sawyer.

“Sure you’re the leader,” returned Tony. “Well, the camp and the men and your darned rifles stop here; but Plessons and I are going to the top tonight. And that’s that. I’m about through.”

Although he had ignored Sawyer as usual, it was Sawyer more than Bodiker who was responsible for the wave of anger riveting a half-determined resolution.

In the utter silence of the heights Sawyer’s unintelligible growl sounded like some wild beast of the jungle.

“Well,” inquired Tony quietly, “how about it, Bodiker?”

In the flickering light of the fire Bodiker’s creatures registered two emotions better than many a movie star—physical fear and greed.

“Now be reasonable, Alick,” continued Tony, controlling the rage that had welled. “Here are your guns. You stop here and have a good sleep. We’ll do a scout round. How’s that?”

“Nothing doing!” shouted Sawyer. “Yer’ll —— well do as ye’re told!”

“That’s enough, Phil. Shut up!” said Bodiker, glaring at Sawyer. “All right, Tony; as you say. But remember it’s my duty to think of the safety of the expedition, so don’t blame me if anything happens.”

“Well, good night,” said Tony, disgusted at the stupid hypocrisy, turning on his heel. “Come on, Plessons, we’ll do a night patrol for old times’ sake.” And fifty paces away he added in a low voice: “And those are the heroes for whom we fought to make the world free! Oh, boy!”

“And very naice too!” retorted Plessons. “Why, the pore dears might have had to learn the goose step or somethin’ awful!”

Then, grabbing Tony’s shoulder, he urged him down, whispering—

“Listen!”

Town men never realize the distance sounds carry in the wilds. On the still air came distinctly Sawyer’s voice:

“Bah! Yer’ve got bats in the belfry, Phil! Why, the poor fish’re asking for it! Even left their gats here!”

“Didn’t. Left their rifles and took their gats; but——

“That don’t matter. Get ’em before——

“Will you be quiet, you bonehead!” Bodiker replied, tense anger making him raise his tone. “You’ll bust the whole game wide open. Haven’t you enough mule sense to wait and let those suckers do the work on the stones?”

“Bah!” growled Sawyer in a lower voice. “We kin grab ’em ourselves.”

“There you go, you mutt. You wouldn’t know a diamond in the ground if you broke your darned nose on it. Neither do I! That’s what they’re there for. Besides, I think they got more dope out of that dumb nigger than they say.”

“I’ll make ’em come across, the ——

The voices became unintelligible.

“Come on, quick!” urged Plessons. “They may have the sense ter look for us against the skyline. Ain’t they pa’s own little pets?”

“But—but,” stuttered Tony, almost unable to. believe the obvious inference, “what on earth is the motive?”

“Dunno, but I got a idee that that there dumb bloke got their numbers all right, all right. Did yer know the herrin’-gutted bloke long?”

“No; but he was a great pal of my brother, who disappeared years ago in China.”

“Oo-er! Disappeared, did he? Was this duck with him?”

“N-no. I don’t think so. Darned if I know! Ah!”

They turned at a shout from Bodiker,

“Hey, Tony! We’re sports too! We’re coming! Wait!”

“See!” commented Plessons. “Pa’s little wonder’s scared stiff we’ll run orf with the marbles, bless his tender little heart!”

Plessons was right. Evidently greed had overcome fear. Presently the pair joined them, panting in their hurry.

“Is it far?” demanded Bodiker.

“Jus’ abaht as far as the cow fahnd it when she jumped over the moon,” responded Plessons. Bodiker didn’t reply.

AS THEY toiled on in the keen air suddenly a question born of the interesting conversation overheard, flashed into Tony’s mind. Had that hypodermic syringe been charged with quinin? The fellow had been very sick, but it was certainly strange that quinin should kill him instantly. The shot might, as Bodiker had suggested, have been coincident with the death agony, but—! And it was the same syringe that had been prepared for the dying white man whom Bodiker had been so queerly concerned would not die.

Tony recalled the persistent, anxious questions as to whether the old man had spoken and what he had said; and again the startled cry when the sick man had seen Bodiker. Was there any connection between the two facts? Had Bodiker afterward deliberately put the syringe in Tony’s case hoping—if it were a poison—that he would have occasion to use it?

Presently the milk of the moon began faintly to wash the eastern stars; and a little later Plessons, breaking trail, stopped and, pointing, said:

“There y’are, lidies and genelmen, the only o-riginal and u-nique African circus hactually used by the hancient emp’rers for their gladia-tors in their scraps with the yeller ’ounds, w’ite-livered curs and other fer-ocious animiles! No hextra charge lidies and genelmen! Pass along, please! Pass along!”

Whether the said gentlemen so playfully referred to failed to hear or whether they were too intoxicated with the wild beauty will never be known.

A moon with the slightest of flattened cheeks was seemingly perched on the crater edge of a volcano some ten miles away, sketching the masses of the raw summit and the slope in liquid, pallid blue and tinting a sister mountain top and the lower hills that spread out fanwise beneath like two trains of courtiers in gauze splashes of silver. Opposite was a group of five other volcanoes, ultramarine against the stars, lumped higgledy-piggledy as if carelessly thrown up to stop the western gap of the two Jow ranges of hills which roughly formed a vast arena.

The first things that caught the eye away down to the east in the vast depths of the gloom were faint yellow spots like a bunch of stationary fireflies.

As the flood of the moon rose they saw that the mass of tumbled boulders about them ended abruptly a few feet in front and that a steep escarpment shot down at an angle of about 80 degrees into the as yet shadow-veiled valley. A little farther to the west the slope of the hillside, which for some geological reason had resisted the tremendous upheaval, jutted out, descending gradually, suggesting an easy way down until the rising moonlight showed that the end appeared as if it had been bitten off. Like rocks left by a receding tide in a black sea were jungle-covered islets, the original masses of rock and earth as they had fallen during the volcanic convulsion.

“Where’s them di’monds?” broke in Sawyer’s husky tones.

“Dahn below,” explained Plessons. “Yer see, we have ter cut some of them bamboos to maike fishin’ rods, and then yer bait ’em with a bit of bluff and then we pore blokes dive dahn and hook on the di’monds while yer two pull ’em up, see? Easy, ain’t it?” *

Sawyer’s face in the moonlight looked like an angry gargoyle.

“See here, yer —— limejuicer, if yer try any more o’ that——

“Oh, shut up, Phil!” said Bodiker, heroically interposing his thin body. “Remember what you promised,” he whispered, and Sawyer’s dire threats ended in a growl.

“What d’you make of those lights, Plessons?” asked Tony, who was examining them through his glasses. “Village, isn’t it?”

“Dunno, Mr. Westlaike. Seems kind of too regular for a village, don’t it?”

“But there can’t be any whites down there already, can there?” demanded Bodiker anxiously.

“Africa’s a funny plaice if yer askin’ me. Rivers without water, flahs without smell and shouldn’t wonder if there’s whites where they didn’t oughter be.”

“All of which,” said Bodiker pleasantly, “means that you don’t know.”

“How d’you reckon we’re going to get down?” inquired Tony. “Doesn’t look too steep from here.”

“Pretty crumbly, but——

“Why, what on earth’s that?” exclaimed Bodiker, who was also using glasses. “That silvery stuff on the cliff there?”

“Cobwebs,” replied Plessons—directly, for a wonder. “Bit farther dahn the cliff is covered with a kinder scrub smothered all over with cobwebs. It’s all arahnd, too. Looks queer in the sun like as if some one had upset tins of condensed milk all over the plaice. Never see anythin’ like it in me born life!”

“Spiders, eh? Yes, they are! Start about fifty feet down the cliff. Good God!” Bodiker ejaculated suddenly. “What’s that?”

Tony took a step forward and gazed intently at the spot indicated in the crook of the jutting cliff.

“Am I drunk, or what?” he cried. “Here, Plessons, look quick!”

“Where? Where?” bawled Sawyer. “Lemme look, Phil!”

“Cripes!” exclaimed Plessons. “Why, there’s some more of ’em! But the beggars don’t shine— Yus, they do! ——! See that last un? It’s got eyes like a flashlight. Nah it’s gawn!”

“What d’you make of it?” said Tony.

“Dunno, gov’nor. Never see anythin’ like it.”

“They were coming up, weren’t they?”

“Yus.”

“What was it, Alick?” clamored Sawyer.

“I don’t know. Didn’t look like an animal nor a man. More like— By ——, yes; one of those drawings of a Martian in Wells’ stories!”

“Marshan? Who’s that guy? Amurrican?” queried Sawyer with a quake in his voice. “Say, I’m off! I ain’t going ter butt inter any ghost party. Come on, Alick, fer the love o’ ——!”

“I’m going arter them blokes,” said Plessons. “Mr. Bodiker, will yer lend me yer rifle?”

“I won’t!” snapped Bodiker. “You’ve got to take us back to camp.”

“What!” exploded Plessons angrily; and, bending slightly at the knees, he looked as if he were about to spring and take the rifle by force.

In his eyes was an expression Tony had never seen before; far more deadly than Sawyer’s homicidal glare, for there was sane purpose and courage behind it.

“No; come along, Plessons,” said Tony gently. “We can pick up their trail to-morrow.”

Plessons averted his eyes and said slowly—

“All right, gov’nor.”