The aztec treasure house, p.38
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       The Aztec Treasure-House, p.38
 

          

  XXXVI.

  THE VENGEANCE OF THE GODS.

  Almost in the moment that we thus found ourselves in condition to showfight again, the need for fighting seemed like to be forced upon us; foras we turned to leave the treasure-chamber we were startled by hearing acreaking sound that we knew came from the sliding upward of the gratingin its metal grooves wherewith the entrance to our prison was made fast.

  We paused for a moment, and then Young motioned to me to follow him,stepping lightly; and as we came out into the oratory we heard a freshcreaking, by which we knew that the grating had been closed.

  "I guess it's only th' fellow puttin' in th' grub," Young whispered."But go easy, Professor, an' have your guns all handy, so's you canshoot. If anybody _has_ come in it won't do t' let 'em get out again.Only mind you don't shoot unless you really have to. If there's only twoor three of 'em we'd better try t' club 'em with our Winchesters, so'snot t' bring all hands down on us with a rush before we can get Rayburnaway."

  As he spoke, we were assured that some one had entered when the gratingwas raised and had remained on our side of the grating when it wasclosed again, for we heard footsteps in the room where we ordinarilylay; and then the footsteps drew nearer, as though the unseen personwere examining the other rooms in search of us, and we knew that inanother moment or two this person would enter the chamber wherein wewere. Rayburn was lying so quietly that it seemed as though he hadfallen into a swoon again; and Pablo, as we could tell by hearing hissobs, had betaken himself to the room in which El Sabio was tethered insearch of solacing companionship. Young motioned me to stand on one sideof the entrance to the oratory, and himself stood on the other; and thuswe waited, while the footsteps rapidly drew nearer, in readiness mosteffectually to cut off the retreat of whoever might enter the room.

  The man who did enter, passing between us, was the Priest Captain. As hesaw the wreck of the idol, and the opening in the wall behind where theidol had stood, he uttered an exclamation of alarm and rage; and in thesame moment some instinctive dread of the danger that menaced him causedhim to turn suddenly around. So, for an instant, he confronted us--andnever shall I forget the look of malignant hatred that was in his faceas in that instant he regarded us, nor his quick despairing gesture atsight of Young standing there with his rifle raised. Even as he openedhis mouth to cry out, before any sound came from his lips, the heavybarrel of Young's rifle swept downward, and with a groan he fell.

  Had the blow struck fairly it could not but have split the man's skullopen; but he swerved aside a little as the rifle came down, and theweight of the stroke, glancing from his head, fell upon his shoulder. Inan instant, dropping the rifle, Young was kneeling on his breast with ahand buried in the flabby flesh of his old throat, holding tight-grippedhis windpipe. Excepting only Rayburn, Young was the strongest man I everknew (though, to be sure, at that time he was weakened by his thenrecent wound and by the privations of his imprisonment), yet it was allthat he could do to hold that old man down and to maintain his chokinggrasp. With a most desperate energy and a fierce strength that seemedout of all nature in a creature so lean and old and shrivelled, thePriest Captain writhed and struggled in his efforts to throw Young off,and sought also to grasp Young's throat with his long bony hands--whilefoam gathered on his thin lips, and his withered brown face grew blackwith congested blood, and his black eyes protruded until the half of theeyeballs, bloody with bursting reins, showed around the black, dilatedpupils. And then him struggles slowly grew less and less violent, hisknotted muscles gradually relaxed, his mouth fell open so that histongue lolled out hideously, his legs and arms twitched a littlespasmodically--and then he lay quite still.

  YOUNG'S STRUGGLE WITH THE PRIEST CAPTAIN]

  For a minute or two longer Young maintained his grasp. Then rising tohis feet, breathing heavily, he wiped the sweat from his face as heexclaimed, at the same moment giving the dead body a vicious kick: "Youblack devil, take that! Now I've squared accounts with you for killin'th' Padre--and it's the best day's work I've ever done!"

  Though the struggle between the two had been a very desperate one, therehad been no noise about it. Through the whole fight Rayburn had remainedburied in his death-like stupor; and Pablo, though so near to us, hadheard no sound of it at all.

  "Now, then, Professor," Young said, when he had got his wind back,"we've got t' bounce. Th' first thing t' do is t' fasten that gratin' onour side, so's nobody can get in here t' bother us while we're doin' ourskippin'. I guess we can sort o' wedge it fast so's t' stand 'em off foran hour or two, anyway, an' that's time enough to give us a fair start."

  "We can do something better than that, I think," I said, as we wenttogether towards the grating. "Unless I am much mistaken, only thePriest Captain knew about this sliding door and the treasure-chamberbeyond it. If we can restore to their places those three plates, and canclose the door behind us, I am persuaded that so far as pursuit of us isconcerned we shall be absolutely safe."

  "Gosh!" Young exclaimed. "D' you know, Professor, I wouldn't 'a' givenyou credit for havin' that much common-sense. It's a big idea, that is,an' we'll try it on. But, all th' same, we've got t' make things assure as we can, an' this little job must be attended to first."

  As we approached the grating we saw two of the temple guard standingoutside of it, apparently waiting for the Priest Captain's return; andthese men looked at us with such evident suspicion that I feared for thesuccess of our plans. "Just talk to 'em," Young said, hurriedly. "Talkto 'em about th' last election, or chicken-coops, or anything youplease, while I take a look 'round an' sec how we're goin' t' get thisjob done."

  Young dropped behind me, and then aside and so out of sight, as Iadvanced to the grating and spoke to the men, whose faces somewhatcleared as I told them that the Priest Captain desired that they shouldwait there a little longer. And then I managed to hold their interestfor some minutes while I spoke about the devil that was in El Sabio, andabout other devils of a like sort whom I had known in my time. While Ithus spoke I heard a little tinkling sound, as of metal striking againststone--but if the soldiers also heard it they paid no attention toit--and then Young whispered, "We're solid now; come on!" Whereupon Iquickly ended my imaginative discourse upon demoniac donkeys, and withno appearance of haste we walked away.

  "It was just as easy as rollin' off a log," Young said, jubilantly."There was a big gold peg stickin' there all ready t' slide into a slot,so's t' hold th' gratin' down, an' all I had t' do was t' slide it. Iguess, with a plug like that holdin' that gratin' fast, they'll needjacks t' open it. Th' only other way t' start it 'll be rammin' it witha bit o' timber; but bustin' it in that way 'll take a lot o' time, an'half an hour's plenty for all we've got t' do. If you're straight inthinkin' nobody knows about that slidin' door we're solid."

  I felt very sure in my own mind that I was right in believing that onlythe Priest Captain had known of this secret opening; for, after him, themost likely person to have knowledge of it was the keeper of thearchives, and that he was altogether ignorant of it I was well assured.Therefore I most cheerfully helped Young, so far as my unskilful handscould be useful, in the work of restoring the gold plates to the placeswhence the lightning had wrenched them loose; and when this work wasdone, so cleverly did Young manage it, there was no possibility ofdistinguishing the door from any other portion of the wall; nor wasthere then a sign of any sort remaining to show that by the passage of athunder-bolt the idol had been destroyed.

  As we were finishing this piece of work we heard the soldiers at thegrating calling to the Priest Captain--at first in low tones, and thenmore loudly; and then we heard them give a yell together, whichconvinced us that they had tried to raise the grating and had found thatit was fastened down.

  The ten minutes that followed was the most exciting time that I everpassed through. Notwithstanding the secure fashion in which the gratingwas fastened, we could not but dread that those outside had knowledge ofsome means whereby it could be loosened; and in any event there was nodou
bt but that they could force a way in upon us by beating it down.Therefore we knew that there was no safety for us until we were fairlyout of the oratory, and had closed behind us the sliding door--and withsuch difficult material to deal with as Rayburn, who still lay in aheavy stupor, and Pablo, whom sorrow had wellnigh crazed, we found ithard to make such haste as the sharp exigency of our situation required.Pablo, indeed, was so lost in wonder at finding the broken idol, and thedead body of the Priest Captain, and a door open in the solid wall, thatwhat little remained of his wits disappeared entirely; so that we hadalmost to carry him--while El Sabio most intelligently followedhim--into the treasure-chamber, and there we left the two together whilewe returned for Rayburn. And as we lifted the stretcher our heartsbounded, for at that instant there was a tremendous crash at thegrating; whereby we knew that those without had brought to bear againstit some sort of a battering-ram that they might beat it in.

  "It's a close call," Young said between his teeth; and added, as werested the stretcher inside the passage while we closed behind us thesliding door: "If you're off your base, Professor, an' they do know th'trick o' this thing, it may be all day with us yet--but it's a comfortt' know that even if they do finish us we'll everlastin'ly salt 'emfirst with our guns."

  We heard another great crash behind us, but faintly now that the slidingdoor was closed, as we went onward into the treasure-chamber; and herewe heard the like sound again, more clearly, through the slits cut inthe wall. As gently as our haste, and the awkwardness of that narrowway would permit, we lifted Rayburn from the stretcher, and so carriedhim down the short flight of stairs beneath the upraised statue to thelittle chamber that there was hollowed in the rock. Here we laid himupon the stretcher again; and then, without any ceremony whatever, webundled Pablo and El Sabio down the hole. It was a smaller aperture,even, than that through which we had come forth from the Cave of theDead, and how El Sabio was able to condense himself sufficiently to getthrough it will remain a puzzle to me to my dying day.

  All this while we could hear plainly, through the slits in the wall, thecrashing blows which every minute or so were delivered against thegrating, together with a shrill roar of shouts and yells; and we knewthat before this vigorous assault the grating must give way within avery brief period, and so let in the whole yelping pack. If I were rightin my belief that the Priest Captain alone knew of the secret outlet tothe oratory, we still would be safe enough, and could make somepreliminary examination of the cave before we closed the way behind usirrevocably by letting the statue fall back into its place; but if Iwere mistaken, then there was nothing for us but to take the chance oflife and death by going on blindly into that black cavern, after wedgingfast the under side of the statue in such a way that it no longer couldbe swung open from above.

  It was most necessary, therefore, that we should see what course ourenemies would take when they came into the oratory and found it emptyof us, and the idol broken, and the Priest Captain lying dead there;and, that we might compass this end, Young and I returned into thetreasure-chamber and mounted upon a ledge that seemed to have beenprovided for a standing-place--whence we had a clear view into theoratory through the slits in the wall. And at the very moment that wethus stationed ourselves there reverberated through those rock-hewnchambers a deafening crash and a jingling clang of metal and a rattle offalling stone; and with this came a yell of triumph and a rush offootsteps--and then, in an instant, the oratory was full of soldiers andpriests, all yelling together like so many fiends.

  But upon this violent hubbub there fell a hush of awe and wonder asthose who had thus tumultuously entered the oratory saw the PriestCaptain lying dead amid the fragments of the shattered idol, andperceived that the prisoners who had been shut within these seeminglysolid walls had vanished utterly away; and then a sobbing murmur, thatpresently swelled into moans and cries of terror, arose from the throng;and in a moment more, seized by a common impulse, the whole companybowed downward, in suppliant dread of the gods by whom such direfulwonders had been wrought.

  Young gave a long sigh of relief, and with a most mouth-filling oathwhispered in my ear, "They haven't tumbled to it, an' we're all right!"

  As we gazed at these terror-stricken creatures, a thought occurred to meon which I promptly acted. "Get both of your revolvers pointed throughthat hole," I whispered to Young. "Point high, so that the balls willnot hit anybody; and when I begin to shoot do you shoot also, and asquickly as you can. Mind, you are not to hit anybody," I added; for Isaw by the look on Young's face that he longed to fire into the crowdpoint-blank. For answer he gave me a rather sulky nod of assent; but Isaw by the way that he held his pistols that my order was obeyed. "Now,"I said, "Fire!"--and as rapidly as self-acting revolvers would do it, wepoured twenty-four shots through the slits in the wall. No doubt severalpeople were hurt by balls bounding back from the rock, but I amconfident that nobody was killed.

  When we ceased firing it was impossible to see anything in the oratory,because of the dense cloud of sulphurous smoke wherewith it was filled;but such shrieks and yells of soul-racking terror as came from beneaththat black canopy I hope I may never hear again. I waited a little,until this wild outburst had somewhat quieted, and then--placing mymouth close to one of the openings and speaking in a voice that I triedto make like that of Fray Antonio--I said, in deep and solemn tones,"Behold the vengeance of the strangers' God!"

  What effect my words produced I cannot tell. Our firing must haveloosened a fragment of rock between the gold plating that lined theoratory and the outer surface of the wall, and even as I spoke thisfragment fell. With its fall the opening was irrevocably closed.

  "That was a boss dodge," said Young, as he recharged his revolver."Those fellows 'll just think hell's broke loose in here, for sure; andI guess after they've onct fairly got outside they'll rather be skinnedalive than come back again. But what did you say to 'em? Hearin' youtalkin' like th' Padre, that way, gave me a regular jolt. Don't youthink, though, maybe it was a little bit risky t' give ourselves away?"

  But when I had repeated in English the words which I had spoken, Youngvery seriously shook hands with me. "Shake!" he said. "I've done youinjustice, Professor. Sometimes I've thought that you was too muchasleep for your own good--but if anybody ever did anything more wideawake than that, I'd like t' know _what_ he did and who he was. Why,when those fellows tell about all that's been goin' on in here--abouttheir busted idol, an' their dead Priest Captain, an' our skippin,' an'this row our shootin' has made, an' then about th' Padre's ghost talkin'to 'em that way--it's bound t' give 'em such a jolt that th' wholeoutfit 'll slew smack round an' be Christians right off!"

  Some such notion as this had been in my own mind as I executed the planthat on the spur of the moment I had formed. When, later, I thoughtabout it more calmly, I could not but regret, for Fray Antonio's sake,my hasty action; for he would have been the very last man to approve ofsuch stringent methods of advancing the Christian faith. If any resultcame from my demonstration, it certainly came through terror; and theessence of Fray Antonio's doctrine, as it was also of his own nature,was gentleness and love.

 
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