The aztec treasure house, p.11
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       The Aztec Treasure-House, p.11
 

           Thomas A. Janvier

  IX.

  THE CAVE OF THE DEAD.

  Very dismal was our procession of faintly seen figures moving cautiouslythrough that wild solitude. At its head went Rayburn, leading his horse,on which was Dennis's dead body; all of us, being bruised and cut andbleeding, walked slowly and painfully; and behind us, ghastly forms tornby bullets and crushed by blows, lay the slain Indians in all manner ofunnatural attitudes, made yet more hideous and fantastical by thegathering gloom of night. Indeed, night now was so close upon us thathad not the canon in which we were run east and west, we would have beenfor some time past in darkness. As it was, though shut off from the westby the great range of mountains, a faint light came down into its depthsfrom the still bright eastern sky, where lingered ruddy reflections ofthe sunset: and so we could see to pick our way, along the edge of thelittle stream, among the rough masses of rock and trunks of trees whichhad fallen from above.

  Our march ended sooner than we had counted on. Before we hadaccomplished more than half a mile of this rough travelling, thereloomed before us a wall of rock which shut in the end of the canon, andwhich rose as high and as sheer as did the canon's sides. Our heartssank within us, for we perceived that we were in a cul-de-sac; whenceescape was possible only along the way by which we had come--and so toreturn, with the Indians still in wait for us, was to walk straight intothe jaws of death. And, further, if our course in this direction was cutoff, it was evident that the King's symbol graved upon the rock at theentrance of the canon was a useless and misleading sign.

  In the hope that we might find a sharp turn, not to be perceived untilwe were close upon it, we pressed on through the dusk until we came tothe very end of the canon, and the dark wall of rock that barred our wayrose directly above our heads. And then we found, not a turn in thecanon, but a narrow opening (through which came forth the little stream)into the body of the mountain itself. Yet we hesitated about enteringthis black gap--for who could tell what depths, unseen in that densedarkness, we might not plunge into headlong?

  Much dry pine wood, branches and whole trees, lay about us in the canon;and of this apt material Rayburn presently constructed a great torch.Lighting this in the open canon was not to be thought of, for while wefelt tolerably certain that the main body of our enemies had notfollowed us, we could not be wholly certain that they were not closeupon our heels and ready to open upon us with a volley of arrows andspears. Rayburn therefore struck a wax-match--with which excellentarticle of Mexican manufacture we were supplied plentifully--and withthis to light his way, entered the narrow pass; and in his wake the restof us followed. Almost in a moment the walls on each side of us spreadout beyond the reach of the narrow circle of light, and we perceivedthat we were come into a cave. But before we could at all discern oursurroundings the match was blown out by a sudden suck of wind setting infrom the entrance, and we were in thick darkness. The air around us wasso sweet and so fresh that we knew that the cave must be large, and withmore than one opening--as, indeed, the suck of wind inward through thepassage by which we entered clearly showed. While Rayburn struck anothermatch, wherewith to light the torch, we all stood still in our places;and certain tremors went through our breasts because of the eeriness ofour surroundings.

  THE CAVE OF THE DEAD]

  When the great torch blazed up, and threw everywhere save towards thehigh roof a flood of light, a real and rational fear took possession ofus. The cave was nearly circular, and at its back, directly facing theentrance, was a roughly hewn mass of stone on which rested a huge stonefigure--identical with the figures in the Mexican National Museum towhich Le Plongeon, the discoverer of one of them, at Chichen-Itza, hasgiven the name of Chac-Mool. But what filled us with dread was not thisimpassive stone image. Our alarm came from a much more natural cause,as we beheld, squatted on their haunches in long semicircular rows,facing the great stone idol, more than a hundred Indians. Truly,considering that our rifles were outside the cave and that we had withus only our revolvers, our momentary thrill of terror was highlynatural.

  Yet it was only momentary. The Indians, undisturbed by our presence andby the sudden blaze of light, remained unmoved in silent worship oftheir god; and Rayburn, the first of us to recover equanimity, set allour fears to flight as he exclaimed: "These are not the fighting kind.Every man Jack of 'em is as dead as Julius Caesar. We've struck an Indianbone-yard."

  Here, then, was the reason why a part of the force that had attacked ushad drawn off when we made our stand at the mouth of the canon that ledto this home of the dead. Yet when, by the light of the torch, weexamined our silent fellow-tenants of the cave, it did not seem thatthey had been placed there in recent times. Indeed, the more that FrayAntonio and I looked closely at their wrappings and noted the way inwhich their mummied forms had been ranged before this idol--thatcertainly belonged to a primitive time--the more were we inclined tobelieve that this weird sepulchre belonged to the very far back past.But for the moment it mattered not to us whence these dead forms came:the essential matter was that while we remained in the cave with them wewere in absolute safety.

  "Well," said Young, when we had reached this comforting conclusion,"since it's a sure thing that we're all right here, I move that we makeourselves comfortable. Let's bring in th' stock, an' get th' packs off;an' then we'll build a fire an' eat another supper. Fightin' Indians ishungry work, an' I feel as if I hadn't had anything to eat for aweek"--which suggestions were so reasonable that we at once proceeded toact upon them.

  It was hard work for us, wounded and sore and tired as we were, tounfasten the pack-cords; and still harder work to collect the wood forour fire. But we managed to accomplish it all at last; and mostcomforting and refreshing was our supper amid those extraordinarysurroundings. There was even cheerfulness about our meal--and yet overin the shadows at the back of the cave, touched now and then by abrighter flash of firelight, lay before the heathen altar of old thebody of our poor Dennis; and close beside us were the long rows of deadIndians. I sometimes have thought that it was strange that we then hadany heart to eat at all, surrounded by so desolate a company. But thereis that about killing one's fellow-creatures, and being in imminentperil of being killed one's self, I have found, that blunts for a whilethe souls of those who survive and makes them careless of death's awfulmystery. As the fire crackled and blazed, giving out a plentiful warmththat in that chill place was most grateful to our aching bodies, ourspirits seemed to brighten with its brightness; and when the rich smellof strong coffee mingled with the smell of stewing meats told thatYoung's cooking was nearly ended, we sniffed hungrily and eagerly; andwhen we actually fell to upon our meal I remember that we even laughedover it.

  Yet it is but just to Fray Antonio to say that his fine spirit did notfall to the level of grossness that ours were brought to by what, as itseems to me, was an instinctive gladness on the part of our fleshlybodies that, for a while longer, they would not return to the dustwhereof they were made. Through our meal he sat gravely silent, yet withso sweet and so tender an expression upon his gentle face that in hissilence there was no suggestion of reproof. And when our meal was ended,and we were for stretching out upon our blankets before the fire andsmoking our pipes comfortably, he reminded us, with no touch ofharshness in his voice, that a last duty was claimed of us by our deadcompanion.

  And, truly, the funeral ceremonies over Dennis in that strange place ofburial made the most curious ending of a man that ever I saw. In thefine dry sand wherewith the cave was bedded, directly in front of thealtar on which was the heathen idol, we dug his grave--toilsomely andwith pain, for all of our bodies were hurt and sore. While we labored,two great torches flared upon the altar, propped against the idol; andlong, flickering rays of light shot out to us across the mummied bodiesof the dead Indians--striking across their gleaming teeth, so that theyseemed to smile at us--from the huge blaze of the fire.

  From our stores Fray Antonio took out a little salt, and from the clearspring that bubbled up within the cave a cup of water, which elementsh
e blessed and mingled as the rites of his Church prescribed; and withthe water thus consecrated he sprinkled the body lying before theheathen altar, while his strong, sweet voice chanted the _De Profundis_so that all the cave rang with the rich melody of the holy strain, andour own breasts were thrilled by it. Gently we bore the body of poorDennis from its resting-place before the altar to its last resting-placein the grave that we had dug there, while Fray Antonio said the_Miserere_; and as with our pack-ropes we lowered the body into theearth, the priest sang the _Benedictus_, with its promise of a betterlife to come; and then a prayer ended all, and we filled in the grave.

  "I'm Congregational, myself," Young said, when our work was finished;"at least I was brought up that way; an' I'm down on th' Scarlet Womanfrom first t' last. But I go in for lettin' folks believe what they'vegot a mind to; an' when it comes t' buryin' 'em it's only square t'give 'em th' sort of send-off that they'd really like. For a Catholic, Iguess Dennis was a pretty good one; an' I must say I think it would 'a'done him good to see th' way we've given him a first-class funeral, justin th' shape he'd 'a' fixed things up for himself. But I guess whatwe've been at would have everlastin'ly shook up these dead fellows here,if they could have come t' life for about five minutes while it wasgoin' on!"

  There was an element of grim humor in this suggestion of Young's thattickled my fancy; and it was, indeed, allowing for the quaintness of hisphrasing of it, but an expression of my own thoughts. But my reflectionwas upon the curious incongruity of it all, and upon the way in whichreligious faiths supplant each other; even as the different races of menwho formulate them and believe in them supplant each other upon the faceof the earth. Together in this same cave were now the dead of two faithsand two races. Who could tell what dead of other faiths and races yetunborn would lie here also before the end of time should come?

  When all was ended we were glad enough to lie down to give our batteredbodies rest in sleep. We felt sure that no attack would be made upon us;yet we rolled some fragments of rock into the narrow entrance to thecave, arranging them in such a way that they would fall with a crashshould any attempt be made to move them from outside. And, thisprecaution having been taken, we lay down upon our blankets thankfully,and never troubled ourselves to keep any watch at all.

  It was brilliantly light when we awoke, for the rays of the just-risensun were striking strongly into the cave through its entrance-way; andmuch light came also through a crevice higher up, and through a greathole in the vastly high roof. Viewed in this clearer light, there was ahorrible ghastliness about the mummies ranged in their orderly rows, andpresided over by the coarsely carved, coarsely conceived stone figurethat in life they had worshipped as their god. On this image thesunshine fell full, and we perceived that its position evidently hadbeen chosen carefully, so that the very first ray of light from therising sun would strike upon it. No doubt, in ancient times, this cavehad been a temple as well as a place of sepulchre.

  We were well rested by our long and sound sleep; but the pain which waseverywhere in our bodies, from our many bruises, and from our wounds,and from the aching stiffness of our muscles, made life for a timealmost intolerable. Moreover, the languorous reaction following theundue exaltation that came of our battling and escape was upon us; sothat our pain of body was accompanied by a most sombre and melancholycast of mind. Yet, again, did the more balanced and delicate temperamentof Fray Antonio shine out by contrast with our coarser make; for whilehe also suffered pains of the body, his mind was filled with a serenecheerfulness that found expression in kindly, comforting words, by whichour flagging spirits were strengthened and upheld. There was in FrayAntonio's nature, surely, a fund of gentle lovingness the like of whichI never knew in any other man.

  And, in truth, our plight was such that we stood in much need ofcomforting. Not only were we sick with our many hurts, but we were alsoprisoners. By the full light of day we examined carefully the cave, andfound no outlet to it; and we examined carefully, also, the walls of thecanon throughout its full length, and made sure that there was no pathleading upward whereby a man could go. And escape down the valley wascut off, for the Indians--who knew, no doubt, the manner of place wewere caught in--were on guard and watching for us; which fact camesharply to our knowledge with a half-dozen arrows that dropped among usas we went out a little way beyond the mouth of the canon to see if theway was open to us. Had we been whole, we might have made a dash andfought our way through; but even this poor plan was not possible whenour bodies were stiff and sore. Our one comforting thought was that, aswe had an abundance of provisions and an ample supply of water, we couldhold out for so long a time that the Indians at last would get tired ofwaiting for us. If they ventured to attack us in the cave, we knew thatwe could defend ourselves against any number of them successfully. Ifthey simply abandoned the siege, then we would be free without fightingat all. But it was dismal work waiting in that dismal place for one orthe other of these two ends to come.

  And the fact that the King's symbol had proved a false guide also was asource of deep concern to us. By the full strength of daylight we againexamined the graving at the entrance to the canon, and there was nomistaking the way in which the arrow pointed. And, what was even moreperplexing and disheartening, we found the graving repeated at theentrance to the cave, and the arrow pointing directly towards the statueof Chac-Mool. It was impossible that this cave, with mummies only forinhabitants, could be the walled city wherein the reserve force of menand treasure had been hid; and yet here, obviously, was the end of thetrail. Of this we convinced ourselves by searching the cave exhaustivelyfor another outlet--even sounding the walls in the hope that we mightfind a passage that had been artificially concealed. As Rayburn terselyput it, we were no better than so many rats in a trap with terrierswaiting for us outside.

 
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