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In the meanwhile they were moving forward between patches of bananas, and under a few glossy limes, while groups of dusky men kept pace with them behind, until they reached a broad strip of sand with a big cottonwood tree in the midst of it. There was a hut of rammed soil that appeared more pretentious than the rest in front of them, and a man stood waiting in the door of it. Jefferson stopped in the shadow when he saw him.
"I'm going to sit down where it's cool," he said. "Any way, if that is their headman, I'd sooner he came out to us."
He sat down, with his back to the tree, while the rest clustered round him, a lean, dominant figure, in spite of his haggard face and the state of his attire, and it seemed to Austin that there was a suggestion of arrogant forcefulness in his attitude. The headman stood quietly in his doorway, looking at him, while the negroes drew in a little closer. They now seemed uncertain what to make of these audacious strangers, and waited, glancing towards their leader, though there were, Austin fancied, forty or fifty of them.
"Is there anybody here, who speaks English?" asked Jefferson.
It appeared that there was, for all along that coast there is a constant demand for labour in the white men's factories, and a man who wore a piece of cloth hung from his shoulder instead of the waist-rag, stood forward at a sign from the headman. The latter had little cunning eyes set in a heavy, fleshy face, and he, too, wore a piece of cloth, a sheet of white cotton, which flowed about his tub-like body in graceful lines. Negroes, like other people, fatten when they seize authority and live in idleness upon the result of others' toil, for even the swamp belt heathen who asks very little from life must now and then work or starve. There are no charitable institutions to fall back upon in that country, where the indigent is apt to be belaboured by his neighbours' paddles.
Then the headman, who did not leave his hut, conferred with the interpreter, until the latter turned to Jefferson, whom he had, it seemed, already pitched upon as leader.
"Them headman he done say – what the debbil you lib for here for?" he announced.
"We have come for Funnel-paint," said Jefferson.
It was evident that the negro did not understand whom he meant, but when Jefferson, assisted by the donkey-man, supplied him with a very unflattering description of the delinquent, comprehension seemed to dawn on him, and he once more conferred with his master.
"Him no one of we boy," he said. "Him dam bad 'teamboat bushman, sah. Lib for here two three day. Now lib for go away."
Austin, who understood that the term bushman was not used in a complimentary sense in those swamps, smiled as he noticed that seafaring men were evidently also regarded there with no great favour, and glanced at Jefferson inquiringly.
"He's probably lying," said the latter. "I've trailed Funnel-paint here, and there's nowhere else he could live.I've been round to see. Any way, he had a crowd of this rascal's boys with him when he came down to worry me. We'll let him have that to figure on."
It cost him some trouble to make his meaning clear to the negro, while when the latter in turn explained it to the headman, Austin noticed a retrograde movement among several of those about them. They seemed desirous of getting a little further away from the domineering white man.
"I want those boys," said Jefferson, indicating the negroes who had edged away. "Then I want some gum or ivory, or anything of that kind your headman has, as a token he'll send me down Funnel-paint as soon as he can catch him. He hasn't caught on to half of it. Help me out, Austin."
Austin did what he could, and at last it became evident that the interpreter grasped their meaning. This time there was, however, a change in the attitude of the negro, which had hitherto appeared to be a trifle conciliatory.
"None of my boys have been near your steamer. Go away before we drive you out," was, at least, the gist of what he said.
Jefferson made a little contemptuous gesture, and pointed to one of the negroes. "Tell him I want those boys, and it would be wise of him to turn them up before the shadow crawls up to where that man is. If he doesn't, I'll let a Duppy, Ju-Ju, or whatever he calls his fetish devils, loose on him. He has about fifteen minutes to think the thing over in."
Even with the help of the donkey-man they were some time in making this comprehensible, and Austin glanced at his comrade when the headman's answer came. It was a curt and uncompromising non possumus, and Jefferson sighed.
"Of course," he said, "I saw it would come to this from the beginning, and in one way I'm not sorry. I don't know what I'd have done with Funnel-paint or his friends if I had got them, except that somehow I'd 'most have scared them out of their lives. Still, it seemed only decent to give the headman a chance for himself. Now it will suit us considerably better to scare him and the others all together. I'll wipe that house of his out of existence inside twenty minutes."
Austin glanced at the house. It was larger than the others, and comparatively well built, and, he fancied, probably of as much value to its owner as a white man's mansion would be to him. This was clearly not a time to be supersensitive, but he felt a trace of compunction.
"I don't know that I'd go quite so far myself," he said. "After all, we're not sure that the headman is responsible."
"Then," said Jefferson, drily, "we'll make him, and you listen to me. We may have to do quite a few things that aren't pretty, and we have no use for sentimentality. We're just a handful of white men, with everything to grapple with, and we'll be left alone to do it while these devils are afraid of us, and not a moment longer. The fever may wipe half of us out at any time, and we have got to make our protest now."
"It's the giant-powder I'm sticking at. No doubt it's a little absurd of me – but I don't like it."
Jefferson laughed a trifle scornfully. "There's a good deal of what we call buncome in most of you. You don't like things that don't – look – pretty, pistols among them. Well, am I to be trampled on whenever it happens that the other man is bigger than I?"
"The law is supposed to obviate that difficulty in a civilised community."
"The man who gets the verdict is usually the one with the biggest political pull or the most money, in the one I belong to, but that's not quite the point just now. If you have a notion that the game's all in our hands, look at them yonder."
Austin did so, and decided that, after all, Jefferson might be right. The negroes had clustered together, and there were more of them now, while all of them had spears or big canoe paddles. It was tolerably evident that any sign of vacillation would bring them down upon the handful of white men whose prestige alone had hitherto secured them from molestation. If they failed to maintain it, and had to depend upon their physical prowess, the result appeared as certain as it would be unpleasant. The affair had resolved itself into a case of what Jefferson termed bluff, a test of coolness and nerve, and Austin glanced a trifle anxiously at the Spaniards. They were, he fancied, a little uneasy, but it was clear that they had confidence in their leader, and they sat still, though he could see one or two of them fingering the wicked Canary knives. Their courage was, however, not of the kind that stands the tension of uncertainty well, and he commenced to long that the shadow would reach the trampled spot where the man Jefferson pointed to had stood.
In the meanwhile it was creeping slowly across the hot white sand, and he felt his heart beat as he watched it and the negroes, who commenced to murmur and move uneasily. The white man's immobility had its effect on them, and it seemed that Jefferson had done wisely in confiding in the latter's ability to bear the longer strain. Still, Austin was not sure that the impatience of the Spaniards might not spoil everything after all. As regarded himself, he began to feel a curious and almost dispassionate interest in the affair which almost prevented him considering his personal part in it. He also noticed the intensity of the sunlight, and the blueness of the shadows among the trees, as well as the mirror-like flashing of the creek. It was, he fancied, the artistic temperament asserting itself. Then he felt a little quiver run through him when Jefferson stood up.
"We have to get it done," he said. "Keep those Canarios close behind me."
They moved forward in a little phalanx, carrying staves and iron bars, though Austin knew that a word would bring out the twinkling steel; and, somewhat to his astonishment, the negroes fell back before them, and as they approached it the headman scuttled out of his house. Jefferson stopped outside it and taking a stick of yellow substance from his pocket, inserted it in a cranny he raked out in the wall. Then he lighted the strip of fuse and touched Austin's shoulder.
"Get those fellows back to the creek, but they're not to run," he said. "The action of one stick of giant-powder is usually tolerably local, but I don't want any of the niggers hoisted, either. Where's that interpreter? Steady, we'll bring them down on us like a swarm of bees if they see us lighting out before they understand the thing."
There was, Austin fancied, not much time to waste; but he managed to impress the fact upon the Canarios that their haste must not be too evident, and to make the negro understand that it was perilous to approach the house. Then he overtook the Spaniards, and they moved back in a body towards the launch, and stopped close by the beach. The negroes also stood still, and all alike watched the little sputtering trail of smoke creep up the side of the house. It showed blue in the sunlight, though there was a pale sparkling in the midst of it.
Then a streak of light sprang out suddenly, and expanded into a blaze of radiance. After it came the detonation, and a rolling cloud of thin vapour, out of which there hurtled powdered soil and blocks of hard-rammed mud. The vapour thinned and melted, and Austin saw that there was no longer any front to the headman's house, while, as he watched it, most of the rest fell in. He looked round to see what effect it had on the negroes, but could not make out one of them. They had, it seemed, gone silently and in haste. Then he heard Jefferson sigh as with relief.
"Well," he said, "that's one thing done, and I'm glad we have come out of it with a whole skin. We'll light out before somebody shows them that we're only human, and spoils the thing."
They went on board the launch, but Austin felt curiously limp as she clanked away down stream. The strain of the last half hour had told on him, though he had not felt it to the full at the time. It was two hours' steaming before they swept past the Cumbria, and a man on her forecastle waved an arm to indicate that all was right on board her; but Austin would not have had the time any shorter. He felt it was just as well that village lay some distance from them. They went on to the strip of sand where Jefferson had stored the coal and oil, and when they reached it he stood up suddenly with an imprecation.
"Four puncheons gone! Funnel-paint has come out ahead of me, after all," he said. "Well, there's no use in worrying now, when he has got away with them; but I'm going to stop down here to-night in case he comes back again."
Then he swung the launch round with backed propeller, and in another few minutes they were steaming back up stream towards the Cumbria. A tent of some kind must be extemporised, for it is not wise of a white man to spend the night unprotected in the fever swamps.