The Face in the Abyss, novelette/Chapter 4

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CHAPTER IV.
THE WHITE LLAMA.

IT was dawn when Graydon awakened. Some one had thrown a blanket over him during the night, but he was, nevertheless, cold and stiff. He drew his legs up and down painfully, trying to start the sluggish blood. He heard the others stir ring in the tent. He wondered which of them had thought of the blanket, and why he had been moved to that kindness.

Sterrett lifted the tent flap, passed by him without a word and went on to the spring. Graydon heard him drinking, thirstily. He returned and busied himself about the fire. There was an oddly furtive air about the big man. Now and then he looked at the prisoner, but with neither anger nor resentment. Rather were his glances apologetic, ingratiating. He slipped at last to the tent, listened, then trod softly over to Graydon.

“Sorry about this,” he muttered. “But I can’t do anything with Soames or Dancre. Had a hard time persuading ’em even to let you have that blanket. Here take a drink of this.”

He pressed a flask to Graydon’s lips. He took a liberal swallow; it warmed him.

“Sh-h,” warned Sterrett. “Don’t bear any grudge. Drunk last night. I’ll help you—” He broke off, abruptly; busied himself with the burning logs. Out of the tent came Soames. He scanned Sterrett suspiciously, then strode over to Graydon.

“I’m goin’ to give you one last chance, Graydon,” he began without preliminary. “Come through clean with us on your dicker with the girl and we’ll take you back with us and all work together and all share together. You had the edge on us yesterday and I don’t know that I blame you. But it’s three to one now and the plain truth is you can’t get away with it. So why not be reasonable?”

“What’s the use of going over all that again, Soames?” Graydon asked wearily. “I’ve told you everything. If you’re wise, you’ll let me loose, give me my guns and I’ll fight for you when the trouble comes. For trouble is coming man, sure—big trouble.”

“Yeh?” snarled the New Englander. “Tryin’ to scare us, are you? All right—there’s a nice little trick of drivin’ a wedge under each of your finger nails and a-keepin’ drivin’ ’em in. It makes ’most anybody talk after a while. And if it don’t there’s the good old fire dodge. Rollin’ your feet up to it, closer and closer and closer. Yes, anybody’ll talk when their toes begin to crisp up and toast.”

Suddenly he bent over and sniffed at Graydon’s lips.

“So that’s it!” he faced Sterrett, tense, gun leveled from his hip pocket straight at the giant. “Been feedin’ him liquor, have you? Been talkin’ to him, have you? After we’d settled it last night that I was to do all the talkin’. All right, that settles you, Sterrett. Dancre! Danc’! Come here, quick!” he roared.

The Frenchman came running out of the tent.

“Tie him up,” Soames nodded toward Sterrett. “Another damned double-crosser in the camp. Gave him liquor. Got their heads together while we were inside. Tie him.”

“But Soames,” the Frenchman was hesitant, “if we have to fight the Indians it is not well to have half of us helpless, no. Perhaps Starrett he did nothing—”

“If we have to fight, two men will do as well as three,” said Soames. “I ain’t goin’ to let this thing slip through my fingers, Danc’. I don’t think we’ll have to do any fightin’. If they come, I think it’s goin’ to be a tradin’ job. Sterrett’s turnin’ traitor, too. Tie him, I say.”

“Well, I don’t like it—” began Dancre; Soames made an impatient motion with his automatic; the little Frenchman went to the tent, returned with a coil of rope, sidled up to Sterrett.

“Put up your hands,” ordered Soames. Sterrett swung them up. But in mid swing they closed on Dancre, lifted him like a doll and held him between himself and the gaunt New Englander.

“Now shoot, damn you,” he cried, and bore down on Soames, meeting every move of his pistol arm with Dancre’s wriggling body. Then his own right hand swept down to the Frenchman’s belt, drew from the holster his automatic, leveled it over the twisting shoulder at Soames.

“Drop your gun, Yank,” grinned Sterrett triumphantly. “Or shoot if you want. But before your bullet’s half through Dancre here, by Heaven I’ll have you drilled clean!”

There was a momentary, sinister silence. It was broken by a sudden pealing of tiny golden bells. Their chiming cleft through the murk of murder that had fallen on the camp; lightened it; dissolved it as the sunshine does a cloud. Graydon saw Soames’s pistol drop from a hand turned nerveless; saw Sterrett’s iron grip relax and let Dancre fall to the ground; saw the heads of Dancre and Sterrett and Soames stiffen and point to the source of that aureate music like hounds to a huddling covey.

His own eyes followed—

Through the trees, not a hundred yards away, was Suarra!

And there was no warrior host around her. She had brought with her neither avengers nor executioners. With her were but two followers. Yet even at his first glimpse it came to Graydon that if these were servants, they were two strange, strange servants indeed!

A cloak of soft green swathed the girl from neck almost to slender feet. In the misty midnight hair gleamed a coronal of emeralds set in red gold, and bandlets of gold studded with the same virescent gems circled her wrists and ankles. Behind her paced sedately a snow white llama; there was a broad golden collar around its neck from which dropped the strands of golden bells that shook out the tinkling harmonies. Its eyes were blue and between them swayed a pendant of some gem, rosy as the fruit of rubies mated to white pearls. From each of its silvery silken sides a pannier hung, woven, it seemed, from shining yellow rushes.

And at the snow white llama’s flanks were two figures, bodies covered by voluminous robes whose goods covered their faces. One was draped in darkest blue; he carried a staff of ebony and strode beside the llama somberly, something disconcertingly mathematical in each step he took. The other was draped in yellow; he carried a staff of vermilion and he fluttered and danced beside the beast, taking little steps backward and forward; movements that carried the weird suggestion that his robes clothed not a man but some huge bird.

Save for the tinkling of the bells there was no sound as they came on. Graydon’s three jailers stared at the caravan struck immobile with amazement, incredulous, like dreaming men. Graydon himself strained at his bonds, a sick horror in his heart. Why had Suarra returned deliberately back to this peril? He had warned her; she could not be so innocent as not to know what dangers threatened her at the hands of these men. And why had she come decked out with a queen’s ransom in jewels and gold? Almost it seemed that she had done this deliberately; had deliberately arrayed herself to arouse to the full the very passions from which she had most to fear!

Dieu!” It was Dancre, whispering. “The emeralds!”

“God—what a girl!” it was Sterrett, muttering; his thick nostrils distended, a red flicker in his eyes.

Only Soames said nothing, perplexity, suspicion struggling through the blank astonishment on his bleak and crafty face. Nor did he speak as the girl and her attendants halted close beside him. But the doubt, the suspicion, in his eyes grew as he scanned her and the hooded pair, then sent his gaze along the path up which they had come searching every tree, every bush. There was no sign of movement there, no sound.

“Suarra!” cried Graydon, despairingly, “Suarra, why did you came back?”

Quietly, she stepped over to him, drew a dagger from beneath her cloak, cut the thong that bound him to the tree, slipped the blade under the. cords about his wrists and ankles; freed him. He staggered to his feet.

“Was it not well for you that I did come?” she asked sweetly.

Before he could answer, Soames strode forward. And Graydon saw that he had come to some decision, had resolved upon some course of action. He made a low, awkward, half mocking, half respectful bow to the girl; then spoke to Graydon.

“All right,” he said, “you can stay loose—as long as you do what I want you to. The girl’s back and that’s the main thing. She seems to favor you quite a lot, Graydon—an’ maybe that’s goin’ to be damned useful. I reckon that gives us a way to persuade her to talk if how happens it she turns quiet like when I get to askin’ her certain things—like where those emeralds come from an’ how to get there an’ the likes of that. Yes, sir, and you favor her. That’s useful too. I reckon you won’t want to be tied up an’ watch certain things happen to her, eh—” he leered at Graydon who curbed with difficulty the impulse to send his fist crashing into the cynical face. “But there’s just one thing you’ve got to do if you want things to go along peaceable,” Soames continued. “Don’t do any talkin’ to her when I ain’t close by. Remember, I know the Aymara as well as you do. And I want to be right alongside listenin’ in all the time, do you see? That’s all.”

He turned to Suarra, bowed once more.

“Your visit has brought great happiness, maiden,” he spoke in the Aymara. “It will not be a short one, if we have our way—and I think we will have our way—” there was covert, but unmistakable menace in the phrase, yet if she noted it she gave no heed. “You are strange to us, as we must be to you. There is much for us each to learn, one of the other.”

“That is true, stranger,” she answered, tranquilly. “I think though that your desire to learn of me is much greater than mine to learn of you—since, as you surely know, I have had one not too pleasant lesson.” She glanced at Sterrett.

“The lessons, sister,” he told her bluntly, indeed brutally, “shall be pleasant or—not pleasant even as you choose to teach us or not to teach us—what we would learn.”

This time there was no mistaking the covert menace in the words, nor did Suarra again let it pass. Her eyes blazed sudden wrath.

“Better not to threaten,” she warned, her proud little head thrown haughtily back. “I, Suarra, am not used to threats—and if you will take my counsel you will keep them to yourself hereafter.”

“Yes, is that so?” Soames took a step toward her, face grown grim and ugly; instantly Graydon thrust himself between him and the girl. There came a curious, dry chuckling from the hooded figure in yellow. Suarra started; her wrath, her hauteur vanished; she became once more naïve, friendly. She pushed Graydon

“I was hasty,” she said to Soames. “Nevertheless it is never wise to threaten unless you know the strength of what it is you menace. And remember, of me you know nothing. Yet I know all that you wish to learn. You wish to know how I came by this—and this—and this—” she touched her coronal, her bracelet, her anklets. “You wish to know where they came from, and if there are more of them there, and if so how you may possess yourself of as much as you can carry away. Well, you shall know all that. I have come to tell you.”

At this astonishing announcement, apparently so frank and open, all the doubt and suspicion returned to Soames. Again his gaze narrowed and searched the trail up which Suarra and her caravan had come. It returned and rested on the girl; then scrutinized the two servitors who, Graydon now realized, had stood like images ever since that caravan had come to rest within the camp; motionless, and except for that one dry, admonitory chuckling, soundless.

And as he stood thus, considering, Dancre came up and gripped his arm.

“Soames,” he said, and his voice and his hand were both shaking, “the baskets on the llama! They’re not rushes—they’re gold, pure gold, pure soft gold, woven like straw! Dieu, Soames, what have we struck!”

Soames’s eyes glittered.

“Better go over and watch where they came up, Danc’,” he answered. “I don’t quite get this. It looks too cursed easy to be right. Take your rifle and squint out from the edge of the trees while I try to get down to what’s what.”

As though she had understood the words, Suarra struck in:

“There is nothing to fear. No harm will come to you from me. If there is any evil in store for you, you yourselves shall summon it—not us. I have come to show you the way to treasure. Only that. Come with me and you shall see where jewels like these”—she touched the gems meshed in her hair—“grow like flowers in a garden. You shall see the gold come streaming forth, living, from—” she hesitated; then went on—“come streaming forth like water. You may bathe in that stream, drink from it if you will, carry away all that you can bear. Or if it causes you too much sorrow to leave it, why—you may stay with it forever; nay, become a part of it, even. Men of gold!”

She laughed; turned from them; walked toward the llama.

The men stared at her and at each other; on the faces of three, greed and suspicion; bewilderment on Graydon’s, for beneath the mockery of those last words he had sensed the pulse of the sinister.

“It is a long journey,” she faced them, one hand on the llama’s head. “You are strangers here; indeed, my guests—in a sense. Therefore a little I have brought for your entertainment before we start.”

She began to unbuckle the panniers. And Graydon was again aware that these two attendants of hers were strange servants—if servants, again, they were. They made no move to help her. Silent they still stood, motionless, faces covered. In their immobility he felt something implacable, ominous, dread. A little shiver shook him.

He stepped forward to help the girl. She smiled up at him, half shyly. In the midnight depths of her eyes was a glow warmer far than friendliness; his hands leaped to touch hers.

Instantly Soames stepped between them.

“Better remember what I told you,” he snapped; then ran his hand over the side of the pannier. And Graydon realized that Dancre had spoken truth. The panniers were of gold; soft gold, gold that had been shaped into willow-like withes and plaited.

“Help me,” came Suarra’s voice. Graydon lifted the basket and set it down beside her. She slipped a hasp; bent back the soft metal withes; drew out a shimmering packet. She shook it and it floated out on the dawn wind, a cloth of silver. She let it float to the ground where it lay like a great web of gossamer spun by silver spiders.

Then from the hamper she brought forth cups of gold and deep, boat shaped golden dishes, two tall ewers whose handles were slender carved dragons, their scales made, it seemed, from molten rubies. After them small golden withed baskets. She set the silver cloth with the dishes and the cups, she opened the little baskets. In them were unfamiliar, fragrant fruits and loaves and oddly colored cakes. All these Suarra placed upon the plates. She dropped to her knees at the head of the cloth, took up one of the ewers, snapped open its lid and from it poured into the cups clear amber wine.

She raised her eyes to them; waved a white hand, graciously.

“Sit,” she said. “Eat and drink.”

She beckoned to Graydon; pointed to the place beside her. Silently, gaze fixed on the glittering hoard, Sterrett and Dancre and Soames squatted before the other plates. Soames thrust out a hand, took up one of these and weighed it, scattering what it held upon the ground.

“Gold!” he breathed.

Sterrett laughed, crazily; raised his wine filled goblet to his lips.

“Wait!” Dancre caught his wrist.

“Eat and drink, she said, eh? Eat, drink and be merry—for to-morrow we die, eh—is that it, Soames?”

The New Englander started, face once more dark with doubt.

“You think it’s poisoned?” he snarled.

“Maybe so—maybe no,” the little Frenchman shrugged. “But I think it better we say ‘After you’ to her.”

“They are afraid. They think it is—that you have—” Graydon stumbled.

“That I have put sleep—or death in it?” Suarra smiled. “And you?” she asked.

For answer Graydon raised his cup and drank it. For a moment she contemplated him, approval in her gaze.

“Yet it is natural,” she turned to Soames. “Yes, it is natural that you three should fear this, since, is it not so—it is what you would do if you were we and we were you? But you are wrong. I tell you again that you have nothing to fear from me—who come only to show you a way. I tell you again that what there is to fear as we go on that way is that which is in yourselves.”

She poured wine into her own cup, drank it; broke off a bit of Sterrett’s bread and ate it; took a cake from Dancre’s plate and ate that, set white teeth in one of the fragrant fruits.

“Are you satisfied,” she asked them. “Oh, be very sure that if it were in my wish to bring death to you it would be in no such form as this.”

For a moment Soames glared at her. Then he sprang to his feet, strode over to the hooded, watching figures and snatched aside the cowl of the blue robed one. Graydon with a cry of anger leaped up and after him—then stood, turned to stone.

For the face that Soames had unmasked was like old ivory and it was seamed with a million lines; a face stamped with unbelievable antiquity, but whose eyes were bright and as incredibly youthful as their setting was ancient—

The face of one of those two draped figures that had crouched upon the thrones in that mystic temple of his dream!

The face of one of those mysterious Lords who with that being of coiled beauty Suarra had named the Snake Mother, had listened to, and as he then had thought had granted, Suarra’s unknown prayer!

A dozen heart beats it may be the gaunt New Englander stared into that inscrutable, ancient face and its unwinking brilliant eyes. Then he let the hood drop and walked slowly back to the silver cloth. And as he passed him, Graydon saw that his face was white and his gaze was fixed as though he had looked into some unnamable terror. And as he threw himself down at his place and raised his wine cup to his lips, his hand was shaking.

The spell that had held Graydon relaxed. He looked at the black robed figure; it stood as before, motionless and silent. He dropped beside Suarra. Soames, hand still shaking, held out to her his empty goblet. She filled it; he drained it and she filled it again. And Graydon saw now that Sterrett’s ruddy color had fled and that Dancre’s lips were twitching and had grown gray.

What was it that they had seen in that seamed, ivory face that had been invisible to him? What warning? What vision of horror?

They drank thirstily of the wine. And soon it had taken effect; had banished their terror—whatever it had been. They ate hungrily of the loaves, the little cakes, the fruit. At last the plates were empty—the tall ewer, too.

“And now,” Suarra arose, “it is time for us to go—if you desire still to be led to that treasure house of which I have told you.”

“We’re going, sister, never fear,” Soames grinned half drunkenly, and lurched to his feet. “Danc’, stay right here and watch things. Come on Sterrett,” he slapped the giant on the back, all distrust, for the moment at least, vanished. “Come on, Graydon, let by-gones be by-gones.”

Sterrett laughed vacantly, scrambled up and linked his arms in the New Englander’s. Together they made their way to the tent. Dancre, rifle ready, settled down on a boulder just beyond the fire and began his watch.

Graydon lingered behind. Soames had forgotten him, for a little time at least; he meant to make the best of that time with this strange maid whose beauty and sweetness had netted heart and brain as no other woman ever had. He came close to her, so close that the subtle fragrance of her cloudy hair rocked his heart, so close that her shoulder touching his sent through him little racing, maddening flames.

“Suarra—” he began, hoarsely. Swiftly she turned and silenced him with slender fingers on his lips.

“Not now,” she whispered. “You must not tell me what is in your heart—O man to whom my own heart is eager to speak. Not now—nor, it may be, ever—” there was sorrow in her eyes, longing, too; quickly she veiled them—“I promised you that I would save you—if I could. And of that vow was born another promise—” her glance sought the two silent, quiet shapes in blue and in yellow, meaningly. “So speak to me not again,” she went on hurriedly, “or if you must—let it be of commonplace things, not of that which is in your heart—or mine!”

Stupidly he looked at her. What did she mean by a promise born of that she had made to him? A vow to these—Lords; to the mystery of the serpent’s coils and woman’s face and breasts—the Snake Mother? A vow in exchange for his life? Had they seen deeper into her heart than he and found there in very truth what he had half dreamed might be? Had she vowed to them to hold him apart from her if they would grant him protection, his comrades too—if they would have it?

Suddenly it came to him that for him, at least, the life she would save by such a barter would not be worth living.

She was packing away the golden cups and dishes. Mechanically he set about helping her. And, save for what he handled, he thought with grim humor, this was a commonplace thing enough surely to satisfy her. She accepted his aid without comment, looked at him no more. And after a while the fever in his blood cooled, his hot revolt crystallized into cold determination. For the moment he would accept the situation. He would let matters develop. His time would come. He could afford to wait.

Without a word when the last shining cup was in the pannier and the mouth of the latter closed he turned and strode to the tent to get together his duffle, pack his burro. The voices of Sterrett and Soames came to him; he hesitated; listened.

“What it was when I looked into his damned wrinkled old face I don’t know,” he heard Soames say. “But something came over me, Sterrett. I can’t remember—only that it was like looking over the edge of the world into hell!”

“I know,” Sterrett’s voice was “I felt the same way.”

“Hypnotism,” said Soames, “that’s what it was. The Indian priests down here know how to work it. But he won’t catch me again with that trick. I’ll shoot. You can’t hypnotize a gun, Sterrett.”

“But they’re not Indians, Soames,” came Sterrett’s voice. “They’re whiter than you and me. What are they? And the girl—God—”

“What they are we’ll find out, never fear,” grunted the New Englander. “To hell with the girl—take her if you can get her. But I’d go through a dozen hells to get to the place where that stuff they’re carryin’ samples of comes from. Man—with what we could carry out on the burros and the llama and come back for—man, we could buy the world!”

“Yes—unless there’s a trap somewhere,” said Sterrett, dubiously.

“We’ve got the cards in our hands,” plainly the drink was wearing off Soames, all his old confidence and cunning were returning. “Hell—what’s against us? Two old men and a girl. Now I’ll tell you what I think. I don’t know who or what they are, but whoever or whatever, you can bet there ain’t many of ’em. If there was, they’d be landin’ on us hard. No—they’re damned anxious to get us away and they’re willin’ to let us get out with what we can to get us away. Poor boobs—they think if they give us what we want now we’ll slip right off and never come back. And as for what they are, well, I’ll tell you what I think—half-breeds. The Spanish were down here; maybe they bred in with the Incas. There’s probably about a handful left. They know we could wipe ’em out in no time. They want to get rid of us, quick and cheap as possible. And the three of us could wipe ’em out.”

“Three of us?” asked Sterrett. “Four you mean. There’s Graydon.”

“Graydon don’t count—the damned crook. Thought he’d sold us out, didn’t he? All right—we’ll fix Mr. Graydon when the time comes. Just now he’s useful to us on account of the girl. She’s stuck on him. But when the time comes to divide—there’ll only be three of us. And there’ll only be two of us—if you do anything like you did this morning.”

“Cut that out, Soames,” growled the giant. “I told you it was the drink. I’m through with that now that we’ve seen this stuff. I’m with you to the limit. Do what you want with Graydon. But save the girl for me. I’d be willing to make a bargain with you on that—give up a part of my share.”

“Oh, hell,” drawled Soames. “We’ve been together a good many years, Bill. There’s enough and plenty for the three of us. You can have the girl for nothing.”

Little flecks of red danced before Graydon’s eyes. With his hand stretched to tear open the tent flap and grapple with these two who could talk so callously and evilly of Suarra’s disposal, he checked himself. That was no way to help her. Unarmed, what could he do against these armed adventurers? Nothing. Some way he must get back his own weapons. And the danger was not imminent—they would do nothing before they reached that place of treasure to which Suarra had promised to lead them.

There had been much of reason in Soames’s explanation of the mystery.

That vision of his—what was it after all but an illusion? He remembered the sensation that had caught him when he had first seen those brilliant purple jewels in Suarra’s bracelet; the feeling that he looked along them for great distances back to actual eyes of which the purple jewels were but prolongations. That vision of his—was it not but a dream induced by those jewels? A fantasy of the subconsciousness whipped out of it by some hypnotic quality they possessed? Science, he knew, admits that some gems hold this quality—though why they do science can not tell. Dimly he remembered that he had once read a learned article that had tried to explain the power—something about the magnetic force in light, a force within those vibrations we call color; something about this force being taken up by the curious mechanism of rods and cones in the retina which flashes the sensations we call color along the optic nerves to the brain.

These flashes, he recalled the article had said, were actual though minute discharges of electricity. And since the optic nerves are not in reality nerves at all, but prolongations of the brain, this unknown force within the gems impinged directly upon the brain, stimulating some cells, depressing others, affecting memory and judgment, creating visions, disturbing all that secret world until the consciousness became dazzled, bewildered, unable to distinguish between reality and illusion.

So much for his vision. That the face of the figure in blue seemed to be one of those Lords he had seen in that vision—well, was not that but another illusion?

Soames might well be right, too, he thought, in his interpretation of Suarra’s visit to the camp. If she had power behind her would she not have brought it? Was it not more reasonable to accept the New Englander’s version of the thing?

And if that were so, then Suarra was but a girl with only two old men to help her—for he had no doubt that the figure in yellow like that in blue was an old man too.

And all that meant that he, Graydon, was all of strength that Suarra could really count on to protect her.

He had spun his web of reasoning with the swiftness of a dream. When he had arrived at its last strand he stole silently back a score of paces; waited for a moment or two; then went noisily to the tent. For the first time in many hours he felt in full command of himself; thought he saw his way clear before him. Faintly he recognized that he had glossed over, set aside arbitrarily, many things. No matter—it was good to get his feet on earth again, to brush aside all these cobwebs of mystery, to take the common sense view. It was good and it was—safer.

He thrust aside the tent flap and entered.

“Been a long while comin’,” snarled Soames, again his old, suspicious self. “Been talkin’—after what I told you?”

“Not a word,” answered Graydon cheerfully. He busied himself with his belongings. “By the way, Soames,” he said casually, “don’t you think it’s time to stop this nonsense and give me back my guns?”

Soames made no answer; went on with his hasty packing.

“Oh, all right then,” Graydon went on. “I only thought that they would come in handy when the pinch comes. But if you want me to look on while you do the scrapping—well, I don’t mind.”

“You’d better mind.” Soames did not turn around, but his voice was deadly. “You’d better mind, Graydon. If a pinch comes—we’re takin’ no chances of a bullet in our backs. That’s why you got no guns. And if the pinch does come—well, we’ll take no chances on you anyway. Do you get me?”

Graydon shrugged his shoulders. In silence the packing was completed; the tent struck; the burros loaded.

Suarra stood awaiting them at the side of the white llama. Soames walked up to her, drew from its holster his automatic, balanced it in outstretched hand.

“You know what this is?” he asked her.

“Why, yes,” she answered. “It is the death weapon of your kind.”

“Right,” said Soames. “And it deals death quickly, quicker than spears or arrows.” He raised his voice so there could be no doubt that blue cowl and yellow cowl must also hear. “Now, sister, I and these two men here,” he indicated Sterrett and Dancre,” carry these and others still more deadly. This man’s weapons we have taken from him,” he pointed to Graydon. “Your words may be clearest truth. I hope they are—for your sake and this man’s and the two who came with you—him and him—” he wagged a long finger at Graydon, at blue cowl, at yellow cowl. “Quick death! We’ll get them out of the way first. And we’ll attend to you later—as it seems best to me.”

He scanned her through slitted eyes that gleamed coldly.

“You understand me?” he asked, and grinned like a hungry wolf.

“I understand,” Suarra’s eyes and face were calm, but there was more than a touch of scorn in her golden voice. “You need fear nothing from us.”

“We don’t,” said Soames. “But you have much to fear—from us.”

Another moment he regarded her, menacingly; then shoved his pistol back into its holster.

“Go first,” he ordered. “Your two attendants behind you. And then you,” he pointed to Graydon. “We three march in the rear—with guns ready.”

Without a word Suarra swung away at the white llama’s head; behind her paced blue cowl and yellow. And a dozen paces behind them walked Graydon. Behind the file of burros strode giant Sterrett, lank Soames, little Dancre—rifles ready, eyes watchful.

And so they passed through the giant algarrobas; out into the oddly parklike spaces beyond.