Chapter IX. "Forward March!"
 

"You don't say so!" exclaimed the young inventor, when Ned had told him the queer news. "Well, do you know I've been suspicious of that fellow ever since he tried to make friends with us."

"Suspicious? How so? You don't think--"

"Oh, I mean I think he's some kind of a confidence man who has adopted the respectable clothes of a minister to fool people. He may be a card sharper himself. Well, we won't have anything more to do with him. It won't be long before we arrive at Buenos Ayres, and then we won't be bothered with card sharpers or anybody else but--"

"Giants and fighting natives," finished Ned, with a laugh. "You forget, Tom, that there's a war going on near the very place we're headed for."

"That's so, Ned. But with what we have with us I guess we can make out all right. I'm going to have the electric rifles handy the minute we start for the interior."

The voyage continued, and was fast drawing to a close. "Mr. Blinderpool" made several more attempts to strike up a friendship with Tom, or his chum, but they were on their guard now, and, failing to get into much of a conversation with the two young men, the pretended clergyman turned his attentions to Mr. Damon.

That eccentric gentleman welcomed him at first, until a quiet hint from Tom brought that to an end.

"Bless my fire shovel!" cried Mr. Damon. "You don't say so! Not a clergyman at all? Dear me!"

And then, getting desperate, and needing very much to learn how long a journey his rivals were to undertake, so that he, too, might prepare for it, Mr. Hank Delby, alias Blinderpool, began to "pump" Eradicate.

But the latter was too sharp for him. Well knowing that a white man would not get suddenly friendly with one of the black race unless for some selfish object, Eradicate fairly snubbed the seeming minister, until that worthy had to go off by himself, saying bitter things and casting black looks at our friends.

"But I'll get ahead of them yet!" he muttered, "and I'll get their giants away from them, if they capture any."

The box on which Tom set such an importance, and which had so nearly been the cause of a disaster, had been stored in one of the fire- proof compartments of the ship, and now, as a few days more would see the vessel entering the harbor of the Rio de la Plata, thence to steam up to the ancient city of Buenos Ayres, Tom and the others began to think of what lay before them.

"How do you propose to head into the interior?" asked Mr. Damon one afternoon, when the captain announced that the following morning would see them nearly opposite Montevideo.

"I'm going to hire a lot of burrows, donkeys or whatever they have down here that answers the purpose," replied Tom. "We have a lot of things to transport, and I guess pack mules would be the best, if we can get them. Then I've got to hire some drivers and some porters, camp-makers and the like. In fact we'll have quite a party. I guess I'll need ten natives, and a head man and with ourselves we'll be fifteen. So we'll need plenty of food. But then we can get that as we go along, except when we get away into the interior, and then we'll have to hunt it ourselves."

"That's the stuff!" cried Ned. "We haven't had a good hunting expedition since we went to elephant land, Tom. The electric rifles will come in handy here."

"Yes, I expect they will. Now come on, Ned, and help me get a list ready of the things we've got to take with us, and how they can best be divided up."

Thick weather delayed the ship somewhat, so it was not until evening of the next day that they made Montevideo, where part of the cargo was to be discharged. As they would lay over there a day, the boys decided to go ashore, which they did, wondering at the strange sights in the old city.

Tom watched to see if the pretended minister would land, and endeavor to force his acquaintance, but Mr. Hank Delby, to give him his right name, was not in evidence. In fact he was turning over scheme after scheme in his mind in order to hit on one that would enable him to take advantage of the preparations which had been made by his rival in the circus business.

"I've just got to get a line on where those giants are to be found," mused Mr. Delby, in the seclusion of his stateroom, "even if I have to take some other disguise and follow that Swift crowd. That's what I'll do. I'll put on some other disguise! I wonder what it had better be?"

Tom and Ned, to say nothing of Mr. Damon and Eradicate, found much to interest them in the capital of Uruguay, and they were rather sorry, in a way, when it was time for them to leave.

"But we'll see plenty more strange sights," remarked Tom, as the steamer started off for Buenos Ayres. "In fact our trip hasn't really begun yet."

In due time they dropped anchor at the ancient city, and then began a series of confused and busy times. In fact there was so much to do, seeing to the unloading of their stuff, arranging for hotel accommodations, seeing to hiring natives for the expedition into the interior, and other details, that Tom and his friends had no time to think anything about the pretended clergyman who had caused them a little worry.

Eventually their belongings were stored in a safe place, and our friends sat down to a good dinner in a hotel that, while it was in far-off South America, yet was as good as many in New York, and, in some respects the boys, and Mr. Damon, liked it better.

They found that the Spanish and Portuguese languages were the principal ones spoken, together with a mixture of the native tongues, and as both Ned and Tom, as well as Mr. Damon, had a working knowledge of Spanish they got along fairly well. Some of the hotel people could speak English.

Tom made inquiries and found that the best plan would be to transport all his stuff by the regular route to Rosario, on the Parana river in Argentina, and there he could make up his pack train, hire native carriers, and start for the interior.

"Then we'll do that," he decided, "and take it easy until we get to Rosario."

It took them the better part of a week to do this, but at last they were on the ground, and felt for the first time that they were really going into a wild and little explored country.

"Are you going to stick to the Parana river?" asked Ned.

"No," replied Tom, in the seclusion of their room, "if there are any giants they will be found in some undiscovered, or at least little traveled, part of the country. I don't believe they are in the vicinity of the big rivers, or other travelers would have heard about them, and, as far as we know, Mr. Preston's animal agent is the only one who ever got a trace of them. We'll have to go into the jungle on either side of the river."

"Bless my walking stick!" cried Mr. Damon. "Have we really to go into the jungle, Tom?"

"I'm afraid we have, if we want to get any giants, and get a trace of Mr. Poddington."

"All right, I'm game, but I do hope we won't run into a band of fighting natives."

In Rosario it was learned that while the "war" was not regarded seriously from the fact that the fighting tribes were far inland, still it was going on with vigor, and large bands of natives were roaming about, stealing each others' cattle and horses, burning villages, and taking captives.

"I guess we're in for it," remarked Tom grimly. "But I'm not going to back out now."

Unexpected complications, difficulties in the way of getting the right kind of help, and a competent man to take charge of the native drivers, so delayed our friends that it was nearly two weeks after their arrival in Rosario before they could start for the interior.

Of course the object of the expedition was kept a secret, and Tom let it be known that he and his friends were merely exploring, and wanted rare plants, orchids, or anything in that line. The natives were not very curious.

At last the day for the start came. The mules, which had been hired as beasts of burdens, were loaded with boxes or bales on either side, the natives were marshalled into line. Tom, Ned, and Mr. Damon, each equipped with a rifle had a saddle animal to ride, and Eradicate was similarly equipped, though for a weapon he depended on a shotgun, which he said he understood better than the electric rifles.

The aeroplane, divided into many small packages, the goods for barter, their supplies, stores, ammunition, and the box of which Tom took such care--all these were on the backs of the beasts of burden. Some food was taken along, but for a time, at least, they could depend on scattered towns or villages, or the forest game, for their eating.

"Are we all ready?" called Tom, looking at the rather imposing cavalcade of which he was the head.

"I guess so," replied Ned. "Let her go!"

"Bless my liver pad!" gasped Mr. Damon. "If we've got to start do it, and let's get it over with Tom."

"All ready, Rad?" asked the colored man's young master.

"All ready, Massa Tom. But I mus' say dat I'd radder hab Boomerang dan dish yeah animal what I'm ridin'."

"Oh, you'll do all right, Rad. Then, if we're all ready, forward march!" cried Tom, and with calls to their animals, the drivers started them off.

Hardly had they begun the advance than Ned, who had been narrowly watching one of the natives, hurried up to Tom, and rapidly whispered something to his chum.

"What?" cried Tom. "Armed with a six-shooter, is he? Well, we'll see about that! Halt!" he cried in Spanish, and then he called San Pedro the head mule driver, to him.