The aztec treasure house, p.17
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       The Aztec Treasure-House, p.17

           Thomas A. Janvier



  Doubtless the violent strain to which the chain had been subjected by ElSabio's kicking and plunging had loosened the fastenings, centuries old,which held it to the rock; for the chain had not broken, but had comeaway entire. I sank down on the rock as weak with terror as the poor asshad been; and like him I drank greedily of water, and panted for awhile, and at last found my courage coming back to me.

  Yet my case was a happy one compared with that of Fray Antonio.Howsoever narrow my escape had been, the fact remained that I had comeout from my encounter with Death safe and unharmed; but on FrayAntonio's shoulder we could but dread that Death already had laid hishand. And that he knew how close to him Death was standing we could seeby a certain elate and confident air of courage in his bearing, and bythe wonderful tenderness and sweetness of his smile. Truly, never did Iknow a man so ready at all times as this man was to lay down the lifethat God had given him; holding it but as a trust that might at anymoment be called back to the source whence it came. Yet because it was atrust, meant to be put to useful purposes, Fray Antonio valued his lifeand cared for it. And at this time it was he himself who devised a planby which it might be saved.

  The ropes which were fastened to the chain, being held stoutly on theone side by Fray Antonio and on the other by Young, fortunately hadbroken as the great weight of the chain suddenly had come upon them, andhad broken so close to the knots which held them that nearly the wholeof their length remained. The plan that the monk now devised for comingacross to us--and a bold heart was required even to think of this daringenterprise--was that with the two ropes fastened about his body at oneend, and held by all of us at the other, he should swing down into thechasm and far under the promontory of rock on which we stood, and thenthat we should haul him up to us. The great difficulty in the way ofexecuting this plan was in getting the line across between us; its greatdanger lay in the probability--notwithstanding the depth of the recessbeneath us--that he would be dashed against the rocks with such force asto kill him outright.

  But Young, who usually was ready for any emergency that might arise,roused out a ball of twine that was a part of our stores, and one end ofthis he made fast to a fragment of rock, and by a strong heave of itlanded it safe on the other side; whereafter the rigging of the doublerope across was an easy matter.

  Very carefully, testing the knots as he made them, Fray Antonio fastenedthe double line about his body, beneath his shoulders, and so stoodready on the edge of the chasm; while we four stood holding the line,with all our muscles braced for the strain that would come upon it ashe swung downward. For a moment he paused, with his face turned upwardwhile his lips moved. Then he waved his hand, and smiled as he calledacross to us, "It is as God wills!" and so dropped away from the ledge,and like a flash went down beyond our range of sight.

  We felt the jar on the ropes as his body struck against the face of thecliff far below us, and the reflex action as he swung out again, andthereafter the slower motion of the ropes as he swayed back and forthdangling over that black and awful chasm. And as the ropes settled intosteadiness we drew him up towards us; yet dreaded, because of the dullweight of it, and because no assuring cry came up to us, that what welifted was a corpse.

  And, in truth, as we raised the body of Fray Antonio over the edge ofthe cliff it seemed as though this dread were realized; for a greatbloody gash was upon his temple, and his limbs were limp and lifeless,and his face was deathly pale. At sight of which there came into myheart a bursting pain, as though some one had stabbed me there; andthere were tears in Young's eyes; and Rayburn gave vent to his sorrow ina great curse that was half a groan. As for Pablo, whom no danger coulddaunt, and who would bear without flinching any hurt of his own, thisdreadful sight so moved him that he fainted dead away.

  Yet even in the moment that such deep sorrow seemed to be settling downupon us, Fray Antonio slightly moved his lips, and there came forth fromthem a low faint sigh--whereupon Young jumped up with a shout andrelieved his mind by administering to Pablo a hearty kick, which heaccompanied with the remark: "You infernal fool of a Greaser Indian,what do you mean by swoundin'? He ain't dead at all!"

  As tenderly as I could for the trembling of my hands, I washed away theblood from about the cut and bathed Fray Antonio's pale face, whileRayburn gave him a sup of whiskey from his flask. And then, presently,his eyes opened and energy came into his body once more. In a littlewhile he was on his feet again, and as well as ever, save for thesmarting of his cut, and in his head a dizziness and a dull throbbingpain. Just what had happened he could not tell. He knew that he hadstruck against the rock with his feet, as he had planned to do; but hemust have swung around, when the force of the impact had been thuspartly broken, and struck his head against some sharp projection, and sohave been cut and stunned. But it made no great difference how his hurthad come to him, since it had not proved to be a deadly one; thereforewe forbore to question him further concerning it, and sought by quiettalk, that led softly into silence, to take his thoughts away from theperil that he had been in. Indeed, we all were glad to rest quietlywhere we were for the night, for our bodies were tired and our nerveswere racked and strained.

  We should have been most thankful for a big potful of coffee, but therewas no wood with which we could make a fire. The best that we could do,and there was not much comfort in it, was to chew some coffee grainsafter we had made a supper upon one of our few remaining tins of meat;and then we rolled ourselves in our blankets and lay down upon the barerock. And I must say that if anybody had asked me at that moment ifarchaeology was a study that paid for the trouble that it cost, I shouldhave said most unhesitatingly that it was not.

  Even sleep, which I greatly needed, and for which I earnestly longed,did not come to me easily; for each time that I seemed to be droppinggently away into unconsciousness I would be roused by the feeling that Iwas holding fast to the chain again, and so was sliding down the longcurve among the shadows, with the great walls of the canon toweringinfinitely above me, and with the black depth below. And in my sleep Imade again the dreadful passage, and heard the clinking of the chain asit parted, and the rattle of it as it struck the rocks, and felt thegrasp of Rayburn as he caught me, just as the bar was twitched out of myhands--and so woke to find Young shaking me, and to hear him say:"There's no earthly sense in your kickin' around that way, Professor;an', anyhow, it's time t' get up. It's just a wonder how these Mexicanmornin's put life into a man. Why, there's a freshness in th' air that'sgoin' t' waste in this canon that's fit t' make a coffin stand right upon end an' dance a jig!"

  Even Fray Antonio, but for the soreness of his hurt, felt strong andwell; and we ate another tin of meat--which was much less than wewanted to eat--and so started along the path hewn out of the side of thecliff; and what with the brightness and joyfulness of the morning, wecertainly were in much higher spirits than was at all reasonable in thecase of men who had had such close companionship with Death so short atime before, and who still stood a very fair chance of dying dismally ofstarvation. The knowledge that, by the falling of the chain, our retreathad been again cut off did not at all trouble us. Even could we havecrossed the canon, and so have retraced our steps, we could have gone nofarther than the valley of the lake; and we could as well die here asthere. And we were stayed by the reasonable conviction that the pathwhich we were travelling upon certainly would lead us out of themountains at last--even if it did not lead us to the hidden city that wesought.

  For five or six miles we doubled on our course of the day before, goingback along the canon and seeing the path that we had followed a littlebelow us on the other side; then, by a very easy grade, our course beganto ascend, and went on rising until the other path was so far below usthat it ceased to be distinguishable. Thus we came to within a fewhundred feet of the top of the cliffs, when a sudden turn to the leftcarried us into a narrow cleft in the rock. Here the path was verysharply inclined upward for a little way; and for the remainder of
thedistance to the top we ascended a long series of rudely cut steps, sosteep that our legs fairly cracked under us as we neared the end ofthem.

  But we forgot our weariness as we came out upon the summit at last, anda great view of clouds and mountain peaks burst upon us; the like ofwhich I never have seen approached save by the view out over theGunnison country from the crest of the Marshall Pass. But here we sawall around us what there is seen only in one direction; for we were on avastly high, square crest--very like that called the Gigante, which thetraveller by the Mexican Central Railroad sees to the left as he nearsSilao--and clouds and mountain peaks rose up about us on every side.

  But we did not long contemplate this heroic landscape, for a cloud,which almost enveloped us as we finished our ascent of the stair, wasswept still farther away by the brisk wind then blowing; so thatsuddenly a vast building loomed largely through the flying vapor, and ina moment was clear and distinct before our eyes. To find upon this baremountain-top, among cloud solitudes so profound as these, suchoverpowering evidence of the labor and strength of man, sent thrillingthrough our breasts a wonder that was akin to awe. It seemed unreal,impossible, that in such a place such work could be accomplished; andthe very tangible reality of it made it seem to me one of thoseprodigies of man's creation which old stories tell of as having beenwrought by a league with the devil and at the cost of a human soul.

  Had there been any signs at all of human life about this solemn andmajestic building, or upon the mountain-top whereon it stood, thechilling hold that it took upon our imaginations would have been lessstrong. What wrought upon us was the deadly silence, and the absolutestillness of everything save the drifting clouds. It seemed to us asthough we had come out from the living world and our own time into adead region belonging to a long dead past; and I remembered with ashudder that we had entered this region through that gloomy cavern,where hundreds of the ancient dead were clustered in silent worshipabout the great silent idol carved in everlasting stone. It seemed asthough some evil spell hung over us, that doomed us forever to wander inwild solitudes--which were the more appalling because constantly uprosebefore us tangible evidence of the strong current of eager human lifethat had pulsed through them in former times. Young but put into his ownrough language the thought that was in all our hearts when he declared,with a great oath, that for the sake of getting safe out of this lonelyhole he'd contract to fight Indians three days in every week for therest of his life, and be glad to do it for the comfort of havingsomebody around who was alive.

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