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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Gold Hunters - Chapter 11. The Cry In The Chasm
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The Gold Hunters - Chapter 11. The Cry In The Chasm Post by :rlscott Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :3166

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The Gold Hunters - Chapter 11. The Cry In The Chasm

CHAPTER XI. THE CRY IN THE CHASM

If Mukoki had been a white man he would have analyzed in some way the meaning of those strange cries. But the wild and its savage things formed his world; and his world, until this night, had never known human or beast that could make the terrible sounds he had heard. So for an hour he crouched where he had fallen, still trembling with that nameless fear, and trying hard to form a solution of what had happened. Slowly he recovered himself. For many years he had mingled with white people at the Post and reason now battled with the superstitions of his race.

He had been fired at. He had heard the whistling song of the ball over his head, and had heard it strike the tree behind him. For a time those rocks toward which he stared like fascinated beast had concealed a man. But what kind of man! He remembered the ancient battle-cries of his tribe, and of the enemies of his tribe, but none was like the cries that had followed the shot. He heard them still; they rang in his ears, and sent shivering chills up his back. And the more he tried to reason the greater that nameless fear grew in him, until he slunk like an animal down the side of the mountain, through the dip, and out again upon the plain. And with that same nameless fear always close behind him, urging him on with its terrors, he sped back over the trail that he had followed that day, nor for an instant did he stop to rest until he came to the camp-fire of Rod and Wabigoon.

Usually an Indian hides his fears; he conceals them as a white man does his sins. But to-night Mukoki's experience had passed beyond the knowledge of his race, and he told of what had happened, trembling still, cringing when a great white rabbit darted close to the fire. Rod and Wabi listened to him in mute astonishment.

"Could it have been a Woonga?" asked Wabi.

"No Woonga," replied the old warrior quickly, shaking his head. "Woonga no mak' noise lak that!"

He drew away from the fire, wrapped himself in a blanket, and crept into the shelter that Rod and Wabigoon had built. The two boys looked at each other in silence.

"Muky has certainly had some most extraordinary adventure," said Wabi at last. "I have never seen him like this before. It is easy to guess the meaning of the shot. Some of the Woongas may still be in the country, and one of them saw Mukoki, and fired at him. But the scream! What do you make of that?"

"Do you suppose," whispered Rod, speaking close to his companion's ear, "that Mukoki's imagination helped him out to-night?" He paused for a moment as he saw the look of disapproval in Wabigoon's eyes, and then went on. "I don't mean to hint that he stretched his story purposely. He was standing on the mountain top. Suddenly there came a flash of fire, the report of a rifle, and a bullet zipped close to his head. And at that same instant, or a moment later--well, you remember the scream of the lynx!"

"You believe that it might have been a lynx, startled by the shot, and sent screaming across the plain?"

"Yes."

"Impossible. At the sound of that shot a lynx would have remained as still as death!"

"Still there are always exceptions," persisted the white youth.

"Not in the case of lynx," declared Wabigoon. "No animal made those cries. Mukoki is as fearless as a lion. The cry of a lynx would have stirred his blood with pleasure instead of fear. Whatever the sounds were they turned Mukoki's blood into water. They made him a coward, and he ran, ran, mind you! until he got back to us! Is that like Mukoki? I tell you the cries--"

"What?"

"Were something very unusual," finished Wabigoon quietly, rising to his feet "Perhaps we will find out more to-morrow. As it is, I believe we had better stand guard in camp to-night. I will go to bed now and you can awaken me after a while."

Wabigoon's words and the strangeness of his manner put Rod ill at ease, despite his arguments of a few moments before, and no sooner did he find himself alone beside the fire than he began to be filled with an unpleasant premonition of lurking danger. For a time he sat very still, trying to peer into the shadows beyond the fire and listening to the sounds that came to him from out of the night. As he watched and listened his brain worked ceaselessly, conjuring picture after picture of what that danger might be, and at last he drew out of the firelight and concealed himself in the deep gloom of the bush. From here he could see the camp, and at the same time was safe from a possible rifle shot.

The night passed with tedious slowness, and he was glad when, a little after midnight, Wabi came out to relieve him. At dawn he was in turn awakened by the young Indian. Mukoki was already up and had prepared his pack. Apparently he had regained his old spirits, but both Rod and Wabigoon could see that behind them the fear of the preceding night still haunted him. That morning he did not set off ahead of the two boys with his pack but walked beside them, stopping to rest when they lowered their canoe, his eyes never ceasing their sharp scrutiny of the plain and distant ridges. Once when Mukoki mounted a big rock to look about him, Wabi whispered,

"I tell you it's strange, Rod--mighty strange!"

An hour later the old warrior halted and threw off his load. The three had approached within a quarter of a mile of the dip in the mountain.

"Leave canoe here," he said. "Go lak fox to old camp. Mebbe see!"

He took the lead now, followed closely by the boys. The safety of the old pathfinder's rifle was down, and following his example Rod and Wabigoon held their own guns in readiness for instant fire. As they neared the summit of the ridge on which Mukoki's life had been attempted the suspense of the two young hunters became almost painfully acute. Mukoki's actions not only astonished them, but set their blood tingling with his own strange fear. Many times had Wabigoon seen his faithful comrade in moments of deadly peril but never, even when the Woongas were close upon their trail, had he known him to take them as seriously as he did the ascent of this mountain. Every few steps Mukoki paused, listening and watchful. Not the smallest twig broke under his moccasined feet; the movement of the smallest bird, the trembling of a bush, the scurry of a rabbit halted him, rigid, his rifle half to shoulder. And Rod and Wabigoon soon become filled with this same panic-stricken fear. What terrible dread was it that filled Mukoki's soul? Had he seen something of which he had not told them? Did he think something which he had not revealed?

Foot by foot the three came to the top of the ridge. There Mukoki straightened himself, and stood erect. There were no signs of a living creature about them. Down in the dip nestled the little lake, gleaming in the midday sun. They could make out the debris of the burned cabin in which they had passed their hunting season, and close to this was the pack which Mukoki had dropped there the night before. No one had molested it. Wabi's face relaxed. Rod, breathing easier, laughed softly. What had there been to fear? He glanced questioningly at Mukoki.

"There rocks, there tree," said the old warrior, in answer to Rod's glance, "down there went scream!" He pointed far out across the plain.

Wabi had gone to the tree.

"See here, Rod!" he cried. "By George, this was a close shave!" He pointed to a tiny hole freshly made in the smooth white surface of the tree as the others came up. "There--stand there, Mukoki, back to the tree, as you said you were when the shot was fired. Great Caesar, that fellow had a dead line on your head--two inches high! No wonder it made you think the scream of a lynx was something else!"

"No lynx," said Mukoki, his face darkening.

"Shame on you, Muky!" laughed Wabigoon. "Don't get angry. I won't say it again if it makes you mad."

Rod had drawn his hunting-knife and was prodding the point of it in the bullet hole.

"I can feel the ball," he said. "It's not in more than an inch."

"That's curious," exclaimed Wabigoon, coming close beside him. "It ought to be half-way through the tree at least! Eh, Muky? I don't believe it would have hurt--"

He stopped. Rod had turned with a sudden excited cry. He held out his knife, tip upward, and pointed to it with the index finger of his free hand. Wabi's eyes fell on the tip of the blade. Mukoki stared. For a full half minute the three stood in speechless amazement. Clinging to the knife tip was a tiny fleck of yellow, gleaming lustrously in the sun as Rod slowly turned the handle of his weapon.

"Another--gold--bullet!"

The words fell from Wabi's lips very slowly, and so low that they were scarce above a whisper. Mukoki seemed to have ceased breathing. Rod's eyes met the old warrior's.

"What does it mean?"

Wabi had pulled his knife and was digging into the tree. A few deep cuts and the golden bullet lay exposed to view.

"What does it mean?" repeated the white youth.

Again he addressed his question to Mukoki.

"Man who shoot bear--heem no dead," replied the old pathfinder. "Same gun, same gold, same--"

"Same what?"

A strange gleam came for an instant into Mukoki's eyes, and without finishing he turned and pointed across the narrow plain that lay between them and the mysterious chasm which they were to follow in their search for treasure.

"Cry went there!" he said shortly.

"To the chasm!" said Wabi.

"To the chasm!" repeated Rod.

Impelled by the same thought the three adventurers went toward the rocks from which the shot had been fired. Surely they would discover some sign there, or lower down upon the plain, where the melting snows had softened the earth. Mukoki led in the search, and foot by foot they examined the spot where the mysterious marksman must have stood when he sent his golden bullet so close to the Indian's head.

But not a trace of his presence had he left behind. Working abreast, the three began the descent of the ridge. Hardly had they covered a third of the distance to the plain when Wabi, who was trailing between Rod and the old Indian, called out that he had made a discovery. Mukoki had already reached him when Rod came up, and the two were gazing silently at something fluttering from a bush.

"Lynx hair!" cried Rod. "A lynx has been this way!" He could not entirely conceal the triumph in his voice. He had been right in his conjecture of the night before, the cry that had frightened Mukoki had been made by a lynx!

"Yes, a lynx has been this way, a lynx four feet high," said Wabigoon quietly, and the touch of raillery in his voice assured Rod that he had still other lessons to learn in the life of this big wilderness. "Lynx don't grow that big, Rod!"

"Then it's--" Rod feared to go on.

"Lynx fur. That's just what it is. Whoever fired at Mukoki last night was dressed in skins! Now, can you tell us what that means?"

Without waiting for an answer Wabigoon resumed his search. But the mountain side gave no further evidence. Not a footprint was found upon the plain. If the mysterious person who had fired the golden bullet had leaped from the mountain top into space he could have left no fewer traces behind him. At the end of an hour Rod and his companions returned to the canoe, carried their loads to the pack in the dip, and prepared dinner. Their suspense and fear, and specially Mukoki's dread, were in a large measure gone. But at the same time they were more hopelessly mystified than ever. That there was danger ahead of them, that the menace of golden bullets was actual and thrilling, all three were well agreed, but the sunlight of day and a little sound reasoning had dispelled their half superstitious terrors of the previous night and they began to face the new situation with their former confidence.

"We can't let this delay us," said Wabi, as they ate their dinner. "By night we ought to be in our old camp at the head of the chasm, where we held the Woongas at bay last winter. The sooner we get out of the way of these golden bullets the better it will be for us!"

Mukoki shrugged his shoulders.

"Gold bullet follow, I guess so," he grunted, "Cry went there--to chasm!"

"I don't believe this fellow, whoever he is, will hang to our trail," continued Wabi, giving Rod a suggestive look. A few moments later he found an opportunity to whisper, "We've got to get that cry out of Muky's head, Rod, or we'll never find our gold!"

When Mukoki had gone to arrange his pack the young Indian spoke earnestly to his companion.

"Muky isn't afraid of bullets, either gold or lead; he isn't afraid of any danger on earth. But that cry haunts him. He is trying not to let us know, yet it haunts him just the same. Do you know what he is thinking? No? Well, I do! He is superstitious, like the rest of his race, and the two gold bullets, the terrible cries, and the fact that we found no tracks upon the plain are all carrying him toward one conclusion, that the strange thing that fired at him is--"

Wabigoon paused and wiped his face, and it was easy for Rod to see that he was suppressing some unusual excitement.

"What does he think it is?"

"I'm not sure, not quite sure, yet," went on the Indian youth. "But listen! It is a legend in Mukoki's tribe, and always has been, that once in every so many generations they are visited by a terrible warrior sent by the Great Spirit who takes sacrifice of them, a sacrifice of human life, because of a great wrong that was once done by their people. And this warrior, though invisible, has a voice that makes the mountains quake and the rivers stand still with fear, and in his great bow he shoots shafts that are made of gold! Do you understand? Last night I heard Mukoki talking about it in his sleep. Either we must hear this cry, and find out more about it, or hurry to a place where it won't be heard again. Golden bullets and cries and Mukoki's superstitions are going to be worse than Woongas if we don't watch out!"

"But the whole thing is as plain as day!" declared Rod in astonishment. "A man shot at the bear, and the same man shot at Mukoki, and he fired gold each time. Surely--"

"It's not the man part of it," interrupted the other. "It's the cry. There, Mukoki has his pack ready. Let's start for the chasm at once!"

This time the boys had a heavier burden than usual, for in the canoe they placed one of the two loads carried by Mukoki, and consequently their progress toward the chasm was much slower than that across the plain. It was late in the afternoon when they reached the break that led into the chasm, and as they cautiously made the descent now Rod thought of the thrilling pursuit of the Woonga horde, and how a few weeks before they had discovered this break just in time for Wabi and him to save their lives, and that of the wounded Mukoki. It was with a feeling almost of awe that the three adventurers penetrated deeper and deeper into the silent gloom of this mystery-filled gulch between the mountains, and when they reached the bottom they set their loads down without speaking, their eyes roving over the black walls of rock, their hearts throbbing a little faster with excitement.

For here, at this break in the mountain, began the romantic trail drawn by men long dead, the trail that led to a treasure of gold.

As the three sat in silence, the gloom in the chasm thickened. The sun had passed beyond the southwestern forests, and through the narrow rift between the mountain walls there fell but the ebbing light of day, dissolving itself into the shadows of dusk as it struggled weakly in the cavernous depths. For a few minutes this swift fading of day into night gripped the adventurers in its spell. What did the lonely solitudes of that chasm hold for them? Where would they lead them? To Rod's mind there came a picture of the silver fox and a thought of his dream, when for a few miles he had explored the mysteries of this strange, sunless world shut in by rock walls. Again he saw the dancing skeletons, heard the rattle of their bones, and watched the wonderful dream-battle that had led him to the birch-bark map. Wabigoon, his eyes gleaming in the gathering darkness, thought of their flight from the outlaw savages, and Mukoki--

The white youth had turned a little to look at the old warrior. Mukoki sat as rigid as a pillar of stone an arm's reach from him. Head erect, arms tense, his eyes gleaming strangely, he stared straight out into the gloom between the chasm walls. Rod shivered. He knew, knew without questioning, that Mukoki was thinking of the cry!

And at that instant there floated up from the black chaos ahead a sound, a sound low and weird, like the moaning of a winter's wind through the pine tops, swelling, advancing, until it ended in a shriek--a shriek that echoed and reechoed between the chasm walls, dying away in a wail that froze the blood of the three who sat and listened!

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