The Blond Spiders/Chapter 5

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V

TONY was aware that his own nerves were getting so raggy that he could scarcely control himself; the heel of the brake of a sense of obligation was wearing mighty thin. And the sudden flare-up of the usually imperturbable Plessons was another symptom; he was becoming fed up. The return to camp was made in silence save for one sarcastic comment from the Australian about the inability to shoot spooks with a rifle.

At the “hour of the monkey” Tony and Plessons were up and having coffee before the fire. In a sharp voice Tony warned Bodiker that they were taking the trail.

“All right,” replied Bodiker meekly, “We’ll come.” And the two grinned in the firelight at the sleepy muttered curses proceeding from the green tent.

From the crest of the hill where they had stood on the previous night the dewy masses of spider webs sparkled in the rising sun as if a million shawls of gauze covered with tiny sequins had been placed by fairies upon the scrub clinging to the cliffside.

The jutting cape beneath resembled a wedge of cake falling sheer at the tip quite two thousand feet into the vast arena below which, so mysterious in the moonlight, was now dense forest resembling a frozen, choppy sea of brilliant emerald.

‘There’s some sort of a path there,” said Tony after examining the spot where they had seen the mysterious, shining objects. “Come on!”

Scrambling along the rugged crest, they came soon to the jointure of the cape and the hill, where there was an indubitable trail made by human footseps.

“W’ites, them blokes,” pronounced Plessons. “And by cripes, look at that! He must be ten feet high!”

He stood pointing to the spoor of a boot a little off the track, which was blurred by many feet—a fresh mark that was at least twenty-odd inches long.

“Giants!” exclaimed Tony. “Oh, rot! There aren't any white giants; and if they were natives they’d be barefoot.”

He started down the trail toward the valley. A little farther on, where the slope began and was fairly steep, were rough steps partly cut in the earth and partly built up with stones.

Forty paces down Tony uttered an exclamation of disgust and pulled up to look at the first of the cobwebs. The others clustered about him. The strands, so delicate in ordinary spiders’ webs, were as thick as packing thread, strong enough possibly to hold small birds, lizards and rodents.

The webs were spun from one of the bushes, which were something like sage brush, to another, and over them; they seemed to be in triplicate, suggesting, as Plessons had said, that somebody had upset condensed milk.

Toiling with what appeared to be a furious haste were hundreds of the arachnida at respinning damaged traps torn and (illegible text)ed in the recent passage of the night, revolting-looking creatures they were with bodies as large as a silver dollar and a span of the legs as big as a daddy-long-legs but with much more powerful limbs. The body was pallid yellow with a mottling green resembling gangrened flesh; the beady eyes were jet black and sinister, and the pronounced beak suggested a cross between an octopus and a scorpion.

As Sawyer made a step nearer in his curiosity to a web on the left seven or eight of the horrors came scuttling, seeming to fly so rapid were their movements, to repel the invaders. Sawyer let out a squawk and leaped backward. Almost simultaneously hundreds of others, as if warned by some signal or call, began closing in toward the party.

“Ugh!” grunted Tony and stepped aside smartly as well. “Look out, Plessons; maybe these brutes are poisonous.”

“They make me feel sick!” Bodiker complained and then screamed hoarsely, “Oh, God!”

Tony wheeled to see him frantically kicking one leg; then he turned and ran, yelling—

“Look out; they’re surrounding us!”

After the ant style, but five feet thick, two columns of the spiders were advancing under cover of the outer scrub and grass, like the claws of pincers, behind the party.

As Tony and Plessons turned to follow, Bodiker, losing his nerve, misjudged the distance and landed right into the middle of them. Beneath his boot squirted red blood. He shrieked and leaped madly for safety, dropping his rifle and scrambling up the cliff, never stopping his cries nor his speed until he had passed Sawyer on the crest. Then, plumping down, he began madly to unlace his left boot.

“What’s the matter?” demanded Tony, who had retrieved his weapon. “Bitten?”

“Yes, yes!” gasped Bodiker, as white as quinin, and tore off the sock.

“No, no; he didn’t get you,” soothed Tony, for although there was a reddish mark on the ankle the skin was not perforated. “But, by ——, what a bite! Look at that, Plessons!”

He held up the boot, showing where the sharp beak of the spider had driven through the tough leather. In the inside was just the slightest puncture.

“My ——,” added Tony, suddenly looking up, “I believe, they are poisonous! Many spiders are. And these are evidently the beasts who bit up the old man and the dumb nigger. Probably they fester rapidly and produce those hideous, stinking pustules of rotting flesh.”

“Yus, that’s it,” agreed Plessons with decision. “Don’t yer remember the pore dumb bloke maikin’ them funny signs with his hands like a beast running and springing on a fella? That’s what he meant all right!”

“Sure; and that’s why the old fellow was so anxious about those letters. He knew he was all in—doomed. They must have got bitten coming through here. Lordy,” he added, staring at the glitter of deadly gauze, “how are we going to get through?”

“I don’t darn well know and I don’t darn well care!” put in Bodiker sullenly. “But I’m not going to try.”

“Nor this baby neither,” contributed Sawyer with decorated emphasis.

For a while there was silence. Bodiker sat nursing his foot, and the others stared vaguely down the valley.

“Rummy!” commented Plessons at last. “Can’t maike it aht.”

“What?”

“Why, yer see, Mr. Westlaike, why don’t them blokes—they’re yumans all right—why don’t they fire the bush? That’d burn aht these yere pests all right.”

“That’s true. But how did those men—if they were men—get through last night? Think the beasts don’t bite at night? But then the old fellow would have known that. But say, can’t we get through that way? Burn em, I mean?”

“Ain’t easy. Yer see, it’s all right ter start a fire at the bottom and get it ter burn up; but it ull be a —— of a job ter get it ter burn dahn. Hot air rises, yer know, and that’s hotter than ——’s hinges dahn below, so of course it maikes a draft up all the time.”

“That’s right. But couldn’t we burn a track bit by bit and rush through while the ashes are hot?”

“Yus, we could cut a lot of brushwood, and we might—if we didn’t get kinder stuck in the middle; then they’d eat us alive, that’s what they’d do.”

“Ugh!” groaned Bodiker. “I’m not going to try it.”

“Yes, they’re evidently carnivorous,” assented Tony. “And another thing: The fire would give us away to the whole valley—if there are other whites there.”

“Yus. But what I wants ter know is how them blokes got through last night, them shiny-heads?”

“But was they yumans?” put in Sawyer. “Seemed kinda funny. No yumans don’t have shiny heads and eyes like torches like you said.”

“Well, anyhow I’m going ter look,” said Plessons. “This yere tracks yuman all right, whether them moonlight mares come along it or not.”

“By ——!” exclaimed Tony. “If they were humans we ought to look out. They may have spotted us and come inquiring with a six-gun any time.”

“Yus, that’s right,” agreed Plessons. “Better try this yere trail and see whether they ain’t in camp.”

“Say, Tony!” protested Bodiker, frantically trying to drag on his boot. “Wait a moment. For ——’s sake don’t leave me here alone!”

“Seems to have the wind up,” said Plessons sotto voce. “Ain’t it a pity we can’t use him to maike the fire burn!”

Plopp!

Just as he turned to sit down on a rock a bullet splashed beyond him.

Simultaneously with the sharp report Plessons and Tony hit the ground as one man. Sawyer stared vaguely in the direction of the sound, remarking—

“Say, that was a shot!”

“Down, you fool” commanded Tony and, springing, pulled him aside and down just as another messenger plunked between them.

“Nah,” came Plessons’ voice with much satisfaction from behind a rock, “that ain’t no bleedin’ spider; that’s yuman!”

Plopp! came still another bullet just over Tony’s head.

“Feels like old times, old scout!” he called out to Plessons. “But that fellow’s had his chance and missed it. I guess they must be the mystery beasts of last night and saw us trying out the spiders. Probably thought we’d walk into the trap. See here,” he continued to Bodiker, who was lying on his belly flat beneath a large rock, even having left his boot in the open in his haste, “be reasonable and let me take command for a while. I know this game.”

“Yes, yes,” assented Bodiker eagerly. “¦Go ahead, Tony. Anything you say.”

“Right. Now you and Sawyer stop where you are and—don’t forget this—whenever they fire—and sometimes when they don’t—blaze away from your rocks, and then each crawl quickly to another and let rip again. Give ’em four shots every time they open fire.”

“Sure; but—can’t I stop under this rock here?”

“No. You’ve got to kid them into thinking that there are four of us here. Get the idea?”

“Y-yes.”

“And you, Sawyer?”

“Sure,” growled Sawyer. “I got yer.”

“Plessons and I are going after them—outflank 'em.”

“But you won’t be long?”

——, no; And for ——'s sake don’t let us down, Alick. Remember they’ll get you sure if you do. Give them a parting volley. Now! Come along, Plessons!”

As Tony snaked along, taking cover—and fortunately there was plenty—he felt jubilant; something to fight out in the open, something that was tangible, instead of the subterranean and incomprehensible plotting, was a relief; and afforded, although he wasn’t aware of it, a safety valve.

How many they were up against he hadn’t the remotest notion. Their mutual plan was to work back and down to the level of the bamboo grove, creep along in the shadow and so take the attackers in the rear.

Again they heard four ragged shots from Bodiker and Sawyer. Their progress was necessarily slow—at least until they got well beneath the crest of the hill.

“Say,” whispered Tony to Plessons after a while, “I think there’s something funny about those fellows opening fire at long range. Why didn’t they stalk up and hold us up?”

“Maybe they hadn’t any idea how many we were—same as we don’t. But they’re mighty rotten shots. We was standin’ up like a couple of buffalo, and then they couldn’t hit us!”

“Sssh!” warned Tony, peering round a slab of rock. “I believe there’s something moving down there. See? In line with the peak of the northern volcano. And I’ve got a hunch they’re trying to play the same stunt as we are! Yes, it is moving! And by the lord, the mutt’s wearing a white helmet! Dead, boy, dead! Until they walk on top of us!”

“Two!” whispered Plessons a little later.

Lying behind separate ledges of rock they peeked through tufts of grass and scrub, their khaki clothes and veld hats blending with the hillside. The two white helmets were as conspicuous as a lantern on a dark night; nor did the owners, evidently confident that their quarry was still on the crest of the hill, take much trouble to conceal themselves, but rushed from boulder to boulder, stooping. In a few minutes they were within fifty yards, and Tony could distinguish the black beard of one, and the pallid, round face of the other, a peasant type.

Just as Tony, remarking that Bodiker hadn’t been firing for some while, had put down his rifle and drawn his revolver, he noticed that both of the strangers were exposing themselves recklessly; were almost standing up as they gazed toward the crest.

The falling of a stone and a faint shout made both Tony and Plessons look in the same direction. Between two rocks Tony caught a glimpse of Bodiker’s lanky body running directly toward them.

“What in ——’s the fool doing?” he muttered, and then, glancing at the strangers saw the black-bearded fellow in full view, leaning on a boulder leveling his rifle toward Bodiker.

Instantly Tony’s revolver flashed. As the man slumped out of sight Plessons’ rifle cracked and the fellow’s companion wheeled about and dived upon his head.

Rushing toward them, Tony saw Bodiker with Sawyer behind him, and in the former’s hand was a white handkerchief.

Quelling his amazement, Tony sprang toward the strangers. They were Germans, both in frayed and patched uniforms. The bigger fellow with a black beard and blue glasses, an officer, had got a forty-five right under his left temple as he had sighted his rifle and was as dead as boiled fowl. The younger man had taken Plessons’ rifle bullet through the left temple.

As Tony and Plessons turned about they saw Bodiker staring at them blankly, the handkerchief still in his hand. Behind him stood Sawyer, who, as they looked, snatched at the handkerchief and tried to throw it behind a rock.

“What in ——’re you doing?” demanded Tony angrily as he strode toward them.

“We plugged em! Got ’em kerplunk!” yelled Sawyer as if that explained everything.

“Yes,” agreed Bodiker, recovering his tongue. “Sawyer shot him. Only one. A native.”

“The bird went right up in the air,” continued Sawyer like an excited child. “Come down on his nut, Mr. Westlake, dead’rn yes’day’s noos!”

“But,” said Tony sharply, “what’s that got to do with butting in here with a white flag?”

“Flag?” mumbled Bodiker, peering about stupidly.

“Sure. That white handkerchief—there over on the rock where Sawyer threw it.”

“Oh! The handkerchief! Why, you see, Tony,” said Bodiker with the air of one patiently explaining the obvious, “we saw them too from the top. Of course we didn’t know you were so close, and I thought it would be the best thing to do. Find out who they were, you know, instead of trying to kill each other. And besides, old man, for all we knew they might have got you at any moment. It’s always best to be peaceable.”

“Bet your life it is!” retorted Tony, trying to fathom what motive was behind the attempt. “If you’d only been so —— peaceable for another ten seconds you’d both have been candidates for tin harps.”

“You mean they were going to shoot us—with—with the white flag?”

“Exactly what I do mean.” Tony’s eyes flashed angrily. “What in —— d’you think they started firing for at first? Because they wanted to kiss you or what? Well, it’s no use standing here like a group of stuffed senators. We’d best get busy and see what these fellows have got.”

He turned on his heel and walked across to the dead Germans, followed by the others.

——!” ejaculated Plessons as in moving the officer the smoked glasses rolled off. “Strike me pink if he ain’t Ahrenburg! He belonged to that column we chased across Uganda into the laikes. Wex allus wondered what had become of ’em. Cripes! Fancy them hanging arahnd here, still frightened to go home!”

Beneath the frayed tunic patched with bafta—trade cloth—which characteristically the Teuton had persisted in wearing even in the equatorial heat, Tony found a broad belt of buckskin in which were wedged round, hard substances.

The others bent expectantly over him as he pried and squeezed out what looked like a greasy stone about the size of a man’s thumbnail; a bigger one followed.

“Bah!” growled Sawyer disappointedly. “He was bughouse! What’s he want to carry a lot of darned stones for?”

“Stones!” echoed Bodiker. “Why, they’re diamonds, aren’t they?”

“They are,” assented Tony, slipping the two back.

“Hey!” yelled Sawyer, his eyes glittering as Tony began quietly to buckle the belt about his waist. “What’re doing?”

“Are you blind?” inquired Tony, looking Sawyer in the eyes as he rose to his feet.

“Shut up, Phil!” commanded Bodiker as usual. “We’ll settle all that later.”

“We’d better go and see whether they have a camp,” continued Tony, “before burying these poor ——s.”

They soon hit the trail and, following it, found that within the bamboo grove a path had been cut to a clearing wherein was a hut within a stockade. Squatting before a fire with their backs to the entrance were two natives who did not budge until the whites stood over them.

They too were deaf and dumb.

As the whites walked into the square hut something gleamed in a corner. Tony walked over.

“By ——, here are our moonlight monsters with the giant feet!” he exclaimed and rolled across the floor the headpiece of a diving suit.

“Cripes!” ejaculated Plessons. “What in ——’re they for?”

“Climbing palm tress to collect cokernuts!” retorted Tony, grinning.

“Got me!” said Plessons with a laugh. “But, straight, they’re for getting through them spiders so’s they can’t bite. Must have lugged ’em all the way from that there what’sitsname boat what was sunk in the Tana River. Ain’t no flies on them bodies!”