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   Chapter 16 THE ESCAPE.

Under the Andes By Rex Stout Characters: 21895

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06

The ledge on which we rested was about forty feet square. Back of us was a confused mass of boulders and chasms, across which I had come when I first encircled the cavern and found Harry.

In front was the crevice, guarded by the two massive boulders. On the right the ledge met the solid wall of the cavern, and on the left was the lake itself, whose waters rippled gently at our very feet.

At sound of Harry's warning cry I ran to the water's edge and peered round the side of the boulder. He was right; but what I saw was not very alarming.

Two rafts had been launched from the enemy's camp. Each raft held three Incas-more would have sunk them. Two were paddling, while the third balanced himself in the center, brandishing a spear aloft.

Turning to Desiree, I called to her to move behind a projecting bit of rock. Then, leaving Harry to guard the crevice in case of a double attack, I took three of our four spears-one of which had made the wound in my leg-and stood at the water's edge awaiting the approach of the rafts.

They came slowly, and their appearance was certainly anything but terrifying.

"Not much of a navy," I called to Harry; and he answered, with a laugh: "Lucky for us! Look at our coast defense!"

One of the rafts was considerably ahead of the other, and in another minute it had approached within fifty feet of the ledge. The Inca in the center stood with legs spread apart and his spear poised above his head; I made no movement, thinking that on such precarious footing he would have difficulty to hurl the thing at all. Wherein I underrated his skill, and it nearly cost me dear.

Suddenly, with hardly a movement of his body, his arm snapped forward. I ducked to one side instinctively and heard the spear whistle past my ear with the speed of a bullet, so close that the butt of the shaft struck the side of my head a glancing blow and toppled me over.

I sprang quickly to my feet, and barely in time, for I saw the Inca stoop over, pick up another spear from the raft, and draw it back above his head. At the same moment the second raft drew up alongside, and as I fell to the ground flat on my face I heard the two spears whistle shrewdly over me.

At that game they were my masters; it would have been folly to have tried conclusions with them with their own weapons. As the spears clattered on the ground thirty feet away I sprang to my feet and ran to the farther side of the ledge, where I had before noticed some loose stones in a corner.

With two or three of these in my hands I ran back to the water's edge, meeting two more of the spears that came twisting at me through the air, one of which tore the skin from my left shoulder.

A quick glance at the crevice as I passed showed me Harry fighting at its entrance; they were at us there, too. I heard Desiree shout something at me, but didn't catch the words.

My first stone found its goal. The two rafts, side by side not forty feet away, were a fair mark. The stone was nearly the size of a man's head and very heavy; I had all I could do to get the distance.

It struck the raft on the right fairly; the thing turned turtle in a flash, precipitating its occupants onto the other raft. The added weight carried that, too, under the surface, and the six Incas were floundering about in the water.

I expected to see them turn and swim for the landing opposite; but, instead, they headed directly toward me!

The light from the urns was but faint, and it was not easy to distinguish their black heads against the black water; still, I could see their approach. Two of them held spears in their hands; I saw the copper heads flash on high.

I stood at the edge of the lake, wondering at their folly as I waited; they were now scarcely ten feet away. Another few strokes and the foremost stretched out his hand to grasp the slippery ledge; my spear came down crushingly on his head and he fell back into the water.

By that time another had crawled half onto the ledge, and another; a blow and a quick thrust, and they, too, slipped back beneath the surface, pawing in agony, not to rise again.

Just in time I saw that one of the remaining three had lifted himself in the water not five feet away, with his spear aimed at my breast. But the poor devil had no purchase for his feet and the thing went wide.

The next instant he had received a ten-pound stone full in the face and went down with a gurgle. At that the remaining two, seeming to acquire a glimmering of intelligence, turned and swam hastily away. I let them go.

Turning to Harry, I saw that the crevice also was clear. He had left his post and started toward me, but I waved him back.

"All right here, Hal: have they given it up?"

There was an expression of the most profound disgust on his face.

"Paul, it's rank butchery. I'm wading in blood. Will this thing never stop?"

I looked at him and said merely: "Yes."

No need to ask when; he understood me; he sent me the glance of a man who has become too familiar with death to fear it, and answered:

"Another hour of this, and-I'm ready."

I told him to keep an eye on both points of attack and went across to where Desiree sat crouched on the ground. I hadn't many words.

"How is your foot?"

"Oh, it is better; well. But your leg-"

"Never mind that. Could you sleep?"

"Bon Dieu-no!"

"We have only raw fish. Can you eat?"

"I'll try," she answered, with a grimace.

I went to the edge of the ledge where we had the fish stowed away near the water and took some of it both to her and Harry. We ate, but with little relish. The stuff did not seem very fresh.

I remained on guard at the mouth of the crevice while Harry went to the lake for a drink, having first helped Desiree to the water and back to her seat. Her foot gave her a great deal of pain, but instead of a sprain it appeared that there had been merely a straining of the ligaments. After bathing it in the cold water she was considerably relieved.

I remained on watch at the mouth of the crevice, from where I could also obtain a pretty fair view of the lake, and commanded Harry to rest. He demurred, but I insisted. Within two minutes he was sleeping like a log, completely exhausted.

Several hundred of the Incas remained huddled together on the ledge without, but they made no effort to attack us. I had been watching perhaps three hours when they began to melt away into the passage. Soon but a scant dozen or so remained. These squatted along the wall just under the lighted urns, evidently in the capacity of sentinels.

Soon I became drowsy-intolerably so; I was scarcely able to stand. I dozed off once or twice on my feet; and, realizing the danger, I called Harry to take my place.

Desiree also had been asleep, lying on the raft which Harry and I had concealed along with our fish. At sound of my voice she awoke and sat up, rubbing her eyes; then, as I assured her that all was quiet, she fell back again on her rude bed.

I have never understood the delay of the Incas at this juncture; possibly they took time to consult the great Pachacamac and found his advice difficult to understand. At the time I thought they had given up the attack and intended to starve us out, but they were incapable of a decision so sensible.

Many hours had passed, and we had alternated on four watches. We had plenty of rest and were really quite fit. The gash on my leg had proven a mere trifle; I was a little stiff, but there was no pain.

Desiree's foot was almost entirely well; she was able to walk with ease, and had insisted on taking a turn at watch, making such a point of it that we had humored her.

Something had to happen, and I suppose it was as well that the Incas should start it. For we had met with a misfortune that made us see the beginning of the end. Our fish was no longer fit to eat, and we had been forced to throw the remainder of it in the lake.

Then we held a council of war. The words we uttered, standing together at the mouth of the crevice, come to me now as in a dream; if my memory of them were not so vivid I should doubt their reality. We discussed death with a calmness that spoke eloquently of our experience.

Desiree's position may be given in a word-she was ready for the end, and invited it.

I was but little behind her, but advised waiting for one more watch-a sop to Harry. And there was one other circumstance that moved me to delay-the hope for a sight of the Inca king and a chance at him.

Desiree had refused to tell us her experiences between the time of our dive from the column and our rescue of her; but she had said enough to cause me to guess at its nature. There was a suppressed but ever present horror in her eyes that made me long to stand once more before the Child of the Sun; then to go, but not alone.

Harry advised retreat. I have mentioned that when he and I had started on our search for Desiree we had found two exits from the cavern-the one which we had taken and another which led through the maze of boulders and chasms back of us to a passage full of twists and turns and choked with massive rocks, almost impassable.

Through this he advised making our way to whatever might await us beyond.

The question was still undecided when our argument was brought to a halt and the decision was taken away from us. Through the crevice I saw a band of Incas emerge from the passage opposite and advance to the water's edge. At their head was the Inca king.

Soon the landing was completely covered with them-probably three hundred or more-and others could be seen in the mouth of the passage. Each one carried a spear; their heads of copper, upraised in a veritable forest, shone dully in the light of the urns on the wall above.

Harry and Desiree stood close behind me, looking through at the fantastic sight. I turned to him:

"This time they mean business."

He nodded.

"But what can they do? Except get knocked on the head, and I'm sick of it. If we had only left an hour ago!"

"For my part," I retorted, "I'm glad we didn't. Desiree, I'm going to put you in my debt, if fortune will only show me one last kindness and let me get within reach of him."

I pointed to where the Inca king stood in the forefront, at the very edge of the lake.

She shuddered and grew pale.

"He is a monster," she said in a voice so low that I scarcely heard, "and-I thank you, Paul."

Harry seemed not to have heard.

"But what can they do?" he repeated.

They did not leave us long in doubt. As he spoke there was a sudden sharp movement in the ranks of the Incas. Those in front leaped in the water, and others after them, until, almost before we had time to realize their purpose, hundreds of the hairy brutes were swimming with long, powerful strokes directly toward the ledge on which we stood. Between his teeth each man carried his spear.

I left Harry to guard the crevice,

and ran to repel the attack at the water. Desiree stood just behind me. I called to her to go back, but she did not move. I grasped her by the arm and led her forcibly to a break in the rock at our rear, and pointed out a narrow ascending lane in the direction of the other exit.

When I returned to the ledge of the water the foremost of the Incas were but a few feet away. But I looked in vain for the one face I wanted to see and could recognize; the king was not among them. A hasty glance across the landing opposite discovered him standing motionless with folded arms.

The entire surface of the lake before me was one mass of heads and arms and spears as far as I could see. There were hundreds of them. I saw at once that the thing was hopeless, but I grasped my spear firmly and stood ready.

The first two or three reached the ledge. At the same instant I heard Harry call:

"They're coming through, Paul! It's you alone!"

I did not turn my head, for I was busy. My spear was whirling about my head like a circle of flame. Black, dusky forms swam to the ledge and grasped its slippery surface, but they got no farther. The shaft of the spear bent in my hand; I picked up another, barely losing a second.

A wild and savage delight surged through me at the sight of those struggling, writhing, slipping forms. I swung the spear in vicious fury. Not one had found footing on the ledge.

Something suddenly struck me in the left arm and stuck there; I shook it loose impatiently and it felt as though my arm went with it.

I did not care to glance up even for an instant; they were pressing me closer and closer; but I knew that they had begun to hurl their spears at me from the water, and that the game was up. Another struck me on the leg; soon they were falling thick about me.

Calling to Harry to follow, I turned and ran for the opening in the rock to which I had led Desiree. In an instant he had joined me.

By that time scores of the Incas had scrambled out of the water onto the ledge and started toward us, and as many more came rushing through the crevice, finding their way no longer contested.

Harry carried three spears. I had four. We sprang up a lane encircling the rock to the rear and at its top found Desiree.

A projecting bit of rock gave us some protection from the spears that were being hurled at us from below, but they came uncomfortably close, and black forms began to appear in the lane through which we had come.

Harry shouted something which I didn't hear, and, taking Desiree in his arms, sprang from the rock to another ledge some ten feet below.

I followed. At the bottom he stumbled and fell, but I helped him to his feet and then turned barely in time to beat back three or four of the Incas who had tumbled down almost on our very heads.

Immediately in front of us was a chasm several feet across. Harry cried to Desiree, "Can you make it?" and she shook her head, pointing to her injured foot.

"To me!" I shouted desperately; they were coming down from above despite my efforts to hold them back.

Then, in answer to a call from Harry, I turned and leaped across the chasm, throwing the spears ahead of me. Harry took Desiree in his arms and swung her far out; I braced myself for the shock and caught her on my feet.

I set her down unhurt, and a minute later Harry had joined us and we were scrambling up the face of a boulder nearly perpendicular, while the spears fell thick around us.

Desiree lost her footing and fell against Harry, who rolled to the bottom, pawing for a hold. I turned, but he shouted: "Go on; I'll make it!" Soon he was again at my side, and in another minute we had gained the top of the boulder, quite flat and some twenty feet square. We commanded Desiree to lie flat on the ground to avoid the spears from below, and paused for a breath and a survey of the situation.

It can be described only with the word chaotic.

The light of the urns were now hidden from us, and we were in comparative darkness, though we could see with a fair amount of clearness. Nothing could be made of the mass of boulders, but we knew that somewhere beyond them was the passage from the cavern which we sought.

The Incas came leaping across the chasm to the foot of the rock. Several of them scrambled up the steep surface, but with our spears we pushed them back and they tumbled onto the heads of their fellows below.

But we were too exposed for a stand there, and I shouted to Harry to take Desiree down the other side of the rock while I stayed behind to hold them off. He left me, and in a moment later I heard his voice crying to me to follow. I did so, sliding down the face of the rock feet first.

Then began a wild and desperate scramble for safety, with the Incas ever at our heels. Without Desiree we would have made our goal with little difficulty, but half of the time we had to carry her.

Several times Harry hurled her bodily across a chasm or a crevice, while I received her on the other side.

Often I covered the retreat, holding the Incas at bay while Harry assisted Desiree up the steep face of a boulder or across a narrow ledge. There was less danger now from their spears, protected as we were by the maze of rocks, but I was already bleeding in a dozen places on my legs and arms and body, and Harry was in no better case.

Suddenly I saw ahead of us an opening which I thought I recognized. I pointed it out to Harry.

"The exit!" he cried out, and made for it with Desiree. But they were brought to a halt by a cliff at their very feet, no less than twenty feet high.

I started to join them, but hearing a clatter behind, turned just in time to see a score of Incas rush at us from the left, through a narrow lane that led to the edge of the cliff.

I sprang toward them, calling to Harry for assistance. He was at my side in an instant, and together we held them back.

In five minutes the mouth of the lane was choked with their bodies; some behind attempted to scramble over the pile to get at us, but we made them sick of their job. I saw that Harry could hold it alone then, and calling to him to stand firm till I called, I ran to Desiree.

I let myself over the edge of the cliff and hung by my hands, then dropped to the ground below. It was even further than I had thought; my legs doubled up under me and I toppled over, half fainting.

I gritted my teeth and struggled to my feet, calling to Desiree. She was already hanging to the edge of the cliff, many feet above me. But there was nothing else for it, and I shouted: "All right, come on!"

She came, and knocked me flat on my back. I had tried to catch her, and did succeed in breaking her fall, at no little cost to myself. I was one mass of bruises and wounds. But again I struggled to my feet and shouted at the top of my voice:

"Harry! Come!"

He did not come alone. I suppose the instant he left the lane unguarded the Incas poured in after him. They followed him over the edge of the cliff, tumbling on top of each other in an indistinguishable mass.

Some rose to their feet; their comrades, descending from above, promptly knocked them flat on their backs.

Harry and Desiree and I were making for the exit, which was not but a few feet away. As I have said, the thing was choked up till it was almost impassable. We squeezed in between two rocks, with Desiree between us. Harry was in front, and I brought up the rear.

Once through that lane and we might hold our own.

"In Heaven's name, come on!" Harry shouted suddenly; for I had turned and halted, gazing back at the Incas tumbling over the cliff and rushing toward the mouth of the exit.

But I did not heed him, for, standing on the top of the cliff, waving his arms wildly at those below, I had seen the form of the Inca king. He was less than thirty feet away.

With cries from Harry and Desiree ringing in my ears, I braced my feet as firmly as possible on the uneven rock and poised my spear above my head. The Incas saw my purpose and stopped short.

The king must also have seen me, but he stood absolutely motionless. I lunged forward; the spear left my hand and flew straight for his breast.

But it failed to reach the mark. A shout of triumph was on my lips, but was suddenly cut short when an Inca standing near the king sprang forward and hurled himself in the path of the spear just as its point was ready to take our revenge. The Inca fell to the foot of the cliff with the spear buried deep in his side. The king stood as he had before, without moving.

Then there was a wild rush into the mouth of the exit, and I turned to follow Harry and Desiree. With extreme difficulty we scrambled forward over the rocks and around them.

Desiree's breath was coming in painful gasps, and we had to support her on either side. The Incas approached closer at our rear; I felt one of them grasp me from behind, and in an excess of fury I shook him off and dashed him backward against the rocks. We were able to make little headway, or none; by taking to the exit we appeared to have set our own death-trap.

Harry went on with Desiree, and I stayed behind in the attempt to check the attack. They came at me from both sides. I was faint and bleeding, and barely able to wield my spear-my last one. I gave way by inches, retreating backward step by step, fighting with the very end of my strength.

Suddenly Harry's voice came, shouting that they had reached the end of the passage. I turned then and sprang desperately from rock to rock after them, with the Incas crowding close after me.

I stumbled and nearly fell, but recovered my footing and staggered on. And suddenly the mass of rocks ended abruptly, and I fell forward onto flat, level ground by the side of Desiree and Harry.

"Your spear!" I gasped. "Quick-they are upon us!"

But they grasped my arms and dragged me away from the passage to one side. I was half fainting from exhaustion and loss of blood, and scarcely knew what they did. They laid me on the ground and bent over me.

"The Incas!" I gasped.

"They are gone," Harry answered.

At that I struggled to rise and rested my body on my elbows, gazing at the mouth of the passage. It was so; the Incas were not to be seen! Not one had issued from the passage.

It was incomprehensible to us then; later we understood. And we had not long to wait.

Harry and Desiree were bending over me, attempting to stop the flow of blood from a cut on my shoulder.

"We must have water," said Desiree. Harry straightened up to look about the cavern, which was so dark that we could barely see one another's faces but a few feet away.

Suddenly an exclamation of wonder came from his lips.

Desiree and I followed the direction of his gaze, and saw the huge, black, indistinct form of some animal suddenly detach itself from the wall of the cavern and move slowly toward us through the darkness.

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