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Title: When Super-Apes Plot Author: Wilder Anthony * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0604181h.html Edition: 1 Language: English Character set encoding: Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)--8 bit Date first posted: July 2006 Date most recently updated: July 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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DAWN in the Borneo jungle! The rising sun shone down upon what may have been the strangest sight seen in that vast wilderness since the beginning of time. A dark and gloomy lake, some ten miles wide, lay shimmering beneath gray mists which rose like clouds of steam from its glassy surface; here and there this surface was broken by waterspouts which constantly boiled up and fell back again as though heated from the depths' beneath by gigantic fires.
On all sides was virgin jungle. A dense rank growth of trees and vines rose up from the very edge of the water like a living wall, hemming in the lake with an almost solid mass of vegetation which reached unbroken for miles and miles.
Near the center of this lake there was an island. Like the mainland, this island seemed to be covered with verdure, but from near the middle of it the twin peaks of a great mountain reared up far above the treetops, and from between these peaks rose a tall column of yellowish smoke that spiraled sullenly into the upper atmosphere. To the eyes of the initiated this lazy smoke wreath told the reason for those boiling waterspouts: the whole region was volcanic, undermined with sleeping fires of a vastness beyond the conception of man.
Unusual as were these natural phenomena, however, there was a far stranger thing in the lake that morning--a thing which had not been there when the sun rose on the previous day. Some two hundred feet from the shore of the island, near a point where a little sandy beach broke the monotony of the tree-fringed coast and where the black water was free from geysers, a huge seaplane lay floating gently on the still surface.
Like some great fowl of an unknown species this visitor from another world rested in its dark setting, its metal parts and white planes, nearly a hundred feet across, reflecting the early rays of the sun, its propellers and engines motionless and silent.
As the sun climbed higher in the sky and the lake mists evaporated and disappeared, there were sundry indications of life in the anchored seaplane. A canvas curtain which inclosed the entire hull was rolled up, and a tall, strong-looking man, about thirty years of age, thrust his head and shoulders over the side to survey the island.
Presently this man was joined by another, shorter and of dark complexion; then came a thin, gray-haired old fellow; and last of all a very pretty young woman with a wealth of yellow hair, which reflected the sun's rays like polished gold.
For a few minutes the four people contemplated the scene before them in silence; then the younger white man--he of the tall figure and wide shoulders who had first appeared---grinned boyishly.
"Some scenery, isn't it?" he remarked, dropping one big arm caressingly around the waist of his wife, who had come close up to him. "It's the island all right; there can't be another place just like this anywhere on earth. That beach yonder looks like a scene from a comic opera--one almost expects to see a group of chorus girls come dancing out of the trees."
"A band of naked savages would be more in order," the old man chuckled, as he removed his spectacles to wipe them with his handkerchief. "One must expect the unexpected in such a place as this. Nature is nowhere more wonderful than in the tropics; she works slowly, but with a lavish hand. Our plane gives things a distinctly up-to-date touch, however."
"You're right there, doctor," the first speaker agreed, letting his eyes wander pridefully over the great machine which had brought them all the way from America to that little-known land. "No place on earth is inaccessible these days. The trip has been nice and comfy, too; no hardship at all."
"It's been glorious!" his wife exclaimed, snuggling closer to his side. "Perfectly glorious! Not a single hitch since we left San Francisco--if only it will continue!"
"No reason in the world why it shouldn't, honey," the big man declared. "We haven't a single thing to worry about. The Bamangani are harmless enough if they're decently treated, and the presents we've brought them will keep them jabbering with delight for years to come. There's no reason why they should not be friendly. Now, we'd better have breakfast. We've got lots to do, you know. Batu and I must go ashore and explain matters to these ape-men. If they should happen to catch a glimpse of the Condor before we talk with them they'll likely be scared stiff. Eh, Batu?"
The Dyak grinned broadly. "Yes, tuan,"---master--he answered. "Bamangani not understand flying through the air--think we are gods or devils when they see big bird-boat. Think us very much taboo. Sure, Mike!" He turned and ducked down into the little cabin amidships to attend to his cooking, and the others smiled.
Several years of city life had made some wonderful changes in Batu, and the most noticeable of these, perhaps, was the aptitude he had shown for English, especially American slang. With the exception of the word "tuan," by which term of affectionate respect he always addressed his employer, he reverted to his mother tongue only in moments of great stress or excitement.
When he left Borneo to follow the master, whom he loved even better than his native jungle, to America he had been an untamed son of the wilderness; now he was a more-or-less-finished product of the land of his adoption. Nominally, he was Thomas Hardin's personal servant; actually he was a friend, almost a member, of the family, as indispensable to them as the banker and his wife were to him.
At the breakfast table in the cheerful little cabin, around which they presently gathered, the various members of the expedition discussed their plans for the day. They all were in high good humor that morning. Their journey had been a wonderful success so far. The seaplane--the very latest thing in flying craft, and capable of carrying twice its present allotment of passengers as well as the immense amount of fuel, arms, and provisions with which it was stored--had made the long flight with remarkable ease and speed. They had not found it necessary to make a single unscheduled stop, and they had not encountered a single storm en route.
This in itself was enough to put them in buoyant spirits; but this was not all. For various reasons they were all of them glad to reach the island. Doctor Thorold Dumont, famous scientist and exponent of Darwinism, was glad because he was going to have an opportunity of studying the strange race of natives which lived there. Thomas Hardin, wealthy banker and sportsman of worldwide reputation, and Irene, his wife and Doctor Dumont's niece, were happy because Borneo brought back memories of the days when they first had met and learned to love each other; and Batu, the former Dyak chieftain, was elated at the thought of spending a few days in his native jungle.
"Batu and I will do some scouting and prospecting this morning," Hardin decided. "We'll tramp inland toward the volcano and try to get in touch with the natives. After we've established friendly relations with them--a mere formality, of course--you two can land, and we'll all go on to their village."
Doctor Dumont nodded. "All right," he said; "but be as quick as you can, please. Remember, I am exceedingly anxious to test my theories. I want to see if there is any ground for the current belief that they are directly descended from the ape. If they are, if any of them have rudimentary tails, as I am inclined to believe, Professor Archer's statement to the contrary notwithstanding, it will be a big step forward. When I was in Borneo years ago I was interrupted before I could prove or disprove this important fact. This time I must not fail."
"You'll be careful, won't you, Tom?" Irene begged, looking at her big husband anxiously. "Don't forget that these ape-men are only a little way removed from brutes. They used to be head hunters and cannibals, you know, and we must be on our guard against treachery."
"I know, dear," he assured her, smiling; "but that was long ago. Conditions are very different now. The Bamangani have absolutely no reason to be hostile; quite the contrary, in fact. They should be glad to see us, and they will be when they see what we've brought them. Our presents will tickle them to death. There's no danger--if there was, we wouldn't have come. Besides, at the very first hint of trouble we can fly away again. You mustn't worry, honey."
"Oh, I'm not worrying," Irene declared, although her eyes belied her words; "but I can't help thinking. I wish uncle's business wasn't forever taking him into such outlandish places. This island is a spooky place; it makes me uneasy. We must be very careful until we're sure of our reception."
"We will be, of course. We'll take every precaution. After we land, you must run the Condor out here again and anchor until we return. We'll be back before dark. Some of the natives might wander this way in the meantime, however, and it would be better in such an event for the plane to be out of reach. Except Batu, none of us can speak their language, you know. At the least hint of danger take to the air or the middle of the lake and fire a gun twice rapidly for a signal--sounds like that will travel far in this still atmosphere."
AS soon as breakfast was finished and he and Batu had strapped cartridge belts and revolvers around their waists, Hardin started the engines and maneuvered the bird-boat close in to the beach so that he and the Dyak could jump ashore. Then, standing on the sand, he watched Irene return to their former anchorage.
When she had done so and killed the engines, he waved his hand in good-by and followed Batu up a deep, rock-walled gully which, they knew, would take them through the fringe of jungle to the open plateau which lay between the shore and the foot of the mountain.
In the beginning they proceeded slowly, for they were in no particular hurry; the path was steep and treacherous, and there was much to see. Ten yards from the beach they were as completely surrounded by bushes and lianas as if the lake had been miles away. The walls of the gorge were matted with creeping vines which interlaced overhead, so that the two men walked in a kind of tunnel that was carpeted with ferns and moss--covered stones.
Batu was pleased to the point of elation at this chance to revisit old scenes and renew old acquaintances. His ordinarily somber features were continually wreathed in smiles as they clambered along over the many obstructions which blocked the path.
"Look, tuan," he kept saying, "look, tuan, there is the place near that great rock where my people camped once. I remember this place well, tuan; I came here many years ago with my father, the headman, when we were on our way to visit the Fire Mountain. Great Ji-meeny!" The last exclamation was called forth by the sight of a great brown snake in the rocks ahead of them, and he bounded off to investigate.
Hardin smiled good-naturedly. Naturally very strong, he had kept his body hard as nails by sports and exercise so that he was not wearied by the steep climb as many men of sedentary occupations would have been. He was interested, however, in the many new and strange sights which were constantly appearing, and his thoughts were too engrossing to permit him to hurry.
He was wondering, too, just where they would first meet some member of the Bamangani tribe and what sort of a reception they would receive when they did so. The thought of danger never entered his head, but he knew that the ape-men would be surprised and at first suspicious, and he had, therefore, taken such precautions as he thought best to insure his wife's safety until after the first flurry of explaining their presence on the island was over.
In the meantime he relied upon Batu's knowledge of the Bamangani tongue and his own common sense to smooth over the rough spots. As a last resort, of course, the two men had their rifles and revolvers to fall back upon.
At last they reached the level of the plateau and paused to look around them. It was a strange and eerie sight which met their gaze. Directly ahead, five miles or so away, were the two peaks of the volcano, with the sluggish smoke spiral between them. To the rear was the jungle and the lake beyond; to the right and left, as well as straight ahead, the sun-baked plateau stretched for miles. Beyond this again were trees and still more trees; trees in an almost solid mass which near the spot where they stood extended into the plateau in a V-shaped point that almost touched the rim of the gorge.
This plateau was a freak of nature by itself. It was sprinkled with chunks of basalt and rocks of many colors which had been deposited there by the volcano during eruptions long since ended. It was cut up and crossed by innumerable gorges and arroyos similar to that up which they had come, and in many places there were queer stinking pools of mud and water, which rumbled and spouted at intervals like miniature geysers.
The air was permeated with a strong odor of sulphur, and the varied colors of the rocks and the soil beneath them denoted the presence of vast quantities of minerals of many kinds. Although the two men could see for several miles in nearly all directions except the rear, they saw nothing that moved except smoke and the spouting mudholes.
While Hardin sat down on a convenient rock to fill and light his pipe, Batu moved on for a bit. All at once, the banker saw the Dyak stoop and look closely at the ground, then turn and beckon to him. Putting his pouch back into his pocket, he got up and joined his companion.
"Look, tuan!" the Dyak burst out. "Many people pass here not long ago--Bamangani, I think. Look!" He pointed to a soft spot in the soil where the tracks of many bare feet were discernible.
Interested at once, Hardin bent over them. "They're headed toward the jungle," he said after a moment. "Hunting party, I suppose. How many do you think there were, Batu?"
"Fifty maybe," Batu replied. "They were not hunting, tuan. There were too many for that. These tracks are very fresh; they must have been made early this morning."
"Well, what of it?" Hardin asked, when his face suddenly went pale. "Good heavens!" he gasped, reading the thought in the other's eyes. "You think that--"
"I was thinking that it might be possible, tuan," Batu admitted quietly. "They are not headed directly that way, but they could turn after they reached the trees, and it is their nature to approach anything new and strange very cautiously. Still, there is nothing to be alarmed about. They would hardly dare to attack the Condor in broad daylight. Mrs. Hardin and Doctor Dumont have guns, and the Bamangani would be afraid to--"
He stopped talking abruptly, and both men turned their faces in the direction of the lake; then looked back at each other horror-stricken. Faint, but perfectly distinct in the still air, sounded the reports of two gunshots fired in quick succession. It was the signal agreed upon between Hardin and his wife--there could be no doubt of it. For an instant the banker stared at his companion, then he turned and began to run back down the gorge as fast as his legs could carry him.
HARDING did not run far, however. Eager as he was to reach the lake, he soon found that the going was too rough for running. The best either he or Batu could do was to walk rapidly, and as they walked Hardin tried hard to imagine what might have happened.
When he left the seaplane that morning he had entertained no idea of danger. He felt that the apemen would prove to be friendly when they met them and explained the object of their visit, and there was nothing else to fear that he knew of.
Even if the natives regarded them as enemies, Hardin did not believe that they would dare to attack the Condor. To their ignorant, superstitious eyes the great bird-boat must seem like a visitor from the sky, and they were apt to remain in awe of it for days, even after they knew that it was inhabited by human beings.
No; it could not be an attack by the Bamangani, he told himself; but if not, what was it? In an agony of apprehension he hurried as best he could to get to the beach to find out.
The two men had nearly reached the bottom of the gorge, when they heard a faint hum of many voices coming from the trees below them. Instantly on the alert, Batu crouched down behind a convenient bowlder and pulled his employer to a place beside him.
The murmur grew louder, and presently Hardin could distinguish a shrill jabber which told him that the voices came from a number of apemen, who were all talking at once, as was their custom when aroused.
At the end of a few minutes they came into view, a dozen of them; squat, powerful, hairy creatures, red-brown in color, with apelike limbs, and perfectly naked save for their sirats, or loin clothes. In their hands they carried spears and clubs, and as they ambled along they jabbered at each other excitedly.
Hardin's eyes ran over them almost unseeingly. He had eyes for no one except the man and woman--especially the woman--who walked in their midst. He could have picked that golden head out of a thousand. It was his wife, walking with her hands tied behind her back, and by her side walked her uncle, Doctor Thorold Dumont, similarly bound.
For a little, too dumfounded at the sight even to breathe, Hardin started tensely; then he would have started up, but the Dyak caught him by the arm.
"Wait, tuan," he whispered; "wait a little. We must not hurry too much. Just watch a minute."
Hardin crouched down again obediently. He was too dazed to argue just then. In fact, he could hardly believe the evidence of his eyes; he did not see how it was possible for Irene to have become a prisoner in so short a time. He was thankful for one thing, however--she did not seem to be hurt at all. She was much disheveled, and her dress was torn in several places, but she walked normally, and her white face showed no signs of pain. Her uncle, too, barring a slight scratch on one cheek, was uninjured.
About fifty feet from the bowlder which hid the two men from their sight the Bamangani halted, evidently to give their prisoners a breathing space. They were preparing to move on again, when Hardin and Batu, having exchanged a whispered word or two meanwhile, stepped out into the open.
At their sudden appearance, the ape-men halted in their tracks as though turned to stone, each one absolutely motionless except for his eyes, which traveled over the newcomers in startled surprise. Irene uttered a little half-inarticulate cry of glad relief, and Doctor Duman took a quick step forward; then they, too, became motionless and silent.
For perhaps a minute the silence was absolute on both sides. At length, Batu raised one hand palm outward in a token of peace.
"What do you with the white chief and chieftainess?" he demanded in the Native tongue. "They are our friends, and we have come from far off to visit you in peace. Unloose them!"
At this there was a murmur among the apemen, and one who seemed to be their leader stepped forward.
"Who are you that come to us so boldly?" he retorted. "Our prisoners must go to the long-house for judgment and you with them, O friends of theirs."
Batu laughed confidently. "You talk child's talk," he said. "With the 'talking-sticks' which we carry we could kill you all before you could lay hand upon us. But we do not wish to kill you. We come as friends, and in the great flying thing yonder on the lake we have many presents for your headmen. Be warned in time. Unloose your captives!"
The ape man scowled. "We do not fear you," he answered. "A man has been killed, and you all must stand before the Ancient One for judgment. As for the flying thing, it is ours already. If there are presents in it we shall find them." He grunted something to his companions, who grasped their spears threateningly and drew closer around their prisoners.
Hardin cocked his rifle with his thumb and stepped forward. He had not understood the words of the conversation between Batu and the ape man, but from the tone employed he had little difficulty in guessing its general meaning, and he was too impatient to brook further delay.
"Walk straight toward me, Irene," he said, in a quiet voice. "Pay no attention to the natives. I won't let them touch you. Come right along--both of you."
Without an instant's hesitation Irene did as she was told. She knew that when her husband looked as he did at that moment he meant what he said, and if she had any fear at all it was for the ape-men rather than for herself as, with her uncle close behind her, she stepped out boldly.
For a moment it almost looked as if the Bamangani would let them go unhindered. The very audacity of the move seemed to paralyze them for a few seconds; but it was not to be. One of the ape-men was quicker witted, or less in awe of the stranger, than his companions, and with a guttural exclamation he extended a hairy paw and grasped Irene by the shoulder. Half a second later Hardin's rifle cracked, and the warrior was lying on his back, beating the air with his hands and feet.
For an instant, shocked at the suddenness of the thing, the rest of the Bamangani never moved; then, with loud yells of rage and fright, they scattered and ran for cover, turning at some distance to hurl a volley of spears, which did no harm.
Hardin laughed grimly as he cut the bonds of the captives. "Cowardly brutes," he muttered. "I didn't think they'd stand long in front of our guns. How did they get you, honey?"
"I don't know exactly, dear." Irene threw her arms around her husband in wild relief. "We were down in the cabin when we felt the plane rock, and then the whole place was full of them. Uncle had only time to shoot twice when they overwhelmed us."
"We'd better hurry back," said Hardin. "I hope they haven't damaged the Condor." Taking his wife by the arm, he turned down the gorge.
"No, no," she cried; "not that way, Tommy. The ape-men--There are dozens more of them on the beach and in the plane. We'll walk right into them that way."
"The devil!" her husband exclaimed, ducking instinctively as a spear whizzed over his shoulder. "Come on, anyhow; we must get out of this. Those fellows are getting their courage back, and if they have friends close by we'll be in for it presently. We must find shelter. What say, Batu? Which way?"
"Get on top of gorge other side from Bamangani, tuan," the Dyak advised. "We can hide in the jungle and reach the Condor later, maybe. All the others hear shot and come up gorge this way. Sure, Mike!"
"Righto!" Hardin caught the idea instantly. "Up with you, dear," giving his wife a shove toward the side of the gorge. "Go ahead, doctor; I'll be right after you." He turned and swept the vine-covered ridge where the ape-men were hiding with half a dozen well-placed shots before he began to scramble after his companions.
WITH Batu leading the way and clearing the path where necessary with his long chopping knife, the four weary fugitives slowly pushed on through the jungle in the direction of the lake. They were following an ancient trail, so narrow that they were forced to walk in single file.
Sometimes, they traveled under great branches which arched high over their heads; sometimes the branches were so low that they must stoop to pass under them; but always they wound in and out between mighty tree trunks with gnarled roots twisting up above the ground, and with a myriad of flowering creepers twining down from their lofty tops.
The matted thickness of the foliage and the countless number of lianas shut out the sun and made a ghostly dimness that was awe-inspiring to walk through. When they spoke, which was seldom, they did so in whispers, as though afraid to break the silence which seemed to press down upon them. Long intervals elapsed in which they heard no sound except the thud and rustle of their own feet on the humid ground.
Occasionally, troops of monkeys and flocks of bright-colored birds made the air hideous with their cries; every now and then, Irene gasped and caught her breath in horror as a great snake slid across the trail and disappeared in the matted undergrowth beyond. It was an eerie place, especially so in the eyes of the wanderers, who were constantly thinking of the bloodthirsty savages they were trying to escape, and by whom, for all they knew, they might at any moment be attacked.
At last they reached a little clearing at the foot of a low hill and paused for a moment to enjoy the rest which they so sorely needed. Doctor Dumont, much too old for such strenuous exercise, sank down exhausted upon a moss-covered stone, breathing in hoarse gasps. Irene, sitting beside him, tried to smile bravely, but the dark circles under her pretty eyes and a pinched look around her mouth and nostrils told more plainly than words what she was suffering.
Hardin shook his tousled head and groaned to himself. Even his iron muscles were beginning to sag under the strain, and he knew that his wife and her uncle had neither the strength nor the endurance to keep going much longer. Worn out by their recent hardships and terror, already faint from lack of food, and with the fear of the ape-men constantly on their minds, they had struggled gamely for many hours. Now, however, they were weakening fast, and without food and rest Hardin feared that they would never reach the lake, much less regain possession of the Condor.
Nevertheless, they must hurry on. Utterly tired though they were, they had to reach some place of safety before the Bamangani attacked them in force, or they were doomed. Furious at the loss of two of their warriors, the ape-men would show no mercy; and, although he and Batu were both well armed, Hardin knew that they could not hope to resist successfully in the open. Even as it was, he could not understand why the attack had been withheld for so long.
Forcing himself to grin cheerfully, Hardin walked over to where the old scientist and his niece were sitting.
Irene smiled up at him bravely. "What now?" she asked. "Will they--do you think they're following us?"
Her husband nodded. "I suppose so," he answered, "although it's impossible to see anything through these trees. They're evidently afraid of our rifles, however, and so long as they do not attack us in a body we can hold our own. I'm afraid they're waiting for darkness. We must try to reach the shore before them. If we can do so, perhaps Batu and I can drive them out of the Condor with our rifles, and once we can get aboard again we're perfectly safe. The beach really isn't so very far away, you know; it's just this awful going that makes it seem so."
He turned to look back over the way they had come, straining his eyes for a glimpse of the dreaded Bamangani, but he could see no sign of movement anywhere. This did not encourage him much, however. A hundred of the ape-men might be creeping upon them at that very instant and still be invisible in the dense verdure. In fact, he was very sure that they were being watched, watched as a cat watches a mouse until she is ready to make her final pounce. Already, the ape-men had delayed longer than he expected, they might strike at any moment now, and when they did---
He was aroused by a light touch on his arm, and he turned to see Batu standing at his elbow. Of them all, the Dyak was by far the least weary. His wiry, muscular figure, trained by a lifetime of exposure, was proof against all ordinary fatigue, even the past few years of city life had not softened it, and while the others rested he had been scouting on both sides of the trail and examining the hillside beyond them.
When his employer turned to look at him, he grinned exultantly. "Not much longer now, tuan," he said. "There is a cave and water on the other side of this hill. We can rest there, then go to lake in night, maybe. Bamangani not move much in night. Cave very fine place to hide. Sure, Mike!"
"A cave, eh?" Hardin exclaimed joyfully. "The very thing! You're a wonder, Batu! I don't know what we'd do without you. Come on, folks." He stooped to help Doctor Dumont to his feet, and Irene sprang up almost gayly.
A couple of minutes later they were following Batu around the base of the hill. They had almost circled it, when there was a chorus of wild yells from the jungle behind them and a volley of short spears whizzed over their heads.
Like lightning Hardin whirled about and crouched, rifle at shoulder. A dozen squat, hairy figures were jumping about just within the edge of the trees. Hardin fired four shots in quick succession, saw two of the ape-men fall and another hastily drop his club; then the rest scattered and disappeared.
"Run for the cave! Quick!" the banker cried, over his shoulder. "I can hold them. Hurry!"
He swept the jungle with another quick look, saw that the savages had disappeared completely, and turned to follow his companions. When he did so he groaned aloud.
Ten paces away, Doctor Dumont was lying flat on his face with a spear sticking out of his shoulder. Irene was stooping over him, and beyond them Batu, who had been some distance in the lead, was running back. Half a dozen long strides carried Hardin to the wounded man, whom he picked up as easily as if he had been a child.
"The cave, Irene! Run to the cave, quick!" he gasped. "I've got him!" She turned to run obediently, and he staggered off after her.
LUCKILY the way was not far and Hardin's marksmanship seemed to have momentarily demoralized the ape-men, for they gave no further evidence of their presence as the fugitives skirted the hill and plunged into a mass of vines, through which Batu led the way. Beyond the vines was an opening in the rocky hillside, so narrow that Hardin could barely get his burden through it; but beyond its mouth the cave widened, forming a lofty chamber.
When he had placed the wounded scientist on the sandy floor Hardin sprang back to the entrance again, rifle in hand, ready to help Batu check another rush of the ape-men, but they made none. They were either badly rattled by his shooting, or, what was more likely, they were resolved to play a waiting game now that they had run their quarry to cover, for not one of them could be seen in the clearing. Satisfied that they were safe for the time being, Hardin left Batu on guard and went back to his wife.
She was kneeling beside her uncle, who still lay where Hardin had placed him. She had withdrawn the spear and was baring the wound for examination. Hardin looked at it critically. It was an ugly-looking gash, and it bled profusely, but the spear had not penetrated very deeply, having glanced on the bone at the top of the shoulder. Unless the spear had been poisoned, it was by no means a fatal hurt, but owing to the wounded man's age and exhausted condition it was serious.
Hardin helped Irene wash the cut with cold water from a little spring which bubbled up near the mouth of the cave and bandage it as best she could. When the biologist had recovered consciousness and had been made as comfortable as was possible, the banker made his first real examination of their shelter.
He found that they were in a rock-walled chamber about twenty-feet square, very lofty, and with a bottom of hard, clean sand. It was lighted from a narrow cleft high up in the roof so that it was not much more gloomy than the jungle had been. Owing to the narrow entrance and the mass of vines which grew over it, it could be easily defended from within by men as well armed as himself and Batu. Barring the one serious drawback--their total lack of food--they were in a position to withstand a long siege.
"This really isn't half bad," Hardin declared, after he had finished his survey of the place. "We're well sheltered and we have all the fresh water we can use. One man with a gun could hold this cave against a thousand savages. All we've got to do is to think up a scheme to get the Condor back again, and that should be fairly simple after it is dark."
"I don't see how," said Irene. "This awful jungle is bad enough in full daylight; after dark it will be hopeless. The Bamangani are at home in it, and at night you can't see to shoot. I know you will do your best, Tom, and I have every confidence in you; but I'm afraid--terribly afraid! I wish we had never come here at all."
"I shall never leave this island alive," Doctor Dumont chimed in weakly. "My strength has gone. Whatever happens to the rest of you, I am doomed. If you see a chance after it is dark, you must take it and leave me here. I can never travel as far as the lake. I should only hinder you."
Hardin grinned and shook his head. "Nonsense!" he said. "Things are never as bad as they look, and we've all been in worse holes than this before now. You're all right--only tired out, doctor. A good rest will make you right as rain. You must brace up. Don't forget that Batu is with us. He knows this country like a book and he has the eyes of an owl. We'll all be back on board the Condor before dawn to-morrow. I'm sure of it!"
Confidently as he spoke, however, the banker was inwardly much worried at the turn things had taken. He realized that, although the coming night might give them a certain advantage in their efforts to slip through the ranks of the ape-men and regain the seaplane, it also would be against them to a great extent.
With the exception of Batu, none of them were used to jungle travel, and after dark the jungle is well-nigh impassable. Even the savages seldom move about after nightfall. Nevertheless, he felt that their only chance lay in slipping away from the cave before the Bamangani attacked it in force, which they surely would do some time during the night. By daylight he and Batu would have no trouble in defending themselves, for then they could see to shoot, but in the dark everything was changed. Then the advantage would lie with the ape-men.
Hardin scowled thoughtfully as he lighted his pipe and joined the Dyak at the mouth of the cave. He was face to face with a very knotty problem, a problem which seemed more complex the deeper he probed into it. Since the Condor had been captured by the ape-men it would be necessary for the fugitives not only to escape from the cave and make their way through the jungle in the dark, but also to recapture the seaplane, which, for all they could tell to the contrary, might be occupied by at least a score of their enemies.
On the face of it, the task looked impossible, and yet, since they had no alternative, it must be attempted. Failure meant death or worse for them all, for the Bamangani had already demonstrated the fact that they were not to be argued with. Contrary to all expectation, they had chosen to adopt a hostile attitude from the very beginning, and now that several of their number had been killed or wounded there was no hope that they could be pacified. The only course open to the fugitives lay in the recapture of their seaplane and flight from the island before starvation and lack of ammunition made them fall an easy prey to their enemies.
Satisfied that there was no immediate danger of attack and anxious to get all the rest he could, before night came, Hardin directed Batu to warn him instantly of any new move on the part of the ape-men and lay down on the sand.
Irene and her uncle, utterly worn out, were already dozing, he was glad to note; Batu alone seemed to be perfectly fresh. In common with most primitive people the Dyak possessed the doglike faculty of conquering fatigue so long as there was excitement or danger in the air, but the moment it ceased he would drop down wherever he was and sleep for hours.
It seemed to Hardin that he had just dropped off when he was aroused by a light touch on his cheek. He sat up instantly to find the Dyak stooping over him.
"Bamangani are coming, tuan," Batu whispered.
CLUTCHING his rifle, Hardin went to the mouth of the cave and peered through the vines. He must have slept longer than he thought, for he found that the shadows were already lengthening--in another hour or so it would be dark. At first he saw nothing of the ape-men, but at last he made them out in the bushes at the opposite edge of the clearing.
There must have been fifty of them, and they were gathered in a half circle around their chief, who was talking earnestly. In the dim light they looked more like apes than men, with their squat figures and long arms; had it not been for the weapons they carried one might have sworn that he witnessed a council of gorillas.
As he watched them the banker wondered why they did not wait for darkness before they made their attack; he did not know that twilight and dawn were their favorite hours for charging an enemy.
They came on at length in a scattering formation, darting across the clearing with almost incredible rapidity, and as silently as shadows. The two men waited patiently until they were less than twenty yards away before they opened fire. At that range their rifles exacted a terrible toll. It was almost impossible to miss, and by the time the apemen broke and ran for cover nine of them were writhing on the ground and two more lay perfectly still.
Hardin chuckled grimly. "We've sent a few of them where they'll have to be good, anyhow, Batu," he said as they reloaded their weapons. "They'll not forget that lesson in a hurry. I wish they'd stay out in the open; we'd account for the whole lot in short order."
"Sure, Mike!" Batu exclaimed, showing his white teeth in a wide grin. "They're afraid now, tuan, but they're very mad. They will not go away. Killing them is like killing flies--two more come back for every one you kill. But they not come back now until it's dark and the moon rises."
"You think they'll wait for the moon, eh? Good! That will give us time to slip away and start for the beach. The moon won't rise until about ten o'clock. What do you think, Batu? Think we can make it?"
"It's not very far, tuan," the Dyak answered, "but it will be hard walking in the dark. Doctor Dumont is hurt, too. That's bad. But it's the only thing we can do, and we must try."
"Of course." Hardin nodded. "It's our only chance. I hope they haven't injured the plane. If they have, we'll be up against it."
Batu shook his head thoughtfully. "I don't think so," he said. "Bamangani think it very much taboo, that flying thing. Maybe there won't be any one on board at all to-night, but they'll be on the shore near by. We must go very careful, tuan."
The light faded at last, and the clearing beyond the mouth of the cave became as black as a pot of ink. Except for a faint breeze which rustled through the trees and vines there was no sound as Hardin helped Doctor Dumont to his feet and whispered to Irene to follow Batu out of the cave.
Those few hours of rest had done the old scientist a world of good. Supported by Hardin's arm, he stepped out gamely into the night, once more ready to fight for the life which is so dear to both young and old.
There was no sign of the ape-men as the four people crept cautiously around the edge of the clearing, holding their breaths in fear and trembling lest some false step warn their enemies of what they were attempting. On the black night it was impossible to see a yard; they could only keep in touch with each other by holding hands, but they were thankful for this, for they knew that the darkness would hide them from the eyes of the ape-men, until they could reach the shelter of the trees.
Slowly and cautiously they crept along, and as fate would have it they met with no obstruction or hindrance until the brushing of leaves against their faces and hands told them that they were entering the jungle.
Now it was that the Dyak's marvelous memory for locality came into play. Without him they could not have gone a hundred feet, for their course lay through the very thickest portion of the jungle, impassable save for the narrow game trails, which Batu seemed to have a most uncanny instinct for picking out. With unerring judgment he kept going in a definite direction, and his companions followed him blindly.
Occasionally he was at fault, but never for long at a time, and he did not pause until they were fully a quarter of a mile from the cave. Here, in what seemed to be a slightly less dense section of the jungle, he halted to permit Doctor Dumont and Irene to rest for a minute.
"What now, Batu?" asked Hardin.
"We're getting near the lake, tuan," the Dyak answered. "I can smell the water, and I think the beach is a little to the right of us. We must be very still until we know where Bamangani are camped. There used to be a deep cut in the bank here somewhere that went down to the water, but that was many years ago, and it is very dark now. The land has changed; there is no path here; the vines are very thick."
This was a serious matter, for one misstep in such a labyrinth might mean utter ruin, and since they must reach the lake before the moon rose they had little time to search. For a few minutes they discussed the point in whispers, and at last decided to push straight on through the vines in the hope that they would reach the water before going far.
They were starting to do this, when Irene, who had been silent until then, suggested that they should first go a little way on that side where the trees seemed thinnest, on the chance of finding a path. This seemed reasonable, so they turned to the left and began their march again.
They had not gone very far before Batu gave vent to a little grunt of delight. "The path is here, tuan," he whispered. "It is the old trail I spoke of, filled up with vines and very rough, but it will take us to the water not far from the beach."
Following their guide, the three others let themselves over the edge of a kind of bank and slid down for about the height of a tall man until their feet touched solid ground. Here they found themselves standing in a trench about a yard wide--in reality an old game trail worn down by countless feet and winter rains until it had sunk far below the level of the surrounding soil. This trench sloped sharply in what Batu told them was the direction of the lake.
Very slowly and carefully, feeling each step before they took it, they descended this sunken path, twisting in and out between the lianas as best they could. They had gone a considerable distance, and Doctor Dumont, whose wound pained him severely, was beginning to falter in his stride, when suddenly the vines and trees seemed to fall away and they stepped out beneath the open sky.
"The lake!" Irene whispered joyfully. "Oh, Tommy, we've reached the shore at last!"
Her husband squeezed her hand encouragingly. "Of course," he said. "Thank God for it, dear. Now if we can only get aboard the plane!"
"Hush, tuan," the Dyak's whisper came back to them. "Bamangani must be near us somewhere. Crouch down near bushes until we can find out where they are."
Accordingly, they huddled together beneath some overhanging limbs on the edge of the narrow fringe of beach which lay between the trees and the water, while Batu slipped off into the night to reconnoiter their surroundings.
Although they could hear the gentle lapping of the water almost at their feet, they could not see it. They could see absolutely nothing, in fact, except a dark blur behind them which denoted trees and a few twinkling stars far above. Strive hard as he could, Hardin could see nothing of the Condor, although he knew that the great seaplane must be lying almost within a stone's throw of them.
Occasionally the stillness was broken by the croaking of frogs, and once the guttural cries of some marauding beast awoke the echoes, but for the most part it was very quiet, being as yet too early for the normal life of the jungle to begin its nightly rounds. With the moon-rise many creatures would begin to travel which until then would remain hidden in their lairs. It was the most peaceful hour of the night.
Suddenly there was an almost imperceptible stir among them and Batu squatted down beside Hardin.
"Bamangani are camping near the beach," he whispered. "Very many of them, tuan; I could not count them in the dark. Pretty quick moon will rise and they will all sleep. Then we can swim out to Condor. No fear here; they cannot track us in the dark."
"You know where the Condor is then---you've located her?" Hardin asked eagerly.
"Yes, tuan; over that way." Batu pointed somewhere into the night. "You'll see when the moon comes."
The night breeze swept over them, rustling the dense foliage, fashioning the lake mists into fantastic shapes that threw strange shadows on the inky surface of the water as the slowly rising moon made it possible to see a little. From time to time the frogs broke out in a sudden chorus of croaking, then grew silent again; a heron cried from afar as something disturbed its rest, and from overhead came the beat of wings as hundreds of waterfowl moved to their feeding grounds.
At last the straining eyes of the fugitives could make out a dark shadowy bulk on the surface of the water, some three hundred feet away, which they knew must be the Condor, although it was little more than a shapeless blur in the uncertain light.
Stripping off their outer clothing, Hardin and Batu laid their rifles and revolvers on the ground and stepped into the tepid water.
"Do be careful, dear," Irene whispered anxiously, as her husband started to wade away from the beach.
"Of course," he answered. "We'll reconnoiter carefully before we go aboard, and if the plane is deserted, as I hope and believe, we'll be back for you in a jiffy. It is not at all probable that any of the Bamangani are spending the night on board---anyhow, they're all asleep by this time."
So, unarmed save for the long knife which Batu carried at his waist, the two men moved out into the deep water and began to swim toward the seaplane. They swam very slowly and quietly, for stealth was far more important just then than speed, but the distance was short and within a few minutes they found themselves inside the black shadows cast by the Condor's planes. Here they treaded water, listening and straining their eyes for a sight or sound of the enemy.
They heard or saw nothing, however, and, satisfied at length that the bird-boat was as deserted as it seemed, they swam closer and made a complete circle of the hull before they halted under the stern. Here Batu grasped the end of a long rod which acted as a brace for one of the planes and pulled himself up over the side.
For a few minutes all was silent; then the Dyak returned and extended an arm to his companion. "Nobody here, tuan," he whispered. "Bamangani all gone just like we thought. Big flying boat very much taboo; they not stay here at night."
Hardin climbed out of the water. "Good!" he exclaimed. "Now, if they haven't damaged the engines, we'll soon be out of this. We must hurry. They must have discovered our flight from the cave long ago, and the camp on the beach may be aroused any minute. We'll go after Mrs. Hardin and the doctor first thing."
As he spoke they were both moving forward toward the spot where the engines were situated, eager to see if they were still in working order, when suddenly a rifle shot split the stillness. On the heels of this came several confused shouts; then shrill and clear above other sounds Hardin heard Irene shriek wildly.
With hardly a pause in his stride the banker rushed to the side of the sea-plane, sprang overboard, and began to swim furiously toward the spot where he had left his wife and her uncle.
As his feet touched bottom he could dimly make out a struggling mass near the edge of the trees, a little to his left, and he darted toward this instantly, shouting encouragement as he ran.
Before he was entirely free of the water, however, a dozen hairy figures sprang down upon him from the bank. For a few seconds he fought wildly, furiously, fought as a man fights when he is fighting for something even dearer than life, but he was unarmed and outnumbered more than ten to one.
Buried under a pile of struggling bodies, he went down in the shallow water, half rose to his feet once more, but was pulled down again by twenty powerful hands. Then something heavy fell on his head, sparks swam dizzily in his eyes, and everything turned black.
WHEN the light of returning consciousness came back to him, Hardin lay still for many minutes trying to figure out just what had happened and where he was. At last, as understanding fully returned and a partial realization of past events seeped into his mind, he became dimly aware of a pale anxious face that hovered close above him. It was very sweet, that face, and for a little he watched it idly, content to lie still, for he felt strangely weak and languid.
His clearing gaze gradually made out the features of the face, and all at once it dawned upon him that he knew them. Pale and wan, distorted and unnatural-looking as it was, the face was the face of his wife. There was no color even in her lips. Her eyes were staring with grief and dread.
She saw the dawning light of recognition in his eyes. "Tommy!" she breathed. "Tommy! Tommy, dear! You haven't left me! You're not going to leave me? Oh, my dear, my dear!"
"Who--what's the matter? Irene! Oh, I remember now!"
Hardin sat up and looked around him. For a little his head reeled and terrible pains shot through his temples, but after that first effort his vision cleared rapidly. As soon as he could control his faculties he realized that it was half dark and that he was in a chamber of some kind, lighted dimly by the flare of a fire which burned a few feet away.
His wife put her arm around his shoulders and bent over him tenderly. "Don't try to move yet," she admonished; "you've had a terrible blow on the head. Here, drink this." She held a gourd of cool water to his lips.
He drank gratefully, thirstily; then he pushed the cup away and smiled. "I'm all right, dear," he said. "I've been hurt worse than this many a time. But where are we? How--they attacked you there on the beach, and I was--"
"I know," she interrupted him. "They followed us from the cave, and when I screamed you tried to rescue me. But never mind that now. We're in a native hut. You've been unconscious for hours--ever since last night--and the ape-men have brought us up here from the beach to their village. Uncle is lying over there." She pointed toward a dark blotch a few yards away. "He's feverish and very weak. They left me to nurse you both. They seem to be saving us for something; I don't know what."
"And Batu? What of Batu?" Hardin asked. "He was with me on the plane when we heard you scream."
"I've seen nothing of him," she answered; "but there was shouting in the camp long after we were captured. Perhaps they killed him, or perhaps he escaped. I don't know."
"Well, we'll hope for the best," he said, trying to be optimistic, although in his heart he thought it very likely that the faithful Dyak had been killed. "And you've been in this awful hole all alone," he went on, squeezing her hand. "What time is it?"
"Nearly midnight," she told him, glancing at her wrist watch. "Oh, Tom, it has been terrible! I thought you were going to die, you were unconscious so long, and uncle has slept nearly all the time. Those awful creatures have not offered to hurt any of us since we were captured; they've just grinned and jabbered among themselves, but I'm sure they are planning some horrible end for us all. This hut is only a little way from the crater of the volcano; that must be why it is so terribly hot, and the mountain has been making the most awful noises all day."
"I know; I understand," said Hardin, stroking her hand; "but never mind all that now. We're still alive, and while life lasts there's always hope. Batu may have escaped, and he's a whole host in himself, especially in a case of this sort. We mustn't lose courage, dear, whatever we do. Ah!"
The exclamation was called forth by a sound of steps outside and the abrupt appearance of two men who pushed through the mat of woven reeds which covered the doorway of the hut and came to a halt on the opposite side of the fire.
At sight of them Irene uttered a stifled cry, and her husband stood up hastily, staring at the newcomers in surprise, for never before had they seen such men as those who now confronted them.
One, a man in the prime of life, was a Bamangani warrior, evidently a high chief, for he was decked in all the savage war gear which could distinguish an aboriginal. He was enormously tall for a man of his race, being nearly as tall as Hardin himself, tremendously muscled, and, like all the ape-men, nearly covered with curly reddish hair. In his right hand he held a club of some dark wood about three feet long, with a spike-studded knob as large as a man's head.
On his left arm was a small shield of closely woven reeds, on which were painted a mass of strange hieroglyphics. The upper part of his body was perfectly naked, and several bands of white and yellow paint encircled his torso at intervals of about six inches. A loin cloth of soft leather was tied around his waist so as to serve the purpose of a belt, and through it were stuck, on the right and left sides respectively, a long double-edged knife, and a sumpitan, or blow gun, with its pouch of poisoned darts.
Perhaps the most startling feature of his attire consisted of a large headdress of many-colored feathers, which began at his chin and ran up both sides of his head to meet at the top, completely framing his face, so that his devilish countenance seemed to peer from behind a screen.
His companion was his direct antithesis in every way. He was a mere dwarf in stature, thin and wrinkled, with an enormous head from which plaited white hair fell down over his shoulders. His eyes were bright and deep sunken; his face was narrow and vulturelike. Except for his snow-white hair, however, he did not look exceedingly old, for there was an elastic spring to his movements, and his flesh, though wrinkled, was firm. On the other hand, middle age was evidently far behind him; indeed, from his appearance it was impossible to guess with any degree of accuracy the number of his years.
Unlike the other members of his tribe, he was almost hairless, and his small body was shrouded in a kind of blanket which reached below his knees. He carried no weapons of any kind, but as he stood in the center of the hut, staring down into the fire without a blink, there was something about him which inspired the captives with a feeling of awe. From that instant they feared him far more than they did his ferocious-looking bodyguard.
For a space after the arrival of this strangely assorted pair there was silence in the hut. Aroused by their entrance, Doctor Dumont sat up and looked about him, while Hardin and his wife looked first at the natives and then at each other, wondering what the visit portended. Looking beyond the two, they could dimly make out half a dozen armed warriors near the doorway, who gazed curiously into the hut as they fingered their heavy spears.
The old man suddenly seemed to wake up and become aware of the presence of the captives, for, ceasing his contemplation of the flickering fire, he turned his bright eyes upon them and scanned them deliberately. Somehow, his eyes reminded Hardin of those of a snake, although they were not prominent, but sunken and almost covered by bushy brows.
"Whence come ye, and why have ye killed so many of our young men?" he asked abruptly, in a shrill, high-pitched voice, speaking in Malay, a language which both Doctor Dumont and Hardin understood fairly well.
"From America, a great country far across the sea," the banker answered instantly, pleased to find that they had a medium of communication. "As for killing your young men, as you call them, you should know the reason better than we. We came in peace, bringing many presents for your headmen, but we were set upon and beaten by warriors. We have done nothing but defend ourselves."
The old man eyed the speaker thoughtfully for a moment, evidently digesting his reply. "And the thing in which ye came," he went on at last; "what manner of thing is that which flies like a bird? Surely, ye are devils, for none but devils may ride the air. Even I, Makosi, who am older than any man and learned beyond most, have never seen such a thing."
"It is a flying machine, a new invention among our own people," Hardin explained in halting Malay. "There is nothing devilish about it, as I can show you if you will set us free. As I said before, we have come in peace; it is through no fault of ours that there has been fighting. My friend there"--he glanced toward the biologist--"is a great scholar; he has come to study the Fire Flower which grows on the edge of the Pit of Flame. Once, many years ago, we were here before, and when we left the Bamangani were our friends. Why should we be set upon and made captives now? We have done no wrong. Set us free and we will go hence as we came since your people are no longer glad to see us."
Makosi smiled cunningly at this and his little eyes seemed to bore into Hardin like gimlets.
"So," he said, nodding his great head, "ye are those who came before and departed with the Rose Taboo. They told me of you, and had I not been far away then--. But enough of this. Know ye that it is written that white strangers shall come and be offered up to Dnata in atonement for the wrong done years ago. Those who took the flower shall give their lives that the flower may return. Prepare ye, O white men, and ye, O white woman, for at to-morrow's dawn ye shall be cast living into the Pit of Flame. It is written. I, Makosi, the ancient, high priest of Dnata, proclaim it, and so it shall come to pass. I have spoken." He broke into a shrill, fiendish laugh that made the hut resound with echoes.
While Hardin was searching for some answer and not finding it, the dwarf suddenly ceased his untimely mirth, caught his robe about him with one clawlike hand, grunted something in a sharp undertone to his companion, who had been standing at his side all the time like a wooden Indian, and turned to march out of the hut.
In the doorway he paused for an instant to sweep the chamber with one last glance from his reptilian eyes; then, closely followed by his guard, he pushed through the curtains and disappeared.
"Very pleasant old gentleman, isn't he?" Hardin remarked, turning to his companions. "From what he says, I gather that we are in for something serious at dawn."
Doctor Dumont nodded hopelessly. "I'm afraid we're doomed," he admitted. "These native priests, or witch doctors, hold their people under their thumbs, and we seem to have broken some religious superstition which can be atoned for only by our deaths. Well, so far as I am concerned it only hastens matters a little. I am old, and this wound of mine is deeper than we thought, but for you young people it is different. We should never have come here. I see that now--now that it is too late."
"Oh, Tommy!" Irene threw herself into her husband's arms half weeping. "What shall we do? We can't die in this terrible place. The mere thought of that awful volcano and those horrible men drives me crazy. Surely, surely, there is some way out."
Hardin ground his teeth together in despair as he did what he could to soothe her. Some way out! He could think of none. So far as he could see, Doctor Dumont was right--they were doomed. Nothing but a miracle could save them, and he had little faith in miracles. Nevertheless, he did what he could to keep up his wife's spirits.
"Come, come, dear," he said; "we mustn't let ourselves go to pieces. You've been wonderfully brave so far. Keep up your courage for just a little longer. Remember Batu has not been captured; if he had been that old toad would certainly have mentioned it, and the last we knew he was unhurt and in full charge of the Condor. Batu is a mighty resourceful chap; he won't quit without a struggle."
Hopefully as he spoke, however, Hardin was far from believing his own words. For all he really knew to the contrary, Batu might be dead, and even if the Dyak were alive there was nothing that he could do alone against the whole tribe of apemen. Deep down in his heart the banker felt that they were hopelessly trapped. Still, he did his best to encourage his companions while they waited for the dawn. If they had to die, he wanted them all to do so bravely.
IT was a terrible sight which greeted them when, hemmed in by a score of armed warriors and escorted by Makosi and the gigantic young chief, the three captives stepped out of the hut and turned their eyes toward the slope which led up to the volcano. It was dawn, but the air was so full of gray, flaky ashes and clouds of smoke and steam that it was hard to see for any distance. Already the ground was covered an inch deep with the soft ashes, which fell constantly like snow.
Rumblings as of distant thunder filled the air and the ground shook at intervals as the fiery monster in the womb of the mountain heaved and struggled. Occasionally, tall jets of steam spouted skyward from the crater, and then fell back with a hissing noise, like the hiss of a million snakes.
It was an awe-inspiring sight, and the captives almost forgot their own peril in contemplation of those natural forces beside which any efforts of man always seem so puny. They were, however, pushed onward by their guards, to whom this natural spectacle seemed insignificant in comparison with the one of their own making which they knew would soon take place.
Led by a group of chanting, hideously bedecked ape-men, whom they took to be priests, the three prisoners were forced up the wide and rocky gorge that extended from the Bamangani village to the lip of the crater. From this point a narrow path wound upward to the flat top of a pinnacle which reared up some two hundred feet higher than the volcano.
Here, on an almost flat surface a hundred yards wide, about two hundred of the natives were already gathered, many of them of great size and all of them horrible to look upon. There was a kind of discipline among them, for none of them tried to break through the double line which they had formed, and along this line, between ranks of the shaggy red creatures, the captives were marched until they reached a small cleared area at the extreme edge of the pinnacle. In this open space, which, owing to the overhanging formation of the rocks, projected slightly into the void above the crater, they were halted and surrounded by a band of priests and spearmen.
Here, above the clouds of hot vapor and drifting ashes which some current of air swept down around both sides of the pinnacle, the priests, led by Makosi, struck up a new chant. Evidently the sacrifice of the captives was to be the consummation of some great religious orgy, for they persisted in their mummery in spite of the intense heat and the noxious vapors which the eddying air currents occasionally carried over them.
When the chanting ceased, Makosi stepped to the very brink of the pinnacle and waved his long arms out over the void, saying something meanwhile in a loud voice; and as he did this Hardin noticed from the corner of his eye that the onlookers gesticulated and rolled their eyes in a perfect ecstasy of religious fervor.
Suddenly the dwarf stepped backward and turned to grunt an order to the young chieftain, who stood midway between him and the captives. Seeing the latter wheel about, Hardin braced himself for the final struggle, for he guessed that their time had come, and he meant to die fighting. Tense as a bowstring, he was in the act of launching himself at the throat of the chief, when there was a sudden wild shout from the ape-men, and Irene clutched convulsively at her husband's arm.
Then, loud and clear above the noises of the volcano and the terrified shouts from the assembled ape-men, came the sound of a steady, droning buzz. At first, so intent had he been on what was taking place directly in front of him, Hardin did not comprehend the meaning of the sound; then, like a flash of light, came quick realization, and he looked upward, following the gaze of the Bamangani, who had huddled together and were staring into the sky with popping eyes.
Coming out of the east, directly in the path of the rising sun which bathed its snowy planes and metal trimmings in a golden sheen, was the Condor. At an elevation of perhaps two thousand feet, the seaplane was headed straight for the volcano, and even as Hardin looked upward it began to climb higher in a huge spiral, while the hum of its exhaust became a steady roar.
For a moment Hardin watched it in a kind of daze, wondering if he could believe his own senses; then he realized that Irene was shouting into his ear.
"It's Batu, Tommy!" she cried wildly. "It's Batu in the Condor! We're saved, dear. We're saved! We're saved!" She was almost sobbing in her delighted frenzy, so great was the shock of the reaction of the strain she had been under.
Her words brought Hardin back to earth with a jerk. All at once he was cool and alert again. In one lightning glance his eyes took in the scene around them. The Bamangani, temporarily scared half out of their senses by the sudden apparition of this strange monster of the air, were huddled like sheep at one side of the pinnacle top. Nearer at hand Makosi and his priests were standing spellbound, uncertain whether to run or pray to their heathen gods, and half a dozen paces from them was the Herculean young chief, oblivious of everything except the sight above him.
For just an instant Hardin hesitated. Impossible as the thing appeared at first glance, Batu, he knew, meant to attempt the feat of landing on top of the pinnacle. Already the Dyak was rising, gauging his distance for that final dropping swoop which must not miss. The thing he meant to try was possible, just possible, Hardin thought, for the pinnacle top was flat and barely broad enough for a landing place, but the slightest miscalculation or deviation from its course would mean the wreck of the seaplane.
Dexterous in the manipulation of the Condor as he knew Batu to be, the banker knew that the odds were against him. Under the most favorable conditions the place on which they stood would have taxed the nerve of the most skillful of aviators, were he foolhardy enough to attempt to make a landing there, but just now all the natural conditions were at their worst. The pinnacle was shrouded and half hidden in smoke and steam; the air directly above the crater--through which Batu must pass--was hot and sure to be full of tricky currents, and the landing itself was small and crowded with human beings. Still, there was a chance, the only chance to save three people from a terrible death, and the white man knew that Batu would not hesitate.
Eyes straining upward, Hardin waited and watched until he saw the long pontoons beneath the seaplane move up against the hull, while in their place appeared the wheels which were used for landing on solid ground. When this happened he knew that Batu was on the verge of dropping downward, and without waiting to see more he gathered himself together and leaped at the Bamangani chieftain, who had not taken his eyes from the Condor since its first appearance.
WHEN Hardin and Batu were startled by the rifle shot and Irene's screams for help, the Dyak had been a little in front of his companion and almost in the act of lowering himself into the cockpit where the twin engines were situated. In this part of the seaplane it was very dark, and although he turned instantly Batu could not see his employer. He heard him, however, run to the side and dive overboard, and he followed as quickly as he could, but he was just far enough behind to be still some twenty yards from the beach when the sounds of a tremendous struggle and the subsequent silence told him that Hardin had been overcome.
For a while he treaded water there in the dark, listening and straining his eyes for some clew to what was going on. He heard a few guttural remarks among the Bamangani which told him that all of his friends had been made prisoners; then he saw a number of dark forms leave the beach and heard a rustling of the vines which showed that the ape-men had proceeded inland. From this he guessed that the captives had been carried to the camp, from which they would probably be next day transported to the Bamangani village at the base of the volcano. Satisfied that he could do nothing to help his friends just then, the Dyak turned around and slowly swam back to the Condor.
When he climbed on board and sat down his eyes stared hard and his nostrils twitched nervously. He was feeling very, very sad, and for the first time since they had reached the island he was frightened; also he was exceedingly angry. For a little while he sat still in the darkness, trying to collect himself; then as he became calmer he began to think.
Since the ape-men evidently intended to take their prisoners to their village he felt fairly sure that they would do them no further injury for the present. He was well acquainted with their method of procedure in such cases, and he guessed that the captives were to be preserved for some great sacrifice, which, unless the customs of the Bamangani had been changed during the past few years, would undoubtedly be held at the hour of sunrise.
Reasoning further, he decided that at least twenty-four hours must elapse before the sacrifice could be held, since it would take nearly that long to carry the victims inland and arrange for the public ceremonies so dear to the Bamangani priests.
Arriving at this conclusion, Batu stood up and shook himself. If his deductions were correct, and he felt confident that they were, he had a little over twenty-four hours in which to rescue his friends, or, if he failed, to die with them. Just how he was to attempt this rescue single-handed he did not know at the moment; that would come later on. First, he must overhaul the seaplane and have everything in readiness for an instant start, for there must be no delay once his final plans were made.
He went to the forward part of the hull and listened carefully for several minutes, hearing nothing but the croaking of the frogs and the other commonplace sounds of the jungle night. Apparently the ape-men had no intention of visiting the seaplane that night, but since there was so much at stake Batu took nothing for granted.
After an instant's hesitation, he lowered himself into the water and swam ashore again. Here, making use of all the woodcraft and jungle lore which a long line of ancestors trained in the art had handed down to him, he prowled about for nearly three hours.
Just what he learned during this nocturnal excursion he never told, but when he returned at last to the Condor his eyes were glistening with the light of a set purpose. He had made up his mind as to just what he should do, and with characteristic energy he set to work.
Safe inside the seaplane, he switched on the electric lights, which were supplied by a powerful storage battery in the hull, and made an inspection of the interior of the ship. The light would, of course, warn the ape-men of his presence on board, but it would also increase their susperstitious awe of the bird-boat, and the Dyak was confident that they would not try to attack him before daylight. By that time, if all went well, he would be able to take care of himself.
Except for a considerable disorder among its movable furnishings, he was elated to find that the Condor had suffered very little at the hands of the Bamangani. The untutored savages had probably been too much in awe of the seaplane to tamper with it much, for the engines were in perfect order and the huge fuel tanks below the floor of the hull had not been touched. Even some rifles and revolvers, which had been locked in a chest in the cabin were intact, and when he had strapped a heavy automatic pistol around his waist Batu felt better.
Satisfied that the plane was in running order, he went into the little kitchen and ate a hearty meal of canned foods. Then he went on deck again.
By this time the first faint streaks of dawn were beginning to lighten the sky, and the island was shrouded in a thick mist which cut off his view of the shore like a wall. There was not a sign of life anywhere; not a sound came through the fog; and after a long look in all directions the Dyak went below and started the engines.
For several minutes, his head cocked to one side, he listened with critical ears for the faintest irregularity in their popping roar, and when he could discover none he grinned to himself. Then, paying no heed whatever to a confused shouting from the direction of the beach which signified that the Bamangani had been aroused by the noise, he pulled up the anchor, stowed it away, and slipped into the driving seat. Ten minutes later, without taking to the air at all, he swung the seaplane around the end of the island and came to a halt midway between the horns of a large cove.
After a glance around had assured him that everything was snug, he lay down on a bunk in the inclosed cabin and deliberately went to sleep. He knew that he had done all that could be done for the time being, his plans were all made for the rescue he meant to attempt when the hour was ripe, and in the meantime, since he was sure that the Bamangani, thinking he had fled, would never find him, he was conserving his strength for the desperate venture which would mean either life or death to both himself and his friends.
It lacked about half an hour of dawn on the following morning when Batu carefully maneuvered the Condor until he was clear of all possible entanglements. Then he gave the engines more gas and still more. Their cacophonic buzz rose to a deafening roar, and the slender pontoons began to cut through the black water with increasing speed.
For some yards the spume blew upon and spattered the glass windows of the cabin. Then the lifting power of the planes made itself felt, and the seaplane skimmed the surface of the lake instead of plowing through it. The speed gradually increased, and suddenly the feel of the water against the pontoons ceased. The Condor was riding the air with a smooth and easy motion that was steady and firm.
Batu spiraled slowly to four thousand feet and headed straight for the volcano. It was near the twin peaks of the mountain that the Bamangani village was situated, and he meant to circle above them until he could discern what was going on below and choose a landing place for the great machine which was so responsive to his will.
Never had he known the Condor's powerful motors to sound a sweeter roar than they did on this morning when so many lives depended on their perfect operation. Desperate as he knew his venture to be, the Dyak grinned with the exultant delight of a born birdman as he settled down into his seat and peered ahead.
A light westerly wind, laden with sulphurous fumes from the volcano, drove against the plane as it attained the higher levels and straightened out for its flight. Batu was not flying any faster than was necessary to keep his craft under perfect control. From where he sat the island seemed only a misty, unfathomable blotch below him. He would need more light by which to descend, and he did not wish to bungle matters by too much haste. First, he must circle around the mountain and locate his objective; then, just as the sun came over the horizon behind him, he would swoop down, trusting to luck and the superstitious fear the sight of the Condor would arouse in the ape-men to give him an opportunity to pick up his friends.
At best he would be taking a desperate, almost an impossible, chance, for the landing alone would be a hazardous thing in that rocky, tree-filled region, but no fear of personal hurt could daunt him. It was his creed never to forgive an enemy nor to turn his back on a friend, and he would not shirk now when the time came to practice it.
AS the dawn broke, the great plane was circling over the mountain at a five-thousand-foot altitude. Even at that height the fumes from the steaming crater were noticeable, and occasionally the Condor encountered "pockets" in the heated atmosphere which caused it to side-slip and buck dangerously. Clever maneuvering, however, outrode these, and presently Batu was able to distinguish the village of the Bamangani and a number of moving dots which he knew were men.
When he saw that these dots were all traveling toward the top of the mountain to join a dark mass of people who were gathered together on the flat apex of the highest pinnacle, he caught his breath sharply. He guessed instantly what that gathering meant, and even before Irene's golden hair drew his gaze to where the three prisoners were grouped, he knew what he would have to do.
Circling once more, he studied the pinnacle top as carefully as he could in the circumstances. He saw that it was flat and comparatively smooth, and large enough perhaps to accommodate the Condor if he was very, very careful; he saw, too, that he would have to fly perilously close to the steaming crater; but he did not hesitate.
He completed his circle, dropping until the altometer at his side showed only twenty-five hundred feet; then, with the rising sun directly behind him, he drove straight for the crater. At just the right distance from his goal he pushed a lever, and the plane began to tip forward until to the throng below it seemed to be standing on its nose; then Batu shut off his power and shot downward.
For an instant of sickening suspense it seemed to Irene, who alone of the three prisoners had not taken her eyes from the plane, that Batu had miscalculated. It looked as if the Condor were going straight on down into the fiery maw of the crater, but just then the Dyak pulled a lever, and the plane shot up a little to settle the next instant as gently as a falling leaf in the very center of the pinnacle top.
There was a crash and a chorus of wild cries as the tip of one of the wings knocked down a dozen ape-men who had been too spellbound to get out of the way. Then silence followed.
"Quick, tuan," shouted Batu, springing over the side as the plane came to a standstill, automatic in hand. "Come quick!"
Hardin did not hear him, however. He was locked in a death struggle with the Bamangani chief, who, furious at the turn things had taken, was fighting like a madman. Never before in his life had Hardin such good reason to be thankful for his strong body and perfect physical condition as he had at that moment. Taken partly unawares though he had been, the big ape man was proving himself a terribly tough customer.
Three times already the two had gone to the ground together and risen again, and even yet the odds were with neither man. What the chief lacked in science he made up in brute strength and agility, and if Hardin had not managed to disarm him at the very first onslaught, the white man would certainly have been killed.
Just as the Condor landed, however, the banker secured a favorite wrestling hold and began to put forth his great strength. At first the ape man fought stubbornly; the muscles and sinews stood out in knots on both men as they strove, the one to break, the other to keep his hold; but flesh and blood could not endure the strain, and suddenly he collapsed and fell down unconscious.
Picking up the club which his adversary had dropped, Hardin whirled about. "Into the plane, hurry!" he cried, running to his wife. "Quick, before they wake up!"
He was rushing Irene and the wounded scientist toward the Condor, when Makosi, who had been staring like a man in a trance at the wonders enacted before his eyes, seemed suddenly to come to life. Waving his arms wildly, the man began to scream at his people, fairly frothing at the mouth in his rage and excitement.
As his words fell on their ears, some of the Bamangani began to pluck up heart, and a few launched spears at the fugitives as they hurried toward the plane. They gave up and fell back, however, when Batu turned his automatic loose upon them, and a few seconds later the entire party was safe inside the cabin.
As the plane rose into the air and the island fell rapidly away below them, Hardin gathered his wife into his arms. "Phee-u!" he exclaimed, setting her down at last. "That was certainly a close thing. Thank God you're alive, dear."
"I shall," she answered soberly; "but first I'm going to thank Batu."
"Batu!" Hardin turned to glance at the Dyak, who, imperturbable as the Sphinx, was guiding the rushing plane in the direction of the coast. For a moment the white man watched him in silence, and his eyes were very tender. Then he spoke.
"Pretty close thing, wasn't it, Batu?" he said.
The Dyak turned and flashed a grin at them over his shoulder. "Sure, Mike!" he answered.
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