"But we are up against it, so what's the decision?"
"It seems a most questionable step," said Summerlee, argumentative to the last, "but if you are all going, I hardly see how I can remain behind."
"Then it is settled," said Lord John, and turning to the chief he nodded and slapped his rifle.
The old fellow clasped our hands, each in turn, while his men cheered louder than ever.
It was too late to advance that night, so the Indians settled down into a rude bivouac.
On all sides their fires began to glimmer and smoke.
Some of them who had disappeared into the jungle came back presently driving a young iguanodon before them. Like the others, it had a daub of asphalt upon its shoulder, and it was only when we saw one of the natives step forward with the air of an owner and give his consent to the beast's slaughter that we understood at last that these great creatures were as much private property as a herd of cattle, and that these symbols which had so perplexed us were nothing more than the marks of the owner.
Helpless, torpid, and vegetarian, with great limbs but a minute brain, they could be rounded up and driven by a child.
In a few minutes the huge beast had been cut up and slabs of him were hanging over a dozen camp fires, together with great scaly ganoid fish which had been speared in the lake.
Summerlee had lain down and slept upon the sand, but we others roamed round the edge of the water, seeking to learn something more of this strange country.
Twice we found pits of blue clay, such as we had already seen in the swamp of the pterodactyls.
These were old volcanic vents, and for some reason excited the greatest interest in Lord John.
What attracted Challenger, on the other hand, was a bubbling, gurgling mud geyser, where some strange gas formed great bursting bubbles upon the surface.
He thrust a hollow reed into it and cried out with delight like a schoolboy then he was able, on touching it with a lighted match, to cause a sharp explosion and a blue flame at the far end of the tube.
Still more pleased was he when, inverting a leathern pouch over the end of the reed, and so filling it with the gas, he was able to send it soaring up into the air.
"An inflammable gas, and one markedly lighter than the atmosphere.
I should say beyond doubt that it contained a considerable proportion of free hydrogen.
The resources of G. E. C. are not yet exhausted, my young friend.
I may yet show you how a great mind molds all Nature to its use."
He swelled with some secret purpose, but would say no more.
There was nothing which we could see upon the shore which seemed to me so wonderful as the great sheet of water before us.
Our numbers and our noise had frightened all living creatures away, and save for a few pterodactyls, which soared round high above our heads while they waited for the carrion, all was still around the camp.
But it was different out upon the rose-tinted waters of the central lake. It boiled and heaved with strange life.
Great slate-colored backs and high serrated dorsal fins shot up with a fringe of silver, and then rolled down into the depths again.
The sand-banks far out were spotted with uncouth crawling forms, huge turtles, strange saurians, and one great flat creature like a writhing, palpitating mat of black greasy leather, which flopped its way slowly to the lake.
Here and there high serpent heads projected out of the water, cutting swiftly through it with a little collar of foam in front, and a long swirling wake behind, rising and falling in graceful, swan-like undulations as they went.
It was not until one of these creatures wriggled on to a sand-bank within a few hundred yards of us, and exposed a barrel-shaped body and huge flippers behind the long serpent neck, that Challenger, and Summerlee, who had joined us, broke out into their duet of wonder and admiration.
A fresh-water plesiosaurus!" cried Summerlee.
"That I should have lived to see such a sight!
We are blessed, my dear Challenger, above all zoologists since the world began!"
It was not until the night had fallen, and the fires of our savage allies glowed red in the shadows, that our two men of science could be dragged away from the fascinations of that primeval lake.
Even in the darkness as we lay upon the strand, we heard from time to time the snort and plunge of the huge creatures who lived therein.
At earliest dawn our camp was astir and an hour later we had started upon our memorable expedition.
Often in my dreams have I thought that I might live to be a war correspondent.
In what wildest one could I have conceived the nature of the campaign which it should be my lot to report!
Here then is my first despatch from a field of battle:
Our numbers had been reinforced during the night by a fresh batch of natives from the caves, and we may have been four or five hundred strong when we made our advance.
A fringe of scouts was thrown out in front, and behind them the whole force in a solid column made their way up the long slope of the bush country until we were near the edge of the forest.
Here they spread out into a long straggling line of spearmen and bowmen.
Roxton and Summerlee took their position upon the right flank, while Challenger and I were on the left.
It was a host of the stone age that we were accompanying to battle—we with the last word of the gunsmith's art from St. James' Street and the Strand.
We had not long to wait for our enemy.
A wild shrill clamor rose from the edge of the wood and suddenly a body of ape-men rushed out with clubs and stones, and made for the center of the Indian line.
It was a valiant move but a foolish one, for the great bandy-legged creatures were slow of foot, while their opponents were as active as cats.
It was horrible to see the fierce brutes with foaming mouths and glaring eyes, rushing and grasping, but forever missing their elusive enemies, while arrow after arrow buried itself in their hides.
One great fellow ran past me roaring with pain, with a dozen darts sticking from his chest and ribs.
In mercy I put a bullet through his skull, and he fell sprawling among the aloes.
But this was the only shot fired, for the attack had been on the center of the line, and the Indians there had needed no help of ours in repulsing it.
Of all the ape-men who had rushed out into the open, I do not think that one got back to cover.