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CHAPTER XXII.


A PRISONER IN A HOLLOW TREE.


For several minutes we stood still, listening intently and watching with strained eyes the hut before us.

"I don't see a thing," whispered Oliver presently.

"Somebody is inside—I saw him move," returned Dan. "I don't believe, though, that it is Ramon Delverez."

"I'm going to make a detour," I put in. "I think I can see better from the other side."

Without waiting to hear what my chums might have to say on the point, I began to move along with caution, making a semicircle in the heavy brush. The task was no light one, and more than once I was compelled to halt in order to catch my breath. This may seem strange to those who have never wormed through a thick undergrowth, but to those who have done so it will be perfectly plain that the task was all I have represented it to be.

Quarter of an hour after I had started I calculated that I had covered one-half of the proposed detour, and now I rested again, this time on the stump of a decayed tree.

I had hardly sat down when a shadow appeared over my shoulder. Before I could turn to catch sight of the newcomer, I was caught around the arms from the rear and held a prisoner by a brawny Kanaka, who scowled viciously over my shoulder.

"Hi! let go there!" I cried, when the fellow clapped a greasy hand over my mouth, and hauling me backward, threw me down and sat on me.

A fierce struggle followed, and I had almost freed myself when my assailant suddenly stepped back and kicked me in the side. This deprived me of my wind. Then came a blow on the head and a million stars danced before my eyes; and then I knew no more.

When I recovered I found all was dark around me and that I was standing upright. My first idea was that I was being held in some giant vise, my next, and this was correct, that I was standing at the bottom of a hollow tree.

Undoubtedly the Kanaka had taken this effectual means of getting rid of me. I was in cramped quarters, so cramped that I could scarcely turn around. Looking upward, I saw that all was darkness overhead, but whether this was because the top of the hollow was closed up, or because it was night, I could not tell.

"Well, this is a pickle truly," I murmured, and put one of my hands, which was over my head, to my brow. My head ached a good deal and there was a lump behind my left ear, where I had been struck.

The air inside of the tree was suffocating and I rightfully guessed that I had been a long while unconscious in consequence. Thinking to climb out as quickly as possible, I put my hand up to catch something by which to pull myself up. Nothing came within my grasp.

Somewhat alarmed, I managed, after a struggle, to get the other hand up, and then, turning slowly, felt carefully over the surface of the wood. It was as smooth as glass and there was not a break anywhere.

My next move was to jump up and try to find some opening above my former reach. But, as I could not bend my knees very much, the jumping proved a failure and I simply scraped my shoulder by the operation.

"I'm boxed in and no mistake," was my dismal thought. "If I can't get out of this I'll starve to death."

Presently I heard a flutter overhead and a large bird came flying down into the hollow. It must have had its nest there, for it seemed much surprised when it landed on my head. I caught it in my hand, but it broke loose and fluttered up among the tree branches and away, and that was the last I saw of the creature.

By the appearance of the bird I knew that the top of the hollow was open, and I likewise calculated that the opening came to an end ten or twelve feet above my head.

It certainly looked as if I was booked to remain in the hollow for an indefinite period—perhaps until starvation overtook me. At this thought my heart sank within me like a lump of lead. I did not deem that I was deserving of such a harsh fate.

I had tried to get out at the top, and had failed. Now I resolved to try the bottom, and after a good deal of trouble got my hands down at my sides and felt around.

To my joy I discovered a portion of the tree which seemed rotten. I dug my finger into the soft wood and, by picking and scraping, at last managed to make a hole large enough to admit of the passage of my hand.

As soon as the opening was made, there came a draught of cooling air through the tree which revived me greatly, and, encouraged by the progress produced even at the cost of several split finger nails, I continued to dig at the opening, and soon pulled away a strip of wood and bark several inches wide and over a foot and a half long. As the hole was enlarged in an upward direction I was now enabled to see into the outer world.

And yet I saw but little, for night had spread its mantle over the immense forest bordering the northern shore of the upper portion of the river. Straining my eyes I caught sight of some brush and a tree a short distance away, and the light of a single star struck down upon me. So far it had been comparatively quiet, but now the night birds began to tune up, and the insects, frogs, lizards, and other denizens of the forest joined in.

I had an opening large enough to admit the passage of one arm, but that was all. The wood around this opening appeared to be as hard as healthy wood can be, and to tear or pound off more of it seemed impossible. Instead of gaining my liberty I had simply made a window for my prison.

Slowly the hours dragged by, each minute as long as ten to me. I grew drowsy and fretful, and longed and prayed for morning to come. Then my head sank down on my breast and I slept, as overtired soldiers sometimes do, while standing on their feet. But it was a troubled sleep, full of horrible dreams.

I awoke to find the sun shining over the tops of the forest trees. A lizard had dropped into the hollow and was stuck on my neck. With a scream I tore the thing off and threw it through the slit in the tree. The lizard was a bloodsucker and had been preparing to make a meal off of me.

Slowly the sun mounted into the heavens, until the rays penetrated into the hollow. It was now fearfully hot once more, and I fairly panted for breath. At that moment I would have given all I possessed for a drink of cold water.

"This is ten times worse than my adventures in Cuba," I mused. "It looks as if I would never get out alive."

It was about three o'clock in the afternoon when the sun was darkened, and I made out a number of heavy clouds looming up from the southward. I felt it was going to storm and hoped that the rain would come quickly, that I might get some of it upon my parched tongue.

Pat, pat, pat came the drops at last, and I held up my face to receive the downpour, but more water seemed to strike my eyelids than my mouth. Then came a rush of wind, and I heard the tree branches above me, old and rotten, creak ominously.

As the wind increased a fresh danger presented itself to my mind. What if the tree should be wrecked? More than likely my life would be crushed out of me. With fear and trembling I awaited each fresh gust.

Cra-ck! The sound came from above, and in a twinkle I beheld a large branch dangling directly above the hollow. I had barely time to put up both of my hands, when the limb came came down, heavy end first. Fortunately its progress was stayed by the smaller branches, otherwise the big end must have crushed in my head. As it was, it stopped short just as my hands touched it.

The presence of the branch gave me a new idea, and as soon as I saw that it was coming down no further I caught hold of the splintered end and tried to haul myself up. The effort was successful; and after five minutes of squeezing and scratching I gained the top of the hollow and from there let myself down to the ground outside.