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- The Boy Aviators in Africa - 4/35 -
In the meantime Lathrop had been joined by his father and the two had waited in painful anticipation for the Boy Aviators' verdict.
"Well--," began Lathrop eagerly as the two boys with grave faces reentered the room.
"Well," said Frank, with a smile, "I guess we'll help you out, Lath."
Tears stood in the eyes of both Mr. Beasley and his son, as in shaky voices they endeavored to thank the Chester Boys.
"That's all right, Lathrop," said Frank at length--"turn about's fair play. You drove the aeroplane to Bellman's island you remember and saved us--now, we'll save you and your father, if we can--how long can you give us, Mr. Beasley?" he asked, briskly turning to the thoroughly humbled merchant.
"Eight weeks--if I hear from you by cable in eight weeks I can keep things going," was the reply.
"Phew!" whistled Frank, "that's not an awful lot of time."
"Can you do it, Frank?" asked Lathrop eagerly.
"We'll try as hard as we know how," was the modest answer.
"And--and you'll take me along?" faltered Lathrop.
"Sure, you can come as your father's representative at large," laughed Frank.
THE DARK CONTINENT
About a month after the events related in the last chapter the bluff-bowed French coasting steamer, Admiral Dupont, dropped anchor in the shallow roadstead off the steamy harbor of Fort Assini on the far-famed Ivory Coast. A few days before, the boys had left Sierra Leone and engaged quarters on the cockroach-infested little craft for the voyage down the coast. It was blisteringly hot and from off the shore there was borne on the wind the peculiar smell that every traveler knows as "African." It is the essence of the dark continent. Our young voyagers and Ben sniffed at it eagerly.
"Smells like marigolds," said Billy at last--and it did.
But there was soon plenty more to discuss than the strange appearance of the town, which in reality was little more than a big village with here and there one, or two houses of some pretension scattered about. For the rest, it consisted of the wickerwork huts of the natives. Back of the town were dense forests and beyond these again a long blue line of hills. An unhealthful looking lagoon lay between the houses and the mainland, into which the boys had been told the Bia River, up which they were to begin their voyage to the interior, emptied.
A broad yellow beach stretched in front of the houses and from this, as soon as the little steamer dropped anchor, whaleboats and canoes in great numbers were launched through what looked to be a thunderous surf. They were navigated by Kroomen--or Krooboys as they are sometimes called--and who are a superior race to most of the natives of Africa.
Some of the paddlers and oarsmen in the boats that surrounded the Admiral Dupont were almost six feet in height and splendidly built.
"Good looking fellows those," said the captain, who had joined the group of wondering young adventurers, "but in spite of their good looks they are petty thieves, if they get the chance."
Of this quality, the boys were soon to get an example. Frank had laid down his field-glasses on a deck chair and didn't give them any more thought, even when the decks were fairly swarming with half-naked, chattering, laughing Kroomen. When he looked around for them, however, for the purpose of making out more clearly the outline of the distant mountains, the glasses had vanished.
The young leader quickly divined what had occurred and stepping to the rail he held above his head an English sovereign and a pair of glasses, borrowed, from Billy.
"I'll give this money to the man who finds my field glasses," he shouted.
"It's a long chance," he remarked to Harry, "there may be some one there who understands English. Anyway they can see that I'm willing to give money for something like the object I held up."
As much to Frank's astonishment as anyone else the next minute they heard a hail from a canoe containing two particularly black Kroomen.
"Hey, boss;" one of them was shouting, "what you lost, eh?"
"Some one stole my field-glasses," shouted back Frank.
"All right, American massa," hailed back the Krooman, "I sail long time 'Merican ships. I catch him for you."
"Well, what do you think of that?" demanded Billy. "If the Statue of Liberty had come off her perch and done a song and dance you couldn't have astonished me more than to hear that sack of coal talk English."
"They take several of those fellows to sea on trading ships, that stop in here for logs from the interior," struck in Ben. "It wouldn't surprise me but what that fellow there has been in New York harbor, yes, and in San Francisco too."
The boys looked their astonishment.
"They are good hard workers," went on Ben, "and make good sailormen. They always come back here though in the end. They are as home loving as a house cat."'
While the boys talked, their baggage was being hoisted into a lighter that lay alongside, ready for shipment ashore. They were about ready to quit the ship when their attention was attracted by a terrific uproar among the natives alongside. Two or three canoes had been upset and in the water half a dozen Kroomen were splashing about like big, black fish.
"They'll drown," gasped Harry, as he watched the furious water battle.
"Not them," sniffed Ben, "they are as much at home in the water as they are ashore. Hello!" he exclaimed, suddenly pointing, "there's your field-glasses again, Frank."
Sure enough, from the hands of a spluttering, half-drowned native, the Krooman who spoke English had just wrested a dripping pair of black morocco-covered field-glasses. He held them aloft in triumph, treading water while he held the other's head under the sea as a punishment for his thievery.
"I catch 'um, boss, I catch um," he kept shouting triumphantly. A few seconds later, having half drowned the unfortunate thief, he stood dripping like a figure cut out of black basalt before the boy. As he received his recovered property Frank presented its rescuer with the sovereign. If it had been a fortune the man could not have been more overcome with gratitude. He sank on his knees.
"You come ashore my boat?" he begged. "Cost nothing to United States boys."
The adventurers assented and, having seen their baggage properly stowed on the lighter, they landed through the surf a short time later and found themselves on the flat, yellow beach facing the rather dreary looking row of Europeans' houses. The method of landing the surf boats and the wonderful dexterity with which the natives handle them is worth a whole chapter to itself. But it might prove tedious reading, so suffice it to say, that with one man standing erect in the stern with a steering oar, and the others paddling like demons, the Ivory Coast boatmen invariably land their passengers, in a smother of foam which seems overwhelming, without spilling a drop of water on them. Not a visitor to this coast but has been impressed by their wonderful skill.
"Well, here we are," remarked Billy, looking about him at the novel surroundings.
"The first thing to do," announced Frank, "is to go to the house of Monsieur Desplaines, to whom Mr. Barr gave us a letter of introduction, and talk over our plans."
Monsieur Desplaines was the consular agent of the United States government at Assini, which is a French port, and had promised by cable to Mr. Barr to give, the young travelers all the advice that his experiences could suggest. He had also volunteered to select for them a train of native baggage carriers, and hunters that would be reliable. There are no roads into the heart of Africa and everything is transported by human pack-trains. The natives of this part of the coast are strong, muscular men not easily fatigued and are capable of carrying burdens on their heads twenty-five miles or more a day without exhaustion.
As the boys started to make their way up the beach a trim figure with neatly waxed black mustaches, almost extinguished in a huge pith helmet and dressed in white duck with a red sash about the waist, emerged from the nearest house and hastened toward them.
"Welcome to Africa!" cried the newcomer as he approached and who, as Frank at once guessed, was M. Desplaines himself. "Come with me to the house and make yourselves at home."
The boys shook hands warmly with the little Frenchman who seemed so hospitably inclined and followed him eagerly toward the whitewashed house from which be had emerged.
"I would have been at the steamer to meet you," he exclaimed apologetically; "but she got here a day ahead of time and I was not prepared."
Inside the house, which was delightfully cool and darkened by jalousies from the glaring heat outside, the young adventurers were
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