Prof. Norman Prescott, leader of the American Kinchinjunga expedition, crept from his dog-tent perched eerily at the 26,000-foot level of this unscaled Himalayan peak, the third highest in the world. With anxious eyes he searched the appalling slopes that lifted another 2,000 feet to its majestic summit, now glistening in the radiance of sunset.
Where was young Jack Stoddard, official geologist and crack mountaineer of the party?
That morning Professor Prescott and Stoddard had set off together, from Camp No. 4, at the 22,000-foot level. Mounting laboriously but swiftly, they had reached the present eyrie by noon. There Stoddard had left the leader of the expedition and pushed on alone, to reconnoiter a razor-back ridge that looked as though it might prove the key to the summit.
But the afternoon had passed; the daring young geologist had promised to return in an hour; and now it was sunset, with still no sign of him.
Professor Prescott sighed, and a bitter expression crossed his bronzed, lined face. Just one more evidence of the cursed luck that had marked the expedition from the start!
Well he knew that he must head down at once for Camp No. 4 or risk death on this barren, wind-swept slope, and equally well he knew that to go would be to leave his brave companion to his fate, providing he had not already met it on those desolate ridges above.
Yes, and another thing he knew. The report of this latest disaster would mean the doom of the expedition. The terrified, superstitious natives would bolt, claiming the “snow people” had struck again.
“Gods of the Mountain” they called them, those mysterious beings they alone seemed to see--evil spirits who kept guard over this towering realm, determined none should gain its ultimate heights.
Tensely Professor Prescott stood there on that narrow shelf of glacial ice, peering off into the sunset.
A hundred miles to the west, bathed in the refulgence of a thousand rainbows, rose the incredible peak of Everest, mightiest of all mountains, yet less than 1,000 feet higher than Kinchinjunga. And down, straight down those almost vertical slopes up which the expedition had toiled all summer, lay gorges choked with tropical growth. Off to the south, a scant fifty miles away, the British health station of Darjeeling flashed its white villas in the coppery glow.
An awesome spectacle!--one that human eyes had seldom if ever seen. Yet from the summit, so invitingly near!...
Perhaps, even now, Stoddard was witnessing this incomparable sight. To push on, to join him, meant triumph. To head down, defeat. While to stay, to wait...
Grimly, Professor Prescott left his insecure perch and headed up over that razor-back ridge whence the young geologist had vanished.
As he proceeded cautiously along, drawing sharp, quick breaths in the rarefied upper atmosphere, he told himself it was ambition that was leading him on, but in his heart he knew it was not so. In his heart, he knew he was going to the rescue of his gallant companion, though the way meant death.
A hundred yards had been gained, perhaps two--each desperate foothold fraught with peril of a plunge into the yawning abysms to left and right--when suddenly he spied a figure on a twilit spur ahead.
Panting, he paused. It must be Stoddard! Yet it seemed too small, too ghostly.
Professor Prescott waved, but even as he looked for an answering signal, the figure vanished.
“My eyes!” he muttered to himself. “I’m getting snow-blind.”
Then he called aloud:
“Jack! Oh, Jack! Hello!”
Only an echo greeted the call, and he did not repeat it but pushed on silently, conserving his energy.
Was there truth after all in those persistent rumors of the natives about the snow people who inhabited the upper slopes of the Himalayas? His tired brain toyed with the idea, to be cut off sharply by the cheery call:
“Hi there, Professor! Hi-ho!”
And gazing upwards toward a jutting crag not ten rods beyond, he saw young Stoddard etched against the darkening sky.
In a few joyous steps, Professor Prescott had reached his audacious companion.
“Thank God!” he gasped. “I’d given you up for lost.”
“Why give me up for anything so unpleasant?” was the genial reply. “I’ve just been enjoying the view.”
“Then--then you reached the top?” with a quick intake of breath.
“Well, not exactly, but I feel on top of the world, just the same.”
The professor’s spirits fell.
“Then I can’t see--”
“Of course you can’t see!” interrupted Stoddard. “But look at this!”
As he spoke, he drew from a pocket of his leather jacket something that caught the last light of the dying day and refracted it with weird brilliance.
Professor Prescott blinked.
“A diamond. As big as your fist! And here’s another!”
His left hand reached into his jacket and produced a second sparkling gem.
“But--but I don’t understand--”
“Granted. But you will, when I tell you I’ve found the Diamond Thunderbolt!”
The professor gave a shrug of scorn.
“And no doubt you’ve seen the snow people and have had a perfect afternoon, while--”
“No, I haven’t seen any snow people, but I’ve had a perfect afternoon, all right! As I said, I’ve found the Diamond Thunderbolt; and here are a couple of chips, picked up from around the edge.”
So saying, Stoddard extended his two specimens toward Professor Prescott, who disdained at first to touch them.
“Nothing but quartz!” was the deprecating comment. “The snow has affected your eyesight, as it has my own.”
“I’ll say it’s affected yours, if you don’t recognize diamonds when you see them. But wait till I show you the old Thunderbolt itself! It’s--”
“More quartz!” brusquely. “Be sensible, Jack. This Diamond Thunderbolt thing is a pure myth, like the snow people business. Just because this section of India is known as The Land of the Diamond Thunderbolt you think you’re going to find some precious meteor or other, whereas the term applies merely to the Lama’s scepter.”
“Granted it does,”--a little impatiently--”but did it ever occur to you that where there’s smoke, there’s fire? Meteor is the word! One struck here once--a diamond meteor!--and I’ve found it. Take a look at these two specimens and see what you think.”
Whereupon Professor Prescott accepted the glinting gems from his young friend--to gasp a moment later, as he held them tremblingly:
“Good Lord--they’re diamonds, to be sure! Where did you find them?”
Stoddard hesitated before replying.
“Not far from here,” he said at length, moving off. “Come, I’ll show you.”
But the professor stood firm on their narrow ledge.
“You must be crazy!” he exclaimed. “We’ll have trouble enough now, getting back. It’s practically dark already.”
“Then what’s the odds?” retorted the young geologist. “We’ve got all night.”
“But our friends at Camp No. 4. Even now, they must think we are lost.”
“Then further thought won’t kill them. Besides, we’ll be back before morning--and they can’t send out a relief party sooner.”
“But any moment a storm may come up. You know what that would mean.”
“Does it look likely?” scoffed Stoddard, waving his hand aloft. “See--there’s the moon! She’ll be our guide.”
Professor Prescott looked, saw a slender shallop charting her course among the stars, and for a moment was tempted. But speedily his responsibilities reasserted themselves.
“No, I can’t do it,” he said with finality. “I owe it to the expedition to return as soon as possible. Furthermore, there’s the matter of the authorities. We assured the British we would adhere strictly to our one purpose--to scale Kinchinjunga.”
“A mere formality.”
“No--a definite order from the Lamas. They closed Mt. Everest, after the last expedition, you will recall. The Lama’s scepter is veritably a diamond thunderbolt of power in this region.”
Whereupon Stoddard’s patience snapped.
“Listen!” he said. “I hurried away because I knew you’d be anxious, but I’m going back, if I have to--”
“And I say you’re not!” The professor’s patience, too, had snapped. “I’m not going with you, and you’re not going back alone! As the leader of this expedition, I forbid it!”
The younger man laughed raspingly, as he shook off the hand that clasped his arm, and for a moment it looked as though the two would fight, there on that dizzy ledge above the world.
Then Stoddard got control of himself.
“Sorry!” he said. “I see I’ve got to tell you something, Professor. You think I’m merely the geologist of this expedition, but in fact I’m a secret service man from Washington, on the trail of the biggest diamond-smuggling plot in history--and here is where the trail ends!”
Professor Prescott’s astonishment at these words was profound. He stood there blinking up at Stoddard, scarcely believing he had heard aright.
“You--you say you are--?”
“A detective, if you want. Anyway, if you’ve read the papers, you must know that for the past year or more the diamond markets of the world have been flooded with singularly perfect stones.”
“Yes, I recall reading about that. They were thought to be synthetic, were they not?”
“By certain imaginative newspaper reporters, not by the experts, for under the microscope they revealed the invariable characteristics of diamonds formed by nature--the tiny flaws and imperfections no artificial means could duplicate.”
“But didn’t I read something, too, about some anonymous Indian rajah who was thought to be raising money by disposing of his jewels?”
“More newspaper rubbish! For one thing, British secret service men traced the rumor down and satisfied themselves there wasn’t a rajah in India unloading any diamonds. For another; no rajah could possibly have the wealth involved. Why, do you know that since this plot unfolded, over five million carats’ worth have made their appearance--and that means something like a billion dollars.”
“Whew!” whistled the professor.
“Whew is right!” his companion agreed. “And not only have the diamond markets of the world been disorganized by this mysterious influx, but the countries involved have lost millions of dollars in revenue, due to the fact that the gems have been smuggled in without payment of duty.”
“But surely, my dear fellow, you don’t connect this gigantic plot with your discovery of--whatever it is you have discovered?”
“A diamond as big as a house! That’s what I’ve discovered! And I most surely do connect the plot with it. Did you ever have a hunch, Professor? Well, I had one--and it’s worked out!”
“You leave me more in the dark momentarily!” declared the older man, glancing around as though to give his words a double meaning. “What was your hunch, and how did it come to lead you here?”
Whereupon Stoddard told him, swiftly, for there was no time to lose.
When first assigned to the case, he said, he had been as baffled as anyone. But as he had studied the problem, one outstanding fact had given him the clue. All the gem experts agreed that the mysterious flood of smuggled stones was of Indian origin, being of the first water and of remarkable fire--in other words, of the finest transparency and brilliance.
Therefore, since they were genuine and were seemingly coming from India, Stoddard had concentrated his attention on this country, seeking their exact source. Investigation showed that there were no mines within its borders capable of producing anything like the quantity that was inundating the market.
But--and here was where the hunch came in--there was a district in the Sikkim Himalayas of Bengal whose capital was Darjeeling--Land of the Diamond Thunderbolt. Why had it been called that? Was there some legend back of it?
There was, he had learned. For though in modern times the phrase had come to apply merely to the Lama’s scepter, as Professor Prescott had pointed out, originally it had carried another meaning--for legend said that once a diamond meteor had fallen on the mighty slopes of Kinchinjunga.
That had been enough for Stoddard. He had followed his hunch, had got himself attached to the American Kinchinjunga expedition--
“And that’s why I’m here, and all about it,” he finished. “Now, then, are you coming back with me and have a look at my Diamond Thunderbolt, or am I going back alone?”
A long moment the professor debated, before replying.
“Yes, I’ll come with you,” he said at length, extending his hand. “Forgive me, Jack. I didn’t know, or--”
“Forget it,” said Stoddard shaking. “How the devil could you, till I told you? But just one thing. Mum’s the word--right?”
“And one thing more. It may be--well, a one-way trip.”
“O. K., Professor.”
With a last warm handclasp, leaving them joined in a new bond of friendship, the two men moved on over that narrow, moonlit ridge across the top of the world.
It was a desperate trail, Professor Prescott realized after scarcely a dozen steps. The ridge grew narrower, sheerer, and in places they had to straddle it, legs dangling precariously to left and right.
Admiration for his gallant companion mounted in the professor’s pounding heart, as they struggled on. Only to picture anyone eager to return such a perilous way, after once getting safely back!
Other thoughts occupied his mind, too, during the next half-hour. More than once he could have sworn he saw small, ghostly figures on the ridge ahead. But he made no mention of it, for Stoddard didn’t seem to see them.
Now they gained the far end of that hazardous ridge, where a sloping shelf of jagged rock offered a somewhat more secure footing. Along this they proceeded laterally for some distance.
Suddenly Stoddard paused and called out:
“Ah--there we are!” He indicated a steep pocket to the left. “Have a look down there, Professor, and tell me what you see.”
Prescott lowered his eyes to the depths below, to draw back with a gasp--for what he saw was a vast phosphorescent glow, like a fallen star.
“What--what is it?” he cried, in an awed voice.
And back came the ringing reply:
“The Diamond Thunderbolt!”
“But the radiance of the thing! It couldn’t reflect that much light from the moon!”
“No, and it doesn’t. But there’s nothing uncanny about it. Just what I expected the thing would look like at night. But come on, Professor. You haven’t seen the half of it!”
The way led down the jagged, shelving slope, now, and the descent was too precarious for further comment.
Ten minutes passed--fifteen, possibly--when they reached a sheltered, snowless arena where titanic forces had clashed at some remote age. Fragments of splintered rock lay strewn in wild confusion--and among them, glinting in the moonlight, were bright crystals.
Picking up one, Stoddard said laughingly:
“One of Mother Nature’s trinkets worth half a million or so!”
Professor Prescott blinked at it a moment, almost in disbelief, then stooped and picked up one for himself--a diamond that would have made the Kohinoor look like a pebble.
There was no doubting its genuineness. Even in the moonlight, it flashed and burned like a thing afire.
But as the professor turned his eyes at last from its dazzling facets, they failed him again--or so he thought--for half hidden behind a jutting crag loomed a huge cylindrical object, seemingly of metal.
For the space of two breaths, he stared speechless, then gasped:
“Good Lord! What’s that?”
Following his gaze, Stoddard saw it too.
“God knows!” he muttered, in a tense voice. “It wasn’t there this afternoon. Let’s have a look at it.”
Cautiously, not knowing what to expect, they advanced toward the singular phenomenon.
Nearing, they saw that it was a mechanism some twenty feet at the base and sixty or more feet high, pointed at the top.
“A rocket!” declared Professor Prescott. “Though I’ve never seen anything larger than a laboratory model, I’ll gamble that’s what it is.”
“And I’ll gamble you’re right!” exclaimed Stoddard. “And one capable of carrying passengers, would you say?”
“Then I think we have solved the mystery of how these diamonds reach the market. The question now is, who’s back of this thing? And since our position here probably isn’t any too healthy--”
He broke off and drew his automatic, as a small, ghostly figure appeared--seemingly from nowhere.
The professor saw it, too--saw it followed by another, and another--and now he knew his eyesight had not failed him back on that wind-swept slope above, either, for these were actual creatures, incredible as they seemed.
The snow people?
He did not know--had no time to find out--for with a rush, the strange beings were all around them.
Stoddard levelled his pistol and called on them to halt, but they came on--scores, hundreds now, seeming to pour out of some unseen aperture of the earth.
Once or twice he fired, over their heads, but it failed to halt them. They closed in, jabbering shrilly.
But though their words were a babel, their actions were plain enough. Swarming up, they overpowered the explorers by sheer numbers, and herded them with jabs of sharp, tiny knives toward a cavern mouth that opened presently amid those eery crags.
Led underground, they found themselves proceeding along a frosty passage lit every few yards by a great chunk of diamond. Their dim glow seemed to be refracted from some central point beyond.
This point they soon reached--a great, vaulted chamber whose brilliance was at first dazzling.
Its source, after the first moment or so, was obvious. It was coming from the roof, which was one vast diamond.
“You see where we are?” whispered Stoddard. “Under the Diamond Thunderbolt! These people have tunneled beneath the meteor. Or else--”
“Their tunnel was already there, when the meteor fell,” finished Professor Prescott. “But can it be possible such creatures could have produced that rocket?”
“I’m inclined to think anything is possible, now! But I’m sorry I dragged you into this, Professor. I--”
“Forget it! We’re here and we’ll face it together, whatever it is.”
“You’re a game sport!” Stoddard gripped the older man’s hand. “We’ll face it--and lick it!”
Further talk was interrupted by a stir among their captors. The ranks parted--and into that dazzling chamber stepped a tall, bearded personage whose aristocratic features and haughty bearing suggested a Russian of the old regime.
He strode toward them, smiling sardonically.
“Greetings, my friends! Nice of you to drop in on me while in the neighborhood.” His English was suave, precise. “Professor Norman Prescott, leader of the American Kinchinjunga expedition, I believe.” He paused and lifted inquiring eyebrows to his other guest. “And--?”
“Dr. John Stoddard, our geologist,” came the answer stiffly. “And you, sir?”
“A fellow professor, you might say. Prince Ivan Krassnov. You have heard of me, perhaps?”
Prescott had indeed. One of Russia’s most brilliant and erratic scientists under the czar, the man had been permitted to continue his work for the Soviets, developing among other inventions, a rocket reported to be capable of carrying passengers. But some two years ago he and his rocket had vanished in the course of a test flight from Moscow, and the natural conclusion was that he had either perished in the sea or shot off the earth altogether, since no trace of the unique mechanism was ever found.
“Yes, I have heard of you,” said the professor, recalling this sensational story that had occupied the front pages of the world’s press for days. “And so it turns out that your rocket didn’t come to grief.”
“Not exactly--though as you can see, it landed me in rather an inaccessible spot,” was the reply. “But quite an interesting one! I was well satisfied to let the papers report me missing. You can understand, yes?”
“I think I can, that part of it.” While as for Stoddard, he was beginning to understand a great deal. “But these curious creatures?” he said, indicating the whispering, pigmy host that filled the cavern. “You found them here?”
“They found me, rather!” corrected the prince. “But we get on quite well together. They consider me a god, you see, since I, too, came out of the sky in a thunderbolt, as their great diamond once did, according to their legends.”
“But who are they? What is their origin? Why are they so small, so pale?”
“Natural questions, Professor, but not so easy to answer. Who they are I cannot say, save that they are the snow people of native superstition. Their origin? It is lost in antiquity. Perhaps they are the remnants of some Tibetan tribe driven into the mountains by enemies, thousands of years ago. While as for their stature, their pallor--these no doubt are the result of the furtive underground life they lead.”
He paused, waited politely, as though for further questions, but neither spoke. Now that the main mystery was solved, the one question uppermost in both their minds was what this suave, inscrutable nobleman was going to do with them--and that question neither cared to ask, fearful of what the answer might be.
Finally Prince Krassnov spoke again.
“What, gentlemen--you have no further curiosity about me? How unflattering! I thought perhaps you might want to know why I have chosen to maintain my headquarters here on Kinchinjunga, the past two years, and how I have been occupying my time. But I hold no resentment. I shall tell you, so that you will be prepared for what I am going to propose.”
He turned and addressed the pigmy host in what must have been their own tongue. Then, facing his guests again, he said:
“Now, come. Let us retire to my private study, where we shall have more leisure.”
They followed him from that dazzling chamber and proceeded on down the cavern to a fork that ended about twenty paces further in a massive steel-bound door.
There he paused and twirled a knob like the dial of a safe. After a moment there came a click, as of tumblers meshing, and a tug on the knob swung the door open.
The prince bowed.
“Step into my little apartment,” he said.
They entered, to find themselves in a large oblong room furnished in Slavic luxury.
As they crossed a rich Oriental rug spread over the threshold, a musical gong sounded somewhere, and almost instantly two enormous Cossacks sprang into view, to bar their way with rifles.
“My bodyguard,” apologized Krassnov, shutting the door. “They are quite harmless, except to intruders. Just one of the little precautions that make life safer.”
He spoke to the men in Russian and they withdrew.
Then he advanced to a divan beside a teakwood table on which stood a large copper samovar. Dropping down, he motioned for them to take seats beside him.
“You will have tea, my friends? Or perhaps you would prefer whiskey and soda?”
They chose the latter, since their recent exertions seemed to have warranted it, and their host tinkled a silver bell, bringing a Chinese boy beaming and salaaming.
A few words to him and the samovar was lit; then he hurried off on padding feet, to return with miraculous speed, bearing not only the whiskey and soda but a platter heaped with exotic cakes, cubed sandwiches of caviar and spiced fish, together with a profusion of other delicacies--doubly welcome to men who had toiled all day on a mountain peak, with nothing but chocolate to sustain them.
And while they drank and ate, Prince Krassnov told his story--a story whose very first words were an admission that he was the head of the great diamond-smuggling plot Stoddard had set out to trace down.
It was a story as dramatic and romantic as it was unscrupulous.
Finding himself and the crew of the rocket marooned on the upper slopes of this mighty mountain, in the midst of an incalculable wealth, he had set about at once to capitalize their astounding discovery.
First he had made certain adjustments in the mechanism of his apparatus--which fortunately had not been injured by its forced landing--and then he had taken off with specimens of the treasure, bringing the craft down this time with precision in the midst of his ancestral estates near Baku, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.
This vast property the Bolsheviks had not confiscated, partly because of its remoteness, no doubt, and partly because of the prince’s services to the Soviet Republic. At any rate, it was here he had developed in secret the details of his amazing plot--a plot that had as its aim not only his own enrichment but the rehabilitation of all the Russian nobles.
Once they had heard his story of the Diamond Thunderbolt and seen the specimens he showed them, many had eagerly joined the plot, with the result that an international ring had been formed for disposal of the gems.
His plans perfected, Prince Krassnov had then returned to Kinchinjunga with his rocket, since when the mysterious flood of those perfect diamonds into the jewel markets of the world had begun.
“So you see, my friends,” he smiled, “that is what you Americans would call my ‘little game’--a game your chance discovery has rather jeopardized, you must admit.”
Professor Prescott could well realize this, but at a glance from Stoddard he declined to admit it.
“A very ingenious game!” he said. “But where do the Lamas figure in this? Surely they must know of the presence of this meteor within their kingdom.”
“No doubt they do,” the prince conceded. “This is why they are so reluctant to have foreigners enter their domain. At one time, I am satisfied, they knew its exact location and drew many of their own gems from that source. But in recent times the snow people have guarded their secret well. The Lamas are as terrified of them as the natives--and with better reason!”
He did not mention what the reason was, but there was something ominous in his tone.
“But to get on with my story, friends. I am not telling you all this merely to satisfy your curiosity. I have what you call a motive in my madness!”
Madness was right, thought Stoddard. The man was dangerously, criminally mad.
“My motive is simply this,” he went on. “You have chanced upon my little nest-egg, and consequently I have either to let you in on the deal or--”
Krassnov paused; shrugged.
“But why talk of anything unpleasant, when there is wealth enough here for all? What I propose, briefly, is that you join me.”
They knew it was coming, but they winced, nevertheless.
“Oh, don’t be premature!” he exclaimed, a little nettled. “Hear me out. What is good enough for me and my fellow nobles of Imperial Russia is surely good enough for poor, under-paid professors of democratic America. Listen, friends--I am generous. Join me and we will make millionaires out of all of you. Every professor in your country shall be a little czar. It will be, to use the old phrase, a triumph of the intellect.”
Beyond a doubt, the man was mad; yet his madness was vast, dizzying. Though neither was tempted, they were both rendered speechless for a moment. It was like standing on a mountain top and being shown the countries and the glories of the world--like standing on the top of Kinchinjunga, thought Prescott.
“But you assume we are all Bolsheviks, like yourself, we professors,” he said, struggling for calm words.
“Bolsheviks!” snorted the prince. “I spit on them! You think I, a nobleman, am interested in the masses? Cattle--swine! I plan only for the day when we who are worthy rule again, and this that I have told you is my plan. You can, as you Americans so coarsely say, either take it or leave it.”
A tension hung in the air, as his words echoed into silence. The man had revealed himself.
“And suppose we leave it?” asked the professor, restraining his irritation as best he could. “What then?”
“Then I am afraid--ah--unpleasant consequences would result,” was the bland answer. “Surely you realize that I could not let you and young Dr. Stoddard rejoin your expedition with this story to report.”
They realized it quite well.
“But suppose we agree not to report it?” said Professor Prescott.
“Not to doubt your honesty of intention,” replied Krassnov sharply. “I would refuse to accept such an agreement.”
“Then I see nothing else but to decline your kind proposal,” said Stoddard, before the professor could formulate further words. “What do you propose to do--murder us?”
“Nothing so personal,” said the prince, with his sardonic smile. “I shall merely turn you over to my little subjects. They no doubt will deal with you as your merits warrant.”
Whereupon he pressed a button under that elaborate teakwood table. The musical gong they had heard before sounded again, and the prince’s two Cossack retainers reappeared.
He addressed them briefly in Russian, adding to his guests:
“Adieu, friends! If you change your minds, you have only to speak. You will be understood, and I shall be gratified.”
And without further words, they were led from that ornate apartment.
Taken back to the dazzling chamber under the meteor, they were turned over to the pigmies.
A powwow resulted, but it was brief. The two captives were bound fast in a curious ceremonial pit near the center of the room. Then the midget horde withdrew, leaving them alone there under that eery glow.
“Now what the devil will be the next step?” queried Stoddard, when the last of the pigmies had gone.
Professor Prescott considered for a moment, before replying.
“I don’t think there will be any next step, except our cremation,” he said at length.
“Cremation?” gasped his young friend. “What do you mean, cremation?”
Another pause, then:
“Just this. Don’t you see where we are? Right under the Thunderbolt! Well?”
“Simple enough, Jack.” The professor’s tone was grave. “When dawn comes, and the rising sun strikes that--”
“Good God!” Stoddard suddenly understood. “Why, we’ll be cooked alive--frizzled!”
It was only too true. Even now, the pale rays of the moon, concentrated by the myriad facets of that monumental diamond, were beginning to focus on them a warmth that was uncomfortable. And by morning--!
The two men crouched there silent, realizing their desperate plight. They must escape, before the sun rose. But how?
Studying their bonds, they discovered that they were of rawhide of some sort, obviously from the hides of animals these strange people caught on the lower slopes somewhere. But though they strained and twisted, they could not stretch them, the leather evidently having been cured to a marvelous toughness in these high altitudes.
Precious minutes ticked by as they struggled there, but they were unable to extricate themselves.
But before the end of a half-hour, Stoddard managed to free one arm, and reaching into his jacket he drew forth a small, compact metal object--his cigarette lighter.
Twirling the wheel, while Professor Prescott held his breath, he succeeded in kindling a flame on its tiny wick.
If only he could reach the thongs with it! If only he could burn them through and free himself and the professor before any of the pigmies re-entered that lethal chamber!
Wrenching around now, he applied the flame to his left wrist, which was still bound. As the living fire touched his flesh, he winced with pain, but almost anything was better than the grisly fate that threatened.
Slowly, a little at a time, he endured the torture, straining at each application to see if the thongs would yield.
“Here, let me try it once!” called out Professor Prescott, as he cried aloud with the agony of the ordeal.
“No. I’ll get it!” Stoddard gritted his teeth, continued. “There! I think my hand is free!” He struggled. “Yes. Now wait!”
Replacing his cigarette lighter in his pocket, he drew his blistered wrist from its smouldering bonds and struggled feverishly now to undo the lashes about his feet.
Five minutes of that and suddenly he flung them off and stood up.
“Now! Now then, Professor. I’ll have you loose in a jiffy!”
Bending over his fettered companion, he worked with frantic haste to untie the rawhide bonds.
Another five minutes and they were both free.
Professor Prescott stood up and stretched.
“Thank God for small favors!” he exclaimed. “But you, Jack? You must be burned cruelly.
“Forget it!” Stoddard was already wrapping a handkerchief around his wrist. “Now let’s see about getting out of here. These little rats all seem to be asleep, and Lord knows where that maniac Krassnov is. Perhaps we can make it. At any rate, we’ll give them a run for their money!”
As he spoke, he drew his automatic.
Silently, stealthily, they left that glittering chamber and proceeded down the cavern toward what seemed to be the entrance, guided by their remembrance of the way they had come.
A hundred yards or more they made, seeing no sign of their captors, when suddenly a musical gong rang out.
“We’ve stepped on one of Krassnov’s infernal signals!” cried Stoddard, above the din. “Now there’ll be hell to pay!”
And “hell to pay” there was, almost instantly--for before they had taken ten more steps, the cavern ahead was full of small, ghostly figures, jabbering in their shrill voices.
Indifferent now of what he did, their lives at stake, Stoddard blazed away with his automatic, sweeping it from side to side of the stony walls as he fired.
As the shots crashed out, the jabbers turned to shrieks of terror. Several of the pigmies fell. The rest broke their ranks and shrank into the shadows.
“Run!” yelled Stoddard, slipping a new clip into his pistol.
The professor needed no invitation. Gathering his long legs he sped after the younger man, and together they burst from the mouth of the cavern.
Outside, in the dazzle of moonlight, they paused for an instant.
“This way!” called Stoddard, racing toward that splintered arena.
They gained it and lunged across it to the shelving slope that reached upward to the narrow, perilous ridge whence they had come.
As they proceeded, the pigmy horde following with incredible swiftness, Stoddard wheeled and fired time and again--and now his shots were answered by the reports of rifles.
“Krassnov and his Cossacks!” he muttered. “Well, we’ll give them our heels, unless they hit us.”
“And Russians are notoriously bad shots, I understand,” panted the professor.
At any rate, they reached the slope and struggled upward toward the ridge, putting themselves presently out of range behind the jagged rocks that loomed on every side.
But just as they were congratulating themselves on their escape, came a dull, reverberating explosion--and as they clung to their insecure footholds, a volcano of snow and ice rose ahead. Thousands of tons of debris avalanched into the chasm below.
Stunned, deafened, they looked around.
Down in that pocket where the Thunderbolt had so recently gleamed was one vast chaos, and above, where that razor-back ridge had led across the intervening chasms to safety, was a dazzling void.
To both came the same thought, but Stoddard expressed it first.
“Krassnov--he’s dynamited the ridge!” he gasped.
“Then we--we’ll never get back now!” echoed Professor Prescott.
“No, but they’ll never get us here!”
“Scant comfort, though, when we’re pinioned here like a couple of birds with their wings clipped.”
“Right; but let’s see. Let’s figure. We’re better off than we were. And what was it Napoleon once said: ‘When you can’t retreat, advance.’ So suppose we--”
Stoddard heard. It was the sound of rifle shots. And looking down, he saw a feverish activity surrounding the rocket. Myriads of the pigmies were swarming upon it, while a handful of Cossacks were holding them off.
“Something doing down there, all right!” he muttered. “Looks to me like--why, sure I’ve got it! That madman has overshot himself, for once! He’s buried their precious meteor, in blowing up our ridge, and they’ve turned on him!”
“I think you’re right,” agreed Professor Prescott. “Suppose we advance as you say. It looks like a chance.”
“Right,” said Stoddard.
Slowly, cautiously, they returned down the slope.
When within a hundred yards, they knew they had sized up the situation correctly. With frantic speed, Krassnov was supervising the shoveling out of his rocket from amid the debris; was directing its loading, while the free members of his crew held off the enraged natives who were obstructing them.
Descending even more cautiously now, they neared the scene of activity.
“My plan is this--to get aboard and find out where they’re going!” said Stoddard, through shut teeth. “What do you say?”
“Lead on!” said the professor.
So they continued down, neared the resting-place of that strange craft, and, under shelter of the moonlight shadows, stole through the confused ranks surrounding it and crept aboard.
Stowing themselves into the first likely niche that offered--a narrow cubicle behind a flight of metal stairs--they waited, scarcely daring to breathe for fear of being discovered.
Fifteen minutes passed, a half-hour, when suddenly sounded a rasping of doors that told them the rocket was being sealed.