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- The Treasure of the Incas - 20/63 -
enterprise, I would not ask others to do the same."
Crossing the stream, they made their way down through the forest. It was toilsome work, as they often had to clear a way with axes through the undergrowth and tangle of creepers. But at noon they reached level ground. The heat was now intense, even under the trees, and the air close and oppressive. On the way down Harry shot a wild turkey. When they halted, this was cut up and broiled over a fire, and after it had been eaten all lay down and slept for two or three hours.
"Ought we not to set a guard?" Harry had asked.
"No, señor, I do not think it necessary. José will lie down by the side of the llamas, and even if the mules should not give us a warning of any man or beast approaching, the llamas will do so. They are the shyest and most timid of creatures, and would detect the slightest movement."
For the next three weeks they continued their way. During this time five or six ravines were investigated as far as they could be ascended. Samples were frequently taken from sand and gravel and washed, but though particles of gold were frequently found, they were not in sufficient quantity to promise good results from washing.
"If we had a band of natives with us," Dias said, "we should no doubt get enough to pay well--that is to say, to cover all expenses and leave an ounce or two of profit to every eight or ten men engaged--but as matters stand we should only be wasting time by remaining here."
They had no difficulty in obtaining sufficient food; turkeys and pheasants were occasionally shot; a tapir was once killed, and, as they had brought hooks and lines with them, fish were frequently caught in the streams. These were of small size, but very good eating. But, as Dias said, they could not hope to find larger species, except far out in the plains, where the rivers were deep and sluggish.
The work was hard, but they were now accustomed to it. They often had to go a considerable distance before they could find trees available for bridging the torrents, but, on the other hand, they sometimes came upon some of much smaller girth than those they had first tackled. The labour in getting these down was comparatively slight. Sometimes these stood a little way from the stream, but after they were felled two mules could easily drag them to the site of the bridge. When on the march, Harry and his brother carried their double-barrelled guns, each with one barrel charged with shot suitable for pheasants or other birds, the other with buck-shot. Dias carried a rifle. Very seldom did they mount their mules, the ground being so rough and broken, and the boughs of the trees so thick, that it was less trouble to walk at the heads of their animals than to ride.
AN INDIAN ATTACK
One day when they returned from exploring a valley, Harry and his brother, taking their rifles, strolled down an open glade, while Dias and José unpacked the animals. They had gone but a hundred yards when they heard a sound that was new to them. It sounded like the grunting of a number of pigs. Dias was attending to the mules. Harry and Bertie caught up their guns. Presently a small pig made its appearance from among some trees. Harry was on the point of raising his gun to his shoulder when Dias shouted, "Stop, do not shoot!"
"What is the matter, Dias?" he asked in surprise, as the latter ran up.
"That is a peccary."
"Well, it is a sort of pig, isn't it?"
"Yes, señor. But if you were to kill it, we might all be torn in pieces. They travel through the forests in great herds, and if one is injured or wounded, the rest will rush upon its assailants. You may shoot down dozens of them, but that only redoubles their fury. The only hope of escape is to climb a tree; but they will keep watch there, regardless of how many are shot, until hunger obliges them to retire. They are the bravest beasts of the forests, and will attack and kill even a lion or a tiger if it has seized one of their number. I beg you to stroll back quietly, and then sit down. I will go to the head of the mules. If the herd see that we pay no attention to them, they may go on without interfering with us. If we see them approaching us, and evidently intending to attack, we must take to the trees and try to keep them from attacking the mules; but there would be small chance of our succeeding in doing so."
He and José at once went up to the mules, and stood perfectly quiet at their head. Harry and Bertie moved closely up, laid their double-barrelled guns beside them, and then sat down. By this time forty or fifty of the peccaries had issued from the trees; some were rooting among the herbage, others stood perfectly quiet, staring at the group on the rise above them. Seeing no movement among them nor any sign of hostility, they joined the others in their search for food, and in a quarter of an hour the whole herd had moved off along the edge of the forest.
"Praise be to the saints!" Dias said, taking off his hat and crossing himself. "We have escaped a great danger. A hunter would rather meet a couple of lions or tigers than a herd of peccaries. These little animals are always ready to give battle, and once they begin, fight till they die. The more that are killed the more furious do the others become. Even in a tree there is no safety. Many a hunter has been besieged in a tree until, overpowered by thirst, he fell to the ground and was torn to pieces."
"What do they eat?" Harry asked.
"They will eat anything they kill, but their chief food is roots. They kill great numbers of snakes. Even the largest python is no match for a herd of peccaries if they catch him before he can take refuge in a tree."
"Well, then, it is very lucky that you stopped us before we fired."
"Fortunate indeed, señor. By taking to the trees we might have saved our lives, but we should certainly have lost our mules. Both pumas and tigers kill the little beasts when they come across stragglers. And it is well that they do, for otherwise the woods would be full of them, though fortunately they do not multiply as fast as our pigs, having only two or three in a litter. They are good eating, but it is seldom that a hunter can shoot one, for if he only wounds it, its shrieks will call together all its companions within a mile round."
"Then we must give up the idea of having pork while we are among the mountains."
"Now, are you going to keep me here all day, Dias?" Maria called suddenly. "It seems to me that you have forgotten me altogether."
Harry and Bertie could not help laughing.
Dias had, on returning to the mules, taken his wife and seated her on a branch six feet from the ground, in order that, should the peccaries attack them, he might be ready at once to snatch up his rifle and join in the fight without having first to think of the safety of his wife. He now lifted her down.
The action did even more than what Dias had said to convince Harry of the seriousness of the danger to which they had been exposed, for as a rule Donna Maria had scoffed at any offers of aid, even in the most difficult places, and with her light springy step had taxed the power of the others to keep up with her. These offers had not come from Dias, who showed his confidence in his wife's powers by paying no attention whatever, and a grim smile had often played on his lips when Harry or his brother had offered her a hand. That his first thought had been of her now showed that he considered the crisis a serious one.
"I thought Dias had gone mad," she said, as she regained her feet. "I could not think what was the matter when he began to shout and ran towards you. I saw nothing but a little pig. Then, when he came slowly back with you and suddenly seized me and jerked me up on to that bough, I felt quite sure of it, especially when he told me to hold my tongue and not say a word. Was it that little pig? I saw lots more of them afterwards."
"Yes; and if they had taken it into their heads to come this way you would have seen a good deal more of them than would be pleasant," Dias said. "With our rifles we could have faced four lions or tigers with a better hope of success than those little pigs you saw. They were peccaries, a sort of wild pig, and the most savage little beasts in the forest. They would have chased us all up into the trees and killed all the mules."
"Who would have thought it!" she said. "Why, when I was a girl I have often gone in among a herd of little pigs quite as big as those things, and never felt the least afraid of them. I must have been braver than I thought I was."
"You are a good deal sillier than you think you are, Maria," Dias said shortly. "There is as much difference between our pig and a peccary as there is between a quiet Indian cultivator on the Sierra and one of those savage Indians of the woods."
"I suppose I can light a fire now, Dias. There is no fear of those creatures coming back again, is there?"
"No, I should think not. Fortunately they are going in the opposite direction, otherwise I should have said that we had better stop here for a day or two in case they should attack us if we came upon them again."
The next day, as they were journeying through the forest, at the foot of the slopes José gave a sudden exclamation.
"What is it?" Dias asked.
"I saw a naked Indian standing in front of that tree; he has gone now."
"Are you sure, José?"
"Quite sure. He was standing perfectly still, looking at us, but when I called to you he must have slipped round the tree. I only took my eyes off him for a moment; when I looked again he was gone."
"Then we are in for trouble," Dias said gravely. "Of course it was one of the Chincas. No doubt he was alone, but you may be sure that he has made off to tell his companions he has seen us. He will know exactly how many we are, and how many animals we have. It may be twenty-four hours, it may be three or four days, before he makes his appearance again; but it is certain that, sooner or later, we shall hear of him. Hunters as they are, they can follow a track where I should see nothing; and so crafty are they, that they can traverse the country without leaving the slightest sign of their passage. The forest might be full of them, and yet the keenest white hunter would see no footprint or other mark that would indicate their presence."
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