Make your own free website on Tripod.com
Chapter XIX.

AFLOAT.


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.

To Chapter 20

Back to the Under The Andes Index...


Email: depatty@geocities.com