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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Aztec Treasure-house - Chapter 16. At The Barred Pass
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The Aztec Treasure-house - Chapter 16. At The Barred Pass Post by :gopinathindia Category :Long Stories Author :Thomas A. Janvier Date :May 2012 Read :1088

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The Aztec Treasure-house - Chapter 16. At The Barred Pass

CHAPTER XVI. AT THE BARRED PASS

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

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

"Drinking fountains?" Rayburn, who was a little in advance, called back to 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 my being thirsty to stand any foolin'."

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

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

When we came out on the top of the pyramid at last, which at that moment was wrapped in clouds almost as dense as London fog, we perceived the ingenious plan that had been adopted in order to secure water plentifully on this mountain-top. By careful scoring of the rock with many little channels, all leading to a cistern that seemed to be of great dimensions, the warm vapor of the clouds as it condensed into water on touching the chill stone surface was captured and safely stored away. 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 eager were we to press on to the temple close before us. This stood upon a terraced platform, cut from the living rock, and was a perfectly plain structure--with walls slightly receding inward as they rose, and wholly destitute of ornamentation. For its majestic effect it depended upon its great size and upon its admirable proportions; and being built of the dark rock of which the mountain was formed, and having about it much of the sombre feeling that characterizes Egyptian architecture, it had an air 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 so came into the vast shadowy hall that these great walls enclosed. From front to back of this hall extended many rows of stone pillars--like the single row found in the great chamber among the ruins of Mitla--and by these 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 of pillars, was a stone altar on which was carved in stone a colossal figure of the god Chac-Mool. Looking back through the open entrance, I saw a break in the mountain peaks to the eastward; and so perceived that the first rays of the rising sun must needs enter here and strike full upon the disk that was poised in the figure's hands. As Pablo caught sight of the great idol recumbent there, a momentary shudder went through him and he made certain motions with his hand before his eyes that were strange to me.

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

Save that our curiosity was gratified, and the blessing of the water which we found, our ascent of the great pyramid and our examination of the temple bore no fruit. Young, who still seemed to think that tilting up and disclosing secret passages was an attribute of all statues of the god Chac-Mool, was here again convinced that his generalization from a single case was not a sound one. In a serious way--that in itself would have been laughable but for the gloom of our surroundings--he climbed upon the altar and sat first on the head of the god, and then on his feet, and even tried the effect of seating himself upon the stone disk that the god upheld above his navel. But through all of these experiments 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. If this ever was the Aztec bank that we're lookin' for, there must have been a prehistoric run on it that cleaned it out. They must have done that sort o' thing in old times, eh, Professor? But it don't make much difference to us now what they did or what they didn't; an' we'd better fill 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 that way. It would be better t' settle down here an' starve comfortably without wearin' out shoe-leather doin' it. But I don't mean t' do that until 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 words expressed; for at this definite point to which we had come, the path that we had come by very reasonably might end--so leaving us in this lonely region among the clouds to die slowly for lack of food. And there was a certain fitness in our having made our way so far among the dead only ourselves to die that added sombre fancies to our environment of sombre realities. Yet there was a heartiness in Young's resolutely expressed determination to search for a way out of our difficulties before at all yielding to them that insensibly cheered me. His words had a 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 we reached the fountain on our downward way we waited there while Pablo went on with El Sabio and fetched them up to us. There was at least solid comfort in knowing, as we went on downward with the kegs all filled, that, whatever other death might come to us, at least we could not die of thirst. At the bottom of the pyramid we left Fray Antonio and Pablo, with El Sabio and the packs, and the three of us set out to explore the three sides of the mountain-top that were unknown to us in search of a downward path. A heavy mass of clouds had drifted over the mountain again, so thick that at a rod away all was white mist around us; and the light was growing faint, for the day had come nearly to an end. Indeed, had we been upon the lower levels of the earth night would have been already upon us.

Making my way along the edge of the precipice, where the plateau broke sheer off, was ticklish work; and half humorous, half melancholy thoughts went through my mind touching the absurdity of an ex-professor of Topical Linguistics in the University of Michigan being thus employed in path-hunting upon a lonely mountain-top in Mexico. Truly, adversity brings us strange bedfellows; but far stranger are the straits into which a man comes who takes up with the study of archaeology at first-hand. But my path-hunting was without result, for nowhere along the edge of the plateau was there a break fit for the descent of any creature save such as had wings. At the end of near an hour the clouds once more lifted; and then I saw Rayburn coming towards me, but with a serious look upon his face that told that he also had been unsuccessful in his search.

"It has rather a bad look, Professor," he said, briefly, when I had told him that along all the face of the mountain that I had examined the rock went down sheer. He filled his pipe and lighted it, and we walked back to the base of the pyramid in silence, while he smoked. Young had not returned; but presently we heard a shout that had so hopeful a sound in it 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 dickens didn't you _get it?"

"Well, because it was better'n a mile away from me. It looked like a mountain 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 a regular twistin' pain all through my empty inside! But th' point is that down on that side o' th' mountain there's game; I saw birds, too, but I couldn't make out what they were; an', somehow, it looks different down there. 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' good about 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 sort of 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; "we won't have more than half an hour more light, but I'd give a lot to get off this mountain before dark, and every foot down that we go we'll be that much warmer. We'd stand a pretty fair chance of freeing up here to-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' one we come up by, an' that's good enough, where it don't jump canons, t' go along in th' dark; but we must rustle if we mean t' do much by daylight."

We were back at the pyramid by this time, and we found Fray Antonio very willing to be off with us that we might try to get well down the mountain before night set in; for at that great elevation the quick beating of his heart added very sensibly to the throbbing pain of his wound. Therefore we lost no time in getting our packs upon our backs, and upon the back of El Sabio, and briskly started downward; and the keen cold that came into the air, as the sun sunk away behind the mountain peaks at last, warned us that it was safer to take the risks of a descent almost in darkness than to stay for the night upon that bleak mountain-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 walked slowly and cautiously through the fast-thickening darkness--there was enough warmth in the air about us to make camping for the night endurable. But we still were at a great elevation, and the thin air was bitingly keen, and all the more so because of the scant meal that we had to comfort us and to put strength into us before we wrapped ourselves in our blankets for sleep.

"What's a mis'rable two pounds of corned-beef among five of us," Young exclaimed, in a tone of angry contempt, "when every man in th' lot is hungry 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! I say, Rayburn, did you ever eat a roast fore-shoulder of mutton, with onions 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 he truly was such a savage fellow when his anger was up, that Young was half frightened by his outburst, and so was silent. I must say that I wish that he had altogether held his tongue; for, somehow, the smell of mutton and onions and potatoes, all cooking together, was so strong in my 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 did sleep, it was to be pursued by dreams of painful hungriness which were but too surely founded in painful fact. Certainly, it was very indiscreet in Young, to say the least of it, to make a remark of that nature at that untoward time.

However, that was the last day that we suffered for want of food. I was awakened in the very early morning by the sound of a rifle-shot, and sprang to my feet, brandishing my revolver, with a confused belief in my sleepy mind that we were attacked by Indians again; and, truly, my first feeling was one of pleasure at the thought of meeting, even in deadly 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 have a solid breakfast, even if we have to eat him raw. He was over on that point of rock, and he's tumbled down clear into the valley, and the sooner we get down there and hunt for him the better."

In the bright light of the early morning we could see below us a glad little valley, in which trees and grass grew, and in the centre of which was a tiny lake. But what gave as most joy was seeing birds flying over the face of the water, and half a dozen mountain sheep scampering away at the sound of Rayburn's shot. Truly, the sight of these live creatures was the most cheery that ever came to my eyes; and as I beheld them, and realized that at last we had emerged from the dreary, death-stricken region in which as it seemed to me we had spent years, a great wave of happiness rolled in upon and filled my heart. As it was with me, so was it with the others: who gave sighs of gladness as thus they found themselves 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 sharper grade than that by which we had ascended; and we descended it joyfully at a swinging trot, with a new life in us that made us break out into lively talk and laughter that set the echoes to ringing. And presently, in a very jerky fashion because of his rapid motion, Pablo piped away on his mouth-organ with "Yankee Doodle"--and this was the first time that he had had the heart to play upon his beloved "instrumentito" since our passage of the lake beneath which lay the city of the dead.

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

When, at last, our huge meal was ended, we settled back upon our blankets, and fell to smoking. Presently Rayburn gave a prodigious yawn and laid aside his pipe. "I think I'll take a nap," he said. I saw that Young 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 I stretched myself out on my blankets, with the warm sunshine comforting my stiffened body, and presently sunk softly into delicious sleep.

I partly woke a few minutes later, as Fray Antonio rose, thinking that we all were lost in slumber, and walked a little apart from us. He alone had made a meal in reasonable moderation, and I saw now that he had gone aside to pray. For a moment the thought stirred in me that I would join him in what I knew was his thanksgiving for our deliverance; but sleep had too strong a hold upon me, and my body slowly fell hack upon the blankets and my eyes slowly closed, carrying into my slumber the sight on which they last had rested: the monk kneeling upon the grass beside a great gray rock, with clasped hands and face turned upward, pouring his soul out in grateful prayer.

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

When we woke again on the second morning, we all were fresh and strong and eager to press onward. There was little left of the sheep to carry with us; but Rayburn shot half a dozen birds, some species of duck, as we skirted the lake in our passage across the valley, so there was no fear that we should lack for food. At its western end the valley narrowed into a canon. There was no choice of paths, for this was the sole outlet, and we were assured that we were on the right path by finding 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 the level 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 to descend--that we had no need for blankets when we settled ourselves for sleep.

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 morning he went on in advance of the rest of us, that he might maintain a cautious outlook. If he were right in his conjecture as to our whereabouts, we might at any moment come upon hostile Indians. It was towards noon that he came softly back to us and bade us lay down our packs and advance silently with him, carrying only our arms. "There's something queer ahead; and I thought that I heard voices," he explained. "But there must be no shooting unless we are shot at. Some of these Indians are friendly, and we don't want to start a row with them if they are willing not to row with us."

The canon was very narrow at this point, and high above us its walls drew so closely together that the shadows about us were deep. As we rounded 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 was a bright spot showing that a wide and sunny open space was beyond. But over this opening were bars which cut sharply against the light, as though a gigantic spider had spun there a massive web; and as we drew nearer to this curious barrier we saw beyond it a broad and glorious valley, rich with all manner of luxuriant tropical growth and flooded everywhere with the warm light of the sun.

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

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

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

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

"Come forth to us! Come forth to us!" he cried. "Now is the prophecy of old fulfilled and the watch rewarded that our people have maintained from generation to generation through twenty cycles here at the grated way! Come forth to us, our brothers--who bring the promised message from our lord and king!"

I turned to Fray Antonio as these words were spoken, and I saw in his face that which made me confident in my own glad conviction that here at last was the secret place for which so long, and through such perils, we had sought. Here indeed had we found the hidden people of whom the dying Cacique had spoken and of whom the monk's letter had told; the strong contingent of the ancient Aztec tribe that ages since the wise King Chaltzantzin had saved apart, that when their strength was needed they might come forth to ward their weaker brethren against conquest by a foreign foe. And the great happiness begotten of this glad discovery filled all my body with a throbbing joy.

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

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