The peril which menaced the explorers was more frightful than any that they had been called upon to face since entering that mysterious land known by the name of the Matto Grosso.
The Aryks numbered more than half a hundred, all active, vigilant and armed with their fearful poisoned javelins. They had taken position among the trees on the western bank of the Xingu, at the base of the rapids, at the very point where the white men intended to shoulder their canoe and make their last portage.
Instead of being in the open, where they were in plain sight of the defenders, and fair targets for their unerring Winchesters, they were stationed behind the numerous trunks or lying on the ground, where little could be seen of them except their bushy heads and gleaming black eyes, as they glared with inextinguishable hate at the white men who had slain so many of their number.
The suspicious Long was looking in the direction, with the thought that if any ambush was attempted, that would be the very spot, when he caught sight of a dusky figure, as it whisked from behind a narrow trunk to another that afforded better cover.
That hasty glance in the dim morning light revealed an alarming number of heads glaring around the trees and from among the undergrowth like so many wild beasts, aflame with fury and the exultation of savages who knew that their enemies were at last forced inextricably into their grasp.
So assured were the Aryks in fact that they showed a disposition to toy for a moment with their victims, as a cat does with a mouse before craunching it in her jaws. They brandished their weapons, danced grotesquely and uttered shrill shrieks audible above the deafening roar of the angry Xingu as it foamed through the rapids.
It was a fearful trap in which our friends found themselves, for it was impossible to advance or retreat, and it was madness to hope that they could again escape the shower of spears that were already poised in the air and ready to be launched.
Bippo and Pedros, with wild shrieks of terror bounded into the canoe, and wrapping the blankets around them, cowered in abject helpless dread of impending death. They were only an incumbrance, as they had proven in more than one crisis before.
But not one of the Caucasians showed the white feather. Disdaining to seek impossible shelter, they coolly prepared to die fighting, while exposed to the hurtling javelins, whose appalling effectiveness they knew too well.
But at this appalling juncture, when life hung on the passing moment, a piercing shout rang out above the roar of the waters.
It came from a point behind them, and, despite the imminent peril all three looked around.
A small canoe was darting across the Xingu toward them, so close to the foot of the rapids, that it danced about like a cork and seemed certain to be submerged every minute.
In this frail craft sat the giant Ziffak, propelling it across the furious swirl with such prodigious power that though the spume dashed over it, the boat was driven by the sheer power of his mighty arms under, above, and through the waters.
It was he who uttered the resounding cry which caused the wondering explorers to turn their heads, and stayed the uplifted arms of the venomous Aryks.
All saw the giant head chieftain of the Murhapas who repeated the shout and added an exclamation that was a command, forbidding his allies to hurl a single weapon.
They must have deemed him mad, but if so he was ten times more to be dreaded than if sane. Not a javelin was launched, but all stood motionless awaiting his arrival, and doubtless believing he meant them to pause only long enough to place himself at their head as the leader.
They must have thought, too, that his appearance so filled the whites with fear that their arms were paralyzed, for, though he was in direct range, not a hand of the foreigners was raised to do him hurt.
Coming with such tremendous speed, Ziffak occupied but a moment in passing the remaining distance. Before the prow of his boat could touch land, he flung the paddle aside, spurned the canoe with his foot, caught up his huge spear, and with one bound placed himself opposite the wondering trio of white men, while two more leaps landed him among the Aryks.
Grimcke, Ashman and Long had read aright the meaning of the amazing demonstration and calmly awaited the issue.
Pausing in the very middle of the dusky force, he addressed them in their native tongue, with savage gestures and a fierceness of tones which rendered every word audible amid the roaring tumult.
Only a second or two was required for him to finish his harangue, when he made a final command for them to fall back, emphasized by the swing of his tremendous arms.
No more striking proof could have been given of the sway of this mighty warrior over his vassals, than was shown by their instant obedience to the order, which fell upon them like the bursting of a thunderbolt from the clear summer sky.
They did not scatter and flee, for they had not been directed to do so, but skurried several rods back among the trees, so as to leave the way open for the explorers to pass around the rapids to the calmer waters above.
Ziffak did not remove his eyes from the natives, until he saw that his commands were not only obeyed, but that it was understood by them that the white men were not to be molested.
This extraordinary person had hastened to the other shore, in accordance with his pledge, only to learn from a couple of Aryks whom he met that the main body of warriors had again crossed the Xingu above the rapids, and were gathered in the wood waiting for the whites to walk into the trap set for them.
Had our friends remained where he left them, no danger would have been encountered, but, as we have shown, they moved up stream and came within a hair's-breadth of being wiped from the face of the earth before their powerful ally could interfere.
The breaking morning gave Ziffak his first knowledge of the mistake they had made, and, leaping into his canoe, he drove it across the stream with resistless speed, reaching the spot in the nick of time, and barely doing that, since he was forced to raise his voice while yet on the river, in order to hold the battle in suspense.
Having satisfied himself that everything was adjusted, Ziffak now turned around, and, without the least appearance of agitation on his swarthy countenance, signified that the path was open for them to continue their journey.
Reaching into the canoe, Ashman seized Bippo by the nape of the neck and hoisted him out on land. He did the same with Pedros, both of them howling in the extremity of mortal terror. Tearing the blankets from their bodies, he shouted for them to give their help in carrying the canoe and luggage around the rapids.
It was some minutes before they could comprehend in their blind way the situation. Finally, when they saw that their deaths were postponed, they lent their aid as eagerly as a couple of obedient dogs.
The sturdy whites were equally helpful, and the boat was quickly raised aloft and so adjusted that its well apportioned weight bore lightly upon the shoulders of all.
The sidelong glances which Bippo and Pedros cast at the Aryks as they moved up the bank, brought a smile to the whites who witnessed them. The poor fellows were ready to let go and drop down dead the moment they felt the puncture of the whizzing javelins.
The Professor was at the head of the strange procession bearing the boat on their shoulders. Like his companions, he moved with a springy, elastic step, for he had received the most striking proof possible of the friendship of Ziffak, and he foresaw the dazzling results that were to flow from such an alliance.
Had this remarkable savage been disposed to play them false, no better opportunity could have been given than that which occurred a few minutes before. All he had to do was to arrive on the spot a minute later: the Aryks would have left nothing for him except to view the dead bodies of the whites and their servants.
As for Jared Long, the doubter, he was willing
to admit that he had made a grevious error of judgment. Had he
thought that Ziffak suspected his misgivings, he would have taken
the fellow's hand, and humbly begged his pardon.
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