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   Chapter 19 AFLOAT.

Under the Andes By Rex Stout Characters: 22775

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06

As we ran swiftly, following the edge of the stream, the cries continued, filling the cavern with racing echoes. They could not quicken our step; we were already straining every muscle as we bounded over the rock. Luckily, the way was clear, for in the darkness we could see but a few feet ahead. Desiree's voice was sufficient guide for us.

Finally we reached her. I don't know what I expected to see, but certainly not that which met our eyes.

"Your spear!" cried Harry, dashing off to the right, away from the stream.

My spear was ready. I followed.

Desiree was standing exactly in the spot where we had left her, screaming at the top of her voice.

Around her, on every side, was a struggling, pushing mass of the animals we had frightened away from the carcass of the reptile. There were hundreds of them packed tightly together, crowding toward her, some leaping on the backs of others, some trampled to the ground beneath the feet of their fellows. They did not appear to be actually attacking her, but we could not see distinctly.

This we saw in a flash and an instant later had dashed forward into the mass with whirling spears. It was a farce, rather than a fight.

We brought our spears down on the swarm of heads and backs without even troubling to take aim. They pressed against our legs; we waded through as though it were a current of water. Those we hit either fell or ran; they waited for no second blow.

Desiree had ceased her cries.

"They won't hurt you!" Harry had shouted. "Where's your spear?"

"Gone. They came on me before I had time to get it."

"Then kick 'em, push 'em-anything. They're nothing but pigs."

They had the senseless stubbornness of pigs, at least. They seemed absolutely unable to realize that their presence was not desired till they actually felt the spear-utterly devoid even of instinct.

"So this is what you captured for us at the risk of your life!" I shouted to Harry in disgust. "They haven't even sense enough to squeal."

We finally reached Desiree's side and cleared a space round her. But it took us another fifteen minutes of pushing and thrusting and indiscriminate massacre before we routed the brutes. When they did decide to go they lost no time, but scampered away toward the water with a sliding, tumbling rush.

"Gad!" exclaimed Harry, resting on his spear. "And here's a pretty job. Look at that! I wish they'd carry off the dead ones."

"Ugh! The nasty brutes! I was never so frightened in my life," said Desiree.

"You frightened us, all right," Harry retorted. "Utterly fungoed. I never ran so fast in my life. And all you had to do was shake your spear at 'em and say boo! I thought it was the roommate of our friend with the eyes."

"Have I been eating those things?" Desiree demanded.

Harry grinned.

"Yes, and that isn't all. You'll continue to eat 'em as long as I'm the cook. Come on, Paul; it's a day's work."

We dragged the bodies down to the edge of the stream and tossed them into the current, saving three or four for the replenishment of the larder.

I then first tried my hand at the task of skinning and cleaning them, and by the time I had finished was thoroughly disgusted with it and myself. Harry had become hardened to it; he whistled over the job as though he had been born in a butcher's shop.

"I'd rather go hungry," I declared, washing my hands and arms in the cool water.

"Oh, sure," said Harry; "my efforts are never appreciated. I've fed you up till you've finally graduated from the skeleton class, and you immediately begin to criticize the table. I know now what it means to run a boarding-house. Why don't you change your hotel?"

By the time we had finished we were pretty well tired out, but Harry wouldn't hear of rest. I was eager myself for another look at the exit of that stream. So, again taking up our spears, we set out across the cavern, this time with Desiree between us. She swallowed Harry's ridicule of her fear and refused to stay behind.

Again we stood at the point where the stream left the cavern through the broad arch of a tunnel.

"There's a chance there," said Harry, turning to me. "It looks good."

"Yes, if we had a boat," I agreed. "But that's a ten-mile current, and probably deep."

I waded out some twenty feet and was nearly swept beneath the surface as the water circled about my shoulders.

"We couldn't follow that on our feet," I declared, returning to the shore. "But it does look promising. At ten miles an hour we'd reach the western slope in four hours. Four hours to sunshine-but it might as well be four hundred. It's impossible."

We turned then and retraced our steps to our camp, if I may give it so dignified a title. I hated to give up the idea of following the bed of the stream, for it was certain that somewhere it found the surface of the earth, and I revolved in my brain every conceivable means to do so. The same thought was in Harry's mind, for he turned to me suddenly:

"If we only had something for stringers, I could make a raft that would carry us to the Pacific and across it. The hide of that thing over yonder would be just the stuff, and we could get a piece as big as we wanted."

I shook my head.

"I thought of that. But we have absolutely nothing to hold it. There wasn't a bone in his body; you know that."

But the idea was peculiarly tempting, and we spent an hour discussing it. Desiree was asleep on her pile of skins. We sat side by side on the ground some distance away, talking in low tones.

Suddenly there was a loud splash in the stream, which was quite close to us.

"By gad!" exclaimed Harry, springing to his feet. "Did you hear that? It sounded like-remember the fish we pulled in from the Inca's raft?"

"Which has nothing to do with this," I answered. "It's nothing but the water-pigs. I've heard 'em a thousand times in the last few days. And the Lord knows we have enough of them."

But Harry protested that the splash was much too loud to have been caused by any water-pig and waded into the stream to investigate. I rose to my feet and followed him leisurely, for no reason in particular, but was suddenly startled by an excited cry from his lips:

"Paul-the spear! Quick! It's a whale!"

I ran as swiftly as I could to the shore and returned with our spears, but when I reached Harry he greeted me with an oath of disappointment and the information that the "whale" had disappeared. He was greatly excited.

"I tell you he was twenty feet long! A big black devil, with a head like a cow."

"You're sure it wasn't like a pig?" I asked skeptically.

Harry looked at me.

"I have drunk nothing but water for a month," he said dryly. "It was a fish, and some fish."

"Well, there's probably more like him," I observed. "But they can wait. Come on and get some sleep, and then-we'll see."

Some hours afterward, having filled ourselves with sleep and food (I had decided, after mature deliberation, not to change my hotel), we started out, armed with our spears. Desiree accompanied us. Harry told her bluntly that she would be in the way, but she refused to stay behind.

We turned upstream, thinking our chances better in that direction than toward the swifter current, and were surprised to find that the cavern was much larger than any we had before seen. In something over a mile we had not yet reached the farther wall, for we walked at a brisk pace for a quarter of an hour or more.

At this point the stream was considerably wider than it was below, and there was very little current. Desiree stood on the bank while Harry and I waded out above our waists.

There was a long and weary wait before anything occurred. The water was cold, and my limbs became stiff and numb; I called to Harry that it was useless to wait longer, and was turning toward the shore when there was a sudden commotion in the water not far from where he stood.

I turned and saw Harry plunge forward with his spear.

"I've got him!" he yelled. "Come on!"

I went. But I soon saw that Harry didn't have him. He had Harry. They were all of ten yards away from me, and by the time I reached the spot there was nothing to be seen but flying water thrashed into foam and fury.

I caught a glimpse of Harry being jerked through the air; he was holding on for dear life with both hands to the shaft of his spear. The water was over my head there; I was swimming with all the strength I had.

"I've got him-through the belly," Harry gasped as I fought my way through the spray to his side. "His head! Find his head!"

I finally succeeded in getting my hand on Harry's spear-shaft near where it entered the body of the fish; but the next instant it was jerked from me, dragging me beneath the surface. I came up puffing and made another try, but missed it by several feet.

Harry kept shouting: "His head! Get him in the head!"

For that I was saving my spear. But I could make nothing of either head or tail as the immense fish leaped furiously about in the water, first this way, then that.

Once he came down exactly on top of me and carried me far under; I felt his slippery, smooth body glide over me, and the tail struck me a heavy blow in the face as it passed. Blinded and half choked, I fought my way back to the surface and saw that they had got fifty feet away.

I swam to them, breathing hard and nearly exhausted. The water foamed less furiously about them now. As I came near the fish leaped half out of the water and came down flat on his side; I saw his ugly black head pointed directly toward me.

"He's about gone!" Harry gasped.

He was still clinging to the spear.

I set myself firmly against the water and waited. Soon it parted violently not ten feet in front of me, and again the head appeared; he was coming straight for me. I could see the dull beady eyes on either side, and I let him have the spear right between them.

There was little force to the blow, but the fish himself furnished that; he was coming like lightning. I hurled my body aside with a great effort and felt him sweep past me.

I turned to swim after them and heard Harry's great shout: "You got him!"

By the time I reached him the fish had turned over on his back and was floating on the surface, motionless.

We had still to get him ashore, and, exhausted as we were, it was no easy task. But there was very little current, and after half an hour of pulling and shoving we got him into shallow water, where we could find the bottom with our feet. Then it was easier. Desiree waded out to us and lent a hand, and in another ten minutes we had him high and dry on the rock.

He was even larger than I had thought. No wonder Harry had called him-or one like him-a whale. It was all of fifteen feet from his snout to the tip of his tail. The skin was dead black on top and mottled irregularly on the belly.

As we sat sharpening the points of our spears on the rock, preparatory to skinning him, Desiree stood regarding the fish with unqualified approval. She turned to us:

"Well, I'd rather eat that than those other nasty things."

"Oh, that isn't what we want him for," said Harry, rubbing his finger against the edge of his spear-point. "He's probably not fit to eat."

"Then why all this trouble?" asked Desiree.

"Dear lady, we expect to ride him home," said Harry, rising to

his feet.

Then he explained our purpose, and you may believe that Desiree was the most excited of the lot as we ripped down the body of the fish from tail to snout and began to peel off the tough skin.

"If you succeed you may choose the new hangings for my boudoir," she said, with an attempt at lightness not altogether successful.

"As for me," I declared, "I shall eat fish every day of my life out of pure gratitude."

"You'll do it out of pure necessity," Harry put in, "if you don't get busy."

It took us three hours of whacking and slashing and tearing to pull the fish to pieces, but we worked with a purpose and a will. When we had finished, this is what we had to show: A long strip of bone, four inches thick and twelve feet long, and tough as hickory, from either side of which the smaller bones projected at right angles. They were about an inch in thickness and two inches apart. The lower end of the backbone, near the tail, we had broken off.

We examined it and lifted it and bent it half double.

"Absolutely perfect!" Harry cried in jubilation. "Three more like this and we'll sail down the coast to Callao."

"If we can get 'em," I observed. "But two would do. We could make it a triangle."

Harry looked at me.

"Paul, you're an absolute genius. But would it be big enough to hold us?"

We discussed that question on our way back to camp, whither we carried the backbone of our fish, together with some of the meat. Then, after a hearty meal, we slept. After seven hours of the hardest kind of work we were ready for it.

That was our program for the time that followed-time that stretched into many weary hours, for, once started, we worked feverishly, so impatient had we become by dint of that faint glimmer of hope. We were going to try to build a raft, on which we were going to try to embark on the stream, by which we were going to try to find our way out of the mountain. The prospect made us positively hilarious, so slender is the thread by which hope jerks us about.

The first part of our task was the most strenuous. We waited and waded round many hours before another fish appeared, and then he got away from us. Another attempt was crowned with success after a hard fight. The second one was even larger than the first.

The next two were too small to be of use in the raft, but we saved them for another purpose. Then, after another long search, lasting many hours, we ran into half a dozen of them at once.

By that time we were fairly expert with our spears, besides having discovered their vulnerable spot-the throat, just forward from the gills. To this day I don't know whether or not they were man-eaters. Their jaws were roomy and strong as those of any shark; but they never closed on us.

Thus we had four of the large backbones and two smaller ones. Next we wanted a covering, and for that purpose we visited the remains of the reptile which had first led us into the cavern.

Its hide was half an inch thick and tough as the toughest leather. There was no difficulty in loosening it, for by that time the flesh was so decayed and sunken that it literally fell off. That job was the worst of all.

Time and again, after cutting away with the points of our spears-our only tools-until we could stand it no longer, we staggered off to the stream like drunken men, sick and faint with the sight and smell of the mess.

But that, too, came to an end, and finally we marched off to the camp, which we had removed a half-mile upstream, dragging after us a piece of the hide about thirty feet long and half as wide. It was not as heavy as we had thought, which made it all the better for our purpose.

The remainder of our task, though tedious, was not unpleasant.

We first made the larger bones, which were to serve as the beams of our raft, exactly the same length by filing off the ends of the longer ones with rough bits of granite. I have said it was tedious. Then we filed off each of the smaller bones projecting from the neural arch until they were of equal length.

They extended on either side about ten inches, which, allowing four inches for the width of the larger bone and one inch for the covering, would make our raft slightly over a foot in depth.

To make the cylindrical column rigid, we bound each of the vertebrae to the one in direct juxtaposition on either side firmly with strips of hide, several hundred feet of which we had prepared.

This gave us four beams held straight and true, without any play in either direction, with only a slight flexibility resulting from the cartilages within the center cord.

With these four beams we formed a square, placing them on their edges, end to end. At each corner of the square we lashed the ends together firmly with strips of hide. It was both firm and flexible after we had lashed the corners over and over with the strips, that there might be no play under the strain of the current.

Over this framework we stretched the large piece of hide so that the ends met on top, near the middle. The bottom was thus absolutely watertight. We folded the corners in and caught them up with strips over the top. Then, with longer strips, we fastened up the sides, passing the strips back and forth across the top, from side to side, having first similarly secured the two ends. As a final precaution, we passed broader strips around both top and bottom, lashing them together in the center of the top. And there was our raft, twelve feet square, over a foot deep, water-tight as a town drunkard, and weighing not more than a hundred pounds. It has taken me two minutes to tell it; it took us two weeks to do it.

But we discovered immediately that the four beams on the sides and ends were not enough, for Desiree's weight alone caused the skin to sag clear through in the center, though we had stretched it as tightly as possible. We were forced to unlash all the strips running from side to side and insert supports, made of smaller bones, across the middle each way. These we reinforced on their ends with the thickest hide we could find, that they might not puncture the bottom. After that it was fairly firm; though its sea-worthiness was not improved, it was much easier to navigate than it would have been before.

For oars we took the lower ends of the backbones of the two smaller fish and covered them with hide. They were about five feet long and quite heavy; but we intended to use them more for the purpose of steering than for propulsion. The current of the stream would attend to that for us.

Near the center of the raft we arranged a pile of the skins of the water-pigs for Desiree; a seat by no means uncomfortable. The strips which ran back and forth across the top afforded a hold as security against the tossing of the craft; but for her feet we arranged two other strips to pass over her ankles what time she rested. This was an extreme precaution, for we did not expect the journey to be a long one.

Finally we loaded on our provisions-about thirty pounds of the meat of the fish and water-pigs, wrapping it securely in two or three of the skins and strapping them firmly to the top.

"And now," said I, testing the strips on the corners for the last time, "all we need is a name for her and a bottle of wine."

"And a homeward-bound pennant," put in Harry.

"The name is easy enough," said Desiree. "I hereby christen her Clarte du Soleil."

"Which means?" asked Harry, whose French came only in spots.

"Sunshine," I told him. "Presumably after the glorious King of the Incas, who calls himself the Child of the Sun. But it's a good name. May Heaven grant that it takes us there!"

"I think we ought to take more grub," said Harry-an observation which he had made not less than fifty times in the preceding fifty minutes. He received no support and grumbled to himself something about the horrible waste of leaving so much behind.

Why it was I don't know, but we were fully persuaded that we were about to say good-by forever to this underground world and its dangers. Somehow, we had coaxed ourselves into the belief that success was certain; it was as though we had seen the sunlight streaming in from the farther end of the arched tunnel into which the stream disappeared. There was an assurance about the words of each that strengthened this feeling in the others, and hope had shut out all thought of failure as we prepared to launch our craft.

It took us some time to get it to the edge of the water, though it was close by, for we handled it with extreme care, that it might not be torn on the rocks. Altogether, with the provisions, it weighed close to one hundred and fifty pounds.

We were by no means sure that the thing would carry us, and when once we had reached the water we forgot caution in our haste to try it. We held it at the edge while Desiree arranged herself on the pile of skins. The spears lay across at her feet, strapped down for security.

Harry stepped across to the farther edge of the raft.

"Ready!" he called, and I shoved off, wading behind. When the water was up to my knees I climbed aboard and picked up my oar.

"By all the nine gods, look at her!" cried Harry in huge delight. "She takes about three inches! Man, she'd carry an army!"

"Allons!" cried Desiree, with gay laughter. "C'est Perfection!"

"Couldn't be better," I agreed; "but watch yourself, Hal. When we get into the current things are going to begin to happen. If it weren't for the beastly darkness 'twould be easy enough. As it is, one little rock the size of your head could send us to the bottom."

We were still near the bank, working our way out slowly. Harry and I had to maintain positions equidistant from the center in order to keep the raft balanced; hence I had to push her out alone.

Considering her bulk, she answered to the oar very well.

Another five minutes and we were near the middle of the stream. At that point there was but little current and we drifted slowly. Harry went to the bow, while I took up a position on the stern-if I may use such terms for such a craft-directly behind Desiree. We figured that we were then about a mile from the Point where the stream left the cavern.

Gradually, as the stream narrowed, the strength of the current increased. Still it was smooth, and the raft sailed along without a tremor. Once or twice, caught by some trick of the current, she turned half round, poking her nose ahead, but she soon righted herself.

The water began to curl up on the sides as we were carried more and more swiftly onward, with a low murmur that was music to us. The stream became so narrow that we could see the bank on either side, though dimly, and I knew we were approaching the exit.

I called to Harry: "Keep her off to the right as we make the turn!" and he answered: "Aye, aye, sir!" with a wave of the hand. This, at least, was action with a purpose.

Another minute and we saw the arch directly ahead of us, round a bend in the stream. The strength of the current carried us toward the off bank, but we plied our oars desperately and well, and managed to keep fairly well in to the end of the curve.

We missed the wall of the tunnel-black, grim rock that would have dashed out our brains-by about ten feet, and were swept forward under the arch, on our way-so we thought-to the land of sunshine.

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