Captain Horn had heard the story of Cheditafa, he walked away from the rest o_he party, and stood, his eyes upon the ground, still mechanically holding hi_un. He now knew that the great danger he had feared had been a real one, an_ar greater than he had imagined. A systematic attack by all the Rackbird_ould have swept away his single resistance as the waters had swept them an_heir camp away. As to parley or compromise with those wretches, he knew tha_t would have been useless to think of it. They allowed no one to go fort_rom their hands to reveal the place of their rendezvous.
But although he was able to appreciate at its full force the danger with whic_hey had been threatened, his soul could not immediately adjust itself to th_ew conditions. It had been pressed down so far that it could not easily ris_gain. He felt that he must make himself believe in the relief which had com_o them, and, turning sharply, he called out to Cheditafa:
"Man, since you have been in this part of the country, have you ever seen o_eard of any wild beasts here? Are there any jaguars or pumas?"
The African shook his head. "No, no," said he, "no wild beasts. Everybod_leep out of doors. No think of beasts—no snakes."
The captain dropped his gun upon the ground. "Miss Markham!" he exclaimed.
"Mrs. Cliff! I truly believe we are out of all danger—that we—"
But the two ladies had gone inside, and heard him not. They appreciated to th_ull the danger from which they had been delivered. Ralph, too, had gone. Th_aptain saw him on his post of observation, jamming the end of his flagpol_own between two rocks.
"Hello!" cried the boy, seeing the captain looking up at him, "we might a_ell have this flying here all the time. There is nobody to hurt us now, an_e want people to know where we are."
The captain walked by the little group of Africans, who were sitting on th_round, talking in their native tongue, and entered the passage. He climbe_ver the barrier, and went to the lake. He did not wish to talk to anybody,
but he felt that he must do something, and now was a good time to carry ou_is previous intention to cross over the empty bed of the lake and to look ou_f the opening on the other side. There was no need now to do this fo_urposes of vigilance, but he thought that if he could get out on the othe_ide of the cave he might discover some clew to the disappearance of the lake.
He had nearly crossed the lake bottom, when suddenly he stopped, gazing a_omething which stood before him, and which was doubtless the object he ha_truck when swimming. The sun was now high and the cave well lighted, and wit_ most eager interest the captain examined the slimy and curious object o_hich his feet had rested when it was submerged, and from which he had fallen.
It was not the horizontal trunk of a tree with a branch projecting from it a_ight angles. It was nothing that was natural or had grown. It was plainly th_ork of man. It was a machine.
At first the captain thought it was made of wood, but afterwards he believe_t to be of metal of some sort. The horizontal portion of it was a grea_ylinder, so near the bottom of the lake that he could almost touch it wit_is hands, and it was supported by a massive framework. Prom this projected _ong limb or bar, which was now almost horizontal, but which the captai_elieved to be the thick rod which had stood upright when he clutched it, an_hich had yielded to his weight and had gone down with him. He knew now wha_t was: it was a handle that had turned.
He hurried to the other end of the huge machine, where it rested against th_ocky wall of the cavern. There he saw in the shadow, but plain enough no_hat he was near it, a circular aperture, a yard or more in diameter. Insid_f this was something which looked like a solid wheel, very thick, an_tanding upright in the opening. It was a valve. The captain stepped back an_azed for some minutes at this great machine which the disappearance of th_ater had revealed. It was easy for him to comprehend it now.
"When I slipped and sank," he said to himself, "I pulled down that lever, an_ opened the water-gate and let out the lake."
The captain was a man whose mind was perfectly capable of appreciating nove_nd strange impressions, but with him such impressions always connecte_hemselves, in one way or another, with action: he could not stand and wonde_t the wonderful which had happened—it always suggested something he must do.
What he now wanted to do was to climb up to the great aperture which lighte_he cavern, and see what was outside. He could not understand how the lak_ould have gone from its basin without the sound of the rushing waters bein_eard by any one of the party.
With some difficulty, he climbed up to the cleft and got outside. Here he ha_ much better view of the topography of the place than he had yet been able t_btain. So far as he had explored, his view toward the interior of the countr_ad been impeded by rocks and hills. Here he had a clear view from th_ountains to the sea, and the ridge which he had before seen to the southwar_e could now examine to greater advantage. It was this long chain of rock_hich had concealed them from their enemies, and on the other side of whic_ust be the ravine in which the Rackbirds had made their camp.
Immediately below the captain was a little gorge, not very deep nor wide, an_rom its general trend toward the east and south the captain was sure that i_ormed the upper part of the ravine of the Rackbirds. At the bottom of i_here trickled a little stream. To the northeast ran another line of low rock,
which lost itself in the distance before it blended into the mountains, and a_he foot of this must run the stream which had fed the lake.
In their search for water, game, or fellow-beings, no one had climbed thes_esolate rocks, apparently dry and barren. But still the captain was puzzle_s to the way the water had gone out of the lake. He did not believe that i_ad flowed through the ravine below. There were no signs that there had been _lood down there. Little vines and plants were growing in chinks of the rock_lose to the water. And, moreover, had a vast deluge rushed out almost beneat_he opening which lighted the cave, it must have been heard by some of th_arty. He concluded, therefore, that the water had escaped through _ubterranean channel below the rocks from which he looked down.
He climbed down the sides of the gorge, and walked along its bottom for two o_hree hundred yards, until around a jutting point of rock he saw that th_ides of the defile separated for a considerable distance, and then, comin_ogether again below, formed a sort of amphitheatre. The bottom of this was _onsiderable distance below him, and he did not descend into it, but he sa_lainly that it had recently contained water, for pools and puddles were to b_een everywhere.
At the other end of it, where the rocks again approached each other, wa_robably a precipice. After a few minutes' cogitation, Captain Horn felt sur_hat he understood the whole matter: a subway from the lake led to thi_mphitheatre, and thus there had been no audible rush of the waters until the_eached this point, where they poured in and filled this great basin, th_ower end of which was probably stopped up by accumulations of sand an_eposits, which even in that country of scant vegetation had accumulated i_he course of years. When the waters of the lake had rushed into th_mphitheatre, this natural dam had held them for a while, but then, giving wa_efore the great pressure, the whole body of water had suddenly rushed dow_he ravine to the sea.
"Yes," said the captain, "now I understand how it happened that although _pened the valve at noon, the water did not reach the Rackbirds until som_ours later, and then it came suddenly and all at once, which would not hav_een the case had it flowed steadily from the beginning through the outle_ade for it."
When the captain had returned and reported his discoveries, and he and hi_arty had finished their noonday meal, which they ate outside on the plateau,
with the fire burning and six servants to wait on them, Mrs. Cliff said:
"And now, captain, what are we going to do? Now that our danger is past, _uppose the best thing for us is to stay here in quiet and thankfulness, an_ait for Mr. Rynders. But, with the provisions we have, we can't wait ver_ong. When there were but five of us, we might have made the food hold out fo_ day or two longer, but now that we are ten, we shall soon be withou_nything to eat."
"I have been talking to Maka about that," said the captain, "and he says tha_heditafa reports all sorts of necessary things in the Rackbirds' storehouse,
and he proposes that he and the rest of the black fellows go down there an_ring us some supplies. They are used to carrying these stores, and six o_hem can bring us enough to last a good while. Now that everything is saf_ver there, I can see that Maka is very anxious to go, and, in fact, I woul_ike to go myself. But although there doesn't seem to be any danger a_resent, I do not want to leave you."
"As for me," said Miss Markham, "I want to go there. There is nothing I lik_etter than exploring."
"That's to my taste, too," said the captain, "but it will be better for us t_ait here and see what Maka has to say when he gets back. Perhaps, if Mr.
Rynders doesn't turn up pretty soon, we will all make a trip down there. Wher_s Ralph? I don't want him to go with the men."
"He is up there on his lookout, as he calls it," said his sister, "with hi_py-glass."
"Very good," said the captain. "I will send the men off immediately. Mak_ants to go now, and they can come back by the light of the young moon. Whe_hey have loads to carry, they like to travel at night. We shall have to ge_ur own supper, and that will give Ralph something to do."
The party of Africans had not gone half-way from the plateau to the beac_efore they were discovered by the boy on the outlook rock, and he cam_ushing down to report that the darkies were running away. When he was tol_he business on which they had gone, he was very much disappointed that he wa_ot allowed to go with them, and, considerably out of temper, retired to hi_ost of observation, where, as it appeared, he was dividing his time betwee_he discovery of distant specks on the horizon line of the ocean and imaginar_aguars and pumas on the foot-hills.