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3. Caves of Houtomai

The catwalks before the caves of the cliff dwellers of Houtomai seemed most inadequate; but they served their purpose, and I suppose the dwellers there, being accustomed to nothing different, were content with them. Their construction was simple but practical. Into holes bored in the face of the sandstone cliff, straight tree limbs had been driven projecting about two feet from the cliff. These were braced by other pieces, the lower ends of which rested in notches cut about two feet below the holes. Along the tops of these brackets, poles had been laid and lashed down with raw-hide. The runways seemed rather narrow when one glanced down the face of the precipitous cliff, and there were no handrails. I couldn't help but think how embarrassing it might be to get into a fight on one of these catwalks. As these thoughts passed through my mind, I made my way to the mouth of the third cave to my left. All as quiet and the interior as dark as a pocket.

"Hey! in there," I called.

Presently a sleepy feminine voice answered. "Who's that? What do you want?"

"Bund wants her new slave sent down," I said.

I heard someone moving inside the cave, and almost immediately a woman with dishevelled hair crawled to the entrance. I knew that it was too dark for her to recognize features. All that I could hope for was that she would be too sleepy to have her suspicions aroused by my voice, which I didn't think sounded like the voices of the men I had heard talking. I hoped not, anyway. However, I tried to change it as much as I could, aping Lula's soft tones.

"What does Bund want of her?" she asked.

"How should I know?" I demanded.

"It's very funny," she said. "Bund told me distinctly that I was not to let her out of the cave under any circumstances. Oh, here comes Bund now."

I glanced down. The fight was over, and the women were ascending to their caves. To me that catwalk in front of Bund's cave looked like a most unhealthy place to loiter, and I knew that it would be impossible at this time to do anything for Duare; so I made my exit as gracefully and as quickly as I could.

"I guess Bund changed her mind," I told the woman, as I turned back toward the ladder that led to the upper catwalk. Fortunately for me the slave woman was still half asleep, and doubtless her principal concern at the moment was to get back to her slumbers. She mumbled something about its being very odd, but before she could go deeper into the matter with me I was on my way.

It didn't take me long to clamber the rickety ladder to the catwalk in front of the men's caves and make my way to the last one to the left of the ladder. The interior was as dark as a pocket and smelled as though it needed airing and had needed it for several generations.

"Lula!" I whispered.

I heard a groan. "You again?" asked a querulous voice.

"Your old friend, Carson himself," I replied. "You don't seem glad to see me."

"I'm not. I hoped I'd never see you again. I hoped you'd be killed. Why weren't you killed? You didn't stay there long enough. Why did you come away?"

"I had to come up and see my old friend, Lula," I said.

"And then you will go right away again?"

"Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow. I certainly hope tomorrow."

He groaned again. "Don't let them see you coming out of this cave tomorrow," he begged. "Oh, why did I tell you where my cave was!"

"That was very stupid of you, Lula; but don't worry. I won't get you in any trouble if you help me."

"Help you! Help you get your mate away from Bund? Why, Bund would kill me."

"Well, let's not worry about it until tomorrow. We both need sleep. But say, Lula, don't betray me. If you do, I'll tell Bund the whole story. One more thing. Do you occupy this cave alone?"

"No. Two other men are with me. They'll probably be up soon. Don't talk to me any more after they come."

"You think they'd give us away?'

"I don't know," he admitted; "but I'm not going to take any chances."

After this we relapsed into silence. It wasn't long before we heard footsteps outside, and a moment later the other two men entered the cave. They had been carrying on a conversation, and they brought the tail end of it in with them.

"--beat me; so I didn't say any more about it; but just before we came up I heard the women talking about it. Nearly all were in their caves at the time. It was just before we went down to build the fires for the last meal, just before darkness came. I had come out of the cave to go down when I happened to look up and see it."

"Why did your woman beat you?"

"She said I was lying and that she didn't like liars, that she couldn't abide them and that if I'd tell a silly lie like that I'd lie about anything; but now two of the women said they saw it."

"What did your woman say to that?"

"She said I probably had a beating coming to me anyway."

"What did the thing look like?"

"Like a big bird, only it didn't flap its wings. It flew right over the canyon. The women who saw it said it was the same thing they saw sitting on the ground when they captured the new slave today and killed the yellow-haired man."

"That thing must have been the anotar that Lula spoke of."

"But he said he was only joking."

"How could he joke about something he'd never seen? There's something funny about this. Hey, Lula!" There was no response. "Hey, you, Lula!" the man called again.

"I'm asleep," said Lula.

"Then you'd better wake up. We want to know about this anotar," insisted the man.

"I don't know anything about it; I never saw it; I never went up in it."

"Who ever said you went up in it? How could a man go up in the air in anything? It can't be done."

"Oh, yes it can," exclaimed Lula. "Two men can ride in it, maybe four. It flies all around wherever you want it to go."

"I thought you didn't know anything about it."

"I am going asleep," announced Lula.

"You're going to tell us all about that anotar, or I'll tell Bund on you."

"Oh, Vyla! You wouldn't do that?" cried Lula.

"Yes, I would so," insisted Vyla. "You'd better tell us everything."

"If I do, will you promise not to tell anyone?"

"I promise."

"And you, Ellie? Will you promise?" asked Lula.

"I wouldn't tell anyone on you, Lula; you ought to know that," Ellie assured him. "Now, go on and tell us."

"Well, I have seen it; and I've ridden in it--way up in the sky."

"Now you are Iying, Lula," chided Vyla.

"Honest to gracious, I'm not," insisted Lula, "and if you don't believe me, ask Carson."

I had been expecting the nit-wit to spill the beans; so I wasn't greatly surprised. I think that if Lula had had an I.Q. rating it would have been about decimal two.

"And who is Carson?" demanded Vyla.

"He makes the anotar go in the air," explained Lula.

"Well, how can we ask him? I think you are lying again, Lula. You are getting into a bad habit of lying, lately."

"I am not lying, and if you don't believe me you can ask Carson. He's right here in this cave."

"What?" demanded the two, in unison.

"Lula is not lying," I said. "I am here; also, Lula rode in the anotar with me. If you two would like to ride, I'll take you up tomorrow--if you can get me out of here without the women seeing me."

For a while there was silence; then Ellie spoke in a rather frightened voice. "What would Jad say if she knew about this?" he asked. Jad was the chief.

"You promised not to tell," Lula reminded him.

"Jad needn't know, unless one of you tells her," I said; "and if you do, I'll say that all three of you knew it and that you were trying to get me to kill her."

"Oh, you wouldn't say that, would you?" cried Ellie.

"I certainly would. But if you'll help me, no one need ever know; and you can get a ride in the anotar to boot."

"I'd be afraid," said Ellie.

"It's nothing to be afraid of," said Lula in a voice that swaggered. "I wasn't afraid. You see the whole world all at once, and nothing can get at you. I'd like to stay up there all the trme. I wouldn't be afraid of the tharbans then; I wouldn't even be afraid of Bund."

"I'd like to go up," said Vyla. "If Lula wasn't afraid, nobody would be."

"If you go up, I will," promised Ellie.

"I'll go," said Vyla.

Well, we talked a little longer; then, before going to sleep, I asked some questions about the habits of the women, and found that the hunting and raiding parties went out the first thing in the morning and that they left a small guard of warrior women to protect the village. I also learned that the slaves came down in the morning and while the hunting and raiding parties were out, gathered wood for the fires and brought water to the caves in clay jugs. They also helped the men with the making of sandals, loincloths, ornaments, and pottery.

The next morning I stayed in the Cave until after the hunters and raiders had left; then I descended the ladders to the ground. I had learned enough about the women to be reasonably certain that I would not arouse their suspicions, as their men are so self-effacing and the women ignore them so completely that a woman might recognize scarcely any of the men other than her mate; but I was not so sure about the men. They all knew one another. What they might do when they recognized a stranger among them was impossible to foresee.

Half a dozen warrior women were loitering in a group near the middle of the canyon while the men and slaves busied themselves with their allotted duties. I saw some of them eyeing me as I reached the ground and walked toward a group down canyon from them where a number of female slaves were working, but they did not accost me.

I kept away from the men as much as possible and approached the female slaves. I was looking for Duare. My heart sank as I saw no sign of her, and I wished that I had gone first to Bund's cave to look for her. Some of the slaves looked at me questioningly; then one of them spoke to me.

"Who are you?" she demanded.

"You ought to know," I told her; and while she was puzzling that one out, I walked on.

Presently I saw some slaves emerging from a little side gully with armfuls of wood, and among them I recognized Duare. My heart leaped at sight of her. I sauntered to a point at which she would have to pass me, waiting for the expression in those dear eyes when she should recognize me. Closer and closer she came, and the nearer she got the harder my heart pounded. When she was a couple of steps away, she glanced up into my face; then she passed on without a sign of recogrution. For an instant I was crushed; then I was angry, and I turned and overtook her.

"Duare!" I whispered.

She stopped and wheeled toward me. "Carson!" she exclaimed. "Oh, Carson. What has happened to you?"

I had forgotten the black hair and the ugly wounds on my forehead and cheek, the latter an ugly gash from temple to chin. She actually had not known me.

"Oh, but you are not dead; you are not dead I thought that they had killed you. Tell me--"

"Not now, dear," I said. "We're going to get out of here first."

"But how? What chance have we to escape while they are watching?"

"Simply run away. I don't think well ever have a better chance." I glanced quickly about. The warriors were still unconcerned, paying no attention to us or anyone else. They were superior beings who looked with contempt upon men and slaves. Most of the slaves and men were farther up canyon than we, but there were a few that we would have to pass. "Are you going back for more wood?" I asked.

"Yes, we are," she told me.

"Good. When you come back, try to walk at the very rear of the others. I'll follow you into the canyon, if I can, unless a better plan occurs to me. You'd better go on now."

After she left me, I boldly sought out Lula. The men who looked at me eyed me suspiciously, but they are so stupid that they were at first merely puzzled. They didn't think of doing anything about it. I hoped that when they did, it would be too late to interfere with my plans. When I found Lula and he saw who it was, he looked about as happy as he would had he suddenly been confronted by a ghost.

"Get Vyla and Ellie," I told him, "and come with me."

"What for?" he demanded.

"Never mind. Do as I tell you, and do it quickly; or I'll tell those women." He was too dumb to realize immediately that I wouldn't dare do that; so he went and got Ellie and Vyla.

"What do you want of us?" demanded the latter.

"I'm going to take you for that ride in the anotar, just as I promised you last night," I said.

They looked at each other questioningly. I could see that they were afraid-- probably frightened by the thought of flying, but more frightened of the women.

Ellie choked. "I can't go today," he said.

"You are coming with me whether you go up in the anotar or not," I told them in no uncertain tones.

"What do you want of us?" asked Vyla.

"Come with me, and I'll show you. And don't forget that if you don't do as I tell you I'll tell the women about that plan of yours to have me kill Jad. Now, come!"

"You're a mean old thing," whined Vyla.

They had been kicked around so much all their lives and had developed such colossal inferiority complexes that they were afraid of everybody; and, if they weren't given too much time to think, would obey anyone's commands; so they came with me.

The wood carriers had laid down their loads and were on their way back to the side gully for more as I herded my unwilling accomplices toward a point the slaves would have to pass; and as they approached, I saw, to my vast relief, that Duare was trailing the others. As she came opposite us, I gathered my three around her to hide her, if possible, from the sight of the warrior women; then I directed them at a loitering gait downward toward the mouth of The Narrow Canyon. Right then I would have given a lot for a rear-sight mirror; for I wanted to see what was going on behind us, but didn't dare look back for fear of suggesting that we were doing something we shouldn't be--it was a ease of nonchalance or nothing, and not a cigarette of any brand among us. I never knew minutes to be so long; but finally we approached the lower end of the canyon, and then I heard the hoarse voice of a woman shouting at us.

"Hi, there! Where are you going? Come back here!"

With that, the three men stopped in their tracks, and I knew that the jig was up as far as secrecy was concerned. I took Duare's hand, and we kept on down the canyon. Now I could look back. Lula, Vyla and Ellie were marching back to their masters; and three of the women were coming down the canyon toward us. When they saw that two of us had ignored their command and were walking on, they commenced to shout again; and when we didn't pay any attention to them they broke into a trot; then we took to our heels. I didn't doubt but that we could outdistance them, for they were not built for speed. However, we would have to get to the ship far enough ahead of them to give us time to untie her before they overtook us.

As we turned out of the mouth of The Narrow Canyon into the wide canyon of which it is a branch, we came on fairly level ground sloping gently in the direction we were going. Groups of splendid trees dotted the landscape, and off there somewhere in the near beyond was the ship and safety; then, squarely across our path and a couple of hundred yards away, I saw three tharbans.

Edgar Rice Burroughs