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- The Boy Aviators in Africa - 5/35 -
introduced to Madame Desplaines and two little girls, who constituted the family of the consular agent, who also kept the general supply store at Assini.
After dinner that evening, M. Desplaines talked long and earnestly to the boys. Of the real object of their mission, he had of course no knowledge. That was kept a secret even from Barr's intimates. There was too much at stake to let it leak out. His idea was the boys had come on a hunting and exploration, much of which was to be performed by aeroplane. He informed the boys that, acting on cabled instructions, he had laid in a good supply of gasoline by the last steamer from Sierra Leone and that arrangements for a train of carriers and for boats up the river had been made. There was a wheezy steam launch belonging to the trading post which would tow the boats up the Bia River as far as they desired. The Kroomen the boys engaged would take them to that point would then be abandoned, as they refused to go far from the coast. Such was the outline of M. Desplaines' conversation with the travelers.
The evening was far advanced when already the little party was ready for bed and already their imaginations had been fired by the tales that the consular agent had told them of the interior of the wild Bambara country. As they were saying good night to their hospitable host and hostess, there was a knock at the door. In response to M. Desplaines shouted: "Come in," a tall coal-black figure stalked into the lamp-light. The glow shone warmly on his black skin and lit up the mighty muscles that played beneath it. The strength of the man was evidently tremendous. The boys, to their surprise, recognized him at once, as the rescuer of Frank's opera-glasses. He paid no attention to Desplaines or his family, but walked straight up to Frank.
"Hi boss, you go hunt, you go far into land of Bambara," he said, raising his mighty arm and pointing to the northeast.
It was a strange scene. The boys and Ben in their hunting costumes and stout boots, M. Desplaines, short and inclined to be fat and as neatly barbered and tailored as if he had just stepped off the boulevards, Madame Desplaines and her little girls in cool, white frocks--and in the center of the group--dominating it by his impressive manner and mighty form--the huge, ebony Krooman.
"In the land of Bambara much game," went on the Krooman.
"So we have heard," replied Frank.
"In the land of Bambara much danger," continued the Krooman, fixing his dark eyes full on Frank, "much danger to the white boys, who fly like birds."
"Why, how do you know that?" exclaimed Frank, amazed that the Krooman should not only know their destination--which might have been a guess--but have divined the fact that they had an aeroplane.
"Krooman know much that white man not know!" replied the giant black.
Then, rising his finger, he counted the amazed group of adventurers who stood transfixed at the scene.
"One--two--three--four--five go to Bambara," he intoned. "Come back one--two--three. Two die. Sikaso, know."
Before any of the astounded party could frame a question or open their lips, the huge figure had stalked to the doorway and vanished.
"He'd make a nice, comfortable house-pet that fellow," said Billy, who was the first to speak. "One, two, three, four, five go to Bambara," he mimicked. "Come back one, two, three. Two die. Sikaso know. Br-r-r-r-r, he gives me the creeps."
They all laughed at Billy's absurd aping of the stately negro, but nevertheless none of them felt inclined for more talk that night. Somehow, the Krooman had cast a gloom on the party. Had they known how nearly his prophecy was to come to fulfillment they might even have been tempted to abandon the expedition.
Bright and early the next day Frank and Harry were up and stirring, and the other members of the party were not long in joining them. The almost innumerable packing cases and chests containing the duffle, ammunition, armament and the sections of the Golden Eagle were scattered about the little "compound" or garden of M. Desplaines' residence, having been brought ashore overnight by a crew of Kroomen. M. Desplaines appeared while the boys were still contemplating their outfit and wondering if it would be possible to accommodate it all in the little flotilla which, it had been arranged previously, was to take them up the river to the camping place from which they were to strike out for the Ivory Mountain.
"I really almost envy your trip," he said, "although it will be fraught with danger. Still you go well armed and provisioned, and from what I have heard of you, you are not the sort of boys to let a few obstacles upset you."
While they were still talking and waiting for breakfast to be announced they were joined by a singular figure. It was that of a white man in rather shabby ducks and crowned, as was M. Desplaines, with a huge, white pith helmet. Over one shoulder he carried a green butterfly net and under one arm he had tucked a tin box. Round his waist was a leather belt from which hung, in addition to a revolver and cartridges, a glass bottle with a wide stopper with a chloroformed sponge reposing in the bottom. It did not need the introduction of the newcomer by M. Desplaines as Professor Ajax Wiseman, to tell the boys that Dr. Wiseman was a naturalist.
"My dear professor, what are you doing here?" exclaimed M. Desplaines as soon as the introductions were over.
"I arrived this morning from Grand Bassam on a coasting schooner," replied the professor, carefully setting down his tin box. "I have a remarkable specimen of the Gladiolus Gorgeosi in there," he remarked importantly. "I am contemplating a trip into the interior via the Bia River and came to you to see if you could arrange transportation."
M. Desplaines looked at the boys.
"These young men have engaged the steam launch, to tow their expedition up the river," he said hesitatingly; "they are going on a hunting trip, into the interior, and have, I venture to say, one of the most complete outfits I have ever seen."
The naturalist looked wistfully at Frank.
"I suppose there would not be the least objection to my availing myself of your assistance in getting up the river," he said, blinking behind his spectacles like an old bat who has unexpectedly emerged into the sunlight. "I have only two canoes and as I carry my own attendant I shall be no trouble."
"We shall be delighted to accommodate you," rejoined Frank heartily, "but I shall have to place one restriction on you. When we reach our destination we must part company as we have work to do of a confidential nature. Our employer, Mr. Barr--"
"Old Luther Barr," burst out Professor Wiseman suddenly.
"Why, yes," rejoined Frank, rather taken aback, "you know him then?"
"I--I have heard of him," replied the other with a slight hesitancy which was, however, so faint as to be hardly noticeable. The voice of Madame Desplaines summoning them to breakfast broke off any opportunity for further questions on a matter that plainly, for some strange reason or other, seemed to have heartily interested--even disturbed--the naturalist. Frank felt troubled for a moment at the idea of having let Professor Wiseman form a portion of their party even for a short distance. But he dismissed the idea almost instantly. The queer expression that passed over Professor Wiseman's face at the mention of the ivory trader's name might have simply been due to astonishment at hearing it again. Still Frank decided to keep an eye on Professor Wiseman.
The conversation at breakfast naturally enough dealt with the little known country the boys were to penetrate. Then it was for the first time that they heard mention of the mysterious tribe of the Flying Men who were reported to be equipped with rudimentary wings--like those of an undeveloped bat with which they managed to flit from tree top to tree top like true flyers.
"Oh, come," laughed Billy, "I've heard of tailed men and white Africans with red top-knots like Lathrop, but a race of winged men is coming it too strong."
"Laugh if you like," declared Professor Wiseman who had brought up the subject, "but some time ago I articulated a skeleton brought me by an Arab slave trader and found extending from the shoulder blade two distinct bony frames which had in life apparently been covered with a thin fleshy substance of leathery like tenacity stretching thence to the wrists. I asked the slave trader where he had found the skeleton," went on the savant, "and he told me he had come across it at the foot of a giant silk cotton tree in the Bambara country."
The boys exchanged glances. It was to the Bambara country--the country of the legendary Flying Men--that they were bound.
"Is any more known of this tribe?" inquired Frank.
"Very little except what you can pick up from the natives, which is little enough," replied Professor Wiseman, "they seem to have a dislike to speaking of the Flying Men--to whites at any rate. I think, too, they fear them. Report has it that they live in cave-like holes in the side of a giant, black basalt cliff reached by a subterranean river. They reach the ground by taking short flights from the holes they live in and regain the cliff dwellings by means of rope ladders formed of twisted creepers."
"Then they cannot fly upward?" asked Frank.
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