Chapter XX. The Fight at the Old Fort
 

For the instant after the serpent appeared nobody spoke or moved. The waving motion of the reptile was fascinating to the last degree, as was also that beady stare from its glittering eyes. The stare was fixed upon poor Tom, and having retreated but a few feet, he now stood as though rooted to the spot. Slowly the form of the snake was lowered, until only the end of its tail kept it up on the tree branch. Then the head and neck began to swing back and forth, in a straight line with Tom's face.

The horrible fascination held the poor, boy as by a spell, and he could do nothing but look at those eyes, which seemed to bum themselves upon his very brain. Closer and closer, and still closer, they came to his face, until at last the reptile prepared to strike.

Crack! It was Sam's pistol that spoke up, at just the right instant, and those beady eyes were ruined forever, and the wounded head twisted in every direction, while the body of the serpent, dropping from the tree, lashed and dashed hither and thither in its agony. Then the spell was broken, and Tom let out such a yell of terror as had never before issued from his lips.

Crack! came a second shot from Sam's pistol. But the serpent was moving around too rapidly for a good aim to be taken, and only the tip of the tail was struck. Then, in a mad, blind fashion, the snake coiled itself upon Aleck's foot, and began, with lightning-like rapidity, to encircle the colored man's body.

"Help!" shrieked Aleck, trying to pull the snake off with his hands. "Help! or Ise a dead man, shuah!"

"Catch him by the neck, Aleck!" ejaculated Tom, and brought out his own pistol. Watching his chance, he pulled the trigger twice, sending both bullets straight through the reptile's body. Then Sam fired again, and the mangled head fell to the ground.

But dead or alive the body still encircled Aleck, and the contraction threatened to cave in the colored man's ribs.

"Pull him off somehow!" he gasped. "Pull him off!"

Crack! went Tom's pistol once more, and now the snake had evidently had enough of it, for it uncoiled slowly and fell to the ground in a heap, where it slowly shifted from one spot to another until life was extinct. But neither the boys nor the colored man waited to see if it was really dead. Instead, they took to their heels and kept on running until the locality was left a considerable distance behind.

"That was a close shave," said Tom, as he dropped on the ground and began to nurse his lame ankle once more. "Ugh! but that snake was enough to give one the nightmare!"

"Don't say a word," groaned Aleck, who had actually turned pale. "I vought shuah I was a goner, I did fo' a fac'! I don't want to meet no mo' snakes!"

The two boys reloaded their pistols with all rapidity, and this was scarcely accomplished when they heard Cujo calling to them. Soon the native put in an appearance. When told of what had happened he would not believe the tale until he had gone back to look at the dead snake.

"You werry lucky," he said. "Him big wonder um snake didn't kill all of yo'!"

Cujo had made an important discovery. He had located Captain Villaire's party at the old fort, and said that several French brigands were on guard, by the trail leading from the swamp and at the cliff overlooking the river.

"I see white boy dare too," he added. "Same boy wot yo' give money to in Boma."

"Dan Baxter!" ejaculated Sam. "Can it be possible that he is mixed up in this affair?"

"I can't understand it at all," returned Tom. "But the question is, now we have tracked the rascals, what is to be done next?"

After a long talk it was resolved to get as close to the old fort as possible. Cujo said they need not hurry, for it would be best to wait until nightfall before making any demonstration against their enemies. The African was very angry to think that the other natives had deserted the party, but this anger availed them nothing.

Four o'clock in the afternoon found them on the edge of the swamp and not far from the bank of the Congo. Beyond was the cliff, overgrown in every part with rank vegetation, and the ever-present vines, which hung down like so many ropes of green.

"If we want to get up the wall we won't want any scaling ladders," remarked Tom grimly. "Oh, if only we knew that Dick and Uncle Randolph were safe!"

"I'm going to find out pretty soon," replied Sam. "I'll tell you what I think. I think they are being held for ransom."

"I was thinking of that, too. But I didn't dream of such a thing being done down here although, I know it is done further north in Africa among the Moors and Algerians."

Cujo now went off on another scout and did not return until the sun was setting. Again he was full of smiles.

"I can show you a way up de rocks," he said. "We can get to the walls of um fort, as you call um, without being seen."

Soon night was upon them, for in the tropics there is rarely any twilight. Tom now declared himself able to walk once more, and they moved off silently, like so many shadows, beside the swamp and then over a fallen palm to where a series of rocks, led up to the cliff proper.

"Sh-ah!" came presently from Cujo. "Man ahead!"

They came to a halt, and through the gloom saw a solitary figure sitting on a rock. The sentinel held a gun over his knees and was smoking a cigarette.

"If he sees us he will give the alarm," whispered Tom. "Can't we capture him without making a noise?"

"Dat's de talk," returned Aleck. "Cujo, let us dun try dat trick."

Cujo nodded. "Urn boys stay here," he said. "Cujo fix dat feller!"

And off he crawled through the wet grass, taking a circuitous route which brought him up on the sentinel's left.

Presently the sentinel started to rise. As he did so Cujo leaped from the grass and threw him to the earth. Then a long knife flashed in the air. "No speak, or um diet" came softly; but, the Frenchman realized that the African meant what he said.

"I will be silent!" he growled, in the language of the African. "Don't -- don't choke me."

Cujo let out a low whistle, which the others rightly guessed was a signal for them to come up. Finding himself surrounded, the Frenchman gave up his gun and other weapons without a struggle. He could talk no English, so what followed had to be translated by Cujo.

"Yes, de man an' boy are dare," explained Cujo, pointing to the fort. "Da chained up, so dis rascal say. De captain ob de band want heap money to let um go."

"Ask him how many of the band there are," asked Sam.

But at this question the Frenchman shook his head. Either he did not know or would not tell.

After a consultation the rascal was made to march back to safer ground. Then he was strapped to a tree and gagged. The straps were not fastened very tightly, so that the man was sure to gain his liberty sooner or later. "If we didn't come back and he was too tight he might starve to death," said Tom.

"Not but wot he deserves to starve," said Aleck, with a scowl at the crestfallen prisoner.

At the foot of the cliff all was as dark and silent as a tomb. "We go slow now, or maybe take a big tumble," cautioned Cujo. "Perhaps him better if me climb up first," and he began the dangerous ascent of the cliff by means of the numerous vines already mentioned.

He was halfway up when the others started after him, Sam first, Tom next, and Aleck bringing up in the rear.

Slowly they arose until the surface of the stream was a score or more of feet below them. Then came the sounds of footsteps from above and suddenly a torch shone down into their upturned faces.

"Hullo, who's this?" came in English and the Rover boys recognized Dan Baxter.

"Silence, on your life!" cried Tom.

"Tom Rover!" gasped the bully. "How came you --"

"Silence, Baxter! I have a pistol and you know I am a good shot. Stand where you an and put both hands over your head."

"Will I stand? Not much!" yelled the bully, and flung his torch straight at Tom. Then he turned and ran for the fort, giving the alarm at the top of his lungs.

The torch struck Tom on the neck, and for the moment the youth was in danger of losing his hold on the vines and tumbling to the jagged rocks below. But then the torch slipped away, past Sam and Aleck, and went hissing into the dark waters of the Congo.

By this time Cujo had reached the top of the cliff and was making after Baxter. Both gained the end of the fort at the same time and one mighty blow from Cujo's club laid Baxter senseless near the doorway.

"Help! help!" The cry came in Dick's voice, and was plainly heard by Sam and Tom. Then Captain Villaire appeared, and a rough and tumble battle ensued, which the Rovers well remember to this day.

But Tom was equal to the occasion, and after the first onslaught he turned, as if summoning help from the cliff. "This way!" he cried. "Tell the company to come up here and the other company can surround the swamp!"

Several pistol shots rang out, and the boys saw a Frenchman go down with a broken arm. Then Captain Villaire shouted: "We have been betrayed -- we must flee!" The cry came in French, and as if by magic the brigands disappeared into the woods behind the old fort; and victory was upon the side of our friends.