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Under the Andes(Chapter14)

2006-09-07 21:25

  Chapter XIV. A Fishing Party.

  Water, when whirling rapidly, has a keen distaste for any foreign object; but when once the surface breaks, that very repulsion seems to multiply the indescribable fury with which it endeavors to bury the object beneath its center.

  Once in the whirlpool, I was carried in a swift circle round its surface for what seemed an age, and I think could not have been less than eight or ten seconds in reality. Then suddenly I was turned completely over, my limbs seemed to be torn from my body, there was a deafening roar in my ears, and a crushing weight pressed against me from every side.

  Any effort of any kind was worse than useless, as well as impossible; indeed, I could hardly have been said to be conscious, except for the fact that I retained sufficient volition to avoid breathing or swallowing the water.

  The pressure against my body was terrific; I wondered vaguely why life had not departed, since——as I supposed——there was not a whole bone left in my body. My head was bursting with dizziness and pain; my breast was a furnace of torture.

  Suddenly the pressure lessened and the whirling movement gradually ceased, but still the current carried me on. I struck out wildly with both arms——in an effort, I suppose, to grasp the proverbial straw.

  I found no straw, but something better——space. Instinct led the fight to reach it with my head to get air, but the swiftness of the current carried me again beneath the surface. My arms seemed powerless; I was unable to direct them.

  I hardly know what happened after that. A feeling of most intense suffocation in my chest; a relaxation of all my muscles; a sensation of light in my smarting eyes; a gentle pressure from the water beneath, like the rising gait of a saddle-horse; and suddenly, without knowing why or when or how, I found myself lying on hard ground, gasping, choking, sputtering, not far from death, but nearer to life than I had thought ever to be again.

  I lay for several minutes unable to move; then my brain awoke and called for life. I twisted over on my face, and moved my arms out and in with the motion of a swimmer; the most exquisite pains shot through my chest and abdomen. My head weighed tons.

  Water ran from my nose and mouth in gurgling streams. The roaring, scarcely abated, pounded in my ears. I was telling myself over and over with a most intense earnestness: "But if I were really dead I shouldn't be able to move." It appears that the first sense to leave a drowning man, and the last to return, is the sense of humor.

  In another ten minutes, having rid my lungs of the water that had filled them, I felt no pain and but little fatigue. My head was dizzy, and there was still a feeling of oppression on my chest; but otherwise I was little the worse for wear. I twisted carefully over on my side and took note of my surroundings.

  I lay on a narrow ledge of rock at the entrance to a huge cavern. Not two feet below rushed the stream which had carried me; it came down through an opening in the wall at a sharp angle with tremendous velocity, and must have hurled me like a cork from its foaming surface. Below, it emptied into a lake which nearly filled the cavern, some hundreds of yards in diameter. Rough boulders and narrow ledges surrounded it on every side.

  This I saw in time, but the first thing that caught my eye was no work of nature. Fastened to the wall on the opposite side of the cavern, casting a dim, flickering light throughout its vast space, were two golden, flaming urns.

  It was not fear, but a sort of nausea, that assailed me as I realized that I was still in the domain of the Incas.

  The ledge on which I lay was exposed to view from nearly every point of the cavern, and the sight of those urns caused me to make a swift decision to leave it without delay. It was wet and slippery and not over three feet in width; I rose to my feet cautiously, having no appetite for another ducking.

  At a distance of several feet lay another ledge, broad and level, at the farther end of which rose a massive boulder. I cleared the gap with a leap, barely made my footing, and passed behind the boulder through a crevice just wide enough to admit my body.

  Then through a narrow lane onto another ledge, and from that I found my way into a dark recess which gave assurance at least of temporary safety. The sides of the cavern were a veritable maze of boulders, sloping ledges, and narrow crevices. Nature here scarcely seemed to have known what to do with herself.

  I seated myself on a bit of projecting limestone, still wet and shivering. I had no boots nor trousers; my feet were bruised and swollen, and my flannel shirt and woolen underwear were but scanty protection against the chill air, damp as they were. Also, I seemed to feel a cold draft circling about me, and was convinced of the fact by the flickering flames in the golden urns.

  Desolate, indeed, for I gave Harry up as lost. The thought generated no particular feeling in me; death, by force of contrast, may even appear agreeable; and I told myself that Harry had been favored of the gods.

  And there I sat in the half-darkness, shrinking from a danger of whose existence I was not certain, clinging miserably to the little that was left of what the world of sunshine had known as Paul Lamar, gentleman, scientist, and connoisseur of life; sans philosophy, sans hope, and——sans-culotte.

  But the senses remain; and suddenly I became aware of a movement in the water of the lake. It was as though an immense trout had leaped and split the surface. This was repeated several times, and was followed by a rhythmic sound like the regular splash of many oars. Then silence.

  I peered intently forth from my corner in the recess, but could see nothing, and finally gave it up.

  As the minutes passed by my discomfort increased and stiffness began to take my joints. I realized the necessity of motion, but lacked the will, and sat in a sort of dumb, miserable apathy. This, I should say, for an hour; then I saw something that roused me.

  I had before noticed that on the side of the cavern almost directly opposite me, under the flaming urns, there was a ledge some ten or twelve feet broad and easily a hundred in length. It met the surface of the lake at an easy, gradual slope. In the rear, exactly between the two urns, could be seen the dark mouth of a passage, evidently leading directly away from the cavern.

  Out of this passage there suddenly appeared the forms of two Incas. In the hand of each was what appeared to be a long spear——I had evidently been mistaken in my presumption of their ignorance of weapons.

  They walked to one end of the long ledge and dragged out into the light an object with a flat surface some six feet square. This they launched on the surface of the lake; then embarked on it, placing their spears by their sides and taking up, instead, two broad, short oars. With these they began to paddle their perilous craft toward the center of the lake with short, careful strokes.

  About a hundred feet from the shore they ceased paddling and exchanged the oars for their spears, and stood motionless and silent, waiting, apparently, for nothing.

  I, also, remained motionless, watching them in dull curiosity. There was little danger of being seen; for, aside from the darkness of my corner, which probably would have been no hindrance to them, a projecting ledge partly screened my body from view.

  The wait was not a long one, and when it ended things happened with so startling a suddenness that I scarcely grasped the details.

  There was a loud splash in the water like that I had heard before, a swift ripple on the surface of the lake, and simultaneously the two Indians lunged with their spears, which flew to their mark with deadly accuracy. I had not before noticed the thongs, one end of which was fastened to the shaft of the spear and the other about the waist of the savage.

  There followed a battle royal. Whatever the thing was that had felt the spears, it certainly lost no time in showing its resentment. It thrashed the water into furious waves until I momentarily expected the raft to be swamped.

  One Inca stood on the farther edge of the craft desperately plying an oar; the other tugged lustily at the spear-thongs. I could see a black, twisting form leap from the water directly toward the raft, and the oarsman barely drew from under before it fell. It struck the corner of the raft, which tipped perilously.

  That appeared to have been a final effort, for there the battle ended. The oarsman made quickly for the shore, paddling with remarkable dexterity and swiftness, while the other stood braced, holding firmly to the spear-thongs. Another minute and they had leaped upon the ledge, drawing the raft after them, and, by tugging together on the lines, had landed their victim of the deep.

  It appeared to be a large black fish of a shape I had never before seen. But it claimed little of my attention; my eye was on the two spears which had been drawn from the still quivering body and which now lay on the ground well away from the water's edge, while the two Incas were dragging their catch toward the mouth of the passage leading from the cavern.

  I wanted those spears. I did not stop to ask myself what I intended to do with them; if I had I would probably have been hard put to it for an answer. But I wanted them, and I sat in my dark corner gazing at them with greedy eyes.

  The Incas had disappeared in the passage.

  Finally I rose and began to search for an exit from the recess in which I had hidden myself. At first there appeared to be none, but at length I found a small crevice between two boulders in the rear. Into this I squeezed my body with some difficulty.

  The rock pressed tightly against me on both sides, and the sharp corners bruised my body, but I wormed my way through for a distance of fifteen or twenty feet. Then the crevice opened abruptly, and I found myself on a broad ledge ending apparently in space. I advanced cautiously to its edge, but intervening boulders shut off the light, and I could see no ground below.

  Throwing prudence to the winds, I let myself over the outermost corner, hung for a moment by my hands, and dropped. My feet touched ground almost instantly——the supposedly perilous fall amounted to something like twelve inches.

  I turned round, feeling a little foolish, and saw that from where I stood the ledge and part of the lake were in full view. I could see the spears still lying where they had been thrown down.

  But as I looked the two Incas emerged from the passage. They picked up the spears, walked to the raft, and again launched it and paddled toward the center of the lake.

  I thought, "Here is my chance; I must make that ledge before they return," and I started forward so precipitately that I ran head on into a massive boulder and got badly stunned for my pains. Half dazed, I went on, groping my way through the semidarkness.

  The trail was one to try a llama. I climbed boulders and leaped across chasms and clung to narrow, slippery edges with my finger-nails. Several times I narrowly escaped dumping myself into the lake, and half the time I was in plain view of the Incas on the raft.

  My hands and feet were bruised and bleeding, and I had bumped into walls and boulders so often that I was surprised when I took a step without getting a blow. I wanted those spears.

  I found myself finally within a few yards of my destination. A narrow crevice led from where I stood directly to the ledge from which the Incas had embarked. It was now necessary to wait till they returned to the shore, and I drew back into the darkness of a near-by corner and stood motionless.

  They were still on the raft in the middle of the lake, waiting, spear in hand. I watched them in furious impatience, on the border of mania.

  Suddenly I saw a dark, crouching form outlined against a boulder not ten feet away from where I stood. The form was human, but in some way unlike the Incas I had seen. I could not see its face, but the alertness suggested by its attitude made me certain that I had been discovered.

  Vaguely I felt myself surrounded on every side; I seemed to feel eyes gazing unseen from every direction, but I could not force myself to search the darkness; my heart rose to my throat and choked me, and I stood absolutely powerless to make a sound or movement, gazing in a sort of dumb fascination at that silent, crouching figure.

  Suddenly it crouched lower still against the black background of the boulder.

  "Another second and he will be at my throat," I thought——but I stood still, unable to move.

  But the figure did not spring. Instead, it suddenly straightened up to almost twice the height of an Inca, and I caught a glimpse of a white face and ragged, clinging garments.

  "Harry!" I whispered. I wonder yet that it was not a shout.

  "Thank God!" came his voice, also in a whisper; and in another moment he had reached my side.

  A hurried word or two——there was no time for more——and I pointed to the Incas on the raft, saying: "We want those spears."

  "I was after them," he grinned. "What shall we do?"

  "There's no use taking them while the Incas are away," I replied, "because they would soon return and find them gone. Surely we can handle two of them."

  As I spoke there came a sound from the lake——a sudden loud splash followed by a commotion in the water. I looked around the corner of the boulder and saw that the spears again found their mark.

  "Come," I whispered, and began to pick my way toward the ledge.

  Harry followed close at my heels. It was easier here, and we soon found ourselves close to the shore of the lake, with a smooth stretch of rock between us and the fisherman's landing-place. The urns, whose light was quite sufficient here, were about fifty feet to the right and rear.

  The Incas had made their kill and were paddling for the shore. As they came near, Harry and I sank back against the boulder, which extended to the boundary of the ledge. Soon the raft was beached and pulled well away from the water, and the fish——I was amazed at its size——followed.

  They drew forth the spears and laid them on the ground, as they had done formerly; and, laying hold on the immense fish, still floundering ponderously about, began to drag it toward the mouth of the passage.

  "Now," whispered Harry, and as he stood close at my side I could feel his body draw together for the spring.

  I laid a hand on his arm.

  "Not yet. Others may be waiting for them in the passage. Wait till they return."

  In a few minutes they reappeared in the light of the flaming urns. I waited till they had advanced half-way to the water's edge, some thirty feet away. Then I whispered to Harry: "You for the left, me for the right," and released my hold on his arm, and the next instant we were bounding furiously across the ledge.

  Taken by surprise, the Incas offered no resistance whatever. The momentum of our assault carried them to the ground; their heads struck the hard granite with fearful force and they lay stunned.

  Harry, kneeling over them, looked up at me with a question in his eyes.

  "The lake," said I, for it was no time for squeamishness.

  Our friend the king thought us dead, and we wanted no witnesses that we had returned to life. We laid hold of the unconscious bodies, dragged them to the edge of the lake, and pushed them in. The shock of the cold water brought one of them to life, and he started to swim, and we——well, we did what had to be done.

  We had our spears. I examined them curiously.

  The head appeared to be of copper and the shaft was a long, thin rod of the same material. But when I tried it against a stone and saw its hardness I found that it was much less soft, and consequently more effective, than copper would have been. That those underground savages had succeeded in combining metals was incredible, but there was the evidence; and, besides, it may have been a trick of nature herself.

  The point was some six inches long and very sharp. It was set on the shaft in a wedge, and bound with thin, tough strips of hide. Altogether, a weapon not to be laughed at.

  We carried the spears, the raft, and the oars behind a large boulder to the left of the ledge with considerable difficulty. The two latter not because we expected them to be of any service, but in order not to leave any trace of our presence, for if any searchers came and found nothing they could know nothing.

  We expected them to arrive at any moment, and we waited for hours. We had about given up watching from our vantage point behind the boulder when two Incas appeared at the mouth of the passage. But they brought only oil to fill the urns, and after performing this duty departed, without a glance at the lake or any exhibition of surprise at the absence of their fellows.

  Every now and then there was a commotion in some part of the lake, and we could occasionally see a black, glistening body leap into the air and fall again into the water.

  "I'm hungry," Harry announced suddenly. "I wonder if we couldn't turn the trick on that raft ourselves?"

  The same thought had occurred to me, but Harry's impulsiveness had made me fearful of expressing it. I hesitated.

  "We've got to do something," he continued.

  I suggested that it might be best to wait another hour or two.

  "And why? Now is as good a time as any. If we intend to find Desiree——"

  "In the name of Heaven, how can we?" I interrupted.

  "You don't mean to say you don't intend to try?" he exclaimed.

  "Hal, I don't know. In the first place, it's impossible. And where could we take her and what could we do——in short, what's the use? Why the deuce should we prolong the thing any further?

  "In the world I refused to struggle because nothing tempted me; in this infernal hole I have fought when there was nothing to fight for. If civilization held no prize worth an effort, why should I exert myself to preserve the life of a rat? Faugh! It's sickening! I wondered why I wanted those spears. Now I know. I have an idea I'm going to be coward enough to use one——or enough of a philosopher."

  "Paul, that isn't like you."

  "On the contrary, it is consistent with my whole life. I have never been overly keen about it. To end it in a hole like this—— well, that isn't exactly what I expected; but it is all one——after. Understand me, Hal; I don't want to desert you; haven't I stuck? And I would still if there were the slightest possible chance. Where can we go? What can we do?"

  There was a long silence; then Harry's voice came calmly:

  "I can stay in the game. You call yourself a philosopher. I won't quarrel about it, but the world would call you a quitter. Whichever it is, it's not for me. I stay in the game. I'm going to find Desiree if I can, and, by the Lord, some day I'm going to cock my feet up on the fender at the Midlothian and make 'em open their mouths and call me a liar!"

  "A worthy ambition."

  "My own. And, Paul, you can't——you're not a quitter."

  "Personally, yes. If I were here alone, Hal"——I picked up one of the spears and passed my palm over its sharp point——"I would quit cold. But not——not with you. I can't share your enthusiasm, but I'll go fifty-fifty on the rest of it, including the fender—— when we see it."

  "That's the talk, old man. I knew you would."

  "But understand me. I expect nothing. It's all rot. If by any wild chance we should pull out in the end I'll admit you were right. But I eat under compulsion, and I fight for you. You're the leader unless you ask my advice."

  "And I begin right now," said Harry with a grin. "First, to get Desiree. What about it?"

  We discussed plans all the way from the impossible to the miraculous and arrived nowhere. One thing only we decided——that before we tried to find our way back to the great cavern and the royal apartments we would lay in a supply of food and cache it among the boulders and ledges where we then were. For if ever a place were designed for a successful defense by two men against thousands it was that one. And we had the spears.

  Still no one had appeared in the cavern, and we decided to wait no longer. We carried the raft back to the ledge. It was fairly light, being made of hide stretched tightly across stringers of bone, but was exceedingly clumsy. Once Harry fell, and the thing nearly toppled over into the lake with him on top of it; but I caught his arm just in time.

  Another trip for the oars and spears, and everything was ready. We launched the raft awkwardly, nearly shipping it beneath; but finally got it afloat with ourselves aboard. We had fastened the loose ends of the spear-thongs about our waists.

  I think that raft was the craziest thing that ever touched water. It was a most excellent diver, but was in profound ignorance of the first principle of the art of floating.

  After a quarter of an hour of experimentation we found that by standing exactly in a certain position, one on each side and paddling with one hand, it was possible to keep fairly level. If either of us shifted his foot a fraction of an inch the thing ducked like a stone.

  We finally got out a hundred feet or so and ceased paddling. Then, exchanging our oars for the spears, we waited.

  The surface of the lake was perfectly still, save for a barely perceptible ripple, caused no doubt by the undercurrent which was fed by the stream at the opposite side. The urns were so far away that the light was very dim; no better than half darkness. The silence was broken by the sound of the rushing stream.

  Suddenly the raft swayed gently; there was a parting of the water not a foot away toward the front, and then——well, the ensuing events happened so quickly that their order is uncertain.

  A black form arose from the water with a leap like lightning and landed squarely on the raft, which proceeded to perform its favorite dive. It would have done so with much less persuasion, for the fish was a monster——it appeared to me at that moment to be twenty feet long.

  On the instant, as the raft capsized, Harry and I lunged with our spears, tumbling forward and landing on each other and on top of the fish. I felt my spear sinking into the soft fish almost without resistance.

  The raft slipped from under, and we found ourselves floundering in the water.

  I have said the spear-thongs were fastened about our waists. Otherwise, we would have let the fish go; but we could hardly allow him to take us along. That is, we didn't want to allow it; but we soon found that we had nothing to say in the matter. Before we had time to set ourselves to stroke we were being towed as though we had been corks toward the opposite shore.

  But it was soon over, handicapped as he was by four feet of spears in his body. We felt the pull lessen and twisted ourselves about, and in another minute had caught the water with a steady dog-stroke and were holding our own. Soon we made headway, but it was killing work.

  "He weighs a thousand tons," panted Harry, and I nodded.

  Pulling and puffing side by side, we gradually neared the center of the lake, passed it, and approached the ledge. We were well-nigh exhausted when we finally touched bottom and were able to stand erect.

  Hauling the fish onto the ledge, we no longer wondered at his strength. He could not have been an ounce under four hundred pounds, and was fully seven feet long. One of the spears ran through the gills; the other was in his middle, just below the backbone. We got them out with some difficulty and rolled him up high and dry.

  We straightened to return for the spears which we had left at the edge of the water.

  "He's got a hide like an elephant," said Harry. "What can we skin him with?"

  But I did not answer.

  I was gazing straight ahead at the mouth of the passage where stood two Incas, spear in hand, returning my gaze stolidly.

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