His companions turned their eyes in the direction indicated, but, almost immediately after Jackson had spoken, it had disappeared wholly from view.
“What did it loot like?” asked the corporal.
“It must have been a mush rat,” returned Jackson, “there’s plenty of them about here, and I reckon our diving has disturbed the nest.”
Corporal Nixon now took his leap, but some paces farther out from the shore than his companions had ventured upon theirs. The direction was the right one. Extending his arms as he reached a space entirely free from weeds, his right hand encountered the cold barrel of the musket, but as he sought to glide it along, in order that he might grasp the butt, and thus drag it endwise up, his hand disturbed some hairy substance which rested upon the weapon causing it to float slightly upwards, until it came in contact with his naked breast. Now, the corporal was a fearless soldier whose nerves were not easily shaken, but the idea of a nasty mush rat, as they termed it, touching his person in this manner, produced in him unconquerable disgust, even while it gave him the desperate energy to clutch the object with a nervous grasp, and without regard to the chance of being bitten in the act, by the small, sharp teeth of the animal. His consternation was even greater when, on enclosing it within his rough palm, he felt the whole to collapse, as though it had been a heavy air-filled bladder, burst by the compression of his fingers. A new feeling-a new chain of ideas now took possession of him, and leaving the musket where it was, he rose near the spot from which he first started, and still clutching his hairy and undesirable prize, threw it from him towards the boat, into the bottom of which it fell, after grazing the cheek of Collins.
“Pooh! pooh! pooh,” spluttered the latter, moving as if the action was necessary to disembarrass him of the unsightly object no longer there.
A new source of curiosity was now created, not only among the swimmers, but the idlers who were smoking their pipes and looking carelessly on. All now, without venturing to touch the loathsome looking thing, gathered around it endeavoring to ascertain really what it was. “What do you make of the creature?” asked corporal Nixon, who, now ascending the side of the boat, observed how much the interest of his men had been excited.
“I’m sure I can’t say,” answered Jackson. “It looks for all the world like a rat, only the hair is so long. Dead enough though, for it does not budge an inch.”
“Let’s see what it is,” said the man with the long hooked nose, and the peaked chin.
By no means anxious, however, to touch it with his hands, he took up the spear and turned over and over the clammy and motionless mass.
“Just as I thought,” exclaimed the corporal, with a shudder, as the weapon unfolding the whole to view, disclosed alternately the moistened hair and thick and bloody skin of a human head.