Three days later the party stood on the brow of a steep bluff looking down upon the Colorado Chiquita River. It had been a weary journey. It was evident that the girl had, after the second day's riding, allowed the horse to go its own way, trusting perhaps to its instinct to make for some habitation should there be any in the region. There had been no difficulty in following its footsteps until the third day, when they were passing over a stony plateau. Here even the keen sight of the Indians sometimes failed them, and hours were lost in taking up the trail. There was no water to be met here, and the Indians agreed that the horse was going slowly and weakly, and the girl for the most part was walking beside it, as they pointed out by a crushed blade of grass or flattened lichen by the side of the horse's track. Later in the day the trail was straighter, and the chief said confidently, "The horse smells water; the river cannot be many miles away."
It was an hour after starting, on the third morning, that they reached the bluff opposite to them. For a distance of a couple of miles rose a steep island of basalt, some hundreds of feet above the plain around it, and on the summit a large village could be seen.
"Moquis," the Indian said, pointing to it.
"Then she must have got there is safety!" Will exclaimed in delight.
The chief shook his head. "Horse not able to swim river, must stop a day to eat grass. There horse!" and he pointed to an animal seven hundred or eight hundred feet below them.
"That is its colour, sure enough," Antonio exclaimed, "but I don't see the senorita."
"She may be asleep," Will suggested.
"Likely enough, senor; we shall soon see."
Dismounting, they made their way down the steep descent. Then all leaped into their saddles and galloped forward to the edge of the stream, a quarter of a mile away. The mare, which evidently scented that the newcomers were not Indians, cantered to meet them with a whinny of pleasure. There were no signs of the girl, and all dismounted to search among the low bushes for her, Will loudly calling her name. Presently the Indian, who, with his follower, had moved along the bank called them.
"She slept here yesterday," he said, and the level grass close to a shrub testified to the truth of the exclamation. The two Indians looked serious.
"What is it, chief?"
"Indians," he said. "White girl come down to river to drink; then she lay down here; then Indians come along; you see footprints on soft earth of bank; they catch her when asleep and carry her off. Teczuma and the Wolf have looked; no marks of little feet; four feet deeper marks than when they came along; Indian carry her off."
"Perhaps they have taken her along the river to some form, and carried her up to their village."
"Soon see;" and he and the Wolf moved along the bank, the others following at a short distance, having first taken off their horses' bridles, allowing them to take a good drink, and turned them loose to feed.
"Small men," the chief said when Will with the two chief vaqueros came up to him. "Short steps; got spears and bows."
"How on earth does he know that?" Will said, when the words were translated to him. Sancho pointed to a round mark on the ground.
"There is the butt of a spear, and I dare say the chief has noticed some holes of a different shape made by the ends of bows."
Half a mile farther the bluffs approached the river and bordered it with a perpendicular cliff, which had doubtless been caused by the face of the hill being eaten away by the river countless ages before. The stream was here some thirty yards from the foot of the cliff. More and more puzzled at the direction in which Clara had been carried, the trackers followed. They had gone a hundred yards along the foot of the cliff when a great stone came bounding down from above, striking the ground a few yards in front of the Indians, who leaped back. Almost instantly a shrill voice shouted from above, and, looking up, they saw a number of natives on a ledge a hundred feet above them, with bows bent threateningly.
"Back, all of you!" Sancho shouted. "Their arrows may be poisoned."
Seeing, however, that the party retreated in haste, the Indians did not shoot; when a short distance away a council was held, and all returned to their horses, mounted, and swam the river; then they rode along to view the cliff. Three or four openings were seen on the level of the ledge on which the Indians were posted, and Will was astonished to see that above, the cliff, which was here quite perpendicular, was covered with strange sculptures, some of which still retained the colour with which they had in times long past been painted.
"They are the old people, the cave-dwellers." Sancho said. "I have heard of them; they were here long before the Moquis were here. They were a people dwelling in caves. There are hundreds of these caves in some places. They have always kept themselves apart, and never made friends with the Moquis. In the early times with the Spaniards there were missionaries among the Moquis, but they could never do anything among the cave people, who are, they say, idolaters and offer human sacrifices."
"How do the people live?" Antonio asked.
"They fish, and steal animals from the Moquis when they get a chance, and they dwell in such inaccessible caves that, once there, they are safe from pursuit.
"If you like, senor, I will go up to the Moquis village, and try to find out something about them. I don't know the Moquis language, but I understand something of the sign language, which is understood by all Indians, and I dare say that I shall be able to learn something about these people."
Will dismounted as the vaquero rode off, and, bidding Antonio do to the same, told the man to take their horses a quarter of a mile away, and there to dismount and cook a meal.
"Now, Antonio," he said, "we have to see how this place can be climbed."
Antonio shook his head. "I should say that it was altogether impossible, senor. You see there is a zigzag path cut in the face of the cliff up to that ledge. In some placed the rock is cut away altogether, and then they have got ladders, which they would no doubt draw up at once if they were attacked. You see the lower ones have already been pulled up. Like enough sentries are posted at each of those breaks when they are threatened with an attack. Besides, the chances are that if they thought there were any risk of our getting up, they would kill the senorita."
"I see all that, Antonio, and I have no thought of making my way up by the steps; the question is, could it be climbed elsewhere? The other end of the ledge would be the best point to get up at, for any watch that is kept would certainly be where the steps come up."
Antonio shook his head. "Unless one could fly, senor, there would be no way of getting up there."
"I don't know that," Will said shortly; "wait till I have had a good look at it."
Lying on the ground, with his chin resting on his hands, he gazed intently at the cliff, observing even the most trifling projections, the tiny ledges that here and there ran along the face.
"It would be a difficult job and a dangerous one," he said, "but I am not sure that it cannot be managed. At any rate, I shall try. I am a sailor, you know, Antonio, and am accustomed, when we have been sailing in the gale, to hold on with my toes as well as my fingers. Now, go you go back to the others. I shall want two poles, say fifteen feet long, and some hooks, which I can make from ramrods. Do you see just in the middle of that ledge, where the large square entrance is, the cliff bulges out, and I should say the ledge was twenty feet wide; this is lucky, for if there are sentries on the steps they would not be able to see beyond that point. If they could do so, I should not have much chance of getting up, for it will be a bright moonlight night. When I get to the top - that is, if I do get there - I shall lower down a rope. You can fasten the lariats together. They would hold the weight of a dozen men. The lightest and most active of you must come up first. When two or three are up we can haul the rest up easily enough. Now you can go. I shall be here another half-hour at least. I must see exactly the best way to climb, calculate the number of feet along each of those little ledges to a point where I can reach the one above with my hook, and get the whole thing well in my mind."
Antonio went away shaking his head. To him the feat seemed so impossible that he thought that it was nothing short of madness to attempt it. Such was the opinion of the rest of the vaqueros and the two Indians when, on arriving at the fire, he told them what Will proposed doing. Their leader, however, when he joined them, had a look of confidence on his face.
"I am more convinced than ever that it can be done," he said. When the meal of bear's flesh had been eaten, he lit his pipe and began to smoke quietly. The chief came up and spoke to him."
"What does he say, Antonio?"
"He says that you are a brave man, senor, but that no man could do what you are talking of, and that you will throw away your life."
"Tell him I will bet my horse against his that I shall succeed, and you shall be witness to the bet in case I don't come back again."
The chief nodded gravely when the offer was made to him. Indians of all tribes are given to wagering, and as the horse Will was riding was far better than his own, he regarded the matter rather as a legacy than a bet.
An hour later Sancho came down, accompanied by several of the Moqui Indians, leading four sheep as a present, and followed by women carrying pans of milk, baskets of eggs, and cakes of various descriptions. Sancho presented the chief to Will.
"They are quite friendly, senor; they hate the cave-dwellers, who are constantly robbing them, and who compel them to keep guard over the animals at night. I can understand them pretty well; they bid me tell you that they would gladly assist you against the cave-dwellers, but that it is impossible to reach the caves."
Will shook hands with the chiefs, and asked Sancho to explain by signs that he was much obliged for their presents.
"Tell them, Sancho, that I am going to try to scale the cliff to-night."
"You are going to scale the cliff?" the vaquero asked incredulously.
"I did not say that I was going to scale it, but that I was going to try; and I may add that I hope that I shall succeed. Will you ask if the cave-dwellers poison their arrows?"
"I have already asked that, senor, but he said no. The cattle have often been wounded by them, and unless the wound is a mortal one, they recover."
"That is very satisfactory," Will said, "for I own I have more fear of being hit by a poisoned arrow than I have of scaling the cliff."
"The chief says that if you will go up to their village he will place a house at your disposal, senor."
"Tell him that I am much obliged, and that to-morrow I may accept their invitation. Our horses will required three or hour day's rest before starting back, and I can hardly hope that the senorita will be fit to travel for a good deal longer than that."
Although they had but just eaten a meal, the vaqueros were perfectly ready to begin another. A number of eggs were roasted in the ashes, and washed down by long draughts of milk. The chiefs then left them, but a number of the villagers came down and watched the proceedings of the strangers with great interest. Will at once proceeded to carry out his plan of bending the ramrods; a hot spot in the fire was selected, and two of the vaqueros increased the intensity of the heat by fanning it with their sombreros. Three others went down to the river and brought up a large flat boulder and two or three smaller ones, and, using the large one as an anvil, the ends of the rods were hammered into sharp, broad, chisel-shaped blades. Sancho had explained to the chiefs that two poles, some fifteen feet long, were required, and when there were brought down the ramrods were securely bound to them with strips of wetted hide. Other strips were, by Will's directions, bound round the pole so as to form projections a foot apart.
"That will greatly assist me in climbing it," he said. "I don't say I could not do without it, but it will make it very much easier."
In order to lull the cave-dwellers into security, the camp was shifted in the afternoon to the foot of the Moquis hill, and there Will gave his men instructions as to the operations.
"We will cross the river on the horses a mile above the cave," he said; "we must use them, or we could not keep or rifles and pistols dry. You must all remove your boots as soon as you dismount, and we will now tear up two or three blankets, and twist strips round the barrels of the guns, so that, should they strike against the rocks, no sound shall be made. You had better do the same with the barrels of your pistols."
Then he chose the lightest of the vaqueros to follow him. Another light-weight was to be third. Antonio was to follow him, and then Sancho, and the order in which all the others were to go was arranged. Lariats were securely knotted together, and the knots tied with strips of hide, to prevent the possibility of their slipping. The men carried out his orders, but it was evident from their manner that they had not the slightest hope that his attempt would be successful. An hour after sunset they started. It was two days after the full moon, and they had, therefore, as many hours to reach the foot of the cliffs before it rose.
An hour was sufficient to traverse the distance, and they therefore rested for that time, after darkness set in, before starting, swam the river, and after removing their boots made their way noiselessly along, keeping some distance from the river bank until the reached the spot where the cliff rose perpendicularly; then, keeping close to its foot, they held on until they arrived at the spot Will had fixed upon. They all lay down among the boulders close to the rock wall, and remained there until the moon rose.
There had been several discussions as to the best way to get the lariat up, as it was agreed that, whether carried in a coil over the shoulder or wound round the body, it would hamper the climber's movements. The question was finally solved by his taking a coil of thin hide, which, while little thicker than string, was amply strong enough to support the weight of the lariat. Four of five bullets had been sewn up in a piece of skin and attached to one end. A strap was fastened to each pole so that these could be slung behind him, so permitting him the free use of both hands where it was not needful to use them.
"The saints watch over you, senor!" Antonio whispered, as Will prepared to start, and he and Sancho gave him a silent grip of the hand, while the Indian chief laid his hand on his shoulder and muttered, "Ugh, heap brave!"
For a short distance the ascent was comparatively easy. Then he arrived at the first of the ledges he had noticed. It was some ten inches wide, and, keeping his face to the wall and using his hands to grip the most trifling irregularity, or to get a hold in small crevices, he made his way along until he arrived at a projection which barred farther progress. Slipping one of the slings from his shoulder, he reached up until the hook caught the next ledge, and obtained a good hold there. He then climbed the pole until his fingers got a grip of the ledge, when he hauled himself up to it. It was some fifteen inches wide here, and without difficulty he obtained a footing, again slung the pole on his shoulder and went on. The ledge narrowed rapidly, and he was now at one of the points which appeared to him the most difficult, for from where he had been lying the ledge seemed almost to cease, while the next ledge above it was also so narrow that he knew he could not obtain standing room upon it.
As he approached the narrow path he took the poles, one in each hand, and obtained a grip of the upper ledge. He now made his way along on tiptoe, having his weight almost entirely on the poles, shifting them alternately. To a landsman this would have been an extraordinary feat, but, accustomed to hang to the ropes by one hand, it was not so difficult for him, especially as he obtained some slight support from his feet. Without the poles it would have been impossible for him to have passed, as the ledge in some places was only three inches wide. At the end of some thirty feet it again widened; the next forty or fifty feet upward were comparatively easy, for the rock sloped to some extent inward, and there were many fissures in which he was enabled to get a firm grip with his fingers. Then came several difficult places, but he was confident now in the hold the hooks had on the rocks, and, always working with great caution and using sometimes his hands, sometimes the poles, he reached the top in half an hour after starting.
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