Chapter XIII. The Desertion
 

"Say, look at those fellows pitch into one another!" gasped Ned.

"It's fighting at close range all right," commented Mr. Damon.

"If they had rifles they wouldn't be at it hand to hand," spoke Tom. "Maybe it's just as well they haven't, for there won't be so many killed. But say, we'd better be thinking of ourselves. They may make up their quarrel and turn against us any minute."

"No--never--no danger of them being friends--they are rival tribes," said San Pedro. "But either one may attack us--the one that is the victor. It is better that we keep away."

"I guess you're right," agreed Tom. "Lead the way, San Pedro, and we'll get out of sight."

But there was a fascination in watching the distant battle that was hard to resist. It was like looking at a moving picture, for at that distance none of the horrors of war were visible. True, natives went down by scores, and it was not to be doubted but what they were killed or injured, but it seemed more like a big football scrimmage than a fight.

"This is great!" cried Tom. "I like to watch it, but I'm sorry for the poor chaps that get hurt or killed. I hope they're only stunned as we stunned the wild horses."

"I'm afraid it is more serious than that," spoke San Pedro. "These natives are very bloodthirsty. It would not be well for us to incur their anger."

"We won't run any chances," decided Tom. "We'll just travel on. Come on, Ned--Mr. Damon."

As he spoke there was a sudden victorious shout from the scene of the battle. One body of natives was seen to turn and flee, while the others pursued them.

"Now's our time to make tracks!" called Tom. "We'll have to push on to the next village before we can ask where the gi--" he caught himself just in time, for San Pedro was looking curiously at him.

"The senor wishes to find something?" asked the head mule driver with an insinuating smile.

"Yes," broke in Eradicate. "We all is lookin' fo' some monstrous giant orchards flowers."

"Ah, yes, orchids," spoke San Pedro. "Well, there may be some in the jungle ahead of us, but the senors have come the wrong trail for flowers," and he looked curiously at Tom, while, from afar, come the sound of the native battle though the combatants could no longer be seen.

"Never mind," said our hero quickly. "I guess I'll find what I want. Now come on."

They started off, skirting the burned village to get on the trail beyond it. But hardly had they made a detour of the burned huts than one of the native drivers, who was in the rear, came riding up with a shout.

"Now what's the matter?" cried Tom, looking back.

There was a voluble chattering in Spanish between the driver and San Pedro.

"He says the natives that lived in this village have driven their enemies away, and are coming back--after us," translated the head mule driver.

"After us!" gasped Ned.

"Yes," replied San Pedro simply. "They are coming even now. They will fight too, for all their wild nature is aroused."

It needed but a moment's listening to prove this. From the rear came wild yells and the beating of drums and tom-toms.

"Bless my fountain pen!" cried Mr. Damon. "What are we going to do?"

"Stop them if we can," answered Tom coolly. "Ned, you and I and Mr. Damon will form a rear guard. San Pedro, take the mules and the men, and make as good time as you can in advance. We'll take three of the fastest mules, and hold these fellows back with the electric rifles, and when we've done that we'll ride on and catch up to you."

"Very good," said San Pedro, who seemed relieved to know that he did not have to do any of the fighting.

Three of the lighter weight mules, who carried small burdens, were quickly relieved of them, and mounting these steeds in preference to the ones they had been riding since they took the trail, Tom, Ned and Mr. Damon dropped back to try and hold off the enemy.

They had not far to ride nor long to wait. They could hear the fierce yells of the victorious tribesmen as they came back to their ruined village, and though there were doubtless sad hearts among them, they rejoiced that they had defeated their enemies. They knew they could soon rebuild the simple grass huts.

"Small charges, just to stun them!" ordered Tom, and the electric rifles were so adjusted.

"Here's a good place to meet them," suggested Ned, as they came to a narrow turn in the trail. "They can't come against us but a few at a time, and we can pump them full of electricity from here."

"The very thing!" cried Tom, as he dismounted, an example followed by the others. Then, in another moment, they saw the blacks rushing toward them. They were clad in nondescript garments, evidently of their own make, and they carried clubs, spears, bows and arrows and blow guns. There was not a firearm among them, as they passed on after the party of our friends whom they had seen from the battle- hill. They gave wild yells as they saw the young inventor's friends.

"Let 'em have it!" called Tom in a low voice, and the electric rifles sent out their stunning charges. Several natives in the front rank dropped, and there was a cry of fear and wonder from the others. Then, after a moment's hesitation they pressed on again.

"Once more!" cried Tom.

Again the electric rifles spoke, and half a score went down unconscious, but not seriously hurt. In a few hours they would be as well as ever, such was the merciful charge that Tom Swift and the others used in the rifles.

The third time they fired, and this was too much for the natives. They could not battle against an unseen and silent enemy who mowed them down like a field of grain. With wild yells they fled back along the trail they had come.

"I guess that does it!" cried Tom. "We'd better join the others now."

Mounting their mules, they galloped back to where San Pedro and his natives were pressing forward.

"Did you have the honor of defeating them," the head mule driver asked.

"I had the honor," answered Tom, with a grim smile.

Then they pressed on, but there was no more danger. That night they camped in a peaceful valley and were not disturbed, and the following day they put a good many miles behind them. On the advice of San Pedro, they avoided the next two villages as they realized that they were in the war zone, and then they headed for a large town where Tom was sure he would hear some news of the giants.

They had to camp twice at night before reaching this town, and when they did get to it they were warmly welcomed, for white explorers had been there years before, and had treated the natives well. Tom distributed many trinkets among the head men and won their good will so that the party was given comfortable huts in which to sleep, and a plentiful supply of provisions.

"Can you arrange for a talk with the chief?" asked Tom of San Pedro that night. "I want to ask him about certain things."

"About where you can find giant flowers?" asked the mule driver with a quick look.

"Yes--er--and other giant things," replied Tom. "I fix," answered San Pedro shortly, but there was a queer look on his face.

A few hours later Tom was summoned to the hut of the chief of the town, and thither he went with Ned, Mr. Damon and San Pedro as interpreter, for the natives spoke a jargon of their own that Tom could not understand.

There were some simple ceremonies to observe, and then Tom found himself facing the chief, with San Pedro by his side. After the greetings, and an exchange of presents, Tom giving him a cheap phonograph with which the chief was wildly delighted, there came the time to talk.

"Ask him where the giant men live?" our hero directed San Pedro, believing that the time had now come to disclose the object of his expedition.

"Giant men, Senor Swift? I thought it was giant plants--orchids--you were after," exclaimed San Pedro.

"Well, I'll take a few giant men if I can find them. Tell him I understand there is a tribe of giants in this country. Ask him if he ever heard of them."

San Pedro hesitated. He looked at Tom, and the young inventor fancied that there was a tinge of white on the swarthy face of the chief mule driver. But San Pedro translated the question.

Its effect on the chief was strange. He half leaped from his seat, and stared at Tom. Then he uttered a cry--a cry of fear--and spoke rapidly.

"What does he say?" asked Tom of San Pedro eagerly, when the chief had ceased speaking.

"He say--he say," began the mule driver and the words seemed to stick in his throat--"he say there are giants--many miles to the north. Terrible big men--very cruel--and they are fearful. Once they came here and took some of his people away. He is afraid of them. We are all afraid of them," and San Pedro looked around apprehensively, as though he might see one of the giants stalking into the chief's hut at any moment.

"Ask him how many miles north?" asked Tom, hardly able to conceal his delight. The giants had no terrors for him.

"Two weeks journey," translated San Pedro.

"Good!" cried the young inventor. "Then we'll keep right on. Hurrah! I'm on the right track at last, and I'll have a giant for the circus and we may be able to rescue Mr. Poddington!"

"Is the senor in earnest?" asked San Pedro, looking at Tom curiously. "Is he really going among these terrible giants?"

"Yes, but I don't believe they'll be so terrible. They may be very gentle. I'm sure they'll be glad to come with me and join a circus-- some of them--and earn a hundred dollars a week. Of course we're going on to giant land!"

"Very good," said San Pedro quietly, and then he followed Tom out of the chief's hut.

"It's all right, Ned old sport, we'll get to giant land after all!" cried Tom to his chum as they reached the hut where they were quartered.

The next morning when Tom got up, and looked for San Pedro and his men, to give orders about the march that day, the mule drivers were nowhere to be seen. Nor were the mules in the places where they had been tethered. Their packs lay in a well ordered heap, but the animals and their drivers were gone.

"This is queer," said Tom, rubbing his eyes to make sure that he saw aright. "I wonder where they are? Rad, look around for them."

The colored man did so, and came back soon, to report that San Pedro and his men had gone in the night. Some of the native villagers told him so by signs, Eradicate said. They had stolen away.

"Gone!" gasped Tom. "Gone where?"

"Bless my railroad ticket!" cried Mr. Damon.

"We're deserted," exclaimed Ned. "They've taken the mules, and left us."

"I guess that's it," admitted Tom ruefully, after a minute's thought. "San Pedro couldn't stand for the giants. He's had a frightful flunk. Well, we're all alone, but we'll go on to giant land anyhow! We can get more mules. A little thing like this can't phase me. Are you with me, Ned--Mr. Damon--Eradicate?"

"Of course we are!" they cried without a moment's hesitation.

"Then we'll go to giant land alone!" exclaimed Tom. "Come on, now, and we'll see if we can arrange for some pack animals."