The rising sun flashed spears of light
on a rocky spur that stretched out from the foot of
the mighty Andes. A tall, straight figure stood
silhouetted against a background of sun-bathed cliff.
Higher above him the great masses of land rolled
back, league after league, and stretched upwards foot
after foot to the eternal snows and the eternal heavens.
Below him a belt of dark forest swept round the foothills
of the giant range, and through a gap in the mass
of trees a noisy, turbid stream went tumbling down
to the sweltering plains and a feeder of the Orinoco.
The man stood motionless as his rocky
pedestal, and intently watching something beyond the
line of trees. Presently he turned sharply about,
came down from the crag, pushed his way through the
trees, and stood in a little pool-filled hollow.
Almost immediately he was joined by about twoscore
men, all armed with spear and bow and arrow, and, like
himself, brown-skinned and stalwart. The newcomers
bowed themselves to the ground and murmured some words
of homage and adulation. The standing savage
drew in a deep breath, expanding his broad chest, and
his eyes flashed with pride and power.
“Arise, my sons,” he said;
“the gods that make men and unmake them shall
reward you. Ye have been faithful to him whom
the gods have set over you. To the brave shall
be the spoils; my sons shall lade themselves with
all their hearts may desire. Now tell me what
you have done.”
A tall warrior stood forth.
“We have followed our father since the white
strangers seized him. We have watched him and
them, and waited for this happy moment.”
“We have spoken with the peoples
who dwell in the woods and the hills, and turned their
minds against the men from the land of the sun-rising.
They will fight them if any man can discover a charm
that will protect them from the thunder and lightning
that springs from the strangers’ hands.”
The chieftain laughed. “I
will find them a charm,” he cried. “I
have walked all night,” he added suddenly; “I
will sleep. Watch ye.”
The chieftain slept. One man
went to the cliff as sentinel; the rest squatted around
the pool, looked to their weapons, and talked in whispers.
The sun climbed upwards, the shadows shortened, the
water of the pool grew warm, the sentinel ensconced
himself in a shaded cleft of the rock that overlooked
the valley, and maintained the unwinking watch of
the stoic savage.
The chieftain awoke, a giant refreshed.
A warrior brought him water in a gourd; another handed
him some fruits from a wallet. A call blown on
a hollow reed brought the watcher down from his eyrie.
Led by the tall warrior who had addressed his chief,
the band went off deeper and higher into the hills.
They toiled along through a defile all the afternoon,
and when the sun was dipping behind the western peaks
came into a broad, cup-like valley, that was dotted
with the rude stone huts of a mountain tribe.
The tall warrior went forward alone, but presently
came back and piloted the band through the straggling
groups of huts to the spot where the tribal fire was
licking up a fresh supply of fuel. A group of
warriors seated by the fire gave the newcomers a guttural
greeting, and motioned them to seats on the other side
of the blazing heap. Silence was maintained
until roasted meat, corn cakes, and fermented liquor
were handed round to both parties; then all gathered
on the windward side, and the palaver commenced.
The visiting chief held forth at great
length. He gave a reasonably good summary of
the history of the white man along the Orinoco valley
from the first advent of the Spaniards. He spoke
of their cruelties, their lust for the yellow dust,
and their belief in a golden city on the shores of
a lake that fed the head waters of the river.
He described the attack on his village, and his own
subsequent captivity and semi-slavery. He belittled
the strength of his captors, and was inclined to scoff
at their thunder-and-lightning tubes. He confessed
that the flame and roar of these formidable weapons
were terrifying at first; but he had witnessed their
action at close quarters, and familiarity had bred
a sort of contempt. The lightning would not
always leap forth when wanted, nor did the thunder
always slay. He was inclined to put as much
faith in a well-directed arrow. The latter might
be discharged unseen; not so the fire-weapons of the
white strangers. The fire-god must be brought
to their nostrils, and breathe into them before the
fire within would answer; and if a man lay on the
ground when he saw the fire he was safe from death.
Finally, he urged with savage passion that the intruders
should be killed or expelled from the land.
He spoke of them as wearied and dispirited, sick with
fatigue and the sun-fever, and boldly asserted that
they were an easy prey. The tall warrior arose
after his chief, emphasizing all that his lord had
The chiefs of the tribe did not reply
at once, but held a brief consultation apart.
They were not inclined to accept the white men at
their visitor’s valuation, nor were they prepared
to take up arms against such wonderful beings without
very serious cause. From the chief’s own
showing they had treated him in a brotherly spirit
at first. Other native tribes had, apparently,
fraternized with the strangers, and had got considerable
advantage thereby. As regards the city of gold,
the chiefs had never heard of the place themselves,
although they had occasional dealings with peoples
who dwelt near the head waters of the great river.
But the white strangers were wise, and knew things
that the gods had not told to other men. Maybe
the city really existed. If the white men wanted
to get there, why should any man hinder them?
And it was all very well for their visitor to pretend
that he had no fear of the thunder weapons. Why
had all his people fled at the sound of them?
The chieftain tried to explain, and
again urged his points with a number of fresh arguments.
But the council was against him; they refused to
run their heads into unknown and fearful dangers by
opposing a wonderful race that showed no disposition
to interfere with them. And so the council ended.
From the cliff that guarded the outlet
from the small valley into the gorge a keen-eyed native,
gazing intently eastwards towards the greater valley,
might have made out a point of yellow light about three
leagues away in a bee-line. The light was on
the bank of the affluent of the Orinoco, and came
from the camp fire of the adventurers. There
also a council was being held, and the question for
decision was the momentous one whether the quest for
the golden city should be abandoned as hopeless.
According to the Spanish papers and general rumour
the expedition should now be in touch with superior,
light-coloured races, and a civilization rivalling
that of the ancient empires of Assyria or Babylon
for wealth and luxury. The way to Manoa should
be as plain and well-known as the way to Rome or Venice.
Yet all around were frowning mountains and dense
forests, the homes of fierce birds and beasts, and
the haunts of savage, warlike tribes. A thousand
miles nearer the ocean the natives talked glibly and
circumstantially enough about the “Gilded One”
and his wonderful city. Here, where the gates
of his kingdom should be, no man had heard either
of king or country. Months of hardship and privation,
the facing of death a hundred times in almost as many
forms, had brought the intrepid band to nothing!
On this particular occasion every
man was admitted to the council, and the words of
the common soldier and sailor were listened to as
attentively as the words of any of the gentlemen.
An onlooker would have been sorely puzzled to decide
from outward appearance which of the battered, travel-worn
band was its leader. The fire lighted up a ring
of gaunt, brown, bearded faces, and the pairs of eyes
that centred on each speaker’s face in turn
had little of hope or animation in them. The
conference began after the evening meal, and extended
far into the night. All seemed to realize the
hopelessness of pursuing the quest any farther, yet
none cared to face the ordeal of turning the boats
seaward again. They compromised the matter.
A last attempt should be made to acquire guides and
information. If the attempt failed, the search
would be abandoned.