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- The People Of The Mist - 15/80 -
"You needn't think about her," sneered his leader; "she will go too dear for the likes of you; besides it is foolish to spend so much on one girl, white or black. When is the auction?"
"It was to have been the night before the dhows sail, but now the Devil says it shall be to-morrow night. I will tell you why--he is afraid of her. He thinks that she will bring misfortune to him, and wants to be rid of her. Ah! he is a wag, is the old man--he loves a joke, he does. 'All men are brothers,' he said yesterday, 'white or black; therefore all women are sisters.' So he is going to sell her like a nigger girl. What is good enough for them is good enough for her. Ha! ha! pass the rum, brother, pass the rum."
"Perhaps he will put it off and we may be back in time, after all," said the captain. "Anyhow, here is a health to her, the love. By the way, did some of you think to ask the password before we left this morning? I forgot to do so, myself."
"Yes," said a Bastard, "the old word, 'the Devil.'"
"There is none better, comrades, none better," hiccoughed the leader.
Then for an hour or more their talk went on--partly about Juanna, partly about other things. As they grew more drunk the conversation became more and more revolting, till Leonard could scarcely listen to it and lie still. At length it died away, and one by one the men sank into a sound and sodden sleep. They did not set a sentry, for here on the island they had no fear of foes.
Then Otter rose upon his hands and knees, and his face looked fierce in the faint light.
"Baas," he whispered, "shall we----" and he drew his hand across his throat.
Leonard thought awhile. His rage was deep, and yet he shrank from the slaughter of sleeping men, however wicked. Besides, could it be done without noise? Some of them would wake--fear would sober them, and they were many.
"No," he whispered back. "Follow me, we will cut loose the boats."
"Good, good," said Otter.
Then, stealthily as snakes, they crept some thirty yards to where the boats were tied to a low tree--three canoes and five large flat-bottomed punts, containing the arms and provisions of the slave- dealers. Drawing their knives they cut these loose. A gentle push set them moving, then the current caught them, and slowly they floated away into the night.
This done they crawled back again. Their path took them within five paces of where that half-breed ruffian lay who had begun the talk to which they had listened. Leonard looked at him and turned to creep away; already Otter was five paces ahead, when suddenly the edge of the moon showed for the first time and its light fell full upon the slaver's face. The sleeping man awoke, sat up, and saw them.
Now Leonard dared not hesitate, or they were lost. Like a tiger he sprang at the man's throat and had grasped it in his hand before he could even cry aloud. Then came a struggle short and sharp, and a knife flashed. Before Otter could get back to his side it was done--so swiftly and so silently that none of the band had wakened, though one or two of them stirred and muttered in their heavy sleep.
Leonard sprang up unhurt, and together they ran, rather than walked, back to the spot where they had left Soa.
She was watching for them, and pointing to Leonard's coat, asked "How many?"
"One," answered Otter.
"I would it had been all," Soa muttered fiercely, "but you are only two."
"Quick," said Leonard, "into the canoe with you. They will be after us presently."
In another minute they had pushed off and were clear of the island, which was not more than a quarter of a mile long. They paddled across the river, which at this spot ran rapidly and had a width of some eight hundred yards, so as to hide in the shadow of the opposite bank. When they reached it Otter rested on his paddles and gave vent to a suppressed chuckle, which was his nearest approach to laughter.
"Why do you laugh, Black One?" asked Soa.
"Look yonder," he answered, and he pointed to some specks on the surface of the river which were fast vanishing in the distance. "Yonder go the boats of the slave-dealers, and in them are their arms and food. We cut them loose, the Baas and I. There on the island sleep two-and-twenty men--all save one: there they sleep, and when they wake what will they find? They will find themselves on a little isle in the middle of great waters, into which, even if they could, they will not dare to swim because of the alligators. They can get no food on the island, for they have no guns and ducks do not stop to be caught, but outside the alligators will wait in hundreds to catch /them/. By-and- by they will grow hungry--they will shout and yell, but none will hear them--then they will become mad, and, falling on each other, they will eat each other and die miserably one by one. Some will take to the water, those will drown or be caught by the alligators, and so it shall go on till they are all dead, every one of them, dead, dead, dead!" and again Otter chuckled.
Leonard did not reprove him; with the talk of these wretches yet echoing in his ears he could feel little pity for the horrible fate which would certainly overtake them.
Hark! a faint sound stole across the quiet waters, a sound which grew into a clamour of fear and rage. The slavers had awakened, they had found the dead man in their midst mysteriously slain by an invisible foe. And now the clamour gathered to a yell, for they had learned that their boats were gone and that they were trapped.
From their shelter on the other side of the river, as they dropped leisurely down the stream, Leonard and Otter could catch distant glimpses of the frantic men rushing to and fro in the bright moonlight and seeking for their boats. But the boats had departed to return no more. By degrees the clamour lessened behind them, till at last it died away, swallowed in the silence of the night.
Then Leonard told Soa what he had heard by the slaver's fire.
"How far is the road, Black One?" she asked when he had finished.
"By sundown to-morrow we shall be at the Yellow Devil's gates!" answered Otter.
Two hours later they overtook the boats which they had cut adrift. Most of them were tied together, and they floated peacefully in a group.
"We had better scuttle them," said Leonard.
"No, Baas," answered Otter, "if we escape we may want them again. Yonder is the place where we must land," and he pointed to a distant tongue of marsh. "Let us go with the boats there and make them fast. Perhaps we may find food in them, and we need food."
The advice was good, and they followed it. Keeping alongside of the punts and directing them, when necessary, with a push of the paddles, they reached the point just as the dawn was breaking. Here in a sheltered bay they found a mooring-place to which they fastened all the boats with ropes that hung ready. Then they searched the lockers and to their joy discovered food in plenty, including cooked meat, spirits, biscuits, bread, and some oranges and bananas. Only those who have been forced to do without farinaceous food for days or weeks will know what this abundance meant to them. Leonard thought that he had never eaten a more delicious meal, or drunk anything so good as the rum and water with which they washed it down.
They found other things also: rifles, cutlasses and ammunition, and, better than all, a chest of clothes which had evidently belonged to the officer or officers of the party. One suit was a kind of uniform plentifully adorned with gold lace, having tall boots and a broad felt hat with a white ostrich feather in it to match. Also there were some long Arab gowns and turbans, the gala clothes of the slave-dealers, which they took with them in order to appear smart on their return.
But the most valuable find of all was a leather bag in the breeches of the uniform, containing the sum of the honest gains of the leader of the party, which he had preferred to keep in his own company even on his travels. On examination this bag was found to hold something over a hundred English sovereigns and a dozen or fifteen pieces of Portuguese gold.
"Now, Baas," said Otter, "this is my word, that we put on these clothes."
"What for?" asked Leonard.
"For this reason: that should we be seen by the slave-traders they will think us of their brethren."
The advantages of this step were so obvious that they immediately adopted it. Thus disguised, with a silk sash round his middle and a pistol stuck in it, Leonard might well have been mistaken for the most ferocious of slave-traders.
Otter too looked sufficiently strange, robed as an Arab and wearing a turban. Being a dwarf, the difficulty was that all the dresses proved too long for him. Finally it was found necessary to cut one down by the primitive process of laying it on a block of wood and chopping through it with a sabre.
When this change of garments had been effected, and their own clothes with the spare arms were hidden away in the rushes on the somewhat remote chance that they might be useful hereafter, they prepared for a start on foot across the marshes. By an afterthought Leonard fetched the bag of gold and put it in his pocket. He felt few scruples in availing himself of the money of the slave-driver, not for his own use indeed, but because it might help their enterprise.
Now their road ran along marshes and by secret paths that none save those who had travelled them could have found. But Otter had not forgotten. On they went through the broiling heat of the day, since linger they dared not. They met no living man on their path, though here and there they found the body of some wretched slave, whose
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