The Blond Spiders/Chapter 6

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VI

THAT the finding of the fortune in diamonds on the dead German had excited Sawyer, and Bodiker as well, almost to the flash point, Tony was well aware. Bodiker was evidently the more cunning: had played the part of the brains, leaving the action to Sawyer when the time came. Probably the pair would have worked in harness in civilization, but the wilds had affected the primitive nature of the latter; he was rapidly getting out of hand, and Bodiker knew it.

Whatever the former motive for the murder plan had been, the present one was easily comprehensible. But Sawyer wanted to rush the work, while his partner, for reasons of cowardice or profit or a mixture of both, wished to delay the actual deed.

Arguing that it was scarcely likely that the two dead men had themselves imported the diving suits from the wreck on the Tana River, which was on the other side of Uganda, Tony deduced that there would be other whites around. He was determined therefore to hurry the advance into the valley before the possible companions of the dead men, attracted by the firing, might come reconnoitering at the base of the cliff. For all Tony knew they might have other diving suits in which to pass the spider barrier.

As neither Sawyer nor Bodiker was now to be trusted to do what they were told, Plessons went off to the first camp to bring up the boys and send another porter to fetch the main camp below, while Tony, revolver holster handy, prepared breakfast. Bodiker and his man, who were both in capable of cooking, remained in the hut, evidently, from the hum of their voices, plotting the next move. Yet characteristically Tony would not go and eavesdrop.

Again what had been their motive in the white-flag incident puzzled him. Perhaps, he mused, they had had some wildcat scheme of making friends with the strangers and by means of a tale persuading them to assist their plot. A fool idea, but the sort of thing a city crook might be expected to do, grumbled Tony.

That Bodiker would not make any direct attack upon him he was certain—the man was far too much of a poltroon. Sawyer might, but Tony doubted it unless the man was fighting drunk; rather, as Tony read him, would he try to ambush or get Tony while asleep. That the final bust-up was due he was sure, and opined that it would come whenever the discussion of the fate of the diamonds came along; for then Bodiker would no longer be able to control his man, excited as Sawyer would be by so much wealth within reach.

As soon as Plessons came back they bolted food; and, Tony pressing them, purposely exaggerating the danger of delay, they prepared to leave. There were five diving suits, so that they could take but one porter to carry provisions, tent and all fancy stuff having to be left in camp—to Bodiker’s indignation.

By the perpetually covert flitting of Sawyer’s eyes to him and the belt in particular and by Bodiker’s increased nervousness Tony was sure that they had decided on some trick; but just before leaving he took occasion to absent himself and returned with a peculiar grin for Plessons.

They passed the spider barrier without mishap save for Bodiker, who collapsed under the weight and the suffocation of the interior of the suit and had to be carried, to Sawyer’s angry disgust, expressed in gestures intimating that they could leave Bodiker there for all he cared. However, they learned that to pass unprotected, even at night when the pests might be less active, would entail being bitten from head to foot as had been the old man and the dumb Swahili, for the spiders attacked in incredible numbers—they seemed to have the power to signal to their fellows far in advance to mass in readiness—swarming over the glass faces of the headpieces.

At the base of the escarpment and well beyond the poisonous area they found another hut in which were frames for the diving suits standing in water to protect them from the ants. These they carefully removed to a hidden spot in the forest. From the jungle emerged a fairly broad path, roughly but sufficiently cut. Otherwise the dense vegetation was impenetrable.

Selecting a convenient spot some way off the trail where they could command a view of any stranger approaching the hut, they cut and trampled a rough arbor in the jungle for the midday rest. About the four whites in sweat-blackened clothes flitted chromatic butterflies and small birds of the humming variety; and amid their unmusical call the twittering of innumerable invisible insects could be heard.

Tony lounged against the bole of a huge tree with his revolver holster on his thigh and Plessons beside him. Opposite sat Bodiker and Sawyer on an aerial root. During the brief meal scarcely a word was said by anybody. Bodiker fed with nervous pecks and upward glances like a timid sparrow eating bread crumbs on a window sill; Sawyer chewed sullenly, unable to prevent his eyes from wandering to the belt about Tony’s waist as if to reassure himself that it was there.

Plessons, munching away with a secret grin, seemed highly amused. Tony was not; outwardly calm he was as usual just before a crisis, trembling from head to foot, at pains that they should not notice his fingers when placing food in his mouth.

Suddenly Plessons, with a piece of sardine and bread in his mouth, whipped out his revolver and fired straight over Bodiker’s head.

As Tony started and his hand fell on the butt of his gun, Bodiker jumped about two feet in the air with a squawk of fright, and something fell squirming at his feet.

“Bruvver of yours trying ter kiss yer,” was Plessons’ tart expanation as he pointed to a writhing, headless black mamba on the ground.

“Oh, good God!” breathed Bodiker, hurriedly stepping away. “I— You quite startled me!”

“Didn’t yer ma learn yer ter s’y grice arter supper?” demanded Plessons acidly.

Bodiker, sitting down on another root gingerly, stared at him. Sawyer scowled, but returned to his attempt to hypnotize the belt.

“I don’t understand.”

“Thought a fella would s’y, ‘Thanks’ if another bloke saived his life—not that it matters,y’know. Allus maiking mistaikes, I am.”

“Oh, thanks!” said Bodiker, flushing.

Just then Sawyer sat up on his hunkers as if coming out of a trance.

“Oh, can that bull!” he growled.

He paused, had another look at the belt; seemed to steady himself and said:

“See here, Mr. Westlake, how about them di’monds?”

At the words there was a visible tautening of nerves and sinews all around.

“Sure,” assented Tony quietly and aimiably. “When we get back we’ll find out who are the heirs of our German friend and hand them over to them, of course. Don’t you——

“WHAT’S that?”

The words were a hoarse scream of rage much as a wounded gorilla might be supposed to utter, stoppered in the dank gloom of the forest by the interwoven branches and parasitic creepers which shut out the sun.

Sawyer had sprung to his feet, forgetting his gun, for he was by nature a “strong-arm” man; his powerful arms were curved and his bull head lowered; the small eyes were bloodshot with passion; sweat dripped from his chin.

“Y-you’re crazy, you ——!”

He straightened up as if slapped in the face as the blue muzzle of Tony’s revolver peeked up at him.

“You say that again, Sawyer, without smiling and— Get me?”

Sawyer choked, swallowed and dashed sweat out of his eyes.

“You— I——” he spluttered. “You’re crazy! What’re you giving us anyway? It’s as much Alick’s as yours and—we won’t stand for it.”

“I said,” repeated Tony, sliding the gun into the holster, “that these diamonds don’t belong to us. They belong to the man who found them. That’s what I said, and that’s all there is to it.”

“But ye’re bughouse, ye’re crazy!” recommenced Sawyer, who was rocking his great bulk from one foot to the other like an elephant with the toothache. “We took it off him——

“I did,” reminded Tony, “and incidentally saved your lives.”

“You’re dippy. Ain’t he a boche? What in ——

“What’s that got to do with it? The war’s over.”

“Listen, Phil,” began Bodiker, the peace-maker. “Tony’s right. And anyway we’ll get plenty——

“You shut yer head!

A backhanded swipe with the right arm knocked Bodiker off his root.

“See here, Dutchy,” he snarled, wiping blood from his mouth as he scrambled up, “I’ll put you back in the pen for this, you——

“You, yer long —— runt! That’s where you oughta been if yer hadn’t planted it on me, yer dirty ——”. Think I did near two year fer a lousy five thousand while you was rubbering round wit’ all the swell Janes on Broadway? Guess ye’re got another think coming! And now yer want ter let this bird get away wit’ that raw stuff! You keep yer face shut!”

Then in a fresh access of anger:

“If yer spit another word I’ll spill the beans and let yer buddys know what——

“Shut up! Oh, shut up!” squealed Bodiker, not in rage but in terror. “For God’s sake, Phil!”

His eyes shuttled wildly between Tony and Sawyer.

“See here, Phil,” he continued wheedlingly, “you’re all shot to pieces. You don’t know what you’re saying. Come outside—I mean over there—and I’ll explain what Mr. Westlake means.”

Sawyer’s eyes, still smoldering, glanced doubtfully at Tony and Plessons, hands resting slightly on their ready guns. Slowly he turned toward Bodiker.

“All right,” said he, “and I’m going ter show yer where you get off. I ain’t going ter stand fer none of this Y. M. C. A. stuff.”

Once more his eyes returned to the beloved belt; then he grunted and followed Bodiker a bit along the trail. Tony and Plessons looked at each other.

“Give a fool enough rope and he’ll allus hang hisself,” commented Plessons amiably, squeegeeing sweat from his forehead with two fingers.

“Yes, they both seem to have had a classical career. At Sawyer I’m not surprized, but the other’s new on me. Wonder what it was?”

“Oh, nothin’ serious. Murderin’ an ol’ widder or snippin’ pigtails orf flappers goin’ to school. Somethin’ taisty. But yer’d better sleep with yer gun full cock nah, gov’nor. That slab-sided bloke means ter get us both for them sparklers.”

“Yes," agreed Tony, likewise removing perspiration. “That’s understandable. I could kick myself when I think of how I fell for that Bodiker. Yet he certainly seemed a —— good fellow and —— generous. Of course that was part of the con game to kid me along. Yet I can’t understand why I didn’t see through it.”

“Like me muvver used to s’y when I wus no bigger than a horse bucket. ‘Jack,’ says she, ‘in love and business yer’ve gotter be a good liar and a good thief ter get on in this world, else yer won’t never know what the other bloke’s trying to do ter yer.’ That’s right, gov’nor. My pa busted a wonderful career by pal-ing up to a little Judy. Didn’t get what she was arter. Well, he got hanged fer bushrangin’, and she got the reward. There y’are! Fine man too!”

”My pet cootie, as we used to say in the army,” said Tony, “that keeps me awake o’ nights is what on earth they were after before?”

“Dunno neither, gov’nor. But—they was and is!

“I know it! But what in ——” can I do? I can't shoot ’em down in their tracks, and I can’t well disarm ’em in a country like this. You see, Plessons, I’ve been up against it all along because it was Bodiker who put up the money for this outfit. But there are limits. And I think I’m justified in—well, kicking and then some, now that I’m convinced that for some incomprehensible reason Bodiker had meant to get me—even before the diamonds came along.

“By the way,” he added with a sunny smile, “I haven’t got the diamonds. Hid ’em in the bamboo grove. There’s only grass in the belt. Too heavy to carry.”

“Why didn’t you tell ’em?”

“Because I —— well wouldn’t!” Tony grinned. “Besides, I wanted it to draw fire and see what they would do, and I think it’s about due now. Listen!”

Above the forest chatter they could distinguish the hum of voices, mostly the bass tones of Sawyer. Very evidently a stormy session was in progress. Came an explosion of profanity on Sawyer’s side followed by a muffled cry that was snapped.

“Eh, Wangie,” said Plessons quickly to the porter, “go to the hut and stop there. Enda kerchima (go quickly). Enda!

“You’re right,” whispered Tony, listening intently; “he’s either killed brother Bodiker or has put him out, and is coming whooping on the warpath. Listen! Sounds like a troop of elephants!”

“I s’y, gov’nor,” suggested Plessons, “let’s slide in through the back and see what his nibs is up to.”

As he turned he snatched off his Tirai hat, and stuck it on a branch about where they had been sitting. Tony, grasping the idea, whisked off the belt and flung it across an aerial root. Then swiftly they slipped through the tangled screen of creepers into the jungle behind them, lying down so that they could command a clear view of the arbor, having no fear that Sawyer, city bred, could read the signs.

The crashing of furious steps dwindled, but to the watchers’ veld trained ears the advance of a clumsy body was as plain as if they could see it. Even came a distinct muttered curse as the stalker got his feet entangled in a vine, making Plessons laugh silently.

Apparently it never occurred to the circus Indian that he could not hear voices talking as they normally should be. Presently they distinguished his head worming through a screen of creepers and his rifle being pushed in front. He stopped suddenly as if suspicious or puzzled. The head moved first one way and then another, evidently trying to locate them.

Then as if satisfied by the sight of the hats the rifle came up.

With the crash of the shot, which struck the bole of the tree beneath the hat, Sawyer, who had apparently painfully figured out his plan and what the enemy would do, leaped sidewise and down.

For all of a minute or two he remained there, convinced that he was completely hidden in the jungle.

Bar squawks of disturbed parrots nothing happened. The hum and twitter of the forest settled down to normal. Presently two round, small eyes in a red face rose cautiously and peered through the interstices. The lips moved eloquently. The head rose still higher until he could see clear into the arbor.

An oath lurid and lewd enough to shock the morals of the forest beasts preceded an elephantine spring toward the tree, where, still rumbling curses, he stood glaring about him. The expression of balked greed and wounded vanity was so comic that both the silent watchers nearly choked with suppressed laughter.

The seeking ape eyes caught sight of the belt. The non-thinking reaction was a grab like a starving monkey at a nut. Then at the feel of the softness within a ludicrous expression of dreadful anguish shot into the eyes as with frantic fingers Sawyer tore open the belt.

Literally bellowing with rage, he flung the coveted belt on to the ground and stamped on it, glaring madly about as he did so, mouthing incoherent curses.

Then with an oath he turned and plunged out of the hole.

There followed a guttural command to halt, the vicious crack of a Mauser, a cry and the cessation of the crashing of bushes.