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Under the Andes(Chapter21)

2006-09-07 21:35

  Chapter XXI. The Midst of the Enemy.

  Harry and I stood gazing at each other blankly in the semidarkness of the cavern.

  "But it isn't possible," I objected finally to my own thoughts. "She would have cried out and we would have heard her. The spear may have been there before."

  Then I raised my voice, calling her name many times at the top of my lungs. There was no answer.

  "They've got her," said Harry, "and that's all there is to it. The cursed brutes crept up on her in the dark——much chance she had of crying out when they got their hands on her. I know it. Why did we leave her?"

  "Where did you find the spear?" I asked.

  Harry pointed toward the wall, away from the stream.

  "On the ground?"

  "Yes."

  "Is there an exit from the cavern on that side?"

  "I don't know."

  "Well, that's our only chance. Come on!"

  We found the exit, and another, and a third. Which to take? They were very similar to one another, except that the one in the middle sloped upward at a gentle incline, while the others were level.

  "One is as good as another," I observed, and entered the one on the left.

  Once started, we advanced with a rush. The passage was straight and narrow, clear of obstruction, and we kept at a steady run.

  "They may have an hour's start of us," came Harry's voice at my side.

  "Or five minutes," I returned. "We have no way of knowing. But I'm afraid we're on the wrong trail."

  Still as I had said, one chance was as good as another, and we did not slacken our pace. The passage went straight forward, without a bend. The roof was low, just allowing us to pass without stooping, and the walls were rough and rugged.

  It was not long before we found that we had taken the wrong chance, having covered, I think, some two or three miles when a wall loomed up directly in our path.

  "At last, a turn!" panted Harry.

  But it was not a turn. It was the end of the passage. We had been following a blind alley.

  Harry let out a string of oaths, and I seconded him. Twenty minutes wasted, and another twenty to return!

  There was nothing else for it. We shouldered our spears and started to retrace our steps.

  "No use running now," I declared. "We can't keep it up forever, and we may as well save our strength. We'll never catch up with 'em, but we may find 'em."

  Harry, striding ahead two or three paces in front, did not answer.

  Finally we reached the cavern from which we had started.

  "And now what?" asked Harry in a tone of the most utter dejection.

  I pointed to the exit in the middle. "That! We should have taken it in the first place. On the raft we probably descended altogether something like five hundred feet from the level where we started——possibly twice that distance. And this passage which slopes upward will probably take us back."

  "At least, it's as good as the other," Harry agreed; and we entered it.

  We had not proceeded far before we found ourselves in difficulties. The gentle slope became a steep incline. Great rocks loomed up in our path.

  In spots the passage was so narrow that two men could hardly have walked abreast through it, and its walls were rough and irregular, with sharp points projecting unexpectedly into our very faces.

  Still we went forward and upward, scrambling over, under, round, between. At one point, when Harry was a few yards in front of me, he suddenly disappeared from sight as though swallowed by the mountain.

  Rushing forward, I saw him scrambling to his feet at the bottom of a chasm some ten feet below. Luckily he had escaped serious injury, and climbed up on the other side, while I leaped across——a distance of about six feet.

  "They could never have brought her through this," he declared, rubbing a bruised knee.

  "Do you want to go back?" I asked.

  But he said that would be useless, and I agreed with him. So we struggled onward, painfully and laboriously. The sharp corners of the rocks cut our feet and hands, and I had an ugly bruise on my left shoulder, besides many lesser ones. Harry's injured knee caused him to limp and thus further retarded our progress.

  At times the passage broadened out until the wall on either side was barely visible, only to narrow down again till it was scarcely more than a crevice between the giant boulders. The variation of the incline was no less, being at times very nearly level, and at others mounting upward at an angle whose ascent was all but impossible. Somehow we crawled up, like flies on a wall.

  When we came to a stream of water rushing directly across our path at the foot of a towering rock Harry gave a cry of joy and ran forward. I had not known until then how badly his knee was hurt, and when I came up to where he was bathing it in the stream and saw how black and swollen it was, I insisted that he give it a rest. But he absolutely refused, and after we had quenched our thirst and gotten an easy breath or two we struggled to our feet and on.

  After another hour of scrambling and failing and hanging on by our finger nails, the way began to be easier. We came to level, clear stretches with only an occasional boulder or ravine, and the rock became less cruel to our bleeding feet. The relief came almost too late, for by that time every movement was painful, and we made but slow progress.

  Soon we faced another difficulty when we came to a point where a split in the passage showed a lane on either side. One led straight ahead; the other branched off to the right. They were very similar, but somehow the one on the right looked more promising to us, and we took it.

  We had followed this but a short distance when it broadened out to such an extent that the walls on either side could be seen but dimly. It still sloped upward, but at a very slight angle, and we had little difficulty in making our way. Another half-hour and it narrowed down again to a mere lane.

  We were proceeding at a fairly rapid gait, keeping our eyes strained ahead, when there appeared an opening in the right wall at a distance of a hundred feet or so. Not having seen or heard anything to recommend caution, we advanced without slackening our pace until we had reached it.

  I said aloud to Harry, "Probably a cross-passage," and then jerked him back quickly against the opposite wall as I saw the real nature of the opening.

  It led to a small room, with a low ceiling and rough walls, dark as the passage in which we stood, for it contained no light.

  We could see its interior dimly, but well enough to discover the form of an Inca standing just within the doorway. His back was toward us, and he appeared to be fastening something to the ceiling with strips of hide.

  It was evident that we had not been seen, and I started to move on, grasping Harry's arm. It was then that I became aware of the fact that the wall leading away in front of us——that is, the one on the right——was marked as far as the eye could reach with a succession of similar openings.

  They were quite close together; from where we stood I could see thirty or forty of them. I guessed that they, too, led to rooms similar to the one in front of us, probably likewise occupied; but it was necessary to go on in spite of the danger, and I pulled again at Harry's arm.

  Then, seeing by his face that something had happened, I turned my eyes again on the Inca in the room. He had turned about, squarely facing us. As we stood motionless he took a hasty step forward; we had been discovered.

  There was but one thing to do, and we didn't hesitate about doing it. We leaped forward together, crossing the intervening space in a single bound, and bore the Inca to the floor under us.

  My fingers were round his throat, Harry sat on him. In a trice we had him securely bound and gagged, using some strips of hide which we found suspended from the ceiling.

  "By gad!" exclaimed Harry in a whisper. "Look at him! He's a woman!"

  It was quite evident——disgustingly so. Her eyes, dull and sunken, appeared as two large, black holes set back in her skull. Her hair, matted about her forehead and shoulders, was thick and coarse, and blacker than night. Her body was innocent of any attempt at covering.

  Altogether, not a very pleasant sight; and we bundled her into a corner and proceeded to look round the room, being careful to remain out of the range of view from the corridor as far as possible.

  The room was not luxuriously furnished. There were two seats of stone, and a couch of the same material covered with thick hides. In one corner was a pile of copper vessels; in another two or three of stone, rudely carved. Some torn hides lay in a heap near the center of the room. From the ceiling were suspended other hides and some strips of dried fish.

  Some of the latter we cut down with the points of our spears and retired with it to a corner.

  "Ought we to ask our hostess to join us?" Harry grinned.

  "This tastes good, after the other," I remarked.

  Hungry as we were, we made sad havoc with the lady's pantry. Then we found some water in a basin in the corner and drank——not without misgivings. But we were too thirsty to be particular.

  Then Harry became impatient to go on, and though I had no liking for the appearance of that long row of open doorways, I did not demur. Taking up our spears, we stepped out into the corridor and turned to the right.

  We found ourselves running a gantlet wherein discovery seemed certain. The right wall was one unbroken series of open doorways, and in each of the rooms, whose interiors we could plainly see, were one or more of the Inca Women; and sometimes children rolled about on the stony floor.

  In one of them a man stood; I could have sworn that he was gazing straight at us, and I gathered myself together for a spring; but he made no movement of any kind and we passed swiftly by.

  Once a little black ball of flesh——a boy it was, perhaps five or six years old——tumbled out into the corridor under our very feet. We strode over him and went swiftly on.

  We had passed about a hundred of the open doorways, and were beginning to entertain the hope that we might, after all, get through without being discovered, when Harry suddenly stopped short, pulling at my arm. At the same instant I saw, far down the corridor, a crowd of black forms moving toward us.

  Even at that distance something about their appearance and gait told us that they were not women. Their number was so great that as they advanced they filled the passage from wall to wall.

  There was but one way to escape certain discovery; and distasteful as it was, we did not hesitate to employ it. In a glance I saw that we were directly opposite an open doorway; with a whispered word to Harry I sprang across the corridor and within the room. He followed.

  Inside were a woman and two children. As we entered they looked up, startled, and stood gazing at us in terror. For an instant we held back, but there was nothing else for it; and in another minute we had overpowered and bound and gagged them and carried them to a corner.

  The children were ugly little devils and the woman very little above a brute; still we handled them as tenderly as possible. Then we crouched against the wall where we could not be seen from the corridor, and waited.

  Soon the patter of many footsteps reached our ears. They passed; others came, and still others. For many minutes the sound continued steadily, unbroken, while we sat huddled up against the wall, scarcely daring to breathe.

  Immediately in front of me lay the forms of the woman and the children; I could see their dull eyes, unblinking, looking up at me in abject terror. Still the patter of footsteps sounded from without, with now and then an interval of quiet.

  Struck by a sudden thought, I signaled to Harry; and when he had moved further back into his corner I sprang across the room in one bound to his side. A word or two of whispering, and he nodded to show that he understood. We crouched together flat against the wall.

  My thought had come just in time, for scarcely another minute had passed when there suddenly appeared in the doorway the form of an Inca. He moved a step inside, and I saw that there was another behind him. I had not counted on two of them! In the arms of each was a great copper vessel, evidently very heavy, for their effort was apparent as they stooped to place the vessels on the ground just within the doorway.

  As they straightened up and saw that the room before them was empty, their faces filled with surprise. At the same moment a movement came from the woman in the corner; the two men glanced at them with a start of wonder; and as I had foreseen, they ran across and bent over the prostrate forms.

  The next instant they, too, were prone on the floor, with Harry and me on top of them. They did not succumb without a struggle, and the one I had chosen proved nearly too much for me.

  The great muscles of his chest and legs strained under me with a power that made me doubtful for a moment of the outcome; but the Incas themselves had taught us how to conquer a man when you attack him from behind, and I grasped his throat with all the strength there was in my fingers.

  With a desperate effort he got to his knees and grasped my wrists in his powerful black hands and tore my own grip loose. He was half-way to his feet, and far more powerful than I; I changed my tactics. Wrenching myself loose, I fell back a step; then, as he twisted round to get at me, I lunged forward and let him have my fist squarely between the eyes.

  The blow nearly broke my hand, but he dropped to the floor. The next instant I was joined by Harry, who had overcome the other Inca with little difficulty, and in a trice we had them both bound and gagged along with the remainder of the family in the corner.

  Owing to my strategy in withholding our attack until the Incas had got well within the room and to one side, we had not been seen by those constantly passing up and down in the corridor without; at least, none of them had entered. We seemed by this stroke to have assured our safety so long as we remained in the room.

  But it was still necessary to remain against the wall, for the soft patter of footsteps could still be heard in the corridor.

  They now came at irregular intervals, and there were not many of them. Otherwise the silence was unbroken.

  "What does it all mean?" Harry whispered.

  "The Incas are coming home to their women," I guessed. "Though, after seeing the women, it is little wonder if they spend most of their time away from them. He is welcome to his repose in the bosom of his family."

  There passed an uneventful hour. Long before it ended the sound of footsteps had entirely ceased; but we thought it best to take no chances, and waited for the last minute our impatience would allow us. Then, uncomfortable and stiff from the long period of immobility and silence, we rose to our feet and made ready to start.

  Harry was for appropriating some of the strips of dried fish we saw suspended from the ceiling, but I objected that our danger lay in any direction other than that of hunger, and we set out with only our spears.

  The corridor was deserted. One quick glance in either direction assured us of that; then we turned to the right and set out at a rapid pace, down the long passage past a succession of rooms exactly similar to the one we had just left——scores, hundreds of them.

  Each one was occupied by from one to ten of the Incas lying on the couch which each contained, or stretched on hides on the floor. No one was stirring. Everywhere was silence save the patter of our own feet, which we let fall as noiselessly as possible.

  "Will it never end?" whispered Harry at length, after we had traversed upward of a mile without any sign of a cross-passage or a termination.

  "Forward, and silence!" I breathed for a reply.

  The end——at least, of the silence——came sooner than we had expected. Hardly were the last words out of my mouth when a whirring noise sounded behind us. We glanced over our shoulders as we ran, and at the same instant an Inca spear flew by not two inches from my head and struck the ground in front.

  Not a hundred feet to the rear we saw a group of Incas rushing along the passage toward us. Harry wheeled about, raising his spear, but I grasped him by the arm, crying, "Run; it's our only chance!" The next moment we were leaping forward side by side down the passage.

  It would have fared ill with any who appeared to block our way in that mad dash; but it remained clear. The corridor led straight ahead, with never a turn. We were running as we had never run before; the black walls flashed past us an indistinguishable blur, and the open doorways were blended into one.

  Glancing back over my shoulder, I saw that the small group of Incas was no longer small. Away to the rear the corridor was filled with rushing black forms. But I saw plainly that we were gaining on them; the distance that separated us was twice as great as when we had first started to run.

  "How about it?" I panted. "Can you hold out?"

  "If it weren't for this knee," Harry returned between breaths and through clenched teeth. "But——I'm with you." He was limping painfully, and I slackened my pace a little, but he urged me forward with an oath, and himself sprang to the front. His knee must have been causing him the keenest agony; his face was white as death.

  Then I uttered a cry of joy as I saw a bend in the passage ahead. We reached it, and wheeled to the right. There was solid wall on either side; the series of doors was ended.

  "We'll shake 'em off now," I panted.

  Harry nodded.

  A short distance ahead we came to another cross-passage, and turned to the left. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that our pursuers had not yet reached the first turn. Harry kept in the lead, and was giving me all I could do to keep up with him.

  We found ourselves now in a veritable maze of lanes and cross-passages, and we turned to one side or the other at every opportunity. At length I grasped Harry by the arm and stopped him. We stood for two full minutes listening intently. There was absolutely no sound of any kind.

  "Thank Heaven!" Harry breathed, and would have fallen to the ground if I had not supported him.

  We started out then in search of water, moving slowly and cautiously. But we found none, and soon Harry declared that he could go no further. We sat down with our backs against the wall of the passage, still breathing heavily and all but exhausted.

  In that darkness and silence the minutes passed into hours. We talked but little, and then only in whispers. Finally Harry fell into a restless sleep, if it may be called that, and several times I dozed off and was awakened by my head nodding against the stone wall.

  At length, finding Harry awake, I urged him to his feet. His knee barely supported his weight, but he gritted his teeth and told me to lead on.

  "We can wait——" I began; but he broke in savagely:

  "No! I want to find her, that's all——and end it. Just one more chance!"

  We searched for an hour before we found the stream of water we sought. After Harry had bathed his knee and drunk his fill he felt more fit, and we pushed on more rapidly, but still quite at random.

  We turned first one way, then another, in the never-ending labyrinth, always in darkness and silence. We seemed to get nowhere; and I for one was about to give up the disheartening task when suddenly a sound smote our ears that caused us first to start violently, then stop and gaze at each other in comprehension and eager surprise.

  "The bell!" cried Harry. "They are being summoned to the great cavern!"

  It was the same sound we had heard twice before; a sound as of a great, deep-toned bell ringing sonorously throughout the passages and caverns with a roar that was deafening. And it seemed to be close——quite close.

  "It came from the left," said Harry; but I disagreed with him and was so sure of myself that we started off to the right. The echoes of the bell were still floating from wall to wall as we went rapidly forward. I do not know what we expected to find, and the Lord knows what we intended to do after we found it.

  A short distance ahead we came to another passage, crossing at right angles, broad and straight, and somehow familiar. As with one impulse we took it, turning to the left, and then flattened ourselves back against the wall as we saw a group of Incas passing at its farther end, some two hundred yards away.

  There we stood, motionless and scarcely breathing, while group after group of the savages passed in the corridor ahead. Their number swelled to a continuous stream, which in turn gradually became thinner and thinner until only a few stragglers were seen trotting behind. Finally they, too, ceased to appear; the corridor was deserted.

  We waited a while longer, then as no more appeared we started forward and soon had reached the corridor down which they had passed. We followed in the direction they had taken, turning to the right.

  We had no sooner turned than we saw that which caused us to glance quickly at each other and hasten our step, while I smothered the ejaculation that rose to my lips. The corridor in which we now found ourselves stretched straight ahead for a distance, then turned to one side; and the corner thus formed was flooded with a brilliant blaze of light!

  There was no longer any doubt of it: we were on our way to the great cavern. For a moment I hesitated, asking myself for what purpose we hastened on thus into the very arms of our enemies; then, propelled by instinct or premonition——I know not what——I took a firmer grasp on my spear and followed Harry without word, throwing caution to the winds.

  Yet we avoided foolhardiness, for as we approached the last turn we proceeded slowly, keeping an eye on the rear. But all the Incas appeared to have assembled within, for the corridor remained deserted.

  We crept silently to the corner, avoiding the circle of light as far as possible, and, crouching side by side on the rock, looked out together on a scene none the less striking because we had seen it twice before.

  It was the great cavern. We saw it from a different viewpoint than before; the alcove which held the golden throne was far off to our left, nearly half-way round the vast circumference. On the throne was seated the king, surrounded by guards and attendants.

  As before, the stone seats which surrounded the amphitheater on every side were filled with the Incas, crouching motionless and silent. The flames in the massive urns mounted in steady tongues, casting their blinding glare in every direction.

  All this I saw in a flash, when suddenly Harry's fingers sank into the flesh of my arm with such force that I all but cried out in actual pain. And then, glancing at him and following the direction of his gaze, I saw Desiree.

  She was standing on the top of the lofty column in the center of the lake.

  Her white body, uncovered, was outlined sharply against the black background of the cavern above.

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