The Face in the Abyss, novelette/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI.
THE ELFIN HORNS.

THE sun was halfway down the west when they reached the far end of the plain. Here another ravine cut through the rocky wall, and into it they filed. The trees closed in behind them, shutting out all sight of the bowl and the great circular mountain.

The new trail ran always upward, although at an almost imperceptible grade. Once, looking backward through a rift in the trees, Graydon caught a glimpse of the grassy slopes far beneath. For the rest the tree screened, tree bordered way gave no hint of what lay ahead.

It was close to dusk when they passed out of the trees once more and stood at the edge of a little moor. A barren it was indeed, more than a moor. Its floor was clean white sand and dotted with hillocks, mounds flat topped as though swept by constant brooms of wind. Upon the round ed slopes of these mounds a tall grass grew sparsely. The mounds arose about a hundred feet apart with curious regularity; almost, the fancy came to him, as though they were graves in a cemetery of giants. The little barren covered, he estimated roughly, about five acres. Around its sides the forest clustered. Near by he heard the gurgling of a brook.

Straight across the sands Suarra led them until she had reached a mound close to the center of the barren. Here she halted.

“You will camp here,” she said. “Water is close by for you and your animals. You may light a fire. And sleep without fear. By dawn we must be away.”

She turned and walked toward another knoll a hundred feet or more away. The white llama followed her. Behind it stalked the silent pair. Graydon had expected Soames to halt her, but he did not. Instead his eyes flashed some crafty message to Dancre and Sterrett. It seemed to Graydon that they were pleased that the girl was not to share their camp; that they welcomed the distance she had put between them.

And their manner to him had changed. They were comradely once more.

“Mind taking the burros over to water?” asked Soames. “We’ll get the fire going and chow ready.”

He nodded and led the little beasts over to the noisy stream. Taking them back after they had drunk their fill he looked over at the mound to which Suarra had gone. There at its base stood a small square tent, glimmering in the twilight like silk and fastened to the ground at each corner by a golden peg. Tethered close to it was the white llama, placidly munching grass and grain. Its hampers of woven golden withes were gone. Nor was Suarra or the hooded men visible. They were in the little tent, he supposed, whence they had carried the precious cargo off the llama.

At his own hillock a fire was crackling and supper being prepared. Sterrett jerked a thumb over toward the little tent.

“Got it out of the saddlebags,” he said. “Looked like a folded up umbrella and went up like one. Who’d ever think to find anything like that in this wilderness!”

“Lots of things I t’ink in those saddlebags we have not yet seen maybe,” whispered Dancre, an eager, covetous light in his eyes.

“You bet,” said Soames. “And the loot we have seen’s enough to set us all up for life, eh, Graydon?”

“She has promised you much more,” answered Graydon. There was an undercurrent of sinister meaning in the New Englander’s voice that troubled him.

“Yeah,” said Soames, absently. “Yeah. I guess so. But—well, let’s eat.”

The four sat around the burning sticks as they had done many nights before his quarrel with Sterrett. And to Graydon’s perplexity they ignored that weird tragedy of the plain. They pushed it aside, passed it by, seemed to avoid it. Their talk was all of treasure—and of what they would do with it when out of these mountains and back in their own world. Piece by piece they went over the golden hoard in the white llama’s packs; gloatingly they discussed Suarra’s emeralds and their worth.

“Hell! With just those emeralds none of us’d have to worry!” exclaimed Sterrett.

Graydon listened to them with increasing disquiet. They were mad with the gold lust—but there was something more behind their studied avoidance of the dragging down of the scarlet thing by the dinosaurs, this constant reference to the llama’s treasure, the harking back to what ease and comfort and luxury it would bring them all; something lurking, unsaid in the minds of the three of them of which all this was but the preliminary.

At last Soames looked at his watch.

“Nearly eight,” he said, abruptly. “Dawn breaks about five. Time to talk turkey. Graydon, come up close.”

Graydon obeyed, wondering. The four drew into a cluster in the shelter of the knoll. From where they crouched Suarra’s tent was hidden—as they were hidden to any watchers in that little silken pavilion looking now like a great golden moth at rest under the moonlight.

“Graydon,” began the New Englander, “we’ve made up our minds on this thing. We’re goin’ to do it a little different. We’re willin’ and glad to let by-gones be by-gones. Hell! Here we are, four white men in a bunch of God knows what. White men ought to stick together. Ain’t that so?”

Graydon nodded, waiting.

“All right,” went on Soames. “Now here’s the situation. I don’t deny we’re up against somethin’ I don’t know much about. We ain’t equipped to go up against anything like that pack of hissin’ devils we saw to-day. But—we can come back!”

Again Graydon nodded. They had decided then to go no farther. The lesson of the afternoon had not been lost. Soames would ask Suarra to lead them out of the haunted Cordillera. As for coming back—that was another matter. He would return. But he would come, back alone—seek Suarra. Since well he knew no mysterious peril either to life or soul could keep him from her. But first he must see these men safe, wipe off the debt that he believed as one man of his race to another he owed them. He was glad—but the gladness was tempered with sudden doubt. Could the game be finished thus? Would Suarra and that pair of strange old men let them—go?

Soames’s next words brought him back to reality.

“There’s enough stuff on that llama and the girl to set us all up right, yeah. But there’s also enough to finance the greatest little expedition that ever struck the trail for treasure,” he was saying. “And that’s what we plan doin’, Graydon. Get those hampers and all that’s in ’em. Get the stuff on the girl. Beat it. An’ come back. I’ll bet those hissin’ devils wouldn’t stand up long under a couple of machine guns and some gas bombs! And when the smoke’s cleared away we can lift all we want and go back and sit on the top of the world. What you say to that?”

Graydon fenced.

“How will you get it?” he asked. “How will you get away with it?”

“Easy,” Soames bent his head closer. “We got it all planned. There ain’t any watch bein’ kept in that tent, you can bet on that. They’re too sure of us. All right, if your with us, we’ll just slip quietly down there. Sterrett and Danc’ they’ll take care of the old devils. No shootin’. Just slip their knives into their ribs. Me and you’ll attend to the girl. We won’t hurt her. Just tie her up and gag her. Then we’ll stow the stuff on a couple of the burros, get rid of the rest and that damned white beast and beat it quick.”

“Beat it where?” asked Graydon, striving to cover the hot anger that welled up in him. He slipped a little closer to Dancre, hand alert to seize the automatic in his pocket.

“We’ll get out,” replied Soames, confidently. “I’ve been figurin’ out where we are and I saw a peak to the west there both Sterrett and me recognized. Looked like pretty open forest country between us, too. Once we’re there I know where we are. And travelin’ light and all night we can be well on our way to it by this time to-morrow.”

Graydon thrust out a cautious hand, touched Dancre’s pocket. The automatic was still there. He would try one last appeal—to fear.

“But, Soames,” he urged. “There would be pursuit. What would we do with those brutes you saw to-day on our track. Why, man, they’d be after us in no time. You can’t get away with anything like that.”

Instantly he realized the weakness of that argument.

“Not a bit of it,” Soames grinned evilly. “That’s just the point. Nobody’s worryin’ about that girl. Nobody knows where she is. She was damned anxious not to be seen this afternoon. No, Graydon, I figure she slipped away from her folks to help you out. I take my hat off to you—you got her sure hooked. Nobody knows where she is, and she don’t want nobody to know where she is. The only ones that might raise trouble is the two old devils. And a quick knife in their ribs’ll put them out of the runnin’ soon enough. Then there’s only the girl. She’ll be damned glad to show us the way out if chance we do get lost again. But me and Sterrett know that peak. We’ll carry her along and when we get where we know we are we’ll turn her loose to go home. None the worse off, eh, boys?”

Sterrett and Dancre nodded.

Graydon seemed to consider, fighting still for time. He knew exactly what was in Soames’s mind—to use him in the cold blooded murder the three had planned and, once beyond the reach of pursuit, to murder him, too. Nor would they ever allow Suarra to return to tell what they had done. She too, would be slain—after they had done as they willed with her.

“Come on, Graydon,” whispered Soames impatiently. “It’s a good scheme and we can work it. Are you with us? If you ain’t—well—”

His knife glittered in his hand. Simultaneously, Sterrett and Dancre pressed close to him, knife too, in readiness, awaiting his answer.

Their movement had given him the one advantage he needed. He swept his hand down into the Frenchman’s pocket, drew out the gun and as he did so, landed a sidewise kick that caught Sterrett squarely in the groin. The giant reeled back.

But before Graydon could cover Soames, Dancre’s arms were around his knees, his feet torn from beneath him.

“Suar—” Graydon cried before he was down. At least his shout might waken and warn her. The cry was choked in mid-utterance. Soames’s bony hand was at his throat. Down they cradled together.

Graydon reached up, tried to break the strangling clutch. It gave a little, enough to let him gasp in one breath. Instantly he dropped his hold on the New Englander’s wrists, hooked the fingers of one hand in the corner of his mouth, pulling with all his strength. There was a sputtering curse from Soames and his hands let go. Graydon tried to spring to his feet, but one arm of the gaunt man slipped over the back of his head held his neck in the vise of bent elbow against his shoulder.

“Knife him, Danc’,” growled Soames.

Graydon suddenly twisted, bringing the New Englander on top of him. He was only in time, for as he did so he saw Dancre strike, the blade barely missing Soames. The latter locked his legs around his, tried to jerk him over in range of the little Frenchman. Graydon sank his teeth in the shoulder so close to him. Soames soared with pain and wrath; threshed and rolled, trying to shake off the agonizing grip. Around them danced Dancre, awaiting a chance to thrust.

There came a bellow from Sterrett:

“The llama! It’s running away! The llama!”

Involuntarily, Graydon loosed his jaws. Soames sprang to his feet. Graydon followed on the instant, shoulder up to meet the blow he expected from Dancre.

“Look, Soames, look!” the little Frenchman was pointing. “They have put the hampers back and turned him loose. There he goes—wit’ the gold—wit’ the jewels!”

Graydon followed the pointing finger. The moon had gathered strength and under its flood the white sands had turned into a silver lake in which the tufted hillocks stood up like tiny islands. Golden hampers on its sides, the llama was flitting across that lake of silver a hundred paces away and headed, apparently, for the trail along which they had come.

“Stop it!” shouted Soames, all else forgotten. “After it, Sterrett! That way, Danc’! I’ll head it off!”

They raced out over the shining barren. The llama changed its pace; trotted leisurely to one of the mounds and bounded up to its top.

“Close in! We’ve got it now,” he heard Soames cry. The three ran to the hillock on which the white beast stood looking calmly around. They swarmed up the mound from three sidles. Soames and Sterrett he could see; Dancre was hidden by the slope.

As their feet touched the sparse grass a mellow sound rang out, one of those elfin horns Graydon had heard chorusing so joyously about Suarra that first day. It was answered by others, close, all about. Again the single note. And then the answering chorus swirled toward the hillock of the llama, hovered over it and darted like a shower of winged sounds upon it.

He saw Sterrett stagger as though under some swift shock; whirl knotted arms around him as though to ward off attack!

A moment the giant stood thus, flailing with his arms. Then he cast himself to the ground and rolled down to the sands. Instantly the notes of the elfin horns seemed to swarm away from him, to concentrate around Soames. He had staggered, too, under the unseen attack. But he had thrown himself face downward on the slope of the mound and was doggedly crawling to its top. He held one arm shielding his face.

But shielding against what?

All that Graydon could see was the hillock top, and on it the llama bathed in the moonlight, the giant prone at the foot of the mound and Soames now nearly at its crest. And the horn sounds were ringing, scores upon scores of them, like the horns of a fairy hunt. But what it was that made those sounds he could not see. They were not visible; they cast no shadow.

Yet once he thought he heard a whirring as of hundreds of feathery wings.

Soames had reached the edge of the mound’s flat summit. The llama bent its head, contemplating him. Then as he scrambled over that edge, thrust out a hand to grasp its bridle, it flicked about, sprang to the opposite side and leaped down to the sands.

And all that time the clamor of the elfin horns about Soames had never stilled. Graydon saw him wince, strike out, bend his head and guard his eyes as though from a shower of blows. Still he could see nothing. Whatever that attack of the invisible, it did not daunt the New Englander. He sprang across the mound and slid down its side close behind the llama. As he touched the ground Sterrett arose slowly to his feet. The giant stood swaying, half drunkenly, dazed.

The horn notes ceased, abruptly, as though they had been candlelights blown out by a sudden blast.

Dancre came running around the slope of the hillock. The three stood for a second or two, arguing, gesticulating. And Graydon saw that their shirts were ragged and torn and, as Soames shifted and the moonlight fell upon him, that his face was streaked with blood.

The llama was walking leisurely across the sands, as slowly as though it were tempting them to further pursuit. Strange, too, he thought, how its shape seemed now to stand forth sharply and now to fade almost to a ghostly tenuity. And when it reappeared it was as though the moonbeams thickened, whirled and wove swiftly and spun it from themselves. The llama faded—and then grew again on the silvery warp and woof of the rays like a pattern on an enchanted loom.

Sterrett’s hand swept down to his belt. Before he could cover the white beast with the automatic Soames caught his wrist. The New Englander spoke fiercely, wrathfully. Graydon knew that he was warning the giant of the danger of the pistol crack; urging silence.

Then the three scattered, Dancre and Sterrett to the left and right to flank the llama, Soames aprpoaching it with what speed he might without startling it into a run. As he neared it, the animal broke into a gentle lope, heading for another hillock. And, as before, it bounded up through the sparse grass to the top. The three pursued, but as their feet touched the base of the mound once more the mellow horn sounded—menacingly, mockingly. They hesitated. And then Sterrett, breaking from Soames’s control, lifted his pistol and fired. The silver llama fell.

“The fool! The damned fool!” groaned Graydon.

The stunned silence that had followed on the heels of the pistol shot was broken by a hurricane of the elfin horns. They swept down upon the three like a tempest. Dancre shrieked and ran toward the camp fire, beating the air wildly as he came. Half way he fell, writhed and lay still. And Soames and the giant—they, too, were buffeting the air with great blows, ducking, dodging. The elfin horns were now a ringing, raging tumult—death in their notes!

Sterrett dropped to his knees, arose and lurched away. He fell again close to Dancre’s body, covered his head with a last despairing gesture and lay—as still as the little Frenchman. And now Soames went down, fighting to the last.

There on the sands lay the three of them, motionless, struck down by the invisible!

Graydon shook himself into action; leaped forward. He felt a touch upon his shoulder; a tingling numbness ran through every muscle. With difficulty he turned his head. Beside him was the old man in the blue robe, and it had been the touch of his staff that had sent the paralysis through Graydon. The picture of the clutching talons of the spider-man upon the edge of the rimmed road flashed before him. That same rod had then, as he had thought, sent the weird weaver to its death.

Simultaneously, as though at some command, the clamor of the elfin horns lifted from the sands, swirled upward and hung high in air—whimpering, whining, protesting.

He felt a soft hand close around his wrist. Suarra’s hand. Again he forced his reluctant head to turn. She was at his right—and pointing.

On the top of the hillock the white llama was struggling to its feet. A band of crimson ran across its silvery flank, the mark of Sterrett’s bullet. The animal swayed for a moment, then limped down the hill.

As it passed Soames it nosed him. The New Englander’s head lifted. He tried to rise; fell back. Then with eyes fastened upon the golden panniers he squirmed up on hands and knees and began to crawl on the white llama’s tracks.

The beast went slowly, stiffly. It came to Sterrett’s body and paused again. And Sterrett’s massive head lifted, and he tried to rise, and, failing even as had Soames, began, like him, to crawl behind the animal.

The white llama passed Dancre. He stirred and moved and followed it on knees and hands.

Over the moon soaked sands, back to the camp they trailed—the limping llama, with the blood dripping drop by drop from its wounded side. Behind it three crawling men, their haggard, burning eyes riveted upon the golden withed panniers, three men who crawled, gasping like fish drawn up to shore. Three broken men, from whose drawn faces glared that soul of greed which was all that gave them strength to drag their bodies over the sands.