The aztec treasure house, p.18
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       The Aztec Treasure-House, p.18
 

           Thomas A. Janvier

  XVI.

  AT THE BARRED PASS.

  The whole top of the mountain, near a mile square, had been so levelledby nature that little remained to be done for its further smoothing bythe hand of man. But the amount of work that had gone into the merepreparation for the building of the great temple was almost incredible.In the centre of the plateau a pyramidal mass of rock near a thousandfeet square, of a piece with the mountain itself, had been so shaped andhewn that it rose in three great terraces to the square apex on whichthe temple stood. These terraces slanted upward, surrounding the pyramidby a continuously ascending way that had its beginning and its ending inthe centre of the eastern front--so that, allowing for the diminishingsize of the pyramid, the distance by this way from the bottom to the topof it was more than a mile and a half.

  "It just took a slow-goin', lazy heathen Greaser t' think out a thinglike this," Young observed as we went up the path. "Now, if th'Congregationalists that I was brought up among had put a church on aplace like this--an' they wouldn't have been likely t' be fools enought' do anything of th' sort--they'd 'a' had a set of steps runnin' smackfrom th' bottom t' th' top, an' folks would have got up in no time. It'sjust th' Greaser fashion all over t' spend a hundred years or so inmakin' a path five miles long around a hill about as high as th' BostonState-house, so's they can get up it easy an' save their wind. But Iwish they'd put in drinkin' fountains along th' road. I'm as thirsty asa salt cod--an' there's so precious little water left in th' keg thatI'm afraid t' begin at it for fear of suckin' it all up."

  "Drinking fountains?" Rayburn, who was a little in advance, called backto us. "Well, so they did. Come along and drink as much as you want to."

  "Cut that, Rayburn," Young answered. "I'm too dead in earnest about mybeing thirsty to stand any foolin'."

  "I'm not fooling"--we had caught up with him by this time--"look foryourself."

  To which Young's only reply was to spring forward eagerly and drink along deep draught from a stone basin beside the path into which trickleda tiny stream from above. Finding water in this unlikely place was asgreat a surprise as it was a joy to us; for we all longed for it, yetdared not drink freely because our supply was nearly gone. It wastouching to hear the long sigh of happiness that El Sabio gave when atlast he lifted his dripping snout out of the basin; and then to see thelook that he gave Pablo, as though to thank him for so blessedlyplentiful a drink. In truth, the Wise One had not tasted a drop of waterfor nearly twenty-four hours--not since his perilous passage of thecanon--and his throat, and his poor little inside generally, must havebeen very dry.

  When we came out on the top of the pyramid at last, which at that momentwas wrapped in clouds almost as dense as London fog, we perceived theingenious plan that had been adopted in order to secure waterplentifully on this mountain-top. By careful scoring of the rock withmany little channels, all leading to a cistern that seemed to be ofgreat dimensions, the warm vapor of the clouds as it condensed intowater on touching the chill stone surface was captured and safely storedaway. And from the overflow of the cistern the fountain below was fed.

  But we did not stop to examine very carefully into this matter, so eagerwere we to press on to the temple close before us. This stood upon aterraced platform, cut from the living rock, and was a perfectly plainstructure--with walls slightly receding inward as they rose, and whollydestitute of ornamentation. For its majestic effect it depended upon itsgreat size and upon its admirable proportions; and being built of thedark rock of which the mountain was formed, and having about it much ofthe sombre feeling that characterizes Egyptian architecture, it had anair of great solemnity and gloom.

  In silence we ascended the short flight of steps that led to the broad,doorless entrance--the only opening through the massive walls--and socame into the vast shadowy hall that these great walls enclosed. Fromfront to back of this hall extended many rows of stone pillars--like thesingle row found in the great chamber among the ruins of Mitla--and bythese were upheld the huge slabs of stone of which the roof was made.Far away from where we stood, down at the end of a long vista ofpillars, was a stone altar on which was carved in stone a colossalfigure of the god Chac-Mool. Looking back through the open entrance, Isaw a break in the mountain peaks to the eastward; and so perceived thatthe first rays of the rising sun must needs enter here and strike fullupon the disk that was poised in the figure's hands. As Pablo caughtsight of the great idol recumbent there, a momentary shudder wentthrough him and he made certain motions with his hand before his eyesthat were strange to me.

  As we drew near to the altar we found that in front of it was asacrificial stone, still darkly stained where blood had flowed upon it;and beneath the stone neck-yoke, still resting there, was a witheredremnant of human vertebrae. There was something very ghastly infinding--preserved by the very stone that had held him down while lifewas let out of him--this mere scrap of the last human victim who hadperished here. As in the desolate valley, so also on this desolatemountain-top, the only proof that human life ever had been here wasfound in proof of human death.

  Save that our curiosity was gratified, and the blessing of the waterwhich we found, our ascent of the great pyramid and our examination ofthe temple bore no fruit. Young, who still seemed to think that tiltingup and disclosing secret passages was an attribute of all statues of thegod Chac-Mool, was here again convinced that his generalization from asingle case was not a sound one. In a serious way--that in itself wouldhave been laughable but for the gloom of our surroundings--he climbedupon the altar and sat first on the head of the god, and then on hisfeet, and even tried the effect of seating himself upon the stone diskthat the god upheld above his navel. But through all of theseexperiments the stone figure remained solidly immovable.

  "I guess there was only one o' that tippin' kind," Young said, at last,"an' he sort o' flocked by himself. Let's get out of here, anyway. Ifthis ever was the Aztec bank that we're lookin' for, there must havebeen a prehistoric run on it that cleaned it out. They must have donethat sort o' thing in old times, eh, Professor? But it don't make muchdifference to us now what they did or what they didn't; an' we'd betterfill up with water an' get out--that is, if there is any way of gettin'out except along the way we came. There's no good in goin' back thatway. It would be better t' settle down here an' starve comfortablywithout wearin' out shoe-leather doin' it. But I don't mean t' do thatuntil I've had a look all around th' top of this god-forsaken mountain,an' made sure that there's only one way down."

  My own thoughts had been dwelling on the possibility that Young's wordsexpressed; for at this definite point to which we had come, the paththat we had come by very reasonably might end--so leaving us in thislonely region among the clouds to die slowly for lack of food. And therewas a certain fitness in our having made our way so far among the deadonly ourselves to die that added sombre fancies to our environment ofsombre realities. Yet there was a heartiness in Young's resolutelyexpressed determination to search for a way out of our difficultiesbefore at all yielding to them that insensibly cheered me. His words hada plucky ring to them; and bravery is as catching as is fear.

  Our empty water-kegs were at the bottom of the pyramid, and when wereached the fountain on our downward way we waited there while Pablowent on with El Sabio and fetched them up to us. There was at leastsolid comfort in knowing, as we went on downward with the kegs allfilled, that, whatever other death might come to us, at least we couldnot die of thirst. At the bottom of the pyramid we left Fray Antonio andPablo, with El Sabio and the packs, and the three of us set out toexplore the three sides of the mountain-top that were unknown to us insearch of a downward path. A heavy mass of clouds had drifted over themountain again, so thick that at a rod away all was white mist aroundus; and the light was growing faint, for the day had come nearly to anend. Indeed, had we been upon the lower levels of the earth night wouldhave been already upon us.

  Making my way along the edge of the precipice, where the plateau brokesheer off, was ticklish work; and half humorous, h
alf melancholythoughts went through my mind touching the absurdity of an ex-professorof Topical Linguistics in the University of Michigan being thus employedin path-hunting upon a lonely mountain-top in Mexico. Truly, adversitybrings us strange bedfellows; but far stranger are the straits intowhich a man comes who takes up with the study of archaeology atfirst-hand. But my path-hunting was without result, for nowhere alongthe edge of the plateau was there a break fit for the descent of anycreature save such as had wings. At the end of near an hour the cloudsonce more lifted; and then I saw Rayburn coming towards me, but with aserious look upon his face that told that he also had been unsuccessfulin his search.

  "It has rather a bad look, Professor," he said, briefly, when I had toldhim that along all the face of the mountain that I had examined the rockwent down sheer. He filled his pipe and lighted it, and we walked backto the base of the pyramid in silence, while he smoked. Young had notreturned; but presently we heard a shout that had so hopeful a sound init as to start us both to our feet and forth to meet him.

  "Have you found a way down?" Rayburn called, as he came nearer to us.

  "You bet I have," he called back; "and, what's more, I've seen somethin'to eat."

  "_Seen_ something!" Rayburn answered, as he joined us. "Why the dickensdidn't you _get_ it?"

  "Well, because it was better'n a mile away from me. It looked like amountain sheep, as well as I could make out; but there it was for sure;an' thinkin' how good that critter will taste roasted has given me aregular twistin' pain all through my empty inside! But th' point is thatdown on that side o' th' mountain there's game; I saw birds, too, but Icouldn't make out what they were; an', somehow, it looks different downthere. It don't look like these d--n dead places we've been prowlin'through for more'n a coon's age. It looks as if God remembered it, an'it was _alive_! Why, th' very smell that came up had somethin' goodabout it; an' there was a different taste to th' air. I tell you,Rayburn, I didn't know what a lonely an' mis'rable an' lost chump sortof a way I was in until I looked over there into that place where th'whole business ain't run by dead folks. An' what's more, Professor,that's the trail for us; for, right where it starts down, there's th'King's symbol an' th' arrow, all reg'lar, blazed on th' rock."

  "Is the trail good enough to make a start on now?" Rayburn asked; "wewon't have more than half an hour more light, but I'd give a lot to getoff this mountain before dark, and every foot down that we go we'll bethat much warmer. We'd stand a pretty fair chance of freezing up hereto-night without any fire."

  "Th' trail's all right for a good half-mile, anyway," Young answered;"an' I guess it's good all th' way. It's pretty much th' same as th' onewe come up by, an' that's good enough, where it don't jump canons, t' goalong in th' dark; but we must rustle if we mean t' do much bydaylight."

  We were back at the pyramid by this time, and we found Fray Antonio verywilling to be off with us that we might try to get well down themountain before night set in; for at that great elevation the quickbeating of his heart added very sensibly to the throbbing pain of hiswound. Therefore we lost no time in getting our packs upon our backs,and upon the back of El Sabio, and briskly started downward; and thekeen cold that came into the air, as the sun sunk away behind themountain peaks at last, warned us that it was safer to take the risks ofa descent almost in darkness than to stay for the night upon that bleakmountain-top without a fire.

  In twenty minutes we perceived a comforting change in the temperature;and at the end of an hour--during the last half of which we walkedslowly and cautiously through the fast-thickening darkness--there wasenough warmth in the air about us to make camping for the nightendurable. But we still were at a great elevation, and the thin air wasbitingly keen, and all the more so because of the scant meal that wehad to comfort us and to put strength into us before we wrappedourselves in our blankets for sleep.

  "What's a mis'rable two pounds of corned-beef among five of us," Youngexclaimed, in a tone of angry contempt, "when every man in th' lot ishungry enough t' eat th' whole of it, an' th' tin box it comes in, an'then go huntin' for a square meal? An' t' think o' that sheep I saw! Isay, Rayburn, did you ever eat a roast fore-shoulder of mutton, withonions an' potatoes baked under it, an' a thick gra--"

  "If you don't hold your jaw about things like that," Rayburn struck in,"I'll murder you!"--and there was such fierceness in his voice, and hetruly was such a savage fellow when his anger was up, that Young washalf frightened by his outburst, and so was silent. I must say that Iwish that he had altogether held his tongue; for, somehow, the smell ofmutton and onions and potatoes, all cooking together, was so strong inmy nostrils, and this smell so set to yearning my very hollow inside,that it was a long while before I could sleep at all; and when I didsleep, it was to be pursued by dreams of painful hungriness which werebut too surely founded in painful fact. Certainly, it was veryindiscreet in Young, to say the least of it, to make a remark of thatnature at that untoward time.

  However, that was the last day that we suffered for want of food. I wasawakened in the very early morning by the sound of a rifle-shot, andsprang to my feet, brandishing my revolver, with a confused belief inmy sleepy mind that we were attacked by Indians again; and, truly, myfirst feeling was one of pleasure at the thought of meeting, even indeadly combat, with men who were alive.

  "It's all right, Professor," Rayburn said. "We're not fighting anybody.But I've killed a mountain sheep, and if we only can get him we'll havea solid breakfast, even if we have to eat him raw. He was over on thatpoint of rock, and he's tumbled down clear into the valley, and thesooner we get down there and hunt for him the better."

  In the bright light of the early morning we could see below us a gladlittle valley, in which trees and grass grew, and in the centre of whichwas a tiny lake. But what gave us most joy was seeing birds flying overthe face of the water, and half a dozen mountain sheep scampering awayat the sound of Rayburn's shot. Truly, the sight of these live creatureswas the most cheery that ever came to my eyes; and as I beheld them, andrealized that at last we had emerged from the dreary, death-strickenregion in which as it seemed to me we had spent years, a great wave ofhappiness rolled in upon and filled my heart. As it was with me, so wasit with the others: who gave sighs of gladness as thus they foundthemselves no longer wanderers among the chill shades of ancient death,but once more moving in the warm living world.

  The path, cut out along the mountain-side, went downward by a sharpergrade than that by which we had ascended; and we descended it joyfullyat a swinging trot, with a new life in us that made us break out intolively talk and laughter that set the echoes to ringing. And presently,in a very jerky fashion because of his rapid motion, Pablo piped away onhis mouth-organ with "Yankee Doodle"--and this was the first time thathe had had the heart to play upon his beloved "instrumentito" since ourpassage of the lake beneath which lay the city of the dead.

  In an hour we came fairly down into that bright and lovely valley, wherewas the sweet sound of birds calling to each other, and the glad sightof these live creatures flying through the air. As for the sheep thatRayburn had killed, he was knocked pretty well into a jelly by hishalf-mile or so of tumble down the mountain-side. But we were notdisposed to be over-fastidious, and we quickly had his ribs roastingover a brisk fire: that yet was not so brisk as was our hunger, for webegan to eat before the meat was much more than warmed through. When ourravening appetite was appeased a little, Young got out the coffee-potand set to making coffee. And then, with meat well cooked and coffee inabundance, we made such a meal as can be made only by half-starved menwho suddenly have come forth from the dark shadows of threatening deathinto the glad sunshine of safety. Of what further perils might be instore for us we neither cared nor thought. Our one strong feeling wasthe purely animal joy bred of deliverance from gloom and danger, and thepacking of our bellies with hearty food.

  When, at last, our huge meal was ended, we settled back upon ourblankets, and fell to smoking. Presently Rayburn gave a prodigious yawnand laid aside his pipe. "I th
ink I'll take a nap," he said. I saw thatYoung already was nodding and that Pablo had sunk down into slumber;while El Sabio, who had come even closer to starving than we had come,most thankfully rummaged among the rich grass. My eyes were heavy, and Istretched myself out on my blankets, with the warm sunshine comfortingmy stiffened body, and presently sunk softly into delicious sleep.

  I partly woke a few minutes later, as Fray Antonio rose, thinking thatwe all were lost in slumber, and walked a little apart from us. He alonehad made a meal in reasonable moderation, and I saw now that he had goneaside to pray. For a moment the thought stirred in me that I would joinhim in what I knew was his thanksgiving for our deliverance; but sleephad too strong a hold upon me, and my body slowly fell back upon theblankets and my eyes slowly closed, carrying into my slumber the sighton which they last had rested: the monk kneeling upon the grass beside agreat gray rock, with clasped hands and face turned upward, pouring hissoul out in grateful prayer.

  It was well on in the afternoon when we all woke again; and Young'sfirst remark was that it must be about supper-time. Rayburn fell in withthis notion promptly, and so did I myself--rather to my astonishment,for it seemed unreasonable that after such a stuffing I should desire toeat so soon again. But we did make a supper almost as hearty as ourbreakfast had been, and in a little while wrapped ourselves in ourblankets, with our feet towards the heaped-up fire, and went off oncemore to sleep, and slept through until sunrise of the following day. Intruth, the mental strain, bred of our gloomy surroundings and of thedread of starvation that had possessed us, had taxed our physicalstrength more severely than our mountain climbing and our lack ofnourishment. The great amount of strong food that we ate, and our longslumber, showed nature's demand upon us that our waste of tissue shouldbe made good.

  When we woke again on the second morning, we all were fresh and strongand eager to press onward. There was little left of the sheep to carrywith us; but Rayburn shot half a dozen birds, some species of duck, aswe skirted the lake in our passage across the valley, so there was nofear that we should lack for food. At its western end the valleynarrowed into a canon. There was no choice of paths, for this was thesole outlet, and we were assured that we were on the right path byfinding the King's symbol and the pointing arrow carved upon the rook.The canon descended very rapidly, and by noon we were so far below thelevel of the Mexican plateau that the air had a tropical warmth in it;and so warm was the night--for all the afternoon we continued todescend--that we had no need for blankets when we settled ourselves forsleep.

  Rayburn was of the opinion that we were close upon the Tierra Caliente,the hot lands of the coast; and when we resumed our march in the morninghe went on in advance of the rest of us, that he might maintain acautious outlook. If he were right in his conjecture as to ourwhereabouts, we might at any moment come upon hostile Indians. It wastowards noon that he came softly back to us and bade us lay down ourpacks and advance silently with him, carrying only our arms. "There'ssomething queer ahead; and I thought that I heard voices," he explained."But there must be no shooting unless we are shot at. Some of theseIndians are friendly, and we don't want to start a row with them if theyare willing not to row with us."

  The canon was very narrow at this point, and high above us its wallsdrew so closely together that the shadows about us were deep. As werounded a bend in it, the rock closed above our heads in a great arch,so that we were in a sort of natural tunnel; at the far end of which wasa bright spot showing that a wide and sunny open space was beyond. Butover this opening were bars which cut sharply against the light, asthough a gigantic spider had spun there a massive web; and as we drewnearer to this curious barrier we saw beyond it a broad and gloriousvalley, rich with all manner of luxuriant tropical growth and floodedeverywhere with the warm light of the sun.

  We approached the strange barrier cautiously, and our wonder at it wasincreased as we found that it was made of the bright metal of which wehad found so many specimens; and still more we wondered as we found thatthe bars were fastened on the side from which we approached, so that wecould remove them easily, while from the side of the valley theypresented an impassable barrier. In strong excitement we drew out themetal pins which dropped into slots cut in the rock and so held the barsfast, and in a few minutes we had cleared the way for our advance. Justas we were making ready to pass through the opening we heard the soundof voices; and as we quickly drew back into the shadows two men sprangup suddenly before us, and cried in wonder as they saw that the lowerbars across the opening were gone. Yet the expression upon their faceswas not that of anger; rather did they seem to be stirred by a strongfeeling of joy with which was also awe. Both men were accoutred in thefashion which the pictured records show was usual with the Aztecwarriors, and one of them--as was indicated by his head-dress and by themetal corselet that he wore--was a chief; and they challenged ussharply, yet with gladness in their tones, in the Aztec tongue.

  So sudden and so ringing was this challenge, and so startling was theuprising of the men before us, that as we sprang back into the shadow weinstinctively stood ready with our arms. But Fray Antonio, not havingany intent to join in the fight, was cooler than the rest of us, andinstantly perceived that fighting was not necessary. Therefore he it waswho first spoke to these strangers; and his first word to them was,"Friends!"

  Then the watchmen, for such they seemed to be, spoke eagerly togetherfor a moment, and pressed to the opening to look upon us; yet seeing usbut dimly because of the dark shadows which surrounded us. Pablo wasclosest to them, and I marvelled to see how like them he was in look andin air. Him they first caught sight of, and as they saw him they bothturned from the opening, and, as though calling to some one at adistance, gave both together a great glad shout. Instantly, at somelittle distance, the cry was repeated; and so again farther on and yetfarther, with ever more voices joining in it; so that it swelled andstrengthened into a great roar of rejoicing that seemed to sweep overthe whole of the valley before us, and to fill it everywhere withtumultuous sounds of joy.

  As though the duty that they were charged with had been thusaccomplished, the men turned again to us, and he of the higher rank,speaking the Aztec language, yet with turns and changes in that tonguewhich were strange to me, eagerly called to us:

  "Come forth to us! Come forth to us!" he cried. "Now is the prophecy ofold fulfilled and the watch rewarded that our people have maintainedfrom generation to generation through twenty cycles here at the gratedway! Come forth to us, our brothers--who bring the promised message fromour lord and king!"

  I turned to Fray Antonio as these words were spoken, and I saw in hisface that which made me confident in my own glad conviction that here atlast was the secret place for which so long, and through such perils, wehad sought. Here indeed had we found the hidden people of whom the dyingCacique had spoken and of whom the monk's letter had told; the strongcontingent of the ancient Aztec tribe that ages since the wise KingChaltzantzin had saved apart, that when their strength was needed theymight come forth to ward their weaker brethren against conquest by aforeign foe. And the great happiness begotten of this glad discoveryfilled all my body with a throbbing joy.

  Yet as we went out through the opening that we had made between thebars, and the watchers saw us fairly in the sunlight, they sprang backas though in alarm. Rayburn met this demonstration promptly by makingthe peace-sign--raising aloft the right arm--that is common to all NorthAmerican Indians; and after a moment of hesitation the chief answered tothis in kind. So there was peace between us as we advanced; but itseemed to me that their regard of us now had in it more of wonder andless of awe.

  MAKING THE PEACE-SIGN]

 
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