The Campaign of the Jungle/Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV


THE CAVES UNDER THE MOUNTAIN


For a distance of five hundred feet the way was known to both Larry and his sailor friend, and the pair passed along swiftly, guided in part by the flickering rays from the camp-fire outside of the main cave.

"Have a care now, lad," whispered Leroy, as they reached a narrow passage, which turned first to the left and then upward.

"The roof is low, and you don't want for to dash your brains out on the rocks."

"Never fear but I'll be as careful as I can," responded the youth, feeling his way along. "Better keep close, Leroy, that we don't become separated."

The turn made, it was no easy matter to ascend the sloping floor, with here and there a rough bowlder to cross, or a hollow in which one might fall and break a leg without half trying, as the Yorktown sailor said. Presently Leroy called a halt.

"Better light the torch now, Larry."

"I was going to save it," was the reply. "There is no telling how long we may have to depend upon it."

"That is true; but it's no longer safe to walk in this pitchy darkness."

Leroy was provided with matches, used in smoking his pipe, which had not been denied him, and striking one he set fire to an end of the dry cedar branch which Larry had laid away over a week before, when the thought of running away had first crossed his mind. At the start the branch spluttered wofully and threatened to go out, but by coaxing it remained lit, and presently burst into a flame that was sufficient to see by for a circle of twenty or thirty feet.

On they plodded, up an incline that seemed to have no end, and then around another turn. Here the chamber widened out, and beyond there were branches, two to the left and one to the right.

"This is as far as I've ever been," said the boy. "The passages beyond seemed to lead downward for part of the way, and it's impossible to judge
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On they plodded, up an incline that seemed to have no end.—Page 236.

which is the best to take. But I was of a mind to ry that one on the right."

"Well, I reckon as how the right ought to be right," laughed Leroy. "If it ain't, all we can do is to come back to here an' try over again, eh?"

"We haven't got time to waste in experimenting, Leroy. This is a serious business. We are liable low to be shot on sight."

"An' nobody knows thet better nor Dan Leroy, your humble servant. An' if you say try one o' he other passages, I'm jes' as willin'."

"No, we'll take that on the right," returned the youth, and started onward without further delay.

The passage was a crooked one, not over ten feet wide in any one part, and but little over the height of a man. At one place a great rock blocked te way, and over this they went on their hands and knees.

"Kind o' a tight squeeze," remarked Leroy. "If that rock war a bit bigger, we wouldn't be able to git over it at all."

"Hark!" cried Larry, coming to a halt. "What is that, somebody calling?"

They listened, and from a distance ahead made out a low murmur of some kind. "It's water running over the rocks," cried Leroy. "I hope it's a river leading to the outer world."

"Oh, so do I!" ejaculated the boy, and both started onward eagerly. Long before the fall of water was gained they found themselves splashing in an underground stream up to their ankles. The waterfall was underground, coming from the rocks overhead and running into the stream, which, in turn, sank out of sight some distance further on.

"Nothing in that," muttered Leroy, his face falling.

Nevertheless, they stopped for a drink, for the tramp through the caves had made them thirsty. The old sailor held the torch, while Larry carried the kettle. It was well that the top of the kettle was on tight, otherwise the contents would have been spilled long before this.

Beyond the waterfall the cave opened out once more in fan shape, the roof running upward to a high arch, from which hung stupendous stalactites of white and brown. Here the water dripped down in the form of a fine rain.

"We're in a shower, lad, even though we are underground," remarked Leroy. "I must say I hope this don't last. If it does, we'll soon be wet to the skin." The vaulted cave soon came to an end, however, and now they found themselves in an opening cut up into a hundred different chambers, like a coal mine supported by arches. Each looked at the other in perplexity.

"We can easily miss the way here," said Larry, soberly. "We had better lay out a course and stick to it."

"Right you are, lad." Leroy pointed with his hand. "This seems as good a trail as any. Shall we follow it?"

"Yes." And forward it was again. Presently they came to another chamber, and here the slope was again upward, much to their satisfaction. "If we keep on goibg upward, we are bound to get out at the top, sometime," was the way Larry calculated.

Climbing now became difficult, and in a number of places each had to help the other along. Then came a wall twelve feet high, and here they were compelled to halt.

"It looks as if we were blocked," remarked the Yorktown sailor after an examination.

"I'm not going to give up yet," answered the boy. "If we can't get up any other way, we can build a stairs with those loose stones we just passed."

"Hurrah! you've solved the difficulty!" exclaimed the old sailor, and they set to work with a will. But rolling and lifting the stones into place was no mean job, and when at last they were able to pull themselves to the passageway above, both were utterly worn out and glad enough to sit down. The rest lasted longer than either had intended, for Leroy, who had not slept well the night before, dozed off, and Larry was not of a heart to wake him up. So the boy went to sleep too, and neither awakened until early morning.

"Hullo! what's this?" cried Leroy, the first to open his eyes. All was so dark about him—Larry having extinguished the torch—that for the minute he could not collect his senses. Putting out his hand he touched the youth on the face, and Larry awoke instantly.

They were both hungry, and lighting the torch again, warmed up the kettle of stew, and then ate about one-third of the stuff. "Touches the spot," cried Leroy, smacking his lips. He could have eaten much more, but knew it was best to be careful of their supply until the outer world was gained.

Much refreshed by their sleep, but somewhat stiff from the dampness and the unaccustomed work of the evening before, they proceed on their way, still climbing upward and still in a darkness, that was only partly dispelled by the feeble glare of the torch, which was now growing alarmingly small.

"The light won't last more than a couple o' hours," said Leroy. "Perhaps we had better split the stick in two." This was done, and thus the feeble light was reduced one-half.

Would the caves never come to an end? Such was the question Larry asked himself over and over again. Was it possible that they were to journey so far only to find themselves trapped at last? The thought made him shiver, and he pushed on faster than ever.

"Do you know what I think?" said Leroy, an hour later. "I think we are moving around in a circle?"

"A circle?"

"Ay, lad. Don't you notice how the passageway keeps turning to the right?"

Larry had noticed it. "But we are going upward," he said.

"True; but who knows but what we'll be going downward presently."

Still they kept on, but now Larry's heart began to fail him. They had progressed so far, had made so many turns, that to get back would probably be impossible. The caves were so vast one might wander about in them forever—if one's food did not give out. Larry shivered again and clutched the precious kettle of stew tighter than ever. He was once more hungry, but resolved to wait until the pangs of hunger increased before reducing the stock of food.

The passageway was now level for a considerable distance, with here and there a rock to be climbed over or a crack to cross. Both had just made a leap over an opening several feet wide when Leroy set up a shout.

"What is it?" asked Larry, eagerly.

"Put the torch behind ye, lad, an' look ahead. Perhaps my eyes deceive me," answered the old sailor.

Larry did as requested, and gave a searching look up the passageway. No, there was no mistaking it—there was a faint glimmer of light coming from what appeared to be a bend. He, too, gave a shout, and both set off on a run.

As they sped onward the light became brighter and brighter, until the torch was hardly needed. They were running side by side, each trying to gain the outer air first.

"Look out!" suddenly yelled Leroy, and caught Larry by the arm. The old sailor could hardly stop, and had to throw himself flat, dragging the boy down on top of him.

A few feet beyond was an opening twelve to fifteen feet wide, running from side to side of the passageway. The walls of the opening were perpendicular, and the hole was so deep that when a stone was dropped into it they could scarcely hear the thing strike bottom.

"Here's a how-d'ye-do!" cried Leroy, gazing into the pit. "We can't jump across that, nohow!"

"A real good jumper might," answered Larry. "But I shouldn't want to try it. The other side seems to slope down toward the hole. What's to be done?"

Ah, that was the question. It looked as if their advance in that direction was cut off completely.