Friday, 10 May 2013
Serial—Part 2 of 12
Completely down and out, CAPTAIN JUSTICE, Gentleman Adventurer, and his Comrades are hopelessly lost—where No White Foot Has Ever Trodden!
Complete by MURRAY ROBERTS
From The Modern Boy magazine, 14 July 1934, Vol. 13, No. 336. Contributed by Keith Hoyt; digitized by Doug Frizzle, May 2012. Link to Part 1.
Five Perilous Parachutes!
FROM east to west, and to the south as far as eye could reach, blazed the vast expanse of tropical sky, cloudless, brilliantly blue. Only in the north was the dazzling vault spanned and barred by a range of colossal mountains that towered in rugged majesty above the unnamed river, the oozy swamps, and matted jungle.
Scarcely a breeze stirred on high; no bird-notes disturbed the hush. It was as though the pitiless African sun had scorched up all jungle and mountain life.
Into this tangled, sinister desolation, this hottest of all the world's wastelands, dropped five laden parachutes, descending slowly through the torrid air.
Africa is a land where fantastic sights abound. Yet surely no stranger spectacle was ever seen, even there, than those five gleaming, umbrellalike objects, floating down into the wilderness with the luckless adventurers—Captain Justice, Professor Flaznagel, Dr. O'Mally, Len Connor, and Midge—dangling therefrom.
Marooned, empty-handed, in the densest wilds of Unknown Africa!
That was the fate meted out to the comrades by their wily and bitter enemy, Xavier Kuponos, the notorious Greco-African gun-runner and smuggler. Clad only in the flimsy pyjamas in which they had been dragged from their tents the previous night, Justice & Co. were being dumped into the jungle, unarmed, and without food or water!
It was a disaster that was as grim as it was swift and unexpected. One, too, that made even the iron-nerved Justice shudder inwardly.
Steely lights glinted in the famous Gentleman Adventurer's eyes as he craned his neck, staring eastwards to where, a mere mote against the blue, Kuponos' passenger plane, out of which they had been dumped, was heading back for home, its fell mission accomplished.
The captain's beard bristled. He clenched his fists in savage impotence as a fresh tide of rage overwhelmed him. For once, Justice was completely helpless. Suspended in mid-air, with death in a hundred guises awaiting him below, he could do nothing yet!
"I will, though!" he gritted, clasping his hands over his head as some protection against the sun. "Kuponos, I'll twist your infernal Greek neck yet!"
Then, as was so typical of the man who had braved the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune all his life, Captain Justice ceased to rail vainly against Fate, and endeavoured to take his bearings as best he could.
Of one thing the world-rover was quite sure—he and his comrades were about to descend into a stretch of the great African jungle that had never been mapped or explored by white men. Kuponos, indeed, had admitted that much just before he flung them off into Space—gloating over the fact that he had heard nothing but bloodcurdling rumours of fierce natives and wild beasts that inhabited this back o' beyond.
"We're lost—cast adrift—and that's all there is to it!" muttered the captain grimly; and his teeth met with a sharp little click as he realised precisely what that sentence meant. He flung a swift, haggard glance around at the other parachutes dotting the sky.
Len Connor, his young wireless operator, was nearest to him; then, fairly close together, hung Dr. O'Mally, the stout and genial Irishman who was his second-in-command, and the diminutive, red-headed Midge. Much farther away, Justice could see the lanky, white-haired figure of Professor Flaznagel, the world-renowned scientist and inventor.
The captain breathed hard, his feeling of utter loss increasing as he gazed at the dangling veteran. For he knew that his old friend must be suffering far worse than anyone.
"Poor old professor! And he's never done a chute-jump before, to my knowledge! Let's hope he makes a good landing and that I can find him before he gets hopelessly lost in this confounded bush below."
Justice, masking his dire forebodings behind an impassive countenance, narrowed his eyes, forcing himself to study the scene closely.
It certainly did not look inviting!
Directly beneath and behind him rolled the jungle in billowing waves of emerald green, purple, gold, and crimson foliage. Mighty palms, themselves throttled by brightly hued vines, reared their crowns above the heads of mahogany, walnut, and huge baobab trees, as though striving to shake off the grip of the parasite creepers. And between these forest giants, lesser trees and shrubs struggled in vain to reach the sunlight.
Not a break anywhere could Justice see, and full well did he know what a landing amid those tortuous branches would mean. It was not until he turned his eyes upon the grasses and swamps dividing jungle and river that a faint hope of escape stirred within him.
True, this dismal stretch, with its patches of reeds and slimy mangrove-trees, twisted and distorted into nightmare shapes, looked scarcely less inhospitable than the jungle itself. But at least he might find space for reasonably safe landing—if only he could manoeuvre clear of the forest's edge.
"Hallo! Ah, good boy, Len!"
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, the captain saw the envelope of Len Connor's parachute crinkle and sag inwards slightly as he deftly manipulated the cords.
By this time the castaways had descended to within a few hundred feet of the treetops, and sharp wind-eddies, swirling across the face of the mountains on the other side of the river, were beginning to take effect. As Justice watched, Len Connor's parachute filled again and floated off at a fresh tangent. It was evident that Len held the same views about crashing amid jungle trees as his leader.
Coolly and cleverly, Justice followed the lad's example, breathing a sigh of thankfulness as, after a while, the fringe of the forest and the mangrove swamps swam sluggishly towards him. He turned cautiously in his harness, half raising an arm to signal Midge and O'Mally. But there was no need.
They, too, had spotted the move, and were quick to copy their comrades. The adventurers held a slim chance now of landing without breaking their necks or limbs, though the hazards against finding each other afterwards were as great as ever.
Justice cupped his hands, filling his lungs for a mighty effort.
"When you land, shout, and keep shouting!" he roared, in a voice that had carried aloft during many an ocean tempest. And O'Mally and Midge must have heard his orders, however faintly, for the ever-cheerful youngster flourished a jaunty hand before resuming operations on his parachute cords.
Flaznagel alone continued his aimless drift, too inexperienced to make any attempt to use the wind-eddies.
Captain Justice groaned as he observed the old professor's plight. It seemed a thousand to one against Flaznagel making the swamps, and the captain's powerful muscles swelled and taughtened in an agony of apprehension. Then he had to drag his eyes away from his luckless friend. His own parachute had entered upon the last stage of its descent, demanding all his attention.
The spreading crest of a baobab, ablaze with trailing orchids, skimmed beneath the captain's dangling legs. His feet ploughed through rustling leaves and again, desperately, he reached for the cord overhead. The chute buckled, bobbed away, then dipped abruptly as a fresh eddy sucked it down. By inches only Justice scraped past a bristling mass of branches, drifted onwards—then dropped.
His impressions of the next few seconds were vague but nerve racking.
Suddenly there came a heavy jerk from above, the crackle of breaking boughs, the tearing rip of fabric. Then another, more violent jolt, that jarred him from head to toe. With his parachute envelope caught up among knotted branches, Justice spun like a top, fumbling as he did so at the buckle of the harness-belt. Somehow, he managed to unfasten it, and then—
Splosh! Letting go all holds, Captain Justice made his landing—into the scummy surface water and soft, reeking mud beneath the mangrove-tree that had snared him.
Meanwhile, Midge was undergoing a whole set of hectic thrills on his own.
Caught less than a hundred feet above the forest-edge by a lustier down-draught than ever, the chirpy, snub-nosed youngster came perilously close to colliding with Dr. O'Mally, who bellowed and gesticulated wildly. But in another second, the same mischievous gust dragged them apart again, and Midge tucked up his legs just in time. A mass of green foliage seemed to engulf him. Then it receded, leaving only a dull green-brown waste of grass and mud.
Midge fell and was dragged along helter-skelter, rolling through reeds swarming with insects, skittering through the mire, bobbing along like a cork on a string. A confused bedlam of crashes, sharp snapping sounds, and what sounded like harsh human yells dinned in his ears, adding to the boy's horror. Water splashed in his face. Something hit him a fearful thwack in the ribs.
Then he bumped against some massive object on the ground and remained there, more dead than alive, while the parachute collapsed and sagged down upon him.
"Oh, my aunt! Ow! Ouch-wu-uff! Rescue!"
DAZED, bruised, and breathless, scratched and battered all over his wiry body, the red-haired youngster struggled up into a sitting position at length, pushing feebly at the soft, clinging folds that enveloped him. His heart pounded like a steam-hammer, every breath he drew was a torment, and cold chills of fear rippled up and down his spine.
He could see nothing; feel nothing solid except the object on which he squatted, and which he took to be a mossy hummock. But when—with hair-raising suddenness—that "hummock" began to writhe and squirm beneath him. Midge thought his last hour had come.
"Ow! Snakes! Crocodiles! Help!" he yelled.
Then he moved. Terror lent him strength. Madly, frantically, he fought and clawed his way out from under the parachute and its tangle of cords, never ceasing to struggle until he was clear in the open swamp again, knee-deep in moss and weed. Then, unable to conquer the impulse, he glanced back over his shoulder—and froze, fascinated by what he saw.
The hummock, or whatever it was, was crawling out after him!
Sickeningly, the yellow mass of parachute-fabric rolled and heaved, while a succession of hoarse grunts and gurgles made Midge's fiery locks stand up on end. Still he could not stir. The boy crouched there, numb and petrified.
Suddenly the edge of the parachute lifted. It flapped up into the air, propelled by a violent thrust, and two muddy paws came into view. Then slowly, painfully, with many a gasp and wheeze, a pair of brawny shoulders followed. The next moment Midge found himself staring goggle-eyed at his old friend and sparring-partner, Dr. O'Mally!
There was a short but terrible silence.
"You—you—you—" spluttered the unfortunate Irishman, only to relapse into incoherence as his choking wrath overcame him. His round, crimson face was dripping with perspiration, his bald head thickly coated with mud. A tangle of grass hung like a garland about his neck, and wisps of it half-filled his wide-open mouth. Nor was his fearsome appearance improved by the peach of a black eye he had received in contact with a tree. Dr. O'Mally was a complete wreck!
Midge could only gaze at him owlishly. It was, he realised, the sheerest blind luck that had so thrown them together, and for the first few moments of heartfelt relief the boy hardly knew whether to yell with hysterical laughter or weep. In the end, his volatile nature came to the rescue. Midge felt he had to crack a joke or burst.
"Ah! Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" he quoted shakily. "Or is it the original Old Man of the Woods? No, bedad and begorrah, 'tis Old Ireland himself—and faith, I'm glad I dropped in on ye, doctor dear!"
O'Mally snorted like a water-buffalo. Furiously he spat the grass from his mouth, and thrice he strove to find speech, but failed. At last he raised a brace of podgy fists on high, flourishing them in a tantrum of rage.
"Ye crazy, clumsy, carrotty-headed coot!" he roared. "Ye footling, freckle-faced freak, haven't I gone through enough, begob, without you dropping bang on top of me and shoving my face deeper into this filthy mud? By the bones o' St. Patrick, ye had all Africa to fall into, but ye had to come and fall on me, ye rusty-haired spalpeen!"
Midge sniffed, forgetting his own woes for the moment in the pleasure of having another dust-up with the doctor. And, come what may, he did have one companion now in the midst of all this steamy solitude.
"Weil, why didn't you sound your hooter or move, instead of' blocking up the fairway with your great carcass?" he replied coldly, rising gingerly to his feet and then slithering into the mud again. "Ouch! Sufferin' cats, I'm glad I've found you, anyway, fatness, but—"
"Ouch, hold your chattering tongue!" snapped the disgruntled O'Mally and, clambering back to a firmer foothold on the thick folds of the parachute, he cast a baleful eye upon the landscape.
The exhausted pair had plunged to earth on a low, spongy knoll, roughly a hundred yards from the bank of the turgid river. Mangroves and feathery clumps of weed jutted out of the glistening marsh, which was blocked in higher up by barricades of wild cane, ferns, and stiff yellow reeds.
Behind them the jungle walls massed darkly. Ahead and above, the terrific mountain-heights blanketed the sun.
Of Captain Justice, Len, or Professor Flaznagel there were no signs. Sobered by the deathly stillness and their own gnawing anxiety, Midge and O’Mally gazed at each other without a word.
Forlorn castaways they looked as they stood there, maintaining a precarious footing on the marsh. O'Mally's unlaced shooting-boots were partially stuffed with ooze, his once gaily striped pyjamas had rips and tears and mudstains all over them. But Midge's garments had come out of the ordeal in an even more deplorable state, for he had lost both trouser-legs below the knee.
Yet he was luckier than the doctor and the rest of his comrades in one respect, for the lad still wore his khaki drill jacket, which he had managed to don before Xavier Kuponos' Abyssinian raiders bad collared him the previous night.
"Begorrah, this is awful!" O'Mally spoke huskily after a pause that seemed endless. "If only I could get my hands on that vile blackguard, Kuponos, sure I'd skin him!" Cautiously he sniffed at the evil stench arising from the marsh and, with eyes alert and lips compressed, he caught Midge by the elbow.
"Come on, ye imp, out of this!" he growled. "If this quagmire isn't a crocodile-swamp, then I'm a hairy gorilla! Faith, yon jungle doesn't look much better to me, but I'd sooner take a chance with serpints and leopards than the scaly brutes I can smell this minute! Get to the edge of the trees there, and then we'll obey orders and start shoutin'."
"And let's hope to goodness the others'll hear," mumbled Midge, as, holding hands, they splashed and waded to the bole of a huge tree near the fringe of the swamp.
There, for a full five minutes, the drenched, perspiring couple had to rest, fighting hard to regain their breath. Muffled noises, stealthy rustlings and murmurings, sounded among the bushes behind them, and once the whole forest throbbed and echoed to the fiendish screech of a monkey-sentinel, screaming a warning to its mates.
But Midge and O'Mally were too worried about their comrades' fate to do more than glance round nervously. That insistent question dinned in their minds: How had Captain Justice, Len, and Flaznagel got on?
"Ready, lad? Then shout, and to perdition with all the beasts and natives who might hear us!" puffed the valiant doctor at length. And, backed up by Midge's shrill voice, he yelled at the full pitch of his lungs:
"Justice! Con-nooor! Fiaz-naaagel! Where are ye?"
AGAIN and again they called till their wind failed them, and their throats became hoarse and parched. But only the chattering of monkeys and the outraged squawking of parrots replied.
"Oh, gosh, they're all done for—I'm sure of it!" groaned Midge, straining his ears as still no answer came. Angrily he shook his fists at the inquisitive little faces peering down through the lacework of branches overhead, and summoned all his strength for another lusty hail:
"Cap-taaain! Cap-tain Justice!"
But the result was the same—dead silence! In despair, the youngster stamped and tore at his damp red hair.
"We've lost 'em, doc," he gasped wretchedly. "Either the swamp or the trees have got 'em, and—Guff!"
Midge granted and reeled. Swift and heavy, down smacked O'Mally's hand, knocking the boy flat. And as Midge toppled, the Irishman blundered past him, shouting and babbling with joy.
"Lost, is it? Lost, your granny's left mitten! Justice! Len! Come on, me boys, here we are!" he bawled, waving his arms deliriously. "Bedad, is there any measly swamp in this world can beat Captain Justice, ye miserable, moanin' maggot? Look! Yonder! Here they come!"
With hand outstretched and streaming face crimson with delight, the doctor wheeled on Midge as out of the rattling cane-brake emerged two miry, utterly spent scarecrows!
"Skipper! Len! Suffering cats, you're right, fatness! Oh, thank goodness!"
Eagerly Midge squeezed round the tree-trunk, and with O'Mally pounding at his heels, stumbled along the baked-clay fringe of the marsh, bursting recklessly through grass and undergrowth in his haste to reach Justice and Len. For once his cheery talkativeness deserted him. He could only grasp his leader's hand as the captain bullocked his way out of the last of the cane, grim with joy too deep for words.
"The saints be praised! Begorrah, we thought you were goners!" wheezed O'Mally, stumbling up to give a helping arm. "Begob," grunted the Irishman, as he and Justice exchanged fervent grips, "ye look as though ye've been through the mill worse than me, and faith, I had a ginger-haired baboon drop smack on me head out of the skies! Where did ye come down, Justice?"
The captain, unable to speak for a moment, drew the back of his hand across his mouth and screwed up his face disgustedly. Len simply crumpled to the ground, with eyes closed and chest heaving painfully. Both were whacked to the wide, covered with scratches, bruises, and insect bites, and the captain, from his armpits downwards, was coated with green, evil-smelling slime. It was that more than anything that brought the frosty flame of anger into his eyes.
Starvation, pain, and danger, Captain Justice could endure all these with amazing fortitude. But if there was one thing that seriously got the famous adventurer's goat, it was dirt and the loss of his customary spruceness.
"Where did I land? Why, in the filthiest part of this forsaken swamp!" he growled, trying to make some impression on the mud with handfuls of grass. "Len was luckier—he finished up on the only dryish patch there was. But I went down up to my neck nearly, and he had to struggle across and haul me out. Stout work, Len! Thanks again!"
Abandoning his fruitless efforts to get clean, Justice mopped his moist face, then smiled wryly at his companions. The look in his eyes showed how overwhelmingly glad he was to see Midge and O'Mally safe and sound once more.
"However, filthy or not, I suppose we must all think ourselves lucky that we landed without broken bones," he went on, in something like his old brisk style. "But we'll have to steer clear of this swamp now—and 'ware crocs! Len and I have seen two real big fellows already, though luckily they were too drowsy to worry much about us."
A mirthless grin twitched the captain's lips as, instinctively, he glanced upwards.
"Our dear friend, Kuponos, thinks he's scuppered us thoroughly," he gritted. "But the beggar's made two mistakes. For one thing, he dropped us too near the outskirts of the jungle and forgot there are always wind-eddies near the lower slopes of mountains! And for another, he dropped us in the heat of the day, when the most dangerous beasts and blacks are dozing.
"I fear we'll have a gay time later on, lads, when it grows cool enough for the hunters to hunt. But meanwhile we four are together again, which is more than I ever expected, and perhaps we've got time to pull ourselves together in reasonable safety. So now the next thing to do is—"
"Find poor old Professor Flip-woggle!" exclaimed Midge, taking the words from his leader's mouth.
"Ay! And smartly, too! Has anyone the foggiest idea where the old chap dropped? Hang it!" snapped Justice, with sudden bitterness. "What a finish to a marvellous career, if we can't find him!"
"Och, don't think of it! We must!" O'Mally shook a doleful head. "The last I saw of him, he was a good half-mile or more to the west of me, as near as I could judge. That means—somewhere yonder!" he muttered. Justice's heart sank as he gazed in the general direction to which O'Mally pointed.
For there was nothing to see save jungle. Visibility was limited to perhaps thirty yards, and after that the eye was baffled by the heartbreaking welter of tree-trunks, bushes, ferns, and the network of fleshy, sinuous vines that dangled and trailed to the ground like gaudy ropes.
Once inside that shadowy maze, a man could lose himself in no time at all. And the short-sighted, colourblind professor, though quite at home in the most elaborate workshops, was as a child in the great Outdoors.
But where there's a will there's a way. Captain Justice, resourceful and resolute, was never one to acknowledge defeat until every possible venture had failed.
"Well, come along; can't stay here. The first step is to have a careful look-see!" he said, with forced cheerfulness; and, after a keen glance ahead, began to make his way towards the massive baobab-tree under which Midge and O'Mally had rested. A truly noble specimen was that giant breadfruit-tree, rising high above its fellows in tier after tier of glossy foliage.
Justice, after another inspection of the hoary trunk, took off his boots, hanging them on a near-by branch out of reach of white ants.
"I'm going up. If Flaznagel has fallen into the trees I may catch a glimpse of his chute," he said. "You fellows stick to the shade, and keep your eyes peeled in case there are snakes or prowling leopards around. Doc, give me a hand!"
Obediently O'Mally stooped, making a back; and, springing up lithely, Justice commenced his arduous climb. Soon he was lost to view among the lower branches, leaving his friends staring after him with anxious faces. Yet it was wonderful how their confidence had returned now that Captain Justice, the beloved leader, had taken charge of the grisly situation once more.
"If there's any chance at all of finding Flapdoodle, trust the skipper to nose it out!" murmured Midge. A remark with which not even Dr. O'Mally could disagree!
A Cry for Help!
UP and up clambered Captain Justice, climbing with the speed and dexterity of a born sailor. The baobab, with its thick stem and closely meshed branches and leaves, was not the easiest subject to tackle. But Justice, who, in his poorer days, had sailed before the mast on windjammers rounding the Horn, made light of the difficulties.
All that really troubled him were the myriad vicious insects and the stifling heat. And, too, he had not tasted food or good water for over twelve hours, and the strain began to tell on his iron stamina. But grimly, stubbornly, he forced himself to the crest at last; and there, clinging tenaciously to the topmost bough that would bear his weight, he looked out upon a world of blinding sunlight and colour.
It was a marvellous, awe-inspiring view, had Justice been in the mood to appreciate its glories. Slightly below the level of his eyes ran the vast resplendent sea of tropical vegetation, rolling far away to the heat-blurred horizons, while on his right the mountains loomed up in dazzling array. The equatorial sun, fiercer than any who have never experienced it can imagine, pressed down upon him like a molten weight.
Straddling the bough, with great care Justice wriggled out of his tattered pyjama jacket, twisting it turban-wise around his unprotected head. That done, he eased himself into a still higher position. And, linking his hands over his eyes, the hardy adventurer began slowly, methodically, to quarter the landscape in search of the lost professor.
A gruelling task—one that would have beaten any man less patient, less indomitable! The sun flayed his arms and shoulders. Shimmering heat-waves played treacherous tricks on his eyesight, and flocks of gaily plumaged birds, scared by the intrusion, fluttered above him with deafening squawks and screams.
And yet, in the end, it was a pair of these feathered denizens of the jungle that, all unknowingly, put Justice upon the right track!
The captain had begun to despair, when suddenly his eyes were attracted by large black dots wheeling sluggishly above a tree-crowned hill to the west, the only spot of high ground in all that waste. Lower and lower the birds spiralled, hung poised for a moment on outspread wings, then swung aloft again at the same lazy gait. And Justice, watching them intently, felt the chill hand of fear tugging at his heartstrings!
Justice stiffened. Too well he knew the habits of these scavengers—knew that it was their custom to hover aloft or at times descend to earth, and there wait with ghastly patience for a wounded animal—or a man!—to die. Nothing in jungle, swamp, or mountains could escape their constant vigilance. The captain mechanically followed their course, as the great birds sank through the air again.
And then he saw it!
To Justice, it seemed as if Providence had finally come to the aid of the professor and himself. After all the climbing and searching, it had been left to two of the most noisome cowards of the air to point out the position of the old scientist's parachute 'mid that wilderness of the "bush.”
"Got him, by James!"
In the moment of discovery, Captain Justice breathed a prayer of gratitude to every vulture ever hatched. Made giddy by heat and exhaustion, he nevertheless concentrated all his attention on the pathetic object they had shown him.
A small patch of yellow fabric it was, looking scarce larger than a good-sized scarf at that distance as it dangled limply from one of the highest trees on the rise, glinting dully in the sunlight. A parachute, sure enough—the professor was found! Justice's teeth gleamed in a quick smile of delight.
The flash of rejoicing, however, was brief. Swiftly the captain's face changed back to its former sombreness. For Flaznagel himself had yet to be rescued.
Separated from his friends by close on a mile of African bush, the old man was still as far off safety as ever. And with those sinister birds hanging over him—!
Justice wiped the sweat from his neck and face, shading his eyes once more. Jungle or not, prompt action was necessary now, and the slicker the better. As closely as he possibly could, the experienced adventurer marked the position of the crumpled chute, taking mental cross-bearings from the mountains, the sweep of the river, and the thrust of the hill itself.
Then, summoning all his energy, he slid and scuffled down the baobab-tree faster than he had ever shinned down from the yard-arms in the worst Atlantic storm.
"Right, Justice! We're under ye!" Excited voices hailed him, and the strong arms of O'Mally reached up as the captain swung himself off the lowest branch. Len and Midge, recovered somewhat from their marsh experiences, sprang to their feet. A husky cheer made parrots and monkeys scold again when Justice gasped out his news.
"I've spotted the chute all right—fixed its whereabouts, too, as near as I could," the captain panted. "But it's going to be a beast of a trek to get there. And those vultures—poor Flaznagel must be hurt or helpless, at least! The one blessing is that he must be alive, or—"
THERE was no need to complete the sentence. Len, O'Mally, and Midge clenched their fists and started to blunder forward on the instant. They, too, knew all about the habits of vultures.
"We've got to get there before it's time for those brutes to quit the air altogether," said Len, in a low voice, and Justice, thrusting past him into the lead, nodded grimly.
"Keep to the edge of the marsh as much as possible—walk in the open," he directed. "Watch out for crocs—don't go near anything that looks like a submerged log. And, whatever you do, don't drink any of this surface-water. Now, follow me, and don't jaw! I've got some bearings to remember, and my head's spinning already."
So saying, the captain stumbled ahead along the clayey margin of the swamp, face turned towards river and mountains. His comrades, sticking close together, trailed stiffly in his wake.
Began then an erratic but gallant dash to the rescue that sapped their strength, brought them to the verge of collapse, and nearly broke their hearts into the bargain! It was one of many such trips that were to follow in the terrible weeks ahead. But because it was the first, it was the one they never forgot.
Over parched clay, ridged like corrugated iron, through foul, scummy puddles, mosquito-haunted papyrus-beds, and over fallen trees that blocked the way, Justice led them, his eyes glued to a certain mountain crag that jutted out boldly from the glimmering mass. But when, presently, the greasy river took a sharp elbow-bend and cut back into the forest, the captain abandoned the ugly marsh and plunged on into the jungle fringe.
"Follow the river-bank!" he gulped, smashing through a bush and kicking his legs free of the curling vines. "Sing out if you spot a small crescent-shaped island—midstream! We have to turn our backs on that, and then bear roughly to the sou'-west—if we can tell which is sou'-west when we get there," he added ruefully.
"Don't try to travel quietly, lads—better make all the row you can. Remember snakes and animals are generally more scared of men than we are of them!"
"Oh yeah?" puffed Midge, with wry humour. "If that's so, skipper, then all the beasts around here must have died o' fright long ago!" Wearily the boy wriggled through a gap in the undergrowth which the portly but floundering O'Mally made for him. "Moanin' moggies, I couldn't be worse scared if I tried! An' I'm so hungry I could down a lion and eat him raw."
"Island ahead!" gasped Len at that moment, scrambling up a mossy bank and pointing beneath the spiked, polished leaves of a cactus-palm. The next, with a yell and a frantic leap, the youngster landed on O'Mally's shoulders as a sleek, scaly shape writhed almost from under him, vanishing to cover with an angry hiss and lash of supple tail.
"Snakes—more frightened than me!" Len mumbled, regaining his feet. "Yes—I don't think!"
But Justice, waiting only for the lad to recover himself, pushed sturdily on till the party came abreast of the mound of mud and weed in mid-river.
Once more he checked his bearings; then on again to the rescue of Professor Flaznagel—on into the heart of the bush now. Midge, Len, and O'Mally, nearly at their last gasp, faltered a second before commencing this last and most arduous stage of the trek. Yet, strangely enough, once they came to tackle it, that stage proved easier than it looked.
Luck was with them at last! For though the ferns, the creepers, and patches of breast-high grass flourished thicker than ever, and in places the shadow beneath the trees was inky-black, there were game-paths everywhere. Some lay narrow and tortuous, others were quite broad, and all led back from drinking-pools on the river bank to the rising ground above. After climbing, crawling, scrambling over, and helping each other past innumerable snags and obstacles, with noise enough to scare every living thing within earshot, the heroic four tumbled at last into one trail wider and more closely trampled than any they had yet discovered.
"Elephant-trail!" announced Justice, after a quick survey of the smashed and flattened bushes, and the broken saplings along the edges. "Safe enough, though, I fancy—over a week old, anyway!" he added. "Thank the stars for small mercies! The trail's running our way, too, so it—Look out, O'Mally! Jump!"
O'Mally did. Then he fairly flew, as mysterious and menacing rustlings sounded in the bush he had been standing by. Puffing like a grampus, the stout Irishman lumbered along the elephant-track that suddenly took a steep upward slant, nor did he stop running until his legs gave way.
"Och, murder and misery!" he moaned, as the others came toiling up. "By the black imps of Innishally, if I could only get hold of the vile thief who dumped me down in this pest-hole, sure, I'd—I'd—"
"Listen! For the love o' Mike, what's that?"
Quick as thought, Len Connor pounced, clapping a hand over the doctor's mouth. Then, through the throbbing silence that followed, harsh and terrifying, came a snarling, worrying sound from somewhere, followed by another that made Justice reel in his tracks.
"Flaznagel! He's calling us! By James, up the hill, boys—quick!" shouted the captain, as again that shrill but feeble cry for help rang faintly in his ears.
Still Alive—and Kicking!
HEEDLESS of fatigue, finding energy somehow, and forcing every last ounce out of their sorely tried limbs and bodies, the four tore up the slope, guided by the fearful snarls that increased in volume with every groggy stride they took. That last spurt of the rescue-party was as magnificent as it was reckless and punishing.
Up the slanting trail they blundered, anxiety lending wings to their heels. The ever-present monkeys chattered and gibbered above them, crashes and frightened hisses sounded on all sides, and once a lean spotted wraith flickered across their path and was gone. But the comrades hardly noticed it. They braced themselves for the final effort. Then altogether, like Rugger forwards barging through a scrum, they plunged headlong through a zareba of flowering bushes into a hillside clearing.
And there they stopped—dead! For Professor Flaznagel was found—just in time!
In the centre of the clearing towered a majestic African acacia, a forest colossus whose wide-flung branches had caught the professor's parachute. All down one side of the tree the chute hung, cords and envelope twisted together.
Still strapped in the harness, suspended in midair a full thirty feet above ground, dangled the swooning professor—menaced from above and below by two sleek and snarling leopards.
Captain Justice picked himself up and lurched forward. One of the fierce brutes was making vain leaps from the ground at Flaznagel, while its mate, flattened along a branch above his head, pawed wickedly at the helpless captive, without having the courage to trust itself to the chute rope.
As the rescuers yelled, the one below made another spring, its talons scything the air beneath the professor's bare feet. The next instant Justice snatched a stout stick from the ground, and charged the demons with a ferocity equal to their own.
Snarls, savage screams, and human shouts raised bedlam in the clearing. The leopard on the ground whirled to face Justice, pointed ears laid back and greenish eyes aglow with hate, while its consort slithered down the tree to its side.
For a moment it looked as though the baffled hunters meant fighting, and Justice swung his club higher to meet the rush. Then, at sight of their other foes tottering towards them, the leopards lost their nerve, whisked behind the tree-trunk, and disappeared with a squall of rage.
"Glory be!" O'Mally fell on hands and knees, sobbing for breath. In another second, however, he had dragged himself erect again and was gazing up dizzily at Flaznagel.
"Ye're safe, professor!" he wheezed hoarsely. "Those spotted blackguards have gone. Quick, man, unbuckle yourself! We'll catch ye! Why, bedad and begorrah, the poor old fellow's fainted!"
Overcome by the uproarious arrival of his friends, coming on top of all that he had endured, Professor Flaznagel had relapsed into merciful oblivion. His unkempt white head, with his spectacles swinging precariously from one ear, hung forward on his chest, and his spare frame had gone limp. Justice & Co. gazed up at him, swaying wearily on their heels.
Here was a fresh problem. How was the unconscious professor to be released?
"Harness all twisted—no wonder he couldn't unbuckle it!" growled the captain, and limped towards the tree. But Midge, guessing his intention, forestalled him.
"Let me climb!" he panted. "Someone'll have to shin down on top of Flapdoodle and unhitch his belt. So I'll go—I'm lighter. Otherwise there may be two busted necks!"
Without waiting for permission or refusal, the courageous youngster began scrambling up the trunk, digging into the bark with fingers and toes. He gained the lower fork after what seemed an eternity, then, with a gasp of exertion, swung out into the branches and worked his way along, slowly and painfully.
At last the lad found himself perched up where the leopard had been—right above Flaznagel's head.
"Are ye all right, ye spalpeen?" cried O'Mally from the ground.
"Oh, simply grand!" retorted the breathless Midge. "And now for the blinkin' drop, as the monkey said when he fell off Nelson's column!" he muttered, as, cautiously, he lowered himself down the chute rope until he was seated astride the professor's bowed shoulders.
Loud and alarming creaks came from the overburdened cord and straps, while rescuer and rescued swayed dangerously. But, clinging on with one hand and bending sideways with a nerve and suppleness worthy of any acrobat, the red-headed youngster succeeded in getting his fingers on Flaznagel's belt-buckle, and the trick was done. A wrench, a quick twist, and then:
Midge uttered a piercing yell as he fell.
With his arms tight-clasped round the professor's shoulders, he and Flaznagel dropped like stones, their comrades bracing themselves to meet the impact. Justice and O'Mally between them caught Flaznagel safely, but Len was either too late or too done-up to hold his chum. Whatever the cause, he did little more than break Midge's fall. And the next Midge felt was a stunning blow as his head thudded against the turf.
It was the last straw! Weak as he was already, the youngster rolled over, half-rose, and then, with trees, bushes, everything spinning before him, he crumpled to the ground and stayed there.
WHEN Midge recovered his senses and opened bleary eyes some ten minutes later, it was to find himself stretched out beneath the acacia, with Len anxiously hovering near.
Professor Flaznagel, muttering brokenly, lay beside him, and Dr. O'Mally was tearing up moist chunks of moss from beneath a clump of ferns, squeezing them together to form a cool compress for the professor's forehead and temples. Farther off still, in a patch of sunlight that streamed through the branches, Captain Justice, the handyman, was using the professor's highly magnifying spectacles to start a small smudge-fire against the droning insects.
As Midge gurgled and sat up, all eyes turned upon him.
"Gosh, I—I'm sorry, old son!" Len cried remorsefully, though he himself was nearly as groggy as Midge. "I tried to grab you, but—"
"Don't be crying over the young thickhead," interrupted O'Mally heartlessly, after an expert examination of Midge's scalp. "Sure, ye can't hurt solid ivory! And look at what I found after picking the pockets of your jacket, ye little pest!"
Snorting, the doctor poked an old, bone-handled knife with a single large blade under Midge's disdainful nose, pointing at the same time to a weird and wonderful assortment of articles on the ground. There were twists of string, a battered note-case, a hank of fine copper wire, two sporting cartridges, and a chunk of toffee, too horribly sticky to interest even Midge. But the doctor spun the knife gaily into the air.
"A cat-stabber—a real whole knife! The only tool and weapon between us!" he crowed. "Why didn't ye say ye had it, ye rusty-haired half-wit! Faith, ye could have cut the professor loose, instead o' clambering all over the poor old boy as ye did!"
Midge, dazed and exasperated, glared back.
"Is that so?" he mumbled. "All right, cleverstick, perhaps you've tried the blinkin' blade? I knew I had it, but that knife wouldn't cut butter hot, let alone leather and cord, you walking gasometer!"
"But it dashed well will!" exclaimed Captain Justice, hobbling back from the fire just then, and taking the knife from O'Mally. "By James, once I've found a stone to whet this on, I'll make it cut! Midge, this is the best find so far!”
Sinking heavily to the ground, the gentleman adventurer gazed earnestly at poor Flaznagel, and then at his other comrades. In spite of appalling difficulties, fortune had been good to them after all. They were reunited again, incredible though that had seemed at one time, and with that, Captain Justice was content. Whatever befell now, they would live or share the same fate together.
"You'll have to rest here now till you're all fit enough to move again," he said quietly, breaking a long silence. "I'll be off, though, in a minute to try to find water, and later on, when it's cooler, we'll hunt for food somehow. Also we must beat back and recover a parachute from the marsh, if possible, because the cords, leather, and fabric are going to come in mighty useful. Flaznagel's is ruined, but the others may still be sound.
"And to-morrow, at all costs, we've got to cross the river and get up into those mountains—anywhere away from this infernal jungle before leopards or fever put paid to us all!"
His voice held a sombre note, but the others sat up hopefully while he sketched out his plans, for their faith in him was proof against all calamities. With Justice to lead them, each felt he could go anywhere, do anything.
"Well," rumbled O'Mally, "that Kuponos skite has carried out his vile plans, and no mistake! Here we are, cut off from anywhere, with only an old knife between us. We're lost, and if all our friends on Justice Island and Titanic Tower combed Africa for us in the good old Flying Cloud, I fear we'd still be lost! But, begob, who cares? We've been up against it before. And we'll come out on top yet!"
"And one day," said Midge slowly, easing himself back deeper into the shade, "we'll get back and find Mister Kuponos, too! And then we'll make him wish he'd never been born! Cheer up, all! 'Cos we're still alive—and kicking!"
The castaways, with the rescued professor lying in their midst, exchanged grim but significant nods. Midge had summed it up! They were not licked yet!
No—but jolly nearly! In Next Saturday's Justice, story you'll learn how they start to make themselves less helpless, and face up squarely to their appalling plight!
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.