Chapter XXVI. Our Desperate Situation

"And now," quoth Sir Richard, "since you are bent on dragging this worn-out carcase along to be your careful burden (for the which may God bless you everlastingly, dear lad!) let us see what equipment Fortune hath left us beside your sword and the water." Herewith, upon investigation we found our worldly possessions amount to the following:

In Sir Richard's Pockets:

1 ship's biscuit (somewhat spoiled by water).
A small clasp knife.
A gunflint.

In Mine:

A length of small cord.
Adam's chart (and very limp).
9 pistol balls.

These various objects we set together before us and I for one mighty disconsolate, for, excepting only the knife, a collection of more useless odds and ends could not be imagined. Sir Richard, on the contrary, having viewed each and every with his shrewd, kindly eyes, seemed in no wise cast down, for, said he.

"We might be richer, but then we might be poorer--for here we have in this biscuit one meal, though scant 'tis true and not over tasty. A sword and knife for weapons and tools, a flint to make us fires, three yards of small cord wherewith to contrive snares for small game, and though we ha' lost our compass, we have the coast to follow by day and the stars to guide us by night and furthermore--"

"Nine pistol balls!" quoth I gloomily.

"Hum!" said he, stroking his chin and eyeing me askance. "Having neither weapons nor powder to project them--"

"They shall arm me arrows!"

"Aye, but will they serve?" he questioned doubtfully.

"Well enough, supposing we find aught to shoot at--"

"Never fear, in Darien are beasts and fowls a-plenty."

"Well and good, sir!" said I, gathering up the bullets, and doing so, espied a piece of driftwood carrying many bent and rusty nails, the which (the wood being very dry and rotten) I presently broke out and to my nine bullets I added some dozen nails, pocketing them to the same purpose. And now having collected our possessions (of more value to us than all the treasures of Peru), we set forth upon our long and toilsome journey, our gaze bent ever upon the cliffs that frowned upon our right hand, looking for some place easy of ascent whereby we might come to the highlands above (where we judged it easier travelling) and with Pluto stalking on before like the dignified animal he was, looking back ever and anon as if bidding us to follow.

And as I watched this great beast, the thought occurred to me that here was what should save us from starvation should we come to such extremity; but I spake nothing of this to Sir Richard who had conceived a great affection for the dog from the first. And after some while we came to a place where the cliff had fallen and made a sloping causeway of earth and rocks, topped by shady trees. This we began to mount forthwith and, finding it none so steep, I (lost in my thoughts) climbed apace, forgetful of Sir Richard in my eagerness, until, missing him beside me, I turned to see him on hands and knees, dragging himself painfully after me thus, whereon I hasted back to him full of self-reproaches.

"'Tis only my legs!" he gasped, lifting agonised face. "My spirit is willing, Martin, but alas, my poor flesh--"

"Nay--'tis I am selfish!" quoth I. "Aye, a selfish man ever, dreaming only of my own woes!" Saying which, I raised him and, setting an arm about his wasted form, aided him as well as I might until, seeing how he failed despite his brave struggles, I made him sit and rest awhile, unheeding his breathless protestations, and thus at last, by easy stages, we came to the top of the ascent amid a grove of very tall trees, in whose pleasant shade we paused awhile, it being now midday and very hot.

Behind us lay the ocean, before us a range of mighty mountains blue with distance that rose, jagged peak on peak, far as eye could see, and betwixt them and us a vast and rolling wilderness, a land of vivid sun and stark shadow, dazzling glare on the uplands, gloom in the valleys and above swamp and thicket and trackless forests a vapour that hung sullen and ominous like the brooding soul of this evil country.

"Fever!" quoth Sir Richard, stabbing at the sluggish mist with bony fingers. "Ague, the flux--death! We must travel ever by the higher levels, Martin--and I a cripple!"

"Why, then," said I, "you shall have a staff to aid you on one side and my arm on t'other, and shall attempt no great distance until you grow stronger." So having found and cut a staff to serve him, we set off together upon our long and arduous pilgrimage.

By mid-afternoon we reached a place of rocks whence bubbled a small rill mighty pleasant to behold and vastly refreshing to our parched throats and bodies. Here, though the day was still young and we had come (as I judged) scarce six miles, I proposed to camp for the night, whereon Sir Richard must needs earnestly protest he could go further an I would, but finding me determined, he heaved a prodigious sigh and stretching himself in the cool shadow, lay there silent awhile, yet mighty content, as I could see.

"Martin," quoth he at last, "by my reckoning we have some hundred and fifty miles to go."

"But, sir, they will be less to-morrow!" said I, busied with my knife on certain branches I had cut.

"And but half a ship's biscuit to our sustenance, and that spoiled."

"Why, then, throw it away; I will get us better fare!" said I, for as we came along I had spied several of those great birds the which I knew to be very excellent eating.

"As how, my son?" he questioned.

"With bow and arrows." At this he sat up to watch me at work and very eager to aid me therein. "So you shall, sir," said I, and having tapered my bow-stave sufficiently, I showed him how to trim the shafts as smooth and true as possible with a cleft or notch at one end into which I set one of my rusty nails, binding it there with strips from my tattered shirt; in place of feathers I used a tuft of grass and behold! my arrow was complete, and though a poor thing to look at yet it would answer well enough, as I knew by experience. So we fell to our arrow-making, wherein I found Sir Richard very quick and skilful, as I told him, the which seemed to please him mightily.

"For," said he miserably, "I feel myself such a burden to thee, Martin, that anything I can do to lighten thy travail be to me great comfort."

"Sir," said I, "these many years have I been a solitary man hungering for companionship, and, in place of enemy, God hath given me a friend and one I do love and honour. As to his crippled body, sir, it beareth no scar but is a badge of honour, and if he halt in his gait or fail by the way, this doth but remind me of his dauntless soul that, despite pain and torment, endured."

So saying, I caught up such arrows as were finished (four in all) and taking my bow, set forth in quest of supper, with Pluto at my heels. Nor had I far to seek, for presently I espied several of these monstrous birds among the trees and, stringing my bow with a length of cord, I crept forward until I was in easy range and, setting arrow to string, let fly. Away sang my shaft, a yard wide of the mark, soaring high into the air and far beyond all hope of recovery.

This put me in a fine rage, for not only had I lost my precious arrow, but the quarry also, for off flapped my bird, uttering a hoarse cackle as in derision of my ill aim. On I went, seeking for something should serve us for supper, yet look where I would, saw nothing, no, not so much as parrot or macaw that might stay us for lack of better fare. On I went, and mightily hungry, wandering haphazard and nothing to reward me until, reaching an opening or glade shut in by dense thickets beyond, I sat me upon a fallen tree and in mighty ill humour, the dog Pluto at my feet. Suddenly I saw him start and prick his ears, and presently, sure enough, heard a distant stir and rustling in the thickets that grew rapidly nearer and louder to trampling rush; and out from the leaves broke some dozen or so young pigs; but espying the dog they swung about in squealing terror and plunged back again. But in that moment I let fly among them and was mighty glad to see one roll over and lie kicking, filling the air with shrill outcry; then Pluto was upon it and had quickly finished the poor beast, aye, and would have devoured it, too, had I not driven him off with my bow-stave.

It was a small pig and something lean, yet never in this world hunter more pleased than I as, shouldering the carcase and with Pluto going before, I made my way back to our halting-place and found Sir Richard had contrived to light a fire and full of wonder to behold my pig.

"Though to be sure," said he, "I've heard there were such in Darien, yet I never saw any, Martin, more especially in these high lands."

"They were fleeing from some wild beast, as I judge, sir," quoth I.

"Why, then, 'twere as well to keep our fire going all night!" said he: to the which I agreed and forthwith set about cutting up the pig, first flaying it as well as I might, since I judged the skin should be very serviceable in divers ways. So this night we supped excellent well.

The meal over, Sir Richard cut up what remained of the carcase into strips and set me to gather certain small branches with which he built a sort of grating above some glowing embers and thus dried and smoked the meat after the manner of the buccaneers. "For look now, Martin," said he, "besides drying the meat, these twigs are aromatic and do lend a most excellent flavour, so that there is no better meat in the world--besides, it will keep."

Beyond the rocky cleft bright with the light of our fire the vasty wilderness hemmed us in, black and sullen, for the trees being thick hereabouts we could see no glimpse of moon or star. And amid this gloom were things that moved stealthily, shapes that rustled and flitted, and ever and anon would come the howl of some beast, the cry of some bird, hunting or hunted, whereat Pluto, crunching on a bone, would lift his head to growl. So with the fire and the dog's watchfulness we felt tolerably secure and presently fell asleep.