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Under the Andes By Rex Stout Characters: 15658

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06

You may remember that I made some remark concerning the difficulty of the ascent of Pike's Peak. Well, that is mere child's play-a morning constitutional compared to the paths we found ourselves compelled to follow in the great Cordillera.

Nor was it permitted us to become gradually accustomed to the danger; we had not been two hours out of Cerro de Pasco before we found ourselves creeping along a ledge so narrow there was scarcely room for the mules to place their hoofs together, over a precipice three thousand feet in the air-straight. And, added to this was the discomfort, amounting at times to positive pain, caused by the soroche.

Hardly ever did we find ground sufficiently broad for a breathing space, save when our arriero led us, almost by magic it seemed, to a camping place for the night. We would ascend the side of a narrow valley; on one hand roared a torrent some hundreds of feet below; on the other rose an uncompromising wall of rock. So narrow would be the track that as I sat astride my mule my outside leg would be hanging over the abyss.

But the grandeur, the novelty, and the variety of the scenery repaid us; and Le Mire loved the danger for its own sake. Time and again she swayed far out of her saddle until her body was literally suspended in the air above some frightful chasm, while she turned her head to laugh gaily at Harry and myself, who brought up the rear.

"But Desiree! If the girth should break!"

"Oh, but it won't."

"But if it should?"

"Tra-la-la! Come, catch me!"

And she would try to urge her mule into a trot-a futile effort, since the beast had a much higher regard for his skin than she had for hers; and the mule of the arriero was but a few feet ahead.

Thus we continued day after day, I can't say how many. There was a fascination about the thing that was irresistible. However high the peak we had ascended, another could be seen still higher, and that, too, must be scaled.

The infinite variety of the trail, its surprises, its new dangers, its apparent vanishings into thin air, only to be found, after an all but impossible curve, up the side of another cliff, coaxed us on and on; and when or where we would have been able to say, "thus far and no farther" is an undecided problem to this day.

About three o'clock one afternoon we camped in a small clearing at the end of a narrow valley. Our arriero, halting us at that early hour, had explained that there was no other camping ground within six hours' march, and no hacienda or pueblo within fifty miles. We received his explanation with the indifference of those to whom one day is like every other day, and amused ourselves by inspecting our surroundings while he prepared the evening meal and arranged the camp beds.

Back of us lay the trail by which we had approached-a narrow, sinuous ribbon clinging to the side of the huge cliffs like a snake fastened to a rock. On the left side, immediately above us, was a precipice some thousand feet in height; on the right a series of massive boulders, of quartzite and granite, misshapen and lowering.

There were three, I remember, placed side by side like three giant brothers; then two or three smaller ones in a row, and beyond these many others ranged in a mass unevenly, sometimes so close together that they appeared to be jostling one another out of the way.

For several days we had been in the region of perpetual snow; and soon we gathered about the fire which the arriero had kindled for our camp. Its warmth was grateful, despite our native woolen garments and heavy ponchos.

The wind whistled ominously; a weird, senseless sound that smote the ear with madness. The white of the snow and the dull gray of the rocks were totally unrelieved by any touch of green or play of water; a spot lonely as the human soul and terrifying as death.

Harry had gone to examine the hoofs of his mule, which had limped slightly during the afternoon; Le Mire and I sat side by side near the fire, gazing at the play of the flames. For some minutes we had been silent.

"In Paris, perhaps-" she began suddenly, then stopped short and became again silent.

But I was fast dropping into melancholy and wanted to hear her voice, and I said:

"Well? In Paris-"

She looked at me, her eyes curiously somber, but did not speak. I insisted:

"You were saying, Desiree, in Paris-"

She made a quick movement and laughed unpleasantly.

"Yes, my friend-but it is useless. I was thinking of you. 'Ah! A card! Mr. Paul Lamar. Show him in, Julie. But no, let him wait-I am not at home.' That, my friend, would be in Paris."

I stared at her.

"For Heaven's sake, Desiree, what nonsense is this?"

She disregarded my question as she continued:

"Yes, that is how it would be. Why do I talk thus? The mountains hypnotize me. The snow, the solitude-for I am alone. Your brother, what is he? And you, Paul, are scarcely aware of my existence.

"I had my opportunity with you, and I laughed it away. And as for the future-look! Do you see that waste of snow and ice, glittering, cold, pitiless? Ha! Well, that is my grave."

I tried to believe that she was merely amusing herself, but the glow in her eyes did not proceed from mirth. I followed her fixed gaze across the trackless waste and, shivering, demanded:

"What morbid fancy is this, Desiree? Come, it is scarcely pleasant."

She rose and crossed the yard or so of ground between us to my side. I felt her eyes above me, and try as I would I could not look up to meet them. Then she spoke, in a voice low but curiously distinct:

"Paul, I love you."

"My dear Desiree!"

"I love you."

At once I was myself, calm and smiling. I was convinced that she was acting, and I dislike to spoil a good scene. So I merely said:

"I am flattered, senora."

She sighed, placing her hand on my shoulder.

"You laugh at me. You are wrong. Have I chosen this place for a flirtation? Before, I could not speak; now you must know. There have been many men in my life, Paul; some fools, some not so, but none like you. I have never said, 'I love you.' I say it now. Once you held my hand-you have never kissed me."

I rose to my feet, smiling, profoundly fatuous, and made as if to put my arm around her.

"A kiss? Is that all, Desiree? Well-"

But I had mistaken her tone and overreached. Not a muscle did she move, but I felt myself repulsed as by a barrier of steel. She remained standing perfectly still, searching me with a gaze that left me naked of levity and cynicism and the veneer of life; and finally she murmured in a voice sweet with pain:

"Must you kill me with words, Paul? I did not mean that-now. It is too late."

Then she turned swiftly and called to Harry, who came running over to her only to meet with some trivial request, and a minute later the arriero announced dinner.

I suppose that the incident had passed with her, as it had with me; little did I know how deeply I had wounded her. And when I discovered my mistake, some time later and under very different circumstances, it very nearly cost me my life, and Harry's into the bargain.

During the meal Le Mire was in the jolliest of moods apparently. She retold the tale of Balzac's heroine who crossed the Andes in the guise of a Spanish officer, performing wondrous exploits with her sword and creating havoc among the hearts of the fair ladies who took the dashing captain's sex for granted from his clothing.

The story was a source of intense amusement to Harry, who insisted on the recital of detail after detail, until Desiree allowed her memory to take a vacation and substitute pure imagination. Nor was the improvisation much inferior to the original.

It was still light when we finished dinner, a good three hours till bedtime. And since there was nothin

g better to do, I called to the arriero and asked him to conduct us on a tour of exploration among the mass of boulders, gray and stern, that loomed up on our right.

He nodded his head in his usual indifferent manner, and fifteen minutes later we started, on foot. The arriero led the way, with Harry at his heels, and Desiree and I brought up the rear.

Thrice I tried to enter into conversation with her; but each time she shook her head without turning round, and I gave it up. I was frankly puzzled by her words and conduct of an hour before; was it merely one of the trickeries of Le Mire or-

I was interested in the question as one is always interested in a riddle; but I tossed it from my mind, promising myself a solution on the morrow, and gave my attention to the vagaries of nature about me.

We were passing through a cleft between two massive rocks, some three or four hundred yards in length. Ahead of us, at the end of the passage, a like boulder fronted us.

Our footfalls echoed and reechoed from wall to wall; the only other sound was the eery moaning of the wind that reached our ears with a faintness which only served to increase its effect. Here and there were apertures large enough to admit the entrance of a horse and rider, and in many places the sides were crumbling.

I was reflecting, I remember, that the formation was undoubtedly one of limestone, with here and there a layer of quartzite, when I was aroused by a shout from Harry.

I approached. Harry and Desiree, with Felipe, the arriero, had halted and were gazing upward at the wall of rock which barred the exit from the passage. Following their eyes, I saw lines carved on the rock, evidently a rude and clumsy attempt to reproduce the form of some animal.

The thing was some forty feet or so above us and difficult to see clearly.

"I say it's a llama," Harry was saying as I stopped at his side.

"My dear boy," returned Desiree, "don't you think I know a horse when I see one?"

"When you see one, of course," said Harry sarcastically. "But who ever saw a horse with a neck like that?"

As for me, I was really interested, and I turned to the arriero for information.

"Si, senor," said Felipe, "Un caballo."

"But who carved it?"

Felipe shrugged his shoulders.

"Is it new-Spanish?"

Another shrug. I became impatient.

"Have you no tongue?" I demanded. "Speak! If you don't know the author of that piece of equine art say so."

"I know, senor."

"You know?"

"Si, senor."

"Then, for Heaven's sake, tell us."

"His story?" pointing to the figure on the rock.

"Yes, idiot!"

Without a sign of interest, Felipe turned twice around, found a comfortable rock, sat down, rolled a cigarette, lighted it, and began. He spoke in Spanish dialect; I shall preserve the style as far as translation will permit.

"Many, many years ago, senor, Atahualpa, the Inca, son of Huayna-Capac, was imprisoned at Cajamarco. Four, five hundred years ago, it was. By the great Pizarro. And there was gold at Cuzco, to the south, and Atahualpa, for his ransom, ordered that this gold be brought to Pizarro.

"Messengers carried the order like the wind, so swift that in five days the priests of the sun carried their gold from the temples to save the life of Atahualpa."

Felipe paused, puffing at his cigarette, glanced at his audience, and continued:

"But Hernando Pizarro, brother of the great Pizarro, suspected a delay in the carriers of gold. From Pachacamac he came with twenty horsemen, sowing terror in the mountains, carrying eighty loads of gold. Across the Juaja River and past Lake Chinchaycocha they came, till they arrived at the city of Huanuco.

"There were temples and gold and priests and soldiers. But when the soldiers of the Inca saw the horses of the Spaniards and heard the guns, they became frightened and ran away like little children, carrying their gold. Never before had they seen white men, or guns, or horses.

"With them came many priests and women, to the snow of the mountains. And after many days of suffering they came to a cave, wherein they disappeared and no more were seen, nor could Hernando Pizarro and his twenty horsemen find them to procure their gold.

"And before they entered the cave they scaled a rock near its entrance and carved thereon the likeness of a horse to warn their Inca brethren of the Spaniards who had driven them from Huanuco. That is his story, senor."

"But who told you all this, Felipe?"

The arriero shrugged his shoulders and glanced about, as much as to say, "It is in the wind."

"But the cave?" cried Desiree. "Where is the cave?"

"It is there, senora," said Felipe, pointing through a passage to the right.

Then nothing would do for Desiree but to see the cave. The arriero informed her that it was difficult of access, but she turned the objection aside with contempt and commanded him to lead.

Harry, of course, was with her, and I followed somewhat unwillingly; for, though Felipe's history was fairly accurate, I was inclined to regard his fable of the disappearing Incas as a wild tradition of the mountains.

He had spoken aright-the path to the cave was not an easy one. Here and there deep ravines caused us to make a wide detour or risk our necks on perilous steeps.

Finally we came to a small clearing, which resembled nothing so much as the bottom of a giant well, and in the center of one of the steep walls was an opening some thirty or forty feet square, black and rugged, and somehow terrifying.

It was the entrance to the cave.

There Felipe halted.

"Here, senor. Here entered the Incas of Huanuco with their gold."

He shivered as he spoke, and I fancied that his face grew pale.

"We shall explore it!" cried Desiree, advancing.

"But no, senora!" The arriero was positively trembling. "No! Senor, do not let her go within! Many times have my countrymen entered in search of the gold, and americanos, too, and never did they return. It is a cave of the devil, senor. He hides in the blackness and none who enter may escape him."

Desiree was laughing gaily.

"Then I shall visit the devil!" she exclaimed, and before either Harry or I could reach her she had sprung across the intervening space to the entrance and disappeared within.

With shouts of consternation from Felipe ringing in our ears, we leaped after her.

"Desiree!" cried Harry. "Come back, Desiree!"

There was no answer, but echoing back from the night before us came faint reverberations-could they be footsteps! What folly! For I had thought that she had merely intended to frighten poor Felipe, and now-

"Desiree!" Harry called again with all the strength of his lungs. "Desiree!"

Again there was no answer. Then we entered the cave together. I remember that as we passed within I turned and saw Felipe staring with white face and eyes filled with terror.

A hundred feet and we were encompassed by the most intense darkness. I muttered: "This is folly; let us get a light," and tried to hold Harry back. But he pushed me aside and groped on, crying: "Desiree! Come back, Desiree!"

What could I do? I followed.

Suddenly a scream resounded through the cavern. Multiplied and echoed by the black walls, it was inhuman, shot with terror, profoundly horrible.

A tremor ran through me from head to foot; beside me I heard Harry gasp with a nameless fear. An instant later we dashed forward into the darkness.

How long we ran I could never tell; probably a few seconds, possibly as many minutes.

On we rushed, blindly, impelled not by reason, but by the memory of that terrible cry, side by side, gasping, fearful. And then-

A step into thin air-a mighty effort to recover a footing-a wild instant of despair and pawing helpless agony. Then blackness and oblivion.

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