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from The Lost City





This double appearance--for Ixtli kept fair pace with his
hot-headed white brother--caused no little stir, and added
considerable to the partial bewilderment which had fallen over
that audience.

Prince Hua shouted forth savage threats, but he, as well as the
paba, was fairly demoralised for the moment by the totally
unexpected failure of their carefully laid schemes.

Seeing his chance, Aztotl bade his men escort the Sun Children
from the Hall of Sacrifice back to their own abiding-place,
barely noticing his son, and paying no heed at all to the
disguised paleface.

With spears ready for stroke or parry as occasion might demand,
the guard faced about and slowly moved away from the great stone
of sacrifice, rigid of face, cool of nerve, ready to die if must
be, yet never once thinking of disobedience to orders, or of
playing cur to save life.

Almost involuntarily the crowd parted before that measured
advance, giving way until a fair pathway lay open, along which
the body-guard moved with neither haste nor hesitation, outwardly
ignorant of the fact that ugly cries and dangerous gestures were
coming thicker and faster their way.

Scores of other voices caught up the fierce cry given by the head
priest, and now the temple was ringing throughout with demands
that the false Sun Children should pay full penalty, should be
haled to the sacrificial stone, there to purge themselves without
further delay!

Others showed an inclination to favour the descendants of
Quetzal', and thus the widely conflicting shouts and cries formed
a medley which was fairly deafening.

For one of his fierce temper the Red Heron showed a marvellous
coolness throughout that perilous retreat, and never more than
during the first few seconds. Then a single injudicious word or
too hasty movement might easily have precipitated a fight, where
the vast audience would surely have brought disaster, whether the
majority so willed or not.

Holding his men well in hand, moving only as rapidly as prudence
justified, yet losing neither time nor ground, where both were of
such vital importance; Aztotl forced a passage from the great
Hall of Sacrifice down to the level, then out into the open air,
where one could see and fight if needs be.

Through all this, Bruno Gillespie held the position he had taken,
one hand gripping tightly his maquahuitl, but placing his main
dependence upon the revolver which nestled conveniently within
the folds of his sash, one nervous forefinger touching the curved
trigger.

He could not help seeing that the danger was great. He felt
certain that they could not retreat much farther without coming
to blows, when the odds would be overwhelmingly against them.
Yet never for an instant did he regret having taken such a
decided step; not for one moment did he give thought to himself.

Almost within reach of his hand, if extended at the length of his
arm, moved the fair maiden whose face and form had made so deep
an impression upon his mind and his heart. She was in peril.
She needed aid. That was enough!

Then the briefly stunned Tlacopa rushed forth from his desecrated
temple, wildly flourishing his arms, furiously denouncing both
the Sun Children and their body-guard, thundering forth the
curses of all the gods upon the heads of those who refrained from
arresting the evil ones.

"The mighty Mother of Gods calls for her own! Seize them!
Strike down the impious dogs who dare attempt to defraud our
Mother! Seize them! To the sacrifice--to the sacrifice!"

Equally loud of voice, the Prince Hua came leaping down to the
sandy level, urging his people to the assault, offering almost
fabulous sums as reward for the brave Aztec whose arm should lay
yonder traitorous Red Heron prone in the dust.

The crisis came, and the dogs of war were let loose.

An arrow whizzed narrowly past the feathered helmet worn by the
captain of the guards. A stone came humming out of sling, to be
deftly dashed aside by Aztotl's shield ere it could fairly smite
that gold-crowned head as, outwardly calm and composed, Victo
aided her trembling daughter on towards the Temple of the Sun
God, where alone they might look for safety.

But would it be found even there?

No! For, at savage howl from lips of the high priest, a strong
force of armed redskins took up position at the teocalli,
blocking each one of the four flights of stone steps in order to
intercept the body-guard, while still closer pressed the yelling,
screeching, frantic heathen of both sexes and all ages.

Aztotl saw how he had been flanked, but made no sign, even while
slightly turning course for another temple at less distance, a
single word being sufficient to post his true-hearts.

So far not a single blow had been struck by the retreating party,
although great provocation had been given them. More than one of
their number was bleeding, yet all were afoot, and still capable
of holding ranks. Then--

Bravest of the brave, a man among men in spite of his tender
years, Ixtli laid down his life in defence of his idolised Victo.

From one of that maddened rabble came a heavy stone, flung with
all the power of a sinewy arm and great sling. Smitten fairly
between the eyes, the poor lad's skull was crushed, as a giant
hand might mash an eggshell.

One gasping sigh, then the lad sunk to earth, dead ere he could
fairly measure his length thereupon.

For a single instant Aztotl seemed as one stupefied, but then an
awful uproar burst from his labouring lungs, and he hurled his
heavy javelin full at yonder murderer, winging it with a father's
curses.

Swift flew the dart, but fully as quickly sank that varlet, the
head of the spear scraping his skull, to pass on and smite with
death one even more evil, if that might be.

Full in the throat Tlacopa was stricken, the broad blade of
copper tearing a passage through, and the shaft following after
for the greater portion of its length. Unable to scream, though
his visage was hideously distorted by mingled fear and agony, the
high priest caught the wood in both hands, even as he reeled to
partly turn, then fall upon his face, dead,--thrice dead!

With a wild thrill of grief and horror, Bruno Gillespie saw his
red brother reel in cruel death, and, for the moment heedless of
his own peril, which surely was doubled thereby, he sprang that
way, to stoop and catch that quivering shape in his eager hands.

Too late, save to show his comradeship. That heavy stone had
only too surely performed its grim mission. Dead! Poor lad:
dead, while seeking to save another!

With a fierce cry of angry mourning, Bruno lifted the mutilated
corpse in his arms, trying to toss it over a shoulder, to bear
away from risk of trampling under the heedless feet of the
yelling heathen; but it was not to be. Another stone smote his
arm near the elbow, breaking no bone, yet so benumbing the member
as to temporarily disable it, causing that precious burden to
drop to earth once more.

Then came an awful outcry from the people, whom the sight of
their high-priest reeling in death had, for a few fleeting
seconds, fairly stupefied. Cries which meant much to the living,
and before which even that band of true-hearts receded with
slightly quickened pace.

With the others fell back Bruno, leaving his hand-wood lying
beside the lifeless corpse of his redskinned brother-at-heart,
but drawing forth the weapon which he knew so much better how to
use.

The fierce lust of vengeance now seized upon him, heart and
brain. He shouted forth grim defiance to that howling crew, and
as the deadly missiles came in thickening clouds, carrying death
and wounds to the bodyguard of the Sun Children, he opened fire,
shooting to kill.

Entirely without firearms themselves, and in all probability
ignorant of such an instrument of destruction, this might have
produced a far more beneficial result under other circumstances.
As it was now, few, if any, took heed of what they could not hear
above that awful tumult, and those who felt the boring lead never
rose up to give their testimony.

Closer crowded the superstition-ridden heathen, showering
missiles of all descriptions upon the body-guard, confounding all
with the one to whose javelin their head priest owed his
death,--only to recoil once more, in fierce awe, as another
victim of high rank paid forfeit his life for the death of Ixtli,
sole offspring of Aztotl, the Red Heron.





Next: DEFENDING THE SUN CHILDREN.

Previous: BENEATH THE SACRIFICIAL STONE.



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