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Under the Andes(Chapter15)

2006-09-07 21:25

  Chapter XV. The Rescue.

  I was quick to act, but the Incas were quicker still. I turned to run for our spears, and was halted by a cry of warning from Harry, who had wheeled like a flash at my quick movement. I turned barely in time to see the Incas draw back their powerful arms, then lunge forward, the spears shooting from their hands.

  I leaped aside; something struck my leg; I stooped swiftly and grasped the spear-thong before there was time for the Inca to recover and jerk it out of my reach. The other end was fastened about his waist; I had him, and giving an instant for a glance at Harry, saw that he had adopted the same tactics as myself.

  Seeing that escape was impossible, they dashed straight at us.

  It wasn't much of a fight. One came at me with his head lowered like a charging bull; I sidestepped easily and floored him with a single blow. He scrambled to his feet, but by that time I had recovered the spear and had it ready for him.

  I waited until he was quite close, then let him have it full in the chest. The fool literally ran himself through, hurling himself on the sharp point in a brutal frenzy. He lay on his back, quite still, with the spear-head buried in his chest and the shaft sticking straight up in the air.

  I turned to Harry, and in spite of myself smiled at what I saw. He stood with his right arm upraised, holding his spear ready. His left foot was placed well and gracefully forward, and his body bent to one side like the classic javelin-thrower. And ten feet in front of him the other Inca had fallen flat on his face on the ground with arms extended in mute supplication for quarter.

  "What shall I do?" asked Harry. "Let him have it?"

  "Can you?"

  "The fact is, no. Look at the poor beggar——scared silly. But we can't let him go."

  It was really a question. Mercy and murder were alike impossible. We finally compromised by binding his wrists and ankles and trussing him up behind, using a portion of one of the spear-thongs for the purpose, and gagging him. Then we carried him behind a large boulder some distance from the ledge and tucked him away in a dark corner.

  "And when we get back——if we ever do——we can turn him loose," said Harry.

  "In that case I wouldn't give much for his chances of a happy existence," I observed.

  We wasted no time after that, for we wanted no more interruptions. Some fifteen precious minutes we lost trying to withdraw the spear I had buried in the body of the Inca, but the thing had become wedged between two ribs and refused to come out. Finally we gave it up and threw the corpse in the lake.

  We then removed the oars and spears and raft——which had floated so near to the ledge that we had no difficulty in recovering it——to our hiding-place, and last we tackled our fish.

  It was a task for half a dozen men, but we dared not remain on the ledge to skin him and cut him up. After an hour of exertion and toil that left us completely exhausted, we managed to get him behind a large boulder to the left of the ledge, but it was impossible to carry him to the place we had selected, which could be reached only by passing through a narrow crevice.

  The only knives we had were the points of the spears, but they served after a fashion, and in another hour we had him skinned and pretty well separated. He was meaty and sweet. We discovered that with the first opportunity, for we were hungry as wolves. Nor did we waste much time bewailing our lack of a fire, for we had lived so long on dried stuff that the opposite extreme was rather pleasant than otherwise.

  We tore him into strips as neatly as possible, stowing them away beneath a ledge, a spot kept cool by the water but a foot below.

  "That'll be good for a month," said Harry. "And there's more where that came from. And now——"

  I understood, and I answered simply: "I'm ready."

  We had but few preparations to make. The solidest parts of the fish which we had laid aside we now strapped together with one of the extra spear-thongs and slung them on our backs. We secreted the oars and raft and the extra spear as snugly as possible.

  Then, having filled ourselves with raw fish and a last hearty drink from the lake, we each took a spear and started on a search wilder than any ever undertaken by Amadis of Gaul or Don Quixote himself. Even the Bachelor of Salamanca, in his saddest plight, did not present so outrageous an appearance to the eye as we. We wore more clothing than the Incas, which is the most that can be said for us.

  We were unable to even guess at the direction we should take; but that was settled for us when we found that there were but two exits from the cavern. One led through the boulders and crevices to a passage full of twists and turns and strewn with rocks, almost impassable; the other was that through which the Incas had entered. We chose the latter.

  Fifty feet from the cavern we found ourselves in darkness. I stopped short.

  "Harry, this is impossible. We cannot mark our way."

  "But what can we do?"

  "Carry one of those urns."

  "Likely! They'd spot us before we even got started."

  "Well——let them."

  "No. You're in for the finish. I know that. I want to find Desiree. And we'll find her. After that, if nothing else is left, I'll be with you."

  "But I don't want a thousand of those brutes falling on us in the dark. If they would end it I wouldn't care."

  "Keep your spear ready."

  I had given him my promise, so I pushed on at his side. I had no stomach for it. In a fight I can avoid disgracing myself, because it is necessary; but why seek it when there is nothing to be gained? Thus I reflected, but I pushed on at Harry's side.

  As he had said, I was in for the finish. What I feared was to be taken again by the Incas unseen in the darkness. But that fear was soon removed when I found that we could see easily some thirty or forty feet ahead——enough for a warning in case of attack.

  Our flannel shirts and woolen undergarments hung from us in rags and tatters. Our feet were bare and bruised and swollen. Our faces were covered with a thick, matted growth of hair. Placed side by side with the Incas it is a question which of us would have been judged the most terrifying spectacles by an impartial observer.

  I don't think either of us realized the extreme foolhardiness of that expedition. The passage was open and unobstructed, and since it appeared to be the only way to their fishing-ground, was certain to be well traveled. The alarm once given, there was no possible chance for us.

  We sought the royal apartments. Those we knew to be on a level some forty or fifty feet below the surface of the great cavern, at the foot of the flight of steps which led to the tunnel to the base of the column. I had counted ninety-six of those steps, and allowing an average height of six inches, they represented a distance of forty-eight feet.

  How far the whirlpool and the stream which it fed had carried us downward we did not know, but we estimated it at one hundred feet. That calculation left us still fifty feet below the level of the royal apartments.

  But we soon found that in this we were mistaken. We had advanced for perhaps a quarter of an hour without incident when the passage came to an abrupt end. To the right was an irregular, twisting lane that disappeared around a corner almost before it started; to the left a wide and straight passage, sloping gently upward. We took the latter.

  We had followed this for about a hundred yards when we saw a light ahead. Caution was useless; the passage was straight and unbroken and only luck could save us from discovery. We pushed on, and soon stood directly within the light which came from an apartment adjoining the passage. It was not that which we sought, however, and we gave it barely a glance before we turned to the right down a cross passage, finding ourselves again in darkness.

  Soon another light appeared. We approached. It came from a doorway leading into an apartment some twenty feet square. It was empty, and we entered.

  There were two flaming urns fastened to the wall above a granite couch. Stone seats were placed here and there about the room. The walls were studded with spots of gold to a height of four or five feet.

  We stopped short, gazing about us.

  "It looks like——" Harry whispered, and then exclaimed: "It is! See, here is where we took the blocks from this seat!"

  So it was. We were in the room where we had imprisoned the Inca king and where we ourselves had been imprisoned with Desiree.

  "She said her room was to the right of this," whispered Harry excitedly. "What luck! If only——"

  He left the sentence unfinished, but I understood his fear. And with me there was even no doubt; I had little hope of finding Desiree, and was sorry, for Harry's sake, that we had been so far successful.

  Again we sought the passage. A little farther on it was crossed by another, running at right angles in both directions. But to the right there was nothing but darkness, and we turned to the left, where, some distance ahead, we could see a light evidently proceeding from a doorway similar to the one we had just left.

  We went rapidly, but our feet made scarcely any sound on the granite floor. Still we were incautious, and it was purely by luck that I glanced ahead and discovered that which made me jerk Harry violently back and flatten myself against the wall.

  "What is it?" he whispered.

  In silence I pointed with my finger to where two Incas stood in the passage ahead of us, just without the patch of light from the doorway, which they were facing. They made no movement; we were as yet undiscovered. They were about a hundred feet away from where we stood.

  "Then she's here!" whispered Harry. "They are on guard."

  I nodded; I had had the same thought.

  There was no time to lose; at any moment that they should chance to glance in our direction they were certain to see us. I whispered hastily and briefly to Harry. He nodded.

  The next instant we were advancing slowly and noiselessly, hugging the wall. We carried our spears ready, though we did not mean to use them, for a miss would have meant an alarm.

  "If she is alone!" I was saying within myself, almost a prayer, when suddenly one of the Incas turned, facing us squarely, and gave a start of surprise. We leaped forward.

  Half a dozen bounds and we were upon them, before they had had time to realize their danger or move to escape it. With a ferocity taught us by the Incas themselves we gripped their throats and bore them to the floor.

  No time then for the decencies; we had work to do, and we crushed and pounded their lives out against the stone floor. There had not been a sound. They quivered and lay still; and then, looking up at some slight sound in the doorway, we saw Desiree.

  She stood in the doorway, regarding us with an expression of terror that I did not at first understand; then suddenly I realized that, having seen us disappear beneath the surface of the take after our dive from the column, she had thought us dead.

  "Bon Dieu!" she exclaimed in a hollow voice of horror. "This, too! Do you come, messieurs?"

  "For you," I answered. "We are flesh and bone, Desiree, though in ill repair. We have come for you."

  "Paul! Harry, is it really you?"

  Belief crept into her eyes, but nothing more, and she stood gazing at us curiously. Harry had sprung to her side; she did not move as he embraced her.

  "Are you alone?"

  "Yes."

  "Good. Here, Harry——quick! Help me. Stand aside, Desiree."

  We carried the bodies of the two Incas within the room and deposited them in a corner. Then I ran and brought the spears, which we had dropped when we attacked the Incas. Desiree stood just within the doorway, seemingly half dazed.

  "Come," I said; "there is no time to be lost. Come!"

  "Where?" She did not move.

  "With us. Isn't that enough? Do you want to stay here?"

  She shuddered violently.

  "You don't know——what has happened. I want to die. Where are you going to take me?"

  "Desiree," Harry burst out, "for Heaven's sake, come! Must we carry you?"

  He grasped her arm.

  Then she moved and appeared to acquiesce. I started ahead; Harry brought up the rear, with an arm round Desiree's shoulders. She started once more to speak, but I wheeled sharply with a command for silence, and she obeyed.

  We reached the turn in the corridor and passed to the right, moving as swiftly and noiselessly as possible. Ahead of us was the light from the doorway of the room in which we had formerly been imprisoned.

  We had nearly reached it when I saw, some distance down the corridor, moving forms. The light was very dim, but there appeared to be a great many of them.

  I turned, with a swift gesture to Harry and Desiree to follow, and dashed forward to the light and through the doorway into the room. Discovery was inevitable, I thought, in any event, but it was better to meet them at the door to the room than in the open passage. And we had our spears.

  But by a rare stroke of luck we had not been seen. As we stood within the room on either side of the doorway, out of the line of view from the corridor, we heard the patter of many footsteps approaching.

  They neared the doorway, and I glanced at Harry, pointing to his spear significantly. He gave me a nod of understanding. Let them come; we would not again fall into their hands alive.

  The footsteps sounded just without the doorway; I stood tense and alert, with spear ready, expecting a rush momentarily. Then they passed, passed altogether, and receded down the corridor in the direction whence we had come. I wanted to glance out at their number, but dared not. We stood still till all was again perfectly silent.

  Then Desiree spoke in a whisper:

  "It is useless; we are lost. That was the king. He is going to my room. In ten seconds he will be there and find me gone."

  There was only one thing to do, and I wasted no time in discussing it. A swift command to Harry, and we dashed from the doorway and down the corridor to the left, each holding an arm of Desiree. But she needed little of our assistance; the presence of the Inca king seemed to have inspired her with a boundless terror, and she flew, rather than ran, between us.

  We reached the bend in the passage, and just beyond it the light——the first one we had seen on our way in. I had our route marked on my memory with complete distinctness. Soon we found ourselves in the wide, sloping passage that carried us to the level below, and in another five seconds had reached its end and the beginning of the last stretch.

  At the turn Harry stumbled and fell flat, dragging Desiree to her knees. I lifted her, and he sprang to his feet unhurt.

  She was panting heavily. Harry had dropped his spear in the fall, and we wasted a precious minute searching for it in the darkness, finally finding it where it had slid, some twenty feet ahead. Again we dashed forward.

  A light appeared ahead in the distance, dim but unmistakable ——the light of the urns in the cavern for which we were headed. Suddenly Desiree faltered and would have fallen but for our supporting arms.

  "Courage!" I breathed. "We are near the end."

  She stopped short and sank to the ground.

  "It is useless," she gasped. "I hurt my ankle when I fell. I can go no farther. Leave me!"

  Harry and I with one impulse stooped over to pick her up, and as we did so she fainted away in our arms. We were then but a few hundred feet from our goal; the light from the urns could be plainly seen gleaming on the broad ledge by the lake.

  Suddenly the sound of many footsteps came from behind. I turned quickly, but the passage was too dark. I could see nothing. The sound came closer and closer; there seemed to be many of them, advancing swiftly. I straightened and raised my spear.

  Harry grasped my arm.

  "Not yet!" he cried. "One more try; we can make it."

  He thrust his spear into my hand, and in another instant had thrown Desiree's unconscious body over his shoulder and was staggering forward toward the cavern. I followed, while the sound of the footsteps behind grew louder and louder.

  We neared the end of the passage; we reached it; we were on the ledge. Even with Desiree for a burden, Harry moved so swiftly that I found it difficult to keep up with him. The strength of a god was in him, which was but just, since he had his goddess in his arms.

  On the ledge, near the edge of the water, stood two Incas. They turned at our approach and rushed at us. Unlucky for them, for Harry's example had fired my brain and put the strength of a giant in me.

  To this day I don't know what followed——whether I used my spear or my fists or my head. I know only that I leaped at them in irresistible fury and left them stretched on the ground before they had reached Harry or halted him.

  We crossed the ledge and made for the boulders to the left. The crevice which led to our hiding-place was too narrow for Harry and his burden. I sprang forward and grasped Desiree's shoulders; he held her ankles, and we got her through to the ledge beyond.

  Then I leaped back through the crevice, and barely in time. As I looked out a black, rushing horde emerged from the passage and dashed across the ledge toward us. I stood at the entrance to the narrow crevice, spear in hand.

  They appeared to have no sense of the fact that my position was impregnable, but dashed blindly at me. The crevice in which I stood and which was the only way through to the ledge where Harry had taken Desiree, was not more than two feet wide. With unarmed savages for foes, one man could have held it against a million.

  But they came and I met them. I stood within the crevice, some three or four feet from its end, and when one appeared in the opening I let him have the spear. Another rushed in and fell on top of the first.

  As I say, they appeared to be deprived of the power to reason. In five minutes the mouth of the crevice was completely choked with bodies, some, who were merely wounded, struggling and squirming to extricate themselves from the bloody tangle.

  I heard Harry's voice at my back:

  "How about it? Want some help?"

  "Not unless they find some gunpowder," I answered. "The idiots eat death as though it were candy. We're safe; they can never break through here."

  "Are they still coming?"

  "They can't; they've blocked the way with their smelly black carcasses. How is Desiree?"

  "Better; she's awake. I've been bathing her ankle with cold water. She has a bad sprain; how the deuce she ever managed to hobble on it even two steps is beyond me."

  "A sprain? Are you sure?"

  "I think so; it's badly swollen. Maybe only a twist; a few hours will tell."

  I heard him return to the ledge back of me; I dared not turn my head.

  Thinking I heard a sound above, I looked up; but there was nothing to fear in that direction. The boulders which formed the sides of the crevice extended straight up to the roof of the cavern. We appeared, in fact, to be fortified against any attack.

  With one exception——hunger. But there would be plenty of time to think of that; for the present we had our fish, which was sufficient for the three of us for a month, if we could keep it fresh that long. And the water was at our very feet.

  The bodies wedged in the mouth of the crevice began to disappear, allowing the light from the urns to filter through; they were removing their dead. I could see the black forms swaying and pulling not five feet away. But I stood motionless, saving my spear and my strength for any who might try to force an entrance.

  Soon the crevice was clear, and from where I stood I commanded a view of something like three-quarters of the ledge. It was one mass of black forms, packed tightly together, gazing at our retreat.

  They looked particularly silly and helpless to me then, rendered powerless as they were by a little bit of rock. Brute force was all they had; and nature, being the biggest brute of all, laughed at them.

  But I soon found that they were not devoid of resource. For perhaps fifteen minutes the scene remained unchanged; not one ventured to approach the crevice. Then there was a sudden movement and shifting in the mass; it split suddenly in the middle; they pressed off to either side, leaving an open lane between them leading directly toward me.

  Down this lane suddenly dashed a dozen or more of the savages, with spears aloft in their brawny arms. I was taken by surprise and barely had time to cut and run for the ledge within.

  As it was I did not entirely escape; the spears came whistling through the crevice, and one of them lodged in my leg just below the thigh.

  I jerked it out with an oath and turned to meet the attack. I was now clear of the crevice, standing on the ledge inside, near Harry and Desiree. I called to them to go to one side, out of the range of the spears that might come through. Harry took Desiree in his arms and carried her to safety.

  As I expected, the Incas came rushing through the crevice—— that narrow lane where a man could barely push through without squeezing. The first got my spear full in the face——a blow rather than a thrust, for I had once or twice had difficulty in retrieving it when I had buried it deep.

  As he fell I struck at the one behind. He grasped the spear with his hand, but I jerked it free and brought it down on his head, crushing him to the ground. It was mere butchery; they hadn't a chance in the world to get at me. Another fell, and the rest retreated. The crevice was again clear, save for the bodies of the three who had fallen.

  I turned to where Harry and Desiree were seated on the further edge of the ledge. Her body rested against his; her head lay on his shoulder.

  As I looked at them, smiling, her eyes suddenly opened wide and she sprang to her feet and started toward me.

  "Paul! You are hurt! Harry, a bandage——quick; your shirt—— anything!"

  I looked down at the gash on my leg, which was bleeding somewhat freely.

  "It's nothing," I declared; "a mere tear in the skin. But your ankle! I thought it was sprained?"

  She had reached my side and bent over to examine my wound; but I raised her in my arms and held her before me.

  "That," I said, "is nothing. Believe me, it isn't even painful. I shall bandage it myself; Harry will take my place here. But your foot?"

  "That, too, is nothing," she answered with a half-smile. "I merely twisted it; it is nearly well already. See!"

  She placed her weight on the injured foot, but could not suppress a faint grimace of pain.

  Calling to Harry to watch the crevice, I took Desiree in my arms and carried her back to her seat.

  "Now sit still," I commanded. "Soon we'll have dinner; in the mean time allow me to say that you are the bravest woman in the world, and the best sport. And some day we'll drink to that——from a bottle."

  But facts have no respect for sentiment and fine speeches. The last words were taken from my very mouth by a ringing cry from Harry:

  "Paul! By gad, they're coming at us from the water!"

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