Ken ward in the jungle, p.19
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       Ken Ward in the Jungle, p.19
 

           Zane Grey
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  *XIX*

  *ADVENTURES WITH CROCODILES*

  The rest of that night Ken had more dreams; and they were not pleasant.He awoke from one in a cold fright.

  It must have been late, for the moon was low. His ankle pained andthrobbed, and to that he attributed his nightmare. He was fallingasleep again when the clink of tin pans made him sit up with a start.Some animal was prowling about camp. He peered into the moonlitshadows, but could make out no unfamiliar object. Still he was notsatisfied; so he awoke Pepe.

  Certainly it was not Ken's intention to let Pepe get out ahead;nevertheless he was lame and slow, and before he started Pepe rolled outof the tent.

  "Santa Maria!" shrieked Pepe.

  Ken fumbled under his pillow for a gun. Hal raised up so quickly that hebumped Ken's head, making him see a million stars. George rolled over,nearly knocking down the tent.

  From outside came a sliddery, rustling noise, then another yell that wasdeadened by a sounding splash. Ken leaped out with his gun, George athis elbow. Pepe stood just back of the tent, his arms upraised, and heappeared stunned. The water near the bank was boiling and bubbling;waves were dashing on the shore and ripples spreading in a circle.

  George shouted in Spanish.

  "Crocodile!" cried Ken.

  "Si, si, Senor," replied Pepe. Then he said that when he stepped out ofthe tent the crocodile was right in camp, not ten feet from where theboys lay. Pepe also said that these brutes were man-eaters, and that hehad better watch for the rest of the night. Ken thought him, like allthe natives, inclined to exaggerate; however, he made no objection toPepe's holding watch over the crocodile.

  "What'd I tell you?" growled George. "Why didn't you let me shoot him?Let's go back to bed."

  In the morning when Ken got up he viewed his body with great curiosity.The ticks and the cigarette burns had left him a beautifully tattoedspecimen of aborigine. His body, especially his arms, bore hundreds oflittle reddish scars--bites and burns together. There was not, however,any itching or irritation, for which he made sure he had to thank Pepe'sskill and the _canya_.

  George did not get up when Ken called him. Thinking his sleep mighthave been broken, Ken let him alone a while longer, but when breakfastwas smoking he gave him a prod. George rolled over, looking haggard andglum.

  "I'm sick," he said.

  Ken's cheerfulness left him, for he knew what sickness or injury did toa camping trip. George complained of aching bones, headache and cramps,and showed a tongue with a yellow coating. Ken said he had eaten toomuch fresh meat, but Pepe, after looking George over, called it a namethat sounded like _calentura_.

  "What's that?" Ken inquired.

  "Tropic fever," replied George. "I've had it before."

  For a while he was a very sick boy. Ken had a little medicine-case, andfrom it he administered what he thought was best, and George grew easierpresently. Then Ken sat down to deliberate on the situation.

  Whatever way he viewed it, he always came back to the same thing--theymust get out of the jungle; and as they could not go back, they must goon down the river. That was a bad enough proposition without beinghampered by a sick boy. It was then Ken had a subtle change of feeling;a shade of gloom seemed to pervade his spirit.

  By nine o'clock they were packed, and, turning into the shady channel,soon were out in the sunlight saying good-by to Cypress Island. At themoment Ken did not feel sorry to go, yet he knew that feeling would comeby and by, and that Cypress Island would take its place in his memory asone more haunting, calling wild place.

  They turned a curve to run under a rocky bluff from which came a muffledroar of rapids. A long, projecting point of rock extended across theriver, allowing the water to rush through only at a narrow mill-racechannel close to the shore. It was an obstacle to get around. There wasno possibility of lifting the boat over the bridge of rock, and thealternative was shooting the channel. Ken got out upon the rocks, onlyto find that drifting the boat round the sharp point was out of thequestion, owing to a dangerously swift current. Ken tried the depth ofthe water--about four feet. Then he dragged the boat back a littledistance and stepped into the river.

  "Look! Look!" cried Pepe, pointing to the bank.

  About ten yards away was a bare shelf of mud glistening with water andshowing the deep tracks of a crocodile. It was a slide, and manifestlyhad just been vacated. The crocodile-tracks resembled the imprints of agiant's hand.

  "Come out!" yelled George, and Pepe jabbered to his saints.

  "We've got to go down this river," Ken replied, and he kept on wadingtill he got the boat in the current. He was frightened, of course, buthe kept on despite that. The boat lurched into the channel, sternfirst, and he leaped up on the bow. It shot down with the speed of atoboggan, and the boat whirled before he could scramble to the oars.What was worse, an overhanging tree with dead snags left scarce room topass beneath. Ken ducked to prevent being swept overboard, and one ofthe snags that brushed and scraped him ran under his belt and lifted himinto the air. He grasped at the first thing he could lay hands on,which happened to be a box, but he could not hold to it because the boatthreatened to go on, leaving him kicking in midair and holding up a boxof potatoes. Ken clutched a gunwale, only to see the water swelldangerously over the edge. In angry helplessness he loosened his hold.Then the snag broke, just in the nick of time, for in a second more theboat would have been swept away. Ken fell across the bow, held on, andsoon drifted from under the threshing branches, and seized the oars.

  Pepe and George and Hal walked round the ledge and, even when theyreached Ken, had not stopped laughing.

  "Boys, it wasn't funny," declared Ken, soberly.

  "I said it was coming to us," replied George.

  There were rapids below, and Ken went at them with stern eyes and setlips. It was the look of men who face obstacles in getting out of thewilderness. More than one high wave circled spitefully round Pepe'sbroad shoulders.

  They came to a fall where the river dropped a few feet straight down.Ken sent the boys below. Hal and George made a detour. But Pepe jumpedoff the ledge into shallow water.

  "_Ah-h!_" yelled Pepe.

  Ken was becoming accustomed to Pepe's wild yell, but there was a note inthis which sent a shiver over him. Before looking, Ken snatched hisrifle from the boat.

  Pepe appeared to be sailing out into the pool. But his feet were notmoving.

  Ken had only an instant, but in that he saw under Pepe a long, yellow,swimming shape, leaving a wake in the water. Pepe had jumped upon theback of a crocodile. He seemed paralyzed, or else he was wiselytrusting himself there rather than in the water. Ken was too shocked tooffer advice. Indeed, he would not have known how to meet thissituation.

  Suddenly Pepe leaped for a dry stone, and the energy of his leap carriedhim into the river beyond. Like a flash he was out again, spoutingwater.

  Ken turned loose the automatic on the crocodile and shot a magazine ofshells. The crocodile made a tremendous surge, churning up a slimyfoam, then vanished in a pool.

  "Guess this 'll be crocodile day," said Ken, changing the clip in hisrifle. "I'll bet I made a hole in that one. Boys, look out below."

  Ken shoved the boat over the ledge in line with Pepe, and it floated tohim, while Ken picked his way round the rocky shore. The boys piledaboard again. The day began to get hot. Ken cautioned the boys toavoid wading, if possible, and to be extremely careful where theystepped. Pepe pointed now and then to huge bubbles breaking on thesurface of the water and said they were made by crocodiles.

  From then on Ken's hands were full. He struck swift water, where rapidafter rapid, fall on fall, took the boat downhill at a rate to affordhim satisfaction. The current had a five or six mile speed, and, as Kenhad no portages to make and the corrugated rapids of big waves gave himspeed, he made by far the best time of the voyage.

  The hot hours passed--cool for the boys because they wer
e always wet.The sun sank behind a hill. The wind ceased to whip the streamers ofmoss. At last, in a gathering twilight, Ken halted at a wide, flat rockto make camp.

  "Forty miles to-day if we made an inch!" exclaimed Ken.

  The boys said more.

  They built a fire, cooked supper, and then, weary and silent, Hal andGeorge and Pepe rolled into their blankets. But Ken doggedly worked anhour at his map and notes. That hard forty miles meant a long waytoward the success of his trip.

  Next morning the mists had not lifted from the river when they shovedoff, determined to beat the record of yesterday. Difficulties besetthem from the start--the highest waterfall of the trip, a leak in theboat, deep, short rapids, narrows with choppy waves, and a whirlpoolwhere they turned round and round, unable to row out. Nor did they getfree till Pepe lassoed a snag and pulled them out.

  About noon they came to another narrow chute brawling down into a deep,foamy pool. Again Ken sent the boys around, and he backed the boat intothe chute; and just as the current caught it he leaped aboard. He waseither tired or careless, for he drifted too close to a half-submergedrock, and, try as he might, at the last moment he could not avoid acollision.

  As the stern went hard on the rock Ken expected to break something, butwas surprised at the soft thud with which he struck. It flashed into hismind that the rock was moss-covered.

  Quick as the thought there came a rumble under the boat, the sternheaved up, there was a great sheet-like splash, and then a blow thatsplintered the gunwale. Then the boat shunted off, affording theastounded Ken a good view of a very angry crocodile. He had beensleeping on the rock.

  The boys were yelling and crowding down to the shore where Ken wasdrifting in. Pepe waded in to catch the boat.

  "What was it hit you, Ken?" asked Hal.

  "Mucho malo," cried Pepe.

  "The boat's half full of water--the gunwale's all split!" ejaculatedGeorge.

  "Only an accident of river travel," replied Ken, with mock nonchalance."Say, Garrapato, _when_, about _when_ is it coming to me?"

  "Well, if he didn't get slammed by a crocodile!" continued George.

  They unloaded, turned out the water, broke up a box to use for repairs,and mended the damaged gunwale--work that lost more than a good hour.Once again under way, Ken made some interesting observations. The riverceased to stand on end in places; crocodiles slipped off every muddypromontory, and wide trails ridged the steep clay-banks.

  "Cattle-trails, Pepe says," said George. "Wild cattle roam all throughthe jungle along the Panuco."

  It was a well-known fact that the rancheros of Tamaulipas State had noidea how many cattle they owned. Ken was so eager to see if Pepe hadbeen correct that he went ashore, to find the trails were, indeed, thoseof cattle.

  "Then, Pepe, we must be somewhere near the Panuco River," he said.

  "Quien sabe?" rejoined he, quietly.

  When they rounded the curve they came upon a herd of cattle thatclattered up the bank, raising a cloud of dust.

  "Wilder than deer!" Ken exclaimed.

  From that point conditions along the river changed. The banks were nolonger green; the beautiful cypresses gave place to other trees, ashuge, as moss-wound, but more rugged and of gaunt outline; the flowersand vines and shady nooks disappeared. Everywhere wide-horned steersand cows plunged up the banks. Everywhere buzzards rose from gruesomefeasts. The shore was lined with dead cattle, and the stench ofputrefying flesh was almost unbearable. They passed cattle mired in themud, being slowly tortured to death by flies and hunger; they passedcattle that had slipped off steep banks and could not get back and werebellowing dismally; and also strangely acting cattle that Pepe said hadgone crazy from ticks in their ears. Ken would have put these miserablebeasts out of their misery had not George restrained him with a fewwords about Mexican law.

  A sense of sickness came to Ken, and though he drove the feeling fromhim, it continually returned. George and Hal lay flat on the canvas,shaded with a couple of palm leaves; Pepe rowed on and on, growing moreand more serious and quiet. His quick, responsive smile was wantingnow.

  By way of diversion, and also in the hope of securing a specimen, Kenbegan to shoot at the crocodiles. George came out of his lethargy andtook up his rifle. He would have had to be ill indeed, to forswear anypossible shooting; and, now that Ken had removed the bar, he forgot hehad fever. Every hundred yards or so they would come upon a crocodilemeasuring somewhere from about six feet upward, and occasionally theywould see a great yellow one, as large as a log. Seldom did they getwithin good range of these huge fellows, and shooting from a moving boatwas not easy. The smaller ones, however, allowed the boat to approachquite close. George bounced many a .32 bullet off the bank, but henever hit a crocodile. Ken allowed him to have the shots for the fun ofit, and, besides, he was watching for a big one.

  "George, that rifle of yours is leaded. It doesn't shoot where youaim."

  When they got unusually close to a small crocodile George verified Ken'sstatement by missing his game some yards. He promptly threw theworn-out rifle overboard, an act that caused Pepe much concern.

  Whereupon Ken proceeded to try his luck. Instructing Pepe to row aboutin the middle of the stream, he kept eye on one shore while Georgewatched the other. He shot half a dozen small crocodiles, but theyslipped off the bank before Pepe could get ashore. This did not appearto be the fault of the rifle, for some of the reptiles were shot almostin two pieces. But Ken had yet to learn more about the tenacity of lifeof these water-brutes. Several held still long enough for Ken to shootthem through, then with a plunge they went into the water, sinking atonce in a bloody foam. He knew he had shot them through, for he sawlarge holes in the mud-banks lined with bits of bloody skin and bone.

  "There's one," said George, pointing. "Let's get closer, so we can grabhim. He's got a good piece to go before he reaches the water."

  Pepe rowed slowly along, guiding the boat a little nearer the shore. Atforty feet the crocodile raised up, standing on short legs, so that allbut his tail was free of the ground. He opened his huge jaws either inastonishment or to intimidate them, and then Ken shot him straight downthe throat. He flopped convulsively and started to slide and roll.When he reached the water he turned over on his back, with his feetsticking up, resembling a huge frog. Pepe rowed hard to the shore, justas the crocodile with one last convulsion rolled off into deeper water.Ken reached over, grasped his foot, and was drawing it up when a sightof cold, glassy eyes and open-fanged jaws made him let go. Then thecrocodile sank in water where Pepe could not touch bottom with an oar.

  "Let's get one if it takes a week," declared George. The lad might besick, but there was nothing wrong with his spirit. "Look there!" heexclaimed. "Oh, I guess it's a log. Too big!"

  They had been unable to tell the difference between a crocodile and alog of driftwood until it was too late. In this instance a long,dirty-gray object lay upon a low bank. Despite its immense size, whichcertainly made the chances in favor of its being a log, Ken determinedthis time to be fooled on the right side. He had seen a dozen logs--ashe thought--suddenly become animated and slip into the river.

  "Hold steady, Pepe. I'll take a crack at that just for luck."

  The distance was about a hundred yards, a fine range for the littlerifle. Resting on his knee, he sighted low, under the gray object, andpulled the trigger twice. There were two spats so close together as tobe barely distinguishable. The log of driftwood leaped into life.

  "Whoop!" shouted Hal.

  "It's a crocodile!" yelled George. "You hit--you hit! Will you listento that?"

  "Row hard, Pepe--pull!"

  He bent to the oars, and the boat flew shoreward.

  The huge crocodile, opening yard-long jaws, snapped them shut with loudcracks. Then he beat the bank with his tail. It was as limber as awillow, but he seemed unable to move his central parts, his thick bulk,where Ken had sent the two mushroom bullets. _Whack_! _Whack_!_Whack_! The sodden blow
s jarred pieces from the clay-bank above him.Each blow was powerful enough to have staved in the planking of a ship.All at once he lunged upward and, falling over backward, slid down hisrunway into a few inches of water, where he stuck.

  "Go in above him, Pepe," Ken shouted. "Here-- Heavens! What amonster!"

  Deliberately, at scarce twenty feet, Ken shot the remaining four shellsinto the crocodile. The bullets tore through his horny hide, and bloodand muddy water spouted up. George and Pepe and Hal yelled, and Ken kepttime with them. The terrible lashing tail swung back and forth almosttoo swiftly for the eye to catch. A deluge of mud and water descendedupon the boys, bespattering, blinding them and weighing down the boat.They jumped out upon the bank to escape it. They ran to and fro inaimless excitement. Ken still clutched the rifle, but he had no shellsfor it. George was absurd enough to fling a stone into the blood-tingedcloud of muddy froth and spray that hid the threshing leviathan.Presently the commotion subsided enough for them to see the greatcrocodile lying half on his back, with belly all torn and bloody andhuge claw-like hands pawing the air. He was edging, slipping off intodeeper water.

  "He'll get away--he'll get away!" cried Hal. "What 'll we do?"

  Ken racked his brains.

  "Pepe, get your lasso--rope him--rope him! Hurry! he's slipping!"yelled George.

  Pepe snatched up his lariat, and, without waiting to coil it, cast theloop. He caught one of the flippers and hauled tight on it just as thecrocodile slipped out of sight off the muddy ledge. The others ran tothe boat, and, grasping hold of the lasso with Pepe, squared away andbegan to pull. Plain it was that the crocodile was not coming up soeasily. They could not budge him.

  "Hang on, boys!" Ken shouted. "It's a tug-of-war."

  The lasso was suddenly jerked out with a kind of twang. Crash! wentPepe and Hal into the bottom of the boat. Ken went sprawling into themud, and George, who had the last hold, went to his knees, but valiantlyclung to the slipping rope. Bounding up, Ken grasped it from him andwound it round the sharp nose of the bowsprit.

  "Get in--hustle!" he called, falling aboard. "You're always saying it'scoming to us. Here's where!"

  George had hardly got into the boat when the crocodile pulled it offshore, and away it went, sailing down-stream.

  "Whoop! All aboard for Panuco!" yelled Hal.

  "Now, Pepe, you don't need to row any more--we've a water-horse," Kenadded.

  But Pepe did not enter into the spirit of the occasion. He kept callingon the saints and crying, "Mucho malo." George and Ken and Hal,however, were hilarious. They had not yet had experience enough to knowcrocodiles.

  Faster and faster they went. The water began to surge away from the bowand leave a gurgling wake behind the stern. Soon the boat reached themiddle of the river where the water was deepest, and the lasso wentalmost straight down.

  Ken felt the stern of the boat gradually lifted, and then, in alarm, hesaw the front end sinking in the water. The crocodile was hauling thebow under.

  "Pepe--your machete--cut the lasso!" he ordered, sharply. George had torepeat the order.

  Wildly Pepe searched under the seat and along the gunwales. He couldnot find the _machete_.

  "Cut the rope!" Ken thundered. "Use a knife, the ax--anything--only cutit--and cut it quick!"

  Pepe could find nothing. Knife in hand, Ken leaped over his head,sprawled headlong over the trunk, and slashed the taut lasso just as thewater began to roar into the boat. The bow bobbed up as a cork that hadbeen under. But the boat had shipped six inches of water.

  KNIFE IN HAND, KEN LEAPED OVER HIS HEAD AND SLASHED THETAUT LASSO]

  "Row ashore, Pepe. Steady, there. Trim the boat, George."

  They beached at a hard clay-bank and rested a little before unloading toturn out the water.

  "Grande!" observed Pepe.

  "Yes; he was big," assented George.

  "I wonder what's going to happen to us next," added Hal.

  Ken Ward looked at these companions of his and he laughed outright."Well, if you all don't take the cake for nerve!"

 
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