Roy Glashan's Library
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FROM a chance meeting In the cosmopolitan capital of Bolivia between two young friends, an expedition is planned to find the lost city of the Incas, a city famous in legend for its abounding riches and dangers! Amyas Clayton had the map; it had been left to him by his father. Joe Cobb had the determination to succeed; but neither of them had enough money for such a hazardous undertaking. Whilst discussing their difficulties a Spanish half-breed steals up on them, and after confessing that he has overheard all, offers to finance the expedition in return for a share in the venture. Joe distrusts him from the start, but as there is no alternative the deal is made. Thus the trek begins and the reader's pulse will race to the thrills, adventure, treachery and dangers which confront the searchers. Do they ever reach the lost city? Could any white man hope to escape the anger of the Incas once their path is crossed? T.C. Bridges holds the answer in what is perhaps his most exciting story.
"first">THOUGH burnt nearly as brown as an Indian, the tall, good-looking youngster who walked slowly along the baking street of the city of La Paz was clearly English. His curly brown hair and dark blue eyes gave him an appearance different altogether from the black-haired Spaniards who glanced at him curiously as he passed.
For his part, young Amyas Clayton hardly noticed the Spaniards. He was evidently deep in thought, and by the look on his face not very cheerful thoughts, either.
So wrapped up was he that he never noticed a boy who was approaching from the opposite direction and who, though as different from Amyas as chalk from cheese, was just as unmistakably British.
The new-comer was short and square as Amyas was tall and slim. His eyes were gray and set rather wide apart, while his hair was so fair it was nearly white, and contrasted in the oddest way with his saddle-brown face and neck.
If Amyas failed to see the fair-haired boy, the latter at any rate had his eyes about him. He saw Amyas and pulled up short with a sharp exclamation of surprise.
The sound roused Amyas out of his trance and he, looking up, spotted the other.
'Joe!' he exclaimed. 'Joe Cobb!'
Joe strode up and seized Amyas by the hand.
'Joe it is, old son, and mighty pleased to see you.'
'I'll bet you're not half so glad as I am,' answered Amyas earnestly. 'If there's one chap I've been longing to see, it's you. I'd have written, only I hadn't a notion where you were.'
'I've been up at the silver mines at Bolivar. But the climate is beastly, and I'm fed up. I came down to see if your father had a job for me.'
Amyas drew a quick breath.
'Dad's dead,' he said simply.
Joe Cobb started back and stood staring at his friend.
'Dead?' he said at last. 'Mr Clayton dead?'
'His horse shied and went over the edge of the pass above the Rio Blanco,' Amyas answered quietly. 'It was a fortnight ago to- day.'
'My dear chap,' said Joe gently. 'I am sorry.'
'I knew you would be, Joe,' answered Amyas equally quietly. 'But Joe, we can't talk out here and I have a lot to say to you. Will you come to my rooms?'
'The house, you mean?'
Amyas shook his head.
'No,' he answered. 'I have had to give up the house. I am in rooms at the other end of the town.'
Joe Cobb stared hard at his friend. Now he noticed the pinched look of him, and drew his own conclusions.
'See here,' he said. 'I've had no dinner yet, and I'm beastly hungry. Let's go in there,' pointing to a nearby restaurant. 'We'll have a feed, if it's nothing but frijoles, and we can talk as we eat.'
Without waiting for Amyas's answer, he led the way straight into the place.
La Paz is the capital of Bolivia, and has some quite good shops and restaurants. Joe did the ordering and presently the pair were sitting down to quite a decent meal. Joe shrewdly noticed that Amyas was even hungrier than himself, and waited until the second course was brought before he began to ask questions.
'How's the business?' he asked.
Amyas shrugged his shoulders.
'Gone up,' he said. 'No, Joe, I don't believe for a moment dad knew how bad things were. You know he was always hopeful. But after he was gone, I found the books full of bad debts. To make a long story short, when I had settled up I found that I had just a hundred dollars left. My capital at present is eighty-seven dollars. That was one reason why I wanted to find you.'
'What—to get work up at Bolivar?'
'No.' Amyas lowered his voice. 'I wanted you to join me.'
Joe's surprise was plain, but he did not speak.
'Probably you think I'm crazy,' went on Amyas. 'Very likely you'll think I'm crazier still before I've finished.'
Joe's gray eyes widened a little.
'I'll tell you that when you have finished,' he answered. 'Go ahead. I want to know.'
'All right. Listen now. You remember that time when dad went with Captain Lee on an expedition down into the Hot Lands?'
'Yes, rather. Must have been a wonderful trip. But he was always a bit mysterious about it.'
'He had reason to be. He got on the track of something pretty big when he was down there. I never knew what it was until I went through his papers after his death. Then I found this.'
From his pocket Amyas took an envelope, and from this a sheet of common browny-white wrapping paper, which he unfolded and passed across to his friend.
Joe stared at it, frowning slightly.
'Seems to be a map,' he said presently.
'It is a map—or rather a chart drawn partly from his own observation, and partly from information given him by an old Indian cacique. Dad, you know, was a bit of a doctor. The old chap's daughter had been bitten by a coral snake. Dad cured her. In return the old Indian, whose name was Capac, told him the route to this place.'
As he spoke, Amyas put his finger on a spot upon the map.
'And what is the place?' demanded Joe.
Amyas glanced round. They were sitting at a table close to the side of the room and cut off from other tables by a large palm. There did not seem to be any one else within earshot.
'That,' he said in a low voice, 'is the lost city of the Incas.'
Joe drew a long breath.
'How do you know?'
'From this letter which dad wrote at the time and left in his desk. It is directed to me and on it he wrote, "Not to be opened until after my death." Read it.'
He passed the letter across, and Joe read it. He nodded.
'Yes,' he said. 'Your father evidently believed in it. But one thing puzzles me. Why didn't he go after it himself? Every one knows that it must be about the richest place in all the world.'
'Because of the dangers of the journey,' answered Amyas promptly. 'It's a fearful climate, a terrible country, and the natives are hostile to all strangers. As you know yourself, the Bolivian Government has sent one expedition after another down there to search for the Lost City, and not a man has ever come back alive.'
'And yet you think we could do it?
'I don't know. All I do know is that I'm game to chance it. We know the way. That's more than any of the others did.'
Joe nodded. 'That's true. At least, if the map can be trusted.'
He paused and thought awhile. 'All right, Amyas,' he said presently. 'It's a bid for fortune. A gamble of our lives against comfort for so long as we live, and everything that makes life worth while. I'm like you. There's no one to worry if I go under. My life is all I've got to risk, and I'm game to risk it. I'm your man.'
Amyas put out his hand. Joe took and gripped it. And so the bargain was sealed.
Joe studied the map again for a minute or two, then folded it up and restored it to Amyas.
'Now what about ways and means?' he asked briskly. 'We shall need a good canoe, at least four Indians, and enough stores for three or four months.'
'I've got my eighty-seven dollars,' said Amyas quickly.
'And I've got no more than fifty,' said Joe. 'And for a job like this a hundred and thirty-seven dollars is about as much use as a hundred and thirty-seven pence.'
Amyas's face went blank. 'I—I thought—' he began.
Joe, whose head was as sound as his square, solid body, cut him short.
'You'll have to get some one with money to back us,' he said. 'Do that, and I'll chip in and we'll carry the job through somehow.'
There was a rustle as some one brushed against the long leathery leaves of the palm behind them, and suddenly a man was standing beside their table. A tall, sparely built man of perhaps thirty-five, and in his way decidedly handsome. By his dark face and blue-black hair he was clearly of Spanish descent, yet the dark marks at the base of his nails and a slight discoloration of the whites of his eyes told of a touch of Indian blood.
For the rest he was dressed in correct white drill, and had a prosperous appearance. He bowed to the boys.
'Pardon me, seņores,' he said, speaking in excellent Spanish. 'I have been sitting at the next table, and quite unwittingly heard something of what you said. After that I am free to confess that I listened. If you will accept me as partner, I am willing to put up whatever money is necessary for this expedition. My name is Luiz Visega, and I can offer you any references you please as to my financial standing.'
TO say that the two boys were startled is putting it mildly. Neither of them had had the least idea that there was any one within listening distance and at first both were angry.
'How much have you heard?' demanded Amyas curtly.
'I heard you speak of the Lost City,' replied Visega quietly.
He shrugged his shoulders. 'You can hardly blame me for listening,' he went on with a smile. 'Every one in La Paz talks of the Lost City of the Incas.'
'Do you believe in it?' asked Joe Cobb.
'I should be foolish if I said I did not. Surely we all know that, after the Conquest, a number of the Incas disappeared into the unknown central country, and took with them great treasures of gold and silver and precious stones. I do not think that there is any one in Bolivia who does not believe that this hoard remains hidden in the depths of the wilderness. The proof of my own belief is that I am ready to risk my money in the search.'
Amyas and Joe exchanged glances. Then Joe spoke to Visega.
'My friend and I would like to discuss the matter,' he said. 'If you will kindly wait for us a few minutes we will let you hear our decision.'
Visega bowed again.
'By all means, senores. Permit me to withdraw.'
He moved away to the other side of the room, sat down and ordered coffee. The boys stayed where they were.
'What do you think, Joe?' asked Amyas anxiously. 'Is it good enough?'
'To go partners with that Dago? No, I don't think so. We want a white man.'
'And where are we to find one?' asked Amyas sharply.
'Blessed if I know,' said Joe.
'No more do I. And if we did find one willing to take the chances, probably he wouldn't have any money.'
'I bar travelling with Dagoes,' said Joe. 'And that fellow is not even a pukka Spaniard. I believe he's a Brazilian mestizo.'
'I'll allow that, Joe. But he's willing to put up the dollars. That's the main thing. There's another point to be considered. We are two to one. If he did play the fool, surely we could handle him between us.'
Joe looked thoughtful. 'There's something in what you say, Amyas. And I suppose it's something to get ahead without delay. If you're satisfied to take on the fellow, I shan't say "no."'
'Right!' replied Amyas, with evident relief. 'Then we'll get him over.'
'One minute,' said Joe, catching Amyas by the arm. 'He's not to see the map. Remember that.'
'I shouldn't think of showing it to him,' replied Amyas. 'By the bye, I suppose he will come in on regular shares?'
'That's only fair since he finds the money. Fetch him along then, and tell him our terms.'
Amyas brought Visega across, and for the next half-hour the three sat together, discussing the terms. Rather to the surprise of the two boys, Visega made no trouble about the conditions which they laid down. He professed to be perfectly willing to leave the guidance of the expedition to the two boys, and said he would be content with a third share of the profits.
Joe who was always businesslike called to the waiter for pen and ink and paper, and wrote out an agreement which all three signed.
At last Visega rose.
'The sooner we start, the better,' he said. 'I will set to work this very day. I know where to lay my hands on the men we shall need. I will engage them at once. And I will send a trusted man to Tucumanes to find a boat suitable for our purpose, and to lay in the stores which we shall require.'
Bowing once more, he left them.
Joe watched him go.
'Too civil by half,' he growled. 'I can't stick these coffee and milk gentlemen.'
'The trouble with you, Joe, is that you're a jolly sight too full of British prejudices,' said Amyas, with a laugh. 'After all, you can't deny that Visega is quite businesslike. The average Dago would have said 'Maņana,' and would have taken as much starting as a rabbit under a rock.'
'Well, we've made our beds and we must lie in them,' replied Joe. 'I've had my say, and I'm not going to grouse any more. Let's go back to your diggings, and see what we've got in the way of guns and grub.'
All the rest of that day and the next the two were busy. They put their cash together and bought clothes and good boots for the journey. They also purchased mosquito nets, and some necessary drugs, such as quinine. Each had a rifle, and they laid in a good store of cartridges.
On the second day after their meeting with Visega, they had a message from him, saying that all was prepared, and that he would be ready to start the next morning.
'Some hustler!' remarked Joe, in surprise. 'I never thought the fellow would be ready as soon as this.'
They sent word they would be ready, and spent the rest of the day packing up. At dawn next morning they met Visega. He had six mules ready, three to carry themselves and three more for the packs. They slipped out of the town almost before it was light, and if any one watched them go they no doubt thought that they were on a prospecting expedition. The Andes in that part of Bolivia are full of metals of different kinds.
La Paz lies very high, and the nights are always cold. But when the sun got well up the temperature rose, and that night they camped five thousand feet below their starting point in a much milder climate.
Their first destination was a place called Tucumanes, which lies on the Mojos River. This is a tributary of the Rio Grande, which in its turn runs into the great Madeira, one of the three main branches of the gigantic Amazon.
Most of the Bolivian rivers run towards the north-west, but the Mojos was an exception in that it ran to the south of west.
It took them four days' steady riding to make the landing on the Mojos, and here they found that, true to his promise, Visega had a boat ready, with six Indian boatmen. The boat was flat- bottomed and double-ended, a very necessary precaution in a river like this, swift, full of shoals and with ugly rapids here and there.
By this time they were out of the mountains, and in a climate that was almost tropical. It was exquisite country. The river ran through open, park-like forest, full of birds and monkeys.
It was dusk when they reached Tucumanes. Visega took up his quarter at the rancho from which the place gained its name, but the boys preferred their tent in the open.
They cooked their own supper and ate it by the firelight.
Supper over, Amyas stretched himself out comfortably on his blanket. 'Well, Joe,' he said, 'Visega has been as good as his word. The boat's here all right and so are the men.'
Joe looked up.
'And Visega—do you like him any better, Amyas?' he asked quietly.
Amyas considered a little.
'Can't say I do,' he confessed at last. 'But, after all, what does it matter, so long as he sticks to his agreement?'
'It matters a whole lot,' replied Joe, speaking very decidedly. 'Remember, this is the pushing off place. After this, we are clean off the map. For weeks and months to come we've got to pig it together—all in the same boat or all in the same tent. That's where the shoe is going to pinch, and that's how the rows are going to start. I tell you, old son, you and I will have to make up our minds to swallow a whole lot. We shall have to bite on the bullet, and keep still tongues. Visega's ways are not our ways.'
'Nor ours his, I dare say,' replied Amyas, a little sharply. 'Don't croak, Joe. I know we're in for a tough time. Let's hope it won't be made any worse by quarrels.'
'Not between you and me, anyhow,' said Joe, and quietly as he spoke Amyas knew he meant it.
'And now I'm going to turn in,' he ended. 'We must be up at four.'
SIX paddles rising and falling steadily drove the long narrow bateau down the sluggish current of the Mojos. It was a week since the party had left Tucumanes, and they were now in the heart of a tropic forest where white men were not seen once a year.
The blazing afternoon sun burnt fiercely on the bare shoulders of the Indians who wielded the paddles, and their brown skins glistened with sweat.
They had been travelling hard, with only one short break, since earliest dawn, and the men were deadly tired. One, a small man, who was nearest to the stern, was flagging badly. His worn muscles were stiffening. It was only by a great effort that he made his strokes.
Presently he missed one completely, and the boat swerved badly.
'Pull harder, dog!'
As the curt order left Visega's lips, he lifted the raw hide whip which he carried, and brought the cutting lash with cruel force across the shoulders of the offender. A thin red line streaked the man's bare skin, and drops of blood oozed from the cut flesh. With a groan he fell forward, the paddle slipping from his nerveless grasp.
Visega caught the paddle as it floated past, and lifted it back into the canoe. Then up went his whip for a second time.
Next Visega, in the stern, sat Amyas Clayton. Joe Cobb was in the bow.
Any one who had been watching Amyas when Visega first struck the Indian, would have noticed that he bit his lip, and that it was with evident difficulty that he had refrained from interfering. Now, suddenly his self-restraint slipped away, out shot his hand, and he seized Visega's arm.
'Steady!' he said sharply. 'Pablo is doing his best.'
Visega paused, and stared at Amyas. His eyes, black as jet, had a curious gleam.
'Are these Indians yours or mine, Seņor Clayton?' he asked. He did not raise his voice in the slightest, yet there was something so sinister in his tone and appearance that it made Amyas think of a deadly snake ready to strike.
But the boy held his ground.
'The men are in your employ,' he answered curtly. 'Still, I do not see that that fact gives you the right to flog them as you have been doing. You can take it from me that Cobb and I are not going to sit still and watch it, anyhow. What do you say, Joe?'
'I say that we've had quite enough of it,' said Joe stolidly.
Visega looked from one boy to the other. His eyes were deadly. But he lowered his whip.
'Very good,' he said. 'Since you Englishmen are so tender- hearted I will respect your prejudices.'
Very quietly he handed back the paddle to Pablo, who took it and set once more to his monotonous work. The ominous silence was broken only by the rise and fall of the dripping blades.
Every stroke took the little party farther and farther from civilization, deeper and deeper into the heart of the unknown. Already they were beyond surveyed country, and getting close to that vast tract of unexplored territory which lies between the tremendous swamp of Matto Grosso and the wild lands of Chiquitos.
The sun was dropping behind the distant crests of the towering Andes, the dimness of evening was falling over the thick forest that lined the banks of the stream, and the night chorus of frogs and crickets was breaking out on either side.
There was a little welcome coolness in the sultry air as the boat was beached, and the tired Indians carried its contents to the top of the steeply sloping bank.
The sound of axes fell through the still air, and presently the gloom was illuminated by the red glow of a camp fire. The two boys had their own tent. They pitched it a little apart from the rest, and both set to work to cut palmetto leaves to make their beds. They knew enough of camp life to be aware that ten minutes' labour of this kind makes all the difference between a good night's sleep and a bad one.
'Visega's in a filthy temper, Joe,' said Amyas, in a low voice.
Joe lifted a big bundle of rustling fronds.
'Small wonder, after the way you dressed him down,' he answered dryly.
Amyas started. 'What, didn't you agree with me?'
'Perfectly. You were absolutely right, Amyas.'
'What do you mean then?'
'Nothing against you, old son. Still I did make a remark about our being up against trouble, as much as a week ago.'
'I know you did,' said Amyas quickly. 'And you were right. But, Joe, I'd have stood anything myself. Only I couldn't stick the way he treats those Indians.'
'Of course you couldn't. And if you hadn't spoken up, I expect I should. Well, it's no use worrying. The fat's in the fire now all right, for a fellow like Visega can't bear being called down in front of his men. The fellow hates you like poison, Amyas. He's as dangerous as a pit viper. You'll have to keep your eyes skinned.'
'I'm doing that,' said Amyas, rather wearily. 'But I begin to wish I'd taken your advice in the beginning and turned Visega down at once.'
'It's too late to think of that,' Joe answered. 'We must just carry on. If the fellow plays up, I shan't make any bones about knocking him over the head and tying him up. Like you, I'm fed up with him.'
'Hush!' whispered Amyas. 'Here he is.'
The tall slim figure of the Brazilian was beside them, although neither had seen him come. Amyas had a flash of wonder as to how much he might have heard.
'Supper is ready, seņores,' he said. 'And I dare say you are ready for it.'
His voice was soft and quiet, he was actually smiling. Amyas glanced up at him sharply. He could not understand his sudden change of tone.
Visega understood the look. 'You are thinking that I owe you an apology, Seņor Clayton,' he said courteously. 'You are right. I do. I had no business to speak to you as I did. My only excuse is that I was worn out with the heat and the flies, and that my temper got the better of me.'
'It was not the way you spoke,' returned Amyas coldly. 'It was the way in which you treat those Indians.
Visega shrugged his shoulders.
'You do not understand,' he said plaintively. 'It is so difficult to make you English understand. You are accustomed to having white men under you, but these peons cannot be treated like white men. Words are useless. You must use blows. Blows are the only argument they understand. You must remember, please, it is what they and their fathers have been accustomed to for generations.'
'We haven't anyhow,' broke in Joe Cobb bluntly. 'And if we are going to travel together, you'll have to stop it, Seņor.'
Visega smiled indulgently. 'Very well,' he said. 'So long as we travel together, I will respect your wishes. But I warn you beforehand that we shall not get half the work out of the men.'
'We'll chance that,' said Joe curtly, and pushing through the bushes made his way to where the camp fire glowed red on the bank above the river. The other two followed, and took their seats close by the fire.
Supper cooked by one of the Indians was plain, but good. Broiled fish fresh from the river composed the main dish, and were eaten with flat cakes of maize meal baked on a flat stone. There was coffee without milk, but with plenty of sugar.
While they ate Visega talked away in quite friendly fashion, and Amyas chatted, too. Joe Cobb, however, was very silent. But Joe was never a very talkative person.
Supper over, the two boys went to their tent. They were tired with the long day's journey, and it was necessary to start again at earliest dawn. The great thing was to get on as fast as possible. No one could tell what difficulties they might run against later on, and the questions of provisions had always to be remembered. There was country between them and their destination where there was neither fish nor game.
'You were a bit rough on Visega, Joe,' remarked Amyas, as he made his preparations for the night.
'And you were a sight too civil,' retorted Joe.
'Why do you say that? He'd apologised.'
'He did say he was sorry,' insisted Amyas.
'Fat lot of sorrow he feels. He's only humbugging us. But let it go at that. I'm as sleepy as a boiled owl.'
'So am I,' yawned Amyas. 'Can't keep my eyes open. Good-night, Joe.'
There was no reply. Joe was already asleep. Amyas stretched himself on his comfortable bed of leaves, and in less time than it takes to tell it, had followed his chum's example.
* * * * *
What roused Amyas was the sun shining full in his face through the open flap of the tent. His head was aching oddly, and he felt dull and stupid. He lay still for some minutes trying to think, yet not feeling equal to it. Then all of a sudden he realised that it must be very late, and he sat up with a jerk.
'Lazy beggars!' he said, apostrophising the Indians. 'We ought to have been off ever so long ago. Joe, I say! Joe!'
Joe, lying close beside him, stirred and opened his eyes.
'Hallo!' he said thickly. 'What's the matter? He raised his hand to his forehead, and rose slowly to a sitting position. 'I say, I've got a thick head,' he continued. 'Must have had a touch of the sun yesterday.'
'So have I,' said Amyas. 'My head feels like a lump of lead, and I've got a poisonous taste in my mouth. And look at the sun. It's an hour up at least.'
As he spoke he scrambled to his feet, but for a moment stood swaying dizzily.
'What's the matter with me?' he asked hoarsely. 'I feel rotten.'
Joe's answer was to jump up much more quickly than Amyas and plunge headlong through the slight screen of bush which separated their tent from that of Visega.
Amyas following him more slowly, heard Joe give vent to a hoarse cry.
'What's wrong?' he cried in alarm. His first impression was that Joe must have been struck by one of those horrible water vipers which infest parts of these low-lying jungles.
Joe turned, and Amyas saw that his friend's face was oddly white under its tan, while his eyes held an expression which Amyas had never before seen in them.
'They're gone,' said Joe hoarsely.
'Gone!' repeated Amyas blankly. 'Who's gone?'
'Visega—the Indians—every one!'
Amyas brushed past Joe, and stepped out into the open by the river bank. He stared about him. There was the site of Visega's tent; there was the ashes of last night's fire. But that was all. The boat, too, was gone. The only living things besides Joe and himself were a couple of green parrots and a little gray monkey swinging from a branch high overhead.
He turned and faced Joe.
'What's it mean?' he asked.
'Doped,' Joe answered in one word.
Amyas's blue eyes blazed.
'The blackguard!' he cried. 'The utter sweep! Yes, that's it, Joe. There's not a doubt about it. Visega put a sleeping draught into our coffee last night, and slipped off before we woke. By this time he is miles away.'
He paused. 'But what did he do it for?' he went on in a puzzled tone. 'What could he hope to gain by it. He can't find the treasure alone. He hasn't got the map.'
'You'd best make sure,' cut in Joe curtly.
Amyas thrust his hand hastily into the breast pocket of his drill jacket. He drew it out empty. He gasped with dismay.
'Yes,' he groaned. 'He has got the map.'
There was complete silence for a moment. Even the level-headed Joe had nothing to say. But presently he pulled himself together.
'No use grousing,' he said. 'The damage is done. Let's see what the swab has left us.'
He began to search, and Amyas helped him.
It was useless. The Brazilian had left nothing behind. There was not so much as a slice of bacon, a pound of flour, or a spoonful of coffee. Every atom of the stores had been carried away.
'He seems to have done the job pretty thoroughly,' remarked Joe in his driest tone. 'He's even taken our rifles.
'Steady, Amyas!' he went on. 'No good getting in a bait. Lets see what we have got. There's our tent anyhow.'
Amyas pulled himself together. 'Yes,' he said quite quietly 'there's the tent, our blankets and mosquito net. We've got our watches, a compass, and our hunting knives. And here are two tins of matches. But the guns are gone.'
Joe put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a small automatic pistol. 'I've still got something to shoot with,' he remarked.
Amyas's face brightened a little.
'What luck! Where did you get that?'
'I've carried it all the time, old chap. You see I never did trust Visega.'
The gray monkey still sat on his bough. Joe raised the pistol fired quickly, and the animal shot through the head came tumbling down, stone dead.
'There's our breakfast anyhow,' said Joe.
AMYAS finished his portion of roast monkey, and flung the bone away.
'What do you think, Joe?' he asked. 'Is there any chance of catching up with Visega if we chase him?'
Joe shook his head.
'Not a dog's chance,' he answered. 'Even if we had a light canoe, I doubt if we could do it, for you may be quite sure he is shoving on for all he is worth. As for travelling along the bank of the river, I doubt if we can average a mile an hour. You can just put any idea of chasing the blighter out of your head altogether.'
'Then what's to be done? Are we to chuck it all and go back again?'
'That's just what I'm trying to make up my mind about. I fancy we are all of two hundred miles from our starting point. Even if we averaged ten miles a day, it would take us three weeks. And that's conditional on our not being mopped up by Indians or anacondas on our way.'
The two sat silent a while. Amyas was frowning slightly. He seemed to be thinking hard. At last he looked up.
'Joe, I had a good look at the map yesterday, and I remember there was a hill marked close to the river on this side and not very far away. Beyond, the ground was marked "open." What do you say to trying to find that hill? From the top we might be able to see where we are.'
'But we know that already,' replied Joe.
'In a way we do. What I was thinking was that there might be Indians in the open country, and if we could get a canoe out of them and perhaps some dried meat we might carry on even now. I do hate the idea of leaving that coffee coloured sweep to carry on and bag our treasure.'
Joe nodded. 'Same here, old son. It sounds a bit thin to me, but I'm game. Carry on.'
Without another word he got up and began to make up their goods into two equal packs.
Another ten minutes, and they had left the site of the deserted camp and plunged into the heart of the tropical forest.
It was thick as a hedge, and even where the undergrowth was not so close their way was barred by long tough lianas or creepers. These were tough as rope and varied from the thickness of string up to that of a ship's cable. The ground beneath was damp and rotten, and the pair were forced to keep their eyes open for snakes. The heat was terrific, and the worst of it was that down in these leaf-walled depths there was not a breath of air moving. To add to their troubles, clouds of insects hung around their heads and bit and stung venomously.
They didn't talk much. They needed all their breath for getting on. But both did a good deal of thinking, and both could not help but realise the desperate nature of their position and how extremely unlikely it was that either of them would survive many days of this sort of thing.
For three long hours they struggled onwards, then when the sun had already passed its meridian stopped by a little spring, drank some water, and ate the remains of their cold monkey. Amyas longed for a little salt, but Joe's chief desire—though he kept it to himself—was for a bit of bread.
'Don't see anything of your hill yet,' said Joe.
'I don't suppose we shall see it at all until we get to it,' replied Amyas. 'The trees cut off everything.'
He was right. They saw no hill, but about three o'clock found that the ground was beginning to slope upwards. Even though they had little to hope from climbing the hill, the rise put fresh heart into them and they quickened their pace.
Up and up they went, and as the slope grew steeper the jungle became less dense, and the walking so much the easier.
Still they climbed. They came to an open glade, and a couple of small deer dashed away.
Joe watched them regretfully. 'We could have done with one of those for supper,' he remarked.
Amyas did not answer. It seemed to him that supper was highly unlikely to materialise at all. There would be no monkeys at this height.
The forest opened out more and more, and not only that, but the air became decidedly cooler, and the insects were less of a plague. Then all of a sudden the woods broke away altogether and they found themselves on grass almost like that of an English park, and quite close to the ridge of the hill.
Tired as they were, both started at a trot.
Amyas, with his long legs, gained a little. Joe, a little behind, saw his friend suddenly pull up sharp, and stand stock- still. He ran forward, and reaching Amyas found him standing on the brink of a slope so steep it was almost a precipice.
Below—more than five hundred feet below—was a great bowl-shaped valley miles across. It was beautiful open ground with clumps of splendid trees scattered over it. Here and there pools of water shone red in the glow of the setting sun.
'Phew, this is the jumping-off place,' said Joe.
'It looks good to me,' replied Amyas cheerfully. 'Lots of game, and there are probably fish in those pools. I've got a line and some hooks in my pocket. Let's scramble down and see if we can get some for supper.'
But Joe stood still. 'Wait a bit,' he said. 'We climbed up here to get a view. Let's see all we can before we go on down.'
'I'd almost forgotten,' said Amyas quickly. 'Yes, we must get our bearings. There's the river.'
As he spoke he pointed to the right—that is to the south, where the river, like a golden snake, coiled in wild curves through the forest. From this height they could see miles and miles of it until it vanished far away to the east in the blue haze.
But the country was not all forest. In the distance it opened out into a vast llano or plain, bare except for small clumps of low-growing trees.
'The map was right,' said Amyas. 'There's the open country. I say, Joe, that won't be so bad to travel through.'
Joe did not answer. He had taken the field-glasses from their case and was focusing them on the distance. For quite a minute he stared through them, then handed them to Amyas.
'See anything?' he said. 'There by the last curve but one in the river.'
Again there was silence for some moments. Then Amyas gave a sharp exclamation.
'It's the boat!' he exclaimed. 'It's Visega.'
'Either that or an Indian canoe,' Joe answered quietly. 'The chances are that it's Visega.'
Amyas raised the glasses again. 'I can't be sure,' he said excitedly. 'They're too far off. I can't be certain.'
'Does it matter?' asked Joe quietly. 'Unless we had wings we could not catch them. Go slow, Amyas. It's not a mite of use to get cross.'
Amyas did not reply. But from the look on his face it was plain to Joe that he was very much upset. And Joe himself was sorry that he had called his chum's attention to the boat at all.
'Let's go down into your valley, old chap,' said Joe. 'As you said just now, it looks good to me.'
'All right,' replied Amyas flatly, and without another word followed Joe down the slope.
The hill-side was so steep that in places they had to scramble and swing from ledge to ledge. So far as Joe could see, the whole valley was surrounded by the same sort of cliffs. It seemed to him that the valley was probably the crater of some enormously ancient volcano.
But he did not worry his head much about this. What was much more interesting was that the place was full of game. Also, he thought he could see some durian trees in the distance. Durian or jack-fruit is excellent, and if there was fruit on the trees they would not starve.
It took them little more than half an hour to reach the floor of the valley, and though the sun was dropping behind the rim of the cliffs there was still nearly an hour of daylight before them.
Amyas had his eye on the nearest pool, but Joe was looking about him carefully.
'What's up?' asked Amyas.
'It struck me this was good country for Indians,' said Joe.
'And you're looking for signs?'
'I am, but I'm glad to say I don't see any.'
'I didn't know we were in the bad Indian country yet,' said Amyas.
'I wouldn't trust any of 'em,' replied Joe darkly. 'But I think we're all right here. Now let's see about supper.'
'There ought to be fish in that pond,' said Amyas eagerly. He was getting over the shock of seeing the boat. Though he had not Joe Cobb's stolid self-possession, there was pluck and to spare in Amyas's make up.
They went across to the pond. It was about half an acre in extent, shallow and so clear you could see the bottom for twenty yards out from the bank.
'There are fish,' exclaimed Amyas. 'Sun-perch. Whackers!'
True enough, the pond swarmed with fish. They were big, flat chaps, the size of a dinner plate, with large silvery scales. A sort of bream, most probably.'
Joe shook his head. 'It's too clear. They'll never take a bait.'
'Let's try, anyhow,' said Amyas, getting out his line.
Joe kicked over a rotten log and found some big white grubs. Amyas baited and threw out. But the result proved Joe right. The fish wouldn't look at the bait.
Joe took out his pistol. 'I hate to waste cartridges,' he said, 'but we've got to have some supper.'
Waiting till a fish came cruising close to the surface, he fired. The creature, not hit but stunned, by the impact of the bullet, floated to the top, and Amyas wading in secured him.
At the next shot Joe got two, and with a third cartridge a fourth very large one. They weighed nearly two pounds apiece.
'We shan't starve to-night,' said Joe in his dry way. 'Start a fire, Amyas, while I go and see whether there's any ripe fruit over on those durians.'
Amyas picked a good spot under a tree, lit a fire and cleaned and scaled the fish. He was grilling them over the hot coals when Joe returned, loaded.
'Jack-fruit—and bananas,' he observed.
'Topping!' cried Amyas. 'We shall do well to-night.'
They were half starved after their long day's tramp, and both, tucked in. The bananas in particular were a great treat, and made up for the lack of bread. They cooked some to go with the fish, and ate the riper ones raw. There was no need to stint themselves, for as Joe said there was heaps more where this came from.
At last they were satisfied, and as they were also tired out they unrolled the blankets without a word. Five minutes later they were both sound asleep.
Do ten hours' tramping through a tropical forest, then eat the first decent meal you have had for twenty-four hours. You will sleep as if you had taken a dose of chloral. It is doubtful whether Joe and Amyas did not sleep that night every bit as soundly as on the previous night after the drug which Visega had placed in their coffee.
But this time they were not to be allowed to have their sleep out. It was still pitch dark when Amyas woke to find himself, as he at first thought, in the strangling grip of a nightmare.
But the nightmare did not pass, and presently he realised that a man, a real man and a pretty hefty one, was kneeling on his chest.
IT was much too dark to see what the fellow looked like. All Amyas could tell was that he had very hard knees and a pair of very muscular hands.
At first Amyas struggled wildly. The only result was that the hands shifted to his throat and nearly choked him. So learning that resistance was useless, he lay quiet, and in a trice was turned over and found his hands tied fast, with some sort of fibrous rope, behind his back.
He became conscious that a similar struggle was going on close by, and realised that Joe was also a prisoner.
Presently he and Joe together were hauled out of their little tent into the open. There was no moon, but the stars were like lamps in the tropic sky above. They gave light sufficient to see that their captors, who numbered perhaps a score, were Indians.
Middle-sized men they were, but well built and muscular. They wore feather head-dresses common to almost all South American Indians, and very little else.
One who was evidently their leader gave a sharp command. Two men took hold of Amyas, one on each side, and two of Joe. Others rolled up the tent and blankets. Then the party set out at a sharp walk, making straight down the valley.
The surprise had been so complete that it took Amyas some moments to collect his thoughts. They had only gone a few steps before he heard Joe's voice.
'You all right, Amyas?'
'I'm all right. Who are these fellows?'
'Don't know any more than you?'
'Thought you said there were no Indians about, Joe.'
'I said there was no Indian sign,' returned Joe. 'But it was my fault. I brought 'em.'
'What on earth do you mean?'
'Shooting, you juggins,' replied Joe curtly; 'shooting those fish.'
'Phew, I hadn't thought of that. But it was my fault as much as yours. I ought to have remembered and warned you.'
'It's not a bit of use blaming ourselves or one another,' said Joe in his practical way. 'The mischief is done. What we have to think of is how to get out of it.'
'Got any ideas?' asked Amyas.
'Not one. We can't do anything now. That's one thing sure. We'll have to wait till they untie us.'
'I don't suppose they'll do that until they get us under cover,' said Amyas. 'Wish I knew where they were taking us.'
'We shall know soon enough,' answered Joe. 'I only hope it isn't far. They might have let us have our sleep out.'
At this point the leader of the Indians interfered. He seemed to think his prisoners had talked enough. Though the boys did not understand his language, there was no doubt in their minds as to the meaning of the sharp order he barked out. They went on in silence.
For more than two hours their captors hurried them along at the same sharp pace. If Amyas had not been so bitterly weary and sick at heart he would have enjoyed the beauties of that night march, with the great stars burning in the dark vault above and their reflections gleaming in the many small ponds and lakes which dotted the bottom of the deep valley.
At last Amyas realised that the ground was rising a little, and next he became conscious that straight in front a black line of cliffs cut the night sky. Being unable to consult his compass, he was not sure in what direction they had come, but it was clear they were approaching either the end or one side of the valley.
Still they went on until they were close under the cliffs. These were as high and even steeper than those down which he and Joe had made their way. So far as he could see in the starlight, Amyas thought they must be nearly perpendicular.
The leader of the Indians pulled up, and Amyas saw that a palisade barred the way. It was about eight feet high and made of bamboos woven tightly together.
The man gave a peculiar cry, and at once a gate was opened. A regular guard was at the gate. These men stood silent as bronze statues while the others entered. They did not seem to feel the slightest curiosity as to the prisoners.
Amyas and Joe found themselves in a stockaded village built on a slight rising ground close to, but not quite under the cliffs. The houses were little more than huts. They were dome-shaped, about eight or nine feet high and made, like the palisade, of woven canes plastered with earth.
No one was about; so far as any sign of life went the place might have been absolutely deserted, while a deathly silence brooded over the village.
The boys were marched to an open space in the centre of the village and taken to the door of a hut. The leader signed to them to enter and they did so. He came after them and untied their hands, then left the hut.
At once two men set to work to fasten up the entrance, which they did by lacing stout canes across it. Then they silently faded away and the boys were left to themselves.
'Uncanny sort of show!' remarked Joe.
'They don't waste words. That's one thing sure,' said Amyas.
Joe was groping around in the gloom. 'They've given us a bed anyhow,' he said. 'There's a bunch of grass here against the wall. Let's finish out our sleep. We shall feel more fit to tackle what's before us in the morning.'
Amyas agreed. He was too tired to think. So the pair lay down side by side, and were asleep almost at once.
The sun was well up before they were roused by some one at the entrance. It was an unpleasant looking old woman carrying two wooden bowls of mealie porridge which she thrust through an opening in the barricaded door.
'Thanks, old dear,' said Joe, as he took his portion. 'At any rate they don't mean to starve us,' he went on as he set to work hungrily on the stuff.
'I wish we knew who they are or what they want with us,' said Amyas uneasily.
Joe shrugged his shoulders. 'We shall find out soon enough. The only thing is to sit tight, and take our chance when it comes.'
'What chance have we got against a crowd like this?' demanded Amyas.
'Our chances do look a bit slim,' allowed Joe. 'Still there's one good one left.' Slipping his hand into an inner pocket, he pulled out the little automatic. 'They didn't find this,' he said, with a chuckle. 'They may know about guns, but I rather fancy a toy like this is new to them. If it comes to the worst I can do in a few of the swine.'
Joe's stolid cheerfulness put fresh heart into Amyas, and the two finished their food and felt much the better for it.
So far, no one but the old woman had come near them, and the village remained as quiet as it had been on the previous night. In spite of the brilliant sunshine there was something ominous about the silence that brooded over the place. Not even a child cried or a dog barked.
The boys waited as patiently as they could, but it was nearly eleven before anything happened. Then at last a guard of about a dozen men came towards the hut. They took down the barricade, and their leader motioned to the boys to come out.
It was a relief to get outside the stuffy hut, and both were glad to be in the fresh air. The guard surrounded them and they were led off.
As they passed through the village the street was empty, but they soon learnt the reason. They were led out into an open space between the village and the cliffs, and here at least three hundred people were standing in a broad crescent, facing the cliff.
At the foot of the cliff was a raised platform built of great blocks of reddish stone. The masonry was very ancient, and must have been built by some long forgotten race. Certainly these Indians could never have tackled any such work.
At the back of the platform was a flight of steps carved in the living rock and leading in zigzags right up the cliff. Though the great steps were broken away in many places, and worn by centuries of sun and rain, they formed a most impressive and wonderful stairway. The odd thing was that they did not reach quite to the top of the cliff, but ended some way below it in what appeared to be a cave mouth. The cave or passage was guarded on each side by an ugly-looking stone idol with a large round face, and a sort of frill around his head.
In the middle of the platform, and straight in front of the foot of the stairway was a similar image, only very much larger, and in front of him was a stone table about seven feet long and thirty inches high.
Amyas took all this in at a mere glance. What riveted the attention of Joe and himself was the man who sat in a stone chair at the head or east end of the stone table.
He was an Indian. You could tell that from the copper colour of his skin. For the rest, he did not in any way resemble the remainder of the tribe. In the first place he was a head taller than any of them, and while their faces were hairless he had a magnificent beard. He had a fine face with a perfectly straight nose, but his eyes gave Amyas shivers. They were hard and pitiless as cold steel.
One more point in which he differed from the rest was that he was wearing a long, bright, yellow robe, and had on his head a kind of gold crown with spike-like rays sticking out all round.
'That's the cacique,' said Joe to Amyas. 'Fine-looking bird; isn't he?'
'Can't say I like the look of him,' returned Amyas. 'But I wouldn't mind having that head-dress of his.'
'No more would I. It's solid gold by the look of it.'
'And those are the rays of the sun sticking out all round if I'm not mistaken,' said Amyas.
Joe started the least little bit and Amyas, watching him, saw a queer look cross his face.
'What's the matter?' he demanded.
'Nothing. That is, I didn't notice it before, but, of course, you are right. He's a priest of the sun.'
'Does that make any difference?'
'A lot—to us,' replied Joe grimly. 'This is the autumn solstice, and the big festival of the sun worshippers.'
Amyas's quick brain caught Joe's meaning.
'I see,' he said quietly. 'We are to be the sacrifice.'
'It looks too much like it to be healthy,' replied Joe, with equal calm.
THE Incas of old worshipped the sun, and the cult has descended to many of the wild tribes who are descended not from the Incas themselves, but from the Indians whom they conquered.
And from the moment that Amyas realised that the golden crown worn by the chief was meant to represent the suns rays, neither he nor Joe had the faintest doubt but that they had fallen into the hands of one of these tribes.
As Joe said, the prospect was not a healthy one. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, the Indians offer sacrifice to the Sun God. Usually it is an animal, a llama or perhaps a goat. They rarely sacrifice one of their own people because, from various reasons, the tribes are falling off in numbers, consequently human beings are too valuable to spare. If a tribe gets below its proper numbers, the nearest swoops down on it, kills the men, and steal the women and children.
But when prisoners are taken, then comes the opportunity for a real big show. The boys had no longer the faintest doubt but that they were to figure as the principal characters on this occasion.
The people stood perfectly silent; as for the bearded chief, the idol itself was not more still and grim. He sat in his stone chair as if he was part of it.
Amyas moved restlessly.
'Steady, old son!' said Joe in his quietest tone. 'Don't make a fuss until they try to tie us. Then I'll get my gun to work, and you collar a spear from the first man down. We'll make a good end of it anyhow.'
Joe's calmness steadied Amyas.
'All right, Joe,' he answered, with a smile. 'We'll give 'em a sacrifice or two to go on with.'
The silence lasted for some minutes, and it was really a relief to Amyas when the priest at last rose, and after staring up at the sun for several seconds said something in a deep voice.
At his words the guards round the boys began to move forward. They did not lay hands on Joe or Amyas but simply moved them forward towards the platform in the centre of a hollow square.
'All right, Amyas,' said Joe in a low voice. 'The farther we are from the main bunch, the better. With any luck, we'll get his Nibbs himself.'
Broad, shallow steps led up to the platform. The boys went up them, and with their guards still around them, approached the altar. As they neared the great flat-topped block of stone, Amyas saw that its surface was coloured rusty red. There was no need to ask the cause of the tint.
The scene was distinctly impressive. The wide platform with its huge stone god seemed dwarfed by the towering cliffs behind. The sun, now very near the meridian, beat down hotly on the wide valley and on the silent actors in this strange and horrible ceremonial.
As he came up Amyas looked again at the priest. Never in his life had he seen such an utterly impassive face. Except for the cold, pitiless eyes of the man, it was hard to believe that he was human.
Without changing a muscle of his face, the priest began to speak. His voice was as big as himself. It tolled like a great bell, echoing back from the cliff.
'Wish I knew just what he was talking about,' said Joe.
He spoke to Amyas, but kept his eyes on the priest's face. 'I'll lay it's nothing nice, but I hardly like to plug him until I'm sure he means to slay us.'
'Yes, you'd better wait a bit,' answered Amyas.
The priest went on with his speech. It sounded like some sort of invocation. The boys stood perfectly still, but every nerve and muscle was tense. They were both ready for instant action.
The priest suddenly raised both his great arms above his head. It was evidently a signal. As he did so Amyas and Joe were both seized from behind.
They had not known their guards were so close, but though taken by surprise they fought like wild cats.
Amyas lashed out with one heel, and one of the men holding him collapsed with a groan. At the same moment he heard Joe's pistol crack twice in rapid succession.
The second man who held him flung all his weight forward and bore him to the ground. Amyas struggled frantically, but the Indian was too strong for him, and he was flung forward on his face. He felt the man's sinewy fingers biting into the back of his neck.
Another crack, the Indian's grip loosened, and he fell across Amyas. In a flash Amyas scrambled from under him and sprang to his feet.
Another Indian was in the act of leaping at him, Amyas did not wait for him. He dashed in to meet him, and his fist caught the fellow right in the centre of his fierce face, and sent him crashing back on the pavement.
Remembering what Joe had said, he stooped swiftly and snatched up the man's spear.
'This way!' he heard Joe cry. 'Here, beside me!'
Joe was standing on the altar itself. Three dead Indians lay at its foot. Springing across their bodies Amyas reached Joe's side and, spear in hand, faced their enemies. His blood leaped in his veins. For the first time in his life he was fighting mad and ready to tackle the whole tribe, single-handed.
For their part, the Indians had drawn back. Joe's pistol, of which they had known nothing and which was evidently a new weapon to them, had scared them badly. For all that, they had not bolted, and those who had formed the guard stood no more than a score of paces away. They had the High Priest among them, and they glared sullenly at the two white boys.
'Let 'em have it, Joe,' cried Amyas. 'Shoot a few more, then let's go for them.'
'Don't be an ass,' snapped Joe. 'They'd swamp us in two ticks.' He glanced round as he spoke. 'If we could only get on to that stairway!' he muttered.
'We've got to do something pretty quick,' said Amyas. 'Those chaps behind are forming up. We'll get a volley of spears or arrows before you can say knife.'
He was right. The main body in the background were moving.
The men had separated out from the women, and nearly all of them had bows and arrows. Amyas saw them fitting the arrows to their strings.
One of them gave a shout, and at once the guard near the altar began to draw back, but still keeping their faces towards the boys.
'I told you so,' said Amyas swiftly. 'The guards are moving so as to give the others room to shoot. Now's our chance.'
'You're right. Bunk!' said Joe, and turning leaped off the altar and raced for the foot of the stairway.
The silence was broken by a roar from the priest. His mighty voice rolled like thunder.
Click! clack! The arrows whistled through the air, and struck the stone pavement all around the boys. And suddenly Amyas saw Joe falter and fall.
An arrow was through the calf of his leg.
'Go on, Amyas.' cried plucky Joe. 'Here's the pistol.'
Amyas snatched it from him, swung round, and protecting Joe with his own body began firing rapidly.
But the Indians were some way off. Three only fell. The rest then swept on in a dense mass.
The hammer clicked, the magazine was empty. Amyas dropped the useless weapon, snatched up the spear and went for the Indians like a bull at a gate.
The first man that met him went down, with the spear straight through him, the point sticking out six inches beyond his back. In his fall, he wrenched the weapon from Amyas's hands. Next instant the pack were on him, and he was down underneath an avalanche of naked, greasy bodies.
Something hit him heavily on the head and for the time he knew no more.
* * * * *
When Amyas came to his senses again he realised that there would be no more fighting. He was tied hand and foot, trussed up like a chicken ready for market.
He opened his eyes and found himself lying flat on his back on the altar stone. Joe, tied up like himself, was beside him.
Above them towered the priest, his huge arms upraised towards the sky and his great voice booming out in a sort of sing-song monotone.
Joe saw that Amyas's eyes were open.
'How are you, old chap?' he asked, and there was a tone in his voice which Amyas had never heard before.
'I'm all right, Joe. I say, we nearly did it, didn't we?'
'Near as a touch. If it hadn't been for that nick in my leg, we could have. I say Amyas, you ought to have left me and cleared.'
'Don't talk rot,' answered Amyas impatiently. Then suddenly he laughed. 'What's the good of arguing? We're gone coons this time, Joe. We shall get it where the chicken got the axe as soon as old Mumbo Jumbo has finished his incantations.'
'Wish I'd shot the old swine,' growled Joe. 'Hallo, he's finished. So long, old man.'
'Good-bye, Joe,' replied Amyas calmly. 'The only thing I'm sorry about is that Visega's got that map.'
'I've got a notion it won't do him any good,' said Joe. Then he stopped short. The giant priest had raised his right arm, and in his great gnarled fist he held a knife. It was shaped like a leaf and made not of steel but of burnished copper. The loose sleeve had slipped away from the priest's arm, and Amyas saw the big muscles writhe under the brown skin.
Oddly enough he was not at all afraid. He was only conscious of a hope that he would be the first victim, and not be left alive to see Joe's end.
He closed his eyes and waited.
A WHIRRING, rattling noise was in Amyas's ears. So far as he wished for anything, he wished for the blow to fall.
It did not fall, but the noise grew louder.
He opened his eyes again with an effort, and looked up at the tall priest. To his amazement, the giant's arm had fallen to his side. His jaw, too, had fallen, and somehow his whole face had changed, and instead of looking fiercely down at his victims, he was staring up into the sky, with an expression of terror, or rather awe.
Amyas instinctively looked up also. He gave a convulsive gasp.
'Joe!' he almost screamed, 'an aeroplane!'
An aeroplane it was. Madly impossible as it seemed, there was a good-sized biplane, coming through the air about five hundred feet up, and at a tremendous speed. Even as Amyas set eyes upon her, her pilot cut out, and the plane came swooping like a dropping pigeon towards the village.
Amyas managed to twist his head round to the left. The Indians had seen her, too. Every last one of them except the priest was flat on his face on the ground. There was a sharp tinkle. The knife had slipped out of the priest's hand and fallen to the pavement. Then he himself crumpled up and dropped upon his knees.
'They've got the wind up properly.'
It was Joe who spoke, and his tone was as calm and collected as ever.
'If only we weren't trussed up like this!' groaned Amyas.
'Sit tight, old man. Those chaps in the plane must have seen the whole show. I rather fancy they'll have us out of this before the niggers have got over their scare.'
She's down,' breathed Amyas.
The plane had come to earth on the open savanna just outside the village, and not two hundred yards away from the place of sacrifice.
The next two or three minutes were like hours to Amyas and perhaps to Joe, too. They were perfectly helpless, and from second to second it was on the cards that the priest might recover and complete the sacrifice.
But his scare held. He, of course, and his people were under the full impression that messengers of the Sun were descending from the sky—probably on some dreadful mission of vengeance.
At last—at long last booted feet clattered on the stone platform, and two men came striding rapidly towards the altar. The first was a man of Joe's build, but bigger. He was wearing full flying kit with goggles and a leather cap, and in his right fist was gripped a full-sized army revolver, one of those huge six-chambered weapons that carry a .45 bullet big enough to kill an elephant.
'White boys!' he shouted as he came up. 'I told you so, Professor.'
Whipping out a knife, he set to slashing at the ropes which tied Amyas.
His companion was up almost as quickly as he. The latter was nearly as tall as the priest, but thin as a rail. His face was gaunt and wrinkled, and the hair which showed under his cap was grizzled. But his eyes dark, bright, and snappy were like those of a young man.
'Say, Dick, we didn't come a mite too soon,' he remarked, in a high-pitched voice with a strong American accent, and with that he produced a knife as big as the other man's and had Joe free in a twinkling.
'You're just about right, sir,' said Joe, in his cool way. 'If you'd been about one minute later, we were gone coons.'
The Professor stooped swiftly and picked up the knife which the High Priest had let fall.
'Gee!' he exclaimed. 'A real sacrificial knife of hardened copper. Say, but this is some prize.'
Joe sat up.
'If you're anxious to keep it, sir, we'd better be moving. They're a tough lot, these Indians, and as soon as they get over their scare they're likely to make themselves unpleasant. We shot half a dozen of them, but they didn't panic worth a cent.'
'I guess you're right, young man,' said the tall American. 'And what do you recommend as the best course to pursue?'
'Well, sir, if your plane will carry us, we'd best shift right out of this valley, and quick about it.'
'She'd carry us right enough,' put in the man the professor had called Dick. 'The trouble is we're plumb out of petrol.'
Joe gave a low whistle.
'In that case, we'd best get right up those stairs,' he said.
'But all our stuff is in the old machine,' said Dick. 'You don't reckon to leave it all for these niggers.'
Joe considered a moment.
'No. That would be as good as signing our death warrant. Tell you what. Collar the priest here, tie him up, and we'll hold him as hostage for the behaviour of his people.'
'I reckon that's a right good idea,' said the Professor calmly. 'Get hold of him, Dick.'
Dick took a rope, made a loop in it, and dropped it over the big priest as coolly as if he was trussing a turkey.
'Get up, you murdering son of a gun!' he said, and jerked the giant to his feet. The latter was still too staggered by what he considered the miracle of the aeroplane to offer any resistance.
By this time Amyas was on his legs again, and was quickly examining Joe's wounded leg.
'Don't worry about that,' said Joe. 'It's nothing worth mentioning. Give me an arm and I can get along.'
'It's only a flesh wound, luckily,' said Amyas with relief. 'I'll just put a handkerchief round to stop the bleeding.'
This took but a moment. Then the four, with their prisoner, left the platform and made back towards the aeroplane.
The Indians had by this time recovered a little from their first panic. They were beginning to look about them. Their faces were sullen and angry. Superstition and rage struggled for mastery.
'Ugly looking lot o' swine,' remarked Dick.
'Dangerous, too,' said Amyas. 'The sooner we're away the better.'
'They won't do nothing to us—so long as we've got their high Jim-Jam,' replied Dick.
'I wouldn't trust them,' warned Amyas.
But they reached the aeroplane without interference, and Dick and the Professor began getting the stores out of her. Amyas helped to make them into three packs.
'Rotten to leave her,' said Joe, in his short way.
'Rotten it is,' agreed Dick, whose other name was Selby. 'She's a good little bird. But without petrol she's just junk and nothing else.'
'What on earth brought you here?' asked Amyas as he rolled up some cooking pots.
'The Professor here. He hunts buried cities and them sort of things.'
Amyas started slightly, but said nothing. This was no time for discussion.
They packed with desperate speed. Dick Selby, an extraordinarily competent person, seemed to know exactly what was necessary, and what they could dispense with Amyas was delighted to see two excellent rifles, a good shot gun, and heaps of cartridges. There was a quantity of tinned goods, but most of these they had to leave in order to pack flour, sugar, salt, and coffee.
The priest whom Selby had unceremoniously tied to the plane, stood glaring at them suddenly.
In a wonderfully short time they had three packs ready. Joe was not fit to carry anything. It would be all he could do to travel, unloaded. There was a nasty hole in his leg.
'I guess that'll do,' said Dick Selby, lifting his pack and settling it on his shoulders. 'What's the next move, mister?'
'Straight up those steps. That's the only way out so far as I can see,' replied Amyas.
'They don't reach the top. They end in a cave,' said Selby.
'Which most likely goes right through. Anyhow, it's our only chance,' Amyas told him.
'What do you say, Professor?' asked Selby.
'The cave, I guess,' said the Professor. 'It looks to be a right good chance.'
'We'd best be shifting,' put in Joe. 'These niggers look ugly. They're closing up on us.'
Joe was right. The Indians were recovering their courage, and sneaking sullenly nearer.
'Wait a jiff,' said Selby. 'I'll put the wind up 'em.'
'There's still a quart or two of juice in the tank,' he added, and as he spoke he switched on, then stood back and swung the propeller.
The engine was still hot. At once it began to fire. The rattle and roar of a 250 h.p. engine is loud enough in the air. On the ground there is something terrifying about it. And the wind from the propeller flattened the grass for yards.
'I told you so,' chuckled Selby, as the Indians, terrified, broke and bolted in every direction.
'Right, here's our chance,' remarked the Professor as he shouldered his pack, and picked up the shot gun.
'Once we're on the flight of stairs there, the natives won't have much chance to attack us.'
Leaving the engine crackling and roaring, the four walked steadily away towards the cliff. Amyas had his eyes on the Indians, but the Professor hardly seemed to notice them. All his attention was fixed on the stone platform and altar.
'I'd like mighty well to have had the chance to look over these remains,' he said regretfully. 'I guess they're pre-Inca by the look of them.'
'I reckon you'll find a heap more farther on, Professor,' Selby answered. 'If we don't want a skin full of spears it's up to us to get along sharp.'
'It's arrows we have to fear worse than spears,' said Amyas. 'Hallo, the petrol's run out.'
He was right. The roar of the engine had died out with startling suddenness. The quiet that settled over the scene was broken by a hoarse yell from the Indians.
'They're coming,' said Joe, hobbling up the steps as last as his wounded leg allowed.
Coming they were. Gaining courage from the flight of their strange visitants, the whole mob had turned in pursuit. Arrows came whistling through the air, clicking sharply on the cliff face, and on the steps all around the fugitives.
Dick Selby faced round.
'Have to give 'em a volley, Professor. You boys push on a piece.'
Amyas gave Joe an arm, and helped him on up the stone stairs. The steps which were carved in the rock itself were so ancient that they had broken away in many places. Poor Joe was having a bad time getting up them. The wound in his leg, though not serious, was very painful, and the exertion made it bleed again. Crimson drops stained the gray surface of the steps.
Amyas, who was carrying a pack weighing at least fifty pounds, had all he could do to help his chum along. The heat was terrific, and big drops of perspiration streamed down his face.
Selby's rifle cracked, and its whip-like report was followed by the roar of the Professor's double barrel. The latter was loaded with buckshot, which did fearful execution upon the naked bodies of the Indians.
Six dropped, others fell back, wounded.
'That'll do for a bit,' said Selby calmly. 'Won't do to waste too many cartridges on the swine.' As he spoke he slung the rifle back over his shoulder, and taking hold of Joe's other arm began to help him onwards. He was enormously strong, and though his pack was the heaviest of the lot, was almost lifting Joe.
Before the Indians had recovered from the volley the white men were almost out of arrow shot, and more than half-way up to the cave-mouth.
'Doing very nicely, thank you,' said that iron man, Selby, and chuckled a little. 'If that there cave has a hole the other end, I guess we're all right.'
Whatever might be said of the Indians, they were at any rate not lacking in pluck. Almost at once they pressed on again to the foot of the steps. A regular cloud of arrows was discharged. But their targets were more than a hundred feet above them, and though one arrow actually struck Selby's pack and remained sticking in it, it did no harm. And every step took the party farther out of danger.
The dark entrance of the cave was now plainly visible, with its two ugly looking stone guardians. Two minutes more, and the little party reached the narrow platform in front of it, and dived for shelter into its mouth.
'I don't see no way through,' said Selby.
'You could hardly expect to,' replied Amyas. 'If there's a passage it must slope up pretty steeply.'
The Professor cut in.
'I guess we'd better find out, and quick, too. You—I haven't the pleasure of knowing what your name is—'
'Amyas Clayton, sir,' said Amyas. 'This is Joe Cobb.'
The Professor bowed. 'I'm obliged. My name's Perrin—Amos Perrin. Well, Mr Clayton, you lay down that pack, and go right along up the cave, and see how the land lies. Dick, here, and I—I guess we'll stay right here, and see these natives don't come too close.'
'Right!' said Amyas briskly. 'Have you a light of any sort?'
The Professor fished an electric torch out of an inside pocket of his khaki-coloured tunic, and Amyas, with a word of thanks, dived into the black depths of the tunnel.
The other three stretched themselves flat on the platform. They were only too glad of the rest. Joe tightened the bandage on his leg; the other two laid their packs aside and re-loaded their weapons.
At the foot of the stone stairs the Indians surged in a mass. The big priest was with them again. His deep voice boomed out.
'Fixing to attack,' said Professor Perrin dryly.
'They'll be sorry if they do,' remarked Dick Selby. 'We can just everlastingly rake 'em if they start coming upstairs.'
'That's true,' allowed the Professor, 'but you've got to remember, Dick, that we haven't too many cartridges to waste, and we're a mighty long way from the nearest gun store.'
The Indians began spreading out. Clearly they had some plan at the back of their minds. They were forming in a long column. Each man had a spear and a bow and arrows. Some went back into the village. In a little while they returned, carrying bundles of some long, oval objects.
Joe got his glasses out, and focused them.
'Shields,' he remarked. 'They've got sense, those chaps.'
'Old Inca shields,' exclaimed the Professor, in sudden excitement. 'If they're made of hardened copper, as I suspect, they'll be as good as chilled steel. Say, Dick, this begins to look serious.'
Dick did not answer, but he, too, began to look rather grave.
Some time passed. The shields were served out. There were about forty of them, and the priest was evidently picking out the forty best men to wear them. He had a head, that priest, and it was quite clear that he meant to make a good job of it this time. The three who waited on the ledge began to feel anything but happy.
'Only hope Clayton'll find some way out,' said Dick.
Almost as he spoke there was a sound of steps, and Amyas reappeared.
'There is a passage,' he said, 'but it's blocked. Part of the roof has fallen.'
EVEN the stolid Joe looked dismayed.
'Badly blocked?' he asked.
'It's not a big fall, but it would take us some hours to dig through,' said Amyas.
Joe gave a low whistle. 'Look at that!' he said, pointing to the Indians. 'The beggars have got shields and the Professor says they're of hardened copper, and will turn a bullet.'
Before Amyas could reply the giant priest roared out an order, and the forty Indians came charging up the steps.
They climbed like cats. Their speed was amazing. They seemed to flow upwards in a torrent.
Dick Selby put his rifle to his shoulder.
'Dick, you just wait till they're real close,' said the Professor coolly. 'Then aim plumb at the first shield. We'll soon see what they're made of.'
Dick nodded. They had not long to wait. As soon as ever the first of the column was half-way up Selby fired.
His aim was good, and his bullet clanged on the first shield with a sound resembling that of its impact on an iron target.
The force of the blow knocked the shield-holder backwards, but the man behind him caught him; next moment he was coming up again as fast as ever.
'Guess I was right,' said the Professor. 'Real armour plate, that stuff. Try for his legs, Dick.'
Dick fired again. His aim was a little low, the bullet caught the edge of a step, ricochetted and spattered upwards. The man flung up his arms and fell.
But the rest did not wait. They came streaming up over his body. Matters began to look really ugly.
'If we only had some stones!' said Joe quickly. 'We could sweep them away with a big stone. Are there any in the cave, Amyas?'
'I didn't see any. But wait! What about these images? Are they solid rock or are they on pedestals?
He sprang up as he spoke, seized one of the stone gods and threw his weight on it. The thing moved slightly on its pedestal.
'It's all right. We can move it,' he cried. 'Selby, let Joe have your rifle. You give me a hand.'
Solid as Selby looked, he was quick enough to see what Amyas meant.
'Aim low,' he said to Joe as he handed him the rifle. Then he sprang to Amyas's help.
Between them, they toppled the stone god from its pedestal. It fell with a startling crash from its age-long perch, and broke in two upon the platform.
'That's the ticket,' said Selby. 'Roll her over, Clayton.'
Joe's rifle cracked. 'Be quick,' he said sharply. 'They're almost on top of us.'
The Professor let off both barrels of his shot-gun in the face of the column of Indians. Then he, too, sprang to help Amyas and Joe.
Though the statue was broken in two, each piece seemed to weigh a ton. The three toiled and strove to roll the nearest to the edge of the platform, but it was almost beyond their powers.
The rifle in Joe's hands fairly crackled, but the Indians, realising that something was up, were making a frantic rush. Though several were knocked over by the bullets fired at almost point-blank range, the rest leaped across the bodies of their fallen companions and made desperate efforts to reach the platform.
What was worse, those behind had pressed up behind the armoured column and were shooting arrows in showers.
'Hurry!' cried Joe. 'Hurry!'
Dick Selby made an effort which almost cracked his muscles. The upper half of the stone god turned ponderously over.
'Out o' the way, Cobb!' yelled Dick, and Joe rolled away just in time to escape the crashing weight of the mass of stone. Next instant it was over the edge!
For a moment it seemed to hang end-on upon the top step. Then, with a grinding crash, it toppled slowly over. The Indians saw it coming, and for the first time since the beginning of the fight screamed with terror.
Like a live thing, the huge chunk of carved rock leaped to meet them. The foremost men turned, and tried to fly, but the crash behind prevented them. Then the carved god which for ages they had revered was upon them.
There was a crunching sound, hideous yells rang along the cliff face, and in an instant the top flight of steps was clear. Clear that is, except for dreadful, crimson fragments that clung where the great stone had ground living men into an unrecognisable mass.
Some sprang aside to escape it, and went falling head over heels into the depths, to be crashed to atoms on the hard rock beneath.
The stone god reached the first curve in the stairs, and striking with a crash that flung up a great cloud of red dust, leaped into the air, and went hurtling downwards, to fall with an appalling smash almost in the centre of the great platform below.
The four above watched the tragedy in breathless silence. When at last the echoes died away, and silence reigned again, it was Joe who spoke.
'That's settled the job,' he said thickly.
'What you might call a massacre,' replied Selby. 'Nasty business, but it was them or us. As you say, Mr Cobb, it settles it.'
'It's settled something else,' put in Amyas.
'I don't get you,' said Dick Selby, puzzled.
'The steps,' replied Amyas. 'It's knocked away about half the flight.'
Selby nodded. 'Yes, I see what you mean. No one can come up or down.'
'So much the better,' said the Professor. 'I guess that now we can go and dig ourselves through this cave passage without fear of interruption. If you'll stay here, Mr Cobb, and keep an eye on our friends below, the rest of us will go and inspect the tunnel.'
Joe looked up. 'I'll do that Professor, but on one condition only.'
For once Professor Perrin looked slightly surprised.
'Condition?' he repeated slowly.
'Yes, sir. It is that you'll not call me Mr Cobb again. Plain "Joe" is good enough for me.'
The Professor gave one short bark of a laugh.
'Granted, Joe,' he said, and led the way into the cave.
Joe lay where he was, and watched what was going on below. It was plain that the Indians had had their fill of fighting. The survivors went sullenly back to their village, and dead silence settled over the scene.
They had not even enterprise left to go and examine the aeroplane.
'We are all right for the present,' said Joe to himself.
'But I wonder how long it will last. The beggars must be longing to get square, and there are other ways out of the valley besides this. If that old priest thinks of it, he'll be very apt to start out to-night and lead a party round to circumvent us.'
The heat was great, and Joe began to realise that he was very thirsty. He felt for his water bottle, forgetting that the natives had taken it from him.
'Bother!' he said. 'I wonder if the Professor has got any water. Well, I must just stick it out until they come back from the cave.'
The wait was a long one. The shadows were beginning to lengthen before he heard steps, and Amyas, hot and covered with dust, came out.
'How does it go?' asked Joe hoarsely.
'It's a big job, Joe. If we had a crowbar we'd do better. There's some hours' work still, to move the rock that has blocked the passage. The Professor thinks we'd better camp here for the night, or perhaps a day or two, so as to get your leg right before we start.
Joe grunted. 'What about water?' he said.
A look of dismay crossed Amyas's face.
'Phew, we forgot that. I'll go back and tell 'em.'
Half a mo'!' said Joe. 'If you want a crowbar, what about a couple of those spears? There are three left on the steps within reach.'
'That's a good notion,' replied Amyas, 'I'll get them.'
He went down and came back with the spears. Their shafts were made of a hard, tough wood, and it was clear that, by lashing them together, a very good lever could be obtained. Armed with this, Amyas again vanished into the cave.
There was another long wait. Joe's thirst became a torment. What made it worse was that, only a couple of hundred yards away, a spring gushed out at the foot of the cliff and ran into the little lake from which the village drew its supplies. The clear water bubbled out. He could almost see the bubbles rise and break.
Joe's leg ached vilely. He knew that he was in for a go of fever if he did not get fresh water pretty soon. It was growing dark when, from inside the cave, came a crunching sound.
'They've done it at last,' he said.
Sure enough, all three came out presently.
'Got through?' asked Joe curtly.
'We're through all right,' replied Selby. 'But the trouble is that there's a drop the far side a matter of fifty feet or more, and the Professor says it would be plumb crazy to climb down it in this dimpsy light. He reckons we'll have to wait till morning.'
Joe could not repress a groan.
'He's half dead of thirst,' said Amyas quickly. 'He's got fever coming on, too.'
Professor Perrin dropped on one knee beside Joe, and took Joe's wrist between his fingers.
'That's right, Clayton,' he said briefly. 'Cobb's got a right sharp rise in temperature. I guess we'll have to get him some water if we don't want to have him real sick.'
'Don't talk nonsense,' said Joe earnestly. 'I can stick it.'
Amyas and Selby drew aside a little, and spoke in low voices. Joe watched them suspiciously, while the Professor got out some sulphate of quinine for him.
Though the sun was setting it grew no cooler. There was not a breath of wind, and the heat was very oppressive. The whole party were suffering badly from thirst, and though they had plenty of food, could not eat a mouthful.
Night came with the swiftness with which it always falls in the Tropics. A sort of heat haze covered the sky, and it was intensely dark. Joe lay, with his throat like brass and his tongue a dry stick. He was suffering agonies, and was very nearly off his head. He was using all his will power to save himself from dropping into the delirium of fever.
He heard the others whispering again, he caught a clink of metal. There followed a slight scuffling sound.
All Joe's suspicions were alert.
'Amyas!' he cried hoarsely.
'It's all right, Joe,' came Dick Selby's voice. 'Don't you worry.'
'It's not all right,' cried Joe in a cracked voice. 'I know what Amyas is doing. He's going down to the spring.'
There was no reply. Next moment Joe was on his feet.
'You shan't go, Amyas,' he said fiercely. 'I won't have it. Those beasts will slay you for a certainty.'
Amyas was already over the edge and on the broken steps. He pulled up.
'Lie down, Joe. Don't be an ass. There's no risk.'
'Isn't there?' said Joe grimly. 'They're waiting there for you. It's just what they are hoping we shall do. I saw them crawling over there just before dark.'
'Is that a fact?' demanded the Professor.
'Sure as I live, it's a fact,' Joe answered.
'Then I reckon I'll take my gun and go along too,' said Dick Selby coolly.
'You shan't,' returned Joe firmly. 'It's chucking away your lives. Down there in the dark you won't have a dog's chance.'
There was silence again. Then Dick spoke again. 'We got to have water,' he said stubbornly.
'If I can stick it, you can,' replied Joe. Then all of a sudden he gave a hoarse gasp and collapsed.
The Professor had him almost before he fell.
'The poor lad!' he said pitifully. 'Say, Dick, I don't know what we can do. From what I know of medicine, I kind of doubt he'll live till morning if we don't get water. He's burning with fever.'
'Come on, Dick,' said Amyas quietly. 'You do the shooting, and I'll get the water.'
Without another word Selby went over the edge of the platform on to the steps.
At that moment the black night was riven by a sudden glare of lightning, and for an instant the whole valley leaped up as clear as day.
'Stop!' cried the Professor harshly. 'Joe's right. There are men hiding in among those rocks all around the spring.'
His words were drowned in a crash of thunder.
When the echoes died the Professor stepped quickly across to the edge of the platform.
'Come back you two,' he ordered curtly.
There was no answer. Far below he heard a sound of footsteps moving quietly down the shattered stairway.
'IT'S murder—plumb murder!' groaned the Professor, for once stirred completely out of himself. 'There isn't one chance in a hundred of their getting back alive. But my, if they aren't fine lads!'
He did not shout again. He was afraid of betraying them to the watchful Indians. He stood there on the rim of the ledge, peering down into the blackness beneath, and praying hard for the safety of the two who were gambling their lives on the chance of saving that of Joe.
And as he stood there, bareheaded, in the warm darkness, suddenly something splashed full upon his face. It was a great drop of cool rain.
'Dick! Clayton! Come back. Its all right. It's raining!' roared the Professor at the very pitch of his voice.
This time there was no doubt about the reply.
'Hurrah! So it is. We're coming.'
The Professor had just time to pick up Joe and carry him inside the cave when down came the rain, not in drops merely, but in sheets of water.
In a trice every little hollow in the rock was a brimming pool, and water was spouting down the cliffs in every direction. Switching on an electric torch, the Professor snatched up a pannikin and, stepping outside, filled it. Then another and another, till everything they had which would hold water was full.
Next he set to work over Joe. He mixed a little brandy with a mug of water, and lifting his head put it to the boy's lips.
Joe was still insensible, and it was difficult to get the first drops down his throat. But once he had swallowed, the rest was easy. He roused and drank greedily.
'That's good!' he said.
Then he woke up thoroughly.
'Where did it come from?' he demanded.
'The sky,' replied the Professor. 'It's all right, Joe. This is rain-water, and here are the others safe back.'
Joe gave a satisfied sigh and lay back again. As he did so in came Amyas and Dick soaked through, but very cheerful.
It rained for about an hour. Then the night cleared, and turned pleasantly cool. Meantime, the party in the cave had drunk all they could drink, and had saved enough water to last them at least twenty-four hours.
They lighted a spirit stove, made coffee, got out food and had a good supper.
Although it was now some seven or eight hours since they had first met, Joe and Amyas knew little more of Professor Perrin and Dick Selby than their names, while the latter knew even less about the boys.
Over supper they had their first chance of a talk, and Amyas and Joe learnt that the Professor was an American from Ohio who was comfortably off and whose hobby was archaeology, particularly that of Central and Southern America. He had bought the plane on purpose to get into Southern Bolivia and explore the wonderful relics there. Dick Selby was English by birth, but had been in the States for some years, and had belonged to the American Air Force during the Great War.
It was quite plain that Dick was devoted to his employer, and the boys felt inclined to like him, too.
Presently Amyas took a chance of whispering a few words in Joe's ear.
'Why, of course,' Joe answered aloud.
Amyas turned to the Professor.
'We are on the same errand as you, sir,' he began. 'Only it's dollars we're after rather than hieroglyphics or anything of that sort. Joe says I'm to tell you all about it, if you care to hear.'
'I guess I shall listen with considerable interest,' replied the Professor gravely.
So Amyas started. He told of his father's death, of the map of the route to the Hidden City, of his meeting with Joe and their falling in with Visega at the restaurant in La Paz. He told of their start, and of how the blackguardly Brazilian had drugged and abandoned them. Finally, how they had come into the great valley, and fallen into the hands of the Indians.
'And if you hadn't turned up just when you did, sir—you and Selby—well, we'd have been out of their hands by now, and out of this world altogether.'
He stopped, and there was silence for some moments.
Selby was the first to speak.
'You say this saddle-coloured gent's name was Visega?' he remarked.
'Yes,' replied Amyas.
'I just didn't want to forget it against the time we meet him again,' said Dick.
'What chance have we of ever meeting him again?' asked Amyas. 'The beggar is miles away by now.'
'I reckon he's got to come back some time, eh Professor?' said Dick.
'That's a fact, Dick,' agreed the Professor. 'But for myself, I don't see why we shouldn't catch him. I'd be real pleased to see this Hidden City myself. I kind of think there'd be a deal of real interest to me in a place of that sort.'
'Then you believe in it, Professor?' asked Amyas quickly.
'I don't see why I should set myself up to doubt when every one in the country believes in it,' replied the Professor. 'And from what you say, Clayton, I guess your father was in a position to know. So if it's agreeable to you and to Joe here, I'll be right pleased to accompany you to this place.'
'You'll come with us?' he cried. 'But you must remember that the map is gone. Visega has it.'
'Then I guess we'll have to find Visega, and get it back,' remarked the Professor mildly.
'That's so,' put in Dick Selby. 'Bless you, I'd catch a Dago like that, single-handed.'
'It's most awfully good of you,' said Amyas earnestly.
'You've put fresh heart into Joe and myself. But I've got to tell you it's no easy job that's before us. We've got no boat, and we can't get on without one.'
'What's the matter with making one?' cut in Dick.
Amyas shook his head. 'We might make a raft, but I don't think we could build a boat,' he said. 'It's true a raft would take us down the river, but it would be so slow that we could never hope to catch up with Visega. Then, although I've studied the map pretty thoroughly, I haven't got it all in my head. The chances are we should take the wrong turning somewhere, and get all mixed up in those swamps and lost.'
'Wait!' he said, for Dick was going to speak again. 'Let me finish first. There's another objection. You two have only stores for yourselves, and if you split them up between four they will only last half as long. The wisest thing to do would be to use them to get back to La Paz.'
'Say, for a fellow that's after a treasure, you don't seem to be what I'd call keen,' said Dick Selby. 'I never did hear such a string of objections.'
The Professor spoke up.
'Easy on, Dick,' he said. 'Clayton here is right. I guess he didn't want to raise these objections, but it was no more than right of him to do so. When you're setting out for a job like this, you've got to look at both sides of the shield, and study well before you get to it. Now he's given us the cons; let's look at the pros.'
'For myself,' he went on, 'I don't think there's a great chance of being able to build a boat, though it's possible we could fix up a raft. On the other side, as we saw from the air, the country beyond is fairly open, and we can make good time afoot. And to press on sharp is our only chance of catching up with this fellow Visega. If we go back and start again, I don't reckon we're ever likely to set eyes on him.
'As to the matter of food, we have a fair stock of coffee and flour, and we have a right good number of cartridges. I kind of think we ought to be able to shoot enough game to keep the larder well fixed. What do you say, Dick?'
'I say, get along with it, Professor. In a show of this sort folks have got to take chances. And to say truth, I'm just itching to tell this here Visega exactly what I think of him and his family and everything connected with him.'
The Professor nodded. 'I feel that way, myself,' he said. 'I guess then that we'll move right along as soon as our friend Joe Cobb here is fit to travel.'
'Don't worry about me, sir,' said Joe. 'I'll be ready as soon as any of you.'
Amyas spoke up. 'There's one thing still to be settled, Professor,' he said. 'If we do ever get our hands on the treasure in this Hidden City you and Selby share with us.'
Professor Perrin laughed. 'You needn't worry about me, my son. As Dick has told you, I'm well enough fixed. Got enough, anyway, to last me the few years that remain to me. But Dick there will take his share—always provided there's a share to take.'
'You are very generous, sir,' said Amyas. 'At any rate, anything that appeals to you from a collector's point of view must be yours.'
'I guess we'll let it go at that,' said the Professor. 'And now we'd best get some sleep. We ought to push off at dawn.'
'Oughtn't we to set a watch?' suggested Amyas. 'I'll share up with Selby and you can sleep.'
'I don't reckon there's any need,' said Dick. 'The Indians can't climb up over them broken steps without a rope, and if we stick the rest of that old idol there across the top of the steps no one ain't going to cross it very easy.'
The Professor agreed that the plan was a good one, so, after rolling the stone into position, they all laid themselves down and were soon asleep.
DICK SELBY, who had been tramping at the head of the procession, dropped back a little and whispered to Amyas.
'Joe there's as plucky as they make 'em, but his leg is hurting him real bad. I guess we'll have to lay off for a spell.'
'It's a poor place to stop,' answered Amyas, in an equally low voice. 'No cover from the sun, and if these Indians are after us, they can see us from miles away.'
'That's a fact,' allowed Dick, 'but I don't know what we're going to do. It isn't right for him to be walking with that leg, and if he goes on he won't be able to move to-morrow.'
'There's a way out,' said Amyas. 'Here we are right on the river, and there's a clump of trees just ahead. Suppose we make a raft and use it for the rest of to-day, and perhaps to-morrow as well. That will give Joe's leg a chance to mend, and will be better than camping and waiting.'
'Best thing we can do,' agreed Dick. 'I'll speak to the boss.'
The Professor agreed, and Joe who, though he was suffering badly, had not said a word, could not object.
They had an axe and a saw. There was any amount of wood, and there were cables ready in the shape of the long lianas or creepers that were as tough as ropes. Amyas was a fair hand with carpenter's tools, and as for Dick Selby, he was one of those men who can turn their hands to anything. Before dark they had a good sound raft about thirty feet long, and buoyant enough to keep the whole party well above the water.
As soon as it was finished they embarked themselves and their stores, and pushed across to a camping place the far side. As they found next morning, this precaution probably saved all their lives, for the valley Indians thirsting for revenge, swooped down that night on the coppice where the party had built their raft, only to find that their intended victims had escaped.
Very early next morning the four got aboard and pushed off. They had cut long poles to drive the raft, and as luck had it the river here was shallower, broader, and more swift than it had been above. They made nearly four miles an hour, and by nightfall were a good forty miles on their way.
About three in the afternoon they passed a place where a tree had been cut down, and landed to examine the spot. They found the ashes of a fire. It was Visega's camping place of two nights before.
Dick Selby's face wore a satisfied grin.
If we keep along like this we'll be catching up with the gent just when he ain't expecting us,' he chuckled.
Next day they did even better, and it was not yet twelve o'clock when they passed Visega's second camp.
I'll bet the brute is half starving those wretched Indians of his,' said Joe. 'Knocking 'em about, too. They'll only turn sulky and he won't get half the work out of them.'
That evening Dick saw an animal drinking by the river and managed to shoot it. It turned out to be a tapir, and gave them a capital store of excellent meat.
Luck held. The weather was good, and the river remained swift and fairly shallow. It was not yet ten when they passed Visega's third camp.
'At this rate, we'll be up with the swab by the day after to- morrow, said Dick Selby jubilantly.
'I guess the gentleman will get the surprise of his misspent life when we do meet up with him,' remarked the Professor with a smile which boded ill for the blackguardly Brazilian. Amyas didn't say much, but the way he wielded his pole showed how keen he was to catch up with his enemy.
All went well up to about one o'clock in the afternoon. Then the river which had been growing wider all the time but more and more shallow, broke into three separate channels.
Dick and Amyas, who were poling, stopped the raft.
'Here's a go,' said Dick. 'What in blazes are we going to do now?'
It was a problem, and no mistake. There are no tracks on water. Amyas could not remember which channel the map showed as the one to follow. In the end they decided to take the centre one.
For two hours they went on very well. Then the channel began to be blocked by rafts of floating weed. A couple of miles farther down they ran into a place where the weeds had matted into a regular dam.
It was a mass that looked as solid as dry land. All sorts of stuff had grounded, and on it grew the most extraordinary jungle of water plants covered with brilliant blooms, and with hosts of insects flitting over them.
The river dived underneath this dam and simply vanished.
The party stared at it in dismay. The Professor was the first to recover.
'Visega didn't come this way. That's one thing sure,' he said. 'I guess we'd better go back.'
Go back they did, and cruelly slow work it was poling against the current. It was dark before they reached the point from which they had started.
They camped on a low bank, and as they ate their supper discussed the situation, but could come to no decision as to which way to take.
It was Dick who offered the only possible way out.
'Toss up!' he said. 'Heads right, tails left.'
He fished out a worn Mexican dollar as he spoke.
'That's as good as anything,' said Joe.
'That's so,' agreed the Professor.
Dick spun the coin. It glittered in the firelight, and fell.
'It's heads,' said Dick.
'A good sign,' said Amyas.
No one else spoke, and soon they turned in. Tired as they were, Dick had them up before daylight. He was bitter about the loss of time. Really, he seemed keenest of them all about catching Visega.
It was barely light when they started down the right-hand channel. Like the central one, it was shallow and swampy, and here and there were thick drifts of rotten, sour-smelling swamp growth. The drifts grew thicker and the current more sluggish. Amyas's spirits began to sink. He was growing more and more certain that they were again on the wrong trail.
The weeds got worse. They had difficulty in pushing through. Amyas, who was in the bow, turned to the others.
'I'm afraid it's no go,' he said quietly. 'The river's blocked altogether just ahead.'
Joe jumped up. His leg was practically well again. He had a good look at the dam.
'It's not as bad as the one we hit yesterday. I can see clear water beyond. Don't let's give up yet.'
They poled on. The weeds had evidently caught on a great dead tree which lay all across the creek, but as Joe had said, there was clear water beyond.
Still, the tree was a complete barrier.
'You couldn't get a boat over that, let alone a raft,' growled Dick.
Joe was looking sharply from one side to the other. Suddenly he pointed over towards the left bank.
'Some one has been through there,' he said sharply. 'Look! the weeds have been cut.'
'Joe's right,' cried Dick, and with a great shove turned the raft in that direction.
All four had their eyes fixed on the place. They were quivering with anxiety. As they got nearer, it became plain that Joe was right.
'Hurrah!' cried Amyas. 'We're on the right road after all.'
Next moment the raft drove heavily into the half submerged log, and stopped short.
'Visega dragged his boat over,' said Amyas. 'That's clear enough.'
'That's more than we can do with the raft,' said Dick. 'She's a darn sight too heavy.'
'We must cut the log through,' said Joe, picking up the axe.
Amyas caught him by the arm as he was going to step out on to the log.
'Steady, Joe. There may be snakes.'
With his pole he beat on the weeds. An ugly flat triangular head rose, and there was a sharp hiss. Then out of the thick weed wriggled a thick, squat, copper-coloured body.
'Beast!' cried Amyas, and smote the ugly brute with his pole.
'A water viper,' said the Professor, watching the death agonies of the snake. 'A mighty good job you did not tread upon him, Joe.'
'All clear now anyhow,' said Joe coolly, and stepped out upon the log. It was round and slimy, and under it six feet of foul, stagnant water. Also, it was at least twenty inches in diameter. Working in relays, it took them over an hour to cut through. Even then they had to chop their way through twenty yards of packed and noisome weed.
All were much relieved when at last they were through.
'We're on the track now anyhow,' said Dick grimly. 'If we shove on hard we ought to get that sweep somewhere in the next three days.'
Although they had wasted nearly a whole day, the knowledge that they were on the right track again cheered them wonderfully, and they pushed on in good spirits.
They needed good spirits, for before they had gone another five miles they realised that they were getting into the heart of a real big swamp. The river ran sluggishly between banks covered with heavy vegetation, and was constantly clogged with great rafts of floating water weed. Over and over again they had to cut their way through it, wasting a terrible deal of time.
Luckily for them, the river was fairly high, otherwise, they would never have got through at all. When night came they could find no landing-place. There were nothing but mud-banks haunted by alligators, snakes, and snapping turtles.
They found a huge cypress with great 'knees' or buttresses running out like rocks into the water, and landing here lit a fire and set to cooking. But the rock-like buttress was really nothing but a thin shell. Before they had got the fire well started, it burned through and fell into the hollow beneath. Next thing they knew, the whole tree was afire. The trunk was hollow and the flames went up it with a roar like a blast furnace. Sparks fell like rain, and they had to push off and make fast to a snag at a distance.
The forest monarch was soon a pillar of flame lighting up the swamp forest with a lurid glare. It was a wonderful sight, but not much comfort to the tired travellers, who, after a meal of cold meat and nothing else, lay uncomfortably on the rough logs of the raft, surrounded by a cloud of vicious mosquitoes and sand flies. The worst of it was that they had no drinking water. The river here was so foul with rotting vegetation that the Professor told them flatly that it meant fever to touch the water without first boiling it.
In the morning Dick got some green wood and made a platform on one end of the raft. On this he lit a small fire, just enough to boil a couple of quarts of water. This gave them a good drink of coffee apiece, and enough boiled water to fill a flask.
Then they got on. The one thing they wanted was to get out of this filthy place.
It was not easy. Besides the weed that was always hanging them up, there were all sorts of side channels which had to be watched carefully so as to make sure that they were what they seemed. Sometimes it was precious difficult to decide which was the true channel. There was hardly any current to guide them.
The heat was awful. Down in this airless ravine between the two banks of solid, lush green vegetation not a breath of wind could reach them. The air was as stagnant as the tepid water.
Towards night, and just as they were beginning to believe that they would have to spend a second night on the raft, the trees broke away, and suddenly they found themselves out on a river four times as big as the one they had left.
'Hurrah!' cried Amyas, in great delight. 'This must be the Grande at last.'
The Professor had a map of Bolivia. He opened it.
'That's so Amyas,' he said. 'I guess there isn't any doubt but this is the Rio Grande. Which way do we go now?'
'Down it for about thirty or forty miles. Then we turn up into another tributary which flows in from the East, and go up that.'
'What's the name of this other river?' asked the Professor.
'I don't think it's got one,' replied Amyas.
'And it isn't marked in my map,' said the Professor.
Amyas's face clouded. 'We shall have a job to find it, I'm afraid,' he said.
'Never mind that now,' put in Joe. 'There's a good bank opposite high and dry. Let's get across and cook supper. It's two days since we had a proper meal, and we can't discuss plans till we have.'
'That's sense, Joe,' said Selby, and set to work again with his pole.
The Grande here was more than a hundred yards wide and pretty deep. The water was much cleaner than that of the swamp creek. The far bank was high and dry, and it was the greatest comfort to get a good fire burning and have a proper, hot meal.
The river swarmed with fish, and Joe caught two large silvery chaps that looked like bass. They weighed between four and five pounds apiece, and were capital eating.
The night was the best they had had for a long time, and in spite of their knowledge that they had a difficult job before them, to find their way, they started next morning in capital spirits.
There was a good current to help them; there were no weeds, and they travelled at a good round pace. They would have gone even faster but that they had to watch the bank for any trace of Visega's camping places.
It was quite late in the afternoon before a shout from Joe gave proof that he had seen something. Presently the raft was opposite a deep break in the reeds that bordered the stream, and going ashore they found the site of a camp and the ashes of a fire.
'Two days old,' was Dick Selby's verdict. Then he chuckled. 'He hasn't got a notion we're after him. He ain't hurrying.'
'More likely he can't hurry,' said Joe wisely. 'He's been taking too much out of those Indians of his.'
'If we can only find the right creek we ought to catch him,' added Amyas. 'Let's hurry on and see if we can spot it before dark.'
After their bad time in the swamp the luck seemed to have changed again. The mouth of the tributary creek was only a few hundred yards away. It was pretty clear that Visega had found it and then turned back to camp on the nearest good ground. There was an hour or two of daylight left, and they started up it.
But now they had to travel up-stream, and the weight of their clumsy raft told terribly. There was a strong current in this tributary, and work as they might the banks passed very slowly. They kept as close to shore as possible, but even so it was hard to get on. They were forced to camp barely two miles up the creek and on bad, wet ground, too. They saw no sign of game, but Dick shot a couple of waterfowl which were not bad eating.
The next two days were cruelly hard. It was one long slog against the current, and they all felt that, instead of gaining on Visega, they were probably losing ground. On the second night they found no game. What was worse, they could catch no fish.
Professor Perrin looked grave. He took some of the water and put in it a few crystals from a little pocket case which he always carried. Then his quaint face grew more serious than ever.
'This water's poisoned,' he said. 'It's full of copper salts.'
The Poison River!' exclaimed Amyas. 'I remember Dad speaking of it. But I thought it was farther on.'
It's right here,' replied the Professor. 'Did he say how far it went?'
'Not that I remember,' answered Amyas. 'How do you explain it, Professor?'
'Most like there's a creek running into the stream, some distance above, that has come through ground impregnated with copper salts. Or it may be this river itself. I must warn you all that neither fish or game are to be found along a river poisoned like this.'
Amyas turned to Joe. 'What do you say, Joe? We've no right to take the Professor and Dick into this sort of country.'
'That's so, we haven't,' replied Joe, in his direct way.
'What are you giving us?' jeered Dick Selby. 'What's the matter with you two kids? Are you going to lie down just when the job is getting interesting?'
'It's not a question of Amyas and myself,' returned Joe stiffly. 'It's running the Professor and you into danger.'
'Danger?' jeered Dick. 'Visega's gone this way already, hasn't he?'
'I suppose so,' replied Joe. 'But he's got more stores than we have.'
Dick cast his eye over the bales that lay in the middle of the raft. 'I guess we can last out a week at a pinch. I tell you straight I'm going right ahead unless the Professor says, No!'
'You'll wait a right long time before you hear me talk that way,' said the Professor, in his dry way. 'For that matter this poison water may last only a mile or two for all I know.'
'I knew the Professor wasn't going to turn it down,' said Dick, grinning. 'Come on, Joe. No ill feeling. I know you meant it nicely.'
No more was said as to turning back, and they pushed on with all speed. As Dick had said, their food would last for some days, but the water was a very different question. The creek was absolutely undrinkable, and the farther they went the worse it got. Nor could they find any springs. At night they had to camp early and dig a hole into which water slowly filtered. Even this was not good, though it made passable coffee.
For three whole days they toiled on up this horrible creek, driving their heavy raft against the stream. The country was appalling. Not a green thing grew anywhere near the river. It was bounded by pebbles and bare sand. At some distance away on either side were bare hills, with just a trace of grass or a few prickly cacti here and there. The sun glared down, and there was no cover of any sort, either by day or night.
As for life, all they saw was an occasional buzzard circling in the brassy sky.
By the end of the third day they were all suffering badly. They were on short rations, and the fearful heat and bad water were telling on them severely. Amyas had had a sharp attack of colic and Joe was none too well. The iron-framed Dick Selby was becoming very silent. Only the Professor, who was as tough as shoe leather, seemed unaffected.
The fourth day the sun rose hotter than ever. As far as eye could reach, the desolate valley stretched away in front of them. The heat rays beat back from the hills on either side with a dancing shimmer, and the river itself was lukewarm.
What was worse than all, the slope of the valley was increasing, and the stream in consequence ran more rapidly.
To Amyas, that morning was a horror. He was aching all over, so weak he could hardly use the pole, while his throat was like leather and his tongue a dry stick.
About eleven they came to a place where the river narrowed between high rocky banks. The current was very strong, and it was all they could do to push through.
Suddenly Joe gave a shout.
'There's a man lying dead on the bank.'
Amyas raised his dazzled eyes and saw a brown and almost naked body lying stretched close by the water's edge under an overhanging shelf of rock.
Mechanically he turned the raft inshore, and as she grounded stepped on to the bank. At once he caught sight of the Indian's face.
'It's—it's Pablo!' he gasped.
JOE jumped ashore after Amyas.
'Yes,' he said, 'it's Pablo. That brute Visega has murdered him.'
Amyas was kneeling beside the wasted body of the Indian.
'Wait!' he said sharply, 'he's not dead yet.'
He was right. Pablo was still breathing. There was some remnant of life in his wasted, shrunken body.
On board the raft was about a quart of coffee. It was all that the party of four had to drink for the whole of that burning, dreadful day. Amyas knew—none better—that without it, it was more than doubtful whether they would any of them survive till night. He turned uncertainly towards the raft.
There was the Professor with the tin in one hand, and in the other a flask containing their last few drops of precious brandy.
'I'll see to him,' said the Professor quietly, and bent down beside the unfortunate little Indian.
The Professor had as much medical knowledge as most doctors, and after working over Pablo for twenty minutes the Indian's eyes were open again, and he was swallowing the precious coffee in mouthfuls.
He would have drunk it all, but this the Professor would not allow. It was not that he grudged it, but that Pablo was not fit to take much of anything. He was nearly dead of thirst and ill- usage. The state of his back made Amyas writhe and Dick Selby say dreadful things.
Pablo recognised Amyas and Joe, and his eyes were full of dumb, dog-like gratitude.
'Will he live?' whispered Amyas.
'I don't see any reason why he shouldn't,' answered the Professor. 'If we can find good water he will pull round.'
'That's the rub,' growled Selby. 'The water's worse instead of better. And there isn't any place we can dig here. It's all rock.'
This was true, and by the look of the surroundings it was clear that there was no drinkable water anywhere near. Each of the party felt in their own minds that the situation was desperate. Amyas was secretly wondering whether it would not be best to turn and get back to their last night's camping place. There was water there to help Pablo.
Then he thought again. If there was water, there was no food. They were very nearly out of food. Certainly they had not enough to take them back to the mouth of the creek. No, their only chance for life was to push on, and that chance seemed a slim one. The farther they went, the worse the country seemed to become.
Since there seemed nothing else for it, they lifted Pablo on to the raft, propped a blanket, tent fashion, over him to keep off the sun, and started afresh.
The heat was frightful, and it was all they could do to keep the raft moving against the current. At the end of another hour they had travelled but a mile.
Amyas's head was spinning. His throat was so dry he could hardly breathe or speak. He saw that Joe's knees were quivering under him. Even the indomitable Dick was almost at the end of his strength.
Suddenly Amyas heard a hoarse whisper behind him. Turning he realised that Pablo had roused, and was trying to speak. He stopped poling a moment, and bent down beside the man.
Pablo spoke in Spanish and his voice was so low that Amyas could barely hear him. But when he did catch the import of the whispered words he started in amazement.
'Visega is only a few hours ahead,' he cried. 'It was only this morning he flung Pablo ashore. He can't be five miles beyond us.'
Amyas's news caused a tremendous sensation.
'Ask Pablo if the blighter's still got food,' said Dick hoarsely.
Amyas spoke again to Pablo, and the Indian replied.
Amyas jumped up almost briskly. His eyes were shining.
'Better than that!' he told them. 'Pablo heard him say that there was a sweet-water spring or creek only a few miles up. The brute dumped Pablo because he could not paddle any longer, and he was making a last effort to reach the good water.'
This news positively electrified the crew of the raft.
The Professor spoke up.
'We, too, must reach this water. We will use the last of our coffee to give us strength. We will rest now for half an hour under the shade of that overhanging rock and drink and eat. Then we will go on.'
It wasn't the rest, or the mouthful of food, not even the small mug of coffee apiece. It was hope that put new heart into the four. The thought that they were close to Visega made new men of them, and the rate at which the raft moved on up the dull green current of the Poison River was faster than anything they had done for the past four days.
The river curved sharply to the left, and the rocks drew in on either side so that the surrounding country was completely hidden. The four gasped in the smothering heat, yet wielded their poles steadily.
The stream grew swifter. It was all they could do to make headway. Amyas set his teeth and fixed his eyes on the still distant bend. On and on. The bend grew nearer. At last with a desperate effort they reached and rounded it, and from every throat burst a deep 'Ah' of surprise and relief.
In an instant the whole surroundings had changed. The raft was floating on a great smooth pool, an acre or more in extent. Opposite, the river came down a long steep slide in a roar of broken water. That was the Poison River. Its water was green as emerald.
But to the left were trees. Trees that lined a lovely little valley through which came another river, and this, though small, clear as crystal.
'Good water!' gasped Dick thickly, and with one accord all drove their poles down, and sent the raft fairly rushing towards the mouth of the new creek.
They drove right into it, then each and all dropped their poles and flung themselves flat.
'Steady, boys!' cried the Professor. 'Let us make sure.'
But no one heeded. All were drinking.
Dick raised his head. The water was dripping from his lips.
'Sure!' he repeated joyfully. 'It's sweet as milk.'
He was right. Better water no one needed to ask for, and new life flowed through their parched veins as they drank.
Amyas brought a mugful to Pablo, and could almost see his parched body swell as he drank it greedily.
They pushed the raft in under the bushes, and tied her up. Then one and all stripped off and flung themselves in. There were no crocodiles or snakes. The river was so clear they could see that it was safe.
The aching stiffness went out of their limbs like magic. Within ten minutes they all felt ten years younger. They laughed and talked like children.
Joe climbed back on to the raft.
'I'm hungry as blazes,' he announced.
'Guess I'll take a gun and go and shoot something,' said Dick. 'There'll be game in these here woods.'
The Professor held up a warning hand.
'I guess you won't, Dick. I tell you right now we are not going to shoot off any guns this evening. Kindly remember that Visega is probably not more than a mile or two up the creek, and that everything depends on our catching him unawares.'
'I'd plumb forgot,' said Dick, looking rather confused.
'You're right, Professor. What we got to do is to creep on that weasel while he's asleep. It won't hurt us to go hungry one more night.'
Just then there was a heavy splash up-stream.
'You can go hungry if you like,' said Joe. 'I'm going fishing.'
He picked up his tackle and a knife, and climbed ashore. Presently the rest saw him perched on a log a hundred yards up- stream with his line tied to the end of a long cane.
The bait, a fat grub, was hardly in the water before he had a fish. Possibly a line had never before been cast in that unknown creek. Joe pulled them up, one after another, almost as fast as he could bait.
Meantime the rest were deep in discussion, the subject being how best to trap Visega.
'We've got to do it quiet,' insisted Dick. 'That Dago'll lay low and shoot if he gets so much as an inkling that we're on his trail, and though I'll take my risks with any one, I don't want to get filled with lead by a low-down swab like that. See here, now. What do you say to this trick?'
They listened while Dick put forward his plan.
When he had finished, the Professor was silent a while. Then he nodded. 'Yes, Dick, I reckon that might work. It all depends on how far ahead he is. We've got to find out that before we sleep.'
'Amyas and me, we'll go and scout,' said Dick cheerfully. 'There's nigh on two hours of daylight left.'
'You'll be real careful?' begged the Professor.
'You can take it we won't run no risks,' Dick assured him.
Each had a biscuit out of their diminished stores. Then they went ashore, and climbed up through the thick brush to the upper edge of the deep ravine through which the river flowed. Keeping just within the upper fringe of brush, they went on briskly.
'The worst of it is,' said Dick to Amyas, 'that we can't say which side of the river we'll find the swab. And if it's the far side it'll likely be awkward.'
'We can swim,' replied Amyas.
'Ay, and give him his chance to start shooting if he spots us.'
'We can go farther up where he won't spot us,' replied Amyas.
'We haven't too much daylight left for that sort o' thing,' said Dick. 'Still, I reckon we'll get that map out o' him someways.'
They did not talk much more. The ground was very rough, and they had to move silently.
About a mile up the river curved. They reached the curve, and suddenly Amyas stopped and pointed.
'Smoke!' he said in a hissing whisper.
'By gum, you're right, boy. And this side of the river, too. The luck's in.'
He quickened his pace. The spot the smoke rose from was about half a mile away. The blue coils rose lazily up from among the thick trees by the water-side, and though they could see nothing of the encampment itself, it seemed as they could approach it, unseen.
They came opposite the smoke and Dick pulled up.
'Now,' he said, 'you stay right here, and I'll go down a piece to the left, and set that there cartridge in a thick place, with the fuse fixed to burn about five minutes. Then I'll come back, and while they're running out to see what's the matter, we'll walk into their camp and collar that there map.'
This had been Dick's plan, but Amyas suddenly saw a flaw in it.
'Steady on, Dick,' he said. 'Suppose Visega has the map in his pocket. Seems to me that's where he'll carry it.'
Dick's face fell. 'That's so,' he allowed. 'What do you reckon to do then?'
'Suppose we go down and take a look at the camp. What I think is that Visega's Indians will be gorging themselves on fish. Like us, they must have been jolly nearly starved. Visega himself hasn't a notion that we are within a hundred miles of him, and it's on the cards we might catch him napping.'
Dick considered a moment. 'All right,' he said. 'Only you let me go first, and don't you dare have one stick crack under your foot.'
It was exciting work, creeping down upon Visega's camp through the thick brush that lined the side of the ravine. Knowing the Brazilian as he did, Amyas was certain that, if he did once hear anything suspicious he would start shooting that moment. And Visega, he knew, was an extremely good shot. But he hardly thought of the danger. His one idea was to get the map back from the scoundrel who had stolen it, and perhaps to make him feel a little of the misery that he had inflicted upon his two victims.
Before long they were near enough to hear the fire crackling and to smell the keen smell of the wood smoke. Dick led. He was creeping along as silent as a ghost. Amyas kept close at his heels. It was rather comforting to him to see that Dick had his automatic pistol ready in his right hand.
A big bush with thick leathery leaves was in front of them. Dick crawled round to one side, and held up his hand. Amyas peering over his shoulder looked out on an open space close to the river's edge. It was a sweet little glade, with short grass growing on a flattish patch of sandy soil, and was overshadowed by a great tree with wide spreading branches. The fire burned in the middle, and cooking pots and other odds and ends lay around, but there was no one close to the fire.
Amyas looked round, and now he caught sight of a hammock slung from a great branch. In it sprawled the thin, lanky frame of Visega. One arm, long as a spider monkey's, dangled loosely, the other was curved behind Visega's head. And Visega himself was sound asleep!
But where were the Indians? For the moment Amyas was puzzled. Then he saw that Dick was pointing with his right arm, and looking in the direction indicated he caught sight of the five men in the canoe. They were on the far side of the river and some distance down. The screen of leaves almost hid them. He realised that the hammock and Visega were completely hidden from them.
THERE was a grin on Dick's face. He pointed to the men, then to the sleeping Visega. Pistol in hand, he rose softly to his feet and walked cautiously across to the hammock.
Visega woke to feel a cold ring of steel pressed against his temple, and Dick Selby's grim eyes staring straight into his.
If the whole situation had not been so serious, Amyas could have laughed outright, for the expression on Visega's dark face was ludicrous in its dismay and terror. But he did not attempt to move or even to cry out. He had sense enough to know what would happen if he did.
'I'll trouble you for that map,' said Dick. His voice was little more than a whisper, yet held a threat there was no mistaking.
Visega did not speak. He raised his loose hand as if to put it in his pocket.
'No, you don't,' snapped Dick. 'Sit up, you black thief.'
Visega sat up.
'See where his gun is,' said Dick to Amyas.
Visega's face when he saw Amyas was a study. His jaw dropped like that of a man who sees a ghost. He had, of course, been under the full impression that Amyas and Joe were lying dead miles away, their bones picked white by the ants of the forest.
So surprised was he that he offered no resistance at all as Amyas rapidly ran his hands over him, and finding a pistol in his hip pocket drew it quickly out.
'No knife?' questioned Dick.
'Can't feel one,' said Amyas.
'That's all right. And now for the map, you saddle-coloured swindler.'
Visega's eyes were like an asp's. If looks could have killed, Amyas and Dick would have died then and there. But Visega knew that he was up against it, and showing his teeth in a wolf-like snarl he withdrew the map from the pocket of his shirt.
Dick took it.
'Keep him covered, Amyas,' he said, 'while I see if this is right.'
'It's the map all right,' said Amyas. 'Now what about our share of the stores?'
Dick had opened the map. For an instant Amyas had his eyes off Visega. Visega saw it, and quick as a snake flung out his free arm, and caught Dick round the neck. With the same action, he flung himself out of the hammock right on top of Dick. The two went to the ground together.
Amyas saw Visega's sinewy brown hand close upon the pistol. He heard a shot as Dick's forefinger closed on the trigger. But Visega had pushed the muzzle aside. The bullet whistled harmlessly through the leaves above.
The two struggled furiously together.
'Shoot, Amyas! Shoot!' yelled Dick.
Amyas did not dare to. The pair were inextricably mixed as they rolled on the short turf. If he fired he might kill Dick instead of the Brazilian.
But he had to do something, and do it quickly. Reversing the pistol in his hand, he took his chance, and struck Visega over the head with the butt.
With the thud of the blow, the Brazilian went suddenly limp. He collapsed like a burst paper bag, and lay upon his back, breathing heavily. Dick, panting with exertion, clambered to his feet.
'The dirty Dago! He's worse than a snake!' he said. 'I didn't think he had it in him.'
'Have I killed him?' asked Amyas aghast.
'Bless you! It'd take more'n a rap like that to kill that sort o' swine. He'll be all right again in an hour or two, barring a headache. But, say, here are these Injuns coming back.'
'I don't fancy they'll make much trouble,' said Amyas. 'They're a cowardly lot. Wait! I'll talk to them.'
Putting his pistol in his pocket, he walked down to the water's edge and met the boat as it came in.
The crew recognised him at once, and, stolid as Indians are, looked their amazement. Like Visega, they had, of course, supposed that Amyas was dead long ago.
But they hated Visega, and remembered how Amyas had interfered on Pablo's behalf. Their dull faces lighted up, and one cried out, 'Good fortune, Seņor.'
Amyas beckoned them in, and they came willingly. 'They seem to like you, partner,' came Dick's voice, and here he was, just behind Amyas, with a grin on his brown face.
'They're all right,' replied Amyas. 'What have you done with Visega?'
'Tied him up neck and crop. You can bet your boots I'm not taking any chances with his snakeship.'
'If you leave him tied, these fellows will finish him,' said Amyas rather grimly.
'A good job, too. The world would be cleaner without him.'
'Yes, but you know as well as I that we can't do that. Tell you what. Let the Indians take us down in the boat to our camp, and we can carry our share of the stores at the same time. Then we'll hold a council of war.'
'That sounds good to me,' agreed Dick. 'Come on.'
Visega had come to his senses again. His face, when he saw what was happening, was a study.
'You will not leave me like this?' he screamed.
'Don't answer him,' said Dick in a low voice to Amyas. 'A couple of hours tied up like that will read him a lesson.'
Amyas shrugged his shoulders, but obeyed. As they paddled away down-stream they were pursued by the Brazilian's screams for mercy.
Joe, still fishing, was the first to see the boat appearing. Stolid as he was by nature, he gave a shout of delight. Then they pulled up to the raft, and were greeted with delight by the Professor.
The Indians were set to cook fish. They were also given a ration of tobacco which rejoiced their hearts. Then the four white men sat on the raft in the cool of the evening and talked matters over.
Selby's idea was to take Visega with them as a prisoner and hand him over to justice when they got back to civilisation. The Professor, on the other hand, did not want an extra mouth to feed. He proposed that they should take the four best Indians and the boat, and leave Visega the raft and the other two men with just enough supplies to take them back.
There was a deal of argument, but in the end the Professor's plan was adopted, for Joe and Amyas both agreed that they did not want this treacherous scoundrel with them, even as a prisoner.
There was a good moon that night and, when it was well up, they went up-stream again in the canoe and fetched Visega. They did not tell him their plans, but left him to stew all night.
It was clear that he had no hope for his life. He thought they were only waiting for daylight to either hang him or cast him adrift. They left him tied up to a tree, but with a blanket and a mosquito net.
They themselves had had a capital supper. They were happier in their minds than for many days past. All slept well, and woke feeling fit and cheerful.
The first thing to do was to pack the stores in the canoe. They took all the best of the stuff and all the fire-arms. Visega would have to take his chance. After all, he would have the current to help him all down the Poison River, and could cover the distance in a quarter of the time it had taken to come up against the stream. In the Grande there were plenty of fish, so Visega and his crew were not likely to starve.
The two Indians assigned to Visega were very loath to stay with him, but Amyas promised them good pay, and told them that Visega would be afraid to knock them about. He himself tackled Visega, and talked to him like a Dutch uncle.
The Brazilian did not answer. Now that he realised that the boys had no intention of finishing him, he had got over his scare. But Amyas did not flatter himself that the man had any sense of shame. On the contrary, he saw again in his eyes that snake-like glitter which meant murder or worse.
Joe saw it too.
'We ought to have finished him out of hand,' he said to Amyas. 'I don't believe there's any safety for us so long as that son of a gun is alive.'
Amyas laughed. 'What earthly harm can he do us without stores, fire-arms, or the boat? Don't worry, Joe. Once we start away from here, that's the last we shall ever see of the ruffian.'
Joe merely grunted, and went on with his preparations. They were naturally a little late in starting, but that did not matter so much. The Hidden City was not going to run away; and now that they were not chasing Visega they could more or less take their own time.
About nine in the morning all was ready, and they pushed off up-stream. Looking back, they saw Visega on the raft with the two Indians. They were swinging the clumsy craft out into the stream.
Then the bend in the creek hid the raft, and with a sigh of relief they set to paddling hard.
The comfort of the canoe was a delightful change after the roughness of the raft, and they made good speed. The country now was completely different, with lovely woods on either side, plenty of birds, game, and fish. About three in the afternoon they saw a buck drinking, and Dick, with a clever shot, brought it down. The Indians were delighted. They had not tasted meat for days.
All went well. The only thing that troubled them was that the river grew swifter and more shallow. It was hard work getting on, and twice they had to tow the canoe up rapids.
They camped early and ate their fill of roast venison.
Next day the river was still narrower and more of a torrent. Towards afternoon it became clear they could not take the boat much farther. Amyas consulted the map, and found that the trail seemed to leave it some miles higher up and turn away to the south-east.
'Must have been more water then,' said Joe. 'We'll have to stop here. What shall we do with the canoe?'
'Have her up out of the water and cover her with branches. So long as the sun doesn't strike on her, she'll be all right,' replied Dick.
They found a good place, hauled her up, and covered her over completely. As Amyas said, you might have walked over her without seeing her.
Then came the job of making up the loads, and now they found what a pull it was to have four extra men as carriers. The Indians could carry sixty pounds weight apiece without hurting them. Pablo, of course, had no load, but two days' rest had pulled him round wonderfully. He was quite equal to walking.
For the rest of the day they tramped on up the river, which soon dwindled to a mere brawling brook. Night found them at the spot where the trail swung off, and here they camped.
Next morning they were off bright and early. But they could not travel fast. Their route lay across a series of ranges of low hills, with swampy valleys in between. The country was heavily wooded, and sometimes they ran into thickets of low, prickly shrubs which were quite impenetrable. They lost much time in skirting round them.
In the course of the afternoon Amyas noticed that the Indian carriers seemed uneasy. He asked Pablo what was the matter and Pablo told him that they had seen signs of wild Indians.
Amyas was not surprised. He had heard that this valley country was inhabited. The Professor said the same.
'I'd like mighty well to see some of them,' he said. 'They're probably less known than any people in the world. I'm told that each of the larger valleys has its own tribe and that they differ in colour, speech, and looks. They are mostly at war, one with another, that's the worst of it.'
'A cheerful lot,'said Dick. 'Still, if we get chivied by one lot maybe the next will help us out.'
'I shouldn't count on that,' remarked the Professor dryly. 'You'll be mighty apt to find yourself jumping out of the frying- pan into the fire.'
Pablo's warning made them careful, and they kept their fire- arms ready and a very sharp lookout. But for the rest of that day they saw nothing of human beings. There was game, however, in plenty, and Dick shot a wild pig which gave them excellent roast pork for supper.
They camped on a hill-top and kept a good watch all night.
For the next three days they travelled over the same sort of country, but without any adventure more exciting than killing a twelve-foot python which lay, gorged, right in their path.
On the fourth evening from the river, as they were pitching camp, Pablo came stepping up to Amyas, and beckoned to him to follow. He took him out into the open and pointed back along the trail.
Amyas stared hard but could see nothing.
'What is the matter?' he asked of the Indian in Spanish.
Smoke,' said Pablo. 'Two hills away.'
Amyas looked again, and sure enough there was a tiny coil of gray smoke barely visible against the clear blue of the evening sky.
'Indians?' asked Amyas quickly.
'No, seņor. Indians do not camp on the hill-tops.'
'Then who the mischief can it be? There are no white men in this country.'
Pablo shivered a little. 'I think it the Seņor Visega,' was his startling reply.
AMYAS stared at the man. Then he laughed.
'Visega! What nonsense! We left him barely food enough to get back up the river. And we gave him no guns. He'd never be crazy enough to risk an attempt to follow us.'
'All the same, I think he Visega,' replied Pablo stubbornly.
Amyas strode back into the camp, and told the Professor what Pablo had said.
The Professor shook his head. 'The man hasn't the pluck for that sort of adventure,' he said. 'I guess it's more likely to be a war-party from one of these tribes.'
'After us?' questioned Amyas.
'Maybe. But more likely raiding another tribe. Still, I reckon we won't run any risks. We'll build a proper camp to-night.'
They cut down bushes and made a fence round their sleeping place, and the guard was relieved every two hours. Barring that a jaguar came close up and screamed like a soul in torment, nothing disturbed them.
Next day's march was equally peaceful, and that night there was no sign of any smoke. They all felt reassured—all except Pablo, who, though he did not say anything, was still uneasy.
On the following day they found themselves dropping into a valley much wider and deeper than any they had seen yet. The bottom of it was heavy forest, and they had to go slowly and cautiously. In the worst of it they were lucky enough to strike an old trail. It was a real road, or rather had been at one time, for though overgrown with underbrush and in places covered with mud, the bottom of it was slabs of solid stone. The Professor was intensely interested, and still more so when they came to a stagnant creek, and found it spanned by a stone bridge. The bridge was made of enormous slabs of stone of which the centre one was no less than eighteen feet in length.
'This is mighty interesting,' said the Professor. 'It's built just like the clapper bridges you have over in England on Dartmoor. I should reckon this may be as much as three hundred years old.'
'It may be three thousand by the looks of it,' said Dick Selby. 'Anyway it's mighty convenient. I'd hate like sin to have to swim this mud ditch. Look at that beauty, will you?'
He pointed as he spoke to an enormous alligator which lay in mid-stream, with its monstrous, ridged head just above the oily water. Its yellow eyes, half hidden under horny lids, watched the party with an evil, unwinking glare.
'If I'd a cartridge to spare, I'd give you one for yourself, you son of sin,' growled Dick.
'I guess we can spare a few minutes while I take some measurements,' said the Professor, and the rest, tired with the long, hot march, were not sorry for a rest.
All but Pablo. He kept looking back, and presently went softly up to Amyas, whom he always looked upon as his particular friend and protector.
'You tell them no time to wait,' he said in his halting Spanish. 'Visega, he still chasing us.'
'Visega! Have you still got that maggot in your brain?' returned Amyas.
'It no maggot,' replied Pablo steadily. 'Visega coming, and many with him.
He was so urgent that Amyas was impressed, and spoke to the Professor.
'The man's crazy,' said the Professor sharply, and turned back to the big stones and his notebook.
Joe had overheard. 'Tell you what, Amyas,' he said. 'Suppose we shift the stuff across to the far side of the creek. I don't believe there's anything in what Pablo says, but that will put us on the safe side. What do you think, Dick?'
'Might just as well,' replied Dick carelessly, 'but if you ask me, I don't believe that Dago is within a hundred miles of us.'
The Professor, oh all fours on the bridge, was distinctly annoyed at being disturbed by the passage of the rest of the party. But within five minutes they were all safely across, leaving him still working with a measuring tape on the great stone of the central arch.
The porters had just dumped their loads when there was a sudden rush of feet, and with a savage yell a body of brown men, numbering at least a hundred, came charging out of the wood straight for the bridge.
The attack was so sudden and, in spite of Pablo's warning, so unexpected, that for a moment the party were almost paralysed with surprise.
Dick Selby was the first to recover himself. The shot-gun happened to be leaning against a tree close beside him. He snatched it up and fired both barrels straight at the head of the attacking column.
By doing so he most certainly saved the Professor's life, for two brawny fellows armed with spears were in the act of dashing upon the defenceless old gentleman. The two charges of shot caught their bare bodies full, and at such a close range knocked them both off the bridge into the dark, sullen depths of the creek below.
To do the Professor justice, he did not waste any time but spinning round came scuttling back at remarkable speed.
By this time Amyas and Dick had each got hold of a rifle and were firing as hard as they could pull trigger. Dick had dropped the gun and snatched out his automatic, from which he was pumping bullets as fast almost as a maxim could fire.
Flesh and blood could not stand such a volley. The Indians stopped, turned, and dived back into the forest, where they vanished like brown ghosts into the green depths. But nearly a score of bodies lay piled on the far side of the narrow bridge.
'By gum, but I'm glad you brought us across, Amyas,' said Dick. 'If they'd caught us the other side, as they certainly expected to, we'd have been dead meat by now, every mother's son of us.'
'Don't give me any credit,' replied Amyas. 'It was Pablo's doing. But I say, did any one see Visega?'
'No,' said Dick. 'He wasn't there. I don't believe he has anything to do with this. This here is a war-party of Indians, and I guess, from what Pablo said, they've been after us for quite a while. They reckoned this was the spot to catch us. Well, they got left this journey.'
'We're not out of the wood yet,' returned Amyas. 'They'll try it again just now. Or if not, they'll follow us for a better chance.'
'I guess Amyas is right,' said the Professor. 'And we can't stay here for ever and guard this bridge.'
'That's a fact,' allowed Dick. 'See here, suppose we could shift that stone on the near side of the bridge. That'd leave a gap too big for 'em to jump, and I don't reckon they'll be any too keen to swim. Ugh, look at that.'
He pointed, as he spoke, to a spot under the far arch, where two monstrous alligators had each seized upon the body of one of the dead Indians, and were lashing the water into foam as they struggled for their dreadful meal.
'A good notion, Dick,' agreed Joe. 'But it will take at least four of us to move that stone, and we shall need levers to do it.'
'You and I and two of the Indians,' said Joe. 'Amyas and the Professor will stand ready with guns, in case of a second attack. Wait a jiffy. Ill get the levers.'
Picking up an axe, he disappeared into the forest. There came the ring of the axe blade on timber, and in a few minutes Dick was back with two eight-foot lengths of tough, heavy iron- wood.
Amyas and the Professor took up their positions with rifles, and Dick and Joe, with two Indians, set to work to lever the near side stone off its supports.
'They're watching,' said Dick sharply. 'I saw a chap move over by that dead tree.'
The words were hardly out of his mouth before an arrow hissed through the air, and, missing him by no more than a yard, stuck quivering in the ground.
On the instant Amyas fired, and as his bullet tore crashing through the thick foliage opposite there came a wild scream and the sound of a heavy fall.
'Got him!' cried Dick, in triumph. 'Now, Joe, up with it.'
The tough levers bent under the tremendous strain, but they did not break. The great stone creaked as it was heaved slowly from its age-long bed.
Phut! Phut! came fresh arrows, but they were shot from farther away in the thick of the swamp opposite. They went over the white's men's heads.
'Once more!' roared Dick.
A last effort, and the huge slab rose from its socket in the bank and slipped away. With a ponderous crash it struck the water, flinging up a fountain of yellow foam. Then it sank below the surface and disappeared.
The lever party bolted back under cover of the trees.
'They'll not jump that in a hurry,' said Dick, with a satisfied air.
'But they can bridge it with a tree trunk,' replied Amyas.
'They've got to cut the tree and carry it across first,' said Dick. 'And I have my doubts whether they have axes.'
'Whether that is the case or not, I reckon the best thing we can do is to move at once,' said the Professor. 'So long as we are in this swamp, we can't see what's happening behind us.'
'That's so,' agreed Dick. 'Pick up those loads. March. Pronto!'
The far side of the swamp was worse than that which they had crossed already. Acres of thin, grayish mud stretched away on either side of the causeway. A pestilential reek rose from it, and swarms of stinging insects buzzed in the hot, thick air. The heat was frightful. The whole party dripped with sweat. Every thread of their clothing was soaked. But they never checked for a moment. The danger behind drove them on.
For two long hours they tramped along the narrow causeway through the fetid atmosphere, and just when they were all on the very edge of collapse the ground at last began to rise. The huge dark cypresses of the swamp land gave way to magnolias and oaks, and the ground became more firm.
Another mile, and suddenly they were out in the open, in a great grassy savanna, with clumps of trees here and there. Some miles away a line of steep hills bounded the horizon.
With one accord they all stopped and looked back.
'Beaten 'em out,' said Dick, with a satisfied air. 'By gum, I doubt which I'm more pleased about—getting away from them Injuns or getting out o' that swamp.'
'We're out of the swamp all right,' said Joe, in his dry way, 'but don t you be too sure that we're quit of those Indians, Dick. They were a hard-looking crowd, and we've slain a lot of them. They're not going to let us go scot-free, if they can help it.'
'That's very true, Joe,' said the Professor. 'I guess they'll follow at a distance, and make their pounce in the dark. I reckon we've got to reach those hills before night, and find some place where we can hold them off.'
Dick groaned. 'Them hills is a terrible long way off. Still, I reckon you're right, Professor. It's a mighty good thing to have one's back to a rock when the odds is twenty to one.'
Cold coffee was passed round. They ate a biscuit apiece, and a bit of cold meat. Then on again.
The shadows began to lengthen, but the hills were still a long way off. The party had never before marched so fast or far, and all of them were weary and foot-sore. About four o'clock Dick pulled up again.
'Professor,' he said, 'I guess we'd best take another spell. There's no sense in walking our legs off.'
They stopped again, laid down their loads and flung themselves on the grass.
All but Pablo. The little Indian remained on his feet, his sharp eyes searching the surrounding country. Suddenly he turned and came running up to Amyas.
'They come, seņor,' he said in his halting Spanish. He pointed as he spoke to the north. Up in that direction a screen of thick wood lay all across the valley, and as Amyas looked, a long line of men came at a run out of the thick into the open. The afternoon sun threw back glints of light from the polished metal of their spear points.
'Gee, but they're coming, sure pop!' cried Dick, as he sprang to his feet. 'It's us for the hills, partners.'
In the excitement, the party forgot how tired they were and went off at a great pace. But the weight of the packs soon told, and they began to slacken off.
The Indians, who had next to nothing to carry, came at a trot, and gained rapidly. They did not shout or make any sound. Amyas almost wished they would. There was something terrifying in their silent pursuit.
Amyas looked at the hills. They were different from anything that they had yet seen. A mass of broken precipitous rocks dull red in colour, in some places quite bare, in others thickly clad with low brush. Here and there were curious stains on the rock.
He glanced back over his shoulder at the Indians, they were still a mile away, while the foot of the hills was rather more than two. If nothing happened, Amyas judged that he and his party ought to get there just ahead of their pursuers. If they failed to do so, it was all up. Caught in the open, they would be overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers.
The next half-hour was a nightmare of agony. Even the Indian porters were stumbling as they half ran, half walked. The Professor's face was gray. He was almost worn out, but he stuck to it without a murmur. Every time that Amyas looked back the Indians were nearer. He noticed that they were in open order. Clearly, they had learnt their lesson, and were not going to charge on the guns of the white men in a solid mass.
'Come on, boys,' cried Dick hoarsely. 'One more run and we'll get there all right.'
He broke into a run as he spoke, and the rest, panting and stumbling, followed as best they could.
The foot of the cliffs was only a few hundred yards away, but the Indians were almost within arrow-shot. Amyas could hear the soft thud of their bare feet as they raced tirelessly across the short dry grass.
A belt of low but thick scrub grew along the foot of the cliffs. Tough, wiry stuff, with no pathway through it, yet not high enough to give cover.
Amyas was close to the Professor. He saw that the latter was almost done. He was reaching out to help him when the Professor tripped and fell heavily.
'Hurt?' panted Amyas, as he caught hold of him to pick him up.
'My ankle,' gasped the elder man hoarsely. 'I guess it's twisted.'
Amyas dragged him to his feet. He fell again.
With a sharp 'phut' an arrow struck the pack on Amyas's back.
FOR an ugly moment Amyas thought it was all up. Then came the sharp crack-crack of a rifle. Dick had seen what had happened and was firing rapidly.
He was a wonderful shot, and the first three of the pursuing Indians went down like ninepins. The rest stopped, and began fitting arrows to their bows.
Joe came plunging back through the scrub. He took hold of the Professor's other arm, and he and Amyas, between them, half dragged, half carried him on. Dick stood where he was, shooting with a deliberate and deadly accuracy. Nearly every shot told, and the Indians, plucky as they undoubtedly were, flung themselves flat on the ground to escape the deadly hail of bullets.
But Dick saw that those behind were spreading out in a wide semicircle and closing in so as to catch the fugitives in a crescent between themselves and the cliffs.
'Give me a shout when you're safe,' he cried, without turning his head.
'All right. We'll tell you,' shouted back Amyas, as he struggled onwards.
The brush was as wiry as heather and nearly breast high. It was all that he and Joe could do to get the Professor on at all. And even when they reached the cliff foot, how was he to be got up it? Amyas's heart sank to his very boots as he realised what they were up against.
Somehow they struggled through the scrub. Amyas saw their own four Indians a long way up the cliff. They were scrambling on hands and knees: it was terribly steep.
'Are you right?' came Dick's voice.
'He will have to help us,' said Amyas to Joe. 'We can never get the Professor up alone.'
'You leave me and go on,' said the plucky Professor. 'It's not a mite of use your all throwing your lives away.'
'Hurry!' shouted Dick. 'Some o' them Injuns is in the scrub. They're studying to get around us.'
'I help,' came a voice at Amyas's elbow, and there was Pablo, though where he came from Amyas had not a notion. He noticed vaguely that the little man had no pack.
'Stores hid, Seņor,' said Pablo swiftly. 'They quite safe behind rock.' As he spoke, he got behind the Professor, put his hands under his armpits, and began to lift him up the slope. Good feeding had given back his strength to the little Indian. His muscle power was startling.
'All right, Dick,' sang out Amyas. 'We're on the cliff.'
Dick came plunging through the scrub like a buffalo. It was time, too, for some of the Indians, crawling inwards through the thick of the stuff, had got within forty or fifty yards, and were popping up one by one, shooting an arrow, then ducking clown again.
How they missed him was a miracle, but he was still untouched when he reached the rest.
It was frightfully steep, and there was no sort of cover. The Indians closed in swiftly, and arrows came zipping through the air, thudding with almost the sound of bullets into the face of the hill. Dick had to stop and shoot back. From this height he could see the Indians creeping like snakes through the scrub, and he got several of them. But the rest came on with a silent ferocity that was terrifying.
The poor Professor was almost done. It was all the boys and Pablo could do to get him on at all.
Pablo did most of the work. Without his help they could never have managed.
Amyas had noticed that the Indian carriers had suddenly vanished, but he had not time to think where or how. A moment before they had been in plain sight forty or fifty feet higher up the slope. Now they were gone.
All in a moment the mystery was solved. Amyas and Joe found themselves on the rim of a cleft running right across the hill- side.
'Luck!' panted Joe, as they hoisted the Professor over the rim and followed him. 'What a bit of luck! I couldn't have stuck it another minute.'
Dick stepped in after them, and turning flung himself down, and began to shoot again.
'Got the brandy, Dick?' asked Amyas. 'The Professor's all in.'
'Here's the flask. What about the cartridges? Pablo had 'em.'
Amyas drew a long breath.
'Pablo hid his pack among the rocks down below so as to help us with the Professor. Haven't you got enough?'
'Six left. That's all,' replied Dick curtly. 'And all the rest of the ammunition is in Pablo's pack.'
Amyas did not answer. He stared downwards into the bush now full of Indians. There were more than a hundred of them, and they were spreading out again. Or rather a number were creeping away towards the left, and looking in that direction Amyas saw at once what they were after. This cleft in which the party had taken refuge ran slantwise down the slope. The Indians were making for its lower end.
Amyas looked at Dick. 'We can't get the pack now,' he said.
'Then I guess we're in the tightest place of all,' replied Dick quietly. 'As soon as it's dark they'll be all over us.'
'Wait a bit,' growled Joe. 'What's the matter with sneaking away up this cleft? There may be some sort of cave or place we can hold up topside.'
Dick was silent a moment. He stared up the cleft. As Joe had said, it seemed to run in a big curve right up the hill-side, and looking at it more carefully, it had a curiously artificial appearance.
'It might be a track cut by those old chaps that made the causeway,' said Dick. 'Looks to me like there was a sort of path or ditch down the bottom. Yes, go along, Joe. It's a slim chance, but our last one.'
Joe nodded and went off. The rest lay on the grassy slope of the cleft. In spite of the deadly danger, it was all Amyas could do to keep himself from falling asleep. He had seldom been so done.
Dick had his rifle ready, and his keen eyes roved the surroundings. But the Indians were no longer in sight. No doubt they were gathering at the mouth of the cleft.
The Professor sat silent, hugging his ankle. Amyas roused himself to take off the sufferer's boot and examine the injury. The ankle was swollen, but not much discoloured. It was a nasty wrench, but not a severe sprain. Amyas took a bandage from his little ambulance case and bound the joint up tightly.
Minutes passed, the sun was dropping towards the western hills, and still no sign of Joe.
Suddenly Dick spoke up.
'There's a darned funny smell here. Do you get it, Professor?'
'I have observed it,' replied the Professor. 'Were it not highly unlikely in this wilderness, I should reckon that a motor- car or airship had passed by.'
'There's a little trickle of something down the bottom of the cleft,' observed Amyas. 'Seems to me it comes from that. Hallo, here's Joe.'
Joe Cobb came hurrying back down the centre of the ravine. As he clambered up the slope towards them the odour became stronger.
'There's a sort of stone tank or basin up at the top of this cleft,' he said. 'But it's full of some stuff and you can't get into it. Beyond, the hill-side is as bare as the palm of your hand until you get right up near the top. Then there's rough rock and scrub.'
The Professor woke up suddenly.
'What's the fluid in the tank?' he asked eagerly.
'Haven't a notion,' replied Joe, 'but it's the filthiest looking stuff you ever saw and reeks like—like an oil stove. There's some of it overflowing, and running down the bottom here.'
In spite of his injury, the Professor struggled up and began crawling quickly down to the bottom of the cleft. Amyas followed to help him.
The Professor reached the ditch-like channel, and now Amyas saw that it was in fact a narrow gutter paved with stone, down which seeped a thick, dark, treacly fluid with a most evil smell.
The Professor touched it with his finger; he smelt it. Then he looked at Amyas and his gray eyes were bright.
'Petroleum,' he said. 'It is a petroleum spring which Joe has found above there. Amyas, this gives us a chance for our lives.'
'Help me along,' he added quickly. 'I must see this tank at once.'
Though Amyas had not the foggiest notion what he was driving at, he called the others. The rest had done the Professor good, and the ground here was not so steep or rough as on the open hill-side. They went up comparatively quickly.
It was about three hundred yards to the tank. The tank itself was a massive affair of cut stone, some forty feet long and twenty wide. It was full to the brim with the same dark, ill- smelling fluid. The overflow did not come over the rim of the tank, but squirted, or rather oozed, through a hole near the ground.
Lame as he was, the Professor insisted on going up to this opening and examining it. He turned to Joe.
'Joe, what about the dynamite? Was that in Pablo's pack, too?'
'No, Juan has got the dynamite.'
'Praise be for that. Get a stick quickly, and a fuse. Be sharp. Our lives may depend on it.'
The carriers had followed them up. They were in deadly terror of the wild Indians, and were keeping close as possible to the white men. Joe had the dynamite in no time.
'Now call Dick,' ordered the Professor, 'and you, Joe, take his rifle and watch for our enemies.'
Joe obeyed. He and Dick changed places, and Dick set to work with desperate haste under the Professor's orders.
The sun had dipped, and the short dusk of the tropics was dimming earth and sky. An ominous stillness had fallen across the broad valley and steep hill-side. It was broken only by a slight scratching sound where Dick was busy under the wall of the tank.
Joe, staring fixedly downhill through the shadows, could sense the danger approaching. Though he could not see a single one of their enemies, he knew for a certainty that they were gathering for a rush. And there were six cartridges in the magazine—six only. Joe was not troubled with a lively imagination, yet for once he felt a nasty chill creeping up his spine.
The light faded fast. The bottom of the ravine was lost in the gathering shadows. He strained his ears for any sound of the Indians' approach.
Ah! there was a sound at last. It was hardly more than a rustle, yet at once he felt sure that they were coming. He stiffened all over, and his forefinger crooked on the trigger.
Round the bend of the ravine some fifty yards away the shadow grew thicker and darker. Joe turned his head to Amyas, who was lying just behind him.
'They're coming,' he whispered. 'Tell the others.'
Amyas nodded and flitted back.
Joe heard a slight clinking sound below. The Indians, so far as he could make out, were collecting all their force at the bend. Presently they would make a combined rush.
He heard Amyas's voice again. 'You're to get higher up the bank, Joe. When they start, give a shout.'
Joe nodded, and he and Amyas crawled higher up the bank. The suspense was breathless. Joe, of course, realised what the Professor was after. He meant to blow the bottom out of the dam, and trust to this flood of sticky beastliness washing down upon the Indians. For himself, however, he did not think it could work. The oil was not like water. It was sticky as treacle, and would take a long time to run down. The Indians he believed, would easily avoid it.
From below came a sound like a sudden stampede of frightened sheep.
'They're coming,' shouted Joe.
'SIT tight,' came back Dick's voice. 'Don't shoot!'
Like a dark wave, the Indians came charging up the broad dyke. There was no longer light enough to see their faces or figures. All that Joe and Amyas were able to distinguish was the mass of them running like a pack of wolves.
Nearer they came, nearer. Amyas could hardly breathe. As for Joe, he lay on the top of the bank to all appearance solid and stolid as a log, yet inwardly desperately anxious, and with his finger quivering on the trigger.
The head of the wave swept upwards, it was level with the spot where he and Amyas crouched. Only the darkness saved them. He glanced back towards the tank but could see nothing.
'Shoot!' whispered Amyas in his ear. 'Shoot! Something has gone wrong. If we don't stop them they'll get Dick and the Professor.'
Before Joe could answer the heavy thud of the explosion shook the ground. At the same moment there was a blaze of light. In the glare the two boys caught sight of the Indians streaming up past them in a thick column.
The explosion and the glare startled them. Most of them pulled up short. The flash passed, but was followed almost instantly by a great blaze of crimson flame. A cataract of fire spouted through the broken dam, and came rushing down the gully with startling speed. It filled the bottom with a river of fierce heat and light.
'The oil. It's burning,' hissed Amyas in Joe's ear. 'Get out of this, quick.'
He dragged Joe back, and the two, bent double, ducked away into the darkness.
Neither of the boys had ever supposed that this thick sticky stuff would burn, and the roar of it and the furnace-like heat almost paralysed them.
But if it frightened them, that was nothing to its effect upon the Indians. That this bare and dark hill-side should suddenly vomit liquid flame upon them was something clean outside their understanding, and was evidently, in their minds, due to the terrible magic of the white man.
These natives, who had faced bullets with the most amazing courage, now turned and ran for their lives, falling over one another in their frantic efforts to escape. So panic-stricken were they that, instead of bolting up the sides of the dyke, which they might easily have done, they fled straight down along the gutter at the bottom.
But this gutter was already soaked in the age-long trickle from the petroleum spring, and the gases that rose from it leaped into fire like a train of powder. In a trice the whole centre of the gulch was a long line of flame.
The place was a death-trap. The Indians, losing all their usual stolidity, shrieked and screamed with terror and pain. Many fell, never to rise again. Not a few were caught by the rushing tide of burning oil from the reservoir, and these were overwhelmed and vanished instantly. As for the rest, they ran like hares, dropping everything as they went. The gorge was littered with bronze-headed spears, bows and arrows, and other equipment.
It was all over in less than five minutes. By the end of that time the whole of the gorge was blazing to heaven, lighting up the wild hill-side and lonely valley for miles. And in the distance, still visible in the red glare, brown men ran like mad things, scattered over a mile or more of country.
Amyas drew a long breath, and turned to Joe.
'Like a miracle,' he said.
'A mighty useful one,' replied Joe. 'Hadn't we better go and thank the Professor for getting us out of the tightest place we've been in yet?'
'It wouldn't be a bad notion,' said Amyas. 'And after that we'd best fetch Pablo's pack and those cartridges. We won't get caught short next time.'
The oil burned for hours. The spring itself, in fact, looked as if it would be a fire fountain for all time. By the light of the burning, the party made their way slowly up to the crest of the hill where they found the ruins of what seemed once to have been an old temple of some sort. They went through it with a torch to clear out any unpleasant inhabitants in the shape of snakes or centipedes, then barricading the doorway with stones, enjoyed an undisturbed night's rest.
Next morning there was no sign whatever of the enemy. This was just as well, for though the Professor's ankle was better, it was quite plain that he was not going to be able to walk much for a day or two.
'Just as well to camp for a bit,' said Dick. 'We'll none of us be the worse for a rest, and looks to me like we got the worst of our journey before us.'
He and Amyas were standing on the top of the ridge looking towards the south-east, and Amyas, following with his eyes the direction of Dick's pointing arm, thought that he was probably right.
Below them a long slope stretched away, dropping at last into a great flat expanse of forest. Looking down from this height, the forest seemed green as a grass field after a May shower. Here and there across its surface hung a faint web of mist silvery in the morning sun. Pretty to look at, but deadly to breathe. It was the terrible fever fog.
Here and there were gaps in the green carpet—gaps that reflected the light with a dark oily lustre. They were tracts of bottomless swamp mud, absolutely impassable, worse than quicksands.
'It does look pretty beastly,' allowed Amyas. 'But beyond—look at those mountains. By the map, those are where the Hidden City lies.'
'I wish we were there,' said Dick, straining his eye towards the dim blue range that lay like a cloud in the extreme distance.
'Well get there,' replied Amyas confidently. 'The ancient track runs right through the swamps. If you look hard you can see it here and there.'
'Ay,' said Dick, nodding. 'I can see it. Say, Amyas, but they must have been wonderful folk who made that road. Well, all I say is, that I hope it'll carry us through. But it's likely a lot of it'll have sunk in the mud.'
He shook himself like a great dog.
''Tain't like me to be croaking. Come along back to camp, and let's get our guns. We got to shoot some meat to-day.'
They went back and got rifles and cartridge and food for the day. As they were starting, Pablo slipped up to Amyas in his noiseless way.
'You be very careful to-day, seņor, if you please,' he said, and Amyas was rather surprised at the earnestness with which he spoke.
'What!' he answered. 'Do you think any of the Indians are still hanging about?'
'It is not the Indians I fear, seņor,' replied the little brown man. 'It is that devil, Visega.'
Amyas stared. 'You don't mean to say you still think that Visega is following us?'
'Seņor,' replied Pablo gravely. 'I do not think. I am sure. Yesterday I saw him.'
Amyas was almost too surprised to speak. 'But none of us saw him,' he said at last.
'I do not wonder at that, seņor. He was disguised as an Indian. His body was bare, and darkened so that he was like the rest. But I—I should know him anywhere or in any disguise. Never could he deceive me.'
Amyas was a good deal disturbed. He promised Pablo to be careful, then as he walked off with Dick, told the latter of what Pablo had said.
Dick was entirely scornful. 'The little beggar has got Visega on the brain,' he said. 'Why, if Visega had tried to follow us, those Indians would have mopped him up before you could say knife. Anything with a white skin is their meat.'
'Visega's not so very white,' returned Amyas.
'Not inside at any rate,' grinned Dick. 'But come along, Amyas. I wouldn't worry about Visega anyhow. If he was in that push he was grilled with the rest of 'em.'
It seemed as if Dick was right. Not a sign or shadow of any human being did Dick or Amyas see that day, and they returned very cheerfully an hour before dark, both loaded with all the meat they could carry. Dick had shot a fine fat young pig, which gave them a supper such as they had not had for a long time, and meat in plenty for a couple of days.
At the end of the two days the Professor declared himself quite fit again. They were all feeling better for the rest and for the fresh air of the hill-top, and they started away very briskly on that third morning.
By the Professor's calculations, the distant mountain range was about eighty miles away. They hoped, with luck, to cover the distance in less than a week.
By nightfall, however, on that first day they had to revise their calculations. They had been struggling for hours through a swamp so dense and dangerous that, since they had entered it, they had covered no more than a mile an hour. If it had not been for the old road—or rather the traces of it—they would not have done even that much. In fact, they would never have got through at all.
The road had been built of solid slabs of stone, but the jungle had covered it and the mud hidden it so that one of the party had to probe with a pole to find any footing, and two others to chop away the thick branches and trailing vines with the machetes or brush hooks which are used all over South America.
The farther they went, the worse it got. The heat was simply appalling, and the reek from all these millions of tons of festering vegetation was enough to make even an Indian sick.
They were all beginning to wonder where on earth they would spend the night when, just before sunset, they were amazed to see rising ground ahead, and struggling onwards they found a large mound, in shape and height very like one of those barrows which you see here and there on the chalk Downs.
Tired as he was, the Professor's eyes lit up. 'Artificial,' he said at once. 'I reckon this is one of those kitchen middens which are found in Guiana and also in Mexico and Florida.'
'It'll be our kitchen all right, boss,' said Dick. 'Wait till we get a fire lit.'
It was not easy to get anything dry enough to light, but once they had done so, they soon had a roaring fire, and hot as it was they were glad to gather round it and get some protection from the hosts of mosquitoes and other stinging insects which rose in swarms from the swamp pools. They were all pretty tired, and having finished their supper, wrapped themselves in their nets and lay down.
Amyas lay awake with his eyes on the great glowing mass of the fire. He was thinking how wonderfully they had come through all their dangers and difficulties, and was feeling very grateful that they were all safe so far, when he was roused by a yell from Joe.
'What's up?' he cried, sitting up.
'I—I don't know,' Joe answered. 'I—I was asleep when something laid hold of my foot.'
'Laid hold of your foot,' repeated Amyas. 'Here, let's see.'
He got up and going across to the fire began to stir it into a blaze.
'Ow, there it is again!' cried Joe.
The fire blazed up with a crackling roar, throwing out a great glow of light.
'It's a crab!' yelled Joe. 'Heavens, what a brute!'
Amyas pulled a burning brand out of the fire, and strode across. The light fell upon a crab—but a crab of such a size as he had never seen before. It was quite two feet across the back, while from claw to claw it was double that width. As the light fell upon it, it flung its great claws up—as high as a man's waist, and stared at Amyas. Its eyes were the most horrible part of it. They were as large as half-crowns, glowing with a phosphorescent green and standing out on stalks three inches long. It did not seem to be at all afraid. There was something so hideous, so absolutely uncanny about the beast that both boys stared at it, appalled.
CLAWS waving, the monstrous crab came waddling forward, or rather sideways, in the unpleasant fashion peculiar to these creatures.
The movement roused Amyas and he struck at it furiously with the torch he held. The blow broke one of its eye-stalks right off, but before Amyas could draw his stick back the creature had seized it in one of its claws and snatched it from his hand. Then it began spinning round and round in a most hideous and uncouth fashion.
Amyas sprang back, picked up an axe which lay by the fire, and with one tremendous blow smashed the horrible thing.
Roused by the noise, Dick had jumped up. His first action was to fling an armful of wood on the fire.
'What's up?' he cried.
'A crab,' answered Amyas. 'The biggest ever.'
'Look out, Amyas!' snapped Joe. 'Here are more of 'em. Heaps more.'
Amyas spun round. Out of the black slough which surrounded the mound half a dozen more of the monsters were heaving themselves. They were a horrid sight with the swamp slime dripping from their coarse black shells and their great green eyes reflecting the firelight. Behind them the soft mud heaved and stirred as a regiment of the monsters came groping towards the island.
'My sacred Sam!' gasped Dick, but in a moment he was his strong sensible self again. He took the axe from Amyas.
'You two get them brush hooks,' he ordered. 'We got to stop these things from getting up here. They'll tear us up like paper if they gets hold of us. You, Pablo, pile up the fire. Give us plenty of light. I guess well need it before we're through.'
Then, followed by the two boys, he dashed down to give battle.
The leader of the invading army was bigger even than the first lone adventurer, but Dick's arm was strong and his aim sure. The back of the axe fell with a sickening crunch upon the huge beast's back, and though the shell was nearly half an inch thick, burst it like an egg. At the same time Amyas shore the eye-stalk and one claw from another, while Joe slew a smaller one outright.
Instantly the others all turned upon their dead comrades. They piled over them, tearing at them with their tremendous claws, fighting among themselves for the savoury morsels.
At this moment came a shriek of terror from one of the Indian carriers. Then Pablo's voice, 'They come from this side, too, Seņor Clayton.'
'Go and help, Amyas,' said Dick curtly. 'You and the Professor. Joe and I will handle this lot.'
Amyas darted away. Juan, one of the carriers, was lying, half fainting, on the ground with a horrid wound on the calf of his left leg. A crab had seized him, but he had wrenched himself away just in time to save his life. Below him the Professor, single- handed, but resolute, was waging war with the advance-guard of a second invasion.
Amyas sprang to his side and set to work.
The shells were like thin armour plate. It took two, often three, well placed blows to break through them, and all the time the great claws were waving, snapping like iron pincers in efforts to get hold of and pull down their opponents.
The creatures seemed to have no sense of fear. That was the awful part of it. It was like fighting machinery. It made Amyas's blood run chill in his veins to see the deliberate way in which these monsters of the mud came on and on.
Once one caught the blade of the Professor's machete in its claws. The plucky Professor would not let go, and was being actually dragged down into the mud when Amyas saw what was happening, and with one swift slash severed the brute's claw.
For a long time the only sounds that broke the steamy stillness of the night were the crunch of blows on the crabs' shells and the heavy breathing of the fighters. Their blades were chipped and notched, sweat streamed from every pore, yet they did not relax their efforts for a moment.
The only thing that saved them was the fact that these foul creatures were cannibals. As each rolled over under blow of axe or machete his fellows turned on him to devour him. And so the greater the pile of dead, the fewer advanced across it.
Pablo did his work nobly. The great fire roared like a furnace and shed a crimson glow far out across the glistening slime, and brought the great bats and soft-winged night birds swooping in swarms like moths above the flames.
Amyas was tiring fast. He had the feeling that the whole thing could not be real, that it was some horrible nightmare from which he must presently wake up. Those green glaring eyes creeping up one after another out of the ooze, the constant clashing of the huge nippers, the endless smashing at the hideous things were a fearful strain on nerve and muscle alike.
The fire behind roared higher yet. Suddenly there was a flash beside him. It was Pablo carrying a mass of great burning brands. He flung them down upon the army of crabs, then another Indian behind him piled a huge armful of branches on top. A new fire started with a flash and a blaze. The crabs, blinded, fell over one another in a tumbling clattering mass. They began to fight one with another, and as fresh ones crawled up behind, they fought with these, too.
Amyas swept the streaming perspiration from his eyes with the back of his hand.
'Good man, Pablo!' he said hoarsely. 'More wood!'
Pablo nodded and fled back. He and the other Indian brought fresh faggots and heaped them up. The invasion was stopped—at least on this side.
Amyas had a moment to look round. But no more crabs were coming. He went right around the mound, but the creatures, for some odd and unknown reason, had only two lines of advance.
Leaving the Professor to watch that none passed the fire, Amyas hurried to the help of Dick and Joe. Already the two had massacred such an army of the invaders that a barricade breast high lay in front of them. Behind it, hundreds more of the foul things fought over the bodies of their slain kindred.
Quickly Amyas told what Pablo had done, and all hands fetched fresh fire and flung it upon the outer side of the pile of dead. The result was the same. The creatures, with their hideous eyes burnt out, turned upon each other.
'A mighty good boy, Pablo,' said Dick approvingly. 'I guess we're all right now. Say, Amyas, you go and get a nap—you and the Professor and two of the Injuns. The rest of us'll keep watch. Well rouse you to take second watch.'
Amyas merely nodded. He was almost too done to speak. This time he was sound asleep almost as soon as he had laid himself down, and it seemed but five minutes when Dick woke him to say that it was one o'clock, that the remnant of the crabs had retreated to their swamp pastures and that all was safe.
In spite of this assurance Amyas insisted on making the rounds. But there was not a crab to be seen except dead ones, and having made up the fire afresh, he slept till morning.
It was a stiff and weary party that started next morning on their second day's march through the vast and terrible swamp. The trees locked overhead. They marched like mice at the bottom of a thick hedge, but, unlike mice, their pace was the merest crawl. They could never get so much as a glimpse of the distant hills. All the world seemed to be mud and monstrous trees, thorns, mosquitoes, and worse things.
The worse things were snakes. Wherever the ground rose the least bit or where the ancient road lay a little above the level of the morass, there lay coiled fat, filthy, and hideously poisonous water vipers. The reptiles were so sluggish that they hardly troubled to move out of the way. Every step had to be watched, for the tiniest prick of those curved needle-like fangs meant a hideous death.
The Professor kept up steadily and did his full share of the work, but Amyas, who by this time knew him well, saw that the light had gone out of his eyes, and that his face was wrinkled and worn. He knew that their leader was taking a very serious view of the position.
When they paused for their noonday rest and had each taken the stiff dose of sulphate of quinine measured out by the Professor, Amyas asked him quietly what the special trouble was.
The Professor looked round to make sure that no one else was listening. 'The camping place,' he whispered. 'It is this way, Amyas. I reckon these people who made this road, some three centuries ago, constructed certain camping or resting places at intervals along it. But then the road was good and sound, and they could travel perhaps three times as fast as we. What I specially fear is that we may not reach a camping place before nightfall. In that case, we must spend the night wherever we find ourselves, on the causeway. We may not even be able to light a fire. In any case, we should be at the mercy of these giant crustaceans, to say nothing of alligators and other dangerous denizens of this great swamp.'
Amyas nodded. 'To say truth, I had the same sort of idea, myself, Professor. It seems to me that, if we can't reach one of these camping places, the best thing we can do is to stop early in the afternoon, cut down trees and build some sort of refuge.'
'We shall have little strength left to cut down large trees,' replied the Professor gravely. 'Still, I imagine that is the only alternative. But say nothing to the others. It will only make them more uncomfortable than they are already.'
Amyas kept quiet as requested, but what the Professor had told him did not make the afternoon's toil any more pleasant.
Toil it was, too, with a vengeance. The swamp grew worse instead of better. In many places the causeway had sunk so much that they were forced to wade, waist deep, in the putrid water, probing each step with their sticks. Once they found a huge dead tree lying across their path. It was so rotten that the first who stepped upon it fell through waist deep into a mass of touchwood.
Instantly there swarmed out a host of huge brownish ants. They were each half an inch long, and bit like bulldogs. The Indians screamed with agony. The whole party had to wait until a fire could be made. Then they literally burnt their way through the barrier.
Soon afterwards they broke out of the swamp forest altogether. But this did not help them very much, for the trees were replaced by a growth like the saw grass of North America, only hugely bigger. The gray-green blades, each about three inches wide, rose twelve to fourteen feet out of the mud, and made an impenetrable wall on either side of the causeway.
Not quite impenetrable either, for every now and then they came to a spot where the giant grass had been crushed by the passage of some monstrous body.
Dick looked back at Amyas, who was just behind him.
'Gee, but these must be some alligators!' he observed.
Amyas merely nodded. He did not want to contradict Dick, but something which he had noticed on the causeway opposite one of these tunnelled paths had convinced him that the tracks were made by something far more formidable than even the great saw-toothed saurians of the swamp.
There was one good thing about the saw grass. It could not grow through the stones of the causeway, nor did it throw branches across. So, in spite of the mud, the party got on a little faster.
But Amyas was still far from happy. If there were no trees there would be no wood for a fire. If there was no fire they could not boil any water. And swamp water, unboiled, was poison—neither more nor less.
The sun sank, and the shadow of another night began to fall over the wide stretches of the great morass, yet still the party tramped slowly and wearily forward between the walls of tall, dense grass. No one spoke. They were too worn—and too anxious.
The dusk deepened, the bull-frogs began to croak, and out of the depths of the slough came the terrifying bellow of a great bull alligator. The swarms of flies sank back, to be replaced by hordes of hungry mosquitoes. Amyas was so deadly weary he could hardly keep his eyes open. He was half asleep as he walked. He was beyond thinking. All he wanted was to sink down and—mud or no mud—sleep.
'A camping place. We're all right, boys!'
Dick's cheery shout electrified the whole party, and Amyas, roused suddenly to the fact that their way was barred by a deep sluggish creek, but that on the near side of it, and on the left of the path, there was a platform about thirty feet square and made of great slabs of stone paving, like the road.
In a trice they had all scrambled up on it. At any rate it was high and dry above the mud. It was a place to sleep on. 'Now, if we can get something to burn I guess we're all hunky,' said Dick cheerfully.
Amyas roused himself. 'Not much but grass, I'm afraid,' he answered.
'Grass is all right if we use enough of it,' declared Dick. 'Get a hump on you, boys, and cut a good pile. We'll boil a pot o' coffee if we can't do nothing else.'
Dick was as tired as the rest of them, but his cheeriness put them all to shame. They set to cutting great bundles of the grass. It was dry enough at the tops and would make a rare blaze, but Amyas feared that an all-night fire was out of the question.
He was cutting away close to the creek side when he found Pablo at his elbow.
'You come. I show you something,' said Pablo in his soft voice, and led Amyas forward through a path he had cut right to the river bank.
Tired as he was, Amyas gave a shout of joy. For there, grounded in the mud, half in the water and half out, was a huge dead tree which must have been floated down there in some time of specially high water.
Dick came hurrying up. 'Say, what's the trouble?' he began. Then as he saw the tree. 'Luck's right with us,' he exclaimed. 'Come along. All hands bring axes.'
He himself stepped out upon the huge trunk, and was in the act of swinging his axe, when suddenly Pablo made a spring and caught his arm, crying out something sharply in Spanish.
'What's he say?' demanded Dick of Amyas.
'Something about a snake—a big snake,' replied Amyas. 'Where is it, Pablo?'
Pablo pointed. He was quivering all over and his eyes were wide open and fixed.
By this time it was unpleasantly near to darkness, and the thin coils of fever mist which hung across the smooth yellow water made it difficult to distinguish objects at any distance.
'I can't see anything,' said Amyas, puzzled.
'There!' said Pablo hoarsely.
'But that's the trunk or part of it. No, I see now. It moved. Dick, it's a snake, but what a brute! Its body's as big as yours.'
'Gee, but I see it. Phew, I never thought there was anything like that left in the world. Here—wait! I'll get the rifle.'
Again Pablo clutched his arm. 'No, seņor. If you shoot, you will not kill him. Then he will kill us.'
'Pon my Sam, he looks quite capable of it,' said Dick with a slight shiver. 'He's got a head on him like an alligator. But, see here, Pablo, we've got to have that wood and we've got to have it quick. If we don't, it'll be dark and we can't see to cut it.'
'He, anaconda. You no shoot,' said Pablo, driven in his terror to trying to talk English.
'I hate to contradict you, but I got to,' replied Dick, and turned to fetch his rifle.
HE was back in less than a minute.
'Where is he?' he demanded.
'He's gone,' replied Amyas. 'The moment you left he slipped away as quietly as a seal. Never made a ripple.'
'I'm just as pleased,' grunted Dick. 'My, but that was some snake!'
'And we never saw the half, no, nor the third of him,' replied Amyas. 'Well, let's get the firewood before it's too dark to see.'
Dried by long exposure to the burning sun, the old tree made a splendid fire, and hot coffee and good food did wonders for the tired travellers.
'No crabs either,' remarked Joe gratefully.
'There's that snake, though,' said Amyas. He turned to Pablo, 'Is that anaconda likely to attack us?' he asked.
'Not while the fire burns, seņor. For so long we are safe.'
'That's all right,' said Dick thankfully, when he heard. 'We've got to keep a watch anyhow, but one will be enough.'
The order of the watch was arranged. Amyas got a two hours' sleep first, then went on till midnight, to be followed by Joe. The Professor was to take from two to four.
Amyas was sleeping like the dead when he was aroused by a sharp shaking.
'Amyas.' It was Joe's voice. 'There's something up.'
'What—the snake?' asked Amyas, sitting up.
'No. Makes more noise than a snake. Sounds to me like paddles.'
Amyas shot to his feet.
'Those wild Indians—can they have followed us?'
'Don't seem likely. They'd never have got through this swamp—and the crabs and all. And as for going round the bend—why, it must be a hundred miles.'
'Then who are they?'
'That's what I want to know. It's too dark to see, and I don't want to stir up the fire. Likely as not, we'd get a flight of arrows on top of us if I make a blaze.'
'There, listen!' he added.
Sure enough, from the direction of the creek, there came a slight click and a low, rippling sound.
'Paddles, that's a sure thing,' said Amyas, puzzled. 'See here. Let's get our guns, Joe, and go over to the bank. No use waking the rest up till we know what's afoot.'
'Come on, then,' replied Joe, and, picking up their rifles, the pair tiptoed across the stone platform towards the creek.
It was the darkest part of the night, there was no moon, and the thin mist which hung over the swamp cut off most of the starlight. The fire, too, was quite low.
As already mentioned, the tall reeds made a fringe between the platform and the creek, and gave plenty of cover. But the platform, being raised, from its edge the two boys could just see over the tops of the reeds.
They stood staring. Certainly there was something moving out on the creek. Several objects.
'You're right,' whispered Amyas in Joe's ear. 'They're canoes. I can spot at least six. They must be Indians of sorts, but whether they're hostile or not is another matter. Slide back and wake Dick. It's rough luck on him, but we must have him.'
Joe slipped away. So far as Amyas could see, the canoes were stationary. The people in them had evidently seen the fire, and were probably planning to attack. Who were they? That was what worried Amyas. He would have given worlds to be able to see.
There was a whisper out there in the mist. Then a swish of paddles again. They were coming in. Amyas instinctively raised his rifle.
Behind him he heard footsteps. Dick was up.
Next moment there came a crackle, a blaze, a tremendous flare of light. Dick had thrown a great bundle of the dry reeds on the fire.
The flames shot up six feet and threw a lurid glare on the stone platform, the reeds, and the dead, dull creek beyond, and Amyas saw clearly six canoes each with seven or eight men.
He drew a long breath of gasping amazement. For the men in the canoes were white!
Next moment Joe and Dick were beside him.
'They're white,' cried Amyas hoarsely.
'The white Injuns!' said Dick quite quietly. 'I've heard tell of 'em lots of times, but never seed 'em.'
The Indians, apparently startled by the sudden blaze, had paused. Now that Amyas had a chance to see them more clearly, he realised that they were not really white, but a sort of pale, clay colour. Their hair was of an ashy hue. At first it occurred to him that they were Albinos, but then he saw that their eyes were blue and very large.
They were not pretty. Their faces, indeed, were hideous. They had flat noses like negroes, and very large mouths. In spite of their pale colour, they were a much lower grade of human being than any Amyas had yet seen in South America.
'Pretty-looking lot, aren't they?' muttered Dick. 'I guess the wisest thing we could do would be to plug their canoes full o' holes.'
'No, Dick,' said another voice. It was the Professor who had suddenly arrived. 'I guess you can't do that till we see whether they mean mischief. Besides, these people are of extreme interest. They are, without doubt, the white Indians of whom rumour has spoken so often. I have never seen any human beings to resemble them. Observe the length of their bodies and the shortness of their legs. That proves that they do not walk much, but live in their canoes.'
'What I chiefly observe,' retorted Dick grimly, 'is that there's nearly forty of 'em, and every mother's son has got a spear, and some other funny weapon, too.'
The Professor hardly seemed to hear. He was watching the Indians with intense interest.
'Their eyes are most curious,' he continued. 'Observe the enormous size of the pupil. I should say that they were nyctalops.'
'And what may that be when it's at home,' requested Dick.
'I mean that they are like cats,' said the Professor. 'I reckon they can see in the dark.'
'Human cats! My sacred Sam!' muttered Dick.
It was at this moment that the Indians, who had been staring hard at the glow which rose above the wall of reeds, seemed suddenly to make up their minds to a move. One gave an order in a queer purring voice, and instantly the rest bent to their paddles.
The canoes swung and came surging inwards, in the direction of the bank.
'I guess it's about time to start shooting,' observed Dick coolly.
The Professor caught him by the arm. 'Wait!' he said. 'They do not see us, and it is not yet certain that they mean to attack. In any case we can stop them as they come through the reeds.'
'That's just what we won't be able to do,' said Dick hastily. 'Once they're in them reeds we won't be able to see them, and they'll be all over us. Shout to 'em in Spanish, Amyas. Warn 'em off.'
Amyas shouted at the top of his voice.
The result was startling. With a hoarse yell of defiance, half the Indians sprang to their feet, snatched up long tubes, and placed them to their mouths. The rest paddled hard for the bank.
'Trouble, bad trouble!' said Dick, and aiming at the nearest canoe fired at its hull.
The bullet sent splinters flying, but the Indians, instead of panicking, howled with rage, and came on faster.
'Let 'em have it, boys,' shouted Dick. Then in a lower tone, 'I guess we've left it too long. They'll be in the reeds now before we can stop 'em.'
Amyas saw what Dick meant. He felt very uneasy. Once the Indians reached the reeds they could scatter through them and attack on a wide front, shooting out of ambush. If the Professor was right as to their power of night sight, they would have a tremendous advantage. And the worst of it all was that there was absolutely no cover on this bare stone platform.
He and Joe blazed away and Dick fired with his usual speed and accuracy. But the canoes were already almost out of sight behind the great barrier of saw grass. The white men could not see where they were shooting.
Next moment they heard the harsh rustle of the parted grass as the bows of the canoes struck it. Then there was a pause. Dick had stopped firing. He did not know in which direction to shoot.
Phut! It was a curious sound. Phut! Phut! Something zipped past Amyas's ear.
'Down!' cried the Professor in a voice they had never heard him use before. 'Down, all of you! They are using blow pipes and poisoned arrows. The least scratch means death!'
THEY didn't wait—any of them. Down they all went, flat on their stomachs, and there was not one who did not feel cold chills creeping up his spine. Honest fighting—that they did not mind, but poisoned arrows were something outside their experience. They knew, too, what the poison was—the dreadful 'ourali' which numbs the nerves and spells a hideous creeping death for which there is no remedy or escape.
The darts flew in showers, but by happy fortune all went well over them. They heard them tap-tapping on the stone behind.
Then the shower ceased, and they heard the Indians landing in the reeds below.
Amyas's heart beat hard. The position was desperate. This was worse than the crabs. Another minute or two, and these creatures of the night would come swarming up upon them. They might shoot a few, but the Indians outnumbered them ten to one, and to such an unequal battle there could be only one ending.
The fire had died down again. Of their own Indians they could see nothing. The chances were that that they had taken to the swamp. Amyas wondered vaguely what had become of Pablo. He, at least, had courage.
'Wait till you can see 'em,' muttered Dick in a low voice. 'Then let 'em have it hot and strong.'
His calmness gave Amyas a little confidence. But in his heart he knew how very slim their chances were.
The rustling in the reeds grew louder. The tall tops waved as the Indians climbed ashore into the mud and forced their way through the tall growth. Amyas's finger was beginning to tighten on the trigger when from a point just in front of him came a shriek of terror and agony such as he had never in all his life heard before.
On the instant it seemed as if a miniature hurricane had been loosed down in that thick jungle of grass. There were fresh screams, crashes, then loud splashes. The reed tops bowed and fell as if a giant scythe-man was loose among their roots.
'Heavens above, what is happening?' cried the Professor.
Just then the fire blazed up again furiously, making all as light as day.
'It's the snake!' shouted Amyas, and forgetting all about the poison darts, leaped to his feet.
So did the others, and stood there quivering, fascinated by a sight as appalling as ever man's eyes lit upon.
Down beneath them in the reeds the monstrous anaconda had chosen its resting place for the night, and had lain there, undisturbed, until the white Indians, landing from their canoes, had roused it from its slumber.
The anaconda differs from other pythons not only in the matter of size, but also in ferocity. If disturbed, it attacks at once.
This creature, the size of a large tree trunk, at least fifty feet in length, and weighing probably nearer two tons than one, had struck straight out at the first man who stumbled upon it. His body, ripped open by the serpent's enormous fangs, lay beneath its gleaming coils, and it was now striking furiously at all within reach.
The Indians, who had stood rifle fire without flinching, were utterly panic stricken. Some had flung themselves into the water. A dozen were scrambling madly into the nearest canoe.
Even as the fire roared up, the python's head, which was quite three feet long, was shooting out towards this canoe. Its mouth, armed with recurved fangs longer than a man's forefinger and gaping half a yard wide, struck down upon the nearest Indian.
With a yell like a lost soul, he flung himself aside, struck a second man, who in turn overbalanced. Their weight was too much for the overloaded boat, and over it went, spilling its screaming occupants into the black depths of the creek.
As the men rose, the anaconda struck down at them like an angry hen striking at a rat that has attacked her brood. Not one of the miserable creatures escaped.
Not satisfied, it swung again. Its great coils shimmered like shot silk in the glow of the firelight. Its monstrous head towered twenty feet into the air and drove down again at others of the savages who were struggling to push another canoe out of the mud in which it had grounded.
As before, not one of them escaped.
By this time the other four canoes had got clear and their crews were paddling like mad things downstream. Never had Amy as seen canoes travel so fast.
So far not one of the party on shore had uttered a word. They could not have done so if they had tried. Their throats were dry, and Amyas, at least, felt that he knew what the old saying meant about one's tongue cleaving to the roof of one's mouth.
Now Dick spoke. His voice was a mere croak. 'He'll turn on us next,' he said.
'We can't kill him after what he's done for us,' Amyas answered as hoarsely.
'Then I guess we'd better shift,' said Dick. 'If we get close to the fire, maybe it'll be all right.'
He began to move backwards slowly and cautiously. His rifle was ready, but to Amyas it seemed that a rifle bullet would do little to stop this terror of the swamp.
As for the anaconda, the creature remained where it was, its head raised on its pillar-like body and waving slowly to and fro high above the wall of reeds.
And there it stayed while the four white men moved slowly back and at last reached the fire.
Here they found Pablo stoking vigorously. Of the other four Indians there was no sign. Crabs were bad, but anaconda was worse. They were out in the grass.
'What's that brute going to do?' asked Amyas of Pablo in a low voice. 'Will he go for us?'
Pablo shivered. 'He does not like the fire,' he answered.
'Then some of us have got to sit up the rest of the night and stoke,' remarked Joe.
'I doubt if there's enough wood to keep up much of a blaze,' said Amyas uneasily.
There was silence a moment or two.
Suddenly Dick laughed. Every one stared at him. After the horrors of the last few minutes it seemed strange that any one had a laugh left in him.
Dick pulled a great burning brand out of the fire. 'Guess I'll fix his snakeship,' he said, and before any one quite knew what he was after he had run across to the right-hand corner of the platform and thrust the torch into the grass.
Since there had been no rain for days, the top of the grass was dry as tinder. It burst into flame like a bunch of squibs, and once alight, the blaze spread with lightning speed.
The rest watched the anaconda, breathless. Would he take to the river, or would he turn and come charging like a living battering ram across the platform.
Their anxiety did not last long. There was a hiss just like the escape of steam from an engine. Then so quickly that the movement was hardly visible the serpent plunged into the creek. They saw his sinuous coils undulating on the surface of the muddy water; then like a river of many coloured lights he shot into the thick grass the far side and vanished.
Every one drew a deep sigh of relief.
'Glad we didn't have to slay him, anyhow,' remarked Joe.
Dick came back, grinning.
'See him shift? I guess he won't worry us any more, nor anything else either. Let's sleep.'
'Sleep?' repeated the Professor. 'I don't reckon there'll be a deal of sleep for any of us for the next hour, Dick. We shall be mighty fortunate if we are not roasted, as no doubt many denizens of the swamp will be before morning.'
'Afraid I have made a right big fire, Professor,' said Dick apologetically, as he glanced at the roaring grass. 'But I don't reckon it'll last long.'
The Professor only grunted, and gathering in the middle of the platform they sat down to wait and watch.
The heat and blaze and noise were terrific, but the worst of it was the smoke which rolled over them and nearly suffocated them. Still, as Dick had said, it did not last very long. The fire swept away north and south, leaving a huge blackened expanse.
Dick waited till the immediate neighbourhood was burnt off. Then he got up once more.
'Guess I'll touch her off the far side, Professor,' he said. 'Make it easier walking in the morning.'
'That would be a real good notion,' allowed the Professor, so Dick, making his way across the stone bridge, set fire to the grass the other side, and there was a second magnificent display of fireworks.
For awhile Amyas watched it, but fine sight as it was, he could not keep awake. He dropped sound asleep, not to waken again till the red rays of the morning sun fell full upon his face.
Dick stood by him. 'I let you sleep a piece, Amyas, he said. 'We ain't none of us too fresh after last night. But heave yourself up now. Breakfast's ready, and I kind of think the worst is over.'
Amyas got up and stripped, and he and Joe flung water over one another. There were too many alligators in the creek to chance bathing.
The swamp was still burning. On the opposite side, so far as eye could reach, was a bare and blackened expanse, with the causeway standing out gray and bare. On the horizon the smoke clouds eddied and billowed.
'Some fire!' remarked Dick, as he dispensed coffee. 'Pity we didn't think of this yesterday, when we first got into this tall grass.'
Amyas laughed. 'If we had we should have scared away our old snake, and then the Indians would have got us.'
'Rats! Those Indians would never have come cruising in that prairie fire,' retorted Dick.
They were all wonderfully cheerful—all, that is, except the Professor. Amyas noticed how grave he looked.
'What's the matter, sir?' he asked.
Professor Perrin shook his head. 'I am wondering, my friends. I am wondering whether we have done wisely. This fire will have been seen for fifty miles round. It will advertise our presence and we may find some of our enemies awaiting us on the far side of the swamp.'
Dick gave a low whistle. 'Gee, I hadn't thought o' that. But don't you worry, Professor. We've endured all the lot that's tackled us so far. I guess we'll go through with it all right. Anyways, we've got a nice, easy walk ahead of us this morning. No skeeters or snakes, either. I kind of think we ought to get out of this mud-hole before night.'
DICK proved a true prophet. That day they covered a distance equal to the whole they had marched in the previous two days, and though they camped in the flat lands they were, at any rate, out of the swamp itself.
That night they were able to swing their hammocks from the branches of a fine forest tree, and although they had to set a watch against Indians or wild beasts, there was no longer any fear of crabs, alligators, or anacondas.
The night passed quietly enough, the only disturbance being from a jaguar which screamed horribly once or twice at no great distance. It was the most blood-curdling sound imaginable.
Early in the morning a small deer of some species unknown came into the clearing and Dick got it through the spine with his .38. The venison was delicious and put fresh strength into them all.
Worn as they were with the long struggle through the swamp, it was decided that they should make a short march that day and camp as soon as ever they found good ground.
After no more than two hours' tramping the forest began to thin out, and they came suddenly within sight of the mountains.
Real mountains these were, not mere ridges such as they had crossed before. These towered up thousands of feet and flung jagged peaks against the distant blue.
All stopped and stared, for it was behind this range, according to the map, that the Hidden City of the Incas lay.
Ahead, not more than five miles away, the foot-hills rose steeply.
Dick pointed. 'There's our camping ground, Professor. It's me for a real long sleep to-night.'
It was real joy to climb out of the hot-house atmosphere of the swamp forest into the cooler air of the hills, to feel firm, dry ground beneath their feet, and to leave the clouds of stinging flies and mosquitoes behind them. It was time, too, for Joe, who had seemed to stand the toil and heat of the swamp as well as any of them, was beginning to shiver. His teeth chattered, and in spite of the strong dose of quinine administered by the Professor, he was clearly in for a sharp go of malaria.
With help, he struggled on until they reached their camping ground. There they lit a fire and rolled him in blankets and gave him hot coffee. The shivering fit passed and was followed by high fever. By nightfall poor Joe was delirious, but even in this state he did not rave like most fever patients. He muttered and tossed, but was wonderfully quiet.
They all did their best for him, and before morning he was quietly asleep. But the Professor was not happy about him.
'He's got a right bad dose of it,' he told Dick and Amyas. 'I don't reckon he'll be fit to travel for two or three days.'
'Why should he?' returned Dick. 'The city ain't going to run away, and this is a real nice place to stop. I guess we won't, any of us, be the worse for a couple of days' rest and feeding up.'
'And what do you say, Amyas?' asked the Professor.
'I agree with Dick, sir. Let's lie off for a few days. We shall be all the more fit for the last stage of our journey.'
The Professor smiled. He was evidently pleased. 'Very good,' he said. 'Then you two had best go out and get some meat. There seems to be plenty of game in this part of the country.'
Amyas liked nothing better than a day's shooting with Dick, and the two went off well pleased with the prospect before them. The air was cool and invigorating, a breeze blew in their faces, and they soon covered the distance which separated them from the foot-hills.
'I wonder what we shall bring back in the way of game to- night,' queried Amyas, as they trudged along in silence.
'Deer, I guess. There'd ought to be a heap in the broken ground we're coming to,' replied Dick. 'I thought I seed some up on the skyline just now.'
Several times they came upon the tracks of animals, in places where the ground was soft, but they saw nothing till midday, when they were sitting down to the meal of cold meat and coffee which they had brought with them.
Dick sprang suddenly to his feet.
'Gee, I've spotted something,' he said in a swift whisper, raising his rifle to his shoulder.
He took a steady aim and fired.
'Our first kill,' he said, 'that'll make a supper all right to-night.'
They strolled across the grass to where a small deer lay shot through the head, and proceeded to tie its legs together, so that they could sling it on one of the rifles.
'Guess we had better be moving, Amyas,' said Dick, after they had had a short rest, 'we haven't much time to waste, if we're to be back at the camping-ground to-night. The deer ain't much of a weight, and we can easily carry it between us.'
They got up and began to climb a steep slope. Presently Amyas, who was walking in front, stopped and held up his hand.
'Hear anything?' he asked softly.
They both listened intently, but dead silence reigned through the hills.
'Ain't nothing that I can hear,' said Dick, 'guess it's only deer running away at the sound of us approaching.'
'I'm certain I heard something over there,' replied Amyas, pointing with his rifle up a wide gully, which lay a little to their right.
'It's all right,' said Dick, 'just keep your eyes skinned for anything you pass. That gully looks all right, I reckon we've struck a good hunting ground this time.'
They approached the mouth of the gully, and since the ground appeared to be fairly open and to offer easy passage, proceeded up it, taking care, however, to make as little noise as possible. It was just as well they did so, for on rounding a sudden bend they found themselves face to face with as strange a sight as ever they had looked on. A drove of small but fierce-looking pigs, from seventy to eighty in number, stood densely packed round a large dark object in the middle of them. The dark bristles on their backs were erect with fury, their small eyes gleamed savagely, as they pushed and jostled one another in mad efforts to get at the creature in the central ring.
Dick drew his breath quickly.
'Say, Amyas,' he muttered, 'for sheer savagery that sure beats anything I ever set eyes on.'
'A fat chance we should stand if we got in among 'em,' replied Amyas. 'What the mischief is it they've got in the middle there? Surely to goodness it can't be a bear.'
'It's a bear all right. Gee, I guess he'll give 'em some fight before they do for him. All the same I'd a sight rather be face to face with a hungry lion, than a crowd of them fellows.'
Dick was right. The dark object round which the peccaries were surging was a bear fighting desperately for his life. Though torn and bleeding, he was still keeping them at bay, and lashing out with tremendous blows of his huge paws when any of them ventured too near.
'Take care, Dick,' whispered Amyas, for in the excitement of the moment they had advanced beyond the screen afforded by the shrubs and the tangle of undergrowth. 'It's on the cards there are some more about. We had best clear out before they spot us.'
Dick drew back a little into cover.
'Old Ephraim there is putting up a right good fight, ain't he? But as you say, we'd best get away while we have the chance.'
They turned and began to retrace their steps, but they had not gone more than a few yards when Dick exclaimed suddenly,—
'Look sharp, Amyas, or we shall get caught. I hear more coming.'
He had not spoken a moment too soon. A patter of hoofs sounded close in front of them and to their dismay there was another drove of nearly twenty peccaries charging down upon them.
'Run like blazes,' cried Dick.
Amyas saw there was nothing else for it, but he was loath to drop the deer after they had carried it with them so far.
'The deer, Dick, we must try to save that, anyway.'
They raced across a strip of open ground to a group of trees, and tried to hoist the carcass on one of the lower branches.
'No use!' cried Amyas, looking back. 'The beggars are right on top of us, Dick. We must drop it.'
Amyas swung himself deftly up, and Dick sprang out of reach, clinging to the creepers, just as the peccaries charged upon them.
'Pity we didn't drop the deer sooner,' said Dick, as he swung himself into position out of harm's way. 'It might have acted as a decoy, and given us a chance while they were busy over it. Heaven only knows how long we shall have to sit perched up here.'
'I wish it weren't right underneath us,' replied Amyas. 'Those beasts are capable of surrounding the tree for hours. Our only chance is to sit dead quiet till they go away.'
While they whispered, the peccaries were tearing the deer to shreds at the foot of a tree. Hidden among the thick foliage and tangled creepers they listened to the sickening crunch of bones being ground to powder only a few feet below them. Amyas shuddered involuntarily, appalled by such ferocity. For some hours he and Dick clung to the tree, not daring to speak or move. By leaning forward and peering down between the leaves, Dick could see that the larger drove at a little distance were still busy with the bear. The poor brute was now almost at his last gasp. Three of the foremost peccaries had seized him by the throat, burying their tusks in his fur and hanging on with a deadly grip, while the rest attacked him from behind.
Dick whispered the news to Amyas.
'They've nearly done for Old Bruin. Guess we'd better be ready to cut and run as soon as this lot take it into their heads to join their friends over there.'
'I've been watching 'em pretty close,' responded Amyas, 'and I think they mean to give up waiting for us. They're getting restless.'
He was right. In a little while the peccaries, attracted by the noise of the fight, began to move off.
Dick gave a sigh of relief.
'Good for us,' he said. 'I thought we might have to come to shooting, and I've only a dozen cartridges left. Can you slip down the side of the tree where they can't see us?'
'It's an easy jump,' answered Amyas. 'Come on. We'd best keep to the shelter of the trees for the present. Then if we do want protection we can get it.'
'Phew,' said Dick, after they had gone some way, 'that was a narrow shave. Lucky for us they were attacking that bear, or we shouldn't have escaped so easily.'
'I'm glad we didn't have to spend the night in that tree anyway,' Amyas broke in, 'I was beginning to think we should have to stay there till the morning.'
'Things did look mighty awkward at first,' admitted Dick, 'and now I reckon we ought to circle round so as to avoid them peccaries, and make for the camping ground.'
They had now passed through the narrow belt of trees which surrounded the lower end of the gully, and were walking through more open country, although the grass was still too high, and the bushes which dotted the hill-sides still too frequent for them to be able to see very far in any direction. They walked one behind the other along a narrow game-path, where the tall grass seemed to have been trampled down recently, and presently came to the top of a slope from which they could map out their way back to the camp.
'D'ye see that scooped-out hollow in the hill over there?' asked Dick, pointing a little to their right, 'if we go as far as that I reckon we shall give the peccaries a wide enough berth. Then we can cut straight back.'
Amyas agreed. The day had become terrifically hot. All the coffee had been finished long ago, and he was parched with thirst and very thankful that the end of the day's expedition was not far off.
They were approaching the hill and could see the scooped-out hollow straight in front of them, partly hidden from view by a thick clump of bushes. They were forcing their way through these when Dick suddenly caught hold of his arm and motioned him to keep still.
Amyas in surprise did as he was bid.
'What is it?' he whispered, peering forward, but without being able to see anything.
Dick, who was in front, was watching something intently from underneath the thick leaves.
'Visega,' he whispered back. ''Pon my holy Sam, it's Visega and some of them Injuns of his.'
Amyas stooped and looked cautiously out. Not a hundred yards from where they stood, in a small open space surrounded on three sides by the hill, sat Visega before a smouldering camp fire. With him were a party of five or six Indians.
'Has he seen us, do you think?' he asked.
'Guess not,' said Dick, who was burning with eagerness to come to grips with Visega. Gee, I'd give a lot to capture that murdering son of a gun.'
'If we're not mighty careful it's he who'll capture us,' rejoined Amyas; 'we'd best stay quiet for a minute to make certain that he hasn't seen us, then cut back and tell the others. To-morrow, with luck, we'll overtake him and catch him off his guard.'
'Perhaps so,' said Dick reluctantly, as he fingered the trigger of his rifle, 'but there are only five Indians with him so far as I can see. Guess I could account for three and you for the other two.'
'Don't be an ass, Dick. There are sure to be more Indians about than those we can see from here. They'll swamp us at once.'
Very cautiously they began to retrace their steps, taking care that not a single leaf should rustle to catch the alert ears of the Indians. For a few hundred yards they went on undisturbed and were beginning to breathe more freely when there was a shout behind them and an arrow whizzed viciously past Dick's head, and went thud into a clump of bushes on his right. It was followed by another and then another. A fourth actually struck the stock of Amyas's rifle, which he carried slung over his shoulder, and nearly threw him to the ground with the force of the blow.
'They've spotted us, the swine,' said Dick. 'Come on, Amyas, we'd best get off this track. From where those fellows are they can shoot straight down it.'
Amyas looked back and saw that several Indians had taken up positions on the hill above the hollow, and that it was now sheer madness to attempt to return by the way they had come.
'I vote we make for the scrub,' he said, 'we may be able to put them off our tracks for a bit, and anyway they won't be able to spot us so easily.'
Leaving the narrow path, they plunged into the dense scrub, now crawling on hands and knees, now stooping down and running from cover to cover. The breeze had died away and the sun beat down upon them with relentless fury, hiding the landscape in a haze of heat. Dick and Amyas were bathed in perspiration and covered in dust.
'How far do you reckon we've come?' panted the latter.
'Not moren't half a mile at the outside,' answered Dick, 'though we seem to have been at this game for hours already.'
They had barely covered another hundred yards when Amyas, who was in front, uttered an exclamation of surprise and dismay. The ground, which from a short distance had appeared to slope gradually down to the stretch of trees, where they had encountered the peccaries, broke suddenly away, and they found themselves standing on the top of a precipitous descent of nearly sixty feet, which extended for a mile both to right and left of them.
'Whew,' said Dick, 'that bars our way in this direction, and if we go in any other we fall into the arms of Brother Blackamoor.'
The situation was bad enough to disturb even his equanimity. Some of the Indians were running towards the precipice, while others, keeping parallel to it, ran down the slope towards the mouth of the gully, so as to cut off their escape in that direction.
'The extraordinary thing,' muttered Amyas, 'is how we missed seeing this sudden drop, when we came up to Visega's camping place.'
'Guess it ain't so conspicuous from down below,' replied Dick; 'besides, it must have been hidden by the trees. The point is, what are we to do now?'
He looked thoughtful for a moment. Then his face lighted up.
'Say, Amyas,' he went on, 'I've got a notion. What about getting the peccaries between us and them?'
'That's a real good notion,' answered Amyas, 'but it doesn't help much at present. How are we to get down here?'
'We can't. At least not here,' said Dick, who had been rapidly scanning the line of cliff, which stretched away on either side of them. 'We must cut along to the end of it, in the direction that the Indians are running. Once there, we shall be close to the upper end of the gully, and with a shot or two we ought to be able to drive the peccaries down towards Visega.'
'Yes, that's the plan,' Amyas agreed, 'we'll keep our cartridges till we are driven to shoot. Then we'll let 'em have it hot.'
It was now a race for life. They rushed down the slope, keeping as near to the edge of the cliff as the unevenness of the ground allowed. The six Indians came bounding through the bush in pursuit, spread out in a semicircle, so as to cut off escape from all sides. In the middle of them ran Visega, his dark eyes gleaming with vengeful eagerness.
With his heart in his mouth, Amyas tore blindly on. The thud of bare feet sounded close behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder to see that the nearest Indian was only fifty yards away.
'Dick,' he called, 'we must jump here.'
They were on the edge of the cliff, which here seemed almost vertical. Dick peered down to see how far the drop would be, but the tangle of vegetation below made it impossible to judge.
'We must take our chance,' he said quickly, 'Anyway that stuff will break our fall.'
Running a few yards farther to where the drop appeared less perilous, while the Indians were momentarily hidden from view, they both made a jump for it and went crashing down into thick brush.
'You hurt?' asked Dick, getting up and shaking himself.
'Nothing to speak of,' said Amyas, as he struggled to rise from the dense undergrowth into which he had fallen. 'Only a bruise or two. What about you?'
'Right as rain. Fell into a springy sort of bush. Guess we're not more'n thirty yards from the head of the gully here. Let's get on or we shall be too late to drive the peccaries into Visega's gallant band when they reach the foot of the slope.'
They struggled through the undergrowth till they came to a steep decline leading into the gully, which here formed a narrow gorge, covered with luxuriant vegetation. High shrubs and tangled creepers barred their path at every step, and wriggle and crawl as they might their progress through it was painfully slow.
'We ought to be near the drove,' said Dick at last, pausing for a moment in the breathless scramble, 'but I can't see a sign of them.'
They went on again, listening for every sound, but heard nothing except their own laboured breathing and the rustle of leaves and branches as they passed through them.
'Dick,' cried Amyas at last, in despair, 'the peccaries have gone. There's the tree in front which we climbed. Visega must be quite close now, and we are just walking into his trap.'
It was only too true. They had traversed the whole length of the gully, and were now nearing the more open ground, where it broadened out at its mouth, but as yet no sign of the peccaries had been seen.
Suddenly a shout rang out a hundred yards ahead. One of the Indians had seen the movement in the gully and was warning Visega that his intended victims were not far off.
'See here, Amyas,' said Dick, as the Indians prepared to make a rush upon them, 'we ain't going to sell ourselves cheap. We'll he low and shoot 'em one at a time as they come up. This hollow here'll do as well as any place.'
There was not a moment to lose. A rifle shot rang out and a bullet tore up the ground at their feet. The shot was followed by a cry, startlingly different from the shout which had preceded it a few moments before. It was a shriek of abject terror.
'It's the peccaries,' exclaimed Amyas excitedly, 'they've got 'em this time.'
'It's a sure thing,' Dick said more calmly, although his tense face showed the excitement he was feeling.
They stood up to watch the chase. The Indians in headlong flight were racing at break-neck speed through the bush towards the trees, and Visega himself ran among the foremost. Behind them charged a immense drove of peccaries.
'Hark, they've got another of them,' said Amyas, as a second shriek echoed up the gully.
'Guess them peccaries have done us a good turn,' replied Dick. 'Only hope they'll keep Visega in his tree till we get back to the camping ground.'
THEY found the others waiting anxiously for their return. Joe was already much better for the day's complete rest, and the Professor proposed to continue their march early next morning, although Dick's account of how Visega had chased them and of the position he held on their direct line of march disturbed him not a little. Soon the whole party turned in for the night, but the Professor did not sleep. He was pondering over the difficulties which he knew lay before them, as long as Visega stood between them and the Lost City.
Dick and Amyas slept soundly after their exhausting day, and the sun was high in the sky when Amyas opened his eyes to find Pablo bending over him.
'It is late, seņor,' he was saying in Spanish, 'we are preparing to start almost at once.'
Amyas bounded up, then stifled a groan, as he became aware that he was stiff and bruised after his jump from the cliff the day before.
'Hallo! Dick,' he called, 'I'm as stiff as a poker this morning. How are you?'
'Pretty sore,' said Dick smiling grimly, 'good for us we are moving on to-day.'
The morning was clear and beautiful. The sun shone down out of an intensely blue sky on a sweep of undulating country, which formed the foot-hills and lit up range upon range of craggy mountain heights beyond, which towered into the sky, their edges outlined with knife-like sharpness against the clear horizon.
Before starting the party held a consultation.
'I think,' said the Professor, 'we must veer a good deal to the left of the track we meant to follow, now we know Visega's whereabouts. We must at all costs avoid him. If he were to attack and delay us in the high, waterless districts we are approaching it would be most serious.'
'I guess we'd better give him time to get ahead of us,' Dick advised; 'he's keen as mustard on getting to the Lost City before us, and we'll let him think he is going to win.'
'The ground is very difficult where he is,' said Amyas, 'but if we kept several miles to his left, while we crossed the range, we should not be likely to come up against him. What do you say, Professor?'
'That sounds an excellent plan,' answered the latter, 'and the only suggestion I have to make is that we should send out two Indians to see in which direction Visega has gone. They can meet us again when we camp to-night at the top of the first range. The country will be quite open, and we can easily keep a lookout for them.'
Pablo, who had been following this rapid conversation with his intelligent dark eyes, came up to Amyas at this point and said,—
'Send me, seņor. I find out where Visega is.'
'Pablo says he wants to go, Professor,' interposed Amyas, 'I think we could not have a better scout than he.'
'That we couldn't,' said Joe.
It was agreed that he should go forward with another Indian, and join the party again when they stopped for the night.
The two Indians set off at once, and the rest followed a path which led them without difficulty through the foot-hills. At midday they stopped to rest at the foot of the first range, beneath a towering mountain crest, the slopes of which were for the most part covered with barren sandy soil, broken here and there by jagged points of rock.
'Gee,' exclaimed Dick, 'this is going to be a thirsty march if we have much of this sort of country to go through.'
'We shall have to carry with us every drop of water we are likely to want for the journey,' said the Professor. 'The main difficulty of travelling over a district of this altitude is the entire lack of water. I guess we shall need all our strength, so for the first day we had best make it an easy march especially as Joe still looks a bit seedy.'
After they had rested for a short time they proceeded along a rough track which zigzagged endlessly up the mountain side. Hour after hour they trudged on with the sun beating fiercely down on their heads, and streams of perspiration pouring from their foreheads. The loose stones which littered the path and gave way under their tread made the ascent still more tiring, and it was a boundless relief when, towards evening, they emerged on a high plateau, stretching in front of them as far as the eye could see, and shut in on either side by craggy peaks. The air here was much cooler, and they raised their faces to catch the refreshing breeze, which blew towards them.
'This is great,' murmured Joe, gulping down a draught of cool air. His silence during the last part of the march had been due not so much to habit as to weariness. 'How far do you suppose we have climbed, Professor?'
'Between three and four thousand feet, I should say, since we left the foot-hills, and then we were at a considerable height above sea-level.'
While the Indians were preparing supper, Dick and Amyas strolled out in the direction in which Pablo was expected to appear. For several minutes they stood straining their eyes towards the horizon. At last Dick said suddenly,—
'Guess I've spotted 'em. See them black specks just below the ridge there?'
Amyas directed his glasses on the spot Dick pointed out.
'That's them sure enough,' He waved his arm towards them, and was about to shout, when Dick stopped him.
'Wait a bit, we must make sure it is Pablo.'
'Who else could it be?' asked Amyas.
Gradually the figures came nearer, and Dick raised his hand to his eyes to scrutinise them more carefully.
'Say, Amyas, that ain't Pablo's walk. And if it ain't Pablo and his friend it must be some of Visega's little lot.'
'Gee,' said Amyas, looking through the glasses, 'there's three of 'em.'
'Wish I'd brought a rifle,' rejoined Dick.
The three figures seemed to suspect that they were being watched. They came forward cautiously, then stood still, and finally took to their heels and disappeared from view behind some mounds of sand.
Amyas felt depressed and anxious as they returned to the camp to tell the news to Joe and the Professor. If Visega had Pablo in his clutches, there was little chance for his life.
'Most likely he has not been caught,' said the Professor reassuringly. 'Visega's spies probably intercepted him on his way back, and he will join us again to-morrow.'
'Looks as if Visega meant business,' remarked Joe.
As soon as the sun was up they started out across the plateau, along a track leading in the direction of a dark line of rocks, which broke the dead level of the plain and seemed to extend across it from end to end. The dry soil became more and more sandy as they proceeded. All vestige of vegetation had ceased long ago, with the exception of a few low prickly plants, and they found themselves surrounded by barren desert on every side. A breeze, which had sprung up, blew clouds of fine dust towards them, blinding their eyes and greatly increasing their thirst.
'Phew,' exclaimed Dick, 'I guess this is the first time in my life I've swallowed dust in mouthfuls.'
'The worst of it is,' said Amyas, 'it makes it impossible to see any distance. Pablo ought to have turned up by now, but I can't discover a sign of him.
The Professor overheard their conversation.
'Pablo is probably more familiar with this sort of country than we are. From the look of this breeze I am afraid it is going to stiffen as the day goes on, and we must make as much progress as we can before the tracks get obliterated with sand.
'You are right there,' answered Dick, 'without a track it might take us two or three days to cross this desert, and we have barely enough water to last a day.
'Hallo!' said Joe suddenly. 'Who are those fellows?' He pointed to two figures in the distance running towards them.
'Pablo,' cried Amyas with delight.
''Pon my Sam,' said Dick, 'that is Pablo sure enough, and the other Indian with him.'
The two men came up and fell almost exhausted at their feet.
'Get out the coffee left over from breakfast,' ordered the Professor, 'we will soon bring them round.'
Dick and Amyas attended to them quickly, and in a few minutes Pablo had recovered himself enough to speak.
'Visega close here, seņor,' he said excitedly, pointing across the desert. 'He chase us hard. I try to find you yesterday, but Visega's men stop me.'
'Good man,' said Joe, who was bending over him, making him take another sip of coffee. 'Anyway, we are not going to be taken by surprise this time.'
Dick was scanning the horizon for a sign of their pursuers, but nothing was to be seen.
'We got to keep that devil at a distance till we've crossed this stretch of sand. Are you two fit to come along now? Guess we've no time to waste.'
Pablo nodded, and they continued their march, putting on as much speed as they could. Every time the wind died down a little and left the view clear, Amyas scoured the distance with his glasses.
'I see them behind us,' he said at last. 'Take a look, Dick.'
'Sure thing. That's Visega, and by the dust he is making he's got a big party of Indians along.'
The sight of their pursuers spurred them on again, and in spite of the terrible heat they managed to increase their pace. A hot wind was blowing now, whipping up the sand and rolling it over them in great billows, till they were enveloped in a thick cloud of dust and grit which stung their faces and filled eyes and ears and mouth. The lack of water was a terrible anxiety. Joe and Amyas were so parched with thirst that they could hardly speak, and the Professor trudged along doggedly, looking as though he were on the verge of fainting. By midday the whole atmosphere seemed to be vibrating with heat, and Dick persuaded the Professor to call a halt under the shadow of a projecting rock.
'Even Visega can't go on through this without stopping to rest,' he urged.
The heat was beginning to tell on Joe, and he sank down exhausted in the shade. Amyas propped a coat over his head to keep off the dust, and tried to eat, but his tongue felt like a dry stick and he could not swallow. At that moment he would have given all he possessed for a pint of clear, cold water. They all drank eagerly the small cupful, which was their allowance.
'We must keep the rest back for the night,' said the Professor, 'we may have to make it do for to-morrow morning as well.'
'Visega is gaining on us,' exclaimed Dick a little later, when they had resumed their march. 'I can see his Indians quite plainly now, when the cloud of dust dies down.'
'Guess we must keep a steady pace going,' said the Professor, 'even if it is not very fast.'
Every vestige of a track had been covered long ago, and they were now trudging painfully through loose sand, scattered by the wind, and were approaching a line of black rocks, which they discovered as they came near formed the farther wall of an immense caņon, stretching for miles in either direction across the desert.
'Say, Dick,' said Amyas, 'here's a proposition. 'This is the dark ridge we saw in the distance when we were looking out for Pablo.'
'How in blazes are we to get across it is the question,' rejoined Dick.
In a few minutes they were standing on the edge of the caņon, looking down on massive walls of black rock, which here descended in a solid cliff for three hundred feet, and there sloped down more gradually in a series of broken terraces. But they were too exhausted and anxious to wonder at the impressive scene before them. Visega was hot on their trail with a party of Indians who outnumbered them by four to one. They had not a moment to lose.
'We must spread out along the cliff,' said the Professor anxiously, 'there must be a break in the rock somewhere, where we ought to find a cross gully. It is our only chance of crossing.'
'The first one who finds a possible place whistle to the rest,' called Dick, as he turned to follow the Professor along the edge of the caņon.
Joe and Amyas hurried off in the opposite direction, and presently came to a spot where the cliff dipped and curved outwards towards the desert. On going nearer, they discovered a gully cutting across the caņon at right angles.
Amyas blew loudly on the whistle he always carried with him, and the whole party were soon making their way down a steep sandy slope into the gully. Visega was now close behind them. They could see him urging on his Indians and pointing frantically towards the caņon. But it was the new danger threatening them which demanded most of their attention. They had just reached the bottom of the gully when Pablo uttered a cry and pointed up the caņon.
'Dust Devil, seņor. It is not safe to go on.'
Amyas looked in the direction he was pointing, and saw to his amazement a whirling column of dust rising at least two hundred feet into the air. It passed across the caņon with the roar of a hurricane, and seemed to break in the desert beyond. It was followed by another, then by a third and a fourth, till they were surrounded by whirlwinds, all stirring up the sand as if it had been water and hurling it far into the sky. Where they stood in the gully they were caught in the outer edge of one of them. The wind suddenly blew with terrific fury, driving the sand before it like waves of the sea. The air was so thick they began to choke and gasp for breath.
'Lie down,' ordered the Professor, 'and put coats over your heads.'
As soon as a lull came in the storm and the air began to clear they discussed plans.
'It is sheer madness to go on while the Dust Devils are raging,' said the Professor.
'We are more or less protected in this gully,' advised Joe, who was still half-blinded with the dust in his eyes. 'Best stay here.'
'That's about it,' Dick exclaimed. 'We've jest got to hold this gully against the Dago till it is safe to go on.'
Meanwhile Amyas was busily scanning the distance with his glasses.
'Seems to me the far-end is as good a place as we can hope for.'
'That's my opinion, too,' answered the Professor, ploughing forward through the soft sand.
They hastened along the narrow gorge, stopping for a moment to search the ground on the floor of the caņon for signs of a stream, but without success. Everything lay covered under soft, shifting sand. Their thirst was becoming almost intolerable. The Professor could hardly speak, and Amyas had difficulty in dragging himself along, so inflamed was his throat with dust and thirst. They had barely time to reach the farther end of the gully before Visega's Indians appeared opposite, running along the edge of the caņon, and searching for a way down.
'What about throwing up a bank of this here sand,' suggested Dick, who in spite of hardships remained consistently cheerful. 'It's loose, but I reckon it'll shield us some if they attack.'
'Good notion,' said Joe. 'We'll have a go at digging ourselves in.'
They set to work at scooping out the sand from the camping place and piling it up before them, so as to hide their movements from the enemy. Behind them a wall of rock rose steeply and gave a certain amount of protection from the Dust Devils. But the situation was very desperate, and though the little party worked grimly, they were silent and inwardly almost in despair. It seemed as if only a miracle could save them from Visega now.
'Look out. Lie low,' shouted Dick, as a volley of arrows whizzed through the air and fell harmlessly at the foot of the rampart.
Visega was holding a consultation with his men on the other side of the gully. He was clearly giving directions for an attack, for the next moment his whole troop of Indians came leaping down the gully towards them, and a second flight of arrows whizzed over their heads. The sand-bank behind which they crouched was standing them in good stead.
'Wait till they're right close before firing,' said Dick, 'then pick your man.'
Their rifles cracked one after another, and half a dozen Indians dropped to the ground. With a savage whoop the rest rushed on recklessly, only to be received by another volley of rifle fire. This time Visega staggered back with a yell of pain, and shouting an angry order to his men, turned tail and ran, and the troop of Indians, deserted by their leader, surged back in disorder. There was a pause of some minutes. Then Dick peered over the bank.
'They're getting ready for another attack, by the look of them,' he muttered anxiously.
'Then we had best rest while we can,' rejoined the Professor, doling out to each a cupful of the small supply of water which remained. Warm as it was, they drank it eagerly, for their thirst was becoming unbearable. Joe was terribly exhausted after the long march through the desert in the blazing heat. His throat felt as if it were on fire, and he could hardly speak, but after a short rest he doggedly got up and prepared to take his position with the rest behind the sand-bank.
'How many of these attacks do you suppose we can stand, Dick?' asked Amyas, as they waited for the Indians to make a second rush. His lips were dry and cracked, and talking was a difficulty.
'Hardly more than this one,' returned Dick, 'there ain't the cartridges.'
'Hallo, what's up?' croaked Joe suddenly. 'See them Indians pointing above our heads.'
The roar of a hurricane sounded behind them and a hot blast swept down into the gully.
'The Dust Devils again!' exclaimed Amyas.
'Lie down,' shouted the Professor. 'Faces to the ground. It may pass over us.'
For many minutes they lay in the sand, with their eyes shut, scarcely able to breathe, while the blinding, stinging wind passed over them. The heat was intense. Amyas felt as though he were being smothered to death in a furnace. Once Dick tried to open his eyes, but the air was so thick he could not see two feet in front of him.
'Put a handkerchief over your mouth,' he whispered to Amyas, 'it helps to keep the dust out.'
When at last they were able to stand up and look about them they could hardly realise they were in the same place.
''Pon my sacred Sam,' exclaimed Dick, trying to wipe the dust from his eyes, 'if this ain't a miracle, guess I'd like to know what is.'
'Thanks be that blessed whirlwind didn't break over us,' said Joe.
Amyas gazed on the scene with silent wonder In less than half an hour the cross gully had ceased to exist. A terrific whirlwind had broken over it and made it level with the plain. They no longer stood in a gorge, but at the foot of a vast pile of sand which rose before them an impenetrable barrier, towering high into the sky above their heads. Visega and his Indians were blotted from sight.
'Come on, boys, now is our chance,' called Dick, with a new ring of hope in his voice. 'We'll beat 'em yet.'
The Professor led the way out of the gully, and after another hour's tramp they found themselves on the edge of the desert, looking down on a fertile mountain valley, with a crystal clear brook coursing down it. Compared with what they had been through, it was like a scene from fairyland.
'And safe from Visega for all o' forty-eight hours,' said Dick with real gratitude. 'He and his Injuns'll never be able to cross that there bank. I reckon they'll have to go plumb round the caņon, and you take it from me that ain't going to be any soft job.'
THEY had a quiet night. There was not a sign of Indians. Even Pablo seemed quite happy. Joe continued to improve, and vowed he would be ready to outwalk any of them next day.
All next morning Amyas and Dick stayed in camp cleaning guns, mending clothes, and doing all sorts of odd jobs. They ate a leisurely dinner, then work being finished, Amyas began to feel rather bored. Joe was asleep, the Professor was writing up his notes, and Dick was lying on his back on the grass, looking up at the sky. It had turned a little cloudy and was pleasantly cool.
Amyas stood up. 'Let's have a stroll, Dick,' he suggested.
Dick considered, then got up slowly. 'All right. We'll go and look for a pig. I've a notion we could do with some fresh pork for supper.
They took their rifles, and strolled off. Dick led the way up hill.
'I've a notion to go up to that crest first,' he said. 'Give us a chance to see which way we are going to-morrow. Besides, there'll be a valley beyond, and that's where we'll be likely to spot pig.'
Amyas agreed and they set out along the stone road which they had followed so far already. It was like an old Roman road, running dead straight across hill and dale. But soon the ascent became so steep that the old builders had been forced to swing to the right, and the road climbed the side of the hill in a long curve.
Suddenly Amyas pulled up short.
'Smoke!' he said sharply, and pointed to a puff of white vapour rising above some bushes. Dick instinctively dodged behind a clump of shrubs, and they stared at the white cloud. Suddenly came a sharp hissing sound, and all of a sudden the soft cloud leaped high into the air, while beneath it rose a spout of steaming water.
Dick laughed. 'Smoke!' he chuckled. 'It's nothing but one of them hot springs.'
'A geyser,' said Amyas. 'Let's go and look at it.'
They found a basin some thirty feet across filled with clear blue water, which bubbled like a boiling kettle. A little beyond was a large bare space where the ground was evidently too hot for anything to grow. The surface was bare rock coloured black, gray, and yellow, and here and there little spouts of steam came jetting out from crevices.
''Minds me of the Yellowstone Park up Colorado way,' said Dick. 'I was round there five or six years ago. There's hundreds of them hot springs there.'
'It shows that all this country is volcanic,' added Amyas. 'I thought as much, from the shape of the peaks.'
'Volcanic, eh?' repeated Dick. 'All I hopes is that it hasn't blown up our Treasure City.'
'I don't think that's likely,' said Amyas. 'It's probably thousands of years since the volcanoes were active.'
Dick glanced up at the sun. 'Here, we'll never get that pig if we don't get a move on.'
They climbed on up the hill, and as Dick had prophesied, found a valley beyond. It was a queer-looking place, for while the slope below them was all thick brush, in the distance there was a patch of regular desert.
'If the pigs are anywhere, they'll be in this brush,' said Dick. 'See here, I'll go down that open space opposite and you keep away to the left. The critters won't bolt into the open, they'll cut across, so one or other of us is pretty sure to get a shot.'
Amyas nodded and went off to the left. He walked slowly, rifle ready in both hands, and keeping a watchful eye for sign of pig or deer. He saw none. This patch of bush seemed singularly deserted. There were a few birds, but no four-footed animals of any sort.
At last he stopped and listened to make out whether he could hear anything of Dick. There was not a sound. The only thing was to go on till he got to the lower edge of the bush where he was bound to catch sight of the other.
There was not a breath of wind, and the stillness became almost oppressive. Amyas went on and on. The bush was not high or very thick, but it was too high to see over it.
Suddenly Amyas pulled up. He had heard something, and the sound was uncommonly like a groan. He waited, straining his ears for a repetition. It came again, and this time he was certain. It was a groan, low, deep, and hollow.
Amyas was badly frightened. It must be Dick. Dick had been bitten by a snake.
'I'm coming,' he cried sharply. 'Where are you?'
There was no answer. Amyas waited for some seconds. His heart was pounding.
He heard the groan for a third time. It came from his left hand. How on earth could Dick have got over to that side when he had started away to the right? Still, as there was no one else nearer than the camp, Dick it must be, and Amyas started running.
To this side there was a great clump of dense bush. It was too thick to force a way through. He ran round it. Once more he heard the groan, and now much closer. He gained an open space where the ground was dry and dusty and nothing grew. In the centre was a pit, a huge cavity more than two hundred yards across. It looked just like one of those holes that the insect called the ant-lion makes, only on an enormous scale.
The sound came from this.
Amyas hurried to the edge. It was a regular crater forty or fifty feet deep, and the loose sandy sides sloped downwards at an angle of about one in three.
At any other time Amyas would have been much interested in such a curious phenomenon. Now his only thought was for Dick.
He looked over. There was a ledge, or rather a small hollow, about ten feet down, and there clinging to its side like a fly to a wall was—not Dick, but an Indian.
He was clinging to a spear which had been driven deep into the side of the pit. It looked to Amyas as if he must have fallen into the pit, and scrambled up thus far, then his strength had given out, and he could only cling helplessly to the spear.
Amyas called to him, speaking in Spanish.
'Hold on. I'll help you.'
The man paid no attention. He did not even move.
'Here's a job,' said Amyas to himself. 'I'll have to fetch Dick. No, I'll have a shot at it, first, myself. If I cut a bush rope I might be able to haul him up.'
'Hold on for a minute,' he called to the Indian, but the man only groaned again.
Amyas hurried back to the scrub. There is never any trouble about getting all the rope you want in a South American forest. Lianas grow to incredible lengths. They are of all thicknesses, and some are as tough as good hemp.
With the hatchet which he carried in his belt, Amyas cut a twenty foot length and also a stout peg. Then he went back and driving the peg into the ground made a loop in the liana, and put this over the peg. He pulled it tight to make certain that it would bear his weight, then clinging to it, went cautiously over the edge.
The moment his feet touched the side of the pit the sand gave way beneath them, and went sliding away in a regular avalanche. Amyas realised with an unpleasant shock that it was not sand at all, but a sort of volcanic ash as fine and soft as flour. Kick as he might, he could get no hold of any sort. The worst of it was that the nasty stuff rose in clouds, and getting into his mouth and eyes, half choked and nearly blinded him.
He struggled for some moments, then realising that it was hopeless to tackle the job single-handed, made up his mind to climb out again.
He paused, holding on with one hand, while with the other he tried to clear his smarting eyes. At that moment he felt the bush rope slipping.
He made a violent struggle, but it was too late. Next instant the whole thing went up at the peg, and he found himself sliding helplessly downwards. At first he was on his face, smothered in dust. Somehow he managed to turn over, and this saved him from complete suffocation. He drove his legs and arms deep into the soft, velvety ash, but it only checked his progress slightly. It did not stop it. Down, down he went, not to stop until he reached the very bottom of the pit.
FOR some moments he lay still, choking and gasping. At last he managed to get the dust out of his eyes, and look up. There was the Indian still clinging to the shaft of his spear, and above him the rim of the pit sharply defined against the sky.
The pit was larger than he had thought. It was quite three hundred yards across, and looking around, he made up his mind that it must be a volcanic crater choked with ashes.
He struggled to his feet and stood ankle-deep in the soft, yielding stuff.
As yet, he did not fully realise how serious was the mess in which he was landed. It took him a matter of ten minutes to discover this. He tried to climb up. For the first few yards he got on well enough. Then, is the sides began to steepen the ash gave way under his feet and he went slithering back to the bottom.
He tried in half a dozen different places, but it was all the same. It became perfectly clear that he could not get out without help.
He looked again at the Indian. But the Indian had had his spear. Perhaps, indeed, he had not fallen to the bottom at all.
Amyas was uneasy, but not badly frightened. Dick would miss him and come to look for him. True, it would take more than Dick alone to get him out, but Dick would fetch help from the camp. It seemed likely that he might have to spend the night in this dismal hole, but that would be the worst of it.
He remembered that he had a whistle with him. He and Dick each carried a whistle to call one another when separated on a shooting expedition. He got it out, cleared it of the ash which filled it, and gave a shrill blast.
Nothing happened. He waited awhile and blew again. Another five minutes, during which Amyas blew his whistle at intervals, then at last, to his immense relief, the answer came shrilling from the distance.
Amyas whistled harder than ever, and after awhile Dick's answer came from quite near at hand, and at last Amyas saw his sturdy figure outlined above the rim of the pit.
'Gee, boy,' he exclaimed in amazement, 'how did you get down there?'
'Tried to help that Indian, and my bush rope slipped and I fell in. See here, Dick, it's no use your trying to help me single-handed. You'll have to go back to the camp, and—'
He stopped in sheer amazement, for all of a sudden Dick took or appeared to take a sudden leap over the edge of the pit.
He struck the steep slope some twenty feet down, and came sliding towards the bottom just as Amyas had done a quarter of an hour earlier.
Amyas watched Dick making frantic efforts to arrest his toboggan-like descent, but it was quite useless, and within a few moments he had joined Amyas at the bottom of the great pit. Amyas caught hold of him and dragged him to his feet.
'What on earth made you do a crazy thing like that?' he demanded. 'Whatever induced you to jump over?'
'Me jump over!' sputtered Dick, roused for once out of his usual calm self-control. 'Me jump! Man, I was pushed over.'
Amyas simply stood staring at the other. For the moment he really did think that Dick had taken leave of his senses.
Dick read what was passing in Amyas's mind.
'It's the truth, Amyas,' he said more soberly. 'Sure as I stand here, some one or something butted me between the shoulders, and shoved me over.'
Amyas no longer doubted.
'Who—who was it?' he asked in a low voice.
'I'd give something to know,' said Dick harshly.
He stopped and looked up.
'Look at that!' he exclaimed.
No one was visible up above, but a bush rope dangled over the edge just above the point where the Indian still clung. And the man, whom Amyas had believed to be too far gone to help himself, caught hold of it and proceeded to climb quietly up. They saw him scramble over the rim of the crater and vanish.
Amyas drew a long breath.
'A plant,' he said. 'The whole thing was a plant specially arranged for our benefit.'
'That's a fact, Amyas,' replied Dick, 'and upon my Sam, I feel like a rat in a barrel more than anything else. But who's done it?'
'We're pretty near the Hidden City,' said Amyas. 'There's always the chance that some of these tribes who hold the place sacred may have marked us down.'
'I wonder,' he added despondently. 'I wonder what they mean to do with us.'
'Buck up, son,' said Dick quickly. 'Don't think of what's going to happen. Think of how we're going to get out, and what we're going to do to those beauties when we are topside once more.'
Amyas shook his head. 'I've tried it, Dick. The rat you talk of could get out of the barrel much more easily than we can get out of this. I've tried every side, but there's no foothold. As soon as you're up a few feet, you simply slide down again.'
'Maybe we could manage better if we helped one another,' suggested Dick.
'We'll try if you like,' said Amyas, 'but I'm afraid it's no use.'
Try they did. They spent more than an hour at it. Once Dick got more than a quarter of the way up. Then his foothold went and down he slid.
'I suppose they're watching us from somewhere above,' said Dick fiercely, as he wiped the paste of perspiration and dust from his face.
'I don't see or hear any one,' replied Amyas. 'No, I think they've gone away. Anyhow they won't be able to see us much longer. It will be dark in another hour.'
There was silence awhile, then Dick spoke again.
'Joe being sick, the Professor won't think to start out after us. I guess we'd best make up our minds to spend the night here. Got anything to eat or drink, Amyas?'
'I've a bit of bread, and my flask,' replied Amyas.
He began to pull them out, but Dick stopped him.
'No, we'll keep that till we really need it, son. It'll be hot down here in the morning.'
Amyas knew it, and the prospect was not cheering.
Dick pulled himself together. 'May as well sit down and be happy,' he said. He suited the action to the word, and the two perched themselves in that horrible powdery sand and tried to talk.
Time dragged slowly. They neither of them had any hope of rescue that night, and in their hearts they knew that their chances were slim indeed. These people, whoever they were, who had pushed Dick in, were certain to be hanging around. There was every probability that they would ambush whoever did come to the rescue.
The sun was setting, and down in the bottom of the pit the shadow was deep. Dick and Amyas had done their best to talk and to pretend to a cheerfulness they did not feel, but the effort grew too great, and they fell silent.
The hour of sunset is the quietest of the day in the hot forests of South America. After dark the insects wake and shrill, but just before the sun drops the wind falls and all is deathly still. On this evening the silence was so complete that Amyas's ears seemed to ache with it.
At last it was broken by a faint scuffling sound.
Amyas stirred. 'Did you hear that, Dick?'
'I heard something.'
'It's some one coming, I believe.'
They waited a little.
'More than one,' said Dick presently.
'Whoever they are, they're carrying something,' said Amyas.
He stood up. His thin, keen face was slightly flushed. He was quivering with eagerness.
Dick, too, was excited, though he did not show it so much. He was listening hard.
'Shall we shout, Dick?' asked Amyas.
Dick hesitated for a moment, then nodded.
'Blow your whistle. If it's our folk, they'll understand. If it isn't it don't matter.'
Amyas took his whistle from his pocket and blew sharply. He waited, but there was no answer.
'Not our people,' said Dick shortly.
'Whoever they are, they're coming nearer,' replied Amyas. 'I can hear footsteps.'
The pair stood staring up towards the rim of the crater. Their hearts were thumping.
Nearer and nearer came the scuffling of feet. It was certain that several people were approaching, and that they were carrying or dragging something with them. Amyas's heart hammered so that he could hardly breath. He could hardly bear the suspense.
Another minute, then figures appeared on the edge, high above the prisoners.
'Indians!' gasped Amyas. 'And—and—it's Joe they've got.'
Two powerfully built Indians were in sight, and as Amyas had said, they were dragging Joe between them. His hands were tied, and he was helpless.
Without a moment's delay they flung him over. His body struck the slope a few feet below, and came sliding down in a cloud of dust.
Before he had reached the bottom, there were two more Indians with the Professor between them. With as little compunction as if he had been a dead sheep they pitched him after Joe.
Joe slid right into Amyas's arms, and Amyas lifted him to his feet.
'Are you hurt, Joe?' he demanded, as he cut the cords fastening his chum's wrists.
'N-no,' answered Joe hoarsely. 'B-but how did he get you?'
Before Amyas could answer there came a voice from above, and looking up he could hardly believe his eyes when he saw, standing on the edge of the pit, the tall figure of Visega.
'Good-evening, Seņor Clayton,' he said, and the ugly grin on his dark face made every drop of Amyas's blood boil. 'Good- evening. I thought you might be lonely, so I have brought your friends to spend the night with you. I have been even more thoughtful than you might imagine, for I have provided them with food and water.
'I trust you will make yourselves comfortable,' he continued. 'For myself, I am making a short trip to a destination you know of. When I return, I trust to pass this way and to show you something of the curiosities I hope to acquire. I have no doubt but that they will interest the Professor.'
He paused and looked down, showing all his teeth in a perfectly fiendish grin. Amyas, boiling with rage, was about to answer, but Joe nudged him.
'Don't let him draw you, old chap. That's what he's trying to do. Keep a still tongue. It's the only way to score him off.'
'I suppose you're right,' replied Amyas, 'but I'm itching to tell him what I think of him.'
Visega spoke again.
'As for your men, I am taking the liberty of borrowing them. They will be useful to carry back the treasure from the Sacred City. After all, it was I who hired them in the first place.'
Amyas bit his lip, but kept silence.
'You wait,' whispered Joe. 'He'll lose his wool in a minute or two.'
'There, I told you so,' he added.
He was right. Visega, furious at getting no reply from the group of stolid white men at the bottom of the crater, suddenly lost all control of himself.
'Dogs!' he screamed. 'Dogs of Gringos, who dared to set your wits against mine. See where your cleverness has brought you. From the beginning I have simply used you for my own ends. Now lie there in that pit and rot. You have food for a week. By that time I shall be back laden with gold and precious stones. These I will dangle before your dying eyes. Then, if there is any life left in you I will show you the mercy of shooting you.'
He stopped, breathless.
'Why don't you shoot us now?' drawled Dick. 'It's quite a good chance. We can't shoot back. Even a nigger is safe in shooting a white man when the white man hasn't got a gun.'
Visega who, if he did not speak English, at any rate understood it, fairly danced with rage. He foamed at the mouth and shrieked unintelligible insults.
Dick stood, with arms folded across his chest, looking tip at him with a smile.
'If you'd only stay and dance like that for us, Visega, we could put up with our accommodation.'
'Steady, Dick,' said Amyas in a low voice. 'He really will start shooting next thing.'
'Not he. What I'm hoping is that he will fall over the edge. Look at him!'
The Brazilian was really worth looking at. He had gone almost black in the face; he was waving his arms in the air and gnashing his teeth. A volley of the most amazing swear words and abuse poured from his lips in a perfect torrent but as it was all in Spanish Amyas was the only one of the four who understood it.
Such a paroxysm could not last. Just as Dick was beginning to fondly hope that Visega might have an apoplectic fit the man began to calm down.
'No,' he hissed. 'I will not shoot you—at least not now. You shall remain in this living grave and die by inches. And while you die, you shall think of me, laden with wealth, returning to the great world to enjoy everything that money can buy for me.'
Once more he shook his fist at them with a ridiculously theatrical gesture, then turned and marched away. They heard him give orders to the Indians with him. Then he and they marched off together, and the sound of their footsteps faded out in the distance.
'AND that's that,' said Dick, with a grim tightening of his lips.
'The beggar's taken his ugly face away; that's one comfort,' added Joe. 'How did he get you, Amyas?'
Amyas told him how he and Dick had been trapped.
'He's a clever swine,' remarked Joe thoughtfully. 'Of course, he knew a white man would come if he heard any one singing out for help.'
'When he'd got us I suppose he went back for you?' suggested Amyas.
'Yes, and he was smart enough about that, too. He had about twenty Indians with him, and they got all around the camp before we had a notion. You see, I was still in my blankets, and the Professor was reading to me. We hadn't a chance even to get our hands on a gun.'
'What about our Indians?' asked Amyas. 'Was it true what he said? Did he get them?'
'Yes, he must have collared the lot. They were all in or around the camp. I can't say I saw much. I had two hefty Indians on top of me before I knew what was up. I blacked the eye of one, anyway.'
The Professor spoke.
'Dick, is it not possible to climb out of this pit?'
'You try it,' said Dick grimly. 'Amyas and me, we've been climbing like squirrels in a cage and, like them, getting back to the same place every time.'
The Professor thoughtfully probed the smooth powdery stuff with one hand. 'Ash and pumice,' he said. 'I reckon, Dick, that this is the plugged up crater of an ancient volcano.'
'Any chance of her busting up and firing us out again?' inquired Dick.
The Professor shook his head.
'My friends,' he said, 'I need not tell you that we are in a very difficult and unpleasant position, and one that will need all our brains and energies to get out of. For all that, I would not have any of you give up heart. I myself am firmly convinced that we have not come so far on this dangerous road to be defeated or destroyed at the last moment by a treacherous half- breed like this Visega. I do not believe it for a moment. I feel positively certain that, in some way or other, we shall find means to escape from this horrible pit into which we have been cast.'
The Professor spoke in a tone that none of the other three had ever heard him use before. There was a ring of absolute sincerity in his voice, which made the rest feel that he was indeed convinced that they would get away.
It was Dick who answered.
'That's the proper spirit, sir,' he said quietly. 'And now I guess the best thing we can do is to sit right down here and have a bite of the grub that Dago said he'd sent along with you. Then we can talk the job over and see if we can fix up any plan for getting down.'
Joe took the haversack from over his shoulder and opened it. It contained about five pounds weight of the flat com meal cakes which Pablo had baked in camp, and about the same weight of cold venison. There was nothing else.
'Rations for two days,' said Dick. 'What about water?'
'I've about a quart in my calabash,' said Joe. 'Yours is bigger, Professor.'
The Professor in the meantime had opened his ration bag and found that it contained about the same amount of food as Joe's. But when he looked at his flask, it was only to find that the stopper had come out (no doubt in the fall) and that it was almost empty.
Dick's face went very grave.
'Grub for four days, but not enough water for one. And it's going to be mighty hot down in this pit here to-morrow.'
The Professor refused to be discouraged. 'Then we must get out before it gets hot,' he said stoutly.
Dick did not answer. He knew, better than the Professor, the utter impossibility of climbing that treacherous slope.
'I reckon it's too dark to do any climbing to-night,' said the Professor, glancing up at the steep slope.
'We'd best have our supper and sleep. We'll start work as soon as there's light in the morning.'
Dick divided out some food and put the rest away. They ate slowly, making the most of the few mouthfuls. Of water they had only about a wineglassful apiece. It was terribly little for Dick and Amyas who had had a deal of hard exercise since midday.
Then they lay down in the dry dust and tried to sleep. Amyas made a very poor attempt at it. Do what he would, he could not keep his mind from dwelling on the horrors of their situation. To him there did not seem to be the faintest chance of getting out of this horrible pit trap, and dreadful pictures rose before his mind's eye of the four of them lying there at the bottom of the cove waiting for death to relieve them of their sufferings.
Towards morning he did doze off, only to dream that he was being buried alive. He awoke in a cold sweat to see the first gray of dawn dimming the stars.
He looked round, and noticed that the others were all awake. Their faces looked livid and drawn in the pale light.
Dick, seeing that Amyas was awake, got up and stretched himself with a fine air of unconcern.
'Not a bad bed,' he said. 'Bit dusty, but I've slept on worse. Now then, Professor, what's your notion for getting out.'
'It's this,' replied the Professor promptly. 'We make a rope of clothes. One climbs as high as he can and tries to get a footing. He can bury himself to the waist if necessary. Then another comes up by the rope and is fresh to struggle a little farther. He in turn buries himself, and acts as a haulage point. No doubt we shall have a lot of slips and disappointments, but we don't lose all we gain as we should working single-handed.'
'Very good, Professor,' said Dick still pretending to be quite cheerful.
He stripped off his coat as he spoke, while Amyas produced a valuable property in the shape of some thirty feet of stout cord.
The Professor's eyes brightened as he saw this. 'I reckon that ought to save our coats, Amyas. It isn't as if you needed to put all your weight on it, and the first that gets up can cut a bush rope.'
His cheeriness put fresh heart into them all, and they set to work at once.
* * * * *
An hour later they were still working, or rather they were all once more at the bottom. Once Dick had won his way more than half the distance to the top, but when he tried to fix himself there a regular landslide had swept him away and carried him, half buried and suffocated, to the bottom.
The sun was up now, and the temperature rising fast. Yesterday's clouds had disappeared. There was every prospect of a blazing day. Already Amyas's throat was like brass, and his tongue as dry as a dead stick. He remembered, with horrible distinctness, his sufferings that last day on the Poison River.
'If at first you don't succeed, try—try again,' said Dick. He was still making a good show at being cheerful, but his voice was a mere croak.
'Best have our grub first,' remarked Joe, who preserved his usual stolid front. In spite of his sufferings, Amyas felt a little thrill of pride in the indomitable pluck of his companions.
They had their food. Not that they could eat much. Any of the four would have given their portion for one good drink of cold water. They made the most of the tiny ration of lukewarm stuff. When this was doled out they had but a pint left. Then they tried again.
They climbed and crawled. They tried every device that ingenuity could suggest, but without effect. The only result was to bury and nearly lose their precious canteen which held the rest of the water.
At last they were completely done. Joe, who had not yet fully recovered from his go of fever, was absolutely exhausted. The sun was now right overhead, and its rays reflected from the sloping sides of the crater made of it a furnace. There was no shelter of any sort.
Amyas sat hunched in a heap, with his coat held over his head and shoulders. He was in such agony from thirst that he felt death would be a relief. Even Dick, with his magnificent physique, was beyond speech. The Professor looked as if he was dying.
TIME dragged on. Joe became light-headed. Amyas managed to crawl across to Dick. 'Give him some water,' he whispered in a voice that was no more than a croak.
Dick nodded, dug up the canteen, and measured a couple of spoonfuls into the metal mug. Amyas turned his head away. The sight of the precious drops nearly drove him mad.
Dick resolutely corked up the bottle.
'Must keep it till night,' he muttered.
Amyas did not answer. He could not. Presently he fell back in a sort of stupor.
'Poor lad!' said Dick under his breath as he propped a coat to shade Amyas's head from the full blaze of the sun.
After what seemed days Amyas opened his eyes again. He was conscious that the sun was no longer blazing down upon him, and that some one had shaken him by the arm.
'Is it night?' he asked vaguely.
'Night! No. It's clouds,' said Dick in his ear.
'Clouds?' repeated Amyas. He was so far gone he hardly caught the drift of what Dick was saying.
'Yes. It's thick as night. I believe it's going to rain.'
There was a thrill in his voice which roused Amyas thoroughly. He sat up and looked at the sky. It was black as ink, and the air had the thick, sultry feel which always comes before a bad storm. Even as he watched, the heart of the great mass of vapour was lit by a flash of electric fire.
He waited breathlessly, and a few seconds later a deep, hollow peal of thunder broke the utter stillness.
But would it rain? In Bolivia, especially in the Andes, the worst electric storms are often quite dry.
The minutes dragged by, each seeming like an age. The Professor was awake now. Only Joe still remained in a sort of stupor.
Another flash more brilliant than the first. The thunder pealed deeper and louder. Still no rain.
No shipwrecked men ever watched a distant sail with more intense anxiety than Amyas, Dick, and the Professor watched the vast cloud that drifted so slowly overhead.
'It's going over,' said Amyas hoarsely.
'No,' said the Professor calmly. 'It is going to break.'
The words were hardly out of his mouth before there was a blaze of light which nearly blinded them, followed by a roar like the crack of doom. On the heels of it, before the crashing echoes had died, the cloud seemed to split apart, and down came the rain.
Not in drops. It fell in sheets. It made a roar like many waterfalls, and the rush of it darkened the air so completely that they could not even see the rim of the crater overhead.
Not that they tried to. With hats, coats, anything that they could spread out, they were struggling to catch the precious water.
Amyas felt it soaking through his parched body, cooling his blistered skin. The pleasure of it was simply exquisite. But even in his delight he did not forget Joe. With his hat half full of water, he and Dick between them opened Joe's lips and poured water down his throat. Joe revived like a sun-wilted plant plunged into a bowl.
Thunder roared, lightning blazed blue, but the rain became, if anything, even heavier, and, within a few moments, rivulets came pouring down the slopes in every direction.
Porous as the dust was, it could not carry off the torrents that ran down. Almost at once a pool began to form in the cone- shaped hollow at the bottom.
Dick picked up the haversacks and the water bottles.
'Say, we'd best shift,' he shouted. 'We'll be drowned if we don't.'
'Shift,' repeated Amyas. 'You forget. We can't. We'll only slide back if we try it.'
'Got to try anyway,' replied Dick curtly, and began once more the crawl upwards, the very recollection of which turned Amyas sick with loathing.
As usual he got a little way up. Then the soft stuff gave and down he slid again.
'What's the use, Dick?' asked Amyas. 'We can't do any good, and you know it. Anyhow, I'd a long sight sooner be drowned than die of thirst.'
'Don't he a quitter,' retorted Dick fiercely. It was the first time Amyas had ever heard him speak in such a tone, and anger boiled up in him.
Before he could reply the Professor's hand was on his arm.
'No quarrelling,' he said, with unusual sternness. 'Stay where you are for the present, all of you. A thorough wetting will do none of us any harm, and I doubt if the water will rise above our heads.'
The others had no thought of disobeying. They stood where they were.
The rain continued. Torrents raced down the sides of the crater, carrying quantities of the dust down, and cutting deep channels in the soft ash. Even for the Tropics it was an amazing storm. Not in all their years in Bolivia had Amyas or Joe seen anything to touch it.
The water in the bottom rose rapidly. Within a quarter of an hour it was up to their waists. No doubt it was draining away fast, but it could not run away as rapidly as it accumulated.
Amyas stood quite still. He had suffered so terribly during that awful morning that he felt curiously numbed, and as if he really did not care what happened one way or another. He strained the water through a handkerchief and drank till even his aching thirst was satisfied.
Another quarter of an hour, and the water was up to their armpits. Joe, shorter than the rest, was in almost up to his neck, and Dick held him up.
At last Dick spoke.
'We won't last more'n another five minutes, boss,' he said quietly.
'Nor will the storm,' was the answer.
The words were hardly out of his mouth before the rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun.
'Come!' ordered the Professor, and began to climb out of the pool.
Amyas stared, and stood still.
'Come!' repeated the Professor more sharply. Amyas and the others, too surprised for words, saw him going steadily up the slope.
The Professor picked the deepest gully, and went slowly upwards, and Amyas, following, found that he could walk with comparative ease.
Dick, close behind him, suddenly gave a great shout.
'Trust the boss!' he cried. 'He's the one to use his head. Gee, and to have to tell you all I never thought the rain would do the trick for us!'
But the rain had done the trick. It had hardened that soft powder of pumice so that it no longer slipped or slid. It was firm all the way up, and within no more than five minutes from leaving the bottom, the Professor had clambered safely over the rim, and was turning to give a hand to Amyas.
Presently they were all standing on firm ground again. They were all oddly silent. Joe, who had recovered wonderfully, was the first to speak.
'I wonder which way he went,' he said.
No one needed to ask to whom he referred.
'The stone road goes over that way,' said Dick.
Joe started off at once, but Dick caught hold of him.
'Steady, Joe! I guess we won't catch him this evening.'
He turned to the Professor. 'Say, boss, do you reckon Visega took all of our stuff along with him?'
The Professor considered a moment.
'I guess not, Dick. You see, he'd feel real sure that it was out of our reach, and likely as not he may have left the heavier gear. There's a chance of it anyway.'
'I'm afraid he won't have left any of our stores,' said Amyas.
'Nor a gun either,' said Dick, shaking his head.
Amyas started. 'My rifle is in the bushes where I cut that bush rope,' he said. 'I've just remembered. And a dozen cartridges in my pocket.'
Dick looked at him. 'That's a bit o' luck,' he said briefly. 'Like as not it'll make all the difference. Let's get it right now.'
Amyas hurried into the scrub, to come back a moment later, carrying the rifle. Then they all started back towards the site of their old camp. The storm had rolled away, the sun was out again, and their soaking clothes dried on them as they walked.
They kept a very sharp lookout. Not that they expected Visega. By this time he was probably nearly twenty miles away. But it was always on the cards that some of these wild Indians whom he had raised to help him were hanging about.
They topped the rise and went quietly down the western slope. Worn and hungry as they were, not one of them gave a thought to it. The relief of getting out of that hideous crater was so great that nothing else counted.
Soon they were in sight of the big trees where they had been camped. Dick pulled up.
'I can't see anything,' he said in a low voice, 'but I guess we won't take no risks. Amyas, let me have that gun, the rest of you better wait here.'
Rifle in hand, he went softly forward. The others, hidden behind a patch of palm scrub, waited and watched.
Dick went slowly. They saw him reach the clump of trees. Apparently he saw nothing suspicious, for he quickened his pace. As he did so two men—both Indians—burst from the undergrowth a little way behind and dashed at him. Each had a broad-bladed spear.
'Look out, Dick!' shouted Amyas at the pitch of his voice.
But Dick, seemingly, had eyes in the back of his head. Even before Amyas's warning could have reached him, he had spun round. Two reports sounded almost as one, and both his assailants rolled over.
With the crack of the rifle a third Indian broke cover a little farther away, and bolted like a hare. Again Amyas shouted. The Indian heard the shout, and paused for just the fraction of a second. Dick took his chance, and this man, too, paid the penalty.
Dick waited a few seconds to see if there were any more, then calmly strode on. A moment later they heard him shouting to them to come on.
When they reached him they found him busy unfastening a bundle which had been roped to the same great branch from which Joe's hammock had swung.
'We're in luck, partners,' he said with quiet satisfaction. 'Here's our hammocks and nets, a frying pan and a kettle, two blankets and—yes, by George—one lot of coffee and flour and salt.'
He chuckled. 'Enough to last us till we catch him and get the rest of our truck out of him,' he added.
'And those Indians were left to guard the stuff,' said Amyas. 'Dick, it's lucky for us you can shoot as you can.'
Dick laughed again.
'And lucky you saved your gun. Now, see here, people, the best thing we can do is to get a good night's rest. Yes, I know we got an hour or two of daylight left, but it would be poor foolishness to start chasing off after Visega to-night. We've had a pretty bad time, and Joe here ain't fit to travel till he's had grub and sleep. What do you say, Professor?'
'I'm right with you, Dick,' replied the Professor. 'Myself, I don't reckon it's more than two or three days' march at most to the end of our journey. But these may be the hardest and most dangerous days of all, and we must be fit to meet them. There is another matter. Although we have been so extremely fortunate as to recover a portion of our stores, yet there is not enough here to feed even the four of us for long. It is most necessary that we should get some meat.'
Dick nodded. 'Don't you worry, Professor. I was right on the track of a whole bunch of pigs when I heard Amyas whistle yesterday. They won't have moved very far and we'll get one to- morrow. And now let's build up a fire. I'm plumb starving for a cup of hot coffee.'
The pot of hot coffee was always a joy after the day's march, but on this night it was better than ever. It is doubtful if any people ever enjoyed a hot meal more than those four.
They did not say much, but each, in his heart, was thinking of the previous evening, and of how little he had ever expected to live to see another camp fire.
Joe finished his mug of coffee, got up, washed out the mug, and passed it to Amyas. Visega had only left two mugs.
'Wonder where poor old Pablo is,' he said suddenly.
'Just what I've been thinking,' replied Amyas. 'I'm afraid Visega will make it hot for him.'
'Murder him, most likely,' said Joe bitterly. 'He always hated him.'
'If that fellow has killed Pablo, I'll sure kill him,' stated Dick. The calm way in which he spoke made his assertion all the more convincing.
Supper over, the four divided the night into watches. There was still a chance that some of Visega's Indians might be lurking about. The Professor took the first three hours, Amyas was to take the second, then Dick. Joe was ordered to sleep all night, and though he protested, the Professor was firm.
It was at eleven that the Professor aroused Amyas. His three hours' sleep had done Amyas a pile of good, and taking the rifle, he mounted guard quite cheerfully. It was a perfect night, with the air deliciously cool after the storm. The stars were brilliant. The planets looked like small moons, and gave almost light enough to read by.
Amyas took a seat on a log just out of the heavy shadow of the trees and sat quietly. Down in the swamps the nights are noisy with the endless chirr of crickets and bleating of frogs. Up here it was as quiet as a summer night in England. There was no sound except the tinkle of a distant brook, and occasionally a soft booming noise caused by night-jar's swooping at the night-flying insects on which they feed.
Time passed, and Amyas made up the fire, which was burning low, and had come back to his post when he heard a slight rustle in the bushes at a little distance.
He was on his feet in a flash, with the rifle pointed in the direction of the sound.
Again came the rustle, then a moan.
Still Amyas did not move. This might be a ruse.
For perhaps half a minute there was quiet. Then he heard a distinct movement, and again a low moan.
He moved slowly nearer to the bushes. They were a small but thick clump standing perhaps fifty yards from the camp fire.
He reached the clump and with his rifle barrel pushed the branches aside. The starlight showed a little hollow, and in it a human figure lying on its face. As he watched it, he saw it try to rise and creep forward. Then it fell again.
A sharp gasp burst from Amyas's lips.
'It's Pablo!' he cried.
AT Amyas's cry, Dick, who slept as lightly as a cat, sprang up and came running. Between them they lifted the poor little Indian out of the thorns and carried him to the fire.
The light showed his back to be in a terrible state. He had been flogged till it was a mass of raw flesh. The two set about bathing the awful wounds. The Professor roused, and brought out his first-aid case, which, by the greatest luck imaginable, he had had in his pocket all the time. He helped them.
None of them spoke as they worked over their task, but the look on Dick's face was deadly.
Presently Pablo revived, and looked up at Amyas with dog-like gratitude in his soft brown eyes. They made a bed for him of soft grass and branches and gave him a cup of coffee, which he drank thirstily.
'One more little account,' said Dick at last. 'Amyas, if we ever catch Visega I'll treat him exactly as he's treated Pablo.'
Amyas did not answer, but his blood was boiling in his veins at the sight of Pablo's back.
The Professor spoke. 'I'm afraid we won't be able to move to- morrow,' he said gravely. 'We can't leave the poor little chap.'
Dick nodded. 'I don't know that it signifies much, Professor. We'll let the Dago collect the loot, and take it from him on his way back.'
'We won't leave Pablo anyhow,' said Amyas, with decision.
'He's asleep now—that's a mighty good thing,' said the Professor. 'Now we may as well turn in again.'
The rest of the night passed quietly. Amyas was roused at dawn by the sound of a shot, and jumping up saw Dick running towards something which lay out on the grass about a hundred yards away.
Presently he came back, carrying on his shoulders one of those same small, spotted deer of which they had killed two some days earlier.
'Here's a bit of luck!' he said triumphantly. 'The beggar came walking right past me. This saves going out hunting to-day.'
The fresh meat was indeed welcome, and was plenty to feed the five of them for three days.
Pablo awoke, wonderfully better. The mere feeling that he was with his friends again did more for him than anything else. But in any case an Indian can survive injuries that would kill a white man.
He told them his story, and it was just as they had thought. Visega had caught him, tied him up, flogged him till he collapsed, then flung him into the thorn bushes, telling him that the panthers would finish him. The other four Indians, so Pablo said, Visega had taken with him.
'But they will run away,' Pablo assured Amyas. 'Juan hates the Seņor Visega. He will take the first chance to run.'
The feeling that Visega was increasing his lead every hour was very galling to all the four white men. It was all very well for Dick to talk of tackling him on his return, and taking the loot from him, but in their hearts they all knew that this was impossible. They now had but one rifle, while Visega now had two and two shot-guns. Of course, there was the question whether any of his wild Indians could use fire-arms, but even so the odds would be tremendous.
Their chief comfort was that Pablo got better every hour. They fed him all they dared, and they themselves spent most of the day eating and sleeping. They had a lot of lost sleep to make up.
On the following morning Pablo announced that he was ready to travel. The Professor considered that he was fit for a short march and they started early. Their packs were light and the old road proved to be in astonishingly good condition. By eleven o'clock they had crossed the valley of the crater, and were high in the hills beyond. The air grew fresher and cooler with every step.
They took two hours' rest at noon, and camped for the night in a lovely glade high in the main chain of mountains. It was positively chilly, and they were glad of the fire. A brook ran through the glade, and Amyas, who always had hooks and lines in his pockets, caught a number of small trout-like fish which were excellent eating.
'We're getting near,' said Dick. 'I feel it in my bones.'
They were, but how near none of them suspected. The map gave no details of this last part of their journey.
Next morning they had not gone two miles before they passed the ashes of a camp fire, and to their amazement a little smoke still rose. The embers were quite hot.
'Visega was here last night,' pronounced Dick. 'He hasn't been gone over an hour.'
'I reckon what you say is true, Dick,' said the Professor, 'but I confess I do not understand it. He had two days' start.'
'Meat,' replied Dick briefly. 'You see, he's got a matter of forty or fifty men with him. I guess he's had a job to shoot enough to fill their stomachs.'
'Jolly good thing we didn't hurry,' remarked Joe. 'If we had, we'd have walked right over him.'
'We'll have to be mighty careful we don't do that anyhow,' said Dick. 'All of you will kindly keep your eyes open.'
Amyas looked up at the mountain which rose steeply above them. 'He must be over the next crest,' he answered. 'There's no cover to hide forty men this side.'
Dick nodded. 'That's true. All the same, watch out.'
They went on carefully. The hill-side grew steeper and more bare. All were very silent, but each was tingling with excitement. They had a feeling that they were very near to big events.
The mountain-side went up at such a slope that the track at last began to zigzag, as it had once before. The wind blew fresh and cool. They were now above the heavy trees, and only low bushes and scrub grew about them. They had been climbing for days, and the Professor reckoned that they were about six thousand feet up. From this height they could see right back over the foot-hills to the great swamp which lay in the steaming valley many miles behind them.
It occurred to Amyas that they would have to return across that horrid country, but it was only a passing thought. The feeling that their enemy was only a few miles ahead left room for little else in his mind.
Up and up they crawled. Even the bushes began to disappear. Little cascades tumbled past the path, with strips of lovely green grass on either side. The turf was almost English in its closeness, but strange and beautiful flowers starred it here and there.
To the right of the zigzag road the cliffs fell away in great terraces, and a thousand feet or more below a large river was seen which seemed to burst full-fledged from a black cave mouth at the base of the cliffs.
The air was like champagne, and in spite of the steepness of the ascent they insensibly quickened their pace.
Dick, who was leading, stooped and picked up something. He held it up. It was a used cartridge.
Another hour and they were almost at the summit. The road up here was no longer paved, but cut in solid rock. All around was bare rock, with here and there a long glacier-like slope of broken stone or gravel.
The crest above them was crowned with masses of uncut granite of huge size and fantastic shape. Some of them resembled tall castles, others monuments, others again suggested the heads of giants or monstrous beasts.
'Volcanic,' Amyas heard the Professor say. 'Igneous rock, I reckon, all through.'
Amyas himself didn't much care what sort of rock it was. All his thoughts were centred on Visega.
Dick raised a hand for caution, and they crept up the last hundred yards, almost on tiptoe. They came out on a broad plateau and paused close under one of the great, tower-like pyramids of weathered rock.
Here they paused and listened, but the only sound they heard was the thin breeze soughing among the crags, and the only sign of life two broad-winged vultures motionless against the pale blue above.
'Go mighty slow,' whispered Dick. 'It's on the cards that the Dago has stopped here for his noonday halt.'
He moved on again and the other four followed in single file, bent double, and dodging from rock to rock.
So they went for perhaps a quarter of a mile. Then the ground began to fall again slightly.
A little beyond they saw the road again. They had left it at the crest of the hill. It dipped into a cutting and the excavated stuff still lay in a high bank on either side.
'I guess Visega stuck to the road,' whispered Dick. 'Wait here a jiffy, while I go on and scout.'
He crept to the bank which was above the ancient road. The others watching saw him stop short. He stood upright and stared fixedly for some moments, then turned and beckoned. In the bright sunlight there was a look upon his face which started Amyas's heart fairly thumping.
A moment later the rest reached Dick.
'I reckon we've hit her at last,' said Dick, in a voice which was not quite steady.
None of the others spoke. Just beyond the road the hill-side broke away into a series of cliffs which dropped like giant steps into an oval valley perhaps a thousand feet below.
The valley was some five miles long and a little more than a mile in width. Its floor was covered with grass of the most exquisite green, and clumps of trees grew here and there. Through the centre ran a good stream of water which seemed to burst from the cliffs at the head of the valley, and to disappear into them at the lower end.
All around it the cliffs rose like a wall, yet, set back as they were in a series of terraces, they did not cut off light and air as they would have had they towered straight up.
But it was not at these natural features that the party were staring. It was at the buildings which stood about midway down the valley just where it was at its broadest.
They were certainly the strangest dwelling-houses that any man of the twentieth century every looked upon. They were shaped like beehives, only more domed than a beehive, and they were built of the same reddish granite which composed the cliffs bounding the valley.
Enormously massive in appearance, they were arranged in regular rows just like houses in the streets of a modern town.
In the centre, on a mound that was probably artificial, stood a building domed like the rest but immensely larger than the other houses. Its roof was covered with a metal which glinted dull yellow under the rays of the overhead sun.
It had a great door and porchway facing the east, in front of which was a wide platform paved with great smooth stones, and in the centre of this stood what appeared to be an altar.
The town was not walled, but was surrounded by a semicircular moat which joined the river at both ends, and no doubt had once been filled with water. In course of years, however, the sides had fallen in and it was now dry.
The Professor clasped his hands. On his face was a look of positive awe.
'The lost City of the Incas!' he said, in a low, tense voice.
'That's what it is, sure pop!' said Dick, but though he tried to speak in his usual careless tone his voice sounded strange.
As for Amyas, he could not speak at all. This sudden sight of the goal of his long journey brought a lump into his throat, and glancing at Joe, he saw that he was similarly affected.
Practical Dick came to the rescue.
'Yes, gents,' he said, 'there's our city, but there's something else there that's not so nice. If you'll take the trouble to look down among them trees, there's the Dago and his outfit, and say what you will, there's no denying they've got there first.'
He pointed as he spoke, and sure enough there were a number of brown men gathered under a clump of trees about a quarter of a mile from the city.
Amyas unslung his field glasses which he had stuck to all through, even during that horrible day in the crater, and focused them on the group.
'Yes,' he said, 'and I can see Visega plainly. He's got my spare shirt on—the swab! But what's he doing, I wonder. Why isn't he going straight on into the City?'
'I can answer that question for you right now,' replied Dick. 'You've all talked a heap about a deserted city and ruins and all them sort of things. I'd like to tell you that old town ain't any more deserted than Plymouth where I comes from. There's people there, in plenty, and I guess master Dago is sort of heartening up his crowd for an attack.'
The Professor snatched Amyas's glasses and stared through them for a few seconds.
'Dick is right,' he said, as he lowered them. 'There are men in that ancient city.'
MEN there were. All saw them now, and Amyas, taking the glasses again, examined them carefully.
'They look like Indians,' he said, 'only lighter in colour, and they seem to wear rather more clothes. They've got bows and arrows, too, like Indians.'
'How many are there?' asked Joe.
'Not more than thirty or forty all told—not so many as Visega has with him. And I can't see any women or children.'
'That is not strange,' said the Professor. 'They are probably in the houses or the temple.'
'I cant see a thing moving anywhere else in the place,' added Amyas. 'And now what's going to happen?'
'One big scrap, if you ask me,' said Dick. 'Brother Blackamoor ain't going to lay his paws on those temple treasures without fighting for 'em.'
'Must we stand by and see this happen?' demanded the Professor. 'It would be a shame and a disgrace to allow the remnant of this ancient race to be exterminated by a blackguard like this Brazilian.'
'Maybe it would, Professor,' replied Dick dryly, 'Still, unless we could borrow a plane or grow wings, I don't see how we're going to interfere. It'll take us mighty nigh two hours to climb down into the valley and reach the scene of action. If I'm not mistook, it'll be over by then, shouting and all.'
There was sound sense in what Dick said. The rest could not help seeing that. First, there was the thousand-feet descent, with the long road criss-crossing the great step-like cliffs. Even when they had reached the bottom, they would be still nearly two miles from the secret city. Dick went on.
'Besides, how much good could we do if we were down there? We're five, and one ain't much good for fighting. We got one gun among the lot of us, and not even a sword or a spear for the rest. Either of them lots of fighters could eat us. Seems to me we'd a darned sight better sit tight, and watch what happens. Maybe them two lots'll wipe one another out like the Kilkenny cats. Then the chestnuts'll be ours.'
The Professor sighed.
'I fear you are right, Dick,' he said. 'But it seems a thousand pities that we should have to watch helplessly while the remnant of that ancient race is exterminated.'
'Maybe it's Visega'll be exterminated,' replied Dick. 'And, anyways, them fellows from the city don't look to me to be much more than ordinary Indians. If you ask me, the old Inca crowd's been wiped out long ago, and these is some tribe which has located itself in their deserted town.'
'You may be right. I hope so,' said the Professor sadly.
'They're starting,' said Joe abruptly.
'So they are,' added Amyas. 'Those chaps from the city are coming out.'
'Silly idiots!' growled Joe. 'Look at them, all in a bunch!'
The men from the town had joined up in a column, and were coming across the open at a hard run. Visega, on the other hand, had spread his force out in a long line. He himself, with a couple of men, had taken shelter behind a large stone, of which there were many scattered about the plain. He had all his guns ready, besides the rifle which he held in his hands.
The air up at this height was clear as crystal, and although the scene of battle was at least two miles away as the crow flies, the watchers could see everything as plainly as on a cinema screen.
Visega's Indians waited until the others were in range, then discharged a shower of arrows. The men from the city did not stop, though several fell. In fact they quickened their pace.
Then Visega began to shoot. The reports of his rifle sounded no louder than those of a pop-gun, but the bullets fired at such short range raked the head of the advancing column, and men dropped fast.
The rest checked.
'They've never heard guns before,' said Joe.
'They're plucky though,' answered Amyas quickly. 'See! They're coming on again.'
They were. What was more, they were opening out. Visega snatched up another rifle and blazed away. His men were shooting their arrows at a tremendous pace. More than a dozen of the attacking party were down.
Visega shouted. They could not hear his voice, but they could see him wave his arms. His men charged.
Though shorter than the men from the town, Visega's Indians appeared to be of a burlier, stronger build. They were fine fighters, too.
Even up on the heights, the watchers heard the crash of the two forces meeting. In an instant they were all mixed up, stabbing at one another with spears and knives, battling desperately in pairs or in small knots.
Visega had come out of his cover. He was dodging about, a little behind the battle line, firing whenever he had a chance.
The mix up did not last long. The invaders, fighting, with extraordinary ferocity, drove the others back. Visega's rifles did dreadful execution. He was shooting at ranges of only a few yards.
Suddenly two or three men broke away and began to run back towards the town.
'That's finished it,' said Dick briefly.
The words were hardly out of his mouth before the whole of the surviving defenders were in flight. Poor beggars! They had not a chance. Visega's men, flushed with victory, chased them savagely. They took no prisoners. Every man as he was caught was speared at once. Visega himself shot down every one within range.
The rest was not a battle, it was a massacre. Not a single one of the defenders reached the town alive. They were all wiped out. Visega's men crossed the dry moat and disappeared among the dome- shaped buildings.
The Professor shook his head. 'That's bad,' he said. 'That's mighty bad.'
'It's not exactly what we was hoping for, and that's a fact,' replied Dick. 'Still, I reckon there's one thing we have to be grateful for, and that is that we weren't down there to be wiped out with them.'
'And what's to be done now?' asked Amyas. 'Visega's got nearly all our grub and our stores. He's got our carriers. Now he'll get the treasure, if there is any. Where do we come in?'
No one answered. There did not seem to be anything to say. Indeed, the outlook for the little party was extremely dark.
As the five stood there staring down into the valley, Dick's quick ear caught a slight sound close at hand. With a sweep of his arm he motioned them all back.
Next moment they all heard footsteps coming slowly up the zigzag road leading from the valley, and around the sharp curve below there came into view as strange a figure as any of them had ever set eyes upon.
He was an old man—amazingly old. He looked as if he might be a hundred. His hair, which was long, was white as a washed fleece, his face which was the colour of old parchment, was seamed with a thousand wrinkles. His tall frame was bent, and he walked with the help of a long, crooked stick.
He was dressed in a long robe looking like a camel's-hair dressing-gown, but richly ornamented with gold embroidery. It was belted around his waist with a belt of gold. He wore sandals on his feet.
He was evidently very tired.
Immediately behind him came two Indians. At sight of these Joe, who was nearest to the bank above the road, started and suddenly sprang to his feet.
'Juan!' he cried. 'It's our man, Juan!'
At sound of his voice, the old man and the two Indians stopped short. Then Juan, recognising the white men, made a dash up the bank and, flinging himself down before Joe and Amyas, burst into a torrent of words.
His speech was a queer mixture of Spanish and Indian, difficult to understand, but Amyas made out that he was overjoyed to see his white masters again, whom he had fully believed to be dead.
'And we are glad to see you,' replied Amyas cordially. 'Get up, Juan. Here, Pablo, you come and talk to him. Ask him how he got away, and who is the seņor with the white beard.'
Pablo made a better hand at understanding Juan than the rest, and after a few moments' talk, was able to explain the situation to Amyas, who in turn told the others.
'Juan and the rest of the carriers bolted last night,' he explained. 'They got here ahead of Visega, and warned these people in the city of the coming attack. So the cacique, the chief priest I think he is, got the women and children away into some caves on the other side of the valley. They are there now with our other two carriers, and a few of the old men to look after them.'
'But what made the old boy come up here?' asked Dick, as Amyas paused.
'It seems Juan told him about us being chucked into that crater, and the old priest made up his mind to go and collect some friendly Indians he knows of, and try to get us out. He thought we might give him and his people a hand.'
'Very white of him, too,' said Dick. 'I'm going to fetch him right up. The old bird is going to tell us a heap of things that will be mighty useful.'
'You had better be careful you're not seen from below,' said the Professor warningly.
'Don't you worry. Visega's hunting gold. He hasn't got no eyes for us,' replied Dick, and slid down the bank.
The cacique was standing, leaning on his stick in the centre of the road. He looked Dick square in the face, and Amyas noticed that the old man's eyes seemed much younger than the rest of his face. They were almost black in colour, but very bright.
Dick put out his hand, and the old man took it with a deliberate grip. Amyas saw Dick start slightly, and a look of surprise cross his face. Then he smiled, and the two stood looking hard, one at the other.
Amyas and the rest came down into the road. The priest began to speak, but none of the white men understood his language. Pablo, however, was able to interpret. Amyas noticed that the little Indian saluted the priest in a peculiar fashion and that his eyes were fixed, with an expression of awe, on a curious medallion which the old man had hung around his neck. The chain by which it was suspended was ornamented with a number of rough crystals pierced and hung upon fine gold wire.
The cacique repeated what the Indian, Juan, had already told them, and said that he was happy to see them safe. He trusted that they would be able to destroy the marauders who had invaded the valley.
Through Pablo, Amyas explained their plight, and showed that they had but one rifle, and a very limited stock of ammunition. He asked the priest if they could not all go back to the caves and discuss the matter there.
The old man shook his head. The caves, he said, were on the far side of the valley and at a great height. To reach them it would be necessary to walk all around the lower end of the valley, a distance of some six miles. They would be in full view of the enemy for a part of the distance.
The Professor then suggested that they should draw back a little, out of sight, where they could rest and eat some food and try to form some plan. The priest agreed willingly and offered to show them a shelter.
He took them some way back to a good sized cave under one of the great juts of granite. There they all sat down.
Dick whispered to Amyas. 'He's a fine old bird, that, Amyas. And it's up to me to do all I can for him.'
'Why you particularly?' asked Amyas.
'Because he's a mason,' replied Dick quietly.
'A mason?' repeated Amyas, puzzled.
'Yes, a freemason, my son. I don't profess to understand it, but he gave me the grip all right, so even if the rest of you went back on him, I'd have to stay right here.'
'Don't be an ass, Dick,' retorted Amyas. 'Do you think any of us are going to chuck it at this stage of the game?'
Dick laughed. 'No, old lad, I don't. But see here, you get to work interpreting, and don't you let the Professor get straying off on hieroglyphs or them sort of things. If you do, he'll be yarning on 'em all night. What we got to do is to find some dodge for queering the Dago's pitch.'
This was all very well, and the priest was only too anxious to help. But the more they consulted the more hopeless the matter seemed. The priest had but half a dozen old men while the white men with their Indians, were nine in all. Between them they had one rifle. Visega, on the other hand, had nearly forty men, all well armed.
Amyas suggested a night attack, but even Dick was against this. The odds were too heavy, he said. Besides, the town was a good size, and they could not tell where Visega would billet his men.
Joe had an idea. 'Ask if there's more than one way out of the valley,' he said.
The question was put to the priest.
'There is a secret way to the caves, and up from there to the summit,' he said, 'but it is one which no man could find if he were not shown it. The road you have seen is the only one by which a stranger could approach or leave the valley of the Gods.'
'Then why not block the road?' said Joe. 'We can perch behind the barricade and pot Visega as he comes up. Then we can roll rocks on his men.'
'Not a bad notion,' allowed Dick, 'but the trouble is that, if Visega saw a barricade he'd clear out, and go back into the town. There's sure to be plenty of grub there, and he can stay a year if need be. We have next to no grub, and can't stick here more than two or three days.'
Joe looked rather crestfallen, and said no more.
Dick, too, was silent. Joe's suggestion seemed to have started a new train of thought in his mind. At last he spoke.
'Amyas,' he said, 'ask the priest about that river. Ask him what sort of a hole it goes out through.'
The cacique looked a little puzzled, but he was a courteous old gentleman, and gave the required information at once.
'He says it runs out through a low arch,' said Amyas, 'and that in times of great rain there is not always room for the flood waters to escape, and that sometimes the lower end of the valley is flooded.
Dick shot to his feet with a yell. 'I've got it,' he roared, 'by James, I've got it.'
THE poor old cacique looked dreadfully alarmed.
'What has stung the white man?' he asked anxiously.
When Dick heard the question he burst into a great shout of laughter.
'Tell him it's the Dago who's going to get stung. Listen here, all of you. What's the matter with damming that there river down at the lower end, and drowning out Visega and that murdering crew of his?'
Every eye was on him. There was complete silence for several seconds. It was Joe who spoke first.
'Topping,' was his brief remark.
The Professor nodded sagely. 'I guess it might work,' he said cautiously. 'Amyas, ask the cacique what he thinks.'
So Amyas explained through Pablo, and when the old gentleman at last got the hang of Dick's suggestion, it was wonderful to note the change in his face. The years seemed to roll off him. He grew younger before their eyes, and for the first time since they had made his acquaintance he actually smiled.
'My brother has a clever brain,' he said. 'There can be no plan better. True, it will cause some inconvenience to my people, but that will be a small matter compared with ridding the valley of these pestilent thieves.'
Dick grinned when this was translated for him. 'Ask him,' he said, 'if there are rocks that we can roll into the tunnel.'
The cacique declared that there were plenty, and that his own old men should help.
Dick considered a while. 'We shall have to do it to-night,' he said. 'There's no telling how long Visega will stay in the city.'
'He'll not move to-night,' remarked Joe.
'No, and the chances are he'll stay a couple of days,' said Amyas. 'You can be jolly sure he'll go through the place with a small toothed-comb before he leaves it.'
He turned to Pablo, and told him to ask the priest if there was much gold in the city.
'Gold,' repeated the old man in evident surprise. 'Yes, there is gold in plenty. But is that what this robber desires?'
Amyas explained that gold was the most valuable metal in ordinary use in the outside world, a statement which puzzled the cacique badly. He explained that tin and copper were by far the most precious commodities in the valley. They were, he added, so much harder to dig and to smelt than gold.
'In that case,' Amyas said to Dick, 'I think we can count on Visega sticking here for a couple of days at least.'
'Maybe he will, maybe he won't,' answered Dick doggedly. 'But we're not taking chances. We'll do this job to-night if it's anyways possible. Ask the old gent how soon he can get his chaps from the caves to the lower end of the valley.'
The cacique who, now that he understood Dick's scheme, was as keen as any of them, answered that it would not be possible to do anything until dark. The valley was open, and Visega's Indians would be almost sure to see any one moving in it. He proposed that they should wait until dusk, then send Juan back with a message to the caves. Juan could run if he had a meal and a rest before he started. He knew the way, and should get here in little more than an hour. A little later they themselves would start, and go straight to the scene of action, where they would begin work.
The rest agreed. Only the Professor was doubtful. What was troubling him was the idea of flooding these wonderful relics of antiquity. He had come so far and endured so much for the purpose of examining them that the thought of drowning them nearly broke his heart.
But there was no way out of it. He could not think of any other plan for destroying Visega and his set of ruffians. So, very sadly, he agreed.
They made a meal of sorts. It was cold meat and bread—nothing else. It would not have been safe to light a fire, even if they had had fuel.
While they ate the Professor was questioning the cacique. The Professor spoke more than one of the Indian dialects, and although the cacique's own language was different from that of the Indians, the two were able to understand one another fairly well. Pablo helped out when words cropped up which were beyond the Professor.
The others discussed their plans.
At last the sun began to drop behind the western ranges, and the shadows crept across the valley floor. The air turned so chill that Amyas almost shivered. Their clothes were thin and their blood, too, after so many days spent in tropical heat.
Dusk fell with the swiftness peculiar to these latitudes, and presently Juan, having received his instructions, rose to his feet. The cacique took from a pouch at his side a small emblem worked in silver. It was in the shape of the charm known as the 'Swastika.' This he handed to Juan, telling him to show it when he reached the cave. It would prove that his message was genuine.
Juan made no bones about his errand. Visega had treated him villainously, and half starved him and his companions. He was as keen as any of them to get his own back.
He was hardly out of sight before the rest followed.
The road running down into the valley was a wonderful piece of engineering, and in most places was cut so deeply into the rock that people could walk along it without any chance of being seen from below. At each curve stood the ruins of a stone sentry-box where, in the old days, guards had been posted to prevent any invasion of the last stronghold of the Incas.
Long before the party had reached the bottom the last glow of sunset had faded from the sky, and there was no longer any risk of their being seen by Visega's men. For all that, they went cautiously. It was on the cards that some of the Indians might be wandering in search of food, for there were numbers of domesticated llamas grazing in the valley.
It was much warmer down on the floor of the valley, and it was a great relief to get on to level ground once more. As they neared the river, its roar sounded extraordinarily loud in the windless quiet of the night.
'There's a heap of water coming down there,' said Dick to Amyas. 'Strikes me it's going to be some job to dam it, specially as we haven't got so much as a spade or a crowbar.'
'I was thinking of that,' replied Amyas uneasily. 'And we've got to work in the dark, too.'
'Not so mighty dark,' said Dick, with a squint at the sky. 'These stars give a lot of light. Anyway, we've got to do the job, so that's all there is to it.'
It was less than two miles from the cliff foot to the lower end of the valley, and they noticed with satisfaction that the land was very flat. The whole drop from the top to the bottom end was not more than fifty feet.
A little before seven o'clock they arrived at the scene of action, and so far they had not set eyes upon a living soul besides themselves.
The river here was no more than twenty feet wide and evidently of considerable depth. It ran between perpendicular banks of rock, and as the priest had said, there were plenty of loose boulders lying about. Indeed, all round the edges of the valley were piles of loose stuff, big and small, which had slipped from the cliffs above in the course of ages.
The outlet by which the river passed out under the rim of cliff was a low-roofed tunnel into which the water poured with a deep sucking sound. So low was it, or else so high was the river, that there was not two feet to spare under the centre of the tunnel arch.
Dick, who, among his other accomplishments, had some rough knowledge of engineering, made a thorough survey of the place. He came back to the rest, rather discouraged.
'The blessed river runs like a millrace,' he said, 'And I'll lay it's all of eight or ten feet deep. There's plenty of stone, but it's all small stuff and it's no manner of use chucking it in. The stream'll simply sweep it away down that black hole before it gets to the bottom.'
'You mean we must have a big boulder to start operations,' said the Professor.
'What's the matter with that rock opposite?' said Joe suddenly. He pointed as he spoke to the other side of the river.
'That looks all right,' replied Dick, 'but how are you going to get at it. The brook's too wide to jump, and I'd hate to trust myself in swimming. It'd take you in under the arch before you could say knife.'
'We'd best go back a bit and see if we can't find a shallow place,' suggested Amyas. 'Let's ask the priest.'
The priest, when he heard the question, shook his head. It appeared that the only ford was close to the city.
This was serious. It seemed as if their project was to fail before it had even started.
Once more Joe came to the rescue. 'Why can't we climb the cliff over the arch? It doesn't look so bad.'
'That's a tip,' exclaimed Dick. 'Let's see if it's to be done.'
He, Joe, and Amyas went off together, and began hunting along the foot of the cliff for some way up. Not far back they came to a place where a rock slide had cut a wide fissure in the cliff side, and filled the bottom of it with a vast pile of rubble. Scrambling up the face of this they reached a ledge some thirty feet up and, with Dick leading, began to work along it.
The Professor, the cacique, Pablo, and the other Indian eagerly watched the three dim figures moving slowly across the face of the cliff.
'Do you reckon you can do it, Dick?' asked the Professor anxiously.
'Easy as pie, Professor. It's a cinch. There's a ledge up here a yard wide. Most as good as a turnpike road.'
A moment later he was right above the arch. Then they heard his voice again. 'Guess I spoke too soon,' he said ruefully. 'Here's a boulder as big as a house stuck right across the path.'
'The very thing to block the river,' said Amyas, who was just behind him.
'Yes, if you could shift it. But I reckon it would take giant powder to do that.'
'Let's try it, anyhow,' said Amyas, squeezing past.
He put his shoulder against the rock, and shoved.
'She's loose,' he exclaimed sharply. 'Feel her rock.'
'Loose?' repeated Dick incredulously, and flinging his weight upon it.
'Look out!' cried Amyas sharply. 'She's going.'
The two had just time to leap back into safety before the boulder, which must have weighed at least five or six tons, toppled over, leaned slowly outwards, overbalanced, and fell straight into the middle of the river.
UP shot a spout of spray nearly as high as the ledge. The Professor and the rest below staggered back, half drowned. As for Dick and Amyas, they stood staring downwards, breathing hard, barely able to believe their eyes.
'Some luck!' said Dick at last. 'Gee, but I never thought it would go so easy.'
'It's done the trick,' exclaimed Amyas joyfully. 'Look at the wave over the top of it. It must fill more than half the bed of the river.'
'It's enough to start the game, anyhow,' said Dick. 'Now, then, down with you, and let's continue the good work.'
When they reached the bottom the Professor, Pablo, and the other Indian were all hard at it, rolling rocks into the river. The others turned to as well, and worked like Trojans. It was no easy work, and soon they were all dripping with perspiration.
Dick paused at last. 'Nearly time for Juan and his lot to be here,' he said.
Amyas looked round. 'There he is, I believe,' he began, then all of a sudden he darted away up the river bank, running at the top of his speed.
Dick followed. The others, not knowing what was up, could only remain where they were.
'Did you see him?' panted Amyas as Dick came alongside.
'Yes,' was the brief answer.
Ahead scudded a squat dark figure. He ran fast, but Dick ran faster, and gained until he was only half a dozen yards behind.
Suddenly the fugitive whipped round, and a knife-blade gleamed in the starlight. Dick saw it, but there was no time to pull up. Instead, he swerved slightly. Amyas, close behind, saw Dick's foot fly up. There was a thud, a half-stifled cry, the Indian reeled back, caught his heel against a stone, and went clean over the bank into the river.
The brown body vanished under the swirling current. The two on the bank waited, but they never saw it again.
'One of Visega's crew,' said Dick breathlessly. 'Good thing you spotted him, Amyas.'
'And a good thing you caught him, Dick. My word, I thought he had you. That was a clever kick.
'Dodge a Frenchman taught me in Morocco,' replied Dick modestly. '"Savate," I believe he called it. Say, but I hope there are no more of these spies around.'
'We should have seen them,' said Amyas. 'There's no cover to speak of. That chap must have been mooching around and heard the big rock fall.'
'That's about the size of it,' allowed Dick. 'Well, he's gone, and we'd best get back and help finish the job.'
A few minutes later Juan's party arrived. They were old men certainly, but tough as shoe leather, and the way they set-to showed that they realised the need for haste, and that they were as keen as any of the rest to get square with Visega. Better still, they had brought some spear-shafts, which made excellent levers for shifting the big stones.
With so many hands the work went on at a great pace. Soon the head of the dam showed above the surface, and the river began to back up in its channel. A few more sizable boulders were added, then the torrent no longer had room to escape. It began to climb up over its banks. In a startlingly short time a large pool had formed, and was increasing in size every instant.
'And that's that,' said Dick, with a satisfied air. 'Now I reckon the sooner we get along up to them caves the better.'
It was a long, slow climb up the zigzag road, but this time they did not have to go to the top. At the head of the second terrace or step the priest led them to the left. The path he followed was often narrow, and in some places dangerous. But luckily all had good heads.
When they passed above the tunnel they stopped, and looked down. A broad lake, in which the bright stars were clearly reflected, covered the whole of the lower end of the valley. Many acres were already under water.
'Filling like a blessed bath tub,' chuckled Dick. 'Gee, but I'd love to see Visega's face when he wakes up to-morrow morning.'
From the lower end of the valley it was about half an hour's walk to the caves. They saw nothing of these until they were right upon them. They had been walking on what was a mere shelf overhanging a three hundred foot drop, when the cacique, who was leading, disappeared with startling suddenness around a shoulder of rock.
Following, they found themselves in the mouth of a tremendous rift where some earthquake, centuries ago, had split the cliff for hundreds of feet. The ledge, which Amyas saw plainly was artificial, led into the depths of this open cleft. They had to walk single file, one hand touching the flat wall of rock, the other actually over a black abyss.
The rift narrowed, but the ledge grew broader and turned into a wide stone platform. The stars disappeared, and they entered into an overwhelming darkness.
The cacique stopped and clapped his hands, and all at once a red glow appeared in the distance, and a man carrying a flaming torch came towards them.
The light showed that they stood just inside the portals of a vast cave. On either side were great triangular columns rising twenty feet or more and supporting a massive lintel. It was not easy to see whether this was artificial or carved out of the solid rock. The effect at any rate was extremely impressive.
A long and lofty tunnel led deep into the cliff, and opened out into a cave of impressive dimensions. Here more torches burned, and by their light the visitors saw some scores of women and children sitting about listlessly around piles of household goods which they had evidently carried up from their homes in the valley. Indian women do not weep, like white races, but the drawn faces of these poor creatures and their hopeless silence showed that they were only too well aware of the fates of their husbands, brothers, and fathers.
'Poor beggars!' said Dick, below his breath. 'This here's one more grudge we've got against the Dago.'
The cacique conducted his guests to a small side cave which was shut off from the main cavern by a curtain of skins. He spoke to Pablo, who explained that this was to be their sleeping chamber, and that supper would be brought to them. He also said that they were all to sleep, for that his men would keep watch and call them if anything occurred during the night.
Supper came quickly. It was a porridge of mealies or Indian corn and meat stewed with vegetables. It was served in dishes of pure gold! By the way some of these dishes were dented and even burnt, it was plain how little value their owners set upon the most precious of metals.
They ate in silence. Although their plans had gone so well they were none of them feeling cheerful. They might—they probably would—drown Visega and his crew, but in doing so they would also drown the sacred city, its marvels and its treasure. Then, too, the tragedy which had overtaken the people of the strange place made them all feel sad.
Still, it was something to be able to sleep in quiet and comfort, and they were all bone tired after their hours of strenuous toil. In spite of the strangeness of their surroundings, all were soon sound asleep.
Since there was none of the accustomed sunlight to rouse them not one waked at the usual time. It was Pablo who roused Amyas, and the little Indian had something more nearly approaching a grin upon his queer, wizened face than Amyas had ever seen it wear before.
'Your breakfast is ready, seņor,' was all he said.
Amyas sat up with a start.
'What about the water?' he demanded.
Pablo really smiled. 'The people watch it, seņor. Already it surrounds the city.'
Amyas was up like a shot. 'I want to see,' he said quickly.
Pablo led the way out of the inner and into the outer cave, where torches still burned smokily. But there was no one left in it except a few sleeping babies.
They went out through the long passage, and Amyas saw the brilliant sunlight striking in through the great arch at the mouth of the cavern.
Out on the platform stood the survivors of the tribe. They were absolutely silent, one and all staring down at the strangely changed face of the valley.
Truly it was a wonderful sight. In place of the green pastures was a vast lake. Already the dammed-up water had spread back until it was within a mile of the top end of the valley. The city itself, which Amyas now saw stood on slightly rising ground, was isolated. It was already an island.
The water, which was exquisitely clear and untouched by even the slightest breath of wind, lay like a vast mirror, accurately reflecting the tremendous tiers of cliffs which were piled above it.
Amyas's eyes were fixed on the city. He could see no sign of life in or about it.
'Where is Visega?' he demanded of Pablo.
'He is asleep, seņor,' he said. Then he absolutely laughed. 'But soon he will be awakened.'
'Jove, how he hates him,' thought Amyas to himself. 'Phew, I wouldn't care to stir up that sort of feeling in any man's heart, let alone an Indian's.'
'Hallo, Amyas, I see you're on the job,' came a voice behind Amyas, and here was Dick followed by Joe and the Professor. 'Say, son, but we made a right good job of it, eh?'
'But where's Visega?' questioned Joe abruptly.
'Still in bed, by all accounts,' replied Amyas. 'He and his crew of butchers probably sat up late, counting their spoil.
'Hallo!' he added sharply. 'There's one of 'em.'
One of Visega's Indians had come out of the temple. Though the distance was too great to see his face, his whole attitude was one of a man who cannot believe his eyes. He stood like a statue, staring at the great and still growing sheet of water which already covered four-fifths of the valley floor.
There was a stir among the watchers. They, too, saw and understood. Some of the women muttered under their breath. They were not blessings which they uttered.
The Indian outside the temple suddenly recovered his senses. He made a bolt back into the building.
Dick laughed outright. 'He's got the wind up,' he cried. 'Watch 'em!'
It was worth watching. Amyas by this time had his glasses in action. Through them he could see Visega's men coming out like bees from an overturned hive. Not last came Visega himself. With the powerful glasses and through the brilliantly clear air Amyas could quite clearly perceive the expression of fury and dismay on the face of the Brazilian.
The women saw him, too, and shook their fists, and cried fierce curses at him.
Blackguard as he was, Visega was not the man to stand still and wait quietly to be drowned. All across the waters the watchers could hear his voice calling harshly to his men. Presently he had got their panic under and was hurrying towards the upper end of the plateau or mound on which the great temple stood.
The Professor moved uneasily. 'Dick,' he said, 'how much water do you reckon there is across there?'
'Mighty difficult to judge, boss,' replied Dick.
'I don't believe it's much more than a yard deep, Dick. I guess Visega and his folk can wade out of it.'
'Likely as not,' replied Dick, 'but what odds does it make? They can't get near the road, and there ain't no other way out.'
'I'm not so mighty sure about that,' retorted the Professor.
'What did the priest say about a path up to the cave here?'
'He said it was secret,' replied Dick. 'Anyways, give me the gun and I'll hold it till the cows come home.'
The Professor grunted. He was not quite easy in his mind. He turned to Amyas.
'Ask the priest if there's any chance of finding the path up here,' he said.
Amyas put the question through Pablo. The cacique was standing among his people, who clustered round him. It was rather pleasant to see how devoted they were to the old man. When he understood what the Professor wished to know, he shook his head, and assured them all that, unless through treachery, there was no chance of Visega's finding the path. He explained that it had been specially constructed many generations ago, when the Children of the Sun first took refuge in this remote place. And that the lower entrance could only be gained through a tunnel cut in the base of the great cliff, and hidden by a stone door only movable by those who knew the secret.
'That sounds good to me,' said Dick. 'But, hallo! Watch his snakeship. He's going to swim for it all right.'
Sure enough, Visega was leading his men into the water, only there was no need to swim for, as the Professor had said, it was not much more than a yard deep. The whole column came splashing slowly through it towards the dry land which was about three hundred yards above the city.
Dick fingered his rifle. 'Gee, but what shots!' he said. 'I could pick one off with every cartridge.'
'No good wasting 'em,' said Joe briefly. 'They're bound to drown sooner or later.'
'I don't know so much about that,' replied Dick. 'There's a heap o' places where they could climb up like we did last night and get above the water. And its going to take weeks to drown 'em at that rate.'
'Then they'll starve instead,' said Joe.
'Don't you reckon on that, Joe. See what a lot o' stock there is, llamas and viscachas and such like up there at the top o' the valley. They can kill a heap of meat if they've a mind to.'
'By the bye,' he added, 'how are we fixed for grub?'
Amyas turned at once and asked the priest. The latter assured him that there were rations in the cave for a month.
Dick grunted. 'That's all right so far as it goes,' he said, 'but it ain't going to be much use to these poor folk after all their stock and farms are done in.'
'We must think of that later,' said the Professor. 'What I want you to notice right now is that Visega has spotted us, and is bringing his men towards that bridge over the river. He's going to try an attack. That's a sure thing.'
SURE enough, Visega had turned to the right and was making for the uppermost of three stone bridges which crossed the river close to the town. A causeway led to it, and the bridge itself, which had a high arch, was well above the flood.
He and his men crossed it in safety, and skirting the upper rim of the flood, came towards the mouth of the rift. This was not yet flooded, nor would be for some hours.
As Visega came nearer Amyas, through his glasses, could see the man's face set and deadly, with that peculiar snaky look which he had so often noticed. Amyas could see his men, too, more plainly, and was able to note what low-browed, heavy-jawed brutes they were. As the Professor said, they were but a degree higher in the human scale than the bushman or Australian black fellow.
'What's the beggar after?' said Dick, in surprise. 'Next thing he knows he'll be getting a bullet through his ugly carcass.
'Say,' he continued, with rising excitement, 'I believe I'll take a shot anyway. If I can finish him, the whole thing fizzles out. What do you say, Professor?'
'I say shoot,' replied the Professor, and he spoke almost solemnly. 'It would be good for the world, as well as for ourselves, to rid it of the ruffian.'
Dick lay flat down on the ledge, and cuddled his rifle-stock to his cheek.
'Wait, Dick—wait!' said Amyas quickly. 'He may come nearer. He may not know that we are here at all. He may take it that it was the priest who blocked the river.'
'Gee, I never thought of that. Right-o, Amyas, I'll wait awhile. It's a mighty long shot as it is.'
For the next few moments there was dead silence on the ledge. This ledge, it must be understood, was nearly half-way up the cliffs, and at an immense height above the valley floor. More than that, people who stood upon it were right in the inner angle of the great cleft, and practically invisible from below. While Visega seemed to have some idea of where the remnant of the tribe were hiding, he himself could not see them, and as Amyas had said, it was quite on the cards that he did not know anything of the presence of the white men.
He was, however, suspicious. That was plain enough, for he kept looking up at the cliff. One of his men came up and spoke to him. He stopped short, then suddenly turned sharp to the left.
'Now, Dick—now!' said Amyas sharply.
There was a moment of utter silence. Amyas felt that he could not breathe. Then Dick's finger tightened on the trigger, and the sharp crack of the Winchester sent echoes clattering far and wide across the valley.
'Got him!' cried Joe, as Visega was seen to stagger.
'No!' snapped Dick, and fired again. But Visega was already running like a hare, his men trailing out in a long string behind him.
'You must have hit him. I saw him reel,' exclaimed Amyas.
'I touched him. That's all,' growled Dick, who was very much annoyed. 'Watch him run.'
It was plain there was not much the matter with the Brazilian, for he did not stop till he was up near the head of the valley, and quite out of range. They watched him take refuge in one of the many rifts that seamed the sides of the cliffs, and in this he vanished from sight.
'It would almost seem that the man bears a charmed life,' said the Professor gravely. 'But I believe that Providence is reserving him for a worse fate.'
Dick rose to his feet. He was in a worse humour than any of them had ever seen him.
'Now it's all to do again,' he said. 'And Heaven only knows what devilment that swine will be up to. Well, I guess he won't move till night. Let's go back and get some breakfast, boys.'
They ate their food, and spent lazy hours examining the cave, which was of enormous size, and basking on the ledge outside and watching the waters creep slowly over the valley floor. The flood came more slowly now, for the space to be covered was so much larger. Of Visega and his men they saw little, but once watched half a dozen of them shooting some llamas with their bows and arrows and butchering them. At another time they saw some of the men high on the cliff at the upper end of the valley. They were evidently trying to find a way of scaling the heights. The cacique, however, gave his word that this was impossible—that the only ways up were by the open road, and by the secret path which ran through the cavern.
At twelve they gathered for midday dinner. While they were eating it Amyas had a queer feeling that the solid rock was quivering beneath him. He noticed that the others had stopped eating and were looking uncomfortable.
'Do you feel it, Joe?' he demanded.
'I thought I felt something,' replied Joe, 'but I didn't like to say anything for fear it was only imagination.'
'It was not imagination, Joe,' said the Professor. 'It was a slight shock of earthquake. I am not surprised, considering that the rock formation around us is purely volcanic.'
The priest, when asked, told them that slight 'tremblores' were common enough, and no one paid any attention to them. It was many years, however, since there had been a bad quake.
The little shake passed, and there was no repetition. The party finished their meal quietly, and sat chatting. Dick was anxious to know whether he could not find out a way along one of the terraces to the head of the valley, and perhaps get another shot at the Brazilian, but the priest assured him that this was not possible, and intimated that he would probably break his neck if he tried.
There was nothing to do but wait, and long before the day was over Amyas, Joe and Dick were, one and all, ready to swear that waiting was harder work than anything they had done yet. The Professor was the only happy member of the party. He had cornered the old priest whose name, they discovered, was Ixtal, and, with Pablo's aid, was pumping him on the folklore of his people and the past history of the Secret City.
Dick grew more and more impatient. At last he interfered, and Amyas saw him questioning Ixtal through Pablo. The priest rose rather reluctantly, and Dick beckoned to Amyas and Joe.
'He's going to show us the secret way,' he said.
Amyas and Joe followed eagerly. Ixtal led them through the main cave into a passage leading off it, almost opposite their sleeping apartment. The roof was high and arched, the floor smooth and level. It curved to the left, and presently the priest stopped and held up his torch. The party found themselves on the edge of a yawning abyss. They could see no end to it. The red glow of the torch was lost in immeasurable spaces of black gloom.
Ixtal pointed downwards, and looking over the edge of the precipice steps were visible, carved in the living rock. They ran down at a long slant, and disappeared in the darkness.
'Some steps!' said Dick, as he noted the massive proportions of the great staircase. 'Say, priest, can we go down?'
When the cacique understood Dick's request he looked rather upset. 'What is the use?' he asked. 'We shall not open the secret door.'
'I don't want that. I just want to look around.' Dick answered.
The cacique hesitated a moment, then gave his consent, and led the way down.
The journey seemed endless. There were hundreds of steps. It almost frightened Amyas when he considered what the labour must have been of cutting them. Each was as perfect as the day it had been hewn through, slightly hollowed in the centre by the tread of thousands of feet. The caves, it appeared, had been used in the old days as the great storehouse for the city.
At last they reached the bottom. Here their guide turned to the left again. The torch-light fell upon walls of rock which towered on either side, leaving a space between perhaps fifty feet wide.
'We are at the bottom of the cleft,' said the Professor. 'But what I do not understand is why there is no water here. Looking out a while ago, I saw that it had already passed this point, and was spreading up beyond.'
No one answered, but a few steps more gave them the key of the mystery. They found themselves faced by a wall of cut stone, each block weighing at least a ton, each beautifully cut, and so carefully fitted that the joints were hardly visible.
In the centre of this wall was a stone door. It was a single slab about ten feet high by eight wide, and seemed to fit into slots at the bottom and the sides.
The Professor examined it with the greatest interest. 'I reckon,' he said, 'there are mighty few masons in the United States that could turn out work like that to-day.'
To the right of the door, at a little distance, a huge stone projected outwards from the wall at a height of about three feet from the ground. It was square cut and polished. Joe, who was rather bored with the proceedings, saw it, thought it would make a good seat, and hoisted himself up on it.
Instantly there was a creaking sound, and as the priest turned with a sharp cry, the door rose swiftly in its grooves, and water gushed in in a flood.
Joe alarmed at the mischief which he had unconsciously wrought, sprang off the lever which his weight had set in action, and the stone settled slowly down again.
Ixtal was much upset. He was terrified lest Visega or his men might have seen the door open. But the others assured him that this was not likely, and by degrees he calmed down.
The Professor merely smiled. He said it did not matter even if Visega had seen—that he certainly could not get in. The stone door itself was nearly a foot thick.
But he was immensely taken with the mechanism, and asked a dozen questions about it. Ixtal, however, knew nothing of the mechanics. All he could say was that the secret of the door had been bequeathed to him by his father and so on down from time immemorial. Outside, he explained, was no lever, but pressure applied to a certain stone in the wall was enough to make the door rise.
The Professor had out his notebook and was busily making notes and sketches when there was a rapid pattering of bare feet behind them, and Juan rushed up.
His heavy face bore an expression of the utmost terror and consternation.
'Visega is upon us,' he cried. 'He and his men are in the upper cave.'
THEY all stared at him. Dick was the first to speak.
'You're crazy,' he snapped.
Before Juan could answer, there was a fresh rush of feet, and from out of the torchlit darkness came women, children, old men, a terrified yet strangely silent crowd. They streamed down the steps and into the lower cave in frantic haste. Yet not one made a cry or any unnecessary sound. One and all, even the babies seemed to realise the necessity for giving no warning to their enemies.
One of the men rushed up to the cacique, and spoke swiftly.
Pablo, who had been acting as interpreter between the cacique and the Professor, understood what he said.
'It is true,' he told Amyas. 'How they came I know not; but Visega and his Indians have gained the cave.'
'Does Visega know the way down?' asked Amyas of Juan.
'I cannot tell,' replied Juan. 'But he will find it soon. Let us escape through the door.'
'It's the only thing to do. What do you say, Professor?'
But Dick had not waited. As soon as he was convinced that Visega was indeed in the upper cave, he flung his weight on the lever.
Up came the door; in rushed the water. But it was not deep. It was two feet at most, and though the first rush of it was terrifying it filled the cleft almost at once, and the rush ceased.
Ixtal, who at first had seemed paralysed with dismay, recovered himself, and spoke to his people, exhorting them to keep steady, and follow him out.
The Professor cut in. 'Is it safe to go outside? Won't those ruffians see us and roll rocks on us?'
Pablo put the question to the priest, but he shook his head, and gave them to understand that the overhang was so great that there was no danger of this.
From high above came a shout. It was Visega's voice. He had found the stairs, and was calling to his men. Those below waited no longer. They filed out as quickly as possible, and lined up, waist deep, close under the cliff.
The white men and Ixtal waited until the others were all out. There was still no sign of the enemy, except fresh shoutings from above.
'Quick! Shut the door,' said Dick.
If the priest did not understand the actual words, he knew well enough what Dick meant. Ixtal stepped quickly to one side, and put his hands against a stone in the wall.
The stone looked exactly like any of the others, yet the moment pressure was put upon it it receded slightly, and the door began to slide slowly down.
There was a splash in the water somewhere up in the cave.
'They're coming,' hissed Dick. 'Hurry up.'
But there was no hurrying that weighty slab. It seemed to crawl down in its grooves.
More shouts. Visega's voice again. Violent splashings inside. But before they reached the door it was down.
'But they can open it from inside. Amyas, ask him what we'd best do,' said Dick.
'He says we need not trouble. He will fasten it,' explained Pablo, and they saw the old priest busy at another stone nearer to the door. He pressed it back, and touched a lever in a hollow space within. There was a slight clicking sound, then Ixtal straightened his tall frame, turned to them, and signed that the door was fast.
Dick sighed with relief. 'That's a blessing,' he said. 'I feel happier now we've got that slab between us and those murdering swabs. Gee, but they caught us on the hop this time. How did they do it? That's what I want to know.'
'We can't worry about explanations now,' said Amyas. 'The thing is to get out of the water. These children are up to their necks, some of them.'
'That's all very well,' said Dick, 'but if we do walk out and up to the top end of the valley, what guarantee have we that we don't run into some of Visega's savages?'
'None. We've got to chance it,' said Amyas. 'Anyhow, we're as well off there as here.'
Dick shrugged his broad shoulders. 'Come on, then,' he said. 'It don't make much odds, anyhow, whether we're in the water or out. It's going to rain like sin pretty soon.'
It looked as if he was right. Though the morning had been brilliantly clear, the sky had now clouded up, and the sun was hidden by a veil of dull, sulphurous-looking vapour. The air was very still, and the heat, for a height like this, was very oppressive. The cloud lay so low that the rock pinnacles crowning the opposite cliffs were quite hidden.
Keeping very close under the edge of the cliffs, the party waded until they were out of the water and some little way beyond it. Then the priest led them into one of the many clefts that seamed the lower part of the rock walls of the valley. There was a small cave or hollow at the end of it, just big enough to shelter the women and children. The men then set to work to barricade the mouth of the cleft with the loose stone that lay about.
The sky grew darker, but there was no rain. The heat was very trying. By the time they had finished their wall they were all dripping with perspiration.
Dick looked at the barricade with scornful eyes. 'Fat lot of good it's going to do us if they do attack,' he said. 'They can swamp us with arrows while we haven't got even one gun to shoot back with.'
'What I can't understand is how on earth they reached the cave,' said Amyas, frowning. 'Old Ixtal there still sticks to it that there's no way up.'
'What's the use of his talking rot like that?' snapped Dick. 'The fact that they are there proves they did find a way.'
'I'm not so sure about that,' put in Joe, who for the last half hour had not said a word. 'My notion is that Visega made a raft or something of the sort and got back to the roadway.'
Dick gave a low whistle. 'I hadn't thought of that. But where would he have got the stuff to build it, Joe? Those houses in the city are all stone, and though there are some trees here and there they're not very big. Anyway, it would have taken a jolly long time to cut enough of them to make the sort of raft he'd need.'
'I think he found it almost ready made,' Joe answered simply. 'I was looking through the field-glasses early this morning, and I spotted some sheds up at the top end of the valley. Cattle- sheds, I expect. Anyhow, they looked as if they were made of wood.'
'I reckon Joe is right,' said the Professor. 'I saw them, too. Unfortunately, it never occurred to me the use to which Visega might put them.'
'He's done us down properly this time,' said Dick grimly. 'We make the flood to catch him, and now it's going to mop us up. Well, drowning's quicker than starving anyway.'
'We're not done yet,' returned Joe gruffly. 'We were in a tighter place than this when we were in that beastly sand pit.'
'That's so, Joe,' allowed Dick, 'but then we weren't saddled with a pack of women and children. If we were on our own I'd say try and climb out of it. I'll bet there's a way up somewhere if we only looked long enough. But it fair breaks my heart to see all these poor folk without a bite of grub between them, and the water creeping up like it is—specially the kids.'
None of them had ever seen Dick so down, but not one could find a word of comfort. What he had said was perfectly true. They had no food, nor any chance of getting any, and even if Visega's men did not fall upon them in the night and massacre them, another ten or twelve hours would see the water over them. It was dreadful to watch it, spreading like a tide back over the green expanse of the valley.
The sky grew darker and darker, yet still it did not rain. The natives crouched in the hollow at the back, silent as so many statues, and even the others, though they tried to talk, could find little to say. A feeling of deadly gloom and depression had come over them. It would not have been so bad if they could have done anything to help themselves, but so far as they could see, there was absolutely nothing to do.
Amyas stood just behind the barricade, staring out over the valley. He was anxiously watching to see if any of Visega's men were on the move, but strain his eyes as he might could not see a living thing. The llamas and viscachas, which are mountain creatures, had climbed up into clefts in the rocks.
The great expanse of water which had gleamed so exquisitely under the morning sun now lay dull and dark, reflecting the leaden canopy of cloud. A silence that could be felt brooded over the lonely valley.
'Wonder what Visega's doing,' said Dick at last.
'Probably feeding his savages on our grub up in the cave,' answered Joe. 'He won't worry about us. He knows jolly well we can't get out.'
'I reckon the tables are turned this time,' said the Professor thoughtfully. 'I only wish I could be over in the city there. If this is to be our last day I could not spend it better than in inspecting those marvellous buildings. They exactly resemble what the Spanish historians have told us of the ancient cities of the Incas.'
'And now,' he added sadly, 'no one will ever set eyes again upon them. In a few days—within a week at most—they will be sunk deep beyond human sight. My friends, we are witnessing the funeral of the relics of a lost race.'
Dick leaned over to Amyas. 'I wouldn't mind whose funeral it was if it wasn't ours,' he whispered. 'Say, Amyas, we're getting the mopes, proper. Can't you think of something to buck us up a bit?'
'I wish I could, Dick,' replied Amyas, trying to smile. 'If it wasn't for those poor souls in there, I'd say we might make a shot at reaching the head of the valley. There might be stuff left to make another raft.'
Dick brightened up at once. If there was anything to do, however risky or difficult, Dick Selby was the man to try it.
'Why shouldn't we try—just you and I?' he said eagerly. 'We could scout around anyhow. Let's ask the Professor.'
'We'd have to wait till it's dark,' replied Dick. 'If we were spotted leaving this place, it would give the whole show away.'
'Wait till dark, eh? All right.' Dick glanced at the sky. 'By the look of things,' he added, 'we shan't have to wait a mighty long time. I never did see clouds thicken up like them. I reckon there's going to be as bad a bust up as ever any of us have seen.'
'By gum, there it is!' he continued. 'Listen to the thunder starting up.'
As he spoke a deep rumble broke the intense stillness of the sultry air. It was a strange and awesome sound, and the peal went on and on, growing slowly but steadily in volume.
'Funny! I never saw no lightning,' said Dick. 'And did you ever hear thunder like—'
He broke off short. 'What's up, Pablo?' he cried sharply, for Pablo, who had been sitting haunched up on a rock near by, had suddenly leaped to his feet, and bolted in the direction of the barricade with such frantic force that he had cannoned into Dick and nearly knocked him off his feet.
'Il Tremblor!' shrieked the little Indian. 'Come away all of you from the cliffs.'
As he spoke the ground beneath their feet heaved like a wave of the sea. With screams and cries, the Indians came rushing frantically out. They leaped the barricade or flung themselves over it.
The roar, which they now knew could not be thunder, rolled beneath with a sound like that of a dozen express trains rushing through a huge tunnel. A second wave, worse than the first, flung Amyas to the ground.
It was Dick who wrenched him back to his feet, and the two staggered like drunken men out into the open.
They were only just in time. The cliffs were shaking as a wet dog shakes his hide, and with a roar beyond description tens of thousands of tons of rock came thundering down from above, flinging up a thick fog of dust. White men, Indians, all were running—running and falling, and picking themselves up again, for the earth beneath their feet was rolling like an unquiet sea.
Boulders as big as a house were flung from their ancient beds. Some were hurled into the new formed lake, churning it into muddy foam; others came hopping like pebbles across the dry ground. The din and confusion were beyond words to describe.
The underground thunder passed grinding away towards the south, the heaving earth steadied, though it still shook with a quaking tremor like the lid upon a boiling kettle, while cataracts of rock slid crunching and crashing from the heights.
Amyas, stunned and confused, found himself lying on the grass far out from the base of the cliff, with Dick close beside him.
'Gee, but I thought the end of the world had come!' said Dick. The plucky fellow was trying to smile, but his face under its bronze was white as paper, and his lips twitched. No man alive can go through a bad earthquake unmoved.
'Where's Joe? Where's the Professor?' cried Amyas, scrambling to his feet.
'Here I am, Amyas,' came Joe's voice. 'Are you all right?'
'I'm not touched. Here's the Professor. Thanks be, he's safe too.'
The trembling ceased, the dust began to subside. The Indians were calling, one to another. Mothers were crying for their children, and children for mothers. But presently they began to sort themselves out, and it was found that of them all only three—a mother and her two children—were missing.
The white men had time to look round. They were almost too amazed to speak. The destruction wrought in those few minutes had changed the whole face of the valley. Miles of cliff face had fallen away completely. Acres of bare rock were exposed, and acres of the valley itself were hidden under monstrous piles of loose rock and boulders.
But it was Joe who made the great discovery.
'Look!' he cried. 'The lake! It's all running out.'
The tremendous rock wall over the tunnel had been reft in twain from top to bottom, and through the great caņon so formed, the lake was emptying itself like a bath when the plug is pulled.
THE Professor was standing with his eyes fixed upon the city.
'The temple stands,' he said, in a voice full of thankfulness.
Joe broke in almost roughly. 'Never mind the temple, boss. It's Visega we got to think about.'
'Visega,' repeated the Professor vaguely. 'Oh, yes, for the moment I had forgotten him. But he was in the cave, was he not? In that case he is probably killed.'
'Let's hope so, anyway,' said Dick grimly.
'Say, now, we've got to make up our minds what to do, and be quick about it, too. The water'll all be gone in half an hour, and if Visega ain't dead we shall be mighty soon.'
Joe spoke. 'The temple seems safe enough. What about going across there and barricading ourselves in it for the night?'
'That's sense,' said Joe. 'And maybe there'll be some weapons and stores left there. Yes, that's the ticket. Come on, the lot of you.'
Already the water had left the city high and dry. The temple, be it remembered, standing on its mound, had never been inundated. One bridge still stood, and the party hurrying across the wet floor of the valley crossed the river and reached the city.
The houses, dome-shaped and built of cut stone cemented with some mortar of which the secret has long been lost, had withstood the earthquake almost as though they had been cut out of solid blocks, and the temple itself stood firm as ever.
It was larger than they had thought. Its great dome, covered with beaten gold rose fully fifty feet above its deep foundations. On either side of the wide-arched entrance stood huge figures, each cut out of one solid stone. These, too, strangely enough, stood erect and firm.
Ixtal's eyes brightened as he saw that they were still in place, and he pointed to them, then turned to his people and said something in a deep, ringing voice.
'Telling them it's a good omen,' said Amyas.
The Professor had pulled up short at the foot of the right- hand figure. He was gazing at it with an expression between awe and delight.
'It is the Inca Huayna himself,' he cried.
Joe hustled him inside. 'Professor,' he said, 'you'll have all the time as ever is to study them stone images. What we want right now is to get inside and fix ourselves so as Visega can't get in after us.'
Inside, the temple was most impressive. The floor was perfectly smooth and flat, paved with immense slabs of polished granite. The walls were decorated with carvings in bas-relief richly decorated with gold and silver. At the upper or eastern end was an apse where stood a raised platform. At the back of it rose a towering figure of the sun god crowned with a golden halo. The whole was lit by narrow slits in the masonry, of which the sills were a good twelve feet from the ground.
The entrance, which was at the west, could be closed by doors composed of stone slabs which worked in slots with a counterpoise, like the lower doors of the cave.
Joe looked round with satisfaction. 'They'd have a job to get us here,' he said. 'Now, if we can lay in some stores of sorts we'll be ready to stand a siege.'
'Amyas,' he added, 'ask the old gent if we can find any stores anywhere.'
Ixtal, who looked more cheerful than at any time since they had first seen him, answered that there were plenty. These, he said, were hidden in the secret magazine known only to himself and two others of the elders. He would open the magazine as soon as the people were settled.
It was at this moment that Joe, who had been hunting around in his silent but thorough fashion, came hurrying back to the others. His usually solemn face was alight with eagerness.
'I have found our rifles,' he said. 'They are in a sort of niche behind the altar. They are all there except one.'
'And the cartridges?' gasped Dick.
'And the cartridges, and the dynamite, and a lot of the rest of our stuff.'
Dick let out a whoop that startled everyone in hearing.
'Sorry,' he said. 'Didn't mean to scare you. But this is the best ever. Now we needn't be afraid of the Dago or all his pack of niggers. Strikes me, boys, that this old earthquake has been a darned good friend to us.
'Amyas,' he went on. 'You go along outside and keep an eye lifting. Joe and me are going to get the guns and go through 'em. I'll bet they're in a filthy mess.'
Amyas went outside. The clouds were already breaking away, and the air was decidedly cooler. The great convulsion of Nature was past and over, and Amyas's heart was full of thankfulness.
He looked down the valley. The lake was clean gone. He could see right through the ravine which had split the cliffs, and hear the distant roar of the released river rushing down its new bed.
Next his eyes turned towards the cave. The great cleft was still there, but like the rest of the valley wall the cliffs all about it were strangely changed and altered.
His glasses had come through the earthquake, undamaged. He focused them, and carefully surveyed the spot.
The platform was there all right, though littered with loose stuff fallen from above, but the ledge itself seemed to be broken quite away at the angle where it turned the shoulder of rock.
Amyas whistled softly. 'If they're in the cave still they're clean cut off,' he said aloud. 'The only chance to get them out would be through the door below.'
But when he turned his glasses on the base of the cliff there was no longer any sign of the door. The bottom of the great cleft was piled yards deep with boulders of all shapes and sizes. The stuff was heaped thirty feet deep. A regiment of navvies would be required to clear it, and even they would take weeks to tackle so formidable a task.
As he watched the clouds broke, and the sun just setting over the sharp-toothed rim of the western cliffs flung a golden radiance over the quiet scene, and showed the grass as bright and green as it had been forty-eight hours earlier.
'A good omen,' said Amyas softly. 'I think—I almost think that our troubles are over.'
Then the sun set, the shadow settled over the valley, and Amyas turned back into the temple.
He told the others what he had seen, and it was decided to wait until morning before searching further into the fate of their enemies.
As the darkness fell torches were lit, and Ixtal appeared with bags of maize and an abundance of dried meat. There was no coffee left among the stores, but the Indians had plenty of chocolate which they grew in the valley. The party made an excellent supper and, having posted guards, rolled themselves up in skin rugs and went to sleep.
Amyas, balanced on a ledge not a foot wide and overhanging a giddy drop of two or three hundred feet, turned cautiously to Dick, who was behind him.
'Shove that plank along, Dick. There's a gap here, but it looks better beyond.'
Dick slid the plank slowly forward. Amyas bridged the gap with it, and with Dick holding the hinder end, crossed cautiously. Then he held it firm for Dick.
It was now past ten in the forenoon. Having, with the greatest difficulty, scaled the cliff on the cave side of the river, the pair had been nearly three hours making their cautious way along the broken ledges, and now at last were nearing the upper mouth of the cave.
They were alone, these two. None of the others were fit to undertake the climb. They did not believe that there was much risk, for not a sign had been seen of Visega or any of his crew of bandits.
Presently they gained the point where the path curved around the great rock shoulder. Here again was an ugly gap, and the plank was useless since the break was round the angle of the spur.
But above the break, and just within reach, was a jutting point of rock. Dick took the raw hide rope which they had brought with them, made a running loop and swung it over the jut. He pulled it firm.
'Right,' said Amyas briefly, and grasping the hanging end swung himself across the chasm.
Dick followed, and the rest of the ledge was seen to be unbroken. Dick had his rifle slung over his back. He unslung and loaded it.
'Don't hear anything,' he said. 'Still, I ain't taking chances. Now for it, Amyas.'
All was still as death as the two crept softly forward to the platform, and picking their way through the mass of broken stuff, cautiously approached the mouth of the cave.
They peered in.
'She's all right,' said Dick in a low voice. 'Some chunks down out of the roof, but nothing to signify. Go slow, Amyas. The Dago may be laying for us just around the corner.'
Amyas's heart was thumping as he followed Dick up the wide tunnel leading into the cave. Barring that a few large masses of rock had fallen from the roof, and lay splintered on the floor, the place seemed much as it had been before the earthquake.
As they approached the great inner chamber, Dick went more carefully than ever. The farther they went the more difficult it became to move at all, for it was almost dark, and they did not, of course, dare to use the electric torches which they had brought with them.
Just where the passage curved into the great central chamber a large boulder lay, and sheltering behind this they peered around the corner.
There was no light, and though they lay there like mice, hardly breathing, they could not hear the faintest sound. Dick did not speak, but touched Amyas, and pointed forward. They rose to their feet and moved on.
Soon they were certain that there was not a soul—at any rate a living soul—in this central hall. They tried the right-hand one, where they had slept. There was no one there either.
Dick put his lips close to Amyas's ear.
'My notion is that they all went down below after us, and were trying to break that door down so as to get after us quickly.'
'But why should they have stayed down there?' asked Amyas in surprise.
'Maybe they couldn't get back,' replied Dick significantly. 'Anyway, we'll have a look.'
They crossed the central hall, and made their way down the long passage. Here it was pitch dark, and Dick, first sheltering behind a stone, ventured to switch on his light. Nothing happened. No one was visible. They went on.
Presently they reached the edge of the cleft.
'Look out, Dick,' said Amyas softly. 'If Visega is down there he'll see your light and shoot at it.'
Dick considered a moment.
'Get a lump of stone, Amyas, and chuck it over. If there's any one there we're bound to hear 'em shout or shift.'
Amyas nodded, went back a little and returned with a stone as big as he could carry. He topped it over the edge. There was a pause of a few moments. Then a hollow crash came echoing up from the depths.
'Hear anything else?' asked Dick.
'Not a sound.'
'Rum!' muttered Dick, and paused.
'Guess we got to go down, son,' he added.
Amyas merely nodded. He could not truthfully say that he liked the idea, but there was nothing else for it. It was necessary to take back definite news to the others. Without knowing what had really become of Visega's gang of bandits, there could be no peace or comfort for themselves or for Ixtal's people.
'Wish we had a flare to drop over,' said Dick. 'Torchlight won't reach that far.'
'Wait,' said Amyas. 'I've got a gun rag in my pocket. It's oily enough to burn.'
'It'll burn out before it gets to the bottom,' said Dick.
'Not if I tie a stone to it.'
'Good notion. Try it.'
Amyas was busy for a minute, then he struck a match and lit one corner of the rag. It burned fiercely and he dropped it over the edge. It flashed like a meteor to the bottom, then went out black at once.
'Must be water down there still,' said Dick. 'Well, it's no good putting it off. Medicine don't taste any nicer however long you wait.' With that, he bundled over the edge on to the steps.
Amyas never forgot that long, long climb downwards. It was impossible to go fast, partly because the steps were so steep, but chiefly because they were badly knocked about by fallen rocks. Every minute Amyas expected to hear the crack of Visega's rifle, or the patter of the feet of his gang of Indians.
But down and down they went, and nothing happened.
They came so low that they reached the last bend of the steps. Dick turned his light downwards, and it fell upon the floor. It fell upon something else, too—a heaped up pile of dead, brown bodies!
Dick pulled up short, with a queer grunting gasp. As for Amyas he stood quite still, his heart hammering against his ribs.
Presently Dick spoke.
'The steps are all broke away in the last flight. A big rock has busted them right off.'
'I see,' replied Amyas hoarsely. 'But that doesn't account for them all lying dead like that. They can't have starved to death in eighteen or twenty hours.'
'That's true,' said Dick thoughtfully. 'It's a queer business.'
As he spoke he flashed his light out across the triangular shaped cleft. The white glow showed up other bodies lying on the rock floor, some on their backs, some on their faces, but all as dead as the stone they lay on. There were still a few sound steps below Dick. He moved slowly down them. Suddenly Amyas saw him stagger and catch at the rock wall beside him. Like a flash Amyas sprang, seized him, and dragged him back.
Dick dropped down sitting on the steps. 'Don't know whatever came over me,' he said thickly. 'I felt as if some one had me by the throat.'
'Come up a few steps,' said Amyas quietly. 'Come up out of danger; then I'll tell you.'
Dick stared, but obeyed.
'If you can tell me, all I can say is you're a darned sight smarter than me,' he said.
'It's simple enough,' replied Amyas. 'They've been gassed—that's all.'
'Gassed?' repeated Dick. 'Was that what got me?'
'Yes, and if you'd gone another step down you'd have shared their fate,' said Amyas gravely. 'The bottom of the cleft is filled with carbonic acid—choke damp. The earthquake must have opened up some fissure full of it. That's the whole secret.'
Dick sat silent, then he turned his light again across the bodies.
'There's Visega,' he remarked. 'See—right under the wall, with the gun beside him. Not pretty is it—that face of his. Well, the Professor always did say that the man was kept for something worse than plain shooting.'
He shivered, then got up and shook himself.
'Come along back,' he said. 'I guess that's as good a burying place as any.'
* * * * *
That night the whole party sat out on the steps of the temple. Supper was over, and they were enjoying the cool air without fear of attack. Lights shining in near-by houses proved that the survivors of Ixtal's people had gone back to their dwellings. To- morrow they would be cultivating their fields again, and collecting what was left of their flocks and herds.
The Professor was speaking.
'If you boys can spare a week,' he said, 'I'd like mighty well to get what notes I can. The hieroglyphs in the temple are real wonderful, and I want to get a record of them.'
'A week, Professor,' laughed Amyas. 'We'll stay a month—or six—if you like. What do you say, Joe?'
'I wouldn't mind camping here for good,' returned Joe. 'It's a topping place.'
'Well, I guess I'd get fed up in a lifetime of it,' grinned Dick, 'but a month or two ain't going to hurt any of us. The only trouble that I foresee is that Juan and the rest of our chaps are dead sure to marry up with some of these widows, and then who's to carry our stuff home?'
'That's all right,' said Amyas. 'Ixtal is going to import some new men from another valley. Very decent chaps, he says, and we can have half a dozen of them for carriers. Besides, it isn't as if we were going to tote a ton or two of gold along with us.'
Dick looked up. 'Speak for yourself, Amyas. I'm going to take along enough to keep me out of the workhouse for the rest of my natural.'
Amyas laughed outright. 'Why bother about gold?' he said. 'These are easier to carry.'
As he spoke he pulled from his pocket a handful of small dull pebbles looking rather like pieces of broken quartz. They all gathered round.
'What's the good of those?' demanded Dick in a puzzled tone.
'Ask the Professor,' said Amyas.
The Professor was holding one of the crystals up between finger and thumb, and turning on it the light from his electric torch.
'Diamonds, Dick,' he said. 'Mighty fine ones, too. These are even better than the ones Ixtal wears around his neck, and are worth more because they are not pierced. Are there any more, Amyas?'
About a bushel, sir, and Ixtal says we can have the lot.'
'Don't,' replied the Professor dryly. 'Take a pocketful apiece, and be satisfied. If you take more you'll be upsetting the world's diamond market. If I am any judge, that handful which Amyas has are worth anything from one hundred to two hundred thousand pounds.'
Dick gasped. He sprang to his feet.
'Here, Amyas, where's that chest?' he demanded. 'I'm going to sleep with my fortune under my pillow to-night.'
With a grave smile old Ixtal rose, and beckoned them to follow. He led the way into the temple, and closed the doors. Then he went to the wall and walked along it for a certain distance, and deliberately stepped upon a certain flag. With a low grinding sound a large stone rolled away, disclosing a flight of solid stone stairs. They followed him down into a large vault. It was a storehouse, and its contents were so wonderful that the whole party stood stock still, staring.
Here against the wall were stacked bars of dull, dirty-looking metal, each about four inches square and twenty inches long. They rose to a man's height, and the pile was thirty feet long. There was no mistaking that dull yellow sheen. It was virgin gold.
The Professor eyed it critically. 'Somewhere about seven million dollars' worth, I reckon,' he said dryly. 'And I guess our friend here would sell it for its weight in old iron.'
The priest certainly did not seem to set much store by this marvellous treasure pile. He pushed on to where stood a great chest made of some solid black wood. It had not a nail in it, but was fastened together with wooden pegs.
He opened it, and the white light of the electric torch was reflected in a rainbow of prismatic colours.
As for his visitors, they were struck absolutely dumb. Not one of them had ever dreamed that there were in all the world such wonderful jewels.
For these were cut stones, and the great majority were either diamonds or emeralds. Most were table-cut, and some of the emeralds were an inch square.
The priest spoke, and the Professor, who by this time understood something of his speech, listened.
'They are the crown jewels of the Incas themselves,' he said, in a voice which had a touch of awe in it. 'These are sacred relics, but we are each to pick one stone. He says the gods will allow that.'
'You had better each take an emerald,' he added, 'for if you live to be a hundred none of you will ever again see gems to match these.'
Each took one emerald. Ixtal smiled and opened another chest. It also was full of stones, but these uncut. He opened his arms, inviting them to help themselves. Ten minutes later the four came up the steps again, and seated themselves once more in the cool starlight. For a long time no one spoke. All seemed deep in thought.
Quite suddenly Dick burst out laughing.
'What's the matter?' asked Amyas, startled.
'I was just trying to think of me, Dick Selby, as a blooming millionaire.'
'What are you going to do with your money, Dick?' asked Amyas.
'What are you?' retorted Dick.
'Take a trip home first, and have a look round.'
'I'm coming back to South America.'
'And you, Joe?' demanded Dick.
'Same here,' said Joe briefly.
Dick brought his big hand down with a smack on his knee.
'Me, too,' he cried aloud. 'Say, boys, let's all join up and start a big ranch and keep horses and woolly goats and a couple o' good planes.'
'Right,' said Joe.
'I reckon you've forgotten me,' said the Professor.
'No, sir!' cried Dick. 'Our place'll be your headquarters. And I'll run you round all the buried cities in a plane.'
The Professor smiled. 'That will suit me very well, Dick. But I reckon we won't run out of petrol next time.'
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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