Continued from Part Three
As we penetrated deeper into the mountain’s interior the following day, the air grew warmer and more humid. The fungus on the cavern walls grew into larger shapes of ears, tubes and stools. The illumination from the fungus was as bright as twilight now and our eyes were so well adjusted we had no need for torches any longer save for reading.
We stopped for lunch in a level, open area of the cavern. I took the opportunity to study the fungus while the meal was being prepared and pulled three large fungal ears from the rocky wall. They came cleanly away and I discovered an outcropping of finger-sized gray crystals behind them. I called DePinto over to identify them as Professor Russell was receiving treatment from Dr. Baker for his blistered feet. DePinto approached me carrying an unlit lantern. Finding myself alone with him, I could not resist the opportunity to ask him a question that had been on my mind since first we’d met.
“So DePinto, I must know. How did you come by that wonderful nose of yours?” I asked.
“I was born with it.” He said, thumbing it with a wink. He handed me the lantern then fished in his pocket for a box of matches.
“Of course,” I said. “But it is so exquisitely crooked; surely that’s not solely the work of God.”
“You are very observant, my friend. In my youth, I met a man who endeavored to improve on God’s own design for my comely face using only his knowledge of pugilism and two very large fists.” He pulled a match from the box. “He did not invoke the name of the almighty at the time.” He struck the match and I lifted the lamp’s glass chimney. “But he was rather concerned with the honor of his beautiful fiancé, or rumored lack thereof.” He lit the lamp and took it from me.
“Rumored?” I asked.
“If I remember correctly, that rumor turned out to be true.” He said with another wink. The dancing nearly white light from the oil lamp revealed the true color of crystals I uncovered. They were not gray, as they appeared under the bluish-green fungal luminescence, but deep green. It was DePinto’s opinion they were emeralds and he removed a pencil-sized specimen with a hammer and hurried it over to Russell for confirmation. A moment later, Russell hobbled over in great haste on his bare, bandaged feet. DePinto and Drs. Keith and Baker followed him.
Russell let out a whistle when he saw the outcropping of crystals and he lingered a moment simply beaming at them. He confirmed they were emeralds and told us they were some of the largest naturally occurring precious gems he had ever seen. Dr. Keith let out a holler and slapped his thigh then took DePinto’s sample and hurried it over to Mr. Norman. Keith and Norman returned along with Norman’s granddaughter a moment later. Keith clapped his hand on my back and informed Norman that I had discovered the gems. Norman appeared delighted with the find and had DePinto remove another larger emerald which he immediately gave to his granddaughter. She smiled examining the gem in the lamp light, but it was a queer, closed-lip smile, almost a smirk. I looked at Baker and saw that he too had noticed her odd expression. The other men were distracted by the gemstone and paid her little mind. On reflection, I don’t know if her expression betrayed a foreknowledge of the events that were to unfold over the next few days, and the significance emerald was to have on both her and my future, or if she was simply a spoiled girl, beautiful and entitled to the world’s riches.
Norman pulled another small ear of fungus free from the crystals and looked it. He asked me if I had any specific information on what it was and whether or not it was poisonous or, efficacious. I explained it was an heretofore unknown variety and that I would need to examine it in a laboratory before I could draw any conclusions. Normally toxicity was determined by feeding samples to rats or other small mammals over a period of time but, as we had no animals along with us such a determination would have to wait.
We heard a general commotion in the camp behind us as speculation arose regarding my discovery. Keith sent DePinto to spread the word that all was well and he would be announcing good news over lunch. Indeed, his announcement did much to buoy the group’s morale as he declared our expedition a success and that each man would receive a substantial bonus once commercial mining commenced on his claim.
After lunch our descent was slowed as the path grew steeper and more treacherous. In many places, Tanner had to set up safety lines before we could proceed downward and by the time we made camp around 7:00 PM, everyone was exhausted from the increased physical exertion, and ready for supper save for two of the natives who appeared to be full of energy. This was particularly odd as both men were porters and had been carrying very heavy loads on their backs all day.
I noticed the two men speaking at length with Norman and his granddaughter as the others were setting up camp and going about the business of preparing the meal. After some time the pair approached me. I recognized the taller man as one of our interpreters and he asked me if I would be so kind as to point him toward more of the fungus that I had discovered earlier that day growing on the emeralds. I asked him what interest he had in it and he explained that he and the other man had eaten the ear that Norman had collected and that they believed it was the reason for their increased vigor and stamina.
I was shocked at the revelation and asked him why they had eaten a potentially deadly mushroom in the first place. The interpreter explained that they had used it to flavor their lunch and found it to be quite delicious. I told him such behavior with unknown fungus often proves to be fatal and that they were lucky their experiment had not killed them. He asked again if I would help them and I declined telling them I was busy with my work and that they should not, under any circumstance, be eating anything we find in the cave. The interpreter started to argue with me and I dismissed him, instructing him to take his friend and make himself useful with setting up the camp. Instead, they returned to Norman and soon Norman was approaching me.
“Why the devil don’t you point out that mushroom for them?” he asked me with a scowl.
“It’s dangerous. There’s no telling what effect the fungus will have on them long-term.”
“Clearly its beneficial,” said Norman. “Look how energetic they are!”
“How did they come by it in the first place Mr. Norman? Did you tell them to eat it?”
“Certainly not,” he said running his finger over his mustache. “I left it on a table without a thought before lunch and was unaware the two had taken any interest in it until The English speaker approached me moments ago. He told me he and the other man made a lunch of the thing and that they now wanted more. I suggested they speak to you about it.”
“They are not lab animals, Mr. Keith, they are human beings.”
“Of course I know that,” said Keith raising his voice. “But they’ve already eaten it once with no harm done, why not let them continue? There are treasures more precious than emeralds beneath this mountain and you yourself will share in the rewards.” He was smiling at me but I didn’t like the look of it.
“It’s too dangerous. Besides, months or years of laboratory work will be required before our discoveries can be proven safe and brought to market, Surely it’s not worth risking the lives of these men just to get an early glimpse into the future.”
“They’re just mushrooms!” he said, and then he turned and walked back to his tent.
The following morning it was clear my warnings had fallen on deaf ears as I witnessed the two porters harvesting large glowing mushroom ears from the cavern walls and giving them to the other natives. I hurried over to Dr. Keith and urged him to forbid the men from eating the fungus as they were under his employ. He shrugged and told me it was too late. The natives had been up before us and had already been feeding on the queer mushrooms for half an hour.
A shot rang out from across the camp followed by a shrill screeching and bleating sound. A man yelled and Dr. Keith and I drew our revolvers and rushed toward the sound. More shots followed and a chorus of screeching echoed throughout the cavern. As we closed the distance I was struck by an horrific, rancid fishy odor and upon approaching the commotion, saw a man on the ground squirming in a pool of inky-black liquid. Bowers stood near him, firing a Winchester repeating rifle into a mass of undulating tentacles that was ascending the cavern wall. Another repugnant creature lay dying a few yards away clacking its beak-like mouth. It aimed what looked like its face in our direction and let loose a stream of its fishy smelling ink which landed harmlessly to our left. I put a bullet through its eye and it fell still.
Doctor Baker arrived and I noticed the man in the black liquid had ceased moving. “Help him!” I shouted, and then I took aim at the creature climbing the wall and emptied my pistol into it. It clung to the wall a moment and then fell and landed with a wet crunching sound. Its loathsome tentacles writhed for a few moments then it was still.
“There were more of them. They crawled in there,” said Bowers pointing his rifle at a crevice in the cavern wall about fifty feet above us. “At least three more. What in God’s name are they?”
Baker dragged the wounded man out of the black pool and was doing his best to wipe the ink from his face. “Water,” he yelled toward the camp. A porter loped over with a jug which Baker took and uncorked. He hefted it and poured its contents over the wounded man’s head and face. I could see it was DePinto by his unmistakably crooked nose. “Help me get his shirt off” said Baker.
“Keep on the lookout,” I said to Bowers as I knelt down. I put a hand on the back of DePinto’s neck to hold him upright and Baker ripped the ink-soaked shirt open and pulled it off of him. His upper body was completely black with the stuff.
“It’s poison…” said Baker, “…a paralytic.” He doused DePinto’s torso with water again and wiped away as much of the ink as he could with his bare hands, then he sat back, holding his hands up. They were completely limp. I saw his eyes roll back in his head and then he toppled over, unconscious.
I lay De Pinto down then rolled Baker over onto his back and loosened his collar. My own hands were going numb where they had touched the ink and I washed them off, then poured water over Baker’s hands and called for another jug. I heard screams coming from the other side of the camp. I tried to stand up but instead, I toppled over next to Baker.
I closed my eyes and soon was completely paralyzed, lying face down on the cold rock. I heard more gunfire, screaming and shouting. The sounds slipped farther and farther away as I fought to maintain consciousness then there was nothing.
To be continued…