But the huge Krooman was doomed to as bitter a disappointment as the youths he was in search of had experienced at their return to the river camp. He found the spot on which the Golden Eagle had rested deserted, but still urged on by his strange sense of locality he finally stumbled upon the ivory cache.
"Um, big fight here," he mused to himself as he gazed about him at the mangled bodies of the gorillas which showed black as ink on the rocks in the sharp, brilliant moonlight. The heap of uncollected ivory was the next thing to attract his eye and with a guttural grunt the negro helped himself to a drink of water from his skin-bag while he sat down to ponder. He did not waste much time in reflection. Springing to his feet he vanished down one of the dark recesses of the mountain-side and was gone about an hour. When he returned he picked up an armful of the ivory—a load that would have staggered three ordinary men—and, hefting it easily in his arms, vanished with it into the dark shadows. For two hours he worked steadily and at the close of that period there was not enough ivory left about the cache to make a watch-charm of. Old Sikaso had found a new hiding place for the stuff the boys were compelled to leave.
Then he sat himself once more down on the rock, and leisurely smashing to pieces with his inseparable axe, the wooden cover that had been over the cache, he selected, with a good deal of care one of the dead gorillas. Having found the one that seemed to suit him; he cut off from its flank a hunk of meat with his keen weapon and producing a flint and steel soon had the meat toasting over a blaze. When it was done to his satisfaction he leisurely ate it and washed it down with a draught from his skin-bag. He then cooked several more pieces of gorilla meat which he tucked in his waist-band, and shouldering his axe and humming to himself his grim war-song, he set out at the same swinging dog-trot on his long trip to the river bank. With the vitality common to such men, his brief rest and refreshment had rendered his tired frame as vigorous as ever and there was no trace of fatigue in the steady trot of the ebony figure as it plunged into the dark forest and vanished.
A second later, however, the figure reappeared as a noise of voices was heard drawing nearer down a forest trail. Throwing himself on his face and lying as motionless as a fallen log, the Krooman watched as Muley-Hassan and his followers—almost worn out and sadly diminished in numbers since their fight with the boys and with the cannibals—appeared. True, they had beaten the latter off, but at great loss to themselves, and the few men that now limped forward— urged on only by the fierce voice of Diego and Muley-Hassan— appeared ready to drop in their tracks from exhaustion.
"A hundred pounds of ivory to every man of you if we get there before they have cleaned the place out," the Arab was shouting by way of encouraging his men. Old Sikaso, with a grim chuckle, watched them make their way up the mountain-side and then laughed softly to himself as their imprecations of rage and fury broke out as they reached the cache—and found it empty!
Somewhat cheered by the vigorous Ben, who proposed to paddle down the river to the nearest settlement himself the next day, if some news were not heard of Billy and Lathrop, the boys were preparing for bed that evening—the bed consisting of the floor of the Golden Eagle's stripped cabin—when they were startled by Ben holding up a warning finger.
"Hark!" he exclaimed eagerly.
The boys listened.
"There's somebody coming," were Ben's next words.
Sure enough drawing closer every minute they could hear a soft patter-patter coming down a jungle-trail and evidently, by the sound, heading for the camp.
"Who can it be?" exclaimed Frank in a low tone, not daring even to mention the wild hope that surged in his heart. For a minute he thought that it might be the missing chums, and that even Harry and, to a less degree, Ben, shared his thought he saw by their parted lips and tensely strained eyes.
In absolute silence they listened as the footfalls drew in toward them, but not by even the wildest stretch of the imagination could they make out more than one man's footsteps.
Instinctively each member of the party raised his revolver as the bushes parted and from them tottered a man who was very evidently in the last stages of exhaustion. The figure staggered forward to the aeroplane as the boys and Ben lowered their revolvers, seeing that, whoever the newcomer was there was no fear of violence from him. It was Ben who recognized him first:
"Sikaso!" he cried, as the figure crumpled up in a heap, completely exhausted.
The boys rushed to the fallen man's side as they heard the name. They bathed the huge black's head with water and after a few minutes he opened his eyes and recognized them with a faint smile. After he had been given some nourishment he completely recovered from his spell of weakness which be called:
"Big fool—all same woman," quite omitting to state that he had traveled almost eighty miles since the preceding midnight.
The boys sat late listening to what the black had to tell of the attack on the camp—of Professor Wiseman's treachery and death—and of the carrying off of the boys. Then Sikaso went on to gleefully relate, while they warmly clasped his mighty hands, how he had hidden the rest of the ivory and how he had seen Muley-Hassan pass on his way to the rifled hiding place.
"But Billy and Lathrop, Sikaso, tell us quick, were they with Muley-Hassan?"
The black shook his head slowly.
"No see Four-Eyes—no see Red Head," he said sorrowfully.
The last ray of hope concerning the fate of the two young adventurers seemed to have been extinguished.
THE "ROGUE" ELEPHANT
In the meantime Billy and Lathrop, having been introduced to the chief, were making themselves very much at home in the village or cliff colony of the Flying Men. The morning after the day of their arrival a hunting expedition was organized by their new-found friend and in company with a dozen or more of the Flying Men, and the ordinary natives, who seemed to occupy the position of inferiors to their winged masters, the expedition set out.
They crossed the fields and garden patches that the boys had observed the evening before and, after traversing a few miles of swampy ground overgrown with a tough yellow grass, they plunged into a forest of mahogany and silk cotton trees.
It was while crossing the expanse of yellow grass at Billy performed a feat that caused all of them to hold him as a mighty hunter. They had been pushing their way along a narrow trail with the tops of the vegetation waving a good three feet above their heads, when there was a sudden grunt heard ahead and the noise of great rushing through the wiry grass.
"Big pig," announced the boys' friend as the others got their spears ready to cast. Billy and Lathrop in their eagerness plunged on ahead of the others—Lathrop with a small spear and his revolver—which by the way was useless, he having expended all his cartridges—and Billy with the Arab rifle. Suddenly from dead ahead of the two boys there was a savage squeal and, before either of them realized what had happened, a boar with gleaming white tusks and bristly hair rushed out of the tangle and squarely charged them.
Lathrop went down before his furious onslaught and in his fall carried Billy to the ground with him. In another moment both boys would have been badly gored, perhaps killed, had not the reporter, in the very instant that the boar with wickedly gleaming little red eyes turned to attack Lathrop with his fierce tusks, raised himself on one arm and fired. The bullet struck their assailant full in the ear and penetrated the brain. With a surprised squeal he turned and ran a few feet and then dropped dead. The rest of the hunting part came up at this moment and Billy received warm congratulations—which, as he did not understand, meant as much as most of such felicitations.
It was not long after this incident that the plunge into the cool darkness of the forest began. The men went warily—as if expecting to be attacked at any moment—and the boys, on inquiring of their guide the reason for this caution, only received the reply that elephant tracks had been seen and that as a "rogue" elephant had lately been doing great damage to the crops of the cliff-dwellers they were anxious to kill him if possible.
A rogue elephant is one that has become estranged from the rest of his kind by reason of his fierce intractability. He is in fact what in the west is described, in speaking of a horse, as "loco" or crazy. Such animals—they are generally males—are extremely dangerous to hunt and are generally given a wide berth. They are mischievous in the extreme, moreover, and do great damage, seemingly wantonly, to any crops or garden patches that they may find in their neighborhood. Usually the natives are too terrified to offer any resistance and placidly allow the animal to devastate to the bent of his will. The cliff dwellers, however, had suffered so much from the depredations of this particular animal that they were determined to drive him out of their neighborhood, and that was the real purpose of the hunting party.
"Well, it looks as if we are in for a good exciting morning of it," remarked Billy as they trudged along beneath trees that shot up to unknown heights with great rope-like creepers dangling from their upper branches, looking like ladders leading up into "Jack in the Beanstalk-land." Occasionally a patch of blue could be sighted through the tree-tops, but for the most part the hunters progressed along the floor of the forest under a regular roof of greenery. There was plenty of life in this tipper story of the earth jungle. Troops of monkeys with chattering and gesticulations swung from bough to bough and looked in wonder on the invaders of their realm and then, taking imaginary fright, galloped off through the tree-tops in panic, only to stop a little distance further on and throw down fruit or bits of stick at the men below them. Gorgeous birds, too, flitted about like jewels seen in a setting of green velvet, while underfoot there was no lack of life either. Strange insects, shaped like sticks or leaves or even bits of moss, attracted the attention of the alert boys although they passed over hundreds of such nature mimics unnoticed, owing to the perfection of their mimicry.
At last the leader of the party called a halt and they sat down to eat some of the cassava and manioc cakes they had brought with them. The meal was washed down with a sour drink—something like buttermilk—contained in a huge earthen jar that one of the inferior tribe carried. They were in the midst of it when one of the hunters sprang to his feet with a guttural exclamation.
"Arjah!" he exclaimed and, though the boys did not understand his tongue, his attitude of alert attention signified that he said "Listen" as clearly as if he had used the word.
In an instant all of the party were on their feet and listening keenly. After a few seconds of strained attention the boys became aware of a sort of dull pounding sound which seemed to come from some distance. It sounded almost like the regular beat of a large drum. The air seemed to vibrate with it.
He leader of the party spoke a few words rapidly to the others and they all joined in a responsive shout which seemed to be one of assent to some proposition that had been made by him.
"He say elephant dance," said Umbashi; "him very dangerous when dance. He ask them they willing to go on. They all say yes."
Lathrop looked alarmed.
"Say, Billy," he whispered as they moved forward, "I don't mind a little danger, but going up against an elephant with a few tin spears looks to me like being little above the limit."
"Cheer up," replied the irrepressible reporter, "we've got to go on now. It would never do for us to show the white feather at this stage of the game. The tribe would regard us as miserable cowards and perhaps even put us to death."
So with faces that one at least of them had some difficulty to render' expressive of calm repose the two American boys marched along with the others. As they advanced the drumming grew louder and they could feel the earth shake as the ponderous beast that caused it went through his strange exercise.
The leader worked round till the party was advancing against the wind, as elephants have a keen scent, and had they traveled along down the wind he would have been sure to have taken alarm and dashed off only to return and do more damage later on. In this way the party was enabled to work up to within a few yards of the great beast without his having any warning of their approach. It was a strange sight they beheld as they stood on the edge of the little clearing where the great beast was going through his dance. With his trunk curled high above his great head the big pachyderm was solemnly twirling round and round in a sort of slow waltz and every time he brought a foot down it was with a crash that shook the forest about him. He was a ferocious looking brute, with a wicked gleam in his small eye that boded ill for anyone who should happen to get in his path. One of his tusks was broken off short, doubtless in some fight with another of his kind, and his body was plowed with scars and cuts—the relics of former battles. Altogether he was as wicked and menacing a looking brute as the boys had ever seen.
Suddenly he sighted the attacking party. The dance instantly stopped and he stood stock-still for an instant gazing at them while they promptly made for the trees and clambered up them by means of the lanyards of creepers that swung down from the tops.
Billy and Lathrop, however, were too much astonished by the sudden turn events had taken to follow the example of the savages and so stood gazing awestricken at the elephant while he gazed at them in apparent amazement at two boys having the temerity to face him in his native forest.
The situation was not to last long, however. Their guide, with the rest of the party, had hastily clambered into the trees and now he called to the boys loudly:
But the churns were too late.
As they turned to obey his instructions the great brute charged with a furious trumpet.
His first onslaught the boys avoided by slipping behind a tree, more from instinct than anything else. The impetus of the maddened animal's charge carried him by the tree and before he could stop himself and turn his ponderous body for a fresh attack he had gone some yards beyond the boys.
Bellowing with fury the huge creature made ready for a fresh charge, but by this time Billy and Lathrop had seized the creepers and were both several feet above the ground. In his haste, however, Billy's luckless rifle twisted between his legs and almost caused a disaster. For a second he hung helpless, trying to kick the weapon free. But it hung by its leather shoulder band and he was unable to do so instantly.
The boy, with a despairing cry, gazed at the onrushing elephant and could almost feel himself being seized by its mighty trunk and dashed to death, when a pair of strong, black arms seized him and dragged him up to a place of safety. The man who had taken this risk was their friend Umbashi, and as Billy thanked him he felt a feeling of real respect for this half naked savage who had risked his life to save another's.
After two or three more charges the animal seemed to get tired of this method of attack and stood beneath the tree shaking with rage, very much like a bull that has driven a boy to refuge in an apple-tree. It was evident that it was time to either kill the brute or drive him off unless the party desired to spend an unlimited time in the trees.
"The fire-weapon," shouted Billy's friend, "use the fire-weapon."
Billy raised the long Arab weapon and fired. The bullet struck the elephant on the right ear with no more effect than to further anger him.
"Aim between the eyes," cried the savage.
Billy felt for a fresh cartridge and made a discovery.
In scrambling up the tree he had ripped off the skin bag and his store of Arab cartridges, none too many, lay on the ground at the foot of the tree. When this intelligence was communicated to the tribesmen clinging in the other trees they held a shouted consultation the result of which was that, to the boys' amazement, one of them deliberately dropped to the ground and attracting the elephant's attention began to run him in circles. Now as the man could run fast and from time to time another took his place and the elephant had to use a lot of effort in turning corners, it soon became evident that the big pachyderm was tiring of the exercise.
It was evidently the intention of the natives to run him out and then spear him to death—but an unexpected happening put an end to this method of elephant hunting. One of the men who was worrying the great animal, much after the manner of a bull-fighter, suddenly caught his foot on a root and fell headlong. A shout went up as the others realized that he was doomed to almost certain death. Billy and Lathrop averted their eyes. It was terrible to have to sit there powerless and watch the sacrifice.
But even as they listened with sickened ears for the death-cry of the unfortunate victim and whilst the elephant's trumpet of triumph was still resounding, one of the flying men dropped, knife in hand, from his tree on to the monster's back.
He landed right behind the great creature's ears and as the animal threw back his trunk to whisk him off and annihilate him be plunged his weapon through the soft folds of skin at the base of the huge skull clear down into the brain.
It was a mortal wound.
As the elephant stopped short in his charge and began to stagger in his death throes the Flying Man slipped to the ground and picked up his comrade, who had swooned from terror.
Ten minutes later the great rogue elephant was beyond all further mischief and the boys joined as heartily as any of the others in congratulating the brave man whose unparalleled feat of heroism had saved his comrade's life.
The man's name was Aga, and the boys had reason later on to remember him for another deed which affected them even more nearly than the slaying of the elephant.
A LINK FROM THE PAST
On their triumphal return to the cliff with the tusks of the slain elephant as trophies of the hunt a strange spectacle met the boys' eyes. Clustered about a sort of altar, which they had not noticed before, was a group of the cliff-dwellers who seemed to be deeply interested in something that was going forward. A loud sound of chanting and intoning of what seemed to be a solemn ritual was the first inkling the boys had of what was going on.
On joining the throng the lads found that it was some sort of a religious ceremony that was being proceeded with. A group of men in white flowing robes and high conical hats—decorated with mystic symbols worked out in precious stones that looked like rubies and emeralds, though of such size that this seemed scarcely credible—were walking round and round the altar in a sort of what the irreverent Billy termed "a cakewalk." Pausing at each corner and revolving slowly, three times they intoned the weird chant.
Suddenly the music took on a louder tone arid several men with clashing cymbals joined in. The auditors, too, fell flat on their faces and Billy and Lathrop, on the former's suggestion, did the same.
"Not to do as the others are doing might cost us our heads," sagely remarked the diplomatic Billy, "and I need mine in my business."
Whatever the nature of the ceremony, it was now evidently approaching a climax. The chanting grew louder and more furious and the cymbal players clashed their huge metal instruments together with a deafening clangor. Suddenly, from the passage from which the galleries branched off, there appeared six men clad in robes of flaming scarlet and conical caps of the same color.
They formed an escort to a pitiable figure.
That of a white bearded man who was bent with years and whose eyes gazed vacantly about him as he stumbled along between the red-robed dignitaries. But it was not his age and not his feebleness that made the boys' hearts beat quicker and caused a galvanic shock to shoot through them.
The man was white.
There was no doubt about it. In spite of his sun-browned skin and the barbarous ornaments that covered him, the figure in the center of the red-robed group was a Caucasian—perhaps an American—a fellow countryman.
And now the boys noticed with a shudder that in the hands of each of the red-robed men was a knife of some sort of stone—perhaps flint. These cruel looking weapons they brandished as they slowly paced forward in time to the chanting.
But their captive—if he were a captive seemed indifferent to all this. His dull eyes gazed straight ahead of him as if he were hypnotized—or, as was more probable, under the influence of some drug. As the group approached the altar the chanting suddenly stopped and the onlookers rose to their feet. From the altar now arose a thin spiral of smoke, the offspring of a fire kindled by one of the priests.
The sun was just setting and showed like a blood-red ball, through the mist that arose from low-lying garden lands. As its disk touched the horizon the chanting broke out afresh and the red-robed men seizing the old white man as if he were a beast dragged him forward and threw him on the altar.
And now for the first time came to the chums the horrifying realization of what the scene they were witnessing really meant.
The man was about to be sacrificed!
But even as the red-robed men raised their knives in unison and were about to give them the downward lunge that would extinguish the life of their feeble victim—and as the other priests and the audience turning toward the setting sun, chanted louder and more vociferously—a startling interruption occurred.
"By the holy poker you're not going to kill that old man while I can prevent it."
It was Billy Barnes; his face white and his lips set in a thin line of determination.
As he spoke utterly oblivious to the fact that not one of the men could understand him—Lathrop, pale-faced also, stepped forward by his side.
And there stood the two American boys while the auditors—at first dumb with amazement—began to buzz angrily like a nest of disturbed hornets.
One of the white-robed priests gave a sharp order and once more the red-garbed executors raised their knives.
Billy quietly, though his heart was beating almost to suffocation, slipped a cartridge from the recovered bag into his Arab rifle. He leveled it at the red-robed knife wielders.
"The first man that moves I'll shoot!"
Although the words were as unintelligible to the priests and the cliff-dwellers as any that had gone before, the gesture with which Billy raised the rifle to his shoulder and covered the group was eloquent enough. And as it happened, the delay saved the old man's life; for while they hesitated the sun rushed below the horizon and the swift African night fell. A loud groan from the crowd announced that the hour for the culmination of the sacrifice had passed and that for the time being the intended victim's life was saved.
But for the boys the situation was serious enough. Powerless to resist such numbers they were seized by scores of the winged men and hustled into the passage, which was lit up by blazing torches of the same resinous wood that their guide had used on the first night that they came there. They were hurried along, their feet hardly touching the ground, till they reached one of the diverging galleries. Down this their captors shoved them till they reached a small cubical cell—windowless and without ventilation. Into this they were thrust and a huge stone door that hinged on some contrivance the boys could not understand swung to upon them with a dull bang. But a few minutes later it reopened and another prisoner was thrust in.
It was the aged captive whose life Billy had saved!
This much they saw in the momentary glare of the torches and then as the door closed the darkness—so black that you could feel it—shut down again. But Billy's reportorial curiosity, even in this situation, was still predominant.
"Who are you?" he asked eagerly of the new arrival, whose face he could not see and whose presence he could only guess at by the temporary revelation of the torch-light.
The only answer was a groan; but a few seconds later a voice that sounded strange from long disuse or unaccustomedness to the use of the English language replied:
"I have not heard a white man speak for forty years."
"What?" exclaimed the thunderstruck Billy.
"What I say is true and when you hear my name you will perhaps realize that fact. I am George Desmond the American explorer."
"The George Desmond who was lost in 1870?" cried Billy, almost choking with excitement.
"The same," was the reply in the same rusty voice, "like the sound of a long disused door swinging on its hinges," was the way Billy described it afterward in the article he wrote about the finding of George Desmond.
"But George Desmond was a man of thirty-five!" protested Billy, "when he was lost."
"And I am seventy-five," went on the sad voice in the blackness, "I was captured by the winged men in 1870. I have kept the record of the long years on a notched stick. I never expected to hear the sound of a fellow countryman's voice again."
The poor tired voice broke down, and in the darkness through which they could not see the boys heard the old man weeping.
"Great cats!" groaned Billy to Lathrop, whose hand he held so that they could be near together in the awful blackness, "forty years without seeing a white face—jumping horn-toads, what a fate!"
But the old man's soft weeping stopped presently and in a firmer voice he said:
"My wife and my sons? Can you tell me anything of them?"
As a newspaper man Billy recollected very clearly the space that had been given some five years before to the death, at a ripe old age, of the wife of George Desmond the lost explorer.
"She is dead," he said gently.
They heard the castaway sigh, and then he asked in a voice he strove to render firm, but which trembled in spite of itself:
"And my sons?"
"They are all alive and in business in New York," said Billy. "Your wife died believing to the end that you would come back. They placed her chair so that she could face the east. She died at daybreak with her eyes turned toward the sea beyond which lay Africa."
"Africa!" echoed the tired, disused voice. "Africa! it has cost me everything I had."
There was silence for some time after this. Neither of the boys wanted to intrude on the silent grief of the explorer so strangely found, though each was dying to ask him a host of questions. It was the aged man himself who broke the silence at length.
"But I am selfish," he exclaimed. "I should have thanked you before this for saving my life. The priests were determined that, as I was old and useless, my life should be offered to the Sun-god to appease a sickness that has of late carried off hundreds of the Flying Men. They are a dying race, young men. As a man of science, I predict that in five years or less there will not be a single one of the once numerous tribe alive. I have studied them closely and can predict their extinction."
"Then you have not been a prisoner always?" asked Billy.
"No, my young friend, I have not. When first I came here I was received warmly and was paid high honors. I was allowed to record my observations in writing—fortunately I carried a supply of ink and paper."
"You still have the manuscript?" gasped Billy, with the reporter's instinct to the fore.
"I have," sighed old Mr. Desmond, "in the cell that I so long called home then, the pages still lie. But I have neglected them for many years. I had no more writing materials when I used up my slender supply and I never thought to regain civilization.
"But now did you ever get here?" asked the amazed Billy.
"That is a long story," replied the captive, "but briefly told, it is as follows: In the season of 1870, as you perhaps know, my ill-fated expedition left Grand Bassam. My avowed object was to collect specimens and data for the Smithsonian Institute, but my real and secret desire was to find the tribe of Flying Men of whose existence I had heard in a fragmentary way on previous expeditions to the West Coast. I have found them—" he went on with a heavy sigh—"but at what a cost—at what a cost!"
There was silence for a few minutes and then the old voice went on, gaining in strength as he proceeded, and resumed acquaintance with words to which his tongue had been long unused.
"My expedition, as you know, was never heard of again. The reason was this. In some way the Arab slave-traders—who were thick in this district then and plied their nefarious trade almost openly—gained the belief that my expedition was a pretense for a plan of espionage on them and they attacked my camp one night and slaughtered every man in it but myself. Why they did not kill me I do not know, unless it was because of the intercession of a young Arab, a mere youth and the son of the chief. I have never forgotten his name or his kindness."
"What was his name?" asked Billy, who was deeply interested and wanted to get every detail of the extraordinary story.
"Muley-Hassan!" was the amazing reply.
"Muley-Hassan," echoed Billy, "why, he is the most cold-blooded fiend in the slave-trade to-day."
"Perhaps," answered the old man, "but he was good to me when he was a young man and I have never forgotten it."
"Well," he went on, picking up his narrative, "it was not long before retribution overtook the Arabs. One night their camp was attacked by a tribe whose village they had raided and sacked some time before and only a few of them escaped, among them must have been Muley-Hassan, though, till you told me of him, I believed him dead. The savages, seeing that I was not one of the Arab race took care of me and I fared well at their hands. But a great longing to see civilization—to clasp my wife in my arms, to see my children and America once more, was always with me, and one night I escaped from their village. I wandered half-delirious from fever and starvation for many days after that, for I lost my way in the forest, and, as I had no compass, wandered aimlessly seeking a river by which I might follow down to the coast. One night such a sharp attack of fever overtook me that I was-stricken unconscious. I gave myself up for dead before I lost my senses and only recollect awaking in this village. From that day to this, although I have repeatedly endeavored to escape I have never been able to do so. The ladder is guarded day and night,"—(this information dashed a half-formed hope in Billy's mind of escape by that way,) "and it would be suicide to attempt to penetrate the great jungles on the other side. I thought to end my days here, but I never dreamed till the other day that my life was destined to end as it would have, had it not been for your brave intervention.
"The malady of which I have spoken has devastated almost every family in the cliff and at the instigation of Agagi, the head priest—a man who has always hated my influence over his people—I was blamed by the other priests for being the cause of the affliction.
"They pretended to have a revelation from the Sun-god stating that if my life were sacrificed the curse that rested on the cliff-dwellers would be removed. Accordingly I was seized and chained and would certainly have died had it not been for you. But alas, young men, I fear you are doomed to forfeit your lives as the cost of rescuing an old man who is not long for this life in any event. I wish that you had been far away and had never had the brave impulse to risk your young lives for my worthless old one."
Now it is a remarkable thing, but Billy, who should have replied to the aged man in all sorts of high-sounding language, could find nothing to reply to this but:
"Oh, that's all right."
"I think you are the bravest boys I have ever heard of," the old man was beginning when a soft "hiss-s-st!" caused them all to turn their eyes to the direction in which they knew the door lay, and from which the sound had proceeded.
"H-s-s-s-t," came the sound again.
Did it mean a friend or an enemy?
FRIENDS IN NEED
They were not kept long in suspense. After being assured that their attention was attracted, the voice that had made the hissing signal whispered through some aperture of which the boys had no knowledge:
"Listen to me, white boys, and you, too, old man, you can escape if your hearts are stout."
Stunned by the suddenness of this joyful news the boys sat silent.
"Are you listening, white boys?" said the voice impatiently.
"Yes—yes," whispered Billy eagerly.
"Then when a man comes in a short time to you with food and drink do not touch it, for it is poisoned with a deadly drug; but curb your appetite. In a short time the same man will come back to see if you have yet become insensible. Then you must be of stout heart and leap upon him and kill him. After that leave your cell and I will show you how to gain freedom."
The boys had recognized the voice at once as that of their friendly guide, though why he should have taken such a risk to aid them did not manifest itself till he whispered:
"And as a reward, I ask of the fat white boy with the glass eyes his fire-weapon which assuredly contains a great fetish and of the red-headed one some of his hair for a fetish also. Of the old man I would have the round box containing the strange god that says by day and by night 'tick-tick'."
"He means my watch," answered the old man, "it was a present from my dead wife to me on our wedding day, but he shall have it."
The boys also promised their "fetishes."
There was a guttural sound of satisfaction from outside the cell as the bargain was struck and then all was silent.
How they passed the time till the door swung open and the man whom their friend had foretold would bring them food and drink appeared, they never knew; but somehow it went. The new comer set the stuff down without a word and then stuck the flaming torch he carried in a niche in the wall so that they might have light to eat by. He made several gesticulations intended, apparently, to signify that what he had set before them was very good.
"Hum," said Billy when he had gone, "I'd as soon eat a mess of toads as touch any of this stuff—although it smells mighty good," he added regretfully, "and I'm hungry enough to gobble up a crocodile, claws and all."
But they all abstained from touching it and spent the time between the second promised visit discussing whether they would carry out the instructions of the friendly savage.
"But we can't kill the fellow," objected Lathrop.
"Certainly not," replied Billy; "but, now that we have a light, I see that there is a nice convenient chain fastened to the wall over there. There would be no objection to our gagging him, to prevent any outcry, and then hitching him up with it."
"But he is a pretty husky-looking customer," objected Lathrop; "suppose we can't overcome him?"
"We'll have to take our chances on that," said Billy decisively. "Now what I propose is, that when he comes back we all he stretched out as if the drug had overcome us and then, when I give the word, we all jump on him."
He looked doubtfully at the old man as he spoke. There was no question that in such a struggle the explorer would be worse than useless. Mr. Desmond himself agreed with Billy and it was arranged that while the two boys grappled with the negro that the old man should pull the door to—in the event of its being left open—so that no noise of the struggle might penetrate into the passage outside.
The little party immediately spread themselves out on the floor in well simulated insensibility and waited with hearts that beat uncomfortably quick for the decisive moment to arrive.
Failure meant death but, as Billy had put it, they were due to die anyhow it seemed and they owed it to themselves to make as brave an effort as possible to escape such a fate.
At last they heard a fumbling at the door and the man who had brought them the drugged food entered the cell. He scrutinized them with a grunt of satisfaction and going up to each one shook him by the shoulder to see if they were only asleep or really insensible. Apparently he was satisfied from their inertness that the drug had worked, for he muttered to himself rapidly in the unknown tongue as he concluded his examination.
Then he turned to pick up the earthen dishes, stooping over with his back to Billy Barnes as he did so.
It was Billy's move!
Like a flash the young reporter—who had earned an enviable record on the gridiron and crew at Columbia University—was on the savage's back while Lathrop rushed at the fellow as he straightened up and gave him a low tackle. As Billy leaped he had dug his fingers into the fellow's windpipe to choke any outcry, and when Lathrop seized him by the legs he toppled over like a felled ox without uttering a sound. Billy rolled from under him as he fell backward and the man's head struck the stone floor with a terrific crash.
He was knocked insensible by the fall. The moment to escape had arrived!
Rapidly the boys tore a strip off Billy's shirt and formed it into a gag. With other strips they tied the insensible man's hands behind his back and manacled his legs.
"He won't come to for quite a while after the crack he got," remarked Billy; "but in case he does, he won't be able to attract attention for a long time."
Then, as cautiously as though stepping on eggs, they tiptoed out into the passage—after extinguishing the torch—and the next minute were startled to be suddenly halted by a form that ran right into them in the blackness.
The next minute, however, their anxiety was relieved. It was Umbashi who had collided with them and accompanying him was Aga, the man who killed the rogue elephant. It appeared that the two had agreed to divide the fetishes their captives were to give them in return for their freedom. And Aga at once, with a stone knife, cut off two generous locks of Lathrop's hair.
"But how are you to get my gun," objected Billy, "the priests took it from me?"
"I already have it, Boy-of-the-eyes-of-glass," replied the engaging cliff-dweller. "I stole it from the old head-priest while he slept. But you must give it me of your own free will, or it will not be good 'fetish.'"
Of course Billy willingly "gave."
To get the watch they had to traverse what seemed to Billy and Lathrop in their feverish excitement miles and miles of passages. But apparently the cliff-dwellers all went to bed early and slept sound for they encountered no one, and their guides did not seem to be in any anxiety over the possibility of discovery. Once they got a chill of horror when just before they left the cell door Aga, who carried a sharp knife—the same with which he had dispatched the elephant and cut Lathrop's hair—signified his intention of cutting the unconscious meal-bringer's throat. It was with great difficulty that the boys dissuaded him from this barbaric act, the horror of which did not seem to appeal either to him or his savage companion.
Once in old Desmond's cell it did not take long to get the watch—an aged gold key-winder—and present it to the delighted savages. But several precious minutes were lost in showing the two how to wind it up. They regarded the key with quite as much veneration as the watch. The boys saw the old man's eyes filled with tears as he handed it over and Billy, as he saw the inscription on it, in a quaint, old-fashioned script, realized why.
"To my dear husband, George Desmond, on our wedding day, May 24th 1874;" it read. With the signature "Mary Desmond."
Before they left the place that had been his home for the majority of his long life, the old man carefully drew from beneath the palm fiber covering of the niche that served him as a bed a pile of yellowed paper, covered closely with fine writing in a clear, bold hand. The pages had been written many years before old age had seized their author's hand and paralyzed his strength.
Billy realized with a thrill that these papers contained, the imperishable record of the long-lost scientist's observations and commentaries on the mysterious Flying Men.
But it was no time to linger in speculations.
Hastily thrusting the papers into the bosom of his shirt the aged man signified to his guides that he was, ready, and they left the chamber that had housed him for so many years—without regret on his part you may be sure.
Silently as cats they slipped down the corridor and, after about a quarter of an hour of traversing its smooth floor, they found themselves at the hole which gave egress to the outside world and from which hung the rope-ladder by which they were to descend to freedom.
Aga and the other savage gave grunts of pleasure and even laughed softly as the boys' with a horrified start, almost stumbled over a recumbent figure.
It was that of the guard of the ladder.
He lay as if dead—his body right across the narrow entrance. The moonlight from the outside that flooded the entrance showed that his mouth was open and his eyes closed.
A sudden rage filled Billy as he looked on the victim of what seemed to him to have been a wanton murder.
"You have killed him," he said raising his voice imprudently in his anger.
"Hush, boy-with-the-glass-eyes," exclaimed Urnbashi, "he is not dead. In a few hours he will be as well as you or I, but he will recollect nothing. We have given him the sleeping root that brings oblivion."
And now it was time to take the final step.
"A canoe with food and a jar of water is at the foot of the ladder," whispered their guide, "and the current will carry you down toward the coast. It will not be a hard journey except for the Tunnel of the Roaring Waters. Only a few men have navigated that and escaped alive, but you will be compelled to traverse it to reach the coast."
"Can we not leave the canoe and go overland round the tunnel?" asked Billy rightly conjecturing that their guide referred to a place where the river ran underground when he spoke of the Tunnel of the Roaring Waters.
"That cannot be done," was the African's reply. "The swamps where the sleeping death (the sleeping sickness) lies are all about it. Only by way of the Tunnel of the Roaring Waters can you escape."
"There is one other way," began Aga, "but that lies through the forest."
"We will take it rather than risk navigation in such a torrent as you describe," decided Billy after the remark of Aga had been translated to him.
But before the two savages could say more there came a distant booming borne down the rocky tube of the corridor.
It was the far-off confused sound of excited voices.
"Quick! glass-eyes, your escape has been discovered; you haven't a moment to lose!" cried Umbashi.
It was only too evident that he spoke the truth. The roar of the searchers' angry voices was rapidly ringing louder.
"Take this, white boys, and defend yourselves to the death rather than be recaptured," said their friend as he thrust a stone knife into Billy's hand.
The old man and Lathrop were already half-away down the swaying ladder.
"Be careful, for the river is swollen with the melting snows of the mountains and runs as if a million demons were in its soul to-night," warned Unbashi.
With a quick "Good-bye" to the men who risked their lives to rescue them, Billy took his place on the swinging ladder and followed the others down.
They were not a second too soon.
Even as they took their places in the canoe and Billy prepared to slash the grass-rope that held it, the clamor drew close to the mouth of the tunnel.
From the foot of the cliff the chums and their aged companion saw torches glowing and could perceive Aga and the other pointing at them and evidently explaining to the tribesmen that they had tried to stop their flight. Billy was glad to see that apparently their explanations were accepted and they were not suspected of having aided the escaping prisoners.
With a quick slash of his flint knife, the young reporter severed the rope at which the canoe was straining till it was taut as a piano wire. There were several other canoes lying alongside and before he cast loose Billy cut the detaining ropes of these also.
"Now they'll have to swim if they want to get us!" he exclaimed as the canoe, released from its bondage, shot forward on the boiling current at a dizzy rate.
But he had reckoned without the flying men. Dozens of them had dropped from their holes and having gained the opposite bank started in pursuit of the boys and the old explorer, who lay as if overcome at the bottom of the canoe. Many of the strange beings carried bows and arrows and they sent their shafts whizzing in a shower at the canoe. One pierced its side and Billy had to stop the hole with a strip torn from his already ripped-up shirt.
But fortunately, except for a slight scratch on Billy's forearm, none of the arrows did much harm to the voyagers themselves, and borne on the swift current the canoe soon outdistanced her pursuers.
As the sound of their shouting grew faint behind them, Billy and Lathrop grasped the paddle with which they strove to keep the boat on a straight course—there was no need to propel her.
The young reporter realized that three lives—his own, Lathrop's and that of the long missing explorer depended alone now on their skill and grit.
THE SMOKE READER
And now we must leave the floating canoe with its occupants and turn to the River Camp, where we left the Boy Aviators overcome with anxiety as to the fate of their young comrades. The situation was indeed one calculated to try the stoutest heart. There was only one drop of sweet in their cup of bitter.
Harry, poking about among the ruins of the deserted camp, had discovered several cans of gasoline that the raiders had overlooked. They formed sufficient fuel with the picric cakes that Frank still had a supply of, to drive the big aeroplane for several hundred miles if the wind conditions were favorable.
But leave the river camp the boys dare not, for they realized that if Billy and Lathrop did manage to make their escape, they would, if possible, come back there. True, it was a chance so remote as to appear almost impossible, but under the circumstances even the shadow of a hope seemed to assume substance. And so they waited, and had been waiting, while the stirring events we have related had been happening to their missing chums.
As if to add to their oppression, old Sikaso mooned about the camp, his eyes rooted to the ground in moody absorption and muttering to himself, "five go—three come back," till Frank angrily ordered him to stop. The realization that his gloomy prophecy seemed only too likely to be fulfilled, however, did not tend to relieve the situation.
"If we do not hear from them to-morrow, we shall be compelled to take to the air and fly to the coast," said Frank as they sat that evening round a camp-fire which had been lighted to keep away marauding lions, whose roars ever and anon shook the forest. At such times old Sikaso's eyes wandered longingly to his great war-axe. There is little doubt that he would have liked to work off his gloomy feelings by tackling a lion single-handed with his weapon.
"You think, then, it isn't worth while waiting if we have heard no news by then?" asked Harry.
"It isn't that," said Frank in reply, "but we have not provisions left to more than tide us over another day. What the Arabs didn't destroy they spoiled."
Harry nodded his head silently.
Cruel necessity, it seemed, was to compel them to evacuate the camp, to which they still clung in the hope the lost adventurers might return.
It was in vain Ben Stubbs cracked his jokes that night and related all sorts of droll sea yarns in the hope of cheering up his young companions. For the first time since he had known them it looked as if the Boy Aviators had really lost all hope, and truly the facts seemed to warrant the stoutest-heart in the world being downcast—to say the least.
Suddenly without a word old Sikaso left the fire and strode off into the forest. He was gone for more than an hour and when he came back his look of gloom had vanished. For him he was almost cheerful.
He swung his terrible axe in all sorts of fantastic evolutions and hummed to himself his grim chant with a fierce sort of joy.
"White boys, the smoke is going to tell me things to-night," he exclaimed suddenly. "When the moon reaches to the top of the sky I shall tell you news of the four-eyed one and of the red-headed."
Impatiently they waited till the moon reached her zenith and then watched wonderingly while the old savage built a small fire of sticks, over each one of which he mumbled something in African.
"What good does he suppose all this hocus-pocus is going to do us?" muttered Harry irritably, "as if an old fire could tell us anything we didn't know already. It's all rubbish, I say."
"I'm not so sure," remarked Frank thoughtfully. "We have already seen something of what his skill can do and I don't mind letting him see if he can't conjure up something to give us a ray of hope."
"Oh bosh, Frank," replied Harry, "if he ever did get anything right through this rigmarole and hanky-panky it was simply because he had good luck. That's all."
"For my part, I've knocked around the world too much to be so cock sure of some things as some young chaps seem to be," put in Ben Stubbs, with a chuckle, looking up from the frying-pan that he was scouring with sand.
Harry looked abashed and said nothing.
If old Sikaso had heard any of this colloquy he made no sign, but with the face of a graven image went about his preparations. Slowly he struck the sparks from his never-failing flint and steel, and a few seconds later the little fire was sending up a blaze.
"Do you see anything?" asked Frank.
"Too soon now, wait till smoke come," he said, and resumed his intense watching of the fire.
After a delay that seemed maddening, to two at least of the group that was watching, the old Krooman announced that all was ready.
Even Harry felt a thrill of interest as the old man began to spin slowly on his toes round the column of smoke, chanting slowly some strange mixture of savage music which was, as Frank guessed, an incantation to the fetish that, as he believed, dwelt in the smoke. As the smoke grew thicker he cast some sort of powder from a skin-bag into it and instantly a thick yellow column of vapor shot up.
The whole forest about seemed impregnated with the strong odor of the stuff and the boys' eyes smarted. Old Sikaso kept up his dance, bending lower and lower till it seemed that he must be actually inhaling the pungent, acrid smoke.
As this strange scene progressed, Frank felt his eyes begin to grow dim and an unaccountable languor fill his limbs. His head swam round and he desired nothing so much as to lie down and sleep—-and yet a compelling power forced him to keep his eyes fixed on the column of smoke over which the aged Krooman was now stooping with outspread hands.
Suddenly he gave a sharp cry—an exclamation almost of command.
"Look—look, white boys, and you, old man of the sea and the forests of the far-off land, and I shall show you the magic of the sleeping heart of Africa."
With eyes that started from his head Frank gazed, in obedience to a majestic sweep of the African's hand, full into the ascending column of yellowish smoke.
The languor the boy had felt at first had now quite left him and he was only intent on seeing what was about to transpire.
Sikaso's voice once more rose in his dismal chant and he cast more of the powder from his skin-bag into the fire. The smoke pillar grew to an immense size and, as he gazed at it, before Frank's amazed eyes a scene as strange to him as any he had ever set eyes on, began slowly to take shape.
There was a river edge with mighty banks at the summit of which waved fronds of tropical plants and in which huge beasts, that he recognized as hippopotami, wallowed and sputtered. An unhealthy steam arose from the banks and the river boiled angrily along between its confines in a dark mud-colored flood.
So far the scene was not unlike the river in which he and Harry had so nearly lost their lives, but as he gazed the details grew clearer, as if it had been a magic lantern view, growing by degrees stronger and every outline of the tropical view was suddenly thrown into strong relief.
All at once the boy uttered a sharp cry, which was echoed by his brother and Ben. Old Sikaso never moved a muscle but kept on chanting.
Into the center of the wonderful smoke picture there had swum a canoe.
And in it were seated Billy Barnes and Lathrop!
With them, too, was the figure of a venerable white bearded man who seemed to be about to collapse. From time to time he raised himself feebly and gazed ahead. Frank could see Billy at such times stoop forward and speak to him.
The boys' plight was evidently a terrible one.
Their clothes were ripped and torn and Billy's shirt scarcely covered his body; which was a mass of cuts and scratches. A great cloud of mosquitoes hung about the canoe, clearly maddening its occupants with their myriads of tiny stings. The faces of both the young navigators were drawn and lined with anxiety as they paddled ahead in the turbulent current.
"See," cried Sikaso harshly, as the picture faded, "do the white boys still doubt?"
"No, no!" cried Harry. "Show us more, Sikaso."
The Krooman cast more of the magic powder into the dying fire and again a thick pillar of smoke curled upward.
His low crooning chant then began once more.
As before the picture did not assume shape at once but swam, as it were, slowly into view. This time the surroundings had changed. There was a look of agonized terror on the faces of all the occupants of the canoe as she seemed to be literally hurled forward upon a current that ran as swiftly as a mill race.
The frail craft rocked terribly and once or twice she shipped some water that Lathrop instantly bailed out with a shallow earthen dish.
Frank could almost hear the roar of the water as he gazed in silent fascination on the mysterious pictures of the smoke.
And now the apprehension on the faces of the occupants of the canoe was agonizing to watch. Once Frank saw the old man arise as if to cast himself into the water rather than face what lay ahead, but Lathrop instantly drew him back.
Again the picture died out and again the old Krooman. threw on more powder. As the smoke rolled up once more no one spoke. The situation was far too tense for that.
The scene now seemed to show that indeed all was over with the occupants of the canoe. The frail craft was seen to be in a tunnel of rough stone through which the roaring vortex of the waters poured with such violence that the boys and their aged companion were continually drenched with spray. Lathrop had hard work to keep the craft free of water now, and bailed incessantly. The old man was on his knees his hands clasped and his lips moving as if in prayer. Billy, his face set, sat in the stern. Again and again with a quick twist of his paddle he saved the canoe from annihilation in the boiling current.
It was an agonizing scene to watch, and to the onlookers it seemed as real as if they had been gazing at the peril itself instead of its counterfeit presentment in smoke-pictures.
At last the walls of the tunnel were seen to widen out and the current to move more slowly. Frank gave a sigh of relief which was echoed by the others as the canoe emerged from the subterranean river into a broad lagoon with low banks covered with tropical verdure and seemingly, from the absence of steaming vapors a healthy spot. But even as the canoe entered the quiet waters a great body projected itself through the water followed by three other bulky forms.
They were recognized instantly by the watchers as hippopotami.
The leader of the animals made straight for the canoe, and the watchers trembled as they looked, for it was evident that one snap of the creatures' huge jaws would cave in the side of the canoe as if it were an eggshell.
With trembling excitement the Boy Aviators saw their young companions with both paddles make desperately for the shore, but before they reached it one of the hippopotami intercepted them, and with a charge of angry fury literally tossed the boat clean out of the water.
A second later the gazers at the smoke pictures saw the two missing adventurers and their aged unknown companion struggling in the water. It seemed that all was over when a strange interruption occurred.
A long, dark horny head with two cruel eyes and rows of saw-like teeth in its long jaws, sped through the waters. The hippopotamus turned savagely on the intruder and the two snapped savagely at each other for several minutes when the crocodile, mortally wounded to judge by the red swirl on the surface of the stream, made off.
But Billy and Lathrop were seen to have taken advantage of the brief breathing spell it gave them. In a few strong strokes they had swum with the aged man to shallow water and quickly waded ashore. They were safe then for the time being. But for how long?
Frank saw the two comrades gaze about them in despair at the wilderness of jungle that closed about them on every side. He saw them cast horrified looks at each other at the situation in which they found themselves—lost in the trackless African forests.
The next minute the old man fell forward on his face and lay still. Whether he was dead or unconscious, Frank could not, of course, tell—and then the smoke died out, and the picture faded.
THE CHUMS RESCUED BY AEROPLANE
Hope had almost died in the boys' hearts at the scene they had witnessed by means of powers that seemed incredible to them, but which several well known travelers have told us are not uncommon among certain natives of West Africa. But old Sikaso was destined to raise their hopes.
"We will save Four-Eyes and the Red-Headed one," he exclaimed suddenly.
"But how?" chorused the amazed three.
"In the ship that like the bird can cleave the air we will fly to them," was the astonishing reply.
"But we do not know where they are," objected Harry.
"I do," was the quiet response.
"Say that again!"
"Well, I'll be hornswoggled!"
These exclamations came from each of the three in turn.
"They are on the banks of a river which I know well. In the smoke I recognized it. Few men have ever navigated the Tunnel of Death and came out to tell the tale, but your great white Fetish must have looked after them."
"You know the river?"
"Well do I know it white boy," replied the Krooman. "In the days when my limbs were supple I have hunted and fished there with others of my tribe."
"You can guide us to it?"
"As soon as it is dawn."
"How far is it from here?"
"Not more than a hundred and fifty miles."
Frank held up a moistened finger. The air was as calm as a mill-pond.
"We can make that distance in a little more than four hours," he announced.
It was Sikaso's turn to be astonished.
"Of a truth the magic of the white man is not as the magic of the black man, but it is good," he said; "yes, it is good. In four hours. That is indeed mighty magic."
"Who can the old man be whom we saw with them?" asked Harry eagerly, his mind no longer containing an ounce of skepticism to the marvels he had seen.
"I have no idea," rejoined Frank, "but he was white evidently."
"I've seen his picture some place, sometime—or some chap that looked a powerful sight like him, only younger," said Ben, who doubtless had a vague recollection of the once widely distributed photographs of the missing explorer Desmond.
"I am afraid that he was seriously ill, or even dying, from the last glimpse we had of him," said Frank gravely.
"Why could you not show us more smoke pictures Sikaso?" asked Harry eagerly.
"I have no more of the powder left," replied the old Krooman bending over his beloved axe and feeling the edge with a critical thumb. "Moreover, the smoke does not reveal the future."
There was, naturally enough, no thought of sleep that night, and so excited were the boys that they did not even feel the want of it. A huge shallow pit was dug back in the forest and the ivory taken from the chassis of the aeroplane and the aerial express wagon cached there and leaves and grass strewn over the place to make it as inconspicuous as possible. This was done before the aeroplane was got in readiness for the dash to the rescue.
"For," said Frank, "old Muley-Hassan, when he finds we have overreached him, may take a fancy to come back and try to wipe us out."
"Muley-Hassan will not fight with the few men he has left," sagely remarked old Sikaso; "when he has many he is brave as a lion, but when his followers are few he fights like the fox with wits against wits and few are his match for cunning."
As the day-life of the jungle—which has a nightlife as well as a daylight one—as the day-life of the forest began with the first ghostly gray of the dawn the boys swallowed a hasty meal, though they were almost too excited to eat in spite of Ben Stubbs' insistence that they take some nourishment. At the old sailor's suggestion, too, the car of the Golden Eagle II was packed with food for the castaways, who surely, from the latest glimpse they had had of them, must be in dire straits.
These preparations completed, they clambered into the car of the air-ship and with Frank at the wheel and the old Krooman at his elbow to direct the course they were to take, they left the ground and were soon flying through a breathless environment at sixty miles an hour.
The Golden Eagle II was on her way to the rescue.
"It is the end."
These words came from the feeble lips of Mr. Desmond as he lay beneath a rough screen of leaves and branches which the boys had erected to keep the heat of the African day from the dying man—for that he was dying they sadly realized.
The excitement of their flight and the peril of the subterranean river had been too much for the enfeebled frame and George Desmond's troubled soul was on its way to more peaceful rest than he had known in many years.
"Is there nothing we can do for you, sir?" asked Billy eagerly, bending over the dying man and taking his hand-which, despite the heat, was as cold as ice, between his.
"Nothing," whispered Desmond faintly, and then, with a supreme effort, he spoke once more.
"My papers—the history of the Flying Men."
He feebly indicated that he wished Billy to take them from his shirt.
The young reporter swiftly drew out the yellowed manuscript and reverently laid it before the fast-fading eyes. A faint smile overspread the aged man's careworn face.
"I commend them to your care," he said, as though every word now cost him an effort. "You have told me you are a newspaper reporter—you will see that they are given to the world?"
Billy once more taking the fast passing man's hand promised to fulfill this sacred trust.
"Read me the dedication," was the next whispered request of George Desmond.
In a trembling voice Billy read the words inscribed on the first page of the yellowed manuscript.
"To my dear wife Mary this volume is dedicated by her affectionate husband the Author."
"I never thought when I wrote those words I should die like this," exclaimed the dying man, "but it was to be. I always hoped that some day I would escape; but now that I have won freedom, rest seems to mean more to me than all else beside."
The tears welled into the eyes of both boys as with a resigned sigh George Desmond composed himself as if to sleep.
It was about five minutes later, and Billy still held the old man's hand, when the long-lost explorer raised himself on his elbow and shading his eyes with his trembling hand gazed in front of him as if he saw a vision.
"Mary—" he cried in a loud voice and fell back dead.
And so died George Desmond, the famous African traveler, almost within sight of the civilization to which he had so long dreamed of returning.
The shocked and grieved boys had hardly recovered their composure after this tragic termination of a brave man's life when Lathrop, who had been gazing despairingly about him gave a great shout.
The next minute it was echoed by Billy.
Half mad with joy the boys embraced each other and shook hands till it seemed they would fall off, and performed a dozen mad antics.
For, winging its way steadily toward them, though still at a great distance, was an aeroplane that they had no difficulty in recognizing at once as the Golden Eagle II.
There is no need to detail the scene that ensued when, fifteen minutes later, the great air-craft settled down on the river bank and the ravenous boys—who had long since exhausted the provisions in the boat—had been fed, and plied with questions till they had to stop eating to talk and stop talking to eat, at short intervals.
To the great joy of old Sikaso, who regarded it as a personal vindication of his powers, every detail of the trip through the subterranean river and the subsequent peril into which they had fallen was substantiated by Billy and Lathrop as having occurred exactly as it did in the smoke pictures. But there was a note of sadness amid all their joy in the death of the old explorer. On the river bank they dug a grave and marked it with a pile of rocks and there the remains of George Desmond rest for all time in the country to whose exploration he gave his life.
The Golden Eagle II had to make two trips between the river camp and the outlet of the subterranean river as, stout craft though she was, her gasoline supply was getting so low that Frank did not dare to run her at top speed and consequently she would not carry more than three passengers. By nightfall, however, the reunited adventurers were all seated about their campfire and talking and retelling all that had happened to each other during their separation.
Their conversation was interrupted by a strange happening.
The puff-puff of the steam launch that had brought them tip the river was suddenly heard and as she drew alongside the steep bank a familiar figure stepped from her side into the bright moonlight.
Not one of the party that did not give a start of amazed surprise as in the newcomer they recognized:
Luther Barr, of New York!
LUTHER BARR'S TRICK
The astonishing meeting in the remote wilds of the African forest with a man they instinctively mistrusted bereft the lads of words for an interval.
Frank was the first to find his voice:
"Why, Mr. Barr, what are you doing here?" he exclaimed amazedly.
But if the boys seemed astonished Mr. Barr retained his usual icicle-like attitude. Except that he was dressed in tropical white and wore a huge pith helmet which set above his ill-favored features "like a mushroom over a toad," as Billy described it later, he might have just stepped out of his office on Wall Street, instead of from a wheezy launch on a steaming subequatorial river.
"Good-evening, boys, a little late for dinner, I see, but I daresay you can cook me something. After dinner I want to talk to you. I have come a long way for the purpose so you can guess my business is of importance."
"Of importance? I should say so;" sputtered the irrepressible Billy. "Pray did you come by air-ship, Mr. Barr?"
"No, sir, I came in my yacht the Brigand. She is almost as fast as a liner and as I came direct to this port I didn't take more than half the time occupied by you boys on the voyage."
"You had a good trip?" asked Frank as Mr. Barr sat down and began eating the hastily prepared meal which Ben served him.
"Yes, splendid;" said Mr. Barr, "we had one misfortune though. When we were two days out my captain—a splendid man, boys—slipped on the wet foredeck as the yacht was plowing through a heavy sea and struck on his head on a stanchion."
"I hope he was not badly hurt," said Frank.
"He is dead," said Mr. Barr, calmly stuffing half a sweet potato into his capacious mouth.
The boys gave an exclamation of concern.
"Yes, it was very annoying," commented Mr. Barr.
"You see I have had to trust since to the navigation of my mate, and while he is a careful fellow he is not much good as a navigator, and in addition to that he is a drinking man. I am afraid that he may be ashore now in my absence and indulging his taste for strong drink."
"I should have thought you would have forbidden him shore leave," commented Harry.
"No good, my dear boy, that fellow would swim ashore even if the harbor were swarming with sharks, to gratify his disgusting taste."
"But now," he continued with a change of tone, "to business. You have got the ivory?
"We have," replied Frank.
"We have it here," was the quiet rejoinder.
"What!" an amazed tone.
"What I tell you is true," and Frank-foolishly as he admitted afterward-led the way to the cache in the forest; "it is buried here so as to be safe from marauders."
Mr. Barr seemed lost in thought for a few minutes then he suggested a return to the camp-fire. Once there he drew out a paper from his pocket-book.
"Many things have happened since you left New York, boys," he said quietly, through a feverish gleam in his deep, crafty eyes belied his outward calm.
"This paper," he continued, holding it out, "is signed by Mr. Beasley, it resigns to me all claim in the ivory and I am here to take it."'
"Let me look at that paper."
It was Lathrop who spoke.
The boy's cheeks were angrily flushed and his eyes bad a dangerous flash.
"That is not my father's signature!"
"What do you mean?"
"Exactly what I say—that this writing which purports to be my father's was never penned by him."
"You are making a rash assertion."
"I am fully prepared to prove it when we get back to New York."
"And in the meantime the Boy Aviators retain their claim on the ivory that we fought so hard to get," put in Frank.
Old Mr. Barr turned on him with a wolfish fury.
Indeed in his rage he resembled nothing so much as a long, lean, timber wolf deprived of his expected prey.
"We will see all about that!" he raged. "There is a law in Fort Assini though there may not be here. I have this paper here which in the eyes of the law is a legal transfer to me of Beasley's claim on the ivory. It is mine now and I mean to have it."
Frank's heart sank. He did not know much about law and it looked as if old man Barr held the upper hand.
"But that is not my father's signature or writing," cried Lathrop.
"That will be a matter for the American courts to decide," was the frigid reply.
"I shall lay the whole matter before M. Desplaines—the consular agent of our government," cried Frank at last.
"It is too late to do that," retorted Mr. Barr, "anticipating that there would be some trouble I have already engaged a lawyer and M. Desplaines will keep his hands off this affair."
"Why did you anticipate trouble?" shot out Frank, "was it because you knew that signature was false?"
For a fragment of a second the old man's pale face grew paler—or rather turned a sickly yellow.
"Bah," he said the next minute, "this is a business matter and not one for boys to enter into. I will see that you are well paid for your part of the work. If you like I will write you a check now."
He drew out an ever-ready check-book and fountain pen.
"I would rather have fair play than money," was Frank's stinging retort.
"And so say we all of us," chorused Harry, Billy and Lathrop.
Mr. Barr was plainly irritated. In a snappish tone he said at length:
"If you can show me where I am to sleep I think I will go to bed. I am very tired. We will discuss this matter further to-morrow."
Ben Stubbs, with a very ill grace, made up a bed for the New Yorker at some distance from the others.
"I'd like to stuff it full of barb-wire," he confided to Frank afterward.
As for Sikaso, he eyed old Mr. Barr from time to time, and then eyed his axe in a way that made it very plain that the two were connected in his mind in a manner that would have made it very uncomfortable for the old financier.
But if Mr. Barr felt the atmosphere of repugnance to him that pervaded the camp he did not show it.
He rolled up in his blanket as if he had been used to a rough bed all his life and was soon apparently wrapped in deep sleep. The boys, tired out as they were and not a little downcast at the turn events had taken, soon followed him. An hour later the River Camp was as silent as a graveyard with the exception of Ben Stubbs' mighty snores.
It was then that old Mr. Barr, who had seemed so sound asleep, cautiously raised his head from his blankets and peered about him.
After a few minutes of this he slipped into the few clothes he had discarded when he went to bed and tiptoed past the sleeping adventurers down to the river bank and the launch.
There was an evil smile on his face as he went that to those who knew Luther Barr would have said as plain as print "Some mischief is in the wind."
* * * * * * *
When the boys awoke the next morning the sun was streaming down on their sleeping place with a strength that showed that it had been up some time. With a start Frank sat up and looked about him.
What was the matter with him? His eyes felt heavy and his throat was parched. In his ears, too, there was a wild ringing sound and his limbs felt stiff and inert. Shouting to the others, who were gazing about them in a bewildered sort of way, Frank described his symptoms.
They all felt as badly as he did.
"I feel like I'd been boiled in the ship's boiler along with the cook's dish-rags," announced Ben Stubbs.
Even old Sikaso shook his head mournfully and said that he didn't feel at all well.
"I wonder how old man Barr feels?" said the irreverent Billy rubbing his red-rimmed eyes.
The next minute there was a shout of astonishment from them all.
Mr. Barr's blankets were empty and he was nowhere to be seen about the camp!
Forgetting their painful feelings in the shock of this discovery the boys hastened to the river bank to see if by any chance he was down at the steam launch.
The launch, too, was missing!
With a cry of rage Ben Stubbs shook his fist down the river.
"I see it all, boys," he exclaimed. "The old scallywag drugged us—doped us—that's why we feel so badly and—"
"Howling bob-cats! I'll bet he's stolen a march on us and got away with the ivory,"—this was Billy.
There was a rush for the spot in which the precious stuff had been cached.
A few broken tusks lay there.
But of the great hoard that the Boy Aviators had worked so faithfully to salvage not a vestige remained.
"Bilked, by the great hornspoon!" yelled Ben.
"But not beaten yet," was Frank's calm rejoinder. "Come on, boys, we've got to be stirring. Barr's got a long start of us, but we'll get him yet. Ben, you and Sikaso will take one of the Arabs' canoes—the ones they left at the river bank when they started after us—Harry, Billy, Lathrop and I will fly to the coast in the Golden Eagle II. We've just enough gasoline."
"All right, sir," said Ben, touching his forelock with an old sailor trick—a token of respect involuntarily forced from him by Frank's manly promptitude in taking the bull by the horns, "We're with you to the last ditch, the top of the main-top gallant, the bottom of the deep-blue sea, or the ends of the earth."
"That goes for us too, Frank," supplemented Billy.
"And count me in on that," cried Lathrop.
As for Harry, he gripped his brother's hand and the boys at once set about their preparations to outwit their treacherous enemy. In the midst of their bustle an interruption as utterly unexpected as it was for a moment alarming occurred.
The bushes parted and from them there stepped no less a person than Muley-Hassan.
He was followed a minute later by half-a-dozen fatigued-looking followers.
The boys' hands flew to their revolvers and Ben grabbed up a rifle. Sikaso's ever-ready axe was in the air in a second.
But the Arab put up his hand.
"I have not come to fight but to bargain," he said.
"You have beaten me at every point of the game. Diego is dead—"
"Dead," cried Frank.
"He was bitten by an adder as we were vainly searching for the ivory," said the Arab sadly, "he died almost instantly."
Of course the boys felt no sorrow for the death of the treacherous scamp and did not pretend to. They had no great reason to love Muley-Hassan either, so Frank said coldly:
"What is it you want?"
"Permission to take my canoes and leave this cursed country forever."
Frank waved toward the river.
"Your canoes are where you left them the night you made the cowardly attack on our camp. You can have them all but one. That one we need."
"Alas," sighed the Arab, "I do not need as many as I did when I came. Of all my followers these alone remain."
He pointed to the scant six, skinny, fever-stricken wretches who stood behind him.
"Good-by," said the stately Arab, holding out his hand in farewell, "we shall never meet again, but I shall ever remember that you dealt by me far better than I would have dealt by you."
"At all events you have one good deed to look back to in your life," exclaimed the impulsive Billy.
The Arab looked at him questioningly.
"You saved George Desmond's life," said the reporter shortly.
"That was many years ago," said the Arab with a start of recognition at the name of the dead explorer, "I have changed since."
With a wave of the hand he strode to the river's edge and half-an-hour later he and the remnant of his band were out of sight round a bend in the upper river.
At almost the same instant the boys soared aloft in the Golden Eagle II, and the chase for the ivory was on.
Below the flying aeroplane Ben Stubbs and old Sikaso—the latter as silent as ever—paddled down the river in silence.
It was a time for deeds, not talk.
ABOARD "THE BRIGAND"
The Brigand, a black, schooner-rigged yacht of about 1800 tons, with a yellow funnel amidships, and flying the red and blue burgee of the Transatlantic Yacht Club, lay at anchor on the rolling blue swells off the harbor of Assini in the early dawn of the day following the treachery of Luther Barr. Her crew—for the most part a riff-raff collection picked up in a hurry, for the old man had only made up his mind to make his daring grab for the ivory at the last minute—lolled about the decks idly. There was no one aboard to give command, for Jack Halsey, the mate who had been in command since the death of the captain had gone ashore the night before.
As old Barr had prophesied, the mate's love for strong liquor had overcome him and he was now lying hopelessly intoxicated in a low drinking den. The raw "trade gin" that he had drunk had rendered him insensible and so he would remain for many hours to come.
Some sort of animation diffused itself among the crew as they saw a low-laden launch headed toward them from the shore. In it were seated Luther Barr and several negroes including the black captain.
"Here, you lazy loafers!" hailed Barr, who was evidently in a bad temper and also in a furious hurry, as the launch ranged alongside, "bear a hand here and rig a sling and get this stuff aboard."
The "stuff" referred to was the priceless collection of ivory which lay higgeldy-piggeldy in the bottom of the launch just as it had been thrown in by the negroes in Barr's pay. Anticipating that the boys would put up a stiff fight for the ivory he had taken the precaution to hire these ne'er-do-wells, who would do anything, from cutting a throat to stealing a chicken, for pay. Barr had paid them well and when he had arrived at the camp he had taken the precaution to leave them down the river about half-a-mile while he went on alone with the launch and her captain to see how the land lay. When he realized that the boys were not fooled by his forged order from Mr. Beasley he decided to use the chloroform he had bought for just such an emergency, and then rousing his followers when the boys were drugged it had not taken long with their united efforts to load the ivory.
Urged on by Barr's promise of a large reward the captain of the launch had spun his little vessel down the river at top speed and thus had been able to make the coast in record time.
"Where in thunder is that mate Halsey?" roared Barr as he saw the bos'n—a seedy-looking fellow from the London slums—taking charge of the transfer of the ivory from the launch to the deck of the Brigand.
"He went ashore last night," rejoined the other.
"And I suppose he is helplessly drunk now," raged Barr. "How in the name of fortune are we going to get the yacht out of here?"
"Wait till he gets sober," was the bos'n's grunted reply as the men hastily transferred the last of the precious freight of tusks to the Brigand's deck.
Barr jumped to the accommodation ladder and was aboard in a second, despite his apparent feebleness. His face was distorted with rage and cupidity.
"We have got to get out of here at once—now do you understand?" he roared, crazed with rage.
"I'll give a thousand dollars to the man that will get me out of this harbor and well off to sea."
"If it comes to that I guess I can take a chance of navigating the yacht even if I don't hold a master's ticket," replied the bos'n.
"But are you a navigator?" questioned Barr eagerly
"Well, Mr. Barr, I held a master's ticket once before drink got me and I piled my ship on a reef," was the answer.
"You're good enough for me!" shouted Barr overjoyed, "and now we'll up anchor and get away from this abominable coast."
He scanned the sky shoreward anxiously. He did not confide to his new captain, however, the fact that at any moment he expected to see swift vengeance in the shape of the Golden Eagle II pursuing him.
With the roustabout crew that had been shipped in New York from a West Street boarding-master it took some time to get the anchor broken out—the men going at their work sulkily. At last, however, it was "up and down" as the sailors say, and Luther Barr himself signaled on the engine-room telegraph "Full speed, ahead." The engines of the yacht begin to revolve and the crafty old pillager almost gave a cry of joy as he felt the vibration beneath his feet.
The Boy Aviators could not cross the Atlantic in the aeroplane and there would not be a ship leaving the coast for a month.
Luther Barr chuckled.
He had beaten the boys at their own game.
By the time they arrived in New York the ivory would have been sold in London and he would be traveling in Europe on his ill-earned gains. That Beasley (his unsuspecting partner) would be ruined gave the money-crazed old man no care at all.
But even as the launch cast loose from the moving yacht and headed back to the shore—her occupants greedily fingering the bills Barr had given them for their work—Barr, from his station on the bridge, gave a start and an exclamation.
High in the air, and not more than ten miles inland, a black object that looked like a huge bird, but which Barr knew in his guilty soul was the Golden Eagle II, was rapidly winging its way toward them.
"More steam," he shouted down the tube to the engineer and the yacht, a long creamy wave curving away from her sharp black bow, began to move even faster.
"What are we making?" Barr asked eagerly of the late bos'n who, binoculars in hand, was taking the ship out through the treacherous harbor entrance as confidently as if he were once more a captain.
"Twelve knots," was the reply.
"We must do better," raged Barr.
"Impossible!" was the answer. "We are risking the yacht now. I am not familiar with this harbor and there are shoals and reefs all about us stretching many miles out to sea. At any moment, unless we proceed cautiously, we may run aground. Five knots would suit me better than twelve."
Barr chafed silently. The reply was unanswerable.
Better to go slow than to run the ship ashore. Suddenly he snatched the binoculars from the man beside him and turned them on the aeroplane. He almost uttered a cry of triumph as the craft swung into his field of vision.
There was something the matter with her.
She was no longer rushing straight ahead.
As Luther Barr watched her he saw the great aircraft swoop in a huge circle above the town and then settle down so swiftly that it looked as if she must have been dashed to pieces. But the town was hidden behind a point and he could not see it.
"I hope she has been dashed to pieces," he gritted between his teeth savagely, "that would mean the saving of a lot of trouble for me."
But even as he prepared to put the binoculars back in the pocket alongside the binnacle with an evil smile playing about his thin lips, there came a startling shock.
Barr was almost thrown from his feet and only saved himself from falling by grasping a stanchion. The ship quivered from stem to stern as if she had been hit a staggering blow.
"We've struck a reef!" exclaimed the late bos'n.
"A reef!" yelled Barr, beside himself with fury.
"I told you we would if you insisted on keeping up such a speed," angrily replied the other.
Beside himself with rage Barr picked up a heavy belaying pin to which, the signal halyards had been attached and struck the man before him a terrible blow with it.
Fortunately for his intended victim—for Barr in his rage would not have cared had he killed him—he ducked just in time and the blow was a glancing one. The man came at him like a tiger, but Barr, quick as a flash, slid his hand into his coat pocket.
"If you advance a step nearer I'll blow your brains out," he said coldly.
There was a glitter in his eyes that showed he meant what he said and with a muttered:
"I'll get even with you, Barr, as sure as my name is Al Davis," the late captain of the Brigand left the bridge.
Barr's active mind was at work at once planning schemes to get the ivory off immediately. Accustomed to crises of all kinds, the recent scene with the man Davis hadn't even warmed his chilly blood.
Calling the engineer he ordered an immediate inspection to be made. The result was discouraging. The Brigand lay with her bow hard and fast on a low sunken reef and while there was no apparent leak the chief engineer shook his head at the vessel's plight.
That there was grave danger was evidenced a short while after when the fire-room force—which had been ordered to keep steam up in the hope of backing the ship off later—came pouring on deck crying that there was three feet of water in the fire-room.
"That settles it," said the chief. "We are on a doomed ship."
"The boats! The boats!" shouted the men.
"Stay where you are," bellowed Barr, mad with rage, "get that ivory off first."
"To blazes with your ivory," shouted a grizzled old fireman, "do you think we are going to perish aboard here for such an old skinflint as you?"
"Why, if we had time we'd run you up at your own main-gaff you old land-shark," shouted another.
"Come on! the boats—the boats!" they yelled.
Barr stood irresolute while they lowered the four boats that the Brigand carried and piled into them. The shore was only a few miles off and they would reach it in a few hours.
While Barr hesitated he felt the ship give a lurch. She was settling!
That decided him.
Ivory or no ivory he feared such a death as he felt convinced would come to any one unfortunate enough to be aboard the ship in a few hours' time even more than he did the loss of the ivory.
"Hold on!" he shouted to the men in the boats, "I'm coming along."
"Not much you ain't," yelled Davis—the man he had dealt the blow to, "you stay there and rot with your ivory—you old crook."
With mocking laughs the men pulled away and Luther Barr, master of millions, was left alone on the sinking yacht.
THE BOY AVIATORS HOLD A WINNING HAND
The cause of the sudden swoop of the Golden Eagle II that Barr had seen from the yacht with such satisfaction was the need of replenishing her gasoline tank. The big craft landed in the dusty public square of the city where pretty well every one in the town was on hand when her runners and pneumatic tired supporting wheels struck the ground. The young adventurers were out of her in a few minutes and the first man to grasp their hands was M. Desplaines.
"I am delighted to see you," he exclaimed, "but if you anticipated catching Luther Barr you are too late."
"We saw his yacht steaming out to sea," rejoined Frank, "but if only we can get more gasoline we can catch him yet."
"What, you mean to pursue him?"
"We certainly do. He has stolen the ivory that we recovered at so much risk to ourselves."
"I didn't realize, of course, what your errand was," said M. Desplaines in reply, "till Mr. Barr arrived here in his yacht the other day and informed me that you had stolen a cache of ivory belonging to him and asked my aid to help in capturing you. I had no means of disproving his story so I lent him the steam launch, but I see now by his action in hastening to the yacht that he is, as you say, the real thief."
Hastily Frank told a part of their adventures and if he had had any remaining doubt of the boys' sincerity the consular agent was soon convinced of the truth of their story and of the villainy of Barr.