THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN HORN
BY FRANK R. STOCKTON
I An Introductory Disaster
II A New Face in Camp
III A Change of Lodgings
IV Another New Face
V The Rackbirds
VI Three Weld Beasts
VIII The Alarm
IX An Amazing Narration
X The Captain Explores
XI A New Hemisphere
XII A Tradition and a Waistcoat
XIV A Pile of Fuel
XV The Cliff-Maka Scheme
XVI On a Business Basis
XVII "A Fine Thing, No Matter What Happens"
XVIII Mrs. Cliff is Amazed
XIX Left Behind
XX At the Rackbirds' Cove
XXI In the Caves
XXII A Pack-Mule
XXIII His Present Share
XXVI His Fortune under his Feet
THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN HORN
AN INTRODUCTORY DISASTER
Early in the spring of the year 1884 the three-masted schooner Castor, from San Francisco to Valparaiso, was struck by a tornado off the coast of Peru. The storm, which rose with frightful suddenness, was of short duration, but it left the Castor a helpless wreck. Her masts had snapped off and gone overboard, her rudder-post had been shattered by falling wreckage, and she was rolling in the trough of the sea, with her floating masts and spars thumping and bumping her sides.
The Castor was an American merchant-vessel, commanded by Captain Philip Horn, an experienced navigator of about thirty-five years of age. Besides a valuable cargo, she carried three passengers—two ladies and a boy. One of these, Mrs. William Cliff, a lady past middle age, was going to Valparaiso to settle some business affairs of her late husband, a New England merchant. The other lady was Miss Edna Markham, a school-teacher who had just passed her twenty-fifth year, although she looked older. She was on her way to Valparaiso to take an important position in an American seminary. Ralph, a boy of fifteen, was her brother, and she was taking him with her simply because she did not want to leave him alone in San Francisco. These two had no near relations, and the education of the brother depended upon the exertions of the sister. Valparaiso was not the place she would have selected for a boy's education, but there they could be together, and, under the circumstances, that was a point of prime importance.
But when the storm had passed, and the sky was clear, and the mad waves had subsided into a rolling swell, there seemed no reason to believe that any one on board the Castor would ever reach Valparaiso. The vessel had been badly strained by the wrenching of the masts, her sides had been battered by the floating wreckage, and she was taking in water rapidly. Fortunately, no one had been injured by the storm, and although the captain found it would be a useless waste of time and labor to attempt to work the pumps, he was convinced, after a careful examination, that the ship would float some hours, and that there would, therefore, be time for those on board to make an effort to save not only their lives, but some of their property.
All the boats had been blown from their davits, but one of them was floating, apparently uninjured, a short distance to leeward, one of the heavy blocks by which it had been suspended having caught in the cordage of the topmast, so that it was securely moored. Another boat, a small one, was seen, bottom upward, about an eighth of a mile to leeward. Two seamen, each pushing an oar before him, swam out to the nearest boat, and having got on board of her, and freed her from her entanglements, they rowed out to the capsized boat, and towed it to the schooner. When this boat had been righted and bailed out, it was found to be in good condition.
The sea had become almost quiet, and there was time enough to do everything orderly and properly, and in less than three hours after the vessel had been struck, the two boats, containing all the crew and the passengers, besides a goodly quantity of provisions and water, and such valuables, clothing, rugs, and wraps as room could be found for, were pulling away from the wreck.
The captain, who, with his passengers, was in the larger boat, was aware that he was off the coast of Peru, but that was all he certainly knew of his position. The storm had struck the ship in the morning, before he had taken his daily observation, and his room, which was on deck, had been carried away, as well as every nautical instrument on board. He did not believe that the storm had taken him far out of his course, but of this he could not be sure. All that he knew with certainty was that to the eastward lay the land, and eastward, therefore, they pulled, a little compass attached to the captain's watch-guard being their only guide.
For the rest of that day and that night, and the next day and the next night, the two boats moved eastward, the people on board suffering but little inconvenience, except from the labor of continuous rowing, at which everybody, excepting the two ladies, took part, even Ralph Markham being willing to show how much of a man he could be with an oar in his hand.
The weather was fine, and the sea was almost smooth, and as the captain had rigged up in his boat a tent-like covering of canvas for the ladies, they were, as they repeatedly declared, far more comfortable than they had any right to expect. They were both women of resource and courage. Mrs. Cliff, tall, thin in face, with her gray hair brushed plainly over her temples, was a woman of strong frame, who would have been perfectly willing to take an oar, had it been necessary. To Miss Markham this boat trip would have been a positive pleasure, had it not been for the unfortunate circumstances which made it necessary.
On the morning of the third day land was sighted, but it was afternoon before they reached it. Here they found themselves on a portion of the coast where the foot-hills of the great mountains stretch themselves almost down to the edge of the ocean. To all appearances, the shore was barren and uninhabited.
The two boats rowed along the coast a mile or two to the southward, but could find no good landing-place, but reaching a spot less encumbered with rocks than any other portion of the coast they had seen, Captain Horn determined to try to beach his boat there. The landing was accomplished in safety, although with some difficulty, and that night was passed in a little encampment in the shelter of some rocks scarcely a hundred yards from the sea.
The next morning Captain Horn took counsel with his mates, and considered the situation. They were on an uninhabited portion of the coast, and it was not believed that there was any town or settlement near enough to be reached by waiting over such wild country, especially with ladies in the party. It was, therefore, determined to seek succor by means of the sea. They might be near one of the towns or villages along the coast of Peru, and, in any case, a boat manned by the best oarsmen of the party, and loaded as lightly as possible, might hope, in the course of a day or two, to reach some port from which a vessel might be sent out to take off the remainder of the party.
But first Captain Horn ordered a thorough investigation to be made of the surrounding country, and in an hour or two a place was found which he believed would answer very well for a camping-ground until assistance should arrive. This was on a little plateau about a quarter of a mile back from the ocean, and surrounded on three sides by precipices, and on the side toward the sea the ground sloped gradually downward. To this camping-ground all of the provisions and goods were carried, excepting what would be needed by the boating party.
When this work had been accomplished, Captain Horn appointed his first mate to command the expedition, deciding to remain himself in the camp. When volunteers were called for, it astonished the captain to see how many of the sailors desired to go.
The larger boat pulled six oars, and seven men, besides the mate Rynders, were selected to go in her. As soon as she could be made ready she was launched and started southward on her voyage of discovery, the mate having first taken such good observation of the landmarks that he felt sure he would have no difficulty in finding the spot where he left his companions. The people in the little camp on the bluff now consisted of Captain Horn, the two ladies, the boy Ralph, three sailors,—one an Englishman, and the other two Americans from Cape Cod,—and a jet-black native African, known as Maka.
Captain Horn had not cared to keep many men with him in the camp, because there they would have little to do, and all the strong arms that could be spared would be needed in the boat. The three sailors he had retained were men of intelligence, on whom he believed he could rely in case of emergency, and Maka was kept because he was a cook. He had been one of the cargo of a slave-ship which had been captured by a British cruiser several years before, when on its way to Cuba, and the unfortunate negroes had been landed in British Guiana. It was impossible to return them to Africa, because none of them could speak English, or in any way give an idea as to what tribes they belonged, and if they should be landed anywhere in Africa except among their friends, they would be immediately reenslaved. For some years they lived in Guiana, in a little colony by themselves, and then, a few of them having learned some English, they made their way to Panama, where they obtained employment as laborers on the great canal. Maka, who was possessed of better intelligence than most of his fellows, improved a good deal in his English, and learned to cook very well, and having wandered to San Francisco, had been employed for two or three voyages by Captain Horn. Maka was a faithful and willing servant, and if he had been able to express himself more intelligibly, his merits might have been better appreciated.
A NEW FACE IN CAMP
The morning after the departure of the boat, Captain Horn, in company with the Englishman Davis, each armed with a gun, set out on a tour of investigation, hoping to be able to ascend the rocky hills at the back of the camp, and find some elevated point commanding a view over the ocean. After a good deal of hard climbing they reached such a point, but the captain found that the main object was really out of his reach. He could now plainly see that a high rocky point to the southward, which stretched some distance out to sea, would cut off all view of the approach of rescuers coming from that direction, until they were within a mile or two of his landing-place. Back from the sea the hills grew higher, until they blended into the lofty stretches of the Andes, this being one of the few points where the hilly country extends to the ocean.
The coast to the north curved a little oceanward, so that a much more extended view could be had in that direction, but as far as he could see by means of a little pocket-glass which the boy Ralph had lent him, the captain could discover no signs of habitation, and in this direction the land seemed to be a flat desert. When he returned to camp, about noon, he had made up his mind that the proper thing to do was to make himself and his companions as comfortable as possible and patiently await the return of his mate with succor.
Captain Horn was very well satisfied with his present place of encampment. Although rain is unknown in this western portion of Peru, which is, therefore, in general desolate and barren, there are parts of the country that are irrigated by streams which flow from the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, and one of these fertile spots the captain seemed to have happened upon. On the plateau there grew a few bushes, while the face of the rock in places was entirely covered by hanging vines. This fertility greatly puzzled Captain Horn, for nowhere was to be seen any stream of water, or signs of there ever having been any. But they had with them water enough to last for several days, and provisions for a much longer time, and the captain felt little concern on this account.
As for lodgings, there were none excepting the small tent which he had put up for the ladies, but a few nights in the open air in that dry climate would not hurt the male portion of the party.
In the course of the afternoon, the two American sailors came to Captain Horn and asked permission to go to look for game. The captain had small hopes of their finding anything suitable for food, but feeling sure that if they should be successful, every one would be glad of a little fresh meat, he gave his permission, at the same time requesting the men to do their best in the way of observation, if they should get up high enough to survey the country, and discover some signs of habitation, if such existed in that barren region. It would be a great relief to the captain to feel that there was some spot of refuge to which, by land or water, his party might make its way in case the water and provisions gave out before the return of the mate.
As to the men who went off in the boat, the captain expected to see but a few of them again. One or two might return with the mate, in such vessel as he should obtain in which to come for them, but the most of them, if they reached a seaport, would scatter, after the manner of seamen.
The two sailors departed, promising, if they could not bring back fish or fowl, to return before dark, with a report of the lay of the land.
It was very well that Maka did not have to depend on these hunters for the evening meal, for night came without them, and the next morning they had not returned. The captain was very much troubled. The men must be lost, or they had met with some accident. There could be no other reason for their continued absence. They had each a gun, and plenty of powder and shot, but they had taken only provisions enough for a single meal.
Davis offered to go up the hills to look for the missing men. He had lived for some years in the bush in Australia, and he thought that there was a good chance of his discovering their tracks. But the captain shook his head.
"You are just as likely to get lost, or to fall over a rock, as anybody else," he said, "and it is better to have two men lost than three. But there is one thing that you can do. You can go down to the beach, and make your way southward as far as possible. There you can find your way back, and if you take a gun, and fire it every now and then, you may attract the attention of Shirley and Burke, if they are on the hills above, and perhaps they may even be able to see you as you walk along. If they are alive, they will probably see or hear you, and fire in answer. It is a very strange thing that we have not heard a shot from them."
Ralph begged to accompany the Englishman, for he was getting very restless, and longed for a ramble and scramble. But neither the captain nor his sister would consent to this, and Davis started off alone.
"If you can round the point down there," said the captain to him, "do it, for you may see a town or houses not far away on the other side. But don't take any risks. At all events, make your calculations so that you will be back here before dark."
The captain and Ralph assisted the two ladies to a ledge of rock near the camp from which they could watch the Englishman on his way. They saw him reach the beach, and after going on a short distance he fired his gun, after which he pressed forward, now and then stopping to fire again. Even from their inconsiderable elevation they could see him until he must have been more than a mile away, and he soon after vanished from their view.
As on the previous day darkness came without the two American sailors, so now it came without the Englishman, and in the morning he had not returned. Of course, every mind was filled with anxiety in regard to the three sailors, but Captain Horn's soul was racked with apprehensions of which he did not speak. The conviction forced itself upon him that the men had been killed by wild beasts. He could imagine no other reason why Davis should not have returned. He had been ordered not to leave the beach, and, therefore, could not lose his way. He was a wary, careful man, used to exploring rough country, and he was not likely to take any chances of disabling himself by a fall while on such an expedition.
Although he knew that the great jaguar was found in Peru, as well as the puma and black bear, the captain had not supposed it likely that any of these creatures frequented the barren western slopes of the mountains, but he now reflected that there were lions in the deserts of Africa, and that the beasts of prey in South America might also be found in its deserts.
A great responsibility now rested upon Captain Horn. He was the only man left in camp who could be depended upon as a defender,—for Maka was known to be a coward, and Ralph was only a boy,—and it was with a shrinking of the heart that he asked himself what would be the consequences if a couple of jaguars or other ferocious beasts were to appear upon that unprotected plateau in the night, or even in the daytime. He had two guns, but he was only one man. These thoughts were not cheerful, but the captain's face showed no signs of alarm, or even unusual anxiety, and, with a smile on his handsome brown countenance, he bade the ladies good morning as if he were saluting them upon a quarter-deck.
"I have been thinking all night about those three men," said Miss Markham, "and I have imagined something which may have happened. Isn't it possible that they may have discovered at a distance some inland settlement which could not be seen by the party in the boat, and that they thought it their duty to push their way to it, and so get assistance for us? In that case, you know, they would probably be a long time coming back."
"That is possible," said the captain, glad to hear a hopeful supposition, but in his heart he had no faith in it whatever. If Davis had seen a village, or even a house, he would have come back to report it, and if the others had found human habitation, they would have had ample time to return, either by land or by sea.
The restless Ralph, who had chafed a good deal because he had not been allowed to leave the plateau in search of adventure, now found a vent for his surplus energy, for the captain appointed him fire-maker. The camp fuel was not abundant, consisting of nothing but some dead branches and twigs from the few bushes in the neighborhood. These Ralph collected with great energy, and Maka had nothing to complain of in regard to fuel for his cooking.
Toward the end of that afternoon, Ralph prepared to make a fire for the supper, and he determined to change the position of the fireplace and bring it nearer the rocks, where he thought it would burn better. It did burn better—so well, indeed, that some of the dry leaves of the vines that there covered the face of the rocks took fire. Ralph watched with interest the dry leaves blaze and the green ones splutter, and then he thought it would be a pity to scorch those vines, which were among the few green things about them, and he tried to put out the fire. But this he could not do, and, when he called Maka, the negro was not able to help him. The fire had worked its way back of the green vines, and seemed to have found good fuel, for it was soon crackling away at a great rate, attracting the rest of the party.
"Can't we put it out?" cried Miss Markham. "It is a pity to ruin those beautiful vines."
The captain smiled and shook his head. "We cannot waste our valuable water on that conflagration," said he. "There is probably a great mass of dead vines behind the green outside. How it crackles and roars! That dead stuff must be several feet thick. All we can do is to let it burn. It cannot hurt us. It cannot reach your tent, for there are no vines over there."
The fire continued to roar and blaze, and to leap up the face of the rock.
"It is wonderful," said Mrs. Cliff, "to think how those vines must have been growing and dying, and new ones growing and dying, year after year, nobody knows how many ages."
"What is most wonderful to me," said the captain, "is that the vines ever grew there at all, or that these bushes should be here. Nothing can grow in this region, unless it is watered by a stream from the mountains, and there is no stream here."
Miss Markham was about to offer a supposition to the effect that perhaps the precipitous wall of rock which surrounded the little plateau, and shielded it from the eastern sun, might have had a good effect upon the vegetation, when suddenly Ralph, who had a ship's biscuit on the end of a sharp stick, and was toasting it in the embers of a portion of the burnt vines, sprang back with a shout.
"Look out!" he cried. "The whole thing's coming down!" And, sure enough, in a moment a large portion of the vines, which had been clinging to the rock, fell upon the ground in a burning mass. A cloud of smoke and dust arose, and when it had cleared away the captain and his party saw upon the perpendicular side of the rock, which was now revealed to them as if a veil had been torn away from in front of it, an enormous face cut out of the solid stone.
A CHANGE OF LODGINGS
The great face stared down upon the little party gathered beneath it. Its chin was about eight feet above the ground, and its stony countenance extended at least that distance up the cliff. Its features were in low relief, but clear and distinct, and a smoke-blackened patch beneath one of its eyes gave it a sinister appearance. From its wide-stretching mouth a bit of half-burnt vine hung, trembling in the heated air, and this element of motion produced the impression on several of the party that the creature was about to open its lips.
Mrs. Cliff gave a little scream,—she could not help it,—and Maka sank down on his knees, his back to the rock, and covered his face with his hands. Ralph was the first to speak.
"There have been heathen around here," he said. "That's a regular idol."
"You are right," said the captain. "That is a bit of old-time work. That face was cut by the original natives."
The two ladies were so interested, and even excited, that they seized each other by the hands. Here before their faces was a piece of sculpture doubtless done by the people of ancient Peru, that people who were discovered by Pizarro; and this great idol, or whatever it was, had perhaps never before been seen by civilized eyes. It was wonderful, and in the conjecture and exclamation of the next half-hour everything else was forgotten, even the three sailors.
Because the captain was the captain, it was natural that every one should look to him for some suggestion as to why this great stone face should have been carved here on this lonely and desolate rock. But he shook his head.
"I have no ideas about it," he said, "except that it must have been some sort of a landmark. It looks out toward the sea, and perhaps the ancient inhabitants put it there so that people in ships, coming near enough to the coast, should know where they were. Perhaps it was intended to act as a lighthouse to warn seamen off a dangerous coast. But I must say that I do not see how it could do that, for they would have had to come pretty close to the shore to see it, unless they had better glasses than we have."
The sun was now near the horizon, and Maka was lifted to his feet by the captain, and ordered to stop groaning in African, and go to work to get supper on the glowing embers of the vines. He obeyed, of course, but never did he turn his face upward to that gaunt countenance, which grinned and winked and frowned whenever a bit of twig blazed up, or the coals were stirred by the trembling negro.
After supper and until the light had nearly faded from the western sky, the two ladies sat and watched that vast face upon the rocks, its features growing more and more solemn as the light decreased.
"I wish I had a long-handled broom," said Mrs. Cliff, "for if the dust and smoke and ashes of burnt leaves were brushed from off its nose and eyebrows, I believe it would have a rather gracious expression."
As for the captain, he went walking about on the outlying portion of the plateau, listening and watching. But it was not stone faces he was thinking of. That night he did not sleep at all, but sat until day-break, with a loaded gun across his knees, and another one lying on the ground beside him.
When Miss Markham emerged from the rude tent the next morning, and came out into the bright light of day, the first thing she saw was her brother Ralph, who looked as if he had been sweeping a chimney or cleaning out an ash-hole.
"What on earth has happened to you!" she cried. "How did you get yourself so covered with dirt and ashes?"
"I got up ever so long ago," he replied, "and as the captain is asleep over there, and there was nobody to talk to, I thought I would go and try to find the back of his head"—pointing to the stone face above them. "But he hasn't any. He is a sham."
"What do you mean?" asked his sister.
"You see, Edna," said the boy, "I thought I would try if I could find any more faces, and so I got a bit of stone, and scratched away some of the burnt vines that had not fallen, and there I found an open place in the rock on this side of the face. Step this way, and you can see it. It's like a narrow doorway. I went and looked into it, and saw that it led back of the big face, and I went in to see what was there."
"You should never have done that, Ralph," cried his sister. "There might have been snakes in that place, or precipices, or nobody knows what. What could you expect to see in the dark?"
"It wasn't so dark as you might think," said he. "After my eyes got used to the place I could see very well. But there was nothing to see—just walls on each side. There was more of the passageway ahead of me, but I began to think of snakes myself, and as I did not have a club or anything to kill them with, I concluded I wouldn't go any farther. It isn't so very dirty in there. Most of this I got on myself scraping down the burnt vines. Here comes the captain. He doesn't generally oversleep himself like this. If he will go with me, we will explore that crack."
When Captain Horn heard of the passage into the rock, he was much more interested than Ralph had expected him to be, and, without loss of time, he lighted a lantern and, with the boy behind him, set out to investigate it. But before entering the cleft, the captain stationed Maka at a place where he could view all the approaches to the plateau, and told him if he saw any snakes or other dangerous things approaching, to run to the opening and call him. Now, snakes were among the few things that Maka was not afraid of, and so long as he thought these were the enemies to be watched, he would make a most efficient sentinel.
When Captain Horn had cautiously advanced a couple of yards into the interior of the rock, he stopped, raised his lantern, and looked about him. The passage was about two feet wide, the floor somewhat lower than the ground outside, and the roof but a few feet above his head. It was plainly the work of man, and not a natural crevice in the rocks. Then the captain put the lantern behind him, and stared into the gloom ahead of them. As Ralph had said, it was not so dark as might have been expected. In fact, about twenty feet forward there was a dim light on the right-hand wall.
The captain, still followed by Ralph, now moved on until they came to this lighted place, and found it was an open doorway. Both heads together, they peeped in, and saw it was an opening like a doorway into a chamber about fifteen feet square and with very high walls. They scarcely needed the lantern to examine it, for a jagged opening in the roof let in a good deal of light.
Passing into this chamber, keeping a good watch out for pitfalls as he moved on, and forgetting, in his excitement, that he might go so far that he could not hear Maka, should he call, the captain saw to the right another open doorway, on the other side of which was another chamber, about the size of the one they had first entered. One side of this was a good deal broken away, and through a fracture three or four feet wide the light entered freely, as if from the open air. But when the two explorers peered through the ragged aperture, they did not look into the open air, but into another chamber, very much larger than the others, with high, irregular walls, but with scarcely any roof, almost the whole of the upper part being open to the sky.
A mass of broken rocks on the floor of this apartment showed that the roof had fallen in. The captain entered it and carefully examined it. A portion of the floor was level and unobstructed by rocks, and in the walls there was not the slightest sign of a doorway, except the one by which he had entered from the adjoining chamber.
"Hurrah!" cried Ralph. "Here is a suite of rooms. Isn't this grand? You and I can have that first one, Maka can sleep in the hall to keep out burglars, and Edna and Mrs. Cliff can have the middle room, and this open place here can be their garden, where they can take tea and sew. These rocks will make splendid tables and chairs."
The captain stood, breathing hard, a sense of relief coming over him like the warmth of fire. He had thought of what Ralph had said before the boy had spoken. Here was safety from wild beasts—here was immunity from the only danger he could imagine to those under his charge. It might be days yet before the mate returned,—he knew the probable difficulties of obtaining a vessel, even when a port should be reached,—but they would be safe here from the attacks of ferocious animals, principally to be feared in the night. They might well be thankful for such a good place as this in which to await the arrival of succor, if succor came before their water gave out. There were biscuits, salt meat, tea, and other things enough to supply their wants for perhaps a week longer, provided the three sailors did not return, but the supply of water, although they were very economical of it, must give out in a day or two. "But," thought the captain, "Rynders may be back before that, and, on the other hand, a family of jaguars might scent us out to-night."
"You are right, my boy," said he, speaking to Ralph. "Here is a suite of rooms, and we will occupy them just as you have said. They are dry and airy, and it will be far better for us to sleep here than out of doors."
As they returned, Ralph was full of talk about the grand find. But the captain made no answers to his remarks—his mind was busy contriving some means of barricading the narrow entrance at night.
When breakfast was over, and the entrance to the rocks had been made cleaner and easier by the efforts of Maka and Ralph, the ladies were conducted to the suite of rooms which Ralph had described in such glowing terms. Both were filled with curiosity to see these apartments, especially Miss Markham, who was fairly well read in the history of South America, and who had already imagined that the vast mass of rock by which they had camped might be in reality a temple of the ancient Peruvians, to which the stone face was a sacred sentinel. But when the three apartments had been thoroughly explored she was disappointed.
"There is not a sign or architectural adornment, or anything that seems to have the least religious significance, or significance of any sort," she said. "These are nothing but three stone rooms, with their roofs more or less broken in. They do not even suggest dungeons."
As for Mrs. Cliff, she did not hesitate to say that she should prefer to sleep in the open air.
"It would be dreadful," she said, "to awaken in the night and think of those great stone walls about me."
Even Ralph remarked that, on second thought, he believed he would rather sleep out of doors, for he liked to look up and see the stars before he went to sleep.
At first the captain was a little annoyed to find that this place of safety, the discovery of which had given him such satisfaction and relief, was looked upon with such disfavor by those who needed it so very much, but then the thought came to him, "Why should they care about a place of safety, when they have no idea of danger?" He did not now hesitate to settle the matter in the most straightforward and honest way. Having a place of refuge to offer, the time had come to speak of the danger. And so, standing in the larger apartment, and addressing his party, he told them of the fate he feared had overtaken the three sailors, and how anxious he had been lest the same fate should come upon some one or all of them.
Now vanished every spark of opposition to the captain's proffered lodgings.
"If we should be here but one night longer," cried Mrs. Cliff, echoing the captain's thought, "let us be safe."
In the course of the day the two rooms were made as comfortable as circumstances would allow with the blankets, shawls, and canvas which had been brought on shore, and that night they all slept in the rock chambers, the captain having made a barricade for the opening of the narrow passage with the four oars, which he brought up from the boat. Even should these be broken down by some wild beast, Captain Horn felt that, with his two guns at the end of the narrow passage, he might defend his party from the attacks of any of the savage animals of the country.
The captain slept soundly that night, for he had had but a nap of an hour or two on the previous morning, and, with Maka stretched in the passage outside the door of his room, he knew that he would have timely warning of danger, should any come. But Mrs. Cliff did not sleep well, spending a large part of the night imagining the descent of active carnivora down the lofty and perpendicular walls of the large adjoining apartment.
The next day was passed rather wearily by most of the party in looking out for signs of a vessel with the returning mate. Ralph had made a flag which he could wave from a high point near by, in case he should see a sail, for it would be a great misfortune should Mr. Rynders pass them without knowing it.
To the captain, however, came a new and terrible anxiety. He had looked into the water-keg, and saw that it held but a few quarts. It had not lasted as long as he had expected, for this was a thirsty climate.
The next night Mrs. Cliff slept, having been convinced that not even a cat could come down those walls. The captain woke very early, and when he went out he found, to his amazement, that the barricade had been removed, and he could not see Maka. He thought at first that perhaps the negro had gone down to the sea-shore to get some water for washing purposes, but an hour passed, and Maka did not return. The whole party went down to the beach, for the captain insisted upon all keeping together. They shouted, they called, they did whatever they could to discover the lost African, but all without success.
They returned to camp, disheartened and depressed. This new loss had something terrible in it. What it meant no one could conjecture. There was no reason why Maka should run away, for there was no place to run to, and it was impossible that any wild beast should have removed the oars and carried off the negro.
ANOTHER NEW FACE
As the cook had gone, Mrs. Cliff and Miss Markham prepared breakfast, and then they discovered how little water there was.
There was something mysterious about the successive losses of his men which pressed heavily upon the soul of Captain Horn, but the want of water pressed still more heavily. Ralph had just asked his permission to go down to the beach and bathe in the sea, saying that as he could not have all the water he wanted to drink, it might make him feel better to take a swim in plenty of water. The boy was not allowed to go so far from camp by himself, but the captain could not help thinking how this poor fellow would probably feel the next day if help had not arrived, and of the sufferings of the others, which, by that time, would have begun. Still, as before, he spoke hopefully, and the two women, as brave as he, kept up good spirits, and although they each thought of the waterless morrow, they said nothing about it.
As for Ralph, he confidently expected the return of the men in the course of the day, as he had done in the course of each preceding day, and two or three times an hour he was at his post of observation, ready to wave his flag.
Even had he supposed that it would be of any use to go to look for Maka, a certain superstitious feeling would have prevented the captain from doing so. If he should go out, and not return, there would be little hope for those two women and the boy. But he could not help feeling that beyond the rocky plateau which stretched out into the sea to the southward, and which must be at least two miles away, there might be seen some signs of habitation, and, consequently, of a stream. If anything of the sort could be seen, it might become absolutely necessary for the party to make their way toward it, either by land or sea, no matter how great the fatigue or the danger, and without regard to the fate of those who had left camp before them.
About half an hour afterwards, when the captain had mounted some rocks near by, from which he thought he might get a view of the flat region to the north on which he might discover the missing negro, Ralph, who was looking seaward, gave a start, and then hurriedly called to his sister and Mrs. Cliff, and pointed to the beach. There was the figure of a man which might well be Maka, but, to their amazement and consternation, he was running, followed, not far behind, by another man. The figures rapidly approached, and it was soon seen that the first man was Maka, but that the second figure was not one of the sailors who had left them. Could he be pursuing Maka? What on earth did it mean?
For some moments Ralph stood dumfounded, and then ran in the direction in which the captain had gone, and called to him.
At the sound of his voice the second figure stopped and turned as if he were about to run, but Maka—they were sure it was Maka—seized him by the arm and held him. Therefore this newcomer could not be pursuing their man. As the two now came forward, Maka hurrying the other on, Ralph and his two companions were amazed to see that this second man was also an African, a negro very much like Maka, and as they drew nearer, the two looked as if they might have been brothers.
The captain had wandered farther than he had intended, but after several shouts from Ralph he came running back, and reached the camp-ground just as the two negroes arrived.
At the sight of this tall man bounding toward him the strange negro appeared to be seized with a wild terror. He broke away from Maka, and ran first in this direction and then in that, and perceiving the cleft in the face of the rock, he blindly rushed into it, as a rat would rush into a hole. Instantly Maka was after him, and the two were lost to view.
When the captain had been told of the strange thing which had happened, he stood without a word. Another African! This was a puzzle too great for his brain.
"Are you sure it was not a native of these parts?" said he, directly. "You know, they are very dark."
"No!" exclaimed Mrs. Cliff and her companions almost in the same breath, "it was an African, exactly like Maka."
At this moment a wild yell was heard from the interior of the rocks, then another and another. Without waiting to consider anything, or hear any more, the captain dashed into the narrow passage, Ralph close behind him. They ran into the room in which they had slept. They looked on all sides, but saw nothing. Again, far away, they heard another yell, and they ran out again into the passage.
This narrow entry, as the investigating Ralph had already discovered, continued for a dozen yards past the doorway which led to the chambers, but there it ended in a rocky wall about five feet high. Above this was an aperture extending to the roof of the passage, but Ralph, having a wholesome fear of snakes, had not cared to climb over the wall to see what was beyond.
When the captain and Ralph had reached the end of the passage, they heard another cry, and there could be no doubt that it came through the aperture by which they stood. Instantly Ralph scrambled to the top of the wall, pushed himself head foremost through the opening, and came down on the other side, partly on his hands and partly on his feet. Had the captain been first, he would not have made such a rash leap, but now he did not hesitate a second. He instantly followed the boy, taking care, however, to let himself down on his feet.
The passage on the other side of the dividing wall seemed to be the same as that they had just left, although perhaps a little lighter. After pushing on for a short distance, they found that the passage made a turn to the right, and then in a few moments the captain and Ralph emerged into open space. What sort of space it was they could not comprehend.
"It seemed to me," said Ralph, afterwards, "as if I had fallen into the sky at night. I was afraid to move, for fear I should tumble into astronomical distances."
The captain stared about him, apparently as much confounded by the situation as was the boy. But his mind was quickly brought to the consideration of things which he could understand. Almost at his feet was Maka, lying on his face, his arms and head over the edge of what might be a bank or a bottomless precipice, and yelling piteously. Making a step toward him, the captain saw that he had hold of another man, several feet below him, and that he could not pull him up.
"Hold on tight, Maka," he cried, and then, taking hold of the African's shoulders, he gave one mighty heave, lifted both men, and set them on their feet beside him.
Ralph would have willingly sacrificed the rest of his school-days to be able to perform such a feat as that. But the Africans were small, and the captain was wildly excited.
Well might he be excited. He was wet! The strange man whom he had pulled up had stumbled against him, and he was dripping with water. Ralph was by the captain, tightly gripping his arm, and, without speaking, they both stood gazing before them and around them.
At their feet, stretching away in one direction, farther than they could see, and what at first sight they had taken to be air, was a body of water—a lake! Above them were rocks, and, as far as they could see to the right, the water seemed to be overhung by a cavernous roof. But in front of them, on the other side of the lake, which here did not seem to be more than a hundred feet wide, there was a great upright opening in the side of the cave, through which they could see the distant mountains and a portion of the sky.
"Water!" said Ralph, in a low tone, as if he had been speaking in church, and then, letting go of the captain's arm, he began to examine the ledge, but five or six feet wide, on which they stood. At his feet the water was at least a yard below them, but a little distance on he saw that the ledge shelved down to the surface of the lake, and in a moment he had reached this spot, and, throwing himself down on his breast, he plunged his face into the water and began drinking like a thirsty horse. Presently he rose to his knees with a great sigh of satisfaction.
"Oh, captain," he cried, "it is cold and delicious. I believe that in one hour more I should have died of thirst."
But the captain did not answer, nor did he move from the spot where he stood. His thoughts whirled around in his mind like chaff in a winnowing-machine. Water! A lake in the bosom of the rocks! Half an hour ago he must have been standing over it as he scrambled up the hillside. Visions that he had had of the morrow, when all their eyes should be standing out of their faces, like the eyes of shipwrecked sailors he had seen in boats, came back to him, and other visions of his mate and his men toiling southward for perhaps a hundred miles without reaching a port or a landing, and then the long, long delay before a vessel could be procured. And here was water!
Ralph stood beside him for an instant. "Captain," he cried, "I am going to get a pail, and take some to Edna and Mrs. Cliff." And then he was gone.
Recalled thus to the present, the captain stepped back. He must do something—he must speak to some one. He must take some advantage of this wonderful, this overpowering discovery. But before he could bring his mind down to its practical workings, Maka had clutched him by the coat.
"Cap'n," he said, "I must tell you. I must speak it. I must tell you now, quick. Wait! Don't go!"
The new African was sitting on the ground, as far back from the edge of the ledge as he could get, shivering and shaking, for the water was cold. He had apparently reached the culmination and termination of his fright. After his tumble into the water, which had happened because he had been unable to stop in his mad flight, he had not nerve enough left to do anything more, no matter what should appear to scare him, and there was really no reason why he should be afraid of this big white man, who did not even look at him or give him a thought.
Maka's tale, which he told so rapidly and incoherently that he was frequently obliged to repeat portions of it, was to the following effect: He had thought a great deal about the scarcity of water, and it had troubled him so that he could not sleep. What a dreadful thing it would be for those poor ladies and the captain and the boy to die because they had no water! His recollections of experiences in his native land made him well understand that streams of water are to be looked for between high ridges, and the idea forced itself upon him very strongly that on the other side of the ridge to the south there might be a stream. He knew the captain would not allow him to leave the camp if he asked permission, and so he rose very early, even before it was light, and going down to the shore, made his way along the beach—on the same route, in fact, that the Englishman Davis had taken. He was a good deal frightened sometimes, he said, by the waves, which dashed up as if they would pull him into the water. When he reached the point of the rocky ridge, he had no difficulty whatever in getting round it, as he could easily keep away from the water by climbing over the rocks.
He found that the land on the other side began to recede from the ocean, and that there was a small sandy beach below him. This widened until it reached another and smaller point of rock, and beyond this Maka believed he would find the stream for which he was searching. And while he was considering whether he should climb over it or wade around it, suddenly a man jumped down from the rock, almost on top of him. This man fell down on his back, and was at first so frightened that he did not try to move. Maka's wits entirely deserted him, he said, and he did not know anything, except that most likely he was going to die.
But on looking at the man on the ground, he saw that he was an African like himself, and in a moment he recognized him as one of his fellow-slaves, with whom he had worked in Guiana, and also for a short time on the Panama Canal. This made him think that perhaps he was not going to die, and he went up to the other man and spoke to him. Then the other man thought perhaps he was not going to die, and he sat up and spoke.
When the other man told his tale, Maka agreed with him that it would be far better to die of thirst than to go on any farther to look for water, and, turning, he ran back, followed by the other, and they never stopped to speak to each other until they had rounded the great bluff, and were making their way along the beach toward the camp. Then his fellow-African told Maka a great deal more, and Maka told everything to the captain.
The substance of the tale was this: A mile farther up the bay than Maka had gone, there was a little stream that ran down the ravine. About a quarter of a mile up this stream there was a spot where, it appeared from the account, there must be a little level ground suitable for habitations. Here were five or six huts, almost entirely surrounded by rocks, and in these lived a dozen of the most dreadful men in the whole world. This Maka assured the captain, his eyes wet with tears as he spoke. It must truly be so, because the other African had told him things which proved it.
A little farther up the stream, on the other side of the ravine, there was a cave, a very small one, and so high up in the face of the rock that it could only be reached by a ladder. In this lived five black men, members of the company of slaves who had gone from Guiana to the isthmus, and who had been brought down there about a year before by two wicked men, who had promised them well-paid work in a lovely country. They had, however, been made actual slaves in this barren and doleful place, and had since worked for the cruel men who had beguiled them into a captivity worse than the slavery to which they had been originally destined.
Eight of them had come down from the isthmus, but, at various times since, three of them had been killed by accident, or shot while trying to run away. The hardships of these poor fellows were very great, and Maka's voice shook as he spoke of them. They were kept in the cave all the time, except when they were wanted for some sort of work, when a ladder was put up by the side of the rock, and such as were required were called to come down. Without a ladder no one could get in or out of the cave. One man who had tried to slip down at night fell and broke his neck.
The Africans were employed in cooking and other rough domestic or menial services, and sometimes all of them were taken down to the shore of the bay, where they saw small vessels, and they were employed in carrying goods from one of these to another, and were also obliged to carry provisions and heavy kegs up the ravine to the houses of the wicked men. The one whom he had brought with him, Maka said, had that day escaped from his captors. One of the Rackbirds, whom in some way the negro had offended, had sworn to kill him before night, and feeling sure that this threat would be carried out, the poor fellow had determined to run away, no matter what the consequences. He had chosen the way by the ocean, in order that he might jump in and drown himself if he found that he was likely to be overtaken, but apparently his escape had not yet been discovered.
Maka was going on to tell something more about the wicked men, when the captain interrupted him. "Can this friend of yours speak English?" he asked.
"Only one, two words," replied Maka.
"Ask him if he knows the name of that band of men."
"Yes," said Maka, presently, "he know, but he no can speak it."
"Are they called the Rackbirds?" asked Captain Horn.
The shivering negro had been listening attentively, and now half rose and nodded his head violently, and then began to speak rapidly in African.
"Yes," said Maka, "he says that is name they are called."
At this moment Ralph appeared upon the scene, and the second African, whose name was something like Mok, sprang to his feet as if he were about to flee for his life. But as there was no place to flee to, except into the water or into the arms of Ralph, he stood still, trembling. A few feet to the left the shelf ended in a precipitous rock, and on the right, as has been said, it gradually descended into the water, the space on which the party stood not being more than twenty feet long and five or six feet wide. When he saw Ralph, the captain suddenly stopped the question he was about to ask, and said in an undertone to Maka:
"Not a word to the boy. I will tell."
"Oh," cried Ralph, "you do not know what a lively couple there is out there. I found that my sister and Mrs. Cliff had made up their minds that they would perish in about two days, and Mrs. Cliff had been making her will with a lead-pencil, and now they are just as high up as they were low down before. They would not let me come to get them some water, though I kept telling them they never tasted anything like it in their whole lives, because they wanted to hear everything about everything. My sister will be wild to come to this lake before long, even if Mrs. Cliff does not care to try it. And when you are ready to come to them, and bring Maka, they want to know who that other colored man is, and how Maka happened to find him. I truly believe their curiosity goes ahead of their thirst." And so saying he went down to the lake to fill a pail he had brought with him.
The captain told Ralph to hurry back to the ladies, and that he would be there in a few minutes. Captain Horn knew a great deal about the Rackbirds. They were a band of desperadoes, many of them outlaws and criminals. They had all come down from the isthmus, to which they had been attracted by the great canal works, and after committing various outrages and crimes, they had managed to get away without being shot or hung. Captain Horn had frequently heard of them in the past year or two, and it was generally supposed that they had some sort of rendezvous or refuge on this coast, but there had been no effort made to seek them out. He had frequently heard of crimes committed by them at points along the coast, which showed that they had in their possession some sort of vessel. At one time, when he had stopped at Lima, he had heard that there was talk of the government's sending out a police or military expedition against these outlaws, but he had never known of anything of the sort being done.
Everything that, from time to time, had been told Captain Horn about the Rackbirds showed that they surpassed in cruelty and utter vileness any other bandits, or even savages, of whom he had ever heard. Among other news, he had been told that the former leader of the band, which was supposed to be composed of men of many nationalities, was a French Canadian, who had been murdered by his companions because, while robbing a plantation in the interior,—they had frequently been known to cross the desert and the mountains,—he had forborne to kill an old man because as the trembling graybeard looked up at him he had reminded him of his father. Some of the leading demons of the band determined that they could not have such a fool as this for their leader, and he was killed while asleep.
Now the band was headed by a Spaniard, whose fiendishness was of a sufficiently high order to satisfy the most exacting of his fellows. These and other bits of news about the Rackbirds had been told by one of the band who had escaped to Panama after the murder of the captain, fearing that his own talents for baseness did not reach the average necessary for a Rackbird.
When he had made his landing from the wreck, Captain Horn never gave a thought to the existence of this band of scoundrels. In fact, he had supposed, when he had thought of the matter, that their rendezvous must be far south of this point.
But now, standing on that shelf of rock, with his eyes fixed on the water without seeing it, he knew that the abode of this gang of wretches was within a comparatively short distance of this spot in which he and his companions had taken refuge, and he knew, too, that there was every reason to suppose that some of them would soon be in pursuit of the negro who had run away.
Suddenly another dreadful thought struck him. Wild beasts, indeed!
He turned quickly to Maka. "Does that man know anything about Davis and the two sailors? Were they killed?" he asked.
Maka shook his head and said that he had already asked his companion that question, but Mok had said that he did not know. All he knew was that those wicked men killed everybody they could kill.
The captain shut his teeth tightly together. "That was it," he said. "I could not see how it could be jaguars, although I could think of nothing else. But these bloodthirsty human beasts! I see it now." He moved toward the passage. "If that dirty wretch had not run away," he thought, "we might have stayed undiscovered here until a vessel came. But they will track his footsteps upon the sand—they are bound to do that."
THREE WILD BEASTS
When the captain joined the two ladies and the boy, who were impatiently waiting for him on the plateau, he had made up his mind to tell them the bad news. Terrible as was the necessity, it could not be helped. It was very hard for him to meet those three radiant faces, and to hear them talk about the water that had been discovered.
"Now," said Mrs. Cliff, "I see no reason why we should not live here in peace and comfort until Mr. Rynders chooses to come back for us. And I have been thinking, captain, that if somebody—and I am sure Ralph would be very good at it—could catch some fish, it would help out very much. We are getting a little short of meat, but as for the other things, we have enough to last for days and days. But we won't talk of that now. We want to hear where that other colored man came from. Just look at him as he sits there with Maka by those embers. One might think he would shiver himself to pieces. Was he cast ashore from a wreck?"
The captain stood silent for a moment, and then, briefly but plainly, and glossing over the horrors of the situation as much as he could, he told them about the Rackbirds. Not one of the little party interrupted the captain's story, but their faces grew paler and paler as he proceeded.
When he had finished, Mrs. Cliff burst into tears. "Captain," she cried, "let us take the boat and row away from this dreadful place. We should not lose a minute. Let us go now!"
But the captain shook his head. "That would not do," he said. "On this open sea they could easily see us. They have boats, and could row much faster than we could."
"Then," exclaimed the excited woman, "we could turn over the boat, and all sink to the bottom together."
To this the captain made no answer. "You must all get inside as quickly as you can," he said. "Maka, you and that other fellow carry in everything that has been left out here. Be quick. Go up, Ralph, and take the flag down, and then run in."
When the others had entered the narrow passage, the captain followed. Fortunately, he had two guns, each double-barrelled, and if but a few of the Rackbirds came in pursuit of the escaped negro, he might be a match for them in that narrow passage.
Shortly after the party had retired within the rocks, Miss Markham came to the captain, who was standing at the door of the first apartment. "Captain Horn," said she, "Mrs. Cliff is in a state of nervous fear, and I have been trying to quiet her. Can you say anything that might give her a little courage? Do you really think there is any chance of our escape from this new danger?"
"Yes," said the captain, "there is a chance. Rynders may come back before the Rackbirds discover us, and even if two or three of them find out our retreat, I may be able to dispose of them, and thus give us a little more time. That is our only ground of hope. Those men are bound to come here sooner or later, and everything depends upon the return of Rynders."
"But," urged Miss Markham, "perhaps they may not come so far as this to look for the runaway. The waves may have washed out his footsteps upon the sand. There may be no reason why they should come up to this plateau."
The captain smiled a very sombre smile. "If any of them should come this way," he said, "it is possible that they might not think it worth while to cease their search along the beach and come up to this particular spot, were it not that our boat is down there. That is the same thing as if we had put out a sign to tell them where we are. The boat is hauled up on shore, but they could not fail to see it."
"Captain," said Miss Markham, "do you think those Rackbirds killed the three sailors?"
"I am very much afraid of it," he answered. "If they did, they must have known that these poor fellows were survivors of a shipwreck, and I suppose they stole up behind them and shot them down or stabbed them. If that were so, I wonder why they have not sooner been this way, looking for the wreck, or, at least, for other unfortunates who may have reached shore. I suppose, if they are making this sort of a search, they went southward. But all that, of course, depends upon whether they really saw Davis and the two other men. If they did not, they could have no reason for supposing there were any shipwrecked people on the coast."
"But that thought is of no use to us," said Miss Markham, her eyes upon the ground, "for, of course, they will be coming after the black man. Captain," she continued quickly, "is there anything I can do? I can fire a gun."
He looked at her for a moment. "That will not be necessary," he said. "But there is something you can do. Have you a pistol?"
"Yes," said she, "I have. I put it in my pocket as soon as I came into the cave. Here it is."
The captain took the pistol from her hands and examined it. "Five chambers," he said, "all charged. Be very careful of it,"—handing it back to her. "I will put your brother and Mrs. Cliff in your charge. At the slightest hint of danger, you must keep together in the middle room. I will stand between you and the rascals as long as I can, but if I am killed, you must do what you think best."
"I will," said she, and she put the pistol back in her pocket.
The captain was very much encouraged by the brave talk of this young woman, and it really seemed as if he now had some one to stand by him, some one with whom he could even consult.
"I have carefully examined this cavern," said the captain, after a moment's pause, "and there are only two ways by which those men could possibly get in. You need not be afraid that any one can scramble down the walls of that farthest apartment. That could not be done, though they might be able to fire upon any one in it. But in the middle room you will be perfectly secure from gunshots. I shall keep Maka on guard a little back from the entrance to the passage. He will lie on the ground, and can hear footsteps long before they reach us. It is barely possible that some of them might enter by the great cleft in the cave on the other side of the lake, but in that case they would have to swim across, and I shall station that new African on the ledge of which you have heard, and if he sees any of them coming in that direction, I know he will give very quick warning. I hardly think, though, that they would trust themselves to be picked off while swimming."
"And you?" said she.
"Oh, I shall keep my eyes on all points," said he, "as far as I can. I begin to feel a spirit of fight rising up within me. If I thought I could keep them off until Rynders gets here, I almost wish they would then come. I would like to kill a lot of them."
"Suppose," said Edna Markham, after a moment's reflection, "that they should see Mr. Rynders coming back, and should attack him."
"I hardly think they would do that," replied the captain. "He will probably come in a good-sized vessel, and I don't think they are the kind of men for open battle. They are midnight sneaks and assassins. Now, I advise all of you to go and get something to eat. It would be better for us not to try to do any cooking, and so make a smoke."
The captain did not wish to talk any more. Miss Markham's last remark had put a new fear into his mind. Suppose the Rackbirds had lured Rynders and his men on shore? Those sailors had but few arms among them. They had not thought, when they left, that there would be any necessity for defence against their fellow-beings.
When Edna Markham told Mrs. Cliff what the captain had said about their chances, and what he intended to do for their protection, the older woman brightened up a good deal.
"I have great faith in the captain," she declared, "and if he thinks it is worth while to make a fight, I believe he will make a good one. If they should be firing, and Mr. Rynders is approaching the coast, even if it should be night, he would lose no time in getting to us."
Toward the close of that afternoon three wild beasts came around the point of the bluff and made their way northward along the beach. They were ferocious creatures with shaggy hair and beards. Two of them carried guns, and each of them had a knife in his belt. When they came to a broad bit of beach above the reach of the waves, they were very much surprised at some footsteps they saw. They were the tracks of two men, instead of those of the one they were looking for. This discovery made them very cautious. They were eager to kill the escaped African before he got far enough away to give information of their retreat, for they knew not at what time an armed force in search of them might approach the coast. But they were very wary about running into danger. There was somebody with that black fellow—somebody who wore boots.
After a time they came to the boat. The minute they saw this, each miscreant crouched suddenly upon the sand, and, with cocked guns, they listened. Then, hearing nothing, they carefully examined the boat. It was empty—there were not even oars in it.
Looking about them, they saw a hollow behind some rocks. To this they ran, crouching close to the ground, and there they sat and consulted.
It was between two and three o'clock the next morning that Maka's eyes, which had not closed for more than twenty hours, refused to keep open any longer, and with his head on the hard, rocky ground of the passage in which he lay, the poor African slept soundly. On the shelf at the edge of the lake, the other African, Mok, sat crouched on his heels, his eyes wide open. Whether he was asleep or not it would have been difficult to determine, but if any one had appeared in the great cleft on the other side of the lake, he would have sprung to his feet with a yell—his fear of the Rackbirds was always awake.
Inside the first apartment was Captain Horn, fast asleep, his two guns by his side. He had kept watch until an hour before, but Ralph had insisted upon taking his turn, and, as the captain knew he could not keep awake always, he allowed the boy to take a short watch. But now Ralph was leaning back against one of the walls, snoring evenly and steadily. In the next room sat Edna Markham, wide awake. She knew of the arrangement made with Ralph, and she knew the boy's healthy, sleepy nature, so that when he went on watch she went on watch.
Outside of the cave were three wild beasts. One of them was crouching on the farther end of the plateau. Another, on the lower ground a little below, stood, gun in hand, and barely visible in the starlight. A third, barefooted, and in garments dingy as the night, and armed only with a knife, crept softly toward the entrance of the cave. There he stopped and listened. He could plainly hear the breathing of the sleepers. He tried to separate these sounds one from another, so that he should be able to determine how many persons were sleeping inside, but this he could not do. Then his cat-like eyes, becoming more and more accustomed to the darkness within the entrance, saw the round head of Maka close upon the ground.
The soul of the listening fiend laughed within him. "Pretty watchers they are," he said to himself. "Not three hours after midnight, and they are all snoring!" Then, as stealthily and as slowly as he had come, he slipped away, and joining the others, they all glided through the darkness down to the beach, and then set off at their best speed back to their rendezvous.
After they had discovered that there were people in the cave, they had not thought of entering. They were not fully armed, and they did not know how many persons were inside. But they knew one thing, and that was that these shipwrecked people—for that was what they must be—kept a very poor watch, and if the whole band came on the following night, the affair would probably be settled with but very little trouble, no matter how large the party in the cave might be. It was not necessary to look any further for the escaped negro. Of course, he had been picked up by these people.
The three beasts reached their camp about daybreak, and everybody was soon awakened and the tale was told.
"It is a comfort," said the leader, lighting the stump of a black pipe which he thrust under his great mustache, and speaking in his native tongue, which some of them understood, and others did not, "to know that to-night's work is all cut out for us. Now we can take it easy to-day, and rest our bones. The order of the day is to keep close. No straggling, nor wandering. Keep those four niggers up in the pigeonhole. We will do our own cooking to-day, for we can't afford to run after any more of them. Lucky the fellow who got away can't speak English, for he can't tell anything about us, any more than if he was an ape. So snooze to-day, if you want to. I will give you work to do for to-night."
That morning, when the party in the cavern had had their breakfast, with some hot tea made on a spiritlamp which Mrs. Cliff had brought, and had looked cautiously out at the sunlit landscape, and the sea beyond, without seeing any signs or hearing any sound of wicked men, there came a feeling of relief. There was, indeed, no great ground for such a feeling, but as the Rackbirds had not come the day before nor during the night, perhaps they would not come at all. It might be they did not care whether the black man ran away or not. But Captain Horn did not relax his precautions. He would take no chances, and would keep up a watch day and night.
When, on the night before, the time had come for Ralph's watch to end, his sister had awakened him, and when the captain, in his turn, was aroused, he had not known that it was not the boy who had kept watch during his sleep.
In the course of the morning Mrs. Cliff and Edna, having been filled with an intense desire to see the wonderful subterranean lake, had been helped over the rocky barrier, and had stood at the edge of the water, looking over to where it was lighted by the great chasm in the side of the rocks, and endeavoring to peer into the solemn, cavernous distance into which it extended on the right. Edna said nothing, but stood gazing at the wonderful scene—the dark, mysterious waters before her, the arched cavern above her, and the picture of the bright sky and the tops of the distant mountains, framed by the sides of the great opening which stretched itself upward like a cathedral window on the other side of the lake.
"It frightens me," said Mrs. Cliff. "To be sure, this water was our salvation, for we should have been dead by this time, pirates or no pirates, if we had not found it. But it is terrifying, for all that. We do not know how far it stretches out into the blackness, and we do not know how far down it goes. It may be thousands of feet deep, for all we know. Don't go so near the edge, Ralph. It makes me shudder."
When the little party had returned to the cavern, the captain and the two ladies had a long talk about the lake. They all agreed that the existence of this great reservoir of water was sufficient to account for the greenness and fertility of the little plateau outside. Even if no considerable amount of water trickled through the cracks in the rocks, the moisture which arose from the surface of the water found its way out into the surrounding atmosphere, and had nourished the bushes and vines.
For some time they discussed their new-found water-supply, and they were all glad to have something to think about and talk about besides the great danger which overhung them.
"If it could only have been the lake without the Rackbirds," said Mrs. Cliff.
"Let us consider that that is the state of the case," remarked Edna. "We have the lake, and so far we have not had any Rackbirds."
It was now nearly noon, and the captain looked around for Ralph, but did not see him. He went to search for him, and finding that the boy had not passed Maka, who was on watch, he concluded he must have gone to the lake. There was no reason why the restless youth should not seek to enliven his captivity by change of scene, but Captain Horn felt unwilling to have any one in his charge out of sight for any length of time, so he went to look for Ralph.
He found no one on the rocky shelf. As there had been little reason to expect a water attack at this hour, Mok had been relieved from guard for a meal and a nap. But as Ralph was not here, where could he be? A second glance, however, showed the captain the boy's clothes lying close by, against the upright side of the rock, and at that moment he heard a cry. His eyes flashed out toward the sound. There on the other side of the water, sitting on a bit of projecting rock not far from the great opening in the cave, he saw Ralph. At first the captain stood dumb with amazement, and he was just about to call out, when Ralph shouted again.
"I swam over," he said, "but I can't get back. I've got the cramps. Can't you make some sort of a raft, and come over to me! The water's awfully cold."
Raft, indeed! There was no material or time for anything of the kind. If the boy dropped off that bit of rock, he would be drowned, and the captain did not hesitate a moment. Throwing aside his jacket and slipping off his shoes, he let himself down into the water and struck out in Ralph's direction. The water was, indeed, very cold, but the captain was a strong swimmer, and it would not take him very long to cross the lake at this point, where its width was not much more than a hundred feet. As he neared the other side he did not make immediately for Ralph. He thought it would be wise to rest a little before attempting to take the boy back, and so he made for another point of rock, a little nearer the opening, urging the boy, as he neared him, to sit firmly and keep up a good heart.
"All right," said Ralph. "I see what you are after. That is a better place than this, and if you land there I think I can scramble over to you."
"Don't move," said the captain. "Sit where you are until I tell you what to do."
The captain had not made more than two or three strokes after speaking when his right hand struck against something hard, just below the surface of the water. He involuntarily grasped it. It was immovable, and it felt like a tree, a few inches in diameter, standing perpendicularly in the lake. Wondering what this could be, he took hold of it with his other hand, and finding that it supported him, he let his feet drop, when, to his surprise, he found that they rested on something with a rounded surface, and the idea instantly came into his mind that it was a submerged tree, the trunk lying horizontally, from which this upright branch projected. This might be as good a resting-place as the rock to which he had been going, and standing on it, with his head well out of the water, he turned to speak to Ralph. At that moment his feet slipped from the slimy object on which he stood, and he fell backward into the water, still grasping, however, his upright support. But this did not remain upright more than an instant, but yielded to his weight, and the end of it which he held went down with him. As he sank, the captain, in his first bewilderment, did not loosen his grasp upon what had been his support, and which still prevented him from sinking rapidly. But in a moment his senses came to him, he let go, and a few downward strokes brought him to the surface of the water. Then he struck out for the point of rock for which he had been aiming, and he was soon mounted upon it.
"Hi!" shouted Ralph, who had been so frightened by the captain's sudden sinking that he nearly fell off his narrow seat, "I thought something had pulled you down."
The captain did not explain. He was spluttering a little after his involuntary dive, and he wanted to get back as soon as possible, and so wasted no breath in words. In a few minutes he felt himself ready for the return trip, and getting into the water, he swam to Ralph. Following the directions given him, the boy let himself down into the water behind the captain, and placed his hands upon the latter's hips, firmly grasping the waistband of his trousers. Then urging the boy not to change his position, nor attempt to take hold of him in any other way, the captain struck out across the lake, Ralph easily floating behind him.
When they stood upon the shelf on the other side, and Ralph, having rubbed himself down with the captain's jacket, put on his clothes, Captain Horn rather sternly inquired of him how he came to do such a foolish and wicked thing as to run the risk of drowning himself in the lake at a time when his sister and his friends had already trouble enough on their minds.
Ralph was sorry, of course, that the captain had to come after him, and get himself wet, but he explained that he wanted to do something for the good of the party, and it had struck him that it would be a very sensible thing to investigate the opening on the other side of the lake. If he could get out of that great gap, he might find some way of climbing out over the top of the rocks and get to the place where his flag was, and then, if he saw Mr. Rynders coming, he could wave it. It would be a great thing if the people in the vessel which they all expected should see that flag the moment they came in sight of the coast. They might get to shore an hour or two sooner than if they had not seen it.
"If the cramp in this leg had kept off five minutes longer," he said, "I would have reached that big hole, and then, if I could have climbed over the top of the rocks, I could have come down on the other side to the front door, and asked Maka to get me my clothes, so I would not have had to swim back at all."
"That will do," said the captain. "And now that you are dressed, you can go inside and get me that woollen shirt and trousers that I use for a pillow, for I must take off these wet things."
When the boy came back with the clothes, the captain told him that he need not say anything to his sister or Mrs. Cliff about the great danger he had been in, but before he had finished his injunction Ralph interrupted him.
"Oh, I have told them that already," said he. "They wanted to know where I had been, and it did not take a minute to tell them what a splendid swimmer you are, and how you came over after me without taking as much as two seconds to think about it. And I let them know, too, that it was a mighty dangerous thing for you to do. If I had been one of those fellows who were not used to the water, and who would grab hold of any one who came to save them, we might both have gone to the bottom together."
The captain smiled grimly. "It is hard to get ahead of a boy," he said to himself.
It was late that afternoon when Captain Horn, with Ralph and the two ladies, were standing on the rocks in the inner apartment, trying to persuade themselves that they were having a cosey cup of tea together, when suddenly a scrambling sound of footsteps was heard, and Maka dashed through the two adjoining apartments and appeared before them. Instantly the captain was on his feet, his gun, which had been lying beside him, in his hand. Up sprang the others, mute, with surprise and fear on their faces. Maka, who was in a state of great excitement, and seemed unable to speak, gasped out the one word, "Gone!"
"What do you mean?" cried the captain.
Maka ran back toward the passage, and pointed inward. Instantly the captain conjectured what he meant. Mok, the second African, had been stationed to watch the lake approach, and he had deserted! Now the hot thought flashed upon the captain that the rascal had been a spy. The Rackbirds had known that there were shipwrecked people in these caves. How could they help knowing it, if they had killed Davis and the others? But, cowardly hounds as they were, they had been afraid to attack the place until they knew how many people were in it, what arms they had, and in what way the place could best be assailed. This Mok had found out everything. If the boy could swim across the lake, that black man could do it, and he had gone out through the cleft, and was probably now making his report to the gang.
All this flashed through the captain's brain in a few seconds. He set his teeth together. He was ashamed that he had allowed himself to be so tricked. That African, probably one of the gang, and able to speak English, should have been kept a prisoner. What a fool he had been to treat the black-hearted and black-bodied wretch as one of themselves, and actually to put him on guard!
Of course, it was of no use to go to look for him, and the captain had put down his gun, and was just about to turn to speak to the others, when Maka seized him by the coat. The negro seemed wildly excited and still unable to speak. But it was plain that he wanted the captain to follow him along the passage. There was no use in asking questions, and the captain followed, and behind him came Ralph, Edna, and Mrs. Cliff.
Maka was about to climb over the rocky partition which divided the passage, but the captain stopped him. "Stay here," said he, "and watch the passage. I will see what is the matter over there." And then he and Ralph jumped over and hurried to the lake. As they came out on the little platform of rock, on which the evening light, coming through the great; cleft, still rendered objects visible, they saw Mok crouching on his heels, his eyes wide open as usual.
The captain was stupefied. That African not gone! If it were not he, who had gone?
Then the captain felt a tight clutch upon his arm, and Ralph pulled him around. Casting eyes outward, the captain saw that it was the lake that had gone!
As he and Ralph stood there, stupefied and staring, they saw, by the dim light which came through the opening on the other side of the cavern, a great empty rocky basin. The bottom of this, some fifteen or twenty feet below them, wet and shining, with pools of water here and there, was plainly visible in the space between them and the open cleft, but farther on all was dark. There was every reason to suppose, however, that all the water had gone from the lake. Why or how this had happened, they did not even ask themselves. They simply stood and stared.
In a few minutes they were joined by Edna, who had become so anxious at their absence and silence that she had clambered over the wall, and came running to them. By the time she reached them it was much darker than when they had arrived, but she could see that the lake had gone. That was enough.
"What do you suppose it means?" she said presently. "Are we over some awful subterranean cavern in which things sink out of sight in an instant?"
"It is absolutely unaccountable," said the captain. "But we must go back to Mrs. Cliff. I hear her calling. And if Maka has come to his senses, perhaps he can tell us something."
But Maka had very little to tell. To the captain's questions he could only say that a little while before, Mok had come running to him, and told him that, being thirsty, he had gone down to the edge of the lake to get a drink, and found that there was no water, only a great hole, and then he had run to tell Maka, and when Maka had gone back with him, so greatly surprised that he had deserted his post without thinking about it, he found that what Mok had said was true, and that there was nothing there but a great black hole. Mok must have been asleep when the water went away, but it was gone, and that was all he knew about it.
There was something so weird and mysterious about this absolute and sudden disappearance of this great body of water that Mrs. Cliff became very nervous and frightened.
"This is a temple of the devil," she said, "and that is his face outside. You do not know what may happen next. This rocky floor on which we stand may give way, and we may all go down into unknown depths. I can't think of staying here another minute. It is dark now. Let us slip away down to the beach, and take the boat, and row away from this horrible region where human devils and every other kind seem to own the country."
"Oh, no," said the captain, "we can't consider such wild schemes as that. I have been thinking that perhaps there may be some sort of a tide in this lake, and in the morning we may find the water just as it was. And, at any rate, it has not entirely deserted us, for in these pools at the bottom we can find water enough for us to drink."
"I suppose I would not mind such things so much," said Mrs. Cliff, "if they happened out of doors. But being shut up in this cave with magical lakes, and expecting every minute to see a lot of bloodthirsty pirates bursting in upon us, is enough to shake the nerves of anybody."
"Captain," said Ralph, "I suppose you will not now object to letting me go in the morning to explore that opening. I can walk across the bottom of the lake without any danger, you know."
"Don't you try to do anything of the kind," said the captain, "without my permission."
"No, indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. Cliff. "Supposing the water were to suddenly rise just as you were half-way across. Now that I think of it, there are springs and bodies of water which rise and fall this way, some of them in our own Western country, but none of them are as large as this. What if it should rise in the night and flood the cave while we are asleep?"
"Why, dear Mrs. Cliff," said Edna, "I am not afraid of the water's rising or of the earth's sinking. Don't let us frighten ourselves with imaginations like that. Perhaps there may not even be any real thing to be afraid of, but if there should be, let us keep courage for that."
The disappearance of the lake gave the captain an uneasiness of which the others had not thought. He saw it would be comparatively easy for the Rackbirds to gain access to the place through the cleft in the eastern wall of the lake cavern. If they should discover that aperture, the cavern might be attacked from the rear and the front at the same time, and then the captain feared his guns would not much avail.
Of course, during the darkness which would soon prevail there was no reason to expect a rear attack, and the captain satisfied himself with leaving Mok at his former post, with instructions to give the alarm if he heard the slightest sound, and put Maka, as before, in the outer passage. As for himself, he took an early nap in the evening, because at the very first break of dawn it would be necessary for him to be on the alert.
He did not know how much he had depended upon the lake as a barrier of defence, but now that it had gone, he felt that the dangers which threatened them from the Rackbirds were doubled.
It was still dark when the captain woke, and he struck a match to look at his watch. It was three o'clock.
"Is that you, captain?" said a voice from the next room. "Is it time for you to begin watch again?"
"Yes," said the captain, "it is about time. How do you happen to be awake, Miss Markham? Ralph! I believe the boy is snoring."
"Of course he is," said Edna, speaking in a low voice. "We cannot expect such a boy to keep awake, and so I have been on watch. It was easy enough for me to keep my eyes open."
"It is too bad," said the captain, and then, listening for a moment, he said: "I truly believe that Maka is snoring, too, and as for that black fellow over there, I suspect that he sleeps all the time. Miss Markham, you have been the only person awake."
"Why shouldn't I be?" said she. "I am sure that a woman is just as good as a man for keeping watch."
"If they should come," thought the captain, as he again sat in the dark, "I must not try to fight them in the passage. That would have been my best chance, but now some of them might pick me off from behind. No, I must fight them in this chamber. I can put everybody else in the middle apartment. Perhaps before to-morrow night it might be well to bring some of those loose rocks here and build a barricade. I wish I had thought of that before."
The captain sat and listened and thought. His listening brought him no return, and his thinking brought him too much. The most mournful ideas of what might happen if more than two or three of the desperadoes attacked the place crowded into his mind. If they came, they came to rob, and they were men who left behind them no living witnesses of their whereabouts or their crimes. And if two or three should come, and be repulsed, it would not be long before the rest would arrive. In fact, the only real hope they had was founded on the early return of Rynders—that is, if Rynders and his men were living.
The captain waited and listened, but nothing came but daylight. As soon as he was able to discern objects outside the opening on the plateau, he awoke Maka, and, leaving him on guard, he made his way to the lake cavern.
Here the light was beginning to come freely through the chasm which faced nearly east. Mok was sitting with his eyes open, and showed that he was alive by a little grunt when the captain approached. If there were such a thing here as a subterranean tide, it had not risen. There was no water where the lake had been.
Gazing across the empty basin, the captain felt a strong desire to go over, climb up to the opening, and discover whether or not the cavern was accessible on that side. It would be very important for him to know this, and it would not take long for him to make an investigation. One side of the rocky shelf which has been before mentioned sloped down to the lake, and the captain was just about to descend this when he heard a cry from the passage, and, at the same moment, a shout from Mok which seemed to be in answer to it. Instantly the captain turned and dashed into the passage, and, leaping over the barrier, found Maka standing near the entrance.
As soon as the negro saw him, he began to beckon wildly for him to come on. But there was no need now of keeping quiet and beckoning. The first shout had aroused everybody inside, and the two ladies and Ralph were already in the passage. The captain, however, made them keep back, while he and Maka, on their hands and knees, crawled toward the outer opening. From this point one could see over the plateau, and the uneven ground beyond, down to the beach and the sea; but there was still so little light upon this western slope that at first the captain could not see anything noticeable in the direction in which Maka was pointing. But in a few moments his mariner eyes asserted themselves, and he saw some black spots on the strip of beach, which seemed to move. Then he knew they were moving, and moving toward him—coming up to the cave! They were men!
"Sit here," said the captain to Maka, and then, with his gun in his hand, he rushed back to the rest of the party.
"They seem to be coming," said he, speaking as calmly as he could, "but we have discovered them in good time, and I shall have some shots at them before they reach here. Let us hope that they will never get here at all. You two," said he to Mrs. Cliff and Ralph, "are to be under command of Miss Markham. You must do exactly what she tells you to." Then, turning to Edna, he said, "You have your pistol ready?"
"Yes," said she, "I am ready."
Without another word, the captain took his other gun and all his ammunition, and went back into the passage. Here he found Mok, who had come to see what was the matter. Motioning the negro to go back to his post, the captain, with his loaded guns, went again to the entrance. Looking out, he could now plainly see the men. There were four of them. It was lighter down toward the sea, for the rocks still threw a heavy shadow over the plateau. The sight sent a thrill of brave excitement through the captain.