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Under the Andes(Chapter7)

2006-09-07 21:23

  Chapter VII. The Fight in the Dark.

  I returned to consciousness with a sickening sensation of nausea and unreality. Only my brain was alive; my entire body was numb and as though paralyzed. Still darkness and silence, for all my senses told me I might have been still in the spot where I had fallen.

  Then I tried to move my arms, and found that my hands and feet were firmly bound. I strained at the thongs, making some slight sound; and immediately I heard a whisper but a few feet away:

  "Are you awake, Paul?"

  "I was still half dazed, but I recognized Harry's voice, and I answered simply: "Yes. Where are we?"

  "The Lord knows! They carried us. You have been unconscious for hours."

  "They carried us?"

  "Yes. A thousand miles, I think, on their backs. What——what are they, Paul?"

  "I don't know. Did you see them?"

  "No. Too dark. They are strong as gorillas and covered with hair; I felt that much. They didn't make a sound all the time. No more than half as big as me, and yet one of them carried me as if I were a baby——and I weigh one hundred and seventy pounds."

  "What are we bound with?"

  "Don't know; it feels like leather; tough as rats. I've been working at it for two hours, but it won't give."

  "Well, you know what that means. Dumb brutes don't tie a man up."

  "But it's impossible."

  "Nothing is impossible. But listen!"

  There was a sound——the swift patter of feet; they were approaching. Then suddenly a form bent over me close; I could see nothing, but I felt a pressure against my body and an ill-smelling odor, indescribable, entered my nostrils. I felt a sawing movement at my wrists; the thongs pulled back and forth, and soon my hands were free. The form straightened away from me, there was a clatter on the ground near my head, and then silence.

  There came an oath from Harry:

  "Hang the brute! He's cut my wrist. Are your hands free, Paul?"

  "Yes."

  "Then bind this up; it's bleeding badly. What was that for?"

  "I have an idea," I answered as I tore a strip from my shirt and bandaged the wound, which proved to be slight. Then I searched on the ground beside me, and found my surmise correct.

  "Here you go, Hal! here's some grub. But what the deuce is it? By Jove, it's dried fish! Now, where in the name of——"

  But we wasted no more time in talk, for we were half starved. The stuff was not bad; to us who had been fasting for something like thirty-six hours——for our idea of time was extremely hazy——it was a gorgeous banquet. And close by there was a basin full of water.

  "Pretty decent sort of beggars, I say," came Harry's voice in the darkness. "But who are they?"

  "Ask Felipe," I answered, for by this time I was well convinced of the nature and identity of our captors. "As I said, dumb brutes don't bind men with thongs, nor feed them on dried fish. Of course it's incredible, but a man must be prepared to believe anything."

  "But, Paul! You mean——"

  "Exactly. We are in the hands of the Incas of Huanuco——or rather their descendants."

  "But that was four hundred years ago!"

  "Your history is perfect, like Desiree's geography," said I dryly. "But what then? They have merely chosen to live under the world instead of on it; a rather wise decision, a cynic might say——not to mention the small circumstance that they are prisoners.

  "My dear Hal, never allow yourself to be surprised at anything; it is a weakness. Here we are in total darkness, buried in the Andes, surrounded by hairy, degenerate brutes that are probably allowing us to eat in order that we may be in condition to be eaten, with no possibility of ever again beholding the sunshine; and what is the thought that rises to the surface of my mind? Merely this: that I most earnestly desire and crave a Carbajal perfecto and a match."

  "Paul, you say——eat——"

  "Most probably they are cannibals. The Lord knows they must have some sort of mild amusement in this fearful hole. Of course, the idea is distasteful; before they cut us up they'll have to knock us down."

  "That's a darned silly joke," said Harry with some heat.

  "But it's sober truth, my boy. You know me; I never pose. There is nothing particularly revolting in the thought of being eaten; the disadvantage of it lies in the fact that one must die first. We all want to live; Heaven knows why. And we stand a chance.

  "We know now that there is food to be had here and sufficient air. It is nearly certain that we won't get out, but that can come later. And what an experience! I know a dozen anthropologists that would give their degrees for it. I can feel myself getting enthusiastic about it."

  "But what if they——they——"

  "Say it. Eat us? We can fight. It will be strange if we can't outwit these vermin. And now silence; I'm going to begin. Listen hard——hard! The brutes are noiseless, but if they are near we can hear their breathing."

  "But, Paul——"

  "No more talk. Listen!"

  We lay silent for many minutes, scarcely breathing. Not the slightest sound reached our ears through the profound darkness; utter, intense silence. Finally I reached over and touched Harry on the shoulder, and arose to my knees.

  "Good enough! We're alone. We'll have to crawl for it. Keep close behind me; we don't want to get separated. The first thing is to find a sharp stone to cut through these thongs. Feel on the ground with your hands as we go."

  It was not easy to rise at all, and still harder to make any progress, for our ankles were bound together most effectively; but we managed somehow to drag ourselves along. I was in front; suddenly I felt Harry pull at my coat, and turned.

  "Just the thing, Paul. Sharp as a knife. Look!"

  I groped for his hand in the darkness and took from it the object he held out to me——a small flat stone with a sharp-saw edge.

  "All right; let me work on you first."

  I bent down to the thongs which bound his ankles. I was convinced that they were not of leather, but they were tough as the thickest hide. Twice my overeagerness caused the tool to slip and tear the skin from my hand; then I went about it more carefully with a muttered oath. Another quarter of an hour and Harry was free.

  "Gad, that feels good!" he exclaimed, rising to his feet. "Here, Paul; where's the stone?"

  I handed it to him and he knelt down and began sawing away at my feet.

  What followed happened so quickly that we were hardly aware that it had begun when it was already finished.

  A quick, pattering rush of many feet warned us, but not in time. Hurtling, leaping bodies came at us headlong through the air and crushed us to the ground, buried beneath them, gasping for breath; there must have been scores of them. Resistance was impossible; we were overwhelmed.

  I heard Harry give a despairing cry, and the scuffle followed; I myself was utterly helpless, for the thongs which bound my ankles had not been cut through. Not a sound came from our assailants save their heavy, labored breathing.

  I remember that, even while they were sitting on my head and chest and body, I noted their silence with a sort of impersonal curiosity and wondered if they were, after all, human. Nor were they unnecessarily violent; they merely subdued us, rebound our wrists and ankles more tightly than before, and departed.

  But——faugh! The unspeakable odor of their hairy bodies is in my nostrils yet.

  "Are you hurt, Paul?"

  "Not a bit, Harry lad. How do you like the perfume?"

  "To the deuce with your perfume! But we're done for. What's the use? They've lived in this infernal hole so long they can see in the dark better than we can in the light."

  Of course he was right, and I was a fool not to have thought of it before and practised caution. The knowledge was decidedly unpleasant. No doubt our every movement was being watched by a hundred pairs of eyes, while we lay helpless in the darkness, bound even more tightly than before.

  "Look here," said Harry suddenly, "why can't we see their eyes? Why don't they shine."

  "My dear boy," said I, "in this darkness you couldn't see the Kohinoor diamond if it were hanging on your nose, drawing-room travelers to the contrary notwithstanding. We have one advantage—— they can't understand what we say, but they even up for it by not saying anything."

  There was a short silence, then Harry's voice:

  "Paul——"

  "Well?"

  "I wonder——do you think Desiree——" He hesitated, his voice faltering.

  "I think the same as you do," said I.

  "But I don't know——after all, there is a chance. Just a bare chance, isn't there?"

  "You know as well as I do, Harry. The chances are a million to one that Desiree——thank Heaven——has escaped all this! And isn't that best! Would you have her here with us?"

  "No——no. Only——"

  "Lying here, bound hand and foot? She would make a dainty morsel for our friends."

  "For the Lord's sake, Paul——"

  "Well, let us forget her——for the present. Nor do we want to make a dainty morsel if we can help it. Come, brace up, Hal. It's up to us to turn a trick."

  "Well?"

  "I don't know why I didn't think of it before. I guess we were both too dazed to have good sense. What have you got strapped to your belt?"

  "A gun," said Harry. "Of course I thought of that. But what good is it after that ducking? And I have only six cartridges."

  "Nothing else?"

  I could almost feel his silent gaze; then suddenly he cried out:

  "A knife!"

  "At last!" said I sarcastically. "And so have I. A six-inch, double-edged knife, sharp as a razor and pointed like a needle. They didn't have sense enough to search us, and we didn't have sense enough to realize it. I can feel mine under me now against the ground."

  "But they'll see us."

  "Not if we use a decent amount of caution. The trouble is, I can't reach my knife with my wrists bound. There's only one way. Lie perfectly still; let them think we've given it up. I'm going to try something."

  I drew up my knees, twisted over on the hard rock, and lay flat on my belly. Then I drew up my hands and let my face rest on them, like a dog with his head on his paws. And then, keeping my body perfectly still, and with as little movement of the jaws as possible, I sought the tough thongs with my teeth.

  That was a tedious job and a distasteful one. For many minutes I gnawed away at those thick cords like a dog on a bone. It was considerably later that I discovered what those cords were made of; thank Heaven, I was ignorant of it at the time! All I knew was that they were, to use one of Harry's phrases, "tough as rats."

  I did not dare pull with my wrists, for fear they would fly suddenly apart and betray me to the unseen watchers. It was necessary to cut clear through with my teeth, and more than once I was on the point of giving it up. There was a nauseating, rancid taste to the stuff, but I dared not even raise my head to expectorate.

  Finally my teeth met; the cords were severed. I felt carefully about with my tongue to make sure there were no others; then, without moving my hands in the slightest degree, carefully raised my head.

  It was then that I first noticed——not light, but a thinning out of the darkness. It was, of course, merely the adjustment of my eyes to the new conditions. I could make out no forms surrounding me, but, looking down, I could clearly distinguish the outline of my hands as they lay on the ground before me.

  And, again looking up, I fancied that I could see, some twenty or thirty feet to the right, that the darkness again became suddenly dense and impenetrable.

  "That must be a wall," I muttered, straining my eyes toward it.

  "What's that?" asked Harry sharply.

  Obedient to my instructions, the lad had lain perfectly motionless and silent for over an hour, for it must have taken me at least that long to gnaw through the cords.

  "I said that must be a wall. Look, Harry, about thirty feet to the right. Doesn't it appear to you that way?"

  "By Jove," he exclaimed after a moment of silence, "it's getting light! Look!"

  I explained that, instead of "it's getting light," his eyes were merely becoming accustomed to the darkness.

  "But what do you think of that? Is it a wall?"

  After a moment's silence he answered: "Ye-es," and then more positively: "Yes. But what good does that do us?"

  "That's what I am about to tell you. Listen! I've cut the cords on my wrists, and I'm going to get my knife——"

  "How the deuce did you manage that?" Harry interrupted.

  "With my teeth. I've been rather busy. I'm going to get my knife——cautiously, so they won't suspect if they are watching us. We must lie close together on our sides, facing each other, so I can cut the thongs on your wrists without being seen. Then you are to get your knife——carefully. Do you understand?"

  "Yes."

  For the first time there was fight in Harry's voice; the curious, barely perceptible tremor of the man of courage.

  "All right. Go easy."

  We went about the thing slowly, turning but an inch at a time; a second mistake might prove fatal. We heard no sound of any kind, and ten minutes later we were lying flat on our backs side by side, keeping our hands hidden between our bodies, that the absence of the thongs might not be discovered. Each of us held in his right hand the hilt of a six inch knife. Cold steel is by no means the favorite weapon of an American, but there are times——

  "Have you got your knife, Harry?"

  "Yes."

  "Good! Now listen close and act quick. When I give the word reach down and grasp the cords round your ankles in your left hand, then cut them through with one stroke. Then to your feet; grasp my jacket, and together to the wall——that's for our backs. And then—— let 'em come!"

  "All right, old man."

  "Don't waste any time; they'll probably start for us the instant we sit up. Be sure you get your feet free at the first stroke; feel them well with your left hand first. Are you ready?"

  "Yes." And his voice was now calm and perfectly steady.

  "Then——one, two, three——go!"

  We bent and cut and sprang to our feet, and dashed for the wall. There was a sound of rushing feet——our backs hugged the kindly rock——I heard Harry's shout, "Here they come!"——dim, rushing forms——fingers clutching at my throat.

  I felt the blade of my knife sink into soft and yielding flesh, and a warm, thick liquid flow over my hand and arm.

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