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CHAPTER XV
Weariness, lack of sleep, extraordinary exertion and the tremendous nervous strain under which he had been for the past forty-eight hours had been too much for Scott’s nerves. Now the realization that he was caught in one of those death traps of which he had read such horrible things and actually seen so little had broken him up completely. He lost all control of himself and struggled blindly. Left to himself he would undoubtedly have quickly exhausted his strength and have been slowly buried beneath those treacherous, quivering sands.

To Murphy it had appeared a very different proposition. He had seen many quicksands, and when once the first explosion of exasperation was over his downfall struck him as a good deal of a joke. He mistook Scott’s raving for a burst of anger and that made him laugh all the more. He had worked his way out of the quicksand and stepped back on to the solid ground before he realized what a condition Scott was really in.

Suddenly it came to him. With a single bound he was back beside the struggling man whose ineffective writhing had already worked his arms into the sand to the elbow. He grabbed Scott by the shoulders and lifted with all his might. He could feel his own feet sinking, but that did not worry him; he continued to pull. Slowly Scott’s arms were drawn from the grasping sands. As soon as the hands were free he shook his burden violently.

“Brace up, old man, and come out of it. You’re all right. Stop that struggling and we can walk right out of here. Stop it, I tell you.”

At first Scott did not seem to hear him. He continued to struggle and beat the air wildly even after his hands were clear, but gradually Murphy’s voice seemed to reach him as from a great distance and he looked at him in a dazed fashion like a man coming out of a nightmare.

“You are all right now,” Murphy reassured him. “We’ll be out of here in a minute. Pull up slowly on one foot while I steady you. It will come hard, but it will come all right if you keep at it. Don’t try to do it quick; you can’t do it that way. Just pull slowly and steadily. Feel it coming?”

Scott did not feel it coming at first, and for an instant he was on the verge of falling back into another fit of terror, but he managed to control himself and was rewarded by feeling his foot breaking slowly from the reluctantly yielding sand.

“That’s the stuff,” Murphy encouraged. “Now the other one. Comes hard, doesn’t it?”

It certainly did come hard and Scott felt as nearly utterly exhausted as he ever had in his life, but he had recovered his nerve and continued to pull doggedly. The perspiration stood in beads on his forehead and he could feel his strength oozing out of him. At last, after what seemed like a lifetime of desperate effort, the foot was free.

“Now walk slowly out there on to solid ground,” Murphy advised him. “Don’t try to hurry or you may fall again. It will be sort of hard to lift your feet, but they will come.”

It was needless to advise Scott not to hurry. He could not have hurried if his life had depended on it. Laboriously he worked his way over the few feet of quicksand to the hard ground of the stream-bed. Each step was a struggle. The feeling of the firm earth under his feet instead of that sickening ooze was such a relief that it was all he could do to keep from sitting down in the water right where he was.

With the feeling of security, a hazy thought which had been puzzling him vaguely throughout the struggle took definite form. “What are you standing on, Murphy?” he called back over his shoulder. It had been worrying him to know how Murphy could stand beside him in that sink hole and lift him up.

“I don’t know what it is,” Murphy answered cheerfully, “but I guess it must be the soles of some Chinaman’s feet,” he muttered to himself, “from the depth I’ve gone down here.”

Murphy had stood manfully to his job of freeing Scott, neglecting to move his own feet for fear he might shake Scott’s confidence once more and he had settled to a dangerous depth in the sullen sand. His legs were buried to his knees and he could feel himself sinking steadily deeper. Now Scott was free he devoted his best strength to extricating himself. He pulled desperately but did not seem to make any progress. What he gained on one foot he seemed to lose on the other. He did not want to call Scott back unless his case was hopeless.

Scott, who had reached dry land and thrown himself limply on the beach, looked back and saw him struggling back there in the moonlight. “What is the matter, Murphy?” he called in alarm. “Are you fast now?”

“No,” Murphy lied courageously, “I dropped my gun and I can’t seem to find it.”

Murphy was gaining a little on the quicksand now. Every time he changed feet he could feel the other one rise a trifle, but it was killing work and he wondered whether his strength would hold out long enough for him to free himself. Two or three times he felt as though he would have to give it up; he was even losing interest in the struggle and did not seem to care anything more about it. He knew he was fast approaching the limit of his strength, but he struggled on as in a dream. He no longer knew what he was doing, and he never knew till Scott told him afterwards how he had staggered wearily across the creek and collapsed on the dry beach.

“Did you find your gun?” Scott asked sleepily, but there was no response. Completely exhausted, they both slept soundly on the open beach.


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