Ken ward in the jungle, p.21
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       Ken Ward in the Jungle, p.21
 

           Zane Grey
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  *XXI*

  *THE LEAPING TARPON*

  Just before dark, when the boys were at supper, a swarm of blackmosquitoes swooped down upon camp.

  Pepe could not have shown more fear at angry snakes, and he began topile green wood and leaves on the fire to make a heavy smoke.

  These mosquitoes were very large, black-bodied, with white-barred wings.Their bite was as painful as the sting of a bee. After threshing aboutuntil tired out the boys went to bed. But it was only to get up again,for the mosquitoes could bite through two thicknesses of blanket.

  For a wonder every one was quiet. Even George did not grumble. Theonly thing to do was to sit or stand in the smoke of the campfire. Theboys wore their gloves and wrapped blankets round heads and shoulders.They crouched over the fire until tired of that position, then stood uptill they could stand no longer. It was a wretched, sleepless nightwith the bloodthirsty mosquitoes humming about like a swarm of bees.They did not go away until dawn.

  "That's what I get for losing the mosquito-netting," said Ken, wearily.

  Breakfast was not a cheerful meal, despite the fact that the boys alltried to brace up.

  George's condition showed Ken the necessity for renewed efforts to getout of the jungle. Pepe appeared heavy and slow, and, what was morealarming, he had lost his appetite. Hal was cross, but seemed to keepwell. It was hard enough for Ken to persuade George and Pepe to takethe bitter doses of quinine, and Hal positively refused.

  "It makes me sick, I tell you," said Hal, impatiently.

  "But Hal, you ought to be guided by my judgment now," replied Ken,gently.

  "I don't care. I've had enough of bitter pills."

  "I ask you--as a favor?" persisted Ken, quietly.

  "No!"

  "Well, then, I'll have to make you take them."

  "Wha-at?" roared Hal.

  "If necessary, I'll throw you down and pry open your mouth and get Pepeto stuff these pills down your throat. There!" went on Ken, and now hedid not recognize his own voice.

  Hal looked quickly at his brother, and was amazed and all at onceshaken.

  "Why, Ken--" he faltered.

  "I ought to have made you take them before," interrupted Ken. "But I'vebeen too easy. Now, Hal, listen--and you, too, George. I've made a badmess of this trip. I got you into this jungle, and I ought to have takenbetter care of you, whether you would or not. George has fever. Pepeis getting it. I'm afraid you won't escape. You all _would_ drinkunboiled water."

  "Ken, that's all right, but you can get fever from the bites of theticks," said George.

  "I dare say. But just the same you could have been careful about thewater. Not only that--look how careless we have been. Think of thethings that have happened! We've gotten almost wild on this trip. Wedon't realize. But wait till we get home. Then we'll hardly be able tobelieve we ever had these adventures. But our foolishness, ourcarelessness, must stop right here. If we can't profit by our luckyescapes yesterday--from that lassoed crocodile and the wild pigs--we aresimply no good. I love fun and sport. But there's a limit. Hal,remember what old Hiram told you about being foolhardily brave. I thinkwe have been wonderfully lucky. Now let's deserve our good luck. Let'snot prove what that Tampico hotel-man said. Let's show we are not justwild-goose-chasing boys. I put it to you straight. I think the realtest is yet to come, and I want you to help me. No more tricks. Nomore drinking unboiled water. No more shooting except in self-defense.We must not eat any more meat. No more careless wandering up the banks.No chances. See? And fight the fever. Don't give up. Then when weget out of this awful jungle we can look back at our adventures--and,better, we can be sure we've learned a lot. We shall have accomplishedsomething, and that's learning. Now, how about it? Will you help me?"

  "You can just bet your life," replied George, and he held out his hand.

  "Ken, I'm with you," was Hal's quiet promise; and Ken knew from the waythe lad spoke that he was in dead earnest. When it came to the lastditch Hal Ward was as true as steel. He took the raw, bitter quinineKen offered and swallowed it without a grimace.

  "Good!" exclaimed Ken. "Now, boys, let's pack. Hal, you let yourmenagerie go. There's no use keeping your pets any longer. George, youmake yourself a bed on the trunk, and fix a palm-leaf sun-shelter. Thenlie down."

  When the boat had been packed and all was in readiness for the start,George was sound asleep. They shoved off into the current. Pepe and Kentook turns at the oars, making five miles an hour.

  As on the day before, they glided under the shadows of the greatmoss-twined cypresses, along the muddy banks where crocodiles basked inthe sun and gaunt cattle came down to drink. Once the boat turned abushy point to startle a large flock of wild turkeys, perhapsthirty-five in number. They had been resting in the cool sand along theriver. Some ran up the bank, some half-dozen flew right over the boat,and most of them squatted down as if to evade detection. Thereafterturkeys and ducks and geese became so common as to be monotonous.

  About one o'clock Ken sighted a thatched bamboo and palm-leaf hut on thebank.

  "Oh, boys, look! look!" cried Ken, joyfully.

  Hal was as pleased as Ken, and George roused out of his slumber. Pepegrinned and nodded his head.

  Some naked little children ran like quail. A disheveled black headpeeped out of a door, then swiftly vanished.

  "Indians," said George.

  "I don't care," replied Ken, "they're human beings--people. We'regetting somewhere."

  From there on the little bamboo huts were frequently sighted. And soonKen saw a large one situated upon a high bluff. Ken was wondering ifthese natives would be hospitable.

  Upon rounding the next bend the boys came unexpectedly upon a connectingriver. It was twice as wide as the Santa Rosa, and quite swift.

  "Tamaulipas," said Pepe.

  "Hooray! boys, this is the source of the Panuco, sure as you're born,"cried Ken. "I told you we were getting somewhere."

  He was overcome with the discovery. This meant success.

  "Savalo! Savalo!" exclaimed Pepe, pointing.

  "Tarpon! Tarpon! What do you think of that? 'Way up here! We must bea long distance from tide-water," said George.

  Ken looked around over the broad pool below the junction of the tworivers. And here and there he saw swirls, and big splashes, and thenthe silver sides of rolling tarpon.

  "Boys, seeing we've packed that can of preserved mullet all the way, andthose thundering heavy tackles, let's try for tarpon," suggested Ken.

  It was wonderful to see how the boys responded. Pepe was no longer slowand heavy. George forgot he was sick. Hal, who loved to fish betterthan to hunt, was as enthusiastic as on the first day.

  "Ken, let me boss this job," said George, as he began to rig thetackles. "Pepe will row; you and Hal sit back here and troll. I'll makemyself useful. Open the can. See, I hook the mullet just back of thehead, letting the bar come out free. There! Now run out about fortyfeet of line. Steady the butt of the rod under your leg. Put your lefthand above the reel. Hold the handle of the reel in your right, andhold it hard. The drag is in the handle. Now when a tarpon takes thebait, jerk with all your might. Their mouths are like iron, and it'shard to get a hook to stick."

  Pepe rowed at a smooth, even stroke and made for the great curve of thepool where tarpon were breaking water.

  "If they're on the feed, we'll have more sport than we've had yet," saidGeorge.

  Ken was fascinated, and saw that Hal was going to have the best time ofthe trip. Also Ken was very curious to have a tarpon strike. He had noidea what it would be like. Presently, when the boat glided among therolling fish and there was prospect of one striking at any moment, Kencould not subdue a mounting excitement.

  "Steady now--be ready," warned George.

  Suddenly Hal's line straightened. The lad yelled and jerked at the sameinstant. There came a roar of splitting waters, and a beau
tiful silverfish, longer than Hal himself, shot up into the air. The tarpon shookhimself and dropped back into the water with a crash.

  Hal was speechless. He wound in his line to find the bait gone.

  "Threw the hook," said George, as he reached into the can for anotherbait. "He wasn't so big. You'll get used to losing 'em. There! tryagain."

  Ken had felt several gentle tugs at his line, as if tarpon were rollingacross it. And indeed he saw several fish swim right over where hisline disappeared in the water. There were splashes all around the boat,some gentle swishes and others hard, cutting rushes. Then his linestraightened with a heavy jerk. He forgot to try to hook the fish;indeed, he had no time. The tarpon came half out of the water, waggedhis head, and plumped back. Ken had not hooked the fish, nor had thefish got the bait. So Ken again let out his line.

  The next thing which happened was that the boys both had strikes at thesame instant. Hal stood up, and as his tarpon leaped it pulled himforward, and he fell into the stern-seat. His reel-handle rattled onthe gunwale. The line hissed. Ken leaned back and jerked. His fish didnot break water, but he was wonderfully active under the surface. Pepewas jabbering. George was yelling. Hal's fish was tearing the water toshreds. He crossed Ken's fish; the lines fouled, and then slacked. Kenbegan to wind in. Hal rose to do likewise.

  "Gee!" he whispered, with round eyes.

  Both lines had been broken. George made light of this incident, andtied on two more leaders and hooks and baited afresh.

  "The fish are on the feed, boys. It's a cinch you'll each catch one.Better troll one at a time, unless you can stand for crossed lines."

  But Ken and Hal were too eager to catch a tarpon to troll one at a time,so once more they let their lines out. A tarpon took Hal's bait rightunder the stern of the boat. Hal struck with all his might. This fishcame up with a tremendous splash, drenching the boys. His great,gleaming silver sides glistened in the sun. He curved his body andstraightened out with a snap like the breaking of a board, and he threwthe hook whistling into the air.

  Before Hal had baited up, Ken got another strike. This fish made fiveleaps, one after the other, and upon the last threw the hook like abullet. As he plunged down, a beautiful rainbow appeared in the mistyspray.

  "Hal, do you see that rainbow?" cried Ken, quickly. "There's a sightfor a fisherman!"

  This time in turn, before Ken started to troll, Hal hooked anothertarpon. This one was not so large, but he was active. His first rushwas a long surge on the surface. He sent the spray in two streaks like amotor-boat. Then he sounded.

  "Hang on, Hal!" yelled George and Ken in unison.

  Hal was bent almost double and his head was bobbing under the strain.He could not hold the drag. The line was whizzing out.

  "You got that one hooked," shouted George. "Let go the reel--drop thehandle. Let him run."

  He complied, and then his fish began a marvelous exhibition of loftytumbling. He seemed never to stay down at all. Now he shot up, mouthwide, gills spread, eyes wild, and he shook himself like a wet dog.Then he dropped back, and before the boys had time to think where hemight be he came up several rods to the right and cracked his gills likepistol-shots. He skittered on his tail and stood on his head anddropped flat with a heavy smack. Then he stayed under and began to tug.

  "Hang on, now," cried George. "Wind in. Hold him tight. Don't givehim an inch unless he jumps."

  This was heartbreaking work for Hal. He toiled to keep the line in. Hegrew red in the face. He dripped with sweat. He panted for breath.But he hung on.

  Ken saw how skilfully Pepe managed the boat. The _mozo_ seemed to knowjust which way the fish headed, and always kept the boat straight.Sometimes he rowed back and lent his help to Hal. But this appeared toanger the tarpon, for the line told he was coming to the surface. Then,as Pepe ceased to let him feel the weight of the boat, the tarpon sankagain. So the battle went on round and round the great pool. After anhour of it Hal looked ready to drop.

  "Land him alone if you can," said Ken. "He's tiring, Hal."

  "I'll--land him--or--or bust!" panted Hal.

  "Look out, now!" warned George again. "He's coming up. See the line.Be ready to trim the boat if he drops aboard. _Wow!_"

  The tarpon slipped smoothly out of the water and shot right over the bowof the boat. Quick-witted George flung out his hand and threw Hal's rodround in time to save the line from catching. The fish went down, cameup wagging his head, and then fell with sullen splash.

  "He's done," yelled George. "Now, Hal, hold him for all you're worth.Not an inch of line!"

  Pepe headed the boat for a sandy beach; and Hal, looking as if about tohave a stroke of apoplexy, clung desperately to the bending rod. Thetarpon rolled and lashed his tail, but his power was mostly gone.Gradually he ceased to roll, until by the time Pepe reached shore he wassliding wearily through the water, his silvery side glittering in thelight.

  The boat grated on the sand. Pepe leaped out. Then he grasped Hal'sline, slipped his hands down to the long wire leader, and with a quick,powerful pull slid the tarpon out upon the beach.

  "Oh-h!" gasped Hal, with glistening eyes. "Oh-h! Ken, just look!"

  "I'm looking, son, and don't you forget it."

  The tarpon lay inert, a beautiful silver-scaled creature that looked asif he had just come from a bath of melted opals. The great dark eyeswere fixed and staring, the tail moved feebly, the long dorsal finquivered.

  He measured five feet six inches in length, which was one inch more thanHal's height.

  "Ken, the boys back home will never believe I caught him," said Hal, indistress.

  "Take his picture to prove it," replied Ken.

  Hal photographed his catch. Pepe took out the hook, showing, as he didso, the great iron-like plates in the mouth of the fish.

  "No wonder it's hard to hook them," said Ken.

  Hal certainly wanted his beautiful fish to go back, free and littlehurt, to the river. But also he wanted him for a specimen. Haldeliberated. Evidently he was considering the labor of skinning such ahuge fish and the difficulty of preserving and packing the hide.

  "Say, Hal, wouldn't you like to see me hook one?" queried Ken,patiently.

  That brought Hal to his senses.

  "Sure, Ken, old man, I want you to catch one--a big one--bigger thanmine," replied Hal, and restored the fish to the water.

  They all watched the liberated tarpon swim wearily off and slip downunder the water.

  "He'll have something to tell the rest, won't he?" said George.

  In a few minutes the boat was again in the center of the great poolamong the rolling tarpon. Ken had a strike immediately. He missed.Then he tried again. And in a short space of time he saw five tarpon inthe air, one after the other, and not one did he hook securely. He gotsix leaps out of one, however, and that was almost as good as landinghim.

  "There 're some whales here," said George.

  "Grande savalo," added Pepe, and he rowed over to where a huge fish wasrolling.

  "Oh, I don't want to hook the biggest one first," protested Ken.

  Pepe rowed to and fro. The boys were busy trying to see the rollingtarpon. There would be a souse on one side, then a splash on the other,then a thump behind. What with trying to locate all these fish andstill keep an eye on Ken's line the boys almost dislocated their necks.

  Then, quick as a flash, Ken had a strike that pulled him out of his seatto his knees. He could not jerk. His line was like a wire. It began torise. With all his strength he held on. The water broke in a hollow,slow roar, and a huge humpbacked tarpon seemed to be climbing into theair. But he did not get all the way out, and he plunged back with athunderous crash. He made as much noise as if a horse had fallen off abridge.

  The handle of the reel slipped out of Ken's grasp, and it was well. Thetarpon made a long, wonderful run and showed on the surface a hundredyards from the boat. He was irresistibly powerful. Ken was astoundedand thrilled at h
is strength and speed. There, far away from the boat,the tarpon leaped magnificently, clearing the water, and then went down.He did not come up again.

  "Ken, he's a whale," said George. "I believe he's well hooked. Hewon't jump any more. And you've got a job on your hands."

  "I want him to jump."

  "The big ones seldom break water after the first rush or so."

  "Ken, it's coming to you with that fellow," said Hal. "My left arm isparalyzed. Honestly, I can pinch it and not feel the pain."

  Pepe worked the boat closer and Ken reeled in yard after yard of line.The tarpon was headed down-stream, and he kept up a steady, strongstrain.

  "Let him tow the boat," said George. "Hold the drag, Ken. Let him towthe boat."

  "What!" exclaimed Ken, in amaze.

  "Oh, he'll do it, all right."

  And so it proved. Ken's tarpon, once headed with the current, did notturn, and he towed the boat.

  "This is a new way for me to tire out a fish," said Ken. "What do youthink of it, Hal?"

  Hal's eyes glistened.

  "This is fishing. Ken, did you see him when he came up?"

  "Not very clearly. I had buck-fever. You know how a grouse looks whenhe flushes right under your feet--a kind of brown blur. Well, this wasthe same, only silver."

  At the end of what Ken judged to be a mile the tarpon was still going.At the end of the second mile he was tired. And three miles down theriver from where the fish was hooked Pepe beached the boat on a sandbarand hauled ashore a tarpon six feet ten inches long.

  Here Ken echoed Hal's panting gasp of wonder and exultation. As he satdown on the boat to rest he had no feeling in his left arm, and littlein his right. His knuckles were skinned and bloody. No game ofbaseball he had ever pitched had taken his strength like the conquest ofthis magnificent fish.

  "Hal, we'll have some more of this fishing when we get to Tampico," saidKen. "Why, this beats hunting. You have the sport, and you needn'tkill anything. This tarpon isn't hurt."

  So Ken photographed his prize and measured him, and, taking a lastlingering glance at the great green back, the silver-bronze sides, thefoot-wide flukes of the tail, at the whole quivering fire-tinted length,he slid the tarpon back into the river.

 
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