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DEFENDING THE SUN CHILDREN.

from The Lost City





Louder than ever rose the voice of Lord Hua, after witnessing the
fall of his ally, the high priest. In spite of the great odds
against the body-guards, he began to fear lest his intended prey
should even yet slip through his evil clutches.

Fiercer than ever rang forth his curses and imprecations upon the
head of the Aztec who thus dared the vengeance of all the gods by
lifting hand in arms against the anointed.

And then, his own nerve strung by those very efforts to inspire
others, Lord Hua forged nearer the front, eager to behold all his
hated enemies crushed to earth as by a single stroke. And then--

With vicious force he hurled his javelin straight for the white
throat of the Sun Child who had scorned his fawning advances, and
only the ever ready eye, the true hand, the strong arm of Aztotl
again warded off grim death from the Fair God's Child.

Caught upon that trusty shield one instant, the next turned
towards its original owner, to quiver for the barest fraction of
time in that vengeful grip, then, gloriously true to the hero's
will and intent, sped that javelin home.

Home to the false heart of false prince; grinding through skin
and flesh and bones, cleaving that hot organ with broad blade of
tempered copper, forcing one vicious screech from those tortured
lungs, then causing that bulk to measure its length upon the
blood-sprinkled sands.

Once again the heathen involuntarily recoiled, as death claimed a
high victim. Once more the band of true-hearts slightly
quickened their pace towards the temple, now nigh at hand. Yet
those lessened numbers never once betrayed fear, or doubt, or
faltering. Grimly true to their trust, they fell back in the best
of order, fighting as they moved, beating back the heathen hosts,
as though each man was a god, and their strong arms a wall of
steel.

Here and there a true-heart sank to earth with the hand of death
veiling his eyes, but he died in silence; no cry of fear, no moan
of pain, no pitiful appeal for mercy at the hands of his maddened
people. They knew their sworn duty, and like true hearts they
trod that narrow path unto the very end.

Although with gradually lessening numbers, the body-guard
remained practically the same. Still in a hollow square, with
the Children of the Sun God in the centre, they slowly, doggedly
fell back, ever facing the ravening foe, ever moving shoulder to
shoulder as a single man.

Then, just as Bruno Gillespie was refilling his emptied revolver,
the base of the tall pyramidal temple was won, and still
protecting their fair-haired charge, the body-guard ascended to
the second terrace, beating back such of the wild rabble as
pressed them too closely.

Again that wonderful barking-death came into play, and Bruno felt
a strangely savage joy gnawing at his heart as he saw more than
one stalwart warrior reel dizzily back from his hot hail.

"For Ixtli, you curs! That for Ixtli! Down,--and eat dirt,
dogs!"

Scarcely could his own ears catch those sounds, although he
shouted with the full power of his strong young lungs, so
indescribably horrid was the din and tumult.

Up another flight of steps, then yet another, although the crazed
rabble was not pressing them so very hard, just now. Still,
their number forbade a fourfold division as yet, and Aztotl
feared lest the blood-ravening mob attempt to head off their
flight by taking possession of the other stairs, thus being first
to occupy yonder flat arena high above the earth, whereupon he
hoped to still protect the Sun Children, even though he must lay
down his life to maintain their lease.

Lacking an acknowledged leader, the furious mass thought only of
crushing the faithful band by mere weight of numbers, taking no
thought in advance, else the end might well have been
precipitated.

Arrows, spears, javelins, stones from slings, poured upon the
body-guard in almost countless numbers, now and then claiming a
true-heart as victim, whereupon the rabble howled afresh in
drunken triumph; but where a single man died in the performance
of his oath-bound duty, half a score heathen bit the dust and
grovelled out his remnant of life yonder where most viciously
trampled the feet of his fellow brutes.

Pausing barely long enough to beat back the crazed rush which
came so close upon their retreat, the band of brothers would then
slowly, doggedly fall back another of those mighty steps, with
bared teeth and blazing eyes, longing to end all by one joyous
plunge into the thick of their assailants, dying with their
chosen dead!

Five separate times that upward flight, and five times the grim
pause to give death another portion of his red feast. Five times
the blood-lapping mob dashed against the band of brothers. Five
times they were hurled back, leaving more dead and dying there to
mark the savage struggle.

And then, sadly decimated at each halt, less in numbers as they
passed farther from earth to climb nearer the blue sky, the
survivors won the crest of the teocalli, still fighting, still
beating back such as followed their steps more closely.

Ere that brilliant retreat began, 'twould have taken close ranks
for the body-guard to find standing-room upon the temple-top; but
now--Aztotl called for a division of his force, since there were
four separate avenues of approach, of which the enemy was prompt
to avail itself.

"For the Sun Children, my brothers!" he cried, his voice rising
even above that awful tumult and turmoil. "Guard them with your
lives!"

Little need to waste breath in so adjuring. Of all thus
enlisted, not one of the true-hearts but proved worthy the trust.

Not one brave who took care for his own life. Not one but was
ready to die in order to save; and thus far not a single wound
had won so far as either Child of the Fair God.

Even now while the heathen were raging more viciously than ever,
crowding each terrace and jamming each flight of steps to the
verge of suffocation, strong arms were shielding them, true
hearts were thinking how best they might be served.

Time and again Aztotl warded away winged death as it sought to
claim Victo for its prey. And Bruno Gillespie, no whit less
brave if somewhat lacking in warlike experience, made Gladys his
especial care, sending shot or dealing knife-thrust in her
defence, barely giving thought to his own safety as a side issue.

Those broad terraces bore ugly pools and irregular patches of red
blood. The various flights of stone steps grew slippery and
uncertain as they likewise began to steam. Yet forward and
upward pressed the howling mob, and desperately fought the doomed
body-guard above.

Faster fly the deadly missiles, too many by far for even the
keenest eye to guard against them all. One and another of those
gallant defenders drop away; only because death had claimed them,
not because of fear or of bodily anguish.

Aztotl staggers,--an arrow is quivering in his broad bosom,--but
still he fights on, dealing death with each blow of his
blood-dripping hand-wood. A stone lays open his brow,--but
heavier and faster plays his terrible weapon. A javelin flashes
briefly, then the red copper vanishes from sight, while the ashen
shaft slowly dyes crimson, as the hot life-blood issues.

A last, dying stroke, and the Red Heron sinks at the feet of his
adoration, faithful unto the last, his brave soul going forth to
join with that of Ixtli; the last of a gallant family.

Victo gives a wild cry of vengeance, then snatches up bow and
quiver where let fall by a death-smitten warrior, and wings swift
death to the slayer of her captain of the guard.

An awful melee, where the odds were momentarily increasing; where
one man was forced to do the work of a score; where death
inevitable awaited all, unless a miracle should intervene. And
that miracle--

Shrilly rang forth the voice of Victoria Edgecombe as, amidst the
fury of battle, she caught sight of the air-ship swiftly darting
that way through the clear atmosphere, bent on saving, if saving
might be.

The peculiar sound which attended the exploding of a dynamite
cartridge heralded the death of more than one Aztec, and, as the
swift rattle of revolvers added to the uproar, there was an
involuntary recoiling, a terrified shrinking, which was employed
to the best advantage by the air-voyagers.

The aerostat barely landed upon the top of the temple, before
Cooper Edgecombe, with a wild scream of ecstatic joy, caught his
wife in his arms and hurried her into the car, while Waldo and
uncle Phaeton aided Bruno.






Previous: AGAINST OVERWHELMING ODDS.



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