Chapter XXII. The Storm
 

"Now," remarked Tom, once they were back again in their camp, "we must go about this trip to the cavern in a way that will cause no suspicion over there as to what our object is," and he nodded in the direction of the quarters of his rival.

"Do you mean to go off quietly?" asked Ned.

"Yes. And to keep the work going on here, at these shafts," put in the scientist, "so that if any of their spies happen to come here they will think we still believe the buried city to be just below us. To that end we must keep the Indians digging, though I am convinced now that it is useless."

Accordingly preparations were made for an expedition into the jungle under the leadership of Goosal. Tal had not sufficiently recovered from the jaguar wounds to go with the party, but the old man, in spite of his years, was hale and hearty and capable of withstanding hardships.

One of the most intelligent of the Indians was put in charge of the digging gangs as foreman, and told to keep them at work, and not to let them stray. Tolpec, whose brother Tom had tried to save, proved a treasure. He agreed to remain behind and look after the interests of his friends, and see that none of their baggage or stores were taken.

"Well, I guess we're as ready as we ever shall be," remarked Tom, as the cavalcade made ready to start. Mules carried the supplies that were to be taken into the jungle, and others of the sturdy animals were to be ridden by the travelers. The trail was not an easy one, Goosal warned them.

Tom and his friends found it even worse than they had expected, for all their experience in jungle and mountain traveling. In places it was necessary to dismount and lead the mules along, sometimes pushing and dragging them. More than once the trail fairly hung on the edge of some almost bottomless gorge, and again it wound its way between great walls of rock, so poised that they appeared about to topple over and crush the travelers. But they kept on with dogged patience, through many hardships.

To add to their troubles they seemed to have entered the abode of the fiercest mosquitoes encountered since coming to Honduras. At times it was necessary to ride along with hats covered with mosquito netting, and hands encased in gloves.

They had taken plenty of condensed food with them, and they did not suffer in this respect. Game, too, was plentiful and the electric rifles of Tom and Ned added to the larder.

One night, after a somewhat sound sleep induced by hard travel on the trail that day, Tom awoke to hear some one or something moving about among their goods, which included their provisions.

"Who's there?" asked the young inventor sharply, as he reached for his electric rifle.

There was no answer, but a rattling of the pans.

"Speak, or I'll fire!" Tom warned, adding this in such Spanish as he could muster, for he thought it might be one of the Indians. No reply came, and then, seeing by the light of the stars a dark form moving in front of the tent occupied by himself and Ned, Tom fired.

There was a combined grunt and squeal of pain, then a savage growl, and Ned yelled:

"What's the matter, Tom?" for he had been awakened, and heard the crackle of the electrical discharge.

"I don't know," Tom answered. "But I shot something--or somebody!"

"Maybe some of Beecher's crowd," ventured his chum. But when they got their electric torches, and focused them on the inert, black object, it was found to be a bear which had come to nose about the camp for dainty morsels.

Bruin was quite dead, and as he was in prime condition there was a feast of bear meat at the following dinner. The white travelers found it rather too strong for their palates, but the Indians reveled in it.

It was shortly after noon the next day, when Goosal, after remarking that a storm seemed brewing, announced that they would be at the entrance to the cavern in another hour.

"Good!" cried Professor Bumper. "At last we are near the buried city."

"Don't be too sure," advised Mr. Damon, "We may be disappointed. Though I hope not for your sake, my dear Professor."

Goosal now took the lead, and the old Indian, traveling on foot, for he said he could better look for the old landmark that way than on the back of a mule, walked slowly along a rough cliff.

"Here. somewhere, is the entrance to the cav- ern," said the aged man. "It was many years ago that I was here--many years. But it seems as though yesterday. It is little changed."

Indeed little did change in that land of wonders. Only nature caused what alterations there were. The hand of man had long been absent.

Slowly Goosal walked along the rocky trail, on one side a sheer rock, towering a hundred feet or more toward the sky. On the other side a deep gash leading to a great fertile valley below.

Suddenly the old man paused, and looked about him as though uncertain. Then, more slowly still, he put out his hand and pulled at some bushes that grew on a ledge of the rock. They came away, having no depth of earth, and a small opening was disclosed.

"It is here," said Goosal quietly. "The entrance to the cavern that leads to the burial place of the dead, and the city that is dead also. It is here."

He stood aside while the others hurried forward. It took but a few minutes to prove that he was right--at least as to the existence of the cavern--for the four men were soon peering into the opening.

"Come on!" cried Tom, impetuously.

"Wait a moment," suggested the professor, "Sometimes the air in these places is foul. We must test it." But a torch one of the Indians threw in burned with a steady glow. That test was conclusive at least. They made ready to enter.

Torches of a light bark, that glowed with a steady flame and little smoke, had been provided, as well as a good supply of electric dry-battery lamps, and the way into the cavern was thus well lighted. At first the Indians were afraid to enter, but a word or two from Goosal reassured them, and they followed Professor Bumper, Tom, and the others into the cavern.

For several hundred feet there was nothing remarkable about the cave. It was like any other cavern of the mountains, though wonderful for the number of crystal formations on the root and walls--formations that sparkled like a million diamonds in the flickering lights.

"Talk about a wonderland!" cried Tom. "This is fairyland!"

A moment later, as Goosal walked on beside the professor and Tom, the aged Indian came to a pause, and, pointing ahead, murmured:

"The city of the dead!"

They saw the niches cut in the rock walls. niches that held the countless bones of those who had died many, many years before. It was a vast Indian grave.

"Doubtless a wealth of material of historic interest here," said Professor Bumper, flashing his torch on the skeletons. "But it will keep. Where is the city you spoke of, Goosal?"

"Farther on, Senor. Follow me."

Past the stone graves they went, deeper and deeper into the great cave. Their footsteps echoed and re-echoed. Suddenly Tom, who with Ned had gone a little ahead, came to a sudden halt and said:

"Well, this may be a burial place sure enough, but I think I see something alive all right--if it isn't a ghost."

He pointed ahead. Surely those were lights flickering and moving about, and, yes, there were men carrying them. The Bumper party came to a surprised halt. The other lights advanced, and then, to the great astonishment of Professor Bumper and his friends, there confronted them in the cave several scientists of Professor Beecher's party and a score or more of Indians. Professor Hylop, who was known to Professor Bumper, stepped forward and asked sharply:

"What are you doing here?"

"I might ask you the same thing," was the retort.

"You might, but you would not be answered," came sharply. "We have a right here, having discovered this cavern, and we claim it under a concession of the Honduras Government. I shall have to ask you to withdraw."

"Do you mean leave here?" asked Mr Damon.

"That is it, exactly. We first discovered this cave. We have been conducting explorations in it for several days, and we wish no outsiders."

"Are you speaking for Professor Beecher"' asked Tom.

"I am. But he is here in the cave, and will speak for himself if you desire it. But I represent him, and I order you to leave. If you do not go peaceably we will use force. We have plenty of it," and he glanced back at the Indians grouped behind him--scowling savage Indians.

"We have no wish to intrude," observed Professor Bumper, "and I fully recognize the right of prior discovery. But one member of our party (he did not say which one) was in this cave many years ago. He led us to it."

"Ours is a government concession!" exclaimed Professor Hylop harshly. "We want no intruders! Go!" and he pointed toward the direction whence Tom's party had come.

"Drive them out!" he ordered the Indians in Spanish, and with muttered threats the dark- skinned men advanced toward Tom and the others.

"You need not use force," said Professor Bumper.

He and Professor Hylop had quarreled bitterly years before on some scientific matter, and the matter was afterward found to be wrong. Perhaps this made him vindictive.

Tom stepped forward and started to protest, but Professor Bumper interposed.

"I guess there is no help for it but to go. It seems to be theirs by right of discovery and government concession," he said, in disappointed tone. "Come friends"; and dejectedly they retraced their steps.

Followed by the threatening Indians, the Bumper party made its way back to the entrance. They had hoped for great things, but if the cavern gave access to the buried city--the ancient city of Kurzon on the chief altar of which stood the golden idol, Quitzel--it looked as though they were never to enter it.

"We'll have to get our Indians and drive those fellows out!" declared Tom. "I'm not going to be beaten this way--and by Beecher!"

"It is galling," declared Professor Bumper. "Still he has right on his side, and I must give in to priority, as I would expect him to. It is the unwritten law."

"Then we've failed!" cried Tom bitterly.

"Not yet," said Professor Bumper. "If I can not unearth that buried city I may find another in this wonderland. I shall not give up."

"Hark! What's that noise?" asked Tom, as they approached the entrance to the cave.

"Sounds like a great wind blowing," commented Ned.

It was. As they stood in the entrance they looked out to find a fierce storm raging. The wind was sweeping down the rocky trail, the rain was falling in veritable bucketfuls from the overhanging cliff, and deafening thunder and blinding lightning roared and flashed.

"Surely you would not drive us out in this storm," said Professor Bumper to his former rival.

"You can not stay in the cave! You must get out!" was the answer, as a louder crash of thunder than usual seemed to shake the very mountain.