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- Queen Sheba's Ring - 30/54 -
tumbled backward into the bottom of a tunnel. Afterwards I escaped to the top of the cliff in the dark, O God of Israel! in the dark, smelling my way, climbing like a baboon, risking death a thousand times. It took me two whole days and nights, and the last of those nights I knew not what I did. Yet I found my way, and that is why my people name me Cat."
"I understand," said Quick in a new and more respectful voice, "and however big a rascal you may be, you've got pluck. Now, say, remembering what I told you," and he tapped the handle of his revolver, "is that feeding-den where it used to be?"
"I believe so, O Quick; why should it be changed? The victims are let down from the belly of the god, just there between his thighs where are doors. The feeding-place lies in a hollow of the cliff; this platform on which we stand is over it. None saw my escape, therefore none searched for the means of it, since they thought that the lions had devoured me, as they have devoured thousands. No one enters there, only when the beasts have fed full they draw back to their sleeping- dens, and those who watch above let down the bars. Listen," and as he spoke we heard a crash and a rattle far below. "They fall now, the lions having eaten. When Black Windows and perhaps others are thrown to them, by and by, they will be drawn up again."
"Is that hole in the rock still there, Shadrach?"
"Without doubt, though I have not been down to look."
"Then, my boy, you are going now," remarked Quick grimly.
THE DEN OF LIONS
We returned to the others and told them everything that we had learned from Shadrach.
"What's your plan, Sergeant?" asked Oliver when he had heard. "Tell me, for I have none; my head is muddled."
"This, Captain, for what it is worth; that I should go down through the hole that Cat here speaks of, and get into the den. Then when they let down the Professor, if they do, and pull up the gates, that I should keep back the lions with my rifle while he bolts to the ladder which is ready for him, and I follow if I can."
"Capital," said Orme, "but you can't go alone. I'll come too."
"And I also," I said.
"What schemes do you make?" asked Maqueda eagerly, for, of course, she could not understand our talk.
"What, my friend," she said to Oliver reproachfully, "would you risk your life again to-night? Surely it is tempting the goodness of God."
"It would be tempting the goodness of God much more if I left my friend to be eaten by lions, Lady," he answered.
Then followed much discussions. In the end it was agreed that we should descend to the level of the den, if this were possible; that Oliver and Quick should go down into the den with Japhet, who instantly volunteered to accompany them, and that I, with some of the Mountaineers, should stop in the mouth of the hole as a reserve to cover their retreat from the lions. I pleaded to be allowed to take a more active part, but of this they would not hear, saying with some truth, that I was by far the best shot of the three, and could do much more to help them from above, if, as was hoped, the moon should shine brightly.
But I knew they really meant that I was too old to be of service in such an adventure as this. Also they desired to keep me out of risk.
Then came the question as to who should descend the last tunnel to the place of operations. Oliver wished Maqueda to return to the top of the cliff and wait there, but she said at once that she could not think of attempting the ascent without our aid; also that she was determined to see the end of the matter. Even Joshua would not go; I think, that being an unpopular character among them, he distrusted the Mountaineers, whose duty it would have been to escort him.
It was suggested that he should remain where he was until we returned, if we did return, but this idea commended itself to him still less than the other. Indeed he pointed out with much truth what we had overlooked, namely, that now the Fung knew of the passage and were quite capable of playing our own game, that is, of throwing a bridge across from the sphinx's tail and attempting the storm of Mur.
"And then what should I do if they found me here alone?" he added pathetically.
Maqueda answered that she was sure she did not know, but that meanwhile it might be wise to block the mouth of the tunnel by which we had reached the plateau in such a fashion that it could not easily be forced.
"Yes," answered Oliver, "and if we ever get out of this, to blow the shaft in and make sure that it cannot be used."
"That shaft might be useful, Captain," said Quick doubtfully.
"There is a better way, Sergeant, if we want to mine under the sphinx; I mean through the Tomb of Kings. I took the levels roughly, and the end of it can't be far off. Anyhow, this shaft is of no more use to us now that the Fung have found it out."
Then we set to work to fill in the mouth of the passage with such loose stones as we could find. It was a difficult business, but in the end the Mountaineers made a very fair job of it under our direction, piling the rocks in such a fashion that they could scarcely be cleared away in any short time without the aid of explosives.
While this work was going on, Japhet, Shadrach, and the Sergeant in charge of him, undertook to explore the last shaft which led down to the level of the den. To our relief, just as we had finished building up the hole, they returned with the news that now after they had removed a fallen stone or two it was quite practicable with the aid of ropes and ladders.
So, in the same order as before, we commenced its passage, and in about half-an-hour, for it was under three hundred feet in depth, arrived safely at the foot. Here we found a bat-haunted place like a room that evidently had been hollowed out by man. As Shadrach had said, at its eastern extremity was a large, oblong boulder, so balanced that if even one person pushed on either of its ends it swung around, leaving on each side a passage large enough to allow a man to walk through in a crouching attitude.
Very silently we propped open this primæval door and looked out. Now the full moon was up, and her brilliant light had begun to flood the gulf. By it we saw a dense shadow, that reached from the ground to three hundred feet or so above us. This we knew to be that thrown by the flanks of the gigantic sphinx which projected beyond the mountain of stone whereon it rested, those flanks whence, according to Shadrach, Higgs would be lowered in a food-basket. In this shadow and on either side of it, covering a space of quite a hundred yards square, lay the feeding-den, whence arose a sickly and horrible odour such as is common to any place frequented by cats, mingled with the more pungent smell of decaying flesh.
This darksome den was surrounded on three sides by precipices, and on the fourth, that toward the east, enclosed by a wall or barrier of rock pierced with several gates made of bars of metal, or so we judged by the light that flowed through them.
From beyond this eastern wall came dreadful sounds of roars, snarls, and whimperings. Evidently there the sacred lions had their home.
Only one more thing need be mentioned. On the rock floor almost immediately beneath us lay remains which, from their torn clothes and hair, we knew must be human. As somebody explained, I think it was Shadrach, they were those of the man whom Orme had shot upon the tail of the sphinx, and of his companions who had been tilted off the ladder.
For awhile we gazed at this horrible hole in silence. Then Oliver took out his watch, which was a repeater, and struck it.
"Higgs told me," he said, "that he was to be thrown to the lions two hours after moonrise, which is within fifteen minutes or so. Sergeant, I think we had better be getting ready."
"Yes, Captain," answered Quick; "but everything is quite ready, including those brutes, to judge by the noise they make, excepting perhaps Samuel Quick, who never felt less ready for anything in his life. Now then, Pussy, run out that ladder. Here's your rifle, Captain, and six reload clips of cartridges, five hollow-nosed bullets in each. You'll never want more than that, and it's no use carrying extra weight. In your right-hand pocket, Captain, don't forget. I've the same in mine. Doctor, here's a pile for you; laid upon that stone. If you lie there, you'll have a good light and rest for your elbow, and at this range ought to make very pretty shooting, even in the moonlight. Best keep your pistol on the safe, Captain; at least, I'm doing so, as we might get a fall, and these new-fangled weapons are very hair-triggered. Here's Japhet ready, too, so give us your marching orders, sir, and we will go to business; the Doctor will translate to Japhet."
"We descend the ladder," said Orme, "and advance about fifty paces into the shadow, where we can see without being seen; where also, according to Shadrach, the food-basket is let down. There we shall stand and await the arrival of this basket. If it contains the Professor, he whom the Fung and the Abati know as Black Windows, Japhet, you are to seize him and lead, or if necessary carry, him to the ladder, up which some of the mountaineers must be ready to help him. Your duty, Sergeant, and mine, also that of the Doctor firing from above, will be to keep off the lions as best we can, should any lions appear, retreating as we fire. If the brutes get one of us he must be left, since it is foolish that both lives should be sacrificed needlessly. For the rest, you, Sergeant, and you, Japhet, must be guided by circumstances and act upon your own discretion. Do not wait for special orders from me which I may not be able to give. Now, come on. If we do not return, Adams, you will see the Child of Kings safely up the shafts and conduct her to Mur. Good-bye, Lady."
"Good-bye," answered Maqueda in a brave voice; I could not see her
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