Chapter XVI. The Start Up the Congo
 

"It was queer Dan Baxter should act so," said Sam to his uncle, when Mr. Rover came back from his interview with the bully. "I thought he wanted to, go the worst way."

"He acted as if he had struck something else," answered Randolph Rover. "He didn't even want the money I offered. Perhaps he has received a remittance from home."

"Who would send it to him?" put in Dick. "His father is still in jail."

"Perhaps he got Mumps to send it to him," said Sam. "But I forgot, Mumps is away."

There was no time to discuss the situation further, for they were to start early on the following morning, and there were yet a dozen small matters which must be given attention. All were busy, and it was not until after eleven that evening that they turned in.

The day for the departure from Boma dawned bright and clear, and Cujo appeared with his assistants while they were still eating breakfast.

"Werry good day for um journey," he said, with a grin. "Make good many miles if nothing go wrong."

"You can't do any too well for me," answered Dick. "I hope our expedition into the interior is both short and successful."

At eight o'clock they were off. At first they had thought to go on horseback; but this was abandoned by the advice of the native, who declared that horses would prove more of a drag than a help in many places.

"Horse canno' climb tree bridge," he explained. "No climb high rock, no go around bad hill. We go on foot an' make better time."

The town was soon left behind and they struck a highway which for several miles afforded easy traveling. On all sides were dense groves of tropical growth, palms, mangoes, and the like, with enormous vines festooned from one tree to the next. Underneath were a great variety, of ferns and mosses, the homes of countless insects and small animals. The ground was black and wherever turned up gave forth a sickly odor of decayed vegetation.

"That is regular fever territory," explained Randolph Rover. "Boys, do not sleep on the ground if you can possibly avoid it. I sincerely trust that none of us take the tropical fever."

"If I feel it coming on I'll take a good dose of quinine," declared Tom.

Fortunately they had brought along a good supply of that valuable drug.

Two days traveling passed without special incident. On one side of the highway was the broad river, which glinted like molten lead in the sunshine. They could not travel very close to its bank, for here the ground was uncertain. Once Sam left the highway to get a better view of the stream, and, before Cujo noticed it, found himself up to his knees in a muck which stuck to him like so much glue.

"Hi! help me out!" roared the youngest Rover, and all of the party turned, to behold him waving his hand frantically toward them.

"He dun got stuck in de mud!" exclaimed Aleck, and started to go to Sam's assistance, when Cujo called him back.

"Must be werry careful," said the native. "Ground bad over dare - - lose life if urn don't have a care. Wait fo' me." And he approached Sam by a circuitous route over the tufts of grass which grew like so many dots amid the swamp. Soon he was close enough to throw the youth the end of a rope he carried. The pull that, followed nearly took Sam's arms out by the sockets; but the boy was saved, to return to the others of the party with an experience which was destined to be very useful to him in, the future.

"It will teach me to be careful of where I am going after this," he declared. "Why, that bog looked almost as safe as the ground over here!"

"Tropical places are all full of just such treacherous swamps," returned Randolph Rover. "It will be wise for all of us to remember that we are now in a strange territory and that we must have our eyes and ears wide open."

At half-past eleven they came to a halt for dinner. The sun was now almost overhead, and they were glad enough to seek the shelter of a number of palms standing in front of a -- native hostelry.

"We will rest here until two o'clock," said Mr. Rover. "It is all out of the question to travel in the heat of the day, as we did yesterday, in such a climate as this. Even the natives cannot stand that."

They found the hostelry presided over by a short, fat native who scarcely spoke a word of English. But he could speak French, and Mr. Rover spoke to him in that language, while Cujo carried on a talk in the native tongue. The midday repast was cooked over a fire built between several stones. The boys watched the cooking process with interest and were surprised to find, when it came to eating, that the food prepared tasted so good. They had antelope steak and a generous supply of native bread, and pure cocoa, which Tom declared as good as chocolate.

After the meal they took it easy in a number of grass hammocks stretched beneath the wide spreading palms surrounding the wayside inn, if such it might be called. Aleck and Cujo fell to smoking and telling each other stories, while the Rovers dozed away, lulled to sleep by the warm, gentle breeze which was blowing.

"I don't wonder the natives are lazy," remarked Dick, when his uncle aroused him. "I rarely slept in the daytime at home, and here I fell off without half trying."

"The climate is very enervating, Dick. That is why this section of the globe makes little or no progress toward civilization. Energetic men come here, with the best intention in the world of hustling, as it is termed, but soon their ambition oozes out of them like -- well, like molasses out of a barrel lying on a hot dock in the sun.

"A good comparison," laughed Dick.

"Come, Tom; come, Sam!" he called out, and soon the party was on its way again.

The highway was still broad, but now it was not as even as before, and here and there they had to leap over just such a treacherous swamp as had caused Sam so much trouble. "It's a good thing we didn't bring the horses," said Mr. Rover. "I didn't think so before, but I do now."

The jungle was filled with countless birds, of all sorts, sizes, and colors. Some of these sang in a fairly tuneful fashion, but the majority uttered only sounds which were as painful to the hearing as they were tiresome.

"The sound is enough to drive a nervous fellow crazy," declared Tom. "It's a good thing nature fixed it so that a man can't grow up nervous here."

"Perhaps those outrageous cries are meant to wake a chap up," suggested Dick.

"I've a good mind to shoot some of the little pests."

"You may take a few shots later on and see what you can bring down for supper," answered his uncle. "But just now let us push on as fast as we can."

"Yes," put in Tom. "Remember we are out here to find father, not to hunt."

"As if I would ever forget that," answered Dick, with a reproachful glance.

They were now traveling a bit of a hill which took them, temporarily, out of sight of the Congo. Cujo declared this was a short route and much better to travel than the other. The way was through a forest of African teak wood, immense trees which seemed to tower to the very skies.

"They are as large as the immense trees of California of which you have all heard," remarked Randolph Rover. "It is a very useful wood, used extensively in ship building."

"After all, I think a boat on the Congo would have been better to use than shoe leather," said Sam, who was beginning to grow tired.

"No use a boat when come to falls," grinned Cujo. "Soon come to dem, too."

Aleck had been dragging behind, carrying a heavy load, to which he was unaccustomed. Now he rejoined the others with the announcement that another party was in their rear.

"They are on foot, too," he said. "Cujo whar you dun t'ink da be gwine?"

"To the next settlement, maybe," was Randolph Rover's comment, and Cujo nodded.

They waited a bit for the other party to come up, but it did not, and, after walking back, Cujo returned with the announcement that they were nowhere in sight.

"Perhaps they turned off on a side road," said Tom, and there the matter was dropped, to be brought to their notice very forcibly that night.

Evening found them at another hostelry, presided over by a Frenchman who had a giant negress for a wife. The pair were a crafty looking couple, and did not at all please the Rovers.

"Perhaps we may as well sleep with one eye open tonight," said Randolph Rover, upon retiring. "We are in a strange country, and it's good advice to consider every man an enemy until he proves himself a friend."

The hostelry was divided into half a dozen rooms, all on the ground floor. The Rovers were placed in two adjoining apartments, while the natives and Aleck were quartered in an addition of bamboo in the rear.

"Keep your eyes and ears open, Aleck," whispered Dick, on separating from the faithful colored man. "And if you find anything wrong let us know at once."

"Do you suspect anyt'ing, Massah Rober?" was Pop's anxious question.

"I do and I don't. Something in the air seems to tell me that everything is not as it should be."

"Dat Frenchman don't look like no angel, sah," and Aleck shook his head doubtfully.

"You're right, Aleck, and his wife is a terror, or else I miss my guess."

"Dat's right, Massah Rober; nebber saw sech sharp eyes. Yes, I'll look out-fo' my own sake as well as fo' de sake ob Ye and de rest," concluded Aleck.