Chapter XXI. Into the Heart of Africa
 

"Well, I sincerely trust we have no more such adventures."

The speaker was Randolph Rover. He was seated on an old bench in one of the rooms of the fort, binding up a finger which had been bruised in the fray. It was two hours later, and the fight had come to an end some time previous. Nobody was seriously hurt, although Sam, Dick, and Aleck were suffering from several small wounds. Aleck had had his ear clipped by a bullet from Captain Villaire's pistol and was thankful that he had not been killed.

Baxter, the picture of misery, was a prisoner. The bully's face was much swollen and one eye was in deep mourning. He sat huddled up in a heap in a corner and wondering what punishment would be dealt out to him. "I suppose they'll kill me," he groaned, and it may be added that he thought he almost deserved that fate.

"You came just in time," said Dick. "Captain Villaire was about to torture us into writing letters home asking for the money he wanted as a ransom. Baxter put it into his head that we were very rich."

"Oh, please don't say anything more about it!" groaned the unfortunate bully. "I -- that Frenchman put up this job all on his own hook."

"I don't believe it," came promptly from Randolph Rover. "You met him, at Boma; you cannot deny it."

"So I did; but be didn't say he was going to capture you, and I -"

"We don't care to listen to your falsehoods, Baxter," interrupted Dick sternly.

"You are fully as guilty as anybody. You admitted it before."

Cujo had gone off to watch Captain Villaire and his party. He now came back, bringing word that the brigand had taken a fallen tree and put out on the Congo and was drifting down the stream along with several of his companions in crime.

"Him won't come back," said the tall African. "Him had enough of urn fight."

Nevertheless the whole party remained on guard until morning, their weapons ready for instant use. But no alarm came, and when day, dawned they soon made sure that they had the entire locality around the old fort to themselves, the Frenchman with a broken arm having managed to crawl off and reach his friends.

What to do with Dan Baxter was a conundrum.

"We can't take him with us, and if we leave him behind he will only be up to more evil," said Dick. "We ought to turn him over to the British authorities."

"No, no, don't do that," pleaded the tall youth. "Let me go and I'll promise never to interfere with you again."

"Your promises are not worth the breath used in uttering them," replied Tom. "Baxter, a worse rascal than you could not be imagined. Why don't you try to turn over a new leaf?"

"I will -- if you'll only give me one more chance," pleaded the former bully of Putnam Hall.

The matter was discussed in private and it was at last decided to let Baxter go, providing he would, promise to return straight to the coast.

"And remember," said Dick, "if we catch you following us again we will shoot you on sight."

"I won't follow -- don't be alarmed," was the low answer, and then Baxter was released and conducted to the road running down to Boma. He was given the knife he had carried, but the Rovers kept his pistol, that he might not be able to take a long-range shot at them. Soon he was out of their sight, not to turn up again for a long while to come.

It was not until the heat of the day had been spent that the expedition resumed its journey, after, an excellent meal made from the supplies Captain Villaire's party had left behind in their hurried flight. Some of the remaining supplies were done up into bundles by Cujo, to replace those which had been lost when the natives hired by Randolph Rover had deserted.

"It's queer we didn't see anything of that man and woman from the inn," remarked Dick, as they set off. "I reckon they got scared at the very start."

They journeyed until long after nightfall, "To make up for lost time," as Mr. Rover expressed it, and so steadily did Cujo push on that when a halt was called the boys were glad enough to rest. They had reached a native village called Rowimu. Here Cujo was well known and he readily procured good accommodations for all hands.

The next week passed without special incident, excepting that one afternoon the whole party went hunting, bringing down a large quantity of birds, and several small animals, including an antelope, which to the boys looked like a Maine deer excepting for the peculiar formation of its horns.

"I wonder how Mr. Blaze is making out?" said Tom, when they were returning to camp from the hunt.

"Oh, I reckon he is blasting away at game," laughed Sam, and Tom at once groaned over the attempted joke.

"Perhaps we will meet him some day -- if he's in this territory," put in Dick. "But just now I am looking for nobody but father."

"And so are all of us," said Tom and Sam promptly.

They were getting deeper and deeper into the jungle and had to take good care that they did not become separated. Yet Cujo said he understood the way perfectly and often proved his words by mentioning something which they would soon reach, a stream, a little lake, or a series of rocks with a tiny waterfall.

"Been ober dis ground many times," said the guide.

"I suppose this is the ground Stanley covered in his famous expedition along the Congo," remarked Dick, as they journeyed along. "But who really discovered the country, Uncle Randolph?"

"That is a difficult question to answer, Dick. The Portuguese, the Spanish, and the French all claim that honor, along with the English. I fancy different sections, were discovered by different nationalities. This Free State, you know, is controlled by half a dozen nations."

"I wonder if the country will ever be thoroughly civilized?"

"It will take a long while, I am afraid. Christianity will have to come first. Many of the tribes in Africa are, you must remember, without any form of religion whatever, being even worse than what we call heathens, who worship some sort of a God."

"Don't they believe in anything?" asked Sam.

"Nothing, Sam. And their morality is of the lowest grade in consequence. They murder and steal whenever the chance offers, and when they think the little children too much care for them they pitch them into the rivers for the crocodiles to feed upon."

"The beasts!" murmured Tom. "Well, I reckon at that rate, civilization can't come too quick, even if it has to advance behind bayonets and cannon."