The Pathless Trail
Chapter VI: In the Night Watch
Day by day the long canoe crawled into the vast unknown. Day by day the down-flowing jungle river pushed steadily, sullenly against its prow, as if striving to repel the invasion of its secret places by the fair-skinned men of another continent. Day by day it slid past in resentful impotence, conquered by the swinging blades of the Peruvian bogas. And day by day the close companionship of canoe and camp seemed to weld the voyagers into one compact unit.
Through hours of blazing sun, when the mercury of the thermometer which Knowlton had hung inside the shady toldo cabin fluctuated well above 100 degrees, the hardy crew forged on. Through drenching rains they still hung doggedly to their work, suspending it only when the water fell in such drowning quantities that they were forced to tie up hastily to shore and seek cover in order to breathe. When sunset neared they picked with unerring eye a spot fit for camping, attacked the bush with whirling machetes, cleared a space, threw up pole frameworks, swiftly thatched them with great palm leaves, and thus created from the jungle two crude but efficient huts--one for themselves and one for their patrones. When night had shut down and all hands squatted around the fire in a nightly smoke talk they regaled their employers with wild tales of adventures in bush and town, some of which were not at all polite, but all of which were mightily interesting. And despite all discomforts, fatigue, and the minor incidents and accidents which often lead fellow travelers in the wilderness to bickering and bitterness, no friction developed between the men of the north and the men of the south.
Not that the Peruvians were at all obsequious or servile. They were a reckless, lawless, Godless gang, perpetually bearing themselves with the careless insolence which had characterized them at first, blasphemous of speech toward one another--but never toward the North Americans. Disputes arose among them with volcanic suddenness, and more than once knives were half drawn, only to be slipped back under the tongue-lashing of the hawk-nosed puntero, José, who damned the disputants completely and promised to cut out the bowels of any man daring to lift his blade clear of its sheath. Five minutes afterward the fire eaters would be on as good terms as ever, shrugging and grinning at their passengers--particularly Tim, who, shaking his head disgustedly, would grumble:
“Aw, pickles! Another frog fight gone bust!”
Yet Tim, for all his disparagement of these abortive spats, knew full well that any one of them held the makings of a deadly duel and that José’s lurid threats were no mere Latin hyperbole. He realized that the red-crowned bowman ruled his crew exactly as any of the old-time buccaneers whom he resembled had governed their free-booting gangs--by the iron hand; and that, though these men sailed no Spanish Main and flew no black flag, the iron-hand government was needed. He saw also that the rough-and-ready courtesy of this crowd toward their passengers was due largely to the attitude of Captain McKay, who had enforced their respect at the start by his soldierly bearing and retained it ever since by his military management.
For the captain, experienced in directing men, conducted himself at all times as a commanding officer should: he saw all, said little, treated José as a subordinate officer, and left the handling of the crew entirely to him. His aloofness forestalled any of that familiarity which, with such a gang, would have led to contempt. On the other hand, his avoidance of any assumption of meddlesome authority prevented the irritation and dislike which free men inevitably feel for the self-important type of leader. Thus he cannily steered himself and his mates between the two rocks which might have wrecked the expedition before it was well started. And Knowlton, ex-lieutenant, and Tim, ex-sergeant, seeing and understanding, followed his example.
So the days and nights rolled by, the miles of never-ending jungle shore fell away behind, and, save for the occasional outbreaks between members of the crew, all was serene. To all appearances the Peruvians were whole-heartedly interested in serving their employers faithfully, and the North Americans were gliding onward with no thought of insecurity. Yet appearances frequently are deceptive.
In the heat of the day--in fact, before the broiling sun neared the zenith--Tim and Knowlton habitually fell asleep inside the toldo, not to awake until two hours before sunset, when, according to the routine agreed upon, the night’s camping place would be sought and two or three of the Peruvians would go into the bush with rifles, seeking fresh meat. McKay never slept during the day’s traverse. Nothing escaped his eye from the time when he emerged from his mosquito net in the misty morning until he entered it again by firelight. The men in the boat; the floating alligators and wading birds of the water; the flashing parrots, jacamars, toucans, trogons, and hummers of the air; the yard-long lizards and nervous spider monkeys of the tangled tree branches alongshore--all these he watched quietly as the boat forged on. And the sinister Francisco, watching him in turn, and the paddlers throwing occasional glances his way, came to regard him as the only alert member of the trio. Wherein they erred.
The truth was that every one of the three adventurers was on his guard. Tim had not forgotten the last words of his boon companion, Joao, and at the first opportunity he had quietly passed on that warning. Moreover, McKay and Knowlton, without discussing the matter, had meditated on the unexpected assistance of Schwandorf, the speed with which the crew had been obtained, the promptness of José to accept the first payment offered, and other things. Wherefore it had come about that at no hour of the twenty-four was every eye and ear closed. And the real reason why red Tim and blond Knowlton slept by day was that they thus made up the slumber lost at night.
Not that either of them patrolled the camp in sentry go. So far as the Peruvians knew, they slept as soundly as McKay. But, lying in their hammocks, they divided the night watches between them on a schedule as regular as that of a military camp, though the shifts necessarily were longer. As sunset came always at six o’clock and all hands sought their hanging beds two hours later, Tim’s “tour of duty” lasted until one in the morning. When the phosphorescent hands of his watch pointed to that hour he stealthily reached out and jabbed Knowlton, sleeping beside him. When a barely audible “All right” reached his ears he was officially relieved.
Night followed night, became a week, lengthened into a fortnight. Still, so far as the crew was concerned, nothing happened. A little rough banter among them as they smoked their last cigarettes, then sleep and snores; and that was all until morning. Men less experienced in night vigils than the ex-soldiers would have abandoned their watches long before this--if, indeed, they had ever adopted them. But these three were schooled in patience. Moreover, neither Tim nor Knowlton had ever before penetrated the jungle, and at times the light of the waxing moon revealed to their eyes strange things which they never would have seen by day. So the tedium of the long hours of wakefulness might be broken at any moment.
Once they camped close to a conical hillock of compact earth, some four feet high and almost stone hard, from which radiated narrow covered galleries--the citadel and viaducts of a community of termites. Tim, still harboring vivid recollections of his ant battle at Remate de Males--though by this time he had trained himself to sleep in his hammock, where he was comparatively safe--looked askance at it when told what it was, and was only partly reassured by the information that termites were eaters of wood rather than of flesh. After sleep had embraced the rest of the camp he still was uneasy, lifting his net at long intervals and squinting at the moonlit mound as if expecting a horde of pincer-jawed insects to erupt from it and charge him. And during one of these inspections he saw something totally unexpected.
From the black shadows of the forest had emerged another shadow, so grotesque and misshapen that it seemed a figment of indigestion and weird dreams--a thing from whose shaggy body protruded what appeared to be only a long tubular snout where a head should be, and which looked to be overbalanced at the other end by a great mass of hair. It stood stone still, and for the moment Tim could not decide which end of it was head and which was tail, or even whether it were not double-tailed and headless. Then, slowly, the apparition moved.
Into that hard-packed earth it dug huge hooked claws, and from its tapering muzzle a wormlike tongue licked about, gathering the outrushing white ants into its gullet. For minutes Tim lay blinking at it, wondering if he really saw it.
Then, picking up his rifle, he slipped outside his net and advanced on the creature.
The animal turned, sat back on its great tail, lifted its terrible claws, and waited. Six feet away, just out of its reach, Tim stopped and stared anew. Then he grinned.
“You win, feller,” he informed the beast. “What ye are I dunno, but any critter that’s got the guts to ramble right into camp and offer to gimme a battle is too good a sport for me to shoot. Help yourself to all the ants in the world, for all o’ me. I’m goin’ back to bed. Bon sewer, monseer.”
Wherewith, still grinning, but warily watching, he backed until sure the big invader would not spring at him. Knowing nothing of ant bears, he did not know it was hardly a springing animal.
Its claws looked sufficiently formidable to disembowel a man--as, indeed, they were, if the man came near enough. But when Tim had withdrawn and the sluggish brute had decided that it would not need to defend itself, it sank to all-fours and passed stiffly away into the shades whence it had come.