Thursday, 9 January 2014

King of the Missing Links Pt3

The King of the Missing Links (Part 3-conclusion). Also titled 'The Crystal Sceptre' from 1901 and 1904, by Philip Verrill Mighels.
Digitized January 2014 by Doug Frizzle. Link to Part 2

CHAPTER XXXII. THE BAMBOO BOMBS
IN MY haste to reach the clearing before that electrifying tom-tom melody should cease, I took no account of the distance between the edge of the wood and the place where I had halted. It was not so far as I had feared, however, though it was further than I had any business to have been away from home.
Upon coming to the slope, I got upon my hands and knees to crawl, for my ankle required rest. The fires were burning brightly in our village, but the mist was still weaving thickly about the summit.
When I turned up again among my fellows, like the penny which cannot be lost, they were nearly knocked dumb with astonishment. Hungry, disgusted and weary, I limped off to bed as soon as I had indicated the need of sentries throughout the night. Such a war as this made me snort with contempt.
Sometime during the night the fog disappeared, as mysteriously as it had come. I had rested badly, having been kept awake by the pain in my foot, so that I arose before morning and sat by the fire. There, after bathing the ankle in water from the spring of brine, I bound it up with strips of squirrel skin, fastened on with cord made of divided creepers. This treatment gave me much relief. The only luck I had in the accident was that the sprain was not so serious as my facial contortions (when alone) might have indicated to a keen observer.
The morning broke clear as glass; one could feel that the day meant to be hot before it finished. In our settlement we were all somewhat cross, from lack of food, myself in particular, because this game of starving us out seemed so nonsensical, and also because my relief expedition had fizzled out to such a miserable end. I began to be anxious to try results with our cunning besiegers. If they delayed the fight for the day again, I meant to carry the issue into their own headquarters, for we had to eat!
Thinking I might enrage them to the point of starting the battle, I carried the gold-nugget club from my shelter and planted it, nugget end uppermost, on our ramparts, directly in line with their camp and the mine of bombs below. Then I induced old Fatty to beat the drum, while I got up on top of the wall and paraded, somewhat after the top-loftical style of the American Indians, beating my breast with my fist, shouting derisively and pointing with maniacal glee to the gleaming club which we had taken, as a token of victory worthily won.
This bit of vanity produced an immediate effect, for a score of the fellows down in the trees appeared from the cover, sufficiently furious to suit the most exacting mind. They screamed shrilly to express their wrath, they beat the unoffending earth with their clubs, and they danced about as if the soil were hot. Nevertheless they advanced hardly as much as a stone-toss up the slope, being evidently under some powerful restraint. I executed the most aggravating evolutions, limping about on the wall, but to no apparent purpose. What was the game which the creatures played with such assurance that they could wait with this remarkable patience? I was angry to think they would not attack; I was annoyed to be obliged to admit that their warfare threatened to be subtle and effective. I hated to be starved into retreat, which would certainly be disastrous, or into a charge, down hill, against an ambush, which charge would doubtless prove to be an insupportable calamity.
"Come up, you cowards!" I bawled in a sneering tone of voice. "Lay on, you black McDuffers—we can wipe you off the map!"
My only answer was an echo of the cries I had heard the morning before, away in the jungle. This puzzled me again; it made me impatient. My Links had surged about me, wrought to a fine frenzy of excitement, eager to eat up the whole nation of Blacks—as splendid a pack of starving wolves as one could find. They also heard the cries, where the enemy appeared to be scouring through the forest, and I noted that many grew silent and worried. They reminded me of animals which have an instinct that warns them against the dangers which a human being cannot see nor feel.
The chief stood a little away, aloof from the others, leaning as ever on his club. What a brilliant, corruscating spot was made by the great, deadly crystal which he wielded so terribly in the fight! His mate, the indignant albino, stood beside him, eyeing myself with scorn and hatred. Her round, pink eyes were as nervous as quicksilver; her whole demeanour expressed the jealousy she nourished against me for pushing aside the chief, and the undisguised desire she felt to avenge herself for my former repudiation of her serene regard.
I gave her only a glance, and to the chief a nod of recognition. Below me little Tike was looking up in my face; near him old Fatty was standing, his quick, bright eyes upon me, his arms akimbo and the battered old skull on his head pushed aside, revealing hairless spots where, by rubbing, it had worn the growth off his leather-covered pate.
"Animals or primitive men—what are you all?"' I muttered, and I shook my head and gave it up.
Again came the concerted cries from the jungle. They were nearer; there seemed to be a great commotion, not far from the edge of the trees, and this appeared to increase with every second. I saw several of my fellows begin to edge away, as if to make a run to a place of safety from a foe most dread. All the Links were making uneasy sounds, comparable only to the whimpering of a frightened dog.
"Here—come back here. Brace up, you fellows!" I cried to stop the incipient panic. "Pigs coming—pigs to shoot—pigs to kill!"
I raised my bow and notched an arrow on the string. I jumped down and stirred up the fire which must furnish me a brand for the fuses. Then again I got on the wall and shouted our defiance to all the jungle-world about us. Old Fatty began to beat the drum like a fury.
My warriors were inflamed; they crowded forward to see what was happening below. By this the cries of the enemy had become shrieks as of madness. We saw fifty of the Blacks burst quickly from cover, run to right and left and dash back in the woods, as if to flank an approaching cavalcade. To my amazement I saw among the fellows the traitor Grin—miserable coward! The Links observed him, too, and they chattered their rage and their Link maledictions on his head.
Once more I got down, this time to arm myself with a glowing brand from the flames. With this I shook out our only banner—a banner of smoke. Suddenly the screen of trees, vines and creepers, seemed to bulge toward us, then to break. Two massive dark chunks of the jungle appeared to be bursting through. Then I saw what they were and realised what the cries had meant, what the plan of the Blacks had been from the first—and what a diabolical and clever scheme it was.
Two trumpeting elephants, goaded and maddened, smashed ponderously out of the jungle and headed up the hill—surrounded and driven toward us by hundreds of the yelling, dancing devils, with Grin in their midst, all of them incredibly nimble, daring and wrought up to force their irresistible allies over and through us.
The Links behind me, terrified beyond all control, were too stricken with panic to know what to do. They fell headlong over and upon each other; they ran in every direction. Females and children cried out in fear; chief, fighters, all were seized in the maelstrom of fright, and all went dashing away. Already we were as good as routed. Flight to the jungle would mean separation, death of all who were lost and murder of all who were overtaken by the terrible Blacks.
Confused for a moment, I attempted to call them back, to restore the order. This was worse than useless.
The elephants came unwillingly up the hill; the din of voices and trumpeting was appalling to hear. I jumped from my place, unconscious of my wounded foot and dashed down the hill as if to meet this oncoming tumult of death alone—racing toward my fuses. I had dropped my bow. My only weapon was the smoking brand of fire.
Shrieks from the Reds, who could not but see me, and screams of delight from the enemy, greeted the sight of a single crazy man, running down to the jaws of this living Juggernaut from the wilds.
I reached my goal, I fell to my knees and fumbled the matches. The monstrous battalion was nearly half way up to the trench of bombs. My fuses failed to ignite. In desperation I broke off the ends and bore them down upon my living coal. My thumb was burned, but I felt nothing. A fierce hiss from the powder electrified my every fibre. I leaped to my feet and darted part way back to the wall.
"Man," came the cry of a sweet small voice.
Turning, I saw that my little Tike had followed me down the slope to the fuses. There he sat beside them—and the serpents of igniting powder were racing down to the mines, and the thundering horde of foes was racing upward, toward the little chap and me. Insanely I ran with all my might to rescue my only loyal Link—the baby who sat in the sunlight.
How far away he was! What a time it seemed to take me to reach him! The elephants—how near and awful they looked! I could see their white-showing eyes. The monsters began to gallop upward, mad to wreak vengeance on something, for that goading behind their backs. The yells became a din. Already the brutes must be past my trench. It would fail—it would kill little Tike and myself—anything but the terrible creatures pounding the earth as they came upon us!
I snatched the little fellow up and ran desperately away. Would nothing ever happen? I fell—the ankle had gone at the critical moment. I rolled and saw the dread spectacle crowding up and up the sun-lit hill.
Then the earth was rent wide open—great castles of earth and elephants rose toppling in the air, along with a glare of red-and-yellow flames and a mighty volcano of smoke. The world belched forth a detonation like the crack of doom.
Another and yet another fearful fan of fire leaped exultantly upward, hurling Blacks and fragments of Blacks, and soil and rock that blew through the bellies of the elephants and shot away in every direction toward the tranquil sky.
I was deaf with the mighty roar and concussion. From the air the debris came raining down. The smoke seemed a fountain of enveloping fog. Shrieks—now of terror and dreadful pain—stabbed through the confusion. Then a rock whirred down so close to my head that it puffed me with its cushion of air. I heard a sound and looked for little Tike, whom I had permitted to slip to the ground as I fell.
He was there beside me, his steady, wistful eyes looking up in my face, his poor little legs fairly crushed into the earth, beneath that fragment of adamant, torn from its bed and hurled upon him.
I was over him instantly heaving away the hunk of stone. But I did not attempt to lift the little mangled body. I saw he was numbed by the shock; I knew he was dying. He lay there and smiled, as I bent above his tiny form. He made no motion with hand or head, but when I placed my finger in his wee palm, he closed his baby-like grip upon it and gave me the fondest look I have ever beheld.
The Blacks could have swooped upon me, the earth could have quivered with agony and death, but I should have known nothing of it all, nor have cared. All the pangs of wrenched affection darted through my breast. I was smitten dumb to see that human look of love, gratitude and hope. The homely little face became transfigured with a look of inward beauty; the promise of a dawning, evolving human being was there, glowing like the life in a spark. The wistful eyes burned with that singular light which makes us hope for things supernal.
On my finger the tiny grip fluttered. I felt myself breaking down like a woman.
The little chap's lip quivered a second; his fleeting breath came forth lightly.
"Man," he whispered in the stillness, and smiling, closed his tired little eyes—forever.
CHAPTER XXXIII. KING AT LAST
THERE WAS a cloud over my heart; there was a pall of smoke and fumes drawing slowly off from the scene of devastation. It seemed as if the chasm in the hill-side were a ghastly wound of colossal proportions, for not only was the earth torn raggedly, but blood was about, and the slope was strewn with mangled remains.
I felt no exultation; I was ill at the sight, and weak and quite subdued. It was a pitiful, dreadful picture, with the two elephants like mounds of butchery, looming large in the middle distance, while down below were numerous wounded creatures creeping away toward the jungle. And the dying made sounds of moaning.
Not far from where I had fallen, lay part of a long, red arm—Grin's. The bombs had flung it nearly to the camp he had sought to betray. He must have been among the foremost of the Links who drove the elephants up the hill. I conjured back my vision of the charging force, at the second when the explosion created its havoc. I remembered the huge wild animals most distinctly, their trunks uplifted, their feet in awkward, active motion, while to right and left and almost on their heels, the Blacks surged up in their dance of death. I knew then that the destruction among them must have been tremendous, for the whole length of the trench had been covered thickly by their numbers, and the lateral force of the bursting mines, especially down the hill, had evidently swept the slope for rods.
I shook my head as I realised the narrowness of my own escape.
I believe I was saved only by a sort of half shoulder of the hill and the fact that I fell and was flat on my side when the explosion occurred.
In my brain a panorama of all the tragedy ran, time after time. It seemed unbelievable that the Blacks had been able to drive the elephants. I shall never cease to wonder at this remarkable performance, for everything I know of the jungle's greatest brute leads me always to suppose they would turn upon their pigmy tormentors and drive them away in confusion, no matter how great their numbers. But more incredible than even this was the sudden blotting out of all that mad stampede. I felt like the last man left on earth.
It was quite impossible for me to go down that dread slope as yet. I sat on the ground, dejected, weak from hunger and the strain of all the excitement. I rested my chin in my hand and gazed off abstractedly toward the endless sea of green. I lost all interest in the world about me, for all my memories and all my dreams had conveyed me afar from that island of singular fates. At length I was aroused from my reverie by Fatty, who came furtively down from the village and crawled in front of my feet, to gaze in my face, with his comical, quizzical expression of deep anxiety spread thickly on his homely phiz.
"Hullo," said I, "did you come back at last to twist the enemy's tail?"
Then I saw an amazing line of heads above the wall, where dozens of our fellows were peering down upon the scene and upon myself. On their faces I noted every conceivable look of awe and horror. That I sat there, seemingly calm after all of that day's fatal work, impressed them a thousand fold more than as if I had strutted and boasted of the deed. Perhaps my face betrayed a certain look of grimness, which events had compelled in my thoughts; howbeit the creatures were stricken with an overpowering dread of my presence.
The hill-shaking explosion had been infinitely more terrific than my first little celebration with a single bomb, and this had given them all a fright, the memory of which could never be eradicated from their minds. But if this had rendered them respectful toward me as the actuating spirit of it all, the sight of the slope simply drowned them in fathomless awe. The mightiest creatures of the jungle, torn apart like things of paper, the hill split open and altered, a yelling army scattered and blown to atoms—this sum of deeds appalled them so thoroughly that the strongest might have died of shock had I jabbed him in the ribs with my thumb.
Fatty, on seeing that I lived, began to grovel on his face and to push his head against the soil where my feet had rested, as if he were quite unfit to abide on the surface of my earth and would therefore worm and bore his way down and out of sight without further ado.
One after another, then, the trembling fellows came crawling down the hill, many on their stomachs, to adore my tracks, to wriggle about my feet and otherwise to endeavour to calm me down and humble themselves in my exalted shadow. Even the chief came toward me on hands and knees, dragging his club and afraid to lift his head. His downfall was complete; there were none more thoroughly overwhelmed than he. On the ground before me the fellow laid his great crystal weapon—at once his sceptre and his sword—and he, too, adored the turf where my feet had trod. The women, with the albino among them, and even the children, got on the ground, prostrate, abject and afraid.
"Ahem, really, fellow citizens," said I with a grin, "your attentions quite overcome me. Pray excuse my unseemly emotion and blushes."
I had conducted a large experiment with some success, yet I felt that my efforts had been far from superhuman, and not even carried out with wholly unselfish motives. I felt in fact that the whole present proposition bordered on the lines of comic opera, for I knew that by the token of the chief's submission I stood there at last, the King of the Missing Links!
CHAPTER XXXIV. A MOMENT OF REST
WE HELD a mighty funeral-carnival. The heat made it necessary to rush this matter as much as possible. My Links took no little of the meat of the slaughtered elephants, but as soon as all were fed again I set them to work deepening the cavern which the mines had excavated in the hill.
With creepers for ropes and with rollers to render the task more easy, we dragged the huge carcasses into the graves by sheer force of numbers. Collecting the Blacks was a most unpleasant labour, but it had to be done thoroughly, and it was, although my subjects had never before performed such an office for enemies of any description. Oddly enough we were quite unable to discover the body of Grin.
In the pits I had several great fires ignited, to cremate as much as possible of the flesh, after which the earth was thrown in and heaped up until I was sure that the shallowest portion of the grave was covered with at least ten feet of soil.
I could have rested with a very good grace after all this business of war, but I remembered my former plans and the bear-skin waiting to be tanned, in the boat. I feared the pelt might be ruined already, and therefore I took the earliest opportunity of visiting my lake possessions. When I came in sight of the boat, I had reason to be glad that I had moored her away from the bank, for I found abundant evidence that the Blacks had been there, undoubtedly intent on doing mischief. Fortunately for me their dread of the water had proved greater than their desire to destroy the boat, and their ingenuity had shown itself deficient when they faced the problem of getting the craft ashore without wetting their precious feet. But they had thrown every available rock at the innocent craft, together with all the loose pieces of burnt clay.
Thanks to the covering of clay and leaves, which permitted a slight circulation of air, while it kept out investigative insects, the skin was in excellent condition. Indeed I am inclined to believe the delay had been actually beneficial in the curing process. The thing was pliable and as sweet as a hide could possibly be—which, by the way, is not extravagant praise. I had rowed away, out of sight of my loyal subjects, before uncovering my treasure. Floating on the calm surface of the lake I worked at the pelt most arduously. Nearly the whole of that day I was rubbing it, scrubbing the parts together and otherwise keeping it soft, while the sun and the air dried out the moisture which made it heavy and "green."
When I was finally ready to call it finished, the hide was much like a soft, thick robe, such as is commonly employed for a rug, a condition which I knew would be permanent, although in a spot or two the thing might be inclined to stiffen. I packed it again in leaves merely to hide it from sight and proceeded back to our beach, where I anchored the boat as before.
Inasmuch as I felt that my actual duties were now performed, I determined to rest for a space and enjoy the peace which we had compelled so abruptly. I therefore lay about the camp the following morning, doing absolutely nothing to "earn my salt." Now and again I caught myself feeling or looking about. There was no little Tike. When I dozed I fancied I heard his voice, but on starting awake found nothing beside me but faithful old Fatty, who always poked his forehead on the ground as soon as he saw me looking upon him. Someway the camp seemed not itself. I got no enjoyment from my streak of laziness, and I got but little rest. It did me good to carve a bit of a board, or section of bamboo, with the inscription:
"LITTLE MAN"
This I planted in the mound of rocks where the tiny chap was buried.
The settlement, I thought, would never be the same to me again, especially now that I was king. My Links were far too conscious of my regal attributes; there was less of the feeling of fellowship than we had enjoyed before. I had failed to appreciate our previous social equality, but now that all were rendered so timid and humbled in my presence, I was bored and somewhat annoyed. The crystal club I kept in my shelter, beside the one of the gleaming nugget. Though he seemed, now and again, to eye me somewhat sullenly and to gaze on the weapon with a hungering expression of countenance, the ex-chief made himself an excellent new bludgeon, with a rock at the end, which was twice the weight of any other similarly employed in the place.
The fellow accepted a bow and a lot of arrows readily enough. We hunted as before, employing these excellent weapons. Some of the creatures had learned by this time to shoot with great force and precision. One sent an arrow entirely through the belly of a hog, on one of our many excursions to the jungle.
In a leisurely manner I provided myself with cord and sundry requisites for masquerading as a bear. Before my rest was two days old I was weary of it and restless to be again actively engaged. Once more the malady of dislike for all the Links and their camp had broken out within me, wherefore I desired to hasten matters in regard to my unknown friend, on whose rescue I was fully determined.
I began to wonder why I had delayed this important matter for a moment. I was eager to see this man, grasp his hand and hear him speak the language so long denied my ears. Why, if he were half a man, we two could accomplish anything—everything! Why had I not hastened to reach him and to get him away while the Blacks were still demoralised by the recent extermination of more than half their number? I would dally no longer; I would act at once.
In order to proceed with intelligence I had need to formulate my plan. What should I do? Do?—I would simply row my boat to Outlet river, dress myself in the bear-skin suit and waddle into the settlement to make my observations. This sounded simple enough, but reason told me I should blunder no little as a bear and appear none too real in the role. I must practice, I thought as my first sane conclusion, but my second was still more rational—I would work the trick in semi-darkness only, when my features would be rendered somewhat indefinite by the shadows. Should I go there in the early morning, or should I try the game in the twilight of evening? In the morning, I meditated, the light increases rapidly, and my man might be asleep; daylight could readily overtake me while I was crawling about to get my bearings. Clearly the evening would be the better time.
Well, then, the sooner the business began the sooner I should know what was what. I decided to be present in the camp of the Blacks that very day, when the sun should have disappeared behind the hills.
CHAPTER XXXV. A FELLOW HUMAN
GREATLY RELIEVED to have something to do—something which might be about to furnish a turning point in all this unnatural existence of mine in the wilds, I set off for the boat at an early hour of the afternoon. Once started on the expedition, I was in a fever of haste to be about it and to try my new conclusions with fortune.
The skull of the bear had been boiled free of everything suggesting meat. When a mile away, down the lake I replaced this heavy thing in the skin and sewed the hide roughly about it to give the head a natural appearance. Then along the edges where I had been obliged to cut the pelt to get it off, I made a series of holes, into which I laced the cords, provided for the purpose, intending to draw them tight when the costume was properly adjusted about me.
Having nothing more to prepare, I rowed leisurely for two hours, when I went ashore, near the mouth of the outlet, and tried my disguise.
This business discouraged me greatly. I was able to get the neck portion fastened about my head, in such a manner that I could see easily, and the body of the skin about my chest and waist, but my arms and legs were too long for the paws and legs of the bear, while the body part was longer than my trunk. Altogether I was about the most extraordinary looking freak to be found in the jungle, when I had done my utmost to make the costume fit.
I should quite have appreciated the use of several mirrors at this stage of my make-up, in order to see if sundry portions were on straight, but was denied this pleasure, having failed to provide myself with various articles of the toilet. It was only by crawling and lolling about on the ground, on knees and elbows that I was enabled to convince myself that I looked the slightest bit like the creature whose part I had essayed to perform.
I have never felt more warm in my life than I did in that skin. The day was hot, the hide was heavy, and I had laboured hard to get it on. The perspiration threatened to make the pelt insupportable. But now that I had myself fastened inside it, I dreaded the task of taking it off and putting it on again later. As an outcome of much agitated mental debate, I decided to be a bear until my work as a spy was concluded. I therefore sat me down, in the shade, near my boat, and waited for sunset.
The sun becomes very deliberate, I found, when it catches a man in a tight, hot place. It seemed as if the fiery ball intended to hang in the western sky for several centuries, for my particular delectation. At last it got weary of the game and departed.
A bear can perform several feats with comfort and ease to himself and with grace, perhaps, but rowing a boat is not among the number. I grew hotter, in several ways, directly. I think I wished fervently that my unknown friend, the prisoner, had never committed the indiscretion of being captured by the Blacks. It being necessary to proceed with caution, my torture was much prolonged. At length, however, I noted a snug retreat in which my boat could remain, undetected, and which I hoped would be readily accessible from the camp I was searching in the jungle.
Already the shadows had begun to be deep, so that I walked erect, in what I thought to be the right direction, moving with the greatest care, and alert every second for the smallest sound. I had made my way for a considerable distance in this manner, without being able to detect any disturbance in the forest, when presently a low rumble, as of something rolling over stones, beneath a muffling canopy, broke on the air. This sound increased. It seemed to come from a source not far away, and yet it was most uncertain and elusive. I was quite at a loss to determine whence it proceeded. Growing stronger it made a great ado of grumbling, reaching a sort of climax in less than a minute, after which it slowly subsided and was gone.
Standing where I was, I listened attentively, for the noise had puzzled me much. Then through the silence came another sound, which anyone could have understood, anywhere on earth. It was a moan. A second later I heard the rustle of leaves and saw a prowling form—one of the ebon Links.
Falling upon my hands and knees, noiselessly, I waited for the fellow to pass from sight and hearing, after which I crawled laboriously forward, nearing the sound where something was voicing its pain. My heart was beating so tumultuously that I felt obliged to halt frequently, in order to calm myself as much as the perilous situation would permit. Moving thus and keeping constantly in the cover of the vines and grasses, I glanced about me keenly.
When I came upon the clearing in which the Blacks abided, it happened so abruptly that I started, to find myself so near. Lying out full length, I endeavoured to quiet the thumping of my heart and to moisten my mouth, which had become dry and gluey. Then I looked about, through the friendly screen of creepers.
The shadows lay thick enough for all purposes, yet there was light enough to reveal several incongruous things. First I noted a dozen or more of the black Links, some of them moving about, some squatting on the ground, monkey-fashion, eating mangoes and melons, one lying flat on his back in the agony of death. He it was that moaned; he had received his mortal wounds in the great explosion. I saw that his arm was gone, and then I knew him—Grin.
At the back of the clearing was a wall of rock. In front of this stood a natural pillar of stone, and fastened up at the top was something which for a time presented the greatest mystery. It looked like portions of a skeleton, disconnected, but it gleamed, even in the twilight. I studied it closely for the thing compelled my undivided attention. Then I saw the skull and knew it had all been, upon a time, the frame work of a living creature, but astonishing fact of all things weird—it was plated all over with something precisely resembling gold!
I forgot the Links; I forgot my mission to their village. That skeleton centered my every thought. I studied it, patched it together mentally, and attempted to picture it properly straightened out. This process convinced me at once that the arms were shorter than those of any Link, while the skull was finely formed on the human pattern. I observed that the whole thing, if properly articulated would be taller than I. The Links, I told myself, cared nothing for the bones of their kind, and less for those of their foes. It must be—it had to be the skeleton of a man!
But the gold—or whatever it was,—the plating, how came it on the skull and on those ribs, those bones of the arms and thighs and all the rest? Why was it here? Immediately my brain jumped to the preposterous conclusion that my "friend," the man I had come to save, had been killed since my former visit, his skeleton plated with something and strung up here on the rock to please some strange whims of these incomprehensible creatures. I knew, a second later, that this was absurd. My mental process as quickly formed a saner theory. This man had lived among the Blacks before; they had learned of him—which accounted for many things,—like their superiority over my Reds,—they had killed him, later, and by some singular accident this appearance of plating had come to pass on the bones.
In the midst of my conjectures, that weird, low rumble commenced again, nearer at hand, but still in some locality invisible from where I was. Crouching, while its mighty tones increased, several Blacks glanced upward at the skeleton and then put their heads upon the ground in adoration before the pillar of stone.
I nearly cried out as I suddenly grasped at a wonderful thought. That rumbling—it was certainly a sound I had heard before that day—it certainly must be that marvellous cauldron of gold, where the geyser shot upward and boiled in its cavern. The plated skeleton had received its plating there; the nugget of gold at the end of the club which a Black had wielded in war, had come from there; the cavern which I and old Fatty had seen, on the day we fled in the subterranean passage, was there; and these creatures owned it and evidently knew of an opening leading to its wondrous interior from the outside world!
What was I about to discover? What was here, in and about this remarkable camp? Would I see it all?—would I get a chance to investigate the wonderful cave? Could I rob that cauldron of its treasure? I was wild with excitement. I wished that I had an overwhelming army behind me—a force sufficient to drive these creatures anywhere, away in the jungle. I looked about, as if to see my army. Great Scott! I had utterly forgotten how alone I was! The wretches might discover me, know me and beat me to jelly in a second. My breath came hard; I remembered my business in a manner painfully vivid.
I must go ahead, for obviously there was nothing here for me, nothing of that partner I had come to steal. He must be off, where a pair of Blacks were walking as I looked. Still keeping in the cover, I edged about the clearing and pushed ahead. A tangled isthmus of greenery divided the small open space from another which was considerably larger. In a brief time I came in sight of this and beheld another remarkable sight.
At the foot of a towering cliff of rocks, surrounded by fruit trees on the left, the river down in front, and the isthmus of trees and vines in which I was lying on the right, was a fine flat space, commodious, strategically situated and now alive with black Missing Links. Our explosion had killed the fighters by the score, but the females and children were exceedingly numerous, while of males there were still almost as many as we had in all our tribe.
That once the creatures had been directed by a man was plain, for here were a score of dugouts, such as we possessed, but the roofs were gone from many, while those of the others showed every sign of neglect and the rapid deterioration into which it seemed as if the creatures must fall, and let everything fall, when abandoned to themselves. Of any weapons which they might have possessed in the "age" of that man, there was not the slightest sign. Looking carefully about, I saw but one shelter on which the roof appeared to be intact. This one was near the base of the cliff, on the left-hand side of the clearing, from me; that is to say, the same side on which I was now concealed.
The light was growing dim. I peered about, in a vain endeavour to see "my man." How I wished I might raise my voice and cry out a greeting—a something which would tell this other human being of my nearness! It is unbelievable how strong was the impulse to commit this indiscretion. I curbed the desire, however, and waited to see if anything would happen.
Here and there, on the campus, the evening fires of the Links were being kindled, from a "mother" fire smouldering in a natural hollow beneath the wall of rock. I could see what I thought were the ruins of a more convenient fireplace, near the central fire. It looked as if that former man had provided a means for a better culinary output, but that the creatures had soon gone back to their own original methods, when he was dead. Then I thought that things were peculiar, for why were there no material evidences of the presence of the man I had come to seek, about the camp? What was the matter with this unseen individual? He must be weak indeed to do absolutely nothing!
I remembered his spouting of poetry, and I fear my estimation of a man who would give himself over to such effeminate employment as that was of precious little account. Poetry indeed! He was evidently a lady's man for his voice had sounded soft and here was proof that he either could not, or was not willing to manufacture the very first thing, either for cooking, living or fighting. Perhaps such a fellow was hardly worth the risk; perhaps I should be wise to retreat, in good order, and let him work out his own salvation.
My attention was caught, as I scanned the place in this critical frame of mind, by a nutter of something, near the only decent shelter.
"Upon my word," I muttered in huge contempt, "I believe the fellow has got out his washing on a line!"
About that moment a bird in the tree above me made a sound like a boy whistling. This was my cue. If any man were anywhere about, he would hear a whistle—and the Links would have no suspicion. I piped up on the opening bar of "Yankee Doodle." This I repeated time after time. It appeared as if the scheme would turn out worthless, as it produced no apparent effect. Growing more bold, I started to whistle my lay a trifle louder, but I chopped it off short in the middle, for I beheld a figure emerge from the decent dug-out and start slowly toward me, walking and performing some singular weaving motions with the arms.
The dusk had gathered over the scene, yet I saw that this was a white human being!
CHAPTER XXXVI. SURPRISE AND SUSPENSE
I HELD my breath, I shivered with sudden excitement.
The figure, slight, beautifully erect, clothed in a skirt-like garment of skins, came nearer and nearer. I was so thoroughly intent on seeing why the arms were moved in those singular gestures that I clean forgot to scan the face.
The stranger came closer, followed now by scores of the Blacks, who adored and worshipped in the tracks which were left by the feet. I could see the heavy coils of some ornament about the neck and over the slender shoulders of this human. Suddenly I knew what the hands were doing; suddenly the most astounding intelligence broke on my brain.
The figure was that of a woman, young, beautiful, clad like Diana, and the coils about her maidenly form were those of a monster serpent, the head of which she held in her hand while with the other she gently unwound the wrappings of the tail.
I whistled again, more softly, my excitement growing at every second.
On she came, uncertainly, down along the edge of that open cage in the jungle, her head held finely in a listening poise, her face white, set and smileless. She moved like a goddess in a dream. In her eyes burned a half-wild light of anxiety; on her lips there was a tense look of suppressed emotion. Her beautiful arms seemed marble-white, as they moved in those snake-soothing gestures; her whole deportment was that of one who questions, yearns eagerly for a sign on which to build a hope, but dares not believe that a cruel fate could possibly relent.
She was almost opposite where I was lying. I knew I should speak to her—do something instantly, before the moment should be gone, but my tongue now cleaved fast to its sheath in my mouth, my teeth clenched hard together and my muscles were all but paralysed at that fateful moment.
She was just before me—passing me by—in reach of the slightest sound.
"Who is it?" she said aloud, in a voice that trembled.
"It's me—a man," I whispered with ungrammatical suddenness, "Don't stop—you'll betray me—Come to-night!"
Half prepared as she was, she still started violently. She loosened her hold on the head of the snake. The horrible thing wrapped itself about her arm and tightened all its coils. Hastily clutching the serpent by the neck again, she twisted and choked it into submission. Her eyes were ablaze with fear and a wild, unbelieving hope! How luminous they were, even in the meagre light! What a wondering, beseeching face she revealed, as she turned for a second in her instinctive effort to see where I was!
As she had mastered the snake, so she mastered the womanly instinct to cry out and dash to the spot where I lay. I saw her weave slightly, as she recovered her poise, after which she resumed her singular march toward the river.
The Blacks came to where she had paused, adoring the trail so near me that I could hear them breathing. What hideous brutes they were, now that I had seen a beautiful human being! They passed, and I longed to leap upon their backs and strike them all to death.
All about that clearing the goddess-like prisoner led the creatures who had made her captive. She was almost lost to sight in the darkness which was now enveloping the wood. She was only the faint suggestion of a form when at last I saw her pass again inside her shelter.
I loosened a thousand tense muscles the second she disappeared, and lay limber and all unstrung on the earth. I had not been seen by any Links. It had perhaps been foolish and a waste of time to kill the bear and adopt his hide after all. But it had given me the courage to come—and great Heavens! what a find I had made!
A woman!—among these monsters! No wonder there were no new houses, no ovens, no weapons of war of her making. I had been profoundly stupid. I should have been able to guess it was not a man—that soft, clear voice, the absence of mannish contrivances, and then that suggestive little line of her washing—these should have been enough to tell me the story. A woman—a helpless, beautiful woman—and I had almost thought of giving up the effort to rescue this friend!—this fellow human!
"Gee whizz!" said I to myself, for the thing was tremendous.
Then I wondered what would happen next. Would she come—return to the place where she had heard my voice? Would she wait till all the Links were safely asleep and then place her trust in a stranger? At what time were these black beasts likely to retire? Would they wake and catch her in the act? Could we find my boat in the dark? But everything else was as nothing compared to the question, which I repeated over and over, would she come?
I believed she would. I intended to wait, whatever might occur, and to wait until morning, if she did not sooner appear. A thousand times I wished we were already in my boat and away on the lake.
"All these days gone to waste for a bear-skin," I muttered, "and all the time it was easy to sneak into their place under their very noses."
I was glad now, however, of the warmth of the skin, for the ground was moist. In the clearing the night had descended like a curtain, but five or six fires somewhat illumined the place. The scene presented was strange. About the centres of ruddy light were groups of these weird, semi-human creatures, standing and squatting, eating like so many apes. Their long, thin arms made their appearance most grotesque, silhouetted as they were against the light. Here and there the red glow lighted up a negro-gorilla countenance, flat-nosed, big-jawed and large-eared, till it seemed like a region where the imps of darkness breed. And back of all this, the play of the flames threw monster shadows, on the background of trees and creepers, till it all had a strange appearance of life, as if incredible snakes and incongruous animals weaved an endless woof of mystery into the warp of night.
An hour passed and I had hardly moved. By groups the creatures slunk away to their huddling places. The groans of many wounded, unnoted before in the chatter, arose to chorus with the distant sounds of the jungle. Regularly, like a marker of time, came the rumble and grumble from the cauldron of gold.
Around the largest fire, a grim old warrior hovered for an interminable time, after all the others had departed. I had no patience with his pretence of cogitating over all the problems of the universe; I wished him safely abed and snoring. He pothered about for an age, and finally stretched himself near the embers and went to sleep.
I waited and waited, expecting every moment to be rewarded by a vision of the prisoner, gliding toward me. The moon arose above the trees behind me and made the place altogether too bright for any good. To allay my impatience I watched the matchless orb sailing above the jungle. Turning at last from the brilliant picture, my heart leaped wildly. The goddess was almost there!
Slipping quickly, but noiselessly forth, I emerged from the vines on hands and knees and started to arise.
The girl gave a scream and fled like a startled doe.
"Don't be scared," I half shouted, guardedly, "it's only a skin," but my assurance was then too late.
On the instant the Blacks bounded up, alert and alarmed. Club in hand, the grim old fighter near the fire came running toward me. The shadows were with us, by great good fortune. The girl, moreover, had the presence of mind to disappear in the trees and emerge further up toward her shelter.
Realising that now or never I must act my part, I fell on all fours like a plummet. Browsing about unconcernedly, I moved a little in the grass at the edge of the growth, and then, having made myself sure that I had been seen by the Links who came dashing excitedly up, I slowly rooted back into the thicket and disappeared.
It worked like magic. Chattering a lot of drivel which was plainly eulogistic of all the bear family and congratulatory to all the black Links in existence—who had thus been honoured in the night—the savages kow-towed on the ground and otherwise wrote themselves down as unmitigated asses for a longer period by far than they need have done for my satisfaction. Indeed it began to look as if they had taken a notion to spend the remainder of the night in adoration of the ground I had condescended to spurn with my hands and knees. When at last I heard them go, I crept silently back to the edge of the growth and watched them stir up the fire and blunder off to bed.
"Confound the skin!" I muttered to myself. "Why didn't I tell her what a beastly old bear I am?"
Such a time now went by that I began to fear the girl had missed my hurried explanation, in her natural fright, when she ran. However, it did not seem possible she would give up so easily and be afraid to come. Yet I knew it all depended upon her condition of mind. She had doubtless become more than usually timid while subjected to all that she must have undergone here among the Links, all alone, and no human being could entirely eliminate a feeling of dread for the jungle in the dark.
Trusting that in all the medley of night-sounds, a whistle would not awaken the Links, I set up my piping on the bar of our Yankee acquaintance again, repeating it, as before, as often as I deemed it prudent. More of the endless waiting, in my far from enviable position, ensued. If the moon got another half hour in which to sail before the prisoner came, she would drive every friendly shadow squarely back to the forest.
I watched till my neck was stiff and my body cramped, "If the goddess doesn't hurry," I muttered, "the game will be up for the night." Still she lingered in her shelter. I began to grow cross; I vowed she must be crimping her hair and putting on a new pair of gloves.
Suddenly she appeared again, coming out of the trees, not far away. This time I whistled, ever so softly. She paused, came silently on a rod, and halted as before. Another little whistle brought her almost before me.
"Now please don't yell again," I whispered ungallantly. "Slip into the woods as quietly as you can—we've got to hurry."
"Who is it?" she stopped to answer, below her breath, as I rose to my feet.
"It's just John Nevers, a common, ordinary man—American. If we're going to get away, I wish you wouldn't fool around another minute."
I saw that she stood undecided a second, with that evil-looking snake about her shoulders; its eyes gleamed like beads in a ray of moonlight which touched on its hateful head. For that brief space of time I felt such a disgust for the serpent and such a growing impatience, that I had a half impulse to trudge away alone. But she moved toward me; the light which had fallen on the head of the snake silvered her pale, beautiful face. The appeal which was there in her eyes, the trust which was born on the moment, and the helplessness of a maiden, all combined to shame me and to make me her champion against the terrors of all the world.
"Come through here," I whispered, bending back a branch, and she stepped toward me, confident and strong in the hope newly kindled in her breast.
The branch slipped from my fingers and swished noisily back. I heard a snort; the light-sleeping old devil of a Link was up on his feet in a second. He ran toward us again, this time unaccompanied by any of the others. We stood there as silent as statues. My knife was out, for I had instantly determined to slay this watch-dog of the tribe, if he came a foot into the brush.
He merely whined about, uneasily, a time, and then returned to his post. Without waiting to let him lose himself in sleep, I led and cleared the way, moving as slowly as a frozen tortoise, for a considerable time, while the goddess followed, as silently as my shadow.
Past the clearing, where the gilded skeleton hung in the moonlight we glided. Here I saw the stiffened form of Grin, lying stark on the earth. The deep, mysterious rumble of the gold-cauldron began anew.
"Now hurry, while this racket drowns out all the noise we can make," I whispered.
We made no mean bit of progress while the noise continued, after which I felt there was no more need of particular care. The jungle thickets were fearfully dark, as soon as we got away from the clearings, and I was obliged to forge ahead as best I could, guided only by my sense of direction.
Half an hour went by and although we should have been at the river, where the boat was on the bank, there was no immediate prospect of our coming to the proper place. In the midst of my efforts, mental and physical, to extricate myself and the girl from the maze, a peculiar shriek went up in the distance behind us. I paused, inquiringly.
"Oh—that is the voice of the horrid old woman," said the goddess anxiously. "I think she has found I have gone."
"The deuce!" said I. "She has alarmed the whole works, the old villain!"
Judging by the noise which was raised one would have thought she had awakened the whole world. I was certain every Link in the camp was up and dancing about that clearing in the wildest confusion.
"Come ahead," said I, calmly enough, "they are all afraid of the woods at night; they will never catch us now—unless the morning overtakes us before we reach the river."
I knew she shuddered, but like a brave, good girl she made no fuss. As for the racket, it furnished me with a bearing, as it were. Knowing where their settlement was, I knew the approximate direction in which the boat should be found. Indeed before we had travelled another fifty yards I caught a gleam of reflected moonlight from Outlet river and knew my way directly.
"It's lucky that beastly old woman didn't make her discovery sooner," said I.
"Yes," replied the trembling voice of the goddess, "that was why I kept you waiting so long; she wouldn't go to sleep."
"Um," was all I muttered. I was thinking about that crimping of her hair, poor girl, and the putting on of tight, new gloves.
We reached the boat, to my intense relief. "Please get in and make yourself as comfortable as possible," said I, and ripping off the bear-skin, I flung it down to make her a seat.
Out into the limpid stream I shoved my clumsy but beloved craft, and manning the oars I swung her about, headed her toward the lake and made the liquid silver shiver from the prow.
The moonlight fell on the sweet, womanly face. The goddess looked at me dumbly—almost with the divine expression I had seen on the face of little Tike. Her eyes were eloquent of gratitude, relief and things too great to be expressed. Slowly her head came forward on her breast, away from which she held that ugly serpent, and she sobbed and sobbed like a child.
Ah what a night it was! I felt a throb of triumph all through my veins. Rowing steadily and stoutly I said nothing, but let her have her cry. At last she looked upon my face again.
"Where—are we—going?" she faltered.
"Home," said I, "to the camp on top of the hill."
"Home?" she echoed softly. "To your—people, do you—mean?"
"Yep," I agreed. "For a while, at least. But they're not exactly my people. They're a lot of Missing Links."
"Oh—what? Missing Links? You don't mean things like the horrible creatures we have just escaped?"
"Same species," I assured her cheerfully, "but mine are red."
"Oh—oh," she moaned with a shudder, "but I'd rather not! Oh I hate them so; they are all so horrid; they frighten me terribly, and I know they will act exactly like the others—"
"No they won't," I interrupted, with a grin, "they'll get off the earth, if I say the word, for they know that I am the King!"
CHAPTER XXXVII. THE GODDESS
THE PULL WAS a long one, even in the cool of the night. I knew my way, by the stars, if necessary, but the moonlight made my steering easy.
For half an hour the goddess was silent, sighing now and again, and crying a bit, as if deliverance had broken down some barrier to all her emotions, letting floods of pent up feelings free at once.
"It doesn't seem possible," she told me finally.
"What doesn't?" said I, though I knew very well what she meant.
"This boat," she answered, "and you—a man—in this terrible place. It doesn't seem really true that I have escaped from those awful creatures; I didn't believe I should ever get away. Oh, how did you do it?"
"Perhaps you'd better tell me first how you got there," I made answer. "How long have you been in the place?"
"I—don't know," she faltered. "It must be months and months. I lost all account, but it seems like an age. I didn't seem to care about the dates, there have been such lots of awful things to think of all the while. What month is it now?"
"Lord bless you, that's more than I know," I admitted shamelessly. "I couldn't keep track; things have been too hot. I should say, though, it's probably getting along toward summer."
Although she was deeply concerned with herself and all the troubles which for long she had endured, she realised that I too had been lost in this land of jungle. She made me tell my story first. I boiled it down to the bones, being anxious to hear how it was she came to be there. This she told me, brokenly, before we landed from the boat.
She was a cosmopolitan sort of a girl, born and raised in Australia, educated partially in England and partially in Massachusetts. Her father was an Englishman, a scientist, her mother American, of fine old Puritan stock. This mother had died in Sydney. The father and daughter having spent much of their time together, had grown to be great companions. She had long been interested in all his work, in which she had learned to be of great assistance. Thus it came about that when he determined to visit certain of the smaller Banyac Islands, for the purpose of collecting flora and fauna for preservation, she accompanied him as a matter of course. From a private steam yacht, placed at the professor's disposal, and also from the coast settlements, the two had made daily excursions in a ship's yawl in which they could make a careful survey of all the shore.
Engaged in their work, one warm afternoon, they had moored the yawl among a lot of weed-covered rocks. This had been accomplished by securing the painter to one of the oars and wedging this oar down between a pair of boulders. The tide was ebbing when they landed.
In a short time her father had secured a medium-sized anaconda, which having recently fed, was dull and half asleep. This serpent he had given to his daughter, who carried it back to the boat and nailed it in a box provided for any such emergency. Feeling slightly fatigued and unenthusiastic she had then sat down in the yawl, raised her sun-shade and taken out a book to read.
She described the soporific effect of the heat and the lapping of the water about the boat, which had begun soon to affect her senses when she had settled down to rest. Before she knew it she had gone fast asleep. She believed that finally the tide had risen and floated the oar from between the rocks. Then doubtless a breeze had sprung up and the boat had been drifted away.
"Anyway I know I must have slept for hours." she said, "but when I did wake up—oh dear! The sky was black, and I couldn't see any island, or anything but water, and a terrible storm was coming, and the darkness was all about me, and then—well, it was simply the awfullest wind in the world that commenced to blow!"
The storm which she now described had probably been a regular monsoon. It lasted for hours, she said, and the yawl was driven wildly about on the angry sea. Like many a yawl, this craft had been broad of beam and it was therefore as seaworthy as a life-belt. It had ridden like a duck throughout the night.
When at last the light returned, the girl had found herself stranded in a singular place. Not a sign could she see of the ocean, but the yawl had been driven inland on what had appeared to be a great lagoon. This water-way, the edges of which were bordered thickly with a dense, jungle-like growth, had become as calm as a mill-pond.
While she still sat in the boat she had suddenly discovered a score of "horrid black brutes" descending upon the place. She had found the task of pushing off to be quite beyond her strength, in addition to which she had been so bewildered as not to know in the least where she had arrived. The creatures—the Black Missing Links—had appeared of threatening aspect, yet she had soon been made to realise that they were delighted to see her among them and that all regarded herself as a prize belonging to the tribe.
With her snake, of which they had immediately manifested a fear, she had followed where these monsters led, although unwillingly. They had given her food, but they had appeared to have no thought or consideration of her weakened condition, nor even of the fact that she was a woman and therefore not as strong as themselves. In consequence of this, she had been obliged to march through the jungle till nearly ready to drop from sheer weariness of body. Her clothing had been torn to tatters on the brush; her shoes had been all but ruined, and her flesh had been scratched and bruised.
"That is all there is to tell,'" she concluded. "It has been a horrid, desperate existence ever since. The monsters have never been cruel, but I have been burned in the sun, and I have shivered in the rain and chill of night. I have been trembling at the thought of some terrible death, and then praying that I might really die and end all the wretched horror. I couldn't tell where I was,—you say you don't even know yourself,—and day and night I have been in a condition of dread bordering on insanity. It has all been so terribly hopeless—so loathsome. Oh how I have suffered! And that horrible old woman has watched me like a hawk, and I couldn't have escaped if I had tried, and I didn't know where to get a boat, and I couldn't make anything—not even clothes,—and the horrid female creatures stole nearly all I had left, and I didn't even have a needle, or a piece of soap, or a toothbrush!"
"Perhaps I could make you a comb," I suggested, to drive away her dreadful thoughts, if possible, but she appeared not to hear.
"Poor Papa," she resumed, "I don't know what he ever thought, or where he is, or anything about anything.'"'
"Oh well," said I, "we'll soon be getting away from here now, and perhaps the trip will turn out pretty well after all. You'll probably be at home in a month, forgetting all about this expedition to the land of Missing Links."
She shook her head, the wild look in her eyes came back. "That is too good a dream to come true," she said. "It doesn't seem as if we can ever get away,—but oh, Mr. Nevers—I do hope you will never let them get me back,—oh if only you will take me away—if only you will!" and again she broke down and sobbed, as if it had been a thousand times too much to bear.
"I'll do it or bust!" I assured her with much enthusiasm. "I couldn't say more than that if I tried. We'll come out all right, don't you worry."
CHAPTER XXXVIII. A PROSPECT OF WEALTH
NONE OF my Links fell dead at the sight of the goddess and myself, when at last we were "home," but that was merely because they were too uncivilised to have any nerves. The poor creatures contracted headache over the wonder of it all, however, for it utterly surpassed their powers of speculation.
I think they were much more frightened of the captive snake than they had been at my explosions. For this I blamed them not at all, having been rendered somewhat creepy by the beastly reptile myself. It was much too weird a pet. I was not so indelicate as to mention my feelings on the subject to the goddess, but I did hope the abominable thing would die, or get away.
Poor old Fatty was dizzy with concern. For two whole days he could not have told whether he was afoot or horseback. He was even suspicious of myself. All the child-like creatures seemed to regard me with added awe, as if it were hopeless to attempt to solve the problem of the magic by which I produced the snake-charming woman. They regarded the boat and the lake with more suspicion than before. A strangeness grew upon them; they stood away in groups, speaking a monosyllable now and again; they stirred uneasily about, whenever the girl appeared.
Yet remarkably soon the females of the tribe began to note, with curiosity, the costume worn by this stranger. Madame Albino assumed sundry airs with small delay. She also attempted to clothe her precious self with various skins; she eyed the interloper with comical disdain; she likewise looked at me with unmistakable reproach in those pink, nervous optics of hers, as if she meant to say that she might have forgiven me before, but after this—never!
As for the girl herself, she was not exactly the same, when seen in the daylight. She still had glorious eyes and her soft chestnut hair would have been lovely, had it been combed or stabbed full of hardware to build it up in a psyche knot, but her nose was somewhat freckled, she was burned a lively red, as to face, neck, shoulders, arms and ankles, and her great anxiety had made her a trifle thin. Yet she was beautiful, I still maintain, for her features were fine, her poise splendid and her hands and feet exquisitely moulded. What was more, her countenance was lighted from within, by a charm as rare as it is divine; she was lovely in her nature; she was womanly—and women, true women, are beautiful forever! I nodded mentally and determined to continue to call her "the goddess."
It being essential that we take some needed rest, before embarking for worlds unknown, I made my shelter as comfortable as facilities would permit, and abdicated in favour of the snake and the girl. However, my subjects dug me a new palace in short order. This I occupied in my customary regal state. I was obliged to construct a wicker bungalo for his snakeship, for it seemed the goddess grew weary of holding the monster at times, and yet wished to restrain him from his natural desire to mingle with the creepers. Also I furnished the beast with gastronomic delicacies of the season. He had a preference for squirrels, not even the skins of which were left for me.
I made some quiet preparations for the reception of our friends the Blacks, should they come in search of their former captive, but these consisted only of restringing the bows and furbishing up the feathers on our arrows. I knew the fighting force of the feudal foe to be reduced and in no wise able to cope with ours, wherefore I deemed extraordinary measures unnecessary. As a matter of fact, no Blacks appeared, which led me to doubt if they even guessed that the goddess could be harboured in our village.
Having recovered all my energies shortly, I thought the girl would be ready and anxious to leave without further delay. In consequence I began to lay in a stock of sun-dried meat, weapons and other things needful for the cruise to the ocean. It soon became evident, however, that the poor young woman had suffered so severe a depression of vital forces, in the long-continued strain of worry and physical anguish, that immediate departure was quite out of the question.
We had long, hopeful talks together, while I manufactured small trifles for her greater comfort, or brought her foods to cook at a small stone-and-clay stove which I managed to construct; and she often related the history of her days of trouble. She had been too deeply alarmed all the time to give much attention to studying her captors; however, she thought from what I told her that they must have a similar language to that employed by the Reds, and many similar habits. Their attitude toward herself had led her to believe that they actually had a great reverence for human beings.
Of the man who had evidently once been among them she knew but little. She had seen the skeleton, but had only been able to make the merest guesses as to how it came to be in such a place and in such a remarkable condition. She had also seen a linen collar, preserved by having fallen into a chink which kept it protected from the elements, and this indicated, she thought, that the man had been a clergyman. That he had produced certain effects upon the creatures, the results of which would endure, she had no doubt. Though they had no other weapons than their clubs, they appeared to be more fearless than my fellows. Any fishing operations which they might once have conducted, guided by the man, were now discontinued, she was sure, for she had never seen a fish in the camp. The dug-outs were in ruins, as I had thought, though some of the creatures employed them still for sleeping purposes. She did not believe they utilised any caves. Without telling her of my own theories of the gold cauldron, I questioned her sufficiently to convince myself that she knew nothing of its existence in the place. About the fights and hunting expeditions of the tribe, she possessed only the most general information. She had not been able to ascertain what manner of enemies they encountered, but once had seen a wounded fellow striving to pull out of his leg a piece of wood which she now knew must have been an arrow. Also she had been aware that some tremendous calamity had befallen the fighters on their last crusade, for barely half the force had returned to camp, and of these many were shockingly wounded. Fully twenty, she said, had died and been buried since the day of the trouble. Beyond these few facts, the goddess told me very little which differed from the tale of the daily routine of my own loyal subjects.
In the boat, my bear-skin was concealed by a cover of leaves as before. I was thinking, one morning, of the various things I should take, when the moment for leaving should finally arrive, when the two great clubs—mine by right of conquest—thrust themselves upon my notice. The one which was made of the nugget appealed to my human spirit of acquisitiveness with great potency. Indeed the thing awakened a train of thought which bordered somewhat on the wild and not-too-wholesome. I found myself coveting my neighbour's cauldron of gold.
Heretofore I had given the geyser cavern, where the precious metal was being deposited, not the slightest consideration. I had known of only one way to approach the place, namely, by the long passage, the end of which I might not be able to find, and which at best could only lead me to a point high above the place of treasure. I knew, also, that snakes abided in the passage and that getting gold up to the point where Fatty and I had been that day and then out through the tortuous tunnel was simply impossible, as a task. Even the nugget on the club—after the first inevitable thrill which I could not help feeling, to see it and know its worth,—had been no more to me than any rock, for what could it purchase in such a land as this?
But now—how things had altered! Not only did I feel the greatest confidence in my ability to pilot my boat away from that open prison, to a land where gold would be the "open sesame" to the whole world, but I knew of an opening—or thought I did—to the cave where the precious metal was lying ready to be had for the taking. It was a magic thought—an intoxicating dream. The precious deposit belonged to no one, for who were the Missing Links? I should do no injury to anyone by taking all I needed. And why should I not have some remuneration for all this exile, labour and suffering?
"Why," said I, and half seriously at that, "a king simply has to be rich!"
The task seemed easy, as I dreamed of proceeding to the spot, taking what I wanted and then escaping with it as I had with the goddess. The idea expanded rapidly; it began to make me feverish. As usual, when I gave myself over to anything new, I forgot everything else about me.
Even the goddess and her snake became of secondary importance; escape itself was indefinitely postponed. The premier question was, "When shall I do it?" I answered aloud:
"Why—to-day—to-night! What's the use of waiting?"
Then it became imperative that I should formulate a plan. The bear-skin was the fundamental basis which gave me the courage to think of attempting the task. I knew how to manage in regard to that, as well as I knew how nicely it would work, if only the light were not too searching. What more might the work require? Obviously I should need a sack, in which to carry off the plunder; and I ought to have a pick or a sledgehammer, or something in the way of a tool with which to detach the solid chunks of metal. For the sack, I decided to sew together some of the skins which were lying on the floor of my shelter. For tools I would carry a couple of the stoutest clubs to be had in the camp. In addition to these requisites, I could think of nothing I should need, except my weapons.
I lost no time in setting about the preparations for this financial venture. It seemed a pity to rob the goddess and her snake of the rugs on which they reclined at various times, in my dug-out, but there was nothing else to do. All the tribe-fellows' clubs having proved themselves to be serviceable, I had no difficulty in selecting two which I deemed worthy of the great occasion.
Old Fatty had resumed his faithful attendance on my every movement and therefore he followed me down to the boat, carrying both of the clubs and the skins. He stood on the bank and watched me embark, more crazy than ever to go along, but still too frightened to trust himself afloat on the lake. I had no wish to have company. Bidding him "be good," I pushed away and started on the expedition.
By the time I had finished the work of fastening the skins together, the afternoon was half gone. There was nothing to do, in the way of work which would occupy my time, and I felt no desire to get into the bear-skin prematurely, as I had done before, so that I was finally obliged to pull in my oars and drift idly on the water. This was a sleepy occupation. I nodded drowsily for half an hour, at the end of which time I fell fast asleep.
The sun was just disappearing when at last I awoke. Disgusted with myself, for having thus overdone the time-wasting business, I rowed rapidly for Outlet river, to which I came duly. Standing up in the boat I arrayed myself in my costume; then I worked slowly down the river, as before, and beached the boat in the spot where I had landed on the last successful venture.
Already the dusk made the forest gloomy, but as this was precisely what I wanted, I struck off without delay, picking a path cautiously through the growth. The neighbourhood seemed remarkably still, but finally the rumble from the cauldron disturbed the quiet and gave me a guide by which I corrected my course.
Laden as I was, with the necessary things for the labour, I should have presented a most amazing aspect, had any of the Blacks discovered my presence. I thought of that, and knew that even if I got down in the normal position of a bear, the juxtaposition of my bag and the clubs might easily arouse the most dangerous suspicions in the brain of any Link beholding them and me. However, nothing happened.
"Why this is going to be a picnic," I muttered. "I couldn't ask for anything nicer."
Indeed fortune seemed to be smiling upon me, for I came immediately upon a continuation of the cliff of rock, which backed the camp of the Blacks, and was soon confronted by a jagged heap of stone and quartz, at the top of which appeared a dark, irregular cave. Before I could clamber up the pile to this opening, the mighty roar came belching forth. I knew I stood on the threshold of the cavern of wealth and wonder.
CHAPTER XXXIX. STEALING THE ENEMY'S FIRE
NO SOONER had the demonstration ceased than I hastened up the rock-heap to the cave. I found the mouth of the place somewhat choked and hard to enter, but I forced my way over massed-in boulders to a vestibule of the great treasure-house itself. Then suddenly my hopes were blighted and failure loomed before me. It was as dark as tar and I had clean forgotten to fetch a torch!
"But how could I have fetched a torch?" my brain demanded. I had no civilised matches; I could not have carried a brand all day, for the sake of having it now, and if I had, the smoke might have attracted the attention of the Blacks. Had they caught a bear with a torch in his hand they would unquestionably have desired an explanation. I thought of my knife, which was steel, and the flints on my arrows. Could I not produce a spark, ignite some tinder and then make some faggots take fire? Yes, I could, but the arrows were all in the boat and I had about as much tinder handy as a fellow could carry in his eye.
In desperation I groped ahead for a rod and nearly broke my neck, by jolting down an unseen step in the floor. It was useless to tackle the cavern in this inky blackness; I might easily get boiled to death by the fountain of scalding water. In bitter regret, I reproached myself for having come away from camp without consulting the goddess and without maturing my plans. But any ass should have known the place would be dark! I acknowledged that I was a fool, and that after all this bother I should have to give it up. Even if I did come again next day, it would be no easy matter to fetch a torch, and I might try a hundred times and not have the luck I had this evening in avoiding those villains, the Blacks.
More than ready to swear at my folly, mad as a hornet to think of abandoning all the gold, which was right there, almost within reach of my hands, I pinched myself viciously and groped my way out to the heap of rocks at the entrance.
Already a star was shining in the heavens. What good were stars, I would have liked to know. It was fire I wanted—fire at the end of a stick. A crazy idea of hunting for something highly inflammable, on which to try my flint and steel, tried to get started in my brain. I rejected the notion with scorn. I might as well begin a search for glow-worms or incandescent electric globes.
"Those fools of Links have got plenty of fire," I grumbled, spitefully. "For about two cents I'd kick them all out of their camp and take all the torches I could carry."
This bit of pleasantry somewhat restored my humour. I started up from where I was sitting on the rocks, abruptly, possessed of a great idea. Why not make the trick worth the winning; why not steal their fire to light myself in robbing their cave?
In my haste to clamber down from the pile, I fell forward and struck my hand smartly on something which felt like a collected lot of wood. I was ready to kick this thing, for bruising my fingers, when I comprehended that wood was exactly what I required. Grasping one of the branches I lifted a whole bundle of sticks, all dry, cut neatly of an equal length, and tied about with some sort of cord. Instantly I thought of the gilded skeleton—the man who had lived in this place. I believed he had come to the cavern often, and that doubtless these faggots had been gathered by himself for torches.
This discovery gave me new enthusiasm. I was calmer, also, and I therefore resolved to proceed carefully, do nothing rash, and to wait until the time was propitious before attempting to steal my fire. Nevertheless I was determined not to give up the game until flatly beaten. Much luck in the past had made me bolder than I was when I arrived in the country.
During the half hour following, I crept through the woods, toward the spot where I had waited for the goddess. I thought it would bring me bad luck to try any other location. My clubs and the sack, I had left at the cauldron, along with my bundle of wood. Thus I had nothing to impede my progress; but the skin in which I was clothed hampered every motion.
Throughout the jungle, various sounds had commenced, for the darkness was rapidly becoming that of full-fledged night. Through the trees, when I approached their clearing, I caught the gleam of the fires about which the Links were cooking their dinner.
Knife in hand, I edged and pushed through the creepers and vines until I dared go no further. From where I was, I could see very much the same sort of groups about the fires which had made the picture weird on the former occasion. But I was actually more excited and eager over the present enterprise than I had been before, when a fellow-being was in the game. Doubtless this arose from the greater risk I expected to take.
Impatient as I was, the Links seemed to require an interminable time to get ready for bed. I selected one and then another of the fires as the one from which I would filch a brand, but was finally obliged to wait and see which would be the most favourable to my task. I desired to select the one furthest from the sleeping places, and yet not too far from my cover. The one first abandoned by the Links would have answered well. I watched it narrowly and kept an eye on the Blacks, who were still lingering about. Long before the fellows had all retired, the fire became hopeless, so few were the embers left aglow. I was obliged to fix upon another.
I waited all of two hours, by the end of which time the Links were all safely asleep, save that watchful old fiend whose acquaintance I had made on my former visit. When at length he laid himself down for the night, his position was such that my intended deed had been rendered far more difficult than I had expected. It became necessary for me to make a long detour, for I deemed it wise that I should be able to make a bee-line for cover the second I procured my bit of fire.
In crawling and walking carefully about the tangle, I consumed a lot of time. My position then was such that by creeping bear-like from the vines and going straight for my original hiding place, I would pass the remains of a fire, in which only one or two blazing pieces of wood remained. Again I drew my knife. With a thumping heart, high up in my neck, I began this desperate experiment.
A night-bird hooted before I had gone three paces. That alert old wretch, the sentinel Black, stirred about and turned sleepily over. For several minutes I remained motionless; then again I moved cautiously forward. Although I expected the worst possible calamities to happen every moment, and thought my own breathing would betray my presence, I neared the fire without arousing the lightest sleeper. Approaching the burned-out heap, I selected the brand I would take, before I was there. In consequence of this, I lost no time, but passed silently on, when I had the precious ember in my possession. Transferring it quickly to my left hand, in order to conceal its glowing end from any eyes which might by chance be open, I dragged it on the ground beside me, and headed for the shelter, which to reach would mean success.
A half chuckle escaped me, at the thought of the Links' stupidity and my own adroitness, for the vines were now but a dozen feet away. Yet I was horribly nervous, not daring to look behind me and fearing that anything might be happening, now that my back was turned upon the sleeping foe. I reached the cover in triumph, however, and even crawled to a small open spot, when suddenly something gave me a vigorous push with its foot.
Instantly then that monstrous old watch Link, recognised me, raised his club and poised to fetch it down with a blow that should scatter my brains. I saw him, knew he had caught me, realised that more silently than I he had followed the singular bear that would steal a brand of fire, and quick as a gun-spring I shot up against him, butted him hard in the ribs and we closed, in a duel to the death.
My only thought was—"Choke him off!" I knew that a single yell would bring an army of foes upon me; I knew he had made no sound before because of his commendable desire to determine my nature while I was still unaware of his presence. Now I swiftly determined that not a sound should he make, unless he did it over my dead body. I was thrice as vicious as he, I verily believe, as I threw myself in against his body and fastened my clutch on his throat. I was fierce as only a frightened and desperate man can be; I was strong as three of my kind, in that moment of terrible need.
His arms had been raised with the club; the weapon had even been descending as I thumped him violently backward. Down came the great rock, but the force of the blow was gone, and the aim was so ruined that he struck us both on the leg. He dropped the thing as useless, for he could not have raised it again had he tried. But with his long, iron-like arms he fought like a fiend, to shove me off, to gouge out my ribs and to grip my throat as I was gripping his, with all but two of my fingers. The two fingers gripped the handle of my knife.
The length of his arms was for once against him. I was as close up as flesh can freeze to flesh. His head was thrust far back; already his breathing muscles were swelling and labouring beneath my thumbs. We struggled about in the darkness hither and thither, wrestling, flinging, treading on roots and branches and exerting the utmost of our strength to win the battle.
The monster's muscles were something prodigious; his activity was simply incredible. I have choked a man to submission in thirty seconds, but it seemed as if I could never weaken this brute nor reduce him to a state wherein I could use my knife. He fought me with his feet, scratched me and kicked my shins. He got his bone-and-wire arms against my stomach at last and clutched me and pushed me till I thought I should shriek with pain. Had I not been protected by the bear-skin, I think he would have killed me, in spite of the tremendous advantage I had gained at the outset. All this time the only sound was what I made in breathing and what we made with our scuffling about. It was an ominously silent duel.
Over we toppled, tripped by a creeper, and rolled on the ground among the vines. He had me under, like a cat with a squirrel, but I felt him beginning to quiver all over. My grip had not been broken for a moment, but now it nearly gave way; a weakness was stealing over me, for he was crushing my ribs where I had received the blow with the nugget club. This was the particular time when the bear-skin helped me out.
Something smarted my leg then—the brand of fire. I had struck against it. This made me furious. A gush of hot, new strength welled up in my veins and along all my sinews. My finger-ends dug in about his wind-pipe deeper and deeper. I heaved him over; his arms were becoming like lead; his motions were powerless; all the force seemed slipping from his body. Knowing my time had come, I gave the knife in my hand a sudden turn and push against the jugular vein, swelling beneath my pressure, and felt him shudder in death in a moment.
Until I was sure he would move no more, nor raise a sound, I remained astride his chest. The stillness then was awful. Not a sound could I hear but that of my own laboured breathing and the trickle and drip of this creature's blood. I admit the dread of it all made me tremble. It seemed such a ghastly end to my innocent escapade.
But having plunged so deeply into the business, for the sake of a bit of fire, I did not intend to leave the work unfinished because of this unavoidable incident. Therefore I caught up the glowing branch, which had nearly been smothered out as we rolled it in the grass, and blowing upon it to liven it up, I stole away from that gory arena.
CHAPTER XL. COVETED GOLD
STILL BREATHING hard, from the effects of the duel, I reached the heap of stone, outside the cavern and hunted up my bundle of wood. I sat down on a rock to get my torches lighted. This was not an easy matter, for although my brand was a species of wood which retained fire remarkably long, I was obliged to gather many small dry twigs and bits of dead creeper, to which I added hair from the skins, before I could make a blaze. Once having accomplished this feat, however, I found that the torch-faggots burned with all the fierceness of pitch.
Acknowledging that the skeleton-man had succeeded in finding a wood which surpassed for torches anything that I had yet discovered, I threw my bag and clubs inside the cave and climbed in after, with all the light I needed.
So far, the getting of treasure had not proved to be the "picnic" I had previously been led to suppose was about to be enjoyed. Holding my torch above my head and carrying both the clubs beneath my other arm, I now went along in this wonder-house, waxing momentarily more and more excited by the prospect of seeing what was there.
The passage was narrow and low, it was likewise crooked, and the floor was rough and uneven. On the walls there was not the slightest indication of anything precious. I have never seen stone more dull. This made me doubt if I had come to the cauldron of gold, after all. The trend of the tunnel was downward. Presently I came to a "jump off" four feet high. The bottom of this secondary gallery sloped rapidly downward. Then I emerged from the tunnel-like hall, into a larger chamber. The first thing I saw was water, in a crevice. I jumped then like a scared cat, for a drop of the liquid fell plump on my nose from the ceiling, where steam had condensed.
A second after this I got a brilliant gleam of reflected light, from an object on the floor, a rod away. It was gold. To right and left flashed similar reflections. I hastened onward, and then halted, dizzy with amazement, for below me, in a great basin was ebon water that moved, and about it were nodules and drippings of gold, and stuffed into crevices was gold on gold. I leaped a ditch, above which the mist was rising, hot and damp. Beyond this, down in the very cauldron itself, which was inaccessible and awe-inspiring, I beheld those stalagmites of solid metal, those building nuggets and the seething abyss of water and natural acid which before I had seen from above.
The ascending steam curtained off the mouth of the cave above which I knew to be over this eerie place, but I was far too eager for what was about me, to spend my time in looking upward. It was not a place of dazzling beauty; on the contrary it was dull, dripping and misty, but here, there, in unexpected places I caught that inimitable glitter. Having seen one piece of the forming gold-hunks, it seemed as if I were qualified to see a score. The heat of the place was tremendous, the air humid and hard to breathe
So deep was the boiling water that I could see nothing of what was below, yet I knew from seeing the shallows, golden on the bottom, that the basin was doubtless plated throughout with the beautiful metal. I was wild with enthusiasm; I wanted to knock off tons of nuggets; I began to wonder if I could take it all. Quickly clambering over jagged piles, I stepped on a boulder that stood above an apron of rock all seamed with cracks in which the gold had been stuffed till the places were full.
While I was standing there, the rumble of the mighty giant commenced to resound in the cavern. Alarmed at the thought that the water might surge up and engulf me where I stood, I started to flee to a safer retreat. My heel got caught in a crevice. The harder I tugged, the tighter it became wedged. Stooping I got my fingers in behind it and slid it forward and out. The second it cleared, my thumb struck an object full of something that felt like nails. Glancing once at the place, I was astonished to see the heel of a boot, not unlike my own.
I leaped away to safety and the marvellous geyser burst upward. The roaring noises thundered upon the air of the place with deafening reverberations; the steam rolled away in tremendous volumes. Spray and drops of the boiling liquid that splashed, fell all about, some on my hand, burning me badly. The basin was all a-surge with its seething brew; the waters gushed hungrily up, swirling about, filling the cracks and tossing in extreme agitation.
Down came the massive column of the fountain, as if the source had been cut off in an instant. A tidal wave of the boiling stuff swelled up to the brink of the cauldron, inundating the golden nodules, stalagmites and the radiating fissures.
I knew, then, as much as a man could ever know, who had not been present, how that other man had lost his life, and how it came that his skeleton was gilded. That heel told the story. He had probably caught his foot just as I had done, but he had not been able to get away. He had doubtless fallen headlong into the basin of boiling liquid, where his life must have been forfeited instantly. Then time after time the water had risen about him, until all the flesh had been boiled away from the bones, and then the process of plating with gold had commenced on the skeleton. Poor wretch. It had then been left, I thought, for one of the braver spirits among the Links to rescue all that remained and carry it forth from the dread cavern. I felt somewhat chilly to think how near I had been to the same dreadful fate.
The demonstration having ceased, the water subsided, the rocks and nuggets dripped, and the steam arose, hotter than before. My zeal for exploring the place had oozed away. It seemed to me that discretion counselled me to complete my work and depart.
"I'll only stop for a few hundred pounds," I told myself with a feeling of virtuous moderation. "A man should never be a pig."
The first thing to do was to strip off my bearskin, in which I was now perspiring like a porpoise. Then I selected a fine, large nodule of gold, from the vicinity of which I could easily escape when the geyser began to spout, and this I began to batter with one of the clubs. I had conceived an idea that I would bend these formations over and break them off with comparative ease. I was in for a large disappointment.
Not only were the gold masses bended over at the expense of great energy and perseverance, but they refused to break after quite a number of such bendings. That first one having been once so bent, refused to be knocked back in the opposite direction. Also the geyser took its turn very soon and in the end I humbly abandoned nodule number one and tackled one which was smaller.
It was at least an hour before my labours were awarded with any real success whatsoever. But at last I had a chunk of metal of something like five pounds weight. Mopping my head, puffing and losing my temper, I "picked on" the smaller pieces now with great sagacity. I pounded and pried, grunted and wrenched, waited for the geyser to have its say and then went at it again, till I lost all reckoning of time. After several failures, however, I got the knack of this mining business better, and what with smashing rocks away to facilitate the work and contenting myself with modest chunks, I got loose and heaped up something over a hundred weight of treasure, according to my estimate by guessing.
"That's enough for any man of sense," I finally assured myself. "I'd be ashamed to take any more."
Lighting a new torch, from the one I had planted in a chink, I went out toward the entrance and secured my bag. To my amazement I discovered that the day had broken. I had worked for hours that sped like minutes. Somewhat concerned about any Links, who might be stirring, I hastened back, threw my hoard into the skin pouch and staggered with it to the jump-off, where I boosted it up hurriedly. On emerging from the mouth of the cave, I was obliged to rest, so weary had I become from my long-sustained labours. However, I dared not pause, at so late an hour, and therefore I shouldered my load again and started away, leaving bear-skin, torches and clubs behind. My only idea now was to reach the boat in haste.
In spite of my stubbornness, I could walk not more than fifty yards at a time with my burden, before putting it down to give myself "a blow." It was such a dead weight, and I had used up my whole reserve of force. Breathing my great relief, to find myself out at last, within one more carry of the boat, I set the sack down in a thicket and leaned against a tree to rest my muscles. As I turned about to resume the load, a startling yell suddenly penetrated the forest.
Jump about as quickly as I could, I was not in time to avoid a furious onslaught. A hideous female Link, as black as rubber and apparently as old as the jungle, launched herself upon me and bit me on the shoulder so severely that I cried out in pain and struck her with my knife before I could stop to remember that a male should spare a female creature. The steel went deep in her side. She wrenched with her jaws where she was biting as she fell away, and injured a cord in my neck, which made me all but collapse with sudden nausea and weakness.
Before I could shake her off, after pulling out the knife, the forest echoed with the yells of countless demons rushing toward me from the direction of the cave. Undone, incapable of showing fight with my dagger, against so large and fierce a mob, I tore myself free from the clutch of the female and ran as hard as possible toward the river.
That terrible female, stabbed only through the fleshy muscles under her arm, made a dive for my feet and hauled me down. I slashed off two of her fingers with a vicious lunge, and darted away again at the top of my speed.
By this time many of the demons were hot on my trail, crying out in fearful monosyllables, tearing through the brush, and attempting to head me off. The foremost fellow threw his club and the handle of it struck me on the leg. I snatched it up, well knowing the creature would catch me before I could go another twenty strides, and leaping behind a tree I waited half a moment. He rushed to the spot, headlong and reckless. Down came his own weapon, and he fell like a dead bull. But the motion of striking nearly killed me, so fearful was the wrench where the female had bitten the sinew.
Once more I ran dizzily away, at the head of that screaming horde of Links. Club after club was hurled to fetch me down, but all went wide. I was beating them all—I knew it—I should reach the boat, for none were aware of its presence. It was hardly more than a rod away.
Stumbling and pitching, ready to fall down in my agony, I dived through a hedge of vines and was thrown headlong within reach of the prow I knew so well. Up and shoving at the boat in a twinkling, I heard the vines being ripped apart behind me. Having held on to the club till I fell here, I turned and pounced upon it and swung it back in time to crash it fairly in the pit of the black devil's stomach, as he hurtled upon me.
Dropping it instantly, I shoved off the boat with all the strength I had, and leaped in, as three or four more of the fiends came dashing madly down to the river's edge. This time when they threw their clubs I was struck fairly on the fleshy portion of the back and knocked on my face across the seat. Hurt by the blow, but strong in my instinct for self-preservation, I got out the oars in jig-time and drove the good old craft up the stream and away from the murderous brutes on the bank, like a madman. Rowing almost straight for the further side, I distanced all the clubs speedily. When they realised the utter futility of pursuit, the enraged creatures merely yelled their maledictions as I went.
CHAPTER XLI. FAREWELL TO THE CAMP
THE STRENGTH which had risen in my desperation, even against the shock to my system which had been given by the bite of the female monster, departed before I was out of the river. I trembled from head to foot; I was ill all over and nearly as limp as a string.
How serious the bite might be I had no means of ascertaining. To my hand, when I felt of the place, there seemed to be only a raw, smarting wound, on the top of a great hot swelling. I felt sure that no thews had been actually severed by the terrible teeth, for had any been, I should not have been able to row the boat nor to use my arm in any manner whatsoever. Nevertheless I knew I was wounded badly, and I all but cried with the pain it cost me to move the craft.
Until I had reached the lake, the fear of the Blacks made me work, despite my physical anguish. When I knew I was comparatively safe, I sank forward and, I confess, fainted like a girl.
It was probably as much as an hour before I recovered my senses fully. For the last fifteen minutes or so of this time I was semi-conscious, but incapable of motion, while my brain merely whirled in a vortex with that female Link, the boat and the nuggets of gold. When at last I again acquired the power of moving, I filled my hand with water from the lake repeatedly and dashed it on my face and on my bitten shoulder. But I could not row; I needed further rest.
My head was beginning to ache. My brain insisted on revolving the story of my greed for gold. Again I fought the battle of silence with the watch-dog of the tribe; again I worked like a gnome in that steaming, hot cauldron; again I staggered away with my plunder. Then I saw that female Link, who, searching in the thicket, must have found the body of the watch-dog, lying in his gore. He might have been her mate. Crazed, she followed on the trail that led from the spot, with the tribe at her heels. She reached the cauldron and then got again on the tracks I was making to the river. At that I screamed and thought I was crazy myself.
Aroused by this repeated nightmare, I struggled with the oars again. It seemed as if I could not budge the boat; this made me work like a fury. The heat of the sun grew intolerable; I could feel it baking the blood in my head; it was all on the side of the Blacks. The lake was a sheen of blinding light and heat; it mocked me and held me back. Again and again came the lurid panorama of events. I could see through everything, jungle, thicket and bag made of skin—see those pieces of gold—mine! mine!—shining like the blazing sun, hot and baking. All that gold on the ground was mine, but it mocked me and cooked my brain with its heat and steam.
I lost all reckoning; I rowed to escape the nightmare and the lake that held me back. The sun got up in mid-heaven, and still I was on that shimmering water. I knew nothing, absolutely, of what I did, except that I rowed to get away from that female Link, who seemed to bite me times without number, and always in that same burning spot. I must have fainted half a dozen times; I rowed toward home between these spells by instinct only. The distance which I could ordinarily compass in a little more than an hour, required no less than seven hours, this fateful day. When I think of the heat, the weight of the boat and my physical condition, I wonder I did not die, and drift to the shore.
As it was, I have not the slightest recollection of having reached the bank. I thought that for years and years I strove to get away from that last terrible encounter. When at length my brain was clear and I opened my eyes, in the slow, weak manner of one who has all but passed to the further side of the dark river, I saw a beautiful, worried face above my own—the face of the goddess.
"Thank God!" she whispered fervently, when she saw that I was mad no longer, and the poor girl cried as she bathed my head and bade me go to sleep.
I had nearly pegged out, and that is the truth. When I was strong enough to hear my own story, I learned of things which will never cease to fill me with wonder, and with many emotions too soft to parade. It was good old Fatty who had seen me coming; and he it was that finally carried me bodily up the hill. Then for a nurse I had never lacked for a moment. The goddess and Fatty, he her slave, she my guardian angel, had done the all that could be done, with the poor facilities at hand, for a man in such desperate straits that he raves night and day for a week. But the goddess really saved me, when all is said, for she knew the properties of certain tropical plants and with the crushed leaves of one she drew the poison from the bite, reduced the swelling and made it possible for proper healing to commence. I had done the worst possible thing, in rowing home through the heat and with such a wound, but if I had not done exactly what I did, and when I did, my doctor and nurse would never have had the opportunity of proving their skill.
They were strange days that followed—strange for me, who had never been down on my back with illness before since childhood, for the fever left me thin, weak, and feeling so helpless that I had no desire to move as much as one of my feet. My first poignant thought was about the Blacks, and the danger of their swooping down upon us again. When I knew that for a week there had been no sign of any foe, I thought they had probably undergone too great a fright on the last occasion to require any more for some considerable time.
For another week I lay like a baby, in the shelter, eating fruits and bits of meat which the goddess prepared as best she could. How I yearned to see her face, whenever she left me for a moment! Then came the time when I began to mend, and desired to have back my strength and my title of king.
When I stood up and wobbled about on my pins one day, I made a discovery which did much to hasten a return to my old condition. The crystal club, presented to me by the ex-chief, in token of my exalted station and regal attainments, had been stolen. I learned that the ex-chief had dared to carry this sceptre of power into the jungle; I learned from Fatty that the jealous Madame Albino had been the one to rob me of my trophy. She feared the goddess—who in truth was more of a queen of the tribe than I had even been a king,—but the creature had not feared a man who was crazy and likely to die.
So wroth did I wax over this outrage to my dignity that I became unmanageable at once. Thin as a rail, but able to stagger about, next day, I dug up one of my lesser bombs from the magazine, and waving it wildly above my head, marched up to the guilty ex-chief, while he had the club underneath him, as he sat on the ground, and scared him half to death. He knew the bomb,—no trouble about that. I therefore took the crystal club away from him, rudely, and slapped his face. He fell down instantly and began to adore my tracks in the proper spirit of humiliation, followed without delay by all the tribe. Madame Albino fled to the woods, though what manner of personal violence the lady expected I have never been able to guess. This fine, large bluff, of a man as white as paper and thin as a hair-pin, had a most salutary effect. It made all the fellows love me more than before, even the chief, for all were much like dogs in disposition, and a dog is the better for it when he learns that man is the master. I was more of a monarch every day.
Yet I was slow in regaining my old weight, for the heat was increasing steadily, and my system had been much depressed by the fever. In consequence of this, I did more at playing than at work. With my fellows I practiced archery in the cooler parts of the days, coaxing back the strength to my arms, body and legs, but I made my excursions to the jungle brief.
During this period of convalescence, the goddess reassumed the company of her snake. But the dear girl followed me about with her gaze, which I frequently felt drawing my own. When I would glance toward her, I always saw her glorious eyes filled with longing and sympathy and a tenderness which went straight to my heart. But she would blush and look away, nearly always at the hideous snake.
With my returning strength came the recurrent desire to depart from the place forever. Also, in spite of all I could do, the thought of my gold—lying in the thicket, the treasure for which I had laboured so hard—would persist in returning. I tried to banish the dream of avarice, but it is a fearsome clutch which riches maintain on the imagination of poor, weak man. I felt quite convinced that great as my longing was for the world outside, that of the goddess was ten-fold greater. Of this I spoke, one day, when my restored condition gave promise that I should not fail for lack of strength in what I might undertake. Into the eyes of that faithful girl came a burning light, which would have made the heart of any man bound with feeling. She spoke, however, with her usual control.
"I should like to leave this place," she said, "but I prefer to wait until you are strong and masterful, as you were when I saw you first."
At this it was on my tongue to speak of the future, and of certain hopes which had grown in my thoughts, of a home to be and of happiness, but I curbed this desire as being untimely while she depended so entirely upon myself for deliverance.
Having dwelt no little on the prospect of the future in this camp, in which—unless we escaped—I could see my own skeleton hung up on a stump, and with no fine plating of gold upon it, either, I had small desire to remain in the land another day. Strangely enough, however, I had no sooner begun to make our preparations for leaving, than memory dragged in every happy day I had spent with my Links, every thrill of triumph in my puny successes, every faithful or affectionate deed which these simple, half-animal creatures had ever performed toward myself. I own I was foolishly attached to a number of the poor forest-children, who watched me always with such a dumb look of regard, and wonder as to what I was.
It is not a boast to say that I had wrought an inerradicable effect upon these less than merely primitive people. In turn they had been my willing slaves, my companions—my everything of life. I thought of Little Tike, and blessed his memory for the days of real enjoyment he had given me when I was mending from a serious injury once before. But after all—there was that gilded skeleton to think about and to dread. What profit was it to a skeleton that sundry Missing Links still adored the ground before it? I preferred to be a man of meat, unadored for the rest of my life, rather than to be a gold-plated pile of bones, worshipped madly throughout the centuries to come.
Thus, taking matters quietly, I made myself and the boat ready for the long, uncertain cruise. I was quite aware that we might be leaving a place of comparative safety, for waters and lands of which the dangers might be innumerable and the chances for escape absolutely nill; I agreed, mentally, that we might be making a terrible mistake which we would recognise when too late for any retreat, but these were the risks we were obliged to assume. I believed I could win, in this game with fates unknown, and virtually I wagered both our lives on the outcome of the play.
One of my chief concerns, in stocking the boat, was that of providing water. As long as we floated on the river we should have this in plenty, but if we did reach the sea, matters might be altered. The best I could do was to take my tortoise shell, to hold a fair supply. It was an easy matter to provision ourselves with meat, for strips which I cut from various kinds of game, dried in the sun in a manner most satisfactory, furnishing a palatable supply, which, with salt, was not at all bad to chew upon by the hour.
For weapons I depended on the bow and arrows, a club and a number of good flint hatchets, in addition to four small bombs, with complement of fuse. In order to provide an ever-ready brand of fire for these, should occasion to use them arise, I selected a goodly quantity of the wood which retained the glow so long, after which I lined all the bow-end of the boat with clay, so that I could build my blaze on the bottom and yet do no harm to the hull by burning. I meant to carry my fire along, for I had experienced all the "picnics" I wanted for the lack of this useful thing. Among sundry other materials, I provided myself with several coils of good, stout line, made by braiding together the small, pliabley creepers. At this work the goddess assisted splendidly.
All the skins which had formed my gold bag, had been left behind, in my flight from the Blacks, of course, but my Links having learned the process of curing pelts in the brine, had worked up some very good pieces. On these I levied a tax—the only one I imposed during my reign—thereby fitting the craft out in some degree of comfort, for the goddess had dressed herself in all the hides I had left in my shelter. This seemed to be the concluding ceremony, except that I made sure my oars and pole-pins were staunch, and I cut a long slender pole, to be used for any purpose which might develop later on.
My decision was made to leave in the late afternoon, in order to pass the camp of the Blacks after night had rendered them cowards. At the very thought of their village, that bag of gold clamoured for another fling at fortune. I was a poor man, in my own country, howsoever wealthy I might consider myself in Linkland; the temptation was great. But I shook my head decisively. I had an undoubted right to risk my own neck, but I had not the slightest right to risk the personal safety of a helpless woman. No, I must shut my eyes to the glitter, and pass the treasure by—like a man!
Although I had made frequent excursions in my boat, many of which had required preparation, the Links seemed to comprehend that on this occasion the matter was one of much more importance, and gravity for all concerned. When all was ready and the hour drawing near, I attempted to convey to the assembled tribe my intention of going, with the goddess, so far that I should never return. That they understood, I am positive; the poor fellows were greatly affected. They regretted the arrival of that day as plainly as if they had said so in a most solemn chorus. Even the albino female, weak, inconsequent creature that she was, and like a woman, would have forgiven everything and promised to be good all the rest of her days, to have changed my decision. She wept on the ground, sincerely. I felt saddened myself; I admit it freely. These rude creatures had all seemed like my very own; they were more than faithful animals, and yet they commanded a strange sympathy, being less than men.
When ready to go, I carried the great rock-crystal club to the ex-chief and placed it again in his hand, as he stood there and wondered.
"Take it back," I said, as if he could understand every word, "you are man enough to wield it well. Boys," I added to the others, "don't go backward again; stick to the bows, and make new ones for yourselves, to shoot the pigs. Try to be good, manly fellows. And—and I hope you won't entirely forget me, when I'm gone."
Turning quickly away, I shouldered the gold-nugget club and started for the boat, to which the goddess also repaired. Old Fatty was whining, as he followed at my heels, and after him trooped every creature in the tribe, till all stood together on the shore.
In the boat was everything we needed, so far as I could plan and provide, including a lot of the freshest fruit to be obtained. The goddess took her seat in the stern. Seized with an impulse, I turned to my loyal fellows and held out my hand to the chief. He was wholly at a loss to know what I meant, yet so natural is the gesture that he placed his hand in mine without even knowing that this shake was the symbol of friendship, greeting and farewell. The others followed his example, in wonder, and with awkward motions, so that I bade good-bye to all the "men."
Fatty, who was eyeing the boat and whining and giving little jumps of indecision, knew not what to do. I stepped in the craft and pushed her gently off.
"Come on then, Fatty," I said to my good, old fellow, and bounding through the tepid water, he did actually leap into the boat and sit there, shivering with awe and delight.
"Good-bye, old camp; good-bye, my friends," I said, as we drifted slowly away. "God keep you, poor children of the jungle."
The chief and all the others got down on the ground, along the bank, and paid me such a tribute of genuine esteem as I shall never know again. This was their long farewell; this was their voluntary expression of love and regret. At that moment, more than any other in my life, I was a king.
CHAPTER XLII. GOLDEN GLEAMS
AS LONG as we could see them, the Links continued to watch the boat departing. Even the goddess, who had conceived such a hatred and fear of the Blacks, felt that these simpler fellows were not wholly savage and bad; she even waved them good-bye till we passed around the point, after which we were quiet for several minutes.
Old Fatty was thoroughly frightened. He crouched down and trembled, raising his head timidly from time to time to look about, but always ducked it back under his arm as if he thought that to shut out the sight was to eliminate the imaginary danger. I pitied him, but felt a greater affection for the old fellow than ever before, to think he preferred to undergo this torture, rather than to remain behind when I had gone. It was a wonderful compliment, and so I shall always think. But I hoped his fears would soon depart, for I was sorry to see him distressed.
When I turned from the last view of our friends, to smile at the goddess, I noticed for the first time that she was minus the anaconda.
"Why—we've forgotten your darling, beastly old snake," said I. "If it makes a lot of difference, why—of course—"
"I left it purposely," she interrupted, rosy red.
"The deuce!" I exclaimed. "I thought the critter was your pet—the one thing on earth—"
"My pet! Oh, the horrible, crawling thing!" She shuddered at the memory, to my great, but secret delight. "I hated the nasty thing—I loathed it!" she expostulated fervently. "I hope I'll never see another snake again!"
This was a huge surprise. "Gee whizz!" said I.
"Gee wizz!" echoed Fatty, and he ducked his head back with a snap.
"But—er—why, then," I resumed, "why did you lug it around?"
"I took it as my only protection," she replied with dignity. "I had to be protected from the outrageous brutes!"
"That's so," I admitted, abashed. "I might have thought of that. Of course—just as plain as day . . . You're right—I'm a donkey . . . Yes . . . But—but why have you thrown him away, now?"
"Because," she murmured, looking at me timidly, while she blushed again, "because I don't need him—any more."
"Well—bless my soul!" said I, and that was all.
Sending the boat along steadily, for the sun had set and darkness would soon be coming, I thought of many things. My gaze rested on Fatty, who was now beginning to look about him a trifle more boldly. What should I do with the old fellow, provided we all got safely out of the country and once more mingled with men? How astonished he would be at the sights of steamers, railroad trains, cities, and the hurrying crowds of people! I could fancy his comical face, as he looked in my eyes, like a bewildered dog. Would it ever be possible to put him in clothes and have him about me? I knew he could learn many useful things, and even much of my speech, but whether a Missing Link could really be kept, as a servant, or friend, was a question requiring no little amount of thought. Of one thing I was certain, I would never under any circumstances permit him to become a freak, nor even an object of people's idle curiosity. Poor old, faithful Fatty.
By the time we arrived at Outlet river I felt that the darkness was sufficient to make it possible and safe for me to run the gauntlet past the camp of the Blacks. Cautiously I rowed the boat, bidding the goddess say nothing till we should be past the clearing.
I could see that she had become pale and frightened, as we neared the place in which for long she had been a prisoner, but also there was ample evidence of her courage. Without a sound, we glided by the bank where twice I had beached the boat, and my heart beat with excitement as I thought of the gold, lying so short a carry away. "Get it—take it!" prompted a thought in my brain, "it will only take a moment and then you will be rich!" But I conquered; I crushed out the tempting voice and rowed slowly on.
Proceeding across the river, to the side opposite the clearing of our foe, I watched for the camp, eagerly. We came sooner than I had expected to a point from which we could see the place. I looked, but was struck dumb with surprise. Not a fire did I see. I rested on the oars and listened; there was not a sound of the chattering Blacks. Daring to approach a trifle nearer, so great is human curiosity, I was still unable to discover a single sign of inhabitants on the flat where I had formerly seen them by the hundred.
"I'm a fish," said I, "if they haven't deserted the camp!"
They had gone, for a fact. There was not a Link of them left. They had fled, for what reason I could not even conjecture; and where they were was a question which I did not care to propound. It seemed to me that this lifted a great burden of worry from my shoulders. But as soon as I had made myself sure of the truth, my thoughts went flashing back to the bag of gold. If the Links were gone, I should run no risk in recovering the treasure. So potent did this idea become, that I immediately turned the boat back up the steam and began to row with vigour.
The goddess asked me at once where I was going. When I told her she seemed deeply to regret my resolution, but she sat there, grimly, and made no comment. Brave girl, I knew she was terribly agitated, but a girl could not be expected to do or to know any better. I admired her pluck in restraining her natural impulse to protest and coax and make a fuss.
In the briefest time, the prow was grating on the bank. Fatty leaped out, wild with delight to find himself again on solid earth.
"We'll only be gone a minute," I told the goddess, and led the way up through the brush and the darkness.
To tell the truth I was more than half afraid that something might happen, myself. Jungle noises had commenced and the place seemed to breathe of my flight, struggles and pains of the time before. Stumbling about, as silently as possible, I began to search for the treasure.
I had pictured myself walking straight to where the gold was lying, but I now began to realise that to re-discover the particular thicket where I had dropped it would be a matter involving considerable luck. A fruitless time elapsed while I plunged about. Fatty was of no assistance, for he knew nothing of what I was seeking.
Presently the same old grumble and roar, from the mighty cauldron, commenced to roll outward on the air. I knew at once I was off the track, at least twenty yards. Changing my base rapidly, I began the search anew. But it seemed utterly hopeless. A doubt came over me; was the bag still there? Might not the Blacks have found it and carried it away? It seemed as if this must be so. I was worried about the goddess; if anything should happen to her, how terrible it would be!
On the point of giving up the gold, and persuading myself that I did not care anyway, I turned to leave, and stumbled heavily over some obstacle and into a tangle of creepers.
"Here it is, all the time!" I grumbled.
My excitement rose to fever pitch in a second. The bag, exactly as I had dropped it down, was under my very hand. Lifting it out of the embracing tendrils, I got it boosted up on my shoulder in a hurry. Then back we plunged, through the growth.
If I live to be a thousand, I shall never see a face so expressive of dread and fright as was that of the poor, trembling girl in the boat, when at last we came to where she was waiting. I believe that hers had been a more cruel ordeal to endure than had been my own on the former occasion. I had not even thought to whistle a bit, by way of assurance that all was well. She had to cry, dear little woman, when the strain was over and the boat once more headed down the stream.
I spurned the gold with my foot, as it lay in the boat, and hated myself for a miserly, greedy fool, yet in spite of myself I felt a tremendous elation inside, to think of having all this wealth, after all. It seemed too good for me to contain myself over. I wanted to roar out in laughter, to sing, and to shout a mad defiance to all the Blacks in kingdom.
Fatty had entered the boat again, with more alacrity than before, desiring any fate with us rather than to be left alone in an unknown jungle after dark. He made himself small in the bottom of the boat, and we glided past the deserted camp of our defeated foe.
CHAPTER XLIII. SURROUNDED BY THE BLACKS
IT WAS A strange sensation to skim along that river through the dark, irregular walls of trees, for the sounds of the jungle came to us clearly and these were all we could hear. At times we could see but a short distance ahead; at many a bend it appeared as if the great silent water-way ended abruptly. Then again it would open out and curve away, lighted only by its own reflections of the stars.
So much did this outlet wind that I lost all account of directions, but I knew we were traversing miles to accomplish but little direct advance. Our talking amounted to nothing. My mood was not for conversation, while I am sure the goddess dreaded to speak a word. From time to time some water creature splashed its way among the grasses next the bank. No matter how often this sound was repeated, it made me start and breathe heavily till we were past the place.
The hours sped by, bringing no material change that could be noted. The night was exceedingly dark, owing in part to the density of the forest so near on either side. Pausing at length in my rowing, I observed that we drifted more rapidly than I had thought the current to be moving. Having become a trifle soft, while on my back, I found that my arms had grown tired already from the work. Fatty had succumbed to his habit of sleeping, acquired by going to bed at dark. His fears, however, had kept him awake much later than usual. He was curled down in the hold, where he twitched his feet and made little noises, like a dog that dreams.
I whispered to the goddess that she had better try to follow Fatty's example, but I was quite unable to ascertain whether she slept or not, so still had she been for an hour. Deeming it wise to conserve my strength for the daylight rowing, I now permitted the boat to float down the river at its own speed, merely keeping her out toward the centre of the stream by steering with one or the other of the oars. She swung about, broadside on, but as this enabled me to watch ahead easily, I made no effort to keep her pointed directly down the current.
Drifting thus, I kept the lonely vigil, hour after hour. I think I have never felt more depressed than I finally became in that heart of the wilderness. Not that anything threatened, nor that the sounds about me were more than usually weird, but simply because there seemed to be no end in promise; there appeared to be no progress toward anything different from that interminable jungle, in which the river seemed merely to wind without purpose. I felt as if the stream were like a figure 8, on which we could float forever and never get out of the maze. I knew better than this, but everything contributed to make me hopeless. Sleepy and weary, dully aching in the muscles and bones made weak by the fever, I almost thought the whole business a failure and the life, for which I had fought so persistently, a mockery unworthy of the effort.
On and on, winding and curving, drifted the boat with its extraordinary cargo. Now and again I stirred the embers of fire, which were dully glowing in my furnace-like receptacle of clay. In this place these burning sticks appeared like the eyes of some crouching animal. I gave up all idea of ever seeing dawn. Nodding, jerking myself awake, bathing my heavy lids with water, steering my crooked course on this stream of mystery, I passed the time without a single relieving incident to break the deadening monotony of sound, motion and thought.
Even when the first yellow streaks of morning did make slits in the clouds above the horizon of trees, it seemed as if the process of day-breaking ceased and that the actuator had forgotten the method. About this time, a rain commenced to fall, light, but wet and not desired. Fatty and the goddess awoke. I stumbled over the faithful Link to arrange a protection for the fire, which might otherwise have been extinguished. Then in my eagerness to get back to the oars and head us off from the bank, toward which we were gliding, I forgot to cover the bombs.
Grateful for the diversion, as well as for the company of my two companions, I picked up my spirits rapidly, becoming actually cheerful. This humour seemed to accelerate the coming of morning amazingly. The river reflected the pale streaks of light, the trees began to emerge in detail from the walls of gloom, and the dismal sounds, of hooting and howling things, were abated. Before we knew it, day was upon us, our winding course became a ceaseless invitation to hasten on and round the next succeeding curve, and we were drifting with a doubled speed.
Though the rain continued to fall, it was not annoying. I ate a bit of fruit and manned the oars, soon having us going at an encouraging speed. When the sun peered over the edge of the world, I felt like a boy. I let out a shout and a roar to relieve the pressure of over exhilaration. The echoes chased through the jungle madly.
Glancing ahead I now discovered that the river narrowed down abruptly between rude stairways of rock. On either side were shelves of the adamant, not more than a foot above the tide; the whole gateway was barely more than six feet in width. As might have been expected the current was fairly being sucked through this chasm, which explained the extra speed of the current where we were.
Seeing nothing in or about the place which should make it difficult of navigation, I merely kept the boat headed for the centre of the pass and let her shoot along with the powerful sweep of waters. The place was not long, nor were the rocks high nor difficult of access from the banks below. I remember to have thought how easily a man could cross the river at this peculiar place by simply jumping.
The boat was tossed on the turbulent surface, as we darted through, but below was another broad, smooth expanse, and the ever-inevitable curve of the river. This latter we reached soon. I was then somewhat surprised to observe two things: First, that for several hundred feet the stream was nearly straight, and second that it narrowed again below us, between banks a yard in height on which the growth was dense and which were so close together that several slender creepers hung like the cables of a projected suspension bridge across the stream, from branch to branch. I thought the wind must have blown the first slight tendrils over and that later they had grown to their present size. I also noted that again the placid river became rapids, which tossed and foamed in their agitated plunge between these banks.
Absorbed in what I saw and watching my course narrowly, I gave no heed to anything else. Therefore I started with galvanic quickness at a sudden scream from the goddess. In answer, a chorus of yells, triumphant, and diabolical enough to curdle the blood in one's veins, went up instantly. Then the jungle below us appeared literally to swarm with terrible forms.
The black Links, dancing like maniacs, screaming and racing toward the rapids to intercept us, were surging from every possible space between the trees, on the left-hand side of the river. They dashed ahead, fully comprehending the situation and their own advantage. I thought I could beat them to the rapids, but they were there by the score before we could approach within a stone's throw of its top, a fierce and terrible array, armed with their clubs with which they could not have missed us by throwing.
To have attempted to run through the narrows would merely have been to court a sudden death. I backwatered quickly and held the boat from drifting. Fatty was whining; the goddess was white as paper. I thought of the rapids above us, against the current of which I could not have pulled the boat to save our souls. I looked about and noted the densely wooded banks, which made escape in that direction impossible, even if we could have landed on the side opposite the foe in the vain hope that they could not get across as easily as we.
We were trapped!
The wild brutes, insane to get the goddess again in their clutches, mad to tear Fatty in shreds, and crazy to beat me to a pulp, as their arch-nemesis, simply writhed in eager anticipation of bagging us all, in spite of all we could do.
It was maddening; it all but drove me out of my senses. I knew that to wait for night would mean that when they were goaded sufficiently by their own impatience, the monsters would reach us, even if they had to swim, in addition to which I should certainly not dare to run the rapids after dark. Escape was utterly impossible, turn where I might.
The greed for gold had done the trick! The time I had wasted to get it would have saved us. Had I not delayed, we should have passed this place before the light had become strong enough to reveal our presence.
The demons never ceased for a moment to yell. That they knew we were caught I could not doubt. Not only did the males all congregate to smash us to atoms if we should attempt to shoot the rapids, but the females also appeared like magic from the jungle and lined up along the bank, a cruel looking mob with fingers that itched to tear poor Fatty and me to strings of meat. I was alarmed, desperate, and enraged by turns. Keeping off the boat and attempting to see a way out, I suddenly thought of my bombs.
Immediately I conceived a plan by which I meant to scatter the fiends in utter dismay. Dropping the boat down toward them I stopped it just outside the range of their clubs and headed it back up the stream. Before it had ceased to go forward, under the impulse of a powerful stroke, I shipped the oars, grabbed up a bomb and darted over Fatty to the fire. Snatching up an ember, I applied it to the fuse, meaning to throw the deadly explosive into their midst and dart through the rapids in the instantaneous confusion which would follow.
But the rain had dampened the powder! The fuse would not ignite! The trick was worse than a failure!
With a curse on my lips, I sprang back to the oars and spun the boat about, barely in time to save it from shooting the narrows broadside on. A dozen clubs, whizzing and hurtling end over end, splashed the water about us, as I drove the boat back to a safe position. In despair I examined all the bombs, only to find them as useless and harmless as so many hunks of cork. All my elaborate work to provide myself with these weapons and with the fire to make them of use, had been wholly undone in a moment of thoughtless neglect. I might have protected these instruments of death, but I had failed at the critical moment.
The weight of this calamity nearly overcame me. It seemed as if the bombs had been our only hope, and that now we were certainly doomed. The raging Blacks yelled more horribly than ever; they were more assured of their prey. Nothing more ferocious can be imagined than this mass of fiends, many of them foaming at the mouth, all excitedly moving from place to place, and all showing fangs of teeth, as they watched us with the nervous, near-together eyes which I knew so well.
I was rendered so thoroughly unfit by the failure of my bombs, that I gave up trying to think of any other way of outwitting the monsters. The rain re-commenced. With a bitter sniff of scorn at myself for the action, I covered the bamboo explosives with a skin, to prevent them from getting any wetter. As if powder could be any wetter when it has become too damp to ignite!
"Oh what shall we do? what shall we do?" moaned the goddess.
I tried to answer cheerfully, but having no sensible reply was denied even this negative pleasure. I tried to think, in order to make some rejoinder.
"There is only one scheme and that is nearly hopeless," I told her at last. "If I can make them believe we are about to land on the opposite side, up above, perhaps they might abandon their present position and then we could make a dash for it and beat them past that narrow channel."
She made no comment, but in her eyes there was such an imploring light that I deemed no effort too great to make. Somewhat inspirited by the plan concocted on the spur of a moment, I strung my bow and laid an arrow near and immediately turning the prow up stream began to row away from the waiting Blacks, toward the furthest bank we could see.
At first they were undecided, or else they refused to believe we were leaving. But their wits were keen only within narrow limits. Taking the bait, in a moment, they seemed suddenly to remember the rock-passage, over which they doubtless knew they could jump. By the score they chased up the bank, swinging along in the trees with astonishing agility and gaining on us every moment.
I was purposely rowing slowly, but with great show of exertion. As far as I could determine, from that distance, every demon in the tribe came chasing up the river, to be in at the death. Dozens of them remained visible, marking the position of the main body as it moved up the bank, but the great majority were soon hidden in the tangle of verdure, through which they weaved like so many animated black shuttles, playing in and out through the warp of green.
Steering now for the bank which was just below the upper rapids, and appearing to row with all possible haste, I had the extreme satisfaction of seeing our mad pursuers swarming toward the rocks where the stream could be leaped at a bound. So eagerly did they push and crowd, when they came to the place, that some, who paused undecided at the brink, were shoved headlong into the angry current. But no sooner was I sure that the ruse had succeeded than I swung the boat, as if she had been on a pivot, and sent her shooting down the stream with might and main.
Shrieks of rage and dismay burst from a hundred throats as the baffled demons suddenly comprehended my game. With all their speed, and in a frenzy of fury, they came running and climbing and swinging back. But this time I had the double advantage of a shorter, straighter route and the force of all the current to sweep me along. I rowed like an engine; the race was a race for life or death. Every muscle was strained, every volt of the superhuman dynamic, developed by the peril of our position, surged upward to drive us onward, toward that narrow gate of safety.
We neared it; we were far ahead of the mob; I saw victory smiling in the sun-lit jungle beyond. Like a hideous black comet, then, athwart my line of vision, a Link suddenly swung across the river, on one of the creepers that spanned the space between the banks. He reached the branches on the opposite side. Instantly another one followed. I groaned, for evidently they had been left there to guard the pass. Another and yet another swung across. They quickly formed a "monkey-bridge" and hung suspended above the water like a sagging hammock—not from the creepers, which would have broken, but each from the arms of his neighbour. In less than half a minute their line was complete. We were still driving toward them.
"Oh, the horrible old woman!" cried the girl, in affright.
I realised then that more than half the creatures in the bridge were females; and out across them came swinging that she-devil who had caught me with the gold, and whose fingers I had severed, and whose ribs I had skinned—the harpy who had watched the goddess like a hawk.
She meant to lean down over the ones in the bridge and clutch the girl, as we shot beneath their bodies. Then others quickly joined her who intended to snatch for Fatty and myself. It was diabolically clever. If ever they reached us with those powerful arms, they could hold us against a team of pulling horses.
To turn now meant to abandon all hope; the Links who were tearing after us behind, once fooled could be hoaxed no more; and all would be more than ever infuriated and likely to swamp the boat. It looked like a swift and awful death.
In a heat of uncontainable rage myself, I stood up, as we swept toward the rapids, and grabbing my bow, strung an arrow in desperate haste and drew for a shot, which fury made vicious and fierce. I had become so angered that I seemed to care nothing for what could happen. The arrow sprang away like a streak of light. Just at that second the line of Links slipped down a foot. In the brief time before the shaft could arrive, my heart sank with dread—the slip of the target had ruined my shot.
But like the angered messenger of hate which it was, the arrow struck where it had not been aimed—in the forearm of a Link who supported the weight of all the line. It stabbed clean through, tearing the muscles savagely as it plowed. Down swung the whole living bridge of demons, with the shrieking "old woman" in the melee, for that supporting arm let go as if it had been slashed in twain.
Instantly the dropping fiends struck the stream where the current boiled like a mill-race. Splashing, battling, screaming in fright, the intertwisted monsters went swiftly down, every one trying to climb out on his neighbour, all of them fighting, rolling like rags of waste and gurgling as they attempted still to yell, with mouths full of water.
The boat by this time had been caught in the tow of the torrent. We swung down into the foam and tossing waves and drifted into the mass of brutes as they fought and drowned in the irresistible flood. Two of them flung an arm across our gunwale. Yelling as madly as themselves, we beat them off with the clubs, Fatty fighting like a fury. The hideous old female clutched in desperation and fastened her deadly grip on the wrist of the goddess. What a scream of malice and triumph she gave! I jumped across the seat and struck her arm a blow that smashed the bone and flesh to a quivering pulp on the edge of the boat. About her neck was flung the arm of a drowning beast at her side; and down they went together.
Yells upon yells now arose from the other Blacks, who had come to the narrows. We were slowly revolving in a whirlpool. The creatures could still have dashed to positions above us and sunk the boat with their clubs. I shot out the oars and drove the craft quickly ahead. A monster came boiling to the surface; I slashed him hard with my right-hand sweep and he sank like a rock. One, a rod away was swimming with the inborn skill and instinct of all wild animals, but the others had fought one another, fatally, in that vortex of swirling water, and only this one got back to the bank.
Through the seething foam to where the turbulent river grew calmer, we sped away, and at last these implacable demons were far behind.
CHAPTER XLIV. VALE, FAITHFUL FATTY
HAD THE Blacks known the country and human ways of cunning, they could still have cut across the neck of a loop in the river, and so have overtaken the boat, but this was beyond their sagacity. I feared they might have forestalled us thus, so that when we came along to where they should have been, in such an event, I was alert for trouble and hugged the further side of the stream. Of course we passed the place unmolested.
The sun was shining brightly now, as if in promise of fairer things to come. We had been too horrified to speak, but at last we breathed our relief, and shuddered as we reviewed the fearful hour which, thank God, was now of the past. Then we ate of our food, for all were faint from hunger, and I stirred up and fed the fire, and laid out the bombs to dry in the tropical heat. Also I moored the boat from the branch of an overhanging tree, by means of the rope I had taken along. I needed rest as much as food.
There in the shade we floated quietly for more than an hour, during which time I slept like a worn-out child, in a wretched position, but yet dreamlessly and without the slightest inconvenience. I awoke much refreshed. The goddess would have permitted me to slumber as long as I listed, nevertheless she was anxious to be going ahead, seeing which I cut us loose, and again we were hurrying down toward the sea.
It was a long and somewhat tedious day. We shot more rapids, a number of which threatened various dangers, and we rowed through a broad, shallow lagoon that was almost a lake and in which there were alligators galore. Of these the goddess had a natural horror, only exceeded by that of poor Fatty. However, the saurians were quite as alarmed as we, having never before seen the like of our floating terror, which the boat with extended oars seemed to represent, so that we cleared this place without delay and without a battle.
Along the banks of the river, which presented itself in multitudinous aspects, we beheld troops of monkeys and apes, vast flocks of parrots and other noisy birds, which made the trees seem to quiver with life. Tortoises were frequently started from a sun-bath, when they plunged into the stream with clumsy haste. There were toads in great variety and of snakes an ample representation. Of these latter reptiles some were swimming in the water, while others lay upon the banks and others again hung suspended from the trees, masquerading, it appeared to me, in imitation of creepers. The insects were exceedingly pestiferous, especially where the river became wide, sluggish and grown with rank grasses.
The changing panorama of jungle, hills, grassy clearings and rocky ravines, was one of unquestionable beauty, yet I felt no joy in observing it stretch and unfold so endlessly before us. I waxed impatient to be out of the maze. In spite of all I could do, I was conscious always of the ominous stillness about us, and of a sub-stratum of fear in myself, as I dwelt upon the thought of things which might occur. I have said before, and I repeat frankly, I am not a courageous man. The constant succession of events and the omnipresence of menace to life and limb had wrought sad havoc with my nerves. When I fought, it was nearly always because I felt so frightened and nervous that I had to do something desperate to relieve my feelings. At other times anger had made me reckless.
We had passed a number of tributary streams, so that the river was now of much greater volume. Thinking of this, I was deeply puzzled, at noon, to find that not only had the current ceased to assist me forward, but that on the contrary it seemed abruptly to have reversed. Attributing this "illusion" to my weakened condition of brain and muscles, worked harder than before to drive the boat along. There was no sense in blaming myself, however, for soon the up current became actually visible, as well as strong. Then I was suddenly made glad, and knew I had been once more a dunce.
The tide from the great sea itself was rising and driving everything up, against the flow of the river. This glorious news I imparted at once to the goddess. How she rejoiced! But even then, her feelings were most expressed by her lustrous eyes, for she found it difficult to speak of escape, and I think she dared not hope, for fear a jealous fate would hear her wish and proceed to shatter every possibility of deliverance from this wide-open prison.
It being a useless expenditure of energy to pull against this tide, I secured the boat to a vine-covered log, which protruded above the water, and let her swing as she would. We refreshed ourselves again with the fruits and a bit of the jerked meat. Already many of the mangoes and papaws were becoming soft, in the heat. Instructing the goddess to wake me the moment the tide should turn, I snatched another nap.
Before long we were slipping so swiftly downward on the ebb of the current that I was quite content to steer the boat and let it make its own pace. Thus we skimmed rapidly along until late in the day, the smell of the life-giving sea wafting to our nostrils, till it filled us with joy unspeakable. Building my plan as we rode on the bosom of the river, I decided to make the camp in the stream, or on the bank, within the mouth of the outlet, rather than to venture on the ocean with night descending. After a needed period of rest, we could explore the coast of the land for a village, in the morning.
The sky had become a trifle clouded before we resumed the drifting, after my slumber; this condition now increased. Having been taught my lesson before, I did not intend to be caught again. I spoke to the goddess, asking her to steer us a bit, but the poor girl had fallen asleep from exhaustion. Letting the craft take her course, I stretched a protection over the fire and then turned about and performed a similar service for the bombs, which had been dried thoroughly.
While I was fairly in the midst of this important business, Fatty gave a sudden cry of alarm. The next instant the boat struck upon the end of a spit of land which projected out into the stream. I was thrown on my knees; the craft swung with her bow as a pivot on the sand.
Getting erect with the thought that no harm was done and that to push off was only the work of a second, I was amazed to see a troop of creatures darting toward us—my old enemies the hideous ourang-outangs!
The goddess was jolted awake; she gasped in terror. Reaching for an oar to push us off I found it caught in the skin that wrapped the bombs. I jerked and wrenched; the delay was fatal. The monsters descended the bank like an avalanche. Hampered as I was with the oar, I became the easiest victim. Before I could drop the sweep to make a fight, the brutes leaped across the beach which was between themselves and the boat. Myself, the girl and Fatty were all but surrounded,—hideous murder loomed before us in a second.
Then Fatty, the faithful, the frightened, the loving, hurled himself upon the brutes, defending me from instant capture and death; and the fierce creatures gathered him to them. They tore him, bit him, fell upon him and mangled his body in a manner frightful to see. He was done to death most horribly in less than half a minute.
The boat, relieved of his weight and shoved by the backward push of his foot, as he leaped, swung off in the stream and began to drift away. I sprang to where my bombs were lying, mad for vengeance, and tore one out of the skin. Then scrambling to the fire, I snatched up a flesh-searing coal and touched the fuse. It sputtered in swift anger. I threw the deadly thing with all my force. While yet in the air, only mid-way between those monsters and ourselves, the bomb exploded with terrific violence. I saw a gigantic star of fire; I felt as if the world had burst against my head. Then I fell forward in the boat and was utterly blotted out.
CHAPTER XLV. NO LONGER A KING
THE FORCE of the bomb must have been tremendous. I believe it was hours before I regained consciousness. When at last I did revive, I was dizzy and deafened, the world about me was black, a storm was raging in the heavens and the boat was heaving with a great commotion. Everything was puzzling. Finally I remembered something of what had happened and knew where I was.
"Dearest," I said, giving the goddess the name which I had only dared to call her to myself, "dearest—are you there?" and I crawled toward the stern.
"Here—John," said a faint, sweet voice, and then I found her hand and knew that she too had been long unconscious, after that moment of terrible things.
We were on the sea! Of that I was soon made sure. The wind was driving us—the Lord only knew where; the waves were tossing the boat about as if she had been but a thimble afloat; and the spray flung across us and drenched us both repeatedly. This had doubtless fetched us around, the goddess first, for she had been less injured than I by the explosion, having been seated, while I was standing, at the fateful moment. The tide had carried us straight out to the ocean, as we lay helpless in the craft.
We crouched in the bottom of the boat and clung to the seat for an age. The rain came driving down; the force of the gale appeared to increase, and we scudded away into the black abyss which had for its limits the ends of mighty ocean.
We were out of our prison, adrift on the boundless main. When morning came, we raised our heads and searched that wilderness of water—in vain. No island—no ship—nothing was there in sight, save tumbling mountains of water. We were lost in that trackless jungle of billows.
Of the day and the night of physical and mental anguish that followed, I have no desire to think. Two souls made one by sufferings long endured, we sought and found our only consolation in the words of hope and affection, which each could give to each.
What water remained, or had been collected from the downpour, in the shell of the tortoise, got slopped out soon in the boat. It mingled with the salt water, shipped from time to time, and swashing about, ruined the meat and fruits, put out the fire and soaked the skins. Then the sun and the scorching air played their tricks at parching and burning us up. How useless and vain seemed the sack of gold, lying there in the wash!
I cut and broke the pole I had taken along, and lashing the shorter piece across the boat, to the oar-lock pins, made the other stand upright, with a bit of skin flapping idly, for a signal of distress.
Toward the evening of the second day we sighted a steamer. As we were low to the water and they were high, this boat was comparatively near before we saw her loom above the horizon. She made us out, at last, and we breathed our thanks, to see her put about and bear down toward the good old boat which had served so nobly.
Then it was that a surge of feeling welled up within me, thoughts of my long exile, the friendly Links—who had saved my life,—and of poor old Fatty, who had sacrificed himself like a hero at the end—poor old Fatty, my loving and beloved friend.
"What is it, John?" said the goddess tenderly.
"Oh nothing," I faltered, swallowing hard at the lump in my throttle, "I—I was just thinking that now—that now I'm no longer King of the Missing Links;—I'm just an ordinary man."

THE END

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.