RALPH SECURES REINFORCEMENTS

“The exit is closed!”

The cry came simultaneously from all three. Shrill and with a terrible
weight of despair it echoed through the tunnel. Then came a weird
crooning. It was the death-song of Sumo’s people.

Mori stopped him with a fierce command, saying, harshly:

“Silence, dog! Would you add to our misery? Silence, I say!”

The result of civilization now became apparent. The first natural
feeling of terror passed, the reaction came, and both Nattie and the
young Japanese were able to discuss their situation with more or less
calmness.

“This is dreadful, simply dreadful,” said the latter; “but we must face
it and see what can be done to save ourselves.”

“What was it, an earthquake?”

“Yes, but not much of a shock. We felt it down here; above ground it was
simply a wave of minor strength.”

“But others may come, masters,” exclaimed the porter, with chattering
teeth.

“You are right. We must hasten back the way we came. The shock has
barred our passage in this direction; only the castle exit remains to
us.”

There was little time lost in commencing the retreat. Grasping hands the
three staggered along the tunnel floor, walking, running, and even
crawling at times. The dust that had filled the excavation immediately
after the earthquake soon settled, and the breathing became easier.

Presently Nattie stopped.

“What is the matter?” anxiously asked Mori.

“Grant–what of him?” replied the lad, pitifully. “Do you think they
succeeded in leaving before the shock came?”

“Undoubtedly. We saw the exit, and had almost gained it. They had at
least ten minutes’ start. Don’t worry; Grant is safe.”

Reassured, Nattie resumed the flight with his companions. In due time
they came to the crypt occupied by the skeletons, but Sumo never
faltered. That terror had paled before a greater.

A foreboding that another barrier might be encountered brought a pallor
to the cheeks of the fugitives. The fear was fortunately without
foundation. The passage remained clear, and in due course of time they
reached the bottom of the steps leading to the castle floor.

Weary, worn out, their clothing disordered and torn, and with the fear
of death still lingering in their faces, the three painfully scrambled
into the air and flung themselves, gasping for breath, upon the stone
pavement of the inner yard of the _shiro_.

The place was deserted. The coolies and _’rikisha_ men had evidently
fled at the first signs of the earthquake. Presently a confused murmur
of voices from the outside indicated that they were still within easy
call.

After a brief moment of rest Nattie staggered to his feet, and, followed
by his companions, emerged upon the drawbridge. Their appearance was
received with shouts of astonishment and awe. To the superstitious eyes
of the natives, they were as beings of another world.

That any mortal could survive the clutches of the _jishin_, or
earthquake, while in its domains underground was not possible. With one
accord the terrified natives fled for the forest.

They were speedily brought to a halt by Mori, who was in no mood for
foolishness. Rushing after them, he grasped the nearest and fiercely
ordered him to bring food and _sake_, the mild wine of the country.

“Fools; what think you?” he exclaimed. “We are not ghosts. We have
escaped from the tunnel through the aid of a merciful Providence. We are
exhausted, and require meat and drink.”

With many ejaculations of awe and amazement the _karumayas_ obeyed.
Before eating, Mori, Nattie and Sumo removed the tattered remnants of
their clothing, and bathed themselves in the cool waters of the lake.
Then a few mouthfuls of food were taken.

The wine put new life in the lads. Refreshed and invigorated, they
prepared for the pursuit. It was decided without caution that the caves
must be reached without delay.

“I am positive it is their destination,” said Nattie.

“Undoubtedly. We will follow the scoundrels with the aid of their own
horses. Sumo, you and two others come with us. The rest can wait for the
arrival of the police. Forward!”

After the party had ridden a short distance, Mori was seen to cast many
anxious glances toward the mighty peak of Bandai-San. It was in plain
view, apparently on the other shore of the lake, and its sloping reaches
spoke eloquently of the ages in which the flow of molten lava had
created the majestic mountain.

“What is the matter?” asked Nattie.

“I don’t like the looks of the old fellow this morning,” replied the
young Japanese. “Do you see that misty vapor hovering over the summit.
That means activity of the volcano. Mark my words, it is on the eve of
an eruption.”

“Yes, Bandai-San is awaking from his long sleep,” put in Sumo.

“That earthquake must have had something to do with it,” said Nattie.

“No doubt. It may be the forerunner of a strong disturbance.”

As they rode on, the curious cloud became more pronounced. Fearing the
recurrence of a shock, the party avoided the shelter of trees, and kept
to the open as much as possible.

After leaving the neighborhood of the lake a road was encountered, so
bad that it was necessary to walk the horses. At last it degenerated
into a mere path among the narrow paddy fields. A collection of rude
huts hardly numerous enough to deserve the title of village was reached
after a while.

Singularly enough, there were no inhabitants visible. Not the slightest
signs of life could be seen save the still smoking embers of a fire
outside of one of the houses. This apparent air of desertion was
rendered all the more strange because of the intense interest generally
created among the natives by the cavalcade.

“Find out what is the matter, Sumo,” directed Mori.

The giant cantered up to one of the huts and rapped lustily upon the
wall with his sword. Presently a head was thrust through a hole in the
thatch, but it immediately disappeared on seeing the warlike porter.

“Come out of that,” Sumo shouted, authoritatively. “Give my masters some
information, or I’ll burn your hut about your ears. Out, I say!”

There was a moment of delay, then a shrinking, half-clad Japanese coolie
crept from the door and cast himself at Sumo’s feet. He was evidently
greatly terrified. He wailed aloud, and refused to raise his head from
the dust. Impatient at the delay, Mori and Nattie rode up and commanded
the wretch to speak.

“Did a party composed of foreigners and several coolies with a prisoner
pass through here recently?” asked the former.

“Yes, excellency,” stammered the man. “There were seven in all. They
stopped here, and compelled twenty of our best men to accompany them.
They made them carry reaping-hooks and almost all the provisions in
town. They took my store of rice for the winter.”

“Whew! Ralph intends to prepare for a siege,” exclaimed Nattie. “What a
fool he is! Men and provisions, eh? What can he hope to do against the
authorities?”

“Did they state their destination?” Mori asked the native.

“No, but they went in that direction,” he replied, pointing beyond
Bandai-San.

“That’s the way to the caves,” muttered Nattie, then he added, aloud:
“How long have they been gone?”

“Not twenty minutes, excellency. Look! you can see the dust still
lingering above the bushes upon that hill. They are not to the base of
the mountain yet.”

After tossing the man a couple of _yen_, to repay him for the loss of
his rice, Nattie put spurs to his horse and led the way up the path.
Presently the party reached a species of tableland, near the summit of
an almost inaccessible hill which rose near the base of the volcano.