Following the usual routine, the next morning the two prospectors rode ahead to locate the best spot for proving this fresh field, the rest of the expedition following more leisurely. Dick had to confess that they were most artistic in their methods. On arriving near the high dune, where he had seen Grosman giving Fortune a friendly lead in the small hours of the morning, Dick found to his astonishment that they were being guided to quite a different spot at some distance from the carefully prepared "jeweller's shop." "What the devil does this mean?" mused he, as he rode behind with the professor and the others. He could not be mistaken about the spot, for the dune was too prominent a landmark yet there were the two prospectors signaling to them from a place at least half a mile away from the scene of his nocturnal experience. Trotting across to them they found an argument in full swing.
"Gentlemen," said the other prospector a tall slab-sided individual whose English was of a pronounced American flavor. "I don't think this kind of thing is fair! I'm here earning the company's dollars, and I'm about tired of being yanked around to try spots that Grosman points out. I guess I'm here to locate the pay-dirt as well as he is, that's what the company pays me for, that's what I'm here for, to find out the truth! No, sir not any I don't."
"Junes," cried Gilderman, "remember your position! I'm sure no one ever expressed a doubt as to the syndicate's finds and I—"
"But look-ee here, Mr. Gilderman," interrupted the prospector; "you've got to excuse me. I'm supposed to look into this thing myself, besides it's for the blamed fool's own benefit. Any fool can see that the deepest wash runs the other side of that dune, not this."
"Rot," jerked out Grosman; "well, if you want to go to your damned old place, do so."
High words followed, the experts became partisans, every one was dragged in except Dick and the Herr Professor, and the latter, flushed and rattled and his glasses all awry, was at length appealed to in the matter.
"Ach, gentlemens," said he, beaming from one to the other, and absolutely exuding good temper and conciliation; "why quarrel on this so-splendid an expedition, hein? Let us then return to the Herr Prospector Junes' choice let us accede to this so good man's request, hein?"
"Right," snorted Grosman; "but if the damned place is no good don't blame me and don't condemn the field. I can show you where there are stones, anyway!"
And so with many a sneer and jeer, and with an atmosphere of extreme tension pervading the whole party, Junes was allowed to lead the way to the spot of his choice. He went straight across the foot of the big dune, and in a few minutes had amply justified himself, for there were diamonds in abundance the diamonds his confederate Grosman had strewn there the night before.
Now Solly's instructions to Dick to lie low, and say nothing, no matter what he found out, had been explicit and insisted upon, and in spite of his instinct to warn the professor, he might have been content to "lie low" and go on watching till the trip was over, had it not been for a certain small but excessively highly-charged black scorpion that found its way into Dick's sleeping-bag that night; and more than making up in "cussedness" what it lacked in size, gave him an exceedingly warm time of it. One sting in particular, on a big vein in his leg, gave him excruciating pain, and though he applied the universal veldt remedy of nicotine from his pipe-bowl, the agony was so great and the swelling so alarming that at length he hobbled off to the professor's tent to see if that learned man could give him some relief. He found the old gentleman sleeping soundly and had some difficulty in rousing him; but that task accomplished, so assiduous was the professor in dressing the sting, and such kindly interest did he display in both Dick and the defunct scorpion, that Dick, who had always liked the old chap, almost made up his mind to tell him all that he had seen and suspected. The scorpion really settled the question for him, for the professor had scarcely finished injecting Dick's leg than he turned his attention to the dead reptile, at which he had already cast many curious glances as it lay on his little camp-table beside his medicine chest. And now he proceeded to examine it thoroughly, lighting a powerful acetylene lamp for the purpose.
And scarcely had the strong rays fallen upon the black, wicked, lobster-like little iniquity than the Herr Professor let off a regular yell of delight and literally fell upon Dick's neck.
"Ach, meine lieber!" he exclaimed ecstatically. "Aber this is most wunderbahr! It is of the great fortune, good luck, what you call him? That he sting you."
"Good luck?" said the surprised Sydney, feeling anything but pleased; "well, professor, it's the kind of luck that I can very well do without. Why, the blamed little thing must have been about a thousand volts strong. Sting! why it must have squirted about a pint of forked lightning into me! Luck?"
"Of the greatest," said the scientist; "of the most colossal. For it is a discovery you have of him made he is new he is wonderful wunderschoen wunderbahr!"
"You're wrong, professor," protested Dick with emphasis. "He discovered me. He may be new newly charged, anyway!"
"Of a variety entirely new, Herr Sydney," insisted the old professor impressively; "and much would I have given to have been in your place to discover him."
"You'd have been welcome," said Dick feelingly; "but why?"
"It is my life-work, my stedenpferd, my 'hobby' you call it, hein? This study of the arachnids, spiders, scorpions! Geology, you say? True, that is my work, but this other is different, this I love! Already have I four large volumes written upon the known varieties of scorpion and now to have been but almost the discoverer of a new variety, it is hard to have been so near. But at least I shall be the first to describe, to classify, that honor you will grant me? It is hard to have been so near!"
"Believe me, professor, it was a good deal harder to be just where I was. But I see your point, and feel for you indeed I may say I'm feeling it quite a lot even now. I'm mighty sorry the electric gentleman with the red-hot trousers didn't sample you first as you say, it's real hard he didn't. So do please take the fame and describe all you want!"
It took a lot of persuasion to make the scientist see it in the light that Dick did, but after a while he consented to name the new specimen after himself, and sat down to examine and gloat over his treasure.
But first he showed Dick some of his books, thick tomes full of illustrations of most weird and undesirable-looking insects, spiders, scorpions, and the like, and crammed with learned descriptions bristling with Latin names; and he showed such an innocent delight in his new acquisition that Dick's mind was made up. He did not like Germans, but this old chap was so naive, so full of human-kindness, so innocent and ignorant of all but his science that it would have been infamous not to have warned him of what was happening. For Dick could see plainly enough that if nothing were said this poor kind-hearted old scientist would have to bear the blame when the gigantic swindle was at length discovered, and the victimized public demanded a scapegoat.
He lifted the fly of the tent and looked out. There was no light in any of the tents, and the sound of snoring came from them in chorus. Farther away by the still flickering embers of the campfire could be dimly seen a dozen or more recumbent forms, where the native boys huddled. The waning moon was just rising, and except for the snores all was quiet as only the desert can be; yet Dick, when he turned once more towards the professor, stood with a warning finger on his lips, and spoke but in a whisper. For he knew that he and the man he spoke to were the only honest men in this lonely camp; and that the others would not hesitate to put either himself or the professor out of the way if once they suspected that their villainy was known, he never doubted. Not that he was afraid; but here in the wilds, with six well-armed and determined men against him, he saw the need for caution. The professor he did not count not just then!
The old man still sat at his little camp-table, magnifying glass in hand, and at Dick's low "Hist," he turned a bland, inquiring gaze in his direction. Dick came close to him, and with head half averted so that he could listen for the slightest sound outside, he whispered his story. Not a sound came either from the camp or from his listener till his brief tale was ended.
"They are all in it all rogues together, sir," he whispered in conclusion; "and it's part of a big swindle that people will blame you for."
And for the first time since he began his tale he looked the professor full in the face. He started with amazement as he did so: for now he saw not a benign, smiling old scientist, beaming good nature and affability through his spectacles, but a stern-faced, iron-mouthed man, whose jaw was set with grim inflexibility, and whose eyes seemed actually to blaze with fury. The big veins stood out upon his temples, and the hand that still held the magnifying glass was now clenched in a grip of iron, that trembled, not from weakness, but from the violence of his anger and emotion.
Dick saw the man with new eyes: this was no worn-out old scientist, such as he had deemed him; but a man still strong and vigorous, in spite of his three-score and ten years, a man in whom the hot blood of passion could still work wonders. And the younger man realized that if the strong hand were necessary in this affair, he would by no means need to play it alone.
"Gott im Himmel!" he muttered hoarsely, as Dick finished. "Diebstahl und rauberei! . . . and through me! For I have been a fool, and I have been also to blame. Look you, Herr Sydney, now can I see but too clearly that I have neglected my work, and looked but little to the fields themselves but to the diamonds and the gravel they brought with them. Numskull! dummkopf! That I have been it is but now that I see also how they have advantage taken of this hobby of mine. Each day they have brought me spiders, and scorpions, and snakes to examine even now I have almost a hundred specimens alive! And so they have thrown sand in my eyes, and would have made a criminal of me even as they are themselves. Schaendlich und verraetherisch schwein-hunden! But for you, friend, they would have robbed me of my good name, and shamed me before the world. But for you, friend!"
As he spoke, still in a hoarse whisper, he rose and grasped Dick's hand, and strong as the latter was he winced at the vigor of that iron grip.
"And now come!" said he, simply, turning as though to leave the tent.
Dick caught his arm. "No! no!" said he in a tense and eager whisper "what would you do?"
"Take them bind them disarm them . . . take them prisoners to Luderitzbucht to pay for their knavery," muttered the old man savagely. "Six and with arms, you say! And what care I for six such schwein- hunden? And you, Herr Sydney, I know you are both strong and fearless?"
"Oh, nothing would suit me better than to smash up the whole outfit, but what good would it do?" urged Dick. "It's their six words against ours, or rather against mine, so far! And most of 'em are German, as you know, and well in with the authorities in Luderitzbucht. And I'm English, what hope will my word have against theirs there? Besides, sir, the story as it stands will be all against yourself!"
"Donner-wetter, that is wahr! That will never do," said the old man naively. "What do you advise then?"
"Watch well, and either contrive to catch them yourself on some of the remaining fields or say nothing till we are safely back in Luderitzbucht," counseled Dick.
"Never can I so long contain myself with these thieves. Think you the company spoke of a flotation of 500,000, of half a million pounds, that these hounds would have caused my name and my report to rob from the public! Never can I contain myself long, but as you wish, friend, I will try unless indeed some better plan offers."
Dick crept back quietly to his little patrol tent and tried to sleep, but pain and excitement kept him wide-eyed; and he had scarcely dropped off when his Hottentot driver awakened him to tell him that two of the mules had broken their reins and cleared in the night, apparently making their way back in a bee-line towards Luderitzbucht.
"I have found their spoor, baas," he said; "but they have gone far and fast and it will need a horse to catch them."
"Saddle mine, quickly, and I will go back myself," ordered Dick, with a muttered blessing or two on the defaulters; and within a few minutes he was cantering over the spoor of yesterday, along which the mules had bolted. He soon found where they had left the trail, and in the now clear light of dawn their spoors showed clearly in the soft sand. At last he caught sight of them grazing on a small patch of Bushman grass growing in the hollow between two dunes, and after a considerable amount of trouble managed to secure them, and making them fast to a convenient bush he climbed a big dune to have a look round and try and mark out for himself a straight cut back to camp.
He recognized his whereabouts instantly, for scarcely five hundred yards away rose the big dune that had been the scene of Grosman's forethought two nights back. The sight of it brought back Dick's indignation afresh.
"Beastly swabs," he thought, "why they never even take the trouble to find out if there really are any diamonds in the blessed fields or not? From what I've seen at Kolman's Kop, this place looks extremely likely. I wonder whether, after all, they have been a bit too clever? I'll have a look, anyway."
Between him and the dune where the bogus find had been made there stretched a wide, flat space of comparatively firm ground a so-called anp, or shallow vlei, in which at some time water had accumulated. Here there was very little sand, its place being taken by a deposit of fine loose grit, made up of a variety of tiny stones all about the size of a small pea.
The prevailing wind, blowing almost continually in the same direction, had heaped up this grit in little wave-like ridges and Dick knew that if there were diamonds there he would find them near the crest of these little waves.
He went down on his hands and knees at once, and almost immediately his eye caught the glitter of a diamond. And there was another and another! And Dick, as he picked up stone after stone, realized that by sheer luck he had stumbled upon far the richest deposit he had ever seen or heard of and realized too that these clever scoundrels had over-reached themselves. There had been no need of salting had they but taken the trouble to search systematically they must have found this spot, had they but walked a few hundred yards from the spot they had salted last, this "Tom Tiddler's Ground" had awaited them!
Incredibly and incalculably rich it was; for Dick, in the hour or so that he permitted himself the luxury of picking them up, well-nigh filled his pockets with the glittering little gems, and yet he had scarcely moved a yard from where he had picked up the first.
The power of the blazing sun, now beating down upon him from high in the heavens, first admonished him of the fact that it was getting late, and that he must get back to camp, or probably some one would be coming to look for him.
"And that would never do," said Dick to himself; "no one must know of this but the professor."
So, reluctantly leaving his newly-found bonanza, he tied up the double- handful of diamonds in his old red handkerchief, thrust it in the bosom of his khaki shirt, and securing the two errant mules he struck across country to the camp.
He found that during his absence a farther field had been successfully "tested"; and the meaning look the professor gave him when the latter rode into camp with the returning party, and voiced his satisfaction at the morning's "find," left no doubt in Dick's mind but that the old man had profited by his advice, and would yet fool the would-be foolers! Itching as he was to impart the news of his splendid discovery to the professor, he had no opportunity of seeing him alone during the rest of the day; and he could only try to possess his soul with patience till night fell and the others were asleep. But that night the professor had a different plan in view.
"Gentlemens," said the old man when supper was finished, and they sat smoking by the fire; "now that this so successful expedition arrives at so near its conclusion, shall we not celebrate our good fortune? To-day is not our find of diamonds more rich than of ever? Let us drink then to our great good fortune, to the diamonds we have found, and to those we hope again to find to-morrow! Come!" He led the way to his tent, and diving under his bed he hauled out a case of wine. Strong, heady wine Dick found it, and the warning glance the old man gave him as he filled his glass the second time, made him sip but lightly of the potent liquor.
Not so the two experts, or the prospectors, or the other members of the little coterie of scoundrels; who, safe in the assumption that they had hoodwinked the professor thoroughly, drank deep and made merry like men without a care. Bottle after bottle was opened, and soon one of the experts began to snore; and it was the professor himself who broke up the merry party by saying: "Gentlemens; to-morrow have we a long day and a long ride before us to test the other fields. And the Herr Prospector Junes he must ride before us always, is it not? The test places to locate together with his comrade. And this so good man see! He sleeps already! Let us then to rest. But first fill again your glasses and drink deep. To the diamonds we have found and to the discovery you will make to-morrow!"
Surely the wine was very potent, for Dick, thanks to the warning glances of the professor, had drank but little, yet he could scarcely keep awake; whilst Junes and Grosman were snoring like pigs, and could scarcely be awakened sufficiently to enable them to stagger to their tent. Dick barely managed to get to his own before sleep overcame him too, and his last hazy thought was: "That wine was drugged, the professor must have got another plan!"
Once, in the night, he had a dim notion that some one was trying to waken him; that some one was it the professor? was shaking him and whispering fiercely in his ear, "Wake, man you must help me wake!" But it all seemed like part of a dream, and he was too overpoweringly sleepy to be able to rouse and the remembrance of this only came long after.
But at last he did awake; his head was buzzing and Andreas the Hottentot was shaking him. "Baas, baas; wake up," he was saying; "I cannot wake the others! Allemachtag! How they sleep like dead men!"
It was broad daylight; long past the hour when the prospectors should have ridden on ahead to locate the fields. Their horses, ready saddled, stood before their tent; and from it came the sound of stertorous snoring.
Dick walked over and shook the men; and at last they stumbled shakily to their feet, and made their way to the experts' tent, muttering something about instructions; but really, as Dick realized, to get the wherewithal to salt the remaining claims.
Usually this proceeding was carried out long before daylight and with no one to watch. Now, however, the whole camp was astir; the old professor was washing in front of his tent in the tiny modicum of water allowed him for the purpose, boys were hurrying here and there preparing breakfast; and Dick smiled grimly as he noticed that as Junes and Grosman entered the experts' tent they carefully closed the fly behind them.
He looked across at the professor, who had paused in his ablutions to look in the direction of the tent, and now stood, a comical enough looking object, his face covered in soap-suds, watching for the reappearance of the prospectors.
Dick and he exchanged a glance of intelligence, and Dick took a step towards the old man, intending to whisper to him the news of what he had found the day before; but before he could do so there came a shout from the tent, followed by a volley of oaths and ejaculations, the sound of a scuffle, and out into the open burst the two prospectors, locked together in a desperate struggle.
"Hound, schwein-hund, robber!" gasped Grosman, as, with his face purple with rage and exertion he temporarily got the better of his long and wiry opponent, and bore him back; "scoundrel that you are you could not play straight even with me! Where are the diamonds hound where have you hidden them?"
"Yes, where are they? Own up, you thief!" chorused the two experts, who, pallid and debauched looking, now stood beside the two struggling men: and Dick now noticed that Gilderman held the small strong box and that it was open, and empty. The diamonds had gone!
The whole camp had now clustered round the fallen men, the professor grotesque in his thickly lathered face, Dick intensely interested and enjoying this fall-out among thieves, the experts and financial men voluble and uneasy.
And still Grosman knelt upon his slighter opponent, and still he gasped curses and questions; keeping so tight a grip upon Junes' throat that his eyes were starting from his head and he could scarce breathe, much less answer.
"Here loosen him a bit!" said Dick, grasping the big man by the shoulder. "Do you hear? You'll choke the man and how the blazes can he answer you when you hold him like that? Now then what's the matter?"
"The diamonds are gone," said the glib Gilderman. "We each have a key on a chain round our necks. They were safe when we went to bed. The box was locked then now it is open and the stones are gone."
"He has them, the hound," said Grosman, "we had arranged, schwein- hund," he yelled again, "it was to have been to-morrow night and you have stolen them from me; where have you buried them?"
"Come off it," said Dick savagely for Junes was again choking and this time he twisted Grosman's arm till he freed the under man's throat.
"Now then, Junes what have you got to say?"
"Liar and thief himself," gasped the half-choked Junes, "he has taken them while I slept. We had planned . . . Oh! let me up, damn you, and I'll tell them of your plan, you robbing, thieving swine, that can't play straight even with your pal! Let me up, you German hog: let me get a holt on you, and I'll show you. Let me up!"
"Let him up," said Dick, filled with keen enjoyment at seeing these two unprincipled scoundrels mauling each other, and only regretting the fact that the equally rascally onlookers did not take a hand; "let him up, man; give him fair play, and let's hear all about it."
And aided by the strong arm of the still soapy professor, he hauled the furious Grosman off his prey.
And now comedy changed instantly to tragedy, for the panting Junes, springing to his feet, drew his revolver and fired point-blank at his late assailant. Grosman spun half round, his mouth opened in a ghastly grin, and making two staggering steps, he fell to the ground, whilst Junes, profiting by the confusion, sprang to his horse and vaulted into the saddle.
"Hands up," he shouted, covering the group with his revolver. "I shoot the first man who moves. Grosman, you dog, where are the stones?"
The dying man partly raised himself, and fixed an awful gaze upon his murderer. "Murderer and thief!" he gasped, "you have them yourself. I never woke till Sydney shook me!"
"Hell! . . ." said Junes, "I believe you now! There's more roguery here than even I knew of! Hark you, Gilderman, and you other sharks and keep your hands up. Professor, and you, Sydney listen! These other men are thieves all; they've paid us to salt every patch they've tried, so far! They brought over a thousand carats of diamonds stolen from Kolman's Kop to do it with; I know who they bought them from! And Grosman and I thought they deserved to be robbed, and we intended doing so to-night. But one of these swine must have thought of the same game, and hid the stones somewhere. Own up, you cowardly blighters which of you has taken them where are they? Quick! . . . Keep your distance; Sydney this ain't your trouble, and if you move again I'll put a bullet through you," he continued; for Dick was edging near with an idea of making a spring at the armed and desperate man, "and you, professor, help Grosman. ... I'm sorry I shot you now, Heinriech! Now then, I want those diamonds quick, you Jo'burg sharps!"
The four scared men raised their voices in a chorus of protestations, in the middle of which Dick's eye caught sight of something over Junes' shoulder that caused him to start involuntarily. About half a mile away a small cloud of dust was rising. Something or somebody was coming, and quickly too.
Slight as had been Dick's movement, Junes had noted it, and still covering the group, he swung his horse round till he could glance in the direction of the little cloud of dust, through which two horsemen could now be seen; and the glitter of the sun on their rifles showed them to be armed men, probably mounted police.
A bitter curse broke from Junes' pale lips. "Police, by God!" he said; "they're too near or I'd shoot all four of you whining swine. Hell! and I've killed Grosman for nothing!"
And furiously lashing his startled horse he spurred madly away, striking savagely with his sjambok at the cowering quartette as he passed.
"A rifle, a rifle" gasped the wounded man, now plainly dying, and his ghastly face more awful by the look of terrible vindictiveness it now wore "shoot at the horse!"
But before a rifle was forthcoming the two mounted police rode into camp. They were bronzed, burly men, arrayed in a corduroy uniform, with a wide felt hat bearing a large Imperial crown in gilt as a badge, and were fully armed with Mauser rifles, revolver and light saber.
"Donnerwetter!" exclaimed the leader, a big sergeant, or wachtmeister, as they cantered up. "What is this, murder?"
"Murder and there goes the murderer!" said the professor.
"And is it you, Brandt?" he exclaimed, as he looked into the sergeant's face.
"Brandt is my name it is true," said the wachtmeister gruffly, as he peered at the soap-lathered countenance before him, "but who are you? I can see naught but soap. . . . Himmel," he shouted joyfully, as the professor beamed back at him, "I was blind. It is my dear and honored Herr Professor from Munich! Now, Gott sie dank, I see you again after all these years!"
"It is indeed I, Brandt," said the professor, "but spur, man, spur, and bring back that man we must talk later!"
With a sharp word to the trooper, Brandt unslung his rifle and spurred headlong after the fleeing horseman, now rapidly nearing the shelter of the dunes.
Meanwhile, the professor and Dick turned their attention to the dying man, whilst the others resumed the clamor of questions and recriminations which the arrival of the police had interrupted.
Gilderman, his self-confidence almost restored by the approaching death of one, and the flight of the other of his accusers, now tried to brazen matters out.
Thrusting himself before Dick, who was helping dress the wound, he bent down before Grosman and began loudly, so that all might hear. "Now then, Grosman, where are those diamonds? It is a most outrageous thing that you have done, to rob your employers in this manner. And that ridiculous lie of Junes' about salting! Come, man, tell me where the diamonds are, and tell these people that Junes made up that yarn as you know he did and I'll try to save you from the police. Come now own up where are the stones?"
"You cannot save him from death and the Maker who will judge him," said the professor sternly as he came from his tent with his medicine chest. "Man, think shame to pester the man so; men do not lie on their deathbed"; and as Gilderman did not move he swung him aside by the collar as though he had been a child.
Gilderman uttered a furious exclamation. "Absurd preposterous professor, surely you are not mad enough to believe the story this would-be thief has told?"
"Story?" queried the professor, "what story has he told? Junes, yes! but this man, so far, has accused you of nothing!"
Gilderman flushed with vexation at the false step he had made.
"But the diamonds?" he insisted, "he confessed they had planned to steal them. Make him tell you where they are?"
"Maybe the police will bring them back with Junes," said the professor, going on with his work of dressing the wound. "And if not, you ask? Well, Herr Gilderman, what does it matter, a thousand carats or so! The rich fields you found them on are still there; it took but a few hours to find the stones, surely we can return to those so rich fields and find again a thousand carats! Hein?"
Gilderman answered nothing, but if looks could have killed the old professor, who did not even look at him, and Dick, who grinned maliciously full in his face, both of them would have preceded Grosman.
Just then a faint shot sounded in the direction of the pursuit. It was followed by another and another . . . then a regular fusillade.
"They are kneeling on the top of the first dune," called Jelder from a little rise a few yards away. "Now they are mounting again and coming back."
"Then he's got away," said Dick, "his horse was fresh and they looked as though they had ridden far."
"Curse him, may he roast in hell," whispered the dying man, "but what he said was true."
"Hush," said the professor, "do not try to talk now. Save your breath, man, and tell your story only to the police. And remember I can do but little for you your time is very short."
By this the police came cantering back into camp. "We hit him," said the wachtmeister. "I saw him stagger in the saddle just as he got into the big dunes. His horse was fresh and ours were fagged, it was useless to follow farther. If he is badly hit we shall find him at the waterhole, if not, he will run right into the arms of the patrol we meet there. And now, what is all this about?"
Gilderman took up the tale in voluble German, and it was now evident that, shaken by the protestations of the dying man, and of his murderer, he was now suspicious of Jelder, who had held a key to the box in common with himself. He had been awakened by the outcry that the prospectors made when they saw the empty box lying by the side of the bed. His key he remarked pointedly was still fast round his neck perhaps, he added significantly, Jelder had left his lying about overnight? Jelder flushed angrily, and drawing his key out by the thin gold chain that secured it beneath his vest, shook it in Gilderman's face, when mutual recriminations began without undue loss of time.
The old professor's wine had done its work well in more ways than one.
Their colleagues, Zweiter and Spattboom, instantly took sides, and so they wrangled and vociferated, what time the big German wachtmeister made voluminous notes in a big pocket book.
During all this, the old professor said not a word, though there was a grim twinkle in his eye as he noted the spread of the quarrel.
Aided by Dick, he had now finished attending to the dying man, whom they had taken into the professor's tent, and who lay gasping painfully, with the air whistling through the hole Junes' bullet had made in his lungs. He whispered something hoarsely and painfully to the professor.
"Come, Herr wachtmeister," the latter called to the big sergeant, "the man has but little time, and would make a statement."
The sergeant came and knelt by the dying man. "Where are the diamonds," he asked, pencil in hand.
"Nein, ich wissen nicht," gasped Grosman, "stoop lower, and I will tell all ... I know."
"He lies," said Gilderman and Jelder together, crowding near to the bed. "Herr wachtmeister, why listen to him he lies!"
"Silence," stormed the wachtmeister fiercely, "your time will come to speak, stand back. And how know you if he lies before he speaks? Back!" And he forced them to do so, whilst in short, sobbing gasps, the dying man told of the whole knavery: how they had been bribed to do the actual salting, how each day Gilderman and Jelder had given them a certain number of stones to strew in likely places, and find ostentatiously in sight of the professor, how he and Junes had conceived the idea of stealing the diamonds and burying them where they could find them later, and how, when that morning they had overslept and entered the tent late and seen the strong box lying there empty, each had instantly suspected the other of stealing a march upon him. But dying he, Grosman, swore he knew nothing of the stones nor did he now believe that Junes did!
"Those thieves, those men who first put temptation in our way, they know, ask them, curse them!" he concluded, whilst the sergeant peremptorily demanded silence from the accused men, who were storming angrily at the dying man's denunciation.
"Brietmann," he called to his comrade, "search all the tents everything! I arrest you all, let no man move till a search has been made. Now," he continued, rising from the dying man's side, and turning on them, "which of you has the diamonds?"
"Why should we steal them, why believe the tale of this thief who owns he meant to steal them, why believe him against us?" they demanded, united again now, in their efforts to discredit Grosman.
"One at a time," said the wachtmeister angrily, "and silence, you others." And he proceeded to catechize and badger them one by one, filling page after page of his notebook with their replies.
Meanwhile Brietmann searched tent after tent; ransacking bags, portmanteaux and boxes, shaking out clothing and blankets, and prying into every conceivable article in a vain endeavor to find the stones; whilst the indignant quartette under examination broke out again and again in a storm of impotent wrath.
In the middle of this hubbub the professor's voice was heard for the first time.
"Hush!" he commanded sternly, "in the name of common humanity, hush! at least for a minute. The man is dying."
Even as he spoke, Grosman, the death rattle in his throat, in a last convulsive effort, raised himself on his elbow, and with a terrible look on his face pointed an accusing finger at Gilderman and the group round him, and with a last choking attempt at speech fell back dead.
Immediately Brietmann, who had finished his search in the other tents, and stood looking on, addressed the wachtmeister:
"There is nothing there," he said, "and there remains but this the Herr Professor's tent to search."
The wachtmeister turned apologetically to the professor:
"The Herr Professor will permit?" he asked.
"And why this indignity, Brandt?" demanded the professor sternly.
"It is my duty, Herr Professor; in such cases I may not discriminate," apologized Brandt, "and it is but a matter of form."
"So be it, search!" and the offended professor turned again to the dead man, ignoring the industrious Brietmann, who emptied bags, unlocked boxes, peered into jars of chemicals, and generally upset the scientist's most sacred possessions.
At length, in a dark corner of the tent, Brietmann came to a black box secured with a big padlock.
"Herr Professor," he called; "this box. It is locked."
The professor simply grunted.
"The key, Herr Professor," he persisted.
"I advise you to leave that box alone," growled the owner.
"It must be opened, nicht warum, wachtmeister?" asked Brietmann of the sergeant.
"Ja wohl," said the wachtmeister.
"Again I advise you not," said the old man. "Surely there is no need; I do not wish it opened."
By now every one was looking at the professor with wonder or suspicion, even Dick could not understand his reluctance to have the box opened.
"Sehr gut," said he, as all eyes were turned on him, "take the key!" and he flung it over to where Brietmann knelt by the box.
The policeman fumbled with the lock, threw back the lid, and simultaneously gave vent to a terrific yell, as he flung himself violently backwards. For from the open box rose the writhing forms of half a dozen big cobras, their hoods flattened and arched, vicious and ready to strike, whilst over one of the corners came gliding the broad flattened head and bloated body of a huge puff-adder.
Within five seconds no one remained in the big tent but the dead man and the professor, who, laughing softly, proceeded to collect his straying pets; showing an utter disregard of any danger of being bitten, accountable for by the fact that he had removed every fang from the poisonous specimens long before.
Dick had been as lively as any one in making tracks, for he had a horror of snakes, and as he burst from the tent his foot caught in a guy-rope and down he went with the big wachtmeister sprawling on top of him. Both scrambled up in quick time, for each of them imagined he had snakes crawling all over him, but as Dick rose to his feet, out from the bosom of his shirt fell the red handkerchief full of diamonds he had found the day before, and as it fell out rolled a dozen or more of the little brilliants and lay there flashing and sparkling in the sun- light.
"Donner-wetter!" yelled the wachtmeister, "the diamonds! Here is the thief!" And instantly he seized Dick in a formidable grip.
Curses and execrations burst from the other men, who, wildly excited, crowded round Dick and the diamonds threatening and exulting.
"Thief! Scoundrel! Rascally mule-driver! Schwein-hund!" they cried.
"The handcuffs, Brietmann! Quick!" shouted the sergeant, and Dick realized instantly the seriousness of his position. He had had no opportunity of telling the professor of the find he had made; and who among these rogues each eager to fix the guilt on some one else and discredit the tale both the dead man and Junes had told would believe him if he told the story now?
The quantity of diamonds he had found about equaled the stolen contents of the box, and things could scarcely look blacker for him. He knew the law was likely to be severe with him, as a Britisher he would probably get the extreme sentence. There was no one but the professor to appeal to and, bitter thought, would even he believe him with all this damning evidence against him? All this passed through his mind in an instant, as he stood in amazement, too taken aback to speak, and passively staring at the fallen diamonds.
Then the wachtmeister's grip tightened, as Brietmann hurried up, making ready the handcuffs as he came.
"I did not steal them!" shouted Dick, finding his tongue at last. "I will explain. Professor! Professor! I did not steal them!"
"Lying rogue," said, or rather snarled Gilderman, thrusting his face close to Dick's, and filled with the rage of a lately frightened man. "Filthy donkey-driver and thief you were too miserable and contemptible for us even to suspect!"
And secure in the fact that the wachtmeister held Dick, he struck the latter across the face with his open hand.
Before he had time to draw back things happened.
Dick, blazing with fury at the indignity, wrenched himself free of the wachtmeister, as though that big man had been a child, struck Gilderman a terrific smash on the nose that flattened it and him instantly, and seizing Jelder, who had tried to trip him, he threw that unfortunate Israelite on the top of his colleague. But now the other men flung themselves upon Dick simultaneously, and for a short but crowded period a most memorable scrap took place in and round that little prospecting camp.
Dick, as he afterwards expressed it, was "all out" in that brief but brisk encounter, and fought with every limb and muscle he possessed.
Borne down by sheer numbers for a moment, he succeeded in twisting Brietmann under him, and his knee, judiciously planted in the plump policeman's embonpoint as they fell, with the weight of the other crowd on top of them, drove all the wind out of that unfortunate man, who, for a time, took no further interest in the proceedings.
Dick felt him gasp and subside, and at that very moment his hand came in contact with the heavy steel handcuffs. Here was a weapon worth having, and with such odds against him Dick had no hesitation in using it, and swinging them round blindly at the arms clutching at him, he felt them meet flesh and bone with a soul-satisfying crunch. A sharp yelp followed, and Dick felt the scrum above him lighten, as Zweiter retired from the fray, spitting blood and curses in a polyglot and highly satisfactory manner.
But now the big wachtmeister, a powerful and athletic man, was less cumbered by his would-be helpers, and getting a firm grip on Dick with both arms he gradually forced him down on the unfortunate Brietmann, whilst Spattboom, his one remaining helper, valiantly clung to Dick's frantically kicking legs. With a last desperate effort the latter twisted himself sufficiently to allow his free arm to again swing the handcuffs, and this time they caught the wachtmeister neatly on the nose, setting that organ bleeding profusely, and raising the big Teuton's angry passions to a boiling-over point.
So far, to do him but justice, he had made no attempt to use his revolver, but now, roused by the blow, and furious at the sight of his own blood, he immediately released Dick and drew his weapon.
Dick heard the click of the hammer as he cocked it: heard too the furious "Schwein-hund Englander! I'll shoot you dead for that!" saw the muzzle thrust within a few inches of his head, and shut his eyes.
And as he did so the wachtmeister was hauled back by the shirt collar with terrific force, and flung back on the sand with his neck almost broken, whilst the bullet meant for Dick's brains sang over the neighboring sand-dune. A vigorous kick sent Dick's remaining assailant flying, and he scrambled to his feet to see the professor calmly taking possession of the half-stunned wachtmeister's pistol.
"Enough," he exclaimed, "think shame, Brandt, to shoot an unarmed man! That would be cowardly, and you are no coward! They taught you not such unbillig spiel at the gymnasium at Munich."
"Unarmed!" spluttered the wachtmeister, "he has the handcuffs and my nose is smashed! Herr Professor, you must not stand between me and my prisoner. With all respect, no! Brietmann, you schwein-hund! . . . never have I seen such a dummkopf! . . . Secure him, I say!"
"Hold!" roared the professor, "touch him not till I hear what all this is about. Besides, the man will kill you! Never have I seen a better fighter or a better fight! And fair play he shall have. And explain I saw not the beginning of all this, what has the Herr Sydney done?"
"Done," snarled Gilderman, sidling near, his face bruised and discolored from Dick's first uppercut, "done! why don't you see the thieving hound has stolen the diamonds there they lay they fell from his shirt, the dirty thief!"
Apparently for the first time, the professor's glance fell upon the red handkerchief with the diamonds, and he picked them up, and stood balancing them in his hand and looking from Dick to Gilderman before he replied.
"Professor," began Dick, finding his tongue again; "I am no thief that you can bear witness. I—"
The professor interrupted him with a gesture.
"So," said he slowly, "and it was for this you attacked an unarmed and innocent man?"
"Innocent," spluttered Jelder, "this is too thick! There lie the stones, who took them if he didn't?"
"I did," said the professor.
There was silence for a few seconds, except for a universal gasp of wonder, which as far as Dick was concerned was mingled with relief and admiration.
For here was this wonderful old professor, who had already been a surprise packet to Dick in several ways, weighing in with a most finished and artistic lie, just in the nick of time to save him when everything appeared lost!
"You!" cried Gilderman, as the professor stood, still holding Brandt's revolver, and smiling blandly at the group of mauled and discomfited scoundrels; "You?"
"Yes!" he thundered, his jaw setting sternly again. "I, I, who you thought to dupe. I, who have seen through your perfidious plan from the first ('Oh, oh!' thought Dick, 'that's for the benefit of the police.') I, who you would have made the scapegoat for your villainy at the cost of my name and honor I took the stones.
"Come, Herr wachtmeister, take your revolver and listen. There is no need for further concealment. I drugged these men last night, and took the stones foreseeing clearly that these scoundrels would quarrel when the loss was discovered and they realized that they could salt no more nor take back the lying 'proof' they relied upon for their scheme. And it fell out as I had believed though I did not foresee that murder would be done before I could prevent it. . . . And I gave them to the Herr Sydney to guard for me for he was the only honest man among this crowd of scoundrels and I am an old and feeble man!"
The big wachtmeister rubbed his throttled throat feelingly, and grunted dissent, whilst the accused and desperate quartette broke into angry protestations.
"Deny it as you like," said the professor, "Grosman swore it with his dying breath, Junes swore it after he had shot him, Sydney saw the salting with his own eyes."
"The word of a murderer, a delirious man, and a thief against that of four gentlemen!" Gilderman exclaimed, bluffing desperately for the benefit of the wachtmeister and Brietmann; who had pulled themselves together, and stood looking with lowering brows from one to the other.
"Gentlemen! Lieber Gott! Then gentlemen, if you still persist in your innocence, it is but of the simplest thing for you to prove it. The Herr wachtmeister will take us all back to Luderitzbucht, and on the way, what is simpler than to again test the rich spots from which you obtained so easily these thousand carats, hein? If you found these there there will be others, nicht warum? And then I will say that I am sorry! And meanwhile the wachtmeister can keep the stones. And I will answer for this last 'theft' I, whose name is worth more than a thousand such 'gentlemen' as these! And now, Herr wachtmeister or rather shall I say my dear pupil of the old Muenchener days? I regret that I have hurt your throat, but I am sure you would rather that, than be guilty of shooting an innocent and unarmed man who, I am sure, was first assaulted by these gentlemen."
"Ja wohl," grumbled the wachtmeister; "that is true, that coward there struck him after I had seized his arms. Aber donner-wetter, Herr Professor, why not have told me this there in the tent long ago? It would have saved me a broken nose from this 'innocent, unarmed' Englander of yours, and an almost broken neck from yourself! Tausend! I remember that grip of yours in the gymnasium of old! Lieber Gott! but the years have not weakened it. And with this devil incarnate of an Englander to aid you, what had you to fear from six such as these? Why did you not bundle the whole lot back and have them locked up?"
"They were all armed, and we were not," said the professor.
"Then we will disarm them," said Brandt, and covering them with his revolver he made Brietmann do so taking away the revolver that each man carried, and taking not the slightest notice of their protests.
"And now you are under arrest," he told them, "and at any attempt to escape you will be shot."
Then blowing a whistle, he summoned the camp boys who, in mortal fear of the police, had obeyed their first order to remain with the horses some distance away; and who would have seen the white men kill each other till none were left, before daring to disobey that order and told them harshly to bury Grosman, and prepare to strike camp and trek immediately.
Dick, who had stood as one in a dream, and let the professor do all the talking, now shook himself together sufficiently to hand over the handcuffs to Brietmann who only glared at him and apologized to Brandt for the unlucky blow he had given him.
"I bear no malice, friend Englander," said the wachtmeister, "but you have broken my nose. And some day I should like to meet you in friendly ringen-spiel, I think I would pay you in full for that blow!"
"Nothing would suit me better," said Dick eagerly, for he regretted the blow almost, but not quite, as much as the wachtmeister, and he was a past master at wrestling. "Whenever you like, Herr Brandt; shall we try a fall now?"
"Himmel, no!" said the big fellow, "I have had plenty for one day if you have not. We must postpone the pleasure."
Dick set about the business of striking camp, and for a time was fully occupied. Meanwhile his mind was in a whirl. That the professor had invented a plausible lie on the spur of the instant to save him, was of course obvious; but it was apparently not all lie, for he had certainly drugged the wine the previous evening!
But the stones, who had got them? He could have sworn that Junes had told the truth as he rode away murderer though he was! And Grosman, would a dying man lie?
He was itching to get near the professor alone, to tell him his own story, possibly the old man believed him to be the thief although he had lied to save him.
Altogether the whole thing was a puzzle. Meanwhile he went on with his work. Tents were struck, packs made up, and pack animals laden, and soon all that remained of the camp was the trestle, on which, covered with a sheet, lay the still form of Grosman. The wachtmeister sang out a brief order, two of the Hottentots rapidly shoveled out a shallow grave in the sand, barely covering the murdered man. Dick stood by with his hat off he had barely escaped a bullet himself but an hour before!
"Poor beggar," he thought, "shot and buried like a dog, and all because these bigger scoundrels tempted him to run crooked. And he was some woman's son, someone will mourn him. Buried like a dog!"
But it was not so; for looking up he saw the professor, bareheaded, standing beside the grave, prayer-book in hand; and he stood silent and respectful whilst the old man read a short solemn prayer for the dead in his native German.
Then mounting their horses they trotted after the already moving cavalcade, leaving the forlorn little mound and the dead ashes of the camp fire alone marking where their camp had stood.
The police officers rode ahead, the four conspirators, silent and dejected, a short distance behind them, and Dick and the professor brought up the rear. Gradually they fell farther behind, till well out of earshot of the others, and Dick at last had the chance to tell the story of how he found the stones.
"Professor," he began, in low eager tones, "I cannot thank you enough for inventing that story to save me. But you must not think I am a thief! These are not the stones from the box I did not steal them."
"I know that," interrupted the professor, "but where got you these?"
"This side the big dune where I first saw Grosman salting two days ago. They lie there in thousands. I got these in an hour or so."
"Now Gott sie Dank!" said the professor joyfully. "These rascals then have too clever been, and the ground is in truth rich! Gott sie Dank! Our trip has not been in vain. But neither the police nor these knaves must know . . . and we must ride on quick. For I bade them test the ground again where they salted and that is the first place, and they must find nothing."
"We are nearly there," said Dick, "and it's risky. For where they salted is barely 300 yards from where the stones lie thick. But we must take them to where they picked their own up and they won't search far they are too down at mouth for that. But, professor, where are the real stones? Who stole them? Who has them?"
"Ach, that is the mystery," replied the professor, and spurred his horse on before Dick could ask him any more.
An hour later they came to the big dune, the scene of Grosman's salting, and here Dick, with mixed feelings, stood by whilst Gilderman made his last attempt at bluff setting the boys to work with sieves, whilst he and his colleagues searched all around the vicinity of that last "rich find," and, of course, finding nothing; whilst had he known it, but a bare stone's throw or two away they were lying in abundance.
Dick could almost have found it in his heart to pity him, as the despairing, cadaverous wretch at length gave up the hopeless search.
Late that evening, as they approached the first waterhole, the wachtmeister pointed significantly to a saddled horse cropping quietly near by, whilst as they got nearer the pits, five or six big vultures flapped lazily away. "I knew I hit him," said the wachtmeister significantly.
"Junes," thought Dick; "now if they find he really has the stones what will happen then?"
Junes it was: they found all that the vultures had left of him lying there by the water, with a ghastly bullet-hole through back and shoulder. The marvel was that he had lived to ride so far. But there were no diamonds, and Dick was more mystified than ever. A few pencilled words, scrawled on the leaf of a pocket-book, again telling the tale of the salting and naming Gilderman as the chief conspirator, lay pinned to the dead man's shirt, and the wachtmeister, as he read it, called out grimly to them to come and look at another piece of their work.
Reluctantly they came closer to the awful thing that had once been Junes, whilst the police sergeant, long since inured to such sights all too frequent in the desert read aloud the note, and asked them if they still denied the testimony of the two dead men. Gilderman in vain endeavoured to brazen it out, and the wachtmeister, changing his tactics, forced him and the others to look close at what had been a face, and identify it as that of Junes.
The terrible plan succeeded, for at the gruesome sight, the little bravado left in them gave way entirely. Gilderman, physically sick, staggered away a yard or two and fell in a faint, and Jelder, whimpering like a child, broke down utterly. "Gott in Himmel," he cried, "what a death! I can't stand any more of this! Yes, it is true we were all in it, but the plan was Gilderman's."
Again the wachtmeister made notes; and in their efforts to stand in as well as possible, each now tried to further implicate the other, till the sergeant closed his book and roughly bade them be silent, and keep their precious tale for the Richter in Windhuk, who would try them.
As they rode into Luderitzbucht a week later, one of the first men that Dick saw was Solly, who in the excitement of the past few weeks he had almost forgotten the existence of. But as he saw the little Jew, who had stood by him before and who had been instrumental in getting him his job, he remembered that Solly would expect a full account of all that had happened, and the question was should he tell him of the stones he had found, or only of the salting?
However, he had neither time nor opportunity to say anything then, for encountering the little cavalcade just as the wachtmeister led it up to the police station, he opened his little twinkling eyes wide at the sight of the four dejected and most obvious prisoners, gave Dick a wink which expressed volumes, and made off in a bee line towards the telegraph station. There he sent a most innocent wire to a small retail tobacconist in Kimberley a wire that apparently conveyed nothing more than a complaint as to the quality of certain cigars that Solly had received. Strangely enough, however, within an hour or two of its receipt certain gentlemen vitally connected with diamonds and all concerned in them knew that they had no reason to fear the great "North-Eastern" diamond fields, as they had been salted.
Meanwhile the wachtmeister handed over Gilderman and Co. to the officer in charge at the police station, where they were detained in common with the diamonds—Dick's diamonds!
To the Herr Professor the officials were politeness itself, and thanks to his good offices even Dick was treated with civility Englishman though he was.
As they left the station they met the company's Luderitzbucht agent, a most important gentleman, who was looking both flushed and perturbed. It was evident that news travelled quickly in Luderitzbucht, for he had already as his first words clearly proved heard of the arrests.
"Herr Professor," he blurted out, "what a calamity! Most unfortunate. Gilderman and the others all arrested. Surely most tactless! Could it not have been avoided? It might have been explained, but to arrest them all! The company is as good as floated."
"Not all," said the professor grimly, looking the excited agent up and down. "Not all, Herr Hauptmann, two are dead. We caught them Salting, Herr Sydney here and myself, surely it was 'tactless' of them? A calamity! Truly yes, for them! And, Herr Hauptmann, if the new 'company' has been floated without waiting for my report, so much the worse for them."
The agent glared from the professor to Dick, as though he would have liked to eat both of them, but he saw he had made a mistake, also saw that the thousand shares Gilderman had promised him would never materialize, and changed his tactics.
"My dear Herr Professor," he said, "of course you were right. I was so upset for a moment that I did not quite know how to look at it, but of course you are right. And the ground then is worthless, is it not so?"
"I would not go so far as to say that," said the professor, cautiously; "there has been no real test these rascals started their salting at once. I leave immediately for Johannesburg to-night. I hear there is a steamer leaving then and there I shall report thoroughly on what has happened. Possibly the company will send up a more carefully chosen expedition again, they have the option for another three months. In that case, and if they wish me to return, the Herr Sydney here will take charge of the prospecting."
The agent looked sourly at Dick. "You know, professor, the company like to engage their own prospectors," he demurred.
"Yes, and I believe last time you recommended one of them," replied the professor blandly. "Last time the company made a colossal mistake, prospectors, experts, representatives, all were rogues! Two lie dead back there in the dunes and four lie in gaol! I want no more of that kind. And, Herr Hauptmann, if I go, this man goes, if there is a man in the country who can find diamonds there, it is he."
"That's a fact," said Dick to himself, as he realized all the professor was doing for him.
"And now, Herr Hauptmann," continued the old man, as they reached the agent's office, "pay Sydney his cheque and double it, I will answer to the company."
So Dick got his cheque, and his discharge, and making a straight line for the bank he changed the former, without loss of time. He had seen cheques stopped before, and trusted Hauptmann just about as much as he had trusted the Gilderman outfit.
Then he went to the hotel, where the professor's belongings had been dumped in the biggest room the building boasted.
Here the scientist called him in, and locking the door, sat down on the bed and looked at him.
"Young and strong, and honest, you should become rich in this country, where honest men are so scarce," he said kindly. "Herr Sydney, or rather do I call you Dick, for you are young enough to be my son, you heard what I told the agent? Well, I go to Johannesburg in a few hours, but I shall come back, I am sure, though whether the company sends me straight back, or whether they await the expiration of the syndicate's lease, I cannot say, financiers do strange things, and who knows what they will do?"
"But when I come, you go too, and there will be an opportunity for you such as few men have. You will know for certain beforehand where the stones lie rich, you can purchase shares as soon as flotation is effected, knowing well they will become valuable, you can make your fortune."
"But I have no money," said Dick, "my cheque won't last long."
"You see that box," asked the professor, pointing to a certain black, padlocked trunk amongst his baggage.
"I haven't forgotten it," said Dick feelingly.
"Well, the wherewithal to pave your way to fortune lies in that."
"Snakes!" exclaimed Dick, with a lively recollection of the last time that box had been opened.
The professor moved towards it. Dick moved towards the door.
"Wait, man, wait!" said the professor. "But they are harmless."
"Oh, yes! I know," said Dick, edging still nearer the door. "Pretty little things, some people call them, like that scorpion you raved about, before! Here, I say, professor, play the game; I don't want fortunes of that kind here, I'm off!"
"The door is locked," said the old man calmly; "Wunderbahr! here is a man I thought feared nothing, a fighter of the best, afraid of a few harmless snakes!"
"Professor," pleaded Dick, as the old man bent over the padlock, "don't do it; I don't want any fortune. Oh, Lord! I shall have two fits! Yow! Help! there he goes!" and as the box opened Dick sprang on to the bed.
"Quite harmless," said the professor, as he flung back the lid; "and but how splendid, wunderschoen, hein? Three new specimens among them of varieties quite unknown, and the fame will be mine. And the scorpion you discovered, and so generously gave me! Ach, meine freund, now I can indeed repay you for your so great generosity. See, then!" And with a dramatic gesture he plunged his hand down among the wriggling snakes, and groping among them in a manner that made every hair on Dick's head stand up till he felt like a porcupine, he drew forth a small bundle, and tossed it on the bed.
"Open it," he ordered. "No! dummkopf! there are no snakes in it open!"
Dick's fingers trembled as he undid the knots, he knew by the feel what to expect.
Yes, there they were, the thousand carats of diamonds that had caused two violent deaths and a heap of trouble already, a double handful of beautiful little sparkling gems; the very facsimile of those others that Dick had found and that now lay locked up and confiscated at the police-station.
"They are yours," said the professor. "Whose, if not? Gilderman's or those other scoundrels in gaol? The company's? It has no rights on the fields yet! The Government's? It has those others you found in place of these, and to attempt to explain now would bring complications, and maybe, who knows, place us both in gaol!"
Dick was tempted, but demurred.
"You see, professor," he said reluctantly, "these are not my stones. It isn't as if they were the stones I really found!"
"The police will scarcely give you those, I repeat," answered the other. "Lieber Gott, man, say what you mean! I stole them, is that it? Of course I did, as I had a perfect right to, to bring about what I did, the confession of these knaves; and but that Brandt annoyed me with his insistence to search my tent I should have told him then. As it was, I let that fool Brietmann search, knowing that he would be frightened when he opened the box. Ach, you brave men! And then, Dick, Herr Sydney, if you wish? Well, Dick then, what would have happened to you if they had found the diamonds you had? Just was I in time to make up the tale I did when I saw you righting on the ground with the wachtmeister's pistol at your head! Soh if you will, I stole them. Will you not take them from me? They had yours in place of them; take them, they are yours. And the one big director of the company in Johannesburg, to whom I shall the truth tell, he will applaud what I have done."
The professor's arguments were far from flawless, but Dick yielded; for it had seemed more than hard to see the diamonds he had himself found handed over to the police and after all, it did not seem right to let a thousand carats of diamonds go begging for an owner!
And whatever qualms he had vanished at the delight of the old professor, as he made up the parcel again and stowed it carefully away in his pocket.
An hour later the professor went on board, and Dick beat up a few friends, most of whom were dead broke, and proceeded to the Europatia Hof, the leading hotel, where he ordered such a feast as made the manager promptly ask for payment in advance.
Satisfied on that point, he proceeded to surpass himself, in so far as the limited capabilities of Luderitzbucht were concerned, and that night Dick and four other hungry men made up for lost time. The food was good, and the champagne that washed it down excellent, and Dick, as he bade the other men "Good-night," and turned away from the hotel towards his old diggings, felt at peace with all mankind. He had still twenty pounds in his pocket, he had the professor's promise of leading another trip to the north-east; and above all, he had a thousand carats of diamonds tied tightly in a bundle made fast inside his shirt.
Fortune was smiling again, and full of happy dreams for the future he sauntered down the pitch dark street towards his room, whistling, and without a care. And as he reached the door something struck him with a dull, heavy thud at the back of the head, and he fell like a log on his own door-step.
When he came to himself it was still dark, and for a moment he could scarce remember what had happened. Then it all came back to him in a flash; he had been sandbagged. His money was gone to the last penny, and so were the diamonds.
Faint and sick, he dragged himself into his room and bathed his aching head; and now he saw, too, that all his belongings had been ransacked. "They waited for me, here," he thought, and he groaned in bitterness of spirit as he realized that as far as the diamonds were concerned it was useless to try and obtain redress legally, he had had no right to their possession!
The professor had gone, there was no one he could turn to, yes, there was Solly.
And as soon as it was light he went and found him of course still in bed!
"Ah," he said, "I heard you was having a thick night, and you look like it. Blued your cheque, I suppose?"
"Not all," said Dick, "but it's gone!" And he told him everything.
"Blazes!" exclaimed the little man, leaping from his bed and beginning to dress in mad haste. "You fathead, you've done a fine thing. Why, you let me believe the fields were salted!"
"They were," said Dick, "but the real stones were there all the same!"
"But, you loony, I should have known this at once! Why, I went straight and wired to the people who must know these things; the people who make or break all diamond ventures! My people!"
"The Johannesburg Company that sent the professor?" asked Dick, in his innocence.
"Johannesburg, the professor! I don't think!" said Solly with the greatest scorn. "No, the people that control diamonds are . . . a little firm of tobacconists in Kimberley!"
In a desolate and lonely spot near the wide expanse of mud-flats which form the mouth of the Orange River there stands the roofless ruin of an old farm-house. Its stone walls, of huge thickness, and the high stone kraal with huge iron hinges only remaining where once swung a formidable door, speak eloquently of the time when this remote part of Klein Namaqualand, in common with the islands and lower reaches of the Orange River, was infested with bands of Hottentot outlaws and robbers, and when the daring white man who had ventured among them kept his scant flocks and herds under lock and key, and guarded them with a strong hand.
To the south, towards Port Nolloth, stretches seventy-odd miles of desolate, waterless sand-scrub; eastward lie vast expanses of similarly dreary, featureless, undulating scrub, beyond which rise the unknown and mysterious mountains of the Richtersfeld and hundreds of miles of uninhabited country; westward is the wide lonely ocean; and to the north, across the Orange River, lie the dreaded sand-dunes of German South-West Africa.
It was in the direction of the dunes, gleaming vague and silver-white in the clear moonlight, that the eyes of the three white men prospectors who had forgathered in this lonely spot were turned as they sat, finishing their evening meal, beside a bright fire that lit up the broken and roofless walls. They had met after months of lonely wanderings: Sidney and Ransford amongst the mountains of the Richtersfeld, Jason from long and arduous expeditions along the Great Fish River and amongst the trackless sands across the river. The talk had been of the dunes; of men lost and dying of thirst a few miles from camp; of terrific storms that lifted the sand in huge masses, and whirled it across the land, overwhelming all it encountered; of whole dunes that were shifted by the wind, leaving gruesome things disclosed in the hollows where once they had stood; of diamonds, danger and death.
"Yes!" said Jason, "there's many a man been lost since the diamond rush first started: gone away from camp and never turned up again died of thirst most of them, of course, though I daresay the Bushmen accounted for some. Sometimes the sand has overwhelmed them and buried their bodies for ever. Sometimes after a big storm it gives up its dead as the sea does. I've seen some queer things there myself. Once near Easter Cliffs, after a terrific storm had shifted all the dunes, I came across the bodies of a dozen white men, all together and mummified and wonderfully preserved. God knows how they died and how long they'd been there!
"But the weirdest thing that ever happened to me up there was when Carfax disappeared. You remember Carfax? A tall, bony, powerful chap he was, quiet and dour, and with a strong vein of superstition in him. Anyhow, he was a good prospector and a reliable man, and when the rush for the northern fields took place about two years ago. He was one of a party of four of us who had been landed with a few kegs of water and bare necessities on the waterless coast opposite Hollams Bird Island. Here we searched in vain for diamonds, the dunes being exceptionally difficult and the wind that came up every afternoon converting the whole country into a whirling chaos that it was impossible to see in, or work in next to impossible to exist in.
"On the third evening, after an exceptionally strong gale had nearly choked, blinded, and overwhelmed us, Carfax did not turn up in camp, and though we searched all the following day we found no trace of him not a vestige; for one of the worst things about the dunes is that when the wind is blowing the spoor is filled up almost immediately with drifting sand; though peculiarly enough a day or two later the spoor will show again, when the light sand has again been blown out. He had only a small water-bottle with him, the heat was like Hades itself, and we all thought he was dead.
"But on the second night of his absence I shall never forget it the wind had gone down completely, and the long stretches of white dunes lay clear and bright in the white moonlight. The other fellows lay asleep on the sand, exhausted, for we had had a terrible day, but I couldn't sleep I never can in bright moonlight.' And after tossing around for some time I got up, lit a pipe, and walked over to the water-barrel to get a drink. Poor Carfax was still in my mind, and I stood thinking of him and gazing out in the direction in which he had gone, straining my eyes in the forlorn hope of seeing something moving; but the dead silver-white of the sand dunes was unbroken by a single speck.
"I stood thus for some time, and was turning once more towards the others when a faint movement in the vague distance caught my eye. Yes! something or some one was crossing the ridge of a big dune in my direction! A jackal maybe! No, it was too big for that; the faint form was certainly that of a man or were there two? I didn't wait longer, but, running back and grabbing a water bottle, I started off at a run towards whoever it was.
"Moonlight is puzzling sometimes, and I could scarcely make out if there was one figure or two: one seemed to follow the other at a little distance. But as I got nearer I could see it was Carfax alone. 'Carfax! Carfax!' I called out, 'thank God you're alive we'd given you up!' He made no answer, but came on slowly and falteringly, turning repeatedly as though to gaze behind. Now I saw that he was in the last stage of exhaustion: his face was drawn and ghastly, and his cracked and swollen lips were moving rapidly in broken, incoherent words; his sufferings had plainly driven him out of his mind. He snatched at the water bottle and drained it at a draught; then, clutching me by the arm, he pointed back across the dunes.
"'There! there! see! he follows me always, since I found the diamonds! Look! look!'
"As he pointed his face was ghastly with fear, and I too looked back, expecting to see I knew not what. Was he followed, and by whom? I had thought at first there had been one following; but no, there was nothing to be seen. Who could be following him in this desolate place? But still he clutched my arm, and gibbered, and pointed back, and now my eyes were playing tricks again: surely there was a shadow! No, there was nothing there no human being at any rate. Possibly it had been a jackal. So, soothing him as best I could, I helped the poor demented fellow back to camp, he with many a backward look of fear, and I myself with an uncanny feeling that we were being followed.
"Well, he was delirious for days; and when the cutter came back to pick us up and take us to another spot farther up the coast he was too ill to be moved, so we rigged up a bit of a tent and I was left to nurse him till the boat returned again. It was a weird experience, alone in that desolate spot with a madman for company; for though he quieted down after the others had gone he still had the hallucination of being followed and watched; and especially in the night, when I wanted to sleep, he would seize me by the arm and point through the tent door to the bright moonlight outside. 'There! there!' he would mutter, 'don't you see him? look at his square-toed boots and brass buckles. See how his ghastly dead eyes glare! Keep him from me, Jason; keep him from me; he shall not have them back; he has been dead hundreds of years; keep him from me they are mine!' And in my overstrung, nervous state I could have sworn on one or two occasions that I too saw such a figure.
"He gradually got calmer and more himself, and then he told me a strange tale of what had happened to him in the dunes.
"He had been overtaken by a sandstorm many miles from the camp, and had struggled on till absolutely exhausted, not daring to lie down to rest lest the fast whirling sand should overwhelm him; and when late at night the wind had fallen he was hopelessly and utterly lost, and had thrown himself down in a sheltered spot deep hollowed out by the wind between two gigantic dunes, and had at once fallen into the deep sleep of exhaustion.
"Then he had dreamed a startling and vivid dream that had seemed half reality. He saw three men come down over the big dune to close beside where he lay rough-looking men in a costume of long ago, with cocked hats, broad breeches, and buckled shoes; and the moonlight shone on the brass hilts of their cutlasses and pistols. They took no notice of him, but, stooping, began to pick up the bright diamonds that Carfax now saw covered the sand before them. Soon the bag they held was full and a quarrel arose; for he saw two of the men draw their swords and fight fiercely, whilst the other, a tall hawk-faced man, stood by and watched, holding the bag. At length one fell, pierced through by the other's broad blade; and as the victor stood over him the hawk-faced man cut him down from behind, and stood, laughing horribly and holding the bag of diamonds before their dying eyes. And as he laughed one of them, with a last effort, drew a pistol from his belt and shot him dead.
"At the report the scene vanished, and Carfax awoke with a start. The dream had been so vivid that the pistol-shot seemed still to be ringing in his ears, and he sprang to his feet, scarcely knowing what he should see. The air was clear of dust now, and the moon shone brightly; and by its light he saw a few paces from him a prostrate form partly covered in sand. He bent over it: it was the body of a man, a man dressed in a strange old-world costume a dead man, dead hundreds of years, and mummified and wonderfully preserved by the sands that had covered him deep through the centuries, until the big gale of yesterday had lifted the heavy pall. Huddled near by lay two other indistinct forms; and Carfax, his dream still vividly before him, knew well what they were.
"Yes! there too lay the leather bag at his feet! And trembling with excitement he knelt and plunged his hand into it, and drew out a handful of big, dully gleaming diamonds. And as he gazed at the treasure his wrist was clutched in an icy grasp, and turning in terror he found the horrible eyes of the dead man glaring close into his own.
"With a scream of horror he wrenched away his wrist, and, still clutching the stones, fled madly across the dunes, pursued by the fearful figure of the long-dead man. Stumbling, falling, on and on he fled, till the moon paled and the stars faded and the bright sun rose and gave the hunted man a gleam of courage; but his fearful glance behind him still showed the grim figure of he who followed.
"He could not tell what instinct had guided him back to camp; but all through that awful day he had stumbled on through the roasting heat of the dunes, till late at night when I had seen him and gone to meet him as I described.
"All this he told me that night in the tent, now and again starting and glancing fearfully out and across the sands to point out the dread watcher he believed hovered near him. I tried to soothe him, to laugh away his fears, to tell him it was all a dream. And then? Well, he fumbled in his shirt and drew forth a little package tied up in a rag, and with many a fearful glance his trembling fingers undid it, and there poured forth a little cascade of magnificent diamonds far finer than anything I had ever seen before or since in German West: a fortune in fact! I sat astounded, for I had not dreamed of this. Where they came from there must be more a fortune for us all! Then I found my tongue. 'Carfax, man,' I said, 'this is wonderful! Can you find your way back? It will make us all rich.' He shuddered. 'No! no!' he said, his hand pressed to his eyes as though to shut out a scene of horror; 'he is there! No, he cannot be; he is watching here for me he will follow me always! Oh! Jason, don't leave me alone, old man; don't leave me; we'll get away together when the boat comes! there's enough for us both! don't leave me!'
"After a time he sank into a troubled sleep; but to me sleep was now out of the question. Where on earth had he found the diamonds? They, at least, were real. Had he really found a spot where the terrific gale had shifted the sand and laid bare a treasure and tragedy of long ago? Such things might be. I had seen dead men in the dunes myself, and the overwrought state of Carfax, due to his sufferings, would account for the rest. If only he could find his way back when he came to his proper senses again.
"Thus musing I paced up and down outside the tent in the bright moonlight. Carfax was still sleeping, but uneasily, and muttering a lot in his sleep. There across the dunes the diamonds must be there somewhere. He had come from yonder towards the big dune. And almost mechanically my footsteps wandered away from the tent towards where I had met Carfax. Here was the spot, here was the place where he had half scared me with his weird story of being followed, and where I had half believed myself that I had seen the follower. Here, for the wind had once more blown the sand from out the filled-in footprints, were our spoors mine meeting his; here we turned back; but what was this? Whose spoor was this, that followed upon our own, back towards where the tent stood!
"My hair rose on my head as I looked. The ghastly white moonlight showed the other spoor quite plainly the print of a broad, square-toed, low-heeled shoe.
"Every man of us wore veldtschoens: there was not a heel among the four of us, and as I marveled and superstitious fear crept upon me there came scream after scream of terror from the direction of the tent; and as I looked, Carfax, barefoot as he had slept, came flying from the tent, his ghastly face contorted with horror, glancing behind him as he ran, and holding out his arms as though to ward off a pursuer.
"Past me he flew, straight across the sand towards the dunes from which he had lately come, his shrieks getting fainter and fainter as he sped until they ceased, and the faint breeze that heralded the dawn brought back the sound of mocking laughter.
"Fear held possession of me, for something had passed me in pursuit of the haunted man, and with terror gripping my faculties, I scarce dared turn my eyes to where the fresh spoor of Carfax's naked feet showed in the sand. Yes! It was there: a heavy, broad, square-toed print following and treading over Carfax's own and showing the signs of a mad pursuit.
"Did I follow them? No! I'm not ashamed to say I did not at any rate not then. Instead, I walked down to the shore, where the solemn breakers offered some sort of companionship, and prayed for morning to come and blot out the ghastly moon and all it had shown me, and save my reason.
"The sun came at last, and with it an awful hurricane that equaled that of the previous week, and I was hard put to it to save our few belongings from being swept away and from being myself overwhelmed. In the evening came the calm, and with it the boat; and, thank God! I had not to face the moonlight again alone.
"Yes, we searched; but the storm had changed the whole aspect of the dunes, and the spoors lay buried under many feet of sand, and well, Carfax was never seen again!"
Jason ended his narrative abruptly, and, rising, lit his pipe with an ember from the dying fire and stood gazing across the river to where the vague mysterious dunes of German West showed silver-white beyond the farther bank. "Good country to be out of!" he said with a shiver. "Come, boys, you'd better turn in. I can't sleep when there's a moon."
The chance was too good to be missed. For days past the baboons had been extremely troublesome killing and mutilating the pick of our milch goats, which had strayed afield in search of food; tearing to pieces the poor mongrel puppy that had been unwise enough to follow them; and even ransacking our tent during the few hours we had left it without a guard. The troop was a large one, and included some of the biggest baboons I had ever seen; but though daring at times, they were exceedingly wary, and amidst the labyrinth of broken country which at the spot hemmed in the Orange River they had hitherto evaded our attempts at retaliation. And now by sheer luck we had stumbled upon them. Jason and I, following up some copper indications amongst the mountain peaks, had turned an abrupt corner and found ourselves within a hundred yards of their big leader a huge grey monster that stood sentinel-wise upon a high rock watching us. The tiny black head of my foresight showed plainly against the wide grey chest of the big brute; I pressed the trigger; and the soft-nosed "303 sped true to the mark. The long hairy arms were flung aloft in a gesture too human to be pleasant, and with a spasmodic spring in the air the baboon fell head- long from the rock, whilst at the report the whole troop, with a chorus of angry, sharp, staccato barks, fled round the shoulder of the mountain and disappeared.
"I hate shooting them," I said, turning to Jason for the first time since we had sighted them; "they're too human altogether, still Hullo, Jason, what's the matter?"
Jason's usually calm, inscrutable face was absolutely convulsed with strong feeling: fear, hatred, loathing what was it? He started as though from a dream.
"God! How I hate them!" he muttered hoarsely. "It was not far from here."
He shouldered his rifle and turned back abruptly towards the camp. I did not attempt to stop him; for though the staunchest friend and comrade, he was of a peculiar disposition; and I knew that he would, if he wanted to do so, tell me his story when the mood suited him. I walked over to the fallen baboon, which lay dead, grim, and hideous, with its chest shattered by my bullet and its formidable fangs bared in a ghastly grin.
That night by the camp-fire, Jason, who had scarcely uttered a syllable in the meanwhile, told me his weird story; but let him tell it in his own words.
"The first chapter of my story began twenty years ago. I had just returned from a shooting and trading trip in Damaraland which had ended in a stiff bout of fever, and was kicking my heels in Cape Town, when one day I received a note from the Curator of the Museum asking me if I would care to act as guide to two gentlemen who wished to follow up the Orange River from its mouth and possibly proceed up the then almost unknown Fish River into Damaraland. I did not care about going back, for my recent trip had been a very rough one; but I was heartily sick of Cape Town, and so I went round to the hotel where the two men were staying, taking the note which the Curator had sent me. 'They don't want to trade or prospect,' he had written me, 'the trip is simply for scientific purposes. Hector Montrose is an ethnologist of wide repute, and he wishes to study the race characteristics of the Hottentots and Bushmen. He is a brilliant disciple of Darwin, too, and has spent a lot of time and money on several trips to the interior of Borneo and other remote spots in search of the so-called "missing link;" and he is, I know, extremely anxious to get near some of those huge baboons that are said to exist along the Orange River. His brother John is quite different, and as long as he is with his brother and there's plenty to shoot he's happy anywhere.'