The savages that had shown such pluck in the instances described, now gave another striking proof of their courage.
At the moment the mystified explorers were discussing the strange appearance and actions of the white men, more than twenty of the athletic barbarians issued as stealthily as phantoms from the trail leading from the forest and crouched along the edge of the timber. Their silence added impressiveness to the singular scene and prevented their movements being observed except by Bippo, who was so terrified that he could only tremble and point at them.
They were partly hidden by the shadow which put out a short distance from the fringe of the wood, but there could be no doubt of their hostile intentions. They assumed the form of a line, somewhat after the manner of the combatants in the square of the native village. This was to give free play to their arms in flinging their javelins.
The occasion was one in which the fate of the explorers depended upon their promptness and bravery. Anything like timidity or hesitation meant sure destruction, and the whites knew it.
"Into the boat!" commanded Ashman, addressing Bippo and his friends.
The words were like an electric shock to the helpers, who instantly clambered into the canoe and lay flat behind the luggage, where they were safe from the poisoned missiles that would soon be flying through the air.
Those natives, with their crude weapons,
were only incumbrances in a
crisis like the present.
The whites exchanged but a word or two and then opened the ball.
A savage, evidently the leader, and one who probably now saw the whites for the first time, had the audacity to step forward a couple of paces, and with a yell of defiance, raised his spear over his head.
Before he could launch the missile Jared Long sent a bullet through him, and then, shifting the muzzle of his Winchester toward the line of dusky figures, he blazed away as fast as he could sight the weapon and pull the trigger.
At the same instant the Professor and Ashman opened, and the bombardment which followed was enough to strike terror to the hearts of a hundred men.
It was more than the savages could stand, but, great as was their panic, most of them hurled one or two javelins apiece at the white men who stood fearlessly erect and combated them. They had come from their village prepared for a fight, and each warrior was provided with several of the poisoned missiles.
Before the explorers had emptied the magazines of their Winchesters not a live foe was left. The affrighted survivors, shrieking with terror, scrambled hastily back among the trees, some of them dragging the dead bodies, so that the spot was freed of the dusky miscreants with as much suddenness as it had been occupied by them.
There were plenty of shots left, and, after the disappearance of the savages, the whites fired into the woods, where they had vanished, not with the expectation of accomplishing anything more than adding to the panic.
When it was sure the wretches were gone, our friends made their preparations for leaving the spot, for nothing was clearer than that such was the wisest step to take.
It will be borne in mind that all the trouble had taken place on the left bank of the Xingu, no savages having been observed on the western bank. The daring of the savages could not be questioned. They had faced death repeatedly, and now, that they had the strongest of all motives - revenge - to prompt them, they were sure to use every means possible to bring about the ruin of the whites and their three native companions.
The forest, extending so close to the river, was a constant menace, for it afforded the best kind of shelter. Indeed, had the savages been less courageous and kept among the trees, taking a stealthy shot as the chance offered, they would have had a much better chance of doing what they wished and with less risk to themselves.
The javelins flung in blind desperation went wide of their mark, with the exception of one which whizzed over the canoe within a few inches of Bippo's head. The fellow was peeping furtively above the luggage, and heard the whizz of the missile passing fearfully close. He instantly ducked with such emphasis that he almost broke his nose against the bottom of the craft.
Striking the water beyond, the spear sank as abruptly as if it were a cannon ball.
The belief of our friends was that the troublesome natives were entirely confined to the left bank, though it was not likely they refrained from crossing so narrow a stream as the Xingu at its upper portion.
If the savages had been slow to learn from their first experience with the white men, there could be no doubt that the valuable lesson of the last encounter would not be lost upon them. The space between the edge of the wood and the margin of the river was so slight that it was the easiest thing in the world for one of them to launch his javelin with terrific force across it, and they would do so before morning, if the chance were given them.
If the other bank were reached, the savages would be easily detected in the bright moonlight, if they attempted to swim across or used some of their own boats. The only way in which they could avoid detection would be by crossing above or below this point.
They would hardly ascend the Xingu for this purpose, since the rapids would oblige them to travel a long way, and the place of ferryage, therefore, was likely to be below the campfire.
Such were the views of the whites, as they shoved the canoe into the stream, and stepping within, seized the paddles, which the helpers were too frightened to use effectively, while so near the dreaded shore.
Fred Ashman had taken but a few strokes when he handed the implement to Bippo and ordered him to use it. Then, resuming his Winchester, he faced the land, half suspecting they would not be allowed to reach the other side without some demonstration on the part of their fierce antagonists.
Time was of the first importance, and all the paddles in the craft were plied with the utmost possible vigor, each yard passed adding to the hope that hostilities were over for the time.
Probably three-fourths of the distance was accomplished, when a low exclamation from Ashman caused all to cease paddling and gaze at the shore which he was watching with such interest.
The most gigantic savage yet seen had emerged from the forest trail, but instead of advancing to the river's edge, he halted just far enough from the wood to allow the moonlight to inclose him. He was thus in almost as plain-sight as if it were mid-day.
He stood in silent contemplation of the strangers that had invaded his dominions and given his people such a dear lesson. Confident that he could accomplish no harm, even if he wished to try it, Ashman refrained from firing, while the company surveyed him with a feeling akin to admiration.
He was over six feet in height and of massive proportions. He would have been an ugly customer in a tussle where the conditions were equal, and Ashman could not forbear the thought that he was one of the contestants in the frightful sport he had witnessed near the village. If so, there was little doubt that he was hailed the champion. It may have been that he had hastened along the forest path, burning with a desire to assail the mysterious beings who had used his countrymen so ill, and he was filled with chagrin and disappointment that he had arrived too late.
But there was no end to the fancies that might be formed concerning him. That there was little imagination about Bippo was shown by his timid request to his masters to shoot the savage. To Bippo the elimination of a single enemy of such formidable mien was a consummation devoutly to be prayed for. But the Professor reminded the native that they only slew in self-defense.
All at once, the herculean savage was seen to make a motion of his arm, and before the act could be understood, the terrified Bippo called out that he was about to throw his javelin. At the same instant he and his two companions cowered in the bottom of the boat, where they were abundantly protected.
"The poor fellow is disappointed," laughed Ashman, "and he must show his anger, even if it requires the loss of one of his."
Something like the flitting of a bird's wing whisked so close to the speaker's face that he involuntarily threw back his head. At the same instant, a heavy javelin crashed through the side of the boat, as if it were cardboard, and splashed out of sight in the water beyond.
The missile of the gigantic savage had passed between Ashman and the Professor, missing both by a few inches.
The young man, like a flash, brought his rifle to his shoulder and sighted at the savage who was still in plain sight, as if defying the whites to do their worst.
But Ashman did not pull the trigger. Lowering his weapon, he said:
"You have earned your life."
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