“The Boy Fortune Hunters in Alaska”
“The Boy Fortune Hunters in Panama”
“The Boy Fortune Hunters in Egypt”
“The Boy Fortune Hunters in China”
THE REILLY & BRITTON CO.
COPYRIGHT 1910 BY
THE REILLY & BRITTON CO.
- IWe Meet Lieutenant Allerton9
- IIWe Listen to a Strange Proposition26
- IIIWe Undertake the Yucatan Adventure39
- IVWe Scent Danger Ahead55
- VWe Inspect a Novel Aerial Invention65
- VIWe See an Astonishing Thing72
- VIIWe Outwit the Enemy80
- VIIIWe Fight a Good Fight95
- IXWe Find Ourselves Outnumbered105
- XWe Escape Annihilation113
- XIWe Enter the City of Itza125
- XIIWe Sight the Quarry137
- XIIIWe Seek Safety in Flight150
- XIVWe Interview the Red-Beard164
- XVWe Become Prisoners of the Tcha179
- XVIWe View the Hidden City191
- XVIIWe are Condemned by the Tribunal204
- XVIIIWe Argue with the High Priestess214
- XIXWe Save a Valuable Life231
- XXWe Find the Tcha Grateful239
- XXIWe Lose Poor Pedro254
- XXIIWe Face a Deadly Peril265
- XXIIIWe Become Aggressive277
- XXIVWe Witness a Daring Deed287
- XXVWe Repel the Invaders298
- XXVIWe Hear Strange News314
- XXVIIWe Settle an Old Score332
- XXVIIIWe Win and Lose340
WE MEET LIEUTENANT ALLERTON
“What do you say, Sam, to making a stop at Magdalena Bay?” asked Uncle Naboth, as we stood on the deck of the Seagull, anchored in Golden Gate Harbor.
“Magdalena!” I exclaimed; “why, it’s a wilderness.”
“I know,” he replied; “but the torpedo fleet is there, doin’ target practice, an’ Admiral Seebre has asked us to drop some mail an’ dispatches there, as well as a few supplies missed by the transport that left last Tuesday.”
“Oh, Admiral Seebre,” I rejoined. “That puts a different face on the matter. We’ll stop anywhere the admiral wants us to.” Merchantmen though we are, none of us can fail in genuine admiration for Uriel Seebre, the most typical sea dog on earth—or on water, rather.
So we waited to ship the supplies and mail, and by sunset were shrouded in golden glory as we slowly steamed out of the harbor and headed south.
It’s a pretty trip. Past old Santa Barbara, the man-made harbor of San Pedro—the port of Los Angeles—and along the coast of beautiful Coronado, we hugged the shore line to enjoy the splendid panorama of scenery; but once opposite the Mexican coast we stood out to sea until, three days afterward, we made Magdalena Bay and dropped anchor amid the rakish, narrow-nosed fleet of the torpedo flotilla.
There isn’t much to see at Magdalena. The bay itself is fairly attractive, but the shore is uninteresting and merely discloses a motley group of frame and adobe huts. Yet here the Pacific Squadron comes semiannually to practise target shooting.
As it was four o’clock when our anchor reeled out we decided to lie in the bay until sunrise next morning. We signaled “mail and supplies” and two boats put out from the Paul Jones, the flagship of the miniature but formidable fleet, and soon boarded us. They were in charge of Lieutenant Paul Allerton, whom we found a very decent fellow, without a hint of that contempt for merchantmen affected by so many Annapolis fledglings.
We soon had the stores lowered—they were not many—and delivered the mail pouch and dispatch box, getting a formal receipt for them. As supercargo and purser, I attended to this business personally.
“I’m glad to have met you, Mr. Steele,” said Lieutenant Allerton, “and to have seen your famous boat, the Seagull. We’ve heard a good deal of your curious adventures, you know.”
I laughed, and Uncle Naboth Perkins, who stood beside me, remarked:
“Our days of adventure are about over, I guess, Mr. Allerton.”
“Have you bagged so much treasure you are ready to retire?” asked the officer.
“It isn’t that,” replied my uncle. “We’ve been tramps a long time, an’ sailed in many seas; but the life’s a bit too strenuous for us, so’s to speak. These boys o’ ours are reckless enough to git us inter a heap o’ trouble, an’ keep us there, too, if we didn’t call a halt. So, seein’ as life counts for more’n anything else, Cap’n Steele an’ I hev made the youngsters turn over a new leaf. We’re now on our way to the Atlantic, ’round the Horn, an’ perpose to do peaceful tradin’ from now on.”
Allerton listened with thoughtful interest. He seemed on the point of saying something in return, but hesitated and then touched his cap.
“I must be going, gentlemen. You know how grateful we exiles are for the mail and tinned stuff, and I tender the thanks of the fleet for your courtesy.”
Then he went away and we considered the incident closed.
We were a strangely assorted group as we congregated on the deck of our beautiful craft the Seagull, after dinner that evening, and perhaps here is an excellent opportunity to introduce ourselves to the reader.
Our ship, which we believe has been termed “the pride of the merchant marine,” was constructed under our personal supervision, and sails or steams as we desire. It is about a thousand-tons burden, yacht built, and as trim as a man-o’-war. It is commanded by my father, Captain Richard Steele, one of the most experienced and capable sailors of his time. He is one-third owner, and I have the same interest, being proud to state that I furnished my share of the money from funds I had personally earned. Uncle Naboth Perkins, my dead mother’s only brother, owns the remaining third.
Uncle Naboth is a “natural born trader” and a wonder in his way. He isn’t a bit of a practical sailor, but has followed the seas from his youth and has won the confidence and esteem of every shipper who ever entrusted a cargo to his care. He has no scholastic learning but is very wise in mercantile ways and is noted for his sterling honesty.
My father has a wooden leg; he is old and his face resembles ancient parchment. He uses words only for necessary expression, yet his reserve is neither morose nor disagreeable. He knows how to handle the Seagull in any emergency and his men render him alert obedience because they know that he knows.
I admit that I am rather young to have followed the seas for so long. I can’t well object to being called a boy, because I am a boy in years, and experience hasn’t made my beard grow or added an inch to my height. My position on the Seagull is that of purser and assistant supercargo. In other words, I keep the books, check up the various cargoes, render bills and pay our expenses. I know almost as little of navigation as Uncle Naboth, who is the most important member of our firm because he makes all our contracts with shippers and attends to the delivery of all cargoes.
Over against the rail stands Ned Britton, our first mate. Ned is father’s right bower. They have sailed together many years and have acquired a mutual understanding and respect. Ned has been thoroughly tested in the past: a blunt, bluff sailor-man, as brave as a lion and as guileless as a babe. His strong point is obeying orders and doing his duty on all occasions.
Here is our second mate, too, squatted on a coil of rope just beside me—a boy a year or two younger than I am myself. I may as well state right here that Joe Herring is a mystery to me, and I’m the best and closest friend he has in all the world. He is long and lanky, a bit tall for his age and has muscles like steel. He moves slowly; he speaks slowly; he spends hours in silent meditation. Yet I have seen this boy in action when he moved swift as a lightning bolt—not striking at random, either, but with absolute intelligence.
Once Joe was our cabin boy, promoted to that station from a mere waif. Now he is second mate, with the full respect of Captain Steele, Ned Britton and the entire crew. He wears a common sailor suit, you’ll notice, with nothing to indicate his authority. When he is on duty things go like clockwork.
And now I shall probably startle you by the statement that Joe is the rich man, the financial autocrat, of all our little group. His bank account is something to contemplate with awe and reverence. He might own a dozen more expensive ships than the Seagull, yet I question if you could drive him away from her deck without making the lad absolutely miserable. Money counts for little with Joe; his associates and his simple if somewhat adventurous life completely satisfy him.
Reclining at my feet is a burly youth rejoicing in the name of Archibald Sumner Ackley. He isn’t a sailor; he isn’t a passenger even; Archie is just a friend and a chum of Joe’s and mine, and he happens to be aboard just because he won’t quit and go home to his anxious parents in Boston.
I fear that at the moment of this introduction Archie doesn’t show up to the best advantage. The boy is chubby and stout and not exactly handsome of feature. He wears a gaudy checked flannel shirt, no cravat, yellowish green knickerbockers, and a brown jacket so marvelously striped with green that it reminds one of a prison garb. I never can make out where Archie manages to find all his “striking” effects in raiment; I’m sure no other living being would wear such clothes. If any one ever asks: “Where’s Archie?” Uncle Naboth has a whimsical way of putting his hand to his ear and saying: “Hush; listen!”
With all this I’m mighty fond of Archie, and so are we all. Once on a time we had to get used to his peculiarities, for he is stubborn as a mule, denies any one’s right to dictate to him and is bent on having his own way, right or wrong. But the boy is true blue in any emergency; faithful to his friends, even to death; faces danger with manly courage and is a tower of strength in any encounter. He sails with the Seagull because he likes the life and can’t be happy, he claims, away from Joe and me.
And now you know all of us on the quarter deck, and I’ll just say a word about our two blacks, Nux and Bryonia. They are South Sea Islanders, picked up by Uncle Naboth years ago and devoted now to us all—especially to my humble self. We’ve been together in many adventures, these ebony skinned men and I, and more than once I have owed my life to their fidelity. Nux is cabin master and steward; he’s the stockiest of the big fellows. Bryonia is ship’s cook, and worthy the post of chef at Sherry’s. He can furnish the best meal from the least material of any one I’ve ever known, and with our ample supplies you may imagine we live like pigs in clover aboard the Seagull.
Our crew consists of a dozen picked and tested men, all but one having sailed with us ever since the ship was launched. We lost a man on the way back from China a while ago, and replaced him in San Francisco with a stalwart, brown-skinned Mexican, Pedro by name. He wasn’t one of the lazy, “greaser” sort, but an active fellow with an intelligent face and keen eyes. Captain Hildreth of the Anemone gave us the man, and said he had given good service on two long voyages. But Pedro had had enough of the frozen north by that time and when he heard we were short a man begged to join us, knowing we were headed south. Captain Hildreth, who is our good friend, let us have him, and my father is pleased with the way the Mexican does his work.
The Seagull was built for commerce and has been devoted mainly to commerce; yet we do not like the tedium of regular voyages between given ports and have been quite successful in undertaking “tramp” consignments of freight to be delivered in various far-off foreign lands. During these voyages we have been led more than once into dangerous “side” adventures, and on our last voyage Joe, Archie and I had barely escaped with our lives—and that by the merest chance—while engaged in one of these reckless undertakings. It was this incident that caused Uncle Naboth and my father to look grave and solemn whenever their eyes fell upon us three, and while we lay anchored in San Francisco harbor they announced to me their decision to avoid any such scrapes in the future by undertaking to cover a regular route between Cuba and Key West, engaging in the tobacco and cigar trade.
I did not fancy this arrangement very much, but was obliged to submit to my partners and superiors. Archie growled that he would “quit us cold” at the first Atlantic port, but intended to accompany us around the Horn, where there might be a “little excitement” if bad weather caught us. Joe merely shrugged his shoulders and refrained from comment. And so we started from the Golden Gate en route for Cuba, laden only with our necessary stores for ballast, although our bunkers were full of excellent Alaska coal.
The stop in Magdalena Bay would be our last one for some time; so, being at anchor, with no duties of routine confronting us, we sat on deck enjoying the beautiful tropical evening and chatting comfortably while the sailors grouped around the forecastle and smoked their pipes with unalloyed and unaccustomed indolence.
The lights of the near-by torpedo fleet were beginning to glimmer in the gathering dusk when a small boat boarded us and we were surprised to see Lieutenant Allerton come on board again and approach our company. This time, however, he wore civilian’s clothes instead of his uniform.
Greeting us with quiet respect he asked:
“May I sit down, gentlemen? I’d like a little talk with you.”
Captain Steele pointed to a chair at his side.
“You are very welcome, sir,” he answered.
Allerton sat down.
“The despatches you brought,” said he, “conveyed to me some joyful news. I have been granted a three months’ leave of absence.”
As he paused I remarked, speaking for us all:
“You are to be congratulated, Lieutenant. Isn’t that a rather unusual leave?”
“Indeed it is,” he returned, laughingly. “I’ve been trying for it for nearly two years, and it might not have been allowed now had I not possessed an influential friend at Washington—my uncle, Simeon Wells.”
“Simeon Wells!” ejaculated Uncle Naboth. “What, the great electrician who is called ‘the master Wizard’?”
“I believe my uncle has gained some distinction in electrical inventions,” was the modest reply.
“Distinction! Why, I’m told he can skin old Edison to a frazzle,” remarked Archie, who was not very choice in his selection of words, as he rolled over upon his back and looked up at the officer wonderingly. “Didn’t Wells invent the great storage battery ‘multum in parvo’, and the new aeroplane motors?”
“Uncle Simeon is not very ambitious for honor,” said Mr. Allerton quietly. “He has given the government the control of but few—a very few—of his really clever electrical devices. His greatest delight he finds in inventing. When he has worked out a problem and brought it to success he cares little what becomes of it. That, I suppose, is the mark of an unpractical genius—unpractical from a worldly sense. Still, his relations with the government, limited as they are, proved greatly to my advantage; for when he found my heart was set on this leave of absence, he readily obtained it.”
“The request of Simeon Wells ought to accomplish much more than that, considering his invaluable services,” I suggested.
“For that reason he has warned me he will not interfere again in my behalf,” answered Allerton; “so I must make the most of this leave. It is this consideration that induced me to come to see you to-night.”
We remained silent, waiting for him to proceed.
“I understood from what you said this afternoon that you are bound for Cuba, by way of the Horn,” he resumed, after a moment of thought.
Captain Steele nodded.
“You have a fast ship, you leave immediately, and you are going very near to my own destination,” continued Allerton. “Therefore, I have come to ask if you will accept me as a passenger.”
I cast an inquiring glance at Uncle Naboth, and after meeting his eye replied:
“We do not carry passengers, Lieutenant Allerton; but it will please us to have you accept such hospitality as we can offer on the voyage. You will be a welcome guest.”
He flushed, as I could see under the light of the swinging lantern: for evening had fallen with its usual swift tropical custom. And I noticed, as well, that Mr. Allerton seemed undecided how to handle what was evidently an unexpected situation.
“I—I wanted to take my man with me,” he stammered.
“Your servant, sir?”
“One of our seamen, whose leave I obtained with my own. He is a Maya from Yucatan.”
“Bring him along, sir,” said my father, heartily; “it’s all the same to us.”
“Thank you,” he returned, and then sat silent, swinging his cap between his hands. Allerton had a thin, rather careworn face, for so young a man, for he could not be more than thirty at most. He was of medium height, of athletic build, and carried himself erect—a tribute to his training at the Naval Academy and his service aboard ship. There was something in the kindly expression of his deep-set, dark eyes and the pleasantly modulated tones of his voice that won our liking, and I am sure we were sincere in declaring he would be a welcome guest on the ensuing voyage.
“I—I have several boxes—chests,” he said, presently.
“We’ve room for a cargo, sir,” responded Uncle Naboth.
“At what hour do you sail?” inquired Allerton, seeming well pleased by our consideration for him.
“Then may we come aboard to-night?”
“Any hour you like,” said I. It was Joe’s watch, so I introduced him more particularly to our second mate, as well as to the other members of our party.
“Shall we send for you, Mr. Allerton?” asked Joe.
“Oh, no,” he replied. “The ship’s boat will bring me aboard, thank you. The boys are sorry to see me go so suddenly, but I feel I must take advantage of this fortunate occasion to secure passage. I might wait here a week or two before any sort of tub came this way, and I need every minute of my leave. Cuba lies only a hundred and twenty miles across the channel from Yucatan.”
With this he returned to the torpedo boat he served, and so accustomed were we to little surprises of this nature that we paid small heed to the fact that we had accepted an unlooked for addition to our party for the long voyage that loomed ahead of us. We were quite a happy family aboard the Seagull, and Lieutenant Allerton appeared to be a genial fellow who would add rather than detract from the association we enjoyed.
WE LISTEN TO A STRANGE PROPOSITION
I did not hear our passengers come aboard that night, being sound asleep. By the time I left my room next morning we were under way and steaming briskly over one of those quiet seas for which the Pacific is remarkable.
In the main cabin I found Lieutenant Allerton sitting at breakfast with Captain Steele, Uncle Naboth and Archie. Joe was snoozing after his late watch and Ned Britton was on deck. Behind our guest’s chair stood the handsomest Indian I have ever seen, the Maya he had mentioned to us and whose name was Chaka. Our South Sea Islanders were genuine black men, but Chaka’s skin was the color of golden copper. He had straight black hair, but not the high cheek bones of the typical American Indian, and the regularity of his features was certainly remarkable. His eyes were large, frank in expression and dark brown in color; he seemed intelligent and observant but never spoke unless first addressed, and then in modest but dignified tones. His English was expressive but not especially fluent, and it was easy to understand that he had picked up the language mainly by hearing it spoken.
My first glance at Chaka interested me in the fellow, yet of course during that first meeting I discovered few of the characteristics I have described. At this time he was silent and motionless as a statue save when opportunity offered to serve his master.
The lieutenant wore this morning a white duck mess costume for which he apologized by saying that his civilian wardrobe was rather limited, and if we would pardon the formality he would like to get all the wear from his old uniforms that was possible, during the voyage.
We told him to please himself. I thought he looked more manly and imposing in naval uniform than in “cits.”
“But I don’t see how he can be shy of clothes,” remarked Archie, after breakfast, as we paced the deck together. “Allerton lugged seven big boxes aboard last night; I saw them come up the side; and if they don’t contain his togs I’d like to know what on earth they do hold.”
“That’s none of our affair, Archie,” I remarked.
“Do you think this thing is all straight and above board, Sam?” asked my friend.
“Of course, Archie. He’s a lieutenant in the United States navy, and has a regular leave of absence. He joined us with the approval and good will of his commander.”
“I know; but it seems queer, somehow. Take that copper-faced fellow, for instance, who looks more like a king than a servant; what has Allerton got such a body guard as that for? I never knew any other naval officer to have the like. And three months’ leave—on private business. Suff’rin’ Pete! what’s that for?”
“You might ask the lieutenant,” I replied, indifferently.
“Then there’s the boxes; solid redwood and clamped with brass; seven of ’em! What’s in ’em, Sam, do you suppose?”
“Archie boy, you’re getting unduly suspicious. And you’re minding some one else’s business. Get the quoits and I’ll toss a game with you.”
Our passenger was very quiet during the following day or two. He neither intruded nor secluded himself, but met us frankly when we were thrown together, listened carefully to our general conversation, and refrained from taking part in it more than politeness required.
Joe thought the young fellow seemed thoughtful and ill at ease, and confided to me that he had noticed Allerton now made more of a companion of the Maya than a dependant, although the man, for his part, never abated his deferent respect. Chaka seemed to regard Allerton with the love and fidelity of a dog for its master; yet if any of the sailors, or even Nux or Bryonia, spoke to the Indian with undue familiarity Chaka would draw himself up proudly and assume the pose of a superior.
We were much interested in the personality of these two unusual personages—that is, Joe, Archie and I were—and we often discussed them among ourselves. We three boys, being chums of long standing, were much together and had come to understand one another pretty well. We all liked Paul Allerton, for there was something winning in his personality. As for the Indian, Chaka, he did not repel us as much as he interested and fascinated us. One night big Bry, whom we admitted to perfect familiarity because of his long service, said to us:
“That Maya no common Injun, Mars’ Sam, yo’ take my word. He say his country Yucatan, an’ that place Yucatan don’ mean nuthin’ to me, nohow, ’cause I never been there. But, wherever it is, Chaka’s people mus’ be good people, an’ Chaka hisself never had any other marsa than Mars’ Allerton.”
“He has been serving in the navy, Bry.”
“That don’ count, sah. Yo’ know what I mean.”
On the evening of the third day out from Magdalena we were clustered as usual upon the deck, amusing ourselves by casual conversation, when Lieutenant Allerton approached us and said:
“I’d like to have a few moments’ confidential talk with whoever is in authority here. It’s rather hard for a stranger to determine who that may be, as you all seem alike interested in the career of the Seagull. But of course some one directs your policies and decides upon your business ventures, and that is the person I ought properly to address.”
We were a little puzzled and astonished by this speech. Uncle Naboth removed his pipe from his lips to say:
“This group is pretty near a partnership, sir, seein’ as we’ve been through good and bad luck together many times an’ learned how to trust each other as brave an’ faithful comrades. We haven’t any secrets, as I knows on; an’ if so be you talked in private to any one of us, he’d be sure to call a meetin’ an’ tell the others. So, if you’ve anything to say about the ship, or business matters, or anything that ain’t your own personal concern, set right down here an’ tell it now, an’ we’ll all listen the best we know how.”
Allerton followed this speech gravely and at first appeared embarrassed and undecided. I saw him cast a quick glance into Chaka’s eyes, and the Maya responded with a stately nod. Then the lieutenant sat down in the center of our group and said:
“I thank you, gentlemen, for your kindness. It would seem that I have imposed upon your good nature sufficiently already; yet here I am, about to ask another favor.”
“Go on, sir,” said my father, with an encouraging nod.
“From what I have been able to learn,” continued the lieutenant, in his quiet voice, “your ship is at this moment unchartered. You are bound for Havana, where you expect to make a lucrative contract to carry merchandise between that port and Key West; mostly, of course, leaf tobacco. Is that true?”
“It’s quite correct, sir,” said Uncle Naboth.
“In that case, there is no harm in my making you a business proposition. I want to land on the east coast of Yucatan, at a place little known and seldom visited by ships. It will take you a couple of hundred miles out of your course.”
For a few moments no one spoke. Then Captain Steele said:
“A trip like that, Mr. Allerton, involves a certain amount of expense to us. But we’re free, as far as our time is concerned, and we’ve plenty of coal and supplies. The question is, how much are you willing to pay for the accommodation?”
A slight flush crept over Allerton’s cheek.
“Unfortunately, sir,” he replied, “I have very little ready money.”
His tone was so crestfallen that I felt sorry for him, and Joe turned quickly and said:
“That’s unlucky, sir; but I’ve some funds that are not in use just now, and if you’ll permit me to loan you whatever you require I shall be very happy to be of service.”
“Or,” added Uncle Naboth, carelessly, “you can pay us some other time; whenever you’re able.”
Allerton looked around him, meeting only sympathetic faces, and smiled.
“But this is not business—not at all!” said he. “I did not intend to ask for financial assistance, gentlemen.”
“What did you intend, Mr. Allerton?” I inquired.
He refrained from answering the direct question at once, evidently revolving in his mind what he should say. Then he began as follows:
“Ever since I came aboard I have had a feeling that I am among friends; or, at least, congenial spirits. I am embarked on a most Quixotic adventure, gentlemen, and more and more I realize that in order to accomplish what I have set out to do I need assistance—assistance of a rare and practical sort that you are well qualified to furnish. But it is necessary, in order that you understand me and my proposition fully, that I should tell you my story in detail. If I have your kind permission I will at once do so.”
It began to sound interesting, especially in the ears of us three boys who loved adventure. I think he could read the eagerness in our eyes; but he looked earnestly at Captain Steele, who said:
“Fire ahead, Mr. Allerton.”
He obeyed, seeming to choose his words carefully, so as to make the relation as concise as possible.
“My home is in a small New Hampshire town where the Allertons have been the most important family for many generations. I was born in the same room—I think in the same bed—that my father and grandfather were born in. We had a large farm, or estate, and a fine old homestead that was, and is, the pride of the country. We have until recently been considered wealthy; but my poor father in some way acquired a speculative passion which speedily ruined him. On his death, while I was yet a cadet at Annapolis, it was found that all the land and investments he had inherited were gone; indeed, all that was left was the homestead with a few acres surrounding it.
“My mother and my two maiden sisters, one a confirmed invalid and both much older than I, found themselves wholly without resources to support themselves. In this emergency an old lawyer—a friend of the family, who I imagine has little keen ability in business matters, advised my mother to mortgage the place to secure funds for living expenses. It seemed really necessary, for the three forlorn women were unequal to the task of earning their living in any way.
“When this first fund was exhausted they mortgaged the homestead again, and still again; and although they had lived simply and economically, in twelve years the old place has become so plastered with mortgages that it is scarcely worth their face value. Little can be saved from a second lieutenant’s pay, yet I have been able to send something to the dear ones at home, which only had the effect of staving off the inevitable crisis for a time. Uncle Simeon, too, has helped them when he remembered it and had money; but he is a man quite impractical in money matters and the funds required for his electrical experiments are so great that he is nearly as poor as I am. Very foolishly he refuses to commercialize his inventions.
“Conditions at home have naturally grown worse instead of better, and now the man who holds the mortgages on the homestead has notified my mother that he will foreclose when next they fall due, in about four months’ time from now. Such is the condition of my family at home, and you may well imagine, my friends, how unhappy their misfortunes and necessities have made me. As the climax of their sad fortunes drew near I have tried to find some means to assist them. It has occupied my thoughts by day and night. But one possible way of relief has occurred to me, suggested by Chaka. It is a desperate chance, perhaps; still, it is a chance, and I have resolved to undertake it.”
He paused for a moment; but no one cared to speak, although we were much interested in the story.
“Nine years ago,” continued Lieutenant Allerton, “while I was ensign on the Maryland, we were cruising on the east coast of the promontory of Yucatan when one evening we observed a small boat being sculled rapidly toward the ship by a young native the color of bronze, who was naked except for a loin cloth. After him darted a motley crowd of boats, in hot pursuit, the occupants screaming wild invectives at their escaping prey.
“Our captain ordered a gig lowered and I was sent out in it, met the fugitive, and took him aboard. We managed to regain the ship before the frantic natives could reach us. However, they shot a myriad of poisoned darts at us and were only driven off when a volley from our men sent them scurrying back to shore in a panic.
“The young fellow I had rescued was Chaka. He seemed to consider me his especial preserver and attached himself to me with a persistency that induced the captain to let me have him in my own room, where we soon became friends. Chaka is very intelligent, as you have doubtless observed. I taught him English and he taught me the Maya tongue. When, some months after, I was transferred, I managed to take Chaka with me and have him enrolled as a seaman. We have been together nine years, and we are better friends than at first.”
He looked up at the Maya, who bowed gravely in acknowledgment.
WE UNDERTAKE THE YUCATAN ADVENTURE
“I have learned all of Chaka’s history, as he has learned all of mine,” continued Allerton, resuming his story. “My friend is a royal prince of the Itzaex, the one native tribe of Yucatan that defied the Spanish invaders of the Sixteenth Century and remains unconquered to this day. This tribe dwells in the vast sierras of Yucatan, near the Great Lake, and the Atkayma of the Itzaex has the same importance and power as the Inca of Peru or the Caciques of the Aztecs formerly enjoyed. Chaka is the eldest son of the ruling atkayma; by this time he may even have succeeded to the title of atkayma himself, the head of his people, for his father was an old man when the boy left him. The family of rulers is a sacred one, said to be descended from the sun, and every one of the atkayma’s fifty thousand subjects would die for him without hesitation.
“At the time I rescued Chaka he was an adventurous youth who, ignorant of the name of fear, was leading a band of his people on an expedition to the seacoast, in search of turtles. In some way he became separated from his companions and found himself surrounded by a horde of Mopanes, the hereditary tribal foes of the Itzaex. I am sure the boy rendered a good account of himself before he was forced to leap into a boat and scull out to sea, where his sharp eyes had noted our ship approaching. He had been bred with a horror for the white man, but preferred to take his chances with us rather than be cut down by the Mopanes.
“When he came to know us, and to understand our advanced civilization, the youth decided that he preferred it to the wild, crude life of his own people, and has gladly sacrificed his royal heritage to remain with me. Our friendship has been very sweet to us both, and we are as brothers.”
It was good to watch the Maya’s face during this tribute. His pride in his friend and his devotion to him might easily be read in the tender and unabashed expression of his handsome brown eyes.
“And now,” said Allerton, “I come to the most important part of my story. When Chaka learned of the sore straights of my dear mother and sisters, and found how unhappy the lack of wealth was making us all, he became brooding and thoughtful, and finally proposed to me a plan which, if successful, would enable me to redeem the old homestead, provide my family with every comfort, and give me ample means besides. It is a bold—even an audacious—conception; but it may be accomplished, nevertheless, with Chaka’s aid. I have decided to undertake it, and have been preparing for the expedition for more than a year. The last thing necessary was my leave of absence, and this you brought to me at Magdalena with the admiral’s despatches.”
You may guess that by this time Archie, Joe and I were wide-eyed and open-mouthed with interest in this remarkable story. We could hardly wait for the lieutenant to explain his references to the adventure on which he had embarked, and he seemed to appreciate this and did not keep us waiting.
“The Maya tribes, which had inhabited Yucatan for centuries before the Spaniards discovered the country,” said he, “were not, after all, the original inhabitants of the promontory. Ancient ruins of the cities and temples of the Mayas, equaling in beauty and size any of those erected by the Aztecs of Mexico, may yet be seen scattered over the land. Their civilization, customs, laws and literature amazed the early Spaniards who found them. Yet long before the Mayas came a civilization had existed in Yucatan greater than any they could ever boast. The legends of Chaka’s people, the unconquered Itzaex, relate how the country was first settled by a race from Atlantis, a great island continent which was later submerged and utterly destroyed by some unusual convulsion of nature.
“This nation from Atlantis bore the name of Tcha. It settled in the mountainous regions of Yucatan, covering originally all that territory now occupied by the Itzaex, the Mopanes and the Kupules, midway between Campeache and the Mosquito Coast. There they built great cities of white marble, exquisitely carved, many of the walls bearing hieroglyphics and picture writings not unlike those of the ancient Egyptians. They were learned in arts and sciences and had their libraries and colleges. They worshipped the Sun-God—the original deity of the Atlanteans—and also Bacáb, a god afterward adopted by the Mayas, who supported the heavens on his shoulders. The rulers of the Tcha were all chosen from the priesthood, the highest caste among them, and were male or female, as the case might be.
“Chaka tells me that when the Mayas came to Yucatan they found all these cities deserted and falling to ruins. Only skeletons, lying here and there in the streets, and found in great numbers in the dwellings, showed that the palatial buildings had ever known inhabitants. There is a great mystery concerning these deserted cities. Some think a pestilence fell upon the people and destroyed them; others that a rain of scorpions depopulated the country. Nothing remained, seemingly, to tell the fate of this mighty vanished race. The Mayas, being superstitious, were afraid to occupy the marble cities. They tore down the walls and used the materials for their own inferior buildings. Scarce a vestige now remains of the ancient civilization of the Tcha. Yet, according to Chaka, a remnant of that wonderful people still exists, in much the same way that it did six thousand years ago; and strange as it may seem, inhabits a hidden city in the mountains of Yucatan.”
I had been getting a little weary of the historical lecture; but now I saw why Allerton had related it. A tribe of Atlanteans six thousand years old, and living in a hidden city of Yucatan! Yes; we were all intent enough by this time. It seemed like a fairy romance, yet the words were uttered with careful deliberation. I glanced at Chaka; the grave look upon the Maya’s face was ample confirmation that he at least believed in the truth of this marvelous statement.
“This remnant of the Tcha was never discovered by the Spaniards,” continued Mr. Allerton, “and even the many tribes of the Mayas remain to-day ignorant of their presence in Yucatan. It is certain the owners of the various haciendas dotting the plains at the west and north have never heard of the hidden city. But the hereditary Atkayma of the Itzaex has had the knowledge for centuries, and kept the secret even from his own people. In return for this protection the Tcha have given to the rulers of the Itzaex certain powers which have enabled them to resist all attacks upon their domain and to remain free and unconquered to this day.
“There are not many of the ancient race of Tcha, and they live so secluded in their mountain fastness that nothing definite is known concerning them. When Chaka’s father was a young man he, with a band of followers, unconsciously invaded the territory of the Tcha and climbed the mountain near their sacred retreat. The atkayma and his men were promptly seized and carried into the hidden city, where all were destroyed except the Itzaex ruler. He was, after taking a solemn oath, allowed to return to his people, so that by means of his authority he might prevent any further intrusion on the part of his subjects.
“When Chaka was old enough to understand these things his father, the old atkayma, confided to him this story, at the same time urging him, when he in turn became the ruler of his nation, to protect the Tcha from discovery or molestation. One thing that Chaka especially remembers is his father’s description of the enormous wealth of the hidden city, where the streets were literally lined with gold and all ornaments and utensils were of the same precious metal. Brilliant red jewels, probably rubies, seemed as common as pebbles elsewhere. The Itzaex are a simple people, caring little for gold or gems, so the treasure of the Tcha has never tempted them.
“And now, gentlemen, I think you will understand from this brief relation the adventure upon which Chaka and I have embarked. My friend will guide me to his people, the Itzaex, and from there we will make a descent on the hidden city of the ancient Tcha and collect such treasure as we are able.”
I drew a long breath, while Archie, Joe and I stared into one another’s eyes. How curious it seemed that just at this juncture, when we had supposed we were through with fortune hunting for good and all, this alluring tale was suddenly told us. We were eager to know what would follow, for it was evident that Allerton would not have told us so much had he not, as indeed he had hinted, desired our assistance.
Uncle Naboth grunted as he shifted uneasily on his deck chair. Uncle is a brave old fellow, and adventurous, too; but he is getting old, and has enough means to render him rather indifferent to treasure seeking.
My father seldom allows his feelings to be detected from his expression. He has a way of wiggling that wooden leg of his from side to side that often tells me his mood; but he is accustomed to restrain all speech until he has fully made up his mind, after which it is very difficult to move him.
Fortunately, I thought, the leg did not now indicate that he was much disturbed. He actually seemed interested in the lieutenant’s recital and was at present slowly revolving it in his mind.
“I s’pose, sir,” began Uncle Naboth, “you’d like us to drop you on the coast, near to where you’ll find Chaka’s people. We’ll do that. But as fer waitin’ to pick you up, when you’re ready to quit, why that’s a hard thing to figger on, seein’ no one knows how long the job’ll take you, or if you’ll ever get away at all.”
Mr. Allerton did not reply at once. When he did his voice trembled a little, as if the matter he was about to broach were of vital importance to him.
“I want to make you a proposition, gentlemen,” he said, addressing us all, “and I hope you will consider it carefully before rejecting it. There is untold wealth in the secluded city of the Tcha. If we are going there to plunder we may as well take enough to make every one of us rich. Yet my idea is not to rob that ancient people, but to obtain a portion of their gold and jewels by fair means. They have an ancient superstition that if a white man ever discovers their retreat he will become their master—second only in power to the Sun-God. Even the priests must bow before him and admit his supremacy. They believe that such a white man, capable of penetrating to their city, would be a superior being, excelling themselves in intelligence; for their city is carefully guarded from all possible intrusion.
“This story may or may not be true; yet, without knowing anything very definite about the city or the people we are to visit, both Chaka and I consider it reasonable to suppose that this isolated race, cut off from all the rest of the world and its progress, and despising gold and jewels except for their beauty, might be delighted with some of the convenient and pretty knickknacks and modern inventions so common to us, and so inexpensive. So I have packed in my chests a supply of novelties which I will offer to trade for gold and rubies, thus obtaining the desired treasure in a legitimate way.”
“That sounds reasonable, an’ clever, too,” remarked my father, nodding approvingly.
“I’ve quite a lot of beads and cheap jewelry aboard myself,” announced Archie. “Perhaps we could trade that in.”
“I don’t imagine people who have rubies and gold would care for cheap jewelry,” replied Joe.
“My original idea,” said Allerton, “was to go alone with Chaka to his people, and have them escort us to the neighborhood of the hidden city. There Chaka and I would make an attempt to evade the guards and slip into the city, using some appliances to accomplish this which I will explain to you later. But the more I have dwelt upon this adventure, the more dangerous it seems to me if undertaken by two people. The truth is that I have made somewhat elaborate preparations to impress this unknown nation, and I need more assistance than Chaka can render, and more intelligent comrades than the fierce native Itzaex. The chances of success would be much greater, I am sure, if I had half a dozen white comrades, brave and trustworthy, willing to follow me anywhere.”
“Here’s one, Lieutenant!” I cried, starting up and extending to him my hand. “Will you accept me as a volunteer?”
“Oh, well,” said Joe, calmly, “if Sam goes of course Archie and I go with him.”
“To be sure,” nodded Archie, lazily.
Allerton seemed very grateful as he shook our hands. We shook hands with Chaka, too, who appeared to be equally pleased.
“I knowed it!” growled Uncle Naboth, ruefully; “I saw it comin’ from the start. Seems like we can’t sail in any direction without these fool boys runnin’ their necks inter danger. That hidden city sounds interestin’, though. Guess I’ll go, too, Lieutenant—blamed if I don’t!”
Now, my dear Uncle Naboth is so short and so fat that his person is almost a ball in shape. Also he wheezes a bit because his breath is scant, and no one would be likely to select him for an ideal mountain climber and adventurer, under any circumstances. There was an amused gleam in Allerton’s eye as he said:
“Thank you very much, sir. I shall be delighted to have you with us, if you can stand the mosquitoes.”
“Eh? Are they ’skeeters there?” inquired my uncle.
“A great many, I fear. It is near the famous Mosquito Coast, you know.”
Uncle Naboth looked grave and a bit uncomfortable, but made no further remark. I knew very well, however, that nothing on earth would induce him to enter a jungle swarming with his deadly enemies the mosquitoes, and that he would find an early excuse to back out of the expedition.
“O’ course,” said Captain Steele, “I’ll hev to look after the Seagull, fer my part, an’ be ready to pick you up when you’ve made good. Hick’ry legs ain’t much as mountain climbers, no how; so it’s just as well I ain’t along.”
“If you’ll take me with you, sir,” said Ned Britton, who had been silent until now, “I’ll consider it a rare favor.”
Allerton was genuinely glad of this splendid recruit. Ned wasn’t strong at brain-work, but of powerful physique, active and fearless. I could see that Chaka regarded him as the most valuable of the volunteers.
“There’s your half dozen whites, sir, including yourself,” said father. “But I guess you’d better pick one more, ’cause Naboth’ll be et up by ’skeeters afore you get very far.”
“Then you must choose from among the sailors,” I suggested. “They are all good men, Lieutenant, and you can’t go wrong.”
“I’ll look them over awhile and make the selection when I know them better,” was Allerton’s reply. “I cannot tell you how greatly your prompt and hearty coöperation has delighted me. These three young fellows,” pointing to us in turn, “have won considerable renown already for their desperate adventures, and not a man sails the seas who hasn’t heard of them and admired their grit. I’m in luck to have met you; in greater luck to have you join my enterprise. And now let us understand the terms of the agreement. If we succeed—any of us—in returning to this ship with treasure, I ask that a share be set aside to reclaim my old homestead and support my mother and sisters. If I should not be fortunate enough to come out of the adventure alive, then I ask you to keep Chaka with you and make him your friend, sending on my share of the spoils to my family. You can easily obtain Chaka’s discharge from the navy, as he has served the required time.”
“That’s all right, sir,” I replied. “We are all taking chances, as we know very well, and I think the best way to fix the business deal is to say that your home shall be redeemed first of all, as that is the main object of the undertaking. After that all of us who come back safe and sound may share and share alike. What do you say, Uncle Naboth?”
“Very good, Sam.”
“Seems to me that’s fair and square,” added Archie.
“We’re furnishing the ship an’ crew,” remarked my father, musingly.
“True, sir,” responded Allerton readily. “But in those seven chests I have an outfit fully as important for the success of the expedition as your ship and crew. We will let one offset the other, if you like.”
“Suits me,” declared my father, who cared less for driving a bargain than for asserting the importance of the Seagull. “But it’s gettin’ pretty late, boys, and I’m sleepy. Guess my wooden leg’s fell asleep a’ready. So let’s turn in and do the rest o’ the talkin’ later on. There’ll be lots o’ time to figger everything out afore we round the Horn.”
So we separated, the group on deck breaking up.
WE SCENT DANGER AHEAD
We were all somewhat thoughtful after this interview, for it was evident we had undertaken an adventure the details of which were quite obscure to us. For my part I was too nervous and excited to bunk in just yet, so I took Joe’s arm and we walked over to the bow, where the clear starlight enabled us to watch the Seagull cut her way through the water. Chaka was at the rail before us, and started to move away; but I stopped him, saying:
“We are all brothers now, Chaka, and therefore we must become better friends. Now that we are aware of your station and rank in your own country we stand equal.”
“Only that?” said Joe. “Is the Atkayma of the Itzaex merely the equal of a common seaman?”
“I’m not common, Joe,” I protested; “and I’ve a notion a decent American is the social equal of an Indian chief. It’s social equality I’m talking about, not rank.”
“Cap’n Sam is right,” observed Chaka, with a smile that would have fascinated a woman. “Equality among men is found only in heart and brain.”
His readiness to converse, remembering his former reserve, almost startled me.
“Perhaps you’re right,” drawled Joe. “But tell us, Chaka, is there much danger in this coming adventure, do you think?”
The Maya looked grave.
“Plenty danger, Cap’n Joe.” Every one was a “Cap’n” to Chaka; he considered it a complimentary title, bound to please. “Danger from Itzaex, first of all; but not much, for I am Chief’s son. More danger from Mopane tribe, who hate Itzaex. Most danger from the mighty Tcha, who very strong, very jealous, very watchful.”
“What are those people like?” I asked.
The Maya shook his head.
“My father not tell me. When I ask, he tremble, like he afraid; and my father is brave man. But the Tcha country very small—in the middle of a mountain—and their legend say a white man some day discover them and be their master. My brother Paul is white man.”
“So you think our greatest danger will be to get to the hidden city, do you?”
“Yes. It long, bad journey. Mopanes watch by seashore, and fight us. My own people I have not seen for many years. When I find them they greet me as child of the sun, and help me. But Itzaex hate all white men, and I must use my power to protect white men from their hatred. That will be a danger to you, if not to me.”
“I see. Well, it promises to be an exciting trip, all right,” I said cheerfully, for the truth was that the danger of the adventure appealed to me more than the prospect of securing treasure. “It isn’t always necessary to fight your way in a hostile country, in order to win out, Chaka. Diplomacy and caution, backed by a little good judgment, are better than guns and pistols. Eh, Joe?”
“A little courage in avoiding a fight has often done us good service, Sam,” agreed my friend.
Chaka seemed to approve this view.
“Sometime my brother Paul tell you more,” he said.
I noticed he now spoke of Allerton as “my brother Paul,” when mentioning him to us; and there was a world of affection in the way he said it.
“Brother Paul has a big brain; his mind see far ahead. Also he have great man for Uncle—Cap’n Simeon Wells. We spend whole month last summer with Cap’n Wells, who know how to do many strange things.”
“He’s a jim-cracker electrician, all right,” said Joe.
“He give much wonder-things to my brother Paul, to help him with the Mopanes, the Itzaex and the Tcha. We keep wonder-things in the seven big boxes. You see, some day.”
With this information the Maya left us, and Joe and I sat another hour discussing the coming adventure before we finally turned in.
Uncle Naboth was pretty glum next morning. He was trying to find some way to back out of the expedition gracefully and with credit. Finally he said to us:
“You boys ain’t to be depended on; I’ve found that out. We had all our plans fixed to get into a steady, respectable coast trade, where there wouldn’t be a single thing to keep any o’ us awake nights; and here, when we’re only a week out o’ port, you’ve gone an’ upsot the whole deal.”
“It is funny, Uncle, I’ll admit,” said I. “But you can’t blame us for it, I’m sure. Lay it to Fate, where the responsibility belongs. Remember, too, that you were one of the first to offer to join the expedition.”
“I were wrong about that, Sam,” he replied, eagerly. “I meant to stick to my principles, as an honest man should. An’, by jinks, I will stick to my principles! Don’t try to argy with me; don’t try to coax me. As sure as my name’s Naboth Perkins I’m goin’ to stick to this ship, whatever you reckless bunch o’ youngsters may decide on.”
“Do you back down, sir?” demanded Archie, who was secretly much amused.
“No, sir; not a jot. I stick to my first principles; that’s all.”
Well, we were glad he took it that way, for we didn’t want Uncle Naboth with us. He was brave enough, we knew; but he had a way of getting us all into unnecessary trouble, and his rotund figure prevented him from being as active as the rest of us. A better fellow never lived than this same Naboth Perkins, but we all felt he was safer on board ship than in the wildernesses of Yucatan, and we had a suspicion we would be safer without him, too.
From that time on the adventure was our one topic of conversation. Chaka suggested that he teach us to speak the Maya tongue during the voyage, and we eagerly accepted the offer. I had already a smattering of Arabian and Chinese and could speak fluently the native language of our South Sea Islanders, Nux and Bryonia. So it was little trouble to me, with the painstaking instructions of Chaka and Allerton, to learn to comprehend fairly the Maya tongue. Joe was a natural linguist and kept pace with me easily, but poor Archie was woefully thick-headed when it came to foreign languages. Even Ned Britton, who was wholly uneducated, got along better than he. We kept up our lessons until the day we sighted the coast of Yucatan, but even then Archie understood only a few words of Maya. The mate, for his part, knew all that was said to him, but was rather slow and uncertain of speech, while Joe and I could converse readily with Allerton and Chaka in the Maya.
One of the queerest things, in this regard, was our discovery that black Nux, our steward, had caught on to Chaka’s language with little difficulty, and had himself taught it to Bry. They surprised us one evening by joining in our conversation, and that decided Allerton to ask permission to add them to our party.
“I have never seen finer physical specimens of manhood than these blacks,” he said to me, “and your reports of their loyalty and courage have quite warmed my heart toward them. Perhaps their jet black complexions would be as great a novelty to the Tcha as white skins, and these fellows will add greatly to the strength of our party.”
“That will make nine of us, altogether—,” I said musingly; “you and Chaka, we three boys, Ned Britton, a sailor, and Nux and Bryonia. By the way, have you chosen the sailor?”
“I think I shall take the Mexican who is called Pedro,” answered Allerton. “He is an active fellow and looks honest. Moreover, he is accustomed to a climate similar to that of Yucatan, which is at present a province of Mexico, although so much of it is yet an unexplored wilderness. Do you think Pedro will be willing to join us?”
“I think so, if only for a share of the spoils,” said I. “But I advise you not to mention the subject to him until the last moment. You see, every man jack of them forward would like to go too.”
As you may imagine, we asked many questions of Chaka during the voyage regarding his native country, and the route we were to take to get there. On the whole his answers were clear and satisfactory, for although he had been away for nine years he was a youth of fifteen when forced to escape the Mopanes.
According to his statements all the tribes of Yucatan Indians are called Mayas, and have a common language which varies only slightly according to the dialects of the scattered tribes. All the natives, with the exception of the Itzaex, have at times been conquered by the Spaniards, who first invaded the peninsula in 1506. But the Mayas are mostly wild and untamed to this day, and save for the tribes inhabiting the flat and settled portions of the North and West they indulge in the same barbaric and warlike existence as when the whites first came among them.
After four hundred years of settlement there is less land tilled in Yucatan to-day than there was in its first century of annexation to Spain. The interior and mountainous district is still a wilderness and exceedingly dangerous for a white man to enter.
The most powerful and warlike tribe, now as in the beginning, is that of the Itzaex. These people have no desire to acquire more territory, but hold firmly to their original heritage and fight desperately any of their neighbors who dare cross their boundaries. On the other hand, the Itzaex are barred from the seashore by a fierce tribe known as the Mopanes, and on other sides by the Kupules and Choles.
The hidden city of the remnant of the ancient Tcha nation lies directly in the heart of the Itzaex territory, which is doubtless the reason none of the other tribes is aware of its existence. The chief city of Itzlan is built on the shores of a beautiful fresh water lake lying two thousand feet above the sea level; but Chaka declares no mortal eyes save those of his own tribe have ever yet beheld the place. Which, of course, makes us the more eager to see it.
We had a most delightful voyage south, the Pacific being on its good behavior. Excellent time was made even through the turbulent waters of the Horn, and not until we had rounded the continent and were in the waters of the Atlantic did Allerton again refer to the contents of his seven mysterious chests.
One day, however, he proposed opening them, as he said it would be well for all of us who were to join the expedition to be thoroughly familiar with their contents. So, one by one, the boxes were brought into the roomy main cabin by Nux and Bryonia, where Allerton proceeded to open them.
WE INSPECT A NOVEL AERIAL INVENTION
“You must understand,” said the lieutenant, “that from the moment I decided to undertake this adventure I began preparing my ‘sinews of war’. I calculated that an isolated people like the Tcha would be greatly impressed by our wonderful modern inventions. Also I figured that many things might be collected by me which would assist in the difficult task of penetrating a hostile territory and climbing the almost inaccessible mountains leading to the hidden city. Fortunately I was stationed last summer for more than a month at Washington, where I confided my plans to my uncle, Simeon Wells, and had many long conversations with him as to a proper equipment for this difficult undertaking. His cleverness in electrical matters was of great assistance to me, for his famous storage battery, combining tremendous power with light weight, will enable me to carry some important devices into the very heart of the wilderness. Also my uncle knew of several recent inventions of which I was myself ignorant, and through his influence I managed to secure them. Here, for instance, is an important example.”
With this he took from a chest a curious contrivance that seemed to us like a cross between a rubber air-cushion and an undershirt. As Allerton explained the thing, it was to be worn by pulling it on over the head and allowing it to loosely cover the body from the neck down to the thighs. It was composed of two layers of thin, ribbon-like tissue, and could be inflated like a balloon.
“This strap,” explained Allerton, “is for attaching to your left side a small metal case—here is one—containing the crystals of themlyne. By pouring a little water upon the crystals, through the valve, a very volatile but powerful gas is created, called ‘theml,’ which inflates the garment. Chaka will put one on, so you may see exactly how it works.”
The Maya immediately complied, slipping the rubber arrangement over his head and putting his arms through the holes provided for that purpose. He then attached the metal case, which I think was aluminum, and supplied the themlyne crystals with water. At once the gas began rushing into the queer garment, which became inflated until Chaka’s upper half was puffed out in a ludicrous manner. He turned off the gas, then, and cast an inquiring glance at Allerton.
“Instead of weighing some one hundred and eighty pounds, as he did a while ago,” announced the lieutenant, “Chaka is now but little heavier than air itself.”
To verify this the Maya leaped lightly to the cabin table, bounding back to the floor again with the resilience of a rubber ball.
“In climbing mountains,” explained Allerton, “as well as in descending precipices and the like, this inflated garment will prove invaluable. It is not made of rubber, as perhaps you imagine, but of a new and wonderful material as tough as steel, and as impenetrable. It is a recent scientific discovery to be used in making unpuncturable automobile tires, and I am the first person who has ever adapted it to any other purpose. The gas-jacket, as I call it, was suggested by Uncle Simeon, and I immediately appreciated its value. There are ten of them in this chest, each fitted with a themlyne tank for inflating it. Now I will demonstrate its most important use. If Chaka lets a little more gas into the jacket it will carry him off his feet.”
Chaka did this, slowly rising like a balloon to the ceiling of the cabin, but remaining upright because his legs anchored him in a perpendicular position. He now touched a valve which released a certain portion of the gas and enabled him to descend again to the floor.
“As the jacket is ordinarily worn,” said Allerton, “the idea is to retain enough weight in your body to enable you to control all your motions, at the same time reducing your weight to the extent of preventing fatigue. I could leap over a precipice in that jacket and alight at the bottom uninjured. If I wished to escape an enemy, I could soar into the air, out of reach.”
He took out his pocket knife and asked me to slash or prick the gas-jacket which Chaka was wearing; but the material resisted all my attempts.
“I doubt,” remarked Allerton, “if a bullet at close range would penetrate it; I have never tried the experiment, but where we are going there are no bullets used by the natives.”
We were all filled with wonder at this curious contrivance.
“How much gas will that little case of crystals generate?” I asked.
“Enough to inflate the jacket a half dozen times,” he replied. “But I have an ample supply of themlyne crystals in another chest, to replenish the cases when necessary.”
“Won’t any other gas do?” inquired Archie.
“Not so well. And no other gas can be procured so quickly and easily as themlyne.”
“Of course, when the stuff is gone the jackets are useless,” suggested Joe.
“Yes; but we do not expect to use much gas except in case of emergency. At such times we are sure to find the jackets very useful. There is an appliance I myself have invented to attach to the fully inflated garments, which will render them equal to aeroplanes, and much more reliable and safe,” continued Allerton.
He motioned to Chaka, who took from the chest two objects that resembled closed Japanese fans, which the native first buckled to either side of his gas-jacket and then thrust his arms through a series of catgut loops. Allerton had to assist him in this, as the bulky jacket kept Chaka from using his hands to good advantage. When all was ready, the Maya raised his arms and showed himself possessed of wings. As his arms hung down by his sides the wings remained closed; as he raised them the fans unfolded. They were made of a material similar to that of the jacket.
“We have not had much opportunity to experiment with these wings,” admitted the lieutenant. “They may prove awkward, at first, and perhaps unaided would not carry one far into the air. But when one has ascended to an altitude by means of the inflated jacket the wings should enable him to direct his course, and to soar with the wind, or tack as a ship does, for long distances.”
“I can’t see much practical use in all these fixin’s,” remarked Uncle Naboth. “Seems to me you ain’t goin’ to Yucatan to do circus acts or to knock out the Wright brother, but jest to fight a lot o’ Injuns an’ grab some gold an’ things. Could you carry much of a load through the air in them jackets?”
“I fear not,” admitted Allerton, gravely. “As I before stated, one of my ideas is to impress the natives with the wonders of our modern civilization.”
“Well, it orter do that, all right. It’s impressed me,” said Uncle Naboth.
WE SEE AN ASTONISHING THING
“The most wonderful thing I have to show you,” said Lieutenant Allerton, as Chaka divested himself of the gas-jacket and, after folding and putting it away, prepared to open another chest, “is that which I owe entirely to the genius of my inventive uncle, and his friendly interest in me. Indeed, I may say with truth that you are the first persons in all the world, save the President of the United States, my uncle and myself and Chaka, who have ever been initiated into the mysteries of the marvelous electrite. That is not its correct scientific name, but that is what I shall call it. Some day I am sure this invention will revolutionize and abolish warfare, securing peace to all the nations of the earth. It is so tremendous in its possibilities that when Uncle Simeon finally perfected it, after years of experimenting, he was afraid to give it to the public. He took the President into his confidence, with the result that they have decided to wait and watch conditions before deciding what to do with the electrite. But my uncle has been anxious to test the contrivance in actual use, and at my earnest entreaty permitted me to have eight of them made, to carry with me on my expedition. I may say that I rely more upon the possession of these electrites than upon any other portion of my equipment to carry us through to success.”
In the chest which Chaka now opened we saw a number of carefully wrapped parcels. One of these the lieutenant picked up and opened on the cabin table. There was a layer of stout paper, a wooden box, a covering of felt, one of chamois, then white tissue—and finally Allerton produced a nickel plated tube fifteen inches long and curved at one end like the handle of a revolver. From this handle dangled two insulated electric wires.
We were much interested in this proceeding, but as yet unable to understand what the tube was for. From a square box Allerton next withdrew a belt that at first glance resembled a cartridge-belt, except that it was broader and twice as thick. All around the outer surface was a row of curious electric tubes, joined irregularly together.
“This,” said the exhibitor, proceeding to strap the belt around his waist, “is the most condensed form of the famous Simeon Wells storage battery.” He then attached the wires of the tube to the belt and slipped the electrite into a loop, or holster, at his right side. “I am now ready,” continued Allerton, “to meet any savage beast or any foe that dares face me, for I am armed with the most powerful weapon the world of science has ever produced. If attacked I draw the electrite,” suiting the action to the word, “point it at my enemy, and press this button on the tube with my thumb. That will release a charge of electricity sufficient to stun an elephant at a hundred yards’ distance.”
We looked at him in wonder, and many exclamations, varied according to the temperament of the members of our group, greeted his assertion.
“How many times will it shoot?” asked Archie.
“Forty-five times. That will exhaust the power of the belt,” replied Allerton.
“And then?” said Captain Steele.
“Then we must use another belt, sir. I have six belts for each electrite, and eight electrites.”
“Have you ever tested it?” I asked, a little bewildered as I began to comprehend the marvel of the thing.
“No; not yet. But Professor Wells, the inventor, has fully tested its power, first on dogs and small animals, then on a horse, and finally upon his janitor, who agreed to submit to the ordeal.”
“You don’t mean to say he murdered the man!” cried Uncle Naboth, horrified.
“Not at all, sir. The most astonishing thing about the electrite is that it doesn’t kill—it stuns. A charge from it will knock a man over instantly, rendering him unconscious and apparently lifeless. From two to three hours later, depending upon his physical condition and vitality, he will regain consciousness and be little the worse for his experience save perhaps for a headache. This is why I told you the electrite is destined to abolish war and conserve peace. Nothing can stand against it. Its use will enable an army to conquer and yet avoid bloodshed. If electrites were used by two opposing forces no wails of widow and orphans would follow in the wake of a battle to cast their gloom over the victors.”
We sat spellbound and in silence for a time, thoughtfully considering these things. Gradually I, for my part, began to appreciate the marvel of this great invention.
“I’d like to test it,” said Joe, calmly. “Will you try it on me, Lieutenant?”
“You are too valuable a person to experiment upon,” said he; “but in a way Chaka and I have tested each of our eight tubes, using an extra storage belt which I brought along for that purpose. We secured permission to hunt, one day, on the shore of Magdalena Bay, and knocked over rabbits, gulls and a couple of coyotes with ease. We could not wait to see if they recovered, but I have Uncle Simeon’s assurance that, in the case of a man, recovery is certain unless he has some bad heart trouble or other physical defect. Uncle’s janitor, upon whom he experimented—a brawny Irishman—was upon his feet again in a little more than two hours.”
“It’s surely a queer weapon,” remarked Uncle Naboth. “But when it comes to fighting natives in Yucatan I guess I’d prefer a good rifle. What’s the use of knockin’ an enemy over if you don’t put him out o’ business for good an’ all?”
“No one likes to kill a human being when it can be avoided,” I answered, rather indignantly. “If we are opposed by natives and can render them unconscious for two hours, it’s just as good for our purpose as killing the poor devils.”
“My idea, exactly, Sam,” approved Allerton. “But unfortunately we cannot use our electrites at will, being limited in our number of battery charges. So we must carry guns and revolvers, too, and save these finer weapons for emergencies.”
He then proceeded to show us other curious things contained in the chests, some of which you will hear of during the progress of my story. Three of the big boxes were completely filled with mechanical toys and novelties, aluminum utensils, brass buttons, metal combs, brushes of various sorts, bales of gorgeous colored silks and china ornaments. Allerton admitted that these things had cost him considerable money, practically exhausting the combined resources of his eccentric but inspired uncle and himself, as well as Chaka’s savings.
“If we do not succeed,” said he, quietly enough, “I shall be a bankrupt. But if my plans carry, as I hope they will, no sacrifice is too great to redeem the old homestead and provide for the future of those dear, dependent women.”
“Succeed!” cried Archie; “of course we’ll succeed. With such an outfit as that there’s no chance at all of failure.”
No one replied to this enthusiastic speech. We were busy with our thoughts. There was a long and difficult journey before us, fraught with desperate adventures, before any one might say with assurance that success lay within our grasp.
But we considered it worth the attempt, nevertheless.
WE OUTWIT THE ENEMY
In the gray of the morning I stood with my friends beside the rail, peering anxiously at a dim black line that marked the Yucatan coast. In order to avoid the islands and settled coast districts of the north-east we had approached Yucatan by way of the Mosquito Coast and British Honduras, expecting to sight the country in its wildest and most barbarous district.
Chaka, who had resided as a boy in the interior but had made several trips to the sea, was uncertain whether he would recognize the Bay of Mopa from the water or not. It was from the bay I have mentioned, which lay in the hostile Mopane territory, that the trail led into the country of the Itzaex—the only trail Chaka knew of and therefore the trail we must follow.
Although waging a fierce warfare with neighboring tribes the Mopanes were accustomed to deal arbitrarily with ships and expeditions from Honduras which came to trade for the enormous green turtles that abounded on their coast. This fact we relied upon to shield us from immediate hostilities.
As the sun slowly rose and dissolved the gray shades from the morning sky we found ourselves quite near to a wild but very attractive shore. The sandy beach was shelving and touched the sea at a level. Back of the beach began the scrub—low bushes somewhat resembling our sage-brush, but set closer together. Beyond the scrub rose the great forests of logwood and mahogany, covering the land as far as the eye could reach.
Chaka told us the villages of the Mopanes were all within the forest’s edge, but by eight o’clock, when we came close enough to view the scene distinctly, we were enabled to see statuesque bronze figures dotting the shore here and there. Doubtless these were sentinels, set to watch us and see where we landed.
“Not here!” exclaimed the Maya, shaking his head.
We swung around and steamed slowly north, keeping sharp watch for hidden shoals and rocks, as no map in my father’s collection was able to guide a mariner in these practically unknown waters. Small bays and indentations were numerous, and each of these Chaka scanned with thoughtful care. Once, indeed, he decided he had found the right place, and we ventured into a pretty bay and lay to while our guide carefully considered the landmarks. But the native, although slow to form conclusions, had a positive nature and was not to be deceived by minor appearances.
“Not here, Cap’n Steele,” he said again, and we stood out and continued on our way, hugging the coast as closely as we dared in order to give Chaka a better view.
We passed the whole day in this tedious search and it was almost evening when the Maya gave a cry of delight and raised his arms to indicate that he had sighted the right haven. It was more a bight than a bay, and my father looked grave at the huge rocks scattered a full quarter of a mile from the shore line.
Natives watched us here, as everywhere, and when we lay to a score of dugouts were pushed into the water and filled with Indians who soon swarmed along our side. Chaka now kept out of their sight, fearing to be recognized, and Allerton called to one lot of natives which showed an impudent disposition to board us, to keep off or take the consequences. They were astonished to hear a white man speak the Maya tongue and declared they wanted to come aboard to “trade.” Allerton replied that we had nothing to trade and would proceed at once on our way north.
This did not seem to satisfy them. They were all copper-colored, athletic fellows, quick and nervous in action and with jet-black eyes which glinted fiercely. They seemed utterly unafraid of us and one boat load of four made a sudden dash up our side, leaping to seize a rope ladder we had left swaying from the bulwarks and climbing it with the agility of cats.
Ned Britton happened to be watching that spot and the burly mate grasped the first native by an arm, swung him clear of the side, and then hurled him bodily at the others following. All four went down with a rush, disappearing below the surface of the placid water, while their comrades screamed an angry defiance and sent a volley of small slender darts—which reminded me of arrows—aimed at every head showing above the side. We had no trouble in dodging them, but Allerton warned us they were poisoned and we did not relish such an attack.
Captain Steele had already rung to go ahead and we gathered way and moved from our dangerous position as quickly as possible. The natives Ned had dislodged scrambled into their boat again, but the fellow he had seized seemed to have a broken arm and howled lustily as his comrades dragged him aboard.
The Mopanes showed no disposition to follow us and as we gained the open sea we observed them paddling back to the shore.
“A pretty reception, I must say!” growled Archie in disgust. “So that’s the sort of vermin we’re supposed to tackle, is it?”
“I imagine this is only a sample of their peculiarities,” mused Joe.
“Mopanes bad Indians,” admitted Chaka, who had now come on deck again.
“Well, I suppose we must take them as we find them,” I rejoined, with a sigh. “The trouble seems to be that no one has taken pains to civilize them.”
“What’s our plan now, sir?” asked Ned, turning to Allerton.
“We’ll stand out until darkness comes on, and then return to the bay with all lights out and disembark as silently as possible,” was the answer. “We rely on the usual native custom of ‘sleeping nights and fighting days’ to shield us from observation. We have now created the impression that we have sailed away for good, and as ships are a rarity in this latitude the Mopanes will all retire to their villages back in the forest and go to bed. That will give us a chance to land, make our preparation and get a good start on the secret trail leading to the Itzaex country.”
“Meantime, what’s to become of the ship?” asked Ned.
“Captain Steele and his men will stand on and off the coast until our return. We have arranged a series of signals so that he will know when we approach, and come in to meet us. His task will be a tedious one, for if all goes well it will take us at least two or three weeks to make our journey and accomplish our purpose. Still, we may be driven back at once, and need succor any day, especially if Chaka’s people refuse to recognize his authority and show us hostilities.”
“In that case,” said I, “the adventure will become hopeless, will it not?”
Allerton looked sober and did not reply. Chaka was quite undisturbed by the suggestion of disloyalty on the part of his tribesmen and said, “If we can fight Mopanes, we also can fight Itzaex.”
“But the chests!” I exclaimed, suddenly remembering the baggage. “What is to become of them? One contains our supplies, you know, and I imagine all are quite necessary to us. Yet how will nine people be able to lug seven heavy chests through a forest trail, beset with dangers?”
“Our outfits,” explained Allerton, “are contained in three of the chests, so when we have emptied those of their contents they may be left behind. The other four will be provided with gas-jackets and wheels. One man is sufficient to propel each one of them.”
I admit I looked and felt puzzled at this statement.
“And now,” continued our leader, “it is time for us to begin our preparations, while there is a scrap of daylight. We may also light our decks for a time, but on nearing shore we shall be black as night.”
The crew of the Seagull, having been already apprised of our adventure and scenting the prize money promised them, were every one eager to be of assistance. The chests were brought on deck and three of them opened.
“We must now shed for a time all European customs and clothing,” announced Paul. “From this moment we assume the outfits I have provided for the occasion.”
While the sailors looked on curiously he asked Archie to strip and dress for his part. The boy quickly shed his apparel, even to his underclothes, for Allerton gave him first of all a union-suit “mosquito proof”, and—as we later found—fairly proof against the poisoned darts of the natives. Knickerbockers and gaiters of a curious woven gauze material—pliable metal, in fact—came next, and the gas-jacket covered all the rest of his body save the head.
“The jacket is also an armor,” observed Allerton; “and, while it must be worn all the time, night and day, it need not be inflated until necessary to acquire lightness. The gas tank generator weighs but six ounces and will be worn with the jacket, so it may be ready in any emergency. It is the same with the eight electrites, which we eight adventurers will keep constantly at our sides. The extra belts must, of course, remain in one of the chests until needed, as will the extra supply of themlyne.”
He then supplied Archie with a head-mask of curious design. The top was like a pith helmet, very light and the more comfortable because it did not rest upon the head but upon a globe of woven wire, in which the boy’s entire head was encased.
This material, as transparent as a fine gauze screen, was so strong that when Allerton tested it by jumping on it with both feet it scarcely bent at all.
“This is a protection from gnats and mosquitoes, darts and arrows, and all other venomous things,” said Paul. “I think we shall find them quite comfortable when we get used to them.”
Being attached to a collar, with straps underneath the arms, these masks remained stationary, allowing the wearer to move his head in any direction, although he could not lower his chin very much. High leather shoes, lined with the same material, and pliable gauze gauntlets for the hands and arms, completed this remarkable attire. When Archie had slung his gun over his shoulder and stuck a brace of revolvers and a bowie into his belt, he certainly looked as curious as any individual that ever walked.
I am quite sure that this description of Allerton’s outfit will lead the reader to think it exceedingly clumsy and unmanageable; and such, at first was my own opinion. But subsequent use proved the contrary. Walking around to test his “rigging,” as he called it, Archie declared he was not uncomfortable in the least. Everything was very light in weight, and the gauze garments were cooler than the clothing he had been accustomed to. Yucatan is a hot country, but not insufferably so, owing to the prevailing breeze that comes from the sea in either direction. Allerton had realized this in preparing his outfits.
While the rest of us, using Archie as an example, proceeded to dress ourselves in a like manner, Allerton and Chaka were busily engaged in drawing especially prepared gas-jackets over the four chests we were to take with us. These coverings were then inflated with themlyne until the heavy boxes became so light that I could lift any one of them with one hand. No other gas known to science possesses so great buoyancy; a small volume of it overcame weight—i. e., the attraction of gravitation—to a wonderful degree. A single wire wheel with a broad, flat tire, was now attached to the front end of each chest, and two handles to the rear, converting the baggage into quaint looking wheelbarrows.
This task completed, Paul looked at a heap of material on the deck and said, as if the thought had just occurred to him:
“I see I have an extra outfit.” He turned to look at the interested group of sailors. “Will any one of you lads venture to join us?” he asked.
With one accord they stepped forward and touched their caps.
“Thank you, my friends,” said Allerton gratefully. “I’ll take Pedro, I think. He’s a native of this part of the world and therefore especially fit to stand the climate. Will you come, Pedro?”
I thought his face showed a trace of embarrassment, perhaps chagrin, at being chosen; but he stepped up alertly enough and was assisted into his toggery.
“Unfortunately,” remarked the lieutenant, “I was able to procure but eight electrites, so Pedro must depend wholly upon his firearms for protection.”
Pedro grinned and nodded at hearing this. He was wholly ignorant of what an electrite might be. But he could handle a gun all right, he said, and a good keen knife was his pet weapon. With these by his side he felt perfectly safe.
Uncle Naboth laughed immoderately as we lined up on the deck, while Speckles, the boatswain, who was now to act as mate to Captain Steele, threw a searchlight over the group. For it was quite dark by this time and we were again headed back toward the bay where we were to disembark.
Nux and Bryonia, our stalwart blacks, seemed gigantic in their novel equipment. Ned was almost as huge a figure, while the rest of us, including Chaka, sized up to a fair and even imposing average. Pedro laughed at us too, and at himself, while the sailors were frankly amused at our appearance. I was myself somewhat influenced by the humor of the situation, for while I have undertaken many adventures during my brief life I was never so garbed before—nor was any other man, for that matter. We were the original gas-jacketed, electrite-armed, mosquito-and-dart-proof adventurers of the world!
Allerton and Chaka were serious enough, however, to warn us that our fun was somewhat ill-timed. We were on the eve of a desperate and important undertaking.
“Time to blacken up, my lads,” said father, who never neglected a sharp lookout. So every light aboard was quickly “doused” except the shielded one of the binnacle.
The night seemed especially favorable, although Paul said that starlight would be as good for us as an overcast sky, provided the natives were at home and asleep. If by chance they were prowling around they would see us anyhow. But, for my part, I concluded it was just as well the white Seagull did not show too plainly from shore against the deep blue water. Those Mopanes had sharp eyes, and if they observed our approach from the forest there would promptly be something doing.
Well, we crept into the bay quietly enough, after all, only one muffled engine doing duty, and approached the south bend of the shore as closely as we dared. The boats were already on the davits, the oars wrapped with canvas to prevent their creaking. Into one we loaded the wheelbarrow chests and then our little band took places in the others.
I did not fail to press my father’s hand before I left the deck. Our affection is fervent and strong, thank God, and we understand one another perfectly. I knew the grim old fellow gave me a prayer in his heart and trusted a tender Providence to send his boy back to him in safety; but never a word of protest or caution did he utter. It might unnerve me, and was not needed.
With scarcely a sound our keels ground on the beach. It required but a few moments to land and carry the chests to the shore, and then we shook hands, one and all, with the seamen and knew we had their best wishes for our success. They returned to the ship at once, and we adventurers quickly prepared to follow Chaka, who from this moment assumed the lead. Nux and Bryonia each trundled a chest, as did also Pedro and Ned. The things were so light that if we came to a rough place the men raised them bodily and carried them across.
WE FIGHT A GOOD FIGHT
In five minutes we were threading the underbrush, a difficult task because it grew so thickly; but fortunately it was not of great extent and a journey of fifteen minutes brought us to the edge of the forest.
Chaka had marked his way by sighting a group of three giant mahoganies whose spreading tops formed a perfect triangle. He paused a moment just in the center of this group, pushed aside a bunch of tangled vines and with a grunt of satisfaction led us into a broad, well defined trail. This, we understood, was the route followed by the Itzaex when they invaded the territory of the Mopanes, in order to gather turtle, or to fish. Such invasions had always been bitterly contested, but Chaka’s people were never deterred from an undertaking by the prospects of a fight.
It seems strange that after nine years this Indian boy should remember the place at all. Chaka was but fifteen when picked up by Allerton, and he certainly did not look his twenty-four years now. Civilized life had not taught him to forget his boyish adventures, and Allerton must have placed implicit confidence in the Maya, since all our plans and hopes were based upon his assertions and his knowledge of the country.
Joe, Archie and I, who had often talked over these things, could not yet decide how far the lieutenant was justified in his unswerving trust. We liked Chaka and believed in him; but might he not be deceiving himself as well as us in many important details—especially those regarding the Tcha and the hidden city? It was all hearsay, after all, the tale of the old atkayma, who might easily have exaggerated his experiences.
It was dark as Erebus in the forest. I can’t imagine how Chaka found his way so accurately. But he seldom hesitated, leading us forward at a steady gait and only pausing when the narrow way obliged us to use our best inventive genius in getting the chests between the trees. Once or twice we had to make a detour through wild and tangled underbrush and networks of vines, in order to squeeze the chests into the trail again, and all this delayed us considerably.
After three hours of dogged progress we stopped to rest, and now Chaka flashed a dark lantern on the scene, believing we were so far from the Mopane villages that the light would not be seen. That helped some, as you may imagine, and it seemed to me, with my limited knowledge of such things, that we had covered at least a dozen miles of forest path when Allerton called a halt and said we would sleep until daylight.
We dozed in our outfits, just as we were, not venturing to remove any part of our armor for fear of a surprise. Nor were we at all uncomfortable. I remember that I dropped down upon the leaves and moss just where I had stood, thoroughly tired by the long march. There was little fear of scorpions, serpents or other vermin, since we were so well protected, and I for one needed no lullaby to send me fast asleep.
Chaka and Allerton kept watch by turns, on this occasion, and I heard Paul rebuking “my brother Chaka” for not calling him when he should have done so.
I thought it must still be night when they wakened me, and in truth I was not at all ready to get up; but when I rose and rubbed my eyes I could dimly discern the trunks of the trees all about me, with small patches of gray sky showing here and there through the tops; so I realized it was time to tramp on again.
Allerton unlocked a chest and gave us each a cup of hot coffee from thermos bottles, where it had been placed aboard ship. We ate some biscuits, too, and felt greatly refreshed.
All had proceeded so nicely thus far that my original fears as to the dangerous nature of this undertaking had become lulled. It was cool and pleasant under the shade of the trees as we started on again, and the song birds were in full chorus.
Suddenly Chaka, who led us, stopped short and held up his hand. Instantly Paul was beside him.
“What is it?” he asked.
“A hunting party. Warriors. Many,” returned the Maya, his head bent forward, listening intently.
“Are they Itzaex, my brother?”
“Mopanes!” said Chaka.
“Does it mean fight, then?”
“It means fight, my brother.”
Silently we had stood listening to this. Now we prepared for action.
“Use your firearms first,” commanded Allerton; “and then, if necessary, the electrites. But remember we must save every charge in the batteries that we can.”
We placed the four chests on end in a row, forming a scanty bulwark, and took station behind them. The party of Mopanes, evidently returning to their villages from a hunting expedition, were now heard noisily jabbering in the distance, the sounds gradually drawing nearer. It seemed they knew and used this trail as well as the Itzaex did, although Chaka had called it a “secret trail.” How many we were about to face we could not conjecture, but none of us showed or felt much fear. Indeed, I am inclined to think we one and all welcomed the chance to prove the qualities of our equipment. I was sorry to receive orders not to fire the electrite, being curious to know how effective these queer weapons would be; but I well knew Allerton was right in husbanding our supply of stored electricity. We might need every charge badly before we had played the game to the end.
The trail wound irregularly here and there through the dense forest, but for some seventy yards ahead it came straight toward us, broader and more open than in most places, which was all to our disadvantage. This was offset by the fact that the natives had no suspicion an enemy was in their path. They were between the Itzaex and their own people, and imagined they had nothing to fear. Not even a scout had been sent ahead. They rounded the curve in a dense mass, chattering and laughing until they caught sight of us standing motionless in the trail. Then their astonishment was genuine enough.
I think, had they found us garbed in the same manner as all white men who had visited their coast had been, that there might have been chance for a parley; but our appearance was so strange that they did not hesitate a moment about attacking us. The first of the band, which numbered about a hundred warriors, had scarcely halted when their wicked darts began to fly in our direction.
These darts, the most dangerous weapons employed by the Maya tribes, are slim strips of a tough vine, cut and hardened in the sun until they become nearly as hard as steel. One end is sharpened and coated with a deadly vegetable poison; the other has a flat piece of bark inserted in a notch to give it “wings.” The darts are carried in a bark sheath and are hurled with amazing swiftness and accuracy. The Maya tribes also use bows and arrows, as well as long spears with heads of sharpened stone or iron. But these latter weapons are most serviceable in hunting; in a fight the Mayas depend largely upon the darts, a prick from one of the points sending its poison coursing through the veins of the victim, who expires in agony in a few minutes.
It may be the distance was in our favor; anyway the darts rattled against our armor harmlessly enough. And we did not give the enemy time to come nearer, just then. Taking careful aim we returned a volley from our rifles which, backed by the thick mass of howling Indians, did terrible execution. Nearly a score fell where they stood and the others took to instant flight.
I felt much elated by our success until I noticed Chaka shaking his head as if greatly annoyed. There was little opportunity to inquire the reason, for in a surprisingly brief space of time a dart struck full upon my headgear, and so sharp was the slender point that it stuck in the meshes and hung there. Another and another dart followed, from this or that side and even from behind us. The cunning Mopanes had leaped into the thicket and surrounded us, from their concealment being enabled to attack us with impunity. Arrows also flew, striking us sharp blows. A spear knocked Pedro clean off his feet, but failed to wound him, as it struck against his impervious gas-jacket.
“We must get out of this!” exclaimed Allerton. “It’s a regular trap.”
“Come!” cried Chaka.
We followed his lead. The blacks, Ned and Pedro wheeled the chests while we others walked beside them and took a shot at every head that showed in the jungle.
It proved somewhat revolting to climb over the dead and dying that cluttered the way just ahead. One wounded Mopane struck at my leg with a knife and tried to grab me; but I clubbed him over the head with my rifle and he fell back and lay still.
There seemed no escape for us, as the rascals were able to follow through the brushwood almost as fast as we covered the trail; but Chaka moved rapidly on, increasing his pace until we were all on a jog-trot, and at last we understood his reason.
The path opened abruptly into a vast clearing, nearly a quarter of a mile in extent. It had been created originally by a forest fire, as the charred trunks of trees testified. Near the center was a small pool of stagnant water.
We ran to the edge of this pool and, facing around once more, prepared to defend ourselves. If the natives remained in the forest their weapons were comparatively harmless; if they cared to “rush” our position we had decidedly the best of it.
They were in no hurry to decide, it seemed. After hurling a few darts and shooting a few arrows they ceased activities for a full hour, during which time we sat on the chests and got our breath back so we could discuss the situation.
“How far are we from Itzlan?” inquired Allerton.
“About two hours’ journey, Brother Paul,” he replied.
“Two hours from the boundaries, I suppose,” said Paul. “And how far from the City of Itza?”
“Two days, my brother.”
That was not very encouraging.
“It seems to me,” said Archie, “a good plan would be to send Chaka on to his people as a scout. He could sneak through the enemy all right. And then he could bring his people to our rescue.”
“No,” replied Allerton, “I cannot afford to risk Chaka on such a mission. If we lose him, we lose everything. I am quite sure the Mopanes cannot seriously injure us. We simply must devote the necessary time to fighting them off, and then continue our journey.”
WE FIND OURSELVES OUTNUMBERED
The space or clearing in which we had sought refuge was covered thickly with bushes averaging from two to three feet in height. They were green with a thick-leaved foliage, and as I sat idly looking at them it occurred to me they were very pretty in such a place and relieved the dismal appearance of the charred stumps. Presently I decided, as the sun was now beating down upon our heads, to crawl underneath the nearest clump of bushes and seek coolness in their shade. This I proceeded to do, dropping on hands and knees and creeping beneath the leafy covering while my friends eyed me curiously.
Next moment I experienced one of the greatest surprises of my life. I was not quite concealed by the network of bushes when my head bumped suddenly against something hard, and lifting my encased face with some difficulty I found a Mopane Indian lying flat upon his belly, his eyes—not a yard away—glaring viciously into mine. I think he must have been fully as much astonished as I was.
In such emergencies I have a bad habit of acting first and considering afterward; so before I realized what I was doing I had pulled a revolver and sent a bullet into the fellow’s skull. He gave a yell that was startling and sprang full upon his feet before he toppled over dead.
His cry was echoed from fifty throats. From every part of the bush arose Mopanes who rushed at us with one accord. Some of them had crawled pretty near. As I sat up I faced one at arm’s length and let go another shot from the revolver I held.
Meantime my comrades quickly recovered from the momentary paralysis caused by the suddenness of the assault and stood their ground bravely. I was very proud of their coolness. Nux and Bryonia, Ned, Archie and Joe were all splendid fighters and even Mexican Pedro seemed void of fear as he plugged shot after shot at his assailants. Altogether, the affray was too hot for the Mopanes and they soon scampered back to the woods for shelter. As they went we picked off as many of them as we could, for the more we rendered hors de combat the better chance we had to escape.
They were not likely to repeat this attempt again. Another long wait followed.
“I hate to lose so much ammunition on the fools,” grumbled Allerton. “Be shy, my lads, of wasting a single shot; our work has hardly begun yet.”
This stealthy attack of the natives gave Chaka an idea, however. After consulting with his “Brother Paul” he hid behind the chests and deliberately began divesting himself of all the trappings he had until now worn. When I glanced at him, presently, there sat our Maya on the ground, arrayed only in his copper colored skin and a white loin cloth. In the folds of the latter he concealed a knife and a small revolver. Then, lying flat, he wriggled himself into the bushes and was soon lost to view.
I tried to follow his course, but so expert a woodsman was Chaka that not a movement of a leaf betrayed his whereabouts.
“What’s his object, Paul?” I asked.
“He’s going to explore the path at the other side of the clearing, where he believes the trees are so open that the Mopanes won’t dare follow us. If that is so we won’t wait for the next move the devils make, but break for the trail at once and fight our way on to the Itzaex country.”
“Very good,” said I; “anything is better than this.” And so we sat and waited patiently for our spy to return.
Meantime, as it was getting near noon, we took advantage of the lull in hostilities to eat our luncheon. The food refreshed us very much, and Archie, who has always some longing unsatisfied, bewailed the fact that we had no ice on such a sultry day. I knew that we had ice, but said nothing of it. In Allerton’s thermos chest reposed a fine cake of the crystallized fluid which, with other things, he was reserving for “emergencies.”
Fully two hours had passed before we observed Chaka’s naked body come bounding through the clearing without any attempt at concealment. Evidently he was in a state of great excitement. Skirting the edge of the pool he came directly toward us, disregarding the arrows and darts that rained upon him from the nearest edge of the forest. Then, with a final bound he fell flat at our feet, sobbing in a very ecstasy of grief and despair.
We looked at one another wonderingly as Allerton knelt down, took his friend’s head in his lap and stroked the dark hair as tenderly as a woman might have done. He asked no questions until Chaka’s passionate sobbing was gradually subdued.
“My poor brother!” he said in the Itzaex dialect.
Chaka seized his hands and pressed them.
“It is my father, dear Paul!” he said, miserably. “They have killed the atkayma—they have murdered him!”
“Who has done this, my brother?” inquired Allerton.
We others looked upon the scene silently, forbearing comment. I realized, for my part, that the old atkayma’s death might seriously affect the success of our enterprise; but I had not suspected Chaka was so fond of his royal father, having left him to his own devices for so many years.
As for that, however, I had not reckoned on the horror of the thing, although I might have appreciated better Chaka’s sensitive nature, so astonishing in one born to a savage life.
Before long the youth was able to tell his story, and he told it none too soon, either.
“I found the trail,” said he, speaking his own tongue, which we all understood save Pedro and Archie—and perhaps the latter caught a few words. “I ran along it swiftly for some distance. Then I heard shouts and the Mopane war song of victory. I knew another band of those devils was approaching us and hid myself to count their numbers. They are many, oh my brother! There has been war, and for this once my people have been defeated. I know not where the battle was fought nor how many were engaged; but victory is with our enemies. On their spears they bear the heads of many brave Itzaex; foremost among them is that of the great, the noble atkayma—my father!”
He broke down again, to renew his sobs.
“Poor Chaka!” said Paul.
There was no time left us for more parley. We began to hear the shouts of the approaching hosts and must prepare for a desperate defense. It was all right for Chaka to grieve over his father; it struck me as a curious coincidence that just as the royal son arrived in his own country, after an absence of many years, the aged atkayma of the Itzaex met his fate at the hands of his persistent enemies.
The Mopanes deployed into the clearing in a dense throng, exultantly shouting their savage paeans. Some blew shrill blasts on conch shells; one or two battered energetically the native kettledrums, made from tortoise shells over which skins were tightly stretched.
At once the new arrivals were joined by the remnant of the band that had first attacked us. I say “remnant” because we must have slain or wounded nearly half of their original number. With eager exclamations they pointed in our direction, and the eyes of every warrior examined us intently. They were standing some distance away, but we could observe their every action distinctly. One huge fellow, who bore a spear with a grinning head set on its point, leaped upon a stump and began haranguing the others, who listened respectfully to his words.
“I wonder if this pop-gun will carry so far,” remarked Archie, and before any could interfere he took careful aim and fired. The chief—as he seemed to be—leaped fully three feet into the air, uttering a terrible cry, and as he fell his people caught him in their arms. But I am sure he was dead or desperately wounded.
This warning induced them all to withdraw into the forest, where doubtless they held a council of war.
WE ESCAPE ANNIHILATION
Meantime we nine, trapped as we were, prepared for defense against an army of natives.
“Won’t it be better to use the electrites, sir?” inquired Joe. “There must be three or four hundred of those fellows, at least, and if they rush us we won’t stand much show.”
“I fear even the electrites wouldn’t save us in that event,” replied Allerton, whose face showed anxiety for the first time. “I think we should stand ready to inflate our gas-jackets, however, so if the worst happens we may escape by rising into the air. Fortunately the pool will supply us with water to generate the themlyne crystals. But let us wait until all other means fail and our lives are actually in danger.” He turned to Chaka, who still lay upon his face, and said: “My brother must resume his outfit, so as to be able to fight with us.”
The Maya made no reply, nor did he rise or attempt to resume the clumsy garments he had discarded.
At Paul’s suggestion we hastily cut a quantity of the thick bushes and piled them high in a circle surrounding our position—so high that we could just stand erect and aim our rifles over the top of the frail barricade. The bushes were no protection, but they prevented the savages from aiming at our bodies. The task was quickly accomplished and then we arranged our ammunition handily and prepared to fight as long as fighting was possible.
“Don’t volley,” counseled Allerton; “fire in steady, regular order, according to the numbers I will give you. Such a continual discharge is likely to be the most effectual.”
He had scarcely finished speaking when the Mopanes came from the forest. Depending upon their great numbers they did not rush us, but advanced deliberately across the clearing, chanting a war song as they came. As soon as they were well within range we opened fire, and nearly every shot took effect because we were cool and cautious. The Indians were not deterred, however, and I remember thinking, even during the battle, that they were especially brave in their absolute disregard for death.
This last band of Mopanes was better armed than the first. They bore battle axes and war clubs in addition to their spears. Not a missile was sent in our direction in response to our fusillade, although we continued to pepper them so persistently that the front ranks fell like grain before a scythe, only to be trampled upon indifferently by those following. Their plan seemed to involve a great sacrifice of numbers that they might finally accomplish their purpose.
Pedro, who had proved a poor shot, devoted himself to recharging our repeating rifles and revolvers, so we had no need to relax our defense to reload. It was certainly a most dangerous predicament in which we now found ourselves, but I am glad to say none of us weakened or showed nervousness. Chaka, to my surprise, took no part in the fight at first, but as the enemy drew nearer he sprang up and began firing with the rest of us.
On came the savages, and we kept as busy as possible stopping all we could. Now they were a hundred yards off; now seventy; now fifty. We had dropped an amazing lot of them, yet still they advanced.
Then a diversion occurred of so startling a character that for a time we were utterly unable to comprehend it. The Mopanes abruptly stopped, turned half around until they faced the south, from whence they had come, and without paying any further heed to us began jabbering and gesticulating in wild excitement.
“Keep it up, boys!” cried Allerton. “They’re getting demoralized at last.”
That was evident; yet I knew we had had no hand in demoralizing them. The band was now separating, darting this way and that about the clearing as if in a panic. But the fugitives, after a wild scramble here and there, quickly massed again in the center of the clearing and faced outward, their backs forming the inner part of a great circle.
Next moment the mystery was explained. From behind every tree that bordered the open space stepped a stalwart warrior, copper skinned and naked save for a loin cloth. They were taller than the Mopanes, more dignified in demeanor, more deliberate in action. Each man was quickly followed by another, and still another, until fully a thousand had closed in and formed a circle around the terrified Mopanes—as well as around us.
As the first man stepped from the forest Chaka uttered a wild cry and threw down his weapons. Then he stood as if turned to stone, watching as one in a dream the tragedy that ensued.
“That settles our case,” exclaimed Archie, desperately. “We might have tipped over a few hundred of those fellows, but a few thousand is too many.”
We had stopped firing and Paul was watching Chaka’s face.
“I think we are saved,” said he in a low voice. “These men are the Itzaex, who have followed the Mopanes to seek revenge for the murder of their atkayma.”
“Oh!” said Archie; and more than one breath of relief was drawn at this explanation.
It was not hard to understand why the Itzaex nation had remained unconquered and supreme through all the centuries. In strong contrast to the chattering Mopanes they uttered no sound as they advanced, and every warrior seemed but a part of one great machine.
So far as I could determine by watching the confused scene there was little resistance on the part of the surprised and greatly outnumbered Mopanes. Some made a dash for the forest, only to be cut down; others stood their ground and fought doggedly until an Itzaex battle-axe or a spear thrust put an end to their further interest in the affair.
In scarcely more time than I have taken to write it the murderers of the old atkayma were virtually annihilated. Then the victors calmly formed ranks and faced toward us—half curiously, half expectantly. They seemed to realize they had interfered in our fight with the Mopanes, but as yet they did not know whether to regard us as foes or allies.
But now Chaka awoke to action. With a hasty word he pressed Paul’s hand and leaped the barrier, advancing alone and with majestic strides toward his people.
We were near enough to observe the scene closely; almost near enough to hear every word spoken.
The Itzaex seemed astonished at Chaka’s appearance. They looked upon him wonderingly, and I now noticed for the first time that Chaka alone wore a white loin cloth; those of all the others were of some color, green and yellow predominating.
When the boy had almost reached them he stopped short, lifted one arm with an imperious gesture and said:
“I am Chaka, returned to you after many days. My father is dead. Itzaex, salute your atkayma!”
With one accord they knelt and prostrated themselves, old and young alike. There was no word of question, no display of antagonism. The people knew and saluted their chief.
Chaka slowly advanced to where the leader of the Itzaex knelt in front of his followers. Beside him lay the gory head of the old atkayma, the skin of its face drawn into a horrid grin. The boy knelt to the ghastly thing and kissed its forehead. Now he plucked from the matted gray hair a single heron’s feather—the emblem of royalty—and placed it among his own dark locks. Then he stood erect.
During this scene not an Itzaex moved. Each head touched the ground. The warriors were silent as well as motionless.
“Rise, my people!” commanded Chaka, in clear, ringing tones. They obeyed, and now a legion of dark eyes was fixed full upon the youth confronting them. “The Itzaex are still brave and dauntless,” continued the young atkayma. “The Mopane cats are punished for their crime. The murder of the great and noble Tcheltzada, my father, who has ruled you long and wisely, has been quickly and terribly avenged. I thank you.”
Now the chieftain of the party, an enormous grizzled warrior, stepped forward and said:
“Tell us, then, O Atkayma, where you have been; why now you are here.”
“Then listen to my words,” was the reply. “It is nine years since I led a band of young men to the sea. The Mopanes fell upon us and cut my comrades down. Some, I hope, escaped. I found a boat and fled across the great water, the enemy following. A ship of the white people—the powerful Americans—saved me and took me on board, repelling the Mopanes. I was carried to far lands, with no way to return to my people. Years passed by. I found a good friend among the white men, a friend who has now helped me to come back to you. He is yonder, with seven others who have assisted me. On our journey to Itzlan we were surprised by Mopanes. You may see how many we have destroyed.”
The warriors glanced around. The ground was literally covered with bodies. They well knew they had not slain all these themselves.
“My white friends,” continued Chaka, “must become the friends of the Itzaex nation; my people must become their friends. To them you owe the safe return of your atkayma.”
This last statement was the first to be received with disfavor. There were sundry grunts of protest and gestures of dissent. The old chieftain bowed low and made reply.
“Never, O Atkayma Chaka, has the white man been the friend of the Itzaex,” said he.
“Time changes many things. These white people have been like brothers to me,” announced Chaka, in a firm voice. “I know them. In their hearts is no treachery; they seek no conquest; they are good and true. Tell me, Gatcha, have they not destroyed many of the enemies of the Itzaex? Have they not given you back your hereditary atkayma, just as the gods have permitted my father Tcheltzada to meet his doom? If you fail to greet my preservers as friends, the gods, from whom I am descended, and for whom I speak, will surely punish you.”
That seemed to settle the case with the Itzaex. Once more they prostrated themselves before Chaka in token of obedience, and the chieftain Gatcha said:
“It is well, O Atkayma. If your uncle, the mighty Datchapa, receives the white men, we have no objection to offer to them.”
The youth frowned and drew himself up haughtily.
“Who, then, is master; my Uncle Datchapa or Chaka?” he demanded.
There was no response.
Chaka turned and came back to us.
“Do not fear,” he said in English. “My people will obey me. Come; let us go.”
We gathered up our traps and followed the new atkayma to where his warriors stood awaiting us. I observed that they regarded us who were white with a disdain that was scarcely tolerant and decidedly uncomfortable. Nux and Bryonia, however, won favor immediately—doubtless because of their color; perhaps for their imposing forms and composed demeanor. The latter was not unlike a notable characteristic of the Itzaex warriors.
Paul, who headed us, placed his right hand on the left shoulder of the chieftain Gatcha, which was the native salutation of peace and friendship. The old fellow seemed pleased and gravely responded. I followed suit, understanding this custom was expected, and so we all in turn saluted the warrior, who we afterward discovered was the most famous general of the nation.
Then, without more ado, we started away, our party occupying a central position beside the Atkayma Chaka, who stalked along with a newly assumed dignity that was rather amusing, although I must admit the boy had always displayed considerable dignity.
The Itzaex had doubtless seen white men before, or at least heard of them; yet I am sure the peculiar manner in which we were garbed astonished them. Not that they allowed themselves to show surprise; they were too phlegmatic for that; but even this secluded race realized that no such queer rigging was ever worn by human creatures before, white or black, and since they had no reason to laugh at us they must have been impressed with the fact that we were distinctly unusual.
Any present danger to us seemed now eliminated, for with this superb escort we would surely be able to penetrate to the heart of Itzlan, where the capital city called Itza was located. Two days’ journey from here, Chaka had called it; but the Itzaex marched with such long, swinging strides that they covered the ground more rapidly than we have been able to do before.
WE ENTER THE CITY OF ITZA
We held no unnecessary converse with one another on the trail, not being anxious to appear as chatterboxes before these silent natives; but when we had camped for the night in another small clearing, which we reached at dusk, we gathered in a group and in English talked over the day’s adventures and our future prospects. Chaka came and sat with us after he had indulged in a somewhat lengthy interview with Gatcha the chief, and he looked rather solemn and thoughtful.
“My father was out hunting with a small party of twelve,” said he, “when the Mopanes, who had long been lying in ambush, seized and assassinated him. One warrior made escape and aroused the City, so Gatcha gathered his men and gave chase. Before he left Itza, however, the chief tells me that my Uncle Datchapa, believing me to be dead, as had my father, caused himself to be proclaimed atkayma. That is bad, my friends, for now Datchapa will not be glad to see me.”
“Is he as bad as that?” I asked.
“My Uncle Datchapa,” returned Chaka, slowly, “is an old man, and a wise man as well. He has renown as a warrior and a statesman, and my people respect him greatly. Also he is ambitious, and as a boy my mother warned me to avoid him, lest he seek my death that he might succeed my father as atkayma. Gatcha, who has no love for Datchapa, but fears him, tells me my father also watched his ambitious brother carefully, being afraid to trust him at the head of the army. Gatcha is not sure that my uncle did not secretly send for the Mopanes and then induce the Atkayma Tcheltzada to hunt with a handful of followers. If this is true—but I hope it is not true—then Datchapa will be much disappointed when I return.”
“Never mind,” said Paul, soothingly. “My brother Chaka is the royal one.”
“Also is Datchapa royal,” was the reply. “He is my father’s brother. But our laws forbid him to become atkayma as long as his brother’s son lives.”
“Then we must be careful,” I suggested.
“It is not for myself, Cap’n Sam, that I fear,” returned Chaka, “but for my white comrades. Datchapa, wicked and ambitious as he is, dare not oppose me openly. But he is Chief of the Council, which directs our laws, and he may show enmity to my white friends and try to arouse the people to destroy them.”
“In that case,” said Joe, “I advise you to clap your precious uncle into jail as soon as you arrive. It will be the safest plan.”
Chaka made no answer to this.
We now began to appreciate the advantages of the gauze protectors with which Paul had supplied us, perhaps at Chaka’s suggestion. The natives had promptly built smudge fires of damp forest leaves, in order to drive back the hordes of mosquitoes and other insects that settled in the camp as soon as we did. My, how those mosquitoes did sing! The Itzaex, accustomed as they were to the pests, squirmed and swatted the blood-suckers continually, while we in our armor and head-gear were proof against attack. Chaka himself, who had seemed until now too proud to pose before his people in any foreign attire, hastily assumed his outfit and slept in it all night. Old Gatcha the chief, who proved not a bad fellow on better acquaintance, frankly expressed his admiration for our devices and asked if we had any more “cages” in the chests. Since we could not accommodate him he lay down naked beside the smudge of a fire and let the winged vampires bleed him at their leisure.
All were up bright and early next morning and so swift was our progress during the day that when we again made camp Chaka assured us we were but three hours’ journey from the capital.
During this day we passed no villages, being told that the great City of Itza was the only congregation of dwellings on this side of their territory. To the west and south were a dozen or more important towns, with cultivated fields and orchards connecting them; but ages of warfare with the fierce Mopanes had taught them the danger of establishing villages in this district. Itza really served as a barrier, it being too populous and powerful to be attacked.
Chaka estimated the total population of Itzlan at over fifty thousand people, while the Mopanes could number no more than ten thousand, all told. This border warfare, however, was regarded as a mere incident in life by the Itzaex, who had other foes at the opposite borders of their domain. Nor did they devote all their time to fighting; they were mighty hunters and fishermen, as well as skilled in agriculture and certain crude manufacturers. According to the youthful atkayma there were no other tribes in Yucatan so powerful and civilized as the Itzaex, and I am inclined to think he was right.
By the way, the similarity of the names Aztec and Itzaex has induced some scholars to think they were originally one and the same race; but the earliest conquistadors, who knew both people, declared that the Itzaex were much the handsomer and more intelligent people, although their buildings and civilization were somewhat inferior to those of the race of Montezuma. We must take into consideration, however, the fact that the Spaniards were never able to penetrate far into Itzlan, while they conquered the Aztec territory with comparative ease—by the aid of treachery and audacious trickery.
On the second morning we were up before the dawn and a brisk march brought us presently to a broad, flat plateau that was very beautiful and enticing, as its green fields and waving grain lay glimmering in the sun. We were all glad to be out of the dark forests, and before long, on mounting an incline, we saw before us the white, low buildings of a vast city, built around the shores of a placid lake and shaded by groups of magnificent trees.
The extent of this great City of Itza amazed us all, and Chaka smiled proudly as he pointed out the royal palace, the great temple, and the strong walls and gateways.
On nearer approach the whiteness of the buildings became more grimy and weather-stained and the houses were found to be generally small and greatly scattered. We afterward learned that Itza has a population of nearly twenty thousand, which is certainly an extensive settlement to be hidden in the wilds of Yucatan. The walls included not only the buildings but the lake itself, and were thick and strong if not very high.
Beyond the city we saw for the first time the sierras, the highest mountains in the peninsula. It was mainly a range of rounded knolls, most of them being covered with verdure and easily accessible. Directly in the center, however, were four small rocky peaks and one towering one that seemed to rise into the clouds. The sides of the latter mountain seemed precipitous and formed of straight walls of rock.
Runners had been sent forward and before we reached the walls of Itza people came pouring out of the nearest gate in a dense throng, every eye being set in our direction. There was no confusion or excitement apparent—I wonder if an Itzaex ever could get excited?—but they plainly showed their interest in their newly discovered youthful atkayma by trooping out to meet him.
And Chaka received a right royal welcome.
Men, women and children “bit the dust,” as Archie said, by prostrating themselves before him. The boy looked very handsome in his gleaming copper skin and the single heron feather set in his hair, and he walked into his hereditary kingdom as proud as a peacock, as well he might.
Just within the gates stood an impatient group clad in flowing robes embroidered with colored feather work. I think I omitted saying that most of the people of the city wore single loose robes similar to the togas of the ancient Greeks or the burnous of the Egyptians. Only those engaged in hunting or upon an expedition of war cast aside all covering but the loin cloth.
A curious fact which I observed was that all the robes were of colors or tints. Among the common people dark blues and purples were much affected. The merchants and middle classes, including the warriors, wore greens and yellows. The nobility adopted delicate shades of lavender, rose and saffron. I saw no red, as yet. Pure white was reserved for the royal family alone, and the foremost figure in the group I have mentioned was an old man arrayed in soft flowing white and bearing over his arm another garment of like texture and color.
As Chaka entered the gate this ancient dignitary—I knew at once it was his precious Uncle Datchapa—raised an arm to bar his way and gazed shrewdly into the young man’s countenance. It did not take long to convince him, for in a moment he threw the extra robe over Chaka’s head and then knelt before him as the others had done. All the group, members of the nobility and the royal council, followed suit, and there they remained until the new atkayma bade them rise.
It seemed to me that we, Chaka’s friends and comrades, were somewhat important and distinguished ourselves, and entitled to consideration; but old Datchapa and his backers disregarded us utterly, affecting to ignore our presence. We stuck stubbornly at the atkayma’s heels and except for his uncle, whom he retained at his side, all the other big bugs were forced to fall into the procession behind us.
A procession it really became now. Musicians were present who blew weird sounds upon reed flutes and beat tom-toms to keep us all in step. The streets were lined with spectators, who uttered no cheers of welcome but fell on their faces automatically as Chaka approached and rose again when he had passed on. It seemed as if we tramped miles and miles before the royal progress finally reached the shores of the lake, where stood the palace. It was a great, rambling building, two stories high and built of blocks of rough marble with pillars and ornaments showing much clever carving.
Chaka mounted the broad steps to the entrance and then turned and addressed the crowd. He told them how he had been carried away from Yucatan nine years before and of how he had managed to return. He praised his “white brothers” for their noble assistance and introduced Allerton to them especially, placing his hand on Paul’s shoulder in token of his friendship. He then expressed his joy at beholding again his native land, his sorrow at the terrible death of his beloved father, the former atkayma, and his intention of ruling his people wisely and with consideration. He called upon them to prove their allegiance and pledge their support at all times to their royal ruler, the Child of the Gods, who promised to protect them in return.
They answered the speech by raising their right arms and shouting a single word: “Kaym!” in unison, after which the throng quietly dispersed.
Posed just before the entrance door to the palace I had noticed three interesting figures which, during the proceedings, had remained motionless as statues. They were all three tall and imposing, with sharp, thin features and alert eyes. Their robes were of a blood-red color and had a cape or broad collar of white. Upon their heads they wore high, round, brimless hats of white feather-work, the first headdresses of any sort I had seen.
Chaka now turned to this trio and knelt humbly before them. One after another placed a hand upon his bent head and muttered a few words, after which they all three turned and disappeared through a small doorway.
The atkayma remained kneeling for several moments, while we stood watching him. Then he soberly regained his feet and motioned to us to approach.
“Follow me closely,” he said in English. “There is danger all about you, so try to be discreet, my brothers.”
Then he entered the broad arch that led into the palace.
WE SIGHT THE QUARRY
As compared with the palaces of civilized nations I cannot say much in favor of Chaka’s royal dwelling. When I consider that it existed in the heart of an isolated, practically unknown wilderness, I admit it was something to win approval. It must have been centuries old, for the mark of ages was upon it everywhere, as it was upon most of the buildings of Itza. Built of square blocks of a coarse and unpolished but durable marble, set with cement, there had been little attempt at architectural display on the part of the builders. The palace covered nearly an acre, having several wings which had been added at different periods. The interior was cool but dirty; the walls and floors had never been scrubbed, I imagine. The ceilings of the main floor were so low that I could reach up and touch them; those on the second floor, to which we ascended by means of a narrow, steep stair without a rail, were more lofty.
The place was full of servants, officials and hangers-on; but Chaka managed to recognize the chief steward, or whatever he was called, and after a brief interview with that factotum had us ushered into a big bare room on the second floor, in one of the wings.
We took our precious chests with us, of course, and prepared to camp. That’s the right word to use, for the only furniture in the room was a row of stone benches around the wall. Aside from the doorway were two outside openings intended for windows, over which a network of vines grew, keeping out the sun but admitting light and air and permitting us to get a limited view of the street. Over the doorway hung a sort of portiere of wool and feather-work, gorgeously colored. The chamber was a primitive abode, indeed, yet we approved it because our position could be defended and we knew not what to expect from the bigoted, unresponsive Itzaex.
Relying on Chaka’s ability to protect time, at least, we now divested ourselves of our bulky equipment. That was a distinct relief, for it was the first time since leaving the ship that we had lain it aside. We replaced it with thin white duck trousers and jackets which we had brought along for such an occasion in one of the chests. Ned Britton proposed strolling out and seeing the town, but Allerton thought it wiser to remain where we were until we had word from Chaka.
About noon a troop of Indian girls entered, bearing food in various pots and earthen dishes which they set upon the floor before us. I have remarked upon the beauty of the male Itzaex, but I must confess their women are not up to the standard. Nearly all are short and dumpish in form, with dull eyes and apathetic countenances. I never saw a pretty Itzaex girl while I was there.
The food was plentiful and of good quality, but poorly seasoned and carelessly cooked. The meats were mutton or wild game, supplemented by various vegetables such as rice, barley and a root resembling turnip. The bread was heavy and tough; but we managed to eat it, nevertheless, and I am sure we ought to have been satisfied for the feast was as good as the natives were able to provide.
After dinner we waited in vain for Chaka to come to us. As the hours rolled by Allerton began to be uneasy and disturbed. Not until the sun had sunk low upon the horizon and we had come to heartily detest the blank walls of our room did our friend, the atkayma, finally appear. He seemed grave and thoughtful as he entered, and after a word of greeting he squatted on the floor before us.
“They have kept me busy,” he said in English. “I could not come before. There have been councils and discussions all day. Just now I have come from the great temple, where the priests have been telling me my duty.”
“Poor Brother!” said Paul. “It is not easy to be a king.”
Chaka shrugged his shoulders.
“Not that, Brother Paul,” said he. “But it is not easy to run against the traditions of an ancient people, to defy a powerful priesthood and stand alone against a nation.”
“Have you done that, Chaka?”
“I had to do it. Otherwise you would all now be dead.”
“Do they object to us so strongly?” I asked.
“White men,” said the atkayma, “centuries ago deceived my people, who destroyed them. Never since have they permitted a white man to penetrate into their country. Their one great hatred—greater than that for the Mopanes—is this hatred of the whites. When I, as the head of the nation, brought you here, the people submitted reluctantly; but now they demand your death—that you be sacrificed upon the funeral pyre of my murdered father. It is the custom to sacrifice to the gods on such an occasion.”
“I suppose your precious uncle is at the bottom of this,” remarked Archie.
“He has induced the priests to demand you as sacrifices. I have just come from the great temple, which is on an island in the lake. The priests will not listen to my protests. They are determined to destroy the hated white men and the blacks who are with them. According to our law no strangers may exist in our land or leave it alive.”
“We’ll show them a trick or two,” remarked Ned Britton, smiling.
Chaka hesitated; then he added:
“The priests and the council have hinted that unless you are all delivered up to them at daybreak to-morrow morning, when my father’s body is to be cremated with much ceremony, they will assassinate me, their atkayma, and place my uncle at the head of the nation.”
We looked at one another a little bewildered at this. Chaka had misjudged his power over these stubborn people, and a serious complication had unexpectedly arisen.
“In that case,” said Allerton slowly, “something must be done to-night.”
Chaka nodded, but made no other reply. He sat on the stone floor, swaddled in his robe of royalty and hugging his knees in a very unroyal attitude. Paul eyed him thoughtfully, likewise refraining from speech. We others knew it was an occasion when we were not called upon to interfere with the promoters of the expedition.
Gradually the sun sank. After a brief twilight darkness flooded the room. We were growing impatient when Chaka slowly arose and said:
“Come, my Brother Paul. Also you, Cap’n Sam; and Cap’n Joe, as well. We must talk. It will be a small council. My other friends will remain here and wait for us.”
“I don’t like dividing our party,” said I, doubtfully.
“There will be no division.”
“Where are you going, then?” asked Ned.
“To the roof above. Soon we will return. Wait.”
Allerton, Joe and I followed the atkayma to the door. Just outside another narrow stair led to a small opening through which I saw a starry sky. We ascended these stairs and stood upon a flat roof surrounded by a low parapet.
The sky was a clear blue, set with myriads of diamond stars. Already a full moon was rising above the city, shedding its soft light so broadly that we could clearly distinguish the surrounding landscape. The air was dry, hot and perfectly still.
“Yonder,” said Chaka in English, as he faced the south, “stands the great mountain of Aota. Around it are the four peaks of Gam. That country is barren and covered with rocks. There are secret caves in which dwell fierce animals with evil spirits, and deep wells that draw one to his death. So my people have always been told, and they believe the tale. No Itzaex ever go to those mountains; they are considered sacred to the spirits of evil.”
“And where lies the hidden city?” asked Paul, eagerly.
“In the very center of Aota, whose steep sides it is impossible for man to climb.”
“It can’t be a very big place,” I remarked.
“That mountain is bigger than it seems from here,” declared Joe.
“Yes,” said Chaka; “it is a big mountain, and in its center, so my father told me, is a big valley where all things beautiful grow and flourish. The people are not many as compared with the Itzaex. Perhaps they number a thousand—perhaps two thousand—I do not know. But they are a powerful race, descended from those who once came from Atlantis, and in their valley they find all that they need to support life.”
We stood looking thoughtfully at the barren, towering peak. No wonder elaborate preparations had been made to invade such a stronghold.
“I wish we had their gold and rubies without the trouble of going there,” I said.
“Well,” said Allerton, awakening to a more alert mood, “we haven’t; and the journey must be made. What do you propose, Chaka? Can we steal away from the city to-night and start toward Aota?”
The atkayma shook his head.
“Look!” said he, pointing below. “The walls are guarded by my warriors. I myself might easily pass through, but not the white people. Already the word has gone abroad that the priests demand your lives. The funeral pyre of the dead atkayma requires victims. My uncle has aroused public hatred against you and the Itzaex nation thirsts for your blood.”
“That’s pleasant,” commented Joe.
“But what’s the program, then?” I inquired. “We don’t agree to be murdered, of course, however thirsty your people may be. That isn’t what we came here for.”
“No,” said Chaka. “We have really little to fear. If my Brother Paul and my other friends approve, I will show them how we may escape.”
“Speak, my brother,” returned Paul.
“It is not wise to go to-night,” began Chaka, “for I do not know the way to the mountain very well. All I know is that by some means we must get to the top of Aota. There is no wind. If we ascend into the air now we will remain suspended over the city, except for the small progress we could make with our wings, which have never been tested. In this country a breeze always springs up in the morning. It blows from the north and the north-west. That would help to carry us away toward the mountain, or at least far away from the city.”
“But aren’t we to be burned on the funeral pyre at daybreak?” demanded Joe.
“At daybreak I am commanded to deliver you to the priests at the great temple,” said Chaka. “There will be many ceremonies. You will be taken to the top of the temple, which is a pyramid, and there, in the sight of the people below, you are to be slain. Afterward your bodies will be laid upon the funeral pyre. My plan is to allow all this to happen but the killing. We will inflate our gas-jackets in readiness and at the right time, while the breeze is blowing, mount into the air and escape.”
“Well, I’m game,” said I, drawing a long breath, for I saw exciting times ahead.
“I’m with you, Chaka,” added Joe in his quiet voice.
Allerton walked to the parapet and stood there several minutes, thinking deeply. Then he returned and placed his hand on Chaka’s shoulder.
“It is a good plan, my brother,” he said. “We will follow it to the end.”
We went below and told the others. Nux and Bryonia grinned and nodded as if they had been invited to attend a circus; Ned asked a few questions and said he was satisfied; Pedro shook his head and vowed it seemed “ver’ much danger” but he would go with the crowd. Archie was asleep and growled when we woke him up. “Settle it to suit yourselves,” he said, yawning. “I’m agreeable to anything but keeping awake all night.”
I’m ashamed to say I slept very soundly myself, worn out by our long journey and its excitements. I think every one slept, for that matter, unless it was the Mexican. When the atkayma went away he sent us some soft mats which we spread upon the benches and reclined upon.
It was still dark when Chaka again aroused us. He was accompanied by two tall Itzaex in red robes, who bore lighted torches. A group of Indian maids came behind them with a simple breakfast of fruits and milk.
We first ate and then proceeded to don our equipment. There was a word of protest from one of the priests, but Chaka silenced him and to the amazement of the torch-bearers calmly began to put on his own gas-jacket and electrite outfit. He refrained from assuming the head-gear and threw his ample robe over the other fittings, thus effectually hiding them. I believe these priests, shrewd as they seemed, were wholly unable to guess what our strange apparel was for. After all, it matter little to them, so long as we came quietly to our fate.
When finally we were fully equipped and the surplus material had been packed into a chest, the atkayma produced a small but very strong cord made from hemp, with which he proceeded to loop us all together in a string, himself being attached to one end and Paul to the other. Archie began to protest at this, but Allerton told him it was intended as an additional safeguard.
Then we started on, the priests going first and Chaka following, drawing the rest of the string after him. The ropes had been left long enough for us to trundle the chests along easily, and so far as I was concerned the only uncomfortable thing was my wings, which kept getting in my way. These had been left to dangle at our sides until such time as we chose to thrust our arms through the loops, in order to use them for flying. In their folded state they did not resemble wings at all, and although the Itzaex prided themselves on never showing a trace of curiosity I am quite sure we had them guessing in more ways than one.
WE SEEK SAFETY IN FLIGHT
Once outside the palace we found a great concourse of natives awaiting us, headed by some twenty red-robed priests. In spite of the evil looks cast upon us there was no insulting word or jibe uttered. I gave the Itzaex credit for saving their breath when it was not needed.
Although the sky had now begun to lighten and all near-by objects were fairly distinct, the torches were still carried ahead as we began our march. This was brief. Soon we came to the lake and were led upon a large flat-boat which at once set out for the temple, urged by a score of rowers with long paddles. The people tumbled into hundreds of other craft, big and little, and followed at our heels.
Arriving at the island the priests took us in charge and escorted us up the steep steps forming the side of the great temple.
This was the largest building in Itza. It was shaped like a pyramid, with steps on all four sides leading to the flat top, some hundred feet from the base. Openings here and there showed that the center of the pyramid was divided into rooms, where the priests doubtless dwelt and held their secret rites and ceremonies. All great public events, such as our proposed carving, were held on top the temple in plain view of the populace gathered below.
Just as we had reached the top—a long and weary climb—the sun rose red over the horizon, and at once there was a clang of gongs and bells and a shrill blowing upon many conch-shells. While this lasted—a full minute, perhaps—we quietly gazed about us.
We stood upon a platform about fifty feet square, the outer edge being lined with priests standing in statuesque attitudes. In the very center of the place was a cube of marble with a hollow space at the top, in which lay a glistening knife. It was not a pretty sight, I assure you, and for an instant it made me shudder.
Now the priests set up a low chant, while at the bottom of the steps appeared the three patriarchs I had noticed at the palace the day before. This was the holy triumvirate, and they ascended with dignified deliberation while the multitude below and those still occupying the fleet of boats all prostrated themselves reverently.
“It’s time to inflate the gas-jackets, boys,” whispered Allerton.
He uncorked a canteen of water and saturated the crystals of themlyne in his case, afterward handing the canteen to me. One by one we all followed suit, while the chanting priests eyed us doubtfully but forbore to interfere. The gas generated freely and began to fill the hollow jackets, which swelled until we were just able to keep our feet on the platform. Pedro let in a little too much, and would have floated had not Chaka quickly shut off the valve and released some of the excess gas. Pedro, frightened at his own buoyancy, managed to regain his feet with difficulty, and the incident made the priests surrounding us all the more suspicious.
“Are your electrites ready?” inquired Paul.
“Use them if necessary,” he commanded.
Then we waited. I looked anxiously for the promised breeze, which so far had failed to put in an appearance. But it was yet early.
Slowly the holy three mounted the steps and we were all ready for them when they arrived at the top. Scarcely glancing at us they turned to the people and commanded them to rise, an order that was speedily obeyed.
Then one of the three began a harangue in a loud impressive voice. He said they were gathered to witness a sad and solemn but most important ceremony, decreed by the all-wise gods of their fathers. The former atkayma, the noble and wise Tcheltzada, a direct descendent of the gods, who had ruled the nation for many years, had finally met his fate fighting nobly against their enemies the Mopanes, who had beheaded him. By the command of the royal Datchapa a terrible revenge had been taken upon the murderers and the noble victim’s head and body had been recovered. These now lay at the foot of the pyramid on the funeral pyre, and in order to please and propitiate the gods, who had loved and cherished the great Tcheltzada, a number of strangers, including several of the hated white people, were to be slain and their blood sprinkled upon the ashes of the lamented atkayma. All this in honor not alone of the dead, but of his son the new Atkayma Chaka and his most holy brother, the wise and esteemed Datchapa, who as leader of the royal council had decreed the interesting ceremony that was about to take place.
I could see how cleverly the priests favored old Datchapa by giving him the credit of catering to the people’s hatred and lust for blood. It boded ill for Atkayma Chaka’s future that his wiley uncle practically controlled the powerful priesthood.
As the chief priest concluded his speech he turned about and asked:
“Who condemns these prisoners to the sacrifice?”
“I do,” answered a voice, as Datchapa stepped from behind a row of priests. “As head of the Royal Council of Itzlan I condemn these prisoners to be slain and their blood mingled with the ashes of Tcheltzada—if the gods consent to accept the tribute.”
At this all eyes were fixed upon an ugly little image of the god Bacáb, which was perched upon a shelf about midway up the front of the pyramid.
“Do the gods so consent?” demanded Chaka in a loud voice, taking his part in the ceremony.
The three priests knelt and stretched their arms toward the grinning Bacáb, and to my astonishment the image nodded its head in a very natural way.
“The gods consent!” cried aloud the three, in unison.
At that moment I saw Chaka protrude the nozzle of his electrite from his robe and point it at his uncle. Every other eye was at that instant turned intently upon the horrible figure of the god.
Suddenly old Datchapa threw up his arms and toppled backward. He was standing near the edge of the platform, so the people might observe his dignified form as he condemned the prisoners, and the result of his fall was that he began to bound down the steps in an inert heap, slowly at first and then with more rapid bumps and leaps until at last he fairly rose into the air and tumbled full upon the funeral pyre of the defunct Tcheltzada.
A cry of horror went up as priests and populace alike observed this dreadful scene, none able to interfere. If the gods approved the sacrifice it seemed like a queer way of attesting their delight.
There had been no sound of firearms, nothing to indicate from whence came the blow that had felled the royal Datchapa. While the consternation was at its height Chaka cried aloud:
“The gods disapprove! Beware, oh, Priests, the vengeance of the gods!”
For a silent, repressed people, the Itzaex now indulged in as near an approach to pandemonium as they will ever come. Some of the natives sided with the priests and some against them. The priests themselves were frantic with anger not unmixed with fear, and shrewdly realized their prestige was at this moment in sore jeopardy. Moreover, Chaka’s attitude was defiant; he claimed the whites as his friends, and whatever strange thing had happened to Datchapa might logically be attributed to his doing.
In a fit of unreasoning fury one of the triumvirate caught up the knife from the altar and leaping full upon the young atkayma strove to plunge it into his heart. The armor prevented the blade from penetrating, but the impact knocked Chaka from his feet and priest and potentate were now rolling together dangerously near to the steps. Ned caught Chaka’s leg and saved him, and as the priest clung to his victim and again raised the wicked blade to strike I sent a charge from my electrite against him and he quit the struggle then and there.
But it was war, now, and no mistake. With a savage growl the whole posse of priests was upon us, and what we did in the next few seconds startled us almost as much as it did our audience. Every man brought his electrite into full play and we mowed down the red-robed rascals like blades of grass. So effective was the electric current discharged that the victims had no time to even gasp: they simply tumbled down and lay still. Moreover, the charge spread at such close quarters, like small shot from a blunderbus, and one charge sometimes paralyzed three, or even four, at a time. A few fell upon the steps, but none experienced the sensational descent of old Datchapa. Before we realized it the platform was cluttered with motionless bodies and not one enemy remained erect or animate.
Our remarkable victory ought to have won the admiration and applause of the people; but it didn’t. On the contrary the natives burst into a hoarse roar of ferocious rage and with a single impulse started up the pyramid.
From all sides they rushed, vengeful and furious, and we decided not to await their coming.
“Turn on the stop-cocks and let more gas into your jackets,” said Paul. “Be careful not to get too much—just enough to float us comfortably.”
“Where’s the breeze?” I asked as I obeyed.
“Never mind the breeze. Let’s get off this hill.”
“How about the chests, sir?” inquired Ned.
“Chaka and I will inflate their coverings. Hurry, my lads—there’s no time to lose.”
Roped together as we were it was funny to see the effect of adding to the gas already in our jackets. Nux and Bryonia, accustomed to prompt obedience, were first to float, and each held on to a chest until that, too, was rendered light enough to float. Ned and his chest soared next; then Archie, Joe and I went up. Pedro’s chest started upward and he lost hold of its handles. I don’t know whatever would have become of that precious box had not Archie grabbed its wheel as it went by and held on to it like grim death. Next moment Chaka and Allerton together left the top of the pyramid; but something was wrong with Pedro; he could not find the cock that admitted the gas to his jacket.
He was roped between Bryonia and Ned, and his weight threatened to hold us all anchored when Paul and Chaka, on the ends of the string, appreciating the danger, turned more gas into their own jackets and drew big Pedro gradually off his feet. Slowly—too slowly, altogether—we rose into the air.
The Itzaex, during this time, had been scrambling up the sides of the pyramid. Now the foremost to reach the top, a big, powerful fellow, made a leap and grasped Pedro by the leg, anchoring the lot of us again, although the Indian could not drag us down, but hung clinging while Pedro swore and kicked at him with the other foot.
I thought this was a good time to work my electrite, and down fell the Indian, crumpling several of his fellows who had rushed forward to help him, while our anxious bunch gained new headway and slowly mounted skyward. Ned found the supply cock and gave Pedro’s jacket its full allowance of gas; so now we kept together better and were soon a good fifty feet above our starting place and perhaps a hundred and fifty feet above the ground of the island.
“That’s high enough,” said Paul. “Press the valves gently, each one of you, and let out gas until we cease to rise—but not enough to start a descent.”
We did the best we could, but some of course blundered and lost too much gas, being then obliged to let in a new supply. Finally, however, we had both the chests and ourselves in a condition of “statue quo” and hung motionless just above the pyramid. It was a queer sensation to be “up in the air” like this. I felt a bit dizzy at first, and I noticed poor Pedro kept his eyes shut as if afraid to look down.
Few of the Itzaex were armed that day, as none had expected a fight; so except for a few darts hurled toward us with uncertain aim we were not molested. It was interesting, though, to look down and see that great pyramid black with human beings who stood in amaze watching our aerial exhibition. The Itzaex are not easily astonished, but I’m sure we had them going just then, and small wonder.
“Here comes the breeze!” cried Paul, suddenly. “Get your wings ready, lads, and head for that tall mountain. Now—all together!”
The breeze came almost directly from the north and caught us so abruptly that it fluttered our string of adventures like rags on a clothesline before we collected our wits and made ready to take advantage of it. I got my arms through the loops, spread my wings and tried my best to flop them as a bird would.
I now realized the wisdom of connecting us together, for we were all new to the use of these curious wings and worked them in so many diverse ways that had we been independent of one another we soon would have become hopelessly separated. As it was, the more successful flyers dragged on the others, and the wind impartially dragged us all on together; so after a few moments, when I remembered to look back, I found the pyramid and its mass of humanity a good mile distant.
In the last few weeks I’ve been reading about aeroplanes and airships, and what has been accomplished with them. How imperfect—how futile and absurd—they all seem when compared with the Wells Gas-Jacket and Fibre Wings. All their intricate machinery, their rudders and ballast, accessories and paraphernalia are sure to give place to the eminently practical and satisfying mode of aerial navigation which I believe we were the first to employ during our adventurous trip to Yucatan. Allerton, who was more expert than the others, soon unfastened the cord and began to fly independently, and the ease with which he did it was marvelous. Using the wings to guide him, as a bird does, he let the stiff breeze carry him along with remarkable swiftness, tacking sidewise as he pleased and following any direction his fancy dictated. He would not let the rest of us cut loose, though, but explained to us the theory of his flight and taught us by example how to control our wings.
WE INTERVIEW THE RED-BEARD
The mountain, Chaka stated, was four days’ journey from the City of Itza. This was because the country surrounding the barren peak was rugged and very difficult to traverse. Yet our path through the air was so smooth and our speed so great that it was early in the afternoon when we approached so near to Aota that caution induced us to descend and call a halt.
“Here lies the goal of all our struggles,” said Paul. “From this moment we must exercise great care in all we do, for we cannot afford to risk failure by an error of judgment.”
After counseling with Chaka, Allerton decided to land on the west side of the mountain, about half way to the summit. By a careful manipulation of our wings and gradually letting the gas from our jackets we managed to accomplish this in safety, and although we lit upon the rocks about half a mile from the spot we had first selected we were well satisfied with the result of our exciting trip.
No wonder the Itzaex never ventured near Mount Aota. Such a jumble of huge jagged rocks, treacherous precipices, canyons, rifts and caverns I have never seen before nor since. As we settled to the ground we saw no place level or large enough to hold us all, except a deep ravine; so we fluttered down into this and planted our feet upon a pebbly bottom through which a torrent rushed during the rainy season, but which was now dry as a bone.
“It isn’t a bad hiding place, from which to reconnoiter,” remarked Paul, when we had all seated ourselves to rest and take breath, for flying is rather strenuous when long continued. “What do you think, Chaka; shall we make our camp here?”
“Let us find water,” suggested the atkayma.
So we set off in pairs and in different ways to discover water, leaving Pedro to guard the chests. Archie and I walked up the canyon together, finding many fissures leading from it and many dark caverns appearing in the rocks; but no where was there evidence of water. After proceeding a half mile or so we returned to find all the party again congregated. Nux and Bryonia alone had been successful, having found a way to climb up the lower side of the ravine, from whence they descended the mountain a short distance and reached a spring of clear, cold water that bubbled out of a rift in the rock. Quite near was the mouth of a large cave, which they did not wait to explore.
As this spot seemed the most suitable location for a camp we took the chests and made our way laboriously out of the ravine and down the mountain a few hundred feet to the spring, where we all drank of the water eagerly. There was but a narrow ledge to give us foothold here, so we approached the cave, the mouth of which appeared just where the ledge ended.
A few paces from the entrance the cavern was black as ink; so Paul got out his lamp—a modern acetylene search-light affair—and lighted it.
“Get your weapons ready,” he said, “for we don’t know who lives in this mansion, or whether the owner is willing to take boarders. Don’t use firearms; we’re too near the Tcha city for that. If you have to defend yourselves shoot the electrites.”
The search-light soon cast its gleam to the further wall, and we decided the cave was vacant. A slight rustling sound now reached our ears, growing gradually louder in volume, and looking downward I saw dozens of snakes wriggling toward us, hissing venomously as they came. They were tiny things, not much bigger around than a lead pencil and some seven or eight inches long.
“Reetee!” shouted Chaka, springing backward. “Run, friends—run for your lives!”
“But no, my brother,” answered Paul, restraining him. “We are well protected.”
Chaka shuddered, but stood his ground, watching the serpents fearfully. They struck at our feet and legs continually, not coiling but throwing themselves forward by rising upon their tails.
Although the sheathing of our shoes and gaiters was impervious to their fangs, the attack was too horrible not to resent. With one accord we began trampling them under heel, destroying the creatures by scores. But the more we killed the more appeared, creeping upon us from numberless tiny cracks in the walls. They came straight to the attack, fighting mad at being disturbed, and we soon began to tire of the hopeless battle.
“Let’s cut it!” said Archie, and there was no dissenting voice. Gradually we withdrew toward the mouth of the cave, the snakes following persistently, until when we stood upon the ledge it looked as though we must abandon the position and seek another camp.
“What are the things, anyhow?” asked Ned.
“Reetee,” said Chaka; “the most deadly serpents known.”
Nux and Bryonia knew snakes pretty well, having had large experience with them in the South Seas. Bry begged Allerton to give him the key to the supply chest, and going to it he searched for and brought out a package of dry mustard. Then he took the lamp and reëntering the cavern with it, the black kicked the bodies of the dead and dying serpents together in a heap and scattered over it fully half the mustard the package contained. Next moment he came running back to us, and was none too soon, for with a rush the vermin attacking us wriggled back into the cave, where they made straight for the mustard heap, burying their fangs in the carcasses of their damaged brethren.
The result was astonishing. Almost instantly the deadly reetee succumbed to “mustard poison,” as our blacks gravely called it, and in five minutes that lot of harmless mustard—harmless to us, that is—had accomplished more than our boot-heels could do in a week. The odor of the mustard drew every serpent from its hiding place, and contact with the yellow powder was its death warrant. We didn’t care for the cave, with its horrid carpet of dead reetee, but at least we were now free from the vipers’ attacks.
“The fact is,” said Paul, “we can’t stay here, or anywhere else on the mountain, for long. Even if our approach has not been observed, which we have little reason to hope, the spies of the Tcha, which are certainly on the lookout, will soon locate us. So it is necessary we get into the hidden city as soon as possible.”
“On which side of the mountain is the entrance?” I asked Chaka.
“I do not think there is any entrance,” said he; “at least, none that is known to those outside.”
“Yet your father visited this city?”
“Many years ago, when he was a young warrior. At that time he and his band had taken a fancy to hunt on this mountain and began to climb it in search of game. One night, as they lay sleeping, all were seized and bound. Then, being blindfolded they were carried bodily through what seemed to be a long passage. In the morning their bonds were removed and they found themselves within the splendid hidden city of the Tcha. A council was held, at which it was decided to kill all but my father, the atkayma of the Itzaex. He was made to promise that he would never mention the secret of the existence of the city to any but his son or his successor who would rule his nation in his place after him. Ever, during his life and the lives of his successors, he was to prevent any of the Itzaex or other people from wandering near to this mountain. Under these conditions his life would be spared and he would be sent back to his home. Of course my father promised, and the next night was blindfolded and led through other passages, finding himself alone at daylight at the very foot of the mountain. He told me all this, so that I could fulfill his pledge when I became atkayma; but he would tell me nothing of the people of Tcha, except that they were a wonderful race and their city was magnificent with gold and beautiful red gems. Some few details I gleaned from him, but aside from what I have now told you I know nothing.”
“Then,” said I, “the thing is all hearsay. There is no positive proof that within the steep and forbidding walls of this mountain lies any city at all.”
Chaka looked at me reproachfully.
“My father, the atkayma, never lied,” he said.
“I don’t mean that, old man. He might have got a crack on the head, and dreamed it all. Or the things he saw may have impressed him, an ignorant savage, as more wonderful than they really were.”
“I believe the story, Sam,” said Allerton, sharply. “Indeed, I have risked my life and future happiness upon its truth. Why should you doubt?”
“Oh, I don’t Paul,” said I. “I’ve seen too many queer things to doubt anything but the commonplace. But you must admit it’s a rather flimsy story to base such great hopes on.”
We were sitting on the chests on the narrow ledge, talking in this manner, when Bry, who was facing the cliff that rose sheer above us, uttered a cry and pointed upward.
We all turned, to stare in astonishment.
Not ten yards distant, upon a tiny shelf of rock that looked like a bracket jutting out from the cliff, squatted a man.
He was clothed in a white toga which had a border of deep blue. His hair and a long beard that swept to his knees was golden red. His eyes were large and blue in color, his features regular, expressive and intelligent. Strangest of all his skin was white as our own!
I could not see that he bore any arms, but while he might not be very tall, if standing erect, the muscles that showed in his bare arms and neck convinced me he was powerfully built and strong as an ox.
Silently he sat, his knees clasped by his brawny hands, and even when he found himself observed he gave no start nor evidence of emotion.
The situation became rather embarrassing to us at last, for while we were objects of the man’s earnest scrutiny—a scrutiny that seemed to search out and analyze our very thoughts—his composed countenance offered us little information in return.
Chaka, as the important member of our party, just then, stood up and bowed with great solemnity. Speaking the Maya tongue, common to all the tribes throughout Yucatan, he said:
“I greet a friend. May peace reign between us.”
“If our god so decrees,” was the reply, in a deep, resonate voice. This was an established Maya form of greeting among strangers. Said Chaka, continuing:
“Whence do you come?”
“My foot was planted here before your own. It is for you to say from whence you came.”
The man spoke quietly, without a trace of curiosity in his tone. Doubtless he did not require information concerning us.
“I am Chaka, Royal Atkayma of the Itzaex,” returned our spokesman. “These companions are from countries beyond the sea.”
The red-beard nodded.
“Little is there on bleak Aota to reward you for your journey,” he remarked. It seemed he spoke the native language as well as Chaka did. “May the gods of your fathers direct you upon your return.”
It was hard to answer this hint and say we were not going back just then. We had no doubt that before us perched an inhabitant of the hidden city, one of the mysterious and ancient race of Tcha. Remembering the report of Chaka’s father that spies were detailed to guard the mountain from intrusion we at once decided that this fellow was of this class. He would have had poor eyes, indeed, had he not noted our aerial approach, and his presence was now to be attributed to his desire to warn us against ascending the mountain farther.
As for our being able to get much information from him, the task seemed hopeless; but Allerton, addressing us in a low voice in English, said:
“I am going to ask this man some questions. Now that he has discovered us I can see no harm in trying to pump him. He will report our presence to his superiors, anyhow.”
“Maybe not,” I responded significantly.
“Don’t try to hurt him, for heaven’s sake!” warned Allerton. “We can’t afford to antagonize these people in any way. Our cue is to make them our friends.”
I had my own opinion concerning that, but said nothing.
The lieutenant now turned to the man above us, speaking the Maya to him.
“The legends say that the ancient race of Tcha still exists, hidden somewhere near here. Your presence leads us to believe the tale.”
There was no reply.
“Your skin is white; you are not of the Maya race,” continued Paul.
The man remained silent.
“May we not visit your people, and greet them as friends?”
Red-beard shook his head. “You talk in riddles,” he replied coolly.
“A white skin in Yucatan is unusual,” hinted Paul.
“Yet five of you have white skins,” answered the other, not giving our sun-browned Mexican credit for belonging to our race.
“We are Americans,” said Paul. “Soon we shall return to our own country, far away, from whence we came. It would please us, since we are here, to meet your people, who have so long secluded themselves from the great world.”
The red-beard made no reply to this. He did not refuse to answer any direct question, but would not argue or give us any satisfaction in return for our friendly advances.
“We ask to be taken to your city,” continued Paul.
The man sat motionless.
“If you refuse our reasonable request we will find the way without your guidance,” Allerton went on in a firm voice. He was getting provoked.
“In that case you will sacrifice your lives,” came the threatening rejoinder.
“Not so,” said our leader, bluntly. “Our lives are not to be—”
He paused abruptly, for the ledge was vacant. The Tcha had disappeared as if by magic.
With a bound Bryonia leaped up and caught a projecting rock from which he swung himself to the shelf the red-beard had occupied. Then he also disappeared and we waited anxiously the result of his quest. A few moments later the black protruded his head and shook it gravely.
“Dey’s a tunnel heah,” he announced; “but it blocked up good an’ tight.”
Chaka and Allerton both investigated, we standing below to “boost” them to the shelf. When they came back they reported that a small tunnel, merely a crevice, in fact, led into the cliff for a distance of about twenty feet and then ended in a solid wall.
“Of course it isn’t solid,” added Paul, “for the fellow evidently escaped that way and lowered a big stone to block the tunnel. But from this side it is impossible to remove the obstruction.”
“Well, then, what next?” I inquired.
“Let us wait here until darkness falls. It isn’t a very comfortable location, I admit, but it will do for a few hours. Then we will inflate our jackets, rise to a level with the top of the mountain, descend into the city, and take our chances of receiving an affectionate welcome.”
We considered this plan thoughtfully and after discussing it in all its phases decided it was best to follow, under the peculiar circumstances.
WE BECOME PRISONERS OF THE TCHA
Without doubt our presence on the mountain and our declared intention of visiting the hidden city was by this time known to the Tcha. Our best policy would be to appear among them at once, rather than wait for them to formulate a plan to prevent our purpose.
“They can’t be very fierce people, if the others are like the sample we’ve seen,” remarked Archie. “He wasn’t at all a bad looking fellow.”
“I believe I would rather face the Tcha than tackle the Itzaex again,” added Ned Britton. “We know how to deal with white folks.”
“I do not forget that the Tcha killed my father’s followers without mercy,” said Chaka. “But that need not discourage us. We made the journey to gain this hidden city, and my brother Paul’s plan to fly over the mountain seems to me to be wise.”
Our thoughts were none too cheerful as we sat there hour after hour and discussed the forlorn hope, perhaps imagining more terrors than actually existed. It was a big mountain. We could realize that, now we had reached it and were perched like birds upon a narrow ledge of rock, with a dangerous precipice at our feet. There was room for a pretty big city inside the grim walls of this barrier, if it really was hollow and a city of living people existed within it.
We brewed some coffee over an alcohol stove and Paul made enough extra to fill his thermos bottles. In the supply chest—one of the four we carried—was a quantity of food in very condensed form. By boiling water brought from the spring we made some very excellent soup from a small tablet, and a tin of beef, with a biscuit apiece, enabled us to feast in a very satisfactory manner.
All our operations had to be conducted on a shelf of rock not two feet wide, and the place was so littered with the carcasses of the vipers we had killed that the only way to sit or lie down was by perching upon the chests.
Gradually the sun sank and twilight fell. Nearly all of us were impatient to start as soon as possible, but Allerton restrained us.
“We have waited long and endured much to gain this position,” said he. “It would be reckless folly to spoil our prospects now by acting prematurely.”
So we waited, hour after hour, until the patience of even our staid blacks was well-nigh exhausted. Archie grumbled and growled continually, while Joe whistled softly to himself. Pedro fell asleep and only escaped falling into the precipice by Ned’s quick grasp on his arm as he was rolling off a chest.
Finally Allerton looked at his watch for the twentieth time.
“Midnight,” he announced. “I think we may risk it now.”
We were getting used to the trick of inflating our gas-jackets. In a few moments each man was a miniature balloon, with wings ready to direct his flight. We expanded the coverings of the chests until they floated gently, and were about the same weight as the air itself. Then we examined our electrites, to which we all attached fresh storage belts, saw that guns and revolvers were loaded and in working order, and then were prepared to undertake the most important phase of our adventure.
The moon was up again and the stars bright and gleaming. While we might have preferred darkness, if allowed a choice, we were obliged to make the best of a night that seemed alive and thrilling with heavenly radiance. We could see what we were doing, anyway, and since we were exploring an unknown country that fact was comforting to a degree.
Once more we looped ourselves together by means of the cord, and then at Allerton’s command we turned on the gas until we began to float gently upward.
Using our wings, which were becoming less awkward to us, we guided ourselves toward the center of the mountain top. Within a quarter of an hour we were poised directly over it.
And now, indeed, we not only recognized the truth of Chaka’s report, derived from his father, but were filled with amazement at what we beheld.
Within the walls of the great mountain lay a deep cup, or valley, the surrounding peaks forming its bulwark or wall of defense, and effectually shutting out the outside world. And in the valley, as it was disclosed to our eyes under the moonlight, were trees, rivers and fields of verdure and of grain.
But in a great circle following the oblong shape of the valley and extending from the walls of the mountain a quarter of a mile or so toward the center, was the city we had sought, brilliant with thousands of electric lights. The buildings were constructed of white, highly polished marble, not being flat or square as were the dwellings of Itza, but having towers, gables, and minarets, and presenting many novel and beautiful designs of architecture. The streets—both the circular ones extending around the valley and the cross streets—were broad and smooth as our American boulevards, and were lined with splendid shade trees.
It was an impressive sight from our bird’s-eye position, this handsome city, and quaint enough to rank with any European town of ancient date. But it was altogether more fantastic than even the Chinese towns I had visited, and being built like a belt, following the outlines of the enclosing mountain, it certainly presented a most unique appearance.
The City of the Tcha, with its central rural or country district, may be roughly estimated at four miles in length and from three to three and one-half miles wide, which proves what a big mountain Aota really was.
Allerton’s sharp eyes eagerly examined the place and he presently whispered to us instructions to descend at a point as near to the central portion of the valley as possible, in this way avoiding the city.
We could not now hope to find the population asleep, seeing that the twinkling lights were everywhere. Although a few buildings of one sort or another were scattered here and there throughout the rural district—otherwise the center of the valley—these would be easy to avoid until we had landed and taken our bearings.
We did not hesitate long, but pressed the escape-valves and began to descend. Pedro, whose mechanical understanding was sadly undeveloped, made his usual blunder and nearly precipitated us to the ground in a heap by dragging at the ropes; but Paul’s cleverness managed to save us from injury, so that we all landed a bit abruptly but safely upon a greensward, while Pedro got a severe bump that nearly drove the breath from his body.
Instantly we removed the ropes and peered about us to discover where we were. A low, white building, all unlighted, was a few yards away; we were upon the broad and velvety lawn surrounding it. Near by ran a small brook, spanned by artificial bridges of pretty design. There were flower beds beyond the brook and a driveway or road circled to the end of the nearest bridge. The air was delightfully cool, a hush lay upon the whole country and the entire scene was peaceful and charming.
While we stood there taking our bearings I happened to turn toward the low building, wondering for what purpose it was used, when I observed a door open, and a file of men pour out in rapid succession. They separated into two files, with the evident intention of surrounding us.
My cry of warning was scarcely necessary, for now we were all watching these files. Tall, stalwart fellows they were, clothed in white togas similar to the one the red-beard we had first seen wore. Circular casques, fitting tightly to their heads, glittered brightly in the moonlight and in their arms the Tcha carried spears with silver shafts and heads of gold.
“Well, shall we fight, Paul?” I asked hurriedly, as I fingered my electrite.
“No. Let us see first what their intentions are. We come here in peace. If we declare war now we may ruin all our chances of trading for the treasure we have journeyed so far to obtain.”
His tone was one of subdued excitement. We were all of us intensely nervous and wrought up by this outcome of our extraordinary adventure.
Silently but with remarkable swiftness the Tcha surrounded us; then, turning abruptly and with admirable military precision, they faced us and advanced until they formed a close circle but a few paces distant. For our part we made no move to escape nor to oppose them. With all the dignity and assumed confidence we could muster we stood with folded arms, silently regarding them.
The spears grounded on the grass with a slight thud. Every man became a living statue. Then a young fellow stepped to the front and saluted.
His complexion was white and he wore a short red beard. This fairly describes the entire company he commanded. The light was sufficient for us to see them clearly, and to note the expression on their faces. It was composed and calm. I have never seen people so alert and yet so sedate and dignified as these ancient Tcha. In action they are marvelously quick; in repose as motionless as if carved from stone.
Allerton advanced a pace and returned the young officer’s salute.
“If we intrude,” he said in the Maya language, “we offer our apologies. We are travelers from the United States of America, come to examine this unknown part of Yucatan. We claim from you and your people the same hospitality we would show to you were you to visit our own country.”
The officer listened respectfully. When Allerton had concluded his speech the other said, using the same language:
“I am instructed to furnish you lodgings for the night. Follow as I lead.”
His voice was clear and distinct, his tone arbitrary, as if he anticipated no opposition and would brook none. Yet the words seemed fair enough, and in return Paul merely bowed his assent.
We were conducted to the building from whence the soldiers had issued, the men forming a hollow square and escorting us while we marched in the center. It looked to me very like a capture, but Paul whispered to us in English not to resent anything at the present time.
Through the doors we were ushered into a big dark hall, where we stood until suddenly a light flashed ahead of us and its rays disclosed surroundings of a most magnificent character.
“Come!” commanded the officer, leading the way up the hall. We obeyed, turned a bend in a corridor and found ourselves in a room about twenty feet square.
“In the morning,” said the young Tcha, tersely, “I will again come to you.”
He saluted once more, backed through the door and closed it behind him. We heard a metallic sound, as if a heavy bar had fallen into place.
“Prisoners, sure enough!” exclaimed Archie.
“Never mind,” said Paul. “Isn’t it a gorgeous prison?”
It was, indeed. The walls and floor were of polished marble, but the former were draped with splendid hangings and the latter spread with thick, soft rugs. Couches covered with downy cushions—enough for us all—stood here and there, and these were made of a metal that Allerton declared to be solid gold. Save for an ornamental table of similar material these couches were the only furniture of the room. In the center of the ceiling glowed a curious flat-shaped electric lamp that lighted the place fully, but without any disagreeable glare. I saw no way to shut it off, but Joe discovered in a corner a cord which, when gently pulled, drew a mask over the lamp and darkened the room. We afterward discovered that this room was really plain and unprepossessing when compared to even the humbler dwellings of this magnificent city, but at the moment of our introduction to it we regarded its splendor with awe.
There was one window, letting into a court. It had no glass panes but was crossed and recrossed by heavy bars of a metal resembling bronze. There was no way to remove these bars and, the door having been securely fastened, we were forced to admit that we had been very securely jailed. Later we learned that this building was reserved for a prison, or as near such an institution as the Tcha required. It was called “The House of Seclusion” where offenders were sent for punishment; but it was very seldom used.
It was no use worrying. Here we were, at last, in the hidden city. Young men require lots of sleep. I settled myself upon one of the gold framed couches and was soon oblivious to every threatened danger.
WE VIEW THE HIDDEN CITY
“Shall I make coffee?” I heard Paul ask.
Opening my eyes I found the sun streaming through the barred window. The others except Archie and Pedro were awake.
As if to answer our leader’s question steps were heard on the marble floor of the passage outside. Bars were removed, the door swung open and in came four soldiers bearing our breakfast.
This consisted of fresh sweet milk, a plentiful supply of fruits, including peaches, dates and melons, and a quantity of excellent bread made into small loaves and baked with a hard crust.
I made a mental examination of these strange people as they arranged the food upon the table. Their complexions were much fairer than my own, which was well browned by sun and weather; yet they lived in a tropical climate. Every Tcha we had seen so far had red hair, and I may as well add that every Tcha we saw afterward, male and female, possessed red hair, with its invariable accompaniment of blue eyes. They were very careful of their personal appearance, being as neat as wax from head to toe. The casques of these soldiers, who also acted as police—they were called “public guardians”—were formed of plates of gold hardened by means of some alloy.
As soon as they had performed their duties these men withdrew, leaving us to gather round the golden table, pouring milk from a golden tankard into golden goblets and eating from golden plates. All these utensils were skillfully engraved with conventional decorative designs, no figures or landscapes being used whatever. Around the base of the tankard was set a row of brilliant red stones which Paul after examination pronounced rubies of almost priceless purity and size.
“There’s almost enough wealth here in this room,” he said, “to repay us for coming.”
“Then let’s take it and go,” I suggested.
“Can we go?” inquired Chaka.
Not just then, I realized perfectly.
After giving us ample time for our breakfast the young officer reappeared. He was accompanied by a single soldier bearing over his arm a number of white togas.
“I am commanded to take the strangers before the Tribunal,” he announced.
“Very well,” said Paul. “We are ready to go.”
“You must go unarmed.”
At a signal from Allerton we laid down our guns and revolvers, drew our knives and placed all in a heap upon the floor. We stuck to the electrites.
“Remove your flying clothes,” commanded the officer.
“We refuse to do that,” said Paul, firmly.
“You must go before the Tribunal naked, save for these robes I have brought,” was the stern decree.
Paul smiled and sat down indifferently upon a sofa.
“Then we won’t go,” said he. “You must remember, my good man, that our customs are not the same as your own. We are neither your prisoners nor your slaves, but your guests. We will submit to no indignities at your hands, sir. If you so desire, we will wear the robes you have brought, but only over our other garments.”
The officer bowed, turned on his heel and left the room, his attendant following.
“That’s the way to treat ’em,” cried Archie, jubilantly. “When they find we’re not to be bulldozed they’ll show us more respect.”
Not many of us were so optimistic. I did not like the look on the officer’s face as he retired.
“He has probably gone to report and receive further orders,” said Paul, a bit anxiously. “I think I was right to be so positive, but it is hard to judge these people. One thing is certain, we mustn’t give up our electrites or gas-jackets. If it comes to open war at any time I am confident these devices will save us and permit us to escape.”
We all fully agreed with him in this, and having planned and discussed our actions in case of emergencies we settled down to wait, as patiently as might be, the course of events.
Suddenly a shutter swung across the window with a click, shutting out the light and leaving us in darkness. I felt my way to the cord, drew the mask from before the electric lamp and so lighted the room artificially.
“I wonder what that was for?” exclaimed Paul, uneasily, as we all stared at the shutter before the window. “Can you explain it, brother?”
Chaka shook his head. “The Tcha queer people. It is not easy to understand them,” he said.
A fragrance, as of some delightful perfume, was now wafted to our nostrils from some hidden source. We all noticed this, but no one made any remark at first. The perfume grew stronger, presently, and more pungent. I was sitting on a couch and threw myself back against the cushions, feeling drowsy and inert. My eyes closed; I felt a delicious sense of oblivion stealing over me. Somewhere out of space I heard Paul’s voice saying:
“Resist it! resist this fatal essence, or we are lost!”
I had no especial desire to resist anything. Just then I felt entirely comfortable and contented. Dreams were coming to me; dreams rose-colored and sweet. I wandered in cool forests, picking brilliant wild flowers and listening to the songs of birds. The songsters were Birds of Paradise, superbly plumed, and they sat on the branches of trees and talked, as well as sang, telling me pretty fables. Other delights I enjoyed, wading in a clear brook and catching fishes in a straw hat, as I once did as a small boy. Then I leaped upon a green bank and raced up and down in thoughtless glee.
Some one caught me and began shaking me with no gentle hand.
“Sam! Sam, my lad! Wake up—wake up!”
In much disgust at being disturbed I opened my eyes. Sunshine again in the room. The shutter had been removed from the window. Joe was bending anxiously over me, while black Nux fanned me gently.
The dream dissolved. I sat up, quickly recovering my wits.
All but Nux and Joe were still asleep under the influence of the powerful narcotic which had filled the room. I ran to Paul and began to shake and fan him. Joe tackled Archie and Nux tried to restore Chaka. Bry came to unassisted and presently joined us.
Five minutes later we had all recovered and sat staring at one another in bewilderment. There was no trace of headache or other bodily ill-effect from our enforced loss of consciousness; but a far greater misfortune had overtaken us.
We had been stripped naked while we slept and all our equipment and outfit, defensive and aggressive, including the four chests, had been taken from us.
We were helpless prisoners in the hidden city of the Tcha.
Whatever confidence in ourselves we had felt before we endured this irreparable loss was now reduced to a minimum. I am quite sure there was not a coward among us, as the term is generally understood; but our present predicament was serious enough to make the bravest of the brave anxious and despondent.
We said nothing for a time. There was nothing to say. Archie, who usually grumbled and complained, now startled us by an abrupt laugh.
“What fools we were to think we could outwit these Tcha,” he said, in a voice that was positively cheerful. “They haven’t been hidden from the world all these thousands of years without getting a little civilized in their own way; and, by jinks! it was as clever a dodge as I ever heard of. No threats, no force, no back-talk. They laid down the law to us, and found we wouldn’t agree to it. So they made us come to time, in the pleasantest possible manner. They deserve to win, those fellows. Hurrah for the Tcha!”
“I’m inclined to think,” said Allerton, with a sigh, “it’s all up with us now. I’m sorry, lads, that I drew you into this trap.”
“Don’t mention it, Paul,” I replied, trying to shake off a sense of impending doom. “We got along famously under your leadership until just now, and what has happened is in no way your fault. Let’s brace up, all of us, and take things as they come.”
“Of course,” remarked Joe, in his slow way. “I’ve been in places nearly as desperate as this before, and managed to wiggle out alive. We seem to be beaten, at present, but it’s a good omen that these people didn’t kill us while we lay unconscious and at their mercy.”
“That’s true,” nodded Ned Britton. “While there’s life, there’s hope.”
“We won’t show the white feather, anyhow,” said Archie. “If it comes to dying, as it may, we’ll die game.”
Pedro gave a sob and drew his hand across his eyes.
“Don’ mine me,” he said, apologetically. “If Pedro mus’ die, he die like a game, too—a much small game. But Pedro no like to die. It hurt so bad.”
“So it does,” laughed Archie. “We’re none of us hankering for it, my boy.”
Nux and Bryonia were seemingly unmoved. They were accustomed to accepting the inevitable with philosophy.
“Bad t’ing, Mars’ Sam,” was all Nux said; and Bry shook his head and remarked:
“I like to have one big fight to end it. If big fight come, Bry don’t mind.”
Chaka was silent and reserved. After clasping his Brother Paul’s hand a moment he relapsed into a state of dignified unconcern. He reminded me of the Mussleman who is content with this life but is willing to die because he believes the next life better.
Before long the officer returned, with his attendant and the robes. We had braced up now and showed neither anger at what had occurred nor fear at our helpless condition. On his part the young fellow made no reference to his easy victory over us. He quietly passed around the robes and sandals, waited until we had put them on and then said, somewhat more respectfully than before:
“You will now accompany me to the Tribunal.”
With this he turned to leave the room. We followed in double file, Chaka and Paul first, then Joe and I, Archie and Ned, Nux and Bryonia and Pedro at the end. We assumed a demeanor of proud indifference which I assure you we were far from feeling.
Down the corridor, along the big hall and through the door we marched, and not a soldier appeared to guard us. It was not necessary.
Now we had our first daylight view of the magnificent valley and the city of Tcha.
From the level where we stood the mountain sides rose almost perpendicularly to a height of two hundred feet or more; not in smooth cliffs, but rugged, irregular and picturesque. At the base of these sides had been built the largest and most important of the palaces and dwellings; but these were all at the south end of the oval valley. The north end was fitted with huge buildings more substantial than ornate, and here we afterward learned were located the manufactories and warehouses. A broad boulevard ran before this unbroken circle of buildings, and it was bordered by parkings of close cropped grass, drinking fountains and broad-spreading palms. Then came a circle of less imposing dwellings, in two rows, one facing the first or Great Boulevard, the other row facing the valley on a second boulevard, this of course being of less extent, as it formed the inner circle. The same arrangement was repeated five times, thus carrying the city proper in a vast belt around the outer edge of the valley.
All of the central space was devoted to agriculture, and except for a few public buildings only granaries and storehouses were built there. Yet it was all as elaborately laid out as a public park, and the soil must have been wonderfully fertile.
One or two natural brooks that flowed through the place fed several canals used for irrigation and boating; and although the Vale of Tcha was really extensive, without an inch of waste space, it was so hemmed in by the mountain that it looked like a toy kingdom.
Escorted by the officer we traversed paths bordered with gay flowers which led through the pasture lands and grain fields, making indirectly toward a large enclosure near the north end of the valley. I could not imagine what this place was, at first, but saw many white-robed figures flocking to it from various parts of the town. When we drew nearer it resolved itself into a great outdoor hall, built much like the ancient Greek theatres, although it was probably much older than the Greek nation.
All unguarded we followed our conductor to the entrance of this theatre. There was no possible chance to escape. While we were in the Vale of Tcha and unarmed we were virtually in a prison, with ten thousand native inhabitants for jailors.
WE ARE CONDEMNED BY THE TRIBUNAL
The theatre, or rather assembly hall, was built so that a small stage or platform faced row after row of circular marble seats which rose in tiers, one slightly elevated above another, until the highest tier was some sixty feet above the ground. As we were led in I noticed that the seats were nearly filled with men, women and children. All wore the staple white toga, often over finer garments which fitted the body loosely and were more or less embroidered and decorated according to the fancy or the station of the wearer. Sometimes these togas were solid white throughout, but more usually there was a plain or figured band of a different color around the hem and the neck. The women affected wider borders and more color on their garments than the men.
Every inhabitant of Tcha, male or female, had red hair. There were many shades from deep auburn to brick red; but it was all undeniably red. Eyes, too, were invariably blue, being likewise of many graduations of shade, from dark violet to light watery azure. The complexions of the people, as I have said, were dazzingly fair, with few freckles, and this despite the warm latitude in which they lived. However, I never knew it uncomfortably warm in Tcha.
Having remarked upon the fine physique of the men of Tcha, I may as well state here that their women were the handsomest females I have ever seen. It would not have been possible to find an unattractive maid or matron in the hidden city. They were, as a rule, tall and slight, exceedingly graceful and free of carriage and of extraordinary facial beauty. Cheery and bright they seemed but neither talkative nor frivolous. Modest and unassuming at all times they yet maintained an air of stately pride that won and retained the respect and deference of the opposite sex. In Tcha the women were considered the equal of men in all ways, and their superiors in many.
A more reserved and unexcitable race has never existed. In the assemblage we faced there was no disorder of any sort. Even the children restrained any evidence of feeling. Inimical, powerfully opposed to the strangers who had intruded upon them we felt them to be; yet no jeers nor insults came from the throng, which represented the rank and file of the populace.
The officer lined us up facing the low platform, upon which sat a group of three aged men. Their beards—many wore beards in this valley—were snow white, and their heads were bald. They were not wrinkled nor decrepit, but carried themselves erect and proudly.
Of course I knew this was the powerful Tribunal which was to decide our fate, and so I examined their faces with interest. Their eyes, which returned our gaze, were mild and calm in expression. There was no sign of hatred, antagonism or cruelty in those placid countenances. Somehow I took heart as I read the faces of the Tribune, and felt relieved that we had been brought before them for judgment.
All others in that vast throng were commoners: the three aged members of the Tribunal alone possessed authority. We knew nothing as yet of the political constitution of the people, but this conclusion was self evident.
The officer knelt and removed his casque.
“Here, Fathers, are the strangers,” he said.
One of the three addressed us.
“Who speaks for you, strangers?” he inquired.
Allerton stepped forward and bowed respectfully. The three aged heads bent to acknowledge the salutation.
“It is well,” said another. “We desire to question you, sir, and trust you will answer us truly. Why are you here?”
“We came,” said Paul, using the expressive Maya language, which seemed to be spoken in the valley, “merely from curiosity. We are experienced travelers, from a country afar off, and we wished to see your valley, to meet your people and to make you our friends.”
The third Tribune spoke. “How came you to know that the Vale of Tcha exists?” he asked.
Allerton hesitated, not knowing how to answer. He tried to choose his words with great care, for words meant lives at this crisis.
There was no impatience displayed by the Tribune, yet our leader’s very hesitation was against us. It was a fair question, from their standpoint, but the most difficult one Paul could have been called upon to answer. He must at all hazards protect his friend and “brother”.
But Chaka showed his mettle then. He advanced a pace and standing beside Allerton he said in a clear voice that could be heard by all:
“It was I who told him of the hidden Vale of Tcha.”
The three graybeards examined the speaker carefully.
“You are an Itzaex,” said one.
“I am Chaka Atkayma, the child of the gods and the hereditary ruler of my people,” was the proud assertion. Chaka was superb when he assumed this mood.
“And how came you to know of the Vale of Tcha?” was the next question.
“My father, the great Tcheltzada Atkayma, told me.”
The members of the Tribunal exchanged glances of intelligence.
“Did he ask you to keep the information secret, to use it only to prevent your people from coming too near to the mountain of Aota?”
“He did,” said Chaka. “But I related the story to my brother Paul, whom I love as myself. When he became eager to visit your city I offered to guide him.”
The graybeards nodded. They felt they were now getting the plain, unvarnished truth.
“Did you not realize the penalty of your act; the fate sure to overtake you if you succeeded in coming among the people of Tcha?”
Allerton had recovered his wits by now, and strove to shield his friend.
“He did, your Highness, and warned my comrades and me. But we paid little heed to his protests. Why should we be unwelcome in Tcha? We come not as enemies but as friends. We are few in numbers; the Tcha are thousands. In no other country of the great wide world are peaceful strangers forbidden the hospitality of the people.”
I thought this was a hard hit, and a corking good argument; but the three bald heads did not seem impressed by it. One of them replied:
“The Tcha have the right to make their own laws, and to protect themselves from intrusion. For thousands of years we have been sufficient to ourselves, ignoring the outer world from whence you came. We have forbidden strangers to come among us. Through the Tcheltzada Atkayma of the Itzaex we warned all men to keep away from our domain, under penalty of death. You have disregarded our warning; you have disobeyed our laws. Therefore you must submit to the punishment your folly has brought upon you.”
Pleasant prospect, wasn’t it? Chaka said, in a firm voice:
“I alone, your Highness, deserve punishment. It was my disobedience of your commands that permitted these people to come to the Vale of Tcha. I claim at your hands full punishment for my fault, and the release of my innocent friends.”
“Not so!” cried Allerton, quickly. “It was I who, learning of your hidden city, persuaded Chaka Atkayma to guide me here. It was I who induced these comrades to accompany us. The fault is mine, your Highness. I alone deserve the death penalty.”
For an impressive moment the three members of the aged Tribunal gazed full into the faces of these strange contestants for the honor of death. Then they deliberately rose, walked around the bench where they had been seated and sat down in a row with their backs toward us and the assemblage.
At this every head in the audience was bowed low, as if in prayer. Absolute silence reigned. Not even the rustle of a garment was to be heard.
The Tribunal was deciding our fate.
I own that I felt desperately uneasy and weak-kneed. The gentleness of demeanor of the old men and the quiet repression of the populace should have been reassuring; but somehow the chills would run up and down my back in spite of me. Chaka and Paul turned and embraced one another with mutual love and gratitude, after which they stood proudly erect and awaited their fate. As for the rest of us, fearful as we were we failed to show the white feather. Cowardice at such a time would be strangely out of place; because, perhaps, it was so unavailing. Unless it may prove profitable, cowardice is the rankest folly.
After a brief consultation the members of the Tribune came back to their first position, facing us. Their gaze was as calm and inscrutable as before. Then one of them rose to his feet and addressed the assemblage.
“The strangers are all condemned to death,” said he, quietly. “The laws of our fathers, the founders of the Vale and City of Tcha, must be obeyed. Once we pardoned an atkayma of the Itzaex and sent him back to his people, that through fear and in self-protection he might preserve us from further molestation or intrusion. That was deemed a wise action at the time, but it is not necessary for us to spare the atkayma’s son, who stands before us. For, thinking the young man had perished, Tcheltzada confided our secret to his brother Datchapa, an old and wise Itzaex who will now rule his people and is too cautions to disobey our commands.”
I wondered how he knew all this, and if old Datchapa had really survived his tumble down the side of the pyramid. When the speaker sat down another Tribune rose, saying:
“As our laws provide, in such cases, the civil government of Tcha, which we the Tribune represents, is powerless to do more than condemn strangers who intrude upon our domain. The prisoners must now be turned over to her Supreme Highness the High Priestess of the Sun,” (here Tribunal and people all bowed their heads humbly) “that they may be used for the sacrifice, if found fit, or otherwise destroyed. This is our decree, the decree of the Tribunal of Tcha, from which there is no appeal.”
Here the third judge arose.
“The prisoners must be taken to the Holy Temple at once and delivered to the representatives of her Supreme Highness, the hereditary High Priestess of the Sun. And may the god approve us and shed his blessings upon us, now as heretofore.”
WE ARGUE WITH THE HIGH PRIESTESS
Well, it was all over, and we had no chance to demur or make any protest. The members of the Tribune gathered their robes about them and walked away, and then the tiers of seats began to empty, without haste and in an orderly, circumspect manner.
Curious looks were cast at us, but I could read neither pity nor abhorrence in any countenance. We were wholly outside the lives of this strange race, and they accepted our fate as a matter of course.
The officer who had brought us here now turned and said:
“You have been tried and judged, strangers. You have heard the verdict of the just Tribunal. Follow me.”
Of course we tagged along after him; there was nothing else to be done. We now headed straight for the city, and that especial part of it situated at the south end of the valley. The people, returning to their dwellings, avoided interfering with us. While within earshot they did not discuss us or our unhappy destiny. Through centuries they have been taught consideration for others, nor did they forget the lesson even in their conduct toward strangers and condemned criminals.
Our glimpses of the residences we passed filled us with wonder and admiration. Highly polished marble, ornate and artistic carvings, exquisite tropical shrubbery, closely mowed lawns, fountains, cornices and ornaments of wrought gold were everywhere visible. The approaches to some of the finer dwellings were paved with layers of golden sheets, riveted together and in some instances bordered with fine rubies and other gems. Gold seemed the most abundant metal the Tcha possessed, and they had a secret way of hardening it that rendered it as durable as steel, without impairing its beauty.
Approaching nearer and nearer to the south wall of the mountain enclosing the valley, we at last reached the most impressive and extensive building of all—the Temple of the Sun. Ample grounds surrounded the huge, majestic pile, enclosed by marble walls ten feet in height, which were supplemented by a six-foot ornamental railing of elaborately worked gold. The entrance gates were likewise of gold, and bore in the center of each a highly polished representation of the sun shedding its rays in every direction.
News of our coming had evidently preceded us, for the great gates at once swung inward to receive us and a group of tall priests, most of them advanced in years, stood ready to admit the devoted band of prisoners to the sacred precincts. The official did not pass the gates. He reverently removed his casque and said:
“Holy fathers, to your keeping I confide the condemned. They now belong to our mother, the divine and adorable High Priestess of our god, the Sun.” Then, turning to us he continued in an earnest tone: “Destiny directs all human life. You are brave men, strangers, and are prepared to well fulfill the decree of Destiny. Being on the threshold of the great Hereafter, I give you greetings and good wishes. May your journey be peaceful and swift.”
Without awaiting our thanks for this doleful farewell he turned and departed, while with small ado we were marched through the gates and allowed to hear them swing shut behind us, the ring of their golden bars sounding like a knell in my ears. According to the best calculations of the Tcha we were never to pass this barrier again, either alive or dead.
Directly facing the gates was the great temple, entered by a broad flight of steps and composed of four walls, roofless and open to the rays of the Sun. Entirely separated from this main building were two others of smaller dimensions but much more elaborate. That at the right had a separate enclosure and was connected with the temple by a peristyle; the other, toward which we were directed, stood alone.
This, we found, was the palace of the High Priest and the residence of the numerous priests of the sun. The leaders of the reception committee were diverse. One was a wild-eyed, ascetic looking fellow who glared at us but kept silent; the other proved a kindly-faced man who treated us with marked respect.
After giving us a cool and refreshing beverage to drink—it reminded me of lemonade—we were taken to the presence of the High Priest, a doddering, withered old individual who seemed to have lived far beyond his allotted time and was drowsing contentedly when we disturbed him. He woke up to stare at us a moment, then waved us away, saying to our escort:
“They belong to the great god, the Sun. Cherish them; treat them tenderly, as befits those to be prepared for the sacrifice.”
At the moment we were inclined to resent this. None of us, I am sure, had any desire to become a sacrificial offering. But as we left the High Priest, who had fallen asleep again even before he had finished speaking, Chaka congratulated us on our good fortune.
“Had we been deemed unworthy of their great god,” he explained in English, “they would have killed us at sundown to-night, murdering us in cold blood and tossing our carcasses to the beasts. Sacrificial offerings are reserved for special occasions and are often prepared for weeks in advance, being cherished and fattened that they may become the more acceptable to the god. Therefore this order means we shall gain time to plan an escape. That may not be impossible, my friends, after all; and, in any event, time has its value.”
Afterward the atkayma told us that had not the High Priest been in his dotage he assuredly would not have accepted our blacks for sacrifice. The Mexican might pass, perhaps, as his skin was not unlike the color of that of the Itzaex; but the Sun-god might not like black sacrifices. The event, however, proved that Chaka was wrong in this conclusion.
We were now treated with great respect by the priests, even the wild-eyed one being willing to “cherish” the victims. Having been formally dedicated to their god our persons were sacred and our comfort and welfare the objects of much solicitude. If one of us expressed a desire it was at once granted, and we were surrounded by every luxury the luxurious palace afforded. In effect we became autocrats, commanding the priests at will. One thing only was denied us—permission to leave the temple enclosure.
For four dreary days we lived this sybaritic life; they were dreary because we had little to do but to eat and sleep and take life easy. Of course we talked over our delicate position and sought to evolve some plan of escape, but without the precious outfit that had been taken from us we were practically helpless.
All the Vale of Tcha was under the supreme rule of the High Priestess of the Sun, an hereditary title that had been handed down from mother to daughter for thousands of years—how many thousands we as yet were unable to learn. The High Priestess was attended by fifty Virgins between the ages of fifteen and thirty. Having served to the latter age they were released, sent back to their homes and permitted to marry. The daughters of these original Virgins of the Sun were entitled to succeed their mothers, in time; if there were not enough of them choice was made of young girls from the noblest families of the nation.
Next in rank came the High Priest, who was supported by fifty priests. These last, however, held their positions for life, and their ranks were filled from time to time by the most intelligent and deserving of the young men of Tcha. But so arduous were the duties of the priesthood that there was no time to fuss over civil affairs and the administration of the laws; so a Tribunal was selected by the High Priestess, the members of which served during their natural lives, directing all the minor affairs of the nation.
The Tcha believed but in one god, the Sun, from whence they considered they derived all the good things of life. They were communists to an extent, although divided into castes. The manufacturers’ guild was the most important of all, after the priesthood and the nobility, the latter being a luxurious class consisting of relatives of the priestesses and their subsequent children, but who constituted the scientific and literary class as well. The manufacturers’ guild included goldsmiths, weavers, millers and bakers, and all those who produced goods or wares from raw material. Next came the agriculturists, then the miners, and finally the builders.
Every inhabitant of the Vale of Tcha belonged to one or another of them castes and was supposed to keep busy, a drone being despised by all. Everything produced went into the public warehouses and from there was distributed to each family according to its requirements.
On the afternoon of the fourth day of our imprisonment a message came to us that the High Priestess desired to see the “sacrificial devotees.” The priests at once bustled about and brought us fresh togas and our white duck suits, which we wore under the robes. We were washed and brushed like schoolboys and given endless advice as to our conduct in the presence of “the Divine and Supreme Ama”.
“Ama” meant in the Maya tongue “mother”. If the High Priestess had any other name we never heard it.
When we had been properly fixed up and inspected by the wild-eyed one, who had authority under the senile High Priest, we were ushered past the great temple to the gates of the enclosure beyond. Here the priests turned us over to the care of six beautiful damsels whose tunics bore the device of the flaming sun. They were in no way embarrassed by the care of nine men of a strange race. Indeed, they regarded us impersonally as sacrifices intended in the near future to propitiate their god.
Demurely they led us along flower-bordered walks; into the main entrance of the magnificent palace of the Priestesses, through a lofty hall and out by a rear entrance, down a long pergola shaded by climbing roses, past a garden resplendent with rare and gorgeous blooms, and finally into a roomy pavilion that stood almost at the edge of the cliff that towered above the city.
The pillars, roof and floor of the pavilion were of pure white marble. In the center was a fountain that sent its cooling sprays far into the air. Beyond the fountain we found the floor strewn with exquisite rugs and downy cushions while in the rear of this spacious retreat was a golden divan upon which reclined the High Priestess, Supreme Ruler of the Vale of Tcha.
How shall I describe Ama to you? Shall I say she was the embodiment of grace and beauty, that her figure was tall and supple, her hair a golden bronze, her eyes turquoise and her lips budded like a rose? All that seems stale and flat in depicting Ama.
To our amazement this redoubtable High Priestess, in whose hands reposed all power, was a mere child, scarcely more than seventeen years of age.
No daintier, fairer, sweeter girl could be imagined. Reared from the cradle to occupy this exalted position, she was a real queen, regal alike in bearing, in natural attributes, in education and in person. Never had she known a wish unfulfilled, never a command thwarted. She had succeeded her mother at twelve years of age, and her omnipotence among the Tcha was accepted by the girl without a thought that she owed all to the accident of birth.
As we stood before her the mighty priestess sat up and examined us with undisguised interest. First she deliberately stared at Paul, until his eyes fell and a deep blush suffused his face. Then Chaka was observed, with evidences of lively approval. Indeed, the youthful atkayma looked very handsome in his haughty, dignified pose, and his brown eyes met those of Ama quite frankly. When she turned to me I bowed and smiled. She was only a girl; why should I fear her? Yet for some reason we had all forgotten entirely our instructions to prostrate ourselves most humbly before the Supreme Ruler. We felt more like treating her as we would an American girl.
One by one she silently scrutinized us all. Then, lying back on her cushions, she waved her hands and said:
“Be seated, thou consecrated ones, thou who art sacred to our Lord the Sun. Let us converse together,” she added, graciously.
We squatted on the rugs, arranging ourselves as comfortably as possible, and the attendant Virgins followed suit. When we were seated Ama said:
“Are you contented? Have you any request to make?”
“One, your Highness,” ventured Paul, earnestly.
“Your god,” said he, “is not the God of our fathers. We do not wish to be sacrificed to a strange god. Coming as friends and without evil intent to your country, we have been deprived of our liberty and consecrated to a god we do not worship. The action of the Tcha has been unjust and unkind. We desire to be set free and allowed to return to our own people.”
Ama seemed disturbed by this statement. She sat up again, resting an elbow upon her knee and her chin upon the palm of her hand, listening carefully.
“Alas,” she said in reply, “your protest comes all too late. The decree has passed the Tribunal. The High Priest has accepted you as worthy sacrifices. Already are you consecrated to the Divine Sun, whose majesty would be outraged if robbed of his offerings.”
“Haven’t we anything to say about our own fate?” I asked indignantly.
“Oh, no, indeed!” she responded, smiling bewitchingly. “When one breaks the laws of a country he loses his individual right to direct his fate. Is it not so in the land from whence you came?”
“How are outsiders to know your laws, when you seclude yourselves from all the rest of mankind?” inquired Joe.
“If we seclude ourselves, it is evidence we do not desire intrusion,” she answered.
We began to admit to ourselves it would not be easy to influence this fair young girl. She had been taught to conserve the traditions of her people; her ethics of law were fairly sound.
For a time she appeared to be absorbed in thought. Then she said abruptly:
“Tell me of your own country. You differ from and are superior to others who, at times, have come here to disturb us. Most of them, I am told, for it was all before my time, were found to be unworthy to be dedicated to the sacrifice. But you, it seems, have learned to fly as the birds fly, and you bear strange and death-dealing weapons. You clothe yourselves with many hitherto unknown devices, and in your chests are many things the use of which we are ignorant.”
This speech gave Allerton an idea.
“The countries of the outside world,” he answered, “are of vast extent and throng with millions of people. These teach to one another the knowledge they acquire and the scientific discoveries they make. Therefore they progress much more rapidly than any secluded people, such as the Tcha, can hope to do. Forgive me for saying it, your Highness, but your people are ignorant of many things. They are far behind other nations in arts, sciences and inventions, and very insignificant when compared with the people from whom we came.”
“In other words,” I explained, “you are way behind the procession, Ama—chasing the times, so to speak.”
She listened, and regarded us thoughtfully.
“The Tcha is the greatest nation in all the world!” she declared, with queenly pride.
“It is far from that, your Highness,” replied Allerton. “If you ventured outside this puny circle of rocks your nation would soon be swallowed up by the great world and practically annihilated. Because we are nine helpless travelers you seize and destroy us. In the outside world your entire population would appear meaner and more helpless than we nine are among you here.”
She suddenly sprang up with flashing eyes and stamped her foot angrily upon the rug, like a pettish school-girl.
“How dare you come here and lie to me?” she cried with spirit. “How dare you malign my people, the mighty Tcha, to their Supreme Ruler, the Priestess of the Sun? Begone, outcasts that you are! begone and leave me to forget the shame you have thrust upon me!”
We went away, of course. There wasn’t time to argue the proposition, and I feared Paul had made a sad mistake. Archie was sorry, too, for I had noticed he was holding the hand of a pretty priestess who sat next him.
But there was a satisfied look on Allerton’s face, and as the Virgins thrust us out of their enclosure into the arms of the priests awaiting us he said in English:
“That shot told, all right, and soon she will want to know more about the outside world. Don’t be despondent, boys; I’ve an idea we may win out yet.”
WE SAVE A VALUABLE LIFE
That Paul was correct in his conclusion was proven the very next day. Again the High Priestess sent for us, but asked that the blacks, Ned and Pedro be left behind. We objected to this, declaring we must all come, or none at all, and to our surprise she withdrew her exceptions and commanded us all to attend her.
This time she received us in the open air, in a large area directly beneath the overhanging cliff, which was covered with a network of climbing vines to relieve its ruggedness and hide the protruding points of rock. It was almost a perpendicular wall, at this place, and I saw the mouth of a cavern that has a well worn path leading into it. Doubtless the mountain was honeycombed with caves and recesses, some being natural and many others artificial.
Close to the cliff stood a throne-like seat cut from a solid block of rock. It was well lined with cushions, however, amongst which sat the girlish High Priestess, even more charming and lovely than when we had first seen her. The ground before the throne was strewn with rugs, upon which sat not only many of the Virgins of the Sun, but a large gathering of the people of Tcha, evidently culled from the most cultured and important among them. I recognized the three aged members of the Tribunal, who occupied a position near the Priestess, and the doddering old High Priest, who had already fallen asleep among his cushions. But no one, however important, was allowed a raised seat in the presence of the Supreme Ruler of Tcha.
One of the girls who acted as Master of Ceremonies assigned us our places. Chaka was led to the right of the throne; Paul was placed somewhat to the left. Joe, Archie and I were seated about midway in the audience, while the others of our party were consigned to the very rear.
I understood readily enough the meaning of this assemblage. Ama was going to make Paul prove his statement that the Tcha was a mean and insignificant race, and she had invited her most prominent people to support her in the argument.
So it proved. With much dignity but in simple words she repeated the assertion made to her the day before. Then she turned to Paul and regarding him with steady eyes she asked:
“What nation, in the world you know so well, is more ancient than that of the Tcha?”
He smiled, bowing low before her.
“I do not know how old the Tcha may be,” he said.
She motioned to an important looking fellow who rose and answered:
“The Tcha nation has existed seven thousand, four hundred and nineteen years, each year being composed of three hundred and sixty five days.”
“Then,” said Allerton, readily, “I am sure you lead all nations in point of age. But have you existed in this mountain hollow all that time?”
“No. Our race came from Atlantis four thousand and eighty-five years ago, and established itself here and at the north. The cities erected elsewhere were in time all destroyed. Only this branch of the Tcha, owing to our methods of seclusion and our wise laws, exists to this day.”
Allerton bowed in acknowledgment and turned to Ama again.
“Has any other race you know been able to harness the electric currents of nature, and make them furnish power and light?” she demanded.
“These things are common throughout the world,” said he.
The Tcha exchanged looks of wonderment, and some shook their heads doubtingly. Finally one arose and said:
“The records which we have preserved show that when we brought our knowledge of electricity from Atlantis, the savage inhabitants of this continent were wholly ignorant of it. They had even no chariots to run by electricity. The records prove this.”
“Then,” spoke Paul, “you are entitled to precedence in this matter, as well. Such things the world is well acquainted with to-day, and we have many uses for electricity which you, perhaps, have never yet dreamed of; but they have all been discovered within the last fifty years.”
This admission seemed to please the Tcha. Ama, who took a deep interest in the discussion, said:
“Tell me, then; what electric devices are in use by your people that we know not of?”
“By means of a wire,” he replied, “I, at one end of this valley, can talk with a person at the other end, who will hear me distinctly, although I do not raise my voice. Again, I can point a tube at one standing a hundred paces away, and render him as one dead; yet he will recover in a short space of time. Still again, I am able to—”
I sprang to my feet, crying aloud in fear and horror.
“Look out—for God’s sake!” and pointed upward.
For, gazing casually at the cliff overhead, I had seen a large rock slowly detach itself from the wall and hang trembling just above Ama’s throne, as it held in place only by the clinging vines above it.
Many an eye followed my direction and although I had spoken in English they all understood the terrible danger that threatened their Priestess. Yet not a soul moved; abject horror seemed to have paralyzed them. Ama alone was unconscious of her impending death and stared wonderingly at the startled faces before her.
Suddenly Paul gave a leap and bounded straight for the throne. Swift as an arrow he flew and caught the girl in his arms. At the same time the huge rock broke away and came hurtling to the ground. Paul saw it, and, acting instinctively, exerted all his strength and threw the girl bodily from him. Chaka, rushing forward, caught her just as the crash came and the great mass—I think it must have weighed two tons—fell full upon the throne of the High Priestess.
Trying to stifle the sob that rose in my throat I dashed to the spot, knowing that my dear friend—I had come to be very fond of Allerton—was buried beneath that massive fragment. His had been a noble deed, I fully realized, but it seemed so hard to have him crushed and mangled, to have him swept suddenly from life, for the sake of a paltry Tcha girl, Supreme Ruler though she might be.
The people had awakened now and were clustering anxiously around their Priestess, who lay half fainting in Chaka’s arms. The young atkayma did not look at her; he stared straight ahead at the spot where his “brother Paul” lay buried.
“Here! Lend a hand!” I shouted, first in English and then in Maya. Nux and Bryonia, Ned, Pedro, Archie and Joe were all with me by that time. The great rock had split half over the throne, and one fragment—that which lay above Paul—rested with its edge partly supported by the arm of the seat.
We seized it and pulled all together, trying to pry it upward. Several of the Tchas now came to our assistance, and in desperation we tugged again, this time succeeding in forcing the fragment backward. Then Joe stooped down and drew Paul out, handing his bruised and bleeding form to Nux, who held it tenderly in his strong arms as a mother might cuddle a child.
Chaka, having resigned his burden, came to us with features drawn and tense with agony. The poor fellow did not sob nor weep; he merely leaned over and kissed his friend’s forehead. Then without awaiting permission we all retired, following Nux and his burden back to our luxurious rooms in the priests’ palace.
We laid Allerton tenderly on a couch and cut away his clothing. Bry was a very expert surgeon, of the uneducated but intelligent sort, having had a lot of practical experience with wounds and bruises in his day. He now assumed command of the situation.
With his ear to the injured man’s heart the black gave a grunt of satisfaction and then turned to take the water I had brought in a basin to wash away the blood stains.
My own heart was thumping like a trip hammer.
“Will he live, Bry?” I asked, breathlessly.
“Can’t say Mars’ Sam,” was the reply. “But he’s alive now, shore ’nuf!”
WE FIND THE TCHA GRATEFUL
Allerton said that he seemed to live an hour during the time the rock was falling. He saw plainly that he could not save both himself and Ama, so he threw the girl to Chaka and at the same time tripped and fell to the ground just beside the throne. That trip alone saved him, as the fragment that broke from the main portion struck in such a way that a small space was left, in which his body lay. He was considerably bruised and cut, but with the exception of two broken ribs and a sprained arm escaped any other important injury. We had him sitting up in an hour, and under Bry’s skillful manipulation, assisted by a Tcha priest who was fairly proficient in surgery, his broken ribs quickly mended. But the shock to his nervous system had been severe and Paul became an interesting invalid for several days after the accident.
Being an ancient people, the Tcha have a code of laws that seems to cover every possible happening; but some of them, perhaps evolved centuries ago, are quite extraordinary. One law declares that if any person performs an exceptional service for the High Priestess, such as “preserving her life or preventing her from suffering physical injury,” he shall become immune from any punishment he may have incurred by any previous act, and all edicts against him shall be annulled.
The Tribunal was aware of this law and promptly acted upon it; but the august body, during its conference, encountered a puzzling and unexampled difficulty. Who had saved the life of the High Priestess? Either it was Paul, who had removed Ama from beneath the falling stone, or Chaka, who had caught her and carried her to a safe distance, or myself, whose cry had called attention to her danger.
To my mind Paul alone had accomplished the salvation of the Supreme Ruler; but the aged Tribunal could not see it exactly in that light. They argued the case among themselves until they were in despair of being able to settle it conclusively. One voted for me, one for Chaka and one for Paul, and being very conscientious and eminently just none would alter his decision. So the matter was laid before the High Priest, as provided for by law when the Tribunal could not agree. As usual the old sleepyhead revoked; he said he didn’t know and didn’t care who had saved Ama; it was sufficient for him that she had been saved; let the High Priestess herself solve the knotty problem. And then he fell asleep again.
Therefore the case came to Ama herself for solution, and she appeared as perplexed as the others. Finally she took it under advisement and said she would come to a decision some day in the near future.
I am sure the incident considerably improved our standing in the community. It must have humiliated the Tcha, who are really brave and energetic, that they all sat in paralyzed terror while the condemned strangers saved their High Priestess from sudden death. A careful investigation was now made of the cliff to see if any more stones were loose, on the principle of locking the barn door after the horse is stolen; but no one was ever accused of negligence for not having inspected the cliff before. Occasionally a rock had been known to drop into the valley, but it was a rare occurrence and seldom did much harm. The Tcha considered this accident a mere fatality, and therefore unavoidable.
The sensations of the lovely and sedate Ama when seized and hurled about like a ball were not subject to popular discussion. For a day or two following we heard indirectly that the girl was nervous and unstrung, as well she might be; but on the third day she sent for Paul, Chaka and me, and thanked us all very prettily and impartially.
The public argument over the merits and discoveries of our respective civilizations was now abandoned for good. But Ama had us frequently brought to her pavilion, where she questioned us closely and seemed greatly interested in our personal history and home life. All subjects interested her: politics, geography and inventions most of all. On one occasion Paul asked for our chests.
“If we had them here,” said he, “I could furnish you and your attendants with much amusement, and prove to you many things that are difficult to explain in words.”
She considered this request, and when we were next called to an interview with her Highness we found the four chests standing in a row before her couch. They had all been broken open and the contents rummaged, but not a single article had been removed or injured in any way—except that the extra gas-jacket and inflatable coverings for the chests had been abstracted. Our electrites, the use of which they shrewdly suspected, and all of our gas-jackets and firearms were withheld from us.
Paul first unrolled our maps and showed Ama the great world, with its lakes, seas and oceans and chains of lofty mountains. He showed her on a smaller map the location of Yucatan, and how insignificant the peninsula was when compared with the great continent of which it formed a part. Then with a pencil he made a tiny dot to show the location of Mount Aota and its comparative size.
Ama observed all this with pensive earnestness. She made no remarks nor admissions, but was evidently impressed. The poor girl had been trained to consider herself the head of a mighty nation which was so important that it haughtily excluded the rest of creation from vulgar contact with it. She had considered the Tcha of superior intellect, far in advance of any other race, and the chosen people of the one great and true god—the Sun.
In this belief she and her preceptors were to an extent justified. Their tiny kingdom lay in the heart of the Itzaex territory, and the savage nations surrounding them were in every respect inferior to the Tcha. They also served as a shield against the nations beyond, and this fact deceived the Tcha, who naturally judged all foreign people by those about them.
Their literature was rich in legendary lore, but of their contemporaries they were wholly ignorant. They kept a record of their own history, using great books made of a fibre parchment, the leaves being sometimes three feet square and bound at the edges. They used both hieroglyphics and picture writing, and what I saw was quite artistically executed. One great building was used as a library for these books and contained records dating from the time of their emigration from Atlantis, whence they had been driven by political wars. The Tcha were merely a branch of the horde that settled in Yucatan. Their leader was a powerful and able Priestess who, discovering the fertile vale within the mountain of Aota—doubtless in bygone ages the mouth of a volcano—decided to settle therein with her especial followers. In some way the Tcha escaped the destruction that overwhelmed the other cities of Yucatan, and their prosperity continued undiminished through all the centuries. They knew when Atlantis was submerged, and by means of a system of spies kept touch with the doings of the Maya tribes that afterward settled in the peninsula. The coming of the Spaniards was a danger recorded in their books, but they had persuaded the Itzaex to stand firm and oppose the invaders, and through their assistance that tribe was never conquered or their territory overrun.
It surprised me that a people so shrewd in other ways had never sent spies or emissaries to the modern nations throughout the world; but the fact was that they had not the faintest conception that our great civilization existed. They alone, in their ignorant belief, were progressive and cultured.
Our advent was destined to undeceive them in this respect.
Having shown Ama how small was her valley Allerton proceeded to prove our superior inventive genius. He exhibited to the wondering eyes of Ama and her pretty priestesses some of the novelties we had brought with us for this very purpose, and for trading. There was a small phonograph for one thing, with an assortment of vocal and instrumental records, and when these were played they created a veritable sensation. Paul promptly presented the outfit to the High Priestess, and it afforded her great pleasure. The Tcha were a music-loving people, but their musical instruments were quite primitive.
Next we stretched a copper wire from the palace of the priests to Ama’s pavilion, and set up a telephone at each end. This aroused no end of excitement and all the priests and priestesses soon learned how to use it. Ama called us up every morning, and she used the wire to convey her orders to the priests, instead of communicating with them by messenger, as before.
A pocket electric flash-light excited considerable admiration, as did some clocks and watches. The Tcha still used sundials to mark the time. Some tiny music-boxes, playing one tune, were presented by us to various officials and the gifts won us much favor.
We exhibited all these things with careful deliberation, making them serve as vehicles for many interviews with the lovely priestess. In return she graciously showed us some of the accomplishments of the Tcha.
We were taken to a vast cave where a large volume of water gushed from the rocks with irresistible force. Some inventive Tcha had long ago constructed an electric motor operated by this water power, and it supplied electric lights to all the valley. They did not turn off their lamps, but allowed them to burn until the filament burned out, masking them with shields when the lumination was not required. Archie showed them how to make a cut-off, and also improved the shape of their lamps. So receptive and skillful were the native glass-blowers and artisans generally that they soon reconstructed their entire plant on modern principles.
They made a very superior storage battery, by means of which the chariots of the High Priestess and her nobility were propelled, in much the same fashion as our automobiles. They were clumsy and slow, it is true, but curiously enough this electrical device, and the others that they used, dated from the time of their exodus from Atlantis. The records proved conclusively that electricity was known and utilized on that lost continent.
The gold which was so plentiful in the valley was taken from mines in the center of one of the neighboring mountains, connected with the hidden city by a broad tunnel. The supply was practically inexhaustible. Other metals were found in the walls of Aota, and this accounted for many of the caverns we noticed.
We learned that the beautiful rubies came from the subsoil of the valley itself, and the Tcha skillfully cut and polished them, using them for ornamenting even the most common articles of use. When Ama saw that we admired the rubies she took us to the gem-cutters’ building and gave us a pocketful each of choice and brilliant stones—fully enough plunder to repay us for our eventful journey, had we been able to carry it away. But if we were to be sacrificed to their blood-thirsty god the Sun, we would never need rubies again.
It was very hard for Ama to decide which of the strangers was to be preserved from sacrifice as the reward for saving her life. She seemed to grow quite fond of Chaka, as the days passed by. He often sat at her feet telling, like Othello, the story of his life and adventures, while she listened with fascinated interest. Moreover, he was atkayma of the Itzaex, and therefore far outranked any of the rest of us, who could claim no such high sounding titles.
Chaka was, as I have remarked, an exceedingly handsome fellow, and his soft brown eyes grew expressive whenever he turned them upon the bewitching priestess. Ama was permitted—nay, required—to marry, and being supreme among her race could choose her own husband. I sometimes wondered if it would be the fate of the young atkayma to become the husband of Ama.
But there was Paul, too, and our friend the lieutenant had by this time fallen as desperately in love with the girlish priestess as had Chaka. While he lacked the personal beauty of the Maya chieftain Paul was white, and therefore to my mind a more fitting mate for the beautiful Ama. He also belonged to the powerful American people whom the priestess had come by this time to fully respect, and that was in his favor too. Really, it was all guesswork as to which admirer she might prefer, for the girl treated them with equal frankness and consideration.
Once, when she sat apart with Chaka, I overheard him urging her to free Paul.
“It was Paul who saved you,” said he. “No other deserves the reward.”
Another time Allerton pleaded for the atkayma, saying that unless Chaka had caught her as Paul stumbled she would have been crushed.
I was glad to find myself disregarded in the matter, since I knew very well my service in crying a warning was not to be compared with what they had done. It must have amused Ama to hear these two brave fellows each plead for the other, for at last she said:
“You must decide it between yourselves, and I will abide by the decision.”
This mischievous shift accomplished nothing at all, as the girl plainly foresaw. They argued with one another until the deadlock became more set than ever. They proposed to leave it to me to decide, and I refused to interfere. Neither would any of our party umpire the case. In despair they told Ama it was up to her again.
She shook her head and sent for the ancient High Priest, curtly bidding him keep awake and attend to what she said.
“I cannot decide which of these three strangers actually saved me from death,” said she. “It is natural I should be grateful to all three, for which reason it is unjust to force me to decide the question. Therefore I command you, by virtue of your office, to say, and at once, which shall be pardoned and so saved from the sacrifice.”
“I’ll think it over,” sighed the High Priest.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” declared Ama, imperiously. “To-morrow some one of these devoted ones must be selected for the sacrifice of Adakalpa, the Feast of the Harvest. Gather thy wits then, my counselor, and speak!”
“May I sit down?” asked the ancient one, wearily.
“No, for you would then fall asleep. I command you to decide between these three—” she pointed to where we were lined up in a row “—at once. Then you may return to your couch.”
The High Priest yawned and blinked his watery eyes at us.
“Pardon all three,” he announced. “Each had a hand in the matter, and it will save us the bother of choosing between them, perhaps unjustly.”
Ama sat up, laughing. She clapped her hands delightedly.
“Oh, wise and clever counselor!” she cried. “Your decree shall be obeyed. Sleep, now, if it pleases you, for Chaka, Paul and Samsteele,” so she always called me, rolling my two names into one, “are from this moment free and honored subjects of Tcha.”
I think the old fellow who had thus favored us was half asleep before they had led him back to the gate. As for Paul, Chaka and I, we shook hands heartily and congratulated one another. The same idea was uppermost in the minds of all three—that our freedom might lead to our being able to free our comrades.
WE LOSE POOR PEDRO
The edict of the High Priest was proclaimed to the people in the great theatre and received with the same composure that our condemnation had been. Thereafter we three wandered at will throughout the valley, unguarded and unmolested. We were offered a palace, but retained our quarters in the house of the priests, to be with our comrades, and there in secret conference we decided upon our mode of procedure for the future.
Escape from Tcha by means of the steep walls of rock was an impossibility, unless we could stumble upon one of those secret tunnels that led to the outer declivities. Even then it would be difficult for us to get the sacrificial victims out of the temple enclosure. Compassing all this, however, it was likely we would be followed and either recaptured or slain before we could reach the Itzaex country. If not we would be in the power of either Uncle Datchapa, if he still lived, or the red robed devils of priests, who would have no hesitation in promptly murdering us.
No; it would not do at all. We had only one hope of escape: to recover our gas-jackets and soar above the valley, over the forests and back to the ship where my father was by this time anxiously awaiting us.
So we decided that Paul, Chaka and I, being free to go and come at our pleasure, must begin a careful and cautious search for the place where our confiscated property had been deposited. We judged this would be one of the warehouses where public supplies were kept.
Next day we started on our secret mission, each going a different way. I had been instructed to seek out the officer who had first arrested us and robbed us in the prison, and try to pump him; so after breakfast I sauntered away through the city, past the theatre and along the flower bordered paths that led to the low white building near the center of the valley.
I met one of the soldiers, or “public guardians,” on my way, and found him not loth to enter into conversation. He told me the officer’s name was Pagatka and his rank that of Waba, or Captain. He did not know where the Waba Pagatka might be found; the officer was likely to be anywhere that duty called him.
When I began cautiously to refer to the property that had been taken from us the fellow withdrew into a shell of reserve. He admitted he had been one of those who had surrounded us and led us into the prison; but after that he had returned to his home and knew nothing of subsequent happenings. I deemed it wise not to press him or arouse his suspicions as to what I was after. He parted from me presently and went his own way.
My search for the Waba Pagatka was unsuccessful. I entered the great hall of the prison, where a small guard was stationed, and was allowed to go anywhere I pleased. All the smaller rooms but one were unoccupied. Here a man was confined who had quarreled with his neighbor and in the heat of argument had used bad language. He told me he regretted the occurrence, as it had seriously disgraced him.
There was no place here where our gas-jackets and electrites were likely to be hidden. The soldier in charge thought I might find the Waba in the manufacturing district, so I left the prison and began my journey toward the upper end of the valley.
The air was sweet and invigorating, for the altitude, even here in the cup of the mountain, was considerable and rendered the climate delightful. Everywhere the farmers were busy in their fields, and centuries of cultivation seemed not to have exhausted the soil in the least. Perhaps they had learned how to fertilize and restore it; anyhow, the crops were bountiful and not a weed nor rank growth of any sort was to be seen.
At midday I reached a dwelling at the north edge of the city, and asked for food. It was willingly furnished and in abundance, for every inhabitant of Tcha was entitled to his neighbor’s hospitality, all supplies being provided by the government.
During the afternoon I wandered about the district of the artisans trying to catch sight of the elusive Waba Pagatka, but failing dismally. I took occasion, however, to look into several warehouses, and found them all filled with the handicraft of the people or with raw material to be worked up. Returning, I circled the city and passed the weavers’ dwellings, where I was greatly interested in the looms these clever people had invented. They wove the finest linen I have ever seen, and a material much worn by the women which seemed to me softer and more exquisitely finished than the best of our silks. Yet it was not made from the cocoon of the silk worm, but from a reed that was shredded into hair-like filaments. It was really wonderful how great a variety of things were grown, mined and manufactured by a few people in a tiny shut-in place like this.
It was late before I reached the palace of the priests and I was both hungry and tired by my day’s tramp. Entering the large room reserved for us I found my comrades sitting with solemn faces, silent and depressed. Paul and Chaka were there, so they had evidently been as unsuccessful as myself.
I glanced around the circle.
“Where’s Pedro?” I asked.
“They have taken him,” said Paul sadly.
“To the sacrifice.”
I started back in horror.
“Yes,” returned Allerton. “It seems to-day is the Feast of the Harvest, and when the sun is highest in the sky—at midday, that is—they sacrifice to their god in gratitude for the ripening of the grain. Ama spoke of this yesterday, but I had forgotten it. This morning, while we were away, the priests came here and forced the boys to draw cuts, without explaining what it was for. Poor Pedro drew the lot, and was led away—he knew not where.”
“Poor Pedro, indeed!” said I. “How did you learn all this?”
“Oh, there was no secret about it afterward,” spoke up Archie, gloomily. “They brought in three of their precious priests dead as herrings, and five that were badly done up and in need of repairs. There was wild excitement in this bungalow for a time, as you may guess, and it didn’t take us long to get the whole story from the chattering, frightened crowd. It seemed poor Pedro was dazed when first he discovered he was to be sacrificed to the sun, and he walked like a man in a dream to the slaughtering pen—up in the great temple yonder. But he woke up when they came at him with a knife, and died game, like the brave fellow he was.”
“First,” continued Joe, taking up the thread of the story, for Archie was trying to swallow a lump in his throat, “Pedro grabbed two of the priests and bumped their heads together so fiercely that their skulls cracked like egg-shells. Then he caught another by the ankles and swung him around, felling the crowd that rushed on him with this living battering-ram. Living for a time, that is, for when he finally let go the fellow was mashed to a pulp.”
“Of course,” added Ned Britton, “they got Pedro at last, as they were bound to do when his strength gave out, and I suppose his heart’s blood is now in a golden pan, exposed to the rays of their god the sun, who will drink it up. Pah! Before they carved old Pedro, though, he yelled out that he had given the sun a few extra sacrifices to keep him company, and he only wished there had been more in reach of his arm.”
“It was dreadful,” said Paul. “The old High Priest had a fit, it seems, and they can’t tell yet whether he’ll live or die.”
“Was Ama there?” I asked.
“Certainly,” said Archie, in an indignant tone. “The girl’s as cold blooded as the rest of the gang.”
“It is her religion,” declared Chaka, defending her. “She knows no better, and considers it just and right to sacrifice to the Sun-God. But when Pedro began to fight so desperately she at once arose and retired from the scene.”
This horrible news had rendered me as sad and gloomy as the others. Silently we sat, wondering if a similar fate would overtake us all. I, being no longer in personal danger, reproached myself for leaving my comrades at such a time; yet I knew I could not have saved Pedro from his fate.
“Hereafter,” said Ned, “they intend to bind the victims. This is the first time any one has ever fought them, it seems, and the priests won’t take chances after this deadly experience.”
“Too bad, Mars’ Sam,” said Nux, regretfully. “I like to kill a few Tcha before I die, too. But if dey ties me up, I sutt’nly can’t.”
The result of Pedro’s exploit was to render the priests fearful of the rest of us. Our quarters were that evening changed to a small wing at the rear of their palace, which jutted out toward the temple. It was but one story in height and could be shut off entirely from the main building by a heavily barred door. They gave us our supper—we were always liberally fed—and then closed the barrier between us.
Examining this new apartment I was surprised to find it much less secure as a prison than our former quarters. Indeed, it was no trouble at all for any of us to lower ourselves from the window to the ground. But evidently the priests were more anxious about their own safety than about ours, and there was little danger of the sacrificial victims being able to escape very far, even if they managed to avoid the guards at the gates.
The air grew very oppressive this night and the heat was intense—a new experience to us, for we had found the nights cool. Toward morning the wing in which we were confined began to sway from side to side with a sickening motion, and one lurch sent me rolling from my couch to the stone floor.
As I sat up the commotion ceased as suddenly as it had begun.
“An earthquake!” exclaimed Paul, unmasking the electric light. “It’s a wonder the building didn’t topple down on our heads.”
“Are earthquakes common here?” I asked Chaka.
He shook his head.
“Not common,” said he; “but about once in a lifetime we get some little shakes; nothing as bad as this, though.”
Next morning the sun shone as serenely as ever and when we walked out we found but little damage had been done in the valley. But the people had become sadly disquieted by the occurrence, and the priests especially, for some secret reason, were in a state of great fear and perturbation. They talked excitedly among themselves and sent constant messages to Ama, not using the telephone because they feared we might overhear them.
Suspecting that more trouble was brewing Paul, Chaka and I resolved not to quit our comrades this day, but remain and watch the course of events. We had all been alike unsuccessful the day before in locating our property, and now we judged it wise to postpone the search to another time.
WE FACE A DEADLY PERIL
At noon Ama sent for us three and when we arrived at her pavilion we found her pale and distressed.
“The Sun-God is angry with my people,” she said, “because the sacrifice yesterday was violent and destroyed three faithful priests. A new sacrifice is called for, to placate the terrible deity who rules the heavens and the earth.”
We stared at her aghast.
“The Sun-God is angry because you sacrificed to him a helpless stranger, who worshipped a far greater God than your sun,” I said sternly. “Listen, Ama: if more of our comrades are sacrificed, far greater harm will befall the Tcha.”
She regarded me half fearfully for a moment; then her sweetest smile swept over her lovely face.
“Samsteele,” said she, “the Tcha have sacrificed to the great Sun-God for thousands of years, and he has kept the nation prosperous and happy in return. There is no power equal to the power of the glorious Sun, and the Tcha are his favored children.” Her voice softened a little as she added: “If I could favor you, my friends, I would not send your comrades to the sacrifice; but the laws of my land and the jealousy of our great god will not allow me to save them. Shall I peril the welfare of all my people for the sake of a few strangers? Impossible! The customs of seven thousand years must be adhered to; the majesty of our god must be sustained and his just wrath appeased. I cannot help your friends. The sacrifice must take place.”
“When?” asked Paul, looking at her with pleading eyes until her own dropped.
“At sunset,” she whispered.
“And who is to be chosen?” I inquired anxiously.
“The two big black men. My priests think they will be more acceptable to our god than the whites. Always when we have sacrificed any of the Itzaex the mighty Sun has smiled upon us.”
I drew a long breath.
“Ama,” said I, “we will not permit this. The sacrifice shall not take place.”
She sprang to her feet, tense and white with anger.
“Shall not?” she cried: “aye, but it shall take place—at sunset this day! I, the High Priestess of the Sun, have proclaimed it, and in the Vale of Tcha there is no appeal from my edict.”
She was magnificent in her defiance, but I had no heart to admire her just then.
“If you murder those poor fellows their God—far mightier than yours—will have revenge,” I said, trembling between fear and rage, for Nux and Bryonia were very dear to me.
She drew herself up to her full height and pointed at us a slender finger.
“Go!” she said imperiously.
Never had we seen the girl in this mood before. Her eyes were cold and hard as rocks, her lips set with firm determination, her poise queenly and aggressive.
We turned slowly and left the august presence, realizing that Ama, however beautiful and bewitching she might be in repose, was a veritable tigress when aroused to defend the faith in which she had been reared.
Even the sky had grown dark during our interview, and the sun had withdrawn his face as if in shame that any benighted race should sacrifice human lives in his honor. The purple-gray mask of the sky was so unusual at this season of the year—perhaps at all seasons, so far as we knew—that it was little wonder the superstitious Tcha interpreted the sign as one of anger from their outraged deity, whose altar had been the scene of strife.
Returning to our friends we were loth to tell them of the fate in store for our honest blacks. Indeed, it was but a preface to the fate that awaited them all unless we could find a way to resist the all powerful Tcha. Finally, as the day drew on, Chaka had an idea and beckoned to Paul and me to follow him. We were permitted to go wherever we pleased, whereas the others were forbidden to leave their room.
“The High Priest is gentle,” whispered the atkayma, when we were outside. “Let us plead with him.”
We knew that the old dotard dwelt in the most splendid suite in the building, so we made our way toward it. A guard informed us that his Highness was ill, and could not be disturbed. We tried to argue the point, but the man would not relent. No one but Ama might intrude upon his master.
Saddened by this rebuff we wended our way back to our wing, only to confront another disappointment. Orders had been received from the High Priestess to forbid our mingling with the sacrificial devotees. We were to be allowed the privileges of every citizen of the valley, but the laws forbade a citizen from associating with those condemned to the sacrifice.
And here was our old acquaintance the Waba Pagatka guarding the passage with a file of his soldiers, all fully armed. Protest was useless, and so helpless did we feel that our eyes, as we gazed at one another, were filled with black despair.
We went out and wandered aimlessly around the temple enclosure. Even the grounds outside the wing where our friends were confined were now guarded, so we were unable to approach them from that side.
The sky was growing blacker and more threatening. Not a breath of air stirred. Even the birds had ceased to sing. There was a mystical hush in the atmosphere that was appalling. The priests going to and fro between the temple and their palace noted these unusual portents and turned frightened glances upward, as if seeking to propitiate their angry god.
I wondered if, seeing there was no sun, and therefore no sunset, the sacrifice would be postponed; but before long my doubts were set at rest. The fatuous priests were even hurrying the ceremonies, for presently a gorgeous procession issued from the palace.
All the members of their order were in full regalia, the silver emblems of the sun glittering on their breasts. In their midst walked, or rather tottered, Nux and Bryonia, the two gigantic blacks being so weak that they could scarcely move without assistance. Their hands were tied securely behind their backs. Afterward we learned that the anæsthetic perfume had again been employed to render all our friends unconscious and incapable of resisting. Then Nux and Bry had been bound and carried out before they had fully revived.
At the same time that the procession of priests issued forth, marching with stately tread despite their nervous fears, a similar procession of the Virgins of the Sun, with Ama at their head, appeared from the opposite enclosure.
The iron gates had been thrown wide and a vast concourse of people had assembled to witness the sacrifice. They stood silent and watchful, for none was permitted to enter the temple until the priestesses and priests had taken their places within.
A short distance from the entrance the two files united, side by side approaching the sacred edifice.
Paul, Chaka and I stood silently by, helplessly watching the terrible ceremony. I strained my eyes for a last sight of my faithful followers, believing their doom to be sealed.
The procession had begun to mount the steps of the temple when a subdued roaring sound became audible, followed by a crash resembling a thunder-clap. The ground heaved up before us and sent us all three sprawling upon our faces. Crash after crash now resounded throughout the valley and I sprang to my feet in time to see part of the great temple wall bend outward and fall in a mass of debris. Rocks from the near-by wall of the mountain began to rattle down like hailstones and the darkness was even greater than before.
“Ama!” cried Paul; and “Ama!” shrieked Chaka in return; but they could not go to her at the moment, hard as they tried. We clung together like drunken men, striving for a foothold while the ground rolled and groaned beneath our feet and our ears were filled with the screams of women and the hoarse cries of men. Priests and priestesses were flying in every direction, and we saw Ama the center of a group of maidens that managed to gain their enclosure and slam shut the gates—as if that would do any good, or shut out the awful earthquake! It relieved both Paul and Chaka, however, to know the girl was safe.
The people who had gathered for the sacrifice suffered most, I think, for they were massed together and only those on the outskirts could scuttle away through the streets, where many met death from falling walls and rocks. The moans of the maimed and dying were blood curdling, and I could hardly bear to hear them.
“Quick!” I gasped; “let us find Nux and Bry.”
I knew, of course, we were experiencing another earthquake—a frightful one this time—but there was nothing we could do for ourselves or others, unless we might find and save the blacks.
This proved not difficult. We came across them at the steps of the ruined temple, Bry lying flat while Nux knelt beside him, still bound. The priests had deserted them in the attempt to save their own lives. In a flash I whipped out my knife and set both the poor fellows free. We then raised Bry, to find he was stunned but very little hurt. Between us we supported them, trying to make our way back to our quarters.
Parts of the palace of the priests had split open or caved in, but our one-story wing seemed not to have suffered from the quake, which was by this time reduced to a few minor tremors.
Being afraid to enter the palace—from whence guards and priests had alike fled—we reached the window outside our wing and our shouts brought the pallid faces of Joe and Archie to the opening. We hoisted Bry up to them and they dragged him bodily into the room. Nux was able to climb in himself, and Paul, Chaka and I quickly followed.
“Where’s Ned?” I asked, looking around.
“He went out to skirmish for you,” said Joe. “We’ve all been out, during the worst of it, but Archie and I thought you’d get back here as soon as you could, and we concluded it’s just as safe here as anywhere.”
“Guess the city’s pretty well broken up,” added Archie, gazing from the window into the blackness that was only relieved by the glow from the light within our room. “I’ve seen earthquakes in my day, but this beats all that—” He stopped with a sort of gasp and a moment later cried out: “It’s him! Gee willikins—it’s him!”
“Who?” we exclaimed, running to the opening.
Limping slowly toward the wing and supported by Ned Britton came Pedro, who we supposed had been sacrificed to the Sun-God the evening before. His clothes were torn nearly to shreds and there was a look of terror and suffering on his face that was pitiable to behold as the dim light struck it.
Paul leaped out to assist Ned in hoisting the Mexican to the window ledge, and we others drew him in as tenderly as we could. He sank on a couch with a moan, limp as a rag.
We gave him water first, and then a swallow of spirits from Paul’s flask, but when we questioned him he stared at us silently and shook his head.
“Where did you find him?” some one asked Ned.
“Beside the temple. The wall had fallen down and a big part of the marble floor heaved up and then tumbled into a cellar underneath. I had an idea Nux and Bry might be in the ruins, and while I peered about me a head was pushed up from the cellar and I recognized Pedro. It gave me a shock, I can tell you, for we thought he was dead. The marble blocks were yet rocking and tilting pretty lively, but I made a dash and dragged Pedro out to a safer place. He was nearly done up, but I managed to get him here, as you see.”
WE BECOME AGGRESSIVE
After a little time the Mexican began to recover his self possession, and with it his tongue. We found he was nearly starved, so we fed him sparingly and gave him a bit more of the spirits. By and by, a little at a time he told his story.
His struggles with the priests was much as we had heard it described, except in one important particular. Pedro fought so desperately that he dismayed his opponents, and during the mêlée one of them touched a spring that released a trap in the floor, precipitating the Mexican into a dark cellar underneath. When freed of his weight the block of stone swung into place again, and he found himself in a veritable dungeon, so far as light and air were concerned.
The cowardly priests left him there, announcing that he had been sacrificed, as they feared to admit to the people that he had gotten the best of them in the fight. Pedro’s leg had been hurt by the fall, and it caused him a good deal of pain. The air was close and damp and full of musty odors.
After a time the prisoner began to crawl around, and found the place was used partly as a storehouse, as it contained many bales and parcels of various wares. Having a few matches in his pocket Pedro lighted one of them and right before his face discovered our electrites and storage-battery belts, all in a heap. He hunted around for our gas-jackets, but they were not there. When his matches gave out he lay still in the dark and wondered what would happen to him. Probably the priests intended he should starve to death, and he was getting weak and hungry when the earthquake came. The earth swayed all around him, the building crumbled away and the marble floor heaved up and burst open, many of the marble blocks dropping into the cellar—fortunately not in his neighborhood. Pedro was frightened nearly out of his wits, but seeing dimly that a way of escape had opened up he climbed upon a heap of marble, stuck out his head, and found Ned Britton watching him.
When he had drawn this story from the Mexican—and it took him a long time to tell it—we decided to assume the defensive and aggressive and take a firm stand against the priesthood, our most vicious enemies.
The cries and moans of the stricken ones were gradually dying away and white robed priests began to steal back to their dwelling—such as had escaped injury, that is.
We examined the doorway to our wing and found the heavy metal doors that sealed it from communication with the rest of the palace. Preferring to have them remain open we managed to bend and wedge them in such a way that they could not again be closed upon us, as had been done when our comrades had been overcome by the anæsthetic. We fixed the metal window-slide the same way, and being now assured that we could no longer be confined in the room against our will we held a council to decide our future actions.
Presently there came to us the tall, thin priest whom we had noted as one in authority under the aged High Priest. His face was shrunken and his eyes, shrewd and roving in expression, were sunk in great hollows. His lips were so thin that they did not cover his protruding teeth and on his chin was a straggling beard of dark red. This fellow—his name was Katalat—had attracted our notice not only because of his repulsive appearance but for the reason that all the other priests deferred to him and he was openly antagonistic to our party. He had had little to say to us until now, but when he came into our room he cast a vengeful, vindictive glance around and said:
“The great god is very angry. See how he has punished us for not sacrificing all of you, and at once!”
“See how he has punished you for daring to harm any of us,” I retorted angrily. “If your god had desired our lives he would not have saved us from injury and destroyed so many of your own people.”
He looked at me wickedly. I think he was clever enough to know that the sun had nothing whatever to do with the earthquake.
“The noble High Priest Pentchakoma is dead,” he announced.
“That’s bad!” said Paul, heartily. “Did the earthquake frighten the old man, then?”
“The roof fell upon him. And now I, Katalat, have by our laws become High Priest in his stead.”
“Has Ama appointed you so soon?” inquired Paul.
“The High Priestess has nothing to do with the appointment. It is the law,” he retorted.
“But she is the Supreme Ruler,” said Chaka. “If she does not approve—”
“She must approve!” cried Katalat fiercely. “Otherwise—”
“Well, what then?” asked Paul, as he paused.
The telephone bell rang. We had placed the instrument just outside our room, in the passage, so it would be convenient to the priests and to us. I started to answer the summons, but the priest blocked my way.
“Stop!” he commanded. “I forbid you to communicate again with the High Priestess.”
Paul nodded to Ned, who reached out an arm, grabbed Katalat by the collar and whirled him into a corner, where the big mate stood guard over him.
“Answer the telephone, Sam,” said Allerton.
As I went I heard the priest vowing dire vengeance. It was Ama calling as I had expected.
“Are you—is—is—are any of you hurt?” she inquired, stammering in her anxiety.
“No; we are all safe. And you, Ama?”
“I am broken hearted! My poor people! My poor city!”
“Never mind,” said I. “The city can be fixed up again and more people will grow. Do you want us?”
“Not now. Come to me early to-morrow.”
“We will if the priests let us. There’s an ugly fellow here now, named Katalat, who says he’s the new High Priest and forbids our seeing you again.”
There was a brief silence.
“Beware of Katalat,” Ama said, in a hesitating voice. “I fear trouble ahead for us all. Come to-morrow, if you can—all of you.”
Then she severed the connection and I went back to make my report.
“Boys,” said I, “we’d better settle with this High Priest right now—for good and all.”
“In what way?” asked Paul.
“By wringing his neck.” Then, still speaking in English, I repeated what Ama had said.
“But we can’t murder him in cold blood,” remarked our leader, looking at Katalat thoughtfully; “nor can we allow him to lead a rebellion against us, and perhaps against Ama.”
“Let us keep him a prisoner until morning,” suggested Chaka, in his quiet way. “After we have seen the Supreme Ruler we can better decide what to do with him.”
That seemed good advice, so we told Archie and Joe to bind the priest and gag him. He fought desperately at first, but Joe had a ju-jutsu trick that quickly laid old Katalat on his back, and Archie stuffed a cloth into his mouth and silenced his cries. One or two priests, hearing the scrimmage, came pattering along the passage, but Paul and Chaka met them and sent them away again.
Night had fallen by this time and as soon as it was quite dark—it had been gloomy enough before—Allerton suggested that some of us form a party to go for the electrites. We left Nux and Bryonia, quite recovered by this time, with Ned and Pedro to guard our prisoner, while the rest of us set out for the temple by way of the open window.
There was not a star in the sky, but fortunately Paul had retained his dark lantern and we depended upon that to assist us when we got to the temple. Until then we dared not show a light. We stumbled over rubbish and debris at every step, and once or twice, as we neared the temple, I recoiled as my foot touched something that I instinctively felt was a dead body.
Finally we came to the ruined wall and after climbing over the scattered blocks of marble Paul got out his lantern to guide us.
We found the hole in the floor and after lighting up the aperture and sending a ray into the basement to show us the way, Allerton handed the lamp to Chaka and dropped lightly into the cellar. It was a rather risky proceeding, for the great building was in a dangerous condition. Only one wall had actually fallen, but the others were more or less cracked and displaced, while some of the huge blocks of marble that had formed the coping were liable to topple down upon us at any moment. Nor was the flooring any too secure. But Joe and I followed Allerton without hesitation and then Chaka handed us the lamp. Presently, amid bales and boxes of curious shapes we came across our property, and passed the belts and electrites from one to another until Archie and Chaka received them above and laid them in a pile.
“Now let’s get out of this,” I said. “It’s too dangerous to suit me.”
“Wait a minute,” called Paul, who had been turning the light in every direction. As he spoke he clambered over some bales and then pounced upon some object he had discovered. It proved to be the extra gas-jacket that had been taken from our chest, and Joe and I both uttered shouts of joy at its recovery.
“The others may be here, too,” I exclaimed, my fears all forgotten. “Let’s search for them.”
We did, but without result. We came across one or two minor articles that had seemed suspicious to the Tcha who rifled our chests, but no firearms nor any more of the gas-jackets were in the cellar of the temple. Finally we climbed out of the hole again and, carefully securing the belts and electrites, made our way back to our quarters.
WE WITNESS A DARING DEED
Having armed ourselves with the electrites, each putting on a fresh belt, we concealed the precious gas-jacket beneath a divan. True, there was but one for nine of us, but it meant that one person in the party, at least, would be able to leave the valley at will, and that counted for a good deal with those in our present uncomfortable position. Paul even thought the inflated jacket might be made to float two, at a pinch. At present there was no suggestion of any one’s taking advantage of the find to run away from his comrades; but it was a satisfaction to us all to know we had recovered the jacket. Plenty of themlyne crystals were in the chest left to us, and the little case attached to the jacket was filled with them, in readiness for any emergency.
None of us slept much during the rest of that eventful night, unless it was Pedro, who was so exhausted he needed to regain his former strength. Next morning we foraged for breakfast, not permitting any of the priests to enter the room lest they spy their leader as our prisoner. They were a very subdued crowd, by this time, and gave us no trouble.
But the question was how to visit Ama in a bunch, as she had requested, and still leave old Katalat a safe prisoner in our room. Finally we solved the problem by deciding to take him with us.
“Now that we are armed,” said Paul, “even the Waba Pagatka will hesitate to interfere with us. But the valley is so utterly demoralized just now that I scarcely think we shall be attacked.”
The sky still retained its sombre hue, and Nux, who was born in a land subject to earthquakes, shook his head and predicted more trouble for the Vale of Tcha.
“When one quake come,” he said, “three quakes come. Each is more badder than de odder.”
We had had two already, and anything worse than last night’s performance was surely to be dreaded. But we were not borrowing trouble just then.
We found great confusion in the quarters of the priestesses. Their palace had not suffered so much damage as that of the priests, but huge stones from the mountain side littered the ground everywhere. The beauty of this retreat was evidently spoiled for some time to come.
We had met with no interference on the way, although the priests gathered to watch us march their leader away as our prisoner. Ama, however, was startled to see Katalat in bonds and at once ordered us to release him. We did so reluctantly, and when she demanded an explanation Paul said we considered the new High Priest dangerous to us all. Katalat smiled grimly at hearing this, but said nothing.
“He is a Tcha,” remarked Ama, proudly, “and a faithful servant of our great and glorious god, the Sun. In his youth he was our record-keeper and librarian, being skilled in literature and the arts. Such a one can be dangerous only to the enemies of the Tcha.”
But she was too distressed over the condition of the valley and her dead and suffering subjects to dwell upon this incident long, and eagerly she begged us to advise her what to do to restore a semblance of order and comfort as quickly as possible. Being travelers of wide experience, she added, we ought to know how to handle such a condition better than the Tcha, who were seemingly stunned by their misfortune—the first of its kind that had overtaken them since they had occupied the valley thousands of years ago.
We counseled her as well as we could, and it seemed a good omen that just then the sun appeared in the sky and sent his warming rays to flood the stricken valley. Of me the girl seemed much afraid, saying I had predicted the calamity that had overtaken them, and in addition to being a seer she imagined I might be a wizard, as well, and by diabolical arts had wrought all this desolation. It amused me to be accorded such powers, but I am sorry to feel that pretty Ama was afraid of me.
Paul suggested that she call a meeting of the principal inhabitants at the great theatre, or assembly hall, and there give them instructions what to do, as well as an encouraging speech. She caught at this plan eagerly and dispatched her messengers at once. Meantime Chaka and Allerton gave the girl much good advice, and Archie and Joe aided them quite effectually. She would not listen to me at all, so I kept silent.
All this time the new High Priest stood dumbly listening to the conservation. He took no part in the conference himself, even when the Supreme Ruler appealed to him, and I thought his conduct that of a cad and a cur. After Ama he held the highest rank in the Vale, and it certainly was his duty to assist her in her present trouble. But no; he kept his mouth shut and his wild roving eyes fixed intently on our faces.
Presently the messengers returned to say that the people were assembling at the theatre, and Ama immediately prepared to join them. She must deck herself in her imperial robes, it seemed; so we were requested to meet her just at the edge of the city and accompany her to the meeting. She noticed our electrites but did not ask in what manner we had recovered them. Also she noted Pedro’s presence, and that the supposed sacrifice was still alive and well; but not a word concerning him passed her lips. She was intent on more important matters.
While we waited in the grounds Chaka made a trip to our room and put on the gas-jacket, covering it with his flowing tunic. This he did at Allerton’s request. The High Priest, being now free, had rejoined his satellites and we saw them all whispering together before they marched away in a body to the meeting. Doubtless old Katalat meant to cause trouble, if he could.
We followed them slowly, halting just without the circle of buildings to wait for Ama. I thought she would come in the golden electric chariot she used on state occasions, but because of the rocks and debris that cluttered the way she was obliged to walk.
The High Priestess and her escort made an impressive appearance, nevertheless. First came six young girls swinging censers; then Ama alone. Following her were the Virgins of the Sun in their snow-white gowns.
At her signal we went ahead and were approaching near to the theatre when the final calamity overtook this devoted land.
The clear sky had nothing to do with the third earthquake. It came unheralded, without an instant’s warning. A sound as of a heavy sea dashing against breakers was followed by so mighty a crash that every living creature in the Vale of Tcha reeled and fell headlong.
It was all over, then. A mere instant had wrecked the beautiful city and buried hundreds in its ruins. More than that, as we rose dazed and trembling to our feet we saw that the south end of the huge mountain had split in twain, and through the rift we could look far out upon the plains toward the Great Lake and the City of Itza.
But now another horror confronted us. The ground of the valley had likewise split into big cracks, one of them almost at our feet. The censer girls had disappeared; the Virgins had likewise been swallowed up or had rushed back to firmer land. But there, upon a tiny island formed by two irregular chasms, stood Ama, erect and motionless, while the bit of ground that supported her slight and beautiful form swayed visibly to and fro, as if hesitating which way to plunge its fair burden into the black gulf below.
I saw a flash and felt a rush of air past me as Chaka made a great leap and alighted at the girl’s feet. For a moment I thought they were both about to be engulfed, but he steadied her with one hand as he knelt beside her, while with the other he fumbled with the valve of the themlyne case. He had cast aside his tunic before he made that wonderful leap, and as we stood spellbound, watching him with throbbing hearts, we could see the gas-jacket slowly swell as the powerful gas was generated and rushed into it.
It seemed a desperate chance to take; there was scarcely any foundation to support the swaying bit of ground, which was crumbling away before our very eyes. A few seconds now would end it all, and we stared helplessly, with a sickening dread of the impending tragedy.
Chaka straightened up, gained his feet and passed an arm around Ama’s waist. She appeared not to notice him; her face was white and set, her eyes turned steadily ahead to the spot where Paul stood with clasped hands, praying as he had never before prayed in all his life.
Chaka and Ama swayed with the little island, which toppled and fell with a roar into the abyss. Slowly—slowly but surely—they two sank after it, the girl clasped tightly in the atkayma’s arms, and disappeared from our view.
Archie and I caught Allerton as he sank unconscious and inert to the ground. Joe had run away, for some reason. I was scarcely able to stand, myself, and the cry of horror from the throng of people who, rushing from the theatre, had witnessed this scene, conspired to unman me still further.
But a sudden revulsion of feeling came, for above the huge crack appeared Chaka’s head—rising, gradually rising, an inch at a time—until he was again in full view, the girl still clasped in his arms. She had fainted, and lay with her golden red hair streaming over the atkayma’s shoulder.
We shouted for joy, then, and all the Tcha behind us echoed the shout, for once startled out of their inbred apathy.
Straight up, to some twenty feet above the chasm’s edge floated Chaka, and then remained stationary. The gas-jacket was inflated to its fullest extent, but was not light enough to carry the double burden higher. No air stirred; here was no way to succor the pair, it seemed, or bring them to firm ground.
We had reckoned without Joe, however. I never knew where the boy found that rope, or how he came to think of running search of it. But now the line shot into the air, in true sailor- or cowboy-fashion, and Chaka managed to grab it with one hand while he clung to Ama with the other. Then Joe slowly and steadily drew them away from their dangerous position to where we stood with outstretched arms eager to receive them.
The assistance came none too soon, for the gas was escaping through a defect in the valve and without the aid of the rope Chaka would soon have made a second and final descent into the gulf. As it was, he was barely above the edge when we drew him in.
The Maya was as calm and cool as if no danger had threatened him. Some Tcha women brought water and took charge of Paul and the High Priestess, trying to restore them to consciousness. While they worked, without warning the crack came together with a sound like a thunder-clap, the impact throwing us all upon our faces again. Only an uneven ridge of crumpled earth marked the line where the great jagged opening had extended half way across the valley.
Chaka, standing beside me, gave an involuntary shudder.
“There was fire below us,” he said in an awed tone, “and that was what caused Ama to faint. Under this mountain is a great volcano. It has been burning for countless ages, biding its time, and the people knew it not until the crouching monster rose to-day in its might and vanquished them.”
“See!” I exclaimed. “The cleft in the mountain side is still open. Beyond is your own country, Chaka.”
“Yes,” he replied, with an accent of sadness; “the hidden city is hidden no longer.”
WE REPEL THE INVADERS
Allerton was soon himself again and assisted in rubbing the girl’s hands to restore their circulation, while Chaka, who had saved her life with such admirable courage, stood passively by regarding the scene.
Presently Ama opened her eyes, and naturally the first thing they fell upon was Paul’s anxious face. She smiled at him, sighed, and stirred uneasily as the recollection of the fearful experience through which she had passed slowly dawned upon her. Then she sat up and struggled to her feet, gazing with horror at her ruined city and the vista of the Itzaex country that showed through the riven mountain.
“Come!” she said, and without heeding her own people, who flocked about her, she extended one hand to Chaka, the other to Paul, and supported between them staggered away to examine the extent of the damage.
One would expect wild excitement in the valley now; but the Tcha were a queer race. Those who had been saved from injury by assembling at the theatre sat down where they were and gazed in mute despair at the ruins of the splendid city they had known and loved so well. Even the priests were completely demoralized and I saw our enemy Katalat, wrapped in his robe, standing silent and alone, his glassy eyes fixed on the ground at his feet, as if lost in thought.
After all there was little to blame in the demeanor of the Tcha. The race having existed in this favored spot for centuries upon centuries, the present inhabitants had had no thought of insecurity. So suddenly had the earthquakes and their attendant misfortunes come upon them that they were stunned for the time and incapable of action, or even logical thought.
Ama moaned and wept at every step of her progress through the city. There was hardly a building that had escaped damage; by far the majority were irretrievably demolished. The artisans’ quarters had suffered most, as their buildings were not as strongly built as the others, and hundreds of dead were buried under the walls of their home.
The poor girl could not bear the sad sights for long. Even with our assistance, which we earnestly volunteered, little could be done in this hour of disaster to relieve the stricken ones; so presently Ama turned toward her own palace.
Here was more desolation, but parts of the vast building still remained intact and the rooms occupied by the High Priestess were yet habitable. Of the fifty attendant priestesses only about thirty had escaped death, the others having been swallowed up when the earth opened. The survivors were wailing dismally when we arrived, and there was no way to comfort them.
Ama withdrew to her rooms and shut herself up. We did not see her again for three days. Meantime we resumed our former quarters in the one-story wing of the priests’ palace, which was about all there was left of that building. Katalat and his followers took possession of the prison, which being low and solid had escaped damage, and for a time we heard nothing of them, either.
I proposed to our party that we collect such stores of food as we would find and a few more rubies and make our way back through the Itzaex country to the ship. Paul said we could go if we wished, but for his part he intended to stay until Ama was out of her trouble. Chaka declared he would stay also. There was no use in arguing with them, for they both loved the girl; so of course we all stayed. No one can desert a comrade at such a time.
On the evening of the third day a Tcha who had been put to guard the rift in the mountain came running to say that a great horde of Itzaex warriors was marching toward us and had encamped for the night but three hours’ distant from the city.
When this news reached Ama she sent for us at once, asking what could be done to protect her people.
“What are your future plans?” asked Paul, calmly. “Do you intend to rebuild the city?”
“To be sure,” she replied. “Already I have consulted with the Tribunal, with the High Priest Katalat and with my principal nobles, and we have determined to erect a new city upon these ruins. But it will take many years to do this and my people have not yet recovered from the shock of their misfortunes.”
“Now that the mountain side is split open and a path made into the valley,” said Allerton, “all the world will be coming here, and you cannot prevent it. Here are the Itzaex now, bent on conquering the remnants of the Tcha and plundering you of your treasures. They are merely the forerunners of others to come.”
She wrung her hands in abject despair.
“What shall I do?” she moaned. “Oh, what shall I do?”
“Fight!” said Chaka, suddenly. The Itzaex were his own people, too.
“We’ll help to drive them away,” declared Archie, enthusiastically.
Paul was thoughtful.
“How much of a fighting force can you command?” he asked.
“The Public Guardians have always been sufficient for our purposes,” said Ama. “They number one hundred and are commanded by the Waba Pagatka. But I think every man in the valley will willingly fight to protect us from our foes.”
“Who leads the miners?” was his next question.
“Their chief, a Tcha named Ampax.”
“Send for him, and also for Pagatka,” he requested.
She dispatched messengers at once.
Pagatka came first and saluted the High Priestess with his usual deference.
“Gather all your men,” said Ama, “and take them to the opening the earthquake has made in the mountain. You are to guard us against the Itzaex, who will attack us early in the morning.”
“I have but eighty men left alive,” he stated. “The Itzaex are thousands.”
“But you have possession of the pass,” said Paul, “and I and my comrades will be there to help you. At all hazards the Itzaex must be kept from entering the valley. If they succeed they will kill without mercy every inhabitant.”
The Waba asserted he would do all in his power, and retired to assemble his men. Like all the rest of his people he was completely discouraged and had no hope of making a successful resistance.
When the miner, Ampax, arrived he proved to be a fine big fellow with a bushy beard of fiery red and keen, steadfast eyes. He was asked to get together all the men of his caste that he could and raise a rampart of stones across the mouth of the pass. As this was nearly a hundred feet in width it seemed a herculean task; but Ampax promptly undertook to do all that was possible. We liked this fellow. In this crisis he was the most capable Tcha we had found.
All night the miners labored at the pass and many others of the Tcha, when they understood the matter, willingly assisted them. The ground was well littered with rocks and blocks of marble from ruined buildings, so material was close at hand. By daybreak a barrier had been erected nearly five feet in height entirely across the opening.
Waba Pagatka came with his men, fully armed with spears and battle-axes, and the soldiers were lined up behind the barrier. Ama had ordered our firearms and ammunition returned to us, and these, supplemented by our electrites, made our little party of nine more formidable than the eighty soldiers of Pagatka. But the Tcha were at last beginning to take a lively interest in their own welfare and at daybreak volunteers began to join our ranks in fair numbers, among them several of the priesthood. They came armed very primitively with whatever weapons they could pick up. Axes, knives and heavy clubs were the chief of these, and there were a few bows and arrows brought out, but not many. Never in the lifetime of this generation had they been called upon to fight a battle; but they were a calm and determined lot, in spite of their inexperience, and we looked for them to render a good account of themselves.
Altogether we mustered that morning some four hundred men all told, and opposed to us were more than five thousand skilled Itzaex warriors, the bravest and fiercest fighters I have ever known. Really, our case seemed desperate.
The enemy broke camp at daybreak and marched up the mountain in good military order. At their head was borne aloft an open palanquin, upon which reclined a man who was doubtless their leader. Paul examined him through his field glasses and declared he was none other than our old enemy Datchapa. How the ancient uncle of the atkayma had managed to survive his tumble down the pyramid was a wonder; but he had, and of course he had soon recovered from the shock of the electrite.
The attack of the Itzaex was now fully explained. Chaka’s father, believing his son dead, had before his own demise confided the secret of the hidden city to Datchapa, who would become his successor. Doubtless he included in the tale a description of the beauty and riches of the city and valley. So when the earthquake came and the Itzaex saw the mountain rent asunder and a passage opened, old Datchapa had quickly decided to invade and conquer the stricken and helpless kingdom of the Tcha. That secluded race was certainly unprepared to oppose such an invasion, never having dreamed of trouble with their neighbors, the Itzaex, which proved how little they understood the savage nature of the tribe surrounding their retreat.
The sun had risen brilliantly when the attack began. The Itzaex were probably surprised at sight of the rampart which had sprung up in a single night, but they did not hesitate to advance upon it. Datchapa halted his palanquin to one side, but quite near the scene of action, and sat up, propped by his cushions, to direct the battle. I imagine his fall had broken some limbs that were slowly mending, but the old fellow’s energetic spirit urged him to lead his people on this momentous occasion in spite of his injuries.
Our party of nine was stationed close to the barrier, one every ten feet or so from the next, thus forming a line that controlled the entire space. All around us stood the defenders awaiting with composure the attack.
A shower of darts directed toward us did no harm at all, because we escaped them by simply ducking our heads. Arrows were likewise harmless. The Itzaex understood the situation and with savage cries swung their clubs and battle-axes and bounded forward to scale the rampart.
We used our repeating rifles, cutting into their front ranks with fearful effect; but the enemy came on undaunted. The Tcha now leaped to the top of the wall and from their point of vantage fought so desperately, yet coolly, that after some ten minutes of hand to hand conflict the Itzaex retreated to gain breath and reform their ranks. They left scores of dead and dying before the barrier, but our own forces had suffered severely, too. I was proud of the Tcha at that moment. They were fully as fearless as their enemies and made a capital defense when you consider they had never been trained for warfare.
The big miner Ampax touched Paul’s arm and pointed to a great cliff that far up on the mountain’s edge overhung the pass. The earthquake, in rending Aota’s side, had left this tremendous mass suspended by a small neck of rock. I had not noticed the thing before, as from inside the valley the slender connection was not clearly seen, and during the darkness of the night it had also escaped the notice of the miners. But Ampax had spied it in the nick of time, and as I gazed up at the thing now it looked mighty dangerous to those who stood below.
“If I can break off that mass,” said Ampax, “it will block the pass.”
“Try it,” he replied, and at once Ampax selected a dozen assistants who, laden with bars and mattocks of heavy bronze, began to climb the side of the cliff, using a path that a goat would have hesitated to attempt.
Allerton called me to him.
“Sam,” said he, “in our chest is a stick of dynamite. It is wrapped in foil and is kept in a padded box marked ‘XXD’. Run and get it, my lad, and carry it to Ampax as quickly as you can. You know how to use it.”
“Will there be time?” I inquired, anxiously.
“I think so. With our electrites and the rifles we ought to be able to drive those savages back once or twice more.”
“All right, Paul; I’m off.”
Handing my firearms to Pagatka, who ought to do some good with them, for he was an intelligent fellow, I sprinted as fast as I was able to back to our quarters. The rift in the mountain was at the south end, nearly a quarter of a mile distant from the temple enclosure; but it took a little time to unlock the chest and secure the dynamite.
Taking the precious box under my arm I hastily started to return when I came upon Ama standing with a group of her women at a point where her eyes could command the pass.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
I pointed up the mountain toward the great mass of rock that overhung the opening, explaining that only a small neck of rock held it in place and Ampax was trying to break it away so as to block up the pass. I added that in the box was a powerful explosive that would assist the miner in his task, and that we must hurry or the Itzaex would have broken through the defense before we could accomplish our object.
“The climb is what I dread,” said I; “it’s a dizzy path, and I’m not sure I can make it.”
“I will guide you,” she suddenly exclaimed. “Follow me, Samsteele!”
Turning, she ran lightly back to the temple enclosure, and after a moment’s hesitation I decided to follow her. We were not heading for the pass at all, yet Ama ought to know her own mountain better than I did.
The girl proved a swift runner and I, being already short of breath, had no easy job to keep up with her. As we dashed into the gardens surrounding Ama’s ruined pavilion the battle cry of the fierce Itzaex again resounded in our ears and we realized that another attack upon the barrier had begun.
Ama entered the big cavern in the mountain, where I had never before been. We skirted a bathing pool, fed by springs that gushed from the rocks, and quite at the rear end of the place came to a small passage. It was black as ink, but Ama took my hand and drew me after her along the passage, scarcely abating her speed as she went.
The tunnel broadened after the entrance was passed, and inclined upward, making more than one turn. The floor was smooth, and although I could not discern even the girl’s form before me, we made good progress. On and up we went, and the unusual exertion was making me pretty short of breath when a ray of light appeared ahead. Ama made another run for the top and we emerged abruptly upon the very crest of the mountain, only a few hundred feet from the rift.
The ridge was not very wide and we could look down both sides of the mountain from where we stood. There was no time for admiring the view, however, for Ama hurried me along until we came to where Ampax and his men were laboring. They had already driven a hole into the big neck of rock connecting the fragment with the mountain—it looked much bigger here than from below—but I could see it would have taken them a long time to have done the job in their own way.
From below came the wild cries of the attacking savages, mingled with the sound of firearms as our boys bravely opposed them. The Tcha uttered no sounds as they fought, but they were none the less terrible for that.
Approaching Ampax I asked him to drive a deep hole with his bar in the hollow he had already made in the neck of rock. He had no idea what I proposed doing, but Ama ordered him to obey me, and he did. The poor fellow was sweating from every pore with his exertions.
I took the dynamite from the box and carefully lowered it into the hole, attaching a fuse I had found in the parcel. It was not a very long fuse, but it must answer our purpose.
Just then the Itzaex retired for the second time, being repulsed with great loss to both sides. Mounting the big fragment I leaned over the edge and called to Paul that all was ready. At once he withdrew all the Tcha and our own boys from the barrier, making them retreat to a safe distance. The scene of conflict, as I now viewed it, was a veritable slaughter-pen, the dead and dying lying heaped in every direction. It was surely time for a diversion.
I ordered Ampax and his men to run along the ridge, and told Ama to go with them. They were slow to understand me and I could not wait long for them to get out of the way because the Itzaex were already forming for another rush. So I lighted the fuse and ran from the place so fast myself that the miners took warning and hastened after me. Seizing Ama’s arm I dragged her along the ridge until the explosion knocked us all flat upon the rocks and sent three miners flying over the precipice.
The crash that followed the detonation shook the ridge again, and then a hearty cheer went up from the exhausted Tcha who stood below in the valley. I knew then that the pass was blocked and the battle over.
WE HEAR STRANGE NEWS
Paul told me afterward that the advancing Itzaex had reached the barrier and, astonished at finding no opposition, were climbing upon it in a closely packed mass when the great rock fell. The slaughter must have been terrible, for not only did the fragment completely fill the vast space but the rubble of loose rocks following it killed many on both sides. Among the victims were Datchapa and his palanquin bearers, and being now without a leader the superstitious terrors of the Itzaex, who had always feared this “sacred mountain,” influenced them to abandon further hostilities and return to their own city.
When she counted the cost of the defense, however, the brave High Priestess was in despair. Many of the noblest and best citizens had perished, and between war and earthquake the population of the valley was now reduced to a mere handful, and those mostly priests, women and children. There were enough men left, however, to cause the girl a still greater anxiety than she had yet endured, as we soon discovered.
The task of disposing of the dead was immediately undertaken by the artisans, miners and agriculturists, of whom more survived than of the higher castes. This was necessary in order to prevent a plague, and by Ama’s direction all the bodies were taken to a large cave at the north of the valley and therein deposited, after which the opening was hermetically sealed.
The Priestess sent word to Katalat to perform the burial service at the cave, but he returned no answer and appointed an inferior to attend to the obsequies. Hearing of this Ama dispatched a messenger requesting the High Priest to attend her at once; but he disregarded the order.
This conduct was so unusual, so rebellious and exasperating that the High Priestess became very angry and ordered the Waba Pagatka to seize Katalat and bring him to her presence. The Captain respectfully bowed, but said:
“I shall not be able to do that, your Highness. Strange tales have been told our people by the High Priest, and these tales have inflamed the populace against you.”
“Against me—the High Priestess of the Sun, the Supreme Ruler of the Vale of Tcha!” she exclaimed, indignantly.
“Even so, your Highness,” was the calm response.
“Then,” said Paul, who was present, “it is even more necessary than before to arrest this rebellious priest.”
Pagatka remained silent.
“Do as I command you, Waba,” said Ama.
“My men will not obey me,” he returned.
“Is the army in revolt, then?” inquired Chaka.
“All the valley is in revolt against the High Priestess,” declared Pagatka. “I am sorry,” he added; “I do not believe the tales myself; but the people all side with Katalat, and I alone am powerless.”
When asked what the tales were, the captain would not say, so finally Ama dismissed him.
Then she turned to us a white and startled face and asked if we knew anything of the matter; but of course we were as ignorant as herself. Nor were any of the priestesses wiser than their mistress. While Ama had been secluded in her palace, from whence she strove to issue orders for the disposal of the dead and the welfare of her stricken kingdom, old Katalat had taken advantage of the people’s despair and grief to rouse them to rebellion against the girl. It did not surprise us much; we had sized up this fellow correctly from the very beginning.
One of the priestesses had a brother who was an intelligent and faithful youth, and proposed sending him out to gain information as to what conspiracy was going on. Ama caught at the suggestion and the boy was sent on his mission.
He returned in little more than an hour with the information that Katalat had called a meeting of the Tcha at the theatre for that very morning, and already the citizens were flocking to the place.
“I also will go,” announced the High Priestess.
“Better not, Ama,” said Paul. “Let our party of men go instead, and return to you with news of what Katalat proposes to do.”
“No,” she returned positively; “they might prevent your return, these lawless ones. I cannot understand it at all, my friends. Ever have the Tcha been a loyal and law-abiding people until now. It is their duty to obey me, as their hereditary Supreme Ruler, descended from the first Ama who ever reigned in this valley. That Katalat should dare defy me is not so strange as that my people support him in his rebellion. Have I not done my full duty in these trying times? Can anything be justly urged against me? But even so I am supreme in the Vale of Tcha! My word is as powerful as the law itself, for it is the law.”
She was getting angry, and I did not blame her much. But it was time for us to start for the theatre, if we were to take part in the meeting that had been called, so we waited for Ama to arrange her robe of state—feminine fussiness being the same in every country—and then all followed her in a procession to the theatre, her thirty priestesses forming an imposing train in our wake.
The theatre was two-thirds full when we arrived, and I think those present represented about all the able-bodied population remaining in the valley—some four or five hundred, all told. Misfortune, desolation and ruin had told upon their iron nerves at last and deprived them of their boasted self-control, for as we entered the place only scowling faces greeted us.
On the platform, in full view of the audience, stood Katalat. At his left the aged members of the Tribunal sat in a row upon their golden bench. I think they were all surprised at the sudden entrance of the High Priestess, and the Tribunal especially became visibly agitated; but the High Priest merely cast a cold glance at the girl and thereafter ignoring her presence began an address to the people.
Ama flushed and her eyes flashed. Mounting the steps of the platform she took her stand proudly beside Katalat, reading the countenances of the people as she faced them. Our party remained in a group at one side, midway between the stage and the audience. The Virgins of the Sun sat upon the lower tier of benches, wonderingly regarding the scene.
“People of Tcha,” began the priest, “I have called you here to confer with me upon a very important matter—a matter that affects your lives and future welfare—a matter that has caused the death of hundreds of your relatives and friends and laid your fair city in ruins.”
A murmur of anger ran through the assemblage, but Katalat raised his hand and silenced it.
“Our laws are centuries old,” he resumed, “and they are so wise and just that we have always prospered in obeying them. One of our principal laws is that the legitimate daughter of the High Priestess, descended in a direct line from our first Ama, shall rule supreme in our beautiful valley.”
Every eye was now turned upon the girl, and I was puzzled to understand why the rebellious priest should have rendered her this tribute.
“Until a few weeks ago,” continued Katalat, “peace and comfort reigned in the Vale of Tcha. We were enjoying the reward of ages of honest labor and obedience to the laws of our race. Then there descended upon us these strangers.” Here his eyes flashed upon us wickedly, and another vicious demonstration broke from the crowd, which was quickly suppressed by the speaker.
“Then began our misfortunes,” said the priest. “Our mother, Ama, whom we had all revered and trusted, fell under the evil influence of these vile foreigners. She saved three of them from the sacrifice and made them all her friends, favoring them above her own subjects. They were constantly admitted to her palace, where men are not allowed except to discuss important matters of state with the Ruler. I admit that our Ama counseled with these strangers day by day, disregarding the advice of her faithful priests and her Tribunal, and so bringing countless disasters upon us. By our laws any outsiders who dare intrude upon the Tcha must be put to death; yet Ama has made them her friends and counselors. You know the result. Death and desolation for our people and honors and preference for our enemies.”
Another burst of rage greeted this tirade, but now the High Priestess stepped forward and held up her hand with a regal gesture that quelled the tumult as if by magic.
“People of Tcha,” said she in her clear voice, “you listen to lies and to evil suggestions. These strangers have defended you from harm even when you sought their death. Their power alone saved you from the Itzaex invasion; twice have they saved the life of your Ama. Shall we be ungrateful for this? Shall we let unreasoning anger make us inhuman beasts?”
“The white strangers are intruders!” cried Katalat fiercely, as if fearing the influence of her argument.
“Listen!” said the girl. “How many of you have heard your mothers say that whenever a white stranger finds a way to enter this valley he will become the saviour of our people and the master of our race? The prophecy has been handed down from generation to generation, and at last it has been fulfilled. This man,” here she pointed to Paul, “the leader of those you call intruders, but yesterday saved our race from annihilation; therein has he become our saviour.” Now she drew herself up proudly as she continued with sparkling eyes: “And he is to be my chosen husband, thus becoming the master of us all, as the prophecy saith. Citizens and subjects I call upon you all to honor this man!”
“Not so!” shouted Katalat, raising a clenched fist. “I declare that this man’s evil arts brought upon us the earthquakes. Never have we suffered such disasters until the strangers came among us, encouraging our High Priestess to disregard the laws and rob our mighty and glorious god of his rightful sacrifices.”
“I will disregard the law no longer,” said Ama, turning suddenly upon the priest. “Any disrespect to the Supreme Ruler of the Tcha is by our law severely punished. Waba Pagatka, I order you to arrest this false and rebellious priest!”
The captain glanced toward Katalat, but did not move to obey. Advancing a step the priest said in an impressive voice:
“Had the Supreme Ruler of the Tcha issued that order, the Waba Pagatka would at once execute it. But this girl is not our Supreme Ruler—she never has been!”
This assertion fairly took Ama’s breath away. It even made me gasp, and Paul’s eyes seemed about to pop out of their sockets.
“Explain your statement, sir!” cried the High Priestess, quickly recovering herself.
“I will,” he replied. “The explanation is due to all the people, and should have been made before. You will all remember that ere I became a priest I kept the historic Records of our Library, wherein is written on imperishable parchment every incident that transpires in our valley. In reading these records years ago I discovered an important secret. Our former Ama was childless. She had no daughter to succeed her.”
A murmur of astonishment came from the assembled people. The girl facing them never flinched a muscle.
“Fearing she would be condemned and hated for her failure to supply a successor to the long line of hereditary rulers,” continued Katalat, calmly, “the High Priestess secretly took a child of one of her former priestesses into her palace and proclaimed the infant as her own daughter. When she died, some five years ago, the girl who now stands beside me—the fraudulent substitute—took her place, and none suspected the imposture.
“For myself, I had taken an oath to keep silent unless some act of the false Priestess imperiled the welfare of the nation. In protecting these invaders, our natural enemies, and so bringing upon us the wrath of our justly incensed god, the destruction of our city and the death of hundreds of loyal subjects, this girl has indeed released me from my oath. At last you know the truth—that there is no hereditary High Priestess now living to rule over you, and that therefore her power and supremacy devolve upon me, the lawful High Priest of the Sun.”
That last statement impressed me with the belief that the man was lying. So evidently thought Ama. She drew a breath of relief and actually smiled into the stern faces confronting her—a dazzling, brilliant smile that should have won her case then and there.
“You have listened, my subjects, to this false and absurd accusation,” she said. “Now I ask you to demand from Katalat the proofs of his assertion.”
“The proofs have been submitted to the Triumvirate, to the Counselors and to the Waba Pagatka,” was the quiet rejoinder. “In the Book of Records is the signed confession of our last High Priestess and a copy of the oath she obliged me to take.”
One of the aged Triumvir arose from his seat.
“I have seen and examined the Book of Records, and I testify that the statement of the High Priest is true,” said he.
“I also vouch for the truth of the statement,” said another.
“And I,” added the third.
“If any citizen should still doubt me,” continued the priest, “the record will be shown to him. I have no personal enmity against this girl, who, alas, is now nameless. It was my duty to expose her at this time and I have done so only to promote the future welfare of the Tcha.”
Ama, who had stood proudly erect until now, suddenly reeled and would have fallen had not both Chaka and Paul leaped upon the platform and supported her. As they led her away Katalat smiled his evil smile and turned to Pagatka.
“Arrest those intruders and confine them securely in the House of Seclusion,” he commanded.
“If he tries that dodge we’ll paralyze him!” I shouted, angrily.
But the waba advanced calmly toward us, and a file of his men followed him.
“Come, boys; let’s beat a retreat,” whispered Paul. “We must get Ama back to her palace.”
We turned to obey, Paul and Chaka going first and hurrying the half fainting girl between them. Ned and Archie backed them up, with Nux and Bryonia just behind. Pedro had no electrite, so Joe and I took charge of the rear.
I had scarcely taken three steps when the waba leaped forward and seized my arm. Whirling around I flashed my electrite and tumbled him into a heap. But the current spread and shot far beyond Pagatka, catching unawares old Katalat as he stood grinning on the platform. He threw up his arms and made a dive into the arena, where he lay as one dead.
A roar of fury burst from the throng. Every able-bodied man present sprang from his seat and rushed toward us, and so bitterly were they incensed that I am sure they would have torn us to pieces could they have laid hands on us.
But we fought a good fight, keeping them off with our electrites while we beat an orderly retreat toward the city. The powerful electric charges stunned them by the dozens, and more would have suffered had not the Tribune called aloud for them to desist.
“Let them go! Let them go!” I heard one of the old men cry. “They cannot escape from the valley.”
Believing this to be true, the Tcha held back, for they were not especially anxious to be knocked senseless and they knew from experience that our weapons, although not deadly, were very effective at close range.
So we gained the temple enclosure and Ama’s palace without further trouble; but no sooner were we inside the building than it was surrounded by the ranks of the Tcha. They camped there, too, as if they had no intention of going away until they forced us to surrender.
Ama’s apartments were at the front of the palace on the second floor, at the end of a narrow hallway. When we had securely barricaded the door into this hall we were shut off from communication with any other part of the building. Two of the priestesses had entered with us to wait upon their mistress, and when Ama had retired to her chamber, sobbing as if broken hearted, we took possession of the big reception room and prepared for defense.
“It’s no use, though,” said Paul gloomily. “We’ll have to give in sooner or later. If only we had our gas-jackets it would be a different story.”
“We have one,” returned Chaka significantly.
Yes; we had one. Joe was wearing it to-day, for we had made it a rule that some one of the party should wear the extra jacket constantly, to use in case of emergency.
“Ama must be saved,” remarked Paul, with decision. “I don’t believe that cowardly priest’s story. I am quite sure he forged that record to ruin the girl and give himself supreme power. But the Tcha believe him and they will be sure to do Ama some mischief if she remains here, because she had been our friend, if for no other reason.”
“That’s true,” I agreed. “But the gas-jacket won’t carry two very far, as we know, and the girl can’t very well go alone.”
Allerton was thoughtful for a moment. Then he said:
“Chaka is a little too heavy for this task, as has been proven. We must select the lightest of our party to carry Ama away to the Seagull, where Captain Steele will take good care of her. One of you three boys—”
“Joe’s the lightest,” I said.
“I think you are, Sam.”
“Well, I’m not going,” I declared. “You don’t weigh a pound more than I do, Joe.”
“Don’t argue, Sam,” exclaimed Allerton, sternly. “This is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. You must be far lighter in weight than any of us, and I command you to save Ama.”
“Well, there’s lots of time to decide,” I returned. “We’re all safe enough in this fortress for the present.”
They took this for an admission that I consented; but I had not the slightest intention of deserting my comrades for the sake of a girl.
We now began to examine our arms and equipment, to see how much fight there was left to us. In our storage belts were only a couple of dozen charges for the electrites, all told. Some had four or five, some less. There were extra belts in our room in the wing of the priests’ palace, but we could not get at them now. Our firearms were in even worse condition. There were four shots in Ned’s repeating rifle and one in Paul’s. Every revolver was emptied but mine, and I had just one cartridge to the good.
Not a very encouraging prospect for a party hemmed in by a crowd of enemies eager for their lives; but we must make the best of it.
WE SETTLE AN OLD SCORE
After three hours Ama came to us. She had exchanged her regal robes for a simple white toga, in which she appeared very charming in spite of her reddened eyelids and trembling lips. She was a brave girl, I willingly confess, and bore the terrible blow as well as any woman could have done.
Perhaps the bitterness of her disappointment and chagrin was lessened by the thought that her friendship for Paul had brought it upon her. Girls like to make sacrifices for the man they love, I’m told. Repudiated and scorned by the people she had so faithfully served, Ama naturally turned to those who had stood by her in her trouble, and she must have known that every one of us was a faithful friend and devoted to her cause.
Chaka’s conduct filled me with admiration. With all his heart and soul he loved this beautiful girl; yet when he saw that “his brother Paul” loved her, too, and that Ama turned more readily to Allerton than she did to him, he had never faltered in his steadfast affection for them both. The girl’s admission in the theatre that she would accept Paul as her husband settled Chaka’s chances for good and all, and he never whispered or wavered an eyelash. He was a savage, this handsome, dignified young fellow, born in savagery and even yet only half civilized. I wish there were more civilized whites as noble as he.
Ama was able to discuss the day’s events with a fair amount of composure.
“My heart is aching and my head whirls,” she said pitifully; “but one cannot die because an ungrateful people has bitterly wronged her.”
“We may all die soon,” remarked Archie, gruffly.
“Not all,” said Ama, with a wan smile. “When you, my friends, have made your escape from this valley, I will go out and deliver myself up to the cruel vengeance of the Tcha.”
“How can we escape?” asked Allerton.
“Can you not fly away, as you came?” she returned, as if surprised.
“Not without our flying clothes,” he said. “They were taken from us when first we arrived.”
“But they are here,” she exclaimed. “I had them brought to me so I might examine them, and discover the secret of their use. But it was too puzzling; I was stupid and did not understand.”
We listened to her with hearts beating high with hope for the first time.
“What do you mean by ‘here’? Where are these flying-clothes, Ama?” inquired Paul in a voice that trembled in spite of his effort to control it.
She reflected a moment.
“They were put in my wardrobe room. Come; I will show you.”
We all followed her through the gorgeous suite, extensive and magnificent enough for any queen, and at the end of a passage came to the room she had described. The gas-jackets were piled neatly upon a shelf, and with them were the cases containing the themlyne crystals.
I’m almost sure that was the happiest moment of my life. I felt like kissing everybody all around—even including Ama and her maidens. But none of us did anything so foolish and we accepted our good fortune like philosophers.
When we had carried the treasure back into the big reception room I noticed that Paul sat in a corner with Ama and held a lengthy conversation with her. He also held her hand, even though she needed no support at that time. Chaka gazed silently from the window, and thinking that perhaps the interview was of a personal nature we none of us interrupted the conversation, although after an hour or so the wait began to be tedious.
They finally came to us, however, hand in hand, and both their faces were radiant with bliss.
“Ama is coming with us,” announced Paul; “for whether Katalat’s story is true or not the Tcha believe him and this is no place for Ama hereafter. She will wear the extra gas-jacket and I’ll take care of her myself.”
Chaka approached and shook the hands of both very warmly.
“You will be happy, and I am glad,” he remarked simply, and the poor fellow was not to blame if his smile was a little sad and wistful.
“When shall we start?” I asked abruptly, to change the subject.
“At once,” replied our leader.
“Sorry we didn’t get more rubies,” said Archie.
“I’ve a few in my pocket yet, but most of them I left in my room over there,” indicating with a jerk of his thumb the palace of the priests.
Ama turned to him. “I have many of the red stones here, if you wish them,” she said.
“They will be very useful to us all in the world I am taking you to,” asserted Paul, being recalled to the practical side of our undertaking. Perhaps he had lost sight of the fact that Ama was not the only treasure he desired.
The girl led us to another room of the suite, a sort of storage place it seemed. Rubies? Well, well! There were quantities of them, lying loose in boxes or packed in stout sacks. All had been selected for their size and purity as the personal property of the Supreme Ruler. Ama bade us take all we wanted, and between us we managed to stow every stone upon our persons. They were not so very bulky, after all; but their value would make Paul independent for life and redeem his old homestead, as well as repay us all for the risk of this exciting adventure.
We fitted the extra gas-jacket to Ama and then donned our own. There was some question as to whether we had enough themlyne to carry us until we reached the Seagull, so I offered to drop down outside our old quarters, jump in the window and secure the large case of crystals from the chest. This was agreed to, and when we were ready to depart Ama bade good bye to her two faithful maidens and we went out upon a broad balcony that faced the temple. The jackets had already been partly inflated. We were roped together again, Ama between Paul and Chaka, the latter at the end of the string. I was left free for the present, so as to alight at the wing as I had proposed, but I took Ned’s hand and when the gas was turned on we all rose slowly from the balcony and, flopping our wings, made our aërial way over the ruins of the old temple.
Cries of anger greeted us from the populace who watched below, but we paid no heed to them. I saw the poor Waba Pagatka sitting on a bench with his head tied up in a bandage as the result of his encounter with the electrite, and he didn’t seem sorry to see us get away.
A moment later, as we approached the priests’ palace, I released Ned’s hand, let out some gas and dropped swiftly to the ground just beside the wing. Scrambling through the window I unlocked our supply chest and found the large case of themlyne. That was all I dared take and I leaped through the window and left more gas into my jacket, that it might float me again. This took a little time, of course, and my descent had been marked by some of the people nearest the building.
Before I could get away a big fellow rushed around the corner and came straight at me. I pulled my electrite and knocked him over. Another followed and met the same fate. I was now so buoyant that my toes scarcely touched the ground; but I could not rise yet, and here was a third Tcha after me. The electrite promptly settled him just as old Katalat himself appeared, running like a fiend to prevent my escape.
He was not afraid of the electrite, having had one dose of it and knowing that it did not kill; nevertheless I aimed it at the priest and pressed the button. Nothing happened. The storage battery had become exhausted.
The gas-valve was wide open. Slowly I left the ground and soared upward, and at that interesting moment Katalat grabbed my legs and held fast, shouting lustily for help. I remembered there was one cartridge left in my revolver.
I glanced upward and saw that my friends were too far away to be of any assistance to me. A dozen Tcha were rushing to help Katalat secure me and his wicked eyes glared triumphantly into mine as he held me in a vice-like grip.
There was no help for it. I got the muzzle of the revolver against his ear and pressed the trigger. With a cry he reeled backward and ended his career for good and all. Next moment I was in the air and out of danger.
WE WIN AND LOSE
Passing the City of Itza, Chaka announced his determination to rejoin his people and rule over them as their lawful atkayma. Now that Uncle Datchapa was dead he would meet with no opposition, especially if his white brothers continued their trip through the air and did not alight in the city.
Paul protested loudly at first, but a whisper from Ama, whose womanly intuition led her to understand the situation, induced him to let Chaka act as he desired. Their parting, as they embraced in the air, was as affecting as it was novel, and Ama graciously allowed Chaka to kiss her hand by way of farewell. The atkayma handed his electrite to Pedro and divided his rubies among us all, saying he would have no use for them.
“Do not grieve for me, Brother Paul,” said the Maya, pleadingly. “I am sure to be happier in my own country, ruling my people, than in your stiff and luxurious civilization. It’s the call of the wild, I suppose, and I am wise to heed it. Think of me kindly sometimes, you and Ama; but think of me as free and contented, leading the chase and the wars against the Mopanes. And now, farewell!”
He unfastened the rope from his belt, released a portion of the gas from his jacket, and slowly descended into the city. We waited long enough to see him surrounded by the natives, who prostrated themselves humbly before him, and then resumed our journey.
* * * * * * * *
It was a tedious yet arduous trip, that flight over Eastern Yucatan, for the wind was contrary and we had hard work to make satisfactory progress. There was no safety in alighting, so we kept on as best we could.
The night was brilliantly lighted by the stars and moon, and we were too excited to feel fatigue. It was a marvelous experience for Ama, yet the girl was not a bit afraid and endured the strain as well as the stoutest of us.
By daylight we came to the seacoast, and proceeding north, with a slight breeze in our favor now, we presently sighted by the aid of Paul’s field glasses our handsome ship the Seagull. She was standing in toward the shore from the open sea, a proceeding followed daily by my father ever since we had left him, so that he might be on hand to assist us if we suddenly appeared along the shore.
They were all considerably astonished when they discovered us coming by “air route,” and it was amusing to us from our elevated position to observe them craning their necks to watch us. Archie, when we were just over the deck—father had stopped the engines by that time—mischievously dropped a ruby that struck Uncle Naboth plump on his bald head and made him whoop like an Indian.
We landed safely on the dock, and oh, how glad we were to feel the planks under our feet again and be relieved from all anxiety.
Ama received a cordial greeting from both father and Uncle Naboth, and was given the state cabin. It was wonderful how quickly she adapted herself to our ways, and pleasant to see her happiness in her new experiences, which she enjoyed by the side of Lieutenant Paul Allerton.
When we arrived in Havana, where we came to safe harbor, Paul and Ama were quietly married. We gave her a ruby necklace, hastily put together by a clever Cuban goldsmith, as her wedding gift. The bride and groom started at once for a trip to the New Hampshire homestead, where, after paying off the mortgages, Paul intended to visit his family until obliged to rejoin his ship at San Diego.
(Since this text was written the following item from a London newspaper has been brought to our attention:
“A new war weapon, it is said, has recently been invented by an Englishman, which, through separating an electric current by a mechanical device, has the power of paralyzing whatever life comes within its focus. In one experiment it is claimed the ray was focused from a distance of four miles upon a horse, and resulted in its staggering as though stunned by some mighty blow, and falling dead. It is further alleged that an identical effect would have resulted had the distance between machine and animal been infinitely increased. The invention is now receiving careful consideration at the London War Office.”
Mr. Akers disclaims any prior knowledge of this remarkable invention and regards the matter as a mere coincidence.—The Publishers.)
“Atkayma” literally interpreted means, “The Father of the People.” The word “Kaym” is used as “Our Father.”
Curiously enough, the Maya year, established before the whites discovered Yucatan, was the same as our own—three hundred and sixty-five days.
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