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"Bless my--!" but that was as far as poor Mr. Damon could get. The breath was fairly squeezed out of him by the folds of the great serpent that had dropped down out of the tree to crush him to death. His head fell forward on his breast, and his arms were pinioned to his sides.
"Quick, Ned!" cried Tom. "We must fire together! Be careful not to hit Mr. Damon!"
"That's right. I'll take the snake on one side, Tom, and you on the other!"
"No! Then we might hit each other. Come on my side. Aim for the head, and throw in the highest charge. We want to kill, not stun!"
"Right!" gasped Ned, as he ran forward at his chum's side.
San Pedro, and the other natives, could do nothing. In the gathering twilight, broken by the light of several campfires, they stood helpless watching the two plucky youths advance to do battle with the serpent. Eradicate had caught up a club, and had dashed forward to do what he could, but Tom motioned him back.
"We can manage," spoke the young inventor.
Then he and Ned crept on with ready rifles. The snake raised its ugly head and hissed, ceasing for a moment to constrict its coils about the unfortunate man.
"Now's our chance--fire!" hoarsely whispered Ned.
It seemed as if the big snake heard, for, raising its head still higher, it fairly glared at Ned and Tom. It was the very chance they wanted, for they could now fire without the danger of hitting Mr. Damon.
"Ready?" asked Tom of his chum in a low voice.
"Ready!" was the equally low answer.
It was necessary to kill the serpent at one shot, as to merely wound it might mean that in its agony it would thresh about, and seriously injure, if not kill, Mr. Damon.
"Fire!" called Tom in a whisper, and he and Ned pressed the triggers of the electric rifles on the same instant.
There was a streak of bluish flame that cut like a sliver through the gathering darkness, and then, as though a blight had fallen upon it, the folds of the great snake relaxed, and Mr. Damon slipped to the ground unconscious. The electric charges had gone fairly through the head of the serpent and it had died instantly.
"Quick! Mr. Damon! We must get him away!" cried Tom. "He may be dead!"
Together the chums sprang forward. The folds of the serpent had scarcely ceased moving before the two youths snatched their friend away. Dropping their rifles, they lifted him up to bear him to the sleeping tent which had been erected.
"Liver pin!" suddenly ejaculated Mr. Damon. It was what he started to say when the serpent had squeezed the breath out of him, and, on regaining consciousness from his momentary faint, his brain carried out the suggestion it had originally received.
"How are you?" cried Tom, nearly dropping Mr. Damon's legs in his excitement, for he had hold of his feet, while Ned was at the head.
"Are you all right?" gasped Ned.
"Yes--I--I guess so. I--I feel as though I had been put through a clothes wringer though. What happened?"
"A big snake dropped down out of a tree and grabbed you," answered Tom.
"And then what? Put me down, boys, I guess I can walk."
"We shot it," said Ned modestly.
"Bless my insurance policy!" exclaimed the odd gentleman. "I--I hardly know what to say. I'll say it later. You saved my life. Let me see if any bones are broken."
None was, fortunately, and after staggering about a bit Mr. Damon found that he could limp along. But he was very sore and bruised, for, though the snake had squeezed him but for part of a minute, that was long enough. A few seconds more and nearly every bone in his body would have been crushed, for that is the manner in which a constrictor snake kills its prey before devouring it.
"Santa Maria! The dear gentleman is not dead then?" cried San Pedro, as the three approached the tents.
"Bless my name plate, no!" exclaimed Mr. Damon.
"Praise to all the saints! The brave young senors with their wonderful guns saved him. Now you must rest and sleep."
"I feel as if that was all I wanted to do for a month," commented Mr. Damon. His soreness and stiffness increased each minute, and he was glad to get to bed, while the boys and Eradicate rubbed his limbs with liniment. San Pedro knew of a leaf that grew in the jungle which, when bruised, and made into poultices, had the property of drawing out soreness. The next day he found some, and Mr. Damon was wrapped up in bandages until he declared that he looked like an Egyptian mummy.
But the leaf poultices did him good, and in a few days he was able to be about, though he was still a trifle stiff. Of course the cavalcade had to halt in the woods, but they did not mind this as they had traveled well up to this time, and the enforced rest was appreciated.
"Well, do you feel able to move along?" asked Tom of Mr. Damon one morning, about a week later, for they were still in the "snake camp," as they called it in memory of the big serpent.
"Oh, yes, I think so, Tom. Where are you going?"
"I want to push on to the next village. There I hope to get some line on giant land, and really I ought to begin making inquiries soon. San Pedro and the others are wondering what our object is, for we haven't collected any specimens of either flowers or animals, or the snake skin, and he thinks we are a sort of scientific expedition."
"Well, let's travel then. I'm able."
So they started off once more along the jungle and forest trail. As San Pedro had predicted, they came upon evidences of a native village. Scattered huts, made of plastered mud and grass, with thatched roofs of palm leaves, were met with, as they advanced, but none of the places seemed to be inhabited, though rude gardens around them showed that they had been the homes of natives up to recently.
"No one seems to be at home," remarked Tom, when they had gone past perhaps half a dozen of these lonely huts.
"I wonder what can be the matter?" asked Ned. "It looks as if they had gone off in a hurry, too. Maybe there's been some sort of epidemic."
"No, no sickness," said San Pedro. "Natives no sick."
"Bless my liver pill!" cried Mr. Damon, who was almost himself again. "Then what is it?"
"Much fight, maybe."
"Much fight?" repeated Tom.
"Yes, tribes at war. Maybe natives go away so as not be killed."
"By Jove!" exclaimed the young inventor. "That's so. I forgot about what Mr. Preston said. There's a native war going on around here. Well, when we get to the town we can find out more about it, and steer clear of the two armies, if we have to."
But as they went farther on, the evidences of a native war became more pronounced. They passed several huts that had been burned, and the native mule drivers began showing signs of fear.
"I don't like this," murmured Tom to his chum. "It looks bad."
"What can you do?"
"Nothing, I guess. We've got to keep on. No use turning back now. Maybe the two rival forces have annihilated each other, and there aren't any fighters left."
At that moment there arose a cry from some of the natives who, with the mules and their burdens, had pressed on ahead.
"What's that?" exclaimed Tom.
"Something's happened!" gasped Ned.
"Bless my cartridge box!" cried Mr. Damon.
The three went forward and came to a little hill. They looked down into a valley--a valley that had sheltered a native village, but the village was no more. It was but a heap of blackened and fire-scarred ruins, and there were still clouds of smoke arising from the grass huts, showing that the enemy had but recently made their assault on the place.
"Bless my heart!" cried Mr. Damon. "The whole place has been wiped out."
"Not one hut left," added Ned.
"Hark!" cried Tom.
An instant later there arose, off in the woods, a chorus of wild yells. It was followed by the weird sound of tom-toms and the gourd and skin drums of the natives. The shouting noise increased, and the sound of the war drums also.
"Look!" cried Mr. Damon, pointing to a distant hill, and there the boys saw two large bodies of natives rushing toward one another, brandishing spears, clubs and the deadly blow guns.
They were not more than half a mile away, and in plain view of Tom and his party, though the two forces had not yet seen our friends.
"They're going to fight!" cried Tom.
And the next moment the two bodies of natives came together in a mass, the enemies hurling themselves at each other with the eagerness and ferocity of wild beasts. It was a deadly battle.
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