The Pathless Trail
Chapter XI: Out of the Air
Again the sun fought the mists of a new day, casting a pallid, watery light on the livid green roof of the limitless jungle. High up under that roof, more than a hundred feet above the ground, the morning alarm clock went off with a scream, the sudden chorus of monkeys and macaws awaking after a few hours of silence. Down on the eastern shore of the river, in a little natural port where the shadows still lay thick, men stirred under their black mosquito nets, yawned, and waited for more light before starting another day’s journey.
To three of the five men housed under those flimsy coverings the somber hue of their nets was new. On leaving Remate de Males the insect bars had been clean white; and though they had grown somewhat soiled from daily handling, they never had approached the drab dinginess of the barriers draping the hammocks of the Peruvian rivermen. In fact, their owners had been at some pains to keep them as clean as possible, folding them each morning with military precision and stowing them carefully. Wherefore they were somewhat taken aback when informed that nice white nets were decidedly not the thing in this part of the world.
“Up to this place, senhores, they have done no harm,” Pedro said, before leaving the coronel’s grounds. “But from here on they will not do at all. The weakest moonlight--yes, even starlight--would make them stand out in the darkness like tombstones. A few days more and we shall be in the cannibal country. And it is an old trick of those eaters of men to skulk along the shore by night, watching a camp until all are asleep, and then sneak up with spears ready. A rush and a swift stab of the spears into those white nets, and you are dead or dying from the poisoned points. I would no more sleep under a white net than I would lie in my hammock and blow a horn to show where I was. Your light nets must stay here. We will find dark ones for you.”
Thus the voyagers learned another of those little things on which sometimes hinges life or death. Even McKay, with his experience of other jungles, had never thought it necessary to drape himself in invisibility at night. But when his attention was called to it he recognized its value at once, and the white nets were forthwith abandoned.
Now, on the first morning out from the Nunes place, the three Americans stretched themselves in lazy enjoyment after a night passed without a sentinel. The stretching evoked sundry grunts due to the discovery that their muscles still were lame. The long steamer journey from their own land, followed by the daily confinement of the Peruvian canoe, had afforded scant opportunity for keeping themselves fit, and the sudden necessity for doing their own paddling had found every man soft. But they now were hardening fast, and the steady swing of the paddles was proving a physical joy. These were men ill accustomed to sitting in enforced idleness for weeks on end.
Matches flared under the nets and cigarette smoke drifted into the air, rousing to fresh activity the mosquitoes humming hungrily outside. Gradually the shadows paled and the weak light reflecting from the fog-shrouded water beyond grew into day. The nets lifted and the bloodthirsty insects swooped in vicious triumph on the emerging men. But again matches blazed, flame licked up among kindlings, a fire grew, and in its smoke screen the voyagers found some surcease from the bug hordes. Soon the fragrance of coffee floated into the air.
Tim yawned, coughed explosively, and swore.
“Fellers can’t even take a gape for himself without gittin’ these cussed bugs down his throat,” he complained, and coughed again. “Gimme some coffee! I got one skeeter the size of a devil’s darnin’ needle stuck in me windpipe.”
“A devil’s darning needle? What is that, Senhor Tim?” inquired Pedro, passing him a cup of hot coffee. When the liquid--and the “skeeter”--had passed into Tim’s stomach he enlightened the inquirer.
“Ye dunno what’s a devil’s darnin’ needle? Gosh! I’m s’prised at ye. I seen lots of ‘em right on this here river. He’s a bug about so long”--he stuck out a finger--”and he’s got jaws like a crab and a long limber tail a with reg’lar needle in the end, and inside him is a roll o’ tough silk--tough as spider web. And he’s death on liars. Any time a feller tells a lie he’s got to look out, or all to oncet one o’ them bugs’ll come scootin’ at him and grab him by the nose with them jaws. Then he’ll curl up his tail--the bug, I mean--and run his needle and thread right through the feller’s lips and sew his mouth up tight. Then he flies off lookin’ for another liar.”
“Por Deus! And the liar starves to death?”
“Wal, no. O’ course he can git somebody to cut the stitches. But the needle is a good thick one and it leaves a row o’ holes all along the feller’s lips. Any time ye see a guy with li’l’ round scars around his mouth, Pedro, ye’ll know he’s such an awful liar the devil bug got him.”
McKay coughed. Knowlton blew his nose into a big handkerchief. Lourenço squinted sidewise at Tim, who was solemn as an owl. Pedro, his eyes twinkling, bent forward and scrutinized Tim’s mouth.
“You have been fortunate, senhor,” he said, simply--and stepped around to the other side of the fire.
“Huh? Say, lookit here, ye long-legged gorilla--”
Knowlton exploded. McKay and Lourenço snickered.
“It’s on you, Tim!” vociferated Knowlton. “You dug the hole yourself. Now crawl in and pull it in after you.”
Tim snorted wrathfully, but his eyes laughed.
“Aw, what’s the use o’ trying to educate you guys?”
“You swallowed a mosquito just now, but I cannot swallow that devil bug,” Pedro grinned.
Tim rumbled something, solaced himself with a cigarette, then squatted and joined the others in their frugal breakfast of coffee and chibeh--a handful of farinha mixed with water in a gourd. When it was finished McKay, who never smoked in the morning until he had eaten, filled a pipe and suggested:
“Guess we’d better plan our campaign. We didn’t take time yesterday. In case we find no trace of the Raposa at the place where you fellows saw him, what’s your idea?”
Lourenço, puffing thoughtfully, stared into the fire.
“There will be time enough to decide that, Capitao, after we have visited that place,” he said, slowly. “Still, perhaps it is best to make some plan; it can be changed at any time.”
For a moment longer he looked at the dying flame. Then, dropping his cigarette stub into it, he continued:
“If I were going alone to find a man among the Red Bones, I should go first to the Mayorunas and work through them to make sure of a friendly reception by the other people. I would--”
“Why, that’s the very thing Schwandorf suggested!”
“Yes? I have not heard what he said. Tell me.”
McKay did so. Lourenço smiled.
“Sometimes, Capitao, the devil puts into the hands of men a weapon which is turned against himself. So it is now. That Allemao, Schwandorf, never expected you to reach the people you seek, but the plan is good. It would not be good if you followed it exactly as he laid it out, but things have changed; and what you could not do with Peruvian companions, or alone, you perhaps can do with us. I will show you.
“It happens that I have been twice among the cannibals living in a certain maloca which I can find again. Perhaps you know that those people live in scattered malocas, each ruled by its own chief--”
“Yes, we know about that.”
“Good. Now if we went to any maloca where we were not known we might be killed at once. But at that maloca of which I speak I am known to the chief and all his fighting men, for I once led them on a raid into Peru. So they will remember me--”
“What’s that?” Knowlton interrupted, in amazement. “You led a cannibal tribe on the warpath?”
“Just so, senhor. It is a long story, but these are the facts:
“There was in Peru a gang of killers, robbers--and worse--who called themselves the Peccaries. They raided one of the coronel’s camps where I was in charge, killed all my gang except myself and one other, and used us two as slaves and beasts of burden.
“The other man died from poison. I lived only to revenge myself on those foul outlaws. There was much rubber of the coronel’s, worth much money at that time, in the camp they had raided. So, after driving me like a beast to their stronghold in the hills of Peru, they came back with boats and Indian porters to get out that rubber.
“On that return journey I tried to kill the leader, who was called El Amarillo--yellow-skinned. I failed, and he had me nailed with long thorns to a tree where I might hang in torment for days, dying slowly. See. Here are the marks.”
All three of the Americans had noticed on the previous day that each of Lourenço’s hands was disfigured by a scar which looked as if a spike had been driven through. Now he held those hands forward for their inspection. Then he pulled off his loose shirt and rolled up his trousers. They saw other scars in the big muscles before the armpits, in the soft flesh under the ribs, in the thighs and calves.
“The dirty Hun!” Tim grated.