Chapter X. In the Wilds
 

"All aboard! Step lively now! This boat makes no stops this side of Boston!" cried Ned Newton gaily, as he got into one of the several tree canoes provided for the transportation of the party up the Chamelecon river, for the first stage of their journey into the wilds of Honduras. "All aboard! This reminds me of my old camping days, Tom."

It brought those days back, in a measure, to Tom also. For there were a number of canoes filled with the goods of the party, while the members themselves occupied a larger one with their personal baggage. Strong, half-naked Indian paddlers were in charge of the canoes which were of sturdy construction and light draft, since the river, like most tropical streams, was of uncertain depths, choked here and there with sand bars or tropical growths.

Finding that Val Jacinto was regularly engaged in the business of taking explorers and mine prospectors into the interior, Professor Bumper had engaged the man. He seemed to be efficient. At the promised time he had the canoes and paddlers on hand and the goods safely stowed away while one big craft was fitted up as comfortably as possible for the men of the party.

As Ned remarked, it did look like a camping party, for in the canoes were tents, cooking utensils and, most important, mosquito canopies of heavy netting.

The insect pests of Honduras, as in all tropical countries, are annoying and dangerous. Therefore it was imperative to sleep under mosquito netting.

On the advice of Val Jacinto, who was to accompany them, the travelers were to go up the river about fifty miles. This was as far as it would be convenient to use the canoes, the guide told Tom and his friends, and from there on the trip to the Copan valley would be made on the backs of mules, which would carry most of the baggage and equipment. The heavier portions would be transported in ox-carts.

As Professor Bumper expected to do considerable excavating in order to locate the buried city, or cities, as the case might be, he had to contract for a number of Indian diggers and laborers. These could be hired in Copan, it was said.

The plan, therefore, was to travel by canoes during the less heated parts of the day, and tie up at night, making camp on shore in the net- protected tents. As for the Indians, they did not seem to mind the bites of the insects. They sometimes made a smudge fire, Val Jacinto had said, but that was all.

"Well, we haven't seen anything of Beecher and his friends," remarked the young inventor as they were about to start.

"No, he doesn't seem to have arrived," agreed Professor Bumper. "We'll get ahead of him, and so much the better.

"Well, are we all ready to start?" he continued, as he looked over the little flotilla which carried his party and his goods.

"The sooner the better!" cried Tom, and Ned fancied his chum was unusually eager.

"I guess he wants to make good before Beecher gets the chance to show Mary Nestor what he can do," thought Ned. "Tom sure is after that idol of gold."

"You may start, Senor Jacinto," said the professor, and the guide called something in Indian dialect to the rowers. Lines were cast off and the boats moved out into the stream under the influence of the sturdy paddlers.

"Well, this isn't so bad," observed Ned, as he made himself comfortable in his canoe. "How about it, Tom?"

"Oh, no. But this is only the beginning."

A canopy had been arranged over their boat to keep off the scorching rays of the sun. The boat containing the exploring party and Val Jacinto took the lead, the baggage craft following. At the place where it flowed into the bay on which Puerto Cortes was built, the stream was wide and deep.

The guide called something to the Indians, who increased their stroke.

"I tell them to pull hard and that at the end of the day's journey they will have much rest and refreshment," he translated to Professor Bumper and the others.

"Bless my ham sandwich, but they'll need plenty of some sort of refreshment," said Mr. Damon, with a sigh. "I never knew it to be so hot."

"Don't complain yet," advised Tom, with a laugh. "The worst is yet to come."

It really was not unpleasant traveling, aside from the heat. And they had expected that, coming as they had to a tropical land. But, as Tom said, what lay before them might be worse.

In a little while they had left behind them all signs of civilization. The river narrowed and flowed sluggishly between the banks which were luxuriant with tropical growth. Now and then some lonely Indian hut could be seen, and occasionally a craft propelled by a man who was trying to gain a meager living from the rubber forest which hemmed in the stream on either side.

As the canoe containing the men was paddled along, there floated down beside it what seemed to be a big, rough log.

"I wonder if that is mahogany," remarked Mr. Damon, reaching over to touch it. "Mahogany is one of the most valuable woods of Honduras, and if this is a log of that nature----

"Bless my watch chain!" he suddenly cried. It's alive!"

And the "log" was indeed so, for there was a sudden flash of white teeth, a long red opening showed, and then came a click as an immense alligator, having opened and closed his mouth, sank out of sight in a swirl of water.

Mr. Damon drew back so suddenly that he tilted the canoe, and the black paddlers looked around wonderingly.

"Alligator," explained Jacinto succinctly, in their tongue.

"Ugh!" they grunted.

"Bless my--bless my----" hesitated Mr. Damon, and for one of the very few times in his life his language failed him.

"Are there many of them hereabouts?" asked Ned, looking back at the swirl left by the saurian.

"Plenty," said the guide, with a shrug of his shoulders. He seemed to do as much talking that way, and with his hands, as he did in speech. "The river is full of them."

"Dangerous?" queried Tom.

"Don't go in swimming," was the significant advice. "Wait, I'll show you," and he called up the canoe just behind.

In this canoe was a quantity of provisions. There was a chunk of meat among other things, a gristly piece, seeing which Mr. Damon had objected to its being brought along, but the guide had said it would do for fish bait. With a quick motion of his hand, as he sat in the awning- covered stern with Tom, Ned and the others, Jacinto sent the chunk of meat out into the muddy stream.

Hardly a second later there was a rushing in the water as though a submarine were about to come up. An ugly snout was raised, two rows of keen teeth snapped shut as a scissors- like jaw opened, and the meat was gone.

"See!" was the guide's remark, and something like a cold shiver of fear passed over the white members of the party. "This water is not made in which to swim. Be careful!"

"We certainly shall," agreed Tom. "They're fierce."

"And always hungry," observed Jacinto grimly.

"And to think that I--that I nearly had my hand on it," murmured Mr. Damon. "Ugh! Bless my eyeglasses!"

"The alligator nearly had your hand," said the guide. "They can turn in the water like a flash, wherefore it is not wise to pat one on the tail lest it present its mouth instead."

They paddled on up the river, the dusky Indians now and then breaking out into a chant that seemed to give their muscles new energy. The song, if song it was, passed from one boat to the other, and as the chant boomed forth the craft shot ahead more swiftly.

They made a landing about noon, and lunch was served. Tom and his friends were hungry in spite of the heat. Moreover, they were experienced travelers and had learned not to fret over inconveniences and discomforts. the Ind- ians ate by themselves, two acting as servants to Jacinto and the professor's party.

As is usual in traveling in the tropics, a halt was made during the heated middle of the day. Then, as the afternoon shadows were waning, the party again took to the canoes and paddled on up the river.

"Do you know of a good place to stop during the night?" asked Professor Bumper of Jacinto.

"Oh, yes; a most excellent place. It is where I always bring scientific parties I am guiding. You may rely on me."

It was within an hour of dusk--none too much time to allow in which to pitch camp in the tropics, where night follows day suddenly--when a halt was called, as a turn of the river showed a little clearing on the edge of the forest-bound river.

"We stay here for the night," said Jacinto. "It is a good place."

"It looks picturesque enough," observed Mr. Damon. "But it is rather wild."

"We are a good distance from a settlement," agreed the guide. "But one can not explore-- and find treasure in cities," and he shrugged his shoulders again.

"Find treasure? What do you mean?" asked Tom quickly. "Do you think that we----?"

"Pardon, Senor," replied Jacinto softly. "I meant no offense. I think that all you scientific parties will take treasure if you can find it."

"We are looking for traces of the old Honduras civilization," put in Professor Bumper.

"And doubtless you will find it," was the somewhat too courteous answer of the guide. "Make camp quickly!" he called to the Indians in their tongue. "You must soon get under the nets or you will be eaten alive!" he told Tom. "There are many mosquitoes here."

The tents were set up, smudge fires built and supper quickly prepared. Dusk fell rapidly, and as Tom and Ned walked a little way down toward the river before turning in under the mosquito canopies, the young financial man said:

"Sort of lonesome and gloomy, isn't it, Tom?"

"Yes. But you didn't expect to find a moving picture show in the wilds of Honduras, did you?"

"No, and yet-- Look out! What's that?" suddenly cried Ned, as a great soft, black shadow seemed to sweep out of a clump of trees toward him. Involuntarily he clutched Tom's arm and pointed, his face showing fear in the fast-gathering darkness.