Chapter X. A Fresh Start
 

Not until he got to the camp did Harry look round. When he caught a glimpse of the guide's face he went up to him and held out his hand.

"You must not take it to heart, Dias; it has been unfortunate, but that cannot be helped. You have done everything you could in the matter, and brought us to the right spot, and no one could tell that when we got within half a mile of the gold river we should find the valley turned into a deep lake. We can only say, 'Better luck next time'. We would say in England, 'There are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it'. I have never felt very sanguine myself about this; it has all along seemed too good to be true. Of course we are disappointed, but we may have better luck next time."

"But I don't know, senor, with certainty of any other place. No one was ever entrusted with more than one secret, so that if the Spanish tortures wrung it out of him two treasures would not be lost."

"We need not talk any more about this place, Dias. I see your wife has got some of the fish that we caught yesterday fizzling on the fire. Now I think of it, I am very hungry, for it is six hours since we had our coffee this morning. After we have had our meal we can discuss what our next move had better be."

While they were speaking, Jose had been rapidly telling Maria the misfortune which had befallen them, and the tears were running down the woman's cheeks.

"You must not feel so badly about it, Maria," Harry said cheerfully; "you see my brother and I are quite cheerful. At any rate, no one is to blame. It would have been an enormous piece of luck if we had succeeded, but we never looked on it as a certainty. Anything might have happened between the time the gold was shut up and now, though we certainly never expected to find what we did. We only thought it possible that we might have the luck to find the treasure. Now you had better look to those fish, or we shall lose our breakfast as we have lost our gold, and this time by our own fault. We are as hungry as hunters all of us; and in fact we are hunters, although we have not brought any game with us this time."

The woman wiped away her tears hastily, and, taking off the fish which she had put on when they were coming down the hill, she laid them on plates with some freshly-baked cakes. The fish were excellent, and Bertie, as they ate, made several jokes which set them all laughing, so that the meal passed off cheerfully.

"Now for the great consoler," Harry said, as he took out his pipe. "When we have all lighted up, the council shall begin. Never mind clearing away the plates now, Maria; just sit down with us, there is wisdom in many counsellors. Now, Dias, what do you think is the best course for us to adopt at present?"

"Unless you wish to stay here and make further search?"

"By no means, Dias," Harry said; "for the present, I have seen enough of this side of the mountains. We will get back to Cuzco and make a fresh start from there."

"In that case, senor, there is no doubt as to the best route. There is a pass over the mountains just on the other side of Mount Tinta; it leads to the town of Ayapata, which lies somewhere at the foot of that peak. I have never been there, but I know its situation. It is a very steep pass, but as it is used for mule traffic it cannot be very bad. Once we have passed over it on to the plateau we shall not be more than seventy or eighty miles from Cuzco."

"That is quite satisfactory. We will set off to-morrow."

"We had better catch some more fish, for we have had no time for hunting lately," Maria said. "The meat we ate yesterday was the last we had with us. If we cut the fish open and lay them flat on the rocks, which are so hot one can scarcely hold one's hand on them, they will be sufficiently dry by sunset to keep for two or three days, and before that you are sure to shoot something."

The river was full of fish, and in half an hour they had caught an abundance, having fifteen averaging eight pounds apiece. These were at once cut open, cleaned, and laid down to dry.

"The fishing on this river would let for a handsome sum in England," Harry laughed; "and I think the fish are quite as good as trout of the same size. The only objection is that they are so tame, and take the bait so greedily, that, good as the stream is, they would soon be exterminated."

That evening there was a slight stir among the animals which had just lain down. Jose leapt up and walked towards them.

"There is something the matter, Dias," he cried; "the llamas are standing up with their ears forward. They see or hear something."

"It may be pumas or jaguars," Dias said. "Take your gun, senor."

He picked up his rifle, and Harry and Bertie followed suit, and further armed themselves with their shot-guns.

"You had best come with us, Maria," her husband said. "There is no saying where the beasts may be. See! the mules are standing up now and pulling at their head-ropes. Let us go among them, senors, our presence will pacify them."

They all moved towards the mules, which were standing huddled together. Dias and Jose spoke to them and patted them.

"You stand at their heads, Maria," the former said, "and keep on talking to them. We must see if we can discover the beasts. There is one of them!" he exclaimed, but in a low tone. Do you see the two bright points of light? That is the reflection of the fire in his eyes."

"Shall I fire?"

"No, senor, not yet. If we were only to wound him he would charge us; let us wait till he gets closer. Probably there are two of them, male and female, they generally go about in pairs."

Even as he spoke the seeming sparks disappeared.

"He has moved," Dias said; "he will probably walk round us two or three times before he makes up his mind to attack."

"If he would go near the fire we could get a fair shot at him, Dias."

"He won't do that, senor; he will most likely go backwards and forwards in a semicircle, getting perhaps a little closer each time."

Ten minutes passed and then Maria said:

"There are two of them. I can see their outlines distinctly."

"Do you think, if we were to fire a gun, they would move off, Dias?"

"They might for a time, senor, but the probability is that they would come back again. They have smelt the mules, and are probably hungry. It is better to let them attack us at once and have done with it."

A minute or two later there was a snarling growl.

"They are jaguars," Dias said.

Again and again the threatening sound was heard, and in spite of Maria's efforts the mules were almost mad with fright.

"We had better lie down beyond them," Dias said. "There is no doubt the beasts will come from that side. If we posted ourselves behind them the mules might break loose and knock us over just as we were taking aim."

They lay down side by side on the grass with their rifles at their shoulders.

"I can see them now, Dias," Harry whispered, "not more than fifty yards away. I think we could hardly miss them now."

"You could not if it were daylight, senor; but in the dark, when you can't see the end of your rifle, you can never be certain about shooting."

The beasts had now apparently made up their minds to attack. They crouched low, almost dragging their bellies on the ground, and one was somewhat in advance of the other.

"That is the male ahead," Dias whispered. "Do you and your brother take aim. I will take the female, and Jose will hold his fire of buck-shot till she is within a length of us."

"How shall I know when it is going to spring?"

"When it stops, senor. It is sure to stop before it springs."

"Aim between the eyes, Bertie, and fire when I do," Harry whispered to his brother, who was lying next to him.

When within twelve yards the jaguar halted.

"Now!" Harry said, and they discharged their rifles at the same moment, and, dropping them, grasped the shot-guns.

The jaguar fell over on one side, clawing the air, and then recovered himself. As he did so two charges of buck-shot struck him on the head, and he rolled over and remained motionless.

Dias had fired at the same moment, but he had not stopped the second jaguar. Jose, instead of waiting, hastily discharged his gun, and in another instant a dark body bounded over their heads on to the back of one of the mules, which it struck to the ground.

Harry and Bertie leapt to their feet, and discharged their second barrels into the jaguar's body. It turned suddenly round and attempted to spring, but its hindquarters were paralysed; and Bertie, pulling out his pistol, fired both barrels into its head. The brute at once fell over dead, and the lad gave a shout of triumph.

"Thank goodness that is over without accident!" Harry said. "They are formidable beasts, Dias."

"In the daytime, when one can see to aim, they can be killed easily enough, senor; at night their presence is to be dreaded."

"I am afraid we have lost a mule."

"I think not, senor. He was knocked down by the shock, but he had his saddle on, and the brute had no time to carry him off."

The mule rose to its feet as they spoke; Jose ran and brought a flaming brand from the fire. Blood was streaming from both the animal's shoulders.

"It stuck its claws in, senor, but has not made long gashes. I should say that these wounds were caused by the contraction of the claws when you finished her with your pistol. The animal will be all right in a day or two; and as our stores have diminished, we need not put any load on it for a time."

"I hope you were not frightened, Maria?" Bertie said

"I was a little frightened," she said, "when the mule came tumbling down close to me, and I could see the jaguar's eyes within a few yards of me, but I had my dagger ready."

"It would not have been much good," Dias said, "if the beast had attacked you."

"I think you showed no end of pluck," Bertie said. "If he had come close to me, and I had got nothing but that little dagger in my hand, I should have bolted like a shot."

"I am sure that you would not, senor," she said. "You are a great deal too brave for that."

Bertie laughed.

"It is all very well to be brave with a rifle in your hand and another gun ready, to say nothing of the pistols. By the way, I thought Harry had given you one of his?

"So he did, but I had forgotten all about it. If I had thought of it I should have used it."

"It is just as well that you did not," Harry said. "If you had done so, the brute would have made for you instead of turning round to attack us."

"Now, senor," Dias put in, "we had better drag the jaguars away; the mules will never get quiet with the bodies so close to them."

It needed all his strength and that of his companions to drag each of the bodies fifty yards away.

"Now, Jose," Dias said when they returned, "you had better give the animals a feed of maize all round. They will settle down after that. I shall keep watch to-night, senor. It is not likely that any more of these beasts are in the neighbourhood; but it is as well to be careful, and I don't think any of us would sleep if someone were not on the look-out."

"I will relieve you at two o'clock," Harry said.

"No, senor, I have not been on the watch for the past two nights. I would rather sit up by the fire to-night."

Two days later they arrived at the foot of the pass. Just as they gained it they met two muleteers coming down it. Dias entered into conversation with them, while the others erected tents, preparing to camp.

"What is the news, Dias?" Harry asked as he returned.

"The men say, senor, that the pass is very unsafe. Many robberies have taken place in it, and several men, who endeavoured to defend themselves against the brigands, have been killed. They were questioned by four armed men as they came down, and the goods they were carrying down to Ayapata were taken from them. They say that traffic has almost ceased on the road."

"That is bad, Dias."

"Very bad, senor. We need not be afraid of brigands if they meet us as we travel along the foot of the hills, but it would be another thing in the passes. There are many places where the mules would have to go in single file, and if we were caught in such a spot by men on the heights, we might be shot down without any chance of defending ourselves successfully."

"That is awkward, Dias. It is a scandal that these brigands are not rooted out."

"People are thinking too much of fighting each other or their neighbours to care anything about the complaints of a few muleteers, senor."

"Is there no other way of crossing the mountains than by this pass?"

"There is a pass, senor, between Ayapata and Crucero, but it is a very bad one."

"And where should we be then, Dias?"

"Well, senor, it would take us along the other side of the mountains to Macari. From that place there is an easy path to La Raya; there we are on the plateau again, and have only to travel by the road through Sicuani to Cuzco."

"In fact, it would double the length of our journey to Cuzco?"

"Yes, senor; but if you liked, from Crucero you might go down to Lake Titicaca. There are certainly good mines in the mountains there."

"Yes, but is there any chance of our finding them?"

"I can't say that, senor, but I fear that the chance would be very small."

"Then it is of no use trying, Dias. We saw at the last place what pains the old people took to hide places where gold could be found, and if there had been rich mines among these mountains you speak of, no doubt they would have hidden them just as carefully. The question is, shall we go up this pass as we intended, and take our chance, or shall we go by this roundabout way?"

By this time Jose had lit a fire, and they had seated themselves by it.

"One hates turning back, but we are not pressed for time. As far as I can see, my only chance is the feeble one of finding treasure in the place you spoke of up the coast above Callao. It is now four months since we left Lima. Travelling straight to that place would take us how long?"

"Well, senor, if we go round by Ayapata to Crucero, and then to Macari, it would be nearly a thousand miles."

"Quite a thousand, I should think. That is three months' steady work. By the time we get there it will be about a year from the time we left England. I have seen quite enough of the mountains to know that our chance of finding anything among them is so small that it is not worth thinking of. It seems to me, therefore, Dias, that we might just as well, instead of going south over these difficult passes, return by the foot of the mountains as we have come, going through Paucartambo, crossing the rivers that flow north and fall somewhere or other into the Amazon, and keeping along it till we come to Cerro de Pasco. There we should be nearly in a line with this place you know of, and can keep due west--that is to say, as nearly due west as the mountains will allow. It would be three or four hundred miles shorter than by taking the pass at Ayapata. We should have a good deal of sport by the way, and should certainly have no trouble with the brigands till we got to Cerro. Of course it is possible that we might fall in with savages again, but at any rate they are not so formidable as brigands in the passes. What do you say to that?"

"It is certainly shorter, senor; and, as you say, we should have no trouble with the brigands, and we should also escape the troubles that have been going on for some years, and are likely, as far as anyone can see, to go on for ever. We were very fortunate in not meeting any of the armies that are always marching about."