The Ape-men of Xlotli
At the beginning of the eleventh morning in the valley, Kirby had again posted himself close to the mouth of the black tunnel, and again felt that hidden eyes were observing him.
But this morning differed from the first morning, because now, for the first time, he was ready to do something about the watcher or watchers. Exploration of the whole valley had not helped. Therefore, there lay at his feet a considerable coil of rope, the manufacture of which from plaited strands of the tough grass in his Eden had taken him whole days. With what patience he could find, he was waiting for the gigantic spout of milky-colored, perfumed water which would mean that the geyser had gone off and would erupt no more for exactly forty-four minutes.
Eleven days in the valley!
While he waited, Kirby considered them. Who had made the beautiful footprints beside him, when he had slept at last after his arrival here? Why had so many of the queer, fuzzy topped shrubs with immense yam-shaped roots, which grew here been taken away during that first sleep, and during all his other periods of sleep? Who had taken them? Early in his stay, he had learned that the tuberlike roots were good to eat and would sustain life, and he supposed that the unseen people of the valley took them for food. But who were these people of the valley?
Who had laid beside him during his first sleep the immense lily with perfume like that which came with the milky geyser spray--that spray of death and delight mingled? Why had someone scratched a line in the earth from him directly to the distant orifice of the geyser? Was this, as he believed, a signal to come not only to the edge of the orifice, but to lower himself down into its depths? And if the line were intended as a signal, did the persons who came to the valley while he slept, always eluding him, wish him well or mean to do him harm?
Last question of all: had the beautiful girl’s face he believed he had seen just once, been real or an hallucination? It had been while he was kneeling at the very edge of the geyser cone, staring down its many colored throat, that the vision had appeared. Misty white amidst the green gloom, the face had been turned up to him, smiling, its lips forming a kiss, and its great eyes beckoning. Had the face been real or a dream?
Eleven days in the valley! Now, with his braided rope ready at last, he was going to do something which might help to answer his questions.
Kirby reached out and began to run his grass rope, yard by yard, through his hands, searching carefully for any flaw. A canyon wren made the air sweet above him, while the morning sun began to wink and blink against the shadows which still lay against the face of the guardian cliffs. Kirby glanced at his watch and got up.
Crossing beyond the mouth of the geyser, he grinned good morning at his friend the Conquistadore, and marched on into the shade of the live oak which grew nearest the geyser. Here he made one end of his rope fast to the gnarled trunk, inspected his pistol, patted his tunic to make sure that the cylinder of gold was safe, then stood by to await the geyser.
With the passing of three minutes there came from the still empty orifice a sonorous rumbling. Kirby grinned.
From deep in the earth issued a sound of fizzing and bubbling, and then, to the accompaniment of subterranean thunder, burst loose the milky, upward column which had never ceased to awe the man who watched so eagerly this morning. As the titanic jet leaped skyward now, the slanting rays of the sun caught it, and turned the water, fanning out, into a fire opal, into a sheet of living color.
Kirby, hard headed to the last, drew from the supply in one pocket of his tunic, a strip of one of the tuberlike roots, and munched it.
The thunder ceased. The waters receded.
After that Kirby hesitated not a second. Promptly he moved forward, flung his coil of line down into the geyser tunnel, and swung on to the line. By the time he had swallowed the last bite of his breakfast, the world he knew had been left behind, and he was climbing down to a new.
It became at once apparent that the gorgeously colored, glassy-smooth throat glowed with tints which were unfamiliar to him. He could perceive these new shades of color, yet had no name for them.
As he stopped after fifty feet to breathe, the color phenomenon made him wonder if the tuber roots he had been eating had affected his vision; then decided they had not. In addition to food value, the roots had some power to stimulate courage and a slight mental exhilaration. But the drug had proved non-habit forming, and Kirby knew that his powers of perception were not now, and never had been, affected.
He swung down further.
Just a moment after he began that progress was when things began to happen to him. First he heard what seemed to be the low titter of a human voice laughing sweetly. Next came a far off, unutterably lovely strumming of music. And then he realized that, at a depth of about a hundred feet, he was hanging level with a hole which marked the mouth of another tunnel.
This new tunnel sloped down into the earth on his right hand. The floor and walls were glassy smooth, and the angle of descent was steep, but by no means as steep as the drop of the vertical geyser shaft in which he now hung.
Laughter, music, the new tunnel suddenly aroused an excitement which made him quiver.
“When I saw her,” he gasped, “she was standing here, in the mouth of this tunnel, looking up at me!”
Violently, Freddie Kirby forgot the maple-shaded street of his Kansas town, forgot everything but desire to reach the mouth of the new tunnel, where the girl of the exquisite face and beckoning lips had stood. Tightening his grip on the rope, he began to swing himself back and forth like a pendulum.
It seemed probable that when the geyser water shot up past the horizontal tunnel, its force was so great that no water at all entered. He redoubled his efforts to widen his swing.
Then his feet scraped on the floor, and in a second he had alighted there. He still hung stoutly to his line, however, for the tunnel sloped down sharply enough, and was slippery enough, to prohibit the maintenance of footing unaided.
The music which issued from the depths of that stunningly mysterious passage swelled to a crescendo--and stopped. Kirby clung there to his precarious perch, his feet slipping on the glass under them with every move he made, and feelings stirred in his heart which had never been there before.
Then, as silence reigned where the music had been, something prompted him to look up. The next instant he stifled a cry.
With widening eyes he saw the flash of a white arm and the gleam of a knife hovering over the spot where his taut rope passed out of the geyser opening into the sunshine of the outer world. Again he stifled a cry. For crying out would do no good. While the suppressed sound was still on his lips, the knife flickered.
Then Kirby was shooting downward, the severed line whipping out after him. The first plunge flung him off his feet. A long swoop which he took on his back dizzied him. But as the fall continued, he was able to slow it a little by bracing arms and legs against the tunnel walls.
“Holy Jeehosophat!” he gurgled.
But there seemed to be no particular danger. The slide was as smooth as most of the chutes he had ever encountered at summer swimming pools. If ever the confounded spiral passage came to an end, he might find that he was still all right. As seconds passed and he fell and fell, it seemed that he was bound for the center of the earth. It seemed that--
He swished around a multiple bend, and eyes which had been accustomed to darkness were blinded by light.
It was light which radiated in all colors--blue, yellow, browns, purples, reds, pinks, and then all the new colors for which he had no name. Somehow Kirby knew that he had shot out of the tunnel, which emerged high up in the face of a cliff, and that he was dropping through perfumed, brilliant air resonant with the sound of birds and insects and human cries. The funny thing was that the pull of gravity was not right, somehow, and he was dropping fairly slowly. From far below, a body of what looked like water was sweeping up to meet him. Kirby closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, his whole body was stinging with the slap of his impact, and he found that it was water which he had struck. The proof of it lay in the fact that he was swimming, and was approaching a shore.
But such water! It was milky white and perfumed as the geyser flow had been, and it seemed luminous as with a radium fire. Had he not realized presently that the fluid probably contained enough arsenic to finish a thousand like him, he would have thought of himself as bathing in the waters of Paradise.
But then he began to forget about the poison which might already be at work upon him.
Ahead of him, stretched out in the gorgeous, colored light, ran a beach which was backed by heavy jungle. And on the beach stood the lovely creatures, all clad in shimmering, glistening garments, whose flutelike cries had come to him as he fell.
Kirby looked, and became almost powerless to continue his swim. The beauty of those frail women was like the reputed beauty of bright angels. That paralyzing effect of wonder, however, did not last long.
The girls moved forward to the water’s edge, and, laughing amongst themselves, beckoned to him with lovely slender hands whose every motion was a caress.
“Be not afraid,” called one in a curious patois dialect, about five-sixths of which seemed made up of Spanish words, distorted but recognizable.
“The water would kill you,” called another, “as it killed the Spaniard in armor. But we are here to save you. I will give you a draught to drink which will defeat the poison. Come on to us!”
Kirby’s heart was almost literally in his mouth now, because the girl who promised him salvation was she whose lips had formed a kiss at him from the green-gloomy throat of the geyser.
His feet struck a shale bottom. Panting, he stood up and was conscious of the fact that despite his forlornly dripping and dishevelled condition, he was tall and straight and big, and that for some reason all of the girls on the gleaming sand, and one girl in particular, were anxious to receive him here.
The one girl had drawn a small, gleaming flask of gold from the misty bodice of her gown, and was holding it out while she laughed with red lips and great, dazzling dark eyes.
“Pronto!“ she called in pure Spanish, and other girls echoed the word. “Oh,” went on the bright owner of the flask, “we thought you would never have done with your work on the rope. It took you so long!”
Kirby left the smooth lake behind him and stood dripping on the sand. The moment the air touched his clothes, he felt that they were stiffening slightly. Yet the sensation brought no terror. He could not feel terror as he faced the girls.
“Give him the flask, Naida!” someone exclaimed.
“Ah, but the Gods have been kind to us!” echoed another.
The girl with the flask made a gesture for silence.
“Is it Naida you are called?” Kirby put in quickly, and as he spoke the Spanish words, the roll of them on his tongue did much to make him know that he was sane and awake, and not dreaming, that this was still the Twentieth Century, and that he was Freddie Kirby.
Answering his question, Naida nodded, and gave him the flask.
“A single draught will act as antidote to the poison,” she said.
“I drink,” said Kirby as he raised the flask, “to the many of you who have been so gracious as to save me!”
A flashing smile, a blush was his answer. And then he had wetted his lips with, and was swallowing, a limpid liquid which tasted of some drug.
“Enough!” Naida ordered in a second.
As she reached for the flask, her companions closed in as though a ceremony of some sort had been completed.
“Is it time to tell him yet, Naida?” piped one of the girls, younger than the rest, whom someone had called Elana.
“Oh, do begin, Naida,” chorused two more. “We can’t wait much longer to find out if he is going to help us!”
Kirby turned to Naida, while a soothing sensation crept through him from the draught he had taken.
“Pray tell me what it is that I am to be permitted to do for you. I can promise you that the whole of my life and strength, and such intelligence as I possess, is yours to command.”