Rob Harlow's Adventures, a Story of the Grand Chaco, by George Manville Fenn.
A small private naturalist's expedition is about to take place up one of the Paraguay rivers. The eponymous hero, Rob Harlow, is a teenager. They are going to be rowed up the river, and the larger vessel that had brought then there, with its Italian captain, is to wait for them. The captain's son, Giovanni, is very keen to come with them, and his father thinks it would be a very good idea. The other adults on the trip are not so happy about the responsibility, but eventually he is allowed to come. He is about the same age as our hero, Rob.
There ensue the usual desperate situations we always get from this author. Serpents; people getting lost and eventually found, having lost their reason; attacks by Indians; insects; pumas; jaguars; and various other problems with animals. There are even quarrels between the boys, arising from a silly misunderstanding.
It's good stuff, and will be numbered among George Manville Fenn's best, which is rather a long list.
ROB HARLOWS'S ADVENTURES, A STORY OF THE GRAND CHACO, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
"Don't they bite, sir?"
Smick! smack! flap!
"What's the matter, sir?"
"Hurt it, sir?"
"I should think I have."
"You should wait till they've sucked 'emselves full and then hit 'em; they're lazy then. Too quick for you now."
"The wretches! I shall be spotted all over, like a currant dumpling. I say, Shaddy, do they always bite like this?"
"Well, yes, sir," said the man addressed, about as ugly a specimen of humanity as could be met in a day's march, for he had only one eye, and beneath that a peculiar, puckered scar extending down to the corner of his mouth, shaggy short hair, neither black nor grey—a kind of pepper-and-salt colour—yellow teeth in a very large mouth, and a skin so dark and hairy that he looked like some kind of savage, dressed in a pair of canvas trousers and a shirt that had once been scarlet, but was now stained, faded, and rubbed into a neutral grub or warm earthy tint. He wore no braces, but a kind of belt of what seemed to be snake or lizard skin, fastened with either a silver or pewter buckle. Add to this the fact that his feet were bare, his sleeves rolled up over his mahogany-coloured arms, and that his shirt was open at the throat, showing his full neck and hairy chest; add also that he was about five feet, nine, very broad-shouldered and muscular, and you have Shadrach Naylor, about the last person any one would take to be an Englishman or select for a companion on a trip up one of the grandest rivers of South America.
But there he was that hot, sunny day, standing up in the stern of the broad, lightly built boat which swung by a long rope some fifty feet behind a large schooner, of shallow draught but of lofty rig, so that her tremendous tapering masts might carry their sails high above the trees which formed a verdant wall on each side of the great river, and so catch the breeze when all below was sheltered and calm.
The schooner was not anchored, but fast aground upon one of the shifting sand-banks that made navigation difficult. Here she was likely to lie until the water rose, or a fresh cool wind blew from the south and roughened the dull silvery gleaming surface into waves where she could roll and rock and work a channel for herself through the sand, and sail onward tugging the boat which swung behind.
It was hot, blistering hot! and all was very still save for the rippling murmur of the flowing river and the faint buzz of the insect plagues which had come hunting from the western shore, a couple of hundred yards away, while the eastern was fully two miles off, and the voices of the man and the boy he addressed sounded strange in the vast solitudes through which the mighty river ran.
Not that these two were alone, for there were five more occupants of the boat, one a white man—from his dress—a leg being visible beneath a kind of awning formed of canvas, the other four, Indians or half-breeds—from the absence of clothing and the colour of their skins as they lay forward—fast asleep, like the occupant of the covered-in portion.
The great schooner was broad and Dutch-like in its capacious beam, and manned by a fair-sized crew, but not a soul was visible, for it was early in the afternoon; the vessel was immovable, and all on board were fast asleep.
Shadrach Naylor, too, had been having his nap, with his pipe in his mouth, but it had fallen out with a rap in the bottom of the boat, and this had awakened him with a start to pick it up. He valued that pipe highly as one of his very few possessions—a value not visible to any one else, for intrinsically, if it had been less black and not quite so much chipped, it might have been worth a farthing English current coin of the realm.
So Shadrach Naylor, familiarly known as "Shaddy," opened his one eye so as to find his pipe, picked it up, and was in the act of replacing it in his mouth prior to closing his eye again, when the sharp, piercing, dark orb rested upon Rob Harlow, seated in the stern, roasting in the sun, and holding a line that trailed away overboard into the deep water behind the sand-bank.
Perhaps it was from being so ugly a man and knowing it that Shaddy had a great liking for Rob Harlow, who was an English lad, sun-burnt, brown-haired, well built, fairly athletic, at most sixteen, very good-looking, and perfectly ignorant of the fact.
So Shaddy rose from forward, and, with his toes spreading out like an Indian's, stepped from thwart to thwart till he was alongside of Rob, of whom he asked the question respecting the biting, his inquiry relating to the fish, while Rob's reply applied to the insects which worried him in their search for juicy portions of his skin.
But they were not allowed to feed in peace, for Rob smacked and slapped sharply, viciously, but vainly, doing far more injury to himself than to the gnat-like flies, so, to repeat his words,—
"I say, Shaddy, do they always bite like this?"
"Well, yes, sir," said Shaddy, "mostlings. It's one down and t'other come on with them. It's these here in the morning, and when they've done the sand-flies take their turn till sun goes down, and then out comes the skeeters to make a night of it."
"Ugh!" ejaculated Rob, giving himself a vicious rub. "I'm beginning to wish I hadn't come. It's horrible."
"Not it, youngster. You'll soon get used to 'em. I don't mind; they don't hurt me. Wait a bit, and, pretty little creeturs, you'll like it."
"What! Like being bitten?"
"To be sure, sir. 'Livens you up a bit in this hot sleepy country; does your skin good; stimmylates, like, same as a rub with a good rough towel at home."
Rob gave vent to a surly grunt and jerked his line.
"I don't believe there are any fish here," he said.
"No fish! Ah! that's what we boys used to say o' half-holidays when we took our tackle to Clapham Common to fish the ponds there. We always used to say there was no fish beside the tiddlers, and them you could pull out as fast as you liked with a bit o' worm without a hook, but there was fish there then—big perch and whacking carp, and now and then one of us used to get hold of a good one, and then we used to sing quite another song.—I say, sir!"
"This here's rather different to Clapham Common, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Rob, "but it isn't what I expected."
"What did you 'spect, then? Ain't the river big enough for you?"
"Oh! it's big enough," said the lad, snatching his line in. "Didn't seem like a river down behind there."
"Right, my lad; like being at sea, ain't it?"
"Yes, and it's all so flat where you can see the shore. An ashy, dusty, dreary place, either too hot or too cold! Why, I wouldn't live at Monte Video or Buenos Ayres for all the money in the world."
"And right you'd be, my lad, says Shadrach Naylor. Ah! Why, look at that! Fish is fish all the world over. You don't expect they'll bite at a bare hook, do you?"
"Bother the bait! it's off again," said Rob, who had just pulled in the line. "It always seems to come off."
"Not it, lad. There, I'll put a bit o' meat on for you. It's them little beggars nibbles it off.—There you are; that's a good bait. Perhaps you may get a bite this time. As I says, fish is fish all the world over, and they're the most onaccountable things there is. One day they're savage after food; next day you may hold a bait close to their noses, and they won't look at it. But you're hot and tired, my lad. Why don't you do as others do, take to your sister?"
"My sister!" cried Rob, staring. "I haven't got one."
"I didn't say sister," said Shaddy, showing his yellow teeth; "I said sister—nap."
"I know you did," grumbled Rob; "why don't you say siesta?"
"'Cause I don't care about making mouthfuls of small words, my lad."
Splash! went the freshly thrown-in bait.
"I don't like sleeping in the middle of the day," said Rob as he took a fresh hold of his line.
"Wait a bit, my lad, and you'll like getting a snooze on there when you can get a chance. And so you're a bit disappynted in the country, are you?"
"Yes, but it's been getting better the last few days."
"Yes," said Shaddy, "ever so much; and as soon as you get used to it you'll say it's the beautifullest place in the world."
Rob turned to him quickly, his irritation passing away.
"Yes, it is getting beautiful," he said; "the trees all along that side are very grand."
"Ah," said Shaddy, replacing the great sheath-knife with which he had been cutting up his tobacco in his belt, "and it's bigger and wilder when we get higher up. I don't wonder at their calling it the Grand Chaco."
"The trees are wonderful," said Rob softly as he gazed at the great wall of verdure.
"And it's wonderfuller inside as you go on and up the little rivers or creeks. Just you wait a bit, my lad, and you'll see. I can show you things as'll open your eyes. You won't think the place dull."
"I suppose we are getting up toward quite the middle of South America, aren't we?"
"Getting that way, my lad, but not yet. Wasn't that a bite?"
"No," replied Rob confidently. "I say, Shaddy, are there really any good fish in this river? Isn't it too big?"
"Wants a big river to hold big fish in, millions of 'em, big as you are. Wait, and you'll see."
"But one gets so tired of waiting."
"But we has to wait all the same, and how those 'Talians get up and down as they do is always a wonder to me. I suppose they like waiting, and having their snoozes in the hot sun. 'Tis their nature to. Naples is hot enough, but not like this."
"Have you been to Italy?"
"'Ain't many places I haven't been to, my lad."
"But you've been here a long time."
"Nigh upon twenty year up and down; and when I go to a place I like to forage and ferret about, being fond of a bit o' sport. That's how it is I know so much of the country up here. Couldn't help larning it. No credit to a man then."
"What are you looking at?" said Rob.
"Nothing, but looking out for squalls."
"Change of weather?"
"Nay, not yet. I meant Indian squalls. I didn't know as there were to be no watch kept, or I wouldn't have slept. It ain't safe, my lad, to go to sleep close to the shore this side."
"Why! Wild beasts?"
"Nay, wild Indians, as hates the whites, and would come out from under the trees in their canoes and attack us if they knowed we were here. I told the skipper so, but he's like them 'talians: knows everything himself, so that he as good as told me to mind my own business, and so I did. But this side of the river's all savage and wild, my lad. The people had rough hard times with the old Spaniards, so that every white man's a Spaniard to them, and if they get a chance it's spear or club."
Rob looked rather nervously along the interlacing trees hung with the loveliest of vine and creeper, and then jerked his line.
"Ah, it's all right enough, sir, if you keep your eyes open. I can't, you see: only one."
"How did you lose your eye, Shaddy?"
"Tiger," said the man shortly.
"There are no tigers here," said Rob. "They are in India."
"I know that. Striped ones they are, and bigger than these here. I've known 'em swim off from Johore across to Singapore—though they're big cats—and then lie in wait for the poor Chinese coolie chaps and carry 'em off. They call these big spotted chaps tigers, though, out here; but they're jaggers: that's what they are. Call 'em painters up in Texas and Arizona and them parts north. Jaggered my eye out anyhow."
"How was it?"
"I was shooting, and after lying in wait for one of the beggars for nights, I saw my gentleman—coming after a calf he was—and I shot him. 'Dead!' I says, for he just gave one snarly cry, turned over on his back, clawed about a bit, and then lay down on his side, and I went up, knife in hand, meaning to have his spotted skin."
Shaddy stopped and laid his hand over the scar and empty eye cavity, as if they throbbed still.
"Well?" cried Rob eagerly.
"No; it wasn't well, my lad. All the worst's coming. He wasn't dead a bit, and before I knew where I was, he sent my rifle flying, and he had me. It was one leap and a wipe down the face with his right paw, and then his jaws were fixed in my right shoulder, and down I went on my back. If I hadn't twisted a bit he'd have torn me with his hind claws same as a cat does a great rat, and then I shouldn't have been here to be your guide. As it was, he kicked and tore up the earth, and then he left go of my shoulder and turned over on his side, and died in real earnest."
"The bullet had taken effect?"
"Nay, my lad; it was my knife. I thought it was my turn again, and, as I had it in my hand, I felt for his heart, and found it."
"Yes, it was, my lad, very; but I won that game. I didn't get the skin money, for I didn't care for it then. I couldn't see very well. Why, I was quite blind for a month after, and then all the strength of two eyes seemed to go into this one. Painters they call 'em nor'ard, as I said; and he painted me prettily, didn't he, right down this cheek? Never saw a girl who thought me handsome enough to want to marry me."
"What is it?" said Rob.
"I was thinking about Mr Brazier yonder when I came to you at Buenos Ayres."
"What, when he was waiting for the guide Captain Ossolo said he could recommend?"
"He looked quite scared at me. Most people do; and the captain had quite a job to persuade him that I should be the very man."
"Yes, and it was not till the captain said he would not get one half so good that he engaged you."
"That's so, my lad. But I am a rum 'un, ain't I?"
"You're not nice-looking, Shaddy," said Rob, gazing at him thoughtfully; "but I never notice it now, and—well, yes, you are always very kind to me. I like you," added the boy frankly.
Shaddy's one eye flashed, and he did not look half so ferocious.
"Thank ye, my lad," he cried, stretching out his great hand. "Would you mind laying your fist in there and saying that again?"
Rob laughed, looked full in the man's eye, and laid his hand in the broad palm, but wished the next moment that he had not, for the fingers closed over his with a tremendous grip.
"I say, you hurt!" he cried.
"Ay, I suppose so," said Shaddy, loosing his grip a little. "I forgot that. Never mind. It was meant honest, and Mr Brazier shan't repent bringing me."
"I don't think he does now," said Rob. "He told me yesterday that you were a staunch sort of fellow."
"Ah! thank ye," said Shaddy, smiling more broadly; and his ruffianly, piratical look was superseded by a frank aspect which transformed him. "You see, Mr Harlow, I'm a sort of a cocoa-nutty fellow, all shaggy husk outside. You find that pretty tough till you get through it, and then you ain't done, for there's the shell, and that's hard enough to make you chuck me away; but if you persevere with me, why, there inside that shell is something that ain't peach, nor orange, nor soft banana, but not such very bad stuff after all."
"I should think it isn't," cried Rob. "I say, it would make some of our boys at home stare who only know cocoa-nut all hard and woody, and the milk sickly enough to throw away, if they could have one of the delicious creamy nuts that we get here."
"Yes, my lad, they're not bad when you're thirsty, nor the oranges either."
"Delicious!" cried Rob.
"Ay. I've lived for weeks at a time on nothing but oranges and cocoanuts, and a bit of fish caught just now and then with my hands, when I've been exploring like and hunting for gold."
"For gold? Is there gold about here?"
"Lots, my lad, washed down the rivers. I've often found it."
"Then you ought to be rich."
The man chuckled.
"Gold sounds fine, sir, but it's a great cheat. My 'sperience of gold has always been that it takes two pounds' worth of trouble to get one pound's worth o' metal. So that don't pay. Seems to me from what I hear that it's the same next door with dymons."
"Well, up yonder in Brazil. I should say your Mr Brazier will do better collecting vegetables, if so be he can find any one to buy 'em afterwards. What do you call 'em—orkards?"
"Orchids," said Rob.
"But who's going to buy 'em?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Rob, laughing. "There are plenty of people glad to get them in England for their hothouses. Besides, there are the botanists always very eager to see any new kinds."
"Better try and get some new kinds o' birds. There's lots here with colours that make your eyes ache. They'd be better than vegetables. Why, right up north—I've never seen any down here—there's little humpy birds a bit bigger than a cuckoo, with tails a yard long and breasts ever so much ruddier than robins', and all the rest of a green that shines as if the feathers were made of copper and gold mixed."
"Mr Brazier hasn't come after birds."
"Well then, look here; I can put him up to a better way of making money. What do you say to getting lots of things to send to the 'Logical Gardens? Lions and tigers and monkeys—my word, there are some rum little beggars of monkeys out here."
"No lions in America, Shaddy."
"Oh, ain't there, my lad? I'll show you plenty, leastwise what we calls lions here. I'll tell you what—snakes and serpents. They'd give no end for one of our big water-snakes. My word, there are some whackers up these rivers."
"How big?" said Rob, hiding a smile—"two hundred feet long?"
"Gammon!" growled Shaddy; "I ain't one of your romancing sort. Truth's big enough for me. So's the snakes I've seen. I've had a skin of one fellow six-and-twenty foot long, and as opened out nearly nine foot laid flat. I dessay it stretched a bit in the skinning, but it shrunk a bit in the drying, so that was about its size, and I've seen more than one that must have been longer, though it's hard to measure a twisting, twirling thing with your eye when it's worming its way through mud and water and long grass."
"Water-snakes, eh?" said Rob, who was beginning to be impressed by the man's truth.
"Ay, water-snakes. They're anti-bilious sort of things, as some folks calls 'em—can't live out of the water and dies in."
He laughed merrily as he said this.
"That's true enough, my lad, for they wants both land and water. I've seen 'em crawl into a pool and curl themselves up quite comfortable at the bottom and lie for hours together. You could see 'em with the water clear as cryschial. Other times they seem to like to be in the sun. But wait a bit, and I'll show 'em to you, ugly beggars, although they're not so very dangerous after all. Always seemed as scared of me as I was of—hist! don't move. Just cast your eye round a bit to starboard and look along the shore."
Rob turned his eye quickly, and saw a couple of almost naked Indians standing on an open patch beneath the trees, each holding a long, thin lance in his hand. They were watching the water beneath the bank very attentively, as if in search of something, just where quite a field of lilies covered the river, leaving only a narrow band clear, close to the bank.
"Don't take no notice of 'em," said Shaddy; "they're going fishing."
"Wish them better luck than I've had," said Rob. "Fishing! Those are their rods, then; I thought they were spears."
"So they are, my lad," whispered Shaddy. "They're off. No fish there."
As he spoke the two living-bronze figures disappeared among the trees as silently as they had come.
"Of course there are no fish," said Rob wearily as he drew in his baitless line, the strong gimp hook being quite bare. "Hullo, here comes Joe!"
CATCHING A DORADO.
For at that minute a slight sound from the schooner made him cast his eyes in that direction and see a lithe-looking lad of about his own age sliding down a rope into a little boat alongside, and then, casting off the painter, the boat drifted with the current to that in which Rob was seated.
"Had your nap?" said Rob.
"Yes," replied the lad in good English, but with a slight Italian accent, as he fastened the little dinghy and stepped on board. "How many have you caught?"
Rob winced, and Shaddy chuckled, while Giovanni Ossolo, son of the captain of the Italian river schooner Tessa, looked sharply from one to the other, as if annoyed that the rough fellow should laugh at him.
"Shall I show him all you've caught, sir?" said Shaddy.
"Haven't had a touch, Joe," said Rob, an intimacy of a month on the river having shortened the other's florid Italian name as above.
The Italian lad showed his teeth.
"You don't know how to fish," he said.
"You'd better try yourself," said Rob. "You people talk about the fish in the Parana, but I've seen more alligators than sprats."
"Shall I catch one?" said the new-comer.
"Yes; let's see you."
The lad nodded and showed his white teeth.
"Give me an orange," he said.
Rob rose and stepped softly to the awning, thrust his hand into a basket beneath the shelter, and took out three, returning to give one to the young Italian and one to Shaddy, reserving the last for himself and beginning to peel it at once.
Giovanni, alias Joe—who had passed nearly the whole of his life on his father's schooner, which formed one of the little fleet of Italian vessels trading between Monte Video and Assuncion, the traffic being largely carried on by the Italian colony settled in the neighbourhood of the former city—took his orange, peeled it cleverly with his thin brown fingers, tossed the skin overboard for it to be nosed about directly by a shoal of tiny fish, and then pulled it in half, picked up the gimp hook and shook his head, laid the hook back on the thwart, and pulled the orange apart once more, leaving two carpels, one side of which he skinned so as to bare the juicy pulp.
"The hook is too small," said the boy quietly.
"Why, it's a jack hook, such as we catch big pike with at home. But you're not going to bait with that?"
"Yes," said the lad, carefully thrusting the hook through the orange after passing it in by a piece of the skin which, for the first time, Rob saw he had left.
"I never heard of a bait like that."
"Oh, I dunno, my lad," said Shaddy. "I've caught carp with green peas and gooseberries at home."
"Orange the best bait for a dorado," said the Italian softly, as he placed the point of the hook to his satisfaction.
"Dorado? That ought to be Spanish for a golden carp," said Rob.
"That's it. You've about hit it, my lad," cried Shaddy, "for these here are as much like the gold-fish you see in the globes at home as one pea's like another."
"Then they're only little fish?" said Rob, with a contemptuous tone in his voice.
"Oh yes, only little ones, my lad," said Shaddy, exchanging glances with the new-comer, who lowered the baited hook softly over the side of the boat, and rapidly paid out the line as the orange was borne away by the current.
"There, Rob, you fish!" the Italian said. "Hold tight if one comes."
"No; go on," replied Rob. "I'm hot and tired. Bother the flies!"
The young Italian nodded, and sitting down, twisted the end of the stout line round a pin in the side of the boat, looking, in his loose flannel shirt and trousers and straw hat, just such a lad as might be seen any summer day on the river Thames, save that he was bare-footed instead of wearing brown leather or canvas shoes. Excepting the heavy breathing of the sleepers forward, there was perfect silence once again till Shaddy said,—
"Wind to-night, gentlemen, and the schooner will be off the bank."
"The pampero?" said Giovanni—or, to shorten it to Rob's familiar nickname, Joe—quietly.
"Looks like it, my lad. There you have him."
For all at once the line tightened, so that there was a heavy strain on the side of the boat.
"That's one of them little ones, Mr Rob, sir."
Joe frowned, and there was a very intense look in his eyes as the line cut the water to and fro, showing that some large fish had taken the bait and was struggling vigorously to escape.
Rob was all excitement now, and ready to bewail his luck at having given up the chance of holding so great a capture on the hook.
"To think o' me not recollecting the orange bait!" grumbled Shaddy. "Must have been half asleep!"
Those were intense moments, but moments they were; for after a few rushes here and there the taut line suddenly grew slack, and as Rob uttered an ejaculation expressive of his disappointment Joe laughed quietly and drew in the line.
"Look," he said, holding up the fragment of gimp attached by its loop to the line. "I knew it was not strong enough."
"Bit it in two," said Shaddy. "Ah, they have some teeth of their own, the fish here. Ought to call 'em dogfish, for most of 'em barks and bites."
While he was speaking Joe had moved to the side of the dinghy, reached over to a little locker in the stern, opened it, and returned directly with a big ugly-looking hook swinging on a piece of twisted wire by its eye.
"They will not bite through that," he said as he returned.
"Oh, but that's absurdly big," said Rob, laughing. "That would frighten a forty-pound pike."
"But it wouldn't frighten a sixty-pound dorado, my lad," said Shaddy quietly.
"What?" cried Rob. "Why, how big do you think that fish was that got away?"
"Thirty or forty pound, perhaps more."
By this time the young Italian was dividing the orange which Shaddy had laid upon the thwart beside him, and half of this, with the pulp well bare, he placed upon the hook, firmly securing this to the line.
"Now, Rob, your turn," said Joe; and the lad eagerly took hold, lowered the bait, and tossed over some twenty yards of line.
"Better twist it round the pin," said his companion.
"Oh no, sir; hold it."
"Well, then, let me secure the end fast."
Rob was ready to resent this, for he felt confidence in his own powers; but he held his tongue, and waited impatiently minute after minute, in expectation of the bite which did not come.
"No luck, eh?" said Shaddy. "I say, I hope you're not going to catch a water-snake. I'll get my knife out to cut him free; shall I? He might sink us."
"Do be quiet," said Rob excitedly. "Might have one of those John Doreys any moment."
But still the minutes went on, and there was no sign.
"How are you going to manage if you hook one?" said Joe quietly.
"Play him till he's tired."
"Mind the line doesn't cut your fingers. No, no, don't twist it round your hand; they pull very hard. Let him go slowly till all the line's out."
"When he bites," said Rob in disappointed tones. "Your one has frightened them all away, or else the bait's off."
"No; I fixed it too tightly."
Just then there was a yawn forward, and another from a second of the Indians.
"Waking," said Rob. "May as well give it up as a bad job."
"No, no, don't do that, sir. You never know when you're going to catch a big fish. Didn't you have a try coming across?"
"No; they said the steamer went too fast, and the screw frightened all the fish away."
"Ay, it would. But you'd better keep on. Strikes me it won't be fishing weather to-morrow."
Thung went the line, which tightened as if it had been screwed by a peg, and Rob felt a jerk up his arms anything but pleasant to his muscles; while, in spite of his efforts, the line began to run through his fingers as jerk succeeded jerk. But the excitement made him hold on and give out as slowly as he could. The friction, though, was such that to check it he wound his left hand in the stout cord, but only to feel it cut so powerfully into his flesh that during a momentary slackening he gladly got his left hand free, lowered both, so that the line rested on the gunwale of the boat, and, making this take part of the stress, let the fish go.
"Best way to catch them fellows is to have a canoe and a very strong line, so as he can tow you about till he's tired," said Shaddy.
"Is the end quite safe?" panted Rob, whose nerves were throbbing with excitement; and he was wondering that his new friend could be so impassive and cool.
"Yes, quite tight," was the reply, just as all the line had glided out; and as Rob held on he was glad to have the help afforded by the line being made fast to the pin.
"What do you say now, sir?" cried Shaddy.
"Oh, don't talk, pray."
"All right, sir, all right; but he's going it, ain't he? Taking a regular gallop over the bottom, eh?"
"I do hope this hook will hold."
"It will," said Giovanni; "you can't say it's too big now."
"No," said Rob in a husky whisper. "But what is it—a shark?"
"I never heard o' sharks up in these parts," said Shaddy, laughing.
"Or would it be an alligator? It is awfully strong. Look at that."
This was as the prisoner made a furious rush through the water right across the stern.
"Nay; it's no alligator, my lad. If it were I should expect to see him come up to the top and poke out his ugly snout, as if to ask us what game we called this. Precious cunning chaps they are, and as they live by fishing, they'd say it wasn't fair."
"Oh, Shaddy, do hold your tongue!" cried Rob. "I say, Joe, how long will it take to tire him?"
"Don't know," said the lad, laughing. "He's tiring you first."
"Yes; but how are we to get him on board?"
"Hullo, Rob, lad! caught a fish or a tartar?" said a fresh voice, and a bronzed, sturdy man of about seven-and-thirty stepped up behind them, putting on a pith helmet and suppressing a yawn, for he had just risen from his nap under the awning.
"Think it's a Tartar," said Rob between his set teeth.
"Or a whale," said the fresh comer, laughing. "Perhaps we had better cut adrift."
"No, no, sir," cried Rob excitedly. "I must catch him."
"I meant from the schooner, so as to let him tow us if he will take us up stream instead of down."
"No; don't move; don't do anything," cried Rob hoarsely. "I'm so afraid of his breaking away."
"Well, he is doing his best, my lad."
"Getting tired, Mr Brazier," said the Italian lad. "They are very strong."
"They? What is it, then—a fresh-water seal?"
"No; a dorado. I know it by the way it pulls."
"Oh, then, let's have him caught," said Martin Brazier, head of the little expedition up the great Southern river. "I am eager to see the gilded one. Steady, Rob, my lad! Give him time."
"He has had time enough," said Giovanni quickly. "Begin to pull in now, and he will soon be beaten."
Rob began to haul, and drew the fish a couple of yards nearer the boat, but he lost all he had gained directly, for the captive made a frantic dash for liberty, and careered wildly to and fro some minutes longer. Then, as fresh stress was brought to bear, it gradually yielded, stubbornly at first, then more and more, till the line was gathering fast in the bottom of the boat, and a sudden splash and tremendous eddy half a dozen yards away showed that the fish was close to the surface.
Just then the Italian captain's son came close up to Rob, and stood looking over, holding a large hook which he had fetched from the dinghy; but he drew back, and looked in Mr Brazier's face.
"Would you like to hook it in?" he said, "or shall we let him go? It is a very big one, and will splash about."
"Better let me, sir," said Shaddy, drawing his knife. "Keep clear of him, too, for he may bite."
Martin Brazier looked sharply at the man he had engaged for his guide, expecting to see a furtive smile, but Shaddy was perfectly serious, and read his meaning.
"It's all right, sir; they do bite, and bite sharply, too. Give us the hook, youngster."
He took the hook the young Italian handed, and as Rob dragged the fish, which still plunged fiercely, nearer the side, he leaned over, and after the line had been given twice and hauled in again, there was a gleam of orange and gold, then a flash as the captive turned upon its side, and before it could give another beat with its powerful caudal fin, Shaddy deftly thrust the big hook in one of its gills, and the next moment the dorado was dragged over the gunwale to lay for a moment in the bright sunshine a mass of dazzling orange and gold, apparently astonished or half stunned. The next it was beating the bottom heavily with its tail, leaping up from side to side and taking possession of the stern of the boat, till a sharp tug of the hook brought its head round, and a thrust from Shaddy's knife rendered the fierce creature partially helpless.
Rob's arms ached, and his hands were sore, but he forgot everything in the contemplation of the magnificent fish he had captured. For as it lay there now, feebly opening and closing its gills, it was wonderfully like an ordinary gold-fish of enormous size, the orange-and-gold scale armour in which it was clad being so gorgeous that, in spite of his triumph in the capture, Rob could not help exclaiming,—
"What a pity to have killed it!"
"There are plenty more," said Joe, smiling.
"Yes, but it is so beautiful," said Rob regretfully.
"Yet we should not have seen its beauty," said Brazier, "if we had not caught it." And he bent down to examine the fish more closely.
"Mind your eye, sir," shouted Shaddy.
"You mean my finger, I suppose," said Brazier, snatching back his hand.
"That's so, sir," replied Shaddy. "I'd a deal rather have mine in a rat-trap. Just you look here!"
He picked up the boat-hook and presented the end of the pole to the fish as its jaws gaped open, and touched the palate. In an instant the mouth closed with a snap, and the teeth were driven into the hard wood.
"There, sir," continued Shaddy, "that's when he's half dead. You can tell what he's like when he's all alive in the water. Pretty creetur, then," he continued, apostrophising the dying fish, "it was a pity to kill you. They'll be pretty glad down below, though, to get rid of you. Wonder how many other better-looking fish he ate every day, Mr Harlow, sir?"
"I didn't think of that," said Rob, feeling more comfortable, and his regret passing away.
"With teeth like that, he must have been a regular water tyrant," said Brazier, after a long examination of the fish, from whose jaws the pole was with difficulty extracted. "There, take it away," he continued. "Your cook will make something of it, eh, Giovanni?"
"Yes," said the lad; "we'll have some for dinner."
"But what do you suppose it weighs?" cried Rob.
"Good sixty-pound, sir," said Shaddy, raising the captive on the hook at arm's length. "Wo-ho!" he shouted as the fish made a struggle, quivering heavily from head to tail. "There you are!" he cried, dropping it into the dinghy. Then in the Guarani dialect he told two of the Indian boatmen to take it on board the schooner, over whose stern several dark faces had now appeared, and soon after the gorgeous-looking trophy was hauled up the vessel's side and disappeared.
AN ITALIAN ALLIANCE.
"Now, sir, if you please," said Shaddy, "I think it's time to do something to this covering-in. We've had fine weather so far, but it's going to change. What do you say to spreading another canvas over the top?"
"If you think it's necessary, do it at once."
"It's going to rain soon," said the Italian lad, who was seated by Rob carefully winding up the line so that it might dry.
"And when it do rain out here, sir, it ain't one of your British mizzles, but regular cats and dogs. It comes down in bucketfuls. And, as you know, the best thing toward being healthy's keeping a dry skin, which you can't do in wet clothes."
Work was commenced at once after the boat had been swabbed clean, and a canvas sheet being unfolded, it was stretched over the ridge pole which covered in a portion of the boat, tightly tied down over the sides, and secured fore and aft.
"There," said Shaddy when he had finished, the boys and Mr Brazier helping willingly, "if we can keep the wind out we shall be all right now. Nothing like keeping your victuals and powder dry. Not much too soon, sir, eh?"
Martin Brazier and his companion had been too busy to notice the change that had come over the sky; but now they looked up to see that the sun was covered by a dull haze, which rapidly grew more dense. The heat that had prevailed for many days, during which they had fought their way slowly up the great river, passed rapidly away, and Rob suggested that rain would begin to fall soon.
"Not yet, my lad. These are not rain-clouds," said Shaddy; "that's only dust."
"Dust? Where are the roads for it to blow off?" said Rob incredulously.
"Roads? No roads, but off the thousands of miles of dry plains."
Just then a hail came from the schooner, the captain looking over, and in extremely bad English suggesting that the party should come on board; but directly after he lapsed into Italian, addressed to his son.
"Father says we shall have two or three days' rain and bad weather, and that you will be more comfortable on board till the storm has gone by."
"Yes," said Mr Brazier, "no doubt, but I don't like leaving the boat."
"She'll be all right, sir," said Shaddy. "I'll stop aboard with one of the Indians. Bit o' rain won't hurt us."
Mr Brazier hesitated.
"Better go, sir."
"To refuse would be showing want of confidence in him," said Brazier to Rob, and then aloud,—
"Very well. Take care of the guns, and see that nothing gets wet."
Just then there was a whirling rush of cool wind, which rippled the whole surface of the water.
"I shall take care of 'em, sir," said Shaddy. "Here comes the dinghy. Better get aboard whilst you can. She'll be off that sand-bank 'fore an hour's past. You can send us a bit of the fish, Mr Harlow. Haul us up close, and drop some in."
"Yes, I'll look after you, Shaddy," replied Rob.
"And if this wind holds we shall soon be in the Paraguay river, sir, and sailing into another climate, as you'll see."
They went on board the schooner, where they were warmly welcomed by the Italian skipper, and in less time than Shaddy had suggested there was a heavy sea on, which rocked the loftily masted vessel from side to side. Then a sail or two dropped down, a tremendous gust of moisture-laden air came from the south, the schooner rose, dipped her bowsprit, creaked loudly, and as quite a tidal wave rushed up the river before the storm she seemed to leap off the sand-bank on its crest right into deep water, and sailed swiftly away due north.
All whose duty did not keep them on deck were snugly housed in the cabin, listening to the deafening roar of the thunder and watching the lightning, which flashed incessantly, while the rain beat and thrashed the decks and poured out of the scuppers in cascades.
"They were right," said Brazier to Rob. "We're better here, but if this goes on our boat will be half full of water, and not a thing left dry."
"Shaddy will take care of them," said Rob quietly. "Besides, most of the things are packed in casks, and will not hurt."
Mr Brazier shook his head.
"I don't know," he said; "I'm afraid we shall have to renew our stock of provisions and powder at Assuncion, and they'll make us pay pretty dearly for it, too."
The storm lasted well through the night, but at daybreak the rain had ceased. When they went on deck, there, swinging behind them, was the drenched boat, with Shaddy seated astern, scooping out the last drops of water with a tin, and saving that the canvas tent was saturated and steamed slightly, nothing seemed wrong. The morning was comparatively cool, a gleam of orange light coming in the east, and a pleasant gale blowing from the south and sending the shallow-draughted schooner onward at a rapid pace.
A couple of hours later, with the sun well up, the temperature was delicious, the canvas of the boat tent drying rapidly, and Shaddy, after hauling close up astern for the fish he had not forgotten, had reported that not a drop of water had got inside to the stores.
Days followed of pleasant sailing, generally with the pampero blowing, but with a few changes round to the north, when, as they tacked up the river, it was like being in another climate.
One or two stoppages followed at the very few towns on the banks, and at last the junction of the two great rivers was reached, the Parana, up which they had sailed, winding off to the east and north, the Paraguay, up which their destination lay, running in a winding course due north.
As Shaddy had prophesied, the change was wonderful as soon as they had entered this river, and fresh scenes and novelties were constantly delighting Rob's eyes as they slowly sailed on against the current.
"Oh yes, this is all very well," said Shaddy; "but wait till we've got past the big city yonder and left the schooners and trade and houses behind: then I shall show you something. All this don't count."
Mr Brazier seemed to think that it did, and a dozen times over he was for bidding Captain Ossolo good-bye, thanking and paying him for towing him up the river, and turning off at once into one of the streams that ran in through the virgin land west. But Shaddy opposed him.
"I'm only your servant, Mr Brazier, sir," he said, "and I'll do what you say; but you told me you wanted to go into quite noo country. Well, it will be easier for me to take you up one of these creeks or rivers, and you'll be able to hunt and collect; only recollect that it isn't such very noo country—other folks have been up here and there. What I say is, give the skipper good-bye when we get to Assuncion, and then we'll sail and row and pole up a couple of hundred miles farther, and then turn off west'ard. Then I can take you up rivers where everything's noo to Englishmen, and in such a country as shall make you say that you couldn't ha' thought there was such a land on earth."
Similar conversations to this took place again and again, and all fired Martin Brazier's brain as much as they did Rob's.
They had an unexpected effect, too, for, on reaching Assuncion, where the schooner cast anchor to discharge her cargo and take in a fresh one for the downward journey, Captain Ossolo came over into the boat one evening with his son, just as Brazier and Rob were busy with Shaddy packing in stores which had been freshly purchased, as possibly this would be the last place where they could provide themselves with some of the necessaries of life.
"Ah, captain," cried Brazier, "I'm glad you've come. I want to have a settlement with you for all you've done."
The captain nodded, and rubbed one brown ear, making the gold ring therein glisten.
"What am I in your debt?" continued Brazier, "though no money can pay you for your kindness to us and excellent advice."
The captain was silent, and took to rubbing the other ear, his face wearing a puzzled expression.
"Don't be afraid to speak out, sir," continued Brazier; "I am sure you will find me generous."
"Si! yes," said the captain, holding out his hand, which was at once taken; "much please—good fellow—amico—bono—altro—altro!"
He broke down and looked confused.
"I understand you," said Brazier, speaking slowly; "and so are you a good fellow. I wish I could speak Italian. Do you understand me?"
"Si! si!" said the captain, nodding his head.
"We both hope to find you here again when we return, for you to help us down the river again with the collections we shall have made."
This last puzzled the captain a little; but his son, who was at his elbow, interpreted, and he nodded his head vehemently.
"Si! si!" he cried. "Take you back on Tessa. Get fever? No. Get hurt? No. Come back safe."
"My father means you are to take care of yourselves," said Joe, "both you and Rob. Shaddy has promised to help you all he can."
"Ah, to be sure I will; depend upon that," said the individual named.
"And father wants to say something else," said Joe.
"Yes, of course," said Brazier rather impatiently. "What am I in his debt?"
"Shall I tell him, father?" said the lad in Italian.
The lad cleared his voice, and fixed his eyes on Rob, but turned them directly after upon Brazier.
"My father says he will not take any money for what he has done."
"Oh, nonsense!" cried Brazier; "he must."
"No!" cried the skipper, frowning as he shook his head till his earrings glistened.
"He wants you to do him a favour."
"What does he so want—a gun, a watch, some powder?"
"No," said the lad, clearing his throat again; "he wants you to be a friend to me and take me with you in the boat."
"What?" cried Rob, with an eager look.
"Father—il mio padre—says it would do me good to go with you and travel, and learn to speak English better."
"Why, you speak it well now."
"But better," continued Joe. "He would like me to go with Rob, and help you, and shoot and fish and collect things. He would like it very much."
Captain Ossolo showed his teeth and laughed merrily as he clapped his son on the shoulder.
"Do you understand what your son says?" cried Brazier.
"Si! All he say. Giovanni want go bad, very much bad."
"I thought so," said Brazier. Then turning to the lad, "Do you know that we may be months away?"
"Yes, I know," said the lad eagerly. "Father says it would—Please take me, Signore Brazier. I will be so useful, and I can fish, and cook, and light fires."
"And lay the blame on your father, eh? He wants you to go?"
"He says I may, signore—I mean sir. He promised me that he would ask you."
"I understand," said Brazier; "but, my good lad, do you know that we shall have to rough it very much?"
"Bah!" exclaimed the boy. "You will have the boat, and Shaddy, and the four Indian rowers. The country is paradise. It will be a holiday, a delight."
"And the insects, the wild beasts, the dangers of disease?"
"What of them? We shall be on the rivers, and I have been on rivers half my life. Pray take me, signore."
Brazier shook his head, and a look of agony convulsed the boy's Southern features.
"Speak to him, my father," he cried excitedly, "and you, Rob. We were making friends. Beg, pray of him to say yes."
"Si!" said the captain, nodding his head. "Do boy mio good. Much, very good boy, Giovanni."
"Well, I hardly like to refuse you, my lad," said Brazier. "What do you say, Rob? Could we make room for him?"
A light seemed to flash from Giovanni's eyes, and his lips parted as he waited panting for Rob's reply.
"Oh yes; he would not take up much room."
"No, very little. I could sleep anywhere," cried the lad excitedly, "and I could help you so much. I know the country almost as well as Shaddy. Don't I, Shaddy?"
"Say ever so much more, boy, if you like. But he does know a lot about it. Me and he's been more than one trip together, eh, lad?"
"Yes. But beg him to take me, Rob," cried the boy. "I do so want to go."
"You will take him, will you not, Mr Brazier?"
"I shrink from the responsibility," said Brazier.
"I'll take the responsibility, then," cried Rob eagerly.
"Suppose I say 'no'?"
Giovanni's countenance changed at every speech, being one moment clouded, the next bright. And now as that word "No" rang out he clasped his hands together and raised them with a gesture full of despair. Then his eyes lit up again, for Rob said quickly,—
"Don't say it, then. He would be so horribly disappointed now."
"Si! Take Giovanni," said the skipper, and the boy gave him a grateful glance.
"But suppose anything happens to him?"
The Italian captain could not grasp the meaning of this last speech, and turned to his son, who rendered it into their own tongue.
"Oh," replied the captain in the same language, "it is fate. He must take care of himself. Suppose I fall overboard, and am drowned, or the fish eat me? Yes, he must take care."
"You would like him with us, then, Rob?" said Brazier.
"Yes, very much."
"That's enough, then. You shall come, my lad. Wait a moment; hear what I have to say. You must be obedient and follow out my instructions."
"Yes; I'll do everything you tell me," cried the boy.
"And you will have to do as we do—live hard and work hard."
"I'm not afraid of work," said the boy, smiling.
"And now interpret this to your father. I will do everything I can to protect you, and you shall be like one of us, but he must not expect me to be answerable for any mishaps that may come to us out in the wilds."
Giovanni turned eagerly to his father, but the skipper waved his hand.
"Understand," he said, nodding his head. "I you trust. Take il mio boy."
He held out his hand to Brazier, and shook his solemnly as if in sign manual of the compact, and then repeated the performance with Rob, whose hand he retained, and, taking his son's, placed them together.
"Fratelli! broders!" he said, smiling.
"Yes, I will be like a brother to you," cried Giovanni.
"All right," said Rob unpoetically; and then the skipper turned to Shadrach, and grumbled out something in Italian.
"Toe be sure," growled the man in English. "'Course I will. You know me, cap'en."
"Si!" replied the skipper laconically; and then, asking Rob to accompany him, the Italian lad made for his little cabin to begin the few preparations he had to make.
The result was that a canvas bag like a short bolster was handed down into the boat, and then the boy followed with a light, useful-looking rifle, belt and long keen sheath-knife, which he hung up under the canvas to be clear of the night dew or rain.
It was still grey the next morning when the boatmen sat ready with their oars, and Captain Ossolo stood in the dinghy beside Brazier's boat, which swung astern of the Tessa, down into whose hold scores of light-footed women were passing basketfuls of oranges.
They paused in their work for a few minutes as the captain shook hands with all in turn.
"A revederla!" he cried, taking off his Panama hat. "I see you when you come back, ole boy; goo'-bye; take yourself care of you."
The next minute he was waving his soft hat from the dinghy, while Brazier's boat was gliding up stream, and the two boys stood up and gave him a hearty cheer.
"Now, youngsters," said Shaddy, as he cleared the little mast lying under the thwarts, "we shall catch the wind as soon as we're round the next bend; so we may as well let Natur' do the work when she will."
"What's that, Shadrach?" said Brazier; "going to hoist the sail?"
"Ay, sir. No Tessa to tow us now."
"True. What do you mean to do first?"
"Ask you to resist all temptations to stop at what you calls likely bits, sir, and wait till we get up a hundred mile or so, when I'll take you into waters which will be exactly what you want."
"Very good; I leave myself then in your hands."
"Just to start you, sir. After that it's you as takes the helm."
As their guide said, the wind was fair as soon as they had rowed round a bend of the great, smooth river; the sail was hoisted, the oars laid in, and the Indian rowers too, for as soon as they had ceased pulling they lay down forward to sleep, and that night the boat was moored to a tree on the eastern side of the stream, far-away from the haunts of civilised man, while Rob lay sleepless, listening to the strange and weird sounds which rose from the apparently impenetrable forest on the far-away western shore.
NOISES OF THE NIGHT.
"Not asleep, my lad?" said a voice at his elbow as Rob crept out from under the awning to the extreme stern.
"You, Shaddy? No, I can't sleep. It all seems so strange."
"Ay, it do to you," said the man in a husky whisper. "You've got it just on you now strong. You couldn't go to sleep because you thought that them four Indian chaps forward might come with their knives and finish you and drop you overboard—all of us."
"How do you know I thought that?"
"Ah, I know!" said Shaddy, with a chuckle. "Everybody does. I did first time. Well, they won't, so you needn't be afeared o' that. Nex' thing as kept you awake was that you thought a great boa-constructor might be up in the tree and come crawling down into the boat."
"Shaddy, are you a witch?" cried Rob.
"Not as I knows on, my lad."
"Then how did you know that?"
"Human natur', lad. Every one thinks just like that. Next you began thinking that them pretty creeturs you can hear singing like great cats would swim across and attack us, or some great splashing fish shove his head over the side to take a bite at one of us. Didn't you?"
Rob was silent for a few moments, and then said,—
"Well, I did think something of the kind."
"Of course you did. It is your nature to think like that, but you may make your mind easy, for there's only one thing likely to attack you out here."
"What's that?" whispered Rob—"Indians who will swim out from the shore?"
"No, wild creeturs who will fly—skeeters, lad, skeeters."
"Oh," said Rob, with a little laugh, "they've been busy enough already, two or three of them. But what's that?"
He grasped Shaddy's arm, for at that moment there was a plunge in the river not very far-away in the darkness from where they were moored, and then silence.
"Dunno yet," said Shaddy in a whisper. "Listen."
Rob needed no telling, for his every nerve was on the strain. There came a peculiar grunting sound, very unlike any noise that might have been made by a swimming Indian, and Shaddy said quietly,—
"Water hog. Carpincho they calls 'em; big kind of porky, beavery, ottery, ratty sort of thing; and not bad eating."
Rob pressed his arm again as a sharp, piercing howl came from far-away over the river, here about four or five hundred yards across.
"That's a lion," said Shaddy quietly. "Strikes me they shout like that to scare the deer and things they live on into making a rush, and then they're down upon 'em like a cat upon a mouse."
"Lion? You mean a puma."
"Means a South American lion, my lad."
"There it is again," whispered Rob in an awe-stricken voice, "only it's a deeper tone, and sounds more savage."
"That's just what it is," said Shaddy, "ever so much more savage. That wasn't a lion; that was a tiger—well, jagger, as some calls 'em. Deal fiercer beasts than the lions."
The cries were repeated and answered from a distance, while many other strange noises arose, to which the man could give no name.
"One would want half a dozen lives to be able to get at all of it, my lad," said Shaddy quietly, "and there's such lots of things that cheat you so."
"Hist! There's another splash," whispered Rob.
"Ay; there's no mistake about that, my lad. There it goes again, double one. It's as plain as if you can see it, a big fish springing out of the water, turning over, and falling in again with a flop. You don't think there's no fish in the river now, do you?"
"Oh no. I don't doubt it now," whispered Rob, as he listened to fish after fish rising, and all apparently very large.
"Makes a man wonder what they are jumping after, unless it is the stars shining in the water. You hear that?"
"And that, too?"
"Yes, I hear them," replied Rob, unable to repress a shiver, so strange and weird were the cries which came mournfully floating across.
"Well, them two used to puzzle me no end—one of 'em a regular roar and the other quite a moan, as if somebody was a-dying."
"You know what it is now?"
"Yes, and you'd never guess, my lad, till you said one was made by a bird."
"Yes, a long-legged heron kind of thing as trumpets it out with a roar like a strange, savage beast; and the other moaning, groaning sound is made by a frog. I don't mind owning it used to scare me at first."
Rob sat listening to the weird chorus going on in the forest and watching the stars above, and their slightly blurred reflections in the water which went whispering by the prow and side of the boat. It was all so solemn, and strange, and awe-inspiring that, in spite of a feeling of dread which he could not master, he was glad to be there, wakeful, trying to picture the different creatures prowling about in the darkness of the primeval forest. He had listened time after time on the voyage up, but then the schooner was close at hand, and they passed towns and villages on the east bank; but here they were farther away in the heart of the wild country, and on the very edge of a forest untrodden by the foot of man, and maybe teeming with animal life as new as it was strange. And in amongst this they were soon going to plunge!
It had been the dream of the boy's life to penetrate one of the untrodden fastnesses of nature, but now that he was on the threshold listening in the darkness of night, there was something terrible both in the silence and in the sounds which made him ask himself whether he had done wisely in accompanying Martin Brazier, an old friend of his father, who, partly for profit, but more for the advancement of science, had made his arrangements for this adventurous journey. But it was too late now to recede, even had he wished to do so. In fact, had any one talked of his return, he would have laughed at him as a proposer of something absurd.
"I suppose it comes natural to most boys to long for adventures and to see foreign countries," he thought to himself, and then he went mentally over the scene with Giovanni.
"Joe is as eager as I was," he muttered, and then he started, for something swept by his face.
"What's matter, my lad?" said Shaddy quietly.
"I—I don't know, something—There it goes again, some bird. An owl, I think, flew past my face. There, it skimmed just over our heads with a fluttering noise."
"I heard it, lad—bat, big 'un. Put your toes in your pockets if you haven't got on your shoes."
"What do you mean?"
"It's a blood-sucker—wampire, that's all."
"But that's all nonsense," said Rob, with a slight shudder, "a traveller's tale."
"Oh, is it, boy? You'll see one of these times when we wake in the morning. They come in the night and suck your blood."
"Oh, that can't be true?"
"Why not? Get out, will you?" said Shaddy gruffly, as he made a blow at the great leathern-winged creature that kept fluttering about their heads. "He smells his supper, and is trying for a chance. You don't believe it, then?"
"Humph! Well, you've a right to your own opinion, my lad," said Shaddy quietly, "but I suppose you believe that if you dabbled your legs in the water a leech might fix on you and suck your blood?"
"Oh yes; I've had many on me in England."
"And you've had skeeters on you and maybe sucked your blood here?"
"Then why can't you believe as a bat wouldn't do the same?"
Rob found the argument unanswerable.
"It's true enough, my lad. They'll lay hold on a fellow's toe or thumb, ay, and on horses too. I've known 'em quite weak with being sucked so much night after night."
"Horses? Can they get through a horse's thick skin?"
"Why, dear lad," he said, "a horse has got a skin as tender as a man's, so just you 'member that next time you spurs or whips them."
Rob sat in silence, thinking, with the weird sounds increasing for a time; and, in spite of his efforts, it was impossible to keep down a shrinking sense of dread.
Everything was thrilling: the golden-spangled water looked so black, and the darkness around so deep, while from the Grand Chaco, the great, wild, untrodden forest across the river stretching away toward the mighty Andes in the west, the shouts, growls, and wails suggested endless horrors going on as the wild creatures roamed here and there in search of food.
Plash! right away—a curious sound of a heavy body plunging into the river, but with the noise carried across the water, so that it seemed to be only a few yards away.
"What's that?" whispered Rob.
"Can't tell for sartain, my lad, but I should say that something came along and disturbed a big fat 'gator on the bank, and he took a dive in out of the way. I say! Hear that?"
"Hear it?" said Rob, as a creeping sensation came amongst the roots of his hair, just as if the skin had twitched; "who could help hearing it?"
For the moment before Shaddy asked his question a blood-curdling, agonising yell, as of some being in mortal agony, rang out from across the river.
"Ay, 'tis lively. First time I heered that I says to myself, 'That's one Injun killing another,' and I cocked my rifle and said to myself again, 'well, he shan't do for me.'"
"And was it one Indian murdering another in his sleep?"
"Not it, lad. Darkness is full of cheating and tricks. You hears noises in the night, and they sound horrid. If you heered 'em when the sun's shining you wouldn't take any notice of 'em."
"But there it is again," whispered Rob, as the horrible cry arose, and after an interval was repeated as from a distance. "Whatever is it?"
"Sort o' stork or crane thing calling its mate and saying, 'Here's lots o' nice, cool, juicy frogs out here. Come on.'"
"Yes. Why not? Here, you wait a bit, and you'll open your eyes wide to hear 'em. Some sings as sweet as sweet, and some makes the most gashly noises you can 'magine. That's a jagger—that howl, and that's a lion again. Hear him! He calls out sharper like than the other. You'll soon get to know the difference. But I say, do go and have a sleep now, so as to get up fresh and ready for the day's work. I shall have lots to show you to-morrow."
"Yes, I'll go and lie down again soon. But listen to that! What's that booming, roaring sound that keeps rising and falling? There, it's quite loud now."
"Frogs!" said Shaddy promptly. "There's some rare fine ones out here. There, go and lie down, my lad."
"Why are you in such a hurry to get rid of me? You are watching. Can't I keep you company?"
"Glad to have you, my lad, but I was picked out by Skipper Ossolo because I know all about the country and the river ways, wasn't I?"
"Yes, of course."
"Very well, then. I give you good advice. You don't want to be ill and spoil your trip, so, to keep right, what you've got to do is to eat and drink reg'lar and sensible and take plenty of sleep."
"Oh, very well," said Rob, with a sigh. "I'll go directly."
"It means steady eyes and hands, my lad. I know: it all sounds very wild and strange up here, but you'll soon get used to it, and sleep as well as those Indian lads do. There, good-night."
"Good-night," said Rob reluctantly. "But isn't it nearly morning?"
"Not it, five hours before sunrise; so go and take it out ready for a big day—such a trip as you never dreamed of."
"Very well," replied Rob, and he crept quietly back to his place under the canvas covering, but sleep would not come, or so it seemed to him. But all at once the mingling of strange sounds grew muffled and dull, and then he opened his eyes, to find that the place where he lay was full of a soft, warm glow, and Joe was bending over him and shaking him gently.
A WATCH IN THE DARK.
"You do sleep soundly," said the young Italian merrily.
"Why, it's morning, and I didn't know I had been sleeping! Where's Mr Brazier?"
"Why, we're going on."
"Yes; there's a good wind, and we've been sailing away since before the sun rose."
Rob jumped up and hurried out of the tent-like arrangement, to find Shaddy seated in the stern steering, and after a greeting Rob looked about him, entranced by the scenery and the wondrous tints of the dewy morning. Great patches of mist hung about here and there close under the banks where the wind did not catch them, and these were turned by the early morning's sun to glorious opalescent masses, broken by brilliant patches of light.
The boat was gliding along over the sparkling water close in now to the western shore, whose banks were invisible, being covered by a dense growth of tree and climber, many of whose strands dipped into the river, while umbrageous trees spread and drooped their branches, so that it would have been possible to row or paddle in beneath them in one long, bowery tunnel close to the bank.
"Going to have a wash?" said Joe, breaking in upon Rob's contemplative fit of rapture as he gazed with hungry eyes at the lovely scene.
"Wash? Oh yes!" cried Rob, starting, and he fetched a rough towel out of the tent, went to the side, and hesitated.
"Hadn't we better have a swim?" he said. "You'll come?"
"Not him," growled Shaddy. "What yer talking about? Want to feed the fishes?"
"Rubbish! I can swim," said Rob warmly; and leaning over the side, he plunged his hands into the water, sweeping them about.
"Deliciously cool!" he cried. "Oh!"
He snatched out his right and then his left, and as he did so a little silvery object dropped into the water.
Joe looked on in silence, and a peculiar smile came over Shaddy's countenance as he saw Rob examine the back of his hand.
"Something's been biting me in the night," he said. "It bleeds."
Rob thrust in his hand again to wash away the blood, but snatched it out the next minute, for as the ruddy fluid tinged the water there was a rush of tiny fish at his hand, and he stared at half a dozen tiny bites which he had received.
"Why, they're little fish," he cried. "Are they the piranas you talked about, Joe?"
"Yes. What do you say to a swim now?"
"I'm willing. The splashing would drive them away."
Shaddy chuckled again.
"The splashing would bring them by thousands," said Joe quietly. "You can't bathe here. Those little fish would bite at you till in a few minutes you would be covered with blood, and that would bring thousands more up to where you were."
"And they'd eat me up," said Rob mockingly.
"If somebody did not drag you out. They swarm in millions, and the bigger fish, too, are always ready to attack anything swimming in the stream."
"Come and hold the tiller here, Joe, my lad," growled Shaddy, "while I dip him a bucket of water to wash. When he knows the Paraguay like we do, he won't want to bathe. Why, Mr Rob, there's all sorts o' things here ready for a nice juicy boy, from them little piranas right up to turtles and crocodiles and big snakes, so you must do your swimming with a sponge till we get on a side river and find safe pools."
He dipped the bucket, and Rob had his wash; by that time Brazier had joined him.
"Well, Rob," he cried, "is this good enough for you? Will the place do?"
"Do?" cried Rob. "Oh, I feel as if I do not want to talk, only to sit and look at the trees. There, ain't those orchids hanging down?"
Brazier raised a little double glass which he carried to his eyes, and examined a great cluster of lovely blossoms hanging from an old, half-decayed branch projecting over the river.
"Yes," he cried, "lovely. Well, Naylor, how soon are we to land or run up some creek?"
"Arter two or three days," said the guide.
"But hang it, man, the bank yonder is crowded with vegetable treasures."
"What! them?" said Shaddy, with a contemptuous snort. "I don't call them anything. You just wait, sir, and trust me. You shall see something worth coming after by-and-by."
"Well, run the boat in closer to the shore, so that I can examine the plants as we go along. The water looks deep, and the wind's right. You could get within a dozen yards of the trees."
"I could get so as you might touch 'em, sir. There's plenty of water, but I'm not going no closer than this."
"Because I know that part along there. We can't see nobody, but I dessay there's Injuns watching us all the time from among the leaves, and if we went closer they might have a shot at us."
"Then they have guns?"
"No, sir, bows and arrows some of 'em, but mostly blowpipes."
"With poisoned arrows?"
"That's so, sir, and, what's worse, they know how to use 'em. They hit a man I knew once with a tiny bit of an arrow thing, only a wood point as broke off in the wound—wound, it weren't worth calling a wound, but the little top was poisoned, and before night he was a dead man."
"From the poison?"
"That's it, sir. He laughed at it at first. The bit of an arrow, like a thin skewer with a tuft of cotton wool on the end, didn't look as if it could hurt a strong man as I picked it up and looked where the point had been nearly sawed off all round."
"What, to make it break off?" cried Rob.
"That's so, my lad. When they're going to use an arrow they put the point between the teeth of a little fish's jaw—sort o' pirana thing like them here in the river. Then they give the arrow a twiddle round, and the sharp teeth nearly eat it through, and when it hits and sticks in a wound the point breaks off, and I wouldn't give much for any one who ever got one of those bits of sharp wood in their skins."
"What a pleasant look-out!" said Brazier. "Oh, it's right enough, sir. The thing is to go up parts where there are no Indians, and that's where I'm going to take you. I say, look at that open patch yonder, where there's a bit o' green between the river and the trees."
"Yes, I see," said Joe quickly—"three Indians with spears."
"I don't see them," said Brazier. "Yes," he added quickly, "I can see them now."
"Only one ain't got a spear. That's a blowpipe," said Shaddy quietly.
"What! that length?" cried Rob. "Ay, my lad, that length. The longer they are the smaller the darts, and the farther and stronger they sends 'em."
"But we don't know that they are enemies," said Brazier.
"Oh yes, you do, sir. That's the Injuns' country, and there's no doubt about it. White man's their enemy, they say, so they must be ours."
"But why?" said Rob. "We shouldn't interfere with the Indians."
"We've got a bad character with 'em, my lad. 'Tain't our fault. They tell me it's all along o' the Spaniards as come in this country first, and made slaves of 'em, and learnt 'em to make 'em good, and set 'em to work in the mines to get gold and silver for 'em till they dropped and died. Only savages they were, and so I s'pose the Spaniards thought they weren't o' no consequence. But somehow I s'pose, red as they are, they think and feel like white people, and didn't like to be robbed and beaten, and worn to death, and their children took away from 'em. Spaniards never seemed to think as they'd mind that. Might ha' known, too, for a cat goes miaowing about a house if she loses her kittens, and a dog kicks up a big howl about its pups; while my 'sperience about wild beasts is that if you want to meddle with their young ones, you'd better shoot the old ones first."
"Yes, I'm afraid that the old Spaniards thought of nothing out here but getting gold."
"That's so, sir; and the old Indians telled their children about how they'd been used, and their children told the next lot, and so it's gone on till it's grown into a sort of religion that the Spaniard is a sort o' savage wild beast, who ought to be killed; and that ain't the worst on it."
"Then what is?" said Rob, for Shaddy looked round at him and stopped short, evidently to be asked that question.
"Why, the worst of it is, sir, that they poor hungered, savage sort o' chaps don't know the difference between us and them Dons. English means an Englishman all the wide world over, says you; but you're wrong. He ain't out here. Englishman, or Italian, or Frenchman's a Spaniard; and they'll shoot us as soon as look at us."
"Why, you're making for the other shore, Naylor."
"Yes, sir. I'd ha' liked to land you yonder, but you see it ain't safe, so we'll light a fire on the other side, where it is, and get a bit o' breakfast, for I'm thinking as it's getting pretty nigh time."
"But is it safe to land there?" asked Brazier.
"Yes, sir; you may take that for granted. East's sit down and be comfortable; west side o' the river means eyes wide open and look out for squalls."
"But you meant to go up some river west."
"True, sir; but you leave that to me."
As they began to near the eastern shore, where the land was more park-like and open, the wind began to fail them, and the sail flapped, when the four boatmen, who had been lying about listlessly, leaped up, lowered it down, and then, seizing the oars, began to row with a long, steady stroke. Then Shaddy stood up, peering over the canvas awning, and looking eagerly for a suitable place for their morning halt, and ending by running the boat alongside of a green meadow-like patch, where the bank, only a couple of feet above the water level, was perpendicular, and the spot was surrounded by huge trees, from one of which flew a flock of parrots, screaming wildly, while sundry sounds and rustlings in that nearest the water's edge proved that it was inhabited.
"What's up there?" whispered Rob to Joe as he looked. "Think it's a great snake?"
"No," was the reply. "Look!" and the captain's son pointed up to where, half hidden by the leaves, a curious little black face peered wonderingly down at them; and directly after Rob made out one after another, till quite a dozen were visible, the last hanging from a bough like some curious animal fruit by its long stalk, which proved to be the little creature's prehensile tail, by which it swung with us arms and legs drawn up close.
"Monkeys!" cried Rob eagerly, for it was his first meeting with the odd little objects in their native wilds.
"Yes; they swarm in the forests," said Joe, who was amused at his companion's wondering looks.
Just then Shaddy leaped ashore with a rope, after carefully seeing to the fastening of the other end.
"May as well give you gents a hint," he said: "never to trust nobody about your painter. It's just as well to use two, for if so be as the boat does break loose, away she goes down-stream, and you're done, for there's no getting away from here. You can't tramp far through the forest."
He moored the boat to one of the trees, gave a few orders, and the Indian boatmen rapidly collected dead wood and started a fire, Shaddy filling the tin kettle and swinging it gipsy fashion.
"I'd start fair at once, gentlemen," he said. "One never knows what's going to happen, and I take it that you ought to carry your gun always just as you would an umbrella at home, and have it well loaded at your side, ready for any action. Plenty of smoke!" he continued, as the clouds began to roll up through the dense branches of the tree overhead.
The result was a tremendous chattering and screaming amongst the monkeys, which bounded excitedly from branch to branch, shaking the twigs and breaking off dead pieces to throw down.
"Hi! stop that, little 'uns!" roared Shaddy. "Two can play at that game. It ain't your tree; be off to another, or we'll make rabbit-pie o' some on you."
Whether the little creatures understood or no, they chattered loudly for a few moments more, and then, running to the end of a branch, which bent beneath their weight, they dropped to the ground, and galloped off to the next tree, each with his peculiar curling tail high in air.
The guide's advice was taken respecting the pieces, and, in addition to his cartridge-pouch, each mounted a strong hunting-knife, one that, while being handy for chopping wood or cutting a way through creepers and tangling vines, would prove a formidable weapon of offence or defence against the attack of any wild animal.
"That's your sort," said Shaddy, smiling as he saw Rob step out of the boat with his piece under his arm. "Puts me in mind of handling my first gun, when I was 'bout your age, sir, or a bit older. No, no, don't carry it that way, my lad; keep your muzzle either right up or right down."
"Well, that is down," said Rob pettishly, for he felt conscious, and wanted to appear quite at ease, and as if he were in the habit of carrying a rifle; consequently he looked as if he had never held one before in his life.
"Ay, it's down enough to put a bullet in anybody's knees."
"No, it isn't, Shaddy, for it's a shot-gun, and has no bullet in it."
"I know, lad, one o' them useful guns with a left-hand bore as'll carry a bullet if you like. More down. Wound close at hand from charge o' shot's worse than one from a bullet."
"Because it makes so many wounds?" said Rob.
"Nay, my lad; because at close quarters it only makes one, and a big, ragged one that's bad to heal. That's better. Now, if it goes off, it throws up the earth and shoots the worms, while if you hold it well up it only shoots the stars.—Water boils."
Breakfast followed—a delightful alfresco meal, with the silver river gliding by, birds twittering, piping, screaming, and cooing all around, and monkeys chattering and screeching excitedly at having their sanctuary invaded; but they were quite tame enough to drop down from the trees and pick up a piece of biscuit, banana, or orange when thrown far enough. But this was not till they felt satisfied that they were not being watched, when the coveted treasure was seized and borne off with a chattering cry of triumph, the actions of the odd little creatures taking up a good deal of Rob's time which might have been devoted to his breakfast.
The travellers had brought plenty of fruit and provisions with them, and an ample supply of mate—the leaves that take the place of tea amongst the South American tribes, whose example is largely followed by the half-breeds and those of Spanish descent; and after watching how the preparation was made Rob found himself quite ready to partake of that which proved on tasting to be both palatable and refreshing.
Then, somewhat unwillingly—for both Brazier and the lads were disposed to stay on shore to collect some of the natural objects so plentiful around them—they re-entered the boat; it was pulled into mid-stream, with the monkeys flocking down from the trees about the fire to pick up any scraps of food left, notably a couple of decayed bananas, and then running quite to the edge of the water to chatter menacingly at the departing boat.
The sail was soon after hoisted, and for the whole of that day and the next the little party ascended the river, making their halts on the right bank, but sleeping well out in the stream, held by a rope mooring the boat's head to a tree, and a little anchor dropped in the stream.
Progress was fairly swift, and there was so much to see along the banks that the time glided by rapidly; but at every cry of exultation on the discovery of some fresh bird, flower, or insect, Shaddy only smiled good-humouredly, and used the same expression:—
"Yes; but just you wait a bit."
The third day had passed, and the conversation in the boat threatened a revolution against the will of Shaddy, whose aim seemed to be to get them up higher, while they were passing endless opportunities for making collections of objects of natural history such as they had never had before, when all at once, as he stood in the boat looking up stream, after she had once more been carefully moored for the night, the guide turned and said quietly:—
"To-morrow, long before the sun's highest, I shall get you up to the place I mean, and, once there, you can begin business as soon as you like."
"A river on the left bank," said Brazier, as eagerly as a boy.
"Yes, sir, one as runs for far enough west, and then goes north."
"And you think there are no Indians there?"
"I don't say that, sir, because we shall see some, I daresay; but they'll perhaps be friendly."
"You are not sure?"
"Well, no, sir. There, the sun's dipping down; it will be heavy darkness directly in this fog, and what we want is a good night's rest, ready for a long, hard day's work to-morrow."
It was Brazier's turn to keep watch half the night, and at about twelve, as nearly as they could tell, Rob rose to take his place.
"Nothing to report," said Brazier. "The same noises from the forest, the same splashings from the river, the Indians sleeping as heavily as usual. There, keep your watch; I wish I had it, for you will see the day break that is to take us to the place which I have been longing to see for years."
Saying "good-night," Brazier went into the shelter, and Rob commenced his solitary watch, with his brain busily inventing all kinds of dangers arising from the darkness—some horrible wild creature dropping down from the tree, or a huge serpent, which had crawled down the branch, twining its way along the mooring rope and coming over the bows past the Indian boatmen. Then he began to think of them, and how helpless he would be if they planned to attack him, when, after mastering him, which he felt they could easily do, he mentally arranged that they would creep to the covered-in part of the boat and slay Brazier and Giovanni.
"Poor Joe!" he said to himself. "I was beginning to like him, though he was not English, and—Oh, Joe, how you startled me!"
For a hand had been laid upon his shoulder as he sat watching the dark part where the Indians lay, and he started round to find that Giovanni had joined him.
"I did not mean to frighten you," said the lad, in his quiet, subdued way. "Mr Brazier woke me coming in to sleep, and I thought you would be alone, and that I could come and talk to you about our journey to-morrow."
"I'm glad you've come, but it would be too bad to let you stop. There, stay a quarter of an hour, and then be off back to bed—such as it is," he added, with a laugh.
"Oh, I'm used to hard beds. I can sleep anywhere—on the deck or a bench, one as well as the other."
"I say, have you ever been up as high as this before?"
"No, never higher than the town. It's all as fresh to me as to you."
"Then we go up a river to-morrow?"
"I suppose so. Old Shaddy has it all his own way, and he keeps dropping hints about what he is going to take us to see."
"And I daresay it will all turn out nothing. What he likes may not suit us. But there, we shall see."
Then they sat in silence, listening to the rustlings and whistlings in the air as of birds and great moths flitting and gliding about; the shrieks, howls, and yells from across the river; and to the great plungings and splashings in the black water, whose star-gemmed bosom often showed waves with the bright reflections rising and falling, and whose surface looked as if the fire-flies had fallen in all up the river after their giddy evolutions earlier in the night, and were now floating down rapidly toward the sea.
Rob broke the silence at last.
"How is it this stream always runs so fast?" he said.
"Because the waters come from the mountains. There's a great waterfall, too, higher up, where the whole river comes plunging down hundreds of feet with a roar that can be heard for miles."
"Who says so? who has seen it?"
"Nobody ever has seen it. It is impossible to get to it. The water is so swift and full of rocks that no boat can row up, and the shores are all one dank, tangled mass that no one can cut through. Nobody can get there."
"Why not? I tell you what: we'll talk to Shaddy to-morrow."
"He wouldn't go. He told me once that he tried it, and couldn't get there. He nearly lost his life."
"I'll make him try again and take us."
"I tell you he wouldn't."
"Well, you'll see."
"What will you do?"
"Tell him—fair play, mind: you will not speak?"
"Of course not."
"Then look here, Joe; I'll say to him that I've heard of the place, and how difficult it is, and that I wish we had some guide who really knew the country and could take us there."
Joe shook his head.
"Beside, we could not attempt it without Mr Brazier wished to go."
"If you told him about that great fall, he would wish to go for the sake of being the discoverer. You'll see. What's that?"
A tremendous splash, so near to them that quite a wave rose and slightly rocked the boat as the boys sat there awe-stricken, listening and straining their eyes in the darkness which shut them in.
The noise occurred again—a great splash as of some mighty beast rearing itself out of the water and letting itself fall back, followed by a peculiar, wallowing noise.
This time it was lower and more as though it had passed the boat, and directly after there was another splash, followed by a heavy beating like something thrashing the water with its tail. Then came a smothered, bellowing grunt as if the great animal had begun to roar and then lowered its head half beneath the water, so that the noise was full of curious gurglings. The flapping of the water was repeated, and this time forty or fifty yards away, as near as they could guess, and once more there was silence.
"I didn't know there were such horrible beasts as that in the water," whispered Rob.
"Nor I. What can it be?"
"Must have been big enough to upset the boat if it had seen us, or to drag us out. Shall we wake Shaddy and ask him?"
"No," said Joe; "I don't suppose he would be able to tell us. It sounds so horrible in the darkness."
"Why, I thought you were too much used to the river to be frightened at anything."
"I did not say I was frightened," replied Joe quietly.
"No, but weren't you? I thought the thing was coming on right at the boat."
"So did I," said Joe, very softly. "Yes, I was frightened too. I don't think any one could help being startled at a thing like that."
"Because we could not see what it was," he continued thoughtfully. "I fancied I knew all the animals and fish about the river, but I never heard or saw anything that could be like that."
Just then they heard a soft, rustling sound behind, such, as might have been made by a huge serpent creeping on to the boat; and as they listened intently the sound continued, and the boat swayed slightly, going down on one side.
"It's coming on," whispered Rob, with his mouth feeling dry and a horrible dread assailing him, as in imagination he saw a huge scaly creature gliding along the side of the boat and passing the covered-in canvas cabin.
It was only a matter of moments, but it was like hours to the two boys. The feeling was upon Rob that he must run to the fore-part, leap overboard, and swim ashore, but he could not move. Every nerve and muscle was paralysed, and when he tried to speak to his fellow-watcher no words came; for, as Joe told his companion afterwards, he too tried to speak but was as helpless.
At last, in that long-drawn agony of dread, as he fully expected to be seized, Rob's presence of mind came back, and he recollected that his gun was lying shotted beneath the canvas of the sail at the side, and, seizing it with the energy of despair, he swung the piece round, cocking both barrels as he did so, and brought them into sharp contact with Joe's arm.
"Steady there with that gun," said a low familiar voice. "Don't shoot."
"Shaddy!" panted Rob.
"Me it is, lad. I crep' along so as not to disturb Mr Brazier. I say, did you hear that roar in the water?—but o' course you did. Know what it was?"
"No!" cried both boys in a breath. "Some great kind of amphibious thing," added Rob.
"'Phibious thing!—no. I couldn't see it, but there was no doubt about it: that threshing with the tail told me."
"Yes, we heard its tail beating," said Joe quickly. "What was it?"
"What was them, you mean! Well, I'll tell you. One of them tapir things must have been wading about in a shallow of mud, and a great 'gator got hold of him, and once he'd got hold he wouldn't let go, but hung on to the poor brute and kept on trying to drag him under water. Horrid things, 'gators. I should like to shoot the lot."
Rob drew a long breath very like a sigh. An alligator trying to drag down one of the ugly, old-world creatures that looks like a pig which has made up its mind to grow into an elephant, and failed—like the frog in the fable, only without going quite so far—after getting its upper lip sufficiently elongated to do some of the work performed by an elephant's trunk! One of these jungle swamp pachyderms and a reptile engaged in a struggle in the river, and not some terrible water-dragon with a serpentlike tail such as Rob's imagination had built up with the help of pictures of fossil animals and impossible objects from heraldry! It took all nervousness and mystery out of the affair, and made Rob feel annoyed that he had allowed his imagination to run riot and create such an alarming scene.
"Getting towards morning, isn't it?" said Joe hastily, and in a tone which told of his annoyance, too, that he also should have participated in the scare.
"Getting that way, lad, I s'pose. I ain't quite doo to relieve the watch, but I woke up and got thinking a deal about our job to-morrow, and that made me wakeful. And then there was that splashing and bellowing in the water, and I thought Mr Rob here would be a bit puzzled to know what it was. Course I knew he wouldn't be frightened."
"None of your sneering!" said Rob frankly. "I'm not ashamed to say that I was frightened, and very much frightened, too. It was enough to scare any one who did not know what it was."
"Right, my lad! enough to scare anybody!" said Shaddy, patting Rob on the shoulder. "It made me a bit squeery for a moment or two till I knew what it was. But, I say, when I came softly along to keep you company, you warn't going to shoot?"
"I'm afraid I was," said Rob. "It sounded just like some horrible great snake creeping along toward us out of the darkness."
"Then I'm glad I spoke," said Shaddy drily, "Spoiled your trip, lad, if you'd shot me, for I must have gone overboard, and if I'd come up again I don't bleeve as you'd have picked me up. Taken ever so long to get the boat free in the dark, and if you hadn't picked me up I don't see how you could have got on in the jungle. Look here, now you two gents have taken to gunning, I wouldn't shoot if I were you without asking a question or two first."
"But suppose it is a jaguar coming at us?" said Joe.
"Well, if it's a jagger he won't answer, and you had better shoot. Same with the lions or bears."
"Bears?" said Rob eagerly; "are there bears here?"
"Ay, lad! and plenty of 'em, not your big Uncle Ephrems, like there is in the Rocky Mountains—grizzlies, you know—but black bears, and pretty big, and plenty savage enough to satisfy any reasonable hunter, I mean one who don't expect too much. Wait a bit, and you'll get plenty of shooting to keep the pot going without reckoning them other things as Mr Brazier's come out to hunt. What d'yer call 'em, awk'ards or orchards—which was it?"
"Orchids," said Rob.
"Oh! ah! yes, orchids. What's best size shot for bringing o' them down?"
"Don't answer him, Rob; it's only his gammon, and he thinks it's witty," said Joe.
Shaddy chuckled, and it was evident that his joke amused him.
"There," he said, "it ain't worth while for three on us to be keeping watch. One's enough, and the others can sleep, so, as I'm here, you two may as well go and roost."
"No," said Rob promptly; "my time isn't up."
"No, my lad, not by two hours, I should say; but I'll let you off the rest, for it's a-many years since I was up this part, and I want to sit and think it out before we start as soon as it's light."
But Rob firmly refused to give up his task till the time set down by Mr Brazier for him to be relieved. Joe as stubbornly refused to return to his bed, and so it was that when the birds gave note of the coming of the day, after the weird chorus had gradually died away in the forest they were still seated upon one of the thwarts, watching for the first warm rays of the sun to tinge the dense river mist with rose.
THROUGH THE GREEN CURTAIN.
A fair breeze sprang up with the sun, and the boat glided up stream for many miles before a halt was called, in a bend where the wind railed them. Here, as on previous occasions, a fire was lit, and the breakfast prepared and eaten almost in silence, for Brazier's thoughts were far up the river and away among the secret recesses of nature, where he hoped to be soon gazing upon vegetation never yet seen by civilised man, while Rob and Joe were just as thoughtful, though their ideas ran more upon the wild beasts and lovely birds of this tropic land, into which as they penetrated mile after mile it was to see something ever fresh and attractive.
Shaddy, too, was very silent, and sat scanning the western shore more and more attentively as the hours passed, and they were once more gliding up stream, the wind serving again and again as they swept round some bend.
The sun grew higher, and the heat more intense, the slightest movement as they approached noon making a dew break out over Rob's brow; but the warmth was forgotten in the beauty of the shore and the abundance of life visible around.
But at last the heat produced such a sense of drowsiness that Rob turned to Joe.
"I say, wouldn't an hour or two be nice under the shade of a tree?"
"Yes," said Brazier, who had overheard him. "We must have a rest now; the sides of the boat are too hot to touch. Hullo! where are we going?" he continued. "Why, he's steering straight for the western shore."
Brazier involuntarily stooped and took his gun from where it hung in loops under the canvas awning, and then stood watching the dense wall of verdure they were approaching till, as they drew nearer, their way was through acres upon acres of lilies, whose wide-spreading leaves literally covered the calm river with their dark green discs, dotted here and there with great buds or dazzlingly white blossoms.
The boat cut its way through these, leaving a narrow canal of clear water at first, in which fish began to leap as if they had been disturbed; but before the boat had gone very far the leaves gradually closed in, and no sign of its passage was left.
"I don't see where we are to land," said Brazier, as he stood in front of the canvas cabin scanning the shore.
"No; there is no place," said Rob, as they glided out of the lily field into clear water, the great wall of trees tangled together with creepers being now about two hundred yards away.
"Go and ask. No; leave him alone," said Brazier, altering his mind. "He'll take us into a suitable place, I daresay."
Just then Shaddy, from where he was steering, shouted to the men, who lowered the sail at once; but the boat still glided on straight for the shore.