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Swamp Swallowed by Alexander Montgomery

 

ACROSS the long perspective of the mangrove flats the sun glared fierce and crimson. From the black mud-banks, white, pestilential vapours rose upon the torpid air. A subtler miasm quivered over the long stretches of mephitic ooze, against the sickly green of which gleamed out the hideous reds and yellows of fantastic crabs that scuttled--as the boat came near--into pools prismatic with stagnation. Beneath the slimy surface the banded water-snakes glanced to and fro; from the reed-beds came in hungry swarms the tiger-mosquitoes; and from the mangrove roots the sword-flies darted out in swift detachments upon the half-nude rowers--sweltering in a bath of vegetable fetor.

Of the white men, one would have fired at the log-like immobility of a crocodile, basking untroubled of that "instinctive terror of man" which is but one of man's own anthropocentric delusions. But the other said, "No!" He was a tan-faced old fellow, with a wide, grim mouth and stiff, white, ape-like whiskers.

"Fire a shot here, and we may as well go back. Curious acoustics, these places have. The report of a gun wanders up and down the swamps and creeks as if it was never going to stop!"

"You've been here before, then?"

"Wouldn't be here now if I hadn't, and if I didn't count myself fever-proof But as for you, Green--"

Green--young and smooth-faced, but big, brick-red, and square-jawed--cut in, "No more of me, old man! I'll see this thing through! And, anyhow, if I'm not fever-proof, I'm pretty well past praying for by this time! See?"

"I see you're good stuff, at any rate! And nothing else will do for this job. Let's sum up--leaving out such trifles as heat and insects. Fever, snakes, sunstroke, poisoned arrows from the Dyaks, treachery from these chaps of our own, and, after all--perhaps nothing at the end of it!"

"I'm game for all but the last. Heavens! Redfern, that would be a crusher."

"Crusher?" Redfern leaned over to the young fellow. "This is it. I'm five--and-sixty; here's my first chance of a pile, and I've staked on it whatever's left me, say 10 or 15 years. It's worth it. But you--you might have lived for 70 years yet."

"Confound it, man, you talk as if it was all up with me. My chance is as good as yours, at all events."

The other man said nothing. He had private reasons for being of a different opinion.


Through pallid, steam-like mist--the visible breath of Death--the rising moon made faint light for the two men groping in the stinking mud, and shrinking now and then from the horrid, unnamed things their hands encountered. For half an hour they toiled, till to the knees and elbows they were foul with evil-smelling filth. Then Green gave up.

"This is the place, right enough," he said--"according to your map. Triangle between three creeks; biggish bluff at one end, three mangroves in the middle. And between them we've searched nearly every inch. If your friend Kussoab wasn't a first-class liar, he was mad! Either way, it's--ugh!" Something was wriggling from the mud between his feet, and, springing smartly from the spot, he slipped and fell backwards.

"It's only a goocha!" Redfern kicked the fish-like saurian ten feet away. "What a fool you are! Hullo!--are you hurt?"

For Green lay where he had fallen--not hurt, but thinking hard, One hand, as he came down, had touched a stone, and any stone in that absolutely rockless region must be the stone they sought--the stone which covered the treasure he had till now but half believed in. And with belief came greed and quick resolve. A part!--he would have all! "This old man's day is past!--mine's to come! And what I mean for him, no doubt, is no more than he meant for me!"

All this in the ten seconds before Redfern helped him to his feet. "Let's get back to the boat," Green said then, "for the present, at any rate. I feel infernally queer."

Back to the boat they picked their squelching way; the elder man puzzled, but not yet suspicious. It was when they had drunk of the "gunny water," made of rum and quinine, that a glimmer of the truth came to Redfern, the more readily that he had himself determined, if the find were made, to "lose" his partner in this hellish wet wilderness of Manduka. For thus together do the wits of scoundrels jump.


Thicker still the ghastly fever-fog hung round the shadowy boat, but the moon was in mid-heaven and the light had increased, when Green sat up and looked around the boat--silent but for the snoring of the wearied Malay rowers. Neither was there visible the inevitable cheroot--glow which would have told of Redfern's wakefulness. Green stole from under the awning and over the side.

Redfern, a minute later, raised his head and listened--then took his rifle and slipped also away into the half-illumined mist, which immediately thereafter yielded up a dusky figure that got hastily into the boat and woke its fellows; for the Malay crew had, since dark, been one man short--a secret watch upon the doings of the whites. Then, by the light of a little cocoanut lamp, six swarthy faces gloated over a broken kris--the fragment of the blade rust-eaten to a rugged skewer, but the hilt, of damp-defying gold, set thick with stones that sparkled even through the clinging slime.


The frogs forbore their raucous chorus--alarmed by Redfern's strident laughter.

"What a guilcless innocent you take me for! You sneak back here when you think I'm asleep, and you show me a hole that"--with a sneer--"somebody else made! Really, now, young man--which is to say, young scoundrel! young thief!--you might credit me with some brains."

Green stamped up a shower of mud. "Scoundrel yourself! Brains or no brains--there's the hole, and I didn't make it. And, besides, if I found anything, where is it?"

Redfern threw up his rifle. "Exactly!" he said. "That's what I want to know. Where is it?"

Green stooped his head. "Listen!" he said, "there's your answer!"

A hurried sound of oars came faintly through the sluggish air, and both men made off, stumbling and squattering in their haste to reach the main creek.

They were too late! A scornful yell from far away in the fog was all that answered to their shouts.


With the earliest grey of morning Redfern sprang from the mangrove--root on which he had sat silent for hours. "Come!" he said, "let's get away from here, at all events. Getting out of the Manduka's another matter!"

Green slowly raised himself from the mud and lit his pipe. "What chance is there of that?" he asked sullenly.

"About one in a hundred!" Redfern answered, belying his belief, for he was a man of science, not ill-versed in jungle-craft, and he thought the odds were in favour of his own escape--unhampered by a tyro's company.

Ile eyed his double-rifle as he headed westward through the dreary, dripping mangroves. His cartridges--save the two in the barrels--had gone with the boat. "I could not spare a bullet, even if--" The other called him, and he turned.

Green, up to his ankles in mud, was dragging out each foot in turn--only to sink the other deeper as his weight came on it. And the up-turned stuff--though the surface was a glossy green--was of a dirty saffron hue. A "porridge-pot," Redfern knew it for, and, on the instant, turned and made off. This--without his intervention--would rid him of his incumbrance, though to see the poor wretch slowly perish there was no need. But--blindly rushing from the other's crics--a word came to his ear that stopped him.

"The kris!--the kris!--I have it, after all!"

Redfern sped back to where the struggling Green--with wild eyes starting from his fear-blanched face--was clawing frantically at the viscid horror that, by this time, held him to the middle. Testing with his rifle-butt, Redfern swiftly found the limit of the fatal "porridge," and, flinging himself full length upon the firmer ground, thrust out the barrels to the utmost.

"What did you say about the kris?" he panted, as he lay.

"I have it!" Green gasped, as he got one hand on the muzzles. "If I sink, it sinks with me!"

And as, lying thus for life, he plucked the rifle towards him, the piece, exploding, sent its bullets through his chest. Then Redfern, stretching eagerly to reach Green's inside pocket, was caught himself!

For twenty horrible minutes he fought, and prayed, and swore, and yelled to earless solitudes. And, when the noise had ceased, a monstrous green batrachian--squatting on the double grave--croaked solemnly that all was well!

 
 
 

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